Friday, May 16, 2008

Juno - "Like the city in Alaska?" "No."

I'm probably a little behind the times since I just watched "Juno" for the first time last night. I enjoyed it very much, though watching "Smart People" a couple weeks ago introduced me to Ellen Page and so I wasn't as enamored with her in Juno as most were. This isn't to say she wasn't great in her role - few people do cynical "I do what I want" angsty graduate-level vocabulary spouting teenager better than she does. But her character in "Smart People" was basically the same, if better dressed and in better context (her father is a widowed English professor rather than a remarried H-Vac salesman).

In both cases, her character seems just a bit overdone, though this is often to comic effect and leads to some great lines. Underneath the jaded faux-mature exterior always lies the fact that she is, despite how hard she tries to escape it, just a teenager coping with big problems. I think "Juno" did a better job of developing the characters overall than "Smart People", which after watching "Juno" feels more and more like a vehicle for seeing just how far the Juno character could be taken. There's been some criticism of Ellen Page playing essentially the same character and worries that she'll be pigeon-holed, and I definitely agree. She does it well, but too well - you can believe that maybe that's all she can convincingly portray (or all that we'll let her, after two movies like that).

Ellen Page isn't the only one potentially guilty of that. Michael Cera, who plays Bleeker in "Juno" and one of the guys in "Superbad", pretty much seems to play one character also. He always comes off as endearing, though, which might be better than coming off as irritating, which too much of Ellen Page's character can easily do. But disregarding the future of their careers, "Juno" was still a good, funny, quirky movie that leaves you smiling.

The one thing I do want to mention about Ellen Page, however, is how much she reminds me of an old roommate of mine. Not in a bad way at all, but it's rather amusing. Not just the physique and appearance - slim, pale-skinned and freckled brunette - but also the manner of speaking and dress. The whole geeky hipster look, a face made for librarian glasses, the deadpan quips and witticisms, the perpetual hint of sarcasm, the ease with which you can imagine them listening to NPR or hunkering down with a battered copy of a dead Greek guy (my old roommate is a Ph.D. student in Classics - Latin, Greek, etc). The character in "Smart People" reminded me of her more, but the basic essence is the same in "Juno". Though we didn't hang out much, she was a good roommate, and seeing her reflected in Ellen Page through these two movies definitely made me think of her fondly. I'm sure someone has told her of the resemblance and I wonder what she thinks of that?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Lois Lowry triple header

I remember a lot of good books when I was a kid but there is something to be said for reading books of your childhood again when you're an adult. Some are simply too complex for most kids to appreciate, like the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L'Engle and everything by John Steinbeck (I thought Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath were big and boring when I was in high school but I read East of Eden (even bigger) a year or two ago and absolutely loved it). Other books can be appreciated as kids, but take on even greater meaning years later when revisited.

Megan gave me a bag of books to read and three by Lois Lowry were included - The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger. I'd read The Giver in 7th grade but not the others. Megan recommended reading them in that order and I gamely obliged (at least, I think that's the right order; it seems appropriate in retrospect). They're relatively quick reads and you could probably finish each one in less than 2 hours. When I was told that the three went together, it put me on the lookout to figure out how, but if you didn't know that, you probably wouldn't figure out how they were connected until Messenger. Without giving away too much of the plot for those who haven't read them...

The Giver takes place in a seemingly utopian, isolated community where people give up free will, basically, in return for security. But one person is responsible for keeping all of the "memories" of the people inside him - the knowledge of history, of emotion, of beauty, and most importantly, of pain and suffering. This person is known as the Receiver, and without him/her, all these memories would go back out to the people where they'd cause pain and suffering once again. The boy who is chosen to become the new Receiver learns all this and attempts to escape. Given that I have very little idea of what I want to do career-wise, the system described in The Giver appealed to me in a strange way - everyone was told what job they would fulfill as an adult based on how they volunteered their time as a pre-teen. At the very least, it makes you think about how life might be easier in such a community, and what the value of our memories and experiences have for us.

