Reader’s Corner: Keeping Up

bookswantedAny serious reader is never satisfied with how much they’re reading. They’re more likely to be anxious and perturbed by the ever-growing stack(s) of books that threaten to blot out the season’s weak winter sun.

Still, few readers have a to-read list to rival that of Times critic Dwight Garner, who says he gets about 25 books a day in the mail and that it takes him on average 8 hours to read one. Do the math.

Here’s a few of the better lines from a recent interview with Garner:

One doesn’t review one’s friends. Having said that, “friend” is an elastic term.

A lot of books are like first dates. You know in 25 seconds if it’s going to work out.

[On whether he reads every page of every book he reviews] I do. Out of moral obligation. Also out of fear. You don’t want to miss something crucial. You want to be definitive in your pronouncements. You want to be able to write things like, “Not once in 350 pages does Mr. Borges huff paint.” You don’t want to worry about a huffing scene on Page 211 that you skipped over.

New in Theaters: ‘Horrible Bosses 2’

'Horrible Bosses 2' (New Line Cinema)
‘Horrible Bosses 2’ (Warner Bros.)

There wasn’t much to know about the comedy Horrible Bosses beyond that it featured three guys (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day) who hated their bosses and wanted revenge. There isn’t much else to know about the sequel, except that it’s not about plot so much as watching three great comic actors bicker and squall.

Horrible Bosses 2 opened this week and will be playing pretty much everywhere for at least a couple weeks for anybody already sick of Oscar contender films. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Holiday Reading: November 26, 2014

Readers’ Corner: Books and Ideas Never Die

'The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD' by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)
‘The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD’ by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)

In Tom Stoppard’s masterful 1993 play Arcadia, a young woman is overwhelmed by an existential grief after reading of the destruction of antiquity’s great library of Alexandria:

…can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library! … How can we sleep for grief?

arcadia1In response, her tutor tries to remind her that in the end, nothing can be lost, regardless of the calamity, because that’s not how life works:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe…

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Department of Weekend Reading: November 22, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Happy Valley’

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in 'Happy Valley' (Music Box Films)
Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in ‘Happy Valley’ (Music Box Films)

The newest documentary from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) is another troubling story about an insular culture reacting with fury to a scandal that threatens their self-created mythology.

I reviewed Happy Valley as part of the DOC NYC festival. It’s opening this week in limited release; my review of Happy Valley (as well as the D.C. punk documentary Salad Days, which also screened at DOC NYC) is at PopMatters:

If Amir Bar-Lev’s superb Happy Valley is any indication, the arguments in the Penn State community over the Jerry Sandusky scandal will not be ending anytime soon. As with most scandals that flare into the national consciousness amid intersecting nodal points of volatility (regional identity, sexual crimes, sports), what actually happened ultimately has little to do with how it plays out with public opinion. Just so, the film sidelines some of the who-what-when to examine the lingering dust clouds of disappointment, rage, and conspiratorial invective…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Grim Children’s Stories

It seems like the youth of America are about the only ones still reading these days. According to NPR:

Young Americans are more likely to have read a book in the past year than their older counterparts, a new study finds. According to data from the Pew Research Center, “88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.” The findings go against the oft-repeated narrative that the Internet is degrading the reading habits of the young (those millennials supposedly Snapchatting themselves into a cultureless stupor). In another surprise, people under 30 were also more likely to say that there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet.”

Bookstores are filled with new and ever-burgeoning series of novels targeted at the young adult market, not to mention slightly simplified versions of nonfiction bestsellers like Unbroken. In other words, this is a big and potentially growing market.

grimm_talesAlso, young readers are generally being given more latitude in terms of the subject matter deemed appropriate.  Jack Zipes’ new translation of Grimms’ fairy tales from Princeton University Press makes a point of including some “gruesome” additions previously unknown to modern readers:

How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat.

Whether or not any children will be read these as bedtime stories remains to be seen. But in any case, if you’re looking to sell books, write with the youth market in mind.

In Books: ‘Against Football’

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Steve Almond is one of those overly talented writers whose style ranges from the literary short story to pop cultural/ethical commentary in the Chuck Klosterman vein. So, in one sense, the fact that Almond has written a book on sports shouldn’t be surprising. On the other hand, it’s a passionate work about a subject he cares deeply about. That’s the thing about football fanatics; they hide in plain sight.

themillions-cover1My essay on his newest book, “To Hell with All That Guilty Love: On Steve Almond’s ‘Against Football’,” ran in The Millions yesterday:

Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray.

