VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies(2020) by Deesha Philyaw

Author Deesha Philyaw
Book Review
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (2020)
by Deesha Philyaw

    The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was the last of the 2020 National Book Award finalists in the fiction category I was able to secure- the LA Public Library finally picked up the Audiobook version, though I certainly would have bought a copy if I'd seen it in a bookstore.  The publisher is West Virginia University Press, and I'm pretty sure I've never read another book from that imprint, and it makes me wonder why this obviously sharp collection of short-stories about the lives of African American women in the rural/suburban America didn't pique more interest from an established publisher.

    It was an enjoyable listen- Philyaw has a sharp eye for domestic detail that reminded me of Alice Munro.  I look forward to future books from her, hopefully a novel, but there is no doubt that the National Book Award nomination will ensure that she has a greater choice of publishers for her next book.

  

Chancer (1985) by James Kelman


Book Store
Chancer (1985)
by James Kelman

   I wouldn't have thought that a New Year's Eve trip to Montreal in 2019 would end up being the last time I took a trip anywhere for two years, but here we are, a year later, and I haven't been to an airport since I arrived back at LAX on January 1st of 2020.  I always like to buy a book when I go to a new city, and I found this cool paperback edition of Chancer by Scottish author James Kelman in a fun little book shop on the north side of town (S.W. Welch Bookseller.)  James Kelman is a classic 1001 Books author- his 1994 novel, How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994, and The Busconductor Hines, his first novel, published in 1984, is another 1001 Books pick.

  Considering his bibliography runs 20 deep if you count all the short-story collections and novels, he's barely in print in the United States.  His most recent short story collection, Tales of Here & Then, published last year, doesn't even have an Amazon product listing.  So that is why I bought this Picador paperback copy of Chancer- in excellent condition, which is a 1990's era reprint.    I don't even think an American edition of this book exists.

   Similar to The Busconductor Hines, Chancer is a tale of working-class Glasgow youth.  Here, the youth in question is Tammas.  He lives with his sister and her husband- no word of the parents.  He makes his 'living' via the Sporting Life, betting on dogs and horses, usually at off-track betting sites in Glasgow.   He carries on a taciturn affair with an older woman who has a child, his social life is going to the pub and gambling- at the pub it's cards and dominos.   Tammas isn't the kind of dead-ender that one expects from the Irvine Welsh era of Scottish fiction, rather he's a young guy trying to figure out his path in the world. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Movie Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938) d. Alfred Hitchcock

The Lady Vanishes
Criterin Collection cover for The Lady Vanishes d. Alfred Hitchcock

Movie Review
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
d. Alfred Hitchcock
Criterion Collection #3

  The question of whether movies (or "film" or "cinema) is literature is very important to this blog- even if I do go half a decade or more without seriously addressing the question here.  Now that I'm back to it (the last stand alone Criterion Collection review was in 2015), I'm back to thinking about the  literature /movies/film/cinema issue.   If you wanted to sketch out the major schools of thought on the issue, you can look at it in the context of the American/Western University system, where films are typically taught as literature to undergraduates, with a narrower band of technical education that typically takes place outside of the question of film as literature.

   On the one side you've got the actually Professors and students of film.  The Professors are typically Professors of literature.  The distinction is less important to the students, many of whom may reasonably prefer movies to the more traditional forms of literature, poetry, novels, short stories.  Because the idea that film was a type of literature to be studied only happened after World War II, all Professors of Film take a post-modernist perspective on the ideas of literature, so they all question the distinction even as they benefit from it.

  On the other side you've got the Professors in the more traditional lines of Literature- World Literature, American Literature, 20th Century Literature, Poetry, Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, Etc.   Those people are naturally going to resent/dislike Professors of Film because they take jobs from these same traditional Professor types.  There is also some prejudice against the idea of moving images as art, and the broad technical and monetary restrictions on making a work of film as literature. 

   Alfred Hitchcock is interesting because he represents a key moment in the transformation of movies into a form of literature, in that he was the artist who inspired Francois Truffaut to coin the term "auteur" back in 1954.  After the term came into common usage, film had its "author" -a prestige denied to the actual writers of films, who were and continue to be viewed as mere technical support.   The whole idea of the auteur then inspired scholars and fans to go back to film before 1954 and re-evaluate film makers for auteur status.   This is another very important example of how artistic reputation is often rejudged decades after the work is published. 

   Using the example of The Lady Vanishes, it was the third Criterion Collection film.  That is despite the fact that, as the accompanying materials make clear, The Lady Vanishes was considered a thriller b-movie type production by the English studio providing the financing.    One of the points that Truffaut makes in his discussion with Hitchcock that appears in audio format in the extras of the Criterion Collection edition is that he has seen The Lady Vanishes multiple times, and will go in saying that he is going to focus on the technical acuity that Hitchcock displays, but instead he gets swept into the story and forgets to look.  That is the essence of great art.   Indeed, I quite enjoyed The Lady Vanishes even though I've never been a fan of Hitchcock.   Part of it has to do with the fact that his films aren't that widely shown.

  I'm sure all Criterion Channel has is his early English films.  They should really let those movies out to breath somewhere!

Movie Review: A Night to Remember (1958) d. Roy Ward Baker

A Night to Remember
Cover of the Criterion Collection edition of A Night to Remember (1958) d. Roy Ward Baker

Movie Review
A Night to Remember (1958)
d. Roy Ward Baker
Criterion Collection #7

   Billed as "the best movie ever made about the Titanic disaster" (take that James Cameron), A Night to Remember ultimately may be more memorable for it's low number position in the Criterion Collection: #7!!!  It was enjoyable to watch- every time I watch a Criterion Collection movie from the good old days I am struck anew by how much the digital restoration helps to appreciate the film.   Honestly, the ease that the Criterion Channel has brought to the watching experience makes me question why I would ever watch a contemporary film again.  

  One of the takeaways from this fact-based film is that a major cause of the disaster was the overloading of the telegraph office with orders from the finicky first class passengers, buying and selling stock, making travel arrangements, so that a warning from a nearby ship about an iceberg in front of them was ignored, and, in fact, never read. 

Movie Review: Oliver Twist (1948) d. David Lean

Oliver Twist
Criterion Collection cover for Oliver Twist, directed by David Lean
Movie Review
Oliver Twist (1948)
d. David Lean
Criterion Collection #32

   Generally acclaimed as "the best" Oliver Twist adaptation,  David Lean's Oliver Twist is less well known in the United States, perhaps because Alec Guinness' grotesquely anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin kept it out for several years after release.   Grim and expressionistic, Lean's Twist is very grown up, with a haunting, expressionistic quality that emphasizes the strangeness of the Victorian milieu of the book.

   Lean does an incredible job- both in this film and in Great Expectations, his other Criterion Collection Dickens movie, in synthesizing the much longer book into a film that still feels like it captures all the important moments of the book.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Movie Review: The Phantom Carriage (1921) d. Victor Sjostrom

The Phantom Carriage
Cover for the 2011 Criterion Collection edition of The Phantom Carriage
Movie Review
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
d. Victor Sjostrom
Criterion Collection #579

   You haven't seen a silent film until you've watched one restored and released by Criterion Collection.  I'm in my 40's, and I remember watching old movies in college in the basement of the library-- on tiny screens with terrible sound, often they were unrestored versions and I left school with the opinion that silent film was basically unwatchable.   Not true! Especially when it comes to Criterion Collection editions.  Here, the Criterion Collection edition was released in 2011,  a version restored by the Swedish Film Institute in 1998. 

   The Phantom Carriage is a Dickens-esque tale about an alcoholic who is shown the error of his ways.  The story is based on a novel by Nobel Prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlof and it's known in the  US for 1) being the primary inspiration for Ingmar Bergman (he said he had watched it over one hundred times in his life) and 2) containing the "inspiration" for the "axe scene" in The Shining- basically a shot-for-shot remake of one of the flashback scenes in this movie.

   The extras on this edition aren't fantastic, although I did enjoy the alternate score by KTL, which eschews the old timey music hall style of the "original" score for a more downbeat, ambient take that works just as well if not better than the more traditional score.

The Glass Kingdom (2020) by Lawrence Osborne


Book Review
The Glass Kingdom (2020)
by Lawrence Osborne

  I'm always on the prowl for books which contain the possibility of straddling the line between genre and literary fiction.  As such, there are certain comparisons, made for the purpose of marketing or in a review, that always attract my eye.  One such comparison is when Graham Greene is invoked-I see Greene as one of the pre-eminent 20th century examples of a writer who combined genre level sized audiences with literary attention from critics.  Graham Greene comparisons are all over the place with Osborne- a British novelist/journalist with an affinity (and current mailing address) for Bangkok.  

  That was all the information I needed to check the Audiobook out of the Los Angeles Public Library Libby app.  I found the set up appealing: A winsome literary assistant forges correspondence by her 60's era Author boss, and chooses Bangkok to relocate.  She takes an apartment in "the Kingdom" (not sure why the title is The Glass Kingdom and not The Kingdom), an inconspicuous high rise apartment building that takes cash for payment and whose owner does not ask many questions.

  Unfortunately, Sarah Mullins- the aforementioned assistant, stashes her quarter of a million dollar hall in her apartment, and thereafter she hardly leaves, turning The Glass Kingdom into the early 21st century version of a country-house murder mystery without the murder.  Osborne offers a half dozen major characters who each get their own perspectives- the wily local maid, the wise building  handy-man, a four-some of female acquaintances who also live in the building.

  It would have been great if Mullins could at least have gotten out of Bangkok, but alas.  The third act ends with a predictable thud, and while I wouldn't be surprised if The Glass Kingdom became a best-seller, literary canon it is not.
   

Criterion Collection Review: A Taste of Honey (1961) by Tony Richardson

Cover of Criterion Collection #829 A Taste of Honey (1961) d. Tony Richardson

Criterion Collection Review
A Taste of Honey (1961)
d. Tony Richardson
#829

   The original idea for this blog was that I would read all 1001 Books and watch all the Criterion Collection films.   When I started, Criterion Collection still had titles on Netflix, then it moved to Hulu, then there was a brief Filmstruck period and now there is the Criterion Channel which you can install on your smart tv.  Criterion Channel far surpasses prior efforts, and it comes close to realizing the vision I thought I was getting into when I came up with the idea a decade ago.

   When I stopped watching Criterion Collection films the entire collection was at #703, A Taste of Honey, #829 came out in 2016.   That's the real problem with trying to stay current on Criterion Collection films- they come out five a month.  A Taste of Honey is a film example of the "Kitchen Sink" realism school of English art, unusual in that it takes place outside of London and the source material, a play, was written by a woman.   The story is about a high school student who lives with her louche mother in a succession of low-rent apartments in 1950's Manchester.   

  Part of the pleasure of A Taste of Honey is the Manchester locations- lovingly restored by Criterion of course.   The extras give the always interesting journey of pathbreaking films in the British film environment- marked by the absence of any first amendment protection and the ever-present British Film Censor.  Here, the controversy is obvious- an interracial coupling and an openly gay bff add to the native exoticism of the milieu.
    

Thursday, January 07, 2021

The Town (2018) by Shaun Prescott

Book Review
The Town (2018)
by Shaun Prescott

     I was surprised that this 2018 novel by Australian writer Shaun Prescott was available in an Ebook edition from the Los Angeles Public Library.   A major limitation of the  Los Angeles Public Library system vis a vis world literature is that only books with a US publisher get picked up. That excludes large swathes of English language literary fiction published in the UK and Australia, as well as many books translated into English by UK based publishers.  

  The Town is an entry of the End of the World lite genre, where the world goes about ending in a coy and/or mysterious fashion, here represented by the emergence of "holes" that resemble something from a cartoon.  The unnamed protagonist is a scholar, or maybe a journalist, writing a book about the disappearing towns of New South Wales (A province in Australia.)  It appears as if the disappearing towns are both "real" and metaphorical- one of the surprise aspects of the disappearing towns is that they already seem to be forgotten or unacknowledged  BEFORE they disappear. The book project quickly recedes to the background, as the protagonist begins a downward spiral mirroring the disappearing of the world around him.

Weather (2020) by Jenny Offill


Book Review
Weather (2020)
by Jenny Offill

      Weather is another title I gleaned from the year-end lists, written by American author Jenny Offill.  Elipitically written in what I gather is Offill's style, about Lizzie Benson a mostly happily married librarian who quietly rues her lack of achievement.  On a whim, she takes a job answering emails from her former mentor Sylvia, a public intellectual who specializes in predicting the end of the world, and how to handle it.    It's a very quiet way to tackle the impending end of the world, and the elliptical style makes reading Weather less of a plot driven experience then one might expect from a book called a novel.

 At the same time, I found Weather enjoyable, mostly because Offill is an acute observer of the human condition, i.e. she is a great writer.

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