Monthly Archives: September 2014

Book Review: ‘All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid’


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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In May 1987, Sen. Gary Hart stepped up to a microphone and pulled out of the race for president. Hart spoke not only about his decision, but about a sea change he perceived in how the media covered national politics.

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GARY HART: I guess I’ve become some kind of a rare bird – some extraordinary creature that has to be dissected by those who analyze politics to find out what makes them tick.

SIEGEL: That that sort of dissection of candidates is no longer rare. NPR commentator and former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel has this review of a new book that tells the story of Gary Hart’s downfall and how it resonates today.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when the issue of a candidate’s marital infidelity simply didn’t come up in a political campaign and – believe it or not – wasn’t addressed by the media. Times have changed. And Matt Bai, who is an experienced political reporter, believes he can pinpoint almost precisely when that change took place. It was 1987, and the odds on favorite to win the nomination of the Democratic Party as its candidate for president was Gary Hart.

Hart, for those of you too young to remember, was the tall, lean, handsome, super smart senator from Colorado. Hart was way ahead in the polls until reports of adultery surfaced. Later, the National Enquirer published a happy snapshot of the senator with an attractive young women on his lap. Sen. Hart was married, but not to the woman on his lap. It didn’t help that the two of them had just taken an overnight cruise on a boat called Monkey Business.

Prior to 1987, the establishment media didn’t touch that kind of story. This time, for reasons that Matt Bai covers in great detail, was different. Even before the photographs surfaced, Hart withdrew from the campaign. Bai clearly likes and admires Hart. His book resonates for regret for what might’ve been and disdain for what has happened to the world of politics and journalism.

Three and a half months after shutting down his presidential run, Sen. Hart reconsidered and appeared with me on Nightline prior to re-entering the campaign. Although the issue of adultery had forced Hart out of the race, he had never addressed it directly. This time, he did. In response to my question, Hart conceded cheating on his wife.

He would not, he said, get into specifics. I have been made to make a declaration here that I think is unprecedented in American political history, he said, and I regret it. That question should never have been asked, and I shouldn’t have to answer it. I don’t believe that Sen. Hart intended that as a personal reproach. He was simply observing that the floodgates were now open, for good or ill issues that had previously been treated as private family matters were now fair game for the world at large.

Matt Bai has written an important and compassionate book about the downfall of a gifted and fundamentally decent politician. All of us have reason to regret the cheapening and coarsening of the American political process and the journalism that reports on it. A politician’s personal behavior is certainly a relevant factor to consider. But if, as is often the case these days, it obscures all other important issues, it’ll drive legions of highly competent men and women out of politics. Matt Bai reminds us that the loss of people like Gary Hart is a high price to pay.

SIEGEL: The book by Matt Bai is called “All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” Our review was by NPR commentator Ted Koppel.

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Novelist Caitlin Moran Wryly Shows ‘How To Build A Girl’


Caitlin Moran’s weekly column for The Times, has gained fans all across the U.K. With humor and a wry, self-deprecating wit, she writes on a wide range of topics that include government, technology, beauty and pop culture — all of which become, under her feisty gaze, feminist issues. “I rant about the welfare state, library closures and poverty,” she explains on her website, “like a s – – – Dickens or Orwell, but with tits.” And this irreverent summary, casually smutty, very funny, and barely disguising a serious intent, is the perfect introduction to her novel, How to Build a Girl.

The story opens in 1990 in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands. Johanna Morrigan is 14 years old and knows there has to be more to life than her small existence now offers. Her father is an unemployed would-be rock star, her mother is suffering from depression and young Johanna has more childcare duties (she has two brothers and there are twin babies to care for, too) and financial worries than a teenager should have to take on. She also has dreams of finding a way out.

Johanna’s concerns are, in some ways, those of any teenager longing for popularity, love, fame and recognition of their hidden talents. But living in a working class family, in a deprived neighbourhood with few prospects, she’s not quite sure how to go about fulfilling those dreams. Meanwhile, she tells us early on, “Today, like every other day, I’m going to go to bed still a fat virgin who writes her diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables.”

Due to her family’s economic hardship, Johanna decides that it is up to her to find a way to make some money. A very public humiliation that results from her initial efforts spurs her to reinvent herself, to become the person she is sure she was meant to be. “I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see,” she declares, “I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.” First, she’ll change her name. This, then, is how to build a girl: find a cause; identify your image; let nothing stand in your way.

Moran is also the author of the bestselling memoir How to Be a Woman. This new book reads very much like Moran’s own autobiography, exaggerated for effect. Dolly Wilde — as Johanna christens herself — lands a job as a freelance music journalist, travels to London, has lots of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a fast-paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words, and her sheer grit, ensure her escape and her success.

