Tag Archives: America

London Film Festival 2018/2

UnsettlingThe first film that I saw today was a documentary, Unsettling. The clue is in the title, since this was an exploration of how people feel living, as they do, in the West Bank settlements in Israel/Palestine.

Iris Zaki set up three cameras and had several conversations with young people who had either been born in Tekoa or had moved there. The cameras were deliberately unmanned, she set them running together, two on the face of the subject and one on her. In the Q&A she revealed that the conversations went on for up to an hour or an hour and a half, and covered numerous topics: dating, childcare, schools and also the feelings of the settlers, their awareness of the Palestinian village just nearby, and whether they met each other.

There are panoramic landscapes and pictures of the settlement and indeed of the Palestinian village nearby; the inevitable queue of workers at the Tekoa checkpoint; plenty of barbed wire. Houses tenaciously clinging to the hillsides, like their inhabitants.

It was very important for Iris that the conversations were not conducted like an interview, which was part of the decision not to have a cameraman. The table with two chairs was outside a local shop, which also seemed to sell coffee and other drinks.

This is an important film because it does give a very open view of the vast differences of opinion between the people living in this one place. Tekoa was settled first in around 1978, and deliberately invited both strictly Orthodox and non practising Jews to live there. Now those people are elderly and it is their children whom Iris most wanted to speak to.

She rented a flat in Tekoa; it is clear from the beginning of the film that she is not entirely welcome and it does take quite a while before anyone will engage with the project, but when they do, one can see what a very complex, diverse and difficult situation they have to deal with.

Some people are fearful, some arrogantly entitled, some conflicted themselves – one young man who was not religious actually felt bad about living there, but the schools were good and his wife had family and friends, so he decided that they could live there, but not in a new house – in other words he was not prepared to advance or enlarge the existing settlement; on the other hand, a young woman who had grown up in Hebron had no empathy for the previous inhabitants of the land, they were Arabs and they had no business to be on “our” land; there was another remarkable woman who had even been attacked and stabbed by an Arab – this she saw as a message from God, a way of making her think differently and to act differently, and so she and her family are actively seeking rapprochement with Palestinians, indeed after the attack a group of Palestinians came and prayed in her house and asked for forgiveness; the shopkeeper who had let Iris set up more or less on his premises, had grown up with Arabs, his family farm was mostly worked by Palestinians, even to this day.

While filming, a Rabbi and his family were shot at, the Rabbi was killed and the mother and two children were seriously injured; then Iris discovered that her neighbour in Tekoa was their eldest daughter. This too, put another perspective on the film.

This is a thought provoking film. It is provocative but not a polemic. Unsettling indeed.

The Old Man

This is brilliant and there are so many reasons why everyone should aim to see it. The casting is unparalleled. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek had never acted together before, indeed hardly knew each other and yet the rapport between them is tender and authentic; the cops are a wondrous bunch, straight out of Keystone school of policing, but Casey Affleck as the detective, John Hunt, is understated, determined and finally frustrated.

While filming was actually going on Robert Redford announced that he was retiring and if this is really his last film, it could hardly be better. It is an all round heist caper, based on a true account that Redford read about in the New York Times and thought would be fun to make.

The cinematography is brilliant at evoking the times, but also captures something of the essence of Redford’s entire career. Quite outstanding and a highly, exceptional and poignant swan song. Do not miss it. UK distribution will start on December 7th.

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Books for the journey

I daresay most people now take e-books on journeys, but I have loaned my Kobe reader and also the journey was only to Scotland, so I took four books with me.

One by an American author that I have only just discovered, and cannot imagine why I haven’t read any of her previous novels, of which there are nine, plus eight non-fiction titles and two books for children. Oh joy, because Anna Quindlen is a find!

QuindlanAlternate Side is a particular sort of domestic novel, in line with novels by Barbara Pym, but even funnier and taut with bitchiness, gossip and neighbourhood squabbles and American. Which makes it sound horrible, but it isn’t.

