John Sayles’ Florida is a magical place where developers swap mangrove forests for ‘nature on a leash’.
Two women, played by Edie Falco and Angela Bassett, return to their roots in a northern coastal Florida threatened by resort developers. The monologues which drive this classy ensemble piece are memorable, but the one-liners are souvenirs. Edie Falco’s character Maryl is a tough cookie whose daddy ‘wouldn’t sell if he had his nuts in a trash compacter’. His reticence frustrates real estate’s ‘frontal assault’ on her beachhead long enough for Maryl to have a dalliance with the idealistic architect of destruction played by Timothy Hutton.
Meanwhile, black residents raise a little token hell to delay being bulldozed from their beachfront.
Maryl’s faux-mermaid philosophy is ‘keep that smile on your face, even when you’re drowning’ – but using wood from a burnt-down juke joint to build a coffin wins best metaphor in an inspired script written in blood and sea salt.
While I was in Florida for the Bush coup about a million seagulls set down in unison over the oyster flats of Apalachicola. The scene recalled an Everglades guide who dismissed Yankees gawking at a solitary flamingo by recalling a time when there were so many (flamingoes, not Yankees) that they would blot out the sun. Sayles shows how humans have commoditized the planet in their Banana Republic – and only those who fight it derive meaning from their shallow lives.
It's not often that a CD is unable to list many of its artists for fear of legal repercussions. Nonetheless, Scattered People, an album made by refugees in Australia, commands its listeners to take note - and, yes, even dance.
Given its circumstances, Scattered People is an astonishingly professional album and one that has deservedly picked up a clutch of awards. Presented with a minimum of fuss, it deals with the universal refugee desire: 'We have come seeking safety,' says narrator Charmaine Rafaiah, so speaking for the myriad of nationalities which make up the scattered people of the title.
If this range of musical traditions posed any teething problems for Queensland producers Simon Monsour and Brian Procopis, they certainly don't show it. While individual composers show their roots (there are some light high-life riffs on Augustus Mpofu's 'Sweet Freedom', for instance) the album's held together by a tight band, a music that tilts towards a soft soul and some moving work from the Refugee Claimant Support Centre Choir.
Possibly its organizing tactic - each song is given a brief narration - lends itself to best effect as a live event. But Scattered People never fails to hit the spot (and as all profits go to projects to assist Australia's refugee claimants one hopes it will do well). Best bits, inevitably, are the group efforts and 'Stand With Us', the closing number led by the fine-voiced Choir co-ordinator Kerrie Woodrow, is a succinct and eloquent request to the world's fair-minded people.
Concert for East Timor
Finally, after 26 years of Indonesian rule, East Timor sealed its independence with peaceful democratic elections in May of this year.
It's not been without a struggle. Some 200,000 East Timorese - a staggering one-fifth of the population - died as a result of famine, disease and violence during the Indonesian occupation. This collective trauma is not to be forgotten easily.
Organized by the Melbourne Millennium Chorus and a host of musicians from both East Timor and Australia, the Concert for East Timor makes up in sheer spirit what it lacks in other departments. It's an ambitious mix of traditional tunes, band-led songs and choral singing. Some tracks - an adaptation of Peter Gabriel's 'Biko' or Bob Marley's 'No Woman No Cry' - are rousing classics. At other moments - for all the Chorus's endeavours - the concert is let down by anodyne music and lyrics.
But when the Concert for East Timor gets going, it can be electrifying. La Voce Della Luna and Kavisha Mazzella's 'L'egualianza' (Equality) pulse with life, and Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier's three songs showcase a wonderfully bluesy voice which is the CD's highlight. The Dili All Stars go for a good-time ska with 'Liberdade' (Liberty) that becomes all the more pertinent when you realize that prior to 1999 the Timorese were forbidden to write 'Timorese' songs.
Life of Pi
Publishers often claim that a book will 'change your life'. Canongate have higher aspirations for Yann Martel's second novel. It will, they claim, make you believe in God. Hyperbole aside, this is an astonishingly original novel.
The eponymous Pi is a 16-year-old boy whose father runs a zoo in Pondicherry, India. His pondering on the behaviour of the animals leads him to develop a strong religious zeal and he decides to become a practising Muslim, Hindu and Christian - greatly disconcerting the authorities of these faiths.
Following political instability, Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and emigrate to Canada. The ship carrying the family and the animals sinks in mid-Pacific and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a female orang-utan, a hyena, a zebra and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Survival logic operates remorselessly and soon only Richard Parker and Pi are left. In order to survive Pi has to become a 'high seas animal trainer'.
Together boy and tiger embark on an epic voyage of suffering and discovery as they drift for months on the open ocean. To sustain such a slender and fanciful plot is trick enough but this mesmeric, dreamlike novel does much more, immersing the reader in a dazzlingly inventive narrative and even springing a startling twist in the final pages which sheds new light on the whole tale. This wonderful book did not make me believe in God but it did reinforce my faith in the considerable redemptive powers of fiction.
The New Rulers of the World
Though a slightly slimmer volume than some of its celebrated predecessors, The New Rulers of the World will surely be read no less avidly. Pilger is unique not just for his undimmed anger but also for the sharpness of his focus, the range of the targets he chooses and the meticulous precision with which he hits them - often with their own words. It's also the vitality of the human stories he tells that makes his work so luminous and inspiring.
He provides us with plenty of ammunition too. Looking for the sanctuaries of international terrorists? How about New York (Thiounn Prasith, Pol Pot's henchman in Cambodia), Miami (Chilean military junta member Armando Fernandez Larios) or Hawaii (Argentine military junta member Jorge Enrico)? Pilger describes the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan as 'kindergartens compared with the world's leading university of terrorism at Fort Benning in Georgia'.
There is a minor difficulty with the title - the 'new' rulers of the world turn out to be quite old. As Pilger points out, however, an entirely new danger is that the US Government's military reach now far exceeds its economic grasp - which has passed to transnational corporations - making it predisposed to rely on armed force.
'Who will put aside the chessboard,' he asks, 'and explain that only when great grievance, injustice and insecurity are lifted from nations will terrorism recede?' Reading this book renders the question almost rhetorical.
The World We're In
If press reports are to be believed, the majority of Americans genuinely do not understand why criticism of their country is growing in every corner of the globe. If they listened they would hear a myriad of voices protesting against unrelenting American imperialism. Now, one of Britain's most respected political thinkers, Will Hutton, has joined the fray with The World We're In, a follow-up to his influential critique of Thatcherism, The State We're In. What sets Hutton's book apart from countless others that have argued against Uncle Sam is its exploration of how the rise of American conservatism since the 1960s has given birth to an unequal financial management system that enslaves the world. Hutton demonstrates not only how American 'feral capitalism' has produced unsustainable levels of domestic inequality, but also how it exports economic and social disintegration through global financial markets. This description of how extreme capitalism works makes for a captivating read and sets the stage for Hutton's main argument: that Europe must stop mimicking America and instead find a way of strengthening its tradition of socially responsible capitalism. Although focused almost exclusively on North America and Europe, it's of interest to anyone who wonders just how the world's only superpower can be peacefully reined in.
My only major criticism is Hutton's tendency to assume that if left to its own devices Europe would naturally develop a more caring form of capitalism. Although there is evidence that European political and business leaders are increasingly aware that current trends in global inequality are not sustainable, Europe will still need a lot of pushing - from within and without its borders - to realize what Hutton sees as its potential as a force for worldwide equity.
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