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Required Reading: The Danish Girl

I had been meaning to read The Danish Girl since I heard about the movie coming out. And then it languished on my list while I read whole piles of other books. But then the trailer for the movie came out and I was so moved by it that when I was next in the bookstore, I picked up a copy.

The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff is loosely based on the story of Lili Elbe, believed to be the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In the book, Lili is born as Einar Wegenar a Danish painter who grew up in a bog up north. His Danish landscape paintings sell well and he is a professor of art, which is how he meets his California born wife, Greta. Her family has money but she doesn’t want to lead the life that is expected of her. In Einar she sees something special, something fragile, something that will make her life different.

It is Greta who first encourages Einar to dress as a woman. She needs help finishing a painting of a dancer and asks if Einar will wear the stockings and the shoes, if he will just hold the dress up. And in that moment, something shifts in Einar and he becomes Lili.

The Danish Girl is the story of Einar’s transformation into Lili but it’s also Greta’s story. It is Greta who convinces Lili to go out as herself, who asks that Lili come to visit for afternoons at first and then whole months at a time, she’s the one who looks for specialists to help Lili stay for good.

This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, not just because of the subject matter. When I was looking over the reader’s guide at the end, one of the questions was “Who is the novel’s hero, Einar, Lili or Greta?” That question stayed with me as I finished reading the book and I have to say that, as much as this book is about the extraordinary Lili, I think that the hero of the book is Greta. Greta recognized Lili before Lili ever existed, she’s the one who understood that Lili wasn’t an illness, that she wasn’t dangerous, that she needed to exist. Greta was willing to sacrifice her marriage, to say goodbye to a husband she loved, for the good of Lili.

It is an incredible portrait of an extraordinary marriage as well as being an amazing story. Einar went to innumerable doctors who all wanted to either commit him or give him a lobotomy.

The Danish Girl is a moving, heartbreaking, incredibly inspiring story. It should probably be required reading.

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The Other Typist: A Case of The Movie Being Potentially Better Than the Book

The book Gone Girl is kind of a big deal. The movie is coming out in the fall and there seems to be an appetite for books in a similar style. So publishers can be forgiven for trying to capitalize on that – books need to make money so that more of them can continue to be published right?

Which brings us to today’s book review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindall. Right on the cover it says  if you liked Gone Girl, you might like this book. I’m not ashamed to admit that that line sold me on this particular book. Reading it I wondered more than once “where is the Gone Girl aspect?”

theothertypist

The Other Typist is a first person narrative told by Rose Baker, a typist with a New York City precinct in 1924-25, right in the middle of Prohibition. Rose is an orphan, living in a shared room in a boarding house, harbouring a crush on the upstanding, older Sergeant she works with. Rose prides herself on her work ethic and her good, clean, law abiding values.

But then Odalie Lazare comes to the precinct to help the typists with all of the extra work that’s been created due to Prohibition and Rose finds herself strangely drawn to this woman. She’s jealous when Odalie pays more attention to the other typists and is thrilled when Odalie’s sights come to rest on her. Before she knows it, she’s moved into Odalie’s grand Park Avenue hotel suite, mysteriously paid for by Odalie’s “father.”

Soon Rose is accompanying Odalie to speakeasies all over town, even running errands for her. She suspects that Odalie has something to do with the bootleggers but she really doesn’t want to know the whole truth so she doesn’t try too hard to figure it out.

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that the 1920s as a setting for stories is not my thing. I found this novel, the combination of first person narrative and the emphasis on Odalie’s facial expressions as a way of moving the story along, to be better suited to a movie. Everything is explained so much, rather than letting us work out what’s happening. It wasn’t subtle enough.

I found that that real story didn’t get started for a long time. It’s a 350 page book – it took about 200 pages for me to be interested. None of the characters are likeable: Odalie is a fake, you can see that from the beginning; Rose is way too uptight and then she becomes kind of obsessive about Odalie.

A little bit of google sleuthing tells me that this book is actually in pre-production with Keira Knightley in a starring role, so I guess I wasn’t the only one that saw the movie potential here. This may be one of those rare times where the movie is better than the book.

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Books on Film: The Remains of the Day

A couple of months ago I read North and South. Then I binge watched the BBC miniseries via Netflix. It was a beautiful thing.

I decided to give that another go.

Last week I read and kind of loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It was the first time I’d ever read any of his work and I had no idea. I had heard rumblings of his brilliance but you will note that I am a stubborn reader; I don’t like to be bullied into loving authors. I need to get there on my own. Ian McEwan and I? We haven’t found our groove. Charles Dickens and I took a while to figure out but once we got there: magic. Kazuo Ishiguro came out of nowhere to surprise me with his awesome.

OK I’m the only one that’s surprised. Fine.

The Remains of the Day is a kind of love letter to days gone by. In it, Mr. Stevens, a butler in a grand old house, ruminates on the changes that time has wrought on his profession, and what it takes to be a truly great butler. In 1956 he is now the butler of a greatly reduced staff at Darlington Hall, recently sold to an American, Mr. Farraday, after the demise of the last Lord Darlington.  As he thinks about the realities of running this house with a staff the fraction of the size he is used to having, he thinks that maybe there’s a solution in a letter he has received from the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

The joy of this book is that you are following along as Stevens remembers. His remembrances are coloured by his profession, as are his interactions with other people. Not once while I read the book did I think that Stevens was cold, or a pompous ass.

Which is what I spent a lot of time thinking when I watched the movie. Sir Anthony Hopkins does an admirable job convincing us that he is a butler who puts duty to his employer above all else. But the movie isn’t narrated by him and you lose any personality that Ishiguro was able to inject into the book. I never got the sense in the movie that Stevens was actually in love with Miss Kenton; I barely understood that Miss Kenton was supposed to be in love with Stevens!

