Revisiting old friends, Part 2: Life of Pi

Last Wednesday I talked about returning to Mad Men, but also revisited Life of Pi, the Man Booker Prize winner by Yann Martel. (SPOILERS ahead.) After re-reading it I have been bugging all my friends to read it – no one has and I desperately want to discuss it with someone. I forgot how much I loved this book. It’s so well written and Pi is an engaging narrator: funny but sweet, allowing the reader to experience his struggle, usually through fascination with the way he tackles his situation rather than pity.

However, what I enjoy the most is not where Pi is on the boat with Richard Parker, though I do enjoy that section, and it is the most memorable part of the book. No, what I enjoy is actually when Pi finds, contemplates and discusses his different religious beliefs. I love how the book discusses religion in such an unashamed way, but without being judgmental, or trying to force a religion forward onto the reader. Pi doesn’t even allow anyone to force a set religion onto himself – he picks three religions and decides they are all equal, choosing to worship all three rather than being forced to pick one. The purity with which Pi believes in his three faiths is rare for many mediums, not just novels: that someone is portrayed as having unquestioning faith without it feeling forced or pushy is unusual. I am not hugely religious myself, but Pi’s total devotion forces me to admire him. That he doesn’t lose faith even after his family dies and he is stranded at sea with a Bengal tiger and no hope of rescue is beautiful, and that it is softly reinforced – his schedule when in the boat has set times for praying, without explanation, just that it must happen – is appreciated by this reader. It is soft touch. His faith is too strong to be removed by something so small as the loss of everything he knows and loves, facing an impossible situation.

It is a very well written book, and I will admit that I thought it was unfilmable (though Ang Lee did a spectacular job – the cinematography is stunning, and that tiger looked real!). I would have no trouble recommending the adaptation, but for me the book still surpasses the film. The film doesn’t quite capture the sweetness of the book, the humour, nor the beauty of Pi’s faith.

Have you read Life of Pi, or seen the film? What do you think?

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Revisiting old friends, Part 1: Mad Men

As part of my relaxing and enjoying new found freedom there were so many new things I wanted to read and watch. On my list were many films from the IMDB Top 250 list, with so many books that I was looking to become invested in. Instead Suite Francaise has remained untouched and I have delved back into Life of Pi and Mad Men. On the weekend I’ll talk about Life of Pi, but now I’ll look at the first season of Mad Men (SPOILERS below.)

In fairness, I had been meaning to re-watch Mad Men. Now on its seventh series I wanted to go back to the beginning and see all the moments that had resulted in this final batch of episodes (by the by, I really enjoyed last Sunday’s episode, which reminded me of probably Mad Men‘s most widely praised episode, series 4’s The Suitcase). I’ve flashed through the first series, seeing a few of the best moments for me in the process. The cut from Ken teasing Paul about his play to the party performing it, Peggy and Pete’s strange relationship. The abundance of Trudy. Don talking to Harry about the Carousel. Joan.

However, I didn’t realise that I missed season 1 Betty. Now, in season 7, we only get glimpses of Betty; in series 1 barely an episode goes by where January Jones doesn’t show. She’s a more detailed character simply as a result of being there more often, more nuanced, and her sense of frustration, dulled when not encountered regularly, shines through. That she doesn’t know why her hands shake, why she is unsatisfied, was half explained in her recent episode where she visits the farm with Bobby – she thinks she needs to be a housewife, that “they’re [the children are] the reward”, but that just isn’t the right place for Betty to be. Some men and women thrive from being at home all day, looking after children and tending the home, but Betty Draper (or Francis) is not one of them. That she thinks she can’t be anything else (a result of society and her upbringing) is depressing, and the episode where she tries to return to modelling but is thwarted by Don and his head-hunting competition was so sad to watch – this blow to such a person’s confidence meant she wouldn’t be able to try again, her self-esteem is just too low. Her taking it out on her neighbour’s birds was thrilling yet upsetting to see.

Also, seeing how Don was able to manipulate her, especially through his contact with her psychiatrist made me pity Betty even more. When Betty found out, my heart broke. Yes, she’s self-centred and can be childish, but she also isn’t allowed to grow, constantly controlled on all sides (which is still true to an extent now, with Henry trying to temper her conversation on politics in the fifth episode of series seven).

