Where shadows Dance by C.S.Harris

The book has a historical background which can be difficult to follow.  It begins in 1812, when Napoleon embarked on his Russian campaign, Russian is pressuring Britain to send troops, while Britain in engage in war with Spain and trying to form other alliances, war breaks out with the United States. The British government has its hands full of spies, secrecy and murders. 

Meanwhile Dr. Gibson a well-known anatomists, discovers the corpse he purchased from a local grave robber, didn't die as proclaimed but indeed was murdered.  Dr. Gibson calls upon his closest friend the aristocrat/sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr to investigate.  The story line continues with Sebastian unraveling not one but several murders, while engaging in a romantic entanglement with Hero Jarvis, the daughter of the man he loathes.  The book is entertaining, especially Hero who dominates the last several chapters.

3 thumbs up

The Seven Samurai ("Shichinin no samurai")1954, b&w, Japanese with subtitles

 Still of Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura in Seven Samurai
For many years, when cinema publications or other groups have asked critics to list the ten greatest films of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” has been a consistent candidate not only for the lists but for the top spot.

Kurosawa’s masterpiece (one of several in his long career) runs nearly 3 ½ hours, but it seems like much less.  The setting is Japan in the 16th Century.  Seven men, itinerant samurai warriors, are hired by the inhabitants of a poor farming village to defend them from the bandits who annually steal the fruits of their labor, abduct the young women of the village, and kill anyone who might stand up to them.   The pacing in the first part is leisurely, not slow, in service to the creation of a cast of vivid, unforgettable characters who stay with the viewer long after the very moving final scene.  The second part consists of the training of the villagers by the samurai in siege defense and the actual siege itself.  The action in the second part of the film is gripping and has rarely been equaled in the many years since its creation.   For all of the movies that have been so deeply indebted to this work, it remains a distinctive and singular work of art.

Unlike many contemporary action films, “The Seven Samurai” succeeds so brilliantly because of the full-blooded characters among the samurai and villagers that Kurosawa has so lovingly brought to life.  His cast of performers works magnificently well.  Takashi Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the leader of the warriors.  Shimada is a man of weary dignity, willing to work for little more than three meals a day for a cause worthy of his efforts, who has the ability to quietly influence the other samurai in his recruitment efforts.  As perfect as Shimura is in his performance, he has to take a back seat to the legendary Toshiro Mifune, who is a virtual force of nature in his performance as Kikuchiyo, the seventh of these men.  Kikuchiyo claims to be a samurai but his wild, undisciplined manner render his claim suspect to the others.   This flea-bitten, boastful, almost comical rascal has so many layers underneath his coarse exterior that it takes most of the movie to truly understand what motivates him.  In the battle sequences, samurai or not, Kiku is the very embodiment of battlefield ferocity, and the great Mifune is truly something to behold in these scenes.

Although “Samurai” is widely considered to be Akira Kurosawa’s greatest work it has quite a lot of competition in that category.  “Rashomon” from 1950, “Ikiru” from 1952, “Yojimbo” from 1961, and his glorious late career masterwork “Ran” from 1985 would all have to be serious contenders.  Thanks to Mark Rhoda, a member of our theater department faculty who requested the indispensable Kurosawa box set from the Criterion Collection, our collection contains nearly every film that this giant of cinema ever directed.  “The Seven Samurai” should whet your appetite for more. 

Curt Barclift
Library Acquisitions

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack’s

The Irish government conducts a strange penal experiment knows as the "Somnos Project". Four convicted criminals are placed in a coma for three months. But all experiment requires a control, [an additional experiment which has no connection to the others] and JJ O’Malley an innocent man, volunteers to be the “control”. Why… in his own words, “to take my mind off my mind for a while”.

The novel is composed of short narratives from JJ’s adopted father, his girlfriend, friends and neighbors. They all describe JJ as a brilliant and gentle person who suffers from bouts of depression and existential guilt.

Spoiler alert – the accounts of JJ’s life are interrupted by footnote cluttered with academic gobbledygook, some are quite lengthy and take up half a page. It was like reading two different authors, embroiled in the same book – quite distracting.  

The book without the footnotes was appealing, though you only know JJ through the narratives; I would have like the author to include an interview with JJ.   

Three thumbs up.


Citizen Kane (1941) black & white

Citizen Kane
For anyone with an interest in cinematic history, there are few better films to start with than “Citizen Kane”.  Orson Welles’ monumental achievement of 1941 changed the very face of film and was without a doubt the most prominent directorial debut of any film director.   The fluid camerawork of Gregg Toland was a revelation in an age where the action had always moved around the camera.   There had truly been nothing remotely similar preceding it.  The unusual camera angles, the play of shadow and light, and the manic mobility of the camera marked the commencement of a visual style that would hold forth in the 1940’s and beyond.   In 1941, “Citizen Kane” marked the beginning of a new era in filmmaking.
 “Kane”s episodic narrative was another thoroughly unique aspect of Welles’ creation.  The story is concerned with the life of a very public and very powerful man.  It commences with his death and then follows a trail of witnesses of varying degrees of dependability interviewed by a persistent reporter.   The writing and acting is of a very high caliber.  Most of the cast were making their motion picture debuts, having gained their experience on stage and in radio. The acting talent of Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane and the rest of the cast was apparent from the start and they were mainstays of American cinema for many years.   As an example of the quality of the writing, the line (spoken by Sloane) “Old age is the one disease that you don’t look forward to being cured of” has, quite naturally, gained resonance with the passing years.

