Book #97: Maurice (1971)

mauriceAuthor: E.M. Forster
Language: English and some French
Length: 381 minutes (6 hours, 21 minutes)
Finished listening on: 17 December 2015

This book always comes up in discussions of classic literature with LGBT themes, but unlike some others, which deal purely in hushed whispers and subtext, this one is quite explicitly gay. Forster didn’t release it during his lifetime, and it was released posthumously in 1971, despite being written in something like 1918.

It’s pretty short compared to the other audiobooks I’ve listened to – reflecting a general trend I’ve observed that novels are getting longer and longer. I found that this meant that some of the dramatic turns happen very suddenly, in only a few sentences, and I almost missed them at some stages. I also felt like it flashed by quite quickly compared to the other ones I’ve listened to.

In terms of the story and themes, I was interested to find out how much and how little the times have changed since the early part of last century – especially when the people are commuting to the centre of London with newspapers in hand, and other such trappings that are still present in the modern world.

But as usual when reading gay literature, my prevailing emotion was that it’s nice to see myself reflected more directly in media. More of the same, please!

Book #96: Two Boys Kissing (2013)

Two-Boys-Kissing-David-Levithan1Author: David Levithan
Language: English
Length: 239 pages
Finished reading on: 15 December 2015

There aren’t any gay bookstores in Japan, unless you count the ones that are mainly for porn. You get BL manga, but I’m still too lazy to try to read them properly. It’s a lot of effort. So I kind of jumped at the chance to go to the gay bookstores in London and Amsterdam when I was there last summer. I think this book came from the one in Amsterdam, one of the least sleazy gay spaces I could find there, frankly. Most of it’s offputting. Anyway, I’d been there before a few years ago, but it’s honestly a bit hit-and-miss, in my experience – it was definitely there that I acquired one or two truly terrible gay movies.

So anyway, the book itself is by David Levithan and is aimed at teenagers, so it’s reading below my supposed level, but that makes it easy (and it’s pretty short!). I also picked his book because I’d read one by him before, called ”Boy Meets Boy”, a couple of years ago, and it’d been relaxing and funny to read.

This was more of a slice-of-life story, with the central story being two boys in Small Town America deciding to try and break the record for longest kiss, meaning that they have to stay with lips locked for about thirty hours or so. Apparently their attempt is based on a true story, as are a lot of the other stories in the book. There are a bunch of other characters – couples – with all their own foibles, and the book switches between them like a TV show. The stories only interact minimally – like they see the two boys on the local news or something.

I realized too late that the book has this conceit that it’s being told in the disembodied first person of the ghosts of the AIDS crisis, with phrases such as “We look down at the two boys kissing” punctuating the stories, or the narrators saying they’re jealous of the opportunities afforded to the protagonist kids – and it’s quite explicitly setting out to draw attention to LGBT history. I think this is something important to talk about, and to point out that the people of that period are not different from people of today… but this was a ham-fisted and awkward way to do it, and was the most annoying thing about reading the book, which is a shame. I also think that it tries too hard to be an Issues Book – sometimes I feel that too many “gay” novels and movies feel the need to include at least one of AIDS, suicide, bullying, coming out, parental acceptance, and any other issues that may be hot-button at the time, and this one tries to include them all – and I’m more looking for an outlet away from the doom and gloom with a happy ending (which is provided, by and large).

The other thing is that the stories themselves aren’t well developed. I’d like to see a bit more of each person’s story! But it was an enjoyable and easy read after the last book I read, and I appreciated that a lot. It’s also uplifting, despite the Issues. I’ll probably be reading more of Levithan’s works, but I’d really only recommend this one to actual teenagers. Unlike the other book I read, which is also decidedly YA fiction, I’m really too old to appreciate this one fully. The other one had a lot more that would appeal to any age of reader, in my opinion.

Book #95: Neptune’s Brood (2013)

neptunesbroodAuthor: Charles Stross
Language: English
Length: 338 pages
Finished reading on: 4 December 2015

I’ve seen the name of Charles Stross a few times on sci fi recommendations lists (and apparently he lives in my hometown, so I have a kind of parochial self-interest), so I thought I’d finally try out one of his books sometime last year – I should perhaps be clear that I don’t know when this was, because it took me a long time to read the book. I only finished in in December.

