Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 movie version of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Book Review:
Gone with the Wind (1936)
by Margaret Mitchell

   Gone with the Wind is a brick, first of all.  The hard back version I checked out from the San Diego Public Library was full 8.5 x 11 dimensions and close to a thousand pages.  A thousand pages! Gone with the Wind is both a top ten novel and film in terms of popularity for those art forms. Gone with the Wind was the first and only novel that Margaret Mitchell wrote. In 2015, more people are familiar with the 1939 film but the book has sold 30 million copies.  It's the second most popular novel behind the Bible with American audiences.

  Make no mistake- Gone with the Wind is racist as HELL.  It is UNBELIEVABLE how virulently racist Gone with the Wind is.  Annnddd.... even though Gone with the Wind is written about the 19th century, it was published in 1936 and everyone LOVED it.  I don't know that GwtW is defensible in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin- a book written during the 19th century by an ardent abolitionist.

  In terms of literary antecedents, Scarlett O'Hara most resembles Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.  The amount of literary merit one accords to GwtW is likely to tie closely to ones opinion about the literary merit of Vanity Fair.  If you haven't read Vanity Fair, you should probably read that book before you read this book.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Story of a Prostitute (1965) by Seijun Suzuki

Movie Review
Story of a Prostitute (1965)
by Seijun Suzuki
Criterion Collection #299

  This will be 40th post labeled "Japanese Literature" on this blog.  I think maybe 2 of those posts are about books, so I might as well change the label to "Japanese film."  Out of all the directors I've watched, Seijun Suzuki is probably my favorite on the strength of his anarchic b-movies like Branded to Kill (1967.)   I suppose, at some level, it is possible to connect the somber pre-World War II melodrama Story of a Prostitute with the crazy crime noir Suzuki would turn out later in the 1960s, but that level is not the films have a similar feel, style or look.

  Story of Prostitute is about a volunteer(!) comfort woman serving in Manchuria (northern China) during the Japanese invasion of that area, prior to the start of our World War II.  Comfort Women are still in the news in the twentieth century, but only in the form of Korean women who were forced to serve as comfort women later during the period of Japanese military aggression in the mid 20th century.  Harumi(played by Yomiko Nogawa) is a Japanese prostitute who signs up as a comfort woman to spite a wealthy client who had falsely promised marriage.

 Serving in the occupied territory of Manchuria, she is torn between the overbearing Lieutenant Narita (winningly portrayed by Isao Tamagawa) and the bookish Private Mikami (Tamio Kimachi.)  Anyone who has watched any of the Japanese films involving prostitutes and their lives in various periods of Japanese history will not be surprised to learn that it does not end well for Harumi.

  The source material- a Tajiro Tamura was a critical look at Japanese culture as well as a tragic love story, but its easy to see how the critical perspective on Japanese military culture might be missed or "lost in the translation" between cultures.  The aggressive pre-war Japanese military culture stands somewhere between the way the English feel about their empire and the way the Germans feel about the Nazis- a complicated attitude to be sure.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Empire's Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day by Carrie Gibson

The Caribbean, a map.

Empire's Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day
by Carrie Gibson
Atlantic Monthly Press
Published November 11th, 2014

  Currently occupying the number one slot in the Amazon category for Caribbean & West Indies History category, Empire's Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day is a genuine hit in the category, and since Gibson is a sober, responsible scholar I'd feel remiss in doing anything other than giving it a hardy thumbs up.  I think probably the acknowledged touch stone for any scholarship, popular or scholarly (Empire's Crossroads is a kind of academic/popular hybrid title) on the Caribbean is Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History
by Daniel Mintz, Penguin Press (Non Classics Division) p. 1986.

  I read Sweetness and Power back in 2010.  Sweetness and Power isn't strictly speaking, a Caribbean history title, but rather a history of sugar.  But the history of sugar is the history of the Caribbean, so sugar, and Sweetness and Power are the foundational work for any understanding of the history of the Caribbean.  To her distinct credit, Gibson acknowledges the influence of Sweetness and Power but to her credit she tries to build on the approach and tells the story up the present day more or less.

