Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Time Traveller's Wife (I) (by Audrey Niffenegger)

This is a book which has been on many a "best of" list for 2004 and is a darling of the book club circuit - in fact, one of mine will be reading it for the first two weeks of February. I was supposedly to get a copy via a bookcrossing ray, but that one has been stalled plus I found a cheap trade paper copy. The one thing that worries me so far is that for the cover blurb, they went so low as to get Scott Turow for the job. They'd have been better off having me: at least that would not create the sort of pulp fiction associations Turow's name conjures up.

The premise is an interesting one, providing plenty of challenges and room for manouvering to an author. Henry has a rare disorder, Chrono-Impairment, which means he can't stay in any one time, but zooms up and down his life line whenever he's stressed, tired, stands up too quickly or sometimes quite randomly (the author likens the conditions to those which precede epilepsy). It isn't true time travel, as (a) he has no choice as to when he travels nor when to and (b) he is restricted to the period of his own life. His poor girlfriend/wife - she doesn't just need to worry about where he is but also when he is.

I've not got very far, but since its a group choice, I need to record my reactions as I read. So far, I have one continuity problem and one cringe. Henry was born in around 1963 and is following an ordinary life period, from which he departs at random times. What I don't get is his very first time - he's been to this big natural history museum, aged five, and longs to go back. So, that night, he does, as his first displacement from real time. That's fair enough. Now, later on Henry is 24 and obviously decides it would be good to hook up with his younger self and give him a bit of warning. Even setting aside his statement that he could not plan his destination, I still have a problem - why could the adult Henry not have time wooshed back to the young Henry's real time? Instead, we have two time wooshed Henry's turning up naked and starving in the museum at the same time. Minor quibble.

The cringe comes in when Clare meets Henry - now Clare is the woman we soon learn is Henry's love interest. Its real cute when she, aged 20, meets the real time Henry for the first time: she's had him in and out of her life 150 or more times at this point, they've dated, had sex, everything but it is his first encounter with her. So, she's completely comfortable with him but he's completely blown away:
And this astoundinly beautiful amber-haired tall slim girl [yeah, a touch clumsy] turns around and looks at me as if I'm her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously she knows me, and I don't know her. Lord only knows what I've said, done, or promised to this luminous creature...
But then the reverse has to happen as well: time woosh Henry has to have met Clare in her first time too. This happens when he is 36 or so, and she is just 6 years old:
She is young. She is oblivious; she is alone. She is still wearing her school unifrom, a hunter green jumper with a white blouse and knee socks with penny loafers...
Imagine that: after marrying a woman, with all the intimacies and desires that that might entail, you then meet her aged 6. Of course, he can use some of his knowledge of her to make a connection but the more he uses, the scarier it will be for her. Plus, he's naked and starving! I really hate to think what Nicholson Baker might have done with this scene: Niffenegger skates over some of the more obvious difficulties and has them make friends.

A Very Long Engagement

(Dir Jean-Paulle Jeunet, with Audrey Tatou and many others)

This is the guy who made that charming little movie, Amélie, and before that, Delicatessen, although this film inhabits a territory at some remove from Amélie. It is, however, clearly the work of a master stylist: A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous, even with the numerous scenes of front-line war. I’ve never been in a war, let alone the first world war, so I cannot really vouch for authenticity, but they were as convincing as any I have seen. As the bullets swarmed through and into the French troops, mowing them down, we were right there – seeing them strike home, hearing them go past our noses (actually, I thought these sounded just a little electronic). I was reminded a little of the fight scenes in Cold Mountain, with which this movie has more than a passing similarity.

Mathilde (Tatou – who I see is to play the lead female in the Da Vince Code) simply cannot believe that her man, Manech, was killed in the War. The evidence of his death is pretty compelling – not only does she receive a report of his death but also that, because the powers that be thought he had mutilated himself to avoid fighting, he (along with four others) had been thrown over the French front line into the no-mans-land between them and the Germans. The idea is that sooner rather than later either the French or the Germans will get them. Still, she plays these little games with herself; if her dog comes in before she’s called to dinner, Manech is still alive and so on. Her quest is to uncover the truth about Manech and to find him, if possible. There’s a gratuitous poignancy provided by the fact that she’s lame, which is no doubt to suggest that she won’t be able to get another man – it fell a bit flat for me. She is certainly a strong enough actress to play the part without that sort of gimmickry.

At the same time, Tina Lombardi is not only of the belief that the five men (which included her fellow) are dead but that her man’s death is to be avenged. So, she too is on a quest, to hunt down and kill the three or more men she holds responsible. Her view of the truth is that the men all received a presidential pardon but that the commander was so lazy and morally bankrupt, he had simply ignored orders.

These two quests ultimately lead us to the truth, and it is the gradual process of uncovering both falsehood and truth that provides the substance of this movie. Apart from a few brief pre-war scenes at the beginning, to identify the five men and make us care a little for them, the movie is mainly set in 1920, with flashbacks to the war scenes as they become clearer to Mathilde.

There is a seriousness to the movie, because it still seems to mourn the tremendous losses of the first world war and to condemn the less than noble commanders, but it does not stay in that mood. It is positively playful at times – the best example being the post-man who everyday cycles up to Mathilde’s family home with a Kramer-like flourish, spilling all of the gravel into her father’s garden. So, dad cobbles that area and it’s the post-man who’s in the garden. There’s lots of little elements like this one, which add colour and depth to the movie. And, of course, there is Mathilde’s own romantic vision which provides the key to the entire work.

Ah – I am not going mad – I was convinced that Jodie Foster was in some of the scenes, but that made no sense to me. It turns out that, yes, it was her as the lover of one of the soldiers.


After quite a drought in the Dunedin musical spectrum, I was faced with not two but three different possibilities on Friday night. At Arc, there was a new band, Chihuahua, with one of the fellows from Carriage H. Not that I ever heard Carriage H or there was any guarantee that Chihuahua would sound anything like them, but a friend had been raving about them. Even the Punkemon 2 gig sounded doable, what with Sommerset playing. But loyalty won out, and I went to the two-headed Renderer’s gig at Chicks. One critic has tried hard to classify them, saying they are “country garage death psych” or maybe “a distillation of gravedirt, whiskey and lamb’s blood”. When asked, I simply say they’re country goth, and fabulous with it.

It must be said that a gig at Chicks has benefits that no other venue can offer, as I can duck home for a drink or a pee between songs and if I truly don’t like what’s going on, can hang about at home for a bit. And the Chicks audience is such a strange mix – there is the small cadre of people who will turn up wherever the Renderers will play and at the opposite end of the spectrum, those who will be at Chicks because it’s a Friday – people from the port, most likely, wearing their white gumboots, trackpants and fisherman’s jersey. In between, there’s the largest group at all – those in opshop chic who have come out because there’s something arty going on at Chicks and, not just that, it’s the hometown genii of Brian and Maryrose Crook.

I have to apologise to the support act, Bridget Ellis – the noise was such that I couldn’t hear you and Chicks doesn’t offer much in terms of seating. Rather than standing about feeling uncomfortable, I went home and watched tele.

I wasn’t counting, but I suspect that Maryrose sang most of the songs. That reminds me – there is supposed to be a solo album by her floating around, so I must hunt it down. She is our answer to mid-career Marianne Faithful, although warmer and less fucked up, so it is no bad thing that she did most of the singing. Add in the guitars in the key of sombre and you have songs I just want to just crawl into and live in for a while. Here’s a classic example:

Right From Wrong

I went looking for you in the fields of my father
under skies blank and huge where the pain goes on forever
straight to the mountains leading your eye ever outwards
away from the truth and into a landscape of shimmering fragments
he told me to stay young for him
so I wasted away my food became poison
high on a wire I hear beasts in the darkness torturing others
licked by a fire that blackens and scours as onward it smoulders
I have lived forever to regret
to suffer inside till there's nothing left
because the past is a mire of filth that lives outside of every law
I don't know right from wrong anymore

But not all their music is slow and melancholic – there is their party song, which ends with “drink up, for tomorrow you die”.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Syrup (by Maxx Barry)

His second novel, Jennifer Government, has been flickering in and out of my consciousness over the past year or so, but it wasn't until Michele A'Court put it in her top five novels of 2004 that I thought to actually take a look at it. Since the library had none in, I had to make do with his earlier novel: I started reading it over my dinner, decided I should stop for the night at around 1 but within 30 minutes, decided bugger it, I want to finish.

