28 February 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A quick mini-review as "LbW" February winds down.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not just a novel loosely based on incidents in the life of its author, Betty Smith.  It's a (slightly) fondly nostalgic look back at poverty stricken childhood in Brooklyn in the decade prior to the entry of the US into World War I.  One might even argue that Brooklyn itself (specifically Williamsburg) is the main character of the book rather than Francie.  This was a very interesting book to read, particularly the sections describing what children do with the pocket money of five pennies on a Saturday, and we had a very lively discussion at "Literature by Women".

On to The Poisonwood Bible.

*Incidentally, I recently read a New Yorker article that looked at the shopping currently available in Brooklyn, particularly the Park Slope and Williamsburg areas; very hipster

24 February 2010

The Time-Traveler's Wife (on screen)

The bookgroup watched The Time-Traveler's Wife together the other night (TTW as a novel was a group pick some time in 2008).  I liked it, there were good performances from all the actors, and the movie was so lovely, very pretty cinematography.

I'm a little on-the-fence about the script adaptation.  While the writer did a good job of keeping the storyline easy to follow for the audience I did miss the minutiae and side-roads Niffenegger winds down in the book.  I also loved the book's convention of opening a scene with the date and how old Clare and Henry are in the scene; it would have translated well onto the screen so I wish the writer/director/editor had used the idea.  I did, however, like the way Gomez was rehabilitated from a skeez-bag (loathed that character in the book) to a good dad and family friend.  I normally hate how character movitations are altered in the book-to-movie adaptation but in this instance I think my liking the change stems from a) liking Ron Livingston as both an actor and as a human in general and b) his mom is our pastor so I have a slight personal investment in seeing his mom be proud of him.

A nice movie to watch with friends on a Sunday night.

Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies

Who likes bad movies?

I mean really bad movies.  Michael Adams spent a year watching at least one terrible movie a day to determine which howler can legitimately lay claim to the title of "Worst Movie Ever Made".  Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies is the result of that year...and we need to thank Adams for watching all those movies so we don't have to (at least I'm glad I don't feel the need to watch all those terrible movies). 

STWandAZ is laugh-out-loud funny.  The writing is also pleasantly readable because Adams was the reveiwer for Empire magazine and The Movie Show at the time of his movie binge (he now writes for Rotten Tomatoes and the "Bad Movies We Love" column at Movieline).  Adams rates each of the movies he watches (out of a scale of 100) to attempt some sort of measurement and determine the worst movie ever, i.e. the movie closest to a score of zero.  He even disqualifies movies if he feels they fall too far on the side of porn (of course, this is after he watches them).  So in that vein, I will say that you shouldn't expect this book to be clean because there's about a thousand swear words, non-G-rated references to body parts, and my favorite line is "bugfuck crazy motherfucker" in reference to 1994's The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (of which I've seen about half).  I've actually seen only two of the movies Adams watched* - Showgirls (probably the most painful thing I've ever seen, no redeeming value, and Elizabeth Berkeley snorting a huge pile of coke off her ginormous faux nails is forever burned into my brain) and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (which is hysterical, completely ridiculous, and so campy - worth watching just so you can say you did).  One I have not seen is Plan 9 from Outer Space, an Ed Wood howler that is usually credited as the worst movie ever made but next to some of the movies Adams reveiws it sounds like a Best Picture winner from a true auteur.

There's just one thing that bugs me about STWandAZ and it has to do with the "Americanization" of the book.  Adams is Australian, born there, grew up there, works there, but the cultural references are conspiciously American.  I wouldn't think that an Australian would say he hadn't done something since Reagan was in the White House...would he?  Even I don't do that.  The spelling is also a little sketchy with a "mummy" or two interspersed between the "mommies".  It's probably not Adams's fault, more the editor/publisher, but "Americanizing" really gets my goat; I'd far rather read something culturally specific (and maybe learn something) than read the same-old cliches.

BUT...the content of the book is great.  If you like movies, you'll like STWandAZ.

