Thursday, February 25, 2021

Announcing the 2021 March Madness Book Bracket

 "Real" March Madness may be actually happening this year, but we all know which tournament I'll be following. Here's how this is going to work:

The tournament will begin on March 4. Two matches will take place each day until the final on April 4, the day before the NCAA final. 

All matches will take place on the Talking Lit with Aunt Mary facebook page. Two books will be presented, and you may cast your vote using the reaction buttons: "like" reaction for one choice, "love" reaction for the other. Voting will be open for 24 hours after the post goes up, and then a winner will be declared. I personally will vote only to break ties, but do not claim neutrality. 

The books for the tournament bracket are chosen based on: 1) how well they fit into snarkily-named "divisions," and 2) the need for most of them to be books with some name recognition. (Also, yes, there is an obvious bias towards books that I have personally read. Deal with it.) In no way do I consider this some kind of definitive list of Good Literature. There are books in the tournament that I love and some that I love to hate. There are books I love that do not appear but perhaps did last year, and books I love that have never been in the tournament at all. So if you're wondering why your fav isn't in here, don't take it personally. Trust me, my love for George Eliot (to name but one example) transcends my snarky bracket tournament. 

I am upholding the tradition of retiring previous years' winners to keep it interesting. For those of you keeping track, the following books have been crowned champion in the past and thus will probably not appear in future tournaments:
2017: Pride and Prejudice
2018: Frankenstein
2019: 1984
2020: Les Misérables (Damn, the title really fit the year, didn't it?)

So, without further ado, I present to you the 2021 March Madness Book Bracket. See the google doc for printing or enlarging. Grab a cup of coffee and start filling out your bracket. Let the fun begin. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Gothic Novel Plot Point or Real-Life Scandal of the Clergy and Nobility of Wild Centuries Past?

 I take a guilty pleasure in fiction that ups the ante in terms of sheer outrageousness. 

Like, a nefarious Italian count with a secret? 

It’s a good start. 

With a weird entourage of animals? 

Even better. 

Who is a spy for a secret society against another secret society? 

Go on. 

Who challenges the hero to a duel for uncovering this secret? 

NOW you’re talking.*

*I just described Count Fosco of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, on whom I wrote a previous post.

No genre better satisfies this desire for the outlandish than the early Gothic, with its haunted castles, duels, and vengeful counts, baronesses, and nuns. But truth is often stranger than fiction, and, well, rich and/or powerful people are and always have been WEIRD. Can you guess whether these far-fetched deeds were cooked up by Ann Radcliffe and her ilk or whether they were real, historical scandals, perpetrated by the eccentric ruling classes of ages past? Decide whether each is fact or fiction, then look at the answers below to see how you did. 

  1. A young Spanish monk reveals to his superior that he is a) actually a woman in disguise, and b) in love with him. Both end up before the Inquisition.

  2. During a religious procession, the crowd attacks a prioress, seeking justice for a young nun whom she is said to have murdered following the discovery that the sister was pregnant by a handsome Marquis. 

  3. A princess accuses the nuns of a certain convent of myriad sexual transgressions, heresy, AND trying to poison her.

  4. A vengeful pope orders his predecessor dug up from his grave and puts the corpse on trial. 

  5. A young Italian noblewoman’s brother murders both her lover and her husband. 

  6. A child of mysterious parentage is born to a prominent Italian family. A father and a son both claim paternity, but rumors fly that both are covering for their daughter/sister and her lover, said to be the child’s real parents. 

  7. An Italian Marchesa conspires with a priest to abduct the young woman beloved by her son in order to prevent an inconvenient marriage.

  8. After the sudden death of her fiancé, a young Sicilian bride finds herself unwillingly engaged to her former betrothed’s father, who fears the end of his line.

  9. A German woman discovers that her husband, a French aristocrat, is a secret member of a band of outlaws, and must flee across France lest she become his next victim.

  10. A professor challenges the author of a satirical novel to a duel to defend the honor of the dead author being satirized.

ANSWERS: See how you did.


The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis. And the identity/love reveal is just the second chapter! Highly recommended as a “so bad it’s good” kind of read. 

    This is actually from the same book. It’s just that crazy. 

