Thursday, December 20, 2007

Twelve Delightful Things

In the '80s, my great-aunt Carol used to put on tatty furs and a fake British accent and parody the Queen's annual speech at Christmas dinners.

I think of her now, as the twilight of 2007 has brought with it the inevitable list-making of critics, pundits and amateurs alike compiling their best-ofs, worst-ofs, and what-ofs, and I, being the scattershot dilettante I am, compile a list is neither a best-films or best-reads list, nor even a best-of-tv list, but rather all three, linked only, inevitably, by their tenuous connections to my vague philosophy of spinsterism, which some have interpreted as "things designed to make you stay at home" (an interpretation I choose to accept mainly because any literal claim I may have had to being an actual Spinster Aunt fell by the wayside, like so much virtue, on July 24th, 2007). I imagine now that the Queen might make such lists as these, with no regard whatsoever for genre, theme, era, author or anything else, other than what amuses her.

So here is my thematically fuzzy, media-unspecific bit of rambling, based upon absolutely no criteria at all other than each item on it provoked my unmitigated delight, as though the intellectual and artistic detritus of this world was designed solely for my whims and pleasure.

Thus do we amuse ourselves in the colonies.

* * *
The Printed Word:

This year I made a wonderful new discovery when I picked up George Simenon's Maigret Mystified by happenstance in a used bookstore. Maigret's a marvelous protagonist, and I can't wait to read more of Simenon's shockingly prolific output. I also read The Blue Hammer, the final book in Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series. Macdonald was really underrated for years but I think there'll be a resurgence of interest in his work now, following a recent reprinting of several titles by Black Lizard Press. I'm glad, because his prose should earn him a place among the best. Another series I was delighted to sink my teeth into for the first time was Joan Hess's Maggody series, which satisfied my hillbilly leanings and my cravings for a good story. Mortal Remains in Maggody introduced me to an astonishingly rich pantheon of rubes and their embittered foil, citified home-girl Arly Hanks.

I managed to get a little touch of the classics, too. Dracula , though published over a century ago, was a thoroughly modern tale of suspense and the supernatural, featuring one hell of a kickass heroine. And I continue to enjoy the work of Ruth Rendell, whose solid one-off One Across, Two Down demonstrates her great ability to craft apparently simple narratives of disarming subtlety. I'd have to say I liked it as much as Lake of Darkness, my favorite stand-alone so far, and Murder Being Once Done, my preferred Inspector Wexford mystery to date.

The Moving Pictures:

Two films I saw recently, Docks of NY and Letter from an Unknown Woman reaffirmed my faith in the medium of cinema, one for the beauty of its lighting and compositions, the other for its camera movement. As a viewer, I tend to get too caught up in theme and story to appreciate other elements of the art form, but these films jolted me right back into the movies' sheer capacity for visual gorgeousness. The Band Wagon had a similar effect, in that it reminded me that the movies are about spectacle, dammit! And Sam Fuller's Forty Guns made me remember how much I love that singular star, Barbara Stanwyck, and so many other strong, brilliant women who hold their on on screen. Finally, the new Nancy Drew was a great example of a clever and effective adaptation, updating the source material while staying faithful to its spirit, and to the spirit of its heroine.

Yay, movies!

Pleasant surprises in the world of television:

I watched my first episode of The Women’s Murder Club with some misgiving. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I've been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the show so far. Angie Harmon is great, and the whole cast really brings it -- I've even started to like the spunky blonde D.A., who's character totally improved after episode 1. The show veers off into indulgent moments of pure soap and isn't afraid of cop-cliche melodrama, which can be a lot of fun. Yet the writing is taut and handles "womens" issues with insight and humor, and the mid-season finale was completely satisfying.

Another pleasant surprise: House is good again! After a mediocre season 3, the show is fun to watch once more. Laurie is in top form as always, and the "Survivor" element to the show (eliminating potential fellows) was silly and great. It's as if the writers decided they couldn't push the formula any further, were on the brink of cancellation and decided to go for broke. Now I just want the writer's strike to end! Here's hoping the scribes get all the money they've got coming to them.

