BEING SNARKY ABOUT THE MOVIES

Those of you participating in the 2019 Field Library Reading Challenge know the next category we’re promoting is “Read a Book About Movies.”  Really, this is one category that’s almost too easy. We have all kinds of books about movies, from novels to insider looks at the industry itself to books about the making of particular (usually classic) movies, to books about all the movies you haven’t seen yet but should (a sub-industry in itself), to collections of movie criticism to biographies and autobiographies about and by some of the big names in the industry.  If you can’t find something you want to read in all of that, you’re simply not trying.

Allow me here to suggest a particularly funny entry in this category, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, by Joe Queenan. This is not a new book (it was published in 2000), and some of the movies referenced in it might seem a little obscure (let’s face it, the real dogs from almost twenty years ago are mercifully forgotten), but the snarkiness is still as funny as ever, and most of his targets are movies and trends in movies that you will find familiar even 19 years later.

This is the kind of book you dip into when you need a good laugh.  Most of the essays in the book were written for Movieline magazine (now, sadly, no longer in business), and they tend to be kind of quirky.  For instance, in the first essay Queenan sets out to prove that many of the more ridiculous things people get away with in movies would never work in real life.  He does this by attempting them himself: trying to see whether you could be killed by having a bookcase fall on you as happens in Howard’s End, or whether someone who’s blind could actually walk across a New York City street without being killed, as in Scent of a Woman. In the title essay, he actually goes to different theaters and becomes that jerk who shouts out stupid and rude remarks about the movie, to see (a) if it’s fun and (b) if and when someone will stop him.  If you were in an audience where he was doing this trick, you would find him incredibly obnoxious, but when you read about it, it’s actually incredibly funny. He looks with great seriousness at movies about Irish people to determine which is the “biggest load of blarney” (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun by telling you the answer to that one), comments on the trend of handsome actors getting beat up in movies, does a brief stint as the Bad Movie Angel, reimbursing people who have actually paid money to see really terrible movies, and discusses the unfortunate likelihood that if you send someone to a video store for a particular movie, you are likely to get any one of a number of similar sounding movies, owing to Hollywood’s lack of imagination (yes, I know there aren’t video stores anymore; look at that one as a historical document if you like).

I have to warn you in advance that if you like any movies from the late 90’s or earlier, odds are good Queenan hates them.  This is not a book that gives glowing reviews of anything, so prepare yourself. But even if he’s talking about a movie you have warm feelings for, you have to appreciate his wise-ass commentary, which is nothing if not vivid (and funny).  For instance, he describes Robert DeNiro’s hairstyle in the remake of Cape Fear as “creat[ing] the impression that a rat marinated in Vaseline has been surgically grafted onto his neck.”  Describing Cujo, Queenan remarks that it is “set in Maine, where people don’t get out often enough, and even when they do, they’re still in Maine.”  One of my favorite lines is when Queenan describes an actor as “Looking about as comfortable amidst his mountain of medical research textbooks as Keanu Reeves would look with the concordance to the Complete Works of Moliere” (a cheap shot, but a funny one).  

When you need a serious dose of snark, when you don’t want a book to give you more movies you feel you should see but to make you feel better about the movies you’ve managed to avoid, do yourself a favor and pick up Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler.  

Advertisements

TIME IS NOT ON HER SIDE: THE MARRIAGE CLOCK

Leila Abid, the protagonist of The Marriage Clock, by Zara Raheem, has a problem, and it’s her parents.  Not an unusual situation for a 26 year old woman who’s living with her parents after college, and certainly not an unusual situation for a first generation American daughter of immigrant parents.  Her Muslim Indian parents believe it’s past time she got married. At 26, she’s practically an old maid by old country standards, and her mother especially feels that she has failed as a parent (at one point she wails to her husband and Leila, “We are going to be old and without grandchildren! Our noses will be cut!”).  

It would be easier for Leila to deal with her parents’ pressure if she completely rebelled against their assumptions and didn’t see marriage as one of the main goals of her life.  But, though she grew up in America and went away to college, there’s a part of Leila that believes in Bollywood romance as if it’s something she’s likely to get for herself. In fact, though she won’t agree that marriage is half of her fate, she did, when she was in college, make up a list of all the qualities her ideal man should have (a list that her roommate wrote on seven napkins), all derived from her favorite Bollywood movies.  She wants romance as much as her parents want her married, but she wants it on her own terms, while they’re already starting to interfere in her life, setting her up with the sons of their extended circle of friends 

In desperation, and to keep her parents from forcing the issue, Leila agrees that she’ll do her own matchmaking and if she can’t find a prospective husband by the date of her parents’ thirtieth anniversary, three months away, she’ll let them find her a husband.  Her parents are big believers in arranged marriages. Theirs was arranged, and the two of them barely met before they were married to each other, and here they are, happily married for almost thirty years.

