Friday, 19 December 2014

L-Space- The Wooden-Shelf Thing

The Wooden-Shelf Thing

I've been putting this off for too long; another look at what's on my ominous to-read shelf. I previously did this with The Glass Cabinet and The Darkened Wardrobe (I have to have stupid names for these things for some reason). A couple of these books have been on there for a long while now...

Bukowski, Charles- Hot Water Music & The Pleasures of the Damned- Poems, 1951-1993
Though I've finished all of Charles Bukowski's novels, there are still a few other volumes of short stories and magazine articles to read, including the story collection Hot Water Music, which I have in a neat minimal paperback from Ecco Press. There's also the matter of Bukowski's poetry. I'm not normally one for poetry, but it would be a crime to read through the author's bibliography without it, and the large collection I have seems a good introduction to it.

Burgess, Anthony- A Clockwork Orange
An unknown number of years before I began this blog, I read an Anthony Burgess novel named 1985, but it just didn't click with me. As a result I think it put a subconcious block in my head against Burgess, so I've voided him ever since- but I still really wanted to get around to reading A Clockwork Orange someday, and now I've finally got him.

Maugham, W. Somerset- The Explorer, The Narrow Corner & Of Human Bondage
Three more entrants from Maugham's extensive bibliography, including his most famous piece. The other two are much smaller, but no less intriguing books in neat little Penguin paperbacks.

Dawkins, Richard- River Out of Eden
Barrow, John D.- The Book of Universes
Pinker, Steven- How the Mind Works

Three books queued up to scratch my occasional popular science itch, recently neglected in favour of a trip through some classsic gothic horror.

Koestler, Arthur- Darkness at Noon
Zamyatin, Yevgeny- The Dragon and Other Stories

Fairly random off the shelf buys, in great little Penguin paperback editions, bought because they just seemed like interesting Eastern European pieces of intellectualism.

MacDonald, John D.- The Deep Blue Goodbye
Thompson, Jim- The Getaway

As I mentioned during my review of Georges Simenon's The Blue Room, I have two other examples from Orion Press' Crime Masterworks series, and these are they. Again, I ignorantly don't really know anything about them, except I'm very excited to read them.

Auster, Paul- The Brooklyn Follies & Winter Journal
My life will never be completed until I've read and reviewed everything by Paul Auster. I read The Brooklyn Follies as a library book a long while ago pre-blog and now need to read my own copy, while Winter Journal is one of two recent pieces of non-fiction from Auster.

Castaneda, Carlos- The Eagle's Gift & A Separate Reality
Peake, Mervyne- Gormenghast

Examples from two cult-classic series that I can't actually read goddamnit because I didn't realise these weren't the first volumes of the series when I bought them. On the back-burner.

Wyndham, John- Stowaway To Mars & The Kraken Wakes
Asimov, Isaac- Foundation, Foundation and Empire & Second Foundation
Roberts, Keith- Pavane

My current slice of to-read sci-fi. I found the Wyndham books randomly second-hand, and having read and enjoyed Day of the Triffids couldn't resist going back to him. As for Asimov, despite him being one of the most famous science fiction writers of all time, I've only read one short story collection from him. The Foundation series was his magnum opus, so if that doesn't click for me then no Asimov novel will. Pavane, meanwhile, is a book included on Orion Press' Sci-Fi Masterworks label.

Amis, Kingley- Lucky Jim
Vidal, Gore- Messiah
Faulkner, William- The Sound and the Fury
Buchan, John- The Thirty-Nine Steps

Four random genre classics I picked up by author reputation and because I'm a literary snob. Faulkner seems the most interesting, though also potentially off-putting if I don't like the ambition style. The Thirty-Nine Steps, meanwhile, I have in an amazing 60's pulp-style paperback that I will continue to love the design of even if I don't like the book. Gore Vidal's book was here the last time I did this, but a little research makes me optimistic.

Capote, Truman- The Complete Stories
Thompson, Hunter S.- The Rum Diary
London, Jack- The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories

Three classic US authors whom I've already begun following on this blog and am destined to continue until I inevitably get bored of this thing. I've been meaning to read The Rum Diary for a long time, but never ran across a charity bookshop copy, so had to actually buy one at full price from Amazon. That annoyed me.

Gatiss, Mark- The Vesuvias Club/ The Devil in Amber

This was on the last list I did too, I just can't bring myself to start it. The problem is even though I respect Mark Gattis' TV work in general (well, Sherlock anyway) I'm just severely paranoid that a modern piece of spy fiction genre fiction by a very modern TV comedy/children's sci-fi actor could possibly be any good. I think Douglas Adams warped my standards a long time ago, to be honest. I'll start it soon, but if it doesn't hit quickly it's getting abandoned.

