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August 2011

My Life As a Book 2011

Two years ago, I participated in a fun meme based on this post I saw at Reactions to Reading, in which I finished sentences about myself using only titles of books I read in 2009. Last year, I made up my own sentences, completing them with 2010 titles. The response was so positive, I thought I’d do it again.

So, here are more autobiographical statements, using only books I read this year.

One time at band/summer camp, I: (was) Learning to Swim (Sara J. Henry)

Weekends at my house are: A Bad Day for Scandal (Sophie Littlefield)

My neighbor is: Creep (Jennifer Hillier)

My boss is: Here Comes Mr. Trouble (Brett Battles)

My ex was: Sick (Brett Battles)

My superhero secret identity is: The Cut (George Pelecanos)

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because: Heads You Lose (Lisa Lutz & David Hayward)

I’d win a gold medal in: A Game of Lies (Rebecca Cantrell)

I’d pay good money for: Fun & Games (Duane Swierczynski)

If I were president, I would: Damage Control (Denise Hamilton)

When I don’t have good books, I: (am) Broken (Karin Slaughter)

Loud talkers at the movies should be: Killed at the Whim of a Hat (Colin Cotterill)

Note: Since I read lots of dark crime fiction, I had many great options for that last sentence.

Your turn! Leave your answers in the comments or let me know if you post them on your blog. Have fun!

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Book Review: THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The prologue of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes (translated by Tiina Nunnally), the first in the Danish Department Q series, made me think of one of the few Latin phrases I retained from school: in medias res, or in the middle of things. The story starts with a woman trapped in a dark prison, scraping along the walls with bloody fingers, looking for a means of escape. She hurts herself but doesn’t scream or cry, refusing to allow her captors the satisfaction.

Cut to Carl Mørck, a homicide detective with the Copenhagen police, returning to work after a bad shootout that left one of his colleagues dead, another paralyzed, and Mørck with a scar from the bullet that grazed his head. He’s brilliant but difficult so his boss creates the new Department Q in the basement at headquarters, where Mørck can work on “cases deserving special scrutiny” (translation: high-profile cold cases) and stay away from colleagues who are weary of him. He gets a Syrian assistant named Hafez el-Assad, who seems more eager to go through the old files than Mørck is. Assad finally gets the detective to look into the disappearance of political darling Merete Lynggaard, who was last seen with her mentally handicapped brother, Uffe, on a ferry headed for Berlin five years earlier. Accidental drowning, suicide, and assault were all suspected but her body was never found. The story moves back and forth between 2002 and 2007, revealing Mørck and Assad’s progress on the case while showing what really happened to Merete.

Scandinavian thrillers are usually dark and moody, and Keeper is, but it also has wit, warmth, and a winning comic pair in Mørck and Assad. The veteran detective is committed to his grumpiness and inertia; he takes every opportunity to nap and daydream about the attractive police psychologist. Assad is indefatigably cheerful, and can set up a flat-screen TV in under five minutes but is stumped by the copy machine. He’s a surprising character, tantalizingly mysterious, and by the time he shows an unexpected dimension toward the end, I was convinced he’s one of the most fascinating sidekicks to come along in crime fiction in years.

Adler-Olsen’s supporting characters are no less memorable. Merete, whom we get to know in flashbacks, is a victim who refuses to be one. She retains her fighting spirit in the face of unrelenting bleakness, and her deep love for her brother Uffe is touching. On the other side of the table, the villains have believable motives for the horrific things they do. Their reasons don’t justify their actions—nothing does—but for a brief moment as they explain everything, I felt an unexpected flash of sympathy for them. When was the last time you felt that for the bad guys? The ending moved me in more ways than one, and made me look forward to spending more time in the basement with Deparment Q.

Nerd verdict: Lost Causes is a keeper

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Thoughts on THE GLEE PROJECT Finale

From L: Samuel, Damian, Lindsay, Alex

After ten weeks of competition, I was rooting for Damian to win this thing, which would get him a seven-episode arc on Glee. He’s the most likable, the underdog everyone roots for, and producers Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan already had the potentially funny idea of bringing him on as an exchange student who confuses the already befuddled Brittany with his thick Irish brogue. The other three contenders—Samuel, Lindsay, and Alex—all have their strengths but they also rubbed me the wrong way at times.