Moran never loses touch with what seemed to me an authentic and believably teenage voice — from the self-obsessed navel gazing nature of Dolly’s reflections to the exaggerated emotional responses and flights of fancy. At times, the tone does become a little too breathless and over-excited. But, as any mother who has despaired of the sharp intake of breath and “OMG!” exhalation that accompanies the most banal of observations by an adolescent girl could tell you, this too is probably true to life. Moran manages to poke fun at her young alter ego just as she elicits the reader’s sympathy.

The joy of this easy-read novel is not just the scrappy protagonist. As Dolly navigates her new life going to gigs and parties in London, and as we are reminded of the fate of her family back in Wolverhampton, Moran makes strong statements about social inequality and gender throughout. In one particularly moving — and uncharacteristically restrained — moment, Dolly tells the reader: “my biggest secret of all — the one I would rather die than tell, the one I wouldn’t even put in my diary — is that I really, truly, in my heart, want to be beautiful. I want to be beautiful so much — because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.” Even as she finds her way into womanhood, Dolly is beset by self-doubt and consumed by a negative body image. She may be living the feminist creed, but building yourself is never going to be an easy task.

How to Build a Girl is, in essence, a very British story about class and social privilege. American readers may have to work a little to get the sly social references and regional English. But it’s well worth the effort. Dolly quits school at 16 — she’s making enough money now and can’t see any benefit to an education that seems designed to constrain rather than inspire — and the daily drama of her life with her parents, two brothers and the infant twins, trundles on. There are real moments of tenderness in her relationship with her brothers, Krissi and Lupin, and in the relentless optimism of her failed-musician father.

Dolly makes a name for herself writing destructive, acerbic reviews and by the end of the book (several reckless adventures, broken relationships and a wild tour of the music of the early ’90s later), she is on the way to reinventing herself again as she moves to London permanently. This is — thank goodness — no tidy happily-ever-after. Instead Moran leaves the reader with the sense that once a girl takes responsibility for building herself there is always more to learn, the job is never done. She is a glorious work in progress.

Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.

Sandwich Monday: The Pizza Cake


I generally don’t like cake, because it is too sweet, too bland in texture, and doesn’t have enough pork products. So I was excited to see this recipe pop up on Buzzfeed.

This is what we were hoping for.i
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This is what we were hoping for.

This is what we were hoping for.



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I happened to have the main ingredients at hand — dough, sauce, pepperoni, cheese and existential despair, so I set to work. Turns out, it’s a little more complicated than Buzzfeed made it seem. (And they call themselves journalists?) I couldn’t find the right pan, and I didn’t have enough dough to make the side crust, which I couldn’t figure out how to line the pan with anyway. … Well, the final result is below. It’s less a cake than it is a bunch of pizzas that decided to stack together so as to be less of a target.

And this is what we got.i
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And this is what we got.

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And this is what we got.

And this is what we got.

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Miles: I’ll take mine with a scoop of garlic bread ice cream.

Eva: I like that I’m able to eat six slices of pizza while still technically only eating one slice.

Peter: What do we have for dessert? Salad pie?

Pizza Cake is great for parents who want to get the birthday party they're hosting over with as soon as possible.i
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Pizza Cake is great for parents who want to get the birthday party they’re hosting over with as soon as possible.

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Pizza Cake is great for parents who want to get the birthday party they're hosting over with as soon as possible.

Pizza Cake is great for parents who want to get the birthday party they’re hosting over with as soon as possible.

NPR

Ian: I like the concept of just stacking up food till it gets to my face, so I don’t have to use utensils or move.

Eva: In the classic tale, the princess and the pizza, the princess couldn’t feel the pepperoni under all the layers of pizza because she ate it.

Miles: The middle is so soft, I imagine this is what eating pizza is like for a baby bird.

Before taking his first bite, Ian once again experiences "pregret."i
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Before taking his first bite, Ian once again experiences “pregret.”

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Before taking his first bite, Ian once again experiences "pregret."

Before taking his first bite, Ian once again experiences “pregret.”

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Ian: It’s nice, because the top layer burns the roof of your mouth, and then the next layer comes up and burns it some more —

Miles: And then the next layer cauterizes the wound!

Mike realizes he's discovered the true meaning of cheesecake.i
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Mike realizes he’s discovered the true meaning of cheesecake.

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Mike realizes he's discovered the true meaning of cheesecake.

Mike realizes he’s discovered the true meaning of cheesecake.

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Eva: You can see all the layers of pizza time here — pizzsaurassic, pizzozoic, etc. Turns out my degree in pizzarchaeology wasn’t a waste after all.

Miles: I’m excited to see Buzzfeed’s newest list: 39 Outdoor Activities You Can’t Partake In Because You Ate Pizza Cake.

[The verdict: It’s not exactly (how much you like pizza) x (number of layers), but it’s pretty fun. As Miles pointed out, you lose any crispiness of crust that you’d get in a conventional pizza, but the obscene amount of cheese you’re eating makes you forget about that pretty quick.]

