Book Awards Reading Challenge

After at least a month of hardy resistance to the temptations of online reading challenges, I have succumbed again. But who could resist this one, I ask you??

The "Book Awards" challenge that finally broke through my resolve was created by 3M, who explains the rules thus:

1. Read any 12 award-winning books from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008. Please look on the sidebar for eligible books from the Pulitzer, Booker, etc. prize lists. Also feel free to pick non-fiction books or other prize winners not listed.

2. Books may be cross-posted with other challenges.
You can find the blog for the challenge (or join it, for that matter) here. At the blog, 3M has posted her provisional list, a longer set of challenge rules (there are prizes!), and a wonderful list of possible awards and works you can choose from.

So, on to my (provisional. VERY provisional.) choices. I have tried to choose a number of Australian works, to fit in with my Year of Down Under Challenge (indicated by an asterisk in the list below). After December, the list may change to take into account the country I will be focusing on in 2008. I have also tried to spread my list of 12 evenly through a number of prizes, choosing at most 2 works from any single prize (although some of the works won more than one prize, and I am tricksy about this). But because I can never be truly strict with myself, I have also included a list of works that can serve either as alternates for my main list (should any book prove unappealing) or as "extra credit" reads. Here is the first draft of the list:

  1. The Bone People by Keri Hulme - BOOKER
  2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson - NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE
  3. *Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey - MILES FRANKLIN
  4. *Dirt Music by Tim Winton - MILES FRANKLIN
  5. *The Secret River by Kate Grenville - COMMONWEALTH
  6. *Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan - COMMONWEALTH
  7. Small Island by Andrea Levy - ORANGE
  8. Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin - WHITBREAD
  9. Citizen Vince by Jess Walter - EDGAR
  10. Hyperion by Dan Simmons - HUGO
  11. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler - NEBULA
  12. *The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
Alternates/Extra Credit:
  1. *Cloudstreet by Tim Winton - MILES FRANKLIN
  2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - COMMONWEALTH
  3. *The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - BOOKER
  4. Home Truths by Mavis Gallant - GOV. GENERAL'S
  5. Neuromancer by William Gibson - HUGO/NEBULA
  6. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale - WHITBREAD/MILES FRANKLIN
  7. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter - NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
  8. The Known World by Edward P. Jones - NBCC/PULITZER
  9. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald - NBCC
  10. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem - NBCC
  11. Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin - NEBULA
  12. Waiting by Ha Jin - PEN/FAULKNER
  13. March by Geraldine Brooks - PULITZER
  14. Empire Falls by Richard Russo - PULITZER

June Reading Goals

The fact that June will be another month of rampant travel prompts me to set out some reading goals (for packing as much as reading) for the next months. I will arrange it by challenge/reading group:

  • Once Upon a Time Challenge (which is almost over! Alas, this means it is almost "midsummer.")
    • "The Golden Ass" by Apuleius - I started this last night; it is very modern and lively in Robert Graves's translation.
    • "Metamorphoses" by Ovid
    • "Morphology of the Folktale" by Propp - I only have about 40 pages left in the dryest of my Once Upon a Time choices, but I had to leave it in Connecticut when I came west for the month, so alas I may not finish it until the very last moments of the challenge.
    • And, if I can get to one of my "extra credit" reads for the challenge, John Gardner's "Grendel"
  • New York Times Notable Book Challenge (I have fallen rather behind in this challenge, so now I need to step up the pace and read more than my anticipated one per month)
    • "The Inheritance of Loss" by Kiran Desai - one of the many books which I have started for the challenge, but not (as of yet) made much headway in.
    • Elias Khoury's "Gate of the Sun" - I just ordered this online, and am all a-quiver with anticipation.
  • Non-fiction Five Challenge (I haven't yet begun this challenge, although it has been running for about a month. Luckily it has rather a long time scheme.)
    • "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" by Shapiro - given to me by my grandfather last summer.
    • Capote's "In Cold Blood"
  • Year of Down Under
    • "Alice Springs" by Nikki Gemmell, recommended in Nancy Pearl's "Book Lust"
    • "The Cardboard Crown" by Martin Boyd, also a Nancy Pearl rec.
  • 52 plays 2007 Challenge
    • I am dreadfully behind in this one, but haven't packed any plays to read in CA. So I will try to read 6 this month (as a catching up effort - the normal pace would be 4 a month), but can't anticipate what they will be.
  • Chunkster Challenge (also in its final phases, and I have two yet to go)
    • "David Copperfield"
    • "Cloudsplitter" by Russell Banks
  • Reading Groups (all on Yahoo!)
    • Inimitable Boz - "David Copperfield" (see above)
    • Book Awards - "The Stone Diaries" by Carol Shields
    • 20th Century World Lit - "Cloudsplitter" (see above)
  • Non-Challenge, non-reading group books:
    • "Housekeeping," Marilynne Robinson's first novel
    • Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" (I know, I know - I am filled with shame about not having read this earlier. The same is true of "Housekeeping.")
    • "Booked to Die," the first book in John Dunning's series about a homicide detective who becomes a professional rare book trader/amateur sleuth.
    • "The Farthest Shore," the third in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series.
Now that I look at my goals set out in such an orderly fashion, I realize how ambitious they are. Not including the as-of-yet-undecided-on plays and the one optional book, there are 15 books set out here. I will let you know how much of this list I have covered by the end of the month.

