Monday, June 28, 2004

Edinburgh international book festival - I’ve found myself in possession of the brochure for this years Edinburgh book festival. From which, if I was in Edinburgh and could afford to go to a load of events then I would be interested in the following:

14th August 2004 – Hari Kunzru & David Mitchell – both authors were selected in the most recent Granta Best Young British Novelists. Which is where I first encountered Kunzru – while his first novel The Impressionist doesn’t entirely catch my interest, his second novel, Transmission, which was extracted in the Granta collection does – a story about a computer virus and its spread across the world. Mitchell on the other hand has published three novels, the most recent is Cloud Atlas, which I’ll wait for in paperback – but I certainly enjoyed Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream.

16th August 2004 – A.L. Kennedy – a Scottish author with several short story collections as well as a couple of novels – Now That You Are Back dealing with the reincarnation of Cyrano De Bergerac and Everything You Need dealing with the relation between a father and daughter where the daughter doesn’t know the man is her father. Apparently this counts as the launch of her latest novel Paradise, which presumably was where the extract from her second selection as Granta Young British Novelist came from.

20th August 2004 – Iain Banks – one of the most well known Scottish writes, with something like 20 novels to his names. Ranging from his more mainstream, if controversial novels, to his science fiction work under the name Iain M. Banks.

20th August 2004 – Zoe Strachan & Louise Welsh – two newish Glaswegian authors, I’ve been curious about Strachan’s Negative Space, though never got round to reading it, while Welsh’s The Cutting Room is a decent enough crime debut. Both release new novels at the book festival, Strachan – Spin Cycle, and Welsh – Tamburlaine Must Die.

21st August 2004 – Jeanette Winterson – I’ve only read her Power Book, but Winterson has many more and has gained a definite reputation over the years. Her most recent novel Lighthousekeeping is apparently along the same vein as Power Book, but better…

23rd August 2004 – Toby Litt & Will Rhode – mainly noted since I’ve just finished reading Rhode’s debut novel Paperback Raita, which was a decent enough heist/road novel set in India. With Litt I’ve read his short story collection Exhibitionism, which had some decent moments, but on the whole was hit and miss.

30th August 2004 – Ken MacLeod – top Scottish science fiction writer, who released his eighth novel Newton’s Wake earlier this year - following on from his first series (Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassinni Division, and The Sky Road) and the Engines of Light Trilogy.

No doubt there are other authors at the festival I should know about, but those are the ones that jump out at me. Possibly of interest is the particular focus on Chinese writing this year.

Title: Lanark
Author: Alisdair Grey

Alisdair Gray's first novel was published in 1981, and as the sub-title suggests it is the story of a life in four parts. Though as is said within the author's notes the book could just as easily have been published as two volumes covering the two threads. The novel starts with book 3, the arrival of a man with no name in a strange and almost permanently dark city. From the start we know that he is going to be difficult, with no memory when he finds his bag containing identification, instead of checking to see who he is he throws it away; when offered a name by the town he has arrived in, he turns it down, choosing to call himself Lanark.

Through this book Lanark is presented as a mystery man in a mystery land: trying to come to terms with his craving for light in a city that only sees the sun for minutes at a time, with the fact that when he does finally find a clock it has no hands, with the fact that the patch of rough skin on his arm is spreading and apparently turning him into a dragon. From here he ends up in the institute, another level of this seeming hell, which starts to give him more of an insight to what is going on.

From this starting point of book three, we flash back to books one and two, where we follow the semi-autobiographical material. As a child Duncan Thaw was one of those evacuated during the second world war, affecting his early years through his return to Glasgow. Like the man he becomes in Lanark, Thaw is wilfully difficult. This becomes clear with each step in his life, school life where he doesn't fit quite in, and the Glasgow School of Art where he manages to become a student. In some ways Thaw could be seen as the archetypal genius, truly driven and consumed by his art. But at the same time, he lives with severe asthma, which is diagnosed partly as being an expression of his psychological issues. Thaw and Lanark do not get on with people, this is the clearest expression of what these middle two books are about, according the author. With the way this section is written there is a drive and fascination that comes from the narrative, but at the same time it starts to grind you down. The interaction with other people makes things awkward, and doesn't work towards making Thaw a particularly sympathetic character in some ways. A particular illustration of this is his relationship with his family, the character of his sister Ruth being one which strikes me as having some potential, but like too many other here she becomes something of an invisible woman.

