25 September 2013

Filmbook: "Jane Eyre" (2011)

Far from the first adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's high-school-required-reading classic, but one that sticks in the mind because of its unique off-the-page approach and great performances.

2011's "Jane Eyre," from American director Cary Fukunaga (and only his second feature), is lit and soundtracked like a ghost story. Starting in medias res when Jane Eyre turns up to the Rivers household, the film flashes back, first to Jane's most immediate past and then to her childhood as an unwanted orphan in the Reid household, an orphan and a governess. As Jane's cohorts at Lowood are encouraged to treat her like a ghost, she becomes a mere shade in her own life, hoping just to flit through and not make too deeply of an impression. Of course, this is impossible.

I was impressed by the performance of Mia Wasikowska ("The Kids Are All Right," Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland") as Jane. She looks like a Vermeer with a wrinkle in it; I found her performance satisfyingly multidimensional, to the point that I was constantly watching her when other things were going on in the frame. And though underused, Dame Judi Dench is excellent as always as Mr. Rochester's longtime housekeeper and Jane's confidante. Let's be honest, though: I primarily watched this movie to see Michael Fassbender as Rochester, and he did not disappoint either. My inborn dislike of Rochester, the character, was baked into Fassbender's specialty for acting as a man with a terrible secret (see: "Shame," "X-Men: First Class," "Prometheus" to some extent). Yet at the same time his Rochester sometimes appears to have no more control over his surroundings than she does. Jane is a ghost, and he is an amateur ghost hunter looking for evidence of her.

The only thing that stopped me from signing on fully was the handling of Jane and Rochester's brief interlude of happiness before she goes to the Rivers' household; it felt abrupt (even more so in the original text) and the shift in tone was not handled well.

The verdict: I think you need to have read the book to appreciate the nuances of this adaptation, actually. So I'll go with: Read the book, then watch the movie. Did you know Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are making a big-screen "Macbeth"? I can hardly wait.

24 September 2013

It's okay, I still think you're smart

Karen Russell, Donald Antrim and Jeremy Denk (a pianist who's been writing for the New Yorker recently) were among this year's class of the Macarthur Genius Grant recipients. (Fun fact: you can't apply for a genius grant; you have to be nominated by their "constantly changing pool of invited external nominators" and won't be made aware that you are under consideration unless you actually get one. So, that project is out.)

23 September 2013

You heard it here first like the Dickens

Today I attended a talk by Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Inc. (center of the universe of cat macros). He's a big Marshall McLuhan fan, which kind of makes sense! Anyway, he says serialized novels are one of the next big things because e-reading makes it absurdly easy to get installments of a story, within one story or a series of books. I'm just putting this here so if it becomes true, we will all know it happened and look like geniuses.

Something about this book sucks...

Goodreads announced an update to its review policy over the weekend, the first public change it has made since being sold to Amazon earlier this year. In brief, reviews and comments will be screened for personal attacks on other members, and for non-book-related content in general.

This concerns me mostly because my most popular book review is not actually a review of the book under which it is posted. That's right, I'm a violator. (But it's a positive comment about the author, so I'm guessing no one is reporting it.) In case you find this completely out of bounds, though, Bookriot offers a number of Goodreads alternatives with book pros and cons.

19 September 2013

In future book bloggers of America news...

A New York librarian and library director were fired over plans to change the summer-reading program after one child won five years in a row. 

18 September 2013

Filmbook-to-Be: Katniss fights Romeo and Leonardo DiCaprio's dance moves killed JFK

PureWOW has a great slideshow of forthcoming movie adaptations this fall. A few missing from action: "C.O.G." (based on part of David Sedaris' NAKED), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and a years-in-the-making adaptation of Langston Hughes' gospel musical "Black Nativity." Plus "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" and  "Ender's Game" (still haven't decided whether to boycott or not). And, uh, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2.

17 September 2013

Rage against the Internet

"You click because, deep down, you need something to kick your heart up a notch. You know that Franzen, while he sometimes comes off as arrogant and pompous, is still a smart guy who likes to read and write books. If you know who Jonathan Franzen is, that means you probably like to read and maybe write books as well, so it bugs you that somebody who shares the same kinds of interests as you could act like such an out-of-touch grumpy Gus." 
--This Flavorwire piece on why people care so much about Jonathan Franzen's latest Get Off My Lawn moment hits a little close to home. 

