Thursday, January 26, 2012

Challenging the Challenged (Books)




In recent years, via this blog and social media platforms, I've enjoyed supporting Banned Books Week, the annual highlight of excellent literature coming under fire for "questionable" material. I've shared links, I've lent my moral support, and that has been the general extent of my efforts. However, in recent weeks, there have been sobering reminders of the need to consistently support the right to read, not just during a single week in the fall. Two stories have been garnering a lot of attention, and they reflect two different sets of communities, two different sets of problems, and the shared problem of a lack of reading material for students, coming in the form of bans/challenges, and a school district budget cut with underlying political tones. I've been reviewing the various articles, and I genuinely hoped to make honest assessments on my take on the issues. Granted, the image I used above may seem a bit drastic, but I genuinely tried to see both sides of the issue. I'm sure some critics would accuse me of liberally jumping to conclusions, but something is truly amiss in these communities.

In Arizona, the Tuscon Unified School District cut an ethnic studies program focusing on Mexican-American studies, and while initial claims of a book ban have been denied, the availability of certain materials has been drastically diminished. I sent this e-mail to a spokeswoman for the Tuscon Unified School district:

"I recently read your statement that the books that were "banned" by the Tuscon Unified School District were in fact not banned, yet are readily available through the district's library systems. However, a Salon article (http://www.salon.com/2012/01/18/tucson_says_banished_books_may_return_to_classrooms/) states that there are few copies readily available. Would you be able to comment on this?

Also, is there any truth to the consistent reports of a crackdown on "politically sensitive" material? If not, is there a reason why the school district has cut the ethnic studies program, for reasons not financial?

I appreciate your time."

I received no reply to this, but I'm sure the district was swamped with e-mails and telephone calls.

Budget cuts are not the same as outright book banning; however, it's telling that the majority of the titles listed were takes on contemporary Mexican-American culture, and that "The book ban is part of a curriculum change to avoid 'biased, political and emotionally charged' teaching, CNN reported." I'm obviously not an educator, and I refuse to make any outlandish assumptions about the nature of Arizona's political stances in relation to their school districts. But cuts to a studies program that focuses on Mexican-American history, a history like any other that has both good and bad happenings, would potentially cut classroom discussions of discrimination and the role of immigrants in this country. Again, that's an assumption, but I find it difficult to comment otherwise when every article I've read takes such a strong stance. The district is vehemently denying the ban, but educators (as quote in the linked article) are distressed over the missed educational opportunities. With such a tense battle in that state, the real losers are the students, when the chance to actively engage themselves in intelligent studies are being denied. Naturally, historical discussions have no choice but to examine the conflicting sides of events and politics. I don't think it's too outlandish to say that a requirement for "unbiased" materials would do away with critical assessments of our country's history in favor of a more sanitary study. But again, even that seems to have gone out the window, since the program has been eliminated altogether.





Via Twitter, I follow the articles and postings of Anna Leigh Clark, an excellent writer, blogger, and journalist based in Detroit. Before I read about the Arizona ban, she posted a link to her own blog posting about a community challenge of the books Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Waterland (Graham Swift)
. I've only read parts of Beloved, and I have not read Waterland, but parents in a Michigan community are attempting to have the books banned because of sexual and violent content. Clark's views of Morrison's content very much mirror what I attempted to convey above in my opinions about the Arizona cuts:

"According to the report from the school hearing, the parents also criticized what they saw as "gratuitous sex and violence in the book." This is startling, given that Beloved is pointedly about slavery, rape, and how state-sponsored human ownership influenced those who lived in its immediate aftermath -- particularly seen in how characters come to terms with living in their own bodies, bodies legally not their own for so long. To tell a story about this era in a way that does not integrate violence and sexuality would simply not be honest."

These are not second graders being assigned these titles (and themes); we're dealing with high school students. The easy answer is to say that high schoolers are likely familiar with notions and depictions of sex and violence. But a move to ban these titles goes much farther. For better and for worse, sexuality and violence are parts of life, and in the context of the two books would undoubtedly lead to (again) debates and discussions about themes that do not fit into tidy, unoffensive boxes. We should applaud readers and students who are undoubtedly able to discuss these ideas logically and openly. What is the point of keeping these books (and by extension, the ideas) hidden? If the books are banned within the school, then they're easily available via bookstores and public libraries. In my ongoing career in bookselling, I applaud teenagers who buy challenging works and express enthusiasm. The point of art is to provoke and educate, and if the parents in this district have their way, I would hope the students would read more because of the uproar. Discussions and debates exist because ideas are not always black and white. My best, most influential English teachers from years past were my favorites because of their emphasis on diverse readings and issues that were stimulating and thought-provoking.

