Saturday, May 31, 2008

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 08 – Day Three

An Hour With Anne Enright This was an interesting session, made so because the chair, Kapka Kassabova, seemed not to get things that the author saw as obvious in her work (such as its humour) and was a little pre-occupied with its bleakness and portrayal of women as “broken”. Enright did not see this at all, didn’t really see it as being much about gender politics at all, commenting (a) that men are often in exactly the same sort of place and (b) it was a line of questioning that male authors don’t face, they’re even celebrated for a bleakness of vision.

Enright’s take on her novel is that, yes, Veronica has things tough but at the end, she is re-made and is actually making her own choices – which is a good thing. I haven’t read it yet, but I don’t think Kassabova was buying this.

The novel has a certain reputation for being bleak and depressing, but Enright herself was very funny and the piece she read out from The Gathering itself was very funny, concerning what Veronica would do if she was giving three wishes. Here is my remembered paraphrase of some of what to do: The first thing to wish for is another three wishes, because you always waste your wishes on the wrong things, like Sophia Loren’s boobs, and find you’re burdened with silicone, so you then have to wish for her boobs back whenever they were fresh. So, you can use the second set of three wishes to get you roughly back to where you started.

I must read it, but am currently caught up in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Read to Me

This was a session in which four authors simply read extracts from their books. Mo Hayder and Louise Wareham Leonard (who?) didn’t do anything for me. Sarah Laing, on the other hand, had a wonderful short story from her collection called Freezer Burn in which Rachel gets her first job in a pie factory. Not a promising setting but she does wonders with it. Then we had Duncan Sarkies who read a very funny extract from his novel, Two Little Boys. Nige and Deano have been mates for years, but Deano has a new friend, Gavin, making Nige a bit jealous. He gets some revenge (in the scene we heard) by repeatedly flushing the toilet – a noise Gavin apparently can’t stand to hear at night. So, yes, it is quite literally toilet humour but actually funny.

An Hour With Mo Hayder

I don’t think I’ll be buying her books, but she tells an interesting story. One in particular was about a water hole, Bushman’s Hole, in the Kalahari desert, which is incredibly deep, with just a small hole in the ground, a narrow neck for about 150 feet but then a bulbous body (in which you could put the Eiffel Tower, if you so chose) and a tapering tail. Apparently people drown in this, they dive to the bottom and get stuck in its tail, can’t get back. One fellow, Deon Dreyer, did this 10 years ago. More recently, another fellow, Dave Shaw, was diving, actually found the first guy. Couldn’t bring him up, because diving so deep means a long slow ascent (9 hours!) even by himself, so he organized a rescue party. Problem was, on the return trip, he got snagged on the dead fellow, and that was the end of him. His diving companion, against all the rules, went after him but it was no use. He must have dislodged him, however, as he and the other, long-dead guy – they both burst to the surface. Full story here. This, apparently was what inspired her to have a police diver as a feature character in one of her novels.

I didn’t really get her explanation of what she was doing in her novels – something about showing people to live in circumstances they’re never going to experience.

An Hour With Michael Pollan This was my last session – Michael Pollan is a bit of a food-writing guru for these threatened times, so I thought I’d better go. His message is pretty simple, actually, and he makes no secret of its simplicity, even plays on it: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Alternatively: never eat anything your grandmother would not recognize as food. His latest book, In Defence of Food, wants us to eat real stuff, not processed crap, not something planned by a nutritionist. Real food, preferably something you grow yourself, hence the focus on plants. He does eat meat, just not much: for the purposes of this book, he learnt how to kill a wild pig (I’m still wondering if the guy who took him out was just being kind when he said Pollan killed it) and turn it into edible products (of course, no pretension is involved in making sure they’re prosciutto). Best quote was from his dad, who couldn’t see any need for hunting once they’d invented the steakhouse.

Some Images From Earlier Sessions
Luke Davies (author of Candy etc):
Sarah Hall (author of The Electric Michelangelo, Carhullan Army and Haweswater)
Heather O'Neill (author of Lullabies for Little Criminals)
So, this was my very first Auckland Writers and Readers Festival: I am sure I will be back. It was a whole lot more fun than the Melbourne one I went to, where despite having a list of events a mile long, I didn’t actually go to anything. In a way, it was a nicer event than the Sydney one I went to last year, a bit more intimate, with all events in one of two rooms. In between, I could lounge around and visit the bookstores set up for the Festival, or wander into town. Coffee was in constant supply and in between events, one coffee girl in particular would entertain the space by singing and whistling.

