Man Booker Shortlist 2017

Here is a cheat-sheet if you’re following the Man Booker Prize to be announced on 17 October, but haven’t read the shortlisted books. I haven’t either, save two, but I still have a firm favourite (spoiler: it’s Lincoln in the Bardo) and thoughts about the others. 

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders 


Exquisite. I read this through a haze of jet-lag and coffee, but couldn’t put it down. My fears of heart-breaking sadness over the death of the Lincolns’ son were well-founded but Saunders takes us through the grief with a light touch and it’s redemptive and satisfying by the end. The chorus of the ‘sick’ is comforting and often funny, the stories ring true, his language dazzles and the style is spare and inventive. Warmly recommended and my pick to win.

2.  Autumn by Ali Smith

This sounds wonderful and I’m adding it to my Christmas list. Released 10 weeks after Brexit, it’s the first in a series, with Winter due out shortly. Ali Smith is an original, intelligent author so I’m excited to read this.

I heard she gave an amazing speech at the Goldsmiths Prize recently and have just found it in the New Statesman. It is brilliant – a stunning piece of writing, and I wish I’d been there to see it live (thanks to Liv at the Book Nook who talks about the evening here). 

On the strength of this Ali Smith would be a worthy winner. 

3. Elmet by Fiona Mozley

A debut novel, also going onto my Christmas list. Matthew Sciarappa did an excellent video review of this, and others have said it’s beautifully written and grows on you. 

Well done to Fiona Mozley for being short-listed for a debut. 

4.  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


Hamid has a lovely, fluid writing style. I liked The Reluctant Fundamentalist (his nod to The Fall), which was conversational and witty, and thought-provoking at the same time. 

In this story of refugees, he expresses universal concerns & ideas about relationships with simple beauty and poignant moments. But it lacks tension (despite their hardships) and is distant: I felt an ambivalence about Saeed and Nadia’s fates. 

I would have preferred he name the home country. As it was, too many things were left vague or superficial, so I couldn’t get a grip on the story, although I admired it. 

I wonder if this was deliberate – perhaps he wanted a fable or biblical tone rather than a visceral story. It succeeds well in that case, but isn’t my style.

5.  4321 by Paul Auster

I enjoyed Auster’s New York Trilogy but am not planning to read this. I’m put off by the length and mixed reviews, including that it’s a little repetitive and stale (including homophobic content, which – apart from offending – is so last millennium). 

I heard an interview with his editor who said this was Auster’s magnum opus and most accomplished work, so it would be worth reading if you’re a fan.

6. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund 

Maybe the least likely to win. But again, what a great achievement for Emily Fridlund having a debut short-listed!  It sounds quite beautiful, with an isolated landscape and an odd narrator, but probably not my cup of tea.

Finally, I was surprised that The Underground Railroad missed out. You can read my review of it here

Who is your pick to win this year’s Booker? 

Read Harder Challenge 2017

Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge has definitely broadened my reading horizons in 2017.  Since my progress report in May I’ve braved fantasy, artificial intelligence and a graphic novel  – I hardly know myself anymore!

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Read a book about books

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun

The narrator reads a book & goes off to find the meaning of life & win his beloved Janan. Slow to start, I was soon immersed in Pamuk’s rich, lyrical prose. His sentences are intricate, but so exact they stop you in your tracks. I love the layers of meaning & imperfect characters. (My full review is here).

Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean

I love the originality of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s work (although rooted in the tradition of such greats as Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and his rhythm – taut & lyrical, the prose flows beautifully with a wistful tone: “the nostalgia for things that weren’t yet lost”.  He creates a strong sense of place – Colombia from the 1960s to 1980s – and a story within a story. Antonio’s slow, believable decline is matched by the sympathetic characters Ricardo, Elena & Maya.

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Read an all-ages comic

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chang, Matthew Wilson and Jared Fletcher

Not my usual genre!  This was a fun, beautifully illustrated, fast-paced comic. I loved the strong protagonists (12 year old girls), smart, sometimes wrong, dialogue – showing the 1980s era – and detailed pictures. The inventiveness took me back to my youth, but it’s unlike anything I read when I was young.