From the conclusion of Thaw's life we return to Lanark, where life continues to be difficult, especially given this new perspective on his interaction with the people around him. As this other reality is a kind of after-life/hell, Gray plays with time, which is one of the other reasons why I start to lose feeling for the narrative. From place to place years can pass in minutes, so that it seems that a lot has happened which neither the character Lanark or the reader are witness to. As a vision of hell, Gray starts to work up a dark picture, which ironically extends from the period of time he was writing in, reflecting the politics of the time, to a point, which almost feels prescient of the moment. Much of the corporate manoeuvrings and supplanting of government should sound familiar to a contemporary reader. Talk of deforestation in particular, and the resulting flooding that causes are vivid if we recall recent events in the Dominican Republic, which were attributed to this very activity. Progressing through this section Lanark is thrust into politics, which give us all a real view of how doomed this reality is, and how inevitable the end seems.

Lanark and Gray have a considerable reputation, which become clear when reading this volume. Though it left me with mixed feelings in the end, I did for the most part enjoy this novel, and I could see the influences it has had, even if in the end I did feel somewhat wearied by the whole. My copy of the book contains a quote from another Scottish writer, Iain Banks, so it is perhaps ironic that Lanark should remind me so much of Banks The Bridge, which was the first of his novels that I read, and published 5 years after Lanark. Other things that caught my attention was some of the satirical portrayal of advertising, which seemed to have been echoed and reflected in the work of Jeff Noon. In turn Gray's own influences are many and charted by his notes on plagiarism throughout the novel's epilogue, which are many and dense, and no doubt say a considerable amount about the novel and it's bulk. One influence, which is initially expressed by the cameo of Governor Vonnegut, before being more fleshed out with a discussion on Breakfast of Champions - of course one thing Gray doesn't share with Vonnegut is a brevity.

Title: The Confusion
Author: Neal Stephenson
Publisher:William Heinemann

Neal Stephenson has set out to create an epic with his baroque cycle, of which The Confusion is the second volume, following as it does Quicksilver. This Baroque Cycle is intended as a prequel to his earlier work, Cryptonomicon, going back to the time of the original Cryptonomicon and a period of the first real scientific developments. An idea which was considerably more central to Quicksilver, which might be one of the reasons why it felt like one was getting a little more bogged down than you do with The Confusion.

The Confusion presents the next two books in the sequence, though unlike the three parts of Quicksilver these books are intermingled. A fact which Stephenson says was not his original plan, which I am appalled to think about, feeling that the only reason that The Confusion is readable in the slightest is because the action has been carefully linked. Quicksilver established Daniel Waterhouse and Jack Shaftoe, as the ancestors of the Waterhouses and Shaftoes of Cryptonomicon - Waterhouse as one of the early scientists and Shaftoe as a brigand and vagabond. The Confusion picks up from the end of Quicksilver, following the continuing adventures of the Shaftoe clan, providing the real action and drama of the novel. While contrasting with the more political and subtle text of the life of the Countess Eliza, the girl who was freed by Jack in the first part, and managed to infiltrate the courts of Europe. So on the one hand, the Shaftoes travel the world, filling us in on the Americas, especially the south Americas where the Portuguese and Spanish have their mines and slaves, Africa where so many slaves come from, as well as so many cultures intermingling, across Asia - India and Japan. With this there is a lot to get into, a lot to enjoy, though as it progresses it does some that there is something of a repeat cycle of ups and downs at work. Something which can also be said of the more machiavellian and scheming court intrigues which take in Europe of the time, with Eliza's letters back and forth, as well as her various plots and those schemes against her.

