Cavemen and Kristen Stewart

27 03 2017

My twin obsessions this week, oddly, were Kristen Stewart in the strangely luminous “Clouds of Sils-Maria” and prehistoric man, courtesy of the surprise hit book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

My curiosity for Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of…” was piqued by the rave reviews for his upcoming “Personal Shopper” (for which I had snagged tickets at the Hong Kong International Film Festival) and which also starred his (rather unlikely) new muse, Kristen Stewart.

The formerly much-derided Twilight star has been amassing accolades. I have seen her variously described as “the greatest actress of her generation” and “a star for our times.” I didn’t get it. What was the buzz about? But halfway through this movie, which I had originally found slight and rather dull before it totally sucked me in, I twigged. Stewart is a naturalistic actress par excellence. She doesn’t look like she is acting. So at first I took her for granted – where were the virtuoso emoting I associated with “great acting”? Where was the transformation?  She looked like she always does, shaggy dark hair, stumbling over her words, willowy frame in clothed in grungy lesbian-chic. But then I realised that despite that, this character isn’t HER. She is a multimillionaire, not Julian Binoche’s ambitious assistant in the Alps, and the fact that I had forgotten that shows what a great performance it was.

“Sapiens” was also something of a revelation. The book, by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, traces humanity from its origins to the present day. Powerfully written, Yuval kicks off with the sensational reminder that although today there is only one human species, used to thinking of itself as the pinnacle of all evolution, we know that once we shared the world with at least six other human “species” – the homo erectus and Cave of the Red Deer people in China, the dwarf-like homo floresiensis of Nusa Tenggara, the Denisovans in Sibeia. the neaderthals in Europe…. The book claims that humanity’s “original sin” was perhaps the genocide of our brothers and sisters, leaving us alone as the sole surviving humans on the planet.


Natural Histories

23 02 2017

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This week I have been reading the book that accompanies a new BBC series, Natural histories. This traces the cultural history of 25 animal species, and how each animal has been portrayed and interpreted through human history. It is such a rich and fascinating topic and the book is full of interesting tangents, from the 1778 painting above “Watson and the Shark” to the Chauvet cave paintings of lions (below) via bugonia (the Ancient Greek belief that bees were spontaneously created from the flesh of decomposing cows), Medieval beliefs that butteflies – contrary to modern sensibilities – were allied to Satan, and the adventures of the Victorian naturalists.

The Essex Serpent

8 01 2017


The “Essex Serpent” by Sarah Parry has been my holiday reading. It is based on a 1669 pamphlet entitled “Strange news out of Essex” which told the story of a dragon-like creature terrorising the swamps of the then-rural English county, now located on the outskirts of greater London. Intriguingly, Parry has picked up this real-life inspiration and re-imagined a story set two hundred years later. In the Victorian era, where Charles Darwin’s ideas are being hotly debated and British high society society has become fascinated by strange specimens streaming in from all over the empire, an upper-class London moves to Essex and hears rumblings of the serpent, said to have arisen in the Essex “Blackwater.”


4 01 2017

Barracuda is the ABC television adaption of the book by the same name by Melbourne author Christos Tsiolkas. It tells the story of a young aspiring swimming champion transferred to an elite private school, and expounds on Tsiolkas’s usual themes: what it takes to be a man in a modern, multi-ethnic Australia, how masculinity can be a toxic quagmire of anger or a positive force, and how gay men can reconcile the different parts of their lives as men, as gay men, as brothers and sons, and members of their ethnic communities. If that makes it sound dour though, its not. The series is wonderful – delicate and tender at times, searingly blunt at others, and searching. It was also, I thought, exceptionally well-acted, my favourite character being Rachel Griffith’s all-too-familiar Eastern suburbs harpie.


The Mirror of the World

31 12 2016


Created as part of Melbourne’s designation as a World City of Literature, the exhibition “Books and ideas: a mirror of the world” is located in one of the galleries that ring the dramatic high Victorian Reading Room at the State Library. It contains manuscripts from time periods throughout history, such as the Javanese koran below.

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Zadie’s back

1 12 2016


Despite a slow beginning, Zadie Smith’s latest won me over by the end, a return to form after her (I thought) rather forgettable “NW”. It was one tonge-in-cheek line that convinced me, when she described the protagonist looking over the sun sinking of Hamstead Heath “now empty of everyone but ducks and adventurous men”. 😉

Book report

28 11 2016


Some of my most recent reads:

The Street of Everlasting Happiness: a journalistic account of the lives of people living along a 2km stretch of Changde Road, “Ever Happy” street, in Shanghai’s French Concession. From a wenqing (Chinese hipster) to survivors of the Cultural Revolution, immigrants and pyramid scheme sales people, businesswomen and families illegally evicted to make way for construction, the book provides a survey of the sweep of recent Chinese history and how it has echoed through the lives of those making up China’s biggest and brightest city.

Swing Time: Halfway through Zadie Smith’s latest so too early to make a judgement.

Parade: After the recent, excellent movie “Rage” I decided to check out a book by the author of the original story, Shuichi Yoshida. In this one, the seedy side of life is revealed in a shared flat of Japanese university students.

The Thai Occult: Finally, this excellent hardcover book recently arrived for me in the post – a present from some faraway friends who know me way too well. By a mysterious author called Jenx, the book lays out fascinating background information on the practising of the Thai paranormal, for example the powers of a woven-skull-fragment ceremonial belt known as a panneng, and the various different kinds of lersi ( magical hermits) or amulets. Armed with this knowledge, I can feel a return trip to the Thai amulet mall in Mongkok coming on…