The Hollywood Studios (Ethan Mordden)

41eomozkjfl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Ethan Mordden is an expert on musical theatre, having been a composer and lyricist himself, and that no doubt explains the heavyish emphasis on the musical form in this look back at the golden age of the Hollywood studio system… the book may be a bit elderly itself now, first published in 1988, but then we’re looking back at a world that was long dead when the book came out, that more or less only existed from about the late 1920s to the mid-1950s at best. Not really a beginner’s book, this; it does help if you have some prior familiarity with that era of Hollywood, cos it’s not exactly a straight linear history… as the book’s subtitle suggests, it’s more about the individual studios and their varied styles, with Paramount and MGM getting the lion’s share of the discussion, and Warner’s, Fox, RKO and Universal getting rather less (Columbia is relegated to a chapter also featuring Republic, Goldwyn and Selznick; United Artists only figures in passing). As such it’s an obviously uneven book; even allowing for Paramount’s and MGM’s industry primacy making them worthy of longer discussion, I still got the feeling Mordden just isn’t as interested in the other studios as he is those two, and the others seem to interest him largely in the way they handle (or fail to handle) their musical output. Plus the bitchy old queen tone is occasionally distracting (Mordden is not even remotely neutral at any point), though it does make for a few good cracks, particular when he laments that most people (at least then) only knew Selznick’s Duel in the Sun from a cut, crappy TV print before noting the uncut film is “even more incomprehensible”. And for some reason it’s kind of pleasing to see he’s a Douglas Sirk sceptic too. Good read on the whole.

The Reactionary Mind (Corey Robin)

41lmjf806tlAn interesting read, this, albeit a rather problematic one. Robin offers a particular perspective on conservatism, one that is… informed, shall we say, by his clear loathing of it; you couldn’t exactly call this a fair and balanced study in any way. Still, his particular view of how conservatism really works is an interesting and persuasive one; basically, Robin reckons that conservatism has bugger all to do with the things it’s usually supposed to stand for—democracy, individual liberty, minimal government, all of that sort of thing—but is actually “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”. Meaning that, for Robin, conservatism actually only really exists in opposition to the threat of “change from below”: not just a fear of change per se, but particularly of change to a vastly unequal social order where there are the rulers and the ruled, and never the former shall cede territory to the latter. So all conservatism can really be described as reactionary and prone to violence (or at least thrilled by the prospect of same) with no real moderate middle ground or anything like that.

It’s obviously kind of sweeping and generalised, but then again a lot of right-wing blather I’ve read about liberals does much the same sort of thing. I do think the book’s more pressing problem is the one brought up here, i.e. the form in which Robin presents his book, as a collection of previously published essays partly reworked (except for one he makes a point of not touching up) rather than a cohesively worked-through book, which is what I actually thought it was going to be. So worth reading, but also kind of disappointing at the same time.

Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto (Lesley Hazleton)

6b21f7698d88a59c435785e7ee40b76c-w204@1xI was drawn to this one because I am, basically, an agnostic myself; although I do find myself leaning more towards atheism when it comes to the question of the existence or otherwise of “God” (whatever “God” is supposed to be), I don’t feel able to actually make the claim one way or the other, nor do I think anyone else is either. Saying “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist” is a metaphysical statement that I don’t think has enough support either way. And when it comes to the crunch, I’m not sure I don’t find the professional atheists like Dawkins, Harris, etc more tedious than their believing counterparts at times; neither party exactly escapes the trap of self-pleased smugness. I’m not sure, though, that I respond much better to Hazleton’s little book… I mean, does agnosticism actually need a “manifesto”? Cos the concept is kind of simple, I’m not 100% convinced by her attempt to expand it to a broader and fairly radical acceptance of uncertainty and possibility in general. Along the way she says quite a few things I obviously agree with (there’s a bit in her discussion of infinity where she talks of how we assume that whatever laws of physics, etc, hold true in our particular part of the universe necessarily hold true across the entire universe and how frankly silly this is, and it just crystallises something I’ve always thought), but she occasionally does so in a tone that might be called “spiritual but not religious” (which she acknowledges, saying it’s hard to avoid that sort of language), and though Hazleton never quite trips out into the sort of condescending smugness she’s right to criticise the pro atheists for, there are points where she kind of teeters on the edge. I don’t know, maybe I’m just sceptical about trying to ra-ra something up when I don’t think it really needs that sort of thing…

Beauty’s Hour (Olivia Shakespear)

7791530No relation to William that I know of, but she does loom somewhat large in the lives of two other notable authors, Ezra Pound and, more significantly, W.B. Yeats; indeed, she seems to be mostly known now on account of the latter connection, though she also seems to have been little-known enough in her own lifetime (cf. Wikipedia). This is another Valancourt job, and it’s kind of different for them; they have a tendency for rescuing books that haven’t been reprinted in decades (or even a couple of centuries or so), but not only has this never been reprinted until now, it’s never actually been a book either. Hitherto Beauty’s Hour has only ever existed in the pages of two issues of Savoy magazine published in 1896—notice it’s not listed at all in Olivia’s Wiki entry—and a curious if somewhat slight thing it proves to be 120 years later. Imagine if you will a cross between Cinderella and Jekyll & Hyde, cos that’s kind of what’s on offer here… our narrator is Mary Gower, an avowedly “plain” young woman in a somewhat stultifying existence which she at least partly blames her own plainness for. And then one day, for no discernible reason, she suddenly discovers she has the ability to transform herself into the beautiful woman she wants to be, and the rest of the novella basically has her exploring some of the ramifications of that. Obviously this could’ve been written as horror quite easily,but Shakespear doesn’t go that way; what we get instead is a faintly detached observation on the ways in which men treat women that makes a perhaps obvious point about the distinctions we draw between attractive women and unattractive ones. Still, if the point is a bit obvious, it’s certainly well-expressed, the compactness of the telling serves the story well, and the moral is still pretty resonant.

