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Monday, January 31, 2011

Oscar Films and The Books That Inspired Them

It's pretty common literary cliché that the book is always better than the movie. But, unless Eric Bana's starring, that certainly doesn't mean all movies based on books are inherently bad, does it? After I saw True Grit a few weeks ago — a movie marketed not as a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, but as a film the Coens based on the 1968 novel (a small but important distinction) — I started wondering just how many really good films are based on books. Let's say we use the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture as our definition of "really good films" and take a look at the last five years of Best Picture noms. 

This year, for instance, four of the 10 Best Picture nods are based on books: Two on novels — Winter's Bone (Daniel Woodrell) and True Grit (Charles Portis) and two on non-fiction books — The Social Network (Ben Mezrich, The Accidental Billionaires) and 127 Hours (Aron Ralston, Between A Rock and A Hard Place).

Last year, also four of the 10 were based on books: Two on novels — Up In The Air (Walter Kirn), and Precious (Push, by Sapphire), and two on non-fiction — The Blind Side (Michael Lewis) and An Education (memoir by Lynn Barber).

In 2009, four of the five Best Picture films were based on books (I'll loosely interpret "books" to include plays so we can count Frost/Nixon): The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Slumdog Millionaire (the winner) is based on the novel Q&A by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. The Reader is based on a novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlaik and Frost/Nixon is based on a play by Peter Morgan. The only Oscar-nominated Best Picture film not based on a book in 2009 is Milk.

In 2008, three of the five are based on novels: Atonement (Ian McEwan), the winner No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy) and There Will Be Blood ("loosely based" [whatever that means] on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!). Juno and Michael Clayton were original screenplays.

Finally, in 2007, only one Best Picture nom is book-based — Letters From Iwo Jima (based on the books titled Picture Letters From the Commander In Chief, by General Tadamichi Kuribayasi). The Queen, Babel, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine were all originals. 

So, in the last five years, 16 of the 35 — about 45 percent — Best Picture nominated films were adapted from books. What conclusions can we draw from this number? Well, for one, just under half of the Best Picture noms were based on books. I'm nothing if not a precise data analyst.

Anyway, to be frank, that number's a lot lower than I assumed it'd be when I sat down to write this post. Also, only twice in the last five years, has the winning film been based on a book — Slumdog Millionaire and No Country For Old Men. Another perceived truism these days is that, given the glut of remakes and sequels, Hollywood is out of ideas. But many, many good films are still being made from Original Screenplays.

As a final note, one of my favorite movies of all time — Wonder Boys — is based on a Michael Chabon novel, so you can definitely not count me among those literary snobs who won't watch any film based on a movie "because it can't possibly live up to the book."

How about you? What are some of your favorite book-based films?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

January's Compendium of Literary Links

As the wind howls and the snow drifts, winter is the perfect time for those giant, chunky books you've been hoarding all year, right? I'm actually on my second 1,000-plus-page novel since November (The Instructions, and now Gone With The Wind), and also just finished the first book in the 1,500-plus-page Millennium series. So, this month's literary links features some articles related to these oversized books/series. Enjoy!

1. Adam Levin's The Instructions and the Cult of the Child — With examples like Oskar Shell, from Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Gurion from Levin's fantastic novel, this Millions article takes a look at the child genius trope in American literature. The main thrust of the piece, though, is a review of The Instructions. The verdict: "But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations." I loved the novel, but whole-heartedly agree with that assessment.

2. Man of Mystery — Beginning with a brief bio and overview of the estate controversy, this New Yorker story attempts to explain why Steig Larsson's (mostly mediocre, according to the NYer) Millennium Trilogy has struck such a cord with readers. It's an interesting read that provides a lot of depth and background to the hugely successful series. The Reading Ape also provided his own take on why the novels are successful — an equally good read. 

3. For Tolstoy and Russia, Still No Happy Ending — This NY Times piece explains why Leo Tolstoy doesn't get his deserved due in his native land (hint: It's religion related). Though Russians' blasé attitude toward their greatest writer is a relatively recent phenomenon, the piece says, it's a rather strange one, given what a celebrity Tolstoy was when he was alive.

4. Gone With The Wind: A Literary Pilgrimage — Connie at The Blue Bookcase discusses her recent trip to Margaret Mitchell's house in Atlanta. I loved the fact that she over-paid for a copy of the book in the house that it was written. That's exactly what I would've done too.

5. NBCC Award Finalists and the 2011 Tournament of Book Finalists — The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award look about what I expected the finalists for the National Book Award to look like, and vice versa. Also, the Sweet 16 for the 2011 Tournament of Books has few surprises. More great analysis by The Reading Ape here. I've only read six of the finalists, and am rooting for Bloodroot or Kapitoil, but they're long-shots. Who's your choice?

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Look At Love Stories: From The Male Perspective

Wait, Gone With The Wind is a love story? I didn't sign up for this! I thought it was a Civil War novel.

Of course, I'm joking — my copy of the book actually says "the greatest love story of our time" on the cover. But reading Margaret Mitchell's tale of Scarlett and Rhett's romance has also gotten me scrambling to look back into my past conquests (books, I mean) and thinking about other love story novels I've read. Is there a pattern that explains why I've enjoyed the few love story novels I have?

Let's be honest, books that could even remotely be categorized as "love story" are practically anathema to many male readers. I know it's narrow-minded, ladies, but we don't judge you for not reading Fantasy Football Weekly and ESPN The Magazine. So cut us a little slack. Anyway, my perception of Gone With The Wind as a love story is the sole reason I've resisted reading it until recently (I'm about halfway through). But I'm glad I have, because it's really entertaining. (It's also amusing: Rhett uses words like "quixoticism" in conversations with the proud-to-be-a-dolt Scarlett. I keep wanting her to answer: "Like, totally...wait, what?")

Of course, Gone With the Wind is actually a Civil War novel, too — and I'm really enjoying the historical detail. And so, as un-earth-shattering as this may be, there's the key for getting dudes to read love stories: There has to be something else to attract our attention as well. As another example: Leon Uris's Trinity is one of my favorite novels of all time. Similar to Gone With the Wind, it's a historical novel (about the founding of modern Ireland) with a love story at its core.

By way of further example, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is, by all rights, the wheelhouse-definition of a love story. But when you consider what an awesome character Henry DeTamble is (Claire, too), the creativity and intricacy of the plot device, and the fact that Chicago screams off the page, you have a love story suitable for dudes. In fact, this novel is the one novel I can talk about with other dude friends at, say, a bar while drinking beer, and not get mercilessly made fun of. Many other fellas have read and enjoyed this novel, as well.

One last example is Joshua Henkin's slim, underrated novel titled Matrimony. Less a novel and more an engineering schematic of a marriage, the novel is so realistic, it gives readers that sense of voyeurism into others' lives that, when we're the most honest with ourselves, is one of the reasons we love reading fiction. So that realism was what kept me interested. And perhaps the fact that this "love story" was written by a male contributed to the fact that it felt like almost more of an academic study of marriage than a love story.

So, fellas, what are your favorite "male-friendly" love story novels? Ladies, can you suggest other love story novels we knuckle-dragging dudes might enjoy?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: A Mystery in the Middle

It's pretty hard to read such a popular, massively hyped novel without a sense of cynicism. You think, "Everyone raves about this book, so if I can just find a few reasons not to like it, I can position myself above the fray. I'll be cool and disaffected. People will love me!" Subconsciously, I must've been thinking something similar to that (or, more likely, exactly that) when I finally caved and picked up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Sadly for me, Stieg ruined my plan. I liked the novel — not an overwhelming-gush-until-I'm-blue-in-the-face amount, but enough that I'd certainly recommend it. And I'm excited to tackle the other two books in the series. (From here on contains SPOILERS. If you haven't read the novel, stop reading this post. Go read the novel, and come back and finish reading this post.) I liked it for many of the reasons it's become so popular — fascinatingly original characters; a shocking, gruesome, smart mystery; and a breakneck pace (at times). But since you've all read the novel, and already know what a bad-ass Lisbeth is and how gruesome the secret she and Mikael discover turns out to be, I want to look at another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed.

Let me explain: Ask anyone what they think of the novel, and invariably you'll get some form of "It started really slowly." It does. No denying that. The long description of the financial minutiae involved in Mikael's libel trial is pretty dull. Not a good way to get readers excited about what's to come. You know what would've been cool? If Larsson had told us the story of Harriet's disappearance as the prologue in a stand-alone scene. That would've possibly made readers more willing to forgive the first 100 pages of boredom. (And an in-scene 1966 prologue would've avoided the long, dull scene where Henrik tells Mikael the story of Harriet's disappearance. Advancing plot with dialogue shatters a rather ironclad Creative Writing 101 rule, doesn't it?)

But so after we get through the scene-setting and character-building, we spend the next 300 or so pages speeding through Mikael and Lisbeth's quest to find out what happened to Harriet — which is obviously the novel's strength and what most readers (me included) enjoy most. Then we end with 75 pages or so that wraps up the loose ends of the Wennerstrom affair, which is essentially where the novel began. The Harriet Vanger mystery is actually the rich, creamy center of the softer shell story of Mikael's journalistic revenge.

The effect of the mystery-wrapped-in-the-mundane structure is that the mystery itself stands out even more starkly. In other words, a mystery involving rape, incest and a decades-long serial killer, solved by a disgraced financial reporter and his much-younger, damaged-but-brilliant partner/lover seems even more shocking and interesting than it would have anyway. But beyond that, and here's where I'll probably depart from many readers' opinions, I actually enjoyed the last pages. I loved the juxtaposition between the wrap-up of the murder mystery and the wrap-up of Mikael's professional redemption. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I'm a magazine editor myself, and writing such a once-in-a-lifetime investigative piece is every journalist's dream. Or perhaps I'm grasping at straws. But when the mystery ended and Lisbeth revealed that she had a bunch of dirt on Wennerstrom, I was thrilled that Larsson would allow Blomqvist the opportunity to exact his revenge, and to do so by the very method that got him in trouble in the first place: A piece of writing!

So, yeah, I liked the book. No, it's not perfect by a long shot. Remember when Mikael gets shot at, but then returns to his cottage and just stays there? That seemed like a poor choice. That's just one of several plot points that sort of stretched credulity. So, overall, I'd give it four stars.

Gimme your thoughts. What'd you like about it? What didn't you like?

(Also, I just got the Swedish version of the movie in the mail — anyone seen it?)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Books in Threes: Some Thoughts On Trilogies

Don't judge me too harshly, but one of my many reading quirks is that I never read a trilogy (or series) until all the novels in that trilogy (or series) have been published. Waiting sucks, but I'd rather wait for an entire series to be out, and not know fully what I'm waiting for, then to start a series, get hooked, and agonizingly wait for the next book — all the time worried I'll forget some important detail in the previous book(s) that would have led to a fuller understanding of the book(s) to follow. That's inscrutable logic, isn't it? 

One of the reasons that I'd held off reading the Millennium Trilogy for so long is that there had always been rumors of a fourth novel. Now, that rumor's confirmed, and the timing makes "perfect" sense, since I finally caved and started The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo precisely five days before the Guardian's report. You know how at a restaurant you can always ensure that your food will arrive by getting up to go to the bathroom? Same principle here.

Anyway, the first of the much ballyhooed Millennium Trilogy started very slowly but has dramatically picked up the pace. So, yeah, I'm enjoying it, and it's gotten me to thinking about other great trilogies out there. Though I haven't read either (ashamed!) the discussion of literary trilogies usually starts with either John Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy or Paul Auster's New York trilogy. Beyond the literary, the fantasy and history genres seem to be rife with trilogies. Even though its prequel The Hobbit is still probably more widely read than the novels of the trilogy themselves, The Lord of the Rings trilogy may still be the most-read trilogy of all time. In regards to historical fiction, two trilogies I have read that I really loved both were Civil War-related: Jeff and Michael Shaara's trio of novels (Gods and Generals, The Killer Angels, and The Last Full Measure) and John Jakes' epic trilogy about the Hazards and Maines (North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell). 

As one final note, I've always thought it interesting that many readers are afraid of long, thousand-page novels, but don't seem to have that same terror of trilogies, that when taken collectively, add up to much longer pieces of fiction. I can see how a reader with this idea would argue, "Well, if I don't like the trilogy after the first book, I can just quit, and I'm not committed to reading another two-thirds of a novel I'm not enjoying." But the kind of reader who would quit after one novel in a trilogy is also the kind of reader who would quit after one-third of a very long novel s/he isn't enjoying, right? So I'm not sure I buy that logic. Anyway, no real point here — just an observation on others' reading quirks.

What are your favorite books in threes? 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Looking Back In Order To Look Forward

It's a light week intellectually speaking here at The New Dork Review of Books. If you saw my post from Monday, then you know I'm currently on vacation in Hawaii. Aloha, jerks! (Sorry...)

Since vacations are good times for reflection, I'm looking back at my first ever post from Oct. 1, 2009 (for the record, I did this post before I left, lest you think I'm a total geek blogging on vacation). Believe it or not, this is actually the first time I've read it since I posted it, and I'm pretty excited to see the blog's remained relatively true to its mission — except I think this first post is the only time I've ever referred to the blog as NDRB. Dork, I am. 

Anyway, I remember thinking that if I ever got as many as 100 readers and 3 to 4 comments per post, and I'd be friggin' tickled. And then when my fourth post about Angela's Ashes got a whopping eight comments, I almost pulled a Costanza (Seinfeld reference) and quit on a high note. In the 15.5 months since, this thing has grown to something beyond what I could've possibly hoped (well, it hasn't made me rich yet, but that's okay). So, going forward I vow...not to change much. Perhaps a re-design is in order, but as we say here in the media world, the content is still king, and that's always what I'll spend the majority of my time on. As always, thanks for being a reader! 

Welcome to NDRB!
So what are you reading?  Have you read anything good lately? Those are two of my favorite questions - both to ask and answer. I love talking about books, learning about new writers others admire and exploring undiscovered literary landscapes. (You should see my amazon wishlist - it's terribly out of hand!) So, I'm starting this blog not just to tell you about what I'm reading, but also to find out what you've stumbled across that I should check out too. 

But the blog will be more than just discussions about and reviews of books, it'll also keep you informed on the most interesting, topical news in the book publishing industry. Furthermore, the blog will feature random thoughts every now and then about publishing-related issues.

(For instance, here's a post from the LA Times book blog about Dan Brown's new book not being quite the boon to e-book sales it was expected to be. Even so, the book's swift sales were no-doubt a boon to many other things: Dan Brown's massive ego, the annoying Dan-Brown-guidebook industry, and the confidence of hack writers everywhere who think that they, too, can follow a generic template, invent some silly conspiracy, and get published.)

One more thing: As we all know, the best way to ruin a joke is to explain it — but for the benefit of those who aren't familiar with the stuffy, uptight, very-far-from-the-mainstream world of literary criticism —  the name of this blog derives from The New York Review of Books, which is "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language." Ah yeah, nothing like a bad pun....

So, check back often - or enter your email address in the sidebar to the right, or sign up to "follow" the blog, or subscribe via RSS with the links at the bottom. Happy reading!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Spreading Some Mid-Winter Book Blogger Love

As you're reading this, I'm chillin' in beautiful Waikiki, either sunning myself on the beach or enjoying a fruity cocktail with an umbrella in it (which is okay for dudes, as long as there's a beach involved, right?), or maybe both. Take that, Chicago winter!

