It’s time for the last report of 2010 from the coalfaces down the side-tunnels of the mine that is popular culture. You know the drill (see what I did there?): these are the books wot I read, these are the films wot I watched…
number9dream, David Mitchell (2001), is Mitchell’s second novel. It’s set in Japan. An orphaned young man is searching for his mysterious father, but inadvertently gets involved with the Yakuza. Like Cloud Atlas, the story doesn’t quite cohere, although about a third of the way in things do start to gel. The writing is excellent, the narrator is engaging, and the occasional over-the-top elements of the story are forgivable. Worth reading.
Intervention, Julian May (1987), sets the scene for her Galactic Milieu trilogy. I remember enjoying May’s Saga of the Exiles when I was in my teens, so I was surprised to discover that I hated this book. It’s basically about the development of super mind-powers among a group of Franco-Americans in New England. It’s supposed to be based on the memoirs of one of these, but breaks away from his narrative far too often for the conceit to stand up. The aliens are silly, the language is melodramatic, and the characters all come across as Mary Sues. Avoid.
Casino Royale, Ian Fleming (1953), is, as any fule kno, the first of Fleming’s James Bond novels. For reasons that continue to elude me, I am working my way through the 007 books. I know they’re not very good, I know they’re nothing like the films. But still I read them. Given the recent film of Casino Royale I had somewhat higher hopes of this novel. Sadly, it’s worse than the others I’ve read. The plot is thin: Bond plays Le Chiffre at cards, Bond wins, Le Chiffre kidnaps and tortures Bond, Bond is rescued. There’s loads of clumsy info-dumps. And Bond is even more offensively sexist than usual – the final line is “Besides, the bitch is dead”. Watch the movie, avoid the book.
Axiomatic, Greg Egan (1995), is Egan’s first collection. I’ve never really been a big fan of Egan’s fiction, but since he receives so much praise I though I’d better have another bash at him. I found this collection in a charity shop, bought it, read it and… I’m still not entirely convinced. He seems to take implausible ideas and stretch them to breaking point; and often beyond. There are some good stories in this collection, but there are many that are quite dull, whose single idea just isn’t worth the story around which it is built. There’s also a sameness to many of the stories. Still, the prose is quite polished.
Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (2009), has a central conceit that couldn’t help but appeal: in the 1940s, Joseph Stalin asks a group of science fiction writers to design an alien invasion, as part of a plot to create an enemy for the Soviet people in order to justify greater hardships and more invasive state control. You know, like the War on Terror. But nothing comes of it. Then, in the 1980s, it begins to look as though an alien invasion, exactly as planned forty years ago, is actually happening. Unfortunately, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn’t quite meet the promise of the conceit. It’s a very good novel, and the first half is an excellent and very funny satire. But about halfway through it changes direction, and eventually ends up in some sort of metaphysical area that didn’t strike me as interesting as the satire was. Definitely worth reading, however.
Ulverton, Adam Thorpe (1992), is a book I first tried reading over a decade ago, but put down after getting about halfway through it. It’s been sat on my book-shelves ever since. I’d always intended a second go at it, since what I had read had impressed me. But Ulverton is not an easy read. The title refers to a fictional village in the south of England, and the novel is structured as a series of incidents in the history of the village, beginning in the 17th century right up to the present day. Each section is told in the prose style of the time, and Thorpe uses a variety of formats as well – personal reminiscences, a sermon, eyewitness accounts, journals, a script, etc. This is a book that stands or falls on its writing, so it’s good that Thorpe’s prose is excellent. He maintains voice superbly in each of the settings, and gives a very real feel for his invented village. Worth the wait.
The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (1963), is a slender book. The eponymous girls are all residents of the May of Teck Club, a hostel for single women under the age of thirty. The book takes place in the year following the end of WWII. Spark introduces the girls of the top floor, before leading up to a “tragedy” involving an unexploded bomb. There’s also a framing narrative set in the 1960s, in which various of the girls discuss a man one of them invited a couple of the times to the club, and who since became a missionary and has just been murdered in Haiti. I liked the way Sparks characterised the girls, but didn’t like her overly repetitive prose style. Nor was I especially keen on the framing narrative – not that I could see why it even needed to be there. Don’t think I’ll be dashing out to read any more books by Sparks.
A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (1982), is Ishiguro’s debut novel, and in no way compares to his later works. A Japanese woman, married to a Brit and resident in the UK, reminiscences about her previous marriage in Japan. Her daughter from that marriage has committed suicide, and her daughter from her second marriage is staying with her for a week. The events in Japan – in Nagasaki – revolve around an upper class Japanese woman fallen on hard times, who has an American boyfriend who has promised he’ll divorce his wife back home and take the Japanese woman to the US. This woman also has a wayward daughter, who was traumatised by something she witnessed during the bombing raids on Tokyo during WWII. The prose is not as sharp as Ishiguro’s later books – in fact, the dialogue is tin-eared throughout. And the plot sort of peters out, rather being resolved. Disappointing.
