Archive for the '2008 Books' Category

My 2008, in Books

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

I kept track of the books I read this year at Library Thing and on Visual Bookshelf at Facebook. I didn’t pay much attention to numbers, but I read about a book and a graphic novel a week. I make the time. I take the time. I leave things undone, all so I can spend time on one of my favorite things: books. A few favorites:

Published in 2008: Disquiet by Julia Leigh, The Likeness by Tana French, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, My Name is Will by Jess Winfield, Will by Christopher Rush.

Published in ‘07, but I read them in ‘08: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Re-reading and appreciating the classics: Crime and Punishment, Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Persuasion

Graphic novels: anything by Eddie Campbell, Too Cool to be Forgotten by Alex Robinson, Chiggers by Hope Larson, Fables.

“Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Cory Doctorow, a writer for the site Boing Boing, has written a solid young-adult techno-thriller for geeks in Little Brother. If that makes it sound like it’s for a narrow audience, it’s not. Marcus is a teen hacker who lives in San Francisco and likes playing online games with his friends. When SF is hit by terrorists, though, he’s picked up as a suspect by the Department of Homeland Security and bad things happen to him, his family, and the city.

Then the door at the back of the truck opened and there was fresh air–not smoky the way it had been before, but tinged with ozone…The man who came in was wearing a military uniform. A U.S. military uniform. He saluted the people in the truck and they saluted him back and that’s when I knew that I wasn’t a prisoner of some terrorists–I was a prisoner of the United States of America.

Marcus decides to fight, though, which raises the tough question of whether subverting authoritarians makes life more or less safe, in general and from terrorism.

Well paced, with concise and understandable explanations for non-geeks, this is a thoughtful provocative novel about the problems of privacy and free speech. I was strongly reminded of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, as well as the work of Bruce Schneier; both are named in the bibliography. Little Brother also reminded me of Godless by Pete Hautman.

It contains a few unsurprising YA tropes, like the geek boy intimidated by the sexually aggressive girl, withholding and later revealing key information to parents, a weaker sidekick/buddy, and a cool, outsider adult who helps. Also, there were were a handful of editing errors that slowed my reading–was his mother’s name Lillian, or Louise? But overall, it’s a rousing story about civil rights and ethics in the internet age.

“Disquiet” by Julia Leigh

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

Julia Leigh’s Disquiet was highly recommended by my favorite book critic, Jennifer Reese of EW, who also chose it as a best book of 2008. I was not disappointed. It’s a short, sharp, painful novella. A woman leaves her abusive husband and returns with her two children to her mother’s chateau in France.

The stone stairs leading to the chateau were wide and shallow and worn like soap. The woman took hold of the doorknocker–it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull–and weighed it in her hand. Knocked. They waited patiently, and their kind of patience was born more from exhaustion, from abandoning any expectation of easy gratification, than from gracious goodwill. She reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair, to give them both some courage. Knock-knock. And old woman answered. She was wearing her perennial uniform, a black dress and white apron, and her hair, grey now, was curled in a tidy bun. They stared at one another without speaking and between them passed an understanding of the unsung miracle of the door–one moment a person wasn’t there, and the next moment…there.

‘Hello Ida,’ said the woman calmly. ‘It’s me.’

Their homecoming is tempered both by their circumstances and a concurrent tragedy in the family. Leigh’s spare prose is chillingly effective at maintaining a sense of dread, along with a palpable tension between the living and the dead. I was reminded of the work of Muriel Spark and Ian McEwan. Disquieting, indeed.

Two Christmas Classics

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

Every year, I check out a few of the same books from my library branch’s holiday selection. I seek out the classics illustrated by my favorite artists, who include Trina Schart Hyman, Shirley Hughes, James Marshall, and Tomie dePaola. This year, I re-read Dickens’ Christmas Carol to myself, and managed, much to my amazement, to read the entirety of Dylan Thomas’ Child’s Christmas in Wales aloud to both 5yo Drake and 2yo Guppy. They didn’t sit still for all of it, but I repeatedly enticed them back with Hyman’s illustrations. Also, I could tell Drake was drawn to the rolling cadences of Thomas’ prose poem, which was a joy to read aloud.

