Writers in movies: "Little Women"

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I assume you’ve all seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, so I don’t have to include spoiler alerts.

The difficulty with portraying writers in movies is that they’re mostly boring people, and what they do is mostly boring. Scribble scribble. In Little Women, Jo March is scribbling in her attic room by lantern light. When she finally gets the idea that she should be writing the story of her family rather than fantastical adventure stories, she starts scribbling really fast. This is fine, because I would watch Saoirse Ronan scribbling names from the telephone book. But anyway, Greta Gerwig has Ronan’s right hand cramp up, so she switches the pen to her left hand and keeps scribbling. This is a lovely touch!

And then we see the accumulating pages laid out on the attic floor. Five pages, then quick cut to ten pages, then to twenty, and so on. She’s making progress! This is fine, but I was bothered by the lanterns on the floor illuminating the pages. That’s because I had PTSD from the scene earlier in the movie when sister Amy burned Jo’s novel page by page after Jo wouldn’t let Amy join her and Laurie at the theater. Don’t put the pages of your novel near a source of fire, Jo!

In the movie we get a big, sisterly fight when Jo discovers what Amy has done, then some parental words about forgiveness from Marmy, and a couple of scenes later Jo and Laurie save Amy from drowning after she falls through some pond ice. Don’t do it, Jo and Laurie! Drowning in icy water is a fitting punishment for burning someone’s novel!

I digress. The scenes of grown-up Jo negotiating with the hard-nosed New York editor are lovely. I was afraid the whole flashback approach Gerwig came up with would be irritating, but it wasn’t at all. (The Irishman uses a double-flashback structure that also worked OK, although the complexity of the device seemed unnecessary.) Anyway, Gerwig took a big risk, I thought, when she goes all meta on us and has Jo and the editor discussing the climax to her book, and he convinces her to have a scene where the heroine gets together with her hot boyfriend Friedrich — a scene that didn’t take place in real life or in the real book. But that’s the scene we see in the movie. And it was nicely done! (The excellent 1994 version of the book just includes a comparable get-together scene with the boyfriend — Gabriel Byrne in that case — without the narrative hijinks.)

Anyway, the movie was really good. Bring your hot writer boyfriend or girlfriend to see it.

Keira Knightley is only five years older than the drumming kid in "Love, Actually"

I don’t have anything to add to this apparently well-known fact, but I found it surprising, to say the least. Also, I am required to post about Love, Actually at this time of the year.

Here they are:

"They" is the word of the year

So says Merriam-Webster.

Here’s Benjamin Dreyer celebrating the decision in the Washington Post. As long as I’ve been around, people have been using “they” to refer to a person whose gender was unknown or irrelevant — and then, perhaps, feeling guilty about it. Or, we tried to recast the sentence to make the person in question plural, or we held our noses and used the awkward “he or she.” That dodge has become more than merely awkward as an increasing number of people reject the binary he/she as their pronouns of choice.

Merriam-Webster is fundamentally descriptivist, so this accolade doesn’t mean they are saying “they” must be used in this way. On the other hand, other organizations, like the American Psychological Association, have endorsed the usage. But what’s most important is that my cold-eyed editors reached the same conclusion earlier this year. There is, of course, no higher authority, This means that you can feel confident that you are doing the right thing when you use the singular “they.”

Go ahead. You know you want to.

“You can’t chop your poppa up in Massachusetts”: Visiting Lizzie Borden’s House

I don’t think Lizzie Borden ever worked a day in her life, but we decided to spend some time on Labor Day Weekend touring her home in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The furniture in the house isn’t original, but other details, like the woodwork and the radiators, are. Here is some sheet music (obviously not original) on an old spinet, beneath a portrait of Lizzie looking like she’s staring at a ghost:

I can play that music!

Here’s my beloved wife happily clutching a fake ax on the the spot where Lizzie’s father was hacked to death while he napped.

Here’s the view Lizzie and the maid Bridget had into the room where Lizzie’s mother lay on the floor after having been hacked to death earlier that hot August morning:

The tour was fine — the guide was knowledgeable and delivered the required corny jokes pretty well. So, whodunnit? (I read a book about the case in addition to taking the tour, so I’m an expert.) Lizzie had motive/means/opportunity. She almost certainly lied to the police about some things. She acted oddly in the days before the murders. Whoever did it almost certainly had easy access to the house, since the murder weapon was found hidden in the basement. (We know it was the murder weapon because the blade fit perfectly into the wounds. The police demonstrated this at the trial by producing Mr. Borden’s skull and showing the fit, causing Lizzie to faint.) But…

Lizzie was an exemplary citizen. She learned Mandarin so she could teach Sunday school to immigrant Chinese children. She was active in the temperance association. She founded the Animal Rescue League of Fall River. Also, the motive is a bit fuzzy, as is the opportunity, given the timeline of the events that morning and the fact that the maid was working in the house. It’s not at all obvious to me that the jury got it wrong when they acquitted her after deliberating 90 minutes.

