Interviews, Articles, and Reviews on THE MAGIC WORDS

I'm setting up this post as a one-stop-shop repository of all the interviews I've done for and writing I've been doing around The Magic Words, as well as the book's professional reviews. It will be updated as appropriate.

Interviews with Me

Writing by Me

Reviews of the Book

  • Time magazine: "Magic Words aims to be a master class. . . . Klein deconstructs the seemingly obvious (clear plotlines, sympathetic characters) to reveal the technical intricacies of beloved classics. . . . The Magic Words is more than a handbook. It is also a timely social commentary on the responsibility YA writers have to young adults."

  • The Washington Post: 'Above this bubbling stew of hope and ambition, Cheryl B. Klein floats like a craft-focused fairy godmother with “The Magic Words.” This book is a well-organized master class for serious writers seeking solid instruction.' 

  • Booklist magazine (starred review): "For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein's remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation." 

  • Library Journal magazine (starred review): "Wonderful . . . The volume also distinguishes itself from other similar titles with its wealth of exercises, each provocative, proven, and sure to write the ship . . . The new go-to guide for aspiring middle-grade and YA authors." 

  • Kirkus Reviews: "As executive editor at the Arthur A. Levine Books imprint of Scholastic, Klein has edited such well-regarded titles as Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee (2003), Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (2009), and If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth (2013). With this substantial volume, she distills years of experience into an intensely practical, appealingly conversational manual."

  • Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana:  "Klein has plenty of experience with what does and doesn’t work in a book, but she admits in her intro that 'I’ve found writing a book on "how to write children’s and young adult fiction" as humbling and delightful as writing about "what humanity is like" or ‘how to live your life.”' It’s therefore with humor and generosity that she lays out an almost step-by-step guide to writing a children’s/YA book, offering advice, guidance, and exercises."

  • "This is the kind of straightforward and knowledgeable feedback that can take writers years to receive in the literary marketplace."

  • "Readers close the book smarter about story, craft, genre and format possibilities, children’s book literature and publishing, as well as smarter about themselves as writers."


The Feminist Thing that Irritated the Hell Out of Me about GRAVITY

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If a female scientist is intelligent and tough enough to qualify to spend months on a mission with NASA, she should not need a male scientist to tell her EVERY SINGLE THING SHE HAS TO DO


To the extent that she GIVES UP and SETTLES DOWN TO DIE until he COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD to tell her this one piece of information that she needs to get back to the earth.

Seriously. He COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD with this info, because DEAD MEN apparently have more knowledge and common sense than living women, even living scientist women. And Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock's character, is so EMOTIONAL and FEARFUL and in need of a MAN to direct her that she would never survive without Mental Ghost Matt Kowalski.

Or maybe Manic Pixie Dream Astronaut Matt Kowalski, as he's the quirky (country music!), grounded, life-loving dude who awakens Ryan's desire to live again. But that again highlights what a void Ryan is herself, how little we know of her besides her role as a grieving mother . . . and of course the movie makes her a mother, one of the most safe and unthreatening things a woman can be, and lets that role take precedence over whatever knowledge and intelligence she should have as a scientist. When she makes it back to earth, it's not thanks to any such knowledge and skill (she flunked the flight simulator, as she reminds us repeatedly), but all down to a manual and dumb luck, it seemed to me. This feels like an almost systematic diminution of any power the character could claim, and reader, it made me ANGRY.


My rational, analytic, critical mind knows all the caveats and other interpretations on this. There is the character history angle:  It's her first time in space, while he's the jokey veteran; of course he knows better what to do. There is the character investment/plot angle:  If she knew exactly what to do the whole time, we wouldn't fear for her as much as we do, and as the film operates pretty much entirely on suspense, the entire movie would fall apart with her knowledge. There's the personal angle:  Yes, if it were me, I would be too terrified to think straight, likewise unable to breathe in the little sips that would preserve my oxygen, and grateful for any direction. (This is why I am not an astronaut, and why I expect better of the people and characters who are.)

There is the emotional-journey angle:  As the good people of The Dissolve point out, the movie can be read as a metaphor for depression, where Ryan has been floating in a void of grief since her daughter's death, and a good friend and the task of surviving call her back to earth. There is even a completely opposite, equally feminist angle that is DELIGHTED to see a woman at the center of the action, to have a man in the Manic Pixie role (sacrificing himself for her rather than the other way around), to discover Ryan's emotions eventually informing her survival rather than being locked away, Strong Female Character-style. All of these things are true, and I can acknowledge them.

But none of them change the root of my near-rage on this subject, which is not just a feminist's anger at seeing a man given all the intelligence and ability in a movie, but a story-lover's anger at not being able to respect my protagonist fully -- a failure of narrative architecture in a plot like this one, as I kept being knocked out of that all-important suspense by thinking, "For God's sake, Stone, GET IT TOGETHER. You are an ASTRONAUT. You should be BETTER THAN THIS."

Alfonso Cuaron should also be better than this. All scripts should be better than this. The movie is a visual wonder and a filmmaking achievement; that gets no argument from me. But until Hollywood starts giving us not just female protagonists, but ones with the same brains and resourcefulness as the male characters in their films, I am going to be irritated.

To conclude, I hereby propose a new tagline for the move:

Some Thoughts I Had In Relation to "Quidam" by Cirque du Soleil Tonight

  • "Wow, my now-rather-intermittent blogging still qualifies me as a member of the media? Thanks for the free tickets, Cirque du Soleil!" 
  • "Hmm. The Barclays Center may look like a pile of old farm equipment on the outside, but it's super-nice on the inside, with great food options: Calexico, Fatty 'Cue, sushi, Nathan's, a kosher deli. . . . And these Calexico fish tacos are really good. Hooray for mango salsa!"
  • "This is my fourth Cirque du Soleil show, after two big-top performances on Randalls Island and O in Las Vegas, so I know the drill: a 'quirky' frame story featuring a wondrous child and a goofy clown, linking acts of incredible beauty and physical accomplishment, all set to music by French-Canadian Enya impersonators. Will Quidam surprise me at all?"
    • "Ah. No."
  • "But the formula works as ever: astonishing acrobats, gorgeous tableaux, swelling music, imaginative costumes, many moments that make you go 'Ooh' . . ."
    • "Or as the Brooklyn lady next to me said to the contortionist as she lifted her leg over her head: 'Oh no, honey, don't!'"
  • "The German wheel? This is new to me. How does he do that?"
    • "(The answer that makes all things in this show possible:  abs.)"
      • "What's a Cirque du Soleil performer's favorite liquor? Abs-inthe."
        • "And her favorite vodka? Abs-olut."
  • "James and I should do this at our wedding."
  • "Or perhaps we could involve the whole wedding party."
  • "What do Cirque performers do on their days off? Abs-eiling."
  • "The humor in this lengthy clown interlude isn't entirely scatological, but there are certainly more poop jokes than you get in the American circus. This accords with French picture books as well. There's a sociology article in here someplace . . ."
  • "With sights like this, 
    I'm almost ashamed to confess: I was a little bored. I felt I had seen it all before, either at prior Cirque shows or on the Olympics or even just at cabarets in the city. The problem in our modern age: When we can see everything at any time, it's harder to generate awe."
    • "Though this problem  may be entirely personal to me, as I'm old and spoiled. Children would have a wonderful time." 
      • "And if you've never seen a Cirque show before, Quidam would be a great introduction, as it's short, relatively cheap, easily accessible by public transport (as the Randalls Island shows weren't), and gorgeously executed and produced, as all Cirque shows are. Well worth the seeing."
    • "I am in awe of the abs, though, really."
  • "Of course they try to teach their kids to practice abs-tinence . . ." 
    • "(What must it be like to grow up as part of this international traveling human menagerie?)"
  • "And if they fail, they go to church for abs-olution." 
    • "(Or be pregnant as a contortionist? Do you have to stop contorting for a while? Can you still do this with a baby?")
  • "A stronger narrative would help the show as well here. . . . The Olympic gymnasts did many of these same moves, but because they happened in the context of a conflict against other athletes and their own limits, their story had stakes and meaning. The pleasure here, in contrast, is all in the beauty for beauty's sake." 
    • "The current Broadway revival of Pippin, which uses circus techniques, is really fun."
    • "Cirque should hire Neil Gaiman to write a frame story for them. Or adapt Sandman! They have the dreamy sensibility and visual artistry for it, and it would bring a new audience in."
  • "But perhaps this isn't fair to Cirque. They do what they intend to do, and do it well; and you can't ask for more from an artist or a show." 
  • "What do two Cirque artists in a relationship say when they go off on different tours? 'Abs-ence makes the heart grow fonder.'"
  • "And on that note, good night."
Quidam runs through July 28 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For tickets, please visit the Barclays Center box office; or,, or; or call 1-800-745-3000.

