Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

An Excellent Epistle: Jonathan Miles’ Dear American Airlines

January 5, 2009

dearamericanairlinesThe year is off to a good start!  I just finished reading my first novel of 2009, and loved every word of it. Jonathan MilesDear American Airlines is a terrific read. I confess, even though the novel showed up on a number of Best of 2008 lists, I was leery about whether a true novel could be contained within the comic conceit of an angry rant letter to American Airlines. Trust me, it can.

[Random association tangent: I tend to read most of my books via that most underutilized of places, the library. I put a number of the books called the Best of 2008 on the reserve list, and about FIVE of them have shown up for me at the exact same time. Has that happened to anyone else? Thus, expect a number of book posts for the next couple weeks as I read as fast as my fingers can turn the pages.]

The premise of the book is simple: Bennie Ford is stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, about to miss the wedding of his heretofore-estranged daughter, and full of pent-up fury, begins to write the powers that be at American Airlines a letter. He asks:

So talk to me. Did banal old greed induce you to overschedule your flights, a la bank robbers unable to stop stuffing their bags despite the wails of nearing sirens? . . . Or do you plan so tightly and rigidly that the delay of one plane in, say, Dallas can cause a monumental backup akin to a stalled tractor-trailer on the George Washington Bridge at 8:30 am? Or, similarly, are airlines like yourself susceptible to something like the Butterfly Effect, so that a delay caused by a pickled passenger trying to board an early-morning flight in Ibiza can provoke a chain reaction, with delay piling upon delay, and then cancellation upon cancellation, until poor Chicago O’Hare – the sacrificial goat of air travel – is shut down completely?

But the genius of the book is that Miles manages to combine Ford’s extremely funny perspective with a tragic history of his own making; and then layers the story with yet another story within a story of the Polish novel Ford is translating, reinforcing the tragicomic air of the downtrodden hero. The language is lush and dense, and even the cameo characters are rendered fascinating from Ford’s eyes. It is a fantastic book and a perfect way to start out the year. If you experienced lengthy waits in airports over the holiday season, however, you might want to hold off reading it for a month or two.

Best of 2008! The Readers Weigh In

January 2, 2009

ribbonWell, the quantity of responses was a little disappointing, I admit. BUT the quality of the responses was anything but.  Each response I got for the “Best of” categories listed warranted either an immediate “Oh, yeah” or an “Ooh, I have to check that out” from me. So kudos to the respondents who were nice enough to participate.

And now, the list:

Best Fiction:

Bestseller by Keith Latch: A horror novel in e-book form, this was an area of unplumbed depths for me. Thanks for eBookguru for the recommendation.

The A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin: This recommendation for this epic fantasy series also comes from eBookguru.

Best Non-Fiction:

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: Although technically published in 2006, reader Jill read it in 2008 and loved it. I also read it in 2008 and was utterly blown away by the story, uncomplicatedly told, of Greg Mortenson’s journey from mountain climber to advocate for promoting girls’ education and literacy through his Central Asia Institute organization.

Best Music:

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne and Brian Eno. Reader Pam sums it up when she calls it “some yummy, brainy, infectious popaliciousness!”

Best Movies:

WALL-E (story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon): eBookguru thought this was one of the best films of 2008, and I have to agree. How does a film with so few words qualify as great writing? From the story, which transcended time and genre to transport kids and grown-ups alike.

Rachel Getting Married (screenplay by Jenny Lumet): Reader Jill voted for this film as one of the year’s best, because “I loved the characters who play against type.”

Now, for all you readers who perhaps partook of a little too much eggnog or were busy having family time, and didn’t get the chance to put your two cents worth in, I will still accept your recommendations! It is never too late (unless of course you’re writing about something from 2009, in which case it will have to wait).

WordHappy Reader “Best of 2008″ List: Thinking Caps On

December 24, 2008

j0396070Now, you know and I know that these next few days are going to be a haze of wrapping paper and too much food. And no matter what holiday you celebrate, the fact remains that almost everything will be closed – and if you’re getting hammered with snow like much of the country – you don’t want to go out anyway.

So reflect – ponder, if you will – on your top-of-the-line choices for the best of 2008. What movies did you see that knocked your socks off? What music did you listen to and actually notice the words? What books did you read that made you stay up way past your bedtime? These are the things I want to hear about.

