Book Review - Second Person Singular
by Sayed Kashua
Kashua tells the story of an Arab-Israeli lawyer, living in Jerusalem, trying to fit into Israeli society while serving his Palestinian clientele. The lawyer buys a used book and finds in it a note that he is certain was written by his wife. The discovery kicks off an obsessive search for the recipient of the note. The author does a terrific job of portraying jealousy and how trapped we are by our cultural moorings. There is much playing with ideas of identity and fitting into a culture different from the one you were raised in. As with any art originating in that part of the world, SPS has some political commentary, but it is nuanced and non-confrontational. In his portrayal of relationships between the Jewish and Arab peoples of Jerusalem, Kashua's writing reminded me of Naipaul's 'the world is what it is' perspective in A Bend in the River.
There is much to like in this book, I'd rate it right up there with Intimacy by Hanif Kureshi and Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto, two of my favorite 'relationship' novellas.
Film Review - Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
by Nuri Bilge Ceylan This is such a delightful, moody film with atmosphere and composition in practically every frame. The movie begins with a dark scene shot through a dirty glass window showing three men breaking bread and by turns talking seriously and joking. A dog barks in the background and one of the men gets up, grabs some food and goes out to feed the dog.
A short interlude for credits later we see three vehicles with piercing headlights driving through the rural landscape, stopping ever so often, looking for the evidence of a crime. About three fourths of the movie is shot in the dark, following the three cars around the desolate Anatolian landscape. Through dialog that sounds so casual as to seem completely spontaneous, we learn more about the main characters - the fatalist police chief, his flunky, the pensive doctor, the shocked man in fisticuffs who leads the cops from one abandoned field to another and the prosecutor who once resembled Clark Gable.
There are two spectacular moments in the film, delivered unexpectedly but consistent with the tension that precedes them. In the first, the doctor is confronted by a horrific mask carved onto the rock in an open field. This happens in a flash of lightning when the doctor is relieving himself. In the second scene, the doctor again, no less vulnerable, is sitting as a guest in the room of a village mayor, waiting for electricity to be restored. As the darkness persists, in walks the mayor's daughter, so shockingly beautiful that the doctor virtually melts as she offers him tea.
The movie's tone is unhurried, and it reminded me in many ways of two of Bong Joon-Ho's films, Memories of Murder and Mother. If you enjoyed those two movies, you most certainly must check out Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
Book Review - The Kingdom by the Sea, A Journey Around Great Britain
by Paul Theroux Paul Theroux often refers to his oily shoes and knapsack, and his unshaven appearance which leads to some confusion in the minds of the folks he encounters, watchful as they are for a serial killer on the prowl. Published in 1982, The Kingdom by the Sea is Paul Theroux's third travel book (after The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express) and is as entertaining as every other travelogue he has written since. The author's humorously depressing portrait of Britain's coast and its system of railway lines reads like an affectionate obituary. His disdain for "railway buffs" is exhilarating in its sarcasm.
In The Last Train to Whitby, Mr. Theroux writes - "The priory ruins in shadow were sliver-black like charcoal, with the same frail sculpted look of burned wood, but where the daylight struck them they were as red and porous as cake. The surface color of the island was the yellow-gray of human skin and farther off there was a castle wrapped around a solitary high rock." Bright and optimistic passages like this one are few and far between. The only other place that the author aspired me to go visit, for its beauty and not for the desolation that is the coast of Britain, was Tenby. "But Tenby was more than pretty. It was so picturesque, it looked like a watercolor of itself" he says.
The author's darkest words are reserved for the town of Belfast. "It was a city of drunks, of lurkers, of later risers. It smelled of wet bricks and burning coal. It stank. It had a sort of nightmare charm. When the rain came down in Belfast, it splashed through the roof and splattered through the window glass and poured into your soul. It was the blackest city in Britain, and the most damaged." That sounds terrible, doesn't it?