Samuel has one facial expression—an intense stare—and never mentioned his religion until he found out Murphy was interested in writing a Christian character. Suddenly, he’s a super devout guy, peppering his conversations with “God” and “Jesus.”

Lindsay, who undeniably has an amazing voice and great camera presence, is too musical theater. She was perky until she was told she came across fake and then she was crying all the time to show she can be vulnerable. Drama! She’s too much like Rachel and one is enough.

Alex, with the biggest voice of them all, behaves like a diva who sometimes thought he was better than everyone else, going so far as to say he had to underperform one week to give someone else a chance to shine. Puh-lease.

Yes, they were probably edited a certain way and we can’t trust everything we see, even in “reality” shows, but Damian went through the same editing process and never made a false note, never misbehaved, never said a mean thing about anyone.

So, it had to be him, with the Irish accent and adorable face and positive attitude and crooner’s voice. I was surprised at how tense I was right before the winner was announced. My future Tuesday-night viewing pleasure was at stake! Thankfully Murphy didn’t drag it out (take note, American Idol).

*SPOILERS*

Alex was the first of the top four to be told he didn’t win. Then Lindsay. So it came down to Damian and Samuel. When Murphy told Samuel he was the winner, I shouted “Wrongness!” at the TV. Damian stepped up and said Samuel deserved it, showing grace in a moment that must have been devastating for him. That’s why it was so gratifying to hear Murphy say that Damian won a seven-ep arc on the show, too! His reaction was the kind that underdogs have at the end of sports movies when they score a last-minute touchdown or an impossible goal. I’m excited that those who haven’t been watching The Glee Project—judging by the ratings, I’d say that’s a lot of people—will get to witness Damian’s charm on the mother-ship show. I predict he’ll become a fan favorite and get to stay longer than seven weeks.

But wait, Murphy wasn’t done. He decided to give Lindsay and Alex two episodes each. So, everybody wins! Some viewers might gripe at this but I thought it was a nice twist. These kids have real talent and have worked hard the past ten weeks, so what’s wrong with letting them know that their dreams might change shape but can still come true? Why must gripping television always include soul-crushing disappointment? I say let them continue to laugh, sing and dance, and good on Murphy for showing that not everyone in Hollywood is heartless.

UPDATES: Damian talks about his win here and Lindsay books a job as Snow White.

Photos: Oxygen

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PCN Gets Nailed!

Someone posted this on my Facebook page and I have to share it. Kandi Rich is an artist who can paint amazing things on her nails. In this picture, she based them on my PCN header, complete with little ninja eyes peeking out from her thumb! I can’t even paint within the lines whenever I try to do my own nails (not often) and they end up looking like Rorschach tests. This took some mad skills. Isn’t it cooler than an ice cube down the back of your shorts on a hot summer day?

Hope your Sunday is cool, too.

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Reading Wrap-up & Fall 2011 Mini Preview

At the year’s halfway mark, which was, ah, a month and a half ago, I wanted to take a look at the books I’ve read so far to see if I was on track to meet my reading goal of 100 books this year. Seems I’m a little behind; I don’t count ones I didn’t finish or all the manuscripts I read as a copyeditor unless they were published.

But what the hey, I thought I’d share my underachieving list with you anyway, as well as some of the titles I’m most eager to tackle in the coming months. I decided to limit the preview list to books I already have in my TBR pile or else I’d be here ’til next Thursday.

