You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2008.

Again, this is films I saw in the cinema throughout 2008. It includes films that were released in 2007, and omits films which I haven’t seen even though everyone else did and gushed over them (basically Wall-E. I would still hate Australia on basic principle, even if I had gone to see it and it had turned out to be great).

10. Up The Yangtze
if i ever end up as a retired man singing frank sinatra on a rowboat, kill me
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is bitterest.”

A fascinating documentary following the lives of two Chinese teenagers as they begin work on a tourist vessel on the Yangtze River, placing themselves into the servitude of fat tourists from America and Europe. The boy is a well-educated, spoiled, snobby asshole; one of China’s Little Princes, an unforeseen side effect of the one-child policy. The girl hails from a poor family living in a single-room shack on the banks of the river, soon to be swallowed up by the rising waters as a result of the Three Gorges Dam. Millions of people will be displaced when the dam is complete, and the sight of one old man watching in silence as his house is gradually lost to the waters puts a human face on this tragedy. The flipside, of course, is that the hydroelectric dam will generate massive amounts of clean, green energy; a reminder that nothing is ever black and white.

9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
the horse i the last piece i would choose for this
“It’s like going on vacation with, y’know, not Hitler, but certainly Goebbels.”

Apatow Comedy Flick #4392, and in my opinion the best of the bunch. Following a nasty breakup, protagonist Peter heads to a resort in Hawaii to relax for a few weeks, only to find that his ex and her new boyfriend are in the room next to his. Hijinks ensue.

Most Apatow films aren’t nearly as good as people claim – Superbad was especially overrated – but this one was a bright, clever little comedy with plenty of laughs. What I particularly like about it is how it subverts expectations; by traditional convention, in a film like this, Sarah Marshall’s new boyfriend should be an insufferable prick. He’s actually a very nice, friendly guy, and he and Peter become friends by the end of the movie. Likewise, Sarah Marshall herself remains on decent terms with Peter, and had a good justification for breaking up with him. Nobody in this movie is irredeemably bad – just like real life. Fancy that.

8. Frost/Nixon
apparently if the president does it it's not illegal
“We are gonna make the motherfuckers choke!”

From the writer of The Queen, and also starring Tony Blair, Frost/Nixon is based on a play which recreates (with some poetic license) the famous interviews between British talk show host David Frost and disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon.

Watergate happened fifteen years before I was born, and it was in fact only earlier this year that I realised I had absolutely no idea what it involved and set about trying to understand it. I’d still never heard of the interviews, which is interesting, because they makes a great story: Nixon wanted the money and thought that Frost, an entertainer rather than a proper journalist, would be easy to handle. Frost instead proved quite cunning and cornered Nixon into admitting guilt in the Watergate scandal – the only time he ever did so publicly.

Michael Sheen gives a performance that’s nothing particularly special, but Frank Langella as Nixon is absolutely brilliant – a man who so desperately wanted to be loved by the American people, but never was. By the end of the film, against all odds, you feel incredibly sorry for the poor bastard.

Plus Rebecca Hall is gorgeous. I never seem to find movie stars good-looking the way other people do, but holy shit.

7. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
this is heavy, doc
“If I told you that I came from the future, would you laugh?”

Luna Leederville had a little anime-fest earlier this year, and amidst all the Japanese robot rubbish with their fancy CGI and retarded plotlines was this little gem. It’s strikingly similar to a Ghibli film, but it’s not. Essentially, high school girl Makoto is unexpectedly granted the ability of time travel, and discovers its advantages and drawbacks in the traditional manner, following in the footsteps of Bill and Ted and Marty McFly.

What I remember more about this movie was its rich atmosphere. It all takes place on lazy summer afternoons, in those precious few hours of leisure time you get after school, with the chirping of the crickets and the sun over the baseball field and whatnot, and this is beautifully rendered in colourful animation. It made me incredibly nostalgic for high school, even though it’s set in Japan and I hated high school anyway. Well worth seeing.

6. Cloverfield
move, children! vamonos!
“Beth lives in midtown. Midtown is that way. You know what else is that way? Some horrific shit!”

