Saturday, October 31, 2015

Movies for Readers: Brooklyn

This is a beautifully shot movie - the colors (especially all those pastels) and the scenery are perfect for the period in which it is placed.  Brooklyn, set in 1950s Ireland and New York, is based on the popular 2009 novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín , although it should be noted that the screenplay was written by the wonderful Nick Hornby.

The basic storyline involves a young woman who, unable to find work in Ireland, is convinced by a visiting New York priest to take advantages of the job opportunities in that city.  But just when she has gotten settled into her new life fallen in love, a family tragedy forces her to visit her home country.  There she briefly rekindles a romance with an old boyfriend and faces pressure from her mother not to return to the United States.  

This one sounds as much a coming-of-age story for the U.S. as it is for the movie's main character.  Best of all, though, it appears to be a literary movie based upon a well accepted literary novel.

Movies for Readers: No. 2

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Jonathan Franzen Reads Bedtime Story to Colbert

I love this YouTube clip for a number of reasons: Jonathan Franzen shows more "personality," frankly, than I expected from him, the story he reads is relatively clever, and the ironic ending to the clip actually made me laugh.  For me, a little of Colbert's persona goes a long, long way, but this backhanded endorsement of independent bookstores is really pretty funny.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tortilla Flat

Frankly, I do not know what to think about John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.  On the one hand, this 1935 novel is an entertaining look at life through the eyes of a bunch of men whose biggest concern in life is where their next bottle of wine is coming from; on the other, the novel tends to leave the impression that everyone living in the Tortilla Flat section of Monterey, California, is shiftless and lazy.  And that impression, considering that all the characters in Tortilla Flat are (or would be called in today’s terms) Hispanics, is not one that leaves the reader very comfortable.

Danny and his friends are actually “paisanos.”  As Steinbeck puts it, a paisano “is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods.  His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years…when questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is nearly white.” 

Danny’s crew has more in common than the love of drink.  He and several of his friends, in a moment of drunken patriotism, joined the military at the outbreak of World War I, and now they have returned one-by-one to Tortilla Flat to resume the lives they temporarily abandoned.  The boys had varying degrees of success during the war.  Danny himself never left the States, others of them saw the fighting, and at least one of them spent most of the war in the brig.  But now they are home and they have resumed a shiftless lifestyle that sees them working only long enough to earn the next bottle or two of wine. 

Author John Steinbeck
Then Danny receives something of a mixed blessing when he inherits the two Tortilla Flat houses owned by his elderly grandfather.  His neighborhood prestige and status are immediately enhanced, but Danny is quick to feel the burdens of property ownership - and, rather than being excited by his windfall, Danny is troubled and unhappy.  It is only when his friends begin to move into his houses with him that Danny is finally able to settle into his new lifestyle, but even then he misses the carefree (and often violent) lifestyle that he lived before the war.  Danny simply misses his old life:

            “When Danny thought of the old lost time, he could taste again how good the stolen food was, and he longed for that old time again.  Since his inheritance had lifted him, he had not fought often.  He had been drunk, but not adventurously so.  Always the weight of the house was upon him; always the responsibility to his friends.”

Danny and his friends may be living lives filled with personal tragedy, but they live and love exactly as they wish.  They are their own men and, although most of us would condemn their habits and their lifestyles, they are happy.  But looking at the novle through today’s eyes, I still don’t know what to think of Tortilla Flat.  Is it insensitive and unfair, or is it simply a well-written product of its times?  Each of us, I suppose, will have to decide that for ourselves.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Great News: A Brand New Book from Ruth Rendell: Dark Corners

