Dedicated to classics and hits.

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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