Month: April 2017

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

I’ve always loved short stories and this collection certainly has a unique premise. Each of the ten short stories is narrated by a soul of a different animal caught up in the human conflicts of the last century, and ends with the tale of their deaths. Among them is a female cat surviving in the trenches of World War I, who reminisces about her life with her bohemian actress owner; a bear slowly starving to death in the zoo of the war-torn Sarajevo; a tortoise who crosses paths with several literary geniuses and dreams of travelling to space; a young mussel who goes on a road trip Kerouac-style.

I confess, it took me some time to get used to the concept of the book and read it on the author’s terms, because initially the idea struck me as painfully contrived. I’ve read a few from-the-animal’s-point-of-view books before, but Dovey’s stories ask you to accept her animals as incredibly self-aware, articulate and literate creatures who care about the beauty of a piano and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. As such they felt to me more like human consciousness forced into an animal shape, and the words coming out of their mouths came off as very unnatural. It’s not really a book to make me think about the humans’ treatment of the real-life animals when they’re anthropomorphised beyond recognition.

However, once I finished a couple more stories and got over this contrivance, Only the Animals turned out to be a beautifully written, original, inventive and empathetic treasure trove of a book that’s completely devoid of excessive sentimentality or cutesiness animal stories can sometimes fall into. The book is also not preachy in some sort of overt “animals = good humans = baaaaad” kind of way. The animals remark on the humans around them in a frank, matter-of-fact manner; sometimes they’re bemused by them, sometimes they’re horrified, and quite often they’re sympathetic.

Since every story ends with the death of its main character, they’re inevitably poignant and tragic, but they also can be quite playful and witty; the story of the mussel in particular comes closest to the outright parody and feels slightly different in tone to the others, in a good way. What binds the stories, other than the themes of violence and human cruelty, is the literary connections: famous writers like Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell sometimes appear in a story as the background figures, or it’s their work that has inspired the animals in some way; or the author uses an existing work (such as Kafka’s A Report to an Academy) as a jumping off point for her own story. I’ve probably missed out on some of the references and homages to past writers, but I don’t think this knowledge is necessary to enjoy the stories on their own.

Galaxy Quest

I’ve rewatched this 1999 gem which I haven’t seen in ages, and by Grabthar’s Hammer this affectionate parody/love letter to Star Trek and its fandom is still so wonderful and hilarious. It works fine as a regular comedy and is perfectly accessible even to people who don’t care about Star Trek, but it’s funnier if you’re familiar with the tropes the movie lampoons, like a redshirt who always dies in the first five minutes of the mission just before the commercial break.

The story is about a group of washed-up actors from a once-popular sci-fi TV series which doesn’t in any way resemble Star Trek at all, not with its cheesy rousing musical theme, alien make-up, technobabble and shaking the camera when the spaceship is “hit”. Almost 20 years later, its cast is stuck in professional limbo and make a living attending fan conventions and corporate events. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played the Captain Kirk-like commander of the NSEA Protector, is the only one who laps up the fans’ adoration like a rock star. He is much resented by the rest of the cast, especially Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), a frustrated classically trained British actor who would rather jump off the bridge than say his alien character’s trademark catchphrase again. There’s also Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), the sole female cast member whose job on the show was to mindlessly repeat the ship’s computer, Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) as the chief engineer, and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) who was the show’s precocious and probably very annoying child pilot.

At one of the conventions, however, they’re approached by Thermians, who look like a bunch of cosplayers dressed as a fictional Star Trek race, but are in fact real aliens who mistook Galaxy Quest series for a genuine historical record since their kind has no concept of lies or fiction. They’ve come to beg the crew for assistance in their dealings with Sarris, a malevolent reptilian humanoid who looks like a Star Trek villain-of-the-week and is intent on wiping the Thermians out. The poor naive aliens have no clue that Nesmith and Co. are just actors who have no idea how to really fly a spaceship, transport matter or fight an evil space overlord. Along the way, they’re joined by Guy (Sam Rockwell), an actor whose sole brief appearance on the show was as the unnamed crew member that gets killed off, and who’s convinced that he’s a goner too now that the shit got real.

