Returning to Manderley 2018

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As promised, here are the answers to the “first lines” challenge I posted last week. Click here if you’d like to try to guess some of the books before reading the answers below.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

—The opening of Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier

1. On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
—Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (1993)

2. I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (1929)

3. My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.
—Shirley Jackson, We have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

4. A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.
—Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939)

5. Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
—Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1938)

6. “The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart.
—E.M. Forster, A Room with a View (1908)

7. I might have been ten, eleven years old—I cannot say for certain—when my first master died.
—Esi Edugyan, Washington Black (2018) [Man Booker shortlist]

8. When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.
—Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2001) [Orange Prize; PEN/Faulkner Award]

9. One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.
—John Fante, Ask the Dust (1939)

10. If you’re like me, the Trump presidency has turned you into a light sleeper.
—Rick Wilson, Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever (2018)

11. That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom.
—Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018)

12. It was a dark and stormy night.
—Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962) [Newbery Medal]

Baker’s Dozen “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams” Holiday Bonus: Alexa Monroe walked into the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco that Thursday night wearing her favorite red heels, jittery from coffee, and with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne in her purse.
—Jasmine Guillory, The Wedding Date (2018)

Double-Secret-Probation Bonus Round: Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down.
—Deborah Levy, Hot Milk (2016) [Man Booker shortlist]

Congrats to Sarah and Marissa who each guessed two of these correctly!

I tried to have a range of degrees of difficulty this year and was happy to see about half of these titles guessed fairly quickly. Which one(s) are you kicking yourself over?

Look for reviews and comments on these selections and more in my traditional year-end round-up post at the end of next month.

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A Sixth Sense: The First Lines Challenge

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As I have done for the past five Thanksgiving weekends, I hereby present the “first lines” challenge, stolen from James over at Following Pulitzer.

The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

The most important rule of this game is to rely on your own memory and brain and not to cheat by using Google or another resource, print or online. This includes looking up my recent reading at Goodreads.

I’ll say it again, DO NOT use any other resources other than your own brain and/or the brains of those around you.

So, what’s the game, you say?

Below I’ve posted a list of first lines from books I’ve read (or am reading) this year—your job is to guess the author and title of the work I’ve quoted from.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

—The opening of Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Some truths:
• Some of these should be quite easy; others are fairly difficult.
• I’ve used discretion as to what counts as the first line.
• The line may be in translation, my own or another’s work.
• The authors or books are generally well known, have won or been nominated for prizes, have been adapted for the silver screen, or have been otherwise much discussed recently.
• The selections can be from any time period or genre, fiction or non-fiction—what ties them together is that I have read (or am reading) them this year.

If you own a copy of the work, it’s fine to check it before you post it as a guess. Any other reference work or tool, print or online, is strictly forbidden. If it’s driving you crazy and you end up googling the answers, that is certainly understandable, but don’t share your findings with the rest of us, that is unforgivable!

Anybody is welcome to comment and guess and I encourage you to do so since even an incorrect guess may trigger something in someone else’s memory. I may also offer hints in my responses so be sure to subscribe to the comments. Whatever is not guessed outright or crowd-sourced through the comments will be posted on Monday, November 26.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

—The opening of Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy

1. On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

2. I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

3. My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

4. A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.

5. Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

6. “The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart.”

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

7. I might have been ten, eleven years old—I cannot say for certain—when my first master died.

8. When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

9. One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.

10. If you’re like me, the Trump presidency has turned you into a light sleeper.

11. That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom.

[ETA: This book has been partially guessed correctly in the comments below.]

12. It was a dark and stormy night.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

Baker’s Dozen “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams” Holiday Bonus: Alexa Monroe walked into the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco that Thursday night wearing her favorite red heels, jittery from coffee, and with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne in her purse.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

Double-Secret-Probation Bonus Round: Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down.

Please post any guesses below, not on Facebook or Twitter. That way, everyone will be contributing to the challenge in the same place. If you want time to think and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read the comments below and remember to check back on November 26 for a new post with the answers.

For the five previous annual challenges, click here.

Good luck!

Film 101—Horror IV: Creature Features

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Happy Halloween everyone!

Long before the water took shape, there was a black lagoon.

Although I haven’t been particularly good at sticking to my blog goals for the year, I was bound and determined to at least wrap up my film series on classic horror. And so, here I am, full of chocolate, in the wee hours of All Hallows’ Eve.

I started this series almost two years ago, in the wake of the ultimate horror show that was the 2016 presidential election, so I suppose it is only fitting that I conclude it now, just days before we learn whether this country has any chance of coming out of this Trumpian nightmare alive.

As I noted in my final quarterly film report of 2016, for this project I originally watched forty-eight horror (or horror-adjacent) movies released between 1920 and 1960. I had planned to watch and post in some sort of chronological order, but after my first post on silent horror, I decided to group films according to theme, leading with my favorite horror genre—old dark house mysteries—and then following up with classic movie monsters. That’s where things got bogged down a bit. I kept watching, but not writing.

