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Archive for the tag “books”

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?

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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.

A few weekly highlights on books

What you may have missed lately in the reading world!

  • Here is a fantastic read if you happen to be following the Hachette and Amazon debacle. I see a novel down the road…In any case, you can read Amazon’s manifesto, er, I mean, plea to readers on Readers United to subtly attack Hachette, even though Amazon is also clearly picking a fight.
  • Libraries STILL Rule! What do libraries have over e-books? Selection. The print vs. e-book war is not far from over, but this article still gives me hope that the two formats can live side-by-side.
  • A thought to ponder on historical fiction… I’m currently reading “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon and loving it, I might add. But I’ve encountered one sticking point that gets in my craw in nearly every historical fiction novel I read: The bathroom problem. For Elizabeth Gilbert, her irk is lusty 19th century broads whose only merit is their appearance, and for me it’s the bathroom problem, especially in time travel novels. If you are accustomed to fancy modern day indoor plumbing and take it for granted that you can poop in peace and wipe with handy tissue, I think you would notice when that is taken away. So many books that place their main characters in dangerous, unfamiliar settings fail to mention this issue. I’m not saying you have to get graphic and go into drastic detail of a woman who suddenly encounters the necessity of peeing in the open as her only option, but it should be mentioned. At the very least, the author is presenting his/her character with a conflict and seeing what happens. It’s a realistic aspect to add to a character study, and I’m always frustrated when the detail is plainly ignored! Ok, I’ll step down from soapbox now.
  • And lastly, the Central Library here in Los Angeles is hosting an event combining some of my favorite things: Books, theatre, old films, and French! If you are from the area and care to explore this Thursday 8/21, check out the Aloud! Series featuring a rare screening of Great Actresses of the Past with live music accompaniment.

 

Booze and Books, Troubled Libraries, and more Physical Book woes

I just can’t seem to comment enough on the ongoing physical book dilemma happening all over the world. Here are a few highlights from the past few weeks:

Booze and Books: British pubs to feature in-house libraries

Sadly I can’t find the link to this story, but a few weeks ago I read that a few pubs in England are experimenting with housing small libraries, or operating as a local book-share for the community. At first glance this might seem like a silly idea. Who bellies up to the bar with a pint and settles down for a cozy evening with Crime and Punishment? After all, pubs are thought of as social gathering spots; a place to chat with friends instead of reading by one’s lonesome. But after contemplating this idea for a while, a pub as stand-in library makes perfect sense. Think of all the cafés in Europe circa the Belle Époque and beyond, and the writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Ibsen and Keats, just to name a few) who sat there penning their greatest works with a glass (or 5) of wine in hand. Heck, J.K. Rowling reportedly wrote most of Harry Potter book 1 in a pub.

The café and pub scene would be an ideal place to discuss books, hold a book club, or stop by on your way home from work to unwind with a beer AND pick up a book for the evening. I applaud pub owners for at least thinking outside of the box. Serving books along beer not only draws clientele, but it promotes reading and keeps the physical book in circulation. We shall see how this will catch on in the future!

In troubled library land:

I knew I liked this guy: Stephen King supports his local library

Talk about giving back. Kudos to Stephen and Tabitha King for keeping a library alive and thriving.

And in other news, libraries are getting creative. I love this photo. Keep ’em coming.

s-GILPIN-large300

What to do with your physical books? Organize them as a psychological profile:

I’m scared as to what my book profile might look like. Do all my books, if any, define me or just a select few?

If I take a glance right now at one shelf closest to me, without any rearranging- exactly as the shelf stands- this is what I see:

  • Light in August William Faulkner
  • Murder in Marais Cara Black
  • A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire George R.R. Martin
  • Kick Me Paul Feig
  • Time and Again Jack Finney
  • Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne David Starkey
  • Restless William Boyd
  • Hawaii Lonely Planet Guidebook

(Actually, this list does look a lot like me).

And lastly, I again lost the link but there is a debate out there claiming that we need to abandon “tough” fiction and that no one has the time anymore to read verbose literature.

Malarkey!