  2. FACT
    It’s actually kind of wild.

  3. FACT
    Lol yes this happened.

  4. FACT
    Well, most likely. Details unclear.

  5. FACT
    The Borgias again.

    The Italian, by the mother of the Gothic herself, Ann Radcliffe

    The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. And let me just say this is the least weird part of this plot. 


The Grey Woman, a novella by the usually not-so-Gothic Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. FACT
    I can’t give you an internet citation for this one because I found the challenge in the state archives of Milan, so you’ll have to take my word for it. (Ok, I might have a picture buried in my research materials but I'm not gonna look for it.) The author challenged was Guido da Verona; the satirized, dead author was Alessandro Manzoni. The duel may or may not have been a joke, but da Verona did cause a much bigger stir than he probably expected with the book. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Shit I've Gotten into with My Bro Pierre Bezukhov, by Anatole Kuragin

Wait wait wait...have I TOLD you the bear story yet? So we get this bear, right? And the vodka was really flowing that night, and then there’s this cop... O
h, have I told you guys this one already? Yeah! We tied the bear to the cop and threw them in the river! Yeah, sorry, I guess I must have told you that one. You know it was my buddy Pierre who did the honors, though, right? Everyone assumes it was Dolokhov’s idea, but let me tell ya, wild as Fedya is, he’s got nothing on Pierre. That guy is an absolute ANIMAL at parties. So I guess everyone knows the bear story since we all had to lie kinda low for awhile after that, but boy, is there more I could tell you about my man Bezukhov. 

COUNT Bezukhov now, LMAO, right? Who’d have imagined THAT? Look, I was hanging with Pierre back when he was just good old P. Bezzy, none of this COUNT shit, alright? But then again this Count shit couldn’t have happened to a better dude! When you think of the old Count, the man who boned the empress, handing down his title to this guy? Petey B. has less game than the third string. This guy’s just like “Napoleon this” and “Bonaparte that” and you watch the chicks just start laughing awkwardly. But what they don’t know is that this man is a LEGEND.

So, like, you’ve only heard one of the bear stories. There's another one. This one time we got another bear and Dolokhov is all like “hey he looks like Pierre,” right? So P. Bezzy, he takes off his hat and puts it on the animal, and we’re all like “DUDE, he looks JUST like you!” So next thing you know the dude’s stripped off his coat and waistcoat and we’re all dressing the bear! Not gonna lie to you guys, the pants were kind of a challenge, and I’m not gonna tell you there were no injuries, but all pretty minor. So anyways now there’s this bear and we’ve got him suited up down to the fuckin CRAVAT and we’re all like, “oh hey Bro, man you’ve gotten hairy.” And we’re all invited to Anna Pavlovna’s that night but here’s Pierre just chillin in his shirtsleeves and no one wants to undress the bear, so the dude just looks the animal straight in the eye, and—straight faceis like, “Pierre, shouldn’t you be getting to the party?” and we’re all like “HELL YEAH!!!” So we all jump in the carriage and the bear’s still dressed as Pierre and the driver just has this look on his face like “Holy shit that’s a bear,” and we just smile back like "yeah dude it's a bear," and we roll into Anna Pavlovna’s with me and Fedya on either side of the bear and the first person we see is Anna Mikhailovna so we’re like “Oh hey, Princess Drubetskaya, you know Pierre?” and man the look on that chick’s face! The real Pierre was hiding by the door the whole time and he just LOST it! 

Oh, speaking of Anna Mikhailovna, that’s another one! So this one time we’re just having a real chill night, right, nothing crazy, just me and the boys and a couple of bottles, and the conversation comes around to the usual crowd and we’re kinda laughing at how good old Annushka’s always trying to pull strings for Boris, right? So Pierre’s like, “oh my god, I’ve got an idea, gimme her number,” and we all start messing with him like “oh, Pierre, didn’t know you were so into MILFs,” and he’s like, “No, guys, just listen.” So he calls her up on speaker and he puts on this super fancy voice and he’s like, “Is this the home of Boris Drubetskoy?” cause we all knew Boris wasn’t there cause we'd just seen him, right? So we’re all trying to keep ourselves from laughing and we have no idea what he's gonna say next. So when she says Boris isn’t home he’s all, “Have I the honor then of speaking with his mother the Princess?” and he goes on and says his name is Alexei Alexievich or something and he’s calling on behalf of the Emperor to offer Boris a promotion. So her voice goes up like three octaves and—and at this point Fedya’s got his hand over my mouth to keep me from laughing, right?—and she’s all, “Tell me, TELL ME! What is this honor?” And Pierre looks at the rest of us like, “wait for it, bros,” and he tells her: “His majesty the emperor would like to offer your son the position of Raclure de Bidet” and deadass HANGS UP! Ah man, what a guy. 