I will be taking your choices in the areas of:

  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Other

The “Other” category is for anything else that gave you goosebumps that somehow isn’t included in the above. Please post a comment with your recommendations below. I’d love it if you’d forward this post to your friends as well, so we can get even more participation.

I’ll take comments up until December 31st. Then I’ll compile a list of everyone’s choices and make it the first WordHappy post of 2009!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and  Best wishes to you all!

All I Want for Christmas: Nifty Gift Ideas 2008

December 11, 2008

elkaAll I want for Christmas is world peace, an end to homelessness, some cute ankle boots that will fit over my high instep, and a really good 2009 television season.

But if you’re not shopping for me, and you need some tried-and-true gifts for people who know the power of words, I can help you out. Even better: most of these gifts fall in the $25 and under range. Disclaimer: I carry no affiliation with any shopping powerhouse like Amazon or Target or anyone, so I’m not going to include links to these places. You will have to do a little of that work yourself. Sorry.

BODACIOUSLY BRILLIANT BOOKS

The Likeness by Tana French: For mystery lovers, this is the jackpot. This is the book that makes you call in sick to work so you can read more of it. Cassie Maddox, a former undercover cop, gets thrown into the investigation of a woman’s death – a woman who bears the name of her old undercover identity and who could be her own twin. French is an outrageously good writer, and I could not find a false step in the intricate plotting of this novel.

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: This book is for the armchair traveler with a taste for fabulous writing. The editors assigned writers of reputation with varied styles, such as Ann Patchett, Tony Bourdain, and Sarah Vowell to contribute essays on every state in the union. The result is a smorgasbord of delicious writing that gives a real sense to the place (not all of it complimentary, incidentally). I’m only a third through my copy; it must be read in small doses, like eating flourless chocolate cake. Are you hungry yet?

Run, by Ann Patchett: In a season that revolved around politics, this quiet novel managed to combine politics, family, and race in an enormously moving and engaging way. It may not be as showy as Patchett’s Bel Canto, but it may be her best work yet.

DIVINE DVDs

For the discerning couch potato in your life, you can’t go wrong with these picks:

Mad Men, Season One: Time travel back to the early 60s when advertising was king, and people smoked and patted women on the behind and never had a second thought about it.  It’s a mad trip, almost Shakespearean in its psychology, with Don Draper as its tortured Hamlet. Great writing with an obsession with detail makes this a must-see.

State of Play: This BBC miniseries aired in 2003, but the DVD was just released in 2008, so technically, it counts. And a darn fine thing, too, since this was great drama. The series follows journalists of The Herald as they try to uncover the story behind the death of a young political researcher who may have been involved with a high profile Labour MP. The plot crackles, and the acting by terrific performers like James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, John Simm, and Kelly Macdonald, makes this a drama that doesn’t leave your consciousness easily.

The Wire, The Complete Fifth Season: Since no one apparently watched this other than me and about 10 other people (yes, still bitter about that), what better way to catch up on the best series in the history of television – SERIOUSLY – than by picking up this DVD. Season Four was probably its best, but its fifth and last season still packs a powerful punch. Actually, DVD may be the ideal way to watch this series and really appreciate its attention to story and detail.

SINFULLY STUPENDOUS CDs

Finally, a few picks for the music lover:

Break Up the Concrete, The Pretenders: This CD is filled with songs you would swear that Chrissie Hynde wrote and recorded years ago, they have such a timeless classic feel. Add a driving beat and it’s a keeper.

Rattlin’ Bones, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: Australian Kasey Chambers has been one of the most distinctive voices to emerge on the folk scene in many years. This latest CD, collaborated on with her husband Shane Nicholson, is an addicting listen.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Quietly Powerful: Mira Nair’s THE NAMESAKE

October 23, 2008

One of the things about being the parent of young children is that you get to be terribly discriminating about the movies you tape and then watch. Notice I did not talk about actually seeing a movie on the big screen – that’s just crazy talk. But when we saw Mira Nair‘s movie The Namesake appear on the HBO schedule, the film met our strict criteria – a director with a background of movies that we’ve enjoyed, and good reviews for the film itself.

The Namesake did not disappoint. Adapted from the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, with a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, the film follows the lives of Indian couple Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) as they marry in an arranged marriage, move to New York, have children, and raise their family. Ostensibly, the film is about their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who is the namesake of Russian writer Nicolai Gogol, who was very influential in the life of Ashoke.  But as I watched the movie, it became obvious that the story had more to say about discovering your sense of self in the world – either as a foreigner trying to merge one’s culture in a new environment, or a young man coming of age, or a mother suddenly widowed, whose remaining roles no longer fulfill her soul.

