viernes, 27 de febrero de 2009

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard paperback, 1992)
by Raymond Chandler
USA, 1939

"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying." --The Big Sleep, pp. 3-4

Chandler's 1939 debut novel, like Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon before it, is one of those old favorites that has seemingly only gotten better with age. While its tale of high society blackmail having to do with a smut bookstore, crooked cops, illegal gambling, and multiple murders must have been even more thematically jolting back in the day, the way it's told still feels remarkably contemporary today. Part of that has to do with the novel's plot-driven engine, which motors along with all the speed and efficiency of a short story on wheels, but part of it has to with Chandler's bracing way with words. The book is full of smart, funny writing--like the description of a 20-year old party girl's "sharp, predatory teeth" (5) or the putdown of Marcel Proust as "a connoisseur in degenerates" (56)--passed off with the same sort of casual, conversational insouciance evident in narrator Phillip Marlowe's description of his arrival at the Sternwood mansion above. Yet despite the laughs, there's a cynicism or a world-weariness here that becomes more pronounced as the novel progresses--which is understandable given the notion that 1930s L.A. couldn't have been any kind of a decent place at all for either a stained-glass knight or his detective fiction counterpart. Inspired. (

Chandler (above) continues to receive an interesting mix of praise and dismissal from those evaluating his work from the perspective of "serious" fiction. For a reading that tries to argue both sides of the argument at once, check out "The Case for Raymond Chandler" by clicking on the link.

miércoles, 25 de febrero de 2009

The Classics Challenge

Dear Lurkers:

While you enjoy--or don't enjoy--this post in your usual silence, please be aware that I've signed up for the 2009 edition of the Classics Challenge hosted by Trish of Trish's Reading Nook. Full details on the challenge, which will run from April 1st through October 31st this year, can be found here; however, the more curious among you should know that I'll be planning on reading a book a month or so for the challenge under the "feast + 1 bonus" option. The following is a list of some of the entrées under consideration (all subject to change, of course):
  • Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (Rome) (review)
  • François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (France)
  • Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (Italy)
  • (alternate choice) Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (UK) (review)
  • (alternate choice) Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (USA) (review)
  • Teresa de la Parra, Mama Blanca's Memoirs (Venezuela)
  • (alternate choice) Carlo Emilio Gadda, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (Italy) (review)
  • (alternate choice) Rodolfo Walsh, Operación Masacre (Argentina) (review)
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Nigeria)
  • (alternate choice) Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (Sudan) (review)
  • Elena Poniatowska, La noche de Tlatelolco (Mexico)

P.S. I had a harder time than expected selecting some of these initial choices because I could have easily gone all-Argentina, all-France, all-Italy, all-Mexico, all-Greece and Rome, etc., under the classics rubric. Do you have a favorite country or era for "classics" yourself?

sábado, 21 de febrero de 2009

The Priest (a/k/a La Morte amoureuse)

"La Morte amoureuse"
by Théophile Gautier
France, 1836

How it starts: "You ask me if I have ever loved? Yes, my dear brother, I have loved. It is a strange and terrible tale, and though I am now sixty-six years of age I hardly dare stir the ashes of that memory."
Priestly poetry: "Her eyes were like an epic poem in which every glance composed a new canto."

While I'm usually not that big a fan of this type of old school fantastic literature, I very much enjoyed my time with Théophile Gautier's "La Morte amoureuse," here titled "The Priest" in deference to its spiritually conflicted narrator. In this story, Father Romuald agitatedly recalls the period in his youth when he fell victim to a "singular and diabolic illusion" (p. 15) after setting eyes upon the scandalous temptress Clarimonde at his ordination ceremony. Unfortunately for the ill-starred couple, the love that might have been theirs in life will have to wait until after the beautiful Clarimonde's death--when the one-time harlot begins to haunt the prelate in his dreams. Confessing to a life in which he was in effect a priest by day and a dandy and a lover by night, Romuald's ardent recollections of his obsessive affair call attention to the Manichean tensions between the sacred and the profane in a text that also doubles as a sort of a supernatural twist on the effects of love at first sight. Fittingly, the tale's practically awash in the sort of carnal colors and vampiric imagery that brings the priest's temptations to life right before your eyes. Rating: 4.75/5 stars. Source: My Fantoms [translated by Richard Holmes]. New York: New York Review Book Classics, 2008, 15-52.