In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny”…

Here’s Almond debating football with the great Greg Easterbrook at the Politics and Prose bookstore:

Department of Weekend Reading: November 14, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Foxcatcher’

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in 'Foxcatcher' (Sony Pictures Classics)
Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in ‘Foxcatcher’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

One of the first films that the smart money says will be a 2014 Oscar contender, Foxcatcher is a stranger-than-fiction true story about a potentially insane man of wealth and his obsession with wrestling in general and a pair of Olympic wrestlers in specific. Given its solid performances from all involved (Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell, Channing Tatum) and the pedigree of director of Capote and Moneyball, it certainly has a shot at the Oscars; whether or not that’s deserved is another story.

Foxcatcher is opening this week. I reviewed it for Film Racket:

There’s an old joke about how poor people are crazy but the rich are merely eccentric. Bennett Miller’s based-on-a-true-story Foxcatcher vividly illustrates that joke. After all, how many poor people are allowed to own an armored personnel carrier with a .50 caliber machine gun, openly snort cocaine, wave revolvers around, and make documentaries about their pretend achievements, and not be called crazy? John du Pont was the scion of an industrial dynasty with an 800-acre estate and bank vaults full of money. Because of that, he is allowed to follow every controlling desire, even though anybody can see it will end in tragedy. The tautly acted but dramatically deficient Foxcatcher is the story of how a pair of brothers from humble means were pulled into du Pont’s orbit of pathology by the promise of greatness and kept there by the lure of money…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘The Homesman’

Tommy Lee Jones in 'The Homesman' (Roadside Attractions)
Tommy Lee Jones in ‘The Homesman’ (Roadside Attractions)

In the quasi-Western The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones plays a claims-jumper in 1850s Nebraska who gets roped into helping a tough-minded spinster (Hilary Swank) cart three insane women to safety in Iowa. Jones, who looks less and less comfortable in modern garb these days, also directed and co-wrote the screenplay.

The Homesman opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

“I live uncommonly alone,” says Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) in Tommy Lee Jones’ adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s novel about a raw frontier where solitude and madness are constant companions. The Homesman tries to cut a mordant, witty Coen Brothers line between tragedy and comedy and can’t quite manage either. More particularly, it never knows quite what to make of Cuddy, who is at once valorized as a heroically staunch figure and at the same time mocked for her stiff manner and panicky ways…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Sci-Fi Films You Need To See

The future is past in 'La Jetee' (Criterion Collection)
The future is past in ‘La Jetee’ (Criterion Collection)

Everybody’s definition of unknown films differs, based on their depth of knowledge. This is particularly so with science fiction. Some people delve into the genre like moles and others avoid it at all costs. There are those who barely know anything past Star Wars and others who can cite the full Gamera canon chapter and verse.

scifimovieguide1To illuminate the multitudinous discoveries found in the update I did for newly released Sci-Fi Movie Guide, the team at Barnes & Noble Review very kindly ran this short piece of mine where I make a few suggestions for some less-remembered but still worthy sci-fi films.

“Way, Way Out There: The 10 Greatest Science-Fiction Movies You Haven’t Seen” is at The Barnes & Noble Review here.

 

Now, a moment from The Apple:

 

And, lest we forget, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension:

Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

ww1trench

Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

Writer’s Corner: On Style

For a writer, having a style helps define you. Although Strunk and White and other minders of the literary store have long pushed for the plain and unadorned style that disappears on the page, numerous writers make their name by being absolutely idiosyncratic and unique in how they string words together. Ernest Hemingway might have striven for simplicity, but it was always his type of simplicity. You couldn’t mistake it. Sometimes, this is how careers are made.

Andre Malraux, circa 1974.
Andre Malraux, circa 1974.

Nevertheless, style can be dangerous in the wrong hands. See Anthony Daniels’ aside in his review for the New Criterion of Stephen Parker’s new Bertolt Brecht biography, which clocks in at 600 closely-typeset pages:

The writer of a very long book should at least be a good prose stylist, but unfortunately Professor Parker is not such a stylist. As Sartre said of Malraux, he has a style, but it is not a good one.

In other words, if you’re going to write so that the reader notices, make sure it’s worth their while.

New in Theaters: ‘The Better Angels’

Braydon Denney as young Abe Lincoln in 'The Better Angels' (Amplify)
Braydon Denney as young Abe Lincoln in ‘The Better Angels’ (Amplify)

Everybody knows that Abraham Lincoln was raised in a log cabin in Indiana. But it’s still jarring to consider how a man raised in the middle of nowhere with little schooling by probably illiterate parents became one of the nation’s greatest and most erudite leaders. A.J. Edwards’ beautifully abstract, Terence Malick-ian film about Lincoln’s childhood explores that mystery with only limited success.

The Better Angels opened yesterday in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of the nation’s most facile writers and speakers. Yet in this dreamy black-and-white tone poem about Lincoln’s childhood in a dirt-floor cabin in the Indiana woods, the future president says barely a word. It’s an intriguing gambit from debut director A.J. Edwards, the mirror opposite of the standard Spielbergian biopic, and ultimately not a successful one…

Here’s the trailer: