'Astonish Me' Raised My Eyebrows, But Not for the Reasons You Might Think

I can only agree with the title. I am astonished.

Astonish Me

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publication date: 2014-04

In 1977, director Hebert Ross captivated American moviegoers with The Turning Point. An inside look into the world of professional ballet, the film starred Anne Bancroft, Shirley Maclaine, Tom Skerritt, and a gorgeous young Russian named Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Based on Ross’s wife, ballerina Nora Kaye, and her friend and fellow dancer Isabel Mirrow Brown, The Turning Point incited a brief bout of American balletomania. Actresses Anne Bancroft and Shirley Maclaine were already superstars; Baryshnikov soon joined them. Co-stars Leslie and Ethan Brown, Mirrow’s children, enjoyed long dance careers.

The '70s was a wonderful time to be a ballet fan. The world had yet to splinter into niche interests: the classical arts had broader appeal. As a child bending her spindly legs into the five positions, I hungrily scavenged any information I could get about dance. By subscribing to Dancemagazine and reading dance books, I learned about George Balanchine and his New York City Ballet. Given A Very Young Dancer for my tenth birthday, I scrutinized Jill Krementz’s photographs for glimpses of the Balanchine ballerinas: Patricia McBride, Colleen Neary, Karin Von Aroldingen. Later I read books by and about Merrill Ashley, Suzanne Farrell, and Gelsey Kirkland.

Although author Maggie Shipstead is barely 30 years old, she is clearly a devotee of the same balletic era. In fact, her second novel, Astonish Me, borrows so heavily from it that I am astonished by the lack of fallout.

Shipstead’s novel follows dancers Joan Joyce and Elaine Costas, corps members in an unnamed, famous New York City dance company run by artistic director "Mr. K.": Mstislav Ilyich Kocheryozkin. The year is 1977.

Lacking both talent and drive, Joan realizes she will never advance beyond the corps. She accepts her career-ending pregnancy with surprising equanimity.

Bancroft to Joan’s Maclaine, Elaine Costa is a talented, driven mashup of multiple dancers, including Farrell, Kirkland, and Merrill Ashley. Astonish Me’s most interesting character, Elaine, devotes her life to dance and Mr. K. Their relationship mimics Balanchine and Farrell’s intense artist/muse bond.

Like Kirkland, Elaine is fond of cocaine, though she’s too disciplined to become addicted. Also like Kirkland, Elaine has mastered the role of Don Quixote’s Kitri, including its infamously difficult "bravura sissone leap".

Mr. K. is homosexual. Otherwise, his history is identical to Mr. B’s. Both fled Russia for the States, bringing with them a balletic style emphasizing speed and technical prowess. Each becomes known for choreographing plotless ballets that exploit a ballerina’s specific gifts before growing restless and moving on to new flesh.

Balanchine famously irritated Kirkland by telling her: "Don’t think, dear, just do." Mr. K., speaking to Elaine, instructs: "Just dance. It’s only about the steps."

As for the wild speculation surrounding Farrell and Balanchine -- did they or didn’t they? -- see Elaine, lunching with Joan: "And after we’re dead, people will still be wondering if we had sex. "

Arslan Rusakov is clearly modeled on Baryshnikov. With Joan as his lovingly naïve assistant, he defects from the USSR to Toronto. Baryshnikov also defected to Toronto, aided by American girlfriend Christina Berlin, here the socialite Felicia. Once stateside, the hugely gifted Rusakov dumps Joan, taking up with ballerina Ludmilla Yedemskaya. Ludmilla, a fellow defector is "custard blond", with a penchant for headscarves and unitards. See Baryshnikov’s former lover, fellow defector and dance superstar Natalia Markarova.

Shipstead’s Stanford education, numerous awards, prior publications and bestseller status all attest to her skill. So does a plot wound finely as a Swiss timepiece. Why then, did this talented writer borrow so generously from a famous film and actual dancers’ lives without noting her sources? Following that, why has nobody else found this questionable?

Acknowledgments in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Kate Moses’s Wintering, Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister cite the people, places, and written sources informing their fictionalized accounts of actual persons. Had Shipstead done his, I’d feel far differently about Astonish Me. I have no wish to attack Shipstead, and understand the line between "reality" and invention a wriggly thing. But so much of Astonish Me takes from actual events and drops them, unadulterated, into the plot.

This leaves me unable to join the happy chorus surrounding Astonish Me. Instead, I can only agree with the title. I am astonished.


From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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