Book Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)

This beautifully crafted children’s book tells the tale of Hugo Cabret, a young boy in 1937 living inside a train station in Paris ever since his father died. He keeps the clocks running. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he is working on putting back together an automaton, a little mechanical man sitting at a writing desk. Hugo feels that if he can just fix the device, that the little man wants to write a message just for him.

Meanwhile, he gets tangled up with a grumpy man and his daughter, who works at a toy shop near the railway station. Finally, there is a thread of the cinema that Hugo loves so much. We know that somehow all of this is connected, but how?

To say any more would spoil the fun, but this is a really nicely done story. What makes it so outstanding, however, is that the book is a cross between picture book and novel (thus why it looks formidably thick on the bookshelf but is actually a really easy read). Sometimes the pictures take over and we have page over page of illustrations carrying the story forward – then other times there are texts. It’s a bit strange to start with, but once you get used to the style, it’s quite charming.

I can understand why Martin Scorsese has decided to make this his first children’s film (and his first 3D film).

A great read, and proof that e-books won’t be able to replace books straight away, if they keep making attractive illustrated volumes like this.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Babel

The title of this film is taken from the story of the Tower of Babel, where the languages of the world were first confused. And so we end up with a sprawling movie, moving from Morocco to Mexico to Japan, giving us examples of misunderstandings, miscommunications and racial prejudices that build up into a deeply sad picture of how little we really understand each other.

In the Moroccan story, two young boys are guarding sheep; their father has entrusted them with a new rifle to kill jackals. While foolishly trying out the rifle, they decide to take a potshot at a tourist bus to see whether the gun can reach as far as it was said it could reach. In so doing, they shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) travelling with her husband (Brad Pitt) and the event is immediately perceived as an act of terrorism. In the meantime, just watching Pitt’s meltdown as he tries to help his wife in a strange, alien culture he knows nothing about just drives home the huge differences between cultures – we’re all human beings on one level; but we’re so different on others.

Meanwhile, back home in the US, the children of the tourists are being looked after by their Mexican housekeeper/babysitter. Unable to find someone else to look after the children on the day of her son’s wedding, she decides to take them with her across the border to the wedding. While the initial feel of it all is very celebratory, I had a bad feeling about it and sure enough, everything goes spectacularly wrong.

Finally, the third strand (which appears to be unrelated for a good hour at least but finally gets tied back in) talks about a deaf/mute girl in Tokyo. While she doesn’t have a cultural difference to the world around her, her disability causes her to be an isolated person in the midst of a bustling city and we see her loneliness and its consequences.

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a master storyteller, and I’m guessing, as a Mexican, he would understand firsthand the sort of cultural gaps that exist in the world.

Not an easy film to watch, but never dull.

4 ½ out of 5

 

Book Review: The Church of Irresistible Influence (Robert Lewis, Rob Wilkins)

One of the most inspiring books that I read last year. In a day and age where the church is increasingly getting a bad name, this tells the tale of a church has become beloved by its local community. Fellowship Bible Church in Arkansas, hit a crisis in the 90s. They had around 2,500 members, but they were feeling dissatisfied.

Everyone loved being there, but they felt as if they were really just talking amongst themselves. Finally, after a church retreat, they decided to take seriously Jesus’ call to “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Nowadays, the church is largely known in the wider world for disagreeing with things. Otherwise, I’m not sure that people know a lot about what goes on. So I was really inspired to read about a church that decided to become known for its love for the community first and foremost.

So Fellowship proceeded to restructure its entire church so that it is built around groups offering various services to the community. (Anything from working in schools in rough areas to helping the poor. You name it.) The book is not a narrative as such – it’s actually a non-fiction book to guide other churches through the same thinking – but the results speak for themselves.

Now Fellowship and the other churches that partner with it in Arkansas are known and as well as their regular services, every year, they will mobilise large scale operations to help their community. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if 300 Christians decided to spend a weekend fixing up the most falling-apart school in your city, for free? That’s just one of the things that happened as a result of this church’s change in focus.

For those that are theologically worried that the church got too caught up in social work and lost sight of the Gospel, the book deals with that too. It’s a nice companion piece to The Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller, which I reviewed recently.

5 out of 5.

 

DVD Review: Generation Kill

This TV series by the writers of The Wire takes their same ambivalent approach to cop/gangster life and then transplants it to the heart of the Iraq invasion by US troops in 2004.

This 7-part miniseries follows a bunch of potty-mouthed reconnaissance marines who are given the task of advancing into Iraq. Being reconnaissance, they’re not really equipped for combat, but order are orders, and soon these bunch of guys in their small vehicles with guns on top make their way into the heart of Saddam Hussein’s territory.

This is one of the most difficult-to-categories series I’ve ever seen. While it obviously falls under the broad genre “War”, that is not sufficient enough to describe it. Because most war films that you see have a certain angle that they take. Some take the action angle – all guns and explosions. Others are about heroism – men being brave under extraordinary circumstances, being leaders and rising to the occasion (complete with lots of trumpet fanfares). Others are anti-war films, showing the horrors of war, the madness of it all.