What I appreciated this year in A Christmas Carol was how secular, not religious, its story was. I liked Dickens’ dry, ironic humor, used to politely skewer certain people or their habits. This contrasted with his rich descriptions:

There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.

So many commas and semicolons! Dylan Thomas was fond of commas as well:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

Happy holidays to all, and may you enjoy your seasonal favorites as well, be they food, books, family or friends.

“Supernanny” by Jo Frost

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

I hate parenting books. The last thing I want to do after an exhausting day parenting my energetic, needy boys is read about parenting. I want a break! Television, movies and reading for pleasure suit that need much better.

Yet I am far from a perfect parent to 5yo Drake and 2yo Guppy, so I feel guilty about not reading the books. I know I’ve got much to learn, but I rebel against the books, whose advice I find hard to follow and not always applicable. At a recent playdate, a friend noticed my boys’ oppositional behavior, and suggested Supernanny. Why not, I thought, worn down by the boys and their frequent fighting, both with me and with each other. I got the book from the library. Three weeks went by. I renewed it. Another three weeks went by. I renewed it again. Finally I read it.

It’s easy to read, with pictures, big type size and a truly useful set of sections on typical problem areas like eating, playing with others, and bedtime. It is basic, and perhaps more focused on parent guidance than on child nurturing. But I am taking away a few pieces of advice, so it was time well spent.

On the futility of reasoning with toddlers:

Reasoning, pleading, bargaining, threatening–none of these work with [toddlers]. For these strategies to work, your child would need mental powers she just does not yet have. (p.32)

It’s okay to offer a toddler a choice between two acceptable alternatives. But offering a toddler lots of choices tells him that you don’t know what you’re doing–otherwise, why are you asking?–and that therefore he’s the boss. (p. 50)

Small children will always win [in these situations] because they don’t really understand what a bargain or a promise is all about. What you’re dangling in front of them in the form of a treat is just too tempting, and they will try their utmost to get it right now. And what you see as a trade-off, she sees as a rule that keeps changing–which, as everyone knows, is a rule that isn’t really a rule at all and doesn’t have to be followed. (p. 71)

On involving kids with daily tasks:

Small children need attention. When they don’t get it, they act up. The trouble is that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for you to give your toddler the attention he wants and deal with everything else as well. When you have two or more kids, short of cloning yourself, you have to think of ways around the problem. (p. 77)

And some helpful advice I’m going to try, like earlier mealtimes for the kids, who tend to be hungry at 10:30 and 4:30, not noon and 6:30. And staggered bedtimes, so each boy can have a little one on one time before bed–kids aren’t the only ones who can use “divide and conquer” to their advantage. Heh, heh.

“Superpowers” by David J. Schwartz

Friday, December 12th, 2008

In David J. Schwartz’s Superpowers, five college juniors in Madison, WI throw a party, drink beer and pass out. When they wake up, they don’t have hangovers, they have the superpowers of the book’s title: super strength, speed, invisibility, telepathy and flight. The book wonders what would happen to real kids in the real world if suddenly blessed–or is it cursed?–with superpowers.

is an older teen novel, featuring college protagonists struggling with real-life issues, in addition to their new problems. It’s also an introduction to superhero culture, perhaps best for fans of shows like Heroes or Smallville who haven’t yet become comic-book readers. I don’t think I’m the target reader; I’m too familiar with comic books dealing with similar themes, from early Spider Man and X-Men to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, to more recent comics like Powers and Runaways. For less geeky readers than me, though, this is an enjoyable young adult what-if tale.

“My Name is Will: a Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare” by Jess Winfield

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Right after I saw My Name is Will reviewed in Entertainment Weekly (link not online), Winfield was scheduled to appear at Rain Taxi’s annual Twin Cities Book Fest. I’ve been on something of a Shakespeare binge this year, so I decided to attend. Late, I hurried through the building toward the room I thought, but wasn’t sure, the reading would be in. A man I passed assured me, “You’re headed in the right direction. Don’t worry. You’re not going to miss it.” How Jess Winfield knew I was going to HIS reading I don’t know, but I laughed, slowed down, and we arrived at the room together. I was fortunate enough to chat for a few minutes before the session with both Winfield and actor Stacia Rice, who introduced Winfield before hustling out to prepare for opening night of The Scottish Play, in which she was Lady Macbeth.

