Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Posted by lea at 10:56 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Persuasion is a charming and mature love story - not driven by impetuous young passions, but rather by character and virtue. Sounds boring, but it isn't. The heroine is Anne Elliot, a quiet and good-hearted soul who is much maligned by her father and older sister - two foolish, spendthrift aristocrats to whom looks, money and title mean everything. They dissuade her from marrying young Frederick Wentworth from his lack of all the above, but Anne is never able to get over her lost first love.

Eight years later, he returns - a captain in the navy, rich, dashing and now much sought after by women younger, richer and more attractive than Anne, at the ripe old Elizabethan age of 28. Their subsequent encounters cause such bittersweet pain to read. Blinded by his pride and hurt, he ignores and slights her, only to dicover - when he believes he has lost her for good - that he is, in fact, still desperately in love with her.

Persuasion is an extremely satisfying read. A fairytale that's eminently believable with two characters you can't help but root for. Austen's style of writing is, as always, impeccably timed, perfectly tuned and conveys the heartache and ecstasy of Anne and Captain Wentworth in the most delicious way. This was her last finished work, and is worthy of its place in her catalogue.

Another unexpected source of enjoyment in Persuasion is in seeing the development of the English language over the centuries since the novel was published:

Anne had always thought such a style of intercourse highly imprudent; but she ceased to endeavour to check it, from believing that, though there were on each side continual subjects of offence, neither family could now do without it.
(Chapter 5)

He did justice to his gentleman-like appearance... but at the same time 'must lament his being very much under-hung'
(Chapter 15)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Gifts that keep giving

Posted by lea at 4:38 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Remember George's 'Human Fund' in Seinfeld? An untraditional present where the benefit of the gift goes to a charity or person in need (in that episode, the charity case was George himself).

Nowadays, charities are much more inventive and rather than offering generic donations 'on behalf of', you can give anything from farm animals to school books to seeds and almost anything else a person in need could possibly want. It's a fun way to give and do good at the same time.

For example, Oxfam Unwrapped offers gifts of cattle manure for $15 to help crop growers in Sri Lanka, or you can build a school in Vietnam on behalf of a loved one for $3,500.

ChildFund Australia's Donations with a Difference scheme allows you to buy the most 'Eggsellent' gift of chickens for impoverished famlies in Cambodia for just $21, or lay out some more dosh to pay for a water pump in Papua New Guinea for $1,485.

You can buy online and gifts even come with great gimmicky cards. You can even opt for an e-card, so it's never too late to start your Christmas shopping. I guess the only consideration is how much the gift will be worth in the sight of the recipient. Fortunately there are 2 recipients, so even if your intended gift recipient (the person who ends up with the card) isn't too thrilled about a family in Uganda gaining a water bucket on their behalf, the Ugandan family will love you to bits. And let's face it, it's much better than socks or random kris kringle gifts that end up re-gifted year after year.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Damsel in Distress, P.G. Wodehouse

Posted by lea at 4:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
At the risk of sounding clichéd, the first words that spring to mind are 'madcap antics' and 'comic caper'. P.G. Wodehouse is a master of these elements and he's right at home in Damsel in Distress. There are - as usual with Wodehouse - budding romances, mistaken identities, clever butlers, evil aunts and, of course, a whole array of shenanigans in between. What's a shenanigan? Who knows exactly, but this book's got them in spades.

The plot begins when Lady Maud Marshmoreton travels secretly to London to meet the unsuitable suitor she's unfortunately fallen in love with. Spotted by her aristocratic brother Lord Belpher (a fat bosh if ever there was one), she dives into a taxi occupied by American composer George Bevan, whose chilvalry is as spontaneous as his falling in love with her. To add to the complications, her pompous and overbearing aunt, Lady Caroline, is determined to marry her off to her own highly suitable stepson Reggie, a vacuous young gent who is smitten by the sight of Alice Faraday, secretary to Maud's father, Lord Marshmoreton.

P.G. Wodehouse writes English comedy-of-manners like Michelangelo painted. It's an art form that dominates the field - noone even comes close. As a huge fan of his most popular Jeeves and Wooster series, I really enjoyed Damsel in Distress, with the slight exception of some of the dialogue. Lady Maud Marshmoreton, the damsel of the title, tends to be a little too clever in her speeches, which can be a bit annoying at times, but other than that, it's a great read - still light and funny after all these years (first published 1919).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Quantum of Solace, movie review

Posted by lea at 2:39 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Quantum of Solace is another James Bond movie that's touted to be 'different from the rest'. I'm not sure exactly what's different here, except that Bond is more rough around the edges than his smooth predecessors, but we already knew that of Daniel Craig from the last movie.

From the thrilling car chase at the beginning to the blow-em-up firebomb at the end, it's all in, all action, all over the world. From Italy to Bolivia, Bond chases, bashes, rescues, pursues, shoots and maims all manner of people. The plot is thin, and why he rescues and ends up tying his fate (and the storyline) to the girl Camille (played by Olga Kurylenko) is never quite clear. That sort of non-self-interested chivalry seems out of character considering that he's so driven by avenging the death of Vespa. Or is it avenging the attempt on M's life? Who knows. Who cares. The action takes over and the multiple 'coincidences' that happen to speed along the story are a mild nuisance rather than a showstopper.

