Last Week’s Reading: February 5 – February 11

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee: I loved this family saga about Korean immigrants in twentieth-century Japan. You can read my full review here.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman: I grew up watching the film adaptation (starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton) of this 1966 play, and I was delighted to find that the screenplay matches the script almost exactly. It’s a firecracker of a play about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scheming sons, brought to life with some of the wittiest, cruelest banter you’ve ever read. My copy, which I found at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, is a first edition, and it includes stills from the first production–imagine my surprise at seeing a very, very young Christopher Walken in these pages! Perfect escapist reading.

Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey: This 2012 collection by former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is brilliant. Thrall takes as its focus the poet’s interracial background, interrogating classic paintings that depict mixed-race people and themes and exploring the poet’s relationship with her white father. Two of my favorites from this beautiful, necessary, American collection: “Rotation” and “Enlightenment.”

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, and Neil Gaiman did not disappoint. In these tales, he brings the Norse gods to life—wise but fallible Odin, hulking Thor, dangerous Loki (and he points out that much of what must have been passed down about goddesses and other female figures has been, alas, lost—hence the disproportionate number of myths about male figures). A gifted storyteller and fascinating legends makes for a classic combination. Gorgeous cover, too.

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro: A subtle, unnerving novel about a woman, Etsuko, who recalls one hot, eventful summer in post-war Nagasaki decades later, after she’s moved to England. Her older daughter has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter comes to visit Etsuko at her country home. The writing is atmospheric and outwardly serene, but malaise creeps beneath the surface. I’m amazed at Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in showing how characters mean exactly the opposite of what they say. Even more amazing is that A Pale View of Hills was his first novel. Recommended.

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Colorado Reading

I don’t know about you, but I find I hardly ever get as much reading done on vacation as I think I will. And that’s okay; usually it means there’s been sightseeing and visiting and talking late at night and eating and museum-going aplenty.

As I mentioned not too long ago, recently we visited family and friends in Denver, which was delightful. I brought along War of the Encyclopaedists, which I started and finished on the trip, as well as Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. I figured something with a Western vibe that I could read in short chunks would be a good choice, and it was, if grimmer than expected. Close Range includes Brokeback Mountain, the basis of the movie of the same name, and all things considered it’s one of the brighter stories in the collection. Close Range is visceral reading—Ms. Proulx has an extraordinary gift for rendering place, and her characters are both strange and real.

photo (46)That’s two books, and extraordinary restraint in book-packing on my part, I must say. There’s a reason for that: I had a list of about a dozen bookstores I wanted to visit in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, but I only made it to two (guess I’ll just have to go back, darn).

First up was the Tattered Cover, Denver’s largest and most famous independent bookstore. It has several outposts, and I visited the store on Colfax, where I picked up Gregory Pardlo‘s Pulitzer-Prize winning Digest. I read it over the next few days and finished it on the plane, and I highly recommend it. The poems are about origins and identity, fatherhood and what it means to be American. They’re very, very good, and packed with intellectual energy; I want to re-read them all again.

Next I went to one of my uncle’s favorite bookstores, Colorado’s Used Bookstore in Englewood. It’s an unassuming store, with a huge selection of genre paperbacks, an eclectic poetry section, and a huge set of back rooms for nonfiction and trade paperbacks. The woman I met, who I believe owns the store, was very friendly and helpful, and pointed out that they sell books online, including hard-to-find books.

At Colorado’s Used Bookstore I found Ghost Ship by Mary Kinzie and On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove (both poetry), Moral Disorder (a collection of Margaret Atwood stories), Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce (I loved The Orenda and Three-day Road) and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (still can’t stop thinking about The Round House). I can’t wait to dive into these.

Next time in Colorado, I’ll be trying for those other ten bookstores, and I’d like to look up some Colorado writers before I go, to find their work in its native habitat.

And what about you, Dear Readers? Do you race through books on vacation, or pack more than you can read?

Recommended Reading: Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

“there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark.” 

NeverhomeFrom its very first sentence—“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”—it is clear that Laird Hunt’s Neverhome* is a masterful addition to writing about the Civil War.

Like Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea, Neverhome is a slim volume. It manages to tell an epic story of war, deception, madness, and even, sometimes, very great beauty, in less than 250 pages, which is just a stunning feat. Mr. Hunt’s command of language is incredibly good; his swift portraits of his heroine’s world are quietly stunning, each one more impressive than the last. “Impressionistic” is an adjective that comes to mind.  If I could choose a director to turn Neverhome into a film (and good lord, someone should!) I’d choose Terrence Malick and it would be a perfect match.


