We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
Tenth of December
Stand on Zanzibar
The Orphan Master’s Son
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
We had one debut on our list this month, and it may come as a surprise for readers who have been following the site. Our own Lydia Kiesling read Tao Lin’s Taipei and came away viscerally turned off by a book that has received quite a lot of attention both for its attempt to forge a new style and for the aura of its author, who has an army of followers and is, as New York once called him, “a savant of self-promotion.” Despite Lydia’s misgivings, the book has been on balance reviewed positively, including in the Times.
Still, Lydia’s review – negative as it was – was utterly compelling (Gawker thought so too), and because of that, as I watched the sales of Taipei pile up last month, I was not completely surprised. After all, the last target of a stirring and controversial pan (don’t miss the angry comments) at The Millions was Janet Potter’s fiery takedown of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and two of those three of those books now sit in comfortable retirement in our Hall of Fame. In the case of Taipei, the lion’s share of credit of course goes to Lin for writing a book that readers are evidently very curious to read, but I think it is also true that a well crafted, properly supported, and strongly opinionated review like Lydia’s can have the odd effect of compelling the reader to see what all the fuss is about.
In fact, this phenomenon has been studied and a recent paper showed that, "For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%." (I think in the context of this study, it is fair to call Lin "relatively unknown." While Lin may be well-known among Millions readers, he is not a household name outside of certain households in Brooklyn, and when readers flocked to read the review from Gawker and other sites that linked to it, they may have been compelled to check the book out for themselves.) As we have known for a while at The Millions, to cover a book at all is to confer upon it that we believe the book is important, and whether you believe the book is "good" or "bad," Taipei was certainly worthy of our coverage.
Otherwise, June was another quiet month for our list with the top two positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one, while An Arrangement of Light, Nicole Krauss’s ebook-only short story graduates to our Hall of Fame. Next month, things will get interesting on our list as we may see as many as four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, opening up plenty of room for newcomers.
Near Misses: Fox 8, The Interestings, All That Is, The Round House, and The Flamethrowers. See Also: Last month’s list.
Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.
That said, the truth is that no matter how tough you think you are and how accustomed you are to the terrain, ugly reviews are never easy to read. I’ve published two novels, which has meant that twice in the past two years I’ve sold a book to a publisher and gone through the edits, and then the publication date is scheduled, the lead-up begins, and the first pre-publication reviews trickle in. It’s a nervous, hectic, mostly pleasant time, filled with anticipation and exclamation-point laden emails from booksellers and publicists, and then Publishers Weekly weighs in. By “weighs in”, I mean that Google Alerts delivers the literary equivalent of unexploded ordnance into my inbox. The next few hours are always a little rough.
A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.
But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.
The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.
Vanity Fair, January 2007. Norman Mailer’s Proust Questionnaire:
Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her.
Whenever a writer brings up the subject of bad reviews, a chorus inevitably pops up to point out the obvious: that bad reviews just go with the territory. Sure, and we all knew that going in. Speaking in sweeping generalizations, we are aware of how lucky we are to be in this position at all. Most of us aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from the slings and arrows of our chosen profession, or if we are, we learn how to hide it in public.
But it’s hard to read a take-down of a work you loved, isn’t it? Let alone a work you actually wrote. I encountered proof of this a few months back, when I had the fascinating experience of watching a group of presumably reasonable adults fall to pieces over a negative review of a series of books that they hadn’t even written.
I’m referring, of course, to my Millions colleague Janet Potter’s piece on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. The piece has accumulated more than eighty comments to date, more or less evenly split between people who agree with her and thin-skinned Larsson fans who seem just about ready to come after her with torches:
“Well said. You have aptly made your point that we, the unwashed masses, are unabashadly attracted to escapist drivel. And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”
“Laughable review. I do enjoy Literature Snobbery.”
“I’ll have to defend Stieg by point out the many ways in which this review sucks”
All of these commenters were, of course, entitled to their opinions. But what I kept thinking, as I read through page after page of vitriol, was “But you didn’t even write these books.” I found it difficult to shake the uncharitable suspicion that several of Janet’s more vehement opponents would last about five minutes as novelists.
