Thursday, November 25, 2004
Extract: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Host: Guardian -first book award-shortlisted
Childermass assured him that the time was propitious and Childermass knew the world. Childermass knew what games the children on street-corners are playing - games that all other grown-ups have long since forgotten. Childermass knew what old people by firesides are thinking of, though no one has asked them in years. Childermass knew what young men hear in the rattling of the drums and the tooting of the pipes that makes them leave their homes and go to be soldiers - and he knew the half-eggcupful of glory and the barrelful of misery that await them. And all that Childermass knew made him smile; and some of what he knew made him laugh out loud; and none of what he knew wrung from him so much as ha'pennyworth of pity.
Monday, November 22, 2004
Title: Situation 37
Author: Russell Hoban
Publisher: BBC Radio 4
Situation 37 is the first of what I gather are 5 short stories by various authors under the heading of “Mind Games” to be read on BBC Radio 4. Situation 37 is a piece by Russell Hoban, one of my favourite writers, and is about 14 minutes long and was read by Mark Strong. Like much of Hoban’s work Situation 37 manages to fit in a journey on the London underground as well as a visit to one of London’s art galleries – so it has that kind of consistent environmental/textual feel that one expects from his work.
The story starts when a woman sits beside a man on the underground. He tries to start a conversation when he notices that they are both reading the same book – 36 Situations. He jokes that perhaps two people meeting on a train while reading the same book could be considered to be “situation 37”. Despite her initial reticence they get to talking, and before he knows it she is proposing murder!
For me the reading by Mark Strong comes across a little too passive at times, at least for the narrating character, though he manages to get more emotion across when recounting the girl’s parts. Regardless of the voice speaking, the voice writing comes through and Situation 37 is a nice little slice of Hoban.
Sunday, November 21, 2004
1/5. Situation 37 By Russell Hoban
15:30 Afternoon Reading - Mind Games
Series of psychological thrillers and disturbing tales.
"Situation 37" will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 15:30 on 22nd
November - a chance meeting on a train has murderous consequences, read by Mark Strong. Presumably available over the BBC website for 7 days after the event.
Friday, November 19, 2004
Author: John Gimlette
Publisher: Arrow Books
One of the ways John Gimlette’s book caught my attention was on a visit to Random House’s website. The front page included a flash animation of bright pink pig balloon floating up the page. At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig is published by Arrow Books, a division of Random House. As the subtitle declares At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig is “a riotous journey into the heart of Paraguay”.
Over the last few years I’ve gained a certain interest in travel writing. Being European that interest tends to look beyond those borders, and particularly to Asia and South America. As such my first step past random articles was a book following a Canadian’s journey in Japan. At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig is my second travel book, following a British man’s experiences in the dark heart of South America that is Paraguay.
It started with the war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands. Gimlette decided that being a Brit in Argentina was not a great plan, so he crossed the border into Paraguay. There he found a country bordered by Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, a land locked “island” with borders described by treacherous and hostile territories. Once there Gimlette was drawn in by the way the country and it’s history. With which he initially decided to write a novel based in Paraguay – but soon decided that there was so much colour to the reality that the non-fiction route was the one to take.
During the period the Spanish and Portuguese were slicing up South America between them, Paraguay was where they met their fiercest resistance. Ever since, to some degree, Paraguay has remained untamed. To an extent this has provided an appeal to colonists over the centuries. Travellers from all over the world have looked to Paraguay as an untapped paradise, as some utopian Eden. The result however is that Paraguay remains unconquered, leading to the flipside, and those that regard the country as a hell on Earth.
Paraguay is one of the most under populated countries of the modern world, where most of the land is owned by something like 1% of the population. Most of the population is thereby poor, and concentrated in places like the capital city of Asuncion. With this in mind the book is split into three sections. The first covers Asuncion, where Gimlette has spent most of his time over the years. Then there is a chunk on Eastern Paraguay and The Chaco (the wild, northern, desert territory), which he travels into as he follows the various stories of this nation. Throughout this journey there is a view of contemporary Paraguay, which is most evident in the Asuncion section. But at each step he covers the history and each of the characters who have shaped the history and earned Gimlette’s fascination.
