Barton Fink

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Staff Picks: Coen, Beatty, Egan, Gentlemen

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The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Gates of Eden by Ethan Coen recommended by AndrewA treat for fans of the multiple-Oscar-winning Coen brothers, and for anyone who likes to spend some time in that grey area where the darkly comic and the absurdly tragic intersect. Published ten years ago, this collection of prose from the Ethan half of the Coen brothers comes from the same delightfully twisted mind that gave us rapid-fire gangster pastiches like Miller’s Crossing, and tough-talking old-time men-of-action like Michael Lerner’s studio honcho in Barton Fink.There’s a story of a boxer who never manages to lay a punch and who gets caught up in a war between rival gangsters. Another tale takes us back to Minneapolis (the Coen’s home town) where the Mafia have decided to set-up shop. There are some plays in this collection too, loaded with savagely funny dialogue. You can almost hear Steve Buscemi or John Goodman or John Turturro or any of the other Coen regulars sinking their chops into these characters.The White-Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty recommended by GarthThis is one of those novels I loved so much circa my senior year of high school that I’m almost afraid to reread it, in case it’s not as great as I remembered. Thumbing back through the first few chapters, I’m noticing that Beatty shares a riff-intensive prose style with Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. Unlike those writers, however, he seems more inclined to pursue satire than high art. Still, Beatty’s natural emotional pallette – a kind of pissed-off innocence – and his poet’s eye for the absurd, pushes his story beyond the didactic. Narrator Gunnar Kaufman may transform himself from scholarship athlete to celebrity-poet-messiah (see? I said it was satire), but he remains, underneath, someone we know and care about… especially when we ourselves are pissed-off innocents. Is it premature to recommendThe White Boy Shuffle as a graduation present?The Keep by Jennifer Egan recommended by EdanThe Keep by Jennifer Egan manages to be both inventive and readable, character and plot driven, playful with genre conventions but also straightforward in its prose style. Egan draws you into a Gothic tale of an old, creepy castle, and the reunion of two cousins with a vicious secret between them, but it’s not long before the narrator announces himself as an outsider to the story (or is he?!), pulling another, wholly different, storyline into the mix. The threads of the various plots converge marvelously at the novel’s end, and you can’t help but love how fun this book is – fun and smart.The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice by Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro recommended by TimothyNot all self-help books are beholden to the latest new-age or pop psychology craze. In The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice, authors Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro offer timeless, entertaining tips on how today’s man can improve his wardrobe, grooming habits and love of literature, while keeping in mind his affinity for sexual intimacy, a day at the track and alcohol consumption. The book’s wit is second only to its practicality, from how to host a memorable dinner party to advice on handling inquiries from a potential mate about past lovers (charts included). The Modern Gentleman also makes for lively conversation when guests spot it casually displayed among coffee table reading material.Some choice excerpts:Honking – When lively conversation in the cabin boils over in delight, give a medium burst to alert the heavens to such joy.Swearing – There’s a high degree of cliche among cursers. Mix and match the filthy classics to create a string of fresh phrases that highlight your keen wit and local tongue.Hiccoughing – If at the cinema, suggest the hiccougher overstuff his mouth with buttery popcorn until breathing is labored and then insert one Milk Dud for good measure. While this procedure may prove ineffective, it is delicious.Bow ties – Never divulge to a rogue the bow tie’s true ease of knot – let’s keep it between us gentlemen, shall we?This book is both a lyrical masterpiece and a cultural gem.

The Blank Page On The Silver Screen

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Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I’ve always been a sucker for films that offer glimpses, no matter how superficial, into the working life of a writer. When it’s a real literary figure, say Truman Capote as embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman, I marvel at how the actor, faced with the impossibly daunting task of portraying a known figure, pushes the role beyond imitation to suggest something deeper, all the while mindful of the expectations that a celebrity-savvy audience will have.When the protagonist is a fictional creation, the actor, I imagine, is freer to characterize from the get-go, without the anchor of audience expectation weighing him down.It’s an interesting genre of film – writer as film protagonist. In Barton Fink, John Turturro paid back the Coen brothers for their creative brilliance by handing them a singular performance, taking his character – a writer struggling for words – down a wonderfully, sometimes nightmarishly, surreal path.It’s a long list, and please feel free to offer your own examples, but off the top of my head there’s Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a professor tackling his own demons as he struggles to finish his novel in the film of Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys.Then there’s Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, in which Cage explores some sort of human duality as both the critically successful but blocked Charlie Kaufman, and his “brother,” the gregarious, open and popular Donald.And then there’s Woody Allen’s Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry. Harry tries to conquer his writer’s block, while we see excerpts from Harry’s earlier thinly veiled autobiographical stories depicted, back-to-back, with related moments from Harry’s personal life. So Woody, as Harry, fights with his ex, played by Judy Davis, and later we see a chapter from Harry’s last novel, with Richard Benjamin as Harry’s fictional alter ego, having the affair that would lead to the break-up.To this arbitrary list, I offer a new entrant: Leonard Schiller, the fictional author at the heart of the new film Starting Out In The Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton.It’s a curious film. A seventy-ish New York author, who was part of that mid-century New York literary crowd, Leonard Schiller’s first two published novels, both somewhat youthful and confessional, had critical success, while his next two novels, which, for a number of reasons, looked out rather than in, were seen as disappointments by those who wanted him to effectively keep writing his early novels over and over again. All his novels are now out of print, his name barely registers in modern publishing circles, and he’s in failing health. Yet he is quietly determined to complete his decade-long work-in-progress. Dignified and disciplined, Leonard seals himself off and plugs away.His routine is interrupted by Heather Wolfe, played by Lauren Ambrose (Claire on “Six Feet Under”). A grad student doing her thesis on Leonard Schiller, she’s hell-bent on resurrecting his name and bringing his books back into print. Trouble is she suffers from the same myopia as his early fans. She only “gets” his first couple of novels, dismissing his subsequent work. Personal events may indeed have altered the tone of his later works, but her arrogant conclusions show a reader somewhat lacking in flexibility. She’s also, to be frank, a bit of a head-case – at times insufferably fawning, at other times shrill in her certainty. But she’s vibrant and articulate and forces Leonard into some psychological corners that he’s been avoiding for decades.A sub-plot involving Leonard’s daughter Ariel – approaching 40 and determined to have a baby – is interesting and strongly acted by Lili Taylor. (Bit of a Six Feet Under reunion here. I half-expected to see Nathaniel Sr. pop up in a dream). But as compelling as Taylor and Ambrose are, I must admit I often found myself simply wanting to see more of Leonard’s quiet work at his typewriter, and a little less of the surrounding melodrama. It might not have been conventionally cinematic, and certainly human interaction sparks his character, but a bit more character, and a bit less plot might have struck a better balance. After all, Leonard is a hell of a central character.In a season of big, flashy performances, Frank Langella’s Leonard Schiller is a quiet masterpiece. In a few, carefully chosen words, in his deportment and manner, Langella suggests doubt, uncertainty, longing and dogged determination. His Leonard is a human being with the whole mess of frailties that come with it.Who says there’s no drama in an empty page in a lonely typewriter? Or, I suppose, in a blinking cursor on a back-lit screen. Put an actor of Langella’s caliber in front of it, and you’ll have a film character for the ages.

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