Sunday, 12 February 2017

RECENT FILMS

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Not really my thing . . . a CGI-heavy Christmas Fantasy film but we wanted a Boxing Day family outing so this was what we did. It has terrific reviews from even serious film reviewers [5* from the Guardian] but it seemed sprawling to me; trying to pack too much in to two-hours fifteen minutes. The CGI is effective and the beasts are imaginatively realised; acting is good, particularly the two leads, Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston and if you like this kind of thing I think you would find little to criticise: so I’m not going to criticise it.

I was thinking this morning that it is probably at the peak of cultural influence alongside Strictly Come Dancing and Bake-Off on TV and the likes of Lee Child in books. J K Rowling has found the formula. Well, good luck to her not resting on her Harry Potter laurels but pushing open new doors and taking on new challenges: a one-woman Disney Studios. How does she not get crushed by it? The depth of character required to mount something like this must be remarkable.
This one cost $180m and according to the Internet has already taken $610m at the worldwide box office.

There are five more films in the pipeline which should see Eddie Redmayne through to the end of his working life.


LA LA LAND

Liked this a lot. Not a massive amount of depth but the story of making good in Hollywood after trying for years to hang on to your dreams is something almost everyone can identify with. I really liked the fact that they managed to accomplish their hearts desire at the end. At a price.
Dancing: great. Songs: great. Acting: couldn’t fault it. I thought Ryan Gosling was perfect for the part. I tend to blow hot and cold about him but he was in one of my all-time favourite films, Blue Valentine so I am generally well-disposed toward him.

I very much liked the ongoing theme of Jazz and its place in the contemporary music scene.



RICKI & THE FLASH

This is an old-ish film [2016] that I didn’t see at the time but was on on Saturday afternoon [yesterday]. I had always liked the concept but was foolishly put off by the poor reviews, so I didn’t go at the time. Then a couple of months ago I read a list of ‘most overlooked films of 2016’ and there it was, redeemed and receiving belated appreciation. It’s written by the great Diablo Cody who was responsible for Young Adult with Charlize Theron and Juno, both of which I enjoyed. It stars Meryl and is directed by Jonathan Demme, who appears to have been working in television for most of the last decade; Silence of the Lambs seems like a long time ago.
It is billed as a comedy but didn’t get many laughs from me although that’s not to say it doesn’t work. Meryl Streep plays a kind of ageing rock-chick in a bar-blues band who left her husband and family several decades earlier to pursue her dreams as a musician and singer. The film revolves around the events of her overdue return home to her re-married, wealthy husband, recently divorced daughter and gay son. Streep [or Diablo Cody one suspects] plays her as world-wise but not particularly deep; someone who didn’t examine her choices much, just followed her heart. The live band bits are extremely well done not relegated to thirty perfunctory seconds: they are given their due weight.
Although it is light, it has some heft and all in all is warm and engaging and poignant. There is a short and under-emphasised scene where Ricki is alone at home in her grungy apartment in which she strips off her make-up to reveal the fifty-plus woman behind the gutsy rocker public image that tells the audience everything they need to know; that the most hopeless loss is the absence of even the sense of loss.   

I haven’t seen Jackie or Denial, only these three good but fairly lightweight films, this year. I may visit Loving if only to see the beautiful Ruth. I did despite my illness last year see the cream of the crop: Our Little Sister; The Assassin, although in retrospect, Victoria seems like a major omission. I will catch up.
It’s partly because I don’t want to upset my new-found equilibrium that I don’t want to be reminded of the evil in the world which both Denial and Jackie will confront me with but and this is going to sound like a contradiction, I still haven’t got over Son of Saul which transcended its subject matter to such a degree that it became a work of art. True art, up there with Monet and Joni Mitchell and Johann Cruyff.

It raised the bar to such an extent, everything else pales before its power.

Friday, 10 February 2017

KUCHING

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Big write-up in the Travel section of today’s newspaper about Kuching: says it is the next big thing [‘cos it’s so unspoiled!]. Right, well there’s a terrific reason for recommending it to a couple of million rich European tourists.

I had a haircut there once. I always try to have a haircut wherever I go in the world: I have had haircuts in tiny, remote Scottish Highland villages; in Northern Norway and in Stockholm; in El Paso, Texas; in East Berlin when it was East Berlin and quite a few all over Italy. Italian hairdressers make the most ostentatious fuss and bother, hot towels, half-an-hour to lay-out all their scissors and towels. They also charge the most, presumably to justify the prices. And best not be in a rush. If the guy in front of you is a regular customer, you can reckon on a minimum one-hour wait before you get any attention.
The hairdresser in Kuching [it’s in Sarawak, by the way] was an ancient Chinese guy, definitely not a local Malaysian Dyak. We saw his shop while aimlessly wandering around the backstreets and I spotted his red & white barber’s pole. They are always red and white poles no matter where you go: even in Kabul; even in East Germany. He first of all put a pudding bowl over my head . . . honestly . . . then shaved everything up to the bowl with a pair of hundred-year old mechanical hair clippers, then he took the bowl off and held up his mirror. That was it. Finished. The hair that I wanted cut, the long stuff on top of my head was completely ignored.

Actually, one other very quick recollection: I once had my hair cut in Glasgow’s tough East End by a guy who didn’t use scissors at all . . . he worked only with an electric shaver. Honest. Couldn’t believe it. But . . . it was a pretty good cut. Incidentally, they all use mirrors held up to the back of your head for approval. The regimen varies; towels in Venice; bowls in Kuching but every one without fail, has a barbers pole outside; never asks you how you want it; chats incessantly . . . yep, even in Pashtun and holds up a mirror to the back of your head and waits until you have deliberated.
 
Just how this universal practice became universal beats me; you certainly can’t attribute it to the Empire

Sunday, 5 February 2017

RECENT READS

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LAMENT FOR THE FALLEN [By Gavin Chait]. Loved this. I have just put a 5* review on Amazon.
Its science-fiction [again] and is written by debut author Gavin Chait who is according to his blog, a data scientist in his day-job with degrees in Microbiology, Biochemistry and Mechanical Engineering. Certainly the science of this futuristic novel seems solid to me and perfectly believable.

It isn’t a militaristic science fiction story like Ancillary Justice which I reviewed in June 2016; it’s more like the Man Who Fell to Earth, a kind of aliens-fall-to-earth-bearing-gifts tale.  Set in West Africa deep in oil-rich Nigeria sometime in the 22nd Century in an age when there is no demand for oil, it centres on what happens when a starship lands near a remote village close to the border with Cameroon. The pilot is injured but the villagers manage not only to rescue and aid him but also hide all traces of his ship and his presence from marauding local Warlords. It is a brilliant set-up and although the narrative meanders a little and as most other reviewers observe, is a little too long, I never at any stage got bored. One reviewer on Goodreads says the aliens-fall-to-earth-bearing-gifts tale is ‘hoary’. Well, not to me it isn’t. Another complains that Chait adopts every sci-fi ‘chestnut’ ever written: again, how would I know, I almost never read Science Fiction. I loved the fact that it was rooted in a believable future post-oil world but with many other features that could credibly be invented or developed in the next thousand years: AI of course; longevity [most of the characters are 150-years old] and 3D printing to name just some.  

It is a first novel and okay you shouldn’t make allowances for that, it isn’t expected and why should you qualify your review to accommodate miss-steps of structure or concatenation. Not that there are many of those: the stories and ballads do slow the pace . . . there are far too many . . . although I appreciate that he is trying to get away from writing just a Boys Own adventure story into something a little more profound and African. I think it does suffer slightly from first-novel-itis insofar as there are too many characters and threads; as though Chait expects this to be his once-only book and wants to pack into it every idea he ever had. But I didn’t find that a problem: what I did find a problem were all the African names; Aicha and Aisha and Asachai  . . . and that was just the A’s. Each short chapter takes a different POV and by the time Aisha came round again, I couldn’t remember if she was his daughter or his mistress.

The book is currently number 31131 in Amazon’s Science Fiction & Fantasy best-seller lists, which is disappointing; it has average of 4* on Amazon and 3* on Goodreads, the two-star ‘hoary’ review has hurt its rankings. It is published by Doubleday. Doubleday is Transworld's more literary hardcover imprint, publishing authors including Kate Atkinson, Rachel Joyce, Joanna Trollope and Joanne Harris, so it is hard to justify comments that it isn’t well-written. They would have published under a different imprint if they were unsure of the writing quality.
They should get the Marketing Department to give it a push, nominate it for some awards. Perhaps when it is issued in paperback it will do better. It is very good.


