Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to look back through my blogged book reviews and pick the winners. In 2014 I didn't read much non-fiction, which is unusual for me, and I read a lot more SF, which is very unusual; in fact, Annihilation, an SF novel by Jeff Vandermeer, would have have been on this list but it's the first part of a trilogy so it will have to wait for 2015. As usual, just click on the titles to go to my original reviews.

The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The main character in this novel about scientific discovery and the exploitation of the Third World starts out as an ass and ends up a monster. That the author holds our fascinated attention with this horrible person is amazing, as is her prose and the twists and turns of the plot. Not for the faint of heart.

The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

McKinty, a fine writer of hardboiled Celtic Noir crime fiction, makes a detour into historical mystery fiction with this tale of a cult of German sun worshipers in New Guinea. The story, as bizarre as it seems, is based on a real crime, and McKinty uses it as a framework for looking at the birth of alternative lifestyles (kooks and cranks division) in the early 1900s. Excellent wrting that comes in a very small package by the standards of historical fiction.

Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Easily the best novel about totalitarianism and World War Two I've ever read. A Berlin couple mount a small-scale and futile propaganda war against Hitler in 1941, and the novel charts their pursuit and capture by the Gestapo. There's a large cast of characters, almost all of whom meet sticky ends, and despite the unrelenting grimness of the story, Fallada is such an energetic, entertaining writer it becomes hard to put the book down. It's also published under the title Every Man Dies Alone.

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) by Max Blumenthal

In the aftermath of Israel's recent assault on Gaza, this journalistic look at Israel's headlong rush towards becoming a fascist apartheid state provides an insight into why Palestinian lives are held so cheaply by Israel. This isn't a picture of Israel that's usually allowed into the mainstream media, and that makes it essential reading.

The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) by Sujit Saraf

Daku was a famous bandit who terrorized the United Provinces of India in the 1920s. This novel brings that period to vivid life, but also examines the pernicious caste system that produced a bandit like Daku. Saraf is one of those great writers you've never heard of, and it'll take some work to find this novel--I had to order it from a used bookstore in New Delhi.

The Great Night (2011) by Chris Adrian

The fantasy genre is full of mashups, and this might be the most well-mashed I've come across. It's Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream plopped down in contemporary San Francisco, and it works because Adrian handles the fantasy elements masterfully while at the same time writing a deadly serious novel about the high cost of love. Be warned: these fairies are dangerous to be around, and the novel begins with a devastating description of a child's illness.

My Home is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

To Kill a Mockingbird is rightly proclaimed as the Great American coming-of-age novel, but I'd place this novel a very, very close second. Powell was a literary star of post-war New York City, and this is her lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in small town Ohio. Where Harper Lee's novel is warm and sentimental in its depiction of family life, Powell is brutal in describing the dysfunctional Willard family. A nice touch is that Powell didn't bother to change the name of her actual wicked stepmother when it came time to write the fictional version. Take that, stepmom.

Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

A great, existential novel that follows a thuggish personality from orphanage to street hustler to prison and finally to a ramshackle kind of redemption. It's easy to see the connections between this novel and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, including the fact that both novels go off the rails in the last act. Hard Rain Falling is so powerful and sharply written that despite its tire fire finale it still manages to make this list. The opening chapter by itself is a master class in tough, efficient, hardboiled prose.

The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

High-ranking officers in the US Army were being encouraged to read this book during the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to see why. Larteguy was a war correspondent and soldier who had first-hand experience of France's conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. His novel is both a paean to the martial spirit, but also a savage and comprehensive look at why colonial powers are foiled by guerilla armies. It's a sprawling, exuberant novel that's comparable to Zola's La Debacle; in fact, this is probably the novel Zola would have written if he were alive in 1960.

