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Judy Blume Revisited! Blubber

Welcome to my Judy Blume in July series! I realize I am reviewing my July readings in August. However, I devoted July to reading some classic Judy Blume novels, along with her newest book In the Unlikely Event, which I will review here as well (eventually).

The bookBlubber

My rating as a kid: 4 stars

My rating as an adult: 1-2 stars

Whoa boy. This is a tough one. Judy Blume did pre-teen kids, especially girls, a great service by writing this classic book about bullying. I commend her for it. I used to think all kids should read it. But now, I’m just not sure. This book disturbed me! I thought Wendy the bully was borderline psychotic. She needed professional help. The bullying described in this book went beyond (way beyond) mere taunts and some shoving. The name calling and public shaming of Linda, recipient of abuse, is hard enough but the girls force her to eat food, try to pull down her underpants, shove her in a closet, and pretty much guarantee some PTSD in her future. I don’t want to make light of any of this- I found the novel extremely difficult to read with any sort of enjoyment what-so-ever.

The lesson of the story is “What goes around, comes around”, as Jill, the protagonist, experiences in the latter half of the book. But does she ever learn her lesson? Jill takes no steps to extend any sort of compassion towards Linda after she herself receives the onslaught of Wendy’s wrath. Judy adds in an afterword on the copy I read that she wrote this to remind kids to speak up when they see horrible acts of bullying. However, this theme is treated so lightly in the book that I’m not sure it will resonate with kids. Was Rochelle speaking up on behalf of Linda, or merely participating in the abuse? Linda, shoved in a closet and on “trial” for being fat (I suppose), gets a nod from Rochelle who suggests Linda should have a lawyer in order to make her trial fair. Is this really speaking up?

All of Judy’s points are valid, but I honestly finished this book with a bad taste in my mouth. Where were the parents and teachers??!!! How come they noticed NONE of this teasing and bullying going on? At what point does it become an adult’s responsibility- teacher or parent- to step in?

Sadly, this book was published BEFORE the Columbine school shootings, which means many of those students probably read it at some point in their youth. It makes me so angry that this level of bullying still exists and in most cases, we learn nothing from it. 

Stray Observations:

  • The music teacher would absolutely get fired in this day and age for pinching students. Seriously, that was allowed in schools?
  • How come these kids had to eat lunch inside a classroom? And without any supervision?
  • Jill’s mom worked with computers, in the 70s. Judy always tries to be as progressive as possible!
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Judy Blume Revisited! Forever…

Welcome to my Judy Blume in July series! Ok, it’s now August. However, I read some classic Judy Blume novels throughout July and culminated with In the Unlikely Event, which I will review here as well.

The book: Forever…

My rating as a teen: 3-4 stars

My rating as an adult: 2-3 stars

Forever… was never my favorite Judy Blume book, though I knew several pre-teen girls who worshipped it because the story was a gateway into the life of a sexually active teenager. And even though I’m always a sucker for sex in a book, Forever… didn’t click for me as kid/teen. I actually have no idea when I first read it. I may have been 12. Or 15. I was fortunate to have parents with full-time jobs who didn’t pay any attention to what I read (just glad I was choosing to read) and so I may as well have been as young as 8.

I can understand why parents are so put off by this book. Katherine’s parents and grandmother all but give her The Joy of Sex for her birthday. I wish I had such cool and understanding parents at that age. I wish I could have talked to them so frankly about sex. And maybe this is why I had a hard time liking it as a young girl: Katherine’s family (and Michael’s sister) was  more progressive than my own and so her world didn’t resonate with me at all.

One thing that sticks out to me now is how prevalent “Judy Blume’s Message” is about safe and consensual sex throughout the book. As a kid/teen, I would never call Judy “preachy”. But seeing Forever… through wise (jaded?) eyes I see what she was trying to do. Judy was never one to tell kids NOT to do anything. She knew better. Kids are meant to explore everything- including sex- so why not provide the safest environment for them? However, this doesn’t mean that Judy was such a free-wheeling hippie that she couldn’t advise, and even warn, against engaging in pre-marital and teenage sex at too young of an age.

I was so surprised at how PUSHY I found Katherine’s paramour, Michael, when it came to sex. Don’t do it when you’re not ready! Stick to your guns! If it doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to wait! I can almost hear Judy’s near parental rant throughout Katherine’s struggle to come to terms with her body sensations versus her fear of engaging in sex. And yet Michael says he understands, but we know he really doesn’t. What shines through so clearly to me now is how YOUNG and IMMATURE these two are. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have sex, but I understand Judy’s point. You might think you are an adult at age 17/18, but think again.

