Tuesday, June 25, 2013

7 Great Literary Biographies

Any lover of literature feels a natural curiosity about the writers of her favorite books and a good biography so often brings deeper meanings to already perused novels and poems. Despite the years of labor that go into most biographies, a lot of them tend to rely on facile associations between a writer and his or her works or absurdist arguments that insist on contemporary understandings of politics, gender, and sexuality. Here are seven great biographies that are insightful, provocative, and discerning.

Flaubert: A Biography - Frederick Brown
This exhaustive biography is demanding reading, but it delivers amazing insights into Flaubert's writing process and works. Brown excels at concise summaries of complex historical events that had an impact on Flaubert, and his portrayals of his subject and the men and women in his life are vivid and compelling. While there is a fair amount of literary analysis, none of it can truly be deemed a digression.

Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie - Lisa Chaney
J. M. Barrie is an elusive and difficult subject for any biographer, a man seemingly without sexuality and determined to remain a little boy. Chaney's biography paints a vivid and sympathetic portrait that is nevertheless unsparing of the ambiguous writer of Peter Pan. While a fair amount of attention is granted his most famous and lucrative work, much space is also granted to lesser known works like The Little Minister and My Lady Nicotine. Given the nonsense promulgated by the Johnny Depp film, Finding Neverland, this biography is all the more essential for Barrie admirers.

My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson - Alfred Habegger
This is one of the best biographies I have ever read - Habegger illuminates the hermetic life of one of the greatest American poets. The book contains many of Dickinson's poems and remains riveting throughout, despite the fact that her life was almost entirely free of drama. Habegger's gorgeous prose is worthy of his subject - a biography that can justifiably be considered literature.

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis - Alan Jacobs
C. S. Lewis has had a number of biographers, many of whom fall into two camps: the Christian and the anti-Christian, the former seeing everything through a Christian lens and the latter insisting on secular (and equally inaccurate) interpretation. Jacobs avoids the arguments between Christian and non-Christian scholars and instead chooses a middle-ground that is infinitely respectful and highly critical. Of particular interest is Jacobs's discussions on Lewis's concept of the "Inner Ring," which heavily influenced pretty much all of his work, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia and That Hideous Strength, as well as the extensive attention paid to Lewis's reading life. 

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father - John Matteson
There have been a number of excellent biographies of Alcott, but in the end, this is the best. Bronson Alcott was as fascinating as his daughter, though as ineffective as she was successful. Their relationship was turbulent and fraught, though they were almost always ardent supporters of each other's work. A far-reaching work that effortlessly glides from transcendentalism and feminism to thoughtful portraits of the Alcott family life, this biography is as satisfying as a novel.

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay - Nancy Milford
Nancy Milford wrote the highly acclaimed biography, Zelda, on F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, before turning her attention to the American poet (and Vassar graduate) Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay's controversial and scandal-ridden life is told with honesty, and Milford, to her credit, recognizes the ethical pitfalls of the biographer uncovering salacious material.

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster - Wendy Moffat
This is the first major biography of Forster to deal with his homosexuality and its impact on his writing. Moffat describes his double life with sensitivity, giving particular emphasis to his hope for a tolerant future, and also focuses on his political courage - Forster was a keen social critic whose support for the second World War was ambivalent at best - and close friendships. The composition of Forster's novels is reconstructed from diaries, letters, and notebooks, and the result is a book brimming with literary insight.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

10 Novels Classical Musicians Will Love

In 2001, an award-winning author named Ann Patchett published the wildly popular novel, Bel Canto, the story of a group of hostages in an unnamed country, including an opera singer. But for those who know anything about classical music, the repertoire choices of this singer are a bit... odd. Most opera singers will be able to immediately identify the singers that Patchett was listening to because the repertoire choices are so very idiosyncratic - Renee Fleming with a soupcon of Maria Callas. The singer in the book, Roxane, seems to be endowed, like Willy the Whale, with at least two different sets of pipes. For most people, it doesn't matter because most people wouldn't sit there wondering why on earth this woman is singing Rusalka, Carmen, and Gilda. But for those of us who do wonder, here is a list of great novels about music and musicians that musicians will love.