I relish a challenge, so the higher level of vocabulary in this book than I’m used to pleased me at first, but it became clear later on that many of the words are invented for the purpose of explaining some of the weird concepts that the book employs – a lot of which would have simple equivalents that the author could have used instead.

The book is an ideas book first and foremost, and the plot itself takes some time to pick up steam. I found it only managed a sense of tension in the third act or so, but the twists and unreliable narrator aspect made this worth waiting for in the end.

The concept of the book is a humanity that has conquered the stars, but it’s not actually humanity as we know it anymore – the people in the novel’s universe are actually sophisticated androids. The economic system is the cornerstone of their universe and the primary interest of the main character, so the book spends a lot of time discussing that. One key idea is that of fast, medium and slow money – essentially, cash, bonds and investments, and the new concept of a secure crypto-currency used to invest in star colonies, that by its very nature would take a long time to process and see any return. One “slow dollar” seems to be worth millions of “fast dollars”.

This permeates down to the very lowest levels of this hypercapitalistic society – the cells of each android’s body, described with one of Stross’s creative coinages with a “nano” prefix, are described as having to be individually convinced of the economic benefit of forming together into a human body. It doesn’t sound like a very appealing world to me, to be honest – the other thing is that these humans eat some kind of reconstituted protein sludge instead of actual food.

Stross is then very good at exploring the ramifications of such a world – like people becoming bloodthirsty zombies when they go into a kind of starvation mode, and some of the things that these post-humans can do. But this all serves as an alienation device for me, especially when he describes normal processes like eating and excretion with overly pseudo-scientific babble. Similarly, the main character was a little difficult to relate to, because she doesn’t have strong emotions about many things.

I liked this enough to want to try more of Stross’s novels – but I’m not sure I’d recommend it outright. As I said, it’s a bit dry, and the plot’s direction is unclear. I’m a bit of a sucker for half-decent sci fi, though. (And it has female characters, unusually for the genre!)

Book #94: Ready Player One (2011)

Ready-Player-OneAuthor: Ernest Cline
Language: English with bits of Japanese, Latin
Length: 940 minutes (15 hours, 40 minutes)
Finished listening on: 3 December 2015

I originally saw this book set out as the readers’ choice in a bookstore in London before I tracked it down on Audible to listen to. The storyline intrigued me – it’s a sci fi book set largely in a virtual reality world, and the book had received mostly positive press.

It’s very heavy on 1980s references. The plot starts with the death of a famous billionaire responsible for starting the Oasis – a virtual reality world that fills many functions in the future society, including that of Facebook and even the internet itself in today’s society, but stemming from a gaming culture. He pledges the system itself and his vast fortune to someone who can complete an obnoxious series of tasks and find an “Easter egg” – a secret – inside the virtual world. To do that, they have to research him, his interests, and his motivations. That’s where the 80s references come in – it’s video games of that period that interest this character (and presumably the author).

I think it’s attained its popularity directly because of this nostalgia factor. I found that I’m too young to get most of the references that the book makes, which perhaps allowed me to see them for what they were: shallow shout-outs, not really adding much substance to the story. I was quite glad to see that the author’s second novel flopped quite badly, because it didn’t have this element and was a tepid nerd romance – which is also what this book would be without the nostalgic parts.

Basically the romantic subplot of this movie is borderline misogynistic, and heavily focuses on the straight male gaze. I spluttered at the end when it turns out the girl he fancies has, in real life but not in the game, a birthmark on her face, and doesn’t believe she’s pretty until he, the straight male savior, comes along to tell her otherwise.

Not only that, but the whole idea of the knowledge of the 80s ever being useful for something like this is also very much a geek boy’s fantasy, and I loathed that aspect of this book. Perhaps contradicting the 80s side is also the heavy use of early-2000s gaming slang, like “leet” or “haxxor”. I feel defiled, having to hear those words read out loud by Wil Wheaton (who I bet was loving every moment of this book, especially the part where he’s namedropped).

