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F. S. L'hoir (Irvine, CA)

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The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography
by Selina Hastings
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Few Secrets Worth Noting, 27 May 2011
It took me several months to read this book, which I found myself picking up and then putting down.

Occasionally more-than-mildly interesting, "The Secret Lives . . .", which relates the long life and literary career of W. Somerset Maugham, seems to promise far more than it delivers. The volume is replete with all sorts of information--sometimes fascinating--perhaps too much of it. It is easy to become lost in a forest of personages and events (although the book does contain a thorough index).

I was frustrated by the author's propensity to introduce an intriguing quote or statement, seemingly non sequitur, which she then drops without comment. An egregious example is to be found on p. 422, when after relating the tedium of a summer of travel, she quotes a letter (ca. 1937) of Maugham to his amanuensis Alan Searle: "Yesterday Anthony Blunt & a friend Burgess came over to lunch and are coming for the weekend . . . Do you remember Anthony? You met him once or twice at Cambridge. He is (or was) a fellow of Trinity & is an authority on baroque." Surely the visit of two men who were to become notorious as Soviet spies deserves some comment, if only in a footnote, especially given Maugham's own career in the secret world during World War I.

My biggest criticism of Ms. Hasting's prodigious book is her lack of appropriate comment and analysis of her material.The author seems to get so bogged down in the details of the plots and scenarios of plays, the names of important personages, friends, lovers, and anecdotes--some of them contradictory--that one never quite grasps exactly what WSM was really like. He remains as enigmatic as one of the anonymous first-person narrators of his short stories, which I admire greatly. Very likely, as one can intuit from the "Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham", this very private person took pains to preserve his privacy.

After reading "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham," I believe that he has succeeded admirably.

South Riding [DVD]
South Riding [DVD]
Dvd ~ Anna Maxwell Martin
Price: 8.37

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Promising Drama Nipped in the Bud!, 27 May 2011
This review is from: South Riding [DVD] (DVD)
Oh dear! I fear that viewers are reaping the results of the BBC's swingeing cuts!

This well-acted drama, based on a beloved novel, certainly has possibilities: Anna Maxwell Martin as the school's new headmistress, Penelope Wilton as her eventual ally on the town council, and David Morrissey as the handsome brooding hero are all excellent, as are the various youngsters playing the schoolgirls. The cinematography of the churning North Sea is spectacular. But too many unresolved plot-lines have been left hanging like tangled wires in an unfinished construction of a schoolroom. We get glimpses of characters and plot rather than fully developed characterisations and motivations. For example, in this production, the abrupt introduction of the woman, who was prepared to drop everything to keep house in a shanty for the rather unpleasant father of five children, seems to serve merely as a plot device to get Lydia back to school. As with the three new episodes of "Upstairs-Donwstairs", the writers have tried to stuff too many ideas into too short-a time slot.

Let us hope that this trend does not continue!

P.S. The 1974 version with the late magnificent Dorothy Tutin is on four discs and in thirteen episodes, an indication of what viewers are missing. I was complaining that the NTSC version is 240 minutes long but I see that the PAL version is only 180 minutes long (Usually it is we out there in NTSC Land who are avidly seeking out Unedited UK Versions), but I do not suggest buying the NTSC, because it is not much more enlightening!

Wagner: Siegfried -- Metropolitan/Levine [DVD] [2002]
Wagner: Siegfried -- Metropolitan/Levine [DVD] [2002]
Dvd ~ Siegfried Jerusalem
Price: 11.58

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Newly-Hooked on Siegfried!, 24 May 2011
I love this production, which I first saw on the television in 1990.

It is this performance that sold me on "Siegfried," which I used to dismiss unfairly--never having actually seen a production--as a crashing bore. Instead, I discovered a delightful fairy tale (albeit, perhaps not for children), with gnomes, dragons, "talking" birds, and a handsome hero who wakes the sleeping beauty with a kiss.

I especially enjoyed the performance of Siegfried Jerusalem, who not only portrays the archetypical hero of legend--handsome, bumptious, and more than slightly dense about life and love--but also looks the part. His reaction at discovering Brünnhilde's identity as a female is priceless. I am amazed at Jerusalem's staying power in a role that must be physically exhausting. And let his critics have a go at wielding a heavy hammer repeatedly in tempo, while singing a full-voiced "Notung, Notung, neidliches Schwert!" The music in that scene is nothing short of thrilling.

Heinz Zednik plays the gnasty gnome Mime--who gets no respect--with such panache that one almost feels sorry for him, and Ekkehard Wlaschiha is delightfully odious as his brother Alberich, whose green appearance predates that of Shrek. James Morris is outstanding as the wandering Wotan, a rather thankless role, since he subsequently drops out of the cycle (It is almost as if Wagner got tired of the character); and Dawn Upshaw's invisible Waldvogel is magnificent. Although some critics complain that Hildegard Behrens is past it vocally, she certainly looks the part of the ex-Valkyrie, newly awakened to love.

The DVD provides subtitles, which I certainly recommend using to enhance your enjoyment of the story and the music.

These Dark Things (Unabridged)
These Dark Things (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd
Price: 9.20

4.0 out of 5 stars Amidst the Garbage and the Flowers, 18 May 2011
The best thing about this book, which I found difficult to put down, is Ms. Marete Weiss's ability to conduct her readers on an intimate tour of Napoli, a fascinating yet maddening city, where danger lurks not only in the narrow, laundry-festooned, shadowed canyons of the Spanish Quarter but also in the vast sun-drenched piazzas (such as the one in front of the National Museum where I--a longtime resident of Italy--got mugged one noon); a city so difficult that even Google Street Level dares not penetrate beyond a few well-trodden tourist points.

The story is set against the historical backdrop of garbage piling up in the streets--almost swamping the City's numerous flower-decked shrines--and the ongoing wars for dominance among the Camorra. The author has done her research, which, for the most part, she weaves seamlessly into her narrative (the only point I might fault her on would be the "plume of black smoke" rising out of Vesuvius [If I am not mistaken, the volcano--unlike Etna--hasn't emitted black smoke since the 1944 eruption, but, dormant, it certainly represents a continuing metaphorical threat to the residents of the area]).

The author has the rare talent of making the City come alive in the minds of her readers, as they follow her protagonist--Natalia Monte--a female Captain of the Carabinieri--who is Naples born-and-bred, while she follows clues as intricate and bizarre as the streets and shrines of the City itself. I found Natalia's character to be both engaging and conflicted; she is, in fact, a reflection of her equivocal upbringing and environment. Some readers might think that the brief but explicit love scene interrupts the story; others may not. And while I found the abruptness of the solution to the mystery to be a slight letdown, I found the author's final sentence to be so effective in summing up the Italian experience that I was ready to overlook any such imperfections. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

I would recommend this mystery to anyone who has spent time in Italy and loves it for its undeniable beauty as well as its undeniable faults.

Reviewed for Vine;

Upstairs Downstairs - Series 1 [DVD]
Upstairs Downstairs - Series 1 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Dame Eileen Atkins
Offered by themediamerchants
Price: 3.49

23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Downton Abbey Lite!, 25 April 2011
In California, "Upstairs Downstairs" is shown to us on public television in a series entitled "Masterpiece Classic" and "Masterpiece Mystery"; and one of the biggest mysteries is why the producers released the new "Upstairs Downstairs" in the same season as "Downton Abbey" to which it simply cannot compare.

The sets and constumes are elegant; the actors are excellent--Eileen Atkins as the Countess is superb; and Jean Marsh is her same delightful self as Rose, who is now the Housekeeper--but it is as if the producers/writers have crammed too many ideas into too short a time (Has the series been the victim of swingeing budget cuts?). Three not-quite one-hour episodes are not enough. The story is choppy. Instead of being developed, the characters have been served to us in a narrative shorthand: the brittle haughty wife; the nobly motivated husband; the perversely promiscuous sister; the equally promiscuous but good-hearted maid; the footman, who is a barking fascist in one episode but then, in the next episode, has a sudden unexplained change of heart. All have been set against a sketchy historical background of social and political problems of the '30s: the problem of members of the upper classes who supported the fascists; the problem of European refugees; the problem of what to do with mentally challenged relatives of the aristocracy; the problems of class and race.

Various notable personages drift in and out of the house briefly: foreign minister Anthony Eden; German ambassador von Ribbentrop; Mrs. Simpson; the Duke of Kent (presumably Bertie was occupied in another film with his speech lessons); society photographer Cecil Beaton (in a scene with the cook that would have been delightful had it not been hastily imposed onto the narrative without much point). Furthermore, the historical element has been inserted into the story so perfunctorily that unless one is thoroughly familiar with it (as one should be, ideally), the viewer might wonder who this Anthony person is, who keeps bossing Lord Hallam about.

There are lots of excellent possibilities in respect to this series, but they need to be developed over time: six or seven one-and-a-half hour episodes, are recommended.
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The Trinity Six
The Trinity Six
by Charles Cumming
Edition: Audio CD

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping!, 22 April 2011
This review is from: The Trinity Six (Audio CD)
I actually lost sleep over this audio-book. It was so good from the get-go that I didn't want to stop listening, as the dawn was breaking when I came to the end of the third disk.