Here’s what I’ve read, with links to my reviews/posts if I wrote one:

1. Heads You Lose—Lisa Lutz and David Heyward
2. Banished—Sophie Littlefield
3. The Brothers of Baker Street—Michael Robertson
4. Learning to Swim—Sara J. Henry
5. The Little Sleep—Paul Tremblay
6. Shadow of Betrayal—Brett Battles
7.  Iron River—T. Jefferson Parker
8.  L.A. Requiem (re-read)—Robert Crais
9.  The Poison Tree—Erin Kelly
10. Spider Bones—Kathy Reichs
11. Djibouti—Elmore Leonard
12. Aftertime—Sophie Littlefield
13. Eyes of the Innocent—Brad Parks
14. When the Thrill Is Gone—Walter Mosley
15. The Border Lords—T. Jefferson Parker
16. The Tiger’s Wife—Téa Obreht
17. Live Wire–Harlan Coben
18. Started Early, Took My Dog—Kate Atkinson
19. Sick—Brett Battles
20. What You See in the Dark—Manuel Muñoz
21. The Informationist—Taylor Stevens
22. Guilt by Association—Marcia Clark
23. Here Comes Mr. Trouble—Brett Battles
24. Bossypants—Tina Fey
25. The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes—Marcus Sakey
26. Fun & Games—Duane Swierczynski
27. Little Girl Gone—Brett Battles
28. Purgatory Chasm—Steve Ulfelder
29. Summer and the City—Candace Bushnell
30. Fallen—Karin Slaughter
31. Before I Go to Sleep—S.J. Watson
32. The Devil She Knows—Bill Loehfelm
33. Creep—Jennifer Hillier
34. A Game of Lies—Rebecca Cantrell
35. Broken—Karin Slaughter
36. What Alice Forgot—Liane Moriarty
37. Alice Bliss—Laura Harrington
38. The Hypnotist—Lars Kepler
39. The Taint of Midas—Anne Zouroudi
40. A Bad Day for Scandal—Sophie Littlefield
41. The Gentlemen’s Hour (re-read)—Don Winslow
42. You’re Next—Gregg Hurwitz
43. One Dog Night—David Rosenfelt (review coming on Shelf Awareness)
44. Killed at the Whim of a Hat—Colin Coterrill (review coming on Shelf Awareness)
45. Stigma—Philip Hawley Jr.
46. The Most Dangerous Thing—Laura Lippman
47. Becoming Quinn—Brett Battles
47. Hideout—Kathleen George (review coming on Shelf Awareness)
48. The Cut—George Pelecanos (review coming on Shelf Awareness)
49. The Cradle in the Grave—Sophie Hannah (review coming on Shelf Awareness)
50. The Pull of Gravity—Brett Battles

51. Ready Player One—Ernest Cline

Below are the books in my stack, in no particular order, I’m most looking forward to devouring this fall (after I finish my last few summer releases). What titles are on your fall list? How are you doing on your reading goals this year?

 

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Where’s ALICE BLISS?

After I reviewed Laura Harrington’s gorgeous debut novel, Alice Bliss, she invited me to participate in the Where’s Alice Bliss? campaign, in conjunction with BookCrossing.com, to release copies of the book into the wild and see how far it travels. It’s like a message in a bottle, except there are a lot more pages and the book probably wouldn’t fit in a bottle. Then again, they can fit those ship models inside bottles so I don’t know.

Anyway, today I released my extra copy, which Laura generously provided, at a bus stop outside NBC Studios in Burbank (you can see the peacock logo in the background). I couldn’t pull away, though, because it looked so lonely. So I waited in my car to see who would pick it up. Within a few minutes, a tired-looking woman came along and sat on a bench right outside the bus stop shelter. She can’t see there’s a gift waiting for her just inside!

I figured I’d help things along a little so I jumped out, grabbed the book, and walked up to her.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you like to read?”

She took her time looking me up and down and then at the book before responding. “Sometimes.”

“Great! How would you like a free book?”

Another long pause, then, “Okaaayy.”

She was still giving me squinty, suspicion-filled eyes, clutching her pocketbook more tightly to her chest, but I ignored it and launched into my speech about how much I loved the book and wanted to pass it on, blahdy blahdy blow. When she became certain that I wasn’t selling Amway or trying to mug her, she suddenly smiled. “My boyfriend and I are writers. We’ll read it.” Then she tucked it into her bag like a treasure and promised she’d keep it going.

If you’d like to participate in this campaign, find out more at Laura’s website and see where other copies have been by going here. I sure am envious of all the places it’s visited so far.