Well, here's wishing you and yours a Happy Christmas.

Affectionately yours,

Spinster Aunt

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Blue Hammer

In The Blue Hammer, Ross Macdonald layers plot elements like a painter applying oils. Macdonald displays typical authorial flourishes (rich Californian heiresses with evil daddies) and adds some new elements ('70s counter-culture finds Arhcer eating something called a "natureburger") all enmeshed in one of the richest, most intricately entangled plots he ever wrote.

It was to be his last book, and in it one can already feel that maybe Lew Archer is about ready for retirement. He's settling old scores, and finding new, quite possibly true, love -- something he's never done on any of his cases before -- and reflecting more deeply than usual on the nature of life, work, and the whole dirty business.

The case revolves around a missing painting stolen from a rich woman's home, supposedly the work of an artist who disappeared twenty-five years ago. The twists and turns come fast and loose and almost immediately: the painting was borrowed for analysis by an art student, a friend of the woman's daughter, who is sure it's a fake. The portrait then disappears from the young man's house, which turns out to be a foreboding gray fortress manned by his creepy mother, a nurse who keeps her alcoholic husband under lock and key. More twists ensue: the very shady art dealer who sold the painting in the first place is found bleeding and bludgeoned in the street. With his last breath, he names his killer: the missing artist.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. What follows is a twisting highway of stolen identities, love, murder and revenge that leads Archer from California to Arizona and back again, all revolving somehow around this missing artist. It's such a spellbinding read -- it really is one of those books you can't wait to get back to when you're away from it.

There's something profoundly affecting about the characters in this novel, the way they're all saddled with the unfortunate results of lifetimes of bad choices. Many of them live in situations they hate merely because they've made mistakes in the past that there's no way to fix, leading to a lifelong compromise. Some of them are tragic, like the art student who steals/borrows the painting. The "boy," Fred, is really a thirty-one year old man, emotionally stunted by poverty and a lifetime with crazy parents. He isn't even finished slogging his way through college, scrimping and saving to get by. Archer initially dislikes him but eventually takes pity on him. The man-child is a complex and tragic figure, while his mother is a loathsome creature but one who's suffered almost enough to justify her twisted actions -- almost. Perhaps Archer wonders what might have happened if he'd ever had a son? There seems to be a subtext of maternal betrayal and paternal longing running throughout this unusually tender and poignant novel.

As with other Lew Archer novels I've read, this one is indeed a very tightly circumscribed universe. Coincidence appears to abound because everyone seems to know each other, everyone seems to be part of the same social circle. It imparts an incestuous vibe that just increases the spine-shuddering disgust these characters inspire. Then there are a number of other characters who are just plain selfish, grasping, and opportunistic, and they're the ones who end up saddled with lifelong burdens in this self-contained universe that seems to take care, and punish, of its own.

Incidentally: wait till you find out what the blue hammer is.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Docks of New York

The Docks of New York (1928) represents the zenith of silent film-making and von Sternberg at his best, I'd often been told. So I was pleased to discover upon my first viewing that, yes, it's freakin' awesome. The directing, performances, photography, lighting and mis-en-scene: awesome.

Betty Compson and George Bancroft play a hooker and sailor (respectively) who meet when he jumps into the river to rescue her after a suicide attempt. A night of drunken flirtation ensues, which culminates in a quickie marriage, followed by a heartbreaking morning ...

What's amazing in this film is the level of ambiguity in the directing and performances. It's an unromantic romance. A girl with a what-the-hell attitude who allows herself to fall into a thoroughly bizarre situation because she just doesn't give a damn, she's completely at the end of her rope anyway. Why not? And yet, she's strangely devoted to him, perhaps out of this same fatalistic sense that there's no real reason not to be. One man is as good as the next, and yet she likes him. So there's Betty.