*There seems to be a disproportionate number of absolutely heinous movies that fall into the horror genre.  I don't watch movies in the horror genre (or at least not bad ones - Halloween scares the crap out of me but it's great so I'll watch that every year) so I'm a bit at a disadvantage there as far as number of bad movies watched that Adams also watched.  But I do have a soft spot for silly action-ish movies like Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - that probably loses me all "cool" points I earned by watching Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

16 February 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers
Remarkably, many scenes are played out with an Ingmar Beergman level of earnestness.  "Is anyone really in love?" the film asks.  It's a movie whose heart would be on its sleeve, if only it was wearing one.
~ p 147, Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies, Michael Adams

14 February 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Rick Riordan's first installment in the "Percy Jackson" series, The Lightning Thief, is the February pick for my store bookclub (we agreed that we would all read it, then go see the movie on February 12 with Kat's two boys).  Being a kids' book, do you want a guess at how fast I read this?  Not only is Percy an engaging character, the plot is compelling, and the reading, being aimed at the 3rd-6th grade reading level, is a breeze.

Now, I have heard that some people call Percy Jackson the "Harry Potter rip-off" and I don't think that's true.  Outside of the make-up of the trio of kids - Percy, Annabeth, and Grover - and the "trouble-brewing-amongst-the-supernatural-characters" there isn't a lot of similarity.  Trios aren't that unusual in YA literature (even A Wrinkle in Time has a trio of two boys and a girl) and it works well in this setting.

I love how Rick Riordan is able to use Greek mythology to add all the side plots and what may even be the master plot running under the series (I haven't read the last four, yet).  He even lets kids with dyslexia and ADHD dream that they, too, are special like Percy and have special powers.  One element of The Lightning Thief has to do with fate and that is a tremendous part of Greek epic and drama.  Percy visits the Oracle and, like Oedipus and other tragic heroes, is given a cryptic prophesy that must come true even though it is open to interpretation.  It's a great plot element that keeps Percy on his toes.

However, the motion picture adaptation loses many of the Greek side-plots including the idea of fate and prophecy.  We had a great time watching the movie (except for some family that brought a very young, very loud child who didn't know what was happening and got scared) and after, a friend's son treated us to a run-down of all the changes made to the movie (I remember being totally possessive of the stuff I read when I was ten, so it was pretty cute).  The cuts and changes were extensive and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary because the nuance of the book was lost.  The plot deviation removes a major character and scene from The Lightning Thief while adding another and curtails avenues for adaptation of the remaining books in Rick Riordan's series.  Spectacular CGI effects can only get you so far so Logan Lerman does a great job as Percy (he has gorgeous eyes) and works well with Alexandra Daddario and Brandon Jackson - essential because the three of them must hold the thinner plot together.  Percy Jackson is a bit like Harry Potter in this respect - great chemistry between the three main actors and you are warned that if you see it as a fan of the book be prepared to miss your favorite scenes.  But all-in-all it was entertaining and when I pay my nine bucks I better be entertained.

Preview goodies:
1.  Despicable Me - a teaser trailer with little yellow dudes playing with a tilt-the-can-to-make-it-moo toy until the tall yellow dude plays a mean trick on the short yellow dude....huh?
2.  Letters to God - cute, based on a true story, reminds me of the trailers for The Blind Side
3.  Marmaduke - my note to myself only reads "srsly?"...yeah, I'm pretty uninterested in a live-action movie about a comic that ceased to be funny once I hit puberty; did I mention it's a talking Great Dane voiced by Owen Wilson? *blech* (scratch that I saw the casting...there are a lot of talking dogs...double *blech* )
4.  The Karate Kid - omg, wtf??!???! Hollywood is destroying my childhood; there is no way in hell that Jackie Chan will make this better than the original...the clip from the trailer had take-your-jacket-off-put-your-jacket-on...nope, Pat Morita and wax-on-wax-off will live forever
5.  Alice in Wonderland - almost. peed. my. pants.  The trailer makes this look more like The Looking Glass Wars so I'm pretty jazzed about this one now (I don't care if Johnny Depp looks like a crack-head with a make-up problem...I'm so on board with this one)
6.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid - another adaptation of a popular kids series; this one looks soooo cute, very much in line with the books

[I really want to spoil the pants out of this book/movie combo so I can talk about differences but I don't want to be mean...so sorry if I'm being a little vague.]