Have you ever used Book Crossing to release a book into the world? Or found one somewhere that was sent out by another?

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Book Review & Giveaway: RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

by Thuy Dinh, editor-in-chief of Da Mau magazine

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles‘s debut novel, deftly reflects the American sensibility of being a nation of transplants. Structured as a bildungsroman, the novel begins in New York circa 1966 and proceeds backward to 1938, illustrating the youthful adventures of Katey Kontent, an orphaned but plucky twenty-something Russian immigrant.

Katie’s only assets are her wit, education, and emotional resilience. These inner assets make up the “True North” that guides her voyage through the treacherous undertow of social and gender assumptions, from a lowly job as a secretary to a plummy position as a Conde Nast magazine editor and happy marriage to a member of the Long Island gentry. As a meditation on the idea of being chosen (based on the gospel according to Matthew), the novel illustrates why many “beggars” are called to the wedding banquet that symbolizes America, yet only a few can survive the demands of this new world.

As a novel about dispossessed characters driven to reinvent themselves, Rules echoes Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany, with a gigolo passing as a Boston Brahmin, and a cornfed Midwesterner reborn as a continental socialite and Hollywood mogul. Towles is dead on when he describes the quintessential American need to redefine nature through desire and violence, such as when Katey articulates her attraction to guns:

[P]eering down the barrel into the open air, you suddenly had the power of a Gorgon—the ability to influence matter at a distance merely by meeting it with your gaze. And the feeling didn’t dissipate with the sound of the shot. It lingered. It permeated your limbs and sharpened your senses—adding a certain possession to your swagger, or a swagger to your possession….

If only someone had told me about the confidence-boosting nature of guns, I’d have been shooting them all my life.

The title is a direct reference to George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, written at the tender age of 14, encapsulating a code of behavior for young men that confirms the American hidden fascination with class and wealth.

But the novel also allows Katey to supplant Washington’s status-oriented rules with what can be called the Tao of Inner Peace. Katey’s principal rules include the literal and/or metaphorical appreciation of “a morning cup of coffee,” kindness to strangers and a deep strength in one’s conviction. Above all, Katey yearns to live “in a perpetual state of wonderment” like a child about to take her first steps. But while Katey understands this romantic ideal, she realizes that assimilation is the first order for survival, and that means the loss of innocence and the exclusion of certain possibilities.

For extra effect, Walker Evans’s photography project Many Are Called, undertaken during the time period of the novel (1936-1941) and capturing the expressive faces of New York subway riders hurtling through dark tunnels, acts as the novel’s recurring motif: how strangers’ lives collide and foster the cultural milieu of their time. The everlasting tension between rugged isolationism and noble yearning for global engagement is amplified by Katey in the novel’s epilogue:

Life doesn’t have to present you any options at all….To have even one year when you are presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course—that’s by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn’t come without a price.

Amor Towles’s novel is, in essence, a literary restatement of the Declaration of Independence. Its bittersweet message resonates deeply, for it brings home the fact that freedom is both hard won and miraculous.

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Viking is kindly allowing me to give away a copy of this book. To enter, leave a comment telling me the one rule you always try to follow in polite company. Doesn’t have to be a serious, important one. I’d accept something like “Always wear deodorant.” Giveaway ends this Sunday, August 21, 5 p.m. PST. U.S./Canada residents only, please, and no P.O. boxes.—PCN

 

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Book Discussion: READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline

Early word on Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One (Crown, August 16), says it’s a nerd’s delight, being full of 1980s pop culture references, so how could I not read it? My husband also grew up in the ’80s and eagerly read it, too. We ended up with different reactions so I thought we’d do a conversation about it, giving you two reviews for the price of one.

First, a synopsis: Eccentric multibillionaire James Halliday dies and leaves his entire fortune to whoever can complete a difficult quest in the virtual world he created called OASIS. The winner must find three keys ultimately leading to a hidden Easter egg and the clues all involve Halliday’s obsession with ’80s culture, which provided fond childhood memories for him.

