Friday, December 31, 2010

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 and directed by Ang Lee, tells the story of two women, Shu Lien and Ziyi Zhang (Jen), both capable fighters, whose fates intertwine, when Hu Lien finds herself in Beijing, transporting 'Green Destiny' (an ancient sword) to Sir Te's estate, at the behest of her dear friend, Mu Bai. Both women yearn freedom in different ways: Shu Lien strives for freedom to express her emotions, and to fulfill her love for Mu Bai, but as we learn at the beginning, matters of the heart are difficult for her; Ziyi Zhang, on the other hand, is an aristocrat with a tumultuous past, who seeks to escape the constraints of her noble lifestyle and her upcoming arranged marriage.
A thief appears on the estate trying to steal the sword 'Green Destiny', and is later revealed to be Jen, who is working in cahoots with Jade Fox, an ignoble murderess, who is nonetheless a great fighter. Jade Fox is undercover as Jen's governess, but is really her mentor and teacher. Mu Bai discovers Jen's secret, but sees that she has great potential as a warrior and offers to become her teacher in the Wudang style of fighting. Jen, when she learns about Jade Fox's tainted past, banishes her, and returns the sword.
Lo, a long-haired, passionate bandit from the desert ('I may not be a cloud but I'm pretty dark') comes to Jen in the night, begging her to flee with him. We are given an insight into their history in a flashback, whereby Lo, heading a group of bandits, raided Jen's carriage, kidnapping Jen, and stealing her precious comb, which becomes a symbol of their love and trust of one another. Jen refuses to flee, so he puts a stop to the arranged marriage, but is intercepted by Mu Bai and Shu Lien, sending him to hide in wait for Jen at a safe location. After the wedding, Jen again steals 'Green Destiny' and runs away, and visits Shu Lien, who tells her that Lo awaits her. However, at this stage, it is clear that Jen is a danger to those around her, unsure of her destiny and winning duels in dishonorable fashion, and Mu Bai realises she is not worthy to be his student.
The film ends tragically, whereby Shu Lien too late discovers Mu Bai's love for her, and he dies in her arms, and Jen leaps into the clouds, apparently rejecting the Lo's love.
The film is remarkable in its dream-like scenes of the characters running through the air, over rootops, flying from branch to branch (apparently wire-work was employed and edited out), and the fencing scenes too were beautifully agile, like a dance. It didn't at all seem like a violent film. Also, the messages central to the film were strong and powerful, beautifully conveyed by characters who lived their truth. 'Real sharpness comes without effort. No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again'. This spoken by Mu Bai reveals the truth and integrity of his character. And Shu Lien, advising Jen on her path through life tells her to be a part of Lo's life but 'always be true to yourself'.'

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Seasons of life

shards of ice drape the rail like a flimsy medieval robe
the sea shivers in icy flux, too cold to boldly roar.
an icy film coats the pier. it's now a beached blue whale.
it's the blue-white-green-grey of winter's lonely heart-
the stark, sharp nothingness that calls for rest.

but yonder-in that horizon space-lie vast riches, untold
heat and fire and sun and gold. tribal dancing, clapping, stamping.
the burnt sienna, chestnut, pink, merge beautifully into
warmth. The colour of the heart. Its dancing flames,
sparks of sunrays. The gentle All that calls for life.

'Room' Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, based loosely on the horrifying story of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who kept his daughter in captivity for years and had children with her, is imaginably a harrowing and profoundly affecting book.
Told from the viewpoint of five-year old Jack, we come to know Jack and his Ma, and their horribly confined existence in ‘Room’, a garden shed, which is the only life Jack ever knew. Ma, abducted when she was eighteen, has had to put up with endless abuse at the hands of ‘Old Nick’, her captor, at whose mercy she and her son live. He visits them nearly nightly, ostensibly to bring supplies, but really demanding sexual favours of Ma, while Jack lies in Wardrobe, counting how many times ‘Old Nick creaks the bed’. Ma tries to create a safe fictional world for Jack, and succeeds in so far as he feels safe, he knows of no outside world, and only accesses ‘otherness’ from the world of TV, of which she does not allow him to watch much and which she says are ‘made up’. Each week is programmed into a series of activites and rituals by which to pass the time, and which strikes one as Beckettian. However, as Jack turns five, and becomes more curious and physically bigger, Ma finds Room becoming smaller and smaller, and after an unimaginably cruel punishment by Old Nick, where they had to do without heat or food for a whole week, Ma takes matters into her own hands and begins to plot their escape.
The childish perspective of the book is really beautifully conveyed through the use of language and images, and this allows us to really feel the pathos of the situation. Jack talks of ‘waterfalling’ the milk, refers to Ma’s painkillers as ‘Killers’, refers to the moonlight glimpsed through Skylight as ‘God’s silver face’ and as we see already personifies all the objects with which they share their space, speaking of them as friends to which they are firmly attached.
Their adjustment into the real world is understandably difficult, and Jack longs often to be back in ‘Room’ where everything was safe and familiar, and where he had Ma all to himself. He is overwhelmed with other people in the world as well as the vast range of sensory experience that was hitherto amiss. Ma, likewise, succumbs to dependence once she is out in the real world. For so long, she had to remain strong, not only for her own survival, but more importantly for Jack’s, who means the world to her. In fact she still nursed Jack, and the lack of understanding that greeted her in the outside world in this regard showed people’s absolute lack of understanding as to her situation. The line of questioning that followed their escape often held an accusatory tone, suggesting that her care for Jack was less than adequate, and this ignorance drove her, quite literally, mad. Life on the outside, as she was quickly remembering, was difficult in itself
Overall this is a really excellent, creative work which takes one out of their comfort zone, and offers an alternative view on reality, which, we are very aware as readers, was a reality for very many people. People in captivity of all kinds experience something of the trauma and dependence that Donoghue so incitefully describes. Her playful use of language and depiction of humorous scenes adds greatly to the book, giving the overall story an uplifting character.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The American

Anton Corbijn’s film, ‘The American’, is certainly not your run-of-the-mill gangster film, the formulaic, Hollywood-style ‘shoot-em-up’ that have become so common as to be humdrum. While it is a gangster film, it is a European-style gangster film, and therein lies the difference…the focus is more on art, cinematography and attractive scenery, and the plot, small though it is, unfolds itself in a painstakingly slow way, allowing us to be drawn in by the atmosphere of composed tension.

The film opens with Jack, the protagonist, played in a wonderfully restrained manner by George Clooney, enjoying a romantic vacation with a beautiful woman in an isolated log cabin in snowy Sweden. We see the naked couple sitting in silence by the fire inside, and then accompany them as they take a walk in the snow. When shots are fired at them from above, Jack does not hesitate to use his own gun, and kills both the man, and the unfortunate, woman. We wonder whether she is a traitor, or just an unsuspecting witness, something that is never disclosed in the film.

The film is mainly set in a beautiful Italian village, set in the mountains, and here Corbijn really takes advantage of the beauty of the location, making unbridled use of the stunning scenes. Not only is the location itself stunning, but so too are all the main characters, giving the film a glamour that is reminiscent of the Bond movies. Yet, one senses the aim of ‘The American’ is to draw one into the psychological mindset of the assassin, and therefore place itself on higher ground than a typical Bond movie. While it does achieve this to a certain degree, we never get too close to the main characters. While we know that Jack has a boss, with whom he communicates through short fragmented phonecalls, we don’t get any more information about who he is. We don’t even understand what exactly Jack is doing in this beautiful Italian village…this lack of context must in some part be a directorial devise, though at times, we yearn for a little bit more explanation, piecing together… Perhaps it is a means to highlight the folly senselessness to such a lifestyle. Jack, capable though he is, is slowly realising that he is lonely, and that his empty life lacks meaning.

He encounters a local priest in the village, who befriends him and tries to encourage him to take God into his heart. This relationship is very subtle and while Jack discovers the priest’s own past sins fairly quickly, we get no further insight into his own spiritual development. Through his liaison with a beautiful prostitute, Clara, we learn a little more. Clara represents for him freedom and life, and awakens Jack’s desire for these. However, it turns out that it’s a bit too late to make amends…Jack is now the ’hunted’, and will never enjoy the life of freedom that he has just discovered he wants.

Overall, I enjoyed ‘The American’, and the atmospheric, slow-moving scenes, and engaged with the characters in the film. However, I found the lack of context difficult to accept at times, and was left with many unanswered questions. The plot isn’t cut-and-dried like many other gangster movies, and only reveals itself in part, and very slowly.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'One Day' by David Nicholls

‘One Day’ tells the story, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ style, of two characters, boy and girl, who over the years go through many ups and downs, good and bad relationships, career highs and lows, who we know will end up getting together by the end. Despite its predictability, we engage in the story as the characters are likeable and well-rounded, and the trials that come their way throughout their lives relate to our own, and are told with humour, perception and intelligence. The structure is quite appealing, in that we are brought back to the two main characters, Dexter and Emma, on the same day every year over the course of twenty years.
Dexter, handsome, wealthy, middle class and arrogant, is a rather volatile character who doesn’t display too much of substance when it comes to true character. In fact, he succumbs to alcohol and drug abuse which plague him for much of his life, and his often despicable behaviour, while adding drama and comedy, isn’t as believable as it could be. His self-centredness come to light when he fails to show love to his immediate family, and also when he fails to truly see or hear Emma, as she tries to counsel him or simply be a friend to him. In fact, I often found myself wondering what Emma could possibly see in him. However, as readers, we know that it is the fate of these two characters to get together, so I found myself, against my better judgement, wishing for this outcome, and hoping that his character would somehow redeem itself.
Emma was a great character-not immediately noticeable to men, but funny, intelligent and loyal to a fault, as was put to the test by Dexter’s often despicable behaviour. She was always a good friend, and calls us to question the qualities of such…she often told him directly if he needed to mend his ways. A teacher of drama, her true passion is writing, and she struggles with this in the evenings, chiding herself often if she’s struggling with writer’s block-she “wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.” While she’s certainly more grounded than Dexter, she’s not afraid of change, and is by no means boring. She has several relationships with unlikely partners, she takes on big theatrical projects in school and she leaves a secure career when she’s fed up with it. She’s from a working class background, and as such, understands what ‘work’ is and the value of money, unlike Dexter, who takes these things for granted and drifts along.
The setting of the story over twenty years, and in various locations is well done by Nicholls, who brings in elements from the culture of the time to make it believable. The prose is very accessible, but this is not a criticism-rather it is authentic in its simplicity, making the story more realistic, Much dialogue is used, which is not surprising for such a novel, and the third-person voice works well: we know then that we are ‘being told’ a story, and relax into a certain secure ’happy-ending’ expectation. Also, Nicholl’s descriptions are sharp and fresh, drawing us into the scenarios played out by these characters, showing his skill and talent as a writer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Kids are All Right

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko, 'The Kids are All Right' offers a close-up encounter with an unconventional family unit in California (lesbian parents of a fifteen-year-old boy, Laser, and his eighteen-year-old sister, Joni). The plot involves a quest by the kids to meet their biological father, Paul, and the chaos that will inevitably ensue for the family.

