What I’ve Been Watching: Studio Ghibli Films

I haven’t been reading anything much lately, except hospital COVID policy documents and a lot of gloomy newspaper articles. My library and local bookshops have been shut for months and Sydney’s latest COVID outbreak has destroyed my ability to concentrate on long, complex books. However, I have subscribed to Netflix and I’ve been watching various TV series and films, which has led me to my best discovery of this year: Studio Ghibli films.

Yes, I know, people around the world have been rhapsodising about Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work for decades, but as I had little interest in fantasy or animated movies, I hadn’t paid much attention. Still, several Memoranda commenters had recommended his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, so I decided to give it a go.

'Howl's Moving Castle' film poster

I think I might have liked this film more if I hadn’t read and loved Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. One critic has accurately described it as ‘fanfiction’ of the novel. Imagine if there was a film called Harry Potter, in which there was no magic and Harry was a coffee shop owner and Draco ran the florist shop next door and Draco’s father was a property developer trying to raze the neighbourhood to build luxury apartments and Harry and Draco fell in love. That’s how much resemblance there is between the book and the film of Howl’s Moving Castle.

I quite liked the film’s version of the castle, a giant mechanical beast roaming about the countryside on chicken feet, and Sophie retained a lot of her characterisation, but oh, I hated their version of Howl! They turned a fascinating, flawed human into a romantic superhero who sacrifices himself to stop the war between two countries. (Mind you, I was so confused by the changes to the plot that I didn’t even realise the soldiers came from two different kingdoms until near the end of the film.) Calcifer is voiced by a wise-cracking Billy Crystal, the Scarecrow is a benevolent Christ-like figure instead of a terrifying enigma, Sophie’s sisters barely feature in the story, there’s no visit to the ‘Land of Wales’… But the worst part is that the ‘war is bad’ theme is hammered into each scene so heavily that there’s no space left for the story. The hand-painted animation is often very pretty, but I can’t say I liked this film very much. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I agree with the judges — The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is much better (and a lot funnier).

Netflix then recommended My Neighbour Totoro and I’m so glad I persisted with Studio Ghibli because this film is adorable. Four-year-old Mei and her older sister Satsuki move to the country with their father, to be closer to their mother’s hospital (I assume she has tuberculosis, although that’s never confirmed). The children meet some furry creatures in the forest — a small one, a medium-sized one and a giant Totoro — and have some very gentle adventures. Roger Ebert wrote a lovely review, in which he pointed out that this is:

“A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”

It’s true that My Neighbour Totoro doesn’t involve any thrilling, action-packed scenes or follow a conflict-driven storyline. The closest it comes to tension is when Mei, worried that her mother is dying, runs away from home to take her mother some home-grown vegetables, and Satsuki and all her neighbours try to find her, although I was always aware that everything would turn out just fine. There may be a lack of conventional ‘drama’, but this film is consistently engrossing, warm-hearted, funny and poignant.

'My Neighbour Totoro' film still

My favourite scene is when an awestruck Satsuki meets Totoro for the first time at a bus-stop. Totoro has only a very inadequate leaf on his head to protect himself from the rain, so Satsuki offers him an umbrella, to his delight. He gives her some seeds as thanks, then steps aboard the eight-legged Catbus and disappears. It’s a nearly wordless scene, but the facial expressions and gestures perfectly communicate each character’s feelings. I watched the version dubbed into English and I found the American actors’ voices a bit jarring. I think I might have liked this more if I’d watched the original Japanese version, even if there weren’t any subtitles.

Netflix’s next recommendation was even better. I thought Spirited Away was a masterpiece (and the Academy Awards judges agreed with me, making this “the only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film” to win Best Animated Feature Film). Ten-year-old Chihiro is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the country. Driving to their new home, they get lost and her parents decide to explore an apparently deserted theme park. Unfortunately, it’s also a gateway to a terrifying, confusing spirit world, where Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds herself trapped by a witch, who steals Chihiro’s name and makes her work in a bath-house.

'Spirited Away' film still

I don’t speak Japanese, haven’t visited Japan and know almost nothing about Shinto beliefs, so, much like Chihiro, I only understood about a third of what was going on, but I was still enthralled by every minute of this film. Each scene is beautifully depicted, from the witch’s elaborate, Western-style penthouse furnishings to the mechanics of the Japanese bath-house to the amazing landscapes. Chihiro is a relatable character — initially spoiled and sulky, then terrified by her situation, unable to decide who to trust, then determined and compassionate and courageous. The supernatural characters are fascinating, scary and often hilarious (my favourites were the soot sprites who fake injuries so Chihiro will do their job and then steal her shoes and socks, although I also developed a soft spot for enigmatic No-Face). The plot is inventive and complex and intriguing. The messages about the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction are cleverly woven into the story. I was still thinking about this film for days afterwards. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t usually like fantasy or animated movies. If anyone has recommendations for further Studio Ghibli films, please do let me know.

