For some cosmically inscrutable reason, everything I read and watch now seems to be about war, and (even more specifically) about the second World War. I am in the midst of two books, as well as creeping along in the immense but less belligerent "Martin Chuzzlewit": Markus Zuzak's "The Book Thief" (set in Nazi Germany) and Irene Nemirovsky's "Suite Francaise" (Occupied France). On top of all this, I am watching "Grave of the Fireflies," an anime account of the bombing of Japan that is so immensely depressing that I have to watch it in two shifts, unable to bear the grinding unfairness of the plot for more than an hour at a time. "Suite Francaise" is proving to be lyrical and engrossing - a beautiful fabric woven of the mundane details of many lives. I am troubled, however, by my rather tepid initial reaction to "The Book Thief" (I am on page 173). The reviews I have read on LibraryThing and in various blogs have been glowing to an almost religious degree: readers don't just enjoy the book, they are converted, born-again Zusakians. Many people have sat down with it and refused to get up until they reach the very last page; others declared it to be the best book of last year. Thus far, I have found it inventive, but sometimes awkwardly so - so conscious of its own quirkiness that it trips over its own linguistic complexity. Here's hoping it wins me over in the next 375 pages!


My major accomplishments from yesterday were, well, kind of minor. I ventured outside for the first time in days, buoyed by my sudden and miraculous ability to consume food, and my ventures took me inevitably to the library, from whence I returned bearing an armload of graphic novels. Last year the bulk of my reading was made up of graphic novels, but I have yet to read one in 2007, so I immediately embarked on one that had been lying around neglected for months: Jessica Abel's tale of travels in Mexico (hers? perhaps, but not explicitly), "La Perdida". So far it is marvelous - one moment it is densely chaotic to the point of being unusually difficult reading, but then suddenly the clouds part and I have a moment of terrible clarity.

Other achievements: I continued my progress through the long and remarkably repetitive "Sharpe" television series, with the lackluster "Sharpe's Sword" (number 8 of 14 or 15). Sean Bean is, as always, fantastic (my fondness for Sean Bean, whom we like to call Seen Bawn in my house, is so profound that the Lord of the Rings trilogy [in its entirety] became the Story of Boromir. Poor Boromir), but the whole production has a sort of provisional quality, as if the cameras caught a half-hearted rehearsal rather than the final performance. Also, the constant parade of new lady-loves gives viewers the inevitable impression that they will just keep cycling through women until they find one who is equal to Sharpe. As well they should - some of them are pretty awful.

I also watched another film from Filmspotting's Animation Marathon, "Ghost in the Shell," which leaves only one film that I have yet to see, a film that is purportedly so depressing that it has been languishing in TiVo purgatory (along with "Umberto D" and others I am too frightened to watch): "Grave of the Fireflies." At any rate, "Ghost in the Shell" is a very similar experience to "Akira" - it feels radically and inadequately condensed, paradoxically both slight and convoluted, expositional and elliptical, and (appropriately enough, for a film about cyborgs) somewhat intensely cerebral and soulless. Or shall I say ghostless. Perhaps I have just come to expect a little more out of cyborgs and humanoid robots than this, spoiled by "Bladerunner" and "Battlestar Galactica." The whole film had more potential for emotional complexity than "Akira," I felt hopefully at the beginning, but ultimately it was somewhat static and considerably less weird (thumbs down for less weird movies) in its cast of characters.

"Ghost in the Shell" (1995)
dir. Mamoru Oshii

Chunky Addendum

As I cast my mind over some of the books I would like to read over the next five months, it occurs to me that I should expand my menu for the Chunkster Challenge to include more of the Chunksters (books over 400 pages) I am contemplating reading. So, consider this an addendum to my earlier Chunkster post. More details can be found in it, but the list I gave before was as follows:

1) Don Quixote
2) Tristram Shandy
3) The Mysteries of Udolpho
4) Kafka on the Shore
5) The Famished Road
6) Something Rotten
7) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
8) Suite Francaise
9) Dirt Music

Of which, I have finished one ("The Tenant of Wildfell Hall"), am at work on another ("Suite Francaise") and will shortly embark on a third ("Something Rotten").

Here are some of the books I would like to add to the realm of possibility, a number of them classic, some of them monsters of girth:

10) "Daniel Deronda" George Eliot
11) "Berlin Alexanderplatz" Alfred Doblin
12) "The Ambassadors" Henry James
13) "Armadale" Wilkie Collins
14) "The Book Thief" Markus Zusak
15) "North and South" Elizabeth Gaskell
16) "The Commonwealth of Thieves" Tom Keneally
17) "Martin Chuzzlewit" Charles Dickens
18) "Cloudstreet" Tim Winton
19) "Oscar and Lucinda" Peter Carey

My goal is still to read at least 6 Chunksters in 6 months, but now I have a greater variety from which to choose. If I can read more than 6 in that time, I will feel intolerably pleased with myself.

Speaking of Brontes

I am really enjoying the new Masterpiece Theatre miniseries of Jane Eyre, brought to us by the same director who made the intriguing (and popular) but necessarily insufficient "Bleak House" a year ago. The first half aired last weekend and now I wait in suspense for the more passionate and desperate second half this Sunday. Am I enjoying it only because of my fondness for Toby Stephens, who plays Rochester here? (I saw him many years ago as the ideal Coriolanus, set quite astutely in a roughly Napoleonic era, and have remained loyal ever since) I don't think so.

I also appreciate the attention to nuance that led them to include a scene which is usually disdained by TV and film versions of the novel: the scene in which an old fortune teller comes to the house to hold a mirror up to all the vain, rich ladies and, finally, to the impenetrable Jane herself. Now, [SPOILER ALERT for those of you who somehow were not forced to read "Jane Eyre" several times in the course of your education] this is a crucial moment in the plot, for the whole thing ends up being an elaborate (if playful) manipulation by the uncomfortably masterful Rochester, who is wildly frustrated by his inability to read Jane. What this new version leaves out is the most delightfully weird bit of the novel, which is sadly difficult to "stage:" the old fortune teller ("the Sibyl") is in fact Rochester himself, in drag. When he reveals himself (with the somewhat exhausted exclamation, "the play is played out."), they have a fascinating conversation (much of which made its way in some form into the scene in this new version) about how well he played his role. Great stuff.

A sampling of jolliness

Lest you think I have been exaggerating the depressing nature of my recent readings, a sampling of views on motherhood:

"'God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage? [...]After all I was born alone and I shall die alone.* What have I gained from all this? Yes, I have many children, but what do I have to feed them on? On my life. I have to work myself to the bone to look after them, I have to give them my all. And if I am lucky enough to die in peace, I even have to give them my soul. [...] When will I be free?'

But even in her confusion she knew the answer: 'Never, not even in death'" ("The Joys of Motherhood" 236).

~ ~ ~

"Another year is past; and I am weary of this life. And yet, I cannot wish to leave it: whatever afflictions assail me here, I cannot wish to go and leave my darling in this dark and wicked world alone, without a friend to guide him through its wicked mazes, to warn him of its thousand snares, and guard him from the perils that beset him on every hand" ("The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" 327).


*See Arcite in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale."

Dubious Joys

Yesterday, in an incident that I have been telling my friends was a "flurry of post-gastroenteritic activity" (I am mostly well, but still get dizzy and nauseated when I eat anything, go up and down stairs, read editorials about the State of the Union, or sometimes when I stand up, so this leaves lots of time for reading novels), I flew through the last halves of "The Joys of Motherhood" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall." And to tell you the truth, the feminist within did not feel greatly cheered. So, an expanded version of my book group notes:

~ ~ ~

"The Joys of Motherhood" by Buchi Emecheta

After finishing this tale of Nnu Ego, the daughter of a powerful Ibo leader in colonial Nigeria of the 30s and 40s, and her quest for self-completion through motherhood, I complained to my book group that 'One thing I found curious, and in fact totally alienating in a number of senses, was the various strategies the author had for situating the reader as an outsider to Nigeria, the historical period, and Ibo culture. Rather than developing a sense of sympathy in the reader for various characters (including the protagonist, Nnu Ego) by inhabiting their point of view fully, the narrative often flits from one point of view to another, or features (unnecessary) contextualizing statements that begin "In her culture,..." or "At that time,...." The effect is rather didactic and even a little bit anthropological in a way that made me slightly uncomfortable.' One of my fellow members responded with the excellent possibility that these distancing strategies are perhaps a narrative strategy that has a long tradition in Nigerian literature. I am intrigued by this, but don't know quite where to go to research it. Suggestions, or authoritative answers, are welcome. Particularly jarring (but natural, perhaps, and even interesting in a novel written in a later period, from London, and in English - a language both nationalized and colonial in Nigeria) were contextualizing moments in which Nnu Ego thought (I paraphrase) : "I wonder if someday women will actually be free to make their own choices, to define themselves as more than mothers" before she goes back to telling her daughters that they must sacrifices their wishes for those of those of their brothers and fathers. The events of the novel tell a story more complex this abrupt and historically knowing sort of moralizing, I think.

~ ~ ~

"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Bronte

This is a book for which spoilers may indeed spoil, so I will be minimal in my discussion of the plot: the unbearably immature and impulsive Gilbert Markham becomes intrigue by a beautiful young widow who moves, with her son, into the dilapidated Wildfell Hall. As the town urges itself claustrophobically into her past and her mores, questions are raised regarding her virtue when she receives surreptitious visits from a coveted local bachelor. This summary covers roughly the first hundred pages of this five hundred pager, with the rest mostly consumed by her explanation to Markham. It is my first Chunkster of the year (triumph!), but it is a Chunkster that needn't have been: a mere wisp of a novella hiding inside an elephant suit. The plot creaks under Bronte's attempt to wring every last moment of pathos and didactic purpose out of the theme of alchoholism (of which she had painful first hand experience thanks to her brother Branwell). Bronte does excellent work populating her fictional world with a cast of flawed characters with whom it is almost impossible to feel any sympathy; it may be that her motivation was less a grotesquely (and thus, to my mind, interestingly) misanthropic worldview and more of a desire to highlight the incredible self-abnegating virtue required to be a loving Christian in such a world. Too bad. The result is a novel which is gripping, but rather dispiriting to read. The novel did provide me with a favorite moment, however, when woman of none-too-strict morals speaks to her acquaintance (and rival) about the latter's amorously meandering husband: ""At any rate, you can console yourself with the assurance that you are worthy of all the love he gives to you." Best backhanded compliment of the week.

~ ~ ~

"The Joys of Motherhood" (UK/Nigeria 1979)
Buchi Emecheta

"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (UK 1848)
Anne Bronte

Life Lessons and their perils

So, after several days in the grips of stomach flu I have this to report:

I have been making my way, roughly in tandem, through two book club reads, Anne Bronte's "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" and Buchi Emecheta's "The Joys of Motherhood." The dual experience of these books (I am about halfway through each) has taught me two important life lessons:

1) Men are bad.
2) Marriage is a blight on the lives of women.

Oh, and perhaps a third, which may in fact negate the other two:

3) I am desperately glad to be living in 21st C Connecticut.

Perhaps not the most admirable of conclusions. More later...


My life is filled with weighty tomes at the moment (a fact not completely unrelated to my participation in the Chunkster Challenge," so I thought it might be refreshing to dip into a novella (a novella of fragmentary episodes, no less) while taking a break from "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," "Suite Francaise," and the New-York-Review-of-Book-that-never-ends-even-when-I-devote-whole-days-to-reading-it. Upping the novelty level by another notch, I chose a novella by an author who is totally unfamiliar to me: "Silk" by Italian music critic Alessandro Baricco.

It is the tale of Herve Joncour, a French dealer in silkworm eggs. When a blight infects Europe's hatcheries, Joncour ventures farther afield, to the Middle East, to India, and finally, in desperation, to Japan, which is largely closed to foreign trade. In fact, the unrivaled quality of their silk is so important to Japan that the penalty for taking silkworm eggs out of the country is death. While there, Joncour meets the lordly Hara Kei, who supplies him with eggs, and falls in love with Hara Kei's mistress. The story that unfolds has been hailed by critics as a love-story of the highest caliber, but this love story does not seem to me to be between Joncour and the unknown, almost untouched Japanese woman, but rather between him and the wife with a velvet voice he comes home to again and again, heartsick for Japan.

The only thing that keeps me from rushing out and buying this stunningly precise, poetic little book for all my friends is its unfortunate old-school Orientalism, its idea that the East is to be desired as the Other that reveals the Self (it is significant, and painful to read, that what makes Joncour's Japanese love so striking for him is that her eyes "did not have an oriental slant," a detail which he repeats which almost ritualistic fervor). Sometimes the book seems ironically (am I just being hopeful?) aware of the failures of its Orientalism. Throughout Japan (the "end of the world") is referred to in the terms of its silk - so light and luxuriant that it disappears into pleasurable nothingness, invisibility that conveys mystique. But then, in a breathtaking passage, Joncour returns to Japan while it is torn by civil war, only to find that Hara Kei's estate (and in fact the whole town) has been burned to the ground: "Behind him lay a road eight thousand kilometres long. In front of him, nothing. He had a sudden glimpse of what he had long considered invisible. The end of the world" (59). How skillful the translation (by Guido Waldman) must be to convey this knot of double meanings.

And then my favorite passage, a signal through the flames of civil war, which conveys a sense of the condescension and delight of Joncour's love. While across the world in France, he receives a letter, in Japanese: "It looked like a catalogue of the footprints of little birds, fanatically meticulous in its compilation. It was surprising to consider that in fact these were signs, that is, the embers of a voice destroyed by fire" (76).

"Silk" (Italy, 1997)
Alessandro Baricco

The Lying Liar who Lies

Tales of adultery and polyamory have never been my favorite way to while away the time; there is just a mental disjoint that occurs in me when I am confronted by this kind of plot line, an inability to understand this morality which is totally out of keeping with my usual pathologically strong ability to empathize. I should have approached Ida Lupino's straightforwardly titled film,"The Bigamist," with a thicker skin, perhaps, fully prepared for the sympathy it was going to demand for a protagonist who, gosh darn it, just loves two different women so much he has to marry them both. I suppose I was just so excited to see a film by a pioneering female director that I forgot my prejudicial sensitivities for a moment.

And my sympathies were aroused for the man's plight, I will admit (my skin crawling as I do so). As a lawyer asks late in the film, is it really so much worse to marry the woman you are carrying on with outside your marriage than to just keep her as your mistress? Perhaps not, but were these really the only two options? Kudos to Lupino for taking the complexities of her subject's situation seriously, avoiding the trap of making him into a lust-driven, mustache-twisting villain. But the film is still little more than a double-stuffed Oreo of a romantic melodrama (twice the wife).

I was drastically misguided if I was looking for Ida Lupino's film to present some kind of feminist rethinking of Hollywood conventions. Both wives are, in fact, types not often found in the other films I have watched from this period. Joan Fontaine plays a career woman ahead of her time, who revolutionizes her husband's business when she is brought on as a secretary. Ida Lupino (Wife #2) is insistent that our "hero" not marry her simply because she is pregnant - she can take care of herself (in fact, I was surprised at how honestly the film treated the subject of unwed pregnancy). Of course, these characteristics quickly prove to be flaws rather than strengths. Harry is driven to cheat on Wife #1 because she is so business-minded that she forgets what is really important: loving him. Wife #2's independence ends up being something of a lie: he is attracted to her because she DOES need him, and she is tormented by the idea that she has trapped him into marriage. Bah. BAH, I say.

"The Bigamist" (1953)
Dir. Ida Lupino

Busy busyness

Drowning in a sea of dissertation work...

"Killing Pablo"

"Since nobody expected the Search Bloc to be looking for Zapata and, indeed, no one in the police department cared a great deal about catching him just then, Hugo and his two-man team spent days cruising alone in their white Mercedes van, far more exposed than they would have normally dared to be. [...] At one point, Hugo stayed for too long in one spot listening to one of Zapata's calls. A child on skates rolled up to the car and handed him a piece of paper. 'We know what you're doing,' it read. 'We know you are looking for Pablo. Either you leave or we're going to kill you.'" (Bowden 227)

% % % % %

Last night I finished "Killing Pablo," an account of the pursuit of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar written by Mark Bowden of "Black Hawk Down" fame. It is a gripping story: people are pushed to the limits of human endurance and a government is brought to its knees by corrupting terror. For Pablo's great talent was combining corruption with terror: first he would offer a bribe to those whose help he requested. If they accepted, he owned them forever. If they refused, he would retaliate with violence, kidnapping and torturing family members, planting bombs outside public buildings, sending assassins all over the world to track those who had fled, until they were dead or acquiesced.

I will never, I think, get used to the convention of popular history that allows the author to jump inside the consciousness of his historical subjects, narrating events through them. On the one hand, this device calls out "fiction" to me, and surely shouldn't be necessary to invoke a sense of immediacy or tension in a story as gripping as this. Do we all have to be video game first person shooters in a narrative to feel sympathy for those we are reading about?

On the other hand, the convention blurs the line between the sort of factuality, the sort of incontrovertible truth, that we associate with video or film proof, "what we see with our own eyes." When Bowden recounts the narratives of his protagonists (told to him in interviews) through their own eyes, it obscures the possibility that his interlocutors might be lying to him or blurring the truth. Bowden gives us a good idea of how murky and unstable Colombia was in this period, when both the American government and idealists throughout Colombia were willing to join forces with sub-legal death squads and rival cartels to find and kill Pablo Escobar. But sometimes he is too willing to trust those who were kind enough to give him interviews and look over the manuscript. Suddenly those whom he talked to emerge as beacons of virtue in a sea of corruption. And the book as a whole leaves us devastatingly certain (with a horror based on self-examination) that humanity is rarely that strong.

"Killing Pablo" (2001)
Mark Bowden

Cross words

Last night my flatmates and I watch "Wordplay," last year's film about the creators and solvers of the New York Times crossword as well as the participants in the annual crossword competition in Stamford, CT. I must admit that I have a significant soft spot for this sort of documentaries. Although I rarely find them innovative or feel an urge to revisit them, there is something comforting and entertaining about the idea of extraordinariness in mundanity that is explored by films like "Wordplay," "Word Wars" (the Scrabble film), "Spellbound" (about children at the National Spelling Bee) or "Mad Hot Ballroom" (which follows a pilot program to bring ballroom dance to NYC schools). Of course, the flip side of this coin is the criticism many have leveled at this sub-genre of documentary, that it seeks out the oddities of its subject and displays them for the mockery of the audience, taking eccentricity and transforming it into freakishness to create narrative interest. To a certain extent this criticism is true, and shows evidence of the perilous influence of reality TV: though the enthusiasm of these "characters" is fascinating, their obsessions terrify, and we must be on our guard against forgetting that they are actual people rather than fictional constructs, easily condemned.

The cast of "characters" in "Wordplay" is sufficiently sympathetic that this is less of a worry than it has been in other films. Or perhaps our sympathy comes from the fact that the crossword, as pastime and status symbol, has permeated our lives to a greater extent. We (or at least I) can understand the social capital it confers to be able to finish a New York Times crossword (especially one from late in the week) quickly and in pen, in a way that I couldn't necessarily understand spelling bees and Scrabble tournaments. And the film trots out celebrity after celebrity, from a baseball pitcher to a comedian to a former president of the United States, to prove how elite the pursuit is. In one marvelous scene, all these celebrities attempt to complete the same puzzle, and I for one heaved a huge sigh of relief when Bill Clinton quickly answered clues about missiles, for instance. There is a jarring note, however, in the continued assertion that people who do crosswords are a certain type of people, "my type of people," just as an alarm sounds when Ken Burns makes the startling assertion that he believes that the English language is the greatest force in the world today. Ah well, I will keep watching these films as long as they keep making them - warts and all, they delight me.

"Wordplay" (2006)
dir. Patrick Creadon

Week 2, Play 2: "Topdog/Underdog" - Jan. 8-14

I must admit that this was a reread, but I will defend myself thus: the play was sadly faded in my memory, and it seemed appropriate, given Parks's current project of a year of 365 dramas, to include her work at the beginning of my challenge. I enjoyed this one so much that it might persuade me to return to more of her earlier work (even more sadly faded in my remembrance) later in the year.

"Topdog/Underdog" is about the struggle for power in a fraught binary of brotherhood: Lincoln is staying with his younger brother Booth (their father had a sense of humor) while he struggles to make a living as a Lincoln impersonator at a fairground. It is a play about identity: what does it mean to "impersonate" Lincoln if you ARE Lincoln? History lurks fatalistically at the edges of the stage - do their names link the brothers together forever in a Cain and Abel struggle? Do we all just replay the fratricidal violence of the past eternally? Does national history overlap, eventually becoming coterminous, with family memories? Is all drama a reworking of Oedipus, a familial tangle that reveals itself as a Gordian knot? (What happened to Lincoln and Booth's parents, who both disappeared suddenly, their mother explaining her departure only to Booth and their father to Lincoln - they say - and each leaving a wad of money as an "inheritance.")

Despite these grand themes, the beauty of the play is often in its details, as in Lincoln's luminous, brutal description of the people who pay money to shoot him at the fairground, inhabiting a moment of pure rebellion and violence with inevitable racial implications (not least because Lincoln, wearing whiteface, is payed less money than his white counterparts to play the former president). What motivates these pseudo-murderers, ersatz assassins?

"Winter or summer thuh gun is always cold. And when the gun touches me he can feel that Im warm and he knows Im alive. And if Im alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, its real. Me looking up at him upside down and him looking at me looking like Lincoln. Then he shoots.
I slump down and close my eyes. And he goes out thuh other way. More come in. Uh whole day full. Bunches of kids, little good for nothings, in they school uniforms. Businessmen smelling like two for one martinis. Tourists in they theme park t-shirts trying to catch it on film. Housewives with they mouths closed tight, shooting more than once."

Suzan-Lori Parks

And now a tangentially related film...

.... "Bad Day at Black Rock," directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy. [Some spoilers may follow.] A man appears in a small town in the desert of the American West, looking for a Japanese-American farmer who mysteriously disappeared the day after Pearl Harbor. The town rallies round its most sinister elements, guilty and enraged.

I didn't find this to be a complex or magisterial film, but it succeeds very well within the narrow scope of its interests (interests that were, at the time, quite progressive and bold). Over the course of the film, your awareness of the isolation of Black Rock grows, the desert becomes a prison, and you begin to feel a profound and unsettling claustrophobia. I have never quite understood the cult of Spencer Tracy, finding him (at his best) a competent actor who provides an anchor for a script, a solidity that can sometimes become stolidity. He turns in another calm, impassive performance here, interesting mostly when put into dialogue with the rest of the film Western tradition. Here we have a ronin of sorts, a stranger-warrior who is dropped down in a near-ghost town rotten with corruption and guilt, and who reluctantly takes on the job of purification, of scourging. He is the pacifist-warrior who sometimes appears in weapons, reluctant to draw a gun or engage in brawls, but brave and even deadly nonetheless.

Perhaps the most interesting point the movie has to make, however, is about the insidious nature of the tradition of Western, and it is given voice by the villain of the piece, Smith. The desert provides a blank slate for the narrative ambitions of everyone, and everyone who ventures there becomes a tourist of sorts, looking to find the Old West, the Wild West, or the West were fortunes are made on gold, oil or land. Is there an essence beneath all these projections, the film asks? The villains make the mistake of thinking that there is: it is "our west," a land of isolation and homogeneity, of safety in sameness. But the film refuses any true endorsement of idealism: even after the purge, the possibilities for a bright future seem grim in a town where the train only stops once in a few years.

"Bad Day at Black Rock"
dir. John Sturges
[Extra points for obeying the three unities so effortlessly!]

And now to Japan

It is amazing how my movie watching has been falling into neat thematically, linguistically, geographically defined clumps this year. First, my day in Spain, and now, a pair from Japan:


"AKIRA" dir. Katsuhiro Otomo

This anime classic came highly recommended by my normally, let's say, circumspect boyfriend, so it has been one of the more anticipated prospects on my "1001 Movies" list. I have snatched it out of the chronological queue in which all my 1001 movies wait to be consumed because my favorite podcasters, Adam and Sam at Filmspotting , included it in their Animation Marathon - in which I have been sporadically running along side them. The last marathon, on Documentaries, introduced me to the wonders of Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, U.S.A.," and I have been a devoted follower ever since.

Summarizing the plot of "Akira" is an exercise in futility, but I really should exercise more, so here we have it: It is the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of 2019. Two longtime friends and biker-gangsters (Kaneda, the leader, and the resentful Tetsuo) struggle to manage Tetsuo's new-found super-powers in a world where evolution has given some children awesome, nuclear-age abilities humanity (science, the military, religious zealots) is ill-equipped to understand or wield. In all sincerity, I wouldn't recommend that you watch "Akira" for the plot, or for the enfeebled characterizations. Watch it as an art movie in the most sensual manner: enjoy the striking visuals or inventive use of sound that were so revolutionary in the 80s; the animators' unusual, almost photographic attention to light and shadow; the director's willingness to use the eery tactility of film silence in an almost abstract way.

I have to agree with Adam and Sam, however, that the movie has fundamental narrative flaws that keep it from being a truly enjoyable or even thought-provoking experience, not least of which is the one that Filmspotting explicitly mentions: this feels like a two hour condensation of a massive, epic manga (and it is). The plot progresses in almost nonsensical fits and starts, punctuating long (and rather dull) arias of violence. In this dullness lies my major criticism: as with Superman, there is something fundamentally uninteresting about characters with unfettered, limitless powers. Every plotline becomes a deus ex machina, depriving the viewer of any possibility of suspense.

One last note: since this film documents the excruciating deterioration of the body when confronted with powers beyond its scope, it is not a film to watch (as I did) with a headache or motion sickness. Be forewarned.


"TOKYO STORY" dir. Yasujiro Ozu

From Neo-Tokyo to the suburbs of mid-20th century Tokyo, I move back to my chronological progress through the "1001 Movies" list. This was my first experience with Ozu and it was a remarkable one - his style is so sedate and yet involving. In fact, it is the opposite of "Akira" (frenzied and dull) in every way. I will admit that I had "Tokyo Story" out of Netflix for weeks before I finally watched it, which is not at all in keeping with my normal obsessive-compulsive privileging of Netflix efficiency over all other activity. Over the holidays I kept trying to lure my boyfriend or parents into watching it with me, but somehow my pitch of "It's about an elderly couple whose children don't love them as they should" didn't resonate with anyone's sense of holiday cheer. Or maybe it resonated too strongly with the feelings that Christmas evokes in us. At any rate, I finally watched it, by myself, on the train ride home.

What struck me throughout was how little bleakness there was in Ozu's seemingly tragic story. I had prepared myself for the sort of vicious filiality that we see in "Ran" or (I shudder to think of this son) "Ikiru," but Ozu has (of course!) a very different sense of the dramatic in family life than Kurosawa. At first, this mildness evoked a certain defensiveness in me: "These children aren't that bad!" I kept exclaiming to myself, "They just have their own lives and careers! Should they just drop everything for their parents' visit?? They would lose their jobs."

But this is the tragic seduction of the film. You can't say "Oh Oedipus, you fool, any idiot could figure out what the prophecy meant. How about just never getting married? That would ensure a life of unFreudian simplicity," because the betrayals in "Tokyo Story" are so quotidian. When the married, working children shuffle off their parents, they send them on a spa vacation, confident (in a self-justifying way) that their parents will have a better, more comfortable time there than in the cramped quarters available to them in the city. The most horrible of the daughters, the one who moves closest to caricature, is no more broadly drawn than the most aggressively tactless person at any Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner in the country today. Even her irritation with her father, the most unsympathetic of the relationships portrayed in the film, is well motivated by an alcoholic past that disrupted the family's happiness. Only one character (their widowed daughter-in-law) lays claim to contentment, and she is eternally urged to change, to marry, to forget. The gentle tragedy of the film is underscored by the fact that the parents understand why their children find them such a burden. There are no histrionics here, only subtle injustices, minor incomprehensions. A delicate and sympathetic film.


"Akira" (Japan 1988)
dir. and written by Katsuhiro Otomo

"Tokyo Story" (Japan 1953)
dir. Yasujiro Ozu

2006 in Review

We are now more than a week into 2007, so it is probably time for me to face up to the fact that 2006 is over. A brief summary:

"The Weeping Meadow" dir. Theo Angelopoulos
(I was not as rigorous in recording my movies watched this past year as my book read, but this film springs immediately to mind for its painterly precision and vast beauty)
"49 Up" dir. Michael Apted



"Eh Joe" by Samuel Beckett
directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Michael Gambon,
at the Duke of York's Theatre in London on the 4th of July

"Rock 'N' Roll" by Tom Stoppard, at the Royal Court Theatre, London
(With an extraordinary performance by Rufus Sewell in the central role)

93 Books, of which
58 were graphic novels
17 were non-fiction
7 were collections of short stories or personal essays
8 were from the list of 1001 books


FAVORITE BOOKS READ IN 2006 (in descending order)
1) "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" by Tom Stoppard (a reread, many many times a reread)
2) "Ex Libris" by the delightful Anne Fadiman
3) "Great Expectations," my Dickens of 2006
4) "The Mayor of Casterbridge" by Thomas Hardy
5) "The Vintner's Luck" by Elizabeth Knox
6) "A.L.I.E.E.E.N." by Lewis Trondheim
7) "The Book of Illusions" by Paul Auster

Paul Auster
Lewis Trondheim, the French graphic novelist, of "Dungeon" fame
Anne Fadiman

Onward and upward!

"The Cyclops" - Week One, Play One - January 1-7

The first play of the new year is under my belt: Euripides' "The Cyclops," which I read in a delightfully tiny and cost-efficient copy of Euripides: Ten Plays, translated by Paul Roche.

"The Cyclops" is the only complete satyr play that remains from the classical period. At Ancient Greek dramatic festivals, plays would be performed in groups of four, three tragedies and a satyr play (a sort of ancient burlesque), all by a single author. The Oresteia of Aeschylus, which tells the story of Agamemnon's murder and his son's revenge, is the only surviving trilogy of tragedies that was originally performed together. The more famous group of Oedipus plays by Sophocles, although thematically related, was not intended to be performed together, and was in fact written over several decades.

It isn't clear what tragedies Euripides intended to accompany his "Cyclops," but it is, as far as modern scholars can determine, representative of the genre. Sex, scatology and (above all) drinking are the subjects of the play, which unfolds in a mythological universe quite similar (if more brutally crass) to that of the tragedies. In the play, Odysseus and his crew are thrown ashore by storms on the island of the man-eating Cyclops. There they encounter Silenus the satyr and his sexually deprived sons (not all satyr plays contained actual satyrs, apparently, but this one does), and are captured by Polyphemus the Cyclops. Using wine and wit, they must engineer their escape.

As a unique theatre-historical artifact, the play holds considerable interest, but its humor is about on the level of a very, very bawdy sitcom of not particularly high quality, so I can't recommend it as a pleasurable read. I have to wonder whether it is ever performed on modern stages....

"The Cyclops"
Euripides (Greece, uncertain date in the mid-5th C BCE)

The Year of Down Under

[Addendum - Saturday, May 26, 2007:
I would love to have company in the challenge at any point in the year, if anyone is interested in joining me! I intend to pick a new country every year and undertake a similar challenge. The top contenders for next year's country (when I hope to make this a more public challenge, where it was a mostly personal challenge this year) are China, Japan, and Israel/Palestine. If you would like to join this (Australian) year, drop me a line. If you would like to join me next year, and have an opinion about which of those countries sounds most appealing, let me know. I will keep you posted!]

Greedy soul that I am, I took one look at Tanabata's "Japan Challenge" and Kailana's "O'Canada Challenge" and thought "I must get me one of those." What a delightful idea it would be, I thought, to pick a different country every year and focus on it for 12 months and 12 books. And God knows I don't have enough New Year's resolutions under way! This sort of boundless greed is how I ended up with three middle names.*

So let me declare this the year of my Australia Challenge. Let it be proclaimed far and wide. I am defining the challenge by the Australianness of the author, rather than the subject matter of the book (although ideally many of the books will take Australia as a subject or setting). I include authors who have lived all their lives in Australia, those who were born there and have since taken up residence or citizenship elsewhere, and those who have adopted Australia as their home although born somewhere else.

The books that I already have on my shelf that might claim a place in such a challenge follow:

"My Life as a Fake"
"The True History of the Kelly Gang"
"Oscar and Lucinda"

"Transit of Venus"
"The Great Fire"

"Dirt Music"

"The Salamander"

"The Power of One"

"Year of Wonders"

DBC PIERRE (Who asserts his Mexicanness over his Australianness)
"Vernon God Little"

"Seven Types of Ambiguity"


"Remembering Babylon"

"Tirra Lirra by the River"

Other books which I might include, but do not currently own:

"Commonwealth of Thieves"

"The Secret River"

"The Ballad of Desmond Kale"

"The Thornbirds"

"The White Earth"

"Journey to the Stone Country"


"The Book Thief"

[UPDATE: Some recommendations from LibraryThingers that I have just fetched from the library -

"Black Juice"

"Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living"

"The Monkey's Mask"

"The Magic Pudding"]

Books which are excluded from this challenge because I have already read them (at least those that immediately come to mind):

"My Brilliant Career"

"Schindler's Ark"/"Schindler's List"

"Nine Parts of Desire"

"The Three Miss Kings" (sometimes listed as "The Three Misses King")

"Bran Nue Dae" (I am saddened by the lack of drama on my To Do list for this challenge. I may add more as I do more research. Let me know if you have suggestions.)

So, all in all, I have read very little Australian literature in my life.

Most delightfully, I have already finished my January novel for this challenge. So here is the list so far:

1) "A Child's Book of True Crime" by Chloe Hooper (2002)

I will keep you updated.

*In my family, you are allowed to choose your own middle name when you are 12. At 12, I had already developed a keen sense of the, um, ornate. I aimed for the most complex possible monogram, choosing McClanahan (McC.), Llewellyn (which, I liked to think, would be abbreviated Ll.), and Æmalia (Æ).

First Book of 2007: "A Child's Book of True Crime"

I just learned how to change the HMTL of this blog, all by myself! I changed the LibraryThing widget (admittedly among the easiest of all possible changes to make, since LibraryThing has the code all prepared for you). Now instead of giving a selection of the books I recently read in 2006, it tells you what books I have read in 2007, a list that (as you can see) comes to a whopping total of one.

***Possible, if very vague, SPOILERS below***

Last night I finished Chloe Hooper's A Child's Book of True Crime, which was remarkable for its lucid interest in children's thought patterns and their unusual morality. A schoolteacher, Kate, on her first assignment out of university, moves to a small town in Tasmania that can't seem to escape its colonial roots. Kangaroos and wallabies litter the roads and are hunted for pet food, bridal parties take formal pictures in front of dilapidated penal colonies, and children play at being transported prisoners. When the novel opens, Kate is in the midst of an affair with the father of her favorite student, whose mother has written a true crime thriller about a murder that threw the town into chaos some 15 years earlier. The local vet, it seems, had been having an affair with his assistant, when one day his lover was found brutally slaughtered and his wife mysteriously disappeared. Hooper's novel has some striking insights about childhood, fear, and responsibility, but as her main character deteriorates in the last half of the book, so does the novel itself. "The Turn of the Screw" lurks unmentioned in the background of "A Child's Book of True Crime," but James's novella is infinitely more successful at winning our sympathies for its dubiously sane protagonist, and thus is also more fruitful in its narrative ambiguity. Hooper's novel seems, by contrast, to devolve into a sort of gothic chaos, a frenzy which only leaves us as alienated and disappointed in the protagonist as her prissy colleagues.

"A Child's Book of True Crime"
Chloe Hooper
(Australia, 2002)

A day in Spain

Yesterday was a day of two mildly disappointing Spanish movies, which are (I fear) doomed to be not only linked but also confused in my future reminiscences.

The first, "Only Human" (2004), is a farce with a promising foundation: successful daughter Leni brings her boyfriend home to meet her crazy Jewish family, telling them that he is Israeli. Only after a great deal of embarrassing conversation about where he did his military service and where his family lives does it emerge that he is, in fact, Palestinian. I felt hopeful about the wonderfully weird characters, from a brother who has suddenly discovered not only a wounded duckling who lives in their toilet, but also religious zeal (he attempts throughout to force his family to observe the Sabbath properly), to a belly-dancing sister and a downstairs neighbor with an unhealthily well-developed sense of "community." In an early scene in the film, Leni's brother purges the fridge of all pork products. Pulling a sausage out of the garbage, his mother cries "What is wrong with this?!?" "It's not kosher!" "Throwing food away isn't kosher!" she replies, dousing the sausage in dish soap and giving it a thorough scrubbing.

If only the whole movie had been this way, based on the subtle clash between absurd but plausible characters. Instead it quickly became one of my least favorite types of comedy: a farce which relies on the extreme and unrealistic stupidity of its characters to herd them into a series of ridiculous situations. If I am exclaiming "Why didn't [the protagonist] just do this???" then the film is a bit too much like a sitcom of the "Three's Company" ilk. Perhaps I should have known better when I saw that Netflix compared it to "Meet the Parents," a film which I despised with an unusual vigor. Too many groans, not enough laughs.

The second film sparked a rare outing to an actual movie theatre, an adventure I had been eagerly anticipating for some time: the new Pedro Almodovar feature, "Volver." The film is almost completely devoid of men, and what few there are manage to be moral cesspools. It is a drama of deception played out between three generations of women: the (ghostly) matriarch Irene and her senile sister Tia Paula, Irene's daughters Raimunda (played by a resplendent Penelope Cruz) and Sole, their friend Agustina, and Raimunda's teenage daughter Paula. For the most part the characters and performances are delicate, although from time to time the scenes had a staginess that I had never seen before in an Almodovar. This is not to be confused with his trademark theatricality, an exuberance which tempers grim plotlines.