I dunno. I probably need to read some more books.

The Reefs of Time

My friend Jeff Carver has been working on The Reefs of Time since the Coolidge administration, I think, and it’s finally here!

Jeff’s specialty is galaxy-spanning science fiction with intriguing ideas and a large cast of entertaining and well-drawn human and alien characters, and I think he’s outdone himself with this one.

You don’t have to read the earlier books in his Chaos Chronicles series to enjoy The Reefs of Time–but then again, no one is stopping you. I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time in Jeff’s universe over the years, and I’m sure you will enjoy it, too.

Books from the attic: “The Secret Warning”

I’ve got lots of Hardy Boys adventures. I grabbed this one from the top of the stack.

Everybody knows about the Hardy Boys — the great teenage detectives and sons of the well-known detective Fenton Hardy, from whom “they had inherited his unusual keenness and with that his uncanny ability for solving mysteries.”

This case has to do with a couple of ruffians who have it in for the boys because they inadvertently scraped the ruffians’ boat, who team up with an evil guy who runs a diving/salvage company. Along with their chum Chet, the boys have to drive to Bailey’s Landing to recover important papers that their father idiotically left in his suit jacket that someone borrowed. In Bailey’s Landing they end up having many underwater scrapes as well as a multitude of secret warnings left in their hotel room, all of which are obviously left by the two ruffians or the evil owner of the diving company.

Like Tom Swift, Jr., the Hardy boys have a famous father, a mother who is a cipher (Why does she let her children stay in Bailey’s Landing week after week, where they are threatened with death pretty much every day?), and an amusing chum (Chet is fat! He thinks about food all the time!). Tom Swift, Jr. and the Race to the Moon is bad, but it’s kind of funny in its badness. The Secret Warning, on the other hand, is just bad. There’s no continuity to the plot, no attempt at characterization beyond chums and ruffians, and the requirement that every chapter has to end in some kind of climax leads to a succession of random emergencies: Watch out, Frank — the ship’s anchor has come loose and is heading straight for you! Oh no, where did that octopus come from, and how can we possibly defeat the sea monster!

Growing up I loved these books. I’m kind of disappointed in my childhood self.

Books from the attic: “Hoop Crazy: A Chip Hilton Sports Story”

Growing up, I loved the Chip Hilton books. Unlike the Tom Swift Jr. and Hardy Boys books, they had a real person identified as their author — Clair Bee, a well-known college basketball coach back in the 1940s. It seems pretty clear from the level of coaching detail in Hoop Crazy that he actually wrote the book.

Chip Hilton is a sports hero — like Tom Swift, he is blond, crew-cut, and lanky. Lankiness is apparently a requirement for these heroes. He lives in Valley Falls with his widowed mom and works at the drug store to earn money for his college fund when he isn’t playing sports with his chums Soapy and Speed and Biggie and Red.

It’s all pretty idyllic, until the stranger shows up in town.

Valley Falls is a one-industry town: pottery. The stranger knows something about pottery, and he needs money. So he decides to swindle the owner of the pottery plant, using formulas that he steals from a locked file cabinet in Chip’s basement. (Chip’s father was the head chemist at the pottery plant until he died saving a woman’s life in an explosion at the plant.) Whatever. This part of the novel is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the stranger roils the hoop-crazy town by advocating the one-hand shot instead of the approved two-hand set shot. This is all very quaint. The book was published in 1950, and within a few years both of these shots would disappear in favor of the jump shot. Anyway, the one-hand-shot craze divides the town, wrecks team chemistry, and jeopardizes their chances of repeating as state champs.

OK, that’s also pretty stupid. But there’s also a subplot about a shy colored kid who just happens to be a better basketball player than anyone in town except Chip. How do the other players react to him? How does the town react? And the opposing teams? What happens when the Valley Falls team travels to play Southern and the kid isn’t allowed to stay in the hotel with them? This subplot comes out of the blue, and it’s actually pretty terrific. The author doesn’t know how to characterize a colored kid, who is treated as a saintly cipher. But everything else rings true, at least in the context of a Fifties YA novel.

Spoiler alert: What’s also interesting is that Valley Falls loses the big game. So we are taught a lesson about sportsmanship and accepting defeat gracefully.

Anyway, I was impressed.