Long Time Coming, Robert Goddard (2010). One day I’ll work out why I continue to read Goddard’s novels (I say that every time, don’t I?). It’s probably because no thought is required – this one took me a day – and they’re usually diverting. Despite being formulaic. His last one was rubbish, but this one is a bit better. A man discovers that his uncle, who he’d been told was dead, had actually been in an Irish prison since 1940 for an unrevealed crime (the book is set in 1976). It’s all to do with some Picasso paintings, which were forged by an ex-IRA painter, used to replace the real paintings owned by a Belgian diamond merchant who dies when the ship in which he was travelling to the US was sunk by a German U-boat. There’s more to the plot than just that, and it does get a bit unbelievable in the middle, but it’s better than some of Goddard’s other novels.
U is for Undertow, Sue Grafton (2009). The central conceit driving this alphabetical series is starting to unravel: the novels are presented as the reports of cases investigated by PI Kinsey Millhone. This one is a case in point: two of the three narrative threads are in the third-person and by those involved in the crime Kinsey is investigating. Which is the disappearance in 1967 of a four-year old girl – she was kidnapped, but not returned by the kidnappers. Like Goddard’s, these books are easy reads – and this one only took a day too. Grafton has rounded out the last few with Kinsey’s complicated family history – she thought she was an orphan, but her dead mother was actually the estranged daughter of a well-to-do matriarch. Sometimes Kinsey’s familial woes feel a bit like padding; sometimes they give her depth. But at no time do they actually add to, or illuminate, the plot of the novel. Grafton is no Paretsky, but never mind.
The Battle of Forever, AE van Vogt (1971), is typical van Vogt. Which is to say: it’s complete and utter nonsense. On good days, van Vogt’s nonsense is pacey and entertaining nonsense. On bad days, it’s just too silly to suspend disbelief. The Battle of Forever was plainly written on a bad day. It doesn’t help that it clearly reads as though van Vogt made it up as he went along – well, much more so than his other novels. In the distant future, one thousand humans are all that remain of the race, and they live as giant heads with atrophied bodies in an idyllic enclave. As an experiment, one of them, Modyun, grows a proper human body and heads out into the outside world as an experiment. He finds an Earth inhabited by the humanoid descendants of animals and apparently ruled by an alien bureaucracy. The novel may have been published in the 1970s, making it late-period van Vogt, but the society depicted seems more 1940s than anything else. Modyun accompanies some new-found animal people friends onto a giant spaceship, has various run-ins with members of the alien race in which they try to out-think each other, learns all the other humans have been killed as part of the aliens’ final act of Earth subjugation and… It all gets a bit wearying after a while, as van Vogt nears the end of each scene and hunts desperately for a hook to continue the story… often manufacturing one out of nothing simply in order to bang out more words. The Battle of Forever is a logic-free freefall through a story which rarely makes sense, and which reads like it was written when movies were black and white. Even for a fan of van Vogt, it’s putdownable.
A Tale Of Springtime, Éric Rohmer (1990), is the first of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons quartet, and the second film I’ve seen by him – the first was Triple Agent, which I thought slow but strangely involving, even though it didn’t seem to reach any sort of resolution. A Tale Of Springtime is much the same. A woman, Jeanne, attends a friend’s party and meets a young woman, Natasha, who befriends her. Jeanne doesn’t want to stay in her boyfriend’s flat while he’s away, and she’s lent her own flat to a cousin, so Natasha offers her a bed for the night and Jeanne accepts. Jeanne subsequently gets drawn into Natasha’s life, especially her father’s relationship with his new girlfriend, who Natasha does not like. This involves several trips to a house they own in a country village, which needs work done in its garden. If someone who didn’t like French cinema wanted to characterise it, they’d probably use A Tale Of Springtime as an exemplar. Yes, it’s a languorously-paced relationship drama, well-played but not dramatic. It’s unfair to describe it, as a comment on imdb.com does, as “not the for the general film-going public”, which seems such a wrong phrase on so many levels. It will not, however, be everyone’s cup of tea. I liked it.
The Blue Gardenia, Fritz Lang (1953), is a film noir from master director Lang. The title refers to a club, where Raymond Burr (best known as Perry Mason) takes Anne Baxter, who is out drowning her sorrows after being ditched by her boyfriend. Burr is found dead the next morning, his head bashed in. Baxter can’t remember anything after leaving the club. A reporter believes her to be innocent and so tries to help find the real killer. There’a lot of evidence stacked up against Baxter, but it’s all cleverly shown to be either coincidental or a mistake on the witness’s part. There’s a lot in The Blue Gardenia that’s not dissimilar to While the City Sleeps, a 1956 film also by Fritz Lang. Both feature stalwart newsmen solving murders. I guess reporters were held in higher esteem in those days…
Comédie l’innocence, Raúl Ruiz (2000), I rented because it stars Isabelle Huppert, who is, I think, one of the best actors of her generation. The title of the film belies its somewhat unsettling story. On his ninth birthday, a young boy tells his mother that he wants to return to his “real” mother. He’s not adopted, but instead seems to believe he is the reincarnation – or has been possessed by – a young boy who died several years earlier. The boy’s mother, played by Huppert, tracks down the “real” mother, and, bizarrely, the two start sharing the boy. In parts, Comédie l’innocence is not unlike Don’t Look Now – the chills lie in what is implied, in the way something which has no rational explanation pulls apart domestic routine. The ending does resolve the plot, but it’s a taut journey there. Recommended.
Threads (1984), is a BBC two-part drama, first broadcast in 1984, about the effects of a nuclear war on Britain, and specifically on the city of Sheffield. It’s effectively done. These days, they’d CGI the nuclear explosion itself, and you’d see walls of flame ripping through the city, buildings exploding and falling over, all that sort of thing: nuclear explosion as spectacle. Threads skates quickly past that and onto the aftermath, as survivors eke out a living in the ruins, and succumb to radiation sickness, disease, violence and starvation. I missed this when it was first broadcast, but I’m glad I finally got to see it. A classic piece of British television, and much better than the inferior US takes on the same subject.
This Island Earth, Joseph M Newman (1955), is one of those films which helped define the popular perception of 1950s cinema sf, along with When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon and The Day The Earth Stood Still. This Island Earth is based on a book of the same title by Raymond F Jones. Rex Reason – actors had proper actorly names in those days – plays a scientist who is recruited by a strange think-tank of platinum blond Tefal men. They’re interested in his research on nuclear power generation and are keen to fund his research. But it’s all a plot, because the Tefal men are really aliens from the planet Metaluna – as if their appearance wasn’t much of a clue. Reason and a female scientist played by Faith Domergue are taken by the aliens to their planet, which is at war with another race. There’s a giant mutant creature in there, too. The film was sold using stills of the mutant holding up a fainted Demorgue. This Island Earth is an entertaining piece of historical sf, although the first half of the film is better than the second. Now I have the original novel, I’ll have to see how far it deviates from the source text.
It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934), is on one of those Top 100 Films, but I forget which one. It was the first film to win the top five Oscars: best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Claudette Colbert plays a rich socialite with an overbearing father. He isn’t happy that she married a fortune-hunting aviator, so she runs away. On a Greyhound bus, she meets Clark Gable, a reporter, who recognises her and smells a story. He helps her to return to New York, although she has no money and he has very little. En route, they fall in love. It Happened One Night is your classic screwball rom com. Enough said.
Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese (2010). I’ve always thought Scorsese an over-rated director. Half the time he makes forgettable crowd-pleasers, the rest of the time he remakes Mean Streets. This falls into the former category and is based on a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane. The island of the title is the site of a hospital for the criminally insane. One of the prisoners has disappeared, so FBI agent Leonardo DiCaprio and partner are sent to investigate. The twist in the film is obvious right from the start, the Civil War fort which forms the secure wing of the hospital looks like something out of Dracula, and Max von Sydow keeps on popping up and spouting wodges of psychobabble plainly designed to confuse the viewer. Avoidable.
The Colour Of Paradise, Majid Majidi (1999), is an Iranian film, and proved much better than I’d expected it to be. Mohammed, a young boy at the Tehran Institute for the Blind, is picked up by his widowed father and taken to their home in the mountains. The father wants to remarry, but he can’t cope with a blind son. So he takes Mohammed to visit a blind carpenter and apprentices him to him. Mohammed doesn’t understand why he can’t stay at home with his father, grandmother and sisters. He may be blind, but with his Braille books he can keep up with the sighted kids in the village school. But the father is adamant. Then things start to go wrong, and the father’s plans and life unravel… I’ve seen two Iranian films before this – Secret Ballot, which made my top five of the year, and Taste Of Cherry – and they were both very good. As is The Colour Of Paradise. I didn’t expect it to be as affecting as it was, because, let’s face it, the story sounds more “worthy” than watchable. The boy who plays Mohammed is very good, the scenery is beautiful, and the slow unfolding of the story is cleverly done. I’ve already added Majidi’s other films to my rental list.