Thursday, November 15, 2018

Feminism Can Be Funny

Penguin/Plume was kind enough to send me a copy of New Erotica For Feminists, a funny little book that looks at popular culture, dating, parenting, literature, and history through a distinctly feminist (and satirical) lens. Penned by four authors (Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Witmer), this book has something for every reader who wants a good laugh, but the scenarios imagined within also give pause--why shouldn't a man offer a woman interesting conversation instead of a sexual proposition? Why DO we as readers tend to demonize Jordan Baker simply because we see her through the eyes of Nick Carraway?

My favorite passage was a re-imagining of the dialogue between Paris and Helen of Sparta as he prepares to whisk her off to Troy.

Helen tries to explain why this would be a bad decision, reminding him of some historical context around her beauty and things it has made men do, and the problems he would engender by angering Agamemnon, King of Mycenae:

Helen: How do you not know this? It's like you haven't even read Herodotus. You really need to brush up on the geopolitical history of this volatile region, tiger.
Paris: But you're so pretty!
Helen: (sigh) I wish I'd been born a centaur. 

A fun little book, small enough to fit in a Christmas stocking, weighty enough to engender many fine discussions, and funny enough to make you laugh out loud

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Joy of Talking About Books

“Nothing bonds two people so well as loving the same books.”

--Lena London, A Dark and Stormy Murder

              I am a member of two informal book clubs. One is a four-times-yearly gathering of interested faculty at the school where I teach. I am the unofficial “leader” of the club because I always come with about 30 typed questions that I hope will generate interesting discussions. These aren’t downloaded from book club sites; I always write my own because that is more authentic to my reading experience, and—well—I’m a bit obsessive.
              The group has enjoyed many wonderful conversations, and in two cases we Skyped with the authors themselves and directed our questions to them. Those were wonderful experiences that allowed us to take our questions about text straight to the creator, the generator of that text for some deeper insight.
              In every one of our meetings, I find myself getting to a point at which my heart beats faster, my face grows hot, and I become sort of enraptured by the way that literature can lift us to higher understanding. We learn things, discover things, TOGETHER—in a way that only this type of gathering can achieve.
              And so I would conclude that for the same reason I love to discuss literature with my students (who are themselves amazing, insightful observers of human nature), I love to discuss a good book with my book group.
              My other book group is a recent creation, born of an e-mail that I sent to people on my block. It said, “Is anyone interested in starting a block book group? Not the kind where people just use a book as an excuse to drink wine, but the kind where we actually read and discuss a book?”
              To my great pleasure, many people responded. I have nothing against wine—my husband sells it for a living—but when I have a book gathering, I want us to focus on words, on chapters, on thematic meaning. And many other people wanted to do that, too!  Our first meeting was a gathering of five women (a few more couldn’t make it). Our second had only four people (again, schedules were a problem), but our third looks like it might be a very large gathering because word has spread—we met to talk about books, and it was fun!
              I don’t always feel as if I have time in my schedule to prepare for book group. But when I read the book and then meet with my book friends, I am always glad that I made that time.
              If only more people knew how much joy, how much deep satisfaction was at their fingertips at any given time in the form of a good book, and how even more wonderful that experience can be when enriched by the insights of other people who have studied the same text.
              This Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for many things, including (as ever) books, the people who write them, and the people who read them, and the powerful culture of learning, sharing, and insight we can build together.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

An Enhanced Reading Experience: The Annotated Big Sleep

I am thrilled to have received an advanced copy of THE ANNOTATED BIG SLEEP from Vintage/Black Lizard Books. Raymond Chandler died in 1959, six years before I was born, but I always feel connected to him when I read his mysteries. His words effect that special intimacy with a reader that only the best writers can achieve; in fact, his books are so alive with wit and intelligence and satire that a reader feels almost collaborative when encountering Chandler--reading is not a passive event, but a conversation.

As the critical notes (written by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Rizzuto) make clear, Chandler was more than a mystery writer. His work was a commentary about a pre-and-post-war world that seemed to have been consumed by a general corruption, and his words contained such unblinking honesty that they can apply just as well to the depravity of the current era.

The annotated version contains a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, and an introduction by the three annotators, who suggest that "If Superman or John Wayne is the Zeus of American myth, and Marilyn Monroe is Aphrodite, then Marlowe is Prometheus: the noble outsider, sacrificing and enduring for a code he alone upholds." Perhaps this is the biggest part of Marlowe's appeal for a world that had been battered by war and which descended into an existential abyss.

One of my favorite details so far is that, in exploring an existential view of the world, Chandler achieved such spare and impressive prose that one might assume he had been influenced by the French existentialists--but in fact the reverse is true. "Albert Camus had pointed to American detective writers as a prime influence on his portrayal of the quintessential existential outsider, "L'Etranger," in 1942" (107).

Marlowe, too, is an outsider. Readers generally love The Other for the very fact that the societies in question have cast him out. We love the literary orphan (Oliver Twister, Harry Potter), the fictional dream-seeker (Gatsby, Don Quixote, Lily Bart), the rebel in an oppressive world (Hester Prynne, Edna Pontellier, Huck Finn). But Philip Marlowe stands alone, as the man who was forced to create a law unto himself, because he had a vague memory of justice that shaped his understanding of rightness in a world gone awry.