16 September 2013

To help people at all times: Juliette Gordon Low facts and myths

I have been a Girl Scout all my life, and as such have learned bits and pieces about its founder Juliette Gordon Low. But I put those to the test while reading Stacy A. Cordery's biography of Low, released last year to coincide with the Scouts' 100th anniversary in America. Turns out, I had a lot of misconceptions. Test whether you know

Was a Southern Belle who made good: True, for the most part; Low was born in Savannah and lived many of her later years there. But her mother was Northern (a Kinzie of Chicago) and their marriage caused some scandal in town, particularly during the Civil War as Low's father fought for the Confederacy and his father- and brother-in-law were visiting as part of the occupation.
Married an English lord and founded the Scouts after living in England: True -- Low and her husband (not a lord, but an aristocrat of some stripe) were friends with Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Still, and this is 100 percent my speculation, I don't think she would have been so involved in the charity work that led her to Baden-Powell if her marriage hadn't been so miserable. Andrew Low (who Juliette met on a visit to Savannah) turned out to be a gambler and philanderer, and when Low finally filed for divorce he stretched it out as long as possible to avoid paying her anything. So long, in fact, that he died before it was finalized.
Founded the Girl Scouts in America: Officially true, but really up for debate. After the success of the Boy Scouts in Britain, Baden-Powell founded the Girl Guides to complement them ("scouts" being seen as a term that could not be shared with the female sex). Several American women formed some kind of Scouting-adjacent organization in the years after, and it was primarily through Low's connections and her publicity work that she put herself out in front of American Girl Scouting.
Was born mostly deaf and struggled with her hearing: False, mostly. Childhood illness and an incident where a grain of rice was lodged in her ear during the wedding (so tragic!) damaged her hearing, but what did the worst damage was all the doctors who tried to undo that work with experimental surgeries and weird substances poured into her ears. To the end she often spoke in public, but rarely gave interviews -- possibly because she feared misunderstanding the questions.

What unites these four points that I've highlighted here? I was struck by how much of Low's life was possible because of what back then would have been called "good breeding" and what now we might call "the financial freedom made possible by being upper-class." Despite being an unmarried woman in a conservative culture, Low had a great deal of autonomy throughout her life because she had family money, then her husband's money. She traveled late in life all over the world and was able to devote her midlife to Scouting because, for the time, she was remarkably emancipated -- because of her finances and class. 

This is the kind of thing Girl Scouting would not be the same without, but obviously would be difficult to address in any kind of organizational capacity. It didn't make me feel conflicted about growing up in Scouting (to which I owe some of my best friends and so many, many good things) but it made me think about how, as the organization moves into the 21st century, it can empower girls today to have the same freedoms in an era where there is so much more opportunity.

13 September 2013

Such is the way of the world: INTO THE WILD's alternate ending

This week Jon Krakauer revisits the life of Chris McCandless (spoilers) for the New Yorker online. A former bookbinder at IUP, Ronald Hamilton, read INTO THE WILD, Krakauer's 1996 book (and subsequent surprisingly good Sean Penn-directed film) and recognized some of the facts of his case from a similar incident during World War II in the Ukraine. Also, the chilling: "Chris McCandless would now be forty-five years old."

12 September 2013

826 is selling a Brokeland Records T-shirt as a fundraiser, named for the fictional record store in Michael Chabon's TELEGRAPH AVENUE. Somehow I pictured their logo a little cooler...

All for the books

I bet everyone reading this could write her or his own edition of ONE FOR THE BOOKS, Joe Queenan's memoir of the reading life. With all the idiosyncrasies and curmudgeonry included, this book spoke to me as a reader even when I violently disagreed with him (which was often). It's great fun to accept or dispute any kind of book-related judgment; why else am I hear?

As I learned from Queenan's memoir CLOSING TIME, he grew up in working-class Philadelphia toting his paperbacks on the bus to and from horrible factory jobs and dreaming of a way out. That doesn't give him any sympathy for people who never read, but sometimes I got the sense of him reading and acquiring books as the creation of a wall between that old time and the present -- a bulwark of knowledge no one can take away from him. Queenan has primarily worked as an essayist (in sort of a pop culture-y P. J. O'Rourke vein), even producing several books of his own, but ONE FOR THE BOOKS doesn't cover that ground, instead beginning from the realization that all of us must have one day, that we won't have time to read all the books we want. Not even close, not even a little bit.

Among Queenan's pronouncements covered in this book: He hates e-books and all things digital. He will gladly fling aside any book that doesn't please him, except when he stubbornly decides to commit to the end (well, that one sounds familiar at least). He's ruthless about giving books away, except for the ones he compulsively re-reads every year. In that vein, he's definitely a re-reader, and a man who clings to books he may never actually get around to reading -- but only certain books. He hates most books given to him as gifts, especially the well-meaning ones. Heaven forbid you try to relieve him of the tomes he associates with the years he lived in Paris as a young man, even the ones he can no longer read in French (or the ones he never got around to, then or now). And while he mildly despairs of his son's taste in reading material, he's still pretty pleased the kid takes after his old man.