THE SUDDEN DEPARTURE OF THE FRASERS [By Louise Candlish]. Hmmmm . . . the second longest novel I have read in my life: exactly 500-pages. Only Dune with 596-pages is longer. It is way too long.
But.
Brevity isn’t the name of Louise Candlish’s game. She has set out to write an impossible novel; a psychological thriller with a vain, calculating and pretty nasty central character that by the end hopefully has the reader on her side. You need at least 500 pages to achieve that. She eases her writerly burden by contriving to make her three protagonists live in a void: one works from home; one is so wealthy she doesn’t have to work at all and very early in the novel, the third is made redundant. She works her narrative around alternate chapters: Amber, our anti-heroine begins in first-person. Christy, the girl who bought the house at a bargain-basement price, speaks next in the third and the lover, who appears in both girls’ versions of events is either addressed or referred to.
There isn’t much of a story and virtually no sub-plots to divert you from the central premise which is that of a remarkably beautiful young woman who cheats on her husband by having a secret affair with a remarkably beautiful young man. That’s it.

It's a novel I suppose which gets under the skin of human vanities and frailties [and self deceptions] to reveal something about ourselves, often shocking and uncomfortable, but true, yet still manages to tell a great story. I suppose. But why do we care? Because actually we want to see what the consequences will be when the charismatic, loving and very wealthy husband finds out. Will he shoot her? Kick her out? Kill the handsome lover? He will find out won’t he?
She tells her tale from the first-person with some lovely, morally intelligent writing which is often very witty:


‘But I’ve come all the way from north London,’ the woman protested, as breathless as one who’d undertaken the voyage barefoot and scarcely made it to her destination alive, even though she dangled car keys in plain sight. ’It doesn’t make sense. When exactly did they leave?’
‘I’m not sure of the date,’ Christy said, ‘but they’d already gone when the house came on the market’.
‘But why? Amber said nothing to me about moving. They’d just moved in. They were going to raise a family here.’ She sent a narrow gaze over Christy’s shoulder as if expecting to see the Frasers chained to a radiator, gagged and helpless.

And again here, another quick-witted turn of phrase:


Liz perched on an adjacent armchair upholstered in a gold fabric printed with butterflies and birds. Of the Lime Park women, she was the first to have returned from her August break. Lacking a husband and therefore the holiday home that apparently came with one, she had instead taken the boys to her parents place in Cheshire.


I am reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the moment [see review below] and honestly, if I had to say which of them is the better writer I would go with Louise Candlish. Just such a shame her talents are wasted on this bloated nonsense.
Plot-holes? Too many to count. Coincidences? Yes, there are a few. Sometimes it feels as if the edifice is under threat from all sides. Did anyone care about them? Not really. Easing her writerly burden only creates another writerly problem; the new neighbour that appears every alternative chapter in the third-person is boring. She simply has an ordinary life. Her husband, who for writerly reasons must be kept at the periphery of the story, works 20hrs/24/seven. Yes, twenty hours a day, every day and is even more boring. But Mrs Candlish has burdened herself with this structure; she has to break-up the free-flowing prose of the first-person nasty but hilarious Amber by returning to the bore every ten pages or so to explain what just happened. On page three-hundred and twenty she catches the flu. Da-dah! She is so boring in fact that Mrs Candlish doesn’t actually bother to complete her story. Does the husband survive? Does she ever find a job? Does she rent? We shall never know. 

The centre simply doesn’t hold.

But really I think it’s a summer beach read. If you are not on a summer beach, give it a miss.

By the way. I read recently that the very famous Sue Vertue has bought the TV rights for this. Sue Vertue’s last television success?

Sherlock.



AMERICANNAH [By Chimamanda Ngozi Adachie]


Whew! Another tome, this time 477-pages of tightly typeset prose; again, I think it is far too long.

In 2015 I wrote a novel called Train That Carried the Girl, a contemporary fish-out- of- water story about a beautiful Anglo-Japanese girl who, in the course of the narrative . . . ten years . . . learns a lot. She suffers from indiscriminate racist abuse along the way. It doesn’t have many reviews but what few it does has attracted one 5* and several 4* reviews. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t raise sufficient awareness for it so it has pretty much sunk without trace.

Americannah is a contemporary fish-out-of-water story about a beautiful Nigerian girl who, in the course of the narrative . . . ten years . . . learns a lot. She suffers from indiscriminate racist abuse along the way. It has around 900 reviews on Amazon almost all of which rate it 5*, or four.
The writing is good, not great, actually it gets better as the book progresses but it is more than adequate for the task she has set herself. But anyway, for me, character is the most important thing. Language is a vehicle for content, not a showpiece in itself. She never slackens the pace which is a big positive. Train That Carried the Girl, has a lot of the real life and the real people I have known and met and I suspect Americannah also has a lot of the real life and the real people Ngozi has known and met. Not entirely for her and certainly not entirely for me but she draws upon different characteristics and motivations to create realistic people; which of course I did. I read an old interview once with the late Graham Greene in which he claimed never to have done that. Really? All those clubbable old white men in The Human Factor are an invention? I believe you.