If we don’t have time to read potentially long and dense fiction we probably don’t have time to read anything, period. Granted, everyone- including myself- enjoys a fast read now and again. But there are joys to be had in reading the long and artfully created novel. I’m currently reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, which gets heavy into botany and philosophical discussion at the half-way point. It’s thought provoking and yes, time-consuming stuff, but what else will I do with my time? I’m learning something here, and it’s enjoyable too. So why not devote some free time to opening my mind rather than turning on the TV? Book lovers are going to read the “hard” stuff (think Moby Dick and War and Peace) at some point and we may not even like it, but I don’t think this style of intense and deep literature should be abandoned just because we are now tangled in a social media and technology driven web.

That’s me on my soap-box for this week! Share your thoughts here.

Revisiting “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald on audio book last month, I was more than keen to revisit her Zelda’s husband’s works, most notably, “The Great Gatsby”. I first read the novel some 17 years ago when I was a junior or senior in high school, and to say that my life was forever changed by that book is an understatement. It for sure changed the way I read and looked at books. I even think that F.Scott Fitzgerald, along with John Steinbeck, were the ones responsible for me turning towards the historical novel as my go-to genre of sheer reading pleasure.

My first time reading Gatsby was my introduction into the 1920s and The Jazz Age, which would eventually become my passion decade- the decade I hope to time travel to someday (I’m not delusional, by the way, just fantastical), as well as the decade I probably romanticize the most. I remarked in an online post about one episode of Boardwalk Empire on HBO (another 1920s show) that The Jazz Age depicted on the show is no Fitzgerald’s. I’m not the only one who complains that the show is occasionally too dark and emotionally heavy. I should point out that I had “The Great Gatsby” in mind when I made that statement. Now, after re-reading “The Great Gatsby” nearly 20 years later, I may actually revise my thoughts on the decade as a whole.

What do I even remember from my first time reading the novel? What was it that stuck in my mind and soul all these years? I asked myself this before starting the book a few weeks ago. First of all, I remember there was a lot of discussion in class about Fitzgerald’s use of color (greens and blues) and the fog horn that would constantly go on and off throughout the book and what all of that symbolism was supposed to mean. Don’t even ask me if I remember the answers! I vividly remember the car crash, in which the state of the woman’s torn torso and nearly severed breast is graphically described. In fact, I found myself waiting impatiently and in dread for that part of the book to arrive on my second reading and find out if it is as gross and disturbing as I recalled (it is). The party scene stuck in my mind as the epitome of revelry and fun. As far as what touched me emotionally, I’m no longer sure what that specifically was. Perhaps it was the rich language, or the depiction of an era that just seemed to me to be so wonderful and full of life, that has stayed with me all of these years.

Was I disappointed by the book the second time around? No, but the book is definitely different for me now. First of all, I don’t recall it ever being so sad. It is truly a sad, lonely kind of book. That fog horn we talked about in school? I don’t know if there is a lonelier sound, and Fitzgerald uses it here perfectly. Secondly, I actually didn’t remember the ending to the book at all. Gatsby’s death took me completely by surprise. Even the party scenes at his home earlier on in the book were all nearly borderline depressing. At 17, having never really ever been to a raucous affair, this type of extreme partying seemed to me like the ultimate good time. Flappers, champagne, tuxedos, The Charleston, loud cars, and bobbed hair… I wanted to be IN IT. But upon re-reading the book, the party didn’t hold the same joie-de-vivre for me. Sure, Fitzgerald accurately describes folks in full gaiety and frivolity, but it’s all tinged in a drink infused haze that I am well aware now is only make-up for desperate people trying to escape the harsh realities of life. The rest of the novel feels much like a “morning after” hangover.

But, after reading “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” and  knowing what I now know about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his experiences during his marriage and the 1920s party scene, I’m more than convinced that the man was brilliant. He captures struggles with identity, loneliness, alcoholism, sexual frustration, fear of success, and fear of aging so beautifully in this novel. And it’s no coincidence that the main protagonist in Gatsby, Nick Carraway, bears a strong resemblance in character to that of his creator. For Fitzgerald, turning 30 was a career death sentence. He strongly believed that in order to be considered a success, one had to fulfill his dreams before the age of 30. He wrote “The Great Gatsby” when he was around 27, and this fear and anxiety seeps into his work. Nick turns 30 in the book and he views his life as a down-ward spiral with virtually nothing to look forward to. His eventual idol and hero, Jay Gatsby, plays on another of Fitzgerald’s big fears: the fear of becoming an unknown.

