Podcasts: Fresh Air: Dean Norris on Playing Good in Breaking Bad

Ben Leuner/AMC

Terry Gross interviews Dean Norris, who plays DEA Agent Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad (my favorite character on the show). Gross plays clips from pivotal moments that reflect Norris’ character arc throughout the show’s past four (and current fifth) seasons. Norris discusses his earlier roles and his career, but the majority of the interview revolves around his reflection and analysis of the gritty yet sensitive drug enforcement officer he plays on Breaking Bad. In a show where moral boundaries are blurred and principles are compromised, Hank is the one character who is unselfish and seeks to do the right thing. Gross, a prolific interviewer, conducts a compelling interview with a member of an excellent ensemble cast in one of television’s great current shows.

To listen: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=158196312&m=158205980

To read some highlights: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/06/158196312/dean-norris-on-playing-good-in-breaking-bad

Breaking Bad airs on AMC on Sunday nights; see http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad for more info.

See also: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903747/ for more info on Breaking Bad.

Photo from: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/06/158196312/dean-norris-on-playing-good-in-breaking-bad by Ben Leuner/AMC.

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn

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My Week with Marilyn poster; photo credit Wikipedia

Young love. First love. How many men–and women–have said over the years that Marilyn Monroe was their first love? But how many could say they had their affections returned? My Week with Marilyn is one young man’s story about his brief, chaste love affair with Marilyn Monroe during her time spent in Great Britain filming The Prince and the Showgirl. The movie, based on his diaries/memoir of the same name, documents 23 year-old Colin Clark’s entry into the movie business as Sir Laurence Olivier‘s assistant on the set of the movie. Olivier, a great stage actor, is attempting to gain conventional popularity by starring in a movie with a great movie star–Marilyn Monroe. The two actors’ professional styles clash, as Monroe’s mounting depression and dependence on alcohol and pills cause her to be tardy to the set and forgetful of her lines. As Monroe endures Olivier’s scoldings and arguments with her new husband, Arthur Miller, she seeks solace in the company of the inexperienced Colin Clark, who comes to see past the carefree exterior to the  troubled soul beneath.

Michelle Williams takes on the iconic role of Marilyn Monroe, while Kenneth Branagh steps into Sir Laurence Olivier’s shoes. These two talented actors tackle the challenging task of playing two recognizable classic film stars. Stars Williams and Branagh do not look exactly like their respective counterparts, so they go for another angle by imitating Monroe’s and Olivier’s voices. And they do a spectacular job. Williams nails Monroe’s sultry bedroom murmur, and Branagh–a Shakespearean actor himself–delivers an admirable imitation of Olivier’s flawless command of the spoken English word. Their voices were what stood out to me the most; the secondary (yet just as important) aspect I noticed about the performances is that Williams and Branagh tackled Monroe’s and Olivier’s facial expressions perfectly. Williams may not encompass the sexpot icon that Monroe personified, but she captures the tension of Monroe’s sexuality mixed with insecurity, vulnerability, and a deep desire to be loved as a person, not just as a pinup.

Marilyn Monroe

 

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s fitting that Branagh, a great contemporary Shakespearean actor, here plays Olivier, a great Shakespearean actor from the 1940s and 1950s. Branagh is such an excellent actor in his own right, he can do very little wrong. He also masters Olivier’s impeccable voice and lip movements, which is no easy feat. Although his physical appearance and facial structure resemble Olivier’s even less than Williams’ do Monroe’s, but his interpretation overcomes any challenges there.

Laurence Olivier

 

Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier

But this is not a film that rests solely on imitation. Yes, Williams and Branagh are excellent in their respective roles, but the reason to watch this movie is to see a sweet, if somewhat censored side of Monroe’s vulnerability. Williams’ performance is not raw, but it is honest and endearing. One of the most poignant moments of the film is when Marilyn and Colin take an impromptu tour of Windsor Castle. When the staff realizes she is on the grounds, a handful of them assemble at the foot of the staircase, in awe of the Hollywood starlet who has appeared without an entourage. In a whispered aside to Colin, she whispers, “Shall I be her?” As the starstruck staff mimic an adoring crowd, Marilyn reverts to her bombshell movie star role, posing, laughing, and blowing kisses as the camera shutters fly. It’s a sweet moment that comes at a point in the film when she has somewhat opened herself up to Colin and allowed him to see the girl behind the movie star, the girl who wanted so desperately to be loved as a person and not just as a sex symbol.

Williams and Branagh both garnered Academy Award nominations for their admirable portrayals of these two screen legends. The movie is not overly dramatic or expose any dark Hollywood secrets, except for Clark’s revelation of his time with Monroe. Clark went on to become a successful filmmaker in his own right, but this is a tale of first love–nostalgic, bittersweet, and endearing, as first love so often is.

