Early fall (2022) reads

This month, I’ll take a different tack. Usually, two novels and one nonfiction title comprise my reading list. For now, I will review two memoirs and one story collection. I start off with Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country. I’ve had my eye on this for months and reading it was a pleasure. I followed up with Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes. Seventeen stories, of varying length, provide a glimpse into yuppie culture and generation x. This was a chance to learn from the master. Finally, Will Smith’s autobiography rounds out the trio. One of Hollywood’s most powerful men, Will – like Julie – lived the American dream. He has the unique distinction of reaching the pinnacle on three platforms – music, television, and film. The book was written with the help of bestselling author, Mark Manson. As a side note, the Will review seems more pertinent now. The slapping incident at this year’s Oscars, coupled with Smith’s Best Actor nod, has given the work more notoriety. 

Beautiful Country (Julie Wang). The title derives from the Chinese name of America (Mei Guo). Wang was born in Shijiazhuang, China, the daughter of professors. All of her family were there and they were a close knit clan. Her father left for the US when she was five. He vowed to bring them there. Two years later, they joined him. They led a very impoverished life in Brooklyn, New York.

Her mother has to do menial jobs for peanuts while her dad struggled to provide for the family. Her earliest landlord was a hunchback who hid in a kitchen closet. One time, Wang imitated her and promptly fell asleep. When she entered school, she had to teach herself English. Defying the odds, she would soon best the classmates who oppressed her. She was also fortunate to have a caring mentor, who expedited her learning. At the same, time, there were others who challenged her. Early on, she had dreamed of studying law at Harvard. Their disbelief only cemented her resolve.

Due to their illegal status, her father told her to avoid asking questions and to be inconspicuous. They lived in fear of being outed. Even when she could converse in English, she felt like a foreigner. Her tummy often rumbled and she stared at items that she couldn’t have. Her experiences were reminiscent of Lion by Saroo Brierley. Weekends were at McDonalds, where she could not comprehend ‘Maw Chi Ton.’ During this time, they would also collect discarded items. These deficiencies made other Americans suspicious, as though she were feigning ignorance on purpose. However, she was able to make friends, including a stray cat. 

Julie rode the subway every school day, where she contended with unsavoury types. She chose the name Julie as a nod to the puppet from The Puzzle Place. She met ‘Auntie’, her mum’s co-worker, who died weeks later. Her mum too was rushed to hospital due to a tumour. The operation revealed that it was not cancer. After the op, her mother wasn’t the same again. At this time, she stayed with family friends. She found out that the struggling ones treated her better. Throughout the book, there’s lots of humour. For instance, Julie writes, ‘We would be deported now, as soon as someone cares to investigate why I didn’t have enough to eat.’ Anyhow, she sometimes overuses steamed bun and dumpling metaphors, which turn corny. In case you’re wondering, Julie graduated from Yale University and is now a managing partner at a law firm. The writing was easy to grasp and the story was quite compelling. I devoured most of it in four days.

Rating: 4.7/5

Will (Will Smith). The long-awaited memoir from the media-hopping titan is finally here.  Bestselling self-help author, Mark Manson, helped Smith with writing the biography. The 400-page trade paperback brings us back to Smith’s Philadelphia childhood and his overbearing father. He is the second of four childen and the oldest son. His dad owned a big ice packing company, where he worked. When his so-called daddio hurt his mum, his inaction made him feel like a coward. His father though was a good provider and he studied in a private school. As a result of attending an all-white school, he often felt caught between two worlds. Since his lyrics and language were squeaky-clean, some dudes would say that he was not ‘black enough.’

Even though he was accepted to attend college, he chose to try his luck in the entertainment business. With his Philly crew, he achieved instant stardom. Their first album went platinum and won them the inaugural Grammy for rap. At the time, the hip hop scene was just fledgling and Smith would go a long way in making it go mainstream. He also talks about his love life, where he wants to shower one girl with all his affections. Eventually, his inexperience and ‘play hard’ lifestyle would make him teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. By turning up to the Arsenio Hall Show, he was able to score an audition with a Quincy Jones, a Hollywood producer. He became the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran for six seasons. 

Having conquered music and TV, Will set his sights to be the world’s biggest movie star. Along the way, he met his wife – Jada Pinkett. They have two children together. Owing to his work ethic and desire for perfection, Smith made one blockbuster after another. They were not all critics’s darlings but were massive commercial successes. Smith’s sustained excellence shattered box office records. At one point, he was the highest grossing film actor ever. Will’s diligence ultimately became his downfall. His thirst for flawlessness and his humongous ego caused his relationships to crumble. In the book’s latter chapters, Smith tries to battle his demons. He sees the beauty of silence and rest. He becomes a voracious reader. He goes to Peru to be healed. He essays an ascetic life. Finally, he tries to bungee jump from a chopper above the Grand Canyon. The book contains twenty-one long chapters. I must admit that this was a more challenging read than Beautiful. However, the effort required was well worth it.

‘Life is learning…the whole point of venturing into uncertainty is to bring light to the darkenss of our ingnorance.’

Rating: 4.4/5

The Elephant Vanishes (Murakami). This marks my second foray into Murakami, after Norwegian Wood. I picked up this story collection off the library shelf. Published in 1993, this one is an older book. One would immediately notice the earlier technology, from landlines to radios, televisions to handwritten letters. Seventeen varied tales fill this omnibus. There are recurrent themes among the stories. First off are those in Japanese settings. There are also a few pets/animals. Most of the protagonists are younger, irreverent males. A couple of times, some magical realism is utilised. Elephant is a telling portrait into 90s yuppie culture.

‘Barn Burning’ is perhaps the most renowned of this title. When I read the story, it looked very familiar. I deduced that this was the inspiration of the Korean movie, Burning, starring Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead). Another tale was expanded into a three-part novel that was released the following year. The book has a bit of everything: a detective story, love stories, humour, and magical realism. They range in length from six to thirty-eight pages. For the most part, the writing is pretty accessible and is a good introduction into his fiction. There was only one story that I skipped, titled ‘The Kangaroo Communique’. 

Murakami ponders the ordinary and weaves narratives out of the commoner. The issue with this book is the profusion of rather unremarkable people. Murakami’s heroes are husbands and wives. They are students and in advertising. They eat McDonald’s and cook spaghetti. They lose a girl’s number, a brain cramp, but also dance their way into her heart. His heroes despise their future in-laws and Sunday afternoons. They mow lawns and look for a decent hamburger. They write and neglect writing letters. They order TVs and have vivid dreams. They drive and they take the train. It still took me longer than usual to finish this book. I had to divide my reading time between Elephant and Will. Fiction is meant to transport you to a different place and time. This one does that well.

Rating: 4.1/5

Yale University, Julie and Indra Nooyi’s alma mater
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On Journalling

Recently, I received a journal among a bag of birthday gifts. We had discussed the importance for any writer of recording their thoughts. I am a relatively late convert to this practice. I had only started last May but it has made a big difference. 

Reasons

I have a couple of key reasons for keeping journals. Firstly, I use the pages to jot down my ideas, arranged by date. Our imagination is inconstant. A great idea now may evaporate in some time. Indeed, this has happened to me on occasion. As a Knicks announcer once said,’Once the moment is gone, it’s gone for good.’ This makes writing down the thoughts imperative. Thus, having a notebook at hand is always a good idea. Secondly, I use the log for reminders. Of course, our smart devices could likewise do this. However, notebooks offer the convenience of not having to stare at a screen. Just like with ideas, scribbling reminders ensure that they will not be lost in the bustle of everyday living. 

Moleskins

Innovators, whether great or ordinary, have long taken up the journal craze. Some of our finest artists have been down this road. At the top of the pyramid are the moleskin notebooks. These hardwearing journals are premium stationery. Titans such as Bruce Chatwin, Ernest Hemingway, and celebrated painter, Pablo Picasso, have all utilised these logs. Last year, this online store had a moleskin sale. Some of them were down to 8.80. However, this was misleading as the shipping fees would double the price tag. Though I was tempted, I decided not to make the purchase. 

The moleskins have gone a long way since Hemingway’s time. They have the standard ruled journals; the blank ones; the graphed ones; and the dotted iterations. At the end of the day, I thought that it’s just a notebook. You’re only paying for the brand name and thicker covers but they have little difference. If I remember correctly, eighty-five of Chatwin’s moleskins were given to a library. They were chock full of his notes. Chatwin makes light of his journalling in his hybrid book, The Songlines. A fair bit of the book was dedicated to his journal musings. 

I initially bought a black notebook from a large retailer. It had a cardboard cover, a spiral binder, 200 A5 pages, and some slots at the front and back. Here you could put things like receipts, post-it’s, and the like. I filled it with all my book ideas, corrections, reminders, big words, and quotes from books and media. I register my thoughts while streaming, while having meals, in the morning, even after hitting the sack. I used it pretty much everyday; this became my constant companion. I noticed that the front cover wasn’t very durable, but I liked how I could easily remove the pages. All this time, I mobilised a simple ballpen to record my thoughts for posterity. Pro tip: always get a spiral notebook for ease of access. 

‘The notebook’

At the start of February this year, I had filled up the log. I had some options. I had purchased three thinner A5 notebooks from Kmart. They had varying cool designs and were good value. My sister had also bought four notebooks for me from this stationery store. They were even cheaper. Before the lockdown, i also purchased three identical black notebooks from a department store. I decided to use one of these. My current log is pretty similar to its percursor, with black covers, two slots, a spiral spine, and a similar A5 size. Unlike its predecessor, I wasn’t as religious in jotting down my ideas. I use the journal mainly for reminders and benign notes. Instead, I used one of my sister’s notebooks to plot out my ideas. Last month, I also got a pricey four-pack of gel pens for good measure. The pen is more reliable than your standard ballpen. It makes you want to write more.

Game changer

The pandemic has certainly redefined our lives. We’ve learned to adapt perhaps more than ever before. As lockdowns were imposed, people busied themselves with puzzles, board games, and Lego. Reading and buying books has had a renaissance. No doubt, some writers would be impelled to buy more journals to lock down their ideas. Thus, I would encourage budding writers to follow my lead. You lose nothing by spending a few bucks. It’s like having a portable backup, a snapshot of your days. You don’t need to dedicate a page to ‘Dear diary’; I don’t. Just regard it as a handy friend that will be of use both now and tomorrow. I want to reiterate that you don’t need to spend a premium. It’s the content that matters, not the cost.  

Despite all these implements, we must note that no one will write the words for you. You might have the best instruments but without some talent and lots of diligence, the tools are insufficient. Your thoughts are the building blocks of your maunscript. Once you’ve outlined your ideas, transfer and organise them onto the paper. The editing comes later.  Soon you’ll realise that you can’t take your eyes off your work. You’ve become obsessed with the process. Times may change, technology may advance, literary styles may go in and out of fashion. In spite of these variations, journals will always have a place. Remember: a man full of ideas will never be poor. You’re welcome. 

home library
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Lent 2022: abstinence, fasting, and prayer

On 2 March 2002 was Ash Wednesday. Mass is usually observed on this date. In school, there was an Ash Wednesday mass and as a result, all students would have a black mark on their heads. The placing of ashes on our foreheads is a reminder that from dust we came, and from dust we shall return. This year, I wasn’t aware of our local church’s Mass. Ash Wednesday officially marks the start of Lent. The latter is an annual forty-day period that worshippers around the world observe. The list includes Catholics, Anglicans, and many Christian denominations. 

Fasting for Lent

The main thrusts of the Lenten season is three-fold: fasting, abstinence, and penitence. All Christian adults are encouraged to fast. I remember in uni, I was invited to take part in this fory-hour fasting. I thought that it was too extreme. Meanwhile, abstinence is about giving up smoething for the entirety of Lent. It is about sticking to a goal as a pledge of devotion to God. The object of this abstinence is up to you. However, one must note that it must be something tangible, whether big or small is up to you. It could be as simple as avoiding fizzy drinks or refraining from buying new books. It could also be as consequential as avoiding alcohol or gambling. I remember in school, my classmates asked our Religion teacher how to fast during Fridays.

‘Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a pauper,’ Sister Isa replied.

Forty days

Tied with abstinence is penitence. Worshippers are pursuaded to pray and to confess their sins. Moreover, they are urged to repent for their sins. Almsgiving, a simple livelihood, and a denial of self-interests are just some of the exercises interweaved with the season. In the Catholic Church, the priests were violet sashes for Lent. Lent remembers the forty days that Jesus spent wandering in the desert. The devil tempted Him and tried to lead Him astray by offering material wealth, nourishment, and by buying his happiness. Jesus though was a man on a mission and His faith never wavered. Through his reflections, He gained much insight. His diligence enabled Him to build our Church today. 

Ghost town

Sepaking for school, I noted how some vain batchmates would remove the ashes from their forehead. The eateries would also abstain from serving meat. They opted instead for some fish and vegetarian dishes. Holy week is notable as there was a mad rush to exit Manila prior to Semana Santa. Seeing the traffic chaos on TV, it reminded me of a stampede as fans leaving a crowded gym. Then, on Good Friday, the whole stadium is deserted. It was like an apocalyptic scene from a zombie film. Another analogous occasion was when Manny Pacquaio’s fights were on. During those days, the crime rate in the whole country was almost nil, if not zero. 

I remember we had a palmera tree in our front yard. The two shrubs were located adjacent to the grotto. Every year, Lola Paz would get the leaves for Palm Sunday. According to her, this had been a long tradition that had transpired even with the previous owner. 

Unprepared

Good Friday is notable for featuring the Stations of the Cross. These fourteen scenes depict Christ’s suffering from his denouncement by Pilate to his crucifiction and entombment. In Year 8, I recall having to present one of these Stations. I came unprepared. Everyone read from their notes out front. My female seatmates had anticipated a letdown. I put it together though and spontaneously delivered a short but riveting description. I got an ovation and even Sister Isa was impressed. Friday is also known as seafood central. The Sydney Fish Market is open very early. Meanwhile, most shops, restaurants, and services are closed on Good Friday.