As a parent, I was deeply moved by the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima. We watch their relationship grow from shy strangers to a couple who care very deeply for one another in the quietest of ways. They are loving parents, perhaps smothering in their love, but they also remain absolutely attached to one another. At one point in the film, Ashoke asks Ashima a question:

Ashoke: There is something I always wanted to ask you, but never had the courage. All those years ago, why did you say yes to me?
Ashima: You were the best of the lot.
Ashoke: Huh?
Ashima: Better than the widower with four children or the cartoonist with one arm. I also liked your shoes.
Ashoke: Oh. Oh, okay.
Ashima: Hmm, you want me to say “I love you,” like the Americans.

What is clear is that her love is so strong it needs no words.

Having seen the film, I can’t wait to read the book.

The Eyre Up There: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair

October 16, 2008

I mentioned last week feeling like I was in kind of a slump as far as ferreting out the good writing recently. Between that funk, the uplifting news about the economy, and the extraordinarily civilized state of the presidential campaign, times have called for some serious silliness. So I’m here to oblige.

Jasper Fforde‘s The Eyre Affair (2001) is a very silly book. It is a book made for former English majors and fans of Monty Python or Douglas AdamsThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, trying to come up with a succinct, comprehensible synopsis is nigh impossible. Suffice it to say, Fforde’s heroine Thursday Next works in the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network based in London. Nefarious goings-on within literary works themselves prompt Thursday to enter the novels themselves to sort everything out.

The Eyre Affair is the first, and arguably the best, in a series of Thursday Next novels by Fforde. Half the fun of these books is in the details. Fforde peppers his characters with names like Filbert Snood, Jack Schitt, and a vampire hunter named Spike. Clearly, being deep and serious is not on the agenda in these books. And while it certainly helps to have read Dickens or Bronte at some point in your life, it is by no means a requirement to get maximum enjoyment out of the book. Where the genius of the book resides is the level of detail Fforde provides about both of Thursday’s worlds; regardless of whether Thursday is pondering when her father is (and yes, I said “when,” not “where”), or conversing with Jane Eyre’s love Edward Rochester, we don’t question it for a moment.

So if you need a break from the serious, give Fforde a try and lose yourself in Swindon.

Digging Anne Tyler’s Digging To America

September 1, 2008

Does this ever happen to you? You reserve a whole big honkin’ list of books at the library, knowing it will be eons before the list rolls around you, and BAM! three or four of them arrive at the same time. It happens to me all the time.

The plus side to this situation is that I have gotten to read some fabulous books, albeit quickly. But the novels were so good that I would’ve read them quickly anyway because I was so invested in the story. Does this mean I let my children watch movies and play video games rather than spend quality time with them because I was immersed in a book? Pretty much. So I suppose it’s fortunate that I don’t read that many books that I fall in love with.

The first book I’ll discuss today is Anne Tyler‘s Digging to America. The book begins with two families waiting for an arriving flight – a flight that holds their infant adopted daughters who are arriving from Korea. One family is Iranian, the other American.  While fate has initially thrown these families together, their common bond sets the foundation of a genuine, if sometimes strained, friendship that lasts years. In an entirely organic and natural way, these characters question and explore the ideas of what it means to be “American;” how our cultures shape and limit us; and what friendship and love mean within these cultural overlaps.

In one scene, Maryam Yazdan speaks of how her granddaughter Susan told her that she wished they could celebrate Christmas the way other people do, and how it had broken Maryum’s heart. Dave, the grandfather of Jin-Ho, probes a little and finds that they’d had a tree, presents, caroling – the works:

He started laughing.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” he said. “You’re talking about every child in this country!”

She braked for a light and looked at him.

He said, “You don’t think that’s what all of them say? They say, ‘Other families celebrate better; on TV it seems much better; in my mind it was going to be better.’ That’s just Christmas! That’s how it works! They have these idealized expectations.”

She did seem to get his point, he saw. Something seemed to clear in her forehead.

“The kid’s one hundred percent American,” he said.

What I love about Anne Tyler’s books is how quiet and gentle they are. One article I read about her had her saying ‘there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel.’ Today’s publishing world fights against the quiet novel. I’ve known more than one writer with a fistful of novel rejections because “quiet novels” are allegedly too hard to market. Of course, in all likelihood, none of these writers writes as well as Anne Tyler. But it’s nice to see her succeed, and it was a real pleasure to live with these characters in Digging to America.