I'd put ONE FOR THE BOOKS right up there with Anne Fadiman's books on reading, Stephen King's ON WRITING or the Nick Hornby Believer essay collections. I have more in common with this 62-year-old man than most people I know. Queenan may hate the above company, but he'd get used to it.

11 September 2013

Anything Can Happen

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky... It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleading on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven's weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

--Seamus Heaney, who died earlier this year at the age of 74. 

10 September 2013

Filmbook-to-Be: "The Fault In Our Stars" Not As Good As The Movie In Our Heads, Say Teenagers

This week in the A.V. Club I learned that there is a kerfuffle about the casting of the seemingly nice young man on the left, Ansel Elgort, in the upcoming adaptation of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. People don't like Ansel Elgort because he is not well known enough, although he's going to be in the upcoming "Carrie" remake (gah!). I presume Justin Bieber had scheduling conflicts. This is additionally weird because Ansel Elgort (who will only be referred to by his full name here, because it's terrific) was actually cast back in May, but only now that the movie has started shooting, people have cottoned onto the fact that the character of Augustus will not be portrayed interchangeably by the 5 members of One Direction, or whatever.

People, please stop writing in to author John Green to complain about this. Though Green had some involvement in casting (unlike most authors), it's done, sorry you were not consulted. The book is going to be better anyway. I bet John Green thinks so (though he is likely contractually prohibited from saying it.)

Then again, if casting weren't announced in advance, what else would the Internet have to complain about?

SWEET TOOTH: Sometimes I swear these men are out to get me

You know, it's funny, when I make my summer reading lists I don't often consider how all the books are related (apart from the most obvious connections). That LEAN IN and SWEET TOOTH sat next to each other on my list this year was just a coincidence and on their faces seemed to have nothing related. But the deeper Ian McEwan's 1970s spy chronicle delves into the more disorderly aspects of the espionage organization, the closer it resembled an example of an extremely sexist, dysfunctional workplace -- only one whose business is the business of state.

The spy in question, Serena Frome, is recruited from Cambridge to join MI5, after puttering around a little aimlessly with a math degree and a secret flighty penchant for books. A woman with little ambition other than to live in London rather than with her parents in their small village, Serena becomes involved with a professor who recommends her to a position at MI5, something she sees as fraught with excitement and mystery by the simple token of not being able to discuss her rather pedestrian filing and secretarial work. Then, unexpectedly, she is recruited for an operation called "Sweet Tooth," a sort of back-door propaganda program aimed at providing stipends to up-and-coming writers with anti-Communist leanings without them knowing that the government was behind it all.

Finally, some real spy stuff! Only, Serena's election for this program is primarily based on the fact that she is young, female and charming, the opposite of the cartoon MI5 agent. Serena herself doesn't think it will work as much as they do:
"I felt obliged to make some form of intelligent objection. ‘Won’t I be like your Mr. X, popping up with a checkbook? [The target] might run at the sight of me.’
"‘At the sight of you? I rather doubt it, my dear.’
"Again, low chuckles all around. I blushed and was annoyed. Nutting was smiling at me and I made myself smile back.”
If you're sensing a relationship beyond patronage, you are not wrong. Serena vets a Thomas Haley, a professor of no great fame toiling along on some short stories, and chooses him for the program. Then they embark on an affair, and things get really complicated.

Although Serena is trusted to run her own operation (or so she thinks), in the office she is given no favors from this designation; if anything her workload increases, because she is keeping tabs on Haley in addition to doing all the filing and paperwork. Her only male friend in the office drops her soon after and then comes back to give a big mansplainy speech about the business of spying because she has the nerve to be hurt that they hung out and he never mentioned he was engaged:
“’Are women really incapable of keeping their professional and private lives apart? I’m trying to help you, Serena. You’re not listening. Let me put it another way. In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things—and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real. Am I making sense?’
“I didn’t think he was. I was on my feet with a clever retort ready, but he’d had enough of me. Before I could speak he said more quietly, ‘Best to go now. Just do your own work. Keep things simple.’”
Soon, Sweet Tooth consumes Serena's life; Haley is her only source of human interaction, after her best friend is let go from the agency (whose arc itself was really interesting and which I could've used more of) and she moves in with a bunch of unfriendly girls with seemingly "normal" jobs. Her roommates, after all, are just another group of people she risks discovery from.