My rating: Good (3 of 4 stars)

Quick facts: My Week with Marilyn, 2011; R rating with a running time of 99 minutes. Directed by Simon Curtis; The Weinstein Company and BBC Films.

Additional movie information: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1655420/

Book Review: Below Stairs

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It took me far too long to get around to watching Downton Abbey. I’m now halfway through the second season and I can’t get enough of the luxurious lives of the Crawleys, the servants who work for them, and the turmoil of the changing times that affects them all in WWI-era Great Britain. Before I watched the show, I read the memoir of a real kitchen maid who served in the great houses that Downton Abbey is modeled after. The book jacket’s description reads, “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.” Writer and producer Julian Fellowes credits this memoir with helping him to develop the relationships in his creation of Downton Abbey. This fun and informative autobiography was published in 1968; in it, Margaret Powell tells her story of growing up in impoverished England and her employment with wealthy families as a kitchen maid and eventually as a cook. She relates her tale with frank and humorous charm; the result is an honest picture that is part exposé, part reflection on the way things were “in those days,” and part plucky commentary on a life of diverse experience.

Margaret Powell was born Margaret Langley in Hove, England, to poor but loving parents in 1907. One of many children, Margaret was the eldest girl, so a lot of the responsibility for helping to raise the younger children and support the family fell on her. When she was thirteen, she left school and entered into domestic service as a kitchen maid. She describes her experiences working with several different employers, as well as the tenacity that helped her work to continually improve her station in life. Throughout her career, she moved from her job as kitchen maid (the lowest position in the household) to cook. Her book also discusses her eventual marriage which allowed her to leave service to only working at occasional dinner parties for the wealthy. Despite the low social status she was born into, Powell always worked to gain better positions and continue her own intellectual development by reading and later taking classes once she left service.

Powell writes in a conversational way, addressing the reader directly with phrases such as, “mind you,” and describing the servants’ common responsibilities and daily lives with “you” sentences: “…after all you had to work with the servants. Not only work with them, you had to live with them, and almost sleep with them. You shared rooms, so it was up to you to keep on good terms with them. They were your whole life” (p. 74). By inviting the reader to consider the servants’ point of view this way, Powell asks her reader to enter her world more completely. Her frank writing style that’s laced with acerbic wit and rhetorical questions make the reading experience similar to what I imagine it would be like to sit down with Powell and chat over tea. I’m glad I read this book before I watched Downton Abbey because I felt as though I gained a better understanding of what the servants’ lives were like than I would have if I had just watched the somewhat idealized portrayal of their lives in the show.

Daisy, the kitchen maid in Downton Abbey. This is the job that Powell held when she first entered into domestic service

The Crawleys treat their servants as if they are friends and confidantes, if not social equals, but Powell’s book suggests a different picture. Her book is not all sensation or shock; she describes some of her employers as gracious, others as tyrants. She tells in full detail the difficult labor and long hours she and the other servants endured for little pay–she spent hours scrubbing pots and silver, and one employer even requested she iron their shoelaces! Still, her story is one that seeks to share the truth and her personal thoughts and experiences and not to express pure discontent. Instead, her memoir looks at the good and bad in her life and expresses contentment with her choices. It’s a fun and breezy read, and a good choice for anyone who’d like to hear more from the unheard voices in the great and romantic histories of England we often read of or see portrayed onscreen.

My rating: Liked it (3 out of 5 stars)

Acknowledgments: I read the St. Martin’s Press edition of Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, copyright 1968. ISBN 978-1-250-00544-1

Sources: Photo insert from pbs.org: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/season2_characters_daisy.html

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

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It’s surprising that two live-action movies offering twists on the Snow White fairy tale came out this year. I haven’t yet seen Mirror Mirror, the family-friendly version that came out on DVD this week. Snow White and the Huntsman was billed as the slightly more adult version, although the original Brothers Grimm version of Snow White is more gruesome than people often realize. Snow White and the Huntsman combines some elements of the Brothers Grimm version and the popular 1937 Disney version along with original twists to deliver a bold new adaptation with gutsy heroes and impressive visual effects.

The mystical element is continuously at play here; the story emphasizes that the Evil Queen Ravenna (played by Charlize Theron) is a sorceress who uses her powers to take over Snow White’s father’s kingdom. Theron is flawless in everything she does, and this is no exception. She’s every bit the big, bad, beautiful evil queen with a script that allows her to have a trace of humanity. The special effects that showcase her powers are impressive as well, including scenes of her sucking life and beauty from young women and consulting a personified magic mirror. This version also adds in a brother for Ravenna, a right-hand man named Finn (Sam Spruell). Their close relationship hints at incest, but nothing more than a hint. Spruell does a good job as a creepy villain, although his unfortunate bleach-blonde pageboy haircut takes something away from his credibility.