The action takes place in 2044, and lonely high schooler Wade Watts becomes the first player to find the first key after a five-year search. His archest enemy is Sorrento, who works for the evil corporation known as IOI, which wants control of OASIS for its own greedy purposes. The race becomes a Goliathan struggle between Wade, a poor orphan with a few virtual friends, going up against Sorrento and all of IOI’s resources. And though the competition takes place online, the results will have real-world ramifications.

Pop Culture Nerd: There are aspects of the novel I really enjoyed but I also struggled through sections of it. I have a feeling this is the rare book that will be better as a movie [Warner Bros. bought the rights] because as Wade visits each new sector or planet in the OASIS, we’d be able to see it right away, eliminating the need for three pages of narrative to set up those worlds for us. I wanted to get to the action faster and thought some descriptions could have been revealed within the action instead of being all front-loaded.

Mr. Pop Culture Nerd: I didn’t have that problem. Once you get into the first section of the book, called Level One, I was with Wade, loved the OASIS worlds the author created. As far-out as they may seem, the reasons they exist are grounded in the reality of what’s going on now. I think this is where the real world is heading: the almost complete exhaustion of fossil fuels, our educational system becoming more virtual (which would solve the bullying problem, if you ask me), brick and mortar companies not being able to stay in business because they can’t compete with online juggernauts. It’s a smart novel.

PCN: You might make some people think this is a political, message-heavy book when that’s just a subtle undercurrent. The best sci-fi should be rooted in reality. I got the feeling Cline wrote this more as a valentine to his geek obsessions. His love for ’80s pop culture comes through clearly. I got a kick out of the Star Wars and Blade Runner and Indiana Jones mentions—it’s funny how he disowned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and all future Indy movies! And I used to watch Ultraman every day after school but have never met another person who has seen or even knows who he is so I completely nerded out every time there was an Ultraman reference.

Mr. PCN: I liked how Cline incorporated movie references, like Monty Python and WarGames, ’80s music and arcade game mentions into the quest.

PCN: I did, too, but I wonder if those mentions will mean anything to readers who didn’t grow up in that time period. Will a 25-year-old care about Rush or Pac-Man?

Mr. PCN: Maybe not, but most people will relate to the escapism, the desire to spend time in a virtual world where you can experience things that you can’t in an increasingly bleak real world, to create an avatar to look and be anything you want it to be.

PCN: Which brings us to the characters and their avatars. Wade is a sweet, resourceful kid, and his virtual friends Aech and Shoto are also interesting characters. But I didn’t care for Art3mis so much. Wade sets her up as being a cool chick, with her blog and self-deprecation, but she turns grumpy for the second half of the book. I understood her reasons but she just wasn’t fun to be around, with all her sarcasm and anger.

Mr. PCN: I disagree. I felt her behavior was reasonable.

PCN: Whenever Wade got sidetracked by his obsession with her, the book dragged for me. I was only engaged whenever he was on the quest.

Mr. PCN: But Wade isn’t a well-adjusted adult male (if there are any). This is a teenager who has a major crush on someone.

PCN: I can understand a teenage boy’s crush on a girl; I just didn’t feel Art3mis was deserving of it.

Mr. PCN: What did you think of Sorrento? I thought he was pure evil, which made him fun to hate. You have to respect a villain who’s that formidable.

PCN: Yeah, anytime I hate a character so much I want him to die a violent, fiery death, I know the author has done his job.

Nerd verdict: PCN—Player is fun but flawed; Mr. PCN—High score for Player One.

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Conversation about Sydney Theatre Company’s UNCLE VANYA with Cate Blanchett

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by STC’s co-artistic director Andrew Upton, opened at the Kennedy Center in D.C. this past weekend and will run until August 27. Cate Blanchett (STC’s other co-artistic director) as Yelena, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith!) as Astrov, and Jacki Weaver as Marina head a stellar cast.

My sister Thuy and thirteen-year-old niece Aline caught the Sunday performance and below are their thoughts on it. As you read, you might accuse me of putting words in Aline’s mouth but I assure you I’m not quite sophisticated enough to use “ennui” and “tropes” in everyday conversation.

