Thursday, February 28, 2019

Fighting With My Family

I had the privilege of seeing an advance screening of Universal Pictures new release Fighting With My Family last night.

It's based on the true story of Paige, one of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) superstars.

The Knight family are family devoted to wrestling, Mum and Dad met though wrestling and the children have all grown up in the ring, fighting each other and running the local club, giving young kids something to do in Norwich, England. As they say “you’re a Knight, wrestling’s in your blood, like hepatitis.” Brother Zak (Jack Lowdon) and sister Saraya (Florence Pugh) dream of getting into the WWE and winning the title belt. When the opportunity of a trial comes up, to their surprise Saraya is chosen, but Zac is rejected.

What follows are the parallel stories as Saraya heads off to the USA to follow her dream, and Zak deals with the disappointment of failure, struggling to find meaning even with a loving girlfriend and newborn baby.

It’s a charming story in a grungy format. World champion wrestling is definitely not an area I know anything about, my only awareness of anyone in the sport is Hulk Hogan, from the 1980s. I would be one of those people who ask the question, “but isn’t it all fake?” The answer from the family seriously being: it’s not fake, it’s fixed. I didn't realise how much of wrestling is about selling yourself and acting, as well as staged fighting. This also explains how Dwayne Johnson 'The Rock' has apparently moved so seamlessly to acting after his successful wrestling career. He is the producer as well as playing himself, and the few scenes he is in are both humorous and heartfelt.

The real highlight of this film is the family, they love each other dearly and support one another through financial challenges and jail time. The mother says to Paige (Saraya's new stage name), “You are the spark in our lives, no matter what you do with yours.”

Paige and Zak have to work through their own jealousies and insecurities. Paige tries to convince Zak that running the local club for kids, including reaching a blind boy to wrestle, is still meaningful, saying “just because millions of people aren’t cheering you on, doesn’t mean it’s not important”.

There is a lot of swearing. Not so much four letter words, but more casual slang referring to genitalia and actions with them, and there is a reasonably high level of crassness especially in the conversations between family members. It did fit with the British working class setting and I suspect was rather representative of the world the Knights live in. There are some drug references. While there is no nudity, there are definitely some very skimpy outfits that the wrestling women and men wear, not leaving much to the imagination. Considering the content, there is of course a fair amount of violence, but with the exception of one real fight, the rest is in the wrestling arena.

While this is probably not my usual movie fare, I enjoyed it, it definitely fits the category of a “feel good movie”. My friend and I were both a little teary with emotion at the end.

There are a lot of good fictional stories out there, but a good true story is always compelling. This is a good (mostly) true story shaped into a fun and enjoyable movie experience.

I was a guest of Universal Pictures.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Cold Comfort Farm

Published in 1932 by Stella Gibbons this amusing book is set ‘sometime in the near future’ (after the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ‘46) and reflects life in England in the 1930s. I must admit to my lack of knowledge of literature of this time, but even I can tell there is a fair amount of satire here and poking fun at various English classes, rural life and authors in general.

Flora Poste is orphaned at 19. This is not a situation that greatly troubles her as she hardly knew her parents. The education bestowed on her by them was “expensive, athletic and prolonged” and she “was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living”.

She swiftly decides the only course of action to her is to turn to extended relatives and live off them, for, “I have already observed that, whereas there still lingers some absurd prejudice against living on one’s friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one’s own conscience, to the amount that one may impose on one’s relatives.” Enquires to the available relatives turn up only one real option at Cold Comfort Farm, home of the Starkadders, in Sussex. Her London friends are appalled by the thought, convinced they will be awful people, including either a Seth or a Reuben who will undoubtably be all on about sex.

Not surprisingly, when she arrives there is both a Seth and Reuben in the household who early impressions suggest will live entirely up to her fears. Father Amos is a hell fire and brimstone preacher, mother Judith is constantly grieving over Seth, Elfine runs wild across the hills and Aunt Ada Doom masterly keeps the entire family in her control by pretending madness whenever necessary.

Rather than being depressed about the problems of the household, Flora sets about to fix them all. She wants to make Elfine a lady and marry her off, Amos to get out the way by going on a preaching tour, and Seth to learn some manners and control. There is a local writer who is determined to fall in love with Flora and keeps describing all the local fecundity in an attempt to woo her.

