Friday, August 26, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins Reviewed

Friday's Forgotten Books, August 26, 2016

 (from the archives)

(Review by Deb)

This is one of Daphne du Maurier’s lesser-known works and, I would venture, one of her hardest to classify.  The novel’s Italian setting and the gothic, somewhat supernatural air might remind readers of her famous short story, “Don’t Look Now,” but the plot and characters couldn’t be more different.  There are extended flashbacks throughout the book and a very strong parallel between a city’s Renaissance past and its mid-1960s present.  I’ve read most of du Maurier’s work and I really can’t find an appropriate comparison between FALCON (published in 1965) and anything else she wrote.

The story concerns two brothers, Fabbio, the narrator, and his older brother, Aldo.  (There is a mild twist involving Aldo fairly early in the book, which I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t read it. However, it is telegraphed rather clumsily, so few will be surprised when it occurs.)  Fabbio is employed as a guide for a company that provides package tours (which were just becoming popular at the time the book was written).  Although he performs his job with professional competence, Fabbio is a rather muted young man, lacking the passion and gusto for living often associated with the cliché of Italian manhood. When he is not working, Fabbio spends much of his time remembering his childhood during World War II in the town of Ruffano where his beautiful mother safeguarded her family by having affairs with first a German and later an American officer.  For many years, Fabbio has stayed away from Ruffano and its memories, but the murder of a former family servant in Rome leads him reluctantly back to his birthplace.

The town of Ruffano (which is entirely the product of du Maurier’s imagination, although it could be based on a number of cities in the alpine areas of Italy) possesses a mountainous geography and Renaissance architecture that make it both hauntingly beautiful and darkly ominous.  Some of the books best passages are du Maurier’s descriptions of the area’s buildings and terrain.  A palace built high in the mountains dominates the town; its highest point is a small balconied room (perhaps at one time a private chapel) which contains a 15th century painting of Christ being tempted by Satan to leap from the balcony and fly over the city.  At one point in Ruffano’s history, a mad Duke, known as the “Falcon,” actually jumped from the tower in an attempt to prove his divine nature. This rather heavy foreshadowing, coupled with the title of the book, will leave few readers guessing what the climax of the story will involve!

Fabbio’s brother, Aldo, a pilot during the war and a much more powerful and vibrant presence than his younger sibling, has established himself as a leader of the university students in Ruffano, gathering around him young people who he leads in a sort of cult of personality.  Aldo’s brand of leadership is looked upon with concern by the town’s authorities who have sharp memories of what happened to Italy during the war under the leadership of another charismatic personality. With the passion (and, some would say, the heedless self-righteousness) of the young, those under Aldo’s direction have formed a secret society that has been known to attack town leaders and people who have opposed their way of seeing things, although nothing can be tied directly back to Aldo. There is concern about an upcoming city-wide celebration and what the secret group might be planning to disrupt the proceedings.  This forthcoming event looms large over the rest of the story.

Once back in Ruffano, Fabbio (or “Beo”—“blessed”—as his childhood nickname would have it) is reunited with his brother.  Although he is supposed to be investigating the murder of the family servant, Fabbio is persuaded to quit his job as a tour guide and work in the university’s library helping to catalogue some very old books.  (For long stretches of the book, the murder that brought Fabbio back to Ruffano seems utterly forgotten.)  The library books, and the centuries-old documents found hidden within their pages, will play a role in the story as the past of the mad “Falcon” and the future of Ruffano (with Aldo as leader?) intertwine.  Aldo’s ease in manipulating his younger brother and Fabbio’s apparent passivity in the face of that manipulation will play out over the course of the novel especially in regards to two female characters:  Signora Butali, a married woman who Fabbio reverently regards as being Madonna-like, but who the reader infers is having an affair with Aldo, and Carla Raspa, a university teacher who is interested in Fabbio, who, in turn, is repulsed by Carla’s more aggressive personality and sexual experience.