So that’s the setup: Leila has three months to find a man who meets all her criteria.  She gets matched up by her friends, by her mother (cheating a little, but her mother would claim it’s in a good cause).  She does speed dating and internet matchmaking, and, you will not be surprised to learn, none of these works out well. The varying kinds of disasters she encounters in her desperate chase to find Mr. Perfect are pretty funny (though at times you do wonder whether her author is being a little cruel to make sure she doesn’t find ANYONE appropriate), but she’s always aware of the rushing past of time and the imminence of her deadline. 

One of the more charming things about this book is the way the author plays with and then subverts the tropes of romantic comedies. Several times along the way, you think you know where things are going: when the man she meets through her mother and her mother’s friend actually calls her back to see her without chaperones, when she meets someone attractive in classic romantic comedy form. You start predicting the happily ever after, but then something unexpected happens and you realize, as Leila does, that life isn’t a Bollywood movie and maybe she needs to rethink her goals.

The characters who surround Leila are fun in their own right: her mother is more than just the Mrs. Bennett India style stereotype, her divorced Indian American friend (her difficulties are eye-opening and very different from Leila’s), even her perfect Indian cousin who does everything Leila’s parents wish she could do (naturally Leila ends up going to India for her cousin’s wedding, and naturally things are not what they seem in India, either) is revealed to be a full fledged person, worthy of love.  While a lot of the male characters come off pretty badly (the author explains in an afterword that these scenes were based on her own dating misadventures), a couple of them are charming and interesting as well.

All along the line, Raheem brings us the flavor of Leila’s Muslim Indian American world, the subtle ways her life is different from that of other American 26 year olds, things Leila takes for granted and things she’s as aware of as we are.  

It’s not your typical romantic comedy, deliberately so, but there is a satisfying ending, and Leila gets what she finally wants, and what she deserves.  If you’re in the mood for a different kind of romantic comedy, with a charming and lovable (if somewhat cursed by bad luck) protagonist, then check out The Marriage Clock.

TIME TRAVEL ENEMIES AND CORRESPONDENTS: THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR

The first thing you need to know about This Is How You Lose the TIme War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is that it’s not an ordinary time travel book.

Not that there is or should be such a thing, of course. In my opinion, the very best, most fun and interesting time travel books take full advantage of all the possibilities that time travel offers to break up narratives, to play with the whole idea of cause and effect, of certainty and mortality, and imagine boldly what it would be like if time were more fluid than we can imagine.  Take a couple of my favorites, The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas, or The Map of Time, by Felix Palma, and luxuriate in what kind of fun you can have with the possibilities.

But to get back to This Is How You Lose the Time War, even for a book where the main characters can and do travel through the infinite possibilities of time, this is unusual, and kind of hard to describe.

There’s a war between two very different groups, the Garden and the Agency, each of them dedicating themselves and their agents to the creation and braiding of different strands of time to create the future each wants.  The organizations are nearly infinitely patient, willing to contemplate and work in multiple potential timelines, to have their works thwarted by agents of the other side and to thwart their enemies’ efforts. The agents, none of whom are human by any definition we’d accept, live immortally, diving in and out of possible pasts, possible futures, going “upthread” or “downthread” to create or undo whatever will make their preferred future happen.

One of our two main characters is Red, of the Agency. You might think of her as a robot, or a cyborg, but that’s not entirely accurate; she’s mechanized, she’s part of a post Singularity world of machines, but she’s not just a machine.  The other main character is Blue, of the Garden. She’s part of a consciousness that embraces all living things as one. She’s organic-based but not really a plant, though grown like one. 

They “meet” for the first time on a battlefield, where Blue leaves Red a taunting note which starts out “Burn before reading.”  Red feels the need to respond, and thus begins a correspondence between the erstwhile enemies which starts out as more or less trash talk, though delivered in unique and bizarre ways (inside the rings of a giant tree, under the skin of a living seal, just to name two), but gradually becomes a way for the two of them to reveal things about themselves that neither would ever tell anyone else. Over time (and what do they have but time?), the two of them develop a deeper relationship.  Because they’re “enemies”, the more they communicate with each other, the more they’re in danger from their respective leaders, and the more likely they are to get caught. They both know this, but still find themselves reaching out to each other, sharing their lives, their feelings, sometimes actually saving each other from destruction.

I don’t want to give away the plot of this book beyond that. It builds slowly; you need to be patient to get to know these characters as they get to know each other, so be patient.  They grow on you, the book grows on you, so that by the time you’re at the climax, you feel a part of both Red and Blue.

