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Thursday, July 25, 2013

How Good Will the GONE GIRL Movie Be?

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)
Last summer, 20th Century Fox and Reese Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard paid a whopping $1.5 million for the movie rights for Gillian Flynn’s megahit novel, Gone Girl. Witherspoon will produce the film (assuming she’s not busy shouting at police officers), Flynn will adapt her own novel to the screen, and David Fincher has signed on to direct. Will the movie — with no official release date but earliest is late 2014 — be as big a hit as the novel? Or will it fizzle Da Vinci Code-style? Let’s take a look.

Source Material/Screenplay: There are few people who didn’t love this novel — it’s twisty and turny and disturbing and scary and just a really, really good time with a book. But because much of the twisty-turniness of the novel relies on unreliable narrators that have more than a few surprises up their sleeves, it might actually be a difficult novel to adapt. Flynn, who is a former TV and film critic, is a first-time screenwriter, too, and is adapting her own novel. No matter how much you love the story here, those factors have to give you a bit of pause. I have faith in Flynn, though. She’s cool. She can do this.

Director: David Fincher is an absolutely inspired choice here. From Fight Club to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fincher seems to have a knack for tortured, troubled characters who are involved in complicated, psychology-thrilling plots. The Game is perhaps Fincher’s best film, and it has a similar misdirection, what’s-happening-isn’t-really-happening-as-we-think bent as Gone Girl. I love Fincher for this — he’s a great choice to handle the possible challenges of a first-time screenwriter adapting her own novel, as well as the complicated nature of the story itself. (My one hesitation with Fincher would be that his style is, in a word, gritty. How will that play with these supposedly upper-class, super-cool characters?)

Cast: Ben Affleck has reportedly agreed to play Nick. I could go either way on this. On one hand, there’s no doubt he has the acting chops to pull of the role. But, especially after Argo, is he too “sympathetic” an actor to pull off a character you’ll soon revile? For Amy, British actor Rosamund Pike is rumored to be the frontrunner. I kind of like this, as opposed to other more well-known actresses, like Natalie Portman or Charlize Theron (would not have bought Theron as Amy, I don’t think). While Pike isn’t a household name, neither was Rooney Mara when Fincher directed her as Lisbeth Salander in Dragon Tattoo, and that worked out pretty freakin’ well.

Wild Card: There’s still a lot yet to be decided, including the movie’s budget, the supporting actors (how about Shailene Woodley as Andie, and Emily Blunt or Anne Hathaway as Go?), and the actual writing and approval of the script. It’s unlikely this whole project would get scuttled, given the price paid for the rights, and the huge name recognition of the title. But you never know with Hollywood. Overall, though, if this comes to pass, I have high hopes for it — a wonderful director, fantastic source material, and the backing of a big studio all could make for a blockbuster. What do you think?

Confidence Index: 8 out of 10

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia: Death Becomes Her?

Kimberly McCreight's debut Reconstructing Amelia is my second favorite novel of the last few years about a bunch of snooty high school kids where the title character dies in the opening pages. The paragon of this genre, of course, is Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, and McCreight's novel has more than a few similarities to Murray's — including secret cliques and sordid sexual rendezvous. And both stories are essentially about unraveling the mystery surrounding how the title character died.

But whereas Murray's novel is more slow-burn literary fiction, McCreight's is fast and furious, with all the requisite surprises and twists of a thriller. And whereas Skippy dies by choking on a doughnut (or did he?), Amelia supposedly has committed a "spur-of-the-moment suicide" by jumping off the roof of the school building (or did she?), having been accused of cheating on an English paper.

The novel alternates between Amelia's story leading up to her death and her mother, Kate's, in the aftermath, dealing with her grief. Amelia, a cute, but bookish girl, is just starting her sophomore year at a high-priced Brooklyn school, when she's tapped to join the Magpies, the school's most prestigious secret society. Her mother is a hard-working lawyer and she's never met her father, and so Amelia is lonely, and despite a promise to her best friend Sylvia that they'd never join one of the stupid clubs, she feels herself drawn in, flattered (if a little skeptical) about why these beautiful, rich, popular girls would want her. Are their motives legitimate, or is there something more sinister going on behind the scenes? 

Kate's story happens a few weeks after Amelia's death — one day, she gets a text that says simply: "Amelia didn't jump." Knowing full well her daughter wouldn't have killed herself (despite the police's ruling, after a hasty investigation), she starts re-investigating the case, with the help of a new detective. They talk to Amelia's friends and their parents, and Kate begins wondering if the whole episode isn't partly a result of some of her own past choices. Who really is Amelia's father? What bearing does a single indiscretion many years ago with the senior partner of her law firm have on this situation?

But of course the real question — and the best part of the novel — is how did Amelia die? Did she actually kill herself? Was she pushed? Is there another explanation? And that's what keeps you turning the pages to sleuth along with Kate, and to see how deep Amelia had gotten herself, to try to figure out what happened for yourself before the characters do.

It's a fun, fast novel — and a good summer read — but it has more than few missteps. Some of the twists and surprises seem really unwarranted, or even unnecessary. And some of the dilemmas on which the plot hinges seem like they could've been easily solved. But overall, if you liked Skippy Dies, and if like me, you like the New York snob story, you'll probably enjoy this, too.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Does E-reading Change the Way You Read?

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.) 

Over at the Huffington Post, writer Mark Rubinstein lays out a case for why some people are still resistant to ereading. He doesn’t demonize these folks, but instead offers a reasonable explanation for why they’ve stuck to paper. Paper reading reminds people of childhood, when their love of reading first emerged, he says.

I’ll buy that — makes sense to me. But I have a different (or, at least, supplemental) explanation: People are resistant to ereading because they fear that ereading will change the very specific ways they’re used to reading books. As Rubinstein points out, people resistant to e-reading aren’t necessarily resistant to technology specifically, or change in general. So, to me, it’s just that they fear this one particular aspect of change.

And they’re right. Ereading will fundamentally change the way you read. It has for me. But that’s not a bad thing.

I’m only 18 months into my ereading career, and ereading HAS changed a lot of my reading habits in significant ways. (And by “significant,” I mean much more impactful than finding myself wondering how much battery my hardcover book has left, as I literally did for a brief instant last week.)

Most importantly, I read a lot more now. Not an exclusive ereader, I usually have an ebook and a paper read going at the same time. And so this has led to more finished books. And that’s a great thing! The numbers don’t lie — I read nearly 20 percent more books last year (my first full year with an e-reader) than my best reading year since college (thank you, Goodreads stats). And I’m on pace this year to shatter last year’s record.

Part of this is due to the fact that books come from a much wider variety of sources. I derive an inordinate amount of pleasure for downloading books from the library and Edelwiess or Netgalley. It’s just fun. I was someone who used to operate under the assumption that my book collection was sacred, and that I couldn’t read a book I didn’t own (crazy, right?). This was a significant mental hurdle to get over — a fundamental change to how I read, and why I can empathize with others who are worried ereading will change their reading habits as well. (Side note: My girlfriend actually bought me the ereader for Christmas because she was worried we were running out of space in our apartment for all my books.)

But it’s not just more, it’s also different. The availability of library ebooks has opened up a pathway to books I’d never have read otherwise — another huge benefit of ereading. From Erin Duffy’s Bond Girl to Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, I’ve read and really enjoyed novels I would’ve probably missed without the library.

And it’s not just novels: I’ve read more short story collections in the last year-and-a-half than I did in my entire previous reading “career” combined. How could I have considered myself a reader without ever diving into a George Saunders collection?! The NY Times, earlier this year, attributed the “new” popularity of short story collections to ereading. I’m Exhibit A for that theory.

Please know, that if you’re resistant to ereading, none of this intended to demean your choice in any way. Keep doing what you do if it’s what is comfortable. I just wanted to relay the story of how one dyed-in-the-wool paper reader overcame his hesitancies. Remember, ereading vs. paper reading is not an either/or proposition. Ease your way into ereading. Or don’t. Just read however you want, ’cause reading is pretty awesome.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: On War-Torn Chechnya

Andrew Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, about the last two decades in war-torn Chechnya, isn't an easy read — but not in the sense that it's difficult to understand. It's not an easy read because it's, in a word, unflinching. There are depictions of torture that can make even the most iron-stomached reader squirm. And there are also stories of human trafficking, drug abuse, and plenty of violence.

Additionally, it's not an easy read because of the simple fact that it's a little embarrassing not to have ever heard of or have been cognizant of this pain and these atrocities and the sheer lack of humanity that was happening. Here is this tiny central Asian/eastern European country I'd known nothing about, and to learn about all that has occurred there in the last 20 years? It's just sad on a number of levels. How do more people not know about this?

But amidst the pain and sadness is a finely wrought, character-driven novel that shows that in war and its aftermath, there are few good guys and many bad guys, and there are certainly no winners, but many, many losers.