For these remaining posts, I rewatched a number of those films and added a few more that I couldn’t get hold of last time. I’m picking up about where I left off, with monsters. Not the classic kind, such as vampires and mummies, but the random creatures you find scattered throughout the movies of this period, from giant apes to giant ants to aliens from outer space. I hope to post on the occult, mad scientists, and the evil that men do over the next few days.

Classic Boys Adventure

Three of the films I watched are less horror films than adventure-gone-wrong films. Unlike classic monster movies, which focus on the discovery or creation of the “monster” from the very beginning, these films all have a long “adventure” set-up involving explorers and/or scientists travelling to exotic locales. Rather than the more classic tales of metamorphosis, they are tales of discovery. They don’t so much play on primal fears as explore the hubris of mankind.

King Kong (1933) is certainly the best of these films. While I have a somewhat irrational fondness for the 1976 version with Jessica Lange, the original holds up rather well, despite some of the primitive effects rendering it less scary than it might have seemed in the 1930s. I have to admit I had forgotten there were so many dinosaurs in this version. Many, many dinosaurs. So many dinosaurs. The movie also benefits from being filmed pre-code and some of the scenes between Kong and Fay Wray made me do that pre-code double take.

Podcast Link: Episode #12 of Unspooled (watching the AFI Top 100 with actor/comedian Paul Scheer and film critic Amy Nicholson)

Huh, there were way more dinosaurs in King Kong than I remembered.

The Thing from Another World (1951) also takes a bit of time to set up, with the focus on Arctic exploration and the clash between scientists and the military dominating the adventure. When I first watched this two years ago, it fell in roughly the middle of the pack, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, on rewatch, this didn’t really make much of an impression on me (whereas Invasion significantly rose in my esteem). I wonder how much of that reaction is linked to having watched John Carpenter’s remake not that long ago as part of The Great Unseen. Still, if you haven’t seen one of the many riffs on this theme before, this movie is worth checking out.

Boys will be boys when they’re hanging out in the Arctic confronting The Thing from Another World.

I was less thrilled with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) than I expected, coming away from it thinking it was the epitome of the cheap-thrills “creature features” that showed on late-night television when I was growing up. It wasn’t bad per se, and I can see how much of the underwater camera effects and stunt work were groundbreaking for their time, but today my main takeaway was one of shoddy production values.

We’ve just begun to learn about the water and its secrets, just as we’ve only touched on outer space. We don’t entirely rule out the possibility that there might be some form of life on another planet, and why not some entirely different form of life in a world we already know is inhabited by millions of living creatures?

—Richard Carlson as Dr. David Reed in Creature from the Black Lagoon

No one likes a long commute, especially Gojira.

Fallout Boys

Two films made at roughly the same time for very different audiences deal with the potential dangers of the Atomic Age. In Gojira (Godzilla) (1954), nuclear testing awakens a creature from the depths, who then proceeds to ravage Japan in much the same way that atomic bombs ravaged the country in the closing days of World War II. This film has a great plot and script but I just couldn’t get into it, whether that was due to the language barrier or the production values I don’t really know. However, it’s a film I think I might warm to on repeated viewings. In contrast, for whatever reason, I loved Them! (1954) straight away. It starts off with a bit of Twilight Zone vibe, and, in an unusual twist for these types of movies, scientists and the military/law enforcement work together to try and stop giant irradiated ants from taking over the world. No, really. I thought I was going to find this movie, which started off the “giant bug” craze, extremely stupid, but I can actually see why people wanted to replicate it. This is one of the most underrated of the films in this series. Sadly, it was impossible to find on DVD, but I was able to rent it on Amazon Prime and I highly encourage you to seek it out if you have any interest in the science fiction of the 1950s.

Probably a good thing I didn’t watch Them! before visiting White Sands National Monument.

When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

—Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Harold Medford in Them!

You can run, but you can’t hide, at least not for long, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Attack of the Clones

The final two films that might reasonably be considered part of a creature feature series are Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Village of the Damned (1960), both of which deal with alien life forms stealthily invading small-town America and Britain respectively. As noted above, Invasion didn’t make that much of an impression the first time I watched it, but perhaps I just needed to be in the proper political hellscape to appreciate it. It’s really quite chilling. With multiple remakes and wide saturation of popular culture, it’s hard to come at this movie with a fresh eye, but it is very well done and I would put it on an almost equal footing with the 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland. Village of the Damned is less effective, mostly due to the special effects limitations of the day. It is perhaps more of a “horror” film than Invasion, despite its sci-fi premise, but the effects often made it seem more cheesy than creepy. Personally, I think I would appreciate the story more in the original novel form, despite the presence of the always fabulous George Sanders.

Podcast Link: Episode #53 of Out of the Past (sadly, a now-defunct podcast on film noir)

No wonder that kid from The Innocents seemed so creepy, he came straight from The Village of the Damned.

Do you have a favorite creature feature? How do you think some of these classics stack up to their remakes?

