le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, March 29, 2012


I went to see the hunger games film tonight. I've had some issues about the adaptation, because I always have issues about adaptations of books I enjoy.  I am not an obsessive, rabid Hunger Games fan; I quite like the books, I find them fantastically useful for generating class discussion on all kinds of topics, I love the way Suzanne Collins ultimately depicts the costs and consequences of war.  But the series isn't dear to my heart in any particular fashion, so my level of investment is moderate - frankly, I'm more concerned with the effectiveness of the film in conveying the messages about power, violence, war, and spectacle.

The movie was, for me, strangely forgettable. I've been home from the theatre for about two hours, and already it's fading. Admittedly, I have a terrible memory for movies; unless I've seen it multiple times, or it really hits hard, I just do not retain films.

Some notes:
Though I still wish they'd cast a less-fair actor to play Katniss, I was satisfied with Jennifer Lawrence in the role. She's a very beautiful girl in an interesting way, and she's a good actor.  Oddly - and this didn't occur to me until just now - the amount of interacting she does is semi-limited; once in the arena, there's not a lot of dialogue for Katniss. It's all action shot after action shot, much grimacing and crying and moments of pensiveness. But when called upon, Lawrence pulls it out; good enough.

I didn't like the way they open the film; I think it should start with Katniss, and it should start in the woods. In my mind's eye, I think the way I'd have done it would be to open with a shot of Katniss hunting - bow drawn, possibly even aimed out at the audience - then the successful takedown of some animal. Alas, no one consulted me before they wrote the script.

District 12 looks just about right, though I realized that I've always imagined the Distric 12 scenes in my mind as if they were in black&white film - lots and lots of greys. The District scenes were filmed in an abandoned mill town in North Carolina, which strangely enough is up for sale; you can look at images of the "set" here.

Peeta. Oh dear me. When we first see Peeta on the screen, there was a wave of laughter through the theater, which was reasonably full (though small). It should be noted that we first see Peeta moments after Katniss and Prim have had an emotional, shrieking struggle with the Stormtroopers Peacekeepers, and seconds after Peeta's name has been drawn as tribute. It is not a lighthearted moment.
The audience laughed at Peeta a few more times; I laughed at him even more. I don't think Josh Hutcherson is a particularly good actor, and he simply looked odd - strange, gape-mouthed facial expressions. He just seemed goopy and uninteresting to me, and at times laughably so.  Liam Hemsworth as Gale is startlingly attractive (sort of like a very blue-eyed Darren Criss), and it's exceedingly hard to see him and wonder why anyone would be interested in a drip like Peeta.

One thing that I found unsettling is that the film falls back on a very Nazi Germany/concentration camp aesthetic. The drab shabby clothing of District 12, with all the kids and townfolk lined up in a yard, instantly recalled similar images from, say, schindler's list, of Jewish people being rounded up and sent off to camps. When the train arrives to take Katniss and Peeta to the Capitol, there's a very brief moment where it seems that Katniss is looking into a shadowy silver boxcar. I may have mis-seen - it's very brief - but whatever I did see registered in my mind as boxcar.
Once we get to the Digitally Animated Capitol, the architecture is all Albert Speer triumphalism: enormous, blocky white buildings with the VERY Nazi-esque seal of the Capitol.
[I think there were one or two more instances of this Nazi/holocaust kind of imagery, but as I said: I'm already forgetting the specifics of the film].
Collins has said, and it's pretty obvious in the books, that the Capitol is inspired by the Roman Empire. I would have much preferred an aesthetic for the Capitol that either harkened back to the Roman aesthetic, OR one that was sleekly futuristic - which is how I always pictured it myself.
The unease I feel about the Nazi aesthetic is that it's a very cheap way to point out that the Capitol Is Bad! It's become way too easy to use the Holocaust as shorthand for evil, terrible things - because it's become a shorthand, we don't think about what it means so much. I also object because the comparison is wrong; Nazi germany was terrible, and Panem is terrible, but not in identical ways. Panem doesn't do genocide (well, not anymore, not since they put down District 13); the power structure is difference, the coercive force is different, it's all different.