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Read a travel memoir

The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore

Tim Moore has the somewhat mad idea of riding a 1967 shopping bike from the German Democratic Republic the length of the Iron Curtain (20 countries, 9,000km). The result is a mix of travelogue and memoir of a previous trip in 1990, mixed with history. Moore has a wonderfully self-deprecating style; it’s often laugh-out-loud funny. He paints a dismal picture of soviet Russia, and is glib at times, but also savours moments of friendly goodwill. A unique trip.

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Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

A slow start but I enjoyed this – in the end the thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading. The isolation, and the settlers’ cruelty to the Aboriginal inhabitants of South Australia depressed me (knowing it’s based on fact). Would be a good discussion for book clubs.  My full review is here.

Read a fantasy novel

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

I struggle with fantasy because it requires that extra suspension of disbelief, but Philip Pullman succeeds in creating a rich world with human concerns.  I’m glad I read this, inspired by Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words, who are (re-)reading the series in anticipation of The Book of Dust, with La Belle Sauvage due out on 19 October.  Lyra is a great protagonist: a strong, street-smart but caring 11-year old girl who goes on a quest to save her friend and uncle.  Pullman creates vivid, alternate Victorian England and Lapland settings and nuanced characters.  A well-crafted fantasy with much to think about.

Read a non-fiction book about technology

It’s Alive! by Toby Walsh (to be published in the US as Machines That Think)

Artificial intelligence & the possibility of ‘thinking machines’ is fascinating – & happening faster than we think.  Robots can already write poetry and make music, so there is no reason they cannot learn to be more creative. We don’t know how conscious they can become though. My brain starts to hurt when I think about this.

Toby Walsh cuts through the hype to explore the likely advances, the benefits and dangers – in particular he warns against autonomous weapons, or ‘killer robots’, in war. Wonderful engaging style, clear writing & he brings expertise & thoughtfulness to the topic. Recommended.

Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (banned in Chicago schools and challenged in other states)

This is Marjane Satrapi’s story of her childhood in Iran during the revolution and Iran-Iraq war.  It has not been banned or challenged in Australia to my knowledge, but it was a great prompt to read a book I would not otherwise have discovered.  The beautiful pictures capture movement and emotion and her words are honest, to the point and unsentimental, with wry humour.  I loved the feisty narrator and was troubled by the parents’ decision to stay when they had the choice to leave, amidst oppression and war.

Read a book about war

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

The story of children in a Warsaw ghetto in the Holocaust. Aron falls in with a gang, but he is still an innocent, troubled child: his relationship with his mother is beautifully described.  A sense of sadness & foreboding pervades the book. There is humour early on in the kids’ teasing & banter but this fades, as they move into survival mode & watch friends & family die. Dr Korczac is a hero to his orphans. An unflinching portrait.

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Read a book published by a micropress

Mikumari by Misumi Kubo, translated by Polly Barton, foreward by Naomi Alderman

Fantastic, I recommend it.  Strong writing, the protagonist schoolboy is funny but sympathetic and his lover, Anzu, a cosplayer, is interesting.  Kubo has been compared to Han Kang and this reminded me of Murakami in the best sense.

 

Read a collection of stories by a woman

Fen by Daisy Johnson

An extraordinary collection. Spare, accomplished writing with wonderfully controlled weirdness. Characters are raw, honest and sometimes turn into animals. Despite these magical elements, the stories feel poignant, true and rooted in the earth.

Nearly there – I have five tasks to go, so will update again soon!

 

 

10 New(ish) Australian Books

Award winners, future classics and some personal favourites are listed here in my top 10 new Australian books.  In alphabetical order:

1.  Common People by Tony Birch

I bought this recently, prompted by doing this blog post and realising I had no books by indigenous Australian authors.  This is a gap I need to redress, especially given one of the joys of reading is to gain a different perspective from my usual sheltered existence.  Tony Birch has won multiple awards and this short story collection has received rave reviews.  I shall report back once I’ve read it!

