Sunday, August 21, 2005


Originally uploaded by Man_Overboard.
I can't believe it is only a couple of weeks since I spent a very enjoyable long weekend over the ditch. What with end of semester pressures and article deadlines (I am sure it is not normal to have images of one's editor pursuing humble writers with sharp sticks and other weapons) I am already dreaming of the next little break.

Last time I was in Brissie, I must confess I was not that impressed - my most distinct memory is of walking up Vulture Street being pursued by ominous black birds and wondering more than idly what they were. I think the main difficulty is that I was totally unfamiliar with the city and it, like any city with any class, took a little while to reveal its secrets. So, it was not until I was ready to leave that I was finding places that made me go "ooh, this is cool". This time round, they provided the starting point.

Of course, the main reason for going was to see Sigur Ros and their wonderful little support act, Amina: the cutest four women group I have ever seen, heavily into chiming sounds produced by the likes of the glockenspiel mixed up with various string instruments. Apparently, they like to improvise one new song every time they play: I was lucky enough to see them playing around with one of those songs made popular as a ring-tone. Much laughter was produced in the audience, leading to the lead instrument player (I have to confess, I do not know what she was playing) having to pause periodically while she cracked up.

The main event was amazing: two solid hours of awestruck silence on the part of the audience while Sigur Ros played maybe half of Agaetis Byrjun, with various tracks played from their other albums. Several were allegedly from the upcoming Trukk, which is already being talked about in some quarters as one of the defining moments in early 21st century music. Perhaps that is just so slightly premature an evaluation, given the CD has yet to come out. After a short encore, they did two "come out and bow to the audience" things - so rare in rock music (although there was otherwise no other acknowledgement of the audience - making it something like a play) - before putting a Trukk logo on a screen and leaving us to a track from that album being played on the sound system.

The other main activity I engaged in was to find good places to eat, which more than made up for the truly dreadful Penang cafe in Otahuhu I had had to resort to on my night in Auckland. Talking that experience over with friends later, noting the bad food, the fact that the restaurant was actually locked when I got there and that I'd only gone in because I thought I saw someone dining, it was suggested that maybe it was not really a cafe at all, but rather a front for some other business. Come to think of it, the waitress did have an odd look to her and when, in a fit of politeness, I said the food was good, she laughed.

But all that was behind me in Brisbane - even the foodcourts can produce decent Malaysian food for lunch. I think the only time I mis-fired was when I was too hungry to keep going, so went to whatever the next food outlet was: I kicked myself to find a great looking cafe around the corner. So - on the Friday night, I pigged out on Thai food in Fortitude Valley, then on the Saturday took up a friends raving recommendation and dined on Japanese foof, Wagamama style. The best of all, however, was at the Himalaya Cafe - Nepalese and Tibetan food. Once again, I proved why sometimes it is simply best to eat alone (I still remember dining in the Cow in Queenstown with a friend, way back in the 1980's, and managing to wipe spaghetti around my ears. Oh yeah, and then there was the night my fish cake went flying in a Thai restaurant in Christchurch. Some people are single for a reason.)

This time, my nemesis was something called bitten rice - it was kind of like rice bubbles, but every time I went for a forkful of it, about a million grains would skitter all over the table and then around the table: it kind of looked like six polar bears with heavy dandruff had dined with me. But, oh, the food. For an entree, I had this dish of beef chunks marinated in lemongrass and lime juice and chilli, then cooked on a charcoal grill: soo tender, I couldn't even believe it was meat.

Apart from eat, I shopped, which made a laborious multi-hour trip to the Gold Coast necessary, so I could stop in at Harbourtown and pick up some more cheap clothes from Rivers. It is strange how awkward the transport links to Surfers are.

Of course, I walked for hours, explored all the bookshops, tried out multiple coffee shops and CD shops (in a shocking departure, I didn't even buy one CD). My best walk was to go from the central city up Elizabeth Street, admiring the elegant old buildings all the way, to Fortitude Valley. From there, I walked out New Farm road and caught the ferry - what a magnificant way to spend a Saturday night in Brisbane. Apparently they've taken a while to catch on, but have had a 40+% increase in trade in the last year. So - I ferried up to the last point on the river, got out for a walk around to give the bogans a chance to shout incomprehensibly to me, and went back to where I started.

For a special treat to end the night, a couple of young guys started a punch up on the train: I was watching them, wondering if I should intervene and deciding that it was their problem, when a whole bunch of police and train officials, including dog, got the situation under control.

