Saturday, September 13, 2014

My new blog Discoveries & Oddities from the Digital Library

Coming soon

pirate stories
a month of Halloween
lurid 18th century chapbooks
a fantastic illustrated 1840s guide to Asian entomology
1920s guide to US for Jewish immigrants
French revolutionary satire
early design books
imagist poets
more kook literature

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russell x2

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell 2012) – Mystifying why this is so well-regarded since it’s a routine romantic comedy, not roughly but exactly.  Not a revisionist romantic comedy or one that infuses the genre with new emotion or whatever critical blurbspeak you might prefer but one that’s absolutely by the rules and absolutely with nothing to say.  Even a film like 27 Dresses shows more imagination and life but that’s not even a particularly good film.  I checked out the first couple of pages of the novel and that has a wry, self-aware tone that’s completely missing from the film (or at least the novel appears that way from only a couple of pages – for all I know it’s even more bland).  Bradley Cooper’s talents run towards farce so he can acquit himself passably in the Hangover films but here seems like he’s just starting to struggle in the deeper end.  Jennifer Lawrence is today’s Kim Novak but has yet to encounter a Hitchcock who knows how to make her essential hollowness the focus of a film. I guess if you're a De Niro completeist this might be worth checking off that box.

American Hustle (David O. Russell 2013) – A watered down Mamet tale of con artists and their schemes undone by a script that veers from blunt drama to an overly pat crowdpleasing ending.  The entire first 30 minutes or so are pointless prologue – as a character study there’s no real character and as part of the story it’s literally useless.  Trim all that out and it would make no difference to the film. Russell again proves to be no director of actors.  Amy Adams seems to understand the Mamet angle and uses that direct, uninflected tone he prefers.  (Since her character isn’t based on a historical person then her costume is more the result of a male director but when the camera starts moving to follow her backside the whole thing becomes creepy.)  Bradley Cooper seems lost and Jennifer Lawrence apparently thought she was in a Saturday Night Live skit.  The horribly miscast Christian Bale does manage to make some impression as do some of the supporting cast like Jeremy Renner.  De Niro appears in a bit of stunt casting that just underlines how little substance there is to the film but by that point it's clear that we won't be getting anything better so might as well toss in any half-baked idea that pops up.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Food books x2

David Sax - The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue (2014)

This is a journalist’s book, mainly a slapped-together collection of articles related in some way to food trends.  Sax did the research, interviews and pulled that together into stories but there’s nothing to synthesize them and barely even a connection among them.  For instance he opens with a chapter about the cupcake trend, locating the start at a bakery in New York that accidentally became a hotspot then the NYC-based media picked up the story, fed each other’s interest and that spilled out to the rest of the country.  It’s a familiar story and seems likely to be true but that familiarity and nothing new means that the story feels a tad dubious. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that this started in LA or Minneapolis but NYC gets the credit because that’s where the journalists are.  More importantly the chapter doesn’t get into why this became a trend – after all not everything pushed by NYC media hits the rest of the country.  Sax does offer the idea that cupcakes appeal to people because it reminds them of childhood, something that makes sense, is easy to believe and is obviously wrong.  That he doesn’t see how his stories are just more gloss means the book becomes mainly one to be mined for stray bits of info and background.  I didn’t realize for instance that one reason bacon started appearing on fast food menus is because they began to overcook them from fear of lawsuits and consequently needed a flavor boost.  The book has bits like this but tends to lose sight of its purpose.  When he gets to food trucks for example Sax spends most of the chapter on their legal battles which is interesting (well ok it’s not at all interesting but let’s just say it is) without getting to the point of why something that can offer only convenience and the probability of inferior food became trendy.  The Tastemakers is a book that touches on various trends offering little of substance about them.

