Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

March 30, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir

whatitalkaboutwhenitalkaboutrunningBy Haruki Murakami

Published July 29, 2008

Alfred A. Knopf

175 pp.

ISBN 0-307-26919-1

Reviewed March 29, 2009

In the bookstore there are always a few authors who have written enough well-received titles that they earn their own style of mass-market paperback, covers showcasing the same design and decorated with a variety of gushing quotes. Kurt Vonnegut has two colors and a V overlapped with name and title, while Christopher Moore has fanciful fonts and often macabre images in the middle of the front cover. The idea is of course to get you to buy all the titles, thus giving your bookshelf a feeling of accomplishment. (And in Vonnegut’s case, it works on me.)

But every so often an author deviates from this format, usually for smaller pieces or when they start writing about themselves. Haruki Murakami is the most recent of the notables, with his latest title “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” exchanging the abstract artwork and eye images for a small image of himself pounding down the road. Design is one of three things setting it apart from his other works, in addition to it being a personal memoir and unfortunately not as engrossing as previous works.

Murakami, author of the critically acclaimed works “Norwegian Wood” and “Kafka on the Shore,” began running in 1982 to keep in shape as he changed careers from jazz club owner to novelist. Since then he has been running consistently for 27 years, participating in marathons and triathlons from New York City to Tokyo. “Running” goes over his experiences of training and running, the positive and negative effects it has on his body and its relation to life and writing.

Murakami’s career has been built on writing books that capture a bittersweet, emotional attitude in everyday life, with a postmodern writing style that uses both humor and surrealism to bring the themes across. In comparison, “Running” is a much more straightforward book, more like a journal than a story and frequently discoursing on the various sights and experiences he sees on his treks. It’s a straightforwardness that – surprisingly – borders on mundane, lacking the emotional center of his other works (or even other memoirs I’ve reviewed).

The chief issue with this could be that the book is a translation, originally written in Murakami’s native Japanese. Murakami even hints at such a problem when he speaks of how he has a “tight” relationship with Japanese, and it is in that language he best catches hold of words and context. As he is writing about himself – a deeply personal topic – he may have more to say in his native language that does not lend itself to conversion, regardless of how skilled translator Philip Gabriel is.

Of course, the problem may lay with the author himself as much as his language. At multiple points in “Running” Murakami seems startlingly self-conscious, clarifying that he is a person who likes to be left alone, and frequently has to excuse himself with phrases like “As I mentioned earlier…” He also clarifies in the introduction that “Running” is more of a gathering of thought, written in a “real time” form and reprinting some old articles, so by definition it will be a bit haphazard. There’s not a real chronology to the book, and he tends to jump from race to race without mentioning the outcome of some marathons.

Despite these criticisms, “Running” is certainly not a bad book. While Murakami makes note of being a private person he does have quite a bit to say about his past, talking about his relationship with his wife and the jazz club he ran prior to becoming a writer. He also takes the time to discuss the writing process, and the epiphany at a baseball game that he could try writing a novel (which seems a bit anticlimactic, but the setting is described with such feeling it’s hard not to get caught up).

At some points Murakami seems to forget himself in both the acts of running and writing, describing the motion of his limbs and the feel of the ground underneath his reliable jogging shoes. In these cases, the passages have echoes of his fiction, the same control of evocative prose: “My silent heart expanded and contracted, over and over at a fixed rate. Like the bellows of a worker, the lungs faithfully brought fresh oxygen into my body.” The writing is best when he dwells on these moments, rather than which Rolling Stones album he plays on longer jogs.

For people who have never read Murakami before, this book isn’t the best introduction – I personally recommend “Norwegian Wood” for that – but it’s a serviceable book for people who are either interested in running or learning about Murakami as a person. His enthusiasm for the act of running and the positive impact it has had on him personally is certainly noticeable, but for some reason he can’t capture his life as poetically as his characters.


Book Review: Spook Country

March 29, 2009

Spook Country: A Novel

spook-countryBy William Gibson

Published August 7, 2007

Berkley Trade

384 pp.