SWEET TOOTH takes its time getting going but I was riveted from about 75 pages in, particularly at the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger spy work and the often dreary, sometimes hostile office environment. The feminist implications of her place in the agency, at a time when women were still relegated to the clerical side, bleed over into her work as Serena tries to read the expectations for her to succeed as an agent, knowing the odds are stacked against her. Of course because it's McEwan, you can expect a giant Whoa of a conclusion that you'll want to reread and a twist I found cruel but somehow fitting.

09 September 2013

Money for nothin', etc.

Two new translations of ANNA KARENINA are coming next year. Is it because publishers want to bring to millions the joy of Tolstoy? Nope, it's because translations of out-of-copyright classics are safe and cheap investments, says the Wall Street Journal inevitably. (This is complicating the plans I just made to write a book called THE JOY OF TOLSTOY.) THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY are also getting new translations very soon, for you epic fans out there. 

05 September 2013

Tom Stoppard Almost Wrote "Clue: The Movie"

Picturing this (as unearthed by Buzzfeed) will occupy me very happily for the rest of the day, I think.

04 September 2013

Filmbook: "Austenland" (2013)

I read Shannon Hale's AUSTENLAND some years ago after finding it on a free galley pile. Its premise -- a living-history amusement park for Jane Austen fanatics, and the crisis-having young woman who travels there -- seemed at once perfectly absurd and eminently plausible. I know those fanatics, even though I may not count myself among them. And the book argues quite conclusively that if there were such a place, it would not be the idyll that hardcore Jane fans dream of, but instead would be terrible because heroes do not exist and, prose aside, women's lives in the Regency era were not that fun. If you were lucky (i.e. upper-class), you were just bored sitting in parlors all day. That's your best case. Shudder. Still, I found the narrator of AUSTENLAND alternately whiny and naive as she reaches that conclusion.

The movie adaptation of "Austenland," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, solves that unlikeability problem right at the top by casting Keri Russell, who cannot help but charm even when she's being despicable. Russell's character, whom I'll call Felicity for this review even though her script name is Jane Hayes, blows her entire savings on a week in Austenland, an experiential vacation package overseen by the flinty-eyed Dr. Quinn (ahem, Jane Seymour, who is in too many jewelry commercials and too few movies these days). During the day, she participates in Austen-era divertissements like horseback riding and croquet, accompanied by actors playing at Austenish gentlemen like Bridget Jones' Gay Friend Tom (James Callis) and Bret From "Flight Of The Conchords" (Bret McKenzie). Despite her cute anticipation, Felicity experiences a series of humiliations small and large at Austenland, from being lodged in the servants' quarters and given the backstory of a penniless orphan to being groped by Dr. Quinn's addled husband. Still, with her new friend Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge, see earlier note about not being in enough movies), Felicity schemes to cut loose and worry less that, as her best friend warned, her Austen addiction has ruined her for real life.

Most reviews I read of this movie before I saw it on Sunday dinged it for being too crass and inappropriate, and compared to the works of Jane Austen it definitely is. But on the whole I found it a smart, fun comedy that did a lot with a little material. Some of the subtle moments killed with my audience, like a running gag about Stifler's Mom's atrocious British accent (somewhere between the Croc Hunter and Bert in "Mary Poppins"), and the behind-the-scenes glimpses into the lives of the actors who, vain and cocky as they are, are paid to show Dr. Quinn's guests a romantic time at all costs. (This is another reason why a real-life Austenland would actually be terrible.) On the whole I found it much less crass than most other summer comedies and feel that a double standard is being applied to this movie because of its female-focused audience and subject matter.

Director Jerusha Hess was one of the mad minds between "Napoleon Dynamite" (#rememberthenoughties) and the same kind of wackiness is in evidence here, but turned down a lot. An essential dose of cynicism is slung over the whole enterprise, perhaps the book's most direct legacy, in the image of women who treasure a fictional existence so dearly they will pay to replicate it. If you think about it, that's pretty much what "Total Recall" is about too. For me, "Austenland" worked the balance between romantic comedy and exposure to a meaningless world. I left transported and delighted.

Filmbook verdict: You have my permission to skip directly to this movie.

03 September 2013

With our powers combined: Amazon announces Kindle MatchBook

File under "what took you so long?": Customers who own print editions from Amazon may now be able to purchase the Kindle editions for $2.99 or less thanks to the new MatchBook program for Kindle. Publishers and authors will have to opt in, though, and so far it looks like only HarperCollins is biting.