In the evening I treated myself to something I should have had all along. I’d been in a backpackers in Parnell, but since I had an early start to catch my plane, I wanted to be somewhere on the Airbus route. Wotif came up with a marvelous $99 room, sorry Executive Apartment, at the Elliot Street Apartment Hotel – one block from the Festival, in an interesting old building that has been done up. The room was a great size, bed was huge, it had a full blown kitchen (not that I used it) and it was excellent value.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Second Hand Wedding, a film by Paul Murphy (2008)

It was by some sort of appropriate coincidence that I went to Roy Shuker's talk about the slightly obsessive nature of record collecting today. Jill Rose (Geraldine Brophy) is a bit of a fanatic when it comes to bargain hunting at garage sales: she has a good eye for valuable items, but brings home a whole lot of kitschy crap (little blue name holding gnomes are a good example). She's lucky in her choice of husband: Brian (Patrick Wilson) is gentle, solves everything with a cup of tea and is a bit of a hoarder himself. The entire movie hangs on this rather slender premise concerning Jill's hobby: surprisingly, it works and the movie is just wonderful, funny, very Kiwi (the sole reveiwer on IMDB wonders if it would be understood outside of Wellington) but with just the right touch of sadness to give the movie an emotional appeal. I found myself on the verge of happy tears a number of times.

We see an example of how mum operates when Cheryl Rose (named in honour of Cheryl Moana Maree, the song by John Rowles, upon whom Jill had a crush) talks about getting a pet (quite why she's doing this is another story): mum is immediately getting things sorted at various garage sales, and arrives home not only with a puppy, but books, feed, blankets, everything a puppy owner could possibly want and more. So when Cheryl and Stu get engaged, it is understandable that Cheryl might have a nightmarish vision of what her wedding would be like if her mum had anything to do with organising it, and would want something new, all to herself, rather than yet more second hand bargains, and so be fearful of telling her mum.

Of course, they live in a small community, so it is inevitable that word will get to Jill anyway (via another sub-plot involving Jill's erstwhile friend Gracie). This gets Jill off-side with both Cheryl and Brian, who's had a real hard time keeping this secret from her. It is a comedy, so of course things happen to resolve these tensions, along with seeing various singletons find their true love along the way.

I did think the actors took a while to warm to their roles - it took me some time to believe in the relationship between Cheryl and Stu, but that might have been because they were pretty low key and had a teasing way of being with each other: the audience's first sight of these two is when Cheryl is getting her car from the mechanic, and they pretend they are customer and mechanic, when it turns out that the mechanic is Stu, the fellow she's been living with for a year. The three guys in the garage were wonderful - I loved the scene when Stu's boss is basically dropping Stu in it when the boss's wife takes over the wedding organisation. And speaking of the wedding, it couldn't have ended any other way: John Rowles had to be there.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 08 – Day Two

An Hour With JM Coetzee

This was my one “duty” session: he is such a prominent author, and has never been to New Zealand, so I had the sense I should go. I wish I had not: it was a lecture, no questions from the audience, no questions from or discussion with Witi Ihimaera, who was "chairing" the session (in reality, he had to simply sit idly by). And what did we get? A lecture on censorship, primarily the result of his looking at the notes of the censorship committee set up in South Africa to decide if his work could be published. His take? While there one or two inappropriate elements in his books, they were so fantastic that they ought not be censored. He then read two passages from his earlier works, the ones that were so great that the South African government would not interfere with their publication: these readings sent me to sleep.

Reading With A Torch Under the Blankets After Lights-Out

I went because Elizabeth Knox was on the bill, along with Kate di Goldi and Bernard Beckett. Kate (I call her Kate, not because I’ve met her, but it is like I have) is too much a kids and young adults author to be of much interest to me, and I had never heard of Beckett. Unfortunately, Knox decided her visit to France had to take precedence over the festival.

While there was a little discussion of reading under the blankets, it didn’t go very far: Beckett was not that keen on reading as a kid, and Kate didn’t need to read under the blankets, reading at all times was the norm, an important one for her (like me) because it formed much of her social life. She said something that I don’t think I had ever realized about myself – despite reading a lot, as a kid, I didn’t have others to talk books with (I still have vivid memories of talking the previous night’s TV shows with my classmates on the school bus, but not books). They (and I) had a very similar sort of reading trajectory – kids serial books, then books more for teens (Beckett name checked the same authors I would – Helen McInnes, Alistair McLean and co) along with a bunch of randoms that really got them going as readers.

