Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The (First) Wizard of Oz

Any discussion of the modern film industry will invariably end up with a lamentation of its reliance upon remakes and reboots.  Such discussions tend to forget that this is not a new trend in film.  Many classics, like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein and the Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz are themselves remakes.  Courtesy of, I present the oldest surviving film adaptation of the latter, the 1910 silent film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Monday, July 28, 2014

1980: The Covenant by James Michener

The Author:

James Michener (1907-1997) was adopted by a Quaker from Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  He attended Swarthmore college for English and psychology, graduating with honors in 1929.  After a couple years spent abroad, Michener returned to Pennsylvania to teach high school English.  In 1935, he married his first wife, Patti Koon, then earned his Masters and taught briefly at Harvard before becoming an editor for Macmillan Publishers.   

Michener served in the South Pacific during WWII.  His experiences there provided the basis for his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1948 and was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the stage, under the title South Pacific.  In 1948, Michener divorced Koon and married Vange Nord.  Michener appeared in the top 10 annual bestsellers list twice in the 1950s, and fifteen times over the course of his life, taking the top spot four times.  In 1955, he divorced Nord and married Mari Sabusawa.  In 1977, Michener recieved the Presidential Medal of Freedom.   He died of kidney failure in 1997.     

The Book:    

Length: 1238 Pages
Subject/Genre: South Africa/Historical Fiction

The Covenant is the last Michener book on my list, and I honestly don't plan to read any others.  I went into more detail on my problems with Michener's approach to history in my review of Centennial, and it holds true to The Covenant as well.  The Covenant focuses on the history of South Africa, as usual focusing on a few ethnically/religiously/politically different dynasties, each meant to illustrate a particular point of view in an ongoing struggle, in this case the English imperialists, the Dutch/Huguenot immigrants, and the native Africans.  The novel focuses primarily on the late 15th century up to 1979.    

Part of the problem with Michener's style (from my perspective), is that he never seems to know which details are important and which aren't, leading to constant info dumps of relatively little, if any, use.  As a contemporary NY Times review notes: "His personal covenant is not with God, but with the encyclopedia. If, 15,000 years ago, in the African bush, the San used poison arrows, he will describe those arrows and name the source of the poison."  Michener gives us broad strokes for the people and the thought processes of the times, while going into great detail on what type of plates they ate off or how exactly they wore particular items of clothing.  This devotion to minutiae would be better served when constructing characters.  While the broad strokes are fine for providing a layman's history to an audience new to the subject matter, the sheer volume of the books (in terms of word count and epochs described) makes me question the necessity of the reduction.     

While Centennial was the only one of the four Michener novels I read that got a television adaptation, The Covenant has a legacy of its own.  It is the center of what may be very legitimate plagiarism claims by Michener's researcher, Errol Uys.  Michener's biographer, Stephen May (Michener: A Writer's Journey) takes Uys's side.  It seems that Uys wrote numerous pages-long sections of The Covenant, but was refused any credit for it.

Controversy aside, The Covenant is pretty standard Michener fare.  It is structurally and stylistically similar to his other novels, just about South Africa this time.  

Bestselling novels of 1980:

1. The Covenant by James Michener
2. The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
3. Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon
4. Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz
5. Firestarter by Stephen King
6. The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
7. Random Winds by Belva Plain   
8. The Devil's Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
9. The Fifth Horseman by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
10. The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss

Also Published in 1980:     

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole


Leonard, John. "The Covenant." The New York Times 30 June 1981.
Michener, James. The Covenant.1980. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1984. Print.

Monday, July 21, 2014

1979: The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum

The Author:

Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was born in New York City and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After graduation, Ludlum served in the U.S. Marines.  After that, he held a career as a theater producer.  In 1960, he opened his own theater, Playhouse-on-the-Mall, in Paramus, New Jersey.  A decade later, he left the business to pursue a career in writing.  His first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), set the tone for the rest of his ouevre.  It was not long before Ludlum became one of the best-selling authors in the world.  Ludlum published 22 novels before his death, while five were published posthumously.  Of the thirty-six years from 1971 and 2006, only ten did not feature a new book by Robert Ludlum.  The Matarese Circle marks Ludlum's third book on the top ten annual bestsellers list.  Seven more appear on the top ten, yet none other take the number one spot.  

