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Posts tagged ‘movie tie-in’

Three Short Takes

These aren’t short books. I’m just short on time to blog about them, and wanted to get something in before they fade completely from memory.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

This one took a while to take hold of me, but I did end up liking it, with a few reservations. The two main characters are Renee, a 54-year-old concierge of a Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives there. What connects them is that both withhold their real selves from others. Renee, instead of revealing her love of classic literature and serious film, pretends to be everyone’s drab cliche of what a concierge is. She wills her real self to be invisible to the upper class tenants of her building, and she does a thorough job of it. She leaves on a television tuned to the sorts of shows she thinks a concierge would watch, but then retreats to the back of her apartment to read Tolstoy and Proust. Paloma has nothing but contempt for the adults around her, as well as for her sister. She lets no one know the emotional trouble she’s in.

I found both characters entertaining — except when they drifted into philosophical treatises along the lines of “what is art?” (Barbery is a professor of philosophy, which somewhat explains the detours, but doesn’t make them fit any better into the structure of the novel). Luckily, these tirades are neatly cordoned off into chapters; after a while, I started skimming. In the last half of the book, the plot gains momentum through the introduction of a new character who gives Renee a reason to let herself be seen. And Paloma meets Renee, which opens her as well. I’ve heard that there’s a movie in the works.

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Position) strays into Alice Hoffman East Coast magical realism territory in her latest novel — only it’s New Jersey, not Massachusetts, and there’s a lot more humor involved. The story centers around Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s teachers and students, and the new drama teacher’s production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — you know, the one where the women of ancient Greece agree to go on a sex strike till the men end a war they’ve been fighting. The play is cast, rehearsals begin — and one by one, women all over town start losing interest in sex after feeling an icy wind blowing around them.

In the wrong hands, this could be silly. But the characters are so real that they threaten to walk right off the page; we feel sympathy for the newly unarousable women as well as for their rejected men. Along the way we’re alternately touched and amused: Wolitzer can portray a healthy marriage going suddenly off the rails as well as she can the eye-rolling impatience of their teenage daughter, who knows they have nothing of value to tell her.

I won’t reveal how it ends, but I found this a very satisfying read.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Prepare for frequent snorting on this one — Tina Fey is nearly as funny on the page as she is on the screen. From descriptions of her dark shin fur as an adolescent to a blow-by-blow commentary on her family’s dreary Christmas customs, Fey provides plenty of laughs, mostly at her own expense. Here’s the set up for the annual holiday trek:

Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day.

We always plan to leave around seven in the morning and, like clockwork, we’re out the door by ten. After gassing up, deicing, and turning around for an unanticipated bowel movement, we glide onto glorious 80W by ten thirty. Sure, there are those trendy types who prefer 76/70 because “it’s more scenic” and “they have a McDonald’s,” but I think 80W has a certain ceci me deprime.

And here’s the classic Palin/Clinton sequence Fey did with Amy Poehler to open Saturday Night Liive, worth a repeat viewing. Fey says “Doing that sketch on live TV was a pure joy I had never before experienced as a performer.”

Eat, Pray, Love

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is still on my “to read” list, though I’ve read and enjoyed her fiction (Stern Men, from 2001). I’d better get to it soon — the movie, starring Julia Roberts, is coming out in August. Here’s the trailer:


Just learned from LA Times’ book blog Jacket Copy that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex is being developed as a one-hour drama series for HBO. From Hollywood North Report: “Actor-producer Rita Wilson will executive produce with project writer Donald Margulies, following the life of ‘Calliope Stephanides’ and her family history that may give a clue as to her ‘complicated’ sexual identity. Margulies won a Pulitzer in 2000 for his play “Dinner With Friends”, also produced as an HBO film…”

American Wife

27065418.JPGCurtis Sittenfeld usually writes about recognizable characters — they remind you of people you know. Sometimes they even remind you of yourself. Her earlier novels, Prep and The Man of My Dreams, were well reviewed. Prep made the New York Times’ list of Best Books of 2005. This time out, however, she’s writing about a slightly fictionalized version of Laura Bush, and the reviews have been more mixed. I can’t help wondering if some of the criticism says more about the critics’ feelings about Bush 43 than it does about the quality of Sittenfeld’s writing. It’s an impossible question to answer, though; the similarities are too striking to miss, even though she changes a few details. (Connie Schultz, writing for the Washington Post says “…main character Alice Blackwell does share so many traits with the current first lady that the steamy sex scenes are bound to elicit a collective ewww.” I had the same reaction).

Sittenfeld is a liberal who is highly critical of George Bush’s policies, but in 2004, she wrote an essay for entitled “Why I Love Laura Bush,” which begins:

I’m a 28-year-old woman, a registered Democrat, and a staunch enough liberal that I take would-be epithets such as “flaming,” “knee-jerk” and “bleeding-heart” as compliments. I believe that George Bush’s policies are at best misguided and at worst evil. And yet I love Laura Bush. In fact, there is no public figure I admire more.

Sittenfeld admits that the novel is her attempt to understand Laura Bush, or at least the mysteries that surround her. I found her speculation about Laura Bush’s inner life and motivations credible. Alice Blackwell, while sometimes annoyingly passive in her dealings with her husband, does seem real.  Here’s a sampling of Alice’s soul searching:

As for those who hate me because they hate Charlie, hate me by extension, I am curious of this: At what point, in their opinion, should I have done something, and what should that something have been? Should I not have married him? Should I not have discouraged his drinking? (“Jim Beam and me, have us both” — is that what I ought to have said?) When he told me that he wanted to run for governor and I told him I’d prefer he didn’t (though I foolishly thought at least it was better than congressman or senator, at least it would keep us in Wisconsin) — when he decided that in spite of my stated preference, he was indeed going to run, should I have left him? Should I have stayed with him but not campaigned for him? Should I have stated explicitly to the public when my views differed from his? Should I have left him when he decided, also against my wishes, to run for president? Anyone who has been married, and especially anyone married for several decades, knows the union is a series of compromises; to judge the compromises I have made is, I take it, easy to do from far away.

Fictionalized versions of sitting first families — the last time I remember this happening was with the book and movie Primary Colors. If you’re game for more immersion in the current presidency, Oliver Stone’s film W — view the trailer on IMDB here — makes a good bookend to American Wife, since it focuses more on George and his troubled relationship with his father. But for the story straight from the horses’ mouths, we’ll have to wait, although publishers are reportedly in a multimillion-dollar bidding war for Laura’s memoirs. For W’s side of the story, we may have a longer wait: publishers are recommending that he wait a few years, till there’s a market for his memoirs.

author photo: Jahi Chikwendiu – The Washington Post

The Soloist

1soloist0504.jpgLA Times columnist Steve Lopez always has an ear cocked for material. So when he hears someone scratching out Beethoven on a violin that turns out to have only two strings, he makes a detour to get a closer look. He finds Nathaniel Ayers playing his heart out on a traffic-ridden downtown corner, a shopping cart next to him piled with with presumably all he has in the world. Lopez has his column, but doesn’t realize till later the extent to which he’ll get drawn into Ayers’ life.

Ayers, like many people on Skid Row, has a history of mental illness. But Lopez’s hunch that there’s much more to the story turns out to be right. Nathaniel claims to have been at Juilliard, but “just for a couple of years.” Lopez senses that this is fact, not the deluded rantings that he sometimes drifts into. The story checks out: he studied string bass there during the 70s, partially overlapping Yo Yo Ma’s time as a student there. After the pressure cooker of Juilliard exacerbated his mental problems, he left Juilliard and wound up on the streets. Needing a more portable instrument, he switched to cello, then violin.

Almost against his better judgment, Lopez gets drawn in. His columns about Nathaniel trigger a flood of donated instruments from his readers, some of which he passes on to him. The others begin to pile up under Lopez’ desk. While Nathaniel is ecstatic to get the new instruments, Lopez worries that he’s setting him up for a mugging, given the crime-ridden street he sleeps on every night. He learns that Nathaniel has been hospitalized and medicated for schizophrenia, and begins looking into the conflicting schools of thought on the best ways to help people with this problem. There seems to be no clear answer. Lopez’ primary concern is Nathaniel’s safety. He begins working with Lamp, a facility that provides housing and outreach to the mentally ill homeless of Skid Row. He contacts his music teachers from his childhood, his classmates from Juilliard. Everyone remembers him, and wishes him well. He arranges several visits to nearby Disney Hall, including a backstage tour where he meets (or reencounters) Yo Yo Ma.

Working around Nathaniel’s stubbornness and quirks makes Lopez more acutely aware of his own. When he finally succeeds in getting Ayers to sleep inside at Lamp, he notes the improvement in his appearance and temperament, but he isn’t quite ready to let go:

A smarter man than I would nod pleasantly, be grateful for small wonders and go find something to do at least twenty or thirty miles from Skid Row. A smarter man would turn things over to the professionals, who, after all, did most of the work anyway and were right all along about what approach would work best for Nathaniel. But I’m having trouble moving on. Nathaniel, for all his intractable habits, has nothing on me when it comes to compulsive behavior. There’s always a better line than the one I just wrote, or a better column idea than the one I’ve got lined up for tomorrow. And nothing can be left hanging, whether it’s a decision on how to redo the front yard or whether a paranoid schizophrenic should be pushed to take advantage of his recent momentum and go immediately into therapy.

