Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Liked It Better than Medea!

Over the long weekend I finished The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It was recommended by other readers who compared it to Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Both are mysteries about a elite, secretive group of students and a charismatic teacher. Many other readers preferred History, but I strongly preferred Calamity Physics. History zipped along at a dizzying, anxiety-ridden pace. However, unlike Calamity Physics, I didn’t have strong sympathy for History's narrator, Richard Papen. He just didn't have the strength of my girl Blue.

Richard is an unhappy student who dreams of leaving the home of his poor, indifferent parents in California. He transfers to Hampden College in rural Vermont and chooses to major in Greek with a small group of students hand-picked by Julian, their suave, inscrutable professor. From the beginning of the story, you know a character will die and you know who kills him, but the strong dramatic tension comes as you determine why this takes place and what happens to the characters as a result. Tartt uses many elements from classical Greek drama, Russian literature, and Southern gothic fiction. Tartt also mentioned in an interview that she was inspired by classic children’s literature—where a group of precocious children are left to their own devices. It’s all cleverly done, considering the students are studying and making constant references to Greek and literature at the time, yet seem unaware they’re trapped in their own Greek tragedy.

History reminded me strongly of the movie Match Point: I was manipulated into rooting for the murderers, unable to decide whether I want them to be exonerated or justice to be served. There was the strain of a working class character trying to camouflage himself in high society, and there were scenes that made me laugh and then feel guilty about laughing at something in the midst of such depravity.

I’m in a bit of a quandary. Although the graphic substance abuse, promiscuity, and violence in the book were extremely off-putting to me, I do recognize those as true characteristics of Greek drama and the other literary forms from which Tartt is borrowing. Tartt does show the way these dangerously curious and orphaned college students suffer from their actions, so she doesn’t glamorize their acts. It’s just not always easy for me to read. I appreciated History more than I enjoyed it. So…it’s hard for me to recommend this one even though I think it’s a smart book. Do as you will.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Goodbye, Veronica

Watched the final two episodes of Veronica Mars last night. The series wasn't resolved (because the final eps were filmed prior to news of cancellation, and there was plenty of fodder for new plot development), but there were a few things in last night's episodes that made it slightly less painful for me. The return of the old Logan, a hint of the old Weevil, the return of the Kanes, more Wallace than usual, some winning lines from Mac, a deeper look at Dick, comedy gold from our wonderful snarky Veronica, and the final scene where Veronica, realizing she's messed things up for her father, tells him "You know I love you more than anything else in the world," and Keith says he knows. Thank goodness we didn't get the cliffhangers of seasons one and two. Instead we have that great image of Veronica voting for her dad, even though we're pretty sure he'll lose the election. What matters most in the show is their relationship, and we see them supporting each other and loving each other unconditionally in that last episode. It all reminded me of what a great show this has been, even though the final season suffered.

For a lovely eulogy, all of you fellow fans must read Daniel Carlson's post on Pajiba. It won't give anything essential away for you not-yet-fans, but it may encourage you to move this show up on your Netflix queue.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Musings on E.M. Forster

I’m never sure exactly what to make of E.M. Forster. I find him enigmatic, but I always enjoy his stories. Are they satires? Some parts certainly make me laugh. He’s written some of the most romantic passages I’ve ever read (and reread)—in particular, that beautiful paragraph in A Room with A View when George Emerson unexpectedly kisses Lucy in a field of violets. That scene sent me into a bona fide swoon when I first read it and then saw it in the movie.

At the same time, tragedy threatens the romance and comedy. It’s pretty notable how these things all coexist in a Forster story. There is something of Austen’s slyly critical appraisal of the way people treat each other, especially the way the upper crust look down on their “inferiors.” Forster is as concerned with this in a cross-cultural context as within stratified British society.