At the end of the book, I was devastated that Stevens would put duty about everything else. At the end of the movie it was more like why would Miss Kenton even care at this point? There’s also the matter of what Stevens’ employer, Lord Darlington, was up to. In the books, you’re pretty clear on what happened. In the movie, that whole subplot is incredibly muddy.

It’s a pretty movie – the aerial shots of the grand old house, the beautiful English countryside as Stevens drives through in the 1950s, the way the house and staff used to be and the way the house is in 1956. But for me, the movie was missing the human quality so beautifully illustrated in the book.

I will read more of Mr. Ishiguro’s books (incidentally it was recently announced that he would have a new book published for the first time in about a decade) but I’m not sure if I can sit through another of the adaptations.

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I Lied

Remember when I said that it would be quiet around here while I focused my reading energies on Les Miserables? I had forgotten about a cache of posts that I had already written, just waiting to actually be posted.

So yeah. This is awkward.

On the bright side, here’s a post I wrote about The Virgin Suicides.

Very rarely do I watch a movie version before I’ve read the book. Sometimes exceptions are made. Rarely are they intentional.

That’s what happened with The Virgin Suicides. I was high on my personal discovery of the genius of Jeffrey Eugenides and over the top excited about our new subscription to Netflix (which I continue to abuse, even though the Canadian version is notoriously “less than”) so I watched The Virgin Suicides before I read the book.

I know.

I will never know if my reading experience would have been better had I not seen the movie. I tend to think that, given the title, I might have had some inkling as to what was going to unfold had I not witnessed Kirsten Dunst and company offing themselves in the movie.

Sorry. Did I give too much away?

When I was 12 or 13 my best friend at the time was obsessed with The Virgin Suicides. She wasn’t off balance or weird or anything, but something about that movie spoke to her. I led a much more sheltered life and had no idea what she was talking about but the word ‘virgin’ made me uncomfortable.

Maybe this is the kind of book that you need to be young to relate to? A family of 4 beautiful sisters, with a couple of very overprotective parents, are watched by the neighbourhood boys in the year following the 5th (and youngest) sister’s suicide.

I did like the movie. It was depressing and uncomfortable but also beautifully filmed and I think really did capture the feeling of the novel.

So what was my issue with the book?

I don’t know.

I just know that I didn’t have any strong feelings towards it. It is undoubtedly well written (Eugenides is incredibly talented) but something about it felt off. I can see that it was well suited to being turned into a movie – the way it’s written lends itself to a screen play easily. But as a novel, it didn’t do it for me.

The girls – Therese, Mary, Bonnie and Lux – made me sad. Cecilia probably most of all. In the beginning when she says something like “clearly you’ve never been a 13 year old girl” made me kind of smile (in a heartbroken kind of way) because being a 13 year old girl does suck. But I don’t think that I ever thought that at the time. At the time I thought I was hot sh*t. And if you saw me at 13, this would be hysterical.

The Virgin Suicides made me uncomfortable. All the wrist slicing…I can’t even really talk about it. It’s one of those things that makes me physically ill to think about. I think the one thing that I got out of it was that if you protect your kids so much that you suffocate them, they may take matters into their own hands.

And that teenage boys can be kind of obsessive.

I’m not sure that either of these were the point…

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Books On Film

Have you guys seen this yet? Anne Hathaway cut off all her hair?! Brave girl – isn’t she getting married? I couldn’t do it even if there was a wedding in my future! (which, there isn’t. Just to be clear)

So evidently she lopped off her luscious locks (can we agree that Anne has lovely hair?) for a part in the movie version of Les Miserables.

I have not *gasp!* read Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. I know. I’m a failure at life. It’s on my list! But so are War and Peace and Bleak House and I haven’t done much about that either.

But like millions of other movie minions, now that there is a movie involved! I might actually get my butt in gear and read it. Amazing how a movie version will do that eh?

Considering The Hunger Games movie mania we are currently experiencing as well (have you seen it yet? I still have to go) I thought it might be fun to talk about some of the better movie adaptations out there. OK super nerdy but also? Super awesome.

I’d say at the top of my list are the Jane Austen adaptations. I’m talking about the BBC Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth naturally), Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, Gwyneth Paltrow’s  Emma and Mansfield Park with…actually I don’t know who was in that one. But it was terrific. All of these adaptations managed to capture the humour in all of Austen’s work as well as the swoon worthy aspects of the novels.

The adaptations of Roald Dahl are pretty great – I’m thinking Matilda and the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of course. While I appreciate the artistic vision of Tim Burton’s version, it just didn’t’ have the same spirit as the Gene Wilder version. Matilda was so perfect from the terrifying Miss Trunchbull to the sweet Miss Honey and the disgusting Wormwood’s – minus the lovely Matilda of course. Considering how I turned out, it should come as no surprise that Matilda especially had a special place in my childhood so I’m glad that they got it right. As for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – there isn’t one among us that doesn’t have a favourite part, or treat or song and if I started singing ‘oompa loompa…’ you could probably help me finish off a verse.

Gone With the Wind. Can you say masterpiece? Margaret Mitchell’s epic tale of a Southern belle was masterfully adapted to the big screen. No expense was spared to create this film and decades later it still shows. The book itself is marvelous but there is nothing like watching Scarlet O’Hara on film.

I love the 1994 version of Little Women with Susan Sarandon and Wynonna Ryder. Kirsten Dunst as Amy was brilliantly spoiled and Clare Danes’ Beth was tragically sweet. It makes me bawl every time. I do love the version with Margaret O’Brien and Elizabeth Taylor but I can never get over how they switched the birth order and so for me, 1994 is always the preference.

My final choice is going to be…I can’t think of another one just now. What’s your favourite adaptation?