ISBN 0-425-22141-5

Reviewed March 28, 20o9

There aren’t many writers alive today who are credited with creating an entire genre of literature, but the realm of cyberpunk still has its founder in William Gibson. He didn’t invent the term – author Bruce Bethke coined it in 1980 with the eponymous short story – and authors such as Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan also made significant contributions, but it’s Gibson who made it mainstream and earned the title of “noir prophet.” 1984’s “Neuromancer” was an imaginative epic, seeing ideas of cyberspace and virtual reality before personal computers were even mainstream.

After following “Neuromancer” with a series of equally speculative novels, Gibson has turned his vision into the modern world, where advancements in technology has caught up with several of his innovations – but also verified his predictions of control and paranoia. “Spook Country” is the second of these novels, and it proves everything readers have come to expect from him: tense, innovative and superbly written.

Set in February 2006, “Spook Country” centers on the activities of three very different individuals. Hollis Henry, former lead singer of punk band The Curfew, is now a music journalist assigned to cover the elusive technical genius Bobby Chombo, a pioneer of creating virtual reality artwork. Tito, a musician and member of a Cuban criminal family, is contracted to deliver coded iPods to an old man with intelligence background. And Milgrim, a drug addict with a penchant for stolen coats, is abducted by a government official and forced to translate Russian code in exchange for continual drug doses.

All three of these characters find themselves involved in a strange plot, involving a “phantom” shipping container that seems to pop up in various locations. Eccentric entrepreneur Hubertus Bigend (first seen in Gibson’s earlier “Pattern Recognition”) simply wants to know what it is, the old man wants to get Tito close to it and a shady maybe-government operative wants Milgrim to help him learn what Tito knows. It’s a constantly vague tale, with the true intent and content never clear to the players even when they think their lives could be in danger.

Even with an overarching conspiracy the book could easily become fragmented, but it’s held together by the same fact that made “Neuromancer” so popular 25 years ago: Gibson is a writer of remarkable skill. His phrasing is descriptive without being overwhelming, and creates a sense of immersion in both the grime of New York City and the unsettling modernity of Los Angeles. On the character side the dialogue is terse and realistic, conversations feeling natural and each character’s voice defined.

With the exception of Chombo’s virtual reality art (images broadcast in public places, only visible with VR helmets) Gibson doesn’t spend his time speculating on future technology. Rather, his focus is on how current technology infiltrates our lives and changes the order of business, ranging from iPods encoded with secret data to portable door alarms to tracking devices in cell phone scramblers. The feeling established is one of paranoia and disconnect, a sense that you’re never quite sure if you’re being watched or if it even matters.

And dealing with this paranoia is “Spook Country’s” strength. Hollis, Tito and Milgrim aren’t even featured in the same chapter until two-thirds of the way in (and even then only share one scene) but each one deals with their strange circumstances in their own solitary way, be it faith or drugs or attempting to apply reason. Each character fixates on certain objects throughout the course of the book – envelopes of money, blue vases and books on European religion – and this adds to the feeling each is trying to stay grounded in unfamiliar circumstances.

There are many other threads – the threat of government control after 9/11, information lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy, celebrity gone by and the oddities of the rich – and the tension in each goes to make our own world as immersive as “Neuromancer’s” cyberspace. It’s to Gibson’s credit that he can not only perceive the way these influences have shaped us, but express it in such a dark, eminently readable piece of literature as “Spook Country.”

Back Shelf Review: The Colossus of Maroussi

March 20, 2009

The Colossus of Maroussi

040315_colossus1By Henry Miller

Published 1941, reprinted June 1975

New Directions

244 pp.

ISBN 0-811-20109-0

Reviewed March 19, 2009

To paraphrase Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, in his essay on Led Zeppelin and heavy metal: modern literature would not exist without Henry Miller, and if it did, it would suck. With novels such as “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” Miller was perhaps more than any other author responsible for the development of autobiographical work, mixing self-study and philosophy with surrealism and often graphically honest depictions of sex. His writing became a cornerstone of the censorship debate in America – copies actually had to be smuggled into the country until 1964 – and inspired authors from William S. Burroughs to Harvey Pekar.

“Cancer” and “Capricorn” are surely Miller’s most influential works, but also have the consequence of making Miller seem like a seedy character, dwelling on his poverty and random sexual encounters. He may have lived in such conditions, but as a writer he was capable of depicting so much more, as is evident in his novel “The Colossus of Maroussi.” Published in 1941 – seven years after “Cancer” and two after “Capricorn” – “Maroussui” is less a memoir than it is a celebration, both of the beauty of Greece and the personal revelations he undergoes.