Judy isn’t necessarily being preachy here, but her message is stronger in this book than in others. She understands kids. She understands the course and rush of emotions that permeate and affect every decision. Almost everything a kid and teen feels is guided by a strong emotion. They feel love more hotly. They feel fear and risk less acutely. They rarely think beyond tomorrow. They challenge, they cower. And then they grow up and things look a little more crystal.

It’s important to note that Judy isn’t making a judgement here about teenage sex. She is simply saying, “If you are going to do it, be smart”. The book is not without the pitfalls to sex. There is an unwanted pregnancy, talk of abortion, and an adoption. VD is discussed and soft drugs are used. In trying to cover them all, Judy plays a deft hand. The last thing she wants is to turn kids off and have them run headlong into the dark sexual arts uninformed, rebellious, and careless.

Still, the story of Katherine and Michael is underwhelming. I just kept waiting for them to do it. I wondered what they talked about, if anything, besides sex. Most of their conversations revolved around whether they were or were not going to do it. His aggressive pushiness frightened me and her sullenness depressed me. Was I like that at her age? Probably. I, too, thought I knew everything.

And yet, however young I was when I read it, I never took this book to mean I had permission to go out and have sex. Parents need not be afraid. If anything, this is a great book for girls who might fall in the trap of thinking they have to put out in order to be loved. And I think Judy is definitely not calling it a love story. She drills in the point that you will fall in love several times in your life, not once. I respect Judy’s insight and awareness of the teenage world, even though I didn’t find this book to have a very strong story.

Stray Observations:

  • For some reason my only memory of this book, before I reread it, was that Katherine was a Candy Striper. I’m not sure why that detail stuck with me, as it’s only mentioned once.
  • Attention if you’ve read Judy’s In the Unlikely Event: The Papermill Playhouse first makes an appearance in Forever…!
  • Michael chooses “Ralph” as his penis name. Katherine should have known then that the relationship was doomed.
  • The suicide side-plot threw me… almost seemed like it should have been a separate book.
  • Judy writes strong and caring parents well. Is she modeling them after how she perceives herself?
  • Judy hates the term Young Adult Novel, yet that’s how it’s categorized at my library. Do we need a redefinition on the YA genre?

Judy Blume Revisited! Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

Judy Blume wisdom…

[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

It’s “revisit my childhood” month in July. For the entire month I am reading the classics- Judy Blume’s that is- and finishing with her latest release for adults, In the Unlikely Event.

I’m rereading her books in no particular order and will review them all here. So let’s start with my thoughts on her most “seminal” tale of a girl’s road to womanhood!

Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

My rating as a kid: 5 stars (excellent)

My rating as an adult: 2-3 stars (so-so to good)

First of all, this book floored me as a kid. I think you have to be about 12 or 13 for the story to really hit home. Every single girl I knew, including myself, was obsessed with three things: boys, boobs, and getting your first period. Judy Blume covers them all.

I probably read this book at least 10 times as an adolescent. And it seemed like such a saga! She’s starting a new school in a new city, she likes a boy who doesn’t like her, she has no boobs to speak of, and all her friends are getting their periods and she’s not. To top it all off she talks to God, even though she’s of no religion. The real stinker is she doesn’t even get to go on the special trip with her Grandma Simon because of her other pesky and hyper-relig maternal grandparents! These are all the things that can consume a kid- and boy, did I relate to her.

I even did a special project inspired by Margaret’s when I was in high school. My family was also of no religious persuasion, and I was curious to find out what religion meant to other people. I had to write a paper on different cultures, but I turned it into my own religious project. I went to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting, a Church sermon, and talked to a person I worked with at the local pizza joint who was Muslim. Just like Margaret, I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for but I was awakened to a new sense of spirituality and what it means to simply ask a higher power for guidance.

As an adult, however, the book doesn’t quite hold the same resonance. I was surprised to discover that Margaret is, pardon my French, kind of a bitch! Must be due to being a hormonal, pre-menstrual kid but I’m still shocked at how almost unlikeable she is. I kept having to put myself in the shoes of a pre-teen girl. Remember when you thought your best friend was a horrible person? Remember when you made of that girl or that boy? Remember what it felt like to be an outcast, or misunderstood, or left out? My having to remind myself that no girl at age 11 or 12 is very likable, and it took me out of the story.