I don't know if it is deliberate or unavoidable but Mr. Theroux' travels always seem to take place when significant historical events are afoot. In this case, it was the Falklands War and, towards the end, a national railway strike. 1982 was also the year of the Serpell Report (wiki ref - https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Serpell_report) which, it was feared, would yield a death blow to British Railway. The Wiki page says the railways survived. All the better.
A few more quick observations - the author's travels through Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are instructive in understanding Britain's particular collection of nationalities. The names of the places are no less strange and foreign sounding than say in Dark Star Safari, Theroux's travelogue of Africa. Britain is a much traveled and written about country but Paul Theroux manages to make this book fresh and interesting. His description of a "typical" coastal town ("There was always a fun fair and it was never fun, and the video machines were always busier than the pinball machines or the one-armed bandits. There was always an Indian restaurant and it was always called the Taj Mahal and the owners were always from Bangladesh.") is truly inspired.
Book Review - The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan
I'm more of a carnivore than I am an omnivore and I approached Mr.Pollan's book with a some skepticism. I did not expect to like it as much as I did. The book has its flaws but should be required reading for anyone who eats. At least it should be required reading for anyone who eats in America because many of the challenges Mr.Pollan discuses are directly related to America's unique food culture.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is divided into three parts, each one the story of a meal. Corn is the star and the villain of the first part - Industrial/Corn. Mr. Pollan is perhaps at his most sermonizing in the first section, liberally anthropomorphizing corn and building it up into a sentient cross generational plotter. I was irritated to the point of wanting to give up on the book. The central point, that there is too much corn produced in the United States and it shows up in too many places it shouldn't, is indisputable. The story of corn ends with a meal from that much vilified icon of American culture, McDonald's, with a particularly discomfiting description of chicken nuggets. For the record, I can't stand McDonald's - I've only eaten there under extreme circumstances.
Organic has gone mainstream and has therefore also adopted industrial techniques without which a store like Whole Foods would be impossible. Mr.Pollan visits a free range chicken farm and reveals what "free range" actually equates to - two tiny doors at either end of a shed the size of football field, carpeted with twenty thousand chickens. As Mr.Pollan pulls away the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Organic Oz it is hard not to question paying the premiums regularly charged at your friendly neighborhood organic grocery store. There is a brighter side to the narrative - the organic non-industrial meal, grown the old fashioned way. The author profiles Joel Salatin, a "grass farmer" who runs Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley. William Salatin started the farm in the 1960s and his son Joel carries on, building on and perfecting the older Salatin's techniques that make his farm a model of sustainable agriculture. It is obvious however, that the amount of effort put into farming by Joel Salatin is unlikely to win many converts. The industrial production of food is much too efficient at producing calories - albeit in the abstracted form of corn.
In the final section of the book, Mr.Pollan acquires a gun and goes hunting. The author freely acknowledges this is the least practical way to put food on the table, but following him around on his hunter gatherer quest makes for excellent reading. Chapter Seventeen delves into the ethics of eating animals and its justification. I've eaten meat all my life and I don't expect to ever give that up, but it is undeniable that the cruelty of feed lots and all the other techniques involved in the industrial production of meat is simply indefensible.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is educational and thought provoking. Highly recommended.
Four Favorites from Korea
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
Directed by Ki-duk Kim.
A meditation on life, almost completely devoid of dialogue, this is one of my all time favorites.
Also directed by Ki-duk Kim.
3-Iron features the heartbreakingly beautiful song, Gafsa, by Natacha Atlas
Two murder mysteries that are not really murder mysteries..
Memories of Murder, directed by Joon-ho Bong
Mother, also directed by Joon-ho Bong
Book Review - Born to Run
by Christopher McDougall
Born to Run is a best seller and came highly recommended. I was excited about the book's premise, expecting to learn the secrets of those who don't crash at 26.2. The book's byline refers to the "Greatest Race the World has Never Seen" - however, by the time we reach this "greatest race", the author has already spoken about a few that seem as great.
Christopher McDougall is a contributor to Men's Health and some of the material here has been pulled together from articles he has written over the years. The book begins with his search for a cure to the pain he started experiencing in his foot while running. After the best sports doctors had examined and given him the same advice ("give up running"), Mr McDougall discovered the lost tribe of the Tarahumara. It is clear the Tarahumara are a secretive tribe of free living, peace loving, superathletes who want nothing to do with the world and Mr. McDougall idolizes them. The author has a lot of stories to share and running long distances seems to attract funny, interesting and inspiring characters. The author does a great job of narrating these stories. There were times while reading the book when I wanted to set the book aside, pick up my running shoes (ahem, not ready to run barefoot yet) and go run. The book presents a passionate argument of the idea that all of us were made to run. Heck,the author seems to believe the ability to run long distances is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species, almost as critical to our success on the planet as the opposable thumb.
Even though I enjoyed many of the stories in the book, it is what the author leaves out that is most disappointing. The book reads and feels like a collection of chronologically arranged magazine articles and not as a consistent whole. There is no clear theme - is it the Tarahumara? Is it ultra marathon running? Is it the runners? Or is it the story of McDougall's journey from being advised to give up running to finishing the 'greatest race'? We get glimpses of each of those books in this relatively short volume (280 pages). Read it but keep your expectations in check.
Book Review - Watership Down
by Richard Adams Prophets with visions! Folk heroes! Indifferent politicians! Thugs! Villainous dictators! The confusingly titled Watership Down has it all. Unfortunately all of its incredible characters are rabbits. Huh? Hold on a minute. Rabbits? Seriously? I'm not a hater, but I found it hard to relate to the travails of tiny fur balls.
Richard Adams' fantastical tale is a classic with generally positive reviews on Amazon as well as Visual Bookshelf (~2600 with 87% positive) but it is not for me. I generally do not read fantasy unless it is strongly metaphorical or allegorical and I don't think Watership Down is effectively either. It is just a rabbit story.
The author invents some rabbit words and narrates several folk stories celebrating the wit and bravery of El-aharairah, a legendary rabbit folk hero. The rabbits seem smart enough to strategize in battle, but not witty enough to understand how wood floats in water. It is debatable whether you can comprehend one and not the other but I found the straddled anthropomorphising unconvincing. Overall, a disappointment. Not recommended.
Go Watch - Peepli [LIVE]
An indictment of bureaucracy, local and state politics, the "24 hour" news cycle and India's failed attempts at bringing prosperity to its farmers and villages. Skillfully directed by debutante Anusha Rizvi, with excellent performances by Omkar Das, Shalini Vatsa and Raghuvir Yadav and with a great sound track, Peepli [LIVE] is the indie to watch this weekend (or next).
Notable Finds - Onibaba (1964)
directed by Kaneto Shindō
Onibaba is a 1964 Japanese black and white film set during the "period of the Warring States", in the fourteenth century. The movie was directed by Kaneto Shindō and released by Criterion on DVD in 2004. The Criterion DVD includes an interview with the then 91 year old director - and I recommend watching the interview in its entirety after you've seen the movie.
Onibaba is a spare film with minimal dialogue but some incredibly bold visuals. The acting, like other Japanese movies of the era, is highly dramatic but fits in with the narrative. If you are a fan of 60s Japanese cinema, this is a must watch.
Book Review - Sunrise with Seamonsters
by Paul Theroux
From literary criticism to a perspective on John McEnroe, Sunrise with Seamonsters has an eclectic collection of Paul Theroux' writings spanning twenty years. Mr. Theroux writes about Richard Nixon's memoirs and of a meeting with the man. There is a fawning piece on V. S. Pritchett and an admiring essay on V. S. Naipaul. I have yet to read In Sir Vidya's Shadow, but considering the sour relationship the two men have had, I expect to like it.
The essays in this collection are chronologically arranged but there is no single theme. Mr. Theroux expounds on travel, politics, writers he likes, The Orient Express and the function of patronage in an artist's development. As a fan, I found some of the essays revealing about Mr. Theroux philosophy towards travel and writing. The Cerebral Snapshot is a persuasive argument against carrying a camera while traveling. The author's experiences as a teacher in Malawi, Uganda and finally in Singapore provide vivid context to his subsequent writings. An enjoyable work. Recommended.
Diary of a Lost Girl at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival
I just saw Diary of a Lost Girl at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The screening was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The movie is considered a classic of the silent era. I enjoyed it immensely. The theme seems a little hackneyed, but then this is the original that was eventually made trite by over use. At times, the movie reminded me of the Indian classic, Pakeezah.
Metropolis at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival
I caught the full version of Metropolis at the Castro Theater yesterday. The screening had a live score by the Alloy Orchestra and was preceded by a conversation with Paula-Félix Didier and Fernando Peña, the film archivists affiliated with the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires who made the remarkable discovery. We stood in line for two hours to get the rush tickets without any real indication as to whether we'd get admission. Was it worth it? Absolutely! It turned out to be one of my best cinematic experiences ever.
Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan
by Will Ferguson Will Ferguson wants to be funny and I'm unfortunately not a big fan of "wants to be funny". Mr. Ferguson hitchiked his way from Cape Sata, the southernmost tip of Japan all the way up to Rishiri Island, off the coast of Hokkaido. I find Japan and the Japanese interesting so I was looking forward to reading about Mr. Ferguson's adventures as he follows a mostly coastal path chasing sakura blossoms and meeting some remarkable characters along the way. The appeal of vicarious travel is that with a sufficiently skilful writer you can meet people you would never talk to, even if you actually travelled in the author's footsteps. Will Ferguson spent five years teaching in Japan and his knowledge of the country, the language, the people and their history is not trivial. He manages to convey many interesting anecdoetes and historical incidents but a travel book must be more than that. I found Hokkaido Highway Blues to be inconsistent in quality. The book fails most starkly when the author tries to be funny. Perhaps I'm difficult to please but I just couldn't see the humor in most of Mr. Ferguson's frequent attempts. His style is so trite, you can see a punchline coming from a mile away. No pun intended.
I was so dreadfully bored at times within the book, I was ready to give up - something I rarely do. Though the book in its entirety just passes muster, I think it is safely avoidable. Not recommended.
Some of my Favorite Japanese Classics
Roshomon by Akira Kurosawa
Ran by Akira Kurosawa
Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi
Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa
Book Review - The Elephanta Suite
by Paul Theroux
I'm not as much a fan of Paul Theroux' fiction as I am of his travel writings but I wanted to read The Elephanta Suite for its cover photograph. What's so special about the cover you ask? It shows a vista that has now been crudely obscured by an ugly, if necessary flyover. The photograph shows Mohammed Ali Road, a center of Muslim life in Mumbai, scene of glorious mayhem, food and people, cars and scooters, everyone jostling for space. It is the neighborhood my dad grew up in and which I regularly visited all through my childhood. To the right is the Minara Masjid, where I have prayed with my dad, in the bottom right corner is Suleman Usman Mithaiwala, where I have shopped for sweets, and further down the street is Noble Opticians, my optometerists for twenty years. Unfortunately, Mohammed Ali Road has nothing to do with the book itself. The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas, each set in a different section of India with only the slightest passing reference to each other. The three locations as separated by space as by culture. The first story takes place in an exotic mountainside spa, the second alternates between the posh hotels and seedy slums of Mumbai while the third unravels in Sai Baba's ashram and a call center in Bangalore. I'm not sure if I'm saying this as an interested party but I found Mr. Theroux' depiction of Indians less than fair. Admittedly, I don't have the perspective of an American in the Indian situations described by Mr. Theroux. However, the caricature of almost every Indian his American characters come across as money grubbing, self centered or sexually desperate seems quite harsh. The American characters are relatively more sympathetic, but no less pitiful - which begs the question, is this book just an exaggerated expression of Mr. Theroux' dour view of the world? I find it hard to conclude otherwise.
I found the first novella weak but the denouement of the latter two is quite satisfying. Recommended.