Wednesday, 4 March 2015

You can’t smoke a book by its cover

Looking through the short story collection in my local library (a dispiriting, disheartening exercise unless you are after the collected works of Paul Theroux or Philip Hensher) I came across Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers. Intrigued, I pulled it out to discover the book had been designed to resemble a cigarette pack. The hardcover opens at the top to reveal an inner paperback (with cigarettes cover) which you pull out.

I can't remember the last time I enjoying the physcial act of reading like I did with this book. To sit on a train and pull out my giant pack of fags was (for a former smoker) deeply satisfying. The only down side was that, by the time I had finished the book, I was actually fancying having a cigarette for the first time in 15 years.

The stories themselves were good, written in minimalist Carveresque style (though any similarities with the great American writer end there). The smoking link was tenuous at best. With concept packaging like that, I would hope for smoking to play a more central role as metaphor, rather than characters randomly lighting up.

But small quibbles: I liked the book and the design did enhanced the quality of my reading experience. It has taken some flack for being too much of a  "gimmick" to which I say: yes, and a good one, and why the hell not. I would happily buy this kind of gimmick over the tedious straight jacket of genre cover designs any day --the perky typeface and pink high heeled shoe of women's fiction covers or the blurry figure in the distant mist of a mystery novel. The design and feel of a book make a huge difference to the pleasure of the reading experience. Which is why hardcovers are bliss --the very act of cracking them open, the thick pages, the lovely typeface. And mass produced knock off copies of "The Classics" in blurry point 9 go straight to the Charity Shop.

In an era of downloads and kindles, book design should look to be interesting and engaging and daring.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Why can't history be fun?

I've been meaning to read Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, considered by many to be the definitive history of  the years leading to WWI. But every time I pick up my doorstop volume I soon put it down again. Yes it's well written, yes it's impeccably researched, but frankly it strikes me as dull. It suffers from the same problem a lot of historical writing does --too much attention to detail and the minutiae of political wrangling and not enough to much else. There is no storytelling here to engage me, no sense of the world beyond the corridors of government.

My feelings have probably been coloured by another history book I read recently, the improbably titled Hhhh, by French writer Laurent Binet. It is a fantastic book telling the story of the assasination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. It is non fiction written as a novel, with the thorny issue of how do you write about the past without making stuff up, at its heart. It is a fantastic, compelling read, full of humour and infused unashamedly with the author's own voice. Best of all, it tells the fascinating, true story of Operation Anthropoid, when two Czechoslovakian resistance fighters were parachuted into Prague to assassinate Heydrich, aka "The Butcher of Prague". It opened up a piece of the past I knew nothing about while offering a meditation on the nature of historical writing itself. It's greatest success is in creating a big story out of an obscure tale, obscure only in the context of the madness of the big, overarching story of WWII. It highlighted for me how many more similar WWII stories are out there, slowly fading into oblivion.

I love history, it is the story of everything, and it's exciting to see it being presented and talked about in new ways. Which brings me naturally to Horrible Histories, the books (and tv series) that made history interesting to a generation of British schoolchildren. Its author, Terry Deary, found history in school boring (like I did, and like my 13 year old daughter still does) and vowed to save future generations from a similar fate. It too brings out the tiny stories of the past --in this case usually related to rudeness and bodily functions-- to engage children and bring history to life. It helps them understand that the past is a fascinating place and completely relevant to their lives. And it's fun!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Am I the only person who didn't like this film?

After last week's rant about bad Hollywood films, I thought I'd do a good Hollywood film just to show how fair and even handed I am. With that in mind I sat down to Gravity at the weekend, the multi-Oscar winning, critically acclaimed "sleeper" hit of 2013.

It all started off well. Fantastic space setting with astronauts floating about, the blue earth providing a magnificent backdrop. Definitely a movie for the big screen, I thought tucking into my popcorn. So far, so spectacular. But once we got down to the story --and the characters-- it became clear that spectacle was the only original thing on offer. George Clooney's Matt was the kind of wise talking, fearless male hero that has become the mainstay of action films since Bruce Willis mugged his way through Die Hard. Here, Matt zooms around in space on his jet pack, telling funny stories to mission control, exhibiting all the standard traits of masculine heroic cool. The role of scaredy cat went to Sandra Bullock's Ryan, the novice space travelling scientist on her first mission, who starts the film panting in illness and doesn't really move on from there.

The plot almost immediately moves into action movie mode, as though fearful we will get bored of pretty space pix or character development (beyond Matt = brave+experienced x Ryan = novice+nervous) and soon our heroes are dodging hurtling debris and spinning through space untethered. Their shuttle is destroyed and they must make their way across the heavens to another space station in the hope of finding a ride home.