Kristen Stewart takes on the Snow White role; her performance is as mediocre as I expected, but she has a strong enough supporting cast, dizzying effects and a decent script to carry her through. She certainly seems to have her windblown hair flip and wistful, vacant gaze down. She’s scripted as a tough, resilient heroine, and Stewart does what she can to take it on, but her limited ability to show honest emotion and gain an audience’s sympathy puts a damper on her performance.

Rounding out the star trio is Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman–he never gets another name. A hard-edged, embittered widower, he is drafted by Ravenna to venture into the woods when Snow White escapes from her imprisonment. He gets more pivotal role here than this character has in other versions; at first his goal is only to deliver Snow White to the queen since she has promised to bring his dead wife back to life, but soon he is moved by Snow White’s spirit and her compassion. He does everything he’s supposed to in this role–he’s rugged, good-looking, and he’s an easy character to sympathize with; when you see Thor cry, you’ll know what I mean.

The version borrows from the Disney version in that it incorporates an enchanted forest that seems to come to life; in the Disney version, it’s pretty clear that Snow White is a victim of her own imagination, but in this one, the magical forces are at work to create a truly menacing forest. As in the Disney version, Snow White has an almost supernatural force that draws animals and people to her. The difference here is that there are several deliberate references and attempts to make sure the audience knows that Snow White is not just the fairest in the land, but an independent and self-sufficient heroine. It’s likely an attempt to bring a contemporary twist to a fairy tale, but it’s not done in a way that’s too preachy or heavy-handed. It calls to mind the Drew Barrymore adaptation of Ever After in which Cinderella drew the prince in through her intellect rather than by her beauty alone. The dark and impressive special effects in Huntsman hearkened to Lord of the Rings with a full cast of other-worldly creatures. Yes, the dwarves are here as well, but their parts of somewhat diminished and this is probably the first version where the dwarves were not played by little people. Instead, a special effects technique was used to make the actors who play them seem smaller. There’s a Prince Charming as well (Sam Claflin), but he doesn’t stand much of a chance when paralleled with the Huntsman.

In what appears to be his first feature film, director Rupert Sanders delivers an adventurous and brooding take on the Snow White story. The ending is one which looks to provide a smooth transition to the announced sequel, and it seems one is already in the works. It’s an exciting and impressive film, although Kristen Stewart is hard to believe as a passionate rebel. Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing for the special effects and Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the Evil Queen alone.

My rating: Good (3 of 4 stars)

Quick facts: Snow White and the Huntsman, 2012; PG-13 rating with a running time of 127 minutes; directed by Rupert Sanders; Roth Films, Universal Pictures.

Sources: Photo insert: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White_and_the_Huntsman

Additional movie information: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1735898/

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Last month, I wrote a post based on my perceptions of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Several people who have read the Twilight series have told me to give it a chance. I haven’t gotten past the first page, but after discussing the Fifty Shades trilogy with friends and acquaintances, I discovered that it was a hot topic discussion with several people I know. So, I sucked it up, went to Target, grabbed a copy of the first book (eh, it was only $12, so I didn’t feel too bad about the purchase) and read it–I didn’t devour it the way some readers did, but I did do my duty to gain an informed opinion.

The plot is hardly a secret anymore, but just in case you missed it, here’s a brief rundown. The trilogy’s narrator is Anastasia Steele (or, Ana, as she most often calls herself). She’s a klutzy, shy college senior in her last few weeks of college in Vancouver, Washington. Her roommate, Kate, writes for the college’s newspaper, but due to a well-timed illness is unable to complete her scheduled interview with Christian Grey, a young business mogul/billionaire/humanitarian/college benefactor. Ana steps in to cover for her friend, and so she heads for Christian’s office to complete the interview. She literally stumbles into his office, and the gorgeous, enigmatic Christian Grey helps her gain her composure and sits through Ana’s interview. Reading this interview scene caused this reader to cringe (I’ll admit, I cringed through much of this book for various reasons!) as Ana bumbles awkwardly through Kate’s interview questions. Ana explains that Christian is pretty hot. OK, that’s an understatement. She can barely handle being in his presence, so struck is she by his magnetic good looks. His hotness is a recurring motif throughout the trilogy, so be prepared for lots of descriptions of his hair, chest and–manhood.

