It's a good book, but it's not my Typee...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vanity Fair

On my last visit to London, I took a walking tour of Kensington. The guide stopped us in front of a house and told us that it was the location where William Makepeace Thackeray wrote the greatest book in the English language: Vanity Fair.

To an unfortunately large percentage of today's youth, the words Vanity Fair probably mean nothing more than a fashion magazine. But once upon a time, it was THE novel about female connivance.

Becky Sharp rises and falls through society and fortune powered by nothing more than her own ability to manipulate people and circumstances. Her name has become a byword for the kind of woman we don't want to leave our men alone with. She was Scarlet O'Hara before there was Scarlet O'Hara. And no soap opera or CW teen drama is complete without at least one character who operates in the Becky Sharp school of getting what you want.

The full title of the book is Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. And the subtitle, which doesn't even appear on most modern editions, proves true in more than one way. It is a novel without a hero in the sense that the character with which the story is most concerned, and also most remembered by readers, is a woman. It is without a hero in the sense that Becky is not likable enough to be considered the hero of the story. And it is heroless because there are entire chapters where we don't see Becky at all. The focus shifts to her 'friend' Amelia and on to other characters, giving a full description of the experiences of many interconnected people during the years leading up to and winding down from the Battle of Waterloo.

In so many ways, Thackeray's masterpiece seems modern. Becky seems made for something like Gossip Girl, or even a reality show. And the practice of following multiple characters is popular these days, as in the movie Crash or the book A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. In 2004 Resse Witherspoon starred in a film version of Vanity Fair that turned Becky into a heroine. She becomes less calculating and controlling in the film and is instead a high-spirited girl who is just trying to get along on very little. She is the victim of circumstance rather than the mistress of it. The book which, at the the time of its publication, shocked people with its sarcastic take on society and depiction of Becky's moral depravity, had to be toned down for its last film adaptation. A version truer to the actual story would have left us too disgusted with Becky and possibly ourselves.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

LibraryThing

Like my beloved Goodreads.com, LibraryThing is a website that helps you keep track of your books and connect with other readers.

While I prefer Goodreads because its format is easier to use, LibraryThing is another great way of finding new books and discussing favorites.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Secret Life of Bees: Movie vs. Book

I do not expect a movie to be as good as the book on which it's based. Some movies fall far short. Others are reasonably good representations of the themes and characters found in the source material.

Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is a very well-written book. Aside from a few minor plot problems, it is solid and well put together. The characters are fully formed, even if the reader has to get almost to the end before finding that out.

The movie is...ok. It's fairly well cast, especially when it comes to Sophie Okonedo, the actress who plays the unstable and tender-hearted May Boatwright. Alicia Keys is also nearly perfect as the aloof June Boatwright.

But I found myself wanting Queen Latifah to be a little less Queen Latifah, Paul Bettany to be a little less look-I'm-a-British-man-playing-a-southern-hick, Jennifer Hudson to be more of a force of nature the way Rosaleen seems in the book, and Dakota Fanning to be a more tortured Lily.

The main problem I have with the movie is not in the casting, though. It's in the glossing over of some of the book's major themes.
-The Virgin Mary is like another character in the book, one that the others interact with and know personally. In the movie, she basically just a statue in the living room to be dusted and occasionally prayed to.
-Lily does not wonder for a second if she actually caused her mother's death, something that simmers quietly under her other traumas in Kidd's work.
-And most disappointing of all, the film doesn't even begin to explore Lily's awakening to new ideas about race.

Lily is a girl who has been raised with the racial tension prevalent in mid-century South Carolina. She loves her black nanny, Rosaleen and bravely tries to defend her when things get ugly with some local white supremacists, but she still doesn't see how similar she and her black neighbors really are. It takes living with the Boatwright sisters and meeting their friends to make Lily see race is not always the thing that makes people different. It is a revelation to her to find that the Boatwright sisters are cultured and highly intelligent. It is even more of a revelation to find that Zach, the boy who helps with August Boatwright's honey business, is very attractive to her.

Lily's discoveries about race and her own feelings regarding it are often sudden and clearly expressed in her own mind. Others take longer to set in and only appear gradually. It's sad that this wasn't brought out in the film. To watch it is to have an idea of some of the broad strokes of the novel, but not the beauty and depth that make is such a good book.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Can I take your order?