viernes, 20 de febrero de 2009

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century (Crown hardback, 2007)
by Mike Dash
UK, 2007

Since I'm suddenly behind on all my reading challenges except for the one that hasn't started yet, I'm glad that the 400+ page Satan's Circus will at least count for one of them. A meticulously-researched look into NYPD Lieutenant Charles Becker's death sentence for the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal in 1912, the book's at its best evoking the period flavor of the Satan's Circus area--here described as the stretch of turf ranging vertically between 23rd and 57th Streets and bounded laterally by 6th and 10th Avenues--or what the author calls "the most glamorous, notorious square mile on earth" (p. 5) for its infamous all-night drinking, gambling, and prostitution district. Dash is strong at setting his main story within its historical and political contexts, linking the Becker case to just one stage among many in the rise of police corruption and reform movements in pre-Times Square Manhattan. Unfortunately, the parts dedicated to the "trial of the century" itself didn't really do it for me. Despite a colorful cast of real-life characters and a case in which a dirty cop seems to have been successfully framed for murder by an even more unscrupulous hoodlum, this chronicle never really connected with me as much as I would have liked. It's a good to very good read that fans of New York history should appreciate, but it probably could have used a little more dirt on the entertainment district to liven it up for everybody else--or at least me! (

miércoles, 18 de febrero de 2009

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 luni, 3 săptămîni şi 2 zile (IFC DVD, 2008)
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Romania, 2007
In Romanian with English and Spanish subtitles

I missed this wildly acclaimed import when it was out in the theaters a while back, but that's OK because it's not exactly the type of thing you'd want to watch with popcorn in hand anyway. Recreating a day in the life of two college students--one seeking out a black market abortion, the other helping out her roommate in a time of a need, both getting far more than they'd bargained for in the process--back in 1987 Romania, director Cristian Mungiu's film is every bit as grim and disturbing as you might expect from the theme. In fact, it's even more harrowing than I'd expected due to the high quality of the acting (Annamaria Marinca as Otilia and Vlad Ivanov as the abortionist Bebe are particularly outstanding) and the deceptively simple way in which the narrative is presented. Avoiding a moral judgement on his characters and eschewing things like background music and flashy editing, Mungiu instead delivers a probing, documentary-like inquiry into what might have motivated the students and the "doctor" on that fateful day. Along the way, the spectator's occasional peeks into the Romanian society of the time--the black market and bureaucratic cultures, the everpresent concern about carrying state ID cards, the city vs. country prejudices revealed at a birthday dinner party--foreground the drama of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days without overwhelming the events unfolding before your eyes. The result is a tense, wrenching, entirely believable story that feels so "real" that it's extremely unsettling. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's a recommendation or not. (

*I should note, in passing, that the extras on the US DVD release are excellent. I don't normally do a very good job of mentioning these things, but the interviews with Mungiu and DP Oleg Mutu are fascinating and will aid your appreciation of the filmmaking decisionmaking that went on behind the scenes. A short documentary feature, 1 Month with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is also interesting, revealing how Romania's first ever Cannes Palme d'Or winner was received by the Romanian public on a caravan tour assembled to take the film into parts of the country where movie theaters no longer exist.

sábado, 14 de febrero de 2009


Spione (Kino DVD, 2004)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Germany, 1928
Silent with English intertitles

Although this odd German drama/romantic comedy/spy caper's probably the most formulaic silent film I've seen from Herr Lang to date, it's entertaining enough that I'd still recommend it to anyone looking for a change of pace from the modern crap du jour. Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Willy Fritsch star respectively as the mysterious Haghi, who runs a secret espionage empire out of a massive bank, and as No. 326, the undercover Secret Service agent assigned to hunt him down. However, it's the beautiful Gerda Maurus who continually threatens to steal the show as Sonja, an operative for Haghi whose ill-timed love affair with No. 326 puts both her and her dapper new friend at risk from Klein-Rogge's megalomaniacal villain.