Oh, sweet half-accomplishments…

According to a very rough count I just did on the train from Washington, DC to Connecticut, “Spring in a Small Town” was the 501st film I have seen of the list that makes up my 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.* You can see my progress through the project at Lists of Bests.

So, hurrah! Halfway through! I thought I would celebrate this momentous occasion by noting some of the films I am most happy to have discovered through this project so far:

1) “A Trip to the Moon” (1902)

A truly bizarre piece of early sci-fi filmmaking. This was the first film on my "1001 Movies" list, and it really got the whole project off on the right foot. [The second was "The Great Train Robbery," which ends/begins - it was shown both ways - with an extraordinary shot of a bandit shooting his gun point blank into the camera. Sort of terrifying even in today's media-savvy culture, this shot is constantly quoted in later films.] The director, Georges Meliés, burst through the boundaries of the conventional (at the time) two minute film in this epic 14-minuter, while experimenting with special effects in a way that makes it clear that cinema will be a breakthrough for the science fiction genre (Meliés was clearly just as interested in film's power to express the fantastic as its ability to record actuality). Particularly excellent is a section of the film in which, after a batty professor (played by Meliés, naturally) convinces his people to undertake a voyage to the moon, they crash directly into the eye of the man in the moon. You can watch it in an ever so slightly shortened version (and, oddly, with someone narrating the events of the film to you, if you have your sound on) at this Google Video link. I highly recommend the experience!

2) “Intolerance” (1916)

Having recently come face to face with some popular distaste for the racism at the core of his 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith sunk all his money into the lavish and intricate epic, "Intolerance," which weaves four story lines together to form one long meditation on the theme of embattled love. It is the art of juxtaposition that makes this film brilliant, but it is also statistically remarkable. Estimated to have cost $2 million of Griffith's personal fortune ("Birth of a Nation" had been - to our eyes, dismayingly - successful) to produce, its Babylon sequence alone involved monumental sets and 3000 extras.

3) “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919)

I was sorry to see that, in Filmspotting's recent Silent Movie Marathon, "Caligari" emerged as one of Adam and Sam's least favorites of the films they saw. How could they not be impressed by the low-budget expressionist masterpiece that was the production design on this film? Frustrated by the resilience of light to attempts at human manipulation, the artists behind the film (which was directed by Robert Wiene) painted the play of light on the set in explosive and threatening patterns. And how could they not have been fascinated (as my Theatre Studies students were) by the question of the "frame story" which was added at a rather late stage, to turn the whole oddity of the film into [SPOILER!!] the ramblings of a madman? Does this make the film more, or less, expressionistic? Does there really need to be a logical explanation for the angular intensity of the film?

4) “Sherlock, Jr.” (1924)

This is one of my favorite discoveries of the project. I have now seen films by all three of the great silent comedians (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin), and Keaton is by far the most inventive and accomplished. All of his films have a caliber of stunt-work that is gasp-inducing; "Sherlock, Jr.," which focuses on a movie projectionist who fantasizes about leaping into the screen and becoming a film detective, couples this with an extraordinarily complex meta-cinema. Amazing.

5) “Sunrise” (1927)

Another favorite of my students, who were studying Expressionism at the time, this hard-to-get-your-hands-on silent masterpiece by F.W. Murnau is by far my favorite of his work. The film, about a man who is convinced by his sophisticated lover to kill his wife, evokes Vermeer and the abstract allegories of Expressionism with equal success, and features brilliant performances from the heavy-footed George O'Brien and the disastrously wigged Janet Gaynor.