If you need a synopsis of the play (you weren’t the only one who fell asleep in tenth-grade English), click here. Read on for a discussion that covers Blanchett’s performance, how boring middle-aged people’s problems are to teenagers, and how Glee compares to Chekhov.—PCN

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Thuy: Dad warned me about taking you to see Uncle Vanya. He was concerned this play is not exactly a picnic. So, did you like it?

Aline: In general, I liked it. However, on a deeper level, I didn’t find myself really emotionally invested in the characters and their problems.

T: Is it because the characters are middle-aged people?

A: No, I don’t think so. I think it might have just been a matter of taste, but I just couldn’t bring myself to really care about the situations they were in (maybe because of how mundane they were?)

T: Have you seen Cate Blanchett in any of her films?

A: Yes, I saw her in the Elizabeth movies and Lord of the Rings.

T: What do you think of the characters she played in those movies, as compared to Yelena in Uncle Vanya?

A: I thought that all of those characters shared a certain grace or elegance in the way they moved; her physical movements are usually smooth and languid. She also tends to play characters with an air of regality about them.

T: So would you say that she seems remote in both her film and stage roles?

A: While I’m not saying she’s not passionate, her characters always seem to be expected to carry power and beauty, while acting calm or in control. I think as Yelena she was good enough—she undoubtedly played the part gracefully—but I feel like Yelena wasn’t given much to work with character-wise, other than being the object of several men’s affections. Stripping away her appeal to the other characters, she seems to have almost no other clear defining traits.

T: I agree. I think Cate Blanchett is really stunning…with her cheekbones, great carriage, the way she moves across the stage and that low-octave, beautiful diction. But as Yelena, I don’t find her very compelling, which is kind of odd, as you would think an actor’s portrayal should be inseparable from her physical self.

Anyway, what do you think about the other characters? How about lovelorn Sonya who is in love with the doctor but knows she’s too plain to catch his attention? Surely any play about frustrated characters who can’t get what they want is something that anyone can relate to?

A: That may be true, but to truly empathize with the characters, I need for them to be explored more. Many of the characters could be summarized by only a few traits, e.g., Yelena—admired but bored, or Sonya—loving but plain.

T: You mean the production didn’t reveal them to you on a deeper level? Are they too broadly drawn, on the level of slapstick or sitcom, so to speak?

A: I don’t think they’re slapstick, just that any character could fit into the same categories as these Chekhov characters.

Blanchett and Weaving

T:  What about Astrov and his concern for the environment? His fear of man’s tendency to destroy nature for the sake of his own survival? Don’t you think that’s something we can relate to?

A: Yes, but I felt his passion for conservationism is overshadowed by his love for Yelena.

T:  You may be right. And I don’t quite see the chemistry between Hugo Weaving and Cate. But you said you did like the scene when they all got drunk.

A: Yes, the getting drunk was good! I felt like for most of the play, the characters liked to keep a tight lid on their emotions, and that might have caused some of the conflict in the story.

T: But if everyone acts out, then there is no tension, right? For example, in Hamlet, only Hamlet acts as if he is mad, so the tension comes from everyone else not acting crazy and thinking that only Hamlet is crazy.

A: True, but I think part of the tension in Hamlet is caused by higher stakes being set by the emotions—it’s for the crown of Denmark rather than the ennui of some people on a Russian farm.

T: You don’t think day-to-day ennui is a great enough topic for tragedy?

A: I feel this isn’t exactly a tragedy, though. The characters in the beginning are basically the same as in the end; their fortunes haven’t risen or fallen…None of the characters seem deliberately malicious toward others as they are unable to reveal themselves to those around them. Thus, the play is not a tragedy, more like a series of events caused by the characters hiding their emotions.

Blanchett & Hayley McElhinney as Sonya

T: Would you say it’s more like a black comedy, then?

A: Yes, more so than a tragedy, at least, because of the moments of humor and the fact that no long-term misfortune has been caused by the end.

T: So there must be a dead body for it to be labeled a true tragedy?

A: Not necessarily, but I think it’s implied in the ending that all the characters would recover from the events that have taken place and return to normal life.

T: But what is “normal” life? Is it possible that these characters die a little by making compromises?

