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.  

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THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

The most recent category in The Field Library’s Reading Challenge for 2019 is “Read a Book About Law,” and frankly, that’s probably the easiest category of the lot.  If you want fiction, there’s the usual Grisham and Turow, Grippando and Scottoline, just to name the most obvious and popular choices. If you’re more a nonfiction person, there are books about famous trials, famous Supreme Court cases, about the operation of the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, criminal and civil law practitioners.  Nobody should have any trouble finding a book he or she wants to read in this category, but I just want to recommend what I consider to be the best series of books about law and lawyers around: the Rumpole books by John Mortimer. We have a couple of them here at The Field Library, including The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole’s Return, a fabulous introduction to this wonderful character and his world.

Horace Rumpole, if you’ve never encountered him in print or on television (Leo McKern portrayed him, brilliantly, on the old Mystery! Series on PBS), is definitely a character.  A British barrister who’s been around the block many times, senior to most of the other barristers in his chambers (don’t worry, you’ll learn all the British terms for the practice of law by reading Rumpole), forever an ordinary barrister and not Queen’s Counsel (which Rumpole refers to as “Queer Customer”), the kind of barrister who gets the high paying, high prestige cases.  While barristers can choose to prosecute or defend accused criminals (and some do both), Rumpole is resolute: he never prosecutes (his argument is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for putting some poor unfortunate in jail), but only does defense. He loves trying cases, and while (as is almost always the case in criminal defense) he loses a lot of his cases, he has more tricks up his sleeve, a greater ability to draw out the truth in cross examination and a greater ability to size up and persuade a jury than almost all of the other barristers around him.  He drinks too much (his favorite cheap drink is a vintage he refers to as “Chateau Thames Embankment” or “Chateau Fleet Street”; in one of my favorite stories he’s involved with wine connoisseurs, where he’s hilariously out of his league), he smokes cigars incessantly, he eats badly and refuses to follow any trends. He’s sarcastic and well-read, and he is riotously funny.

Rumpole is such a great character I would read his escapades even if he were the only person in the stories, but half the enjoyment of the stories lies in the supporting cast, from his long-suffering wife, Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”, as Rumpole calls her behind her back), to the Timson family which seems to consist of thieves, burglars, fences and general fodder for Rumpole’s work, to the (shifting) population of Rumpole’s chambers, all of whom are individualized and given their own nicknames by Rumpole.  He appears before some judges more than once, so you get to recognize them by their names and their behaviors, but even those we only see once are memorable characters in their own right.

Through the many stories (only Rumpole’s Return is a full length novel), we get to see the English justice system in action, we learn the difference between barristers and solicitors, and we get to know an extraordinary collection of characters on all sides of the law.  Honestly, if you want the best possible introduction to the glories and tribulations of the law, you could hardly do better than starting with Horace Rumpole.

ANOTHER SIDE OF DRACULA: RENFIELD, SLAVE OF DRACULA

I’m a cautious fan of alternate versions of famous books.  Sometimes a new writer looking at a classic is able to illuminate it, show us aspects we never would have seen for ourselves.  Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is a good example of this, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants working in the Bennet’s household.  It can be difficult, though, to get it right, especially if the point of view character in the new book is someone who doesn’t last through the whole of the original book.  Renfield, Slave of Dracula, by Barbara Hambly, stars one of those characters, and if Barbara Hambly weren’t an excellent writer (she is; go check out her other books, especially her Benjamin January mystery series), I would have been reluctant to give the book a try.  Which would have been too bad, because she manages to pull it off: a view of the events of Dracula from a character who’s usually seen as minor, which brings depth to that character and to all the other characters he touches.

We all know the outlines of Renfield’s story from Dracula: he’s the guy who was involved with Dracula before Jonathan Harker, who had a complete breakdown as a result and ended up in the asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward, eating flies and spiders and ranting about the lives he needed to ingest.  He’s something of a grotesque in the original, a contrast to Jonathan and a person who invites Dracula into the asylum where Mina Harker is staying, so Dracula can attack her and so the rest of the book’s plot can unfold. In the original, Dracula kills Renfield in the asylum for his unfaithfulness, long before Van Helsing and the others chase Dracula to his home in Transylvania.  

Hambly turns Renfield into a person with his own history, his own needs and his conflicts.  For most of the book, Renfield relates his side of events via letters to his absent wife and daughter, whom he has hidden away before his commitment to Seward’s asylum, to protect them from his wife’s conniving family.*  He comes across as an erudite, educated man with a past in India of the British Raj, and his obsession with eating flies and spiders and the like becomes more understandable (though still kind of bizarre). His relationship with Dracula is complex; we never learn how he met Dracula and how Dracula achieved his power over Renfield, but he finds himself seeing through Dracula’s eyes and feeling what his master feels (which, by the way, gives us the events we’re familiar with from Dracula).  He’s a sympathetic character, especially when you see how mentally ill people are treated in this era and especially in this asylum, where the lovesick Dr. Seward isn’t paying too much attention to how his staff earns extra money.  

Even where Hambly diverges from the original plot, she’s scrupulous about using characters and events that are part of the original.  In this version, Renfield allies himself with Dracula’s wives, who have come to England to follow their master and to make sure he’s not setting himself up a new harem in England.  We’ve seen the wives in Dracula, though they weren’t as differentiated as they are here.  Each has her own personality (Elizabeth, the oldest, is the most like her husband, cold and cruel), and one of them, Nomie, sees Renfield as more than just a means to their ends but as a person in his own right. She becomes such a major character that if you’re aware of the fates of Dracula’s wives, you spend a lot of time worrying about her fate and how Renfield is going to react to it.

Ah, you ask, but how does the author get around the death of Renfield?  Very cleverly, I answer, but I’m not going to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that his destiny makes perfect sense in the context of the vampire world (and that’s as much of a hint as I’m going to give), allowing him to be an actor in the events that lead to Dracula’s destruction.

There’s one major twist in the book which I didn’t foresee, but, shocking as it is at the time, when I thought about what we already knew up to that point, it felt fair, not as if the author were twisting the plot just for the sake of twists (coughGoneGirlcough).  Renfield is our protagonist; he’s not a hero, but he’s understandable and he brings new light to Dracula and the other characters around him.

You don’t have to have read Dracula in order to enjoy this book (though why haven’t you read it? It’s a fun book and a classic); what you probably already know from having seen various movie versions of Dracula and what you know from living in this culture will be enough to give you all the background you need. Of course, if you have read the original, it’s even more fun to read this.  Introduce yourself to a new and fascinating Renfield, here at The Field Library.

 

*And yes, this means this book can be used as an epistolary novel for the purposes of the 2019 Reading Challenge.

 

SHORT STORIES: LITTLE GEMS

The first category we’re exploring in The Field Library 2019 Reading Challenge is to “Read a Collection of Short Stories,” and the reason we’re starting with that is because the category is so vast and so varied that you practically have to find something that’s going to ring your bells.

You might be able to make the argument that short stories are the best way for people to experience reading these days.  Everybody’s busy, and it’s increasingly hard to carve out enough time to devote to a full novel (though, of course, if you’re a real novel lover, you’ll find or make time to read one), but you can read a short story in an interval of otherwise wasted time (waiting for a doctor’s appointment, for instance, or standing on line at the airport or the like), and it requires much less of a commitment.  You’re not risking much on any story, either; if one story doesn’t work for you, you can just move on to the next one, or skip around to find one that appeals to you (note: if you’re doing this challenge, you are supposed to read all the stories in the collection you select). A short story doesn’t give you the depth and multiple characters and plotlines and subplots you can dive into when you’re reading a novel, but by the same token, a short story can be much more shocking, much more powerful, because of its concentration (think about it: how many novels are as vivid and memorable as, say, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”?).

A collection of short stories by different authors is a great way to increase your exposure to different authors: in one volume, you can read stories by a number of different writers, and you know they were already vetted by whoever the editor of the volume is. If you’re looking for an introduction to a genre, say mystery or speculative fiction, checking out a “best of the year” anthology gives you a snapshot of what people in the field believe are the best works in the genre.

When you’re considering a collection of stories by a single author, you’re taking more of a risk, especially if you don’t know the author that well. A good short story writer, though, will showcase different themes and styles and give you a well-rounded introduction to his or her work (for instance, Carmen Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties has quite a varied group of stories, including one very long and strange one based — sort of — on Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, and several other stories that make you stop and think when you finish them). If the author is someone whose work you know (like Neil Gaiman, one of my personal favorites), reading his or her short stories can be a treat, like a special dessert.

This is probably going to be the category with the most possibilities, so check out the list here, and find yourself something new and interesting.