Also, however dated the book is (Pads with belts? Velvet hats? Plaid bedskirt, your mom says “gads”- yuck to all!), this is STILL a revolutionary book for its time and now. Is there another book that really makes it ok to talk about your period with fervor and excitement? Judy Blume is so skilled at capturing that unique age right between childhood and adolescence and all of the things that girls SHOULD be talking about, and questioning. Judy never subscribes her books to the “Young Adult” genre and I agree. It’s like saying this book is only good for a certain age range and not others, but who decides that anyway? Moms should talk to their girls about periods, boobs, and boys at a younger age than we think. Because, as Judy subtly points out, us girls are already talking about it by age 11, which isn’t considered to be under the Young Adult age range.

The God piece in the book felt out of place for me as an adult, but again, I had to remind myself that being a kid is all about figuring things out. A kid’s deep thoughts might seem trite and silly to us grownups, but how else will we learn about ourselves? I used to talk to God too. And I asked him to make my butt smaller. I think I was about 8 or 9.

As Judy says: “I had a very personal relationship with God. I talked to him about all my worries, concerns, and feelings, the way Margaret does. My readers are always asking how I know all their secrets. After reading this book you’ll know some of mine!”

Stray Observations:

  • MAVIS was apparently a sensational name circa 1970.
  • Even though not grading a year-long project is slightly lame and pointless, how cool was that to be trusted with a year long project at age 11?! Are we just less mature now?
  • I wanted to live and play in Nancy’s room: organdy skirted vanity, perfume bottles, and make-up.
  • Every time I eat a pickle, I think of Grandma Simon and say to myself “Mmm, nothing like the real thing!”
  • The size of pads back then were like bricks!

Book Review: “Bring up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel (with a side note on the Wolf Hall mini-series)

I’m sure the words “Brilliant!” and “Genius!” are bandied about quite a bit with regards to Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy “Wolf Hall”. And while this praise is apt, I would go once step further to say there are no words to describe Hilary Mantel’s novels. She’s that good. I’ve never read anyone like her. If I’ve been searching for a time travel machine all these years, I’m closer than ever with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”.

Before I get into the second installment of her Thomas Cromwell series, let me take a moment and talk about the recent Masterpiece Theatre adaptation Wolf Hall, which covers the first and second novels (we are still waiting for the third to arrive in print). I’ve never been blown away by such a masterful (yep, I said it) piece of television. Not only did the series serve the books faithfully- sometimes pulling dialogue directly from the text- it was so wonderfully cast. Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell deserves heaps of awards. His eyebrows even deserve awards. It’s some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from Damien Lewis as Henry VIII, and I loved him in the show Life. And Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn is exquisite.

What the books and the TV mini-series do so well is that they put you right in the middle of Tudor England. Sure, the language is slightly different- some words no longer exist and some haven’t come into being- but the human behavior is timeless. Much of the historical fiction we read and watch seems to be rooted in some sort of idea we have about the past. Everyone makes grand gestures, declarative speeches, and is impeccably beautiful and cultured in our collective vision of historical figures. But these are still real people, even if they didn’t have electricity or running water. They are driven by the same human emotions and desires that motivates many of us today- greed, lust, power, etc.

Mantel seizes her audience by infusing her main character with a delicious sense of humor that is relatable to the modern day person. Mark Rylance in the show was able to skillfully translate much of Cromwell’s wry humor, as well. There is a great scene where the painter Hans Holbein is drawing a rough sketch of Cromwell that will become the most recognized portrait we have of Henry VIII’s Master Secretary. Holbein and Cromwell are joking around and Holbein, perhaps playing to Cromwell’s reputation of delivering secret justice to those he doesn’t like, says “Well, are you going to put me in chains?” Cromwell just gives him a helpless shrug of his shoulders and hmmpphh, as if to say “Well, duh! So sue me”. The gesture is almost anachronistic, but Rylance infuses it with a meaning we all recognize and it just FITS. You can almost see the real Cromwell, or anyone from the 16h Century, doing the same thing. Here is another example of Mantel’s rich writing style that fully captures the human and the humor and makes the 16th Century man come alive off the page:

Stephen Gardiner! Coming in as he’s going out, striding towards the king’s chamber, a folio under one arm, the other flailing the air. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester: blowing up like a thunderstorm, when for once we have a fine day.

When Stephen comes into a room, the furnishings shrink from him. Chairs scuttle backwards. Joint-stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches. The woolen Bible figures in the king’s tapestries lift their hands to cover their ears.

