Saturday, August 31, 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Title: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Author: Paul Torday
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc (2008)
   First published in GB in 2007

I picked two titles for this month's joint post with Michael and I have to admit my failure and, possibly, apologize. Firstly, I picked a title and, for various reasons, had to do a takesy backsy. Michael, with his usual grace, had no problem with this and suggested a few alternatives. I picked this one because I was intrigued by the bizarre premise. Despite what appears to be universal praise for the title (my copy had 4! pages of blurbypraise) I was not a fan. So, apologies to Michael if he ended up reading and disliking this one as much as I did. And apologies to any readers who love this book; here's your warning that I didn't and my review will not be full of praise, blurby or otherwise. 

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

From the publisher's website: "Dr. Alfred Jones is a henpecked, slightly pompous middle-aged scientist at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence in London when he is approached by a mysterious sheikh about an outlandish plan to introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen. Dr. Jones refuses, but the project, however scientifically absurd, catches the eye of British politicians, who pressure him to work on it. His diaries of the Yemen Salmon Project, from beginning to glorious, tragic end, form the narrative backbone of this novel; interspersed throughout are government memos, e-mails, letters, and interview transcripts that deftly capture the absurdity of bureaucratic dysfunction."

I started this title quite prepared to like it. The bizarre premise coupled with a narrative told through diary, memos, emails, etc is just the kind of thing to catch my interest. I was initially taken aback by the assholery of Dr. Jones and the ridiculously over-the-top FemiNazi nature of his wife but I recalled seeing "satire" generously sprinkled through the blurbypraise so I figured I just didn't have the right attitude. I switched to reading it as a satire but then enter Exotic Foreigner and I was like what the shit have I got myself into? The beauty of satire, to this reader, is its ability to subvert the status quo. I failed to catch the subversion of this book. I was getting more and more annoyed with it as I read and started mentally composing nasty replies to all the individual blurbs. Then I went on to marking out passages as back-up to my disappointment all with the intent of taking a big poo all over the novel. Then I thought, this is just mean. Not every book is going to catch every reader and one person's satire is another person's total miss. So, instead, I thought I'd do something useful. I'm going to list the two biggest misses for me on this title and maybe it'll help others decide if this is one that will work for them or not.

1. Dr. Jones and his wife do not love each other. I doubt they ever did. They don't communicate their needs/wants and never did. It's clear that Dr. Jones has always allowed this relationship to happen to him rather than being a participating member. Whatever this says about his wife, it's none too complimentary of him either. And again, rather than doing something concrete (like filing for divorce) he just constantly bombards his wife with "are we still married" emails when SHE HAS MOVED TO ANOTHER COUNTRY. Dude, wake up! The thing is, he never seems to learn that this is his failing. Instead, he falls in love with his new boss (the Exotic Foreigner's Estate Manager) because she is so Awesomely Wonderful (in point of fact, she is) but he doesn't know her in any kind of personal capacity. She's capable, caring, intelligent, and kind. But what does she do at home? What are her hobbies? What is important to her in life? Does she want children? Etc, Etc. It's easy to fall in love when you don't have to bother with any of the hard, real stuff of relationships. Dude, wake up!

2. It features an Exotic Foreigner. It features a fucking Exotic Foreigner!!! I about fell out of my chair. But then, ok, going back to the satire thing I thought there would be some lovely subverting of this outdated and insulting trope. Nope, not really. Our Exotic Foreigner never loses his temper, always senses how those around him are feeling, never says the wrong thing, inspires the previously uninspirable, opens Dr. Jones mind to faith/believing in impossible things. Oh my gosh!!!!! Is the satire supposed to be that we have moved beyond the Magical Negro and now have the Magical Arab?

Let me leave off with a positive comment, the book has several laugh out loud moments. It's mostly when it's mocking politicians (an easy thing to do really) but the path of Dr. Jones being bullied into taking on this project then blamed when it's out of favor (then being needed again when it's in favor) were the best parts of the book.

I realize this is a bit of a non-standard review but I hope it'll help folks decide if this is a book for them or perhaps one to pass over.

So about the movie... don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fifth NZIFF Session - Us and the Gaming Industry

My fifth session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Us and the Gaming Industry. This NZ documentary is about independent game designers in the video game industry. It mostly follows the designers of the game Journey but several other independent designers and their games are included. Despite the film being an interesting look at the philosophy of gaming, and especially of independent designers, I still can't quite decide if it bridges the gap to non-gamers. One thing, though, you will certainly get an idea of how passionate these artists and designers are.