New Episode of THE NARRATIVE BREAKDOWN now live!

This time, James and our friend Jason Ginsburg discuss generating and developing science-fiction and fantasy story concepts and ideas. I had the pleasure of seeing both The Avengers and Prometheus with Jason and James this summer (and Jason's wife Wendy), and our guest host knows his stuff. Please check it out on iTunes, and rate and review the show if you enjoy! 

While I'm here, a quick Summer Movie Report Card:

The Avengers:  A-. Maybe a little bit too long, but Joss Whedon's dialogue and sense of humor + great relationships + terrific action + shawarma = the most enjoyable thing I've seen this year, I think.

Prometheus: D+ -- and even that is entirely based on how pretty the whole thing was, most especially Michael Fassbender (though still not as wonderful as he was as Mr. Rochester, because my word, his Mr. Rochester!). The characters were idiots (especially as scientists!) and the plot made no sense at all. But truly a nice use of the film's CGI budget. Maybe it will be redeemed in the Director's Cut.

The Dark Knight Rises:  B-? After the brilliant intensity of The Dark Knight, that thrilling and terrifying examination of the worth of human beings as a class and as individuals (through the Joker's nihilism vs. Batman's goodness vs. Harvey Dent's whole journey), this came off as a little bit scattered to me, with too many stories to cram in, not enough time to develop any of the relationships, an all-over-the-place economic vision, and not as much thematic coherency as the previous movie. I also think the story put itself at a disadvantage by having to spend so much time convincing Batman to come out of retirement . . . It starts slow and then has to cram things together later, with many, many plot holes along the way. But wonderful visuals, as ever, and all the actors acquitted themselves nicely, especially Anne Hathaway.

If you're a Christopher Nolan fan, you must see this -- useful for punctuating conversations as well: The Inception Button.

Ruby Sparks:  B+. I have quibbles with the ending, but up until then, this is a smart and thoughtful take on writing, relationships, and the dangers of creating or applying the former through/to the latter. I loved the sequence where he was creating Ruby's character especially. And hooray for a female screenwriter and co-director! Highly recommended for writers and people who love them.

Beasts of the Southern Wild I don't even know how to grade this movie, it's so unlike anything else I've ever seen. An A for its heroine and her performance, for sure; an A for the beauty of its visuals; an A for originality and imagination; a N/A for plot structure.

The Amazing Spider-Man: B+. The best parts of this by far to me were the conversations between Peter and Mary Jane, when the real spark between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone seemed to imbue their characters as well. Those also seemed like the only times Andrew Garfield smiled -- I wanted to love him, wanted him to be my fun-loving Spidey superhero, but his performance seemed to actively resist offering any emotional warmth to me as a viewer, which left me a bit confused. But a good, creepy villain and Martin Sheen being wise are always pleasures.

Still would like to see (and now might have to catch on DVD):  The Bourne Legacy, Premium Rush, The Campaign, Brave, Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, Snow White and the Huntsman, Searching for Sugar Man. Anything else you'd recommend?

See This: "Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective"

The Guggenheim Museum in New York right now has an extraordinary exhibit called "Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective." Ms. Dijkstra is a Dutch photographer who takes large-format pictures of human beings at moments of change and transition, and their humanity is so much on display, so rich and beautiful and specific and true, that these single images feel like entire character studies. She specializes in pictures of children and teenagers, like this one above. . . . The instability of the way this boy is standing, his slightness and off-centeredness; the vulnerability established by his near-nakedness and his size vs. the endless sea behind him; his watchful gaze, not fully trusting or warming to the photographer -- and rightly, as she's caught so much of him; and the promise of the man inside him, learning how to look strong, how much of himself he should give away:  I find this image (and nearly every other picture in the show) both wonderful and heartbreaking in its ability to see and capture all of that. I want to read novels about all of her people.

The show included five video installations that likewise focus on individuals, in locations ranging from a dance club to an art museum, against simple backgrounds, so their actions and words speak for themselves. This one, for instance, "Ruth Drawing Picasso," was nearly six minutes of a single shot of a girl making her own sketch of a Picasso painting (this visitor-shot excerpt is just 42 seconds):

And as boring as that may sound, the film kept me fascinated for all six minutes, simply because it felt so wonderfully rare and fresh to do nothing but look at another human being for a sustained period of time, as Ms. Dijkstra does. More than that, Ruth doesn't seem self-conscious about being watched, as many of the kids in the dance-club videos do (and as I always do on camera); she sighs, draws a line, scratches it out, gropes for a pencil, looks around at her friends, looks up at the painting and down at her paper again, draws another line. . . . It's such an honest portrait of the creative process, and of a human being in general, that I felt my heart warm toward Ruth for all of her particularities, including those I recognized in myself. Thus the exhibition did what the best art (to me) always does:  It made me love the world more, and the people in it, in all of our vulnerable, pained, ephemeral glory, and made me feel thankful we're all here together -- with Ms. Dijkstra and her camera to capture us.

At the Guggenheim, Fifth Avenue and 89th St., through October 8.

A Ramble: June Joys and #YASaves

(The fourth in what should be a monthly series of blog posts in which I write for an hour about whatever comes to mind.)

Happy summer! I spent the weekend in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Novel Revision Retreat. It was a beautiful venue—a 1930s woods lodge, with gorgeous views of the Shenandoah mountains out every window, including the room in which I taught my sessions. The talks were more or less the “Quartet” talks from Second Sight. . . . These are my usual retreat talks, because they cover all three major elements of fiction (Character, Plot, and Voice), but every time I give them I find something new to say in addition to all the material that’s already there, so I’m going to have to ask the organizers to grant me two hours for every session the next time I do them. (Or I should learn to edit myself and say less; but then I do like being thorough, to transfer as much of my brain to attendees’ brains as possible. Someday technology will evolve enough that we can just do a mass Frankenstein hookup and be done with it, and then we can all spend the weekend writing instead.)

