When I posted "Our Summer of Silents" a few days ago, I began wondering if I had spent too many of the 90+ scorching days afforded to Northern Virginia watching movies. So I started poking around in the various stacks of books cluttering our home to reassure myself I had spent some time in that most respectable of intellectual pastimes – reading.
Though the title oversells it a bit – golf is never “solved” – but Homer Kelley did, in fact, write the most scientific treatise on the golf swing ever published. What makes the story fascinating is that Kelley himself was a plain, simple working man from the Pacific Northwest who developed an obsession that produced what amounted to an Enlightenment-style treatise on the game of golf. The Golfing Machine, as Kelley called it, eventually spawned a school of teachers that follows its tenants.
Karp, a journalist who is also a golfing fanatic, spent a year visiting all the best-known golf gurus – including one who does “group” — in the US and the UK, only to reach the conclusion that he needs to relax and trust his swing. The perfect book for people like myself and Q. H. who think about our swings way too much.
Matthew Sweet, Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema.
I’ve always loved British films, though they are treated with disdain by many film critics who think British actors, writers, and directors took too long to leave behind the West End style. I don’t mind a bit of theater in my movies when they are as good as great British plays such as Terence Rattigan’s 1948 “The Winslow Boy” starring Robert Donat and directed by Anthony Asquith (one of my personal top ten.) Sweet’s book, however, is about the history of British silent films, particularly its actors and actresses. He brings to life a corpus of cinema that has been almost completely lost or destroyed.
William Trevor, Death in Summer.
Trevor is our Dostoevsky, though his setting is rural England or Ireland. His short stories are better known than his novels, though his novels will one day receive the recognition they deserve. Start with Felicia’s Journey and you may want to try Death in Summer or his latest, Love and Summer.
Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key.
Keilson has been rediscovered due to a review of this book by Francine Prose in the New York Times calling him “one of the world’s greatest writers.” Now 100 years old and living in the Netherlands, Keilson, after surviving as a Jew in WW II, made his living as a psychoanalyst working with traumatized children who lost parents in the Holocaust. Only two of his novels have been translated into English, but on the basis of this one, it’s safe to say all the others will soon be made available in English. Francine Prose is exactly right – Keilson ranks with the best, and Comedy in a Minor Key, the story of a young Dutch couple hiding a Jew in their attic, will haunt you for days after you read it.
James Card, Seductive Cinema: the Art of Silent Film.
This book is the best place to begin learning about “pre-dialogue” films, as Card insists they should be called. Card debunks many of the myths that get in the way of enjoying these films, such as the superiority of D. W. Griffith’s films, especially his “Intolerance,” and the insistence that all silents should be projected at the same speed. Silent films, according to Card, were filmed at varying speeds depending on how fast the cameraman turned the hand crank. For many years the chief film curator at the Eastman House in Rochester, Card knew many of the silent film stars and directors personally, including the great Louise Brooks, and speaks with utter authority as a man who has lived and breathed these films since he was a boy in Cleveland.
Szerb’s fiction is gradually being published in English translation by the Pushkin Press in beautiful compact editions. Szerb was a Hungarian Jew, president of the Hungarian Literary Academy, who converted to Catholicism and died in a concentration camp at age 43. Journey by Moonlight is considered his masterpiece – the story of a young marriage falling apart during the honeymoon in Venice – but I much preferred the delightful The Pendragon Legend which was like nothing I had ever read before. Part mystery story, part meditation on medieval legend, Pendragon pits a self-absorbed European scholar against a scheming temptress and deranged Aussie mountain-climber in a fight over a one-of-a-kind manuscript that holds the key to the secret of eternal life.
Morris, the pre-eminent Jewish historian, offers a brief but authoritative overview of the historic struggle between Israel and Palestine. This is a good book to help you sort through the complexities of what looks more and more like an insoluble problem — the creation of a Palestinian state.
Oren, a Georgetown professor and current Israeli ambassador to the US, offers an account of the 1967 Six-Day War that is as close to authoritative as we are likely to have in the near future. It provides important insight into the figure of Gamel Abdul Nasser who provoked the ’67 war with Israel but failed to lead his coalition of Arab states and, even worse, put generals in the field who were not only incompetent but also failed to tell him that the Israeli army had crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt. It would also provide an excellent basis for a discussion of the ethics of a preemptive war.
Louise Brooks, from small-town Kansas, became the most celebrated silent film star in Europe in the last years of silent movies, even eclipsing Dietrich and Garbo. On the cusp of US stardom, Brooks refused to obey the orders of the Hollywood moguls and ended up in two German silent films that are among the best ever made – “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” both 1929 and directed by G. W. Pabst.
Arthur Schnitzler, Fraulein Else.
Few writers treat the relationship between men and women in love better than the Viennese Arthur Schnitzler. Educated as a physician, Schnitzler’s stories and novels have provided many directors the plot-lines for their films, such as Max Ophuls in his brilliant 1950 movie, “La Ronde.” Fraulein Else is not the best place to start with Schnitzler, since the story is largely a first-person stream of consciousness narration. The best place is Night Games: And Other Stories and Novellas. It contains “Dream Story” used by Stanley Kubrick as the basis of “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Stephan Zweig, Selected Stories and Burning Secret.
Zweig is being read again thanks to the effort of Pushkin Press and NYT Books. Burning Secret is one of his best, the story of how a 12-year old tries to thwart the infidelity of his mother during a month-long summer holiday without her husband. The way the would-be suitor of the mother manipulates the affections of the son to seduce the mother makes you wish for the arrival of Dirty Harry, or even better, Freddie Krueger.
Matt Benyon Rees, A Grave in Gaza.
Rees is a British mystery writer who has published a series of detective novels set in Palestine. In each book of the series, Omar Yussef, a high school teacher from Bethlehem, is drawn into a murder investigation, often putting his own life in danger from local thugs, terrorists, and religious fanatics. A Grave in Gaza is the best of the bunch and provides a horrifying glimpse into the 136 square miles controlled by Hamas but containing many warring factions.
Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas.
A 1905 epistolary novel by one of the great Swedish novelists. Soderberg’s Doctor Glas tells the story of an unmarried physician who assists the wife of a prominent minister to avoid his affections – by deliberately warning the pastor against any undue “exertions” that would endanger his heart. At first Doctor Glas does this out of pity for a wife he feels is abused, but then he falls for her compromising the Hippocratic Oath even more!
Sheridan Morley, The Brits Who Conquered Hollywood: Tales from the Hollywood Raj.
It was a surprise to me to learn how much the British dominated Hollywood from the early talkie years well into the 50s, creating nothing less than a “British colony,” inhabited by actors such as Ronald Coleman, George Arliss, C. Aubrey Smith, Basil Rathbone, Cary Grant, Greer Garson, Leslie Howard, Boris Karloff, and David Niven. Their often-strained attempt to hold onto an "ex-pat" way of life, — cricket and all — was hard to put down!