Not even Dolokhov is as crazy as this guy, you know? He thinks he is, though, I know! Always hanging out of windows and trying to get people to bet him fifty imperials he won’t down a bottle of rum right there with his ass half off the windowsill like he’s about to fall to his death, right? It’s only foreigners who ever take him up on that, by the way, cause everyone in Petersburg knows he’ll fuckin do it. So this one time, we’re chilling at the old count’s palace, and good old Fedya D. sees a new window and a new face and is about to pull his usual stunt, he’s got some English guy about to put real money on him doing what we all know damn well he’d do for free. So anyways he’s hanging out the window now all “Look, ma! No hands!” making this big show of waving his arms around and finally he throws back the rum and then out of fuckin NOWHERE comes Pierre just as he’s got his eyes closed and the bottle raised and he just fuckin PUSHES him! And so Dolokhov, he drops the rum and starts flapping his arms like he thinks he’s got wings and we all see him just FALL like it’s in slow motion and we’re all like “what the fuck, dude, you killed Dolokhov!” And Pierre’s just like, “No I didn’t, there’s a balcony there” and then we all just ROARED. Fedya comes back up trying to be cool acting like he def wasn’t scared for his life but also like he had no idea that balcony was there—I think he actually didn’t man, he’d had a few. But really he was just pissed he was out fifty imperials. 

Oh man, I could go on and on, but all this food’s not gonna eat itself, right? So anyways, all of this to say, I’m not losing a sister, I’m gaining a true BRO, as real as they come, so now let’s raise our glasses to the bride and groom, shall we gentlemen?

A special thanks to Alison G. for help with ideas on this one. The reader will note that 1.5 of the anecdotes above are based on events that Tolstoy actually included in War and Peace. The rest are born of the union between imagination and early Pierre's frat boy vibes.

Friday, January 15, 2021

How to Live a Count Fosco Lifestyle in the New Year


I’m back, following an extended social media break. I read A LOT while I was away. Among the many tomes I’ve enjoyed in the last several months was one of my old favorites, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Rereading this pure joy of a Victorian thriller, I was reminded that one Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco is quite possibly the best villain in all of literature. I know what you’re thinking, reader: short of conspiring to cheat a beautiful and vulnerable heiress out of her fortune and joining an international network of aristocratic spies, how can I be more like Count Izzy Ottavio BADASS Fosco? Well, you’ve come to the right place:

  1. Add a second middle name, if you don’t have one already. Sounds aristocratic. I recommend “Baldassare,” regardless of your gender. Be sure to use all names when you introduce yourself, but you can go by just one thereafter, like Cher or Dante.

  2. Choose an unusual pet and get a few dozen of them. You’re a person of mystery now, so you can’t have the human entourage you deserve. What you can do, however, is find yourself a group of friends who will never talk. Mice work well, but if you don’t pull it off just so they might give you a kind of Cinderella vibe, which is not what you’re going for, so you might also consider exotic birds and/or a few small monkeys. 

  3. Whenever a musical instrument is at hand, offer to explain and demonstrate to your companions the superiority of your favorite composers. Actually, don’t offer, just do it. Then ask them if they agree, but make it rhetorical. Of course they agree. You’re Count Badass. 

  4. Learn to play the concertina. An accordion will do, too, but do choose one of the two and master it because this is very important. No other instrument has quite the same quality of vague and pleasant surprise. Recognizable yet eccentric, exotic yet familiar. Play opera on it. 

  5. Learn to sing and do it completely unapologetically in borderline inappropriate situations. I don’t mean that you should burst into song whenever you want, like a character from a musical or something. I do mean that your crush’s morning walk should be punctuated by your performance of Figaro.  

  6. Eat dessert first. And second, actually. Hell, make a meal of it. You’re Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco. Who’s going to tell you no?

  7. Dress extremely well, but loudly. Invest in some quality formalwear, but not your standard rental variety. You’re going to need a collection of waistcoats in the finest fabrics and in colors that scream “this look works against all reason.”

