Weekly “I’ve been”.. April 4th – 10th

4th to 10th of April I’ve been..

Reading: Wuthering Heights

  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë. I’m about halfway through this novel right now, and quite liking it so far. It’s about horrible, HORRIBLE people, as I’m sure most of you know (I’m really late to the party when it comes to this classic), but it’s well written and interesting so I can handle the unsympathetic main characters. For now at least.
  • I haven’t made much progress when it comes to Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, which I’ve been reading for a long time now, but have to admit I haven’t picked it up the last week. I really like it and find most of the topics so interesting, but I just need a break between every theme I read about. Will try to get into it again this week though!

Watching:

  • Season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s great to have a TV-series in the 20-35 minute span that you can always put on, and I’ve just started watching Curb recently, and I’m loving it, although I’m usually cringing throughout the whole episode.
  • A film I watched last week that I really want to highlight is Das Boot (1981), which I thought was an amazing war movie, and although we watched the Director’s Cut which is a whooping 209 minutes long, I was never bored. Such a good film, brilliant acting and masterfully shot.Das Boot
  • We also rewatched Amadeus (1984), which both Tommy and I have seen before, but it was almost like watching it for the first time, as we were both quite young the first time and remembering very little. It was a great watch, and a must-see film for anyone interested in music. And Tom Hulce’s laugh is wonderful.

Listening to:

  • Christoper Tin – Baba Yetu. My choir is practicing this for our spring concert, and it’s soooo cool. I need to listen to it a lot to get a feel for the rhythm and how to pronunciation the text properly though, as I’ve never heard it before we started singing it (Yup, I’ve never played Civilization IV).

Doing:

  • Quite a lot of revising. Starting next week I have two take-home finals, before my month of interning at a library, so I’m going through all of this semester’s lectures and reading through the curriculum list.
  • Karaoke! Yaaay! After choir practice last Thursday a small bunch of us went to this amazing bar in Oslo called Syng, where you can rent your own karaoke room. With about 15.000 songs to choose from, we had such a good time, and will probably go again very soon.

Here’s to another good week. I’ll continue reading Wuthering Heights, but probably won’t have the time for any new books with my exams lurking just around the corner. This Saturday is also our choir’s practice day, where we use the whole day to go through our repertoire, before a well deserved party at the end. Before that I’ll just have to study hard 😉

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Avenue of Mysteries – John Irving

Avenue of Mysteries

John Irving – Avenue of Mysteries
Published in 2015
Read from February 16th to March 11th

Sometimes, when reading a new book, you’re just hooked from the start and can’t put it down. That’s not the experience I had with Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving, but I still ended up absolutely loving it. It did take me quite a while to really get into the story and feel “comfortable” with the characters and and the writing style, but once I was there, in the zone so to speak, I was so engaged.

Avenue of Mysteries is set around Juan Diego, a “dump kid” from Mexico and the people around him. We follow him as a kid in Mexico, and as grown up and middle-aged, traveling to the Philippines. As a young boy we see him with his sister living as dump kids, with a range of interesting characters surrounding them, including their father-like figure; the dump boss, the loving and caring catholic priest who whips himself, the transvestite prostitute who becomes a dear friend, and even the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe play vital parts. The adult Juan Diego is a writer, visiting one of his former students, whom he both loves and hates spending time with, while also meeting two mysterious women on his travel.

The transitions between young and adult Juan Diego are very fluent and there is a lot of back-and-forth throughout the story, almost like a dream where you are never quite sure where you are. A very clever writing choice, as dreams play an important part in this novel. Juan Diego is often transferred back to his childhood in his dreams, but as a child there is also a lot of talk about the future. In a way, even when we are with him in his present moment there is always something dream-like about his surrounding. In Avenue of Mysteries there is a constant fluidity between realism and mysticism, which can make us doubt what is really happening, and how trustworthy is Juan Diego actually as a narrator?