Winfield read a few passages from My Name is Will. The chapters alternate between William “Willie” Shakespeare Greenberg, an 80’s era UCSC grad student, and the William “Will” Shakespeare of 1582 Stratford-upon-Avon. Both are beset by troubles. Willie is avoiding both his master’s thesis and his father with an impressive array of illicit drugs and a few willing women.

He couldn’t go back to Robin’s as he was: no cash, no direction, no thesis, and no fucking clue of who or what William Shakespeare Greenberg was, let alone William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.

He looked at his watch again. He would do it all. Right now. Today. Figure out his thesis before the library closed; deliver the mushroom tonight, or tomorrow morning at the latest; be back tomorrow.


Will is persecuted for his family’s Catholicism, while also pursuing women, being strong armed into making an honest woman of Ann Hathaway, and embarking on a career of writing and playacting. Both Willie and Will are endearing wastrels, and their entwined stories are brought to a satisfying, bittersweet conclusion.

Winfield was a founding member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and spent years writing and producing stories for Disney. He knows how to tell a ripping yarn; this is a thumping good read. The historical details for Will are mostly accurate. Like Shakespeare’s histories, this is an entertainment, not a factual tract. It also doesn’t flinch from explicit scenes of drug use and sex. The subtitle for the book isn’t a come on, it’s truth in advertising. This book is not for the easily offended. It _is_ for fans of Shakespeare and comedy, though, and very accessible to those with only a passing knowledge of the Bard. Indeed, it might even encourage those students who see Shakespeare as a chore to do a little experimenting on their own.

“Fables v. 11: War and Pieces” by Bill Willingham

Friday, December 5th, 2008

I’ve been reading Fables since its inception, over five years ago. Even so, I was surprised that Fables: War and Pieces, written by Bill Willingham and illustrated by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon, and Andrew Pepoy, was The End of the overarching story begun back in issue one. I’ve been reading this complex, funny, violent, tragic, comic for so long, and its story feels so eternal–I’d simply forgotten it must end.

“Fables” are the personifications of fairy tales who escaped long ago from the tyrannical Adversary and his warring Empire. They took refuge in the real, or “mundy,” world. Even there, though, they were not free from attacks and spies. In this book, the long term plans and stories of the characters come together in a final, huge battle. Prince Charming partners with Sinbad to captain a skyship, Cinderella is a killer spy on a dangerous mission, Bigby Wolf leads the last stand, and Boy Blue narrates, since he’s all over the place. There’s a satisfyingly big ending, and a short epilogue that balances things nicely. Page 172 shows a celebration in which I suspect a few of the “characters” depicted are actually the writers, illustrators, their loved ones, and DC Comics staff. I’m betting Willingham is the one holding the green bottle, and I’m curious why Rorschach would make an appearance. He’s not much of a party guy.

This story, of the Fables against the Adversary, is over, but the series will continue. There are still many stories to tell. I, for one, want more about Frau Totenkinder, one of the creepiest characters of them all.

“Daredevil: Cruel and Unusual” by Brubaker, Rucka, Lark

Monday, December 1st, 2008

We ordered the graphic novel Daredevil: Cruel and Unusual by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark, from Big Brain Comics, by accident. After I read the last Daredevil collection, I decided I was finished reading the series. But when it showed up in our box, we bought it, and once we’d bought it I figured I might as well read it.

I’m glad I did. I enjoyed this Daredevil collection more than any in recent memory. Matt Murdock continues to be mopey and self-involved, but friends jar him out of his stupor and get him involved in a case. I thought the mystery and the supporting cast were done well, and it was great to see Daredevil back to form. He’s spent far too much time mooning schmoopily over the dreadful character Milla. Was her absence what made this book so much better than its predecessors? I think so. My husband G. Grod thinks that it’s a matter of contrast: the last few Daredevil collections have been so terrible that the new one seems great even if it’s only OK.

Bottom line, though? I’ll pick up the next one. And if they’d kill off Milla and remove her from Matt’s memory? Heaven.

“The Likeness” by Tana French

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

Recommended at Entertainment Weekly, Tana French’s Irish murder mystery The Likeness took a while to come in at the library. Once I started it, I realized it was a sequel–I got and finished In the Woods in a few days, then started The Likeness, worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish it by the time it was due. I needn’t have fretted.

