Monthly Archives: January 2011

Two Brothers

I saw Two Brothers on the weekend, a lovely story about two tigers whose father gets killed and who are separated shortly after birth in Cambodia. They lead very different lives for about one year until they are reunited by chance and recognise each other. They will go back to the wild and find their mother. This is not a new film; it dates from 2004. What triggered my wanting to see it is that it was partly filmed in Beng Mealea, a temple that I visited a few months ago in Cambodia, a magical place. The movie is cute and the tigers are beautiful. And Guy Pearce, who plays the role of an explorer, is very good as usual. In fact he is one of my favourite actors, and this has nothing to do with the fact that he is Australian. You may recall his stellar performances in Memento, L.A. Confidential or in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He also starred recently in Animal Kingdom, which I highly recommend. Jean-Jacques Annaud directed Two Brothers.


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Miserere by Jean-Christophe Grange

I’ve just finished Miserere, Jean-Christophe Grange‘s latest thriller. I don’t think it’s been translated into English yet (I read it in French) but I am sure it will soon – most of his other thrillers have been translated into many languages. This one’s typical Grange: out there, weird, shocking, but lacking something. The story is about two cops (more exactly one cop and one ex-cop) who, when trying to solve the mystery surrounding a few shocking murders, discover a colony on the French territory, a State within the State where children are tortured to study their voice and screams, with the aim of creating the perfect weapon (Killing with the human voice). The plot isn’t bad, you are dragged into the story and kept wondering where it will lead to. I found, however, that there were too many holes in the story – the ending for example is totally unsatisfying: very easy, not credible and disappointing. But Grange’s tour-de-force in this novel is to create two main characters whom it is very hard to like; these cops have all the problems you could think of, and more; their lives have been destroyed in many ways; they are far from perfect, but without any redeeming features; they are rude, racist, homophobic and pathetic. I’m sorry, I may be old-fashioned but I need some connection with the main characters to enjoy a novel. There is also something that left me wondering in the first part of the book: the protagonists’ homophobia is so strong – the choice of vocabulary for a start – that I couldn’t help wonder if it was theirs of Grange’s. To tell the truth I felt very uneasy about it and it irked me. Last, Grange’s writing lacks subtlety. Two examples: his use of similes is often wrong. I have no doubt that he has learned his lesson well and that he tries to use similes to add colour and texture to his writing, but alas, they often don’t work because he uses them in the wrong context. He sometimes uses positive comparisons in dark contexts and vice-versa.  Were it to create some kind of effect, I would have no problem with it, but I am pretty sure this is not the case here. Some of the similes are even so out of context that they attract attention to themselves and affect the reading. The second big problem with his writing, from my point of view, is the excessive use of short sentences without subject; in fact, these sentences are often just one word. On page 358 for example, he writes (my translation): “Universal Key. Stairs. Safety perimeter.” And a few lines later: “They closed the door. Entered the music chamber. Locked the blinds and turned the lights on.”Once again, this would be good if it were used sparsely, but not on every page. I had read other novels by Grange before, but this one’s put me off for a while.

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The Great Wall of China

I couldn’t go on with my tour of China’s interesting tourist spots without mentioning the Great Wall, of course. Many visitors to Beijing take the opportunity to spend a day visiting this amazing piece of human history. Most people go to the nearest sections of the Wall, which are also the most touristy and crowded: Badaling (70 km North-West of Beijing) and Mutianyu (90 km North-East of Beijing). These two parts of the Wall have been restored. I personally prefer parts of the Wall that are further from Beijing, such as Simatai and Jinshanling; in fact, I highly recommend the 10 km hike on the Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai (or vice versa). This walk is not for the faint-hearted, as you sometimes find yourself perched on steep passages or watchtowers, but the Wall has never been restored and its original appearance of more than 400 years old has been best preserved, so you get a real feeling of what it is like. Simatai is known for its steepness and authenticity; the main attraction points have fabulous names such as Stairway to Heaven, Fairy Tower, and Heaven Bridge. Simatai is divided into two sections (eastern and western) by a reservoir; a suspension bridge connects them and it’s fun to cross it. The views from the top of the Wall are amazing, and you will not meet many people in those sections. Most visitors take about four hours for the hike. At the end, you can simply walk down or take a zip-line, which is fast and a lot of fun (if you trust the material…).