F. Scott Fitzgerald the man was driven to succeed. He had the chops, he had the talent, and all he craved was the validation. After reading Gatsby a second time, it became clear to me that one of his other greatest fears was that he indeed would become successful, validated, worthy, and famous. And it would eventually be worth nothing. Gatsby dies at the height of his popularity, but he’s remember by almost no one. None of his friends, besides Nick and his own father, attend his funeral. Daisy, Gatsby’s would-be paramour, leaves him in the end without so much as a goodbye. His name and his celebrity die away as quickly as he sprung into the public eye. It’s been described that Fitzgerald was constantly terrified of being abandoned by Zelda and by the publishing industry and literati elite. Not a coincidence at all that abandonment and self-worth are huge themes in this book.

One thing I’m also sure of is that Fitzgerald was the ultimate observer. The way he crafts his characters and scenes can only come from someone who was a constant study of human behavior. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is where Nick Carraway walks the streets of New York City and imagines what would happen if he walked up to this girl or that girl. Would they fall in love? How would his life be different? It reads like an existential search for a soul mate. It’s an achingly isolated guy going through a quarter-life crisis who doesn’t know where his life is going, but he would like it to go someplace better. It was so damn well written, I nearly wept.

I found the below gem in a recent article in The Paris Review with Toni Morrison that I think touches on the very essence of why this book is a national treasure after nearly 90 years:

“I remember introducing Eudora Welty and saying that nobody could have written those stories but her, meaning that I have a feeling about most books that at some point somebody would have written them anyway. But then there are some writers without whom certain stories would never have been written. I don’t mean the subject matter or the narrative but just the way in which they did it—their slant on it is truly unique.”

She includes F. Scott Fitzgerald in her short list of writers with a truly unique slant. Is Gatsby a unique story? Not really. At the end of the day it’s a tragic love story, and one that’s been told and retold several times. But just the way Fitzgerald captured these people and their fears and struggles with and about becoming something great and how he captured a nation in the throes of excess and desperation after having endured one of the most horrific wars in history is pure magic. The beauty behind “The Great Gatsby” is that it really can’t be replicated. Fitzgerald took a written snapshot of a moment in time that was very real and raw.

“The Great Gatsby” is no longer the romanticized fantasy that I once held it to be, nor is it an outdated classic. Sure, some of the slang is dusty and no longer used today and you could argue that Fitzgerald was occasionally guilty of overly florid language, but this is a book that truly stands the test of time. Every theme is relevant today, even if “Old Sport” is not.

You never needed to worry, F. Scott, you will always be remembered. Your greatest fear turned into your greatest triumph, and I am hereto say that my life is better because you were in it.

Can digital and print books coexist in harmony? Looks like they must…

I just read an article that states print is dead, get used to it. Well, print- books in print, to be precise- is definitely not dead but it might be if it doesn’t learn to coexist among the digital e-readers. And this brings up a great question: Can books in print and digital books live side by side, or will one medium eventually push out the other?

I’m voting for side-by-side existence. But it’s gonna take some work.

The publishing world and libraries are finally starting to get it. Recently I read that libraries are starting their very own 24hr vending library machines, similar to RedBox, in order to compete with the digital e-reader vending machines available at airports (buy a kindle before you board, kind of deal). While I worry that library book vending machines might only cater to the newest and most popular books and not have the greatest of variety, I’m amazed no one came up with the idea sooner.

And it gets even better for books-in-print readers, at least in Los Angeles. Libraries are slowly starting to realize that in order to compete with the immediacy and ease of a digital reader, they need to figure out a way to be just as accessible. Los Angeles libraries had, in years past, cut down on hours at certain branches and even closed most branches on Sundays. Not anymore. I’m very happy to report that libraries are back open and fully operational nearly 7 days a week.

