Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Forgotten Book: FINAL CURTAIN (1947) by Ngaio Marsh

I'm not posting forgotten books regularly anymore - I simply have run out of steam, possibly because I've forgotten any forgotten books I've read in the past. But occasionally, when I do stumble across one, accidentally or otherwise, I'll be writing about it - kind of on an irregular basis. In the meantime, don't forget to keep checking in at Patti Abbott's blog to see what forgotten (or overlooked) books other readers are talking about - most of them show up every Friday.

I know I read Ngaio Marsh's FINAL CURTAIN a while back but damn if I hadn't forgotten who the killer was, not that that really matters much. Remembering would not have stopped me re-reading - it's all about the writing and the re-visiting for me. This is a particularly leisurely mystery as the first murder doesn't happen until well into the book and the second murder happens just a few pages before the end.

As for the ending, it is a bit abrupt and not very satisfying, after everything that has gone before. But this is one of those books that you want to read regardless because Ngaio Marsh's gift for characterization and dialogue are absolutely topnotch and the setting is perfection, mystery-writing-wise.

Here again we have murder at a large, foreboding, ungainly estate in the English countryside - something I am very fond of reading about. Ancreton is the 'family home' of  the Ancreds - a very theatrical and fractious family at whose head sits Sir Henry, a famous and oh-so-egotistical Shakespearean actor now past his prime. 'Drama' is the Ancreds' middle name - they thrive on it, can't manage to get through the day without six or seven exhausting emotional scenes. Everything is a production. Everything has to be hashed over and over until there's nothing left but a morsel of the original idea.

They are a wearisome bunch. And now that they are all gathering at Ancreton for Sir Henry's birthday, unpleasant things are bound to happen. Especially since Sir Henry has a habit of changing his will at the drop of a hat, depending on who in his family is momentarily in disfavor.

Agatha Troy (known as 'Troy' to her hubby), the famous painter and wife of Scotland Yard Superintendent Roderick Alleyn is commissioned to paint a birthday portrait of Sir Henry in costume as MacBeth. She has been nervously awaiting the return of her husband who has been on overseas duty for MI5 (or its equivalent) during the war. They haven't seen each other in three years, so she's on pins and needles. Judging correctly that working will help pass the time that much quicker (Alleyn is due home in a couple of weeks), Troy arrives at Ancreton ready to paint.

What she is not ready for are the constant battle royals and dramatic scenes involving Sir Henry and assorted members of his family, all of whom have arrived at the house to spend a few days. She finds Sir Henry a wonderful subject - though elderly, he is tall, handsome and dignified with a sweeping head of white hair - and the painting goes along relatively smoothly. The first third of the book is taken up with family drama and the feeling of impending doom, yes, but also with the how-to of portrait painting which I found fascinating. I'm very fond of painting minutia.

But things can't help but go from bad to worse at Ancreton. Sir Henry has installed a young chippy of a gold-digging actress, the beautiful Sonia Orrincourt, and is making plans to marry her. Needless to say, this does not go down well with the relatives several of whom are in various stages of hysteria at the mere thought.

When the very unfunny practical jokes begin early on, Troy realizes that something is seriously amiss.

"A lamp, out of sight beyond the first spiral, brought the curved wall rather stealthily to life.

Troy mounted briskly, hoping there would still be a fire in her white room. As she turned the spiral, she gathered up her long dress in her right hand and her left reached out for the narrow rail.

The rail was sticky.

She snatched her hand away with some violence and looked at it. The palm and the under surface was dark. Troy stood in the shadow of the inner wall but she now moved up into light. By the single lamp she saw that the stain on her hand was red.

Five seconds must have gone by before she realized that the stuff on her hand was paint."

By the time of the expected first murder, we know more than enough about the Ancreds' eccentricities and antagonisms to fill a volume. For me, the fun of this book lies in the family's day to day dramatics and the interaction between parties involved. Ngaio Marsh creates two very memorable characters: the achingly swishy Cedric Ancred (the expected heir) who is persistently hard up for money - adored by his mother but abhorred by the rest of the family - and Thomas Ancred who is incapable of expressing himself without his mind wandering afield. Conversation with Thomas is fatiguing, to say the least. But oh, he makes you smile.

It's fun to see how Troy and eventually, Roderick Alleyn (arriving home from the Antipodes to a murder involving his wife) deal with this frenetic and oh-so-very-British bunch. An excellent whodunit although in the end, you won't care that much about the 'why' of it.

