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Bon Voyage: Our Five Book Events Worth the Trip

Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
The Strand
Tonight, 7pm, $10
Marriage is a tricky subject in film. This is probably because unlike, say, the central themes of Citizen Kane or many of the Terminators, the “marriage movie” concerns a topic that’s close to what many viewers either have, or will experience first hand, which is to say, touchy. And so then we get things like Bride Wars. In her new book, I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies (Knopf),  film historian Jeanine Basinger explores just how it became common place to have to see Kate Hudson and (Oscar winner!) Anne Hathaway extend manicured Wolverine nails, shredding each others’ gowns to pieces in an alter dust-up. She traces cinematic marriage representations from Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to Coach and his wife in Friday Night Lights, speculating about the ways Hollywood effects real life companionship. Basinger will read and talk film with social historian Sam Wesson.

Matthew Goodman
Barnes & Noble 86th & Lexington
Tonight, 7pm, Free
Those who imagine the prototypical New York newspaperman as scrappy and gruff and, namely, a man, are probably forgetting about Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly. In 1889, at a time when most women couldn’t travel let alone manage to walk down the street without succumbing to a swoon, these two rival reporters challenged each other to a race around the world, determined to beat the record suggested by Jules Verne in his then-wildly popular new story. Bisland, a highly educated Southern aristocrat set off west by train, while Bly, a (comparatively) hardened investigator from Pennsylvania coal country hopped ship across the Atlantic. Brooklynite Matthew Goodman chronicles their travels in Eighty Days (Random House), his new pop history that–oddly for an account of two fact-committed journalists–editorializes the hell out of just about everything. But it’s all for the better with a story so sensationalist that it begs to be a novel. So eat/pray/love your heart out, Elizabeth Gilbert. Goodman will read and discuss tonight.

Domenica Ruta and Emma Straub
Greenlight Bookstore
Tonight, 7:30pm, Free
Gary Shteyngart, a fellow author familiar with leaving home, complements Domenica Ruta on haven “done something that every artist with a failed family must do: She has created herself.” After growing up in Danvers–one of the less-quaint suburbs of the Greater Boston Area–with a drug-addicted mother in a broken home, this type of self-invention-despite-or-maybe-even-because-of crappy circumstances is the universal that makes Ruta’s otherwise intensely personal memoir relatable. With or With Out You (Spiegel & Grau) is a kind of gritty independence narrative that puts every “problem” ever represented on Girls to head-hanging shame. Ruta describes her struggle with the decision to cut ties with her charismatic mother, whom she loves, in order to pursue a life outside the edicts of drugs and their various dealers. She will chat with Brooklyn literary sweetheart Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead) at this book launch.

Kate Hosford
McNally Jackson
Saturday, 11:30am, Free
We don’t cover children’s literature very often, but we’ve got to love it when somebody gives the kids some credit. Not since Maurice Sendak’s We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy–a nursery rhyme about the ’90s AIDS crisis and the graphic horrors of street life–has something so clearly been designed to give precocious little heads some precocious little headaches. Hosford’s new storybook, Infinity and Me (Carolrhoda Books), is intended for children who suffer from adorable, mini existential crises or any kind of vertiginous me-in-relation-to-the-universe anxiety. One night Uma, the grade school heroine, undergoes an Extreme Makeover: Brain Edition as she stares up at the stars. Throughout the story, she tries to reconcile the idea of infinity in all its conceptual forms, giving way to a whole lot of illustrations featuring troubled-looking children, tiny brows furrowed as they contemplate some of the more hair-raising notions of abstract mathematics. There’s also an impressive representation of the whole Kantian debacle about a pretemporal void versus, like, your standard lemniscate-shaped theory of an elapsing infinity–portrayed mostly in pictures and text at a third-grade reading level, of course. An elementary school kid that Hosford, a social worker and teacher, interviewed as part of her research described infinity as “A cat that eats forever and never needs to use the bathroom.” We think that pretty much sums it up. Hosford will read, sign, and take questions.

Sam Lipsyte
Book Court
Tuesday, 7pm, Free
One of those little praise quotations on the jacket of Lipsyte’s new story collection The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)–you know, the ones that are rarely even referring to the novel in question anyway–states “Everybody should read Sam Lipsyte.” Well thank you, Time. While normally we would cringe a bit at this type of intended mass-market appeal, we think it’s high time Lipsyte flew out of the indie pidgeonhole. Fun Parts employs many of the same tactics of all your best post-war, post-television comedic fiction. It’s got the rapid, but also spot-on rhythmic dialogue of–and this is gut-sourced free association here–John Kennedy Toole, with something of Günter Grass’s sheer joy in absurd physical grotesquerie (re: high-minded shit jokes). The 13 shorts tend to be about unsavory topics like obesity, the apocalypse, and high school in New Jersey. They’re dark, but then intensely alive-feeling, that is, if being alive means being really gross and emotionally spastic all the time–which it does. Join Lipsyte for a reading, Q&A, and signing at the release party.

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Jeanine Basinger Explains Why There’s So Few Great Marriage Movies

There’s a reason, beyond basic Judd Apatow oversaturation, that hardly anyone went to see his mewl of middle-aged despair This Is 40. A movie about a marriage already in progress—as opposed to one about a marriage just waiting to happen, the province of the romantic comedy—is always a tough sell. Forget that marriage movies offer fewer opportunities for full-on movie-star glamour (not that we get enough of that these days, anyway). There’s something soul-killing about watching Leslie Mann dress down Paul Rudd while he’s perched on the john. Real marriage involves enough toilet-bowl diplomacy as it is. Why go the movies to see it?

Jeanine Basinger pinpoints the problem in her perceptive and nimble book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. Making movies that are truly about the state of being married has always been a thorny proposition. “Marriage, after all, was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade,” Basinger writes in her introduction. (She doesn’t say anything about toilets, but then, she doesn’t have to.) “Worst of all,” she continues, “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give to it. A good story was usually a story in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics.”

Considering how hard it is to make a decent marriage movie, Basinger has dug up a surprising number of them for this book, her tenth. She approaches the subject with a sense of adventure that’s something like the euphoric energy that makes people crazy enough to put a gold ring on the third finger in the first place. Her prose is fluid and adamantly unacademic, whether she’s outlining and analyzing the plot details of a Depression-era picture about the pratfalls of hasty marriage—the way, for example, James Stewart and Carole Lombard stumble toward potential happiness in the 1939 Made for Each Other—or launching into a dazzling riff on the rambunctious yet delicately calibrated partnership of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. (That show isn’t, of course, a marriage movie, but it exploded previous notions of how marriage—and pregnancy—could be portrayed onscreen).

Basinger begins with the silent era, in which comic actors like Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand depicted “wretched marital behavior”—including Mabel throwing things and Fatty falling down a lot, with occasional intervention by the police or an organ grinder and his monkey—to draw the audience into a misery-loves-company embrace. “What made it work,” Basinger writes, “was that although the movies were saying ‘marriage is a disaster’ they were also winking and adding, ‘but it’s our disaster.’ ” She nominates Cecil B. DeMille for the title “Father of the American Movie Marriage,” pointing out that the director’s Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife? “nailed down the pattern of serenity, chaos and restored order that wouldn’t be abandoned by marriage movies for decades to come.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to movies made under the studio system, addressing the ways Hollywood struggled to find new and engaging obstacles to throw in the path of its ring-bound couples. Basinger boils down a short list of the movies’ basic threats to happily-ever-afters: money, infidelity and/or adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder. The first two, of course, are the most common, but Basinger really gets cooking when it comes to murder and addiction. Her breakdown of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life, “a monster movie in which the monster is a very nice husband,” captures the picture’s sense of reluctant hopelessness. James Mason plays a loving husband and father who’s transformed into an aggressive megalomaniac when he begins taking doctor-prescribed cortisone; wife Barbara Rush and son Christopher Olsen suffer immeasurably. Basinger notes that the happy conclusion is “neither convincing nor reassuring.”

Basinger spends the last section of the book, a very small chunk, on movies of the modern era, addressing pictures like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn but also enlarging the conversation to television shows like Friday Night Lights. But the best parts of I Do and I Don’t are somewhere in the middle—the section, for example, where Basinger contrasts the three film versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, made in 1934 (with Greta Garbo), 1957 (titled The Seventh Sin and starring Eleanor Parker) and 2006 (with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton). “With different shadings about the importance of love, the need for sex, the issues of motherhood, obedience, couples working together, reputations ruined by affairs,” Basinger concludes, “The Painted Veil offers options to each generation, and each era can make the Painted Veil it needs.”

It’s a shame This Is 40 was released just before the book’s publication. Basinger would have found a lot of meat there, but it’s probably safe to say that the picture’s poor us, with our too-big house and our not-quite-satisfactory sex life self-indulgence wouldn’t have escaped her. Not much escapes Basinger in I Do and I Don’t. In her introduction, she notes that when she first conceived the idea for the book, friends like Molly Haskell and David Thomson warned her of the dangers ahead. But then, embarking on a book like this is just as chancy an enterprise as getting into that shaky “I Do” boat and pushing offshore. In I Do and I Don’t, Basinger navigates the choppy waters deftly, and somehow, the strain of paddling rarely shows.