I think sometimes about the increasingly blurred lines between writer and critic. Those who can, write, the worn-out cliché goes. Those who can’t, review.
It’s a convenient phrase to hide behind when either your ego or your favorite Swedish crime novel is getting bruised, but the economic realities of being a writer have long since rendered this obsolete, if indeed it was ever particularly accurate. There are dedicated book critics, but we’re reviewed quite frequently by a jury of our peers. It’s really, truly, unbelievably difficult to make a living writing fiction, which is why almost all of us have day jobs and why so many novelists write reviews for websites and newspapers in addition to working on our own books. (There are interesting implications for book criticism in this, I think, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)
Jennifer Egan, whose fiction has been praised effusively on this website and just about everywhere else, is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The New York Times. Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was recently reviewed in The Times by Jennifer Gilmore, whose Something Red was one of my favorite novels of last year. Something Red was reviewed in the same paper by the novelist Susann Cokal.
Suggesting that any of these people are reviewing because they can’t write would be demented. The 21st century update, then, goes something like this:
Those who can, write.
Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.
A much-celebrated performer of my acquaintance received an unfortunate review in a major paper last year. Let’s say that this performer is an actress, in Toronto, and let’s say it was the Toronto Star. I found the review unfair—my personal opinion was that her show was brilliant—but I was stunned by her response. A day or two after the review came out, she sent the Star reviewer a long email.
She told the reviewer he was “full of shit”, made various vague statements that a reasonable person might interpret as a threat (“I guess I was due for a hatchet job from the Star given all the praise I’ve received over the years, going all the way back to my debut solo show ‘Toronto Star Theatre Critic Found at Bottom of River’”), suggested that the reviewer was racist—it happened that the actress and critic were of different races—hit send, and then forwarded it to her email list. Fortunately for her career, no one sent it to Gawker.
The day after the most recent and more vicious of my Publisher’s Weekly reviews came out, I fell into a conversation with a writer friend about this actress and her rebuttal. I’d found it appalling; my friend, who’s also had to deal with a bad review or two in his time, had liked it. I said something about how I understood how hurt she had been and I understood the temptation to respond, but that the actress had pretty much confirmed my long-held suspicion that arguing with bad reviews is a truly terrible idea.
“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”
Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.
But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.
This, at least, is as close as I’ve come to a coherent position on the matter. The question of how and if to respond remains troubling: I spent a long time writing and rewriting a letter to a major Canadian publication a few months ago, when I came across a lukewarm review whose reservations seemed based on such a complete misreading of the plot that I seriously questioned whether the reviewer had actually read the book. I didn’t really mind that the review was lukewarm, but I did mind that the reviewer had made two or three fairly major factual misstatements about what I’d actually written.
In the end I didn’t send it, because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to word it that didn’t come across as sour grapes. Better, I thought, not to respond at all. Better to ignore the review than to be graceless. This may possibly be cowardice on my part.
There are cautionary tales. Alice Hoffman’s 2009 Twitter meltdown has been immortalized for all time on Gawker. Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it. The novelist who gave him a bad review? Alice Hoffman.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the admirable Joanna Smith-Rakoff, who told me at a writer’s festival last year that she doesn’t read her reviews. Any of them. Positive or negative. She seemed, I couldn’t help but notice, considerably more serene than most writers of my acquaintance.
I wonder sometimes what Mailer would have said to Kakutani, if by some horrible slip of social planning they’d ever ended up in the same room. What do you say to the person who wrote terrible things about your work? It’s an awkward question. On the one hand, Richard Ford again: he waited two years before he encountered the fellow novelist who’d published a negative review of one of his books, and then spat on him at a party. (This is exactly the kind of behavior, incidentally, that leads to what marketing consultants refer to as brand damage: every time I hear Richard Ford’s name I think “guy who spat on other guy at party” first, “writer” second.) On the other hand, it might be oddly satisfying to remain impeccably polite.
But then, what if one were deserted by the power of speech? It’s a concern. I know I said in the first section that bad reviews are usually not particularly hurtful once the initial sting wears off, but the key word here is usually. There are some that get under your skin—either because they’re violently stupid, or so viciously personal that you find yourself Googling the reviewer just to see if maybe you inadvertently stole her boyfriend in high school, or both—and these are difficult to shake. If I ever encounter the lit blogger who gave me my first and so far thankfully only non-PW takedown, I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to breathe. I certainly couldn’t for the first few minutes after I read what she wrote about my first novel. Speaking might be entirely out of the question.