One further note: Betty is constantly being derided as being childish, but what character in Mad Men is not childish at some point or the other? Don making Roger throw up after he flirts with Betty, like a child annoyed that someone played with his toy. Pete all. the. time. Betty is a constantly ridiculed and sometimes hated character, but, rewatching the first series, I can’t understand how she isn’t seen as sympathetic – she is stuck in the wrong time period and confined by its boundaries.

Have you seen Mad Men. Let me know what you thought in the comments.

Berlin. Encouraging me to see more of Germany

Next year I’m planning a fairly extensive trip of Germany. Following this, I plan on visiting Germany yet again to see more. Why? Because I love Berlin.

Where did this love begin? Four, almost five, years ago I visited Germany’s capital city. Since then it has remained my favourite city that I have visited. There are some that have come close, with Pokhara and Amsterdam coming in at joint second. But Berlin was a city where I felt comfortable almost immediately, where the people were friendly, and the culture rich. To be fair, it probably didn’t hurt that I visited Krakow straight after, one of my least favourite places (while an absolutely beautiful city, I would recommend that anyone who is not white to be wary of visiting. I felt uncomfortable there). However, despite not particularly liking the latter destination, I think Berlin would still be my favourite place I have visited thus far in my short life.

The Berlin Wall. Credits at the bottom.
The Berlin Wall. Credits at the bottom.

The Berlin Wall. The Reichstag. The view from Radio Tower. Just wandering around this amazing and welcoming city. Germany as a country has so much history, obviously not all of it good, but the exploration of such history is fascinating in a city such as Berlin. I stayed in East Germany in a youth hostel and the feel of this part of the city was so vibrant. Would I feel differently had I been in the West? I don’t think so. Berlin is an amalgamation of culture, coming together to form a truly super city. The western side, where I spent most of my days, was more upscale and felt sleeker, but it also had a warm welcoming air to it.

All of this has led to me continually proclaiming my love for Germany as a country. I want to explore more of this nation to ensure that I have not fallen for a country based simply on one excellent city – I want to check that all regions and towns are equally amazing. My love for the capital has fuelled my desire to see more of Germany. While my years of studying war-time history would make me crave seeing Dresden, and the reputation afforded to Bavaria would encourage me to visit the region, Berlin has created a love for Germany that is still going strong and has promoted interest seeing areas I would not have wanted to see previously. More so than any other country I have visited, my visiting this one city has made me want to explore further than just the capital.

When I do go on my much awaited trip to Germany, I promise I’ll write more about it. Until then, are there any smaller towns or villages you would recommend? Any cities we’d be crazy to miss? Please, let me know. I’m always looking for tips on where to go in my favourite country.

Photo credit to Cathy at Ma Vie Trouvee. In 2009 I wasn’t that much of a photo taker.

What I’m watching, reading and have viewed

Having now just finished university forever, and with my summer in LA less than a month away, I decided to kick back and do, read and watch some things that I have been wanting to do for a while. I still feel like I’m procrastinating (probably because my room needs a serious clean), but it’s finally starting to dawn on me: I can do what I want without feeling guilty. Here are some of the things I have enjoyed since packing up studying. (P.S. for those of you who like my travel articles, LA is going to give me such inspiration for posts.)

What I’m watching: Orphan Black

Tatiana Maslany is so good in this sci-fi show rooted in reality.

What’s it about? Maslany’s first character Sarah sees a woman jump in front of a train and assumes her identity. I say first character because the woman who jumps in front of a train looked just like Sarah, and is also played by Maslany, and she also plays yet another character by the end of the first episode. Forced into a new life with complications wasn’t expecting, and having to accept discovery after discovery, Orphan Black quickly becomes neither what the audience nor Sarah were expecting at all. It is so addictive.

Why watch it? Maslany. Seriously, she is so good.

What I’m reading: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

You may have heard of the film starring Brad Pitt.

What’s it about? This sports book follows the story of the low-budget Oakland As, and their incredible tactics that helped to change how the baseball draft is tackled. This is all done by also documenting the formally underwhelming career of Billy Beane, general manager of the As.