Personally I never liked Bond the smoothie who ended up in bed with a different girl in every movie, and this Bourne-like angry action Bond makes better viewing in my opinion. The sexual tryst in Quantum of Solace seems more like a token nod to Ian Fleming's misogynistic original than the Bond that Daniel Craig delivers. A better plot and some sharper dialogue would've made it a better movie, but the action is great.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pronto, Elmore Leonard

Posted by lea at 11:22 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Elmore Leonard, prolific author of crime comedies such as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Be Cool, does what he does best in Pronto. His stories are slick, the plots fast-paced and characters cool - misfits in the above-board world, they're right at home in the criminal underworld, and so, it would seem, is Elmore Leonard.

In Pronto, Harry Arno is part of the Miami underbelly - a crooked bookie who skims from his mafia boss, Jimmy Cap, and then gets set up by the FBI as a fall guy in order to get Jimmy. Enter US Marshall Raylan Givens, a Stetson-wearing niceguy who, despite having been given the slip twice to the jeopardy of his career, still likes Harry and tracks him down in Italy in order to capture, as well as protect, him from his old boss and the FBI.

Pronto is a good read - quick, interesting and funny. The plot isn't overly convoluted, and although there are a number of big and small characters involved, Leonard fleshes them out nicely. The only criticism is that the protagonist switches halfway through from Harry to Raylan, which requires a mental adjustment that jars an otherwise smooth plot. But on the plus side, he teaches Italian swear words along the way, like testa di cazzo -'dickhead'. A crime caper that's also educational? Couldn't ask for more.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Posted by lea at 11:20 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is a rivetting read because it covers a lot of ground: Bourdain's personal journey through drug-addiction to maturation as a chef, his love and obvious passion for food, and the ugly yet strangely charming (in a very crass way) unseen machinations behind the industry of fine dining. And to top it all off, it's written with wit, warmth and honesty that you can't help but appreciate.

He describes his cohorts in the kitchen - those who deliver dishes of utmost perfection - endearingly as:
wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths.

He obviously loves them, loves his job, loves food and is passionate about the industry - and all of that really comes through. Although I started without even the slightest interest in the New York fine dining scene (the book was a gift), Kitchen Confidential gave me a real appreciation for the passion, talent and dedication of those involved in the craft. There's nothing more enjoyable than having a whole world opened up for you by someone who knows all its ins and outs and who can write - absorbingly, engagingly - about it all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Then She Found Me, Elinor Lipman

Posted by lea at 11:54 AM 2 comments Links to this post
Imagine you grew up as part of a loving adopted family. Your adoptive parents pass away (they were pretty old) and suddenly you're contacted by Kerri-Ann Kennerly. She says you're her long-lost daughter, torn from her tender 17 year-old bosom, and now she wants a relationship with you.

This is the situation that faces April Epner, protagonist of Then She Found Me. April is a realist - a quiet school teacher who isn't interested in fashion or fortune. Her birth mother, it transpires, is a flashy fashionista who hosts a third-rate talk show and loves fame and all its trappings. Having reached a 'certain point' in her life, Bernice makes contact with her only child, which is the catalyst that sets the story in motion.

Elinor Lipman is an old hand at bringing everyday, flawed characters to life, and she does so again with true mastery in Then She Found Me. Bernice is wonderfully drawn and colourful as a conflicted drama queen who wants to redeem herself with April, despite the selfishness with which she's lived the past 36 years since giving her up. There's also a surprising love interest for April, and only Lipman could make this guy endearing so that you're actually rooting for him.

Then She Found Me is written with a great balance of light wit and deep pathos, and recommended for people who don't need Hollywood excesses in their stories (tear-jerking dramatics, violin-inducing romance, etc).

Oh and yes, it's Helen Hunt and Bette Midler you see in the image. Helent Hunt both directs and plays April in the movie version, and it's pretty good. Low key. Midler's great.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Addition, by Toni Jordan

Posted by lea at 4:02 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Addition is a story written from the point of view of Grace, a woman with obsessive compulsive disorder. She marks her days by numbers - the number of steps from her home to her local cafe, the number of poppyseeds in the cake she orders everyday, which then determines the number of bites she takes to eat it. The orderliness of her everyday is broken when, at the supermarket, she discovers she has accidentally picked up nine bananas, not ten - a tragedy in her world. So she steals a banana from the basket of the man behind her at the checkout, which brings his world into collision with hers. The victim of the theft, Seamus, turns out to be a lovely (in fact slightly too perfect) man who unstintingly accepts her for who she is.

Addition was a little disappointing because the reviews were so positive, and the angle so promising. Apart from the charming beginning when she meets Seamus, the rest of the novel is a bit... light on. Grace is not particularly likeable - just because she has a disorder doesn't make her arrogance any more attractive. In her sexual encounters, her unfolding relationship with Seamus and her conversations (so sparklingly witty), one can't help but feel that the author is screaming, 'See, she's normal, just like you!!'

