Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #84: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

After having thrilled to See’s novel “Snowflower and the Secret Fan,” I was rather disappointed by her next novel Shanghai Girls. I felt the story was emotionally shallow and at the same time melodramatic, and while the history of Shanghai is interesting, it is stagnant, told through the eyes of two women who never really break from their spoiled past and grow up and see the world as it has evolved.

Now See has penned a sequel to Shanghai Girls, called Dreams of Joy. It is better than its predecessor but still left me somewhat flat and uninvolved. In Shanghai Girls, well-off sisters Pearl and May barely escape the Communist Revolution in China and flee to the U.S. with little more than Joy, the baby May was pregnant with from a prominent artist back in China. They make a life for themselves in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, but it is not tremendously interesting and they are less than appealing as main characters. At the end of the book, things quickly and painfully conclude with a suicide and 18-year-old Joy’s sense of betrayal by her family. She sneaks into Communist China, now undergoing its 1950s Great Leap Forward, determined to hunt down her artist father and to join the ongoing Maoist revolution.

Dreams of Joy begins where Shanghai Girls leaves off, with Pearl returning to the country she had vowed to turn her back on in pursuit of her willful and idealistic daughter. Pearl becomes a much more interesting character in this sequel, while May remains behind in the US and is viewed primarily through her letters and Pearl’s own reminiscences. Joy meets her handsome, romantic, artist father but is blind to the fact that he is being forced to play out a role in order to survive Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She ends up living in a small village, married to a man who is not what he had seemed, and bearing a child just as the villagers begin to starve to death under Mao’s insane dictums. Pearl ends up in Shanghai, sharing her looted family mansion with former servants and squatters and becoming a garbage collector to survive while waiting for Joy to come to her senses. The spoiled Joy, meanwhile, is rapidly shedding her ideals about Maoist China and is forced to grow up in a hurry to keep herself and her baby alive.

While the picture of Communist China that See paints for us is as brutal as one can imagine, her writing has taken on the quality of what I would call “reverse propaganda,” more intent on painting the horrors of the Great Leap Forward than in giving us a more sensitive and profound portrayal as in “Snowflower.” The ending of Dreams of Joy is a little too sweet, a little too neat, a little too Hollywood-ish. Not bad but not great either.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #10: Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat, by Caroline H. Smith

Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat is a gorgeous coffee-table book featuring the “secret artwork” of Dr. Seuss. Theodor (Ted) Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss, called a lot of the work featured in this volume his “midnight paintings.”

The book lays out an informative and frequently humorous biography, tracing his college years at Dartmouth, early days in advertising, his work as an animator for the U.S. Army during WW2, as well as his adventures in publishing. The Cat Behind the Hatalso includes lots of quotes from Dr. Seuss’s books, as well as original sketches and artwork from favorites like The Sneetches, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham, and many more. But the book’s main attraction are the numerous fabulous illustrations, in both black and white and in exuberant color.

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An original sketch for The Cat in the Hat

“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.” — The Cat in the Hat

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Dr. Seuss liked to create 3D versions of his drawings, too – “Flaming Herring”
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“The Manly Art of Self Defense”

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” — The Sneetches

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Detail of “Boy Being Mesmerized by an Ichabod”

The Cat Behind the Hat was originally published in conjunction with the a series of traveling art exhibitions, The Art of Dr. Seuss. These exhibitions are happily ongoing —check the schedule to see when the show will be in a town near you.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #22: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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You may as well tell them where you are, because they’ll find you anyway. They always do.

This 2012 novel by Carol Rifka Brunt deals with the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s, sibling relationships, love and jealousy. The narrator, June Elbus, is 13 when her beloved Uncle Finn dies from AIDS. Finn was a renowned artist and before dying, he painted one last portrait of June and her older sister Greta. Finn and June had had a very close relationship, and she takes his death hard. But what makes it harder is the discovery that Finn had a lover, Toby, whose existence had been kept secret from June. When Toby reaches out to June, she is torn between feeling jealous of him for having a piece of Finn that she never knew and wanting very much to maintain that connection to Finn through Toby. The story then deals with the relationship that develops between June and Toby and the repercussions it has for June’s family.

June’s relationships with Finn, Toby and Greta are at the heart of the story. The two sisters couldn’t be  more different. June is quirky and a bit of a loner. She likes spending time in the woods near her home, imagining that she lives in the Middle Ages, even dressing the part. She doesn’t have any close friends and knows people think she is weird, but she is not bothered by that. Greta, on the other hand, is a talented singer and actress, so smart she skipped a grade. Greta is ready to graduate high school at 16 with acceptance to Dartmouth and the possibility of a part in Annie on Broadway. She and June had been close as younger children but have drifted apart. Greta seems to treat June with derision and contempt, but occasionally shows flashes of her old self, throwing June off balance.

Finn was not just June’s uncle but also her godfather, and he doted on her. Finn aided and abetted June’s love of the Middle Ages, taking her to the Cloisters and buying her boots that June felt were Medieval in look. Although Finn’s final portrait is of both sisters, June feels it was done more for her than for Greta, that this was Finn’s way of getting more time with her before his death. June’s love for Finn is obsessive, and she feels its inappropriateness but struggles not to deal with that head on.

