Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Book or The Movie?

Unless you loathe reading (and therefore don't read), I'm sure most of you would agree that the book is almost always better. I finished reading "Lolita" yesterday and spent most of this morning watching Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita." I was actually quite pleased with the movie, particularly the casting--Sue Lyon who played an entirely believable young yet sexy Lolita. The film also stayed quite true to the book which surely satisfies fans of the novel (I'm still not sure if I fall into that category) but what the film does lack is a glimpse into the mind of our perverted protagonist. Since the film is not narrated by HH (as, I believe, the 1997 version is), the audience never knows the intimate thoughts of our thoughtful pedophile, hence they never fully realize how wicked he truly is. This was probably an intentional move made by Kubrick, as it takes out some of the shock-value of the story. A tale of sex between a young girl and a man thrice her age was surely shocking enough for the 1962 America that this film was released to. It proved to be shocking enough for me, who, 50 years later, is living in an era of reality TV, internet porn, and HBO.

And now I am quite ready to put Lolita behind me. I have begun another novel, this one also dealing with tortured love, Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera." From the book jacket, I can tell you that this is a story of lovers separated and (fifty-one years, nine months, and four days) later reunited. I am sold.

But back to the topic at hand. I am curious if there are any movies out there that you thought were actually BETTER than the book. I can think of two offhand. The first I haven't either read or seen in years--but still my vote would be for Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir, "The Pianist." I remember the book being good, but lacking the imagery and horror portrayed in the film. The scene in which the Nazi throws the paraplegic grandfather out the window for not standing up on command still haunts me.

In second place, I would like to nominate the Oscar winning film "Slumdog Millionaire" that outshines the (quite good) book it is based off of, Vikas Swarup's "Q&A." Perhaps I am biased since I saw the movie first and it is currently one of my favorite films, but I find the cinematography breathtaking. One of my friend's commented that you could freeze any frame of that film and have a beautiful [and intimate] photo of India. It's true. The story told in both the novel and the movie is beautiful and original, but the book reads more like a series of short stories and lacks the string that ties everything together--long lost love. Finally, I am sucker for the film's music, particularly the song and dancing scene during the closing credits. That's just something a book, no matter how good, can do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Reading Lolita in Chengde

I'm surprised to find that several people commented on my last post, which leads me to believe I'm not the only nerd in my circle of facebook friends who is in love with books. And now the heat is on to actually follow through with this task. I haven't felt this kind of pressure in awhile, the kind of pressure I often felt in college. It's been awhile since I've had "homework." I've already noticed it's doing me some good. I've been paying more attention as I read, as I'm often guilty of dazing off during difficult or boring books. Sometimes I'll read an entire page without having processed a word of it. When I read for pleasure I don't do much analysis, which is actually part of the fun of reading (although it's a lot of work and it definitely helps to have other people in the discussion). I'm finding that in "Lolita," there is a lot to analyze.

I started the novel knowing a little bit about Nabokov's "Lolita." I had read Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," which, as you can guess from the title, discusses the book (among others). To be honest, I find it shocking that young Iranian girls could get through it. "Lolita" couldn't even get a U.S. publisher when it was finished in 1953, forcing Nabokov to publish it in Paris. Nearly 60 years later, this novel still manages to cover some rather unorthodox territory. My friend Whitney once commented that novels tend to win awards and praise based on their shock value. I find this is one such book that could fit into such a category. Not that it's poorly written, the author has a clever style filled with puns, innuendos, and word coinages (such as referring to young girls as "nymphets"). My issue with this book is more with the protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert (HH), who is an outright pedophile. He adores prepubescent girls and isn't afraid to talk about it. I try to be open-minded, I do. I realize that pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder, but no mater how you slice it nobody much cares for a pedophile.

I feel like I should be enraged at the author for his assumption that it's okay to give his an audience a peek into this strange and demented world where a man fantasizes about 11-year-olds and visits 14-year-old prostitutes. I should be angry that he would even write about such a topic and horrified that he is able to write about it so deftly. Yet, after 90 pages, I can't helped but get sucked in. While I don't trust much of what HH says, he is funny. He is also pathetic. Though he is struggling to keep his perverseness under wraps, I find myself with little sympathy for him, probably because I know where this is all going. HH has yet to defile his beloved step-daughter Lolita, but his innocence won't last long.