It was that good. My initial reaction had been a "what the?" moment, as there's a whopping big disclaimer saying that "although I talk about Coke a lot, I know they'd never do anything I suggest in this book". Knowing what the book is about makes it sound less than interesting - I mean, there is a lot about marketing of Coca Cola and the dirty tactics of the marketing game. There is quite a lot of marketing-speak deployed, even with little marketing case studies - but, as the disclaimer had said, the book is a send up of marketing. So, he have the occasional section like this:

The first principle of marketing (okay, it’s not the first, but it doesn’t sound nearly as cool to say it’s the third) is this: perception is reality. You see, a long time ago, some academic came up with the idea that reality doesn’t actually exist. Or at least, if it does, no one can agree what it is. Because of perception.

Perception is the filter through which we view the world, and most of the time it’s a handy thing to have: it generalizes the world so we can deduce that a man who wears an Armani suit is rich, or that a man who wears an Armani suit and keeps saying, “Isn’t this some Armani suit,” is a rich asshole. But perception is a faulty mechanism. Perception is unreliable and easily distracted, subject to a thousand miscues and misinformation... like marketing. If anyone found a way to actually distinguish perception from reality, the entire marketing industry would crumble into the sea overnight.

Doesn't exactly sound promising. There's no way you'd think he'd turn it into one of the funniest books I've read for a while, although Barry's own description is that “Well, Syrup is a kind of comedy-romance-corporate-thriller." The book, however, hooked me in with the first words, although they are awfully precious:

1: Me, Me, Me

i have a dream

I want to be famous. Really famous.

I want to be so famous that movie stars hang out with me and talk about what a bummer their lives are. I want to beat up photographers who catch me in hotel lobbies with Winona Ryder. I want to be implicated in vicious rumors about Drew Barrymore’s sex parties...

So that really leaves just one option: to be very young, very cool and very, very rich. The great thing about this particular path to fame, Oprah and line-jumping at nightclubs is that it’s open to everyone. They say anyone can make it in this country, and it’s true: you can make it all the way to the top and a vacuous, drink-slurred lunch with Madonna. All you have to do is find something you’re good enough at to make a million dollars, and find it before you’re 25.

When I think about how simple it all is, I can’t understand why kids my age are so pessimistic.

Then he introduces the premise that the average adult adult has three million-dollar ideas every year and starts thinking about what his will be. First, he has to drop his name in favour of a top-of-mind one like Scat. The first million idea hits him almost immediately - and a theme is introduced - while Scat is a creative genius, he's bad on implementation. He has an idea for a new Cola, or really just the name for one - Fukk. Since perception is reality, it won't matter if it tastes just like another cola - perception is reality, right. But he can't sell his product by himself, which is where (a) Coca Cola comes in and (b) his poor implementation is his downfall. He's great on selling the idea to Coke, and thinks he's made when they agree to pay $3 mill for the trade mark. Until he realises he doesn't have a trade mark.

Two other characters are important - his ever silent flatmate, Sneaky Pete, who seems to have great success with the women despite his lack of conversation, and the person he introduces Scat to at Coke. She's beautiful, but there's something else that gets to Scat: her name is 6
See, you have to respect someone who really markets themselves well.

Some of us change our names to something crazy, zany and/or wacky... When you go to all that effort, and you see other people making a lot of effort for pretty pathetic results, you have to admire someone who really pulls it off.

So you see, when you strip it down, what I really felt for 6 was professional respect for a colleague.

Plus, okay, a deep desire to get naked with her.
Once he finds he has been screwed out of his trade mark, he has nothing to sell Coke, and you might think that's the end of things for Scat and Coke and Scat and 6. But the marketing game is a tough one, and it turns out she gets shafted and needs Scat's creativity to keep her place. The plot unfolds furiously from this point, in a (marketing) fight to the death between Scat/6 and Sneaky Pete, who has managed to secure himself as the golden boy within Coke. This first involves Scat in planning a marketing campaign for Coke without anyone within Coke knowing that's what he's doing, and I have to say, he comes up with a doozy! He's having dinner with 6 at this truly tragic restaurant, where the Coke is in a machine, and they're screwed - they have no ideas for the campaign. After a fight with the coke vending machine, he's got it:

Last year, 12 Americans lost their lives while attempting to steal from a Coke machine.
[Picure of a railway station at night, with a Coke machine fallen on its side. There's a guy's arm sticking out from underneath it.]
Wouldn't you die for a Coke?
Of course, they are yet again outwitted by Sneaky Pete, which takes us to the final showdown. Noticed how there are no Coke ads on TV these days? That's because endorsements and product placement are far more important. So, the logical next step is to have Coke make a movie as a marketing vehicle. Sneaky Pete has made one, with millions of dollars, several months, Brad Pitt, Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow but the marketing boss is worried that he'll lose his job, so brings in Scat and 6 to make another, better one - with about a week and $10,000 to do so! At every step, they find that Sneaky Pete is in their way, making it impossible.

Oh, and of course, there's a romance plot - Scat is hopelessly in love with 6 but is she simply using him? She is a lesbian, after all. Or is she? Perception is reality.

Under the high jinks, there are a couple of economic theories being played with and contrasted. Fairly obviously, there's the micro-micro theory that firms are not interested in profit maximisation, rather those who run the firms are seeking to maximise their own self interest. Sneaky Pete is a classic illustration - his continued sabotage of Scat and 6's work is not good for the company as a while, but it suits his purposes. But, so long as everyone competes fairly, then it is good for workers to compete against each other - because the firm is just another market, and competition produces the best outcomes for the market. Or does it - is co-operation better, because it produces important synergies - as in Scat's creative talent being married to 6's ability to get things done?

Given all this marketing and economic stuff, it is a major surprise that the book is both very funny and full of dramatic tension - particularly as Cat and 6 get closer to deadline with their movie and find more and more obstacles in their way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Snatch (DVD)

(Dir Guy Ritchie, with Brad Pitt and many many others)

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was, from memory, a great film - loosely based on the caper, but taking the piss and providing more twists and turns than the road to Karamea. I had a feeling that critics had said that Snatch was bollocks, even Sir Richard Attenborough had a go, saying it was "crap" and revelling in the "pornography of violence" (he's obviously not seen a Tarantino flick): while it may not have moved on far from Lock Stock, it was a great wee movie to watch, lots of action and very playful. The "snatch" in question is of a humungous diamond, 84 carat. It is stolen by 4 guys dressed up as Hasidic Jews - big beards and old school black suits, kind of like the way I wish I could look every day.

The original owners of the diamond seem to just accept its theft - certainly, there are no police or private detectives involved in this movie. Instead, the diamond is stolen from the thieves who, naturally, want it back. I have to confess that there were so many people involved in the movie, it was a bit hard to work out who was working for whom. When no-one had any kind of moral claim to the diamond, it doesn't really matter that much - there are no "goodies" at all in this movie. I do know that Brick Top was the biggest, baddest man so it was a very bad move for Tyrone and co to hold up his bookie office to get the diamond off Frankie Four Fingers. So, there was lots of action revolving around the diamond as it passed from crook to crook until the final hilarious scene.

There was also boxing (which provided a very strange echo of the book I have read most recently, James Ellroy's Black Dahlia), rigged of course. Oh, and a caravan: Turkish and Tommy decide they need to buy a caravan, so go off with their boxer, Beautiful, to the local Pikey (a not so kind term for Irish gypsies) encampment. Beautiful gets into a scrap with a hothead, Micky (Pitt) and is no longer fit to fight, which puts Turkish and Tommy in the shit. So, Micky comes in as their sub - the first time I've seen Pitt play a role that I have really enjoy. He's great as this incomprehensible wordy hotheaded maudlin Pikey - his only desire is to get a really nice caravan for his old mum.

