25 June 2014

Filmbook: "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014)

I didn't head out to see this movie with All The Teens, for reasons I can share below, but it's for the best.

This movie had two problems it doesn't share with the book: First, Ansel Elgort, who plays love interest Augustus Waters, can't pull off the kind of smart-aleck-yet-sexy '80s characterization that the movie needs him to do. He either comes off as someone rattling off lines he doesn't understand, or as a creep. Neither helps his case as the fellow cancer survivor who sweeps Hazel off her feet. Gus' lines are mostly taken from the book (from what I remember), but while book-Gus is improbable yet charming, movie-Gus punctuates everything with a leer or a smirk. The one time I thought it worked for him (mild spoiler ahoy) is in the travel sequence, when Hazel says "We're just friends" and Gus says "She is, I'm not." He sold that line but many others seemed kind of beyond them. Nothing against the guy, but I think he was cast more for his ability to be a blank palette for teenage girls to project their interest onto than for his own skills. His chemistry with Woodley is fine, but in his verbal moments I was reminded of last summer's "The Spectacular Now," a much better movie featuring an actor much more up to the task of banter (Miles Teller).

The second problem is probably more subjective, if possible, but here goes: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the book, works in part because it pulls against the sentimentality of the person-with-cancer subgenre. Being narrated by Hazel, who tends to be blunt and resist being classified as a saintly patient or a martyr, the book is able to cut through those subgenre elements quickly. Apart from a sprinkling of voiceover, the movie doesn't have that, and while it's a good deal less sentimental than your Walks to Remember or your Notebooks, it is constantly trying to be a sappy, soppy, weepy, gummy Hollywood Cancer Flick. There's a moment when one character accuses Hazel and Gus, our young lovers, of only wanting to get their way, of living in a world where they always get their way due to their protected status. They protest: No! That's not how they live at all! But the movie betrays them in that moment and indulges them there, and later, so that they do get the important moments to round out their story, if not the ending they might have scripted.

Throughout, the tearjerking quality that Hazel resents drowning out her own story is constantly leaking out at the seams, from too-on music cues to super-clumsy dialogue. It made its emotional peaks feel cheap and ordinary. (I'm thinking, especially, of the scene on the park bench.) And believe me, I went into this movie primed to cry, having spent a whole weekend trying not to cry. I was almost looking forward to it, the way that you hesitate in a winter month before getting into the shower because you know you'll just be freezing when you get out, but at least in the middle there you will be comforted in a way. Forget America needing a catharsis; I needed one. I didn't get it from this movie, and I have to lay that at the feet of director Josh Boone, because the book made me feel differently.

Woodley's performance is very good, along with Laura Dern's as her mother and Mike Birbiglia's as an over-eager youth counselor. But I probably won't remember this movie much when I look back at the end of the year, never mind beyond that.

Filmbook verdict: Read this book, then go watch "The Spectacular Now," "Atonement" or "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996, Luhrmann) to see young adults falling in love and tragedy.

Next up, Chicken Karenina

A book of Tolstoy family recipes has been rescued from obscurity, including (according to Open Culture) one closely resembling our popular mac and cheese. Macaroni was probably an upper-class delicacy with fancy European connotations in those days, since it took so long for those blue boxes to ship to Russia. 

24 June 2014

Take 2 chapters and call me in the morning

The American Academy of Pediatrics is expected to announce today that it officially recommends parents read to their children starting at birth. This may be the area of hypothetical parenting where I feel the most prepared!

23 June 2014


June 22, 2014: Powell's closes its post-security stores at Portland International Airport.
June 23, 2014: I have a 3-hour layover at PDX.

One-Star Revue: Hillary Clinton, LIVING HISTORY

This year, Hillary Rodham Clinton released her second memoir HARD CHOICES. HARD CHOICES, also the unpromising name of a very good ethics class offered at my university (aka the Best School Ever), has variably been reviewed as boring, unnecessary, overwritten, and too safe -- and that's from all from people who would strongly consider voting for her. She sure is polarizing! But let's face it, these memoirs are no fun anyway. As the commentators on Slate's Political Gabfest recently pointed out, the only good political memoirs are ones from people with nothing to lose (career-wise), and however you feel about Fmr. Secretary Clinton, you can't say she would fall into that camp.

