Movies for Readers: Brooklyn

This is a beautifully shot movie – the colors (especially all those pastels) and the scenery are perfect for the period in which it is placed.  Brooklyn, set in 1950s Ireland and New York, is based on the popular 2009 novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín , although it should be noted that the screenplay was written by the wonderful Nick Hornby.

The basic storyline involves a young woman who, unable to find work in Ireland, is convinced by a visiting New York priest to take advantages of the job opportunities in that city.  But just when she has gotten settled into her new life fallen in love, a family tragedy forces her to visit her home country.  There she briefly rekindles a romance with an old boyfriend and faces pressure from her mother not to return to the United States.  

This one sounds as much a coming-of-age story for the U.S. as it is for the movie’s main character.  Best of all, though, it appears to be a literary movie based upon a well accepted literary novel.

Movies for Readers: No. 2

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Jonathan Franzen Reads Bedtime Story to Colbert

I love this YouTube clip for a number of reasons: Jonathan Franzen shows more “personality,” frankly, than I expected from him, the story he reads is relatively clever, and the ironic ending to the clip actually made me laugh.  For me, a little of Colbert’s persona goes a long, long way, but this backhanded endorsement of independent bookstores is really pretty funny.

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Tortilla Flat

Frankly, I do not know what to think about John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.  On the one hand, this 1935 novel is an entertaining look at life through the eyes of a bunch of men whose biggest concern in life is where their next bottle of wine is coming from; on the other, the novel tends to leave the impression that everyone living in the Tortilla Flat section of Monterey, California, is shiftless and lazy.  And that impression, considering that all the characters in Tortilla Flat are (or would be called in today’s terms) Hispanics, is not one that leaves the reader very comfortable.

Danny and his friends are actually “paisanos.”  As Steinbeck puts it, a paisano “is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods.  His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years…when questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is nearly white.” 
Danny’s crew has more in common than the love of drink.  He and several of his friends, in a moment of drunken patriotism, joined the military at the outbreak of World War I, and now they have returned one-by-one to Tortilla Flat to resume the lives they temporarily abandoned.  The boys had varying degrees of success during the war.  Danny himself never left the States, others of them saw the fighting, and at least one of them spent most of the war in the brig.  But now they are home and they have resumed a shiftless lifestyle that sees them working only long enough to earn the next bottle or two of wine. 
Author John Steinbeck

Then Danny receives something of a mixed blessing when he inherits the two Tortilla Flat houses owned by his elderly grandfather.  His neighborhood prestige and status are immediately enhanced, but Danny is quick to feel the burdens of property ownership – and, rather than being excited by his windfall, Danny is troubled and unhappy.  It is only when his friends begin to move into his houses with him that Danny is finally able to settle into his new lifestyle, but even then he misses the carefree (and often violent) lifestyle that he lived before the war.  Danny simply misses his old life:

            “When Danny thought of the old lost time, he could taste again how good the stolen food was, and he longed for that old time again.  Since his inheritance had lifted him, he had not fought often.  He had been drunk, but not adventurously so.  Always the weight of the house was upon him; always the responsibility to his friends.”

Danny and his friends may be living lives filled with personal tragedy, but they live and love exactly as they wish.  They are their own men and, although most of us would condemn their habits and their lifestyles, they are happy.  But looking at the novle through today’s eyes, I still don’t know what to think of Tortilla Flat.  Is it insensitive and unfair, or is it simply a well-written product of its times?  Each of us, I suppose, will have to decide that for ourselves.

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Great News: A Brand New Book from Ruth Rendell: Dark Corners

I have to say that this may be the best book news I’ve learned of this whole year.  Get this: one last Ruth Rendell book is still to be published because according to The Guardian, Ms. Rendell had just completed a new manuscript shortly before suffering the stroke that would soon kill her. The new book is titled Dark Corners:

From the impressive variety of tones and styles to which she had access as a writer, Rendell chose for Dark Corners black comedy that echoes Muriel Spark. One homicidal character consoles himself that “what he had done had been very close to an accident”, while another keeps passing on bizarre items from newspapers, such as a warning that visitors to zoos shouldn’t wear clothes with animal-skin patterns, because they confuse the animals. Among many sharp asides in the narrative voice is a reflection on why atheists are so exercised by whether the Church of England uses the Book of Common Prayer or modern translations.
Dark Corners, although a minor work compared to Rendell titles such as Simisolaor the Vine book A Fatal Inversion, enjoyably and honourably concludes Rendell’s six decades of exploring the death force that, as her last book demonstrates, may be triggered in unexpected people and places.
Author Ruth Rendell

Almost prophetically, although Rendell could not have known how true her final words would turn out to be, the book’s last sentence reads, “Now it’s all over.”  If that doesn’t make a Ruth Rendell fan tear up just a little bit, they are tougher than I am.

