Finished my last book for my reading job, and now I’m free! Until Monday morning, of course. I am in the middle of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, which I picked up because I liked the movie so much. I mooched the book from someone in Iceland, which adds an extra frisson because I spent some time there a few years back, and love anything and everything from that country (except the rotted shark meat).

When I read books for work I’m evaluating whether or not they would make good movies. Since I’m reading a book that was adapted, and in honor of the WGA awards that are happening tonight (I’m rooting for The Departed), I thought I’d blog about book adaptations. (I’m also trying to motivate to watch Liv Ullman’s adaptation of Kristin Lavransdatter.)

The big secret of adaptations is that change is necessary. Books and movies are two entirely different animals, and what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen. And the dirty corollary to that secret is that some successful, enjoyable books, when picked apart, reveal themselves to have major structural weaknesses that would prove deadly if left intact when transferred to the screen. Certain liberties must be taken. Too much fidelity can be a killer.

A recent example of this was the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Now, before you run me out of town on a rail, Meryl Streep was AMAZING. Her presence alone made that movie more than worth watching. BUT–there was a much better movie in that book. The adaptation was far to faithful to the story that Lauren Weisberger laid out, and unfortunately, the life Weisberger created for Andie is much too thin to hold the big screen. The adapters should have taken liberties with Andie and pushed her inner conflict–fashion vs. integrity–and spun it with a little All About Eve. I don’t believe the screenplay is deserving of a Writer’s Guild nomination because it is not a good adaptation. Though it is a good movie, in spite of the script, because of the performances.

My favorite book adaptation is Last of the Mohicans, because I find that book to be the epitome of boring. Michael Mann’s movie takes the essence of the film and the bones of the story, but makes some crucial changes that turn the movie into an unforgettable story. Changing Natty Bumppo’s name to Nathanial Poe (and casting Daniel Day-Lewis) was the first of many good alterations they made.

I was prepared to hate the new Bridge to Terabithia based on the trailer, but apparently the studio chose a marketing strategy that misrepresents the movie and has the filmmakers up in arms. So the jury’s still out on that one.

UPDATED because there’s something in the air.

Melanie at Indextrious Reader has been soaking up what she calles “Brit-erary adaptations.” She’s asking for your favorites in her comments.

Jill at Individual Take has some well-thought out opinions on adaptations.

And via Jill, I discovered Cam, who expounds specifically on Children of Men. I’ll be adding Cam’s blog to my Kindred Spirits list.

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I just realized that I read a book for work on Tuesday night and forgot to put up a blog post. Slacker!!

I can’t help feeling a little embarrassed that I read fantasy and sci-fi, also known as speculative fiction. It’s because people who don’t read this stuff really, really can’t understand the appeal, mainly because they assume it’s all “vampires in space,” as the boyfriend of a friend of mine puts it. Speculative fiction is seen as the domain of mouth-breathing Trekkies who always have a 24-sided die in their pocket at all time, or of girls who put unicorn stickers everywhere and play characters named The Lady Melisande at the Renaissance Faire.

Well, that’s just silly. I read speculative fiction for the same reason that I read Dickens, Tolstoy, and Austen–because I want to be immersed completely in another world. I admit that there is a lot of bad writing in fantasy and sci-fi, but that’s the case in any genre. But I’ll take a sub-par book in the fantasy genre over the best of what post-modern literature has to offer, because it all comes down to story for me. I admit to having less of a love for science fiction because it tends to be about ideas over story, much like post-modern literature. Tell me a story, tell me a story I can believe in, tell me a story that makes me fall in love.


The book I read for work last night kicked off with such promise. I was reminded of books such as A Secret History, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and House of Leaves. I love books that combine gothic atmosphere, horror elements, and a story-within-a-story that might be more than just a story. Books that are occult, in the sense that they imply access to a hidden meaning if the reader can master the secret language that the author is employing beyond words. This particular book (can’t name it because it was for work) had all of that.

And then came the big reveal. And what did it all mean? Absolutely nothing! It was all a psychological experiment being conducted by an unethical grad student. Add that to the list of endings I never, ever want to see.