I will savor this book, first as a chance to re-read THE BIG SLEEP, and secondly for the rich textual notes that will deepen my understanding of the man, the work, and the time period.

(According to Amazon, THE ANNOTATED BIG SLEEP can be pre-ordered now).

Thursday, March 08, 2018

French Thriller Writer Franck Thilliez Chats About Sharks, Subliminal Messages and Syndrome E

Since I was just re-reading SYNDROME E, I thought I'd share this interview from 2013. 

Franck Thilliez's new novel, SYNDROME E, is his first book available in an American translation. The movie rights have been sold to Paintbrush Films.

Franck, thanks so much for discussing your book with me.

This novel introduced many themes: neuroscience, police work, schizophrenia, parent-child relationships, a computer-oriented world, violent video games, film technology, and subliminal suggestion, to name a few.  Do you start a novel knowing all the themes you would like to discuss, or does your research and writing lead you to more and more complicated plots?

Yes, I know, in a general way, the main topics I’ll talk about. Concerning Syndrome E, I wanted to talk about all themes concerning pictures and the impact they have on our brain. So, it concerned movies, video games, subliminal pictures, brain studies… But you’re right: the more I researched, the more I discovered plots that I could talk about, like neuromarketing or the way a movie is made. So, I naturally included them in my story.   

Lucie Hennebelle is a single mother of twins; she is also a career cop.  This sounds like an almost impossible combination. Do you think that cops, male and female, spend a lot of time feeling guilty about their family obligations?

I know a few cops and I often talk with them about their job. They are people really involved in their work, they like what they’re doing and are proud of it. When you work in the violent crime department, here in France, you can’t say: “I go to work at 8 am and come back home at 5 pm,” because it does not depend on you, but on murderers! If you work on a big case, it will take all your time, day and night, because, you know, the 2 or 3 first days after a crime is committed are the most important: you can’t lose a minute. So, you’ll not be at home, near your family, and your work will consume you. But, most of time, they do not feel guilty, because this job is a part of their life, as much important as their children. It’s not easy to be the wife of a cop (or the husband of a female cop), because, adding to that, this could be a dangerous job…

Someone in the novel suffers from hysterical blindness. I’d heard the term before, but had never really seen it applied to a situation.  How common is this condition?  How did you research it?

It’s an amazing condition. I heard about it when I talked with a psychiatrist. He said to me: “One day, I treated a woman who did not hear her husband when he talked to her. She heard her children, but she couldn’t hear him! This is what we call hysterical deafness. She’s not really deaf, but her brain makes her believe she is… ” It was amazing. By doing research, I discovered that there were all sorts of such hysterical problems: people thinking they’ve lost a leg or arm, people thinking they’re blind… All those conditions have a psychological explanation and can be solved.

Franck Sharko is a great name for a detective. Did he become Sharko because he is predatory to the bad guys?  Or did you have other reasons for giving him this name? (And is there a reason that you share a Christian name?)

Here, in France, most readers ask me : “Why did you call your detective Sharko ?” It’s great that you are American, because you immediately see that in Sharko, there is the English word “Shark."  Shark, because Franck Sharko never abandons, he’s really a hunter of killers and will work and work until he catches them! And for the first name, Franck, the same as mine: I just wanted “Franck Sharko” to sound hard, like German. Because he’s a hard guy!

One of the many facts that stood out for me was a film expert’s claim that François Mitterand attempted, in 1988, to subliminally influence voters by splicing his image into the credits of the evening news.  How did he achieve this?  Did he pay off a producer?

In France, the “Chanel 2” is a public channel, so it belongs to the French State. A president can choose the head of the channel, and he can decide to squelch publicity, … I don’t know how it really happened with François Mitterand, but because he was president since 1980 he had the power to put a subliminal image of himself on the evening news a few weeks before the election of 1988 to re-elect him! You must also know that during this period, there were no laws that forbade someone to use subliminal images in films or advertising…

Wow!  How worried should we be, in 2012, that we are being manipulated through the medium of film or things that we see on computer and television screens?

As I say in the book, we must protect our children, who are always watching violent pictures, in video games, on Internet or television. Most of them (under 7 years old) can’t distinguish reality from fiction. With the new technologies (phones, i-pads, Internet), times are changing; now our sons and daughters are growing up with violent pictures around them.

In extreme cases, we can perhaps see the consequence of this in the news: look what happened in Norway with Behring Breivik, look at the different massacres in schools over the last years, or the awful killing in the cinema during the broadcast of Batman, a few days ago. Some killers even try to post their acts on the Internet.

So, I don’t think we are manipulated, I just want to tell people: be careful of all those screen broadcasted pictures; they could be dangerous…

Are you an old film buff yourself?  Do you collect films?