The Likeness is at least as compelling as In the Woods, and is a tighter, better-written book to boot. I hate to use this trite phrase, but it fits: The Likeness is a taut, psychological thriller. It’s narrated by Detective Cassie Maddox, who still suffers from the events of the last book but is spurred back to risk taking when a unique investigative opportunity presents itself.

This is Lexie Madison’s story, not mine. I’d love to tell you one without getting into the other, but it doesn’t work that way. I used to think I sewed us together at the edges with my own hands, pulled the stitches tight and I could unpick them any time I wanted. Now I think it always ran deeper than that and farther, underground; out of sight and way beyond my control…

This is the main thing you need to know about Alexandra Madison: she never existed. Frank Mackey and I invented her, a long time ago

Like In the Woods, the book has wonderful, complex characters who are carefully and believably written. Cassie’s case is an involving one, and it’s easy to see how she gets in too deep. It is dark and violent, so defer it if you’re feeling fragile and depressed. But if you’re looking for a well-written murder procedural with great characters, I highly recommend starting with In the Woods and continuing with The Likeness.

“In the Woods” by Tana French

Monday, November 24th, 2008

I was thrilled when Tana French’s The Likeness finally came into the library for me; I’d seen it praised several times. I was less thrilled when I realized it was a sequel, when I started it anyway, and when some critical points from the first one were divulged. So off I went to Target for In the Woods, since it still has a wait list at the library, too.

In the Woods is narrated by Rob Ryan, a homicide detective in Ireland. He and his partner Cassie volunteer to investigate the murder of a pre-teen girl. The case bears suspicious resemblances to a missing children case from twenty years before, one in which Rob was involved.

What I want you to remember is that I’m a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception…

This is my job, and you don’t go into it–or if you do, you don’t last–without some natural affinity for its priorities and demands. What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this–two things. I crave truth. And I lie.

This is an engrossing procedural, with excellent psychological characterizations. Dark and grim, though, it’s not fun or escapist, if that’s what you’re looking for. For those who have read the book and want to know more about an item mentioned at the very end, see here.

Will I be able to finish both books by the time I have to return The Likeness, which is non-renewable? We shall see. But judging by In the Woods, which I finished in about 5 days, I think I’m gonna make it.

“The Return of the Dancing Master” by Henning Mankell

Friday, November 21st, 2008

This month’s pick for my book group, The Return of the Dancing Master, is an engaging procedural mystery by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, best known for his Kurt Wallender series, soon to be televised by the BBC.

The prologue takes place at the end of the second world war, then jumps 54 years to the home of Herbert Molin. There is a brutal murder, bad things happen, and the narration stays mostly with Stefan Lindman, a policeman who used to work with Molin. Lindman’s reeling from a recent diagnosis of cancer, and lets himself be drawn into the investigation.

At least once every year he found himself in situations where he experienced considerable fear. One one occasion he’d been attacked by a psychopath weighing over 300 pounds. He had been on the floor with the man astride him, and in rising desperation had fought to prevent his head from being torn off by the madman’s gigantic hands…Another time he’d been shot at while approaching a house to deal with domestic violence…But he had never been as frightened as he felt now, on the morning of October 25, 1999, as he lay in bed staring up at the ceiling.

Detailed and not predictable, the mystery unfolds at as measured a pace as the reader can manage–I raced through the book in a few days. It paints a disturbing picture of post-war Swedes hiding ugly secrets in the wake of the Holocaust.

“100 Bullets v. 12: Dirty”

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

Like Ex Machina, 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso is another comic I stopped buying monthly and instead get the graphic novel collections. That didn’t help me much with “Dirty“, though.

There was not a unifying story to this group of issues, and it felt very “been there, done that” with this series: blood, violence, sex, death. All of which can be powerful forces when used carefully in telling a story. Here, though, it feels like they’re being tossed up to meet a deadline, or fill in issues as the series moves to its conclusion. I really enjoyed this series, and thought it was a great modern crime story. As it’s gone on, though, my appreciation has waned. Is it me, is it the series? I don’t know. I’ll read till the end, and hope the creators are able to pull things together in a satisfying way. “Dirty” though, is an apt description of a weak entry in a once-strong series.