6) “The Unknown” (1927)

After seeing this Lon Chaney/Tod Browning collaboration, I spent several weeks doing nothing but describing the brilliant plot to anyone who would listen. Here, if you don't mind some plot-spoiling (and I don't think it will diminish the wacky brilliance of the film at all), is what I told them:
"My absolute favorite for sheer absurdity, if not for quality, is "The Unknown," directed in 1927 by Tod Browning (famous for his film "Freaks") and starring Lon Chaney as an armless circus knife thrower. Lon in fact is only pretending to be armless, because he is in fact an eleven-fingered thief and murderer hiding his distinctive hand-prints from the police (I am referring to his character as Lon, but in reality of course Lon Chaney had arms and had a armless stunt double who played his bottom half throughout the movie, performing such maneuvers as fighting off an armed [no pun intended] opponent, smoking a cigarette and swirling a glass of wine before holding it to his nose -- all with his feet). However, he falls in love with the woman he throws knives at in the circus (played by an astonishingly young and lovely Joan Crawford), who likes him because she has a vicious phobia of being held in a man's arms. Great! So Lon is the man for her. Except he fears that on their wedding night she may notice that he has arms when he takes off all his clothes. So he does the only thing a man in his situation could be expected to do: he goes to a shady doctor and has his arms cut off. Sadly for Lon, by the time he has finished his long recuperation from this operation, his lady love has recovered from her phobia and married the circus's strongman.
Is that not the best plot you have every heard? It even went on from there, but I will allow you to see what happens for yourselves. How can talkies possibly have anything to compete with the armless (armed) circus knife-thrower and his touch-averse lady-love?"

7) “The Crowd” (1928)

This is a film about absolute ordinariness, shot with such a searing sense of beauty that discrete images from it remain seared in my memory a year and a half later. Later movies are constantly quoting it, in particular two of my favorite scenes, in the first of which the hero examines himself critically in a mirror, and in the second the camera pulls back vertiginously to reveal him obliterated in the midst of his work by row after row of anonymous desks. Its plot is so purposively average as to defy explanation (on Wikipedia it only takes two sentences to summarize the whole film), but don't let that put you off. It is a stunner. And I am a plot-and-character sort of girl.

8) “Un Chien Andalou” (1928)

I am not sure whether I can add anything to the extensive and justified praises that have been lavished on this short surrealist masterpiece by Luis Bunuel. It has exerted an extraordinary influence on the horror, comedy and music video genres, so when you watch it, it will feel very familiar to you. Right before you go into visceral shock. You can watch it at Google Video.

9) “Love me Tonight” (1932)

This is the single most delightful discovery I have made while pursuing this project, and virtually every day since I first watched it, I have wished that I had it in front of me to watch over again. Starring a young (ha! he was in his forties) Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, and the luminous Myrna Loy in a smaller role, this is quite possibly the finest musical ever made, at a time when the mechanics of filming made it difficult to pursue the genre. But it is also quite unlike later film musicals, buoyed by the wit of the script, the charm of the actors, the cinematic innovations of its director, and the addictiveness of its tunes. Particularly fine is the long "Isn't it Romantic" sequence, which follows the addiction of this famous song as it is passed from character to character, each of whom, upon hearing it, can't help but add their own verse. If you haven't seen this yet (and even if you think that musicals aren't your bag), you MUST rush out and see it immediately.

10) “Stagecoach” (1939)

This was John Ford's first talkie Western, John Wayne's breakthrough film, and the film that made the Western a mainstream genre. The stunts are amazing, the location shooting (also paradigm shifting, since westerns were being shot on sound stages before this) in Monument Valley is stunning, and John Wayne as the Ringo Kid is silent and charismatic. But most of all, this film convinced me to love the western (I never thought I would) for what it does best: bring together people of all different types, classes and backgrounds in a perilous situation (confined to an imperiled stagecoach, in this case) and force them to act out the metaphorical struggles of democratic nation-making.

11) “Le Jour se Leve” (1939)

"Le Jour se Leve" is at the top of the list of movies I want to return to when I am done with this project, because it had an immediate and profound emotional effect on me, but I can't remember it nearly as well as I would like. It is a claustrophobic, intense film about the motivation behind a murder, and won me over eternally to the magnetic Jean Gabin.

12) “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947)

My favorite (and I am not in the majority here) of Charlie Chaplin's films is actually a talkie, and a talkie in which the Little Tramp is transformed into a serial killer, no less. The gossip behind this film is that Orson Welles sold the rights to it to Chaplin, and it is one of those wonderful alternative history delights that film provides us with so often to imagine the dark and cynical film Welles would have produced given the same plot. With Chaplin, instead, we get a warm social-message film, in which the full brunt of his charm wins us over to a truly macabre point of view.