This was a really cool one. It started out with just those trailers of a party interrupted by some cataclysmic event, with not even a name for the film, just a date. We all know the story by now, of course – New York is devastated by a horrific monster and several friends do their best to survive, but with the added gimmick of all the action being seen from a hand-held video camera.

What I loved best about this movie was that the director never once spoonfed people the story. There’s no explanation for what’s going on, no scientist explaining things to the White House, no neat solution where the monster is lured into the bay and killed by the might of the U.S. military. Nor do we see much of the monster; only glimpses as it strides between buildings in the dark, or background feeds on news channels. We know only what the characters do, which is to say, not much. Speaking of the characters, they were a cut above the average horror movie protagonists. Not once did they make a decision I disagreed with, and they were quite intelligent and resourceful throughout. An excellent popcorn movie, but one that needs to be seen in the cinema to truly appreciate.

5. The Mist
AARRRGHHHHHHHHHHHH
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll think of something.”

Let me say straight-up that Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” is the best thing he’s ever written (at least, that I’ve read). Yes, it’s better than The Stand. It easily ranks on my top 10 list of the greatest pieces of science fiction ever written. If you want to know how influential it was, well, it was the primary inspiration for Half-Life. I read it in 2005 and absolutely fucking loved it.

When I found out that it was finally being turned into a movie, I had mixed hopes. I doubted anything could ever be as good as the book, but it was being directed by Frank Darabont, who made the brilliant films The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (both also based on King books).

So I went to see it, and it did okay. It was a decent film; about as good as you could expect from a book adaptation. That was until the last two minutes, when it went from “pretty good” to “absolutely fucking incredible.”

It’s one of the best movie endings I’ve seen in a very long time. I have difficulty believing it was actually given wide-release to American audiences, considering how shocking and brutal it is. King himself said that if he’d thought of it when writing the novel, he would have used it.

Do yourself a favour and rent out this movie, without looking up anything about it first.

4. Gone Baby Gone
ed harris and his elite alien-hunting squad
“Well, it all depends on how you look at it. I mean, you might think you’re more ‘from here’ than me, for example. But I’ve been living here longer than you’ve been alive. So who’s right?”

Directed by Ben Affleck and starring his younger brother Casey, Gone Baby Gone follows two private investigators as they try to find a woman’s abducted child in the seedy streets of Boston. While on the surface it appears to be a standard crime movie, the story goes a lot deeper than that, creating some complex moral quandraries and leaving the characters facing an unbearable, impossible decision at the film’s climax.

Beyond that, it’s a generally well made film – well-written, well-directed, and especially well-acted. Casey Affleck, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are all brilliant; even the extras are cast surprisingly well.

3. Slumdog Millionaire
god bless this miserable shit of a country
“Perhaps it is written, no?”

A very different movie. Rags to riches, coming of age, romance, crime story… you could even call it a biopic of India itself. Never before – at least not to my memory – have Western audiences seen a film set in the sweeping glory of modern India, from the squalid slums to the mansions of the rich, from the crowded, sweaty trains to the futuristic set of a game show.

The movie follows Jamal Malik, an Indian Muslim, as he is interrogated by police who believe he has been cheating on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Each question sparks a flashback to an earlier point in Jamal’s life, from the murder of his mother in a religious riot, to the days he spent travelling on the roofs of India’s trains with his brother, to his time in a bustling modern call centre. What the film does so perfectly is juxtaposition. Modern India is juxtaposition, with filthy slums sitting between highways and office buildings, with insanely rich businessmen living alongside people who can barely afford food. No scene in the movie illustrates this disparity better than when Jamal returns to his home city and sees new high-rise buildings growing up where the slums used to be (pictured above).

A colourful, vibrant, wonderful film.