The chapters alternate between Red’s point of view and Blue’s, and the first part of each chapter explains where the character is (and when), and what she’s doing, and how she finds the communication from the other, and the last part of each chapter is the letter from the other character. While the letters are wonderful, growing more and more elaborate and playful, more meaningful and emotional, I have to say the narrative parts of the book are also engrossing, if you pause to think about what the characters are doing and how their actions would affect the timeline (instead of just hurrying through to get to the letter, which I could certainly understand). How would the world be different if the peoples of Mesoamerica had already been exposed to smallpox and other European diseases long before first contact between Europeans and Americans?  What would have happened if people from the Inca empire had made their way across the Pacific and reached the Philippines, or even China?  The notion of multiple strands of history in which Romeo and Juliet was performed, sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as a tragedy, is charming, too, and these are just the background details that create a vivid world (or worlds) against which the main story of Red and Blue is played out.

This isn’t as confusing as some time travel books (I always tell people to stick with The Time Traveler’s Wife for 75 pages before giving up, because it’s very confusing at the beginning and then you find your bearings), but it packs an emotional punch that’s very satisfying.  If you’re a fan of the genre (as I am), you’ll really enjoy This Is How You Lose the Time War.

A WALK IN THE WOODS: NEXT FIELD NOTES READ

Thanks to everybody who came to the Field Notes Book Group this July.  Our discussion of Everything I Never Told You was one of the best discussions we’d ever had (in my opinion): talk about parents’ expectations for children, the reasons people hide truths from even the people they love, cultural differences between Chinese Americans and non-Chinese Americans, discussion about the characters and how the book left us with hope for the future, even about whether Lydia committed suicide or not.  We barely had time to choose our book for August 17, but we managed to choose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, I know they made a movie from this book (improbably starring Robert Redford as Bill Bryson — don’t take my word for it, look at Bryson’s author picture and decide for yourself whether the first actor you’d think of for him would be Redford), but you KNOW the book is better.  Bryson, a man in middle age, with virtually NO mountain climbing or hiking experience, decides, more or less on a whim, that he’s going to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine through Georgia, and he even tells his publisher that he’s going to do this, and write about it, so he’s committed, or possibly stuck.  He describes his misadventures (and come on, you know they’re going to be disastrous) with verve and humor. Along the way, he and his friend Katz encounter all the usual perils of the hike, from physical issues through annoying fellow hikers through encounters with wild animals, bringing them all to life with self-deprecating humor.

Join us for a great read and what promises to be a fun discussion of the AT (as Appalachian Trail aficionados refer to it), our favorite humorous anecdotes from the book, and whatever else suggests itself.  Copies of the book will be available for hold at The Field Library, and we’ll be meeting in the Teen Zone at the library on August 17 from 11 to 12:30, complete with donuts and coffee. 

 

HOW LOW CAN YOU GO, JO NESBO? KNIFE

As everybody knows, I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, so of course when the newest book in the series, Knife, was released last week I dropped everything else I was reading to devote myself to it.  Having finished it, the big question in my mind is, why does Jo Nesbo hate his creation so much?

I get why a writer would get sick of a popular character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s frustration with Sherlock Holmes led him to kill the detective off in “The Final Problem,” though he did have to bring him back again in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”  It seems to me that it would be easy enough to stop writing about a character if you’re tired of him or her. You don’t actually have to kill him (or ruin him; I’m looking at you, Jeff Lindsay, and what you did to Dexter in that series). But maybe it seems to the author that only the most drastic methods will free them from this particular character, and I understand that.

What Nesbo does to Harry Hole, however, is of a different caliber.  Just killing him off would be one thing (he seemed to do that at the end of one book, Phantom, in a particularly shattering way), but Nesbo seems to delight in torturing his protagonist.  By the start of this book, Harry has a terrific scar across part of his face, a metal replacement for one of his fingers, and those are just the physical marks of all the horrible things that have happened to him over the years; the psychological tortures have also taken a major toll.

And even so, Harry starts out this book in what looks like the bottom of the pit: separated from Rakel without hope of reconciliation, drunk to the point of blacking out and forgetting where he’s been or what he’s done during those blackouts, getting thrown out of the bar he used to own.  We don’t know what happened (yet) to get Rakel to the point of ending things with him altogether, but we can see from Harry’s state that it must have been something dreadful.

And, believe it or not, that’s just the beginning and turns out NOT to be the deepest depths Harry is going to sink to.  Things actually get worse from there. Harry becomes a suspect in a murder investigation and is prohibited from investigating it because of his proximity to the victim, which makes it more difficult for him to try to clear his name and find out who’s the actual perpetrator.  Naturally, being officially forbidden from having anything to do with the investigation doesn’t prevent him from digging, though what he finds out just makes things darker and darker.

