Book #118: The Metamorphosis (1915)

verwandlungaka: Die Verwandlung
author: Franz Kafka
language: English, translated from German
length: 44 pages
finished on: 30 October 2016

Kafka’s name has long been used as a shorthand for something surrealist or unbelievable, and I think this is his most famous novella. My interest was piqued about a year ago, when my Japanese coworker was reading it at work – I took it from him and read the first sentence, something like “Gregor Samsa was transformed into a horrific vermin”. I wasn’t about to read the rest of the book in Japanese – it’d take me too long, I think.

As I mentioned in my last book review, I just got a Kindle, and found that a lot of things, especially out-of-copyright stuff, but also a small selection of newer stuff, is available for free. I mean, I knew this; I got A Study in Scarlet and Gulliver’s Travels for free on the Kindle store when I owned my last Kindle (which keen-eyed readers might know went kaput about two and a half years ago). But I sort of rediscovered it this time. I also thought I’d like to read something short, and The Metamorphosis fit the bill.

So the story is short, and it’s about Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find that he’s been turned into a giant insect. At least, the word insect is never mentioned, but the description is pretty clear, and virtually all covers that the book has had have depicted an insect, despite the author’s protests. He soon becomes unable to speak, and the others are horrified to see him, so he hides away in his room and is taken care of by his sister. He becomes an outsider witness to the financial ruin and subsequent transformations that his family goes through without him as a breadwinner.

The fantastical element is never explained, and the book only deals with the consequence of that. I could easily have envisaged the fantastical element being taken out, in which case it becomes a story of a fast-acting degenerative illness, which would enact the same kinds of transformations in the family.

A lot of the things the book talks about are very familiar – the way in which Gregor has to go to work and commute every morning, before his transformation, and the worries that he has are, one hundred years later, very familiar indeed. People still take the train to work, after all. But I think the book is hinting at societal transformation too, in the way that the family changes from Gregor supporting his sister and parents to the others having to fend for themselves and all get jobs. I’m wondering if it doesn’t also reflect the wartime milieu in which the book was written – the country being necessarily transformed as a result. There are a lot of layers to this, and people more experienced than me in literary analysis can probably come up with more eloquent reasoning for this!

One thing I’m a little interested in is Kafka’s sentence structure. The most famous is the opening line I mentioned above. Again, I can’t remember the exact wording, but it talks about Gregor waking up to find he’s been transformed. Now, German has a neat trick where you can put the verb at the end of the sentence in many contexts, and apparently Kafka uses this to create an element of surprise when readers discover the verb at the end of the sentence – like, oh, he’s been transformed into a vermin. Wait a second! And I actually had this effect when I read the first sentence in Japanese last year – Japanese also puts verbs at the end of the sentence, so it was like mentally I’d been predicting another verb, but then found something like 変わった (changed) and had a moment of “huh??”. In English, of course, this doesn’t work. So now I’m wondering if I’d have had a different effect if I’d read it in Japanese or German. The only problem is, I’m not quite proficient enough in either language…

Anyway, it’s a classic and it’s well deserving of that. It’s interesting and short, so doesn’t get distracted, which is nice. Has anyone else read it? I’d be interested to see what others’ take on it would be.

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Film #242: Spooners (2013)

spoonersdirector: Bryan Horch
language: English
length: 13 minutes
watched on: 28 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This movie was the last short film on “Boys on Film 11”. It’s almost aggressively a comedy movie. It starts with tinkly Spanish-sounding music to let us know we’re in for a funny ride and has a bunch of one-liners. But ultimately I wasn’t so impressed with it. However, it was a nice ending to the series – as with the last series, it was nice to end on a high note.

The premise is that two guys are in the market for a new mattress, their ancient futon having gotten uncomfortable to lie on, and stained. One of the guys wants to keep it, as he’s grown attached to a stain that resembles both Che Guevara and Jesus. Ew. Anyway, the other guy is desperate to get a new mattress and not so desperate to out himself in public, so he tries to go along to the bed shop in secret, but when he gets there, the sales rep makes him use a special talking bed-choosing machine/app/robot thing, which promptly outs him to the entire store when it forces him to select the gender of both participants. This leads to the scene above where everyone crowds around offering their own opinions on everything, and to increasingly cringy situations when the app asks him to choose what sexual position he takes, and so on.

