Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Readings: The Labyrinth of the Spirits

For those familiar with the author's The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, this installment will come as a long-awaited prize. And that's why it's a tad difficult to even review it objectively. I suspect there are those who love the series almost unconditionally (myself counted among that number) and will brook no criticism. Suffice to say that this one has the all the familiar elements: intricate plotting, memorable dialog, doomed and complex characters, and that overall sense of the poetically macabre, that creeping chill even while being swept along in the dense and evocative prose. 

Here we meet a new character, one Senorita Alica Gris. Carrying childhood scars from the terrible Civil War in 1930s Barcelona, Gris has the cunning of a street urchin but also a touch of the damned, the devilish, about her. She's fully aware of her dark magnetism and wields it like a scythe on unsuspecting and instantly-infatuated victims. On top of which she works for a shadowy branch of the Madrid Secret Police and her job profile is equally, indeed suitably, vampirish. 

At the center of the plot is Alicia's last assignment: to locate the missing Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has disappeared from his mansion. But wait, someone doesn't actually want him found...

Page after page has flown by, the clock has gone past midnight when you realize that 800 pages is not that long after all. Gris and her new partner, officer Vargas, are digging around and soon are back in Barcelona. Ah, there's the Sempere clan in their bookshop; and as for the inimitable Fermin, well, he pretty much started off the proceedings with a suitable amount of skulduggery, so all is well. Then with usual suspects David Martin and Julian Carax appearing as slim vignettes, the connection to the rest of the series is established. (How wonderful it is that each of these four books can be read as a standalone, and in any order. Of course I am fortunate that I started with the first.)

What is there to even say? This time I had a deeper appreciation of Barcelona itself as a character. The tight alleys and brooding architectural style of this fascinating city do lend themselves to the sense of foreboding and murky backstories that emerge from the mist. Especially poignant are real photographs from the 1930s and '50s; having visited both Madrid and Barcelona now, all this was superbly satisfying. The author draws Barcelona in particular with such authority and intimacy that it's obvious he is an insider. In the same way, he is merciless about the Spanish national character in general. (He lives in LA though, perhaps I should stalk him? Hehe.)

The only part I didn't like was the end. Little Julian's story seemed unnecessary, and then began to strike me as self-indulgent. Oh well. Never mind. The previous 700 pages or so had me so grateful to be in the hands of this unabashedly and lavishly talented writer that I am prepared to forgive. 

Now perhaps I should attempt to get my hands on all four of the series, but in Spanish. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Filmi Friday: Highway

Buoyed by my recent success picking Hindi movies, I'd earmarked this and the promising Madras Cafe to watch on Netflix. To my joy, there was little cause to use the fast-forward button except once. 

The eponymous open roads of north India are the setting for this Stockholm Syndrome-ish story. Veera, a super-rich bride-to-be in Delhi, is somewhat randomly kidnapped on the eve of her wedding. Randomly how? Because her kidnappers literally run into her while holding up someone at a late-night gas station, and make off with her. Having done that and ascertained her identity as the daughter of a Very Big Fish indeed (her dad has a Rolls Royce), it then seems that the goons have very little idea of what to do with her. There is some discussion of a ransom, some half-baked plan of selling her to a brothel; meanwhile they must keep moving because one of their own has ratted them out to the cops. Hence, they get on the highway. 

Now here is where a transformation occurs in their captive. The childish, goofy Veera we saw in the opening scene returns, having spent her escape option because they are at the edge of the vast salt flats of Rajasthan and she has no chance of survival. This is one of the great visuals of the film: Veera running desperately under the immense starry sky, the nothingness of the white salt all around her stretching to infinity. Something comes un-moored in her after this experience, almost like all her fear of the filthy, hard-talking kidnappers has been shaken out and replaced with a wide-eyed wonder that for the first time she is alone. That too, in the midst of strangers. Then there's the open road. The spoiled child has never experienced such freedom; improbably, she develops a scratchy chumminess with her captors and appears to savor little moments each day. (The scene where she watches a folk-singing concert from the back of the truck was lovely.)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Salt Fat Acid Heat

For a self-confessed non-foodie, I do like watching food on television. Having said that, it is getting harder to find shows which can retain my attention...the last such was the unexpected Hairy Bikers Asian Adventure where the main hook was, duh, Asian food. (Still, the bikers themselves were a hoot, I would watch them in something else.)

And now here's someone worthy again. Samin Nosrat has the kind of un-polish that I was immediately drawn to. She talks about food with the emotion of a true worshiper. Laughs often, like a child. In fact the whole persona is what holds the show together- and the show itself has a unique angle behind its conception, a hard and rare feat in today's too-clever market for food television. 

I can sense that the eponymous cookbook she's written will be more educational. Here, the medium of Netflix being what it is, the focus is on the earthy beauty of pure ingredients, the true sweat and art of ancient techniques. (Soy sauce can take up to two years to perfect. What have we been using all these years?) The Italy episode had the kind of depth that one rarely sees lavished on olive oil, cheese, meat. The Japan one had me sighing in appreciation at the sight of those wooden barrels they use for soy sauce making...there's only one man who even does it the old way anymore, and only one company that even makes the barrels.

For the next two weeks at least, we have this to look forward to, where Samin goes to Mexico and then returns to California. I do wish she makes more television, even if I am inspired to buy her actual cookbook. I need more people to admire. And I am happy admiring someone who has no cleverness or grand marketing hook. Just a clean devotion to food and a talent for spreading the message on the importance and nuance of the four eponymous ingredients. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Foreign movie Friday: Mia Madre

Make no mistake, this movie will leave you yearning to be young again.  Yearning for a time, specifically, when life was not all about prematurely-felt grief and dread at inevitable losses. Or such a deep sense of jadedness that it permeates your very bones, leading you to start weeping while doing something as mundane as searching for receipts in a drawer. 