At first glance, the book could be seen as a travel book on the Grecian experience. Unemployed and living off the kindness of a variety of friends, Miller crosses the Mediterranean nation with stops at historical sites such as the ruined city of Knossos and the purported burial site of Agamemnon at Mycenae. Along the way he meets a variety of expatriates and Greek writers, enjoying many nights of wine and conversation and determining his travel plans based on convenience and how long his travel visa will last.

But Miller quickly shatters any traditional travel format, characterizing Greece right away as a “sacred precinct” under God’s personal protection. The overall experience of Greece seems to be as much an awakening for him as mescaline was for Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception,” as he feels he is tapping into a primordial mood and is determined to express all the feelings stirred in him by the location. Every section of the book praises Greece, from the late-night walks in little villages to the brilliant conversation inspired by the Greek writers Katsimbalis and Seferiades.

The tonal shift between these and the Tropics books is a noticeable one – no sex scenes, no dwelling on the dirtiness of his condition beyond passing words on his hotel room and no scraping for money to pay expenses. Miller himself characterizes the difference in settings as a motivation, with Athens “a violet-blue reality which envelops you with a caress” and New York “a trop-hammer vitality which drives you insane with restlessness.” There is a constant sense of stopping to take a breath here, and in doing so the air is found cleaner and cheaper to breathe.

Miller is also helped along in his writing by current events. At the time of writing, World War II was wracking the majority of the European continent, but Greece was neither a battleground nor a major participant, filling it with expatriates and a sense of security. In this context Miller gets to view it as an oasis, visiting the ancient sites of Knossos and Mycenae and looking upon them as areas that will feel the same long after the war is over and all involved have turned to dust. He’s putting the country on a pedestal, an Ionic column that will keep the country stable through any man-made calamity.

His celebration and description are enough to motivate any traveler, but it is when he gets into a contemplative mood that there is a true soul to “Colossus.” Many of his revelations would work as philosophy essays, musing on human nature and how a visit to Greece would do all some good. When walking through a village and hearing radio news of the war from various points, he sees the folly of the industrial world bringing death where there should be celebration; and at Agamemnon’s tomb he touches the idea of becoming a spiritual nomad, free of the “spawn of cultured souls.” The best of these passages comes at the amphitheatre of Epidaurus, when he realizes what humanity is truly in need of is a revolution – not of government and war but a worldwide revolution of internal thought, realizing the inexhaustibility of the human spirit and eradicating its darker side.

The only real issue in the book comes up in that Miller’s love for Greece is so overwhelmingly positive, his feelings tend to overwhelm at times. He seems incapable of criticizing the country and its people, only marking against them when they keep expressing a desire to go to America he gently tries to dissuade them from. Quick to dismiss the other expatriates he meets as vulgar and unrefined, he even goes so far as to hope the Englishmen he met there will “consider me an enemy of their kind” after reading the book.

“Colossus” should certainly not be read as a guide to touring in Greece or Greek landmarks – there are plenty of locations mentioned, but a more formal guidebook would need to be paired with it to make sense of them. Instead, it is a book to read for the emotional side of the country, an example of just what can be experienced when you take a moment and take in exactly where you are. It is a well-crafted book filled with a sense of joy, and that sense makes it one of Miller’s most worthy efforts.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Watchmen

March 10, 2009

(Editor’s note: Perhaps more than any other article I’ve written, this is an article is going to be rife with spoilers for the both the book and the film, as both are so rich with references and points of discussion they have to be mentioned. If you haven’t experienced both, I strongly suggest you save this post until afterwards.)

watchmen_film_poster1It seems that adapting Alan Moore to the screen is something that needs a few tries before it’s done right. 2003’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was an embarrassment, defanging the dark Victorian steampunk into a spectacularly laughable action film; while “V for Vendetta” completely converted the political story but kept concept and aesthetic intact (as I’ve said before). Last year’s “The Dark Knight” got even deeper, adapting Moore’s interpretation of the Joker from “The Killing Joke” and proving the mainstream would eat up his twisted vision.

