Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966)

My next trip through the unread books on my extremely full bookshelves is the anthology Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966) that I bought at a library book sale. The volume contains four late nineteenth-century / early twentieth-century full-length plays, each of which lives up to the name of melodrama, although some are greater than others. The reader also gets a lovely introduction by Vincent Price (!!), where he briefly, but eruditely, talks about his experience playing the villain in Angel Street, and the differences for an actor when playing melodramatic roles (a type of role that Price obviously enjoyed). Here's a bit about each play:

Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, as adapted by Charles Fechter (1868)
Fetcher was a famous nineteenth century British actor (via France) who adapted Dumas’ tale of the ultimate revenge plot for the stage. This one was my least favorite of the four, having read The Count of Monte Cristo, and not particularly adoring Fechter’s pretty drastic changes. Still, if you were only tangentially familiar with the novel, you might get into this one. It was a semi-hit on the stage for Fechter, but saw greater acclaim after his death when James O’Neill (the father of Eugene) played the role for many years.

Secret Service by William Gillette (1895)
This Civil War melodrama was written by the actor / inventor / playwright and extremely fascinating guy, William Gillette. Gillette is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage after writing a Doyle-authorized play about Holmes and Watson to meet public demand for the enigmatic detective after the sad death of Holmes in The Final Problem (don’t worry, he came back to life later). Gillette is the one who gave Holmes his distinctive pipe and his original catch phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” He also invented several much used stage effects and equipment, and wrote several melodramas, including Secret Service.

This play was extremely successful and Gillette played the lead role in it over 1,500 times. It was made into a film version in 1931 and again as a filmed play in 1976 starring John Lithgow and Meryl Streep. The play turns on a romance between a Confederate officer and a lovely young woman in Richmond during the civil war. Unfortunately, the officer is suspected of being a Union spy – but is love stronger than loyalty to a cause? There is, as you might imagine, some pretty cringey racial attitudes in this play, which is unfortunate because the action is pretty amazing. The scene with the telegraph practically jumps off the page. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but if any scene about sending a telegraph has ever been dramatic and exciting, it’s this one. You can read some details of the plot at this very nicely researched movie review, or read the whole play here.

The Letter by William Somerset Maugham (1927)
Maugham based this play on one of his short stories, and it literally starts with a bang when a woman fires a gun, a man yells “Oh my God!” and the woman shoots him again and again and again. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Robert Crosbie, and the man is their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond. Leslie claims Geoffrey tried to rape her and she killed him in self-defense, and she is taken into custody as a matter of procedure. It looks like a clear-cut case until a letter comes into play that casts some doubts on Leslie’s story. The action takes place in a British colony on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore and, much like Secret Service, there is racist dialogue and plot points in the play. Still, Leslie is a pretty intriguing character, and the audience isn’t always sure who they should believe (or root for). This was made into a 1940 film starring Bette Davis and it looks suitably melodramatic.

Angel Street (aka Gas Light) by Patrick Hamilton (1938)
All the action in this play takes place in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. The wife seems nervous and overly concerned with how the husband is feeling. The husband is confident and brash. Gradually the audience notices a pattern where the husband promises a reward (theater tickets, a nice dinner) and then takes it away due to the wife saying a wrong word or reacting in the wrong way. A big scene is made over a painting that has been taken off the wall, even though the wife denies having moved it. When the husband finds it behind the cupboard, he insists that she must be losing her mind, just like her mother. After he leaves for the evening, a strange man shows up – he’s a detective, and he has some very interesting information for Mrs. Manningham about her husband’s past life and his late night activities. This one was made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Berman, and is probably even more famous nowadays as the inspiration for the term “gaslighting” to describe the same kind of mental abuse Mrs. Manningham experiences in the play.

I would have loved to see Vincent Price in this one

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005)

My next J. St. D. read is Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005) ["Mystery Man of the Twentieth Century!"]. I had never heard of Arthur Cravan before, and he may just be one of the most unusual, vague, and frustrating historical figures I've read about. Rick Geary's proven way with odd historical figures (particularly his series on historical assassins / serial killers) is a perfect match for this crazy life story.

In fact, give yourself a second and check out Arthur Cravan's wikipedia page. And just try to stop yourself from falling into an internet research hole with the whole Cravan mythology. It's irresistible! Cravan described himself as "a poet, professor, boxer, dandy, flâneur, forger, critic, sailor, prospector, card sharper, lumberjack, bricoleur, thief, editor [and] chauffeur" (cited here), and at least half of those things are actually true! He made a name for himself in the Dada art scene, he rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, he had sooooo many adventures, and then he mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Mexico when he was 31, leaving his pregnant bohemian wife behind. Or did he actually die after all? Much of the fun of the Cravan mythology centers around that controversy, and Geary and Richardson do a good job of explaining the many what if's (which also include a nice John Huston cameo!).

While the graphic novel doesn't slavishly follow every known detail of Cravan's life exactly, it definitely gives you a taste of the man and his world. And it's a damn fun read.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998)

My dear Dr. Mystery bought this copy of Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998) from the author herself when we were on one of her ghost tours of San Antonio as part of an archives conference I was attending. The tour was a little silly, but in a nice way, and Ms. Williams was a wonderful and enthusiastic host.

Although that was nearly ten years ago, I've finally gotten around to doing more than just skimming through the book. Now, I'm not going to say this is a great book or even that anyone interested in ghosts or Texas should read it, but if you are a combination of interested in ghost stories, interested in Texas history, good-natured about Texas ladies of a certain generation, and patient enough to handle a little repetition, this is a pretty fun read.

Williams interviewed people from all over the state who witnessed ghosts or unexplained phenomena at their properties. She combines these first-hand accounts with extensive research in local newspapers and, in some cases, in-person visits to the properties themselves. The book is organized by region and covers the entire state, although the majority of the stories come from the Dallas and San Antonio areas. As an archivist, the background research she did on small Texas towns and their historic properties is probably the most interesting part of the book, and Williams includes photographs that help illustrate the locations. While the stories themselves generally fall into a few preset categories (strange noises! cold spots! smell of perfume! seeing a woman wearing old fashioned clothes! things disappearing and reappearing!) some of them stand out from the crowd a bit and there is always enough variety to keep things a little interesting.

My one big criticism is Williams descriptions of people held under slavery (characterized more as "servants" with much of the cruelty glossed over or ignored) and Native American tribes (seen only as terrorizing bad guys who threatened the safety of the white settlers). This doesn't come up in every story but it made me cringe a little every time it did. This isn't unusual or even bad-intentioned, but it does date the author and take away from the impact of some of the tales.

To end things on a positive note, I'm going to share one of Williams' ghost poems, which are sprinkled throughout the book. She read several of these on our ghost tour and they were so sweet that Dr. M and I still quote one of them all the time ("At the Inn they call the Menger..."):

"Ghosts" by Docia Williams

Ghosts fly high... and ghosts fly low...
Where they come from we don't know...
Ghosts take off in roaring flight,
Most often in the dead of night.
They're often felt in spots of cold,
You feel their presence, we've been told. 
Some are large, and some are small,
Some, merely shadows on the wall.
Some are friendly, some are bad...
Some are playful, others sad.
They're often heard, on creaking floors,
Opening windows, slamming doors!
Wails and moans they sometimes make,
Making us poor mortals quake!
They like all kinds of dreary places,
Houses, churches, and open spaces....
Sometimes they swell in mist and fold, 
They're heard, we're told, in howls of dogs....
Some, balls of fire seen in the night,
All in black, or dressed in white; 
Some show a glimpse of shadowy faces,
Then, they're gone. They leave no traces
To ever let us mortals know
Where they come from... or where they go....

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008)

I read most of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008) in a place I've never read a book before -- as Kindle book on my tablet in a series of airports and Airbnb apartments on our trip to Belgium last month.

I read this book as part of my Debbie Downer (only sad books) book club, and we selected it right around the time of the Baltimore uprising surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray, when we were all feeling pretty sad and overwhelmed by the spiral of police violence against African Americans (which has, you know, not really gotten much better in the past four months). At the time, Coates newest book, Between the World and Me, hadn't come out yet, and in retrospect it would (probably) have been a better choice for this book club. Not that sad things don't happen in The Beautiful Struggle, because they do, but I think the ultimate mood of the book celebrates Coates' family and childhood and its positive effect on his profession and worldview.