Pizza Cake broke Kelsie's fork. Unfortunately, the NPR Internship Program gives one plastic fork to each participant, to last the entirety of her internship.i
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Pizza Cake broke Kelsie’s fork. Unfortunately, the NPR Internship Program gives one plastic fork to each participant, to last the entirety of her internship.

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Pizza Cake broke Kelsie's fork. Unfortunately, the NPR Internship Program gives one plastic fork to each participant, to last the entirety of her internship.

Pizza Cake broke Kelsie’s fork. Unfortunately, the NPR Internship Program gives one plastic fork to each participant, to last the entirety of her internship.

NPR

Sandwich Monday is a satirical feature from the humorists at Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

Lena Dunham On Sex, Oversharing And Writing About Lost ‘Girls’


Lena Dunham's new collection of personal essays about her relationships, friendships and obsessive-compulsive disorder has received rave reviews.

Lena Dunham’s new collection of personal essays about her relationships, friendships and obsessive-compulsive disorder has received rave reviews.

Autumn de Wilde/Courtesy of Random House


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Autumn de Wilde/Courtesy of Random House

Lena Dunham’s character on the HBO series Girls would be envious of Dunham.

On the show, about a group of friends in their 20s, Hannah is a writer who got and lost two book deals. One of her ambitions is to “lock eyes with The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.”

Dunham, who created and stars in Girls, not only has a new collection of personal essays called Not That Kind of Girl, she also received a great review from Kakutani, who described the book as “smart” and “funny.”

“By simply telling her own story in all its specificity and sometimes embarrassing detail, [Dunham] has written a book that’s as acute and heartfelt as it is funny,” Kakutani wrote.

The essays are an unwavering account of Dunham’s past relationships, current friendships and things she’s learned from her parents.

Dunham, 28, says her biggest concern when telling all was to protect her loved ones.

“I feel very, very conscious that my parents, my boyfriend, my friends don’t feel in any way demeaned, exposed or abused by the work that I make,” Dunham tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “I think we all have enough content of our own that we don’t have to expose the people in our lives to these dark forces.”

Dunham also describes writing her own character on the show — and how that’s changed since it began in early 2012. She says some of her characters are more destructive than the people she’s drawn to in real life.

“I think at a point I really liked the concept of the lost girl, the girl who was sort of moving through the world — she had a bit of a Zelda Fitzgerald lost, broken woman quality that is not as charming to me as it used to be,” she says.

Girls begins its fourth season in January.

Interview Highlights

On oversharing

I’ve thought about this a lot because it’s a challenging thing when you’re a person who has a desire, or let’s say a compulsion, to share facts about your personal life. If that’s the way you process the world — is to make creative content based on your personal life — then you have to be really careful about making yourself too exposed. …

The term “oversharing” is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of — people are like, “TMI.” Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren’t considered as vital as their male counterparts’ [experiences] and that’s something that I’ve always roundly rejected.

On using writing to process being sexually assaulted in college

It was a painful experience physically and emotionally and one I spent a long time trying to reconcile. … I actually [have] been thinking about it a lot this week because I sent an email to somebody who I had known at that time who knew the guy who had perpetrated the act. … I wanted to make it clear to this old friend what I felt had happened before he potentially bought the book at Hudson News and read about it.

I hated the idea of somebody finding out that information [independently of me telling them] because at the time that it happened, it wasn’t something I was able to be honest about. I was able to share pieces, but I used the lens of humor, which has always been my default-mode to try to talk around it.

I said to this old friend in an email, “I spent so much time scared; I spent so much time ashamed. I don’t feel that way anymore and it’s not because of my job, it’s not because of my boyfriend, it’s not because of feminism, though all those things helped. It’s because I told the story. And I’m still here, and my identity hasn’t shifted in some way that I can’t repair. And I still feel like myself and I feel less alone.”

On depictions of sex in movies and pornography

I do think that kids have been miseducated about what sex is by films. I think that films have white-washed sex in many ways and sort of tried to hide what is messy and what is challenging about it.

And I feel like there’s a couple brands like, “I’m so angry! I hate you so much! We need to have sex right now!” which isn’t particularly healthy, or “I’m so in love with you that the minute that we get in I’m going to shed my negligee and we’re going to be doing it.”

I mean, I think that most depictions of sex are destructive.

On her character Hannah’s OCD relapse mirroring her own experience

I had had an obsessive-compulsive — let’s use the term “meltdown” — right before season one came out and right as we were beginning to shoot season two. I had a moment where those things came back in a way that was really harsh and uncomfortable and a reminder of how bad it could get.