I did meet her editor. He turned out to be lovely. I was standing at my publisher’s booth at Book Expo America last spring when a man approached, holding a copy of my second novel. I glanced at his nametag, and I’ll confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the name of the blog he edited. The blog’s name always makes me think of old-school Usenet flame wars, partly because of the name of the site and partly because of the tone of the review they gave me.
“Emily, hi, I edit [redacted because name of blog gives me unpleasant flashbacks].com,” he said. “We reviewed your first novel.”
“I remember,” I said, as sweetly as possible.
“Uh oh,” he said.
Do bad reviews matter? There’s a school of thought that they don’t, but the thing about them is that they’re just so horribly memorable. Norman Mailer received countless laudatory reviews; but we’ll remember these less vividly, I think, than we’ll remember his decades-long feud with Michiko Kakutani.
“It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one,” he wrote in a 2003 letter to the publisher of The New York Times, “if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”
Mailer understood that negativity draws public interest, in the same way that blood in the water draws sharks. We’re naturally drawn to vicious reviews, to train-wreck actresses, to personal catastrophes and public feuds. His letter was scathing, but not intended for public attention: “I would rather keep all this in camera than disseminate it to the teeming raptors of the Internet,” he wrote. “Did I say raptors? I mean raptures, teeming raptures.”
I think bad reviews do matter, if only from a financial standpoint. I think we have to ignore them anyway. Kakutani’s habitual hatchet jobs on Mailer’s work were more memorable than the countless good reviews he received, but above all of this towers the body of work. He spent a certain amount of time doing battle with his most relentless critic, but he spent far more time perfecting the writing.
(Image: Broken Glass Shards Urban Exploration April 19, 20101 from stevendepolo’s photostream)
Picture this: A thin little girl—freckled, pigtails askew, barefoot—wearing a nightgown, holding a pistol in one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. No, it’s not Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz’s character in Kick Ass), nor an infant Lisbeth Salander. It’s how you first meet Pippi Longstocking, on the title page of Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking novel, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman. Pippi is where Grrrl Power got its start, and if you’re interested in the ancestral line of “grrls” like Lisbeth Salander, Hit Girl, The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, or the slew of other gritty girls from the past year in film and fiction, Pippi Longstocking is grandmother of them all.
In Lindgren’s children’s novels, first published in her native Sweden from 1945-48 and the US from 1950-57, and their Swedish film adaptations, starring the superb Inger Nilsson (1969-70), Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength, ingenuity, and self confidence, an endless supply of gold (from her pirate Papa), and a beautiful, shambly house named Villa Villekulla, where she lives by herself with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a spider monkey (her mother is dead and her pirate father’s at sea). Like her most notable descendent, Lisbeth Salander, of Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, Pippi is most easily recognized by her distinctive personal style: Pippi’s hair is the color of a carrot, and usually done in two braids that stick out on either side of her head; she wears patch-worked dresses of her own devising, mismatched stockings, a giant hat, and men’s boots twice the length of her feet. And her motto, which promises and delivers a happy ending in all of her adventures, is “I’ll always come out on top.” In both attitude and fashion sense, Pippi’s nearest American relation is the spunky 1980’s television character Punky Brewster (same wild pigtails, freckles, animal friends, outlandish clothes; a plucky can-do motto: “Punky Power!”).
Lindgren’s Pippi lives a child’s wonderland life: no school, no rules, no bedtime, animals in the house, as many sweets as she can eat, victorious encounters with bullies, burglars, police, and pirates, homemade aeroplanes and air-balloon beds that actually fly. Pippi is invincible, irrepressible, fearless: What she sets out to do, she achieves. She’s generous even in triumphing over the numerous bad men who think they can best her (her preferred method of dealing with the inevitably farcical villains who take her on is hanging them on walls or in trees). And she always wins: even when she—a puny-looking girl—is faced with a man-sized job, rescuing her father from a slew of pirates or wrestling the world’s strongest man.
If any of this triggers a twinge of familiarity, it may be because Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander on Pippi Longstocking. According to Larsson’s Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, Larsson imagined Lisbeth as a grown-up, darker version of Pippi. Of course, there are tonal differences: Though Lindgren’s Pippi never quite breaks the laws of physics, she’s an impossible creature, a fantasy of empowerment: rich, self-confident, unnaturally strong, perpetually delighted, never compromising, never defeated. Larsson’s plots may have their fantastic and implausible qualities–Salander is a fantasy of empowerment too, if a grittier one than Pippi–but Larsson’s books do aspire to a certain realism and are particularly interested in the reality that the best and the strongest, the most strong-willed, don’t win every battle (even if they win in the end). While Salander is locked in mental hospitals and children’s homes against her will, turned over to a monstrous guardian whose abuses she cannot thwart, Pippi informs the police officers who’ve come to take her as a ward, “You’ll have to get kids for your children’s home somewhere else. I certainly don’t intend to move there,” and uses a lively game of tag to strand them on her roof. She then carries the officers out of the yard by their belts, giving them cookies as a no-hard-feelings parting gift.
Pippi’s endlessly obliging world certainly isn’t Salander’s; Pippi is a children’s book heroine, after all. But Pippi and Salander do share a fundamental character trait: a deep sense of justice and courage in the pursuit of justice—very real, if increasingly rare, human qualities. In one of Pippi’s first adventures, she stands up to five boys bullying a younger boy. She interrupts the bullies’ taunting of the little boy and brings their taunts on herself. The bullies tease Pippi about her red hair and her clown shoes, but Pippi just smiles her friendliest smile and seems not to hear their taunts. This enrages the ringleader and he shoves her. So, Pippi calmly lifts the bully up and hangs him on a high tree branch, telling him, “I don’t think you have a very nice way with the ladies.”
Pippi is, here and elsewhere, Lisbeth Light (or perhaps the other way round: Lisbeth is Pippi R or X). Both heroines are good at putting dangerous men in their places and both feel a deep sympathy for underdogs and innocents. Pippi’s bully-hanging is the child’s version of Lisbeth’s often much more gruesome acts of justice: Lighting her father on fire in an attempt to protect her mother from him; Taking on the Harriet Vanger case, not for personal gain, but out of a deep hatred of violence against women, a desire to see justice served—and, like Pippi, Lisbeth serves her justice by herself. But with Lindgren’s books—if you’ve got children to read to or if you can still muster a child’s delighted sense of limitless possibility—there’s a purer, simpler pleasure to be had in Pippi than in Lisbeth. This goes without saying, maybe: There are no atrocities in Pippi Longstocking, no dead and mutilated women, no chance of feeling like a sadistic voyeur or that the book’s nominal feminism is actually a slick form of misogyny. But it’s more than that: Pippi is a breathtaking vision of boundless, uninhibited possibility, and pretty funny while she’s at it (so is the dubbing in the movies: Pippi’s friend Annika has a NY/NJ accent that’s to die for). Pippi’s impossible, yes, a fantasy, but she might help you remember what it was like to believe in possibility, in unlikely powers and triumphs. She might also help you imagine a world yet to come of little girls who aren’t Ophelias in need of reviving.
“I can,” says Pippi, when a circus ringleader asks for a volunteer who thinks he can beat a towering, hulking strongman in a wrestling contest. “Oh, no, you couldn’t,” Pippi’s practical, goody-two-shoes friend Annika tells her, “he’s the strongest man in the world.” And Pippi cooly replies: “Man, yes, but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that,” and climbs into the ring.
Guess who wins.
“You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain’t no flattery.”
Appraising this cinematic year, it’s these words, Huckleberry Finn’s description of the resourceful and feisty Mary Jane Watson, that offer the best summing up. It was, to be sure, a year of great film roles for women—Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan; Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mia Wasikowska in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright; Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the eternally mesmerizing Tilda Swinton in the operatic I Am Love, an all too brief glimpse of the effortless Sissy Spacek in Get Low. If there was a reigning ethos in the films (and cinematic novels: think The Hunger Games) of 2010, it was girls on fire, girls doing men’s work. A.O. Scott contends that this movie year was all about class, and it certainly was, but it was also about gritty girls. 2010 gave us the first best director Oscar for a female director, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a film about the very masculine world of war), Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt (a role originally written for a male lead, Tom Cruise), and Helen Mirren resplendent as Prospera, a transgendered version of Shakespeare’s Prospero, in Julie Taymor’s exuberant and impressive (if, as usual, somewhat chaotic) adaption of The Tempest.