Gathering Blue, on the other hand, takes place in a community that you know immediately is far from utopian. People live in poverty and squalor and treat each other, including their children, terribly. They live in fear of "beasts" in the forest surrounding the village and cast out the weak, sick, or otherwise handicapped to die. This book tells the story of a girl born with a twisted leg who should have been cast out, but was allowed to live because of her widowed mother's connections. But it turns out that she has a gift for needlework which is highly prized by the leaders of her community. After her mother dies, she is given a life living in good conditions working on an important garment that symbolizes the past and future of her people. For once, she has respect, freedom, and all of her needs provided. But secrets lurk throughout, as she learns, and she soon realizes that what she is really meant to do is to change the future of her community.

Messenger was my least favorite of the three books. Although you learn how each book is connected and it helps to resolve some of the disappointment that the other two books leave you with (they both end abruptly, leaving you wishing you knew what happened), as its own story it feels a little... small. I simply didn't care as much about what happened in this book. Part of it may be that it felt too ad hoc, too contrived. But it was still engaging enough for me to read it in one sitting, and it's nice to know what happens to the characters. I just wish it had left me feeling a little more satisfied.

So after all that, I have a newfound respect for Lois Lowry. I remember really enjoying Number the Stars as a kid, too. But reading these books now, I really appreciate her ability to take a compelling idea, craft an entire society, and weave them together into a cohesive whole that has depth and can speak to people of different ages. Although the books are short, she is able to create convincing worlds and tell richly textured stories. And the books are so effortless to read, it almost makes you think it's not that hard to write that well!

Journey to the garlic dilemma

Thanks to Megan and Nancy, I've had a bunch of awesome books to read lately. Three of these were The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, and Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl.

The Omnivore's Dilemma
I loved this book. A lot of people get bored in the middle when he spends page after page talking about the intricacies of the industrial food chain, but I remained mostly fascinated throughout, and couldn't put it down towards the end. For those unfamiliar with the book, Michael Pollan essentially embarks on a journey to learn about where food comes from. To do this, he visits a cornfield in Iowa, a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) where they raise cattle for slaughter, a sustainable polyculture farm, and the wild outdoors. He learns that everything we eat comes from corn in some way or another, and learns about the consequences - environmental, health, financial, moral - of the way our food, both plant and animal, is raised. He learns to rotate cattle and chickens on the farm, to kill chickens, and to hunt and forage. He wrestles with the philosophy behind vegetarianism. It's all quite thought-provoking and written engagingly. At least for me, I've always had a foolish and romantic desire to work on a farm and live off the land, so reading Michael Pollan's descriptions of his experiences only stoked that desire more.

Journey to the Center of the Earth
I've always had the impression that books written "back then" are stuffy or boring to read. But Jules Verne's story is such a fun ride I barely noticed it was written more than 100 years ago! Told from the point of view of Axel, a young man more or less forced onto what seems like a preposterous undertaking by his pretty much crazy uncle, the book keeps you hooked with lively dialogue, cheeky commentary (through the thoughts of Axel) and a plot that keeps you curious what will happen next, and what fate will ultimately befall our poor protagonist. Impressively, Journey also treads very well that fine line of science fiction - enough science (or sciencey talk) to keep you wondering just how much is fiction. But at some point it just doesn't matter because you're so caught up in the story!

Garlic and Sapphires
This is an autobiographical account of a popular food writer's experiences as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. In order to do her job, Ruth Reichl has to adopt a number of disguises, most of them ridiculous, with usually amusing, sometimes shocking, and always interesting results. It's a fascinating romp through Manhattan's food culture as well as a commentary on identity, relationships, and being true to yourself. Reichl writes in a way that makes you feel as if you are right alongside her as she comes into her own as a NYT critic, pretends to be different people, navigates the rocky waters of media and power in Manhattan, and slowly realizes that she is losing parts of herself because of what she does. The book is warming and uplifting as well as educational.

I'd wholeheartedly recommend all three books, and especially Omnivore or Garlic if you are into food at all!