Look, I get it. The fact remains that digital e-readers are just more convenient. It’s an average wait time of about 7-10 days to get a book on hold delivered to your local branch and that’s assuming the library even has the book in stock. But this doesn’t mean e-readers are necessarily always better. For example, a few months ago I downloaded a short story on my Nook for a book club meeting. I opened the file and discovered it had downloaded in a funky format leaving about 4 words on the right side of each page cut off. I emailed B&N to see what they could do about it and the help center gave me some tips to try and re-download, but no dice, the problem persisted. A week later I took my Nook into B&N store. After 30 minutes it was confirmed the issue was not with my e-reader (a 1st gen, mind you), but with the actual file itself. They would have to contact the publisher and have them send the B&N Nook department a brand new scanned file and send me an email confirmation. This was going to take two weeks. My book club meeting was a week and a half away. After waiting three weeks I still hadn’t received an email saying the new file was received, my book club meeting had already come and gone, and for all this fuss over a 98 page book, I said screw it. In the time it would have taken to get the new file, etc, I could have easily just gotten the darn book from Amazon, or even the library, and read it before my meeting.

Sometimes technology gets the better of us.

The one thing a library ultimately has over a Nook , Kindle, or iPad is that libaries are hubs. And in order to survive in the digital age- where digital libraries are now sprouting up- they have to become the ultimate meeting spaces and places for minds to meet over books. An article from the KCRW radio show “Which Way L.A.?” calls it the “Starbucks Effect”. Where folks used to check out a book and leave, now they take a book off the shelf and curl up in a chair to read. Libraries are suddenly becoming cool places to hang out. And libraries are finding they have to accommodate their digital friends too. The call for digital resources is becoming more of a demand. Digital libraries can’t very well cater to books-in-print people as well, so it is up to our libraries to break the mold.

So if you offer a safe space for book lovers and digital enthusiasts to co-mingle in harmony, how bad is that? I think you might just be on the path to change the way we view reading. Perhaps it’s not the device after all, but the place in which to read it.

For more info below is a cool link and article on changes in the publishing industry (pardon me, but the link wouldn’t show up so I copied and pasted here. Yep, I’m old school!).

http://blogs.kcrw.com/whichwayla/2014/01/the-starbucks-effect-and-the-changing-role-of-our-libraries#

Guy Kawasaki knows a thing or two about business. Kawasaki was involved in Apple’s early days and now has a new gig at Google. In between working at some of the world’s largest companies, he’s written extensively on topics like Google+self-publishing, and and the digital media revolution. His interest in digital media lead to the founding of new startup AllTop, which helps content consumers find the best headlines from all over the Web.

I learned these five lessons on a recent call where we discussed the future of publishing:

Lesson #1: Business leaders and entrepreneurs need to be looking toward the future.

Entrepreneurs and business leaders need to anticipate the business models of the future, not be stuck following the way things were done in the past. Kawasaki has seen publishers balk at the idea of a more digital future for the industry, but you can’t ignore trends.

“Publishers are basically dinosaurs,” Kawasaki said. “They look up and see a tiny speck in the sky and they think it’s dust, but it’s actually a meteor coming for them.”

You don’t have to be in the publishing industry to take this lesson to heart. Focus on the future of your industry, not the past. Know what direction your field is going, whether it’s digital adoption or mobile optimization. New technology is changing everything, from traditional publishing to advertising, hiring, and healthcare. Don’t get left behind because you’re stuck in the past.

Lesson #2: Digital is the future.

“A long-term trend will be us going in the direction of established, digital readers,” Kawasaki said. “I realize there’s a resistance to giving up paper, but just as we’re not using cartography or landmines anymore, we’re not going to be reading paper books.”

The digital reader adoption rate continues to trend upwards, with 43 percent of Americans age 16 and over owning either an e-reader or tablet. As the Pew Center for Research found, digital reader adoption has gone from only six percent in 2010 to almost 50 percent today. Ignoring the popularity of digital readers is a huge mistake.

While paper might never completely disappear, across industries digital is streamlining processes. Just take a look at what we’re doing at Open Me, keeping the ‘paper’, but making the process of sending thoughtful greeting cards easier and more efficient by focusing on the digital aspect first.

Lesson #3: Self-publishing is the future.

We’re beginning to see a self-publishing revolution, with self-published books breaking their way into the mainstream literary world and making a stir. Kawasaki believes strongly in self-publishing, having self-published Ape and What The Plus!. He points out that he can actually make more off his self-published efforts than he would with a traditional publisher.

“Ape is a $10 ebook. I make seven freaking dollars on a $10 book. For another book, the suggested retail was $25 and the street price was $16 on Amazon. So, on a $16 book, I make $9,” Kawasaki said. “So yes, you can make more for a book, but the question becomes: Will a traditional publisher sell five or six times more than you will alone? And the answer is no.”

