Sunday, April 28, 2013

9 Novels that Warrant a Closer Look

 Many of my favorite novels are obscure, out of print, or only just beginning an academic re-evaluation. I decided to put together this list of nine books, many out of print or obscenely expensive, that deserve a larger readership. Almost all of them are written by women - some of these female writers never received the recognition that they merited or were swiftly forgotten; others are recognized only for one or two works, while the rest remain little known.

Work by Louisa May Alcott
Today Alcott is remembered almost solely for Little Women and therefore considered a children's author. Alcott was in fact a prolific writer who wrote novels and short stories both for young people and for adults. Her most mature novel is Work, which narrates the struggle of Christie Devon to support herself without resorting to either prostitution or suicide in 19th century Boston. Closely based on Alcott's own struggles to gain honest financial independence, this marvelous novel is the most obviously feminist of her books, as well as the most contemporary.

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte's first novel has been slammed by critics and dismissed as an aborted draft of her later great novel, Villette. Though it has been somewhat rehabilitated in academia, it remains largely unknown to the enormous readership of the perennially popular Jane Eyre. The Professor lacks the melodrama and romanticism of Jane Eyre, while retaining its rather bleak outlook. It tells the story of a fairly mediocre young professor in his quest for professional success. The book's bitterness may turn some people off, but its concise realism feels more modern than the romanticism of Bronte's other novels.

The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield
The vast majority of Dorothy Canfield's prodigious output is out of print, even though she was one of the most popular American writers of her time. She was a brilliant writer, thinker, and activist, and I could have chosen any of her novels for this list. The Brimming Cup is a nuanced and beautifully written account of a wife and mother trying to rebuild the identity she lost when she assumed her matrimonial and maternal roles. Few novels have captured one of the most difficult feminist dilemmas so exquisitely well. 

No Name by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins has been somewhat overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Charles Dickens, though a fair number of his novels remain in print. Collins was one of the earliest writers of detective novels and he invented many of the genre's formulas. No Name is the story of two orphaned sisters, who discover after their parents have died that they are in fact illegitimate and therefore cannot inherit their parents' money. The money instead passes to a distant male relative and the sisters try to get the money back by marrying the relative. The novel was written to support reform of 19th century British inheritance laws, but it is a great deal more than that. Magdalen Vanstone is one of the most fascinating, assertive, and complex heroines of British literature.

Jennie by Paul Gallico
Paul Gallico wrote many beloved books with animal protagonists, mostly cats, but the only one still widely available is The Snow Goose. This delicious novel follows a little boy who finds himself suddenly transformed into a cat. He meets Jennie, a streetwise stray, who initiates him into the feline way of life. Gallico's book could easily be a sickeningly precious story, but it is instead a absolutely unsentimental and profound vision of the meaning of life.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman by Francoise de Graffigny
According to her wikipedia page, Francoise de Graffigny was a prolific writer, but you wouldn't know that because most of her literary output remains unpublished, at least in English. Her magnificent and very early feminist novel has been fully appreciated in the academic world, but is otherwise largely unknown. The main character is a Peruvian princess, kidnapped and brought to Europe by French explorers. She keeps a written record throughout her ordeal, first with a kind of knot-writing and then on paper. She eventually has to choose between marriage and a professional life as a writer. This novel is not just a feminist landmark (and written in 1747!), it is also significant for its complex and sympathetic portrayal of a native American.

The Kelpie's Pearls by Molly Hunter
Mollie Hunter is well known in Britain, but in America all her books are out of print. She is a brilliant fantasy writer and though The Kelpie's Pearls is written for children, it's just as good for adults. The story is based on Scottish folklore and tells of the relationships between a kelpie, a suspected witch, and a young girl, in the midst of a chaos of reporters who are looking for the Loch Ness monster. Hunter's gift for magical storytelling is as great as that of Michael Ende or Lloyd Alexander. I also recommend The Third Eye.

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery
Today, L. M. Montgomery is remembered primarily for her best-selling Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, which have been constantly in print since they were first published. The Blue Castle is one of her two novels for adults and my absolute favorite of all her warm and funny books. Valancy is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and decides to throw over the rigid control her family exerts on her. The story largely concerns how Valancy liberates herself and develops her own identity. The novel is also extremely funny and full of the gorgeous natural descriptions at which Montgomery excelled.

Precious Bane by Mary Webb
Precious Bane was Mary Webb's only hit novel and the only one that is easy to track down without spending a fortune. Her style is simple and heavily influenced by the Shropshire dialect and she has a gift for revealing beauty in ordinary things. The novel is narrated by Prue, a farmer's daughter with a hare lip who has been taught to read and write by the local "wizard." This unpretentious novel absolutely deserves greater recognition and perhaps a good run on the book club circuit.

Hopefully, we will soon see some new affordable editions of these books!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: Tod Browning's Freaks

Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) was a total box office disaster when it was first released and it ruined Browning's promising career. The film's salacious and disturbing material led to its being banned in many cities across the United States and almost a half hour of the original content is considered irrevocably lost. It has since become a cult favorite and is highly regarded by contemporary critics. My own reaction to this film is ambivalent, though I cannot deny its emotional power.

A midget who has inherited a fortune falls in love with the beautiful trapeze artist who plots with her lover the strongman to relieve the midget of his money. The plot is rather mundane, a typical love triangle. It is the setting, a circus freak-show, that is so extraordinary. In order to make this setting realistic, Tod Browning cast people who were actually working as sideshow attractions at the time. Among the cast are people with dwarfism, conjoined twins, a bearded woman, an intersexual individual, and people without either upper or lower limbs.

I felt the need to write about this movie when I read a user review on Imdb deploring the fact that sideshows are no longer acceptable and many congenital conditions that would formerly have left a person few alternatives but the sideshow are now medically curable. Whoever this person is must not know anyone who, in another time (or simply in another country), might have faced that reality. Perhaps this person might want to give living as a sideshow attraction a try.

I was born with a physical disability, technically called phocomelia, which essentially means that my left arm is not "normal." Living with a physical disability means, more than anything else, that people will stare at you and point at you. Perhaps they will even speak aloud about you, as though you weren't there. The sideshows aren't really gone - they're just no longer in tents and no one has to pay to go in. Ignorant people create their own sideshows wherever they find the opportunity.

So why does Freaks still have the power to disturb? Because, plainly and simply, people with physical disabilities are still perceived as freaks, as spectacles to gawk at. Because people who do not conform to the standards of beauty and normalcy embraced by the film industry never appear onscreen. Nearly every portrayal of a disabled person in a movie is played by a person who does not have that disability. Freaks on the other hand has more characters and actors that have disabilities than don't.

Inevitably, Freaks is, at least partly, exploitative because it operates as a kind of sideshow - attention is drawn to the way these individuals eat, light their cigarettes, make love, move around. But at least we are seeing people with disabilities live their lives - love, hate, commit acts of kindness and of violence, hurt each other, help each other. In other words, we are not presented with either of the two attitudes typical in the movie industry. We are not given an "inspirational" viewpoint that celebrates "triumph" over the obstacles and ends with a "victory" - there are a number of releases from the past year that fit this sickeningly condescending profile. We are also not presented with a portrayal of disabled people as mere spectacle, or as the embodiment of corrupt values. Instead, these characters are portrayed as people, flawed, real people, whose lives may be limited by their disabilities but who hardly spend their time wallowing in self-pity. They just live.

The movie's central message is meant to be one of tolerance and empathy - the classic quote is "Offend one and you offend them all." This is not always clear, perhaps due to the extensive cutting and reediting that the film underwent after its premiere. What should be clearer is that disability is limiting precisely because people go to sideshows, people gawk, people stare. The limitations that people with disabilities face are mostly the limitations of being perceived as freaks and therefore of not being accepted as human beings. Freaks is problematic and at times difficult to swallow - but at least the characters with disabilities are deeply human. You know, like all of us that try to live our lives with strangers' eyes glued to our "abnormal" parts.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

They shoot Italians, don't they?

In American cinema and literature, Italian-Americans are almost entirely absent, except as kindly and emphatic restaurant majordomos or, much more commonly, as mobsters. The problem is not that that Italians are sometimes mafiosi. Rather, the problem is that they are always mafiosi. As an Italian-American, I protest.

Part of the problem is the paucity of books about the Italian-American experience. There is only one classic Italian-American novel - Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete. The book chronicles the experience of an immigrant family that has settled in New York. The book explicitly deals with the immense prejudices that Italian immigrants, like so many other immigrant groups, were faced with on arrival to this country. But Christ in Concrete is alone.

Even now, I can think of only one Italian-American writer who is writing about the Italian-American experience. Christopher Castellani has written a trilogy, the latest volume of which just came out this year. I've read the first book in the trilogy, A Kiss from Maddalena, which is well written and interesting, and even quite moving at the end, but it is simply not of the same quality as Christ in Concrete.

For decades, the first book (and probably the only book) about Italian-Americans that reached a popular audience was Mario Puzo's The Godfather. It's not a total disaster, but it's nevertheless pulp fiction. The negative impact on the perception of Italian-Americans reached its zenith with the making of Francis Ford Coppola's film adaptation. I have to admit that The Godfather is a good movie, much better than the book, but I nevertheless have to condemn it because it cemented the already prevalent association of Italian-Americans with the mob.

From the original Scarface made in 1932 (and made, it is worth noting, in protest to the horrific mob-related violence in Chicago at that time) to The Sopranos today, portrayals of Italian-Americans are almost universally negative. Sometimes the character is complex and not all bad, the prime example being Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface, but the the character is either a criminal, an accessory, or a victim. Scarface in fact portrays the power struggle between the Italian-dominated mob on the South Side and the Irish-dominated mob on the North Side, though the protagonists of the movie are Italian. But Irish-Americans are not faced with a singular negative stereotype and thus the depiction of Irish mobsters doesn't have the same impact. There are dozens of movies that nostalgically embrace old Irish traditions and culture (Little Nellie Kelly, The Quiet Man, Yankee Doodle Dandy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and many more) - not to mention the Kennedys.

Italians have Moonstruck and My Cousin Vinny. And that's it. Both of them are funny movies, but two movies alone don't undo the work of decades of mob films.

The stereotype of the Italian-American mafioso is not going to change until writers, filmmakers, and other artists begin to diversify the portrayal of Italian-Americans across disciplines. The rampant negative portrayal of my people is not acceptable, but Christopher Castellani stands alone. There is all the more need for an explicit push against the mafioso stereotype because it is so monolithic.

In the meantime, how about a sangwich? Now there is an Italian-American institution.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Three Best Henry James Adaptations

Henry James is not a cinematic writer. And movies based on his books are rarely successful. Many are absolute failures - Daisy Miller and The Golden Bowl come to mind - and others are just too idiosyncratic to work either as adaptations or as movies, a.k.a. Jane Campion's either too odd or not odd enough Portrait of a Lady. But every once in a while, a Henry James adaptation turns out to be a really good movie. These three are the best out there:

3. The Bostonians
The Bostonians (1982) is a Merchant Ivory film with a knockout screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Vanessa Redgrave plays a Boston society hostess deeply involved in the feminist movement, Christopher Reeve is her misogynist cousin, and Madeleine Potter is the young charismatic speaker they both obsess over. It's rare for a film to examine the feminist movements of the 19th century and for that alone the movie is fascinating, but it is particularly brilliant that the screenplay manages to be both a strong adaptation and a complete re-interpretation of James's misogynist politics. Yes, this movie is dense and slow - that's where James comes in. But James's ability to render human relationships too complicated for a label is also what allows the film to  examine both the misogynist and feminist politics of this film in a way that is historically plausible and relevant to contemporary audiences.

2. The Wings of the Dove
The Wings of the Dove is my favorite Henry James novel. It's one of his most sophisticated and subtle novels and before seeing this movie, I would have sworn it couldn't be adapted. Released in 1997, this film, directed by Iain Softley and written by Hossein Amini, stars Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache as poor and passionate lovers who befriend very wealthy (and very lonely) Alison Elliot. Aside from the stunning costumes and gorgeous sets and locations, the film is surprisingly fast-paced without feeling rushed or abridged. The themes here are money, class privileges, and how they complicate love. The Wings of the Dove is a powerful depiction of both the selfishness and selflessness of human love - and it's not remotely cheesy or cliche.

1. The Heiress
The Heiress (1949), based on the novel Washington Square, is simply one of the best American dramas of all time. Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote the screenplay, based on their previous adaptation for the theater, and William Wyler directs. Olivia de Havilland gives her best performance as the plain and naive heiress whose father, Ralph Richardson, is convinced that her lover, Montgomery Clift, is only interested in her fortune. De Havilland won a well-deserved Oscar. The film is bitter and very adult, though, obviously, without any R-rated content. It's also noteworthy for Aaron Copland's score.

One of the things that I love about Henry James (and about good James adaptations) is that the relationships between characters are not easily labelled and that attempting to classify these relationships tends to destructive. All three of these films could be considered "romantic," particularly The Wings of the Dove, but none of them portray the usual boy-meets-girl, complications ensue, boy-marries-girl, romantic plot otherwise so typical both of 19th century novels and mainstream cinema.