When I was 15 years old, and for many years later, I used to watch all horror/thriller/suspense films that would be broadcast on TV! Sometimes, films were broadcast late in the night, and I remember going to bed and setting my alarm clock to wake me up just before the beginning of the film. It was also the period I was a member of a small video club, near my house, so I could rent of all the tapes I wanted. I used to collect video tapes, and then DVDs, but I sold most of them when I grew up, because I needed money! I always loved Hitchcock’s films, Dario Argento, Andrew Romero, David Cronenberg; and nowadays, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott are some of my favorite directors.

You must have loved Inception.  :)

Your description of Egypt, through Sharko’s eyes, is not flattering—it talked me out of ever visiting Egypt.  Have you travelled there?

Talking about the Egypt in tour guides with the Pyramids, Sphinx, nice places in Cairo was not interesting me. A crime novel must be more than a diversion; it must inform readers of the reality of our world. So, I wanted to show the country as it really is.  Most of people there are poor; they have difficulties surviving and they live in awful conditions. There are more than 8 shantytowns at the border of the Cairo, containing thousands and thousands of people. I say in the book that the police and government are corrupt. Revolution exploded in Egypt only a few months after the publication of Syndrome E in France, and I proves that I was not completely wrong…

And no, I never travelled there, but did a lot of research on this country, watching Egyptian films, reading books, talking by email with people there.

A small story : I tried to be in contact with the police there, just to ask single things, like “how are you clothed?” or “what are the grades in your police?,” but they never answered, they said top secret!

At one point Lily and Sharko feast on Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Is this American chain popular in France?

It’s starting to gain popularity, but it’s not as popular as McDonalds!

Ah, the ubiquitous McDonalds!  :)

There are many airplane journeys in the novel—Sharko finds them wearying, almost existential experiences—and yet they retain a certain glamour for the reader, linking the characters to far-flung locales.  What’s your attitude toward airplane travel?  Do you enjoy it?

In the last two years, I travelled a lot because of the publication of my books in many countries. I really like airplane travel. I love being in an airport, seeing people going abroad, and others coming back home. An airport is a particular place where you can touch the world. I read a lot during my travels, and sometimes I write. The most difficult is, of course, the jet lag, but it’s such a good thing to discover new countries and people.

Great point! On to Lucie Henebelle. Lucie is compared, by one character, to Jodie Foster.  Are you a Jodie Foster fan?  Did you see Lucie Henebelle as sort of similar to Foster’s Clarice Starling?  Or do you just like Foster’s combination of toughness and femininity?

I’m absolutely a fan of Jodie Foster! She’s a great actor and she would be perfect for Lucie, the main character of my book, if she were slightly younger. When I created Lucie a few years ago, I had in mind Jodie Foster as she was in The Silence of the Lambs, one of my favorite films.

Who are your literary influences? What are you reading now?

I started by reading Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and classical Anglo-Saxon crime novels. Then I had my period of Stephen King (and still do).  He’s a great writer. I spent night after night reading his books, trying to guess how he could frighten us so much. During my studies, I did not read a lot (but was watching films!). I started reading crime novels again 10 years ago. Nowadays, I read Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, but also books by John Steinbeck.

If I could make only one journey to France, where should I be sure to go?

Everywhere ! France is a beautiful country, with many cultures, great landscape, big towns but also very quaint villages, where the time has stood still. French food and wine are excellent; just spend time in a little restaurant of Paris or by the sea at Deauville or Cannes!

Sounds lovely! Thank you so much for a terrific read and for answering these questions.

You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

Getting Lost in a Good Story

On December 30 I received a book in the mail from Delacorte Press; they had kindly sent me a copy of S.T.A.G.S, a new novel, perhaps in hopes that I would read and review it. I am lucky enough to receive books with regularity, but not all of the stories catch my fancy, and often I start one and put it aside again.

Who knows what sort of alchemy is involved when a reader and a book find that they are a good match? I only know that when I opened this book and read the first page, my brain said "Yes!"

December 30 happened to be my birthday, and I sat down in the afternoon to enjoy the unexpected gift. For the first time in a long time, I finished a book in one sitting because I just couldn't put it down.

Don't we all long for that very reading experience?

S.T.A.G.S had an interesting premise: a middle-class British girl is accepted into the school known by the title acronym. It stands for St. Aidan the Great School, a prestigious boarding academy that is the realm of the very rich. From the start the heroine, Greer (named after Greer Garson because of her father's love of movies) knows that she is an outcast, but she's determined to keep her head down, do her work, and just get through the semester. She doesn't need to be popular. And yet, like any teenager, she does sometimes crave approval, and like everyone on campus she dreams of being noticed by The Medievals, the beautiful, privileged six who dominate the campus with their wealth and breeding. The leader of this group is Henry: tall, blond, charming as a prince. Or so it would seem.

When Greer and two other misfits are invited to Henry's estate for a weekend of "huntin, shootin, fishin," the reader knows that The Medievals are up to no good, and deep down Greer knows it, too, but she can't resist the invitation and the chance to be popular.

One has to suspend some disbelief in order to enter into the St. Aidan's world, but the book was well-written, capturing the tone of The Other as Greer tries to negotiate the exclusionary behaviors on campus. Although this is meant on one level to be fun suspense, the novel does a good job of interrogating wealth, white privilege, and arbitrary class distinctions.

I'm sure it will be made into a movie, and I for one will go to see it.