Monday, January 24, 2005

TV Week

We're nearing the end of the second series of Teachers: in fact, I feared that last weeks episode was the last of the series, because it provided a logical stopping point, what with the loss of its central character and all. I guess in TV land they want to build up momentum again so that viewers are hooked in to the next series. It was a pretty tough episode for me to watch, because of its correspondence to stuff going on in my life. No, not the bit where Jenny decides that she's really bored with Alec, gets absolutely plastered, falls out of bed and dumps him. But the conversations that Susan and Simon were having, about circling about people, staying single so a good match can be had but then getting increasingly desperate, to the point that you just settle for whatever happens to be left, now they got to me. It might be my future: sure, my imagination and heart are currently pretty much taken over by someone completely out of my reach and that insulates me from any kind of desperate action, but what happens when the spell wears off? And being what someone else settles for doesn't sound like a recipe for happiness either. Grant me the strength to hold out against the pain.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Simon looks around him, at his job and the thought of doing that for ever. He can't handle it. (Hello!) His reaction was rather extreme, and naive: he simply bought a ticket to South America for the following day, without any thought for giving notice, how his colleagues might cope, the fact that Claire had taken a chance on him only a matter of months earlier by giving him a permanent job. Good on him for getting out of the rut, that whole idea of just buying a one way ticket out of here hasn't exactly gone away for me either, but he could have been a little more caring - what was the urgency? He's going to have an experience and a half if he actually gets to South America (I have this strange memory of him being back at School and not having been anywhere at all). Thoughts of cutting and running haven't been helped by the Australasian Bus & Coach magazine information that the common bus driver is paid not a whole lot less than I am, and I get to keep any intellectual ability I mightm have to myself.

Moving along, I had to laugh at Pio's "intrepid" journey to India - it looked pretty cushy to me, and he only went to the highly touristy areas in the North West. His finishing philosophical statement about India being a life changing experience seemed like a load of bollocks, what with him only being there 12 days and looked after by a camera crew and guides all the way. Still, it was interesting, as he went mostly to places I didn't get to, and the places he did go to, had the same reaction as me. His only comment on Allehabad was that it was the oldest city in India, then he was out of there so obviously he had trouble finding anytihing interesting about the place too. What did look very good was his trip down the river to Varanasi, two days in a tiny boat. Watching him eat the curry on the river bank made me long to return. So too did Pushkar: he found it to be the first place where he could get some peace and quiet, something that was not easy to find in India.

Three things struck me about this week's Amazing Race, which went from Corsica to Ethiopia. Despite all their screaming and horrible antics throughout the race, John and Victoria actually accepted their departure with grace (and, it must be said, they were over the top stupid when it came to reading their instructions so badly they didn't realise they had to take two donkeys - maybe it was their way of bowing out?). St George's Church looks really interesting - it is carved out of a huge underground rock, so that its roof is at ground level. Hayden struck me as both very cool and cute.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell)

My first encounter with this author was in a Christchurch Youth Hostel: I could not sleep so went down to the small collection of books available for exchange. Ghostwritten looked the newest, so I started reading, and read some more, and then some more – I got through most of the 450 pages in a single night and, I must confess, stole the book when I left. It was nine connected stories, about different narrators in different places (such as a young record store worker clerk in Tokyo, a Hong Kong based expat investment banker and, the one that is still most clear in my mind, an old noodle seller stuck half way up a holy mountain in China) with something to connect one to the other. Over on Salon, Laura Miller has described the underlying thread as “a somewhat half-baked scenario involving a manmade super-intelligence grappling with humanity's self-destructive tendencies”. She criticised the segments for bringing to mind other writers (Murakami and Hornby in particular), but I wonder if that was not his point.

Her final comment is that it was the sort of book an eccentric genius with a fiercely individual vision would write, but that Mitchell had not quite got there, but he might: “It may be bubble-gum DeLillo, but it does prove one thing: under-ripe maximalism beats under ripe minimalism any day of the week”.

In the meantime, he has written Number9Dream, a book which somehow came and went without me ever buying a copy. That one follows a single young fellow in search of his father (albeit through a disjointed world) and is “flawed but stylish” according to the Guardian.

Before getting to Cloud Atlas, there is one other thing to say about Laura Miller’s review: she says that in the late 1990’s, any new writer would take on the task of writing “a tale of family distress -- divorce, say, or cancer -- told in stoic, stripped-down prose that shied away from any hint of excess” and it was against that background that Mitchell introduced his works. In this, he seems to have jumped back 70 odd years: lots of realistic novels were being written, and Mitchell’s acknowledged hero, Thornton Wilder, came along to disrupt that trend with the Cabala and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which uses five narrators of the same event to illustrate that there can be no realism).

So, in 2004, Cloud Atlas came onto the scene and was hotly tipped to win the Booker Prize (it did not – that honour went to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty). Mitchell has retained the style and central concern of Ghostwritten – mankind’s self destructive behaviour. He uses six narrators, five of whom tell half their story in the first five chapters, then there is the central chapter followed by the conclusion of the stories of the other five. Each narrator is connected: the first, Adam Ewings, writes a diary which is then found by the second, Robert Frobisher: he composes some music which the third narrator has a great desire to hear. She tracks down a copy and goes to the music store to get it – I love her experience when she gets there:

The music in the Lost Chord Music Store subsumes all thoughts of Spyglass, Sixsmith, Sachs and Grimaldi. The sound is pristine, river like, spectral, hypnotic…intimately familiar. Luisa stands, entranced, as if living in a stream of time. ‘I know this music’, she tells the store clerk, who eventually asks if she is okay. ‘What the hell is it?’

‘I’m sorry, it’s a customer order, not for sale. I shouldn’t really be playing it.’

‘Oh.’ First things first. ‘I phoned last week. My name’s Rey, Luisa Rey. You said you could find an obscure recording for me by Robert Frobisher, called Cloud Atlas Sextet. But forget that for a moment. I have to own this music too. I have to. You know what its like.’

Of course, she is listening to the very music she has gone in to purchase. The Guardian has noted that Mitchell’s stories and techniques make him “sound an annoyingly tricksy writer, and it's true that his critics have him down as a bit of a clever clogs, too ambitious for his own good”, but Mitchell himself has pre-empted that criticism. He has Frobisher say of his Cloud Atlas Sextet:

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until its finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the 1st thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep, even if J. is in my bed. She should understand the artist lives in two worlds.

Another comment from Cavendish is:

As an experienced editor I disapprove of backflashes, foreshadowings and tricksy devices, they belong in the 1980's with MA's in Postmodernism and Chaos Theory.

Each of the narrators has his or her “own language of key, scale and colour”, appropriate to the time and character involved. So, for example, Ewing’s diary is consciously in the style of Melville because it is a diary of a maritime adventure in the mid 19th century. As we move into the future, Mitchell’s playing with the language becomes more interesting. Sonmi ~ 451 is a “fabricant”, a cloned being designed purely to serve and genomed to have no linguistic ability beyond that needed to work at the 22nd century answer to McDonalds. She is a special case, however: she undergoes ascension and has to pass as a pureblood, which involves a mastery of the contemporary language. Its main features seems to be that many of today’s brands have taken over as descriptive of entire product lines – fords and sonys prevail – and there is some simplification of the spelling rules.

