I was a true Les Mis freak as a teenager. I was so obsessed with it it probably annoyed my family at times. I've come to terms with the idea that I needn't be so obsessed with any one thing now. But I've seen the stage version five times and underlined my favorite passages in the novel a few hundred more. Not for a while though. Until now, when we finally have the movie musical.
Well, I loved it. I loved Les Mis to death as much as I ever have (and that's a huge freakin' lot). In fact I fell in love with it all over again. And I almost made it to the end but then . . . bam, thank God for my mom's foresight in packing the Kleenex.
It had a couple of nice nods to fans of the stage version and the novel. Colm Wilkinson created the role of Jean Valjean on the West End and Broadway and in the movie he plays the Bishop - cool meta-reflection on the theme of paying good deeds forward. The character of Marius's grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand, is entirely missing from the stage version (but he did have a duet with Marius in the original French arena version). The novel goes quite a bit into the political conflict between the royalist grandfather and the student rebel. He's still a complete cipher in the movie and anyone who's not read the novel will understandably not really pick up on him, but it was just cool to me that he was there at all. And I don't think anyone's going to argue that the film needed to be any longer. Really, I don't think any other three-hour adaptation in history has ever left out as much from the book, about which I read a critic once claim contains nearly everything a novel can hold. Which it really does. It's a glorious, flawed everything-and-the-kitchen-sink attic treasure trove of a novel.
Anyway, you can probably sense I could go to much greater lengths than this. I'll stop now. Except to say I don't think Russell Crowe was nearly as terrible as everyone's saying he is (and I wasn't pleased when I first heard about that casting). Also, after seeing it on stage five times it's weird that in the movie Jean Valjean doesn't have a beard the whole time. Not that a beardless singing Hugh Jackman is anything I would ever dream of complaining about.
Oh, also, I liked that the film medium allowed the sewers to be so realistically gross. That would have been terribly unkind to a stage crew.
Monday, January 7, 2013
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
I recently started blogging as part of my duties as an on-call librarian for the San Jose Public Library. I have only made two posts so far, and they're very brief by design, but I can't overstate how great it feels to be able to promote and write about books as part of making my living. Here's the story so far: http://sjpl.org/blogs/sarah-kishler
Thursday, July 5, 2012
“If it’s fiction, it better be true.”
When I saw Sherman Alexie give the keynote speech at the Public Library Awards ceremony at the American Library Association annual conference in Anaheim last month, he attributed the quote to the Native American poet Simon Ortiz. If you Google the phrase, however, what will happen is that you will learn that Sherman Alexie is really fond of quoting it. In fact, you might be led to believe he originated it. Oh well. Oh well. Whether Alexie or Ortiz or someone completely imaginary actually first said it, it’s still true.
I first heard of Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because it appeared on the ALA’s list of the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2010. And of 2011. When it was published in 2007 it won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a host of other awards. I don’t know why it seems it took a few years for people to start wanting to ban it badly enough to make the ALA’s list, but if they hadn’t, I still may not have heard of it by now, despite all of its accolades. So it just goes to show that by trying to censor things you make them more famous.
It was the fact that Sherman Alexie was speaking at the conference I was attending that caused me to actually pull the book off the shelf and read it. I figured his keynote speech would be a lot more interesting to me if I were familiar with his work. It turned out to be extremely interesting to me. It would have been interesting to me even if I weren’t going to see the author speak at a librarian conference, but sometimes the universe needs to give you a little push to get you to read something you’re supposed to.
The main thing that strikes me about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the way that it so seamlessly married the comic and the tragic. I read about characters dying and the ugliness of alcoholism on pages that made me laugh out loud. Our fourteen-year-old protagonist and narrator recognizes this about life’s great beauty and absurdity when his mother starts a collective laugh attack at his grandmother’s funeral: “And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean but dang we knew how to laugh.”