June’s relationship with Toby is complicated. The family, particularly June’s mother, hate him for infecting Finn with AIDS. But June is intrigued by Toby. On one hand, she is jealous of his position in Finn’s life and feels that her experiences with Finn are somehow tainted by his existence and knowledge of June while she was in the dark about him. On the other hand, she knows that she can learn more about Finn and keep him alive by getting to know Toby. Eventually she sees greater value than that in their friendship.

The relationships between characters in this story are fraught with intense love and jealousy. It seems that every character feels in some way cheated out of enough love by some other character, is jealous of what they perceive others having and oblivious to others’ pain and need. And at the center of this love/jealousy vortex are Finn and his painting. Finn is, in artistic terms, the negative space — the missing thing that helps define those around him, and his painting serves as a catalyst for changing the family dynamic within the Elbus household.

The wolf motif throughout the novel is fascinating to me. Why would Finn call his portrait of his nieces “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”? Who are the wolves? Those questions and the fate of the portrait bring about a somewhat sad, somewhat happy ending to the story. I thought this was a brilliantly conceived and executed novel. Although I don’t think it’s classified as YA, it would certainly be an appropriate book to put in the hands of a young adult. The themes would resonate with teens and they’d get an education on the early AIDS epidemic in America.

 

Mrs Smith Reads The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick, #CBR5 Review #9

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Christ at Emmaus, Han van Meegeren, 1937, one of his many “Vermeers”

The True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century

The Forger’s Spell took me a long time to read. It’s one of those books that was interesting to me in its subject matter, but meandered and wandered all over the place, often heading down parallel paths that honestly had nothing to do with the main story.

Edward Dolnick plays out for us the story of Han van Meegeren, a mediocre Dutch painter with a flair for mimicking the styles of more famous artists such as Vermeer and de Hooch. He managed to become fabulously wealthy proffering his work to Dutch museums, wealthy collectors and, famously, fooling both Hitler and Herman Goering into competitively pursuing his Vermeer forgeries during the Nazi occupation of Holland during WWII.

Mrs Smith Reads The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick

lilFed’s #CBR5 Review #7: ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film’ by Michael Weldon

psychotronicWith all due respect to the late Roger Ebert, along with all due ‘not-so-flattering’, but no less valid, criticisms of his work, it is not really a complicated, time-consuming chore to write your average movie review, if you do it all the time. With film critics as prolific as Leonard Maltin and the online Pajiba crew, or EW magazine’s Owen Glieberman (God, I miss Lisa Schwartzbaum!) churning these reviews out regularly, one can surmise that those thick, impressively small-printed film and video review ‘guides’ that Ebert published with such regularity were more or less simply a matter of cutting and pasting the reviews that were already written long ago, with maybe a few embellishments to update the original. And let’s be perfectly honest: most hugely-popular films are so embedded into the public’s consciousness, even people who have never actually seen the movie could write a fairly passable review about it, just from the knowledge gleaned from every other source under the sun – many a high school book report has gotten a passing grade for the writer who knew just how to bullshit properly in a creative writing assignment.

Michael Weldon, on the other hand, was a whole different animal from the standard movie critic, and remains so thirty years on from the publication of ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film’. The back cover summarizes the overall concept of this ‘Encyclopedia’ as well as anything could:

The complete viewer’s guide to the weirdest movies of all time!

‘Psychotronic’ films range from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to ‘E.T.‘.. from ‘Angel’s Wild Women’ and ‘Hellcats of the Navy’ to ‘I Dismember Mama’ and ‘Let Me Die A Woman’.
‘Psychotronic’ stars are ex-models, ex-sport heroes, dead rock idols, future presidents, would-be Marilyns, and has-beens of all types.

Out of the 3,000-plus movies reviewed in this 800-page encyclopedic ‘novel’, as I consumed it, you’ll find iconic mainstream fare like 1958’s ‘The Fly’(“A brilliant, sick, absurd hit based on a ‘Playboy’ short story”), 1975’s ‘Jaws’and 1951’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (with asides such as “The robot Gork was played by Lock Martin, a seven-foot-seven former doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.”)

But there’s also ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’, ‘Gog’, ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Johnny Cool’ and ‘Mesa of Lost Women’. Mr. Weldon, with some assistance from a couple of fellow ‘psychotronic’ film lovers, simply amazes at describing the most obscure and ‘forgotten’ B-films with a knowledge that leaves little doubt of the extent of his research, many of these which he was allowed to watch as a kid growing up in Cleveland movie theaters in the 60’s-70’s, but also “from poring through thousands of outdated ‘fanzines’ and promotion pieces – and, not surprisingly, from countless all-night marathons in front of the TV screen.”

Weldon had spawned a well-regarded ‘newspaper fanzine’, Psychotronic Magazine, also jam-packed with literally 100’s of movie mentions, which started before and continued after this book.