Constance Thompson, who renames herself Ash when she decides to leave for war, is a singular woman, canny and strong and very brave. As she recounts her war experiences, she doles out pieces of her past, leaving out just enough that the reader is left desperately wishing for more ways to understand who she is and what made her.

As Ash joins the Union Army, sees action, and begins a circuitous route home, we are introduced not only to the fighting men and less savory characters you’d expect to find in a war novel, but also to other unusual women. Some, like Ash, are disguised as men. Some are waiting out the war the best they can at home, and others are on the run. All of them are fascinating, and it’s glorious to find a war novel in which half the characters are women.

Ash is plainspoken and careful, clearheaded and well-intentioned, but still unprepared for what exactly war will be like. When Ash is issued her rifle, accurate enough to “that you could use it kill a quarter mile away,” she thinks,

That was something to think about, How you could rifle a man down was looking at you and you at him but never see his face. I hadn’t figured it that way when I had thought on it back home. I had figured it would be fine big faces firing back and forth at each other, not threads of color off the horizon. A dance of men and not just their musket balls. (5)

Ash proves to be an excellent shot, and draws the attention of the men in her regiment, more attention than she’d like, given what she’s hiding. She finds calm and benevolent interest in the form of the regiment’s colonel, who keeps an eye out for her, so far as that goes; after all, Ash says, “death was the underclothing we all wore.”

An injury leads Ash not to death, but to her own particular version of hell. I won’t go into the specifics, since I hope you’ll discover Neverhome for yourself, but suffice to say that the second half of the novel is especially harrowing. Mr. Hunt’s pacing is impeccable, and keeps us wondering to the very end if Ash’s odyssey will ever end in homecoming.

Neverhome is a gorgeous, spellbinding book. Highly recommended.

Boston: Laird Hunt will be reading at Porter Square Books on Sunday, September 21.

And a special shout-out to Cleveland: Laird Hunt will be at the Beachwood Library on Tuesday, September 23. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Joss Whedon: The Biography, by Amy Pascale

Dear Readers, it has probably not escaped your notice that I am a glasses-wearing, reference-section-having, sci-fi-and-semi-colon-loving, Battlestar-Galactica-quoting, James-Kirk-and-Jane-Austen-action-figure-owning Nerd-Geek.

(A Nerd-Geek, according to me, is one who is inclined to passionate devotion to both things bookish [nerdy] and things in the science/sci-fi/fantasy realm [geeky]. I realize that the terminology of nerdom and geekdom is not without substantial controversy, but I hope that you will overlook that controversy, just this once.)

photo (117)Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography* is a book tailor-made for the Nerd-Geeks, because it concerns the Nerd-Geek King, Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon inspires unbelievably rabid fandom across the Nerd/Geek spectrum; and even if you’re not one of his vocal fans, chances are you’ve seen and liked his work. Did you like The Avengers? Toy Story? Speed? See, you like Joss Whedon.

Though he’s now helming the bazillion-dollar Marvel superhero movie franchises, in his salad days Joss (which is what Ms. Pascale calls him) created TV shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and our dearly beloved, dearly departed Firefly.

I should admit, here, that I came late to the Joss Whedon fan club. There’s no way my parents would have allowed me to watch a show with “Vampire Slayer” in the title when I was a teenager (or really, most shows without “Jeopardy!” in the title), but even if that were an option, I found the blonde Buffy I saw in ads totally off-putting (if only I’d known about Willow!).

Fast forward ten years. I was so deeply entrenched in reading for my grad school oral exams that I would have watched reality TV with a smile on my face. My not-quite-yet-husband, so deeply supportive of my weird interests, was watching Netflix, and asked me to take a break, put down whatever seventeenth-century obstetrics manual I was reading (no, really.), and watch Buffy with him. I laughed. But then I looked up the series on Wikipedia, fell into a wiki-hole about Joss Whedon and feminism**, and went to sit on the couch.

We watched all of Buffy in about a month. It was awesome.

Then we watched Firefly — which I put off for a long time because I knew it had been canceled after just one season and I was sure I’d get too attached to the characters — and I became a Joss Whedon fan for life.

