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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): La Mortadella, a 1971 film starring Sophia Loren, is your typical off-kilter, topsy turvy boy meets girl, girl meets sausage sort of love story involving working class family values in postwar Italy, JFK Airport Customs, a strapping young journalist-protagonist named Jock Fenner (William Devane) and the real star of the show, a big beautiful roll of Mortadella. As the literal English translation was Baloney, the film was given a sexier, spunkier and less meaty title, Lady Liberty. The plot turns on the sausage, as Maddalena (Loren) tries to enter America with this potentially dreadfully dangerous lunchmeat, that is really a wedding gift for her fiancé Luigi (Michele Bruni), a small town northern Italian guy, Communist-cum-capitalist, who moved to America to open a restaurant and forget the furling red flags of his youth. (To add to the twisted plot, it has been said that the sausage that stars in the film was of American origin because Italian sausage was actually banned in the US.) Maddalena, headstrong and hungry—and well before the days of Homeland Security—refuses to let her sausage be confiscated. Customs decides that if you can’t beat it, eat it, and everyone sits down to an illegal nibble in Headquarters. Directed by Mario Monicelli, screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and produced by Carlo Ponti (Loren’s husband) with appearances by a young Danny DeVito and a minor role with Susan Sarandon as Sally, the plot stretches much further than the confines of any baloney: you will be surprised with every slice. Bonus prize: Loren sings “La Storia di Maddalena,” “The Story of Maddalena,” complete with mandolins and groovy seventies sway.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer):The plot of Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme et une Femme (A Woman is a Woman) is fairly simple: Angela, a burlesque dancer, desperately wants a baby, but her boyfriend, Emile, does not. So Angela pursues the rakish Albert, who is more than happy to accommodate her. What ensues is a sweet but gently melancholic farce that blends French New Wave with classic American musical aesthetics.
The characters of Une Femme et une Femme are beautiful and awkward. Godard’s candid direction allows them to shift restlessly, from scene to scene, pushing and pulling between clever dialogue and angsty glances. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s always-moving camera and the disarming soundtrack of Michel Legrand work together brilliantly. As Emile says at one point, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.”
Diane Chonette (Art Director):It used to be that my guilty pleasure on my husband’s school nights was to watch episodes of Girls. Now, however, I have changed gears completely and am delighting in watching BBC’s Call the Midwife. Yes, it’s sweet and innocent and full of babies, but it’s also smart and engaging and a thoughtful commentary on the culture of London’s East End in the late 1950′s. I have to admit that I’ve gotten misty more than once over the birth of yet another baby into a society of impoverished yet loving mothers. I’m only 4 episodes into the first series but am already anxious for the next installment. Unfortunately that means waiting until the next school night!
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor): The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner: I know, I know. You’ve heard it all by now. Praise here, there, and everywhere. The prose that’s slick without being shallow, the management of time and memory. The way Reno emerges on the page as a both a fully-developed character and a kind of cypher. It’s rare, phenomenally rare, for my experience of a piece of hyped-up art to equal, even exceed the hype, which is what happened in this case. It’s fitting, because though it’s set in the 70s, the book is all now. I’ve also been listening to Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, on my commute. The book’s candy. Best sports memoir I’ve come across to date. Sensitive and funny and self-aware. Totally worth it for tennis fans.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): I’ve been watching a lot of NBA games this month. The finals are getting close and though my team won’t be playing, I’ll be watching. I love everything about professional basketball: the talent, the pace, the personalities, the spectacle, even the fans and mascots. And, even though she has a lot of haters, I love listening to Doris Burke call games and give sideline interviews. Burke is the color analyst for ESPN college basketball, as well as some WNBA and NBA games on ESPN. TNT, in my mind, has a better crew but Burke is consistently good. She does her homework, knows insider information about players on the court, and brings an infectious enthusiasm to the game. And though my team didn’t make the big games, it’s been a pleasure listening to her.
Lance Cleland (Captain): A friend who knows my literary predilections recommended a spy novel earlier this month. I was shocked to learn it was by Joan Didion. I had somehow missed the memo on The Last Thing He Wanted. When I looked for her work on the shelf, I always went strait for some vintage copy of Play It as It Lays or to the early nonfiction, always passing over her last novel because the title was too vague, the cover image of file folders not helping the case against its dimness. But this book is anything but dull. The story of a daughter and father and the arms deal that brings them somewhat together is told at such a clip that I was forty pages deep before I had the thought that, damn, this is Didion at her best. Unsentimental and terse, she leans against the traditional architecture of the thriller and then slowly chips away at the foundation, inventing something the likes of which I have never read before. I love how nonjudgmental this work is. How there are no easily identifiable good or bad characters. There is just the world, the people in it, their actions and the consequences of them. Heartbreak masks itself as politics. Love comes in the form of a double-cross. Like a good spy, Didion has created a perfectly executed persona with The Last Thing He Wanted. She has disguised her genius in genre.