For reasons I couldn’t understand, Christian Grey is quite taken by Ana, so much so that he arranges to see her again and ends up making out with her in a very unexpected and out-of-the-blue fashion. Soon, he is showing up wherever she is; at her workplace, a bar, her apartment. It’s a little creepy and stalker-esque, and Ana seems both surprised and flattered by the attention. When they finally discuss their mutual attraction, Grey reveals that he has never had a romantic relationship of the traditional sort; he explains that he partakes in sexual relationships where the women are deemed Submissives and he is the Dominant–he shows Anastasia his “playroom” where he carries out these scenarios. Ana dubs it the “Red Room of Pain,” as it’s decked out with a multitude of sex toys and–weapons, for lack of a better term. As he introduces Ana to his lifestyle, he also woos her with expensive dinners, rides in his private helicopter and the gift of a new car. Despite her reservations, the virginal Ana embarks on a relationship with Christian, comes to realize her own sexuality, and learns more about Christian’s dark past.

There are three books in this series; I am finishing the third one now, so I’ll get to the rest of the story in a future post. The writing style is similar in all three; Ana tells her story in the present tense and relates her internal monologue and unvoiced thoughts in her narrative. It gets quite tedious; she never ceases to be surprised or shocked by Christian’s sexual prowess, and lets the reader know she’s taken aback by gasping often or thinking holy cow or oh my. E L James’ prose is juvenile at best; Ana is supposed to be only 22, so it does fit her character, but Christian Grey talks like no other 27 year-old American I’ve ever met. His speech is riddled with clichés and repetition as well; he tells Ana over and over that he finds her “intoxicating” and “fascinating.” He most often addresses her as “Miss Steele,” while she calls him “Mr. Grey.” Once again, twenty-somethings on the United States’ West Coast rarely use such titles.

The sex is steamy and somewhat gratuitous; I couldn’t read the book for too long at any given time; the story was so drenched in sex, the plot was hard to find. But, I don’t think most people are reading this series for the plot. Since I first heard about the series, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why women are so fascinated by it and by Christian Grey. He hardly seems like an ideal romantic figure in my mind. Where some readers view him as mysterious and charming, I see him as controlling and manipulative. After reading most of the series and discussing it with others, I think I may have nailed down the main reasons why this voyeuristic fantasy is still topping the New York Times bestseller list:

1. The Cinderella Factor: Christian Grey embodies the fantasy of a rich, mysterious man who appears out of nowhere, sweeps the ordinary heroine off her feet, showers her with gifts and compliments and tells her she is perfect in every way. His terms of endearment aren’t exactly original, but they do hit right at the desire to be idolized.

2. Chicks dig a bad boy: Christian is a man of mystery who harbors dark secrets. He’s incredibly hot, incredibly rich, and incredibly powerful. His unusual sexual preferences and tortured, damaged soul make for a guy who’s risky but also reformable. Since Ana makes a great impact on him, she’s able to reach him in a way no other woman has, which speaks to another fantasy of women who want to be the one to change the bad boy.

3. It’s taboo: Entertainment makes for safe, vicarious fantasy. In this series, the reader can experience a less mainstream form of sexual gratification that is edgy, painful, and somewhat scary. Author Janet Burroway writes, “Literature offers feelings for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve…” (Writing Fiction, p. 74). While calling Fifty Shades literature is a bit of a stretch, it allows the layperson to vicariously experience an alternative sexual lifestyle without experiencing the risks.

4. All the cool kids are reading it: Let’s be honest–this book is everywhere and everyone’s talking about it. One of the women I spoke with about this book brought up how quickly it gets passed around in social circles when one member reads the book then informs the rest of the group about it; it makes the rounds quickly and prompts lots of discussion. I read it primarily to be in-the-know.

5. Oh, right–the sex: Yes, yes, there’s lots of sex. Based on what I’ve read, the series is amping up quite a few sex lives; as one woman told me, “It just makes you really want to have sex.” I’ve heard no complaints from the male set.

It’s not great literature, and not even really a great story. The main problem is that E L James commits the cardinal sin of creative writing: she tells everything and shows hardly anything. Her awkward prose spells out every thought and emotion Ana has, and the rest of the characters and locations are one-dimensional and can be taken at face value. There’s not much here that’s multifaceted or nuanced; the reader can take it at face value without analysis. I’ll allow that anyone who’s reading this probably isn’t looking for great character development or layered plot; I certainly wasn’t expecting that when I picked it up. It all depends on what you’re looking for; I read this mostly to understand what everyone was talking about. Now I guess I have to read Twilight.

