Friday, July 22, 2011

Messing About In Cars

This isn't going to be a rundown of why I like Top Gear (I do, very much) or what the best episodes have been (the Vietnam trip).  What I wonder about is why it's so damn successful. Other reality shows do humour, such as Mythbusters, and various programs on the Speed Channel offer more hardcore tech info.

The secret to the show's appeal is found in the picture on the right. Yes, Top Gear's success is based on the hosts' uncanny similarities to Mr Toad, Ratty and Mole of The Wind in the Willows. These three iconic characters from Enlglsh kids lit are alive and well in the shape of Jezza, Hamster and Captain Slow. Even their nicknames sound like something from a childrens' story, and Richard Hammond and James May actually look like, respectively, Ratty and Mole. Jeremy Clarkson clearly looks like a badger, but his DNA is pure Mr Toad: self-important, short attention span, in love with speed above all else. Hammond is the dreamer, the man-child who only wants to play, and James May is the steady, practical, one-step-at-a-time Mole.

Now it's understandable if UK viewers make this subliminal connection with the Top Gear boys, but what about the rest of the world? What's their excuse? I think the answer is that Toad, Ratty and Mole are such brilliant, universal characters. Everyone works or lives with one of the three, and all of us, at one time or another, have been a Mr Toad, who, for reasons of psychological clarity, could have been called Mr Id. So the success of Top Gear isn't entirely down to crashes, stunts, celebrities and "cocking about", it's also thanks to three beloved literary characters brought to life.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: Space Captain Smith (2008) by Toby Frost

If you made a guess based on the cover of this book that what awaits you is something seriously silly, you'd have guessed right. What we have here is a ripping yarn (sci-fi division, steampunk regiment) about an army officer named Isambard Smith who proudly serves the British Space Empire in the 25th century. His sidekicks are Polly, an android sex toy and pilot of Smith's ship the John Pym, and Suruk the Slayer, a bloodthirsty alien warrior and Smith's best friend. In this, Smith's first adventure, he must find and protect Rhianna Mitchell, a hippie with special powers. Smith is protecting her from the Ghast Empire, an evil civilization of ants bent on destroying the British Space Empire. Smith, a two-fisted, less dim version of Bertie Wooster, muddles his way to success and gives the Ghast a damn good thrashing.

But enough about the plot. The success or failure of a comic novel is almost entirely dependent, from the reader's perspective, on the quality of the comedy, not the plotting; P.G. Wodehouse's plots weren't especially clever or original, but that doesn't detract from his position as arguably the greatest writer of English comic fiction. The benchmark for comic writing in the sci-fi/fantasy world is, of course, Terry Pratchett, and on the Pratchett-o-meter Frost scores a very healthy 8.5 out of 10.

Frost, like Pratchett, loves to lampoon popular culture, drop in literary references and quotations, and forge some really diabolical puns. Frost is particularly keen on referencing movies, and there's one especially clever bit in the book built around A Clockwork Orange, not to mention comic riffs on Blade Runner, The Matrix, and even, I think, The Wild Bunch. And Smith's friend Suruk is very clearly modeled on the alien nasty from Predator. Frost's riffs on pop culture are great fun, but the guy can also craft a really clever comic sentence. Here's Smith complaining to a superior about not getting a spaceship to command:

 "You know jolly well that I'd eat my own pants for a chance to get back into space, and yet here I am, still sitting here, wearing them."

Wodehouse himself would have been happy to have penned that sentence. Frost is definitely a very funny writer. What holds him back from Level Pratchett are some double entendres that are a bit too Carry On-ish, and an occasional failure to hold back from making the obvious joke. I will definitely read the rest of the books in this series, God Emperor of Didcot and Wrath of the Lemming Men.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review: The Sweet and Simple Kind (2006) by Yasmine Gooneratne

Yasmine Gooneratne is Sri Lankan born and bred, and her native country is the setting for this ambitious novel that details the changes that gripped Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) from independence in 1948 to the race riots in 1958 that foreshadowed the civil war that began in 1983.

Gooneratne centres her story around two female cousins, Latha and the rather portentously named Tsunami. The latter is from the rich side of the Wijesinha family, while Latha's family is decidedly middle-class. The two girls become fast friends as young girls at Lucas Falls, a large house and tea plantation owned by Tsunami's father, Rowland. Latha visits Lucas Falls on her vacations and is a witness to what amounts to the moral decline and fall of Tsunami's family over the course of the next dozen or so years.

When we first meet Rowland he's married to Helen, a skilled amateur artist originally from India, and their lifestyle is in most respects that of an upper-class English family. Their taste in literature is Anglocentric, Helen's art is Western, their peers are often Oxbridge educated, cricket is an obsession, and their children attend elite local schools modeled on institutions like Eton and Harrow. In sum, they're almost more English than the English.

Gooneratne depicts Latha and Tsunami's early years at Lucas Falls as a kind of Eden in which the two girls discover a shared love of books and learning. Helen is the muse of this paradise, encouraging the girl's curiosity, discussing art and literature with them, and generally encouraging a liberal way of thinking. The dark cloud in paradise is Rowland, who acts the part of the English gentleman, but soon becomes influenced by the rising tide of Sinhala nationalism that will eventually tear the country apart. Rowland is from an ancient Sinhala family and becomes caught up in politics after Independence in 1948. In what almost seems a symbolic act, he disparages Helen's art, and not long after that Helen leaves Rowland for Mr Goldman, a German rep of tea wholesalers.

The rest of the novel follows Latha and Tsunami as they navigate the difficulties of love and courtship in Ceylon's deeply conservative society, and struggle with life at university. Meanwhile, in the background, Ceylon's post-colonial political life becomes more vicious, culminating in deadly race riots aimed at the Tamil minority. Rowland moves further along the path of Sinhala nationalism and his family becomes as fractured as the country itself, with his two eldest children, Ranil and Tara, becoming as morally vicious as the political conflict.

Gooneratne is a professor of 19th century English literature, with a special interest in Jane Austen, and it shows in her writing, for good and not quite so good. On the plus side, she knows how to spin out a family saga and juggle multiple storylines and characters. This makes the novel very readable, almost addictively so, and her characterization is usually very sharp. The political elements are skillfully interwoven, and even non-Sri Lankans, such as myself, should have no problem understanding the political and cultural makeup of the county.

The only problem I had with the novel (and it's a minor complaint) is its gentility, its cosiness. Gooneratne can be brutally realistic at times, but on a few too many occasions characters and events are bathed in a warm glow of sentimentality and nostalgia. And this also applies to the plot. The middle section of the novel is mostly taken up with Latha and Tsunami's life at university, and too much of it reads like an affectionate, but static, memoir of university life.

The Sweet and Simple Kind is well worth reading, if only for the elegance of Gooteratne's prose. For example, here's a short passage describing the Lucas Falls estate:

When the wreaths of mist lift, leaving the grass wet with dew, mornings on the estate clink and ring with birdsong, sounding very much as if a crowd of children were jingling thin silver coins in their pockets, considering the possibilities.

That sentence could stand on its own as a poem, and writing of that calibre is rare enough that it should be praised at every opportunity.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Film Review: Lake Mungo (2008)

The Australian film Lake Mungo is a faux documentary; let's get that out of the way right off the top. I make a point of mentioning this because if you see this film you will, at several points, have to remind yourself that it is not actually a doc. The director, Joel Anderson, has done an amazing job of creating a film that looks and feels as though it was created by a world-class documentary maker. This is not one of those Blair Witch-type films filled entirely with shaky-cam shots and grainy video footage. There is some of that in Lake Mungo, but its restrained use makes these scenes all the more effective.

Lake Mungo is about the Palmer family, who come to believe that they're being haunted by their 16-year-old daughter, Alice, after she drowns in a lake. The family seeks the aid of a psychic and uses video cameras to help determine if they are, in fact, being haunted.

That quick summary makes Lake Mungo sound like just another Paranormal Activity clone, the kind of film in which we wait for the next moment when something jumps out at us and the screaming ensues. Lake Mungo is quite definitely about the supernatural, and there is a ghost, but it is much more than a scarefest. It's one the finest dramas I've seen in quite a few years.

You could say that this film is primarily a study of grief: an incisive, sympathetic, nuts and bolts look at how a family copes with a tragic loss. In fact, the more times you view this film, the more you concentrate on the family drama side of the story and less on the supernatural. Lake Mungo is also about family secrets, about the way otherwise normal, happy families can keep things from one another. One of the biggest shocks in the movie is not caused by a spectral figure, but by a revelation about Alice.

A great deal of the strength of this film comes from its cast, who improvised their dialogue based on plot points they had to hit. If this is what improvisation can achieve, why bother with scriptwriters? Another aspect that merits praise is the look of the film. Anderson and his cinematographer have a knack for choosing just the right angles and lighting tones for their interior shots. Even better is their sensational use of time lapse photography, striking night skies, and electronic sound effects to make the Palmer's house and the surrounding town seem that much eerier.

Is Lake Mungo scary? It's definitely creepy, unsettling, chilling, and there's certainly one jump-in-your-seat moment. Comments about it I've read online, mostly from diehard horror fans, express annoyance that it isn't scary enough. My daughter (a generally sensible third-year law student) found it so frightening she watched (heard) most of the film from behind a pillow, and then spent the next five nights sleeping with the lights on. I think it works brilliantly as both a ghost story and a drama. After seeing it for the first time I left the film feeling terribly sad rather than frightened. I felt as though I'd shared the Palmer's loss, rather than suffered through a haunting.

Lake Mungo is supposed to be remade by an American studio (now that's scary), so order it from Amazon before it turns up in your local cinema starring Lady GaGa and David Hasselhoff.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Dominiques

The downcast chap on the left is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF, and this picture was taken just as he's being told that there's no maid service on Rikers Island. The Dominique on the right is also French, and her crime novels do a lot to expose the political, economic and sexual climate that produces the likes of a Strauss-Kahn.

Manotti is the author of The Lorraine Connection, Rough Trade, Affairs of State, Cop, and Dead Horsemeat. Her novels, which are usually set in the recent past, highlight the corruption and patronage at the upper crustiest levels of French society and business. She does this brilliantly, without being didactic or preachy, and even names names. I don't know anything about French libel laws, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that she's had angry avocats knocking at her door from time to time.

But Manotti isn't just a one trick pony. Her plotting is complex and layered, and unlike some crime writers who include a political angle to their work, Manotti isn't afraid to also pile on lots of action and sex (gay and straight). Her prose is muscular and, when need be, witty, and like any self-respecting French writer she's always game for a loving description of Paris or food.

Manotti's best work so far is Dead Horsemeat, the second of three novels featuring Inspector Daquin. Daquin is tough, honest, smart, quite willing to bust heads, and also ready to bend, even break, the law to get the job done. He's also openly and enthusiastically gay. In short, he blows all those moody Scandinavian police detectives out of the water.

Dead Horsemeat is about a cocaine smuggling ring that, in part, operates out of a Paris horse racing track and supplies well-heeled customers. There's actually a hell of a lot more plot than that, almost too much, so you'd better pay close attention and not put the book down for more than a day. Manotti keeps the action moving at lightning speed, and one of the highlights is the burning of a horse stable, which leads to the image of horses covered in flames racing through a woods at night. This isn't something Dick Francis' wife would write.

Some readers might not appreciate Manotti's politics (well left of centre), and others might just find her too ballsy and gritty, but right now I can't think of a contemporary crime writer who's her equal.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

The genocidal slaughter of Armenians by the Turkish government in the period 1915-22 is a historical fact. Few people other than Turkish nationalists and the present Turkish government would argue with this. That it is little talked about has something to do with its distance in time and also with the desire of many governments to avoid annoying a strategically important Middle Eastern country. Shafak's novel is an attempt to show that this tragic event resonates in the present.  She fails miserably.

Technically, this is a terrible novel. Most of the characters exist only to act as mouthpieces for various points of view. This is particularly true of Amy, the young Armenian-American who goes to Istanbul in search of her roots, and along the way delivers a variety of speeches about the Armenian genocide that may as well have been lifted from newspaper editorials. Just to hammer home her talking points even more, the author has "scenes" set in a cyber chat room that consists of more stilted speechifying. Asya, the bastard of the title, is more symbol than character (more on that later), and secondary characters, such as the Turkish Kazanci sisters and Amy's various Armenian-American relatives, do little more than act in a colourful manner, which generally means forcing various foodstuffs on people. And the plot? There barely is one. Shafak trots out a busload of characters and then gives them little to do, hence we get a lot of parenthetical discussions of folklore, food, and customs, most of it no more insightful or revelatory than the average travel article. And the less said about using a character's imaginary djinn ally to fill in some historical and personal background, the better.

But Shafak's biggest error is her decision to shoehorn in a Symbolic Event which is meant to stand as a reflection of Turkey's denial of what it did to the Armenians.  This event revolves around the mystery of who Asya's father is, and any astute reader should have the mystery solved at the halfway point. It's at that point I wanted to toss the book away because the symbolism was so obvious, so contrived, so clumsily handled, it makes the book feel like it was produced by a committee of creative writing students.

Yes, this novel is a comprehensive disaster, but Elif Shafak is not entirely without talent. She can write with energy and humor, and in the character of Zeliha, Asya's mother, she actually creates someone we want to follow and learn more about. For more current and interesting information on issues surrounding the Armenian  genocide, check out Robert Fisk's columns online at the The Independent.