Month: December 2015

Movie Review: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Posted December 27, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Movie-Drama / 0 Comments

the ten commandmentsTitle: The Ten Commandments
Released: 1956 
Director: 
Cecil B. DeMille
StarsCharlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter
Genre: Epic Drama

I am sure many people have seen the religious epic The Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and stars Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter (with a small role given to Vincent Price). It tells the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, found in the Bible (the book of Exodus to be exact). A remake of his 1923 silent movie but extended out to an epic three and a half hour run time. You probably know that it was nominated for multiple awards and considered a classic, but rewatching this recently I found it nothing but American propaganda.

From the very start of the movie, Cecil B. DeMille comes out and introduces the movie, but a few things stood out to me. Firstly Ramses is referred to as a dictator as well as mentioning if men should be ruled by God or man. He also mentions that the slaves were the property of the State, making the connection to communism clear from the very start of the movie.

“The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they ought to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

the ten commandments eygptArtistically the scenes depicting Egypt are often shot with a red filter, in an attempt to help draw a connection to the Soviet Union. In fact, the actor who plays Rameses II, Yul Brynner, is a Russian born actor. While his heritage is more complicated than calling Brynner a Russian, he was born in Vladivostok and he even adopted a Russian accent for The Ten Commandments. This feels like a deliberate and obvious attempt to push DeMille’s agenda.

While “Rameses personifies Communist totalitarianism” according to Adele Reinhartz in her book Bible and Cinema: An Introduction, then Moses is the picture of the American ideal. In fact all the major roles of Hebrews in the movie are cast to blue eyed American actors. This pushes the agenda of America being God’s chosen people. If you think of the history America escaping religious persecution, it can be easily compared to that of the Hebrews.

In fact it is said that Cecil B. DeMille and the screenwriters consulted the works of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, the Jewish Midrash and even the Qu’ran while writing the screenplay. The idea was to unite three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) together in a battle against a common enemy. The Soviet Union was an atheist state and DeMille thought keeping religion on the side of good will help spread his anti-communist propaganda.

My wife recently had to do an assignment on this movie for university, so I would like to thank her for doing most of the research for this one. During our many discussions on this film we have discovered this film works as a political allegory against communism as well as portraying America as God’s chosen people. Rather than discuss the theological elements and exploring DeMille’s own religious beliefs that he projected on the audience, I wanted to focus my review on the propaganda, I think it is an interesting topic and will change the way you view this movie in the future.ten_commandments-moses

I remember thinking this was a pretty average and overly blotted movie but I had not seen it for a very long time. Rewatching The Ten Commandments now was a very different experience. I could not help but notice the allegory and felt like Cecil B. DeMille was blatantly beating me over the head with his own agenda. I am starting to watch movies with a more critical mind and it is interesting to see the symbolism and motifs that show up in films. The more I learn the more I fell manipulated by films; in particular Hollywood. There is more worth talking about with this movie but for now I think I have said enough.


Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Posted December 24, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

Numero Zero by Umberto EcoTitle: Numero Zero (Goodreads)
Author: Umberto Eco
Translator: Richard Dixon
Published: Harvill Secker, 2015
Pages: 208
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Colonna is a down and out hack-journalist that has just stumbled on an opportunity of a lifetime. Assistant editor for an emerging newspaper, as well as ghost writing a memoir for Simei, the editor and creator of the paper Domani. As he interacts with the team of journalists he learns about a conspiracy theory about Mussolini’s corpse. Umberto Eco returns for another fast paced thriller involving an elaborate conspiracy theory in this short novel, Numero Zero.

Every time I read an Umberto Eco novel, I have been really impressed. He is often referred to as the intellectual Dan Brown, meaning they both share a similar style but Eco packs in a lot more information. The first Eco novel I read (and still my favourite) was Foucault’s Pendulum and it explored ideas of religious and secret organisations and making a conspiracy theory out of it. Conspiracy theories play a big role in his other novels which I have read (The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery). However I feel that Numero Zero seems to be more similar to Foucault’s Pendulum.

While Umberto has the ability to create a fast paced thriller that is both witty and wry, I am always impressed with the amount of information he can pack into his novels. While Numero Zero is a very short novel, sitting under two hundred pages, there are times that it feels like an information dump. Most information or theories are told in dialogue and my biggest problem with this book was the amount of information being provided seem to detract from the historical thriller style.

The narrator of Numero Zero is fifty something year-old Colonna who provides a unique view through the events of the novel. A college drop-out, Colonna is a bitter and cynical protagonist who flitted from job to job. From tutoring, proofreading, being a copy editor and slush-pile reader, he has had his fair share of experience in journalism. The newspaper Domani (Yesterday) intends to deliver the news earlier than all the other papers, creating some backdated issues to experiment with format and methods of reaching the papers ultimate goal. Although Simei is planning to use these back issues as blackmail material to push himself into a high social position.

This allows Umberto Eco to do something different in Numero Zero. I do not remember any of Eco’s previous novels being as satirical as this book. Eco is satirising the media throughout the entire novel. Exploring the ways journalists manipulate the news being distributed to the general public. I did not expect the novel to be satirical but I really enjoyed the way Umberto Eco managed to blend his style and still explore a current social issue.

If you have never read an Umberto Eco novel, I do think Numero Zero makes for a good starting point. Most of Eco’s novels are a lot bigger and this novel allows you to dip into his style without a huge time investment. While this book did have a problem with information dumping, it still makes for a decent starter novel. Not his best book, but if you enjoy Numero Zero then all Umberto Eco’s other novels are for you.


Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Posted December 22, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Crime / 2 Comments

Knots and Crosses by Ian RankinTitle: Knots and Crosses (Goodreads)
Author: Ian Rankin
Series: Inspector Rebus #1
Published: Wheeler Publishing, 1987
Pages: 341
My Copy: Library Book

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I have been reading a lot non-fiction lately; my plan was to devote the entire November to non-fiction. However I got a little run down and found myself in need of some mindless fiction. I picked up Knots and Crosses, the first book in the Inspector Rebus by Ian Rankin. While writing my review of Dexter is Dead, I felt the need to find a new crime series to read through, but I have particular taste; I want something with an interesting protagonist and an overarching story arc. I have heard some good things about the Inspector Rebus series, so I thought I would check it out.

Knots and Crosses starts off telling a lot of the backstory of John Rebus, former member of Britain’s elite S.A.S. suffering from PTSD. Using his connections he got out of the army and joined the police force. However Edinburgh is being terrorised by a serial killer who is taking teenage girls and someone is sending Rebus mysterious notes.

There is something very different about Knots and Crosses to the normal bestselling crime novels, it deals with developing the main character and the mystery seems to be back story. I enjoyed the way Ian Rankin did this but I am unsure about the series; I might have to attempt another book first. I found the mystery completely obvious but that did not bother me much, I was more interested in the characters more than the plot.

I am not sure if there is an overarching story arc in this series but there were a few threads left, so hopefully this means book two will continue on. Unfortunately the crime is not dark and gritty, like I normally enjoy but the character development made up for that. I am not sure how this will fit in throughout the series but I am curious enough to find out. If you know of a crime series that you think I might like, please let me know.


Movie Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Posted December 20, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Movie-Comedy, Movie-Neo-Noir / 0 Comments

the big lebowskiTitle: The Big Lebowski
Released: 1998
Director: 
Joel CoenEthan Coen
StarsJeff BridgesJohn GoodmanJulianne MooreSteve BuscemiDavid HuddlestonTara Reid and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Genre: Neo-Noir/Black Comedy

One of my favourite movies of all time is the Coen Brothers 1998 black comedy The Big Lebowski. Most people have seen this film, but if you have not, it tells the story of Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), an LA slacker who finds himself being mistaken for millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). Thugs break into his house demanding money and urinate on his rug before leaving. Since the rug “really tied the room together” The Dude confronts the millionaire Lebowski seeking compensation. This leads to events that have The Dude searching for Jeffrey Lebowski’s kidnapped wife Bunny (Tara Reid).

This is a complex story to try explain, I did not even mention The Dude’s friends Walter (John Goodman), a unpredictable Vietnam veteran and Timid Donny (Steve Buscemi). Not to mention Jeffery Lebowski’s personal assistant Brandt, played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is a lot going on within the film and so much of this is worth talking about. I was drawn to The Big Lebowski at a young age for its humour and quotable lines, but now I see the movie in a completely different light.

the-big-lebowski-rug

The Big Lebowski is loosely based on The Big Sleep, a great film noir movie which is in turn based on the Raymond Chandler novel with the same name. In a 1998 interview with Indiewire, Joel Coen said, “We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” I know there are even scenes that pay homage to The Big Sleep (which starred Humphrey Bogart) found in this film but I need to do a rewatch of the classic film to compare. However there are also references to the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland in the movie.