Finally, we are in some remote valley in “Ha-Why” – the language has undergone a severe shift but its meaning is still obvious and it has a curious charm. Zachry tells the story of his first child:

Goaters had a spesh rep’tation for hornyin’ up the girls. See, if a girl got a throb for a goater she could just follow our whistlin’ to where no’un was, an’ we’d just do it under the sky an’ no’un see ‘cept the goats, an’ goats never say nothin’ to Old Ma yibber. I planted my first babbit up Jayjo… I was twelve, Jayjo’d got a firm’n’eager body an’ laughed, twirly an’ crazy with love we both was, yay…

This ain’t a smilesome yarnie, but … these is the mem’ries what are minnowin’ out. The babbit’d got no mouth, nay, no nose-holes neither… Its eyes never opened, it just felt the warm of its pa’s hands on its back, turned bad colours, stopped kickin’ an’ died.

I think my favourite bit from Zachry’s tale is after he volunteered to accompany Meronym, an outlander, up to the highest peak on the island: it was believed that “Old Georgie”, the devil, lived up there and no-one would ever return with their soul. So, he’s a bit of a hero at this point, and the trip was certainly arduous, taking about a week, during which he does encounter the devil. Here’s his return home:

Old Ma Yibber spread the news that the Zachry what came down off Mauna Kea weren’t the same Zachry what’d gone up an’ true ‘nuff I s’pose, there aint no journey what don’t change you some. My cuz Kobbery ‘fessed that mas’n’pas thru the Nine Valleys was warnin’ their daughters ‘gainst frolickin’ with Zachry o’ Bailey’s ‘cos they reck’ned I must o’ bis’nessed with Old Georgie to ‘scape that shrieky place with my soul still in my skull, an’ tho’ that weren’t the hole true, it weren’t the hole wrong. Jonas’n’Sussy didn’t mick with me like they once did. But Ma got weepy to see us home and hugged me, My little Zachaman, an’ my goats was gladsome…

I just love that: “my goats was gladsome”.

Behind all of these stories is an indictment of humankind: because of mankind’s will to power, to violence and its greed, we are doomed. Simple as that, really. Somni ~ 451:

It is a cycle as old as tribalism. In the beginning there is ignorance. Ignorance engenders fear. Fear engenders hatred, and hatred engenders violence. Viloence breeds further violence until the only law is whatever is willed by the most powerful.

Or, as someone says to Frobisher:

‘Another was is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions and the borders of states…. The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever it shall be. War, Robert, is one of humanity’s two eternal companions.’
So, I asked, what was the other?
The reduction ad absurdum of MD’s view, I argued, was that science devises ever bloodier means of war until humanity’s powers of destruction overcomes our powers of creation and our civilization drives itself to extinction. ‘Precisely. Our will to power, our science, and those v. faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Homo Sapiens…

Saturday, January 15, 2005

TV Week

I wish I had seen a little more of Peter Elliot’s trip around the top of the South Island and down the West Coast, retracing the path taken by Charles Heaphy and Thomas Brunner. Oh well, Heaphy’s diaries have apparently been published so I’ll dig them out at some stage. Maybe there will be a video for sale. The little bit I did see was around where I spent my New Year’s with the seal family. Unlike me, he was right down on the water line - an extremely strenuous trip faced him to get round to Karamea with the tides only giving a limited window of opportunity. Instead, I was watching the Great Race, I’m not sure what series we are seeing, but they were in Hungary and it featured some of the grossest TV I’ve seen for a while. As one of their challenges, the teams had to eat 24 ounces of a hot Hungarian soup. One chick would eat a few bites and then have a spit - at least she used the floor for that purpose. Worse was the guy who confessed to having put about 6 ounces of vomit back into the soup and eating THAT up. Nice. Otherwise, I do quite like watching this, although I haven’t seen it for about five weeks and the pair I thought was nice have been eliminated in the meantime.

My only serious watching on Tuesday was good old Teachers - the one where Susan gets to hold the baby of one of the pupils and is for a while in love with the idea of having one of her own. Of course, Kurt and Bryan are all over themselves to father it and even Simon volunteers. Against this background, there was a look at the idea over whether parents have any part to play in how kids turn out or whether its just a giant crapshoot. It was learning that it was a crapshoot that meant Susan abandoned the idea.

I really had not planned to watch it, but once the Simple Life Road Trip came on, I found it hard not to. I think that there was somehow just a little more to them than in the last series. The Practice I did plan to see - its only the second one I have seen since they last Bobby Donnell and gained Alan Shaw (James Spader). It’s a very different show now, with more than a few traces of the eccentricity that were in Ally McBeal. Bobby shared one characteristic with my former boss - an absolute sense that the game of lawyering had to be played with integrity and by the rules. As a result, there was a moral centre to the show against which we could assess the various happenings.

For Shaw, it is the result that matters, no matter how you get it. He's a bit like Richard Fish from Ally McBeal. Last week, his firm was suing some company for a client - he visited that company’s lawyer pretending to be an officer of the company and directed a settlement of the case. Eleanour was all worried about his self destructive behaviour, but that was nothing compared to tonight’s exploits. He had two clients - one was a woman whose husband had shot himself. Her claim was against the manufacturer of his anti-depressants, alleging that they had caused him to become violent and kill himself. Alan had no medical evidence at all, no offer on the table, but a great sympathy for the client. So, he breaks into the opposing lawyer’s computer and finds there was a letter that indicated some knowledge by the drug company that their drug was dodge. Highly privileged but he pretends it was given to him in discovery as a strategy to get a settlement. Here’s where he got real clever: rather than settling the claim against the drug company (which might lead to bad publicity) he “sold” the letter to it for a vast sum and took a non-suit.

The story of the other client revolved around a knife he had hidden in Shaw’s office, which might prove he murdered someone but if the Police didn’t have it, they were stuffed. Shaw refused to look for the knife so he could maintain a stance of not knowing it was there or not, but that led to the cops searching the entire law firm, much to the annoyance of his bosses. When Eugene Young asks Alan what should be done with him, Alan accepts that he is a liability for the firm but then hands over his $2 million fee earnt that day: I think his job is safe.

I guess this is a natural sort of progression for the Practice, as it has been portraying the decline in standards in defense counsel, then the prosecutors, for a while. Now it is the legal system itself on trial - technical rules of evidence would have let the drug company go free and the alleged murderer shouldn’t really have been allowed to live until his mid 30’s without having psychiatric treatment earlier, given that his mother said he’d been mad as a snake since he was 3.

Some downright scary TV while I was watching Blue Heelers - over on TV3 there was a fully grown woman in Florida who, thanks to extreme corsetry, had managed a 12 inch waist. Doctors "just scare me" so she had no interest in knowing about the medical risks. Then there were the thousands in Hyderabad who treat asthma by swallowing a live fish, marinated in spices, in the belief that the flapping of the fish will dislodge the asthma. To complete a big night of watching TV, I found myself at some wierd time in the morning unable to sleep and watching a cool science-based Survivor type programme called Rough Science. Five scientists are given assigned tasks - such as making a Carbon Dioxide filter and testing mechanism from random things found in a disused mine. Apparently in series three, they're in New Zealand.

One other very late night viewing episode saw me watching the first two programmes of the first series of Australian Idol. Not surprising I suppose as I watched almost all of the second series of American Idol when they repeated it at around 2:00 a.m. Saturdays, but I was surprised by how many of the performers touched me (although it has to be said that some were absolute crap, and two had the most astonishingly bad voices that they probably have career possibilities in the circus).

Oh, and thanks TV One. Why wait until the week after I buy the DVD of Six Feet Under (Series One) to start showing it right from the beginning again? And in my favourite time for watching TV?

About Schmidt (DVD)

(Dir Alexander Payne, with Jack Nicholson (and no-one else really, as his character is so dominant))

This is a troubling film. I really don't know why it was made, because it is so far removed from Louis Begley's book. The only three points of contact between the two is that there is an old man who retires, his wife dies shortly thereafter and he has problems getting on with his daughter (Hope Davis). Even the name is changed: in the book, he is called Schmidt throughout whereas he goes by his first name, Warren, in the movie.