Which leads me to politics: the movie strips a lot of the political significance from the story. Gale, at the beginning, talks briefly about how everyone should stop watching the Games; Peeta has his spiel about not wanting to be changed by the Games. We see the machinations behind the scenes of the Games - Seneca Crane and the control room (a very freakish set that's a cross between Star Trek and a dentist's office), and President Snow, get a reasonable amount of air time. But the consequences of those machinations aren't made clear. Katniss looks far too healthy and clean, despite the drabness of District 12. The hunger she and her family experience isn't made enough of an issue. The scene when Peeta gives Katniss the bread outside the bakery is revealed in silent flashbacks; unless you know, you don't know that Katniss is starving and at the end of her tether.  For me, the consequences of the Capitol's policies are a hugely central part of the trilogy, but the movie elects instead to focus on the Games; it actually operates rather like an underdog sports movie.

Woody Harrelson as Haymitch was fine, though I have always imagined Haymitch as older. I did like the few brief moments during the Games when we see Haymitch watching, or working the crowds for sponsors. It's a very nice opportunity for us to see what Haymitch is giving for his tribute-mentees; we already know he's a cross, drunken bastard, so to see him laughing, schmoozing, turning on the charm demonstrates, to me anyway, that he's really putting himself wholeheartedly into supporting his tributes.

Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. NO. NO. NO.  I've mentioned before that I have found the perfect Cinna to match my mental image, and it's Raja from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 3. Old Lenny is too...tough, somehow, for Cinna. We never get to see the truly kind relationship that develops between Katniss and Cinna; all we get is Lenny Kravitz offering encouraging words in a rather rumbly, grimly serious, tone, and then a scene that read as creepy, when Lenny leans back, arm slung across the red plush settee he's on, watching Katniss right before she appears onstage in her girl on fire dress. Lenny tells her she looks gorgeous, and there's an uncomfortably long moment of tension that feels way too sexual. He looks like a hetero man sitting back and appraising/appreciating a high-class hooker he's paid for.

Amandla Stenberg as Rue is perfect. She looks just right for the part - small, cute without being cutesy, she just looks like a little girl. Which is precisely what she is, and is precisely why she's important in both book and movie. The friend I went to the theater with leaned over and said: "She looks like Prim!" and it's true: we can see why Katniss is drawn to this little-sister substitute.  Her death, and Katniss's grief and anger afterward, are one of the most affecting moments in the film (though frankly, I found very few truly affecting moments; one of the other major ones is when Katniss volunteers. Prim and Katniss both have just the right note of panic, hysteria, anxiety, fear in their voices).

There's not as much grittiness to the movie - obviously, in the book, we have to "hear" Katniss narrate every detail, which I think makes for a more intense experience. Onscreen, we can just see that she's been wounded, or stung by a trackerjacker; she grimaces in pain, and that's it. A lot of the violence happens offscreen - there are quick cuts away from the worst of anything that happens. The book doesn't linger over the violence, but it does make it present in a different way. And because Katniss is relentless in her hatred of the Capitol, her sense of the anxieties and fears of the people in her District, and so on, we're given a context for the violence that's very different than the film.

And that, maybe, is the thing that most felt lacking and made the movie forgettable: there was no context to give any of the actions of any of the characters real meaning. In the way that one gets involved in cheering for a sports team during a match, we're pulling for Katniss and Peeta; because we want them to win, not because there's any larger issue at stake. The Hunger Games happen almost in a vacuum - we see some of the grotesquerie surrounding the games, but not a lot of the real oppression and misery of the District people. That's what is conveyed so well through Katniss as first-person narrator; there's never a moment when she or we can step outside of a life of grinding poverty, fear, work, and hunger. But that life is all but invisible in the film.