Ex Machina v. 7: Ex Cathedra

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Tony Harris, is one of the comic books I stopped buying monthly. Instead, I read the graphic novel story collections. They are free of intrusive, obnoxious ads, and have a self-contained story that I’m better able to appreciate in one sitting then spread out over months.

In “Ex Cathedra“, New York mayor Mitchell Hundred is summoned to an audience with the pope. As usual for this series, the episodes of ongoing story are introduced with flashbacks to Hundred’s past as the crime fighter The Great Machine, or to the lives of the series’ supporting characters. The story with the pope has some interesting wrinkles, and it’s paralleled by a less successful subplot of nasty Russian criminals. At which I wondered, “Russians? Really?” just like the characters in Burn After Reading did.

In spite of the odd villain choice, “Ex Cathedra” is a strong, engaging entry in one of the best series on comic shelves today.

“Will” by Christopher Rush

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

The tagline for Christopher Rush’s Will is “After 400 years, Shakespeare breaks his silence.” Rush imagines Shakespeare on his death bed, dictating his will to his lawyer. In between bequests, he tells the lawyer the story of his life. At first, the conceit felt artificial, but compared to what? Two star-crossed lovers in Verona? Mysterious shipwrecks? It bothered me initially, but it made sense for a playwright’s telling of his own story, and was further shored up by an elaboration near the end of the book.

What can you say? What can you do, when you’re sick and tired, and your lawyer is pawing the floorboards like a little black bull? You get down to it, of course, just as he directs….

But for you, my masters, my shadows, my audience, my charmed circle, for you it’s different. Desire, not business is your theme. Huddle up then, come close, forget [the lawyer], and tell me what you’d like to hear. A speech of quality, no doubt, before this humdrum legalese? I can do you anything, gentle friends, any exit peiece you care to name–tomorrow and tomorrow, never never never, ripeness is all, the rest is silence. The simplest words worked best, put into the mouths of doomed and dying mortals, words that made even the groundlings stop scratching, stand still and wet their cheeks, like trees bedashed with rain.

Rush takes the impressive risk of ventriloquizing Shakespeare and spins the few hard facts about his life into a sprawling 460-page tale, by turns harrowing, hilarious, bawdy, and heartbreaking.
Will is an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, imagination of Shakespeare’s entire life. Rush notes in the acknowledgments that the book grew underground for nearly fifty years; given its scope I’m not surprised. It offers hints and ideas to answer questions scholars have been arguing for centuries. It’s filled with possible inspirations and influences for his famous plays and poems, many of which are lovingly quoted and contextualized. This is an impressive idea, well executed, that fans of Shakespeare’s plays will likely appreciate and enjoy.

“Macbeth, Arden 2nd series, ed. Kenneth Muir

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

In preparation for seeing the Torch Theater production, I re-read Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As with Hamlet, I was struck by how many lines continue to be quoted (sometimes incorrectly) hundreds of years later. The plot is familiar to most, even those who have never read the play. The particulars, though, drew me through the story. I noted Macbeth’s vacillation, so like Hamlet’s in that earlier, and IMO better, tragedy. I appreciated the crowd-pleasing breather of the drunken porter scene, and was annoyed by my edition; it debates the provenance of almost every passage in “Macbeth”, but doesn’t bother to speculate on “nose painting.” Overall, though, I appreciated the notes detailing the centuries-long debate over what parts of the play Shakespeare wrote, what he didn’t, etc.

As for the story as a whole, I contrast Macbeth’s change over the play, from hero to doubter to outward embracer of his role as villain, with that of Lady Macbeth, who is constant from first learning of the prophecy, yet shatters on the interior from the stress of her misdeeds in the service of her ambition. Macbeth and his lady balance one another, even as they plunge down a slippery slope of morality to their demises.

Macbeth and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I’ve noted some similarities of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Shakespeare before, in my reading of Titus Andronicus. G. Grod and I were watching BtVS Season 2* on DVD while I read Macbeth. Creator Joss Whedon, in his commentary on the season’s (and perhaps the series’) pivotal two episodes, “Surprise” and “Innocence,” states his preference for psychology in the service of a tale. He wants to add realistic touches to supernatural elements to create a fantastic yet believable story. He offered as examples the star-crossed lovers Angel, the vampire with a soul, and Buffy, the slayer who’s in love with a vampire.