Gide, Andre- The Immoralist
Houellebecq, Michel- Atomised

More (presumably) existential French literature; one a novella from 1902, the other a novel from 1998. Should be interesting, if nothing else.

Steinbeck, John- Of Mice and Men
I haven't read this book for about thirteen years, and it's one of the most important in terms of my own literary development, so I was very happy to find a copy recently.

Rubin, Jay- Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words

This book was on the last list too, but that's just because I've been saving it is the last piece of Murakami-related writing available to me at the moment.

Pratchett, Terry & Kidby, Paul- The Pratchett Portfolio
Pratchett, Terry & Baxter, Stephen- The Long War
Pratchett, Terry, Stewart, Ian & Cohen, Jack- The Science of the Discworld IV- Judgement Day

Because, of course, I can never get enough Terry Pratchett books. The Pratchett Portfolio is a very small volume of art that I'll look at fairly soon. The Long War is the sequel to The Long Earth, which I very much enjoyed and shall likely continue to do so. Science of the Discworld IV is from a spin-off series I've not properly explored, but will have to in order to cover the whole Discworld series eventually (the year 3010, I'm predicting).

And last and probably least...

Martin, George R.R.- A Song of Ice and Fire- A Dance with Dragons 2: After the Feast

The only book to remain on every single one of these lists, meaning it's been waiting on the pile for almost two years. Every day I flirt with giving the entire Song of Ice and Fire series to Oxfam Bookshop, but I never actually get around to it. Still, in all likelihood, I'll probably never read this, the final volume available yet, because George R.R. Martin writes like a severely concussed Tolkien and I'm just not interested in that. The Dan Brown of fantasy, no matter how brilliant the detached TV show genuinely is.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Georges Simenon- The Blue Room

The Blue Room
Orion Publishing Crime Masterworks

Georges Simenon

I went into The Blue Room almost completely blindly, aside from the publishing line. Orion Publishing's Crime Masterworks series first caught my attention as an offshoot of their Sci-Fi Masterworks books, a numbered collection of purportedly the greatest science fiction novels of all time, through which I first read Richard Keyes' Flowers for Algenon  and Kurt Vonneguts The Sirens of Titan. Later, through the crime series, I read James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and immediately knew that if crime could be this good I needed more of it.

When I randomly found The Blue Room and two other crime books from the series, I snapped them up. Now, after reading this one example from Georges Simenon's extensive bibliography, it's clear that although I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as Double Indemnity it's opened my eyes to the wider possibilities of the genre. While Paul Auster's New York Trilogy redefined the possibilities of a postmodern private eye, the image of a classic early century gumshoe is probably overbearing when it comes to other varied styles of crime fiction.

What should've registered with me in the first place was that Georges Simenon is French, and while I don't like to generalise an entire nation's literature, I think it's safe to say that many twentieth century French novels hold Sartre-built existentialism at their core. Simenon uses the experiences of his densely-layered characters to explore the gamut of human emotion from romance to tragedy, surrounding it with a very precisely constructed crime story relying on tension created by the narrator's drip-feeding the reader crucial information, as the story is told through a series of interspersed flashbacks.

As the story begins, in the present Tony Falcone is recounting his extra-marital affair with Andree Despierre, hidden from his family and her husband, formed of scheduled liasons in the blue room of the Hotel des Voyageurs. The bulk of the novel is taken up by these testimonies, introduced by Tony's responses or train of thought, but narrated from the third person. That by itself isn't complicated, but Simenon chooses to switch from present to past incredibly abruptly, causing my first problems as the sudden changes in chronology felt unpleasantly jarring. This continues throughout the book, and does become less confusing as the story is filled out, but was a serious annoyance for at least the first half

Simenon's tight control of his narration, keeping even the slightest details of the crime secretive all the while loading the characters with motive, take time to bare fruit. When this eventually happens and the full extent of the plot is laid out, Simenon's approach comes across very well indeed, giving the reader a sense of satisfaction like filling out the last pieces of a puzzle. My overall outlook on The Blue Room was certainly swung from dissatisfied to happily bemused by the last twenty pages or so, and the credit is all due to Simenon's careful planning of that. In the meantime, he uses Tony and Andree to agonise over the morals of love and infidelity, with the delicacy of a philosopher. His style reminded me of Czech author Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), though unfortunately without the overall same quality of prose. Simenon is good, but not great in this regard, and much of his hard work is undone by his infernal framing issues.

In the end, it becomes a question of whether or not to value the high quality of an ending above the drabness that leads to it. There's no real answer to that, I suppose, just an individual certain feeling dependent on the reader. I know that there were times I found The Blue Room to be a real drag, but that perseverance made it feel worth it to me by partially changing some of the context of what I'd read. That being said, I gave The Blue Room continual chances simply based on the publishers, so maybe I'm not the best example. Whatever the case, The Blue Room was an interesting curio of a book, a memorable experiment in style sure to stick with me, but unlikely to make me seek out any other work from Georges Simenon.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 23- Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum
Victor Gollancz

Terry Pratchett

Other Terry Pratchett Reviews- The Colour of Magic - The Light Fantastic - Equal Rites - Mort - Sourcery - Wyrd Sisters - Pyramids - Guards! Guards! - Eric - Moving Pictures - Reaper Man - Witches Abroad - Small GodsLords and Ladies - Men At Arms - Soul Music - Interesting Times - Maskerade - Feet of Clay - Hogfather - Jingo - The Last Continent - Raising Steam - A Blink of the Screen - Sky1 Adaptations - Dodger - The Long Earth (w Stephen Baxter)

“I never understood that story, anyway,” said Nanny. “I mean, if I knew I’d got a heel that would kill me if someone stuck a spear in it, I’d go into battle wearing very heavy boots—”

I used to love Carpe Jugulum for a while, more so than any other Discworld novel (aside from Small Gods). It was first published during the time I was still frantically reading through Pratchett's back catalogue, and though I'd yet to reach the financial freedom of buying each new hardback on release, each new paperback release was very exciting for this series with a mere twenty-two installments so far. Fast-forward to the present day, and I just don't get particularly excited about new Pratchett books like I once did. His output has massively increased over the past few years as he takes advantage of what might be the end of his writing career, and I've not been able to catch up. These days I actually resent the thought of buying new hardback books, since they take up so much damned space.

Carpe Jugulum, with its typically fantastic illustrated cover by Josh Kirby (one of his final Discworld covers before his death in 2001, sadly), was a big deal to me back in 1999. It would've been an even bigger deal had I realised at the time that this, like The Last Continent prior, was a landmark character book. As Continent was the last proper Rincewind book, Carpe Jugulum (topically 'size the throat') is the final 'proper' novel for an equally important selection of characters; the Witches. The expanded (after the events of Maskerade) coven of Macbeth-inspired ladies had been involved in perhaps the most high-octane adventures in the series, saving the tiny, magic-fueled kingdom of Lancre  (and the world) from false monarchs, evil witches, even more evil elves, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. For this, their final adventure together, Pratchett serves up their deadliest villains yet; vampires.

The vampires of the Disc are strong, vicious, and with minds of steel. The problems begin when King Verence invites (his first mistake) the Magpyr vampire family of Uberwald to Lancre as guests, and they promptly and efficiently go about taking over the castle through traditional vampire mind control. Not even Granny Weatherwax can fight the unbending power of the vampire mind, leaving the kingdom seemingly powerless to resist. It's a very straightforward plot by the author's standards, which is the key reason that, in hindsight, I don't view the novel as a Discworld classic anymore. The framework is strikingly similar to the earlier Witches book Lords and Ladies, suggesting it's likely that Pratchett's choice to give up on the Witches series-within-a-series was due to his boredom with the characters, resulting in the recycled ambiance.

“I mean, it's one thing saying you've got the best god, but sayin' it's the only real one is a bit of a cheek, in my opinion. I know where I can find at least two any day of the week. And they say everyone starts out bad and only gets good by believin' in Om, which is frankly damn nonsense.” 

The vampires are interesting creatures though, since Pratchett uses his to satirise the various portrayals of them through the history of pop culture. The parents of the Magpyr's are very traditional figures, with Vlad Magpyr a Bela Lugosi-style Dracula archetype, while the youth are far more inspired by early-to-mid 90's vampire portrayals, with dollops of angst and style in equal measure. Pratchett plays with this very specific generation gap for humour wonderfully, bringing to the forefront of the novel the newest addition to the coven, the very overweight and unconfident Agnes Nitt (originally of Maskerade) to represent everything about humanity that the vampire is not. While the two younger Vampyre's are faintly ridiculous, Count Vlad is not, and the intensity of his battle of wills with Granny Weatherwax provides the real tension behind everything. Pratchett usually tries to keep the full extent of his characters' various powers a mystery, avoiding the temptation for a narrative arms race and ruining the aura, but the events of Carpe Jugulum are an exception to that.