But perhaps more noteworthy than these great performances, blockbusterings, and transgenderings was this year’s critical mass of girls on fire: self-possessed, irrepressible young female characters played by self-possessed, irrepressible young female actors—girls, as Huck Finn would say, “just full of sand”:
Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Set and filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Winter’s Bone offers a vision of another America, somewhat evocative of that depicted in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a world of stoic, rural poverty, crank cooking, and intense, absolute clannishness. “Bred and buttered” in this world, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by the quietly luminous and quietly assertive Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself suddenly the head of her household, caretaker to a virtually catatonic mother and two much younger siblings, and in desperate need of answers that violate her community’s strict code of silence and hierarchy. “Ain’t you got no men to do this?” a hard-bitten, suspicious meth matriarch asks Ree when she comes seeking answers about her father’s whereabouts. Ree doesn’t. In the absence of parents and guardians, she must make her own way among the brutal, hostile adults who hold the means to her family’s salvation. Lawrence hits just the right balance playing Ree: as capable of a square-chinned, fend-for-myself, (even) fuck-you attitude—while splitting logs, shooting and skinning squirrels, standing her ground with belligerent police, drug kingpins, and bail-bondsmen—and of the vulnerable, frightened fragility of a child out of her depth. It is this balance that makes Ree’s courage (and Lawrence’s performance) more impressive—because we know her ability to challenge the rules of her world isn’t reflexive: it’s an act she wills herself to out of love for her family and her certainty that justice is on her side.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Feel as you will about sexual politics, prose, or plotting of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, I dare you not to be impressed by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film versions of Larsson’s novels. Among recent filmic evocations of androgyny, Rapace’s Salander stands on par—perhaps above?—Lina Leandersson’s Eli (Let The Right One In), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, Ally Sheedy in High Art, even Tilda Swinton’s masculine/feminine gold standard (Orlando, Constantine). Rapace embodies Salander, Larsson’s dark recasting of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (she who outwits and overpowers men many times her size and age). The most obvious vehicle of Rapace’s masculine femininity is her body, which she trained meticulously before filming began: the squarely set, muscled shoulders, the corded sinews and veins in her arms, neck, and hands; her somehow simultaneously masculine and feminine breast/pectorals. More impressive still is Rapace’s total and absolutely convincing masculine affect: how she sets her mouth, how she takes off her jacket, smokes, eats, drinks, stands, walks. (Nota Bene: You can’t fully appreciate the quality and extent of Rapace’s morph without seeing her out of character, say being interviewed on Charlie Rose). In one of the movie’s best scenes, Lisbeth, in half-fastened combat boots, smokes outside the cabin she’s sharing with the middle-aged journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). It’s a morning after: the night before, Salander has rather unceremoniously had her way with Blomkvist. She walks in brusquely and sits down; Blomkvist looks solicitously at her as she, avoiding his eyes, squirts ketchup on the plate of eggs he’s cooked for her. While Lisbeth shovels down her food with the gusto and unselfconsciousness of a teenage boy, licking her strong, nail-bitten fingers, gulping her coffee, Blomkvist eats small bites delicately, watching her intently, curiously. Nyqvist’s evocations of Leopold Bloom’s “new womanly man” are good, but Rapace’s indomitable, inscrutable Salander is breathtaking.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, in True Grit. Strange to say that among the gritty cast of the Coen brothers’ latest, the straight-backed, apple-cheeked Hailee Steinfeld is grittiest of them all. Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a hard-bargain-driving, Bible-quoting, law-minded 14-year-old determined to bring her father’s killer to justice with her own hands—and a little help from crusty US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the be-fringed Texas Ranger LeBeef (Matt Damon). The crux of Mattie’s character is her unwavering faith in the righteousness of her cause and her absolute determination to “see the thing done” herself. Mattie is also preternaturally articulate and unnervingly, delightfully at home in the world of men, a sort of puritan Calamity Jane. She attempts to engage Cogburn in business negotiations through the door of a barroom jakes and when this doesn’t work invites herself into his bedroom, unfazed by his filth and undress; when LeBeef shows up in her boardinghouse bedroom with his rifle, Mattie’s verbal sparring and continued poise leave LeBeef visibly disconcerted. But, as in Winter’s Bone, the beauty is in the balance: For all her crackshot repartee, Latin, and Scripture, Mattie’s still very much a tenderfoot (flinching reflexively at gunshots and severed fingers, weeping at the death of her pony). The clear-eyed Steinfeld delivers Mattie’s steel and fragility with a light touch—a perfectly natural, steady frankness that is as charming as it is convincing.
