sábado, 31 de enero de 2009

All Shot Up

All Shot Up (Pegasus Books paperback, 2007)
by Chester Himes
France, 1960

I'm not sure that "mother-raper" or the adjectival "mother-raping" are any less offensive than the similar expletives in use today, but those are just two of the colorful linguistic oddities to be found in this gritty police procedural novel set in late 1950s Harlem. #4 in a series featuring tough-talking/acting black police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, All Shot Up lives up to its title with virtually non-stop action and what feels like an insider's take on crime, political corruption, and racism in the big city. While this 160-page thrill ride may be a little too high testosterone for the Jane Austen crowd, Himes does a great job at keeping the narrative roller coaster twisting and turning. In addition, he has a flair for description that's simultaneously funny and arresting: "It was ten minutes by foot, if you were on your way to church," he writes of one destination, "about two and a half minutes if your old lady was chasing you with a razor" (p. 21). This sort of mordant, streetwise sense of humor permeates the novel, a fine thing since the almost surrealistically violent caper at its heart is studded with lots of sordid characters who don't really represent Harlem's more churchgoing sides of the population. All in all, a very enjoyable read--but somebody else will have to fill me in on how closely Himes' imagined Harlem, so vividly portrayed by a U.S. expat then living in France, matched the real deal city at the time. (Pegasus Books/45 Wall Street, Suite 1021/New York, NY 10005)

Himes and cat

For a nice little bio piece/book review having to do with Chester Himes, check out Courttia Newland's 2000 "From a life of crime to watching the detectives" here.

viernes, 30 de enero de 2009

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House (Kino DVD, 1999)
Directed by James Whale
USA, 1932
In English

Did you know that that little old lady from Titanic (Gloria Stuart) was something of a hottie back in her silver screen heyday? Well, neither did I until saw her in this cheesy 1932 "haunted house" thriller/romantic comedy from Frankenstein director James Whale. In The Old Dark House, Stuart plays one of five unfortunate travelers who wash up in a dilapidated Welsh manor as houseguests for the night after rains make the roads impassable. The old dark house itself is populated by five creepy family members including a mad butler (Boris Karloff, mostly wasted here), a homicidal pyromaniac, etc. Like the 1927 silent film The Cat and the Canary, with which this is often compared, Whale's successes here owe a great deal to his cameraman's spectacularly shadowy cinematography (Arthur Edeson, take a bow) and to his cast's ability to dexterously juggle comedy and suspense. In addition to the lovely Stuart, who spends much of the movie in a slinky white evening dress trying to escape the unwanted attentions of Karloff's drunken and menacing butler, I particularly enjoyed watching Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as the oddball elderly brother and sister act who deliver many of the script's most memorable lines with obvious thespian relish. Grade: "E" for entertaining! (http://www.kino.com/)

Thesiger and Stuart share a quiet moment

miércoles, 28 de enero de 2009

The Cask of Amontillado

"The Cask of Amontillado"
by Edgar Allan Poe
USA, 1846

How it starts: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."
How it ends: "In pace requiescat!"

Apuleius' digressionary effusiveness notwithstanding, there's something to be said in favor of that other type of writer who can get his message across with as little wasted space as possible. Poe's seven-page "The Cask of Amontillado," for example, has always struck me as one of the most economical short stories ever, but I'd forgotten just how much of a pleasure it was to read until I picked it up again recently. The outwardly affable but inwardly calculating narrator, the Buñuelesque humor about the difference between a trowel-wielding mason and the brotherhood of freemasons, and the exquisitely controlled balance between madness and menace all add up to a perfect tapas dish for those who'd agree that revenge is a dish best served cold. Rating: 5/5 stars. Source: The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. Gerald Kinney). New York: Penguin, 2006, 208-214.

Are you a Poe fan? Tell me about it.
Want to see what the Los Angeles Times had to say about Peter Ackroyd's new Poe biography a few days ago? Read about it.

lunes, 26 de enero de 2009

Pour ceux qui aiment le cinéma espagnol...