I have to say that this may be the best book news I've learned of this whole year.  Get this: one last Ruth Rendell book is still to be published because according to The Guardian, Ms. Rendell had just completed a new manuscript shortly before suffering the stroke that would soon kill her. The new book is titled Dark Corners:
From the impressive variety of tones and styles to which she had access as a writer, Rendell chose for Dark Corners black comedy that echoes Muriel Spark. One homicidal character consoles himself that “what he had done had been very close to an accident”, while another keeps passing on bizarre items from newspapers, such as a warning that visitors to zoos shouldn’t wear clothes with animal-skin patterns, because they confuse the animals. Among many sharp asides in the narrative voice is a reflection on why atheists are so exercised by whether the Church of England uses the Book of Common Prayer or modern translations.
Dark Corners, although a minor work compared to Rendell titles such as Simisolaor the Vine book A Fatal Inversion, enjoyably and honourably concludes Rendell’s six decades of exploring the death force that, as her last book demonstrates, may be triggered in unexpected people and places.
Author Ruth Rendell
Almost prophetically, although Rendell could not have known how true her final words would turn out to be, the book's last sentence reads, "Now it's all over."  If that doesn't make a Ruth Rendell fan tear up just a little bit, they are tougher than I am.

The only way this news could be better (at least to me) is if the new book were  a final Inspector Wexford novel rather than the standalone that it turns out to be.  But don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining.  This is a gift I never expected to receive and I can't wait to open it.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

First and Last Sentences from Some of My All-Time Favorites - Do They Predict My Love of the Books?

I got to wondering this morning whether or not my all-time favorite books have anything noticeable in common.  I thought, hey, maybe if I figure that out, I'll be able to choose my next all-time favorite sooner rather than later.  One of the first things I noticed about them is that, generally, their opening sentences are intriguing and kind of mysterious...and their closing sentences manage to pack the kind of punch that is always satisfying at the end of a longish book.

Here's an example from Philipp Meyer's 2013 novel The Son (a book that I really want to re-read sometime in 2016): 

Opening sentence: "It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it."

Closing sentence: "As far as I know he is looking for me yet."

Doesn't that make you want to find out what happened to this old person in between those two sentences?  

Or how about this from a book that introduces some of my very favorite characters of all-time (and that

Opening sentence: "When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake -  not a very big one."

Ending sentence: "They say he missed that whore."

Right from the get-go, I knew I had not picked up a run-of-the-mill Western because Larry McMurtry set the irreverent tone that would be present throughout the rest of the book's 843 pages.  I was hooked.

And then there's this from the book that turned me into a lifelong reader of John Irving's fiction:

First sentence: "Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater."

Ending sentence: "But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases."

It is pretty evident that the odds that Garp has had a normal childhood and life are pretty low ones.  Whose fault is that going to be, his or his mother's?  And just how weird is this going to get (pretty weird, as it turns out)?

Monday, October 26, 2015

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante is one of the publishing world’s biggest mysteries of the moment.  Despite her great sales and critical success, no one seems to know who the woman (if she really is a woman) is.  There is even speculation that her four-book Neapolitan series is more of a memoir than a novel serialization.  And there is little doubt that all of the mystery surrounding Ferrante and her books has increased the attention they are getting.  All that said, if the first book in the Neapolitan series, 2012’s My Brilliant Friend, is any indication, the series is indeed a strong one, and the books are capable of standing on their own.

My Brilliant Friend introduces two little girls who first meet in the early 1950s in a poor neighborhood just outside Naples.  Elena (the book’s first person narrator) and Lila are two of the brightest students in their neighborhood school and, being top candidates for the school’s highest honors, their relationship soon becomes more a friendly rivalry than a friendship.  Elena, though, is a bit intimidated by the ease with which Lila seems to acquire and display her knowledge.  After a while, Elena is content to be number two to Lila’s number one and that is the only achievement she really strives for.

The novel actually opens in the present, with both women now in their sixties and still friends of a sort.  It seems that Lila has disappeared without a trace and that her son, after waiting two full weeks, has decided finally to call Elena to see if she knows where Lila could be.  Ferrante uses this opening segment to segue neatly into how the women first met and how their decades-long relationship slowly evolved over time.  My Brilliant Friend is, in fact, a coming-of-age narrative for both our narrator and for her supposed closest friend, Lila.