Generation Kill is all of these at once – thus leading to the conclusion. It’s striving (and it succeeds) in being a real picture of real soldiers – in fact, every character in the story is a real Marine in real life. (With a couple even playing themselves.) So if you want to find heroic characters, there are a couple in there. If you’ve always suspected that American soldiers are gun-toting hicks who just want to kill people – well, there are a couple of them in there as well.

What makes the series work (and also makes it so complicated to follow) is simply that the show’s creator David Simon simply refuses to let us have a break from real life. He refuses to simplify down the material to give us an easy-to-digest theme.

This is real life – it’s messy, conflicting, disorganised – and there it is on the screen. It’s not necessarily the approach you’d want to every war film, but it works well for this one.

Note to easily-offended viewers: American soldiers spend most of their time between and during combat swearing and telling dirty jokes. You have been warned.

4 out of 5.

 

Book Review: Tokyo (Mo Hayder)

Mo Hayder is an English (female) thriller writer, who would have to be one of the strongest writers out there working in the thriller field. Her stories contain enough darkness to warrant the horror label, but they are written as thrillers – so would reach a wider audience. (Think Silence of the Lambs and you know what I mean.)

I’m not sure how she does it, but I find myself torn in two directions when reading any of her work. Her characterisations and narrative skill are so strong that I’m instantly sucked into the plot and get carried all the way through like a conveyor belt – and yet the places that such stories take me are so terrifying that by the end of the book, I can’t bear the thought of reading another one of her books.

It’s not just me. I lent this book to a friend of mine at work who is also into horror and is comment afterwards was, “I think I’ll go read some children’s books for the next two weeks.”

However, despite the fact it took me two hours to physically get my breathing back to normal after finishing it, I believe Tokyo is the best novel I’ve read all year so far – and is likely to be the best one all year as well. Hayder herself describes the story as a psychological thriller that combines Silence of the Lambs with Empire of the Sun with Lost in Translation. That probably sums it up.

A mysterious young woman named Grey (we’re never told whether this is her first name, last name, or not really her name at all) arrives in Tokyo with barely any money to spare. For some reason which we are not initially told about, she is obsessed with the Nanking massacre of 1937 – a true life event in which Japan invaded China and brutally massacred around 300,000 Chinese. Grey has reason to believe that there was a particular atrocity committed during the massacre that was filmed – but only one copy of this film exists – and it is in the hands of an aging Chinese professor working in Tokyo.

The professor refuses to share the film unless Grey does some spying for him on a certain Japanese gangster – so she gets drawn into the underworld of Tokyo, by working as a hostess in a high-class club. From here, the book develops a split narrative: Grey’s exploits in Tokyo, and the increasingly dangerous circles she moves in and, most fascinating of all, the Chinese professor’s narrative (taken from his diaries) of days in 1937 leading up to the invasion of the Japanese.

We already know in the Chinese story that something horrific is going to happen, and there’s a growing sense of menace in the Japanese story as well – so the two start to converge together like a giant pair of scissors till we arrive at one of the most truly disturbing and yet moving endings I have ever come across in a story.

All in all, this story is so horrific that I can think of very few of my friends that I would recommend it to. But if you can stomach it, it is a phenomenally well-constructed piece of fiction. I also find it fascinating from another perspective as well, but that involves some major spoilers on my part. You can either stop here or continue reading below if you’re interested.

5 out of 5

 

***SPOILER ALERT***

I have always believed that the best horror stories take things that are horrible in real life (things that we perhaps prefer not to talk about or think about) and then exaggerate them so we can’t ignore them. A classic example is the school bullying that takes place in Stephen King’s Carrie.

In the case of Tokyo, Mo Hayder has captured the horror of abortion – I’m not sure that she intends to make any political statement about it, but she certainly touches on it. As Grey’s back story unfolds we find out that, as a naive teenager, she became pregnant. Not knowing any better, she attempted to cut the baby out of her stomach – not to kill it, but because she thought it might live and be able to escape from her parents. But, as Hayder’s prose so painfully captures, there is a certain age when an unborn child is counted as a foetus (in which case, nothing will be done to save the child’s life) and when it is counted as a baby. And Grey’s child was extracted on the foetus side of that timeline, and so for the rest of her life, she is haunted by her dead daughter, wondering where she is, and if she will ever forgive her mother.

There are many, many stories related by mothers who have had abortions that describe the psychological trauma they have gone through years after the event – forever haunted by a child that they did not know. It doesn’t happen to every woman who undergoes an abortion, but it happens a lot more often than we hear about. I can’t help but think that the story of Grey – over-exaggerated with the horrific twist of her being the one that extracted her own child – is a nod to these stories.

Whatever the origin, it’s the aspect of the tale that will continue to haunt me the most.