While the good guy/bad girl love affair between No. 326 and Sonja is in many ways the most predictable and least appealing aspect of Thea von Harbou's script, there's a lot to admire here anyway. "Throughout the world...strange events transpire" we're told at the outset. Within seconds, the opening sequence (above) proves it with a motorcycle chase, assassinations perpetrated by masked gunmen, and newspaper reports of an international crime wave--all set to Donald Sosin's pulsating score. On the storytelling front, don't be surprised to discover that a Japanese character, the diplomat Dr. Matsumoto (Lupu Pick), stands out as one of the few honorable people in a world full of opium den habitués and traitors for hire. Although this foreign patriot will pay the price for an all too universal human mistake in one of the film's most superbly-edited moments, the sensitivity of his portrayal underscores the movie's internationalist and modernist sensibilities.

Visually, Lang and cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner offer up other treats in the decadent Weimar fashion. In one scene, a boxing match takes place in the center of what's then revealed to be an elegant nightclub ballroom. In another scene, a runaway's troubled past is conveyed solely by two blink-and-you'll-miss-them images suggesting physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her parents. If both Feuillade's Les Vampires and Lang's own Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler seem to be more complete pre-1930s crime epics, Spione/Spies still has enough border crossings, false identities, international derring do, and, yes, romance to make it easy to envision it as the blueprint for all later spy movies--the James Bond franchise be damned! (

miércoles, 11 de febrero de 2009

El orden de las familias

"El orden de las familias"
por Jorge Edwards
Chile, 1967

Una cita: "Ahora, en la manera como hablas de su cansancio, noto un matiz de orgullo y de respeto. Y noto, por enésima vez, que a mí no me respetas, que sólo tienes por mí una tolerancia hermanable, vagamente nostálgica. Para ti, como para todas las mujeres que conozco, lo que cuenta de verdad es el dinero, el éxito mundano, por cualquier camino que venga. Antes no habías adquirido esta actitud, y pensé, ingenuamente, que podrías seguir viviendo en esa forma, fuera de esta conciencia. Pero entraste al orden sin muchas dificultades, con menos dificultades que otra gente. Sacrificar detalles como el cine en beneficio del descanso de tu marido es parte de tu rol actual, es la indispensable dosis de abnegación de tu personaje, que interpretas con maestría innata" (p. 170).

Otro cuento clásico. Con éste, Edwards (ganador del Premio Cervantes en 1999) demuestra su audacia cuentística por narrar la historia de un amor prohibido entre un estudiante de colegio y su hermana mayor. Aunque el tema central es chocante, el resultado es menos escandaloso de lo que se dice. Gracias a la destreza del autor, la historia funciona como una crítica de la burguesía chilena al mismo tiempo que los recuerdos amargos del narrador crean un ambiente cargado de emoción. De hecho, yo diría que este cuento ofrece uno de los mejores y más fidedignos retratos de la desilusión y de los celos que he encontrado. Interesantísimo. Nota: 5/5 estrellas. Fuente: Antología crítica del cuento hispanoamericano del siglo XX (1920-1980): 1. Fundadores e innovadores (selección de José Miguel Oviedo). Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2003, 148-172.

lunes, 9 de febrero de 2009

In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies (Plume paperback, 1995)
by Julia Alvarez
USA, 1994