  8. Impress your crush with your gentle and generous heart by telling them about all the times you could have murdered someone but didn’t. Bonus points if love of them stayed your hand. Expect credit for this! Not every villain/spy/all-around BAMF has a tender weakness to do them such credit. 

  9. Become very mysterious about your reasons for leaving your hometown. You don’t want to come out and say you were exiled, but a longing sigh here or there would not be misplaced. If you haven’t left your hometown, I’m sorry but you’re going to need to pretend that you have. A subtle accent might help. 

  10. Be both discreet and totally conspicuous. Look, you’re going to have to have your secrets, and if you don’t, you’re going to have to pretend like you do. But at the same time, never under any circumstances should you blend into a crowd. If your booming tenor doesn’t give you away, it might be your purple velvet cravat or the cockatoo on your shoulder. Stand out!

  11. Find a solid sign-off for emails and other communications. Receive these fervid lines. They are worthy of the occasion and of

Friday, August 21, 2020

Great Teachers from Books Go Back to School for Fall 2020

 We’ve all watched universities around the U.S. go through the five stages of COVID prep:

  1. Denial: Our return to campus is perfectly safe! Our students have all signed the Social Distancing Because We Care Pledge, and therefore there is absolutely no chance they will behave like other 19-year-olds. We’re better than that.

  2. Anger: Send out a stern video in which the president and maybe the football coach share how disappointed they were to learn about last night’s 4-keg maskless party in the field house. You guys aren’t supposed to behave like teenagers, remember?

  3. Bargaining: Or, you know, threats. Threaten faculty and staff with layoffs and pay cuts instead of bargaining (whew, good thing you crushed the union!). Look, sometimes we all have to sacrifice our safety and health for the greater good, ok? And by “the greater good” we mean “to keep the ten-figure endowment intact.”

  4. Depression: Lay people off anyways.

  5. Acceptance: Fine, we’ll go online.

So, as teachers write wills and colleges scramble to roll back their fall plans in the face of completely predictable COVID clusters, let’s escape for a minute by imagining how some notable teachers of history and fiction would be handling this, shall we?

Professor Bhaer (Little Women)

  • Extremely into your school’s new motto about community

  • Wants to teach in person because he doesn’t think you’re Zooming “from the heart.”

  • That one time when you accidentally screenshared your Netflix queue he got really judgy about the “sensation stories” in it

Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre)

  • Volunteers to teach in person because she kind of hates herself

  • Walks that decision back after your classmate Adele’s dad starts showing up on her webcam. 

  • Caught murmuring when she thought her mic was muted: “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”

Ms. Frizzle (The Magic School Bus)

  • Wears the best masks. They match her dress and have like planets and DNA on them. 

  • Always one to read the room, she's teaching in space this semester

  • You’re number 435 on the waitlist for her class

  • “As I always say, class, you’re out of this world.” <3 <3 <3

Syrio Forel (A Game of Thrones)


  • That’s kind of a weird ritual chant to start your statistics class with every Tuesday, but ok. 

Socrates (real, but also in Plato)

  • Caused a bit of a commotion in that Zoom town hall with the dean. The man is a master of the art of the comment-phrased-as-question. 

  • Made a will. It just says, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.”

Virgil (real, but also in The Divine Comedy)


  • Did someone call for a guide through hell???

Friday, August 7, 2020

On the Fidelity of Adaptations: When the Movie Changes the Ending

Recently watching the new Emma (it was good; you should see it) and reading Far from the Madding Crowd (the 2015 film adaptation is good; you should see it) got me reflecting a bit on film adaptations. Now, you may assume, dear reader, that I’m one of those purists who thinks the book is always better than the movie, but you’d be wrong. Well, half wrong. I only usually think the book is better than the movie (but probably because I just prefer reading to watching as an experience). I’m not a film expert by any means, but for me as a reader, successful movies based on great books make artistic choices that highlight the most compelling elements of the book (be they plot, character, themes, etc.). However, every now and then a director, screenwriter, actor, or all of the above takes a big gamble and drives the story off-road. So today I’d like to discuss a few film adaptations that truly took a road less traveled by actually changing the ending.

Yes, spoilers will abound. But you’ve probably seen these movies anyways.

The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick

The Book: 

Though one of Stephen King’s earlier works relatively speaking, the horror legend had already made a name for himself with his 1974 Carrie and its 1976 film adaptation when he published The Shining in 1977. It was Kubrick’s film and Jack Nicholson’s performance, however, that would make Jack Torrance haunt our nightmares. 