This story hooks you immediately. Just as Lopez can’t quit wondering what Nathaniel will do next, you keep turning the pages to see how things turn out. But the catch is that things don’t resolve in a case like this, though they may slowly improve, while alternately sliding back downhill. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch the struggle.

Click here to read Lopez’ columns on Nathaniel from the LA Times website. There’s also a video of Lopez’ update on Nathaniel.

The movie version of The Soloist is in post-production, and is set to be released in November. It stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Steve Lopez, Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel, and Catherine Keener as Lopez’ editor.

photo credits: top, Rick Loomis, LA Times

Coming soon to a library/theater/bookstore near you

A few interesting movie adaptations of books are either newly released, out on video, or coming soon.

24487111.JPGmv5bnju1nza1otkxm15bml5banbnxkftztcwmzgzmdm1mq_v1_sx95_sy140_.jpgYouth without Youth
For the first time in ten years, Francis Ford Coppola is directing a movie. He has adapted the novella by Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade. From the sound of the NY Times review it may be a tad on the baffling side, if wonderful visually.

274600851.JPG mv5bmtk4odyxntyzof5bml5banbnxkftztcwnjmwodg2mq_v1_sx94_sy140_.jpgThen She Found Me
First optioned 19 years ago, this book is just now making it to the screen. Helen Hunt, who directs and stars, has been involved with the project for ten years. Elinor Lipman assures her fans that, despite changes to the story, she’s thrilled with the result.

13893527.JPGmv5bmje3odg0ntq0nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwodm3ntm2mq_v1_sx94_sy140_.jpgBrick Lane
Set in 1980s London, the story centers on a young Bangladeshi woman trapped in an arranged marriage with an older man. Based on Monica Ali’s critically acclaimed debut novel.

25785812.JPGThe Soloist

This memoir by Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, describes the friendship that developed between him and Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic former Juilliard music student who was living on the streets at the time Lopez met him. Initially drawn to violin music wafting towards him as he was walking back to his office, Lopez wrote a column about him and became involved in trying to help him get off Skid Row. A movie version is now in post-production, set to be released in November, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), and starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Lopez, and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel.

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

The Abstinence Teacher book cover

I just finished Tom Perrotta’s latest, The Abstinence Teacher. He’s known for exposing the hidden depth — as well as the contradictions — of suburbia. His last novel, Little Children, included a child molester and husbands and wives in varying degrees of crisis and denial, but managed to be funny and touching at the same time.

The plot and characters: This time out, his main characters lock horns on the issues of religion, and how (or if) human sexuality should be taught at the high school level. At first glance, the main characters seem stereotypical: Tim, a born-again soccer coach, is in trouble for leading his team in prayer after an emotional game; Ruth, a knee-jerk liberal, is in hot water for giving out too much sexual information to her students (her motto is “Pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power”). Perrotta goes beneath the surface of these potentially cartoonish figures to show us how they arrived at their opinions, and their struggles to defend and refine them. We go with Tim to an all-men’s Faith Keepers rally, and with Ruth on a date reuniting her with the first man she had a physical relationship with in high school.

Pithy quote:

“Pastor Dennis had proposed a simple test the men could use in case they found themselves in what they believed to be a morally ambiguous situation, and weren’t sure how to handle it.

‘All you have to do,’ he told them, ‘is to imagine Jesus standing right beside you, and then ask yourself, Would my Companion be proud of me right now? Or would He be ashamed? And you know what? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. You need to turn around and get yourself out of there!’

Over the past couple of years, Tim had applied this test on a number of occasions, and for a while, at least, it had worked pretty much the way the Pastor had predicted. Tim’s Companion had been highly observant and easily alarmed. Lately, though, He seemed to be slacking off a bit, or at least becoming more tolerant of human weakness. Tim knew this wasn’t quite right — in the Gospels, the Son of God was often angry and harshly judgmental, despite His injunction against mortals passing judgment on one another — but there were times when the Jesus by his side seemed no more helpful than one of his old stoner buddies from high school, the kind of guy who’d watch you screwing up, then just chuckle and say, Wow, dude, I can’t believe you did that.”

Perrotta is working on the screenplay for a movie version to be directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine.

» Listen to a sample of the audiobook version on Amazon, read by actor Campbell Scott.