BOOK REVIEW: THE LOST ONES, BY SHEENA KAMAL

I think that The Lost Ones, by Sheena Kamal, is an excellent mystery novel. It is its own thing, but if you liked Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or the Easy Rollins novels of Walter Moseley, you should like this novel too!  For more on this, see my review recently published in Washington Independent Review of Books.

A LOVE NOTE TO CONNIE WILLIS

I declare here and now to Ms. Willis and to the world:  I LOVE CONNIE WILLIS.  I love her short stories.  I love the way she writes.  And, most importantly, I love the way her mind works!

I am in the midst of reading The Best of Connie Willis, Award-Winning stories, which also features her lively short afterwards to each story.  All so far exhibit a very sharp mind and humor.  Where she is going with them tends to sneak up on you.  The serious stories make me tear up towards the end; the humorous stories also make me tear up even while I am laughing at the beauty of what she is doing.  (And her humorous stories, like At the Rialto, are not just light pieces but also have a depth to them.)  READ HER!

 

On Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

I’ve been away from this blog for a few months–family illnesses to deal with, but they are, for now, dealt with–and I’m back!

I’ve just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.  The novel was written in 1935, using the ambitions of the demagogue Huey Long as its basis.  But, it reads, at times, as if Lewis had used a time machine to come forward to 2017, had taken what is happening now in America, and returned to his own time to write his work. (Of course, one could argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  But that would only indicate that Lewis understood something about the weaknesses in the nature of man and in American society that is universal and not unique to his era.)

The book’s nominal protagonist is a mild-mannered, liberal, small town Vermont newspaper owner/editor by the name of Doremus Jessup.  But the true main character of the novel is our society as a whole.  The book uses the novel form as mechanism to present a thinly veiled treatise on the way in which fascism and totalitarianism can happen here.  This use of the novel form seems to have fallen out of fashion in the last half of the 20th century, the concept of what a novel should be and do having narrowed considerably.  But, that is a subject I will address separately in a later post. Today, and for the next several days, I am going to present some quotes from It Can’t Happen Here, which I expect may strike a chord of familiarity with the reader, as they did with me.

Here is the first.  (A number of chapters begin with an excerpted quote from the  fictional book, Zero Hour, by Berzelius Windrip, the demagogic senator who becomes president in the novel.  This one precedes Chapter 11.):

“When I was a kid, one time I had an old-maid teacher that used to tell me, ‘Buzz, you’re the thickest-headed dunce in school.’  But I noticed that she told me this a whole lot oftener than she used to tell the other kids how smart they were, and I came to be the most talked-about scholar in the whole township.  The United States Senate isn’t so different, and I want to thank a lot of stuffed shirts for their remarks about Yours Truly.
Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip”

 

The Magnificent Seven

Yes. The Magnificent Seven is a movie, not a book, and this year’s version is a remake at that.  I don’t usually bother going to see remakes, but in this instance I was curious because Antoine Fuqua, who decided to remake the film, said it was because he was so affected by Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and by John Sturges’s 1960 American version.  In an interview on National Public Radio, Fuqua specifically noted the effect that the social messages in John Sturges’s 1960 American version had on him.

In the 1960 version, seven gunslingers hire on to help a Mexican village fight off a band of bandits who have been repeatedly raiding their village for supplies.  In Fuqua’s 2016 version, seven gunslingers hire on to help an American western town fight off a villainous mine owner who owns the local sheriff and wants to run them out and take their land.

The 1960 version had tremendous and varied social messages imbedded in it. I did not expect Fuqua’s version necessarily to have the same messages, but had hoped, based on his interview, that it would  have some social import.  Having now seen his film, and considering his interview statements, I am puzzling over why he bothered to remake it (other than to give Denzel Washington an old west gunslinger role to play and making money–but then, one could make any western.  He didn’t need to do it under this title).

Fuqua’s version is an adequate western by 2016 standards, but it simply provides the well-worn good guy-bad guy dynamic; the character of it’s heroes (or should one say, anti-heroes?) are not so much developed as “suggested.”  They are “types,” and where they are given history or motivation, those read as thin.

Fuqua’s version borrows a few lines from the 1960 film, but the impact is not the same.  For example, in the 1960 version, Eli Wallach, as the bandit, says of the villagers, “if God didn’t want them sheered, he would not have made them sheep.”  He adds that not to “sheer” them (take their goods periodically) might even be sacrilegious.  The Wallach villain says this as an explanation and a shrugging philosophical excuse.  Despite his villainy, he has a certain humor and human quality about him.  He may not be sympathetic, but he is given a motivation that, from his point of view, is understandable.  Fuqua’s villainous mine owner says the same line after a killing spree, and with total contempt, but no truly compelling motivation.  Furthermore, his evil is utterly cartoonish and overdone at this point, so the line reads as overkill (pardon the pun).  By contrast, in the 1960 version, each and every character–from the seven to the farmers to the bandit–is fully developed.

So far as social import goes, Fuqua’s film might as well be one of the old cattlemen versus fence-building farmer movies combined with the stylistic tradition of The Wild Bunch, or Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns.  On the other hand, the Sturges version made many social points–from the very beginning of the film, where Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen brave violent opposition to transport an Indian to be buried in a cemetery where white men lie, to lines like those of Charles Bronson, when little boys of the village, who have more or less adopted him, call their fathers cowards, and he spanks one hard, responding:

“Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.”

