A quick book review, movie review, and a new movie to see

The book: I just finished this book for the second time (I read an earlier edition without the introduction; click on image for Amazon link):

This is the memoir of pilot, horse trainer, and adventurer Beryl Markham (1902-1986), recounting her years in Africa with the Happy Valley set, which included Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa), her estranged husband Baron von Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton, Blixen’s lover (and, as I discovered, also Markham’s). The book wasn’t that popular when it came out in 1942, and went out of print, only to be rediscovered by Ernest Hemingway and brought back into print in 1982. Markham, who returned to Africa at fifty, then enjoyed a few years of literary fame before she died.

She deserves that fame based on this book, as it’s a wonderful and beautifully written memoir—a perfect complement to Out of Africa, published five years earlier. Both describe the same part of Africa (Kenya) at the same time, but one from the vantage point of a coffee-farm owner and the other from an aviator. They both approach the memoir not as a seamless narrative, but as a series of incidents, each illuminating one moment of time. And both describe women who refused to accept the subordinate status afforded to females at the time, and thus are, as they say, “empowering.” Both women were brave and admirable, and you need to read both books, especially if you love good prose.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Out of Africa. That’s because at times Markham’s prose becomes a bit—well, not exactly purple—but strained as she strives for literary effect.  I’m not sure if she was trying to match the graceful writing of Blixen (I’m not even sure if Markham had read Out of Africa), but she didn’t have the tools to do what Blixen did.  For example, she could not have matched what I consider one of the finest set pieces in English literature: the description in Out of Africa of Finch Hatton’s grave, which I reproduced here.

That said, the book is still well above most memoirs, and deservedly a classic. Read it soon.

The movie: This documentary from 2018, deserves the high ratings it got on Rotten Tomatoes (a 94% critics’ rating).

Nearly two hours long, it’s not long enough, for Williams contained multitudes. It’s full of clips showing the man’s quicksilver mind, riotous humor, and embellished with remembrances from his wives and friends, especially Billy Crystal. I thought Williams was always “on”, but it becomes clear that when he was with his family, he was very quiet and withdrawn, perhaps recharging. As we know, he killed himself at 63. Many say this was unexplainable, but he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was furious at not being able to control his thoughts; as he said, “I need to reboot my mind.”

The one omission here is that Williams’s movies are given short shrift, and they were an important part of how many people remember him: Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Awakenings, and so on. That alone is a wonderful c.v., but then there was also the comedy onstage and on television. The guy was sui generis, fizzling with energy, and, as they say, we won’t see his like again. But you can see it in this wonderful HBO documentary.

Upcoming movie. I haven’t seen the new movie Ammonite yet (it comes out in the U.S. November 13), but reader Kurt sent me a five-star review from the BBC. You’ve likely heard of paleontologist Mary Anning, and this tells her story, embellished with a fictionalized lesbian romance. Wonderful casting: Anning is played by Kate Winslet, and her protege and later lover Charlotte Murchison, (a real person who was friends with Anning) played by the great young actor Saoirse Ronan. I’ll reserve judgment until I see it, of course, but I will see it. Here’s a trailer:

20 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Another great book of memoires from that same place and period is “The flame trees of Thika”, by Elspeth Huxley. (She later married a cousin of Aldous and grandson of “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Huxley.)

    There’s also a sequel, “The mottled lizard”. Lots of anecdotes about the Brits of the region and a good story of her famly. Another of her books, “Red strangers”, is about the life of the Kikuyu of the area where her family settled in Kenya and raised the question of female circumcision. The preface to the latest edition is by this site’s friend, Richard Dawkins.

    I enjoyed all of them.

    • merilee
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      Ditto on Flame Trees.
      We tried to watch Ammonite (virtually) at Toronto International Film Festival last week, but it was sold out.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    … only to be rediscovered by Ernest Hemingway and brought back into print in 1982.

    That rediscovery had to have taken place before 1961, when Papa croaked himself by eating his shotgun in Ketchum, ID.

    • Posted September 20, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes, someone found a letter of Hemingway’s after his death extolling Markham’s book, and that find is what kicked off the republication.

  3. Posted September 20, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    She sells sea shells on the sea shore.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      “She sells sea shells on the sea shore.”

      “Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers,
      Such skill at sewing shirts our shy young sister Susie shows,
      Some soldiers send epistles
      Say they’d sooner sleep in thistles
      Than the saucy soft short shirts for soldiers sister Susie sews.”

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I very nearly watched the Robin Williams doc a couple nights ago when I couldn’t sleep — to sleep the sleep of the righteous is never to be my life’s lot, I fear, especially during this pandemic — but I thought a story that ends in suicide might be too depressing for that time of night.

    Based on your recommendation, I’ll watch it tonight.

    • Peter (Oz) Jones
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Hello Ken
      It is well worth watching and it is very respectful & discreet about him ending his life.

      If you can imagine a Prof Pinker at double speed then this doco shows that in spades!

      And I had not realised it was him in the TV series Mork & Mindy.

      So sad that he was losing his mind.
      I just wonder if he knew/realised what the trajectory of his brain disease would be?

      He was a very naughty boy tho . . .

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 20, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        From what I read he was unable to do comedy anymore and he couldn’t stand living this way.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      I think I will watch it tonight. I always loved Robin Williams.

