Saturday, 17 July 2010

Juno: On Watching Again

I love the dynamic between Juno and Bleeker in this film. She woos him by festooning his front lawn with oodles of his favourite tic-tacs, serenades him in a deleted scene and it is she who marches to his territory of the running track and declares her love for him.

He is not emasculated by any of this and is happy for her to come and get him. He also gives her a proper telling off when her jealousy over his prom date prompts some sulky needling.

And they sing together!!!!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Tove Jansson Delights

After reading this lovely profile of Tove Jansson's granddaughter Sophie, I popped over to Amazon to buy my first Moomin's book and saw that a new book of short stories, Travelling Light, was being published this month. Wonderful! Both books have now arrived and, as with all Jansson's books are beautifully designed.

I didn't like the Moomins television cartoons when I was a child as I found them creepy but I have loved Jansson's work for adults so much, and read so much about her dedication to her hippo-like creations that I simply must give them another try.

As with all Sortof book's editions of Jansson's work, this collection is preceded by a glowing review by Ali Smith and a is emblazoned by a ringing endorsement from Philip Pullman. Jansson's writing is very quiet and subtle but it digs deep and stays with you long after the book has been closed. I look forward to reading both immensely.

I also love that translators of Jansson's works have such excellent names; Thomas Teal translated her novels and these stories have been brought to us by Silvester Mazzarella. Awesome.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

After reading the mammoth non-fiction tome Homocide, I thought that I'd stay with fiction for a while, but Zeitoun will be due back at the library soon and Dave Eggers wrote the last two films I watched so this account of one family's experience of Hurricane Katrina came next.

Abdulraham Zeitoun (known by his last name) is a Syrian Muslim who runs a successful contracting and decorating business in New Orleans with his wife Kathy. They are bright, honest, extremely hard working people who have built up a lot of goodwill in their adopted town with their hard graft and kind natures.

When reports of the incoming hurricane become more unnerving, Kathy begs her husband to evacuate with her and their four children but he refuses, determined to ride out the storm and look after their home, office and various rental properties across the town. He has sat out many a storm in this way before and Kathy ends up leaving for Baton Rouge without him.

We know what happens next.

This is non-fiction and all dates and events have been verified where possible, but Eggers does not write Zeitoun's story in an objective journalist's style. The book is very even handed and fair to all involved (Eggers even tracked down law enforcement officers who arrested Zeitoun to get their side of the story) but the tale reads like a novel with character backstory, beautiful imagery and pacy plot.

Obviously some of the events that take place are horrifying and there are glimpses of humanity at it's most base and stupid but there is also a lot of unexpected hope, beauty and faith in the essential goodness that total strangers can show each other.

My favourite section is where Zeitoun ventures out in his aluminium canoe to explore the new world that the flooding had created:

" He was conflicted about what he was seeing, a refracted version of his city, one where homes and trees were bisected and mirrored in this oddly calm body of water. The novelty of the new world brought forth the adventurer in him - he wanted to see it all, the whole city, what had become of it."

A lot of issues are covered in this compact book, the American government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the opacity of modern bureaucracy, Islamaphobia, the hysteria of tabloid media and the gaping holes in supposedly civilised justice systems. Although obviously dystopian in setting and full of infuriating and terrifying moments, Zeitoun is also a deeply humane book which gave my misanthropic heart a little lift.

Author proceeds of the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Where The Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze

Is this a children's film? It is a movie about childhood, but it is perhaps too slow and subtle to capture the imagination of a younger audience. Perhaps I am underestimating our young friends, however.

The film takes the ten lines of Maurice Sendak's book and spreads the slim tale of Max who is made King of the Wild Things over 104 minutes.

The story begins in Max's neighbourhood and the first few scenes reminded me very strongly of 2008's vampire movie 'Let The Right One In' with it's wintry suburban setting and a lonely boy given to acting out violent assaults on imaginary enemies who is tormented by neighbourhood kids.

Max is from a broken home and is given to volatile outbursts against his disinterested teenage sister and his sympathetic mother (Catherine Keener). A tea-time confrontation with his mother sends the boy on a tearing escape out into the streets which ends with the discovery of a boat, a long voyage, and the discovery of the home of the Wild Things.

The Wild Things are called things like Carol, Ira and Judith and are voiced by familiar voices from Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Little Miss Sunshine. They have relationship problems and are insecure with low self esteem. They are a bunch of hairy, woodland dwelling Woody Allens, wringing their hands and looking for guidance. Therefore, Max is able to persuade them not to eat him and to make him their King instead.

There is a melancholy woven throughout the film and it is a gentle and unusual creation. I was unsure how I felt about it after watching it and it is difficult to know who it is aimed at. Too slow for kids, too weird for mainstream, perhaps not arty enough for the art-house crowd. It is haunting nonetheless and I shall probably watch it again soon to make up my mind. It is sweet and it is tender and I felt quiet and pensive when it had finished.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

World Cup Woe

Are any other bookish sorts trapped into watching the World Cup final tonight?

I don't hate football at all, I find the punditry and politics quite interesting and I enjoy the face of Alan Hansen. I also feel a maternal lump rise in my throat as small children are led out onto the pitch, a stirring national anthem swells and tone deaf players mumble along to words they blatantly don't know.

Penalties destroy me.

Football has a lot going for it, but matches are 90 minutes long and I don't understand the rules so I shall be perusing yesterday's collection of sporting poems in yesterday's Guardian as collated by our Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy who contributes this gem:

The Shirt
Afterwards, I found him alone at the bar
and asked him what went wrong. It's the shirt,
he said. When I pull it on it hangs on my back
like a shroud, or a poisoned jerkin from Grimm
seeping its curse onto my skin, the worst tattoo.
I shower and shave before I shrug on the shirt,
smell like a dream; but the shirt sours my scent
with the sweat and stink of fear. It's got my number.
I poured him another shot. Speak on, my son. He did.
I've wanted to sport the shirt since I was a kid,
but now when I do it makes me sick, weak, paranoid.
All night above the team hotel, the moon is the ball
in a penalty kick. Tens of thousands of fierce stars
are booing me. A screech owl is the referee.
The wind's a crowd, forty years long, bawling a filthy song
about my Wag. It's the bloody shirt! He started to blub
like a big girl's blouse and I felt a fleeting pity.
Don't cry, I said, at the end of the day you'll be back
on 100K a week and playing for City.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Stars In The Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Alan Warner is one of my favourite authors. I love art that makes you look at the mundane everyday details of life and fall in love with them, books and films which take the stranger than fiction, messy, hilarious life that we all know and hand it back to us as a beautiful, precious gift.

The Stars In The Bright Sky is a sequel to Warner's third novel The Sopranos which followed a group of schoolgirls from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour on their choir's daytrip to Edinburgh from 'the port', a small town in the West Coast of Scotland which is based on Oban where the author grew up.

The book takes up with the girls about four years after the events of The Sopranos as the group prepare to go on a last minute holiday together. Kay and Finn have gone to university, flatmates Chell and Kylah are working jobs in the port and Manda has given birth to two year old  'turnip with an earing' Sean. The sixth character from the Sopranos, Orla, has died and Finn's London flatmate, Ava, has joined the girls on their jaunt.

'Life is what happens when you're making plans' sums up the plot of this book. For various reasons, the girls do not just hop onto a plane booked on Kay's laptop the night before and instead spend time in various hotels, bars and Heathrow airport talking, laughing, fighting and figuring each other out. Warner's first heroine, Movern Callar, despises people wishing their lives away and lives very firmly in the moment and this insistence that it is the present that counts runs through this novel like a neon thread.

Even the girls' entrance of the interior of an airport is made to feel like an expedition to a magical world.

"Above them was the cathedral height of roof cables and the realisation that most of the volume was just circulating air space - its own atmosphere - above the unseen, dust-filthy roofs of airline counters and shops."

Manda is the chief proponent of the joys of intemperence with her determination to have fun wherever she is and a lovely way of instantly forgetting slights and wrongs from other people towards herself if they lead to laughter and a good time. When posh, sophisticated Ava finally tires of Manda's constant jibes, innuendo and thoughtless, braying behaviour and shoves her over, Manda slides arse over tit down a muddy slope and ends up in a heap at the bottom, control knickers clearly displayed. When she sees that the other girls are laughing, she laughs too and she holds no grudge.

"Well I didn't mean for you to slide away in the mud", 
"Aye I know, but I was dead brilliant wasn't I?"

Manda is one of the three girls who has been left behind in the port by friends who have gone to university to study Philosophy and Architecture. Although the group of six is ostensibly divided in this manner, no group is elevated above the other. The port girls sometimes seem a little crass and naive but at others times they are earthy and wise (even Manda). The uni girls can seem a little precious on occasion but at the same time they are down to earth girls at heart who care deeply for their friends.

Equally, no one girl is the heroine of the book. Manda gets the most attention but can be an absolute monster and the others all have fully rounded, real personalities. The deepness of the girls' friendships are clear but very lightly dealt with. The book is a perfect balance of lairy, comedic debauchery and pure love for the world around us. The prosaic everydayness of life buts up against intense personal feeling.

" Now a series of yellow-and-black signs in light boxes, illuminated from within and suspended at roof level from vertical, chrome bars, gave orientation; the young women obediently lifted their chins, to obey the information upon these signs, as -apart from Ava- they had once lifted their faces together to the bright stained glass of their school chapel where a turquoise-and-rose light would fall upon their foreheads.

Caution. You are approaching a moving walkway."

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets by David Simon

I felt like I needed a shower after finishing this. I read about decomposing bodies, vile apartments being searched for rusty knives and guns, overweight men drowning themselves in coffee and booze and obsessive, desperate hours spent pouring over old case files just hoping to get a break in that elusive case.

Yet I loved this book. The grimness of the subject matter, (and it is grim, the violence is all completely nonsensical and often completely avoidable) is lifted by the humanity of those who seek to avenge it.

You are probably envisaging a noble group of men who kneel beside murder victims and mutter "why? why?" but they are too busy doing their job to be noble about it. Solving murders is not a calling to many of them, it is a job that they do every single day, aspects of which soon become rote, like in any job.

David Simon shadowed a shift of Baltimore homicide detectives from the 1st of January until the 31st of December 1988. He followed them to their call outs, listened into interrogations and perused all the detectives cold case files. In the epilogue, the author expresses bemusement twenty years later that he was allowed such unstinting access.

It actually feels like he did more, that Simon is omniscient throughout the book. He describes the thoughts, motivations and frustrations of his detectives. We see it all.

There is the gore, the squeamishness of even some of the veterans in the morgue and the bureaucratic insistence on keeping the statistics up to scratch even if it means neglecting to follow up cases. We see the petty office frictions, the acres of paperwork that seems to overshadow the actual 'police work' and the sheer, mindless stupidity of many Baltimore criminals.

The detectives all feel differently about their jobs. Some, like McLarney and Worden are born cops who relish the day to day work of putting cases to bed. McLarney, in particular, is wedded to the force with fond memories of "racing up Pennsylvania Avenue with that blue strobe light show on top of the car and 'Theme from Shaft' blasting from a tape player on the front seat."

Others, like Pellegrini, whose year long battle to solve the murder of an eleven year old girl almost wipes him out, are decent detectives but don't seem to derive much satisfaction from the job.

I knew that this book was the source material for the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, but I didn't realise just how much the show drew from this book. The characters are loosely based on the real life detectives but the cases, techniques, banter, conversations with suspects and office politics appear almost intact until at least the fifth series of the show. It's that rich.

This is why the show is great. It is real and it is how it all actually happened and truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes the producers, to please the networks, would throw in a love affair or an evil twin killer or a sniper attack on Baltimore, but the best scenes are taken from the book:

The female medical examiner is asked by a detective visiting the morgue "what's a lady like you doing in a place like this?" "Looking for Mr Right" she drawls as she sharpens a huge knife.

A dumb yet stubborn suspect is tricked into believing that a photocopier is a lie detector.

A detective is shocked out of his contempt for a filthy house full of murder suspects when a little boy who lives there tugs on the cop's sleeve and asks if he can go and get his spelling homework from his room.

An interrogator refers to himself as "a salesman selling a product that his client has no genuine use for. A life term jail sentence."

The one problem with all of this versimilitude is that everyone seems to have the same name. The real life contains far more coincidences  than a fictional author would allow himself. Nearly every other policeman is called Donald, two of the detectives in the same small squad have the same last name, two suspects for high-profile murders have the same name, murder victims share Christian names and surnames and the father of a  murder suspect is accidentally exhumed in the course of a completely unrelated case. It can get a little confusing.

The most striking thing about the book, however, is that, although these investigators of death have to numb themselves enough just to get through the job, it is the detective who can still retain his humanity and relate to people on the street who seems to be the most successful.

Pellegrini, who catches himself referring to eleven year old Latonya Wallace as "that broad" after too long reducing her brutal rape and murder to a bulging case file of photographs and reports, struggles with his case. In contrast, lone wolf Edgerton is not afraid to go out alone and talk to witnesses one on one instead of intimidating them with a trio of armed cops, and he has friendly relationships with informants, witnesses and street kids. Veteran of the department Worden, has a fatherly way of speaking to drug dealers and  the inhabitants of white trash 'billytown'. He treats suspects with calm respect. Both close cases.

Closing a case or turning a name on the white board from red to black is the main goal, regardless of whether one investigator has had a "stone whodunnit" of a drug murder and the other has had a "dunker" like a domestic dispute. The one that turns his name to black is, in the eyes of his superiors, the better cop. Numbers matter to the Captains, Majors, Commanders etc and police politics makes more of an appearance in the account than existential angst and grieving parents.

This seems wrong and is distressing. But it's the way that it happened.