I could go on, but I feel as if I've made my points. This country is in dire need of critical thinkers, and these cuts and bans will have the opposite effect. This is 2012, and I'm saddened to realize that there is still this mythical effort to "protect the children" by doing away with pieces of literature that present real histories and problems. One commentator on Ms. Clark's blog made reference to "explicit materials" and applauded the removal via a blog called "Safe Libraries." I'm sure that a lot of people will roll their eyes at my piece, assuming that I'm merely engaging in knee-jerk liberal outrage. But my overall message is for any students who may stumble across this post: don't be safe. Read whatever you can get your hands on. Think. Debate. Assess. This country will be better for it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Art Of Fielding:" Chad Harbach's Hit Parade



It's very difficult to think of a novel debut that has received the sort of instant praise that came with Chad Harbach's The Art Of Fielding. That's not to say that first novels don't amaze, but normally there is the necessity for attention to build after a publication date. After its early praise and enthusiastic recommendations from my friends, I put the work on my "to-read" list. As is normally the case, I wasn't able to get to it right away, and as its fall publication turned it into one of the holiday season's best-sellers, I found myself to be a bit wary. There is good hype and bad hype, and I was slightly worried that the novel's near-unanimous praise was pushing it into a potential disappointment (I still haven't read or heard anything negative about it, but as is the case with any work, I know it has dissenting voices). Normally, I focus on my own excitement over a piece of writing, but in this case, getting numb to the constant praise seemed to make The Art Of Fielding that much more enjoyable. By going into it with a level head, I was able to let its story and surprises reveal themselves slowly. Having finished it last week, I'm still amazed at how Harbach combined contemporary elements into what feels like an older, established novel.

Henry Skrimshander is the star shortstop for the Division III Westish Harpooners baseball team, a perennial underachiever that has slowly become a championship contender. Throughout boyhood and high school, Henry's defense had served as his best asset, aided by constant practice and by a book called The Art Of Fielding, written by Aparicio Rodriguez, a former All-Star shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals. As Henry gets stronger (his hitting improves as his team does), he is heavily scouted and projected to be an early Major League draft pick. His teammates have their own unique traits and stories. Mike Schwartz, the catcher and team captain, deals with the aches and pains of being a football and baseball player,is attempting to get into law school, and serves as Henry's mentor. Owen Dunne, Henry's roommate, is openly gay and primarily rides the bench, reading books during games, yet manages to remain a vital part of the team. Adam Starblind (Harbach has a unique system of names that mirrors the offbeat names of baseball players past and present) is their number one pitcher.

Guert Affenlight is the Westish school president, a Melville scholar (hence the team name) who finds himself in a tender and rushed affair with Owen, and these personal complications are both aided and harmed by the unexpected arrival of his daughter Pella, who's fleeing her broken marriage. Pella and Mike quickly become enamored with each other, and these separate affairs become heightened when the sure-handed Henry accidentally throws a routine grounder into the dugout, striking Owen in the face and landing him in the hospital. This seeming unnatural error spirals Henry into a case of Steve Blass disease, leading to personal and existential crises for everyone involved. Relationships become strained, the team struggles to keep their momentum going despite Henry's crumbling defense, and the novel becomes a narrative of the characters' individual and collective pursuits of happiness and confrontations of open and secret problems. All throughout, Harbach manages to combine exceptional narratives of baseball and academia through the sympathetic characters.

