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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Reading diary, #46

I try to plan my reading, but usually end up not following the plan at all… other than in its broadest intentions, ie, alternating male/female writers, for example… Which I only just managed to do here. Ah well.

river_titashA River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). Good books don’t always made good films, and great films are not always made from great books. Nonetheless, A River Called Titas by Ritwik Ghatak is one of my favourite films, so I had high hopes of the novel from which it was adapted. From what I’d read the novel was held in high regard, which is always a good start, although apparently not enough to be still in print in English in the twenty-first century. And since I couldn’t find a copy of its original 1950s Penguin release, I ended up with a university press edition… which actually proved a bonus as it included footnotes and appendices that added to the reading experience. A River Called Titash is mostly autobiographical – Mallabarman, who died in 1950, the novel was published posthumously six years later – was born and grew up in a Malo village on the River Titash, which is an offshoot of the Meghna River in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, which is basically just one giant flood plain pouring into the Bay of Bengal. Obviously, I read A River Called Titash as the source text for A River Called Titas… and the most obvious difference seems to be that the film confused the Titash and Meghna. True, some of the story takes place on the latter river, but the film implies it all does – although it does follow, in broad stroke, the same story. A fisherman from a Titash village defends a young woman – actually only fifteen years old in the novel – during an attack on her village by pirates. So she is given to him by her family in marriage, they consummate their union, and and the next day set off in his boat for the trip home where the actual marriage ceremony will take place. En route, while anchored at night, pirates sneak aboard and kidnap her. But she escapes and ends up at a third village. She doesn’t know her husband’s name, or the name of his village. (Nor did the husband learn his bride’s name – in fact, she’s never named in the novel, and referred to only as “Ananta’s mother” – and saw her face only on a handful of occasions.) She has a son, Ananta. Some time later – in the novel Ananta is four, in the film he’s considerably older – mother and son have finally learnt the origin of the lost husband and make their way to his village. But the husband had lost his mind shortly after his bride was stolen. So the “widow”, as she has to pretend to be, ekes out an existence while trying to reconnect with her insane husband. I absolutely adore Ghatak’s movie, and this novel is equally fascinating. It provides more detail, indeed, it’s been described as just as much an ethnographical text as it is a novel – it is set, after all, in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, and documents a way of life long since lost (although I think some remnant of it was still around when the film was made in the 1970s).  In one respect, reading the novel was especially helpful as it put some of the events in the film in context, and explained why the characters behaved as they did. A fascinating read, and likely to make my top five of the year.

snowdriftSnowdrift and Other Stories, Georgette Heyer (2016, UK). I do love me some Heyer, so I was a bit excited when I discovered a new collection of her short stories had been published. In the event, Snowdrift turned out to be a retitled Pistols for Two, which I already own and have read, but with the addition of three previously uncollected stories. On the one hand, these stories are lots of fun and Heyer was a dab hand with the prose. On the other… well, it’s all about entitled nitwits, and bears as much likeness to real history as, well, the Bible. It’s fun reading about Corinthians and Nonpareils and headstrong mistresses who Adventure, but they’re all aristocracy and there’s only one story in this collection, and new to it too, in which any one from the working class has any agency. Heyer is frothy and witty and fun, but the tribulations and concerns she invariably writes about no sensible person cpuld honestly give a shit about in this day and age. In one story, for example, an impressionable young woman (sixteen or so, I think) has learnt that her irresponsible brother has been challenged to a duel by a regular Man in Grey (lots of Heyer’s story follow the plot of The Man in Grey). So she tries prevent this but accidentally stumbles into the orbit of a supercilious noble (in his thirties) who promises to see her brother comes to no harm. He is, of course, the challenger, and only a complete idiot would fail to spot it. And it is only the fact he has the hots for the hothead’s teenage sister that saves the day. The problem with most Heyer stories is that you can change the words a little, without being inaccurate, and the plots would sound really skeevy. “Jaded thirtysomething chats up teenager in pub on way to arranged marriage… only to discover teenager is his proposed partner.” “Eloping teenagers mistake thirtysomething roué for irate brother hot on their heels, but when they realise their mistake teenage girl goes off with roué instead.” I had thought when reading A River Called Titash I could overlook the young ages at which girls were married off as a cultural thing from more than 100 years ago, only to realise that Heyer valourised something similar happening in the UK a hundred years before the events of Mallabarman’s novel. A River Called Titash at least has the advantage of being an historically correct ethnographical novel by a member of that culture, whereas Heyer wrote about a tiny sector of Regency England society more than 100 years afterwards. Still, they are fun, and I’m not about to give up my Heyer collection any day soon.

speed_of_lightAt the Speed of Light, Simon Morden (2017, UK). This is the second of the four novellas published recently by NewCon Press. It opens with a man waking up on board a spaceship, ignorant of his surroundings or his purpose. And, it is eventually revealed, not entirely human. I admit it, I sighed. This is a cliché. But I know Simon – although I don’t know his writing – and I should not have been so quick in jumping to conclusions. Because when the situation is finally revealed, in the third of the novella’s three sections, that opening section makes perfect sense and is actually quite clever. A spacecraft which can travel at a substantial percentage of the speed of light has accelerated out of control until it is now travelling fractions of a percentage less than c. Then the AI which controls the spacecraft notices a second one travelling in formation with it. And it realises this new spacecraft was sent by a planetary system the AI had travelled through, but since the AI had been in a fugue state at the time it had not noticed the communication attempts by the system’s inhabited world. The plot develops logically from there. It’s not Mundane SF by any means, although it initially pretends to be (an FTL drive pops up toward the end). The physical effects of travelling at very close to the speed of light are handled especially well, and although the novella is structured as an opening puzzle followed by a long extended info-dump as the narrator works out what’s going on, it’s a very good example of its type.

ghosthuntGhosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983, USA). I picked up the first seven books of this nine-book series at a Swecon because Clayton was not a name known to me at the time and I thought they’d make suitable review material for SF Mistressworks. This series was apparently very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s but has since been forgotten, and having now read them I’m mostly happy with that state of affairs. When you read forgotten or obscure sf, there’s always the hope you’ll stumble across a lost masterpiece; and it’s certainly true I’ve found some forgotten female writers of sf, or books by female sf writers, from past decades who deserve far more of a reputation than they currently have – anything by Marta Randall, for example, and Judgement Night by CL Moore should rightly be considered one of the classic space operas. But a lot of books vanish into obscurity for very good reason. The Diadem series has its high points and its low points, but its lows are pretty damn low, and even when it manages to be inventive progressive space opera it only just clears the bar. The series improved as it progressed, but not by a great deal. Still, there are the last two books to go – copies of which I will have to track down. My review of Ghosthunt will appear shortly on SF Mistressworks.

conspiracyThe Conspiracy & Other Stories, Jaan Kross (1991, Estonia). In an effort to widen the geographical spread of my reading, I picked a bunch of writers from random countries to try. One of them was Jaan Kross from Estonia. I’ll admit to knowing nothing about Kross, or indeed Estonian literature, when buying the book; and, to be honest, I’m not a great deal wiser now. Kross apparently specialised in historical fiction set in Estonia’s past, and his best-known work is the Between Three Plagues trilogy set in the sixteenth century. The stories in The Conspiracy, however, are set shortly before, and during World War 2, in German-occupied Estonia, and are told in the first person by Peeter Mirk, a stand-in for Kross himself. The stories are rich in period and place detail (so much so, each stories has end-notes… even though some of the glossed terms are later explained in the narrative). In one story, Mirk persuades an old university friend to desert the German not-so-voluntary Hilfswilliger levy corps, only for Mirk’s plans to see his friend off to Finland fall apart, but so putting his friend in his debt that the friend takes a stupidly risky route of his own choosing and dies in the attempt. In another, Mirk is attempting his own escape from Nazi-occupied Estonia, but the boat he is aboard is caught by a German patrol boat. Mirk has with him the manuscript of his first novel, which is highly critical of the Nazis. He throws his suitcase overboard, but the Germans manage to retrieve it. But there’s nothing in the suitcase to identify the owner (not even a name on the manuscript), except for… a collectible book given to him by a friend in lieu of payment for a debt moments before they boarded the boat to Finland which has an ex libris sticker giving that friend’s name. If Mirk says nothing, then his friend will be executed… There are half a dozen stories in the collection, and they’re well-written and interesting. I doubt I’ll dash out and buy something else by Kross to read – have you seen the size of my TBR? – but at some later date I might give something else by him a go.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Fresh month, fresh books

The start of a new month and so time to place an order with a large online retailer of books (and other stuff). Last month’s purchases were mostly catching up with books published in 2016 I’d not got around to buying last year. This month, it’s widening my reading to include authors from some countries I’ve not previously tried. Plus a few favourites.

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Three British writers. I read the first book of Ali’s Islam Quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree back in 2011, and though I enjoyed it I never got around the reading further. Hence book 2, The Book of Saladin. Snowdrift is a new collection from Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, it must be said. Back in the UAE, I read several books by Tremain, but stopped when I returned to the UK. No idea why. I thought it was time I started reading her again, so The American Lover.

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Some fiction from around the world. The Captive Mind is from Poland, not the Czech Republic, as I mistakenly tweeted a week or two ago. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is from Albania. The Conspiracy and Other Stories is from Estonia. And A River Called Titash, from Bangladesh, is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted.

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The latest Blake and Mortimer. Volume 24, to be precise. I actually think this series has improved since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. The plots are much more closely tied to the real world. This one, for example, is about a rivalry between two societies who disagree over the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

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Non-fiction. Now that I have volume 19 and volume 20 I have complete set of Wings of Fame. All it took was patience. And I’m patiently waiting to complete my set of Heinemann’s Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books. Sadly, this copy of Studies of Classic American Literature is ex-library, and was not described as such by the seller on eBay, but it’ll do for now.

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Finally, some science fiction, old and new. Naked to the Stars / The Alien Way is #31 in Tor’s series of back-to-back novellas from 1989 and 1990. That’s why I bought it, not because I’m a fan of Dickson’s fiction (okay, so the Dorsai trilogy is still kinda pulpy fun). At the Speed of Light and The Enclave… Well, I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds because I like Al’s fiction… and then I saw it was one of a set of four novellas published by NewCon Press, and the last one was by an old friend, Neil Williamson… and I’ve read one of Anne Charnock’s novels and it was very good and I’ve seen Simon Morden tweet that he was keen to get the science right in his novella… so I went and bought the other three. The Memoirist, the fourth novella, has yet to be published, however.