Ludlum's death is itself the focus of controversy and conspiracy.  A few weeks after changing his will to leave his second wife millions of dollars in cash and real estate, Ludlum caught fire in his home. Complications from his burns led to his death.  Ludlum's nephew has since launched an investigation into Ludlum's demise.

The Book:

Length: 601 pages
Subject/Genre: Conspiracy/Spy Thriller

The Matarese Circle centers on two of the world's top spies, America's Brandon Scofield and the Soviet Union's Vasili Taleniekov.  In addition to their bitter professional rivalries, Taleniekov had Scofield's wife killed, and Scofield killed Taleniekov's brother in retaliation.  But, when Taleniekov becomes aware of a threat to the continued survival of both nations, a secret organization composed of important figures from across the world bent on total domination, he and Scofield must put aside their differences and work together to save the world.    

I read several Ludlum novels when in high school, and they all follow the same basic formula, for everything including the title.  The title will start with the word "The" and be followed by a proper noun, either a last name (e.g. Matarese, Bourne, Ambler, Scarlatti) or something mythological (e.g. Icarus, Gemini, Apocalypse).  This will be followed by a non-object noun (e.g. Circle, Ultimatum, Identity, Covenant, etc.).  Of the twenty-four novels he published under his own name, only 1992's The Road to Omaha doesn't follow this naming structure.  

The novels themselves also follow the same general plot.  A man is in some way connected to an intelligence agency.  Said man is frequently, but not always, too old for this shit.  He discovers or is made aware of a secret cadre bent on some form of world domination.  With the help of  a beautiful woman who possesses some skill or background necessary to his success, the man manages to thwart the evil plot (winning the girl in the process, of course).  Ludlum doesn't break the mold at all in this novel, so you get exactly what you'd expect: a fun page-turner that really doesn't reward close reading.  

Ludlum is a popcorn novelist, plain and simple.  His plots are contrived at best, character motivations often don't hold up under close scrutiny.  The Matarese Circle, in particular, has some pacing problems.  Most of the first two hundred pages focuses on the main characters figuring out things the reader already knows, and the information about the conspiracy comes in spurts.  You'll get twenty pages of Scofield moping, twenty of things blowing up, then an info dump.    

It's interesting to compare and contrast Ludlum with le Carré.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is by an actual MI-6 agent and deals with the moral bankruptcy and disillusionment of the Cold War from the perspective of someone who was honestly disillusioned by the Cold War.  The Materese Circle deals with the disillusionment in the way an action movie Hollywood studio executive would deal with it.  Scofield and Taleniekov have to deal with disillusionment and betrayal, but Ludlum trades depth for frequency.  It's just something for Scofield to dote on between the gunfights.  

The Matarese Circle itself is not a cultural touchstone and doesn't has already been lost to the realm of forgotten pop culture (although IMDB shows a film version in development).  However, like Zane Gray, Ludlum's influence is based on his entire oeuvre more than any particular work.  For one, Ludlum is one of the first trademarked dead authors.  While Fleming's Bond series still lives on through licensed sequels, the sheer number of Ludlum sequels since his death is impressive.  Since 2000, there have been twenty-three books marketed as "Robert Ludlum's..." where Ludlum's name is often bigger than the title.

While Tom Clancy has his own 'apostrophe series',  this is becoming more of a trend.  There are now four Sidney Sheldon apostrophe novels.  And of course we have to mention James Patterson, whose name has been on the cover of over one hundred novels since 1995.  The bestsellers list has been getting more and more homogeneous.  Looking at the annual top ten list for the 1910s, 52 different authors show up across the decade.  Looking at the 1970s, 59 different names show up.  Looking at 2000-2009, if we count things like "James Patterson with ____" as James Patterson, there are only 33 different authors over the 100 available slots.
I realize I've gone a bit off topic, but this is the point where the bestseller lists really starts to shift from the Michener/Uris/Hailey infotainment trifecta to the formulaic airport novel.  

Anyway, as far as The Matarese Circle goes, if you're looking for entertainment and nothing else, this will do just fine.