Gibbons starts the book with an imaginary letter to a friend editor, introducing her novel. What is charming here is the way she indicates that she has asterisked certain passages (like a travel guide would) so the reader, or indeed an book reviewer, would know they were onto something really impressive. In reading the novel, the location of an asterisk meant you were about to read a particularly florid description of something:
“Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.”
Things like this, plus the impossible descriptions of the farmhouse and the cow’s names (Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless with the bull Big Business) help to note much of it is meant to be lighthearted. This is further demonstrated by the tidy way everything works out, and how two mysteries raised throughout the book are never solved.

For modern readers it may seem gentle and somewhat simple, even though quite amusing. I think many of us would not get most of the references. I read an review by Lynne Truss (author of Eats Shoots and Leaves) and that helped me see that some of what I had taken as real was all made up or designed to be irony or satire. Good to learn these things!

It was an enjoyable read and pushed me to continue reading older English books. I even turned to the DVD adaptation from 1995 with Kate Beckinsale and Joanna Lumley, which while enjoyable would probably only interest those who had read the book.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Everything I've Never Said

Everything I’ve never said, Samantha Wheeler

This great tween book is about Ava, an 11 year old girl with Rett Syndrome, which means she cannot speak, move her head or feed herself, and has very limited muscle control. She adores her big sister Nic and her parents, but is also aware that they don’t really know her or what she is thinking because she can’t express herself.

School is a constant frustration because the teacher thinks Ava should be able to point to various communication cards, but Ava can’t get her body to do it right. When pushed really hard or overstimulated she screams uncontrollably or pinches, all the while longing to be able to express herself in ways people understand. When circumstances mean that another member of her family also can no longer communicate, people around Ava start searching harder for a solution to help her talk.

It is a heartfelt book, expressing what is must be like to be trapped with your own thoughts in a body that won’t do what you want it to. Author Samantha Wheeler has a daughter with Rett Syndrome so she is writing from personal experience and it shows. There are some wonderful characters who help with children with disabilities, and also people who clearly shouldn’t. She expresses the frustration of dealing with disability services (this book is based in Queensland) and trying to get the assessments needed to qualify for assistance.

In many ways there are very similar parallels to Out of My Mind but in an Australian context. Highly recommended reading for anyone age 9-10 right through to adults.

Monday, February 18, 2019

How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

I really liked this story of a man who seemingly does not age, or rather he ages very slowly so that one of his years is equivalent to 15 normal human years.

For those who enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife or The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared there will be much to interest and entertain here as well. Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and now in current day he looks in his low 40s. In his youth he realised it was dangerous to look so young for so long and he learnt the art of hiding and moving on. In time he found other people like him, through the Albatross society headed by Hendrich, named such because the albatross was the longest living bird when the society was founded. In contrast, normal humans are disparagingly referred to as mayflies by the Albas because of their short life span.

Hendrich has gathered people into his society to protect them and so all members have to move on every eight years, as well as finding other albas or disposing of people who discover them. But Tom is always searching, once he had a daughter (Marian), she is like him but he cannot find her. What happened to her? Does she still live?

He settles in London and becomes a history teacher. He tries to reach out to students with the reality of what the past was like but it becomes increasingly hard to hide his true identity. The French teacher, Daphne, is intrigued by Tom and cannot figure out where she knows him from.

The story is told alternating through different timelines sometimes in the present day and other times reflecting back on Tom’s past. In his lifetime he has met Shakespeare, Captain Cook and so many historical facts are woven into the fictional story. While there is some mystery and tension along the way and there is a climax to the ending, in essence it’s a great story based on an intriguing premise. An enjoyable read that makes you think and wonder.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

This fast paced book charts the death by elimination reality show that is the Hunger Games in the country of Panem. Each year two entrants (aged 12-18) are chosen by chance from each of the 12 districts and required to fight to the death in a specially made, climate managed arena. This is the way that the Capitol shows they remain in control of the regions.

Katniss, aged 16, lives in mining district 12, surrounded by poverty and has learnt from an early age how to provide for her mother and sister by hunting in the woods. Once she and Peeta are chosen for the games, they travel in luxury to the Capitol and are fed, pampered, beautified and interviewed to make them appealing to the masses who watch the Games.

Once they are released into the arena, every contestant must rely on their own skills to survive. But what happens when people decide to work together or choose to care for one another? Katniss knows that only one can survive but it gets harder and harder to play the game, knowing that every move made and every word spoken is on camera for the world to see. Is what anyone says says real? How does she make decisions? Does she play the game to win or does she follow her own moral code?

I don’t watch reality TV, but this is clearly meant to be like Survivor on steroids. This is truly a fight to the death, yet what does it say about a society that pits children against each other for entertainment?