But aside from the problematic stuff, the book is also not well written. A lot of the sentences are awkward, and the story pacing is uneven to say the least. As an example, the first act of the book sees the main character stuck inside the educational side of the Oasis, unable to pay his way to another in-game planet (that doesn’t seem like a nice system or one that would catch on quickly), and without cash in the real world too – somehow able to feed himself despite his aunt (of course he’s an orphan) stealing his food stamps. In the second act, he suddenly comes into money, and he magically knows exactly how to spend it responsibly. A couple of explanatory paragraphs later, and money is never an issue for him. This kind of sudden and sharp change in the situation was par for the course. I’d like to have seen the consequences of the boy’s actions in the real world come back to bite him somehow – he essentially comes into the money by signing some advertising contracts without reading them, which would be an easy way for the author to pin him down later. But they’re never mentioned again.

His origins in the trailer stacks of the midwest was also ripe for exploration that didn’t come. He escapes his aunt’s home in the first few chapters and doesn’t seem to go back. I felt that this part of his character was unnecessary except to show the dystopia of the non-virtual world. There is such obvious opportunity to explore the conflict of the down-trodden, poor man outside the simulation, and the famous man inside it (think Harry Potter forced to live with the Dursleys), that I felt let down that this never happened.

His attitude towards those less fortunate or less clever than him, while common in geek circles, is absolutely reprehensible. We see him in a customer service position later in the book, and he seems to spend his day whining about how awful all his customers are. I just get the feeling the author would be this kind of unpleasant person in real life, too. I bet he complains about the friendzone.

I liked the book for its worldbuilding, however, and I would very much like the chance to explore the virtual world the author describes. I also found myself caring about the main character and wanting to find out what happens when he confronts the villains – who, predictably, are one-dimensional without redeeming features. And the author should really learn what fascist means! He throws it around like a meaningless insult.

I also think that the predictions of the book are accurate. A lot of the future world, including the virtual reality stuff but also the collapse of the economy and other parts, seemed realistic to me. I can certainly imagine this coming about in the next few years.

But while it was fun to explore the world of this book, I feel that a lot of the appeal is the author just shouting “Isn’t this cool??” while we look on, and he equates referencing something with homaging it, which isn’t quite enough. It’s exciting to an extent, but it’s also unrealistic and there are too many wasted opportunities for me to recommend it.

Film #173: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

pitch-perfect-2Director: Elizabeth Banks
Language: English and a bit of German
Length: 115 minutes
Watched on: 1 December 2015

The first of the month is movie service day in Japan, meaning that most (if not all) cinemas discount their tickets from 1800 yen to 1100 yen, in the greatest evidence of price collusion I’ve ever seen (very few cinemas make the effort to depart from the usual system of pricing and discounts and make themselves stand out). Just the tip of the iceberg in the great rant that is my criticism of the movie industry in Japan.

So it came to pass that I was in Shinjuku on December 1st, and after work, I decided I’d go to a movie at one or other of the many cinemas – but the one I’d originally wanted to see at the new cinema in Kabukicho (the one with a giant statue of Godzilla coming out of its roof, if anyone knows it) was fully booked, so I went back to Cinema Qualité, a small arty-leaning independent cinema near the station, to watch Pitch Perfect 2.

I liked the original Pitch Perfect – I watched it about two years ago, and have already written a review of it on here. So I guess I had high expectations for this one, and was hoping it would live up to the first one. I think it fell short of those expectations for a few reasons.

I did laugh a lot at this movie – I definitely remember the odd experience of being the only one laughing at the sexual puns and other jokes, which really flew over the heads of the Japanese speakers in the theater, presented with presumably inadequate subtitles. But I found that the characters and storyline had very little development compared to the last one. In that other film, I had a sense of suspense when they were competing against the other teams, but in this one, I found that it overshot the mark a few times, and I thought that the songs weren’t developed well – it’s mentioned that they’re developing routines, but in the movie they just spring fully-formed from nowhere.

There are also an awful lot of single-joke characters, and this often veers into directly racist territory, a vibe I never got from the original in the same way. For example, there is a character from Central America strongly implied to be an “illegal immigrant”, and who often makes outlandish comments about how much violence she’s been through, to which the other characters just shrug and ignore her. Or there’s the black lesbian who does nothing but hit on the other female characters, and has no character of her own other than being a black lesbian (she was a bit more developed in the original, if I remember correctly). Or the whole bit with the Germans – it works when they mock Kraftwerk in the musical segments, but apart from that, they’re lazy caricatures.

As for Rebel Wilson’s character, Fat Amy, the joke is also wearing thin, although the actress’s performance is absolutely on point and most of the funny one-liners come out of her mouth. There’s a romance subplot between her and one of the male characters, which is awkward to watch, as the movie is clearly pointing at her like “isn’t it funny? She’s so fat and he’s normal”. Her whole character has that vibe around her.

