Monday, February 22, 2010

An Enthralling, Gripping Read

Regular readers of this blog may remember my rant against novelist M.J.Hyland for professionally branding herself 'MJ' and not 'Maria'. I called it a major marketing and literary mistake.

Well Eva Hornung has fallen into the same trap by changing her surname from Sallis to Hornung mid-way through her illustrious career. Whatever her personal reasons or circumstances, it's just the wrong thing to do. It trashes all the fragile, emotional connections that bind brands to their loyal customers and believers, connections that take time and painstaking effort to build in the first place. As well, it has to be said, Sallis is a much more felicitous name than the clumsy Germanic Hornung. It rolls easily off the tongue. I trust Text, Eva's publisher, fought long and hard with her about this. Pity they lost.

Next, the cover. It's another marketing mistake. Like so many covers it was quite obviously done by someone who hadn't read the book. This is not Lassie or any book about a dog. In fact the reason I have come late to this book, which was originally published in March last year, is because of the cover. I'm not a dog lover, and have never owned a dog. I passed over this book because I was not attracted to reading a book about a dog; or a book about boy who was a dog, or thought he was a dog; or about a dog who thought he was a boy - whatever.

Now these beefs are off my chest - to the book itself.

Quite frankly, Dog Boy is one of the best novels I've ever read. It is simply amazing, and I'm going to bore all my acquaintances for ages by pressuring them to read it. It's enthralling, gripping, quite extraordinary in its imaginative reach and power, and in the beauty and absolute clarity of its language. Not a word in this book is wrong or inappropriate or misplaced or just there for effect. And best of all it resonates with deep layers of meaning. It's a book that pushes the boundaries of our sympathy and understanding, and demands we confront the seemingly familiar and comfortable in a whole new way.

And I love the way it's set in Moscow. It's so right.

I can't rave enough about this wonderful book. I'd describe it as perfect, just perfect.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Recent Movies

Usually, movies dealing with poor, embittered, socially deprived, psychologically damaged students from rotten homes with cruel, alcohol and drug infested, sexually molesting 'parents', and with determined, committed, talented, gifted, dedicated, never-give-up, middle class, tertiary educated, physically attractive teachers, are best left right alone for the stinking pile of cliches that they invariably are. It's To Sir With Love ad nauseam.

So Precious should be avoided like the plague. Not only is the main character, Precious herself, one of the physically ugliest leads ever to grace a screen, the saviour teacher is one of the most beautiful. The director nails the cliche to your forehead without apology. 

However see this movie for the performance of the supporting actor Mo'Nique. She is riveting as the wholly bad mother. She is an exquisite creation, and her masterful use of underclass, street dialect straight out of Harlem is as richly invigorating as all good language is. The other good performance in the film is from that ridiculous diva Mariah Carey, who plays a social worker. It's a minor role but Carey pulls it off to perfection.

I'm one of the handful of people on the planet who tried valiantly to finish the book The Road but couldn't. I found it as boring as batshit - endless pushing of that god-forsaken trolley by a father and his son along deserted roads in a god-forsaken aftermath landscape...every waking day! To me the author never succeeded in getting beyond the physical into the metaphysical, so all we got were incidents, then more incidents, then more...It had to end by the death of one of them and of course it did. (The death of the two of them would have made it tragedy. The death of just one makes it sad, and sadness is this book's emotional world, imbuing it with far less meaning and resonance.)

The film is a faithful adaptation of the book. Enough said.

We've seen enough prison movies throughout the history of cinema to know the dynamics of them backwards by now. The prisoners milling around in the exercise yard, plotting, confronting, exchanging, whispering; the cruel guards; the heartless administration; the foul, stinking food...there's very little that's new. 

What really impressed me about A Prophet however was that there were no guards, no administration, plenty of good food. The entire focus of the film was the psychological and emotional growth of a young, 19 year old prisoner doing his six year term, and how he navigates his own way through the group dynamics and power centres of the prisoner community. It's a long film, but slowly you get the point. This young, uneducated guy is smarter and more intuitive than most, and his great gift is his immigrant Arab background and how he uses it. Early in his term he opts for protection from the Corsican Italians, led by an old vicious crim (powerfully played by Niels Arestrup), but at the end the Arabs prevail, mainly by force of numbers, and he's one of them. You know when he's released that Europe has another powerful criminal mastermind to contend with.

Comparisons have been made to The Godfather, and that seems pretty right to me.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mankell's The Man From Beijing

I used to be a big fan of Mankell, based on his marvellous Kurt Wallander series (recently on TV with Kenneth Branagh as Wallander).

But not any more. His latest, non-Wallander, novel is simply atrocious.

It's an exercise in political grandstanding rather than a traditional tightly plotted piece of crime fiction that Mankell fans have come to expect. Not only that, it is poorly constructed and meanders all over the place, introducing real and fictional characters at whim to advance an absurd story that Mankell presumably considers has contemporary political heft.

Long passages set in Beijing jossle with equally long and tedious passages set in Africa, mainly Zimbabwe. Mankell is obviously a tired and bitter old lefty, romanticising Mao and the old communist party and demonising Deng and the new, more liberal and neo-capitalist forces unleashed in recent decades.

He also favors Robert Mugabe's rule in Zimbabwe, for god's sake, not even mentioning, let along favorably, the popular democratic movement over the last decade, the awful violence unleashed on it by the regime, and the electoral process that's been corrupted at every turn. Then there's the economy! Echoing Mugabe's absurd claims, Mankell wants us to believe it's the continuing legacy of British colonial rule that's the real problem.

A thorough-going whitewash, this book is truly a disgrace.

Don't be seen with it.