You know the story. Writer Jack Torrance takes a seasonal job at the isolated Overlook Hotel as caretaker over the winter, while the hotel is closed and virtually inaccessible. He moves in with his wife, Wendy, and psychic son Danny. And then...well, it is a horror story. 

The Gamble: 

The actual change in the ending is less significant in this one than a shift in focus. In the book, Wendy and Danny are rescued from a homicidal Jack by psychic chef Dick Hallorann. The Overlook burns down with Jack inside. In the movie, the hotel survives intact but poor Dick does not, and Wendy and Danny escape alone. 

But if there’s one thing you remember about this movie, it’s probably not that the hotel remains standing, or even Dick’s rather unceremonious murder. It’s probably Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows. 
Sure, those twins in the hallway and that lady in the bathtub and the tide of blood were all pretty freaky, too, but in the movie Jack himself is at least as terrifying as the ghosts that are possessing him. Frankly, Kubrick leaves us to guess to what extent the Overlook even is possessing Jack and to what extent we’re simply watching him devolve into a psychopathy foreshadowed from his first appearance. 

King’s Jack Torrance is more a victim of malevolent forces than he is their embodiment. The spirits of the Overlook first attempt to possess Danny for his gift, then move on to Jack when they are unsuccessful. Jack’s descent is a gradual fight for his sanity. He’s not a psychopath; he’s a tragic figure overcome by evil. His fiery death represents a final, dramatic loss of control, in stark contrast with his freezing death in the film. 

The Verdict: 

Well, there’s one viewer who gave Kubrick’s adaptation a decided thumbs down: Stephen King. The author bemoaned Nicholson’s Torrance as a flat character who never truly struggles to save his sanity and Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as a misogynistic caricature. 

Myself, I see King’s point. I think he’s right about Wendy at the very least, and I even see his point about Jack. But as much as I enjoy reading King, I’ve never found his strength to be psychological realism. I like King’s books because of the way he builds tension. His stories start calmly and careen towards their conclusions with a momentum that sometimes even leads him to inelegant endings bordering on the ridiculous (see: Pet Sematary), but boy, was the ride that got us there fun. 

The Shining is an excellent example of King doing what he’s best at: dialing up the terror bit by bit until it explodes. The thing is, that’s exactly what Kubrick captures in his film adaptation. King does it from within Jack’s mind, and Kubrick does it from the outside. King has us experience the evil of the Overlook with Jack, whereas Kubrick makes Jack himself a source of that evil. Both work. 

The Conformist (1970), Bernardo Bertolucci 

The Book: 

Alberto Moravia’s Il conformista (1951) came at a strange moment in Italian history and art. After two decades of fascist dictatorship followed by a world war, the allied invasion, and a civil war, Italy was rebuilding politically and economically. Moravia himself had faced censorship under the regime both for the content of his work and for his Jewish heritage. Though neorealism now dominates discussion of postwar Italian literature and cinema, Moravia’s work was surreal, psychoanalytical, and dense with symbolism. 

The novel follows a fascist bureaucrat, Marcello, who wants nothing more than to be “normal” (a conformist, get it?), even at the cost of suppressing his own desires and inclinations. The prologue opens with a child Marcello killing lizards for sport. It goes on to narrate his abduction, near-assault, and shooting of his would-be abuser, a stranger named Lino. The rest of the novel narrates perhaps an even stranger scenario: Marcello is grown-up and on his honeymoon in Paris, where he is to find and kill his former professor, Quadri, now an antifascist dissident. But wait, there’s more: Marcello’s mission becomes even messier when he develops an intense attraction to Quadri’s wife, Lina (called Anna in the movie), an attraction made even more complicated by Lina’s attempted seduction of Marcello’s own bride, Giulia. 

The Gamble: 

In both book and movie, the story ends several years later. Marcello has achieved what he has always wanted, an outwardly unremarkable life as a paper pusher, husband, and father, when the regime falls and Marcello is faced with a probable reckoning for his own culpability in the deaths of Quadri and Lina/Anna. And in both, he has an unexpected encounter with Lino, who, as it turns out, is not dead. Now, in the book this encounter takes place in secluded woods, and what follows is a conversation about the loss of innocence. Later, Marcello and his wife and daughter are caught in an air raid as they flee Rome. The reader can presume that Marcello dies. 