It's a quick read and not a bad one, but not particularly good either.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wicked, book review

Posted by lea at 3:18 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Hmm, must say I'm rather disappointed with this book. It's alright in its own way, but certainly not worth all the hype that's followed it. I got bored about two-thirds of the way through and just wanted to race through it to the end.

A lot of the hype surrounding the book has related to its discussion on the question of evil, and whether it's really what we think it is, but rather than touching on the philosophical question of the nature of evil, Wicked actually just re-interprets the story of Oz and turns the widely believed perceptions of the characters upside down. The 'Wicked Witch of the West' is actually just a passionate and idealistic young woman called Elphaba who becomes an Animal-activist and political hermit, often misunderstood because of her unfortunate green skin. She's always the outsider, aligning herself with the disenfranchised and maligned. The 'Wizard of Oz' in Wicked is a power-monger and usurper from another world, while Dorothy is simply a farm girl from Kansas who gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are a lot of characters introduced in the book and a variety of events that don't seem to serve any purpose. The plot wearies on and on... Gregory Maguire builds a lot of expectation and hype around some characters and items like the enchanted shoes, the old witch Yackle, the midget and the time clock that, much like his book, don't actually go anywhere.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Posted by lea at 12:03 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The title is ironic: the author is attempting to write a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and he is wholly self-conscious about this endeavour. This is a rather mammoth book that describes the vulnerable, aching, egocentric and contradictory thoughts of one Dave Eggers, author extraordinaire.

The story in a nutshell is this: Dave's mother and father both die of cancer in separate incidents within months of each other. The older kids - Bill, Beth and Dave - are all grown up, but Toph, the seven year old, becomes the unofficial ward of Dave, who is 22 when he essentially becomes a single parent.

Eggers' writing is almost painfully self-aware. He deserves to be pitied. He wants to be famous. He wants to write something breathtakingly beautiful. And, in his own way, he has. He's a great storyteller and the introduction alone is worth reading for its whimsy, wit and two-fingers up to convention, including a section on 'Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book'. He's the quintessential Gen X'er - if there is such a thing.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has been compared to the work of JD Salinger, nominated as a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and received a host of laudatory reviews across America. After reading it, you feel like you really know the guy, and you can imagine him receiving it all with a deep sense of deserving such praise while mocking himself for wanting it so much. This is a book in which the author really bares his soul.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Jane Austen Book Club, book review

Posted by lea at 11:37 AM 0 comments Links to this post
My third read in around a year and a half, and it improves each time. The first time I was a bit offended because it seemed that the plot had very little to do with Austen, but the second time it grew on me, and the third time I really enjoyed the subtleties I didn't pick up the first time (because I was so busy being offended).

The Jane Austen Book Club is about a group of people - mostly female, mostly older - who gather each month to read and discuss a different Jane Austen novel. Karen Joy Fowler, the author, obviously knows and loves her Austen, skillfully weaving the themes and ideas of the novels into each chapter. So subtly, in fact, that I failed to pick up some of it in my first read.

She uses an interesting method of first-person narrative in writing as a member the book club ('us', 'we'), yet the narrator is clearly none of the members themselves. It's as though the narrator is the collective consciousness of the club, and this makes you feel part of the group without intruding on them.

The characters are all very different, but drawn together by their love of Austen... mostly. There's the efficient and brisk Jocelyn who started the club, the I'm-letting-myself-deliberately-go older member Bernadette, Prudie the French teacher who likes to drop un petit peu of Français into each conversation, Jocelyn's best friend and recently-separated Sylvia, her beautiful self-centred lesbian daughter Allegra, and Grigg, the only male member -

She [Jocelyn] introduced us all to Grigg. He had brought the Gramercy edition of the complete novels, which suggested that Austen was merely a recent whim. We really could not approve of someone who showed up with an obviously new book, of someone who had the complete novels on his lap when only Emma was under discussion. Whenever he first spoke, whatever he said, one of us would have to put him in his place.

There's nothing big or loud about The Jane Austen Book Club. Instead, it's very enjoyable for its quiet wit and unobtrusive narrative. Yet, in true Jane Austen style, the characters find love, forgiveness and all the good things that make us human. Big thumbs up from me.

Oh, and the movie's pretty good too.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Eagle Eye, movie review

Posted by lea at 11:43 AM 0 comments Links to this post
The idea around which Eagle Eye centres is not particularly new – at it's core, it's a question of whether artificial intelligence in the form of Big Brother (or in this case Big Sister) justifies the loss of personal privacy. And of course, Big Sis inevitably turns on her creators 'for their own sake'.

The action is carried by two main stars – Shia LaBeouf of Transformers fame plays Jerry, the less-accomplished twin in his family (this is an important fact) and Michelle Monaghan, a single mum who's motivated by the safety of her son. These two are thrown together as fugitives in a string of incidents orchestrated down to the split-second in order to accomplish a mission they're not even aware of. It soon becomes evident why Jerry has been selected for the task, but it's less obvious why 'the female' (as she's called by Big Sis) was selected – especially at the end when she doesn't complete the order she's given and Big Sis simply goes 'well don't worry about it, I'll do it some other way'. One senses that the female is simple there to provide a romantic counterpart for Jerry, but to the movie's credit, this doesn't become evident until right at the very end. The plot of the movie isn't that complicated, but the journey that Big Sis sends the pair on is rather convoluted – you'd think that a computer with super-intelligence could simplify things a little.