Horror Filmography: Creature Features
King Kong (1933)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Gojira (Godzilla) (1954)
Them! (1954)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Village of the Damned (1960)

For the previous posts in this Classic Horror series, see The Horror! The Horror!, Horror I: The Silent Scream, Horror II: A Dark and Stormy Night, and Horror III: Monster Mash.

October

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As my own auburn locks turn to grey and I add another year to my time on Earth this month, I post once again the poem “October” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. This is my favorite poem about my favorite month (Go Libras!) because I believe it captures the true essence of the October of my New England childhood—and the one that lives on in my heart in the relatively seasonless California of my adulthood.

October is the treasurer of the year,
And all the months pay bounty to her store;
The fields and orchards still their tribute bear,
And fill her brimming coffers more and more.
But she, with youthful lavishness,
Spends all her wealth in gaudy dress,
And decks herself in garments bold
Of scarlet, purple, red, and gold.

She heedeth not how swift the hours fly,
But smiles and sings her happy life along;
She only sees above a shining sky;
She only hears the breezes’ voice in song.
Her garments trail the woodlands through,
And gather pearls of early dew
That sparkle, till the roguish Sun
Creeps up and steals them every one.

But what cares she that jewels should be lost,
When all of Nature’s bounteous wealth is hers?
Though princely fortunes may have been their cost,
Not one regret her calm demeanor stirs.
Whole-hearted, happy, careless, free,
She lives her life out joyously,
Nor cares when Frost stalks o’er her way
And turns her auburn locks to gray.

—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Oak and Ivy (1893)

I haven’t experienced decent fall colors since I was in Rocky Mountain National Park three years ago. Tragic.

Opera 101— Bel Époque

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Overture as history lesson in Roberto Devereux. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Gaetano Donizetti, Roberto Devereux, (1837)
Based on: the play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by François Ancelot
Setting: England, 1598

Plot in 101 words or less: On this week’s episode of The Crown, Sara is sad—really sad—and Elizabeth is mad—really mad. Lord Cecil and his gang of (literal) peers are mad too. They’re plotting against the queen’s favorite, Devereux, who’s been playing footsie with those pesky Irish rebels. Devereux returns to plead his case but admits to Elizabeth he loves another and leaves her ring—the one that would guarantee his safety—with Sara, his best friend’s girl and object of his affections. Sara can’t get the ring back to him and so… off with his head! Should have found some hobbits. Or eagles.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: the overture, which quotes “God Save the Queen”; “Vivi, ingrato”, Elisabetta’s final aria

Mirror, mirror, on the wall… Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Photo by Cory Weaver.

As a self-proclaimed bel canto whore and lover of all things Tudor, I was bound to like Roberto Devereux, one of Gaetano Donizetti’s three “queen” operas, which, along with Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, forms what is known as the Tudor Trilogy. But I liked it even more than I thought.

Of course, this is not really surprising as Devereux had another strong point in its favor with the teaming of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, who we last saw together on the War Memorial stage in Norma and on whom I rightly bestowed multiple Figaros for outstanding performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta (left) and Jamie Barton as Sara (right). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Radvanovsky was fantastic here, both in voice and in her acting. The woman next to me seemed absolutely convinced she was elderly. For my part, I was amazed by her ability to convey imperial majesty and temperament as well as a certain kind of frailty and vulnerability. Jamie Barton’s Sara was a lovely counterpoint to this fierce and fearless portrayal, singing with what seemed a heartfelt and melancholic resolve. Tenor Russell Thomas as the eponymous Devereux also sang beautifully, especially in his final moments behind bars in the Tower with “Come uno spirito angelico.” Adler Fellow Amitai Pati once again stood out in a small role, that of the devious Lord Cecil.

What’s a little swordplay between friends? Russell Thomas as Roberto Devereux (left) and Sondra Radvanovsky (right). Photo by Cory Weaver.

This production conducts an elaborate history lesson in the prologue, which I liked, but wasn’t really necessary. It might have been more helpful to the audience to have highlighted more specific emotional or political aspects of Elizabeth’s reign. That said, I’m always happy to see sailing ships.

Still, this emphasis on “history” seemed at odds with the set itself, which was designed by Benoit Dugardyn and based on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater—a choice that emphasized the performance nature of an opera that is not quite based on actual history. While this bare set mostly worked, it did lead to a few clunky staging efforts, such as the final execution and renunciation of the throne. Oddly enough, I liked the whole glass casing idea that opened and closed the opera.

The costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth were similarly uneven. I loved some of the elaborate dresses, but Sara seemed rather plain in comparison considering she was Duchess of Nottingham.

You play with swords, you get the axe. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I realize this brief summary makes it seem like I didn’t like the production design, which is not the case, I just feel like it could have been more cohesive and less didactic somehow. Regardless, the singing was absolutely stellar.

In short, more Tudor queens, please!

Even Shakespeare shows up! Photo by Cory Weaver.

There are only two more performances of Roberto Devereux at the War Memorial Opera House, on September 23 and September 27. Run, don’t walk, to see this incredible production!