Nora and Charlie Nolan live in a dead-end street in New York City. The neighbourhood is a close knit community of middle-income families, with one block only housing people of low or no incomes. Most of the people in this street have servants, housekeepers or domestics and most of these are coloured.

Although an urban setting, this block has a village atmosphere: a summer barbeque party hosted by different families each year and a Christmas party at the Fenstermacher’s house, coffee mornings for gossip and dog walking chatters.

And then there was Ricky, the handyman they all used for the small stuff: dripping taps, washing machines that refuse to drain, clothes dryers that were not functioning properly – that sort of thing, and then there was The Parking Lot.

At the opening stage of the novel, Charlie has finally achieved a parking space in the one lot on the street that was not built upon. Everyone who did not have a parking space on this lot were reduced to on-street parking and it concomitant problems. Problems that applied to Ricky every time he turned up in his van.

Life drifts on, seemingly happily, for all the people on the block until one day a sudden act of violence throws everything into confusion, and the cracks begin to appear on both sides of the street, with harrowing results.

There is a marvellous sense of humour bubbling along in this book. Nora has an acute eye and Anna Quindlen nails perfectly the way women gossip and speculate about each other, while still remaining friends. And it is the women who carry this story along, although they are most of them married.

I loved this book and will go back and find some of the others. I finished this on the train and then read the next book before getting to my final destination.

Ghost WallGhost Wall is the latest novel from Sarah Moss (Night Waking, The Tidal Zone and others – posted April 11, 2018and this novel is set in Northumberland, a wild and beautiful county, still largely unpopulated in its boggy moorland heights. Looking out of the window just as I started reading, I realised I was actually passing through the eastern end of the county.

This book is a chilling reminder that families are all unhappy in their own way.

Sulevia, more commonly called Sylvie (and wouldn’t you be?) is a teenage girl on holiday with her parents, her father has a passion for historical reconstruction and they have joined with a group of university students in ‘experiental archaeology’ led by Professor Slade. I have no idea whether such a discipline actually exists, but the aim is to live for a short time as if you were part of (in this case) an Iron Age settlement.

So poor Sylvie and her mother are dressed in coarse tunics, Sylvie and the other students are sent foraging on the moor or beach for berries and food. Her mother is left behind to tend to the cooking over an open fire, with an iron pot to cook an assortment of grains and roots, with the occasional rabbit. The students are two young men, Dan and Pete plus one young woman, Molly who refuses to take the whole thing seriously.

Not taking it seriously is a luxury Sylvie is unable to entertain, her father is adamant that she sleeps in the roundhouse, a construction of withies and deerskins on a mattress of straw and sacking without any accommodation for modernity (except for toothbrushes and tampons) or for the fact that there is a convenient shop a short distance away.

Hanging over the whole experiment is the haunting story of a human sacrifice, a bog girl found preserved in the peat.

This is a very short book, 160 pages only, but it rises to an unbearable and disturbing conclusion; there are plenty of hints in the build up to give you a sense of direction, but it is still shockingly chilling once the momentum builds up.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/7

My post today is unusual in that I am including a non-fiction book as an alternative to the longlist novel.

Tree huggers and arboriculturalists will have understood the pun in the title of Richard Powers new novel. It is a book about trees and forests, and for the rest of you I will explain the hidden meaning in the title.

A true forest contains units which are trees – roots, trunks and branches; when there are a lot of trees together the upper leaves and branches are the canopy; down on the forest floor there will be an assortment of smaller bushes, vines, young trees and this is called the understory.

2018 BLL PowersThe Overstory introduces us to several main characters and for the whole of the first part of the book, entitled Roots, they have no connection with each other, and each one is a short story in itself; it is not until the second part of the book that some of these characters end up in the same place and it is not until the final part of the book that the threads that pull them together, finally knot up into a complete whole.