I feel like I need a good professor to guide me through at least some of his stories, but I’ve always read his novels on my own and never in a classroom, so I’m missing quite a bit of rich conversation to be had about these books. Take a look at two passages from Where Angels Fear to Tread (which I’m currently reading):

“Lilia would not settle down in her place among Sawston matrons. She was a bad housekeeper, always in the throes of some domestic crisis, which Mrs. Herriton, who kept her servants for years, had to step across and adjust. She let Irma stop away from school for insufficient reasons, and she allowed her to wear rings. She learnt to bicycle, for the purpose of waking the place up, and coasted down the High Street one Sunday evening, falling off at the turn by the church. If she had not been a relative, it would have been entertaining.”

The bit about Lilia on the bike made me laugh, but at the same time I pitied her as a “free spirit” (albeit a foolish one) who is never accepted by her family. I’m also simultaneously amused and frustrated that a woman on a bicycle was seen as such an affront to tradition. I especially appreciate the use of the word “vulgar” to describe Lilia and her daughter in these passages. It’s a word I almost never hear anymore, and to a modern girl, it seems a ridiculous exaggeration.

“And on the second day the heat struck them, like a hand laid over the mouth, just as they were walking to see the tomb of Juliet. From that moment everything went wrong. They fled from Verona. Harriet’s sketch-book was stolen, and the bottle of ammonia in her trunk burst over her prayerbook, so that purple patches appeared on all her clothes. Then, as she was going through Mantua at four in the morning, Philip made her look out of the window because it was Virgil’s birthplace, and a smut flew in her eye, and Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious.”

That last sentence slays me. I get a gleeful feeling knowing the overbearing Harriet is getting her comeuppance in a small way. But at the same time, it’s a shame even the most detestable people can’t enjoy the novelty and beauty of a new place, and instead have a blind, haughty attitude of racial superiority. From what I recall, there’s even more of that in Passage to India, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.

To sum up, Forester’s writing seems light to me one minute, then betrays a whole depth of meaning the next. He is playful, then he is critical, then he seems to poke fun at his own criticism, and then the whole process begins again, so I'm never sure if a happy ending is actually a happy ending. There's this unsettling feeling when the nice young ladies inherit Howard's End while their lower class friends have been murdered and/or forgotten.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Today I announced to Ickie that presently I can think of nothing I fear more than the eerie talking oranges with demonic little faces in the Sunkist soda commercial. Their lidless glassy eyes, their lipless mouths grinning sadistically...uhhh. In fact, nothing else even seems scary at all in comparison. Zombies, traffic accidents, murderers, seagulls...all my previous fears are moot in the face of these orange imps. I love a good ghost story and usually scoff at movie monsters. But I keep doing double takes at the oranges in our fruit bowl, worried I'll see little slits for eyes and mouth forming.

I'm also afraid of their flat, crooked teeth.

For those of you who still have peace of mind, feast your eyes upon the Sunkist oranges in their fiendish glory here (the first commercial in the YouTube clip is the only one I'm referring to--no need to watch the rest of the clip). The malignant expression on the orange's face who casually asks "Need a hand?" is more than I can bear. You can tell he has ulterior motives. All the soda-drinking party-goers are blissfully unaware of the threat lurking just outside their raucous gathering.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tragic Demise

"Veronica Mars" has been canceled.

I honestly don't know why I bother committing to good TV shows, because inevitably they'll be canceled (see "Firefly," "Arrested Development," "Freaks & Geeks"). V Mars had a great 1st season, a decent 2nd one, and a 3rd season with some weak spots, but it was still unique and creative, it was artfully shot, it had smart, funny dialogue, and it was far superior to most things on TV, certainly everything that's ever been on the shameless UPN/CW network. I'd like to blame the network, but in this case the truth appears to be that V Mars (in addition to the pitiless cancellations of the excellent shows listed above) although receiving critical praise, wasn't getting high enough ratings (provided the current method of accumulating ratings is accurate, of which I'm skeptical), so it wasn't a money maker.

I'd like to think that most people have some sense (both common sense and artistic sense). But I'm wrong. Maybe I'm bewildered because I spend all my time with professors and other bookworms. I think I am, because yesterday when I was volunteering as an extra in a small film, I overheard several of the dumbest conversations imaginable. I won't bore you with the details. Just trust me, these two women made Jessica Simpson sound articulate. They also eyed the book I was reading (an E.M. Forester collection) as though it were a contagious disease.