The 1960 version allowed the Seven to be heroic, while showing that true bravery–what it takes to be “a man” is more complex than shooting a gun, and that the seven recognize it.

Finally, the writing in the 1960 version was magnificent.  There is so much wonderful dialogue that allows the actors to reveal character, while simultaneously moving the plot along and furthering the social themes of the film.  This is in no way matched by the most recent version, nor did it seem to me that such an effort in the writing was even made.

For examples of the wonderful dialogue in the 1960 version, click here:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054047/quotes.  Though I have watched many westerns since, this was one of only two western films I liked for a very long time, and even now, one of the two best, because it is not merely a western, it is more.  So even if you are not a lover of westerns, please, please, PLEASE, try watching the old 1960 version some time and see what you think.  And let me know what you think!

 

 

 

IMPRESSIONS: GERTRUDE STEIN

After reading an essay written by Jeanette Winterson in which she defends Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (in Winterson’s book, Art Objects, Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery), I got curious about the book, and have been reading it myself.  Winterson wrote that those criticizing Stein as being self-aggrandizing and not factual had missed the point of what she was doing.  Winterson’s view is that Stein was no more intending to write a factual book than Matisse or Picasso were trying to paint photographic portraits, that the book was meant to be a work of fiction, was experimenting with an entirely new form, and should be judged on its experimentation–producing a new way of seeing and thinking–rather than on its substance.  That may be.  Nevertheless, I think a work should provide some substance as well.

The main thing I admire about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is Gertrude Stein’s chutzpah.  Alice’s “autobiography” is actually a biography of Gertrude; thus, actually an autobiography by Gertrude.  A literary trompe d’oeil in which Stein can have Toklas dub Stein one of only “three first class geniuses” she has known, and in which “Alice” writes next to nothing of her own life.  A clever little con-artist, our Gertie.

My problem with the book, beyond the self-aggrandizement, is that it appears to be a rather constant recitation of the famous artists and writers, composers, or philosophers with whom Stein mixed in Paris, along with a stream of blanket statements about who got along with whom and who didn’t.  But one never is given any details that would make the content more than name-dropping or very general, minimal gossip.

For example, Stein-alias-Alice tells us that Stein liked William James and that he thought highly of her and recommended she go to medical school and become a psychologist.  But she does not tell us anything of what they may have discussed about philosophy or psychology–or even what her own views were.  She tells us only that, when she got to medical school, at a certain point she didn’t do the work because she was “bored,” yet many professors passed her anyway because of her presumed “brilliance.”

Stein-aka-Alice writes that Stein talked with the geniuses or near-geniuses, but that she–Alice–only talked with the wives of the geniuses or near geniuses.  Not only does she give us no details or insight into the “geniuses,” she tells us nothing about the wives except that they were congenial or not, fashionable or not, etc.  Perhaps this is because the real author, Gertrude, never talked to the wives.  But, then, neither as Alice nor as herself does she provide any depth–real or fictional–to her view of any of the people beyond the fact that they kept coming and going, and she saw them often or saw them rarely, or met them once, or saw them often but fell out with them (she never gives us the reasons).

Of Picasso (or Matisse or Hemingway, or others), she may tell us that they discussed or argued at length–with Picasso, long into the night–but never tells us what they discussed or what either thought.  Instead of giving us a real (or even fictional) sense of Stein’s life or her thinking, the book leaves one with the impression that this person was a pseudo-intellectual who lived a shallow, if idiosyncratic, life–and an easy one (whenever there was a question of money, it seemed that all Stein had to do was call a relative in America and money–or on one occasion, even a Ford automobile–would be sent).

Stein’s experiments with literary form may have value.  Her other works (poetry, novellas, novels, plays, etc.) may have something to them, but one cannot get any real insight into them or her from this book.  Stein’s notions as expressed in this book remind me of no-one so much as Christopher Isherwood’s peripatetic Sally Bowles.  And Stein’s very definite declarations of literary and artistic “truths,” to the degree that they’re expressed here, make me think of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, who fancies herself artistic,  radical,  and a sophisticated shaper of the thoughts of the little girls she teaches, but is actually just an admirer and adherent of fascism.  Although The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has nothing in it that addresses Stein’s political philosophy, there is something about it that leaves me unsurprised to find that she was an adherent of Vichy France and its leaders.

I am inclined, as relates to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, to quote Hemingway:  “A rose is a rose is an onion.”

 

Another Day, Another New Book Review

I have a new book review out in The Washington Independent Review of Books.  It’s a review of The Poison Artist, a mystery thriller by Jonathan Moore.  You can check it out here:

http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-poison-artist

The review does not compare the novel to others in its genre because to do so would have been to deliver a big spoiler, but I cannot resist setting out one sentence here on the matter.  So I suggest you read the review first.  And if the book interests you, read it before reading the following two sentences of this post:

It’s not that the book fails to be entertaining and engaging.  It’s just that Chuck Palahniuk’s  Fight Club, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (a film), and Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island did it better.

If you have read the book and then read the sentence above, I’d be interested to hear whether you agree or disagree.  Perhaps we can discuss it, along with what Moore might have done differently to make his book succeed at their level.