Though unconventional in structure, the family behaves like any other family, handling problems in ways that are no more creative than any 'conventional' family. The 'moms' are both failing to influence Laser to terminate his friendship with someone they deem unsuitable, and end up rowing, shouting, etc. etc...not the cool, hip and wise approach that they no doubt want to portray of themselves. In fact, it is not until the appearance of their biological father, played by the charming Mark Ruffalo, that some of the problems rise to the surface, and actually get resolved. There is an implicit suggestion that the influence of an outsider can bring a 'freshness', or change of dynamic to a 'stuffy' family, where, as Jules points out, all the crap that people are dealing with gets projected onto each other. Despite the family's obvious desire to be all open, new-age and tolerant, this family too grapples with the pedestrian problems of feeling trapped, misunderstood and burdened with a vague feeling of stagnation.

Joni forms an immediate bond with Paul, and admires him in a slightly uncomfortable, 'flirty' way. She becomes a stronger person by the end of the summer, standing up to the strict, antsy mom, Nic (Annette Benning). However, Jules, the ditsy, dreamy lesbian mom also forms a bond with him-an impulsive sexual encounter that closes her consultation on landscaping his garden.

What ensues is the heavy, judging mindset of Nic being played out in the way she deals with such betrayal. She cannot, it seems accept any responsibility for the crisis that is erupting around her, a crisis that was clearly gathering force already, and that perhaps prompted Jules' 'fling'. She mopes about, hardened and bitter, aimlessly watching T.V. and disengaging with her family. What arises is some real communication, initiated by Jules, and that marks a new beginning, a 'clearing of the air' for the family. (This is her speech about relationships being hard work, and projections...) As Nic's tears silently flow, we know that something has shifted, they're going to be ok.

The film ends with the family driving Joni to college and bidding her goodbye. We get a sense of the shy Joni feeling a sense of relief at being able to explore things for herself, removed from the influences of home. As the moms tearfully drive back, comforting one another and floundering with this new feeling of loss, unsure of what the next stage of their life will bring, we wonder if they, in fact, are the 'kids' in this story.

Overall, it's a good film, one that moves slowly, and perhaps doesn't leave much of an immediate impression, but certainly one that gives a very real look at the 'stuffiness' and heaviness that can often dwell in families, if they are not willing to look honestly at what is going on inside themselves and gloss over the truth by focusing narrowly on petty issues, more often involving the 'kids' than the parents.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, is a quick-paced, in depth account of the inception of facebook, the social network. A melancholy paradox lies at the heart of this entertaining and emotionally gripping movie: in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore, invents Facebook and eventually creates a five-hundred-million-strong network of “friends,” but Zuckerberg is so egotistical and work-obsessed that he can’t stay close to anyone. He ends up by losing his only real friend, Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), a fellow Jewish student at Harvard, who helps him launch the site, and who eventually sues Zuckerberg for the raw deal he was given as a business partner.
The movie opens with a scene between Zuckerberg and Erica, his date, and we are drawn into their intense stacatto conversation, whereby Erica fails to steer Zuckerberg away from his own obsessions, and engage in normal, more open conversation. Erica, as it happens, is the only female character presented in an intelligent, self-contained way. This was a great opening scene, as it gives us an insight into Zuckerberg's character but also sets the story in motion, when Zuckerberg, just dumped by Erica, blogs cheap lies about her, which spread through college in very little time. We learn how brilliant Zuckerberg is with computers, and through another programme he sets up, hacking into the Harvard database to rank female students in terms of their 'hotness', he comes up with the idea of 'facebook'. However, he is hired by a group of upper-class rowers, who have a similar idea, but who's snobbishness and derisiveness piss Zuckerberg off, to the degree that he blows them off, and proceeds with the work himself, taking financial help on occasion from Eduardo. He later becomes enthralled with the founder of Napster, Sean Parker, (played very convincingly by Justin Timberlake), who comes on board the business departure, leading to the betrayal of Eduardo.
The film is told through a series of flash-backs and forwards between the present courtroom drama (he's being sued by the Winklevoss twins and by former friend Eduardo), and the past events as they occurred. The pace at which 'facebook' became established is evident in the film, as we are rushed from scene to scene, back and forth in the mesmerising computer-savvy world that these characters occupy.
I was left wondering how accurately this film recounts the story as it happened, and why Zuckerberg would agree to being so exposed, as he seemed to be in this film. Certainly he's the world's youngest billionaire, with a very brilliant mind to boot, but there are gaping flaws to his character, not least, his inability to engage with society, which were laid bare in the film.
The closing scene effectively returns to Erica, whom we met at the beginning and only briefly in the middle, whereby Zuckerberg, all alone, requests her as a friend on facebook, and stares at the screen, in vain hope of a reply.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Sean O Casey's post-war play, originally rejected by the Abbey, for its avant-garde European influence, was taken on board by director Garry Hynes of Druid, who with her cast of some 15 characters, achieved a very striking production of the intelligent play.
Opening in the kitchen of a working class Dublin tenement, we are introduced to a tight-knit community of family and friends, and get a sense of the lack of personal space by the noise from the upstairs flat and the ensuing involvement of all around, in witnessing the 'domestic', and comforting the distraught wife. This scene involves Teddy as the cruel and angry husband, who has a rather important role to play later on. We are made aware of the change that the next day will bring, when all the young men will be off to 'the Front' in France. But first, we watch their jubilation as they return with 'The Silver Tassie', having won the football league 3rd year in a row. Here we meet Harry, the protaganist, for the first time, oozing with the power and vim of youth and love. He is in love with the pretty, but rather slippery Jessie, and is admired and rather awed by all.
The second scene shows a war tank, and the stage landscape really deserves a mention...the tank takes up most of the space, and we get a sense of its magnitiude and are drawn straight into the scene. The lighting is dark and smoky and we see a large cross of the body of Jesus on stage-right. Here the comrades chant and sing the lines, with accordion, guitar or eukalele accompaniment...this gives almost an operatic feel, but I'm not sure the style of music delivered the pathos of the scene effectively. Much of it was jaunty and upbeat, and sometimes the 'ump-ah' accordion bass drowned out the actual words.
For the third scene, we are returned to Dublin to a hospital scene, and then, for the final scene to a dance hall, for a post-war party. These two scenes come across as somewhat flat in comparison to the second scene. Harry is left wheelchair-bound without the use of his legs, and Teddy is blind. We see the resentment and bubbling anger of Harry as he wheels up and down incessently in scene 3, and his desperation for Jessie, who has left him for his former best friend, who saved him from the Front. The final scene shows a mellowing of both men, Harry and Teddy, as they poetically and prayer-like, dialogue about their present conditions and their bleak futures, which they come to profess they will face 'like men'. Prior to this, Harry, in his anger hammers the once cherished 'Silver Tassie' out of all shape, which poignantly reflects his battered body, and sense of separation from the rest of his community and family.
All in all, the play was enjoyable. The casting was good, Eamon Morissey, and John Olohan comprising an effective double-act, as the elders of the community. The hospital scene was Beckett-like in its absurdity, and presented a sharp comment on the futility of war. Harry's character was very well played also, as was the pious nurse Susie. Much of the writing and turns-of-phrase were comedic but needed to be brought to life by the actors, which they achieved admirably. If I had a qualm, it was the length of time that it took to change from one scene to the next. Each break took at least ten minutes, which did disrupt the fluidity of the play. While this is all part of the theatrical experience, I feel these transitions ought to be quicker. But all in all, a commendable performance, which called to question the validity of faith and human weakness, ambitious themes by Sean O'Casey, but universal and timeless.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Town

'The Town', directed by Ben Affleck, is set in the Boston town of Charlestown, which, as we are informed at the start, is the town with the highest number of bank robberies in the States. We are quickly drawn into the setting, as the opening scene shows a group of ghoulishly-masked robbers violently breaking into a bank, bagging millions of dollars, and taking the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage. One of the gang seems more human than the rest, and this predictably unfolds to a relationship forming between Doug (Affleck) and Claire.
In the relationship, he finds himself entangled in a delicate web of deceit, and yearns for a Way out of the life he was born into, a life lived with pride, (again from a quote at the start) by most of the criminals. Classy Claire, known as a 'toonie', acts as a foil for the low-down life he is trapped in...his fellow criminal friend, Jim, determined not to let him get away, and who has a hold over him from a prison sentence he served on Doug‘s behalf, the florist owner, the leader of the gang, played by an Irish actor, Pete Postlethwaite, with a really bad Northern accent, Jim’s sister, a messed-up junkie mother, who he sleeps with out of habit than anything else, and his father (Chris Cooper), who is serving life in jail, and who’s brief appearance shows what a poor role model he is. Doug, we see as quite a deep character, one who wants to change, and one who is kind and gentle at heart…he attends AA meetings, and reveals his vulnerability to Claire, when he talks of his estranged mother, who left when he was a young child, and whom he thought he could find, by putting up posters, like when their dog went missing.
The scenes of robbery are very well-executed, very believable, showing their experience very effectively, and the scenes of the car chases are dramatic and convincing.
However, there were a few scenes that I found rather too contrived to fit with the story. When Doug was in the laundromat, Claire ‘just happened’ to ask him for change, then she ‘just happened’ to burst into tears, giving Doug the opportunity that he was seeking to ask her out for a drink. Then, just as they were going for the drink, Claire ‘just happened’ to feel the need to get her recent experience of being taken hostage off her chest.
There is of course, one last robbery that must be undertaken before Doug can hope to become free, and it is on this final heist, in Fenway Park, home to the Red Sox, that his freedom and future ultimately lie. This is a very good device to add to the tension, and inevitably things don’t go as expected. I think this was probably the best possible outcome for the film, if it were to deliver any moral message on the futility and distructivness of crime.
The scene that most stands out for me is that where the gang are dressed up as nuns, whose humorous appearance somehow makes them even more scary. A van-load of armed nuns are stopped just beside an on looking boy, stupefied and understandably aghast. This same gang get the shock, when they think they have ‘got away with it’, and alight the van, only to be left facing a policeman, who in turn is perturbed by such a vision. This playful back-and-forth of unexpected ‘fright’ moments, is very clever in adding to the tension, and also in revealing the extent to which armed robbers (be they disguised as nuns) has become a way of life, and is almost familiar for residents of Charlestown.

Bill Bailey in the O2

Bill Bailey, best known to me as the hapless, though eccentrically intelligent bookshop employee in ‘Black Books’, took to the stage in the O2 in Dublin last week, for 2 nights. We went on the Friday night, 1st October.
He was so relaxed on stage, a considerable feat in itself, when he was tasked with making some 10,000 people laugh. His ease on stage made him a pleasure to watch, and his ability to improvise was apparent, as he took audience heckles and worked them seamlessly into his routine. However, the general outline of the show was intact, as seen by the preparation of video footage, and sound bytes that were used intermittently. Music too played a large part in the show, and his talent and obvious interest in quirky instruments was highlighted and used to effect. In fact, the ‘oud’, became part of an audience chant, which Bailey encouraged and took advantage of, and it was the most effective encore call, as he came back on stage at least 4 times.
The general theme of the show was difficult to pinpoint, but uncertainty seemed to crop up frequently, with a whole section devoted to an exposé of pictures by famous artists depicting the ‘doubting Thomas’. Each of these were shamelessly derided, but to great comic effect. Knowledge of the subject is a prerequisite to building comedy around it, and here Bailey’s intelligence was evident.
Like any good comedian, he makes observations of daily life, things accepted without question by the normal ‘Joe Soap’, and highlights their ridiculousness, eg that joggers are always the ones to find bodies (curious!), but Bailey goes further and follows through on his most bizarre imaginings, from glimpses of pixie-like people with loudspeakers inside Tesco’s self-service checkouts, calling up “Please remove this item from the bagging area”, to eating a packet of Revels from a bucket, to provide a greater challenge in identifying the type of Revel you are eating!! He also focuses a lot on stereotypes, poking fun at the difference between dealing with French and German electricity supply companies, the lassitude of the French (being put on hold to ‘Non, je ne regretted rien’), to the stinginess of the Germans, (as he feigned pathetically begging for electricity, for “die kinders”, which provoked the decisive response ’Nein’, with a stamp of the foot, for effect). He also takes apart the Australian phrase ‘too easy’, and wittily on how this can come across as insulting to the unwitting Englishman, requesting a simple favour.
His own honesty was very charming, and he spoke of his son, and how he would shuffle him along to school, disorganised as anything, with disapproving looks from the ‘Oh so perfect’ parents with all their books covered, pencils sharpened and healthy foil-packed lunches.
His use of lighting was very original, and this artistic leaning was also seen in his piecing together of internet and computer signs and symbols to make a song, commentating on the computer as the means of modern-day communication. (^_^) lol. Plus transport got a mention more than once, from bikes made out of wagon wheels and chocolate fingers, to Gary Numan cars with French musical horns.
All in all, a very inventive show!! First time in the O2 also, and it was a good venue, the use of screens providing quite a good view to those further back.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Other Guys

This comedy, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as a pair of unlikely cop partners, tells the story of their rise to glory, all amid a stream of jokes and improvised silliness. Identified from the start as 'The Other Guys', compared to a pair of macho, god-like figures in the cop world, (Samuel Jackson cameo-ing as one), who soon jump to their death (?) leaving a vacancy for them to fill.
The dynamic between this mis-matched pair is quite funny, where 'tough-as-nails' Terry, is often taken at his literal word by nerdy, paperwork fiend, Allen. Everything about Allen annoys Terry: his humming as he works, his car, a Prius, which he terms 'vagina', and his unlikely ability to attract very beautiful women, his current partner played by Eva Mendes.
They end up pursuing a British financial operator, Ershon, involved in stealing billions from the public, which doesn't offer much hope of the glorious conquest they were seeking. Yet as predicted, by the end, all's well that ends well, leaving the credits to show a series of graphs, and stats, apparently detailing the ratio of CEO to employee salaries. So there you go: this film is really built on the noble cause of raging against the white-collar machine! Could have fooled me!
While I wasn't blown away by any manner or means by the film, some scenes were funny. The narrative was weak and didn't seem to gel with many of the comic scenes, which were superfluous, but probably more enjoyable than the actual story, which was too long! The improvisatory nature of the comedy was well done, Allen's spiel about a tuna overcoming a lion, setting the tone for many more such meanderings. Ferrell was definately the stronger of the two characters, his deadpan gait coming across very well.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

Right from the opening of this book, I was arrested, and had to force myself to read slowly to savour the delicious language, intriguing storyline and enigmatic characters that comprised this first novel of talented New Zealander, Eleanor Catton.

The story describes the fallout of a sex-scandal in a teenage girls' school, but the description was neither clear-cut, nor one-sided, which was to the story's credit in that it mirrored the muddied reality of the event. The local acting academy take up the story as a project for production, and in the course of the novel, the lines become blurred between theatre and reality, so that often we are not sure which is which. This is an effective device to describe the confusion and turmoil that teenagers and young adults often grapple with, often exploring multiple personas through which to view the world.

There is a further subplot, which explores the life of the saxophone teacher, who is a dark and intriguing character, who often acts as a foil for her students. Her life is paradoxically explored through witholding direct information, and instead offering fragments of conversations with parents of her students, the students themselves and Patsy, a confidante with whom she had a very intimate relationship. In fact two of her students, Julia and Isolde, re-enact an episode from her past, their relationship mirroring that which herself and Patsy once had. The saxophone teacher comes across as a very powerful character, one who really sees, and who weilds a strong influence over her students. The intimacy of the one-to-one music lesson, acts almost like a therapy session, the body and voice of the saxophone offering a velvety, seductive atmosphere. The saxophone teacher reminded me of another memorable character from a novel by Paulo Coelho, that I read a few years ago: 'Eleven Minutes'. The character was the librarian, who, like 'the saxophone teacher', remained known just as, 'the librarian'. The librarian too acted as a foil and something of a confidante for the main character, and came across as mysterious and interesting.

The nearby acting academy has a crucial role in the novel in making 'public' the 'private' scandal, and in so doing, exposing the falsehood of public and private lives. The stage is a metaphor, often overused in day-to-day life, but one that is used to incredible effect here, and calling to question what we accept as reality versus reality itself.

This is a must-read novel, one that looks at truth from multiple perspectives, as the characters experience it, toy with it, avoid it and confront it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nature drowning

The meadow lush with flowers
A blue-green sea, luxuriant
With summer's beauty, blazing-bright
As twinkling stars at night enchant.
Like Wordsworth's host of daffodils
Or Monet's poppies red,
These bobbing blue heads catch the eye
And merge the living with the dead.
For all the life and richness here
We know it will not last
Renewing itself ad infinitum
We too will soon have been, and passed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Loving Lorrie Moore as a short story writer, you can't imagine my delight at seeing a full length novel written by this inimitable writer. Does she succeed in the longer format? Yes, despite one or two reservations, I think she does...

What I love about Lorrie Moore are her delicious descriptions-so fresh and quirky, yet so real and grounding. The story is focused around Tassie, a young woman who grew up on a farm in Dellacrosse and who is attending college in Troy at the time the story takes place. She finds a part-time job as a childminder for a couple, Sarah and Edward, who adopt a colored child Emmie, with whom Tassie forms a deep bond. Tassie, despite her youth, has a deep wisdom and a way of understanding the world far beyond her years. She clings to awkward teenage habits and expressions, 'awesome', 'sounds good', but is so self-aware that she sees these exactly for what they are. Her observations of Sarah, the eccentric, high-maintenance foster mother, and her strained relationship with husband Edward, are often hilarious, but cut right to the truth: by the end, we see what a shambles their marriage is, and the lies and secrets upon which it totters, trying to avoid its inevitable downfall.
Another important element of the book describes Tassie's immediate family: her quirky farmer father, her nonchalant Jewish mother, and her self-doubting, coming-of-age brother, who ends up signing up for the army and shortly after, being killed.

I couldn't help thinking of these two separate elements, her job as a childminder, and her brother's death, as two separate short stories, independent of one another, but for Tassie being the link. This pastiche aspect to the novel, added to the quirkiness of the narrator's voice, but for me, took from the integrity of the novel. Something else that bothered me about the novel was the Sarah's over-the-top revelation about her and Edward's past, which was so absurd and unexpected that I couldn't take that part of the novel seriously anymore.

This said, there were some great juxtapositions, great images, and all presented in straight-forward language, but with vast emotional depth. One such moment was Tassie's 21st birthday at the end of the novel. Tassie's dad uses the cliched expression of how time flies, Tassie muses on this, and her mother jumps in with a marked reference to her dead son:

" 'To our sweet and lovely Tassie' said my dad. 'Twenty-one! Time flies so fast, I have to lie down just thinking about it'.
I'd read once of a French geologist who had confined himself in a dark cave for sixty-one days, though when he emerged, he thought it had only been forty-five.Time flew! No matter what.
'At least we got you out of childhood', added my mother "

Thursday, July 22, 2010

His and Hers

I had heard many positive things about this film / documentary, but was unclear as to what it was about. What a gem it turned out to be!!
Directed by Ken Wardrop, it features numerous women, speaking openly and candidly about the men in their lives, be it fathers, sons, boyfriends, husbands... Not only is much revealed about the said men in each short expose, but much is revealed about the women / girls in question too.
What I loved about it was the fact that nothing was 'dressed-up' as it were...what you see is what you get, and in this respect, it was very natural, very real, and through their sincerity, we could relate to each of these women. And each, had their story to tell, all coming across as remarkable people. I think this was the fundamental point of the film, and certainly the sense that I got from it: Each person, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, has their story to tell. Each person is getting through life in the best way they know how, doing their best to enjoy relationships with family members, but also having to endure universal hardships, such as death, illness and old-age. Some of the most touching features, I found, were those by the old women, and how they must cope with being alone, weakness and their growing dependence on others, these women, who were always the 'caregivers'. One very effective shot showed an old woman sitting on a chair, slowly putting on her shoes, and the difficulty such a seemingly simple task presented. In light of that, I decided to give my grandmother a call.
While parts were certainly sad and very moving, other parts were hilarious: the frankness with which the women spoke was charming, and a testament to Wardrop. A little girl at the beginning describes Fathers' Day cards: "They're like Mother's Day cards, but they're for fathers".
We are really honored, as spectators to get a glimpse into the daily lives of these remarkable people. We are taken into their homes (kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms), and it is the 'ordinariness' yet loveliness of their homes, their space, that makes this so special. These are all 'normal' people, whom we can all relate in some way to.
The men described come across on the whole as a bit useless but yet lovable. The great Irish phrase, 'they'd break your hearts' covers it nicely with both its negative and positive connotations. One women describes her son's aspirations to be a guard when he grows up; "bank robber more like" she retorts, and then adds "I suppose at 5 they wouldn't really know what they want to be"! Another woman praises her husband's curries, but then admonishes his ability to wash up as he goes. What is obvious from all the stories, is the shared affection of these women for the respective others in their lives.
The women were from somewhere around the midlands I figured from the prevailing accents. One of them referred to Athlone, so the women must have been all situated around there.
The music was very sensitively composed and arranged appropriately to fit in with the tone of the scenes.
This is truly a great piece of documentary film-making, funny and touching in equal measure, and I urge anyone who has not yet seen it, to take a look.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ghost Light

Another gift from a friend, this comprised the second half of my holiday reading. Though I’m a huge admirer of Joseph O’Conner, and particularly like his radio slots, I’m not sure I’d have bought this book for myself. Having heard a radio interview conducted by Mary Wilson (RTE 1), I felt that I had heard enough, and while the extracts read out were very beautiful, there could be little else remaining for the book. I suppose I felt that the story / content was quite tenuous and that the book must read more like an essay or short story, where the author uses a certain amount of poetic licence in order to have a story, but cannot make it completely fictitious because of the ‘real’ people about whom he was writing.
I did find myself more inspired by the poetry of the language and style of writing than I was by the story, which I found rather stretched and fleshed out. This was quite interesting, especially when the art of good writing was referred to in the book itself: content and form are both crucial must exist equally (idea paraphrased).
O’Conner did well to give a clear picture of the characters involved. Synge, about whom I knew very little up to now, and about whom I merely associated some vaguely-remembered facts from secondary school (association with Yeats, ill-health, premature death…), none of which made him a character of worth in his own right. Of course there was ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, but I somehow took this for granted?! O’Conner brought Synge to life, portraying him as a sensitive and vulnerable human being beneath the rather stiff, aristocratic influence. His relationship with Molly Allgood brought out the best in him, and while such an alliance was generally not approved, his love for her came across very clearly, giving his character humanity and wholeness.
Molly Allgood comes across as a great personality, and the old Irish sayings that pepper the book really add to her character, bringing her to life. There is more focus on her as she outlives Synge by many years. The story swings between her life in old age, as a down-on-her-luck actress, and her years with Synge, during which she exudes personality and life. The lonely life that she lived in London was evoked with touching sensitivity, and describes not only the specific autumn of her life, but calls up the difficult day-to-day of old-age in general. This is a testament to O’Conner.
There is a brilliant scene, whereby Yeats gives Molly and the rest of the cast of actors a most vitriolic ‘dressing-down’, when Molly refuses to comply in the way she speaks her lines. I had heard that Yeats could be rather fiery when provoked, but as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder was this portrayal of him extreme? Or perhaps it was justified. I suppose I’ll never know… And such is the nature of the book, which O’Conner refers to in his afterword.
Such a story must contain imaginings, and while certain events certainly occurred and others, almost certainly, others still, we must give over to the realm of fiction, accepting that the authorial voice, and not true fact, are their source.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Help

'The Help', by Kathryn Stockett, given to me by a friend, was my holiday reading, and though it is not something I would have chosen to read for myself (a bit to 'Mockingbird-esque' for my liking, or so I thought), I was hooked from the beginning. Straight away, we hear the voice of Aibileen, a black maid and nanny, and written in the colloquial style of the Deep South, the character comes to life on the page, each sentence, each expression distinctly hers.
The story focuses around three main characters, Aibileen and Minnie, 2 black maids, and Skeeter a white young lady, who empathises with the plight of the black 'help' despite social convention and pressure of the time, and tries to expose the hardship and injustice they must endure through collaberating with them to write a book-a book, which must of course remain anonymous.
Skeeter, recently returned home to her cotton farm with a degree in English is in some ways an outsider. Her friends, bridge partners and fellow members of the Junior League are married. Most subscribe to the racist attitudes of the era, mistreating and despising the black maids, and while her attitude is clearly more generous, she comes across at times as patronising. This in fact is to her favour, as it gives her character more authenticity, and ultimately makes her more likeable.
Many of the other characters are so unabashedly awful that it's almost funny, except when remember that such 'awfulness' towards 'the help' was very real. Stockett draws the characters very well, and the dialogue is full of ironies and humour that keeps story flowing along. For example, while black maids are underpaid, overworked and are even compelled to use a separate toilet on the one hand, the League is organising a charity fundraiser for 'Poor Starving Children of Africa'. Sometimes, however, I feel Stockett can take humour to excess, compromising the veracity of the story. Examples of this was when Hilly's front lawn was filled with toilet bowls while she was away on holiday, or even the mud-pie saga...ugh!!
The best thing about this book is not the plot itself, but the dialogue, which is excellently done and through which the characters come alive, and some of the descriptions, conjuring up the sweaty, deadening heat, the smells from steaming pots of okra, which really transport you to the Jackson Mississippi in the 1960's.


Before I even write this blog, I know there are things I will leave out, places I will describe inadequately, historical facts I will have misinterpreted, people whose essence I will not capture and landscapes whose power and immensity will be rendered banal through description. Even though I intend to accompany some of this with photos, photos can only give an idea, indeed often an overly subjective idea and can be no match for experience.

London-Day 1.

A day in London…what do two people who’ve both been to London before, do for one day? Well, my only objective was to go to the Tate Modern, having seen it mentioned in Woody Allen’s ‘Match point’ (silly reason, I know, but there you go!) Having checked in to our hotel, Hotel Apollo, (chosen because of its deified name, of course…nothing to do with location or any other factor!), we ate Pret-a-Manger, which I like because even though it’s nice and quick, it’s healthy too.
We then took off in the direction of the Tate, making a detour to the British Museum so that Denis could show me the great and wonderful fragments of the freise of the Parthenon (to educate me to a full and proper appreciation!) To be fair it was very impressive, so much so that I wondered what could possibly be left of it in Athens, if this much of it was appropriated and on display in London? (We since learned that these pieces were looted between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire). While I didn’t, and still don’t understand the stories the pictures tell, and mythology in general doesn’t hold my attention, the beauty of these sculptures was really something. That movement and body language could be portrayed through the folds of a toga, hewn from cold, hard marble is beautiful and can be admired to that end.
We then meandered through the streets of London to the Tate Modern, which we eventually found. Incidentally, the weather was quite hot on that day, preparing us I suspect, for what was to come later. We availed of audio guide as in the Tate, which were quite good…gave general information on the 3 permanent collections, and more specific information on certain paintings on those 3 levels. The four seminal periods represented are Surrealism, Minimalism, post-war innovations in abstraction and figuration. An example of a work better understood with audio information was that of Cubist artist, Georges Braque, Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece, whereby the commetator guides you through the objects ‘hidden’ in the picture leading to an understanding of how Cubists began to bring different views of the object together on the picture surface. On this picture, a clarinet, albeit with a different mouthpiece can be seen horizontally across the middle of the picture, as can various other musical symbols, eg. Bass clefs. Part of the bottle of Rhum can be seen (RHU( at the top, and part of the word valse can be seen underneath reinforcing the idea of music. The brackets of a mantelpiece, though quite obscured, can be made out at the bottom right. What also stood out to me were Andy Warhol’s rooms, obviously in the Pop Art category. The colour and immensity of the display is very powerful and the juxtaposition of various seemingly unrelated elements strikes a chord. On a backdrop of repeated pattern print (pink cow’s heads on yellow) are superimposed on one wall, a large $ sign, on another 6 skulls, on another 6 vertical coloured patterns, and finally on the last 2 pistols. What any of this means, I don’t know. I don’t know if it means anything, but it certainly gets you thinking of how these things might be related, why the artist chose to put them together, which begs the deeper question, how are things related to each other and to us, and do things matter? I guess it’s something like that that’s at the heart of consumerism.
After the Tate, we were both fairly wrecked and in need of a ‘nice-English-cup-of-tea-and-a-sit-down’, which we had in a bar beside the Tate, overlooking the Thames. We then walked along the bank, overlooking the river, where there was a fair amount of street performance. We passed by 10 Downing Street, and Buckingham Palace, but decided to cut both Cameron and Queen from our already busy schedule…next time, perhaps! Through St. James’ park we ambled, towards Picadilly, where we purchased tickets for 39 Steps, a show by Hitchcock. After some reliably good pizza at Pizza Hut, (more anon), and a drink at a nearby Irish pub, we went to the play.
Now I know we were tired at this point, and may have been overly critical, but really…! The plot was weak and the four actors were overstretched, despite using many theatrical techniques, quick costume changes and farcical manoeuvres to deliver the story. The basic theme was that of a man who inadvertently is embroiled in a murder of a ‘femme fatale’ and in his efforts to clear his name, he discovers a secret spy ring trying to smuggle scientific military secrets from Britain, and sets out, single-handedly to stop them. There were some Hitchcockian references, albeit a little brash. The pace was dashed, deliberately so, and the aim was parody and to give the effect of amateur drama, which certainly did come across in my view. I felt the whole show was too ‘loud’ and concentrated more around form than content, resulting in the story getting lost somewhere in the first half. And this, despite, raving reviews elsewhere…!