Amy Pascale has been a Joss Whedon fan much longer than I have; she was part of the Buffy online fan club and is clearly an enthusiastic supporter of Joss Whedon’s work. In fact, Ms. Pascale’s biography is for the most part a history of Joss’s career, accompanied by supporting material about his relationships with family and friends (who double as co-workers) and education. This is, I think, as it should be; Ms. Pascale’s subject is not a nineteenth-century president, but a living and breathing human being who, presumably, doesn’t want to talk over-much about his personal life, and is surrounded by friends and family who respect his wishes.

As a professional biography, the book is excellent, and will appeal mostly to readers already familiar with Joss’s work (some great anecdotes in here, folks). Ms. Pascale meticulously delves into Joss’s career, focusing in particular on the many setbacks he experienced and learned from as he went from a sitcom staff writer to a script doctor to the creator of his own shows. In the process, Ms. Pascale gives us the outlines of Joss’s created shows (with, unsurprisingly, a particular emphasis on Buffy); if you haven’t watched them yet and want to be surprised about plots and characters, hold off on reading the book. There are a few bits of juicy gossip (I didn’t know how much tension rolled through the Buffy set in the later seasons), some wonderful anecdotes (Alan Tudyk and a recall button — seriously great) and some surprising information for newcomers to the Whedonverse (apparently season six of Buffy was not well received by fans).

Throughout the book, we see Joss as a fundamentally creative and kind person, though not one without foibles and quirks. His work ethic is astounding, his creative process weep-worthy for those of us who struggle to string together words into coherent sentences (first drafts of scripts are in his head; what comes out on paper is the final product). Ms. Pascale does a particularly nice job highlighting his loyalty to collaborators, who often become friends (Nathan Fillion wrote the Foreword to the book). If you saw Joss Whedon’s modernized Much Ado About Nothing (2013), and I hope you did, you will have noted many familiar faces — cast members from Buffy, Angel, and The Avengers, Firefly — and names among the company.

Much Ado About Nothing was filmed with cobbled-together money and equipment in the home that Joss shares with his wife, Kai Cole, and children. That’s how he spent his vacation between shooting and editing The Avengers.

Shakespeare and superheroes. All hail the King of the Nerd-Geeks. (So say we all.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** Joss Whedon is a vocal feminist. Yes, I know that the shows are sometimes problematic, and that The Avengers pretty well flunks the Bechdel Test, but then there’s this, from a speech Joss gave in 2006. Most of it is included in Joss Whedon: The Biography, and you can find a video here. In it, Joss interviews himself about a question that comes up endlessly.

So, Joss, I, a reporter, would like to know, why do you always write these strong women characters?

I think it’s because of my mother. She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman and that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am but, occasionally taller too. But, only sometimes, taller. And, I think it — it all goes back to my mother.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because of my father. My father and my stepfather had a lot to do with it, because they prized whit and resolve in the women they were with above all things. And they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own. When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea. That came from my father and stepfather — the men who created this man, who created those men, if you can follow that.

So, why do you create these strong, how you say, the women — I’m in Europe now, so, it’s very, it’s international — these — I don’t know where though — these strong women characters?

Well, because these stories give people strength, and I’ve heard it from a number of people, and I’ve felt it myself, and its not just women, its men, and I think there is something particular about a female protagonist that allows a man to identify with her that opens up something, that he might — an aspect of himself — that he might be unable to express — hopes and desires — he might be uncomfortable expressing through a male identification figure. So it really crosses across both and I think it helps people, you know, in — in that way.

So, why do you create these strong women characters?

Cause they’re hot.

But, these strong women characters…

Why are you even asking me this?! This is like interview number 50 in a row. How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, seriously, why are you — why did you write that down? Why do you — Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters? I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored and there are other people doing it. But, seriously, this question is ridiculous and you just gotta stop.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.

So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question.

“His leaden act was done”: C. Day Lewis’s “Epitaph for an Enemy”

A week or two ago, Emily wrote a post about the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game (haven’t seen, never will, thanks for asking), and how, on the whole, books are generally better than their film adaptations. Then asked her readers if they could think of any movies that are better than the books they’re based on.

The one that immediately leaps to mind for me is The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Michael Mann’s loose adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel. I did not care for the novel, to say the least, though many people love it.

The movie features a gorgeous soundtrack, excellent acting (some awesome Daniel Day-Lewis strong-but-silent action), inaccurate portrayals of historic events, and scenery that’s beautiful but that doesn’t pass for upstate New York, even 250 years ago upstate New York.