Author Elena Ferrante
Elena and Lila live in a very self-contained little neighborhood in which everyone knows and tracks the intimacies of everyone else.  Certain families, it seems, made their fortunes during and just following World War II, a period that left Italy in the kind of chaos in which huge profits could be made from a thriving black-market.  Those families are still the most powerful ones in the neighborhood – and they are not to be crossed.  As the girls make their way through childhood and adolescence, they experience the usual emotions and pains of those phases of life.  Sometimes they are intimate friends, but at other times they barely speak for weeks, or even months.  They and their friends have good times, but life is easy for none of them.

Ferrante has created a wide cast of well developed characters in My Brilliant Friend that will serve her well for the next three books in the series.  Speculation as to whether or not the books are based on Ferrante’s own life and memories offers a little twist to reading her, but that doesn’t really matter.  What counts most is that she is one heck of a storyteller.  This is literary fiction at its best.

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sally Has a Library Card - and Life Is Good

Sometimes life's simplest pleasure are its best pleasures.  Remember to enjoy the simple things that give you pleasure for a lifetime if you let them.

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Joyce Carol Oates Tweet

  1. Expecting students to be "open-minded" about opinions contrary to their own may be unrealistic when many/most adults are close-minded.
  2. For example, not one person of my acquaintance is going to "seriously consider" GOP candidates let alone anti-feminism.

I pulled this rather horrible attempt at a screen shot from my Twitter feed a few minutes ago.  As bad as it looks, I want to share it this morning because Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite authors in the world, is making a very good point here.  Ms. Oates has made some mystifying tweets in recent months that have thrown many  people for a loop, so after reading the first tweet shown above, I was afraid that she might be demonstrating a lack of self-awareness on her own part (because I know a bit about her politics and can't imagine her ever voting for a Republican).  But thankfully, she followed up nine minutes later with the second tweet.

And that got me to thinking about my own circles.  With one or two exceptions, no one that I personally know in my "real world" is going to "seriously consider" voting for a Democrat.  I do know a lot of people who would never vote for a Republican, but they are not people that I see and talk with every day and, for the most part, they live in other parts of the state or country.  The point is that we largely self-segregate ourselves among people who believe the same things we believe, people who look and think like us.  Our friends and neighbors generally support the beliefs we already have - and that makes us all lazy and unwilling to modify our beliefs. 

And that, as Ms. Oates is pointing out here, is our own fault.  Thankfully, I have friends on the internet who share articles, thoughts, and insights on the issues of the day with me.  I do the same for them...and guess what?  Most all of us have tended to move toward the middle of the political spectrum even to the point that we can honestly call ourselves moderates now.  Sadly enough, however,  because both major political parties in this country are dominated by extremists, we end up with no candidate to call our own.  But our eyes are open wide and we can, and will, make the best choice possible.

I hope Ms. Oates and her friends try to do the same instead of voting the same old way they and everyone they know alway have. I wish all of us would do that.

(May 2019 Edit:  Boy, was I wrong about Oates. She lost her mind.)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Barnes & Noble Really Regrets Driving All Those Independent Bookstores Out of Business and Now Wants to Re-create That Experience Via an E-Reader? Gimme a Break

For obvious reasons, Barnes & Nobles is probably considerably more understanding today about how it feels to be forced to close down bookstores than the chain was back in the nineties when it was rather gleefully causing independent bookstores around the country to fall like a chain of dominoes.  "What goes around, comes around" is a cliché that became a cliché for good reason, but the gods of Barnes & Noble management certainly never expected something like an Amazon to come along to so quickly to knock them off the lofty perch they had assumed would be theirs for a while.

Galen Moore over at the website BostInno has an interesting take on precisely that bit of bookstore history:
Now, indie bookstores are back stronger than ever. Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble's future is uncertain. Now the big-box bookstore chain wants to bring back the experience of browsing books in a bookstore with a knowledgeable staff to help with good picks. Except they're bringing it back on an e-reader. 