While tackling some very serious and somber matters, the book is a quick breeze to read and made a great airplane companion for me. I loved the illustrations by Ellen Forney and believe her contributions to the story probably deserve a lot more attention than they get. At the end of the paperback edition of the book I read, there is a fascinating interview with Forney that I enjoyed nearly as much as the novel itself. She describes how she and Alexie worked together to create the story and the character of teenage artist Arnold Spirit, and how she would capture his different moods and situations by the different styles of sketches we see in the book, supposedly drawn by Arnold. She paid to attention to such things as how much time she thought Arnold spent observing his drawing subjects, or whether he was taking his portrait of a person in his life from a photograph or in his subject’s actual presence. She also describes her frustration with at first “trying” to draw like a fourteen-year-old boy, and then relaxing into drawing things just as she would herself (I think that decision probably led to making the fiction a lot more “true”). Her description of the process sounds a lot like acting, and I was reminded of animators saying that their craft is analogous to “acting on paper.” I would give Ellen Forney an Oscar for paper acting.
Especially since Arnold Spirit’s voice seems to be very much that of Sherman Alexie’s. The man I heard at the American Library Association conference certainly spoke exactly like I would expect a grown-up Arnold Spirit to speak. And the novel is heavily autobiographical; in fact, it apparently started out as a straight-out memoir before it morphed info fiction. Arnold shares Sherman’s hydrocephalus and alcoholic father, and the main plot point of Part-Time Indian is taken from Alexie’s own decision to attend a high school away from the SpokaneIndian reservation where he lived.
Why is the book challenged so much? Reasons cited by the ALA are “offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence.” To me, the book is the tale of a bright, decent boy in the age group trying to navigate a world full of all those other things. I’ve seen more than one review compare Arnold Spirit to Holden Caulfield, but I think that may because it’s too easy to compare all teenage boy narrators of modern American novels to Holden Caulfield. To me, Arnold more recalls Huckleberry Finn. He’s caught in the same rock and hard place between societal expectations and his own conscience. As Arnold’s friend Gordy puts it, "life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community." Arnold marvels at Gordy’s nerdy way of putting things, but he nails Arnold’s dilemma of trying to make a better life for himself without feeling like he’s betraying his extended family on the Spokane Reservation.
Whether their parents like it or not, adolescents, especially kids in circumstances like Arnold’s, are going to face some ugly, hard stuff in their lives. Life doesn’t wait for them to grow up so that they can handle it first. And, as Alexie has said, “there’s nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet.” Life can be so rude to young people. I’m glad that at least The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian gives them a fictional friend who tells the truth.
Sunday, July 1, 2012
When Lierre Keith, author of a book called The Vegetarian Myth, got up to speak at the 2010 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair, she got three pies in her face, and via the pies she got red hot sauce and cayenne in her eyes. It is generally assumed that the perpetrators of this attack were vegans who objected to the anti-vegetarian stance she takes in the book. Since they were masked and anonymous, I don't know for a fact that they were vegans (and I wonder if the pies themselves were even vegan?) but if so, they weren't doing their own image any favors, as throwing cayenne-laced pie in someone's face only adds fuel to the argument Keith puts forth in her book that a vegan diet causes mental unbalance and rage. And it's just seriously uncool to do something like that to anyone. Especially when it's for expressing a viewpoint.
Not to say that I think The Vegetarian Myth is above criticism. In fact, I think it begs for it. I've been a vegetarian for 20 years, all of my adult life, and I was curious about the case Lierre Keith wanted to make against my choice, so I read her book. She claims to have been vegan for 20 years before she renounced the diet, although she you can find a radio interview online where she states she binged on eggs and dairy during that time "every chance she got." So I don't think she was actually vegan. I admittedly occasionally binge on eggs and dairy too, but a lot less frequently than "every chance I get," and that's why I call myself vegetarian and not vegan.