The Son (2013) by Philipp Meyer

I've saved the best for last. This saga covering the lives of the McCullough family of Texas from the 1840s to the present day is a ripping yarn and a serious meditation on the central role of violence in American history. Meyer paints a big canvas with ferocious energy, and is unflinching in showing the worst in his American and Native American characters. Not quite the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Film Review: Daughters of Darkness (1971)

If you're a horror film aficionado, Daughters of Darkness is one of the seminal films of the 1970s. I'd always been vaguely aware of it, but never made a point of seeing until I saw it featured in a 3-part documentary series on horror films done by Mark Gatiss, the co-creator and co-writer of Sherlock.

It's a contemporary vampire film about a young, attractive couple, Stefan and Valerie, who fetch up in a grand, Victorian-era beachfront hotel in Ostend, Belgium. They seem to be the only occupants of the hotel until a Countess Bathory appears with a beautiful female companion in tow. Bathory, played with languid elegance by Delphine Seyrig, is a centuries-old vampire, albeit one who seems as interested in haute couture as much as hemoglobin. The newlywed couple are supposed to be taking a ferry to England, but Bathory and her companion, Ilona, encourage the pair to stay, and it becomes clear that the Countess has her eye on Valerie as a possible replacement for Ilona. The plot has few surprises, and things end with Bathory reborn in Valerie's body.

Viewed from 2014, Daughters earns marks for moody cinematography (particularly its use of colour), nice costumes, and its creation of a suffocating atmosphere. But in the final analysis that doesn't come close to balancing out some dreadful acting, ESL dialogue, a sluggish pace, and some jagged plot holes (wait, does Stefan have a gay lover waiting for him in England?). From a 1971 perspective this film had it all: a stylish European look, a sharp break with genre conventions, and, most importantly, lots of nudity and sex, some of it lesbian! Yes, Daughters easily fulfills its early '70s transgression quota. Like so many films from that period that are remembered fondly or have achieved posthumous, as it were, critical regard, they are, at heart, exploitation films that have a patina of art and sophistication. As someone who grew up in that era, let me tell you that the appeal of these films lay entirely with the amount of violence and sex they offered.

What's increasingly forgotten about genre filmmaking in the late '60s and early '70s is that it was all about the R-rating (X for you in the UK). Film companies, especially the B-level ones like Hammer Films or Roger Corman's American International Pictures, but also, on occasion, the Hollywood studios, could make and market films purely on the basis that they offered t & a and/or guns and mayhem, and filmmakers were happy to push the then limits of what was acceptable to show on film. So on the one hand you have a film like Streetfighter (1974) banned in some quarters because it showed Sonny Chiba ripping an enemy's throat out with his bare hand in gory, Technicolor detail, and on the other there was Big Bad Mama (1974), a Bonnie and Clyde ripoff, that's actually about showing fading '60s star Angie Dickinson in the buff.

Filmmaking in the '70s was the culmination of a trend that began about ten years before. Films of the '30s, '40s and 50s were fairly democratic in their approach to audiences. Most Hollywood films were designed to appeal to all genders and ages, and even the B-movies of the '50s would mix in some romance to appeal to women, and nothing they put on the screen was graphic enough to keep kids out of the theatres. The release of Dr. No (1962) marks the beginning of a crucial change in how films were made. Lots of films were now being made to appeal exclusively to male tastes and fantasies. This testosterone-based cinema gained traction throughout the '60s as producers took advantage of relaxed censorship rules to bring in more graphic sex and violence. It was a pleasingly simple formula for them; no matter if the script was ramshackle, the director mostly drunk, and the actors more used to modeling clothes than reading lines, as long as enough blood was splashed around and some breasts were bared, profits were guaranteed.

Testosterone cinema was often good, crazy, dirty fun, but what's often glossed over is how enthusiastically misogynist it was, and Daughters doesn't miss out on this trend. The Valerie character is brutally beaten by her husband in one scene, and that's par for the course in a lot of the films of that era. Whether it was a counter-revolutionary reaction to Women's Liberation, or simply an effort to be transgressive, films of this period were filled with violence against women, particularly scenes of rape. In fact, rape may be the defining image of these types of films; from schlockmeisters like Russ Meyer to auteurs such as Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Stanley Kubrick, rapes and the threat of rape were a recurring theme in dozens of films. Rape was even played for laughs in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and There Was a Crooked Man.

