Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Anya's Ghost

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Anya's Ghost - A Coming of Age Ghost Story

Growing up is hard to do, especially when someone feels like he or she doesn’t fit in. That’s the problem facing Anya Borzakovskaya in Vera Brosgol’s terrific debut graphic novel, "Anya’s Ghost." Brosgol, a talented comic and animation artist, skillfully blends a coming of age tale with a classic ghost story, creating a wonderful portrait of teenage life and the struggle for a sense of self identity.

Anya isn’t happy. She has trouble in school, can’t talk to a boy she has a crush on, and is slightly ashamed of her Russian heritage. But mostly she feels like an outsider with no one to call a true friend. After stumbling down an abandoned well one day, Anya discovers the skeletal remains of a person, and a ghost attached to those remains. The ghost, Emily, is delighted to find someone to talk to after years of isolation in the well, and takes a great interest in Anya. Anya is reluctant at first, but soon the two become friends, and Emily begins to devote her time to improving Anya’s social standing. Anya's grades improve, she’s more confident, and that cute boy Sean has taken a shine to her.

However, Anya soon learns there’s a price to be paid for her upward social mobility and assimilation, and Emily’s growing obsession with Anya’s life is a little bit creepy. The secret of Emily’s past is soon revealed, and Anya’s life will never be the same.

The Trials of Anya

The beauty of "Anya’s Ghost" is how well Brosgol captures the pain of growing up. Anya’s angst will feel all too familiar to many readers as she attempts to find her own sense of identity in high school. High school is in fact the perfect setting for a story such as this as it is a holding place for different kinds of people, all trying to create the best self-image for themselves. Some just do it better than others.

What helps Anya’s Ghost rise above the glut of young adult novels is its subtext of identity, particularly cultural identity. Initially Anya is ashamed of her Russian heritage, and insists her last name is the generic “Brown,” rather than Borzakovskaya, to a school administrator. She also tries to ignore the nerdy but kind Dima, a recent Russian immigrant and reminder of her own cultural heritage. Anya’s mom later laments that Anya hasn’t attended her Russian church in weeks.

Anya is a character who wants to ignore her background so she can assimilate into the popular crowd. Her goal throughout the novel in essence is to replace Sean’s girlfriend with herself. Emily gleefully abets Anya in her quest and constantly encourages Anya to push herself farther and farther. But near the story’s third act Anya realizes the consequences of her actions and what her denial could do to her life. She discovers Sean’s current girlfriend isn’t some dumb bimbo and Sean might not be the boy of her dreams.
Anya’s cultural anxiety is a great new spin on the tired “be yourself” maxim. She learns throughout the book that she can’t divorce herself from her background, as it informs so much of who she is. But she also comes to realize that she doesn’t have to be a slave to it either, and the book ends with Anya a little wiser and ready to move on with her life.

Ghostly Images

One definite highlight of the book is Brosgol’s art style. All the characters are drawn in a very round, appealing manner, with big expressive eyes and thick and thin lines. The characters both feel like classic cartoon characters (think 1940s comic strips), while still retaining a modern edge. Compared to the incredibly detailed designs of super hero comics and magna, Brosgol’s style is real breath of fresh air. Emily’s design in particular is very good as her swooping curves and pupil-less eyes create a nice ethereal look, as compared to Anya, who is more realistically drawn. The book’s limited purple-tone color palette is also quite striking and perfectly fits the story’s somber and reflective mood.

Brosgol served as a storyboard artist on the stop-motion feature, "Coraline," and the experience served her well as the staging in "Anya’s Ghost" is both very cinematic and very clear. At no point during the book will the reader ever be confused by the layout as Brosgol has a keen understanding of visual storytelling. Indeed there are a number of sequences in the book where Brosgol completely eschews dialogue, creating wordless scenes that accomplish an incredible amount of emotion and depth.

That depth is all the more remarkable considering "Anya’s Ghost" is Vera Brosgols’s first graphic novel, and hopefully not her last. Her story of teenage angst and cultural identity is a powerful one, and something any reader could appreciate and enjoy. While not every reader had a ghost as best friend during high school, the story’s emotional truth resonates well beyond the supernatural trappings.

For more of Vera Brosgol's artwork, check out her website Verabee.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Pictures at a Revolution - How the New Hollywood Got Its Start

The 1970s is generally considered to be one golden eras of American filmmaking. During this decade a new generation of filmmakers, who would later be dubbed “The New Hollywood,” created hundreds of films that confronted the changing nature of America with brutal honesty and a love of cinema. However, filmmaking revolutions do not happen in a day, and author Mark Harris believes the late 1960s was the breeding ground for this filmic schism. "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" uses the five Best Picture Academy Award nominees from 1967 to paint a picture of the Hollywood studio system in its decline and to show us how it gave birth to the New Hollywood.

Opening Night

Pictures at a Revolution tells the stories of 1967’s five Best Picture nominees: "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner," and "Dr. Doolittle." Harris tells the story each of film in a narrative fashion, beginning in 1963 with a look at the state of Hollywood at the time. As the decade wears on, the book intertwines between each film, documenting the films’ many production and personnel struggles. Harris ends the book at the 1967 Academy Awards held on April 10th, 1968 and briefly mentions the future for many the films’ participants.

Mark Harris’s greatest strength is his skill as a historian, as the amount of information in this book is truly staggering. The author has interviewed many of the key figures from the five films and uncovered an endless amount of archival interviews and news articles. Simply publishing a book of facts with no attempt to create a narrative would still make "Pictures at a Revolution" a must own; the information contained in the book is of incredible value to any film buff.

Thankfully Harris is no slouch at analysis as the book is fascinating portrait of the Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1960s. He convincing argues that the five films discussed are indicative of both the Old Hollywood studio system and the emerging New Hollywood style. "Dr. Doolittle" and "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" are representative of old-fashioned filmmaking techniques and dated cultural attitudes, according to Harris, while "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," and, to a lesser extent, "Into the Heat of the Night", embody the counter-cultural attitudes of a new generation of filmmakers. Harris sees the 1967 Oscars as the ultimate clash between the establishment and the rebels, and, not surprisingly, the least extreme of the New Hollywood’s films, "In the Heat of the Night," was the ultimate Best Picture winner.

Part of Harris’s strength is his ability to sympathize with and understand filmmakers he ultimately disagrees with. For example, Harris is no fan of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" but he sees it as a legitimately important film and thoroughly analyzes the attitudes of the film’s producer and director, Stanley Kramer. Much time is spent discussing Kramer and his philosophies; a man who saw himself as a political progressive but was hobbled by his compromising instincts, resulting in a director and producer who tackled difficult subjects matter but never wanted to offend anyone. Not surprisingly, he had trouble appealing to the counter-culture, and the book’s anecdotes of Kramer holding college campus screenings of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" are heartbreaking. Kramer so wants to fit in, but he can’t. He’s part of the Old Hollywood.

Closing Credits

If there’s one complaint to be had with "Pictures at a Revolution" it is that Harris skimps a bit at the end, and only provides mini-biographies for the book’s main participants that briefly discuss their careers post-1967. Unfortunately this does not cover the influence of the five films, particularly "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," very well. Much time is spent near the end of the book examining the two films’ incredible impact on audiences and Harris does an excellent job explaining how exciting and fresh the films were at the time. However, a discussion of the two film’s impact on other films and the New Hollywood of the 1970s in general would hammer Harris’s point home that they helped birth a filmmaking revolution.

That concern aside, "Pictures at a Revolution" is still an essential book, not only for film enthusiasts, but for anyone interested the changing landscape of film. Harris convincingly argues for the importance of the five films and how some reflected the attitudes of old-fashioned Hollywood values and others protested for counter-cultural change. By the book’s end the reader will have a deeper appreciation for not only the 1970s New Hollywood, but this time period as well. Hollywood was undergoing a massive number of growing pains, but it matured into something wonderful. Maybe it will happen again.