Ever wonder why the voice taking your order at McDonald's doesn't match the person who takes your money or hands you your food when you get up to the window? That's probably because your order was taken by someone at an ΓΌber efficient call center thousands of miles away and then transmitted back to the store before you even pull up to the window.

Find out about this and more freaky doings at the intersection of technology and business. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tequila Mockingbird

For my book club I like to have themed drinks. My friend Patricia comes up with the recipes.

When we read To Kill a Mockingbird, I found a recipe for a Tequila Mockingbird online and she modified it a bit for us.

Check out the original recipe here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Secret Life of Bees

I've started reading The Secret Life of Bees. It started out rather To Kill a Mockingbird and now seems to be heading towards Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Movie vs. Book

Why is it that the book is almost always better than the movie? I just spent twenty minutes talking to my roommate Joan about The Lovely Bones. She has read and loves the book, but has not seen the movie. I have not read the book, but have seen--and not loved--the movie.

I've had the book on my to-read list for years. She's been putting off watching the movie because she feels like she'd have to reread the book just to erase the movie from her mind.

We agreed that I will read the book and tell her whether or not she should watch the movie.

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lady of the Butterflies

The first book I have finished reading this year is Lady of the Butterflies.

It took me over six months to read because from the very beginning, the reader knows Eleanor's life will not be a happy one. That's something easy to accept when a book is just beginning and the characters are strangers.

But Eleanor Glanville is an enchanting and vibrant woman who draws the reader into her life with ease. I began to like her so much that I only wanted the best for her. I wanted the book to trail off into a boring account of her daily happiness. But I knew from the first pages that she would be victimized by fate, her fellow man, and her own fierce independence.

Eleanor chases butterflies all her life, even at the risk of her way of life. She keeps and treasures them as if they are precious gems. Like a butterfly, she finds new life through the threat of death. Her love story is full of tragedy and loss of every kind, but a woman so ahead of her time cannot ignore the capacity for life she holds.

Historical fiction is difficult to do well, but Fiona Mountain provides us with a jewel set in a historically sound world.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huckleberry F***

NewSouth Books is coming out with an edition of Huckleberry Finn sans the dreaded "N" word. The idea behind it is that the word prevents the book from being taught in today's classrooms.

Yes, the word is offensive. But its derogatory nature is not a recent development. Twain used the word to mock people who thought of black Americans as less than human. The people who used that word in the antebellum South
most often were prejudiced, under-educated and insecure.

We covered Huck Finn in high school and I got to hear choice passages read aloud by my awesome English teacher, complete with character voices. I honestly can't remember how he even got around the "N" word. I think he used a less offensive word or just skipped it all together. I don't remember because no one made a big deal about it. He didn't spend an hour explaining to us why Twain used the word. He didn't have to.

We all knew that it was one of many words that was acceptable at one point in history. These days, it's not ok to go around calling people N***** Jim. People are categorized by their race less and less often in our relatively enlightened society. This is in large part because of authors and activists like Twain who threw bigotry in peoples' faces in order to show them how wrong it was.

But go ahead and mangle literature because people are too weak to deal with a dead writer's opinions or our nation's history. If you're too stupid to skip a word when reading aloud or replace it with another one (which is the only thing this new edition is good for), you probably shouldn't be teaching our children anyway.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Books for Free

As I pursue my ongoing life goal to make my way through as many books as humanly possible, I find it's best to not pay for them.

Naturally, I get books from the public library fairly often. When I do buy books, I always buy them used, usually spending no more than $3 even for hardbacks. But the library is one of my favorite sources because not only do I get to read for free, but when I'm done with a book I get to return it rather than find a bookshelf on which to squeeze it. My local library offers both paper books and audio books. I check out three or four books on CD at the time and listen to them on my commute.

When I want to listen to an audio book on my iPod, I don't buy one or even transfer it from CD to the mp3 player, which would be horribly time-consuming. I go to Librivox.org and download pretty much any classic book I care to listen to. There is no cost and Librivox offers over 4,000 recordings, all of works in the public domain. The only downside is that anyone can sign up to read a chapter or even an entire book. Not everyone who reads is a native English speaker and even those who are often mangle words they're not familiar with. For the most part, I really enjoy the recordings and have even found some that are excellently read.