Each of the characters has a relationship with a particular tree or species of tree; for Nick Hoel it is the American Chestnut, planted by his great-great-great-great grandfather in Iowa, and which because of its isolated spot has not succumbed to the disease that killed all its other families in Connecticut and Massachusetts, a tree which had ‘built’ America: houses, fences, furniture, paper pulp and more besides. Every fourth tree in a forest stretching two hundred miles would die.

For Mimi Ma, daughter of Chinese immigrants fleeing from Chairman Mao, it is the Mulberry Tree. Her grandfather had handed over three jade rings carved in miniature with the delicacy of a magician; The Lote – the tree of life for the Persians; Fusang – the mulberry tree and Now, the tree of the future plus a precious scroll of wizened men, one leaning on a staff at the edge of a forest, one peering through a narrow window and one seated under a twisted pine: the adepts who have passed through the Enlightenment and know the answers to life.

Adam Appich is an artist, he is somewhere on the spectrum of autism but that doesn’t matter; eventually he ends up as a research student studying under Professor Rabinowski.

We meet Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who plant trees in their back yard on the anniversary of their getting together; Ray is a property lawyer dealing in copyright and Dorothy is a stenographer in court, which is where they meet.

We first meet Douglas Pavilcek when he takes part in an experiment and is placed in a jail situation; this is to earn money and eventually the experiment fails but he gets a taste of what confinement is like and the powerlessness of it. He has been a typical American, a war veteran and an odd job man, but he takes a trip North and on his way discovers that the forest he supposes he is driving through is only a spectre, that behind the concealing strip, loggers are clear felling the trees by the thousand – so he takes up tree planting.

Another character we meet is Neelay, the Gujarati son of poor parents. But one day when he is about eight his father comes home with a computer kit and together they put it to work. Neelay learns coding, and ends up inventing internet games.

The two last characters we meet are Patricia Westerwood, an early illness has caused deafness and she is mildly mute, though can be understood with patience. Patricia makes up for physical disability with an extraordinary mind, eventually she publishes a paper that states that trees have means of communication that humans have failed to recognise; this study get panned and she retires from public life and writes a book which she calls The Secret Forest. Olivia Vandergriff is a student, she has married far too young and is just freeing herself from this when she electrocutes herself. In the few minutes in which she is dead, her life changes…

We have reached page 152 and so far, none of these characters have anything in common. That all changes in the second part which is entitled Trunk.

This is part novel and part environmental polemic, everywhere on every continent and country, trees are being chopped down at an incredible and unsustainable rate. Campaigns to prevent this devastation bring some of these characters together with differing and terrible results.

There are two more parts Crown and Seeds, and by the end of the book everything is clear; but not for the trees which are being slaughtered at an increasing rate. The ill-effects of this are widespread and known, but somehow the destruction cannot be stopped.

Richard Powers cannot write a bad novel, his imagination is vivid and wild and his books, eleven novels so far, range over a lot of different subjects. The Overstory is quite a hard book to read, since its apocalyptic message is written across most of the latter parts of the book. Is this what people want in a novel? There is an encyclopaedic amount of information about trees and growing, seed formation and suckering, regeneration and death. Salutary, naturally. It is a book that appealed to me but then, I might be considered a bit of a tree hugger; I hope lots of people read this book but it may already be too late.

WildingMy non-fiction offering is the story of a Sussex farm who are trying to turn the clock back a bit. It too is a riveting if depressing read.  We have practically destroyed the butterfly population already in Europe, we need many more farms like this to take up the challenge, and it too may already be too late. Wilding by Isabella Tree is hopeful, if only a small voice crying out against the loud hum of the combine harvester.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/3

This time an American. I am unconvinced about the inclusion of American writers in the Man Booker Prize, I think it was a bad idea but accept that it is irreversible. You cannot allow a group in for a few years, then exclude them again when they win all the prizes. Which is what has happened.

2018 BLL KushnerThat said, Rachel Kushner has written a crackingly good novel, one that anyone might want to read. The Mars Room is set in an American woman’s correctional facility with a main character, Romy Hall, who is in for two life sentences.  We meet other inmates, some on death row whose lives intersect with hers simply because they are in the same serious, life-denying circumstances.