In the book, Schmidt is a fairly formidable lawyer, the kind of fellow Louis Auchnicloss wrote about. His daughter has chosen to marry a lawyer from within her dad's firm, which is distasteful to him on two levels: the fellow is a Jew and is the next generation, someone who will usurp his place in the hierarchy. So, this opens up plenty of scope for self-recognition and questioning in the book: is Scmidt an anti-semite? But his best friend is a Jew! Is he really feared and disliked by all of his colleagues? What of his relationship with his daughter? Is there a struggle between them, in which he struggles to maintain his assets from her clutches and indeed struggles to maintain any credibility in her eyes? The movie strips away all of these nuances and oversimplifies it, by having the daughter getting hooked up with a no-hoper (Dermott Mulroney).

It also has him running away from everything by taking off in a stonking big motorhome and then having a final showdown/conciliation with his daughter and her new inlaws. In the book, he stays in his big house and reflects on his relationship with his late wife (which was characterised by her distaste for physical contact) and the one affair he had . Unbelievably, he then has an affair with a beautiful latino waitress in his local diner, who has a loser boyfriend. Then, when he takes a fall, he finds himself dependent upon that "loser" boyfriend who has taken over as general handyman and man of all sorts around the house.

That would have made for an interesting movie, one which it would not have been impossible to make. Instead, we get this. I know others have rated it highly. I think the book got in the way for me. I do agree with them about the quality of Nicholson's performance, and the fact that we are so used to seeing him in powerful roles adds an extra dimension to see him playing such a lost character.

Gosford Park (DVD)

(Dir Robert Altman, with Kelly McDonald, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Fry, Ryan Phillipe, Michael Gambon...)

I really have no idea what inspired me to pick this one off the shelf, it was just sitting there and I grabbed it with no idea what the storyline might be, who was in it or even that Altman was the director. As it started, I had not even read the cover blurb, because the writing was too small, so I was totally reliant upon the film telling its own story. This is, of course, what a film should be able to do but how often do we see a movie with no conception as to what it is about?

So, it took a while for all the characters to solidify - there was a house party in a classic British Big House set in 1932, with the ladies leaving the gents after dinner, shooting in the morning and everyone trundling around in Rolls Royces. We also see all the servants and how their pecking order and, indeed, their very name, reflects that of their employer. So the modest Mary Maceachran (McDonald) had to take precedence over more pushy servants because Lady Constance Trentham outranked the other visitors.

For the first hour or so of the movie, there is very little plot development - rather the relationships, characterisations and tensions between characters are being made clear. Henry Denton (Phillipe), servant of the American film maker tries it on unsuccessfully with Mary and then more successfully with the Lady of the household. Its possible he was also willing to provide sexual favours for his boss. Lady Constance is financially dependent upon Sir William, the master of the house, as is one of the young fellows floating about. He is a perrenial womaniser, is having a thing with Elsie the Housemaid and has a pretty sordid sexual past, having fathered multiple children who he then cast into an orphanage. And so on. Care is taken to show everyone is in their particular place - I don't know how often various of the servants were told that they "shouldn't be here" i.e. in places visible to the gentry. A nice touch was provided when the guests are all listening to some famous singer quite literally singing for his supper: all the various servants are listening in behind the scenes, probably more avidly than the guests.

But after an hour, things start to crack open. When his wife is critical of Sir William at dinner, Elsie springs to his defence, making it clear to everyone that something unwholesome is going on. Then Henry Denton turns out not to be who he claimed to be. Most importantly, Sir William is stabbed, prompting the entry of Stephen Fry as the bumbling Police Inspector. I was wondering why he was such an obviously bad policeman, but the reason became clear: the truth of who murdered Sir William will never be officially known. Certainly there was no shortage of potential murderers and, indeed, two people had a go at killing him.

Throughout, the key character is Mary. She learns things from the servants and passes it to her employer and in turn learns things from her employer. As a result, she is able to put two and two together and so work out not just who the two "killers" were, why they did and give them both a form of absolution. Its funny, as I was watching her, I was trying to work out who the actress playing her was - the name Kelly McDonald meant nothing to me. It turns out I've seen her in two other roles (Elizabeth and Trainspotting - in which she plays the schoolgirl who seduced Renton).

As the film unfolded, there was a humourous little sideshow - the American film maker (Weissman) was on the phone to his people in California about the details of his latest film, featuring a murder in a Big House, where one of the valets (NOT the butler) did it. So, he is raving on about the details of this murder, oblivious to the fact that there is a real life one surrounding him.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Map of Another Town (by MFK Fisher)

There are those who say that Mary-Francis Fisher is the greatest prose writer of the 20th century (WH Auden, no less) and her name came more and more into my radar as I read people like Julia Child (another fan) and Jeffrey Steingarten. Unfortunately, her works are out of print and my local library offered slim pickings when I went looking for her books: she's a popular writer it seems, as all but two of her books were out. One that was available was a collection of "odd and old receipts to assuage the ills of man and beast" which had no appeal, being "a book of "comforting remedies for all kinds of ailments, from headache to mange". I'm not even sure what mange is, but have no interest in finding out.

The other
the other was her account of living in Aix (in Provence, in France) during the mid 1950's and then again in 1960 - 61 with her two daughters, Map of Another Town. The title is derived from the fact that no matter the physical geography of a place, every visitor will have imprinted upon them their own very specific map which reflects their personal experience of a place and, no doubt, their own tastes. So, the writing process for Fisher was both a grappling with her own identity and a record of her personal map of Aix - I guess this will be true of most good travel writing. Given her reputation as a gastronome, I was surprised to find that there was no information at all about cooking: indeed, she seems to have lived in a couple of genteel boarding establishments and a hotel and only cooked about a third of the meals she ate, without making any mention of them at all.

Of course, there was talk of food, and domestic relations within her various abodes and within the two cafes in Aix she considered worth visiting. After reading of the service levels in these cafes, I was briefly inspired to seek out the cafes in Dunedin which might be our analogues - perhaps Nova Cafe in the Octagon has the most similar style and feel to a French cafe from the 1950's. Other preoccupations were her health and the near impossibility of finding a good trustworthy doctor, Gypsies and "mendicants", the local art (Aix is the home town of Cezanne) and intellectual scene - the sort of things that an intelligent well bred American woman of around 50 trying to find her cultural niche would be looking at. That makes her focus at least two, if not three, removes from any focus I myself might have, were I to go there. Although I have no doubt I too would take an interest in the local cafe scene, and the university and book shops, she reports on the place as it was 40 - 50 years ago. Having said that, one of the cafes - Deux Garcons - was established in 1792 and is apparently still going strong. Such longevity is incomprehensible to an inhabitant of a country which hasn't even been around that long! Her other cafe, the Glacier, is still there as well.

She describes both in the chapter "The Two Havens":
In Aix, and I presume in every other respectable town of France, both great and small, cafes are known by the company they keep, and in one way or another the towns are known by their cafes. For most of this century Aix has been for itself and its visitors the Deux Garcons, the Cafe of the Two Waiters. About 1750 it was a chess and checkers club for gentlemen ... which they entered through the rear door ... to still any rumours of commercialism; and now respectable citizens, students who one day will be the same, and tourists both ordinary and extraordinary make it, still, their club in their various well behaved ways...

Inside the main room, there is an ornate gaslight in each corner. They are kept in working order, and like everything else they are well dusted. It is because of a city ordinance: every public gathering place must be prepared to illuminate itself adequately in case of no matter what kind of blackout of electricity. It could be a riot, a strike, an assassination, a prank, one is informed with a shrug. This tacit recognition of any good cafe's tinderbox subnature is generally ignored, except about twice a years when new students ... serpentiine through all the cafes on the Cours, bellowing in doggedly virile camaraderie...
And so she goes on for several pages, describing the cafe and telling a couple of anecdotes about the place, revealing that it was the kind of place where you could go every day for six months without being acknowledged as a regular or knowing anything about the people who work there. Mind you, in the three years or so she went there, she finally did get through those barriers. It is this sort of thing that makes this book quite different from other travel books, as it concentrates on the day to day and, indeed, there is very little movement at all. But she is very clever, and I get why some might claim her as the finest prose writer etc, because she writes very well and provides lots of little segments like this one:
The first landlady in my life happened as swiftly and as irrevocably as a bullet's flight: I went to the students' office at the University of Dijon, the small elderly secretary gave me a list of boardinghouses, I walked two hundred feet down the first street on the right, rang a doorbell, and became part of a household for two shaking and making years of my life.