It is, despite its flaws, magnificent.

This is supposed to be a poetry post, so: Emily’s question made me think of The Last of the Mohicans, which made me think of Daniel Day-Lewis, which made me think of C. Day-Lewis (the ‘C’ is for Cecil), who was Daniel’s father. And C. Day Lewis was a poet.

He was also a successful writer of detective fiction (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), a friend to many other notable poets of his day (including W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender), and the poet laureate of Great Britain. You can read a brief biography and highlights of his major works here. 

Day-Lewis’s short but powerful “Epitaph for an Enemy” is this week’s poem of the week; let me know what you think!

Recommended Reading: George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile

photo 1 (19)George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World* is an amalgam of forms, combining elements of biography, family history, intellectual and cultural history, and literary criticism.

Its subject is Stephan Zweig, an Austrian writer of prolific output who was one of the best-known cultural figures of his day. Zweig was a proponent of international humanism, a cosmopolitan in every sense of the word, a stalwart supporter of all the arts, a music aficionado, and mentor to many aspiring writers. His books — fiction and nonfiction — were the most widely translated of the 1930s and were more often than not bestsellers.

When the Nazis rose to power, however, Zweig (who was Jewish) found himself exiled from his beloved Austria, drifting from country to country, increasingly demoralized and depressed. In 1942, he and his wife killed themselves in a small Brazilian town.

On the surface, this was an inexplicable act. Zweig was only sixty. had just published two books (his memoir and a study of Brazil, a country he loved), was, by all accounts, deeply in love with his much-younger second wife, and was still one of the most popular authors in the world. The Impossible Exile seeks to understand his situation by exploring Zweig’s life, shifting cultural milieu, and his work.

photo 2 (16)

As you can tell from the photo above, I found this book utterly fascinating. I read Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette when I was a teenager, but at that time had no idea of the reach of his influence (or that he wrote with purple ink); The Impossible Exile was an education. Mr. Prochnik takes pains to provide a rounded portrait of Zweig that includes his many foibles and failures, as well as his brilliant successes. As Mr. Prochnik writes,

Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibilities in times of crisis: the debt owed one’s fellow sufferers relative to the debt owed one’s muse; the role of politics in the arts; and the place of art in education. His tale also raises questions of how we come to belong anywhere–of responsibility to family and ethnic roots relative to ideals of cosmopolitanism. (8)

For Mr. Prochnik, investigating Zweig’s life in exile has personal resonance, since his own father and grandparents fled Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis. Too often, he writes, the successful escape is the story; we don’t read or hear about the particular experience of exile with its concomitant losses.

The Impossible Exile is a thoughtful, sensitive work, and highly recommended. I also recommend this excellent long review in the New York Review of Books, which also includes a brief discussion of Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which inspired in many ways by Zweig and his ouevre.  (it’s an excellent movie; I love Wes Anderson movies, and The Grand Budapest Hotel represents real branching out for him).

If you’d like to read some of Zweig’s own work, I can recommend from personal reading experience his biography of Marie Antoinette; New York Review Books is also re-issuing some of his works in new translations.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Reading While Pregnant: Or, “enough to love / to break your heart / forever”

I was nearly halfway through pregnancy at this time three years ago, and I remember feeling the baby kick for the first time around New Year’s Eve, which was also the same time I was reading one of the three books I strongly associate with being pregnant.

Reading while pregnant isn’t really different from reading while not-pregnant, I found, except I felt I should be more discriminating since I wouldn’t read as much right after the baby was born (true, in my experience), and also because I had to get up a lot more often. And while I generally remember my reading lists pretty well, most of the books I read during those many weeks went by in a haze, though I know there were quite a few. I was teaching intro-level Shakespeare and Readings in Drama at the time, so that’s a dozen right there, and of course I read novels and poetry on the side. Looking back, though, these are the three books that epitomized the whole experience of pregnancy for me.

One is the ubiquitous What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which was so awful and made me cry so often that my husband hid it from me around the end of the first trimester (for which I am profoundly thankful). Seriously, it’s the worst: fat-shaming and fear-inducing for starters. If you’re a pregnant person, there are far better options out there (try the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy for the nitty-gritty health stuff, and the Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy for the “we’re-all-in-it-together” vibe, although if you read my edition from the late ’90s you’ll have to squeeze someone’s hand through the parts that hurt [ahem, assumption of shared privilege, ahem]). 