Some neat things in the last month:
  • Before I went to the revision retreat, I took a delightful road trip with my equally delightful author Sara Lewis Holmes, who wrote Operation Yes. When Sara heard that I was coming to central Virginia for the retreat, she insisted that I should visit the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton; and I ended up asking her if she'd be willing to come with me, which she very kindly was. And it was one of the neatest productions of "As You Like It" that I've ever seen, performed in the style (though not the costumes) of the Bard's time, with full light for the whole play, which in turn facilitated some very neat audience-actor interaction. The actors were great, the music was fun, I loved their interpretation of the play, Staunton as a town is terrific, and it is well worth the road trip for you too, should you be anywhere in Virginia.
  • On a trip to visit some wedding venues, I lost my beloved little Samsung Rogue phone; so I now have a HTC Incredible 2 (an Android phone), which is fast becoming even more beloved than my Rogue was.
  • I read Holly Black’s White Cat and Red Glove recently, and they were just delicious—tightly written, darkly sexy, fully backstoried fantasy full of con men and women and clever, clever twists. They’d be great beach reads this summer.
  • A recent realization/articulation that came out of reworking my plot talks: Stakes not only can change in the course of a novel, but they very probably should, as the character comes to know and understand more of the world and their values change likewise. So in StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce, the stakes begin as Digger’s survival; but as her world and affections widen to include all the people in her eventual destination, the stakes change to the survival of those people, and the cause they’re all fighting for. So as you’re looking at your novel, think about the stakes at the beginning vs. the stakes at the end, and how the character gets from one to the other.
  • My next SCBWI appearances will be in October, in Wisconsin, on plot; and November, in New Jersey, hopefully on voice, if they'll let me talk for two hours.
  • Some recent films I enjoyed: Fast Five; Win Win; Beginners; Bridesmaids.
  • To expand a little more on the reasons I enjoyed Bridesmaids: One, it had one of the most likeable and flawed female protagonists I’d seen in a long time, a fully rounded woman who had a career that mattered to her, friends, and a family, as well as romantic confusion. . . . It is a little depressing how rare that is, that we'd see a female protagonist in all of those dimensions, and yet, there she was, so let us celebrate that. And second, despite all the wedding trappings, the emotional plot was really about female friendship: what it’s like to have a best friend, how you hang out and talk and exercise together and then eat dessert; the little jealousies and larger issues that can create distance; and the relief and pleasure when you connect again. The climax of the movie was not Kristen Wiig’s getting together with the cute Irish cop, but her reconnecting with Maya Rudolph at last, and I found myself getting almost teary-eyed in thinking about all my dear girlfriends and seeing that sort of true warts-and-all friendship at the center of a story at last. (The one exception to my enjoyment was the infamous barfing scene, which I just kept my eyes closed for, so as not to emulate it in turn.)
  • Whenever there is entertainment for women vs. entertainment for men—or, in children’s literature, boy books vs. girl books—there’s a debate about whether males will embrace female stuff, with the general understanding that the answer is “No.” So then do we harsh up our girl stuff to attract the men, as Bridesmaids did? Or do we own our girl stuff and accept that men won’t come? (This is apparently not an option for Hollywood studios, or one that they’re willing to accept in only limited doses; it’s easier for publishers, as the financial stakes are so much smaller.) Or do we tell men/boys to stop being idiots and start respecting women’s/girls’ stuff? I don’t know that that would work, but it’s certainly my favorite option, and I think it is worth bringing up every time, to remind all of us that it’s sexism afoot here, and what we need to change is our selves (or sexist guys) more than our stuff. Hrmm.
I was also interested in the recent #YASaves discussion. Some commentators online noted that we have this discussion about every two years, where the children’s/YA lit community has to defend itself against charges of being too dark, usually as a result of an article in the major media like this one. The responses tend to fall into these forms:
  • A) This writer is an idiot who doesn’t really know anything about the genre and hasn’t looked hard enough. (Usually true.)
  • B) Discussion of the need for dark material in YA literature, given that it reflects the real darkness in teens’ lives and psyches. (Also usually true.)
  • C) Writers defending their writing this kind of work, based on (B), often including descriptions of all of the letters they’ve received from teenagers who appreciate seeing their realities at the books’ hearts.
  • D) Sighing over the fact that YA is still regarded primarily as a didactic genre by the major media, and doesn’t get respect as an art form in and of itself.
  • E) In response to (D), writers (or at least Barry Lyga) saying “Forget you, it’s my art and I’m going to own it and practice it, and I don’t have to defend it to you, fool.” I think this is a new wrinkle in the discussion, but I was glad to see it, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
  • F) A few brave souls who dare to agree with the theoretical point of the original article, even if the writer was an idiot in practice.
I think that first of all, we need to stop taking major media disses to children’s and YA lit personally—the Today Show stiffing the Newbery/Caldecott winners, the New Yorker (which I love) or the Wall Street Journal (which I don’t) thinking of our genre as primarily a didactic one. These venues think children’s and YA lit is fundamentally inferior to adult lit either because it doesn’t make as much money or because they perceive it as only didactic; they do not get that it is an art form; therefore, they will always get describe it wrongly, and we should stop wasting energy being surprised and offended every time. After all, with the magazines specifically, because these articles are generally scare articles, they generate a lot of page views (from concerned parents and librarians as well as offended members of our community) and off-page discussion (cf. all the response blog posts and the whole Twitter campaign), and those make too much money and buzz for the publication in question for the editors who assign/accept such columns to give them up. (“YA Is Art” isn’t controversial enough to get the same response.) So let’s concentrate on writing our own smart articles investigating the art of our genre, or finding ways to celebrate our own people’s achievements far and wide, and not waste time rewarding stupid ideas.

And then with #YASaves itself . . . Is there dark stuff in YA, all about sex and death? Sure. But there is also I Now Pronounce You Someone Else and StarCrossed and Eighth-Grade Superzero and July’s The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, to name four books off my own list that are terrific and smart and not at all about angst; and I feel a little bit frustrated that YA is being tarred as a dark genre when there is such an incredible diversity that people just aren’t educated to see. (Or they can’t find the books in stores, because the darkness is what sells and therefore what gets on shelves.) If you’re scared about the darkness, by goodness, do more to celebrate the light. Read review magazines or YA blogs to find titles you approve of. Tell your local bookstore (whether a chain or an independent) that you’re looking for those kinds of books. Request specific titles, if you need to, and then buy them. Give those as gifts to friends whom you’re trying to educate about the genre and to teenagers.

(And of course the whole discussion is yet another iteration of the unfortunate literalist strain in American Puritanism, the inability to look beyond the factual existence of whatever "sordidness" these critics perceive to the deeper emotional pain that drives that behavior, and the humanity of that pain, which in turn deserves sympathy. . . . Writers, of course, have a responsibility to bring out that humanity, to make the experience of reading these books more than pain tourism for the readers; and if writers don't do that, well, then they deserve the criticism.)

Finally, the hard fact I always come back to whenever discussions like this come up: We (meaning writers, editors, publishers, even booksellers and librarians) cannot control readers’ reactions to the books they find through us. There may be readers who read books about cutting or bulimia or feeling suicidal (to pick three forms of darkness at random) and use them to start or continue those practices themselves. This is horrifying and sad but true. There will also be readers who already practice cutting or bulimia or who feel suicidal, who will truly benefit from seeing their experience reflected on the page and given that recognition by someone else; who will connect with that character, and be helped by seeing that character start to move back toward hope and out of the sickness, and may start to take that step themselves. This is inspiring and brave and also true.

A book is an object made of ideas, and like any object, it can be used for both good and evil. . . . I think we have to be honest and acknowledge the possibility of that evil happening, and perhaps do what we can to diminish the chances of its coming to be, to offer hope or resources in real life, if our books deal with that material. (I am contradicting my own statement about didacticism above, but as Samuel Johnson says, “Inconsistencies cannot both be right, but imputed to man, they may both be true.") But those who see only darkness also have to acknowledge the possibility of connection and hope; and I still feel we shouldn’t shy away from showing (albeit never celebrating) that darkness, as it is an important part of our overall human experience. Our responsibility is to write (or edit and publish) as well and honestly and full of human sympathy as we are capable of, without rewarding darkness for darkness's sake; and to hope in the end that all books find their right readers who will hear the right things in them, as we can't do any more.

All Aflutter

This has been a good and busy week, and promises only to get more so. Some quick things, first non-booky (for a change) and then all-booky:
  • I finished "Downton Abbey," and oh my goodness: What period, characterful, conspiracyful, Englishy goodness! Someday I aspire to wear dresses like Lady Sybil and bite off words like the Dowager Duchess. (And more immediately to write a blog post comparing the series to "Mad Men" for all the things they have in common: a large ensemble cast; of multiple social classes, with the attendant conflicts and resentments; on the cusp of (or even in the midst of) gigantic, sweeping societal changes they don't quite grasp, even as they inadvertently bring them about; also on the cusp of a war whose seriousness they cannot possibly foresee; with many buried secrets revealed over time, and liaisons right and left; all while wearing teeth-gnashingly envy-inducing* clothes (though really I suppose I should remember: corsets).)
  • * This phrase courtesy of Joanna Pearson's The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, out in July. You read/edit a book enough times, its phrases naturally leap into your brain and writing. . . .
  • I'll be teaching a Master Class on Plot at the Kansas SCBWI conference the first weekend in May. There are, I think, exactly six spots left as of this writing, so book quickly if you're interested!
  • My other upcoming appearances: the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Novel Revision Retreat in June, and Lit Day at LeakyCon 2011 in July. The Lit Day lineup is insane -- insane! -- and features Arthur's first appearance/speech at a Harry Potter fan convention ever, so it's well worth attending if you can make your way there.
  • And I loved, loved, loved the new "Jane Eyre" adaptation, partly for the fabulous period clothes and design, yes, but mostly because Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender bring terrific passion and intelligence to the roles of Jane and Rochester, and make Charlotte Bronte's sometimes unwieldy or ethereal dialogue sound perfectly natural in their mouths, sweeping us viewers up in their passions as well. When I reviewed the Keira Knightley "Pride and Prejudice," I contrasted what I called Romantic and Rationalist romances, and faulted that P&P for shooting a Rationalist romance as if it were a Romantic one. Well, "Jane Eyre" is a Romantic romance par excellence (and the film gives that all the brooding atmosphere it warrants, to delicious effect) -- but I had forgotten, till I saw this adaptation, how much it is a Rationalist romance too, how much its unique intensity derives from Jane's absolute control over herself, and how much hotter the love burns for it. I want to see it again already; get your own taste on the movie page here.
Now the Second Sight stuff:
  • When I go home to Kansas City for the Kansas SCBWI conference, I'll also have a public book party in Belton, Missouri, on Thursday, May 5th; e-mail me at asterisk.bks at gmail dot com if you're interested in attending.
  • Jennifer Bertman interviewed me for the Creative Spaces feature on her website, where I talk about my writing process, my workspace, and the regrettable lack of a magic bullet for making someone a good writer.
  • Donna at the First Novels Club and Kate Coombs at Book Aunt each reviewed Second Sight and said some kind things.
  • Apparently people have started to receive their books! I hope you enjoy them. If you find typos (sigh), please e-mail me with them at asterisk.bks at gmail dot com. (I've found two, which I regret, but so it goes.) Also, if you had trouble ordering via earlier, there's now a direct-order phone number available on the order page, and copies should be available to ship from within the week.
  • And to end on a yummy note, James, my darling boyfriend, got me a cake to celebrate the publication of the book; here I am with it in my office.