Overall there is a lot to The Confusion, which is to say like Quicksilver, at 800-900 pages it is clearly overwritten, which will no doubt put a lot of people off, fans of Stephenson's previous work included. Which in some ways is a shame, The Baroque Cycle has a lot of potential, there is a lot of political, geographical, and scientific history to be found, while some of that may be fictionalised to drive events, it still puts forward the ideas. Though at times the characters don't necessarily help the work - Waterhouse was initially interesting when he was in the thick of scientific experimentation, but as a political tool, his self-confessed cowardice makes him less interesting, a pawn on the edge of events, rather than someone really active/involved; to some degree the character of Eliza can have the same criticisms levelled at her, the endless letter writing and inactivity, while it may be authentic can become tiresome, though at least she is really involved and does get things done.

The events of The Confusion could come dangerously close to wrapping things up, in fact one almost feels with the ups and downs over the course of events, things could have come to an end several times. With which the ending of The Confusion seems a little too much like an attempt to mix things up enough to justify the third volume. Though there are some threads outstanding anyway, especially given that for the most part the events of the two novels are flash backs from the start of Quicksilver, where Waterhouse has been called back from the Americas where he has just finally got round to heading for towards the end of The Confusion. Which leaves the opening of why Waterhouse has been called back, and the events which are related to that. in addition, the character of Enoch Root remains an enigma, almost to the point where one could start to get really annoyed with the character - given that he was the first character we were introduced to in the Baroque Cycle, and that he comes and goes a little too easily with very little real feel for why he is involved at any level.

For many the hope is that The System of The World which is due out in a few months time will be the volume where finally everything comes together in a form that is satisfactory. Otherwise I suspect Stephenson will have lost many readers.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Coming To A Cinema Near Me...

UGC - following on from last years asia extreme season - which featured: shiri, the happiness of the katakuris, sympathy for mr vengeance, a snake of june, fulltime killer, bad guy and public enemay - asia extreme 2004 has just been announced. this years season starts with the grudge, which i've seen the trailer for a couple of times, looks promising, despite the hyper-dramatic-americana voice over. that is then followed by a tale of two sisters, phone, save the green planet, into the mirror, chaos, ki-duk kim's the isle, and takashi miike's gozu.

also coming,

16 years of alcohol - i've seen reports that this film was partially mentored by director wong kar-wai, which i find a curious idea. the latest scottish film to deal with the predictable themes of alcohol and scottishness, but at least it sounds like it has some potential. directed by richard jobson, who was a member of the punk by the skids, before becoming a TV presenter, and writing the semi-autobiographical novel this film is based on. with a cast of kevin mckidd, laura fraser, ewen bremner, and susan lynch there is some potential, and comparisons to requiem for a dream and wilbur wants to kill himself could be promising.

last life in the universe - i presume this is a thai film, about a japanese man (tadanobu asano) in bangkok, where he is attracted to a local girl, who's suicide he witnesses. comparisons to chungking express and 15 are made.

new york minute - i think for me this has to be the scariest film of the month, the full page ad in this month's cinema brochure, those staring plastic eyes! shudder!

Monday, June 21, 2004

Title: Branded To Kill [Koroshi No Rakuin]
Cast: Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari, Koji Nambara, Isao Tamagawa, Hiroshi Minami
Director: Seijun Suzuki

branded to kill is a japanese gangster film from 1967, a bizarre film following a group of assassins. hanada is given the rank of number 3, something is known about the other ranked killers, except for number 1, rumours range from the idea that he doesn't exist, to the idea that he is a phantom, better than anyone else. in the course of a job hanada's car is damaged, which is how he meets misako. misako is a moody, attractive woman, who is soon asking hanada to kill someone for her. but when he fails, it means he must be killed himself according to the rules of the underground. surviving attempts on his life brings him into direct conflict with number 1.

branded to kill is filled with characters, the black and white film of the period accentuated by the jazzy soundtrack, creates a real mood and real noir edge. hanada himself is a little out there, his relationship with women, and general approach to business - the hit on the dentist being one of his more inspired moments. misako has the looks of a bollywood princess, though with a house filled with dead birds, and walls covered with butterflies, one has to suspect that she is a little out there. the film builds towards to confrontation between number 3 and number 1, with number 1 revealing himself through head games, holding hanada to a siege and a house invasion, before the final climax. with the building oddness and game play there is an increasing sense of bemusement that results.

