Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cakes and Ale (1930) by W. Somerset Maugham

Book Review
Cakes and Ale (1930)
by W. Somerset Maugham

  It is two and out for W. Somerset Maugham: He contributes Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage to the 1001 Books Project and bows out gracefully.  If Of Human Bondage is the prototypical "first novel": with a heavily autobiographical main character,  then Cakes and Ale is his mid period masterpiece, and the author's self proclaimed favorite.  Cakes and Ale features a first person narration by William Ashenden, himself an independently wealthy doctor novelist, but it is mostly about another, older author, Edward Driffield, who most consider to be based on late Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. Told through a combination of present-tense narration and flashbacks which take place during Ashenden's childhood and before Driffield/Hardy's canonization as England's "greatest living novelist" late in life,  Cakes and Ale focus gradually shifts away from Ashenden and Driffield to Rosie Driffield, Driffield's blowsy first wife.

   It is very, very, very easy to see Thomas Hardy in Edward Driffield, and Hardy's own foreword denying it merely reinforces the similarities  Although the central story of the Driffield's marriage and Ashenden's social and indeed, sexual involvement with Rosie is compelling, the insight into the literary world of turn of the century and early 20th century England perhaps seals Cakes and Ale's place in the literary canon.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Maya Engravings of Frederick Catherwood

This illustration by Frederick Catherwood shows the characteristic shape of the Mayan arch.

The Maya Engravings of Frederick Catherwood
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán,
by John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood
published in 1841

  If you have been to any part of the Mayan world, mostly the Yucatan, Guatemala and parts of Belize you realize how absurd the idea of the ancient Mayan ruins being in any way a "lost" civilization.  The people who live in the vicinity of the ruin sites speak Mayan and trace their background to historically known periods of migration and pre and post contact polities.  What is remarkable about the Incidents of Travel is that it can fairly be described as "rediscovering" a lost civilization.
Mayan stela drawn by Frederick Catherwood. For the audience of that time period (1840s) these images essentially demonstrated the existence of a hithero "unknown" people, despite the fact that the natives of the area spoke Mayan.

     When I was staying out in the jungle, I actually picked up a copy of the book itself, but unless you are deeply, deeply interested in mid 19th century/Victorian travel narratives I'm afraid I can't recommend the text to read. But the pictures- those are worth looking up.  When you are talking about the Maya, you talking about a people who were still fighting Spanish/Indian wars INTO the 20th century, and yet in 1841 literally no one in America had heard of them.

The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy Sayers

Book Review
The Nine Tailors (1934)
by Dorothy Sayers

   Dorothy Sayers is a charter member of the Golden Age of Detective fiction, but she's probably less interesting to contemporary critics and the audience for mystery books.  Two of her titles made the 1001 Books project, The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise.  The Nine Tailors makes it for a well regarded "literary" sense of place and character development, which it combines with a complex set of story mechanics involving the science/art of bell ringing as an integral part of unravelling the mystery at hand.

  Lord Peter Wimsy, here playing himself (he spends much of Murder Must Advertise "under cover" at an advertising agency.)  Has his car break down on the way to an ill defined country estate and makes the acquaintance of a Rector who runs a rural church with an above-average set of nine church bells (the "Nine Tailors") of the title. I'll cop to the fact that I maybe didn't get as much out of The Nine Tailors as someone who actually appreciates the art and science of church bells, since the solving of the mystery involves a cipher built around the notation used for sequences of bell ringing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Poet and the Vampyr by Andrew McConnell Stott

John Polidori wrote the first Vampire story.

The Poet and the Vampyr
by Andrew McConnell Stott
Pegasus Press
Published September 15th, 2014

The story behind the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly is that she, her husband Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and two lesser known character: John Polidori and Shelly's younger sister, holed up in a mansion in Switzerland, had a contest to each write a ghost story overnight, and the result was Frankenstein (written by Shelly) and the first vampire story, which was credited to Byron but actually written by Polidori.

 So a reader generally familiar with the origin story of Frankenstein and Byron's role in the creation might be interested in learning more about that fabled weekend.  Presumably, that is the target demographic of The Poet and the Vampyr.  That demographic is likely to be disappointed.  Much of The Poet and the Vampyr reads like an excerpt from a recent Byron biography combined with excerpts from a Shelly biography and a biography of the Godwin/Mary Shelly family. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Samurai Rebellion (1967) d. Masaki Kobayashi

Masaki Kobayashi, director of J-Horror film Kwaidan and also Samurai Rebellioin, was an important Japanese film director in the 1960s.

Movie Review
Samurai Rebellion (1967)
d. Masaki Kobayashi
Criterion Collection #310

  Masaki Kobayashi is better known for his early J-horror classic Kwaidan (also in the Criterion Collection), but Samurai Rebellion is impressive in its own way, with the inestimable Toshiro Mifune playing the lead role as Isaburo Sasashara, an initially faithful vassal in the late 18th century who is forced into rebellion when his liege lord first forces his son to marry a discarded mistress, then seeks her return after an untimely death makes her bastard son the next heir to the local feudal title.  Like many Samurai pictures, Samurai Rebellion keeps the potential for sword play close by but reserves actual action sequences until the final act.

 Instead, Samurai Rebellion is a rare-for-the-milieu classic "man against the system" tale.  Kobayashi focuses his eye on the injustic of the feudal system, and his feudal Japan is a critical perspective that delves deeper into the actual feudal relations between lord and liege in a way typically absent from Japanese Samurai pictures. 

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