My First Review of SECOND SIGHT!

Rose Green was kind enough to take me up on last week's offer of a review e-copy of Second Sight, and she just posted a wonderful review of it on her blog:
Who this book is for: the intermediate to advanced writer, preferably someone who has already completed (or at least is deeply into) a first draft. There is definitely a hole in the market for books for intermediate writers, the ones who are past the introductory stages of how a book is put together but who don’t yet have an agent or editor of their own to guide them. It’s full of practical suggestions for deep revision, for finding those “electric fence emotions” (as she describes the raw feelings of middle school) and pulling them forward to connect with readers in a real, believable way. The book itself is written with authority; not just because of Klein’s editor hat, but because she herself is an excellent writer, particularly gifted at pinpointing and expressing plot structure, voice, characterization—in short, the underpinnings of a novel.
Glory! Thank you, Rose.

The designer and I should hash out the final details on the cover this week, and the book will go to print as soon as that's done, making it available for sale in early February, I hope. If you have a blog and you'd be interested in hosting me to talk about the book -- a Q&A or a guest post or whatever you like -- feel free to contact me at asterisk.bks at gmail dot com. All very exciting!

A Ramble: Eastern Standard Time

When I glanced back over the 2010 posts on Brooklyn Arden, I felt a little depressed, because I blogged less often and about less-thoughtful things this past year than I have in any year since the blog’s inception in 2005. Not that I expect readers missed me much, by any means, but writing here is one of the ways I think, and the lack of blogging was a sign of how little I felt like writing, and how little time I had to think for pleasure, if that makes sense, in 2010. . . . I wrote a lot of speeches and editorial letters and other important things, many of which turned out well, I’m glad to say, and of course I did all the revising on my book; but that wasn’t restful thinking for me, talking out loud about things that interest me—which was how this blog started, as my one-sided continuation of a lost correspondence, and how I always love it most, when it gives me a chance to know what I think when I see what I say, to paraphrase E. M. Forster. So with this post, I hope to start a tradition of letting myself write for one hour every Sunday, to put down what’s been happening in my life and on my mind; and if you all find things in it that are useful for you, wonderful, and if not, well, you know what you’re in for with future posts. This one is more of a catch-up, newsy post than I hope most of those future posts will be.
  • Holidays! In the last ten days, I visited these cities in order:  New York; Belton, Missouri; Treynor, Iowa; Belton, Missouri; Hemet, California; Santa Barbara, California; Los Angeles, California; New York, and as much as I love all the people in all the other places mentioned, I am very glad to be home again. 
  • And in truly major news, James and I won the Frog again in team play! (The Frog, for those of you joining us just now, is the traveling trophy in my family's Killer Klein Croquet Tournament; and Killer Klein Croquet is basically croquet meets Calvinball, played with great enthusiasm and emotion and no skill whatsoever. See prior reports under the "Frog" label at right.) I thus become the winningest KKCT champion ever -- neener neener neener, family! -- at least until James and I have the chance to defend his Brooklyn sojourn in May.
  • (And I have now set an impressively high bar for maturity in these Rambles by actually saying "neener neener neener." Look for "I know you are, but what am I?" in future posts.)
  • True Grit contains probably my favorite scene from any film this year:  Mattie Ross’s negotiation with the horse trader, her calmly wearing him down till she gets exactly what she wants and a thank-you for it. Its well-written rat-a-tat dialogue between two equally matched opponents reminded me of one of my favorite film scenes of all time, the opening exchanges between James Bond and Vesper Lynd on the train in Casino Royale (“How was your lamb?” “Skewered. One sympathizes.”)—though True Grit was much less sexy, of course. Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld are getting all the awards buzz, as far as I can tell, but I loved Matt Damon for investing the at-first-foppish La Boeuf with real dignity and character. I would have liked a bit more emotional payoff at the end, I think, but so the Coen Brothers go.
  • Black Swan was a potentially fascinating movie about the quest for perfection in ballet and its mental cost, made risible (to use J. Hoberman’s word) by ham-handed horror-movie plotting, details, and filmmaking techniques. Also, Darren Aronofsky has apparently never met a close-up of a bloody [insert your own body part here] that he didn’t like. But other than that, it was beautifully shot, and it made me want to see Swan Lake, which I never have. . . .
  • One of the good things in 2010:  I fell in love with making homemade granola, inspired by the amazingly simple Mark Bittman recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (where he recommends toasting the oats and nuts first, which I endorse). The recipe is easy, tasty, and capable of endless variations; my version tonight has dried cherries, sunflower seeds, almonds, vanilla, and molasses as a sweetener (though the all-time best sweetener truly is maple syrup, I think). If you have suggestions for mix-ins, I’m happy to hear them.
  • Congratulations to Erin McCahan and I Now Pronounce You Someone Else for the book’s being named a Cybils YA finalist! I love, love, love romantic comedy, which is partly why I wanted to publish INPYSE; but it’s a category that doesn’t get recognized much come awards time, because the seeming lightness of the atmosphere and subject matter (and, perhaps, the fact that it’s a genre most often about, created by and consumed by women) make it easy to blow it off in the face of IMPORTANT books or movies about war or boxing or dystopias or whatall. But the real subject matter of all good romantic comedies are relationships and moral values; and the atmosphere in which those things are made coherent, consistent, realistic, and amusing, and in which they matter, even in the face of war or boxing or whatall, is in fact incredibly hard to create and sustain. Erin not only accomplishes that creation, she walks the line between the development of a relationship and the development of a self, and sharp wit and real pain, with truly impressive skill; and as an editor and romantic comedy fan, I wanted to say thank you to the Cybils judges for recognizing that accomplishment. 
  • If you have a blog or other publication and you'd be interested in reviewing my book, Second Sight:  An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, please e-mail me at asterisk.bks at gmail dot com with your name, blog address, and any other pertinent information. Not all respondents will be sent copies of the book, but all interest is appreciated.  
  • Pleasure reading this holiday:  Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time (devoured in 36 hours over the Christmas weekend) and George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings. At a going-out-of-business sale, I bought a second copy of J-Crusie's Welcome to Temptation, probably my favorite contemporary romance novel ever; The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe’s memoir of managing the Obama campaign, for 2008 nostalgia in the face of 2011 House horror; and Story by Robert McKee, because I’ve always felt like a bit of fake for talking about McKeean principles (well, really Aristotelian ones) without ever having read his actual book, and now this shall be corrected. 
  • My New Year's Resolutions have always been less about specific behaviors I want to have than specific things I want to accomplish:  to run a 10K, to learn to knit, to try three new cuisines . . . all of which lead in turn to those specific behaviors, as I have to run regularly to be ready for a 10K, I have to develop a new skill with the knitting, I have to get out of the house more in order to find the cuisines. I haven’t created a proper list since 2006 or so, but this year I want to try it again, to help get myself back on track. So I want to run another half-marathon; finish the baby blanket I started knitting in, um, 2007 (and haven’t touched since then, for the record--this is not a monster blanket four years in the making); publish my book (which should go to print as soon as the designer and I hash out the final details on the cover); eat less sugar; finish reading War and Peace; and write these Rambles once a week. Best of luck with your new year and resolutions as well!

Movie Recommendation: HOWL

Last night, somewhat through random good luck, James and I went to see a new movie called Howl, about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial over his famous 1955 poem. The screenplay for this movie is entirely taken from transcripts of the court trial, interviews with Ginsberg, and the text of Howl, and the film cuts among those three different story strands, with the text portrayed through both a recreation of the first public reading of the poem and gorgeous animations illustrating its images and themes. James Franco plays Ginsberg in the interview and the reading; Jon Hamm, David Straithairn, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels play various figures in the trial.