Kawasaki sees digital and social media as great publicity channels to get the word out about self-published works. He notes traditional publishing is still great for big names like Hilary Clinton, but for smaller authors with the ability to promote their own material, self-publishing is the wave of the future.

Lesson #4: Quality journalism needs to be protected.

In the age of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, what happens to long-form journalism? Is it all replaced by baby animal GIFs thrown together by unpaid contributors? Kawasaki sees the new contributor model of digital content as a definite challenge to journalism.

He wonders how Woodward and Bernstein would have investigated Watergate without the backing and support of The Washington Post. He notes today’s digital publishers just don’t have the pageviews, money, or resources to send a reporter out into the field for six months to report on a single story. Yet, it’s important to protect and foster quality journalism, for our democracy and our world.

“I think there are going to be two solutions,” Kawasaki said. “One is that the government may have to pay for experienced journalism. The second is foundations like the MacArthur Foundation and Ford Foundation pay for investigative journalism.”

Lesson #5: The digital landscape brings greater opportunities as well as challenges.

The digital landscape is presenting challenges to the way many organizations do business, not just media and publishing. Companies need to relearn their traditional business models and shake up existing paradigms which just don’t work anymore in our digital reality.

However, it’s not all bad news when it comes to the digital revolution. Digital media is also allowing for many more voices to be heard than the traditional system would normally allow. It’s easier than ever to connect with consumers, brand your company, and listen to feedback. Now anyone with a computer and something to add to the conversation can become part of the dialogue.

“I think it’s a great time for writers because everyone can publish a book, more or less,” Kawasaki said. “But now you don’t have to rely on five publishing houses in New York to see success. So, the democratization of publishing is good in that sense.”

The digital revolution is changing many industries, including publishing. Challenges and opportunities for growth await smart companies willing to look to the future and adapt to the new digital reality.

Stairway to Book Heaven?

More and more, I’m finding friends online posting wonderful photos of people across the world incorporating books and book love into their lives in unique ways. The below photo is no exception. Why shouldn’t your favorite authors and books be displayed as a kind of art? In this case, the homeowner gives new meaning to “book case”. Love it!

book staircase

Psst- other countries have books too.

I highly recommend listening to this interview with Ann Morgan, a writer and journalist from the UK, who spent a year reading a book from every country in the world. I admire her spirit, mission, and dedication!

You can also check out her reading list and visit her blog: http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/
For readers and book lovers everywhere.
Cheers!

The Discerning Reader.

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious”- P.D. James

The above quote tickled me when I read it a few weeks ago. Call me guilty: I’ve read my share of bad lit as of late.

The thing is, I’m a stickler for finishing a book even if it is decidedly bad. I recently just finished “One Thousand White Women” by Jim Fergus and a quarter of the way into the book I put it down with the full intention that I would not pick it up again. But there it sat on my nightstand with the library due date looming and glared at me.

“Finish me! Finish me, you coward! You even had the library waste valuable resources shipping me to a different branch! You OWE me!!!”

How can I properly judge and rate a novel if I don’t finish it? Are some books just a waste of time? And most importantly, how has my writing suffered because I’m not reading “with discrimination” any literature that is thoroughly engaging, enlightening, and richly and thoughtfully written? Probably a lot. I couldn’t even be bothered to summarize Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (even though I liked the novel, it wasn’t his greatest work writing-wise).

As I move forward in my 2013 Book Challenge where I am attempting to read all 55 books on my Goodreads “To Read” list, I am still 12 books behind because I refuse to give up on the awful. I think I would be caught up by now if I properly gave up on these ho-hum selections:

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” Seth Grahame-Smith

“The Partly Cloudy Patriot” Sarah Vowell

“The Red House” Mark Haddon

“Starting Over” Debbie Macomber (a book club pick. Truly terrible)

“One Thousand White Women” Jim Fergus

However, in their defense, the above are not the type of novels or authors I normally read, so in a way I did broaden my horizons, or “Read widely” as P.D. James suggests. But perhaps that isn’t the point. I want to be a good writer and good writing isn’t strictly limited to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Steinbeck, Joyce, etc. In short, I must become a more discerning reader; to aim broadly but with  precision.

