Monday, December 31, 2012

Misery on the Big Screen

If you’ve been anywhere near a theater or television in the past month, you know that the film adaptation of Les Miserables opened on Christmas day. Yesterday, I survived the three-hour viewing (2 hours, 37 minutes of the film, at least 20 minutes of trailers) and I have to say, it was indeed very good.

Adaptation is a tricky thing, the channels through which stories reach people having different settings, often a myriad of methods for telling. I haven’t seen the Broadway version of Les Miserables, although I’ve seen many others. Musicals parlay story through song and pageantry. Big numbers from strong voices, elaborate sets. And they’ve been adapted for film in a variety of ways (and sometimes, films are adapted to musicals) and back to musicals again. It seems to me there are two main things a film can do that a story set on a Broadway stage cannot, and I believe Les Miserables did both of these very well.

First, expansion of scope. Musicals are limited by the stage. To change scenes, the curtains must be closed and new sets brought in. The stage itself is a finite size. Les Miserables, the movie, includes many sweeping and grand shots that give a sense of Paris of the 1800s. From the opening shot of a tiny Hugh Jackman straining in a prison work crew to the overhead views of the crude barricades positioned throughout the city during the fledging movements of the French Revolution, this is film’s terrain: vastness, scope, perspective. The movie has moments of great beauty and poignancy, in terms of setting scenes.

Second, personalization of character. In a Broadway show, ensemble trumps solo and your impressions of the main characters, even if you’re in the first ten rows, are received through large gestures mostly. Director Tom Hooper gives us, in his Les Miserables, many songs by solo performers filmed at such close range that every crease, every emotion, every imperfection, is visible. In fact, these solos, especially Anne Hathaway’s much-touted performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and several by Jackman and others, are so personal and anguished they grip you by the throat. Really, you can’t look away. This is also film’s domain—the ability to draw you into another life, another individual, in an immediate and sensual way.

All in all, a very fulfilling way to spend three hours and experience this story. At times, these two aspects are combined in group numbers that pan from face to face then back out again. Such as the number “Do You Hear the People Sing.” This finale from the 25th anniversary concert of the Broadway show actually does a good job with the notion of scope and because it’s filmed, there's personalization too. It's a long clip, but you get an idea of what I mean at around 6:30. But see the film too!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ways to build a story

Maybe you’ve seen mention of Chris Ware’s Building Stories on some of the Best of 2012 lists circulating. I bought the book as a pre-Christmas treat for myself and just finished reading it the other day. My experience with graphic novels is very limited. I read Marjane Satrapi’s Perseopolis series and I love The Arrival by Shaun Tan. That’s it, actually. I guess I was never drawn to the form because I’ve never understood comics, the ones in the newspaper. Are they supposed to be funny? But when I read about Ware’s book, I was intrigued with the construction of it, because it seemed to relate to a current project I’m working on, a collection of short stories.

Building Stories is a graphic novel; that is, it tells its story through drawings AND words. The “book” arrives in a large box, about the size of a board game. Inside, there are fourteen independent items, ranging in form and size. There are large, folded sheets much like newspapers and small, flip-able books. You can read these items in any way you choose.

We’ve had discussions in my book club about what constitutes a novel and what doesn’t. Are a collection of interrelated stories a novel? What about a shorter work? What’s a novella??? It seems to me that we’re perfectly comfortable with leaving a variety of types under the umbrella of “novel,” but we are less happy to do so with form. What makes a novel a novel? Cohesive themes? A linear story? Deep meanings? Personally, I prefer a very loose definition: If the author calls it a novel, it’s a novel.

I don’t worry so much, actually, about labels but more about building stories. Why did Olive Kitteridge work so well for me but not so much Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? Regardless of the pieces you choose, how should the story be held together?

A few notes on the tactile aspect of Building Stories. The reading was much more active than reading from a print book or ereader. My daughter and I sat down, opened the box and immediately began touching all of the pieces inside. We moved them around, stacked them and opened them, put them back in the box when finished. Other pieces called out, with a word or a drawing, asking to be next. And it was a communal activity, sitting there with my daughter reading, at least until I figured out that the content was too adult and sent her away.

I was enthralled with the book and dreamt about it that night. Maybe because of the visual aspect. I’m not sure I’ve ever dreamt about a novel before. There were parts that were incredibly touching, like this small booklet about the experience of motherhood. This particular piece has no words, but it encompasses the joys and sorrows of parenthood like few traditionally told stories can.