One of Irving’s strongest qualities as a writer in my opinion has always been his characters. In this novel the most interesting character by far is Lupe, Juan Diego’s sister, who is in my opinion almost as much as a main character as he is, though not the narrator. She is the one sets the wheels in motion for pretty much everything that happens of importance, and shapes the characters around her. Being a mind-reader, yet only talking in a tongue Juan Diego can understand, she understandably makes people around her a bit uncomfortable, and perhaps the reader as well. Encountering Lupe’s straight out magical abilities in an other-wise realistic world sets the tone for what sort of story this is. Perhaps this is an example of why I personally needed some time to get into the story, my brain needed to adjust to what I was reading, as it doesn’t fit straight in with what most people would expect.

But back to Lupe: A young girl with mind-reading abilities and the gift of sensing future events, who speaks a completely nonsense language. She hates the Virgin Mary and what she represents, is very hot-heated and tends to go on babbling for ages about what upsets her, crying out completely inappropriate things for a little girl. What’s not to love? She is also a very sad character though, being so exposed all the time to everyone’s private thoughts in a very grown-up world, and being too young to fully understand them, she mostly interprets them perhaps worse than they really are, which of course has a big effect on her as a person.

As you understand, I truly loved Avenue of Mysteries, but that is not to say it is without flaws. The “danger” of having two main timelines in a story is that the reader usually will end up with a strong favourite, in my case the young Juan Diego’s story, so even though I enjoyed reading everything, I often found myself hoping we’d soon go back to my favourite storyline. The book is also just a tad too long in my opinion, some passages and chapters could have been shortened somewhere among the 460 pages. But all in all, a very good book that I recommend strongly.

January and February Recap

Books read, movies watched, songs listened to and cultural happenings attended in January and February 2016. Click on the links to see the respective blog posts about the experience.

Recap

Books read:
John Steinbeck – Grapes of Wrath
James Joyce – Dubliners
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Double
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

Films watched at the movies:
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
The Revenant – Alejandro González Iñárritu
Room – Lenny Abrahamson

Plays attended:
Tenk om (If/Then)

Most listened to songs:
Blackstar – David Bowie
Lazarus – David Bowie

On the literary front, the first two months of the year turned out to be all about the classics. It wasn’t planned at all, but quite fun to see that the authors read turned out to be Steinbeck, Joyce, Dostoyevsky and Shelley. After Shelley’s Frankenstein I started reading John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries and the popular science book Galileo’s Finger by Peter Atkins, which are both quite big, and the latter very complicated (for me at least), so they are sure to take a while. I’m also following a book challenge on Instagram for March; #tuvalusbookchallenge so if you’re looking for some Instagram inspiration I recommend that you check out the tag 🙂

I’ve watched A LOT of films these two months to prepare for the Oscars, and of course keeping up with my general “film education”. I managed to see all the Best Picture nominees, and almost all the other big categories except for Joy and Creed. There were quite a lot of strong nominees in all categories this year, and I’m really happy with most of the awards. Spotlight for best picture was well deserved, and I’m of course very glad for Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the best surprises was Ex Machina winning for visual effects and Mark Rylance for Supporting Actor. A brilliant film and a brilliant actor! It’s no secret that I quite disliked The Big Short, and would have liked to see another film take home Best Adapted Screenplay, like for instance Carol. But all in all, happy with the ceremony!

New favourites:
Frankenstein (book)
Grapes of Wrath (book)
The Revenant (film)
Spotlight (film)
Blackstar (album)

Here’s to another two good months with many good things to explore!

Preparing for the Oscars: Brooklyn, The Big Short and The Martian

I’ve finally watched all the nominees for Best Picture in this year’s Oscar Awards, with Brooklyn and The Big Short being my two latest watches. I thought I’d write some short opinions on those two and The Martian. For my thoughts on the rest of the nominees, I made one blog post about The Revenant and one where I discuss Bridge of Spies, Mad Max, Room and Spotlight over here.

Brooklyn – Watched February 22nd
The Big Short – Watched February 23rd
The Martian – Watched November 6th 2015

Click on the title of the film to read more about them on IMDB, as I will not go into much detail about the premises or plot of the films!