And it is just an immensely intelligent, passionate, and well-acted film. I felt as if I were getting to know Ginsberg, and came to really like his humility and honesty, through the interview bits (and I learned a lot about the Beat Generation besides); I fell in love with the poem, which I don't think I'd ever experienced in full before, through the reading and the animations (which have been collected into a graphic novel); and the trial portions coalesce into a splendid defense of a writer's right to speak in the language that comes naturally to him, and the importance of writerly freedom in expanding the boundaries of literary art. (I thought more than once of the #Speakloudly campaign.) As the poem is frank in its sexual language, so is the movie, and if that would make you uncomfortable, it's not for you; but for everyone else, and especially lovers of poetry and haters of censorship, very highly recommended.

Insert Your Own Title Here

Because it's summer, which means I'm too lazy to come up with a proper blog title, much less a thoughtful post. Fortunately, I have awesome authors who make hilarious videos:

Lisa's Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) is now in paperback, by the way! And Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) will be out next month. More on that (and all our fall releases) soon. (And did you know you can friend Arthur A. Levine Books on Facebook?)

Speaking of the fall, I'm going to speak at three different SCBWIs in the next three months:
I'm having a lot of fun giving my "Twenty-two* Revision Techniques" speech (*the number varies depending on the time allotted and how fast I talk), so that's likely the one you'll see at these events. (The book version contains a whole twenty-five!)

Martha Mihalick posted a very true and well-done "Editor's Choose Your Own Adventure" here.

Finally, I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as a lot of kidlit people did/do (I saw it with a colleague and ran into a party of two agents, two authors, and at least one other editor as I left the theatre). Why? Because it's everything most of us are looking for: It's got great characters; it brilliantly captures those characters at a key moment in their emotional development (in this case, that twentysomething "What the hell am I doing with my life and will I ever make a relationship work? Thank God for my friends while I figure it out" moment); the book art is unique, emotionally charged, and efficient; and -- the key thing, I think -- it has great moral development and consequently a really good character-plot structure, as Ramona and her seven evil exes force Scott into a place where he has to grow up and be a better man . . . exactly like the outline here, actually. The videogame stuff is all window dressing on that. And it's hilarious, besides (especially if you get the videogame stuff). Highly, highly recommended.

ETA: I forgot the other thing I wanted to say about the greatness of Scott Pilgrim: The fantasy served as a metaphor for a larger emotional situation or problem, as happens in nearly all good fantasy, I think (Fellowship of the Ring = World War I, Moribito II = coming to terms with the past, Harry Potter = facing death, the Chanters of Tremaris series = multicultures trying to work as one, etc. Quite often when I turn down a fantasy, it's because it's not going for this metaphorical level, so it just feels like the problems of some oddly named people in a made-up world). In SP's case, it's about working through the baggage of past relationships and figuring out how to establish an honest basis for moving forward in a new one.

Midmonth Hello

Miss you, darlings. Some quick points:
  • Hooray for Laini Taylor, whose AALB book Lips Touch: Three Times is a National Book Award finalist!
  • I love Glee with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. No musical ever dared plot twists like the pregnancy storylines; no high school soap opera was ever this funny; no over-the-top comedy ever had musical numbers that rocked as hard as this or were as gorgeous as this. And sometimes those things jar against each other, sure, or against the odd way the writers seem to think every episode must include a non-parodic moral, but for an hour of pure entertainment, I defy you to show me something better on television.
  • The writer and blogger Caleb Crain recently defined "depth" on his blog as "a sense of the complexity of reality." That's precisely what I mean when I say I'm looking for a novel with literary depth: I want fiction that presents the complexity of reality (which could be a funny or romantic reality as well as a tragic one--indeed, most realities are in more than one mode), and writers who can make those realities tangible and meaningful.
  • Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich of the upcoming Eighth-Grade Superzero had a fascinating interview recently on the Writers Against Racism blog. (Francisco X. Stork was featured in September.) I understand the organizers are looking for more contributions from professionally published writers, illustrators, editors, and educators of all races; if you're interested, e-mail Amy Bowllan here with 350-word-or-less answers to the questions each interviewee has been posed.
  • Harry Potter fans will appreciate the cartoon here.
  • Where the Wild Things Are . . . The beginning and end in the real world felt pitch-perfect to me; the middle I was less sure about, because I'm not sure what the filmmakers intended by making the Wild Things so gabby and querulous. (In the book Max appears to leave more or less as soon as the wild rumpus ends; here he hangs around for forty minutes and discovers the compromises of adulthood, which Sendak spares him.) But a lovely film to look at all the way through.
  • And Bright Star rekindled my long-dormant college crush on Keats. Three lovely quotes:
  1. "Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?"
  2. "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination."
  3. "several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason -- Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."
And with that I return to being the annoying gadfly to great writers and irritably reaching after fact and reason in their novels. Happy October!

The Brooklyn Arden Blog Review Policy

Just setting this out there as a matter of policy, and to save said authors, publishers, and publicists the time:

Occasionally I receive e-mails from kind authors, publishers, or publicists, asking me to review or feature a book on my blog. As much as I appreciate the interest, my reading and blog-writing time is already occupied with projects I've edited or read for my personal pleasure, and as a result, I must decline these requests.

I am interested in hearing from marketers of non-book products; I’ve received offers to review theatre productions and office furniture in the past, and quite enjoyed some of the experiences, so I’d be pleased to try something else new. (All reviews will be fair, and have disclaimers regarding how the tickets or products came to me.) My e-mail address for these is chavela_que at yahoo dot com. Thank you.


(Should you be one of those poor souls who has not read Austen's major novels, beware spoilers below.)

When I first heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was immensely excited, not least because of passages like these:
"Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor." -- Frederic and Elfrida

"With a heart elated by the expected happiness of beholding him, I entered [the forest], & had proceeded thus far in my progress thro' it, when I found myself suddenly seized by the leg & on examining the cause of it, found that I was caught in one of the steel traps so common in gentlemen's grounds. . . . I screamed, as you may easily imagine, till the woods resounded again & till one of the inhuman Wretch's servants came to my assistance & released me from my dreadfull prison, but not before one of my legs was entirely broken."
At this melancholy recital . . . Alice could not help exclaiming, "Oh! cruel Charles, to wound the hearts & legs of all the fair." -- Jack and Alice

"MADAM: An humble Admirer now addresses you -- I saw you, lovely Fair one, as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, & was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food." -- Amelia Webster
As you may have guessed, these are excerpts not of P&P&Z itself, but of Jane Austen's own juvenilia, drawn from the splendid e-texts here. And they perfectly demonstrate why I think Ms. Austen might have enjoyed the concept of P&P&Z: She knew that frightful beings plus random, goofy violence plus absurdist humor plus well-chosen details (e.g. the "human" in "human food") usually equals a good time. (For instance, she would have loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) So when I finally got my copy of P&P&Z at the beginning of May, I settled down to read it with great expectation of pleasure.

Alas, dear reader! I found that Mr. Seth Grahame-Smith, who undertook the addition of the undead to Ms. Austen's work, also decided to edit the original text in ways that had nothing to do with zombies or their defeat. True, he made Elizabeth and her sisters trained Shaolin warriors, which was hilarious (especially in Lizzy's closing duel with Lady Catherine), and Charlotte Lucas explains her marriage to Mr. Collins by admitting that she has been infected with the "strange plague" and wishes to keep her family safe -- in some ways a better justification than the original. And the line "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" is just delightful.

But Mr. Grahame-Smith's editorial work often goes awry. He flattens out subtle emotional and character behavior, describing Elizabeth as rolling her eyes at Mary at one point, and turning Mr. Collins explicitly fat (apparently to make him funnier). He introduces totally unnecessary sexual references and crudity: Mrs. Gardiner has a Polish lover in Lambton, and I counted three jokes about "balls," at least two made by characters who were supposed to be models of propriety. There is a lot of vomit and "soiling" and pus and blood and guts even in scenes that had nothing to do with undead rampages (Mrs. Bennet projectile vomits often, and Elizabeth at one point refers to emptying "piss-pots," which the real Elizabeth would never have said loud). I understand I'm approaching this book from an Austenian rather than a zombie-lover's point of view, and that Mr. Grahame-Smith may have regarded the changes as necessary to make the comedy comprehensible and amusing to the zombie lovers. (Is there a lot of soiling in zombie stories? Ew.) But to my eye, rather than heightening the humor of both the genteel social comedy and the violent zombie mayhem through straightforward contrast of the two, Mr. Grahame-Smith simply undercut the characters and social comedy with changes that demonstrated little understanding or appreciation of Ms. Austen and her world.

