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: