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James Choles (Singapore)

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Running in the Family
Running in the Family
by Michael Ondaatje
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No place like home, 14 Aug. 2014
This review is from: Running in the Family (Paperback)
I moved to Sri Lanka in March of this year and this was the first book I read about the island.

In beautiful and very distinctive prose Ondaatje pieces together reminiscences, stories, poems and legends to create a compelling portrait of Ceylon (as it was then). Much of the world he describes has passed into memory, but there are things I can recognise only too well: the sweltering heat ('stalking like an animal') of Colombo, the downpours, the barking dogs, the fans and red cement floors.

But ultimately Ceylon is only a backdrop, for this is a book about people. And what a cast of characters! From Francis Fonseka ('his tumescent heart notorious all over Colombo'), to former PM Sir John Kotelawala with his legendary breakfasts, to Ondaatje's grandmother Lalla (who could 'read thunder'). The character Ondaatje is searching for most, though, is Mervyn Ondaatje - an alcoholic and by all accounts a deeply troubled man. In its last few pages 'Running in the Family' becomes a moving tribute to the father Ondaatje never truly knew, and a realisation that 'all of our lives have been terribly shaped by what went on before us.'

This is a wonderful book.

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
by Yiyun Li
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Time sweeping past.., 18 Nov. 2012
This review is from: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Paperback)
'Gold Boy, Emerald Girl' is the first thing I've read by Yiyun Li. Though not quite a masterpiece, it's essential reading for anyone trying to understand the complexities of modern China.

Although she lives in California, Li writes beautifully (and convincingly) about her country, and particularly the sense of bewilderment felt by the generation that lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976) and Deng Xiaoping's Reform and Opening Up Policy (1978). There is also a real sadness here, a continual sense that her characters' lives (who are mostly women) could have been otherwise:

'They were lonely and sad, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.'

Inexplicably, much of Li's work has been banned in China.

The Rough Guide to China
The Rough Guide to China
by David Leffman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid companion, 26 Feb. 2012
This is my third Rough Guide to China. The biggest improvement this time is that all major destinations are now given in English, Chinese and pinyin (with tones). The photographs are better too and, as usual with Rough Guides, the 'Contexts' section is very good indeed. It is clear that the authors have spent a lot of time studying and thinking about this great country.

That said I do have a few quibbles. Whoever described Jinan as a 'bright, modern and youthful place' obviously didn't visit the grimy construction site that I did last year. Also, why are subway maps included for Beijing and Hong Kong but not Shanghai? The biggest flaw, however, is that information here is already out-of-date. For example, two places are recommended in the 'Hangzhou Bars & Cafes' section and both have now closed down.

This presents a wider dilemma for travel guides, I think. How to remain relevant in the age of Trip Advisor and Wiki Travel?

The Rough Guide to Vietnam
The Rough Guide to Vietnam
by Ron Emmons
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars RG sets the standard, 15 Jan. 2011
I went to Vietnam for ten days last October and found The Rough Guide to be excellent.

As always the authors' special recommendations were spot-on (e.g. The Green Tangerine in Hanoi, Baguettes et Chocolat in Sapa), and the 'contexts' section covering Vietnamese history and culture was well-researched and perfect for whiling away a few hours on a bus or overnight train. I also liked the fact that it covered a range of budgets.

In fact my only quibble was with the 'language' section - I found Vietnamese tones really hard to master and would have liked some phonetic guides to help me (the LP phrasebooks are much better on this).

Point Omega
Point Omega
by Don DeLillo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Omega point, 9 May 2010
This review is from: Point Omega (Hardcover)
With each new work from Don DeLillo I find myself asking the same question - 'Is it as good as White Noise?' I realise that this is the wrong question to ask, and to frame my response in these terms seems faintly absurd. But I do it anyway.

Point Omega is DeLillo's fifteenth novel (or, perhaps, his first novella), and is not as good as White Noise. It is, however, an exhilarating performance, one that maintains the creative surge of Falling Man and one that is a vital addition to his oeuvre.

It's deceptively slight, but all of DeLillo's career-long preoccupations are present. I guess you could also say that it's about the Iraq war, and the long shadow this misadventure has cast. Richard Elster was the academic hired by the Pentagon to 'map the reality' the US government tried to create, to 'freshen the dialogue, broaden the viewpoint'. But Elster's story remains elusive - we never quite hear what has forced his retreat to the desert. But then perhaps we already know.

DeLillo's mastery of the language is also, as ever, a real joy - there is an extended riff on the shifting nature of 'rendition', moments where we are destabilised by his choice of words ('lighted' is preferred to 'lit'), and sentences you just wish you could have written yourself (random thoughts are described as 'small dull smears of meditative panic').

Falling Man
Falling Man
by Don DeLillo
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heartless exhibitionist, or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror?, 7 Aug. 2007
This review is from: Falling Man (Hardcover)
Like the reviewer below I thought September 11 might have arrived too late for DeLillo. His event, surely, was the Kennedy assassination, the one that 'shaped' him as a writer, as he himself has admitted. Added to this is the fact that he had almost foreseen the terrorist attacks themselves - think of the cover of Underworld [1997], for example, or the line in Mao II [1992] about 'midair explosions and crumbled buildings' being the new tragic narrative of our times.