Lucy Gayheart and The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
Lucy Gayheart tells the story of a young music student who gets a chance to work with a world-class singer, when his usual collaborative pianist is ill. The novel is quietly romantic and its rehearsal scenes are excellent. The Song of the Lark, a significantly longer work is about Thea Kronberg, an ambitious young musician, and her long, slow climb to the brink of a career. Cather cultivated friendships with musicians and her extensive knowledge lends a sense of verisimilitude, lacking in so many other authors' efforts. Both novels are also moving coming-of-age stories.

The Lyre of Orpheus and A Mixture of Frailties, by Robertson Davies
The Lyre of Orpheus is about the composition of an opera, written from a myriad of perspectives, from the composer to the librettist to the men funding the project. It's a fascinating account of one of the most complex of all artistic collaborations. A Mixture of Frailties is about a young Canadian singer who gets a chance to study in Europe, where she meets a troubled composer in the midst of writing an operatic version of Apuleius's The Golden Ass. Towards the end of his life, Davies himself would in fact write a libretto for an opera entitled The Golden Ass, set to a score by Randolph Peters.

The Girl who Trod on a Loaf, by Kathryn Davis
Davis's novel is about the friendship between Frances, a single mother, and Helle, a Danish composer whose last, unfinished opera, is a setting of the Hans Christian Andersen story that share its title with the novel. Interwoven within the chronological narrative is a fascinating version of the Andersen fairy tale. The novel is intense and disturbing, as much about the composition of one's own life as the composition of an opera.

A Small Rain and The Severed Wasp, by Madeleine L'Engle
A Small Rain tells the story of teenaged pianist Katherine; The Severed Wasp returns to Katherine when she is in her seventies, just returning to New York after a European concert tour. Both books examine similar themes, though from radically different perspectives, of friendship, betrayal, sexuality, and the relationship between mentors and their protegee. These are L'Engle's best books for adults. She also wrote a wonderful young adult novel, The Young Unicorns, in which there is a blind pianist whose experience of music is beautifully described.

An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth
As great a novel as A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's An Equal Music is a devastating story about a violinist and a pianist whose relationship becomes increasingly tortured because the pianist is becoming deaf. Seth's ability to portray the psychology of musicians is unparalleled and many critics noted the extraordinary accuracy of the technical aspects of making music.

Bone China, by Roma Tearne
Sri Lankan novelist Roma Tearne paints a complex portrait of class, race, and culture both in her native Sri Lanka and in Britain. The de Silva family is cultured and wealthy, their children artistically precocious, but ethnic violence shatters their comfortable life. A gem from an author that deserves greater recognition.

The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy 
A bitter story narrated by a rabidly jealous husband that makes a case for sexual abstinence, The Kreutzer Sonata, named for the piece by Beethoven, is essential reading for any musician. The climax of the story comes with an intense and deeply emotional scene describing the performance of the sonata. It is no surprise that the great master describes perfectly the experience of listening to a deeply felt performance. This novella has inspired countless other works across artistic disciplines, including Janacek's first string quartet.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Best Movies of 1958

Some odd things happened in 1958. The pope made Saint Clare the patron saint of television. Britain set up its first parking meters. The Beatles were calling themselves the Quarrymen. Instant noodles went on sale. And in sunny California, Hollywood was about to have a major identity crisis. The Production Code was being challenged ever more zealously and the Hollywood Black List would be broken in 1960, when Kirk Douglas insisted on giving Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit for Spartacus. But, in 1958, working in Hollywood still meant towing the line and it's no surprise that four of the five films on this list faced controversies and censorship on their release. Here are the best films of 1958.

5. Auntie Mame
Based on the popular book by Patrick Dennis, this hilarious movie about a madcap millionairess who has to raise her brother's orphaned son stars Rosalind Russell in the titular role. Russell's performance is one of the rare perfect performances, funny, antic, and moving all at the same time. The movie delights in lambasting commonly accepted prejudices of the time, particularly antisemitism and homophobia (though Ito, the Japanese house-boy is, at the very least, not politically correct). Though retaining a light touch reminiscent of screwball comedy throughout, Auntie Mame packs a wallop of political and social commentary.

4. Touch of Evil
Orson Welles's noir masterpiece was butchered by the studio despite pleading (and a 58 page memo) from Welles himself. The film was restored in 1998, though the original rough cut of the film is no longer extant. Touch of Evil is about a Mexican cop (played by - wait for it - Charlton Heston) and his American bride (Janet Leigh) who find themselves entangled in the sordid machinations of a drug ring and the equally sordid investigative techniques of Quinlan, an overweight, boozy police captain, played by Welles. The film has an unprecedented amount of violence, sex, and drugs, and feels, more than 50 years later, completely comtemporary.