2. There Will Be Blood
I DRINK YOUR.... MILKSHAKE!
“Is H.W. okay?”
“No.”

An amazingly well-crafted film. Deeply disturbing, very dark and ultimately depressing, the film itself is largely carried along by Daniel Day Lewis’ powerful performance as the greedy, hateful oilman Daniel Plainview. The thing about this movie is that it is, in fact, quite tedious – drab, monochrome, and focusing on a very dull subject. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s so perfectly crafted, so unbelievably intense and real, that you’re carried along nonetheless. You cannot turn away. It is cold, terrifying, and relentless – one of the best movies of the last ten years.

1. The Dark Knight
man the air feels good on my neck!
“The bandit, in Burma. Did you catch him?”
“Yes.”
“How?”
“We burned the forest down.”

Could it be anything else? Cristopher Nolan has single-handedly reshaped the genre of the comic-book movie. Building on what he started with Batman Begins, he continues to strip away the cheesiness, the immaturity, the general silliness of the superhero mythos, and replaces it with something very dark indeed. The Dark Knight plays more along the lines of a psychological horror film like Seven, or a fast-paced action-thriller like Heat, than any of the superhero movies that preceded it. This is a movie for adults, not children, leaving behind the familiar worlds inspired by childhood fantasies and venturing into the rugged territory of artistic merit.

Heath Ledger’s performance, somehow, lived up to all the hype: he is haunting as the Joker, a twisted and crippled soul with disturbing, fungus-like makeup, wreaking havoc across Gotham City of the sheer joy of it. Michael Caine is perfect as the impeccable butler Alfred, faithful servant and companion. Gary Oldman is reliably believable as the nerdy police commissioner with a terrible moustache. Aaron Eckhart is great as district-attorney Harvey Dent, for whom a horrible destiny awaits. And while Christian Bale makes a merely adequate Batman, he is an excellent Bruce Wayne – a swaggering, spoilt playboy millionaire whom nobody would ever suspect of being Gotham’s defender. Gotham City, thanks to superb cinematography, is a character in itself: a dark urban wilderness of skyscrapers and shipping containers, warehouses and highways, harbouring dark citizens and dark secrets.

If only they’d kept the original theme music.

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50. The King Is Dead – The Herd
49. Bullet – End of Fashion
48. Desire Be Desire Go – Tame Impala
47. Silouettic – Birds of Tokyo
46. Social Currency – Children Collide
45. I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You – The Black Kids
44. Machine Gun – Portishead
43. Talons – Bloc Party
42. You Don’t Know Me – Ben Folds/Regina Spektor
41. Jealousy – Sparkadia
40. Spaz – N.E.R.D.
39. Ready For The Floor – Hot Chip
38. Fools – The Dodos
37. Mercury – Bloc Party
36. Strange Times – The Black Keys
35. Brainwascht – Ben Folds
34. Yes – Coldplay
33. Halfway Home – TV On The Radio
32. White Winter Hymnal – Fleet Foxes
31. Death and All of His Friends – Coldplay
30. Bitch Went Nuts – Ben Folds
29. Trojan Horse – Bloc Party
28. So Haunted – Cut Copy
27. Sex On Fire – Kings of Leon
26. Get It – Dukes of Windsor
25. The Other Side – Pendulum
24. Paris – Friendly Fires
23. Family Tree – TV On The Radio
22. Les Artistes – Santogold
21. Ares – Bloc Party
20. Far Away – Cut Copy
19. The Lighthouse Song – Josh Pyke
18. Gamma Ray – Beck
17. Happiness – Goldfrapp
16. Something Is Not Right With Me – Cold War Kids
15. Pork And Beans – Weezer
14. Better Than Heaven – Bloc Party
13. Pull Me Out Alive – Kaki King
12. Ion Square – Bloc Party
11. Shake A Fist – Hot Chip
10. The Eraser (remix) – XXXchange
9. Golden Age – TV On The Radio
8. Midnight Madness – Chemical Brothers
7. Viva la Vida – Coldplay
6. Dancing Queen (cover) – Whitley
5. Signs – Bloc Party
4. The Rip – Portishead
3. Jump In The Pool – Friendly Fires
2. Walking on a Dream – Empire of the Sun
1. No Sex For Ben – The Rapture

Which is to say, those I read in 2008, not those published in 2008.

10. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

“Good night, Dr. Buchbinder. Put in a good word for me with Messiah.”
“Oh,” he says, “there’s no need of that.”
“No need or no point?”
Abruptly, the merry eyes turn as steely as the disc of a dentist’s mirror. They assay Landsman’s condition with the insight of twenty-five years spent searching tirelessly for points of weakness and rot. Just for a moment Landsman doubts the man’s insanity.
“That’s up to you,” Buchbinder says. “Isn’t it?”

Heavy, convoluted and difficult to penetrate – even for Chabon – this book is worth the effort. It’s a dark and depressing investigation into an alternate universe where the Jewish homeland is on a barren Alaskan island, told from the perspective of a weary Yiddish homicide detective as he tries to solve a murder in the two months before the island reverts to U.S. territory. A major theme (aside from the ever-present Judaism) is the feeling of helplessness, of being manipulated by higher powers into an unshakeable destiny. Typical Jewish Chabon, that wacky fellow.

9. Slaughterhouse Five

Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and as to why the victim should laugh.

Told with a simplistic, unemotional weariness, this book is a voyage through time and space, from the snowy battlefields of World War II to the distant alien planet of Tralfamadore. I’ve never been able to connect with Vonnegut’s writing the way other people seem to; it feels like everyone notices some deeper meaning to this book that I simply don’t. Nonetheless, it’s very readable, very compelling and very good.

8. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks and scrub oak cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
“You’re fired,” I told the driver. “Take me back to the pits.”

Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney spend an insane, drug-fuelled week in Vegas, living dangerously and recklessly with that complete disregard for consequences that only fictional characters can achieve. This book is a lot more interesting than that makes it sound; it manages to stay fresh and funny throughout. Paranoid, depraved, surreal, colourful, and deliciously different, Fear And Loathing rightfully earned its place as a classic American novel.

7. Snow Crash

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Walking a fine line between being utterly serious and nonsensically cartoonish, Snow Crash is best read as a simple adventure novel. Set in a balkanised future America where the corporations have carved the land up into self-sufficient, hyper-capitalist enclaves, the novel follows Hiro Protagonist (pizza delivery driver, world’s greatest sword fighter and hacker extraordinaire) and Y.T. (teenage skateboard courier) as they attempt to unravel a conspiracy involving a complex concept of universal language, rooted in the mythology of the Tower of Babel. I lost interest in that little subplot before long, but the major storyline ranks among the very best adventure tales, as Hiro travels from dystopic Los Angeles to an offshore raft city to the entirely virtual world of the online Metaverse in his quest to save the world.

6. The Road

On the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadows on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

Though they may be nameless, the man and the boy at the centre of this novel are some of the most profoundly human characters I have ever read about. Trekking through a post-apocalyptic, ash-choked America, hiding from violent gangs of rapists and murderers, expecting to die any day, the relationship between the two is the single flame of hope that exists in their bleak, grey world. A simple story of love and protection, set in a world that is frighteningly believable.

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.

Written from the point of view of Cristopher Boone, an autistic teenager, who lays his world out to the reader in the matter-of-fact language that is the only method he knows. Yet the novel is regularly peppered by emotional dialogue that juxtaposes the main narrative, revealing the emotional problems Cristopher’s very existence causes for those around him. A tale of human suffering and compassion, which is ultimately quite touching.

4. Neuromancer

The phone nearest him rang. Automatically, he picked it up.
“Yeah?”
Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like the wind.
“Hello, Case.”
A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.
“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”
It was a chip voice.
“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”
He hung up.
On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.

(incidentally, here’s my other choice for a Neuromancer extract)

“That’s real good, motherfucker,” Case said, and shot him in the mouth with the .357.

A watershed moment in science fiction, Neuromancer created an entirely new vision of the future: dark, grim, and pessimistic, overturning the traditional view that the rise of technology would somehow make the human race better. Instead, Gibson casts the reader into lurid neon cityscapes of crime, body modification and drug addiction, where humans of the 22nd century are facing essentially the same problems as today. It’s one of the few novels that can truly be called revolutionary.

