December 31, 2012

Chris Askew on Withnail and I

My sister, Chris, recently watched Romancing the Tome favorite Withnail and I for the first time. Here are her thoughts on this cult flick, which happens to be a perfect accompaniment to any mid-winter ennui one might be feeling. --Kim

When I sat down to write this little love letter for Withnail and I, it was, of course, mandatory to quote at least a few of those wonderfully memorable lines. The trouble came when trying to settle on which ones to use. It's all so brilliantly written. Line after line of hilarious, witty, and unique dialogue. When Uncle Monty discusses his fondness for (ahem...) gardening: "I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees." I cracked up when Withnail and Marwood approached the farmer in a desperate attempt to obtain food and warmth after they've come to the country cottage completely unprepared "We've come on holiday by mistake!" "We're not from London!" but although I laughed from beginning to end, the film is as heartbreaking as it is funny. Along with all the wit and fun is a moving coming-of-age story about outgrowing a lifestyle and outgrowing a friendship. We see throughout the film that Withnail is a self-serving coward "It's you he wants! Offer yourself to him!," but we like him still. We are laughing and loving watching Withnail drink the lighter fluid and the both of them digging in the sink:
  "Something's floating up!!" 
  "What is it?"
  "It's MATTER!"
We are laughing and loving it but we know it can't last. We know their lifestyle is robbing them of ever fulfilling their hopes and dreams... and it is clear that although Marwood is prepared to take the risk of leaving the comfortably familiar for the challenges of the unknown when he takes a job in Manchester, Withnail will stay behind, continue to deteriorate and very likely lose what little of a life he has left. And so it is bittersweet when we watch them say goodbye knowing somehow that they will never see one another again. In reality, that is exactly what happened to the writer/director Bruce Robinson and his Camden flatmate and close friend Vivian MacKerrell who was indeed the inspiration for Withnail. The two parted ways when Robinson realized he had to end their friendship or he wouldn't survive to tell the tale. Apparently the lighter fluid scene was based on a very real incident which left MacKerrell blind for days! --Chris Askew

December 27, 2012

Little Women's New Year's Eve for Introverts

In Chapter 3: The Laurence Boy, Jo officially meets Laurie for the first time at a New Year's Eve party at the home of Meg's friend Sallie Gardner, where Jo is hiding behind a curtain. Best wishes for a Happy New Year to you all! --Kim 

Meg knew Sallie and was at her ease very soon, but Jo, who didn't care much for girls or girlish gossip, stood about, with her back carefully against the wall, and felt as much out of place as a colt in a flower garden. Half a dozen jovial lads were talking about skates in another part of the room, and she longed to go and join them, for skating was one of the joys of her life. She telegraphed her wish to Meg, but the eyebrows went up so alarmingly that she dared not stir. No one came to talk to her, and one by one the group dwindled away till she was left alone. She could not roam about and amuse herself, for the burned breadth would show, so she stared at people rather forlornly till the dancing began. Meg was asked at once, and the tight slippers tripped about so briskly that none would have guessed the pain their wearer suffered smilingly. Jo saw a big red headed youth approaching her corner, and fearing he meant to engage her, she slipped into a curtained recess, intending to peep and enjoy herself in peace. Unfortunately, another bashful person had chosen the same refuge, for, as the curtain fell behind her, she found herself face to face with the 'Laurence boy'. Keep reading.

December 21, 2012

The Leopard & Sofia Coppola’s Redemption by Robert Fay

To celebrate the launch of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we're featuring guest bloggers all week. Today's guest is writer Robert Fay who recently completed his memoir and is a monthly contributor to Full Stop Magazine. (He's also responsible for introducing me to Javier Marias's superb trilogy Your Face Tomorrow.) Thanks so much, Robert, for helping us fête our book launch! --Kim

Francis Ford Coppola has apparently become nostalgic for his big-studio 1970s self. News reports indicate he plans to mothball his art-house sensibility and begin working on a big-budget generational saga set in New York.  Now, as much I love Coppola’s small, personal films—his 2009 film Tetro is a minor classic—I miss the man who could work with the competing star power of Pacino, Brando, Keaton, Duvall, and Cann, all-the-while telling a grand, sweeping story of America during the first half of the 20th century.