Of the characters the ones that crop up the most are Francisco Lopez/Eliza Lynch, Stroessner, and Mengele. As well as a host of those visiting over the years, leaving their own documentary trails. If there is one down side to At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig, it is the way that the stories becomes disjointed at times – Gimlette providing each development in relation to the latest place he visits, rather than a linear narrative. Which can make it difficult at times to keep track as he switches between Paraguayan dictators and German colonists, or in turn who the source of each new thread was.
Francisco Lopez was part of a family that ruled Paraguay, who modelled themselves on the rule of Napoleon. Even if when Lopez went to France for an audience with Bonaparte he was snubbed. Lopez went to Europe hoping to come back with a royal bride, instead he came back with Eliza Lynch – an Irish whore and hanger on in French society. When Lopez took over from his father it wasn’t long before he had managed to turn South America against him, and Paraguay was at was with the overwhelming powers of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. Despite the real impact this war had on the population of Paraguay, the native Paraguayan Indians once more proved their ferocity in conflict. These characters take on such a big part of this book, partly because of the impact of this war, but also because when the Triple Alliance finally broke through into the heart of Paraguay, Lopez went on the run, leading his pursuers on a chase from town to town. So that it is almost to the point where everywhere Gimlette visits was the capital of Paraguay for a week.
Mixed in with the history of these kind of dictators in Paraguayan history, part of what makes this book so interesting is the history of colonists. Gimlette taking the time to visit each faded dream of the disaffected refugees and talking to the people that remember those dreams while living with the reality. These take in Australians in search of Utopia, Japanese cowboys, Mennonites fleeing persecution in Europe/Russia, Jesuits and so many others. Partly because it makes for a good story, but also because of the consistent presence/effect, Gimlette spends a lot of time on the Germans.
A solid part of which comes from the anti-Semites in the late 1800’s, Doctor Forster read too much into statements by Wagner, and established himself with a new paradise in Paraguay with his fiancé Elizabeth Nietzsche. Who was the sister of Freidrich Nietzsche’s, who he pretty much disowned, though when he fell ill she returned to Germany to re-write his legacy. Despite the failure of this enterprise, it created a precedent, such that Paraguay was the first country in the world to have a Nazi government. Elizabeth Nietzsche found herself in favour with Hitler’s regime, and used that to provide money for schools in Paraguay. At the last minute, despite Paraguay’s preferences, they decided it was diplomatic to chose the side of the allies against Germany – even though it was pretty much the last days of the war, they were also the first South American country to declare war on Germany. Regardless, with the end of the war, Paraguay gained a reputation for harbouring war criminals – with Nazis like Mengele trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazi-hunters.
Paraguay has been populated by a number of Indian tribes over the years. Many of which have been assimilated into Paraguayan culture, or seen there numbers dwindle to the point of extinction. The base people come from the Guarani, though for the most part the core has been muddled over the centuries with the inter-breeding with outsiders. Reading of At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig overlapped my reading of City Of The Beasts by Isabelle Allende, one of South America’s most well known authors. In which she has her characters meet a secretive tribe of Indians in the Brazilian rain forests, from the descriptions of this tribe and of the Ache in Paraguay it isn’t much of a leap to suspect that these tribes are related – the ability to disappear in the jungle, and cannibalistic rituals related to the release of evil/lingering spirits.