In conclusion then, I find Carpe Jugulum one of the easiest Discworld books to pick up and race through, thanks to the direct plot and immediately recognisable pop culture parodies. As a final Witches book it suffers through a lack of ingenuity compared to, say, Witches Abroad, but makes up for a certain amount of that through the intensity of the action. It's certainly a blockbuster, lacking some finesse but giving Pratchett the chance to give his final words on a segment of horror culture that almost everything has already been said about. When I was sixteen-years-old and constantly watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this was the book for me. It's lost sparkle in the proceeding years, but it's still a fun interrogation of vampire tropes with danger and charm. It's just a shame the next Discworld book, one with very similar themes, won't be getting such a favourable review.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Paul Auster- Hand To Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure

Hand to Mouth- A Chronicle of Early Failure
Picador Press

Paul Auster

Other Paul Auster Reviews- The Invention of Solitude - In The Country of Last Things - Moon Palace - Auggie Wren's Christmas Story - The Art of Hunger - Mr. Vertigo - Timbuktu - The Book of Illusions - Oracle Night - Travels in the Scriptorium - Man in the Dark - Invisible

“But money, of course, is never just money. It's always something else, and it's always something more, and it always has the last word.”

One of the more obscure entries in Paul Auster's bibliography (which after ten years I'm finally getting near to finishing), Hand to Mouth is a prequel to his name-making 1982 debut The Invention of Solitude- the collection of introspective personal memoirs surrounding the death of his father. Again taken with the need to chronicle his own life, this short tome covers the period of Auster's experiences from his latter university days up until his first serious attempts at novel writing, and so mostly consists of self-admittedly overzealous failed writer angst, mixed-up with his memories of some very odd people whom influenced him on the way. It's also a very brief read, as Auster purposefully condenses experiences and descriptions of others that others may have dwelled upon into barely 160-pages.

Auster is super cool.
This brevity is the key to Hand to Mouth's final status as an amusing, but unfortunately irrelevant read- even to someone as fascinated by Auster's long-form prose fiction as I. The appeal of the book was obvious; the chance to perhaps further understand the creative process of a literary hero, but such opportunities seemed few and far between. Though Auster describes the extent of his earlier self's desperation, the introspective self-analysis contains more than a hint of embarrassment at the naivety of youth, and lacks enough detail to suggest important life-points. I get the feeling that Auster wanted to recapture the autobiographical spirit of his predecessors (such as Jack London with John Barleycorn), but was probably too much of a normal person to stand out.

As a result, his exploits meander from slightly interesting, such as his travels to France and Ireland, to generic normality, to absurdity- the latter referring to the time he spent serious time and effort trying to create and have published his own baseball-inspired card game. Auster's baseball fascination nearly always results in easily the worse segments from his fiction, and does so again in this autobiography, where it just seems so stupid and pointless it actually seemed to bring him down in my estimation.

As an Auster devotee (as, I imagine, 95% of the people who read this book will be), I found it amusing and mostly likable enough, but disappointing with that. There are certain aspects which relate to the motivations of characters in his book (particularly the sublime Moon Palace), probably more than I noticed, but not enough for it to seem revelatory. If any non-Auster fans come across Hand to Mouth, I'm sure they'd probably appreciate it as a decent, well-constructed light read also, though little more than that. In essence it's a curio, a self-obsessed long essay that Auster likely never intended to make waves but which he probably felt he needed to write.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Ryunosuke Akutagawa- Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
Penguin Classics

Ryunosuke Akutagawa
2004 (Collected)

“He disliked his own lies as much as his parents', but still he continued to lie -- boldly and cunningly. He did this primarily out of need, but also for the pathological pleasure of killing a god.” 

When I found this book on the shelves of my favourite of all book emporiums, my local Oxfam Bookshop (other bookshops are available), it was an easy purchase choice, despite never having heard of the author before thanks to my woeful ignorance of world literature. I'm enough of a literary hipster to easily be coerced into buying anything presented as a progressive Japanese classic, so when a quick browse of the cover and blurb told me this collection of short stories contained an introduction by none other than Haruki Murakami and had been translated by regular Murakami translator Jay Rubin, it was a no-brainer. A part of me (the snobby part, probably) hates admitting to my ignorance on, well, anything, but it seems pretty clear that this new collection of translations had been designed as an entrance point by publishers Penguin for the millions of English-reading Murakami fans to delve into the otherwise seemingly-inpenetrable realm of older Japanese literature without requiring a degree course or something- and that really is fantastic.

Murakami's introduction was an interesting lead, and I'd be lying if I said that the chance to read more of his writing wasn't a big factor in my desire to pick this up next, such is the state of my fandom for the author. Murakami's detailed, thoughtful biographical analysis of the short life and career of Akutagawa gave me a welcome head-start on what to expect from the author, but also hinted at a strong familiarity with the cultural impact of his work that I feared might be initially lost on me. The older I get and the (hopefully) more well-read I become, I've become more and  more certain of the power of familiarity in understanding the true craft of each lauded author. That may be an obvious statement now I read it back, but its importance lies within the ability of the first time reader to recognise the hidden depths of subtle writers, particularly ones who obsess over themes and explore them inside out in their novels and short stories.

The first story in this collection, the eponymous Rashomon, was a fine introduction to Akutagawa's style. One of the shortest stories in this collection, it nevertheless left the biggest impact on me, thanks to the playful narrative adding an almost-indefinable edge of the surreal. The story of a servant exploring the earthquake-ravaged city of Kyoto is too short for an unraveling plot, instead encapsulating just one scene with an air of poignant mystery. Akutagawa's influence on Murakami, meanwhile was already clear. The next story, In A Bamboo Grove shows Akutagwa's playfulness with the short story format; presented as it is as a succession of witness statements from a murder trial. It's also a very bleak story in tone, something which it becomes apparent is a common feature of Akutagawa's work. It's at this point that if I had more experience with the author I'd be able to analyse more succinctly what he was feeling, but I only know a few facts; that Akutagawa feared madness, was obsessed with death, and committed suicide at the age of only 35.

Such bleak facts cast somewhat of a clearer eye on the status of Akutagawa as not only a popular author, but as a tragic cult icon, a Japanese literary Kurt Cobain-style figure who's voice transcends typical narrative. There is undeniable power in his bleakest work; Hell Screen is a longer story of an obsessive painter interested only in depicting visions of hell on his canvasses, and whose drive to envision the images leads him to setting up real-life scenarios of hell in which to witness for inspiration. It stuck out as me particularly for its similarities to classic romanticist literature of the west, ingrained comfortably with Akutagawa's voice. The later stories in this collection veer more to autobiography, and, to be honest, these lost my interest in comparison, probably requiring a greater appreciation of the writer to enjoy.

As an introduction to an author from a time and place a world away from me, this was an engaging, thoughtful read. Though it's so easy for me to compare Akutagwa to more familiar contemporary Japanese authors, many of whom have a western tint, Akutagawa's work was unique to me thanks to its lack if such influences. As a result it seemed naturally more foreign, though that added to a feel of early magical realism. Though I feel as though my own cultural distance from this work and lack of understanding limited my full enoyment, but at the same time gave me the great excitement of exploring a new period of literature. Haunting and memorable, this is something that will grow on me.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Not Books IX- Objection!



  Brazil (1985)

I'd been meaning to watch what I've commonly heard referred to as Terry Gilliam's best film for years, but but there's always that sight hesitancy that comes from the director's ability to become just that little bit too zany. I would've watched it sooner had I known that the plot was Gilliam's take on Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four- since that's a pretty easy premise to get a handle on- but after I finally did see it I was left underwhelmed. I suppose the key feature of Brazil is the visual aspect, where Gilliam and his team uses their imagination to make the most of his budget, creating am expansive-feeling, futuristic dystopian England. Though I've seen enough later work from Gilliam to expect a certain style, Brazil seems to be the most iconic-looking I've seen.

But unfortunately overall I didn't really like it. Maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention to the details of the plot, something that probably happened when I realised how close to 1984 it was. I also didn't realy care for the performances that much either; Jonathan Pryce was apparently lauded by many for achieving his breakout role, and he is a convincing character, but for me just wasn't a remotely likable one. He had all cowardice needed to play the fairly stereotypical role of unassuming English guy forced to take a stand, but no likability factor. Even worse for this viewer, Michael Palin just was not very good in his role here. That's hard for me to say because I love Palin, I think he's the most talented comedic actor out of all the Pythons, but in this role he was as flat as a pancake.

So, the ending then (spoiler alert, obviously). The key difference in tone between Brazil and 1984 comes down to the ending. In 1984 Winston Smith meets a bleak fate as he is brainwashed to love Big Brother. It's very downbeat. In Brazil, lead character Sam Lowry is similarly captured, his girlfriend presumably murdered and his hopes of escape nil. Rather than resist as Smith does, to defend his ideological values, Lowry simply goes mad instead- drifting off into a fantasy world where he and his love have escaped the clutches of the government once and for all. In a way, I think it's supposed to be a 'happy' ending, but honestly it did very little for me. I'm happy Gilliam didn't totally rewrite 1984 into some sort of heroic toppling of the fascist powers, but the difference between this fate and that of Smiths' seems to suggest a sense of triumph over adversity that I just didn't buy. Lowry happily losing his mind as some sort of victory rings hollow against Smith's constant defence of his.


How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

I wanted to like this, I really did, but it turned out to be another generic, apathetic waste of time. Well, if you're an adult, anyway. How to Train Your Dragon 2 looks like the billion dollars it probably cost to make, and is probably sure to delight shallow kids everywhere with its combination of said looks, childish humour and hardcore marketing efforts (that sounded bitter). It thoroughly entertained my girlfriend purely on the fact that there were cute dragons in it. Unfortunately I'm way too cynical, easily bored, and totally the wrong audience for the film. That's not going to stop me from a rant about how things were better when I was a youth, etc.

The aspect with this film, and with the majority of Dreamworks (apart from Rise of the Guardians) films that I've seen is down to the lazy treatment of the true target audience by assuming that they can't handle any variance in characterisation, and won't notice inconsistent plot details. As a result, every Dreamworks lead character and their supporting acts act like wisecracking teens from the Disney channel (kind of ironic). If the character isn't human then it doesn't really matter, since they're anthropomorphized to such a degree that they basically are (maybe not so much in this film, but in the hits like Madagascar etc.). The wisecracking little shit who filled the role of lead character here particularly annoyed me, due to his being completely infallible, while the adults around him all act like idiots (another common lazy trick). Annoying me most of all was the fact that all of the adults had strong Scottish accents but the children were all American for some reason. I hate lazy writing like that in children's films. Oh, and there was some kind of plot, or something. Let's speak no more of this silly film.


 Highlander (1986)

Like Brazil, a film I've meant to watch since time immemorial, but unlike Brazil a film I quite enjoyed for what it was, even though what it was is stupid. The apparent immortality of the Highlander franchise always caught my attention, and the desire to see Christopher Lambert's most famous role (after enjoying him so much in Mortal Kombat) was what finally brought me to it. It was, in almost every way, exactly what I expecte. Lambert appeals as a kind of Jean-Claude Van Damme alternative, and the culmination of his charisma, the intriguing high concept, and the film's dedication to being as 80's an action film as possible all made this fun.

To be a fair critic, most of the acting is appalling, the plot intricacies often don't make sense, and the fight scenes are underwhelming. Also, Sean Connery playing an immortal originally from Egypt? How long would it take for an Egyptian to pick up a Scottish accent, exactly? Ridiculous stuff. Despite all that, there's a certain unquantifiable coolness about the atmosphere, and it all looks pretty nice too, with the contrasting scenes in the Scottish highlands and modern day New York providing a memorable visual effect. Plus, how could I not like a film that starts out with a wrestling show at Madison Square Gardens with the actual real-life Fabulous Freebirds? 


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

I really, really wanted to enjoy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the intelligent franchise-reviving blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes and thus the next installment in a re-imagining that jettisoned the cheesy crap of the past forty-or-so years. Since I read and utterly loved Pierre Boulle's one off science fiction adventure original Planet of the Apes, I've grown far more attached to the potential of the idea and also its origins in pseudo-scientific Conan Doyle-like adventure fiction. Rise was a great example of careful, well-planned plotting that suggested that the writers had already compiled their own version of the fictional chronology leading to the full rise of the apes and downfall of humans, and I was anxious to find out the next step through this sequel. Unfortunately, I found it to be a big let down.

The first thing that caught me out was the minimum ten-year jump from the end of Rise and the start of Dawn. I wasn't expecting an immediate sequel, but when it was quickly revealed that the majority of the human race had been wiped out by a deadly Simian-flu virus, I felt like I'd missed a film in between. Again, I wasn't expecting a comprehensive chronological coverage of events, but these are some pretty big parts of the story being missed out. It wouldn't be so bad had the characters explained the events of the past in more detail, but they didn't bother. It also wouldn't have been so bad if it didn't feel to me like the events of this film were far less important and dramatic than the mystery of how exactly this all happened. Instead, we start with the introduction of a status quo where the apes, led by Caesar (the star of the original) are living happily in the forests surrounding San Francisco, riding around on horseback. How exactly Caesar managed to train hundreds of apes into doing things like riding horses and talking in English without the benefit of the special scientific brain potion he received isn't mentioned. Nor is it explained why the pre-Simian flu Human civilisation didn't just go into the jungle and recapture the apes that caused such a fuss on the Golden Gate bridge in the last film.

Anyway, some barely characterised humans inevitably turn up in the jungle, causing friction and strife. As you might expect, some of them are good, altruistic lead characters, and some are selfish, right wing villains like Gary Oldman (which becomes a theme of the film when Caesar must understand the capabilities of apes to be similarly divergent, something I quite liked). Similarly as you might have expected, trouble ensues, as the bad people and apes fuck everything up for the good ones, leaving the two species on the brink of a larger war as the film ends. This is all well and good, but not particularly original. Caesar is a great character, and Gary Oldman is naturally very, very good too, but everybody else, human and ape, falls into the trap of being as boring as possible. The billions of scenes starring two apes sitting in the forest, having meaningful conversations in sign language before finishing their conversation in stunted spoken English became very old very fast, almost insulting in the way that they seemed to demand that I care and respect the sanctity of nature as it was presented, despite the fact this was all a CGI blockbuster Hollywood film.

Ultimately (and in an attempt to cut down the length of this review/critical assault), I think this was a hopefully forgettable misstep in a new franchise still trying to find its feet presenting an admittedly ridiculous concept. I genuinely think the decision to skip the human downfall so dismissively and join the apes at a key point after the development of their society was overly ambitious and didn't make me care about their fate one bit. The humans were also totally forgettable aside from Gary Oldman, and the assumption that I'd care about the CGI-ed apes just because nature was stupid. I can see how the writers were trying to introduce more potential fascist style ape culture development, to presumably lead on to the more recognisable future of the ape dominated world, and I think this film might look better in the future as a piece of a larger puzzle, but for now it was a big let-down to me.


Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) 

As much as I find myself increasingly annoyed by the blind fanboyism of the majority of people on the Internet regarding Marvel film studios, I was rather excited about Guardians of the Galaxy (though not enough to bother going to the cinema to see it), having been a fan of Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning's comic source material. Both the comics and movie succeeded in livening up the outer-space portion of the Marvel Universe, thanks to a set of very-well matched characters and just the right sense of humour, and it was no surprise to me the ease of which the characters transferred on screen. Lots of credit needs to go to the filmmakers for taking just the right aspects of the comic, then remixing the characters' back stories to fit into the onscreen MU (though when the script turned to the issue of potential intergalactic war thanks to Thanos' obsession with the infinity gems it all sounded notably vacuous), as well as casting a great set of performers to bring them to life.

Chris Pratt hits all the right notes as Star Lord in quite probably my favourite lead performance by any MCU actor yet, hitting his comedic notes perfectly without damaging the emotional subplot about his mother one bit. His supporting cast are all fantastic too, with each of Drax, Rocket Racoon and Groot making a play for the award of funniest supporting superhero character and running away with the top three spots easily. The plot is simple, but well-constructed and paced, with generally superb dialogue. The action scenes look like a billion dollars, which is what they may have cost. I have to admit that I've been completely spoiled by the power of CGI in films, to the point where I find myself switching off during less inventive CGI set-piece. Strangely enough these CGI action scenes were what I found least interesting about the film in general, to the extent where I came out of them barely remembering what I'd just seen.

In conclusion, my favourite Marvel Studios film so far, easily. Still nowhere near as good as Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films or any of Bryan Singer's X-Men ones though. 


Video Games-

Ace Attorney- Phoenix Wright- Trials and Tribulations- Nintendo DS (2007)

This third edition of Capcom's ingenious newer take of the classic adventure game genre brings together every long-standing plot and character ark of the series so far into one cohesive, tightly-written continuity fest that had my hooked on every line. The gameplay is exactly the same as the previous two, as spiky-haired defence attourney Phoenix Wright is called into action in an episodic series of court cases, where the player must use their knowledge and intuition to gather evidence in more traditional adventure scenes, before heading into court and cross-examining witness statements to unravel the mysteries and win the case. It's entirely story-based gameplay fueled by dialogue, and challenges the player's detective skills in such a way as it feels very rewarding. Unlike the two previous games, here the five cases are all strongly interconnected to form one long story, the culmination of everything left unsolved to this point.

If you've not played earlier games in the series, this is too mired in continuity to be initially accessible, and similarly if you didn't like the said prior games then this obviously won't change your mind. For fans of the series, however, it's a total joy to experience, as past favourite characters turn up en mass, and the newer ones are equally as memorable. My one slight criticism is that the nature of the longer storyline makes some aspects of the earlier cases frustratingly mysterious and confusing, but everything is eventually explained in the final case; the most dramatic and revelatory case of the series so far. I've already ordered the final two Ace Attourney games for the Nintendo DS,  though I'll try to resist jumping straight in before playing something else first. 