What Eagle Eye lacks in originality, it makes up for in action. Cars get smashed, people get blown up, a fighter plane gets involved – this is one $$expensive$$ film. The action is not really taut as much as it is just plain BIG. Lots of cars get smashed. Big explosions occur. Director DJ Caruso (who also directed Disturbia) gives Michael Bay a run for his money in epic collateral damage. But then, I'm sure I saw Steven Spielberg's name as an Executive Producer, so that explains that too.

Billy Bob Thornton surprisingly appears as a Government agent who predictably goes from foe to friend of the fugitives, but this role is too thin for his abilities and one can't help feel that he's been wasted in this film. The release of Eagle Eye was timed for the school holidays, and I think that's where the audience is - high schoolers and pre-teens to whom the concepts might still be relatively new, who will appreciate the explosions and graciously overlook the lack of subtlety.

Personally, I think i-Robot did artificial intelligence better (minus the gratuitous Will Smith-in-the-shower scene).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Isabel's Bed, Elinor Lipman

Posted by lea at 3:25 PM 1 comments Links to this post
I find Elinor Lipman's books interesting, humorous in a low-key kind of way (more English than American) and full of generously portrayed characters, but I can't help the feeling that there's more to them than I'm getting, because so many reviewers seem to rave about them.

My second Lipman book, Isabel's Bed is about wannabe writer Harriet Mahoney, who gets kicked out of her apartment after beind dumped by her live-in lover for a younger woman. She takes a ghost-writing job with glamorous tabloid slut Isabel Krug, famous for being caught in the act with her rich adulterous lover when his wife burst in on them and fatally shot him. Harriet becomes absorbed into Isabel's architect-designed multi-million dollar home and eccentric life while trying to maintain her writer-sensibilities, which tend more towards Remains of the Day than the sensational besteller she's been hired to write.

Isabel's Bed is full of wry egocentric observations by Harriet and a handful of absorbing and well-etched characters. Lipman very successfully positions herself at the more intelligent end of the chicklit spectrum. An enjoyable read.

An excerpt:

There weren't even bubbles in the bath to obscure her private parts from me, her acquaintance of less than twenty-four hours. It was not the lolling soak of Calgon commercials; this was Isabel soaping her wash cloth and scrubbing her armpits and crotch in a manner I hadn't done in front of Kenny after a decade of intimacy. I sat on a wrought iron stool at the foot of the black marble steps, which led to her elevated, sunken tub. She talked and soaked, talked and scrubbed, then talked and rinsed, while I tried to be as casual about her nudity as she was, and while many Isabels bounced off the mirrored walls.

And there was no getting around her breasts, especially in the context of Isabel as tabloid paramour, as the woman Guy VanVleet died for. They were big. Enormous. They drooped from their own weight below the bath water, then surfaced on display, areolas the size of coasters. I wanted to ask if they were real, but decided that no certified plastic surgeon would have built those. Ordinarily I'd feel sorry for a woman with water-balloon breasts, knowing the burdens they imposed, but I could see that Isabel prized them and regarded them as my first research project, as if seeing them would help me write between the lines.

In Bruges

Posted by lea at 12:07 PM 0 comments Links to this post
In Bruges is a film about two hitmen sent to Bruges (a picturesque medieval town in Belgium) by their boss, Harry, after a job goes wrong in London. Bruges is their purgatory - with no idea what they're doing there, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) await orders from Harry, killing time with sightseeing, offensive behaviour (the scene between Ray and the fat American tourists is hilarious, as are his observations on 'midgets') and conversation with a depth you don't expect.

Much of the enjoyment of In Bruges comes from the dialogue, which is witty and funny and perfectly delivered. The three leads are just immaculate in the portrayal of their characters. Colin Farrell was a pleasant surprise - I honestly didn't like him after his Hollywood movies, but here, as the immature rookie hitman with the moral dilemma, he really shines. Ralph Fiennes also delivered a great performance. For the greater part of the film, you only hear Harry's voice over the phone, and it was a shock to find that that voice (with the accent and potty mouth) belonged to him.

The film, although quite violent at times, portrays the characters in three-dimensions. They're not simply hitmen, but men with consciences and their own code of honour who possess endearing qualities despite their obvious flaws. In Bruges is highly enjoyable, funny, ironic and refreshingly different from the usual Hollywood blockbuster.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom

Posted by lea at 11:11 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Mitch Albom is most famous for his book Tuesdays with Morrie, but personally, I think The Five People You Meet in Heaven is more enjoyable. The story revolves around the life (or rather, death) of eighty-three year old Eddie, a war veteran and maintenance man for the amusement rides at Ruby's Pier. From the beginning, we are told that Eddie is going to die soon, but that death is only the beginning.

The premise is that upon death, we meet five people in heaven who explain the meaning of our lives - something we often miss in our mundane day-to-day. The first time I read this book (around a year or two ago for my book club) it had quite a profound impact on me and I'm sure I shed a tear or two. This time round it wasn't quite the same (I should've written this review back then) but I still think it's a great little book.