It was very different, the last time, in 1954.

I went to Aix for six weeks or at most three months. I stayed well over three years, in two or three periods, and partly it was because of Mme Lanes. I found her in a roundabout way, not at all bulletlike.

In my first interview with her she taught me the French meaning of the word 'neurasthenic', which American friends in psychiatric circles frown upon, so that I am careful not to use it anywhere but in Aix....
Oh, and my last quote is this great one about the Lanes family cat:
They were very handsome big cats, always lazy except when Minet would yowl for a night or two of freedom. This always excited Henriette [the daughter of the household] and the maids, who obviously felt more desirable in an atavistic way at the direct approach to sex of the tom. He would pace in front of the wide windows that opened into the garden far below, and then, practiced as he was, he would station himself by the carved wooden door to the apartment and at the right moment evade every effort to catch or chase him, and streak down the great stone staircase and into the staid street. In a few days, he would return, thin and weary, and revert to his cushion and his voluptuous naps.

This blatant maleness, a never ending titillation to the younger females of the house, interested neither Madame nor Louloute the other cat, and they seemed oddly free and happy when Minet was on the tiles.
There is another book, A Considerable Town, which I will no doubt read to see how she accounts for
Marseille (which I have actually visited). Hopefully, I will also get to read some of her acclaimed food writing.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

City of God (DVD)

(Dir Fernando Mierelles)

I can't think of a less appropriate name for the setting of this movie, the favelas or slums of Rio De Janeiro, which is based on the real history of the place. Through to the 1960's the police had control, but the police themselves were out of control - they tended to lord it over the City of God and victimise its inhabitants. Then they lost their power, as the result of a mistake by the powers that be. They had taken a handful of political prisoners, intellectuals, and thrown them into prison with about 60 violent (i.e. normal) criminals in the belief that they'd be beaten up and suppressed. Instead, the handful dominated and made converts of the other criminals - they all went back to the City of God and started up drug running operations as a means of obtaining peace and prosperity. This worked for a while, as the corrupt Police became scared to come in, but then tensions arose between various factions. This is where the film picks up the story.

So, what we have is a number of areas within the City of God, each run by a seperate drug "lord" (teenagers, according to the movie). Li'l Dice is about 12 or 13 at this stage - he comes up with this great plan for a group of older boys he hangs out with to hold up a motel used for prostitution. The problem is, they think he's too young to be involved and have him stand guard. He gets bored, gives the signal that the cops are on the way, then goes in and pretty much kills everyone in sight. He's 12, right, and laughing with maniacal glee - one of the most shocking scenes in the movie. We don't see much of what happens in the meantime, but on his 18th birthday, he decides to take over as boss of the entire City of God, killing off all opposition save one, who he can use and is a kind of mate. Of course, that one ends up being the enemy, and the latter part of the movie becomes a pitched battle between Li'l Dice and Carrot and their respective gangs. As Li'l Dice has ripped off the police over a deal for guns, they get involved as well.

This is a hugely violent movie, with scores of dead bodies left in the trail of the gang wars. The most horrifying thing was how young all the players were, I doubt there was anyone over 20 and there was a new generation of gang coming through, the Runts. We've probably all heard of gang initiations: in this movie, we see a scene in which two young kids are given the choice of being shot in the hand or the foot, then a fellow of about 14 being told to pick one and kill him as a form of induction. Unlike a violent movie by, say Tarantino, where we are very aware that it is staged, this one had a feeling of immediacy, as if everything was actually happening as we saw it. So, top marks for the cinematography and the acting, despite the fact that many of the "actors" were not.

The other storyline was that of Rocket, a young fellow the same age as Li'l Dice, whose brother was one of those who held up the motel. So, being a hoodlum was an obvious possible career choice for him, but he wanted something else. Pure luck inteverned, so that he got a break: he met his hero, the photographer of the local paper. Then it happened again - he was picked up by Li'l Dice to take some photos and by a mix up, his photos made it to the front page of the newspaper. So, his function is really as narrator of what's happening, and has a pretty blessed existence - he photographs throughout the final showdown without ever being caught up in it.

Apparently, the whole idea of the City of Gods and the other favelas was a social experiment, to put the underclass out of sight (I know Indira Ghandi did much the same in India, just as recounted in Rohinton Mistry's fabulous A Fine Balance). Thanks in particular to this movie, there have been attampts at social reforms, to try and clean up some of the problems portrayed in it. I have no idea how successful these moves have been but won't be holding my breath.

Big Fish (DVD)

(Dir Tim Burton, with a large cast including Ewan McGregor, Danny De Vito, Billy Crudup, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi and Albert Finney - based on a series of short stories by Daniel Wallace)

What a wonderful film. My friend Kate said I'd enjoy it, although I really can't remember any of the references she's been throwing to the movie since she saw it. As it started to unwind, I started to think of something I said at my father's funeral, about how hard it is for any child to know their parent as a person, and not just "mum" or "dad" - this movie is clearly playing with that idea, not helped by the fact that the son William (Crudup) is quite a literal fellow whereas Dad Edward Bloom (McGregor and Finney) is a spinner of stories about his life. So William is quite concerned to know who his father actually is, before his imminent death. I was reminded of About Schmidt, although there the perspective was from the father who was competely bored with his humourless unimaginative son - here, it is the other way round, with the son getting a bit pissed off with the father he can't pin down to any one truth. (In a strange parallel, Jack Nicholson, who played Scmidt in the very strange film adaption of Louis Begley's book was in comtemplation as playing Edward Bloom when Spielberg was thinking of making the movie.)

So, the movie is basically a telling of dad's great stories about his life, played out by McGregor, and then cutting back to the present. One thing that keeps Dad going is the knowledge of how he is going to die, as seen in the eyes of the old witch of his home town, so that otherwise life threatening experiences can be taken on because "that's not how I'm going to die". Dad's stories start with him being a sporting hero in multiple codes, a friend of the giant Karl
(played by an actuall 7' 8" tall man), visitor to and saviour of a mythical town called Spectra, svengali of a pair of conjoined twins... And then there's the love story - while visiting the circus, he sees the girl he decides he is going to marry, and does a deal with the ringmaster (De Vito) that in return for working, he'd be given a clue to the girl's identity every month. I seriously did not trust his clues as he gave them out ("she likes daffodils") but if the stories told by Edward are true, the clues worked out - he uses a huge field of daffodils to help him woo Sandra.

By the end of the movie, I doubt any watcher could really tell what was supposed to be real and what was story - except that it does seem true that Edward was not at William's birth, because he was in Wichita. As the doctor says, when faced with the boring truth and the great story Edward weaves about the birth, he prefers the story. The film operates in the whimsical land of fantasy and spectacle, and yet some of it has to be true: every single character Edward mentions actually exists, and most come to his funeral. One great thing that happens is that William seems to finally get clued in to the old man's way of being, and gets to tell his own invented story of how Dad dies (or is transformed into a big fish that gets away).

Friday, January 07, 2005


After leaving my little seal family, I headed west, as west as the road permits at the top of the South Island. A lot further than I thought possible to be honest - as far as a little place called Anatori, via the marvellous Whanganui inlet, which is a little harbour surrounded by forest and made into a marine park, so there's no killing of any of the marine life nor any jetboating, waterskiiing - very tranquil. Most surprisingly, I was driving through the "settled area" of Mangarakau, we're talking about 50 k west of Collingwood, over narrow corrugated gravel roads with virtually no sign of human habitation, and see the Nugget Cafe. Not only was the existence of a cafe such a surpise in such a remote area, but it was open for lunch on New Year's Day. They've been going a full five years now, only marginally busier than my planned Sahara Desert Canoe Hire business, but because their overheads are low, they can run it on a pittance. Nice.