For my tastes, however, "Volver" is not grim or weird enough, spending too much time reveling in the sentimentality of the mother-daughter relationship. I wanted MORE transvestites, MORE prostitutes, MORE tiny people climbing into giant genitals, MORE of all the trappings of quirk that make an Almodovar film so delightful, banishing the cloying traces of self-pity or -satisfaction. One scene in "Volver" delivers this, despite a staid cast of characters: the principal mourner return to her family's small town for an aunt's funeral, where she is instantly mobbed by a muttering, pawing gaggle of black-clad women, intent on performing sympathy and stealing her aunt's valuables. Almodovar shoots this from above (a favorite shot of his in this movie, perhaps best described as the "cleavage shot"), emphasizing the herd mentality, the sense of the mourner drowning under surges of condolence which go on and on amidst a mumbled cacophony of "Hail Mary"s. Gorgeous and excruciating.

Almodovar clearly loves all these women, both the characters and the actors. Late in the film, Irene settles down to watch an old movie, and Anna Magnani appears on the screen. Oh, I immediately though, how Almodovar would have loved to work with Magnani, that opulent and stern empress of melodramatic subtlety. What an ode to paradox that collaboration would have been.

"Only Human"/"Seres Queridos" (2004)
dir. Teresa Pelegri and Dominic Harari

"Volver" (2006)
dir. and written by Pedro Almodovar


More reading resolutions for the New Year:

1) Read at least one Dickens novel

I will undoubtedly be helped along in this by the Dickens Reading group I have joined. The next two we are scheduled to read are "Martin Chuzzlewit" and (I believe) "David Copperfield," neither of which I have attempted before.

2) A Faulkner novel

A Faulkner and a Dickens a year have been my goals in recent years, but I flubbed Faulkner in 2006. This year I will try to grow a spine and complete "The Sound and the Fury," chosen because my favorite Faulkner thus far was "Absalom, Absalom!".

3) One Alice Munro

4) One Margaret Atwood

5) One Pat Barker

These last three were authors from my "Contemporary Women Authors of Britain and Canada" oral examinations topics a couple of years ago, and I think enough time has now passed that I can peacefully return to them (without twitching or exhibiting any other symptoms of Post Examination Stress Disorder). In the intervening years, my library has filled up with unread works by these women, because of my admiration for the three or four books I had read by each for the exam, and it is time to start addressing the surplus. I anticipate that the works will be: "Runaway" by Munro, "Oryx and Crake" by Atwood, and "Border Crossing" by Barker.

6) A Kazuo Ishiguro novel

Last year I read "Never Let Me Go" and found it neither as endlessly impressive as "Remains of the Day" nor as off-putting as "When we were Orphans." This year, perhaps, will be the year of "An Artist of the Floating World."

7) A Paul Auster novel

Paul Auster was my major discovery of 2006, when I read "Book of Illusions." I am currently in the midst of "The New York Trilogy," which I hope to heaven I will finish in 2007. If not, I will be filled with shame - it is an excellent book.

8) A new play a week

The most challenging and most necessary of my goals. Since I study drama, I tend to give short shrift to reading plays that are new to me, avoiding anything that has a whiff of work about it. A play a week hardly seems like hard work, however, and 52 new plays this year seems a tremendous achievement. Perhaps I will start with Shaw's "Major Barbara," which is still sitting in my inbox, partially read, sent by the wonderful people at DailyLit.


Having recently discovered the phenomenon of book challenges on Blogger, I thought I might take one up. And what better one to start with than the "Chunkster Challenge," given my love of all things that go by the name "Chunky." I once developed a passion for Yorkie chocolate bars in Britain as a dual response to their advertising campaign: on the one hand I was spurred into rebellion by their assertion that the chocolate bars were "not for girls," and on the other I was intrigued by the fact that it described itself as not just any Yorkie, but a "Chunkie Yorkie," defying any delusions that those who ate it were slender and wispy of form.

But I digress. My point was simply that I really couldn't resist something called the Chunkster Challenge. And what is this appealingly named beast? It is a fairly forgiving, loosely conceived challenge, as Bookfoolery and Babble tells me: set yourself a group of "Chunksters" (books over 400 pages) to read between January 1, 2007 (today!) and June 30, 2007, and see how you fare. A complete set of rules can be found here.

So what chunksters will I be including in my challenge? To be honest, a number from the following list were books I was intending to read this year anyway, either for book groups or the "1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die" project:

1) Don Quixote, Cervantes

The chunkiest of all chunksters, which has long loomed windmill-like on my horizon.

2) Tristram Shandy, Sterne

Can I really claim expertise on meta-anything without having read this?

3) The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe

For my British Classics reading group. I have read "The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole, but never this other most famous of all gothic novels.

4) Kafka on the Shore, Murakami

A touch of very recent literature. This will be my first full Murakami experience, although I read a couple of stories from "An Elephant Vanishes" after seeing Theatre de Complicite's luminous stage version.

5) The Famished Road , Okri

A leftover from my 2006 to be read list, and a belated read for my Literary Fiction reading group.

6) Something Rotten , Fforde

A light interlude, the most recent in Fforde's "Thursday Next" series of literary mysteries.

7) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall , Anne Bronte

The next read for my British Classics reading group, this may be the first "Chunkster" I undertake.

8) Suite Francaise, Nemirovsky

Another very recent book (in English translation, not in composition), this was among the best received fictional works of 2006.

9) Dirt Music, Winton

Another leftover from 2006 and the Literary Fiction reading group.

My goal will be to read one of these a month for the next six months, for a total of six out of nine completed. I will keep you updated on my progress....