I will say though that if, like me, you love reading about voluble theatrical families given to grand gestures, this is the book for you. A book, by the way, which would make for a terrific play.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: ISLAND OF BONES by Imogen Robertson

For reasons I can't figure out, probably something or other having to do with publishing business absurdities,  ISLAND OF BONES, the third book in the British series was published here AFTER the fourth book, CIRCLE OF SHADOWS. I refuse to read this series out of order (though you, of course, are free to do so) and so I've waited almost six months (probably longer) for ISLAND OF BONES to become available to me.

(And I'm glad I waited. Now I can go into CIRCLE OF SHADOWS, a happier and more content reader.)

If you've read my previous reviews of Imogen Robertson's books you know how much I love them and how enthusiastically I recommend this series even if you're not, normally, a fan of historical mysteries. The books' setting is unusual to begin with, England in the 1700's - the era of powdered wigs and robes a l'Anglaise. Imagine CSI, 18th century and you get a glimmer of what our two protagonists are up to.

These two main characters are enormously interesting and grow in noticeable ways from book to book as does our interest in them. Mrs. Harriet Westerman is an atypical Englishwoman, she is interested in science, in mystery-solving, in intelligent discussion of non-household-related minutia. She is, in certain ways, an anomaly, a stranger to her family who are often bemused if not downright angry with her 'eccentricities'.

Luckily for her, Mrs. Westerman is wealthy enough not to care what society thinks or even, really, what her family does. Though occasionally she is torn with indecision since she is the mother of two young children and you know how that goes. But she has a deep intelligence and basic need to know and she means to use these God-given talents no matter what.

Mrs. Westerman works alongside forensic scientist Gabriel Crowther, a reclusive mystery man more at ease with a microscope (of the time) and a dead body, than around live human beings. It is due to Mrs. Westerman's first having sought Crowther's help when she stumbled across a dead body on the edge of her country property (book one, INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS), that the two have become a rather unconventional working partnership. The aloof Crowther would have been just as happy staying in the shadows, puttering about his home laboratory.

At any rate, ISLAND OF BONES finally reveals a great deal of the background of mystery man, Gabriel Crowther aka the Baron of Keswick, a peerage awarded to his murdered father years ago - a peerage whose title Crowther has vehemently rejected.

We've had hints all along about why Crowther is the way he is, but here finally the truth is revealed at last and a man hanged for murder years before, is vindicated.

Crowther and Mrs. Westerman are invited to visit Cumbria, when one body too many is found in an old grave meant only for one. The grave is on an island near an old ruin, part of the estate which once belonged to Crowther's father and is now owned by a Mr. Briggs who is away on business, leaving his charming wife to run things. Turns out that Crowther's estranged sister and her grown son are guests of Mrs. Briggs (coincidentally) and it is the sister who suggests bringing in Crowther to investigate their mysterious pile of bones.

"An extra body? What do you mean, an extra body?"

"Perhaps we should summon my brother Charles," the vizegrafin said quietly, then, as she found the others looking at her: "You know he has become quite renowned at ferreting all sorts of information from a body. It might interest him. Will you be so kind as to invite him, Mrs. Briggs?"

Little do they know that the one mystery will (of course) beget others - more corpses will turn up (these in 'fresher' conditon than the moldy old bones in the tomb), leading in the end to an exciting and dangerous denouement in which Mrs. Westerman is forced to fire a gun just in the nick of time. (Flintlocks then, I think.)

Altogether another wonderful entry in this on-going series which has become one of my all time favorites. Now to get my hands on CIRCLE OF SHADOWS and find out what happens next. Why this series isn't making splashier news in this country can be blamed on the odd publishing sequence and the scarcity of books which often have to be purchased directly from England.

Author Imogen Robertson does her research but not so you'd notice great blocks of info being tucked into the manuscript. Instead it's all slight of hand and very well done. These are stories which have the definite flavor of their time but written with a modern day sensibility. It helps if you're interested at all in English history, but it's not a requirement.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday Salon: 10 Female Portraits I'd Love to Own

Gianni Strino (b.1953) - 'Ingrid' I love her expression of pique.