Easter feast

As portrayed in the media, Lent concludes with a giant celebration for Easter. There are easter bunnies to give chocs to the kiddos. The Easter Show is the hottest ticket in town, showcasing the best food, talent, animals, and showbags. The Sunday service is packed to the rafters. Christmas would be the only one that approaches this turnout. The malls are hawking big discounts. There are all sorts of online bargains. In Australia, it’s the middle of autumn and the weather is mild and pleasant. In the Philippines, summer is in full swing. You would need a fan or two. 

More importantly, like the Yuletide season, Easter is a time to be with our families. Once you’ve done the marathon, fasted and did your penance, you must apply those lessons and grow in faith, charity, and love. Being a better Christian is more than just spending more time with God. Quantity is nice, but a quality relationship with Yahweh is even better. Being an acolyte or a deacon doesn’t guaratee your spot in heaven. Doing good things and being a righteous person are what counts. So, next time you go through Lent, ask yourself. Are you doing this to score points or are you genuinely aiming for progress? 

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A rainy fortnight

Over the past two weeks, torrential rain has walloped our state. There have been a few days where the precipitation reached over 1 centimetre. This comes on the heels of the four-month lockdown last year. Who could forget that pause? I’ve detailed that cessation in prior posts. The fallout from the lockdown saw businesses crumble, freedom reimagined, and forced people to stay at home. Kids learned at home and employees worked from home. Before this, bushfires savaged country New South Wales, leaving a trail of mangled attractions. Workers had only just started returning to offices when the downpours became merciless. We had merely started welcoming back international travellers. 

News reports

The news did a good job reporting the tsunami; maybe even too good a job. The primetime bulletin was sure to highlight the devastation. (The dams are full!) They showed denizens wading in waist-high water. The cars were stranded. Dinghies were mobilised to transport peeps from Point A to Point B. This was Waterworld, Australia-style. The affected were interviewed (We’ve lost everything.) I remember hearing that all residents of North Richmond, NSW were to be evacuated. Obviously, they had the worst of it, statewide. Given the state of our roads, people were urged to stay at home and only go out when absolutely necessary. It was Groundhog Day. 

Closed for business

This past fortnight, I remember braving the rain. On a couple of occasions, the deluge was so bad that I had to wait for it to subside. Once, I saw a guy walking; he seemed foolish in trying to beat Mother Nature. Earlier in the week, I visited this library to return an item. I had intended to browse the shelves for more inspiration. When I drew closer, I was surprised to find the gate closed. Apparently, they weren’t open owing to the weather conditions. Better luck next time. There’s a first time for everything.

Memories

Even though the homeowners had insurance, this could not return their prized memories. After using and accumulating them for years, no price tag would compensate. Like the bushfire hotspots, they must start anew. A nefarious low caused the damage, bringing horrendous weather to the state. Speaking of memories, the star attraction in the nature reserve took a week off. The big crocodile was forced into retreat as the water level rose. 

Tips for rainy days

What to do when faced with Waterworld? Common sense would necessitate a stopping of all outdoor activities. As they say, ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry.’ However, this is not pragmatic. Our humanity entails us to subsist: to make trips to the supermarket, to our workplaces, and to health practitioners. That’s why bringing a brolly is always a good idea. Check the forecast. How much is the precipitation? Is it possible showers? Rain? Thunderstorms? When exactly is it predicted to happen? I’ve seen a few careless peeps. They left their bags (and brolllies) at home. They must’ve left their wits too.

Once you’ve packed our brolly, make sure that you bring a plastic bag to deposit it just in case. Not all shops supply plastic bags so bringing one is a good idea. While you’re at it, carrying a cap or hat is likewise logical. The rain will not be steady forever, so a hat is useful when it’s only drizzling or showers. I believe a medium brolly would suffice. You don’t want to bring a big bulky one. Regardless, be mindful of your umbrella as it’s one of the easiest things to forget. Furthermore, stay in the shade as much as possible. You don’t want to be mistaken for a human fountain. Most importantly, DO NOT fight with the rain. The downpours will eventually subside and waiting for the  decline is pragmatic. 

Meanwhile, try to bring leather shoes in this weather. Synthetic, textile, or suede kicks will not cut it. Leather sneakers are best in the rain as they are water-resistant. You’ll feel this not only while braving the showers but also while manoeuvring the ground. If you can, avoid wearing light clothes – especially pants. The water will be more visible if you do so. Instead, opt for darker clothing. Despite the rainy weather, now isn’t yet the time to don a raincoat or parka (although I’ve seen others do this). The temperature is not twenty degrees and fall has only begun. So dress appropriately. 

Climate change

The past fortnight was the worst time to go to the beach. Hold on to your surfboard for another day. Keep the sunscreen at home. No rational Sydneysider would swim in these conditions. You could be entertained in other ways. The low has since shifted to Queensland, fomenting much destruction there as well. Today, Sydney’s precipitation was down to 30 mm. The worst has seemed to pass. Some parts of NSW had been in drought for months, maybe years. While having an even rainfall would be more appreciated, I’m sure they couldn’t complain. This rainfall has been described as once in a decade, or once in a century. Bushfires, deluges, and droughts…these all point to climate change. The unrelenting downpours reveal that we must be better stewards of creation.

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Late summer (2022) reads

We are on the last month of summer and it’s time for another list. Another three books: two novels and one nonfiction title. I start off with Mitch Albom’s newest bestseller. The Stranger in the Lifeboat is his latest feel-good narrative. A group of strangers are stranded at sea, having survived a shipwreck. A man claims that he is Yahweh and the albatross reveals their true colours. Next was Jodi Picoult’s most recent work. Like Stranger, Wish You Were Here debuted on the Best Sellers list. The narrative deals with a young woman who was caught in the Galapagos during the COVID pandemic. This is a lighter take on humanity’s most recent epidemic. Finally, I tackle Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson. Also a bestseller upon release, the NBA’s winningest coach talks about his basketball experiences and his philosophy.



1. The Stranger in the Lifeboat (Albom). I’ve been looking forward to this read since first hearing about it during the lockdown. The book is typical Albom: breezy prose with a heartwarming central theme that makes us question ourselves. Usually short and hardbound, Albom’s writing offers insight into the human condition. In this one, he uses eleven survivors off the coast of Montserrat. Some of them are world beaters: a UN ambassador, an Olympic swimmer, a business magnate, and a model. The cluster also includes a cook and a deckhand, who is the narrator.

When the resources and the staples are not at hand, humans devolve and chaos appears. Without food and drinking water, the group turns against themselves. The alternative offered by God is too unreal for most of them; some openly condemn Him. Included in this group is a child named Alice. When food does appear, she gives her portion to the starving stranger. Like a horror movie, the group is diminished one by one. In a parallel narrative, an officer on the island discovers their life raft. He chances upon the account written by the narrator. Himself reeling from premature death of his daughter, he finds solace in the pages. He decides not to report the dinghy, but to solve the mystery as a one-man enterprise.

One line stuck with me: ‘I am the Lord. And I will never leave you.’ When all the other people, both good and bad, have gone, He reveals His true face. Two years after his last work, Albom’s newest was worth the wait. The book is twelve chapters long. Like most of his other material, the title is hardbound. At 270 pages, this is another undemanding effort. Five out of five for me.

