Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reviews on the Run II

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  • Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks: It is really too bad that Brooks wrote no other novels; this one has an odd sense of playfulness similar to some of her poems, but that really swells within the looser constraints of prose. 
  • On Native Grounds, by Alfred Kazin: A very thick history of "American prose literature" between William Dean Howells and the 1940s, it was amusing to read alongside John Dos Passos's U.S.A.; many of the characterizations of writers or intellectuals—Thorstein Veblen, in particular—and just to the general tenor and texture of the time owe so much to Dos Passos. Kazin is at his best, I think, when he is defending someone; his attacks are more spasmodic and most abstract. His reclamation of Howells, in particular, seems like a very personal—but nonetheless, very effective—project, and some of the smaller niches which he brings forward to the reader as deserving continued attention are quite convincing—I especially found his chapter on the "exquisites" (Thomas Beer, Carl Van Vechten, Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell) almost riveting as a story of rising and falling literary fortunes and reputations. His treatment of Ellen Glasgow also made me want to read something by her—has anyone a suggestion?
  • Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara: It is with writers like O'Hara that I feel most keenly the basic arbitrariness of the literary system. O'Hara is fine—there weren't any moments I felt irritated or disgruntled or disappointed, exactly, because very quickly it was apparent that this is only a good book, something you read because someone or some review told you to (it was Kazin that brought him up, actually, and made me decide to try this) and which you keep reading because it gives you no adequate reason to toss it aside—not even its length, which is modest without being slight. There is really no reason why he should be more often read or better remembered than probably about a dozen other novelists of his time, but he had his champions (Hemingway, for one), and his detractors (like Edmund Wilson) had nothing particularly savage to say about him which could render him truly ridiculous, like Louis Bromfield. I'm not particularly resentful of having read this book rather than another, but I doubt there's anything more to be taken from O'Hara.
  • North of Boston, by Robert Frost: I've always disliked Frost, but I wanted to check that this was still true. It is.
  • The Education of Henry Adams: There are more interminably tedious episodes in this book than in any other I've ever both read and liked. The whole London chunk (except the bizarre dinner Adams has with Swinburne) is dull to the point of exhaustion, although frankly I think diplomatic history has to be about the least interesting subject imaginable, so I'm most definitely biased. But there are also so many absolutely marvelous passages; the misfortune is that they are not well distributed, so there will be almost a fifth of the book which makes your teeth chatter with boredom and then a few really quick delights practically tripping over one another, and then you're stuck with something else which makes skimming seem attractive. (I didn't skim, though.)
  • In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway: If, like me, your exposure to Hemingway's short stories is through those in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, I think you'll find these stories very strange. I haven't decided which I prefer; part of the problem is the appalling casual racism that crops up almost incessantly in In Our Time. One of the effects of this racism, though, is to make these stories seem less polished, less grand, less like something a Writer-making-a-Statement might write. It's not an effect one would like to see repeated, but that is what it does. In Our Time has a very different kind of simplicity from the more celebrated simplicity of Hemingway's later work; there is none of the sententiousness of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" here, nor the overdetermined allegories of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Really, there's very little of the heroism of the novels, either; Nick Adams, even in "The Big Two-Hearted River," is very small in his actions, and his focus on the simple actions of fishing seems genuinely therapeutic, as does Hemingway's lean prose, like an attempt to get down to essentials without trying to elevate those essentials to something metaphysical. Hemingway's understatedness in this book is a way of not saying the Big Things; the understatedness of his later work (especially The Old Man and the Sea) is, I think, an attempt to say all the Big Things. On second thought, I've made up my mind—I like this a lot better.
  • Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev: Many late nineteenth century American writers (like William Dean Howells) believed Turgenev to be superior to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I think that's a very defensible opinion, although Turgenev probably has a really strong appeal to fewer people. I am among that happy few.