13 February 2010

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009

Getting side-tracked while reading is a terrible thing.

Because it takes me forever to catch up on the books I have started.  Like The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009 - filled with great essays, graphic novellas (is that a category?), and funny lists.  One of the best pieces in the volume is "Diary of a Fire Lookout" by Phillip Connors, a record of his work as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest.  Connors documents both the serenity of his forest surroundings but also the tense work when a fire is spotted; the last few entries with the little fawn are heartbreaking. 

Another great inclusion, but one with a really creepy subject, is "The Chameleon", a New Yorker article by David Grann.  The subject is one Frederic Bourdin, a thirty-something man infamous for impersonating teenage boys not because he has some odd sexual fetish but because he just doesn't seem to want to be himself.  Bourdin even came to the US by impersonating a missing Texas teenager, an impersonation that earned him jail time and deportation when discovered.

Other great pieces:
"Wild Berry Blue" by Rivka Galchen (featured in a Teaser Tuesday post in November)
"The Temp" by Amelia Kahaney
"Triplet" by Susan Breen
"Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother's Side" by Nathan Englander
"David Foster Wallace" by Jonathan Franzen

For a hoot, check out the "Best American Craigslist Items and Offers to Barter" - insane, head-scratching, funny, and cringe-inducing all at the same time.

Next up in my "Best American" project: The Best American Short Stories 2009 edited by Alice Sebold

07 February 2010

Eternal on the Water

I Got a First Look at Barnes & Noble.  Get Your Copy Now

I received an advance of Joseph Monninger's Eternal on the Water from the Barnes and Noble First Look Book Club programEternal on the Water does have an interesting premise - a husband and wife must make a difficult choice when she is diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease - so it sounded interesting.  I've also only ever missed one First Look book and that was when they did two at once and you could only pick one.  So I signed up, promptly got behind in reading because Flannery O'Connor's short stories weren't being kind to me, and finally finished Eternal on the Water the other night.

Monninger has a lovely writing style, very in tune with the natural setting of rural New England, and it fits with the narrator's (Cobb) initial goal in the book of writing an essay about Thoreau and his wife's (Mary) occupation as a corvid biologist.  Interwoven throughout the story are many different folk tales surrounding crows and a few about bears (an old legend has it that bears turn into people when they want to come close to the fire so it becomes a running joke throughout the novel).  Thoreau's Walden is fequently invoked and I kept thinking of it while reading Eternal on the Water (even though I've only ever read part of Walden).  There's a also a very lovely sequence when visiting Mary's brother in Indonesia; the nature theme is continued because he is heavily involved in coral reef and sea turtle conservation. 

The bulk of the book spans a single year following Mary and Cobb's meeting.  Once symptoms of Mary's disease (Huntington's disease - an autosomally dominant genetic illness) manifest Monninger speeds up time, only hitting highlights so that the last years of Mary and Cobb's time together are compressed into a chapter; I'm still not quite sure how many years Mary and Cobb were together.  Monninger draws out Mary's final days and his writing makes a very touching scene.

What I could have dispensed with was the "present day" scene that began and ended the book.  Cobb narrates the story of his life with Mary in flashback and I find that the whole "tell-the-end-then-explain-what-happened-to-the-reader-for-350-pages" is getting a bit overdone.  Because we know all the particulars in the first five pages it really becomes a struggle to stay with the narrative.  I think it is a testament to the quality of Monninger's writing that I was able to stay with the narrative and admire the work.  I think this would have been a very powerful novel using just Cobb's narration alone but Eternal on the Water is a very lovely book as it is now.

And Then There Were None (1945)

I finally caught up with the 1945 motion picture adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None since we read the novel for "Literature by Women" back in the fall.  It was an OK movie.  Some of the character names and backgrounds were changed (all sorts of different accents, including an Irish one on the judge) but the main storyline was preserved right up until the doctor died.  Then it went all "Hollywood" and "happy" (or at least as happy as you can get in a murder mystery).  It was worth seeing as a classic film but not a great adaptation.

06 February 2010

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters fell off the shelves of the Mythology/Folklore section and into my hands - literally.  I was straightening the shelves and voila!  A collection of fairy tales and folk tales from nearly every culture on Earth only this collection focuses exclusively on female protagonists who take an active role in the outcome of the story.