In all fairness, there is much more to this book than what's on the surface--this is not merely about a step-father sleeping with his tween step-daughter. First, Lolita is proving to be a tiny vixen herself, but since she is only 12, can we really assign her any of the blame? When is someone truly a victim and when are they partly responsible for their own victimization? Where is the line between decency and indecency? Do thoughts make you guilty of a crime or only actions? One author, Martin Amis, asserts that "Lolita" is actually a story about tyranny and totalitarianism. Clearly, there is a lot to think about here. I'll let you know if I come to any conclusions once I've finished.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Big Read

I've decided to give this reading thing a go--perhaps it's not the most intriguing topic to blog about, but I will try to keep things interesting. With that in mind, I've decided to start with Nabokov's "Lolita." I'm only 70 pages in but I have much to say on the selection, but that will have to wait for tomorrow. I also would like to note that I've altered my reading list, which can be found below. I've taken mostly from the BBC's Big Read that, though somewhat revised, circled on facebook last year. As an American, choosing a Brit-centric batch of books is, perhaps, a seemingly odd choice. I've decided to focus primarily on this list, rather than others, to overcome my fear of British Literature, particularly the dreaded Jane Austen and Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Furthermore, I think it will be much easier to get my hands on most of these books here in China. I have set a rather modest goal of reading one book a week since I will also be reading Chinese stories and novels on the side (I've already read "The House on Mango Street" and "The Little Prince" in Chinese. Next up is "Charlotte's Web."). I have included 50 novels on my list and noted the ones that are not on the BBC's Big Read.

Numbers 1-13 are currently collecting dust on my bookshelf while 14-35 should be fairly easy for me to find in Beijing. I may have some trouble getting 36-50, but I'll keep you posted. Here's the revised list:

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov*This novel has made the top ten of many reading lists.
2. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
3. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
5. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
6. Franny and Zoey by JD Salinger *I've already read "Catcher in the Rye" so I thought I'd mix it up and try this book which I picked up for 75 cents at Half Price Books about 10 years ago.
7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
8. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry *This novel has made other top 100 lists and was nominated for the Booker Prize.
9. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy *McCarthy is mentioned on most lists and this novel won the 1992 National Book Award.
10. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian *Gao won the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature.
11. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai *This novel made another top 100 list and it won the 2006 Booker Prize.
12. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen *This didn't make the list, but I own it, so I might as well torture myself by reading it.
13. The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike *Though it won no notable accolades, I've never read Updike and I think it's time I ought to.
14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
15. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien
16. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien
17. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien
18. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
19. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
20. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
21. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
22. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
23. Tess of D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
24. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
25. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
26. Persuasion by Jane Austen
27. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
28. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
29. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
30. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
31. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
32. Emma by Jane Austen
33. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
34. Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoyevsky
35. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison *Replacing Ulysses, which was originally on my list, with this easier and easier to find novel.
36. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
37. Bird Song by Sebastian Faulks *May read Charlotte Gray, another part of the trilogy, which I have sitting on my bookshelf.
38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
39. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
40. The BFG by Roald Dahl
41. Middlemarch by George Elliot
42. The Stand by Stephen King
43. Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
44. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
45. Goodnight Mister Tom Michelle by Michelle Magorian
46. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Avel
47. The Thornbirds by Colleen McCollough
48. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
49. Far from Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
50. anything by Terry Pratchett, who made the list several times

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

An Early Retirement

Some people ask why I've stayed in China as long as I have. While being married to a Chinese man is the obvious answer, there is certainly more to it than that. After all, Ming, Ping, and I could pick up and move to America. So why don't we?

First and probably most importantly, the life of a foreigner in China is generally much easier and more glamorous than that of a foreigner in America. In the States, Ming would most likely face unemployment and years in school trying to get a firm handle on English. He'd also have to learn how to deal with driving, credit cards, income tax returns, junk mail, health insurance, cell phone bills, and dentist appointments--all things, for better or worse, we don't really have to think about here in China.

My second reason, which closely relates to my first, is simply and selfishly this: my free time. Life in China often proves to be a life of leisure for foreigners. For some, this can lead to late night bar fights, womanizing, and a downward spiral into alcoholism and chain smoking. I, however, have taken up the innocuous activities of cooking and baking. While experimenting in the kitchen has proved satisfying and often quite time consuming (you try making tortillas and bagels from scratch), I feel it is time to take up a new hobby or project. Furthermore, I am hoping for a project that can be blogged about. Since Julie Powell has already done cooking, that is clearly out.

Of the many things I've considered, one at the top of my list is training for a half marathon. The Great Wall Marathon sounds like an idyllic and worthy goal, but it's a little out of my price range at $1100. Furthermore, I'm a bit put-off by the idea of running outside in China. Normally I enjoy exercising outdoors, but unless I wake up at dawn (in these parts, 4am) I will have to cope with crowded sidewalks and countless gawking locals. Besides, the thought of writing about running makes me want to take a snooze.

My next idea is to go through AFI's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies. Though I think this may be enjoyable for me, it may bore my ten or so blog readers. There is also that little issue of me knowing next to nothing about film or film critique. Which leads me to a more literary endeavor--reading Time's list of top modern novels. While I am rather clueless about film, I do have some knowledge of literature. But since I've only read 14% of the list in my life thus far, I still have a lot to learn. The question is, how do I get my hands on all these books in China? I currently only have six of them in my possession. Would this pursuit even be interesting? I am pretty bookish but can I really make it through The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises??

I'm not sure what hobby might be both fun to do and write about--I am open to any and almost all suggestions. Although many people may covet my (lack of) schedule, I am desperately in need of filling the hours with something other than youtube and facebook, thanks.