Books #48 & #49: Harry Potter’s School Books (2001)

Fantastic_beasts Quidditch_Through_the_Ages
Book #48: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them
Author: “Newt Scamander” (J.K. Rowling)
Language: English
Length: 42 pages
Book #49: Quidditch Through the Ages
Author: “Kennilworthy Whisp” (J.K. Rowling)
Language: English
Length: 56 pages
Read on: 2 Feb 2014

JK Rowling released these Harry Potter tie-in books for Comic Relief back in 2001, and I found the copies in Shibuya’s Book Off in January. I think they’ve also been rereleased later on as a set with The Tales of Beedle the Bard, another tie-in book which was a set of short stories that would have been told to wizard children.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any other Potter books, but these books are super short and easy to read, and give us a glimpse at the kind of detail and research that has gone into Rowling’s world. A lot of the beasts in Fantastic Beasts, in particular, are taken from other sources, and while it’s very easy to dismiss Rowling for this for “copying” other people’s work, it became clear when reading this that she had put in a lot of research about other existing beings and then added a few of her own invention.

With the book about Quidditch, it’s more obviously Rowling’s own design, but the history and the alternative broomstick games have been given a convincing narrative, and in an almost satirical move, she gave America an alternative game.

On that same note, there’s a lot more discussion of other countries in her world, which only happened a little bit in the main novels, when the European characters come over for the tournament. I liked that a lot.

On a slightly different note, Rowling has been in the news a bit recently talking about Harry Potter, saying that she regrets hooking up Ron and Hermione and saying it was wish fulfillment… although if her book isn’t wish fulfillment, what is it? It seems a bit of a strange proposition to me that an author’s book should be anything but their own wish fulfillment. And of those three, I’m kind of glad that she didn’t make it a love triangle and I think Ron and Hermione were the best pair to hook up… that is, if they have to hook up in the first place.

While I’m discussing the relationships in Harry Potter, I’m still disappointed about Dumbledore not being mentioned as gay in the book itself. The subtext was indeed there, but it was definitely too subtle for me to notice. In the past seven years since I read the last book, I’ve gotten better at noticing that sort of subtext and reading between the lines, but at the time I was reading through it quite quickly and only paid scant attention to Dumbledore’s relationship. And it’s incredibly disappointing that she clearly thinks of him as the only non-straight character in the whole series.

Anyway, these two books are fun, and worth reading of an afternoon.

Book #47: Jam (2012)

jamAuthor/Narrator: Yahtzee Croshaw
Language: English
Length: 855 minutes (14 hours 15 minutes)
Finished listening on: 30 Jan 2014

I read Yahtzee Croshaw’s first book, Mogworld, a few years ago, before I started this blog, and found it entertaining and lighthearted. I also watch his video series, Zero Punctuation, every week, even though I hardly play any video games – mainly because I find him funny.

The first thing I want to note about this audiobook is that compared to his video series, the narration was a bit stilted. His usual style in the video series is very fast and peppered with bad language, so when he narrated the audiobook, I think he overenunciated, especially at the beginning before getting into it. Every t is very carefully pronounced. He’s a bit better when doing the voice of a character, but overall I think the performance was lacking and could have benefited from some more dynamism.

That aside, the story was interesting overall – the idea is that a sea of murderous strawberry jam comes out of nowhere and starts eating any organic material it comes into contact with. Because it happened at rush hour, the only people who survived were slackers, young adults, students, and overachievers who arrived at work before rush hour. The main character is one of the slackers, and together with three others from his apartment block, have to try and travel across the city to find rescue. There are also some US military personell who show up. Basically, they find themselves in somewhat of a Lord of the Flies situation, with people setting up shop in the mall or in an office block, and running wild.

The premise behind the jam is that it’s the apocalypse that nobody expected – it’s alluded several times that if it’d been zombies, people wouldn’t have been caught out so bad, as we have had so much media of various forms copying the zombie idea.