Paraguay as depicted by Gimlette in At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig is filled with characters in the past and the present. So many of whom guide Gimlette, providing so much of the humour that comes through in the book, especially in the early part, where it feels like there is something on every page which made me laugh. That humour describes a portion of the affection that comes through in Gimlette’s writing. A writing style that manages to capture so much colour, so much character, so much detail – that really provides gravity and depth, bringing Gimlette’s Paraguay to life. Even with the humour and affection, the Paraguay that we find At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig has a tragic past – civil war and battles against it’s neighbours which have taken a startling toll – the poverty and hostility of the land. With that Gimlette’s undercurrent of anger is also a presence, which is also, no doubt, why he dwells so much on the folly of dictators. Paraguay is a slab of parallel reality, vivid and bizarre, yet part of the world, and reading about it through At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig is an absorbing journey.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Wise words from the departing
Eat your greens, especially broccoli
Remember to say "thank you" for the things you haven't had
By working the soil we cultivate the sky
We embrace vegetable kingdom
The death of your father, the death of your mother
Is something you prepare for
All your life
All their life
(repeated over and over with the following changes)
The death of the father and the death of the mother
Wear sensible shoes and always say "thank you"
Especially for the things you never had
Is something you prepare for
All your life
All of your life
And enter the vegetable kingdom of our own heaven
By working the soil we cultivate good manners
Is to say "please" and "thank you"
Especially for the things you never had
And always say "thank you"
Especially for broccoli
Monday, November 15, 2004
Monday, November 08, 2004
Title: Hey Nostradamus!
Author: Douglas Coupland
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Despite having written about 10 novels, Hey Nostradamus! is my first reading of Douglas Coupland's work. Which is no doubt typical, given that on completion I get the impression that Hey Nostradamus! is something of a departure from Coupland's usual fare. The edition I read is one of Harper Perennial's "PS: More than a paperback" series - which come with additional notes, interviews and the like. From which there is a section of "if you liked this try…", which includes a reference to DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, a book I previously started to read, but never got round to finishing. With that I am quite aware of the very real comparisons between the two. Also it is perhaps odd to have been to see the film Saved! in the cinema the same day I started reading Hey Nostradmus!, seeing as how I can see similarities there as well. In addition from the first encounters with the character Cheryl I recall what was said about Alice Sebold's Lucky Bones, which I get the impression uses a similar kind of tool.
Vernon God Little is about a school massacre, Saved! is about extreme Christians in a school, and Lucky Bones is told from the point of view of a murdered girl. All of which has some baring on Hey Nostradamus!, which focuses on a Columbine style massacre to start with. Told in four parts, we are initially introduced to Cheryl Anyway, who was killed in the shooting and recounts her finding god, getting married/pregnant with Jason, and then being shot. The second part follows Cheryl's boyfriend Jason ten years later - parts of the material from Cheryl now echoed from his point of view, as well as the aftermath and how he became a suspect in the community, how his relationship with his father has shaped him, and how badly he is doing after all this time. The third section is from Heather's point of view, a couple of years have passed from when Jason wrote his letter to his clone/nephews, and he has met Heather and found a certain happiness, Heather providing a different view of Jason and the potential that lives within him. The book concludes with a section written by Reg, reflecting on how his life has gone wrong, how badly he dealt with his son Jason and the way that and his communications with Heather make him take a better look at his life.
In some ways I have a very mixed reaction to Hey Nostradmus!, which leaves me a little uncertain as to whether I would read any more of Coupland's work. While it may have been written before some of the other works that I mention above, those other items are things I was aware of first/at the same time - which regardless of temporal originality, still has an effect on the impressions one has while reading. There were parts of Hey Nostradamus! that I enjoyed, little scenes here, conversations there, odd observations. At the same time though, there were chunks of the novel where I felt a distinct ambivalence to the book as a whole - which is kind of how I felt about with Vernon God Little when it was due back at the library - though in saying that I returned Vernon God Little unfinished and completed Hey Nostradamus!.