Most of the talk was about writing for the young adult market: I think I am with Beckett, who explains that he goes to various functions involving YA authors but when he is asked who is favourite YA authors are, says he doesn’t actually read YA fiction because “I am not 15”. I think the most interesting aspect of this part of the talk was the inadequacies of definitions of YA, although I did like their notion of it being a matter of perspective. A teen novel will be nostalgic about childhood but completely unaware of adulthood, speculating about it maybe. Even though the same teen and experiences might be in an adult novel, the perspective will have switched to someone who has been there and done that.

“You Know You’re Done With A Story…”

This session was about the short story, and featured three authors who started with short stories and have written, or are writing, a novel: Peter Ho Davies, Anne Enright and Sarah Laing. The last is a completely new name to me, despite the fact she grew up in Palmerston North before moving to New York and back to Auckland. To be honest, I don’t know that a whole lot came out of this session for me: each author read some or all of one story, Kate Camp talked to them about various things, Sarah seemed a little less at ease about participating but her stories actually sounded the most interesting, so much so that I bought her book Coming Up Roses and had her sign it. No conversations this time – I’d say the whole notion of having fans come get her sign things is still quite new to her, which was kind of sweet.

An Hour With Luke Davies

This hour made me so glad that I had snuck away at lunch time and bought Candy at the 30% off sale at Dymocks. He read from it and showed a clip from the movie - it sounds like a fascinating book, one which draws heavily on his own experience while immersed in the world of addiction. Weird shit happened. He was pretty open about this, but I was curious as to the timing: he is not your typical junkie, in that he was an English teacher for at least some of the time he was having his troubles and, four years after escaping the net, was able to process those experiences into what appears to be some fine fiction. He is now in LA, trying to work as a script-writer, with two other novels to his name. While Speed of Sound is of little interest to me, I am interested in his “forgotten second novel, it has had hundreds of readers”, Isabelle the Navigator.

In the evening, I had a sort of continuation of the Festival, in that I went to an Italian restaurant, one in which the tables were very close together, and found myself seated to people who’d been at the Festival – in fact, I rather believe that one of them had been given an hour to talk about himself.

But later on, I was well away from books: up to the Kings Arms for an HDU gig, a band which hardly uses lyrics at all (although more now than in the past). Great stuff.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 08 – Day One

This was a five day event, held last week. It would have been wonderful to get to the whole thing but, well, work intervened. I did manage to have a three day weekend in Auckland, and get to see most I would have wanted to see plus a have few nice surprises, attending about a dozen sessions in all.

Innocence and Experience

I didn’t really know anything about the three authors running this session, which was playing with the twinned notions of innocence and love, how love can generate a form of innocence. I had seen Peter Ho Davies’ novel The Welsh Girl in various shops, but Peter Wells and Laurence Fearnley are pretty much completely unknown, surprising given that both have written several novels and both are New Zealanders. Fearnley not only lives up the road, but she had a writing fellowship at my university! I listened to Peter Wells read from his book, Lucky Bastard, and talk generally about it and went and had a look at it in the bookshop, but have no sense that this book will be of any interest to me or, indeed, what it is about. The Festival blurb says it is “an exploration of family relationships and a little known aspect of the Second World War”: I have already forgotten what that might be.

The Welsh Girl sounds much more interesting, again a bit of family exploration happens, which is not necessarily confined to humans: Ho told of his discover of the territoriality and maternal instincts of sheep. I have no idea how he works this into his novel, but apparently he does. The story is of this young barmaid who has some sort of dealings with a German prisoner of war incarcerated in Wales, with a side dish of Anglo-Welsh tensions. Ho’s inspiration was the fact that his grandmother had a collection of small hand-made bronze sculptures made by the local POW’s during the war. The local landscape seems to be an important aspect of the novel.

I liked his story of one of his short stories: he spent a year on it, only to find that there was only one element he really liked, one he was able to salvage as an 8 page story. I also really liked what he was saying about his characters: by the time he had finished, he felt like it was really their story, and he was more in the nature of a reader, one who was sad to see them go when he was done. Very Flann O’Brien. Of course, the writer must be much closer to the characters than any reader, since they have lived together for the duration of the writing process (seven years, in his case).

