Thursday, May 21, 2020

Early Thoughts on Esdaile's The Peninsular War

El 2 de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Goy

I'm a good piece into Charles Esdaile's The Peninsular War. That's the name given to the complex and ferocious war fought across Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814. Spain, suffering from centuries of corruption, political and religious repression, and was facing revolution in its colonies in the Americas, had been forced into an alliance with the French Empire. Together, they had invaded and conquered British-allied Portugal. They had failed to capture the Portuguese royal family and treasury, both of which had been safely evacuated to Brazil.

 Despite the battlefield victory, Spain continued to be a state in turmoil. Machinations between various parties led to complete chaos, with followers of the king, Charles IV, facing off against followers of his son, Ferdinand VII.

 To ensure Spanish acquiescence to French plans, Napoleon began moving troops commanded by several of his marshals into eastern Spain. In the chaos that followed, King Charles IV abdicated and his son, Ferdinand VII, attempted to assume the throne. Napoleon forced them both out, installed his adoring older brother Joseph on the throne in Madrid and attempted to occupy the whole of the country.

 The invasion lead to a massive uprising against the French conquerors. Despite retaliation by the French, the uprising proved impossible to suppress. Spanish regular forces under General Castaños forced the surrender of nearly 18,000 French soldiers at Bailén. This led to British intervention, followed by Napoleon himself taking over the reins of the French forces. Then the British retreated, with their commander, General Moore getting killed, and the French in control of much of Spain and part of Portugal. Napoleon returned to France to raise troops to fight the resurgent Austrians and left his generals in command once again. It was only then that Arthur Wellesley arrived on the scene with a renewed British commitment to fight the French. At that point there were five more years of brutal fighting ahead.

El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Goya
That's as far as I've gotten in the book and it's been packed with examples of military and political incompetence and atrocities of all sorts. Like most guerrillas before them, the Spanish and Portuguese partisans, unable and unwilling to confront the French in the field, carry out murders of collaborators and messengers. Most of the Spanish generals are mildly competent at best and the poor Spanish infantry are often untrained and poorly armed as well as underfed and ill-clothed. The French wantonly sacked and raped their way across the country side. The second, and successful, assault on Zaragoza left 20,000 Spanish soldiers and 34,000 civilians dead after months of siege and weeks of house-to-house fighting.

Abbey of Santa Engracia by Louis-François Lejeune
from the Second Siege of Zaragoza

The British fare no better in the book. Most were Anglican or Methodist and anti-Catholic and had a strong dislike of the Spanish priests and monks, seeing them as lazy parasites living on the largesse of the citizenry. For the Spanish army, they had little regard, treating it with contempt and derision. Without a dedicated supply train, the British army, like the French (and the Spanish, as well), lived off the countryside, routinely plundering whatever farm or village they come upon.

Saragossa 10 February 1809 by Harold Hume Piffard

I've never read much Napoleonic history, but I was still taken aback by the murderousness of the war - and this is only in the early stages. It's clear, already, why the fighting came to be called the Spanish Ulcer. It may not have been cause of Napoleon's great defeat - that was the Russian Campaign followed by the battle of Leipzig - but the deployment of so many troops away from his greater objectives was a significant contribution.

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna by George Jones
Esdaile's book is very clear in his explanations of the assorted factors that led to the war and where it fits into the greater history of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. What it doesn't do is give long, complicated descriptions of the battles - which in this sort of history, that is one covering a lengthy war - I quite like. Instead of describing the movement of every Spanish and British company at the battle of Talavera, Esdaile concentrates on the French and English strategies that led to the battle being fought in the place it was fought.

I'm going to take a break from The Peninsular War for a few days. I'm going to dive back into Perez-Reverte's The Siege. Then, it's onto War and Peace. It's funny, when I decided on the latter as the follow-up to Doctor Zhivago (more on that later), I didn't consciously pick for its being set during the Napoleonic Wars. It was just synchronicity.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Whiling Away Days in Quarantine

You'd think with all the free time in these days of enforced lockdown I'd get some serious reading done; nope. I mean I am reading and I did actually finish two books - The Footsteps at the Lock and Hidden Moon - but I'm working really hard to finish the three others I've got going on - Doctor Zhivago, The Peninsular War, and The Siege. All are very good and very dense and I will finish them, but, man, oh, man, it's taking me a long time. 

I was excited to get the latest issue of Tales from the Magician's Skull but I can't read it, at least not now. I'm amazed that I still can't read fantasy. It makes sense as it's about all I read for five or six years. Now, I can barely work up any enthusiasm for the genre, no matter how good it looks. It's getting to be a bit of a bummer. I've got books that I really want to read, but when I pick them up any interest just dries up like a puddle in the Sahara at high noon. I couldn't even finish a very good Tim Powers (one of my favorite authors) book I started during all this. I know I'll get back up on that horse someday, but right now it's way beyond the horizon.

We did just watch the Hulu series, Devs, from Alex Garland, starring, among a bunch of other good actors, Nick Offerman. Essentially, a tech mogul is attempting to determine if the universe is completely deterministic. I have all sorts of problems with the way the show discusses the question as if it's never been done before, and the end is not good. Nonetheless, the acting is very, very good, with Offerman and Jin Ha being my favorites. The whole show is, from the woodland campus and gilded quantum computing center to the fog-shrouded hills above San Francisco is beautiful. Within its own universe, it's a tense and riveting show. It's been hinted that Garland wants to do something entirely different with the same cast and I would definitely be up for that. 

As for how I'll while away future days in captivity, it'll be more of the same. Some work on the computer followed by computer games and movies with sporadic bouts of reading. The luminous Mrs. V. has us trying to get various projects done and I'm sort of game for it.

Actually, I do sort of have my future reading goals laid out. Once I've finished Zhivago, I'm just going to go for the brass ring and pick up War and Peace. It looked so ridiculously long when I was a kid, but, seriously, when fantasy fans routinely read multi-volume thousand-page-a-book series, it's not much at all. Alongside that, I've got Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, a horror novel set on Svalbard, and Tim Willocks' South African-set Memo from Turner. It's not too lofty a goal, so just maybe I'll achieve it. Stranger things have happened.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I don't think I'll be writing much about any of the Russian books that I read this year. Far better things have been written about any of the works I'll get to for there to be anything I can add. If you doubt me, check out this blog. Still, I will slap together a few quick takes, nonetheless. (Note: apparently, this is not true, and I'll be writing too much, probably)

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) greatest work, The Master and Margarita (1940),  was never published during his lifetime. Much of his work, reviled by the Soviet literary establishment, was suppressed. Even during the post-Stalin thaw under Khrushchev, the book remained unpublished for a long time and didn't appear until a censored version came out in 1967. The full text wasn't available until 1973. The first English translation was in 1967.

The Devil and his retinue
by Alekshey Galushkov
One hot spring day, the Devil and his entourage come to Moscow. When he comes upon the head of the writers' union, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, lecturing the poet, Ivan Bezdomny, that it's not enough to portray Christ as a comical figure, but instead he must be shown to have never existed at all, he is excited.

The visit brings down chaos on the citizens of the capital, exposing many of the vicious little ways people have accommodated themselves to the corruption and evil of the Soviet Union. Shortages of most luxuries and even many necessities have turned many ordinary people cagey and covetous. When the writer Berlioz is killed, having slipped and fallen under a tram, his uncle's first thought upon hearing the news is not one of sympathy but of how to claim his large Moscow apartment. Poets conform their words to the official dogma while loudly condemning all who don't. People, for no apparent reason most times, disappear in the middle of the day from their apartments, never to be seen again, and no one ever speaks of it.

In the middle of all the Satanic shenanigans, there's the tale of Margarita and her lover, the writer known only as the Master. For writing a book presented as a non-supernatural tale of Pontius Pilate and a prisoner called Yeshua Ha-Notsri, he was blacklisted and eventually went mad. Selections from the Master's novel are spread throughout the book.

Margarita spies
the Master watching her
I've read this book numerous times over the past thirty-five years and loved it each time. This time around, though, my enjoyment came more from the satirical anti-Soviet elements than the artistic and philosophical/theological ones. I've read a bit more about the period and Bulgakov's life and  While very funny, Bulgakov never softens his depictions of the brutality and moral decay wrought by the Soviet government.

What surprised me on this reading was how much I remembered and how much I forgot. Few specific scenes surprised me; Professor Woland holding forth on the existence of God, Pilate interrogating Ha-Notsri, the magic show in Moscow, and Satanic ball. It all came back to me.

Azzazello, Behemoth, and Korovyev
What threw me was the novel's overall flow. Despite its title, while hinted at, both Margarita and the Master don't show up till nearly halfway through the book. Even Pilate get much less time on the stage then I believed. The travails of the government poet, Ivan Bezdomny, and assorted writers and theater employees make up most of the first half of the book. I suspect it's this part, far more than the Pilate chapters, that ensured Bulgakov's book would never see the light of day in the USSR.

Moscow is a city of limits. Despite the modernity of its streetcars, theaters, even the thoughts, and ideas of its citizens, it is bereft of much. For artists, only the luckiest have adequate living space and only those who regurgitate state dogma have access to fine cuisine. Even the refreshment stand at Patriarch's Ponds on a hot day has no cold beer or seltzer, only warm apricot juice.

While there are obvious allusions to the sudden disappearance of innocents who fall afoul of the state's terror apparatus, most people manage to live in, even if only willful, ignorance of such terrors. Instead, they simply live lives that seem threadbare and bereft of most simple comforts, let alone luxuries. It's a gray world where the only light comes from Margarita's love for the Master.

Pilate and Banga

Despite finding myself drawn more to the Moscow chapters this reading, the Pilate ones are still the heart of the book. Bulgakov's Pilate is miserable, pained by endless headaches, brought about by Jerusalem's heat, his hatred of the endless plotting by the Sanhedrin, and what he sees as the Jewish fanaticism. His only real fellowship is with his dog. Suddenly, confronted by Ha-Notsri's unwarranted goodness, he senses the possibility of relief, even redemption.

When I first met the luminous Mrs. V., I gave her The Master and Margarita to read. She didn't finish it, put off as she was by the retelling of the Pilate's and Jesus' story. Yeshua Ha-Notsri isn't divine (though his insights seem to be), he has no real disciples, and he isn't preaching salvation or messiah hood. For me, no less orthodox in my theology, it was never a problem. It's a story within a story, it's the Master's novel. In the end, a character in a book, his deliverance must come from his creator, not the Creator.

Mikhail Bulgakov
A line from the book, "Manuscripts don't burn," became well-known in the Soviet Union. In the book, it referred explicitly to the Master's novel about Pilate being given to him despite having burned the original manuscript. It came to pertain to politically unpublishable novels being memorized by their authors.

It's a powerful notion - that art persists despite the savagery of the world. Bulgakov's works were kept unpublished, his plays shut down after a performance, and Stalin would not allow him to emigrate. In the end, he died from an inherited disease, his greatest work unknown to anyone outside his immediate circle. Today, it's considered one of the great works of Russian literature, so maybe he was right.

When I started this whole Russian thing, I thought I'd be focusing largely on the writings of the great 19th and early 20th century writers - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and the like. Instead, I started with a post-Revolutionary novel and I've already started on a second - Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I'm  also looking forward to a collection of Soviet-era short stories my mother-in-law's giving me this week. Aside from just being good books, they're fascinating for their portrayal of Soviet Union from within. It was the great threat to the world for much of my life, it murdered untold millions of its own people, and now it's just gone. It's gripping to get a glimpse from the inside through the eyes of actual Russian writers instead of histories written by outsiders. I'm going to get to the 19th century at some point, but right now, I'm going to be sticking to the 20th.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Christmas Mailbag

While I've set out to try to focus on Russian fiction this year, I've also found myself drawn to Golden Age detective fiction again this year. So far, I've read Ngaio Marsh's first Roderick Alleyn book, A Man Lay Dead, and I'm well in to Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The luminous Mrs. V and I are also rewatching for the many-manyieth time the inimitable Joan Hickson Miss Marple tv-show.

Golden Age detective fiction refers to a certain type of puzzle-heavy mystery featuring some sort of detective, be he or she an amateur or a professional, and written between the two world wars, and largely, though not exclusively, from Great Britain. While most the earliest examples focused on the puzzle aspect almost to the exclusion of character and atmosphere, this began to change fairly quickly with a growing focus on psychology and motive. While the era is generally considered to have ended in the years immediately following WWII, the sort of mystery Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers wrote is clearly still the template for a lot of crime fiction written today. There may be more gore and the sex more explicit, but complicated crimes and clever detectives are definitely not a thing of the past.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

I remembered seeing this last year when I was doing research on Margery Allingham, so I figured it was worth a look. About a third of the way in, I can tell you it's terrific.

Not only is Edwards a mystery author himself, he's the president of the Detection Club. The club's founding members included Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkley (Francis Illes), Agatha Christie and most of the other British mystery writers of the day, and GK Chesterton was the first president.

As much as a history of the genre and its development, it's one of the club and its members. I knew a little of Sayers' and Christie's lives, but not as much as the book details. Edwards tells some fascinating stories, particularly where his subjects' writing overlaps with real world murder.

If you've any taste for these sorts of stories, this book is definitely one to add to your shelf.

As I'm making my way through The Golden Age of Murder, I'm being blown away discovering just how many authors wrote detective novels in the Golden Age. There are easily a half dozen or more for every one I know. Going along, I'm making notes of what looks especially interesting.

The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox

One of the books that immediately caught my eye was this one. Set during a canoe trip along the upper reach of the Thames, this sounded fun, so I grabbed it.
Knox was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism. In addition to many serious religious works, he wrote several successful and respected detective novels featuring Miles Bredon, a sheepdog-like agent of the Indescribable Insurance Company. If that company name doesn't make it obvious, from the very beginning, many authors were having fun with the genre, taking it no more seriously than it needed to be.

Knox, one of the founding members of the Detection Club, had also written a set of rules to be followed when writing detective fiction:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Written only partially tongue-in-cheek, this is a great set of guidelines that would seem perfectly applicable today. 

Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

So, reading about Edwards regarding The Golden Age of Murder, I saw he had the first book in a new series available cheap, so I bough it. It's just the way I am, I guess. Rachel Savernake, daughter of a judge and amateur sleuth, gets caught up in crazy, murder-filled contretemps in foggy London in 1930. 

I loved the first Inspector O book, A Corpse in the Koryo, and hope to get to its first sequel soon. This time around, North Korean police inspector O is directed to solve a bank robbery, a crime that would seem impossible in his country. Church is the pseudonym of a long-serving American intelligence officer serving in the Far East. I expect really good things from this book.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Major Announcement About a New Anthology: The Lost Empire of Sol

Almost three years ago, I was invited to pick up the editing chores of this soon-to-be-released collection of original, linked Sword & Planet adventures from a whole bunch of cool people - some I knew, some I didn't. The stories had been written and just needed to be edited and published. I agreed to takeover the editing with others doing the publishing. I started with a bang, but then my life and others' intruded and the hard work the authors had done got derailed - for two and a half years. 

Derailed, that is, until Jason and Rogue Blades stepped in. With his mighty organizing skills, the project got put back on the tracks and is now roaring towards you in the next month or so. I won't single out any of the authors because I love all the stories - and I'm saying this as someone who has read them all at least half a dozen times a piece and still loves them. They're all different but they're all the same; in their love of Burroughsian-Brackettian-type action and adventure. I'd love if everyone I knew pre-ordered a copy, not because I helped getting it done, but because I think it's a great big blast of action and adventure.

I'll let Jason Waltz give you all the details it because he says it better than I could:

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mail Bag and Some Short Reviews

It's not like I have bought lots of books - mostly e-books - since the last of these posts, but it's always fun to write them up and publicize reading goals that rarely come to fruition.

The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky
For several years now, I've been planning on making a dive into Russian literature. In addition to the Bulgakov and Gogol I owned, this meant Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, as well as a few anthologies. I set out on this project with Mikhail Lermontov's novella, A Hero of Our Times (1840). For all sorts of reasons, laziness paramount among them, I let the undertaking slip to the wayside.

Some years later, a review of Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus  (2015) prompted me to pick it up. It's about a holy fool and his life and journeys across 15th century Russia and the Holy Land. Thanks to some good college classes and independent reading, my knowledge of Russian history is fair, but, still, the book looked a little daunting. 

To rectify my feeling of inadequacy, after investigating good histories of Russian culture, I bought James Billington's monumental, The Icon and the Axe (1966). Now, four freakin' years later, I'm about done with it. It's a dense, heavy book and every time I read a chapter or two I found myself putting it down. Russia's history is intense and I found myself overwhelmed and turning back to fantasy and crime fiction for some relief. Billington's main idea is that for over a thousand years, the icon (Orthodox Christianity) and the axe (the state) have been the two great poles around which Russian culture have revolved. According to Billington, Russia - as a nation, as its people, as an idea - has endeavored to find its way for centuries. Where, if in anywhere, does Russia fit into the West?; is autocracy the natural state of things?; what place does Orthodoxy really hold? Though written half a century ago, these questions seem as pertinent as ever to what's still the largest country in the world. Six hundred pages of text are followed by nearly two hundred pages of notes and bibliography. I could spend the rest of my life reading nothing but other books and documents pointed to in The Icon and the Axe's notes.

Delving into the great trends in politics, the arts, philosophy, and religion that have shaped Russia, this is one of the deepest and most thrilling works of history I've ever read. Seeing the sweep of Russian history over the centuries, it makes the current weakened state of the land and the craven nature of its government seem less terrible. While, nothing in its past compares to the malignancy of Soviet rule or Stalin's murderousness and Hitler's genocidal assault, the plight of contemporary Russia under Putin seems little compared to the setbacks the land has suffered (and recovered from) over the centuries.

That's a long winded way of writing I might have my "Russian project" back on track. I've actually picked up Dostoevsky's novella, Notes from Underground. It was written largely as a critique of the utopian thought flooding Russia at the time. So far, I'm liking it quite a lot. Described as one of the first existentialist novels, it opens with this wonderful bit of miserableness:
I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!
Best known for his later novels - Crime and PunishmentThe IdiotThe PossessedThe Brothers Karamazov - he was also short story writer. I figured if I'm going to take a crack at this whole Russian thing, I might as well get a bunch of those, so I did. As to be expected from the Modern Library, it's a sturdy little hardcover with a good foreword. I'll probably read one or two, but I doubt I'll read the whole thing before any time soon.

They Return at Evening (1928) by H.R. Wakefield

I lay the blame for buying this one at the feet of Keith West. He posted a nice write-up of Wakefield this past October. Along with M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood, he's one of the great ghost story writers. It was more than enough to prompt me to pick up a copy of this collection.
I'd already spent the first part of the Halloween season reading The Shub Niggurath Cycle edited by Robert Price. It kicks off with a series of classic horror tales from the early 20th century so I was primed for the sort of stuff Wakefield wrote. I ended up reading a few, including his most famous story, "The Red Lodge," and they're really good. It's usually noted that he's a good bit gorier than James and, from what I've read, that's definitely true.

The Fisherman by (2016) John Langan

I've been looking at this for a long time and finally pulled the trigger this past summer. I read his The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) collection and liked more of its stories than I didn't.

The Fisherman is part of a series of connected stories set in New York state. Langan, a professor by trade, is a literary horror writer, which is a fancy way of saying his storytelling is complex and a little self-aware (though, in a very good way). Two widowers bond over fishing and get drawn into old stories of ghosts and monsters. The contemporary story folds in on itself, becoming part of an older, bigger one. Like Laird Barron, without a hint of Lovecraft pastiche, Langan's story takes place in a hidden and inimical universe. Those foolhardy enough to search out its secrets risk death and worse.

One of the best horror novels I've read in the past few years, as soon as I finished The Fisherman I grabbed a copy of Sefira and Other Betrayals (2019), Langan's latest short story collection. What I've read of it so far is excellent. I'm very happy to have discovered Langan. After finding Laird Barron a few years back, I had no success finding any horror writer whose work excited me as much, but now I have.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) by Soji Shimada

In Japan there's a genre called "authentic mysteries." It refers to classic Golden Age-style mysteries where the emphasis, at least on the surface, is on intricate, convoluted plots. There's even an association of writers specializing in the style;
the Honkaku (authentic or orthodox) Mystery Writers Club of Japan that gives out regular awards. Unlike Agatha Christie, these writers insist on fair play, an provide all the information a careful reader needs to solve the mystery.

So, this book is totally bonkers. In 1936, an artist killed several women and chopped them up, seemingly to form the alchemically perfect woman. Right after that, he was killed in a situation that can only be described as a locked-room mystery. Forty-five years later two amateur sleuths, Kazumi Ishiokaa Watson-like illustrator and Kiyoshi Mitaraia very Holmesian astrologer, are contracted to solve the crime. 

The first chunk of the book is a mind-numbingly detailed recounting of every jot and tittle of information. No bit of information is left out. There's so much detail I was ready to chuck the book. It was dry going with only the slightest hint of life to any of the characters or emotional weight to the terrible crime being described.
Suddenly, the clues come to an end and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders becomes almost poetic. The characters, heretofore, little more than regurgitators of facts, come alive. The story turns into a sad one of families and the miseries they inflict on themselves. Also, the solution is clever and clear enough that I was thoroughly pissed off I didn't figure it out.

Shimada has written a whole stack of Kiyoshi Mitarai books, but sadly only Zodiac and Murder in the Crooked House (1982) have been translated into English. I'm hoping his English publisher, Pushkin Vertigo, continues shepherding these into translation and print.

A Corpse in the Koryo (2006) by James Church

This both depressing and reassuring novel is set in North Korea, its protagonist one Inspector O. The inspector is a square peg in a land of round holes who has managed to wedge himself into place. Only partially because of his abilities, largely because of the heroic reputation of his grandfather from the old days of fighting the Japanese and during the revolution. Against his active efforts, O becomes involved in a contest between criminally-minded factions within North Korea. When a foreigner is found dead in Pyongyang's showplace hotel, the Koryo, it's clear Inspector O's own life might be at stake. He's never sure whether he's a pawn, a catspaw, or just a fool.

Some reviewers on Amazon disliked the plot's lack of clarity and Inspector O's lack of control over events. I liked these two aspects very much. James Church is the pseudonym of an American intelligence officer with years of Far Eastern experience. In his telling, something that such limited reports that escape the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea is a stifling, completely bureaucratized state where the ruling powers act with brutal impudence.

I called the novel depressing because the picture it paints of North Korea and the lives of its 25 million benighted citizens. I also called it reassuring, too. Despite the threats and temptations faced by Inspector O, he never gives up his humanity. As suffocating, as all-encompassing, North Korea's government is, life still exists in the country, even if only in the cracks.

I can see these books joining the ranks of William Marshall's Yellowthread Street and Colin Cotterill's Doctor Siri mysteries as my favorite crime series. It's sort of funny that all three feature Asian characters and settings (North Korea, Hong Kong, and Laos) and are written by English-speaking white guys. I wonder, also, what's the nature of genre writing in North Korea and Laos? Is it like the old Soviet Union where only socialist realist writing, thick with class consciousness and unending lecturing, is allowed? Whatever. A Corpse in the Koryo is a good book and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Super Seventies Movie Month

Like every October, the Luminous Mrs. V. and I watched spooky (But not too spooky this past Halloween season. Her acceptability level for such things is much lower than mine.) movies. This year, she suggested we dedicate November to seventies movies. I quickly agreed. It's the era in which we both grew up and both saw a ton of movies in the theater, though, she way, way more than I. There are so many movies for both of us from that decade that still hold strongly to our imaginations and memories of our childhoods that it seemed like a no-brainer of an undertaking.

Hollywood, in seeming retreat in the face of declining ticket sales and the continued loss of viewers to TV, tried anything and everything - including loosened standards of sex and violence - to win back their audience starting in the late sixties and on through the next decade. On the higher end, this meant giving a host of directors nearly free rein. The result was lots of amazing, practically art house movies. There were huge movies, like the Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn) and The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Those same two directors also made less-well known films that are more to my liking; Night Moves (1975) and The Conversation (1974), respectively. 

Hollywood's openness to practically everything, allowed idiosyncratic character movies like The Last Detail (1973, dir. Hal Ashby), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, dir. Monte Hellman), and Badlands (1972, dir. Terrence Malick) to get made. Walter Matthau and Gene Hackman were able to become stars. It wasn't a new golden age for actresses in the same way it was for actors, which looking back pretty much bites, still, some, such as Gena Rowlands, Marsha Mason, Faye Dunaway got to make some solid pictures. Until Jaws and Star Wars taught Hollywood that there was gold in a certain style of summer blockbuster, it seemed like any movie was possible.

The best thing about Hollywood's new found artistic freedom was it seeped into everything. It might have come out of desperation, but who cares? It meant thrillers could be tougher and grittier, like Dirty Harry (1971, dir. Don Siegel) and Prime Cut (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie). Comedies could be blacker than almost anything Billy Wilder imagined, like Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby) and Where's Poppa? (1970, dir. Carl Reiner). 

It meant previously unsought-after audiences got attention, as with blaxploitation films. Sure, many of them were written and directed by white directors, but many weren't, most notably Shaft (1971, dir. Gordon Parks) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970, dir. Ossie Davis). There were also more confrontational movies like Melvin van Peebles' Watermelon Man and (1970) Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971).

That's only a scratch at the surface of Hollywood's output in this period and only of the most notable ones. There are dozens and dozens of films of in every genre imaginable. While we're going to watch some of the movies I've mentioned, we're also going to watch plenty of lesser ones, ones that hold a place in our memories because of when we saw them the first time when we were young, or they hit us in a particular way. Among others, for Mrs. V. this means Heaven Can Wait (1978, dir. Buck Henry & Warren Beatty) and Take Down (1979, dir. Kieth Merrill), and for me it means The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974, dir. Joseph Sargent) and Sorcerer (1977, dir. William Friedkin). Whatever we end up watching, though, good and bad, this is going to be a blast.

Note: I'll be posting everything we watch on my twitter feed, so follow me if you don't already.