And yet something tugs at you, makes you stay on the couch, watch it through. 

Margherita, successful Italian movie director, is at work on her latest opus which happens to hit close to home, focusing as it does on the economic suffering of that country: the loss of jobs, the selling out to American investors. Her main star, an insufferable Yank named Barry Huggins, is driving her and her crew slowly mad. Her daughter, Livia, is a teenager who appears loving but won't share her inner life with her mother. 

And finally at the heart of the story is Margherita's mother. A former Latin teacher, she is on the fringes of a certain demise, forced into hospital stays where she is sweetly curmudgeonly and banters impishly with her children Margherita and Giovanni. What tenderness! The brother, Giovanni, seems the sole stable presence in Margherita's life; indeed I was almost envious of the calm, close relationship between the two siblings. 

The film is carried largely, I felt, in Margherita's extraordinary eyes: large, the color of a deep lake, and holding emotion that sent a tear or two rolling down my own cheek. Then John Turturro as Huggins the horrible movie star is pitch-perfect. One can go down the cast name by name from here: each has a luminous contribution to the telling of this sad, piercingly 'everyday' story. 

Perhaps this would have been better watched at a time of less intense emotional pain. But then would it have felt as impactful? Now I will never know. But Mia Madre is too gentle to make one regret watching it. Indeed, it will hold your hand and lead you, piece by careful piece, to the inevitable but impossible end.

Director: Nanni Moretti
Overall rating: 7.5/10

Friday, September 28, 2018

French movie Friday: Les Grands Esprits

In high school I had a biology teacher named Mr. Wilson. Not that he particularly reminded me of the main character in the marvelous Les Grands Esprits; it was simply a reminder that good teachers have incredible power. So do bad ones, but happily we don't have to bother with that here.

Francois is a teacher at a prestige high school in Paris, pushing his privileged students with critique that is often savage. Then thanks to being dazzled by a stunning new acquaintance, he finds himself moving to the suburbs, having accepted a position to teach at one of their low-performance schools. Eh? How did this happen? There is literally no explanation save to say that Francois- middle-aged, single, bookish- has no chance against a goddess like Agathe.

So there he lands. This new bunch of teenagers is a handful. Among them is a particularly impish but somewhat troubled brat named Seydou, and it is with him that Francois slowly begins to build a rapport. 

Here is the flip side of the posh milieu that Francois is used to. Indeed even in his personal life his background is highbrow. His father is an award-winning writer, his sister is a world-renowned artist. That's of little import in his new surroundings: he needs his wits about him or he will be savaged by the mob. 

I was so rapt in the story that I was mildly surprised when it ended. What a polished piece of film-making this is! If it can enthrall a sleep-deprived, depressed and cranky customer like me, it deserves its plaudits. And yet I find the film is not well-known. Hmph. Never mind. Maybe I'll re-watch it someday and make up the numbers that way. 

Director: Olivier Ayache-Vidal
Overall rating: 8/10

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

And away we go

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Taipei
What is it about the Far East that's so enticing? 

Perhaps it's the architecture; those upturned ends and bright blues and reds seem so optimistic.  Then there's a refreshing lack of aggressiveness. (One realizes this much more strongly upon exiting the U.S.) Not to mention all the noodles! Also, there's an abundance of strangeness: There were places we could read literally nothing. And of course this leads to that pleasant feeling of foreignness, for which there is no word. A sensation of being an alien, but having the time of one's life. A uniquely modern thrill, that. 

But what's all this about the Far East. Have I not been making googly eyes at South America for some years now? I am hatching plans for Cuba also. No, first we have to go to that certain country in southern Africa. Sigh. We're hopeless, but at least last week was rather fruitful. 

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Watched: The Bookshop

Let me say this right at the outset: this is a movie for introverts. It has clearly been made by one, and the fact is that I loved it. The slow pace and leisurely landscape shots that others found so maddening are what captured me in the first place. 

Our heroine, the long-widowed and quietly adventuresome Florence Green, arrives in a small English fishing village with the intent of opening a bookshop. It's 1959. Everyone knows everyone here, the social structures set in that peculiar English way where breathtaking savagery is perpetrated with correctness and studious politeness. So it is that Florence is met with immediate resistance by the local queen bee, one Mrs. Gamart. This formidable lady- enormously wealthy, influential, and impeccably coiffed and lacquered at all times, desires the Old House that Florence has earmarked to be converted to an 'arts center.' 

And that is all the plot there is. Yet somehow, I found myself captivated. Partly because of the lack of glitz or hi-tech anywhere in sight. No cleverness, not even any particular message. Just a small story of an outsider in an insulated, hierarchical and ancient society; an ordinary woman trying to realize a dream; people's weakness, their motivations, their tenderness and courage. The English landscape is captured in all its moodiness here, the seaside winds whipping fields of grass and the blooming purple flowers (larkspur?) at the old Holt House lovely in their melancholy. 

Ultimately, the film manages to transport you deep into its world. All sorts of characters walk in and out. There is a formidable foe to deal with. Many cups of tea are drunk. An unlikely ally emerges, there's even a tender moment of almost-romance that vanishes as soon as it's about to happen. In the end, heartbreak, tempered by a look into a hopeful future. 

Yet, the film will be dismissed by many because of its lack of dazzle. Slow pace, long conversations. I suppose it all comes down to how you like your movies. If like me, one prefers them small and intimate, it's a gem. If not, it's too dull for your appreciation, and you will want to throw one of Florence's books at her. I wanted to be Florence, and The Bookshop is one of my favorites of this year. 
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