  Some of the negative reviewers on Amazon have mentioned a "liberal bias" but you'd have to be a real tea party wacko to NOT see the Caribbean as a case study for many of the colonial and economic problems the face the developing world.  In a sense, the Caribbean is THE location to look at the "problems of globalization."    Any writer who tries to ignore the negative side of American and Western involvement in shaping the present of the Caribbean is missing out on a major, major theme of Caribbean history.

   It would have been nice to see a fuller treatment of Central America and the Yucatan of Mexico, which has MANY Caribbean features in terms of economy, culture and climate  and is ignored entirely. The narrative structure is strongest in the colonial period, after the fracture between independent and colonial populations makes Caribbean wide generalizations difficult. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Parentheses (1937) by David Jones

Book Review
In Parentheses (1937)
 by David Jones

  This is an "epic poem" about the experience of fighting in World War I.  I have to be about 20 deep on World War I fighting books at this point, which left me wondering is In Parentheses is really one of the 1001 Books I need to read prior to my demise.  The foreword by T.S. Eliot is like a kiss of death in terms of whether there was any chance I might actually enjoy In Parentheses.  This is the second book in a month that has come with a "classic" T.S. Eliot foreword, but the editors of the 1001 Books project don't actually include any T.S. Eliot poems, leaving me wondering why they would essentially include books on his say-so but not include any of his own work.  Surely The Wasteland is something that one should read before one dies?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier

A still from the Alfred Hitchcock film version of Rebecca

Book Review
Rebecca (1938)
by Daphne Du Maurier

  I bought a new paperback edition of Rebecca at an independent bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire.  Rebecca is a genre hit- with the Alfred Hitchcock film helping maintain its evergreen status in book stores. Because Rebecca is a straight up genre exercise, any discussion of the plot risks the disclosure of "spoilers."  Suffice it to say that Rebecca continues to be read today because it is a very good, very fun book.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Under The Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry

Cuernavaca Mexico, the inspiration for the fictional town at the center of Under The Volcano.

Book Review
Under The Volcano (1947)
 by Malcolm Lowry

  I'm not a slave to chronology when it comes to the 1001 Books project, and I jumped to the mid 1940s so I could buy Under The Volcano in a Concord Massachusetts book store the day before I flew off to Mexico for a week.  The thought of myself reading a paperback edition of Under The Volcano proved irresistible to me, and the fact that there was a brand new paperback edition of Under The Volcano sitting on the shelf in TWO SEPARATE random New England independent book stores (the other was in Exeter New Hampshire, and I actually bought a different book before buying Under The Volcano in Concord.  The very availability of Under The Volcano even on the shelf in multiple bookstores is solid evidence that it is a solid-gold classic of Modern Literature.

   The simple explanation of the popularity of Under The Volcano probably has to do with the combination of hard core alchoholism and the Mexican setting.  Lowry himself was a huge alcoholic- the drink killed him- and Under The Volcano crackles with realism in that regard.  There's also a cosmological/numerological aspect that manifests in the division of the book into twelve chapters happening over the course of a single dead, the "Day of the Dead."

  Perhaps I was overly influenced by the experience of actually reading this book on the porch of a converted Hacienda/luxury hotel deep in the Yucatan jungle, but I couldn't argue with the idea that this one of the top novels of the 20th century, a combination of D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, with a foreshadowing of the post-colonial literature of the mid to late 20th century.  It is a heady mix, and if you haven't gotten to Under The Volcano, you well ought to.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) by George Orwell

This is an example of an Aspidistra, a house plant that Orwell uses as a symbol of respectability and homage to the "money god."

Book Review
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
 by George Orwell

  I studied in London my junior year of undergraduate, and while I was there I wrote a term paper on George Orwell.  One of the subjects that Orwell covers is the experience of being poor in a big city.  Most notably in his "tramping adventure" non-fiction work of Down and Out in London and Paris but also in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is a memorable fictional work about Gordon Comstock, an erstwhile ad copywriter determined to make it as a poet.  An "Aspidistra" is a houseplant that Orwell/Comstock uses as a symbol of lower middle class bourgeois conformity.   Keep the Aspidistra shows its age, but personally I've found Orwell's critique of the perils of poverty to be convincing, and though I hadn't read Aspidistra before,  Down and Out in London and Paris deeply influenced my personal decision to go to law school instead of "being a writer."