While the team's championship run holds the plot lines together, it's far too easy (and potentially misleading) to call The Art Of Fielding a "baseball book," but Harbach's descriptions of the game's actions are superior and realistic without resorting to grandeur. Baseball is too often discussed and written in mythical qualities, but in this book, it's done naturally and realistically:

"Before the pitch he stood at ease, glove on his hip, his face round and windburned and open, delivering instructions or encouragement to his teammates with a relaxed smile. But as the ball left the pitcher's hand his face went blank. The chatter stopped midword. In one motion he yanked his navy cap with its harpoon-skewered W toward his eyes and dropped into a feline crouch, thighs parallel to the field, glove brushing the dirt. He looked low to the ground but light on his feet, more afloat than entrenched. The pitch was fouled back, but not before he had taken two full steps to his left, toward the place where he anticipated the ball to be headed. None of the other infielders had moved an inch (Harbach 68)."

This is a character-driven novel, and is strongly assured for a debut, especially since all of the characters have the potential to be rendered in cliche or stereotype. The relationship between Owen and Guert, while seemingly doomed from the start, transcends their gender and becomes a realization that their positions (school president, student, and their age difference) render anything serious to be impossible. But it's a relationship not solely based on sex, but on mutual appreciation. Guert is worried that he's having a midlife crisis, but their meetings are beautiful and show signs of a genuine compatibility.

"Part of Affenlight felt peeved at Owen for interrupting or dismissing his bliss. Because it was bliss, he felt, to be here with Owen and to read to him, even when he was reading dry-as-dust sentences from a poorly xeroxed course packet. Of all the activities two people could do together in private, Affenlight had a special fondness for reading aloud. Maybe this was part of his instinct for solitude and self-enclosure; a way to reveal himself while hiding behind someone else's words (Harbach 218-219)."

Pella is the only major female character in the novel, and again, her makeup is one that could veer on insulting, especially with the emphasis of the past few years on the lack of dynamic female characters in contemporary fiction. Pella has a strained relationship with her father, and her personal relationships are fraught with unhappiness. However, she acknowledges this outright and comes to Westish in order to forge her own path. She takes classes and works as a campus dishwasher despite her father being the school president and a previous life of comfort with her ex-husband. She's determined to be strong and to be her own person, even as her relationship with Mike hits a few serious bumps along the way. From the beginning, she and Mike seem to make an excellent match, and this description of him manages to unintentionally apply to Pella as well:

"Schwartz prided himself on his honesty. If one of his teammates was dogging it, he busted that teammate's balls, and if one of his classmates or professors made a comment that seemed specious or incomplete, he said so. Not because he knew more than they did but because the clash of imperfect ideas was the only way for anyone, including himself, to learn and improve. That was the lesson of the Greeks (Harbach 102)."

Henry's descent into realizing a potential world without baseball manages to tie in nicely to the literary/academic world of Westish. Athletes, like humanities majors, are often told to have backup plans in case their ambitions don't work out in "the real world." With Henry, baseball is like literature for some people: he simply cannot imagine functioning without it, and it leads him into his own existential gloom, literally roaming around trying to make sense of an alternate reality. Again, much like baseball is often too romanticized (and I say that as a serious baseball fan myself), there is often a tendency to over-emphasize baseball's relationship to literature. However, this is where Harbach succeeds. His writing sometimes winks to this, but is predominantly grounded. Much like the above passage linking Mike and Pella, some passages manage to reflect multiple themes. This one deftly combines the ideals of baseball and writing without being obvious:

"Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn't plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. you had to send your words out where they weren't yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words (Harbach 420)."



Chad Harbach is the co-founder and editor of the excellent literary and political journal n+1, and had been working on The Art Of Fielding for over ten years, and the amazement over the novel stems from both its contents and its completeness, a rarity for a first-time novelist. It was initially praised by Jonathan Franzen, and a few months back, a humorous web article stated that people who loved The Art Of Fielding were readers who were just waiting for the next Franzen novel. However, I don't see any immediate similarities between the two. Franzen tends to make his characters unsympathetic at first, until their situations, histories, and developments redeem them. Harbach's characters are all immediately likable, even with their faults. Franzen works in a style that is immediately contemporary and fits well into current conditions; with the exception of the occasional mention of an iPhone or Scott Boras, there are stretches of The Art Of Fielding that feel as if they could be set in any era. With that in mind, it's stunning how the novel works as a contemporary study as well as an unabashed homage to classic literature (however, I personally don't buy the connection between the title and Henry Fielding, of which much has been made in more than a few reviews). That's not to say that the novel is without faults. Harbach manages to write some hilarious dialogue and scenes, but occasionally falls flat (an early passage hints at characters having sex, when in reality they're weightlifting), and I found the ending to be slightly implausible, even if its emphasis is on the metaphor (sorry to be vague, but even now, a revelation would be a major spoiler). However, these missteps are minor. Harbach has written a work that contains almost everything one could want in a novel, and hits the rare mark of being both intellectual and vastly entertaining, and, returning to Franzen, represents one of my favorite sentences: "You call it art, I call it entertainment, we both turn the pages."

