Monday, June 28, 2010

DVD Review: Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, the PBS miniseries first broadcast in 1975, is now available on a two disc DVD set. In seven episodes, the series takes the American born Jennie Jerome from her whirlwind courtship and marriage to the younger son of one of the great British aristocratic families to her death after a fall necessitated an amputation of one of her ankles. While the series includes capable performances by a number of notable English actors—Ronald Pickup as Lord Randolph, Warren Clark as Winston, Jeremy Brett as Count Kinsky, perhaps the love of her life, it is Lee Remick's bravura turn as the effervescent enchanting Jennie that is the life's blood of this production.

Remick takes the character from age nineteen in the first episode to her sixties at the time of her death, and is equally adept at playing the passion of youth and the industry of the middle years as she is the dwindling powers of age. She is no less able to charm in her later years than she was in her early days. One can readily believe that even as a mother of two she was well able to attract the attentions of two men as young as her sons. That younger men would be interested in marriage with a woman of her wit and vigor as embodied by Remick is entirely believable. If Jennie mesmerized those around her, Remick's performance no less mesmerizes the audience.

Lady Randoloph, as she says in one of the later episodes, was a woman who lived her life as she felt it should be lived and not as others thought she should live it. Americans abroad in the middle of the nineteenth century were more often than not seen as unsophisticated barbarians, ill equipped to deal with the cultivated Europeans. One only has to read Henry James and Edith Wharton to get some idea of the attitudes towards Americans in the period. They were naïve parvenus who, if they were good natured and had money, were easily taken advantage of, and if they only had money they could be treated as social climbers ready to trade wealth for position and ripe for the fleecing. Not Jennie, at least not as she is presented in this biodrama. Jennie Jerome had wit, beauty, ambition, and grace. She was nobody's fool. She had a captivating personality, and captivate she did, even though she didn't have the one thing that made most Americans attractive to the Europeans, especially second sons, money.

From the first she is presented as unique. The first view we have of her she is racing on horseback with her father (played by Dan O'Herlihy). She plays the piano, not like an amateur, but with the skill of a professional. She has a mind of her own. Lord Randolph sees her at a ball and it is love at first sight. This despite the fact that he dances poorly, doesn't care for small talk, and is not exactly a matinee idol. He attracts her because his ambition is to be a great man, and she can help him.

The series, written by Julian Mitchell, is episodic. They meet and marry in the first epsode. The next three episodes deal with their marriage and Lord Randolph's political career. In the fifth installment, after Randolph's death, Jennie meets George Cornwallis-West who is the same age as Winston and they marry, despite the objections of his family. The sixth episode deals with their marital problems and eventual divorce. In the final episode she marries again, but dies before a planned trip to join her new husband in Africa. Throughout, the focus on Jennie and her loves is complimented by a broader concern with British politics, social mores, military campaigns and moral behavior.

While the jacket notes that the quality of the picture and sound may be flawed at times because of the age of the programs, these flaws are minimal and are rarely intrusive. The second disc includes a written biography of Lee Remick and a history of Blenheim Palace (the 300 year old seat of the Marlboroughs ) which provides some of the location shots for the program. There are also filmographies of the cast. Over all there is nothing particularly exciting about the extra material. But with over 360 minutes of broadcast material, the DVD set more than likely supplies more than enough excitement for most viewers.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Production shot from Murder in the Cathederal, 2007, Poet's Corner.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

First Among Sequels (Thursday Next, #5) First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fforde does his thing, parodying the real world with his heroine who can travel back and forth between the world of books and the world of the outlanders. He likes puns and word games, and the logic of illogic: M. C. Esher in prose.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Genius and the Goddess The Genius and the Goddess by Jeffrey Meyers

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Reviews the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in preparation for a discussion of their relationship and marriage. Does some ananlysis of Miller's work, especially the work written for Marilyn, The Misfits and the lesser known work after the marital breakup.

Marilyn's doctors, the men who used her and the hangers on like the Strassbergs are dealt with most harshly.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Review: Fists by Pietro Grossi

This article was first published at Blogcritics

First published in Italian in 2006, Pietro Grossi's collection of three short stories, Fists, is now available in an English translation by Howard Curtis. And if these stories are any indication of Grossi's talent, the translation comes much too late. His prose has the deceptive simplicity of a Hemingway overlaid with the tantalizing ambiguity of a writer like Paul Auster. It is the kind of writing that sneaks up on the reader and leaves him with the sense that he has come into contact with something extraordinary. Grossi's subjects are the events that change lives, the kinds of charged experiences that James Joyce found led to epiphanies.

"Boxing," the first of the stories, describes the great match of two young fighter's lives. The narrator, a self identified nerdy momma's boy, who has built himself into an almost mythical fighter despite the fact that he has never actually fought a bout, is finally challenged by a deaf mute bull of a battler who has heard of his reputation. On the one hand, it is a fight that teaches both boxers something about life, something about what it means to be a man. On the other hand, it is a fight that demonstrates that myth need not be destroyed by stubborn reality.

The narrator is known as the Dancer. He is renowned for his finesse and prowess, but it is prowess that has never been tested. His opponent is the Goat. He plugs away at his craft with the dogged obstinacy of his namesake, but more importantly, he has been proven in the ring. For the spectators, the Dancer tells us, the match was a chance to see "the stuff of legends." "They had come there to see if it was really worth telling the stories and believing in them or if, once again, as usually happened, reality would destroy the myth. . . ." It was to be a "battle between dream and reality, between the world as it was and the way we would like it to be."

In "Horses," a father buys his two sons, boys who are at first characterized by stealing drinks from an old woman, each a horse and in doing so changes their lives. Although neither wanted the animals at first they both work at training them, and for one the training becomes a passion, while for the other, if is merely an inconsequential chore to be gotten through before going on to more exciting things. For one brother the city beckons: women, fighting, drugs perhaps. For the other, there is the country and more horses and a life with honor. The story plays an interesting contemporary variation on the city mouse, country mouse theme.

The last story, "The Monkey," is perhaps the least realistic of the three. It concerns a young man who, in the midst of his busy life, is told that an old friend of his has begun to act like a monkey, and is asked to come back to his home town to see if he can help him. The friend has been successful in business and life in general, but as the young man thinks back to their last encounter, he remembers that the man seemed dissatisfied, as if he had found his success empty. He returns to his home, to find that indeed his friend is behaving like a monkey. "He was naked, crouching beside the bed, playing with a little pile of shells, just like a monkey." The story works as a comment on the banality of modern life.

Fists is the kind of book that not only promises a bright future for a talented writer, it is a book that demonstrates that that future is now. These are the kinds of stories that will be favorably compared with Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Joyce's Dubliners, and Salinger's Nine Stories. They are the kinds of stories readers will find filling the pages of the short fiction anthologies of the future.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids, by Patti Smith

This article was first published at Blogcritics

After some cursory attention to her childhood, Patti Smith moves very quickly to the heart of her new memoir, Just Kids, with her arrival in New York City in the summer of 1967 in pursuit of the artist's life. She has no money. Friends she hoped would put her up are nowhere to be found. Some kind of job in the arts out of reach: she is reduced to living on the streets. And then she meets a young man, an artist almost as destitute as she is herself; there is an affinity right from the start. Their relationship seems to have been almost mystically fated. They pool their meager resources, and Smith begins her "vie boheme," with famed photographer, Robert Maplethorpe.

If you are looking for the story of Patti Smith's career as a rock star, Just Kids isn't where you're going to find it. While she does write something about her music, it only comes at the very end of the book, it is very sketchy at best. She tells more about Maplethorpe's photograph session for the "Horses" album cover than she does about the music itself. This memoir is focused on the period before she became famous. It talks about her poetry; it talks about her drawings, but most of all it talks about her love and friendship for the photographer.

They may have only had enough money to share a hot dog at Nathan's or grilled cheese sandwiches at a local diner, but what they did have was an intense faith in themselves as artists destined to produce work of greatness coupled with a firm belief that to produce art was perhaps man's noblest ambition. "It's the artist's responsibility," she tells us, " to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation." More often than not she talks about art and artists in religious terms. Jim Morrison is "like a West Coast Saint Sebastian." Birdland is "hallowed ground" that was "blessed by John Coltrane." Maplethorpe's "service was to art, not to church or country." She sets off for New York from her South Jersey home like a Joan of Arc in pursuit of her destined glory.

And she finds it. The late sixties in New York were filled with budding painters, musicians, poets, actors with the same kind of devotion, not to mention the bevy artistic wannabees and hangers on in pursuit of their own dreams. There were even those, poets like the Beats, artists like Andy Warhol, who had already found success. There was a ready-made community with similar values always looking for kindred souls, always willing to see greatness in the work of their friends.

Indeed, the most interesting parts of the book are the anecdotes about the great and the near great. Allen Ginsberg, thinking she's a pretty boy, buys Smith a cheese sandwich at the Automat when she is short of money. Gregory Corso, falls asleep in her arm chair while reading her poems, and burns a hole in the arm. She goes out to dinner with Sam Sheppard, not realizing he is a famous playwright. Maplethorpe takes her to meet his Catholic family and tells them they are married. She visits Jim Morrison's grave in Paris and is scolded by an old crone caretaker because Americans have no respect for their poets.

Her own prose is at times very poetic, at times somewhat pretentious. At her best she has a knack for just the right inventive image. The first man walking on the moon is putting "rubber treads on a pearl of the gods." Jim Carroll "shot stuff in his freckled hand, like the darker side of Huckleberry Finn." On the other hand she calls a Bob Dylan obsessed fan's analysis of one of his songs an "endless labyrinth of incomprehensible logic." She says Maplethorpe "sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism." Often the high flown mystical language makes an ironic contrast to the sleaziness of the one small room they shared at the Chelsea Hotel and the second hand outfits she is constantly describing.

As memoirs go, the most impressive thing about Just Kids is its honesty. Smith's description of her life with Maplethorpe has the ring of truth. She doesn't seem to have tidied things up. Drugs, sex, poverty—they're all there. Nothing is made to look rosy: except that there were two young people and they had their art and they had each other, and for a time that was enough.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book Review: Body Parts: A Collection of Poems About Aging. by Janet Cameron Hoult

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Robert Browning, in his dramatic monologue "Rabbi Ben Ezra," begins with the Rabbi asserting "Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be." Not every reader looking at Janet Cameron Hoult's images of old age in the poems in her new anthology, Body Parts: A Collection of Poems About Aging would agree. Poem after poem details the physical breakdowns associated with the 'best' that is yet to come. "Just can't bend over anymore," she tells us in "Anymore." In "Lost in Noise," she tells us "My hearing loss is getting worse," and in "Ringing in My Ears," her tinnitus "rings like a church steeple." In "The Nose Knows," she talks about the loss of the sense of smell, and other poems talk about loss of memory, loss of teeth, not to mention sagging body parts. Of course aging isn't only about loss, there is gain as well: hair in the nose and ears, pain in the joints, wrinkles in the flesh.

And Hoult knows what she's talking about. Certainly, we don't want to confuse the poet with the speaker in her poems, no more than we would want to confuse Browning with the good Rabbi or any of the less reputable speakers in his poems. Poetry is not autobiography; as the author profile on the back cover of Body Parts proudly proclaims, the poet is in her seventies, and though she may well suffer some, even all of the maladies and disorders described in the poems, she and her husband are still actively "chasing solar eclipses, mentoring student rocketeers and visiting their grandchildren and great grandchild." Nevertheless, you can't be in the seventies without at least some experience with the physical decay endemic to aging.

So, let's postulate that Hoult indeed knows what she is talking about. It is significant, then, that despite all the demeaning insults of aging, she can still find like Tennyson's "Ulysses" that "old age has yet his honor and his toil." Poets have long sought the "newer world," the "work of noble note" left to those grown old. They have sought the "abundant recompense" that makes up for the loss of "splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." The fire and passion of youth may be gone, but there is something new to replace it: a new calmer way of looking at the world, "the philosophic mind." It may well be something less intense, but it may well be something well suited to the later stages of life. Intensity may be overrated when the AARP beckons.

"Choice Parts" is a poem that looks what seniors still have to offer:

Yes, we can make a difference
in this world of ours;
And sharing skills with others
can help to pass the hours.

We have so much experience,
there's so much that we know.
Why don't we share this wisdom
and help young people grow?

It is the choice of the senior to go on living as best she can, or simply die a little more each day. So "let's just keep on, keeping on," she concludes.

In "Memories and Sensations," she talks about the loss of youthful passion in terms very much reminiscent of Wordsworth. She, like him, asks, what can fill us with joy and delight again now that age has drained us of "vital juices." What she concludes is that we have memories: "the sight of a lovely sunset,/the sound of a haunting violin. . ./the touch of a lover's caress." In a somewhat less serious vein, "Compensations" points out that while old age may ravage us physically; those very ravages prevent us from seeing the flaws in those we love. If our significant other snores, our hearing loss lets us sleep peacefully. Since we can't see each other's faces as well anymore, we can't see the gray, the wrinkles, the age spots. Growing old together then is not all bad.

Hoult's poetry is not always so serious. She likes a pun: "Mr. Arthur It is." She plays with Poe's "The Bells" in "Pills" and Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" in "Knees:" "I think that I shall never see/A replacement lovely as a knee." She does a couple of comic turns on the confusion of similar words caused by hearing loss. She pokes some gentle fun at the forgetfulness that haunts us as we get older, the glasses we can never find, the people we can't remember, the car that we parked and lost.

The poems in Body Parts are not written in the cryptic mode of much of modern poetry. Hoult writes with a simple clarity and ease. Her imagery is drawn from experience. The verse patterns are fluid but never the stuff of insipid doggerel. In short, this is an anthology that deals with its subject seriously and with honesty.

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach by Laurence Leamer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Pretentious look at the rich and perhaps not so famous demonstrating that they are just as vain, vapid and self promoting as the rest of humanity. One has to wonder why anyone would care about these people, except that they have money.

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