There are too many details to explain here about the novel and what’s it about, but I will stress that it is not imperative that you are an expert on Tudor history in order to read it (though it does help). This installment covers the fall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s role in it. Here, you get a sense of Cromwell’s rising influence and power and his internal struggle. As the son of a blacksmith who steadily rose to power in the king’s court, despite his lack of nobility, he’s uncomfortable (and secretly delighted) with his new status. Yet as the novel progresses, we begin to see Cromwell gently weave his own web of intrigue and revenge. It will trap in the end, but that’s for the next book. This story is a magnificent look at two masterminds- Cromwell and Anne- who both built each other up, though it’s Anne is torn down. Mantel’s Queen Anne is not the cold and undeserving schemer/harlot she’s often portrayed as in print and television. I invite you to listen to a back episode of Terri Gross’ podcast Fresh Air for her interview with Hilary Mantel, who goes into more depth about Queens during the Tudor Age.

The show Wolf Hall does a marvelous job of following both books to a tee, but there is one scene in particular from the novel that the show just doesn’t do justice. Cromwell has gone to visit the cast-aside former Queen Katherine of Aragon. She is dying. Her rage and agony is almost palpable. Cromwell knows this; perhaps he even sympathizes with her. But what is happening here is a battle of wits and things left unsaid. Katherine cannot say an unkind work or stray a treasonous thought about King Henry. So Mantel writes her scene as a “show not tell” portrait of two people who might be very bitter and regretful about what they’ve done or must do, but cannot reveal an inch of motive.

I see. Do you think a lot about the king’s death?

I think about his afterlife.

If you want to do his soul good, why do you continually obstruct him? it hardly makes him a better man…You, not he, split Christendom. And I expect that you know that, and that you think about it in the silence of the night.

There is a pause, while she turns the great pages of her volume of rage, and puts her finger on just the right word. ‘What you say, Cromwell, is…contemptible.

She’s right, he thinks. But I will keep tormenting her, revealing her to herself, stripping her of any illusions, and I will do it for her daughter’s sake…

A long look. ‘At least, as an enemy, you stand in plain sight’.

There is something so delightful about the repartee in this passage, and it goes on for a couple of pages. They almost respect each other in the end. But Katherine is no slouch. She’s onto Cromwell, just as he knows she’s not an innocent victim in all this. Mantel’s character development and depth is so outstanding here, I had to read each page twice.

The book slows down near the end and some of the investigation into Anne’s lovers drags on a little too long. Minor complaints, however, that the show dispenses with in swift fashion by speeding through the trial proceedings and almost coming to a near halt at Anne’s execution, which is the right thing to do. As with the book, both devices capture and illustrate the pure terror and hopelessness she feels, along with the near downright kindness from her executioner. I shuddered while reading it and cried while watching it. I don’t think TV’s ever handled a beheading so well.

I highly encourage anyone to pick up the Wolf Hall series. Hilary Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes in a  row for her books. And while I’m not a believer that a literary prize always equals a first rate novel, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies” come damn close.

 

Book Review: “I Must Say, My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend”, by Martin Short

If you are a huge Martin Short fan, you will probably love this memoir. If, like myself, you are the casual Martin Short fan, someone who is familiar with his film work and early comedy and generally finds him funny, you will like- though probably not love- this book.

Whichever type of fan you are, however, do yourself a big favor and LISTEN to this book. Martin Short the performer is also gifted at doing impersonations, and you will lose a large part of the humor by reading it in print. In fact, I’m not even sure why it exists in print- Martin also does some brief comedy sketches featuring his most beloved characters: Ed Cohen, Jiminy Glick, and Franck from Father of the Bride, just to name a few. How you could you READ Jiminy Glick and fully enjoy any of the humor? His impersonation of Paul Schaffer and Katherine Hepburn alone are worth the price of an audio version.

What is most profound and touching about his memoir, is Martin Short’s absolute love and passion for performing. His characters are carefully crafted, and Short goes into good detail about how/why he created them. If you enjoy reading about actors and how they develop their craft, this is one to add to the canon.

Martin Short has never been a go-to comedic actor for me. I remember watching re-runs of SCTV and SNL from the 70s and 80s, so I am familiar with a lot of his earlier roles. The Three Amigos is still a movie I don’t find very funny or understand why so many people think it is. (Sorry). I casually watched Primetime Glick on TV in its early days. But much of what is fantastic and admirable about Martin Short lies in his earlier works and that is why I was keen to read his memoir.

Most of the book is fairly “by the numbers”, meaning we get the childhood, early days, highlights of a career, marriage, and a “later years” section. Short might have been better served by focusing solely on the early years that led up to him becoming an actor and developing his work during the 70s because this is the best- and most interesting- part of the entire memoir.

