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

March 19, 2014

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes


Light spoilers.

This Man Booker-winning novel is narrated by an old man who is looking back on his youth, his friendship with an unusual newcomer named Adrian, and his first big romance with a young woman named Veronica, an enigmatic siren from a wealthy family who puts the narrator, Tony, on edge. Tony torches his relationship with Veronica, who subsequently starts dating Adrian. 

The first half or three-quarters of this novel are really enjoyable, despite one tragic plot point. It's what I was expecting from a witty British novelist: wry tales of a young man's transition to adulthood, sprinkled with psychological and philosophical observations. All good. Maybe a little light for a book that received such critical acclaim.

Then the novel takes a turn. Tony, now an old man, receives a communique that sends him searching the past for answers. He reconnects with a bitter Veronica, who admittedly feels a bit like a tool employed by Barnes to slowly pay out answers; she knows what happened but just drives Tony around to odd places, lets him observe odd interactions, and angrily repeats, "You just don't get it. You never did."

What actually happened is not really as important as Tony's reevaluation of himself. In the first half of the book, he recalls those early events as he experienced them at the time, as a victim of Veronica's perverse cruelty and her family's condescension. Since then, he's had no reason to revisit his own perception of events, and so that narrative has stuck.

Now he does reevaluate. There's a mean-spirited letter he sent to Adrian and Veronica when they started dating, one that shocks him with its cruelty. There are memories that rise to contradict his certainty of Veronica's playful disdain toward him. A dozen little things that he now sees he interpreted in the most unflattering way possible—small moments of uncharity that ultimately had huge repercussions.

The Sense of an Ending reminded me of other works that explore the impact of a youthful, thoughtless mistake: A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, and Atonement, by Ian McEwan. Strangely enough, it also reminded me of an episode of 30 Rock in which Liz recalls how mean some girls were to her in high school and then, upon seeing them at a reunion, realizes that it was she who was the mean one. Such a common moment in later life, to realize what could have been if only you'd been less of an idiot. Add to this Barnes's beautiful structuring of motifs and themes, and those philosophical observations (e.g., guilt is feeling bad for one's actions; remorse is feeling bad for  actions that can now never be fixed or atoned for), and you have a novel that really deserved that Booker.

March 16, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Many auteur directors spend years developing their style and writing, their movies bumping along with a mix of originality and awkwardness. And then, years and years into their career, they make that movie in which everything works. The movie in which they've mastered their own creativity and ironed out their tics and shortcuts. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like that movie for Wes Anderson. He's always been a cult favorite, with Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. But his films tended to be slightly exasperating. His oddball characters could be cloying, and his poetic interludes dragged. The Grand Budapest Hotel pushes past all that with its snappy rhythm and characters who are all likability and irreverent charm. It's beautifully shot and acted, but most of all it's fun. 

A dose of commercialism can be a good tonic for auteur directors, because commercialism involves a kind of balance of the elements of filmmaking. So most turning-point movies are their directors' first huge commercial success as well. Here are some I'd put in that class:

Woody Allen: Annie Hall
John Waters: Hairspray
Mike Leigh: Secrets and Lies
Pedro Almodovar: Matador / Volver
David Cronenberg: A History of Violence / Eastern Promises

March 9, 2014

You Don't Think Miley's a Feminist?

Shakira recently told Billboard Magazine that her boyfriend doesn't "let" her do music videos with men anymore. Think Miley would put up with that s**t?

March 5, 2014

Who Wears the Black Hat?

I'm obsessed with this question: How do we decide what to dislike? This is the unusual topic of Chuck Klosterman's book of essays I Wear the Black Hat. It covers everything from hating certain rock bands (the Eagles) to not hating Muhammad Ali (who smeared the reputation and ruined the career of a good man, Joe Frazier, who had been particularly good to Ali himself). He observes that, regarding problematic TV figures who become fan favorites, "audiences supported whoever the narrative told them was the hero." He makes simple but innovative statements like: Nobody really thought much about TV before the late 1990s. And questions like "How do you know the program you're watching is supposed to be art?"

Klosterman's comments about the cinematic allure of the charming con man made me think about why I like David Mamet's House of Games so much. I like it for the same reason that I like Lolita: It cons the viewer/reader. At the end, you're proved a fool, if you're smart enough to know it. It's amazing to me that there are still people who think Lolita is about the dicey-but-let's-be-honest real attraction of the barely legal rather than the extended kidnapping and rape of a child.

The reader of Lolita is tempted into that former interpretation because Humboldt is sophisticated and clever and Lolita's mother is stupid and insecure. It's fundamentally the same reason every Jane Austen lover hates Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park: She's the one Austen heroine who is good without being witty—and ultimately we'd rather be witty than good.

The nuances of our pop culture judgments are myriad and contradictory. If you like to think about them, Klosterman is a good confabulist.