3. Gigi
This delightful Lerner and Lowe musical, based on the novella by Colette, was adored upon its release, but producer Arthur Freed had to battle the Production Code for several years in order to film the story of a Parisian courtesan in training. Leslie Caron, one of my all-time favorite actresses, is perfect in the title role, the exquisite costumes are Cecil Beaton creations, and the color cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg is gorgeous.

2. The Defiant Ones
Stanley Kramer loved to tackle controversial subject matter and this film, about two escaped convicts, one black and one white, chained together, was about as controversial as a film could be in 1958. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are extraordinary as the two convicts, lending depth and complexity to roles that could easily have been pared down to stereotypes. This very moving film is a portrait of the racial tensions of its time, offering no easy solutions, refusing to make its protagonists martyrs or heroes.

1. Vertigo
Vertigo was slammed by critics and audiences alike when it was released, though it was later recognized as one of Hitchcock's greatest films, perhaps the absolute greatest. The plot, about a traumatized ex-detective who is hired to follow a former school-friend's apparently bewitched wife, is almost entirely beside the point. The intense atmosphere of the film, enhanced by one of Bernard Herrman's best scores, has never been duplicated and its preoccupation with sexual obsession was very much ahead of its time. A tacked-on ending, demanded by the Production Code, is thankfully just a special feature on the DVD.

Monday, June 10, 2013

15 Movies Every Feminist Should See

Calling a female protagonist a "feminist" character has become a way for mainstream Hollywood to blind audiences to regressive gender politics and conservative conceptions of femaleness, maleness, marriage, and romantic love. A favorite smoke-screen is to have a female heroine who can beat up the bad guys (Pirates of the Caribbean, Parts 1-4, both of the recent Snow White reinterpretations, Willow, Star Wars). After the bad guys are defeated, the heroine is suddenly and inexplicably happy to settle down with Mr. Right and start popping out babies. Or maybe, the heroine reads! Books! Belle, in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, has more than once been called a feminist purely and simply because she reads. However, this is what Belle reads - "Here's where she meets Prince Charming, but she won't discover that it's him 'til chapter 3." And (surprise surprise) at the end she gets married.

Now, there's nothing wrong with women defeating bad guys or reading fairy tales, but for those of us who read (and enjoyed) The Second Sex, most movies are frustratingly free of female characters who are self-determining, independent, and more interested in things like careers and self-identity than marriage and motherhood. Some of the movies on this list really couldn't be called feminist, but they all acknowledge and explore the challenges women face in a patriarchal society.

La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) (1922)
This very rare and hard to find silent film is widely recognized as the first feminist film. It uses avant-garde special effects to portray an unhappily married bourgeois housewife during a typical mind-numbingly boring day. Unlike the notoriously long and tedious Jeanne Dielman, The Smiling Madame Beudet is only 16 to 22 minutes long (depending on the source) and shows the vivid imaginings of a woman struggling to hold onto her own individuality within the confines of an empty marriage without losing her mind.

La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)
Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece is, as far as I'm concerned, the best film of all time, and its star, Renee Falconetti, gives the single greatest film performance of all time. Closely based on the actual documents of St. Joan's trial for heresy, the film is a stirring and deeply moving reflection on faith, hypocrisy, cruelty, and how women act/acted and are/were treated within the patriarchal church. Joan emerges as strong, complex person who struggles to maintain her faith in the face of paralyzing fear. This film is absolutely mesmerizing.

Die Buechse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) (1929)
Georg Wilhelm Pabst's brilliant silent film stars Lulu Brooks as the alluring woman no one, male or female, can resist. Brooks is iconic in a role that incarnates female sexuality as a force that cannot be contained, scattering tragic consequences whenever someone attempts to do so. This film can be interpreted as either radically feminist or misogynist, but, to my understanding, the film is a parable about the folly of the patriarchal repression of unbridled female sexuality. The film also has one of the first portrayals of lesbian attraction and romance.

His Girl Friday (1940)
This fabulous screwball comedy stars Rosalind Russell as a pulp reporter, Cary Grant as her boss and ex-husband, and Ralph Bellamy as her fumbling new fiance. Russell's character Hildy, fast-talking, ambitious, and fully capable of taking care of herself, realizes she can't throw over a career she loves to be a housewife. Russell and Bellamy switch traditional gender roles in a number of crucial scenes and Grant is portrayed as the right guy for Hildy because they're both tough newspaper(wo)men. The movie is a hilarious send-up of the newspaper business, with a great cast of character actors and lines like, "Put Hitler on the funnies page."