director seijun suzuki, who was responsible for branded to kill as well as the equally classic tokyo drifter, was apparently fired from the nikkatsu studio after these films were felt to be too much. the sleeve notes of the DVD talk of how much of an influence suzuki has been on directors like john woo, takeshi kitano and jim jarmusch - which is something you can get from the thick atmospherics. however watching branded to kill you perhaps get more of a feel of the kind of thing that has influenced miike taksahi, though obviously takashi has taken the whole thing a lot further.

lanark - this is an extract from the start of book 1 in "lanark: a life in four books", by the scottish writer alasdair gray, which i am currently reading. i'm pretty close to the end, so i'll post some more developed thoughts on that shortly, but here is an extract for now, for those who might be interested.

and, while i am it, here are a couple of quotes i've noted as i've worked my way through it:

"i like making you happy, but how can i trust someone i don't understand?"
he stood, astonished, and cried, "we love each other! what could understanding add to that? we can't understand ourselves, how can we understand others? only maps and mathematics exist to be understood, and we're solider than those, i hope."
"take care! you're getting clever."

"judging by your face you don't think much of the lesson"
"no. it's rotten, isn't it?"
"is it? have we not to master the techniques before practising them?"
"but technique and practice are the same thing! we can draw nothing well unless it interests us, and we only learn to draw it well by first drawing it badly, not by drawing what bores us stiff. learning to draw badly from dead bulbs and boxes is like learning to make love with corpses."

silence is always proper. when i understand this better i'll stop talking. you won't be able to hear me for miles. i will radiate silence like a dark star shining in the gaps between syllables and conversation.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Title: Japanese Story
Cast: Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsnashima, Matthew Dyktynski, Yumiko Tanaka, Kate Atkinson
Director: Sue Brooks

The Australian film Japanese Story sees Toni Collette return for her first major/Australian film role in sometime, though it is perhaps ironic that it hits the screens in Britain at the same time as Connie And Carla, in which she co-stars. Apparently since it’s release in Australia Collette has won a number of awards for her performance in this film, which I guess are pretty much deserved.

My biggest problem with the film, is the unimaginative name. Calling a film “Japanese story” for apparently no other reason than one of the lead characters happens to be Japanese seems a little weak. For example, the film about a Japanese man who comes to Australia for a car is not that different from this film in terms of basic plot lines, but at least they went for the title “Goddess of 1967”, or an American man and girl find themselves struggling to come to terms with the differences in environment of Japan and it gets the title “Lost In Translation”. There could no doubt be dozens of more imaginative titles, so it seems like little effort has been made here, something which while minor, was enough to keep me guessing as to whether some real reason for the title would ever become evident.

That is besides the point, and probably seems a little negative but it is still a valid comment. Anyway. Sandy Edwards (Collette) is a partner in a software company who specialise in geological systems. Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsnashima) is the son of a major Japanese industrialist, who might be interested in investing in the software company. Sandy’s other half in the company suddenly announces that he can’t look after Hiromitsu as planned, landing Sandy in it. Hiromitsu thinks that she is his driver and treats her badly from the start, apart from which, it becomes clear that he is really in Australia on personal business and not too interested in what Sandy’s company has to offer. One of the results is that despite Sandy’s protests, they end up deep in a dangerous part of the outback, where they quickly come stuck. In their efforts to come out of the situation alive, the pair gain a certain understanding/respect for each other, turning their relationship about. To which point there is a certain level of classic storyline, man and woman meet, initially don’t get on, only for things to be turned around. But just as things look to be settling into this potential rut, the film changes direction.

Collette and Tsnashima pretty much have the film to themselves, the supporting roles remaining scarce for the most part. Luckily the two pull off their parts well, with the natural back drop of the Australian wilderness providing a vivid and striking environment. The results for Japanese Story is that we have a strong film here, that will no doubt appeal to many. Though I would be wary of the level of positive press it has been getting, as that is likely to raise ones expectations – leaving, in my case a certain edge of disappointment.

