March 4, 2015

Anne Elliot and the Paradox of Interiority

Persuasion's Anne Elliot is considered to be the most "interior" of all Jane Austen heroines. She does very, very little during the course of the novel. And she talks very, very little during the course of the novel, even with her love interest Captain Wentworth. Their reconciliation consists of a handful of exchanges, mostly brief and superficial. What we know about her thoughts and history comes mostly from her interior ruminations, not dialogue or action.

And yet: She is the one Austen heroine who completely busts out of, not just her unpleasant family or provincial town, but the entire society in which she has been raised. Wentworth is a naval officer. Like Mrs. Croft, Anne can expect to spend at least some of her years on ship with him. She's the polar opposite of Emma, who yakkity-yaks her head off but is very clear to Knightley that she doesn't want to leave her home, much less her village or country.

If Jane Austen had lived past 42 years, where would she have taken her later heroines?

March 3, 2015

Thompson, Branagh . . . I've Got Plans for You

Since Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility

is the best adaptation of that novel,

and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V—

and Hamlet—

are the best adaptations of those works,

I humbly request that Thompson and Branagh stop dicking around and devote the rest of their lives to filming the entire oeuvre of Austen and Shakespeare.

March 2, 2015

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Virginia Woolf famously said that "of all the great writers [Jane Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness." What she meant is that Austen doesn't have stand-alone passages of great brilliance like Hamlet's soliloquy or long, beautiful, atmospheric descriptions like Dickens's famous passage on the London fog. Austen's greatness is so tightly woven into the entire fabric of her works that it's impossible to pull on one thread and observe it.

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, a young woman who was persuaded by an older friend to break her engagement with the man she loved, Captain Wentworth, because of his lower social standing and lack of money. For eight years she has regretted the loss of that love and slowly withered, losing her "bloom" of youth and beauty. Now Wentworth is back in her social circle, but this time rich and well-regarded, and Anne is compelled to watch the young women around her swoon over him and be courted in return.

Persuasion was the last book that Austen wrote before she died at age 42. Many critics love it for its more melancholy, dark tone, but I've always found this view overstated. The 1995 film adaptation emphasizes Anne's homeliness and pathetic situation in life, but the novel itself makes Anne neither homely nor pathetic. Within the first quarter of the novel she has regained her "bloom" and she has friends who like and esteem her (though the members of her family are not among them). She's not someone in crisis; she's someone who has come to terms with her decisions and her losses. Unlike the heroines of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, she doesn't need to be transformed through the course of the novel; she's already been transformed—she just needs a second chance to show it.

Virginia Woolf makes the case that Persuasion is quite flawed but intriguing because it signals a transition to a new stage in her writing—a stage that we never got to see because she died shortly after Persuasion was published. Woolf's essay on Austen is here and is devastatingly poignant about what we lost because of Austen's early death.

What remains, though, is great. Jane Austen pulled the English novel back from the excesses of romantic and gothic melodrama and made it sharp and biting. Most important, according to scholars like John Mullan (a summary of whose excellent book on Austen can be found here), is her invention of an entirely new type of narration: indirect free speech.

Indirect free speech is the use of a normally omniscient, impartial third-person narration to convey the thoughts of a particular character. Here are examples to contrast:

3rd person narration:
"It was raining outside, so she decided not to go out because she didn't want to ruin her hair."

1st person narration:
"It's raining outside. I'd better stay inside; Mother would be so upset if I showed up with my hair in disarray."

Indirect free speech:
"It was raining outside, so she stayed inside. Obviously one cannot risk appearing in public with damp hair, especially if there is a rather eligible young man in attendance."

What's cool about indirect free speech is that it opens the way for irony. The narrator, supposedly omniscient and impartial, is relating the point of view of the character (a vain young woman) as if it were a universal truth while actually making obvious the narrator's distance from it and (usually) disapproval of it. 