13) “Red River” (1948)

My other favorite western, featuring some truly spectacular homoerotic tension, "Red River" explores the relationship between cruelly stubborn Thomas Dunson (played spectacularly by John Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift), as they struggle to protect their interests on a perilous cattle drive. OK, so it goes a bit astray with its happy ending, and the lone female character has an appalling effect on the plot, but this is a masterpiece of overwrought subtext.

14) “The Snake Pit” (1948)

If John Wayne was my biggest surprise among classic actors during this project, Olivia de Havilland was my great conversion among the actresses. She is extraordinarily good in both "The Heiress" and "The Snake Pit," the latter of which was a ground-breaking portrayal of severe mental illness and its institutional treatment. De Havilland plays a woman suffering from a severe psychosis that has many of the hallmarks of schizophrenia, and is committed by her loving but bewildered husband to a state psychiatric facility. This is a portrayal of psychotherapy in its most triumphalist Freudian mode (a mode few Freudians now would endorse): the therapist is an omnipotent sleuth who, once he has solved the puzzle of the patient, can provide a miraculous cure. But, apart from this, the film (directed by Anatole Litvak) takes few easy paths, and remains one of the more sober and innovative portrayals of both the experience of illness itself (the film begins with a startling filmic approximation of aural hallucinations) and the failures in the way our society treats the ill.

15) “All about Eve” (1950)

I think I did in fact see "All About Eve" long ago, but I had forgotten it so completely that it emerged as a VERY uncomfortable surprise when I returned to it through this project. I love a good backstage story, and all the elements are perfectly gauged here, but the perfection yields a claustrophically depressing experience. If you haven't seen this most famous tale of mimetic envy, go out and savor the discomfort.

16) “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

Another excellent meta-tale in which Hollywood reflects on what it is to be an entertainer. This classic tale of the delusional, washed-up silent star Norma Desmond is rife with gossipy Hollywood mise-en-abymes: Cecille B. De Mille shows up in the film's most famous scene, playing himself, of course, but the incomparably wonderful Erich von Stroheim plays a more significant role as Desmond's butler/ex-husband/former director (von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson, who plays Desmond, had a notoriously stormy past as a director/actress pair). Like "All about Eve," "Sunset Boulevard" is both witty and marvellously constructed.

17) “The Big Carnival,” a.k.a. "Ace in the Hole" (1951)

My other favorite of Billy Wilder's oeuvre, this also showcases the finest performance I have seen the histrionic and savage Kirk Douglas give yet. It is a satire on a media-saturated culture that has aged very well: in it, Douglas plays an unscrupulous, disgraced reporter who, eager to claw his way back up to the top of the profession, manipulates and prolongs a disaster in order to create a better story. The final shot of the film is one of the best (and most actor-bruising) I have seen in some time.

18) “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

I have never been a tremendous fan of Tennessee Williams, but "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Suddenly Last Summer" have forced me into a wholesale reconsideration of the man's work. All the major players here are at their best, and the result is a heady, humid film.

19) “Forbidden Games” (1952)

A gleaming tale of the amorality of childhood, and its self-sufficiency. "Forbidden Games" follows the integration of a little girl into a new family after both her parents are killed by bombs as they fled the ravages of WWII. Now that I have read "Suite Française" by Irene Nemirovsky, I am reminded of it when I think of this film by René Clement: both works have cynical moments of horror couched within tales of great tenderness and sympathy. It is also worth noting the very high quality of performance that Clement drew from his two child actors, who very much carry the film.

20) “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

I just can't seem to resist the meta. Or Gene Kelly for that matter. "Singin' in the Rain," like "Sunset Boulevard," makes much of the difficult transition from silence to sound that wrenched apart Hollywood hierarchies a few decades before. I went into this movie for the first time a few months ago prepared for a sugary confection of pure sentiment - the filmic equivalent of dimples - but instead I was surprised by its wit and (what Kelly always brought to his projects) a superhuman enthusiasm that absolutely demands a response from the spectator.

21) “Tales of Ugetsu” (1953)

Halfway through this film, I felt despair: I was somehow inert in the face of Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece. By the film's end, I was transported. I can't tell you what happened to convert me, because I don't want to deny you the experience that I had. So I will just send you in search of this startling film.

* I should note that there were a number of films from the list before beginning this project, and am not revisiting films unless I can’t remember them at all. So, although I have been working on this project for several years now (since 2005, I believe), I haven’t watched all 501 of these films in that time. Just most of them.

