Swans Commentary » swans.com July 30, 2012  



Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films


My Summer 2012 Picks


by Gregory Elich



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(Swans - July 30, 2012)   With so many cherished creative works, it was not possible to list six works in each category that stand as my favorites. My list, therefore, represents six of my favorite works in each category. I could just as easily have substituted any number of other works that would have ranked equally among my favorites.




•   Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad (2000), by Matthew Frye Jacobson.

A wonderful analysis of the intersection between the imperial drive for markets abroad and the exploitation of immigrants as cheap domestic labor around the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Class and race are center stage, and the author has unearthed startling information and quotations. This is essential reading not only for understanding this period but also for its echoes in present-day U.S. policy.


•   Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology (1952), by C. W. Ceram.

A boyhood favorite that still stands up to re-reading during adulthood. A classic for anyone with an interest in archaeology.


•   The Last Days of the Incas (2007), by Kim MacQuarrie.

Pizzarro's conquest of the Incas, written with such verve and style that the historical events truly come alive. It is such a dramatic story. This book is hard to put down; don't read this on a work night, or you won't get enough sleep.


•   Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008), by Michael Burlingame.

Monumental two-volume biography that surpasses all previous books on the subject. The author has devoted his life to researching his subject, and the result is this masterful biography. Even those deeply familiar with Lincoln and his times will find much to learn here.


•   The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (2009), by Peter Hart.

Extraordinary account of one of the most brutal battles on the Western Front during World War I. Hart has incorporated much material from soldiers' diaries and letters, and the result is so vivid that the reader can practically feel what it was like to have been there. The author lets the facts speak for themselves, painting a picture of a nightmare beyond the imagination. Trench warfare in the Great War is popularly regarded as having been horrific; this book makes it clear that the reality was far worse than the image. Hart tells his story with humane sympathy for those on both sides who endured the hell that was the Somme.


•   The Glory of Their Times (1966), by Lawrence S. Ritter.

Simply put, there has never been a better baseball book. In the sixties, Ritter interviewed several former ballplayers who had been active at the beginning of the twentieth century, and this book contains their reminiscences of the "deadball" era. These men were colorful characters, with a knack for telling a good story. This is more than a baseball book; it's a window on another time.




•   D'om Le Vrai Sens for Clarinet and Orchestra (2010), composed by Kaija Saariaho. Performed by Kari Kriikku on clarinet and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, on the Ondine label.

Orchestral magic from one of the finest living composers. Her music in recent years reveals a kinship with Toru Takemitsu's late style, with its impressionistic orchestral color. Inspired by the Medieval tapestry "The Lady and the Unicorn," this is mysterious and gorgeous music that I count among her best.


•   Sonata for Piano, D. 960(1828), composed by Franz Schubert. Performed by Mitsuko Uchida, on the Philips label.

Written shortly before the composer's untimely death at the age of 31, this sonata is sublime music of heartfelt lyricism with deep undercurrents. The second movement is profoundly touching, yet unsettling. There are a number of excellent recordings, but I am especially fond of Uchida's sensitive performance.


•   La Fabbrica Illuminata for soprano and magnetic tape (1964), composed by Luigi Nono. Sung by Carla Henius, on the Wergo label.

"Nono is on the offensive, and his language is that of fire," wrote fellow composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann. That perfectly describes Nono's passionate musical expression of political commitment. This piece is a shout of solidarity with workers and a condemnation of capitalism, with the soprano soaring above electronically-altered factory sounds woven together with workers' voices talking of exploitation. An avant-garde masterpiece from one of the 20th century's leading composers.


•   Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz, for magnetic tape (1965), composed by Luigi Nono, on the Wergo and Ricordi labels.

Many of Nono's works are fiercely anti-fascist, and in this one he created a haunting and moving elegy to those who lost their lives in the Auschwitz concentration camp.


•   Les Indes Galantes (1735), composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Performed by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie, on the Harmonia Mundi label.

This opera-ballet is pure delight. French baroque music in general is overflowing with riches, but I have a special affection for this enchanting gem, containing some of Rameau's most exuberant and ravishing music.


•   Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1996), composed by Helmut Lachenmann. Performed by the SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart and the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, on the ECM label.

A richly innovative avant-garde opera partly based on the Little Match Girl story. Extraordinary extended musical techniques and compositional mastery make this endlessly fascinating music a modernist masterpiece.




•   Secret Sunshine (2007), directed by Lee Chang-dong, with Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho.

Powerful, emotionally-shattering film from South Korea's great humanist director. Jeon won the best actress award at Cannes for her role in this film, and rightfully so, for she is absolutely magnificent. A thought-provoking film with layers of meaning that repay multiple viewings, Secret Sunshine is profoundly moving and stays with one long after viewing.


•   Woman on the Beach (2006), directed by Hong Sang-soo, with Kim Mun-suk and Choi Sun-hee.

Hong's films are fairly consistent in quality, so I could just as easily have selected any one of his other films. Hong is my favorite living film director, and his psychologically perceptive films are typically populated by deeply flawed characters whose behavior and lack of self-awareness cause pain for themselves and others. In Hong's films there is usually a bifurcated structure that examines events or characters from another viewpoint, providing further elaboration of meaning. On one level his films are bleak, yet at the same time they are leavened by a very Korean appreciation of the humor in the absurd. Take for example the scene where the protagonist -- a film director -- in an attempt to impress a woman explains his completely loopy idea for his next film. It's a hoot.


•   The Public Enemy (1931), directed by William Wellman, with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell.

The music during the opening credits of this film is a snarling rendition of "I Am Forever Blowing Bubbles," which lets the viewer know exactly what kind of film to expect -- brutal, raw, and gritty. Cagney's bravura performance made him a star, but the film also benefits from expert direction and a tough, snappy script with sizzling dialogue. This is one of the finest pre-code films from Warner Brothers.


•   Kwaidan (1964), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, with Michiyo Aratma and Misako Watanabe.

I first saw this film at a university as part of a week-long celebration of the music of Toru Takemitsu, the composer of the soundtrack, who was there to introduce the film. I was captivated from the first moments of the film, which immediately set a mood of contemplative and strange beauty that is sustained throughout, enhanced by Takemitsu's otherworldly sounds. The film is comprised of four ghost stories, based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Don't look for chills or fright in these ghost stories; the film aims for something quieter and more satisfying. This would make ideal late-night viewing, when there are no distractions or interruptions, allowing one to fully inhabit the mood that the film sets.


•   Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), directed by Charles Reisner, with Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrance, Marion Byron.

There are no films I love more than those of Buster Keaton. I could just as easily have substituted any of the other films he made prior to his disastrous signing with MGM, where he was stripped of creative control over his work. I chose this film as a particularly fine example of Keaton's comic inventiveness.


•   City of Life and Death (2009), directed by Lu Chuan, with Liu Ye, Guan Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi.

An enthralling film portraying the Rape of Nanking. Stunning black and white cinematography, an intense yet sensitive script, expert direction, and strong acting make this one of the greatest and most poignant films of recent years. Here it is war and imperialism that are to blame, rather than the Japanese as a people. It is a shame that this film never got the attention it so richly deserved.


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Gregory Elich is an independent researcher, a journalist, and an activist.   (back)


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Published July 30, 2012