In terms of setting, it’s set in Croshaw’s adopted hometown of Brisbane, although at first when they referred to it as “our city” I thought he was going to try and hide where it was, but the way it was eventually revealed made it sound like he just gave up trying to hide it in the second chapter. Croshaw’s accent is still firmly West Midlands (although I think he tries to hide it, and he has a couple of amusing hypercorrections), which creates a weird effect in the audiobook where everyone sounds English, but use some Australian terms like the ever-confusing “thong”, or “Central Business District”.

Some of the characters in the story were more complex than I first anticipated, but at the same time some of them just fulfill one stereotype or function. The military characters are very one-dimensional, as is the character of Don, an overly cynical and utterly detestable character who has no redeeming qualities, and I believe must have been included as a cheap shot at games developers.

There’s also a lot of stupidity in the story. Nobody ever thinks to try and use radio to contact the outside world or try and find out what’s happening, for instance. Or when characters’ batteries run out, they never think to just take some more from an empty shop (especially in the section where they’re living in the mall). As another take-that at overachievers, the office building, instead of being a safe haven, is actually a corporate hellhole, with the characters there only concerned with profit and protocol even in the face of death.

Croshaw’s view of young adults is also not very nuanced, as his characters are also only concerned with their social status and standing, while simultaneously egregiously misusing the word irony as their internal motivation for everything – their “society” is heavily reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, as I mentioned already, with arbitrary executions and a religious bent to everything.

There were also a couple of moments where I did just outright disagree with the point the author was trying to make. At one point the characters mention the “friend zone” uncritically, for instance, and at another, a character insinuates that another might be gay, a moment that’s treated either as an insult or as a punchline, neither of which I can be happy with.

For all its problems, however, the story does hold together, and the writing style is addictive. Croshaw likes to use Adamsesque similes, and although sometimes he is clearly trying too hard, these are often funny. As a story of human incompetence, it’s also funny and perhaps accurate, although I’d like to think I’d have a little more sense than many of the characters. Mogworld was better, frankly, and I’d recommend this one only if you’ve already read the other.

TV: QI series K (2013-14)

QISeriesK620Creator: John Lloyd
Language: English and a bit of Xhosa
Length: 16 episodes of 45 minutes each
Finished watching on: 23 Jan 2014

I guess I don’t actually have that much to say about QI anymore. I mentioned the last time I finished a series that I’ve been watching it too much as a sleeping aid, and that is still true, although it tends to mean that I’ve watched the first ten minutes of each episode multiple times and rarely completed an episode.

This particular series I think contains chemistry experiments at the end of every episode, as they seem to have retired the General Ignorance round and have done something else instead to break up the monotony of the quiz format. I don’t think they were first introduced in this series, but I’m pretty sure in this one they’re used every episode. So those are fun.

Also as I briefly alluded, there was an episode with a guy from South Africa who sang a song in Xhosa, which was interesting as it’s something I rarely get a chance to hear.

I’m just wondering now how long the show can last. I don’t think they’ll get all the way to Z. I remember when I watched it live in London one of the contestants, Rich Hall, said they’d have to keep going until 2029 in order to accomplish the feat – another 15 years. By that time they’ll all surely be ready to retire…

Film #111: Pitch Perfect (2012)

beca-beca-mitchell-pitch-perfect-33271253-964-643Director: Jason Moore
Language: English
Length: 112 minutes
Watched on: 12 January 2014

I missed this when it came out, and thought I might catch up. I watched it the day after Mean Girls, and while it was sort of in the same vein of comedy, it was very different. It follows an a cappella group at college as they compete in national competitions – all female, and their main rival is the all male group from the same college (which seems to be so that the main character can fall in love with a boy from the opposite team and cause rifts between her and the other characters). There’s a heavy focus on the performance of the actors in each musical number.

American college may always remain a mystery to me. While our own universities and colleges have their own strange traditions, the frat boy thing will always continue to elude me, as to why and what they do. Mercifully, this film steers clear of fraternities and sororities per se, although the all-male/all-female rivalry mimics the same kind of interplay, especially the male group, who act in a very laddish, aggressive fashion.

There is a strong sense of hyperbole in the film, especially with the characters. Some are walking stereotypes, although undoubtedly most of them are given well-rounded, complex personalities. Of particular note is the queen bee character, who starts projectile vomiting whenever she gets very stressed, in a way that can’t possibly be true. Another character gets a ridiculous disease and ends up being able to sing the bass parts.