I have a particular fondness for the scenes in The Godfather where Michael Corleone is exiled to rural Sicily. The heat and parched hills of Sicily—the cacti, bougainvillea, and ancient vendettas—contrast brilliantly with wintery 1940s New York with its post-war cheer and burgeoning materialism. I love the scene where Michael strolls along a rutted stone path with his new love Appolonia, and a few paces behind them is half the village, chaperoning them, as Michael seems to time travel back to traditional, Catholic Sicily where his father and ancestors lived and died for centuries.

If I was the secret film investor with “infinite money” as Coppola describes this mysterious individual, I would persuade Coppola that the generational saga he needed to make was not to be set in New York, but back in Sicily. I’d tell him he had to make a movie based on the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1958). The Leopard is the only novel Giuseppe di Lampedusa ever wrote, but few writers have ever written as sublime a book. The novel is set in the 1860s in both Palermo and rural Sicily, where we witnesses the festering decay of an old aristocratic family from the perspective of the  patriarch, the Prince of Salina, Fabrizio Corbera. Amid the background chaos of Italian independence movements and wars, the seemingly eternal world and influence of the European aristocracy begins to crumble before the face of modernity.

Coppola, being the student of film history that he is, would remind me that The Leopard had been filmed in 1963 with Burt Lancaster as the Prince. I would reply, “Yes Francis, that’s true. But you’ve been away from the real Hollywood far too long. It’s all remakes these days. Get this: they made a Spider Man movie in 2002: and then they remade it—AGAIN—this year! Look Francis, no one except you, and maybe that film geek Martin Scorsese will recall the original Leopard. So let’s do it.” I’m not sure if Coppola would buy that line of reasoning, but then again, I’d be the one with the suitcases full of cash.

Once I had Coppola’s attention, I’d explain that we had to cast the movie a little differently than Luchino Visconti did back in the 1960s. Casting an A-list leading-man type like Burt Lancaster was fine during the Kennedy Administration, but in our self-conscious age, we need a little more irony and snarikiness in our protagonists. I’d push for casting funnyman Bill Murray in the lead. Not any Bill Murray mind you, but specifically the deflated CEO Murray of Rushmore fame. “Francis listen,” I’d say “In a modern American context, what is the difference between the head of a bankrupt aristocratic family, and the semi-depressed chief executive of a steel mill?” But I wouldn’t wait for him to answer. I’d immediately move straight on to my real agenda: the full-blown redemption of his daughter Sofia Coppola’s acting legacy.

In 1990 Sofia Coppola appeared in The Godfather III. She was 18 and had never studied acting, but the film press decided to ridicule her performance without mercy. I’d advise him to cast Sofia in his remake of The Leopard. I’d explain to Coppola that this was their opportunity to strike back at the hacks who laughed at her when she was an unknown. “Don’t make a big deal out of it Francis,” I’d say. “Perhaps write her in as Maria Stella, the Prince’s wife. Just give her a few lines and let the critics stew on how brilliant she is now: how she was nominated for an Oscar as best director, how she is beautiful and chic beyond belief, and that she had the good sense to settle in Paris and marry the lead singer of Phoenix.” 

Francis, being the sweet soul he is, would initially object: “It sounds petty. I don’t know, she has nothing to prove to anyone.”  I’d nod sympathetically, but then I’d add: “But an on-screen fall requires something of cinematic redemption, wouldn’t you agree Francis?” And that’s how I’d get him. That’s how I’d sink the hook in real good.