Day 2: London-Thessaloniki

After a breakfast, maybe not quite fit for the gods, in the Apollo, we got the Express to Heathrow, and flew to Athens with Aegean airlines. We got a meal on board, which in itself is a pleasant surprise when used to flying with mean old Irish airlines. And from there we flew to Thessaloniki and, after briefly remarking on the heat, got a bus to somewhere we thought looked like the centre?? Yes…we were lost! And without the language and even an ability to decipher Greek street names, we felt a bit at sea. So we gave up and got a taxi, which only cost 4 euro (and he even returned Denis’ lonely planet book which was left in the taxi…how sound is that?!)
We went out that evening for dinner, to Ruby Tuesdays, (not yet very adventurous with Greek cuisine), and then went for a few drinks in bars along the waterfront, one of which was showing the semi-final between Uruguay and Holland. Nothing too remarkable: nice places, but very high prices for drinks. It seemed we were experiencing a normal city in Greece, not one catering solely for tourists.

Day 3: Thessaloniki-Panteleimonas

After a nice sleep-in, we set out to explore Thessaloniki by day. We got breakfast, and then followed a walking tour outlined in Lonely planet, but spent about half an hour trying to find the starting point. Once we got going, it was easy enough to find our way around, and we went by some old Orthodox churches, old Roman baths, a Roman marketplace, the Galerian arch, the Modiano market, and the White Tower, which had a six floor exhibition of the history of Thessaloniki. There was English audio guides, and the exhibition was remarkably thorough, though impossible to fully take in. The tower was previously called the ’Blood Tower’ as it was the place of execution for janissary prisoners in the nineteenth century, but in 1912, when Thessaloniki was annexed from the Ottoman Empire and became part of Greece, the tower was whitewashed in a symbol of renewal and cleansing, giving it its current name, despite its grey colour. Having our tour completed, and drained from the heat, we chilled out with a coke and frappe in a bar close to the hotel.
We collected the car at the airport that evening at about 6, and with the help of Denis’ trustee sat-nav, and Denis’ trustee driving (which was really well-done!!) we made our way out of Thessaloniki and towards Panteleimonas, our next destination. So easily we seemed to be gliding along, we didn’t have any idea what awaited us that evening!!
We found the village without too much difficulty, but finding the house we were staying in was a whole other ball game. Perched on a high hill, the village could not be accessed by car, which we had to park close by and try to find this elusive place!! The village itself was beautiful, and very quaint, probably even more so on account of a dusky light lending it an air of mystery and a fairytale-like quality. Why was it getting dark this early?! On we went, and with the help of a kind shop assistant, despite the now inclement weather, we found our accommodation, a very charming country house. We went to get our bags from the car. By now it was fairly bucketing down, and we were met with a lady who was despairingly trying to tell us, in Greek, to move the car. (Her husband came to her assistance), and also led us back our accommodation, which was helpful, considering it was now pitch black, only lit up by intermittent streaks of lightening. So, once back in the safety of the house, we had to leave again to move the car, lest it be swept down the hill in the deluge (Heaven forbid!! We later thought it couldn’t be as drastic as all that, but with a rented car, you don’t take chances!) So out we trundled again, with no light to guide us but the lightning and a tiny lighter torch, and you’ll never believe it…yes, we ventured out a third time, with dry clothes this time, which were quickly soaked again, to get dinner in a lovely authentic restaurant close by. The second semi-final (Spain v Germany) was showing, but I was more taken with the drama out of doors-the lightning and thunder had subsided somewhat, but it the rain persisted. The food was lovely, and the setting was old-style, traditional and very homely. We returned after the match, and I was so relieved and grateful to feel safe and snug in bed, that I didn’t care about Mount Olympus, which I feared was becoming less and less of a possibility. Safety was more important, and if sacrificing ‘the dream’ was the price, so be it.

Day 4: Mount Olympus

Obviously it was not meant to be sacrificed! We woke up to bird-song and sunshine, and we breakfasted outdoors, looking onto the sea, with 3 remarkably thin tabby cats circling our legs for food. It was perfect. The man made us his special brew of ‘mountain tea’ to set us on our way.
We drove to Lithochoro and made enquiries regarding weather and about climbing as far as Refuge A, which we were told was ‘easy’, with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. ‘Oh, well in that case, what’s stopping us?!’, I thought, ‘let’s go. We might even get to the top top’ Innocent, naïve us!! We soon saw ‘easy’!
After buying a map and torch, we drove as far as Priunya, where we had lunch. I had a lovely Greek salad, which was to become my staple meal for the rest of the holiday…mmm!! Off we set along the alpine path, passing mules, a waterfall and following a very clear trail. It was not too warm, and we were sheltered well in the shade of the trees. Our pace was fairly good, but we took frequent short stops to rehydrate, take photos, tie laces (and whatever other acceptable pretexts I could devise!). After a while the landscape was more stony than wooded, and while the ascent wasn’t steep, we were climbing all the time. We chatted to a New Zealand couple, who had left that morning from Priunya, climbed all the way to the top (well Skolio, which is only 14m less than Mytikas, the actual summit), and were on their way back down again. It wasn’t until the next day that I fully appreciated their feat! Soon, after about two-and-a-half hours of climbing, we reached Refuge A, where we were very glad to sit and relax with a can of coke and some chocolate! This was where we would stay that night. The refuge was a lovely, very well-run resting place, with a fire in the dining room area, and warm, nourishing meals served up with remarkable efficiency. The showers there were cold, and the dormitories were cold to the point of dampness, but at that altitude (2100m), one has to make some allowances. We had a very pleasant evening chatting to two couples, a Scottish couple who were in Greece for a week, and who had actually hiked from Lithochoro to the refuge (how?!), and a German couple, Peter and Olga (Olga’s family were Greek). Peter was a travel writer and was doing an article on the refuge which was a long running family enterprise, with German connections. They were a very interesting couple, both writers, and while Peter was more affable, with probably more fluent English, Olga had a very strong individual presence. We dined with them, spaghetti all the way, and conversed, about travel, languages, jobs, Greece, the World Cup, and we went to bed at about 9pm, before lights out at 10pm.

Day 5: Mount Olympus-Meteora

Up we roused ourselves at 6am, after a cold night, had ourselves some bread and tea for breakfast, and headed off for the peak (we weren’t sure at that point which peak we’d opt for).
‘Which way?’ I asked Denis, who drolly replied ‘Up’. How right he was. Up and up and up and up!! It was unrelenting, the whole way! A scrub of trees marks the first section which zigzags upwards to a ridge with a map, which shows how much more is left to do!! From there follows a steep and stony path to the next main ridge, Skala, from where Skolio and Mytikas can be viewed. Mytikas looked ghastly, with treacherous furrows of rock protruding like the rucking of a failed seamstress. Besides, it was covered with a cloud of mist, so we opted for Skolio. Skolio was easily reached in about 15-20 minutes, and at the top, you’re looking down over the clouds giving an exceptional feeling of space and peace. Nothing else seems important, but the right here, now, this moment we’re breathing and the beauty of that-simple but magnificent!
Going down was less arduous, though the knees felt the constant pressure, and at this point the surface underfoot was quite loose, so care and concentration had to be given to each placing of the foot. We arrived at the refuge at about noon, and had our lunch and rested there for about half an hour. We parted ways with Peter and Olga and made our way down towards Priunya. This was quite hard work, and while we kept a steady pace, our legs were now jelly-like, and for the last half an hour or so, of that section, we were plodding along like two drunkards desperate for their next drop. Finally, we arrived at the car, changed our clothes and drove to Lithochoro. (Denis drove while I struggled to stay awake). There, we got an ice-cream, and continued to Meteora, the land of monastries on rocks. We found the acccomodation, (I’d better give credit to Denis for that one…!), showered and freshened up and trudged down to the village, footsore, but satisfied, and found someplace for dinner, which was eaten with relish. We slept very soundly that night to the sounds of crickets and whisper of leaves outside our window.

Day 6: Meteora-Delphi

We awoke, our minds refreshed but our bodies, especially our legs, begging for more rest. Steps, either up or down were particularly arduous, something we knew the monasteries had no shortage of. We breakfasted outdoors again which was lovely and then headed off for Great Meteoran, the biggest of the Meteorite monasteries, erected in the 14th century on a huge pillar of sandstone rock. It now serves as a museum for tourists, with a traditional dress-code policy, ie skirts to be worn by females. The monastery was established by St. Athanasios Meteorites, a scholarly monk from Mount Athos and dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. As well as the church itself is a large refectory, kitchen, carpenter’s workshop, wine cellar and sacristy, all giving a good idea of the way life life was lived as a hermetic monk. The kitchen maintained smoke-stains, and all the original cooking utensils and ovens: one could almost smell the fresh bread and soup that must have provided their daily lunch! What struck me was the beautiful and detailed art of the iconographers, depicting various saints, including military saints (?), and ancient sages. Slightly disconcerting is a roomful of skulls staring out at you, skulls of previous residents. There was a basket pulley-system, which can still be seen to carry up provisions and monks too! While the museum was interesting to visit, I felt it would really benefit from some audio, or audio-visual guides, as it is difficult to take in information by reading alone, especially when there is already so much to see in terms of art, architecture and artefacts.
We then took off to visit a nunnery, a word I haven’t heard used since studying Hamlet, but this was one particular hamlet we could not find!! We went on a bit of a ‘wild goose chase’ around the hilly countryside of Meteora, and eventually gave up and had lunch in Kalampaka, before setting off for Delphi. I took over at the wheel, and actually found driving on the opposite side easy, I think because of the fact that the pedals are the same, something I was not expecting.
I drove for a good distance, but on approach to the windy roads towards Delfon, I let Denis take over. The area was extremely hilly, passing through a few rural villages, and an understandably deserted ski resort, which I’m sure throbs with life in winter (though, who’d have equated Greece with skiing?!)
Finally, we came to the town of Delphi, overlooking an immense valley, once accessed by water and believed, I’m reliably informed, to have been the centre of the earth. After checking into the hotel, and walking towards the site of the great temple of Apollo, we freshened up and went out for dinner to a restaurant with a view overlooking the great plain. We followed this with a drink in a local pub where we were bestowed with multiple offerings of fruit, nuts, drinks…just the two of us with three people to serve us! We took our opportunity to escape when another punter appeared.