Should we journey back to 2003 and the release of Clinton's first memoir, LIVING HISTORY, the story is pretty similar. But is there any hilarity in the vituperative heap of one-star reviews that attended that book? Already, HARD CHOICES' Amazon customer review section is overrun with one-star reviews from people who just don't seem to like the author and have nothing of substance to say on the book. Moreover, most of them aren't funny, and seem to fault the book's author for painting herself in a positive light. Isn't that what these books are intended for? Consider the source! At least the older ones are funnier -- take a look:

  • "LIVING HISTORY is basically the mass-market, nationally published equivalent of one of those big, splashy (but completely respectable, & in no way offensive to the Establishment or, most of all, the Principal) student-body election campaign posters from back in high school."
  • "This book could pass for a grainy selfie in print." Note: this review is from 2014, it's not just abnormally prescient. 
  • "I pride myself for having read many autobiographies. This book just lost me."
  • "This book is just about as dumb and unneccessary as California." "Rude." --California
  • "I just receiver my book and to day the price is much cheaper. Why do I have to pay more because I order early? I don't think that is fair Do you? I will not buy from Amazon if I don't hear from you. Unhappy customer. Beware before you buy." I hope this person isn't still waiting to hear. 
  • "The book was written completely by a ghost writer, not by Hillary." You're catching on! 
  • "[A] big sale does not make a book great, even though meager sale indicates inferiority." This review is also titled "What A Irony" which I nominate for official one-star hashtag of the week. #WhatAIrony
  • "Very boring, unrealistic." ???

19 June 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Hanya Yanagihara are two of the PEN American Center's finalists for its debut fiction prize this year. Expect Janet Malcolm, David Sedaris, Rebecca Solnit and James Wolcott to duke it out in the very competitive essay category, while biography is anyone's guess. 

18 June 2014

Served by Michael Gibney

This book wasn't what I was expecting at all, and a pleasant surprise.

I snagged a copy of this new memoir/ culinary nonfiction book on Netgalley a few months ago when it came out. SOUS CHEF: 24 HOURS ON THE LINE is about the craft of modern restaurants, from the perspective of a day in the life of the sous chef (the chef's right-hand person). "You," the sous chef (for in fact this book is all written in the 2nd person), are responsible for a million nitty-gritty details in providing dinnertime service at a well-regarded (and unnamed) Manhattan restaurant, serving customers you will never see but who are responsible for the restaurant's success or failure. Parse the chef's instructions on your own or ask for clarification? Send an ailing cook home or let him stay put? All of these decisions await you, and hours before the place is even open.

Being somewhat less of a foodie than most of my peers, I expected , but there's a case to be made to shelve this book under organizational behavior. Given his responsibilities, the sous chef has limited power and unlimited peril in his grasp. (Well, peril may be a strong word, but I spent some paragraphs nervously waiting for someone to cut or scald himself, as invariably seems to happen in my kitchen.) His responsibilities outstrip his power and there's never a time when he's not 'on call.' It's both hands-on and higher-level. Don't look to SOUS CHEF to dish the kind of secrets that KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL became famous for, but those were overblown anyway; the biggest secret of SOUS CHEF is how maddeningly complex these operations are, and how skilled the people down to the lowest prep cook need to be to pull it all off. It's choreography, not just chemistry.

I did struggle a little with some long passages of dialogue late in the book that broke with the reality of Gibney's portrayal, and which seemed equally plausible and implausible that they could have taken place as described. They were a little novelistic. Then again, the concept of immediacy that surrounds its narrative is crafted in such a way as to make us believe what could not be possible (that Gibney literally transcribed an actual day in the kitchen and everything that happened in it). It's sleight-of-hand, just like the process of serving an entire table's entrees at once -- way more complicated in its works than its face.