But how wrong I was, because Falling Man is great, certainly DeLillo's best since Underworld. It's beautifully written, as you would expect. In fact, at the level of the individual sentence I believe DeLillo is without peer in world literature. There are insights here that will take your breath away.

I love too how the events of 9/11 seep into the lives of the main characters. The kids who scour the skies with their binoculars looking for 'Bill Lawton'. The Giorgio Morandi still life that becomes a picture of the towers. The group of Alzheimer patients that only want to write about the planes. This is how a tragedy is felt, in these complex and fleeting moments to which the novelist must give form.

More problematic are the sections in which DeLillo writes from the perpective of Hammad, one of the 9/11 hijackers. Martin Amis did a similar thing in his short story The Last Days of Muhammad Atta. I'm not sure these sections were necessary, certainly they added nothing to my understanding of the event.

But this is a very minor quibble. Overall this is a remarkable book, one that will take its place alongside Saturday and The Plot against America as one of the very best responses to September 11.

On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another triumph for McEwan, 14 April 2007
This review is from: On Chesil Beach (Hardcover)
This is another wonderful novel from Ian McEwan. Of his famous [British] contemporaries, perhaps only Ishiguro is currently writing this well.

It's a short book and can probably be read in a few hours. Like Saturday it recalls a single day [or evening] that has momentous significance for the main characters. Yes it's about love and desire, and the inability [sometimes] to reconcile the two. But it's also about regret, about how a single gesture or word can alter an entire lifetime.

By turns funny and tragically sad, it is also extremely well-written - the final scene on Chesil Beach itself especially so.

Songs For Christmas
Songs For Christmas
Offered by marvelio-uk
Price: £11.43

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Songs of Christmases Past, 27 Jan. 2007
This review is from: Songs For Christmas (Audio CD)
Sufjan Stevens can do no wrong it seems. It's been over a month since Christmas 2006 and still I can't stop playing these songs!

The 42 recordings here range from the Christmas standards that we all know ['Once in Royal David's City', 'Silent Night', 'I Saw Three Ships' and so on], to original compositions from Sufjan and old traditionals such as 'Amazing Grace' and 'Greensleeves'.

The five discs range from 2001 [pre-Michigan] to one recorded especially for this compilation in June 2006. It is fascinating to see Stevens's style develop, as he gradually embraces a fuller, more textured sound. There are several versions of 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel' and the exquisite German carol 'Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming' where we can clearly see this progression.

The CD's also come in a handsome presentation box with stickers and what Sufjan calls a 'Songbook, and other stuff'. The whole package is clearly a labour of love. Also included is the short story 'Christmas Tube Socks', where Sufjan describes how, after years of disillusionment, he finally rediscovered the magic of Christmas.

The Letting Go
The Letting Go
Price: £10.05

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Letting Go, 17 Oct. 2006
This review is from: The Letting Go (Audio CD)
While this isn't the definitive BPB album [there is nothing here to match the majesty of I See a Darkness, for example], The Letting Go is a fantastic record, and one that rewards repeated listens.

At times it sounds very similar to Master and Everyone, Oldham's last album proper [before his Dylan-esque live album Summer in the Southeast and the collaborations with Matt Sweeney and Tortoise].

The difference here, and one that has polarised opinion, is the addition of Dawn McCarthy, who provides harmony on most tracks. Personally I think she sounds great, especially on Strange Form of Life and Lay and Love, for example. The overall sound is also rich and many-layered - a world away from the starkness of Oldham's early Palace recordings.

So, if not quite a masterpiece, then another fine album from one of America's greatest songwriters.

The New World [DVD]
The New World [DVD]
Dvd ~ Colin Farrell
Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: £3.50

14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From the Badlands to the promised land, 27 May 2006
This review is from: The New World [DVD] (DVD)
This is only the fourth film from Terrence Malick since Badlands [1973], a movie that the critic David Thomson ranks alongside Citizen Kane as one of the greatest cinematic debuts of all-time.

Malick's last film, the sublime The Thin Red Line [1998], was a masterpiece; a sensuous tone-poem with one of the finest casts ever assembled [Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin etc.]

The New World is almost as good, and looks and feels very similar to this last film. There are the enigmatic voiceovers that have become Malick's trademark; long, languid shots of the natural world [birds in flight, wind moving over the landscape and so on]; and beautifully observed scenes in which the white explorers [or soldiers in The Thin Red Line] come into contact with the natives.

The New World is ostensibly a story about the colonisation of America, seen as a kind of promised land, but actually concerns the love that develops between Pocohontas, the Indian princess, and an English naval captain [Colin Farrell]. Newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher, as Pocohontas, is an absolute revelation, and it is worth watching the film for her performance alone.

Malick's style is an acquired taste, however, and comparing this film to Braveheart, say, or The Last of the Mohicans would be misleading. The New World will be devoured by Malick fans such as myself, but will no doubt frustrate in equal measure.

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