It's an easy and absorbing read that does prompt you to think about the meaning of your life. And I couldn't help but wonder what happens if you go to hell - do you meet five people who tell you what your life could've been, leading to remorse and eternal repentance rather than understanding and acceptance, which is what happens to Eddie in the end?

Overall, it's a lovely and well written story with a fable-like quality that reminded me a little of The Alchemist. In both cases, the stories are profound but written with great simplicity, allowing the meaning to really shine through. There's a touch of the spiritual and eternal in both, a sense of fate and purpose that's quite inspirational. This book would appeal to a wide audience.

PS - I just googled and discovered they made a telemovie out of it with Jon Voight!

Janet Evanovich, Stephanie Plum series

Posted by lea at 10:54 AM 0 comments Links to this post

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is utterly enjoyable. After losing her job as a lingerie buyer for a B-grade department store, Stephanie is forced to become a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie's bail bonding business in order to pay the rent. With a combination of dumb luck, intuition and a lot of help from the mysterious Ranger and on-again-off-again cop boyfriend Joe Morelli, she manages to catch the bad guy and keep from being blown to bits in some very close calls.

With a plethora of zany characters (lycra spandex-loving, plus-size bestie Lula who's an ex-ho-turned-filing-clerk and overly-curious, adventurous grandma Mazur, to name just two), this series of novels is truly entertaining. It's better than your average chicklit detective novel, full of funny moments, climactic situations and a whole lot of sexual tension. And best of it, each book actually has a really well-thought out plot. Stephanie's a likeable character who's endearing and quite relatable - she's perpetually broke, has a weakness for junk food and occasionally has trouble doing the top button of her jeans - except perhaps for the fact that she tends to blow up cars and tackle bad guys.

It's one of those series that you wish would just keep going - and it does. At the time of writing this review, Evanovich has released 14 Stephanie Plum novels. The upside is that you want more each time you read one and she delivers each time, but the downside is that it gets a bit predictable - we know Stephanie's going to catch the bad guy and we know that she'll never be able to make up her mind between Morelli and Ranger. It's a quandary because if she DID finally decide to put the holster down and take up with one of the men in her life, you'd be totally disappointed, yet her lack of personal progress can also be frustrating.

The great thing about it is that when you want a quick, enjoyable, laugh-out-loud read, you can go back and pick up any one of the books and it's like a bite-sized piece of chocolate that hits the spot. I've been going back and forth, up and down the line of series for ages now (a few years at least) and was prompted to write this entry only because I found book #1 at St Vinnies (got it second hand for $2 - what a bargain) and read and enjoyed it all over again. It's funny seeing how Ranger has progressed from being a competent commando-style Latino bounty hunter to this laconic dark man of mystery - a cross between Batman and sex on legs.

My only word of advice is don't bother with the other Evanovich novels because they're just not as good - especially not the ones where she collaborates with another author. Stay far away. Stick with Plum.

Series titles:
One for the Money
Two for the Dough
Three to Get Deadly
Four to Score
High Five
Hot Six
Hard Eight
To the Nines
Ten Big Ones
Eleven on Top
Twelve Sharp
Lean Mean Thirteen
Fearleass Fourteen

Holiday Novellas:
Visions of Sugar Plums
Plum Lovin'

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wall-e movie review

Posted by lea at 12:19 PM 2 comments Links to this post
Wall-e - both the robot character and the movie - is just absolutely endearing. He's a garbage compacter left on Earth after the humans create so much rubbish they decide to hover in space while it gets cleaned up. He falls in love with Eva, a brand-spanking new robot who hails from hundreds of years later, when people have become inactive masses who go from place to place on hover-seats continuously sucking food through a straw.

The story mainly follows Wall-e and his pursuit of Eva, all the way to the great spaceship of humans. Through the gorgeous story (much of it told without dialogue), Wall-e manages to convey a depth of both feeling and communication: that loneliness is heartbreak, that humans aren't the only species that can feel love, that those who are 'broken' also have their own unique redeeming qualities, that humans need to take better care of their Earth home.

A standout moment in the movie for me is when Wall-e, a fan of Guys and Dolls, dances around for Eva in imitation of the musical. The film even manages to make cockroaches look cute and harmless - a feat I never would've expected. Pixar really did an amazing job with this movie and deserves all the box-office laudits it's undoubtedly already raking in.

Anonymous Lawyer

Posted by lea at 11:38 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Anonymous Lawyer is a book adapted from a highly successful fictional blog by Jeremy Blachman, written from the point of view of a fictitious hiring partner at a major law firm. Personally I found the whorish capitalism and cynicism a bit too uncomfortable to fully enjoy at first, but it’s a quick easy read that provides a humorous insight into the world of corporate law in one of America’s major firms.

The blog entries are interspersed with personal emails, which provide great insight into the character of Anonymous Lawyer - particularly those between him and Anonymous Niece and The Musician. In an attempt to keep his anonymity, he describes those around him in broad strokes, like The Suck Up, The Jerk, The Woman Who Missed Her Kid’s Funeral, The Fat One and The Bombshell. The attempts to identify him (and themselves) by lawyers across the country are hilarious at times.

Towards the end I really began to sympathise with him and was hoping for a riding-off-into-the-sunset ending where he wakes up, discovers that there’s more to life than becoming The New Chairman and begins spending more time with Anonymous Wife, Daughter and particularly Anonymous Son. Of course, with the ending being what it is, he will undoubtedly have the time to do that.

Overall, in the words of a member of my book club, it was 'uncomfortably enjoyable'.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The perpetually unfinished Friday Night Knitting Club, Kate Jacobs

Posted by lea at 1:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The Friday Night Knitting Club is one of those books that sits on my shelf while I lament the space it's taking and the money I forked out to buy it (even if I did get it with a 3 for 2 deal at Borders). I just can't get past about a quarter way, and I've given it 2 tries already.

It's a debut book by a new author and you can tell. The writing is too heavy, the situation cliched, characters one-dimensional and the plot borders on predictable and couldn't-care-less. The only redeeming feature was the premise - a single mum opens her dream shop selling yarn which attracts women from all walks who share their lives along with their patterns every Friday night. Sounds like the perfect chicklit setup for some light sparkling conversation overlaid by deep insights, but it really fails to deliver.

Apparently they've made a movie out of it with Julia Roberts. I hope it does better than the book, about which I can't comment much further as I haven't finished and don't intend to. I just wanted my two monumental attempts to read it documented.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Posted by lea at 12:21 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I finished this weighty book just this minute and the lingering sense is one of pensive melancholy - strange, considering that it started with such jubilance. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is set around the lives of two cousins who create a comic book hero, The Escapist, who becomes a phenomenon. Sammy Clay is a boy whose imagination and brash enthusiasm overcomes the weakness of his polio-infected legs and breathes life into their creation. The artwork is brought to life by his cousin and partner Joe Kavalier, the sole survivor amongst his family since his escape from Prague during the Nazi regime just before World War II.

The story begins with success - two Jewish boys make it against the odds. As the story chronicles their growth during the golden era of 1930-50s New York, it's a case of real life intruding on a fairytale. Sammy struggles with his unspoken and unacceptable (at the time) personal proclivities while Joe joins the army to kill the Germans who have been haunting his dreams. I won't go further into the plot because the discovery of their journeys is central to the enjoyment of this book.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Kavalier and Clay is truly beautifully written - a hefty tome that pays homage not only to the rise of the comic book industry in New York and its accompanying social implications, but also to the fictional two men who contributed towards its popularity. It's what you'd call an 'epic novel' as it spans decades and portrays complex relationships, love, art, loss, dreams and regret with incredible depth, but Chabon's touch has the light and shade of a graphic novel - much like the final creation of Joe Kavalier.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Told from the point of view of superheroes in a comic-book world, Soon I Will Be Invincible is an interesting read that makes superheroes seem just like the average person - except, of course, for their superhuman powers. They have insecurities, eating disorders, blonde moments, self-doubt and a pecking order.

The story alternates between two first-person narrators - ageing supervillain Dr Impossible and rookie superhero Fatale. Dr Impossible, fresh from his latest incarceration in maximum security super-jail, is out to destroy the world... again. There's a hilarious and heart-breaking moment when he goes to a dingy villain hangout in an abandoned shopping centre to meet some old cronies. The pathos of Grossman's description of the unglamorous side of villainy is at once hilarious and cringe-inducing, as Dr Impossible catches a bus to get there, changes into his costume in the bushes and has to walk back home afterwards.

Fatale is the newest member of the New Champions, a super-league made up of a motley crew of heroes, including recently divorced Damsel and Blackwolf (yes, it appears superheroes get divorced too). Through her eyes we see the competitiveness, insecurities and all-too-humanness of the superheroes as they are forced to work together to find missing CoreFire, the greatest superhero of them all.

In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman takes a comic book idea and makes it accessible to people who may not really be into comic books themselves but are still fascinated by the whole superhero genre, like me. It's particularly interesting because the heroes and villains aren't stereotyped or revered for their inherent qualities, but are rather deconstructed and shown to be normal people whose personal decisions about their abnormal abilities make them what they are. Overall, I found it to be a great read.

Spring cleaning the green way

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM 0 comments Links to this post

With it now being Spring and all (at least in the southern hemisphere), cleaning seems like an appropriate topic to write about at this time. I've been reading a bit about household cleaning chemicals and their long term effects etc, and basically, the outlook's not good. Commercially sold cleaning products often contain chemicals that aren't good for you to breathe in on a daily basis, and are actually toxic to the human body. What's the point of living in a spotless home if it's killing you slowly, eh.

So I did a bit of research and shortlisted my favourite (incidentally the simplest) solutions for a chemical-free, non-toxic, spotless home.

All-purpose cleaner: mix a solution of ½ vinegar and ½ water into a spray bottle

  • this cleaner works on all surfaces including kitchen counters, the bathroom sink, toilets and floors (except stone and marble)
  • also use on windows and mirrors, wiping with a sheet of newspaper for an extra streak-free clean

All-purpose scourer: sprinkle baking soda onto a damp sponge

  • baking soda is a natural scourer that deodorises and scrubs grime including bathtub rings, food deposits in kitchen sinks, inside fridges, etc.
  • for tougher grime, make a paste from baking soda and water, apply to grimy areas and let it sit for 10-20 minutes before cleaning. Even works in grimy ovens – just leave overnight
  • also works on tarnished pots and pans

Furniture polish: mix ½ teaspoon olive oil with ¼ cup vinegar or fresh lemon juice

  • dab on a soft rag and wipe wooden surfaces
  • mixture can be stored indefinitely in a glass jar and shaken before use to blend

Mold and mildew: combine 1tsp tea tree oil with 1 cup of water in a spray bottle

  • shake to blend and spray on problem areas like walls, ceilings, furniture, musty rugs and shower curtains
  • leave and do not rinse – this solution will tackle mold and the eucalyptus smell will dissipate
  • alternatively, simply spray undiluted white vinegar on mold and mildew

Extra tips:

  • to avoid after-shower fog on bathroom mirrors and windows, sprinkle tea tree oil on the surface and wipe with a sheet of newspaper
  • use vinegar instead of commercial fabric softeners in the washing machine – particularly good for sensitive skin
  • leave a container of baking soda in the fridge (open) to absorb smells
  • mint is a natural enemy of ants and mice, so spray distilled spearmint oil or brewed mint tea in nooks, crannies and cracks to keep them away

Bonus for the heavy-duty spring cleaners:

To get rid of mineral deposits clogging your shower head (remember that the water you clean yourself with comes through this metallic fixture after all):

  • place undiluted vinegar in a plastic food storage bag (freezer bag/oven bag etc)
  • place the shower head inside the bag so it's covered by vinegar and secure with a rubber band
  • let it stand for 2hrs or overnight
  • remove bag, rinse the shower head and buff to a shiny finish (and of course, turn your shower on to wash out the vinegar before taking a shower)
Cheers to a clean and healthy season!

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (book review)

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM 0 comments Links to this post
On Beauty, like many truly literary works for me, took a while to get into, and even longer before I figured out that the family was mixed-race, which is kinda important to know in order to understand the specific cultural foundation of the book. It was particularly interesting because I realised this is one of the first books I've read where so many of the characters are black - not that it's particularly important in the scheme of things - but it was a totally different world than I was used to reading about. And fascinating.

Cultural differences aside, the characters are real people, fleshed out and shown in all their flawed natural glory. Howard Belsey, the central character, is an English professor at a Massachusetts university, married to African-American wife Kiki, with whom he has three children. The relationship between Howard and Kiki is the maypole around which most of the threads of the story are wound, particularly Howard's affair with a close friend of the family, and his rivalry with Monty Kipps and its rippling effect on both families.

Ultimately, it's the foibles and flaws of the characters that really bring out the beauty of this book. The characters are etched beautifully - from their son Levi who likes to act like he's from the ghetto when in fact he's from a privileged background, to Carl, who actually is from the ghetto but would like nothing more than to belong to the campus culture of the Belseys and Kipps. Things are not perfect in this world - characters are betrayed, fail to reach their own unspoken expectations, fall into temptation, act without considering their true motives and learn to forgive. It's a book brimming with love for the people we actually are, not the people we want to be. For me, it was Kiki who actually brought the title home. It's through this full-figured, middle-aged woman and her open vulnerability, her love and her huge heart that we understand what real beauty is.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The latest songs on my iPod

Posted by lea at 4:25 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Jason Mraz

LOVE Jason Mraz's whimsically titled album 'we dance, we sing, we steal things'. Standout track for me is I'm Yours. Lucky, Live High and A Beautiful Mess are great too. His sound is a bit of reggae, bit of pop and ultimately a whole lot likeable.

Rating: 9/10
This album really makes me smile
(I get the feeling they saved a whole lot of money on artwork for the album cover...)

Newton Faulkner
I've also just been introduced to Newton Faulkner, of Dreams Catch Me fame. I actually thought that song was from Pete Murray because of the strong acoustic sound and depth of lyrics. I just bought his album 'Hand Built by Robots' from cdwow.com.au, but I've been listening to his tracks on his MySpace page and really loving his 'reggae voodoo' sound. I Need Something, All I Got and People Should Smile are great songs and he does a great rendition of Massive Attack's Teardrop too.

Rating: unrated as yet, because I haven't heard the entire album.

Hellboy 2

Posted by lea at 4:01 PM 0 comments Links to this post

Hellboy 2 would've been a hell of a better movie if they'd stuck to the action, one-liners and stunning visual effects of the film. Unfortunately, they also had a go at bringing in some complicated emotions, but with a character that's big and red and a girlfriend that can't act, it's an ask that was too big to be delivered with any conviction – even by the talented Guillermo del Toro.

The strengths of the film lie in the action scenes, character designs and the creation of a whole fantasy world that exists so close to the real one. It's to del Toro's credit that the underground lairs near the subways and the market beneath the bridge seem so plausible. But in between the action scenes, Del Toro attempts to bring depth to the movie by developing its main characters, and this becomes the film's weakness.