Bestsellers of 1979:

1. The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
2. Sophie's Choice by William Styron
3. Overload by Arthur Hailey
4. Memories of Another Day by Harold Robbins
5. Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
6. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
7. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
8. The Establishment by Howard Fast
9. The Third World War: August 1985 by John Hackett
10. Smiley's People by John le Carré

Also published in 1979:

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
if on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Monday, July 14, 2014

1978: Chesapeake by James Michener

The Author: 

This is the third book by James Michener (1907-1997) to appear on my list.  He has four different books on the list, a total matched only by Stephen King and surpassed only by John Grisham.  As such, I hope you'll forgive me for copy/pasting most of the author bio from my review of The Source and Centennial.

James Michener (1907-1997) was adopted by a Quaker from Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  He attended Swarthmore college for English and psychology, graduating with honors in 1929.  After a couple years spent abroad, Michener returned to Pennsylvania to teach high school English.  In 1935, he married his first wife, Patti Koon, then earned his Masters and taught briefly at Harvard before becoming an editor for Macmillan Publishers.   

Michener served in the South Pacific during WWII.  His experiences there provided the basis for his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1948 and was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the stage, under the title South Pacific.  In 1948, Michener divorced Koon and married Vange Nord.  Michener appeared in the top 10 annual bestsellers list twice in the 1950s, and fifteen times over the course of his life, taking the top spot four times.  In 1955, he divorced Nord and married Mari Sabusawa.  In 1977, Michener recieved the Presidential Medal of Freedom.   He died of kidney failure in 1997.     

The Book:

Length: 865 Pages
Subject/Genre: Chesapeake Bay Region/Historical Fiction

Chesapeake is, as the name suggests, a history of the Chesapeake Bay region.  The novel begins in 1583, focused on Native American inter-tribal relationships and history, followed by the arrival of Europeans and the foundation of Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay Colony, the slave trade, the Civil War and Reconstruction, up through to the 1970s.       

As opposed to Michener's other works, Chesapeake is very focused.  Where as The Source covered several thousands of years of history and Centennial  spent a hundred pages explaining early earth geology and detailing the lives of prehistoric river mammals, Chesapeake's focus wavers less, leading to a whole that is more cohesive than the others I've previously reviewed.  Chesapeake's focuses on the usual suspects of American historical fiction, religion, race, class, and discrimination, e.g. the Quaker, pro-abolition family set at odds with the wealthy slave-owning family.

Michener's modus operandi seems to be a wide-scope of an area's history, leading up to current social or political situations.  The Source leads to violence in the Middle East, Centennial to the modern Midwest, Chesapeake to the the modern South and Civil Rights movements, and The Covenant to apartheid era South Africa.  Michener attempts to draw a step by step diagram of how things got the way they are.  Such a diagram is going to be, at best, oversimplified. While his aim is admirable, compressing four hundred years of history into a single novel (even a long one) is going to require things to be painted in very broad strokes. Michener realizes this (as demonstrated by the notes at the chapter ends in Centennial), but the novel form is not greatly suited for this type of endeavor.  Michener tries to explain history from the perspective of those living it, and not just the heads of state or generals, but from the perspective of the average man.  However, the men and women in his novels are by no means average.  They must embody some particular archetype: the slave owner or the abolitionist.  Too much, the social forces of the time are embodied too literally, and everything seems teleological, as if it had to happen this way, a view that is true only in retrospect.  

I don't mean to imply that Michener is factually incorrect, or that he plays fast and loose with the facts.  Michener's novels are, if nothing else, well-researched.  Rather, it's his approach to history as a series of inevitabilities, a habit of viewing past events and decisions through the lens of their long-term results.  

That said, if you like long historical fiction, Chesapeake is for you.

Bestselling Novels of 1978:

1. Chesapeake by James Michener
2. War and Remembrance  by Herman Wouk
3. Fools Die by Mario Puzo
4. Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon
5. Scruples by Judith Krantz
6. Evergreen by Belva Plain
7. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach
8. The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludlum
9. Second Generation by Howard Fast
10. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Also Published in 1978:

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
The World According to Garp by John Irving
The Stand by Stephen King
Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, Jr. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Cast of the Hobbit Reads The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins

On Monday, I included a video of Leonard Nimoy's performance of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.  As it so happens, this little nugget of madness was given a dramatic reading by the film cast of The Hobbit, proving, if nothing else, that Benedict Cumberbatch can do a spot-on Ian McKellan impersonation.