Rating: 5/5


2. Wish You Were Here (Picoult). We live in a COVID reality, so Jodi’s book was a welcome response. I’ve read many books that mention COVID but this title deals with the crisis head-on. At her young age, Diana O’Toole has her life all planned out. Having climbed the professional ladder, she is convinced that her surgeon boyfriend would propose to her during their Galapagos getaway. She has just had a big client renege on selling an expensive painting. She is then transported to nirvana, where iguanas roam free and the sea is a constant companion. There she meets Gabriel and Beatriz, his daughter. The latter struggles with a secret, which she is hesitant to share. Diana occupies a room in their place. The sojourn evolves in a dream like manner. In the Author’s Note, Picoult admits that she had been to the islands. After reading up on COVID, she was inspired to break her dry spell.

Picoult thrives in creating a vivid reality while juxtaposing it with the COVID universe. She says that the disease sees patients meeting relatives long gone and creating coping mechanisms. The human mind is an incredible force that constructs realities from suffering. Throughout her troubles, Diana has incredible support. She tries to make things right with her mum, who was barely in her life. As she won the Pulitzer for her trouble, her dad raised and supported Diana instead. However, she was unable to be by his side during his final moments. Thus, she was determined to do the opposite with her mum.

Finn, Diana’s partner, could be overbearing. He constantly fussed about minor details, determined to keep Diana safe. Jodi pointed out that Finn represented the medical professionals who took up the fight against COVID. They are our first line of defence against the virus. Throughout the work, depictions of a city in lockdown are underscored. New Yorkers are forced to stay at home and adapt to the new normal. Diana wonders if things would ever be the same again. She learns to appreciate the small victories and this is something we could second.

I would admit that this is not as easy as Albom, with much-longer chapters, lengthier sections, and drawn out description. I do like the little vignettes that colour the manuscript. Jodi is a master storyteller. Like most of her books, she confronts pertinent issues of our time. In all, the book is 317 pages long but does feel lengthier.

Rating: 4.05/5


3. Eleven Rings (Phil Jackson). The former Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers coach shares his coaching philosophy and takes us deep inside his helming experience. He discusses his frontman position as the strategist behind hoops dynasties. Furthermore, he correlates these triumphs with Zen Buddhism, meditation, and a long reading list. This is more than just a Spalding book; it incorporates material from a vast array of fields. Jackson’s learning and erudition are highlighted. For instance, he describes hoops as ‘the game was a complex dance of moves and countermoves that made it much more alive than other sports I played.’

Without question, Jackson is unique among head coaches. He gave his players a book to read, whether they were Jordan or Dickey Simpkins. He always changed things up to give his guys a different perspective. He conducted practices in the dark and also in silence. Growing up, he had a much different background than most of his peers. He had dreamed of being a minister and starred at no-name North Dakota under the tutelage of Bill Fitch. He won two chips with the Knicks in the 70s. He knew how to get the most out of each player (see also: Derek Fisher). He calmed such firebrands as Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest.

One gets the sense that basketball alone does not define him. When the Mavs swept his team in 2011, he did not ruminate on this failure and took a hiatus. When Kobe did not have a supporting cast, it was the latter who asked for assistance, not him. His relationship with the Mamba was not always close but the latter turned into a formidable leader by their second run of titles. His main offensive scheme was the triangle offence. The late guru, Tex Winter, ably aided him. He was creative on defence. He often tinkered with the matchups, especially come playoffs. In Chicago, he utilised a big three guard lineup to suffocate the ball handler. The long-limbed trio could also easily switch on D. With the Lakers, he had an assortment of big men that could disrupt the opposition. He also had an all-defence member in Kobe.

Montana, USA

The book clocks in at 384 pages. With the amount of other disciplines involved, this is a hybrid text. Thus, finishing the read in a few days would be tough. Eleven is more like an acquired taste. Being versed on the great basketball champions would also help. You would be familiar with Steve Kerr, the Boston Garden, Jerry West, and Tim Duncan. Otherwise, you would have a hard time keeping up – even with the index. He goes behind the scenes. He shares how BJ Armstrong wanted to be the Bulls’s starting point guard but he wasn’t ready enough. He told of Horace Grant’s envy of Jordan. He gives an account of Scottie’s inbounds drama in the 1994 NBA playoffs. He takes us into the Shaw-Kobe feud that tainted a glorious dynasty. The title refers to the eleven championship rings that Jackson got with the Bulls and the Lakers. This is not Jackson’s first book, and his flair for writing shows. If you liked The Last Dance doco, then this is the book for you.

Rating: 4.4/5


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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) reviewed

I am due for a movie review. Oscar darling, Nomadland (2021), was probably my last film analysis. Of course, I’ve gone through a lot of flicks. I’ve sighted Ron Howard’s Rush. I borrowed DVDs from the library. They ranged from a provocative drama (Jungle Fever) to a recent smash hit: A Quiet Place Part II (2021). I took in a big blockbuster (Jumanji 2) and a foreign language pick (Never Look Away). As the title suggests, this week’s focus is more of an arthouse production. I’ve had a chance to watch this before but only got around to it yesterday. The premise intrigued me and the cast included Nicole Kidman, the veteran Aussie who makes good movies.

The family man

Sacred is a psychological thriller. The movie opens with cardiologist Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) performing an open-heart surgery. This looks more graphic than it sounds. His workmate, an anaesthesiologist, compares watches with him in the hallway. He learns that the latter has a 200k watch. The workmate vows that he could vouch for Dr Murphy and get him the same watch at half-price. The camera then cuts to a diner, where he meets young Martin (an impressive Barry Keoghan).

‘Why don’t you eat your chips?’

‘I like them very much. I’m saving them for last.’

‘I’m the same.’

We meet Steven’s family: his wife (Kidman), his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and his son Bob. All indications point to a loving, close family. They live in a good, secure neighbourhood. Their house is fairly big. Kim is part of the school choir while Bob has recently taken to the piano. They intend to buy him one. When Martin comes to their house, Kim seems taken by him. They hang out in her room. Bob asks Martin if he has underarm hair, then tells him to show them. The latter obliges. Kim admits that he has a lovely body. Bob confesses that his dad has thrice as much hair on his upper torso.

The Pom pair

Kim and Martin agree to go for a walk. The latter balks at including the dog. He doesn’t want to separate the family canine when it fights with another brute. Steven tells Anna (the wife) that Martin’s dad perished in a car accident a decade ago. He has since taken Martin under his wing. At this point, allow me a pause. Both Keoghan and Cassidy are British actors. The former is the more seasoned of the pair while the latter was a teenager at the time of shooting. Like many British thespians, both had no trouble sporting American accents. In the same year, Keoghan starred in the acclaimed war film, Dunkirk.