I find an echo in Whedon’s comments to those of Kenneth Muir in the Macbeth Introduction:

Shakespeare was not so much concerned with the creation of real human beings, but with theatrical or poetical effect. He was fascinated by the very difficulty of making the psychologically improbable, by sheer virtuosity, appear possible. Shakespeare made ‘the bold experiment of a character with a strongly marked mixture of qualities of which the one seems almost to preclude the other’–a brave warrior who is a moral coward, a brutal murderer who is racked by feelings of guilt, and so on. (Intro, xlvii)

Macbeth, Torch Theater, 1 November 2008
: The irony of seeing Macbeth on All Saints Day amused me. This production was on a small scale, but with two locally renowned actors, Stacia Rice and Sean Haberle, in the lead roles. The supporting roles were filled with actors of varying skill. Macduff was effective, I found, while Malcolm was not. Still, the power of the story combined with its strong actors made for an stirring show.** Star Tribune review here, City Pages review here.

For a geeky variation on “Macbeth”, see Theresa and Patrick Nielson-Hayden’s excellent blog Making Light.

*Query: is Buffy Season 2 one of the best seasons of TV ever? Discuss.

**My favorable impression of the play may have been enhanced by the kind usher who told me my outfit was really working for me (I wore these shoes), and because I was basking in the aftermath of a fabulous meal from Nick and Eddie’s.

“The Film Club” by David Gilmour

Friday, November 7th, 2008

The Film Club is a memoir of Canadian novelist (NOT Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist) David Gilmour, who lets his 15yo son Jesse drop out of school if he agrees to watch three movies a week together. So begins a wild adventure in parenting. Gilmour starts with Truffaut’s New Wave classic, The 400 Blows. But as almost every review of the book crows, he follows it up with “dessert”, the eminently watchable, if made by sleazy people, Basic Instinct.

I picked the movies arbitrarily, in no particular order; for the most part they had to be good, classics when possible, but engaging, had to pull him out of his own thoughts with a strong storyline. There was no point, not at this juncture anyway, in showing him stuff like Fellini’s 8 1/2. (1963).

It’s this unconventional, anti-film-snob approach to movies that probably helped their film club to work for the next few years. Gilmour never forgot, or stopped trying to impart to his son, that films were created as entertainment. So while Jesse got a full run of classics, like Citizen Kane and Chinatown, he also watched horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and guilty pleasures like La Femme Nikita.

More than a movie memoir, it’s one of parenting, as Gilmour coaxes Jesse through some typically disastrous adolescent romances. Gilmour won’t be nominated for parent of the year anytime, but he’s got the critical basics down: empathy, honesty, and the ability to apologize. As a parent I often wonder if I taught my kids my own foibles, or if they go through them because its in their genes, so the best I can do is help them through it, as Gilmour does with humor and self-effacement in this winning book.

“Twelfth Night”

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

In preparation for my viewing of Ten Thousand Things‘ all-female production, I re-read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will. The text of the play is mostly a delight, though there are a few toothsome things to mull over after the play is done. Its end of multiple marriages is seemingly tidy, but a few characters are left out in the cold, as acknowledged by the clown’s closing song:

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day. (V. i. 392-395)

Both Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are fairly easily categorized as knaves. Yet I found Antonio the odd man out, literally. In this gender-bending comedy, the central character, Viola, spends most of her time dressed as a man. The happy couples at the end are she, united with her love Orsino, and her twin, Sebastian, married to Olivia. Olivia quickly abandoned her vow of mourning for her brother for Viola/Cesario. She even more quickly accepts male Sebastian in Cesario’s place. In the end, Orsino abandons his professed love for Olivia on learning his trusted “man” Cesario is in fact Viola. In my reading, Antonio, who saved Viola’s twin Sebastian after their shipwreck, is the only steadfast lover in the play. Orsino, not Antonio, is conveniently matched with Sebastian’s female counterpart once identities are revealed. Instead, his faithful and sincere speeches and acts of devotion to Sebastian:

I could not stay behind you: my desire
More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth:
And not all love to see you (though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage)
But jealousy what might befall your travel
Being skilless in these parts: which to a stranger
Unguided and unfriended, often prove
Rough and unhospitable. My willing love,
The rather by these arguments of fear,
Set forth in your pursuit. (III. iii. 4-13)

get swept away in the tumult of the closing scene, perhaps because his love doesn’t conform to the norms of sex and gender.