  5. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just started watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire with my dear old mum, who loves French cinema. We watched the first half last night. Inevitably, she fell asleep halfway through(which is not a comment on the film – she does it with everything we watch).

    Apart from that I recently tried to sit through Tenet but haven’t yet made it to the end(I’ve no access to a cinema nearby so am streaming it). Robert Pattinson is the best thing about it, doing a Hitch impression apparently, although if that’s true it’s so subtle as to be indiscernible.

    Also saw an okay little modernisation of Groundhog Day called Palm Springs. That’s about it recently for new films.

    I find my appetite for anything even vaguely serious or heavy(or awkward, eg. comedy like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Peep Show) has vanished completely. The only reason I’m watching Portrait is because I thought it’d be up my mum’s street and she’s down for a couple of days(and it was recommended here recently). Otherwise I’d be watching something brainless and easy instead, something where people fall over and then the audience laughs.

    I heard some good things about Winslet’s performance in Ammonite. Also Nomadland with Frances McDormand, who’s had the most amazing late-career purple patch recently. But I know I’ll never watch either of them, at least not if I continue to feel as enervated as I do now. Add a laughter track and some slapstick I might change my mind, but otherwise nope.

    I’m more open to TV series, like Raised By Wolves, The Boys, Mrs. America. I can cope with the brevity of the episodes. But even there anything too serious and I get bored and listless.

  6. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    It’s my understanding that Robin Williams had Lewy body dementia, not Parkinson’s, and nobody knew what was wrong with him until the autopsy. Lewy body dementia has symptoms that can be ‘parkinsonian’ but there are numerous other symptoms that probably drove him to suicide just to stop the torment, especially when he couldn’t understand what was happening to him, though I’d wager that if he had knowledge of his disease, he’d still have committed suicide.

    Some of them are (from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lewy-body-dementia/symptoms-causes/syc-20352025🙂

    Lewy body dementia signs and symptoms may include:

    Visual hallucinations. Hallucinations may be one of the first symptoms, and they often recur. They may include seeing shapes, animals or people that aren’t there. Sound (auditory), smell (olfactory) or touch (tactile) hallucinations are possible.

    Movement disorders. Signs of Parkinson’s disease (parkinsonian signs), such as slowed movement, rigid muscles, tremor or a shuffling walk may occur. This can also result in falls.

    Poor regulation of body functions (autonomic nervous system). Blood pressure, pulse, sweating and the digestive process are regulated by a part of the nervous system that is often affected by Lewy body dementia. This can result in dizziness, falls and bowel issues such as constipation.

    Cognitive problems. You may experience thinking (cognitive) problems similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease, such as confusion, poor attention, visual-spatial problems and memory loss.

    Sleep difficulties. You may have rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder, which can cause you to physically act out your dreams while you’re asleep.

    Fluctuating attention. Episodes of drowsiness, long periods of staring into space, long naps during the day or disorganized speech are possible.

    Depression. You may experience depression sometime during the course of your illness.

    Apathy. You may have loss of motivation.

    • Posted September 20, 2020 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you’re right about the disease; I was too lazy to go back and look it up.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes I think they diagnosed him with Parkinson’s and he was on medication for it but couldn’t figure out that he had lewy body dementia because the symptoms were inconsistent.

  7. JohnH
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I recently finished the book Robin by Dave Itzkoff. It is a very detailed look at the life of Robin Williams. It recounts both his triumphs as well as his struggles with addiction and depression. He was a comic genius and accomplished actor who’s feeling of self worth was very much tied to the success of his last endeavor. Unfortunately, during the last couple of years of his life he lived with Lewy body dementia misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. For a man who brought so much laughter into the world it was a very sad and tragic ending. For anyone who has enjoyed Robin either as actor or stand-up comic I highly recommend the book and I look forward to the documentary.

  8. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    An excellent book on the Happy Valley set is
    “White Mischief: The Murder of Lord Erroll – A True Story of Aristocracy, Alcohol and Adultery ” It was made into a kind of biopic for those who like dramatizations of real events, which I’m not keen on.

  9. Type Logician
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I went back to the post in which you quote Fitzgerald and Blixen, Jerry, and I have another work to suggest which you would very likely enjoy: Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr. Her prose is lapidary, with a wonderfully understated elegance and eloquence that I’ve seen in no other writer. The plot is simple, description and characterization are everything, and since the narrative trajectory announced very early on, I won’t be spoiling anything if I provide a sample:

    “Through the gates she watched trees lose their green and the tile pattern of the driveway disappear. As she stood next to the heap of stones a miner passed her on his bicycle, then two others coasted by. She raised her hand and the riders waved back. But her intention had been to stop them.

    Stop, she wanted to call out. Stop for a minute. Look through these gates and see the lighted house. An accident has happened here. Remember the place. Bring stones.”

    Doerr’s prose is flawless, and to my taste superior to Hemingway’s in the style for which EH is usually acknoweldged as a master.

    I actually read West With The Night when I was at university. I thought it was excellent, and very much appreciated the matter-of-factness of Markham’s way of characterizing what’s going on (although yes, at times she does seem to be close to straining for effect—but only occasionally). And the title itself is a small literary gem in its evocativeness.

  10. merilee
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Where/how did you see the Robin Williams do ?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

      Hbo. You can see it on Crave with HBO if you have it.

      • merilee
        Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, Diana. I do have Crave/HBO.


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