If his book reads like a “who’s of who” of the comedy elite, in which Marty knows everybody, it’s on purpose. And delightful, I might add. I find it comforting that Martin Short and Steve Martin are such good friends. I also think it’s amazing that Martin Short grew up with such a cavalcade of famous comedians: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Paul Schaffer, Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Andrea Martin, Dan Akroyd (called Danny by Short), Ivan Reitman, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, and many others. Marty performed with several of them during his Toronto run of the show “Godspell”, and then later on SCTV and SNL. As he points out in his memoir, which is along the lines of what Rob Lowe also wrote about in “Stories I Only Tell my Friends”, the reason so many of his contemporaries, along with himself, rose to fame at the same time is due to true friendship, compassion, and collaboration.

On that note, however, if you are in need of a salacious and juicy memoir you are out of luck here. Marty doesn’t dish on anyone he knows. And while I admire his spirit and good natured-ness, much of this book is a safe choice. He doesn’t go deep, and even though his chapters on his brother’s, his parent’s and wife Nancy’s deaths are graceful and lovingly told, I would have liked more heft in this book. The closest Marty ever gets to “heft” or depth is where he shares a moment in which he had a career “Come to Jesus” moment on a park bench in Los Angeles. He assumes his career is in the toilet after a 3 month hiatus of no work and wonders what he’s going to do next. And then he gets a call, lands SCTV and all is well. Further into the novel, he jokes that his wife used to point at that bench years later and kid, “Hey, there’s Breakdown Corner!” The moment of his career crisis is light and doesn’t carry any of the weight it is meant to. Short often describes himself as nothing less than the bounce-back kid over several different periods in his life, so really, were we ever to take Breakdown Corner as seriously?

What dark depths would I have preferred to read about in this book? Martin Short could have delved into the deaths of so many comedians he was working with- John Belushi, Robin Williams, and John Candy in particular. He mentions he never did drugs (besides a funny scene with him and Victor Garber in which Martin smokes too much weed), but what was it like to watch your friends and heroes do them, or suffer from depression and mental illness? Some died from doing drugs- did Martin ever worry about himself? What kept him from it? And what about fatherhood. His kids make a short appearance in the memoir, but he never discuss becoming a father at length. Was it hard to juggle family and work? Did it ever come up between he and Nancy that he should stop working or take on less work? Did he ever feel like he missed out on his kids childhoods? Maybe he didn’t, but I felt like some of these personal points in his life could have been explored more fully.

On the whole, the book is a more interesting look at facts and highlights of Martin’s life than it is a raucous and hilarious read. In fact, I would say the book is only mildly amusing at best. He reenacts small scenes from his childhood and early adulthood with his comedy buddies that fall flat. The true humorous gems come from the comedy skits he performs as his most famous characters throughout the book. I suspect that the reason why some of the comedy fails to translate is that Martin Short is best seen live, as a performer. Even though I enjoyed the audio version, a part of me wonders- and hopes- if watching him on a stage somewhere with a large audience is where he really shines, rather than on the page.

I still recommend this book, especially to those who love memoirs and are interested in the early days of sketch comedy. While not the funniest read I was expecting, Martin Short deserves his place among some of comedy’s best. And if the 40th Anniversary Special of SNL proved anything it’s that Marty’s still got it.

 

 

Sequel: The Sequel (ad nauseam).

We are a country that loves its sequels. We just can’t let a story go. If a sequel doesn’t make sense, we have prequels. Reboots. Trilogies that somehow turn into 5 movies. TV adaptations and spin-offs. It never ends!

In the book world, sequels are series. And I’m starting to notice a trend…

Just as a TV series really should end around season 5, a book series has to have some end point. I recently finished book 2 of “Outlander” and am DAUNTED, even though I love series, at the prospect of reading 7 more 900+ page books. When is it logical for the story to end?

There are those series that consume your entire life. “Game of Thrones” is one of them. I read Book 4 last month and I’m not sure George R.R. Martin has an end game, though there should be. “Harry Potter”, for example, was well-plotted. Each novel felt like the characters advanced to a next level, and part of this is due J.K. Rowling’s brilliant foresight and planning to have the books follow Harry and co. by age and education level. By the time they are ready to leave Hogwarts the books are done.

Diana Gabaldon could have easily written the “Outlander” series as a great trilogy, rather than drag it out for 8+ books. You end up following the characters lives as closely as your own. I don’t need that. Endings are painful, but necessary. Stories are meant to live on in your imagination. I want a book that will stay with me and take a part of me with it when I reach “The End”. Why give away a novel’s power by feeding the story beyond any logical expectations?