“And The Leopard is fundamentally about redemption as I recall,” Coppola would blurt out, babbling now a mile-a-minute as if he were back on the set of Apocalypse Now, rapping with Dennis Hopper. I’d slap him on the back and I’d say, “Francis, let’s knock back a few espressos and start drafting a script, what do you say?” And so my work will have been done: another soul won for the enduring greatness of The Leopard—hallelujah. --Robert Fay

December 20, 2012

Edward Champion on Ironweed

To celebrate the launch of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we're featuring guest bloggers all week. Today's guest is the inimitable Edward Champion of Return of the Reluctant and The Bat Segundo Show, the celebrated literary podcast on which he's interviewed Martin Amis, Kate Christensen, David Mitchell, Michelle Richmond, China Mieville, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name but a few. Thanks so much, Ed, for stopping! 

It's criminal enough that the great William Kennedy doesn't get talked up nearly as often as he should by the highfalutin dopes who ignore regular Joes for the dry literary dregs in the tea room.  Even so, I've always wondered why nobody mentions the 1987 film adaptation of Ironweed.  I've been just as guilty as the next guy in ignoring this flick for such questionable allure as Eric Roberts's oeuvre.  (You'll have to corner me in a bar to learn just how many times I've seen the Best of the Best movies.)  So when Kim asked me to gab wise about literary flicks in a guest post, I decided to take it on.

The book is a tough and taut portrait of the invisible souls who seek shelter from a cold world while holding as hard as they can to their fragile dollars.  They try to redeem their failed lives through singing and toiling and laughing and drinking, but they are as dead to genteel eyes as the souls buried beneath the ground at Saint Agnes Cemetery.

The movie sounds like a golden trumpet on paper.  Get Bill Kennedy to adapt his plucky masterpiece.  Have Jack Nicholson star as gritty drifter Francis Phelan, with Meryl Streep as his sidekick Helen, and the prestige picture would sail its way into a peninsula of golden statues. (It came within spitting distance.  Nicholson and Streep were both nominated for Oscars.) 

There was just one problem: Héctor Babenco was a fairly toothless director.  Maybe Babenco could not grasp the rough feel of American transicence.  Perhaps he was intimidated by his star power.  He is too fixated on the new high-speed film stocks of the time for the night scenes and his awkward Steadicam shuffles don't make this film crackle with the vital life Kennedy established in his screenplay.  Nicholson delivers an early grief-stricken monologue kneeling before a grave, but without Kennedy's prose capturing the cemetery's souls receiving his words.  Babenco doesn't know how to block Nicholson's niceties with a soft touch, and the moment feels needlessly inert, as does another pivotal scene in which Helen sings at a bar. 

Nor does Francis lose “two thirds of a right index finger with a cleaver,” which neuters Kennedy's efforts to present the savage truths of the street.  And don't get me started on the way Babenco handles the dead people who haunt Francis, who are all dressed in white and are photographed in that chalky and stitled manner that was a visual cliche in low-budget television anthology series during that decade.  For those who like to track the careers of minor actors, Ironweed contains some oddball casting: a young Nathan Lane cast as the scab Francis killed years before, a pre-Roseanne Michael O'Keefe as Billy Phelan, and Tom Waits as Francis's fellow laborer, Rudy.

On the other hand, there's energy in the 1901 trolley strike that recalls John Sayles's deft hand in Matewan.  And if Rosskam does not quite sprout to life with his judgmental modifiers (“tidy,” “impatient,” “insensitive”) as Francis toils for him, he is given some heart and heft by character actor Hy Anzell.  It's astonishing to recall that there was once a time in which movies about the homeless and labor were actually bankrolled and released.  These days, our hefty films involve the anticlimactic novelty of Bill Murray as Roosevelt and Spielberg establishing a preprogrammed reaction in which all leave the theater with the same conclusion. 