SOUS CHEF is a fresh and unique take on the culinary industry whose limited scope pays off well. Gibney is still a working chef and currently works at a restaurant called Urbo (of which I could find very little information, but here is a map) so if you're in New York, check it out.

17 June 2014

Sleepin' On Meg Wolitzer

Like a lot of people, I was impressed with Meg Wolitzer's THE INTERESTINGS last year and looked forward to delving into her back catalogue later. As I always say, there's nothing better than getting acquainted with an author and discovering that she has an extensive list already. I had been aware of Wolitzer for years but it seems like suddenly she's everywhere, including on the fiction table at a local book swap where I snatched up THE TEN-YEAR NAP, her novel two before THE INTERESTINGS. (She was also at BEA when I was, promoting her first YA novel BELZHAR, but I unfortunately wasn't able to check that out.)

THE TEN-YEAR NAP surrounds a circle of mothers whose sons attend the same Manhattan schools. These are mostly stay-at-home moms who feel, and display, varying levels of ambivalence toward that role and how it overlaps with their identities. In particular, Amy, a former lawyer with a ten-year-old son, feels stranded between her working persona (and the office where she met her husband, who still works there) and what her next career should be. The uncertainty is paralyzing, and none of her friends have it any clearer themselves: Her best friend Jill moves to the suburbs and sees that journey from the wrong end of the periscope, feeling lonely and set apart. And her new friend Penny, the rare mother who works full-time (as a museum director), divulges a shocking secret that leads Amy to further question what exactly she wants.

In format and content, THE TEN-YEAR NAP is a less savage, more modern reworking of Marilyn French's THE WOMEN'S ROOM, a semi-landmark feminist novel featuring a very large cast of women reckoning with their feminist awakenings. It's a format I found strangely hypnotic in French's treatment (I remember a long trip on the Caltrain when I had to remind myself to look up as we passed through stations) and only a little less so in Wolitzer's. French's novel is first-/second-wave, Wolitzer's is third-wave; this is a novel taking place in the "opting out" era but where the women are hyperaware of how their personal decisions may not reflect what they feel they as women ought to do. Amy's mother used to hold a consciousness-raising group in her living room; along with her fear and ambivalence, Amy feels guilty for disappointing her too. It's worth noting, though, that both of these are character studies, not Agenda novels; some of my favorite vignettes from NAP feature characters revealing something that has been referenced in another section, elaborating, clarifying, and building that world around them. They felt like women, not like subjects in a New York Times Magazine profile.

The stumbling blocks of NAP are the very short chapters set in the past, exploring the perspectives of women tangentially related to the main ensemble of the book -- the mothers, primarily, but also a few other women and even a historical figure. I see what Wolitzer was trying to do with these, but they felt shallow and not fully realized due to their length. Some were also overly didactic, having less space to pack in the character work necessary to tie them into the rest of the novel at large. It felt like Wolitzer doing French when Wolitzer should just do Wolitzer; the nuance with which the characters in NAP are handled sets it apart from the many many other novels covering this same territory.

16 June 2014


I recently read a review roundup of the box-office powerhouse "The Fault In Our Stars," noting that the movie's performance (beating up Tom Cruise among others) didn't seem to be affected by people who were unhappy with its ending. Even though the book has been out for two years now, a distinct population of moviegoers didn't get around to reading it -- and those were the angriest at Green, and "Fault" director Josh Boone by extension, regarding the movie's ending. I haven't seen it, so I couldn't tell you exactly how it plays out, but with a book seemingly designed to elicit strong emotion, it's not surprising that some would boomerang back onto its creators as fury.