The second is Wuthering Heights, which is the first book I read on an e-reader. My husband got me a Nook for my birthday about a month after I found out I was pregnant. Though I’ll always be a lady of the printed word (mostly because I like books as objects, and my eyes hurt when I look at screens for too long, but we can have that tussle another day, if we must), it did make reading one-handed while standing quite easy (also: great for reading while nursing).  On the train and the bus to and from the university, I read about the unkindnesses that Cathy and Heathcliff inflict upon each other, and the harsh beauty of the moors. It wasn’t particularly uplifting, but it was distracting enough that for those forty-five minutes each way, I didn’t notice the sciatica or general discomfort associated with growing another human in one’s abdomen. And that’s all you  want from your pregnancy reading sometimes: distraction.

[It should be noted, here, that I am of the variety of plumpness that made it difficult for people to tell whether I was fat or fat and pregnant for the first twenty-seven or so weeks out of my forty-two (yes, it was awful) weeks of pregnancy. People in Boston aren’t jerks who don’t offer seats to pregnant women. For the most part.]

The third book I associate with pregnancy, the one I was reading when the baby started kicking, is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Now, I came very late to the Harry Potter fan club; the books started to appear when I, as a young teenager, thought that Ayn Rand was the height of reading sophistication. (As you can tell, my salad days have come and gone.) When the Harry Potter movies came out, my dad and I would go see them on a Monday at the Shaker Square Cinema for five bucks a ticket, with free popcorn (we’re yankees to the core); we liked them quite a bit. As it turned out, I saw all the movies with my dad, eventually. But for many years we eschewed the books as “kid stuff.”

It wasn’t til I was pregnant that I decided I should read the series to preview it for the baby, figuring, perhaps wrongly, that kids in the 2020s will be reading the same stuff as kids in the late ’90s and early ’00s. It tells you something about my reasoning ability that I thought I should preview books meant for kids 8 and up while I was still pregnant. It’s not just me, though: Pregnancy does weird stuff to your brain.

My nesting instinct pretty much came down to books: The shower was book-themed (thanks, bookish friends!), and I bought (or borrowed/stole from my siblings) every children’s book I remember loving, from Miss Rumphius and The Story of Ferdinand all the way up to the Chronicles of Narnia and Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables — without reflecting that it would be years before the baby would be big enough to understand them.

I read that first Harry Potter book and immediately ordered the set. I read them so fast that winter (three years ago now) that the plots spun together, thrilled that these were books my baby would someday, barring catastrophe, grow up to read. They might be built of the fantastic, but they made all the promise of childhood after the misery of pregnancy seem real and attainable, and I loved them unabashedly and in earnest.  While I’m not exactly sure I’m ready for our son to grow up, I can’t wait to read the books to him for myself (Mr. O read the first three to him to get him to sleep as an infant). Privet Drive is going to make his chores look easy, and even I would take gym class over Potions with Snape. Wait. No I wouldn’t. Scratch that. Sorry, kiddo. Gym class is the worst.

Harry Potter & a picture of our Baby O  (now Mr. Baby, or H) on the day he was born.

Harry Potter & a picture of our Baby O (now Mr. Baby, or H) on the day he was born.

Turns out that I’m impatient, so I read the whole series again over the Thanksgiving holidays, and whoa, nelly. They’re still wonderful, inventive while nodding to and borrowing from the best in other fantasy novels, and heartbreaking.

I didn’t know, the first time I read them, that our Baby O would be a son, but this time I couldn’t help but picture our little dude as a kid away from home, navigating the tricky staircases at Hogwarts, maybe making friends like Ron and Harry, and especially Hermione.

This is a your weekly poetry post, I promise, even though it’s taken me awhile to get here. This week we’re saying hello to a new year, and so please head on over to The Poetry Foundation to read Diane Di Prima’s “Song for Baby-O, Unborn.

It’s the kind of poem that I imagine would have crossed Lily Potter’s mind sometime. It reaches for the future with eyes wide open to the deficiencies of the present, and the tangled power that is love.

In Which I Eviscerate the First Hobbit Movie

It’s Hobbit time again, Charlie Brown. All across the interwebs, people are writing handy “Previously on The Hobbit” recap pieces in preparation for the next movie’s opening today. Here’s my humble contribution.

