Monday, April 16, 2012

"Death Takes a Holiday" (1934) Finally! -- Initial Thoughts

The "finally" meaning that I've finally seen it, of course.

As I mentioned a while ago, I've been wanting to see this movie for years.  Meet Joe Black (1998) is based on it, and it stars Frederic March, so of course I wanted to see it!

The movie I know March best from is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and I was sad to see he hadn't acquired his perky mustache yet.  He did have an intriguing Foreign Accent, vaguely reminiscent of Peter Lorre at times, but really quite unidentifiable as to just where he was from other than Somewhere Else.

Anyway, in the movie, Death (March) decides to take three days off from his usual job and see what this Life business is all about.  He thinks the best way to do it would be to hang out at the Villa Felicita with a bunch of rich people, posing as Prince Sirki (a name as unidentifiably Foreign as his accent).  Of course, the occupants of this Villa of Contentment are anything but contented, especially Grazia (Evelyn Venable), the ethereal fiancee of the owner's son.  She might as well be singing "It Might as Well be Spring" during the first half of the movie, as she opines about how she's just missing something in her life.  Restless as a willow in a windstorm, indeed.

The arrival of Prince Sirki throws the other two Eligible Young Ladies at the villa into a frenzy of barely-civil cattiness as they vie for the prince's attention.  Naturally, it's Grazia who draws him instead, because she's completely fascinated by him.  After all, he's handily representative of everything Other that she's been yearning for.  Her perfectly ordinary -- and ordinarily perfect -- fiance could never compete.

By the time Sirki/Death starts experimenting with seduction, I realized that this movie is basically a vampire movie, only they dispensed with the whole vampire-as-a-metaphor-for-death idea and just went straight to talking about people's fascination with -- and attraction to -- death.  (As for my fascination with em-dashes today, that's another story.)  But as Rachel of The Girl with the White Parasol pointed out, it works really well as a metaphor for a young girl contemplating suicide instead.

That young girl, of course, is Grazia.  Look how wistful and otherworldly she is!

And Grazia gets my two favorite dresses too.  All white and floaty, both of them.

Sorry for the blurry shots -- I was screencapping these off YouTube.  But you can get an idea of how lovely they are, anyway.

I was kind of surprised by the ending, I must say, though I guess I was just expecting it to be like the end of Meet Joe Black.  Why, I don't know, since the rest of it was pretty different, other than the basic premise of Death hanging out with rich people for a few days to learn about life.  I'm glad I've finally seen this, but I won't be trying to buy it on DVD, as I didn't love it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway

I've been a fan of Ernest Hemingway's writing for a decade now -- I actually first decided to read something by him because I went through a phase where I loved the movie City of Angels (1998).  Nicolas Cage's character recommends Hemingway to Meg Ryan's character because of how well he writes about food, and leaves A Moveable Feast on her nightstand.  The library didn't have that book, but they had The Sun Also Rises, and I picked that one because of the quote from Ecclesiastes at the beginning.  Ecclesiastes just happens to be one of my favorite books of the Bible, you see.  Anyway, I liked Hemingway's economical writing, and over the years, I've read all his short stories and several of his other novels.  But I'd never read For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is my brother's favorite Hemingway book (mine so far is A Moveable Feast).  So I decided it was high time to read it.

So I read it.  But I didn't like it much.  (Sorry, Johnnycake!)  In fact, I'd have to say it is my second-least-favorite Hemingway work.  (My least favorite is the unfinished Garden of Eden.)

It was just so bleak!  Unmitigatedly bleak.  There's an old joke I read in a Reader's Digest years ago about how different famous authors would answer the question of "Why did the chicken cross the road?"  I don't remember any of them anymore except the one for Hemingway, which was:  "To die.  In the rain.  Alone."  And I always kind of laughed about that, because for me, most of Hemingway isn't all that depressing.  Sure, a lot of his stories end sadly, in a sort of inevitable way, but none of the other things I've read by him have pounded Sadness!  Despair!  Pointless Death!  into the ground like this does.

If you have no idea what it's about, here's a quick recap:  An American volunteer named Robert Jordan, a volunteer in the Spanish republican army during the Spanish Civil War, gets sent to join this guerrilla band and blow up a bridge with their help.  He falls in love with a young girl named Maria, who was orphaned and raped by the opposing forces earlier in the war.  All the characters spend the whole time talking about how doomed the mission is and how they're all going to die.  And then most of them do die.  And not in a glorious, cathartic, serves-some-greater-purpose way like all the characters in Hamlet dying at the end.  Just in a bleak, pointless, inevitable-yet-preventable way.