OK, it was funny. But I also thought it was trying too hard, and I thought the app thing was a silly conceit. I think there’s a point there about companies asking invasive questions to their customers, perhaps, but it also came across as Luddite in its treatment of modern apps. I also watched the trailer and the Kickstarter video, and they had all the same jokes in them.

I did like all the other customers with their ridiculous opinions, though, and I thought the two guys acted well as a couple together, so it’s not all bad.

As for the rest of this series of films, it’s been good in general, and I think the quality and variety on this DVD is absolutely commendable – perhaps there is more variety than the older DVD. I think every film is a different genre, and then some. But none of them are very outstanding, if I’m honest. There are a couple of more notable films from the other DVDs. It’s not going to stop me watching, though. There’s a certain level of comfort in it.

Film #241: For Dorian (2012)

for-doriandirector: Rodrigo Barriuso
language: English
length: 15 minutes
watched on: 28 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This is one of the more poignant movies on the “Boys on Film 11” series, but it was less explicitly gay than the others, in my opinion. It’s about a boy with Down syndrome (Dorian of the title) and his father. The boy is coming of age and starting to seek his own independence, much to his father’s chagrin.

As far as I can tell, it’s a rare look into the sexuality of a disabled person, and it treats its protagonists with respect. The boy is obviously interested in a hot weatherman, and has a collection of screenshots on his computer. He only talks about the weather to his dad. He also walks arm-in-arm down the street with his best friend from school and it’s sensible to read something more into their friendship.

Dad isn’t having it, though – he chastises the boy’s after-school carer for not bringing him home. He also won’t let the boy cook his own breakfast, even though he’s willing to help, perhaps worried that he’ll mess it up – but he hasn’t had the opportunity to try! He needs to realize that he won’t be responsible forever.

Aside from that, it’s obviously a coming of age story, and fits a few more of those tropes well. Furthermore, I liked the minimalist cinematography and the precise composition of so many shots in the movie. I also thought the setting – Toronto in winter – was evocative, and the scenery was crisp and clean to match the interiors. Out of the eight films on this DVD, I don’t think this was the best, but it’s probably second or third.

Film #240: Little Man (2012)

little-mandirector: Eldar Rapaport
language: English
length: 24 minutes
watched on: 28 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This was the sixth movie on the “Boys on Film 11” DVD, and I think it’s the weirdest out of them all. It’s about a gay guy who’s leading an unfulfilling life, hooking up with guys only to have them ditch him the next morning, or even literally during sex.

At the same time all the straight men around him, like his brother or an anonymous taxi driver, keep telling how easy he must have it to hook up with guys, and that girls are a much more difficult nut to crack, and eventually he snaps, at the taxi driver, while he’s trying to hook up with a guy in the back seat. But when he gets home, he finds that some nerd-looking guy – the “little man” of the title – living in the flat upstairs has been secretively setting up all his hook-ups, like a combination of a guardian angel and the Illuminati. That’s where it becomes creepy, as there’s all these photos on the wall, like mementoes of his failed love life. The little man gets beaten up by the main character and is left for dead.

As with some of the other movies, I wasn’t sure what this movie was trying to say. I think there’s a perfectly valid point when it attacks people saying that girls or boys are easier to hook up with, but I’m curious what the little man is meant to represent. Perhaps it’s saying that we don’t have as much control over our lives as we think, or that we’re under constant observation. Perhaps it’s more of a straight-up what-if scenario, and it’s asking if we would do the same thing in his situation. I’m not sure, and I didn’t find it as poignant as some of the other movies in this series.

Book #117: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015)

svhsaauthor: Becky Albertalli
language: English
length: 303 pages
finished on: 27 October 2016

Just like the last book I read, I wanted to finish this one quickly so I could get started on my new Kindle (which I got for my birthday). So I ended up reading the last portion of the book in one sitting.

The book is a “young adult” story about gay teenagers. I’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t think I had access to any such things when I was a teenager… but whether I’d have taken the opportunity at that time is a different story. Being in the closet does that to you. I’m making up for lost time now.