These are all great stories, from "The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh" (Scotland) to "The Innkeeper's Wise Daughter" (Jewish-American), "Hiiaka and the Seacoast Kupuas" (Hawaii) to "The Sign of the Tassel" (Iraq), showing women and girls who use their intelligence and courage to resolve impossible situations.  It is quite a change from a passive heroine like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White where the princess is saved by a twist of fate (and a handome prince).  I really enjoyed reading these stories, particularly those of African orgin because at times the written story seemed transcribed from an oral recitation and implied a rhythm to the words of the story.  I only wish I had read the beginning of the collection more slowly - I initially started reading the book like I would a novel, moving from story to story, and that turned out to be a problem because the stories quickly became repetitive; all deal with very similar subjects and reading 25 or so in a row is pretty boring.  This book worked much better reading two or three stories a night.  I enjoyed the stories more and was able to focus more on each one rather than think about how similar it was to the last four or five tales.

05 February 2010

Peter Pan (2003)

Oddly enough, I missed seeing this version of Peter Pan when it came out.  I remember being really excited about it - Jason Isaacs is Mr. Darling/Capt. Hook and all the shots with the Lost Boys looked really cute.  This was also the first all-live-action motion picture rather than a performance of the play or musical taped for television broadcast (I love Mary Martin's Peter Pan).

This is a really fun adaptation and one where the addition of the CGI and green-screen work really brings all the magic of the original JM Barrie story to life.  Rachel Hurd Wood and Jeremy Sumpter are very likeable and did very well as Wendy and Peter.  The pirate ship sequences are really amazing - they built a life-size ship to for the shoot and it is a great set-piece.  Jeremy Isaacs is wonderful as a Renaissance-man Hook: bloodthirsty, vengeful, and appreciative of art and music.  Richard Briers is very funny as his first mate, Smee.  Such fun to watch.  The extras on the DVD are fun, too (particularly Isaac's video diary).

02 February 2010

Ballerina and Mad Hot Ballroom

Thanks to the magic of my new Blu-Ray player with wireless Netflix streaming, I was able to watch Ballerina, a documentary that follows five ballerinas with the Kirov Ballet, and Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a ballroom dancing program offered in New York City public schools, back-to-back.  It was quite nice and the picture and sound quality was very good on both.

First up was Ballerina, directed by Bertrand Normand.  The five ballerinas are all at various stages in their careers from graduating student to prima ballerina to returning to full-steam after an injury.  Alina Somova is the first ballerina introduced and the youngest, at age 17, just graduating from the Vaganova Academy with the starring role in the graduation performance.  She joins a classmate, Evguenya Obratsova, and both show promise as future soloists (Evguenya also acted in Les poupees russes which gives her a career alternative if necessary).  Svetlana Zakharova is a talented, driven young woman, a prima ballerina barely in her twenties; she moved to the Bolshoi during the filming of the documentary.  Diana Vishneva is an established prima with a schedule of international guest appearances.  Uliana Lopatkina is working her way back from a two-year hiatus that included surgery for a major ankle injury and the birth of her daughter; Lopatkina is the ballerina the younger dancers look up to, emulate.  The structure of this documentary is very informal but it is shot very, very well.  The footage includes both performance and rehearsal scenes (I love rehearsal shots as much as performance footage) and I loved watching this film.

I followed up my ballet binge with Mad Hot Ballroom and this was such a joy to watch.  The ballroom dancing program in the New York City schools is sooooo different from the "square dancing unit" I had to endure in grade school PE.  The kids have so much fun and you can see how invested the teachers and kids become in learning the steps and competing against the other schools.  I kept thinking that, for some of the kids, they were on familiar ground with tango, rumba, and swing (which looked more like a Lindy Hop variety), particularly in the Washington Heights school where many of the kids are African-American or Hispanic; you could see the pride just bursting of one of the kids who proudly shouted out "Dominican" when asked where merengue steps originated.  The film didn't offer any follow-up commentary so I do hope all the kids featured in this documentary are doing well; the teachers have such hopes for the kids and I was rooting for all of them.