I thought Don and later in the novel, Shan were particularly solid creations and if she made them up then kudos to Ngozi whereas on the other hand, I felt Curt was thin and perhaps he was based upon someone she only half-knew or had simply been told about. Ifemelu, the heroine, the protagonist of the tale isn’t particularly likeable, her teasing of Obinze early on grated but perhaps what Ngozi was doing was creating such a warm and supportive person in Obinze that Ifemelu could be drawn a bit cool; froideur is the word, I think. She continues throughout the narrative as a little detached but in my opinion, Ngozi makes a mistake when Ifemelu doesn’t read Obinze’s letter. The reader, who is already a bit 50-50 about Ifemelu by now, goes over to active dislike of the character. Not a good look. Of course, I can see that she has to have this breach: it is the hinge of the novel but not at the expense of turning us against Ifemelu. This is how I did it in Train That Carried the Girl:


Kiri is speaking first

‘And Angela? I thought she was my friend? Why hasn’t she called me?’
‘She’s upset …’
‘… I’m upset.’
He glanced over to the fridge. ‘Any chance of a cold drink?’
I opened the door and bent down to examine the contents. ‘I’ve got water, apple juice, lager …’
‘Water is fine. I think she’s upset you went with Kerry,’ he said in a flat voice, ‘She thought you were better than that.’
‘Who the hell is she to judge me!’
‘She thought you were,’ he groped for the word . . . chums, friends; she thought she knew you.’
‘Well, obviously I am deeper than she realised …’
‘… or shallower.’
I could feel myself stiffen.
He paused, ‘Kiri,’ his eyes pursued mine, ‘have you got feelings for me?’
‘No!’ I said, too abruptly.
‘Right, right,’ He removed his glasses and scoured them on his sleeve, his voice remained matter of fact, ‘glad you have considered it from, err … all angles.’
‘Maybe you should go.’
‘Maybe I should.’

How we shape the conversation is so critical. I needed a breach but I couldn’t let my audience lose the sympathy I had built-up for Kiri over the previous 140 pages, [and she is cool and detached, like Ifemelu] so, a misunderstanding keeps the reader on-side.


WORKPLACE. Most people live their lives there; their friends and many of their principal relationships, challenges and rewards can be found in the job they do. In Train That Carried the Girl Ben and his piffling little 9-5 graphics studio that underuses his talent and intellect; Mark and his million pound company, taking everything thrown at him in his stride. It’s in the daily activity of work that an author can show character [or not]; intelligence [or not]; unreasonable-ness [or not] and ability [or not]. By eschewing any backstory to any of her male characters, Ngozi relinquishes an opportunity for them to explain themselves. What does Curt do when he is not with Ifemelu? What does Don do? Does whatever it is explain his relationship with Kimberley? And all we ever know about Obinze is that he cleaned toilets [once] and acquired a few million dollars because of some nefarious connection. What in fact does Ifemelu do eight-hours a day [the majority of her waking hours] at her classy workplace? Many of the characters are thinly drawn almost two-dimensional and it is my   belief that fleshing-out the jobs and their roles could have rounded them out.
Perhaps Ngozi would argue that we don’t need to know, this isn’t what the book is about and besides, this is how middle-class Nigerian and American society works: you scratch my back . . . . and anyway,  if she got into all that, the novel would be twice as long. But I would disagree, there are many redundant scenes, the Dinner Party tells us little and Obinze’s time in custody could have been reduced to half a page. Several reviewers seem to have reached the same conclusion; that the novel is an endless parade of everyone CNA has ever met and what she thinks makes them tick.

Didn’t like the ending: I didn’t do that in Train That Carried the Girl.

Ultimately it is about racial discrimination, or identity politics as CNA would have it. I don’t for one moment doubt her conviction that the USA is a racist country but London, England? I have my doubts; I lived there on and off for twenty years and of course there are racist individuals, much more in the ascendancy now, post-Brexit but I think Sunjeev Sahota paints a better and more accurate picture in The Year of the Runaways. But equally, CNA could and maybe should have reflected upon the black youth of South London and whilst I definitely don’t want to make sweeping statements without the support of facts, almost every one of these kids come from broken homes; why do black fathers abandon their children? Shouldn’t Ngozi acknowledge this? Can’t she see why shopkeepers and restaurant owners think twice about allowing young black men through the door? They are a risk.

She blogs. Her blogposts are really very good, the one referencing Michelle Obama is particularly brilliant . . . but ultimately, there was no life in the story; all dry intellect and clunky symbolism, no heart.