My rating: It was ok (2 out of 5 stars)

Acknowledgments: I read the Vintage edition of Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, copyright 2011. ISBN 978-0345803481

Janet Burroway quote taken from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Sixth Edition) by Janet Burroway, Longman/Pearson Education, copyright 2003. ISBN 0-321-11795-6

Book Review: My Extraordinary Ordinary Life

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When I was a teenager, I flipped on the TV one weekend and found a strange, enthralling movie on TBS. Soon I was engrossed in the tragic and supernatural story of Carrie White, a bullied teenager who develops telekinetic powers in response to the torments of her classmates and overbearing mother. Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Carrie (1976) stars Sissy Spacek in her breakout role. Although the movie was a good twenty years old by the time I got to see it, I was instantly hooked by this actress who did not have conventional movie-star looks, but whose presence fixed my attention on her raw, heart-wrenching performance. Soon after that, I caught an airing of her Oscar-winning performance portraying county singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). Once again, I saw her take on her role whole-heartedly, adopting a Kentucky accent and belting out Lynn’s country classics in her own singing voice. I was mesmerized, and soon I was hunting down any movie she’d been in. At fourteen, I found my favorite actress. Fourteen years later, if you were to ask me who my favorite actress is, I’d still say Sissy Spacek.

Reading her memoir, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, I was pleased to find that my perception of Spacek as a down-to-earth, approachable person was accurate. I’ve always thought of her as someone who could easily be a friend or neighbor and her descriptions of a homegrown childhood in rural Texas confirmed my expectations. She spends a good chunk of the book describing her childhood in a supportive, loving family life with her parents and two brothers. Her writing reflects someone whose roots are important to her and whose relationships mean more than a career. She recounts her family history, including anecdotes of her extended family, and a tracing of her roots to her Czech ancestors. She relates how a family tragedy helped spur on her desire to pursue performing with a visit to New York to visit her cousin, actor Rip Torn. While she originally wanted a singing career, through twists of fate, she found a film career instead. Her endearing writing style connects her roles and acting experiences with her childhood memories; for example, she based her character of Nita Longley in Raggedy Man on her mother and a telephone operator from her hometown of Quitman, Texas.

Her memoir features two sections of both color and black-and-white photographs; a nice touch is that the book includes just as many pictures of her childhood memories, her husband (production and art designer Jack Fisk) and her two daughters as it does of her movie stills. The readable prose is divided into four main sections that detail her experiences living in Texas as a child, New York as a young adult, California when her acting career took off, and Virginia, where she and her husband purchased a farm to escape the smog of Los Angeles and create a haven to raise their daughters. What makes the book a pleasant read is that she doesn’t rely on scandal or exposé to tell her story; her book reflects an authentic person who is unafraid to get her hands dirty, both on and off-screen, but she doesn’t rely on digging up dirt on co-stars or family members to sell a book. Instead, she sticks to telling her story from the perspective of an actress who found success but whose happiness lies with her family. My Extraordinary Ordinary Life is a fitting title for an autobiography of a woman whose fame was somewhat accidental but whose life is purposeful.

My rating: Liked it (3 out of 5 stars)

Acknowledgments: I read the Hyperion edition of My Extraordinary Ordinary Life by Sissy Spacek with Maryanne Vollers, copyright 2012. ISBN 978-1-4013-2436-0

Book Review: Child Star

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Of all the children to grace the silver screen, perhaps no one deserves the title of “Child Star” more than Shirley Temple. In her aptly named memoir, Shirley Temple Black reflects on a childhood that was spent in front of the cameras. At a young age, she enjoyed a greater level of fame, popularity and success than many of her peers in the business. Her success at the box office helped a floundering Fox Film Corporation rise out of debt and near-bankruptcy and created a career that allowed her to work with some of the great actors of the time and meet influential people all over the world. Although this volume of her autobiography doesn’t address her career in later years as a United States ambassador to the Republic of Ghana and Czechoslovakia, her inclusion of her experiences meeting J. Edgar Hoover, the Roosevelts, and the Prime Minister of Canada helps the reader to see how she made the transition from movie star to diplomat.

Shirley Temple was born on April 23, 1928, to George and Gertrude Temple in Santa Monica, California. According to Temple’s description, her mother was not the typical, overbearing stage mother. Although her mother did enroll her in a school for the performing arts at a young age (which would eventually lead to her discovery and recruitment for short films known as “Baby Burlesks”), Temple Black paints a portrait of her family life as supportive and stable. Her mother acted as a liaison between her daughter and studio head Darryl Zanuck, while her father helped manage her income. Shirley was a Hollywood institution by the time she was six, a curly-haired, precocious scene-stealer whose spunk and talent helped offer hope in the Depression-era United States and around the world. Her films such as Little Miss Marker, Curly Top, Bright Eyes and The Littlest Rebel made her a household name. Today, her famous dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and her rendition of “The Good Ship Lollipop” in Bright Eyes remain embedded in film history.