Cast: Baby Shamili, Revathi, Raghuvaran, Prabhu, Tarun, Shruthi, Saranya
Director: Mani Ratnam
Anjali is a strange and intense Indian film, which combines a variety of moods and influences. To some degree it is a film about a block of flats, and the children that live there - who roam the streets, burst into song, and have an awareness of every piece of scandal in the block. More particularly Anjali focuses on one family who live in the block - who move there after the death of their third child in childbirth, a child who would have been named Anjali. The two surviving children are outsiders initially, but in the way of things they prove themselves to the resident children and are soon part of the group.
Things seem to be going well, until the father is caught out in lies, then seen with a strange woman at different times by the children and then the mother. This causes a real tension that looks set to tear the family apart. However when confronted the father reveals the truth - the lie he has been living is not the lie that they expected. In some ways the truth should bring a certain joy, but instead is grimmer and has more impact on the family than the alternative.
The film is filled with the stories of the people in the flats - who is seeing who behind someone else's back, which man beats his wife, which man spent ten years in prison for murder, and so on. Layering up the lives and the sense of an encapsulated universe within this one community. Within this Anjali's family at times fit in perfectly and at others find themselves at the centre of dispute and confrontation.
In composition terms there is a certain use of filters and lighting, which give the film a resulting look and feel that enhances the mood and atmosphere in a curious manner. At times the film feels like a serious family drama, then we have scenes more reminiscent of what we might expect from Bollywood, where large groups go through the motions of set scenes - parts of these might remind of something like West Side Story, the way the kids form a kind of gang and interact with everyone else in a knowing, sly style.
Mixed into this there are also a couple of real flip out scenes, where we enter into the fantasy life of the children. With that we first have a bed time story that turns into a science fiction pastiche, which is a mix of influences, but particularly reminds of the original Star Wars films with the models and scenes that are derived from there. The second scene comes at a point of triumph, before the turn towards inevitable tragedy, where all the children are out playing on their bikes and take off into the air in a scene which recalls E.T..
It is difficult to entirely know what to make of Anjali, but there is little doubt that it is a striking and memorable piece, which took me aback.
Thursday, November 04, 2004
Title: City Of The Beasts
Author: Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende was born in Peru, raised in Chile, and now lives in California – where she still writes her novels in Spanish. City Of The Beasts is one of the most recent of her nearly a dozen novels available in English. It is, in some ways, a novel that holds appeal for a teen market upwards – combining the themes of coming of age and great adventure, and channelling these through the teen protagonists.
Alex Cold is 15, and lives with his parents, two sisters, and pet dog, in California. But when his mother falls ill, his life starts to come apart. From a gradual decline a point is reached where his father has to dedicate too much time to the treatment of his mother. So, the family is split up, the sisters going to the mother’s parents. Which leaves Alex with his father’s mother Kate. Kate being something of a spectacular character – the kind of woman who dropped Alex in the deep end of a swimming pool as a 4-year-old; who when faced with Alex’s problems responds with the idea that he has to learn there are things he can solve and things that can’t be solved, and either way he should learn to take the opportunity not to bother her. With this Alex experiences some trepidation at the thought of living with Kate. The fact that she is going to the Amazon jungle to write an article and it is easier to take him than to cancel doesn’t help.
Alex who is small for his age and a little awkward as he finds himself in the deep-end of teen hood, soon finds himself part of an expedition into the Amazon, following reports of some kind of 9 foot tall ape man. Apart from Kate, the rest of the group is filled with characters – a professor filled with his own importance; the attractive young doctor, who is the focus of the male attention; the surly and suspicious Indian who has lived closer to civilization for too long; a group of soldiers and photographers and the experienced guide. Then, most importantly for Alex, there is also Nadia, the slightly younger daughter of the guide. Alex and Nadia become firm friends as they set out on their adventure into unknown territories – where 18 foot anacondas, undiscovered tribes, and the possibility of the fabled Beast await them.
There is something of a great adventure story in City Of The Beasts, with spiritual undertones from the ideas of Indian tribes, gods and legends. From this there is the coming of age, from the tribal trials through the way Alex and Nadia are immersed in the need for self-discovery – only conquering their fears and growing up can lead to survival. These kind of tones and themes have led to comparison with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. In terms of appeal both of these novels should have a certain overlap, though in some ways City Of The Beasts has more of the fantastic than spiritual.