The "real time" action in this novel occurs over about five days in December 2004 — four years after the official conclusion of the Second Chechen War, but still in the midst of a prolonged insurgency by Chechen rebels. The novel begins with a Chechen man named Dokka being "disappeared" — that is, captured by Russian troops and brought to a torture chamber called the Landfill. But his neighbor Akhmed helps Dokka's 8-year-old daughter escape to a nearby hospital, where a woman named Sonja is the lead doctor. Sonja, though, is trying to hold together her own life. Her younger sister Natasha is missing, and Sonja fears the worst.

Moving back and forth in time, Marra slowly and carefully reveals how all these characters' lives are connected. It's a brilliantly layered, carefully constructed story — as these characters often find out how they're connected with each other, and more importantly, why, at the same instant the reader does. It's powerful, and often very sad.

Part of the point is that in a war-torn country, logic breaks down. When Russians are bombing a Chechen village, a character exclaims to another "We are being liberated." Of course, they're not being liberated, they're being conquered. The villagers then use toilets to cover unexploded ordnance, leaving a patchwork of craters and upside-down toilets in the bombed out village.  
"So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the streets that cars wouldn't pass for weeks, and in that time, she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke." 
What an image! Marra is a writer of immense talent — and it's mind-boggling that this is his debut novel.

There are even moments of levity here, that help move the reader along. At the beginning of the novel, when Akhmed brings the young girl to the hospital, he tries to brag that he's also a doctor. Sonja quizzes him about what would he would do with an "unresponsive patient." He replies that he'd give the patient a questionnaire. Sonja just rolls her eyes — how could an unresponsive patient complete a questionnaire? Later, we learn that Akhmed interpretted "unresponsive," to mean a patient who couldn't or wouldn't talk — and so the patient would have to write out answers to question to determine the problem.

This novel is highly recommended, but again, not for the squeamish. And it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep track of how all the pieces are coming together and what the relationships mean. But it's well worth the effort. It's a brilliant novel — one of my favorites of the year. (Don't just take my word for it — it has an average rating of 4.26 on Goodreads.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Life After Life: Will We Ever Get It Right?

Ursula Todd drowns. She falls off an icy roof. She catches influenza. And that's all within the first 50 pages. The premise of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life, a really smart, inventive novel, is that Ursula Todd, born to an upper class English family on a snowy night in February 1910 keeps dying, but then gets to live her life over and over again.

The central question of the novel is this: If we get infinite chances to get it right, will we ever actually get it right? We follow Ursula through childhood, and then several different scenarios of her teen years — including one that is very traumatic. Then we follow her through several different scenarios of adulthood — once she gets married, mostly she doesn't. Once, she lives in pre-war Germany, but mostly she's in England dodging bombs during the German Blitz of London during World War II.

This constant re-starting of the story may sound like it could read to a confusing or repetitive reading experience, but Atkinson is very good at orienting you in time and giving you clues to figure out what has changed and what has stayed the same, so she doesn't have to start from scratch each time. It's what makes the novel work, when it could've easily been a disaster.

One of the main themes of the novel is the characters' vastly different views on marriage. Ursula's mom Sylvie, who is kind of a cranky, cynical woman throughout the novel, sees marriage as a necessary evil. And that influences Ursula in different ways in different versions of her life throughout the novel. Ursula's Aunt Izzie, the polar opposite of Ursula's mother, and a huge influence on Ursula as well (she always bailing Ursula out of tight spots) has a vastly different view on marriage. Izzie tells Sylvia: "For me, marriage is about freedom. For you it has always been about the vexations of confinement."

Another noteworthy theme is Atkinson's take on how life imitates art for these characters. Characters, Ursula especially, are constantly thinking about quotes by Shakespeare and Shelley and Donne and Keats and other poets and writers. I loved that idea in this novel — as your life is constantly unmoored, art can be a settling influence. As one example that most everyone will recognize, "The Reich, Ursula had concluded a long time ago, was all pantomime and spectacle, "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, she wrote to (her sister)."

Though I really enjoyed it, the novel's not perfect — despite the fact that the last third is all about war, and therefore should be "exciting," I thought the novel kind of limped to the end. Ursula seems to need a justification for killing Hitler — that's not a spoiler, she actually does that within the first two pages of the novel. So we have to see her deal with the hardships of war. And while Atkinson certainly does an admirable job of portraying the horrors of war, it's these sections that seem more repetitive than at any other point of the novel.

But the middle third is riveting — as page-turny as any literary novel you'll find. So I'd highly recommend this. It's certainly not a "soft-around-the-edges" literary novel as the cover art may indicate.

One final note. This is a quote from the novel that has stuck with me, both for its profundity and the fact that it really hit home: "Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum she couldn't even begin to solve."