Monday, November 19, 2007

"Christmas in Connecticut"

Years ago in 1945 when I was a teen I saw the movie Christmas in Connecticut and have never forgotten it. Barbara Stanwyck plays a popular women's magazine columnist (think Martha Stewart) whose publisher requires her to entertain a naval hero with her family in her bucolic Connecticut home. The problem is, she doesn't really have a home in the country or a family and fast work is needed to come up with them. Sidney Greenstreet, Dennis Morgan and other good Warners' actors fill out the cast. What took my breath away was the deep, crisp snow of New England, the lovely spacious house and its sparkling decor inside, and the magnificent Christmas decorations and presents under a huge tree--all of those absent in England in the dreary last year of the war when our tree was a spindly little twig and my "best" present was a second hand copy of a book by a favorite author. I've just learned that Christmas in Connecticut has been issued on DVD

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beware of "Water for Elephants"

What to do when you begin the latest book group selection--a best-seller-- and find that you hate it? I had good vibes for Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, anticipating a good read about a young man's adventures with an itinerant third-rate circus traveling the byways of America back in the 1930's Depression. I like trains and I liked circuses, but this book with its cliche characters, tiresome plot, predictable events, and banal dialogue that just goes on and on is a major disappointment. How could The New York Times praise it and 612 Amazon readers give it five stars when it's obviously such a chore to read? Not all Amazon readers were fooled, however. In 1 or 2 star reviews they were critical of the poor writing, while others reeled away from the animal cruelty depicted or a really creepy description of a strip-tease artiste plying her trade.. . I've given up on the book after about sixty pages. Here are a couple of Amazon two-star reviews, the first from neighboring Fairlawn--five minutes' drive away. I feel vindicated. For the one-star reviews, go to Amazon. They offer valuable advice.

By M. G. Jamison (Fairlawn, OH USA) - See all my reviews
Last week, halfway through my own reading of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, I decided to check the customer reviews to see if any other readers were rolling their eyes as much as I was, and, to my surprise, not many were. 900 hundred reviews and most of them were five stars! What seemed paper-thin and kind of ridiculous to me was "beautiful and moving" to nearly everyone else. Everything about this book seemed like a cheat--like the warning you get on a bag of chips--"contents may settle"--to explain how there are only three chips in a family-sized bag. Even the inclusion of the period photographs seemed to excuse the writer for not making clear enough pictures of her own. It's not just the implausibility of the story either (elephant speaks only Polish). If the details are right, I can be drawn into even the most ridiculous of stories (THE RUINS and THE TERROR come to mind)), but the paragraphs here are so flimsy (usually no more than three sentences long) that I never pictured (or believed) a word of it. I'd close the book and pick it up a few hours later and have absolutely no idea what had happened. It was an "easy read," but I don't know many writers who would consider that a compliment.

2.0 out of 5 stars Sara Gruen owes William Styron some royalties, July 26, 2007
By Craig Keller (Chicago, IL) - See all my reviews
I rarely pick up best-sellers, but I felt compelled to torture myself through this one after Gruen was awarded -- in a baffling but sickeningly telling example of how lowest-common-denominator and bottom-line the book publishing business has become -- $5 million for her next two, as yet un-penned books. I've got $10 that says they involve touchy-feely maudlin interaction between people and animals and cliched romanctic treacle. I wouldn't be shocked to see a unicorn rear its head.

This novel is cliche and a pastiche of formula coopted from other, better books from cover to cover. The dialogue is PAINFUL. Every line feels prepackaged for the movie studio executive Gruen undoubtedly set out to placate before writing one word. Worse, while characters speak in cliched colloquial style, it remains ONE style. There is little to distinguish one voice from another. The plot, too, proceeds along a rote path -- I was predicting nearly every turn of it paragraphs, and then pages, ahead of time.

Gruen is justly commended for her research into circus history, which is the only original element she brings to the table. She clearly delights in it, though even that reads like dutiful observations culled from a torrent of microfiche and historical society archives. It's clear Gruen has spent a lot of time with her nose in books, and derives her style, such as it is, from other sources -- most notably, and unforgivably, William Styron's "Sophie's Choice," from which she shamelessly pilfers the very specific dynamics of that novel's central ill-fated love triangle, around which all else revolves. Gruen's Nathan is an equestrian director named August (interesting to note there are six letters in each name), and he's a Jewish paranoid schizophrenic. When Gruen's protoganist -- surprise! a young, precocious, naive but quickly maturing lover-boy bred from earnest all-American stock -- finds himself caught between the couple (Sophie is renamed Marlena here), all hell breaks loose ("all hell breaks loose" incidentally is a cliched phrase that appears several times throughout the book -- consider my usage a wry homage).

Do yourself a favor and buy the original, not the infantile copy.

The New York Times
was generally favorable. 916 readers so far have reviewed it online at Amazo. 612 of those gave the book five stars (tops). But over 50 disagreed, awarding only 1 or 1 stars.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Peter Lorre and "The Mask of Dimitrios"

Turner Classic Movies has been running a string of classic film noir these past weeks, and here the DVR button comes in useful. Last night I watched The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), and found myself tangled up in a web of mystery, spies, dark alleys, continental trains, seedy hotels and flats, and murderous intentions. The time period is late 1930s, although no expectations of a forthcoming world war are indicated. Hungarian actor, Peter Lorre, playing against his usual sinister type is a meek Dutch novelist who is required to travel by train to locales we are now familiar with because of current American foreign intrigues--from Athens to Istanbul to Sofia, Belgrade and Paris. The film was actually made on Warner Brothers' Hollywood back lot but they did a good job of making you think you're in Europe. Sidney Greenstreet, the large stout Englishman who often performed with Lorre is the master crook and in their scenes together they regularly upstage each other as they did in other films including Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Lorre usually plays creepy criminals, so it's quite interesting to see him play nice for a change. Except for Faye Emerson as femme fatale (she was married for a while to FDR's son. FDR Jr.) and Zachary Scott, the handsome Hollywood actor who managed to project sleaze and danger at the same time, the other actors are mostly European--and when you look at the credits you're reminded how Hollywood became a refuge in the 1930s and 40s for a large number of Jewish European artists, composers, actors, technicians, directors, etc. who fled from Germany in the 1930s and found work in California. Peter Lorre was one of them.

The Mask of Dimitrios was adapted from a novel by Eric Ambler.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bright November

Noted: November's here disguised in the garb of October; trees still wearing their red and gold leaves under a brilliant blue sky. If' this isn't a sign of global warming, I don't know what is. In the yard, the golden birch leaves and the red maples form a gorgeous diaphanous curtain, screening against the sun's bright rays. .Next week: will I be welcoming a big fall of early snow?

Shopped Marc's supermarket this morning. Seniors clogged the checkouts, spending their precious first-day-of-the month Social Security money. It was a Harvey Pekar moment--like the one in his movie American Splendor when he silently cursed the elderly woman ahead of him holding up the line over the price of drinking glasses. He ended up abandoning his cart. (Good old Cleveland's Harvey Pekar who won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival for his first movie)

At our checkout the clerk was distinguished by a a splendid braid of black hair that reached down her back to the bottom of her bottom. I wonder if she knows about the project that uses hair donations to make wigs for cancer patients. Perhaps she does know, and grows her hair for that purpose.

This morning it takes $1.05 American to purchase a Canadian dollar. No doubt Brian and Ruth are looking forward to living in luxury in Florida next February on their annual snowbird trek. The British pound is no slouch either, having zoomed into the stratosphere of $2.08 against the pound. Good for my little British pension, but not so good for Americans traveling abroad.