This talk of missing the characters was inspired by Laurence Fearnley talking about her relationships, both with the physical world and fictional characters. She confessed to not really being into people, and finding lots to entertain her in the random things that she sees around her (such as some rubbish blowing across the street in Invercargill). This leads to her providing a very detailed and real sense of the physical landscape in her novels. She also confessed that she gets enough company from the characters inhabiting her head and finds them much more accessible than real people: I have to applaud her for her bravery in making such statements, because society has a dim view of loners. Curiously, I immediately wanted to meet her (but when I had my chance later on, chickened out). Her novel, Edwin + Matlida, features the title characters finding their way into a relationship, despite a 40 year gap between them (he is 62).

Addicted to the Dark

I went because I wanted to hear Duncan Sarkies; thanks to being fog-bound, he could not make it, so I only had Luke Davies and Heather O’Neill. She looked so much like one of our students that it came as a shock that she has a teenaged daughter. Her novel, Lullabies for Little Children, is pretty brave in the topic it takes on: a twelve year old girl (Baby) whose life is so shit and who is so damaged she takes to the streets and is selling herself. Her dad is a big time drug user, but going straight, so part of the novel explores her getting re-acquainted with this new father. The chair-person, Stephanie Johnson, raved about the freshness of the voice and the lovability and strength of this incredibly resilient kid. She’s possibly paid to say such things but Luke Davies, the other guest, rated it a highly important book and extremely good – at a world-beating level. There was talk of filming it, but of difficulties in getting the right sort of team on the project (if we could ever get Ellen Paige to look 12, I get the sense she’d be fantastic). O’Neill herself seems to have gone through the kind of life I can’t comprehend: at some stage, her mum said to her and her sisters “Your dad is out of jail now, you go live with him”; he was a bad man, but one with enough clout that he could pretty much do what he would want, such as wander down the street in his underpants smoking a cigar to do his shopping and no-one would interfere.

Luke Davies was there for his new book, God of Speed, a fictional biography of Howard Hughes – forgetting about his love of flying, but looking at him as a fellow suffering from OCD (apparently he had a team of Mormons to keep his house clean) and his addictions to drugs and sex. Davies was saying that he pretty much detested his character, which must be an odd place for an author to be in, although felt for him – the fact he went 15 years without ever having a real conversation, that he could neither love nor be loved. Still, I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read this one, but it re-ignited my interest in going back to his earlier work, Candy, where the central character is caught between his twinned needs – for heroin and a girl called Candy.

An Hour With Sarah Hall

It was when I saw Hall’s name on the list that I decided I’d go up to Auckland for this festival. Sure, I might well have done it anyway, but this set my decision in concrete. I loved The Electric Michelangelo, largely on the basis of her talent for description and language. Now I love it even more: the conversation gave it a context that I hadn’t really grasped – Cy ends up at a crossroads, in that he could continue the nasty habits of Riley into the next generation, or he could end that cycle, give his acolyte a better role model than he himself had. I hadn’t fully got what was going on with Grace – of course it is an extremely evocative name, but I get now that despite the truly awful things that happened to her (there was quite an audible gasp in the audience when that was revealed), her spirit remained intact.

It was nice to be told more about Haweswater and how there are various features of Hall’s growing up in the next valley over contained in the text. It is a book I have always intended to read but never quite managed. One thing that really connects these two novels is the sense of strong women – Cy’s mum and Grace (and potentially the newbie) in The Electric Michelangelo and the central character in Haweswater. This focus on the power of women comes to the fore in her latest novel, The Carhullan Army. This is her first contemporary novel (set in a present vaguely parallel to our own) – the army of the title, as far as I could work out, is a secret force of armed women, who are either terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective. I’m pretty sure that Hall is taking the latter perspective: the world has gone wrong, there’s no food or freedom, women are made to wear contraceptive devices and the Carhullan army is going to do something about it.

It is funny – I have spent quite a bit of time this week with an extremely well known public intellectual (Professor Stanley Fish) and a very short time with Sarah Hall, but she’s the one who seems to be the more relevant and with more of importance to say.

Perhaps I should have told her that. I’m sure that it is not that long ago that I would not have even dared approach someone with such stature in my eyes, let alone engaged her in conversation but that is what I did. I was wanting to have my book signed and since I couldn’t ask a question during the talk (my voice was all but gone), I asked her about the authors she had been talking about, the ones she loves for their descriptive power – she named Michael Ondaatje, Alex Miller and Hilary Mantell. I told her that it seemed a shame that her latest novel is a departure from her own descriptive voice and was reassured that the next one will be a return to it: it suited the characters and story to pare the current one back. I then left her with the suggestion that she might like Catherine Chidgey’s The Transformation.

An Hour With Junot Diaz

This was an unusual session, in that Diaz would not read from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, indeed, barely even talked about it. I’m not really sure what he did talk about – his family got mentioned quite a bit, often in the context of fame or money. On being chosen as an Oprah book, his sister has pointed out “There is lots of cursing, you curse a lot, there are perverse sexual acts. This is not for Oprah” or words to that effect. On the Pulitzer, a prize which gave him $10,000, his mum pointed out he lost some to his agent, more to tax, and took him 11 eleven years to write. “As a source of income, you do the math.” So, there was some self-deprecating humour, a few hints about the novel, his hopes for reception in the Dominican Republic once the novel is translated into Spanish and, unlike authors I heard from earlier in the day, he seems to be thoroughly over his characters.

I had hoped that I could go to Poetry Idol, but was greeted at the door with “Sorry, we’re full – there’s a poetry gig on”, given in such a tone as would suggest I should have known better than to get into a poetry gig, because they always sell out. Yeah, right! So, instead, I went back to where I was staying, got into a row with a German fellow and ordered some of the Festival books.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar (2006)

I don't think I have ever read any books set in Libya before. I doubt I would have read this one had it not been shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2006: it was sitting on the shelf in the library, so I picked it up. As it happens, I have now finally read the entire 2006 shortlist.

It is a fairly simple story, nothing flamboyant about the writing style, a little bit lightweight to be honest: nothing really grabbed me about it until very near the end. The narrator is Suleiman, a nine year old boy at the time of the action (which is set ten years into Qaddafi's regime, with no end in site). Much of the tale could have been anywhere - stuff about his relations with his parents (mum is ever present, dad is a far more shadowy figure) and his school friends, with their shifting allegiances.

One significant difference is the story of his mother: married off at the age of 14 after her brother dobbed her in for talking to a boy. Very little is said about relations between her and her husband: all we are really told is that she's drinking an awful lot of "medicine", the kind that comes from the baker and is illegal. The worse things get, the more she drinks and the more she tells Suleiman.

The other major thread to the narrative is the ever present threat of Qaddafi's regime: the neighbour has recently been taken and is seen being interrogated and than hanged on public TV. Who knows whether Suleiman's dad has ever actually done anything: all know it is inevitable his turn will come. The odd thing is that when it does, he actually returns (the only time he and his wife seem to be happy together and she doesn't drink). Is he "innocent" (whatever that might mean in Qaddafi's Libya) or has he done some deal, turned someone in to ensure his release? What nature of man is he? This is left entirely ambiguous. All we know is that at the age of 48, he apparently cracks, reads a forbidden book in public: "Had he come to prefer death over slavery, unlike my Scheherazade, refusing to live under the sword?"

As parents, they had earlier faced difficult choices: too what extent are they to insulate their son from the horrors around them? One problem in doing so is that he might get too friendly with the watching secret police. Although they could not leave, should they take the chance to send their only child abroad, to Egypt? He fits readily in to his new life, and it is only really as an adult that he can say
I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss... Egypt has not replaced Libya. Instead, there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike. I see it in others, this emptiness... How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if only we hadn't got in the way, if only we had waited to se what might have become of us.

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Hunting and Gathering, by Claude Berri (2007)

This movie didn't quite go where I thought it would, and that's a good thing. There seems to be a type of movie where a girl gets caught between a bad boy and a nice guy, and she becomes the prize (normally for the bad boy, much to the nice guy's disgust). Philibert Marquet de la Tubelière (Laurent Stocker) is definitely the nice guy: he rescues a damsel in distress (Audrey Tatou as Camille, who is freezing to death in her garret) and puts her up in his rather opulent apartment, to nurse her back to health. He dresses foppishly - bow ties and an exquisite red velvet (or maybe corduroy) jacket - stutters and has some sort of aristocratic background. He has his flaws - an unwillingness to make much of himself, no "take charge" attitude. Franck (Guillaume Canet) has all the trappings of the bad boy - motorcycle, leather jacket, loud music, random women and a job as a chef. Yes, he visits his dear old grandmother every week, but begrudges every minute and comes back in a foul mood - a contrast with Philly taking in a random stranger.

But things don't go the way I thought they would. For a start, Camille is not this perfect women they fight over - she's almost anti-social (at least, that's her claim about herself, but it doesn't really come through). She too is an under-acheiver: there are many suggestions (without evidence) that she is smart, but works as a cleaner. Sure, Franck cleans up his act and turns in to a genuinely decent guy (which had me wondering - if all Camille wanted was to turn him into a decent guy to have as a mate, why not pick the fellow who is decent to start with). Turns out he (Philly) is not interested: he's got all googly eyed over another girl, Sandrine, and isn't even in the contest. During the course of the movie, he goes from being this nerdy stutterer to stand-up comedian (Stocker is a comedian in real life).

But the thing I liked was that instead of Franck winning his prize, she turns out to be a bit more independent in her attitudes: it is Franck who has to plead for something more than sex.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Update: World Cinema Showcase

Film watching has gone a little awry, as me week got away on me a little. I have managed to see three movies, but none can be the subject of a post in their own right. One is because I simply did not like it: Terence Davies' 1988 movie Distant Voices, Still Lives had an amazing write up as "one of the greatest of British movies", but I found it too depressing. It is set in Liverpool, and tells the story of a family through a generation, starting around WWII. Instead of a conventional narrative, the movie is more like edited high-lights (or low-lights, to be more accurate) - a friend with more technical command of film speak than me says it is "elliptic" in style. The old generation was subjected to what seems to be unyielding violence and rage from the patriarch. The new generation seems a little better - but there are some guys shaping up to be just as bad. And the singing! The characters seemed to be singing the whole way - sometimes the song chosen would be an ironic under-cutting or setting for a scene but my basic problem was that there was far too much of it.

The other two movies leave me with a different problem: they are very visual and I'm not sure I can say much about them. Southland Tales is the new movie from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko). People seemed to hate it - critics and the movie going public, but I kind of liked its madness. I was talking to someone last night about the big-scale madness of the Russian movie Nightwatch - it shares something with Southland Tales, which builds up to the end of the world, from a variety of sources - neo-Marxist terrorists, war veterans
and a breach of the space-time continuum were the most obvious. Meanwhile, people still like to have a good time, so there's lots of pop stars and pornstars - it is a carnivalesque apocolypse.

Then there is Holy Mountain, directed and written by and starring
Alejandro Jodorowsky, maker of cult movies. His first major movie, the psycho-religious western El Topo was on earlier in the week but I had to miss it. As the title suggests, religion plays a part in The Holy Mountain - the latter part is clearly some sort of quest towards immortality. There is a group of nine - all but two live on one of the planets - the other two are the leader/alchemist and the fellow who looks like Jesus. One phase is the loss of self - which they achieved by having plaster mannequins of themselves and destroying them. When they have to count the number of members, they have become sufficiently selfless to fail to count themselves, so "one is missing" - then they see themselves reflected in some water and decide "that missing person has drowned". And this is the most sensible part of the movie! The Onion says this is "all in service of a typically Jodorowskian call to action, urging us to abandon fantasy and embrace reality".

There is lots of blood, of mutiliation, of focus on sexual organs and function (but no actual sex), of disabled people, of things that couldn't possibly happen (e.g. a string of birds flying out of someone's body) and the general wierd. Three scenes show how weird things can get: one has a bunch of toads dressed up in armour as part of a circus (which gets blown up); another sees the Christ like figure wake up surrounded by a multititude of his likenesses cast out of some edible substance
(he eats the face out of one) and the third sees the Alchemist turn this fellow's excrement into gold ("You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold."). I think that this first half was the mad bad world at its worst, the one that provokes the climb up holy mountain.

But the end shows such a pilgrimage has no point: the holy mountain is just a myth, not real.

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Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips (2007)

I've been reading Marie's blog for years: back before she became famous, I think I even linked to her private blog in my blogroll, but when she did become famous, her blog was closed to randoms such as myself and replaced with a less personal one. She is one of my earlier blog crushes (not because she looks good, because we can't normally appreciate such aspects of our fellow bloggers and so it is only recently I have become acquainted with her appearance): funny, smart, warm and "real".