Title: Coffee And Cigarettes
Cast: Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Alfred Mollina, Steve Coogan, etc.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Sometimes covering a collection of short films is like covering a collection of short stories – where you either have to generalise and go for the big picture, or risk a tendency towards absurd details in an attempt to cover each individual piece. Luckily with Coffee And Cigarettes we have a thematic link between each of these short black and white pieces, which director Jim Jarmusch has made over the years. Each of the individual pieces goes for a similar set up – 2-3 people set around a table with coffee and cigarettes and conversation. For the most part each stands alone – a snapshot, an encounter. Though as we progress through the collection we hear one or two repeated lines – even if they are emt with different responses. Another theme that crops up is, to some degree, family – Cate Blanchett plays herself and her cousin, there is Jack and Meg White, Bill Murray meets the Wu Tang cousins RZA and GZA, while Alfred Mollina shares his family tree with Steve Coogan. The films vary from odd little encounters that just kind of happen, to more surreal and amusing scenarios. Jack White’s eagerness to show off his Tesla coil, Bill Murray guzzles coffee while discussing homeopathic remedies with the Wu Tang Clan, Iggy Pop’s edge and uncertainty when meeting Tom Waits, two old men on a coffee break, Steve Buscemi’s attempts to spot the evil twin – all provide the colour to Coffee And Cigarettes.
Title: The Grudge
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, Bill Pullman
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Produced by Sam Raimi, The Grudge is a remake of the Japanese film Ju-On, with both versions being directed by Takashi Shimizu. Which is just one of the ways this version at times feels more like a remix than a starting from first principles. The Grudge does something which strikes me as highly unusual for a Hollywood remake of a non-American film – instead of relocating to America, The Grudge is filmed in Tokyo. Which at times creates a greater sense of déjà vu in comparing The Grudge to Ju-On than one would normally experience.
In particular the look and feel of the Japanese house, which informs the centre of the film, is so crucial to the way in which the visuals work. In addition the young Japanese boy who runs around the house could be the exact same actor from the original version. There are as a result many similarities, but of course there are also a variety of changes. All the main characters are now American – the nurse who visits the old woman is an American student, the old woman and her family are Americans; though the previous inhabitants of the house and the police are Japanese.
The concept of “the grudge” comes from the idea of a curse, which originates from violent death charged by strong emotion. So that the emotion lingers on beyond the passing of those involved. An American man moves to Japan for work, bringing his wife and mother with him. The mother soon falls into a lethargic stupor, requiring the attendance of a nurse. But when the regular nurse fails to return from the house, American student Karen (Gellar) goes out to the house – where she encounters a small Japanese boy, a black cat, and a lingering darkness. This sets us up to flashes back and forth, much like the original, which see the story of the house and the darkness at it’s core unfold.
One of the things with an American remake is that there is a bigger audience at the preview Halloween showing of The Grudge than there had been for Ju-On. So there is some amusement with scenes that are so similar you can count down to the point where half the audience is going to jump or scream at events on screen. Comparing the two, The Grudge in some ways ditches some of the peripheral detail from the original, and tightens the whole up – providing to some degree a more streamlined result, which is easier to follow. However the material which has been ditched, has instead been replaced by certain Americanisms – the fact that Gellar’s character has a boyfriend to support her, while the original character didn’t, the way in which some explanation has to be added for why the original deaths took place, and the way in which Bill Pullman’s character is added to the plot in place of the original investigating officer.
Unusually for a remake there is part of me which prefers The Grudge to Ju-On – but then Ju-On, like much of this type of Japanese horror, is some how unsatisfying – while a remake takes the opportunity to tighten up some of those issues, a fact that is particularly significant with something like The Grudge which on the whole is as true to the base material.