Portrait of Iris Tree by Augustus John (1878 - 1961)

Spectacular portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice by Anders Zorn (1860 - 1920)

Contemporary artist Karien Deroo

Flora Priestly 1889 by John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925)

A gorgeous portrait of Raquel Meller by Joaquin Sorolla (1863 - 1923)

'A Girl' by Frederick Leighton (1830 - 1896)

'Flapper' by Margaret Preston (1875 - 1963)

Girl in a Japanese Costume by William Merritt Chase (1849 - 1916)

Portrait of Rosalba Peale by Rembrandt Peale (1778 - 1860)

Last week it was 10 men, this week it's 10 women. I'm a huge fan of portraiture, there's just so much to be seen and learned from a portrait by a great artist. The human face is very difficult to capture in any medium, that's why I'm so in awe of those who do it well. But portraits are about so much more than just the face - don't you think?

Of course, there are many MANY more portraits I love and revere and dream of owning, but I've narrowed it down to these ten to keep the thing manageable. Just know that these are not the ONLY portraits I'd care to hang on my walls. Last week's ten and this week's ten are only the tip of the iceberg. Obviously, the only solution is for me to move into a museum.

Portrait of Madame Paul Escudier by John Singer Sargent 

Suddenly remembered how much I love this painting and...well, pretend it's still 10. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Norman Rockwell

Just wanted to wish everyone a very wonderful day tomorrow even if you're not officially celebrating Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films Tuesday: SEVEN DAYS IN MAY starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Fredric March

Since this has been such a politically charged month (and someone stole my Obama sign from the lawn) I've been watching a political film or two because, obviously, I can't get enough of political chicanery in high places.

My post is part of the on-going Tuesday meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other films, television, etc. other bloggers are posting about today.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) is a film directed by John Frankenheime (who had directed the much better film, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in 1962) based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and starring Kirk Douglas as a Colonel working at the Pentagon for the Army Chief of Staff played by lock-jawed Burt Lancaster - both serve at the pleasure of the President, played by Fredric March. My problem with the casting is that I kept thinking March was just too old to be President -  in 1960 we had already elected the young and vibrant John F. Kennedy, but of course, he was already dead by 1964.

At any rate, acting-wise March as a very beseiged President Jordan Lymon is topnotch, as is Kirk Douglas as Colonel Martin Casey. I thought Burt Lancaster was a little over the top as General James Mattoon Scott, but then I suppose he was meant to be. Still a little of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas on screen at the same time goes a long way. Ava Gardner who plays the General's rejected mistress is a shadow of her former lovely self. Her face by 1964 was all broad and puffy-eyed. Still, I giver her props for not going the plastic surgery route. I'm more aghast at how her loveliness was squandered. But she really doesn't have much to do since she's basically a plot device, so she's fine.

Here's the basic plot:

President Lymon has signed (or is about to sign) a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. A treaty which is not popular at home, least of all with the Pentagon. General Scott is the President's chief opponent and has made his views well known in Congress and on television to the American people. Many in the country want Lymon out and Scott in.

Feeling his oats, thinking the public is behind him, the megalomaniacal General and a cadre of other Joint Chiefs are cahooting to...well, basically, take over the country within seven days in May - hence the title. To that end General Scott has managed to have built a secret base (!?) out in the western desert somewhere, prime nuclear missile silo territory. The plot has been on-going for some time with nobody the wiser. I suppose we're meant to think that the government was asleep at the switch.

Luckily for all clear-thinking, rational, peace-loving individuals, Colonel Casey has gotten suspicious (it seems he's the only staff member not privy to the plot) - certain minor incidents added up together lead him to an inescapable conclusion.

So he goes to the President who, at first scoffs - General Scott is a national hero, after all, a medal of honor winner and combat veteran. Scott strongly opposes the treaty but, treason?  Casey makes a strong enough case eventually to get the President to take some behind-the-scenes action calling into play only a small group of men he can trust. One of the them is his best friend and aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and the other is Senator Raymond Clark (Edmund O'Brien).

Now this is where anachronism rears its head. This screenplay makes no mention at all of the Vice President. For all intents and purposes he doesn't exist. Okay, we can live with that - in those days the VP was merely a title with no real power or authority, free to be ignored. Fine. But when the Presidenst sends Paul Girard on a mission to Malta to get some evidence from a general (John Houseman) who is, apparently, the head of the fleet - he is sent ALONE, with no back-up and no protection whatsoever. And what's more he gets the incriminating evidence with no trouble. Huh?

