What makes film adaptations work?

Great books invite me think and create. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that allows us to be co-creators?

Great books invite me think and create. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that allows us to be co-creators?When I call film adaptations successful, what I usually mean is, they capture the tone, mood, and spirit of what I experience reading. So what does that mean, exactly? 

Reading a great book makes me think and create. It invites me to make connections and, from those connections, to make meaning. It allows for ambiguity without confusion. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that leaves space to interpret?

I suppose if I knew the answer to that, I’d be making great films from great books instead of writing about them. However, I did see one film recently that felt like a great adaptation: Mike Newell’s 2012 Great Expectations.

I wasn’t planning to watch the film. Great Expectations is a book I love so profoundly that I didn’t want anyone else’s creative vision playing Frankenstein against my experience. But I recently watched a video about Newell’s adaptation by Lauren of Reads and Daydreams. She does a series called Page to Screen for which she reviews a range of film adaptations of classic books. Her favorable analysis piqued my interest.

I ended up loving it. Here are the three main reasons why: Continue reading “What makes film adaptations work?”

The unabridged list of books read in December

My list of books read in December and a reflection on #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks.

My list of books read in December and a reflection on #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks.Well, here we are again: on the cusp of a new month and a new year. As it’s my last roundup of 2016, it’s the right time to reflect on my attempt to read my own books this year. It has been the most meaningful reading effort I’ve participated in and one that I’m looking forward to continuing in 2017.

Overall, I would have liked to have done better. Of the 110 titles I read this year, 54 were my own. While that’s close to the 50 percent mark I’d been shooting for, I would prefer to have exceeded, rather than fallen short, of it. More than anything, though, I’m treasuring what I’ve learned through the journey. I covered that here, but a quick recap of the most significant point:

A big part of what appeals to me about stockpiling books is the idea of the books, of what unread books signify: possibilities. In aspiring to do better at reading my own books, I’m aspiring to find possibilities, hidden potential, in the existing rather than in the imaginary. I want to be more mindful and less impulsive, in all areas of my life. Here’s to working on that in 2017!

And now, for the books:

Books I read:

Asterisk (*) signifies a #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks title.

Christmas Carol Murder by Leslie Meier (e-book)

A Lucy Stone cozy murder mystery to kick off the holiday season with a bang … literally: A reclusive, Scrooge-like mortgage company co-owner is blown up with a mail bomb. Naturally, Pennysaver reporter Lucy Stone is on the case. Not officially, seeing as she’s a reporter not a detective. She just can’t stop herself from nosing around.

These fun cozies are set in Maine and depict small-town New England life in all its charming quirkiness.

The Wee Free Men - one of the excellent books read in DecemberThe Wee Free Men (Tiffany Aching Series #1) by Terry Pratchett (e-book)

I picked this book up after Andi at Estella’s Revenge posted a beautiful quote from the series on social media. Plus, it seemed wrong that I’d never read any of Pratchett’s books. The Wee Free Men is about a girl called Tiffany who discovers she’s a witch. A magnificent, sassy, level-headed hag, as the eponymous Wee Free Men call her. The latter are six-inch high Scottish warrior types who watch out for Tiffany. I loved how funny and poignant the fierceness of these tiny men is. The key lies in the juxtaposition: As full-sized men, their fighting, drinking ways wouldn’t be quite so delightful. I appreciate juxtapositions. They keep me mindful of the contradictions and paradoxes within us all.

I adored this beautiful story about finding the power inside of us. It made me think about the importance of taking care of each other in ways that aren’t condescending of others and that recognize and honor the power within them.

Jane Eyre - one of my books read in December
Oh, this line…

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (e-book) *

I don’t remember having had a particular affinity to this novel when I first read it back in graduate school. This was my first time rereading it since then and … well, I can see why it’s not achieved the mythic-ness of a Pride and Prejudice. The story has tremendous feeling, but the men are horrible (more on this here, if you’re interested). I also found the moral overtones a bit stark and unforgiving, especially with how events play out at the end.