Why read it? Even if you don’t know much about baseball (I don’t!) this is such an interesting read. Following how the team behind the team functions and helps to change baseball is fascinating, and understanding the system and reasoning that resulted in them making such decisions is equally interesting. Sports books aren’t my favourites: they tend to not be as intellectually stimulating as a well written novel. However, if you love baseball, or you just want a good story that teaches you a little something, this may be the book for you.

What I’ve viewed: Short Term 12

A.k.a. The film that all the critics said should have been nominated for Oscars galore last year.

What’s it about? Based in a foster centre called Short Term 12 it follows the life of the supervisor, Brie Larson’s Grace, after she finds out she is pregnant, as well as the kids she looks after.

Why see it? The story is sweet and moving, all the characters are drawn well and are believable, not caricatured foster kids. We watch the adults at the centre connect with these hurt individuals in a way that feels organic and realistic, not cheesy as is usually the case with such films. And Brie Larson is excellent as Grace, portraying someone with serious vulnerabilities trying to move on from her past.

Where I have travelled: Leeds.

… Yep, I know. My life is so glamorous.

Have you seen any of these? I’m only halfway through Moneyball and Orphan Black, so do they become truly terrible?! Let me know.

What I dislike about the Oscars

I would like to start out by making very clear that I love the Oscars. I am not some grumpy so and so who complains year in, year out about how the Oscars ‘lack any real representation of what is a true piece of cinematic brilliance’, etc. I do understand their point of view – the Oscars, as a judgement of the best film, the best performances, the best direction, has some serious issues. However, this does not lessen my enjoyment as, quite simply, I love the Oscars. I love watching the films, getting caught up in the hype and, come the big night, seeing all those stars looking glamorous in their best Oscar frocks and suits. I root for my favourites and while I’m disappointed when they don’t win (probably not as disappointed as they are!), I accept that generally the other performance is good, even if there is an element of politics behind the award. I mean, if I’m being honest, I always support actors and actresses I like more, sometimes even if I don’t think they necessarily gave the best performance that year (see: supporting Jennifer Lawrence over Jessica Chastain in 2013). Why would I expect the Oscar voters not to do the same?

So, it’s established. I love the Oscars.

What I strongly dislike is the constant, and belated, negative appraisal of the Oscar winners in the years after they win. We encountered the arty type in the beginning of this post, the person who dislikes the Oscars as they believe the films being nominated are not worthy of the accolade, or disagree with the process. This is arty type’s cousin, and they irritate me far more. I can understand the arty type’s point of view, even if I do reject it. But their cousin – this is the person who, a year after it won, decries how awful Argo is. That Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t deserve the Oscar for Capote, and that Ledger didn’t earn the award for his work in The Dark Knight.

Now, I realise that maybe the best films of the year don’t always win. A classic example – Crash beating the superior Brokeback Mountain. But it’s every year, the same story over and over. When Argo came out, everyone loved it and couldn’t wait for it to win. Now its a ‘soft winner’. I’ve used Argo as an example twice because it demonstrates what I dislike so much about the belated-haters: after a while you start to believe them. I went back to Argo a couple of months ago fully expecting to think it was an inferior film given all the abuse it had received over the past year, and I enjoyed it, and was impressed by it, just as much as the first time. Slumdog Millionaire has been treated by some as the worst film ever made – rewatch it, I bet you’ll enjoy it more than you think. Each year in the build up to awards season I hear about how great this year’s films have been, and then in the months following awards season I’m informed of how sub-par it actually was. The belated-haters start to make me, at least, doubt if I like a film because not only is it not worthy of its Oscar, it’s now just a bad film. It’s overrated, it’s badly made. On and on it goes. It’s already happening to 12 Years a Slave and, frankly, I thought I wouldn’t see that – that is one good film, deeply touching, well made and incredibly well acted.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t have their opinions, of course they should. One shouldn’t like a film just because its won a little golden statue. But could we tone it down just a bit, and admit most films up for nomination in February are decent, and we can enjoy them without proclaiming them as the worst film ever made come June. There are problems with the Oscars, but please, don’t critique unthinkingly. Don’t ruin the films.