Ah well: next weekend, I will go to either Christchurch or Queenstown.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

2005 Film Festival

Originally uploaded by Man_Overboard.
Thanks to a trip to Brisbane at one end and a family visit at the other, I was left with very little time to actually see any films at this year's festival. I managed the veiwing of a mere four films.

The first, 2046, I was really looking forward to as Kae Wai Wong's In the Mood For Love was fabulous, in the way that it showed this man and woman, obviously drawn to each other, circling around the idea of adultery but having the moral fortitude to not actually cross the line.

2046 was also a romance - indeed we have the same actors playing under the same names, but their stories are very different. 2046 is the mystical year in the future being written about in the man's science fiction book, to which (when?) people could journey in order to recapture lost memories but could never return from. 2046 is also the number of room in the Oriental Hotel in which our man's one true love had lived (and the room he was in in In the Mood For Love, although not in the same hotel). Was Thomas Wolfe right, when he said you can't go home again?

Our man, evidently yearning for the past, secures the room next door and forms various sorts of relationships with the various women who float through. One he falls for, one falls for him, but does anything ever come off for him? Kae Wai Wong certainly seems to have lots of fun, bringing in famous Chinese actresses to play these bit parts, and oplaying around with the names of the characters: two use the names of stars who are not in the film.

Although it was a film made with great care and had a visual lusciousness and style all its own, I have to confess that because things did move quite slowly, I went to sleep. Upon waking up, it was extremely hard to reconnect - it is a film that definitely deserves better from me, so I look forward to getting the DVD.

Then there was Howl's Moving Castle, the latest in the Miyazake ouevre. I was a bit alarmed when I heard I'd signed on for the dubbed version rather than the sub-titled one. As it turned out, the voices were pretty good, with Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale and Billy Crystal doing three of the central voices.

It was a pretty normal sort of Miyazake story, with the world under attack for reasons we aren't too clear about, but with a more distinct overtone of magic than I recall from other works. So - there's a wicked witch, spells cast with various consequences for Calcifer, Sophie and Howl. The magic was important - once the spells are broken, then Howl and co can be fully powerful and the war will be over. The coolest thing was the moving castle, a broken down old wreck of a castle, sure, but have you ever seen a castle that can walk? Plus, by turning a dial on the door, it could change from being a castle out in the waste land into being the house of a (from memory) headstone maker in town, and so on.

Third: Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone we Know. This had some odd storylines - Miranda's efforts, which should never have succeeded, they were so lame, in getting a gallery owner to take her work seriously and Richard to take her seriously as a woman. Richard, at the same time, has his own concerns - he has custody of his two young boys after a very recent split from their mother. They, trying to connect with the world, go online posing as men looking for women: there's one weirdly affecting scene when the younger of the two, asked what he would like to do with the woman they have netted, says "You poop into my butt hole and I poop into your butt hole ... back and forth ... forever."

Then there's a storyline almost straight out of Ghostworld - two teenage girls, on the verge of adulthood and trying it on - meet up with Richard's fellow shoe salesman, Andrew (who can ever watch any film with shoe salesmen and not think of loser supreme, Al Bundy? And yet, I think that sheds a false light on this movie.) The girls are telling Andrew that they're old enough but don't want to - he's all "you're too young, not as old as you say you are but, what the hey, what would it take?" Turns out, dirty suggestions posted to his window will do it, and here's where it gets realy funny. They decide that one of them will give Andrew a blow job, but don't know which of them is the better, nor if they'll like it - so there is this hilarious competition between them, where Richard's older son (a real innocent, completely lovely) gets to do some blind sampling of their abilities.

My favourite movie, however, was from Kim Ki-duk, who made Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring Again. This year's effort was 3 Iron: yep, a reference to a particular sort of golf club. This young fellow, apparently homeless although he rides around on a fairly hefty sort of BMW, finds places to sleep by hanging pizza ads on the front doors of houses, then goes back to see which remain undisturbed. Once in, he's not just a taker - he cleans up, he mends anything he finds broken, makes the place better then when he found it.

So, this one night, he breaks in to a house - we know it is occupied at the time, by a woman who it turns out is being beaten by her husband - so even when he's not there, she tends to hide in the corners and not leave a big footprint. Our hero does his normal thing, including the ironing and fixing the scales so they no longer weigh so heavily - it is through touches like this that the director says so much: the characters themselves are pretty much wordless.

Eventually, he becomes aware she's there and, without saying a word, they just accept each other's presence. When hubby comes home that's a different matter - our hero knows he's a bully, so avenges the wife by laying into him with some gold balls - hit by, yes, a 3 iron. Then the two of them go on, following the same pattern our hero had previously established.

All goes well until they find a dead body, alone in his flat. Of course, they have to clean up: they shroud him in the approriate garb and give him a proper burial, but when the sone and police get involved, they can't believe it wasn't murder.

Without wanting to give too much more away, the last part of the movie changed direction, towards the mystical. Our hero is locked up in a bare wooden floored cell, with concrete walls. And yet, he can hide from his jailor - clinging to the wall above him, hiding in his shadow. The jailor is pissed, so says next time, I'll kill you. And maybe he does - we never see our hero in the cell again, but we do see him outside. Or do we?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

2005 Man Booker Long List

17 books have made it to the longlist, with an announcement of the shortlist in early September. The BBC is doing something interesting: they've gathered together half a dozen peeps who will read the entire shortlist in 28 days, so they can make their own predictions as to which books will make the cut. I can't say that I have even heard of all the books announced, let alone read them. In fact, I have only read one, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Of the others, I have seen but not felt inclined to pick up The Sea by John Banville or Ian McEwan's Saturday, but have been a little more intrigued by A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian byMarina Lewycka. To quote the Times:
Nadia prides herself on her left-wing views. It is these which are severely tested, when, to the dismay of both sisters, their 84-year-old widower father Nikolai decides to marry the voluptuous Valentina — an “economic migrant” less than half his age with breasts “like twin warheads”... What follows is, by turns, extremely funny and extremely dark, touching on subjects not usually treated as comedy, such as the abuse of the elderly and the hounding of asylum-seekers.

Then there are a whole bunch of books by authors whose previous books I have read and enjoyed before:

  • Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, who seems to have done for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle what Colm Toibin did for Hentry James in the Master - but doesn't quite sound my cup of tea;
  • Slow Man by JM Coetzee - paraphrasing Kirkus quite horribly, Elizabeth Costella is doppelganger and mentor to lonely and reclusive 60-year-old former photographer Paul Rayment, who has lost a leg in a bicycling accident. He rejects several home-care nurses, until hardworking Croatian immigrant Marijana Jokics earns his trust, his gratitude - and his unspoken love. Paul attempts to play God, offering to pay her teenaged son's college tuition, offending her husband in the process. Costello patiently pushes Paul toward fuller involvement in the world: as the lover of a sex-starved blind woman (is this her or him?), telling him to "Become major". But maybe he only actually exists as a character in her novel anyway. Hmmm - dunno about this;
  • Ali Smith (she of Hotel World fame) has produced The Accidental, which does sound very interesting. To paraphrase the Sunday Times this time, Alhambra was conceived in 1968 in a cinema, after which she is named. Smith seems to have borrowed her plot from a Terence Stamp film, Pasolini’s Theorem a sexually irresistible vagrant who may be an angel, or a criminal maniac (or both), makes an inexplicable appearance in the home of an apparently commonplace family. In the novel, Alhambra appears one hot August morning in 2003 on the door step of a “four-square” family — mother, father, 17-year-old son, 12-year-old daughter. The story is told from each of their points of view in turn, with a distinctive voice for each. I love this: "Michael, a teacher of English literature and serial seducer of students (or, while on holiday in Norfolk, supermarket checkout girls), holds forth as though to a lecture-room before lapsing suddenly, to his own and the readers’ delight, into Byronic ottava rima." The summary comments from the Sunday Times are that in each, "Smith produces a tour de force" and "there is probably nothing by way of fiction writing that Smith can’t do";
  • Zadie Smith (White Teeth) has produced her third work, On Beauty. Publisher's Weekly says it "gathers narrative steam from the clash between two radically different families, with a plot that explicitly parallels Howards End." We have "a soulful, transatlantic understanding between the families' matriarchs" and two art professor fathers getting ready for culture wars. "Everyone theorizes about art, and everyone searches for connections, sexual and otherwise." and so on. Worth checking out, when it is finally published - it does seem weird that several of the contenders have yet to be published;
  • Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie - based in Kashmir, this has what the Village Voice calls an "overripe love story" of doomed lovers, overlaying "the history of a country corroded and soured by sectarian struggle". Muslims and Hindus had co-existed in peace, but the Pakistani invasion turns that on its head. As kids, the lovers are oblivious for a while, even get married with their familes hoping there really was a common bond that transcended all other differences. "But losing her virginity triggers something defiant and reckless in Boonyi that attracts the attentions of the suave U.S. ambassador to India" with whom she has a scandalous affair. Her formerly shy and romantic husband reacts by training as a terrorist - as you do. "One running theme is the donning of new identities" with only poor Boonyi lacking any ability to adapt.
Then a bunch of books I've never noticed by authors I have never heard of.
  • Aw, Tash -- The Harmony Silk Factory. I don't think I recall any Malaysian fiction ever crossing my path, so this is a first. Its a story using three narrators to give different perspectives of one Jonny Lim, a merchant and political force with an intensely inquiring mind and a taste for the irregular - a Malaysian Gatsby, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "From poor boy to laborer to shop owner who marries into the local aristocracy, to political force and collaborator during the Japanese occupation, Johnny Lim rises in the world in a rather covert and elliptical fashion, and the three linked sections of the novel mirror the simplicities and complexities of his career as father, husband, businessman, political figure, murderer, traitor and friend."
  • Barry, Sebastian -- A Long Long Way. My book club has just decided to read Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, about a fellow going off to fight in World War One in France. This is in a similar vein, except that Willie is Irish, very Catholic and doomed from the very beginning of the book to die.
  • Cusk, Rachel -- In the Fold. I can't even find much information about this one - some library website says it is "a tantalizing and darkly comic new novel of lust and deception" - it could mean damn near anything.
  • Jacobson, Dan -- All For Love. Another historical fiction, this time involving a romance between the daughter of King Leopold II and a lieutenant. When their passion gets the better of them and they're caught out, they go on the run. She ends up in some insane asylum, he's put in jail, but then some other chick falls for him, and so tries to get them both out. I think if publishers want me to read this, they need a better blurb! Two reviews I read said this would make a good opera. Enough, already.
  • Mantel, Hilary -- Beyond Black. This one has promise - the Washington Post says it is "original and deeply dark" and is a "daring and extravagant book, filled with as much wit as darkness". I love this review from an Amazon reader: "Alison is fat, single, the daughter of a prostitute, and psychic. I mean really psychic. The dead speak to her of all kinds of trivia, and her "spirit guide," Morris, is a (dead) lowlife dwarf who used to work at a circus. Alison will do anything to get rid of Morris, who is crude and stinky and pops up at inconvenient moments, but nothing works. And when Morris starts hanging out with fiends [I don't think this is a typo!] from Alison's old neighborhood, she begins to get really worried. Much of this novel is funny. Alison's assistant, Colette, a skinny, nasty, divorced control freak who books Al's appointments at psychic fairs, is a good foil for the casual Alison. She eventually becomes so obsessed with her management role that she even tries to control Alison's diet."
  • Meek, James -- The People’s Act of Love. Must be serious - there is a London Review of Books review of it. Its a Siberian Russian Revolution novel, with the Times saying its "theme is a great one: the horror of watching political or spiritual extremism extinguish common sense and common humanity". Samarin turns up dirty and unshaven in Yazyk, claiming to be an escaped political prisoner. Its a fantasy - he is a man who will willingly "hack people to pieces and eat them". On the other hand, Yazyk is in the hands of an extreme Christian sect - they express their faith through self- mutilation. Its leader "has chosen to have his own genitals, the “Keys to Hell”, cut off and thrown into the fire" - all men have been castrated! Some can still "love things of the earth" - Lieutenant Mutz and Anna Petrovna Lutova, the sexually desirous, un-prudish wife of the castrate Balashov.
  • Thompson, Harry -- This Thing Of Darkness. A true story - the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy, their friendship, their arguments, the theory of natural selection. Not exactly what I'd have expected from the fellow who produced the Harry Enfield show and Baddiel. The tragic thing is that release of the book was overwhelmed by the news that he had cancer - the Guardian review by his former girl friend makes for a sad sort of read.
  • Wall, William -- This Is The Country. This one sounds interesting and all. The Guardian comes through with a great review. We have here a story of a man escaping drugs, losing his wife to gangsters and his daughter to the social services, and plotting to get her back. It is "a masterful, ironic book of loss and bitter optimism, money and poverty, the impossible divide between city and country", "the story of someone desperately but resolutely straightening himself out, and how ragged and forever incomplete a thing that may be. By focusing on something real for the first time in his life (the workings of engines), he becomes real."