Best. Movie. Year. Ever. (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever.  How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery (2019).  Journalist Raftery proposes that 1999 was “the most unruly, influential, and unrepentantly enjoyable film year of all time.”  His book takes a chronological approach, marching through the year’s biggest or most influential releases, telling us how they got made and what kind of impact they had, both at the time and in the long run.  I guess he makes a pretty good case.  1999 was the year of The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix, Star Wars Episode I, Election, American Pie, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich, among the roughly 30 films I see identified in the table of contents.  The book was interesting enough, and it did make me want to rewatch a couple of the films and see a couple more that I’ve never seen.  But I think I would have preferred a book of straight-up movie reviews.

Love and War in the Apennines (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Love and War in the Apennines, by Eric Newby (1971).  First, a word about how I came to discover this book.  In the course of internet surfing, I came across a website for Slightly Foxed, an independent British quarterly devoted to books, especially books that have been forgotten and fallen out of print.  Additionally, Slightly Foxed republishes worthy books that have fallen out of print.  Curious, I subscribed to the journal and for good measure ordered a few of its reprints.  Love and War in the Apennines is the first one I’ve read, and it is pretty good.  It’s a memoir in which Newby tells part of the story of his experiences as a young British soldier during World War II.  In August 1942, he was part of a woefully underpowered band of soldiers sent to knock out a Nazi base in Sicily.  The mission flopped, and the Italians took Newby prisoner and shipped him off to mainland Italy.  Most of the book is about what it was like to be a prisoner of war and then a fugitive hiding in the Apennine Mountains after the Italian government collapsed in September 1943, all the POWs escaped, and the Germans took over.  Also, shortly before his escape, Newby met and fell in love with a Slovenian woman living in Italy; thus, the title.  It’s a good read, and very impressive to a not-very-courageous couch potato like me.  Newby wrote another memoir about his life after the war called Something Wholesale, and I look forward to reading it someday.

Back to Blood (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (2012).  This was Wolfe’s last novel, and I liked it better than his penultimate effort (I Am Charlotte Simmons) but probably not as much as A Man in Full, and certainly not as much as his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities.  This is mainly the story of Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban cop on the Miami police force who finds himself at the center of large, significant events three times in the course of the story.  I found him a little hard to empathize with (because he’s kind of a self-pitying sap), but he does give us a window into various aspects of Miami’s unique culture(s).  We also spend quite a bit of time with his ex-girlfriend Magdalena, who dumps him for her boss, a sex-addiction-treating psychiatrist who likes to appear on TV.  We see some of Miami’s upper crust through her escapades and through her eyes.  The tale, which also involves Russian oligarchs and art forgery, seems a bit implausible, and it’s a smidge over 700 pages long.  But Wolfe’s writing is pretty entertaining, and I enjoyed the book enough to finish it.

1776 (book review)

Happy Leap Day from The Movie Snob!

1776, by David McCullough (2005).  I think this the first book that I’ve read by the prolific McCullough.  I must have found it on sale somewhere, because I’m not a big Revolutionary War buff.  (Quick, in what year did the British surrender at Yorktown?  1781.  Thanks, Wikipedia!)  Anyway, this is a brisk and engaging tale of George Washington’s Continental Army in 1776.  (I got the impression that some significant events were happening down in the Carolinas, but we don’t hear about them.)  It was pretty much all news to me.  First, Washington’s army drove the British out of Boston.  Then he moved his army to New York, where the British soundly defeated him.  They chased Washington’s ragtag army into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania.  All might have been lost, but for Washington’s inspired sneak attack on Trenton, followed by another successfully sally at Princeton.  I was surprised to see how inept a commander Washington was in the early going of the war, but apparently he always learned from his mistakes.  The book is good, but it could have been MUCH improved by a few battlefield maps to show us exactly what was going on at each of the critical points.

Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (book review)

New book review from The Movie Snob.

Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal).  I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture.  This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did.  The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later.  As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me.  Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.

Memoirs of Hadrian (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951).  I learned of the existence of this novel from Joseph Epstein’s The Ideal of Culture, and it did not disappoint.  It is a fictional memoir of the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117 to 138) in the form of a long letter to his adopted grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius.  Hadrian’s death is near, and he sums up his life and tries to offer some advice to his successor.  I get the impression a ton of historical research went into this work, so I assume it sticks pretty closely to the facts as we know them.  I really liked it, but then I’m a sucker for the swords-and-sandals genre.  So your mileage may vary.

