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.

DVD Review: The Sugarland Express

I’ve been going back and watching some of the early films of Steven Spielberg (which reminds me, I should put up a review of Duel at some stage). The Sugarland Express was the very first film Spielberg ever directed for the big screen. Based on a true incident that took place in 1969, it stars Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean, a 25-year-old woman with an imprisoned husband and a two-year-old who has just been taken off her by welfare.

Her husband only has four months to go till parole, but she persuades him that they need to escape that very day and make their way to Sugarland to get their baby back. As if prison escape wasn’t reckless enough, they very soon end up hijacking a police vehicle and kidnapping a police officer. This sets up a huge statewide manhunt, with hundreds of police cars following the two lovebirds in bizarre caravan across the state of Texas.

Spielberg doesn’t put a foot wrong as a director – he absolutely nails the atmosphere of Texas, from the big hats to the Southern dialect to the obsession with guns. The car chase sequences (reminding me a lot of the action in Duel) are nicely choreagraphed – not the quickly edited stuff that I often yawn through in action films today. And as the scale of the case grows, Spielberg gives the film an increasingly epic feel.

What I wasn’t clear coming in, though, was how it would all pan out. The look of the film from the trailer and the opening of the film is a sort of humorous Texan romp, with liberal doses of quirkiness and humour. But it soon becomes apparent that, likeable as our two not-too-bright escapees are, kidnapping a policeman is a serious thing, and that however this thing pans out – the consequences could be very grave.

It also marks the first film collaboration between composer John Williams and Spielberg, so you might be interested in it from that angle.

I won’t say any more, because if you get bored one night, there are a lot worse ways to spend an evening than watching this film.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Ministries of Mercy (Tim Keller)

I read this last year as part of some research on how our church can start to get involved with serving the community around us. This book was a really good place to start. (The other one was The Church of Irresistible Influence – review coming soon.)

The book is essentially divided into two parts – the first is primarily theological, arguing the case for the church’s involvement in helping those in need. This might seem like a pointless thing, because didn’t Jesus talk quite a bit about helping the poor? Not to mention the early church, and the apostles?

Well, yes, they did. But despite that fact, for the better part of the 20th Century, there was a major split between those churches that valued social involvement over adhering to the tenets of Christianity (the “social gospel” we normally call it) and those who were big on the truth of the Scriptures, over and above getting involved in social issues. So it got to the stage where, if an evangelical church was to consider getting involved in any kind of social action, they’d be looked upon as being a bit suspicious – as if they were getting liberal.

So we can all thank God for this book, where Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York tackles the issue head on. He argues the case consistently and persuasively that the call of Jesus is one of not just sharing the Gospel and meeting people’s spiritual needs – but helping their physical needs as well.

This then leads into several sub-discussions that are important as well. If you’re going to help people, what are the limits? Who do you help? Should you draw a distinction between “deserving” poor and “undeserving” poor? The chapter in there on our money and finances is one of the hardest-hitting I’ve ever read, and well worth a look.

The second half of the book details more practical matters. How do you get such ministries off the ground? (Keller recommends mobilising small grass-roots groups, and if some of the ministries take off and get series, putting more resources behind them.) There’s also a really helpful framework on how to deal with people who could potentially become dependent on the church for handouts – by putting limits on your support to them in a spirit of grace (you want to help them support themselves) rather than a spirit of vindictiveness (“They’re always scabbing off the church – let’s not give them any more time or money.”)

There’s not a lot of books floating around in evangelical circles on this topic, so I highly recommend anyone interested in the subject get a hold of this book. Better yet, grab some church friends, read it together and then start seeing what sort of needs you can meet within your local community. Really encouraging stuff.

5 out of 5.

 

Book Review: Carrie (Stephen King)

This is Stephen King’s first published novel and reading it now, it’s easy to see how he burst on the horror scene like a new force. Like James Herbert and The Rats, King also started with a particularly nasty but real part of life, and then took it to an even darker level.

In the case of Carrie, the issue that was being dealt with was school bullying. It tells the story of Carrie White, an overweight, plain-looking girl with a overbearing religious mother. Because she stands out, in terms of her strange clothes and naivety, she is the victim of relentless teasing. The twist, which King introduces early on, is that Carrie has telekinetic powers – she can move objects using her mind alone.

To make this more believable, interspersed regularly throughout the book are excerpts from various books, news articles and scientific journals – all analysing, several years later, the Carrie White situation. At first these excerpts are a bit strange, because they keep interrupting the narrative, but they’re cleverly placed. As the story continues, the “non-fiction” excerpts start to discuss an event known simply as “Prom Night”. You’re not sure exactly what happened on Prom Night, but you realise very quickly that it wasn’t good.

And so the novel starts to build up a sense of impending doom which only intensifies as the story heads toward the Prom Night. I must confess that I did kind of have a heads up on this because for years, I’ve seen the image on DVD covers of Sissy Spacek covered in blood, with a raging fire in the background and heard something about a prom night going disastrously wrong.

But still, nothing quite prepares you for how expertly King pulls off the Prom Night. It is indeed the horrific finale to everything he has been preparing you for. But what makes it so horrific is that, at all times, we are clear that what brought this situation on is “man’s inhumanity to man” – both that of Carrie’s sadistically religious mother and the viciousness of her schoolmates. Especially poignant, I thought, were those people who sat on the sidelines, wondering if they could have done anything different to make a difference in this girl’s life and avoided the disaster that occurred.

For me, it was a clear reminder that the true horrors in life are sadly not things that writers dream up – they’re real events that occur to people around us all the time. Are there Carrie Whites in your life?

4 ½ out of 5.

 

Book Review: Blockade Billy (Stephen King)

I said earlier on this blog that I’ve been trying to read some more Stephen King and I thought that what I would do is go back to the beginning of his published work, but also try and stay on top of his published work from 2010 onwards. So to that end, I sought out the very slim volume of Blockade Billy, which was put out in early 2010, after King’s rather massive Under The Dome. This is perhaps not the best book to start with if you’re embarking on a journey of reading Stephen King.

The story is a narration by an ageing ex-baseball player (to Stephen King) of an incident that occurred when he was playing for the New Jersey Titans baseball team in 1957. Short of a catcher, the team managed to get hold of William “Blockade Billy” Blakely, who came in to help them out. The young man was an excellent baseball player, but after he joined them, increasingly disturbing things started to happen on and off the field.

I can’t really say any more because it’s a very short novella and anything more would give the entire story away. As someone who’s not very knowledgeable about baseball, I must confess that I was scratching my head over some passages trying to work out what they meant. But the overall story made sense to me, and I thought it was an enjoyable little tale, with a suitably shocking ending. (Enjoyable is probably not the word, but you know what I mean.) Not worth the $25-$40 that I’ve seen it selling for in the stores, but worth the $5 on the Kindle store if you’re a King collector.

If you’re only a casual dabbler in the man’s work, you can probably give this one a miss altogether.

3 1/2 out of 5.

 

CD Review: Bach Cantatas vol. 24

Volume 24 of this series, despite the Buddhist monk on the front cover, contains Bach’s cantatas for the Third and Fourth Sunday after that Easter, so they cover that territory of Jesus being arisen and leaving his followers on earth. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the second disc (the fourth Sunday), despite having some great work from baritone Steven Varcoe and the usual top stuff from the orchestra and choir (I think the cantatas are starting to blur together a bit) but the 3rd Sundays cantatas, on Disc 1, contain some great stuff.

The highlights for me are the opening chorus of BWV 103, featuring a highly dramatic and angular melody that dives down into the depths, as the chorus sings of its weeping and lamenting. But the one that’s probably worth the price of admission is the opening of BWV 146, which features a highly dramatic concerto opening for organ and orchestra, which was later turned into a famous keyboard concerto of Bach’s. I have heard the version played with piano and orchestra before, but hearing it on the bright and spectacular organ at the Schlosskirke in Altenburg – an organ which Bach himself would have played with – was just an awesome experience. So while this volume didn’t jump out at me as much as some of the others, I still look forward to future volumes.

4 out of 5.