Economics: The User’s Guide (Ha-Joon Chang)

20702125Economics is a subject I frankly don’t know a lot about, and for some reason I am determined to understand it than I do. The fact that I’ve read this (cos it looked like a potentially useful beginner’s text when I found it at the library recently) and, well, don’t really understand it that much more than I did before is, to be honest, almost certainly not the fault of author Chang (who was apparently brought in to inaugurate the revived Pelican brand with this book). Don’t know an awful lot about Chang apart from obvious details like him being Korean and an economist, but I won’t question his ability to take what I obviously consider a difficult subject and communicate about it as clearly as possible. If I still struggle with it, it’s not because of him. I liked Chang’s determination to present the subject with as few tables and numbers as possible (that was what kind of sunk me when I tried reading that Thomas Piketty book people were raving about a few years ago), and I enjoyed the historical chapter; however, once the book gets down to the brass tacks of how the economy actually works, a lot of unavoidable specific terminology does ensue and, to be honest, a fair bit of it just baffled me. The overall impression I got of Chang’s own beliefs, though, is that he’s cool with capitalism but reckons it works best with some degree of government regulation and oversight; he’s a free trade sceptic like I am, though much better at articulating his objections to it, cos he’s also sceptical about things behaving as they “should” as opposed to how they actually do behave (which goes for governments as well, it should be said). I found this interesting despite my various difficulties with it—like I said, it’s probably my problem rather than Chang’s, I’ve probably jumped in at the deep end of a subject that has no real shallow end—and I’ve got another one of Chang’s books in my reading queue…

Edward III (William Shakespeare?)

51rKJu4sGELBack to Big Bill, though, who I’ve been neglecting for longer than I should’ve (that “read ALL the Shakespeare!” project is looking a bit shaky, if you’ll excuse the choice of word, as far as completing it this year goes). Is this his handiwork, though? While a few WS plays have question marks over them as to just how much he wrote them, they’re still accepted as his. Edward III, though, is still debated, mostly because it never appeared in the First Folio, and it wasn’t attributed to him until much later… the Oxford editors do acknowledge that of all the WS “apocrypha”, this is probably the most likely to actually be by him, though even then they reckon he’s responsible only for three or four scenes at most. Interestingly, they reckon he probably did the business where Edward pursues his somewhat futile romance with the Countess of Salisbury, which I thought were much the weakest parts of the whole work… I actually quite enjoyed reading the play on the whole, but that part of it frankly did nothing for me, especially after a rather good introduction; whoever wrote the rest of it (some of which might also have been Bill’s work) did rather a better job with the story of Edward striding forth to conquer France, thereby kicking off the Hundred Years War which various of his descendants would continue in various other Shakespeare plays. I gather it plays a bit fast and loose with actual history—the Wiki page observes how some characters were actually already dead or not even alive, and the French king in the play was actually a different one entirely—but that’s not exactly uncommon with Shakespeare, is it, nor some of his much lesser successors in Hollywood now… Good read either way.

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (William Hope Hodgson)

61dVToe1r7L._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_Not unlike Arthur Machen, Hodgson is one of those classic weird writers I’ve been meaning to explore for a while; I’ve dipped into both in the past but not much. Here we have his first novel from 1907, after a career that had already encompassed a life at sea and then running a bodybuilding school (in which capacity he had an apparently legendary run-in with Harry Houdini, no less) and a handful of short stories. There’s a theory that this is technically actually the last of Hodgson’s four novels, and that he really wrote them in reverse order of publication; I don’t know the merits or otherwise of this argument, but something about it strikes me as unlikely and Boats certainly strikes me as an earlier rather than a later work. Fairly straightforward stuff; the survivors of a wrecked ship haul off in the lifeboats and find themselves in “the strange places of the Earth”, beset by tree-like monsters in one land, then run aground on another island where they encounter survivors of another trapped ship (plagued by the strange weed that pollutes the sea around them) but also some species of hideous (and hostile) amphibious humanoid. This is all fun for the most part, though I’m inclined to agree with Lovecraft who liked the book but was disappointed by the comparatively ordinary romance and adventure in the last part; Hodgson’s time as a sailor obviously informed the realism of the story, but it does also bog it down somewhat in pedantic detailing. And if the story is straightforward, the style is less so, presented as an 18th century manuscript and in an accordingly archaic style (which Lovecraft criticised, and to be fair he did know his 18th century literature), without dialogue and only minimal information about the characters; not until the last chapter do we even learn our narrator was a passenger on the Glen Carrig rather than crew. Still, the good stuff is good and I’m keen to check out Hodgson’s other novels…