Ironweed reminded me of Fielder Cook's surprisingly edgy 1986 adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day.  You know pretty early on that it's not going to work and that the director is overcompensating.  Yet there's a bare minimum in which the scripts are trying to make the source material come alive.  Presumably, it was this life that attracted stars like Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams.  Did hacky directors tend to become attached to the low-key literary adaptations of the 1980s because the producers couldn't find any other people to direct them?  It was certainly a weird and soulless decade, but you have to hand it to American cinema: there were more heartfelt efforts back then to realize literature than today.  --Edward Champion

December 19, 2012

Top Five Adaptations Starring Katharine Hepburn by Nicki Richesin

To celebrate the launch of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we're featuring guest bloggers all week. Today's guest is my dearest friend Nicki Richesin, a talented writer, editor, and anthologist. (She's also the fairy godmother who introduced us to Merit Press's Editor-in-Chief, Jackie Mitchard!) --Kim

It’s hard to believe Katharine Hepburn died almost ten years ago. It often astonishes me that the media continues to refer to her glamorous sensibility. Flip through almost any fashion magazine and you’ll find a reference to some young starlet pronounced the new Katharine Hepburn. Her uniform, a classic suit with wide trousers was considered risqué in her day, but her remarkable style led the Council of Fashion Designers of America to award her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986. Kate was named the top female screen legend of the 20th century by the American Film Institute in 1999. I grew up admiring her and watching her movies again and again hoping some of her magic would rub off on me. For me, these five films demonstrate her incredible range over many decades and how her indomitable personality could shine through every role she assumed. 

Little Women (1933 RKO)
Kate was a natural as the headstrong Jo March in Little Women. Her most cherished ally George Cukor directed her as the feisty daughter who sacrificed her one beauty (a long wig in the film) to help her injured father return home from the Civil War. With her New England upbringing, she perfectly embodied a young girl who would leave her cozy transcendentalist family to create a new life for herself in New York.

The Philadelphia Story (1940 M-G-M)
After a string of flops, Hepburn was labeled “box-office poison” and returned to her family home in Connecticut. Never one to give up, she triumphed once again on the stage in a high society farce called The Philadelphia Story written expressly for her. She bought the rights from playwright Philip Barry, returned to Hollywood to star as the lead and the film went on to break box office records. With her co-star Cary Grant, she made a number of winning romantic comedies including Bringing Up Baby and Holiday. In this scene, she toys with Jimmy Stewart. It’s yare…

The African Queen (1951 Romulus Films)
Kate traveled to the Belgian Congo to film The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart. She played a straitlaced missionary, who convinces Bogey, as a scallywag sea captain, to ambush an enemy WWI warship in his boat the African Queen. While on safari, Kate was almost stampeded by a herd of elephants, attacked by an army of ants, and saw hippos and crocodiles swimming in the Ruiki River. Despite the intense heat, sickness, and having to haul the African Queen from the bottom of the river after it sank, she was so thrilled by it all she wrote a book about their wild jungle adventures entitled The Making of the African Queen.

The Lion in Winter (1968 Haworth Productions)
Although she believed awards were “a bunch of hooey,” she was nominated for twelve and collected a record four Academy Awards for Acting, more than in any other actor. Kate’s most brilliant film roles came to her much later in her life. She won a third award for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter with Peter O’Toole as Henry II and a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard.

On Golden Pond (1981 IPC Films)
At the age of 73, Kate won her fourth and final Academy Award for her portrayal of Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond. Her co-star Henry Fonda also won for his performance as her crotchety husband suffering with dementia. Together they made screen magic as an elderly couple spending one last summer at their vacation cottage in Maine. She memorably said to him in her trademark quavering voice, “You’re my knight in shining armor!” Here’s that famous scene:

Kate’s philosophy handed down from her bold suffragette mother always remained, “Don’t give in. Fight for your future. Women are just as good as men. Make your own trail. Don’t moan. Think positively.” After her death in Old Saybrook on June 29, 2003, they dimmed the lights on Broadway in her honor. --Nicki Richesin

December 18, 2012

Small Demons' Richard Nash Connects the Dots

To celebrate the launch of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we'll be featuring guest bloggers all week. Today's guest is indie publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash, VP of Content and Community over at one of our favorite bookish sites, Small Demons. Thank you for stopping by, Richard! 

The film Sunset Boulevard is mentioned in 87 books.

