A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, March 30, 2009

What? The Dickens?

I hadn't planned to watch the adaptation of Little Dorrit on PBS last night. I had kind of given up on "Masterpiece Classics" after the dud string of Jane Austen dramatizations last year. Moreover, the novel is not one of my favorites -- it's too much like a reworking of things he did better in Bleak House -- and I was bored by the two-part film version that came out in 1988. (Though that one did have one of Alec Guinness' last film performances.) But I stayed with it past the opening and found myself hooked. Partly by Andrew Davies' smart adaptation, but almost as much by the actors.

You notice I didn't say "the acting," though that was uniformly excellent. But the thing I love about these crowded costume dramas is the "where have I seen him/her before?" game. As a "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" fan, I liked seeing Freema Agyeman as Tattycoram, but it took me a while to recognize that Eve Myles (Maggy) was Gwen Cooper from "Torchwood." And if I hadn't known in advance that Matthew Macfadyen was the glum Mr. Darcy to Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet in the recent Pride and Prejudice movie, I doubt I would have recognized him as the considerably more animated Arthur Clennam.

As for Tom Courtenay as William Dorrit -- well, it sure has been a long time since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Doctor Zhivago, hasn't it? I'm liking him more than even Guinness in the film version, maybe because he hasn't been so well-exposed to us as Guinness was. The scene in which he wheedles money out of Arthur, part of his self-established entitlement as "Father of the Marshalsea" was funny and creepy and embarrassing all at once. And Claire Foy, the Amy Dorrit, was suitably abashed by it.

Other familiar faces include Judy Parfitt as Mrs. Clennam. Parfitt's stock in trade is a kind of imperious hauteur, but she nicely shades that into her character's guilt-hauntedness. And Andy Serkis as Rigaud is simply terrifying -- as you might expect from the genius who created Gollum. But there's one familiar face that I just can't place: Maxine Peake, who plays the mysterious Miss Wade. I've looked at Peake's IMDb credits and I still can't figure out why she's so familiar to me. I don't think I've seen anything else she's listed as having been in.

The subplot of Miss Wade's hold over Tattycoram was (probably rightly) omitted from the 1988 movie, as I remember. Last night, Peake gave it distinctly sapphic overtones. And that's OK -- I like some of the small contemporizing touches, the peeling away of the Victorian veneer, that Davies has introduced into the script, such as Arthur's being propositioned by a streetwalker or Rigaud's bedding and murder of the chambermaid -- in the bed he's sharing with the terrified Cavalletto. I did think, however, that the character who, noting that Arthur had been to China, wondered if Chinese women were different "down there" went a little too far.

Macfadyen, Foy and Serkis talk about their characters:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Double Life

If anyone's wondering whatever happened to my other blog, which has lain dormant since last August, it's now back in business and proceeding at its usual snail's pace. But as my freelance opportunities disappear along with newspaper book sections, I'll probably have more time to work on it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Signing Statements (and other stuff)

  • What would we do without Bill O'Reilly to be appalled by? Still, his bulldogging of supposedly "evil" left-wing enemies is getting out of hand. Viz., his harassment of Think Progress editor Amanda Terkel for daring to criticize him. There's a nice little campaign being mounted by Think Progress to contact O'Reilly's sponsors and express disapproval of his tactics. You can find it here.
Update: I just received a reply from UPS that said, among other things, "At this time, we have no plans to continue advertising during this show."

  • From the "Ya Think?" files: 'Washington Post' Publisher: Buyouts Could Deplete Talent. Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle has just laid off a bunch of talented people, gutting its features department (of course), including its excellent books editor, Fritz Lanham. Sigh. One less place for me to publish book reviews.

Friday, March 20, 2009

To Blog Is Human

I'm pleased to learn that my old Merc colleague Mike Antonucci has joined the ranks of bloggers. Check him out at SectorEarth. And the Merc's former political reporter, Phil Trounstine, has teamed up with Jerry Roberts, late of the SFChronicle, for a California politics blog, Calbuzz.

Freaks and Folks

The following review ran recently in the Houston Chronicle:

FLANNERY: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

By Brad Gooch

Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30

Postwar American fiction in the 1940s, '50s and '60s was dominated by men, and particularly by Jewish men: Bellow, Malamud, Mailer, Heller, Roth. But Brad Gooch's new biography serves as a reminder that one of the most original and enduring of that era's writers was a Catholic woman.

Reading Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, Caroline Gordon discovered “a Catholic novelist with a real dramatic sense, one who relies more on her technique than her piety.” Other critics of O'Connor's debut were less discerning than Gordon, who became a friend and mentor to O'Connor. Time magazine called the book “arty” and the Saturday Review found it “sheer monotony.” As her editor, Robert Giroux, observed, many reviewers “recognized her power but missed her point.” O'Connor was unfazed, but the experience did skew her in the direction of writing short stories because, she said, “nobody pays attention to them.... When you publish a novel, the racket is like a fox in the henhouse.”