The spate of testosterone films that started in 1962 began to peter out (slowly) with the release of Star Wars and Jaws. The studios suddenly found (or realized once again) that films which appealed to the widest possible demographic produced massive profits. Films aimed at a male audience continued to be made, but their toxic levels of sexism and misogyny began to decline. The game-changing film in this regard was probably Alien, in which a beautiful woman gets to take charge, kick ass, show her smarts, and doesn't have to get naked. It's success made even B-movie producers realize that having a female character doing something, rather than just take her clothes off, made economic sense. Manly films made for manly men are still being made, but largely they've dispensed with the casual and comic brutality against women. The Expendables films, for example, are made for men, but there's nothing anti-feminist about them.

One unfortunate side effect from the testosterone era is that filmmaking and film criticism became entrenched as an all-male activity. The film industry was so relentlessly focused on satisfying male tastes and fantasies it sent a strong message to women that this art form was for men and men only. In the decades since then, women have slowly made inroads into the directing ranks, but film critics for major papers and magazines are still overwhelmingly male. This means that it's male opinions and tastes that largely define what's regarded as notable or worthy in films of the past and, to a large degree, in the here and now. And that brings us back to Mark Gatiss. Like most fanboys of '70s films (and I'm guilty of this as well), he glosses over the fact that this era, as much as it was filled with bold, innovative films, also represented the nadir of how women were depicted in films, both mainstream and otherwise. The occasional artistry of films like Daughters of Darkness shouldn't blind us to the fact that women became the collateral damage in films that were really all about pleasing male tastes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014) by Shlomo Sand

This long-form essay or opinion piece can be added to other recent works by Jewish writers such as Max Blumenthal, Ilan Pappe and Gideon Levy that deconstruct the self-aggrandizing myths spun around the state of Israel by Israeli Zionists and their (mostly) American backers. Shlomo Sand (a history professor at Tel Aviv University) would prefer it if you no longer referred to him as a Jewish writer. With passion and logic, Sand argues that there is no such thing as being Jewish outside of following the Jewish faith. There is no Jewish race, and, he argues further, there isn't even a Jewish culture.

Sand's main point is that unlike followers of other religions, a Jew is regarded as a Jew even if he's an atheist. An atheist whose grandparents were Baptists isn't currently a Baptist who also happens to be an atheist. A secular Jew, however, is still called a Jew even if they and their parents have never followed the Jewish faith. This double standard has been useful to both anti-Semites and Zionists. From medieval pogroms to Nazi death camps, anti-Semites have needed the idea of a distinctive and unique race of people to justify their terror. For Zionists, the alleged uniqueness of the Jews provided a justification for the creation of Israel. Sand shows that both groups created the idea of a Jewish race and culture out of whole cloth.

When it comes to Jewish "culture", Sand shows that those wishing to perpetuate this particular myth usually ignore the fact that those they have defined as being part of Jewish culture are simply part of their respective national cultures. This obsessive labeling of secular, creative minds from Karl Marx to Harold Pinter as somehow being part of a collective Jewish outlook or culture is sheer nonsense. It seems particularly ridiculous when, as Sand points out, the founding Zionist fathers of Israel showed such contempt for the culture and character of Jews from the Arab world, Eastern Europe, or, bizarrely enough, those who had survived the Holocaust. To cite one example, the use of Yiddish, a dialect most people would regard as being inextricably bound up with Jewish culture, was frowned upon, even banned, in Israel until fairly recently. Now that Yiddish is virtually extinct, it 's acquired a nostalgic glamour in Israel.

What this book achieves is make it more plain that Zionism is a cult that clumsily cherry-picks elements from politics, culture, history, and even archaeology, then weaves them into an argument for a regime underpinned by racism and colonialism. As much as Sand may not want to be called Jewish, it's the work of Jewish writers, who can't be be tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism (although some try), that brings insight and honesty to any discussion of Israel.