As a nine-year-old, I thought the narrator of Tolkien’s The Hobbit was talking down to me, and thus disliked the book immensely — so much, in fact, that I delayed reading The Lord of the Rings until I was seventeen. It didn’t help that I hated the narrator of the audiobook version, which I was obliged to listen to during one of our family road trips (perhaps this is the source of my dislike for the medium?). The Hobbit

So, if you will, imagine my surprise when I picked up The Hobbit last year, before the movie came out, and found it charming, exciting, and full of respect for its intended audience. The narrator I once found condescending now seems conversational, inclusive, inviting. It’s a children’s book, yes, but the kind that an adult can read with enjoyment.  It’s like an amuse-bouche before the main courses — The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Now, before I start in on the movie, let me disclose that I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a view not shared by many die-hard Tolkien fans, I know. But I thought Mr. Jackson handled the necessary exigencies well. Sure, I could have done without the Elves at Helm’s Deep and the ill-contrived Aragorn-isn’t-ready-for-kingship plot line, and yes, I would have liked to see Tom Bombadil & Goldberry, and the Scouring of the Shire, but these are issues I can live with.

And before you ask, there were some positives to my Hobbit movie-going experience: I thought the casting of the major characters was spot-on, and I loved Howard Shore’s score. But alas, not enough for the movie to avoid my wrath.

Herewith I present, in no particular order, my objections to Mr. Jackson’s treatment of The Hobbit:

Three movies out of a 275-page book? That’s just turning a beloved story into a cash cow. I know I’m not the first to make this argument, but I think it needs to be out there. Yes, asking people to buy three movie tickets instead of two will increase your profits by one-third. But that’s not a good reason to expand a story so drastically. (Much as I wish I hadn’t, I saw a preview for the second installment that featured Legolas and an Elf played by Evangeline Lilly. Oh, PJ. Please. Creating characters out of whole cloth? Where do you and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens get the nerve? If you REALLY need a female character, turn Beorn in a woman. For serious. That would work better.) I get that filmmakers have to make tough choices about what to cut from beloved books in order to make a reasonable run-time, but adding material to a fully-realized Tolkien story is sheer hubris.

Perspective: The narrator of The Hobbit shadows Bilbo, for the most part. When Gandalf disappears, Bilbo doesn’t know what he’s up to until Gandalf shares information with him. In this way, Bilbo is placed in the position of a child, not always allowed access to the adult world, unless it’s through a gate-keeper. He’s on an important quest with the Dwarves, but it’s the grown-ups — Gandalf in particular — who will deal with The Necromancer (aka Sauron) who gains power in Mirkwood. Here’s what The Hobbit has to say on the subject:

[. . .]but every now and again he would open one eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to, for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the South of Mirkwood. (266)

Yep, that’s pretty much it. If Tolkien thought a blow-by-blow of the Battle of Dol Guldur was necessary to elucidate the plot of The Hobbit, he could have included it. But he doesn’t. And apparently Mr. Jackson knows better: In the first Hobbit movie, we’re shown Gandalf deep in conversation with Elrond & Galadriel (and good old nefarious Saruman, nice to see you as always, Mr. Lee), and that’s just a taste of what’s to come. I understand that in some quarters, there are calls to get as much of Middle Earth on screen as possible. But guess what? There are other books for that!  Seriously, quit calling the movies The Hobbit: An Obvious Subtitle. Call them Money-Making Lord of the Rings Prequels.

Violence: The Hobbit is a children’s book that doesn’t gloss over difficult choices, the risk of death, or various fantastic dangers. However, there were a couple instances of gore (especially the beheading of Thorin’s father) that make the movie a no-go for kids 8-10. I know that they don’t belong to the coveted ticket-buying demographics, but you think Mr. Jackson could have flexed some muscle with the studios — or exercised some self-restraint — and toned it down a notch or two, so that Tolkien’s intended audience could be his audience, too. He lost a great opportunity to make a family film — and not in a schmaltzy (or cartoon) sense.