For text copies of public domain works, Gutenberg.org is a great choice. Their ebooks can be read on a computer as well as a Kindle or other reading device.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Elmore Leonard-Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard, author of the Carl Webster books as well as Get Shorty and Be Cool, has ten rules of writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

"My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."
Elmore Leonard

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My Best and Worst of 2010

My goal for 2010 was to read 100 books. I joined the Goodreads.com group "100 books + in 2010". I didn't meet my goal, but did read 86 books last year. Here's a run-down of the best and worst:

Best

Non-fiction

Portrait of a Killer by Cornwell
Spook by Roach
Killer Colt by Schechter
The Turk by Standage
Pulitzer by Morris

The first three listed are all about death and murder--fascinating subjects. Cornwell and Schechter explore murderers of the distant past and not only dig up new facts, but place before the reader a complete picture of the time and place in which the crimes were committed. Roach's work is a search for proof of the afterlife. She travels across the world to speak to the family of a reincarnated boy and then to my own North Carolina to see the descendants of a man whose ghost informed his heirs of a hidden will. But it's not Roach's experiences and research that provide most of the entertainment; it's her own sharp and hilarious wit. Nearly every page seems to have an outrageous footnote of what she was thinking while researching or writing that particular chapter.

The Turk is the story of a chess playing machine built long before he days of robots and computers. But
everything is not as it seems.

Pulitzer is an excellent biography of--you guessed it--Joseph Pulitzer, the man who changed America with his manipulation of the press.


Fiction

Hypothermia by Indridason
Water for Elephants by Gruen
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Grant
Ethan Frome by Wharton
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Chevalier
White Oleander by Fitch
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Clarke

Other than Ethan Frome, the best fiction I read this year was all modern. Gruen, Grant, Chevalier and Fitch are all female writers who create worlds full of mystery and vivid characters. Hypothermia is a dark, chilly Nordic crime book. Arsonist's Guide is an ironic, strange work about a man who just can't get a break.


Worst

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by le Carre
The Murder of King Tut by Patterson
The Brief History of the Dead by Brockmeier
The "Dark Side" of American Politics by Half-Lady Lisa
The Gods of Newport by Jakes

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, of course, THE spy novel. That must mean that spy novels make you want to tear your hair out with boredom. There was not a single character I cared about or wanted to understand more deeply, which is good because they were all one-dimensional and there simply wasn't anything under the surface for me to delve into.

The other four books on the Worst list don't even merit an individual description. They are simply either badly written or very badly written.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tracy Chevalier

My favorite literary discovery of 2010 was Tracy Chevalier. Her books are unfailingly beautiful and packed with meaning.
Chevalier's books are always two specific things (but she is such a truly talented author that these things are not necessarily apparent even after reading a few of her books). Each of her books is both historical fiction and feminist.

She is not an author who jumps from genre to genre as if trying to find her niche. She has found it. The historical elements in the books are well researched and brought vividly to life with seemingly no effort on Chevalier's part. And the stories are not feminist in the extreme sense of women abandoning men simply for the sake of exerting their independence, but rather they are the stories of girls and women who find the courage to make their own way in the world. Some do this quietly, like Griet in
Girl with a Pearl Earring. Some do it loudly and outrageously like Mrs. Coleman in Falling Angels.
But these books are not so focused on women as to exclude well-drawn male characters. There are fascinating young boys in both Falling Angels and Burning Bright. There are famous painters and poets brought to life for us. And there are noble and good men who come to love the heroines, sometimes too late, but never too little.
I'm an audio book addict and listened to Falling Angels, Burning Bright, and Girl with a Pearl Earring while driving around. I sat down and read The Virgin Blue after inheriting it from a friend who was moving to California. And the thing that strikes me about Chevalier is that her books are magical both in paper and audio form. That's something that can't be said for every author.

Any way you experience them, her characters rip you apart with their tragedies and heartaches.
Many people probably know Chevalier's work only through the movie version of Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's a decent movie and a fair attempt at capturing the spirit of the book, but as with most film adaptations, it just doesn't do the original work justice. Griet's struggles with her employer's family and friends seem to be barely touched upon in the film, while in the book the constant encroachments upon her property and even body are enough to wrack the nerves with sympathy.
I look forward to reading the two Tracy Chevalier books I haven't yet gotten to: The Lady and the Unicorn and her latest--Remarkable Creatures. For more information on Ms. Chevalier and any of her books, visit her website.