Have you ever seen a really bad movie about a totally interesting subject? If so, you'll probably be able to relate to my frustrations while reading this mid-'90s historical fiction bestseller. To be fair, there were certain things I liked about the book. The U.S.-born/República Dominicana-raised Alvarez is a decent enough storyteller, and the subject matter--the lives of the four Mirabal sisters who became resistance leaders in the time of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo's oppressive regime--is certainly deserving of a wider audience. Structurally, I admired the author's ambition in letting each sister tell her own story via diary entries, flashbacks, etc. I also enjoyed the vaivén between the past and the present during the 60-year sweep of the narrative. On the down side, I never really connected with the idea that there were four distinct narrators here. Alvarez' intricate attempt at a chorus approach notwithstanding, I found In the Time of the Butterflies rather clumsy in this regard--presenting types rather than differentiated characters and artificial rather than convincing dialogue. Although less problematic, I was also taken aback by Alvarez' apparent fixation with almost all of her protagonists' menstrual cycles. I imagine her aim was to present the sisters as "real women" in addition to heroines, but the amount of space dedicated to the topic was disconcerting: one minute I'd be reading a so-so novel about a brutal dictator, and the next I'd be reading Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret! Not really the way I wanted to end this review nor the way I wanted to start the Latin American Reading Challenge. Rating: 2.5/5 stars. (

Julia Alvarez

sábado, 7 de febrero de 2009

Le Doulos

Le Doulos (Criterion DVD, 2008)
Réalisé par Jean-Pierre Melville
France, 1962
En français avec subtitres en anglais

Sorti en 1962, Le Doulos c'est un très bon film du genre gangster. Comme les autres films de Melville, il s'agit de la frontière entre la fidelité et la trahison, et des liens entre l'amitié et l'honneur. Au tout début de l'histoire, on apprend que le mot "doulos" a un double sens dans le contexte du scénario: "En argot, 'DOULOS' veut dire 'CHAPEAU'. Mais, dans le langage secret des policiers et des hors-la-loi, 'DOULOS' est le nom que l'on donne a celui qui 'en porte un'...l'indicateur de police". Un moment plus tard, autre intertitre aparaît avec une citation de Louis-Ferdinand Céline: "Il faut choisir. Mourir...ou mentir?" Cette oeuvre pessimiste, donc, c'est une moralité avec revolvers. Quand leur cambriolage à Neuilly s'interrupte par les policiers, Maurice (Serge Reggiani) est blessé et son accomplice Rémy (Phillipe Nahon) est mort. Maurice décide ensuite tuer à l'indicateur responsable, mais il ne sait pas qui est le doulos. Quant à ce mystère, le metteur en scène nous offre une panoplie de choix entre les criminels. Sera Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, voir ci-dessou), Jean (Phillipe March), le truand rival qu'il s'appelle Nuttecchio (Michel Piccoli), ou peut-être une ex petite amie? Melville, toujours le styliste, réussit à nous donner un film qu'il est séduisant et très beau à la fois. Superbe. (


lunes, 2 de febrero de 2009

A Time to Keep Silence

A Time to Keep Silence (New York Review Books Classics paperback, 2007)
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
UK, 1957

Lovely little travelogue about Leigh Fermor's stay in three French monasteries and visit to the ruins of another complex in Turkey sometime in the mid-1950s. Although the author's aims were decidedly secular at the outset (he candidly admits that his journey began with a search for a cheap and quiet place to stay where he could finish writing another book), NYRB's classification of this as "literature/religion" hints at how sucessfully the work touches on matters far beyond the mundane. Of the three chapters ("The Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle," "From Solesmes to La Grand Trappe," and "The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia," all noteworthy for their simple but graceful prose), I particularly enjoyed the first for its insightful and completely absorbing account of what it's like for a lay person to undergo the retreat from the world that Benedictine monastic life requires. Cautioning the reader that he could only immerse himself in a very small measure of St. Wandrille's routine as an outsider, Leigh Fermor's sensitivity and openness to the experience as a guest are nevertheless evident in his ability to communicate the satisfactions of abbey life to a world so removed from its own. The sections on La Grande Trappe, an extremely austere Cistercian monastery, and the Cappadocian ruins, cradle of monasticism in the days of the desert fathers, are also interesting, so I'm happy to see that Sir Patrick has several other books for me to discover eventually if not sooner. (

Patrick Leigh Fermor

In lieu of a Wiki entry:
Helena Smith, Literary legend learning to type at 92 (2007)
William Dalrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked (2008)