The central character is Simon, who is in the closet, but seems to be comfortable with himself – just not ready to tell the world yet. He’s writing to someone that he met through Tumblr (another modern institution that didn’t exist in the previous decade), who goes to the same school, and trying to work out the other person’s mystery identity. At the same time, a rather despicable boy discovers the emails and blackmails him into trying to hook him up with a girl.

The depiction of the main character is spot on, I think, and his/the author’s sense of humour is well-observed. It captured the awkwardness of teenage years well. I really felt for the characters, despite now being in a stage of life where I’ve largely stopped caring about people’s reactions (ie. I’m not generally scared of coming out anymore).

I did often feel like the main character was being a bit stupid, or thinking the wrong thing. For most of the book, he thinks the mystery emailer is one particular character, and it’s fairly obvious that that’s not the case, and it’s wishful thinking. It’s like a narrative trope, or something. At the same time, the eventual answer to the mystery seems to come out of nowhere – the hints and foreshadowing are there if you know what to look for (the main character smiles at him in a certain way about two thirds of the way through the book, for example), but the character was so minor up to that point it’s a genuine surprise.

I liked it, anyway. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in young adult gay fiction, which is probably not most of my friends, but hey. How about you, the reader? What did you think?

Film #239: High-Rise (2015)

highrisedirector: Ben Wheatley
language: English and a bit of French
length: 119 minutes
watched on: 27 October 2016

High-Rise was only out in Japan on limited release, so a group of us wanting to see it travelled down to Yokohama to a tiny indie cinema which felt like walking back into the 60s. I didn’t really know what the plot would be before going in, preferring to be surprised, basically.

The movie is set in a tower block in probably-London in a heavily stylized version of the 1970s, with bright, blocky colours and characters smoking in every scene. Tom Hiddleston moves in, and tries and fails to integrate with the different social strata in the block. Basically, the upper floors are the upper class, wining and dining and making fun of the lower floors, who can’t afford basic necessities. Perhaps a microcosm of mainstream society.

Hiddleston kind of remains an outsider for most of the movie, and his story isn’t as interesting as the other characters’, in the end, especially the guy with the moustache in the picture above, who seems to represent socialist uprising, or the Architect living in the lavish penthouse, with an actual garden and horseriding wife on the roof.

About halfway through the movie there’s a very sudden and almost unprecedented descent into chaos and madness, when the upper floors become vulgarly orgiastic and the lower floors become violent and the whole of the tower block’s society starts to decay. Pretty much every character becomes detestable for one reason or another. I just didn’t see why they couldn’t just, like, leave. Life is going on outside the block as normal, after all, and we do get a chance to see a couple of the characters outside work, but a large part of life in the tower block is self-contained – the supermarket, gym and so on are all there.

Other than that, it was often incomprehensible, and I wasn’t sure what the movie was trying to say. Is it supposed to be a critique of society, or a warning? Should it even be given the luxury of consideration? I enjoyed many parts of it, but I didn’t feel like the whole thing meshed together well. At the same time, I feel like it might warrant a second viewing in the future to catch parts that I didn’t get the first time around.

Have you seen this? What did you think?

Film #238: The Last Time I Saw Richard (2014)

tltisrdirector: Nicholas Verso
language: English
length: 22 minutes
watched on: 23 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This is the fifth in the “Boys on Film 11” DVD, and it’s the one that’s used on the DVD cover. It’s set in a mental hospital somewhere in Australia, and has a strong creepy horror bent to it.

The main character Jonah self-harms, which we see in too graphic detail early in the film. Coincidentally, the last time I saw this on film in such detail was another Australian film where a character kills herself. I really don’t see a reason to include this. But whatever. The love interest is Richard, a new roommate for Jonah. Jonah is a massive dickhead to everyone around him, manipulating everyone around him to get his own way, but with Richard it’s like an unstoppable force up against an unmovable object – Richard is cut off from the world (he always has headphones in) and lashes out with violence when Jonah tries to snoop on him.

But they bond over basketball, and end up in bed together, although it seems more to protect each other from their nightmares. This is where the horror part comes in – there are dream visions where they are missing eyes, or where dark shadows from the corner of the room try to attack the two boys. Despite not being realistic, this part was totally believable, given the setup and taking the boy’s point of view directly.

