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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2007

You go away for a few days…


I’ve been without my beloved Internet for going on a week now, which means I’ve heard precious little in the way of news. I heard second and third hand about the Chasers awesome arrest, I had to text five different people to find out who got booted from Idol on Monday night as I missed the eviction show, and I hit the IMDb in haste today to see how Ricky Gervais went at the Emmys. Pointless entertainment news is why the Internet was invented, right?


While it’s good I finally get to see the Britney video everyone’s talking about (this week has really demonstrated to me how quickly hot news becomes old news), I did not enjoy booting up today to find out authors Madeleine L’Engle and Robert Jordan had passed. While not especially fond of the works of either, I know how much they’ve given to my best friend, who will be as shocked when I relay the news to her (she has no Internet at all—and sometimes I envy her).


The BBC reports on Jordan’s death.


The New York Times has a piece on Ms. L’Engle.


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

It can come off as arrogance, sensitivity, or a noble dissent—a high-minded refusal to engage with America’s culture of celebrity, erosion of privacy and self-promotion. It may be just the wishful fantasy that their books might arrive unmediated, might “speak for themselves.”


Great piece in the LA Times this week about reclusive authors and the reasons they shield their faces from public view. Salinger and Pynchon are included, along with author Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son, the new Tree of Smoke).


 


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Monday, Sep 3, 2007

Alice Leccese Powers looks back at Alice McDermott’s The Night in this week’s “You Must Read This” on NPR. Powers considers the book an exploration into her own childhood on Long Island, and that the McDermott “claims Long Island her territory, just as surely as Faulkner’s was Mississippi.”


I read The Night in 1992, shortly before the movie version hit VHS. My friends and I loved C. Thomas Howell in those pants, and Juliette Lewis in that skirt, and we knew how Alice felt in her worship of their characters, Rick and Sheryl. We idolised them, too. At that time, alongside Where the Day Takes You, That Night was the movie we most wanted to inhabit. But our reaction to the film, and my reaction to the book, were markedly different to Powers’. Growing up in suburban Long Island was, quite literally, worlds away from rural Victoria. Us rural kids really didn’t have a romantic rebel to drool over, or a beautiful, misunderstood urchin to emulate. Neighbors didn’t interact, and folks generally stayed out of each others’ business. We went to school, we went home, and we waited to grow up.


No one was writing about our experiences—the sun-drenched Goulburn Valley was no one’s idea of fertile literary territory,  and so we adopted Sheryl and Rick as our own, and we talked about them, dissected their personalities, and stuck their pictures in frames—a far more intimate form of tribute that simply pinning their posters to the wall.


In our minds, the world was just like McDermott’s. We didn’t long for disaffected teens to get pregnant just so we could awe at them, but we wanted heroes, boys and girls who stood out, because no one stood out in our town. So, while Powers remembers That Night as representative of her experience, I remember it as opening my friends and I up to experiences we would otherwise never have known existed. Even though we didn’t see them, there were rebels out there, and our time would come. 


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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007

You have to wonder if the manuscript for The Uncommon Reader had been just sitting in Alan Bennett’s trunk gathering dust for years, its every attempt at publication rejected by publishers prior to the success of last year’s film The Queen, after which gently entertaining tales about the Queen Mother told from her point of view became much more salable. Whatever the case may be, Bennett’s novella is a charming little diversion that will leave Angolphiles sighing with pleasure and most everyone else grinning, if a touch underwhelmed.


Bennett’s conceit here is that one day the Queen (or she refers to herself in conversation, “One”) happens to be walking the corgis on the grounds when she comes across the palace bookmobile. Thinking it would be rude not to take a book, she checks out an Ivy-Compton Burnett title and heads on her way. This simple act leads to Her Majesty opening up whole new vistas in her heretofore-unreflective life. One book leads to another and soon she is devouring the printed word by the bushel, always with a stack on the nightstand and one or more in her purse. She even keeps one open in her lap while in the car, absent-mindedly waving to her subjects.


A wit of no little talent, Bennett has a good time with his little fancy of an idea, smartly wielding some trademark dry Anglo understatement: When the Queen tells her husband that there’s a bookmobile on the grounds, he responds, “Jolly good. Wonders never cease.” Although the author is wise not to dig too deeply into his subject (this is thin terrain), he gets good mileage out of observing the Queen’s developing tastes—she absolutely devours Proust, but while reading Henry James at teatime, lets out an irritated, “Oh do get on”—and watching how her growing obsession affects her abilities to act Queenly. As state functions become more and more tedious, she looks to literature for escape. Stuck next to the president of France, she asks him for his opinion on Jean Genet (hasn’t heard of him). Later, she survives a painfully boring trip to Canada only by a chance meeting with Alice Munro whom she got talking to and, “learning that she was a novelist and short-story writer, requested one of her books, which she greatly enjoyed.” Such are the perks of royalty.


Although it may be difficult to peruse The Uncommon Reader without imagining Helen Mirren voicing her lines (there are worse things), and won’t take you more than a couple hours to finish, Bennett’s sliver of a story is a perfectly enjoyable take on the joys and dangers of literature.


It just may not be worth $15.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?


After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin’s excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin’s ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It’s an original, complex, moving book.


Possible spoilers ahead


The Night Listenerby Armistead MaupinBantam2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it’s almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.


Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It’s difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film’s opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.


Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can’t get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.


Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete’s existence drives the book. It’s a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone’s relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It’s very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it’s so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.


The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone’s driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid’s existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid’s mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book’s final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man’s creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn’t want to create doubt. In the book, Noone’s quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what’s real and what isn’t in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.


And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid’s mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she’s apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.


Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen “that didn’t happen!”, “this isn’t right!”, “what’s happening to this beautiful story?”


It’s a real mystery.


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