There’s so much more to comment on, but I’m trying to make a bigger point here:

Let’s take an example like ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) – anyone who knows the plot of this movie could give an instant review of it, without ever having seen it, but knowing enough through 20 – 30 years of hearing others talk about it, or seeing bits on their TV while switching channels, or reading a ton of entertainment media mentioning it whether you were searching for it or not.

Now try and b.s. through a review of, say, 1959’s ‘The Manster’. Ever hear of it? Probably not, though it’s been one of the regular late-night b&w ‘horror’ movies on local TV stations across the country for, oh, like forever. But Michael Weldon has seen it, and after providing us with the year, country, studio, director, and screenwriter who made it (as he does with every film), here’s his review:

“The world’s first double-headed monster movie! An American reporter (Larry Stanford) is given an injection by the mad Dr. Suzuki (who keeps his mutant wife in a cage). An eye grows on the reporter’s shoulder! It soon becomes an ugly head that resembles a carved coconut! The extra-headed monster kills people! Then it splits into two beings – man and ape man. Man throws ape man into a volcano! End.”

Michael Weldon has a gift of informing a person as to what a film is about. There is no personal opinion of this film mentioned in its description, unless one wants to assume that the exclamation points would denote a favorable attitude towards it – that, or just sarcasm. But it’s really left up to the individual, isn’t it?

This is but one example of a review in this book, but an underlying theme throughout, aside from some classics like ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, which are universally agreed and written about as such, is that the reviewers here don’t presume to tell you how good or bad a movie is, how much you will like or dislike it, or what its cultural or aesthetic worth is – they are merely described for the potential viewer’s benefit.. This device is what makes this huge, information-packed source so imminently readable, whether it be in certain parts or as a unique whole.

This book was followed up by TPVG in 1996, when most of the movies reviewed in the first book had been resurrected through home video. But the original is timeless, and establishes Michael Weldon as a very rare, but vital film historian who belongs with the greats, in film genres that have yet to be explored as thoroughly as he did 30 years previously. Get it if you can find it.

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #1: Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes

Recently released in paperback by Vintage, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, is the art and culture critic’s last published book. Hughes died in August 2012.

Hughes has always been good at mixing history with an entertaining story, and Romedoesn’t disappoint–but it is a dense read. There is a lot of information in its almost 500-page length. Luckily there are also many color illustrations to aid the reader with unfamiliar artists or architecture.

Rome is undeniably one of the world’s great cities. One can learn of its amazing history, from its Etruscan roots, to its Imperial grandeur and fall, to its Renaissance glory, to its 20th century cool. But there is nothing like actually visiting the city, and being able to experience the collision of all of those eras, sometimes on one street corner, or Roman encounter. Hughes (Shock of the New, Barcelona, Culture of Complaint) tries to capture all of Rome’s glory and contradictions in his rambling, yet entertaining narrative.

Hughes tries to convey, in only the way he does, how he views the city of Rome. “In other places fountains are special events,” he notes, “but in Rome they are simply part of the vernacular of city life; you notice them, you see them as exceptions to the surfaces of stone or brick, but it seems that they are there to be breathed, not just seen.”

Throughout Rome he gives his very personal, mostly chronological history of the city, highlighting the art and people that he deems most important or interesting. Hughes starts off by taking the reader through Rome’s beginnings, the Roman Empire and all of the magnificent art and architecture that resulted from Emperor Augustus and his successors, through the city’s shift to becoming the center of Christianity.

In his chapter on the Renaissance Hughes is truly in his element, focusing on art and architecture. He tackles not only the creation of probably Rome’s most well-known artwork, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but also the more modern controversy around whether they should have been cleaned. He has always stood firmly in the “yes” camp on that issue and reiterates his position here.

Jumping ahead to Rome in the 17th century and its Baroque period of art, Hughes enjoys talking about “bad boy” artist Caravaggio as well as Spanish painter Diego Velasquez. Velasquez only stayed there a year, but Hughes believes he was profoundly influenced by the city and its art.

When he reaches the 20th century Hughes highlights the connection between Mussolini’s fascism and art, reiterating the commonly held view that the political movement’s roots can be found in the poetry of famed Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. As Hughes tells it, only in Italy, only in Rome, could art and politics mix so fully.

He ends his tour of Rome with the cinema of the 1950s and ’60s. Film studio Cinecittà (also with links to Mussolini, who founded the studio to produce propaganda films in 1937) turned the city into a filming destination, both for location and subject, hosting religious epics like Ben Hur, and Quo Vadis. Native efforts with more contemporary themes, especially Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita changed and influenced modern cinema. He enjoys dropping fascinating tidbits such as producer Dino DiLaurentis’s desire to have Paul Newman play the character of Marcello in La Dolce Vita (sacrilege!)

The overall effect of Hughes’ Rome is like the eternal city itself. If you have never been there, whether you are diving in or just sampling, this book will make you want to visit. If you have already been to Rome in the past, Hughes easily and entertainingly reminds you why you need to return.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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