From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob

From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, by Sohrab Ahmari (2019).  The subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about this book.  It’s an autobiographical conversion story.  That may not be your cup of tea.  But if you give it a chance, I think you’ll find it interesting, because Ahmari is a good writer and has an interesting background.  He was born in Iran, and his childhood years there coincided with the early years of the Khomeini regime.  Then his mother moved to America (Utah!) and took young Sohrab with her.  His stories about growing up in America and trying out various left-wing ideologies are interesting.  At 207 pages, it’s a quick read.  I would have liked to learn more about Ahmari’s wife and what she thought of his becoming Catholic less than three years after they got hitched.

The Ideal of Culture: Essays (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Ideal of Culture: Essays, by Joseph Epstein (2018).  More great essays by the great essayist.  I have sung his praises before, and you can read some of them here, here, and here.  The down side of this volume, if it has one, is that Epstein includes several essays about lesser-known masterpieces of literature, and he’s such a good salesman that I ordered two of them online before even finishing this book.

Longbourn (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker (2013).  In the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is the name of the estate where the Bennets—the family at the center of the story—live.  Longbourn is a novel about the servants of those very same Bennets, before, during, and after the events of Pride and Prejudice.  I liked it well enough.  The main character is Sarah, a young servant whom the Bennets took in after she was orphaned as a child.  Two interesting men come into her life at the same time—a new servant working down at the Bingleys’ house and a mysterious stranger the Bennets take on as a footman.  It’s kind of fun to watch little snippets of Pride and Prejudice take place in the background, and to see the Bennets from a different (and not very flattering) angle.

The Sparrow (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk?  That’s what The Sparrow is.  In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system.  Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world.  The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous.  Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee.  But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention.  Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….

Brave New World (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932).  I read this classic dystopian novel a long time ago and was inspired to re-read it by an episode of the National Review podcast called “The Great Books.”  It is a weird story, much weirder than I remembered it.  Huxley set his tale in the distant future and predicted a caste-bound society in which people are created in laboratories and subjected to extensive physical and psychological conditioning so that they will be perfectly adjusted to their eventual caste and status in life, whether the lowly, semi-intelligent worker class or the higher classes who do the finer work in the bio-factories and conditioning centers.  (The caste descriptions are, unfortunately, pretty racist.)  Everyone, save only the tiny group of world-governing Controllers, is kept mindlessly content with a feel-good drug called soma, constant entertainments, and endless recreational sex.  But off in the wilds of New Mexico is a reservation of people who still live the old way, and the action of the tale is sparked when a reservation dweller called the Savage makes his way into modern society and questions everything he sees.  Definitely worth a read.  The volume I got also featured a subsequent Huxley essay called “Brave New World Revisited,” but I found it very tiresome and couldn’t finish it.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (2018).  I saw a glowing review of this new book and promptly ordered it.  It didn’t live up to the hype, but it’s fine.  It’s a slightly oversized book that is full of reproductions of maps, both real maps from long-ago days and modern maps of fantastic places like Oz and Middle Earth.  The illustrations are pretty cool.  The book also contains lots of short essays by “a team of distinguished writers and illustrators” about how wonderful and inspirational maps are.  I found the essays pretty forgettable, although I did like the one about Dungeons & Dragons by Lev Grossman.

Dear Committee Members (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher (2014).  I had a heck of a time getting a copy of this comic novel after reading a good review of it long, long ago.  First I prowled the used bookstores for months and never found it.  Eventually I gave up and ordered it on Amazon.  Doh!  The package never arrived.  More months passed.  I discovered the Amazon locker service and ordered it again.  Finally, I had it!  Amazingly enough, it was worth the wait.  The entire book consists of letters, emails, and the like written by a fellow named Jason Fitger over the course of a year.  He’s an English professor at a second-tier liberal-arts college, and after publishing one very successful novel many years ago he pretty much fizzled out as an author.  He vents his frustration (both professional and personal) in his letters, many of which are letters of recommendation for students.  I laughed out loud more than once at his splenetic utterances.  And I gave it to my sister and then my best friend from college, who are both college professors, and they both liked it.  Highly recommended.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty (book review)

New from The Movie Snob.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty, by Steven D. Smith (2014).  In this slim volume (171 pages, excluding endnotes), Smith sets out to correct what he views as the misleading conventional wisdom about the meaning of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment.  (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”)  He argues that the Framers did not intend the Clause to usher in a strictly secular state but rather to establish that the national government had no jurisdiction to mess with state establishments of religion or to infringe on people’s rights to worship as they chose.  And he argues that the Supreme Court’s current incoherent religion jurisprudence is a result of straying from those original (limited) purposes.  I thought it was an interesting, if dense, book, but it seems to underplay the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment and especially the Equal Protection Clause.  Before the Civil War, yes, the states could have an established church or show favoritism to a religion (or religion in general).  But once states had to give everyone the “equal protection of laws,” what did that mean for religious favoritism?