Obviously, the point is that war is pointless and bleak and horrid.  I get that.  I just don't like the book.  Like I said the other day, I have to want to be friends with at least one character in a book (or movie, or TV show) to like it, and I didn't really want to be friends with anyone in this book.  I liked Pilar okay, the other female character, but not that much either.  So I spend the last half of the book thinking, "Oh, man, will this ever end?  I'm so tired of reading this!"  Because it was Hemingway, I did at least enjoy the writing, but not enough to make me like the book.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Bloodlines" and "Goodnight, Irene" by Jan Burke

As I mentioned earlier, reading A Study in Sherlock inspired me to try out some new mystery authors.  I started with Jan Burke.  Our local library has several of her books, but not the first one in her series about Irene Kelly, so I just grabbed the one with the most interesting title.  It was Bloodlines.

Bloodlines is the sort of sprawling, nuanced, intricately rambling treat I don't usually find when I read mysteries.  By the time I was fifty pages into it, I was firm friends with the two main characters of the first section, young Connor O'Connor and his mentor, newspaperman Jack Corrigan.  I need to blog about how important it is for me to become friends with characters sometime, but for now I'll just assure you that it's important.  And the faster I make friends, the better I generally like the book.  I love this book.  It takes place over five different decades, and about halfway through I realized it was kind of tying together several events in other books in the series.  Characters I grew to love would abruptly die off-page.  I grew to love other characters in their places.  The giant, seemingly rambly narrative came into focus, then charged ahead full-steam suddenly, then tied up in a most satisfactory -- but deliciously unexpected -- way.  Complete love!

It concerned a bunch of characters who died and disappeared in the 1950s in a way that made me think of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels.  Also, there's a kidnapping.  And then nothing whatsoever happens with the case for decades, until someone unexpectedly unearths some new clues....  By the end, I was a confirmed Jan Burke fan and hungry for more.

So I got Goodnight, Irene, the first book in this series.  And it was quite good too, with a lovely love story and a complicated plot.  I didn't love it as much as Bloodlines, but that's okay, because it was a much earlier novel, and now I know that they improve as they go along, rather than unimproving or staying the same.  In this one, Irene Kelly's best friend gets blown up, and she helps solve the murder while doing some nice journalistic work as well.  Did I mention Irene Kelly is a newspaper reporter too?  Anyway, a perfectly good mystery, if not as delightful as Bloodlines.  Can't wait to read more!

Monday, April 02, 2012

"A Study in Sherlock" ed. by Laurie R. King and Leslie Klinger

I got this book for Christmas and read it over the course of a couple weeks, limiting myself to a story every day or two to make it last longer.  I'm choosing it as the subject of my first review here because, although I finished reading it almost three months ago, it's directly informed my reading selections since then, which I'll be blogging about too, so I figured starting with the source would be a good idea.

I've been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was ten or eleven, when I found a giant, hardcover copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles at the library and devoured it over the weekend.  I can still remember the illustration on its cover, a giant black dog rushing toward the viewer, indistinct people in the background giving chase.  I've been a fan of Laurie R. King and her Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell mysteries since around 2005, when I first read her brilliant The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  I had the pleasure of attending a reading she did in Connecticut a few years ago, even getting to meet her and ask her to sign a couple books.  So when I learned about this new book from her Facebook page, I was eager to read it.  And I haven't been disappointed!  All the stories were enjoyable, but I liked five of them particularly well, and these are they:

"The Men with the Twisted Lips" by S. J. Rozan.  This story has a collection of Oriental black market businessmen colluding to arrange for Sherlock Holmes to have all the clues he needs to solve the mystery told in the canonical story "The Man with the Twisted Lip."  It's full of vivid details and clever arrangements of little plot details to make the whole story work with the original.

"The Case of Death and Honey" by Neil Gaiman.  This one's a bit dark and very literary. by which I mean it's not particularly a mystery, but more of a character study.  Holmes pops up in a remote Chinese mountain range to practice some highly unusual beekeeping, with startling results.

"The Adventure of the Concert Pianist" by Margaret Maron.  This story follows Dr. Watson as he returns to Baker Street during the period after the Reichenbach Falls incident, when everyone assumes Holmes is dead. Watson helps their erstwhile housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, solve a mystery concerning one of her relatives.  The very end makes me grin and say, "Awwww!" when I think of it.

"The Imitator" by Jan Burke.  This one has a bunch of post-WWI eccentrics using Holmes' methods to solve a kidnapping.  Lots of fun!

"The Startling Events in the Electrified City" by Thomas Perry.  Totally my favorite story in this book.  It posits that the assassination of President McKinley was in fact a most elaborate hoax concocted by the President himself and carried out with the help of Holmes and Watson.  I loved this story and have read it twice.  In my occasionally humble opinion, this story is worth the price of the whole book all by itself.

Reading this collection has inspired me to try out some new authors, and I'll be reviewing things by them soon, as I've read 4 or 5 books since this one, a couple of them by authors I've mentioned here.  And I'm on the hunt for more!