And if there had to be a few missteps, it’s best to get them out of the way before the filming of Moore’s magnum opus, “Watchmen,” the dystopian tale of superheroes who have more issues than their enemies and a world always five minutes from a nuclear holocaust. Hailed as the greatest graphic novel ever and the only comic to earn a place on Time’s “100 Novels,” adapting it seemed like the sort of thing that could only end in tears for its fans – but history seems to be learning, as “Watchmen” is the most faithful of the Moore adaptations and also the best.

watchmen_book_cover1From the beginning “Watchmen” has seemed untouchable by cinema – each character, from the sociopathic Rorschach to the conflicted Nite Owl to the otherworldly Dr. Manhattan, has such a detailed back story and course of action that any cuts would detract from the characters. The book is littered with inside references that would never survive the transition, and recurring themes that demand multiple readings and even a three-hour film couldn’t hope to replicate. Directors from Darren Aronofsky to Terry Gilliam have abandoned the project, the latter even declaring it unfilmable (and when the man who made “Brazil” thinks your story is unfilmable, that’s a pretty impressive indictment).

The project is left in the hands of Zach Synder, no stranger to film adaptations with his admirable conversion of Frank Miller’s “300,” and he has carried over his experience in working with the source material. Each of the book’s chapters are presented in order, retaining the right sequence of events and the related flashbacks, and while the darker color scheme is closer to “300” then the “Watchmen” comic panels it’s still easy to recognize scenes and dialogue as copied straight from the text. Details large and small survive, from the use of thematically relevant billboards in the background to the growling text of Rorschach’s journal. It does lack the original soul in some places – particularly in early scenes where the dialogue has been rewritten – but those points serve as connectors to the truly important scenes, such as the awakening of Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach.

Of course, with a story as convoluted as “Watchmen’s,” some compromises have to be made. Virtually all the side characters – Bernard the news vendor, Rorschach’s therapist, the police detectives, the New Frontiersman editors – are featured briefly if at all, and the histories of Rorschach and Ozymandias are still there but trimmed to one scene. The original history of the first-generation Minutemen heroes is also trimmed, but they make up for it with an excellent opening montage of the heroes in American history set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” All wonderful elements in the book, but as presented their loss doesn’t cause a major problem.

The most notorious change in the book, the excision of the giant squid “alien” that Ozymandias uses to frighten the world into complacency, actually seems to work in the adaptation’s favor. By casting the attacks as if they come from Dr. Manhattan, it shifts focus to the main characters, making their final decisions as more of a personal choice than a reaction to an arbitrary conspiracy theory. For a book which is built around the personalities and worldviews of six people, an edit that adds to their characterization earns a tip of the hat.

On that note, the main casting of the film is appropriate on all counts, free of big-name actors and giving the roles to people who actually seem to give a damn about correctly interpreting the characters. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian has the perfect swaggering brutality, wonderfully depicted in all the flashbacks from the graphic novel, and Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl nails the character’s resigned insecurity. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are driven more by their special effects (excellent effects by the way, a constantly shifting mask and ethereal blue physical perfection) but Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup carry their respective characters very well in voice and unmasked performance, with Haley’s growl channeling Christian Bale’s Batman. Malin Ackerman’s Silk Spectre is less forceful but still convincing in her relationships to Manhattan and Nite Owl, while Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is the weakest of the roles as he’s a touch too beatific for the role.

As it’s still a comic-based film, there’s as much emphasis on the characters in action as there is on their development. “300” showed Synder is no stranger to gore, and the film has quite a few bones poking out of skin and red-black blood spraying the walls. Some may say the scenes may be a bit gratuitous, but I diffuse that by pointing out: a) all the fight scenes were originally in the book, and b) if you seriously object to watching Rorschach beat police officers to a bloody pulp or Nite Owl and Silk Spectre teaming up on a gang then it’s time to re-evaluate your standards.

Of course, like “Lord of the Rings,” final judgment on “Watchmen” has to wait until the DVD director’s cut, which will incorporate many of the supplemental bits (“Under the Hood” and “Tales From The Black Freighter”) and are also likely to expand character roles. As it stands though, for a story whose creator is on record as saying it “could only work in a comic, and [was] indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t,” it makes the transition better than anyone could have hoped for.