Michael Pollan - Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)

Pollan had the idea to explore what he considers the four approaches to food preparation – heat, liquid, baking and fermentation.  Like the Sax book he’s done the research and in this case even gone out to do this first-hand.  And like the Sax book he doesn’t really bother to pull together the material.  Though it feels like a stronger editor could have helped, for all I know the book was even more a mess and the editor did make it somewhat readable.  Let’s just give Pollan his basic idea however unlikely or even silly it might be.  (Tying these approaches to the classic four elements?  Really?  You know that’s a European thing that won’t explain other cultures right?)  The bigger problem is that going hands-on meant he only uses historical information in scattered bits though he certainly gets more substantive material than Sax apparently even thought to do.  With this ready then he gives us a lopsided book that jumps from watered down academics to overly detailed descriptions of baking.  When talking about barbeque he even spends pages on the biography of one cook for no real point.  That’s what an editor or Pollan himself should have done – cut the book by about half.  Trimmed and focused this might have been something worth reading.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Library visit

Over a month since last post which is not unusual so a catch-up.  One of the perks of my job is access to a top-notch academic library - sometimes I almost think that's more important than the paycheck.  (Almost.)  I always have a bunch of stuff on my list but generally go until my bag is full which meant I never got to the numerous Shakespeare books I'd hoped to read before the birthday events last month.

Tonight's haul:

The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire
Somoza - The Athenian Murders
Bevington - Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages
Boethius - Consolation of Philosophy (Norton Critical Edition)
Sherwood Anderson - Complete Stories
Crispin - The Moving Toyshop
Woolf - Collected Essays Volume One (the 60s edition that's arranged thematically which is what I'm interested in - not the 80s also-four-volume edition that's chronological which seems like a snooze)
Baudelaire - The Painter of Modern Life (original edition that you can actually read - the current Phaidon is on such cheap and thin paper that it's a blur)
Calasso - La Folie Baudelaire
O'Grady - And Man Created God
Gravett - Comics Art

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Class Relations (Jean-Marie Straub & Danielle Huillet 1984) - Critics seem distracted by that title and make claims for the film's politics that just can't be supported by watching it.  The depth of Straub/Huillet's thinking is that bosses can be mean and though that sounds like I'm joking it really is almost an exact description of the force and resonance of their analysis.  Well maybe that's overstating it since there is no analysis and actually very little that could be considered political.  I'd guess they were aiming for a Brechtian approach by having actors recite dialogue with little inflection or facial reaction, with off-center framing and with leisurely if not downright eccentric pacing.  At times this might be mildly interesting - many shots of a speaking actor are done in profile but occasionally the camera is positioned just a tad back so that a sliver more of their face isn't visible.  The overall effect isn't to generate thought (or appreciation of the images which they probably consider irrelevant though the cinematography is top-notch) but instead to make the viewer wonder how they were able to finance such a ridiculous film.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor 2013) - The first film was slight but somewhat amusing - Ebert correctly pegged it as a kids movie.  This is just a misfire with a somewhat unclear plot laden with Star Wars-derived effects, some decades after that would have been a good idea.  The flying battle shots and particularly the blaster sound effects almost could have been lifted from the Lucas film.  The biggest problem though is that the lead roles were given to two impossibly leaden actors.  Hemsworth has always been a kind of modern Victor Mature though in The Avengers Whedon at least knew how to use that to underline the character's not-of-this-world origins (and if nothing else that film didn't need more big personalities in it).  But Portman?  I thought she just might be having a bad patch but then realized I've never seen her do a good job in anything.  A quick check of her filmography confirmed it - no matter what her reputation she's wooden and ineffective.  In this film the leads' inabilities are thrown into relief when they're set aside Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings and even Chris O'Dowd.  Christopher Eccleston is unfortunately buried under a mask but imagine what he could have done.  With any luck this will either be the last Thor film or they'll turn to the Simonson stories for the next one.

Monsters University (Dan Scanlon 2013) - Has it really been a dozen years since the original?  This turns out to be an unnecessary follow-up in every way.  There wasn't anything left from the first film that needed resolving and University seriously could have used a story editor.  The set-up just flops around from event to event, mainly feeling designed to impart life lessons on courage, friendship and sticking up for yourself.  (And I suppose to emphasize being clever though that really can't be taught.)  As these animated kids films go it's at least watchable but Pixar's glory days now seem behind it.  And what is their problem with women?  This time there are two token women teams and a headmistress (why not call her the president like real universities do?) but it just points out how much a boys club Pixar has always been, at least on screen.