What most impressed me was how skillful the novel is in eliciting a particular response, especially through character development. Bronte is masterful in using description and telling details to evoke in the reader (well, me, anyway) the feelings Jane experienced. I love when a novel can make me feel, viscerally, what a character feels. My heart races, constricts, or hurts parallel with the character’s. How Bronte achieves this is definitely something I want to think more about.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas (e-book)

I’ve not read much Dylan Thomas. This book, which I discovered through Words of a Reader, made me want to. It’s a short, lovely story of a young boy’s Christmas memories in Wales (obvi). The language is luxurious and startling in its freshness, like a new coat of snow. I downloaded it for bedtime reading, and it was perfection. Though I’d recommend acquiring the paper version: The edition I read had original woodcuts by Ellen Raskin. The e-book can hardly do them justice.

Christmas Stories from The Sketch-Book by Washington Irving (e-book) Continue reading “The unabridged list of books read in December”

Do you read more than one book at a time?

This week, I realized I cannot read two novels at the same time. Do you read more than one book at a time? How about multiple novels?

I’m a strong believer in having more than one book going at a time. It gives me options. If one book is super heavy (metaphorically speaking), the other book can provide a mood change. Or if one book is quite sad or sends my brain into overdrive, I can have a lighter book to read at bedtime.

Read just one book at a time? I say laugh in the face of stuffy convention that dictates that’s how it’s done!


Anyway…this is what I said to myself last week when I was strolling through Barnes and Noble – with no intention whatsoever of buying any books at all – until I saw this book:

This week, I realized I cannot read two novels at the same time. Do you read more than one book at a time? How about multiple novels?

I’ve seen it, heard about it, wondered about it. Granted, I couldn’t recall anything specific about it, just general praise and a vague notion that the book sounded interesting.

It’s a cool cover, isn’t it? It might actually be my favorite of 2016. You have the vaguely 1970s vibe of the photo. The title text is bold, but the notes and arrows annotate it in a way that seems to play foil.

So I picked the book up and read the jacket copy. I learned this is a fantasy YA novel set in the 16th century. Conveniently enough, that’s the one category left in my When Are You Reading? challenge. I learned it is comical. I learned it takes Liberties with History, specifically with the story of Lady Jane Grey. She lost her head (literally) during the English succession drama of 1553.

Usually, when I read historical fiction, I prefer it render history faithfully. I’m not expecting factual accuracy in every regard, but a spirit of faithfulness to the period would be nice. However…My Lady Jane just sounded too entertaining to pass up. (Also, my reading challenge!)

This week, I realized I cannot read two novels at the same time. Do you read more than one book at a time? How about multiple novels?So I bought it and brought it home and was super excited to read it, and…I couldn’t do it. I was still only 100 pages into Jane Eyre at the time. (I’m now only just over 300…with about 250 still to go.) I worried My Lady Jane would distract me from Jane Eyre. I worried that shuffling between the two worlds would dilute my experience of both. Especially with two very different Janes to keep track of. Part of me wanted to test the theory by pushing myself to read the novels together. In the end, though, I couldn’t do it. I’m sticking with Jane Eyre to the bitter (ahem) end. 

This whole thing surprised me. What happened to laughing maniacally in the face of convention? I asked myself. But when I looked at the books I’ve read in pairs, it seems I typically pair fiction with nonfiction. I can’t actually think of a time I read two novels actively at the same time. I sometimes take breaks from books I’m not feeling. Other times, for bedtime reading, I’ll reread favorite chapters from favorite books. But full-scale engagement in two fiction worlds, simultaneously? No.

Someone who follows me on Goodreads might say, Hang on, haven’t I seen rows of novels on your “currently reading” shelf? Admittedly, that’s quite likely. In truth, though, a novel sitting on my “currently reading” shelf for three months is not a novel I’m actively reading. It’s one I started, got distracted from, but want to return to. It stays on the shelf as a reminder because, for a long time, I refused to keep a “want to read” section. I was (justifiably) afraid of what it would become. But…I finally caved. So now, it I haven’t picked a book up in a month or so, I move it to “want to read.”

