24 June 2015

Filmbook: "Testament of Youth" (2015)

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, Vera Brittain's memoir about World War I-era Europe, was one of my favorite books of 2011. My expectations of this movie were fairly tempered by the fact that I had heard almost nothing about it before it opened here, and because the book is always better. Still, I found in it an above-average drama that gets stronger as it goes.

Young Vera (Alicia Vikander, who you might know as the robot in "Ex Machina" but I know as Kitty in the Joe Wright "Anna Karenina") is a bookish teenager, close with her brother (Taron Edgerton) and who dreams of going to Oxford over the objections of her father (Dominic "McNulty" West). Struggling to learn Latin on her own for the Oxford entrance exam and corresponding with her brother's new handsome friend (Kit "Jon Snow" Harington) are her greatest cares. Then World War I comes and rolls through her world as a terrible storm.

One aspect of the book I truly felt the absence of in this adaptation was the first-person narration that puts Vera's emotions into context. Part of the book's power is Brittain's own admission of her own self-absorption and selfishness, which affected how she viewed the war and some of the (perhaps irresponsible) ways she behaved growing up in that maelstrom. Missing this context, it becomes easier to judge her rather than understanding how a teenager might have, for example, focused most of her war worries on her new boyfriend rather than on the injuries and deaths that would ensue. (The movie highlights in spots how truly young Brittain and her cohort was at the time, but given that Vikander is 26, Egerton is 25 and Harington is 28, they aren't actually teenagers. Hollywood!)

Once "Testament of Youth" enters those war years, though, it really hits its stride emotionally, not holding back in how the horrors are inflicted on Vera, her family and friends. A sequence set on Christmas Day stands out in my mind as a particulalry sharp moment. Absent a few scenes where she's staring into the middle distance and flashing back -- director James Kent's use of these is not so effective -- Vikander is great and Harington and West very good as well. (I also appreciated Miranda Richardson in a small role as an Oxford don.)

Verdict: Read this book -- it is an underrated classic as fresh as if it were written yesterday -- and then see the movie. Then go out and buttonhole more people to read the book.
You might like this movie if you liked: "Atonement." (Trivia: Saoirse Ronan, young Briony in "Atonement," was previously attached to play Vera in this movie.)

23 June 2015

There are girls, there are girls, there are girls, there are girls

So many books try to pull off the trick of obliquely mentioning a Life Event in one of its characters' lives and then gradually unspooling it like a carpenter's tape measure. This one is worth it.

The newest resident of the titular camp is Thea Atwell, a doctor's daughter from rural Florida whose parents have sent her away for a transgression. Deep in the mountains of North Carolina, Yonahlossee is a horseback riding retreat for rich girls whose families don't know what to do with them before they get married -- though with the Great Depression looming, its target market is dwindling by the week. Thea's parents can pay, but her guilt about her upbringing is secondary to her struggles fitting in: Having spent almost her whole life on the family farm, she feels all at sea when it comes to navigating friendships with the other girls at camp. Her isolation is compounded at the end of the summer, when she finds out by letter that her parents intend her to attend Yonahlossee year-round, separating her completely from her twin brother for the first time in her life.

The first hundred pages of this book were very hard to get into as Thea adjusts to camp, but once the major personalities were set into play I couldn't put this book down. I roared through the last 200 pages half-afraid of what was happening to Thea (no spoilers) and worrying about how it was all going to play out. The intimacy of teenage girls in this book is at once specific to the time and place -- useless daughters of the rich, intended for good marriages and jeopardized by idleness -- and in a lot of ways universal to how girls interact in these types of closed systems. I'm currently working on something that references similar themes and picked this up without realizing, but DiSclafani's take on it is particularly interesting in how she hooks in the transgression to the airless world of Yonahlossee.  

Read this if you like: THE SECRET HISTORY, Cornelia Read's MADELINE DARE novels, anything about boarding schools.

Trivia: I didn't find this out till after I finished the book, but it was apparently the source of a bidding war before it was published. I can see that happening for sure. I'll be looking for her next one.

22 June 2015

Summer reading -- again, for the first time

"When summer comes around, I think many people's thoughts turn to books, among other things... You have this stretch of time in some theoretical sense where you could be more ambitious." --David Haglund

Last week's New Yorker Out Loud podcast addresses the idea of summer reading with critics James Wood and Kathryn Schulz. (With a name-check of THE POWER BROKER, a book I have previously had ambitions of reading over the summer and still have not done, I admit sheepishly.)

I set the ambitious, possibly foolish goal of reading 50 books this summer. How far behind am I? Well, I'll probably have to read 3 or 4 books a week to do it. One minor aid, if you will permit me to be the bringer of good news, is that this summer in a U.S. Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day sense is longer than usual -- Memorial Day was early, Labor Day is late.

I set this goal because I've been struggling with reading recently, and there is a thought I never imagined would come out of my fingers, but there it is. My reading time has become more fragmented, and with that comes the perception that it's been a long long time since I've read something that truly thrilled and enthralled me. I've read some books I really liked in that time, but they don't hold as much power over me because I'm always looking over my other shoulder. Wood talks about the use and power of structure in determining reading and what to read next, and I think that's probably what I need more.

Sure, but does forcing me to read more to make a particularly arbitrary goal mean I will enjoy it more? So far, yes! Last weekend I sent myself to the park to read, taking advantage of the sunny warm-ish afternoon, and passed a few blissful hours deep in my book. I might have done some reading otherwise, but removing myself from my laptop was key. It's good for the soul to do when it's possible.

Anyway, if you're still reading this quasi-manifesto, Goodreads won't let me set up a summer challenge, but I made a Summer Reading '15 shelf for your perusal. Already got some titles to blog about up there. It's going to be a fun summer.