After getting to the West Coast it only seemed logical to then complete the pincer movement and drive round to Karamea, which is pretty much the last settlement as you come north of Westport. I actually have a friend there completing a musical project, albeit in some remote DOC hut, so I had some vague idea that I'd run into her. Heading back from Anatori, I had the best coffee of the entire trip at the Court cafe in Collingwood, a brilliant burger from Golden Fries in Takaka and then spent the night on the top of Takaka Hill, waking to a brilliant view of Tasman Bay and the coastline. Nights like this just prove the point of having Webster - after all, it was my envy of everyone in Takaka two years ago with a van, and the flexibility that offered them, that inspired me to get one.

It took all of Sunday to get to Karamea, despite an early start. Speed was compromised by the need for coffee at Hot Mammas in Motueka, the need for a plate of panfried Scallops with chili glaze over green salad at Muses and, of course, another trip to Hot Mamas - Hannah Howes (who I have elsewhere noted that I owe $5 to) was supposedly singing at lunchtime. Either she has a strange concept of when lunch is or had cancelled - she'd not shown up by 1:30. Then a quick visit in to the Nelson Lakes was slowed by my being hailed as I walked across the car park - can't seem to get away from my book club colleagues! By the time I hit Westport, I was hungry again, but very unwilling to pay $25 for dinner, which seemed to be my only real option, until I noticed just how many people were milling around the chinese takeaway - it was bloody good food. One oddity of the place is that they don't do much in the way of fish and chips.

So, finally I was set to hit Karamea - only 98 k north, so a quick run. Hah! The Takaka Hill is a mere bump in the road compared with the Karamea Bluff, 25 k of road that wends up, around and then down. Some of the left turns snaked up so steeply that they had Webster gasping for breath, then the road had so many turns you'd swear it had been mapped by someone having an epileptic fit. But it was beautiful, all that could be seen were bush covered ridges running off in all directions. I might have stayed in the hills, but the only parking spot was nabbed by a fellow with a caravan.

Karamea was achieved finally at around 10:00, and what a letdown - there's no charm to the place, just a couple of shops and pubs.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos

(by Natacha Du Pont De Bie)

I liked the opening disclaimer:
I'm not a chef and I'm not a journalist, I'm just a greedy romantic...

While others are lying comatose on the beach or cycling up mountains revelling in the agony as their lungs become pods of pain, I'll be down at the local market, elbow deep in produce... Like a mad person, I'll get up at six in the morning to photograph exotic fruit displays whilst snacking on local fast food delights, or watch women walking to market with bowls of live fish on their heads. And I'll trek for hours, and I mean hours (or even days if its a really good lead), in search of a really good lunch.
So Natacha starts her tale of her exploration of Laos, a country which many have commented on as being populated by very gentle people (if we set aside thoughts of those who wrested command from the King and have retained that command through less than peaceful means). Natacha herself comes across as a very gentle and warm person, one who is keen to let people tell their own story. The start of her journey is a charming one: she lands at Vientiane airport, expecting to be frogmarched by officious uniformed drones to wait for hours in a grim airport office. Instead, she finds the sole official very helpful and friendly, to the point she engages him in a two hour conversation about where to get lunch, in which his entire family seems to get involved. Nice.

Her focus is to find the local foods, including the ingredients and techniques, inspired in part by a very cool cookbook, that of the former King of Laos's personal chef. Not being very familiar with the layout of Laos, and despite the map in the book, I don't really know if she got to go all over Laos, or to just selected destinations - I suspect the latter, as this was not a straight travel book as Theroux might write, but one with a theme.

I have to say that I've wanted to go to Laos myself for some time now, and this book has made me a little more ambivalent in that desire. That's because I have particular aversions when it comes to food: I don't like the idea of raw meat, even sushi is beyond the pale as far as I am concerned. And in Laas, Laap is the main dish eaten all over the place which, as she says, breaks every rule of cautious travel eating by being made from raw meat (water buffalo, goat, deer, whatever is to hand really) and with unpasteurised fermented fish (she later confesses that the fish essentially rots for several weeks in order to produce the Paa-dek, the fermented fish sauce). Then late in the book, when she describes the making of the frog stew, made from entire albeit dissected frogs, I had to pause in my reading. The food of the title didn't sound too appealing either: the soup itself sounded OK, but there would be a bunch of ant eggs floating about in it - apparently they taste nutty (and are available, tinned, on the internet!). There are recipes for all these dishes, and more, included in the book.

But not all the food she talks about is so extreme and, indeed, there are many variants on the Laap, some of which use cooked meats and just a smidgen of the fish sauce: I could cope with that.

Apart from the food, we get to read a little about her accomodations, the few sightseeing trips she'd make to see a cave or waterfall or whatever and her contact with fellow travellers. With some of these, she was very harsh - especially those do-gooders she saw as imposing their own standards upon the people of Laos, such as aid workers who would go there for a couple of years but never socialise with the locals or even learn their language. She was much more approving of those going there to try to support the sustenance of traditional Laotian ways of living, such as by educating them about more environmentally friendly methods of land use. Most scathing of all, however (and quite naturally), was her attack upon the boss of a fellow she went to see. The boss basically hijacked the poor fellow's attempt at being hospitable, raved on about how much money he was making (and how - such as by getting aid money to pay workers $10 a day but only paying them $1) then tried to rape Natacha. I'd have had his goolies: Fat Boss Man Goolie Soup anyone?

A major concern for Natacha is the extent to which Laos is still covered in unstable bombs: dropped in Laos by the American Air Force if they just happened to be surplus to a particular bombing run on Vietnam, despite Laos's complete non-involvement in that war. Apparently, more bombs were dropped on Laos than on Europe during WWII. And these are nasty bombs - made up of several hundred bomblets, which themselves are made up of many pellets. They were dropped without detonating, but of course, 40 years on, aren't exactly the safest thing to have in the neighbourhood.

I don't know what else she has written - googling about, I see that she is a lot prettier than her self description had led me to expect. There's a nice interview, extract from the book and several of its recipes here.

Over at the BBC, she can be heard cooking a (cooked) beef Laap, which sounds really good.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Eleanor Rigby (by Douglas Coupland)

He's famous for writing about and thus creating generation X, the post baby-boom generation, one which started in 1961. The central character in his latest work, Liz Dunn, is 36 when the Hale-Bopp comet passed over Earth in 1997: it does not take a genius to work out that she was an early member of GenX. In Generation X the book, Coupland focussed on three characters who had quit the ratrace, or in his words, left their "pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause". I haven't actually read that yet, but it seems that there are some echoes of it in Eleanor Rigby. Liz is still, in her 40's, stuck in a dead end job, working in a horrible cubicle with no social relationships at all and a family which seems to be bound together more by a sense of duty than any kind of affection.

Here is how Liz describes her life, in the opening chapter:
Like anybody, I wanted to find out if my life was ever going to make sense, or maybe even feel like a story. In the wake of Hale-Bopp, I realized that my life, while technically adequate, had become all it was ever going to be. If I could just keep things going on their current even keel for a few more decades, the coroner could dump me into a peat bog without my ever having once gone fully crazy... [S]taring up at the comet, I decided that instead of demanding certainty out of life, I now wanted peace. No more trying to control everything - it was now time to go with the flow...

Of course, we're born alone, and when we die, we join every living thing that's ever existed - and ever will. When I'm dead I won't be lonely any more - I'll be joining a big party. Sometimes at the office, when the phones aren't ringing, and when I've completed my daily paperwork, and when The Dwarf to Whom I Report is still out to lunch, I sit in my chest high sage green cubicle and take comfort in knowing that since I don't remember where I was before I was born, why should I be worried about where I go after I die?