It is at this point we realise the filmakers, so intent on creating a visual spectacular, have had an imagination failure when it comes to the details of the plot and characters. As Matt escorts Ryan across the cosmos, doing his casual shtick, he asks if there is "anyone special" back home. Now I'm no expert, but I'm guessing astronauts spend a hell of a lot of time in close quarters and probably get the basics out of the way quite early --married, kids, hobbies? It is hard to believe that only a life or death space walk has prompted Matt to suddenly ask whether Ryan has a partner. Because the only point of the question is to reveal Ryan's Big Secret and Key to her Personality --her daughter died when she was four.

Personally, I couldn't see the point of this, other than the hope it gave Ryan depth (it didn't) or somehow made her more sympathetic (nope) or her fight for life more poignant (again, no).

There is a great deal of rebirth imagery going on which, in a film with some depth might be profound, but here it just looks silly. And then there is the inevitable God Reference. At one point Bullock whimpers that she can't pray "Because I was never taught how." She even says it twice, just to hammer the point home. The message is clear: secular, non church going types are threatening the future of the species and the universe by not inculcating some god-fearing sentiment in their children. At least if it was taught in schools, everyone would have some Our Fathers up their sleeve in the event of a sudden untethered space walk....

Gravity is an inherently conservative, conventional Hollywood film dressed up as cutting edge. Personally, I feel insulted by that. It's like being promised Beef Wellington, then being given a sausage roll instead. The effects may be spectacular, but character and story-wise it feels like we've gone back in time. Ryan is no Ripley: she is a rather dull heroine who never seems to move beyond an emotional monotone: fear and lack of confidence. She is a vehicle for the plot, a body in a spacesuit. Personally, I didn't really care whether she made it or not.

To add insult to injury, after the dvd was over, we flicked on the tv to catch 20 minutes of Minority Report. In that time, a series of men led by Tom Cruise did serious things and had serious conversations about the serious plot of the film. Three women appeared in the film during that time: one to serve tea to her husband, another to provide a laptop to her boss, and the third to have sex with someone.

Monday, 10 November 2014

A Plea to US Studios: Start making good movies again

Apparently people have been staying away from movie theatres in the US. Some blame the world cup. I blame crap films.

This was brought home to me watching Transcendence at the weekend, an ill judged last minute hire from the DVD rack at the library. A big budget, all star cast, sci fi theme and absolutely the dullest, most tedious film I have had the misfortune to sit through in a long time. It is as though US studios, so caught up in the machinery of big budget productions, have forgotten what makes a good movie. Characters we care about. Emotion. Not scientific guffery and an endless stream of special effects and ideas pinched from half a dozen other movies and strung together in the backs of big star names. These are films born in the boardroom, where creativity is reduced to the bottom line and the economic orthodoxy of modern studio film production, ie the more blockbuster the better. These are films made by men in suits.

US studios have strangled the life out of what was once the finest film industry in the world and turned it into an empty vessel of noise and spectacle. Those that like that kind of thing probably prefer to play Call of Duty anyway. Those that don't now watch HBO.

So a plea to all the big US studios: Enough with the overblown tech films, the endless superhero franchises. Please go back to making movies that tell stories about characters we care about.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Where are the African stories?

The wonderful Steve McQueen (a magnificent directors whose films I will go see whatever the subject because he always has a compelling story to tell) became the first black man to win an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, the first film, I read somewhere, to be told from the viewpoint of slaves. Surely not, I thought spluttering on my corn flakes, thinking back to Alex Hayley's Roots (a miniseries, not a film) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (about former slaves). The point is that this massive human story fracturing American history has had such high profile on the big screen in some ways --Amistad, Django Unchained-- and yet 12 Years is the first feature film to tell the story from the point of view of those who actually lived through it?

In a word: shocking.

But not entirely surprising. Hearing this made me think of one of my all time favourite books, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Apart from the fact that it does that magical thing that great books do (tells a complex, multi-layered story using a simple, straightforward narrative) it was also the first book to pose The Great Question in fiction, history and all storytelling: who is telling the story.

The book is written from the point of view of Okonkwo, the last of the great Nigerian tribal men on the eve of colonisation. Until the very last chapter. Suddenly the point of view changes and we hear the story being told with the voice of a newly arrived colonial administrator. The method is startling and effective: the story of Africa as told by Africans is over: From here on in, it is the white man who will tell the story, who will interpret events and present them to the outside world. It is a brilliant device copied by all devotees of the Bard, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in Half a Yellow Sun. 

In the same way that history is written by the victors, so the telling of stories, and who does the telling, shapes our social narrative. This is a complex, prickly issue with no straightforward answers, which is as it should be (never trust a world made up of straightforward answers, son). Sex, race, class all overlap here. If you want to get right down to it, why should writers and film makers have cornered the market on telling stories in the first place?

