Jen and I went to see Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the other night (after a spectacular meal at Baroncini, currently our favorite restaurant in Iowa City), and really enjoyed it. The two of us had each read and loved the book by Stieg Larsson, so although I have liked Fincher’s work before (esp. Fight Club), our expectations were moderate. I expected something like the experience of watching Atonement, a perfectly fine film, but nowhere near touching the level of Ian McEwan’s novel. I did have a couple of thoughts, so I thought I’d get them down in print. The following includes spoilers, so… ALERT. (more…)

The Book Bench‘s Lucy Tang has introduced me to the work of Kate Beaton, who writes/draws “Hark! A Vagrant”: comics based on history, literature, art, and sometimes other things. Absolutely flipping brilliant. (Click to enlarge.)

Be sure to check out the series riffing on Gatsby.

Andrew Sullivan embeds this video of Philip Pullman, author of the recent book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The book itself sounds interesting, in the way that Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son sounded interesting to me when it was published.

As much as I agree with his sentiments, and certainly would’ve applauded were I in the room, I think Pullman’s being a little disingenuous here. If the gentleman is essentially asking, “Why would you call it something that would offend people?”, the answer to which is more accurately, “Because I wanted the book to get more attention, and a provocative title will do that.” On a second listen, it seems the guy is just expressing, “I am offended, how could you say such a thing?” That’s still not an accusation that Pullman didn’t have the right to say it, and there’s probably a more interesting answer about Jesus and the content of the book than the answer Pullman gave.

Separately, I would not have expected this book from the author of the His Dark Materials series.

Today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the Chicago Tribune‘s “culture critic” Julia Keller was on, talking about what makes people give up on a book. Of course, the premise of this question is that usually people wouldn’t just give up on a book easily, and Keller was asked why she thought this was.

We’ve all walked out of movies, heaven knows we all click off T.V. shows with reckless abandon, because of, of course, remote control channel-changers, with Netflix we give, I think barely about a minute. A minute and ten seconds is about my limit of time now, before I say “ehh, that one’s outta here” and throw it back in the mail. Why do we have this special feeling about books? …

Is there something special about literature and narrative? I for one, of course, hope there is. I think all literate people do, and I think this might be a point, a line in our history and in our cultural history, when that reaction tells us there is something different and special about reading, as opposed to watching, or listening, or in-the-presence-of, in the way we are with theatre. We can abandon those things without any problem, but there’s something about a book that we, that we feel a little respectful of.

I know that these are people who talk lovingly about sitting down with a cup of tea and plunging into a book, and the assumed audience feels similarly. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking part in a subculture that prizes persistence and dedication in readers. But the notion that people give up on movies and television shows easier than on books because of some indescribable “something different,” is ridiculous. We have been taught to be a little respectful of books; this is not some natural and/or mystical phenomenon that readers experience. And anyone who’s taught for any length of time knows that lots and lots of people don’t feel that way about books at all, while others would never walk out of a movie for fear of looking like a snob. (My guess is that Keller would see walking out of a theatre as a statement about the movie’s shortcomings, snobbery being part of the appeal.) But just as you have to give the author a chance to make his/her case for a given book, a certain amount of time for a film or TV show seems equally warranted. If we’d grown up in a culture that valued media equally, Keller’s Netflix behavior would be evidence of a short attention span or immature intellect.

There is, though, an interesting question to be considered here: What is the appropriate unit of fair comparison between media? Giving up on a TV show after a few seconds isn’t really comparable to buying a book and giving up on it. There’s way more invested in the purchase of a book. Similarly, even at a matinee, I’m thinking two or three times about leaving a movie before actually getting up and walking out. But let’s say you’re half a season into Lost. How easily are you bailing on it, if you’re starting to think maybe it’s not going to have the payoff you want? Do you give it another episode? Two? And how does genre play into this?

(Photo courtesy of the George Eastman House’s Flickr stream.)