The lack of emotional context also feels absent in most of the relationships in the film. We get so little of Gale, and none of Katniss's reflecting on him in the arena. We get even less of her mother's breakdown after her father's death, and Katniss's need to become the family's breadwinner. Peeta is so awkwardly acted that every scene with Katniss where he speaks is either a cliche or simply emotionally void. We get none of Haymitch's story, and not enough of his sullen, bitter, sorrowful attitude. Cinna and Katniss's interactions are stripped of all meaning and weight as well. The most successful interactions are Katniss and Rue, and Seneca Crane and President Snow. We see people in those characters and interactions, people with complexity and emotion and interest and motivation beyond an extremely basic drive for survival. The movie is one long example of telling, not showing (weirdly enough) and so we have, as an audience, very little skin in the game, so to speak.

I realized, as I watched the movie and afterward, that most of my emotional reactions were anticipatory: I knew the scene when Rue dies was coming up, and I started feeling teary. I knew Katniss was about to make the love & farewell gesture, and got choked up. I knew Katniss and Peeta would stand there staring at each other by the lake, and I leaned forward tensely. I think, as I watched the entire movie, I was more engaged with the book than with what I was seeing on the screen. I don't mean in a critical sense, either; I wasn't checking for flaws and failures (though I definitely noticed them), I was somehow trying to merge book and film in my mind. And I was reacting to the book, not the movie; when the film broke with my sense of the novel, it became flat and - at worst - laughable to me. When it meshed reasonably well, it was just a confirmation of the images I already had in my mind. I've never had quite that experience in watching an adaptation, and it's rather odd.

Ultimately, the movie doesn't do some of the things I was afraid it would do (namely, turn us into eager spectators), but then it doesn't really do much at all, other than tearjerk during Rue's death. What I was most anxious about in the adaptation was losing, or watering down, the politics at work in the text, and that's precisely what happened - but it also watered down everything else.
No doubt I'll go to see the sequels, once they're filmed, but I'll go with low expectations, and hope to be at least a little bit pleasantly surprised with what I get.

In the meantime, we can all contemplate purchasing the town where District 12 is set, or we can watch this absolutely delightful and funny video of the Hunger Games as performed by Beanie Babies (it really is entertaining. I especially like the way they represent Peeta disguising himself in the creekbed, a moment which, in the film, again provoked laughter from our audience).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A New Favorite: Australian YA

I seem, in the past year or so, to have read a goodly number of YA novels by Australian authors. Simmone Howell, Markus Zusak, Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Craig Silvey, Gabrielle Williams - I'm sure I'm forgetting some, too. With the exception of Silvey's Jasper Jones, they've all been books I've really enjoyed. Some, like Marchetta's Jellicoe Road and Zusak's I am the Messenger, became instant classics, books that just knocked my socks off, made me cry, made me think, dazzled my brain. I'm beginning to suspect that Australians do some rather excellent YA fiction, and I'm considering becoming a full-fledged Fan of Australian YA. [note: I'm not sure what this will constitute, other than me saying "I'm a fan of Australian YA," and continuing to seek them out from the sadly understocked libraries. I am fairly certain there is no badge, certificate, or secret handshake that will mark me out as a member of an elite group of Australian YA fans]

I read Lanagan's Tender Morsels in February, and was awestruck. It was an amazing book, so smart and original and otherworldly and grim. I'm still trying to sort out how exactly I feel and think about it (beyond simply thinking: WOW!!!!!). The conclusion thumped the wind right out of me; there's a very grotesque and troubling event, and then a heartbreaking one in very quick succession, and then the book ends. But there's also fabulous writing, complex plotting, unusual and intriguing characters; there's the wonderful, ingenious issue of what someone's personal heaven would look like. There's a banquet of food for thought in Tender Morsels, and I'm definitely still working through it all.

Right after I read it, my Australian online acquaintance (via the listserv) and facebook friend posted about going to the book launch of Lanagan's newest title, Sea Hearts. I looked the book up online, decided immediately that I NEEDED to read it, and soon, and then mentioned how envious I was that she got to attend the launch. Then I checked online again and realized the book won't be available in the US (and under a different title; I hate when they do that) until the fall. Autumn. Six months and more away. I mentioned my dismay - I really felt crushed, because I had just read Lanagan's book, and Maggie Stiefvater's Scorpio Races, and I was absolutely primed for another wonderful book set on an isolated island.

