Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Readings & Watchings

The New Space Opera 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois (2009), I'd been looking forward to after very much enjoying The New Space Opera. Sadly, I found it disappointing. I shall be writing about it here shortly.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy (1992), is the first in McCarthy's Border Trilogy. I still don't quite get the McCarthy thing. Yes, there's some lovely prose in this - especially when describing the landscape. But. It took me half the book to work out the story was set in 1949. The two lead characters are supposed to be sixteen-year-old boys but come across as adult men. The plot fell apart somewhat near the end, when the protagonists are released from Mexican prison for no good reason - not to mention their arrest in the first place. And I still don't understand McCarthy's bizarre punctuation - the lack of quotation marks I understand, but why no apostrophe on some, but not all, contractions? All the same, I think I shall read more of his books.

Without Me You're Nothing, Frank Herbert and Max Barnard (1980), I read because I went through a completist phase with Herbert's books last year. Without Me You're Nothing is an introduction to home computing and, as you can imagine given the year of publication, it makes for a somewhat peculiar read today. In some respects, it's almost prophetic; in others, it couldn't have been more wrong. Herbert suggests some future uses for computers which did indeed come true, but also thinks the price of UNIX will continue to rise (nowadays, of course, it's free). Strangely, the authors seem almost apoplectic in their denunciation of those involved in the industry, claiming they're deliberately obfuscating the technology in order to maintain their elite status. I suspect Herbert had a bad experience with someone who sold him a computer...

Brain Thief, Alexander Jablokov (2010), I reviewed for Interzone. So you'll have to buy the next issue to find out what I think of it.

Spies, Michael Frayn (2002), took a while to get going. The narrator returns to his childhood home and, like many novels of this type, tells the story of his time there while leading up to a life-changing event. Frayn takes his time getting to that event - it took place during World War II, and it all begins when the narrator's best friend declares that his mother is a Nazi spy. She isn't, of course; but neither is she entirely innocent. Once the story started gather speed - about a third of the way in - I started to enjoy it more. The "dark secret" isn't all that shocking, but it fits in with the rest of the story. Definitely worth reading.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890), must have been the Twilight of its day. I was not impressed by this one bit. The central conceit is one of those which has entered public consciousness but it's not enough in my, er, book to forgive the novel's faults. The writing in The Picture of Dorian Gray was poor - characters lecturing each other, aphasic dialogue, book-saidism, and when was the last time you saw someone "knit their brows"? Yes, Wilde had a way with paradoxical aphorisms, and there are plenty of bon mots in this book. But as a novel, as a piece of long prose, this is not up to much.

Austerlitz, WG Sebald (2001), was my first Sebald, although I'd been wanting to try one of his books for a while. The entire novel is written as one great wodge of text, with no paragraphs, in long rambling sentences in which dialogue is often reported at two or three removes. There are also a number of photographs scattered throughout the book, some of which directly relate to the story at that point, others which are only peripherally related. It sounds as though Austerlitz might be a book to avoid but, on the contrary, it's one of the best novels I've read this year. Sebald's prose is extremely readable, and the story he tells - digressive and rambling though it is - works extremely well. The title doesn't refer to the Napoleonic battle, but is the name of a man the book's narrator meets at intervals over thirty years, and who tells him his life story. Austerlitz the man, who grew up in Wales, was actually born in Prague of Jewish parents who were interned by the Nazis. His story is not only a search for identity but also to discover the fate of his mother and father. Recommended.

Reference Guide to the International Space Station, Edited by Gary Kitmacher (2006), is a hardcopy edition by Apogee Books of a NASA book - which can be found as PDFs here. I reviewed it for my Space Books blog here.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer (1971), was November's book for the reading challenge, read a little late. See my piece on it here.

The Sea, John Banville (2005), won the Man Booker in 2005, so I had high hopes for this. It's another literary novel like Frayn's Spies, in which a narrator revisits a place important to him during his childhood and gradually reveals an event which subsequently shaped his life. Perhaps I read The Sea too soon after Spies, but I found it a less satisfying read than Frayn's novel. I was also less enamoured of Banville's prose style - sometimes he just seemed to choose a word, or phrase, that didn't seem to be the best he could have used. As for The Sea's "dark secret", it's certainly more shocking than that in Spies, but it didn't actually seem to change the narrator's life as much. Disappointing.

Blood-Red Rivers, Jean-Christophe Grangé (1998), is the novel on which the film The Crimson Rivers was based. I quite like the film - yes, there's a disconcerting jump in story logic about two-thirds of the way through (note to film-makers: if you have to choose between pace or story logic, you've probably done something wrong). So I fancied reading the book, to see how it compared to the movie and... it joins the ranks of Marnie and The Commitments as one of those books which are not as good as their film adaptations. Blood-Red Rivers is poor stuff. I don't know if Grangé is just a bad writer, or was badly served by his translator, but Blood-Red Rivers contains Dan Brown levels of writing. The film also made a better fist of its plot. A book to avoid.

Pendulum, AE van Vogt (1978), is, well, is late van Vogt. I have a soft spot for van Vogt's fiction because much of it is engagingly bonkers. But by the 1970s, that bonkersness had turned into senility. How else to explain the crap stories in this collection? Van Vogt always made it up as he went along, writing 800-word scenes which ended on cliff-hangers. But in these stories, he drags in stuff from nowhere to try and make sense of plots that ceased making any kind of sense by the third page. Somewhere in van Vogt's career there must be a tipping point - good before that date, rubbish after. I need to find it, so I know which of his books to avoid. Sadly, that will probably involve reading a lot of the bad ones...