I enjoyed the TTT production a great deal, and would recommend it to seek out, but all seats are committed, and its run ends tomorrow. Kate Eifrig is a delight in her dual roles of Viola and Sebastian. Maggie Chestovich is a thoughtful and clever clown. Sally Wingert reprises the role of Maria that she played in the Guthrie’s past productions, and adds an entertaining turn as Orsino. Isabell Monk O’Connor is a boisterous Sir Toby, while Kimberly Richardson makes a suitably clownish Sir Andrew. Barbara Kingsley does an appropriately uptight and off-putting Malvolio, though the production chooses to dwell on his punishment overmuch.

I found this version’s practice of leaving the lights up, and having the actors interact with the audience both exciting and unnerving. A main moment of disappointment, though, was the poignant scene of Viola and Sebastian, necessarily difficult to stage with one actor playing both parts. Instead of inspiring quiet appreciation for the range of emotions experienced by the characters, it was received as comic by most of the audience.

For more on the TTT production: City Pages review, Strib review, and an interview with TTT director Michelle Hensley at TC Daily Planet.

I chose to reread the play in advance; I find Shakespeare easier to follow with preparation. In contrast, there are movies coming up–The Road and Reservation Road–for which I’m going to read the book after, to better evaluate if the movie stands on its own. I’m likely not a good judge of TTT’s Twelfth Night clarity of story, then, since my recent prior reading doubtless filled in any plot gaps the editing might have left, as the play finished within a quick two hours.

“Persuasion” (1995) and “Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

I’ve been reading and watching a lot of tragedies of late (not including the economy and political climate here in the US) so I took a break from the sturm und drang for Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And what a delightful and welcome break it was.

I watched the 1995 adaptation first. When PBS aired the 2007 adaptation earlier this year, many online Janeites expressed their preference for this earlier version, which was televised in the UK, but released in theaters elsewhere in the world. While I liked the PBS adaptation, I agree that it suffers by comparison to this earlier version.

The 1995 version was a bit longer, often an asset in adapting a work of fiction. Additionally, the actors who played the leads of Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, were the more realistic for looking like real people, perhaps because the film was shot entirely in natural light. The film actors looked old enough for the theme of reclaiming a lost love of youth. The leads in the PBS film were pretty and younger looking; they’d been glammed up–Sally Hawkins in no way looked past her bloom, as Anne is in the book. She was at least as pretty as Rupert Penry-Jones, as Wentworth. Finally, the 1995 film does not needlessly augment the tension at the end, as the PBS version did with its over-the-top scene of Anne running through the streets of Bath, one that was deservedly skewered on YouTube, here. Instead the film wisely let the quiet dignity of its actors, along with one of the most beautiful passages of Austen, convey the emotion:

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in

F. W.

I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.

Indeed, and it’s passages like this that made re-reading Persuasion a joy. The slim, sometimes grim tale is filled with jewel-bright and razor-sharp prose as it carries the reader to the happy, unsurprising ending for Anne and Captain Wentworth. I often stopped to re-read and marvel at sentences and passages along the way. I didn’t love Persuasion the first time I read it. Reading all the Austen complete novels, though, and reading about Austen, have given me an increased appreciation that made this reading a suitable antidote for the previous tragedies I’d partaken of.

“The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard”

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Yet another beautiful book from Eddie Campbell and publisher First Second, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a tale of circus geeks and their adventures. Campbell continues to push the limits of the comics medium, with full-bleed pages, action over text, and conversations with dead people and animals around the page. It’s a bittersweet tale with memorable and literally vivid characters, and suggests circus performers were the precursors to superheroes, as Campbell comments in this interview with Jessa Crispin of Bookslut. Probably not for the graphic-novel novice, but a treat for seasoned comics readers, as comic-geek Jog notes at his blog.