So from now on: I will give each book the first 40 pages to make its case and if the book doesn’t speak to me or is just plain bad, I will let it go. I promise. No, really, I do.

And for fun, here is my post on Goodreads about “One Thousand White Women”:

Good god, if there is a medal awarded to those who “Never give up! Never surrender!” when it comes to finishing books, then I would surely win. And I would win in a major eye-rolling contest as well, had I been given this book to read.

I almost bailed on the novel several times. In fact, I stowed “One Thousand White Women” away on my night stand in favor of another novel and fully intended to return it to the library unfinished. And if it wasn’t for a chance viewing of “Dances With Wolves” that re-sparked my interest in Native Americans circa the 1870s, I never would have picked the book back up again.

In all actuality, the research and care the author has given to the Cheyenne Indians and their tribal customs is the best part of the book. It was also the most fascinating to me because I sadly do not remember ever reading anything about Indians in such detail when I was in school (a topic for another time). He has clearly done his homework about these people and daily life, but it wasn’t enough to make the story as a whole incredibly interesting or even factually relevant. The concept of the book is extremely intriguing: it is supposedly based on an actual event where an Indian chief in the 17th Century (although the story takes place in the 19th) asked a US Colonel for 1000 white women in exchange for horses so that the Indians and Whites could properly assimilate in the new territory on account that their offspring would be of mixed blood. But Fergus takes this idea (that was also never truly acted upon that we know of) and runs with it, using the voice of one of the White women- May Dodd- as his narrator and heroine to tell the tale of what might have actually happened had this treaty gone into effect. And here is where the story goes awry.

The main reason I did not like this book- and this seems to be the consensus of EVERYONE who has reviewed the book- is that it is written by a man in the late 1990’s trying to write from a woman in the 1870’s point of view. And he fails, miserably. May Dodd, talking about herself and her emotions and feelings, is so laughably bad that I actually got quite angry at one point. She’s written as a cross between Samantha and Carrie from “Sex and the City” and in no way did I believe this was a woman from over 100 years ago (at one point he has May woefully exclaim to a fellow white woman in the Indian camp during chores that her Indian name should be “Woman in need of manicure”). Apparently the author feels that only women who are sexually enticing and adventurous can be feisty, passionate, and opinionated. I mean, come on, if you were a well-brought up woman in the Victorian era who was raised in the Church and brought up to believe sex outside of marriage is a sin and there are no role-models around you for what a healthy marriage and sex life should look like and no sex education to speak of either, and you are desperately trying to prove your sanity and that you are not a promiscuous woman, would you REALLY SAY THIS to someone who has the power to free you from a lunatic asylum:

“‘Au Contraire!’ I said, and I told the nurse of the two precious children I had already borne out of wedlock, the son and daughter, were were so cruelly torn from their mother’s bosom. ‘Indeed,’ I said, ‘so fruitful am I that if my beloved Harry Ames, Esq., simply gazed upon me with a certain romantic longing in his eyes, babes sprang from my loins like seed spilling from a grain sack’!”.

And would a woman of limited sexual education who has only had sex with one man in her life at this point in the book, REALLY have this advice to give to another woman on “carnal matters”:

“‘Oh, yes, one final thing- let him believe that he is extremely well endowed, even if, especially if, he is not’. ‘But how will I know whether or not he is well endowed?’ asked my my poor innocent Martha. ‘My dear’, I answered. ‘You do know the difference between, let us say a breakfast sausage and a bratwurst? A cornichon and a cucumber? A pencil and a pine tree?'”

Do you see what I mean when I say “Sex and the City”? In fact, I think the discussion of penis size was even a topic straight from an episode in the series. Were women of the 1870s even talking about penis size? Somehow I suspect this is a modern age concern. Plus, if you only had one lover and porn obviously wasn’t around, how would you even know how to compare one penis to another?

And what does a liberated woman of extreme passion (but who is NOT promiscuous, just another fool for love) do right after she’s freed fro the asylum to go live with the Indians as part of a government experiment? She immediately takes up with a solider as her lover, of course! The whole affair with Captain Bourke is incredibly ridiculous and unnecessary. Again, it just reminded me of how badly written May is as a character. And the other women in the book fare no better. The author’s portrayal of all the white women who participate in the experiment is so flimsy and transparent at best, and they are given no inner life. May is the only one among them who is written as showing any intellect whatsoever. And the fact that Jim Fergus felt the need to constantly write the dialogue in each woman’s dialect was cringe-inducing:

Says Gretchen Fathauer (even the name is awful), a stereotypically large Swiss German-speaking woman: “Vell, I tink de savages not be so choosy, as dat farmer yah? Sure, vy not? I make beeg, strong babies for my new hustband. Yah, I feed da whole damn nursery, yah?”