But in time, the clucks and squawks of the reviewers would subside, and the literary world would echo with praise for O'Connor's wry, dark, seriocomic tales of fallen, fallible, sometimes brutal but always redeemable humanity. After the reception of Wise Blood, she vowed to write about “folks” rather than “freaks” in her next book, but in truth, the two were rarely distinguishable from one another in her work.

Some of the original misunderstanding of O'Connor's work may have stemmed from the fact that she was a “regional” writer in the “Southern gothic” mode, a school of writing she characterized as “unhappy combinations of Poe and Erskine Caldwell.” She resisted being pigeonholed into a subgenre of Southern women writers, along with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. (She admired Welty, but destested McCullers' works, calling her novel Clock Without Hands “the worst book I have ever read.”) She also disliked being compared to the South's most celebrated writer: “I keep clear of Faulkner so my own little boat won't get swamped,” she said, although Gooch points out passages in O'Connor's work that clearly reverberate with As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and “Barn Burning.”

In the end, she found her own justification for regionalism in the Catholic theology she read so deeply and assiduously. Teilhard de Chardin saw the Incarnation as “a single event ... developing in the world,” an idea that, Gooch tells us, O'Connor integrated into her aesthetic: “a cosmic presence in local material lay behind her own arguing for regional writing.” She also took to heart the advice of Jacques Maritain: “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian.” Nevertheless, her work shocked many of those who otherwise shared her world view; T.S. Eliot remarked that he had been “quite horrified” by the O'Connor stories he had read: “She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance.”

Gooch has done an admirable job of telling the story of a writer whose life was not crowded with incident or studded with glamour. He richly evokes the milieus in which O'Connor lived and worked: from small town Georgia to the writing program at the University of Iowa to the writers' retreat at Yaddo, and back to Georgia again, where the reception to her first book, Wise Blood, was decidedly uneasy. Her cousin Katie Semmes had the publishers send copies of Wise Blood to priests in her parish, then “went to bed for a week” after she read it herself, “penning notes of apology to all the priests who received copies.” There were “lovely teas and luncheons” celebrating the author, at which, one observer noted, “Everybody was glad that she'd got something published, but one did wish that it had been something ladylike.” The local reaction was epitomized by O'Connor's mother, Regina, completely baffled by her daughter's work but fiercely protective of her nevertheless.

But best of all, Flannery gives us Flannery: keen-sighted, witty, devout and indomitable despite her long suffering from the disease, lupus, that took her life much too early, at the age of 39. This is one of those rare literary biographies that make the writer almost as fascinating as what she wrote.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

She Loves Paris

My review from today's San Francisco Chronicle:


By Cara Black

Soho Crime, 317 pp., $24

She dives through windows, ripping her pencil skirt and shredding her fishnet stockings; she prowls subterranean Paris in her beaded Schiaparelli jacket and hospital scrubs; she's knocked unconscious and has her Vuitton handbag stolen; she races down cobblestone streets in her Louboutins. Yes, Cara Black fans, Aimée Leduc is back.

This is the ninth of Black's novels about the chic, indomitable Parisian detective, and it has all the elements Black's readers have come to cherish: an engaging protagonist with a likable sidekick (her diminutive partner, René Friant), cops who hinder more than they help, villains with murky motives, grisly crimes, and above all, the unique Parisian atmosphere. This time, the air Aimée breathes is that of the Rive Gauche, the heart of intellectual Paris.

The action of the novel takes place in September 1997, just after the death of Princess Diana, an event with which the Paris constabulary is obsessed – fortunately for Aimée, who uses their distraction to her own advantage. The setup is this: a beautiful young Haitian woman named Mireille shows up, claiming to be the half-sister Aimée didn't know she had. And then she disappears. René is convinced that Mireille is a fraud, out to claim half of Aimée's inheritance, but of course Aimée has to go in pursuit. And inevitably, she winds up discovering a corpse – that of a professor of comparative anatomy who is a famed authority on pigs. Figuring out the connection between the murdered and mutilated swine scholar and the elusive, alleged half-sister will take Aimée the rest of the book.

Black gives substance to her detective stories, as implausible as they may be, by underlying them with real-world references. In this book, the plot centers on a project to supply water to the poorest parts of the horribly impoverished nation of Haiti, a project that involves the World Bank and millions of dollars. But where she's most skillful is at evoking the sights, sounds and scents of the Paris that Black, who lives in San Francisco, clearly cherishes.

Black's dialogue is sometimes a little starchy, with needlessly interjected French words and phrases, oui and non and excusez-moi, as if to remind the reader what language the characters are speaking. And there are a few too many speeches that exist only to provide exposition, as when the murderer fills Aimée in on the back-story of the crime. But Black creates rich, plausible characters, giving them individuality and depth.