A:  I think the characters would heal….Chekhov’s theme of “idleness breeds dissent” is reflected in how, throughout the play, all the characters state their boredom, and how, in the end, it looks like the first genuinely peaceful scene when everyone starts getting back to work.

T:  You said earlier that you couldn’t relate to the characters in the play, since their emotions don’t seem to be based on high moral or political stakes. But how is it different from, say, enjoying Glee?

A: I love Glee for both the melodrama (so addictively fun!) and for the fact that the characters and their issues can be reflected more in contemporary society. Or maybe I just feel invested because I like these worlds and I want to be lost in them and exploring them, and that could apply to any show. I want to be in bright, poppy McKinley High, or in the TARDIS traveling across the universe with Dr. Who, or slaying demons in the Hellmouth with Buffy. I don’t deny that Uncle Vanya’s world is complex and interesting, but maybe I can’t bring myself to care so deeply for these characters because I can’t truly imagine living with them.

T: So you don’t imagine that your parents may be a little like these Chekhov characters? You know, once you reach your forties, you tend to regret a bit. Of course, I have tried to spare you from my own neuroses [laughs].

A: Of course! And I don’t doubt that. I honestly think it’s a matter of taste. Because of my mindset, I couldn’t honestly connect with them.

T: Fair enough. Now I’m wondering if I should have waited until you’re older to introduce you to Chekhov. I just figured since you like Shakespeare, you would like Chekhov, since they are both about the human heart.

A: I like Shakespeare because of the wittiness and verbal sparring in the comedies and also the historical settings. I’m a sucker for things that took place in English courts or imperial Rome, and somehow I find those situations—usually on the stakes of other people’s heads or which person gets to wear a crown—so much more interesting simply because of how disproportionate and immoral plotting and punishment could be back then, compared to more nuanced, smaller tragedies that happen on a less grand scale.

T: Would you say that’s the difference between classical and modern? In some way, you could say that Glee depends on good old-fashioned narrative structure, and Chekhov is modern because he is so spare.

A: I think that’s a fair point, though we often equate “modern” with “contemporary.” I suppose in some cases it’s not true. What we see today still depends on old tropes, character archetypes, and plot devices.

T: That’s an excellent point, Aline. I suppose Glee or popular entertainment in general, while “contemporary,” is pretty traditional in scope, whereas something like Chekhov is not for everyone because it does not try to please or change anything. You could say that Chekhov’s plays, like Yelena’s beauty, are “useless.” But I’m still glad that I took you to see the play, if only for the fact that we could have this conversation.

A: Thanks! I thought it was fun, too, and maybe I’ll try revisiting Chekhov again in a few years. Heh.

Vanya photos: Lisa Tomasetti, Glee: FOX

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Nerd Going Green

When I’m not blogging, I’m sometimes doing questionable things like running from park rangers up at the Hollywood sign, but sometimes I’m writing for other sites which are craz—er, magnanimous enough to pay for my ramblings. I have a post up at Criminal Element about how I solved The Case of the Missing Keys for a friend, and below is my review of Don Winslow’s new release, which I’m re-running here with Shelf Awareness’s permission. Thanks to fellow blogger le0pard13′s amazingness, I got to read the UK version of this book last year but Winslow’s writing holds up on second reading, and third, and beyond.

Speaking of SA, if you click on the widget in my sidebar (below my blogroll) and subscribe to the free readers’ edition, you’re entered in giveaways of new books. Right now, it’s a copy of Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing, which doesn’t come out until August 23.

That’s it for today. Hope you’re out having fun making lots of mischief!

The Gentlemen’s Hour by Don Winslow

In this sequel to The Dawn Patrol, surfer PI Boone Daniels takes on a case that threatens to destroy his friendship with his beach buddies. He’s hired to help defend the confessed killer of Kelly Kuhio, a surfing legend and saint-like leader in the Pacific Beach community. Everyone wants the perp’s head on a stick, but Boone thinks something’s fishy with the eyewitness testimonies and the confession attained by Boone’s cop friend, Johnny Banzai. Boone also agrees to spy on the wife of an acquaintance from the gentlemen’s hour–the shift after the dawn patrol on the daily surf clock–to see whether or not she’s cheating. Turns out, the cases may be related, and much deadlier than Boone anticipated.

