My hairdresser, Michelle, reads more books for fun these days than just about anyone else I know. When I make my twice-annual pilgrimage to her chair, she fills me in. This summer she re-read some Chuck Palahniuk, “always great.” She loved Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl. She discovered John Waters, the writer, “Fun to read. I love his movies, which reminds me, have you seen Cockettes?” A documentary about a psychedelic drag troupe in San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1960’s, it’s now on my list. But, don’t expect Waters. The film is related to Waters merely by associative leap. Back in Waters territory, we agree that a trip to his actual stomping grounds, a trip to Baltimore aka “Charm City” aka “The City that Reads,” is in order.
Michelle regularly uses her visits to other cities as excuses to try out experiences she discovers in books, and she is off soon, not to B-more, but to Chicago, for a visit with friends and to eat Swedish food. When I think of Swedish food, I think of the Ikea food court, and I’m not particularly excited. So, why Swedish food? Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Michelle devoured them all this summer. Likewise, she devoured, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette, the biography that Sofia Coppola adapted to the film starring Kirsten Dunst. “I liked thinking of the images from Coppola’s film while I read the book.”
Not everyone does. “Read the book first,” comes to mind. You couldn’t drag me, for example, to see the film adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia. Ever. The stories populate my imagination and my memories from childhood reading in such a way that I don’t want anyone else’s vision disrupting the picture. My students, however, are mighty pleased when I assign both book and film adaptation on my syllabi. I suspect that many of them skip the reading altogether in favor of the screening, and it always makes me a little sad. But, I can’t really blame them. I’m guilty of scrapping literary source for film adaptation in more than a few cases. I’m likely to be among those who forego Larsson’s trilogy for its movie adaptations, providing I even see those.
One lovely film adaptation, for which I have yet to read the book, is a rarely talked about Helena Bonham Carter film from 1995. Shot in one of my favorite places on the planet—Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia—Margaret’s Museum, is adapted from Sheldon Currie’s The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum. A love story turns dark, when all the men in Margaret’s life are taken by the mines and mining, and is ultimately transformed in surprising ways, when Margaret creates a stunning monument to them in response. Carter’s performance along with those of Kate Nelligan and Clive Russell are worth the price of admission. The music, too—Cape Breton Island is renowned for its Celtic sounds. But the Island itself compels me most, in part because the footage of it connects me to times when I made my living on boats sailing those waters.
This intertextuality—book to film to food to life—seems to be at the heart of Michelle’s reading, too. The books (and films) come alive to her, not just because the worlds they contain are vibrant, but because she integrates these worlds into her other worlds. She consumes the books in multiple ways and integrates them into who she is. “You Are What You Eat,” a poster in my grade school cafeteria promised. Perhaps we are also what we read. This summer, Michelle’s a little bit divine, a little bit meatball, a little bit rococo and never, ever boring.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on August 28, 2010