Friday, July 31, 2009

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Posted by lea at 4:29 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Catch-22 is a brilliant and scathing anti-war book that's equal parts frustrating, funny and absurd. The hero (or central character, since he's hardly heroic) is Yossarian, a bombardier whose main objective is to stay alive throughout the war (WWII). Unfortunately for Yossarian, his attempts are thwarted at every turn. Trying to prove himself mad (and therefore unfit for duty) is undermined by the evidence that he wants to stay alive, and only a sane person would want to save their own life. That's the essence of Catch-22, and the reason for it being coined in the common lexicon.

The book is filled with a veritable Forrest Gump box of chocolate range of characters. Madness of some sort seems to be a general theme, although each to a different degree. Hungry Joe is war-mad from trauma, Chief Halfoat is race-mad from exploitation by white people, Milo is profit-mad and even bombs his own squadron to make money, Colonel Cathcart is approval-mad, continually raising the men's number of missions in order to get his picture in the newspaper, and the list goes on. There's whore-mad, son-in-law-mad, weakling-mad, danger-mad, mad-mad... Yossarian, who simply wants to stay alive, seems the sanest of them all, despite showing up to a medals ceremony completely naked and signing a fictitious name to official documents and causing havoc.

Although I think Catch-22 is a work of real genius, the experience of reading it was not enjoyable. With its circular logic and dark humour, it is incredibly frustrating to read, and its many idiosyncratic characters can be difficult to keep track of. Nothing seems to make any sense at all and power is held absolutely by absolute idiots. It's a maddening book that acts as a parable to question society, and in particular, war.

As a female reader, I have to also take a moment to mention the role of women in the book, as much as I don't want to. Apart from the doctor's greedy wife, no woman is mentioned without a reference to her sexuality, whether she's a whore, a colonel's wife or a nurse. It's disconcerting that in a book about power, women are hung on the very bottom rung of the ladder. The men are subject to the whims of their superiors, but women are subject to the whims of everybody. A particularly disturbing scene occurs later in the book where one of the men in the squadron (who you think you know, even as a reader) rapes a domestic servant and throws her out of a window to her death. I'm sure there's a thesis in here but this is only a book review so I'll end on this topic here.

Right at the very end, in the last few pages, the story eventually breaks out of its frustrating confines (not before things get a lot worse first) and finally a gust of hope is introduced. These last few pages, for me, made the whole book worthwhile. Finally you get a taste of what Yossarian (and you, because in the process of reading your empathy is entirely with him) has been wanting all along. But it doesn't come the way you think it will. I won't spoil it, but it's a truly rewarding ending.

Overall, Catch-22 is brilliant, funny and a little disturbing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cheri, movie review

Posted by lea at 12:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Cheri is a story set in the belle epoch – a period of history in France when high class whores were some of the most celebrated and powerful figures in society. Leah (portrayed beautifully by the gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer) is an ageing courtesan who begins a sexual affair with her friend's 19 year old son, Cheri (played by Rupert Friend). After so many decades and so many lovers, Leah finds herself truly in love for the first time, only to be informed that his mother has arranged a suitable marriage for him.

Actually, 'suitable' is a difficult word to use regarding this movie because so much of it is so very unsuitable. Not only does Leah begin a sexual relationship with a boy she's known since he was a baby (whom she even nicknamed Cheri at the age of six), but it's clear that she has maternal feelings toward him, and he filial feelings toward her. The fact that they don't hesitate to give in to their desire for each other, purely because they can, reflects the indifference of their culture to any sense of right and wrong. So many boundaries are crossed that it's no wonder their unhealthy obsession with each other leads to tragedy.

As an aside, having heard that the author of the novel this movie was based on was a woman who had had an affair with her stepson, I couldn't help but think this story was a little self-serving – trying to bring sympathy to the mother figure in this Oedipal story to justify her own actions.

But enough of my moralising – back to the review. The packaging (cinematography, score and costuming) was beautiful and Michelle Pfeiffer did a great job as Leah. It was also a better movie for showing no gratuitious nudity (except a few shots of Rupert Friend's rather taut butt), b/c it focused the storyline on the relational aspect rather than the sex, and added a measure of elegance to an otherwise tawdry affair.

Stephen Frear's voice overs were a bit jarring because the narrator had no relevance to the story, however the narration itself provided interesting insights into the characters. I'm still undecided about whether it was necessary.

On the whole, Cheri is a romantic tragedy (rom-trag – is this another genre?) that's not so much Romeo and Juliet as it is Mrs Robinson.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Your Dreams, Tom Holt

Posted by lea at 2:21 PM 1 comments Links to this post
In Your Dreams is Tom Holt's second novel in the fantasy series about J.W. Wells & Co - a multi-national corporation where magic is a commodity, and where young Paul Carpenter (the somewhat hopeless inoffensive type) finds himself bound by employment. We first met Paul in book one, the eminently readable The Portable Door. In Your Dreams takes up where that story left off, ramping up the fun while taking us deeper into this wacky fantasy world. In this second book, Paul grows a little more accustomed to his workplace surroundings and even becomes promoted to full 'hero' status after slaying a dragon (admittedly a very small one that he accidentally squashed to death by sitting on).