In any event, were you to enter the cubicle farm that is Landover Communication Systems, you probably wouldn't notice me, daydreaming or otherwise. I long ago learned to render myself invisible. I pull myself into myself, and my eyes become stale and dull.
A bit later on, she says:
The Liz Dunns of this world tend to get married, and then twenty three months after their wedding and the birth of their first child they establish sensible, lower-maintenance hairdoes that last them forever. Liz Dunns take classes in croissant baking, and would rather chew on soccer balls than deny their children muesli. They own one sex toy, plus one cowboy fantasy that accompanies its use...

I am a traitor to my name. I'm not cheerful or domestic. I'm drab, crabby and friendless... [I REALLY love the next line:] Loneliness is my curse - our species' curse - its the gun that shoots the bullets that make us dance on a saloon floor and humiliate ourselves in front of strangers.

Where does loneliness come from? I'd hazard a guess that the crapshoot that is family has more than a little to do with it... I mean, what's your own nature/nurture crapshoot? You're here. You're reading these words. Is this a coincidence? Maybe you think fate is only for others. Maybe you're ashamed to be reading about loneliness - maybe someone will catch you and then they'll know your secret stain. And then maybe you're not even sure what loneliness is - that's common. We cripple our children by not telling them what loneliness, all of its shades and tones and implications. When it clubs us on the head, usually just after we leave home, we're blindsided. we have no idea what hit us. We think we're diseased, schizoid, bipolar, monstrous and lacking in dietary chromium. It takes us until thirty to figure out what it was that sucked the joy from our youth, that made our brains shriek and burn on the inside, even while our exteriors made us seem as confident and bronzed as Qantas pilots. Loneliness.
That's probably enough quoting. These words were reverberating through me as I read them, and I was fascinated by the question of how Coupland might tackle the problem of writing an interesting novel from the perspective of someone so lonely. The thing is, he doesn't. I don't mean the novel was not interesting, it was. Rather, he brings another life into Liz's so that she is, for a while anyway, not lonely. Out of the blue, there's a phone call from a hospital saying they have a patient in a coma with a medicalert bracelet naming her as his next of kin. He turns out (a) to have some sort of horrible wasting disease that means he's suicidal but has a very short lifetime anyway and (b) to be her son, one her family never knew she had. One some school trip to Italy, she'd passed out drunk: yet another bitter irony of her life is that her only sexual experience is one she has no memory of.

So, there's bonding done between her and her son, her nurturing instinct comes to the fore. He turns out to be a genius at retail sales, they both turn out to have this cute habit of being able to listen to a piece of a song (up to about a minute) and then sing it backwards. All in all, it became harder and harder to understand why she'd had a life so shrouded in loneliness in the first place but then, so have I.

Towards the end of her son's life, another call comes in from the blue. Its the German police, they have a man who is causing problems for some women (not so much stalking them as haranging them with unwanted religious sentiment) and they're wondering if they should put him away for raping her. Finally the Hale-Bopp references start to have a place: Liz had found a fragment of the comet or a meteorite that it had hit and kept it with her as a memento. In 2003 she travels to Germany with a highly radioactive rock fragment in her luggage - just imagine what the airport security forces made of that! But she meets with such an ever so nice policeman about the rape complaint, then with the father of her son:
Was this guy a rapist? Was I complicit in my own pregnancy? I couldn't allow myself to be judgmental. The final fact of the matter was that he did give me Jeremy. Ends don't justify the means but I, Liz Dunn, once had a child...

Klaus is also ... almost stupidly handsome, and its difficult to speak with beautiful people. No matter how hard you try to pretend otherwise, you still want them to like you. We are a wretched, shallow species.
The other thing about Jeremy was that he had these apocolyptic visions, much more real than dreams, about a group of farmers and some awful fate that was about to befall them. The message for the planet was that since the world could only ever be full of sorrow and calamity, there was no point in being afraid - "the end is going to happen no matter what". When Liz is talking to his father about his haranging of the women, she recognises a lot of Jeremy in him: it turns out that he had had similar visions, which had caused his compulsive behaviour (and in the process caused him to have an incredibly lonely life as well).

According to the publisher's blurb for Generation X, the main characters create modern fables of love and death, disturbingly funny tales of nuclear waste and mall culture.
Eleanor Rigby could be one such tale. The one slightly confusing bit for me is the title: Liz gives her email address as Eleanorrigby@hotmail, but I don't get the significance. Of course, there is the Beatles song - ah the lyrcis, of course:
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Interesting - this review suggests that Coupland has been inspired by Murakami in this work. This one is by a professed feminest, who has no problem with Liz's redemption through motherhood in the particular circumstances of the book. The reviewer also reminded me of something I have already forgotten: Liz saw herself as a warning to young women of how not to live and she comments on the "tender and subtle way that Coupland illustrates the ordinariness of Dunn's fears".

Ali Smith, a Booker shortlisted writer herself, is enchanted by the book in her Guardian review. On the other hand, the NY Times was almost completely disparaging.

A Question

You know how it is, when you're sitting out in the dark, 50 kilometres from the nearest place of inhabitation, and you turn on the light, even the tiniest little three LED gizmo. Immediately its like there's a convention of moths and assorted flying bugs crawling all over you, desperate to be in the light, even when they've just seen others who beat them there crushed to death. What inspires them? More important, what were they doing just before the light went on? Hanging about hoping against hope that someone would turn on a light even when the reality is that that is highly unlikely. Sure moths and bugs don't do statistics, but they must have been doing something in the area. What?

So, my New Year's Eve was celebrated in typical Man Overboard style, and turned out rather better than last year's. I had had vague thoughts of going to the Cusp, since I was in Nelson and all, but after having a nice mussell chowder at Yaza and a wander around Blackmore's bookshop, I'd pretty much had enough Nelson. Well, not Nelson itself so much as the huge numbers of people, making it impossible to walk down the footpath without getting in someone's way. I had to escape. First stop, Richmond: my, hasn't it grown since I was there last. It even has a mall now. It came as no surpise to read that that's the fastest growing place in New Zealand. In fact, there were too many people there for me as well, so it was off to Motueka with some vague plan to get out beyond Collingwood formulating as I drove.

In Mot, I stopped for a decent coffee at Blast Espresso bar (with marks off for spilling half over the side) and wandered around till the urge to move on hit. My first time driving over the Takaka Hill - its a bit of a mission! Takaka itself hadn't changed at all since I was there a couple of years ago, although the Whole food (I think that's what its called) Cafe had lost some of its appeal: I think it was actually exactly the same but I wasn't. Heading west, it was an easy drive to Collingwood, a tiny little town stuck on a wee point of land, just a pub, dairy, foodmarket, camping ground, museum and several motels. Oh, and the Court cafe, in the old Collingwood courthouse: I wonder how long ago that was in use. There was something very comfortable about Collingwood, to the point that I checked out the price of staying in the camping ground.

It was walking into the pub that stopped me - I had no desire to spend the evening there. So, I drove some more. Out to Farewell Spit, out to some beach where I had to ditch Webster and walk the last bit, then finally to a place I am sure was called Cape Foulwind (but not the one at Westport). I parked up at the cliff edge, thinking it would be so cool to sleep there but immediately became anxious - what if the cliff edge was unstable, and parking a vehicle was the last straw? Completely irrational I know, but I couldn't sleep up there, went back down onto the flat. Still a nice spot - I had my moon chair, my book, Jolie Holland on the stereo, some cold beer. If you really have to spend New Year's Eve on your own, I think this is the way to do it - I had no wish to be with lots of people who were out having a good time with each other nor to have to explain myself sufficiently to join in with anyone.

On New Year's day, I hung over the guardrail of the cliff and watched a typical New Zealand family, with one subtle twist, going about their celebration. Dad was laying immobilised on the rocks, in fact he was so immobile I hadn't noticed him until he started to shout to the kids - maybe he was saying to be careful, or to bring him some lunch, I don't really know. Mum was beside him, looking after the baby of the family. Then the two teenagers were out in the surf, and I swear that they were actually surfing, then they'd swim across the incoming waves, then flap about idly - really enjoying themselves. The one thing that made this family just that little bit different was that they were seals.