In the movie, Marcello happens upon Lino in a public park, and they don’t have a conversation that leads to any insight or clarity regarding Marcello’s character. Rather, Marcello makes a scene, calling the attention of passerby to Lino—the man he thought he himself had killed, remember—and accuses him of having killed Quadri and Anna. He then frantically turns on his friend, Italo, denouncing him, too, as a fascist. 

The Verdict:

I have long felt that Moravia’s The Conformist and Bertolucci’s are essentially about two different things. That is, both are about the period of Italian history lived by their creators, but those periods are different. Moravia lived both decades of the regime as an adult, while Bertolucci was a toddler when Mussolini was driven from Rome. It’s a no-brainer to read the novel as a reflection on Italy’s recent, dark past. Drawing on psychoanalysis, Moravia seeks to show how the people around him transformed their secret sins and desires (Lino and Lina couldn’t possibly have almost the same name by coincidence) into the most cold-blooded of crimes.

However, I do not believe that Bertolucci’s film is ultimately about fascism. Rather, it’s about the struggle for power and political identity that followed it. Bertolucci’s Marcello never reckons with any of the violence of his past. Rather, he buries it under others in a chaotic conclusion that comes on fast enough to leave you wondering what happened. At the time when the film was made, a country that had still not fully confronted its fascist past was just bubbling over into what would become the more than a decade of violence known as the “years of lead” or anni di piombo. Lingering fascism was about to show itself in domestic terrorism, and in fact recently had with the Piazza Fontana bombing, with a fallout that makes the JFK assassination look straightforward. It’s easy to imagine that Marcello’s desperate and facile yet successful lies would have resonated with viewers in 1970, who had just months earlier watched police scramble to accuse, kill, and cover up the death of an unlikely suspect in a horrific crime.

So, which is it? While the movie is stylistically stunning and its frenzied ending a powerful expression on the anxieties of its own time, I personally am ultimately more compelled by Moravia’s struggle to understand fascism. The power structure he portrays is deeper and more sinister and his examination of it is more committed, even if to a modern reader the psychoanalytic understanding may fall flat.

Jurassic Park (1993), Steven Spielberg

The Book:

 In 1990 Michael Crichton wrote a very decent science fiction novel that would go on to inspire the greatest movie ever made (don’t fight me on this one; I will die on this hill). You know the story: billionaire John Hammond and a very secretive team of scientists have managed to clone dinosaurs, and he’s about to open a theme park to showcase them. That goes about as well as you would expect. Our favs are all there: paleontologist Alan Grant, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, and, of course, chaos theorist Ian Malcolm.

The Gamble:

The film changes the opening but otherwise follows the first half of the book quite closely and then veers gloriously off the rails. After that, the book plot involves a second power outage, wild raptor eggs, a river rafting experience (in which Universal Studios clearly saw the park ride potential), and rather more major character deaths than in the movie. The movie sticks with a more straightforward building of tension and keeps enough main characters alive to keep from scarring its younger viewers for life. 

If I could sum up the main differences at the end of the day, they would fall into two categories: the deaths and the dinosaurs. Crichton spares few characters in the book. Grant and Sattler escape with the children, and pretty much everyone else gets eaten by something or other, including Hammond, lead scientist Dr. Wu, and—most tragically—everyone’s favorite chaos theorist. Crichton even kills a T. rex. As for the dinosaurs, the book’s story is largely driven by the small and chaotic Procompsognathus, whereas the movie focuses its attention on the vicious Velociraptor. (I’d suggest that kids’ pronunciation may have been a motive for this change, but who am I kidding? Children who can’t pronounce their own names can rattle off six-syllable dinosaur appellations like they learned them in the womb.)