Sue Grafton backed herself into a corner when she started writing her alphabet series. I believe we are up to “X” in the series, and as I’ve ready each book faithfully from letter A until now (some of them more than once) I get a sense that she’s exhausted. She’s been writing these mysteries for the better part of 30 years. Her main character Kinsey gets nearly killed in every single book. What a life! At some point, maybe around “K” or “M”, we stopped believing that Kinsey’s life had any realistic trajectory moving forward. By all accounts she should be dead (or under witness protection).

I will admit the books are fun- as are most books in a series- but I get lost in overall arc of the storyline. I begin to feel manipulated that the books keep coming and the story gets stretched beyond limits because there’s money to be made. Did Diana really anticipate a full 8+ series storyline when she first typed out the original “Outlander” novel? Or did someone tell her she needs to write more in the series because fans and publishers demand it?

I’m reminded of obsessed fan Annie Wilkes and writer Paul Sheldon from “Misery”. What will happen once Diana finishes “Outlander”? Will millions of us fans revolt, lock her up in a basement somewhere, and demand she bring Claire and Jamie back to life? J.K. Rowling let go, much to the dismay of a bazillion kids and adults alike, but she hasn’t been stoned.

In praise of the trilogy, I say, and here’s to logical endings. What are some of your favorite trilogies? (Books, tv miniseries will count, films)

 

 

Mixing mediums to mixed success: books and the movies

Recently, I listened to a podcast that discussed great books which turned into decent movies. Nick Hornby, by all appearances, is the poster child for successful author with novels that easily translate to film. His books High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, and About a Boy have all been made into movies that received high praise. I rather enjoyed About a Boy, but I have to say that the book version of High Fidelity was much better than the film.

And why is that? What makes a good book into a good, or even great, film? About a Boy had fantastic casting, so that’s part of it. But it also had a clipped pace and solved the “inner monologue” problem that characters in books get to use with abandon by having Hugh Grant provide the narration, which was not overly used. High Fidelity, on the other hand, practically had John Cusack speaking to the camera in every frame, which became bothersome and resembled some kind of tricky filming gimmick that I didn’t quite believe. And I didn’t like the woman cast as Laura, so the love story was a wash for me.

In fact, casting does play a big part of the whole success/non-success of book turned movie. I couldn’t bear to watch any of the Harry Potter movies because the actors cast as Hermione, Harry, Ron, etc, didn’t match the character versions from the book and my imagination. Hugh Grant, however, was perfectly placed as the half man/half boy selfish singleton living the carefree life in London. Renee Zellweger was born to play Bridget, in Bridget Jones’ Diary.

On rare occasions, a movie can even outshine the book version. The English Patient comes to my mind as an absolutely boring slog-fest of a novel, but roared and came to stunning life as a film. James Bond movies are another example of so-so stories that take on a life of their own on the big screen. Again, casting is key.

And sometimes a movie and a book come together as one and do the hard job of complimenting each other nicely. “Gone Girl” the novel I loved, but I was very skeptical of the movie version at first. If you’ve read the book, you might also wonder how they pull off the “big reveal” without it being too obvious or too cheesy. I thought the book was a wonderful interpretation of the book. The casting director responsible for putting the actress who played Margot deserves a medal. Her chemistry and relationship with her fictional brother, Ben Affleck, was key to the story. And Rosamund Pike… I can’t say enough about how much I love Rosamund Pike. The movie had big shoes to fill, and some folks I know were confused by the ending. Why would a man STAY with a woman like that? Here is where the book is a better narrative. You get more insight into Amy’s troubled and broken relationship with her parents, and you also get a clearer image of Nick “the people pleaser” who cannot let go of his hero/needs to be loved image. But the film Gone Girl did amazing things with Amy’s diary sequences and flashbacks, which made the whole movie for me.

And then there is the question question of interpretation. Obviously, a movie is a director’s (and screenwriter’s) adaptation of the fictional work. It can’t, as a visual medium, follow a book to the letter. Some crucial parts and minor characters will be reimagined, or left out altogether. The podcast crew I listened to pointed to the inconsistencies in American Sniper the film versus “American Sniper” the memoir. Here, the story deviated wildly from book to movie. “Gone with the Wind” is another novel that led to a loose interpretation in the movie version. Most notably, Scarlett O’Hara is missing some kids from her first husband. How much or how little gets changed depends on the type of story the director wants to tell. Radically changing details by no means is indicative of faulty storytelling in the novel form that gets “cleaned up” in the film version. But I do think books tell better linear stories than film. Books fill in the gaps with reminiscing, backstory, and small scenes with characters that are not pertinent to the overall arc. Trying to capture all of this in a film, going from point A to point B and following the exact path of the book, makes for a boring, by the numbers, movie.