Then Senator Clark is sent out into the desert ALONE to try and find the mysterious missile base - no back-up, no security, no nothing, not even a secret service man along for the ride. Huh?

Two middle-aged men, one of who is fond of drink, sent off to dig up info which may possibly affect the fate of the known world. Okay. They're keeping a low profile, you might say. But honestly, it stretches credulity.

Both emissaries must keep in touch with the White House the old fashioned way: from the interior of phone booths. The President waits for calls in the Oval Office and when he plays a cat and mouse game with General Scott, he has a sort of television phone thing going on. Very quaint.

(By the way, though I've never been a big fan of Edmund O'Brien, he is simply wonderful in this and steals the picture.)

But SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, shot in bleak and rather uninspired black and white, looks very much like a stage play enlarged a bit for film with lots of talk going on as each day goes by and we get closer to a confrontation. It has the same set look as other political thrillers of the time, i.e. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE BEST MAN (a much better film directed by Franklin Schaeffer) and others. This was a film world in which everyone smoked (including the Prez) everyone looked weary and otherwise disgruntled and appearances were routinely garish. Nobody got soft focus not even the very young.

So why am I talking about this film today? Because in spite of all my misgivings, the story is a good one and the talk among the characters is interesting and intriguing (not surprising since the screenplay was written by Rod Serling) if slightly old news. Plus I do like stories taking place behind the scenes at the White House.

Somehow we did survive the nuclear era (at least so far) and nuclear disarmament is a reality (sort of) and the Soviet Union eventually broke up under its own untenable weight. In the screenplay both sides believe that sooner or later somebody will blow somebody up. (It's a wonder to me that we survived as well as we did, actually.)

But it is oddly disconcerting to see a story in which a plot to overthrow the government is handled in such a low-key manner with so very little fanfare. The ending too is a flat let-down. In truth, the real winner in all of this is the Constitution.

However, I still say watch the movie, it does hold the interest especially these days when there is so much venom at work in this country.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins

Hold on to your hats, here we go.

This is a large read, a luxurious read to snuggle down with on a cold winter's day (if we're ever going to get another of those here in the northeast), a great thumping Victorian melodrama mystery - my great big second helping of Wilkie Collins in two years.

THE MOONSTONE (1868) is the story of a missing jewel (the moonstone is a diamond not...uh, a moonstone - it's just called The Moonstone) and the two thwarted and very misguided lovers who spend the entire book misdirecting everyone and generally making a nuisance of themselves. But that's Victorian melodrama for you. We kind of expect that going in.

I suppose that Wilkie Collins - a contemporary of Charles Dickens - sort of, kind of, invented the mystery story as we've come to know it today, at least in Great Britain. (Edgar Allan Poe is credited with the American side of the invention.) Having not been very familiar with Collins' work (except for a brief forgotten fling while I was in high school), I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading THE MOONSTONE, not to mention last year's WOMEN IN WHITE, which I also loved and recommend highly and heartily. You have to be in the mood, though, I will say that.

In THE MOONSTONE, Collins practically invents the know-it-all detective with eccentric quirks though having done so, he forces him offstage about halfway through the story (we kind of miss him) only to have him  reappear near the end (thank goodness since he kind of grows on you) in time for the grand denouement.  Sergeant Cuff is a pragmatic, hyperactive fellow whose only love (besides crime solving) is roses and gardening. He almost immediately appears to know more about what has happened than anyone else on the scene - ah, genius. 

The scene being a large English country house and a fine cast of suspects all gathered for a young woman's birthday celebration. Among the celebrants, two young men with hopes, an argumentative doctor, and assorted others.

Anyway, Cuff is eventually hired (in those days, oddly enough, you could hire a cop as you do a private detective nowadays) to find a missing jewel; the diamond known as The Moonstone. The jewel (cursed apparently since it's theft from the forehead of an Indian idol way back when) has been left to Miss Rachel Verinder (our heroine) by a spiteful uncle with nefarious purposes. She inherits the diamond on her birthday much to her chagrin and secret delight, but on that very night the jewel disappears from the not-too-hard-to- find hiding place in the heroine's boudoir.

