Classic Movie Review: Wings (1927)


Title: Wings
Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Famous Players – Lasky
Summary/Review:

A big budget war epic and romance featuring the biggest star of the era?  This movie is totally Oscar bait!  Except the Academy Awards didn’t exist when this movie was made and it would win the first Best Picture award at a ceremony in 1929.  Clara  Bow is the big star of this movie, and while it’s clear that here role is awkwardly shoehorned into an existing story, she’s a delight every time she’s on the screen.  I found myself crushing hard on a woman born before my grandparents!

The story focuses on Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) a young man who tinkers with engines and is enthralled with the local beauty Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston).  Meanwhile, his neighbor Mary (Bow) is in love with him, but he’s oblivious to her attentions.  Sylvia is in fact all but betrothed to David (Richard Arlen).  When the war comes, both Jack and David enlist in the Army Air Force, and after some initial tension at training camp they become good friends and ace pilots.  Meanwhile, Mary does her part for the war effort as an ambulance driver.

The love “quadrangle” is central to the melodramatic plot of the film.  But there’s also quite a bit of humor.  El Brendel plays a character named Herman Schwimpf who consistently is challenged on his German name and thus demonstrates his over-the-top pugnacity for the American war effort (but then he disappears about half through, so I guess they ran out of gags for him).  In an extended scenes in Paris, Jack gets intoxicated on leave and comically goes on about the bubbles in champagne (which are animated on the screen) while Mary attempts to get him to his room to sleep.  But really, this movie is about airplanes flying and shooting and one another, and the scenes of aerial combat are really quite remarkable over 90 years later.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Battleship Potemkin (1925)


Title: Battleship Potemkin
Release Date: December 21, 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

This classic Soviet propaganda film dramatizes events of the Russian uprising of 1905, which the filmmaker Eisenstein saw as a prelude to the successful October Revolution of 1917.  The film depicts sailors aboard the Potemkin returning after the Russo-Japanese War and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the officers.

When some of the sailors refuse to eat maggot-infested meat, the tyrannical captain sentences them to death for insubordination.  But a revolutionary sailor inspires the firing squad to lower their rifles, and the sailors stage a mutiny instead.  Grigory Vakulinchuk, the Bolshevik sailor, dies in the uprising and when his body is brought to Odessa, thousands of civilians pay their respects. The people join in the revolution, but it is quickly repressed by a detachment of Cossacks who massacre them on the city’s giant stairway.  The sailors escape on the Potemkin as Tsarist ships refuse to fire on them.

The movie impresses with its innovative film-making techniques, most notably editing between long and close-up shots, and creating connections among a sequence of shots.  The most famous sequence is when the Cossacks fire upon the people on the Odessa Steps, which depicts brutal violence and cuts between the precision of the soldiers and the faces of their victims on a seemingly endless set of steps.

This is definitely a movie worth watching for its technical brilliance and its role in film history.  That being said, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, not just due to the violence but the almost complete lack of characterization of the people depicted.  They are merely cogs in a propaganda machine with no opportunity to empathize with them as individuals.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Kindred
Narrator: Kim Staunton
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 1998 [Originally published in 1979]
Summary/Review:

I’ve only recently become aware of the late science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose contributions to the genre have likely been overlooked due to her being an African American woman.  This novel, starting in the bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Dana, an African American writer repeatedly torn from her own time in California and sent to antebellum Maryland plantation.  There she has to save the life of a boy, and later a man, named Rufus, the heir of the plantation owner.  Early on, Dana discovers that Rufus is her own ancestor, so her existence depends on his survival.

This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery – beatings, selling off family members, and rape.  But it get’s even more uncomfortable in how on Dana’s increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus.  Dana’s devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.

Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future.  Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana.  Nevertheless, Dana’s knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.

This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old.  Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole


Author: Alyssa Cole
Title
: An Extraordinary Union
Publication Info: New York, NY : Kensington Books, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Set in the early days of the American Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, this historical romance tells the story of two spies for the Union working undercover behind enemy lines. Ellen Burns is a freed woman with a photographic memory who disguises herself as a mute slave and is hired out to the estate of a Confederate Senator. Malcolm McCall, a Scottish immigrant, works as a detective for the Pinkertons and poses as a Confederate soldier.  Together they uncover a Confederate plot to build an ironclad ship that could break the blockade of Southern ports.

Upon meeting and discovering that they’re working on the same side, the pair find a mutual attraction.  Malcolm is more overt in trying to act on that attraction, getting quite rude and handsy, which makes this book uncomfortable.  I appreciate that the author clearly will not let Malcolm coast as a “noble abolitionist” but calls out the power and privilege he has as a white man and how that is a threat to Ellen even when he has good intentions.  Both characters are well developed and interesting people.  Even a major antagonist, a loathsome Southern Belle named Susie McCaffrey, turns out to be more complex than she initially appears.

Of course, Ellen and Malcolm have lots and lots of sex, which I find awkwardly worded, but that may be just me.  Nevertheless, this is a well-written and engaging novel touching upon mystery, adventure, history, and social change.

Favorite Passages:

“Malcolm’s mind got muddled with anger thinking of how, in these lands, institutionalized sin was seen as a way of life that needed defending.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
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Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand


Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up.  This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.

So far, similar to reality, but sillier.  In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal.  Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne.  Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality.  The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides.  The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.

Recommended booksThe Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Rating: ****

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


AuthorAnthony Doerr
TitleAll the Light We Cannot See
Narrator: Zach Appelman
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in World War II and the years immediately preceding the war focus on the parallel lives of two individuals.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who loses her vision as a child, evacuates from Paris to her shell-shocked uncle’s house in Saint-Malo once the war begins.  Werner Pfennig is a German orphan in the country’s mining region who learns to repair radios and whose talent with circuitry earns him a spot in an elite but draconian Nazi training school.

Marie-Laure eventually ends up helping her uncle broadcast messages to the French Resistance using a secret transmitter, while Werner ends up working in a military unit that tracks  illegal radio transmissions and shuts them down.  Their paths are obviously set to converge from the earliest pages of the book, and when they do it is a wonderful and unexpected encounter.  There’s also a story about a precious gem intertwined with their stories, but it seems a bit of a macguffin to me.

This is a wonderful novel that illustrates very personal stories of war, and especially the effect of war on limiting the options of children and forcing them to make choices they’d not otherwise be ready to make.  The characters, even the minor characters, are very well-developed and I enjoyed spending time with them.  It’s a beautiful book and likely to make one cry a little bit.

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Rating: ****

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
TitleThe Buried Giant
Narrator: David Horovitch
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)

Previously read by the same authorA Pale View of HillsAn Artist of the Floating World, and  The Remains of the Day 
Summary/Review:

I went through a phase in the 1990s when I read every Kazuo Ishiguro book up to that point. Since then, I’ve completely failed to read any of his new books as they were released.  I decide to make up for that by reading his most recent novel.  While his earlier works are set in the 20th century and have first-person narrators reflecting on their interior lives, and the melancholy of everyday life, this novel is quite different.  The Buried Giant is set in England at a time after the Saxon invasion when the Britons and Saxons are living side-by-side in an uneasy peace.  The novel focuses on an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who have low social status in their community and are suffering from a forgetfulness that’s plaguing the land.  They decide to visit a son that they vaguely recall living in another community, and as they set off on their journey, the seemingly historical fiction begins to take on elements of fantasy.  King Arthur lived and reigned in recent memory and the meet his aged nephew Sir Gawain as well as a Saxon warrior Wistan, and a boy named Edwin who is feared to have been bitten by an ogre.  Others encountered on their journey are a mysterious ferryman, duplicitous monks, and the she-dragon Querig who is responsible for the mist that is causing the forgetfulness. As memories returns, the characters begin to question if they want to remember as forgetting has helped them heal and put aside guilt.  It’s a deeply meditative and atmospheric book that works as a fantasy story and a highly symbolic parable.

Recommended booksThe Sword in the Stone by T. H. White, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Rating: ***1/2