Monday, May 31, 2010

Poetry Monday

First Snow in Alsace
by Richard Wilbur

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.

At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Modesty Blaise (1965)

Peter O'Donnell, who died a few weeks ago, wrote this spy novel based on his own comic book creation. In all there have been about 90 comic strip storylines and a dozen novels. This is my first exposure to Modesty Blaise and why did I wait so long? The book was fantastic, a great combination of over-the-top 1960s spy tropes, brutal action, and genuine emotion.

The writing in this book was really great, and I loved the relationship between Modesty and her long-time best friend Willie Garvin. He's as good a character as she is, a roguish cockney with an undying loyalty to Modesty.

Modesty Blaise is the book that Vincent Vega is reading on the can right before getting knocked off in Pulp Fiction. It's clearly a book that Tarantino is interested in and I think he had Miramax acquire the rights. There's a lot of Modesty characteristics in Beatrix Kiddo, especially the scene where Beatrix breaks down at the very end of Kill Bill Volume 2.

Next up: Sabre Tooth, book two in the Modesty storyline.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Special Relationship (2010)

An HBO movie airing this upcoming Saturday night. Check out my review here on Slant Magazine.

How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

A really good Dreamworks animated film, not something one gets to say very often. While it's entirely predictable (you will know every plot point the moment the movie starts), the story is well-told, the characters are great, and it doesn't pander with modern-day humor (read: the Vikings don't break into hip-hop dance routines). Most importantly, the character design, especially of Toothless, the dragon, is amazing. And he doesn't speak. All around, a good film, and I didn't even see it in 3D, which I've heard is amazing.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side (2010)

Another ho-hum Miss Marple mystery. None of the recent Marple mysteries have been particularly outstanding, but I did really prefer Geraldine McEwan's performance to Julia MacKenzie's. This episode is not terrible, mainly because it's based on a good book with a solid plot.

What I liked: Joanna Lumley as Miss Marple's friend and Hugh Bonneville as a detective.

What I didn't like: Miss Marple crying at the tear-jerker in the cinema in the first scene. Shouldn't have bothered me too much but I just can't picture Miss Marple getting weepy over a bad Hollywood film.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Website Is Up

I have officially launched my website: It is devoted to my writing: poetry, fiction, and reviews. Most importantly, it is a gorgeous site, designed by Kelly Nixon and Charlene Sawyer. I couldn't be happier with the way it looks.

Poetry Monday

I mentioned this poem in my post about Amis father and and Amis son. This was a poem that Philip Larkin wrote when Kingsley Amis' daughter was born.

Born Yesterday
for Sally Amis

by Philip Larkin

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love –
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Box (2009)

An enjoyable piece of hokum. It's kind of terrible for many reasons but it's also ambitious, genuinely creepy in the second act, and beautifully filmed. I wasn't bored till the very end, when its big ideas are too carefully explicated. It would have been better if it stayed more mysterious, like Richard Kelly's much better earlier film Donnie Darko.

The bad news: the dialogue is generally awful, too stiff and too heavy. This really kills the central relationship between the husband and wife (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz)-- they don't feel remotely real. And while James Marsden rises above the bad dialogue, Cameron Diaz is simply not a good enough actress to do it. It's one of the worst performances by a big star you're likely to see. It doesn't help that Richard Kelly gave her a terrible Southern accent, 1970s stewardess clothes, and a limp. I'm not sure even Kate Winslet coudl rise above that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

A very good mystery novel by a deceased Swedish journalist. Apparently, he wrote a trilogy of mysteries that were published after he died of a massive heart attack at age 50. This is the first one, and it's good stuff. What I liked about it was how ambitious it was as a mystery novel; it has about three major plot strands, several villains (including two serial killers), and two major protagonists. And it all works. The writing itself seemed a little weak in places but that could very well be the fault of the translator. Good gruesome fun in a cold Scandinavian location--what's not to like. Bring on book two, and maybe also the David Fincher film that is now in the works.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Trouble With Harry (1955)

I recently re-watched this enjoyable Hitchcock comedy. Has there ever been a film that visually celebrates Fall in New England like this one? Even though it's nearly summer here this made me long for a crisp October day. It's from Universal and was made in 1955, which means VistaVision. A few frames:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Poetry Monday

by Carol Ann Duffy

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. The dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Essential Amis

In honor of Martin Amis releasing his new book, The Pregnant Widow, yesterday, I thought I'd put together a top ten list of my favorite Amis books, both by father Kingsley and son Martin.

Lucky Jim
by KA

It’s hard to imagine that this story of an unhappy first-year professor in Postwar England was considered shocking in its day, but it was. Authority-snubbing and youthful dissatisfaction has come a long way since 1955, but it has never been rendered as cleverly as in Kingsley Amis’ first novel. This is the only book that I can honestly say is “laugh out loud” funny. Not the deepest of Amis’ novels but the most pleasurable by a long shot, and the book I've read more times than any other.

Money by MA
Martin Amis pulled out all the stops for this, his fifth novel, a blistering, crackling satire of film financing in early eighties New York City. The main character, John Self, is both Amis’ most grotesque and funniest creation, and Amis’ writing is never better. It’s a long book that bulges with style. There is hardly a dull sentence in the whole thing.

The Old Devils
by KA
A late masterpiece by the elder Amis. A group of aging friends in Wales drink and talk, then drink and talk some more, and without drawing attention to it, Amis touches on all the big themes of existence. Love, friendship, fear, mortality. His most touching novel.

Experience by MA

A brilliant memoir by Martin that focuses primarily on his relationship with his father, while wandering into other equally fascinating subjects, including an abducted cousin, and Martin’s teeth.

Everyday Drinking by KA

A collection of KA’s newspaper columns on the subject of drink. As KA said, he didn’t agree to the column in order to have an excuse to drink more, he arranged for the column in order to recoup some cash for all the hours he spent studying the subject.

The Green Man by KA

A ghost story in which the adulterous, alcoholic proprietor of an inn begins to believe that the rumored ghost he uses to lure in customers might actually be for real. What makes this so entertaining is the unreliability of the narrator. Is it a haunting or is it the whiskey?

London Fields by MA

Another sprawling black comedy of urban sins. This one has MA’s second greatest creation after Money’s John Self, a low-level criminal named Keith Talent.

The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader

A beautifully written, warts-and-all biography of KA. He was a man of enormous appetites and enormous contradictions. A misanthrope that couldn’t stand to be alone. A drunkard with incredible work ethic. A misogynist in the constant company of women.

The Rachel Papers by MA

This was Martin Amis’s first novel, a slim funny coming-of-age tale about a precocious teen. Not as ambitious as his later works, and that might be a good thing.

Collected Poetry by Philip Larkin

Not an Amis, of course, but Philip Larkin, a close friend of KA’s since Oxford, is the dedicatee of Lucky Jim and the Godfather of Philip. He also wrote a lovely poem for Sally Amis, the tragically short-lived sister of Martin, called “Born Yesterday.” Like nearly every other poem he wrote, it’s a keeper.