Thursday, May 1, 2014

Am I Kissing Wrong?

 Lips touching. Teeth pressing. Tongues inserting. Tongues moving. Tongues tonguing. Tongues darting in and out. Tongues bumping. Fact: Anna and the French Kiss should be interpreted as Anna and the FRENCH KISS, not Anna and the Clever Entendre Where Anna is Kissed in Paris After She is Sent There by Her Father, Nicholas Sparks. AatFK by Stephanie Perkins looked like a throwaway teen novel, but I saw it well-reviewed in several places so I decided to give it a go and it turned out to be a throwaway teen novel. There's nothing wrong with it if you're sixteen and credulous, but it didn't transcend the genre, it wasn't even a particularly notable exemplar of the genre. Firstly, it was burdened by clunky writing. For example, Anna's new friends at expensive Parisian boarding school are telling her a funny story about the time Rashmi snogged the tour guide at Versailles for six hours and when she came back her neck was covered with teeth marks. Teeth marks! Hickeys have been known to happen in the world, but the only time I've seen teeth marks on an adult was the time a customer bit my colleague. Rashmi's boyfriend Josh doesn't like this story and he stabs his pasta. The narrative is clunky and riddled with these unlikely anecdotes and weird reactions that aren't quite human. The story: Anna falls in love with the handsome British/French/American boy Etienne St. Clair and they spend the year being best friends. Conflict: she loves him but won't touch him because he has a girlfriend and he loves her but is keeping his girlfriend as a safety, in case Anna doesn't love him. Through the whole book, which is nine unnecessary discs long on audio, I had a line from Not Another Teen Movie, for heaven's sake, floating around in my head: The girl is deciding between the boy she loves and Art School and the boy tells her something like, "We'll only have the summer, and then I'll go off to college and cheat on you with a girl from my dorm and you'll find her thong in my room." Anna is from Georgia and St. Clair grew up in London, holds French and American passports, and won't tell anyone where he's going to college. Stephanie Perkins finds a work-around to that problem, so good for her. Because in some doomed relationships, there is no work-around, geographic or otherwise, and the separation is inevitable, like if you're high school lesbians in Iran. That relationship isn't going anywhere. If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, which I heard about on MPR and then forgot until Missie gave me a clearance copy, is more about the situation than the writing. It's choppy and sometimes redundant. Sahar looks sadly at the name on her mother's grave written in Farsi. Isn't everything in Iran written in Farsi? Are graves normally marked in Koranic Arabic and her mom's is different? Sahar is an Iranian girl written by an Iranian-American and it's hard to pick out what's being translated by idiom, what by word, and what's just clunky. Not to say If You Could Be Mine isn't heartbreaking. Sahar and Nasrin have been best friends since childhood and now they're secret make-out friends until Nasrin becomes engaged to a man. Sahar swears to find a way to stop the wedding and learns that gender reassignment surgery is legal in Iran. She pursues it a bit, going so far as to talk to a doctor about it, but it's like a teenagers deciding to run away to France. They might apply for passports, but you know they're never even going to make it to the airport. This is a solidly good story and one hopes Sara Farizan will keep writing and polish it up a bit next time.

I promised FHB last blog. Sara Crewe, or What Happened atMiss Minchin's, the original version of The Little Princess. Sara Crewe was written in 1888 and FHB didn't revise it into A Little Princess until 1905. All those years and people only had this small novella about a girl whose fortunes are double-reversed. It's an interesting read and an astute reader with a love of A Little Princess would pick up thousands more little tweaks than I did. An angry Sara knocks Emily to the ground. In ALP, Sara is so dedicated to her pretendings that she maintains her steadfastness through the deepest privations. An angry Sara is a more human Sara, although she can be less appealing as the friends who sustain her in isolation are not there. No Becky, no Lottie. Ermengarde has a chapter, but her only characteristic is "stupid," and I'm not just saying that. FHB calls her stupid eight or nine times. The bakery episode is almost untouched; characters keep mentioning the French Revolution; and FHB coasts through the end, where all the best parts are. An interesting insight into a work in its middle state.

Another of Sarah Vowell's, The Wordy Shipmates, is of course as good as she is in her historical reportage, and in this one she picks up one of the threads of American history that know one knows or minds except, maybe, residents of Massachusetts. Maybe on Patriot's Day, which we all found out last year they've been secretly celebrating this whole time, maybe they go around reading the speech that John Cotton made to the non-separatist Puritans before they sailed to the New World in 1630. They certainly established Boston, along with Providence, RI and other places. Salem, Plymouth, New Amsterdam, and Indians who survived the epidemics that decimated their numbers were already there. Vowell loves her pilgrims, and you can see why. They're dogmatic, schismatic, and bland, but they're all starry-eyed dreamers of an erudite cast that can be seen as she amply quotes from their letters to each other, all the piles of them. The main conflict of the book is between John Williams and Roger Winthrop, two devout Puritans whose tiny differences in doctrine lead to Winthrop's exile and Rhode Island's founding.

Veronica Mars is back in book form and the book doesn't suck. Veronica Mars:The Thousand Dollar Tan Line picks up where the movie left off, which picked up nine years after the TV show was cancelled. It's nice how well a noir potboiler of a TV show translates into a noir potboiler of a novel. Veronica is her cool-headed self, all the main characters are there for plausible reasons, and Veronica bumps into a few minor characters while solving the mystery of the two girls who disappeared a week apart from a house on the beach during spring break.

I've never read anything that could be so aptly described as a comedy of manners as The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden. It's great but for one major flaw. Lady Chester and her twin sister moving to a semi-detached house in Dulham while Lord Chester is away on an assignment to Germany, and she complains to her Aunt Sarah that she can't be semi-detached, she will feel as if the house is not quite her own, and there is sure to be a fat lady in mittens next door with two daughters who are always at the pianoforte. She arrives in Dulham to meet plump Mrs. Hopkinson and her daughters Janet and Barbara. It's a comedy, so the book plays on widely held assumptions. The young men are dashing, the widower is dour, the curate is poor, the child is darling, the Jewish neighbors... I've never read anything so anti-Semitic in my life. The Jewish neighbors are avaricious money-grubbers. I felt guilty listening to this, and then the action would move to the Hopkinsons' and Mrs. Hopkinson would dowdy around being so jolly and helpful. When Lady Chester is taken ill (she's been in a "delicate condition"), Mrs. Hopkinson is so delighted to be woken in the middle of the night in the rain, it's so neighborly. Miss Hopkinson suffers a shock and "she would have fainted if she knew how." So fun, so funny, so anti-Semitic. Emily Eden wrote this around 1830, if that helps any.

I've never heard a person rhapsodize about their love of Mary Poppins the book before. People love the pants off that movie, but the book itself is unknown or unread or if they have read it they don't talk about it. Now I know why. It's terrible. I had no idea it could be this bad considering the beloved movie. Very young children might be amused by, say, the backwards zoo where animals walk around and watch the humans being fed; or the very small woman with the edible, regenerating fingers and her two psychologically-abused, fat daughters who run a bakery. It's Edwardians tripping. "A tea party on the ceiling. Ha ha! How droll." After every episode of lame magick, Mary sniffs and harrumphs and acts as though nothing of the sort had ever happened and Jane and Michael were experiencing a joint hallucination. Mary Poppins herself has magic powers, is quick to temper, incredibly vain, and no sense of perspective, probably a Griffindor. Burt/Dick Van Dyke is absent in all but one chapter, which is too bad because he balances her rigidity. She does leave at the end, but she comes back for seven sequels.

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