It extends into the story a little too much sometimes, though, and one aspect that I found really unbelievable was the fact that the group performs the same kind of boring song three times in a competition setting, despite having performed some very varied and interesting songs in the meantime. I can tell what purpose this has in the movie – it shows how much the group is stuck in its ways, how much it needs the main character to come along and change it, and how much the queen bee exerts her control over the group – but I had a hard time believing that even someone as much of a control freak as her would be so stubborn and not alter the song at all. Doing another “boring” song would have been more believable.

Nevertheless, ridiculous story aside, there are a lot of good one-liners in the movie, especially from Fat Amy and from the commentators at the competitions. It was good comedy, and although I wouldn’t quite say it was as good as Mean Girls, if only because I wasn’t laughing the whole way through, I would still heartily recommend it.

Film #110: Mean Girls (2004)

meangirlsDirector: Mark Waters
Language: English plus German, Vietnamese, Swahili
Length: 93 minutes
Watched on: 11 January 2014

I don’t have a lot to say about Mean Girls other than that I like it. I do remember when I first watched it at around the age of 17 expecting to hate it and being pleasantly surprised – I’m sure there was a not inconsiderable amount of anxiety that if I was seen to enjoy it people would think I was gay… whoops.

In many ways I’m kinda glad that I still like it and the writing is still funny enough to make me giggle most of the way through, because recently I’ve become so cynical that it’s hard to entertain me, even with films that I used to love – case in point: Austin Powers. The comedy in this is much sharper and almost every line can be construed as a joke and that’s the best way for a movie to be. I should really find more of Tina Fey’s work, because I haven’t actually seen her that much.

I hope I will continue to like this movie as I grow older. I hope I will see more like it in the future. It’s now the 10th anniversary, and I’ve heard people are planning to wear pink on the anniversary of the US opening, April 30 – because it’s a Wednesday.

Book #46: American Gods (2001)

american-godsauthor: Neil Gaiman
language: English and a couple of sentences of Icelandic
length: 19 hours 39 minutes
finished listening on: 4 January 2014

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this audiobook had a full cast of characters. Neil Gaiman even reads some of the sections himself, such as the introductions and some interlude sections, although the bulk of it is read by an American narrator. I chose “American Gods” because it’s supposed to be one of Gaiman’s most famous books, and as I’ve been discovering more of his works recently it seemed like a good way to continue.

The book is basically an epic set in small-town America. Just as Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” was a love letter to London, so is this a love letter to an America that Gaiman is apparently still discovering. It follows for the most part a road movie storyline, and in most places it is evident that a lot of research has gone into the depictions of gods and folklore. The main character is Shadow, who at the beginning is released from prison to find that his wife has been killed in a car crash. He is then enlisted by a Mr Wednesday, who turns out to be a pseudonym of Odin, the head of the Norse pantheon – because when Vikings came to America thousands of years ago, they brought their gods with them.

I don’t know how long the book is in page terms, but the audiobook clocked in at about 18 hours, over 1000 minutes, by far the longest that I’ve listened to and split into three six hour segments. Although overall I’d say it was good, I suffered a bit because several times I lost track of what was happening or where the story was, particularly when I left it for a couple of days before coming back to it. Part of this was the sheer number of characters. The different voices made it fairly easy for me to tell the difference between two characters, but I think my visual memory is better than my aural memory, and if I’m actually reading it’s less effort to remember. Conversely, the different voices spoiled a few of the reveals, as it would be blisteringly obvious to me when a new, shady character in a cloak comes on with the voice of another character. It took me about two months to listen to it in total, most of that being an accompaniment to a new drive by myself to go cycling and get more exercise.