Megan McArdle writes today of her sadness having learned that Dick Francis died last week, which was news to me. I have similar feelings about his mystery novels, mostly because my mother read them when I was young and starting to venture into the world of adult literature. As is typical, I suppose, for those of us who are lucky enough (in my view) to have parents who read, my early tastes were shaped by what was already being read in my house. Isaac Asimov is the name that first comes to mind when I reflect on those nights sitting in bed reading, but Francis’ horse-themed mysteries are a close second. Break In was the first I read, I believe, followed by Bolt, both stories revolving around Kit Fielding, a champion jockey who finds himself at or near the center of intrigue.

Unlike McArdle, I have never revisited Francis’ books as an adult, so I’ve no idea what I would think of his work now. Nor did I remember the more interesting aspects of his life before writing, if I ever knew.

“I never really decided to be a writer,” he wrote in his autobiography, “The Sport of Queens,” “I just sort of drifted into it.” Before he turned to writing, Mr. Francis was already a celebrity in British sporting circles. Named champion jockey of the 1953-54 racing season by the British National Hunt after winning more than 350 races, he was retained as jockey to the queen mother for four seasons and raced eight times in the Grand National Steeplechase.

Nor was I aware that Francis’ wife, Mary, who died in 2000, had been a kind of writing partner for him (and perhaps more than that, according to some).

In any case, I find myself feeling the same kind of pang on reading this news that I did when I read of Dr. Suess’ passing. It’s not so much that you feel that you lost someone you knew; more that it reminds you of past times now gone.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham on [i]Meet the Press[/i]

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham on Meet the Press

During last fall’s election, I became pretty interested in books by Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Both are regulars on the Sunday-morning-political-talk-show circuit, usually popping up in those panels with columnists, reporters, authors, etc. I’d seen Meacham on a variety of shows over the last several years, usually introduced, I would swear, as “Presidential Historian.” He usually comes off as a Godly sort, having written a book on how faith and politics have been tied together in America since the founding fathers, or some such. I usually enjoyed listening to him, though my clearest memory is of seeing him on the late Tim Russert’s show, opposite Christopher Hitchens for an hour. I remember thinking, at the beginning, “Oh, this will be good,” and then proceeded to watch Hitchens own the argument from end to end, while Meacham seemed to be hoping the meek would finally inherit the Earth before the next commercial break. (There used to be a YouTube of the debate, but it has been removed.)


For an English teacher, I don’t think I actually read all that much. I think that’s the natural result of kids + good adult relationship + doctoral program + interest in pop culture. On top of that, I’m reliably bad at finishing books. This summer, however, I unexpectedly wound up reading a whole lot. Some of these were books I’d started before the summer, some of them books I was reading aloud with Jen, some of them books I got sucked into in the last couple of months. At any rate, I’m going to add a few posts over the next several days chronicling my summer reading, and may even try to squeeze in one more as the clock ticks toward the beginning of the school year.

netherlandNetherland, by Joseph O’Neill

I originally got started on this one because I read in a Newsweek interview (with Jon Meacham; more about him in a second) that Obama had been reading it. The President summarized it thusly: “It’s about after 9/11, a guy—his family leaves him and he takes up cricket in New York. And it’s fascinating. It’s a wonderful book, although I know nothing about cricket.” Considering him to be a pretty smart guy who doesn’t have lots of time to waste reading lousy books, and thinking it sounded interesting, I impulsively bought the thing on Amazon. (Which you should never do. Here’s the link to Prairie Lights.)

Netherland is really a terrific novel. The cover quote compares it to Gatsby; probably not a comparison I’d have thought of, but it’s right on a couple of counts. Great voice to the main character, Hans van den Brock, who’s left aimless and adrift after his wife insists on moving back to Europe without him after 9/11, taking their son with her. Interesting, mysterious friend who gradually unfolds the other half of the plot.

O’Neill is a thoughtful and smart writer, talented with a clever metaphor or turn of phrase, without the level of arrogance that you get from a Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace. He does have a moment or two when he seems caught up in his own cleverness, but those moments are far overshadowed by what seemed to me actual insight. For example, strangely, I felt at many times like this was a guy who understood my divorce completely.

It wasn’t a fast, breezy read, but at 250 pages (give or take) I didn’t feel overwhelmed when it seemed a bit slow.


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