Cinespagne.com, avec de nouvelles videos, entrevues avec de grands cinéastes, etc., est un bon site web qui mérite toute votre attention.

domingo, 25 de enero de 2009

Orbis Terrarum 2009 Challenge

While I like reading about reading challenges way more than I like participating in them, I have some good news about my absolute favorite challenge of them all. Bethany of the book-crazy B&b ex libris blog is hosting the Orbis Terrarum Challenge again this year, a 10-month extravaganza dedicated to reading "10 different books, written by 10 different authors, from 10 different countries" beginning March 1st. Although the so-called rules thankfully haven't changed all that much from the 2008 version of the challenge, Bethany has livened things up by adding optional bilingual, film, poetry, and short story mini-challenges for those who are interested. You can check out the blog's dedicated page post here to sign up for the challenge yourself or here if you just want to keep up with all the updates throughout the year. In the meantime, a few of the things I'm looking forward to reading/watching for this year's challenge are listed below. I'll link all my other OT 2009 Challenge reviews here once things get going in March. ¡Hasta pronto!

Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina): a likely candidate for double duty in the poetry and short story mini-challenges.

Margaret Mazzantini, Non ti muovere (Italy, 2001): I'm going to try to read this romanzo in Italian for the bilingual mini-challenge, but unfortunately my Italian is basically limited to food and wine vocabulary and a few other helpful words like "aiuto"!

Carlos Saura, Cría cuervos (Spain, 1976): One of my favorite movies of all time, this was recently released in a deluxe US DVD edition from Criterion. A natural for the film mini-challenge.

Click here to jump to my OT list from last year.

1) BRAZIL: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (review)
2) MEXICO: José Emilio Pacheco, Las batallas en el desierto [Battles in the Desert] (review)
3) CHILE: José Donoso, Historia personal del "boom" [The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History] (review)
4) SPAIN: Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañía [Bartleby & Co.] (review)
5) LEBANON: Hanan al-Shaykh, The Story of Zahra (review)
6) SUDAN: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (review)
7) PERU: Mario Vargas Llosa, La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] (review)
8) NORWAY: Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter (links forthcoming)
9) HONDURAS: Horacio Moya Castellanos, Senselessness [Insensatez] (review)
10) COLOMBIA: Fernando Vallejo, La Virgen de los Sicarios [Our Lady of the Assassins] (review)

1) MÉXICO: José Emilio Pacheco, Las batallas en el desierto (reseña)
2) CHILE: José Donoso, Historia general del "boom" (reseña)
3) ESPAÑA: Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañía (reseña)
4) PERU: Mario Vargas Llosa, La guerra del fin del mundo (reseña)
5) COLOMBIA: Fernado Vallejo, La Virgen de los Sicarios (reseña)

1) GERMANY: Werner Herzog, My Best Fiend [Mein liebster Feind] (review)
2) DENMARK: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Vampyr (review)
3) FRANCE: Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Deuxième Souffle (review)

1) ???

sábado, 24 de enero de 2009

The Golden Ass

Apuleius Metamorphoses (Asinus Aureus) (Penguin Classics paperback, 2004)
by Apuleius (translated from the Latin by E.J. Kenney)
North Africa, c. 175

That 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list sure has a lot of outright dogs on it, kind reader, but I'll spare you a sermon on it tonight since it also includes this 1800-year old classic about a man turned into a donkey. Although anyone interested in the history of the novel should certainly read Apuleius at some point in time just because, suffice it to say that his The Golden Ass (a/k/a The Metamorphoses, here translated with verve by the University of Cambridge's E.J. Kenney) isn't the sort of boring fiction that's been popularized by today's writers. Bestiality, murder, and witchcraft all play a big role in the comic proceedings that plague poor narrator Lucius after he's been transformed into an ass and abused by one unsavory owner after another, and the work's gleeful mix of high and low humor and freewheeling use of a frame narrative will seem completely unrestrained to anyone conditioned by literary fiction's current vogue for precious and tweedy prose. While I don't know enough about second century mystery cults to hazard a guess as to whether Lucius' final metamorphosis from an ass into an initiate of Isis is as spiritually significant as some scholars would have it, I do know enough about the modern novel to wish we had more Golden Asses and Satyricons and fewer Paul Auster and Ian McEwan titles. A pagan classic! (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