Monday, July 7, 2014

1977: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Author:

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was born in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State (later a province of South Africa) where his father worked as a banker. At the age of three John Ronald Reuel Tolkein, his mother Mabel and his younger brother Hilary moved to England.  His father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa, leaving his family destitute. The Tolkiens lived by the aid of Mabel's family.  However, Mabel's family cut off financial support after she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1900.  In 1904, Mabel died of diabetes.  Guardianship of the twelve year old Tolkien and his brother was given to Father Francis Xavier Morgan of Birmingham.

In 1911, Tolkien began attending Oxford college, graduating with honors in English Language and Literature in 1915. In 1913, after a five year, interrupted courtship, Tolkien and Edith Bratt became engaged.  The two married in March 1916, a few months before Tolkien shipped out for service in World War One.  He was sent back to England in October of that year after contracting trench fever.  While recovering in England, Tolkien began work on The Book of Lost Tales.  After the war, Tolkien worked compiling the Oxford English Dictionary, then was a professor at the University of Leeds where he worked on translations as well as teaching.  In 1925, he began teaching at Oxford University, where he taught until his retirement in 1959.  In 1936, Tolkien published The Hobbit, which sold well enough for his publishers to request a sequel.  This wish was fulfilled by The Lord of the Rings, the three volumes published in 1954 and 1955.  The books ended up becoming popular enough to allow Tolkien and his wife to retire in comfort.

In 1972, the queen appointed Tolkien a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was given an honorary doctorate from Oxford.

The Book:

1st edition cover

Length: 458 pages
Subject/Genre: Middle Earth/Fantasy

The Silmarillion was the first of Tolkien's works about Middle Earth to be published since The Lord of the Rings.  Published after his death, The Silmarillion was edited by J.R.R.'s son, Christopher.  The Silmarillion is a history of Middle Earth, comprised of legend, folklore, and 'official' histories.  It starts with the creation of the Earth (one that is very Judeo-Christian inspired), and the creation of the elves, dwarves, men, and other great and terrible creatures that roamed Middle Earth.  

Before I speak more about the content of The Silmarillion, I should point out the oddity of it being the single bestselling novel of the year.  The Silmarillion is a very dense, frequently dry book that I can only see as being of interest to those who are already fans of The Lord of the Rings.  While some sci-fi and horror are on the list in the coming decades, this is the only fantasy novel that made it, and it's not a very accessible novel at that.  Add to that that it was published more than two decades after the books that made it popular, The Silmarillion would seem to have a lot going against it.  However, in the sixties and seventies, Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings received massive popularity within the U.S. counter culture.  Between the publication of TLOR and The Silmarillion, bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Genesis, wrote songs explicitly and allusively about Middle Earth, and that's ignoring the bands that have since faded into obscurity, or details like T. Rex's drummer changing his name to Stephen Peregrin Took and whatever the hell this thing Leonard Nimoy made is:

All this is a way of saying that Middle Earth had gone from cult status to cultural trend, leading to bestseller status of this week's subject.   While those who have read The Lord of the Rings know that it's full of names, dates, geography, history, and myth, in terms of density it falls far short of The Silmarillion.  Of the novels 458 pages, over 15% comprise glossaries, family trees, and indices.  In fact, the Index of Names alone takes up 54 pages.  The fact is, Tolkien wrote a history book; Its main function is to deliver information, fictional though it may be.   And so we get the thousands of years of the history of Middle Earth preceding the events of The Hobbit, which tells of the evil Melkor, the creation of the elvish kingdoms, the rise of Suaron and the arrival of men in Middle Earth. If you haven't read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I can't recommend The Silmarillion.  If you have, and have a strong desire to know more about the world it takes place in, then this is a great place to start. Bestselling novels of 1977: 1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien 2. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough 3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach 4. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré 5. Oliver's Story by Erich Segal 6. Dreams Die First by Harold Robbins 7. Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw 8. How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong 9. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin 10. Daniel Martin by John Fowles Also Published in 1977: The Public Burning by Robert Coover A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick The Shining by Stephen King Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison Sources: Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. 1977. New York: Ballantine, 1984. Print.