I thought the piece was well-considered, and even over the very brief total time, there is considerable character development, which I also liked. It can be commended for realism even with the dreaming and fantastic elements, and I really felt sorry for the main character at the end, when he is forced away from the boy he’s grown to love – despite really not taking to him at all at the beginning, when he was being a manipulative little shit. It’s probably my surprising favourite of the 8 films on the DVD. You can watch it on Youtube, but be prepared to cry.

Film #237: Three Summers (2006)

tre-somreaka: Tre somre
director: Carlos Augusto de Oliveira
language: Danish
length: 28 minutes
watched on: 23 Oct 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This was the fourth film on “Boys on Film 11”, and one thing I was surprised about was that it was released a lot earlier than the others on the DVD. I think the DVD was released either 2013 or 2014, and the other films are all from around 2012 or 2013, but this one feels subtly older even when I was watching it – indeed, it feels like the stuff I was watching when I was 18 or 19, maybe in terms of production value or atmosphere. Makes sense, of course!

The film is set in Denmark – there are two main characters, the older man and the teenage boy. You can tell where it’s going already, and indeed they hook up in the second act (the kid is only 15, though, so not exactly palatable). The film has an explicit three act structure, taking place during three consecutive summer holidays when the man is back in Denmark. The boy is his friends’ son, who comes to visit.

In the first act, the man teases the boy about not having a girlfriend, and says some suggestive things like, don’t get yourself tied down to a woman. The boy comes out to him in private, trusting him as someone impartial, who he doesn’t know well. I was pretty sure the man was already perving on the boy. In the second act, the boy, newly out, sporting a very gay haircut, and making dirty jokes in front of his parents, seduces the man, who has been divorced. In the third act the boy comes back more mellow and confident, which freaks out the man, who has a new girlfriend at that point but obviously isn’t over the boy. The boy walks away with the upper hand at the end of the movie.

It was an interesting piece, a bit longer than the other movies in the set. I’m not sure what to take away from it, perhaps the confidence of youth and the changing attitudes between generations. I enjoyed it, being more to the point than a lot of longer gay movies that I’ve seen.

Book #116: Ultima (2014)

ultimaauthor: Stephen Baxter
language: English with bits of Latin and a couple of other languages that would be spoilers
length: 513 pages
finished on: 20 October 2016

I had a bad experience with the audiobook of Proxima, the previous book in this two-part series by Stephen Baxter, which takes place largely on a tidally-locked exoplanet. They’ve actually found such a planet orbiting the real-life Proxima Centauri, by the way – exciting times!

The narrator of the audiobook was truly awful, as he’s putting on a fake British accent and failing badly at it. So for this instalment I decided to read the paper book instead. I’m pretty glad that I did – I enjoyed Proxima enough that I wanted to continue the series, but that narrator was painful to listen to, so this time I could enjoy the story much more easily. I did something I rarely do, which was sit down for several hours just devouring the last two hundred pages of the book (I had other stuff I wanted to get to).

Anyway, the last book leaves on a big cliffhanger – the characters have just walked through a cosmic gateway called a “Hatch” by the story, and they find themselves face-to-face with spacefaring Romans. This book goes into the details of how the Romans came to be in space. Essentially the whole thing takes place in a kind of parallel universe – it’s like the universe reset itself when they walked through the Hatch and when these special wormholes called “kernels” (still only described in passing and vaguely) were exploded with a nuclear weapon, releasing a stupid amount of energy. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, to be honest – I thought the Romans were just coincidentally in space, and we’d find out about a convoluted chain of events that got them there.

It turns out that the Library of Alexandria hadn’t been destroyed, or something, and the Romans had discovered spaceflight – and their empire had stayed intact, eventually rivaling the Chinese (“Xin”) and British / Celts / Scandinavians (“Brikanti”), who partially conquer and discover the Americas, calling it Valhalla in a not-so-curious echo of some of Terry Pratchett’s works – it was alluded to in Pratchett and Baxter’s joint works like The Long Earth, and originally came from one of Pratchett’s older pre-Discworld novels, I think Strata.

Baxter has also recreated the three deadlocked empires-at-arms structure of 1984 almost exactly (Europe, China, and UK/America). As in 1984, I didn’t quite buy it, as I don’t perceive the modern world that way. I liked Baxter’s fleshing-out of the civilizations, though, and when (spoilers!) the universe resets itself again halfway through the book, and they discover Incas living in a deep space habitat, this civilization is also described nicely in a lot of detail.