I'm not a nutrition expert so I'm not going to write a detailed post challenging all the ways Keith claims a vegetarian diet is unnatural and unhealthy. All I can do is apply my own personal experience. When Keith asks her vegetarian readers if they feel sick after they eat, it seems like she means it as a rhetorical question to prove her point. But the truth is I virtually never feel sick after I eat. As the only vegetarian in an office of omnivores I may have been the only one who never called in sick from food poisioning.
Anyway, there's already quite a bit of material online debunking, or at least seriously putting into question, a lot of the information in Keith's book. My favorites of what I've found so far are http://www.compassionatespirit.com/Keith-Blog/2010-12-28.htm and http://www.theveganrd.com/2010/09/review-of-the-vegetarian-myth.html.
So, much of the criticism I have of The Vegetarian Myth has already been covered elsewhere, and I feel no need to be redundant. But there are a just a couple of things I'd like to address that I haven't yet seen anyone else challenge. For one thing, she claims that Asian monks eat soy because it dampens their libido and helps them keep their celibacy vows. Huh? I did a double take at the page at this point, because I've never heard of such a thing before, and frankly I think it sounds a little crazy. She does not include any kind of footnote to point the reader to the source of this claim, which is odd because she has pages and pages of endnotes.
So I went Web searching and I found Web sites that make the same claim, but so far I've found it only on sites whose purpose in life seems to be anti-soy. And again, I can't figure out what they are using as a source for this. It is possible that the claim originates with the Weston Price foundation, which Lierre Keith has an affiliation with, but again, it's unclear to me where and how they got their information. But even if it is true that Asian monks ever consumed soy for this reason, that doesn't necessarily mean the notion is scientifically sound. Tiger members may not actually be particularly useful as aphrodisiacs, either.
Imagine all the social problems we could solve if soy did indeed have this property. It is a little reminiscent of an Internet meme from a few years back warning that consuming soy would make men gay, but of course that is not the same thing as killing their sex drive. Like, at all. I'd love more information about someone who knows more about this stuff than I do about this monk-soy-celibacy rumor, because I am currently not buying it.
The other argument Keith makes that I feel I can personally refute is that soy consumption causes memory problems. Since she makes a lot of this argument based on anecdotal personal experience (and admits this), I feel I can draw on my own personal experience to make a case against her argument. She says she's known a lot of vegans with big memory problems. I believe her. I've known a lot of humans with big memory problems, and some of them have surely been vegan. As for myself, I do eat a good amount of soy and I seem to have a much better-than-average memory. Not a supergenius photographic memory where I can precisely quote everything I'd read in my entire life, but I do seem to remember a lot more than most of the people around me. It's actually embarassing sometimes. I wish I remembered less, because not everything is that fun to remember.
Keith tells us about a woman who invites her to dinner and then doesn't remember issuing the invitation (or, apparently, who Keith is) until Keith, as instructed, calls her the day before the supposed planned dinner. When she does go to the woman's house, there is no dinner prepared and she is only offered tea and soymilk (the woman only has soymilk on hand, she explains, because she's vegan). And then suddenly after offering the soymilk she remembers why she invited Lierre over. "Is is true soy causes memory problems?" she asks.
Keith uses this anecdote to illustrate that soy likely does, in fact, cause memory problems, but when I read this section of the book I had to wonder if Keith had been the victim of an elaborate prank. I don't know why anyone would do that, but I don't know why anyone would throw cayenne-laced pies in her face, either.
There are many more arguments and holes in arguments in The Vegetarian Myth that I could address, but as I said, most of the points I would make have already been made by others. Nobody would want to read the post if it were that long, anyway. To Keith's credit, she does believe that animals deserve compassion and is against factory farming. I find this refreshing, as a ban on foie gras just came into effect in California, and I've been seeing/hearing a lot of complaints from "foodies" in the vein of "I didn't get to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian" and "humans > ducks." These are the attitudes I find truly obnoxious. In my opinion, every human, vegetarian or not, who takes the idea of treating animals humanely seriously, and not just for our own benefit and pleasure, is a step forward for the human race.