Coates was raised in Baltimore by his father, a former Black Panther turned librarian at Howard University who also ran his own press promoting classic African and African-American writings, and his mother, a teacher. His father had seven kids with four women, including one other boy with Coates' mother. The other half-siblings would sometimes live with Coates and his mom and dad, and sometimes live with their mothers. One older half-brother in particular, nicknamed Big Bill, was particularly close to Coates and becomes one of the fulcrums of this memoir. Their upbringing was strict, grounded in literature, history, a deep awareness of the continued effect of slavery on the lives of African-Americans, and the importance of their African heritage.

For much of his childhood, Coates lived in a rough area of Baltimore, right at the height of the crack epidemic. He understood that the streets were hard and demanded him to be hard too, although he didn't find that easy, being kind of a goofy, intellectual kid. His brother, Big Bill, on the other hand, took more naturally to that toughness, which moved him quickly out of the intellectual and Black Consciousness world of his father (and to a certain extent, Coates) and into a more common world of guns, drugs, and fights.

Both Bill and Ta-Nehisi eventually reach the age of 18, the age at which their father has told them they are on their own. And they are. Both get a full ride to Howard University (Bill because their father worked there, Ta-Nehisi [after their father left Howard to become a full-time publisher] because of the tenacity of his mother. The book ends as Ta-Nehisi begins his adult life, going on to become an established journalist, extremely excellent Twitterer, and the author of (so far) two very popular monographs.

This is a hard book to write about as a 38-year-old middle class white woman from Nebraska. I'm such a fan of Coates and so interested in reading about his experiences, but I feel like to reflect on them or even pick out anecdotes to describe the memoir is somewhere between pointless and clueless. Reading this book in Belgium made me feel even more complicated about the memoir, like I was at a three time remove from the action instead of just the two times that I usually am. Following Coates on Twitter makes the book even harder to respond to without cringing a little. What on earth would he tweet about this review?

I did like this book -- Coates has a lyrical writing style that really fits the coming of age narrative, and his adult-tinged observations on the actions of his parents and their friends strike just the right balance without being too knowing. The book is a great supplement (or antidote?) to the Baltimore of The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Street.  I feel like I'm starting to babble, and that's probably a good time to wrap things up. The bottom line is that this really is an interesting book and a very literary and enjoyable memoir. You just might not know what to say when someone asks you about it.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story by Daniel Clowes (2011)

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story by Daniel Clowes (2011) was originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine and then reworked for publication in 2011. It tells the story of our isolated and neurotic leads, Marshall and Natalie, who are set up on a blind date by mutual friends. Both of them are coming out of rough break ups of long term relationships, the back story of which is revealed through the course of the book. Marshall is our narrator and his frequent interior monologues bump on top of Natalie's dialogue in a perfect Peep Show-esque neurotic dude manner. His anger and Natalie's odd fragility set the stage for some awkward and sometimes humorous (in a very dark way) action that leads to a rather satisfying conclusion.

If you like Clowes (and what asshole doesn't?) this will not disappoint. The characterization and drawing are excellent, and he really takes advantage of the unusual horizontal shape of the page. As is often the case with Clowes, the characters are a perfect combination of the uncomfortably familiar (I'm just like that!) and the weirdly exotic (no one is really like that!) that leaves you feeling both squirmy and relieved. And, as is often the case with Clowes, I loved every frame.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962)

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962) is the ninth novel in his James Bond series and by far the least beloved.

Unusually, the book is narrated in the first person by a female character, Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman recently back in the Americas after an eventful five years "coming out" in London. She is taking some time to relax and rediscover herself by riding a motor scooter down the east cost from Montreal to Florida. Along the way she stumbles into a job working for a couple of weeks at an isolated motor lodge in the Adirondacks. The couple who act as the caretakers decide to take off on the last day of the season and leave Vivienne to close up the lodge and wait for the owner to come lock everything up the next day.

Viv is actually pretty excited about getting some alone time and spends the first third of the book sipping on some scotch and remembering her sexual and romantic past in London (which is given in great detail, to benefit the reader). After losing her virginity to a boyfriend who dumped her as soon as she put out, Viv finds herself romantically involved with her German colleague at a newspaper. At least she though it was romantic. When she finds out she's accidentally become pregnant, he very efficiently gives her money and instructions to go to Switzerland for an abortion, and then fires her from the newspaper. No wonder she needed a vacation.

Back at the travel lodge, two muscley dudes knock on the door and say they were sent by the owner to inventory the property. Viv doesn't like the look of them, but they have enough details that she lets them in. Unfortunately, they are as untrustworthy as they look and almost immediately start harassing and threatening her and then beat her up when she tries to fight back. Things escalate gruesomely, but just when they are about to follow through on their repeated threats to rape her, who should knock on the door but James Bond!

Bond just happened to be driving through the isolated Adirondacks when he got a flat tire right in front of the motor lodge. The heavies force Viv to act natural, but she is able to convey to the wary Bond that she is in trouble. He pretends to buy the inventory story and he and Viv talk quietly while she makes him some eggs and bacon. He gives a really weird run down of his most recent adventure fighting Russian spies in Toronto and he is ALSO now just taking a break by driving down the east coast. After everyone goes to bed, the bad guys try to kill Bond and Viv (and think they have succeeded) and then burn down the motor lodge for the insurance money. Gun play, fire, and lots of action ensue. Then Vivienne and James Bond sleep together in a part of the motor lodge that is not on fire and, as she describes the love making and her reactions to it, she gives us the regrettable line: "All women love semi-rape." That should be qualified that they love semi-rape when it is James Bond doing it, apparently. Viv has completely fallen for Bond but knows that he is the kind of man that can't be tied down so is not surprised when he is gone by the time she wakes up. He has also called the police and smoothed everything over using his government connections, even swinging it so that Viv gets a reward from the insurance company for discovering the plot.

When it was published, the book was immediately panned and Fleming tried to stop its distribution in London. He also refused to give film rights to anything but the title, so the movie of this name with Roger Moore has absolutely nothing to do with the book. Some reviews I've read online really bash this book for the sexism and the "semi-rape" line and, while that obviously isn't great, this was 1962 and the book was written for (male) fans of spy novels, not 21st century women. I actually thought having the first person narrative from a woman was pretty edgy and interesting for the genre, although it obviously didn't work out for Fleming, and the sexism and rape stuff isn't anything more intense than you'd find in a Jacqueline Susann novel. Like her or not, Vivienne is a relatively well-rounded character -- if anyone in the book seems one dimensional and tacked on, it's James Bond, who comes in deus ex machina-style, squeezes in his spy story as an awkward aside, and then shoots some people, has sex, and leaves. I wouldn't recommend this one for everybody, but if you like some highly dated pulpy reading, you could probably do worse.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

STAPLE roundup: Everything else

In addition to the Jack: Adventures in Texas' Big Bend comics by Chris Ruggia and some truly fun movie monster and cats in movies prints I bought for framing and gifts, these three comics are the rest of my haul from the 2015 STAPLE! expo in Austin earlier this year.

The first is a tiny little comic called Kitten Apocalypse by Meg Has Issues. Obviously I could not resist buying this one from Meg when it caught my eye as I trudged through the gauntlet of tables, and it completely lives up to its title.What happens when the adorable kittens rise up and start attacking us all? It is just as cute and disgusting as you might imagine.

The second was a free giveaway, the first volume of the Kickstarter-funded Holli Hoxxx triology, put out by local press Bogus Publishing. These guys had a very outgoing table style and it was easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. While I didn't buy anything at their table, my cousin did, and we both got a copy of this free, full-color, nicely printed comic. I didn't have high hopes for anything too amazing, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this post-apocalyptic, kick-ass girl hero story. If I see the other volumes of the trilogy around, I'll definitely pick them up. Nice drawing style, good storytelling, and sexy but not sexist heroine. Nice job, dudes!

Finally, we come to the most polished of this last batch, When We Were Kids by Andy Warner. This is a really well done collection of three coming-of-age vignettes. Warner has a really engaging drawing style and a nice sense of pacing and storytelling. Coming-of-age stories are one of my favorite genres, and this one did not disappoint. Warner was also really interesting to talk to, and I hope I run into his table again in the future to buy some more of his work.

Yay comics!