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.
The first half of 2007 was a Dark Age of reading for me. Virtually every time I sat down with even the most promising book, my mind would float to the massive Redesign project headaches we were having at the newspaper. I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t get drawn in. I was in the wrong frame of mind to read. I was in the frame of mind to brood.And then, as things do, the darkness cleared, and a new age of enlightenment began. And I began to read and absorb as if I’d just regained my sight. I began with Michael Chabon, an author I’d only heard of at that point. Very quickly I devoured two collections of short stories and three of his novels. His first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the collection A Model World introduced me to his storytelling and Wonder Boys and, especially, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay showed me the full depth and breadth of his writing.Other highlights of the year include George Saunders’ Pastoralia, a fiction collection brimming with wit and insight, and A Field Guide To The North American Family, the illustrated novella from my Millions cohort Garth Risk Hallberg, whose intertwined tale of the Hungate and Harrison families, with its tight prose – somehow simultaneously economical and gloriously open, and its shifting point-of-view and tone, and thematically-linked photos, is nothing short of fascinating, both in concept and execution.And capping the year, on the heels of my Hemingwayesque sojourn in Paris, was a re-read of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his formative years in 1920s Paris. Each vignette reads as a precise, evocative short story, and the collection is not only my favorite memoir of that era, but also my favorite Hemingway book. And my top read of 2007.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Mark Sarvas, proprietor of The Elegant Variation, takes some time to share the books he read in 2006 that he found, shall we say, most to his liking. First off, the more I think about it, the less I care for the whole “Best of” formulation. It offends me on a number of levels, not the least of which is by the assumption that one has read enough of what’s on offer in a year to be able to decide what’s “Best”. (And this is no knock on this inestimable blog; rather, it’s a systemic crankiness that’s afflicting me this year.) So I’m going to come instead from the perspective of “My Favorites of the Year,” which seems more inherently more defensible. (And, in an open note to newspaper editors everywhere, why not opt for the more modest construction “Editor’s Choice” or “Editor’s Favorite”? It seems preferable to the untenably pompous “Best of” declarations that have becomede rigeur.)OK. End of my mini-rant. A list, in alphabetical order, of books thatstruck me as being of particular note in 2006:Amphigorey Again by Edward Gorey: What will probably be the last collection from a master.Black Swan Green: David Mitchell proves he can do “human” as well as “clever” with a breakthrough novel.Christine Falls: It will only be available in the US next year, but John Banville’s first thriller as Benjamin Black is drawing deserved praise forits UK release.Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio: The best short story collection we’ve read in years. Breathtaking.The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas: Flawed but exuberant, it’s a Foucault’s Pendulum for the iPod generation.Everything that Rises: Lawrence Weschler’s brilliant John Berger-esque collection of essays on unlikely visual convergences.Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: The graphic novel that finally won me over to the form.The Lost: Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliantly written memoir answers those who ask if there’s anything left to write about the Holocaust.The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier, translated by Lorin Stein: A delicious Gallic treat, depicting the party from hell and explaining what every man should know about turtleneck sweaters.Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: OK, this one is a cheat – it’s not out until March of next year but this hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change my mind about MFAs.Ticknor by Sheila Heti: If there’s a favorite of the year, this bitter comedy of envy and failure would be the one.Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon: It’s not from this year but I only just caught up with it and can see what the fuss was about.Thanks Mark!
Michael Chabon provides an update on the progress of a movie version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on his Web site. Somewhat cryptically, he writes “The fate of this project–whether it will move at last from the nebulousness of pre-pre-production into really-truly pre-production, with a budget and cast and everything, will be decided on or around 12 July 2006.”He adds that Natalie Portman “is a strong likelihood” to play Rosa, and then provides some quick answers to what will and will not make it into the big-screen version of the book: “Golem: yes. Antarctica: yes. Gay love story: yes. Ruins of World’s Fair: no. Long Island: no. Orson Welles: no. Salvador Dali: yes. Loving reference to Betty and Veronica: no. Stan Lee: no.”Meanwhile, IMDb as of this writing has very few details about the film. Just that Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliot and The Hours is set to helm and Scott Rudin is the producer. Rudin was also behind the excellent big-screen version of Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys.On a somewhat related note, Chabon’s next novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is to come out in May of 2007.