Readers should dive in even if they’re not surfing fans. Don Winslow is so skilled a writer, he could do a dissertation on dirt and make it entertaining. His style is conversational, like having someone in your living room tell you a really good story. His prose is as rhythmic as music, his dialogue crackles like fireworks, his characters are as real as your best friends. Winslow tackles serious subjects but makes you laugh before you realize you’ve been kicked in the heart.

And Boone’s not a stereotypical, loner PI; he has great friends. Their bond is deep, making its fracture all the more painful. But that’s why we root for Boone. Anyone can do the right thing when it’s easy, but only a gentleman can do it when it’s nearly impossible.

Nerd verdict: Readers should definitely spend a few Hours with this book

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Movie Review: ATTACK THE BLOCK

I hated not being able to make this screening last week, but luckily my contributor Eric Edwards was there to cover it. After reading his review below, my butt hurts from kicking myself.—PCN

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Forget Cowboys & Aliens and Super 8. The best summer monster movie is the one you haven’t heard too much about: Attack the Block (in limited release). Writer/director Joe Cornish, who also co-wrote the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin, has combined a cast of appealing unknowns with a tight script to give audiences a witty, edge-of-your-seat movie experience.

Boyega (in front)

Moses (John Boyega, in his first film) heads a gang of teenagers in a rundown South London neighborhood. The film opens with them mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a female nursing student on her way home from yet another long day. Hoods are up, bandanas cover their faces and knives are wielded by this bike-riding group of young thugs. They don’t realize Sam wouldn’t be walking in their block if she wasn’t as poor as they are.

Before they can get too angry over getting so little money for their effort, something falls from the sky and crushes a parked car nearby. Instead of getting scared and running away, Moses shows why he’s the leader by deciding to strip the car. This is where his problems begin and the movie takes off.

Cornish proves a big budget isn’t needed to tell a great story. Sure, on the surface these guys are exactly the kind of punks everyone else would dismiss, but Cornish’s screenplay and direction move beyond their swagger and tough talk, turning them into the unlikely heroes we root for during the next 88 minutes.

Cornish doesn’t use special effects or melodrama to accomplish it either. In one heartbreaking scene, Sam enters Moses’s apartment, which he shares with his uncle. Moses is on his cell talking her from room to room while the alien monsters are hot on her trail. With very little dialogue, we watch Sam’s eyes as she changes her, and our, perception of Moses. Any more details would spoil this movie, but I will say the non-CGI, low-budget aliens instilled fear that lingered long after I got a good look at them.

I mentioned earlier that Cornish is one of the co-writers on the December’s Tintin movie, which Stephen Spielberg produced and directed. One would think this a tremendous learning opportunity for Cornish, but after viewing Attack the Block, I think Spielberg should be paying attention to the younger director’s work.

Photo: Liam Daniel/Screen Gems

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Free e-Books from Tyrus Books’ “Summer of Crime”!

Wanted to put up a quick post to alert you to the amazing thing Ben LeRoy and the good people at Tyrus Books are doing: giving away e-books for the rest of the summer! (UPDATE: Poncho reports below that the offer is not available in Latin America.)

For a “Summer of Crime,” a free novel will be given away every week. There is no obligation—just download and read it. LeRoy has repeatedly said all he cares about is that people read and he’s consistently backed this up with his generous actions. (In case you’re interested, my full valentine to Tyrus is here.)

This week’s title is Angela S. Choi’s dark, witty Hello Kitty Must Die, which has that  famous opening line: “It all started with my missing hymen.” And boy, did that MIA hymen start a lot of trouble. You can download it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here. The promotion ends next Monday, August 8, and the schedule for the rest of the free e-books is as follows:

Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff (8/8 – 8/15)

The Wind Knot by John Galligan (8/15 – 8/22)

Untouchable by Scott O’Connor (8/30 – 9/6)

Mark your calendars, tell your friends, and get yourself caught up in crime this summer!

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