"Spring in a Small Town" dir. Fei Mu

In a town so small it seems to be made up of only one tiny family, the bored Yuwen walks the deserted, ancient walls as long and as often as possible, trying to forget her marriage to the sickly Liyan, whom she has never loved. Liyan spends his days moping about the garden of his crumbling house, in despair that his family’s fortune and power have declined so far under his feeble stewardship, snapping at his sprightly schoolgirl sister and trying in vain to have heart-to-hearts with his increasingly cold wife.

A thaw spreads through the household with the visit of Liyan’s childhood friend Zhichen, now a doctor, who, we soon find, has an equally affectionate history with every member of the household, although the affection takes different forms of amorousness. While Liyan fondly plans to marry his friend off to his young sister, after a suitable number of years, it gradually becomes clear to him (and, much more rapidly, to us) that Zhichen has considerably more interest in Yuwen, who was the doctor’s neighbor growing up, and whom he should have married. A complex dance between desire and honor ensues, complicated by a profound affection (read “sexual tension”) between Zhichen and Liyan, as well as between both men and Yuwen.

Although I have only jumped back about ten years in my progress through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in order to see this film (having just discovered its availability on Netflix), the historical gap seems much longer, as if this really should be a silent movie, with all that era’s symbolic expansiveness of gesture. When I called the plot a “complex dance between desire and honor,” I meant it literally as well as metaphorically: much of the movie occurs in silence, and gesture acquires an almost balletic importance.

The orientation of the actors’ bodies to one another and to the camera are often fascinatingly unconventional. In one scene, Yuwen circles around the front of Liyan (who holds her by the hand) in a wide arc, eclipsing him as she passes between him and the camera with her back turned to us. I can’t think of another film off the top of my head that did this with the planes of space between us/the camera and the characters’ faces. In another scene, Zhichen stands on a low wall, towering above Liyan, who holds his hand affectionately and begs him not to leave the house (the doctor’s morals have been making him skittish). The hushed, gestural (rather than vocal or verbal) quality of the film emphasizes the furtive nature of the plot, in which anxious caresses are exchanged behind locked doors with glass panels and great care is taken not to disturb the calm of Liyan’s sickroom. So too does the wonderful voiceover by Wei Wei, who plays Yuwen, in which she seems to be whispering breathless poetry to us behind the backs of all the characters, including her own.

Perhaps the strangest and most disconcerting of Spring’s filmic techniques is Fei Mu’s habit of changing “scenes” without moving the camera. In other words, a shot will come to an end in the middle of a dramatic scene (a single dialogue between two characters, for instance, taking place in a single stretch of dramatic time), and when the new shot begins the camera will have remained stationary, the stage setting will still be the same, but the actors will have moved during the cut from shot to shot. My poor education in cinematic art leaves me unaware of any term there might be for this technique – so if you know, I would love to hear about it.

Spring in a Small Town was released in 1948, and Fei Mu died only a few years later in 1951. The film was banned for many years in China, perhaps for its frankness about adultery, perhaps for its implicit individualism. In 2002, however, after a long enforced hiatus from filmmaking following The Blue Kite, Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang remade Spring in what is apparently an impressive film in its own right. I look forward to seeing it. Despite a certain wooden theatricality (by no means a bad word in my lexicon) that accompanied my sense that Fei Mu’s film belonged to an earlier era, this emerged as a delicate, lovely film and an affectionate narrative of gestures.

Spring in a Small Town
dir. Fei Mu

"Children of Men" dir. Alfonso Cuarón

After attempting last night to ensnare my father in the addiction to Battlestar Galactica that has such a vise-like grip on my mother, my boyfriend, my roommates, and myself, my parents and I moved on delightedly to last year's Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of a dystopic fertility-drama by P.D. James. I have been wondering of late why two of my favorite sci-fi shows, LOST and Battlestar, are so enthralled by issues of fertility (and particularly by the idea of women being stolen away from their community to serve as birthing vessels or harvested for ovaries). What does this say about the reproductive politics and anxieties of our age? And Children of Men continues that theme, making (I have heard) a crucial adaptation to the source novel's plot (from the standpoint of the title's logic, at least): in James's book, the world's population is growing older and dying out because human men are no longer fertile. In the film, it is the women of the world who begin miscarrying, and then no longer become pregnant. But unlike its television brethren, Children of Men fails to make much of these anxieties about fertility by (for instance) tying them in any kind of a complex way to the perils of hybridity.