Monday, June 14, 2004

-extracts from light by m. john harrison

Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring
a novelette by M John Harrison

roland collection - this site includes a number of interviews with some of the top names in comics. Think the full things are set up for streaming, which is of course useless for someone with a modem like me, death to false internet connections! But there are also clips which can be downloaded. Names include Enki Bilal, Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin, and Moebius.

my invented country - a pdf extract from the first chapter of isabelle allende’s “my invented country”, which I get the impression is kind of her history guide to chile, where she is from.

The Ring by Koji Suzuki - an extract in pdf format from the first chapter of the book that the films were based on.

her voice is full of the sexual charisma of old, alien, made up things.
-light - m. john harrison

much more alarming was what this all implied, namely that the world had more than one dragon - that if was infested with them - and that a fellow who was afraid of dragons must perforce spend all his days worrying about one or another.
-the confusion - neal stephenson

bigger than worlds, and more ancient, my engines are as chilled and quiet as this ancient universe of ours.
-marrow - robert reed

the east village is like any other village, except that it's seedier, funkier, and more violent. it is inhabited largely by witches, homosexuals, and drug addicts, and, of course, the few bad apples that you'd find in most any community.
-musical chairs - kinky friedman

it's hard to give the Heimlich manoeuvre when you're wearing Tibetan finger cymbals
-musical chairs - kinky friedman

Helen of Troy would have looked out of place. 'What's Helen of Troy doing in here?' some longshore man would have asked. He wouldn't have understood.
-a confederate general - richard brautigan

i went down town to see three movies in a market street flea palace. it was a bad habit of mine. from time to time i would get the desire to confuse my senses by watching large flat people crawl back and forth across a large piece of light, like worms in the intestinal track of a tornado.
-a confederate general - richard brautigan

she went down to the pet shop and came back with two alligators. we asked her why she'd gotten two alligators, and she said they were on sale. buy one at the regular price and you got another one for a penny. an alligator one cent sale.
-a confederate general - richard brautigan

for bar hours, press one.
to make a party reservation, press two.
to talk to a live person
or a dead vampire, press three.
or, if you were intending to leave a humorous prank message on our answering machine,
know this: we will find you!

-living dead in dallas - charlaine harris

suddenly i was grinning. i seemed to grow until i was larger than the universe itself. i contained the universe as the universe contained me! we were one. i was all mankind.

and i held a magic sword.

-von bek:city in the autumn stars - michael moorcock

the marine architect, mark, he thinks i love old ships enough to sleep with him. this is capital-NOT going to happen, but mark leads me through the security gates and into the large floating dry dock.
-fugitives and refugees - chuck palahniuk

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Title: Marrow
Author: Robert Reed

A massive spaceship appears from what is thought to be empty space, the first to board it are humans. On boarding the colossal ship, they find it to be deserted, with no clue as to where it came from. The ship is taken over, and it is decided to make it a galactic cruise ship, run by an elite crew of captains. The status quo is maintained for thousands of years, until one of the ship’s mysteries is revealed – at it’s heart, deep in the core of the ship a planet is hidden. The top captains are selected to go down to this planet and investigate it, unfortunately they set off an electro magnetic pulse, which wipes out all their technology and traps them. Expectations revolve around the idea that someone will come and rescue them, but as the centuries pass the long-lived captains are forced to accept they are going to have to save themselves. This sees them start to recreate technology from scratch as well as a breeding program. The result has something of Lord Of The Flies to it, the Loyalists being the original captains, dedicated to survival and a return to the Ship, while the Waywards believe that they are the original builders reborn, and take to living wild in the expanses of the planet which has been given the name Marrow.

Robert Reed again works on a cosmic scale, following characters that are pretty much immortal, living lives on a scale almost beyond our imaginations. Unlike Sister Alice which I covered here recently Marrow has a more grounded feel – the course of the narrative really covering two locations – that of the ship and of the planet Marrow lying within the ship. In terms of characters, the narrative tends towards alternating between Miocene and Washen, though there are points where other points of view do come into play. Miocene is the second in command to the Master of the ship, strict, severe, unimaginative, but determined to return to the ship no matter what. Washen on the other hand was born on the ship, unlike Miocene who was one of the first to board the ship, younger and more of a people person, more adaptable to the situation.