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren's short experimental film has an ambiguous repetitive narrative structure that uses powerful imagery, a key falling or a knife in a loaf of bread, to tease out a drama of the subconscious contemplating suicide. It's questionable whether or not this film can truly be considered feminist, but its exploration of the psychic underworld from a woman's point of view is radical and challenging.

The Red Shoes (1948)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's brilliant and gorgeously colored film tells the story of a talented ballerina caught between the chance of a great career and the love of a composer. Still painfully relevant today, the conflict is reflected through the lens of the ballet world, until eventually ballet and reality have become intertwined. The magic fatalism of the film may seem disheartening, but The Red Shoes is still the finest ballet film ever made and the fifteen minute dance sequence is a tour de force of color and movement.

Adam's Rib (1949)
The best of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn collaborations, this battle of the sexes comedy is not strictly feminist, though it's solution to the epic battle is perhaps more radical than it seems. Two married lawyers take sides in a legal battle between a cheating husband and the wife who tries to shoot him in revenge for his infidelities. Hepburn's character decides to defend her client by proving that a double standard has an unlawful effect on the guilt or innocence of her client, leading to increasingly bitter displays of marital discord in the courtroom. Packed with explicit discussions about gender roles, the movie is not nearly as dated as you might expect. 

Sedmikrasky (Daisies) (1966)
This Czech film by Vera Chytilova follows two adolescent girls through a series of surreal episodes. Originally banned for its subversive material, there is no doubt that this is the most challenging film on this list. The girls decide to "be bad" and embark on a crusade of teasing lecherous older men and eating. One notorious scene depicting the girls eating various phallic food items after cutting them up with scissors will be difficult for most men to watch. The girls' "badness" is a radical rebellion against both the misogyny and the political suppression of the time.

My Brilliant Career (1979)
Based on the novel by Miles Franklin, Gillian Armstrong's period drama is about an ambitious young woman determined to have a great career (she eventually settles on writing). Judy Davis gives a splendid performance as the heroine and the sets by Luciana Arrighi are stunning. Much like The Red Shoes, the conflict is between an artistic career and a marriage to the man the heroine loves, but this film is much more progressive, with an ultimate decision that may not appeal to the have-it-all generation but is nevertheless exhilarating for feminists.

Anne of Green Gables (1985)
Aside from being the best television movie I've ever seen, this Kevin Sullivan production is a fabulous adaptation of L. M. Montgomery's novel, a visually beautiful period piece, and a showcase for a cast that includes Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth. Megan Follows plays Anne, the orphan girl who has rescued her own identity with imagination, intelligence, and sheer will power. Unlike most heroines, particularly in period pieces, Anne is much more interested in academic achievement than romantic entanglements and her relationship with Gilbert Blythe is realistically complicated.  

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This terrifying movie stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee trying to track down a serial killer with bartered information from Hannibal Lecter, played by the magnificent Anthony Hopkins. The most feminist part of this movie is that it doesn't at first glance appear to be anything of the sort. Clarice Starling is highly trained and very intelligent and she keeps up with the men, though there is a constant and subtle subtext of the challenges of being perceived as the weaker sex. But guess what - unlike all of the heroines (except for Joan of Arc) in the movies on this list, Clarice is the only one without a boyfriend or husband in sight. This wouldn't be radical if Clarice were male, but it is incredibly rare for a movie heroine, no matter her job, to have no time for or interest in a romantic relationship.

Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Toni Collette stars in this bitter comedy about an overweight, unemployed woman obsessed with weddings and ABBA songs. What starts out as a quirky romantic comedy becomes a radical deconstruction of every romantic delusion embraced by the genre, from superficial self-transformation as a path to happiness to friends as sidekicks with no problems. In fact, the film is ultimately an homage to friendship and self-determination.

Primo Amore (2004)
Matteo Garrone's film is a horror film about romantic relationships and eating disorders and it is unsparing in its depiction of the slow destruction of the female body. Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan) is a jewelry designer determined to fashion the woman of his dreams out of Sonia (Michela Cescon) by manipulating and bullying her into losing weight. The brutal and very graphic depiction of Sonia's shrinking body is not for the faint of heart, but this is a rare film that lambastes the widely accepted misogynistic standard that says thinner is better.