Apuleius: not just another dead guy on a painted ceiling tile.

jueves, 22 de enero de 2009

Osaka Elegy

Naniwa ereji (Eclipse DVD, 2008)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Japan, 1936
In Japanese with English subtitles

Osaka Elegy, the first of four films in the Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women box set, concerns an attractive young switchboard operator, Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), who is driven into a life of prostitution to save her deadbeat dad from embezzlement charges and to fund her ungrateful brother's final year of tuition so he can finish college. It shouldn't surprise anyone to find out that she, and not the unappreciative and weak-willed men who surround her who are truly responsible for the economics of her "fall," will ultimately pay the price for the family's subsequent shame once news of her delinquency becomes known, but much of the interest in this bleak and surprisingly modern melodrama is the way Mizoguchi actively questions society's share in the blame with a sort of proto-feminist sensitivity. Although I found the pace slow at times and a little too one-dimensional in its portrayal of gender relations, Yamada's strong performance and a justifiably-famous final scene--a close-up of Ayako confronting the audience with a defiant glare right before the end credits roll--make it easy to understand why some people think Osaka Elegy is more impressive than it actually is. Which is not to say that it's not provocative or reflective of its own times or all that jazz: one of Mizoguchi's own sisters, in fact, was infamously given up for "adoption," only to be sold as a geisha, in real life herself. (http://www.criterion.com/)

viernes, 16 de enero de 2009


Sátántangó (Facets DVD, 2008)
Dirigida por Béla Tarr
Hungría, 1994
En húngaro con subtítulos en inglés

No puedo imaginar ver las siete horas de esta película de una vez, pero estoy pensando en comprar el DVD (precio de Amazon.com: $71.99) para un futuro campeonato de masoquismo. Una cachetada conceptual dirigida a la cinematografía convencional, Satantango tiene por tema la vida desgraciada de una granja colectiva en alguna parte de Hungría. Aunque Tarr ofrece una visión pesimista del paisaje (postapocalíptico al estilo de Tarkovsky) y de sus personajes (casi todos son o borrachos o tramposos), su manera de narrar es nada menos que espectacular. Célebre por sus planos de larga distancia, sus tomas largas, y su afición a rodar en blanco y negro, el cineasta emplea todos esos rasgos aquí con un hipnotismo confiado. Por consiguiente, el espectador se pierde en el mundo inexorable de los personajes. Al mismo tiempo, Tarr y co-guionista Laszlo Krasznahorkai, el autor de la novela Satantango de 1985, introducen multiples juegos de perspectiva en cuanto a la historia; como un buen tango, el argumento se narra por medio de saltos adelante y de escenas retrospectivas: o sea 6 pasos para adelante, 6 pasos para atrás (debo mencionar de paso que la banda sonora, con su música de acordeón, también tiene una calidad alucinante). Dado que el reparto incluye un estafador "mesiánico", dos informadores, y al menos un loco que cree que "vienen los turcos" y que el guión está lleno de un humor negro, no estoy seguro si Satantango es una comedia, una tragedia, una tragicomedia, o una reyerta de borrachos. Lo que sí entiendo es que Tarr y Krasznahorkai son dos "tangueros" de primerísima categoría y que me gustó su canción. Excelente. (http://www.facets.org/)

Buscando una salida (desde atrás)

miércoles, 14 de enero de 2009

The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity

The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity (Feral House paperback, 2006)
by Mel Gordon
USA, 2006

