East LA is full of odd dashes of color, wildflowers next to freeways, murals peeking from alleyways, and of course the hills rising when you remember to look at them, ochre dust and verdant green. I’m not going to do the keep/drop distinction in these reviews anymore because they’re all from the library.
Myths of Greece and Rome by Thomas Bulfinch – I had a sort of wild hair to go back and read the Greek myths of my childhood. It turns out I mostly remembered all of the good ones, though, and I didn’t love the tendency Bulfinch has to bowdlerize all the juicy, weird, sexual or existential aspects of the myths—for instance, all the times Hercules gets drunk and kills someone and then feels bad about it and has to do lots of super human things to make up for it. I dunno, how do you review a book of Greek myths? Vulcan was always my favorite God? Besides Athena, obviously, obviously Athena is the best. Athena really is kind of the Mary Sue of Olympus – she gets to be the god of ‘good war’, not ‘bad war’, which is a little cheap anyway you look at it, plus cities, heroes, and technology. What the hell is left? Bad world-building, that’s what I call that. Bad worldbuilding.
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton – In the near future, society is on a slow verge of economic and environmental collapse, and medical science has advanced to the point where virtually no one dies except of old age. Discovering she has three weeks to live, Katherine Mortenhoe refuses to sell her story to a pain-starved public, and escaping the press and reality TV hounds flees to the anarchic borderlands beyond the city, followed by a reporter with cameras for eyes. It is…really good, prescient (this was written in the 70’s) about the increasing sacrifice of privacy and, more impressively, about death itself. Compton is a more than solid writer, especially for someone trucking in 70’s sci-fi, where a clever idea was more important than being able to write a sentence (I’m looking at you, Phillip K.) This works as adventure, as satire, and as a more profound comment on the complexity of personality and the need to live an authentic existence (whatever exactly that means) in the face of death and the media machine. Very good, I’ll definitely check out another Compton soon.
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller – An insane bag man gets involved with an unscrupulous gun moll. I had not, as of reading this, seen anything by legendary director Samuel Fuller, but whatever his cinematic merits he was not much of a novelist. The kind of hyper-stylized crime novel which more closely resembles a superhero or sci-fi story, a setting basically unrecognizable (not in a good way), and characters that are equally loosely drawn. It also relies upon characters coincidentally running into one another in a way that more shatters than stretches credulity. Not good.
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – A middle-aged woman in the interwar era seeks to cast off the conservative shackles of her family and live alone in rural England. It’s funny and quick and there’s a really, really delightful twist mid book that I won’t spoil but makes a longer review kind of impossible. Suffice to say it’s a clever and thoughtful take on womanhood, worth your time though I felt the end kind of fizzled out.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer – An inability to develop into a fully actualized human pushes a woman into an endless string of pregnancies and half-wanted children and, ultimately, insanity. This was…peculiar. As a character study, I thought it was a failure—our unnamed protagonist did not ever come together for me in any kind of real way (nor did any of the other minor characters), and the pathological nature of the woman’s behavior is not considered in a therapeutic or analytical way, despite much of the narrative being couched as a conversation between the protagonist and a shrink. As a more esoteric comment on the patriarchy and womanhood and so on, I thought it was muddled and kind of aimless. An interesting idea executed unevenly.
The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp – The autobiography of Quentin Crisp, a famed member of the homosexual London underworld for much of the 20th century, recollections of his misadventures and thoughts about life and society. I am in rough awe of this book. I was impressed with it in a way which makes me almost not want to praise the thing too highly, for fear that today’s exhilaration will give way to tomorrow’s regret. On the other hand, who gives a shit what I think, so what I think is that this is a straight masterpiece. Crisp is a fabulous, fabulous comic writer, lacerating and laconic. His observations are pithy and astute, and while his twin obsessions – himself and homosexuality (his observations on ‘deviant’ sexual mores are on par with Proust) – are particularly well-served, anywhere Crisp decides to shed his light he offers valuable insight. Some might, I suppose, be put off by his campy bitterness, but I found his cynicism neither insincere nor undeserved given the man’s suffering and frankly the general state of the world, and in any event it was always cut with levity. Strong recommendation.
Yesterday by Maria Dermout -- A (presumably) fictionalized account of the author’s early youth in Dutch Indonesia, this slender volume seems to have served as practice for the more radically fictionalized account she gives in the absolutely spectacular Ten Thousand Things. There’s some fine bits in it, she does a good job of expressing the peculiar way in which children misconceive the world, but its follow up is so much better that it was hard to get real excited about this one.
Kansas City Confidential (1952) -- There’s nothing particularly original in this story of a bank heist and the trouble the bank heist causes, but its done well—the writing is tight, both in the sense of the dialogue itself and in the underpinnings of the plot. Also, fucking Lee Van Cleef is fabulous as a shifty gunmen, really all of the side characters look mean and weird and give the impression they could actually be gangsters, rather than just really really handsome people, which is mostly what you get from films these days.
The Steel Helmet (1951) – I’m not trying to pick on Samuel Fuller, seriously I’m not, but I likewise did not see a ton in this story of a squad of GI’s fighting to survive in Korea. For a film made in 1951 it has an impressive awareness of racial issues, but they’re not discussed with any great sincerity or complexity, and the whole thing that (that being war and racism and so forth) is wrapped up with discomfiting neatness. In common with most war movies from this era the action, so to speak, is also really dull, a lot of still shots of men scowling and shooting out windows.
In a Lonely Place (1950) – Humphrey Bogart is a temperamental if brilliant screenwriter who may or may not have killed a woman. There are a couple of problems with this movie but the main one is the man himself. I fucking love Bogart, but his range is extremely limited. It’s not just that, looking at him, you kinda know there isn’t a director alive at the time crazy enough to have him be an actual villain (dark passage doesn’t count, he wasn’t famous then), it’s also that he just can’t really convey the kind of coiled madness that this character is supposed to have. It also leans pretty heavy into the ‘male artist is so brilliant and troubled and you should feel bad for him even though he maybe just hit a guy for no reason’, all in all one of my least favorite clichés.