The next day Rachel and her stalwart and frankly rather callow beau, Franklin Blake, have a huge fight but nobody knows the reason why. Actually, not even the two young things know the reason why since neither will tell the other what in hell is going on and besides even if they did....well, you have to keep reading. But from that moment on Rachel becomes as intransigent as a young woman of her class was allowed to be and still keep her place in society. She refuses to see Sergeant Cuff when he arrives on the scene at her mother's request, refuses even to make any sense, refuses to cooperate with the investigation of the theft of her jewel. Cuff, naturally enough, is suspicious.

Franklin Blake, also naturally enough, leaves the premises much confused by his girlfriend's behavior - which borders on hysteria - afraid to make things worse by staying. You can't blame the guy for shaking his head and wondering what on earth - besides the theft of the diamond - has happened. One minute everything's fine, the next minute his intended has turned into a termagant. Maybe he's had a lucky escape, I'd say. But no, Mr. Franklin is in love. He flees the scene to recoup and figure out what, if anything, is to be done next.

In the meantime, Sgt. Cuff has his eye on a servant girl as a possible culprit. Rosanna Spearman is one of those tragic book characters you know will come to a bad end. She is an ex-con (not what they called them then, but there's no getting around it), who works below stairs at the Verinder house. Rosanna is trying to make a new life for herself though it's rather obvious she hates the work.

In character Rosanna reminds me a little of the moody Sarah Woodruff of THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN fame (the novel written by John Fowles set in Victorian England). Rosanna, who, besides being plain and insignificant also has a hunched shoulder (I mean, could she be any more pathetic?) and an aura of tragedy worn almost like a mantle. You see, Rosanna aspires. In those days, servants were not allowed to aspire. And to make matters so much worse, the sad girl has fallen in love at first sight with Mr. Franklin Blake. Uh oh.

In truth, Rosanna is the third protagonist in the story, a character whose involvement in the outcome of the mystery remains unknown to Mr. Franklin and Miss Verinder (and to us) until nearly the end. But a character whose suspicious behavior immediately catches the eye of Sgt. Cuff.

I might also mention that the Verinder country house is set on an ocean shore where, nearby, the gurgling of quicksand can be heard and if you're not careful, seen. Uh oh. I can say no more.

Oh wait - there's one more thing I forgot to mention: the assorted group of sinister Indians in garb skulking about the outside of the Verinder house and in the nearby town pretending to be a harmless group of traveling jugglers.

Okay, so there you have it. The gist of a story which, on the surface, doesn't seem to require the four hundred and some odd pages Wilkie Collins used to tell it all. But there you'd be wrong.

THE MOONSTONE saga is revealed in separate chapters made up of journals and letters from several of the characters involved, all pertinent to some aspect of the story - so we get to view certain events from the viewpoint of Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, House-Steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder (Rachel's mother), Miss Clack, niece of the late Sir John Verinder (from whose malevolent beneficence the missing diamond sprang), Matthew Bruff, Solicitor of Gray's Inn Square, a narrative contributed by Mr. Franklin Blake the aforementioned confused young swain, the journal of Ezra Jennings, a narrative by Sgt. Cuff, a statement by Sgt. Cuff's man, a statement by a sea captain and finally a statement by a Mr. Murthwaite in a letter to Mr. Bruff. We also get a letter from Rosanna Spearman near the end which explains her part in the mysterious doings at the Verinder house early on.

All of this makes it easy enough for the reader to form his or her own opinion of the sagacity, the honesty and/or the moral rectitude of those involved. The story takes place over a long stretch of time, about a year or so and the missing diamond leads, eventually to a dastardly murder and all other sorts of chicanery which, I suppose, leads us to the inevitable moral: when you spot a diamond (no matter how huge) on the forehead of an Indian idol, for goodness' sake leave it there.

P.S. The Indian idol part of the narrative taken from Verinder family papers reminded me very much of the Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes story, THE SIGN OF FOUR written in 1888. See if you agree.

P.S. P.S. Charles Dickens apparently didn't like the form Wilkie Collins used to tell the story of THE MOONSTONE, but I think it works splendidly. You just have to pay attention.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Salon: 10 Male Portraits I Would Love to Own

'Portrait of a Young Man' -  Flemish Master Peter Paul Rubens 1577 - 1640

What I love about this painting, besides the flawless technique, is the eyes. That look in those eyes make the sitter come alive even after so many centuries. It's a very modern-seeming look.

Self-portrait by American painter Alexander Stern 1904 - 1994

When I first saw this painting I thought, aha! that's Saul Panzer in the flesh. (For the uninitiated, Saul is the best operative in NYC according to Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe.) The more I look at this though, the more I like the painting just for itself. It speaks volumes about the way certain men looked in the early part of the twentieth century. This has the look of the Depression era all over it.