But, under the benign influence of Adam and Sam at Filmspotting, who have a rule that their reviews should always begin with the positive, perhaps I should begin by admiring Cuaron's cinematographic choices, most notably a long, LONG shot that forms the spine of a painstakingly choreographed battle scene. Explosions are constant, limbs and limbless people litter the scene, and when blood spatters the camera lens, the spatter remains for several more minutes of violence. The whole film partakes in a grittily realistic aesthetic that strives to make the apocalyptic future seem as much the same as our present day as possible. Virtually every time you think that the Hollywood demand for a peaceful, happy ending has triumped, a new outbreak of terror and violence disillusions you.

Much as I like the attention to detail that is the film's hallmark, it all seems rather mannered: heavy on intent and light on meaning. The constant evocation of the political iconography of our times (hooded prisoners, a freedom fighter's funeral with crowds of Arabs chanting "Allahu Akbar") seems flippantly citational rather than coherently allegorical. Overall, the film has the air of being all ending: characters consistently fall by the wayside of the film's central quest (to deliver a miraculously pregnant woman to safety) before we feel we know them, which minimizes both our narrative engagement and our sense of the characters humanity. This is a troubling narrative strategy, since many of these characters are, in fact, the ignored and dehumanized of society, made at best into symbols and vessels for other people's feelings. And that is indeed what the film's only non-expendable character remains at the film's end.

Even the realist aesthetic leaves something to be desired, in the end. Apocalypse and dystopia can easily seem mannered, which is why so many of the best films of this genre (consider Bladerunner) exploit an extreme aesthetic that makes allegory, symbolism and philosophical speculation seem less contrived.

But this brings me to a question: why is the UK such a magnetic setting for apocalyptic and dystopian fantasies (think 28 Days Later or Brave New World)? Is it something to do with being an island culture, with borders more easily closed and guarded against danger, help and otherness? Or is it an inheritance of the Blitz mentality and the accompanying peril of occupation? Does anyone have any theories?

Children of Men
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

"Something Rotten" by Jasper Fforde

I finished the fourth and last of Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series a couple of nights ago, a series based on a madcap melding of classic British literature with the police procedural and mystery genres. At first I found these books madly witty and gripping reads, but this last one was actually a bit tedious (I am doing my best not to make a nasty, reviewerly pun on the title). When Thursday, the overburdened heroine who always seems to triumph through a masterpiece of luck rather than skill, takes on impossible task after impossible task* I merely found myself thinking "Sigh. Are there really enough hours in the day for her to accomplish all this and pick up the baby from the sitter?" And it seems to me to be a bad sign when the reader is thinking about the protagonist's planner/diary when she is supposed to be enthralled by the plot.

Mostly I just miss the literary wit of the previous volumes in the series, a few of which took place at least in part in the world of literature. Somehow, Fforde's experiments with averting fate seemed more complex when fate was literally textual, and what was at stake was, for instance, preserving the denouement of Jane Eyre we all know, love, and find endlessly troubling. Something Rotten returns to the "real world" of Fforde's satirically alternative England (where the established church is that of the Global Standard Deity, or "Gsd," and there is a demilitarized zone separating England from Wales) in order to weave together several series-long plot-lines, but there just seems to be too much to do, without much personality to drive it along. Alas!

Something Rotten
Jasper Fforde
Finished May 17, 2007 in Washington, DC

*In this book, Thursday is trying to un-eradicate her husband, whose birth has been wiped out by unscrupulous time travelers; save Hamlet from being colonized by The Merry Wives of Windsor; smuggle Danish literature out of England into the Socialist Republic of Wales before it is burned by the scapegoat-hungry government of Prime Minister Yorick Kaine, while convincing her superiors at her government job that she is vigorously hunting for seditiously Danish books; prevent Kaine from declaring despotic rule over the country by (don't ask me to explain the causality of this) ensuring that her hometown team wins the croquet tournament; raise young Friday, her son, who will only speak in Lorem Ipsum (the faux Latin that graphic designers and book layers-out use as dummy text); and avoid being assassinated by the spouse of a close friend. Believe me when I tell you that, as spoilerish as the above may seem, it really only describes the beginnings of each of these plot-lines.