  • You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner: It is evident from this fix-up "novel" why Lardner stuck to short stories. The first few times around all the jokes are hilarious; the second couple of times around they're whimsical; the last quarter or so of the book clearly bored the writer, so what do you think happens to the poor reader? The mastery of dialect is so complete and so consistent and so smooth, though, that even that last quarter can be intermittently good—just pay attention to the language, not the plot.
  • Crumbling Idols, by Hamlin Garland: Available to read in full at Google Books, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. A collection of manifestos, it's tremendously repetitive and repeats itself a lot. Still, it is very useful to me in thinking about the mentality of a Midwesterner trying not just to fight against the Eastern establishment but to convince everyone that there could be more to American literature than an Eastern establishment. 
  • Hunger, by Steve McQueen: A film that somehow has it both ways but doesn't seem like it's trying to have it both ways. I would probably need to see it again to say more intelligent things about it, but I think in certain ways it compares very well to a film like The White Ribbon, which I also liked, but which tries to play the spectacular nature of the act of filming against itself too much. Haneke seems to think that what happens on the screen is what overwhelms the spectator; instead of F I N one expects to see Q E D at the end of his films, even though what is being demonstrated is usually more ambiguous than I think many critics allow. McQueen, on the other hand, is one of the few directors I've encountered who actually thinks that shock is not a paralytic effect, but rather the opening of something deeper. Shock is part of the process of coping and comprehending, not antithetical to it. (On the other hand, my girlfriend had to stop watching Hunger after one particularly brutal scene, so maybe mine is a minority opinion.) I appreciate very much that attitude if it is what McQueen is going for; I look forward to future work from him.
  • Robin Hood, by Ridley Scott: This completely justifies for me, my intense loathing of Blade Runner. The passage of time does not exonerate Scott; any mind that could ever willfully inflict this upon itself, nevermind the audience, is one I can safely dismiss in its entirety.
  • Earth, by Alexander Dovzhenko and Strike, by Sergei Esenstein: Two great Soviet silents, but I have to recommend Strike far above Earth; perhaps it is my inner socialist realist, but the poetic touches of Earth are just too much. No one likes tractors that much, not even Kenny Chesney.
  • Mildred Pierce, by Michael Curtiz: I generally dislike declensionist narratives, but after seeing films like this, so melodramatic but so good, it's easy to argue the absolute decline of Hollywood. No film trusts its star this much anymore, and the results of that lack have not been good. 
  • The English Patient, by Anthony Minghella: Part of the problem, I think, with this film is that, because it is a film and you know it's going to last about three hours, you start waiting for the end. If it were a mini-series of, say, six or seven hours, I think this effect would disappear and you could enjoy it all the way through without worrying about how long it is, which is mainly what I was thinking about in the last hour or so. It's counterintuitive that the answer is to make it longer, but I think I would have enjoyed it more in that form.
  • Nine to Five, by Colin Higgins: There was so much unused potential here—I would have liked more, but shorter, dream sequences, and I thought Jane Fonda's screen time could have been divided up between Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton to great effect—but the real effect of this film—which made a ton of money—is that it makes one ask why Hollywood is so averse to women-driven comedies. That a film could be this much fun without really being that well directed or written is a pretty strong statement that women can carry a mediocre comedy quite easily if given the chance. 
  • Diner, by Barry Levinson: Not a bad film, but also pretty close to being Exhibit A in terms of Hollywood's willingness to let male directors go chase their dream even without a very good idea (dudes talking about girls, music, and sports in an all-night diner in Maryland—what fires does that light?).
  • The Marriage of Maria Braun, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder: This is the first film I've seen in a year or so which truly brought home why I love watching movies. I haven't seen any other Fassbinder (tried Berlin Alexanderplatz twice, though), but now I have a feeling I'll be seeing a lot more.


Len said...

There's so much great Fassbinder but his In A Year with Thirteen Moons is for me the best of all. Besides Berlin Alexanderplatz he has a number of other novel adaptations--Effie Briest (good) and Querelle (bad--or at least I thought so....). But yeah: Thirteen Moons. So good.

nicole said...

I love your assessment of In Our Time. As a huge fan of Hemingway's short stories, I completely see what you mean, and while I often vacillate between the two types I think like you I prefer the earlier efforts. I think.