  Decades later, and I'm happy with the decision, and Aspidistra simply reminded me of why I made the decision in the first place.  Poverty is bad enough, but avoidable poverty is the worst.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wild Harbour (1936) by Ian Macpherson

Book Review
Wild Harbour (1936)
by Ian Macpherson

  I can't remember the last 1001 Books title that hasn't had it's own Wikipedia page.  Wild Harbour, by Scottish novelist Ian Macpherson has to be one of the most obscure titles thus far simply for that reason.   It's a shame that Wild Harbour is so obscure, because it is actually one of my top ten books for the last 12 months or so.  Half survival narrative in the fine tradition of Robinson Crusoe and his progeny, half dystopian futurism,  Wild Harbour also features a well observed Scottish highlands(?) locale and an engaging love story between the two lead characters, who pack up and leave in the early days of a (fictional) World War II set some time in the near future.

   The transition from traditional-ish survival story to a depiction of an anarchic English country side is a clear influence on popular current dystopian narratives:  Fans of The Road by Cormac McCarthy and the book or movie version of Children of Men will recognize the influence of this book on those books.  Generally speaking, the world-systems perspective of serious fiction is conservative, with authors firmly rooted in the upper-middle class concerns of property inheritance and marriage protocol, with an increasing interest in corresponding concerns among the working classes.  The idea of writing fiction in a world where government is absent is not particularly new, but the setting that world after the collapse of the current social system is.  Wild Harbour merits attention for its early depiction of a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Years (1937) by Virginia Woolf

Book Review
The Years (1937)
 by Virginia Woolf

 With six titles included in the 1001 Books list, Virginia Woolf is what you call a "major twentieth century author."  She is also one of the top three modernist authors and a prominent publisher.  She also killed herself.  Virginia Woolf, above all else, is a hugely taught author, in that students studying literature in English speaking countries are likely to read her work as part of any course of study.  While she has a popular audience simply from having generations of students being exposed to her work, she's not an author with an enduring hit or hits that has been endlessly cycled through the organs of mass media and popular films and television shows in the manner of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.

 The Years was the last novel that Woolf wrote before her death, and it is also the best selling and most read novel.



Monday, January 19, 2015

Harakiri (1962) d. Masaki Kobayashi

Movie Review
Harakiri (1962)
 d. Masaki Kobayashi
Criterion Collection #309

  There are a good number of Criterion Collection titles I've already seen, but not written about.  If you add that amount to the 231 films I've covered here, I'm probably closing in on 400 films watched, and that is almost half the collection. Of the films remaining that I haven't written about here and haven't seen already, about half of them are available on Amazon streaming video and the other half... Maybe from the library?  I'd need a DVD player?  That's really the "end game" portion of the Criterion Collection project.

 The reason I bring up all the films I've already seen is that they are without a doubt the "easiest" films on the list- mostly Hollywood pictures- Robocop, Brazil, etc.  That means that a disproportionate number of the films I've written about here- the ones I've actually watched as part of the Criterion Collection project, are the 'difficult' Criterion Collection titles.  It really gives a distorted view of what the Criterion Collection is about, because I'm leaving out all the "fun" movies.

  SO when I say that Harakiri, the 1962 movie by Masaki Kobayashi is about the practice of Japanese Ritual Suicide, I don't want people thinking that EVERY Criterion Collection title is about a Japanese dude falling in love with a ghost, or a 17th century historical drama centered around Seppuku (Japanese Ritual suicide.)  In case you are wondering: No, Kobayashi does not employ any techniques to lessen or otherwise mitigate the intensity of a man killing himself by disemboweling himself and in fact heightens it by having a character kill himself using a BAMBOO sword.

  The featurette of Japanese film scholar Donald Richie introducing Harakiri is most helpful, and its a reminder about how much those featurettes add to the viewing of a movie you might otherwise not "get."  For example, Richie implies that Kobayashi's use of the informal Harakiri instead of the more formal Seppuku is meant to indicate the critical nature of Kobayashi's attitude towards the Samurai conception of honor.

  Harakiri works as a criticism of government, and government bureaucracy and in this way it is very much a film of the 1960s, and stands out further from the mainstream of social thought (without being radical) in terms of questioning the idea of justice.

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