This is the whole tenor of modern, informal communication, isn't it? Once at work I overheard a young guy talking to a young woman (one he obviously liked) about music, specifically some sub-sub-genre that he was into . . . "neo-soul bluegrass" or "Finnish pop electronica" or something.  As he's blathering on, she is saying "Sure, sure . . . " with the straightest face possible but unmistakable sarcasm for anyone watching from the outside. The subtext: I'm speaking as if your knowledge and enthusiasm about this subgenre are universal, like we all listen to it, but really I'm emphasizing your singularity and my distance from you."

Austen scholars assert that Austen was the first novelist to employ this technique. If so, this is rather huge. Did Jane Austen invent modern irony?

February 26, 2015

Oscars 2015

I enjoy the Oscars. It's a chance to revisit some good movies of the past year, see a few touching moments, and watch people have something very, very nice happen to them.

A lot of people hate the Oscars. I believe this is because they sit down with a pad of paper and keep score of how many minutes they are bored and how many they are entertained. Year after year, critics say the Oscars are "meh" and the host a disappointment. One headline read something like "If Neil Patrick Harris can't pull it off, who can??" What exactly are you expecting him to pull off?? IT'S NOT A BEYONCE CONCERT, PEOPLE!!

Get a crossword and make yourself a nice hot toddy. Sit back and enjoy. "Ooh, that dress is pretty." "Oh, I loved that scene." "What a nice moment when J. K. Simmons told us all to call our mothers." "NPH is on stage in his tighty-whities!" See? Fun.

January 16, 2015

The Fault in Our Starlets

As soon as I saw Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, I knew she'd be nominated for an Oscar. Not because the role was particularly challenging but because the Academy loves a beautiful woman who serves as a luminous, compassionate companion to a tortured man. Felicity Jones plays the first wife of Stephen Hawking:

Just the kind of role that won Jennifer Connelly a much-undeserved Oscar for A Beautiful Mind:

I say undeserved not because Connelly (or Jones) isn't talented; both are. It's the type of role that bothers me. Both women play the long-suffering, ornamental support for the Great Man's Journey. Their beauty stands for a type of grace and wonder that the filmmakers desire to depict as part of even the most tortured male life. And which is celebrated as the most noble endeavor of a woman's life—and acting career.

Eddie Redmayne's role as Stephen Hawking was the greatest acting performance of the year. But just behind it was Shailene Woodley's as Hazel, the teenage protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel has cancer and lugs around an oxygen tank most of the time. Woodley makes her one of the most believable characters in film this year, conveying both naturalistic, everyday gestures and moments of great emotion.

Most important, The Fault in Our Stars is Hazel's story. There are other nominations in the Best Actress category like that: Reese Witherspoon's nomination for Wild and Julianne Moore for Still Alice. But the persistence of the Felicity Jones type of nomination rankles. The incessant focus on the male journey in film awards—the honor paid to the Stephen Hawkings, the Alan Turings, the Chris Kyles, the Travis Bickles, even—is right there with the white focus. There's ageism at play as well: In our culture there's nothing quite so insignificant as a teenage girl's life. And "genreism": Chris Pine's turn as Captain Kirk was, to my mind, just as great an a achievement as Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing (different years, of course)—maybe even a greater achievement since he had to play a role established by another actor, evoking it clearly without slipping into mimicry or parody, in a performance that had to teeter on the edge of camp without ever falling into it. But the chance that the star of an action/adventure sci fi/comedy blockbuster would be nominated is next to nil.

So here's to you, Shailene Woodley. In the Platonic form of Oscar somewhere in the ether, you have my vote.

January 14, 2015

Prophet in a Perm

This may not look like a spiritual leader:

But Amy Grant has provided me with more spiritual wisdom and inspiration than any other artist. Here's a more recent picture, sans perm:

A line from her latest album is speaking to me this week about our hopes for life after life and seeing our loved ones again:

"Death's goodbye is love's hello."

January 4, 2015

"That's a Non-Starter, Murgatroyd."