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Two award-winning indigenous Australian authors (and an echidna)

2. The Strays by Emily Bitto

Inspired by the Heide artists, this perfectly evokes the time and place of 1930s Melbourne and captures their bohemian lives.  Lily and Eva’s friendship feels like those of our teens, when a friend’s house was a wondrous playground, as they experience the thrills and risks of growing up.  The dark side (lack of parenting) is explored too.  Thoughtfully written with well-crafted characters, this won the 2015 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing.

3. First Person by Richard Flanagan:

This is a bit of a cheat as it’s not released until October 2017, but I predict a 5-star read.  I loved The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014 Man Booker prize winner), a thoughtful but unputdownable read with vivid prose and great humanity.  And his earlier novel Wanting, a story of Matthew Franklin (explorer and Tasmanian governor) and Charles Dickens, was a beautifully woven and original tale.

4. The Dry by Jane Harper

I really enjoyed this thriller. A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story. Harper creates the atmosphere of a small Australian country town, both the sunburnt landscape and a community on edge. Some bleak aspects but it kept me guessing.

5. The Good People by Hannah Kent:

A widow in 1820s Ireland struggles with her deformed grandson. Doctors are beyond reach, the church no help so Nance offers to cure the boy with herbs & fairy rites.  As in Burial Rites, Kent brings to life women forgotten by history. The language is full of vigour & poetry, she evokes the way of life & land beautifully & the characters, with little to hold onto but their beliefs, feel real. Mary the maid has dignity & resilience, Nora is unflinching & Nance is firm in her wisdom but lives in poverty.  A little slow-paced for me, but thought-provoking and her prose is a treat.

6. An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award. Another rural Australian thriller, this is distinctive for putting the women front & centre: Chris, whose sister was murdered, & journalist May.  Maguire sustains the constant feeling of threat that men potentially pose to women, and the ambiguities & blurred lines in relationships. She also reflects on the sadness of women having to be on their guard, sometimes putting up defences against men who are trying to love them. None of the characters are simply good or bad though, and this attention to nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Chris is a memorable character and this is a strong, honest book.

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A stack of books by Australian women.

7. Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison

A beautiful debut, intelligently written.  We follow Alice from her rural Australian youth to Oxford, then to old age.  Her bad marriage is hard to read but so sympathetically described and much is left unsaid.  Subtle and infused with music: Zoe Morrison is a pianist and her knowledge and love of music adds depth to the story.  Brava!

8. Taboo by Kim Scott

This is the latest by Kim Scott, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin award, and looks wonderful (the cover, for a start!).  The first page is strong and, like Common People, his voice has the ring of truth and authenticity.

9. The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton

Another 5 star prediction from one of my favourite authors and four-time Miles Franklin award winner.  I loved Cloudstreet, an epic family saga and modern Australian classic, and the distilled perfection of Breath.  Winton is a masterful writer and I highly recommend all of his books.

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A trio of my favourite Tim Winton books.

10. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I will admit that this has been sitting in my shelf for two years now because I’m too scared to read it.  Winner of the Stella Prize and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016, it has been highly recommended as an important, thought-provoking read, and is described as ‘feminist horror’ story of women who are drugged and imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. I promise to brave it and report back soon!

And that’s a list of ten, hopefully diverse, Australian books that we should all be reading this year.  Who are your favourite Australian authors?

10 Books for Women in Translation Month

Here are my top ten books by women in translation.  It is Euro-centric, so if you have some more diverse recommendations, please send them my way!

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  1. Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas, translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts: Strange, compelling stories set in Barcelona and Madrid.  Assured writing, the stories portray realistic families and homes (a girl and her ‘special’ sister, a woman mourning her husband) but twist and turn with elements that make you question reality or the narrator’s state of mind. It’s not often that fiction surprises.  Her fearless exploration of the human mind reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abanonment.
  2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein: I recommend all four books in the Neopolitan Quartet (this is the first).  Her writing is clear and lyrical, with a sense of urgency that propels the story along.  I loved the friends Lenu and Lila, the one studious, the other fierce, both vividly described so you can hear them speak, and see them gesticulate; you feel the heat, poverty and everyday violence of their neighbourhood.  I love the girls’ strength, the feeling of being in Italy and Ferrante’s honest depiction of that place and time.  IMG_9426
  3. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: actually, everything by Tove Jansson.  I loved the Moomintroll books as a child, there is something so cosy, comforting, gently funny about them and together with her illustrations, they tap into a child’s imagination in the most delightful way.  In this book, a six year old girl spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in Finland.  It has a wonderful sense of place and nature, and a story that is compelling but lightly told.  She is so economical and her writing deceptively simple.  It leaves much to think about, but most of all her characters are quirky, unsentimental but completely lovable.  She’s an icon, what can I say! IMG_9353
  4. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. A beautiful book.  Set in World War Two, it describes a family who flees Paris and moves to the countryside, and the tensions that arise when they have to host a German soldier during the occupation.  Irene Nemirosvksy, then a celebrated author, wrote this in in the French countryside during the war, and tragically died in Auschwitz in 1942.  I was swept away by the story of Lucile, and the contrast between the perfectly observed domestic scenes and constraints of village life, and the dangers of war, all written with musical fluidity and a sense of humour.  Nemirovsky was an impeccable writer and this is her masterpiece.  Read it!
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Adriana Hunter. I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, wry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.
  6. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Osagawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive, and learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son & they share a passion for baseball. Much is unspoken (what was his life like before the accident?), but there is a gentle message to treat people with respect, not condescension. I liked her carefully drawn characters and clean writing style.
  7. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush: A five-star read.  Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength and the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  8. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini: I picked this up in Waterstones just before we visited Barcelona, and am just reading it now.  It’s set in the civil war, but told with an originality and perspective (a village girl who is supposed to become a maid, until the war intervenes) that makes the story fresh.  I like her dark humour and the character of Montse, now a spirited old woman but telling the story of her youth.
  9. The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.  Szabo was arguably Hungary’s foremost female novelist.  The narrator (who I think remains unnamed) hires an older housekeeper, Emerance.  She is a strong, eccentric character, and we don’t know what drives her but gradually learn about her past: the reader’s sympathies ebb and flow between the narrator and Emerance. It highlights the way older people are treated in society, and the afterpains of war. Slow at times but rich and satisfying, told in finely crafted prose. The singular characters and some vivid scenes have stayed with me long after reading it. Related image
  10. Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler: I enjoyed these stories very much.  Deftly written, Teffi has a deceptively light style, handling poignant subject-matter with elegance and a sense of humour.  These stories open a window into the Russian literary circles of the early 1900s – fascinating in itself, not to mention her encounters with Tolstoy and Rasputin, which are wonderfully recounted.  Teffi was forced to leave Moscow in 1917 and I recommend her memoir of this period, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

What are your favourite books by women in translation?

10 Books Set in Spain

Hola!  We were lucky enough to visit Sitges and Barcelona as a family in July, so I’ve been hunting down Spanish literature.  I discovered some wonderful books and even managed to read some, in between the usual kids’ shenanigans.

July was also ‘Spain’ month for the Read Around the World challenge, hosted by the fabulous Jen P of The Reader’s Room.

I must say that it wasn’t easy to find books by local authors set in Barcelona – the exception being The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron, which is excellent and on every list, but I had read already.  However, I had some good tips and found more while I was there (= luggage problems).  So here they are!

The following list covers fiction and non-fiction – you’ll experience the Civil War, get to know Picasso, Miro and Gaudi and see changes in Barcelona pre- the 1992 Olympics.