Final adaptation score: 9 out of 10. I’m actually scoring this one a bit higher as while it does have many excisions, the amount of what they kept is so surprising and so well done that it overshadows the majority of the changes. Something that will please the devotees with only a few minor twitches.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: V for Vendetta Retrospective

March 6, 2009

(Editor’s note: With the release of the “Watchmen” film – and an upcoming Text-to-Screen Ratio of the same – I’m going to take a retrospective look back at another Alan Moore adaptation. Be aware of possible spoilers for both works as once again differences in ending will be discussed.)

v_vendetta-spray-eWith the first three entries in this series now complete, a pattern has likely become clear to my readers: I am a purist when it comes to adapting books to film. When I go to see an adaptation, I want to see how close they come to matching my vision of the book and how well they represent the little details I remember. Consequently, a film that deviates too much from the source triggers the critical part of my brain, producing reactions usually on par with the gut reaction of Star Wars fans after their first viewing of “The Phantom Menace.”

However, I do believe it is possible to appreciate an adaptation if it does something with the source material that isn’t perverting it, creating a story that stands on its own. “Naked Lunch” is a personal favorite, taking other William S. Burroughs’ works and biographical elements to create a truly nightmarish tale (which is perverse in its own way, but that’s fodder for another article). Another favorite is 2005’s “V for Vendetta,” developed by the Wachowski brothers and based on Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel, less an adaptation and more of a spiritual successor to the original.vforvendettabookcover

At first glance both book and film seems to follow the same format: after nuclear war has devastated the world a fascist government has arisen in Great Britain, built on acts of genocide and total control of the populace. A mysterious character known as V, clad in a smirking Guy Fawkes mask, conducts a terrorist crusade against the regime with the assistance of Evey Hammond, a young woman whom he saves from the secret police. An investigator named Finch is assigned to the case, but finds getting into V’s mind may very well break his own.

But twenty minutes into the film, it’s clear that while the masks look the same there’s something very different underneath. The government here is depicted as an ultra-conservative regime rather than ethnically pure fascism, with the Leader a Big Brother-type of figure and Bill O’Reilly imitators controlling the airwaves. Opposition changes as well: while in the book V was depicted as an anarchist, more interested in “goring the ideology” of his opponents, the film’s V is a romantic revolutionary out to liberate the people and avenge his own treatment at the government’s hands.

The cuts to the story are so numerous you can’t help but think the Wachowskis set their V stuntman loose with his knives on the graphic novel and let him make the edits. Subplot about political intrigue in the government is removed, as is the bulk of V’s speech hijacking the airwaves to directly challenge the population and a LSD-induced epiphany from Finch. Brutal policeman Almond is removed, as is his battered wife Rose – a key player in the story’s climax – and his replacement Creedy is upgraded to the film’s main villain and resembles Dick Cheney heading the Gestapo. And that’s not even getting into the massive subtleties Moore’s works are vibrant with.

So why am I not crucifying the film more even with all these changes? Well, part of it could be because it has to be compared to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the other most noteworthy adaptation of an Alan Moore book, and it’s difficult to find a book more butchered by the transition to film than that. Short version is it turns a dark Victorian tale into a god-awful summer blockbuster, long version can be found here by someone far angrier than I.

Another part of it could be because the main characters are so well looked after by the actors portraying them. Hugo Weaving’s V may be less dimensional than the book, but the voice and theatrical attitude are perfect – particularly an alliterative opening monologue unique to the film. Natalie Portman has more steel in her than the book’s Evey, but she carries the same concerned tone and does very well in the gripping scenes where V tortures her into a breakdown and rebirth in the rain (the most noteworthy survivor of the transition).

But the core reason why “V for Vendetta” gets away with changing the story is that the changes are being made for a reason: to use the core characters in telling an updated message. The story is targeting the differences between liberal and conservative, removing the harsher edges of the original film and relating to the American political context of the Bush administration. V’s tagline “governments should be afraid of their people” takes on a populist tone rather than chaotic, in some senses going towards the role V set Evey up to take at the book’s end. “Vendetta” the film is at least trying to do something new with the story, updating its message in a way that resonates with the politics of its time, and I can respect that to a point.