More On Lena Dunham

And … at that point I had a whole writing staff who I worked with and a close relationship with Jenni [Konner] and Judd [Apatow], who produce the show with me. That was something they had lived through with me and we thought, “This is exciting and important to talk about.” …

In the show, Hannah has to write her book and she has writers block, a deadline coming up, a certain kind of attention she hasn’t had before, and OCD, which can very often be instigated by stress, comes barreling back. So that really paralleled my experience with making the show and finding myself under a new kind of pressure and resorting to these old habits. …

What was hard was to perform it because you spend so much of your life, as a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person with any kind of mental illness, trying to camouflage your habits, trying to appear normal — so to say to myself, “I’m going to go in front of this crew of Italian men … and perform these super personal ticks and quirks,” that was really scary. That was scarier to me than any sex scene. Also, the feeling, once I turn this on, once I open the flood gates of letting myself check over my shoulders eight times and blink my eyes, am I going to be able to stop?

On her own life changing much more than her character Hannah’s life and the challenges that creates

So many people ask the question, “Is it hard for you to write about Hannah because now you work in Hollywood and go to fancy parties and your life doesn’t resemble hers?” And I think to myself, “No, that’s not hard because … we all can transfer the awkwardness we feel at any social event to any other social event.” And you’re a writer, so you use your imagination and you create circumstances that don’t necessarily exist.

Lena Dunham (left) plays Hannah on the HBO series Girls. She also writes about the other women in their 20s, including Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Marnie (Allison Williams).i
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Lena Dunham (left) plays Hannah on the HBO series Girls. She also writes about the other women in their 20s, including Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Marnie (Allison Williams).

Courtesy of HBO


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Courtesy of HBO

Lena Dunham (left) plays Hannah on the HBO series Girls. She also writes about the other women in their 20s, including Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Marnie (Allison Williams).

Lena Dunham (left) plays Hannah on the HBO series Girls. She also writes about the other women in their 20s, including Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Marnie (Allison Williams).

Courtesy of HBO

But it is hard sometimes to continue to write a character who has such limited and limiting responses to the world around her. And I really have to remember where she’s coming from and have sympathy for her …

One of our writers … is the keeper of the timetable of the show. He could tell you exactly how many weeks, months, years have passed in the world of the show from the first episode to the 42nd episode. … The span of time we’ve covered in the show is much shorter than the span of the time in which I’ve been doing the show. So [Hannah has] grown less both chronologically and emotionally than I have since we started. She’s only had one birthday since we began. So that’s a funny thing to remember. She hasn’t had this transformative job and lived four and a- half years doing this — she’s been stuck in Brooklyn.

On what feminism means to her

My version of feminism is at its most basic level — it’s about equality. I think that so many women have been misinformed about what feminism means. They think it means growing out your armpit hair, burning your bras and storming through the streets with a skewer ready to get men.

What it actually means is you believe in human rights and women should be fairly compensated for the jobs that they do and that they should be [offered] the same opportunities and they shouldn’t be discriminated against or hurt because of their gender.

There are more women than there has ever been before and each one is unique and there’s a lot of ways to express your femaleness. And we can’t limit each other in that department; all we can do is support each other. So what I love about feminism is that it seems like an irrefutable concept, which is equality, caring for each other, supporting each other, looking out for each other and being strong in the face of a lot of societal factors that are telling us to sit down and shut up.

Book News: Listen To The First-Timers Nominated For PEN Prize


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The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

On Sunday night, the finalists for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize got together in an intimate Manhattan bar to read the books for which they were nominated. The winner of the annual prize, which recognizes one outstanding debut work of fiction, will be announced this evening at the PEN Literary Awards Ceremony.

But in case you couldn’t squeeze into a booth at the small, crowded bar, have no fear: You can listen to all of the readings here, before the audio goes live on PEN’s website later today. The crop of nominees include Anthony Marra, Said Sayrafiezadeh, Ian Stansel, Shawn Vestal and Hanya Yanagihara, whose writing was read by Katie Kitamura. Find all of them at the link above, and listen to Sayrafiezadeh’s reading below. (Note: The audio contains language some people may find offensive.)

Pynchon Puts In A Showing: Legendary, and legendarily press-shy, novelist Thomas Pynchon might soon be making an appearance on the big screen — but good luck trying to find him. In the film adaptation of his novel Inherent Vice, the first authorized adaptation of his work, Pynchon could be making a quiet cameo. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is staying mum on the matter, but Logan Hill of The New York Times got a confirmation out of star Josh Brolin. Of course, given the fact that a photograph of Pynchon hasn’t been published in some 50 years, it might be a bit tough to tell just who he is.