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  1. Barcelona by Robert Hughes: a wonderful ride through Catalan history and tour of Barcelona, especially its architecture.  Robert Hughes is a knowledgeable guide with a fluid, muscular writing style.  I found this dense at times – so much (art) history – but I like Hughes’ honesty and unflinching directness.  For example, the kitsch additions to the Sagrada Familia “could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics.”  Liable to offend – but Hughes liked to rail against modern ‘sensitivity’.
  2. Spain by Jan Morris: interesting and full of the colours and contradictions of Spain, in Jan Morris’ usual lucid prose.  I love her idiosyncratic style: she gives you a sense of the history guided by her own curiosities.  She wears her knowledge lightly and elevates travel writing to a lyrical narrative, filled with personal anecdotes.
  3. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Orwell’s highly engaging account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War.  He was involved in fighting and later had to go into hiding in (and escape from) Barcelona as his group were suspected of being fascist spies.  His wonderfully dry, understated style makes it a pleasure to read: for example, “The point about firewood was that there was practically no firewood to be had.” On the long periods of quiet: “I began to wonder whether anything would ever happen to bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war.”
  4. Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin: wonderful guide to Barcelona.  Toibin devotes chapters to each of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali and Miro, and the civil war among other things.  It’s not as heavyweight as the Hughes nor as lucid as Morris (Toibin is a fiction writer first and foremost) but interesting because he has lived there on and off since the 1970s, so he gives us insights into its people and some memorable anecdotes.
  5. Off Side by Manuel Vazquez Montalban: I loved this literary crime novel.  Pepe Carvalho is a PI with colourful friends and contacts, authenticity and a love of good food.  Great sense of place as he sees Barcelona changing but still has a grudging affection for the city.   Poet-murderers and cynical business interests are at play and Carvalho questions his relevance in the new Barcelona.  Not pacy, but a great read.

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    Reading Off Side at the Sitges Tennis Club.
  6. The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas: two novellas by Cercas (whose novel Soldiers of Salamis I want to read).  In one, a university professor (the tenant of the title) fears he is being replaced by a new academic who shows up his failings. It made me want to read The Double by Dostoevsky, which I think has a similar theme.  In The Motive a writer obsessively watches his neighbours to gain material for a novel, but takes things too far.  Witty and spare, I liked these and the somewhat abstract plots reminded me a little of Murakami.
  7. Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias:  An immersive, layered story set in Madrid in 1980, tracing the ripple effects of the Civil War on a movie director & his circle of friends.  I’ve been wanting to read Marias for a while, and enjoyed his beautiful, melodious writing.  Male-centred, the men are interesting & powerful whereas Beatriz is seen more as a sex object, which bothered me. However, it is thought-provoking. The prose flows like classical music once you get used to the long sentences: “And those who had lost preferred to forget the atrocities committed, either by them or the still worse ones committed by the other side – more enduring, more brutal, more gratuitous – and they certainly didn’t tell their children … for whom their one wish was that nothing similar would ever happen to them and that they would be blessed with a boring, uneventful life, albeit a life lived with head bowed and no real freedom, because one can live without freedom.  Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up.
  8. No Word from Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza:  This was wonderful! Laugh-out-loud funny, quirky characters (aliens) in Barcelona setting and poignant observations of human behaviour. Strong writing, witty and playful. A touch of the absurd highlights the everyday strangeness of human lives.
  9. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda: A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength & the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  10. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre: Still to read!  It centres on Montse, a 15 year old girl living in a small village.  She is supposed to become a maid but her life changes when the civil war arrives.  It sounds original with a wry sense of humour.
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Visiting Montjuic and the Joan Miro Foundation.

 

Special mention also to Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom – I loved his The Following Story so am keen to read this one.  And Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas was recommended by a bookseller in Barcelona as her favourite Spanish author.

Hope this inspires you for your next Spanish trip, or read (or both)!

‘Song to Song’ review

Last year Jason and I saw Knight of Cups, the second in Terrence Malick’s trilogy (after To the Wonder).  I disliked it so much that that I wished the main character (played by Christian Bale whom I normally like) dead, then wished myself dead; and argued for hours afterwards.  Jason thought it a wonderful view of life in all its cinematic glory.  I was frustrated at the lack of dialogue, voice-overs saying trite things about love, male fantasy cliches of women cavorting around naked, then being used and discarded, and the absence of any plot.  Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Teresa Palmer stood out as luminous, interesting characters but it was pointless with the protagonist walking around being self-absorbed and with no respect for them.  Oh, it was infuriating.

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Christian Bale in Knight of Cups.  Image: Slate.com

 

So there we were at the cinema last night to see Song to Song, the third in the trilogy.  Once again, Jason loved it; I hated it.

Song to Song revolves around Faye, played by Rooney Mara, who hangs around music festivals and supposedly wants to be a singer.  We never see her write or sing a note.  As a consequence she is not credible as an artist, so everything that is supposed to flow from that doesn’t hold up.  She wants sleazy producer Cook (played by Michael Fassbender) to help her but falls for musician BV (Ryan Gosling, charming and plays the piano so is almost credible).

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Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling in Song to Song.  Image: Indiewire

Cook is a bad news bear but Faye keeps going back for more and says at one point “I thought any experience was better than no experience.”  This is just one of the bland things the characters say in voice-overs (“Open your eyes.”  “What if I don’t become an artist?”).

The party scenes look like Playboy mansion footage dressed up as art: Cook is debauched, and treats women like possessions to play with and discard.

Rooney Mara wears a blank expression for much of the film (we see glimpses of her happy with BV but they’re inane scenes of her dancing around). She is a passive, ambivalent character and as a result – without even the music to make her interesting – she’s unlikeable. If she is supposed to be a struggling artist, there is no evidence of it: Malick shows her flitting from one lover to another; and if the love affair is supposed to be the focus, I simply lost patience with her poor choices.

The only time I felt for Faye was when Patti Smith appeared, and gave her some advice. Patti Smith is fabulous and, for me, is the heart of this film.

Natalie Portman as Rhonda is strong and compelling but again is given hardly any lines and becomes a powerless figure.  There is a telling scene where a prostitute tells Rhonda that she aspires to be a teacher: she seems to have more control over her life than Rhonda, who was once a teacher but is now with Cook, and seems to envy the prostitute her independence.  Rhonda has given away more than her body.

As for Cate Blanchett, Peter Travers sums it up in his review for Rolling Stone: Malick reduces “this soaring comet of an actress to meandering around barefoot while musing about her tragic past.”

I could go on and on about the characters’ wanderings, random self-conscious dancing and trailing fingers … and the film did.  It felt so long I worried about getting deep vein thrombosis.

One thing I looked forward to though was the setting at South by South West music festival in Austin – an event that I’ve heard is super fun, and have never been to.  But we don’t see the performers (except briefly) and there is none of the joy of being in the audience at a live music event.  Anyone who has been to a concert knows that there is something special in the atmosphere of a good live show, but there is none of that euphoria in Song to Song.

Jason liked it as a dreamy contemplation of life. But to my mind, we’re capable of dreamily contemplating life ourselves; the director’s job is to forge all those incoherent bits into a film.  It is satisfying to watch a story unfold from beginning to end – however inventively told – but this series of floating scenes fails on that score.  Not only does it fail to make sense of these elements of life or turn them into something more universal; it renders the characters’ lives even more mundane.  In fact, it’s like someone telling you about their dream.

Does a film have to tell a story?  Yes, I think so.  Terrence Malick is less interested in straightforward plot than pursuing a singular vision; he is more an artist than a film director.  But that does not mean that it’s good art.

On the plus side: Patti Smith, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and lush, visual cinematography. And it’s always a treat to go to the cinema.

What terrible films have you seen recently?

 

Book Club Takes Hong Kong

More Hangover than handover, the Adelaide Book Club visited Hong Kong last month, so I thought I’d share some of our highlights, and a reading list.