Beautiful hands

Dr Murphy gifts Martin the pricey watch, complete with a metal wristband. The latter is grateful but replaces the strap with a leather one. The doctor had told him that the metal strap was more expensive but that he was free to choose as he saw fit. Martin invites him to his house, which he admits is in a far seedier part of town. They eat meatloaf and lemonade, Martin’s favourite. He urges the doctor to watch his favourite movie with his mother (Alicia Silverstone). Midway through, he excuses himself and says that he’s tired. Alone with his mum, she tells him that he has such beautiful hands. She proceeds to fondle them. Dr Murphy almost rushes out the door but the mum begs him to stay for dessert. As she starts smooching the doc, he tells her that he has a loving marriage and a happy family life. Later on, Martin tells Steven that they are perfect for each other.

Hair, lies, and helmets

Martin surprises Steven with a visit to the hospital. He complains of having a mysterious heart ailment. Steven runs a few tests at him, including an ECG. He is given the all-clear. Martin mentions his body hair with Steven. He drops at his moment with Bob and his observations on his dad’s follicles. Martin asks Steven if he could show him. Upon inspection, Martin says that Bob’s assertions were exaggerated. Later on, Steven tells Martin to give him notice before showing up at his workplace. Martin refuses to comply.

Subsequently, Dr Murphy stops answering Martin’s calls. He stands him up, leaving the latter feeling hurt and upset in the diner. Meanwhile, Martin ups the ante. He starts stalking Murphy and giving Kim rides in his bike. Steven asks his daughter if she’s riding without a helmet. She says that she uses Martin’s, which is untrue as they both ride helmet-less. One day, Bob is unable to get to school. Murphy thinks this a cruel joke until he realises that Bob cannot move his legs. They rush him to hospital, where doctors insist there’s nothing wrong. Bob is able to walk again, until he collapses after taking the escalators. They give him an MRI, which reveals no damage. Steven is convinced that this is one savage charade.

A persistent insect

Martin keeps hanging around, intent on meeting Steven face to face. In the upstairs cafeteria, the latter keeps trying to cut Sutherland conversation short, as he has important business. Martin summarises his in one go: ‘an eye for an eye.’ He’s convinced that Steven killed his father, who was a former patient. For that, he’ll make him pay. He intends to slay his entire family. First, by paralysing their legs. Second, they won’t eat. Third, they’ll bleed form the eyes, a sure fire harbinger of the next phase. Finally, they’ll perish.

The downfall

This is exactly what happens. Bob refuses to eat anything, even with his dad stuffing a donut in his mouth. His sister succumbs to the same malady, collapsing at choir practice for no reason. She’s unable to stand up. When Martin calls her, Anna tells her never to speak with him again and confiscates her phone. Kim mouths curses at Anna, who becomes enraged. Bob admits that he wants to be a cardiologist like his dad. The latter visits their school, where he learns that both his kids are well-liked and capable students. Kim read aloud her essay on Iphigenia in class. She excels at English while Bob is adept at Physics and maths. Both of them have not caused any trouble. Even when Steven tells his son a secret in the hospital corridor, the latter couldn’t snap out of it. Bob alleges that he has no secrets.


The hospital releases the pair, who are left to recuperate at home. Enraged, Steven grabs Martin and holds him hostage in their basement. When his wife finds out, she is against this. Bob’s condition worsens. However, even with her more placid approach, even as she kneels before Martin, her children do not ameliorate. Frustrated, Steven nags Anna about getting the tools to make their son whole again, even mentioning sorcery. In a last ditch attempt, Bob shears his own long hair in a DIY job. His father had always told him to shorten his locks. Martin’s prophecy materialises and the end beckons. In a full circle, Steven’s family bumps into Martin at the diner. When they leave, Kim casts a long glance at her ex.

Award winner

The use of Iphigenia as Kim’s essay topic was ingenious. The film is actually based on the ancient Greek tragedy. True to form, a Greek helms the flick. Sacred has received mostly positive reviews from critics. In particular, they praised Keoghan’s creepy performance. The film unfolded at a slower pace, which suits its modus operandi. When Kim and Martin hang out, you could observe the swaying of the trees and the rustling of the leaves. In the home setting, you would gawk at the darkened silhouette. Moreover, you could feel like an outsider watching the family. When Steven tells Bob to water the plants, this feels like a universal chore. In case you’re wondering, there aren’t any real deers in this one. The film contested the Palme D’or at Cannes, ultimately winning the Best Screenplay Award. Upon further web-based research, Lanthimos (the director) had worked with Farrell before. The Lobster was also lauded. The picture was not made to smash viewer records, but to win critics’s hearts. Sacred only managed $7 million at the box office but remains an unsettling and strange watch that is worth its running time.

Rating: 4.1/5

Film poster
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Archive 81 (2022) reviewed

A while has passed since my last series review. The date was October 23 when I dissected Alice in Borderland. Fourteen posts later, I will delve into one of Netflix’s shining stars. I finished streaming Archive 81 last week. The eight-episode first season was released on 14 January. Eventually, it rose to the number one spot on NF. The story is based on a podcast and has supernatural elements. In all, an eerie atmosphere pervades the show as Dan Turner (the protagonist) tries to make sense of the past. He is hired to remaster the tapes that were destroyed in a New York apartment twenty years past.

Newbie

The programme alternates between the present and a foreboding past. We are introduced to Melody Pendras, the grad student who shot the tapes. Cheery and idealistic, she moves into the Visser apartments to chronicle an oral history of the place. When she first enters, the groundskeeper warns her that the sixth floor is off-limits. She soon finds out that most of the residents are tepid at contributing to her project. Little Jess Lewis is a notable exception. Apparently, the teener runs errands for some recluses in the building. She becomes Melody’s primary source of info about the Visser.

In the first ep, a mysterious company named LMG hires Dan. He is your ordinary New Yorker: he takes the subway and comes from a diverse background. He is instructed to move into a research compound. He soon discovers in the tapes that his deceased dad had a connection with Melody. His job becomes personal, as he uncovers a connection between his deceased dad and Melody. His new workplace is remote, but he manages to call Mark, his friend. The latter, who has a podcast, pushes him to continue his work and peel his dad’s onions. Meanwhile, Melody becomes more acquainted with the rest of the shadows, including Samuel, who asks her out. Melody heard some weird chanting, ultimately tracing it to the basement. There, she sees Samuel and the whole building chanting before a statue.

Facial

Melody reveals the real reason of her stay: to find out about Julia Bennett, her lost biological mother. Someone told her that the absentee parent had lived at the Visser. She also meets Beatriz, a medium who performs a seance for the curious. When Julia tried to connect to her mother, Beatriz ends up bloodying her face. She is rushed for emergency surgery. The scene made me remember one from Alita: Battle Angel. When the baddie was hurt, he clutched at his physiognomy, screaming, ‘My face!’ My ex-neighbour, who was beside me, chortled. Props though to Beatriz for giving a really ominous turn, especially while repeating Dan and Melody’s conversation word for word. I wonder if that happens in real life…

As Melody continues to document the events, the situation with the worshippers worsens. One of the residents, one Mrs Wall, calls them a cult while giving Annabelle (Melody’s pal) a jar of paint. The latter, previously so skeptical of the edifice, suddenly takes to painting portraits of the same woman. Her work is later exhibited in a gallery, which she detests. When a painting of hers is sold, she tries to take it back. Melody is told that there’s something wrong with the building. There is also an appearance by Fr Russo, a Catholic priest. He interprets Jess’s seizures as the work of the devil. This, he tries to exorcise the demons, which disgusts Melody. Meanwhile, Dan makes grim discoveries of his own – not just from the past but in his temporary workplace. Mark becomes indispensable as Dan navigates this enigma.