The book also was sloppily edited and barely copyedited. . . . I normally extend other editors charity when I find typos, because none of us are perfect, but the editor of this one should have noticed that "Kilkenny" on one page became "Kilkerry" on another, never mind standardizing "Bennet" with one T. The illustrations show the ladies in Edwardian rather than Regency dress. And the switch of Colonel Fitzwilliam for Mr. Collins in one particular scene of the novel was frankly stupid and out-of-character for the Colonel, and could have been easily avoided by any editor (or adapter) who had half a brain. (Perhaps theirs were eaten by zombies.) Given all these unfortunate changes, I'm afraid I soon came to find the project tedious; and while I greatly looked forward to beginning this book, I also greatly looked forward to the end of it. Or as Samuel Johnson is said to have said, "The manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

Finally, if you're an Austen fan interested in horror, check out this cover of a 1950s reissue of Northanger Abbey -- both excellent deceptive packaging, and a classic case of not getting the joke. And if someone would like to hire me to turn Sense and Sensibility into a vampire novel (with Willoughby and Lucy Steele as the undead who bleed the sisters Dashwood dry), or Emma into a werewolf book (with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax as a secretly mated pair) -- like Mr. Bennet after his daughters are engaged, "I am quite at leisure."

Brooklyn Arden Reviews: Two Modern National Epics

This weekend I took in two epics of national creation and definition, spaced a hundred and sixty years apart in time and a good distance farther than that in the mentalities that created them; but each demonstrating a genius of sorts for its particular genre and style, and each recommended for the right frame of mind. I am writing these reviews late at night, and I'm going to do them rather stream-of-consciousness, with very long sentences; so please forgive any errors in style or fact, as I'm writing them for the mere pleasure of making them exist at all. And spoilers ahoy!

So, first, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Part I: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson. This volume wae the National Book Award winner for 2006, but I had -- not avoided it exactly, but never made time to read it, until the recent CCBC discussion and Times review of Volume II prompted me to pick it up. More out of a sense of duty than anticipated pleasure: for while I very much admired M. T. Anderson's Feed (the only previous novel of his I'd read), and I knew from that and from reviews of Octavian that he could accomplish extraordinary feats of voice, emotion, imagination, and historical recreation, his temperament and view of humanity seemed rather darker and harsher than mine, almost on the verge of nihilism. And it is always hard for me as a quasi-optimist to read pessimistic works -- not only are the events described unpleasant, and realer than I daily care to look at, I feel like something of a fool as I read, for this, the pessimists are telling me, is reality, and why don't I just face that fact and get on with it? Additionally, I'd read so much about Octavian at this point that I felt it was approaching the category of books that the first chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler would call The Books One Never Needs to Read Because So Many People Talk about Them That It Seems Like You've Read Them Already.

So I took up Octavian knowing most of its big surprises -- the nature of the experiment, that he would at some point lapse into inkblots, the eventual escape. And at first I read with attention mostly for the undeniable genius of the thing -- the deep knowledge of history and science, the construction of the voice, the fascination of the situation. (Not to mention the incredible feat of copyediting this book must have been, to get the ampersands and the spellings and the historical references right and consistent.) And that awareness of genius was so strong, and the events described so deeply inhumane (to Octavian; all too humanlike in other ways) and yet true, that I found myself reading more with aesthetic pleasure than emotional pleasure -- that is, I took pleasure in the excellent aesthetics of the book, but I had no pleasure being with Octavian inside the world created by those aesthetics. About halfway through, I would have liked to stop reading.

And yet I could not, Mr. Anderson's aesthetic genius having caught me up in caring about Octavian and made his world sufficiently real that I had to see how the experiment played itself out. If readers usually identify with main characters and have the pleasure of sharing in their experience, the experience and pleasure here felt like that of martyrdom: intense pain and also nobility, the one increasing the other. But once I gave myself over to that and accepted it, about the time of the Pox Party, I found some pleasure in sharing Octavian's burden, like we had to go through these awful things together. And more than that, I realized that I had misjudged Mr. Anderson, because anyone who feels such sympathy for the suffering (as I think he must to portray suffering so accurately and acutely) cannot be a nihilist: because in nihilism nothing matters, and he clearly feels that human suffering does, and should be alleviated. That does not mean it WILL be in the course of the book, of course, but it's nice to have something to believe in as a reader, and not feel like the author is simply leading you toward fictional misery and pointlessness (the better to underline the misery and pointlessness of actual existence).

So, oddly cheered, I flew through the last third of the novel, marveling still at the brilliance of the historical writing and the turnabout of the usual patriotic story; and hoping now, hard, for Octavian to escape and all to be -- if not well, or even peaceful (which would be foolish in a novel chronicling the beginning of the Revolutionary War), more resolute still in favor of this sense of the possible goodness of humanity. And while I understand Volume II will test this hope even further, I look forward to getting and reading it after I return to New York. All of the best novels I've read this year have been YA: Paper Towns, Graceling, Suite Scarlett, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Hunger Games, the Attolia trilogy; and now I will set Octavian Nothing among that company, as, if not the most pleasurable, certainly the most distinguished in imaginative and historical accomplishment.

(It strikes me that this is less a review than an account of my reading experience with random, very possibly pretentious-sounding philosophical bits thrown in. Ah well, I'm enjoying writing the bloviation, and I hope you don't mind reading it.)

Australia. Baz Luhrmann pulls various pieces of his country's mythology and history -- the colonization by the English, the incredible beauty of the Outback, the romantic independence of the stockmen, the shame of the Aborigines' treatment by the whites -- into an ungainly film that, despite the history and the setting, is still much more a Baz Luhrmann movie than it is an Australian one. By which I mean: Baz Luhrmann loves drama and the dramatic arts, loves good production design, and loves Love above all, and all of these things are in their usual massive profusion here -- Australia just happens to be the latest backdrop for his inquiries. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from England to her late husband's cattle station in the Outback, where she meets "the Drover," a cattleman played by Hugh Jackman, and a half-white, half-Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who might at any time be taken away for reeducation as a white at the hands of the Australian authorities. Lady Sarah's husband was killed by the overseer of a rival cattle station, a man named Neil Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who tries to blame it on Nullah's wholly Aboriginal grandfather. In the first half of the movie, Lady Sarah bonds variously with Nullah, with Australia, and with the Drover as they drive the cattle from the station to Darwin in 1939. In the second half, set in 1941, she wrestles with the implications of Nullah's race -- his desire to go walkabout, the authorities' capturing him -- as the Japanese approach and eventually attack Darwin.

That all sounds much too serious, though. Luhrmann gives the film a frantic opening much like those of Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet -- he's so eager to get to the meat of the romance that he rushes us through the introductions to his characters, making them look ridiculous, to early unfortunate effect. But as in those previous films, once those lovers are onstage and working together, he calms down -- overindulging his fondness for the closeup, perhaps, but developing the story at a more logical pace, and unfolding several glorious romantic set pieces. Here he also displays a strong hand for action sequences (which, I guess, aren't so different from dance numbers), particularly in a cattle stampede about a third of the way in.

Still, the most prominent feature of the film is his unabashed sentimentality -- and more than that, his reveling in it, in the long shots of Lady Sarah and the Drover embracing against a gorgeous Australian sunset. The Aborigines are all magical, moral beings in touch with the earth (though, to be fair, this is probably true, certainly compared with the white colonizers). Someone says something like, "As long as we have love, everything will be all right." We never learn the Drover's real name; indeed, the film never even acknowledges the idea he has a real name, or the silliness of his being always "the Drover," as that might taint his mythic stature. And here is a one-line summary of the climax: a noble Englishwoman hears her adopted half-Aborigine son playing "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on a dead man's harmonica as her horseman-lover pilots a boat full of other half-Aborigine children through a bay filled with burning debris after an attack by the Japanese.

So Australia is melodramatic and ridiculous. But it is also, if you're willing to wait through the opening and shut up the realistic side of your brain, quite, quite delicious -- gorgeous production design, gorgeous scenes of the Outback, gorgeous Hugh Jackman (though I kept hoping he would break out in song). If any Australians read this, I would be curious to know what the reaction has been Down Under to the film. And for Americans, I recommend it as a highly enjoyable evening at the movie theatre, especially as it's an epic not our own.

Brooklyn Arden Rave: The Attolia Books by Megan Whalen Turner

(Some material cross-posted from my reviews on Goodreads, and lots o' spoilers below.)

