March 30, 2015

Code Name Verity

There are novels that you love, even if they aren't great (for me, Twilight). There are novels that you think are great, even if you don't love them (say, Cosmopolis). Then there are those rare novels that you both love and think are great.

Code Name Verity is one of those for me. It's the story of two young women during World War II, one of whom is a pilot and the other a German-language interrogator. They are English, and best friends. Light spoilers: They end up stranded in France, one hiding with members of the French resistance and one in the hands of the Nazis.

The author, Elizabeth Wein, builds some impressive architecture here. There is enormous historical detail, but it never fights with the story. She's got two narrative voices—those of her two young friends—that are distinct and realistic. She finds a way to have each girl tell her story as it happens—not an easy task when one is living in a barn and the other in a cell. And she has a clever, oblique method for providing the big picture, little glimpses of what's going on in the next cell (which you'd really rather not know) or how the resistance is made up of both saints and jerks, often within the same individual.

Best of all, these characters do incredibly brave things while never for one minute being anything other than what they are: very talented but also very normal young women at the beginning of their lives, being scared, missing their families, trying to do the right thing but wanting desperately to live.

March 27, 2015

Look Who Turned Up on Midsomer Murders Last Night

Sophie Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch's new bride:

Watching this show is like playing Celebrity Roulette. Who will show up this round??

March 25, 2015

Midsomer Win

The last few Midsomer Murder eps I've watched have been a bit cheesy. For example, there seem to be a plethora of episodes in which hippie girls are prancing around in a vaguely cultish group led by an older man:

But "Sins of Commission" does cheese right. These three losers—

are trying to put the hurt on this lovely elderly lady:

 Barnaby's warning you: Don't mess with this one.

Each one tries to knock her off, one by attacking her in her home, another by pushing her off a roof, and another by pushing her off a pier. Little do they know she was trained by Soviet special ops back in the day, and she power-chops them all to their knees, leading with a backward elbow jab, spinning round to bang them on the head, ultimately killing each one. ELDER NINJA!!

March 24, 2015

Detectives Who Break the Mold

I'm rewatching Midsomer Murders this month and falling in love all over again with John Nettles. As the detective in a rural English county, he's so subtle in his acting: physically restrained but natural, not wooden or overly stoic. His character, Barnaby, is a contented soul. He represents a rare happy medium in the portrayal of detectives: He is neither an outsized personality like Poirot or Sherlock Holmes nor a grizzled cynic like . . . almost everyone else.

Too many TV detectives are almost expressionless in their attempt to convey toughness or even trauma. The most egregious example of this in recent years was Mireille Enos in The Killing. If this woman moved a facial muscle in an entire season of episodes, I didn't see it. That doesn't mean she's a bad actor; it probably means that that's what the producers wanted. In contrast, her co-star Joel Kinnaman was fantastic: natural, but with an actual, specific personality.

Midsomer Murders is firmly within the genre of the English cozy murder mystery, but that's not a bad thing when done well. One of my favorite books series is Martha Grimes' Richard Jury books, somewhat grittier but much in the same vein. The debonair, witty Richard Jury is one of my favorite detectives, whom I fantasy cast with Hugh Grant. He's about the right age, with the right looks, and can deliver a line of dry comedy like nobody's business.

March 18, 2015

Nano-Seminar on Film Composition

Baltimore filmmaker Jacob Swinney put together the first and last shots of a bunch of films, side by side for comparison. It's fun to see how the scenes are either similar or distinct in terms of color palette, content (nature vs. city, person vs. object, an individual vs. a pair or a group), and form (moving image vs. still image, close-up vs. panoramic or mid-range):

‘First and Final Frames’, The Opening and Closing Shots of Dozens of Films Played Out Side by Side

March 17, 2015

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)

I'm in love. This is the second Argentinian movie of the last couple of years that has landed on my all-time-favorite list (the first being The Secret in Their Eyes). Wild Tales is an anthology film, made up of five stories held together by a common theme (but not storyline). In this case the theme is revenge, and writer and director Damián Szifrón makes it sing. The stories have it all: comedy, tragedy, farce, stupidity, pride, romance, privilege. There are grand stages and very intimate ones. There's no overlap here, but knowing that the stories all deal with revenge gives you a little zap of suspense; as each character is introduced, you can't help wondering, Is this going to be the victim? The avenger? Both?

There's something about Wild Tales that reminds me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. A freedom and occasional zaniness that don't erase deeper meanings. Seriousness and farce absolutely entwined. Crafted by a director with a perfect sense of timing and cinematic effect.

I'm especially appreciative of the first 5 or 10 minutes of the movie. It's like the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring (telling the prehistory of Middle Earth and the ring) and the first scene of Casino Royale (which has James Bond chasing a free runner through industrial ruins): A knockout first scene that would alone justify the ticket price.

March 10, 2015

Testy Tuesday

If I am reviewing your poetry submission, here are things I don't want to read about. At all.

—Any wildlife in your backyard, no matter how closely observed

—Your elderly relative who you have wonderful memories of who is now old and whose physical depredations you will recount with an unflinching eye


—Any occurrence of the word "bird" "moon" or "luscious"

March 8, 2015

The Stars of Tomorrow—On Your TV Today

British mystery series are just efficient little incubators for talented actors. I've been rewatching the Poirot reboot of the 2000s and am amazed at who pops up, usually a year or two before they make it big:

Michael Fassbender:

Emily Blunt:

Benedict Cumberbatch:

Rupert Penry-Jones

Tom Mison (practically unrecognizable from his Sleepy Hollow character):

Jessica Chastain:

And don't forget Sam Heughan, though he was on Midsomer Murders:

The list could go on and on: Damian Lewis, Jamie Bamber, Christopher Eccleston, Kelly Reilly, Toby Stephens . . .  It's also fun to guess if guest stars are related to other actors: Lou Broadbent, Serena Scott Thomas, Julian Firth, Peter Penry-Jones. And to read through the credits at the end and chuckle at how little difference there is between the actors' names and character names. Bruce Montague, Oliver Beamish, and Amanda Abbington all sound like they could be Agatha Christie creations.

It was particularly gratifying to see Sam Heughan's turn on Midsomer Murders, since it ended up being one of my favorite episodes of that series, a clever replay of Hamlet.

March 5, 2015

There Will Never Be Any Work of Art Greater Than This

Walking in the deep snow today felt like walking through the greatest cathedral ever made.

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.