She is, for example, not afraid to halt the action so that Aimée can have a Proustian moment: “As she hurried in the dusk across rue Mouffetard, a familiar scent filled the air. Swollen, purple figs nestled in a bed of green leaves at the fruit stall. Fit to burst, like those in her grandmother's garden in the Auvergne. It took her back ... to the smell of her grandmother's tart aux figues, warm from the oven, her father's favorite, and how he always claimed the largest slice. The way his eyes crinkled in a grin.” Touches like that, which betray an intimate understanding of where her characters come from, are what lift Black's fiction above the routine of the genre she practices so well.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Brain Strain

I did my taxes today, which took the usual sweating and scrabbling. But what made it even harder is that I tried to load TurboTax on my ailing laptop, which has never worked right since I cursed it by switching to Vista. Fortunately, my dear old neglected desktop computer still has XP on it, and it slurped up the new software like a kitten lapping cream.

I have come to the conclusion, sadly, that my laptop has a brain abscess. When I first came down with my own abscess, I would read names like "Julian" as "Ian." I think laptop is doing something similar. Instead of "Install," it sees "Stall." Which it does. Often. I think my tax refund is going to be used to replace it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Passage From India

The following review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle.


By Shanthi Sekaran

MacAdam/Cage, 382 pp., $14

This question may sound a bit churlish, but sometimes it's a reviewer's duty to ask churlish questions: With writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni among us, do we really need yet another novel about culture clash in the Indian diaspora? The simple answer is yes, when the novel is as engagingly written and sharply observed as Shanthi Sekaran's The Prayer Room. On the other hand, the genre – the novel of exile -- has begun to engender a certain feeling of déjà vu (or rather, déjà lu – the feeling that one has read this book before).

In Madras, young and somewhat rebellious Viji impulsively marries an Englishman, George Armitage. They settle in suburban Sacramento, where Viji gives birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Before long, they are joined by George's widowed father, Stan, a lecherous old vulgarian. Viji adjusts to her new American life, but she also converts a small room in their house into a puja room, a refuge for meditation filled with statues of the Hindu deities and pictures of dead family members. As the children grow, the marriage of George and Viji stagnates until one day she announces that she is taking the children with her to India. She promises George that she'll have them back before school starts. What she won't promise is whether she'll come back with them.

Sekaran calls Sacramento her home town, but now divides her time between Berkeley and London. The Prayer Room, her first novel, is full of lovely and accomplished things, including some breathtaking observations of place. This is India as viewed (and heard and smelled) by George: “sweaty silk, water, the curiously thin coins, ... the empty smell of boiled rice, turmeric, coriander, cumin, coconut oil, cow dung, ... power cuts, irrigation ditches, billboards, hotels, mothballs, citronella, fire. All of it rushed into George each time he inhaled. And when he exhaled, none of it came back out.”

And here is England as encountered by Viji: “Every blade of grass looked like every other blade of grass, as if they'd all had a meeting and decided how to be. Blankets upon blankets of miniature flowers, atop the greenest green. Nowhere could she see the dusty roadsides or pointless rock piles of home. The English countryside was like English desserts: custard on pudding, cream on cake, sweet smothering sweet and holding at bay the salty bits of life.”

And as if in between both, a kind of tabula rasa for their new life together, the blankness of American suburbia. George's culture shock is almost as acute as Viji's. He had “stepped off the Greyhound bus expecting” to find the vibrant, jazzy America of movies and pop culture. “Instead, he'd found Sacramento.” As he later reflects, “his life would never, ever be anything like a Woody Allen film. No chance encounters on a busy sidewalk, impromptu cups of coffee, or wandering in dusky, cramped bookstores. ... Outside, the streets of Sacramento stretched wide and barren, the sidewalks pristine.”

First novelists often try too many things, as if afraid they'll never get another chance to do them. The Prayer Room is a little too loosely constructed, too much a collection of poignant and funny set pieces, without a strong and clear narrative thread to pull the reader through. Some of the narrative seems like mere novelizing: There are Family Secrets to be revealed, and some extramarital dalliance on the part of both George and Viji to be got through. And as an examination of lives led in exile, it has little new to tell us.

But delight is in the details, in the wry and often touching perceptions of Sekaran and her characters. A first novel is always a mixture of achievement and promise. They come in equal measure in The Prayer Room. Buoyed up by Sekaran's wit, the book inspires hope that there will be more and better to come from its talented writer.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

No Mo' Nocardia?

I learned a new word today: nocardia. It may have caused my brain abscess -- which according to last week's MRI has pretty much gone except for some swelling. So Dr. B. has decided to take me off the daily infusion -- woohoo! no more PICC line! -- and cut back on some of the antibiotics. I'll no longer have to schlep to Stanford every day, or wake up at 6 a.m. to take clindamycin. Life is good.