And to offer some treats to more rabid fans, the film does keep to the skeleton of the original: the aforementioned Evey rebirth scene, the use of Beethoven’s Fifth as background music, lines such as “Ideas are bulletproof” and the image of revolutionary Guy Fawkes to blow up symbols of failed authority. It may not be perfect, but after “LXG” it’s a step in the right direction.

Final adaptation score: 5 out of 10. So many changes are made to the storyline that it borders on unrecognizable, but the film is well done enough that casual fans can watch it and appreciate the moments when scenes/quotes are copied in.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Coraline

March 3, 2009

(Editor’s note: Possible spoilers below as per usual.)

coraline_posterAmong authors, Neil Gaiman is exceptionally lucky when his writing is filmed, typically because he is closely bound to each version. In 1996 he devised the television serial “Neverwhere” and wrote an accompanying novelization, which is miles above most bland film tie-ins. At the behest of the Jim Henson Company, he later partnered with artist Dave McKean to write the story and screenplay of “MirrorMask,” a film I hold as one of 2005’s best and most frighteningly vivid. (2007’s “Stardust” does differ, but it’s an exception I haven’t seen or read so it’ll have to be kept out of this article.)

So when his children’s horror/fantasy “Coraline” was optioned as a film without his direct involvement there was some trepidation in how it would be handled – trepidation that disappeared on my part when I saw that Henry Selick would be writing the adapted screenplay. The high priest of stop-motion animation, Selick is responsible (along with Tim Burton) for twisting my childhood in the best possible way with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and I held faith he would treat the story right. Thankfully my faith was rewarded – it looks more fantastical than the book, but at its core it’s the same dark inventive tale.coralinebookcover

For the uninitiated, “Coraline” is the story of Coraline Jones, a bored young girl who is generally ignored by her workaholic parents. Exploring her old house, she finds a hidden door leading to an “other” world with parents who cater to her every whim, despite their odd quality of having buttons for eyes. The longer she stays in the world, the more she realizes that her “other mother” is not the doting parent she appears, and what seemed a wonderful escape becomes a prison she has to find a way out of.

Visually, the film is much brighter than expected, lacking the somewhat bleak look of the book’s illustrations (which were also done by “MirrorMask’s” McKean) and also the spidery gothic look of “Nightmare.” The other mother lavishes all efforts to sway Coraline, from a giant garden shaped like her features to an elaborate rat circus and dog-managed theater. All the scenes are marvelously well-designed, certainly changed to be more accessible but very cohesive in their bright exaggerated format.

Naturally the look changes the way some of the characters are conceived. Retired actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible go from being quiet and batty to outlandishly theatrical, almost reminiscent of the Darling Mermaid Darlings from the utterly charming show “Pushing Daisies”; while Mr. Bobo’s quiet craziness converts to “Nightmare’s” two-faced mayor with an outlandish Russian quality, enhanced by Ian McShane’s boisterous performance.

The biggest complaint to find with the book is the inclusion of a new character, Wybie (or “why born”), who is introduced as a foil to Coraline and someone for her to bounce dialogue off of. This character does more than any other to break the original story’s flow, showing up on a motorbike in a skull mask and sounding like the geeky support character in some toothless Saturday morning Cartoon Network show. As a whole he breaks from the book’s tone, particularly as it removes the genuine fear and worry when Coraline is left alone with her thoughts.

This isn’t to say the film takes the edge out of the book – like “Nightmare,” it’s a film most would think twice about taking their kids to. The other mother in particular is frighteningly faithful to the book, down to the tapping fingers and crunching of beetles between sharp teeth, and her evolution into a spiderish monstrosity makes full use of the technology. Teri Hatcher deserves high praise as well, putting a frustrated tone into Coraline’s real mother and a silken voice for the other that barely hides a mad possessiveness.

The world Coraline finds herself in is an illusion the other mother created, and as the illusion strips away the world gradually becomes more frightening. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible evolve from an eternal carnival into a hybrid contained in a taffy cocoon, while Mr. Bobo goes from hosting a rat circus to being entirely composed of the creatures. With the exception of the other father – riding a giant praying mantis as opposed to a blob-like monstrosity discarded in the attic – Coraline’s challenges match the book, and her final confrontations with the other mother match the tension Gaiman created.

