January 31, 2012

The Case for Historical Leeway---or Not

It’s Oscar season, and I’m rooting for Viola Davis. I loved The Help. Its humor and humanity (and great acting) drew crowds, and people got important history. Though it may have been too perky a portrayal of the era, it’s the only way most people will get any portrayal. It’s not like, if The Help didn’t exist, crowds would instead run to view The History of Lynching or Worst Atrocities of the Civil Rights Era instead.

But, still, overly optimistic portrayals like this present dangers. One is that the generally positive phenomenon of identification (“I like this character, and I am like this character”) can go too far and blind us to our likely behavior under the same circumstances. We’d all like to think we’d be the maids or the journalistic heroine in The Help, but most of us would be the oppressors. Our current sympathy makes us think we would have been sympathetic then. But the only real way to test ourselves is to ask what causes are currently on the table, and how are we reacting to those causes.  

The other danger is not understanding how brutal a fight civil rights was. If you got your history through movies, it would appear that African Americans in the South had a white champion on every corner during the civil rights era. That’s why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie can imagine that civil rights would have passed state referendums! Liberals often get targeted as elitists, but I tell you, sometimes it helps to read a book.  

January 30, 2012

Fan Freakout: The Hobbit Trailer

The Lord of the Rings movies were a miracle of successful adaptation. Nonetheless, in the second and especially the third films, I felt director Peter Jackson being lured ever more by the videogame aesthetic: shots of cool maneuvers that were more Bioware than Tolkien.

So I was wary about the upcoming film of The Hobbit. As a children's book and the volume most dense with the charm of hobbitlore, it needs a treatment that is less violent, more atmospheric, more fairy tale, more . . . hobbitty. All the while retaining the note of high seriousness that is its peculiar achievement.

After seeing the movie trailer last weekend, and the dwarves gathered in the dusky hobbit-hole singing their ancient, haunting songs, I am more than allayed---I'm counting the days.

January 27, 2012

5 Great Plots: Friday

Girl falls dangerously and deeply in love with dark, mysterious boy. (Tristan and Isolde, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Twilight)

January 26, 2012

5 Great Plots: Thursday

A blind woman wakes up from eye surgery, with temporary blue lenses in place to ease her transition to vision. She can see the people in her life---husband, caring nurse---for the first time. But what she sees is their essence, their character, in animal form rather than their physical selves.  ("Blue Lenses," by Daphne du Maurier)

January 25, 2012

5 Great Plots: Wednesday

A woman places the following personal ad in The New York Review of Books:

Before I turn 67—next March—I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.

(A Round-Heeled Woman, by Jane Juska)

January 24, 2012

5 Great Plots: Tuesday

A shepherd is killed, and his sheep decide to find his killer. (Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann)

January 23, 2012

5 Great Plots: Monday

The groomsmen lock the groom in a coffin in the woods at a bachelor party, to repay him for all his practical jokes on them. They go off to party while the groom suffers for a bit---and are all killed in a car accident.  (Dead Simple, by Peter James)

January 20, 2012

You Want an Anti-Hero?

I got yer anti-hero right here: Roger Brown, protagonist of Jo Nesbo's Headhunters. Other mystery writers may claim that they like writing flawed characters, but this usually means a middle-aged guy with a paunch and a drinking problem, a grown daughter he's estranged from because his police work makes him late to all their get-togethers, an ex-wife that he disappointed one too many times. You haven't seen flawed till you've met Roger Brown.

January 18, 2012

Fan Freakout: Betty White's Off Their Rockers

Last night, during the balloon segment of this TV show, I laughed harder than I have in my entire life.

It wasn't even laughter. It was uncontrollable screeching.

January 17, 2012

How to Write a Language

I'm so impressed by those authors who undertake not only the creation of a specific literary world but of a language as well. The best example I know of such a thing is David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, in which he creates not one imaginary language but three or four, each one as convincing as the last.

Another example is a novel I just discovered, a YA novel called The Knife of Never Letting Go. Teenager protagonist, check. Post-apocalyptic nightmare, check. But this one is special, because humans have had their thoughts rendered audible to each other. They walk through their days surrounded by Noise, the accumulative inner monologues of everyone around them. They try to fight off the constant racket while angling to keep some privacy for themselves. The way the author renders this is really impressive and creative.

January 16, 2012

"Why grucchen we?"

Well asked, Chaucer!

I just finished The Knight's Tale, and it was quite a revelation. Having only read bits and pieces in college, I remembered The Canterbury Tales primarily as short stories with funny or bawdy themes. The Knight's Tale is long but also movingly philosophical, with passages reminiscent of Roman philosophy, Dante, even Chidiock Tichborne. Here is a passage where the god Saturn describes himself to a supplicant (followed by my rough translation):

'My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne,
Hath more power than wot any man.   
Myn is the drenching in the see so wan;
Myn is the prison in the derke cote;
Myn is the strangling and hanging by the throte;
The murmure, and the cherles rebelling,
The groyning, and the pryvee empoysoning:   
[. . .]
Myn is the ruine of the hye halles,
The falling of the toures and of the walles
Up-on the mynour or the carpenter.   
I slow Sampsoun in shaking the piler;
And myne be the maladyes colde,
The derke tresons, and the castes olde;  
My loking is the fader of pestilence.

My course, that has so wide to turn
Has more power than knows any man.
Mine is the drenching in the sea so wan;
Mine is the prison in the dark cell;
Mine is the strangling and hanging by the throat;
The murmur, and the churls' rebelling,
The groaning, and the private poisoning:
[. . .]
Mine is the ruin of the high halls,
The falling of the tours and of the walles
Upon the miner or the carpenter.
I slew Sampson in shaking the pile;
And mine be the maladies cold,
The dark treasons, and the plots old;
My face is the father of pestilence.

Yowza. That encantatory repetition, "Mine is the prison . . .  Mine is the strangling," is so powerful. And here is Theseus's father providing comfort to his son after the death of Arcite:

'Right as ther deyed never man,' quod he,
'That he ne livede in erthe in som degree,
Right so ther livede never man,' he seyde,   
'In al this world, that som tyme he ne deyde.
This world nis but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we ben pilgrimes, passinge to and fro [. . .]'  

There is no man that died, quoth he,
That he didn't live on earth in some degree,
And there is no man that lived, he said,
In all this world, that at some point is not dead.
This world is but a thoroughfare full of woe,
And we are pilgrims, passing to and fro [. . .].

Later Theseus gives advice to Palamon and Emelye, the cousin and fiancee of Arcite, to enjoy life and, in fact, to marry rather than stew in grief:

This maistow understonde and seen at eye.
'Lo the ook, that hath so long a norisshinge  
From tyme that it first biginneth springe,  
And hath so long a lyf, as we may see,
Yet at the laste wasted is the tree.   
'Considereth eek, how that the harde stoon
Under our feet, on which we trede and goon,
Yit wasteth it, as it lyth by the weye.
The brode river somtyme wexeth dreye.
The grete tounes see we wane and wende.   
Than may ye see that al this thing hath ende.  
'Of man and womman seen we wel also,

This mayest thou understand and see at eye.
Lo the oak, that has so long a nourishing
From time that it first began to grow,
And hath so long a life, as we may see,
Yet at the last wasted is the tree.
Considereth also, how that the hard stone
Under our feet, on which we trod and go,
Yet wasteth it, as it lieth by the way.
The broad river sometimes grows dry.
The great towns see we wane and go.
Then may ye see that all things have end,
Of man and woman see we well also.

There is something so evocative about the phrasing of "wasted is the tree." Theseus concludes that we should not lament fate:

'Thanne is it wisdom, as it thinketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it wel, that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
[. . .]
The contrarie of al this is wilfulnesse.
Why grucchen we? why have we hevinesse,
That good Arcite, of chivalrye flour
Departed is, with duetee and honour,   
Out of this foule prison of this lyf?

Then it is wisdom, as thinketh me,
To make virtue of necessity,
And take it well, that we may not eschew,
All that to us is due.
[. . .]
The contrary of all this is willfulness.
Why complain we? Why have we heaviness,
That good Arcite, of chivalry the flower,
Departed is, with duty and honor,
Out of the foul prison of this life.

I just love "Why grucchen we?" And I wonder if Chaucer is the author of the now well-known phrase "to make a virtue of necessity," or if this was already a saying that he simply employs here like an adage.

January 13, 2012

Shilling: Photographer Richard Wellons

Wellons is a DC photographer whose beautiful work can be found here.  Much of it is travel photography, but unlike any travel photography you've seen.

January 12, 2012

Get Your Paper On

As e-books take over, publishers will still find a place for hard copy books, and that place is the book as art object. Even now there are several series of beautiful editions of classic works:  the Landmark series by the Free Press, which produces gorgeous volumes of classic history like Thucydides and Herodotus; White's Fine Editions, which produces cloth-bound editions of classics like Dickens and Austen; and the Annotated Pride and Prejudice, which has Austen's text on the versos and notes and commentary on the rectos.

January 11, 2012

The Shipping News

Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is just one of an impressive slew of novels set in Canada, including many mysteries and novels-with-a-mystery-edge. Two of the best from recent years are Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves and Giles Blunt's Forty Words for Sorrow. These novels combine so many great elements: cold, snow, danger, endurance, mystery. Just that string of words alone is great. I could open a novel whose entire contents was


and I'd enjoy it. 

The Shipping News encompasses many of these elements and (slight spoiler alert) one of my favorite themes as well: the struggle of someone who is deeply, deeply steeped in sorrow and the possibility of emergence into happiness.

January 10, 2012

Tinker Tailor's Perfection Problem

This year's new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a lovely movie. Great acting by a cast of British superstars (Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong), artsy cinematography and set design, capable direction. And yet I couldn't wait for it to end, was always slightly bored. The sum was less than its parts.

Is it possible for a movie to be perfect and yet not add up to much? I can think of a dozen movies that are wildly uneven but much more interesting to watch: Pineapple Express, The Village, Enemy at the Gates. I can think of genuinely bad movies that are more interesting to watch. They have something, in the midst of their garbage, that has a spark or newness. And it's not just a matter of humor or big explosions; there are some torturously slow and almost empty movies that I love, like The Thin Red Line or A Single Man.

Perhaps below its smooth surface Tinker Tailor is not as good as it appears to be, or perhaps I have only a mild interest in the virtues it does display. Gary Oldman's George Smiley is almost completely without affect, and while Smiley's dowdiness is part of the charm of the novel, its bureaucrat-as-mastermind appeal, there has to be something there. The suspects are one-noted, like Toby Jones's resentful Percy Alleline and Ciaran Hind's dark Roy Bland. Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch provide nearly the only sparks of life.

It's also possible that what made it a good novel gets lost in adaptation. Tinker Tailor was a meaty novel, and like many mysteries the main character's thinking is actually the star of the book. Page by page you follow a great, creative mind in action. And as a glimpse back to a low-tech world, it's fun to see what people can do with just a hidden mic and nerves of steel. But in this movie, that process feels less like thinking and more like playing out a set of cards.

January 9, 2012

A Vindication of Love . . . for Men

Art for women. It's a tricky term, but we all know what it means: He's Just Not That into You, Eat Pray Love, Jane Eyre. And its place in our culture is tricky too. It's derided both as silly/inconsequential/precious and occasionally as dangerous, a sign of women's enslavement to notions of romance.

But this post by Brendan Tapley at slate.com, entitled "How Downton Abbey Cured My Broken Heart," is a rare look at the power of this kind of art. In it, Tapley reclaims for his sex the primacy of love in life and art, the dignity of such storytelling, and its power.

January 6, 2012

Shilling: Le Ton Beau de Marot

For those who love language, this book by Douglas Hofstadter is a candy store. Hofstadter wrote Godel, Escher, Bach, a huge cult hit, and followed up with this fascinating volume on the complexities of translation.

January 5, 2012

The Canterbury Tales

Picking an edition is one of the most challenging parts of reading any work from Middle English. ME is not totally unreadable, as Old English is. Nor is it easily readable, as Shakespeare is. For The Canterbury Tales, the premier piece of Middle English literature, there are three approaches to the language problem.

The first is simply to reproduce the original language. With notes, if you're lucky. This is the approach of the Norton Critical Edition, and the first lines read like this:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droughte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;

Thankfully for the reader, Norton provides modern translations of difficult words in the right margin as well as explanatory notes at the bottom of page.

The second approach is to update the spelling, which seems to be the case in the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature:

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flowr;

The third approach is a complete modern English translation. The one by Nevill Coghill in the Penguin Classics edition strikes a nice balance:

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower

A 2008 translation by Burton Raffel seems unnecessarily extreme:

When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers
Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power
To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers
That spring has always spread across these fields

Missing among these choices is an edition that thoroughly updates the spelling while strictly adhering to the word choices and order. Something like this:

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engendered is the flower;

January 4, 2012

Inventing English

This volume is by Seth Lerer, the famed lecturer of "The History of the English Language" for the Teaching Company. It's not a comprehensive history but a series of essays on turning points in the language.

In one chapter Lerer notes that, during the Great Vowel Shift, words that included -ea- went from an "ay" pronunciation to an "ee" pronunciation. So meat was originally pronounced like "mate" and shifted to our present-day "meet" sound.

But, Lerer notes, there are precisely five words in English that didn't make the shift. Four are nouns, and one is a proper name. If you want to test yourself, make your guesses and scroll down to the small type below.


(Answers: great, break, steak, yea, and Reagan all retained the long "ay" sound.)

January 3, 2012

A Vindication of Love

This book is worth reading for the introduction alone. While the main chapters look at romance in the works and lives of Dante, Abelard and Heloise, George Sand, and many others, the intro is more than literary analysis: it's paradigm-shifting. Cristina Nehring challenges all our modern suspicions about romantic love, tackling in particular its association with weakness. If you were told that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, this book will send you back to the bike shop. Love as strength, love as creativity, love as adventure, love as ourselves, part of our deepest nature. And it is this birthright which feminism is duty-bound to restore to us, just as in recent years it has restored to good graces the experience of motherhood and homemaking.

January 2, 2012

Shilling: Angels & Insects

This 1995 film by Philip Haas was adapted from A. S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia. Centered on a young scientist based on Charles Darwin, it is the story of his involvement with a rich family whose patriarch is funding his research. Ultimately, it's about his journey to self-knowledge, the most important journey any of us can take.

January 1, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

One of the many fantastic things about this adaptation:  the way that Daniel Craig plays his character, Mikael Blomkvist, without a trace of JamesBondness, that stylized disregard for social convention that involves steely gazes, a lack of emotional affect, and the avoidance of such social greasers as the words "hello" and "goodbye." This character smiles when introduced, keeps up normal chatter, and acts scared when shot at.

It's become a cinematic joke that people in the movies never say "bye" on the phone; they just hang up. But that's just one instance, a stand-in for all the small ways in which movie behavior is unnatural. For the most part, movie characters are more composed and less verbal than real people, to the point where seeing realistic behavior in a movie character can be jarring and look wrong.

A favorite example of this is Ashton Kutcher's acting in The Butterfly Effect. In this film his character repeatedly re-makes decisions from his past in an attempt to avoid a sad outcome that has happened in the real world. But his choices produce unintended consequences, causing him to struggle back to point zero and try again. After one attempt, he wakes up the next morning to find himself in bed, paralyzed. He realizes his state and, wide-eyed, exclaims "What the fuck!" Roger Ebert criticized this reaction, saying that Kutcher sounded like a frat boy who had just spilled beer at a party.

There are lots of ways this scene could have been written and played. I imagine Roger Ebert's preferred sequence to be something like this: It's a middle-aged man on the table, De Niro or Sean Penn. He wakes up, realizes his condition, and . . . blinks. A muscle in his neck pulses. He presses his lips together for a moment only.

This, for lots and lots of people, is great acting. But if it were you or me on that bed, waking up to find ourselves paralyzed, we would totally bug out and scream "What the fuck!" Anyone would. We're not made to react to events like a superhero or a soldier under interrogation. It's unnatural, and a film that shows characters acting in that way is indulging in a very stylized and unrealistic approach to character.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. We as viewers like to identify with characters who are like us but better: tougher, wittier, more composed, smarter, what have you. It's a game of psychological identification, where we get to imagine ourselves in challenging situations but remain masters of ourselves. That's a major appeal of all storytelling, from Hansel and Gretel to Aliens.  But it makes the kind of naturalistic acting you see in Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist all the more valuable for its rarity.