What about you? Do you read multiple books at once? If so, what genres? Do you read more than one novel at the same time?

For Jane Austen’s birthday, 8 books inspired by the iconic author

It's Jane Austen's birthday, yet her life & works are the gifts that keep on giving. She & her novels are inexhaustible. In other words, they're classics.

It's Jane Austen's birthday, yet her life & works are the gifts that keep on giving. She & her novels are inexhaustible. In other words, they're classics.December 16 is Jane Austen’s birthday, and yet … her life and works are the gifts that keep on giving.

They have been adapted, interpreted, and expanded every which way: for stage and screen, in fiction and nonfiction, in memoir and scholarly works, through blogs, memes, and GIFs. The breadth may seem exhaustive, but Austen and her novels are classics precisely because they are inexhaustible. “A classic,” Italo Calvino tells us, “is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

If you’ve dipped into Austen-inspired fiction, nonfiction, or memoir (or want to), let’s compare notes! Here are eight I’ve read and enjoyed in recent years:

My Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz’s memoir shares his journey from being a too-cool-for-life grad-school type to a grown-up man, achieved through reading Austen’s novels. Each chapter tackles a stage in his personal development and what he learned from reading Austen’s novels. Written with a scholar’s insights but in layman’s language, his discussion of the books is the best part.

Austenland by Shannon Hale. At a hush-hush English country getaway for women of means, the conditions of Regency England are simulated (in everything from food to dress to pastimes), and women are romanced the old fashioned way. Austen-obsessed Jane Hayes is bequeathed a three-week trip to Austenland to cure her of her preoccupation with Colin Firth-as-Darcy.


Get over this? Oooh, that’s a tall glass of water order – via GIPHY

Compulsively readable, funny, and sweetly charming, it has been adapted for film starring Keri Russell, Jane Seymour, and Jennifer Coolidge. Continue reading “For Jane Austen’s birthday, 8 books inspired by the iconic author”

Literary Places: Charlotte Bronte Exhibit at The Morgan Library

The first novel of Charlotte Bronte displayed at The Morgan Library
The first novel of Charlotte Bronte displayed at The Morgan Library
This is Charlotte Bronte’s first novel as displayed at The Morgan.

Back in January, I wrote about my pilgrimage to The Morgan Library in Manhattan to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The book I’ve reread more than any other. The book I’ll be rereading again in approximately two weeks. The book that’s my favorite holiday reading tradition because it moves and inspires me each time as if I were reading it for the first time.

Meantime, I’m rereading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time since graduate school. Translation: I’m reading it for myself, for my own benefit and enjoyment. No essays, tests, or anxiety required.

You know what isn’t surprising at all? It’s rather more fun this way. More relaxing. I can let myself be carried about by the soothing rhythms of her language. I can delight in the portraits and set pieces. I can marvel at and be inspired by the novel’s fierce, intelligent heroine. And that’s just my experience of the first 200 pages.

Between you and me, I don’t remember loving Charlotte Bronte’s writing as I do at this moment. This is a topic I plan to revisit. For now, I want to tell you: I wouldn’t have thought to reread Jane Eyre were it not for the Charlotte Bronte exhibit currently on display at The Morgan Library. My parents, who live in Manhattan, invited my sister and me to view it with them back in September. I love exhibits of this kind as I love experiencing the homes and towns of authors and literary characters who have moved me. Artifacts can connect us across time. Besides the thrill of imagining an author writing that letter or sitting at that desk, artifacts tap into our common needs and discrete ways of solving them. They reveal how we negotiate challenges and restrictions with our human spirit and imagination.  Continue reading “Literary Places: Charlotte Bronte Exhibit at The Morgan Library”

Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book?

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book? What is the function of book reviews?

Is it to “save” people from a “bad” art experience? Can bad art exist? If it’s art, isn’t it, by definition, beautiful? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be failed art or attempted art or, you know, just … not art?