But, to attempt to preempt your jealous rage, here's a gift: A list of some of my favorite literary book bloggers I've discovered recently. Much like the bloggers in the list here from last summer, these bloggers all have three things in common: They mostly discuss contemporary literary fiction; they're smart and funny; and their engaging reviews move beyond the standard "I liked it" or "It sucked" to offer well-reasoned defenses of their opinions. So, here you go:

1. Bob Einstein's Literary Equations — Matt Rowan writes one of the best, most intellectually intense amateur book blogs out there. Matt discusses both classic and contemporary literature, from The Instructions (it was on Matt's blog that I first read and began to get excited about that fantastic novel) to Vladimir Nabokov and William Gaddis, Matt covers a wide swath of "serious" fiction. Definitely a blog to check out if you miss your college literature survey courses.

2. What Red Read — Alley's fun, enthusiastic blog focuses mostly on contemporary lit, with hints of other stuff, like Calvin and Hobbes and Chelsea Handler, tossed in for flavor. I love her conversational style and her ability to weave pop culture into her book discussions — from The Simpsons to rock band Jimmy Eat World. In fact, her post about songs inspired by novels is probably the one book blog post from the last year I've spent the most time thinking about — trying to figure out other book-inspired songs.

3. The Book Catapult — I started following Seth's blog soon after he began leaving wildly intelligent comments on mine. Seth works in a bookstore in San Diego, so his book knowledge is beyond reproach. But Seth also reviews contemporary fiction in an eloquent, smooth style, and provides plenty of new-release news. His recent "2010 Notable List" series has been fascinating.

4. Learning To Read —  Of any amateur book blog out there, Ben's blog is the one that most resembles the tone and content of my own — which means it's one of my favorites. Though, frequently, I am jealous of Ben — I read his posts and think "man, I wish I would've written/thought/joked about that." Ben's strength, though, is that he's a lot less verbose than I often am. His posts are to-the-point and a pleasure to read.

5. Dead End Follies — Another Ben blogger — and this fella's quite prolific! He usually publishes two or three times a day, tossing in book reviews, movie reviews, quotes, and general posts about whatever else might be eatin' him at the moment. Ben's also a virtuosic tweeter, never at a loss for words and fun to follow — which you can do here: @BenoitLelievre

There you have it. Enjoy! Which amateur book blogs out there have caught your eye lately?

Aloha! ;)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story: Youth Is Wasted On the Old

Here's a shocker: We're all going to die. Here's another one: Getting old sucks. So Lenny Abramov does what any self-respecting 39-year-old plagued by these sudden realizations would do: He falls in love with a much younger woman who has some serious daddy issues, and leans on her to be his fountain of youth while she leans on him for money, a place to live and security. And now you've pretty much read the entirety of Gary Shteyngart's new novel Super Sad True Love Story.

Well, I guess the novel has slightly more to it than that. The story takes place in a dystopic near-future New York City, and America is on the brink of collapse due to its massive debt to China. Books are known as  "bound, nonstreaming media artifacts," American is losing a war with Venezuela, and people use Blackberry-like devices called äppäräti (the umlauts are Shteyngart's) to stream data and learn basically anything about anybody (like Credit Rating, for one). Shteyngart's is a pretty easily recognizable dystopia — a totalitarian version of America in which citizens are carefully watched. But it's this component of satire that really is the strength of the novel, and the most fun part about it.

Lenny, who is your prototypical lovable loser, tells us the story via his diary entries, and his girl, 25-year-old Korean-American Eunice Park, supplements his version of events with emails and IM conversations with her mother, sister and best friend. When we meet Lenny, he has just decided that he's going to live forever — he figures he might as well, since that's the business he's in. Lenny works for Post-Human Services, a division of a huge corporate conglomerate. His job is to find High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) who are interested in staying "forever young." (The crappy 80s song by Alphaville makes a few appearances in the novel too, just to make sure you are really getting Shteyngart's theme.) Lenny's boss is already well on his way in this process — he's a spry 70-year-old who looks like he's in his mid-20s. Lenny first meets Eunice in Rome while he's prospecting for clients, and through a series of too-convenient maneuverings and odd justifications, she comes to live with him in New York.