The cast here is an unexpected combo (Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen in the same movie?), but everyone, down to the smallest part, is simply pitch-perfect. I’ve never been a big fan of Tim Allen outside of his voice work for Pixar, but he’s an inspired choice to play the charismatic and egotistical character with a vulnerable side. Nesmith’s got a great redemptive arc as his character eventually rises to the level of heroism that his fictional counterpart had displayed on the show. Alan Rickman’s passing feels even sadder with this reminder of his magnificent onscreen voice and how much feeling and nuance he could inject into every line. No one portrayed withering contempt and dismay quite so hilariously. Sigourney Weaver is cleverly cast against the type, with a blond wig and the generous cleavage which, in one of the film’s in-jokes, gets uncovered more as the movie goes on. I don’t think she could ever play a total ditz, but it’s definitely a very different side revealed in this film. I could honestly just go on gushing forever about everyone in this movie, the cast is just that good.

The most endearing aspect of the film is the way it both sends up and celebrates the geek culture with tremendous affection, without condescending or pandering. I had to laugh that even the shipping phenomenon made it into the movie, with a flustered female fan at the convention asking Nesmith if there was “something” going on between the captain and Lt. Tawny Madison. There is a touch of the ridiculous about the grown men and women parading in silly costumes and obsessing over the tiniest bits of trivia, but in the end their love for this fictional world is vindicated and embraced. There’s also the idea that, no matter how cheesy the Galaxy Quest TV show was, its core ideals inspired an entire species to improve their lives. It’s a fantastic tribute to the optimism of Star Trek.

One last thing, the special effects look a tad dated in places, especially where space critters are concerned, but it’s really amazing how great the practical make-up effects still look.

Colossal

This delightfully oddball movie has the kind of extreme premise that makes me wonder how on earth does someone come up with this sort of stuff. The premise is, what if your personal issues manifested on the other side of the world in a form of a giant Godzilla-like creature?

The story begins with Gloria (Anne Hathaway) getting kicked out of a relationship and apartment by her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), who can no longer put up with her boozing and lying ways. Gloria is unemployed and broke, so she takes the bags Tim himself has packed, and heads to her hometown. There she moves into her parents’ vacated house, and runs into an old childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who gives her a job at the bar he owns – a perfect recipe for getting smashed every night. After one such night, Gloria stumbles drunk through a children’s playground… and the next day she wakes up to the terrifying news of a giant monster rampaging through Seoul in South Korea.

It’s not really a spoiler to mention that pretty soon and to her utter horror, Gloria figures out the connection between the monster and herself, when she watches the footage and sees the monster repeat a particular gesture that’s uniquely hers. Basically, whenever she sets a foot on the playground at a certain time of day, the monster materialises in Seoul and replicates Gloria’s movements and gestures in real time. Later in the film there’s a sci-fi-ish explanation for how and why Gloria’s monster first came into being, but I preferred to see it as a metaphor for the alcoholism and the unintended damage it causes to the people around. Gloria’s monster leaves demolished buildings and human body count in its trail, and this realisation makes her face the mess she’s made of her life. It should be noted though that, despite the scale of the destruction and the worldwide attention it receives, the movie never becomes more epic and keeps its focus on Gloria and her friends in their small sleepy town. It also pokes fun at the modern internet culture and the way someone somewhere will immediately take the footage and turn it into a funny video.

There’s a point in the movie when it veers away from Gloria’s alcoholism and takes the story and characters into a different direction that I never saw coming, so I won’t mention it here. Suffice to say that it adds even more tension and stakes, and builds up to a very thrilling conclusion. Colossal is an imaginative and absurd mish-mash of pulpy and realistic, and definitely one of the more original monster movies I’ve seen. The cast do a fine job, especially Hathaway who has a knack for physical comedy and makes Gloria likeable and sympathetic despite her vices and irresponsible ways. Also, I don’t know if it’s Hathaway’s own hair or a wig, but Gloria’s magnificent mass of unruly chestnut hair is almost a character in its own right.

Blogging Avatar

I thought it was time to replay my beloved Ultima games, and since I now have a habit of writing I thought I would also blog about the experience. I found that blogging about playing a game is actually very similar to writing about travel; you pick the funny/weird/interesting details that stick in your mind.

The blog can be found here, or under the Ultima menu under the header.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In the first paragraph of the novel, its narrator singles out what he believes to be his ‘fatal flaw’: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs. If you can relate to this in any way, at least when it comes to fiction, and can enjoy appalling yet fascinating characters who are not likeable or relatable, The Secret History is a treat, a rather unconventional and mesmerising blend of intellectual ideas and a murder mystery.

The murder mystery is not so much of a mystery: right in the prologue, you learn that the narrator, Richard, and four of his friends kill another friend. The tension in the book then is not about who, but why the five college students came to commit this terrible act, and what happens to them and the wider community in the aftermath. It goes all the way back to when Richard, an unhappy Californian native with blue-collar parents, gets a scholarship and a chance to attend the exclusive and prestigious Hampden College in New England. There, he falls in with a small, close-knit group of ancient Greek students and Julian, their charismatic teacher. These kids are privileged, aloof, self-absorbed, snobby, eccentric, and utterly alluring to Richard, partly because they seem to be so out of step with the rest of the students and the modern world in general. Their dedication to the ancient Greece strikes a chord with Richard, who, despite being far from a sexless creature, seems to be obsessed more with the ideals of beauty. In fact, this otherworldly, unmodern quality of the characters gives The Secret History a timeless feel, where this could have easily been a 19th century novel if not for the mentions of phones, hippies and The Grateful Dead (and quite a bit of drugs).

Of course, Richard’s new friends hide a gruesome secret, foreshadowed in one of my favourite parts of the book where Julian talks eloquently about the ancient Greeks and their fascination with the loss of self, religious ecstasy, and the dark, irrational part of human nature. It’s to Tartt’s credit that the details of the secret, which could have come off as ridiculous and melodramatic, seem totally plausible, even when they’re tinged with a touch of supernatural. Perhaps predictably, after pages of building up suspense and apprehension, the book loses some of its power once the central murder happens and one of its most vivid characters exits the stage. Which is not to say that the aftermath, with its further revelations about the characters, is not compelling, and the book also gets rather satirical in its depiction of the mass hysteria that sweeps the campus post-murder.

The novel has some great descriptive passages and fantastically drawn characters, particularly Henry, the unofficial leader of the group who is highly intelligent, erudite, cold, manipulative and whose motivations you’re never completely sure about. Some other characters fare less well, especially Camilla, the sole female member of the gang, who mostly floats in and out like an ethereal ghost and whose main purpose seems to be a subject of infatuation. Overall though, this is a haunting, beautifully written, confidently constructed book that’s definitely a re-read material.

USA & Mexico Part 3

St Cristobal is a charming place with the pedestrian-only streets in the centre and endless cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. From there, a couple of us went on a half-day excursion to the local villages and Chamula, a town which is mostly famous for its most unusual church. Unfortunately you couldn’t take any photos inside – a fact which was stressed to us over and over – and the descriptions don’t do it justice. Let’s just say that the church is a very bizarre blend of the pre-conquest Mayan and Christian traditions, and involves pine needles on the floor, hundreds of candles, and a chicken sacrifice.

It’s often the case when travelling that moving around from A to B is the worst part of the trip, so it wasn’t a surprise that the night bus from Oaxaca to St Cristobal was the low point for me. To my notions of hell, I can now add a bus which loops on winding mountain roads for hours, leaving me in nauseous misery. Also, five hours away from St Cristobal, some locals barricaded the road in a protest or other, and we got stuck in a giant traffic queue for 11 hours. At the very least, if you’re going to be trapped on a bus, this was a very comfortable bus to be stuck on, no complaints there. Plenty of leg room and seats that lean back so far you’re practically lying down.

Next up was Palenque, in the tropical part of Mexico, where we visited two beautiful waterfalls and saw the impressive Mayan ruins, in a lush and green setting that was strikingly different to the other sites. Our local guide there was a total star and told us heaps of interesting things about the Mayan culture (Mayan royalty for instance had their skulls deliberately elongated in childhood, to make them look more corn-shaped). By the end of the excursion, we got drenched in an epic rain which turned the ordinary steps into a cascading waterfall.

When in Merida, another day trip took us to a cenote, probably my favourite swimming spot on the trip, a relaxing cruise on the river spotting birds and crocodiles, and a pink lake near the salt mines (yep, it’s pink). Merida itself I probably just didn’t see enough of to appreciate; my most memorable experience there was trying blue cheese ice-cream on a blind pick.

After that, it was sadly the last day travelling to Playa del Carmen via the famous Chichen Itza site. I really appreciated how relatively quiet the other sites were; at Chichen Itza it was boom, dozens of giant buses, hundreds of tourists and hat sellers everywhere. The site however is beautiful and genuinely impressive, and its sheer area absorbs the large crowds quite well. Playa del Carmen… not really my kind of place. Super-touristy, loud, and overpriced. I was sorry to say goodbye to our group, but not that sorry about not staying longer in Playa.