Says Meegy and Susan Kelly, Irish twins who SURPRISE, SURPRISE! are a bunch of hooligans: “It’s sartain, Susie, and that would’ve been the end of it” chimes in Margaret, “if it weren’t for that damn cash. The jeewdge went directly to his great good pal the Commissioner of Police and a manhoont the likes of which Chicago has never before seen was launched to bring the infamous Kelly twins to juicetice!”

Says Daisy Lovelace, Southern Belle and token bigot: “Why Daddy lost everythin’ during the wah, suh,”

The only person the author chose, very wisely, to not write with a regional dialect was Phemie Washington, a freed slave. Obviously, he probably would have been lambasted and critically panned for having Phemie speak like a character out of “Gone with the Wind”, but why do it to the others? Why do it all, I ask? Regardless of the character’s color and station in life, the dialogue still comes off sounding ignorant, stereotypical, and vaguely cruel.

Part of the reason I think the story suffers so is that it is too plot heavy, but I also think that the way the novel is structured was not the best way to tell the story. Using journal entries and letters, we only get to know May through May and she has an awfully high opinion of herself. And while the author is obsessed with May’s sexual appetites, apparently May herself is not too concerned about daily life as a woman in the Plains among a people and a culture that is completely foreign to her. Um, I think my first thought- and the first thought of women everywhere since the dawn of time- would be, “what do I do and where do I go when I get my period and where can I poop in private”. And wouldn’t she wonder what an Indian woman would do in this situation anyway and try to learn from her? This is not discussed (probably because men forget this happens to women every single month, and anyway, the author conveniently avoids this topic by having May and everyone else get pregnant right away), but there are several discussions about how May likes to bathe and be naked and how she likes to smell good while everyone else smells awful. Halfway through the novel, the author abandons the concept of having May write letters to her family and it is never explained why. The writing often feels clunky and uneven when it is coming strictly from May Dodd, and I wish wish wish Jim Fergus didn’t feel the need to end the book so abruptly, either!

I do have to say, in defense of the book, that it does get better as you read through it. The first half is truly awful and is the sole reason I wanted to shove this book away and never look at it again. Once he starts describing the Cheyennes and their tribe, the book picks up immensely. This is ultimately why my review is two stars and not one. It’s never a “hard” read, either, and eventually the pages flew by. But I’m left wanting something by the very end, and it makes me feel unsatisfied and just plain sad. This book could have been so much better had it been put in more capable historical-fiction-writing hands, such as Charles Frazier or Geraldine Brooks.

Moved.

My acting teacher once said that what all casting directors really want from auditioners is to be moved. That’s all it takes, really, to get the job. At the end of a long day seeing multiple actors read the same role, you remember who moved you.

And I’ve been wanting to be moved for a very long time. As I plow through my latest book on my reading challenge list, I keep remarking to myself that while it is a good book (though nothing special) something frustrating and nagging lurks at the surface and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I noticed this feeling with the last couple books I’ve read too, and it also creeps up on me as I watch the latest season of Mad Men.

Today, I finally discovered what this feeling is. I need to be moved by something, to feel something deep down in my soul, and I haven’t yet. Until I moved on to another form of entertainment I’ve neglected for way too long: the play.

If you live in Los Angeles, check out Theatre Movement Bazaar’s Hot Cat at Theatre of Note in Hollywood. It’s a movement/dance/cinema/text piece based on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof www.theatreofnote.com At first glance, it’s a kitschy, campy, and clever rendition of an old classic. But during the second half of the play, I found myself deeply and utterly moved almost to tears. The play successfully breaks down all the themes of the play to their simplest form and a small scene between four characters where nothing is said except with the body nearly brought me to feet with appreciate and GRATITUDE. Finally! 

As much as I have been moved at various times in my life by literature  in almost the same way as this play, sometimes you do have to get away from the printed word and the TV screen and connect with fellow human beings. Faith restored!

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