'Study of a Young Man' by American ex-pat John Singer Sargent 1856 - 1925

Simply gorgeous, gorgeous work by a master of the brush stroke. This almost seems done extemporaneously and possibly it was. If you look closely you can see the mastery of color and technique which absolutely dazzles. Of course, Sargent had an eye for handsome young men and I, for one, am happy to view the result.

Self Portrait by Scottish contemporary painter John Byrne

I love the granite attitude and craggy look of this guy. Note the sweetly sculpted hair atop the otherwise grizzly face with its 'yeah, what about it?' attitude. Check out his website for other attitudes and paintings.

Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke by Dutch Master Franz Hals 1582 - 1666

This is a repeat of a portrait I've featured before simply because it happens to be one of my very favorite paintings and I can't NOT include it on my list. I love most of all the appearance and attitude of the sitter. He is simply someone you'd want to know - the man has such a look of kindness. He seems content even with his scruffy hair.Technique-wise:  look at the  lace and that gorgeous hand, missing I believe, a pinky. I used to think it was bent under, but now I don't.

Self-portrait With the Dressing Gown 1914 by Swiss painter Felix Vallotton 1865 - 1925

Monsieur Vallotton seems a bit grumpy but he still manages to capture the attention. When I look closely at this painting I note the gorgeous work on the gown, the brushstrokes on the face and the unsparing way the painter has captured his aging countenance. I don't mind the bland simplicity at all because if you look closely you'll see quite the opposite.

Portait of the painter William Merritt Chase 1882 by American James Carroll Beckwith 1852 - 1917

Chase was an artist who effected theatrical style and obviously it suited him. I like how Beckwith captures him in all his sartorial flamboyance and makes him look imposing and even dashing. Though to my eye there is very little swagger going on.

Portrait of Jacques Cathelineau by French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson 1767 - 1824

Despite the name this is the work of a male painter who was in at the beginning of the Romantic Movement and famed for his portraits of members of the Napoleonic family. This painting is apparently romanticizing elements of war and makes a dashing fellow of Monsieur Cathelineau but the truth is, I don't know that he wasn't. I like the flamboyant swagger of it. As you can tell, I'm fond of flamboyance.

Nude Study by English painter Henry Scott Tuke 1858 - 1929

I wanted to include a nude and this is one of my favorites. I love the application of paint, the many shades used in the skin tone by Tuke who had a reputation (and facility) later in life, for painting naked young men. I think men can be painted unclothed in just as decorous a fashion as women. Tuke glorified the natural male nude in a quiet simple, mind-your-manners sort of way that I find quite beautiful. None of John Singer Sargent's posed 'in your face' sort of nakedness at all. There's room for both.

Portrait of Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby by French painter James Tissot 1836 - 1902

You've probably seen this painting before on my blog since it remains one of my all time favorites not to be left off a list like this. Burnaby was killed at the Battle of Abu Klea in the Sudan in 1885. In this painting, Tissot captures all of the flamboyant (there's that word again) Captain Burnaby's style and physical attributes. He was very tall and imposing and that seemingly endless red stripe on his uniform lets us know it. Obviously he was also a reader as the books on his right make apparent. He also, I understand, had a lisp which I find endearing if true. On the settee behind him to the right we see the rest of his colorful uniform and the map above shows us, I believe, the depth and breadth of the English empire.


Next week it will be 10 Female Portraits, so, as I like to say, stay tuned. Obviously I'd like to post many more than ten, but let's keep it feasible. When I look at these works closely I am usually overwhelmed by the painter's technique which, because I don't paint in oils, remains a total mystery to me. That's part of the process I suppose - being overwhelmed by technique. I don't want to know too much, I just want to know enough to understand that I am looking at the work of genius. These are very definitely an amateur's golly-gee-whiz comments by the way, I'm just a loving fan.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: EAST OF EDEN (1955) starring James Dean, Julie Harris and Raymond Massey

Tuesday is Overlooked Films (and other A/V material) Day - used to be Forgotten Films Day but it's changed. Either/or, it remains the day we talk about films overlooked or forgotten or otherwise ignored. For all the pertinent links, please check out Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

EAST OF EDEN, a film directed by Elia Kazan (based on the novel by John Steinbeck) and starring James Dean, Julie Harris and Raymond Massey, was a hit in its day. A film not so overlooked as forgotten.The critics raved. James Dean's enormous talent lit up the screen and he was nominated for an Oscar (and probably should have won) posthumously. When people talk about Dean, they mostly talk about REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE or maybe, GIANT. But for me, it's always been EAST OF EDEN. 