The above quote is one of my all-time favorite TV lines from one of my all-time favorite TV characters: Miss Hinchcliffe, from "A Murder Is Announced." I have a weakness for all British mysteries, but I think Joan Hickson's Miss Marple is the greatest of all the British series, and "A Murder Is Announced" is the greatest of all episodes. This is my love note to "A Murder Is Announced."

First of all, do you really think you're going to get away with anything with this lady on your tail?

Joan Hickson is not very much like the Miss Marple of the books, but who cares. She is stunningly good, conveying moral rectitude and intelligence with just a touch of snoopiness. And those eyes are everything. Knocking around in her brown tweed suit and sensible shoes, she proves that star power has nothing to do with youth and beauty and everything to do with charisma.

Second, this cast nails the pitch perfect balance of filmic naturalism with stagey theatricality. The younger cast members are annoyingly smarmy, but the elders kill it. Like Ursula Howells, brittle and powerful at the same time with her constant pearls—

—which believe you me, do not go unclutched.

But my favorite, favorite, favorite are Miss Murgatroyd and Miss Hinchcliffe, the two middle-aged "companions" who share a cottage.

Miss Murgatroyd is scattered-brained and soft, Hinchcliffe tough and sharp. But when everyone else dismisses Murgatroyd, and she herself says she can't remember or figure something out, Hinchcliffe is the first to say, "Yes, you can." Together they try to figure out who the murderer is, and Hinchcliffe rejects an early theory with the above immortal line. Hinchcliffe is singular and passionate and I love her.

January 3, 2015


Outdoor adventure movies are the best. Touching the Void, Into the Wild, 127 Hours . . . these are some of my favorite films ever. But Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, may be the only one about a woman's journey. Not a woman in a group or a woman in distress, as part of a thriller or action story. But a woman finding herself in the time-honored tradition of hikers everywhere. At one point in her months-long hike, Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist comes upon another woman hiking the same trail, the first she's seen, and she can't help exclaiming, "You're a woman!" We know how she feels.

I read Strayed's memoir a year or two ago, and the movie is a wonderful adaptation. Strayed made the journey a few years after her mother died, an event that left her drowning in grief and barreling toward self-destruction. What I appreciated about the book was that Strayed didn't offer any particular lesson from being in the wild. Her conclusion was kind of an anti-conclusion. There's no lesson, no shortcut. Just putting one foot in front of the other will eventually get you where you want to be. Watching the movie it was also clear how she just removed herself from the world she was getting worse and worse at functioning in, and she replaced the painful experiences she was putting herself through with a different kind of painful experience—a healthier, more physical pain that actually took her somewhere.

There were two things I missed in the movie, though. One, strangely enough, is that in the book, Strayed mentions masturbation. I wouldn't really expect a mainstream movie to include this, but omitting it was a lost opportunity to be forthright about a kind of stupidly taboo subject.

The second is that the movie doesn't linger over the hiking. We see her hiking for maybe a minute at a time before something happens or she has a flashback. Again, I realize that for a mainstream release, no producer is going to trust the audience to endure more than 60 seconds of quiet. But as a result you never get the feel of what it was like to be on this hike, forging ahead in sometimes numbing boredom and discomfort. The WWII movie The Thin Red Line did a good job of conveying this kind of boredom in the context of war; anyone who saw the movie will remember vividly the endless shots of susurrating grasses waving in the wind as the soldiers wait for action:

And the backpacking movie The Loneliest Planet is almost excruciating in its patience in relaying the feel of a long trip:

Wild could have benefitted from some of this languor. But these are small complaints. The movie's great—well-crafted and moving. And there's something very, very cool about seeing this girl in her plain shorts and tee-shirt, trudging along, especially if you've hiked or backpacked yourself and relate to the constant fight with your feet and the tactics you use to get up with a heavy pack on your back. She's not a type or a decoration or a plot device or a historical fantasy or a comic performer. She's a normal American young woman being normal, and it's not till you see it that you realize how rare this is.

January 2, 2015


They get a bad rap, but voiceovers—where a character in a movie or show talks in a kind of disembodied voice—are handy. They convey information without that information having to be dramatized, which is what some dislike about them; but does every bit of information have to be dramatized or stuffed awkwardly into dialogue? Plus voiceovers are authentic: we think as we go about our day, inwardly commenting on the plot of our lives. And additionally voiceovers put us inside the consciousness of the main character. Any technique can be overused or handled clunkily, but this one doesn't deserve its lowly reputation.

January 1, 2015

Let's Start the Year with a Little Larceny

My favorite song of 2014 was the closing cut of U2’s new album Songs of Innocence. Though I generally avoid poaching content, I'll hedge my bets here because the song, “The Troubles,” is so powerful.

Lyrics are hard to just read without the music to inform them. Sometimes this is especially true of good lyrics, which are often oblique and, well, lyrical. The songs sounds unlike anything else U2 has done, and the lead vocals are flat-out brilliant and innovative—and supported beautifully by Lykke Li on the chorus.

Some notes on the lyrics follow, but first here they are:

“The Troubles”
(U2 feat. Lykke Li)

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me and hurt me some more
I can live with denial
But you’re not my troubles anymore


You think it’s easier
To give up on the trouble
If the trouble is destroying you
You think it’s easier
But before you threw me a rope
It was the one thing I could hold on to

I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me then hurt me some more
I can live with denial
But you’re not my troubles anymore


God knows it’s not easy
Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain
God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

We know the Troubles in Irish culture means the period of violence in Northern Ireland (and sometimes Ireland itself) in the 1970s and 1980s that left a legacy for years after. The lyrics here refer to a personal Troubles. Although they can speak to any traumatic event that leaves the victim struggling to break free, Bono’s liner notes hint at the inspiration of the song:

“Dreams are not always safe places,  neither are places deemed to be safe. Some can live with cruelty and abuse. Some have to . . .  when the children of any church aren’t served but instead enslaved by an abuse of power, extraordinary acts of atonement are required to put things back together . . . Honesty is just the starting point . . . secrets can make you sick.”
The sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is about as tragic a story as can be imagined. This song takes place right in the heart of a survivor, now grown, struggling to reclaim everything. The song offers a vision of doing just that, reconnecting with our God-given dignity and sovereignty:

God knows it’s not easy
Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain
God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed


August 5, 2014

It's Here: Outlander

The first episode is available online from Starz and on demand, and it was everything a fan could hope for. Great production values and a fantastic Claire. This is a character with a personality, not just a generic pretty woman. And the actor playing Jamie looks pretty great as well.

Also, for those interested, here is a link to a great little article on why Outlander is so good, and so good for women:

“Outlander” Is The Feminist Answer To “Game Of Thrones” — And Men Should Be Watching It Too

July 17, 2014

RIP Elaine Stritch, Doyenne of Broadway

Many of us aspire to the epithet "salty broad" but few attain it. Elaine Stritch did.

July 14, 2014

Plutarch's Consolation to His Wife

Every once in a while I'm taken back to this letter, written by Plutarch to his wife around 100 AD/CE on the occasion of their two-year-old daughter's death. It played an important part in my life at a time when I was mourning the loss of something that had brought incredible joy into my life and was now gone. This piece of the letter, in particular, warns that excessive mourning will lead to the loss of our past in addition to the loss of our future with the beloved and that we mustn't let our pain turn the very existence of the beloved into a curse:

"Do, however, try to carry yourself back in your thoughts and return again and again to the time when this little child was not yet born and we had as yet no complaint against Fortune; next try to link this present time with that as though our circumstances had again become the same. For, my dear wife, we shall appear to be sorry that our child was ever born if our conduct leads us to regard the state of things before her birth as preferable to the present. Yet we must not obliterate the intervening two years from our memory; rather, since they afforded us delight and enjoyment of her, we should credit them to the account of pleasure; and we should not consider the small good a great evil, nor, because Fortune did not add what we hoped for, be ungrateful for what was given. For reverent language toward the Deity and a serene and uncomplaining attitude toward Fortune never fail to yield an excellent and pleasant return; while in circumstances like these he who in greatest measure draws upon his memory of past blessings and turns his thought toward the bright and radiant part of his life, averting it from the dark and disturbing part, either extinguishes his pain entirely, or by thus combining it with its opposite, renders it slight and faint. For just as perfume, while always a delight to the smell, serves on occasion to counteract foul odours, so the thought of our blessings has in time of trouble a further, necessary, use: it is an antidote in the hands of those who do not shun the remembrance of happiness and do not insist on reproaching Fortune in everything."

June 4, 2014

Lo Ciento Que Con Goofs

A friend of mine who's learning Spanish appended this to the end of an email in which he was trying to use his new Spanish skills. I'm finding this a useful phrase for many things in life.

May 29, 2014

Novel of the Year

Light spoilers.

Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, came at an opportune moment in my life. After spending years looking for the "Not Tested on Animals" label on products in a desultory manner, I decided to do some research and found out just how little that phrase means. It can go on products from companies that subcontract out their testing or that buy their ingredients from suppliers that test. Finally landing upon the Leaping Bunny certification website, I found that only a few mainstream beauty companies' products are completely free from testing: Paul Mitchell hair products, Burt's Bees, The Body Shop, Urban Decay, and a few others. And I resolved to buy only from those companies.

The existence of animal testing in the U.S. is curious. We are a country that loves animals. We share our lives with our pets, care for them when they're sick, take them out for exercise when we're sick, roughhouse with them when we'd rather sit on the couch. All over my neighborhood, probably like yours, poor sods troop through the mud to walk their dogs when it's pouring rain. We post photos of kittens and puppies online and are genuinely, deeply moved when we watch videos of cross-species friendship, be it between a goat and a donkey or a dog and a baby. We know that there is something precious, even holy, at work here.

And then we go to the store and pay companies to torture animals.

The twentieth century has been called an age of horrors because of the multiple genocidal acts that plagued it. But it also saw the rise of an unprecedented attention to the rights and well-being of others. The intensity of our moral gaze deepened and spread, from women to children to gays to the poor. And to animals. It's clear to us how contradictory it was for the ancient Greeks and Romans to expound on ethics while taking slavery for granted. For the Victorians to  moralize while sending children to work in factories. Just so, generations to come may scratch their heads at our blithe acceptance of torturing animals for the sake of eyeshadow or laundry detergent. We can connect, morally, the slaves and the slaveowners, the children workers and the rich industrialist. But we don't connect ourselves to the animals we pay other people to torture.

This disconnect is the starting point for Karen Joy Fowler's powerful new novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Rosemary is five years old when her sister Fern is mysteriously sent away from the family. Fern and Rosemary had been almost like twins: nearly the same age, constant companions. But, in an early reveal that I hate to uncover here, we learn that Fern is a chimp that her parents brought into the family when Rosemary was born in order to study their comparative development. Both Fern and Rosemary have spent nearly every waking hour of their lives in each other's company, and when Fern is sent away (for reasons that are slowly revealed throughout the book), Rosemary is devastated, not only by the loss of Fern but by the anger and eventual disappearance of her beloved older brother.

The rest of the novel tracks the effect of Fern's departure on the family. And while Fowler's plot is strong, it constitutes only one portion of the genius of her novel. The novel delves deeply into issues that have rarely been treated in literature, like attachment. Attachment, in the technical sense, refers to the psycho-physiological state that results from the steady, reliable presence of a particular person or people in one's life. It is the foundation of health for humans; babies who are not able to attach to a parent figure (because of neglect, for example) develop, essentially, permanent brain damage . Literature often deals with grief and pain from loss or death. But I can think of only one other novel that, obliquely, deals with the fallout from broken attachment: the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, in which all humans are connected from birth to a "daemon" animal by a thread of soul.