First of all, both The Dude and Alice has similar carefree lives, and they both take a drug that makes them smaller. The similarities do not stop there, Jeffery Lebowski wife’s name is Bunny and the numberplate on her car reads ‘Lapin’ which is the French word for rabbit. You could even compare Walter and Donny to The Walrus and the Carpenter, maybe Maude Lebowski is The Red Queen and Jackie Treehorn is The Mad Hatter, you probably can go on and on making comparisons to the two movies.

However the comparison to The Big Sleep is what interests me the most. Despite the comedy and the colourful aesthetic, The Big Lebowski pays homage to film noir in multiple occasions. The movie makes multiple references to tropes often found in film noir, such as a fall guy, a double cross, a ringer and so on. Do I even have to mention the fact that this film is even set in Los Angeles? Film noir was the result of America’s post-war (World War II) affection for morbid drama, having The Big Lebowski set in post-gulf war time as a similar effect; although America’s involvements in the Middle East were far from over.

Interestingly enough The Big Lebowski was a commercial failure, it only become a cult classic after 9/11. I do believe that the anti-war messages found in this film might have something to do with this. Especially the rants that Walter says about defending his country and what it means to be a Vietnam veteran. This film talks a lot about war almost predicting the state America would be in with their involvement in the Middle East. Something about the way deals with this real issue and the humour seems to speak to fans.

war - the big lewbowski

This movie even sparked its own religion, Dudeism, which is actually a registered religion in America; the official name is The Church of the Latter-Day Dude. It is a modern day interpretation of Taoism based on the philosopher of The Dude. Though considered more of a philosophical and lifestyle movement about going with the flow, or remaining cool headed. Rewatching The Big Lebowski reminded me why I love this movie, plus gave me a whole new appreciation for this cult classic.


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Posted December 19, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtyTitle: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (Goodreads)
Author: Caitlin Doughty
Narrator: Caitlin Doughty
Published: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
Pages: 272
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

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Caitlin Doughty started her career working in a crematory. She quickly discovered a common issue that seems to be a major issue in Western society. People are generally unprepared for death, not knowing loved ones wishes and not willing to have conversations regarding the topic. Doughty often refers to this as an anxiety towards death or even a death phobia. In an effort to educate people in death, she started a web series called “Ask a Mortician” allowing people to ask her anything regarding about death and the death industry.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory is an extension of Caitlin Doughty mission. Written as part memoir, part micro-history, this book explores the history and current state of the funeral industry. From the age of eight, Doughty had been exposed to death after witnessing a horrible accident that ended in the death of a small child. From that point she realised people were not willing to talk about death, as if they were scared of this inevitability.

Working at the crematory, she also discovered the lack of ritual towards death in Western society. To her she felt like people would rather criticise the funeral industry for their prices. Like paying to view the body of the recently deceased, a process that involves many processes to make the person look like they are resting peacefully. Price has been a big issue with people; it even is at the point where you can order a cremation over the internet and have the body picked up from the morgue and the ashes delivered without even having to deal with anyone.

The idea of the book is to educate people around the death industry, covering topics like the cremation process, the history of embalming, and even going as far as criticising some of the actions that are being used. Caitlin Doughty believes people should have an understanding of what is going on and have a conversation with their loved ones on the topic. With understanding and acceptance of death, we will be better prepared and should promote a healthier grieving or mourning process.

I had planned to read this book for non-fiction November, but then my mother-in-law died. I was not sure if I would be able to handle reading this but had committed to a buddy read of this book with Steph from Time to read! I was surprised how much comfort this book brought me, I felt better knowing about the processes and what happens in a funeral home. I think Smoke Gets in Your Eyes came at the perfect time for me and I was fascinated by the history and everything else within the book.

It is important to have a better understanding about what happens after death, and I am not just talking about the concept of an afterlife. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the type of book that I think everyone needs to read and then tell your loved ones what you want when you die. I am curious to know more on the topic, I might pick up Stiff by Mary Roach or even Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek to learn more. One of the things I love about non-fiction is the chance to learn so much about a wide variety of topics.


Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Posted December 18, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan HillTitle: Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (Goodreads)
Author: Susan Hill
Published: Profile, 2009
Pages: 244
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: eBook

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While searching for a specific book from her library, Susan Hill discovered that the book was not where she thought it would be. However she did discover many books that she had not read, or deserved a re-read. This inspired a new reading project, to spend the next year dipping into her own library and read the books she has forsaken. Howards End is on the Landing not necessarily charts her reading but more Susan Hill’s opinions on literature and the bookish world.

First thing you discover is that Susan Hill’s house is full of books, not sorted and no order. She had to search for the book she was looking for, expecting it in the one place but not finding it. I love having my library like this, I recently had to look for my copy of Anna Karenina and I just loved looking at all my books and remembering the stories and memories that go with each one. This is the basic premise of this memoir; Hill goes through her bookshelves and shares memories and thoughts she has about the state of literature.

Susan Hill goes on talking about her thoughts on being an author, the publishing world, self-publishing, libraries, bookshelves, re-reading and even the joys of reading slowly. I have recently discovered the joys of re-reading and reading slowly so on so many thoughts, Hall and I were on the same page. Even though we come from different lives, it was such a joy reading a book devoted to her memories of all the books that sit on her shelves, and scattered across her house.

I have tried to spend a year not buying any new books, in the hopes to read more of the books on my shelves. It did not work. I did however discover how great the library is and started using my local library more. I also discovered how easy it is to get books without having to spend money, especially ARCs. The book buying ban did not work, I still have shelves full of books I still need to read. I know my taste in literature has drastically changed, and I am not sure if I should cull some of these books even if I have never read them.

The end of Howards End is on the Landing talks about if she had to cut down her library to forty books, which ones she will keep. The thought of culling your library so drastically terrifies me but I did enjoy pondering which books I would keep if I did have to cull that much. Or maybe my house burnt down, which books I would rebuy to start my new collection. I know Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, Lolita, and most of the books on my favourite’s shelf would remain. However it is not about picking favourites, more about picking the books you would like to read over and over again. Which makes for an interesting thought process.

I am interested in the topic of memoirs in association with books like what is found in Howards End is on the Landing. My memories with this memoir will be closely associated with sitting in a hospital in Nouméa as my mother-in-law passed away. It gives me mixed feelings to love a book so much in such a sad time for my family. I even read this as an eBook on my phone, an experience I do not enjoy either but it was more convenient than carrying a book around.

I found Howards End is on the Landing to be one of the better books about books out there, I am disappointed that my memories of it will be attached to such a tragic event. I found Susan Hill to be very tender towards her love of books, while remaining unafraid to express why she did not like a book. She is never dismissive of the books she did not enjoy, she just does not have the desire to read them. I think it would be a hard balance to get that balance right without sounding like a cranky reader. Howards End is on the Landing will hold a special place in my heart and I do hope others get a chance to read it.


The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Posted December 17, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

The Art of Memoir by Mary KarrTitle: The Art of Memoir (Goodreads)
Author: Mary Karr
Narrator: Mary Karr
Published: Harper Collins, 2015
Pages: 256
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

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I have been getting into non-fiction lately and especially memoirs. I love reading bookish memoirs, exploring someone’s reading journey or a challenge they completed. I think I have an interesting reading journey and I would love to write it down on paper. I picked up The Art of Memoir to get some ideas and motivate me into writing it down, even if it may never become a memoir. I like the idea of experimenting with the memoir form, developing my writing skills; who knows I might put my reading journey up on my blog as a series.

Mary Karr is a memoirist that has three memoirs in print, The Liars’ Club, Lit and Cherry. All three have been meet with huge acclaim, though I have not read them yet. Karr is an English literature professor Syracuse University often teaching a subject on memoirs. The Art of Memoir draws from her own experience as well as some of her favourite memoirs, including Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Possessed by Elif Batuman and Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

I found that this book had plenty of interesting things to think about when writing a memoir and it really got me excited on the whole endeavour. I really want to check out Mary Karr’s own memoirs and I am thankful that she put this book together. It does not offer a step by step guide but instead offers different examples on how to approach writing. I like how she kept enforcing the idea of sticking to your strengths and building from there. What works for Vladimir Nabokov will probably not work for me, even if I adore and want to emulate his writing style.