I'm not going to say much on this one as I'm hoping I can eventually get Dr M to weigh in (it's been too long since we've had one of his guest reviews) but the trailer is below and I will soon post some pics of the venue as it was a very nice, old theatre.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cover Posing Series Link

I remember the original post but I had no idea it had spawned what can only be referred to as a series. I love these images and highly encourage others to check out this insightful look at book covers.

I doubly enjoy the cover posing because a game that Dr M and I play is gender switching in pop culture. It's remarkable just how much easier it is to get past our engrained sexism and see the ridiculousness of it all when you start putting men into the positions (literally) women are often stuck in.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fourth NZIFF Session - Wadjda

My fourth session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Wadjda. This movie is about a young Saudi girl who chafes at the restrictions experienced by women in Saudi Arabia. In the film we see this in her determination to make enough money to buy a bike and beat her neighbor in a bike race. I chose this film because it's the first feature-length movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is banned) and the first film to be directed by a Saudi woman.

I thought this review had some interesting points about the film: 
Waad Mohammed, a 12-year-old born and raised in Riyadh, is utterly disarming in the title role: she strikes the perfect balance between cheek and impudence, and her tomboyish grin lights up the screen.The film largely consists of little vignettes in the home and at school, and while many of them are very funny, we get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder.

Al Mansour reveals in the film’s production notes that she often had to direct from her production van via walkie-talkie when filming in more conservative areas, but Wadjda offers the hope that for the next generation of Saudi women, things might be different. Modest as it may look, this is boundary-pushing cinema in all the best ways, and what a thrill it is to hear those boundaries creak.

Wadjda, by the way, is awesome! She's the kind of friend/daughter/sister you wish you had. Creative, ambitious, determined and independent, you root for her in every way. This is a protagonist you don't want to miss.

Interspersed with Wadjda's efforts to buy her dream bike (and if you can resist a protag who uses the religious club to further her entrepreneurial schemes then I have to assume you have no sense of humor at all!) are the challenges facing her mother in marriage. It's easy to see how Wadjda's family life shapes her as much as her ambition does.

Slice-of-life/vignette films are not usually my kind of thing but this movie is a definite exception. I highly recommend seeing it. Wadjda alone makes the film worth it but this window into Saudi life* is just as compelling.

My next and last film to see is a NZ documentary about the video game industry. Dr M is going to join me for this one so perhaps I can convince him to do a guest review.

* I thought I'd take a moment to mention a mystery series set in Saudi Arabia because many of the things described in the books came alive for me in this film. The fully covered women waiting on drivers and shopping in the malls gave me a sense of deja vu. That's good writing, yes? The author Zoe Ferraris is not a Saudi national but lived there for a time with her then-husband.

Third NZIFF Session - The Broken Circle Breakdown

My third session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was The Broken Circle Breakdown. This movie is about the relationship of a banjo player, Didier, in a band called 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' and eventual lead singer, Elise. I chose this film because BANJOS! Banjos in BELGIUM! And that's probably the only flipish thing I'll say because this film is pretty heavy.

I went to see this title despite what looked like heavy relationship melodrama because I love bluegrass music. I didn't realize there was much of a bluegrass community in Belgium (if I'd only known the few times I was there I would have looked out for some concerts) and it piqued my curiosity. Despite my reservations, this was probably the movie I've enjoyed the most in the theatre since Black Swan. The script was quite excellent and never fell into melodrama. There were a few scenes that I thought a little heavy-handed but, ultimately, that did not decrease my enjoyment or my admiration for the craft on display in this movie.

The screenplay is based on the play co-written by Johan Heldenburgh, who plays Didier in the film (he wasn't one of the screenplay writers). He and Veerle Baetens (Elise) were absolutely fucking fantastic! I was really impressed with their individual acting skills and with their chemistry (which no amount of training can supply). Baetens is luminescent with remarkable range. It's been a long time since I've taken so much pleasure in a performance.

In addition to the bluegrass performances scattered throughout the film, it is also set apart from standard relationship dramas in that the narrative skips in time. The movie covers about 8 years of actual time but slips back and forth as it covers the highs and lows of Didier and Elise's partnership. Narrative jumps can be anything from confusing to contrived but the style is executed superbly in this film. At no time are the jumps hard to follow and they added an intimacy to the film that would otherwise have been lost. I found that it nicely mimicked how a relationship works between two people. Never do you meet someone and start with "i was born." The way we get to know new partners/friends nicely parallels how viewers learn of the relationship between Didier and Elise.

And the bluegrass performances? Awesome! I'll be getting the soundtrack.

So, not my usual kind of film but highly recommended nonetheless. I did a double feature the day I saw this to also catch the Saudi film Wadjda. Another that is not my usual kind of movie, it ended up being just as must-see as TBCB. I'll talk about that one in another post.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another one worth a read

As an opponent of "stop and frisk" tactics and the US military as an occupying force, it was interesting to see this short piece on the juxtaposition of the philosophies behind both.


...witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Monday, August 19, 2013

Second NZIFF Session - Jappeloup

My second session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Jappeloup. This movie depicts the real life events of show jumper Pierre Durand and his horse Jappeloup. I chose this film because HORSES!

I didn't know anything about this French horse and rider team but they were apparently quite the hit at the 1988 Olympics. The story follows the ups and downs of Durand's equestrian career and the challenges presented by the atypical (for a stadium jumper) Jappeloup. Durand was a bit atypical himself and just as prickly as his horse. It's as much a human drama as a sport or horse drama so you don't need to be into equestrian sport to enjoy this one. My one quibble was with the director not always using the camera to highlight the jumping. I'm sure it has to do with creating more drama for the non-horse person but if you're doing a Nascar film would you have endless close-ups of the tires?

I wouldn't call this one a tear jerker by any means but I did tear up at the end. I'm a sucker for sports, I adore horses, and the Olympics always make me weepy so ending this film with the 1988 Olympic performance hit all my buttons.

Next up is The Broken Circle Breakdown and Wadjda back to back tomorrow.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

First NZIFF Session - Giselle

My first session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Giselle. Reading the program notes tells me that this ballet was first performed in France (1841) and that this production by The Royal New Zealand Ballet is "universally acclaimed." I chose this film because it was a NZ production and because I like ballet. I should clarify that I like ballet because I think the dancers are amazing athletes not that I like ballet because I know and appreciate the history of ballet as an art form. I'm just throwing that out there so anyone reading this review knows where I'm coming from as a viewer.

Overall, the director did a mostly good job at bringing a stage performance to the screen. Two major party fouls were committed, in my opinion. The first is what can only be described as cut scenes. In between the staged ballet there were scenes of Giselle (Gillian Murphy) and Douchey Suitor (Qi Huan, whose character's name is probably Prince in Disguise or similar) in NY and Shanghai being sad. This did not work for me. The second was performer close-ups/above the waist shots while dancing was going on. The story, such as it was, was not hard to follow so I didn't need close-ups of the acting when there was dancing; it's a ballet! I don't want to miss the dancing. Also, over-acting and heavy make-up are stage necessities, in film they become comical. Bad decision to highlight them.

Giselle is a commoner who loves to dance. Douchey Suitor is a Prince who has disguised himself (for unknown reasons) as a commoner. He sees Giselle and instantly falls in love (natch!) and courts her (i'm using courts loosely as they dance for a few minutes outside her house and the courtship is complete). Turns out he woos her away from a local who we will call Rejected Suitor. Shortly thereafter a party of royals comes picnicking through the countryside near Giselle's house and we get our first view of Douchey Suitor's fiance (hence DOUCHEY Suitor). Later, Rejected Suitor reveals the princeliness of our hero and calls the royals back with the special Royal Calling Horn the prince had hidden away earlier. Giselle is so sad she dances herself to death. Well, that's unfair, they were not her best dances so perhaps she was despondently dancing and then could never snap out of it and so died. (I think I prefer that second interpretation since everyone stood around and watched her and I'd like to think they would have stopped her from exercising herself to death.) End Act One.

I enjoyed the second act much more because there was more dancing (less acting/story) which was why I was there. The second act is full of a bunch of female wraiths who had such uninteresting lives that when they were left nearly/at the alter they died and have been dancing forever in the afterlife. So, not the most interesting cast of characters for the second act but I loved the dancing. Leading Wraith was phenomenal. She and her Wraith Chorus performed several beautiful sets (or whatever they are called) and spent the rest of the time alternately rejecting and judging Wraith Giselle for dancing with Douchey Suitor now that she's a wraith. There was a bizarre section where Rejected Suitor was harassed by the wraiths. I didn't really get that. Other than not taking rejection graciously he really didn't do anything that should warrant wraith harassment. Oh well. The dancing in the second act was well worth any weird story stuff. Huan's character might have been douchey but he was a powerful dancer (I found it very difficult to stop staring at his rugby thighs) with amazing grace. Murphy was also quite good (though I found her to be overshadowed by Leading Wraith in the second act) so I got what I went for: ballet dancing.

Now I'm off to watch a French film about a horse show jumper. I'll report back on that one later. For now, the Giselle trailer is below and here's a cool ballet dancer link I coincidentally saw today.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In defense of dialects

I was born in, and most of my family still live in, a dialect heavy region of the US. While most regions have dialects some are more noticeable than others. I've always been fascinated by those who look down on dialects and mildly interested in this phenomenon in my not-at-all-a-linguist way. More practically, it's made me That Person who will always speak up in defense of dialects. But never so well as in this example.

What I find as fascinating as dialects is the fluidity of speech contained within one speaker. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, most everyone's speech alters for a given situation. Whether it be the use of in-group slang or an actual modification of an accent/dialect, almost everyone does it. In my everyday conversation the only regionally specific marker* I use with regularity is "y'all." However, when I'm visiting family my speech alters so greatly that my jaw is actually sore at the end of the day. Amazingly, I don't even notice it's happening until after my jaw has alerted me to the fact that I'm clearly not speaking in my adult default way. I don't actually ever fall into the full dialect as I moved so much as a child that I never fully learned the dialect in the first place. However, the parts of it I picked up as a youth are definitely still lurking in my brain. Fascinating!

I was talking about accents with a Dutch colleague back when I lived in The Netherlands as I had come to the point in my time there that I could hear a few of the different Dutch dialects (don't think this means I could speak or understand the language with anything approaching fluency, though:). He relayed a story about visiting his family in the north with his son. He immediately drops into the local dialect when with family but his son was not raised there so he gaped at his father who had just adopted a completely different dialect. Again, fascinating!

*Dr M would probably refute this as he often points out little bits of my speech that are markers for my region of birth. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recently Read

After a hot streak I've been suffering from some duds. No mini-reviews this time... just a few words. But I'd love some recommendations to get me off the Dud Train.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
--actually this should be super highly recommended. this might be my favorite title read so far this year. keep meaning to post a review.

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
--very cool world with excellent characters. only drawback for me was the idea that i was supposed to think Sparks/Starbuck was worth dallying over.

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis by Robert F. Kennedy
--reviewed here

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
--i'm a bit burned out on alternate british history but this world was intriguing and the protagonist is freaking awesome. loved her! however, this one seems geared to the younger half of "young adult" which tends to lose me as a reader.

Where Serpents Sleep by C. S. Harris
--interesting mystery (and cool motive for Hero Jarvis' interest) but i think it could have been much shorter and i ended up skipping lots of words. how many times do i need to be told about Jarvis wearing alpaca or about how St. Cyr doesn't really like her?

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
--still reading this one but it's easy to put down. love the setting and societal structure but it moves pretty slowly. i own this so will probably eventually finish it so it will have a chance to improve. if it was a library book i would just return it...

Joyland by Stephen King
--still reading this one, too. i feel like i'm supposed to like the main character because it's a first person perspective so he's leading the action but he just seems like an asshole who needs to get a life. maybe that's what the book is about (along with the mystery) and i own it so i will probably finish it. also, i'm so compelled to comment on his extremely poor relationship skills* that i plan to review it and i prefer to finish books i plan to review.
*for anyone who has read this title, i don't mean in comparison to his ex, her relationship skills are awful, too. he's going to get the commentary because his perspective allows me to see his thought process.

not recommended
Dreamfall by Joan D. Vinge
--after enjoying Cat's first two books so much i found myself mostly bored reading this one. spending time with the Hydrans was a great addition to the world building but overall the story was predictable and didn't seem to add much to Cat's journey.

Lifelode by Jo Walton
--really cool style/narrative structure, interesting world, but spent the second half mostly bored (which is extra off-putting due to it being the heart of why the story was being told in the first place) and what originally seemed like a fascinating set of characters devolved into mostly petty bickering.

Lirael by Garth Nix
--the imaginative world gets precedence over story and that gets boring to me. i've started to skip a lot and actually haven't finished it yet. i *might* finish this one but it belongs to the library so if i don't finish it before this week's trip i plan to return it. oi! that doesn't say much for being interested in the ending. the world is quite imaginative which is nice but the two MCs never go for long without whinging on about not fitting in (in a book of over 500pgs that's a lot of whinging). i don't think of myself as having a short attention span but it's obviously shorter than your average teenager because they seem to gobble Nix up.
bonus points for being a fantasy world with men AND women... women who get to do things other than be the silent incubators of more men who get to do things. 

did not finish
Fall of a Kingdom by Hilari Bell
--read about half of this before i gave up. really liked the persian setting which is what kept me reading as long as i did. the characters left me cold and i couldn't get interested in the plot.
bonus points for being a fantasy world with men AND women... women who get to do things other than be the silent incubators of more men who get to do things.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
--i might have finished this one if i hadn't just read Fly by Night. this is another that is on the younger end of young adult and i didn't have the patience to read another. great setting, though!!!!

Half a Crown by Jo Walton
--i was so impressed with the writing style of Lifelode that i wanted to try another Walton. got about halfway through (would not have read that far if i wasn't newly familiar with the author) and was just bored. writing style was completely different. liked the watch commander a lot but with the plot moving so slowly i couldn't stick with him. also, this world is not to my taste... plus my alternate british history burnout.