 I first saw “Citizen Kane” when I was in my early twenties and my initial reaction was in the vein of “What’s the big deal?”   I didn’t quite have that historical approach to film that I would develop but when I saw it again several years later, I got it.  I completely understood what an incredible work it was in the context of movies circa 1941.  I’ve probably watched Kane twenty or more times in the intervening years and I’m amazed at just how fresh and inventive it seems with every passing year.   A knowledge of where film was in 1941 and just what Welles achieved certainly adds to an appreciation of this genuine work of art, but one’s appreciation isn’t dependent on that knowledge.  “Citizen Kane” remains a fascinating, unique, masterpiece more than 70 years later.          

Our Library Movie Collection/Curt Barclift

When I left St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 1976, diploma in hand, I carried something else with me that was a bit less tangible. Thanks to the efforts of Jim Hayes, who taught film in those bygone days, I left St. Mary’s with an enduring love for the art of film. I had learned a good deal about the great masters of cinema, largely directors, who had in the 20th Century taken a new form of mass entertainment and out of that created a genuine, modern art form. I had always loved movies but I had never regarded them in terms of artistic merit, they were simply one of my favorite ways of passing time.  
In 1976, the great films were not very easy to come by. This was the age before video and cable television. Practically the only way to see the great works of cinema intact and uncut was to frequent the repertory movie houses (The Biograph in DC immediately comes to mind) that exhibited them.  Living in Southern Maryland meant a 1 ½ hour drive to the city, which wasn’t always feasible. For years, so many of the works of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and the other masters of world cinema remained merely rumors, objects of curiosity and desire that I had heard so much about but never had the opportunity to see for myself. The video age changed that and my objects of desire began to surface. My true education in the art of filmmaking had finally commenced.

Today, the St. Mary’s community has a treasure trove at their fingertips. Our library is stocked with a hugely impressive collection of the greatest of all works of cinema. For anyone with a newly discovered love for the cinematic art, our DVD selection is priceless. My intent in writing this blog will be to assist the potential film fanatic (or the already established one) in gaining some awareness of just what is available to them. I’ll write about the great directors and selected works from their filmographies or individual works by less well known directors in hopes that I can inspire an interest in these indispensable contributions to the art.

I would like to express my appreciation to Robin Bates, Mark Rhoda, and Dave Ellsworth for their efforts in helping to build a first-class DVD collection for the SMCM library.  Their knowledge of and love for cinema are a wonderful resource for the entire community.

Welcome to the blog!

We have all, at one point or another, read a post on Amazon, Facebook or Twitter.  For this reason we are taking our staff book club digital. You can now submit your reviews on books, and movies to clcolson@smcm.educrbarclift@smcm.edu, or  pemann@smcm.edu.

As for me…If anyone had told me a few years ago I’d be a blogger, I would have asked my son which science fiction movie monster that was. And yet here I am “blogging” about the latest books I have read. The beauty of this system is that though I am not an eloquent writer, nor a technical one, I am able to put my opinions out for you to read and get your feedback. Often times the feedback I receive helps me better understand what I am reading from new perspectives, making me enjoy the story even more.

Like many of you I was skeptical about writing reviews. I like reading for pleasure. The idea of analyzing and reviewing the books I read seemed like quite the headache until I found just how easy it can be. Personally, I select books that sound intriguing. When I finish a book I ask myself a few questions– why did I select that particular book, how did the book make me feel, and what, if anything, did I get out of it? Most of the time a slew of emotions come into play; take the book “Dog Stars.” When (slight spoiler) one of the supporting characters dies, oh gosh did I cry. And the book “Passage” gave me nightmares for a week! The need to share these experiences is a powerful one, and here we intend to provide an outlet for that need, as well as to spread the wealth of READING!

As for film, well I’m not a film critic, I don’t know one director from other – so this I will leave to my esteem colleague Curt, who if given a dialogue or scene can pretty much tell you the name of the film, the director and leading stars. …Me, I love Disney films.


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus Review of the staff book club summer reading by Angie Draheim.

If you want to be completely whisked away to another time and place, follow The Night Circus. Don't worry. There are no scary clowns. Think of a mystifying Cirque du Soleil show but better. The vivid and beautiful imagery had me captivated from page one. I felt like one of the rêveurs completely obsessed and entranced by the whimsical, intriguing Victorian circus and its interesting cast of characters and was sad when the book ended. I was actually grateful that it took me so long to get through it (not because it was at all a slow read but because my toddler keeps me busy during my spare time) as it kept the magic alive in my mind that much longer.

The Night Circus is available at the SMCM Library in print and via library Kindle