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ken Kesey- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Penguin Modern Classics

Ken Kesey

“Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn't it?”

Forgive me for becoming too introspective on this, but reviewing an undoubted cultural classic like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest always seems an awkward proposition- particularly if the reviewer hasn't read it before, nor indeed anything by that author. The problem isn't the need to theoretically try and critically ravage a classic book, because that's not particularly hard at all; you just need to become as obnoxious as possible and target the legions of people who, over time, have built up its acclaim. No, the problem becomes the effect of slight criticism (nitpicking, essentially), and the art of portraying it as, in your opinion, only a four star book rather than five, since it's so, so easy to casually  publicly overrate popular things out of general kindness and the will to succumb to popular opinion. Goodreads is a testament to all of this, a database where legions of casual readers constantly give five stars to contemporary pieces of utter shit, distorting the overall review scores compared to genuine classics that suffer through being more challenging to read and absorb.

Ken Kesey
With that said, I should mention that I gave Cuckoo's Nest four out of five stars on Goodreads, which I know should (if they ever see it) upset a few people I know who consider it to be an undeniable five star classic of American literature; one of the defining novels of the entire nation and up there with books like The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse-Five in both quality and influence. In regards to its cultural influence, I can one hudnred percent understand how that's true, despite my relatively short experience with it (I've never seen the even more famous 1975 film adaptation so the story was totally new to me).  I like to view the scope of twentieth century American literature as an incomplete puzzle, where the missing pieces are impossible to define until properly explored, after which it's impossible to view the puzzle without them, and in that respect Cuckoo's Nest is a vitally important piece.

Written within a framework I increasingly respect (through novels like the aforementioned Gatsby, and W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence), where the narrator shares and maybe even relinquishes the role of main character to another messianic figure, Cuckoo's Nest introduces a very memorable and sympathetic cast of mental asylum patients trapped in a repressive, dictatorial facility where the staff use the patients' syndromes as aides to keep them in line. The stoic, silent Chief Bromden narrates the novel as a long-time Native American resident who has fooled his fellow residents and staff into thinking he is a deaf mute, all the while listening and observing their conversations. When McMurphy, a sane convict who successfully argued his way into what he thought would be an easier internment, becomes his new room mate, Bromden witnesses first hand his attempts to lift his new associates from the repressive doom and gloom of their lives- putting McMurphy into direct conflict with the head nurse, the manipulative Mrs. Ratchford.

From this point on, the book becomes about the battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratchford,  essentially representing liberal and conservative viewpoints. McMurphy is an initially reluctant hero, but who grows as a leader through his friendships with his fellow inmates like Bromden, all of whom respond positively to McMurphy's own form of mental health treatment. Kesey's key themes are essentially very, very simple, easy to follow from the very beginning of the novel and equally as easy to sympathise with. The events of the plot are fairly low-key (until closer to the ending, of course), with a strong focus on characterisation. As the narrator, Chief Bromden grows in confidence and self-respect as McMurphy pushes him to do so, and Bromden's understanding of the system in which he lives in become clearer and stronger.

By making Bromden a Native American, Kesey further establishes a tone of injustice in regards to how the 'combine' (referring to the faceless figures in charge) exists as a system to repress those it deems ill-fitting. As a moral thesis, Kesey's writing is easy to understand and agree with, but then in fairness didn't really go very much further than that. He seems to have the ideals of a George Orwell, but limits the scope of his fiction to embellish the effect on individual human lives, which is part of the reason I don't feel this book hits the heights of premier American literature.

Stylistically, the tone is somewhere between Orwell and John Steinbeck, but I felt that Kesey's prose lacked the effortless majesty of those I consider the best. As a result it was fairly easy to read without too much thought, for better and for worse. The constant human interest and strong character development goes further towards that, but, again. is limited. Perhaps I'm being too unfair considering that Kesey and this novel exists as a bridge between the beatnik generation of the 50's and the unmitigated hippies of the 60's- but even considering that I felt Kesey's prose and stylistic standards to be less adventurous than Jack Kerouac, for example. It's still very good, engrossing, and enjoyable, but didn't have the same impact with me as books by authors with similar reputations, like Vonnegut, Pynchon, or of course Fitzgerald. All of this is a long explanation of why I gave Cuckoo's Nest four stars instead of five on a different website, even though I don't give scores here. In actuality, I very much enjoyed it and could see myself going back to read it again in a few years, as well as reading Ken Kesey's other work.