I’ll post next on the other wonderful book I just finished reading: Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red. Keep an eye out for it.

List Heaven: EW’s Best of the Last 25 Years

June 23, 2008

Blue RibbonOh, Entertainment Weekly. Have you no shame? Must you toy with me so, publishing your “Best of” lists for movies, television, books, and music over the last twenty-five years? Do you not realize that I must now spend this week doing donuts down Memory Lane, writing about all the books, shows, and movies you’ve made me realize I must – MUST – write about on WordHappy or feel I have forever failed you all?

For today’s post, I will comment on their No. 1 picks. This does not, in my opinion, constitute a “spoiler,” since the lists are readily available for anyone to see on the EW website. But I did think about whether it was, so if anyone feels strongly about not seeing the number one picks, stop reading now.

No. 1 Movie: Pulp Fiction: Seen it. I’m sure there are other movies that I feel equally worthy of the number one title, but I can’t quibble too much. Particularly since the film, written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, has such a bonanza of quoteworthy dialogue (although strictly in an R-rated sense; trying to find a non-F-bomb quote for you all was rather a challenge):

Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros): I was looking at myself in the mirror.
Butch (Bruce Willis): Uh-huh?
Fabienne: I wish I had a pot.
Butch: You were lookin’ in the mirror and you wish you had some pot?
Fabienne: A pot. A pot belly. Pot bellies are sexy.
Butch: Well you should be happy, ’cause you do.
Fabienne: Shut up, Fatso! I don’t have a pot! I have a bit of a tummy, like Madonna when she did “Lucky Star,” it’s not the same thing.
Butch: I didn’t realize there was a difference between a tummy and a pot belly.
Fabienne: The difference is huge.
Butch: You want me to have a pot?
Fabienne: No. Pot bellies make a man look either oafish, or like a gorilla. But on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy. The rest of you is normal. Normal face, normal legs, normal hips, normal ass, but with a big, perfectly round pot belly. If I had one, I’d wear a tee-shirt two sizes too small to accentuate it.
Butch: You think guys would find that attractive?
Fabienne: I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.

No. 1 Television Show: The Simpsons. Seen it. Now again, I could quibble. My choice would have been The Wire, which EW has down ALL the way at number 11. But, having been a fan of Marge and Homer and the gang for most of the three million years the series has been on, I can’t be too upset at the pick. There is a list of writing credits for the show as long as my arm, but since IMdb reports that James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon each have 420 episodes to their name, I’ll give them the lion’s share of the credit. From phrases that have entered the American iconography – “Mmmm, donuts” and “D’oh!” to name just two, to longer pieces of dialogue that have left me weeping with laughter, the writing on this show has never been mediocre, and has often been great. It’s not often you can say that about a show.

Bart: [after they watch a foreign film] I was so bored I cut the pony tail off the guy in front of us. [holds pony tail to his head] Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
Marge: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.

Or. . .

Marge: Careful of that apple pie on the back seat…
Grampa: Uh-oh.
Marge: Grampa, are you sitting on the pie?
Grampa: I sure hope so.

No. 1 Book: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. As I just reviewed this book a couple months ago, I’m at peace with this choice as well. It’s brilliant and heartbreaking and accessible, and the upcoming movie will star Viggo Mortensen. Mmm, Viggo Mortensen.

Keep watching for further enlightening comments on the EW New Classics List. As I fall even further behind in real work that may pay me real money. Comme si, comme sa.

Tops for Pops: Best Father’s Day Movie, Book, and Song

June 14, 2008

Field of DreamsFather’s Day snuck up on me this year like a cat in the dark. My cards got off late, the children did not draw a “too cute to live” picture in time, gifts only just got ordered. I do hope this is not proof that Father’s Day is the second-class citizen to Mother’s Day, as I’ve heard bandied about in some quarters. I would rather point to its date falling in the same week that school lets out as a possible defense for additional scatter-brained-ness.

Thus, as penance for my Father’s Day shortcomings, let me offer some bodaciously good Father’s Day offerings in multiple media.