Apparently the vast majority of you want to watch the "Search for the Next Pussycat Doll" and other reality/game-show/sitcom dreck more than you do a well-written, clever story about a girl detective. I've watched my fair share of garbage, but I've made an effort to change that and actively seek entertainment that is thought-provoking or has some aesthetic value. I can't complete with America. I can't force you to watch decent movies instead of garbage like Wild Hogs or Delta Farce. I am cursed, CURSED I SAY!!!, by the mediocrity of the masses. And if you are out there watching the Pussycat Dolls or frickin' "Deal or No Deal" right now, you are a mass, and you are making my life miserable.

All I can say is, thank goodness for Netflix. And "The Office." And "30 Rock." And "BSG." Someone out there has a brain. I will not yet throw my TV set into the road in fury. And thank goodness Waitress and The Valet have finally been given a wider release. I'll go stifle my Veronica sorrows in a movie theater this weekend.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Gosh, was this book ever good. In the final chapters of the book, when things begin to come together, everything in life (work, exercise, cooking dinner, cleaning house…) became an unbearable obstacle to my reading it. According to an NYT article, when news was released of this first novel by Marisha Pessl, bloggers decried her as too beautiful and rich to have talent. How hard it is to accept that someone this gorgeous and privileged is also incredibly smart and gifted at writing!

As usual, I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot so that you can have the joy of discovering it for yourself (in fact, skip that NYT review I linked to above if you want to avoid too detailed a plot summary). The story is narrated by Blue Van Meer, who spends every few months of her life in a new town, traveling with her father, an itinerant poli sci professor. Gareth Van Meer’s tremendous personality explodes into every scene—even those in which he is merely being quoted by his adoring daughter. Blue relies on his acute observations and caustic wit, as well as the Western canon she's practically memorized, to navigate high school. The story really picks up when Blue enters her senior year and becomes involved with a intriguing film teacher/femme fatale and a group of students called the Bluebloods.

Blue packs her narrative with related asides and cross references to books of all subjects. This often slows the dialogue and passing of events, which can be maddening, but it critically conveys how much information is packed into this 16-year-old girl’s astounding brain. (As a nice touch considering the highly literate cast, the table of contents is formatted as a great books syllabus with the last chapter containing a final exam.) Blue is brilliant, but she’s also a sympathetic and struggling outsider. I can think of no other story that so poignantly revels great intellect to be both blessing and curse.

Many of the characteristics I love about the show Veronica Mars are present in this book: intellectual dialogue, biting sarcasm, classic noir, the cruelty of high school society, and an intriguing father-daughter relationship. Yet perhaps what I love best about Pessl’s writing style are The Specifics. Descriptions are detailed, amusing, tragic, and astoundingly accurate (Pessl forms metaphors with ruthless clarity just as P.G. Wodehouse masters humorous, light-hearted ones). For example:

"She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light, even at their extremes. And she was older than I’d realized, somewhere in her late thirties. Most extraordinary though was the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her, a sense of RKO, which I’d never before witnessed in person, only while Dad and I watched Jezebel into the early hours of the morning. Yes, within her carriage and deliberate steps like a metronome (now retreating behind the display of potato chips) was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speech of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding), and when she considered a person, took in him/her, she would place those nearly extinct personality traits—Character, Reputation, Integrity and Class—above all others.

"Not that she wasn’t real. She was. There were hairs out of place, a quiver of white lint on her skirt. I simply felt somewhere, at some time, she’d been the toast of something. And a confident, even aggressive look in her eyes, made me certain she was planning a comeback."