So, a novel about the youth-aging dichotomy moves on to a novel about a sad middle-aged man clinging to scant hope that his lady will be able to talk herself into loving him — instead of staying with him because he treats her well and takes care of her. It really is sad, in the sense that you want to feel badly for Lenny, but does anyone ever really feel bad for "that" guy? And it's also sad in the sense that we've seen this trope way too frequently. It's not original, and neither is the poor middle-aged guy scared of his own mortality. We get it, Shhhhhhteyngart. Aging sucks! And poor, mid-life crises-based decisions (like supporting a young vixen who doesn't love you) aren't the answer! And, again, the "love" story here is pretty predictable. Lenny loves Eunice unconditionally, but Eunice doesn't love him. But he's so nice and good to her, she wants to make herself love him. Will she succeed?

So as the novel rushes to its conclusion, and things change rapidly and dramatically, we're sitting here thinking "I already kind of know what's going to happen, and I've already solved all the 'mysteries.' This is probably going to end in a pretty anti-climactic conclusion." And it does. The cool, creative dystopian future isn't enough to carry the too-common, dull themes and its boring (though somewhat droll) caricatures of real people. Shteyngart is a clever, funny writer (almost too much so from time to time), but his jokes, winks and pop culture references don't altogether save this sucker. Three stars for the not-so-super, actually pretty sad, with elements of truth, love story.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Short Discussion About Dystopian Lit

Margaret Atwood is one of those many authors who has flitted around the periphery of my reading consciousness, but who I've never made a serious effort to read. So, a few weeks ago, when Brenna at Literary Musings posted a review of Atwood's The Year of the Flood, I asked her if she thought I'd like Flood and its prequel, Oryx and Crake. She responded by asking if I like "dystopian literature." My snobby literary defenses immediately went up, and I thought, "Uh, no. Isn't dystopian literature akin to science fiction, and only a baby step away from fantasy?"

But I thought about it a little more, and realized that Infinite Jest, one of my favorite novels of all time, could actually be considered dystopian literature. And, I've also greatly enjoyed the three novels that dystopian experts would probably consider the cornerstones: 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. And furthermore, I'm currently reading Gary Shteyngart's dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, which isn't my favorite book ever, but I don't hate it simply because it's dystopian.

So, maybe I am interested in broadening my horizons a little and trying some more dystopian lit — but with some parameters. To me, a good dystopian novel is one in which the dystopia is just another exotic setting (like contemporary Uzbekistan or 18th century South Africa) for a good story with innately human, recognizable characters. One of the cynical questions you often hear about "immigrant fiction," like that written by Jhumpa Lahiri or Daniyal Mueenuddin, is "Would anyone care about this story if it wasn't about exotic people doing exotic customs in exotic lands?" There's some legitimacy to that question, in my mind. In other words, a novel's "exotic quotient" cannot be the only, or maybe even the major, strategy on which the story hang its hat.

And that idea also applies to what I would consider good dystopian fiction. Sure, the parameters of the dystopia (Big Brother, Soma, "firemen" burn books, etc.) will set the rules for the novel, and in many cases, the conflict, too — but the characters negotiating that conflict and the plot the writer creates for them to do so must still be interesting, intriguing, riveting on its own accord. The story is still king, right? This is why Infinite Jest is such a brilliant novel. Despite the kooky dystopian America in which it takes place, the characters and plot of this novel are easy to recognize, easy to understand and easy to root for or not.

But all this has still made me wonder: Where exactly is that line between literary dystopian fiction and science fiction and fantasy? Is the Hunger Games trilogy dystopian or fantasy? Or is it both? Let me take a stab: Obviously, by definition, dystopian implies that something really bad has happened and the story takes place in that altered future that isn't nearly rosy as the present. For science fiction (like the novels of Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov) or fantasy (like The Lord of the Rings or the novels of George R.R. Martin), the setting is imaginary, but not necessarily unpleasant. Furthermore: In science fiction and fantasy, the setting is the defining characteristic of the novel. That's why these two are often labeled genre fiction. Dystopian fiction, though, for the reasons described above, only works if the setting is only one of a number of literary strategies that add up to a complete novel.

Too simplistic? Maybe. But I'm interested to hear your take. Where do you draw the line between dystopian literature and genre science fiction or fantasy? What are some of your favorite literary dystopian novels?