Not long after I read the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last year, I thought, Well, there's one more thing off my Death List. The Death List, or "Bucket List," as the recent film with Jack Nicholson calls it, is the list of things one must complete before one dies; and if I had died before knowing how Harry, Ron, Hermione, et al.'s fates resolved, I would have been one seriously hacked-off corpse. This Death List thought was followed by the depressing realization that I didn't really have any more series books on the Death List. . . . I mean, I'm curious about The Book of Dust, certainly, but if I am out ice-fishing, say, and an angry polar bear attacks, I will not think Dammit, I don't know what happens to Lyra as it chases me across the ice.

Well, I am happy to say a literary reason to live has been restored to me, and he is named Eugenides. Eugenides is the hero of a trilogy of books written by Megan Whalen Turner, beginning with The Thief and continuing on in The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, and I adore him. In The Thief he first appears as a young idiot-braggart-criminal dragged through a vaguely Byzantine world on a mission to steal the national treasure of Eddis, with a fair number of excursions into the mythology and topography of that country. I admit I got halfway through this and asked Monica and Donna, "Eh, I'm feeling kind of bored, should I keep going?" The answers were resounding yesses, so I did. And I enjoyed the payoff to all the stories thoroughly, although the book also ends up doing that annoying Walk Two Moons trick where the reader doesn't get information the first-person narrator knows, solely because the author wants to keep it from you -- which makes me feel tricked by the narrator, which I dislike. However, I was impressed enough by the writing, the world-building, and the characterizations to go on and read the sequel, The Queen of Attolia . . .

And glory, I loved The Queen. It is written in third person, which removed my cause for annoyance in The Thief, as I don't mind third-person narrators (that is, the author) keeping information back from me until they deem appropriate, as long as they deploy said information intelligently. And the intelligence here! I felt like Ms. Turner was accomplishing the fictional equivalent of playing a perfect chess game or composing a Mozartian sonata, so carefully is each piece of information provided to the reader at precisely the right time and in precisely the right order. This incredible complexity is given emotional warmth and depth through the slowly developing love story between the Queen and Eugenides -- a romance at first impossible to believe* (she cuts off his hand in the opening pages), but one that pays off beautifully by the end. I especially recommend this to fans of Possession or Gaudy Night or Fire and Hemlock, as, while this isn't as self-conscious a literary romance as any of those, the Queen and Gen operate at a similar level of intelligence to the lovers in those novels. Fabulous, fabulous.

Then, finally, I loved The King of Attolia even more than The Queen. There's all the chess-game pleasure of the politics again, and the mystery of Eugenides's motives and behavior, which this time is seen entirely from the outside, and primarily through the perspective of a young Attolian guard named Costis, who finds it impossible to believe his Queen could love such an idiotic Eddisian. The emotional pleasure here derives from Costis's (and the entire court's) slowly growing respect and liking for him, the deep romantic satisfaction of seeing the Attolian royal marriage develop into all it promised, and Gen's own growth into the king he is meant to be. And as in the previous two books, Ms. Turner beautifully combines the ways of gods and man.

My guess is that the fourth book (and please please please let there be a fourth book) will focus on what happened to Sophos; why Eddis is the last Eddis as per the short story included with the King paperback (because surely that country must be combined with Attolia under Gen's rule, right?), and the coming war with the Medes. And then, perhaps, the birth of an heir to Attolia? Given the intricacy of Ms. Turner's plot construction, I understand why she has taken so long between books, but lord, I hope I don't have to wait four years for this next one. I could get chased by an angry polar bear before then, after all -- and then, dammit, I wouldn't know what happens to Eugenides! And Megan Whalen Turner does not want my icebound zombie stalking her house.

In other words, Ms. Turner: Write faster.

*A friend remarked that she experienced a bit of what I was feeling about The Thief's first-person narration in Eugenides's mid-book declaration of love -- that Turner had cheated with her use of POV and hadn't set up these feelings in his character -- but I think the book stays far enough out of his mind much of the time, allowing him his privacy, almost, that it's believable, especially considering the extreme intelligence and reserve of these two lovers/combatants. And I've reread all three books twice now, I think -- the first time in a long time I've finished a series and immediately gone right back to the beginning -- and the second time through, I picked up on a lot more of the extremely subtle clues to his feelings I missed on a first read. (And in fact, having written all this, I really want to read them all again.)

Lovely Laziness

I am still in my pajamas at 10:42 in the morning. Lord, I love vacation.
  • The resolution of the mystery (which I'm sure has kept you all on tenterhooks): I went to Texas to visit my dear friend KTBB, who was staying with her in-laws in Fort Worth, and she and I took a girls' night at the Beaumont Ranch in Grandview. While we'd been attracted to the Beaumont because it promised a comfortable B&B experience on a real Texas ranch, it ended up being one of the most bizarre places I've ever stayed, starting with the spa/ranch combination, continuing through a reproduction 1880s Texas town on the property (utterly deserted), and culminating in a giant mural devoted to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Eventually Katy and I pieced together the Ranch's provenance: The "Beaumont" of the name was Ron Beaumont, former CFO of the infamous telecom giant Worldcom, and the Ranch had originally been developed as his private retreat-cum-corporate conference center. After Worldcom melted down (Beaumont turned state's evidence and was never charged), the Beaumonts opened it to the public as a dude ranch/B&B/spa. They're still working on the B&B piece, however -- despite excellent food and good service, there were 23 dead crickets found in our room on arrival, holey sheets, and zero security at night. Thus Katy and I do not recommend the Beaumont accommodations, but we thank the ranch for giving us many more memories.
  • From there I came home to Kansas City, where my Iowa family was waiting. Two inches of hard-frozen snow outside kept us from playing our usual game of Killer Klein Croquet, but because the Frog was at stake, my father and Uncle John devised a clever solution: They drilled holes in wood blocks to form standees for the wickets, and we played in the house, with inflatable plastic balls replacing the usual wooden ones. Everyone devised their usual impossible wicket setup (I created a ramp using a metal sign and a wooden "M"), and Melissa's dog and cat served as moving obstacles. It was a wonderful game, just as competitive and hilarious indoors as it always is outside. My cousin Hans came away with the victory and the Frog, which he will take to the Iowa caucuses on the 3rd before bringing it home to New York (upstate) later in January.
  • James and I went to see "Sweeney Todd" on Wednesday. Every time I see this show (which is now touring the U.S. on stage, in the brilliant John Doyle revival) I'm struck by what a paradox it is: a story filled with murder, cannibalism, rape, near-pedophilia, obsession, and betrayal -- undoubtedly the most misanthropic musical in the canon, with all the worst and ugliest parts of human nature -- portrayed in what is highest and best in human accomplishment: soaring, searing, unforgettable music and lyrics. The movie captured both sides of this paradox respectably, though Tim Burton clearly takes more glee in the spurting fountains of blood than the more subtle aspects of Sondheim's score. But Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp were both suitably demented and Alan Rickman is a perfect Judge Turpin. . . . I feel sorry for Timothy Spall, who plays the Beadle, because his physiognomy so often regulates him to those ratlike roles; someone should write a romantic comedy just for him and have him get the girl.
  • I love the Wii.
  • Reading on vacation: The Subtle Knife; Sondheim & Company; The Lonely Planet Guide to India.
  • I don't normally write about acquisitions here, but I wanted to note I just bought a manuscript that started as a SQUID: Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich's (aka Mrs. Pilkington's) EIGHTH-GRADE SUPERZERO. Foremost among its many virtues are wonderful, wonderful characters and a terrific voice; I'm really looking forward to working on it and with Gbemi. Yay!

Brooklyn Arden Review: "The Golden Compass" film

With spoilers; also probably some unjustified harshness, because I reread the book recently and it's a hard standard to match. First, in prose:

A fascinating, gorgeous, well-meant waste. I'm not objecting to the removal of references to the church here -- and I mean really, for all the filmmakers' protestations about how it's no longer the church, if you have men in soutanes and bad hair discussing heresy and free will and "the Authority," you're clearly taking aim at something. What I'm objecting to is the muddling of Pullman's wonderful cut-glass storytelling by a writer-director who simply wasn't capable of translating it into cinematic form: Chris Weitz.