February 25, 2014

Outlander and Its Spin-Off

Outlander was quite a surprise for me. I'd heard about the novel for years and knew it to be about time-travel. So I was expecting something a little, I don't know, Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. It took me a good hundred pages to realize that it's a flat-out bodice-ripper.

But a great one! When twentieth-century Claire gets transported back to eighteenth-century Scotland, she meets the handsome, strong, gentle (but not too gentle, wink, wink) Jamie Fraser. The plot rips along, danger is confronted and vanquished, episodes of hot sex alternate with passionate fights and soul-searing confessions. It's fantastic in a totally pulpy way.

The novel and its sequels are being made into a series by Starz, and I can't wait. I'm hoping it will be a kind of Game of Thrones with fewer naked women being cross-bowed to death and more hunky Scots with their shirts off.

February 21, 2014

All Hail Holofcener

Film math theorem: Nicole Holofcener = Alexander Payne. 

Both writer-directors of smart and funny dramas. Not epics or genre films. Not tragedies or slapsticks. Depicting ordinary lives: teachers, retirees, salesmen, office workers.

Holofcener's latest is Enough Said, starring one of my primo girl-crushes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and James Gandolfini, in his last role. It's a good place to start if you've never seen Holofcener's films. Lovely & Amazing is another favorite. Almost all of Holofcener's films feature Catherine Keener as well, so that's an automatic win.

February 13, 2014

Women Turning Down Food in Fiction

I'm reading Outlander last night, and I come across this all-too-familiar scene. The heroine of the story, Claire, has time-traveled, almost been raped, forced onto a horse for hours and is thoroughly traumatized. By the time the rough gang of Scots who have abducted her arrive at their clan's castle, it's been more than 24 hours since she has eaten. She has endured all this while wearing a light cotton dress, and when they arrive at the castle in the dark, she stays up several more hours dressing a man's wound before finally collapsing in bed.

When she wakes up the next morning, she "sips" a cup of light broth, but has "no appetite for the bannocks and parritch that Mrs. FitzGibbons had brought for my breakfast, but crumbled a bit and pretended to eat, in order to gain some time for thought." I don't even know what bannocks and parritch are, but I'm 100% sure they're more hearty than a sip of light broth. And she goes on to pretend to eat some crumbs? A bit later she is taken to the laird of the castle, who has a tray of refreshments brought in. Claire "nibble[s] sparingly at these; my stomach was churning too vigorously to allow for any appetite."

I cannot tell you how many time I have read scenes just like this in fiction. It's actually a trope at this point: women in physical distress or exhaustion turning down an offer of food. Why are we so damn afraid to let a female character eat? Why does that enhance her character?

I'm sending out a call here: Help me out and post, in the comments section, any similar passages you come across in novels. Could be a very interesting list.

February 12, 2014

Characters in Time

A few weeks ago I wrote about movie characters who appeared, for a significant chunk of the movie, in at least two different eras in their lives and made those two selves specific and convincing. Here are the two movies that I think do this best of all:

Blue Valentine: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams portray characters at both the beginning and end of a relationship.

Career Girls: A strange but masterful film by Mike Leigh about two college students still forming themselves as people and their meet-up many years later. Like all Mike Leigh films, the naturalistic acting makes you realize how stylized most movie acting really is.

February 11, 2014

Immersion Art

A dark movie theater. A silent museum. The opportunities to be truly immersed in a work of art for any length of time are growing ever rarer. Even when we manage to tear ourselves away from the DVR and the earbuds, the theater has its ads and whispers, and the museum may have crowds, so that you end up straining on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of that Vermeer rather than contemplating it in leisurely wonder.

Which is why it was such a treat last week to take a long drive from Atlanta to Charlotte, wending my way up the Cherokee Highlands Scenic Highway. I stopped at lookouts and hiked to waterfalls. But mostly I just drove through silent mountains and hills and soaked in a great work of art, John Mayer's Continuum. For hours on end, with the CD player set on repeat, I listened. Mayer is not only one of the best guitar players and vocalists, but he's an amazing songwriter. The music is complex, and the lyrics . . . I think he's the best lyricist working today.

And he's a brave lyricist because he attempts, and succeeds at, the most difficult challenge in art: writing about happiness. Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike and all unhappy ones unhappy in their own way, but that's an outright lie. Unhappy families do have built-in drama, though, and a certain leeway in tone. When you write about happiness you have to hit the emotional note just right: conveying warmth and joy without cliché or sentimentality.  Packing in import and complexity without the assist of conflict. A child may be equally shaped by a parent hitting her as by a parent lying in bed with her each night to hear about her day, but one is a lot easier to make art about than the other.

So I really admire art that eschews the crutch of unhappiness. Pink's "Glitter in the Air." Taylor Swift's "The Best Day." Midsomer Murder (whose star, John Nettles, deliberately set out to create a detective who was happily married and well-adjusted instead of the stereotypical flawed hero of most crime series). Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. And John Mayer's "Stop This Train."