The book has an odd subtext: Both homoerotic and homophobic at the same time.  There’s an obvious dominance-submission dynamic between Aldo and Fabbio, starting in their youth; several flashback passages describe the rather strange games the brothers played together—nothing of an actual sexual nature, but with a distinct erotic element.  Fabbio’s excessively uncritical admiration for and obsession with his older brother make it impossible for him to develop a mature relationship with a woman.  And yet, a minor gay character receives short shrift from Fabbio, who expresses disgust at the man’s orientation and lifestyle.  A most peculiar dichotomy—and perhaps indicative of du Maurier’s (and the era’s) own ambivalence toward the subject. It does, however, date the book badly and make it much more of a “time capsule” than many of her other books.

Eventually, the day of the celebration arrives. Various strands of the plot come together and the climax, hinted at throughout the book, takes place.  In some respects, the forces of order and civility triumph, but we’re not sure how Fabbio will eventually come to terms with what has happened.  THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON is not one of du Maurier’s more successful novels:  The foreshadowing is heavy-handed and, despite some beautifully-descriptive passages of the Italian landscape and architecture, I would certainly not recommend it to someone unfamiliar with her work.  However, for someone who has read a number of her better-known works (such as REBECCA, MY COUSIN RACHEL, and THE BIRDS) and wants to read something completely different from the same author, THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON would not be a bad choice, if only to show that even the most talented writer won’t hit one out of the park every time they’re up to bat.

Sergio Angelini, HOUSE OF EVIL, Clayre and Michael Lipman
Yvette Banek, THE EYE OF THE ABYSS, THE IRON HEART, Marshall Browne
Joe Barone, STEWBALL, Peter Bowen. JESUS, INTERRUPTED, Bart D. Ehrman
Les Blatt, MR. CAMPION'S FAULT, Margery Allingham
Michael Carlson, HANDS OF A STRANGER, Robert Daley
Bill Crider, CROSS THE RED CREEK, Harry Whittington 
Martin Edwards, INSOLUBLE, Francis Everton
Richard Horton, STAMBOUL NIGHTS, H.G. Dwight
Jerry House, THE DAY HE DIED, Henry Kuttner and C.I. Moore
George Kelley, DETECTIVES A to Z ed, by McSherry, Greenberg, and Waugh
Margot Kinberg, BIG LITTLE LIES, Liane Moriarity
Rob Kitchin, THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan
B.V. Lawson, TROUBLEMAKER, Joseph Hansen
Steve Lewis/Barry Gardner, ANGELS IN HEAVEN, David M. Pearce
Robert Arthur, editor
J.F. Norris, AS OLD AS CAIN,  M.E. Chaber 
Matt Paust, SOMETHING HAPPENED, Joseph Heller
James Reasoner, MIAMI PURITY, Vicki Hendricks
Richard Robinson, SAMSARA, by John Hamilton Lewis
Kerrie Smith, PLAY DEAD, Angela Marsons
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, HAIL, HAIL, EUPHORIA, Ray Blount, Jr.
TomCat, A CHILD'S GARDEN OF DEATH, Richard Forrest

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Music from THE A WORD (Sundance)

Best Biopics

Frances Foster Jenkins was a pretty terrific biopic. By the end of the film, you understood each character's motivations and you had respect for a woman who could not sing, but did. You knew enough about her life to fill in any gaps.

What are your favorite biopics? What movie got it right?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Forgotten Films: SABRINA

Hepburn and Holden
I guess my forgotten films are never truly forgotten. That would mean digging up some film I probably had little interest in then and now. But SABRINA (directed by Billy Wilder), in a sense, was a revelation, because I had forgotten how witty, weird and wonderful it was. Of course Bogart looks like Hepburn's grandfather, but she was often cast with men much older. And he's not a convincing romantic lead in this. But the film looks so good and there are so many small bits that work. It has a sense of humor-witness the scenes in culinary school in France, and the ones of Bogart's father trying to get the olive out of the jar. And the music is transcendent. As are Heburn's clothes.
You know the plot so I won't go over it. I enjoyed this film immensely and even Phil had to admit it had "something." Certainly vastly superior to the remake with Harrison Ford.