He got all the visuals right, the bears and the actors, the daemons and dirigibles. It's a glorious-looking film, as the book deserves. But from the two-minute opening sequence where all the mysteries and wonders of the book are thuddingly defined for the viewer, everything is spelled out, given away, black-and-white. There are multiple universes besides this one. Mrs. Coulter? Pretty but evil. The Magisterium? Despite the presence of Derek Jacobi, even more evil. Where the mystery of daemons and the threat of Gobblers once drew the reader on, now it's all "Daemons are your soul. Don't touch them!" "Hey, Lyra, someone's stealing kids!" "Gee, Roger, I hope they don't get you!" Et cetera, et cetera.

To be fair to Mr. Weitz, this was probably a damn near impossible book to adapt, given all the information packed into the narrative, and I can practically hear the studio executives at story conferences saying, "I really don't get this stuff about dust; audiences need to have a clear villain to root against; and hey, Daniel Craig is James Bond, remember -- could we have another action sequence?" And Mr. Weitz does communicate the majority of the information effectively; the dialogue usually wasn't that egregious, and while he moved a bunch of stuff around from the book, most of it works okay. (I actually liked the way he used the revelation of Lyra's parentage to show Mrs. Coulter's continuing manipulations.)

The thing is, though, while we get the facts, we don't feel them; we get the information, but not the emotional texture that makes it matter. Mrs. Coulter enters in a shimmer of gold and says one nice thing to Lyra, and instantly Lyra agrees to leave her beloved Oxford to go to the north with her. That should have been a longer and more intimate scene between the two actresses, establishing all of Mrs. Coulter's seductiveness and Lyra's wide-eyed susceptibility to it, but no, we've got to get on to the next thing. And thus when Mrs. Coulter turns out evil, it doesn't shock with betrayal or surprise -- we barely know her, after all, and Nicole Kidman is always such an ice queen anyway. . . .

The cinematography could have solved part of this problem: Shoot Lyra and Mrs. Coulter with their heads bent close together in the same frame, and their visual joining makes up for the lack of verbal connection. To point out the obvious, this is actually preferable in film -- it's what good movies do. But the unimaginative lensing by Henry Braham only compounds the textural weakness of the screenplay, as nearly every conversation is presented in boring, close-up shot/reverse-shot, stuff I recognized (literally) from Film History 101. (The conspiracy between Lyra and Ragnur Sturlusson (aka Iofur Raknison) was a welcome exception.) And the film seems to have been edited to make it as short as possible, except for shots involving the bears, so scenes get cut off before reaching any point of emotional closure. The result feels rushed and nervous, not suspenseful and authoritative -- Hitchcock remade by, well, Chris Weitz.

And the ending. Oh, the ending. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but cliches. On the one hand, I'm glad they didn't try the real ending, because they probably couldn't have done it right; on the other, the sheer guts required to attempt it would have covered over a multitude of sins, and given the story a powerful kick of energy, purpose, and rage heading into what hopefully will be movie #2.

Yes, hopefully -- because such is the pleasure of seeing a talking armored bear on screen, that I would pay to see it again in a second film. But to sum up this film, two limericks I wrote this morning:
There once was a young girl named Lyra
Whose story made me say "Oh my-ra!"
But on the screen
'Twas just scene after scene,
Till I'd consign the film to the pyre-a.

Oh, what should fans do with this show?
If we want to see "Knife," we must go;
But if they make another --
Please, not a Weitz brother!
Find someone who'll make true Dust flow.

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine"

Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine, by Jordan Harrison, directed by Les Waters. At Playwrights Horizons through December 23. For discount tickets ($45 instead of $65), call (212) 279-4200 by December 11 and mention code DDBL.

The most common and cliched piece of writing advice in the world is (say it with me, everyone): "Show, don't tell." In practice I often turn this into another piece of advice: "Dramatize!" If it's important to your story, don't just say the couple went on their first date and really liked each other: Play out the whole thing, who picked who up, what their greeting was like, where they went, what was said, letting the dialogue and actions alone chart the process of their getting to know each other, the rising emotional temperature. Good showing gets the reader in the moment with the characters and keeps them there, with telling serving only as confirmation of the emotion the showing engendered or narration to skip moments that aren't relevant. Showing is preferable because it creates feeling, the end goal of all art, so the cliche is a cliche because it works.

But telling in the right circumstances can be showing -- where the writer's conscious expert choice to break the convention of showing, and the reader's awareness of that breakage, reveals something even more powerful and real than conventional enacted drama could achieve. I am thinking of the middle section of To the Lighthouse here, and sometimes Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings," and, on and off, "From Doris to Darlene," currently running at Playwrights Horizons. I'm going to plagiarize and edit the press release for the show to summarize the plot:
"In the candy-colored 1960s, a biracial schoolgirl named Doris (De'Adre Aziza)
is molded into pop star Darlene by a whiz-kid record producer named Vic Watts (Michael Crane) who culls a top-ten hit out of Richard Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Rewind to the candy-colored 1860s, where Wagner (David Chandler) is writing the melody that will become Darlene’s hit song, under King Ludwig II's (Laura Heisler) obsessive supervision. Fast-forward to the not-so-candy-colored present, where a Young Man (Tobias Segal) obsesses over Darlene’s
music — and his music-appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), who loves Wagner's operas."

So, six characters, three interpersonal dramas, and seven decades -- for Doris's story spans the period from the 1960s to the 1990s, while the Wagner-Ludwig drama lasts until the king's death in 1886. Doris becomes Darlene, gets her #1 hit, gets married to Vic, gets disillusioned, and gets revenge. Wagner and Ludwig become co-dependent -- the composer on the king's money and admiration, the King on the composer's music and myth. And the Young Man becomes a Wagnerian disciple, thanks to Mr. Campani's passionate teaching, and begins to explore his sexuality, inspired by Mr. Campani himself. Any one of these dramas would be more than enough for a two-hour play, and to pack them all in, Mr. Harrison uses telling -- having the characters narrate their actions or feelings to compact the situation, characterization, or emotion. For example:
LUDWIG II. Young King Ludwig the second builds a dream palace in the mountains of Bavaria. The peasants are scandalized by the pink marble. Inside, Wagner sleeps very quietly. His sleep is quieted by the pink stone, which repels sound more effectively than all other colors.

WAGNER. Wagner dreams of enchanted swans and dragons and swords with names.

LUDWIG II. In the next chamber, Ludwig dreams of taller mountains, and pinker palaces -- and Wagner.
As with all telling, it helps that it's really good prose, witty and specific. (Mr. Campani is described as "looking as if he came into this world clean and stayed that way.") And the technique is incredibly effective in moving us through the decades where appropriate and then zooming in on particular moments with a well-timed zinger or detail. Nonetheless, I went back and forth between enjoying the wit and wishing Mr. Harrison had stuck to straight dramatization, showing -- especially because his showing, when it does happen, is so damn good. When Mr. Campani lectures on Wagner, the Young Man goes out on his first date, or Ludwig experiences one of the operas, the scenes are funny and moving, characterful and real. It's a compliment to the playwright that I came out of the show thinking both "I'd love to see this guy write a novel" and "I'd love to see another one of his plays that's all show."

Of course, my impatience with some of the telling is also symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that the Doris section is not nearly as interesting as the other two. Doris and Vic are basically caricatures of Connie Francis (say) and Phil Spector, and the decades their plotline has to cover and Ms. Aziza's awkward performance only highlight the essential flatness of those characterizations. Wagner operas and mentor/mentee relationships link all three sections, but the connections feel flimsiest here, and Doris and Vic run out of story long before Ludwig dies or the Young Man finds his courage. I think I would have been happy with an all Wagner-Ludwig/Mr. Campani-Young Man play, to allow more time for Ludwig's sad, strange story and a real resolution to the present-day relationship . . .

And more stage time for Tom Nelis, the actor who plays Mr. Campani, who was just wonderful. Precise in his pronunciations, point-device in his accoutrements and gestures, and with a strong singing voice, he beautifully conveyed Mr. Campani's operatic passion and resigned loneliness, and, what is more impressive, the connection between the two -- how the passion marks Mr. Campani as different even as it saves his life, and the character's consciousness of that fact. Everyone in the cast does at least triple duty as bit players in the other plotlines, and Michael Crane and Laura Heisler deserve special recognition for their excellence in both their main gigs and their supporting roles. (Indeed, all the actors should get kudos for negotiating the complicated staging, involving two turntables and lots of sliding doors; and kudos to the director and stage manager, too, for keeping it all running smoothly.)

In conclusion: Doris to Darlene is a "cautionary valentine" about the power of music in the lives of its creators, performers, and fans; and I send the show a cautious valentine in turn, for its ambition, its ideas, its wit, and, in Mr. Nelis's performance, its transcendence.