Just go buy the book. It’s worth it, because as soon as you’re done, you’ll need to go back and read it again. It’s so rich that you’ll discover dozens of clever details with each reading. Also check out the website, which creeps along irresistibly like a Gorey-drawn mystery. Did I mention Pessl also includes her own haunting illustrations throughout the text as “visual aids”? Oh, dear. My blog post just can't do justice to this one.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Journeys into the Underworld

Last week I had an unusual experience reading Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. For several years I've had this short story collection on my to-read list. I once picked it up in a store and read the final story, "The Girl Detective," in which Nancy Drew goes into the Underworld in search of her mother. I was befuddled by it then, so I forgot about the book until recently. What a mistake! First of all, the short stories in the book need to be read from start to finish in order. I underwent a 4-stage metamorphosis while reading them.

Stage 1: These stories are odd and very dark, but I like that. Wish the conclusions weren't so open-ended and morbid, though.
Stage 2: Hmmm. I'm not sure if I like these stories so much after all. Is she just trying to be random and vague? I'm confused. This might all be overrated.
Stage 3: Whoah. Didn't I just see that same phrase about a sugar packet in the previous story? Wasn't there another character a few stories back with the same teeth filed to sharp points? I just noticed the blurb on the back of the book: "They [the stories] all have happy endings. Every story contains a secret prize. Each story was written especially for you." I am getting hints of the prizes, and I think the happy endings depend on a changed perspective on the part of the reader. Where am I in the stories? I'm in each one somewhere. Oooh, excitement!
Stage 4: I'm finished. Man, was that good. I need to read it again. I'm still kind of stunned. I have a feeling I just skimmed the surface.

Okay, I'll admit this kind of reading experience isn't for everyone. A lot of folks will understandably get stuck in stage 2 and throw up their hands in consternation. Ickie doesn't appear to be enjoying it as much as I did, but I'm dark and twisted, whereas he's quite the pleasant, upstanding citizen (albeit gloriously sarcastic). The book's tone and mystery reminded me of Twin Peaks, Muholland Drive, and Donnie Darko, all of which held more allure for me than for Ickie.

While in Longfellow Books in Portland on Thursday, I noticed the staff had recommended Link's newest story collection, Magic for Beginners. I sat down and read the first story, "The Faery Handbag," which is entrancing! I'm not sure if the stories in this new collection are as closely and fascinatingly linked together as those in Stranger Things Happen, but I intend to read them all and find out.

You can read "The Faery Handbag" here. I'm going to go reread it yet again!

Can You Ever Have Too Many Bookstores?

Last week Ickie and I visited Portland, Maine for our apartment search. We found a nice place our first day there, so that gave us two more days to look around Portland. This was my first visit to Portland (as well as the state of Maine), and let me just say that I had the uncanny but pleasing feeling that these kindly Yankees knew I would someday be moving to the area, so they decided to go ahead and make Portland everything that I'd want a city to be. I'm serious. I really think they did. Consider the following:

A wide variety of excellent ethnic restaurants. Check.
Extensive walking/jogging trails throughout the city. Check.
Every house and yard in sight is clean and tidy. Check.
Rugged coastline with picturesque lighthouses. Check.
Autumn leaves and winter weather. Check.
A store devoted just to fancy cheeses. Check.
A store devoted to 18-year-aged balsamic vinegar. Check.
Bakeries galore. Check.
Little to no traffic. Check.
A great commercial classical radio station. Check.
Fresh fish. Check.
Cross country skiing trails and winter sleigh rides. Check.
Ferry to Nova Scotia. Check.
Timbits. Check.
And most importantly...one or more independent book shops on every block. Check!

Ickie and I spent many quality hours wandering about, enjoying the brisk spring weather, and browsing the bookstores! The metro area is dense with them. We spent a lot of time in Cunningham's (an extensive collection of secondhand books on Longfellow Square), Books Etc. (sponsor of this summer's Mugglefest!), and Longfellow Books (featuring the best recommendations by staff and next door to a tea room). We also walked by Emerson's Books (they specialize in antique maps and prints). All this to say, Maine is the place for me. It's filled (but not full) of friendly people who like to take walks, read books, and eat.

Below is a photo of the Old Port District with Books Etc. among other charming shops. Note the cobblestones!