Clearer

Towards the end of the season, things become clearer. We learn why Melody was led into the building. We glean who Annabelle is drawing about, and what is really in the moss-like paint. We even get to see Annabelle one last time, as an old maid that still paints. We realise why Melody wasn’t killed in the fire and where she’s at currently. We comprehend why fires destroyed the Visser and the mansion that stood before it. There is even a time warp to 1924, where the previous owner sacrificed a lamb. This comprises the snuff film that residents have been searching for.

We understand the connection of Virgil, Dan’s boss, to the tapes, why he was so intent on getting them retouched. The tapes bridge the gap between Dan’s family’s demise and his employer’s lust for answers. The protagonist spots a nexus between the Visser, his family, and Virgil. We likewise grasp Dan’s predecessor, who lost his mind trying to get some answers. The difficult work and the isolation ultimately got to him. We uncover the identity of Melody’s mom. Apparently, she has been there all along. The ceremony, a big part of the process, is once again captured, this time with better equipment.

A scattershot approach

The series is a bit of everything: scares, thrills, retro, mystery, drama, and surrealist. The shifting between past and present adds colour to the narrative. Like all good mysteries, it keeps you hooked until the very end. In particular, there is a Ring-like scene where a monster charges out of a computer monitor. The infusion of imbalance and absurdity cements the series’s uniqueness. The whole season is not just about finding answers or investigating cults or resurrecting lost history. The main character contends with loneliness and anguish as he treks a very desolate situation. At times, he seems like the last man on earth, guarded by a mysterious lady. He finds solace in the tapes and falls in love with his subject. The viewer could cull that he’s good at his job – regardless of his flaws.

This was my first encounter with most of the cast. I learned that Mamoudou Athie (Dan) is an immigrant from the Sahara. He gave quite the convincing turn. Meanwhile, Dina Shihabi (Melody) is Saudi-born. Julia Chan (Annabelle Cho) is of Asian descent as well, while there is an Aussie among the cast. Martin Donovan plays Virgil and his veteran’s moves are clearly on display. The show is rated very highly on review sites. The first season closed in a cliffhanger. No doubt, the show’s got some capable writers AND cast members.

Key issues

The series does deal with some issues, including privacy, death, loyalty, and religious freedom. One thing that isn’t as highly discussed: living in an apartment. I guess it’s not an issue in itself but it shows that, as early as 1991, being in the wrong place could spell down. Having decent neighbours is a boon, just as having abusive neighbours is a curse. The situation is merely a stand-in. It doesn’t have to be New York and a cult. While money motivates people like Dan, they end up searching for the truth. These are merely metaphors to consider as we traverse another year.

Rating: 4.9/5

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Anti-consensus

When Warriors quarterback, Steph Curry, won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player plum in 2016, he became the first player to do so unanimously. In seventy-four completed NBA seasons, no other man has pulled off the feat. Shaq O’Neal came terribly close in 2000, falling one vote shy of the honour. Reporter Fred Hickman famously cast his vote for Allen Iverson. LeBron James pulled a Shaq, likewise coming up one shy in 2013 while with the Heat. These instances reveal that there will always be dissent. Mind you, as I’ll detail later, the occurrence is far from just sports-centric.

King of the court

I remember once being captivated by NBA Live. I would play it on the PC after class, immersed in the action. The New York Knicks were my favourite squad. At the time, sniper Allan Houston and electric Latrell Sprewell spearheaded the team. The video game was different then. These days, it’s commonplace to score 130 points in 10-minute quarters. Before, I was putting up the century mark in a full game. There was also no zone defence then. Early on, I didn’t always win. As a result, I sometimes altered the rules for more free-flowing gameplay. For instance, I allowed hand-checking to come up with steals. I also recall scrapping the three-seconds rule. The lane became more congested but also offered more scoring opportunities. 

Once, I was mobilising the Sacramento Kings. I kept feeding it to Vlade Divac down low, who in turn kept swishing. 

‘Divac is red-hot shooting…ONE HUNDRED percent.’

I almost chuckled when hearing that from the announcer. Before, I had some dudes with the hot hand. But never in months of NBA Live did I hear a perfect shooting night. I recall Divac knocking down a three pointer as we hit the century mark. The guy sitting beside me shook his head. Vlade isn’t the guy you expect to drill 3s. Divac didn’t end up with an immaculate percentage, as he missed a shot or two. However, I ended up thrashing the opponent by forty points.

A few years later, I played as Kevin Garnett on a one-on-one. My opponent was the late Mamba. Though I did not change the other rules, I decided to make it a winner’s out format. Kobe stood no chance as the taller Garnett overpowered him in the post and swished stare-down jumpers in the perimeter. 11-0 KG. My friend, Harry, was very impressed. He even shared my whitewash with his pal, Rikard. 

Perfect 10

Looking further back, have you heard of Nadia Comaneci? The Romanian is one of the most celebrated gymnasts ever. She competed in Montreal in the 1976 Olympics at age fourteen. There, she became the first gymnast to garner a perfect score. She would get a further six perfect 10s in that games. She would win three gold medals in ’76. At the height of her fame, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, with the caption ‘She’s Perfect.’ She again contested the 1980 edition in Moscow, where she received another two perfect 10s. Like other sports and media, the judges have to concur on supplying the highest score. If only one appraiser disagrees, then it’s goodbye, consensus.

Dissenters

As I said, this tradition oversteps the hardwood. The media sphere is another prime locus. Consider the movie Paddington 2. For a few years, the picture was certified fresh on review aggregate site, Rotten Tomatoes. It held a perfect score of one hundred percent. I recall asking my ex-neighbour if he had seen at the cinema a film with an unblemished rating.

‘Yes, the other year I saw Paddington 2.’

Well, one year later and that no longer applies. At least one reviewer had a dissenting opinion, finding flaws at a clearly flawless flick. Whether the review was warranted or not, the production no longer boasts an immaculate score. 

A similar thing happened with The Queen’s Gambit (2020). For a while, the miniseries held steady at full marks. With an exciting plot centring on a chess prodigy, it clearly had universal appeal. However, it could not sustain its excellent score. More appropriately, it couldn’t please all the critics. While Paddington 2 wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, Gambit garnered eleven Primetime Emmys and two Globes. The series set the bar for streaming productions. Gambit currently rates at ninety-six percent.

The Michael Jordan doco, The Last Dance, is another interesting study. See also: my post, The Last Dance (2020) reviewed. The doco takes a scattershot approach in the career of the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). It travels back and forth between the eighties, nineties, and even the present. It presents the legend of Mike to the younger generation, his joys, trials, and tribulations. Jordan is without a doubt the greatest winner in the modern NBA. Dance was at a hundred percent for a few weeks. The series now rates at ninety seven percent.