Une vieille maitresse (The Last Mistress) (2007)
Catherine Breillat is one of the only living directors totally unintimidated by honest depictions of female sexuality, traumatic sexual encounters, and unrestrained female dominance. The Last Mistress is about an aristocratic young man, his mistress, and his wife - a typical love triangle. But the movie is extraordinary because it is able to detach itself from the usual clearly male perspective without taking on a radically feminist perspective, and thus examining men with as much distance and mystique as it does women. The effect of this is a complete re-balancing of gender dynamics. Unfortunately Blockbuster bought the distribution rights to this film and it is not available elsewhere nor has it received a wide DVD release. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

My 6 Favorite Dickens Characters

Few authors have had such an impact as Charles Dickens. Of his twenty novels, all but a couple of the shorter Christmas works have been made into feature films at least once - A Christmas Carol alone has been produced more than 20 times. What makes his work so endlessly entertaining is the abundance of fantastic, eccentric characters, many of them very funny. Here is a list of my all-time favorites.

6. Herbert Pocket
Great Expectations is crammed with eccentric characters, from Miss Havisham to Magwitch, but my very favorite is Pip's first boxing opponent, tutor in the "gentlemanly arts," and fast friend. I developed a persistent fondness for him when I first read the novel and though he is far from Dickens's most colorful character, he would definitely be enormous fun in English pubs. He was portrayed by Alec Guinness (in his first major film role) in David Lean's 1946 adaptation.

5. Captain Cuttle
My favorite Dickens novel is Dombey and Son, which has a great villain, the many-toothed Mr. Carker, as well as the good-hearted and salty-tongued Captain Cuttle. Cuttle is one of the many Dickens characters determined to avoid matrimony, especially to "widders," though happy to aid others to such a fate. He is found of bungling quotations terminating in this request: "When found, make a note of." His maritime speech and naive positivity are endearing rather than irritating, and he provides the lion's share of humor in the book.

4. Sydney Carton
Though A Tale of Two Cities has a number of entertaining secondary characters, the spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher foremost among them, the hero, Charles Darnay, and his wilting lily beloved, are far too good to be interesting. Thank goodness, Sydney Carton, the dissipated, cynical barrister, is the real hero of the story. Carton is an unusually complex and sophisticated character for Dickens and his final act of heroism is kept from being sentimental by the surprisingly convincing path he took to get there.

3. Fagin
Fagin, from Oliver Twist, is deliciously immoral and oddly sympathetic, convincing as both a money-grubbing exploiter of little boys and a put-upon father-figure to Oliver and the Artful Dodger. While Bill Sykes is pure evil and Nancy is a good woman brought low by life, Fagin occupies some ambiguous place in the middle. Ron Moody, in the 1968 musical Oliver!, is so perfectly cast as Fagin that I can't accept anyone else in the part and his performances of "I'm Reviewing the Situation" and "Be Back Soon" are pure genius.

2. Ebenezer Scrooge
There's a good reason that A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted books of all time and that reason is one miserly old coot named Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge's transformation is one of the few Victorian stories of moral development that continue to fascinate us, despite the oft-aimed accusation of sentimentality. Oddly the most faithful adaptation I've seen is A Muppet Christmas Carol, which preserves more of the original dialogue and narration than any other film version. Michael Caine is wonderful as Scrooge and his performance is none the less moving for playing opposite Gonzo as Charles Dickens.

1. Sam Weller
The Pickwick Papers was Dickens's first novel and a runaway success when it was first published, in great part thanks to the best Dickens character of all time, Sam Weller, Pickwick's manservant and valet whose crafty scheming and loyal partisanship get Pickwick out of many a scrape. He also introduces us to Weller, senior, his father, a man bent on infiltrating temperance societies and leading them back to the bottle. Some of Sam's best quips include: "Business first, pleasure arterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed t'other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies" and "Sorry to do anythin' as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin's, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament."

It's no surprise that all my favorites are men, given that Dickens's female characters tended to be far less inspired. Many of the women are inexpressibly angelic (and boring), many are terrifying battle-axes, and many are good-hearted and simple-minded. There are exceptions to the rule - Louisa in Hard Times or Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son - but by and large, the men are more interesting and more complex than the women.

Readers, favorite Dickens characters?