Recently, I read a time travel novel for middle grade readers, Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. I bought the book without knowing anything about it other than the jacket copy’s description because time travel novels are one of my favorites. (Perhaps this explains why I ended up with two copies … oops.*) When the story opens, 13-year-old Margaret’s father has been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. Desperate to save him, Margaret draws on her ability to time travel. Her quest takes her back to 1938, the year a tragedy soured the life of Lucas, who grows up to become the judge who sentenced Margaret’s father.  The story took a turn I won’t reveal (spoilers) other than to say it moved me to reflect on the power of living in the present moment. It’s a message I need to be reminded of often as I have a bad habit of obsessing over the past.

I rarely read extended reviews before reading a book. A friend’s recommendation, or the appeal of a book’s themes or jacket copy, is enough to inspire me to dive in. Extended reviews are for later, during or after reading a book I have a strong reaction to – whether it’s being moved, impressed, angry, surprised, provoked, etc.

When I read reviews, I’m not looking for a breakdown of what did and didn’t work according to one person, even one very smart or respected person. I can decide that for myself. Nitpicking about perceived flaws doesn’t interest me either, unless they’re so egregious as to disrupt my ability to engage in a story’s world. (If that’s the case, though, my reading experience probably isn’t interesting enough to inspire me to look up other readers’ responses.) I don’t expect a book to be perfect. That would be weird. I mean, what’s perfect on this planet?

I read reviews to connect with others’ experiences. Did others see and feel moved by this too? Did they see something I missed that will deepen my experience of a story? Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews”

The unabridged list of books I read in November

My long and, dare I say, fascinating list of books I read in November includes an eclectic mix of novels and nonfiction, including lots of my own books too!

My long and, dare I say, fascinating list of books read in November includes an eclectic mix of novels and nonfiction, including lots of my own books too!I can hardly believe we’ve arrived at the last month of 2016. My quest to read my own books is almost over, and I feel like it just began. Also, my tally of books read from my existing library reflects that. Ha. I might need to keep it for 2017. It’s that or descend into chaos. Probably.

In the meantime, here is my “read” pile for November. I feel like I should call it “the long and exhaustive list of books I read in November.” Because it turns out I read quite a few books this month!

Books I read:

An asterisk (*) indicates a Read My Own Damn Books book. I’m happy to report there are many more asterisks this month as compared to last. Eight of the 13 books I read came from my pre-2016 library. Using my extremely advanced computing skills, I’ve deduced that’s more than 50 percent, which has been my most recent goal.

Everblaze, Lodestar, and Neverseen by Shannon Messenger (e-book)

These are books 3, 4, and 5 in Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities fantasy series for middle grade readers. My friend Jessica turned me on to it. I’m heartily enjoying the adventures of Sophie Foster as she learns to navigate her magical abilities and battles the nefarious and mysterious Neverseen (geddit? ’cause they’re “never seen”?). The next book doesn’t come out until later in 2017. This is good. It means I have something to look forward to next fall. I mean, besides autumn, the most beautiful season of the year in New England.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (e-book) *

Reading this novel – which I picked up in an e-book sale … at some point I can no longer recall – fulfilled both my reading challenges this year: Read My Own Damn Books and When Are You Reading? (yay).

Set in Amsterdam in 1686-87, it tells the story of Nella, an 18-year-old girl who is married off to Johannes Brandt, a successful merchant 20 years her senior. Nella moves in with Johannes and his sister, Marin. Both harbor potentially fatal secrets that are gradually revealed with … consequences (spoilers). Their narratives alone make for compelling reading. Making it even more gripping is the story of the miniaturist, the shadowy figure who crafts a, yes, miniature of the Brandts’ house. As more objects – not commissioned by Brandt – arrive for the little house, it appears to be a prophetic instrument. I found his novel an unsettling, compelling read.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (e-book) *

Well’s protagonist, identified only as The Time Traveller, journeys into a dystopian future populated by hunter and hunted. In pursuit of ease and comfort, humanity has devolved, in the extreme. It’s a must-read for science fiction fans, given that it’s credited with inventing the genre. Now that I’ve written that, it occurs to me I’ve not reach much science fiction. Well, anyway, The Time Machine is worth reading for its sage insights on the human condition and acknowledgment of a paradoxical implication at the heart of it: What we want isn’t always good for us.  Continue reading “The unabridged list of books I read in November”

On Reading “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells

Well's haunting story about a man who travels to the future spawned the term "time machine" and time travel novels as a genre.