Having grown up with Shirley Temple movies, I was interested in learning about her life and acting experience. Although the autobiography recalls her childhood in great detail from a child’s perspective, she also incorporates the point of view an adult telling her story retrospectively. She comments on her life in its historical context and discusses the economic struggles and successes of the studios and the nation, her experiences living through both the Depression and WWII, and the famous people she met and befriended throughout her career. She is a capable writer; while I enjoy reading actors’ autobiographies for the insight into their careers, I rarely expect high-caliber writing, since it’s usually not their primary vocation. Temple Black defies that stereotype, delivering a readable and descriptive narrative that is rich with dialogue and engaging story-telling. Her book follows her through childhood success, her teenage transition to slightly more adult roles, her first marriage at sixteen, the births of her children, her divorce, and second marriage to Charlie Black. The book ends with a memory of her enjoying her role volunteering at one of her children’s school productions of The Wizard of Oz. I was surprised that the book ended where it did, as I expected more on her later years after Hollywood, but according to the official website, the second volume of her autobiography is in the works.

This book would most be appreciated by people who are familiar with her films who may want to read it as a nostalgic memoir, but it’s also an interesting story of a child star who did not descend into a world of drugs and bankruptcy. Her story stays surprisingly grounded, even through stories of meeting Amelia Earhart and Orson Welles, threats of kidnapping, and a difficult first marriage. Temple Black relates an unfortunate story of how she discovered that those entrusted with her money had not saved enough from her earnings to leave her set for life, but the anecdote serves to show her as a grounded and sympathetic person who never let fame go to her head. It’s a pleasant memoir, and although lengthy at 517 pages plus a filmography, it’s certainly worth the read.

My rating: Really liked it (4 out of 5 stars)

Acknowledgments: I read the McGraw-Hill edition of Child Star by Shirley Temple Black, copyright 1988. ISBN 0-07-005532-7

Vampires, Bondage and Strange Love: Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying

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This post is a bit of a departure for me. I’ve been writing about media that I have actually read or watched or consumed. Today, I choose instead to write about two books that are somewhat related, but that I have not read. Normally I don’t like to cast snap judgments on something that I haven’t fully engaged with, but in this case, I couldn’t resist. I was just too stumped not to write about them. Since I haven’t read either the Twilight series or the now wildly popular 50 Shades of Grey, all of my observances and analyses are based on what I’ve read, seen or heard regarding these two loosely connected series. If I get the basic facts or my interpretation wrong, please correct me. Believe me, I hope you do–perhaps then I’ll begin to understand!

As I understand, both books feature female protagonists who are somewhat plain, uninteresting, and virginal. During the course of the series, they meet and are seduced by strange and exotic men who help them realize their full potential, beauty, and sexual identities. In the case of Twilight, Bella is wooed by both a sparkly, brooding vampire and a hunky psuedo-werewolf. I gather this mostly from friends who have read the books and from the horrifying movie trailers I’ve seen in passing on TV. In 50 Shades of Grey, it seems that the young Anastasia is wooed by a mysterious billionaire who also has a penchant for domination. Both of these premises have proved wildly popular among women in all age groups; until Edward came along, I’m pretty sure the teeny-boppers weren’t as excited about a guy since Elvis rocked his scandalous hips. Grey is now so popular among adult women that it’s hailed as “mommy porn.” And not only adult women are tearing through this steamy series–according to one blogger I follow, teenage patrons in her bookstore try to buy the book as well.

Um. OK. So, as I see it, women can’t get enough of men who complete them or help them feel fulfilled. And, apparently, the best way to find oneself and realize one’s identity is through a passionate love affair with either one of the undead or with someone who is into BDSM (bondage/domination/sadism/masochism–or so I read). I guess the author of Grey got her start writing fan fiction based loosely on Twilight; I don’t know if the vampire hero, Edward, in Twilight is also into BDSM–anyone want to enlighten me on that? What I do gather is that in both series, there is little to no description or depth given to either Bella in Twilight or Anastasia in Grey. As Matthew Inman so brilliantly summarizes in his Oatmeal post on Twilight, Bella is nondescript enough that it is easy for any female reader to imagine herself as the heroine basking in all of Edward’s beauty and adoration of her. If a vampire were trying to hit on me, my first instinct would be to run the other way, but apparently this vampire bathes in glitter, which must remove some of the menace. And if some dude tried to lure me into his bedroom with the promise of whips and chains and handcuffs, I’d probably run the other way as well, no matter how rich he was. Call me a boring prude, but that doesn’t exactly scream romance. It seems to work for  Anastasia, who is also a timid, nondescript female who only awakens sexually when the domineering Christian Grey takes her into his bedroom.