Even below this postmodern literary value, the commentary on society and all that academic jazz, Neuromancer is simply an excellent story. It has a very cool anithero, the grungy, unshaven, methamphetamine-addicted hacker Case, who is recruited by an upscale genetleman named Armitage, who is assembling a team to work on the ultimate heist: the theft of the world’s most powerful AI from its orbital mainframe. Case is plucked from the Japanese underworld and travels to Istanbul, Paris, New York and eventually to the orbital cities of the rich and powerful, all the while trying to figure out who Armitage’s mysterious employer is and why they want to free the AI. Thriller, adventure, noirish crime caper… Neuromancer exists in many capacities, and is fully-realised in every one of them. An all-round brilliant book, which is only a hair’s breadth below Life of Pi because there were certain parts of it I didn’t quite understand, which will hopefully be solved with a few re-reads.

3. Life of Pi

“Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”

Martel takes an apparently impossible situation and weaves it together with such deft writing ability that it becomes entirely plausible. A sixteen-year old Indian boy, travelling by ship to Canada with his zookeeper family and a number of animals they intend to sell in the New World following the closure of their zoo, finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a number of exotic creatures following the ship’s demise. The animals make quick work of each other and soon only he and a Bengal tiger remain, left to drift on the blue Pacific for 227 days.

Martel is one of those writers with a gift for creating beautifully evocative visual descriptions, and Pi’s life on the waves – the smell of salt, the fishing line burning his hands, the shape and contours of the tiger’s body – are all beautifully, realistically rendered in words. A wonderful book.

2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU

The fog-shrouded streets of Prague. A golem dressed in man’s clothing. A steamer under the Golden Gate Bridge. The New Jersey ferry docks on a sunny morning. Salvador Dali in a diving bell. Bones on the Atlantic seabed. Brooklyn steam-grates. An airship terminal on the highest floor of the Empire State Building. The abandoned grounds of the World’s Fair. A pyramid of skulls in a deserted military base. A Senate hearing. The loser at Lupe Velez. The stout cord of the ampersand. The crowning literary masterpiece of this decade.

1. Watchmen

“It’s September, 1961. John Kennedy is shaking my hand, asking what it’s like to be a superhero. I tell him he should know and he nods, laughing. Two years later, in Dallas, his head snaps forward and then back…”

It’s impossible to articulate how brilliant this book is. It is the Moby Dick of the graphic novel medium. It can be read as a comic book, a character drama, a moral fable, a cautionary tale, a mystery novel… and it succeeds as all of them. It has so much weight to it, so much heaviness. Moore and Gibbons waste not a single panel or sentence; everything has a purpose. It is a perfect book.

It’s also being adapted into a film by Zack Snyder (of 300 infamy) so make sure you READ IT before it gets retroactively ruined by another superhero movie that has a bunch of sexy actors in sexy clothing running at bad guys and having the scene cut to slow motion as they begin to strike them, then having it cut back to regular motion as the blow lands fuck you snyder you are going to fucking ruin this.

I ACED THIS SHIT

I read fifty books and just over sixteen thousand pages. I read books that were three millenia old, and books that had not been written when I started the challenge. I read Pulitzer Prize winners, Booker prize winners, Hugo Award winners, Nebula Award winners, a Vogel Award winner, a Whitbread Book of the Year, a Philip K. Dick Award winner, and eight books from TIME Magazine’s 100 List.

I read two comic books and four non-fiction books. I read three books that were originally published in different languages (Portugese, Spanish, and Ancient Greek). I read twenty books that I would classify as science fiction.

I read two books by Mark Twain, two books by Michael Chabon, two books by Ernest Hemingway, two books by John Varley, two books by Terry Pratchett, two books by Robert Heinlein, and (to my detriment) three books by Philip Jose Farmer.

I read some amazing books, some good books, some average books, and some mind-blowingly awful books. I read The Road, Gentlemen of the Road, Road Story, and On The Road. I started with an odyssey and finished with an odyssey.