Uranium Boom (William Castle 1956) - A surprisingly effective b-movie about a couple of guys fighting over mining and a woman - the story is fairly complex for a 67-minute running time.  In an odd way a kind of critique on greed in the vein of Citizen Kane (Castle had worked on The Lady from Shanghai) or more closely Ulmer's Ruthless.  Castle shows efficient story-telling skills and if not much else then that's at least enough - this is a glimpse just before he discovered gimmick marketing and made his real name.

Library sale

Originally scheduled for February but the snow storm pushed it back.  Pickings were slim this time - there were a few other interesting things but in poor condition.

I found:

The Best of Dryden (1933 edition that includes none of his drama)
Gibbons - The Poet's Work
Smith - Virgin Land
Smith & Parks - The Great Critics
Bianculli - Dangerously Funny (about the Smother Brothers show)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Two "100 Book" lists

In 1898 a scholar and sometime editor named Clement K. Shorter came up with his list of the 100 best novels.  I find these type of things, no matter how canon-defining they're attempting to be, fascinating.  Partly because they track shifts in taste and partly because they can show how limited our own might be.  Many older lists include Walter Scott, a choice for canonical author that's baffling today when he's considered more of an entertainer and only barely read at that.  Lists might also be more inclusive and not like so many today mainly focused on novels, drama and lyric poetry.

Shorter's list feels a bit eccentric even by what I know (or think I know) of tastes from that period.  Bunyan's The Holy War instead of Pilgrim's Progress?  Gil Blais?  Clara Reeve?  And starting with #18 (Lady Morgan's The Wild Irish Girl) are a few books that I've never even heard of.  Who was Jane Porter?  G.P.R. James?  Theodore Hook?  James Grant?  Certainly some of those are works that feel into scholarly interest but at the time were more current.  At the time Shorter was writing they were about as far into his past as the 1950s and 1960s are to us - in other words pretty modern.  Interestingly there are a larger number of women than I think most of us would have expected - 32 unless my count is off.  The list also seems to lean a bit toward adventure in a broader sense.  I've seen Marryat praised for his style but he's generally considered (rightly or wrongly I don't never having read the book) a precursor to sea stories like Hornblower.  It's also heavily British with a few French, American, German and Italian writers.  And then the choices.  Not just the Bunyan but Salammbo for Flaubert?  Bracebridge Hall for Irving?  The Last of the Barons for Bulwer Lytton?  Or maybe just "Bulwer Lytton?!?"

Still I'd like to check out a few of these obscurities, not because they may be lost classics but because they might just be overlooked but worth reading.  Open Library has some that I checked.  The book about Richelieu by James ("doyen of historical novelists") sounded promising but flipping through looks a bit drier than I'd like.  Or maybe it finally is time to read Marryat.

The other list has appeared in many news reports this week - Amazon's 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.  (No, I didn't forget the link - if you want this one you'll have to look it up.)  The purpose is unclear.  The banner says "to create a well-read life" but it misses so many of the truly important books that apparently they're assuming you've already read those.  The inclusion of kids books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are goes against "well-read".  No matter how charming or developmentally important children's books are, they are also by definition of no real artistic value.  The non-fiction titles are almost random (Unbroken? Born to Run? Daring Greatly) and there are far too many recent books that simply can't be evaluated yet.

The real purpose of the list is clearly those news reports - it's just more marketing.  The list is carefully chosen so that most readers will find a decent number that they already know and more that they know about.  Nothing too off-putting or obscure or difficult. There are some books that I think are irrelevant or even bad on it but for the most part people could do worse and that is more or less the point.  It's not a serious list in any respect but one like, say, the Oscars or Grammys to make readers feel comfortable rather than acknowledge genuine accomplishment.