Speaking of a hundred, I recall seeing Ralph Breaks the Internet with the same ex-neighbour. There was a scene there where a monster was ’scanning for insecurities.’ While scouting, he saw Ralph walking round. The latter was heartbroken after his BFF left him. The sign read, ‘100% insecure.’ We joined the audience in chuckling. 

Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s mortal enemy, puts it best. ‘Greatness inspires envy. Envy endangers spite. Spite spawns lies.’ The augustness of a flawless score is just too much for some people. Green with envy, they endeavour to taint others’ greatness. Often, as with Paddington 2, they contribute though their justification is pointless. History is littered with scorned carcasses whose sole purpose were to bring others down. Remember, it’s far easier to topple a stack of cards than to assemble one. 

Chef Curry

In case you’re wondering, Steph Curry was very deserving of the nod. He led the league in scoring at 30.1 points per outing. He was also the leading pickpocket at 2.14 per. His free throw percentage that year was likewise second to none. He became the initial dribbler to lead the league in scoring while being part of the 50-40-90 club. The latter is the ultimate circle for shooters in the association. One has to convert fifty percent from the field, forty percent from trifecta, and ninety percent from the foul line: all while hitting the minimums for each category during the regular season. Kevin Durant could’ve been the first to accomplish this feat in 2013 but his mentor, Melo Anthony, wrestled the scoring title away from him.

This year, Curry has left no doubt that he is the league’s purest shooter ever. In December, he became the association’s all time leader in regular season threes, in addition to the playoff record that he already holds. At this rate, he could probably raise the record to 4,000 made triples. The figure is likely one that would stand for ages, a testament to Curry’s accuracy and degree. This is lofty praise for a player who once had to battle through injuries. As a result of this, he was paid less than Jeremy Lin during his historic year, something that would change soon thereafter. 

‘Guaran-Sheed’

I’ve presented a number of scenarios where getting a perfect score would seem fabulous. However, we must note that norming these numbers isn’t always for the best. I recall my teacher, Mrs. Guyabano, pointing to the Dead Sea as Exhibit A. Apparently, the lake is like a vortex or a ball hog. It doesn’t want to play ball. As a result of this, the sea has become so salty that you could float even if you can’t swim. The moral of the story: we should learn to share. Any good relationship is symbiotic; we must learn to give and take. Ultimately, we see hope in a hundred. It has connotations of perfection, reliability, and wholeness. It is not given loosely; it must be earned. There is no greater guarantee than 100 percent. You just need to use it appropriately.

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Kick-off reads

This year, I get the ball rolling with a treat from the king of crime writing. Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours tacks another chapter to the Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch tandem. The book sees the duo solving murders while Ballard contends with COVID and her lackadaisical co-workers. The novel, like the majority of his releases, is both a bestseller and critical success. I followed this up with Hostage by Clare Mackintosh. This comprises my first foray into her work. Although it’s not as good as Connelly, it does offer a fresh plot. There’s trouble on a plane flying nonstop from London to Sydney, the first such voyage. Finally, I tackled The Boys, a nostalgic memoir by two former child stars. Ron Howard has since made a name as a first-class director, while brother Clint has found his niche as an acting veteran. 

1. The Dark Hours (Connelly). To be honest, this was actually a pre-Christmas read. The book represented the 32nd title of last year. In this instalment, Detective Ballard is still working the night shift, hence the title. She’s called to a murder scene after the post-New Year celebrations. A former gang member has been gunned down and Ballard seems like the only five-oh who’d give her quality time to the case. Even her superior seems to care just about his impending retirement. The investigation leads her to a cold case that was worked by Harry Bosch. As expected, the two tag-team to reveal the secrets. The book is divided into three parts: Midnight Men; Use of Force; and The Insurrection.

In another probe, a pair of masked assailants have been terrorising women at night. The two intruders, nicknamed the Midnight Men, would enter into their targets’ place before violating them and leaving. The police have caught on two prior incidents. The third victim was Cindy Carpenter, who was initially uncooperative. As the plot unfolds, Ballard begins telegraphing the clues like Sherlock Holmes. She races against the clock to prevent further catastrophes. It must be noted that these cases are outside her range and must be passed on to relevant departments. However, her resolve to solve crimes does not waver and she works them through the holiday weekend. 

Meanwhile, Ballard learns that the casualty had some debts and was knee-deep into a dodgy factoring enterprise. Most unnerving was the connection to the uniforms. Ballard reminds me of a younger Bosch, with the same determination and occasional disregard for the rules.  On a few occasions, much like Bosch, she even ignores direct orders from her bosses. The results of the pandemic are everywhere. Streets deserted, low morale on the force, shops ignored, and masks are mandatory. Working from home has become the norm. Ballard is a surfer and she braves the waves even as the beaches are forgotten. 

There’s also a side story where she gets Pinto, a new canine. Her previous pooch, Lola, had passed away. She also has a new beau, a paramedic named Garrett Single. She has likewise moved to a new condo. Ballard is given an opportunity to be assigned away from the dark hours, but she likes her job. She risks her own skin and even her badge to outwit the baddies. I noticed that the department has gone ultra-modern, with electric cars for forensics and a treasure trove of cases now digitised. Searching said cases, as Renee experiences, is still a laborious task. Connelly’s style still draws me. He has short chapters with punchy dialogue and sufficient description. His characters change and in all, his prose remains easy. There are many good crime writers but we need more like Connelly.

Rating: 5/5

2. Hostage (Clare Mackintosh). A spanking new Connelly would be a tough act for any title to follow. The beginning of this thriller did not blow me away. I believe there were a few too many characters. What’s not missing are twists. For the first half of the novel, readers will guess at the reason for the plane’s hijacking. They will wonder why Adam is acting strange and why his daughter’s epipen is on the World Airways jet. They will scratch their heads at the sudden death of a business class passenger. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Mina – the protagonist – was training as a pilot before dropping out. The real explanation would be revealed later. 

Mina’s dilemma is every parent’s nightmare. As the senior flight attendant, she is threatened and coerced into doing the enemies’ bidding. Will she comply and save her adopted daughter’s life? Or do otherwise and preserve hundreds of others? Who is the lass babysitting their child? Indeed, there were a few instances where she reminded herself that she shouldn’t have been aboard. She made a last-minute swap to spend Christmas away from her husband, who she presumes is cheating on her. As people onboard are killed, she must make tough choices.

Hostage is divided into fifty-two chapters. They alternate between the protagonists’ viewpoint (mostly Adam and Mina) and the dubious passengers of Flight 79. The former often involves a subtitle of how many hours are left to Sydney. The hijackers are far from a one-man army. The first reactions from passengers is to cull the jihadists, settling on an Arab berk. While their suspicions subside, there wouldn’t be a reason why the author spotlighted him. Meanwhile, Mina is also doubted, given her olive skin. She is a first-generation Pom: her father is French while her mother is Algerian. We would learn that the baddies would try to crash the plane against the Sydney Opera House to highlight their message to the world. There is room for a final twist in the end. As the saying goes, ‘Be careful who you trust.’  

