Saturday, January 29, 2011

If You Liked "Winter's Bone"

The movie "Winter's Bone" is getting a lot of well-deserved attention right now. It's up for Best Picture, and its young star, Jennifer Lawrence, is up for Best Actress. Also, for you trivia buffs, John Hawkes, the man who plays Ree's uncle Teardrop, is from Alexandria, Minnesota. (Thanks, Roger P., for that info.) He is up for Best Supporting Actor in a role that The New York Times calls a "breakthrough performance."

The book was written by Daniel Woodrell, an author who Esquire magazine called "The most overlooked great novelist in America... ."I saw it on a teen shelf in my library right around the time the movie was hitting the theaters, so I thought I would grab it to see what all the fuss was about. (This is definitely not a book just for teens.) I thought the book was amazing, intense, unique. Honestly, I wasn't sure I wanted to see the movie because of a few violent scenes. But several fellow movie lovers assured me it was more implied than actually shown. So now I'm waiting for the movie to come to me through Netflix.

What blew me away about "Winter's Bone" is that it revealed a slice of our society that is right under our nose but so invisible to the general public. How many of us really know about the devastating poverty in the Ozarks, the effects of the coal mines shutting down, and the meth labs that have taken over people's lives? The hopelessness, the culture of "us vs. them" that creates an incredibly closed, dysfunctional society, the go-nowhere lives of the young people.

On my way to writing this I looked into who Daniel Woodrell is, and where exactly his story was set, and I came upon this interesting interview where he talks about his writing and his background, which, surprisingly, is much like his characters'. At the time of this interview "Winter's Bone" had not yet been made into a movie.

If you liked "Winter's Bone" you might want to pick up a collection of short stories called "Burning Bright" by Ron Rash, a North Carolina writer who sets his stories in the Appalachian mountains.

I was familiar with this author from reading his novel "Serena," a Pen/Faulkner 2009 Finalist set in 1930s North Carolina, when the lumber barons were moving in from the East to clear cut the timber and make their fortunes. He created some unforgettable characters in "Serena," including the couple who come out from Boston and eventually, in their quest for power, destroy everything around them, including each other. It is a Greek tragedy set in the time of the Vanderbilt's (who make an appearance in the story) and very hard to put down.

So when I saw a new book by Ron Rash called "Burning Bright," I was immediately on alert. This collection of short stories (winner of the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize) covers some of the same ground that Daniel Woodrell covers in terms of desperate people trying to fix their lives with meth. I say some because he also sets a story in the North Carolina mountains during the Civil War, and another story in the present about a woman who marries a drifter and then wonders if he is the arsonist that the local sheriff is trying to find. No matter the time period all of these stories take place in the Appalachian mountains, a place I am beginning to see as beautiful, brutal, unforgiving, and completely hidden away from most of us with soccer mom lives and iPhone apps.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century

"I'm not a psychopath. I'm a high functioning sociopath. There's a difference." - Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Now that we are empty nesters, Darling Husband and I really enjoy breaking all the rules by bringing our dinner into the family room and (gasp!) eating in front of our new HD-TV with the surround sound. (Sorry number one son, we waited, for no particular reason, until you had moved out.) Neither of us watch very much tv, and we don't have cable (what???), so what we enjoy watching are series we can get on Netflix that we wouldn't otherwise see. In this way we have enjoyed Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Doc Martin, to name a few of our favorites. (Darling Husband likes to watch the British version of "Top Gear," and I must admit it's pretty entertaining.)

And now that we can hook up to Netflix instant streaming, well, I could do a commercial for Netflix on how much I love instant streaming and how much I love that Netflix keeps track of my several hundred movies in my queues (instant and not) whether I will ever get to watching them or not, and how much I love checking my queue to see what's coming in the mail and moving things around. I'm in movie geek heaven.

But I digress.

There is a new version of Sherlock Holmes out there that we really like. It comes from the BBC, and it is set in the present.

Sherlock is a relatively young, mysterious, brilliant, and slightly androgynous man who uses a smart phone and is only happy when there is a mystery to be solved. The local police force has a love/hate relationship with him: they know they can't solve some cases without him but he won't play by their rules.

In the first episode he meets John Watson, a military veteran who has just returned from Afghanistan and is fighting his own demons. What cracks me up is that in this 21st century version Holmes and Watson keep getting mistaken for a gay couple, with a "well, we are very cool with that, right?" attitude from the people they meet. Sherlock is mystified and doesn't think much of it. (Or does he?) Watson is frustrated and quick to correct the misperception.

This is a very clever, highly stylized and very suspenseful series that has really kept our interest. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who you might have seen in "Atonement" "Amazing Grace," and the "The Other Boleyn Girl," but who should really get some kind of award for his name alone.

John Watson is played by Martin Freeman, who you would have seen on the original version of The Office.

There are only two discs currently available, unfortunately. The first disc contains the pilot and one episode, and the second disc contains one more episode. Hopefully they'll get busy and throw any new episodes onto discs very soon.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How "Breakfast at Tiffany's" changed our world forever

Until very recently I had never seen the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And I certainly wasn't aware of the impact on our culture that this movie had. Then I heard about a new book called, "Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman" by Sam Wasson. The book was reviewed on one of my favorite websites, Head Butler, which I will talk about at length in another post.