Day 7: Delphi-Athens

After breakfast, we set out for the museum and archeological site, located ten minutes walk from the hotel. The museum was cool, which in itself was a relief from the already melting heat. It was clearly laid out, with artefacts from the temple and grounds on display and information accompanying them. I liked that Apollo was the god of music, and there are multiple depictions of him with lyre (cithara), and that the stadium in Delphi hosted music competitions. I was also impressed with the statues of twins, Kleobis and Biton, who dragged their mother, Cydippe, a priestess of Hera a distance of 8.5 km to a festival honouring Hera. So impressed was the mother with her sons’ dedication that she requested that Hera would grant for them the best gift a mortal could receive. That night, both sons lay down and died, and their statues were donated to the sanctuary of Apollo. Whether the ‘best thing’ is to die, or to have a statue dedicated in your honour wasn’t clear to me, but neither of these sound like particularly good rewards? Maybe I’m missing something.
The archeological site was well maintained, not very clearly marked out for non-Greek readers, but easy enough to piece together. It’s located on a great height and was where all the oracles took place, with the remains of Apollo’s temple clearly visible and numerous treasuries and dedications. It was interesting to imagine the country’s leaders consulting the oracle regarding important political, spoken through priestesses. Women were chosen to speak the oracles, entering a trance-like state to reveal the secrets of the gods. ‘Why women?’ I thought… We followed the path upwards, eventually coming to the stadium at the very top of the site, which hosted the Pythian games.
We left Delphi, and set out for Athens, via the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, which turned out to consist merely of motorway, with no apparent historical reference at all. Me, being indifferent to Greek battle grounds generally still found it strange not to have any sign of past bloodshed, so I can only imagine how such an omission must have confounded Denis.
We stopped for lunch at a coastal village outside Athens and then hightailed it to the airport to return the car to Hertz, which to access we ended up circling the airport about 4 times! (Make better signs, people!)
We got a train to Athens, and from Syntagma Square, got a taxi to our hotel, hotel Areos, a lovely hotel in a questionable location. We later went in search of somewhere to get dinner, and after a walk along a road practically devoid of street lighting, we turned back, and settled on a place closer to the hotel. The match (World Cup final, Spain v Holland) was showing, and we watched the first half there, and fell asleep in front of the second half (speaking for myself!) in the hotel room.

Day 8: Athens

After breakfast, we did walked to Syntagma and did a bus tour of the city. The heat was deadening on the top of the bus, and while the tour gave quite a good overview, I didn’t take in much of what was being said. I was more interested in pedestrians nearly being run-down by mad drivers, mopeds weaving through impossibly narrow spaces and taking all sorts of liberties at traffic lights and how the bus negotiated through absurdly narrow streets, avoiding, often by a whisper, cars parked on the roadside.
In the afternoon, we decided to take a trip outside of Athens, to the Temple of Poseidon, a temple majestically overlooking the sea. To get there, we had to take a bus journey which lasted over 2 hours. The coastal suburbs areas were prevailingly white, but my anticipation to get to the sea was heightened seeing swimmers bathing in the water which looked so blue and inviting. The bus conductor was lovely, a small man with a tendency to confer a sense of magic and awe on everything he speaks, even mundane old ticket fares. He reminded me of the Bilbo Baggins.
On arrival, we went to the restaurant and had dinner, looking out onto the temple on the height. We then went to the site of the temple itself, and took some photos. Poseidon, the god of the sea, is second only in importance to the city of Athens, who have Athena as their goddess. This was decided after a competition between the two, whereby Poseidon provided salty sea water, which was deemed less useful than the food, oil and wood of Athena’s olive tree.
We returned to Athens and went to a Creperie near Victoria metro station for supper and a drink in the bar of the hotel before calling it a day.

Day 9: Athens

After breakfast, we set out to explore the market area, which from the top of the bus looked very interesting-stalls and shops selling completely random, unrelated items, and an area open for trade twenty-four hours. (I wouldn’t particularly like to be wandering around it at 3am, mind…) Well, on foot it didn’t seem quite so interesting, just a narrow street with sellers touting their goods, but then we sought out the indoor food market, which must be more interesting. Well, I can safely say my vegetarianism, if ever wavering, was newly reinforced. Ugh!! Bawdy butchers bearing bloodied blades, proudly displaying their rancid cuts of meat from purplish kidneys to bow-shaped ribs. And the smell!! It brought back memories of the vile and penetrating kitchen smells of the Belarussian orphanage where I worked some summers. And that’s doing no disfavour to either.
On we went to the Acropolis museum, which again was a welcome reprieve from the heat. This museum, as the name suggests, is the keeper of the great treasures of the Acropolis (with the exception, of course, of the aforementioned sections of the frieze residing in the British Museum) The museum itself is a modern and creative building with lots of glass looking onto the Acropolis itself, and even a glass floor on the ground floor to reveal a historic settlement below. The museum houses the numerous treasures of the Acropolis and offers detailed explanations with each exhibit. Some of these are supplemented with other audio-visual devices, providing a very rounded education to facilitate everyone. For example, a large floor-to-ceiling screen tells the story of the Golden Age of Perikles, and the statue of Athena in comic-strip format, making it much more memorable for me, and I’m sure many others. Also, accompanying the floor with the Parthenon is a documentary explaining clearly the architectural features of the building and its significance to Athens and its demise through the years. In terms of the hundreds of sculpted figures and reliefs on display, I can only comment on their aesthetic qualities which are profound, and perhaps is the greatest legacy of the Ancient Greeks.
After lunch al fresco in a nearby restaurant, we went to the Acropolis, and took in the ancient site in the heat of the evening sun. The Parthenon was clearly the most imposing part of it, and was impressive still, despite being surrounded by scaffolding. Seeing the sheer volume of the rock and yet the precision with which the individual pieces fitted together to form the columns gave an appreciation of why this building has endured as a study and subject of awe. Atop the hill afforded a very good view of the city of Athens and how it stretches for miles in each direction. We walked down the around the Agora, (the Greek equivalent of the forum), and visited the Stoa of Attalos, containing a klepsidra, to mention just one artefact, which was a type of water clock to time the speeches of the orators. Finally, we visited the theatre of Dionysus, where the plays of ‘the Greats’, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes… were performed. We sat on the steps awhile and imagined how it must have been.
We returned to the restaurant where we ate the first night for something before heading to bed.

Days 10, 11 and 12.
We were bound for San Torini early next morning, so took a taxi to the port of Piraeus, and got the fast boat over, which had us there by 11.30am. Once there, we were met by numerous hotel and hostel owners advertising their accomodations. Not knowing the geography of the island, we just opted for the hostel, which we were informed was very close to the beach. While it seemed at first to be very cut off from the hub of the island, it turned out to be a very good location, as the beach is where we spent most of our time.
The beach was lovely, clear blue water and grey pebbles, (not golden sand, which was just as well as some of the time there was very windy and sand would be a right nuisance!) The water was very salty but lovely to swim in…it took no effort to get in, and while this eliminated the ‘buzz’ factor that the waters of the Atlantic never fails to deliver, it was nice to lounge about decadently and give the body a break for a while. What San Torini provided us with was rest, and plenty of it, because on an island where there is nothing to do but swim, eat and drink, one is compelled to relax, even if it goes against a person’s nature. It was good for us to have this time, as we had a very active holiday previously, and gave us a chance to breathe, process what we saw and did, and enjoy the stillness.
The restaurants / bars were nice for the most part, though I got a horrendous pizza on my first night there for which I had to wait 40 minutes. The top had a yellow, heavily-salted, rubbery unguent. I’m still wondering was it cheese? But on the whole, food and drink was fine.
We visited Fira, the island’s capital on the second night and travelled there on a local bus packed with Australians, Americans and English tourists, and a fiery and impatient conductor, the antithesis of our former Bilbo! Firo was grand…but exists solely, it seems, for tourists, and is completely assailed by mopeds and quads (in fact the whole island is). There was a beautiful sunset that we got to see from a rooftop restaurant, but on the whole I was not disappointed we were staying far away from it in the quieter area of Santa Irini. Waiting for the bus to return that night was reminiscent of Hillbillies on the Grand Parade, Cork, any Saturday at 2am.
Three days on the island was perfect for both of us…any longer and we would be bored, shorter and perhaps we would not feel quite so rested.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery's recent bestseller, 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' caught my attention for two reasons. The first is the very title, a paradox in itself. Or is it? And the second was the row of Parisian apartment buildings on the bottom of the book's cover, some of whose rooms were lit up, bespeaking the lives therein. This very image has always struck me as romantic, ie the multiple lives and untold secrets within a defined space. Added to its Parisian setting...need I say any more?! And they say one should not judge the book by its cover!

So how does this book hold up to that maxim? Well, despite taking a while to get into this book (and that was probably due to the pace set by my previous read, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'), I did come to really enjoy this book and appreciate its beauty, quirky narrative and philosophical digressions.

The two main characters, each with their own alternating narratives, are Renee, a seeming humble concierge of a Parisian apartment, but who has a clandestine love of arts and culture in all its forms, and Paloma, the twelve year old child of a snobbish, bourgeois family, who feels trapped and angry within such an expectant and boringly pretentious model. Paloma frames her narratives around her 'Profound thoughts' which she endeavours to collect before committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday, as these, she believes, will give her life meaning. The other characters in the novel are the members of Paloma's family, Manuela, a Portuguese cleaner and Renee's best friend, and Kakuro, a new Japanese resident, whose appearance brings healing and connection to Renee and Paloma, who ultimately become soul friends by the end.

Now, while I realise that this summary makes it sound cheesier than the most mature, fermented and smelly 'fromage Francais', its much more more sophisticated, and underneath the sugary surface, lies a rich and profound narrative, much like the sentiments of the book itself, in fact: art, philosophy and human connection are what make life meaningful within the trappings of wealth and materialism.

At times, I felt the translation may have betrayed the original text, as can be quite understandable considering the subtle sytanctical differences. An example of this was with 'can you bring .... to the cleaners?' instead of 'can you the cleaners?' While there is no obvious difference in meaning in English (unless I'm missing something?), this is clearly quite a linguistic 'faux-pas' in French. Probably subtle enough also though, as this is the point of Renee's irritation at the misuse of language, especially at the hands (mouths) of supposedly well-educated people.

This book is charming, intelligent and the main characters have a way of encroaching on your soul, so that by the end you feel a sense of loss: you have lost some more of fictions friends and only the memory of their wise words remain, and hopefully we will 'see' with a little more clarity, and 'love' with a little more humanity.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Last weekend, I saw 'Brothers', a recent release, directed by Jim Sheridan, which I had been meaning to see for a while. Having seen the trailor, I thought it deserved a watch, and while there was plenty of good in the film, most of it was captured in the brief preview.
The film tells the story of Sam (Tobey Maguire), the golden-haired son of marine father (Sam Shpherd), and how the tables turn to reveal the wayward son, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhall) as the hero, and Sam as the fated antihero. Sam, a soldier in the Afghan war, gets captured by the Taliban, leaving his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two daughters to grieve his loss. The mourning family lean toward Tommy, who pulls himself together, providing immense support, and assuming role of father. Then Sam returns.
That all this is pretty obvious from the beginning of the movie is pretty inevitable, given such an obvious, worn-out plot. However, it does not excuse it from a tired, uninspiring production, where none of the main characters do justice to their roles, with a possible exception of Tommy, who plays the lovable uncle, resentful son and loyal but jealous brother convincingly. There was a very funny scene where he was sitting drunk at a bar, waiting for Grace to pick him up and pick up his tab also, and he was playfully mocking the barman's nose, revealing him as harmless and childlike, but also as a 'waster'.
In fact, the most memorable character for me, one who played the part with absolute sincerity was Isabelle, the older daughter, played by the very talented Bailee Madison. She captured the subtle dynamics of family relations beautifully while her own emotions were perfectly portrayed.
As for Maguire, he just looked so young! And I know this in itself isn't a fair criticism, but I couldn't take his character seriously, even though some scenes were quite good (the family dinner-table, where he couldn't see the humour in his daughter's joke), a subtle evocation of his post-war intensity. However, by contrast, he completely overplayed his psychotic episode where he tore down the kitchen, erected by Tommy, shouting the house down, quite literally.
I think this movie needed more work. It seemed mechanical, as if the director only thought some of the scenes through, and didn't deliver it's anti-war message as clearly as it ought to have

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Stieg Larsson’s murder mystery follows the life of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist in Stockholm who has been unjustly convicted of libelling a financial giant. Faced with jail time and fairly broke, he accepts a business proposal from Vanger, an octogenarian millionaire who lives in a remote village. Blomkvist is to move to the village and try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the millionaire’s niece thirty years earlier. Blomkvist’s story eventually coalesces with that of Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old hacker and social misfit who has a tattoo of a dragon on her shoulder.
While thrillers aren't usually my thing when it comes to books, this was a truly intriguing plot and engaging read, not least because the characters were utterly believable, interesting and compelling. Salander is a self-confessed freak, with some sort of social dissociative disorder, but extraordinarily gifted when it comes to researching, digging up 'dirt' from unknown, often illegal sources, and wielding a golf club, which happens to come in very handy. Blomkvist, on the other hand, is completely chilled out, apparently irresistable to women, yet a very capable journalist, who goes a long way towards solving the complicated case single-handedly. However, when he realises that the workload is too great for him alone, and he comes into contact with Salander, what ensues in the dynamic between the two is extremely interesting, given what we know of both characters to date. Salander, having been the victim of a horrendous rape, not long before, finds she can actually trust Blomkvist, who treats her as a person as opposed to an object, and Blomkvist appears strangely passive in his interactions with her, yielding to her full-on advances.
One or two things didn't ring quite true in my reading of the book, and one concerned the rape of Salander, from which she seemed to bounce back rather quickly. I know she avenged her perpetrator, but it didn't seem to affect her in the traumatic way that one would expect of such a crime.
Another aspect was Blomkvist's own relationships with women. While he comes across as charming and very likeable, he can't seem to commit to any one woman, and his long-standing arrangement with Erika Berger is very dubious.
Those issues aside, it was a fantastic read, and really evoked the beauty of the Scandinvavian coutryside through all the seasons. The descriptions of the locations became so familiar that I oould almost feel I was there, wrapped up and trudging through the snowy treks of Hedestad, and stopping for a coffee and sandwich in Suzanne's cafe on the way back.
While the ending was satisfying, it's clear that Larsson was leaving it open for a follow-up novel, and I'm certainly looking forward in time to completing the trilogy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I'm coming to this a little late, (no surprises there!), so I missed the initial furore surrounding this series. Was always on the list of 'gotta watch that', along with many others. Well, I'm catching up, currently just finished the 5th DVD from season one, and what do I think?

'House' seems to me to have handpicked aspects of all the medical dramas, stirred them randomly in a witch's brew and come up with a fortuitous result. It contains the irreverence of 'Scrubs', the melodrama of 'ER' or 'Gray's Anatomy', and the explicit gore of something like 'Nip/Tuck'. It also borrows elements of forensic shows like CSI, where the doctors break into the patients houses seeking clues for whatever ails them, like a medical 'whodunnit'. Hugh Laurie is superb as the brilliant but caustic and sarcastic Doctor House. So cutting and unpleasant as to make one like him, however that works...? I think he says all of the things that you wish you could say, but know you couldn't. His relationship with his colleagues is interesting. He's constantly bickering with the hospital's chief administrator, Cuddy, often making schoolboy remarks on her clothes or appearance. He's bullish to his team of doctors, coming up with flash diagnosis and dismissing any suggestions they might have, to defend his own judgements. We are given brief glimpses into his private life, (playing the piano alone in his dimly-lit apartment on Christmas Day), suggesting his loneliness and inability to open up. He has but one 'friend' among hospital staff, whom he has 'man-to-man' conversations with, and there is the suggestion throughout season one of a potential relationship with Cameron, the only female doctor on his team, who clearly likes House, despite everything. (I know I could find out where this goes if I jumped forward, but I refuse!)

There are too, moments of emotional depth, which are presented in a subtle way, and not overplayed as they tend to be in the likes of 'Grey's Anatomy'. An example from season one was when House was presented with the trumpet of the famous jazz musician he treated, probably his most coveted possession, and on receiving this gift, they share a moment of understanding. In response to why House pops pills all the time, he replies "I'm in pain", to which the musician concurs "Aren't we all?"

If I have any negative criticisms of the show, it's probably something around the fact that it follows the same structural make-up in each episode...person gets sick, they make a wrong diagnosis, person gets worse, they do a bit of research, and hey presto, they come up with the most random, but correct diagnosis by the end. All of this forms the backdrop to a very subtle development of House's life and relationships with the other characters. This should account for more of the storyline if I had my choice, and events should develop at a faster pace. The other characters support Laurie well, but really Laurie dazzles in his depiction of House, without whom, I suspect, the show would be second-rate.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant

I feel compelled to do a blog on this film to advise you NOT to go to it. Admittedly it's not my type of film anyway, but that aside, it left no lasting impression, which to me is even worse than strong dislike.

The basic plot is about a 'bad' (very bad) cop hunting down a murderer while battling with his own inner demons. Winding up with an injured back for life, he becomes addicted to drugs, not only for medicinal purposes. While fighting for a serial killing drug lord, he comes down heavy on minor offenders, treating them brutally to acquire their stash of drugs, which he shares with occasional lover, prostitute Frankie (Eva Mendes). Some scenes are completely overdone, ie where he holds two old ladies up, cutting off the oxygen supply of one to virtual death.

The only vaguely interesting thing in the film were the images of the iguanas and alligators, often accompanied by blaring music. I liked them from an artistic standpoint. While I'm sure director Werner Herzog intended them to be symbols of some great truth, it was lost on me...

...Like most of the film. It was devoid of depth and credibility, and the overriding feeling I got from it was: Life is crap. How depressing!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Letters to Juliet

Hmmm...well, my cheeks are still clammy after seeing that movie just now. So, it's effective in its romantic and emotional seduction, if ever so slightly contrived.

It tells the story of Sophie, a fact-checker for The New Yorker, who goes to Verona with her fiance for a pre-wedding honeymoon (as you do!) However, it turned out that her charming fiance was more interested in researching wine and attending wine auctions for the opening of his new restaurant in New York, leaving Sophie to her own devices. So, she joins a group of volunteers who reply to letters written by young girls to 'Juliet' seeking advice about love. She, happens upon a letter written 50 years previously by Claire, hidden behind a rock, and replies. Next, (you've guessed it!) Claire arrives (Vanessa Redgrave), with her obnoxious grandson, Charlie. So begins their quest for Lorenzo Bartollini, of whom there are hundreds. But, Sophie's skills as a fact-checker come into play, and they manage to narrow it down somewhat. The relationship between these three characters, Sophie, Claire and Charlie develops as they pursue Lorenzo in a fairly predictable fashion. I'd like to say it takes some unexpected twists and turns, but no... This is a film about comfortable and comforting stereotypes and about a fairytale ending that can be expected from the outset, but sometimes a bit of melodrama and a happy ending is ok. It is funny in parts too, mainly from Charlie's rather forthright arrogance and in the sarcastic dialogue between him and Sophie.

The shots of Italy were stunning, not only the ancient streets of Verona, but the open countryside of Sienna, miles upon miles of vineyard, and the moon casting light each night over the sleeping towns. Vanessa Redgrave fits beautifully into such a setting and is dazzling in her conviction of the existence of true love. The doey-eyed Amanda Seyfried plays her part well, though personally I didn't see any uniquely individual qualities setting her apart from such actors as Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon etc...

On the whole, what you see is what you get with this movie. It's not very challenging, thought-provoking, nor does it cross into any new areas. But it is a sweet romantic comedy, and allows you to travel to the exotic fields of romantic Italy for a little under two hours.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Shutter Island

I went to Shutter Island Tuesday night with high expectations, as the trailer was very captivating, leaving a taste of ‘more’. Was I satisfied? All things considered, yes. Would I give it a second look? No.

I felt that the original storyline was quite interesting, but a bit overdone at times. There were a few things that didn’t quite add up, and while I was expecting a twist at the end, I wasn’t expecting an almost complete overthrowing of everything that went before. (That’s all I can say without giving it away!). From that perspective, I thought that there was a huge build-up, much of it unnecessary, and this took from the overall film rather than enhance it. The actual outcome also was too contrived, too neatly packaged, to be entirely believable. But yet I was left with questions…which is, to the film’s credit, a positive thing.

These questions were aroused mainly from the flashbacks that visited Teddy, the male lead, whose duty was to examine the disappearance of Rachel Solando from the unit for the 'criminally insane'. Repeated images and episodes from his past complicate this duty, giving us, the spectators, clues that all is not 'kosher'. These images are for the most part artful and aesthetic, eg, a colourful scene embracing his beautiful wife, who crumbles to ash in his very hands.