I do not know what will become of my writing, I now think of myself as a non-fiction writer (blogging). Since embracing this writing path, I have felt more inspired. I just need to experiment with different styles and see what works for me. Obviously blogging and reviewing is great but I want to see where I can go with my writing if I push myself more.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Posted December 16, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Classic, Horror / 0 Comments

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley JacksonTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Goodreads)
Author: Shirley Jackson
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 146
Genres: Horror, Classic
My Copy: Audiobook

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The Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat (Mary Katherine) try to live an idyllic life with their uncle Julian in their big New England house. The villagers surrounding them hate them and often chant hurtful words. The Blackwood family were once much bigger, but one meal changed it all. Arsenic in the sugar served with dessert killed the rest of the family, Constance never had sugar, Merricat was sent to her room before supper and Julian only had a little sugar and is now a shell of his former self. Despite the fact that Constance was arrested and then acquitted of this crime, the rumours still run wild and the Blackwoods live their life in seclusion, that is until Charles arrived and tried to steal the family fortune.

While We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the first Shirley Jackson I have read, it was in fact her final novel. I went into this book knowing nothing about the story and I found it the perfect way to experience the novel. An American gothic that is in part a haunted house story, in part a mystery, and as Jackson’s biographer Judy Opphenheimer calls it a “paean to agoraphobia”. A psychological story that explores the effects of rumours and public opinion, all told from the perspective of eighteen year old Merricat, who is an unreliable narrator.

There is a real mystery about the Blackwoods, but I was more interested in the effects the villagers had on the family. I know the isolation is a reflection of the author’s own agoraphobia and nervous conditions but I took it more as a look into social issues, essentially the effects of rumours and speculation. I cannot help but compare the book with Frankenstein. This is the beauty of fiction and the way people all have different perspectives on the same piece of literature.

I found both Constance and Merricat to be wonderful characters, they are both strong and at times unlikeable, while being mysterious and complex. Merricat has to be one of the best narrators found in literature; I never could fully understand her and she often surprised me. She is likeable but I could never trust her completely. She was an enigma and as the novel progressed and secrets revealed, I really appreciated the way Shirley Jackson crafted these characters.

There is a fine balance between the morbid and the whimsical to be found in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; it is poetic and haunting. Discovering Shirley Jackson came at the perfect time, I read this book during Halloween and I eagerly await next year to read another one of her novels. I know I could read Jackson at other times, but I do think her writing suited Halloween perfectly. I know The House of Haunting Hill is recommended, but I would love to know which of her other books should take priority.


The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Posted December 15, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

The Story of a New Name by Elena FerranteTitle: The Story of a New Name (Goodreads)
Author: Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #2
Published: Text, 2012
Pages: 471
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Following directly after the events of My Brilliant Friend comes the next novel in the Neapolitan series. Lila is now married and Elena’s own attempts of romance are a little more complicated. Although Elena is also focusing on her academic and literary career. The Story of a New Name continues the story of the two friends living in Naples from the age of about sixteen to their mid-twenties.

I was enjoying being in the world of Lila and Elena that I picked up The Story of a New Name as soon as I had finished My Brilliant Friend. A novel that I found far more enjoyable than the first one. The two woman are now adults, thinking about their lives and planning for a future. I found that their world had opened up a lot more, with more details about Naples and the political tensions of Italy. I like how Elena Ferrante wrote these books with the world expanding to the reader in the same way it would to the characters.

It is difficult to talk about the plot within The Story of a New Name as it would spoil My Brilliant Friend. However I have been enjoying the character development found in this series. Both Elena and Lila (and all other characters) often make unexpected decisions or stupid mistakes but this just makes the novels feel more genuine. It is hard to predict how a character will act because they are constantly growing and changing and when you think you have worked them out, they do something different. This has kept me hooked and makes me want to move onto book three Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, though I have decided to hold off.

The only problem I found with The Story of a New Name involved a sex scene at the start of the novel. I am not sure if this was the work of Elena Ferrante or the translator Ann Goldstein but when referring to both male and female genitals drastically changed. The terms “his sex” and “her sex” just irritates me and I have no idea why these terms were used in book two and not in the first one. I have heard that Elena Ferrante wrote this series without many re-writes so it is possible this was just a consistency issue but it still annoyed me.

I am loving this series, and like I said with My Brilliant Friend, it is not for the faint of heart. You get to experience all the highs and lows of the two women’s lives and there are some pretty devastating lows. Although they have hard lives, both Lila and Elena are strong, independent and brilliant women and I really enjoy that about these characters. I plan to read book three and four next year just to give myself a little break but I really want to return to this world. Only problem with that is I will finish the Neapolitan series far too quickly.