Fast forward a few weeks. I'm shuffling around in a misery of bronchitis made worse by taking medication that made me seriously dizzy and woozy. But look! A package at my mailbox! I retrieved it (slowly; I have to go down a series of steep wooden steps to get to the mailbox; I have fallen down those stairs on numerous, painful occasions) and saw Australian postage and a customs declaration.
I opened it up, and like in a movie, a bright light seemed to emanate from within the packaging - because there, in all its thick shiny glory, was Sea Hearts. And a note written on a very cool Australian notecard. Because I am a huge nerd about books, and just that kind of person, I actually hugged the book to myself when I realized what it was. I flipped it open and saw - oh my gods! - an inscription, to me, from Margo Lanagan "so she won't have to wait."

Maybe it speaks to some kind of profound naivete, or an entanglement with celebrity culture, or something equally un-boastworthy, but I am still at a stage of life when I am thrilled (in every sense of the word) at signed books. And personalized inscriptions in a signed book? Over the moon! I don't have many such books, and the few I do have are treated with great reverence and love.

I had to wait a bit to read it, though; between being sick, and having a stack of grading, and several books to read for teaching, I simply didn't have time and energy to read sea hearts.
But finally! At long last! I have read it.

And again - just knocked out by its amazingness. Lanagan is such a skillful and evocative writer; I got thoroughly caught up in each of the different narrators' sections. I found myself empathizing with all of them, even when they were at odds with each other. The premise of the book - that this island has on it a witch who can release the human girls from within seals - is fantastic. The seals are semi-selkies, I suppose, but they also work a bit differently. They are far more seal than human girl; the witch, with the wonderful, witchy name Misskaella, sees what she variously describes as seeds, bits of light, particles within each seal that she can manipulate to create the human girl. And she does this, for a variety of complex reasons, for all the men of the island who ask for a sea-girl. Because, like mermaids, the sea-girls are instantly bewitching to the men who behold them. It's an unintentional bewitching, simply an aspect of their natures once they are made human, but it's deep and effective just the same. And because of this bewitching quality, and because they are all beautiful with silky black hair, all of the men of the island seek out Misskaella to get them a sea-girl for a wife (even the men who already have wives and children).
The novel moves through a series of narrators over time, so we see, ultimately, Misskaella from her very earliest years of life and witchery, to the very end of her life. We see the generations of people on the island; we see how, before too very long, there are no human women left except the witch. Nothing but sea-brides, their island-man husbands, and the children they have - all sons, a sinister detail which is explained late in the novel.
We see the situation from the inside - from the bewitched men, from the children, from the witch, from the displaced island women, from true outsiders - but never from any of the sea-girls themselves.
As in Tender Morsels, there is a deep, and deeply felt, vein of feminism running through this book. It's knotty and gnarled and complicated, but it is there and it - as the narrative grows and branches and builds - becomes more and more pressing and prominent. One of the captivating things about these sea-brides, we are told, is that they are "born" bewildered, compliant, and bond instantly with the first human they see. The sea-girls are fully-grown women, and they are clearly adults, but they also have a childlike dependence on and commitment to the men who have purchased their "release" from the seals. They are every straight man's fantasy - the beautiful, beautiful woman who is utterly devoted and dependent and compliant, who is unencumbered with friends or family or interests or a life outside of the life made for them by their husbands and children. And gracious but they have a lot of children....