The book haters were there before the movie haters, though, so let's take a warm bath in the kind of reviews that must have been intended to hit Green like toxic steam. But first: I did not include, on purpose, anyone who criticized this book from the vantage point of having a loved one with cancer (as the main characters of this book do). I have been lucky yet not to walk in those shoes and I am willing to concede that they have a point. Also, there's nothing funny about that. That said, we're off:
  • "Albert Camus for babies"
  • "The first chapter was rude, the kids can't speak proper English (like...I have cancer) and the whole thing is a liberal cliche' from the get go."
  • "I am thinking the author is trying to live out his teenage years all over again, but it just comes off as a public service announcement." Being a teenager is so awesome and fun the first time, after all.
  • "Yes, I'm glad I read it, but I never will again. It SUCKED!!!"
  • "I bought the book based upon an interview with the author on 60 Minutes. The consensus was it wasn't a book about cancer but a love story. Sorry, but so far all it's been is about cancer."
  • "I have read many books in English and Spanish and this is the first time I have felt this way about a book...complete emptiness." Spanish books are special, you see.
  • "I didn't finish with any lasting feelings." This is the harshest, yet the most hilarious.
  • "This is only more evidence that America needs a catharsis." Just kidding, this is the most hilarious.

12 June 2014

Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge
Close to the surface of all things.
They start to remember the silence that brought them there.
They start to recount the gain in their soiled hands.

Their glasses let loose, and grain by grain return to the river
They point to their favorite words
Growing around them, revealed as themselves for the first time:
They stand close to the meanings and take them in.

They stand there, vague and without pain,
Under their fingernails and unreturnable dirt.
They stand there and it comes back,
The music of everything, syllable after syllable
Out of the burning chair, out of the beings of light.
It all comes back.
And what they repeat to themselves, and what they repeat to them-
Is the song that our fathers sing.

--new American poet laureate Charles Wright, from "Homage to Paul Cezanne"

11 June 2014

On re-reviewing THE GOLDFINCH

The best time for a book critic to get her or his point across regarding the merit of a particular book is within the review, not months later. Why attack after the enemy has marched away? You look petty and there is plenty more to work on, anyway. As for why those pesky readers don't always listen to critics, see also: every other entertainment medium ever.

(I would fall in the Liked-It-Didn't-Love-It/ Definitely Literary quadrant for THE GOLDFINCH. My book club railed against it for 90 minutes and then averaged out at 3 stars. Perhaps it's just the kind of book that bothers literary types.)

10 June 2014

Wasn't me

Here's the first 6 paragraphs of a press release I got this morning, do with it what you will:

REGGAE ICON SHAGGY (best known for his hit singles "Boombastic," "It Wasn't Me," and "Angel") records the audio-book version of the Jamaican patois "translation" of the New York Times, Amazon.com, & Wall Street Journal #1 best seller and worldwide phenomenon, Go the F*** to Sleep:

Written by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortes,
translated by Kwame Dawes & Kellie Magnus
Audio-book narrated by Shaggy
Audio-book publication date: June 10, 2014

In June 2011, actor Samuel L. Jackson's reading of Go the F*** to Sleep redefined the audio book for the Internet-driven 21st century. Samuel L. Jackson's appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman marked the first time an audio book had been promoted to such a large TV audience, and soon more than one million people had listened to the audio book, which continues to sell thousands of copies every month.

With the publication of Go de Rass to Sleep, audio-book publisher Buck 50 Productions/Urban Audio Books has recruited worldwide reggae superstar to repeat Samuel L. Jackson's coup, in a Jamaican fashion. Shaggy's humor and verbal prowess are on full display as he reads the book's stanzas such as:

Modda puss a hug up har pickney,
Young sheep a lay down wid big sheep.
Yuh wrap up an warm inna yuh bed, putoos,
Beg yuh, go de rass to sleep.

To our knowledge, this is the first book ever to be translated into Jamaican patois other than the Bible (for which there is no audio book read by Shaggy). As with the original, Go de Rass to Sleep is a bedtime book for parents who live in the real world, where a few snoozing kitties and cutesy rhymes don't always send a toddler sailing blissfully off to dreamland. Profane, affectionate, and radically honest, California Book Award-winning author Adam Mansbach's verses perfectly capture the familiar--and unspoken--tribulations of putting your little angel down for the night. In the process, they open up a conversation about parenting, granting us permission to admit our frustrations, and laugh at their absurdity.