Because Fowler's theme is our interconnectedness, she never lets Fern out of her sight. The agony of the novel is not just the life of Rosemary's family without Fern but the terrible glimpses they have into Fern's life without them. The role of sight, the imagery of windows and mirrors, is key to Fowler's art. Rosemary's brother Lowell, who left home as a teenager to try to find Fern and became an animal activist, says it this way: "The world runs . . . on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery. People know it, but they don't mind what they don't see. Make them look and they mind, but you're the one they hate because you're the one who made them look."

If this sounds like a difficult novel, it is. But, unlike the pain of animals caged and tortured for bubble bath, it's not a pointless pain. The novel is rewarding, which is the best thing you can say about a work of art. And it's complex and literary in more ways than could be recounted in one sitting. Like Cloud Atlas, it's a novel about morality, about "issues," and yet manages to be a complete work of art, never for a moment becoming a tract or essay. Like Cloud Atlas, it's a novel I'll treasure for both its artistry and heart.

May 28, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Some books you don't remember after you read them. Some books you remember, but you don't remember reading them. Some books you not only remember but remember reading. Those are the special ones.
I was lucky to grow up in a more permissive age in terms of school curricula. We read this book in either 11th grade or 12th grade and I was captivated. I had never read anything like it. And I still remember, all these years later, how it FELT to read the book. It felt like a window open.
I also remember reading out loud the hilarious church service scene to my parents on a road trip. Snorting and barely able to get the words out.
In an early passage, the book tells how transforming it was for Maya to encounter Shakespeare. And I always wondered how it felt to her to know that SHE had written a book that affected people in the same way. That she actually accomplished that elusive thing: to produce a work of art that people loved and were transformed by.
God bless, Maya.

May 26, 2014

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality

This fascinating book shows how today's fan culture (and more) arose from literary history, in particular the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Middle-Earth. The consequences of these works on modern Western culture has been huge and varied but here's just one thing that author Michael Saler points out: The construction of elaborate, realistic imaginary worlds "helped to legitimate the idea that Western adults could indulge their imaginations without losing their reason." They (re)introduced the idea of play as part of high culture.

And this is the dominant note of culture today. I'd go so far as to say that in the second decade of the twenty-first century, you can't be considered an intellectual or a cultured person if you don't appreciate fantasy, pop culture, and fandom. And if you've got a Loki action figure or a Yoda pez dispenser on your desk, thank Arthur Conan Doyle.

May 19, 2014

Because I Can

And so can you. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just put up high-res images of a ton of its collection on its website for free download and use. Gong Xian, here's to you:

Landscapes of the Twelve Months

May 16, 2014

Man on Wire

Great movie poster, or greatest movie poster ever??

Nearly forty years ago, in August 1974, an amazing event took place. A Frenchman named Philippe Petit snuck into the World Trade Center in New York, had his friends string a wire between the two towers, and walked across it without a harness or any other safety device. I say "walked," but really he skipped, jumped, and otherwise cavorted in ways that no human should be able to.

This stunning act is related in the documentary film Man on Wire. Watching it all these years later, you sense that you the viewer, who is simply watching pixels and knows that Petit survived, is more terrified than Petit ever was.

Petit is making the rounds on radio and TV in anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of his achievement. He also has a new book out. But there is no substitute for watching this movie, which documents not only the walk but the incredible logistics involved in preparation for it. The WTC has become a symbol of great sadness since 9/11. This film is a chance to celebrate it in a moment of joy and wonder.

May 7, 2014


Here's a movie that I saw in the 1980s that was one of my favorite movies of the decade and is, as far as I can tell, completely unavailable. It's about an herbalist in medieval France who is beautiful and the object of suspicion of the church. When a rigid priest comes to town, she is increasingly in the crosshairs of his anti-witch crusade. It has the same feel as The Return of Martin Guerre and has one of the best denouements ever, really powerful and perfect.