Book 2 Catching Fire picks up 6 months after the last book. I won’t go into much detail all but it is certainly fast paced, action packed and full of various intrigues. Needless to say it also kept me glued to it for about a day.

Book 3 Mockingjay covers the civil war that erupts around the country as the Capitol tries to keep power and rebels try to take over. But are the forces who oppose each other actually that different from one another?

In my opinion, the best was probably The Hunger Games, containing the sharpest ideas and most challenging concepts. Two is also very good, with similar themes running through it. Three became even more violent, and really seemed as though she was almost just coming up with more nasty creative ways for people to inflict pain and death on each other.

All is all this is another good addition to the young adult dystopian fiction genre, and would be suitable for about ages 14 and up. It will make you think about your values, what you would do if faced with impossible choices, and how society values people.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Bridge of Clay

Bridge of Clay, Marcus Zusak

What a wonderful, evocative tale of family this is.

This is the story of the Dunbar boys, “once in the tide of Dunbar past”, the five sons of Michael and Penelope Dunbar. The narrator Matthew is the eldest, with Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy following close behind.

The story covers multiple time frames, the earliest being the childhoods and early years of Michael in a small country town, and Penelope growing up in the eastern bloc and fleeing as a refugee to Australia at 18. At present day, Matthew is about 31, married with children and writing the story, while living in the family home at Archer St in Sydney. But the bulk of the tale happens around the years that Penelope falls ill in his teen years and then the aftermath of her death when their father leaves and Matthew is about 20.

It’s beautifully written, with snippets of details revealed at certain points, only to be expanded on later. Why do their pets have such expansive names such as Agamemnon and Achilles? Why do they call their father The Murderer. Why does Clay always carry a peg around in his pocket? Why does he run constantly and all the others wait to beat him up? Why is there is a typewriter buried in a backyard?

Zusak has written a compelling story that meanders and centres around Clay and how he impacts his brothers and father. There are occurrences of major loss and grief, stories of joy and hope, and the grimy reality of a family of five boys, all interwoven together in a compelling mix.

I love his style of writing. He packs a lot of meaning into a few short words:
(Speaking about final Yr 12 results for country kids):
“At the end of school, both he and Abby made good scores, they made city scores, and they were numbers of escape and wonder.” 
“How could he know that Carey - this girl who lay across him, and whose breath drew in and out on him, who’d had a life, who was a life - would make up his trifecta, or triumvirate, of love and loss?”
It sat with me for days afterwards, in a similar way to one of his other novels The Book Thief. Very few books make me teary but this one did, not only because of the content, but the way it was expressed. Highly recommended when you want a more thoughtful read, especially one that explores family in depth and from an Australian context.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Fiction re-read

I took the opportunity while on holidays to re-read a number of books I had enjoyed in the past. They included:

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Still charming 8 years later, I thoroughly enjoyed this the second time round. A novel written in the form of letters, it drags you in immediately and the characters take a hold of you.
  • The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett. An endearing short book about the Queen who takes up reading. Only takes a hour or so to read, but is a lovely escape into what might happen if the Queen found herself absorbed in books to the detriment of her duties.
  • The Mark of the Lion trilogy (Francine Rivers) was enjoyable to return to again: the story of epic love and sacrifice in the Roman Empire in the first century. It was more complicated than I recalled with characters facing real challenges to live faithfully in the brutal world around them. The story of Hadassah, faithful slave girl, and Artretes, German gladiator keep interest and also provoke thought about how we live out our own faith. Some aspects of Rivers writing don’t always sit quite right, but it’s still a good thought provoking read.
All worth trying if you haven't gotten to them yet!

Monday, February 4, 2019

Back online

We have just returned from long service leave and a wonderful break as a family. For us, it brought home two truths. Firstly, we need rest. Unlike God, who is Sovereign, humans need to rest and doing so is a reminder of that. Secondly, it is a generous gift of the people of God (and our co-workers) to give us that rest by enabling us to take that amount of leave. So, we are very thankful for the reminder and God’s good provision, and are now excited about getting back into the usual life pace and ministry again.

As it was holiday time, my reading was almost exclusively fiction. Some were re-reads of those previously enjoyed, others were a dip into classics I hadn't read, and some were more modern options. I did seem to read a fair bit of Francine Rivers. I think it’s because it fits the ‘holiday reading’ category quite well – it is easy, but still with insight and depth and as it is Christian, it is generally encouraging and honest.

So the next few months will be mainly fiction reviews, and then as my reading for the year gets a bit meatier, so will the reviews that match them! Thanks for reading.