Some of my favorite book to film adaptations:

  • Sense and Sensibility
  • The English Patient
  • About a Boy
  • The Graduate
  • Forest Gump (a nothing book that turned into a wonderful film)
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary
  • Fried Green Tomatoes

Any others that I’m missing? What do you think?

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway…A feast, indeed.

It gets harder to reread books as I get older, I’ve found. As a teen and in my twenties I read and reread books over and over again- up to 3 times or more. But now, I don’t find the same joy the second time around when I revisit a novel. Not so with A Moveable Feast. I think I read the book for the first time only a handful of years ago, and I liked it. I reread it for a Reading Challenge that I’m finishing up from winter 2014 and thought it an absolute delight. I found new themes and passages I don’t even recall reading before. Was I in a fog when I first read it? I do know that I was going through an extremely bad spell at my old job. Perhaps the book just didn’t resonate back then.

Hemingway is difficult to enjoy. I completely understand why someone doesn’t “get” Hemingway. His prose is sometimes stilted and there doesn’t immediately appear to be any point or through line to his writing. His short and precise sentences can easily be mistaken for those of an amateur, and no one can ever accuse Hemingway of “showy” writing. I am, by no means, a Hemingway expert. I’ve only read three of his novels: The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Moveable Feast, now twice. For Whom was a slog to complete, although in the end I found the novel haunting and emotionally rich. The Sun… was one of my favorite novels in my early twenties. While in France on a year abroad, I gave a short presentation on the novel for one of my French classes and declared the book one of the best I’d ever read. The professor wrinkled her nose and asked “Why??!!”.

But his gift is for creating “the truest sentence there is”. Hemingway strove to deliver stories and novels that spoke to simple truths. He believed florid and overly descriptive writing danced around the truth. I wonder if A Moveable Feast is his most honest work. However, I do believe that the honesty and simplicity in his writing is what turns most people off. He’s a storyteller, but he’s not a showman. When you compare his writing to that of Fitzgerald’s, his contemporary and also featured in A Moveable Feast, there is a striking difference in styles. Fitzgerald’s work is vivid and colorful while Hemingway’s is earthy and stark. The Great Gatsby, a book I also reread in 2014 and loved anew, is wonderful. It’s a feast in its own right, but it does make Hemingway’s work look plain by comparison. There are parallels to draw with both authors, however. I can’t say which writer is better; they speak of truths in their own ways.

Here is an example in A Moveable Feast of a delightfully truthful statement:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

What an opening paragraph, and only 3 sentences! Everyone has experienced that one “perfect day” that occurs right at the end of winter. The weather is neither cool nor hot, and flowers start to bloom. Folks stroll outside, holding hands, with a careless ease for the first time in months. Life seems limitless and good. And you don’t want to run errands or meet friends for drinks or be indoors in any way. You want to enjoy the sunshine and the warmth and the beginnings of something. I’ve felt this, have you? He captures that sentimentality without all of the fluffy adverbs and over explaining. I know exactly what he means. He captured a mood in its most simplistic form. This is truth.

What I most enjoyed about the novel this time around that I didn’t particularly catch on the first read, is that Hemingway is writing about becoming the author Ernest Hemingway as we know him. Written only a few years before his death and published just before he died, this is a nostalgic novel. He’s writing as though he is a young man just learning his style. Paris is his muse. I’d like to believe he looks back on this period with extreme fondness- it’s the beginning of something, which he is writing about towards the end of his career and life.

And I encourage everyone to also read Paula McLain’s wonderful The Paris Wife, which is a fictional account of Hem’s wife Hadley during their Paris years. On my first read I thought Hadley had gotten such short shrift. She’s barely in A Moveable Feast, this is true, but on my second turn I found her evermore present within the pages. Apparently she and Hemingway were on friendly terms right before he died. Perhaps this is also his small love letter to her, or perhaps not, but I was moved much more by their relationship on this read.

His experiences with F. Scott Fitzgerald were also more vivid on the second read. When I opened my used copy of the novel, I noticed this inscription, written in ink, that I hadn’t seen the first time:

Ward- Maybe you’ll identify with Fitzgerald.