The Tiger’s Wife (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (2011).  This novel made a decent splash when it came out.  Unfortunately, I read it during a rather turbulent time in my life, so I couldn’t pay it as much attention as I usually do the books I read.  Still, I liked it well enough.  The first-person narrator is a young female doctor in an unnamed Balkan country in the aftermath of the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia.  Although some of the novel is set in the present day, a lot of it consists of stories about the narrator’s grandfather, also a doctor.  Some are stories about his childhood and others are about his adult life, particularly his several encounters with a mysterious figure called The Deathless Man.  The superstitions of the Balkan villagers are well and interestingly portrayed.  Definitely worth a read.

Down the Great Unknown (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon, by Edward Dolnick (2001).  I think my sister gave me this book as a reminder of a vacation we took in Utah some years ago.  If memory serves, she and her friend Jane and I were blowing through the tiny town of Green River when we decided to stop at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum.  I, at least, knew nothing about Powell or his crazy expeditions to float down the Green and Colorado Rivers back in 1869 and 1871.  And I think we were a little punch-drunk from long days of driving, because we pretty much laughed our way through the museum without learning much.  Anyway, this book tells you everything you’d want to know about the 1869 expedition (the 1871 expedition gets only a brief mention).  Powell was an interesting character—a one-armed veteran of the Civil War and an amateur geologist.  Dolnick’s prose is generally fine, but he loves metaphors and sprinkles them liberally on almost every page.  A favorite:  “The river holds the boat in place [against a rock] with overwhelming force, like a sumo wrestler smothering a kitten. . . .  A kitten might claw or bite a wrestler and sneak away in the ensuing confusion, but a river never ‘shifts its weight.’”  And at only 292 pages, it’s just the right length.

Lila (book review)

A new book review by The Movie Snob.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014).  This beautiful novel is the story of a character who appeared around the edges of Robinson’s last two novels, Gilead and Home.  Lila was born into impoverished and probably dire circumstances back in the early twentieth century.  We don’t know much about those circumstances because when she was very young (but just old enough to remember) she was stolen (rescued?) by a vagabond woman called Doll.  She grows up on the road with Doll, wandering around with other migrants and suffering through the lean years of the Depression.  We follow Lila’s story until she’s a grown woman, and we leave off shortly before the events of Gilead pick up.  Hers is a lonely and precarious existence, and Robinson convincingly portrays how someone raised in such conditions would think about the world.  It is a really sad book, but I loved it.

Caesar’s Druids (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Caesar’s Druids, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2010).  This densely written and highly academic book surprised me right off the bat in a couple of ways.  First, I had no idea that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were “our richest textual source for ancient Druids.”  I read the Gallic Wars not too long ago, and I barely remember a reference to the Druids.  Second, I didn’t know that “there exists not one vestige of archaeological evidence that can be linked unequivocally to the Druids.”  Thus, aside from Caesar and few scattered references in other ancient writers, we apparently know almost nothing about the Druids.  As a result, this book is full of discussions of ancient tombs and treasures and places and human sacrifices that we do know some things about, plus a bunch of speculation that maybe these things had something to do with Druids.  Or if not, maybe Druids did similar things anyway.  So, it was kind of interesting to learn about some of these ancient stories and archaeological finds, but I don’t guess I learned a lot about the Druids.  And no, contrary to Spinal Tap’s memorable song, the Druids didn’t have anything to do with Stonehenge.

Crossing to Safety (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner (1987).  This one sat on my shelf for a while.  Although the blurb on the back cover told me it is “one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth centuries,” somehow I just wasn’t sold.  Now that I’ve finished it, I’m like . . . meh.  It’s about two married couples who become best friends in their young adulthood and stay friends, more or less, for the rest of their lives.  As a study of marriage and friendship, I suppose it is pretty good, although these folks are much better educated than most and consequently chew on their problems with a lot more eloquence than is the norm.  Personally, I didn’t find their story all that engrossing, but the writing is good.  For the great American novels of the twentieth century, stick with The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men.  And Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Life in a Medieval Castle (book review)

New from The Movie Snob.