Flipping Ahead:

New in print (and screen)

  • Lena Dunham is bringing together a bumper crop of her personal essays, collecting them in a new book called Not That Kind of Girl. The creator and star of HBO’s Girls summons some very personal stories to reflect, much as her show does, on sex, work, love and the deep well of questions awaiting many twentysomethings.
  • Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has already begun to garner raves from critics, including Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times: “It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.”
  • Prolific writer Paul Theroux is out this week with 20 new stories in a collection that goes by Mr. Bones. This weekend, he told NPR about the challenge of keeping things short: “You know when a novel’s done, but not so much with short stories. In fact, short stories [are] a venerable form, but it’s diabolically hard to master.”

Events to watch out for:

  • On Tuesday, Kirkus Reviews, that long-running industry bastion of book reviews, will be announcing the finalists for its inaugural Kirkus Prize. The award, which carries with it a startling $50,000 purse, will go to three authors — one each for fiction, nonfiction and young reader’s literature.
  • As early as this week, Authors United, an anti-Amazon group of writers, plans to request that the Justice Department look into whether the online retailer has violated antitrust law in its dealings with the publisher Hachette Book Group.

‘Rooms’ Is Haunted By People (And Ghosts) That Can’t Let Go


I have a friend whose parents died when she was a teenager, leaving her the house. They had been sick for a long time, and so the accumulation of stuff that generally accompanies any suburban existence was traumatically amplified: the dining room had two sets of furniture, the living room had three. The basement was an impassible labyrinth; the offices were layered with geologic strata that recorded, in yellowed hotel receipts and birthday cards and middle school art projects, the entirety of her life with them — until the receipts became insurance reports and nursing bills and then, as abruptly as a landslide, nothing at all.

They left her the wreckage in the shape of a house, so that cleaning and organizing became disinterring and exorcising, and demanded relentless bravery. Every dusty shoebox or pile of unsorted mail carried the threat of a memory. The old clothes that she couldn’t wear, the rusting BMW in the driveway her father always meant to fix, the peeling wallpaper in the bathroom that no one had ever liked — she was being haunted by a house.

Rooms, bestselling YA author Lauren Oliver’s debut for adults, features an old mansion overstuffed with memories and a family failing to avoid them; it also features ghosts of the most literal kind, but leaves open the question of who precisely is doing the haunting. The narration is pleasingly circumscribed by the physical limits of the house: all the action takes place within its rooms. It’s a construct that makes the story feel at times cozy, like we’re trailing behind Poirot in a country retreat, and occasionally panicked and claustrophobic.

That last is no accident. The family, after all, can leave the house. The ghosts, on the other hand, seem to be trapped there forever. Says the ghost Alice, with a straightforward wink beyond the fourth wall:

In fiction, ghosts remain because of some entanglement with the living world, something they must do, resolve, or achieve.

I assure you that isn’t the case for me. The world has nothing to offer me, no single shred of interest. I’m a woman trapped on a balcony, watching a passing parade, a blur of noise and motion that eventually turns to a single point on the horizon, a gutter full of trampled and muddy cups, and the sense of wasting an afternoon.

And the stories of Alice and Sandra, the house’s spectral inhabitants, do not appear at first have much to do with the memories that haunt the living descendants of Richard Walker. His ex-wife, his two children and his granddaughter have returned after his death to the rural upstate New York mansion to clear it out in preparation for a sale. And with every room breached, with every box filled, the family reopens the wounds left by this difficult, controlling, narcissistic, deeply loving man. It’s an interesting choice, in a novel of a literal haunting, to create such a stark space around a metaphorical one.

Richard Walker has left a hole in the house he used to dominate with his terrible charisma. He has left secrets (because what country house mystery — let alone ghost story — would be complete without them), and he has left a family on the edge of self-destruction. Trenton, his teenage son who barely knew him, has planned to kill himself before the funeral. Minna, his 20-something daughter, is a sex addict who’s desperation for the act has started to destroy her few genuine relationships. Caroline, his ex-wife, is an alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge the pain consuming her own children.

Oliver jumps nimbly between these points of view, alternating a first-person present tense (the ghosts) and a third-person past (the family) that neatly separates their ontological categories and narrative concerns. More impressive is Oliver’s clear differentiation of voice between the ghostly narrators Alice and Sandra. They would be unmistakable even without the chapter labels — a technical mastery of diction, sentence structure and worldview that is a pleasure to read.

“I’m sick of Sandra,” Alice says at one point, “sick of the way she acts and has always acted — as though everything, all of life, is there to be shrugged off, shaved away, ridiculed and minimized. She’s like a person looking through the wrong end of a telescope, complaining that everything looks small.”

Which is not to say that Sandra hasn’t made her own, unflattering judgments: “That’s another thing that drives me crazy about Alice: no sense of humor at all. I can feel her, wound up tight, like a soda about to explode, like clenched butt cheeks. So I ask you: What’s she holding in?”