The same routine, the same people, the same food, the same problems. It is hard to imagine what is meant by “correctional” in these places. Those on death row sew sandbags – to be filled by male prisoners in other “correctional facilities”; those less threatening, but serious criminals – murderers, grievous bodily harmers and the like –  can get on to the workshop programme where they are trained in carpentry – to make the furniture for the courtrooms of the United States judiciary: the witness box, the bench, the judges’ chairs – some irony there?

Then there is the educational programme, once a week, for basic numeracy and literacy. Romy joins the class of G Hauser, who starts with some easy to answer questions that amount to adding three plus eight, or two plus five. Romy is having none of it; finally he gets the point and begins to send her interesting books via Amazon – after a first mis-step sending her To Kill a Mocking Bird, I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing and one other, all of which she read when she read thirteen!

Throughout the book we learn about the background to Romy’s situation, what she did before – she was a lap-dancer in the eponymous club – The Mars Room – a sleazy, San Franciscan low-life club. And what she did to end up in this prison. We learn about her son Jackson, living with his grandmother and what happens when that goes wrong.

This is not alone about women, for we also meet a rough, crooked cop who has been sold up the water by one of the death row women, and is now in his own hell: a men’s prison. Stuck there hoping that no one will discover his career option – but Blanche LaFrance has other ideas and our friend G Hauser is persuaded to post a letter for her, with near fatal results.

As an eye-opener it is not without its surprises, but the brutality and the sheer unpleasantness is not easy; especially for the trans-gender inmates. One in particular that moves from the male prison where Doc the cop is, to the female prison – where ‘they’ are not made welcome.

TylerMy shadow book is also by an American, a writer that you will be familiar with because I have read everything she has ever written. Anne Tyler‘s new title is Clock Dance.

It starts with a young woman, Willa Drake, selling candies to make money for her school orchestra trip; it jumps quickly to her college years and to her first marriage. She has two sons Sam and Ian, they appear as late teenagers and then we jump further on to her second marriage.

At this point, the turning point of the whole novel, she is summoned suddenly to Baltimore, and we are straightaway back in familiar Tyler territory. We feel the heat, the dust and the small bedraggled houses; the long streets with close knit communities and we meet over time all the neighbours, their quirky otherness.

This quixotic decision is regarded by her husband as unnecessary and ill-considered, but he goes with her anyway. Peter is dismissive of her good intentions, and fairly contemptuous of the people that she ends up with: Denise, who has been shot in the leg, her daughter Cheryl, who Willa has agreed to look after, and pretty much the whole caboodle. Eventually, when Denise is finally released from hospital, Peter goes home.

The clock dance of the title is described thus:

Later, crossing the upstairs hall with a basket of laundry, Willa glanced into Cheryl’s room to see what they were up to. Patty stood facing her, both arms extended from her sides, with Laurie and Cheryl directly behind her. All that showed of Laurie and Cheryl were their own arms, extended too so that Patty seemed to possess six arms, all six moving in stiff, stop-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music. “It’s the clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end.

Willa stays on, and on…

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61st London Film Festival – Day 2.i

Busy day today, spent at the Picturehouse Central, which if you do not know it, is off Shaftesbury Avenue towards Piccadilly Circus. Lovely comfortable armchair-like seats, lots of leg room and a good tilting action if you like lying back to enjoy the film.

StrongerMy first film today was a biopic of a man who was catastrophically injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. His name is Jeff Bauman and in the film he is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, his girlfriend Erin by Tatiana Maslany and his mother is played by Miranda Richardson.

Because it is a biopic, I daresay one has to be quite careful how to portray a family that is blown to pieces by the bombing, both figuratively and literally. Jeff Bauman is, in this film, something of a loser.  He is irresponsible, late for everything or simply fails to show up; he lives with his mother who is portrayed as being frequently drunk, and indeed all family gatherings involve a disproportionately generous liquid element.

At the beginning of the film, Erin and Jeff have bust up, not for the first time, but she turns up in the pub where he is drinking with his brothers and friends. She is hoping to get some cash sponsorship for running the marathon the next day. Jeff promises to be there at the finishing line, which she patently does not believe.

But guess what? Just for once there he is waving a banner for her, only unfortunately he is right by the bomb.

It is hard to avoid plot spoilers because actually the world was made aware of Jeff Bauman at the time, he was regarded as a sort of hero-mascot, wheeled out at ice hockey games, at ball games and for the papers and finally was given “first pitch” when the Red Sox played. (If that means nothing, it simply means that you do not follow the American national game, baseball).

The tragedy has brought Erin and Jeff back together again, after a fashion. But it is not all together satisfactory. The acting in this film is quite exceptional. Taking on such a role must have been challenging, for Jeff isn’t exactly a nice person, and his family are quite loud and garish as well. Erin remains the calm one, but this doesn’t necessarily go down well with the family or with Jeff.

But the emotional scenes, and the physical realities that present themselves both to the victim and the carers, showing the enormous challenges facing them all, and national heroism is not the least of it; these are brilliantly captured here, turning the screws on the audience time after time.

I cannot commend the film highly enough. But it is intense and frightening, there is a lot of swearing but in the end, all of it amounts to something very moving and remarkable.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 10

And so on to weightier matters, literally. Paul Auster‘s door-stopping novel weighs in at 1200 grams and 886 pages, a mere bagatelle when compared with David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest which is on my TBR for post Booker reading.

42314321 is the title of this massive book and is the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of newly arrived Russian immigrant Ichabod Ferguson. Family legend having it that Isaac Reznikoff was told  that he would get on better with a more American sounding name, and that Rockefeller was a good name to choose, but on being asked his name, he said in his own tongue Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten).

I have gone into quite a lot of detail to demonstrate here the complexity of the characters and their relationships, so if this seems to be a spoiler to you, rather than an exposition, stop reading where the text colour changes. This novel is a work of philosophy, an exploration of nurture versus nature, of the ‘what ifs’ of life. Ferguson is a thoughtful, observant and rather lonely little boy, in the section where he learns to read he ponders on the accident that has caused his immobility, unwinding the actions and causes and giving some thought to the vagaries of cause and effect, at this point he is only six…

This is an unashamedly American novel, rooted in place and time, rooted in fact, very much, in Paul Auster’s own place and time. Various key world events lock us into when this is all taking place: the ending of the war in Europe, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Korean War and other similar. Baseball features, teams that in Europe may have little meaning, take on importance, at some level and probably mirror actual games and players, I have no idea.

Like Michael Chabon and Howard Jacobson it is also decidedly Jewish, though not in an synagogue attending way, but in family gatherings, food and culture. Auster uses the novel form to address existential issues and questions of identity, space, language, and literature, creating his own distinctively postmodern (and critique of postmodernist) form in the process. Identity, Ferguson’s, being the key ingredient here.

It may take a while to read, but it is worth the effort. As with several other longlisted titles it is stylistically unusual, but do not let that put you off. Like going to France with a smattering of French in your memory, you get used to hearing it, and your ear becomes attuned – in this case you will find your “ear” and eye quickly pick up the familiar patterns.

There are constants in this book. Archie’s relationships with his parents, their parents and siblings remain the same, as does the date of his birth. On his father’s (Stanley Ferguson) side he has two uncles Lew (Louis) and Arnold (Aaron), whose wives are respectively Millie and Joan. Lew and Millie have two children, Andrew and Alice; Arnold and Joan have three, Jack, Francie and Ruth. His mother, Rose Adler has one sister Mildred, her parents Benjy and Emma live in New York. Ike and Fanny live in New Jersey and then there are inconstants!