I saw this in a theater as a teenager and cried my eyes out - partly because of the haunting musical score (I can still hum it) by Leonard Rosenman. Except for Marlon Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), I'd never seen Dean's sort of acting before. This was all new and for me, a revelation. What we might take for granted today, was brand new back then and it was spellbinding. In a way, James Dean affronted us with his brilliance and occasionally made us uncomfortable - yet he dazzled.

The film is set in or near the Salinas Valley, California on the eve of WWI and the story based on the last third (or so) of Steinbeck's book. The screenplay concentrates on the theme of father/son relationships, in this case a very tortured relationship. Raymond Massey plays Adam Trask, a man with two sons, one good, one bad. (For Trask, everything is seen in black and white.) He is a man whose bible-thumping righteousness blinds him to the worth of one son in favor of the other.

Trask is also a man who harbors a deep, dark secret about the boys' mother who disappeared years before. His sons have been led to believe their mother was dead, but Cal Trask (James Dean) has discovered her running a whore house in a nearby town. Surprise.

The steely-eyed, hard-hearted Kate is played by Jo Van Fleet in an incredible Oscar winning performance.

Cal is the rebellious son who harbors a dangerous curiosity about his mother despite his father's attempts to disguise the truth. Richard Davalos plays Cal's naive brother Aaron, the good son who believes their mother was a saint but whose anointed place in the family is threatened by Cal's jealousy and misguided attempts to earn their father's love.

The wonderful Julie Harris plays Aaron's girlfriend Julie, whose confused feelings for Cal lead to an ugly confrontation as Cal turns more and more to her for comfort as his father spurns every effort Cal makes to try and please him.

Elia Kazan's guiding hand makes sure that the story stays on track and doesn't completely veer off into the melodramatic though Steinbeck's original story of good and evil does have several over-the-top moments. Kazan handles the different acting styles of James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos and Burl Ives (as the Sheriff), very well. (Of all the cast Julie Harris comes closest to matching Dean's 'method' style.)

There is one scene when Cal and his father confront each other on the elder Trask's birthday which defines clearly the difference in each actor's technique. From reading about this scene I understand that Massey was taken aback by Dean's physicality but the camera kept rolling so he had no choice but to go with it, not knowing what to make of Dean's howl of grief. It's a powerhouse scene even if the Massey story is apocryphal.

The ending is tragic though not entirely hopeless. Brother confronts brother in another horribly memorable scene as a mother's true nature is revealed and the two sons' strength of character (or lack thereof) comes into play.

If you've somehow missed this movie, it's readily available everywhere these days.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Amazon List

Thanks to Pop Culture Nerd's Twitter notice I checked out the Amazon List of 100 Best Books of 2012 and found I'd only read one of them (Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.). Yikes. Literary-wise I am obviously languishing in the shadows of the mainstream...or at least, the Amazon mainstream. Well, it won't be the first time or even the last. Obviously I'm just not a 'mainstream' kind of gal.

How many have you read? Will you make me hang my head in abject shame?

Admittedly, a couple of the books on the list I wanted to read but just couldn't. For instance, after all the raves, I really REALLY wanted to like WOLF HALL by Hillary Mantel (the sequel published this year, BRING UP THE BODIES is on the current list) but once I read the first few pages online (on the Amazon site) and realized the book is written in the present tense, I declined to purchase.

Why should a history book set in Tudor times be written in the present tense? What are we to make of that? Is it just a popular gimmick now run amok? For me it is non-sensical.

Well, obviously others don't agree since both books are great big international best sellers, but for me, the technique is grating. In the present tense, I keep saying to myself where am I? Am I being carried around on the shoulders of the characters? Am I a fly on the wall? The story is not being told to me, it is being revealed as it happens. I don't like it one little bit especially in a history novel. For me, this technique points up the fact that I'm reading a book - it doesn't allow me to sink into the story and forget where I am. Technique overrides story-telling. You'd think it would be just the opposite but it isn't. Oh well, there are plenty of other books in the sea....uh, you know what I mean.