I knew she was writing but didn't really know what, again until recently. Then I started reading bits and pieces about her book on other people's blogs (and a pretty good backstory in the Telegraph) and had to get a copy: luckily, the Waikouaiti Library could oblige. There is a Youtube video of the author telling us herself about her book here.

Funnily enough, a footnote to Alexander Pope's Dunciad is as good a place as any to view this book from. It reminded me that with the fall of man, the ancient Gods (Zeus, Aphrodite, Artemis, Dionysus, Eros, Hermes, Apollo, Athena and the rest) decided that they'd leave earth to the mortals, as being undeserving of the gods. In Gods Behaving Badly, they're all still on earth, living dysfunctionally in a rundown north London house. They're pretty much unknown in modern London - partly because Jesus and the Christian God have displaced them, but mainly because people just aren't into gods these days. This lack of support from mortals is the reason the gods lack power, not that the gods know it, despite the best efforts of Athena (goddess of wisdom) to tell them (she speaks in a particular form of incomprehensible business-speak - I'm surprised there were no "going forwards".)

So they're making a living as best they can: Aphrodite has a phone-sex business, Dionysus is running a seedy pub and is a DJ, Apollo is trying to make it as a TV psychic and Artemis is a dog walker. The novel in facts start with her: she's out walking dogs when she encounters a tree where no tree had previously been:
She reminded herself not to get angry with the tree, that it wasn't the tree's fault. Then she spoke.
"Hello," she said.
There was a long silence.
"Hello," said Artemis again.
"Are you talking to me?" said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.
"Yes," said Artemis. "I am Artemis." If the tree experienced any recognition, it didn't show it. "I'm the goddess of hunting and chastity."
Another silence.
Then the tree said, "I'm Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs."
"Do you know what happened to you, Kate?" said Artemis.The longest silence of all.
"I think I've turned into a tree," it said.
"Yes," said Artemis. "You have."
"Thank God for that," said the tree. "I thought I was going mad." Then the tree seemed to reconsider this. "Actually," it said, "I think I would rather be mad." Then, with hope in its voice, "Are you sure I haven't gone mad?"
"I'm sure," said Artemis. "You're a tree. A eucalyptus. Subgenus of mallee. Variegated leaves."

This is Apollo's doing: feeling slighted because Kate wouldn't sleep with him, he turned her into a tree. No anger management and a complete sense of entitlement.

Into this come two mortals, Alice and Neil. They're in love with each other without ever being able to declare it, so have spent years in a kind of relationship limbo, playing scrabble and other innocuous activities. Aphrodites engineers it: she's in a snit with Apollo and so has a spell cast; he is to fall in love with the next person he sees i.e. Alice. Supposedly, she is also supposed to be magicced into hating him, but Eros (who has become a Christian) doesn't have the heart for it. So, Alice is brought into Apollo's house (as a humble cleaner) and he does his best to woo her. But when he can't, his anger gets the better of him: she must die. For reasons I won't go into, he then has to apologise to Neil but, well, to be a genuine apology, he has to make it clear why he's apologising: Neil can't get why he'd be apologising for Alice's death when she was struck by lightning. The fun in all this is that Neil is this weedy wee guy who's never had the balls to tell Alice he loves her, yet he has to call Apollo out on his half-hearted apology. He does so so successfully that Apollo needs to demonstrate his power: he stops the sun.

All of this leads to Artemis and Neil taking off so they can sneak into the underworld (accessed via Angel tube station in Islington and portrayed as endless suburban mock-Tudor mansions) on a mission to retrieve Alice and confront Styx and Hades to see if they can help get the sun put back on. To be successful, Neil has to be a hero, so when he meets Styx and realises he can't lie about not being dead:
"I am a hero," he said eventually, hoping that this was a category that transcended notions of dead or alive.
The river raised an eyebrow. "you are most unlike any hero who has visited me before," she said.
"It was an emergency,"...
But he shows the qualities necessary for a hero on this mission: he might not be able to beat Cerberus in a fight, but his years of playing word games and his niceness ("It is what I am best at") equip him well to deal with Styx and have her agree to help him. The same qualities help out when he has his meeting with Hades. He's the kind of hero I can relate to.

Oh, and here's the author - I said she was good looking: