Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Readings: Radiance

Catherynne Valente tackles a hefty raft of ideas in Radiance: The novel is self-described as a decopunk pulp science fiction alt-history space-opera mystery set in Hollywood. 

With that as the introduction, I was rather prepared to tire of Radiance pretty quickly, yet there was no doubt that there was some attraction. And somewhat surprisingly, the weariness never did arrive, except in small doses toward the end. What Valente has done here is use language to beautifully transcend time and place while hinting that there is something, shall we say, more metaphysical (?) that grounds us or sets us free.

The mysterious death of docu-filmmaker Severin Unck is the central point of the story, told from varying points of view and with jumps in chronology and location. The world of Severin is not Earth; in fact, here the entire solar system as we know it is actually fully populated by humans. (Homo-sapiens as the ultimate colonizer is a rather attractive hook, one that I did not fully grasp when I read the eye-popping introduction.) Severin had set off to Venus to make a documentary about the disappearance of a diving colony on that planet, but although some of her crew perished, she herself disappeared and is presumed dead. Her father, legendary director Percival, is trying to cope with her loss by crafting a film that aims at constructing an 'ending' for his truth-obsessed daughter. 

The narrative structure is meant to mimic that of physical film, i.e., shot, chopped up, spliced, etc. So Radiance is definitely not for the sort of reader who is annoyed at multiple and frequent shifts in time; in fact, had it not been for the chronology at the beginning, I would have myself abandoned this venture. Differing points of view result in audio and film recordings, personal recollections, screenplay, gossip columns, and so on. The world of film-making, silent films at that, is a sort of shadow world in itself here transcending the actual locations, hinting at the question: What stories would we tell if we were to roam free through all the universe? 

Towards the end there were some episodes that I found maddeningly over-stylized: as 'commercials' or then suddenly, a 'children's story' or then a completely mad mash-up of all characters put together in order to explain a critical plot point that in fact is not explained at all. The explanation comes at the very end, and here too there is a strong invitation to open interpretation. This was not a bad thing, in fact the ending was quite intriguing; it's just that at times it seemed like the author was having too much fun, got carried away in the dazzle of her own language, and ended up with a style that was simply too much on top of the heavily-layered and demanding narrative.

Still, Radiance does live up to its own rather ornate description. I would be willing to try more of this author in hopes that she tempers her inclinations to load the tale with stylistic curlicues. This is because at times Radiance felt like a cup of excellent coffee that some zealous barista has over-decorated with one of those foamy designs on the top, and with a too-generous sprinkle of cinnamon.

Monday, October 10, 2016

You, me, and an airplane

J and I have just realized with a shock that it has been two full years since we have traveled anywhere foreign. "It's been two years since foreign?" I squawked, foregoing proper sentences because I was in the middle of the usual punishing routine he has me on in the gym. 

That last trip was to J's childhood fantasy land, Hong Kong. (For some reason, he fibbed in kindergarten that he was going away to Hong Kong on vacation. He achieved much coolness until his teacher happened to ask his mother about it and all was revealed.) As an adult, J tripped around there with plainly childlike glee. One of the best afternoons was when we found a bench on the side of a street so steep it had stairs on it, and watched the city go by. J ate a custard pie, alarmingly good, while I scribbled in my notebook.

And all this time later we still do not have a destination picked out. The intervening two years have had a few little projects like selling a house, shipping belongings, quitting jobs and moving halfway across the world, and oh, I don't know why but all this seems to have kept us rather occupied.

Sigh. This is a sure sign that L.A. is no longer new, no? But that happened months and months ago; this is just that old old wanderlust again. J and I both need to be foreign together.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A conspiracy of ravens

Some mornings the crows outside the window make such a racket that they seem to be having a great fight, but it's not just mindless cawing you hear. It seems layered, a back and forth so involved that when it ends, it seems only logical if you have been listening carefully. 

What can it be, that they fight over? Today again I saw them rise in a rush from some unknown spot, swooping up into the sky in a kind of choreographed swathe of black. How poetic for such a common bird! The older I get the more fascinated I am by them. I have seen them picking through the trash at the neighboring schoolyard with great finesse, discarding items until they got the very ones they wanted. J has long been an observer: his favorite story being the one where a crow, having obtained a dry cracker, patiently moistened it with great care (on both sides) before swallowing it.

