Reader Meet Author

Welcome to Reader Meet Author. This is where Nils and Jessica talk about the books they read in 2009.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ms. Films DIY to Film & Video, Third Edition

After graduating from film school, I looked for books that would offer me something that film school didn't, and to be honest that wasn't asking for much. I've used a couple books to inspire me and even though in recent months, I haven't been as interested in filmmaking, I am always interested in cinema studies. What Film School Doesn't Teach You: 161 Strategies For Making Your Own Movies No Matter What by Camille Lanau and Taire White and The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking by Mark and Michael Polish with Jonathan Sheldon are guides to inspire the frustrated amateur filmmaker, aiming to piece together why it's so hard to get to started, and why it's really up to you to get down and dirty: to experiment, to educate yourself, and to ultimately make the film yourself. When I was looking for materials after college to fuel my filmmaking blood, I should have looked into the world of zine-making. 

Ms. Films DIY Guide to Film and Video is a guide focused on helping her figure out where to start, how to write film, and how to make it. From how to get ready and how to tell when you're ready. It's definitely a small guidebook, but it's a starter; to get her going and to inspire her to be her own resource. 

Ms. Films is a non-profit working to empower girls and women who long to be make film and Ms. Films anthologizes articles in this guide to help her get there.  The articles published in this zine cover cameraless filmmaking to screenwriting. It's a guide that supports the girl or woman who wants to start her own film festival and illustrates how to organize the fest. It also pushes her to collaborate and to gain access to the terminology that makes cinema easier to understand. 

Filmmaking is something that has always fascinated me. Ms. Films film and video guide offered me the chance to get back into thinking about film, reminding me that filmmaking is not a solo journey; that it can be fun and that it truly comes down to her - the one with the camera and the idea. Ms. Films has been around for the last five years to help facilitate that. Good job!

Rabbit, Run

This was the first time I'd ever read a John Updike book.  Unquestionably, he was a talented writer, whose knack for descriptive, poetic prose is echoed in writers like Don Delillo.  There were several passages in Rabbit, Run that I thought were great, especially near the beginning.  As the novel wears on though, the novel gets bogged down by a lackluster plot and its supremely self-centered protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom.

Rabbit is in his late twenties, unhappily married with one child and another on the way.  His solution to his problem is to leave his wife on a whim and drive off with no real plan.  Throughout the book, Rabbit acts in the same impulsive manner, reversing himself several times to whatever is convenient in the moment, with little to no regard on how his actions affect others. The novel even winds up with a ludicrous climax that recalls the hoary urban legend about the baby sitter on acid unwittingly putting the baby in the oven. The novel almost works as a black comedy, because Rabbit is such a pathetic, foolish character.  

The problem I had with the book is that I got the feeling that Updike doesn't think that Rabbit is a loser, and in fact even wants the reader to root for Rabbit.  In a way, Rabbit, like many of the Updike's protagonists, is a stand-in for the author himself, who can be as self-centered as Rabbit is (For more on this, I would suggest reading David Foster Wallace's excellent essay on Updike titled "Certainly the End of Something or Other").   Maybe that's the reason why I hadn't read Updike before:  while is writing is talented, his male-centered, narcissistic values are decidedly dated.  Ultimately, what Rabbit is running from isn't his family or his responsiblities, but the 20th century itself.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Haruki Murakami's novels are a bit like Rube Goldberg machines:  the main character gets involved in an increasingly bizarre series of odd events without much rhyme or reason.  Sure, it's kind of entertaining while it's going on, but at the end of the story the reader is scratching their heads at what the point of the whole thing was.

In the Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the main character, Toru Okada, loses both his cat and his wife, which somehow causes him to get involved with psychics, haunted property, an evil brother-in-law, and some very vague stuff about evil spirits living inside of people.  The meaning of it all is never clearly explained, and the ending leaves tons of loose ends.  Toru is also a frustratingly passive protagonist.  He repeatedly says that he wants to get his wife back, but seems content to wait around while other characters come to him to move the plot along.  His major dramatic action for the first half of the book is to climb down inside a dry well, to think.  The characters' dialogue has a stilted, artificial quality to it, but this might be because of the translation.  

Murakami does try to bring some gravitas to the book by weaving in a story about Japan's involve in China in World War II, but it ends up being yet another unresolved tangent in a book that's packed with them.  For a novel about Japan and its World War II history that's much more satisfying, may I suggest Carl Shuker's excellent book "The Method Actors"?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Loom Knitting Primer

In the past week I have come across an online loom knitting community. It's completely awesome, because I had never heard of looming until I came across knitting looms at the craft store. I was just walking by and out of the corner of my eye, I saw this circular thing and the package said it was easy, and that I could learn to knit on it. So, I was sold! Seemed easy enough and even better, it was barely an investment.

I picked up Loom Knitting Primer because Phelps seems to be a leader in the loomer community. It's been recommended for its stitch tutorials and full rundown on how to use circular looms and knitting boards. Loom Knitting Primer is a great guide and introduction to the tools, stitches, and terminology of loom knitting. As a beginner, I found Phelps online video tutorials more effective when practicing stitches. The instructional images in the book are helpful, but obviously minimal compared to the free online videos...The book is a great resource if you don't have the Internet handy.