Work Cited:
Harbach, Chad. The Art Of Fielding. Copyright 2011 by Chad Harbach.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"The Whore of Akron:" Poor Soul



Going into my reading of The Whore Of Akron, Scott Raab's latest book on the affects of LeBron James' 2010 signing with the Miami Heat, I had a feeling that the work would go in one of two possible directions. One of those directions was a sociological and psychological look at the city of Cleveland and the harsh business realities of contemporary professional sports. The second direction, which proved to be all too accurate, especially in hindsight, was a grating, uncomfortable rant against an athlete whom people wanted to deliver a long-awaited championship to Cleveland. I even hoped the book's title would turn out to be a slight exaggeration. To clarify: I'm still a passionate basketball fan, and am genuinely excited that the 2011-2012 NBA season has kicked off. No one team, not even the Miami Heat, is dominating the headlines early into this shortened season. It's an open, even season so far, with clusters of games testing every team, and the usual mix of potential playoff teams exceeding (or receding) on early expectations. Back in July of 2010, LeBron James had a public relations disaster when he announced his signing with the Miami Heat on a nationally televised special, and the Heat pretty much crowned themselves champions before training camps opened. Everyone, myself included, had opinions on this, and now that there's a new season (the Heat lost in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks), Miami doesn't seem to be getting any more attention than any other talented team. The timing of the book's release seemed appropriate. Enough time has passed for true reflections, but in this case, the emotions are still bitter, and then some.

Raab is a contributor for Esquire magazine, so there is an excellent chance that I've read his work before and just don't recall his specific articles. I've never read anything in that magazine that I've heavily disliked, so I'm sure he has had more than one piece that I've enjoyed, or at least tolerated. The subtitle of The Whore Of Akron is "One Man's Search For the Soul of LeBron James," and the opening paragraph is gripping, giving hints to the very themes I was hoping to read more of as the pages progressed, but the reference to Rebecca Romijn sticks out awkwardly in an otherwise terrific passage, and it becomes a prevailing theme in the book: hints of excellence marred by weird personal flights.

"I no more chose to be a Clevelander and a Cleveland fan than I chose to be a Jew transfixed by leggy shiksas. It is my birthright, my legacy, my destiny. My fate was cast in 1964 on a Sunday afternoon at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, while Canadian gusts swept across Lake Erie and through the mammoth double-decked bowl in damp, endless circles cold enough to stiffen snot. I have seen Paris at dusk; I have prayed at the Wailing Wall; I have behold the twin scoops of Rebecca Romijn's vanilla ass; yet never have I been so transported, never so ecstatic, as on December 27, 1964, when the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Colts and won the NFL World Championship (Raab 3)."

According to the book's dust jacket, Raab is supposed to be one of the last remaining representatives of Gonzo journalism, but while he fixes himself into the account at multiple times, rarely, if ever, does it reflect the atmosphere of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson wrote about himself at length: his penchant for drugs and alcohol, his love of guns and explosives, etc. But the emphasis was always on his excellent writing, and his personal narratives never distracted from the main themes or topics. And most importantly, Thompson's personal writings were never self-serving. Raab, on the other hand, keeps reminding the reader of his own sordid details: his fluctuating weight; his affinity for his wife's handjobs; his reckless youth marred by a troubled family and years of substance abuse; and so on. If this was supposed to be a memoir, that would be one thing. But right now, nobody would be faulted for forgetting that this is supposed to be about LeBron James. Raab documents his attempts to interview LeBron, and, after some explicit Twitter messages directed toward the player, his media credentials being revoked by the Miami Heat. Yes, James damaged the morale of a troubled city by humiliating its citizens on his TV special. But after pages upon pages of Raab's harsh and downright violent fantasies, LeBron actually comes across like a sympathetic figure, as sympathetic as a savvy multi-millionaire can be. Take passages like this:




"Enough? Too much. Too much, to ask LeBron to carry a team, and too much to ask him to satisfy the yearning for redemption of millions, and too much--way too much--to ask him to comport himself with any measure of grace or grit in the wake of abject failure. Bad enough? Fucking ridiculous. Our warrior: a feckless child stunted by a narcissism so ingrained that he's devoid of the capacity to respond to failure with even a semblance of manhood. The fans are spoiled? In King James's playhouse, there are no mirrors (Raab 101)."