Racy biography of Weimar Germany dancer/drug addict/silent movie star Anita Berber (1899-1928), a woman Gordon calls "the single most decadent personality" of her times (p. ii) before setting out to prove it in the pages that follow (to be fair, Gordon also takes pains to stress that Berber was as dedicated to her art as she was to any of her other addictions). Anyone inclined to a good wallow in the filth should enjoy some of the juicier revelations about Berber's defiantly unrestrained lifestyle, and those who just want some sort of a background context on the performing arts in the silent era will find it in abundance in passages having to do with the "naked dance" movement, Berlin's cabaret and club scene, and the fine line between the entertainment business and prostitution in the '20s. While some of the more scandalous moments in the bio lack consistency regarding the citation of sources, that minor drawback and an occasionally overheated tone are a small price to pay to gain access to this absolutely fascinating world brought back to life by Gordon with the help of over 200 personal photos, poster reproductions, and publicity stills rescued from the bins of avant-garde oblivion. Tremendously entertaining! (http://www.feralhouse.com/)

Mel Gordon

lunes, 12 de enero de 2009

Anita Berber, 1925

Balladora, drogaaddicte, performance artist, i "l'estrella" del llibre de Mel Gordon, The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity.

viernes, 9 de enero de 2009

Gran Torino

Gran Torino
Dirigida por Clint Eastwood
Estados Unidos, 2008
En inglés

Como muchos de ustedes sabrán, el largometraje Gran Torino tiene que ver con la amistad que se desarrolla entre un viejo americano racista y sus jovénes vecinos hmong en un barrio pobre de Detroit. Eastwood, como el veterano del conflicto coreano Walt Kowalski, es carismático como siempre, y los nuevos actores Anhey Her y Bee Vang, como los vecinos Sue Lor y Thao Vang Lor, hacen un buen trabajo en sus papeles también. De hecho, las relaciones entre estos tres personajes me parecieron bastante creíbles e interesantes. Desgraciadamente, otros entre el elenco (en particular, los que tienen los papeles de los parientes de Kowalski) son verdaderamente nefastos en cuanto a su actuación, y el guión es previsible y estereotípico en sumo grado. Aunque Gran Torino me pareció suficientemente divertido a pesar de estas quejas, ya es ridículo pensar que la película sea considerada como una de las mejores del año. No lo es. Por otra parte, ¡es mucho mejor que aquella pinche Crash de 2004! Nota: 3/5 estrellitas hollywoodianas. (Warner Bros.)

Este "vigilante" no se llama Dirty Harry.

miércoles, 7 de enero de 2009

The Day of the Owl

The Day of the Owl (New York Review Books paperback, 2003)
by Leonardo Sciascia (translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver)
Italy, 1961

"'Who is it?' asked the conductor, pointing at the body. No one answered. The conductor cursed. Among passengers of that route he was famous for his highly skilled blaspheming. The company had already threatened to fire him, since he never bothered to control himself even when there were nuns or priests on the bus. He was from the province of Syracuse and had had little to do with violent death: a soft province, Syracuse. So now he swore all the more furiously." (The Day of the Owl, p. 10)

Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) is often described as a crime writer, which I suppose he was, but I get the feeling that that label is as limiting and meaningless as calling Borges a short story writer. In his 124-page novella The Day of the Owl (first published in Italian as Il Giorno della Civetta and also translated into English as Mafia Vendetta), Sciascia does indeed write a story that takes a shocking murder as its starting point--but the mystery has to do with the reasons for the cover-up as much as the solution to the crime itself. The essential details are as follows. In a small Sicilian town, a man is shot dead in the middle of a crowded piazza as he attempts to board an early morning bus. Despite the presence of many potential eyewitnesses, nobody is willing to step forward to explain what they saw for fear of potential mafia retribution. A mainland carabinieri officer temporarily stationed in the area, the wonderfully-drawn Captain Bellodi, attempts to figure out and eventually resolves the motives for the initial killing as well as the subsequent ones that inevitably follow, but both his investigation and the pursuit of justice itself are constantly thwarted by a Sicilian culture that he's only gradually beginning to understand. Bellodi's status as an outsider from Parma allows Sciascia, himself a Sicilian, to comment on the captain's frustrations from both sides of the north-south cultural divide. With prose that is both psychologically astute and often unexpectedly funny, this sociological perspective on Sicily circa 1961 adds an extra dimension to an already-interesting police procedural narrative--making this almost too good to be true in the entertainment department. A splendid read. (http://www.nyrb.com/)

