Cultural round up: April and May

So yes, I have been quite slack. But I will try and make up for that now. And to start, some fun links. Here is the wonderful Lego on Hoth sequence, which manages to be both poignant and funny, as well as clever. Here are some random Star Wars mash-ups, just for fun. For the Quentin Tarantino lovers amongst us, some thoughts on how his worlds fit together, and what that means for the meta world of his movies. And last for this month, an entertaining look at how self-hating genre fans make things worse for themselves.

Now for the things I have been doing…

BOOKS

Lia Weston The Fortunes of Ruby White I was half way through the first chapter of this and dreading the effort it was going to take to finish it. It was all a bit too trite and straining to be funny but not quite making it. However, pleasingly, it became more engaging as it went along, and I actually finished it fairly quickly. It is an entertaining enough read, and certainly not taxing, but that being said, it was still a bit all over the shop with tone and approach and motivations. Without wanting to be too spoilery, there are things that the book didn’t seem to have quite worked out – was it all a con, or did people actually have powers; was Ruby doing something sensible and logical, or was she being manipulated? To me these things seemed quite confused and not in a mysterious and intriguing way, but rather more like the author was trying to have it both ways. I think taking a firmer decision about these kinds of things and being clear would have actually made a much stronger story. There was also a lot of coyness about some sex related issues – implications of things happening which lent rather a darker tone to the book, and perhaps because of this it was really ambiguous in an annoying sort of way. Mostly I think the book needed a really good editor who could have sorted things out and pushed the book in a clearer direction. A light-hearted comedy probably doesn’t need all these dark implications of prostitution and forced sex, but a darker book probably needs to be actually more explicit. This was a first novel for Weston, and while it would seem to indicate some potential at writing romantic comedy type chick lit, perhaps a bit of tougher editing next time might bring that out a little more.

Raymond E Feist At the Gates of Darkness Sometimes I think I should just stop reading Feist before I destroy all my affection for Magician and the memory of finding it a revelation when I first read it in my early teens. I think the persisting is that I might find some of that magic again, and it is true that a couple of books over the last few years have shown some sparks of it. But not this one. It isn’t a terrible book, it is just not that interesting. Some of the odd inconsistencies bothered me too – Pug can destroy building and build bridges between worlds, but he can’t do the magic to make himself invisible? I also think that the book spent most of its time setting the scene for future adventures (which I am not entirely committed to reading) and therefore was just a bit dull and expositionary. And while I really like the fact that much of the book focuses on Sandreena a powerful woman fighter, I’d like it a bit more if she didn’t spend so much time being moony about someone who treated her badly romantically. On the up side, this was short and easily read, so I didn’t need to spend too much time being irritated.

Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger’s Child This was a beautiful book to read – lovely writing, interesting and detailed characters, all with their own flaws, and a shifting perspective which allows one to see a rounded story. The prime story it seems to tell is the one of the history of homosexuality over the last century in the UK in a microcosm of the interactions of different gay men to a particular locus – a minor poet killed in World War I. It is also a story of privilege and money and the literary world and most importantly of memory and rembering, demonstrating the idea that we remember and reframe the past in a way which is most useful to us at the time. The sustaining stories within the novel are enough to get one past the disjointed nature of the narrative and the fact that some of the mos interesting parts of the story occur off-stage. The nature of a narrative which explores the challenges of memory and remembering and our own perspectives on the world means that at times there are unsatisfying gaps in explanations of characters and their motivations, but I think that needs to be embraced. The intense descriptions of the vignettes of story in each section of the book do however leave one feeling surprisingly close to the characters, and hide how little we actually see of their lives.

MUSIC

Groovin The Moo Canberra University The day didn’t start too cold but certainly ended up that way – the Old Person in my wondered how all the young women (and a few young men) in the minimal clothes would cope. But enough of my motherly concern about the cold.  The line up for the day was quite mixed, and we weren’t entirely sure what to expect early in the day. We started with Hermitude who were pretty awesome even for someone like me who doesn’t mind their style of electronica-come-hip hop (whatever the technical term may be) but wouldn’t call it my first choice in music. There were a few stand outs over the rest of the day. Parkway Drive confirmed for me that death metal is really not my thing, especially song after song of it. The Hillto Hoods had the audience on their side and were generally good, except that they totally over-played the sing a line and then stop approach. Once worked, twice was a bit ho-hum but when they were doing it for the fourth or fifth time it really made them seem like a one-trick pony performance wise. And then there was Andrew WK. My goodness. He was entirely freaky – and pretty much seemed to be playing the same song over and over again. We could only watch in fascination. The two stand outs for me were Public Enemy and the Kaiser Chiefs.

I have wanted to see Public Enemy for more years than I can count and they didn’t disappoint. They have ther performance and the music and still conveyed the energy and politics that has always been part of their music. They really are a posse – with the dudes on the stage who don’t seem to have a role other than some random crowd encouragement still seem to be a part of the whole. It was worth the cold to hear them, and they did play all the songs one hoped. At the end also they made a strong statement about tolerance and inclusivity.

The Kaiser Chiefs were also excellent – great stage show and again playing all the songs one wanted to hear. Lots of energy and an impressive display of barely missing a beat while spinning upside in the side show ride next to the stage. It seemed that some of the crowd had retreated to the tent for Digitalism (and warmth) but I thought that the Kaiser Chief were absolutely worth the frozen feet.

MOVIES

The Avengers Let me start by saying that, while this is a good super hero movie, it is still a super hero movie. Certainly not a genre buster or a radical interpretation of the notion of superheroes or anything like that. Fortuntely, I quite like superhero movies, and I like Joss Whedon’s writing, so over all this was a pleasant couple of hours. There are some definite highlights – Robert Downey Jr is in an acting class of his own in the film, possibly helped by the fact that he gets most of the best lines. If Iron Man was missing, this would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner also got some of the good line action, and Banner and Stark together were a great combination. I also found the self awareness of Captain America about his potential lameness quite good. In less impressive things, the story arc was just a touch too predictable, though I did wonder whether this was a deliberate Whedon ploy to make the most super hero-est of all super hero movies. I also found the destruction of New York just a tad distasteful – I know it has been ten years and all, but the relish with which is all got destroyed just made me feel a touch uneasy. Anyway, worth the time and money for those who like a super hero.

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100 sci fi women #59: Mara of the Acoma

Before moving to today’s woman, I provide you with this list which is the Locus 2010 Recommended Reading List. I’ve only read two of the science fiction and none of the fantasy, so there are definitely a few things to check out. I am also rather pleased to see that, while not a fifty /fifty split, novels by women are well represented on their lists, so some more to dip into there. I did have another list to share with you, but Twitter seems to have lost the tweet, so it might be for another time.

In the meantime, going back to a favourite from the past…

Mara of the Acoma Daughter/Servant/Mistress of the Empire Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts

Mara was ready to embrace a traditional female role in her culture when she learnt of the death of her father and brother. Her culture is not a culture where women dominatepolitics and rulership are all very part of the world of men. Mara learns to both assimilate and challenge; to work within the rules of the men when it serves her purposes, but to go outside them when needed. She understands the importance of alliances and relationships and uses this understanding to her advantage. By breaking rules she creates new loyalties which are strong and serve her well, putting aside the reservations that her culture would normally create. She even understands the power of her own fertility and role as a woman, and uses this to strengthen alliances. Mara is smart, and it is not only her intelligence but her understanding of how people work and how to manipulate them that ultimately works to cement her position. Her eyes are further opened to the contradictions and problems in her own culture when she learns to see it through the eyes of another – a slave who she does not dismiss merely because he is her slave. Mara is a survivor and a woman who breaks some traditions, but also understands how to work within them. Her understanding of people, and her ability to build and maintain relationships, are the keys to her success.

Rest well, my father, and you, my brother. He who took your lives is now bust ashes, and your blood is avenged. The honour of the Acoma is intact, and your line preserved.

Monthly cultural round up: March

During March I spent a lot of time on planes. And a bit in hotels. These things, strangely, underpinned quite an active month of cultural experiences.

Books

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte I read this entirely on planes and have already talked about some of my thoughts on it here. I must say I was quite amazed how readable it was, even if some of the characters drove me a little crazy. I do think though that Edgar is possibly one of the most undervalued male characters in literature ever though!

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri This was one of those books which one starts reading with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. Again, very readable. What I found most interesting in it was the exploration of the way arranged marriage works and works out, or doesn’t, and its social meaning and constructions. It was also quite interesting to see some of the tensions in the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India as well as an exploration of the way events have a way of unfolding, when no one considers the consequences to anyone but themselves.

Rides a Dread Legion by Raymond E Feist More of the churn of the Feist machine, but I actually thought this was better written and more compelling than some of his later work. I still do wonder why Feist can’t just start anew with a whole bunch of new characters and a new universe rather than having to contort the history, gods and past of the original one in order to allow for new stories. And, god help me, the book even made me cry a little at the end. Full marks also must go to the inclusion of a strong female character who isn’t married to anyone – something not seen for a while.

Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard A birthday gift from a friend who knows me just a little bit too well, I read this in three days (flights to Perth and back helped). It is the story of an American woman who meets and falls in love with a French man and ends up moving to Paris to live with him. The subtle and not-so-subtle cultural differences, and the growing love of food, make up most of the book. What I found really interesting was that sometimes I found myself identifying with her American point-of-view, and sometimes with the French. but a very readable, very enjoyable, honest and insightful book, especially if you have spent some time in or know either culture well.

Movies

District 9 I am not a huge fan of the mockumentary genre in general because I actually think that it is quite hard to tell the whole story within the mockumentary, and District 9 did suffer from a bit of a lack of discipline in that it was sometimes hard to tell what was “in” and what was “out” and why there was the transference between the two. So I found that a little distracting. The story was of course the standard one of the fate of becoming what you hate – very Lacanian really – and also about the assumptions we make which underline prejudice and how they are often our undoing. That being said, in general I really like the rather different take on alien first contact and the whole conception of the aliens. And I really liked the father-son combination of smart aliens. There was also something really moving about the older alien’s reaction to seeing the scientific experimentation, particularly when one obviously was not being guided by facial expressions.

The Lovely Bones This is not a film to see on a plane, not while they have the lights on anyway. I cried and cried and cried. It was very Heavenly Creatures style Peter Jackson and beautifully executed for it. While the notion of “heaven” was there, it wasn’t too overplayed, and was a device more than anything. The performances were fantastic though and it was the whole depiction of the parents which just killed me.

Couples Retreat This, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of film to see on a plane. Rather patchy is the best I could say. For some reason which is really quite difficult to articulate, I laughed myself stupid in the yoga section, and I rather liked the Guitar Hero-off but it was a standard paen to coupledom where all the couples end up staying together even when patently they shouldn’t. Especially in the case where the best argument for it is social utility and the prevention of loneliness.

Music

The Pixies, Horden Pavilion This was a fabulous show. Playing Doolittle and accompanying B sides, they were tight and well rehearsed. One considers that perhaps it was better to see them now than 20 years ago as they were more professional but without losing the edgy guitar driven rock we love.

Art

Two trips to Sydney and two exhibitions.

Take Your Time Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Contemporary Art I have also discussed this exhibition elsewhere. Previously viewed in January, we returned with small boys because we knew they would love it. As the programme says, Olafur Eliasson is an artist who transforms our experience of the space around us. The exhibition was an interesting experience in perception…and also lego.

Hymn to Beauty: the art of Utamaro Kitagawa Utamaro, Art Gallery of NSW This beautiful exhibition even has its own x-rated section. I love Japanese wood block prints and this is a lovely example of the floating world style. A small but very worthwhile exhibition.

Television

Battlestar Galatica: The Plan This was a massive disappointment. So excited to see more BSG, and to fathom perhaps some of the unsolved mysteries, The Plan left one totally unsatisfied and just a little frustrated. It was lovely to see old the old faces again (except, noticeably, Lee), but please give us some content! Overall it seems that in the end they didn’t quite know how to end the series, and the small frustrations from the last couple of episodes (Starbuck is an Angel! The opera scenario was just a mundane incident!) really were in no way made any better by the Cylon back story. I am not sure I am in any way convinced that the Cylon plan was just “kill everyone”.

****

So that was March. School holidays and less travel likely to lead to a different skewing of culture for April.

io9 – When Did Japan Stop Being The Future?

io9 – When Did Japan Stop Being The Future? – Blade Runner.

So following on from my piece of last night, io9 reflects on the fascination with Japan and the future. I note that while it asks the question “when did Japan stop being the future”, the answer seems to be that it hasn’t, well not quite completely.

Essentially one can argue that the sci fiction element comes in part from the difference, the otherness of Japan in so many ways to European-based culture. And for this reason, while Japan has been replaced by China in a number of places as this site of the imaginary, it hasn’t completely, and likely never will, completely go away.

The interesting thing to note, is that not only is Japan a site of future fantasy, but also a place for fantasies from the past. The second series of Heroes takes us into Japan’s past as a site for fantasy, while other books such as Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor and its following books, also looks to the past Japan for inspiration for its fantasy setting. Ancient Japan also features as the inspiration for Raymond E Feist’s Tsurani.

The the attraction is not just the neon, it is the alienness of Japan, ensured and enshrined by its foreigness, its distance and the closed borders it had for so long.

Feisty reading

I have just returned from a week away during which time I had little I had to do and thus much time for reading and other leisurely pursuits. I wanted to reflect on two of the books I read during this time.

Raymond E Feist’s Magician was a revelation to a 14 year old who loved fantasy. Leant it by an adult friend who had brought it back from America, I read it voraciously and loved every bit of it. Since then, the gloss has worn off Feist’s work somewhat. I did love the Empire series and have enjoyed most of his other novels, though not found them quite as magical as Magician. I think there are a couple from the middle period I haven’t actually read – they did blur together a little. Of course, one of the major problems of the subsequent books was that Feist came up against the Superman/Peter Petrelli effect: inventing two heroes in Pug and Tomas who were virtually indestructible – so  powerful they are able to beat off almost any attack (and it now looks like Magnus is going to be ever more so).  Thus, he is forced to create ever more powerful evil oppostion which wreaks destructions on an almost unbelievable scale.

I often wonder why Feist hasn’t just moved on from Midkemia to a new site of fantasy. Does he have so little faith in his fans that they would abandon him if he left Pug out of a story? Interestingly, in recent years two of the books of his I have enjoyed the most have been the most removed from the traditional Midkemian setting – Talon of the Silver Claw and Exile’s Return. In both of these books new characters and new societies took centre stage. In particular, the change in focus in seeing the redemption of Kaspar, the villian of the previous two books, made it rather more interesting than a number of Feist’s novels.

Similarly, the most interesting parts of Into a Dark Realm were about the Dasati. I kind of wished that the book had focused on them and disappointingly when moving into Wrath of a Mad God the Dasati perspective was entirely lost, even though Pug spent almost the entirety of the novel in their realm. Which brings us to the book overall.  The first thing I have to say is that it is rather appalling that, clearly in their rush to get the money-spinning books on the shelves, the publishers have done a shocking job of editing – both Into a Dark Realm and Wrath of a Mad God. Things like finding “Erik” spelt with a “c” and “k” alternately about five times over the course of two pages, and bits of story that suddenly assume knowledge never made explicit (unless I was drunk when I read those bits). I also do rather resent taking up a third of Wrath of a Mad God on a storyline which had virtually nothing to do with the central plot of the book (and the bits that might have been relevant were never explained) and is obviously setting up the next trilogy. Honest Mr Feist and publishers, your readers might have a bit more respect if you didn’t treat us like total dupes. I did still enjoy the book, but I do think the extremeness of the conclusion is pushing the books to such a point that they will run out of places to go, soon.

On the other hand, there was Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Definitely a distinct contrast. While for Feist the story is the purpose, with the writing itself just the tool to get there, with McEwan there is much to be said for the writing being an end in itself. The thing I have found most engaging about both Enduring Love and On Chesil Beach is the manner in which McEwan so accurately catches the interior debates and thoughts about they way people act, especially in relationships of love. I find myself identifying so clearly with some of the thought processes the characters undertake before making decisions or saying things, and the manner in which a lack of understanding of the point of view of another can so quickly cause relationships to deteriorate. In Enduring Love there are two scenes I found absolutely striking. The first in when Clarissa comes home from work to be confronted by Joe’s ravings about Parry. The cleverness of the inversion of the point of view, and the capturing of the way one can feel when the hope and expectation of what will greet you when you get home feeling crappy after a terrible day is completely disappointed, allows you to understand why Clarissa may take the point of view she does about Joe and Parry. what is particularly clever is how the book makes you doubt even the narrative you are reading – perhaps Clarissa is right in her opinion. The other scene I found beautiful and clever and compelling is where Joe goes to searh Clarissa’s drawers, and his own recognition of his own performance of searching for the stapler. It so clearly exposes the lies we try to tell ourselves to justify behaviour, and the question of who is he/we trying to convince when we do these things, unwatched.

So while I may not have been completely convinced of the books denoument, and I found the Parry character hard to engage with in any way, the beauty and insight of the writing made me thoroughly enjoy the reading.