I have one regret about reading Building Stories, that I will never be able to start again and read the parts in a different order. The order I chose seemed entirely natural and fitting, almost some kind of magic trick. I kept wondering how the experience would have changed if I’d had certain information before the other. But this book, its images and story, will stay with me a long time. It’s made me reconsider so much about reading, about writing, and as any good novel does, it’s made me see life through a fresh lens.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My 2012 Book List

I should qualify this “Best of 2012” list by saying that I’ve read only a few of the books that are circulating on most of the end of year lists. Like most average readers, my reading throughout the year includes old and new, suggested and found, serious and not-so-serious. So, my best of 2012 is basically a best of whatever hodge-podge of books I read this year.

I have to give a shout out to Goodreads, because it has made keeping track of what I’ve read very easy. If you’re not a member already, hop over and take a look. Make sure to send me a friend request here and of course, add my own novel to your list while you’re there.

And because naming a group of favorites is difficult enough for me, I give you these in no particular order. All of them resonated with me; all garnered 5 stars for one reason or another. I’m very pleased, too, that the list has turned out to be very diverse. I credit my book club and my author friends for continually exposing me to books I may not have chosen myself.

An emotional picaresque set in the American West about Monte Becket, a writer who’s lost his will to write. He makes an unlikely friend and the two set out on a mission that will change Monte forever. I had read Enger’s best-selling Peace Like a River and loved it. I liked this one even more. His writing is straightforward but evocative and the story operates on so many levels, it’s incredibly fulfilling. And I cried.


Another story from (Mid)western America, the first novel by one of my favorite writers. Edith Goodnough, an elderly and beloved citizen of a small town, is in the hospital, awaiting trial for murder. The novel unspins from there, examining the characters around her and how and why each is connected to this event. Perhaps not as polished as later novels by Haruf, but great nonetheless.


A 2012 release! The novel opens on Pasquale, a young man trying to build a beach to attract American tourists to his family’s hotel in a sleepy Italian town. When a disturbed Hollywood actress arrives, the chance meeting sets into motion a chain of events that will take decades to resolve. The story moves back and forth in time, from Hollywood of the 1960s and the isolated Italian village where news of movie stars seeps in, to current day, when modern notions of celebrity and success can dilute even the purest of artistic sensibilities. Elegantly written, a beautiful book.


A crazy, passionate novel that is hard to categorize. The story involves another unlikely friendship, between a smart but troubled adolescent, Valentina, and Lucas Giraut, who has recently inherited his family’s company but has to battle his ruthless mother in the process. As Lucas tries to piece together his past from clues and dreams and interactions with his horrible mother, Valentina hides from life by obsessing about Stephen King. Funny and sharp, surprising and fresh, I really could not put it down.


A funny and touching memoir about a boy’s relationship with his eccentric Texan mother. After his father’s abandonment when he was seventeen, he’s forced to leave the encompassing influence of his mother and discover a bit about himself and life on his own. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “laugh-out-loud tale of dysfunction and discovery (that) is a compulsively readable treat.” I can’t do much better than that. A very funny, enjoyable book that I couldn’t read fast enough.


I was lucky enough to get my hands on two novels by my very favorite writer this year. I’ll include both in this entry so my list doesn’t seem biased! This one is about Arvid Jansen, a man weathering three tragedies at once—the end of his marriage, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and his mother’s fatal cancer. Petterson has an ability, through modest but poetic writing, to pull you into a story, a life, gently but firmly. What can I say? He’s my favorite writer. I also read It’s Fine By Me, which was recently released in English. I loved that one too, but maybe slightly preferred I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME. I was depressed after finishing both, knowing I’d have to wait a while for another.


Years ago, I chose McGregor’s lauded first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, for my book club and loved it. I’ve had this book on my shelf for some time and could kick myself for waiting so long to read it. In both books, McGregor distills small events, small happenstances, small objects, until a larger perspective emerges. This novel is about David Carter, curator of a history museum and of his own private collection of memorabilia and the flotsam of a family. When a secret is revealed, David is forced to reexamine the living history he has written for himself.


This classic book was a re-read for me, having been chosen by my book club this year, but I have to mention it because of its stunning effect on me. I remembered liking the book but on this second read, was completely blown away by this story, this writer. The novel centers around Singer, a deaf mute in a small Southern town, and the characters in his orbit. It’s about isolation and loneliness, relationships and estrangement, and the search for beauty and art amidst tragedy and suffering. Heady stuff, perhaps, but really an indescribable book that will stay and stay and stay. If you haven’t read it recently or ever, give it a try. A book that easily makes my top five favorite books of all time.