Radagast: Oh dear, where to begin. Radagast is, as anyone who’s read The Silmarillion can tell you, a Maiar, a being of divine origin though not one of, and less powerful than, the Valar. Like Gandalf, Radagast walks Middle Earth is the guise of an old man, but unlike Gandalf, his affinity is for flora and fauna, not Elves and Men and Hobbits. A little odd he may be, but the totally bizarre movements and costume Mr. Jackson gave him are a bridge too far. I was viscerally angry with this portrayal, which is in line with Mr. Jackson’s choice to turn Gimli into a buffoon to play for cheap laughs in LOTR. Mr. Jackson has departed from Tolkien’s nuanced, gentle laughter with the characters (and sometimes at their foibles) and created his own brand of cruel comedy that attacks Radagast. And the bird excrement (this is a blog for all readers, but you know what I’m saying) on his head? BAD FORM, Mr. Jackson.

An effects issue: While Gollum, played by the always-amazing Andy Serkis, was graced with the best CGI effects ever, Azog was just atrocious. Totally fake-looking.

And the cherry on top of my dislike sundae: my favorite musical section of the movie, which worked so well in the trailer, is the Dwarves’ song (not the over-long dishwashing one — the other one). And it’s cut off too soon! Gah!

Essentially, I think Mr. Jackson shows a significant lack of respect for his source material.

Here’s hoping I’ve saved you twelve — make that twenty-four — bucks.

Movie Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Imagine you’ve just finished shooting The Avengers, and you have a bit of vacation before editing what will go on to be a billion-dollar summer blockbuster. What would you do with your time off?

If you’re Joss Whedon, you get a bunch of your friends together and shoot a completely different movie. At your house. For fun.

And thus we have the delight that is Mr. Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. For someone like me, it feels like the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates of lit and TV nerdom.

TV nerdom because Mr. Whedon’s shows — especially Buffy and Firefly — are some of the best written, most inventive shows that have ever aired (and in Firefly’s case, been canceled much too soon), which inspires rabid fandom (myself included). Lit nerdom, because Shakespeare is my favorite writer (not for nothing did I spend five years in grad school reading his plays), and Much Ado is my favorite comedy, which I taught twice to undergrads (maybe three times). I have a huge framed poster of the text of the play (all of it on one page!) in our front hall, one or our favorite wedding presents.

Much Ado full text

Full text of Much Ado

Shot in black and white, Much Ado never takes itself too seriously, instead recalling the screwball comedies of the thirties, which of course owe their sparring pairs, though centuries removed, to Shakespeare’s sublimely antagonistic Benedick and Beatrice. The handheld camera motions make the viewer feel part of the intimate setting, peeking over railings and through windows at the antics of the house’s inhabitants and guests. Though the tone is largely lighthearted, Mr. Whedon never shies away from the undertones of sex and violence that permeate the play. “Nothing” in early modern English was slang for the vagina (“thing” = slang for phallus; “no-thing” is its opposite), so the play’s title is a sexual pun. Sure, all the kerfuffle over Hero’s virginity turns out to be founded on nothing, but the point remains: there was, indeed, much ado about her nothing.

See? Told you I was a nerd.

All the performances are pitch perfect, and spotting regulars from Mr. Whedon’s shows was particularly fun for fans.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Kenneth Branagh’s succulent 1993 version of the play, in which the Tuscan landscape and lineup of stars compete for attention with the play’s mordant and often sexual wit; here we have a much more laid-back, modern approach to the language, which flows rapidly.

While Emma Thompson cannot be surpassed as Beatrice, Amy Acker is still an excellent match for Alexis Denisof’s surly (and excellent) Benedick. Nathan Fillion is the best Dogberry I’ve ever seen, with a generous assist from Tom Lenk as Vergese. And I liked newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero, which is a tricky role to pull off without seeming like a simpering child. Ms. Morgese, elegant and restrained, finessed it beautifully. Another pleasant surprise was Sean Maher’s Don John, played here as an upper-class malcontent. Look for my favorite large change Mr. Whedon made — the relationship between Don John and Conrad.

Quibbles: I hate, hate, hate flashback sex scenes to establish characters’ mututal history (worst offender: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet); I think they show a director’s lack of trust in Shakespeare’s language (and the audience’s ability to understand it). And I didn’t love Mr. Whedon’s additions to the play (there’s a little scene with Benedick and Margaret near the end of the movie that I’m thinking of in particular). Correct me if he simply moved a swath of text out of order.

Something I’m on the fence about: the implied Borachio/Hero backstory.

These quibbles aside, I loved the movie, and I heartily recommend it if you need a break from the blockbusters. Not that they aren’t fun too.

P.S. I have a wishlist of Benedick/Beatrice pairings I’d like to see. At the top: Bradley Whitford and Mary Louise Parker. Who’s on your list?