Reviews of the book “Coraline” ranged from “fascinating and disturbing” to “deliciously scary,” and in that context the film certainly meets expectations. The core change comes in more of an emphasis on the fascinating, as it’s a film that wants to trigger your visual stimulation than down in your emotional core. I’m tempted to call it superficial, but the design is immersive and creative enough that such a word can never stick.

Final adaptation score: 7.5 out of 10. If you can forgive the use of Wybie you’ll find the film mostly faithful to its source material, and a glorious visual experiment that pairs well with Gaiman’s imagination. Just don’t go into it expecting the same bittersweet and frightening feelings the book provides.

Book Review: Stuff White People Like

March 1, 2009

Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions

cover-art-landerBy Christian Lander

Published July 1, 2008

Random House

224 pp.

ISBN: 0-812-97991-5

Reviewed March 1, 2009

I have used the expression “God I’m white” many times over my life, typically whenever I try to dance, jokingly rap or act as if I know what I am talking about in an urban setting. Beyond the obvious pigmentation reason for saying so, it tends to be a useful expression for a lack of poise in social settings and a taste for things that lack risk, implying a mainstream quality that goes along with being pale.

But while I always knew I was white, I never realized just how white until taking a good look at Stuff White People Like. Started by Christian Lander in January of 2008, the site is an ethnographic satire of the light-skinned, pointing out how “shockingly predictable” they are in their love of organic food and living by the water. Lander has now made the rare leap from blog to print, producing a book of the same name and good-natured sardonic focus.

“Stuff White People Like” is exactly what it says on the cover: a guide to the preferences of left-leaning semi-affluent to affluent Caucasians of the type usually classified as yuppies or hipsters. There are 150 entries on this group’s various interests in dining, hobbies and social situations, written in an academic tone that “teaches” the reader why they like the things they do and the best way to communicate with them in a social setting.

The idea holding the book together is that while white people are loudly opposed to the mainstream and like to feel they are unique, most of them tend to like the same things for the same shallow reasons. They read The New Yorker because it makes them sound informed, support recycling because it “saves the planet” with no effort on their part and threaten to move to Canada the first time things get rough. Lander lists these and more, offering up everything trendy and poking fun in perfectly deadpan tone.

So is this a book worth owning? Well, that depends on two criteria, the first being if you think the joke is funny. I personally do, but that could be because I was able to count 83 of the listed items as things I like and Lander’s description is uncomfortably close to the truth about why I like them. It’s certainly a joke that depends on the maxim “it’s funny because it’s true,” so if you have these preferences or know people who do it’s easy to appreciate.

(Personal acknowledgment: Being a resident of Portland, Oregon, it was hard not to be amused by its place on the list and its entirely appropriate classification as “a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario … whereby a homogenous group of people is left in an area with no one to keep them in check … but there is a strong likelihood that the city will have mass riots and murder when the local grocery store co-op runs out of organic salmon.”)

The concept has earned criticism for being racist – mostly in indignant comments posted to the blog – but not a single one of the entries qualifies as such. It’s void of malicious intent or smears, guilty only of bursting the bubble of smugness white people have in thinking they are better for enjoying these things. It does caution against associating with the “wrong kind” of white person, but the difference is based on such trivial things (Dane Cook and faux vintage shirts) it can’t be taken as offensive.

The second criteria of owning the book is if you are willing to pay for something where much of the content is already free online. The first half of the book is printed verbatim from the blog entries, discussing the more traditional interests of coffee and marijuana and home renovations. It doesn’t hurt in terms of content (considering how amusing the original entries were), but does have a degree of repetition.

To his credit, Lander does include a considerable amount of new content beyond entries, making use of the book format to include charts and tables for how white people make decisions. There is a timeline of gentrification from indie coffee shop to Whole Foods, a blueprint for dinner party autobiographies and how to name children based on whether or not you studied abroad. Particularly clever are checklists on the bookshelves/DVD racks/iPod playlists of white people, as well as appropriate comments to make them feel assured in their choice of edgy yet socially acceptable media.

If you meet these criteria, then “Stuff White People Like” is worth your time – it’s a fine ribbing at a group that could use some mockery, and has the benefit of also being very cleverly written. At the very least it will be a perfect set piece on your coffee table during your dinner party, where over microbrews and cheese you can enjoy your willingness to laugh at yourself prior to a Wes Anderson film viewing.