-John

Maybe Ward was using this book as an intervention? I have no idea what he really means, but I had to laugh. Fitzgerald is portrayed by Hemingway as a complete mess- talented, yes- yet on the verge of becoming a full-fledged alcoholic with a less than sane wife. Hemingway supposedly locked heads with Zelda Fitzgerald on more than a few occasions and you do get the sense that he doesn’t like her here. But you also get a sense of his admiration of Fitzgerald and perhaps even envy. Maybe this jealousy pushed him into becoming a novelist, rather than a short story writer? In my reread, I thought his relationship with Fitzgerald was fraught with boyhood rivalry, but there was a tender almost loving way in which Hemingway cared for and encouraged Fitzgerald. Is he feeling guilty in his later years that he didn’t do more? Fitzgerald obviously plays a very prominent role in Hem’s life, otherwise he wouldn’t get a whole section devoted to him.

The title of the book and the opening quote are my favorite:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feat.

Hemingway and his wife Hadley are dead broke in Paris, but never hungry, neither physically nor emotionally. And Hemingway is never lacking for stories. Paris feeds him. Throughout the entire novel he is almost never sitting still, unless he is in a cafe writing. He’s either walking along the Seine, skiing in the Alps, visiting Gertrude Stein’s apartment, or striding off to the bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Even when’s he writing there is a sense of movement, as if Paris is passing him by like an old theatre diorama. People he knows and friends filter in and out. The seasons change before his eyes. Delicious food and drink passes before him in an endless array.

Sure, you could make the argument that the novel is not very exciting. And speaking of “very”, for a man who shunned adverbs the word “very” shows up in almost every 4th line. His stroll down memory lane in Paris is leisurely at best. There is no real conflict and if I had to make a complaint, I say that his breakup with Hadley could have been explored with more depth. She drifts away in the last chapter and is replaced by his second wife with only a small explanation. This is also why The Paris Wife makes such a good companion piece to the novel: we get to see the before and after and all the in-betweens of their relationship, which is missing from A Moveable Feast.

But again, this novel is about Hemingway the author finding his voice and his place in the world as a writer, not about the breakup of his marriage. I admire that although A Moveable Feast is somewhat of a memoir it does not have the trappings of a linear account of his life from point A to point B. It is clear that Paris remained a magical time in his life for many years. I, too, have felt the magical pull of France. Having lived in Bordeaux for a year in college and returning to France only 3 years ago, it still holds an almost mystic and revered place in my heart.

I hope that the mysterious “John” didn’t take offense to Ward’s gift of this book. I hope he took away some of the lightness and wonder from it that I did, all of Fitzgerald’s heavy drinking and Hemingway’s womanizing aside. I think it’s a novel that gets better with age and experience.

And if I ever need to go back to Paris, I don’t need to travel far. I just need to open a book.

 

2014 in review (per WordPress)

Good to know- my book reviews appear to be the most read posts on my blog. I will make that a focus for 2015!

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 950 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 16 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Audiobook Wars Are ON!

When you sit in the car as much as I do and are a huge reader, nothing saves the day like an audiobook. I currently subscribe to Audible.com (Amazon owned) and am always amazed at how many audiobooks I actually go through on a monthly basis. I have to force myself to adhere to the once-a-month free credit I get with my subscription (one book/month for $14.95) because let’s face it: $27 for an audiobook is really expensive. Between $18-$30 is the average cost for a DISCOUNTED audiobook on the site.

What gives??!

Imagine my delight when I came across this news item announcing Scribd audio books only carry a $9.99/month subscription fee with unlimited access. I can read 5 audio books in one month and only pay $10? Yes, please! And suck it, Amazon!

Oh, but wait. There is a catch.

Surfing the titles on Scribd I discovered that Scribd doesn’t have publishing rights to certain books and therefore cannot carry those books and audiobooks. And when I say “certain” books, I mean virtually all the titles in my GoodReads “To Read” pile are not available. Amy Tan? Nope. Donna Tartt’s “The GoldFinch”? Not available. Any books by Geraldine Brooks? Only one title.  Neil Patrick Harris’ new memoir? Yep, not there.  The list went on and on.

To be fair, there are good books available on the site but if it’s a new book- and a popular one by a prolific author- forget it. Why  should I be restricted as to what I want to read? I want to read what I want to read WHEN I want to read it. By the way, those books I mention above were my top picks and I struck out on all four. I don’t want to have to spend my time searching for a book I really want to read, only to find that it’s not available and then settle for a second choice instead. Not worth the $10/month, in my opinion.

So Amazon is remaining top dog in the digital e-reader/audiobook subscription battle for now. Is it the online behemoth that is to blame or the publishing contracts? You decide. Us readers are the ones who end up with the (expensive) bum deal.

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