Footnote: During production of the film, Hepburn and Holden (who plays Bogart's playboy brother) entered into a brief, but passionate and much-publicized love affair.Also Bogart wanted Bacall to do the part and was angry during the entire shoot. Thirdly, Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the role, who turned it down. So lots of behind the scenes angst.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday Night Music: From the music THE A WORD (Sundance)

Waitresses on Film and TV

As you might expect, there are a ton of waitresses in film and on TV. Always memorable was the one in FIVE EASY PIECES.In HELL AND HIGH WATER, there are two great ones. On Broadway right now, there is a musical based on the Keri Russell film WAITRESS. MILDRED PIERCE, of course, started as a waitress. I remember male waiters on FRIENDS and FRASIER. But the women seem more memorable.

Who is your favorite waitress? On the screen that is.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Forgotten Books, August 19, 2016

Fool's Gold, Dolores Hitchens

This was one of the books I read in anticipation of a panel in New Orleans. I think it is probably fairly indicative of the type of book found on spinner racks in the forties and fifties. The three main characters are all in school learning a trade. The girl (Karen), leaks the fact, that a man who rents a room in the house where she lives has a big stash of money in his room. One of her friends (Skip) immediately begins planning a theft and his friend, under his influence, agrees to help him. The girl is too gob-smacked over the boy to not go along with this.
Skip is too dumb not to tip his hand to bigger players and loses control of the job. The writing was good enough but I didn't quite believe that any of these kids, that sat behind desks at school in the daytime, and who largely came from decent families, would fall into this so easily. I am thinking this is just not my type of story. But it may be yours. Hitchens wrote many novels and the second I read I liked a lot more.

Sergio Angelini, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, John LeCarre
Les Blatt, MALICE IN WONDERLAND, Nicholas Blake
Brian Busby, GAMBLING WITH FIRE, David Montrose
Bill Crider, THE GOBLIN RESERVATION, Clifford Simak
Martin Edwards, THE SEAT OF THE SCORNFUL, John Dickson Carr
Curt Evans, ACEDIA, THE NOONDAY DEVIL Ursula Curtiss
Richard Horton, THE REBELLIOUS STARS, Isaac Asimov, AN EARTH GONE MAD, Roger Dee
Jerry House, THE BRASS RING, Lewis Padgett
Margot Kinberg, THE DINNER, Herman Koch
Kate Laity, THE DAIN CURSE, Dashiell Hammett
B.V. Lawson, SHE SHALL HAVE MURDER, Delano Ames
Steve Lewis, THE JEWELS THAT GOT AWAY, Gary Matterom
Todd Mason, FANTASTIC STORIES, 1971; Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1971
J.F. Norris, THE WOMAN ON THE ROOF, Helen Nielsen 
Mathew Paust, THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, Jonathan Frantzen
James Reasoner, THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS, Erle Stanley Gardner
Richard Robinson, THE VIRGIN IN THE ICE, Ellis Peters
Gerard Saylor, U.S. WORLD WAR II AMPHIBIOUS TACTICS, Gordon Rottman
Kevin TIpple, THE END OF EVERYTHING, Megan Abbott
TomCat, THE JUDAS CAT, Dorothy Salisbury Davis; WINDS OF EVIL, Arthur Upfield
TracyK, Forgotten Books Not Yet Read

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

(Not) A Funny Movie

We saw a movie on Monday, one we hoped would make us laugh. Sadly it did not. SAUSAGE PARTY was jut too vulgar and repetitive to make us even smile much. Plus it's half-baked try at adding some philosophical meaning rang trite and hollow. Maybe we are just too old to find constant profanity and talk of sex amongst food items humorous. Certainly the rest of the 20-something audience found more to love.

What is the last movie that really made you laugh?