With such intelligence, no wonder then that their cousins the ravens and rooks have long been associated with magic. The big ones we saw on our recent road trip high up in the mountains, seemed to belong not there but to some ancient tor or crag, whipped by the rain of centuries, watching all.

And here in the city they must have been present those few hundred years ago when this was a mere village. Did Los Angeles narrowly escape being named Los Cuervos? If only the birds could talk to us in our language. 

Friday, October 07, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Retornos

Retornos is billed as a thriller, but I would say that the thrill in fact never arrives. There is slow burning-tension, to be sure, but no flashpoint and no ultimate satisfaction once the truth comes to light, so I would be inclined to just call it a moody redemption saga and be done with it. 

Not that Retornos is a bad film. It starts out with adequate warning as to its somber, adult themes with its dark palette of blues, olive greens and charcoal grays against mostly rainy skies. And the opening scene is of a funeral with many volumes told between two brothers in the looks that they exchange. This intrigues you enough, giving you the patience for the fairly slow unfolding of back-story to the background score of stormy piano. 

The trouble is, there is no payoff. The main character, Alvaro, has done something horrible ten years ago and has been living in Switzerland since. His wounded ex-wife and daughter are now understandably hostile when he arrives at the funeral of his father to their small community in Galicia, northern Spain. His brother, Xose, whom we had seen in the opening scene, is similarly resentful. How does all this tie in to the death of a young woman, a prostitute in the club run by the new husband of Alvaro's ex-wife Elisa? This is revealed while Alvaro tries to uncover the truth behind this death, as he is involved if only by accident. 

With the terrible goings-on of a decade ago, the characters' exchanges come off as curiously flat. Alvaro's now-grown daughter Mar, has the onerous task of portraying long-held resentment against an absentee father. In this she is adequate, but for some reason the entire film's mood does not let any character fully flesh out his or her motivations. Xose perhaps gets some bit of leeway here, but again the result is not emotional involvement on the part of the viewer; rather it is the awareness of being just that: a viewer, and not privy to anything more intimate in this difficult and emotionally-scarred set of lives.

The Galician dialect in about half the movie also ensured that I did not understand, increasing my sense of distance. What could have elevated Retornos? I think the crux was that we needed to care about the young dead woman, and we never got the opportunity to do so. Still, if one is in the mood for some dark and turbulent Galician crime-and-redemption on a rainy afternoon, I suppose Retornos will do. 

Director: Luis Aviles
Overall rating: 5.5/10

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

I'm chewing on it

In Bangalore we had a quite good collection of street dogs. In a stroke of brilliance, I had named most of them according to location. Hence: Bootleg, found by the bootleg DVD stall, Lakshmi by the ATM (Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth), Florian by the florist, and Our Lady of the Trash who met with her demise shortly after she was named.

Here all the dogs are properly labeled and leashed. Not one of them wanders at will, so I'm thwarted. Still, our building has four. In honor of temperament, two I have named Meanie and Brown Sugar. The adorable deaf Husky downstairs is too precious to name anything other than his beautiful real name, and then there is the newcomer. He's a perfect, boxy reddish-brown thing with a smart set of ears and a spiffy walk. The big problem right now is what to christen him. 

I still think about Bootleg though.

Monday, October 03, 2016

For no reason at all

In all my long life, I have never baked a cake. Why has it taken me so very long to realize this fact? It seems stupendous. Sure, I've used those ready mixes that I would dunk in the pressure cooker back in Bangalore, and with fairly satisfactory results. But what I refer to as actual cake- with the measuring and mixing and er...baking- that I have yet to achieve.

So I resolved rather ceremoniously the other day to do so. In the true spirit of new year resolutions, let this be mine for the next year, and let no one call me a procrastinator ever again. J was the only witness to this, and he heartily approved.

My first creation will be a dark and velvety chocolate with a hint of rich red chilies. 

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The last day of September

The light has definitely changed now. October is here.

Speaking to my father on his birthday, I see he looks no older than when I last saw him. This has made me absurdly happy.

Maybe this winter will not be harsh.
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