Nesbo hasn’t lost his fiendish touch when it comes to plotting. I can pretty much guarantee you will never figure out who was the real killer until the final revelation, not because he cheats by holding things back from you (he shows you everything you need to know, though he’s careful not to make any of it obvious), but because there are so many characters who could be the killer, and every time Harry thinks, and you think, he’s found the guilty party, Nesbo pulls the rug out from under you and makes it clear this person couldn’t be the one. Reading this book is like riding a roller coaster, but one of the modern ones with the hairpin curves you take at 90 miles an hour so you hang on for dear life the whole time, and you’re not even sure, till you get out of there alive, whether you were enjoying yourself or not.

There comes a point in every Jo Nesbo book I’ve read so far where the plot becomes so propulsive I can’t put the book down because I MUST find out how it resolves.  This one is no exception: two or three plots came together in the last fifty pages in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. It was completely satisfying, the kind of ending that wraps everything up and leaves you feeling things came out the way they should.

Two caveats: If you haven’t read any of the books in the series before, this is NOT the book to start with.  You can either begin with The Redbreast, which was the first one translated into English (and where I started the series), or with the first book written, The Bat, which was only translated after the other books became bestsellers in English.  You’re not going to understand anything that’s going on without meeting and getting to know these characters through the earlier books.

Second warning: while there isn’t as much stomach-turning violence in this book as there has been in others in the series, Nesbo writes very dark stuff, and if you don’t like violence or gore, keep away from Harry Hole.  Maybe keep away from Jo Nesbo altogether (Macbeth was similarly violent and gory).

If, however, you’re like me in that you’ve been following Harry through the many horrible crimes he’s solved over the years, and you have a strong stomach, I can heartily recommend Knife. Run, don’t walk, to the library to get your copy (or at least put it on hold), and then fasten your seat belt, because it’s one wild ride.

DANGEROUS CONFESSIONS: THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON

Are you ready for a different kind of historical novel, one that doesn’t start with someone in the present discovering a link to people in the past, one that actually trusts readers to be interested in the events of the past on their own?  Are you ready for a historical novel that takes on issues like racism and slavery from a different perspective than you’re used to seeing? Then take a look at The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, new at The Field Library, and prepare for a great read.

Frannie Langton is on trial for murdering two people in the house in England where she worked as a servant, and the book is what she’s written to her barrister in response to his desperate request that she give him something he can use to defend her other than her initial response, which was that she couldn’t remember anything.  The circumstances of the murders are definitely against her: she was found in bed with her mistress, both of them covered in blood, the master of the house had been stabbed multiple times and there was a trail of blood going from his room to the mistress’ room. But worse than that, Frannie was black, a former slave from the Jamaica sugar plantations, and in 1826 London, she’s viewed as a savage, possibly not entirely human, and capable of anything.  That George and Marguerite Benham had taken her in when her former owner brought her to England, that they were well known members of upper class society, and that there were all kinds of rumors about the real relationship between Frannie and Marguerite, doesn’t help matters.

The trial serves as a thread that runs through the book; while Frannie tells the story of her life in the plantation and what happened to her once she arrived in England, periodically she returns to the murder case being tried in the Old Bailey Court, with excerpts of the testimony against her sprinkled through the book.  For quite a while, you don’t know exactly what happened, other than the sensational charges themselves, and Frannie takes her time getting to the actual events (in fact, you don’t get the real answers until the very end of the book), let alone the question of what she might or might not have done, how responsible she might have been for the deaths.

Along the way, we get to know Frannie, and she’s quite a character.  She defies stereotypes all along the line: she’s from Jamaica, she grew up on a sugar plantation, but she wasn’t ever a field hand, and her relationship to Langton, the owner of the plantation, and his wife is unclear: both of them seem to know more about Frannie’s background than she does.  She’s literate, she reads novels, and she’s enlisted by Langton as his scribe in the incredibly racist and disgusting experiments he’s conducting to prove the differences between blacks and whites. When he brings her to England to meet George Benham, who had been his collaborator in his researches but who has now disavowed that connection, he leaves her with Benham, as a servant.  She catches Marguerite’s attention, and falls in love with her mistress, all the while knowing that the relationship can never be equal and wondering whether there’s even a relationship at all (Marguerite is a strange woman, well-educated, addicted to laudanum, and hard to figure out in any event). Thrown out of that house, Frannie finds herself in a whorehouse, and then she goes back to the Benham household, shortly before the murders.

Smart and educated enough to see other people clearly and to see how Jamaican and English society are built on assumptions of racial superiority, Frannie nevertheless can’t escape from the expectations of those societies. Frannie’s status as a black woman, a servant, a foreigner, in England is different from what we as Americans in the 21st century would expect, but it’s fascinating to see how racism worked in English society at the time, and you find yourself hoping against hope that Frannie will find some kind of happy ending (no spoilers here; you’re going to have to read this for yourself).

Get absorbed in another time and place and enjoy the powerful perspective of Frannie Langton, former slave, whore and accused murderess.