So Barnes & Nobles wants to bring back that old independent bookstore experience for its customers - even though so many of its bookstore employees don't seem to know squat about books - but they want to do it on their proprietary e-reader, the Nook.  Give me a break, B&N.

Here's my favorite part of Mr. Moore's article:
 Sales of their Nook e-reader keep falling. If current trends persist, at some point there will be more indie bookstores in business than there are Barnes & Noble e-readers in use.

Somewhere way down deep inside me, I would hate to see Barnes & Noble fail to the point where it had to shutdown all of its brick & mortar stores, but it is really, really hard for me to feel sorry for these guys.  Really hard.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Movies for Readers: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

I'm starting a new series of posts today to highlight "Movies for Readers."  This may seem like a strange choice to begin the series with, but I listened to the audio version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies a year or two ago and had great fun with it.  And from the looks of this trailer, this movie version of the book is going to be even more fun.

The movie is due in theaters in February 2016.  It will be interesting to see what kind of audience it draws and what age groups that audience comes from.  Too, I wonder if a few young viewers might end up actually reading some of Jane Austen's classic novels as a result of movies like this one.  Probably wishful thinking on my part, I know.  But I can dream, right?

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

It IS About Islam (Warning: Neither this book nor this review are Politically Correct)

Glenn Beck is making a point in It IS About Islam that is so obvious that only willful deniers are likely to disagree with it: radical Islam is at the root of the terrorism, barbarism, and genocide that plagues the world today.  For political reasons, many of the world leaders do not want to admit this very real truth, perhaps fearing that aggressive language on their part will bring them exactly the unwanted attention from Islamist terrorists that they want so badly to avoid.  But it is time to face the fact that in the absence of this particular religious doctrine from the eighth century, the world would be a better and safer place for all of us, including today’s Muslims.

As Beck points out, this is not a new problem.  It IS About Islam begins with a brief history of President Thomas Jefferson’s study of the Quran and his battle to control the Barbary (North African) States that were kidnapping and enslaving American sailors because they believed that the Quran gave them exactly that right – and duty.  Muslim negotiators of the period, in fact, justified their actions by using the same passages from the Quran that are used by today’s terrorists to justify their own murderous intents.

It IS About Islam is divided into three parts: “Islam 101” (a relatively detailed explanation of what is in the Quran and of the religion’s history); “Thirteen Deadly Lies” ( a rebuttal of the myths about Islam that Islamist apologists and too many our own politicians would have us believe); and “What Can Be Done” (a short discussion of several changes to our approach that would increase our chances of defeating those who want to destroy us and our world).

As Beck puts it in the book’s introduction: “The lies include the oft-heard claims that Islam is a religion of peace, that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, that Islam respects the rights of women and Christians, and that sharia law is a myth made up by Islamophobes.” 

And as he damningly and clearly states on page 204 of the book:

            “Jihad’s cost to civilization is incalculable.  Over the centuries, Muslim armies have burned libraries, razed cities, and conquered large swaths of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Europe.  The have enslaved, starved, and massacred millions of men, women, and children – all in the name of Islam.

…the jihadists are not distorting their religion.  They believe they’re acting in accordance with their faith and they can cite chapter and verse to justify every beheading, crucifixion, act of vandalism, and degradation of the ‘infidels’ who happen to get in their way.”

Almost all of the world’s major religions have evolved over the centuries to the point where they reject the barbarism preached every Friday in so many of the world’s mosques.  Only one religion is allowing itself to remain stuck in the Dark Ages, and it is long past time that the governments of the world admit the extent of the threat that all non-Muslim governments (and even some Muslim ones) are facing from Islamism.  I do not agree with everything that Beck says in this book (for example, making the fight one of directly pitting the rest of the world’s religions against Islam), but his message needs to be heard.

And Beck and his people made the decision to publish It IS About Islam only in paperback so that more people can afford to get their hands on it and share it with others.  Please read this book before you condemn it because you dislike its author. 

It, and you, are better than that.

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