My pick for all-time best movie for Father’s Day, guaran-darn-teed to make men of all ages and macho levels reach surreptitiously for the tissues, is Field of Dreams. Frankly, the Kevin Costner/Sports/Western movie genres (note: no Waterworld or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) could make up a Father’s Day movie bonanza all on their own. But Field of Dreams, based on the book by W.P. Kinsella and adapted for the screen by Phil Alden Robinson (who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for his efforts, by the way), is one of the very best. It involves baseball, the grown-up tensions between being “responsible” and following a dream, and the bond between fathers and sons. The final scene, where Ray (Costner) has realized the player John is his dad, and that he is about to walk away, is perfect in its simplicity:

John: Well, good night, Ray.
Ray: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away.]
Ray: Hey. . . Dad?
[John turns.]
Ray [choked up]: You wanna have a catch?
John: I’d like that.

I’m getting verklempt just typing it.

My second Father’s Day pick showcases the paragon of all good dads, Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird. While the movie is one of the best adaptations of a novel that I can think of, and while I can’t read the book without picturing Gregory Peck in those glasses as Atticus, I still contend that if you haven’t ever read the book, you should; and if you have read it, then you should re-read it, for the simple beauty of Lee’s prose. How perfect a character description is it to paint the pint-sized Dill as “a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.” Now, I can see as how Atticus might be an intimidating choice for a dad, because he’s so darn perfect. But most fathers I know have the same depth of love for their children that Lee’s writing depicts Atticus having for his children, so I would say he’s less of a role model than a tribute to fatherhood at its best.

Finally, for a song that is a gorgeous tribute to a father, take a listen to Ricky Skaggs‘ song, “My Father’s Son“, taken off his CD of the same name (1991). Skaggs has been playing bluegrass for more than 36 years, both as a singer and mandolin player, and his songwriting skills are prodigious. In “My Father’s Son,” Skaggs writes in the chorus:

Well a rich man writes the book of laws
a poor man must defend
But the highest laws are written on the
hearts of honest men
When that cup is passed to me to do what
must be done
Or a chunk of coal just carve these words
I was just my father’s son

So happy Father’s Day, guys! Enjoy the day, and know that you’re second to none.

Fun at the Apocalypse: Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance

May 5, 2008

Last Last ChanceDrug addiction. A superplague pandemic. Chicken farms. Vikings. Reincarnation. Does this crazy melange of elements sound like the makings of a comedy to you?

Well, it is. A darned fine one, in fact. I have to confess, when a friend recommended Last Last Chance, the debut novel by writer Fiona Maazel, and I read that it was about drug addiction and recovery, my first reaction was “Ugh.” Having never been there nor done that, I can’t say addiction/recovery novels are up there in the top tier of favorite genres for me. But, I trust my friend’s judgment and taste, so started to read. I loved it, but think I gave myself whiplash from the number of times I shook my head going “Wha-huh???”

The novel’s protagonist is Lucy, daughter of a former scientist at the Centers for Disease Control who took his own life after vials of a plague he’d developed were stolen from his lab. Lucy is the kind of person who misses her best friend’s wedding because she transposes the dates – or maybe is too high to remember the date. But she’s got nothing on her mother Isifrid, whose habit makes Lucy’s own addiction look like the Tinker Toy version:

It was not often I looked at her anymore. The woman in my head had been gone for so long, I seemed to forget Mother didn’t die with her. Surely no one would believe they were the same person. The woman in my head could open a beer bottle with her teeth. No chips or cracks. She’d leave the house with no makeup and get praised for it. A guy who made wigs for celebrities frequently petitioned for her thicket of hair, which she could wrap around her head like a scarf. How long since I’d seen that woman? At least fifteen years. But I still missed her.

The reason I chose that excerpt is that it shows how, as messed up as this family is – and trust me, I haven’t even dented the surface of the dysfunction – there is an underpinning of love that steadies the novel in all its whacked-out craziness. Lucy’s mother Isifrid, her grandmother Aggie, her half-sister Hannah, and Lucy are painted with very deft strokes, so that even as you cannot believe how screwed up they are (except for Aggie, who’s a rock), you still really like them and root for them.

Maazel has written a seriously dark comedy that leaves you cringing as you laugh. But she manages to insert some true poignancy into the book as well. The ending of Last Last Chance is one of the most moving conclusions I’ve ever read in a novel. It’s that good.

So even if the strongest drug you’ve ever ingested is Tylenol Maximum Strength, and even if thinking about chicken farms has you contemplating veganism, find this book and read it. It’s a wild ride.


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