romance

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.

REVIEW: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

When the brilliant but unorthodox Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) creates life, it is far more powerful and gruesome than he imagined. After its creator turns his back on him, the Creature (Robert De Niro) escapes and swears revenge.

Much like the Dracula story, the tale of Frankenstein is one I know thanks to popular culture as I had not read the original book. While I knew how Dr Frankenstein reanimated the dead and it all went very wrong, the stuff about Frankenstein’s family, his upbringing, the intricacies to do with his experiments and the Creature was completely new to me.

Have to say I was rather surprised the film started with a crew of explorers running into an iceberg and their ship getting stuck on the ice. I did not know that was a part of the Frankenstein story at all. Still, it’s an eerie opening as there’s the threat of the elements the crew have to deal with before there’s weird noises and a strange figure appearing out of the snow.

As well as having the titular role, Kenneth Branagh also directed this film. His style is all over this with close ups of actors faces, spinning shots and dramatic zooming. The sets and costumes are lush and the house Frankenstein grows up in is suitably eerie when it needs to be thanks to the lighting choices.

Along with his over the top filming techniques, Branagh also gives some over the top acting. He says pretty much all of his lines with so much passion, even when a quieter reaction would better suit what’s happening. Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter’s chemistry is a bit hit and miss and her performance is just as grand.

Robert De Niro as the Creature is unrecognisable. The make up and prosthetics that bring that character to life are incredible and deserve that Oscar nomination. De Niro does well to portray the Creature in a sympathetic light as he is shunned by society and slowly tries to understand people and where he could possible fit with them.

The problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that a lot of the time is spent waiting for something to happen. Especially when you know the basics of the story, you’re waiting for the monster to be created and then you’re waiting for everything to go wrong. The stuff with Victor and his friends and family just isn’t that interesting unfortunately.

All in all I think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could make a good double feature with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are classic stories, with gorgeous sets and costumes and both are very dramatic and over the top. Unfortunately for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the exaggerated filming techniques and performances don’t work in its favour and it mostly ends up as a bit of slog to get through. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Greece: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Translated by Karen Van Dyck.

Living in a big old house surrounded by a beautiful garden in the countryside outside Athens are Maria, the oldest sister, as sexually bold as she is eager to settle down and have a family of her own; beautiful but distant Infanta; and dreamy and rebellious Katerina. Over three summers, the girls share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to figure out their parents and other members of the tribe of adults, and worry about and wonder who they are.

The majority of Three Summers is told from Katerina’s perspective and in the first person. Though there are the odd chapters from other characters perspectives, mainly the other two sisters, and those are written in the third person so it’s easy to tell when you’re momentarily stepping away from Katerina’s viewpoint.

Three Summers is set in the 1930s before the Second World War and the sisters do all seem to live an idyllic life. At the start of the novel, so during the first summer, they are twenty, eighteen and sixteen. They spend their time lying in the fields, talking to one another about their thoughts and dreams, and also generally getting the attention of the young me they know. They also think about their separated parents and other family dramas. They live with their mother, aunt and grandfather while their father, who is both a banker and an inventor, lives in Athens.

I found Three Summers quite slow going. At times that suited the story as it evokes the feeling of lazy summer days where the days blur into one, but on the other hand it made it more difficult to connect with the characters and on the whole I didn’t really care about them.

Maria was the sister that was the easiest to understand, she knows what she wants and decides who and when she’s going to marry quickly. Infanta is more reserved and at some points I wondered if she was written to be asexual or aromantic because of how distant she was towards the young man who clearly likes her. It could have been natural shyness or nerves but some of her reactions to strong emotions sometimes seemed more extreme for that. Katerina is more bold than her sisters and her curiosity and actions often made her mother despair. She doesn’t seem to fit in this family and while she does say she falls in love with a neighbour, it’s hard to tell if she really has and she’s not using him as a gateway to adventure.