But new mysteries abound - prickly new love-of-his-life Sophie abruptly leaves him and soon Paul finds himself eyeball deep in the world of the Fey - the magical Faerie-like creatures with power over 'glamour'. One faction of the Fey, Paul discovers, is bent on world domination through infiltration of dreams, but with half of Hollywood in their pocket and the ensuing income this provides, no-one at profit-driven J.W. Wells & Co seems inclined to act, leaving Paul somehow the only person in the world who can take them on and save the world.

Again I have to give kudos to Tom Holt's imagination for the absurdly funny and magical elements of this book, but perhaps more so to his literary skills which manage to translate what he sees in his head onto the pages of a book. That's tough stuff. He treads the fine balance of poking deprecating humour at his hero with a genuine fondness that really comes across so we're all rooting for him too. Well worth a read.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

Posted by lea at 11:21 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Sunshine Cleaning is a nice little indie film starring some pretty big names - Amy Adams and Emily Blunt to name two. They play sisters who live small-town lives, not having made too much of themselves. Rose (Adams) is a former cheerleader and girl-most-likely who now works as a domestic cleaner to pay bills as a single mum, while Norah (Blunt) is an unemployed grunge girl who sneaks cigarettes and can't hold a job. When Rose's ex-boyfriend Mack (a police detective played by Steve Zahn) suggests crime-scene cleaning for some extra dough, the girls enter new territory. It's touching and funny at times to watch them struggle amateurishly in their new business, and there are some very poignant moments as their lives begin to move forward with some semblance of success.

Quite typically for an indie film, the plot is slow and more relationally-based than action-driven. The characters are quite well defined but could have been somewhat cliched if not for the acting, which was really good. It's always nice to see movies that celebrate the smallness in life (not its narrowness, but the small triumphs and victories) as well as the large things, and this one did that well. It's quite obviously geared towards the feel-good angle, and there's nothing wrong with that, but in pursuit of that ending, it becomes a little self-conscious.

Overall a gentle watch but not mandatory viewing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Peri-ode

Posted by lea at 12:03 PM 3 comments Links to this post
Excuse me while I step away from the reviews for a moment to write a simple little poem inspired by a friend's blog post on poetry and prose. This poem is about... well, it's self-explanatory, really.

Peri-ode

Oh crimson tide of deep despair
Leaving misery in wake
Oh cause of dark, depressing days
and dull unending ache

When you leave, you take with you
All traces of your pain
But joy is brief, for in due course
You simply come again

Oh leave me be, you whitewashed tomb!
You agonising beast!
The only joy you bring each time
Is a guilt-free chocolate feast

You are bad, but I am worse
For now I must confess
This crappy poem was written in
The heat of pms

Oh dearest friend, I understand
You do not wish me ill
All I need to dull your pain
Is to take a little pill

Forgive me dear, and come again
Though you drag me to the pits
I'll take your misery and pain
And multiple facial zits

You are my friend and not my foe
I'm sorry for my words
For without you I could not enjoy
The result of 'bees and birds'

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Portable Door, Tom Holt

Posted by lea at 12:54 PM 0 comments Links to this post
If you like comedy mixed with fantasy and a lot of imagination, this is the book for you. Paul, the hero, is average bordering on loser. He's unemployed, has no luck with the ladies and gets booted out of his family home when his parents decide to move from dreary London to sunny Florida. Out of necessity, he applies for a job as a junior clerk at J.W. Wells & Co - a company he knows nothing about - and to his great surprise, he actually lands the job.

In no time, the seemingly dull business (which he still has no idea about) begins to show its rather weird and wonderful colours - but mostly weird. From his previously mundane existence, he wakes one morning to find a sword stuck in an unbudgable boulder in his small flat, then discovers a roll-up door the size of toilet roll tube that becomes a portal with no boundaries to time, place or dimension. To his mortification, he also discovers that the never-ending parade of gorgeous receptionists is actually a goblin (the mum of one of the firm's partners) who develops an inexplicable and leering crush on him. Soon, he and Sophie (the other junior clerk - a skinny, angular, prickly girl whom he is unaccountably attracted to) are bound together in a journey to uncover the mystery of J.W. Wells & Co.

Paul is an extremely engaging character and the plot and pace of The Portable Door are simply fabulous. Tom Holt's writing is fantastic and his comic timing is awesome - around 3/5 in the guffaw-metre, 4/5 on the snigger-metre and 5/5 on the smile-metre. Thankfully, The Portable Door is the beginning of a series, so expect more posts from me.

PS - If you like Terry Pratchett, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this.
 

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