Weekend Reading: October 30, 2015

Screening Room: ‘The Wonders’


A sweet and strange offering from Italy, The Wonders opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The state of the ramshackle Tuscan farmhouse inhabited by the family whose members dart and gambol all through The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher’s sleepy one-ring circus of a film, perfectly mirrors their everyday state of affairs. It’s beautiful in its way but not exactly well-maintained. Nevertheless, it stays up, just like this family stays together even as many of their violently oppositional attitudes would seem to be pulling them apart…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Writing as a Form of Reading

sontagreaderIt’s a truism that one of the best things new writers need to remember is to read. A lot. Not to imitate (though some of that is inevitable, especially at the start) but to understand just what writing is, and to see a book through two sets of eyes at once:

  • How is the writer able to make me respond this way?
  • How can I get the reader to respond, in any way?

In “Write, Read, Rewrite, Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed,” Susan Sontag limns the linkage between the two:

First, because to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you’ve written and see if it’s O.K. and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it — once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread. You are your own first, maybe severest, reader. “To write is to sit in judgment on oneself,” Ibsen inscribed on the flyleaf of one of his books. Hard to imagine writing without rereading…

Reader’s Corner: Still Declining


A few items from the latest Pew Research Center study on American reading habits:

  • 72% of American adults read a book in the past year, down from 79% in 2011.
  • Young adults (18-29) more likely than older adults to have read a book in the past year.
  • Average number of books read by women in the past year: 14.
  • … by men: 9.

Weekend Reading: October 23, 2015


Screening Room: ‘Steve Jobs’

Michael Fassbender as 'Steve Jobs' (Universal)
Michael Fassbender as ‘Steve Jobs’ (Universal)

jobs-book coverA few years back, Aaron Sorkin wrote a wildly one-sided account of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to riches and infamy as the founder of Facebook, The Social Network. Now he’s (theoretically, at least) adapted Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for another tale of a socially malformed but market-prescient innovator. It’s more even-handed about its subject, to a degree, but somehow far less interesting.

Steve Jobs is already playing in limited release and opens wider this week. My review is at PopMatters:

What Steve Jobs leaves us with isn’t a genius or even a particularly innovative business manager. One after the other, aggrieved former colleagues or family come for some kind of reconciliation or passive-aggressive score-settling, only to be hit with the paranoid, megalomaniacal verbal assaults [former Apple CEO John] Sculley calls the “Steve Jobs revenge machine”. On the surface this looks like an attempt to puncture the bubble of Jobs’s self-created genius mystique and show his seedy underbelly. But the film’s heart isn’t in it. Each time, Jobs gets the upper hand…

My 2011 review of Isaacson’s book is here.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Published and Discarded

Book remainders and throwaways are a boon for readers. They lead not just to new discoveries but also access sometimes to desired purchases that are now suddenly available, whether marked down to $5.98 on a bookstore table or sitting out on a Brooklyn stoop for free.

That doesn’t mean that the author has to be happy about witnessing it, as in the cover illustration that graphic novelist Adrian Tomine did for the New Yorker:


Where I live in Brooklyn, there’re always a lot of books being set out on the sidewalk, and there’re also a lot of authors walking around the neighborhood … I’ve had the experience of seeing stacks of New Yorkers with my cover out on the street, though I haven’t seen my books put out—but then, I also don’t have a giant photo of myself on the back cover.

Screening Room: ‘Experimenter’

Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and his 'shock' machine in 'Experimenter' (Magnolia)
Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and his ‘shock’ machine in ‘Experimenter’ (Magnolia)

At Yale in 1961, researcher Stanley Milgram began a long-term, wide-ranging experiment on obedience and authority that would actually—and for once, this isn’t hyperbole—shock the world with its conclusions. That’s the story of Michael Almereyda’s daring and (yes) experimental film Experimenter, opening this week.

My review is at PopMatters:

[Milgram] put a volunteer in a room with an officious research assistant and called them “Teacher”. He instructed Teacher to ask questions of a “Learner” in another room, a man they could hear but not see, a man they were told had a heart condition. Teacher administered a series of apparently escalating and painful electric shocks to Learner, and to continue no matter how many times Teacher heard Learner grunt and shout in pain. Teacher was free to leave whenever they liked … Many volunteers squirm with hesitation. Some ask the assistant if they will be responsible for whatever happens. Most of them deliver shock after shock, long after Learner has begged to be let out, and then fallen quiet…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Room’

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in 'Room' (A24)
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in ‘Room’ (A24)

Based on Emma Donoghue’s award-winning 2010 novel, Room is the story of a young woman being held captive in a small room with her five-year-old son, who has never seen anything of the world outside the room.

Room opened this week and is looking like an early favorite Oscar favorite, at least for Brie Larson as the mother. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: October 16, 2015

The Rocky Horror Picture Show - Wallpaper #1

Quote of the Day: Books vs. Guns

Speaking at a fundraiser in California last week, President Obama mused about the “choice” that America appeared to be making:

It’s not just mass shootings. It is the daily shootings that take place in cities across America. It is easier [in some low-income neighborhoods] to buy a gun than buy a book.

Screening Room: ‘Bridge of Spies’

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks glare like they mean it in 'Bridge of Spies' (Dreamworks)
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks glare like they mean it (Dreamworks)

In Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, based on a tangled and fascinating true story, Tom Hanks plays a New York lawyer who gets swept into a Cold War scandal when the CIA needs help rescuing a U-2 spy plane pilot shot down by the Soviets.

Bridge of Spies opens everywhere this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Bridge of Spies sits at the lit-fuse junction of Cold War paranoia, the legal ethics of treating enemy combatants, the dividing of Berlin, and nuclear holocaust. But the work of three screenwriters—Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen—one of the era’s most astute directors of thoughtful popular cinema, and even Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks operating in pitch-perfect sync can’t wrestle this incredible, fact-based but ungainly moralistic spy saga into shape…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: October 9, 2015