"Stop This Train" is an almost unbearably sad song about mortality and death. But its sadness emerges not from waste and hurt but love and happiness: the experience of having a loving family and good parents, and then, as a young adult, starting to see the writing on the wall. "Don't know how else to say it / Don't want to see my parents grow old."

Come on, now (as we say in Baltimore) . . . How many great pop songs are about the artist's parents?? The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics, back in the 80s. A really good song, but it's about a troubled relationship, and, of course, not at the same musical level. But it's still worth listening to today, for its beauty and the rarity of its subject matter.

February 6, 2014

Boycott Sochi

Russia is turning into an ever more sick society under Putin. How much do these thugs resemble German Nazis? A lot. We can't do much, but we should do what we can. Boycott Sochi.

February 4, 2014

I Shall Be Near to You

My favorite novel of the past year is now published and available for your deep enjoyment:

January 19, 2014



Philomena has been one of 2013's most praised films, for good reason. It tells the true story of Philomena Lee, who got pregnant as an unwed young woman in 1950s Ireland. Her family rejected her, and her father left her at one of the infamous Magdalene laundries—convents that housed unwed young mothers, kept them in indentured servitude, and sold their children to adoptive couples. Philomena eventually left, married, and had two daughters, but kept her first, lost child a secret for 50 years. When she eventually told her daughter about her lost first-born, her daughter arranged for her to meet with a struggling reporter to investigate what happened to her son.

The movie, in terms of its filmic qualities, was hit and miss for me. In Judi Dench's portrayal, Philomena's personality is a bit indistinct, and I couldn't reconcile her horrific experiences, her doggedness in pursuing her son, and her meekness and occasional uncertainty. The storytelling left some issues hanging, like Philomena's reaction to the little girl who was adopted by the same parents who adopted her own son. Philomena had known this little girl as a baby and toddler; her mother had been her best friend. And yet Philomena doesn't react emotionally toward her, doesn't talk about how she and her son had been friends as children, doesn't reminisce about the girl's mother. It felt strange, just . . . off.

This story, however, is incredibly compelling. No matter that the filmmaking isn't perfect. At times you could hear sniffles throughout the entire theater as people suppressed their crying. It was just heartbreaking. And I can't shake it. I'm home, still wondering if any of the perpetrators of these whitewashed gulags were ever prosecuted or held accountable. And for anyone who has lost a child, the film beautifully portrays the enduring pain of that loss, which never goes away and can only be turned aside from in order to get on with life.

It's a shame that the distributor felt the need to market the film as a kind of light-hearted, strange-bedfellows road trip movie:

This is what I'll remember instead:

January 17, 2014

Disney's Gamma Ray Anatomy

I love Disney. I really do. From the still-amazing hand animation of Snow White to the visual pyrotechnics of Mulan, the wit of Finding Nemo, and don't even get me started on 101 Dalmatians, the greatest movie ever made. But the Disney movies with traditional heroines (not talking about EVE from WALL-E here) have become harder and harder to watch because they keep inflating the size of the girls' eyes. It's actually become uncomfortable to watch. Just compare the early looks of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty to the heroines of Tangled and Frozen:

For pity's sake, give these girls normal eyes. They look like mutants.

Old Masters, Like New

The director Rino Stefano Tagliafierro took images of Old Masters paintings and subtly animated them, adding music as well. At first the process seems prosaic, but as the minutes pass a type of wonder sets in. The slight enlivening of the human figures truly does make them real(er). And Tagliafierro's curation of the images is masterful: the images are alternatingly disturbing, pretty, pornographic, horrific, and moving. The paintings seem more powerful and, ultimately, weird than ever before.  Here's the link:

The Work of Rino Stefano Tagliafierro

(Discovered thanks to BuzzFeed. Note: BuzzFeed provides gifs of some of the altered images, but they're no substitute for watching the entire film.)

January 13, 2014

2014 Golden Globes

1.  How great was it to see some of the guys with elaborate hairstyles at the Golden Globes this year (Jared Leto, Alex Ebert)? You're in the film industry, people. You shouldn't all look like Wally Beaver.

2.  I wouldn't mind never hearing the words "I didn't prepare a speech" again.

3. Biggest shocker: Zosia Mamet was best dressed. Beautiful.

4. Amy and Tina, you are the funniest.

5. Amy and Tina, your audience collaborators were also the funniest.

6. Amy, I'll now always hate you because you got to make out with Bono.

7. How gorgeous is Bono's wife, still??

8. Ha ha . . . "Irish Alzheimer's: you never forget."

January 11, 2014

Smithsonian American Art Museum

This is possibly my favorite museum in DC, mostly for the wonderful contemporary Lincoln Gallery. But one of my favorite pieces is this amazing sculpture of Gertrude Stein, which for copyright reasons I will only post a link to:

Jo Davidson's "Gertrude Stein"