When we talk about the new culture discovery website Small Demons at which I now work, the CEO Valla Vakili and I both like to offer some broader cultural context. Before talking about what it is we do, we talk about what it is we see others doing, about the kind of engagement with culture we see out there in the world. We see a project like Infinite Atlas, which identifies on a Google Map every location mentioned in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. We see the YouTube playlist of every song referenced in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. We see cosplay. And we see Romancing the Tome, connecting books and movies before there was even a YouTube to offer clips.

So we see a world where people want to be active and eclectic participants in their culture, to flit in the space of a day from oak to pine to ash to redwood regardless of which is a song, which is a book, which is a movie. Small Demons is of, by, and for people who live their lives immersed in the romance of story and character and voice and event and we're honored this week to be part of the celebrations for a book inspired by a play on a site about movies inspired by books to talk about a website inspired by all of it… 

And after you're done buying Kim and Amy's book, come check out their Small Demons Collections of things that inspired their books. --Richard Nash

December 17, 2012

Shakespeare Retold, #Twitter Style

Amy and I had fun retelling Shakespeare's greatest plays in 140 characters or less for Huffington Post Books. --Kim

Three, The One That Gets Away by Lauren Cerand

To celebrate tomorrow's pub date of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we'll be featuring guest bloggers all week. Our first guest is genius publicist Lauren Cerand, whose elegant blog, Lux Lotus, has long been a source of inspiration.  --Kim

After I read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, the novel of an erotic, short-lived affair between a carefree Yale dropout and a French shop clerk in 1950s provincial France, I embarked on the course that I am sure that so many of his readers have, to devour every word the man has ever written. This led to me to his wonderful memoir, Burning the Days, which touches on his career in film. His first and only directing project was the adaptation of a story, “Then We Were Three,” by Irwin Shaw into Three, a 1969 film starring Charlotte Rampling, Robie Porter, and Sam Waterston. I have only seen (incredibly stylish) stills and despite some dissatisfaction with the project on his part, and an easily searchable online trail of admiration and mystique that never actually leads to the film itself, am perplexed that it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, and was not ever issued as a DVD. As for Salter, Three may have had its silver lining, in that it inspired a lifelong friendship with another writer that began with a fanletter. I’m sure I’d have one to send, too.  - Lauren Cerand

December 11, 2012

The Book Trailer for Our Twisted Lit Series

Who doesn't love adorable toddlers lisping lines from Shakespeare? Here's the new trailer for our Twisted Lit series. Thanks to all the little ones (and their parents) who collaborated with us on this!

December 10, 2012

Our Fave Links This Week: Stephanie LaCava, Largehearted Boy, and Ada Lovelace

We've been busy doing interviews and writing guest posts in anticipation of next week's pub date for Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series. It's left little time to write an actual post to kickoff the week, so I thought I'd do a quick rundown of my favorite of-the-moment links. --Kim

A Stylish Book Adaptation
Street style pinup girl Stephanie LaCava's hotly anticipated memoir An Extraordinary Theory of Objects launched last week. To coincide with the launch, Marc Jacobs's Bookmarc is selling a limited edition collection of accessories inspired by the book.

A Largehearted List of Favorite 2012 Novels
Books and music are equally fascinating to generous blogger David Gutowski (known more widely as Largehearted Boy). I have yet to read anything on his list of favorite 2012 novels, but I will now.

Bad Girls Are the Best
Celebrate Ada Lovelace's birthday with Graphic Designer Ann Shen's zine Bad Girls Throughout History, which includes Nellie Bly, Marie Antoinette, and Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron's daughter and the world's first computer programmer). (Ann, also my friend and colleague, has designed a postcard collection, too.)

Congrats to  all the YA authors featured in Atlantic Monthly's "Y.A./Middle Grade Book Awards, 2012 Edition."

December 5, 2012

To the Castle Born: Royal Babies Get Their Due (Date)

With all the word atwitter (literally) over Will and Kate's baby news, it seemed as good a time as any to reflect on a few of our favorite films honoring young royal families. These are just a smattering: let us know your faves!

Young Victoria: So many stories of royal families are depressing. Loveless marriages, babies stashed in towers... How refreshing to see a monarch who actually had a happy family life, for as long as it lasted.