The only way this news could be better (at least to me) is if the new book were  a final Inspector Wexford novel rather than the standalone that it turns out to be.  But don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  This is a gift I never expected to receive and I can’t wait to open it.

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First and Last Sentences from Some of My All-Time Favorites – Do They Predict My Love of the Books?

I got to wondering this morning whether or not my all-time favorite books have anything noticeable in common.  I thought, hey, maybe if I figure that out, I’ll be able to choose my next all-time favorite sooner rather than later.  One of the first things I noticed about them is that, generally, their opening sentences are intriguing and kind of mysterious…and their closing sentences manage to pack the kind of punch that is always satisfying at the end of a longish book.


Here’s an example from Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel The Son (a book that I really want to re-read sometime in 2016): 

Opening sentence: “It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.”

Closing sentence: “As far as I know he is looking for me yet.”

Doesn’t that make you want to find out what happened to this old person in between those two sentences?  


Or how about this from a book that introduces some of my very favorite characters of all-time (and that plot…wow).


Opening sentence: “When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake –  not a very big one.”

Ending sentence: “They say he missed that whore.”

Right from the get-go, I knew I had not picked up a run-of-the-mill Western because Larry McMurtry set the irreverent tone that would be present throughout the rest of the book’s 843 pages.  I was hooked.


And then there’s this from the book that turned me into a lifelong reader of John Irving’s fiction:


First sentence: “Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”

Ending sentence: “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”

It is pretty evident that the odds that Garp has had a normal childhood and life are pretty low ones.  Whose fault is that going to be, his or his mother’s?  And just how weird is this going to get (pretty weird, as it turns out)?





My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante is one of the publishing world’s biggest mysteries of the moment.  Despite her great sales and critical success, no one seems to know who the woman (if she really is a woman) is.  There is even speculation that her four-book Neapolitan series is more of a memoir than a novel serialization.  And there is little doubt that all of the mystery surrounding Ferrante and her books has increased the attention they are getting.  All that said, if the first book in the Neapolitan series, 2012’s My Brilliant Friend, is any indication, the series is indeed a strong one, and the books are capable of standing on their own.
My Brilliant Friend introduces two little girls who first meet in the early 1950s in a poor neighborhood just outside Naples.  Elena (the book’s first person narrator) and Lila are two of the brightest students in their neighborhood school and, being top candidates for the school’s highest honors, their relationship soon becomes more a friendly rivalry than a friendship.  Elena, though, is a bit intimidated by the ease with which Lila seems to acquire and display her knowledge.  After a while, Elena is content to be number two to Lila’s number one and that is the only achievement she really strives for.
The novel actually opens in the present, with both women now in their sixties and still friends of a sort.  It seems that Lila has disappeared without a trace and that her son, after waiting two full weeks, has decided finally to call Elena to see if she knows where Lila could be.  Ferrante uses this opening segment to segue neatly into how the women first met and how their decades-long relationship slowly evolved over time.  My Brilliant Friend is, in fact, a coming-of-age narrative for both our narrator and for her supposed closest friend, Lila.
Author Elena Ferrante
Elena and Lila live in a very self-contained little neighborhood in which everyone knows and tracks the intimacies of everyone else.  Certain families, it seems, made their fortunes during and just following World War II, a period that left Italy in the kind of chaos in which huge profits could be made from a thriving black-market.  Those families are still the most powerful ones in the neighborhood – and they are not to be crossed.  As the girls make their way through childhood and adolescence, they experience the usual emotions and pains of those phases of life.  Sometimes they are intimate friends, but at other times they barely speak for weeks, or even months.  They and their friends have good times, but life is easy for none of them.

Ferrante has created a wide cast of well developed characters in My Brilliant Friend that will serve her well for the next three books in the series.  Speculation as to whether or not the books are based on Ferrante’s own life and memories offers a little twist to reading her, but that doesn’t really matter.  What counts most is that she is one heck of a storyteller.  This is literary fiction at its best.

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Joyce Carol Oates Tweet

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    Expecting students to be “open-minded” about opinions contrary to their own may be unrealistic when many/most adults are close-minded.
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    For example, not one person of my acquaintance is going to “seriously consider” GOP candidates let alone anti-feminism.