In some ways, the title is perhaps misleading, although Gaiman documents its origins as not entirely intentional. While the book dives deep into American culture, the folklore and the gods themselves are mostly from other cultures, and all pre-Christian. Other “gods” are things like TV or internet, newly worshipped by Americans over anything else and threatening to push out the old world gods. Gaiman inserts what he calls an “apocryphal tale” at the end, where Shadow meets an unnamed Jesus, perhaps to make up for not actually mentioning the one god that Americans actually do worship. I’m not sure why he did take it out in the end from the final version (a misleading term again because like “Neverwhere”, this version is a kind of director’s cut version, an amalgamation of two or three other versions), but I agree that it was a good idea, because I think in the narrative of the story (spoiler alert), Shadow is Jesus, in just about every significant way, but perhaps most especially that he is the saviour of all the gods. Having Jesus join him would have been almost counterintuitive.

The plot is a little bit confusing, and not a lot is revealed to the reader – we are as clueless as Shadow for most of the book. A battle is mentioned between two opposing sides – the new gods of TV and so on against the old world gods, but it’s not made explicit what this is for until right at the end. In many ways this is good, because it allows Gaiman to employ subtly-foreshadowed twists, but in some ways it is bad, because it left me at several points wondering why something was happening or why I was meant to care about it – and that’s without all the extra-narrative parts (which, to be fair, were interesting and helped to paint a picture of Gaiman’s America).

I think it was good overall, despite the fact that there were too many characters. With the length, Gaiman is able to explore a variety of subjects in depth, and the book covers a range of genres, including epic, road trip and occasionally comedy, while still maintaining a level of human drama. It’s an impressive book, and I now very much want to continue reading his work. But for now I have other books to read (the stack is piling up, since it seems I buy books faster than I read them!).

Film #109: Gravity (2013)

GRAVITYdirector: Alfonso Cuarón
language: English and some Greenlandic in the background
length: 91 minutes
watched on: 1 January 2014

I dragged myself out of bed on New Year’s Day in the hope of getting a discount for going on the first of the month to the cinema, but I chose to go to Gravity in 3D IMAX, which doesn’t offer a discount. So to no avail. I had heard many good things about this film before I went into it, so had moderately high expectations for it.

Visually, it was stunning, right from the opening shot, and especially in the large format it really filled your vision (and at some points I even got motion sickness). I didn’t notice at the time, but it’s filmed with only about 6 or 7 cuts throughout the film, computer assisted. The shots of the Earth are staggering, to say the least, and more than many other science fiction films, you really get a sense of the size of it all.

Storywise, it’s not entirely that great, though, as the story is very much a vehicle for the visuals. Its premise is simple, though: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are stranded in space after a cloud of debris wipes out their ship and a bunch of communications satellites. They have to try and get back to Earth. There aren’t actually any other onscreen characters, apart from a few corpses at the beginning when the debris originally wipes them out.

Suspense is held because by Clooney’s calculations, there is only 90 minutes until the debris comes back round the Earth, and the debris seems to make chain reactions, growing larger every time it hits a new hunk of metal. This was the aspect of the film that doesn’t really hold up to scientific detail: first the fact that the debris is travelling so fast in the first place, and second that any collisions wouldn’t be so chaotic as to just send things careering off into space rather than continuing to orbit. 90 minutes sounds awfully like the time it actually takes for the ISS to orbit the Earth once, as well, which makes me wonder if the makers think the ISS is stationary in the sky.

That said, the sections dealing with zero gravity situations are handled deftly, such as a very stressful early scene where Sandra Bullock is thrown out into space in a spin, and can’t do anything to right herself. A lot of the film’s situations are just like that: stressful is the best way to put them, and deus ex machina is invoked more than once to get Bullock out of whatever situation she’s in.

Even ignoring the science side, though, it’s confusing to me how Bullock’s character got to go to space in the first place, because she seems easy to stress, and remarks that she even failed a simulator test on landing the Soyuz. Her presence seems like a last-minute decision, too. Clooney seems more like a liability than an effective astronaut, too. But both actors put in brilliant performances and along with the visuals, they really carry the movie.

That’s basically it. Good performances, brilliant visuals, a whole lot of suspense, but lackluster plot and questionable science. Definitely worth watching, and definitely worth shelling out the extra to see it in 3D IMAX. And there’s something to be said about bucking the trend for 3 hour movies. Any more than 90 minutes for this movie would have been overkill and repetitive, but even though there is a small amount of repetition, it doesn’t drag and leaves a nice taste in the mouth.