I had not previously read any of Mr. Cumming's novels (I shall certainly be on the lookout for them from now on), and, since the topic of the Cambridge Spies is one of my favourites, I approached "The Trinity Six" with some trepidation, dreading some preposterous pastiche based upon the "further adventures of". I was delighted to discover that the author uses what is known (sticking to the SIS canon) merely as a starting point for a provocative, riveting, sometimes humorous, and perfectly logical thriller.

The reader, John Lee, delivers the author's words clearly (although it seems to me that he over-pronounces some of the German names, and mispronounces Leibniz as "Leebnitz"); his pace is swift, which is appropriate given the suspense factor, but not so swift that it ever becomes incomprehensible. My only quibble was Mr. Lee's reading of the female characters, in which he raised his voice a pitch in a manner that I found noticeable and less than convincing (I am used to listening to "Book at Bedtime" on BBC Radio 4, and the readers seem to handle the different genders more effectively). I had never really listened to an audio book before except on the radio where one has a presenter, and so I was unprepared for the abrupt announcement of chapters, but I can see that such a device is an utterly sensible one that makes it easy for one to pick up where one has left off.

I could not recommend this book more highly. The only caveat: it will keep you awake at night!

Reviewed for Vine,

Seabiscuit [DVD] [2003]
Seabiscuit [DVD] [2003]
Dvd ~ Tobey Maguire
Price: 3.83

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Romantic Notions of a Horsey Five-Year-Old!, 28 Mar 2011
This review is from: Seabiscuit [DVD] [2003] (DVD)
Perhaps I approached this film with expectations that were too high, since I was not only insanely in love with this horse, but I actually saw him win the Santa Anita Handicap (along with his stablemate Kayak II--totally ignored in this film). My father, the Sports Editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, took me to see all of Seabiscuit's races at Santa Anita that year. I was a horsey child (unfortunately other people's horses!), and I shall never forget the true "Seabiscuit Madness" that suffused the California air (until it was swept away by a different and insidious madness in 1941).

I recently read and enjoyed Ms. Hillebrand's book, "Seabiscuit," but I found the film wanting on several counts: the endless "clearing of the throat" and preachiness before the director finally arrived at the point of the story: the eponymous Seabiscuit; and the director's seeming inability to relate the rest of the story in a coherent manner. What should have been high drama emerged in a curiously static manner. (I was also disenchanted by the gratuitous profanity that added little to the tale [cf. its mature and necessary use in "The King's Speech"]).

On the plus side, the cinematography was excellent; the horses, who upstage the excellent actors, are magnificent. Unfortunately, the film simply could not live up to memories of the real Seabiscuit, my "first love."

Breakfast At Tiffany's [DVD] [1961]
Breakfast At Tiffany's [DVD] [1961]
Dvd ~ Audrey Hepburn
Offered by The Happy Zombie
Price: 3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Reservations for Breakfast, 28 Mar 2011
I somehow missed "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the first time around, and upon seeing it decades after the fact, I am trying to weigh up the balance between the good parts of the movie and the bad. Upon a twenty-four hour reflection, I have to come down on the side of a qualified "worth seeing." I'll call it as I see it.

Terrific: Watching Audrey Hepburn in all her elegant Givenchy style; experiencing the chemistry between her, George Peppard, and Cat; Henry Mancini's "Moon River"; the rain scene. The extra by Mancini's widow and children was well worth watching.

Less terrific: Don't even think about the miscasting of both Hepburn and Peppard in Blake Edwards' interpretation of Capote's novella. In the DVD extras, I discovered that Marilyn Monroe's name was mentioned for the role of Holly (She would have been wholly believable in the role).

Fun: A typical goofy Blake Edwards' party scene (played with endless variations in his other films: e.g., "Victor, Victoria."). (The Extra of the actors who played in the scene, which was choreographed and took eight days to film, is interesting from a filmmaking point of view).

Mediocre: The equivocal comedy of the shoplifting scene.

Cringeworthy: Edwards' widely acknowledged "direction" and resultant "performance" of Mickey Rooney (One must ask, however, if the character of Mr. Y. was not merely a prelude to Cato in the Pink Panther films, and whether the character of Cato was rendered slightly less offensive because it was played by an Asian and was possibly balanced by the goofy context of Sellers' idiotic "Frenchman," Inspector Clouseau?). I am certain that I would have cringed had I seen "Tiffany's" at the time it was made!"

Upshot: Because of the luminescence that Audrey Hepburn brought to any part she played, the splendid colour and costumes, I would recommend "Breakfast at Tiffany's with qualifications as an example of film history. Three-and-a-half stars.

The King's Speech [DVD]
The King's Speech [DVD]
Dvd ~ Colin Firth
Price: 2.99

15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Man's Courage, 20 Mar 2011
This review is from: The King's Speech [DVD] (DVD)
I saw this film, which I have pre-ordered on Amazon, three times already; and I daresay I shall watch it many more times. "The King's Speech" is adult entertainment in the most noble sense of the expression. The script is outstanding in its intelligence, and if there were an award for the best use of profanity in context without giving offence, I would definitely give it to "The King's Speech." The film is simply splendid! Without benefit of car chases, explosions, or overly-spectacular CGI, the audience is riveted--indeed, held spellbound--for 119 minutes by a simple scenario: a wife seeks professional help for her husband's speech impediment; he undergoes therapy and with persistent practice, he overcomes--if not conquers--his problem despite the low expectations of the public and, most of all, of himself. That the wife is the Duchess of York and the husband is the future King of England is irrelevant and at the same time empowering: the story contains a universal truth; the future king, like the kings of Greek tragedy, represents every man as he learns through suffering.

Since the actors have been deservedly praised to the skies, I shall comment only upon a few points that impressed me. Colin Firth's portrayal of Bertie is so believable, because he conveys the unimaginable physical tension of a man whose thoughts are entrapped within his body; and paradoxically, Firth does so with ease; there is nothing forced about his portrayal. Geoffrey Rush, who plays his therapist Lionel Logue with sensitivity and humour, is certainly Firth's equal. It is a shame that a double Oscar could not have been awarded. Both Firth and Rush provide an equilibrium that would certainly be upset if either one were taken away (or if one were one replaced by another actor). I was especially struck by Rush's ability to portray a not-very-good amateur, when he tries out for the part of Richard III; he suggests an ever-so slight hamminess without actually hamming it up. A difficult challenge for any actor, much less one of his stature! I also thought that Helena Bonham Carter, who exhibits a combination of privilege and propriety tempered by kindness, was a perfect foil for Jennifer Ehle (Rush's wife), who exhibits similar characteristics and also understands the boundaries of decorum: a wonderful moment comes when a surprised Ehle politely asks the royal couple if they will be staying for dinner, and the Duchess graciously thanks her and cites a previous engagement as if it were a necessary annoyance.

One of the things that British filmmakers do so well is to cast supporting roles with top-drawer actors, disguising them thoroughly. I found myself reading the credits the first time around and exclaiming to my friend: "Good Heavens! Anthony Andrews was playing Stanley Baldwin. I certainly didn't recognise him!" Claire Bloom also inhabited the persona of Queen Mary so thoroughly that I didn't know it was she until the end credits. It took a few minutes for me to recognise Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop, and I recognised Michael Gambon as George V only by his voice, and a certain look in his eyes. Each submerges his own personality into his respective role. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Timothy Spall, who provides what I consider the only false note, giving me the impression that he is no other than Timothy Spall, pouting, and acting Churchillian. I found it most expedient to avert my eyes whenever he came on the screen and focus on all the other things to love about this movie.

This film combines pathos with humour. My friend and I were blubbering (as silently as possible) and laughing (out loud) all the way through it. And because of the skills of Colin Firth and Jeffrey Rush in conveying the feelings of Bertie and Lionel, our emotional responses were spontaneous and not prised out of us, as happens too often in films nowadays. I was especially moved as the film reached its climax, knowing the tragedy that was about to strike Europe, the people of England, and indeed the world. I therefore found the Allegretto movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony to be especially appropriate as King George reads his speech. The music acts as a funeral march and it emphasises the gravity of the situation and the gravity of the actual words which King George VI, via the radio, delivered so eloquently to the world, giving it the courage to persist in one of its darkest hours.

The King's speech remains emblematic of one man's courage. It serves as an inspiration to us all!

Snobs: a novel
Snobs: a novel
by Lord Julian Fellowes
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Send In the Snobs!, 18 Mar 2011
This review is from: Snobs: a novel (Paperback)
I bought "Snobs" some time ago, having enjoyed Mr. Fellowes' script of "Gosford Park" and his delightfully wicked second novel, "Past Imperfect." It was seeing "Downton Abbey," however, that jogged my memory about the book [which was stacked with others--also unread] and prompted me to open it.

Although "Snobs" is not as expertly crafted as "Past Imperfect," I nevertheless liked it thoroughly. In fact, I had so much fun reading it in tandem with a Google Street-Level Map of London. One of the things I enjoy the most about Mr. Fellowes' writing is the empathy with which he portrays his characters, who are, as a result, believable. Edith may be flawed, but the author portrays her in such a way that he reminds us to ask the question: who has not striven for some goal, only to discover on achieving it that it is not as one has imagined it? Who has not made a wrong choice, only to realise that one has acted hastily and even foolishly?

All the characters are well drawn. Even when the author skewers British social mores with satire, he does so wryly and without meanness of spirit. Many of his observations about snobbery, which infects all the characters--no matter what their social station--make one laugh out loud, but Mr. Fellowes always sweetens his bitter tea with a spoonful of genuine kindness.

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