[Addendum, May 20, 2007: I just remembered that this was one of the works for both my Once Upon a Time Challenge and my Chunkster Challenge. I am about a month behind on the Chunkster, and am not sure what my last two books for the challenge will be. Perhaps David Copperfield will be one. As for the Once upon a Time Challenge, which ends about a week before the Chunkster, I am equally behind, having finished a mere two of my five books. But I will say this for myself - I have begun the very dry Morphology of the Folktale and have every intention of finishing it. I am nothing if not optimistic in my intentions. My Down Under Challenge is the only one of my massive reading goals that is proceeding according to ambition; my 52 plays and New York Times Notable Book Challenges are both sadly neglected. I blame never being at home for more than a week and a half at a time. Curse you, compulsive travel!]


So I am back in the U.S. of A. after a month abroad, and was sitting down a few minutes ago to read the fourth chapter of David Copperfield for my Dickens book group (it is the chapter in which David comes home from an idyllic seaside holiday to find his mother remarried to the tyrannical and grimly named Mr. Murdstone) when I found it was making me so profoundly anxious that I actually HAD to close the book and put it aside.

So, to dispel my anxiety, I will tell a brief, happy tale, a tale which expands on the themes of poor David's experience.

My trip back from the UK was long, tedious, and distinctly uncomfortable. It involved a whole day of travel, several enormous and leaden bags (despite my resolution not to bring many books on this trip), two underground lines with no elevator access, a claustrophobic daytime plane trip in which everyone around me glared hatefully at me whenever I turned on my light to read, a LONG bus ride into New York, and then a LONG train ride out of the city again -- all before I arrived at my apartment and lugged the massive baggage up the &^%* stairs.

So I arrived at JFK airport in a fairly frayed mood, let us say. And when I arrived, I had a message on my cellphone from my California-dwelling boyfriend of seven and a half years, whose tone usually ranges broadly from deadpan to taciturn. In this message, however, he sounded rather upbeat, although all he said was something along the lines of "Call me to let me know you got in OK." So, as I waited for my luggage in a room that was (of course) rather weak in the cell phone service department, I became intrigued by this unusual tone and called him back to say "I'm here!" To which he replied: "That's good. So... [crackle crackle crackle] will you be [crackle crackle crackle]...."

"What?" I replied. "Say that again?"
"I can't [crackle crackle] reception [crackle]!" came his answer.

So, driven to the edge of annoyance, I yelled, "DID YOU HAVE SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO TELL ME?? TELL ME BEFORE WE GET CUT OFF!!!," drawing stares from those around me, including the customs officials.


-he said, in an abashed sort of way. Which of course, made me feel abashed in return.

When I called him back from outside the airport (waiting interminably for the bus to the city), I apologized for my frustrated yelling, and explained that the tone of his message had planted an odd seed of hope that he would be waiting outside the arrivals area with one of those little signs. He laughed and said that in that case, he should probably hop on the train. "You are the world's worst liar," I said, and he moved on to describe the chores he had been doing, and how he needed to make an appointment with his dentist (as I was haranguing him to do that day or the next). I spent the rest of my bus and train rides sulking unfairly at him from afar for not surprising me at the airport, after traveling across the country in secret to visit me.

So I dragged myself up the stairs of my apartment, and who should be sitting in our living room, watching TV, but my boyfriend.

Who, I should clarify, is in fact the world's BEST liar. I'll have to keep my eye on him....

Most dispiriting thing I read today

From an article on threats against Barack Obama and his request for secret service protection in the Sunday Times of London (“Security net for Democrat with rally appeal” by Sarah Baxter, May 6, 2007), in a section discussing the reaction of his wife:

"Michelle Obama comforts herself with the thought that no African-American is free from the threat of violence. ‘I don’t lose sleep over it because the realities are that, as a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station,’ she said.”

She *comforts* herself with that thought? How on earth did the reporter translate Michelle Obama’s almost satirically cynical comment on violence and racism in American life to the idea that she is vaguely soothed by the fear and anger that this racism interjects into the lives of those who are its targets? I searched the article for hints of irony, but I am sad to say I found none.

Enthusiasm du jour

I blame my new entrancement on British television’s strange and profound talent for producing fascinating property shows. I could spend hour upon hour gaping mindlessly at the mundane but intricate strivings of perfectly ordinary people after the house of their dreams. But now I have encountered the pinnacle of this genre, a series (called Grand Designs) so entrancing that I am already laying plans to watch new episodes online when I return to the “Homeland” next week and am deprived of my Channel Four property-show fix. Each week new owners, some rich but many not, embark on the lengthy and always financially ruinous pursuit of an innovative home they have built, designed or shaped themselves. This evening the episode featured a couple who were determined to practice self-sufficiency in a giant octagonal hobbit-house built virtually single-handedly by the carpenter husband and roofed largely by the very able wife. By the end of the episode, despite ample evidence of the extreme hardship of the house’s birth pains, I found myself fighting back wild cravings to build my own residence out of straw bales (The house material of the people! Cheap, durable, replenishable! Anyone can learn to do it!), acquire a dry compost toilet (Not stinky at all! The man on television said so!), and invest in wind turbines. I am, I sometimes think, somewhat too suggestible.

The Best Thing I Read Today

From a New Yorker article (“Our Town” by Jill Lepore, April 2, 2007) on the Jamestown colony and the questionable veracity of the legendary Captain John Smith (who wrote an impossibly boastful memoir called True Travels):

“Philip Barbour, a linguist and former intelligence officer, scoured archives across Eastern Europe, where he was able to corroborate an astonishing number of details in Smith’s True Travels. All manner of additional research – including a successful re-creation, by the Boy Scouts of Graz, Austria, of a mountaintop torch-message system that Smith had described but which had never before been tested – further supported the Captain’s credibility.”

My opinion of the Boy Scouts, which is still scarred by their homophobic policies, is buoyed by the idea that somewhere in the world, troops are wholeheartedly verifying 400-year-old memoirs.

“Vernon God Little”

Vernon God Little (Theatre)
Adapted from DBC Pierre’s novel by Tanya Ronder
Seen at: The Young Vic - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Vernon Little is a man much put upon. A none-too-sympathetic bastion of averageness in a sea of intolerably selfish people. The play begins in the aftermath of a school shooting, with a tone perhaps slightly more satirical than is wholly comfortable for an audience still wincing at our fascination with the tragic events at Virginia Tech. Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, has rushed from the classroom amid taunts from his fellow students, and returned to the high school fully armed and murderous. Vernon, curiously absent during the massacre-suicide that wiped out all of his friends, is immediately tarred with his friend’s feather: outsider, oddity, pariah. The proof can be found in every trace of teenaged alienation: his mother’s lingerie catalogues hidden with internet porn under his floorboards, a joint and some Acid he was holding for a friend, his curious inability to account for his attitudes and behaviors. When the media come to his small Texan town, led by charlatan/impresario Lally (who promptly seduces Vernon’s mother, a woman so terminally self-absorbed that she can only show interest in her son by asking after his bowel movements), Vernon is caught up in a frenzy of interpretation so ludicrous it begins creating its own violence to match the hype.

The Young Vic’s production is still in previews, and its edges remain a little rough, no doubt because an actor in the complex ensemble production had to be replaced at the last minute after a serious accident. Years ago I produced a show that encountered the same stumbling block a few days before opening, and I am not sure I have gotten over the stress yet, so I have instinctive sympathy for these actors and the crew. Although the show is filled with a manic enthusiasm that I can’t help but admire (and that is clearly a necessity with this expansive script), it has yet to find the proper rhythm that will make the chaos of the plot unwind meaningfully and the dialogue cohere with audience reaction. And seeing a play off its rhythm is a painful thing, even if the plot of Vernon God Little weren’t already so excruciating, so unrelentingly disastrous, that it is hard to endure (I seem to remember that the Booker Prize-winning novel, which I have not yet read, encountered this reaction from a number of readers). Sometimes the manic energy shades off into a recklessness or imprecise broadness of acting which makes blocking absurd rather than, well, absurdist (showing the flight of our hero by having him run in place seems like something out of a scene prepared half-hearted for a high school acting class) and turns characters into cartoons. Hopefully the previews will give the production time to acquire to polish that made the allegories in the Young Vic’s Brecht Fest such paragons of non-naturalistic characterization.

A couple of odds and ends:

First, the American accents struck me as better than those I often hear on the British stage, with its fondness for Arthur Miller that yields a “boy, golly” accent with the squeakiness of a – painting. Then I had to ask myself, is the Texan accent just easier to acquire than more neutral or mild American dialects, or is it my unfamiliarity with it that is blinding (or, rather, deafening) me to the flaws. Certainly I am now much more sensitive to the Southernism I know well, the range of North Carolinian accents that have been imitated so poorly by non-Tar Heel actors in the recent spate of films set in the state (Loggerheads, for instance, or Junebug), and cringe at stereotypical drawls which would have struck me as perfectly authentic a few years before.

Secondly, this production provided me with the very odd experience of seeing country line dancing for the second time in as many days on the London stage. But this time enthusiasm held true for the company, and their heel-slapping was so much more lively (and motivated) than that in Attempts on Her Life (last night's show) that I involuntarily let out a tiny whoop of appreciation and delight. Cheers to them for that.