Sunday, May 6, 2018

Book Review: The Railway Man by Eric Lomax


As a book recommended by some publication (don't remember which one) that covered something to the effect of "books about WWII that you should read" or similar this work should have been better.

Not that it isn't interesting or contain a remarkable series of events...its just not that compelling a read.

By that I mean the author does not have his own voice.  Anyone subjected to the awful series of events he was--captured by the Japanese, put to work near (not on) the Burma-Siam railway (of Bridge on the River Kwai infamy), tortured by the Japanese secret police, imprisoned in some of the worst hell holes of POW note, and years later reconnecting with one of his interrogators (not torturors as the book often erroneously states and is put forth to be as this interrogator was just that...an inquisitor and translator, never putting a hand on the author)--could have retold this work.  Again, not that it isn't a remarkable retelling, but its simply that, not a "work".

Little analysis nor much "art" here.  Placing a tape recorder in front of the author and having him simply give his biography would largely result in the same.  Further, his interest in railways and trains as a youth and then his tangential "work" on the Burma-Siam railway does not come off as an effective thread by which the work can be connected from beginning to end.  It comes off forced and not valuable to the tale...distracting more than anything.

None of this is to take away from Eric Lomax's internal fortitude in the face of awful conditions, brutal torture, absence of hope, etc.  He deserves all the credit he received for having the courage to persevere as well as to forgive his former captor.  His retelling of these events just does not amount to an engaging read or shed light on heretofore unknown events.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Annihilation: Film Review



Alex Garland continues to be one to the more interesting directors out there.  The fact that he seems to focus on the sci-fi genre makes it all the better for me.  While only his third directing position after Dredd, and Ex Machina, his screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and The Beach were also worthy mentions to his resume.

Annihilation is likely the most difficult of these to get through.  At points quiet and deliberately paced, it won't find interest among Snapchat aficionados.  This was recognized by Paramount and producer David Ellison who both wanted to change significant portions of the film in order to market it better to gain more commercial success.  Luckily Garland got his way and the film remained unaltered.  This has doomed the film to financial losses however as it appears to be headed for replacement in theaters in short order.  In fact, in markets other than the US, the film is headed straight for Netflix.

So what are most modern viewers missing?  A creepy, bloody, sometimes violent two hours of relatively unexplained weirdness.  Diverging heavily from the Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy, the film contains a complete beginning, middle and end and leaves nothing hanging for sequels.  In fact, beyond just a very basic scaffolding, the film contains little plot or events that are recognizable to the reader.  Ignore any mention of white-washing in the film...I've read the novels and attributing Asian or any other racial identities to the characters is virtually nonexistent and the fact that Garland used Portman as the lead shouldn't bother anyone except the SJW class of dimwits.

In the end our own film experiences are often derived from the histories we bring with ourselves to the theater.  For me, it boils down to a parable about a couple's attempt at recovery from infidelity seen through the prism of a sci-fi quest to discern the reasons behind an alien "shimmer" that spreads from a single point and mutates all it touches.  What comes out the other side are a husband and a wife completely different, down to their very genetic material than what they were before--the film seeming to say that through the prism of infidelity, all that you thought, were and did in the past is to meet a state of tabula rasa in order to function on the other side.

Along the way people are turned to plants, men are cut open and seen to contain giant worms on their insides, albino alligator-shark hybrids hunt the all female scientific team, a bear-something creature howls in a human voice before tearing apart one team member who has gone insane, and a near mirror finish alien-humanoid performs a mimicry dance in imitating Portman's every gesture.

I have a few quibbles...Like if the military was sending in a team to explore this anomaly, could they possibly have equipped this team worse?  No helmets?  No body armor?  And their overall gear looks more like they are out for a girl scout camping trip than a serious expedition.  Additionally...there isn't a single one of the female characters who looks comfortable with a gun...they all look like their skin might be allergic to the feel of metal on their skin and are stiff in their mannerisms in holding the weapons...someone needs some better training to at least LOOK like they know what they are doing...

I enjoyed it far better than the books from which the film came from as it does contain a resolution of its original questions and Garland's artistic voice is stronger and clearer than VanderMeer's who created an thrilling but ultimately empty world.  It took Garland to fill it with a reason to be.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders


I can't help but feeling this collection comes off better in short doses...as in the magazines it was originally printed in--The New Yorker and Harper's primarily.  I can easily see reading these in a magazine during a transitory visit to an airport or in a 20 minute trip to a library.  A sort of brief distraction if you will, that makes you pause ever so briefly to wonder if your own existence aligns with those of his characters but ultimately concluding that while I agree with his view of the modern world, his characters are not those with whom I can find enough of myself in, nor are significantly attached to in the time I spend with them to care about their plights.

While I enjoyed the stories, all of which are modern in topic and some of which border on science fiction, I found none of them particularly resonant with the exception of the titular work in which a disaffected young boy saves the life of a suicidal older man and vice versa.  Never did I imagine myself buying a dog from a meth-head trailer trash family or a lower-middle class father trying to keep up with the Jonses by hanging poor immigrants from my trees as a decoration.

The rest of the collection touches on returning soldiers, manipulation of mental states, modern suburbia, etc. which are all typically in my wheelhouse for interest...I just never found an emotional connection to any of the characters outside of the aforementioned two.

Saunders is by all accounts an awarded novelist and short story writer so maybe it was I who didn't bring something to the table that would allow the connection with his works, but for whatever reason, it wasn't there beyond the time it takes to consume the media.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Book Review--Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews


Quite the bummer this one...

Covered with praise from numerous publications (USA Today, Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, NYT, etc.) and coming from someone within the US Intelligence community (Matthews has years of experience working in the clandestine service of the CIA) I had high hopes.

I should have realized that given Matthews was given a 7 figure advance on the book and its two sequels before a word was put down and a movie deal signed shortly thereafter for Jennifer Lawrence to star in a film trilogy based on these books that this was no serious effort but instead a pre-packaged media driven vehicle to create a new "Hunger Games" (same director even) or "Twilight" series with only pretensions of seriousness.

 Further hints of the lack of real work here comes up early on when the female protagonist, written purposefully for Jennifer Lawerence to play, is detailed to have a heretofore unknown version of synesthesia that gives her the superpower like ability to determine the character and truthfulness of another person via the colors she sees surrounding them like an aura.  Over and over and over "this person is surrounded in yellow...this one is colored in blue...this one in red..."  blah, blah, blah.  Profoundly tiring and hackneyed one comes to view the female character as one of little real talent or intelligence but merely imbued with genetic abnormality that makes her good at her particular job.

And what is her job?  Well, to even sell the film series more...she's a "Sparrow" a Russian agent trained to seduce foreign individuals with their physical wares...Insert eyeroll here...This serves only for the author to engage in his puerile sexual fixations and set up Jennifer Lawrence to parade around on film in skimpy outfits.

For those hoping to hear of true tradecraft I suppose there are nuggets here and there--the Russians using a "dust" of a kind that can then be scanned for on the personages of their own people to see if they have been in contact with other spies, etc....but mostly?  Its stuff like "He left his hotel...he didn't want to be followed....so he walked around in a random pattern for hours looking for followers..."  Great...real groundbreaking stuff.

If you want to read a trashy novel to prepare yourself to watch a trashy movie and think that you are being progressive because Putin makes multiple appearances in the novel as the ultimate bad guy string puller...this is all you...Roundfile this otherwise...