Kristen Stewart as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning starring together in a movie that doesn’t, in a word, suck. Fanning is as good as Stewart in this biopic about the original all-girl rock band, The Runaways (often better known as Joan Jett’s launching pad), but her character, the Runaways’ lead singer, Cherie Curry, is that all too common creature: a thin-skinned, compulsively seductive young woman and she doesn’t, in the end, have the hunger or stamina for fame or rock and roll. Sultry and lipstick-feisty but ultimately tediously fragile and difficult, Fanning’s Curry just isn’t as interesting a specimen as Stewart’s Jett—a little feral, sure and not sure of herself at the same time, aggressive and shy by turns. Gruff, hunched, and twitchy—almost stuttering at times, almost pre-verbal—Stewart’s Jett is portrait of the artist as a young woman on the verge of finding her voice.
And, perhaps a rogue choice: Hayley Atwell as Lady Aliena of Shiring in The Pillars of The Earth (an adaption of Ken Follet’s historical novel of the same name). Yes, gothic ridiculousness abounds in this tale of the building of a medieval cathedral and its attendant machinations: poisoned cups, self-flagellating monks with unholy ambitions, bloody dreams and rhyming prophecies, the Michael Bay/Ridley Scott-style galloping-high-drama-at-every-turn theme music. But if you can stomach the melodrama, this production also has a ripping rise-and-fall plot and about as fine a cast as you’re likely to see anywhere, including Donald Sutherland, Matthew McFaddyen, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Redmayne, Allison Pill, and Ian McShane (as the unholy priest, Bishop Waleran—seeing the man who played Deadwood‘s Al Swerengin tonsured and in episcopal robes is a meta-delight of its own). Foremost among the female cast is the young, English actress Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s still waiting for a great role (she was Julia Flyte in the recent, ill-concieved Brideshead Revisited and Bess Foster in the equally ill-conceived The Duchess) but even in flawed productions Atwell distinguishes herself. In Pillars, she plays the spirited Lady Aliena, whose family loses their land and title in the political upheavals of the 12th-century English succession crisis known as “The Anarchy.” Determined to regain her family’s name and prominence, Aliena turns wool merchant and builds the family’s prospects again, one fleece at a time. Atwell plays the fall from the charmed life and the determined climb out of poverty with a passion, almost a rage, that’s sometimes electrifying—made the more striking by her diction and delivery (classical training highly apparent).
And finally, in brief: Chloe Moretz who played the c-bomb dropping, infant assassin Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Abby the infant vampire in Let Me In (the unsubtle American remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In). While some (me among them) found Kick-Ass disturbing and not as clever as it thought it was, Moretz did manage to project an actorly verve superior to her surroundings, as she did in the redundant Let Me In. And perhaps meatier roles lie ahead: Moretz has her eye on the role of Katniss Everdeen in the inevitable film versions of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. And really finally, last but not least: Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Coppola’s film is quieter than the others here: Fanning II’s character, Cleo, isn’t toting guns (she packs an iPhone and the most expressive pair of eyes since Pruitt Taylor Vince) or going toe-to-toe with outlaws (just a jaded moviestar dad in crisis) but she radiates the poise, the same woman-girlishness, the same knowingness beyond her years (as well as a child’s fears, loves, needs), that animates so many of these fine roles.
This is Huck Finn, signing off: “She was the best girl I ever see, and had the most sand.” And may girls, on screen and off, grow ever sandier in 2011.