And then you've got George, who's this odd mix of roughness and tenderness. He stops to save her. motivated by basic human decency, and yet he does it with an air of detachment. Then he sticks around to get drunk and flirt with her, motivated by the fact that he has one night of shore leave and she's kind of cute. The next day he leaves because he's "never missed a boat in all his life."

So what prompts him to jump off the boat and swim back to her? This same sense of "Why the hell not?" It's all sort of bizarre and intangible and unmotivated in this really beautiful way maybe illustrating how all our actions are kind of unfathomable, really. I don't know, at least they are in this world. I can't explain the strangeness, but I think I have an image that could illustrate what I mean. After Betty jumps in the water, George steals her some clothes to wear since her only dress is wet. And what does he get her to clothe and warm her shivering, traumatized body? This:
This. This sexy, slinky, clingy, paper-thin dress. This flesh-colored dress! It's devastating and surreal. In a normal universe, a hero would get his damsel something solid and modest and warm. In this world, he gets her a shimmering, substanceless slip of gossamer.

Hardly a conventional love story. And yet, as a vintage Photoplay review describes, "if you are one of those blessed with an appreciation of the beauty of realism, then this will be more beautiful to you than a story of young love in a garden. It has power and tenderness."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Malevolent Doubles and Murderous Parents

I was really excited when I read these ruminations on fondly-remembered Young Adult fiction over at Jezebel.

Lizzie Skurnick's rambling remembrances are fun to read even if you aren't acquainted with the books she covers -- I'm not yet, but I absolutely want to be as of right this second. She writes about The Grounding of Group 6, in which a group of teens are sent off to an elite boarding school ... to die! I just love this concept so much, I really need to spend a rainy afternoon reading this book right now. Skurnick has another piece on the works of Lois Duncan, who sort of sounds like a Patricia Highsmith for pre-teen girls (you know, killing someone and stealing their identity? kind of Ripley-esque, no?). I just wish I could hide books under my desk and sneak-read them at work, the way I used to in math class.

Anyway, I look forward to more posts in this series. There's kind of an '80s theme going on right now, which makes me wonder what "modern" kids are reading ...

Monday, December 10, 2007

I Am Cordially Invited to Meet Nero Wolfe

I read one-and-a-half Nero Wolfe novellas this weekend; all of Black Orchids and most of Cordially Invited to Meet Death. I actually prefer the second one so far (maybe because it involves death by tetanus?) but they're both pretty fantastic. I picked up Black Orchids because of the book store, but of course it sat on my shelf for ages.

I was immediately delighted by Archie Goodwin's breezy narration and his witty one-liners, and I love, love, love the 1930s slang ("I wanted to kick him right in the fundamentals!" "Cut the glitter, sweetheart!") plus I adore the New York setting circa so very long ago. According to the books, Nero Wolfe would have lived right around the corner from where I toil all day long, and I like to imagine him puttering around with his orchids as I type away right now.

Some people speculate that Rex Stout was trying to bridge the gap between the hardboiled Sam Spades and the amateur gentleman detectives like Holmes, Wimsey, Poirot, etc. with Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. What's really fun about having these two types in the same books is that they can butt heads in hilarious ways and insult each other good naturedly, laughing at their respective extremes.

I also like that Goodwin tools around town in a roadster. Did everyone have a roadster in the '30s, or just detectives?

Can't wait to get back to my book and see what happens. I'm just at the part where Archie trails Bess Huddleston's brother to Wolfe's front door. My lunch break is coming up, maybe I'll go finish it off ... or maybe I'll meander down to 35th Street, near the river ...

