Thursday, December 25, 2008

If you liked this film, maybe you’ll like that book…

When I am recommending books to folks, I try to compare them to existing books they might have liked. In fact, I often go the other way, asking them what book they’ve liked recently, and from that, come up with another book that could be perfect for them. In that way, I am like the Netflix computer, only instead of guessing whether they liked Napoleon Dynamite (here's a link to buy the Mad Libs version (???), I can just ask “Did you like Napoleon Dynamite.” You will understand this reference if you read the recent New York Times magazine article.

My answer: I liked it okay, but as the hype increased, I liked it less.

Being that our cultural reference points for movies are rather easier to spot, due to smaller selection and bigger grosses, sometimes I find that the best way to recommend a book is to compare it to a similar movie.

Have I mentioned before Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin? More than once? It’s the story of a sculptor who moves to Rosarita Bay to become a farmer, only to have his home invaded by his brother, whose goal is to make a kung fu movie. Lee’s novel has turned out to be my favorite of 2008, the only book that I’m sure I’m going to reread. I guess if I read it in paperback, my beloved Brussells sprouts will make way for an image of elephants. Being that there are less than 50 friends of the Brussels sprouts on Facebook (I'm one), I'm not surprised.

One reason I thought it might work better than it did was because it so reminded me of the movie Sideways. It’s funny in a cerebral way and a slapstick way. It’s at the heart a story about friendship, by far my favorite kind of book. It’s also set in Northern California and shares a similar esthetic, only instead of wine, it is more brussells sprouts and pot.

I asked Don Lee some questions about his book on an now-archived Schwartz email newsletter.

Another book that came out in 2007 that I had much success selling was The Dud Avocado, and I think that it helped comparing the book to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the movie not the book because…I haven’t read the book yet. It’s hard when your only reference points for Truman Capote were his guest spots on Laugh In.

Elaine Dundy’s novel had that same kind of wicked frothiness. The story follows an American who moves to Paris to be an actress, only she gets involved in several detours. Also, you figure out that though the narrator is quite delightful, she’s not a very good actress.

So this year another lesser-known book came out, Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day, and the only reason it saw the light of day is because a film version came out. Winifred Watson was an English writer known for rustics. This was a very different kind of book when it came out in 1938, and turned out to be her most popular.

Miss Pettigrew is a governess who is accidentally matched with a nightclub singer, and through a series of complications, comes out of her shell. It reminds me so much of an old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, perhaps Top Hat. If you did see the movie version and were left a bit disappointed, my sister Merrill says that the book is much better.

If Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day leaves you aching for more Fred Astaire, I heartily recommend Joseph Epstein’s new celebration of all things Astaire, called simply Fred Astaire. Each chapter touches upon a different aspect of the hoofer from Omaha, from Ginger to his other partners to his style to his singing career. I always think of Epstein as a bit cantankerous, but he’s so clearly in awe of his subject that despite at least one erroneous recollection of a movie plot (once again, my thanks to my sister Merrill for pointing this out), that one can’t help but be charmed, even as he throws spitballs at Gene Kelly for his liberal ways.
And yes, though the Blu-Ray versions have come out, in most cases we can quickly order you the movies mentioned in this blog, at least when they are in stock at our warehouse. Alas, both Napoleon Dynamite and Sideways are both temporarily unavailable.

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