Encounters in the Deep, dir. Tonino Ricci (1989), is spaghetti sci-fi, and as good as that description suggests. A newly-married couple disappear while cruising off the coast of Florida, and their father bankrolls a scientist's expedition to search the area. They find a flying saucer on the sea bottom, and it's the aliens who have kidnapped the newly-weds. And a lot of other people. And there's this island which rises up out of the sea. And then sinks again when the UFO takes off. And I think my eyes had started to glaze over about twenty minutes into the film, so I have only a vague idea of what actually happened.

Skellig, dir. Annabel Jankel (2009) is an adaptation of David Almond's novel. I've not read the book - which was selected by the judges of the Carnegie Medal in 2007 as one of the ten most important children's novels of the past seventy years. That importance isn't as evident in the film, which is done well but has probably lost something in the transfer to the big screen. Michael and his parents have just moved into a new house, and Michael finds an old junkie hiding in the garden shed. This is Skellig, who is very odd and has strange growths on his back. Michael suspects Skellig may be an angel, and certainly he seems to have strange powers. Meanwhile, Michael's mother is pregnant but the baby is sickly when born and nearly dies. But Skellig saves her. A good film.

Manhattan, dir. Woody Allen (1979). Okay, so both Manhattan and Annie Hall regularly appear on "best of" film lists, but I've yet to understand why. Annie Hall was at least passable, but Manhattan is awful. A forty-two-year-old man is dating a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl and no one thinks he's a disgusting letch. Most of the cast appear to be there to stroke Allen's ego, while he himself continually whines and puts himself down - he wants to have his cake and eat it too. I think there's a plot in there somewhere, but I can't remember what it was. I was never a fan of Allen, but I'd always wondered if I was being unfair to him. I've now seen his two best films, and I thought they were terrible. So no, I wasn't being unfair.

Alienator, dir. Fred Olen Ray (1989), was completely and utterly pants. The title character is a female wrester (I think) in a silver fright wig. She's meant to be a cyborg assassin, sent to Earth to kill a prisoner who has escaped from a prison on some alien world (but which strangely resembles an earthly industrial plant). The prison warden is played by Jan-Michael Vincent of Airwolf fame, and I suspect he was pissed for the entire film. I probably should have been when I watched it.

Sci-Fighters, dir. Peter Svatek (1996), was a tiny fraction better than Alienator. Which makes it almost completely and utterly pants. Roddy Piper is a "black shield" detective, on the hunt for an ex-partner who had been sentenced to life at a penal colony on the Moon. But he died of some strange alien virus. So, of course, they shipped his body back to Earth... where he promptly came back to life, and then went on a rampage, infecting lots of other people with his alien disease. I never did figure out the relevance of the title.

The Decameron, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971), is based on a series of novellas from fourteenth century Italy by Giovanni Boccaccio. The film is a series of linked comedy sketches, ranging from scatological (one character falls into a pit full of human shit) to ironic (a dumb gardener services each of the nuns at a convent, only to reveal that he could always speak). It's an entertaining romp, a sort of cross between a Carry On (but without the verbal wit) and a Hollywood swords & sandal epic made on a low budget. Worth seeing.

Chrysalis, dir. Julien Leclercq (2007), is a stylish French near-future thriller, which is pretty much a genre of its own these days. Police lieutenant David Hoffman loses his wife / police partner to a villain he has been chasing, and subsequently becomes involved in an investigation into the death of an unidentified young woman. His case leads him to a top plastic surgery clinic, which is using, er, cutting-edge technology for purposes other than the clinic's raison d'être. The blurb on the back of the jewel-case gives away the twist in Chrysalis, which spoiled it a bit. I'll not do the same. A pretty good film.

Empire of Ash, dir. Michael Mazo (1988) - yes, I watch some shit films; no, I don't really know why. This is one of those low-budget US post-apocalypse films that were churned out by the shed-load during the 1980s. I blame Mad Max. Despite the fact that civilisation has collapsed, the survivors still have trucks and guns. But not much in the way of clothes. Especially the women. They do have make-up, though. And everyone seems to have forgotten how to act. I think there was a plot in the film somewhere, but I don't recall what it was - good bunch of survivors fighting evil bunch of survivors, probably. Isn't that the plot all these sort of films use?

The Informers, dir. Gregor Jordan (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista - see here.

Stranger Than Fiction, dir. Marc Forster (2006), is one of those films which has a really neat idea at its core. But it also stars Will Ferrell. So I both wanted to watch it and avoid it. Neat idea... Will Ferrell. The premise won out... and, perversely, it turned out that the film only really worked because Ferrell played the lead. That neat idea didn't actually work that well - it was good for the first ten minutes, but then it started to slowly unravel. Still, the film was mostly entertaining and engaging. It was spoiled a bit by the fact that Emma Thompson's character is meant to be a Really Important Novelist, but the prose she read out wasn't actually very good...

1 comment:

George Berger said...

Hi Ian--I just skimmed your list and was pleased to read your negative evaluation of Woody Allen. I hail from New York City and despise the posh crowd he sucks up to in too many of his films. To me it is predictable upper middle-class trivia, with their so called existential Angst and problems.
I find it sad that he is so highly appreciated in Western Europe. Personally sad, too. For several peoplehave compared me with him. I fear that the underlying reason for this is not only a common hometown but a shared ethnicity. Just below the surface lurks, perhaps, Europe's chief plague. Oh well.