A few facts about the Great Wall of China:

  • stretching approximately 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles) from east to west
  • construction lasted 2,000 years, from the Warring States Period (476 BC – 221 BC) to Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) 
  • some of the sections are now in ruins or have disappeared; in some places you will see sheep and cattle grazing on the Wall
  • the sections we see today were mostly built during the Ming Dynasty
  • listed as World Heritage by UNESCO in 1987

I have so many photos of the Wall that it made it hard to choose which ones to post. Here are a few.

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Shanghai (the film)

In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, four months before Pearl Harbor, an American spy (John Cusak) returns to the city to find one of his good friends murdered. While trying to solve the mystery of his friend’s death, he falls in love with a powerful Chinese woman and discovers secrets hidden by the US Government. This story is not particularly exciting, but I found the actors pretty good, especially Li Gong and Yun-Fat Chow. I was also interested in the depiction of life in Shanghai in the forties, when it was still an international settlement with a fascinating mixture of Chinese, Japanese, British, Americans, French and Germans. While the film does not quite achieve its goal of giving a real impression of life in Shanghai at the time, there are beautiful impressions of the Bund and of other landmark buildings. It’s all a bit black and white at times, but quite entertaining (if you manage to push aside the killings and the war, that is).


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E-books for free until 6 February!

The following three e-books are offered for free on Smashwords until 6 February 2011! You just need to enter the following coupon codes on the purchase page, and you will be able to download the books for free (in various formats). Hurry-up though, they are only available until 6 February. If you like them, don’t hesitate to post feedback on Amazon!

The Wings of Leo Spencer - Coupon code: DN99J

Body Swap – Coupon code: HJ39W

My Sister’s Choice – Coupon code: WN47G

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A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

I enjoyed reading “A Spot of Bother” by Mark Haddon, the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time“. It is the story of a family getting ready for a wedding, but nothing goes as planned of course. George, the father, discovers a lesion on his hip and thinks the worst, starting to slowly lose his mind. His wife Jean is having an affair with an ex-colleague of his. His gay son Jamie is having relationship issues of his own; and his daughter Katie is having second thoughts about getting married… I won’t say more as I don’t want to spoil the book. Each character is well crafted and contributes to a funny, fast-paced story where something happens in every chapter. Haddon is a master of voices. He did it in “The Curious Incident…” and he’s doing it again in this one. Haddon has managed to capture George’s voice particularly well as he is sinking into depression and madness. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the main characters, and this is highly entertaining. This is an easy read, but probably not one that will stay with you forever: the messages may be important, but they are not unusual. At times the story feels even a little forced, almost turning into slap-stick comedy. But despite its flaws, I found it a good read, and you may agree with me as long as you don’t come to it expecting another tour-de-force like “The Curious Incident…”.

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Her Name was Sarah (Sarah’s Key)

I don’t know what Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel “Sarah’s Key” is like, but I found the movie based on it, “Her name was Sarah”, outstanding. This 2010 film was directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and stars Kristin Scott Thomas, one of my favourite actresses. Scott Thomas is just perfect as Julia Jarmond, a journalist who is in charge of writing a story about Sarah, a ten year-old girl arrested with her family by the French police in Paris in July 1942, along many other Jewish people. Sarah locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment to make sure he does not get arrested and makes him promise to remain quiet until she comes back for him a few hours later. Unfortunately, she will be made prisoner in a camp outside Paris, waiting to be deported to a concentration camp in Germany or Poland. Jarmond will do everything she can to uncover the truth about what really happened to Sarah and her family, and this will drag her much further than she could ever have imagined when she started writing her article. This is a terrible story, but unfortunately the story of millions of Jews during the second World War. The film touches on the responsibility of the French in the event, it touches on what happened to some of the prisoners, on what happened to their houses, on what happened to their families… It is impossible not to feel for Sarah and her terrible fate – many people in the audience had tears in their eyes – but it is not another holocaust story. It is about Sarah, her life and her death – and what it means to be human. I loved it. Scott Thomas is bilingual, and she was perfect for the role. I’m going to watch it again.

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The tree

The Tree is a Franco-Australian film based on the novel by Judy Pascoe, “Our Father Who Art in a Tree“. It is the story of a family who lives happily in a beautiful Queenslander (those houses built on stilts that can be found throughout Queensland), under a gigantic Moreton Bay Fig Tree (at least from what I can tell). But disaster strikes and the O’Neill head of family dies of a heart attack while driving his ute, which collides head-on with the tree. Dawn remains alone with their four children, including eight-year-old Simone who was very close to her dad and believes he has reincarnated in the tree.  The tree becomes an obsession for Simone and a fight, but it will eventually bring the family together. The Tree is mostly about the grieving process that Simone and each member of the family goes through, but it is also a story of hope, of love, and of struggle. There are beautiful pictures of the Australian countryside in the film, the story is well constructed, and the characters are all credible. Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of the infamous French singer Serge Gainsbourg and of English singer Jane Birkin, both well-known in France (Gainsbourg, who died quite a few years ago, was a sex symbol for many French women, which, for me, remains one of life’s biggest mysteries.) I don’t particularly like Charlotte Gainsbourg – She seems to have inherited her father’s bad looks and her mother’s stupid airs – but I found her really good in this film. In fact, I think she is the one who makes it come together. Her accent is not Australian, of course, so she has been given a French background (it works). There is something poetic about this film; it has beauty, it has depth; and it goes (too) quickly. My only negative comment is about a piece of dialogue that takes place between Simone and her best friend: although Simone is only eight years old, she speaks as a grown-up person, which I found particularly annoying. But if The Tree is shown at a cinema near you, don’t hesitate to go see it. It’s definitely worth it. 

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Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Murakami‘s writing is beautiful. It is extremely evocative, subtle, yet powerful. Each scene draws you into a life of its own; you can smell it, feel it, hear it and see it, a feast for all senses. Yet Murakami’s writing never draws attention to itself, and that’s what I like about it. With Norwegian Wood he has created a story which will stay in the reader’s mind for a long time. This novel is a coming of age story interwoven with a stunning love story, but it’s also about grieving, life in Japan and a lot more. Toru Watanabe is learning to deal with the suicide of his best friend, aged seventeen, while falling in love with his ex-girlfriend, Naoko. Unfortunately Naoko is dealing with her own demons and has a nervous breakdown, from which she will never recover. But Toru’s love is not diminished by this, if not strengthened. During his search for identity, meaning of life, love, pleasure, and sex, Toru encounters a variety of fascinating characters, from Storm-Trooper, his quirky room-mate, to Reiko, Naoko’s patient friend in the asylum, and Midori, another student, the only one with a real anchor in the world. Murakami is a magician: the characters he creates are more real than normal novel protagonists, they are all quirky in their own way, all searching for something, all passionate, and all in desperate need of love. This novel moved me. I read it in one sitting. Very few writers are capable of creating atmospheres the way Murakami creates them. In fact, he is an artist, and I feel his writing is like Japanese sumie (black and white ink painting): with just a few simple strokes, a stunning picture appears in front of your eyes. Not too much, not too little, with enough room for imagination, this is what Murakami’s writing is like. I did get annoyed at times with Toru’s character, too passive for my liking, but this has to do more with my own character than with the book. After reading this novel, you will feel different, I can almost guarantee it. And this is what good writing should be all about, shouldn’t it? Ten stars.

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Xiamen and the Hakka tulous

Xiamen is another one of my favourite places in China. Xiamen is a coastal city of around 2.5 million people, located in the Fujian Province, South-East China. It lies just across from Taiwan. It is a city with a pleasant climate, nice beaches and quite a few things to see. A good part of the city is on Xiamen Island, the rest being on the mainland. Of interest is the smaller island of Gulangyu, car-free and home to around 20,000 people. Gulangyu was officially designated an International Settlement in 1903, and many countries built houses, consulates, hospitals and churches there. As a consequence, the architecture on the island is of Victorian-era style. Unfortunately many residences are derelict today, even if a large number of them are currently being rebuilt. Gulangyu is not only famous for its architecture, but also for its music, as many famous Chinese musicians are supposed to come from there. The island hosts China’s only piano museum (200 pianos, from all shapes and eras); it also has an organ museum, many gardens and the Xiamen museum, formerly known as the Eight Diagrams Tower. I highly recommending strolling through the streets of Gulangyu, which can only be reached from Xiamen by ferry.

About two hours from Xiamen, in Fujian Province, can be found the fascinating Hakka tulous, or “earth buildings”, built between the 12th and the 20th centuries. Tulous are communal dwellings, usually rectangular or circular in shape, enclosed and fortified to defend their inhabitants from potential enemies. They are between three and five-story high and can house up to 80 families! Inside the building can be found communal kitchens, wells, storehouses, living and play spaces. Each family has their own quarters. A tulou is actually almost like a small city in itself. The structure is made of earth, mixed with stone, bamboo, wood and other materials. At the very top there are small windows for defensive purposes. Clusters of tulous can sometimes be found. Some of them are open to visitors. They give an insight of what life in China was in the recent past… and still is today for some.

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