(A pause here to acknowledge that with our book club being how it is, the actual reading list comprised Elle, Vogue and Who magazines.  But nominally our book of the month was Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, which I reviewed here).

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Hong Kong on and off for the last ten years and become familiar with its bright lights, sights and smells (and smog, humidity and impatient pressing of the close-doors button in lifts).  I love the Donkey Kong high-rises and the view over the harbour, and there is an abundance of bars and restaurants to indulge in, with new places opening all the time (too many, and too much indulgence, you could say).  Where to start?

The Jade Market

We went from the airport straight to the Jade Market, to catch Irene of stall 278 before she left for Japan to stock up on pearls.  Nothing if not dedicated, we shopped here for two hours before checking into the Conrad!  Sandy’s Pearls (around stall 400) is also very good.

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Shopping hard at the Jade Market – hotel check-in can wait…

Le Garcon Saigon

We had a great dinner here on the first night.  It’s in the Star Street precinct with I really like: old-school factories mixed with independent Western boutiques (increasingly so, and some might say it’s losing some of its original character, but for me the balance is still okay).  French-Vietnamese with a buzzy atmosphere, outdoor tables and people watching.

We took a walk down Queen’s Road East after dinner and ended at Lee Tung Avenue – prettily decorated with red lanterns – and had a negroni at Ophelia.  This is a luxe bar with a peacock theme and glamorous dancers in cheung-sams performing and posing.  I don’t think I could spend too much time there, but it’s very Hong Kong.  Another bananas bar by the same people is Iron Fairies, 1 Pottinger Street, Central (on the corner with Hollywood Road) – I recommend the watermelon daiquiris.

Sevva

A favourite roof-top bar, with a great view of the harbour and the light-show at 8pm.  We had a pitcher of Sangria, possibly a mistake – I would recommend the lychee martinis next time.

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At Sevva

Ho Lee Fook

A fun restaurant in Central, with great food.  Asian fusion with Momofuku influence, wonderful flavours.  The prawn toast and XO noodles are a must.  No bookings (unless over 6 people) but they’ll drink sake with you while you wait, or you can take a drink on the terrace at Chom Chom across the street – we had a delicious mint chilli cocktail there.
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At Ho Lee Fook.  Kathy and Nicola each bought a lucky cat to take home, so they are sure to have good fortune this year!
Sunday brunch here is a must.  Free-flowing champagne, impeccable Japanese food and a fun crowd – what’s not to love?
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Zuma – the best Sunday brunch.

Cafe Gray Deluxe

I love this restaurant.  It has a fabulous bar overlooking the harbour, beautiful fit-out and the food is always great: I am still dreaming about that steak (I don’t eat much meat and rarely order steak but this was perfect).  Highly recommended for a special night out.

… and now for rest and recovery … and that means books!  I haven’t read as many books set in Hong Kong as I would like, but these stand out:

Myself a Mandarin

by Austin Coates

A charming, funny memoir of Austin Coates, who was appointed a magistrate in Hong Kong unexpectedly in 1949.  I found this book thanks to Simon Winchester, who mentioned it in The River at the Centre of the World.  Highly recommended.

The World of Suzie Wong

by Richard Mason

A classic.  A story of a man who meets a woman on the ferry from Kowloon and stays in a hotel/brothel in Wan Chai.  It has some wonderful descriptions of old Hong Kong and romance at its heart.

Fragrant Harbour

by John Lanchester

This novel does a great job of evoking Hong Kong from the 1930s to the 1990s, starting with a young man who travels there from England for an adventure.  Through him you have the first impressions (eg the blunt frankness of the Cantonese language, the smells of the harbour) and we then meet other characters and see Hong Kong through their eyes.  Well-observed.

The Expatriates

by Janice Y. K. Lee

This novel from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong captures the expatriate experience in all its superficial glory.  Told with compassion and an eye for the small details that make up Hong Kong life, I found it sad but compelling.

If you have any recommendations for books set in Hong Kong, please let me know!