I have to say I enjoyed it. I used to devour books when I was in primary school and early high school, but in recent years I have strayed from that path, lured by the siren song of flashy video games and Hollywood blockbusters and the simple joy of the ball in the cup (you can never tell which way that crazy thing’s gonna go!). I’ve rediscovered how much I enjoy reading, even if it is with the irritating knowledge that I have to wade through five books of junk before I reach one that’s any good.

I don’t think I’ll do the challenge again next year – I was always mindful of my goal, and it dissuaded me from reading particularly long books – but I don’t think I need to either. I’ve started expanding my library a lot, and I have plenty of books waiting to be read. I no longer require the motivation this challenge once provided.

For posterity, here’s the list of all 50 books I read this year, with links to my original reviews.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
3. The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson
4. Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein
5. Making Money by Terry Pratchett
6. Steel Beach by John Varley
7. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
8. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
9. The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer
10. Temeraire by Naomi Novik
11. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein
12. The Dark Design by Philip Jose Farmer
13. Road Story by Julienne van Loon
14. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
15. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
16. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
17. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
18. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
19. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
20. Watership Down by Richard Adams
21. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick
22. Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman
23. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
24. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
25. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
26. The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
27. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
28. Neuromancer by William Gibson
29. The Magic Labyrinth by Philip Jose Farmer
30. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
31. Down Under by Bill Bryson
32. The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway
33. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
34. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
35. The Barbie Murders by John Varley
36. Flight: Volume I by Kazu Kibuishi
37. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
38. The General In His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
39. On The Road by Jack Kerouac
40. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
41. World War Z by Max Brooks
42. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
43. Alive by Piers Paul Read
44. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
45. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
46. Nation by Terry Pratchett
47. Following The Equator: Volume I by Mark Twain
48. Following The Equator: Volume II by Mark Twain
49. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
50. The Odyssey by Homer

Stay tuned for my list of the ten best books I read in 2008.

50. The Odyssey by Homer, English translation T.E. Shaw (circa 800 BC) 239 p.

are we there yet?

It’s impossible to objectively judge a story like this. It was written three thousand years ago, in a world populated by people whose beliefs, values, attitudes, and outlook on the world were so fundamentally different from our own as to make them utterly alien. Furthermore, I was reading a story that had been translated through two different barriers: from Ancient Greek to English, and from poetry to prose.

It’s very verbose, very complex and very tedious. As I was reading, trying to penetrate the Greek names and long-winded sentences (look, I know what happens when someone gets drunk, you don’t need to feed me some meandering anecdote about a centaur that had too much wine) I was really only gaining a sort of vague outline of what was going on. And if that was the case I may as well have been reading the plot summary on Wikipedia.

Oh, right, an outline of the plot. You should know parts of it. Odysseus is trying to return home after going to the Trojan War, and it takes him twenty years because, well, he lives in dangerous times. It’s told in a convoluted, non-linear way that begins in media res and relies heavily on second-hand tellings and flashbacks, which is not at all endearing to a reader who is not enjoying himself in the first place.

All the stuff that’s really well-known and at least somewhat interesting – the cave of the Cyclops, the isle of Circe etc. – takes up about 20% of the book, while the rest is all concerned about whatever his wiener son Telemachus is doing back home, or what Odysseus himself does when he returns (two thirds of the way through the story).

Odysseus is a shitty leader who makes a lot of bad decisions, gets all his men killed and has his head shoved firmly up his own ass, constantly telling people how great he is at everything. He also has a pretty warped moral compass; for example, upon arriving home, after he bonds with Telemachus by slaughtering the 108 suitors who had been trying to woo his wife, he discovers that several of his housemaids had been having sex with the suitors during the TWENTY GODDAMN YEARS they’ve been there. I know, unthinkable, right? Odysseus is so infuriated by this that he orders them killed. As they are herded into a courtyard, weeping piteously, Telemachus speaks up, and for a minute I thought there was going to be some kind of sanity, but apparently young Telemachus, no doubt stroking his chin in deep thought, is concerned that the housemaids aren’t being punished enough, and orders for them to die in a slow and painful method. Then he and Odysseus cut a dude’s wang off and feed it to the dogs. You see what I mean when I talk about what different attitudes these people had.