I think this kind of storytelling, focusing on the bigger picture and describing whole civilizations, is Baxter’s strength. I wasn’t as impressed this time with his characters, as I thought too many of them weren’t developed enough. I found some of them bitter and vindictive, even when they should have had enough time to get over their gripes. I also found that there were too many minor and undistinguished Roman characters. One of them stays to the last act, and only then develops a distinctive comic verbal tic.

He also had some of his characters stay behind on their ship when they go to meet the Incas, and it took me a while to realize where they’d gone, as it was in a throwaway sentence. I found this just indicated he’d ended up with too many characters and had to get rid of some for a while. It was a bit of a long while though, timeline-wise. At the same time, he’s not afraid to kill off characters. In a book with such long-reaching arcs and grandiose scope like this, it can be make or break. It was certainly “break” for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, which suffers from similar characterization and overpopulation problems, but refuses to kill off its main characters, to the point that they become uninteresting.

Linguistically the book cut a lot of corners, too – the two robot characters, one a glorified farming machine that is later compressed into a tablet and carried around by a Chinese slave boy, and the other a scheming mastermind type, seem to both have universal translators, even for languages that have never been discovered before. By modern technology, this is absolutely impossible, and I have a hard time believing these science fiction models could do any better. Classical Latin is also still used by the Romans in what is essentially the modern day, and to match this, their technology is also oddly old-fashioned. Again, not believable – there’s a concrete reason this didn’t happen in the real world.

Incidentally, this sets it apart from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, where a similar level of technology exists (I already mentioned on that review that both books contain a kind of iPad-like tablet, but with different invented names), but that book and author, while not quite as up on scientific lingo, treated linguistic issues much more realistically – they need a trained interpreter, for example, instead of hand-waving away the issue.

In the final act it becomes clear what the purpose is of the Hatches, and it turns out to be these great world-level brains reminiscent of Solaris, embedded in the rock of many different planets. The name “Ultima”, furthest, is supposed to be the opposite of Proxima, nearest, and it turns out the furthest planet is actually the same planet as Proxima, just at the end of time. This was also not explained very well, but it goes that there is an end event like a great release of energy somehow – also the origin of the so-called “kernel” wormholes. But I found the explanation of this to be flimsy, something about statistics and the assumption that we must be in the middle times of the universe. People have conjectured it and put the idea forth in papers, and Baxter has a bibliography at the back of the book to check – but I find it more of a philosophical than scientific question, more of a conjecture than a theory.

Basically I was happy to read about this story again. I think it’s run its course now, and I’m happy with this conclusion overall, even if I don’t agree with the ideas in the ending times event. I don’t think this book was as strong as the previous one, however – it’s a bit too grandiose in scope, and not focused on character in the same way. The previous book is more concerned with life on an exoplanet, and this descends into almost-but-not-quite philosophical discussions on the multiverse. Ultimately, I recommend that one over this one.

Film #236: Alaska Is a Drag (2012)

alaska-is-a-dragdirector: Shaz Bennett
language: English
length: 14 minutes
watched on: 16 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

I quite enjoyed this one, the third short of “Boys on Film 11”. It’s about a drag queen in Alaska, who feels trapped at what he calls “the end of the world”. He works in a fish packing plant, and deals with daily homophobia (and/or racism) from his coworkers, which often gets very violent. Then a new guy comes to town, shaking things up as he obviously enjoys spending time with the first guy, and comes to see his drag routine in the local gay bar, which is absolutely deserted. He helps the first guy defend himself from the homophobes.

It’s left ambiguous, technically, whether the new guy is actually interested romantically or just platonically. He has his arm round his shoulder at the end, though.

What I really liked about this one was not just the drag routines, which are gloriously colourful, but also the mise-en-scène and the contrast between the dreary outside world and the colourful drag world. I thought an obvious parallel was drawn there. I also liked some other stylizations, like that the homophobes are obvious pastiches of 1980s high school movie archetypes, what with the girlfriend hanging on to the alpha-male in charge of the group, and their general bullying demeanour.

I’m quite glad to see this one is getting the feature-length treatment. Obviously it’s not going to be that popular, but I’d be interested in watching it to find out how they will expand it.