Archive for March, 2009

This is the Annie Proulx’s second collection of short stories set in Wyoming.  I didn’t particularly enjoy the first one (Close Range), but this one was a far better read, and I could understand all the acclaim which Annie Proulx has received.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and a number of them are set in Elk Tooth, Wyoming, a small town with a population of around 80 people, so almost inevitably, certain characters pop up in two or more of the stories.

Proulx masterfully conjures up an image of the tough but beautiful land and the hard life of it’s inhabitants – mainly cowboys, ranchers and their families.  From whimsical tales about beard growing contests and a craze for crudely fashioned hot tubs, to tales of rough justice being served, these are stories which though short, never fail to flesh out their characters.  Many of the tales are almost like modern day fables, with a sting in the tale.  My personal favourites were Dump Junk with it’s supernatural twist, and The Contest (concerning the aforementioned beard growing contest).  Plenty of moments of wry humour too.

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I find that many films which are described as ‘powerful’ can be quite disappointing, but Babel most certainly is a powerful film, which doesn’t let the viewer down one iota.

The plot is about four sets of people whose stories are intertwined, although it does not become clear exactly how they are intertwined until the film is well underway.

Two young Moroccan brothers being careless with a rifle recently purchased by their father, shoot a bus full of tourists, injuring Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett).  Susan and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) are on holiday, trying to repair their marital difficulties – the reasons for which become clear throughout the movie.  Meanwhile, their children’s nanny, Amelia, is unable to get a day off work to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico, and so decides to take the children with her over the border.  The fourth strand of the plot centres around a young deaf Japanese girl named Chieko, who is still grieving after the recent death of her mother.  Chieko’s behaviour is rebellious and outrageous.  Her connection to the other characters is somewhat tenuous and is revealed fairly near to the end of the movie.

This is the second film I have watched by director Alejandro González Iñárritu; the first one was 21 Grams, which I absolutely loved (on balance, I probably preferred that movie, but it’s a tough call between the two).  I certainly would like to watch more of his work.

There are fine performances all round in this film – Gael Garcia Bernal in particular is excellent as Amelia’s nephew Santiago.  It’s a small role, but Bernal is mindblowingly good in it.  Brad Pitt – an actor who I think is generally very over-rated – is also perfect as Richard Jones.  Rinko Kikuchi also shines as the troubled Chieko; she brings rebellion and sorrow in equal parts, and it is impossible for the viewer not to feel for her.

In short, this is a wonderful film – very highly recommended.

Year of release: 2006

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Writers: Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Main cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi

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This is a great movie.  John Cusack – always wonderful – is terrific in this, as Lloyd Dobler, an funny and considerate ‘everyman’ 19 year old, who falls in love with a high achieving student named Diane Court (Ione Skye).

Against the odds, Diane falls for Lloyd too, but her father (John Mahoney) doesn’t approve – and as it turns out, he has problems of his own.

So this is basically a coming of age love story…but it’s done very well indeed.  It’s hard to imagine any young girl not falling in love with Lloyd, and the emotions displayed between the two leads certainly made me recall exactly what it was like to be that age and experiencing that first rush of desire.  In the hands of a lesser actor, Lloyd could have been a forgettable character, but John Cusack manages to make him utterly adorable and totally lovable.

Less obvious and cliched than many other high school romance movies which were around at the time (it’s no surprise that director Cameron Crowe went on to achieve fame), this is a film which can surely be enjoyed by any person of any age.

Year of release: 1989

Director: Cameron Crowe

Writer: Cameron Crowe

Main cast: John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney

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Gina Davies, aka ‘The Doll’ is a pole dancer from Sydney, who yearns for a better life for herself.  To The Doll, all that matters is the pursuit of money and all the pleasures that it can being (such as designer clothes, accessories etc.).  One night, The Doll has a one night stand with a stranger named Tariq, who has disappeared by morning.  At around the same time, three unexploded bombs are discovered, and Gina discovers that Tariq is a suspected terrorist…and as someone who has been seen with him, she finds herself a suspected terrorist (the ‘unknown terrorist’ of the title).

The Doll goes on the run, while around her the media whips Sydney into a state of panic about the threat of terrorism.  An unsavoury journalist jumps on the bandwagon in an attempt to rescue his own flagging career, and soon the situation becomes a major news story, with Gina as public enemy number one.

This book can be enjoyed as a straightforward thriller, but there is a a subtext, showing how the media manipulate people’s fears, and how such fears give society justification for vilifying people, with nothing concrete to base their feelings on. Scariest of all was the fact that it is easy to see how such a situation could happen in today’s culture of fear.

It’s a fast moving story (despite taking place over only a few days); the first half however was more enjoyable for me than the second half, which seemed to get a bit bogged down by some overwrought prose.  It also felt a little preachy towards the end, but overall this did not detract from the story.

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Quite a remarkable book, which manages to encompass a wonderful story in surprisingly few pages (less than 180).

The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man who rents a house next to the mansion owned by the famous and mysterious Jay Gatsby.  Nick and Gatsby become friends, with Nick attending some of the famous parties which are held with regularity at Gatsby’s home.  Although popular, the parties are always populated by people who hardly know Gatsby (indeed, thoughout the novel it becomes apparent that Gatsby has few people in his life who he could call friends), and who like to speculate about his lifestyle.

Thrown into the mix is Daily Buchanan, Nick’s cousin, who shares a history with Gatsby.  Daisy is unhappily married to Tom Buchanan, a bullish businessman, who is embroiled in an affair with another woman.

Such a situation can never end well, and throughout the telling of the story it becomes apparent that Gatsby does not seem to be a man destined for happiness.

This book is simply wonderful; the writing is beautiful and almost poetic, with a sense of melancholy.  The characters – in particular Daisy  – are very well drawn. There is more here than the straightforward plot – this is a novel about dreams and illusions, and discontent.  It’s a fabulous read – I wish I had read it years ago, but I am certain that I will rereading it in years to come.

(For more information about the author, please click here.)


Click here for my review of the 1974 movie adaptation.

Click here for my review of the 2000 movie adaptation.

Click here for my review of the 2013 movie adaptation.


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This is the story of Johnny Lim, a textile merchant, Communist and possible gangster.  There are three narrators, Jaspar, Johnny’s son, who has researched his father’s life, and as a grown man is looking at his father’s life in the 1940s, shortly before Jaspar’s birth; Snow, Johnny’s wife, whose narrative is in diary form, written at the time of the events which she describes; and Peter, Johnny’s former best friend, who writes as an old man recounting the events.  All three narratives at times describe the same events, from differing points of view.

The book centres around a trip taken by Snow, Johnny, Peter, an ex-pat English business man named Frederick Honey, and an enigmatic Japanese professor named Kunichika, when they voyage to the legendary Seven Maidens island.  The imminent invasion of Malaysia by the Japanese forms a backdrop to the story.

I really enjoyed the book.  Each narrator has his or her own unique character, and their telling of the story sometimes differs depending on their own perception of the situations they find themselves in.  Interestingly (and I imagine deliberately on the part of the author), the reader never actually gets to know Johnny very well, as he is described according to the point of view of the narrator.  Whereas Jaspar sees  his father as an evil man, Snow and Peter describe a man who seems at odds with Jaspar’s opinion (or course, Jaspar is also relying on sources for his research which probably differ in reliability, and both Snow and Peter are swayed by their own feelings about Johnny).

The story is less about the plot, and more about the characters themselves.  For me, the most interesting character was Snow, perhaps because her story was being written as events unfolded.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable book.  It is Tash Aw’s first novel, and I would definitely read more by him.

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Narrated by a 90-something man, who remembers his days on a circus from Chicago during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this is a gripping and compelling tale.

Jacob Jankowski is a recently orphaned young man, who on a whim, joins the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus, and becomes the show veterinarian. Jacob recalls how he fell in love with the beautiful equestrian performer Marlena, and how he struggled to cope with Marlena’s charismatic but evil husband.He also talks about Rosie, an elephant who seemed untrainable and unintelligent, before Jacob himself discovered the way to connect with her.

I loved this book – the harsh but colourful realities of being part of a travelling circus are vividly brought to life here, and it is clear that the book has been meticulously researched.  Apart from the four main characters (Jacob, Marlena, August and indeed Rosie the elephant), there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters, each of whom is totally believable.

This novel combines beautiful description, while at the same time, keeping the plot moving forward at a rapid pace, and I never found myself bored.  In fact I found myself doing what I always do when I love a book – checking ahead to see if I can squeeze in just a few more pages before I really really have to put the book down.  I became interested in the characters’ lives and truly wanted to know how things turned out.

This wonderful novel comes highly recommended – I will definitely be seeking more books by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Settling down with a book from Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap series is like curling up on a Sunday afternoon with a cup of hot chocolate and a hot water bottle – it’s warm, comforting and very enjoyable.

In this episode of Ave Maria’s life, she struggles with her daughter Etta, who is growing up from a little girl into a young woman.  Ave Maria had defined ideas of what her daughter would be like, but the headstrong Etta has different ideas.  Meantime, a person from Ave’s past comes back into her life and makes her assess her marriage closely…

All the familiar cast from the first two books are here – Iva Lou, Fleeta, Spec and of course Jack MacChesney, and reading about them is like receiving a letter from an old friend.  If you enjoyed the first two books in the series, this one is recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is the true story of story of Sayo Masuda, who talks about her life up to the age of 32 (when the book was published; however there is an afterword, which explains more about Masuda’s life after publication).  Masuda explains how as a six year old she was sent by her poverty stricken family to work as nursemaid in a harsh family.  At the age of 12, she was then sold to a geisha house, where she started her training to be a geisha.  I came to this book after developing an interest in the geisha life, due to reading Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, which was a fictionalised account of the life of a geisha.  Masuda’s autobiography, which was published in the 50s, tells of a harsher and crueler life than that depicted in Golden’s book.  Masuda explains how for some, there is a very faint line between geisha and prostitutes (although there is a line).  She also tells about the treatment that geisha receive at the hands of certain customers and the geisha house to which they belong.

This is not a long book – less than 200 pages – but it tells the story of Masuda’s life, without it feeling hurried.  Masuda had never been formally taught to read or write when she wrote her book, and as a result, the book is written in an almost childlike – although never childish – manner.  (The translation is excellent too; the translater explains how both she and the editor wanted to keep the spirit of Masuda’s manuscript).  Masuda tells of some horrible situations without ever seeming self pitying – although it is impossible not to feel compassion for her.  Her strong spirit really comes through.

This is a compelling insight into a woman’s life and another culture, and a highly recommend read for anybody with an interest in geisha.

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