  1. It was only a dream
  2. I have been lying the whole time and none of this actually happened
  3. I am being manipulated by an evil PhD candidate

What other bad endings are there? I’d love to hear what makes you throw a book against the wall in disgust like I did last night.


Synopsis:

The tale of a society woman and her unconventional love affair contrasts with that of a landowner struggling with faith adn duty.

Review:

Anna Karenina. The very words have struck me with fear and awe ever since a disastrous Russian History class in 12th grade, where I discovered my superpower’s limits for the first time. I elected to read Anna for my final paper because I wanted to read Anna, but I had four AP exams happening at the same time and should’ve chosen something much shorter. The whole thing blew up in my face and I ended up getting in trouble for not reading the entire book, which at my school was an honor offense. Since other girls in my class had out-and-out cheated, I ended up just having to take a C on the paper (which was very well-written on the 200 pages I actually read). I think that might have been what kept me out of my top-choice college but I ended up loving the school I went to so, as you see, things worked out for the best even though AP exams are my Kryptonite.

Here I am *cough* years later, and I find that Anna Karenina is an astonishingly fast read. I couldn’t be more riveted by all of the characters Tolstoy presents to me: passionate, foolish Anna; tormented, brooding Levin; flighty, honest Kitty; and “he’s just not that into you” Vronsky. Tolstoy masterfully shifts between (rare) third person omniscient, first person stream-of-consciousness, and many scenes where point-of-view shifts between several characters as they interact with each other.

As Anna and Vronsky’s relationship implodes, Tolstoy ratchets up the tension by leaving us inside Anna’s head as she has the mother of all panic attacks. Anyone who’s ever been unable to let well enough alone in a relationship will connect with Anna’s torment as she tries to force Vronsky to be loving towards her without seeing that her need and dependence is driving him away. She’s a black hole that can’t be filled, and Vronsky responds with the cold hammer of indifference. It’s horrifying, because it’s so true to life, and Tolstoy doesn’t miss a single shade of the horror.

Levin’s story was a welcome reprieve from Anna’s darkness. Though he’s suffering metaphysical pangs related to his inability to have faith, he never seems in danger the way Anna does, even though he contemplates suicide from time to time. I think it’s because his struggles are honest. He’s not lying to himself the way Anna is. Anna wants her infidelity to be something other than it is. She wants to call evil good. Levin, on the other hand, wants to know the nature of goodness, because, despite his atheism, he sees good in the world and wants to be as close to it as he can. His frustration comes when he sees how his own innate selfishness and pettiness keep him from his goal.

Some the best passages in Anna Karenina concern the nature of marriage, which Tolstoy examines from all angles. There are the bad marriages, of course, like Anna’s, and like that of Anna’s brother Oblonsky who is a compulsive philanderer. But there is also a marriage that’s just a normal marriage between two people trying to get used to one another. They have ups and downs, times of tenderness and times of warfare, and Tolstoy shows it all.

There are scenes in Anna Karenina that I’ll never forget: Levin in the fields mowing with the peasants, Kitty at the ball, Karenin forgiving his wife as she gives birth to another man’s son, Levin’s brother on his deathbed, Kitty’s giving birth to her first child, and many others–but most of all, I will never forget Anna, proud Anna with her dark hair and sad eyes. I want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to see the truth about Vronsky, that their love is counterfeit, that she doesn’t have to put up with it from him or put up with Karenin’s mocking piety or society’s stupid rules. I’m so angry because I love her so very, very much.

(A note on the translation: I found the Joel Carmichael translation to be accessible, and the introduction said it has a lot to do with the naming conventions, which are English, not Russian (where you get all the patronyms and nicknames and different people calling the same person different things at different times. It must have worked, because I had no problem keeping the vast amount of characters and their relationships straight. I definitely recommend this translation.)


Hating My Books

05Feb07

My reading job started up again today. I vet to-be-published manuscripts, and my employers must like me because they generally give me stuff I’m excited to read. So, in keeping with my post-per-book formula, here is a blog post to go with the book I finished tonight. I’m not reviewing these books on this blog because I don’t want to speak out of turn and get in trouble, so the posts when I read for work will cover reading-related topics.

We recently moved. It was a relatively easy move, and we had a lot of help. But any move, no matter how painless, will make you hate your books for one simple reason.

A box of books is really freaking heavy. And when you have a lot of books, you have to move a lot of heavy boxes. The boxes strain your back and have the annoying habit of dropping on your toes. And then comes unpacking.

I like to organize my books. Fiction gets alphabetized by author, and non-fiction gets grouped into categories:

  1. Film–history and theory alpha by author again, filmmaking subgrouped into screenwriting, film production, and other
  2. Writing general–these sit near screenwriting
  3. Plays
  4. Screenplays
  5. Poetry (this section got much bigger when I merged my copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel with my husband’s much more substantial collection)
  6. Books that deal with violence against or by women, books with a general feminist slant (Susan Faludi, Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf) and true crime, abnormal psychology, and criminology all basically go together
  7. Books on Christianity (Lewis, Yancey, Nouwen, Bonhoeffer–though, funnily enough, Kathleen Norris doesn’t go here, she goes with the feminists)
  8. Knitting
  9. Cookbooks
  10. Fitness and health
  11. Nonfiction that doesn’t fit in anywhere else, which are very few in number. I like books about Jesus, angsty women, and crazy people–or all three at once, like in one book I have called Christian Men Who Hate Women, which happens to be AWESOME. If you like that sort of thing.

As hateful as they are in their heavy, unwieldy boxes, as soon as I got them on the shelves, all in their sections, all in their places, I fell in love with my books again. Space dictates meant that I had to stack some of them horizontally, meaning that some same-sized books get grouped together regardless of section. I like to think that my ability to resist the siren song of alphabetical ordering is a sign that I am becoming less uptight with age. Or it just means I need one more bookshelf so that I can turn all my books back to vertical and get them alphabetized again.

Until I get more books, of course.


My superpower appears to have weaknesses.  My husband & I moved on Thursday, and it has been a whirlwind of unpacking, and I haven’t been able to relax enough to read until tonight.  I did a chapter or two before bed, but not my usual hour of leisurely page turning.  And last night, I actually fell asleep on the couch without reading a word all day!  I think that had to do with being sick.

Fear not, blog readers–I am 300 pages into Anna Karenina and can’t put it down.  I’m feeling the way I felt when I “discovered” Jane Eyre a few years back–that what I’m reading is what a book shall be.  I should finish it within the week.

Additionally, my reading job will be picking up again, plus I picked up another manuscript reading gig that will start on Monday.  So I’ll be back to reading 4-5 books a week for work, and blogging will pick back up.

In the meantime, lots of great reading going on at the sites in my Kindred Spirits lesson.  Everyone has been taking the Chunkster and Classics Challenges to heart, which has been fun to watch.  And the best news in the book adaptation world is that HBO has optioned George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, planning to give each book its own season.


Synopsis:
When a car that shouldn’t drive appears at a local gas station, the police troop that deals with it discovers that it is a portal to another world, one that seems very, very dangerous.

Review:
I swear I really am reading Anna Karenina. My brain was so fried, however, at the end of this crazy work trip I just took that I needed something for the plane that wouldn’t challenge me. From a Buick 8 is a King that I’d only read once before, and at $7.99 I figured I could bend my “no brand-new books” rule.

From a Buick 8 is structured as a story within a story, with head trooper Sandy Dearborn telling the story of the freakazoid car to his deceased colleague’s teenaged son, Ned. Ned started spending a lot of time at the police station after his father was killed by a drunk driver during a routine traffic stop, and he seems to be taking a lot of comfort in the camaraderie among Troop D. He notices the Buick 8 in Shed B, and discovers that the car is at the heart of the troop’s identity. It shouldn’t drive; it’s like a model car. Nobody knows how it got to the gas station or what happened to the man who was driving it. And every so often it has what they call a “lightquake,” spitting purple lightning and the occasional four-winged one-eyed bat from hell. Though no one knows for sure, rumor has it that one of the troopers as well as an escaped prisoner disappeared inside it.