There are points where the seemingly endless years on Marrow feel as though they may be going on a little. But the lead up to there works, and once momentum starts building up towards a possible return to the ship, and an understanding of what might have happened to explain why they were never rescued, then the book starts to propel itself forward at a greater speed.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Title: Ju-on: The Grudge
Cast: Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara, Yui Ichikawa, Yuya Ozeki
Director: Takashi Shimizu

This is, I gather, the first in a series of Japanese horror films – ju-on being a type of curse. In this case a curse that has been left on a house after a brutal killing – the film starting with a man killing his wife and son. From there the film plays around with continuity to some degree, starting with Rika Nishina, a voluntary social worker who is badgered into visiting the house by her house. Once she gets there she finds the house in a mess, then an old woman dazed and bed bound. Which is all distressing, but not too bad, but then she starts hearing noises upstairs. Tracking them down, she finds a cupboard that has been taped shut. Inside she finds a black cat and a small boy, and then things start to get weird.

From there we flash back and forward, following the members of the old woman’s family as each of them encounters the supernatural, Rika’s boss who comes looking for her, then the police who are dealing with this case, and then the policeman who dealt with the original murder case. Along the way the first contact always comes with the small boy and his pancaked white face, and big dark eyes. But of course as things escalate he is the least of the victim’s worries!

Ranging at times from the sinister (in that Japanese horror film fashion) to the ludicrous. Some of the most effective/memorable scenes include the black cat (the room full of them, shown in the trailer, and under the table) and the daughter of the policeman who investigated the original killings (particularly the switch in time as her father sees the future, and the way in which her haunting escalates).

Like The Ring trilogy before it Ju-On leaves me with mixed feelings, part of which I suspect is cultural differences, such that things might be creepy in Japan don’t translate in quite the same manner to us. Still there is fun to be had, especially in getting a chance to see it in the cinema, which I did, as the first in this year’s Asia Extreme season.

Title: Shattered Glass
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Rasario Dawson, Steve Zahn
Director: Billy Ray

Hayden Christensen demonstrated in Star Wars Episode II just how right he was for the role in Shattered Glass. All the arrogance/whininess that made you want to kick his teeth in there is cranked up to a whole other level with this portrayal of Stephen Glass. A journalist who was caught making up stories for the apparently prestigious New Republic magazine.

Glass is a 24 year old journalist who takes the story teller role to heart, through feigning self-effacement and ingratiating behaviour he tries to become everyone’s friend, through accounts of wild stories he tries to become popular. However it becomes clear that he is repeating stock phrases, and perhaps it is only subconscious, but does his best to manipulate situations to his favour.

His last story was about a hacker that attacked a big software company only for the company to turn round and offer him a security job. But when an online magazine that specialises in just this kind of story want to follow it up, they find they can’t track any of the companies or people named in the story. With increasing degrees Glass is called to account, asked for data, then as people become more suspicious they are trying to get him to verify facts, to prove that any of his story is true. Glass always has an answer, but is forced closer and closer to the edge till he is forced to claim that he has been duped. But, suspicion increases and it looks like it goes further than Glass is willing to admit.

The manipulative and emotional nature of Glass, as interpreted by this adaptation of the articles that were published exposing him is really brought to live but the simpering, whimpering, and generally pathetic nature that Christian plays the part with. An interesting drama which exposes the elitism of a certain level of journalism, and how unfounded it can be. There are aspects of the film as it unfolds that make the viewer incredulous, fair enough the rise of computers and the internet has really taken off over the years, but these events happened in 1998, which isn’t really that long ago. Ironically the real Stephen Glass who this film is based on completed his studies as a lawyer, which are referred to, and published his first novel last year – apparently an account of an ambitious young journalist who ends up making up stories to climb the ladder.

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