“The Book Is Always Better” read a sign perched on top of a stack of Harry Potters and Twilights in the Harvard Coop bookstore last spring. I remembered the sign waiting in line to see director Joe Wright’s new AnnaKarenina, adapted by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
IMDB lists twenty-seven movie and TV versions of Anna K, going back to 1907. The 700-page book has also been made into at least four ballets and ten operas.
I’m not a screenwriter, but I imagine the elevator pitch goes something like: “Whaddya think, boss? Beautiful high-society woman married to a stiff finds passionate love with a handsome officer, and her husband and society treat her so bad she throws herself in front of a train. Not bad, eh?”
Anna Karenina: The Movie. If the Book Is So Great, Why Do We Need Adaptations?
Everyone has sat on a gray, metal folding chair: waiting at the DMV, as an extra guest at a dinner table, working in a makeshift office. Tanya Aguiñiga, a Los Angeles-based designer, transforms this ubiquitous piece of furniture in her series, Felt Chairs. Aguiñiga spends up to twenty laborious hours lovingly hand-felting each simple folding chair, covering it in vibrant color. Metal becomes a skeleton for bright and singular textured felt, akin to skin. What was cold is now warm, what was common is now individual. How we place ourselves in this chair has changed entirely.
The town of Alvo, Nebraska, is like a lot of other small Midwestern towns whose best days are behind it; and those days weren’t exactly eventful to begin with. After decades of population loss there remain four structures in Alvo that a visitor can enter without trespassing: the grain co-op, a Methodist church, a post office, and Mel’s Mini-mart — a converted room in a small house selling canned soup, Hostess snack cakes, and other items with long shelf lives. Across from the post office is a tidy but barren park. If prosaic comforts and tight-knit community are the calling cards of small town life, they aren’t obvious here. With few places to gather and nothing but the cornfields of agribusiness on the horizon, Alvo has only quiet anonymity and rock bottom real estate to offer.
It all started with Googlemaps. I was researching a neighborhood in NW Washington, DC, where I wanted to set a story. The area had to meet certain requirements: no more than x number of Metro stops from a town in Maryland; a mostly African-American neighborhood in the early 1970s, which would later gentrify. The house I envisioned was a brick row-house just above street level, with a porch, and a wrought-iron gate, next door to a somewhat unkempt house that had a chain-link fence and a concrete slab in place of grass. It had to be within walking distance from a park. My research brought me to Pleasant Plains, and I clicked the “street view” icon—that little orange man you can click-and-drag around the map in order to see actual images of a street.
Annals of Mobility: On Stories of Return, Not Exactly
“That’s the best date I ever had,” I said. I was speaking to the young women with the latte skin and uncovered, long dark hair, but also to the serious-looking Emirati man who had wandered over because I was the only thing happening. Mid-week, midafternoon, the date festival was nearly deserted, save a few clusters of Indian men, single Western men in suits with briefcases, and a grumpy woman with big glasses. I suppose I was expecting this man, this representative of Al Foah, one of the largest date producers in the UAE, to be impressed somehow, or at least gratified, by my enthusiasm. I wasn’t exaggerating. The fruit had a thin, melting skin and a pillowy interior, the flavor rich, heady with sweetness and spice. (Hints of cardamom and apricot?) The serious man asked where I was from, and I proceeded to disappoint him with my ignorance about the production and sale of dates in the United States. Yes, I did think that dates had become more visible in grocery stores over the past five years, though I couldn’t say what varieties. Medjool? I did know that California was a hub, but, by then, I’d lost him.
From the 17th Floor: A Shelter and a Point of View
I have a friend who says he simply cannot trust somebody who doesn’t like garlic. Though I wouldn’t go that far, I’m taken aback when someone spurns an olive.
To me, olives are the most sublime of all things pluckable from a tree—and what a tree it is, l’ulivo, with those feathery silver-green leaves that shimmer in sunlight, glint in brisk winds, glimmer after rain… The slender branches are extremely strong yet flexible; they don’t mind a good stiff shake. The bark of an olive tree is gorgeous, too, with a patina of silver that softens its rough grey-brown wrinkles. Then there are the tree’s roots—admirable contortionists, able to twist around big rocks and support trees canted at odd angles on steeply terraced hills.
Over the echoing Skype line my parents mention seeing a northern harrier on the outskirts of Ottawa. Perched on a post as they drove along, it had leaned into the air to sail off across the fields, a pearl-gray ghost slipping away. Still speaking, I pull The Sibley Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America from the bookcase beside me. I leaf backwards through the waders and rails, overshooting the raptors to land amidst ducks and geese before paging my way forward to find the harrier. I then press the illustration up to the webcam, trying my best to keep it steady. “That’s the one,” says my father, smiling back at me on the screen.
In this month’s author Q&A, Melody Nixon speaks with Nicola Waldron about finding and feeling at home, the American Dream versus the British Dream, and wanderlust. Waldron’s essay “The Land Up North” appeared in Issue No. 04 of The Common.
MN: In your essay “The Land Up North” you write about the sense of security and possibility afforded you by the land that you and your husband bought in the Catskills. The essay is poetically written, highly evocative of place, and has an appealing lightness of language. Who are your influences? Do you read mainly nonfiction?
NW: That essay was written when I was reading a lot of nonfiction. Dinah Lenney, the author of “Bigger than Life,” was my teacher at Bennington and is one of my great hero-mentors. She recommended to me Abigail Thomas’s work, especially her book “Safekeeping,” and my essay was written in response to that book. I’d also just been reading Jo Ann Beard.
The Question of Home: An Interview with Nicola Waldron
This literary map of the United States, which pins American writers to their places of birth, got me wondering if certain stories exist apart from writers, and the trick (no small trick) is in discovering them in the landscape. Huck Finn seems more bound to the Mississippi River than to Mark Twain’s imagination. And if Tennessee Williams had never been born, I wouldn’t be surprised if some other writer bumped into Blanche Dubois.
Every once in a while you encounter one of these inevitable-seeming stories, a yarn so intimately linked to its place of origin that you automatically pull up a chair. For me that happened most recently when I read the first line of Frank Bill’s Op-Ed in The New York Times:
“Used to be, every year around deer season, there was a story that got told in my family…”