Raab is trying to play the role of a passionate, lifelong fan of Cleveland sports. He carries around the ticket stub to the aforementioned Browns Championship game. He screams in the press box at stadiums, glares at James during news conferences, and gloats in the player's every misstep. Yes, fans are passionate, and perhaps Raab is trying to highlight how conflicted, lost people find solace in civic community and common ground via professional athletics. But his shortcomings are so documented and examined, in such graphic detail, that one ends up feeling sorry for him, even though he's overcome so much to become a family man and a professional writer. But when he documents passing fantasies of crushing James' skull with a folding chair, said passion becomes everything wrong with the world of sports. The issue of race is touched upon, but only briefly. When Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert blasted James in an open letter to the city of Cleveland, black commentators likened his anger to that of a slave master. Raab mentions this in passing, but a fascinating, if melodramatic, metaphor that could have yielded excellent discussion is passed by.

There are so many times in the book when there is the potential for journalistic or personal analysis, but said potential goes unrealized far too often. He makes plausible comparisons between tribes (Jewish tribes, ethnic enclaves within the city of Cleveland, and a name even reflected in the Cleveland Indians baseball team), but whenever the glimpse of insight appears, it's quickly lost in shouting and scary bitterness, and these conflicting atmospheres, as with the opening paragraph, sometimes reside right next to each other.

"People living in suburbs flung far from downtown--on both sides of the Cuyahoga River--now drive into the city to see the Cavs and get a bite to eat. They are loud, happy, proud to be part of a city many of them left behind decades ago. They are no longer from Rocky River or Solon or Avon Lake or Chagrin Falls; every last mother's son of them is proud to be from Cleveland, motherfucker. Cleveland (Raab 84)."

Is this entire review messy and lacking transition? If so, I apologize, but it was difficult for me to mentally outline this review, let alone tackle it. It's rare that I read a book that I find to be worthy of such consistent criticism, but this book will only speak to Cleveland fans or people who still harbor resentment towards LeBron James. I'm not defending him: as a Bulls fan, he's an opposing player I love to hate, and after the Heat defeated the Bulls in the playoffs last year, I was happy that Dallas took the championship over the makeshift All-Star "team." But one has to realize that people like Raab have lambasted him since then, and few people have the platform as a writer that Raab has used to offer what promised to be an exploration, but fell into a mess of problems. As I've said before, I'm a firm believer in constructive criticism. I'm not hiding behind a blog or an avatar, and I always welcome critiques of my own writing. What angers me the most about The Whore of Akron is that Raab displays the occasional flash of talented analysis, but willfully chooses to come across like any bile-spewing sports fan. Sports writing is a field that has only a handful of consistently good authors, and there is so much more that this book could have done had Raab calmed down or edited some of his exceedingly vitriolic prose. Leave the blind hate to troll comments on sports websites. Mr. Raab, you've come so far, as you've personally documented. Surely you could have done so much better.

Work Cited:
Raab, Scott. The Whore Of Akron. Copyright 2011 by Scott Raab.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Weak, With Marilyn



I've never give much thought to Marilyn Monroe, not as an actress or as a sex symbol (a term I tend to loathe anyhow). As I've written about with James Dean, in today's landscape Monroe has become a tangible commodity who people try to pass off as intangible. There are those tired lists of the sexiest women of all time, the unabashed, decades-long marketing, and far too many books, photo collections, and consistent retrospectives. Harsh? Possibly, so in that case, why did I actively seek out a viewing of Simon Curtis' latest film My Week With Marilyn? I read some genuine praise for Michelle Williams' performance, and I still, a year later, think back to Blue Valentine and get chills. Also, the film seemed to promise more the trappings of a biopic, focusing on the 1956 filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, a Hollywood vehicle for actor/director Laurence Olivier. I have not read either of Colin Clark's two memoirs about working with Monroe, but if they're anything like the film, they would reek of fantasy and fluff, with so much below the surface waiting to be explored.

The film opens with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), an idealistic young Brit who yearns for a career in the film business instead of following his stodgy family into academia. He manages to appeal himself into an assistant spot on the production of Olivier's (Kenneth Branagh) The Prince and The Showgirl. The hope for everyone involved is for the film to accomplish two goals: one, to provide Monroe with more esteemed acting opportunities, and for Olivier to broaden his scope with a mainstream Hollywood film. When she arrives in England, problems start almost immediately. Her marriage to Arthur Miller is shaky from the beginning, she's constantly late to the set or affected by an assortment of pills, and to the chagrin of Olivier, she's constantly followed and prepped by Method teacher Paula Strasberg. As Monroe's insecurities and clashes with Olivier mount, she becomes increasingly erratic and withdrawn. When Miller leaves to visit his children, she escapes to the English countryside and asks Colin (who is attempting to be a mediator between her and Olivier) to join her, hoping to have someone on her side as she copes with her personal struggles and attempts to complete the film. Naturally, he finds himself falling for her, and it's up to the viewer to ascertain whether it's puppy love or a true connection.



I'll begin with the positives. Michelle Williams is an extremely talented actress, and while this isn't her best role, she succeeds in her portrayal. I'm sure there are more than a handful of blurbs that say she "inhabits" the role, but in reality, she manages to portray Monroe as most people would imagine her being in real life. She's insecure and seemingly bipolar, but with a naturally flirtatious air and a desire to be taken seriously, both as an actress and as a human being. The physical resemblance is impressive, and Williams adds a flair for the melodramatic, but not in a negative way. When she's happy and confident, she bubbles over with enthusiasm. When she's depressed and withdrawn, she hovers near a seemingly suicidal low. Given that the "mystique" of Monroe has been portrayed many times, the role works best when the focus is on her acting and preparation. Toward the film's end, the insecure side dominates and veers into the "expected" down moments, but through no fault of Williams, but rather writer Adrian Hodges (more on him later). Branagh doesn't quite resemble Olivier, but portrays him not as an artistic tyrant, but rather as someone with little patience doing his best to make the film proceed. Branagh obviously has fun with the role and does well with his interpretation, especially since Olivier's off-screen persona isn't as heavily documented as Monroe's.

Two other performances are small, yet enjoyable: Zoë Wanamaker portrays acting coach Paula Strasberg, and while her strict adherence to coaching Monroe in the Method is portrayed comically, it's fun to see the clash between her and Olivier. In one scene, Strasberg playfully bows in front of Monroe and raves about her genius as a true actress. Instead of being a true guide, she's merely paying her lip service, and putting far too much stock into Monroe's role in what everyone assumes will be a forgettable film. Judi Dench offers a very sweet interpretation of Sybil Thorndike, an actress who also attempts to mediate between Monroe and Olivier. At first, her casting seemed to be based on mere recognition, but Dench plays Thorndike skillfully and comically.

The rest of the film is either downhill or full of unrealized potential. Combined with the above positives, My Week With Marilyn feels like a mash-up of a good film and a bad one, since there are so many alternating ups and downs. Eddie Redmayne does alright as Colin, being affable and genuine, but the character is written in a far too stereotypical manner (the young man who wants to be an artist). Colin attempts to romance Lucy (Emma Watson in a role that does nothing but give her some non-Harry Potter screen time), but is turned down when rumors of a romance between him and Monroe surface. This all seems to lead up to nothing but the chance for Lucy to offer the usual line of "you needed to have your heart broken). The same goes for Dominic Cooper, who was also in a vastly superior British period piece An Education. There is nothing for him to do except offer a terribly written warning to Colin not to be seduced by Monroe, given her history of romancing and disappointing men. The role of Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) comes to its acme when, before he leaves, he crushes Marilyn with handwritten critiques of her acting. This is a major part of Monroe's legacy, her desire for intellectual development, yet the scene is played as a generic insecurity.

The majority of the film's faults lie in screenwriter Adrian Hodges. At its worst, his dialogue is terribly cliched and prone to obvious, "dramatic" declarations of love, opinions, and warnings. These critiques become so much more obvious when balanced alongside some of the well-written scenes. The screenplay could have been superior, but gets weighed down with his need to inject words that are almost insulting to the audience, since aforementioned declarations have clearly been shown onscreen and are not needed to be summarized. Also, the ending title screens mention Monroe's classic performance in Some Like It Hot and Olivier's successful Broadway run and hint that their successes were due to working on The Prince and the Showgirl, even though there's no suggestion in the film that either actor made any real creative breakthroughs. If Hodges' screenplay had been completely terrible, that would have been more understandable. Instead, he did write some hilarious lines and genuinely good scenes, and it's perplexing how the film manages to hold such good and bad developments.

Simon Curtis' direction fluctuates just as much. He ties himself to the screenplay and offers no real personal touches. The ones he does add, however, are fleeting. The filming scenes were actually filmed at the original studio where The Prince and the Showgirl was made, which adds a nice atmosphere of authenticity. Returning to the idea of Monroe's desire for intellectual growth, there are a few scenes that carefully show a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses on her bedside table, and the shots of the English countryside are undeniably beautiful. Otherwise, the movie is shot in a very textbook fashion. His work isn't terrible, but rarely offers any unique atmosphere or production design that blends with the action instead of being a prop to it. And this is a petty gripe, but there are far too many movies that show a character (in this case, early scenes of Colin) being inspired at the movies by sitting in a theater and having his or her face illuminated by the screen.

I always try my best to offer constructive criticism on anything that I review less than favorably. My Week With Marilyn came so close to realizing a lot of potential and so close to exploring famous characters in new ways. It was frustrating to be given a glimpse into something that could have been examined compellingly, only to have the filmmakers quickly move into obvious territory. The biggest error, though, is the constant dialogue that wants to be dramatic and ends up being just as melodramatic as a poor 1950s film. The actors involved are talented, but are unable to elevate the missteps behind the camera. My Week With Marilyn could have been superior, but ultimately feels rushed and pandering. It's worth seeing for its good qualities, but these are too few and far between to warrant a higher recommendation.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 Readings, 2012 Goals

Right after I shared Jeremy's write-ups on Instafiction's best stories of 2011, he posted a list of the books he read in 2011. I had posted a quick summary of my own readings on Facebook, but when I saw Jeremy's classifications, I felt moved to provide my own list here. Jeremy provided some tiered categories for his own readings: 'Masterpiece,' 'Great,' 'Very Good,' and 'Good With Reservations.' I'm going to copy those designations, but with a small caveat: I'm going by my feelings at this very moment, so a given classification may or may not match with the critical emotions of my previous reviews. I read 21 books this year, which is down from my total of 31 in 2010. If I can bump my total up to 25 or so this year, I'll be pleased. I'm not sure why there was such a drastic drop, but some of the books were very time consuming (in a good way), and I'm still fighting a never-ending battle with my filing cabinet of New Yorker back issues. Here goes:

MASTERPIECE:

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

GREAT:

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

VERY GOOD:

Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Caclida Jetha

Ararat By Louise Glück

As She Climbed Across the Table and The Ecstasy Of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

Tin House #37: The Political Future (various contributors)

Collected Poems by Paul Auster

Hermit In Paris by Italo Calvino

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

GOOD WITH RESERVATIONS:

My Life As An Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan

Smoking Typewriters by John McMillian

Oh What a Paradise It Seems by John Cheever

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

There Is No Year by Blake Butler

My goals for 2012 are pretty modest. There are a lot of 2011 books that I want to finish early in the year (I'm just about to begin Chad Harbach's The Art Of Fielding), including Ready, Player One, Zone One, The Marriage Plot, and Open City. I also want to squeeze in more nonfiction, especially world history, contemporary politics, and writings by black and female artists. My November publication in The Chicago Reader has sparked a desire to increase my freelance work, and if I can do so and help Instafiction at the same time, so much the better. As for my own fiction, I have a lot of ideas and half-sketched stories that need attention. That is all I'm going to say about my creative endeavors, since my history has been one of talking a lot about it, but without actually having much to show for it.

Are you a reader or an artist? Do you have a reading list from 2011, or a list of resolutions and creative goals? I'd love to read your notes. Comment away.