Book-club this month had selected the book Cafe Scheherazade, which it turns out is actually based on a real cafe in St Kilda. Not unusually at all for Melbourne, it’s an eating establishment created by migrants for migrants (and anyone else wanting to sample traditional food from the motherland). But as this was a novel, it focussed on all the stories of those migrants…
Intermingled tales of escape from war and oppression
This book by Melbourne literary author Arnold Zable is a set of stories within stories. It is at a superficial level the story of a journalist trying to capture the stories of the founders of a Jewish restaurant/cafe in St Kilda, but this is really just an excuse for characters within the novel telling their own tales. And they are not exactly pleasant tales.
The characters (all based on real people) have endured World War II and the subsequent atrocities, and journeyed to Australia as refugees. It was eye opening to read about life in Russia, life as a guerrilla fighter, and the role of Japan and China in the migration of Jews out of Europe.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of stories, and the style used in jumping between them, doesn’t make it an easy read. The lyrical style used principally at the beginning of the book allowed me to treat the writing as poetry, and let the words wash over me without spending too much effort keeping track of the story. Towards the end of the book the style changes into more of a linear narrative that was easier to follow.
I found it an okay read, certainly educational, but probably wouldn’t recommend it to most.
Last night, we went to the movies. I thought we were going to see the French comedy My Best Friend. It seems I was the only one who thought that. The rest of my friends, and indeed the whole cinema, was there to watch the latest Australian film…
Romulus, My Father
Beautiful tension in rural Australia
This is Eric Bana showing how he can be the Everyman. You’ve seen him in Black Hawk Down, Hulk, Chopper and even The Castle. But here he’s not comic nor an action hero, simply the title character. Told through the eyes of Raimond Gaita, the young son of Romulus, who is trying to cope with life in the country when his family is quite insane.
Not quirky insane, actually insane. It’s quite tragic at times, and there are periods of sustained tension where you really don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next, but the whole film is quite beautiful. Australia (specifically the state of Victoria, or even the town of Maldon) is shown off very nicely indeed too.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Raimond, pulls off an impressive performance. The whole cast handles the themes with a dramatic yet sensitive touch. Expect some award nominations here.
If you want a comparison with another recent film, it is probably closest to Richard E. Grant’s Wah-Wah, which is also about a boy living in the bush and having to deal with some crazy family issues, although its setting is Swaziland rather than Victoria. It’s a good film too.
Yesterday was ANZAC Day, and it is a day that looms large in the Australian psyche. Why is it that we always retell the story of Gallipoli, an overwhelming Australian defeat in the first World War? In some way, while failure is pathetic, it is somehow heroic. And the recent book club selection had a similar message.
I Was Bono’s Doppelganger
A cathartic tale of musical dreams crushed.
This is Neil McCormick’s autobiography. We learn that from a young age, his life’s ambition is to be lead singer in a world renowned pop group. Although we all have crazy ideas, and our friends set us straight, McCormick has the misfortune to be school-friends with Bono. Yes, that Bono.
Since you’ve never heard of McCormick, it’s not giving anything away to say that he never became world famous. However, the story of his musical disasters set against the rising star of Bono and U2 is quite incredible. Even if you’re not a U2 fan, this is a very engaging book that quickly sucks you in with intimate and honest details of the band before its mega-success, behind-the-scenes in the record (as it was at the time) business, and the unbelievable bad luck that seems to follow McCormick.
I don’t normally make a habit of reading autobiographies, but this one had a special magic that attracted me to it. McCormick is not some star-struck U2 fan, but apparently a genuine friend of Bono’s, who writes the Forward in the book. His take on the rewards, ravages and addiction of fame is particularly well-informed, and left me with hope, despite his own failure.
The websites listed at the back of the book have ceased working, but if you read the book, you really should listen to some of his music. It will allow you to judge for yourself if he had the stuff to make it really big. The following links are from the Internet Archive:
You may also want to check out his CD on Amazon.co.uk as it sounds like it would make a fine companion piece to the book. Ghost Who Walks is the name that he releases his music under, but the picture there is definitely him.
Why are we so interested in royals and Royalty? Is it their power, prestige or inbreeding? Certainly they live in a different world from the rest of us, and a couple of recent films make this point quite well.
A watchable new take on the death of Diana.
This fictionalised biopic shows the early weeks of Tony Blair’s government in the U.K. and the development of his relationship with Queen Elizabeth II in the context of the death of Lady Di. The events of this film date back to 1997, so we’re talking almost 10 years ago now, but the impact still resonates today.
There are still unresolved conspiracy theories around Diana Spencer’s death. Blair is still in power and his government has led significant changes in the U.K. and on the world stage. The health of the monarchy in the U.K. continues to be debated. All of this stretches back to the material in this film, that weaves together fact and fiction seamlessly. We can really believe in this version of the characters.
The film also presents the massive contrast between the worlds of the U.K. Prime Minister and the U.K. Head of State. However, this is done with balance and a respectful touch. Both royalists and republicans will find something to enjoy in this.
I was surpised to find myself feeling considerable sympathy for Queen Elizabeth by the end of it all. Credit for this has to go in large part to Helen Mirren who carries the title role admirably.
Cinematic but slow.
Sofia Coppola casts Kirsten Dunst as the last Queen of France before the revolution. No, really. However, it’s quite clever, and together with a modern soundtrack lifts the historical Marie Antoinette character out of mythology (“let them eat cake!”) into a place where we can relate and almost empathise with her. This is the principle achievement in this period drama filmed entirely on location in France.
Coppola has based the movie on a book, but it could have been a picture book. There is little dialogue, but an emphasis on stunning visuals. Initially, I found this helpful to maintain the same sense of wonder than Marie Antoinette was clearly feeling at the same time. But as the film wore on, this feeling wore out. It all became rather dull.
Lost in Translation, Coppola’s previous film, has a similar feel, but it wasn’t as sparse and not as long. Marie Antoinette runs for two hours, and I was fidgeting a bit by the end. I think I would’ve preferred to flick through a coffee table book with photos of Versailles, clothing, shoes and food, rather than sit through a showing of the same images at the chosen pace.
I’ve read Ian Fleming’s original story, and I’ve seen the (really, really bad) Peter Sellers film version, so I was keen to cleanse my memory of that by watching the most recent movie adaptation.
A bad Bond at his best.
This is not like most other film Bonds. Bond is less gentleman and more psycho, and the plot has definite “love story” overtones. It’s a bit of a re-imagining of the Bond film, rather like Batman Begins gave us a new take on the Batman film. And also like Batman Begins, it gives us an insight into the origins of the main character.
However, this results in some strange “series” continuity issues, with this film set after the Cold War, but a prequel to the other Bond films that clearly occurred during the Cold War. This is made light of in the film, but requires a bit more of belief suspension that in your usual Bond film, particularly if you’ve seen most of them.
On the other hand, there’s a fantastic Parkour running-and-leaping sequence near the start. It seems pretty unbelievable, but it’s performed by Sebastien Foucan, so it’s probably real. Daniel Craig, who plays Bond for his first time, has a fair go at some Parkour moves as well. It’s very cool.
Craig (I can sympathise with someone having a first name as a last name) is a rugged, and not traditionally handsome, Bond. He’s as different from Pierce Brosnan as you can get without having a Scottish accent. Given the richness of his version of Bond, I think we’re going to consider it one of the classic ones.
We’re heading to India for a couple of weeks early in 2007, and trying to get a little into the culture before we go. And what better example than Bollywood, which has more viewers than the movies coming out of Hollywood? Not counting more Western-oriented films like Bride & Prejudice or Monsoon Wedding, I’ve never seen a Bollywood film, and this was my introduction to them.
Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.
A surprisingly entertaining musical romantic-comedy.
It’s in Hindi, it’s got music, it’s got dancing, it’s got laughs, it’s set in Mumbai and there’s romance. Can this be any more stereotypical Bollywood? Well, anyway, it was enormously entertaining.
It was quite long, at 155 minutes, but I enjoyed it all. Similar themes to any Western romantic-comedy, but enhanced by the Indian angle. And gangsters always help. Also, the male lead’s father is actually his father in real life, so the tension and emotion they display together has an extra edge.
The “M.B.B.S.” of the title is similar to the “M.D.” suffix in Australia, and indicates that the character is a doctor. Or is he a gangster? Can he change? Will he make his father happy?
Given the length, the rather flimsy premise used to set up the plot, and the unknown (to me) Bollywood aspect, I wasn’t expecting much. But, I loved it! Maybe I’m just a sucker for a romantic-comedy. Or maybe it was the gangsters.
This is distributed in Australia by MG Distribution who seems to be the major Bollywood DVD distributor here. I’ll have to check out more of what they’ve got.
When we go out to see a movie, Kate prefers not to have to sit through a heavy issues piece, and so we usually compromise on something more entertaining. However, as Kate’s out of town, I was able to easily go see a non-fiction film at the movies, and chose to check out Al Gore‘s call-to-arms on climate change. Better know for his U.S. vice-presidential role or his close loss to George W. Bush in the U.S. presidential race of 2000, here he takes on a humbler role trying to save the Earth one movie cinema at a time.
An Inconvenient Truth
A worthwhile film for intelligent, concerned citizens.
Al Gore has been presenting his views on climate change to audiences for the last 15 years or so, and this is probably his most effective presentation yet. It covers both the development of Gore’s personal devotion to this cause, as well as the scientific evidence that supports the claim that climate change has been caused by humans and now presents a real threat to our way of life.
I consider myself moderately well informed on this topic, having read Tim Flannery, Michael Crichton, and other less famous commentators, so the scientific material wasn’t new to me. However, it was presented very clearly and so effectively that most people would be left with little room for doubt on the issue.
One might be tempted to think that there was a team of researchers and writers behind Gore’s presentation. However, we only ever see him present, and there are many shots of him using Apple Keynote to develop the presentation, so we are obviously meant to think this is pretty much a one-man show.
That aspect, together with the very personal accounts of Gore’s life and development, tended to slightly shift the focus away from his message and onto him. It would not take much of a cynic to view this film as building a platform for him to take another stab at the White House. He himself says “political will is a renewable resource”.
If you are concerned about these issues, then you can probably skip the film and spend the time more profitably reading books that convey the scope and complexity of the problems. (Or better yet, spend time actually addressing the problems.) If you aren’t concerned about these issues yet, then you should probably see this film. Don’t worry – it ends with some positive things.
There is a good web site of the movie that also gives a taste of the material.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never read any books that describe The Holocaust. That is, until recently when our book club chose this one. It just blew my mind – you would read something terrible and you’d think it couldn’t get any worse, but then you’d read on, and it would. It certainly helped put some of the international politics of the region in perspective.
Interesting philosophical views on forgiving the unforgivable
Now this is a good book-club book. Simon Wiesenthal writes about an experience that he had during World War 2 while a prisoner in a concentration camp, then a number of other people with relevant experience (including the Dalai Lama) respond to how he dealt with that experience. It’s relatively short, you don’t have to read it all, it comes with a selection of pre-canned opinions that you can choose to agree with or not, and discussion is sure to be heated.
It’s not an altogether pleasant read, but it isn’t densely philosophical or likely to be traumatic to read either. As the discussion revolves around putting yourself in the shoes of Wiesenthal, you need to get to grips with the environment of hopelessness and oppression first. He writes well, and although I doubt that anyone who hadn’t been through it could ever truly imagine it, you do get to a level of empathy. Some of the respondents that follow his story are not as well written, but it is easy to skip the ponderous ones.
Wiesenthal goes on to become a “nazi-hunter” later in his life, tracking down those who engaged in war crimes when younger. He has obviously come to his own conclusions about repentence, forgiveness and forgetting. Reading this book helped me come to some also.
The last couple of films I’ve seen happen to have been both good-natured, gentle, character-driven comedies. They’re a nice change from the recent trend towards unsubtle humour, of which recent examples are Borat or Nacho Libre.
Little Miss Sunshine
A quirky road-movie
Although this film is fundamentally a road movie, with a journey that is more important than the destination, and characters who make self-discoveries through overcoming adversities, the plot is not what this film is about. It’s really about the characters.
The family that jumps in a car together is not defined by their disfunction (a la the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation) but by their individuality. They are an improbably diverse set of characters.
There’s the average-looking girl that dreams of winning a beauty pageant (the Little Miss Sunshine of the title), the boy that doesn’t talk, the father who’s a motivational speaker, the practical housewife, the suicidal uncle, and the drug-addicted grandfather. It’s a totally delightful mix, and each is pretty well rounded.
Don’t expect deep insight, but the bizarre characters reflect back to us the bizarre nature of parts of modern American society. I enjoyed it.
A mockumentary full of toilet-humour
The central character of this documentary-style movie is Kenny, brought to us through the skills of actor Shane Jacobson, who also edits the film and is one of the writers. The other writer, Clayton Jacobson, is also the director, and also makes an acting appearance. So does Ronald Jacobson and at least one other Jacobson. It’s very much a family show.
The show is something like a week-in-the-life of a port-a-loo plumber. We get to experience his honest perspective on the everyday activity of using the toilet, while meeting his family and colleagues. Kenny feels fully rounded and believable. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the creation of a new Australian comic personality.
There are some fantastic lines, and many laugh-out-loud moments. It’s also a tale of family and acceptance. I hope we see Kenny again.
I’m a member of a book-club, and it’s quite fun. The peer-pressure that forces you to read something interesting but “not what I would have chosen” is a force for good. Apparently book-clubs are relatively common, and their popularity is growing. Perhaps this is my cynicism, but I suspect some authors are now targeting the book-club as the audience for their books. And I suspect this is the case with last month’s book …
The Shadow of the Wind
A mystery story that’s a little too wordy.
What alerts the reader that this book is targeted to book-group discussion is that it has a discussion guide at the back. I’ve seen this on a few books now, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. If a book needs help to discuss it, then it’s probably not a good book-club book.
It is an interesting story, though. This novel tells the tale of Daniel, who is the son of a book store owner. He gets caught up in a mystery that has several bizarre characters and plenty of twists. Will books be his life? Will a book take over his life? Will a book take his life?
Set in Barcelona in the 1950s, the atmosphere of post Civil War recovery provides a rich stage for the characters to develop on. The book is originally Spanish, and the English language version is a translation.
I doubt it’s the translator’s fault, but the writing seems obsessed with its own cleverness and wordplay. It does seem to go on a bit. At over 500 pages, this book is probably also slightly long for the average meet-once-a-month book-club.
In the end, it was a pretty light read. There wasn’t much meat in the story to really discuss and argue about. I find the best book-club books are ones that people are prepared to get heated up over. This wasn’t one of those.
Next month we’ll be discussing Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. It’s not light, but I think it will be an excellent book-club book.