The writing in Three Summers is quite flowery and paints vivid pictures of the old house and the surrounding countryside, but that sort of thing isn’t really for me and it wasn’t keeping my attention by the end of book. Maybe it’s because I did find myself skim reading the last section of the book, which was about the events of the third summer, but I did find it difficult to keep track of some of the friends and neighbours, how they were connected to the sisters and what they thought of them.

Because it’s set just across three summers and is more of a slice of life type story, there are some things that are open ended and potential relationships not yet pursued which is a little frustrating but that’s the nature of this kind of story. Three Summers is a coming of age story and it’s one that fans of period dramas may like a lot. It has the will they/won’t they relationships but with more of a stiff upper lip as young women weren’t allowed to be forthright with their wants in the 1930s.

REVIEW: Practical Magic (1998)

There’s said to be a curse on the Owens women – any man who they fall in love with will surely die. Witch sisters Sally and Gillian (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) are unlucky in love and just trying to get by in a town that’s scared of them and their family. But after Gilliam’s boyfriend dies suddenly and a detective (Aidan Quinn) starts asking questions, things get more difficult for them.

Practical Magic is just a delight and the fact that it has a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a travesty! Do these people not appreciate and love the power of sisterhood, love and female relationships?! Because this is what Practical Magic is. It’s like a love letter to sisters and family and the power women can have, even when things go a bit wrong, and it’s brilliant.

Sally and Gillian were raised by the eccentric aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), and the relationships these four women have are the heart and the soul of this film. The aunts are funny and weird, but they love their nieces so much and try to teach them all they know about magic. Sally has more of innate gift for it, but Gillian has some powers too, but their biggest gift is how in tune with one another they are. Bullock and Kidman have amazing chemistry and they feel like sisters, they argue and laugh and know each other better than anyone. If I’m being honest the tone of Practical Magic is kinda all over the place, but this film definitely wouldn’t have worked so well without these two leads.

Speaking of tone; there’s comedy, horror, romance, crime – it’s a mix of so many things but it works! The whole aesthetic for Practical Magic is peak 90s witchy vibes. The costumes, the setting (especially the house where the majority of the film takes place), the fact that Sally’s job involves creating plant-based remedies – to coin a popular internet term, it’s all very cottagecore. The soundtrack is very 90s too but there’s so many good songs on it from Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill, Joni Mitchell and more. The score by Alan Silvestri is great too. A lot of it feels homely and suits the setting of a small town on a small island where everyone knows each other.

Honestly Practical Magic was so much fun and so heart-warming. I often found myself with a huge smile on my face because of these women and their love and respect for one another. Yeah, the “big bad” of the film is them apparently not being able to have a lasting relationship with a man, but the driving force for the Owens family, and even some of the other women in the town, is love for one another and the lengths they’ll go to keep each other safe. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Popular and borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) has everything until he is dumped by girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Then after a night of partying he wakes up on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) front lawn, and as they each try to figure out what the future might hold, a unexpected romance blossoms between them.

The central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is a bit of a cliché, the popular bad boy dates the quiet and studious girl who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is, but the chemistry between Teller and Woodley is off the charts so it’s easy to ignore the typical starting point for their relationship. The script is full of natural sounding dialogue, especially the scenes between Sutter and Aimee. Their conversations seem spontaneous as they go from one topic to the other and the way they laugh and talk over each other now and then feels true to life.

The Spectacular Now is a film that starts off as a teen romantic comedy and then evolves into something a lot more serious and hard-hitting. Aimee and Sutter each have their own family issues but while after a little encouragement Aimee is looking to the future and college, Sutter is desperate to not grow up and just wants everything to stay how it is.

The slice-of-life approach of telling this story means that you can get invested in Sutter and Aimee’s lives and, while a lot of the important moments come from the mundane, when there is something shocking, it feels even more unexpected as their lives are so normal and it wasn’t like the film was building to a huge moment. That being said, some serious conflict between Aimee and Sutter seems to be solved off screen or brushed under the carpet by them, or maybe it’s a bit of both, as it feels very rushed and Aimee appears to forgive Sutter far quicker than a lot of people would, even some one who is in love with him. While that may be true to life that people sometimes want to ignore what’s hurt them, it feels like a missed opportunity for Aimee and Sutter to have a proper discussion about what’s going on in their heads.

The use of alcohol in The Spectacular Now is interesting and important. So often alcohol in teen coming of age movies is just used in the party scenes or to set up some comedy, but in The Spectacular Now it shows how for some teenagers it can be an emotional crutch. Sutter drinks all the time. To begin with it doesn’t seem like a big deal or that he doesn’t drink a lot, just topping up a fizzy drink with something from his hip flask now and then, but as the film progresses you see there are very few scenes where Sutter isn’t at least a little buzzed. He drinks with friends, he drinks alone, and he even gives Aimee a personalised hip flask as a gift. Miles Teller’s performance has to be commended as he never turns Sutter into a drunken cliché, his performance is subtle and it’s in those few moments when Sutter is sober that you see how interesting his performance is.

The Spectacular Now is a sensitive and touching coming of age story but really, it’s Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller who make the film work. Their performances really are nuanced and powerful and their chemistry makes the unlikely relationship between their characters work. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Bahamas: Woman Take Two: A play in three acts by Telcine Turner

Set in The Bahamas in the early 1970s, Woman Take Two tells the tale of a few people forging alliances for themselves – for love and/or money. There’s Harold Davies, a businessman who will do anything to save face and further his career, including using his teenage daughter Sofia in his nefarious plans. Then there’s Beverly Humes and her fiancé Lionel Joseph who find themselves entangled in Harold Davies’s schemes.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a play and I always find it an interesting experience. Woman Take Two is a very short play with just three acts and 93 pages. The story is relatively short, and the action only takes place over a couple of times, but there’s still some good character beats which would make it an interesting play to see performed. I liked how in the dialogue there were colloquialisms and they also defined what they meant. The colloquialisms added a sense of realism to the characters and made the dialogue flow easily.

Harold is not a nice person and he is cruel to both his employees and his family. He is a strong patriarch that won’t take no for an answer. It’s difficult to tell if he is good at manipulating others, or if it’s just the people he manipulates are naïve and trusting.

A lot of the problems that face characters in Woman Take Two, especially Lionel and Beverly, could’ve been solved if they had actually communicated better. Lionel especially went a roundabout way to explain himself and the situation he was in, wasting time and other people’s trust. Obviously, you need conflict in a play, but this was one that seemed contrived and had the potential to be easily solved.

Woman Take Two is an interesting play about relationships, greed, and mistrust. 3/5.

X is for XXY (2007)

Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Fifteen-year-old Alex (Inés Efron) is intersex and is living as a girl, but she and her family begin to wonder if she’s emotionally a boy when another teenager’s sexually advances bring things to a head.

XXY is set in a small coastal town in Uruguay and unfortunately, a lot of people there are closed minded about people who are different. Alex and her family have kept the fact she’s intersex a secret but as everything comes to a head, the cruelty of others is revealed and it is uncomfortable to watch.

XXY is a slow, thoughtful film. Many times the camera lingers on Alex, her body or just her face, as she wanders alone. The coastal setting with the beach and the stormy sea fits the tone of the film as Alex often feels alone as no one can know how she feels, even her parents who want to look out for her. Her father (Ricardo Darín) is especially kind and protective and he puts in a lot of time and research into figuring out how best to support Alex as she tries to decide who she wants to be.

Inés Efron gives a brilliant performance as Alex. Showing the hope and fear she feels, as well as her rebellious nature. The chemistry between her and Martín Piroyansky who plays Alvaro, the son of her mother’s friends who comes to stay, is there but it’s interesting. The dynamics between their two characters are constantly shifting as they get to know one another and make a connection that neither of them was expecting.

XXY is a sincere take on the struggles a young person can face when figuring out who they are, and if they’re OK with that. The haunting score and stark setting makes XXY feel bleak but there are moments of happiness and hope their for Alex and her family too. 3/5.

W is for West Side Story (1961)

When two teenagers from rival gangs fall in love, Tony (Richard Beymer) is from the Jets and Maria (Natalie Wood) is from the Sharks, the tension between their respective friends builds towards tragedy.

West Side Story is one of those classic and much-loved films that I just hadn’t seen before even though I do tend to enjoy musicals. Now I’m happy to say I’ve watched it and enjoyed it. I also discovered that I knew a number of the songs in West Side Story, but never realised they had originated from the musical, for instance; “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty”.

West Side Story is a bit slow to start, especially as the opening ten minutes is mostly young men clicking their fingers threateningly and having dance battles. However once the characters and the rivalry between the Jets (Polish Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) is set up the movie goes by at a steady pace with great songs and dancing. West Side Story also offers commentary on racial divides, how unachievable the American Dream is and, with the song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, how the authorities try to blame crime on everyone and everything but themselves.

The dancing really is incredible. All of the cast are extremely talented and there are so many wide shots so you can see just how well everyone moves. There are fun song and dances like “America” led by Rita Moreno as Anita. Moreno is the perfect blend of attitude and sensitivity as Anita and the way she dances and how the camera follows her is a delight to watch.

The set design and lighting add to the drama too as tensions grow between the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Sharks led by Maria’s older brother Bernardo (George Chakiris). There’s so much red used in West Side Story, both to symbolise violence and passion and love and romance. The costumes are beautiful too, from the purple suits the Sharks wear to the dresses Maria and her fellow seamstresses wear.

While Rita Moreno almost steals the whole movie as Anita, Beymer and Wood do make a great lead couple as Tony and Maria. Their romance is sweet and powerful and while tragedy is just around the corner, they’ll do anything to stay together.

West Side Story is fun, bright and has some great songs and dances. I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this classic musical, and with Stephen Spielberg making his own version – I’m interested to see how it compares to the original. 4/5.

V is for Vertigo (1958)

Former police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) is suffering from acrophobia and vertigo when he’s recruited by an old friend to investigate the strange activities of his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), but as he follows her movements Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with her.

My second Alfred Hitchcock film and perhaps one of his most popular films – or at least one that has an easily recognisable name. Again, I knew nothing about the plot of Vertigo going into it, and I think that worked in the films favour. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how I’d describe the plot as it can get very convoluted and hard to follow.

The colours in Vertigo are beautiful. San Francisco looks stunning and there are scenes where the camera really shows off the city. There’s a lot of pastel colours in the clothes and the sets, and then there’s neon lights from hotel signs, they should clash but they don’t. A dream sequence with animation is unexpected but it’s vibrant and unsettling, really making an impact even though it’s pretty short. The “vertigo effect” is impressive and unnerving. It puts you in Scottie’s shoes when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Scottie is an interesting character. Before he starts investigating his old friend’s wife, he seems like an enthusiastic person, fun to be around even while he’s struggling with his newfound condition. He has his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) to help him, whether that’s just to be someone to talk to or to help him with a case. She’s bubbly and smart and is clearly in love with him, but he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. And once he becomes caught up in Madeline Elster, all he shows her is indifference which she doesn’t deserve.

As Scottie’s obsession gets more and more out of hand, the tension amps up through the score and Scottie’s behaviour. He changes as he becomes entangled in Madeline. He becomes a strong and frightening force as his passion overtakes logic and it’s uncomfortable to watch.

While the two-hour runtime of Vertigo seemed to drag at times, the ending seemed rushed as everything was wrapped up. It also seemed to have a non-ending, leaving me with more questions and wanting to know what happened to these characters next. As Vertigo is only the second Hitchcock film I’ve watched, I don’t know if this is a Hitchcock thing, or is just pure chance that both Vertigo and Family Plot left me feeling this way.

Vertigo is an eerie film with a couple of brilliant performances from Kim Novak. Her different mannerisms were fantastic, even if she didn’t have perfect chemistry with Stewart – though that might be down to how much older than her he looked. The mystery was complicated, and as the film progressed I found myself caring more about the women in Scottie’s life than the man himself, even if he was possibly driving himself to madness. 3/5.