Sandy’s telling Ned the story so that Ned can understand his father better, but it’s also another excuse for King to muse on the nature of storytelling–not that this is a bad thing. In this book, his ostensible thesis is that some stories don’t get an ending. They just peter out. There’s no purpose, no unifying structure, no meaning. Some stories are just a collection of things that happen. However, every word that Sandy speaks undercuts this thesis because he absolutely has a reason for telling this story. And King absolutely intends to give it an ending.

The horror elements of the book are largely backgrounded, save for the few instances where something big comes out of the car. It doesn’t have the narrative urgency of King’s strongest works, nor does it have the pure terror of a lesser book like, say, The Tommyknockers, which has a really stupid story but some unforgettable moments. From a Buick 8 is one of King’s few books that is almost immediately forgotten.


Synopsis:
The granddaughter of a powerful sorceress finds herself coerced into betraying her kin to bring about the downfall of Ireland.

Review:
Child of the Prophecy is the third installment in Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy follows the story of Fianne, granddaughter of Sorcha, who saved her brothers after they were turned into swans, and niece to Liadan, the healer who managed to thwart the pattern set by the Old Ones. It’s the weakest installment, due largely in part to the lack of nuance in crafting the characters. Lady Oonagh, the evil sorceress, is a compendium of bad guy cliches, given to lengthy exposition at dramatic moments. The characters all easily fit into “good” or “bad,” and none of them are in any danger of surprising. It’s all very on-the-nose.

Overall, with this trilogy, I enjoyed the look at historic Ireland, and I liked the way the first two books reinterpreted older stories. I don’t think I’m likely to pick up any of her other books, though.

You might not hear from me for awhile, because up next is the massive Anna Karenina. I’m busy with work and don’t have as much time for reading, so I think it might take me a week to read it.


Synopsis:
Idyllic 1930s Connecticut. 13-year-old Niles is dreaming the summer away with his twin brother Holland and their mystical Russian grandmother Ada–but tragedy has a way of striking this family, and it has something to do with the ring Niles holds so closely.

Review:
What a curious blend of classic Americana and gothic horror! It’s a tale of terror set in broad daylight, amid sunflowers and haymows and Main Street and the train, whistling at its appointed hour. There’s an angel in this book, with shades as dark as those found in Angels in America, and light as bright as the most glorious stained glass window.

The narrative voice in The Other is complex and tightly controlled, shifting seamlessly from an externally focalized first person narrative to an internally focalized third person narrative, and several points on the spectrum between. Very unusual, right? I never felt settled, never felt like I really had a grasp on what was happening, even though I guessed the “secret” very early on (I also have seen the first half of the movie version)–and it really worked, because when the final horror was revealed, I was shocked, I was horrified, I was devastated. The book is elusive, grand, and slippery, much like Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, which is possibly my favorite of hers.

This is not easy horror, quick gore, cheap thrills. The Others requires an investment, and is suitable for readers who want a challenge. Please comment if you’ve read it–I’m dying to talk about this one!


Synopsis:
A writer suffers a car wreck and finds himself in the tender loving care of his number one fan.

Review:
It’s so hard to separate Misery the book from the movie, particularly because Kathy Bates’s performance is so indelibly iconic. However, the movie leaves out a key story element–the actual book that Annie Wilkes forces Paul Sheldon to write. Annie is furious that Paul’s newest novel kills off her beloved Misery Chastain, and orders him to bring her back to life. As Paul works out how to resurrect Misery from the dead, he wrestles with the mechanics of storytelling and finds himself awed again by the mysteries of creation.

So many of King’s protagonists have been writers, and it was reading what King had to say about writing that made me realize how much I wanted to write myself. The most enjoyable part of Misery is watching Paul fall in love all over again with a character and genre he’d grown to hate, simply because he’s having so much fun writing. It inspires me to hit the keyboard and keep pushing forward on my own work.