I didn't realize until I looked it up yesterday that it was directed by a woman, Suzanne Schiffman, who has done little directing work and yet created this masterpiece. Here's the IMDb link for those interested.

May 5, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

This documentary has been garnering a lot of attention for its fascinating origin story. A young historian, John Maloof, looking for historical photos for his book, bought a few boxes of negatives from a local auction. He found a treasure trove of great photography by a woman named Vivian Maier. He soon began archiving the images and researching Vivian's life. She turned out to be  a strange figure who worked as a nanny for forty years, secretive in the extreme and mercurial to her charges, many of whom Maloof tracked down and interviewed for what became this documentary.

I always fear that documentaries will give me good information but not be interesting to watch. This one is interesting as a movie as well as a story. But it would have been great if all it had done was show Maier's photographs, one after the other, for an hour. In the end [slight spoiler here], it shows how great a cost mental illness is to both individuals and their culture. It's maddening, really.

To see a selection of Maier's great photography, click here.

May 3, 2014

Gustave Caillebotte

Just got a nice art book on Caillebotte, one of my all-time favorite painters. He combines the naturalistic gestures and body postures of Renoir with some of the compositional elements of Seurat and the attention to everyday workers and diagonal angles of Degas. Here are my three fave paintings of his:

April 30, 2014

Poem in Your Pocket Day

That's today, so here is my poem in my virtual pocket. It's by George Meredith, one of my all-time favorite poets:

A wind sways the pines,
         And below
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
         And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
         Even we,
         Even so.

April 23, 2014

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park is a great addition to the YA canon. In a field recently dominated by the supernatural, it's a welcome dose of realism, much like The Fault in Our Stars.

Park is a high school student of middling social status. He feels vulnerable because of his half-Korean ancestry, but he has friends in every clique and maintains a respectable dignity and social life. Eleanor, on the other hand, is new to the school and a mess. She dresses in odd, patched-up clothing, her big red hair is wild, and she radiates weirdness, and not in the coolly eccentric way—in the wounded gazelle way that makes her a target for every mean-spirited teenage predator.

There's much to love about this novel. Park and Eleanor begin a friendship that grows into romance in small, believable steps. Behind Eleanor's odd appearance is just the kind of neglect, poverty, and violence that is so often invisible to the outside world. Most of all, I loved how Park struggled with embarrassment over Eleanor's appearance and fear that associating with her would lower his social status.

Park's embarrassment is fleeting, which is, I suspect, a bit of forgivable idealization. As much as we may make distinctions between realistic novels and escapist novels, so-called realism can be just as romanticized as fantasy. Park is as perfect a boyfriend as Peeta or Four. He finds her excess weight sensual and her weirdo clothes endearing. And when she is targeted for bullying, his response is pure concern for Eleanor, impervious to shame or self-regard.

This is not a bad thing for a YA novel, or any novel. The sense of body shame in women and girls is out of control in our society. We need to be reminded that being normal is in fact normal and you don't need to be pretty to be happy. I suspect, though, when the book is turned into a movie, that the producers will pull a Hermione and cast a red-haired beauty, letting the unruly hair and worn clothes stand in for plainness. As an antidote, Google "Eleanor and Park" images and enjoy the fan art, which is gorgeous in its true realism.

April 17, 2014

RIP García Márquez

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.

Many years later, standing in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that long-ago afternoon when his father took him to see ice for the first time.

April 13, 2014

Cult Novels

I'm trying to catch up on the experimental novelists that are cult favorites. In such pursuit, I've recently read:

Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

And have put these novels on my list:

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
Neuromancer, by William Gibson

What else do I need to add to my to-read list?

April 5, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor

On Tuesday, April 8, the final installment in the Daughter of Smoke and Bones trilogy will be released. It's been a long time since I've been this excited about a release date!