My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Diana Wynne Jones

I have had a mixed reaction to the novels of Diana Wynne Jones so far. I enjoyed Dogsbody, I thought Charmed Life was okay, I loathed Fire and Hemlock. I was also a bit put off by DWJ’s fans, some of whom display almost religious levels of devotion to her. This obliges them to not only promote her work assiduously, but also disparage anyone else who’s had the audacity to write children’s fantasy, especially if those writers manage to sell more books than their idol. (I mean, didn’t J. K. Rowling realise that Diana Wynne Jones was the only British author ever allowed to write about orphans attending magic school?)

'Howl's Moving Castle' by Diana Wynne JonesHowever, I’ve just finished Howl’s Moving Castle and finally understand what DWJ’s fans are going on about, because this book was utterly charming – funny, clever, warm-hearted and featuring some of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in children’s fantasy. The dreaded Wizard Howl, rumoured to suck the souls from innocent young girls or maybe eat their hearts, turns out to be far less evil than suspected, although with enough flaws to fill a (moving) castle. There’s also Calcifer, his adorably grumpy demon, Michael, the anxious apprentice and Sophie, the valiant heroine placed under a curse by a wicked witch. The author has a lot of fun playing with fantasy conventions – seven-league boots, magical disguises, mysterious spells, supernatural battles, kings sending magicians on dangerous quests and so on – although my favourite part was when the magical world collided with the real one. In one chapter, Sophie and Michael accompany Howl to his original home in the “land of Wales”. Sophie is baffled by the clothes (Howl dons a baggy jacket with the strange inscription “WELSH RUGBY”) and by the technology, which includes magical boxes with moving pictures, the boxes growing “on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall”. Throughout, the plot twists and turns in a very inventive and complicated manner, but it all ends as it should, with evil vanquished and the good living happily ever after.

The edition I read had some excellent illustrations by Tim Stevens (the scarecrow is especially creepy) and a lovely cover with Howl looking supernaturally handsome and his castle looming darkly in the background. But then I remembered this book was made into a much-loved animated film and went looking for the trailer and it looks TERRIBLE. The castle is all wrong! Everyone speaks American! The story looks more like a Disney princess romance than anything else! It doesn’t seem like the sort of film that even mentions “WELSH RUGBY”. However, if any of you have seen it and think it worth watching, I may give it a try. Also, if you have any recommendations for Diana Wynne Jones books that are just like Howl’s Moving Castle but nothing like Fire and Hemlock, I would be very interested to hear them.

My Favourite Books of 2014

I know there’s still more than a week until the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2014 (so far) that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I finished reading 84 books this year, which doesn’t include the two awful novels that I refused to keep reading, the memoir I’ve just started or the small pile of 1960s non-fiction I’m hoping to get through before New Year’s Day.

Types of books read in 2014

Author nationality for books read in 2014

Although this doesn’t take into account the author’s ethnic background, simply where they were living when they wrote the book.

After that, I got a bit bored with pie charts.

Author gender for books read in 2014

Another year when women authors dominated my reading list.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books
'Ramona Quimby, Age 8' by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby! I hadn’t read this series by Beverly Cleary before, and it was such a treat, getting to hang out with Ramona and her family. Ramona tries to be good, but grown-ups are so confusing and unfair and just don’t understand how difficult life is when you’re the youngest . . . and yet, no matter how much Ramona sulked and lost her temper and created havoc, she was always an endearing, sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Totally Joe by James Howe, and Dogsbody and Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (but loathed Fire and Hemlock – sorry, DWJ fans).

My favourite Young Adult novels

Does A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam count as Young Adult? It was probably my favourite book of the year. I also loved The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, about the differences that emerge between two sisters, one thirteen and awkward, the other sixteen and beautiful, when they’re left alone to look after their younger siblings on holiday in France. The characters are so real and interesting, and the setting so beautifully described. I didn’t have as much success with contemporary YA reads this year – I must have been choosing the wrong books or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for them.

My favourite fiction for adults

I continued to admire Alice Munro’s books, particularly her collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and I was highly entertained by E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. I don’t tend to read much crime fiction, but I did enjoy The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson (which, coincidentally, featured a fictional version of Josephine Tey).

My favourite non-fiction and memoirs
'Wesley the Owl' by Stacey O'Brien

I read so many interesting non-fiction books this year. My favourites included Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and two very funny books written by Americans about 1950s England – Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith and Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. I am such a sucker for Scientist-Adopts-Injured-Wild-Animal books 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' by Jeanette Wintersonand Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl by Stacey O’Brien was a good one – injured owlet Wesley grows up to regard the author as his ‘mate’, trying to push dead mice into her mouth at dinner time and viciously attacking anything that he sees as a threat to her (including her boyfriend and her own new bouffant hairdo). In the Depressing Lesbian Memoir category, I found myself engrossed in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (which definitely wins the year’s Best Book Title award).

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2015 brings you lots of wonderful books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).