Head Butler's author, Jesse Kornbluth, was so enthusiastic about this book that I picked up a copy, and I was not disappointed. In short chapters that read like a thriller, Wasson lays out chronologically what went into the making of the movie, convincing Hepburn to star, bringing Blake Edwards on board to direct, and convincing the studios that the film was a good bet. The really juicy layers underneath this story is how groundbreaking the film was. Wasson explains that up until that point, 1960-61, there were only two types of women portrayed in the movies. Think Doris Day, and Marilyn Monroe. Women were either saints or sinners. There wasn't too much in between. This new movie would be portraying a young woman who was ambitious, a dreamer, a hard worker, and a very high-priced escort/call girl. No one, including the producers and directors, knew whether America would fall in love with this girl and this movie. The studios were afraid of losing their shirts and their reputations.

Well, America did fall in love with the girl and the movie, and a new image of a grown woman was born. One who lived alone in a big city and supported herself. One who had no particular interest in marriage and family. One who had grand dreams of travel and adventure. And that dress. This movie saw the birth of the Little Black Dress. Up until then women rarely wore black in the movies or in real life, unless they were in mourning. Audrey Hepburn playing Holly Golightly made wearing black the height of glamor and sophistication, and the fashion world has never looked back.

I really loved this book, and I admit you have to be a movie geek to love a book like this, but I could also see it as required reading in a Women's Studies or Sociology curriculum as a grand example of how a film can change our world view.

Once I had devoured the book, I wanted to see the movie, and through the magic of Netflix it was in my mailbox within a couple of days. Well, I was in book/movie geek heaven. Knowing that George Peppard was an egotistical ass (who didn't get along at all with Patricia O'Neal) while making the movie and then watching his performance was fascinating. Watching the opening scene (it was shot on Fifth Ave., at 5 a.m., when Holly gets out of the cab, dressed to the nines, and stands in front of the Tiffany window eating her danish and drinking her coffee) and knowing what went into getting that shot, and what Hepburn was worried about concerning that shot, was golden. I could go on and on, and I didn't even talk about what Truman Capote thought of the movie, or what they had to clean up from the short story he wrote in order to please the censors. But it's all in the book.

I highly recommend, for the ultimate movie geek experience, that you read the book and then watch the movie, even if you have already seen it. And then warn your friends. Because you'll be talking about it for days.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Author Jon Katz

Jon Katz has written an amazing series of books that chronicle his transformation from dog loving city dweller to dog loving farm owner living in the Vermont countryside. He talks about our amazing relationship with dogs, his own quirky, loyal, smart-as-a-whip dogs, and how the dogs and his move helped him deal with a lifelong battle with anxiety and depression, and eventually, a divorce. This man was suffering, and had health issues besides.

In order to find a link for you to Jon Katz in the last post I found myself on his beautiful website for the first time, where he journals (sometimes many times a day) about farm life and displays his stunning photographs. (You can also see more about his books and his dogs here.) I ended up spending most of the evening reading his posts and discovered that he has gone through an amazing transformation. And even found a new love. He writes:

"My own experience with fear began many years ago, but came to a head when I broke down a few years [ago], an experience I partially shared on the blog. Since then, I have gone many miles and to many people and to a lot of different places  in my search to understand fear and move beyond it – therapy, medical doctors,  analysts, pills, music, friends and family,  meditation, massage, Quaker Meeting, Presbyterian Church, Zen Centers, poetry, acupuncture, spiritual counseling. I am getting somewhere. I am going to see myself. It’s inexpensive and effective.

Through spiritual counseling, I have come to understand how my mind works. How it evolved into a fear-scanning and anxiety machine which sometimes served me well, sometimes not. I have lived in lament and drama. No more drama. No squawking about snow, whining about bills or the state of publishing, living out of fear and anger to the normal exigencies of life. When you stop telling that story out loud, the mind calms down. That is what is happening to me."

Jon Katz takes extreme delight in his dogs and the many walks they take each day in the Vermont countryside. I was especially taken with this sentiment about this magical and private time:

"As I work my way towards a spiritual life, the morning sky, my daily walks, are my Church, my mass, my call to awakening. Each day I say my prayers, when I look up at the sun soaring over the Vermont hills, and receive the call to life and my story. Love, not loneliness, empathy, not anger, calm, not fear, hope, not despair."

Beautiful words. Beautiful website. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First things first

Here is a link to my current recommended reading list on shelfari. Many of the books I will be blogging about come from this list, which was started in 2003. To take a look, go to

Why a blog?

I am passionate about many things. Books. Movies. Music. Art. Humor. This blog is called "betsy loves books" but I reserve the privilege to write, or rant about, anything that feels important. This is where I want to chronicle my thoughts. I hope you find it entertaining and informative. If not, you can always switch over to one of my favorite blogs, It's hysterical.