That aside, I’d still class this movie as a feel-good movie, and I loved the performances and the singing. I left the cinema satisfied. It’s just the plot and a lot of the jokes that fall flat, or more accurately, are okay but not as good as the original.

Film #172: Whiplash (2014)

whiplashDirector: Damien Chazelle
Language: English
Length: 107 minutes
Watched: 30 November 2015

Okay, so this was the second in the double-bill that I watched along with Birdman. For some reason, it’s called Session in Japanese. It’s by far the weaker of the two movies in my opinion.

It follows a guy going through music college, and getting an apprenticeship with this man who’s meant to be the greatest jazz musician in the country – but he’s also the toughest, and will push people to their very limits. He’s the kind of person who would charitably be described as “unorthodox”. Just to translate that, then: he’s highly emotionally abusive, quite homophobic, and sometimes physically violent towards his students. He made me very angry as a concept.

I can accept to a certain extent that the kid’s motivation is defined by this teacher, and I think the movie is trying to make a comment about blindly following someone in such a way – but I thought there was going to be a twist halfway through the movie that would allow the kid to get out of the situation or show the teacher some comeuppance. Yet he actually only ends up going back into a very similar situation, in a weak attempt to redeem the teacher character – that in my opinion, absolutely does not work.

I say don’t waste your time. The music was okay in the movie, not my kind of thing, and the biggest positive compliment I can give to the movie is that it manages to stay focused and doesn’t stray too far from its subject. But I’m really not into watching homophobic abuse. How this managed to get into the top 50 on IMDB I’ll never know – or perhaps it’s just because that site’s full of straight males?

Film #171: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

birdmanDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Language: English
Length: 119 minutes
Watched: 30 November 2015

I was feeling in a filmy mood on the day I went to this movie, and I went to a double-bill of it and the next film at the Waseda Shochiku cinema near Takadanobaba, a small cinema that specializes in double-bills of rereleased stuff. Birdman had won an Oscar in February 2015, for Best Picture of 2014, and while I’m not one to give much consideration to such things, I still feel like I haven’t seen quite enough Oscar-winning films. Perhaps I should watch the more recent 2015 winner, but I’m not actually sure what it is – given that I actually researched it the other day, that shows how much I pay attention!

Anyway, Birdman starts with magical realism in the opening shot. The title character is Riggan, played by Michael Keaton, a washed-up actor who is best known for his role as the thinly-veiled Batman knockoff twenty years ago. The film follows him, apparently hearing voices that tell him to smash things with his magic powers or something, during the days of rehearsal before a big performance of a play.

It’s notable in that 90% of the movie appears to be a single take, with a camera practically swimming through the tiny halls of the New York theatre keeping up with all the action. Unlike movies such as Russian Ark, it’s obvious enough that it’s not really a single take, but stitched together with CGI, but still, that with the smallness of the space in which the movie takes place creates a claustrophobic atmosphere right from the very beginning.

Artistically, the movie is pretty sound. On a simplistic level, the play-within-the-film reflects the moods and feelings of the characters on the several different occasions that the same scene is acted out, although there seem to be several levels to this, that if I wanted to unpick, I’d have to watch the film again to try and understand a deeper level.

However, I’m not sure if I’m interested in watching the movie again. Plotwise, although definitely more unpredictable than most, it didn’t capture my heart like some other movies might have, and I found a lot of the characters to be assholes, including the main character, and his nemesis in Edward Norton’s character. The magical realism stuff was definitely incongruous with the rest of the movie, even though it is present literally from the opening shot, and stories of mental illness like this one can be told without recourse to magical realism, so I found it unnecessary.

The performances were good, certainly, and a stand-out moment for me was an angry soliloquy from Emma Stone as she rants at her father, visually also striking as it’s to a bright red (or yellow – I think my memory’s playing tricks on me). In the sense that I’m tempted to use the word “soliloquy”, the film definitely, and aptly, has a theatrical sensibility in the way it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be well suited to the theatre in itself.

So basically, although it’s not necessarily the movie I’d choose to go and see, it was good, and I felt enriched by the experience. Was it Best Movie-worthy? I think that depends on what it was up against. But certainly it is artistically literate.

Book #93: Career of Evil (2015)

Career20Of20Evil_zpsarxm7pdrAuthor: J.K. Rowling (I think we can dispense with “Robert Galbraith” already)
Language: English
Length: 1074 minutes (17 hours 54 minutes)
Finished listening on: 20 November 2015

At a time when everyone’s getting hyped up about potential Potter sequels, J.K. Rowling released this sequel to the Cormoran Strike novels to relatively little fanfare (yet of course, it was still heavily promoted in several places, such is her selling power).

The book continues the story of Strike and his young assistant Robin, as they try to navigate what their relationship constitutes and how this relates to their partners. This time, instead of picking up a major case from the police, the pair have a dismembered body part mailed to them early in the story, meaning that the three suspects Strike has in mind for the killer are three people he knows from his own past.

Compared to the previous novels in the series, this one is a bit more tightly plotted, although it still falls into the trap of becoming a series of interviews mixed with a road trip, even though I could easily read (well, listen to) that for hours. The plot is certainly more gripping than the second one – whose plot I’ve now completely forgotten. This one had a lot more personal intrigue and I felt more engaged with the characters that had been affected by the incident, as they’re the ones I’ve been following for three books now, but in the previous book, I didn’t know anything about the dead character.

As I mentioned in the last book review, this was a lot easier to finish than Proxima, despite being almost exactly the same length. Of course, a lot of that is to do with the quality of the writing, but in this case I like to think it’s affected a lot by the quality of the narration. The same narrator read this as the last audiobooks, which pleased me, as he’s good at his job and can still provide a convincing array of British accents. This was the kind of audiobook I’d look forward to continuing during my breaks at work – Proxima, not so much, unfortunately.

I’d like to see a continuation of this series, probably more than I’d like to see continuation of Harry Potter. I think Rowling needs to move on from Potter, really – and she really needs to shut up on Twitter, incidentally. But we all knew that.

Film #170: Everest (2015)

everest-jason-clarkeDirector: Baltasar Kormákur
Language: English and a bit of Nepali
Length: 121 minutes
Watched: 16 Nov 2015

I had this movie spoiled for me when I listened to an interview with the movie director on Mark Kermode’s film review (but be forewarned that I may start spoiling too, as it’s difficult to talk about the movie without doing so). It’s based on a true story, and perhaps many people would be familiar with it, but I wasn’t.

As such, I went into it knowing what would happen in the third act – and the film was careful only to hint at it for the first two acts. To anyone with passing knowledge of cinema tropes, it might be blindingly obvious, to be fair, but it is still portrayed as a twist.

It was a good film overall, I’d say, but it made me dizzy to watch it in 3D. As such I’m glad that the storm was not so realistic, more like a Movie Thunderstorm than a real one!

The other thing that annoyed me was the characters, who kept doing stupid things. I wanted to shout at them a lot, and I had to remind myself they were based on real people! It reminded me of the book The Perfect Storm that I listened to a while back. I guess I should track down the movie of that. Oh yeah, and the scenes with Keira Knightley were painful.

Film #169: Mary Poppins (1964)

Director: Robert Stevenson
Language: English
Length: 134 minutes
Watched: 13 November 2015

I’ve always quite liked this movie, and I’m glad to report my position on that hasn’t changed.

It’s nice to come at a movie with fresh eyes. This time when I watched it, Mr Banks’ redemption arc was much clearer than it ever had been before – perhaps I’ve started to recognize that kind of thing in my own life. It was also clearer to me that Dick Van Dyke played the old bank owner – while the makeup still flummoxes me, he’s quite distinctively gangly when you see him from afar.

The film is also longer than I remember – it’s famous, of course, for the few big setpieces, like the animated section in the middle, which I should applaud for its technical achievement, or the whole chimney sweep thing, but there were a lot of other scenes that are easy to forget, like the one where they have dinner on the ceiling with the laughing man. If I remember correctly, it’s lifted from the book, where it makes more sense, but here it’s kind of non sequitur. So it doesn’t gel as well with the other sections, I guess – also, everything after the animated section seems morose by comparison.

I also never really noticed before how strict Mary Poppins actually is, too. She seems to hide it behind the magic stuff. And I also noticed this time how Bert is in every scene – even when there’s no need for it. He seems to know every character. It’s weird!

Anyway, still love it.