So, here we are, in 2012, and the best male romantic figures we’ve got is a brooding, moody vampire who believes in waiting until marriage to have sex and a sexy billionaire who is out to get as much kinky sex as he can get. Cool. Are these the ideal men we’re hoping for or that we hope for our daughters or the young women in our lives? I know both books are touted as “fantasy,” “escapist” or “voyeuristic,” but I still find it deeply troubling that women are finding fulfillment in reading about these largely male-dominated and sometimes abusive relationships and finding them sexy. Do we women still, in the end, need a man to worship us (or at least say he does) and call us beautiful and deserving in order to believe it? It’s like feminism never even happened! I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having a man tell a woman she’s beautiful and valuable–in a normal and healthy relationship. Neither Edward nor Christian seem to be providing one of those to their ladies.

I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of romantic movies or books, but that doesn’t mean that I’m without sentiment. Over 150 years ago, Charlotte Brontë published a book that was considered suggestive and scandalous in its time; it also contained a hero named Edward. In Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester is dark and brooding and full of sexual energy and mysterious secrets; in some ways, he does help the plain Jane come into her own. For the most part, however, Jane is full of her own convictions and independence, and willing to verbally spar with and challenge Rochester, despite their gender and class differences. The difference here is that this Edward calls Jane, “my equal…my likeness” (Chapter 22). Yes, this Edward definitely has some skeletons in the closet (ahem–attic) that he needs to sort out, but I don’t think he kept a store of bondage materials up there. This story is one of mutual love and respect, neither of which seem too evident in either Twilight or Grey. It’s surprising to me that in order to find a strong, emancipated woman in literature, my first thought was to think back to classic British literature that is over 150 years old.

My issue is not with enjoying some light reading or even indulging in some fantasy; instead, I’m concerned with the lack of strong and independent women in these scenarios. Why do these women have to be weak and lack opinions? Why do they have to find their emotional and physical identity through these self-serving men? I kind of just want to grab these women by the shoulders and tell them to go take a class or read a book or take a walk outside or ride a bike or do something for themselves instead of pandering to these freaky guys.

Well, I suppose I’ll have to go actually read all of these books now in order to see if my rant is justified. To be fair, I did try to read Twilight once to see what all the hype was about. I picked it up in Costco one day, read the first page, then put it back. I just couldn’t do it. I suppose I should give it another shot. Until I can bring myself to do so, I’ll take comfort in the fact that Katniss Everdeen is a popular contemporary female protagonist who doesn’t rely on a man to get things done. I’m glad she’s out there as a role model to young women who shows that you don’t need a man to succeed; you just need to kill a few people and maybe start a rebellion against the government.

15 Books…

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Almost three years ago, one of those chain letters was going around Facebook. Now, normally I don’t copy and repost those “what was your first cat’s name” questionaires, but I did complete this one because I thought it was a fun and interesting way to share books that have impacted my life. The challenge was to list 15 books that will always stick with you and have made a difference in your life. The other twist was to create the list without thinking about it for too hard or too long, but just to list the books that come to your head immediately. I reread my list recently, and found that for the most part, it’s stayed the same. I decided to substitute a book I read in the past five years for a childhood favorite that I had on my original list, but I thought I’d keep the rest as they have great staying power. Here are my 15; what are yours?

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
I first read this dystopian novel in high school; I’ve been a fan of both the genre and Canadian author Margaret Atwood ever since. Offred is a Handmaid living in Gilead, a futuristic society in what remains of Canada. For unexplained reasons, the population is declining, and only a few women–called handmaids–are able to reproduce. Offred is one such handmaid, and she invites us into her mind and her world as a woman held captive by the government and assigned to powerful men to produce offspring. It’s a chilling yet beautiful story, and ranks as one of my favorite books of all time. 
The Handmaid's Tale 

2. Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Another great book from another great Canadian author, Anne of Green Gables is the timeless and wistful story of a little red-haired orphan who is mistakenly adopted by the elderly Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who had intended to adopt a boy, but take Anne in when the orphanage sends her instead. Anne’s imagination and love of life make for an infectious and endearing book that I enjoy just as much now as I did when I was a child. And yes, that’s my very worn twenty year-old paperback copy!

3. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

A stunning debut novel from Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things has some of the most lyrical and creative prose I’ve ever enjoyed. It’s the story of two fraternal twins, Rahel and Estha, who live in India with their mother and grandparents. All too quickly they learn of tragedy, loss of innocence, and the power dynamics at play in the caste system. It’s intricately crafted, beautifully told, and altogether unforgettable.

4. Small Island, by Andrea Levy
I love stories where the characters’ lives intertwine and crash into one another; they show how interdependent we are as human beings and how our actions and decisions affect others more than we realize. Small Island tells the story of four people: two Jamaican, two English. All four fall under the scope of the British Empire during WWII, and when the two from Jamaica move to England, their four lives are changed forever. Levy has great narrative talent, and I’ve read three of her books; this is her best.

5. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Before Stephenie Meyer penned stories of swoon-worthy vampires, the Brontë sisters cooked up the ultimate dark and moody romantic heroes in the pages of their novels–and they did it with style, class, and talent. I first read this passionate and wild classic as a young adult, and I’ve read it several times since then. In this breathtaking Gothic novel, Brontë’s impulsive heroine, Cathy, and her brooding hero, Heathcliff, carry out one of literature’s most haunting and tortured romances.

6. 1984, by George Orwell
Orwell’s classic is the final and most ominous look at a futuristic totalitarian government. I read it in high school before it was assigned and quickly found myself sucked into the world of Big Brother. Striking and terrifying, it’s one that no one who reads it can soon forget.

7. Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
Traveling Mercies is a candid and never-preachy memoir of faithAnne Lamott tells the story of her life that involved drugs, eating disorders, and unplanned pregnancies until her meeting with Jesus that helped pull her out of a downward spiral. This is by no means a typical story of religious awakening and conversion; it’s raw, blunt, witty and insightful. It has helped shaped who I am as a spiritual and thoughtful being.

8. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle
I taught preschool for a year, so there was a time when I could read this book without looking at the words. Reading this children’s classic to my students who asked to have it read over and over is a memory I will always treasure. If you have never had the pleasure of reading this book to a child, do yourself a favor and read it. You may find you’ll love  reading it just as much as they enjoy listening to it: “…but he was still hungry…”

9. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
I think my copy of this book has fallen into the abyss of Lent-Out Books. But if someone is out there enjoying this gorgeous saga, it’s worth the personal loss. This sweeping epic novel tells the story of three generations of the Stephanides family and their journey from Greece to Michigan. Calliope Stephanides is our narrator through the journey of a family’s travels and family secrets in a novel that’s hard to put down.

10. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
This is the only book I’ve ever read where I read Cliffs Notes. Don’t worry, I read the whole book, not just the condensed version; I just needed the help to understand what was going on in this brilliant novel. Faulkner’s masterpiece was a challenge for me as I tried to navigate the change in narrators and stream-of-consciousness writing. It was one of the most challenging books I ever read, but when I got it, it sunk in and never left. Its imagery and narration is hard to forget, as is its villain, one of the most deplorable in American literature.

11. Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis
This book was assigned reading in a world history class my freshman year of college. I read it in just a couple of days because it was so entrancing. C.S. Lewis retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche in a gripping tale that stuck with me long after I finished reading.

12. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo
This book replaced #12 in my original list from a couple of years ago. Its profound truth touched the core of who I am and inspired my life outlook. It’s a simple story of a Spanish shepherd who travels to Egypt in search of a great treasure. His journey is a life metaphor that holds nuggets of wisdom encased in a well-told and profound story.

13. Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman
This was one of my favorite historical fiction books as a young adult. It gives the reader an in-your-face view of the Middle Ages from the perspective of Catherine, a fourteen year-old lord’s daughter whose father is searching for a suitable husband for his daughter. Our headstrong and adventurous heroine will have none of this business, and she makes every attempt to scare off every suitor her father brings. It’s a detailed account told through Catherine’s diary, one that takes us through Catherine’s trials and tribulations and delivers a painless history lesson.

14. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
George Orwell made it on this list twice, my only repeat author. It’s a classic work that has been anthologized yet rarely fully appreciated by its teenage audience. I had a great English teacher in high school who taught the allegorical novella along with a full-fledged history on the Russian Revolution. Orwell’s satire relates history through a tale of farm animals who overthrow their masters in a humorous yet sobering way. This book contains one of the most shocking last lines I’ve ever read.

15. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Golding’s shocking story of young boys stranded on an island digs into the core of human nature and the extremes of human goodness and evil. It’s an English teacher’s dream, filled with metaphors and symbols that explore the roots of civilization and society, with all their potential and downfalls. It’s a thought-provoking and terrifying look at humanity, a book that’s so haunting in its brutality and imagery, its message has never left me.

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