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Black Plague and the Secret of Thieves

I just found the most interesting story about four grave robbers who miraculously survived the Bubonic plague despite close contact with the victims. It intrigues me because it feeds into my hypochondria and general interest in horrible diseases of all sorts -- any story about airborne pathogens thrills me:

"As the bubonic plague decimated Europe in the year 1413, four thieves were captured and charged with robbing the dead and dying victims. When the thieves were tried, the magistrate offered leniency if they would reveal how they resisted contracting the infection as they performed their gruesome acts. They explained that they were perfumers and spice traders and told of a special concoction of aromatic herbs, including cloves and rosemary, that they rubbed on their hands, ears, and temples."

I also love that there is an aromatherapist out there who actually named her product "Thieves" and sells it online. It's kind of charming, and I'm so ready to give it a try because I've become obsessed with de-bugging my apartment while also making it smell nice (because bug spray smells awful, obviously, and commercial air fresheners only make it worse by creating some sort of scented fug). This sounds like the closest I can get to complete cleanliness without creating some sort of clean-room/antechamber, and forcing everyone within to wear scrubs and those little footie slippers.

And, frankly, who hasn't had images of the bubonic plague dancing in their head while riding the NYC subway in winter ... ???

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Literary Guacamole

I like this quote:

"Shallow persons talk of staying young, but they miss the terrible beauty and awful splendour of being old at heart."

This clever Stephen Fry quote comes to me via an Anonymous Canadian Spinster who also happens to be the authoress of this scathing review.

Thanks, Anonymous Canadian Spinster! Thanks, Stephen Fry!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My daemon

I saw The Golden Compass last night and I spent most of the movie wondering what my daemon would be. Meerkat? Lemur? Narwhal? Alpaca? Budgie? Hermit crab? Bedbug? Silkworm? Donkey?

So I took the online test and it was revealed: Nithreus is my daemon, and he is a chimp.

I had a feeling I would be some kind of monkey.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Letter From An Unknown Woman

I saw Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) this weekend. What can I say about it? Shall I throw the word "sublime" around a lot in this post? I think I shall.

Plotwise, the film is pure melodrama. The story revolves around lovelorn schoolgirl Lisa (Joan Fontaine) and the object of her desire, self-obsessed concert pianist Stefan (Louis Jourdan). But this is a perfect melodrama, perhaps the perfect melodrama, certainly among the very best of the genre. In a cheap melodrama, we may laugh at the characters on screen, we are certainly detached. But in a successful tragedy, we are right there with them, forgetting for a moment the supreme artifice, even overlooking what is often infuriating stupidity on the part of the characters (no, Juliet, don't drink it! it's poison!). Tragic heroines are by nature impractical.

There's a scene in the film where Fontaine's character attends the opera (I'm pretty sure it's the Magic Flute) and it occurred to me while watching it that this film is like an opera: the story is melodramatic, characters are frustratingly blinded to reality, and sometimes individual moments may seem (at first glance) over the top but in the end, the result is sublime.

The scene where Fontaine finds out Jourdan is just feeding her platitudes, for example, is one of the most devastating things I've ever seen. With a single phrase, he makes her realize she's wasted an entire lifetime on false hopes. Sublime indeed.

Ophuls' abilities as a director are obvious throughout: tropes of framing and artifice make us aware of Jourdan's theatrical world and his inability to see or feel anything real; the repetition of certain themes leads the story around in graceful patterns, like dancers tracing circles on the floor (trains, travel, train travel); the mise-en-scene is perfect -- I loved the economical use of studio sets to set up a circumscribed world that comments on the heroine's single-minded focus on her man -- and the performances are astonishing; I'm not familiar with the actors, but I was blown away by Joan Fontaine (particularly after she stopped playing a teenager and let a little bitterness and discontent mingle with her longing). Plus the writing is great: the dialogue, by turns witty and heartbreaking, is marvelous.

I found this remark in the BAM program notes, and I think it sums up how I feel about this melodrama:

"Some critics dismissed his inimitable style as superficial, like many of the characters he portrays. Yet, as a character from The Earrings of Madame de… says, it is 'only superficially superficial.'"