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The first readings & watchings of 2010

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Not read all that many books, or watched many films,  since the last one of these I did. Never mind.

Books
The Night of the Mi’raj, Zoë Ferraris (2008), is a literary murder-mystery set in Saudi. According to the one-line bio, the author “lived in a conservative Muslim community in Jeddah”, but I’m not entirely convinced. Some details ring false. There’s a reference to the “rear hump” of a camel – two-humped Bactrian camels are only found in Asia; in Arabia, they have one-humped Dromedaries. Ferraris also mentions “pita bread”, which is Mediterranean – in the Gulf, it is Arab bread, or khubz. Domestic staff in the Gulf are also typically Filipino, not Indonesian – in fact, I don’t think I ever met any Indonesians in the Gulf. Ferraris also mis-uses alhumdil’Allah, she writes bazaar instead of suq; and I heard it called a dishdasha more often than a thobe, and gutra or shamgh rather than keffiyeh (which is Palestinian). The novel’s two main characters, a religious desert guide of Palestinian origin, and a modern Jeddah woman who works in the women’s laboratory at the city coroner’s, are handled well, although both seem suspiciously good at English.

Dinosaur Junction, Ann Halam (1992). It’s taken me years to hunt down a copy of this book and, well, I must admit it wasn’t exactly worth the wait. It’s one of Halam’s weaker efforts. After the superb Inland trilogy – The Daymaker, Transformations and The Skybreaker – this is a disappointment. Her next book, The Haunting Of Jessica Raven, is much better – and had a different publisher; and Jones once told me that Dinosaur Junction had got “lost” in the change of publishers. The central premise, a young boy called Ben hunts fossils and gets embroiled in a plot by his sister to grow a dinosaur from DNA, just doesn’t seem to hang together plausibly. Having said that, Ben’s sister, Rowan, is an interesting character – an ambitious schemer, who admires Napoleon and Machiavelli. You don’t meet young female characters like her in many books. I did wonder if the setting, a town called New Bruton, was named for the architectural style of Brutalism.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005). Crowley is a writer I greatly admire, but his books are not ones you can knock off in a weekend. And that’s probably more true of this one than most. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is a novel of three interwoven parts. The framing narrative is presented as a number of email exchanges. Smith (a nickname) is the UK researching for a web site on women in science the life of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and, for her work with Babbage on his Difference Engine, often considered the first ever programmer. But the site’s patron in the UK has come into possession of some papers of Ada’s. And in among them – encrypted by Ada – is the entire text of an unknown prose novel written by Lord Byron himself. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land presents this novel. The third part is Ada’s notes on the novel. Many years ago, I read Robert Nye’s The Memoirs of Lord Byron, but I remember nothing about it. Which is unfortunate, as Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is a novel which is clearly improved by knowledge of Byron and his works. Certainly Crowley’s channelling of the Romantic poet convinced me – although some of the email exchanges didn’t quite. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is, of course, beautifully written. If this novel doesn’t make my best of the year list for 2010, it’ll certainly get an honourable mention…

Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings (1982), was the first book of this year’s reading challenge. see my review here.

The Rim World series – The Rim of Space, When the Dream Dies, Bring Back Yesterday and Beyond the Galactic Rim – A Bertram Chandler (1961 – 1963). When Sphere chose to publish Chandler’s Rim World series in the UK twenty years after they’d been published in the US by DAW, they did so for only four of the six books. They also retitled the second book – from Rendezvous On A Lost World to When the Dream Dies (which is actually a better title). Having now read all four books, I have to wonder why they bothered. I have vague memories of reading and enjoying Chandler when I was in my early teens – they had several in my local library. But these four really are quite poor. Chandler was a merchant marine officer, and while that gives him a certain authority when it comes to describing the operations of starships in his invented universe, the actual level of invention shown in his far-future interstellar merchant service is pretty low. All the starships are the pointy rockets of yore. They don’t have internal gravity; and their FTL is the Mannschenn Drive, which uses “gyroscopic precession”. There are no computers. The men are men, and the women exist to either serve them or act as love interest – they’re “Catering Officers” aboard the ships, or they fall for the protagonist (most of whom are pretty unlikeable, yet the women are uniformly beautiful). The stories themselves are no better. The Rim of Space is essentially a travelogue, in which the protagonist joins Rimrunners and visits several worlds of the Rim – and upon which he has adventures. When the Dream Dies is nonsense – a “gaussjammer” is “blown off course” and crash-lands on a world run a by a single AI called Central Control. It wants to look after the humans, but they want to return home. Which they do, with the help of four gorgeous robot women, created for their amusement but operated by Auxiliary Control – the “feminine aspect” of the masculine Central Control. Pfft. Bring Back Yesterday starts well enough – man misses his ship by over-sleeping, has little or no prospects, but is then hired by a detective agency. Which wants him to break into the laboratory of a reclusive billionaire scientist who was invented time travel. But it turns out the spacer is part of the causal time loop. Chandler is overly fond of “as you know”, and perpetrates some of the most inelegant info-dumping I’ve ever come across, but this one also has dirty great signposts to the end placed throughout the story. Finally, Beyond the Galactic Rim is a collection of four stories, each of which features the faults of the three preceding novels, but in less words.

Machine Sex and Other Stories, Candas Jane Dorsey (1988). The Women’s Press used to publish some good science fiction back in the 1980s and 1990s. As I don’t recall seeing any of their books for a while, I assumed they’d packed in. Apparently not – their website is here. Perhaps they no longer have the distribution they once had. But. Dorsey is a Canadian sf writer. She won the James Tiptree Award in 1997, for her novel Black Wine. Machine Sex and Other Stories – my edition is published by The Women’s Press – is my first exposure to her fiction, and… There are a couple of stories I liked – ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and its sequel of sorts, ‘War and Rumours of War’. ‘Sleeping in a Box’ is also quite good. But there are a couple of experimental pieces I didn’t like at all; and several others were written in that sort of elliptical prose which refuses to focus on the actual story – and that doesn’t really appeal to me.

Films
Push, dir. Paul McGuigan (2009). There’s a lot in Push which resembles Jumper. Well, the central premise for a start – anti-authoritarian teens with ESP. In Push, they’re trying to prevent the mysterious organisation which controls their kind, Division, a part of the US government, from gaining access to a drug which will take their powers to the next level. Except the anti-division teens don’t know what it is they’re after, or why. The film is set in Hong Kong, and is kinetically edited – but otherwise it’s very much like other films of its type.

Triple Agent, dir. Eric Rohmer (2004), was one of those films you stick on your rental list because it looks vaguely interesting, but when it hits the top of your list some indeterminate time later, and is sent to you, you wonder what it was that caused you to pick it. And then you stick it in the DVD-player and watch it… And you’re really glad you put it on your rental list. Triple Agent is slow, not very dramatic, and covers a period of French history I know little or nothing about (France between the wars). Serge Renko plays his character, White Russian emigré Voronin, very close, so you’re never entirely sure what’s going on. And you feel sorry for his Greek wife, played by Katerina Didaskoulou, who clearly hasn’t a clue either. But Triple Agent slowly draws you into its story, and when it finishes you’re never quite sure it’s over. Sadly, Eric Rohmer died earlier this year – Triple Agent may be the first film by him I’ve seen, but on the strength of it I stuck a few more on the rental list.

Un Coeur En Hiver, dir. Claude Sautet (1992), is one of those films the French do so well. Two men run a violin-repair business, but when business owner Maxime starts seeing violin soloist Camille, expert violin-maker and introvert Stéphane finds himself jealous. Camille is also attracted to him. Sautet handles the relationship between the three perfectly – and the three actors – André Dusollier, Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Béart – handled their roles also perfectly. An excellent film.

Fringe – Season 1 (2008). I’d seen a couple of episodes of this, and it looked interesting enough for me to bung it on my Amazon wish list. And happily I received the DVD boxed set for Christmas. Having now watched the first season, I have every intention of getting the second season. Obviously, parallels with The X Files, another TV programme I liked a great deal, are obvious – if not even deliberate. But like Mulder and Scully were very much products of their time, so are Dunham, Francis, Broyles and the two Bishops. Fringe succeeds when it focuses on “fringe science” and its “canon” episodes, but is less successful when it throws in some CSI/US television fantasy science technology – you know, all that software which can do magical things with trace evidence. The whole “war with alternate earth” series arc is warming up nicely, although the producers are making a bit of meal out of the connection with multinational technology company Massive Dynamic. The cast are good – John Noble as Walter Bishop especially – and I really like the way they introduce each location with those floating letters.

The Postman, dir. Kevin Costner (1997). Readers of this blog will be aware that I have watched a great many crap sf films – B-movies, straight-to-video and straight-to-DVD. A lot of those crap films were set in a post-apocalyptic USA. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about the US after the apocalypse. Sadly, most of them should have kept their mouths shut. And that’s as true of The Postman as it is of any other film of its type – and probably more true for the novel by David Brin from which the film was adapted. Ten minutes into The Postman and I was irritated – by Costner’s bad acting, by the cartoon evil villains, by the silly Thunderdome quarry in which the baddies live, by how unrealistic the world of the film looks… A lot of those crap post-apocalypse films I’ve watched were better than this.

Slumdog Millionaire, dir. Danny Boyle (2008). There’s not much you can say about this that’s not already been said. It’s both a feel-good film and deeply upsetting. Perhaps the story’s manipulativeness gets a bit wearying after a while, but it was a deserved winner of the Oscar for Best Picture – certainly a better film than many that have won that award.

The Last Man on Earth, dir. Sidney Salkow (1964), is the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. It’s also the one that’s the most faithful to the book. Vincent Price plays the scientist who is the sole person not infected with the virus which has turned everyone else into vampires. The Last Man on Earth didn’t have the budget of the Charlton Heston or Will Smith versions, so the vampires look a bit crap and the emptiness of the city doesn’t convince quite as much. But it has a great deal more charm than the other films.

Jar City, dir. Baltasar Kormákur (2006), is an Icelandic thriller, and a pretty good one. Having said that, it can’t have done much for the country’s tourist industry. Iceland looks especially grim in this film. The plot is the sort of story which would fill up an hour, or two hours, of a UK thriller drama – perhaps even something like Waking the Dead. A man is found murdered, and it proves to be linked to a rape he committed, and was not charged with, twenty years earlier. A police inspector and his team need to solve both crimes in order to learn the identity and motive of the murderer. Definitely worth renting.

Cries And Whispers, dir. Ingrid Bergman (1972). Many of Bergman’s movies feel like plays captured on film. Bizarrely, this one felt more like a short story. Perhaps it’s the opening narration, perhaps it was the discreteness of the scenes which made up the story. Set at the turn of the twentieth century in Sweden, three sisters and their maid live in a large country mansion. One of the sisters is dying, and her condition is splitting the sisters apart. Like many of Bergman’s films, parts of this are quite harrowing. Other parts are beautifully filmed. and the whole is beautifully acted. A bit grim, but one of his good ones.

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6 thoughts on “The first readings & watchings of 2010

  1. Hi Ian–I have 2 quick comments. First, I couldn’t bring myself to buy “The Postman,” much less see the film. In my NYC elementary school we were told some propaganda crap about a missing letter that finally winds up at the right place, thanks to the perserverance of The Postman and his agency. Then there was the motto of the US Postal Service, “Through rain, sleet, or hail, nothing stops the US mail.” I’ll admit that it was nearly true. A good service. The subtext never penetrated my skull, thank goodness.
    Second, as you might suspect, I’m a Bergman fan and now live in his (and my) beloved Uppsala (Fanny and Alexamder was filmed there). His “The Seventh Seal” is my all-time favorite film. Max von Sydow acted so well that my Dutch wife, who has no Swedish, understood much of what Knight Antonius Block and the rest had to say. SF fan Johan Anglemark tells me that the linguistic precision and clarity of Bergman’s actors no longer exists here, in film or in everyday life.

    • I’m trying to work my way through as many sf films as possible, which unfortunately includes the crap ones like The Postman. If you’ve not seen it, don’t bother.

      I’m also working my way through Bergman’s oeuvre. I have the Criterion edition of Fanny & Alexander, but its six hour running time is a little off-putting. My favourite Bergman so far is probably Autumn Sonata.

      • Fanny och Alexander was originally a TV series here. Multiweek, so I guess that’s the one you have. I’ve never seen it and in fact have few DVDs. I have too little time to view, alas. I read and listen to music. But my advice is to make the time.
        I haven’t seen Autumn Sonata in ages. There’s one film that is chilling but largely unknown. Its title must be close to “The Shame” in English. I saw it once more than 20 years ago. A Bergman expert I knew called it Bergman’s Unknown Classic.
        That Postman story was one of several pieces of drivel designed to brainwash us kids into thinking that Yanks can do anything and can persevere until they get what they want. It is phony gung-ho optimism, inculcated chiefly by this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Engine_That_Could . We were subjected to this at age 7, when we were learning how to read.

  2. I have Shame. I watched it last year. It only just lost out to Autumn Sonata when I came to pick the best five films I’d watched that year.

  3. Hi Ian—Now that I know the title I shall look for it in English, although I really ought to try the Swedish. I’m glad you liked it so much. It shocked the hell out of me.

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more about Slumdog, Fringe and The Last Man on Earth. Haven’t seen any of the others.

    The Vincent Price film is what convinced me to go read the story for myself and I really enjoyed it. I have a soft spot for Vincent Price films anyway and I thought they did a nice job with this one. Much more faithful than most of the “adaptations” he was featured in.

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