The Verdict:

I think I’ve already made my bias clear here. The book is fine. It’s good. Had Spielberg never adapted it, it would now probably be a cult classic of sci-fi horror. But the movie is a masterpiece. Come on, don’t you remember how you felt when you first saw the T. rex? After all the allusions, after the ominous footsteps, after watching that glass of water tremble on that dashboard?
The lead-up fully prepared you to be terrified, and damn if that scene didn’t deliver. I don’t think the differences in deaths made the difference, either. Surely the producers saw the sequel potential and found it advantageous to rescue the park’s creator, its lead scientist, and Jeff Goldblum. But they could have killed them and still made the best movie ever. The choice to downplay the Procompsognathus is more interesting. The movie does not set the scene with the little rogue dino-demons wreaking suspicious havoc. Rather, the movie withholds our first full dino sighting until it has properly set the stage, and then it goes big. However, in a way the movie does with the Velociraptor what the book does with the Procompsognathus. It takes a dinosaur no one had heard of (unless you watched Dino Riders) and made it the stuff of nightmares (with certain liberties). The Velociraptors are certainly a dangerous presence in the books, as well, but in the movie they climb from an ominous verbal description early on to a starring role in that scene that made you jump every time someone turned a doorknob for weeks.

So, while I generally prefer the experience of reading, I hope I’ve made a compelling argument for evaluating film adaptations on what they accomplish rather than pure fidelity. What do you think? What other film adaptations have made discussion-worthy choices? I’d love to hear your take in the comments (unless it’s an anti-Jurassic Park take; such heresy will not be tolerated).

Friday, July 24, 2020

Guess These (Almost) Universally-Beloved Books by Their 1-star Reviews

You can’t please everybody. Even if you’re Shakespeare. See if you can guess whose manager these unhappy customers want to speak to.

The book cover collage above will serve as your “word bank.” Each cover pictured here is one of the books described below, so you just have to figure out which is which. Answers and commentary at the bottom.

It should go without saying that these reviews do not reflect the views of this author.

Let's begin.

1. “This was worse than a textbook. This was a textbook that came with the annoying, opinionated professor built in! [...] This book is so bad it has two epilogues. That right there should be warning enough to you to stay far, far away from [title]. I wish I had never picked this up. I am an angrier, more cynical person for it. If [author] wasn't already dead, I would wish him so.” (Goodreads review)

2. “Though I know, logically, that he [main character] really is in a pretty awful situation, it's really hard to feel bad for him when all he does is whine. The plain truth is that there are plenty of non-fictional people who have dealt with more difficult things with much less complaining. [...] It did get easier to bear once he started pretending to be crazy, though.” (Goodreads review)

3. “I give this book as a gift to people I hate.” (Goodreads review)

4. “Ok...this guy needed help…” (Goodreads review)

5. “It's an awful and depressing story with no redeeming qualities. And don't forget the drunk driving! Pfft.” (Amazon review)

6. “There is no conflict in this book. There's no personality. There's nothing interesting that compels me to read more. [...] As soon as I am done with this sorry excuse for a book, I am either going to tend to my fireplace using the pages as kindling or stash this book in the far corners of my basement where it will live out the rest of its days in darkness..” (Goodreads review)

7. "I read the first few pages and they weren't too bad then I was listening to the audio version & kept rewinding b/c I thought I wasn't getting it b/c it was weird so I went back to reading it, well it was still too weird for me." (Goodreads review)

8. “Instead of reading this book, drink vodka in a dark room and think depressing thoughts. That will give you about the same experience and you'll have a better time.” (Goodreads review)

9. “For several pages a lady remarks to a man about what wonderful handwriting he has. Not exactly gripping material.” (Goodreads review)

10. “Then there are all those epic mandudes doing long-winded yet epic mandude things at an excruciating pace.” (Goodreads review)

11. “Why must this book be so vomitous? It even starts off in this fashion - let us give our dinner to the poor, because we are so wonderful! Fuck off. Just... fuck off.” (Goodreads review)

12. “Symbolism, symbolism, symbolism, but no story, story, story.” (Goodreads review)


1. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. Geeze, what did Tolstoy ever do to you.
2. Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Um, “pretending”?
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison. Reviewer, let’s become frenemies.
4. The Complete Stories of Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. Ok, this one is not incorrect.
5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I guess you stopped at the drunk driving and didn’t even get to the murder.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. No conflict? Did we read the same book?
7. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez. I feel like "Too weird for me" should be one of the reviewer quotations they put on the back cover.
8. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’m guessing this person won’t be checking out The Brothers Karamazov, then?
9. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. Look, whomst among us, ok?
10. The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien. I love this book, but I don’t think I can refute that.
11. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Ok, first of all, it was their breakfast.
12. The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. I mean, did you think he was going to be literally invisible? (If so, I guess you might try the H. G. Wells.)

So, how'd you do?