I also have to mention, Phelps could have used more instructional images when creating a flat panel on a circular loom. I say that because it's what I am trying to tackle now. I also feel, as a beginner's guide, instructional images should have been added with the patterns as well. Maybe I just learn better visually or maybe I am just too needy...A slow learner? No, I am just learning something totally new to me on my own. I'll get better at looming. I'll get better because outside Phelps' book, there is small, but large looming community online with other knitters offering their own guides to an ever fast growing obsession with looming. I am glad I caught on.

I am just being hard on Phelps book, because I am looking for the easy way to learn. I am picking it up slowly. Reading it over and over and practicing. I never thought I'd be able to knit anything, but over the past week I've been able to knit a small hat, and it's primarily due to the fact that knitting on a loom is so easy. Knitting a hat is probably the easiest thing to do on a circular loom, but it's an achievement for someone who struggles with knitting needles. Yay! Now, I will get back to reading literature.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Moviegoer

Walker Percy's first novel brings to mind J.D. Salinger on many levels.  The novel's protagonist, Jack Bickerson Bolling, is essentially Holden Caulfield if he had grown into a man without losing his feelings of alienation.  While Holden's disaffection is nowadays acceptable among teenagers, seen as a normal part of growing up, it's still largely viewed as pathology or even mental illness in a thirty year old man.  Jack, though, is a charming narrator,  full of wry observations on humanity, and he describes his alienation in terms that strikes pangs of recognition in the reader.  His feelings are ones most of experience in our inner thoughts,  even though we seldom admit them openly.  The novel is hardly about moviegoing at all, except that Jack has an easier time relating to the order he sees in movies than he does to the hollow relationships he sees in real life.  The novel is almost plotless, but yet is about the highest stakes of all:  the search for a meaningful life in a modern world, without succumbing to the easy answers.  

The one person Jack seems to relate to is his step-cousin, Kate, who is as damaged as Jack is, perhaps more so.  Their conversations recall the back-and-forth between Salinger's Franny and Zooey (without the mysticism that Salinger occasionally veers into.)  Likewise,  Jack's family is as full of distinctive characters as Salinger's Glass clan, although all the relationships can be a little hard to parse out.  Jack's father's side is New Orleans old-money establishment gentry,  while his mother's side are Louisiana hicks.  Jack doesn't feel part of either side, as he feels equally disaffected from the past and from the social changes that surround him in the early 60's.  

As you may have guessed by now, this is an existential novel, but one that is still grounded in a deep feeling for humanity.  There are several passages of stunning, devastating beauty that took my breath away.   Although much of the novel is bleak, almost unbearably so,  it has a surprisingly positive ending.  Altough Jack doesn't get much in the way of answers, he does achieve a measure of peace by turning his attentions outside of himself to those around him.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dave Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity!

Book club choices can be a hit or miss, huh? It's sort of hard to tell if the members of the club are all going to like the book that's chosen for that month. But I guess that's the whole fun of book club. To be apart of the discussion that arises from those who advocate for the author and those who critique. I think what I love most about the book club that I am in is that we are all open minded, constructive, and value one anothers perspectives.

Many in my book club enjoyed You Shall Know Our Velocity!, but some did not. Some of us read it all the way through. One member even had the special edition that debunked the whole story that the rest of us thought was reality. Some of us tried to finish it. Some of us never picked it up. I was one that tried to finish it, but struggled with it because I had no faith in the story.

I read What is the What and that is the only reference of Eggers that I have. And other than what I have heard from friends, I am not too familiar with McSweeney's. I am trying my best not to be negative in this review, because ideally, Velocity! has good intentions. And I wanted to like this novel, because What is the What was so compelling, but I didn't like Velocity! and that's that. It's actually just a sad story about a sad man that goes no where. Right? And then I guess most of the story I read was based on delusions? Ug, I am so confused now. What the hell did I just read?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Riding Toward Everywhere

William T. Vollmann is kind of nuts.  In 1981, the author travelled to Afghanistan in an ill-fated attempt to join the Mujahideen rebellion against the Soviets.  He wrote a 700-page novel entirely in Elizabethan English.  Doing research for another novel, he travelled by himself to the magnetic North Pole, and almost froze to death in the process.  And so on.  

So it's not much of a surprise to find out that one of Vollmann's hobbies is hopping freight trains.  What is surprising is that the book he wrote about riding the rails is unassuming and even sort of sweet.  It's short, less than 200 pages (by contrast, his next book is a 1300 behemoth about a county in California) and, as Vollmann himself says, it's a book with very few points to make.  Vollmann's main goal seems to be to convey the joy he gets from trainhopping, the sense of freedom it gives him in an America where freedoms are increasingly restricted.   His language is descriptive and poetic, and at the same time unsentimental.  He doesn't romanticize train riding,  being frank about the dangers,  the discomfort, and most of all, the mind numbing boredom that goes along with the activity.  But he also vividly captures the moments of beauty that make the downsides worth it.  Vollmann also explores how trainhopping has been treated by other American authors like Hemingway, Kerouac, and Mark Twain. 

Vollmann never claims to be an authentic hobo.  He's upfront about the economic advantages that he and his trainriding partner Steve have, labeling themselves fauxbeaux.  They ride the rails by choice, not necessity.  But when Vollmann does encounter real hoboes, his descriptions of them are compassionate and humanizing,  without turning a blind eye to the prejudices that can exist in the community.  It's a delicate balance, but he pulls it off well, even if he does succumb to the occasional burst of purple prose.  A charming book.

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