Well's haunting story about a man who travels to the future spawned the term "time machine" and time travel novels as a genre. Though time travel novels are a favorite of mine, I’d not, until last week, read the one that started them all: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It’s one of the few time travel novels I can recall reading in which the main character travels to the future. Reading it made me realize how fixated I am on time travel to the past. I don’t seem to wonder as much about life in the future. I’m not sure what that says about me and whether I should like it, but there we are.

Wells’ classic, published in 1895, is credited with coining the term “time machine” and spawning the science fiction genre. It begins with a group of men discussing the nature of time and space. A scientist/inventor, known only as The Time Traveller, tells the group that time is a fourth dimension through which humans can move. He demonstrates with a tiny machine he holds in his hand. Before the men’s eyes, the machine vanishes. The Time Traveller claims to have sent it into the future.

At their next gathering, the men hear the story of The Time Traveller, who takes over as narrator. He describes his experiences traveling to the year 802,701, where he encounters two human-ish creatures – the Eloi and the Morlocks – in a desolate landscape of crumbling infrastructure and underground lairs. The Eloi, who live on the surface, are soft, helpless, and harmless. Meanwhile, the Morlocks live underground, ascending at night for sinister purposes.

The story is mesmerizing and haunting and, I’ve read, meant to comment on the Victorian era. I perceive that in the narrative’s skepticism towards the notion of progress, the idea that we move – or can move – steadily forward, gradually perfecting ourselves. As I’ve written before, I’m more inclined to believe cyclically rather than linearly about human progress. Steady forward progress would be ideal, obviously. But I don’t see as much evidence to support the notion historically. The desire for it, though, and the fear that we’re not actuating it persist, which may explain, at least in part, why The Time Machine continues to be read today. I don’t suppose it’s for the Victorian critique, in particular or isolation.

The Time Traveller is repeatedly struck by the Eloi’s incapacities. They’re kindly but hapless. He observes, “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. […] There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

If we actually achieved the ideals we seek (in the context of the narrative, comfort and ease), the story seems to say, they would destroy us. This reminded me of what Azar Nafisi cautions in Reading Lolita in Tehran: “Be careful with your dreams. One day they may just come true.” 

Later, a character remarks of The Time Traveller, “He, I know – for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made – thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”

It’s may not be the most cheering thought. But if hope is to be found, perhaps it’s in committing continually to strive, never to rest in the surety of our ideals, to recognize that even those ideals themselves may only ever be as imperfect as we are.

What is Mystery Thriller Week? A Q&A with Benjamin Thomas

Whether you already love mysteries and thrillers or want to explore the genre, Mystery Thriller Week, coming in February 2017, offers opportunities galore.

Whether you already love mysteries and thrillers or want to explore the genre, Mystery Thriller Week, coming in February 2017, offers opportunities galore. As a kid, I loved reading mysteries. In adulthood, I somehow drifted away from the genre, until a friend told me about a must-read series: M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth murder mysteries. “You will love them,” she promised.

I tentatively waded into the first book and … she was 100 percent correct. Hamish Macbeth has become one of my favorite series to read, mystery or otherwise. More experiments followed. I read Alan Bradley, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Clea Simon, Leslie Meier, and others. What I discovered: “mystery/thriller” is an incredibly flexible genre with a little something for just about anyone.

Whether you already love mysteries and thrillers or want to explore the genre, Mystery Thriller Week, coming in February 2017, will offer opportunities galore. Organizer Benjamin Thomas of The Writing Train recently shared with me the event’s details and scope as well as suggestions for new-to-the-genre readers: Continue reading “What is Mystery Thriller Week? A Q&A with Benjamin Thomas”