Marie Antoinette: It's hard to forget the birthing scene in this movie. The queen delivered her child in front of a standing-room only audience of looky-loos. They were on hand to make sure the baby presented was the genuine article, so to speak. We assume Kate will get a tad more, uh, privacy.

The Duchess: Lady Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, faced an impossible choice: Give up her lovechild, the product of an affair, or surrender any future interaction with her older children. Heartbreaking! (Incidentally, Georgiana is an ancestor of Prince William's mother, Diana, through the Spencer lineage.)

The Lost Prince: This film tells the bittersweet story of Prince John, the youngest child of George V and Queen Mary, who, because of epilepsy and a developmental disorder, was kept apart from the rest of the family and out of the public eye. (He was raised primarily by a nanny, played in the film by Gina McKee.)

The Princes in the Tower: Not every royal baby has it lucky. Ask young Edward V and Richard, sons of Edward IV. They were confined to the Tower of London after their father's death by Richard III, who presumably had them murdered. Okay, (sigh) let's move on to more happy stories!... 

Sleeping Beauty: ...An animated movie should do the trick! Princess Aurora was cursed by Maleficent at birth to prick her needle on a spinning wheel at the age of 16. Three fairies and a handsome prince helped undo the spell, and they all lived happily ever's wishing the same for England's expected bundle of joy!

December 4, 2012

Our Holiday Gift Guide for Book Lovers

We thought we'd share some our favorite holiday gift giving ideas for the bibliophiles on your list. Enjoy! --Kim & Amy

Will In the World: Shakespeare’s Britain Poster
This gorgeous map (tested and approved by Kim) has all the Great Britain hot spots mentioned in The Bard’s plays, from Macbeth’s Scottish castle to the various battlefields and abbeys.

The Write Stuff: Love Text Print Tights
Fashionable bookworms are sure to warm to these unique literary tights featuring text pulled from wikipedia and printed in a romantic scripted font.

A Red Letter Day: J Herbin Rouge Caroubier Red Dip Pen and Calligraphy Ink
If you know a writer who prefers a fountain pen and paper to a laptop and mouse, look no further than the original “Jewel of Ink” created by M. Herbin in Paris, circa 1700.

Join the Club: The NYRB Classics Book of the Month Club
This is a bit of splurge at $150 for a year or $85 for six months, but the serious book lover on your list will adore you indefinitely (or at least for as long as they receive a monthly title hand selected by New York Review of Book editors). Plus, the giver receives a copy of The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

A Date with Downton: The Downton Abbey Calendar
Is your bff/mother/sister/aunt counting down the days to the Season 3 premiere? If so, they should be doing it on the official PBS Downton Abbey 2013 calendar.

Flames of Inspiration: Jardins d’Ecrivains Candles
Described on their website as “candles to be used for reading or writing,” these gorgeous luminaries are named after and inspired by famous writers like Colette, Tolstoy, Sand, Kipling and Casanova. (They also have bath products named for Edith Wharton!)

Pen to Paper: Pineider Stationery
This luxury Florentine stationer has been providing paper products for European bourgeoisie for centuries and was the epistolary product of choice for such writers as Stendhal, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Charles Dickens.

Bookish Bling: Jezebel Charms
One of our favorite Etsy shops for unique and beautiful literary jewelry. We especially love the brass cuffs that can are simultaneously elegant and funky.

Altruistic Apparel for the Lit-Minded: Out Of Print
For each of these cool literary tees sold, a book is donated to a community in need through the company’s partnership with Books For Africa. Sizes available in women’s, men’s and children’s (as young as two).

Book Decoy: Leanne Shapton Wooden Block Books
We all know book covers are works of art, but Shapton, an artist and graphic novelist, takes that theory quite literally with her painted, hand-lettered books on novel-sized pieces of wood. On sale at John Derrion Company, in New York.

December 3, 2012

Hoping to See Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

This adaptation of Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding looks absolutely divine, and I love the interview with the film's screenwriter over at A Bloomsbury Life. I have yet to read the novel, but it's definitely going on my list. --Kim