The novel was more a challenging one than Connelly. I usually read fiction with a rating of four stars and above. This was the only read out of eighteen novels last year that was below four. In fairness, Hostage hovered around that mark for a while but now it’s settled under four. This is not a text that you could binge on and finish in a few days, unlike Connelly. Props though to Mackintosh for crafting an accessible title. I rarely had to check the word finder and all the foreign words were British colloquialisms. The ending, in a nutshell, was anti-Connelly. After almost four hundred pages, it was a convincing conclusion. In a time where air travel is quite restricted, it’s nice to pick up a book like Hostage

Rating: 3.9/5

3. The Boys (Ron and Clint Howard). This is an intimate portrait into the lives of a Hollywood family. Since most of the action takes place in the 60s and 70s, this was before my time. The Howard brothers were born into a family of actors. Dad Rance and mum Jean had been aspiring thespians who had worked in theatre. Once their kids were in demand, the couple put their ambitions in the backseat and fully supported their sons’ job demands. Jean became a homemaker while Rance continued to act in small parts. The family prided themselves for their acting chops; they could channel the character when the need arises. The kids grew up in Burbank, California.

Ron’s most memorable turn was in The Andy Griffith Show as Opie. Then, he was known as Ronny Howard. Opie has become synonymous with redheads. The show lasted for eight seasons and was number one in the ratings when it folded, a rare feat. While playing Opie, Ron grew up on Paramount Television. As an outsider who was schooled in the studio, he was bullied when he actually showed up to the classroom. Meanwhile, Clint was best remembered in his Gentle Ben outing. He had likewise appeared as alien Barok in an early ep of Star Trek. Like many other child actors, the roles dried up as they reached adolescence. They had to attend real schools.  

Later on, Ron found a home in Happy Days. He lasted for seven years as one of the leads on the show. However, castmate Henry Winkler (Fonzie) often overshadowed him. The network bigwigs had tried to change the show’s title to Fonzie’s Happy Days, which did not sit well with Howard. Howard’s biggest film role was in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). By working with high-calibre directors, screenwriters, and talent factories, Howard was able to make the transition to directing. It wasn’t always easy and it didn’t happen overnight, but he realised and surpassed his dreams. Furthermore, his days as an amateur basketball coach also proved beneficial. Anyhow, Clint’s path was rockier. With his big brother graduating to the big leagues, he found vices instead. However, he was surrounded by people who cared, and he found a passion for writing.

The book is around four hundred pages long and included a foreword by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s eldest daughter). There is an intro by the brothers, twenty-five reasonable chapters, and an epilogue by the coauthors. Since I wasn’t familiar with their credits, much of the book wasn’t easygoing. However, the duo’s celebrity and star power ensure that this text has mass appeal. There were parts that were easy, but others that weren’t. More than a text on their childhood and Hollywood, The Boys captured the feel of the 60s and 70s. The Vietnam War, free love, the hippie movement, and JFK were some of the themes explored. Ron Howard tackles the things that shaped him, his early struggles and successes. Don’t expect him to go at length about his blockbusters. In this sense, this represents a different kind of read. Well worth a look.

Rating: 4.15/5

Helmer Ron
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Notes from el desierto

It’s the middle of summer and the weather is heating up. The battle against COVID has continued, with thousands of cases and swamped testing centres. The New Year has coincided with a noticeable surge in temperatures. Days have hovered in the thirties and nights have likewise been warm. This summer was predicted to be La Niña for the eastern states, with heavier rainfall than normal. December stuck to this plot; the month was unpredictable. The beginning of January, as per above, has been more settled and closer to the norm. 

No-go weather

Getting work done has been tough due to the high mercury. Finding inspiration is not as easy in warm conditions. Apart from running a fan, you must wear the thinnest tees and shorts. What happens when you’re not in the right attire? To be fair, doing anything demanding is a challenge, not just work or reading The Boys. These include household chores and even bingeing on Cobra Kai. Drinking cold beverages and chilled desserts are likewise part and parcel of the summertime. Once upon a time, the cinemas were a sure draw at this time of year. The air-con, school holidays, and summer blockbusters were a sure-fire way to beat the heat. COVID has forced people from carelessly entering the theatre; this time, they have to ‘stop, look, and listen.’

An aircon would be welcome. A few years ago, Anna (then my Chiro’s receptionist) told me that they did not have an air-con. She lived in Blacktown, where temps soared over forty degrees. My ex-neighbour told me that running an air-con is not good. He reasoned that shifting temperatures among rooms could cause a cold. I can say that, when the heat was that bad, you balk at braving ‘the desert.’ You just feel like eating ice cream or (for others) going swimming.

I remember looking for transport in Manila. We already settled for the first pedicab in line, before my mum reneged. She said, ‘It was hot.’ 

‘Get something with an air-con,’ said the jilted driver. ‘Anak ng pating. Sayang.’ (‘Son of a shark. Bummer’).

We took the next cab up. 

Meanwhile, there’s been no shortage of books this season. Since December, I’ve gone through four books: Stephen King, Indra Nooyi, Connelly, and Clare Mackintosh. While the latter was tough, the Ron Howard memoir is another heavyweight. More on them in my next reading catalogue. 

Tennis balls

In recent news, nine-time Australian Open winner Novak Djokovic had his visa cancelled. He had mentioned getting an exemption but was unable to prove his case. He was told to leave the country. Djokovic has been a notable anti-vaxer. This means that the Aussie summer of tennis would be without its biggest drawcard. The Joker has triumphed nine times at Melbourne since 2008. Only Nadal and Federer have broken his stranglehold at Melbourne Park. 

I also read that neither Williams sisters would be making the trip. Serena has enjoyed tremendous success in Melbourne. The awarding ceremony is filled with her appearances. Admittedly, the women’s trophy has been more egalitarian. Over the past decade, Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, and Victoria Azarenka have all emerged victorious. The surface has changed through the years but the crowds have consistently turned up. Traditionally, the second week of action coincides with the Australia Day public holiday. Each year, play is paused for ten minutes as the fireworks steal the scene. With Victoria recording a high number of cases, how would Melbourne Park look when the going heats up? 

COVID impact

The COVID situation extends far further than the tennis court. The virus looms large over all levels of sporting leagues. Whether it’s the NBA or the Premier League, the NFL or college golf, there’s ‘no rest for the wicked.’ For instance, a few NBA teams have to fill their rosters with D-League players and 10-day signees. Lakers star LeBron James has to soldier on with a ragtag team of no-name cagers. Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers were missing their top three scorers. 

COVID has changed the Association’s complexion, with both stars and benchwarmers in and out of covid protocols. Spare a thought for unvaccinated Uncle Drew: banished from the Barclays Center, he seems destined to be a part-time player. On the brighter side, the Nets still have Durantula and Harden: two of the baddest scorers out there. 

Summer leavin’

This marks the second full summer of COVID-19. There is a new variant (Omicron) and some countries have even eased their travel restrictions. Vaccinations in our state have exceeded ninety percent, but as mentioned, testing centres are under siege. We could accept that this challenge won’t be going away anytime soon. At least we could glean that summer’s just another phase. Before we know it, we’ll be storing our shorts and linen clothes in no time.  

Rod Laver Arena (Melbourne)
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