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Monthly Archives: October 2015

This is the first thing

I have understood:

Time is the echo of an axe

Within a wood.

(Philip Larkin)

I ran out of books to read while I was in Australia, so I did something I haven’t done in years – went to the library! I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated libraries quite so much before. There wasn’t a huge selection in the Bright local, but I did find these two.

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Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite)

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

(-from ‘This Be The Verse’)

It was nice to read a poetry collection for a change; it’s not something I usually do. I chose Larkin because I remembered the line “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad, they may not mean to, but they do.” I love the rhythm of it, the honesty, the twist of humour. This collection is more of the same.

Larkin is a beautifully quiet writer, and his poems carry so much weight. They feel so close to reality, to the raw truth of human experience. Larkin worked as a librarian for over forty years, and wasn’t interested in fame. I like to think he was reading and writing for himself, for the truth that art allows us to get at and better understand. That’s what it feels, to me, like Larkin is doing in his work: noticing the inherent chaos and sadness in the world, and striving to structure it. To give it meaning, and beauty. He certainly succeeds. His work is piercingly insightful – he doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties (relationships, age, and death are big themes), and the way he renders them is wonderfully bittersweet.

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.

(-from ‘Next, Please’)

I found a lot of the poems in this collection very moving. There are touches of humour, but sadness, too. I read this over a bit of an emotional period, and shed a few tears. I finished it in a crowded V-line train carriage on the way to Melbourne.

[W]e should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

(-from ‘The Mower’)

Ali Smith: The First Person and Other StoriesIMG_20150831_114851

I gravitated towards Ali Smith because of how much I loved her novel The Accidental. Her writing style in that novel is so different, and there are some rhythms and themes that I really connected with. These stories are also quite unique, but I didn’t connect with them as much (I was surprised to discover that this collection actually came after The Accidental – to me these stories seem less mature, less sure of themselves).

The First Person is experimental: the focus is much more on symbolism, form, and theme than plot. In many ways this is a collection of writing about writing – in particular, about the short story and what it is, what it can achieve. One question central to these stories seems to be about identity (the four quotes that open the collection all certainly point in this direction) – the identity of the characters, as well as the identity of the medium they find themselves in. Smith seems to reach the same conclusion as many other great writers before her (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield): that identity is fragmented, constantly shifting.

There are a lot of wonderful ideas in this collection: a talking baby; a disturbing package; a conversation with a fourteen-year-old self. I suppose idea-based (rather than plot driven) writing works better in short story form. I did, however, find some moments repetitive, and felt a bit lost in the swirling stream of consciousness style. I think Christopher Tayler sums The First Person up well in this review from The Guardian: “lively and inventive but dreamily absorbed in the protocols of its own making.”

I finished the stories quickly (waiting for a friend at a Kensington dental clinic, in bed, and in the park by the river on a sunny early spring afternoon). Not too many of them stayed with me, to be honest. I might try another novel of Smith’s, next time.

So the overall moral of this blog post … libraries! Don’t take them for granted; like many things, it’s hard to appreciate just how wonderful they are until you don’t have access to them anymore.

Philip Larkin died in 1985. This edition of his collected poems was published in 2004.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness and currently lives in Cambridge. The First Person and Other Stories was published in 2008.

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This review contains spoilers.

Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?

I think I first saw a trailer for this film back in January, and I had been looking forward to it ever since. (Oddly enough, I ended up seeing Inside Out with my parents, in the cinema I used to go to as a kid.) Right from that initial teaser I was struck by the uniqueness of Inside Out’s premise: a film set primarily inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, with personified emotions as its central characters. Not so strange, perhaps, if Inside Out were a Wachowski flick, but this is Pixar; an animated, fun-for-the-whole-family affair. And it is undoubtedly the best Pixar film since Up in 2009 – Inside Out and Up share the same sweet sadness, the same depth, the same thoughtfulness (and, unsurprisingly, the same director/co-writer, Pete Docter). In fact, I will even go as far as to say (my nostalgic love of Fern Gully and The Little Mermaid aside) that Inside Out is the best animated film I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The idea behind Inside Out may be a great one, but it is also incredibly complex. Apparently it took Pixar’s team of writers a long time to decide just how to build a story around a young girl’s thought processes. They wrote numerous drafts, and consulted psychologists. The wait, and the hard work, certainly paid off. While Inside Out focuses primarily on the inside of Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) mind, it does a good job of showing how external events (like a family move across the country) can influence internal ones. Our inside and outside worlds are inextricably connected, but what Inside Out does so well is indicate just how important our inner (mental) wellbeing is, and how easily the balance can be upset. The climax of Riley’s outside journey comes when she decides to run away – we see her pack a bag, walk up a street, get on a bus. But on the inside things are much more chaotic. Inside we see Riley losing her sense of self (depicted as collapsing islands); all the things that have connected Riley to her family and her external world.

Inside Out does so many things so well: story structure, animation, voice acting (Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are perfect as Joy and Sadness; Richard Kind also deserves a mention for his portrayal of Riley’s doomed imaginary friend Bing Bong). It’s a little complex for younger kids – there were a few restless five-year-olds present during my cinema experience – but for anyone over the age of about eight Inside Out is right on the mark. Part of me wanted to see more scenes of the inner-emotions of other characters (like Riley’s parents), but I also think this would have made the film unnecessarily complicated.

The thing I love most about Inside Out is the way it presents the landscape of the brain. Imagination is a theme park, the train of thought travels everywhere, the subconscious is a dark cave best avoided. The idea of little creatures working in the brain’s memory throwing up annoying advertising jingles every now and then is hilarious; the way core memories are often tainted by sadness so that they become nostalgic and bittersweet is beautiful. Inside Out is a film about emotions, and it had me so emotional. Which only helps to drive home the central theme – that sadness is necessary, and important. In order to be really healthy, inside and out, we need to be sad sometimes. I would love to see more family-orientated films like this that tackle complex and relevant themes (rather than the same-old ‘hard-work-pays-off’ type ideas that are easy to write but fairly dull and uninspiring to watch).

So – go and see this film. Take your kids. Or, if you don’t have kids, take your parents. And if you cry a little bit that’s okay. It’s just your brain trying to keep things balanced.

Released in 2015, Inside Out is rated PG. It is Pixar’s 15th film.