But at this point is becomes complicated. In 1.1 Stanley, the youngest Ferguson is ambitious and driven, he starts with a leather goods store which eventually expands into the 3 Brothers Home Store, and sells everything from furniture to white goods. It would do better if the two elder brothers, layabouts both, were not constantly helping themselves to takings from the till; Lew is a gambler and has borrowed money off Stanley to cover mounting debts, however his gambling has become more serious, he then suddenly has a huge win, but far from repaying his brother, he buys mink for Millie and a Cadillac for himself and then throws a big champagne party, he eventually has a fatal crash in the Cadillac; the store is doing well until there is a huge warehouse burglary, which it eventually turns out is an inside job, and since he does not want to bring down his brother Arnold, Stanley endures the loss in silence, sending his brothers away; by 1.2 Stanley’s store has burnt to ashes, Ferguson is six and is learning to read, having broken his leg falling from tree; 1.3 fills in some of the more lurid details of the store fire. Archie’s cousin Andrew is killed in the Korean War, Lew goes off the rails and his debts become insurmountable, with his book-maker he conceives of an insurance scam that includes burning down the store, with fatal results and Lew ends up in prison; 1.4 finds Stanley with three prosperous stores, with two more due to be opened, he sees very little of his son Archie [who, by the way is known as Ferguson throughout]. Rose, his mother, is a professional studio photographer in all these sections, but in various guises. In 1.4 she spends quite a lot of time looking for a suitable studio/shop space which she eventually finds. 

The absolute inconstant is Ferguson’s aunt Mildred, in each section she is sometimes unmarried and does meet and marry, or remains a spinster. But each time she does marry it is to somebody completely different. And in different ways this affects Ferguson, especially the last husband, Donald Lomax a divorced man with a son, Noah.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 8

A writer’s first book is always something to celebrate, an achievement for them and an adventure for us, especially when the book is a novel. Emily Fridlund is one of only two first book writers in this longlist, there are other first novel writers, but that is slightly different.

Wolves History of Wolves is set among the lakes of North Minnesota.  On the shores of Still Lake, one a small family live in a rustic cabin; once part of a larger commune, they are the remnants. Madeleine can remember a time when there were more of them, and the book centres around her childhood, more or less between the age of twelve to fifteen.

At some point during that time, another small family move into a modern summer cabin across the lake from where she lives. They first appear in the summer, but then one autumn they arrive again and she sees them unpacking. She can see through their windows exactly what they are doing, a father, mother and young child.

Drifting in loneliness between school and a dismal job in a local diner, Madeleine (Lindy) eventually fetches up babysitting for Patra and looking after the little boy, Paul, who is about four years old. Time passes and she earns sufficient money for the babysitting to give up the diner job. Leo, Paul’s father is away a great deal, and Lindy senses the unease that this causes Petra, but cannot quite focus on its source. Leo is a scientist, and it turns out a Christian Scientist, and when he is there seems to Lindy to be austere, but capable and generally kind, though he does grill her with penetrating questions about her understanding of life.

This novel is written in lucent, patient prose. Lindy observes and considers and we see the world almost entirely through her eyes and her experience. There is a terrible vacuity in her existence, limited as her life is. She is regarded as a freak at school and makes almost no friends, and has no contact with anyone her own age during the long holidays.

The days gaped open after that. No school, no job, daylight going on and on like it would never quit. I cleaned two perfect northern pike and did the north-forty wood the first day, then I dithered about in the boat for a few more, catching crappie near the beaver dam. I filled the net without trying, sorted all the tackle one morning, took a comb to the dogs and teased out the mats left over from their winter coats. One afternoon I walked the five miles into town and bought toothpaste and toilet paper from the drugstore.

Somehow, it is not surprising that this child ends up wrapping herself tighter and tighter around the novelty of a different family. It is not exactly that she is neglected, her father is there, caring and comfortable and her mother is there, but more spikey and dismissive, she is fed and housed and then left to her own devices…

This is a smashingly evocative novel, you feel the extreme cold, hear the damp thump of snow falling from the roof and branches, you smell the pine trees in the heat and hear the lonely call of the loons that swim and dive and you live inside the head of the narrator. It is compelling and insightful and I can hardly wait to see what Ms Fridlund will write next.

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