Leonardo Sciascia
(1989 NY Times obituary here)

lunes, 5 de enero de 2009

Support Your Local Library Challenge

Since I couldn't even make it a full month into my harebrained plan to go a year without books, I've decided to join the 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge in recognition of my status as "easy prey" for book dealers everywhere. While I have no delusions that signing up to read 12, 25 or even 50 library books in 2009 will cure me of the need to purchase every other book I touch, I'm curious to see whether commiting to read a library book a week (my goal = 50, to be chosen from the "local library" right outside my office at work) will help break me of the habit...somewhat. In any event, all my reviews for the challenge will be linked here below as I get to them. See you later in the stacks!
  • 1/50: Leonardo Sciascia, The Day of the Owl (review)
  • 2/50: Mel Gordon, The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity (review)
  • 3/50: Mike Dash, Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century (review)
  • 4/50: Richard Grant, God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (review)
  • 5/50: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (review)
  • 6/50: Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain (review)
  • 7/50: John Dunning, Booked to Die: A Mystery Introducing Cliff Janeway (review)
  • 8/50: Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (review)
  • 9/50: Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañía [Bartleby & Co.] (review)
  • 10/50: Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water [La forma dell'acqua] (review)
  • 11/50: Hanan al-Shaykh, The Story of Zahra (review)
  • 12/50: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (review)

viernes, 2 de enero de 2009


Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (Kino DVD, 2001)
Dirigida por F.W. Murnau
Alemania, 1926
Silente con intertítulos en inglés
  • Mefisto: "¿Qué quieres: una mujer, un juego de azar, una orgía? ¡Cualquier cosa que quieras, debo dártela!"
No había visto ninguna otra versión de Fausto antes de ésta, pero me imagino que todos ustedes conocen los detalles básicos de la historia: a fin de que él que gane tomará posesión de la tierra después, el diablo y un arcángel hacen una apuesta sobre la incorruptibilidad del alma del protagonista. Fausto (Gösta Ekman), un alquimista en busca de un remedio para la peste, eventualmente cede a la tentación, pero su amor a la inocente Gretchen/Margarita (Camilla Horn) resulta ser una especie de redención. Aunque el guión de Hans Kyser tiene sus pros y sus contras, este filme es un verdadero banquete para los ojos. Con una serie de imágenes de pesadilla (los Caballeros del Apocalipsis, varios retratos de portadores del féretro encapuchados, la escena donde Satanás desencadena la pestilencia sobre un pueblo medieval), Murnau logra capturar todo el pandemonio de un mundo traumatizado. Al mismo tiempo, otras visiones oníricas (como la escena cuando aparece una mujer desnuda y otra donde Fausto vuela por toda Italia sobre la capa de Mefisto [Emil Jannings]) llaman la atención a las tentaciones de Fausto con una euforia seductora. Mientras Murnau y su equipo técnico utilizan efectos especiales y modelos miniaturizados con gran éxito y imaginación, quizás el aspecto más moderno de esta narración es su compasión hacia el personaje de Gretchen: vilipendiada como una pecadora después de su "caída" sexual, ya queda la personificación del amor y de la esperanza a pesar de ser la víctima de enormes repercusiones machistas por parte de sus ciudadanos. Una película genial con una partitura por Timothy Brock y la Olympia Chamber Orchestra que me gustó también.