So, to sum up, is the Odyssey an excellent tale for its time? Yes.
Is it an excellent tale for a modern reader? No – it hails from an incomprehensible culture, and our tastes are tailored to our own.
Is it worth studying for a student of literature? Yes – but do yourself a favour and google a synopsis.

Anyway, who cares, I made it to fifty books with 48 hours to spare.

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH

Books: 50/50
Pages: 16, 272

49. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992) 438 p.

they're not unicorns, they're horses with swords on their heads

Hiro Protagonist is a freelance hacker, pizza delivery man for the Mafia, and the world’s greatest swordfighter, swashbuckling his way across a hyper-capitalist America in which the federal government has relinquished most of its power to corporations, whose self-contained enclave franchises line the privately-owned freeways of this dazzling dystopic… future? Or alternate history? The main character is in his twenties, but his father fought in World War II, which means Snow Crash can’t be taking place any later than… well, now.

Snow Crash is essentially Neuromancer on acid: a louder, more adrenaline-pumped book that contains many of the same themes and concepts, in much the same way that Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is On The Road on acid. The difference is that Fear And Loathing is much better than its predecessor, whereas Snow Crash is not. It’s an excellent book, but doesn’t seem quite sure of what it wants to be, creating a world that is almost cartoonishly over-the-top and yet takes itself completely seriously. It’s hard to know what to make of a novel that intersparses tedious discussions of Sumerian mythology with skateboarding chases and sword fights.

It’s still a lot of fun. The action scenes are excellent, and there’s a creative flair in every chapter – I was especially impressed with the Raft, an enormous floating construct of several ships lashed together, with a chaotic shanty town of smaller boats surrounding it, populated with refugees from all over the Pacific. Also interesting was the Metaverse, Stephenson’s virtual reality MMO that inspired Second Life (he also predicted Google Earth, although his version had real-time satellite feeds). And the climax was extremely well executed, one of those classic action-adventure structures that slowly moves all the characters into place for a fast-paced, explosive finale. I haven’t read one of those in a while, and I love them.

Snow Crash isn’t exactly a mess. It’s consistent all the way through. But it felt like a mess, because I could never truly believe the impossible world it was presenting – as opposed to Neuromancer, which took place in one of the most believable, well-realised fictional worlds I have ever read. Nonetheless, it’s still a great book, and recommended for any science fiction fans.

Books: 49/50
Pages: 16, 033

I was channel-surfing just now and reached some documentary on the ABC about Bhutan, and the first sentence I hear as it changes over, with an image of a peasant woman looking over a valley, is about how the Bhutanese live “a content life, free from the trappings of the Western world.”

What a load of horseshit. I can’t stand it when Westerners get all disillusioned with their lives and look at people in the Third World as some shiny paragon of the human spirit, living a romantically idealised life. 80% of the people in this world – the ones that you’re looking at with naive envy – spend their days squatting in ditches to take a shit, building mud bricks under the unforgiving sun, and watching their children get kidnapped by the local drug lords to be sold off as sex slaves in Eastern Europe, until they eventually die of cholera at age 41. They would trade their rustic rural life for yours in a fucking heartbeat. The “trappings” of the Western world, all that consumerism and bustle that you find so hard to deal with, you poor little things? Those “trappings” include stuff like medicine, clean drinking water, electricity, central heating, and the ability to walk down the street without being caught up in the crossfire between rival clan militias.

There’s also the entirely unrelated fact that it is an insult to their dignity; one of the more benign cases of categorising foreigners as Others, but an example of narrow-minded orientalism nonetheless. There is something immensely frustrating about watching a group of clean, healthy Europeans traipse through a Himalayan mountain village and croon about how the life of the villagers is so simple and pure, and oh my god they must know the amazing secrets of the world, before promptly returning to South London and their oh-so-evil consumerist lifestyle.

I saw an episode of Oprah a while back where she went on a roadtrip across the country and spent some time in Amish territory, and upon showing that segment she turned to her audience and said “100% happiness – they are one hundred per cent happy – and how many of us can say that?” The hive drones nodded and murmured in assent and I felt like kicking the TV screen in. If that life is so perfect, why don’t you go join them? Yeah, didn’t think so.

To sum up, it is incredibly ungrateful and inappreciative to look at Third World citizens with that kind of ultimately insincere envy. There are people who risk absolutely everything to bring themselves and their families into the sanitised corporate bubble of the West (where they are then thrown into a detention camp on Christmas Island and called “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” in newspaper editorials), so show a bit of gratitude that you were born in this clean, safe paradise instead of in a squalid refugee camp in the DRC, by not making stupid blanket statements about the “trappings of the Western world.”

SWOOSH

1. Bush has surprisingly good reflexes for a 60-something old man.
2. Lol at the Iraqi PM angling for brownie points by trying to block the second shoe.
3. Secret Service was awfully sluggish in responding.
4. I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only person who thought of this.
5. Despite stern reprimands from the Iraqi government, the Arabs love this guy – hope he doesn’t get punished too harshly.

ironic juxtaposition of the decade

48. Following the Equator: Volume II by Mark Twain (1897) 337 p.

who do these foreigners think they are?

This second volume chronicling the voyages of America’s greatest writer sees our hero leaving Australasia and venturing across the Indian Ocean to the subcontinent, where he spends most of the book, then devotes a few chapters to South Africa before finishing up on the docks of Southhampton.

I didn’t like this one as much as the first, partly because it was about India rather than Australia, and I’m naturally more interested in hearing about my own nation. India is an awfully confusing place. Twain loves his statistics, and many chapters can be weighed down with them to the point of tedium (specifically when he discusses the Thuggee cult and the Boer troubles). Fortunately, these are balanced out by just as many amusing parts: Twain is unable to pronounce his Indian manservant’s name and thus calls him “Satan,” he refers to the holiest city in India as a “piety-hive,” he claims to kill thirteen tigers in a single day of hunting, and argues that among the many advantages of travelling by elephant is that you are high enough to look in through people’s windows.

Extract, from a railway station in South Africa:

A gaunt, shackly country lout six feet high, in battered grey slouched hat with wide brim, and old resin-coloured breeches, had on a hideous brand-new wolleen coat which was imitation tiger-skin – wavy broad stripes of dazzling yellow and deep brown. I thought he ought to be hanged, and asked the station-master if it could be arranged. He said no; and not only that, but said it rudely; said it with a quite unnecessary show of feeling. Then he muttered something about my being a jackass, and walked away and pointed me out to people, and did everything he could to turn public sentiment against me. It is what one gets for trying to do good.

Books: 48/50
Pages: 15, 595

So, aside from minor annoyances like low battery life and certain keys that require a lot of prodding to work properly, it turns out the Asus eee PC has a MAJOR GLARING DESIGN FLAW that is causing me a lot of headaches.

The SSD harddrive has only about 12 gigs of space, which for some reason is split into multiple drives (NICE WORK ASUS!) The C drive has 3.8 gigabytes of space, which is just a bit cramped. Especially when the first Windows updates kicks in and begins rapidly filling up the entire drive with useless security updates. I was just browsing the net last night when all of a sudden the machine started whirring, and a few minutes later a bubble popped up warning me I had low harddrive space.

Googling the problem on my home computer reveals that this is apparently a widespread problem. The solution is to turn off Windows automatic updates and just never fucking update the thing. Putting aside the additional problems this raises, even after I turned the automatic updater off, the stuff it had already downloaded was still on there. I went through Add/Remove programs and got rid of all the most recent updates, but that only pulled me back up to about 650 MB of free space on the C drive.

Evidently there’s still a massive number of pointless update files lurking away in the depths of the computer, and I have no idea how to reach them or remove them. Even if I can, I’m questioning how useful a computer with only 3.8 gigs of C drive space is going to be, and I’m considering taking this back to the store and exchanging it for the 80 gig HD model. Hopefully the customer rule I have learned at Coles (complain long enough and hard enough and you’ll get what you want) also applies to expensive electronics.

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