But back to African stories: our efforts to have an "Africa Film Season" recently made me realise how hard it is to access movies about African, made by Africans. The fact that I am referring to "Africa" at all is the starting point of the problem: a conceptualised nation forged from a vast continent made up of vastly different countries. I have no doubt there are many talented filmmakers telling their stories --or trying to tell their stories-- across that vast continent. The difficulty for the story nut living in the UK is --where on earth do I find them?

Recent efforts find some African cinema on Love Film threw up the usual South African offerings, ie the Gods Must Be Crazy and District 9. Sigh.

The situation is not much better with books. The profile of African writers in the west remains inexplicably low. At the Bath Lit Festival this year,  I went along to Around the World in 10 Books, celebrating books in translation. One African novel was chosen, a South African book. By an Afrikaans writer....

But help is at hand: I recently discovered Mubi, an online site fat with world film recommendations I have never heard of. Now all I need is that superfast broadband:

And finally, no post about African storytelling would be complete without reference to that fabulous essay by Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa:

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Gary Shteyngart: Little Failure, Big Success

Saw Gary Shteyngart at the Bath Literature Festival yesterday. I've never read any of his work, but an excerpt I read in the Guardian of his new book, Little Failure, was instantly enthralling, so I snapped up a ticket when I heard he was coming. And I wasn't disappointed.

Shteyngart works in a genre, if you can call it that, that I love: Diaspora Fiction (or immigrant fiction). First or second generation writers talking about the immigrant experience, with a foot in two worlds and two cultures and all the conflict that goes with it. The Americans seem to do it particularly well, writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, who bring a freshness and vibrancy to their work that makes the writing of all those white, male New England scribes seem a little insular.

It's personal of course. My parents were immigrants, as were the parents of virtually everyone I knew growing up in Canada. Our street was like a map of post WWII Eastern European refugees: Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavians, Czechs, and we all lived in two worlds. The Canadian world outside --safe, colourless, without history-- and the world of our homes where we each had our own traditions, foods, culture, history and ugly wartime traumas and secrets that no one wanted to talk about.

Little Failure tells Shteyngart's story: immigrating from Russia, aged 9, his desperation to be accepted in Ronald Reagan's America, dealing with the crushing weight of immigrant parental expectation, his parent's difficult marriage, his desire to be a writer.

I absolutely love the cover of this book! And in what might be a first, Shteyngart has produced a trailer for his novel, staring the likes of James Franco (a former student) and Jonathan Franzen. Now, that is marketing.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Wadjda: a story for our times

Wadjda has been getting rave reviews since it was released in 2012. It is the first feature filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is banned) and the first written and directed by female Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour.

In the way of great films, it shines light on a complex, difficult issue with a simple, yet clever allegorical storyline about a 10 year old girl who wants a bike --forbidden for girls in Saudi.

Wadjda is a heroine and a role model for women: she is cheeky, bold, entrepreneurial, an independent thinker. Most importantly she considers herself an equal to her friend Abdullah whom she can beat when racing --except when he is on his bike. Her response is to get her own bike even though, she is told time and again, girls do not ride bikes. She is not even thwarted by the huge cost, determined to raise the money somehow. When Abdullah offers to give her his bike, she rejects it ("How will I race you then?")

The movie follows Wadjda's efforts to raise money, which she does with a mix of enterprise, extortion and entering the school's Koran reading competition. She is discouraged and laughed at, but is single minded in her determination. It is not the men who are cast as the great oppressors in this: they have so little contact with the world of women that women's concerns are not even on their radar. Instead it is the collusion of women and culture in keeping women passive that Wadjda must battle. Her mother is preoccupied only with holding onto Wadjda's father, who is thinking of getting a second wife. She straightens her hair because he likes it long and silky and smiles with pride when complimented on the tray of food she prepares for his friends. She even refuses the chance of a job at the local hospital that would save her a hated 3 hour commute to work because her husband would be jealous if she were to work with other men.

Her mother's fear and conformity is magnified at school, where the dreaded Ms Hassan scolds girls not to laugh outside as they arrive at school, reminding that "a woman's voice is her nakedness." When playing in the courtyard at break, some girls notice workmen on a distant roof and scurry inside to protect their modesty. Wadjda does not rush in: she continues to play hopscotch, confident that it is her right to do so. At every turn Wadjda challenges and questions.

It is no surprise when, at the end, Wadjda finally gets her bicycle. To see that she has succeeded in her determination. The final scene is of Wadjda and Abdullah racing their bikes, Wadjda pulling ahead and flying at speed in a wonderful image of forward momentum, personal freedom and victory. She rides to the end of a t-junction and stops, looking both ways. The message is clear: where to now, ladies?

A final note: this was the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia, written and directed by female director Haifaa al-Mansour, who had to hide herself when filming on the street. To produce such an excellent, assured film is a rarity anywhere: to have done so under these conditions is astonishing and an inspiration to women everywhere.