I’m thrilled to end my list with three self-published titles that should have been picked up by larger publishers (and maybe will be, eventually). Among these, WALK TO PARADISE GARDEN was my favorite, a story that spans the 20th century, amazing in its scope. Above all else, it’s the love story of John and Evie. But it’s also historical fiction, drama, a crime novel of sorts, and at times, a travel narrative. It put me in mind of sweeping sagas from another era, as we follow John and Evie through their lifetimes and from one foreign setting to another. From the Belgian countryside devastated by World War I to France during the Folies Bergere era, to industrial Chicago and its early blues scene—the author’s ability to bring alive all of these places was remarkable. A satisfying read on every level, a story I was sorry to leave. I’ve recommended this book to several readers who have enjoyed it as much as I did, and you can get the Kindle version for an unbelievable price.

CICADA by J. Eric Laing

A bird’s eye panorama of a small Southern town and an intimate study of its inhabitants. The story is full of wonderfully drawn characters but centers on the Sayre family: father John, tormented by a past mistake and about to experience a brief rejuvenation, mother Frances, a loyal wife beginning to have many doubts, and their son Timothy “Buckshot,” an imaginative, honest child. Outside the family, forces press in: the local KKK branch has started up again and the natural world continues its predator/prey order. A touch of Southern Gothic in this exquisitely drawn world, a truly wonderful read. Also a very affordable option for your Kindle.

This novel was a favorite at the site, which is peopled with mostly writers and yet, I can’t imagine anyone not thinking it's funny. Jona Gold is a poet and a dreamer, spending his days conducting imaginary conversations with deceased literary greats and punctuating his mundane existence with uncontrollable outbursts of poetic insight. And he’s one of the funniest characters I’ve ever met. It reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, and yet, Levin delves in deeper, darker territory. It’s a mediation on art and the burden of creating it, and an exploration of life and death itself, as Jona hones his suicide note and returns in his mind again and again to the sensory experience of a grave of rotting oranges. I raced through this book, one of the funniest things I have ever read. Truly.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Favorite Films in 2012

Faithful blog readers will recall that last year at this time, I could only talk about one movie, The Tree of Life. (Revisit my raving here.) I chose it for my favorite movie in 2011 and didn't do a list at all because others seemed to fade in its presence. This year, several films touched me in one way or another. I was waiting for the release of Life of Pi to choose because, having known the novel and the film's director, I thought it might make my list. It didn't, but it was very, very good. If I had a top ten list, it would make it. As would Looper, which I liked very much. But I don't have a top ten, only a top three.

#3: Moonrise Kingdom

Quirky and funny, boldly visual and immediately human, this film was entertaining and touching from start to finish. For anyone who's ever felt love and its impossibility. Watching the trailer makes me want to see it again with my family.

#2: Safety Not Guaranteed

Another film about the gulf between individuals and the tenuous bridges we build with love. Also quirky and touching. A man advertises in the personals for a time-traveling partner and gets exactly that.

And my favorite of the year was untouchable, in terms of an encompassing theater experience. It rivaled The Tree of Life in that regard, and in the way it touched me on so many levels.

#1: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A young girl named Hushpuppy grows up in an unspecified, swampy wilderness in the southern U.S. Her father, mostly present but unreliable, provides food and not much else, and their small family of two is part of a larger community, all living in the wild and making their own rules. Searing images and at times, breathtaking imagery, wonderful acting and moments of emotional import that pretty much wrecked me. A must see.

Other, non-2012 movies I saw and and loved:

Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene: A woman finds the courage to leave a cult and rejoin her family. I wrote about the film earlier in the year here.

After the Wedding: Nominated for an Academy Award in 2007, a Danish man returns home from India to discover a startling secret from his past.

A Separation: Another Foreign Language nominee I missed the year it came out, about a couple trying to separate in modern Iran. A fatalist love story.

Every Little Step:  A documentary about the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, which also delves into the creation of the show in 1974. Fascinating stuff.

Autumn Sonata: Sometimes I fear all my notions of Sweden come from Bergman films, his stark landscapes and starker families. This one is a knockout punch. A renowned pianist visits her daughter after many years, only to unleash a tsunami of past injuries, repressed secrets and excruciating angst. With the suspense of a Hitchcock film at times. Love those crazy Swedes.

A couple of my favorites this year were recommended to me by others, so I'm always happy to hear what others are seeing and loving. Soon, and because we all need more lists (!), a shortlist of my favorite books for the year.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka