Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Celebrity Chekhov, adapted and celebritized by Ben Greenman

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2010

It's about: In this collection of stories, Ben Greenman has placed modern-day celebrities in famous short stories by 19th-century writer Anton Chekhov. The cover has a sort of tagline that sums it up: "Classic stories... now with famous people!"

I thought: When I first heard about this book on the radio, months ago, I was amused and intrigued by the cleverness of the idea. So I was super excited when my in-laws gave me the collection for Christmas. And it was mildly amusing and sometimes oddly poignant, but I didn't adore the book as a whole as much as I had hoped I would.

Maybe I would have enjoyed Celebrity Chekhov more if I'd been a bigger fan of Chekhov to begin with. I've never read his stories, and this probably isn't the best way to be introduced to them. They're pretty melodramatic, almost all of the characters extremely emotional and/or on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Not really my style. The dialogue seemed dated, which actually worked beautifully in this situation. I loved the absurd idea of our modern celebrities speaking in exchanges like this:
"Nicole," cried [Paris Hilton] on seeing [Nicole Richie]. "Is it you? My dear girl! How many summers, how many winters!"
"Holy saints!" cried the short woman in amazement. "Paris! The friend of my childhood! Where have you dropped from?"
Haha! I just don't usually attribute a very high level of articulation or intelligence to most celebrities, so I liked the dialogue in most of these stories.

The back of the book claims that Greenman's experiment in adaptation has "oddly ennobling" results, and I'm not sure I'd take it that far. I will say that these stories humanize celebrities in a way that talk show interviews, award speeches, and taboids do not. Chekhov's characters have complex motivations and relationships, and we don't usually see that depth in actors, singers, and athletes. Ubiquitous as they are, none of us really know them. Even though these stories are fictional and only loosely related to events in celebrities' lives, they did make me consider those famous people more closely for a moment.

I'd love to hear a review from someone who knows the original stories. In fact, I'd be happy to loan out my copy of Celebrity Chekhov to somebody who really knows Mr. Anton, if that person would be willing to share his/her thoughts. Any takers?

Verdict: In between. Fairly entertaining, but not a "must read" or anything.

Reading Recommendations: I read the first few of these stories aloud to my husband in the car. Most of them are very short and well-suited to that situation. When I started reading them straight through on my own, I grew bored and tired of the gimmick. So I'd recommend reading these in small handfuls.

Warnings: One surprising and debasing sex act.

Favorite excerpts: Kim Kardashian shares the news of her new-found celebrity status in a story called "Joy":
"Kim Kardashian, with excited face and ruffled hair, flew into her family's house and hurriedly ran through all the rooms. Her parents had already gone to bed. Her sisters were awake, trying on lingerie. Her stepbrother was looking at himself in the mirror.
'Where have you come from?' her sister Khloe cried in amazement. 'What is the matter with you?'
'Oh, don't ask! I never expected it; no, I never expected it! It's positively incredible!'
Kim laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that she could not stand on her legs.
'It's incredible! You can't imagine! Look!'
Her other sister, Kourtney, threw a quilt around her and went in to fetch their stepbrother Brody. he came into the room, holding a hand mirror. Within a moment Kim's parents were in the room as well.
'What's the matter?' her mother said. 'You don't look like yourself!'
'It's because I am so happy. The whole world knows me! The whole world! Until now only you knew that there was a girl called Kim Kardashian, and now the whole world knows it! Mama! Thank heavens!'"

What I'm reading next: Still Life with Brass Pole by Craig Machen