April 2, 2014

Why We Read Fiction, by Lisa Zunshine


Strictly for book nerds, Zunshine's book expounds on the application of Theory of Mind to literature. Theory of Mind is the activity of assigning a kind of reliability rating to information based on how that information was delivered to us. This involves "source tagging," in which we keep track of who said what, also called "metarepresentation."

Zunshine talks about the evolutionary importance of source tagging and how literature allows us to exercise our metarepresentative muscles. This is, for her, one of the chief pleasures of literature because it allows us the joy of using abilities that we have and gives us the reassurance that we are good at using them.  Metarepresentation is so constant in our thinking that we are barely aware of its existence, but certain types of literature—like rich psychological novels and detection fiction—really take it out to the jungle gym for a workout.

My favorite part of the book was the section on Lolita. Zunshine explains that our minds can't deal with excessive unreliability, a situation in which almost everything is untrue. We aren't made to function in that type of environment. We are made to pick out individual statements of an obviously dubious nature. This explains why we are more likely to be skeptical of a friend who tells us our outfit is bad than of a stranger who tells us an astounding story about his identity with a straight face. And it explains why so many readers, past and present, continue to view Lolita as the story of a tempting nymphet rather than of a brutal pedophile. Every reader knows that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, but that doesn't keep many from still, still, absorbing his version of events. This is because Nabokov is such a damn good writer and uses every trick at his disposal to subtly encourage us to identify with Humbert's point of view.  Zunshine takes us on a little history tour of the novel's marketing past as well, quoting editions and reviewers that claimed it was literature's "most authentic" love story.

Zunshine also tells of the reception of Richardson's Clarissa back in the day. Clarissa ended up as a kind of 18th-century Lolita in that readers failed to see through the author's all-too-clever narrative techniques. Richardson was so upset by readers' celebration of his loathsome protagonist, Robert Lovelace—an aristocratic lothario who spends the entire novel orchestrating Clarissa's ruin—that he actually rewrote the novel to make Lovelace more obviously villainous.

I should mention that the book is occasionally on the dry side. For those concerned about this, you may instead want to watch the video I ran into during an online search. Also a treatise on Theory of Mind and literature, it has the more promising title "Why Does Fiction Work? Hint: Boobs."

March 29, 2014

Guess the Source

Here are some nice lines from recent novels I've read:

Of a woman, a longtime spy by profession, who survives a stabbing:
"She did not die on the doorstep. She had not died more times than she could count."

Closely observed nature:
"A few persistent weeds had sprung up in the cracks between the paving stones, but they'd withered to sepia wisps."

Self-explanatory, this one:
"Early morning is the best part of the day. . . . It's the only part of the day we haven't already mucked up with our fretting and strutting and carrying on."

A conversation between sisters, one of whom was cautious and one not:
"'You always put things at risk. If you fell out of a tree as a child, I'd clean you up and bandage your knees, and next I looked you'd be out climbing again. You never learned your lesson.' Oh, she'd learned her lesson: Climb harder."

Sources? All romance novels:

The Black Hawk, by Joanna Bourne
The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan
The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, by Grace Burrowes
The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

March 26, 2014

Remedial Math for Kim Kardashian

So Kim Kardashian met with Alexander McQueen's designer Sarah Burton to work on her wedding dress. The resulting dress, according to Kim, made her feel like a "real-life Carrie Bradshaw." Here's the thing, though. In the first Sex in the City movie, Carrie buys a simple, tea-length dress to marry Big at the courthouse. It is only when Carrie is photographed for Vogue wearing poofy designer dresses that she ditches her modest plan in favor of a big princessy wedding with tons of guests, a cathedral site, and, yes, a beautiful, statement designer dress. And this decision—to go big and public—RUINS HER RELATIONSHIP. The entire point of the movie is that she should have eschewed the designer dress and the public eye!! 

Designer Wedding = Misery

Simple, Love-Focused Wedding = Happiness