Unbookening July-August

Bought 15 books
Received 5 to review and 1 as a gift
21 in

Donated 10
Gave 4 to family members
14 out 

Not included in these totals: All the library books I have been digitally checking out and returning this summer. Without access to my local, I was given the push to finally sort out e-lending for the NY Public Library and have been gleefully reserving and checking out Kindle books ever since. It's a dangerous game, but the selection is quite good -- even better, they return themselves! Now, I've arbitrarily decided to start counting them, so look forward to that (or not) coming up soon.

Speaking of arbitrary decisions, I'm calling an audible and extending my summer reading project till the autumnal equinox. Why? Because I still want to read those books, and no one is authorized to stop me. Stay tuned in the next few weeks to read about some of the books I've finished so far. I don't want to say life is settling down, because then I'll probably get shot out of a cannon, but at least it's gotten calmer.

02 September 2013

Summer's not over yet: Five "up at the cabin" books

This summer I found myself gravitating toward books about "summer places" -- second homes by the water, where the whole family can get together, maybe just one more time or maybe every year. I can't account for it except to speculate that my family's summers were never like that, so with the curiosity of the anthropologist I peered through those windows with extra curiosity. Whether you spent some time at your own summer place (or borrowed a friend's) this summer, or spent your vacation with central air, "Orange Is The New Black" or passport stamps instead, I recommend all five of these books for a getaway fix.

First, mood music:

Comedy: Jennifer Close, THE SMART ONE. I found Close's debut GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES to be more captivating in concept than execution, but this take on twentysomethings in crisis struck the sweet spot between earnestness and sarcasm. The book begins and ends as the Coffey family and their three adult children visit the southern New Jersey cabin where they go every summer, the parents not knowing that middle child Claire is scheming to move back in, oldest Martha has no intention of leaving and youngest Max will end up seeing it as his only option. The problems faced by these three are as familiar to me as their internal logic to solve them is absurd. Read it, then (if you no longer live at home) send it to your parents with a blank thank-you note.

Tragedy: Ayelet Waldman, RED HOOK ROAD. A small coastal Maine town was the only place where the Tetherleys and Copakens could imagine son John and daughter Becca getting married, where the young couple expected to renovate a boat and sail around the world together. When the couple is killed on the way to their own wedding reception, the lighthearted party becomes a wake.  Waldman jumps from summer to summer in a surprisingly fluid way, eliding the winters to show the ways both families adapt around the loss, unthinkable as it still is. Much of the tension here lies in the conflicting attitudes of the Tetherleys, working-class year-rounders, and the Copakens, whose cultured roots are in New York and abroad but still consider themselves "native" Red Hook inhabitants -- a rift that complicates their healing after the accident.

Horror: A.M. Homes, THE END OF ALICE. I read a streak of Homes' novels this summer preparing for a column I wrote, and in some ways this is an outlier from her more typical suburban white-collar territory (Cheeverville, if I may?) Written as a series of letters between a convicted murderer and a 19-year-old fan, the murderer is convinced to offer up the story of the crime that put him there -- one with its roots in a summer cabin in Pennsylvania, where he moved to try and get away from his pedophilic impulses. Its summer scenes may not be the most memorable in this extremely disturbing, hard to put down book, but the fantasy of getting away from your worst self still attaches.
 Nostalgia: Stewart O'Nan, WISH YOU WERE HERE. Each time I read an O'Nan book I appreciate the author more, and this one is his most expansive yet: After her husband's death, Emily Maxwell decided to sell their summer cabin in upstate New York, but not without inviting her children and grandchildren to spend just one more week on Lake Chautauqua. As with THE SMART ONE, all the visitors bring their own secret problems, but struggle to do just what they always used to do up at the cabin, no matter how unnatural it feels. The multitude of perspectives from which the story is told creates meaningful doubt around how well the house has served its regular visitors, and how they relate to each other. Not every loose end is tucked in, and some questions remain unanswered -- just like with real families.

Subversion: Maggie Shipstead, SEATING ARRANGEMENTS. If you're knocking through this list, in whatever fashion, I suggest you get to this one last because it takes the idyllic cabin dream and neatly turns it on its head. The whole book is set over a weekend in Cape Cod at a picture-perfect wedding... or is it? Like O'Nan, Shipstead uses multiple characters' perspective to play them off against each other, often directly contradicting information another character gave as truth. But there's also a ton of plot packed into this premise; I laughed, I gasped, I told a ton of people to read it (and now I'm telling you).