Groucho Marx

Reading through the Amazon list I found a few titles that interested me and I'm adding them to my TBR list for the future though who knows when I'll ever catch up. See, I am not a complete literary heathen. Ha!

1) MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan - a novel.

2) IN SUNSHINE and IN SHADOW by Mark Helprin - a novel.

3) CITY OF FORTUNE How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley - non-fiction.

4) SHORT NIGHT OF THE SHADOW CATCHER: The Epic Life and Immortal Photography of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan - non-fiction.

Of course if any of them are written in the present tense, all bets are off. I'm not saying I NEVER read books written as such, what I'm saying is: rarely. I have to be beguiled. If I'm beguiled I'll forgive anything.

Review: SPEAK OUT BEFORE YOU DIE by Jacqueline T. Lynch

Jacqueline is, as many of you know, a fellow movie-maven blogger (Another Old Movie Blog) as well as a writer and, by the way, a great person. If you love vintage movies, Jacqueline's blog is a must-read.

SPEAK OUT BEFORE YOU DIE is the second book in the Double V series begun with
CADMIUM YELLOW, BLOOD RED which introduced the two protagonists, richy-rich divorcee Juliet Van Allen and ex-con and man of all trades, Elmer Vartanian. (When was the last time you read about an anti-hero named Elmer?)

It's been months since Elmer helped Juliet solve the murder of her duplicitous husband and the socialite and the ex-con turned janitor (possibly the only janitor/detective in the mystery biz) have gone their separate ways - sort of. But when Juliet discovers a threatening poem meant, she thinks, for her father on the eve of his marriage to a much younger woman, she turns to Elmer for help. He, though reluctant, drops everything (including a current gal friend) to help Juliet.

The time is 1949 and the setting is the Van Allen mansion in Connecticut during a winter storm. Don't you love it when everyone is trapped in a house with bad weather raging outside and inside everyone is busy letting their hang-ups hang out? Murder, of course, is part of  what we expect and though it takes a little while for a dead body to show up, we eventually get one and of course, it's up to Elmer to make sense of things.

Though Elmer spends most of the book disguised as 'help' - dropping trays and making a mess whenever he's in danger of being identified by any of the family (he's incognito), his real job is to observe the various guests on hand for Juliet's father's wedding and possibly stop an attempted murder. In between the snooping, Elmer and Juliet give each other googly eyes (though always calm, cool and collected) and each wonders how to take the next step in their 'relationship'.

In truth there is hardly any relationship and I do wonder how these two will ever get together. I mean, Elmer, though an ex-con is a very proud man and Juliet is...well, she's rich beyond Elmer's wildest dreams. I can't wait to see how this all works out in the future.

Okay, we have poetry, a planned wedding, a house full of guests, a possible threat, a pompous older man, a younger woman who may or may not be on the make, plus an assortment of society friends gathered for the nuptials during a storm. It all makes for an engaging cozy read if occasionally bit wordy and confusing (I had trouble keeping tabs on who was who) but I very much like the idea of Juliet and Elmer and the possibility of them as an improbable couple. I even like that Elmer is a janitor who solves crimes. Why not? (His ex-con toughness comes in handy, of course.)

 But I wonder when Juliet will stop being wishy-washy and go after Elmer with romantic intent. She has to stop waiting for him to make the first move. It ain't gonna' happen.

Can the gulf between them ever be bridged in some logical sensible way? Stay tuned.

SPEAK OUT BEFORE YOU DIE is available in paperback as well as E-Book form.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Salon: Veteran's Day

Artist: J.C. Leyendecker 1918

Artist: Norman Rockwell 1919

Artist: J.C. Leyendecker 1918

Artist: Ski Weld 1941

Artist: Norman Rockwell

Artist: Norman Rockwell

Artist: Thomas Hart Benton

Tuskegee Airmen - no artist attribution

Artist: Dame Laura Knight

Artist: N.C. Wyeth

Artist: McClelland Barclay - killed in action in 1942

Artist: McClelland Barclay

Artist: McClelland Barclay

Artist: McClelland Barclay

 Artist: John Falter

  Artist: Mead Schaffer

Artist: Frank E. Schoonover

Artist: Frank. E. Schoonover

My gallery today is in honor of the many brave men and women whose sacrifices, past and present, continue to keep our country safe. Happy Veterans Day to all.