This strange island community of seals, and sea-brides, and children who are part-seal deep inside, and men who are quite literally entranced by their wives, is utterly compelling and fantastic (in every sense of that word). It's magic, but not magical; there is a very sharp edge to the world of this novel, and to the narrative that unfolds. I couldn't put the book down, once I really started reading; I was almost late to teaching because I couldn't tear myself away from one of the narrators' stories. I often get caught up in what I'm reading, and often put books down with reluctance, but truly being unable to break away from the narrative? That happens far less frequently, and it's a good gauge of how convincing and absorbing and emotionally engaging a text is.
Sea Hearts is all of that and more; it presents a world, a vision of magic and gender and generational progress, that is unique; I have never encountered anything quite like it. There are many threads being woven in the narrative, some more personal, some more political, some more literary, and so there are many points of access to the text. But at the novel's close, Lanagan adds a final bit, she gives another turn of the screw (so to speak, if you're Henry James) that literally took my breath away. I inhaled, and forgot to exhale as I stared at the last empty page of the book. When I started breathing again, when my heart restarted in a regular pattern, it still took awhile for me to be able to read the acknowledgements and about-the-author pages.

These are the signs of a good book, by a good writer - and delivered to me by a good friend (one I've never met).

Sea Hearts will turn up in the United States as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the fall - September 11, in fact, according to amazon.  
I am sure that, by then, I will have read it at least once more.

Look What I Found!

I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned it here, but I didn't read a lot of YA fiction when I was its target demographic. Partially this is because there wasn't quite as much range of good YA available to me in the early to mid 1990s; partially I was attempting to be a Sophisticated Reader who was done with all that Youthful Nonsense; partially it was because I am younger than my sister (my only sibling) by three years, and often the books she read would sound interesting to me, or would come my way by being left around the house, and I'd read them. 
Of the few YA books I read as a young adult, I remember even fewer, but one of them is Stephen Maines' The Obnoxious Jerks. It's the book where I first learned what a gyro is (ain't nothing but a sandwich, of course). I remember a bit when the club of Obnoxious Jerks try to spell it out, but somehow the "R" is missing; thus they are, when assembled, the Obnoxious Jeks.  
It was obviously not emotionally affecting or life-changing (other than the gyro thing; language/knowledge acquisition is always good). But still, I have fondly remembered it for many many years. 

So how happy was I when, at a local library book sale, I saw this masterwork lined up with a bunch of other forgettable 80s teen fiction?

So happy that I actually squeaked out loud. Possibly I even squealed. I certainly exclaimed loudly enough to draw the attention of the moms and book scouts scanning the children's/YA section of the booksale. Their attention may have been drawn by me hopping up and down in ecstatic delight. It's hard to know. Regardless, I snapped that sucker right up and its purchase was probably the best 50 cents I spent that day. 

I don't know if I'll re-read it; I'm a bit worried that I'll be mortified at its awfulness, and wonder why I've spent the last 20 years recalling this book at odd moments.
What if I love it? What if it suddenly becomes emotionally affecting and life-changing? Will I have to confess that my Favorite Book is called The Obnoxious Jerks and was published in 1987?

None of these scenarios seem likely. Rereading will almost certainly result in some slight disappointment, but for now, the serendipity of finding this book, and the happiness I feel now at owning it, far outweight my trepidation about what's actually between its covers.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones

It's been one year now since Diana Wynne Jones passed away. I've re-read (and re-re-read) any number of her books between then and now; I've just finished up a DWJ reading binge that included The Power of Three, Conrad's Fate, The Homeward Bounders, Hexwood, Unexpected Magic, and Deep Secret. Tonight, I read a few chapters from Howl's Moving Castle, the first book by Diana Wynne Jones I ever read. I know that book backward and forward and around sideways. It's a wonderful book, and it never, ever fails to enchant me.

I'd like one of Cesari's cream cakes to eat while reading it, but that's the only lack I ever experience in connection with the book.

Jones is such a smart writer, with such a good sense of humor, such a sense of timing and emotion and subtlety. I admire her every time I revist any of her books, even ones like Howl that I've read solidly into my memory.

I think of her often; I never met her, of course, had nothing at all to do with her except I read her books with a compulsive voracity. But I still think of her often, and I think how grand her books are, and I think what a loss it is - and it is, to me, still a wrenching sense of loss - that she will not be creating any more wonders.

I miss you, Diana Wynne Jones, and I am so, so grateful and glad to have your books in my life.