First, there's Hellboy's continuing superhero-struggle of wanting to fit in and be accepted but having to face the hard fact that he's very different from the rest of mankind. This isn't given enough screen time to be developed with any depth, so the sentiment it adds to the movie is counteracted by the fact that it's done poorly. Secondly, tensions flare up between Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz, but there's no conviction in this plot so you don't really care (can someone please teach Selma Blair to act). Also, their friend the fishguy falls in love – the star-crossed kind that makes him act totally out of character at the end, but it wasn't developed enough to be plausible.

It's a fun ride with some interesting characters, but the downside was the lack of originality – too much of the movie smacked of other big budget flicks:

LOTR - an object of power gets split up among different races to ensure peace; also the long-blond-haired elegance of the elves seemed very a la Peter Jackson

Matrix - the fight scenes with the elven prince

Indiana Jones - a small and humble team of protagonists face the sheer overwhelming number of the golden army in the final scene

MIB - the whole 'secret organisation' thing

Rating: 7/10

It's pretty much what you'd expect but nothing more.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My war against Angus & Robertson wanes...

Posted by lea at 1:25 PM 2 comments Links to this post
Oh I'm so weak! Show me a 75% off sale and I'll sell my ideals for the chance of a bargain.

That's exactly what Angus & Robertson has done and I capitulated, buying not one, but THREE books from them! This, after stating that I'd never buy from them again and telling everyone else I know not to either (not that I know anyone who actually listened).

And the reason for my war on A&R? They push independent book publishers out of business by forcing them to pay up if their books don't sell enough to warrant their shelf-space, on the threat that they'll stop selling their books at all. I'm sure they're not the first big retailer to flex their muscles in this way (after all, it IS a capitalist market), but HOW DARE THEY, right?

... I just wrote two paragraphs dedicated to a discourse on the role of retailers in the free market but then deleted it b/c it's just BORING. The fact is, any retailer doing this is, on one hand, seemingly money-grubbing and dirty-dealing. But on the other hand, the niggling thought is - perhaps they're just doing what they need to do to stay in business. So is it the fault of A&R or is it just the hamartia - the fatal flaw - of our modern capitalist business model? If they were to represent every under-selling independent book, they wouldn't be able to stay in business.

Am I just trying to justify my purchase? Will I put these books on a special 'blood books' section of my bookshelf? Is it enough if I only ever buy the bargain books and nothing of real value from them, b/c the bargain books contribute least to their profit margin?

... because COME ON, they were three very decent books that I bought for a total of $15.75 - unheard of!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sara Bareilles, Little Voice (CD review)

Posted by lea at 4:16 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I don't know why this album's called 'Little Voice' - she's got a great big voice - not OTT by any means, just really rich and full and beautiful.

This is a really wonderful album full of great melodies, strong lyrics and songs with a slight jazzy sort of feel to them. You feel like she really understands music and moulds the songs to the shape of her emotions, making them interesting and unique to herself.

The songs don't always go where you expect them to, so they don't sound like they've been cranked out by some 40 year old Swedish guy. There's usually a little twist or flick of the wrist in the melody that differentiates it from the usual pop sound, but with enough hooks and riffs to please the average pop listener.

Favourites: the already popular 'Love Song' with its catchy piano tune, 'Between the Lines' for its heartfeltedness (yes, I believe that's a brand new word) and 'Bottle it Up' for its good-girl fun.

I've been listening to this album for practically a week and a half straight and I've yet to get sick of it (even if my colleagues have, but fortunately they're too polite to complain).

Rating: 9/10
Excellent voice, skillful musicianship, great young talent.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Book Depository

Posted by lea at 11:00 AM 8 comments Links to this post

It's about time I wrote something about these guys because they're seriously great. www.bookdepository.co.uk have all manner of books at incredibly reasonable prices (read: cheap) with FREE INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING. You heard me right – free international shipping.

Generally the books arrive within a week or so, although I've had one experience when the book didn't arrive at all. Around 2-3 weeks after I'd placed the order, I sent them a quick email and they wrote back, 'We're terribly sorry you didn't receive your order...' It turned out that they'd run out of stock and hadn't gotten round to informing me, but their 'terribly sorriness' was so endearing (and perfectly British) that I really couldn't get mad – not to mention the fact that all my other orders have been delivered in good time (and FREE – did I mention that?).

Many of the books I've bought have been around the 5GBP mark (British pounds). Up to a few months ago, that was around AU$15, but now it's a measly $10 b/c the Aussie dollar has been performing so incredibly well. I've decided to buy up all the Alexander McCall Smith books in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series while the dollar's doing so well. They costing me around AU$11 each – the alternative is Borders or Dymocks, priced at around AU$22 – no need to tell me twice. (I never buy from Angus & Robertson since I read about them squeezing out independent publishers by forcing them to PAY for shelfspace if their books didn't perform well at the till.)

Our latest book club book 'Stardust' by Neil Gaiman cost me a whole $7 – that's cheaper than lunch in the city! No wonder I'm addicted to book-buying lately.

So check them out, much cheaper than your other alternatives – the only downside is that you have to wait until the book is delivered. If it's a gift or something you don't mind waiting to read, then order at least a week or two in advance. Otherwise, you'll need to traipse down to your local bookstore for instant gratification.

www.bookdepository.co.uk

 

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