Life in a Medieval Castle, by Joseph and Frances Gies (1974).  I was an avid Dungeons & Dragons player back in the day, and at some point since then I heard this book described as a great description of, well, what life was like in medieval castles.  So I when I saw a yellowed old copy at an estate sale recently, I snatched it up.  It was decently interesting, but I wasn’t blown away.  The early going was not so great, as the book seemed to bog down in little stories about all these different English castle owners, and who married whose daughter and who rebelled against whom.  And although there are some photographs, they are generally very dark and of poor quality.  Still, as the book shifted its focus to how people actually lived in and around medieval castles, their customs and traditions, it got pretty good.  And at only 224 pages, it’s not a huge time investment.

A Gentleman in Moscow (book review)

Another book review from the so-called Movie Snob.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (2016).  I enjoyed Towles’s first novel, The Rules of Civility, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit too.  It’s about Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who has returned to Russia from abroad shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution.  In 1922, he gets hauled before a revolutionary tribunal and narrowly escapes execution.  Instead he is sentenced to permanent house arrest—at the fabulous Metropol Hotel where he has been staying.  The novel is the story of what happens to the Count after that.  The writing is always graceful, and the Count is a well-drawn and endlessly amusing character.  I found some parts of the story very moving, but others were maybe a shade too fairy-tale-like.  And I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending.  But on the whole, I very much enjoyed the story and would recommend it to just about anyone.

The Landmark Julius Caesar (book review)

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, translated and edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub (2017).  The complete works and then some – this volume contains not only the ten “books” Caesar wrote about the Gallic Wars and the civil war he fought with Pompey, but also four other books about Caesar’s campaigns that were written by other authors.  The translation is very readable (I’m in no position to judge its accuracy), and the stories are generally quite interesting.  Sure, I occasionally got lost among the many proper names for places, tribes, and people I’d never heard of before, but I didn’t sweat that.  One thing was a hoot – Caesar mentions the two soldiers at the center of the HBO miniseries Rome, by name, for their courage during a particular battle in the Gallic Wars!  They were real people!  Anyway, this edition is a massive chunk of a book because it contains lots of introductions, footnotes, maps, pictures, and appendices.  I read the introductions and lots of the footnotes, and they added a lot to the stories.  If you’re into the swords-and-sandals genre of history, this is a must-have.

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (book review)

From the pen of The Movie Snob.

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis (2013).  This novel has its strong points, but the cover blurb from NPR calling it the first Great American Novel of the 21st century seems way overblown to me.  The book is divided into five major sections, and I thought the first two were the strongest.  In “Book One,” the protagonist is a human-rights lawyer who’s called upon to travel to Haiti and help investigate the murder of an American woman—a woman he briefly knew and was dazzled by a couple of years earlier.  Book Two is a harrowing look at a (different) woman and her young son trying to escape Croatia to safety at the tail end of World War II.  Book Three, which seemed the longest, is about a seventeen-year-old American girl living in Istanbul with her diplomat father.  It was pretty good.  I thought the last two books kind of went off the rails.  Anyway, I thought the writing was strong, but be warned that there’s a lot of sordid stuff in this tale.  And, as I mentioned, I didn’t care for the wrap-up.

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, by David Thomson (2012).  Thomson is a Brit who now lives in America, and he has written many books about movies and movie people.  (Apparently he wrote a biography of Nicole Kidman that I was unaware of until I read Thomson’s dust-cover biography.)  Anyhoo, this is not an encyclopedic reference book on the film industry, but more of a guided tour of the history of film as it looks to Thomson.  He touches briefly on many, many movies, directors, and, less frequently, actors and actresses.  He also dips a little into TV.  He waxes philosophic too often for my taste.  The book was OK on the whole, but I don’t think I’ll be returning to it.

With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays, by Joseph Epstein (1995).  I found this older collection of Epstein’s essays at the old Half-Price Books store, and I enjoyed it like I have all his others.  I particularly enjoyed his essay about how he enjoys classical music without really knowing a whole lot about it, which is pretty much how I feel about it.  The last essay in the collection is a very nice remembrance of and tribute to his mother.  If you haven’t tried him yet, I say give him a try.