A few examples of how certain aspects of the film were extraneous, was the intensive questioning of inmates (er, patients), at the beginning. These characters seem important, yet there is no more mention of them, or their relationship with Edward (Teddy) after this. Another character who’s built up, to the backdrop of spooky and atmospheric Mahler music, is the enigmatic (senior?) psychiatrist,Max, who I expected would have a pivotal role in the outcome, but who simply fizzles away, as the actuality of events is exposed. There is a link here between his German nationality and the war that plagues so many of Teddy's thoughts throughout the film, but again, this is unexplored.

The characters were well played, di Caprio proving to be capable of multiple roles, and seeming to go from strength to strength as he matures. It was a very different departure for director, Scorsese, but he handled it relatively well. I was also impressed with the soundtrack, and felt it added very much to the overall atmosphere of the film. If you enjoyed A Beautiful Mind and The Others, you will probably enjoy this, though it wasn’t, in my opinion, as strong as either of these films.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

eat, pray, love

It was with cynicism that I undertook to read this novel, lent to me by a friend, as its cover, blurb and very appearance shouted ‘chick-lit’, a genre that I (snobbishly) cannot swallow. There are, after all, only so many versions of ‘Brigid Jones’-type, self-obsessed, shoe-and-bag-devotee books one can read! But guaranteed that I’d love this book (?!), I decided to give it a go.
It’s written by Elisabeth Gilbert, about a year in her life wherein she begins a journey of self-exploration by living out some of her dreams in an effort to find meaning and worth in her life after a painful and messy divorce. She divides this journey into thirds: one third in Italy, eating pasta, gelato and learning Italian; one third in an ashram in India, where she practices meditation on a daily basis under the guidance of a spiritual guru; and she spends the final third in Bali, where she returns to stay with a medicine man named Ketut, whom she briefly met on a previous visit, and who teaches her a different form of meditation. Now how she was lucky enough to get funding from her publisher to spend this year travelling and ‘finding herself’, I’d like to know! But such was the case, and in fairness, the book that she wrote, based on her experiences validated the funding.
The structure was based on japa mala, beads used by Buddhists and Hindis, strung with 108 beads to keep them focused during meditation. She thus divides the three sections of her book into 36 parts, adding up to the total 108.
My strongest impression of this book was its honesty, which I believe is the most important end of any writer. The author unashamedly confesses all, and draws you unwittingly close to her, as though a confidante or very close friend. She encounters some flashes of spiritual joy and insight, which she does her best to share. These are sometimes effective, but often clumsy, her colloquial writing style and hyperbole often rendering extreme feelings trite and trivial. When describing the meditation in which she witnessed God, she says: “I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush, I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely”. (Completely?!)
On the whole though, this is a very readable, quite insightful book, and by the end, I found myself wishing her well as she ‘got on’ with her life. She trustingly revealed her vulnerablities and exuberantly described her recovery and growth, and as such, I feel for her, in a protective, but a hopeful sort of way.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A prophet

‘A prophet’ tells the story of Malik, an 18 year old Arab youth who cannot read or write who is condemned to 6 years in prison. As one so young, he stands out as more vulnerable than anyone else, and is quickly taken in hand by a Corsican group of prisoners who rule the roost in this prison. This gang is headed by Cesar, a bullish autocrat, who ‘tests’ Malik by forcing him to kill a fellow prisoner. This scene was extremely vivid and powerful, but certainly not for the fainthearted (I was nearly under the chair!) Having earned the approval of the gang, Malik is now somewhat better protected and can pursue his personal aims: he begins to use his intelligence to improve his life as much as possible and to discreetly develop his own network. He’s used as a ‘go-between’ for the Corsican gang and outside business affiliates, and when he gains ‘day passes’ to the outside world, he uses these to foster his own links. He eventually succeeds in obtaining the approval of the Muslims in the prison, the rival gang, and a further struggle for power ensues, from which Malik detaches himself.

The director, Jacques Audiard, effectively conveys the universal feelings of fear and isolation which pervade prison life by letting us see life from the eyes of young Malik, and his awareness of all that he is missing out on. There is even a poetic element to the film, where Malik imagines the presence of the prisoner that he killed, which is the playing-out of his conscience. Malik, as well as learning to read and write, learns both the subtlety of power and the power of subtlety as he observes the movements and interactions of daily prison life. Prison is seen as a metaphor for society: divided and aggressive, and Malik, after six years in institutional prison life, leaves better educated and prepared for society than most people after a lifetime of conventional ‘education’.

Worth a watch, but as I said, not for the fainthearted. And also quite confusing in terms of language: it's difficult to establish Corsican as the dominant race in the prison, as it swings between different languages, and the French spoken is often of an excessively colloquial quality.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

It’s impossible to know even where to start in reviewing a book of such immense power, volume and scope. As an avid Lessing fan, I believe this to be her best work, and one which allows her to explore all of the themes that preoccupy her: love, relationships, politics, feminism, race, class, psychology…

Human complexity is one of Lessing’s greatest concerns, and she explores this with great depth and clarity in all of her novels. However, in ‘The Golden Notebook’ we are privileged as readers to get inside the human psyche and actually experience the complex nature of the protaganist, Anna Wulf as she lives from day to day (blue notebook), as she engages in political life (red notebook), as she feels emotionally (yellow notebook)*, and as she thinks and lives as a writer (black notebook). As we read and engage with these various fragments of her life, we get an immense understanding of her character, her feelings, her motives, and we understand how each of these separate fragments are present simultaneously within her. However, while these various threads are demarcated in the various notebooks, it becomes clear that they cannot be streamlined in such a distinct way. For life is complex, and the more aspects in Anna Wulf’s life become enmeshed to the point of ‘meltdown’, the more she (and we, the reader) see the need to unite and integrate the various ‘streams’ into one life, which she records in one notebook, The Golden Notebook. The very structure of the novel, ie. the four notebooks as well as Anna’s story recorded in the third person, is an excellent device on Lessing’s part, as it shows, by its very fragmented nature, the process of writing a novel.

Lessing writes with a sublime combination of intellectual clarity and psychological compassion, and this is evidenced in ‘The Golden Notebook’. She focuses very vividly on the range of emotions that one person can feel, and how their emotions drive them to act as they do. It is Lessing’s descriptions that encompass the minute details of feelings and actions of a character, right down to their very dreams, that makes Lessing such a great writer for me.

While I loved the novel as a whole, there were various elements that stood out for me, some of which I will mention:

In the black notebook, she writes about the character, Willi, who features strongly in the novel she has just published: Frontiers of War:

“Willi however was not weak. On the contrary, he was the most ruthless person I have ever known.
Having written that I am astounded. What do I mean? He was capable of great kindness. And now I remember that all those years ago, I discovered that no matter what adjective I applied to Willi, I could always use the opposite. Yes, I have looked in my old papers. I find a list, headed Willi:
Ruthless Kind
Cold Warm
Sentimental Realistic
And so on, down the page; and underneath I wrote. ‘From the process of writing these words about Willi I discovered I know nothing about him. About someone, one understands, one doesn’t have to make a list of words.’
But really what I discovered, though I didn’t know it then, was that in describing any personality all these words are meaningless. To describe a person one says: ‘Willi, sitiing stiffly at the head of the table, allowed his round spectacles to glitter at the people watching him and said, formally but with a gruff, clumsy humour’: Something like that”

The above extract, for me revealed so much about the greatness of this novel, The Golden Notebook, that is, not Frontiers of War! It showed Lessing as a thinking writer, even though it is through Anna Wulf that this, the process involved in trying to convey reality in a meaningful way, is conveyed. Words alone cannot do this as Anna Wulf says. It also returns to the idea which obsesses Lessing: that of disintegration or multiple, often opposing facets of personality all existing simultaneously.

It is interesting, however, that she applies this idea to Willi, a man, as it is usually women she describes as capable of endowing such diverse aspects within herself. In fact, later on in the book, she mentions the idea of a ‘real man’, claiming that there are still some left in the world and she will find one for Janet, her daughter. This idea left me somewhat disconcerted as it seems to imply that most men are not ‘real men’, or that if a man fails to manifest all the qualities that she deems essential for him to qualify as a ‘real man’ (which she doesn’t outline so far as I can see), then he’s not a real man. It seemed either an oversight on her part, or more likely, an unfair double standard, which, can be forgiven in light of her being such an honest writer, allowing us to discover the ideals of her heart’s desire. In my mind, the idea of opposing traits existing within a single body, or a schizoid aspect to ones personality, exists no less in men than it does in women, and it does men an injustice to simplify them thus. In fact earlier in the book, she states such fragmentation as a human condition, rather than that owned exclusively by women, when she says:

"Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it”

Another part of the novel that stood out for me was when Anna, in her blue notebook, outlined in minute detail, every aspect of a particular day. She begins this extract with:

“I am wondering if the fact that I chose to be very conscious of everything that happened yesterday changed the shape of the day. That just because I was conscious I made it a special day?”

In this extract, marked 17th September 1954, we are led through the interior mindscape of Anna, and how she integrates this with her exterior world. We are brought through the mundane routines, about which she comments, and we learn her frustrations, angers and resentments as well as her moments of joy, relief and peace. Through such explicit detail, such brutal honesty and unashamed subjectivity, I identified very strongly with her character, recognising such thoughts, feelings and actions as my own.

Despite this wonderful honesty, Anna comes to realise that her attempts to record the truth, however close they come, nevertheless fail. The further she compartmentalises the various elements of her life, the more she realizes that no one approach or theory will allow an individual to recognize the whole person. People are more wholesome than this, and the idea of ‘writing’ a life, in fact falsifies the very essence of life. Life is chaotic, shifting. Words name, label, and once words are committed to a page, it’s assumed that this defines the person. Lessing, through the writing of the various streams of this book, posits the notion that a person’s overall nature can never be fully realised on paper. This, to me was what made the book so special. It’s the magical quality of presence that is the strongest medium of truth. Change, for me, is humanity in its greatest sense…a constant striving towards development, and while writing goes so far in expressing certain aspects of a person’s life at a certain stage in their life, it can by no means be absolute.

* The yellow notebook consists of an ongoing novel describing the lives and loves of Ellie, a fictional character, but one with whom Anna Wulf strongly identifies, as she uses her own emotional experience to inform the novel.