The tense odd couple dynamic that bonds these two unwilling partners in their afterlife is in many ways the heart of the novel; their process of self-discovery echoes and influences the Walkers’s more mundane self-excavation. Why, after all, are they stuck in the house? They’re not the only ones who have died there or who have had important ties to it. The clue lies in Sandra’s judgment of Alice, and in Minna’s judgment of herself:

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d truly laughed. She couldn’t even come anymore. She could get close, and did, as often as possible—pushing against the deep darkness inside her, stretching toward that warmth, the break in the wall — but it never happened; she couldn’t get through.

Rooms is populated with women deeply repressed who can no longer find their way to release. Everyone has something to hide. For Minna, that struggle has become explicitly sexual. But even without their corporeal bodies, Alice and Sandra live and relive those moments during their lives that gave them the best hope of letting go. Moments that seem inextricably tied to their own sexuality.

“That’s what a broken heart looks like,” says Sandra’s mother in an old memory. “Like a haunting.” And these ghosts are haunted, in their own turn, by the men who broke their hearts. Four women in this novel face serious consequences for being the other party of a man’s infidelity. All of these women face years alone and their desperation in the face of that doesn’t come from some internal weakness so much as the relentless pressure of a patriarchal society that has consistently, from Alice’s time of the mid-20th century to Minna’s time of the present day, made it clear to them that their personal value and physical safety can only come from a man. These themes help to make sense of the thread that ties Minna and Sandra and Alice: they are all struggling to learn how to let go, to learn how to come.

However, I wished for a few moments that broke the oppressively heteronormative worldview, especially given the importance Oliver gives to female sexuality and gender relations. I also wondered why she felt the need to deploy the n-word, particularly in a novel without any characters of color. Trenton’s story grew more interesting as it developed, but his narration lacked the depth and power of Sandra and Alice. He at times read like a visitor from a YA novel — not a bad one, but not a particularly profound one, either.

But Rooms is, overall, a very successful work, and an impressive demonstration of Oliver’s craft.

I know what I looked like: a devoted wife, despite everything, and then a cautious, solitary widow; a mother, perhaps too strict, perhaps too careful in her loving. A dry, dusty, throwaway woman, like many others: a woman made to fade, and dry out, and die shaking in her hollow skin.

This is the map I left. I know this. I knew it even before I became old.

Sandra explicitly references Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” yet one can’t help but hear the resonances to “Eleanor Rigby” in Alice’s precise, heartbreaking descriptions of a life worn out and denied love. Is this the future Caroline and Minna will face unless they can find a way through? Do Sandra and Alice hate each other, or understand each other far too well? This is Rooms at its best, taking the stories of Alice and Sandra and the Walkers and fitting what seemed so separate together like a puzzle ring. Because in the end her point is clear: the rooms of the Walker house aren’t haunted, but haunting.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s latest book is called Love Is the Drug.

‘Equalizer’ Devotes Time To Character Development, Graphic Violence


Denzel Washington stars as a retired intelligence officer in The Equalizer.i
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Denzel Washington stars as a retired intelligence officer in The Equalizer.

Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures


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Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

Denzel Washington stars as a retired intelligence officer in The Equalizer.

Denzel Washington stars as a retired intelligence officer in The Equalizer.

Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

When star Denzel Washington and director Anton Fuqua collaborated on 2001’s Training Day, the film won Washington an Oscar and changed the trajectory of his career. Now they are together again.

The Equalizer is unapologetic in its excessive, frequently grotesque violence. But because it’s got Denzel Washington as its star, it’s more interested in character development than you might guess.

The movie takes a full half hour introducing Robert, Washington’s character, as a seemingly ordinary Boston resident who has a nine-to-five job and never misses a chance to pass on a wide range of positive-thinking aphorisms.

“I think you can be anything you want to be,” he says.

Robert is talking to a young Russian prostitute, played by Chloe Grace Moretz. He takes a fatherly interest in her and that turns him into the world’s deadliest Boy Scout, able to create the kind of mayhem with a corkscrew that no sommelier would ever condone.

Robert’s heroics bring to Boston a fierce Russian enforcer known as a sociopath with a business card. Does Robert back down? No he does not.

“I’ve done some bad things in my life,” he says. “I promised someone that I love very much that I would never go back to being that person, but for you I’m going to make an exception.”

The Equalizer echoes Clint Eastwood’s brilliant Unforgiven by focusing on how strong and irresistible the lure of violence is for those who have indulged in it.

Now that Robert is off the wagon, it will come as no surprise that an Equalizer 2 is in the works.

Movie Theaters Hope To Add Another Dimension To Their Profits


Theaters that call themselves 4-D use lights, moving seats, fog and even sprays of water and air to give moviegoers a unique experience — one they hope audiences will consider worthy of higher ticket prices.i
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Theaters that call themselves 4-D use lights, moving seats, fog and even sprays of water and air to give moviegoers a unique experience — one they hope audiences will consider worthy of higher ticket prices.

Ernesto López Ruiz/Courtesy of CJ E&M America


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Ernesto López Ruiz/Courtesy of CJ E&M America

Theaters that call themselves 4-D use lights, moving seats, fog and even sprays of water and air to give moviegoers a unique experience — one they hope audiences will consider worthy of higher ticket prices.

Theaters that call themselves 4-D use lights, moving seats, fog and even sprays of water and air to give moviegoers a unique experience — one they hope audiences will consider worthy of higher ticket prices.

Ernesto López Ruiz/Courtesy of CJ E&M America

Some experimental features have been popping up in movie theaters lately. One of them is a so-called 4-D experience. It’s hard to describe in words exactly what a 4-D movie experience feels like, but here’s one attempt: it is intense.

During a recent screening of Guardians of the Galaxy in 4-D at the Regal Cinemas LA Live theater, the seat moved up and down and side to side, like a simulator ride. There were strobe lights; fog seemed to come out of the walls and little jets of water sprayed over the seats.

During one scene, bubbles floated down from the ceiling. But what really stood out were the puffs of air, blowing by the ears of moviegoers out of vents built into the headrest, to simulate wind. All of this on top of a movie that features a gun-wielding raccoon and a talking, shape-shifting tree.

After the movie, Jennifer and Colin Mackenzie said they actually enjoyed being fogged and spritzed and wind-blown.

“It was a lot like a roller coaster,” said Colin.

His wife Jennifer agreed, but wanted even more. “Well, maybe not as intense as a roller coaster. I don’t think there was enough. I think there should have been more rain and more lights!” Jennifer even hoped that one day the 4-D technology could be merged with virtual reality.

Moviegoer Gary Epstein was pretty pleased as well. “The movie was good,” he said. “The ride was good too. I couldn’t fall asleep.”

New Theater Tech

There are a lot of new toys for movie theaters coming down the line these days: new immersive sound systems with over 50 speakers; new screens that get bigger and bigger; even a theater in the works by some students at CalArts that has a 360-degree, fully panoramic dome screen.

Amir Malin, an analyst with Qualia Capital, says a lot of this movie theater innovation is happening because the American box office has kind of topped out. The number of people actually going to see movies is still high, but Malin claims that number has peaked.

“I wouldn’t say box office is trending down,” Malin says. “Exhibition domestically, we’re staying at relative levels.”

But even with this stagnation, the amount of money movies take in domestically keeps creeping higher, pretty much every year.

“Any increase in revenue is largely due to increase in ticket pricing,” Malin says.

So it’s not about getting more people in seats. In fact, the blockbusters of today actually have fewer viewers than the biggest movies of a few decades ago. Statistics at Box Office Mojo find that of the top blockbusters of all time, ranked by attendance, only one in the top 10, Titanic, was released after 1990.

That means profit-making is all about getting the people still in the seats to pay more. Every new feature is an excuse to raise ticket prices. And Malin says theaters have to try even harder now because they’re up against a lot of new competition.

“There’s definitely concern whether they’re going through a dinosaur phase right now [and] headed toward extinction,” he says.

Malin says theaters are up against a few new challenges. The amount of time movies are exclusively in theaters is shorter. There are also more ways and places you can watch movies, like on phones or tablets.

On top of all that, television today offers high-quality shows that more directly compete with movies.

Some Just Want To Show Movies

Not everyone is on board with the changing face of theaters. Mike Hurley, an independent movie theater owner in Maine, says a lot of these new bells and whistles — like 4-D — are just too much.

“We didn’t get 3-D, so we’re not getting 4-D,” Hurley says. “All we wanna do is show movies.”

In fact, Hurley had to raise funds just to get enough money together to help his theaters make the transition to digital recently. He says besides not needing all of the new features, he really can’t afford a lot of them.

“There is really only so much a movie theater can spend on toys that people come up with,” he says.

Stephen Lighthill, a professor of cinematography at the American Film Institute Conservatory and president of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), also feels some of these new features are unnecessary. He says theaters may be in an extra hurry to innovate right now, but new wacky features finding their ways into cineplexes has been happening for a while.

“There always have been the two trends where one person has says, ‘We gotta make better movies.’ And the other person says, ‘We gotta find better technology,'” Lighthill says.

Remember Smell-O-Vision?

Lighthill says, ultimately, no one theater gadget will save the industry — but a few things might. He thinks the answer for the whole industry is to make better movies and have an eclectic array of films and events to watch at theaters.

And it’s true that more and more theaters are hosting things other than movies in their space, like livecasts of opera performances and even video gaming competitions.

Movie industry analyst Amir Malin says two easy fixes are already increasing revenue at theaters across the country: restaurant-style food and alcohol, and “reseating,” or replacing old cloth theater seats with new, plush and more spacious leather seats.

This panoramic theater from Barco, Inc. is another way technology companies hope to enhance the experience for moviegoers.i
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This panoramic theater from Barco, Inc. is another way technology companies hope to enhance the experience for moviegoers.

Courtesy of Barco, Inc.


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Courtesy of Barco, Inc.

This panoramic theater from Barco, Inc. is another way technology companies hope to enhance the experience for moviegoers.

This panoramic theater from Barco, Inc. is another way technology companies hope to enhance the experience for moviegoers.

Courtesy of Barco, Inc.

In the meantime, there will continue to be new inventions to keep theaters one step ahead. A company named Barco recently screened the film The Maze Runner at a panoramic theater in Los Angeles that has three screens on three walls.

Ted Schilowitz, whose title at Barco is “CinemaVangelist,” admitted that not every film will be right for all of the new technology moving into theaters these days. And maybe it won’t be right for all moviegoers.

“If it was too intense, our recommendation was move a little further back in the theater,” he says. “If you want something more intense, come closer.”

Come closer. That’s pretty much what all these theaters, and all their new tricks, are asking us to do.

Inaugural Poet Recalls A Closeted Childhood Of Cultural Tension


Richard Blanco has published several collections of poetry, including Looking for the Gulf Hotel and Directions to the Beach of the Dead.i
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Richard Blanco has published several collections of poetry, including Looking for the Gulf Hotel and Directions to the Beach of the Dead.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Harper Collins


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Richard Blanco has published several collections of poetry, including Looking for the Gulf Hotel and Directions to the Beach of the Dead.

Richard Blanco has published several collections of poetry, including Looking for the Gulf Hotel and Directions to the Beach of the Dead.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Harper Collins

When Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2013, he was the youngest poet ever to read at a presidential inauguration. But more attention went to Blanco’s other distinctions: he was the first Latino, the first immigrant and the first openly gay poet to get that commission.

Blanco was born in Spain, but grew up with his Cuban family in Miami — a culture-bridging childhood he describes in his new memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos.

Blanco writes about taking pains to hide his sexual orientation as a child in a hyper-masculine, conservative community. But he tells NPR’s Arun Rath that he wanted to make sure he didn’t consider his sexuality in isolation — instead, he sought to explore how his cultural heritage, his community, his art and his sexuality collided while he was growing up.

Interview Highlights

On the cultural tensions of his Cuban-American childhood home

I always dreamed of Fruit Loops and Easy Cheese and all these things that they never had at the Cuban grocery stores. So … part of the first chapter is how I plotted and sort of lured my grandmother into finally taking that trip into the forbidden zone, which was Winn-Dixie, where all the few remaining Anglos in Westchester, Miami, still shopped.

You know, growing up in Miami there was this sense of … living between two imaginary worlds. One was the 1950s and ’60s Cuba, of the community in the minds of my parents and grandparents — this place where we came from, this place where I was from, but had never been. And the other sort of mythic place was America, because growing up in a very monolithic Cuban community, it really did feel like America was somewhere else.

On understanding America through The Brady Bunch

I really truly believed, being naive and a child and also growing up in Miami, that this is the way the rest of the world lived and that there was a Brady Bunch house to be had everywhere north of the Dade County line. And to this day I’m still addicted to reruns of The Brady Bunch.

On how his sexual identity collides with his artistic and cultural identity

I would always be hiding my creative side and also, of course, my sexuality or sense of it. And often in literature — at least I’m guilty of this myself — we sort of only look at one slice of that, when you look at cultural identity or when we look at a a struggle in terms of an artistic career or we only think about a gay person and his coming out story. I wanted to sort of throw those all together and see what happens.

On portraying his family in prose, as opposed to poetry

More With Richard Blanco

In poetry you zero in on a person’s sort of essential being, their soul. And in poetry my mother comes across as this angelic martyr figure, this woman who has suffered and had to leave all her family in Cuba. And My grandmother comes across as this sergeant … vigilant and aggressive. And in the memoir those personalities sort of switched.

I think it was [in] part because on the exterior, my grandmother’s character, she was hilarious — she was the life of the party. She was gregarious, she always had a fun joke to tell … she was a bookie, she had friends, always wheeling and dealing. But that was the exterior character, which you develop a lot more in prose and in memoir.

On why his memoir describes being closeted, rather than coming out

I really didn’t end up coming out until much later in life … and what really fascinated me as a writer and as an investigator is, how does that happen? How is it that moment by moment the next notch of courage, the next notch of self-understanding — even though you know you’re gay at 12, 13, 14 [years old], those words can’t even enter your mind. You can’t even have the vocabulary; you don’t say “Gee, I think I’m gay.” No, it doesn’t happen that way.

It’s just a slow sort of easing into, and all the little things that propel you to that place, all the people that support and move you an inch in that direction. The moment of coming out is really the end of a story, and the beginning of a new one obviously, but it’s really the whole life story to get to that moment.