BrooklynBrooklyn – John Crowley
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

I found Brooklyn to be a really beautiful and quite understated, in a good way. Saoirse Ronan does a great job, and the film definitively made me tear up a few times. You get to care about the characters, and even though it’s not a very fast-moving drama-filled picture, it’s not in any ways boring either. I also have to commend Julie Walters in her role, I hardly recognized her at first! Domhnall Gleeson makes yet another appearance in one of 2016’s nominated films, and though his role here isn’t the biggest, he is surely one of the actors you should keep an eye on in the year to come!

My only issue with Brooklyn is that it just wasn’t memorable enough. It has so many strong points, especially when it comes to the acting and the visuals, but even though the story is touching it didn’t really stick with me, and it’s only been two days since I saw it. For it to be a contender for Best Picture it would have needed some more originality, to make it stand out more. But it’s a recommended watch all the same!

The Big ShortThe Big Short – Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling

Right. I’ll straight out say it, I didn’t care much for The Big Short. Reading on IMDB it seems like most people loved it, so I’m obviously not speaking for the majority here. The issue for me that it tackles such complicated topics, and it’s constantly doing quirky things to try to explain them, which just made my head spin. There’s a lot of breaking the forth wall in this film, cutting to scenes where models and celebrities explain advanced economics, combined with some meta moments where actors break character to tell you that “this didn’t really happen” or “this was a tad different in reality”. The concept of that is quite exciting, and The Big Short is in no way lacking originality, but for me it just didn’t work. The cuts and editing were too irregular, and while they were going for the very “cool” style and also poking some fun, it just felt too silly at times.

Christian Bale is nominated for his role, and though I wasn’t a fan of the film I think he did a fine job. One of the big surprises for me was also Steve Carell, I think his portrayal was absolutely fantastic, and equal with Bale’s. One of many this year that could have been nominated, but wasnt.

The MartianThe Martian – Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig

Ah, The Martian. It’s been a while since I saw this, but it’s still quite strong in my mind. Let me start of by saying: I really enjoyed The Martian, I thought it was a really good film, it was exciting, funny and emotional at times. I left the movie theatre with my expectations met.

I don’t however, think it deserves a nomination for Best Picture OR for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It’s just not that much of an achievement, even though I enjoyed it. The thing is, and it’s gonna sound harsh: I felt most of the work that was done in this film, both with the production and acting could have been done by most capable actors, directors, producers et cetera. I didn’t leave the movie thinking “Wow, how did Matt Damon pull that off” or “Boy, only Ridley Scott could have made something like that”. It wasn’t outstanding in any way, even though it’s a good film. Would I rather watch this again than The Big Short? Yes. But I still think it shouldn’t have gotten as many nominations as it has. Sadly.

But if you haven’t seen it, go ahead! I do recommend it 🙂

Having now watched all of the nominees my favourites are still The Revenant and Spotlight! There are still some films missing from the other big categories, but as of now I’ve seen most of the actors and actresses nominated for both lead and supporting, especially after I see The Danish Girl this Saturday.

If you have any thoughts on the Best Picture category for this years Academy Awards, please leave a comment below 🙂

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

frankenstein

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Published in 1818
Read from February 5th to 13th

I received this beautiful edition of Frankenstein (same one as pictured) from my boyfriend this Christmas, and finally started reading it at the start of February. I had never read Frankenstein before, but as most people I felt I was quite familiar with the story, having been exposed to its numerous adaptations through the years. Therefore I started reading with quite a lot of prejudice: I was looking forward to it because it’s such a classic, but at the same time my expectations weren’t that of a superb literary work. For some reason I didn’t want to get my hopes up about it being more than a “mediocre horror novel created to shock people in its time”. I’m so glad to say that I was completely wrong.

First of all, Frankenstein is beautifully written, and though it has inspired many mediocre adaptations and other works (but also good ones of course) it is itself anything but mediocre. Mary Shelley really knew how to write, and she was only between the age of 18-20 when she wrote what would be her most famous work. The language is truly beautiful, with a lot of emphasis of describing the natural beauties in the world and humans, which contrasts much of the ugliness that later takes place in the story. With a mix of chapters in letter-form (framing the story at start and end) and characters telling each other what they know in retrospective, it might not be truly realistic (who remembers and speaks about all these details when telling someone else a story?), but in the context of the time one has to accept that this was a normal method of story-telling, and it didn’t bother me one bit.

frankenstein2

An original manuscript page of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

I’ve read quite a few reviews that had issues with Shelley’s writing, particularly with how she described character’s thoughts of each other, with the critique being that “it’s clear a man wouldn’t think about, or describe another man in such loving affections and tenderness”. Well, this novel is from 1818, and having read many other works created in the 18th and 19th century, I’ve found this to be the norm among most writers of the time, and not something that was considered a feminine perspective. The affectionate descriptions are also keeping in touch with the elements of romanticism that can be found in Frankenstein; celebrating nature and beauty, also within man.

There’s a great contrast in how the novel clearly celebrates the wonder of man and the humanly virtues, yet also reveals the potential horror in what we create and our evils within. There has always been a debate on whether Frankenstein is mainly a horror story or science fiction, but I don’t see any reason why the two genres can’t be combined equally. The horror elements are certainly very present, and if Wikipedia is to believed, Mary Shelley originally wrote the story as a result of a bet about who could write the scariest horror story. Some people have complained about it not being scary enough to classify as a true horror story, where I would respectfully disagree. It may not be the type of story that leaves you afraid of the dark and afraid to look around the corner, but it has a creepiness present throughout its whole course, and it’s an original take on “what is the true horror”. That’s at least my interpretation, by reading Shelley’s work we are made to reflect who are the true monsters of the story and what creates hate? The truly scary part is that most people would agree that it is us, ordinary and well-meaning human beings that are responsible, and that we can see ourselves acting exactly the way the people in Frankenstein do, leading to the same horrible consequences.

That is not to say that the monster itself is not scary, or perhaps more correctly: it’s understandable how it was perceived as such as the time. Imagine Europe in the early 19th century and the changes it was going through, the natural sciences was rapidly making progress, the world was evolving insanely fast compared to previous years and it would have seemed like mankind would be able to do just about everything we could desire. It’s no wonder a horror story about a scientist using the natural sciences to create life and then facing horrendous consequences was considered absolutely nerve-wrecking! But anyhow, though the monster might make people afraid of him, there’s no question about how the true horror originates from Victor Frankenstein and people like ourselves. The monster is in fact a child, super strong, quick and abnormally big, but still fundamentally a child. He wakes up with no knowledge about the world, the people in it or himself, and is shunned from his creator (or parent one might say) from his very first living seconds. He starts as a completely blank page and soaks up everything around him, being influenced and learning everything by observing and eventually interacting, exactly the same as everyone else who are new to the world.

Mary Shelley manages to make Frankenstein a philosophic work as well as a horror story, making it a well layered work. It is a story about morals, yet it doesn’t deal in absolutes or present any of its topics in a straight forward manner. This, combined with a beautiful writing style and a clear originality makes Frankenstein one of my favourite classical reads, and I will certainly revisit it from time to time. And the magnificent edition that I’m lucky to own really looks good in my bookshelf 😉

Preparing for the Oscars: Bridge of Spies, Mad Max, Room and Spotlight

The Oscars are quickly approaching, and I’m trying go watch as many nominated films as possible before the ceremony, especially those nominated for Best Picture. I’ve managed to see quite a few so far, but it’s difficult to get to all of them before the 28th as several of the films aren’t released in Norway until March, and I really want to see them in the best quality possible. So far when it comes to the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen:

Bridge of Spies – Watched January 23rd
Mad Max: Fury Road – Watched January 17th
The Martian – Watched November 6th 2015
The Revenant – Watched January 24th – Review here
Room – Watched February 1st
Spotlight – Watched February 5th

Click on the title of the film to read more about them on IMDB, as I will not go into much detail about the premises or plot of the films!

I’m only missing Brooklyn and The Big Short, which I’ll hopefully get to see soon! I thought I’d just share a few thoughts about the latest films I’ve seen which I haven’t already written about.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Horrible poster aside, I liked this film much more than I thought I would. It looks very standard Spielberg: family friendly, good side and bad side without nuances, polished.. and in a lot of ways it does present itself with a lot of that classic formula, but it’s still a good film with very solid acting. There’s also a lot of well written dialogue, which I always appreciate. Tom Hanks does a fine job as usual, but the film’s strongest point by far is the subtle yet brilliant Mark Rylance, who is a strong contender for best actor in a supporting role.

Very well deserved nominations for best supporting actor and best original screenplay, and quite justified that it doesn’t have any directing or editing nominations, as it didn’t really stand out in those departments. Not a strong contender for best picture in my opinion though. Still, a film worth watching.

Mad MaxMad Max: Fury Road – George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

With it being nominated in 10 Oscar categories, I was quite intrigued before watching Mad Max, it doesn’t appear to be my type of film at all, but I ended up enjoying it quite a lot. Still, 10 nominations is a slight overkill in my book, but it’s interesting seeing the Academy paying more attention to different types of films and genres, it’s quite rare seeing a full on action movie receiving so much Oscar-buzz. Anyway, Mad Max: Fury Road is a breath of fresh air in it’s genre, keeping in balance, combining old cliches and finding its own path as it goes along. It’s also a great film visually, both in terms of camerawork, editing and effects, and deserves a lot of recognition there. All in all a very good movie, but not quite best picture for me.

Poster for "The Room" (2015)Room – Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay

A beautiful film in my opinion, about a emotional traumatizing case, yet it doesn’t become “emotional porn” to put it in those terms. It’s not without flaws, the pacing of the film could perhaps be a bit different, but the acting is so strong, and the story it self very well written. It’s interesting to follow a story that takes us beyond the happy ending, and explores what happens afterwards, both on the outside and inside the characters. I really appreciated how the characters in this film are shown as extremely human, and everyone’s reactions to a near unthinkable situation I found very realistic. Brie Larson seems to be one of the strongest contenders for the female in a lead category, which I fully support, but I cannot understand how Jacob Tremblay isn’t nominated! He isn’t just great for a kid actor, he’s absolutely phenomenal no matter who he is compared to. Several of his scenes had me tearing up. In my opinion he is absolutely robbed of a nomination.

With its strong acting and great storytelling, Room is a good contender for the best picture, although it doesn’t quite reach up to the greatness of The Revenant and Spotlight in my book.

SpotlightSpotlight – Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci.

I saw this only yesterday, and I was so so pleased with it! Spotlight is a film I hadn’t heard that much about, there hasn’t been a lot of promo or trailers around in Norway for it, don’t know about the rest of the world? As a result I didn’t know much of the premise of the story at all, which I find is a good starting point for every film you see, the less you know beforehand the better.

Dealing with a very important, yet touchy subject, I felt Spotlight never borders on the verge of tasteless. The strong highlights of this film are its dialogue (there’s a lot, and it’s fast so pay attention), the strong cast who all do a great job and the way everything flows together; the tempo and rhythm of the film is so perfect and fitting, and it’s all done in a very subtle way. Very good editing! Mark Ruffalo’s acting is also a very strong point and he received a well deserved nomination. I would have liked Tucci to receive a nod as well, his performance reminds me of Rylance in Bridge of Spies, subtle yet very moving. Anyway, as pointed out, all the actors do a great job, from the leads to the smaller ones who only have a scene or two. A film I’d recommend to everyone, and which made me conflicted after watching, I’m now very torn between Spotlight and The Revenant as for which should win best picture. They’re both great films, and very different as well! Hopefully they will both take home their fair share of awards.

Conclusion
From the films I have seen so far The Revenant is still one of my favourites, but now with strong competition from Spotlight. It’s also quite interesting to see the differences in the films nominated for best picture this year, from the “standard Oscar film” Bridge of Spies to the hardcore action movie Mad Max: Fury Road.

Hopefully I’ll get to see Brooklyn and The Big Short soon. I will also write more about films nominated in other categories before the big ceremony February 28th, and a blog post about the films I think should have nominated (more) as well.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

grapes of wrathJohn Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath
Published in 1939
Read from December 18th 2015 to January 21st 2016

My love for Steinbeck continues to grow, and now that I’ve at last read Grapes of Wrath I can finally call myself a true fan of his. Often considered his greatest work, and which he won the Pulitzer Prize for, it truly is one of the great American novels, and after reading it I understand and approve of all the recognition and praise it has gotten over the years, but also the controversy it has stirred. And it sure has stirred up quite a lot.

Steinbeck does not go easy on those he hold responsible for the migrant worker’s hardships during the Great Depression, he is angry and Grapes of Wrath is thus an angry novel. It points fingers, it lays blame, and it is never doubted whose side we should be on in this conflict. In someways it is therefore understandable how certain people were put off, Steinbeck’s presentation of the time is not neutral, but it sure is passionate. Reactions to to his work varied greatly, it received praise from the critics, won prizes and spent ages on top of the best-seller lists, but it was also banned by school boards and libraries, condemned by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers and politicians, who claimed the work and the author to be communist, immoral and untruthful (DeMott, 2000, p. xxxviii). Exactly the same people who Steinbeck can be said to attack in Grapes of Wrath. Nonetheless, people kept buying the book, and are still doing so to this day.

When looking at the book purely as a work of literature and not as a political instrument, it has been greeted warmly, and received mostly great reviews upon publication, although some critics have criticized Steinbeck for being too sentimental in his writing, and questioning his writing style. I personally find the book extremely well written, and the style suited for the people he represent. Steinbeck very much writes in the “voice” of his characters, which are the migrant workers: not necessarily the most educated, but hard working and resourceful people. It is only natural that should be reflected in the language used. I have to admit though, as a Norwegian reader it’s hard at times to understand some of the most local and old fashioned phrases and word choices, which is one of the reasons The Grapes of Wrath took me a while to finish, but I would never even consider reading this in a translated version. The style of the language is such a crucial element to the work, and makes you connect even more the characters and setting.

An example of "The Grapes of Wrath's" success: The book was quickly made into a film, already in 1940 John Ford's directed motion picture was released, starring Henry Fonda.

An example of “The Grapes of Wrath’s” success: The book was quickly made into a film, already in 1940 John Ford’s directed motion picture was released, starring Henry Fonda. It was instantly a hit.

Another interesting aspect of The Grapes of Wrath’s style is how the chapters are composed. The book presents the family Joad’s story, but in (almost) every other chapter the perspective changes and presents us with a more general view; here we read about the state of the country, the migrant farmers as a whole, see symbolic happenings taking place and similar. DeMott describes the technique as “one which combined a suitably elastic form and elevated style to express the far-reaching tragedy of the migrant drama” and “a contrapuntal structure, which alternates short lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s dramatic exodus to California” (2000, p. xii).

I found this technique to have a brilliant effect, by including the general chapters we truly understand the magnitude of what was going on, it has a greater impact than just one family in a book, and then we are guided back to the Joads which we emotionally connect to and give those we learn about a human voice. The use of this technique also shows that in addition to writing a book about something he was deeply passionate about and that he felt needed to be said, Steinbeck was also experimenting as an author, which is always the sign of a great writer.

Reading The Grapes of Wrath took me all of five weeks, but I’m so glad I took the time. In my opinion it is one of those books everyone should read at some point, and it has made me an ever greater Steinbeck fan than I already was. It quickly made it’s way in to my “favourites”-list on Goodreads, among with East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. As a finish, I’d also like to recommend the John Ford film from 1940, made only a year after the book was published. It’s an excellent adaptation, and mostly true to it’s source material, with some great acting by Henry Fonda.

Sources:

DeMott, Robert (2000). “Introduction” in John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath (p. ix-xl): Penguin Classics.