Book Review: ’3096 Days’ by Natascha Kampusch

April 3, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I find long-term abduction stories fascinating. What kind of a person could do something so cruel to another human being? What kind of human being could live through such cruelty?

A few years back I read Alan Hall’s Monster (review here), a horrific investigative study into the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his biological daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years as a sex slave. Earlier this year I tackled Elizabeth Smart’s My Story (review here), the account of her harrowing 9-month abduction at the hands of a deranged couple in 2002.

After reading My Story I decided first-person accounts of such stories were probably best avoided as Smart’s book underwhelmed due to her weak writing, but I decided to ignore my own advice after coming across 3,096 Days, penned by another Austrian abductee, Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive from the ages of 10 and 18. After breezing through it in a few days, I now have to backtrack from what I said about first-person accounts, because 3,096 days is not just the best abduction book out there — it’s one of the best first-person true stories and finely written autobiographies I’ve ever read.

Natascha Kampusch was an unhappy, overweight and introverted 10-year-old who was on her way to school after a fight with her mother when she was tossed in a van by Wolfgang Priklopil, a mentally ill recluse who appeared polite and “normal” to locals. She would spend the majority of the next 3,096 days in a steel-enforced dungeon in Priklopil’s house that brought back memories of Josef Fritzl’s house of horrors. She would be starved, subjected to mental and physical abuse and torture, and living in constant fear of her bi-polar captor. By the time she was escaped, at age 18, Kampusch was a shell of a person, barely 40kg (despite being 175cm) and terrified of the free world she faced for the rest of her life.

This is a remarkable book. Kampusch’s writing is nothing short of amazing, considering she lost more than 8 of the most important years of her education. On the other hand, she spent a large proportion of her time in captivity reading, writing and educating herself, so in that sense it’s not surprising that she comes across as such a seasoned writer.

Some credit must go to her co-writer Heike Gronemeier and her English translator Jill Kreuer, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of the book is entirely her own words, because only she could describe — in tender, beautiful and heartfelt prose — the complex emotions she has towards her ordeal and her abductor whom she mostly calls “the kidnapper” in the book.

In many ways I found Kampusch’s writing almost Anne Frank-esque, not just in her observations and views on life but in the way her words manage to evoke a pure emotional response. Her descriptions are dramatic yet unpretentious, piercing yet comforting. I don’t know how she does it but there were so many passages where I found myself in awe of with her ability to hit the mark.

When I read Elizabeth Smart’s My Story, I complained about my inability to connect with her psyche and how the things she said often felt like “justifications” for her seemingly bizarre behaviour (such as squandering many obvious opportunities for escape) rather than “explanations” of why someone in her position might act that way. With Kampusch, it was the opposite. Even though she was criticized just as much as, if not more than, Smart for her behaviour, I understood where she was coming from perfectly. Had I not read her book, I too might have been baffled as to how she could go out with her kidnapper in public, and even on a ski trip, without reaching out for help. But after reading about the the depths of her fear and the grip Priklopil had over her, everything made sense.

Another impressive thing about 3,096 days is Kampusch’s insights into Priklopil, from his personality and mental illness to his upbringing and unnatural relationship with his mother. You can tell that despite everything he put her through, she had a special connection with him, and how could she not when he was the only person in her life, the only person she spoke to and interacted with, for 8.5 years? I was impressed with the way she saw him as not just an evil man (the way Smart saw her abductor), but as a complex person who could show kindness and vulnerability but also had a terrifying darkness that constantly threatened to overwhelm him. As she said, children who are ill-treated and abused by their parents and guardians still love them, and I suppose that goes some way towards explaining her feelings towards Priklopil and why she wept when she found out he had thrown himself under a train after she escaped.

I was also impressed with her refusal to accept that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, saying the label oversimplifies the complex relationship she had with her kidnapper. You can tell she has put a lot of intelligent thought, research and effort into analysing her ordeal and her emotions in the years since she was freed. Instead of trying to forget and put those eight years of her life behind her, which would have been impossible anyway, she is doing her best to make sense of this atrocious, meaningless crime committed against her.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to demean Smart or her experience. She had a completely different type of abductor and the period of her captivity was not so long that she could develop any positive feelings towards the perpetrators. But the contrast between the approach of the two books and the way their respective stories were told is stark, probably something akin comparing this the quality of the writing in this blog to that of the New Yorker.)

The only genuine fault I can find with the book is Kampusch’s refusal to talk about her sexual abuse at the hands of Priklopil. While she admitted in interviews that she was raped several times during her ordeal, in the book she sidestepped the issue by saying that there are some parts of her capture she wished to keep private (she did say that Priklopil chained her to his bed but mostly just wanted to cuddle). You can’t blame her for not wanting to talk about something like this, but the omission does spark concerns that perhaps Kampusch could be leaving other details out as well. It’s unfortunate because she already has so many doubters, many of whom believe she is hiding something. I can only repeat what I said in the case of Elizabeth Smart, which is unless you personally experience what they’ve gone through you have no idea how you’d react in the same situation.

Ultimately, I am certain that 3,096 Days will resonate with me for quite some time. It’s a fascinating read that’s harrowing and hard to stomach at times, but I found it contemplative, empathetic and truthful — in the sense that not everything in life is black or white, good or evil. It’s a testament to Natascha Kampusch’s courage, her strength, her intelligence, and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have come across this inspiring book.

5/5

PS: 3,096 Days has been adapted into a feature film of the same name. I’m not sure if I will watch it, but here’s the trailer anyway. There is also full documentary on Kampusch’s story on YouTube called 3,096 Days in Captivity.

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules (2014)

April 2, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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First of all, The Legend of Hercules is the Hercules movie starring Twilight beefcake Kellan Lutz, not the yet-to-be-released one with The Rock. Secondly, despite everything you’ve heard about it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. Its 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is misleading because it means only 3 out of 100 critics thought it was a good movie, not that the average rating of the movie is 3 out of 100 (or 0.15 stars out of 5). In truth, The Legend of Hercules is just terribly average and lacking in originality, and likely inferior to that other Hercules movie. But it’s not THAT bad. Really.

Where do I start? In ancient Greece, of course. King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins from The Expendables 2) is the king of the world, but he’s also a selfish, warmongering dude who’s extremely villainous. His estranged wife prays for guidance and “boom”, she’s doing the naughty with Zeus, who is apparently a wham-bam-thank-you-mam kinda fellow. The result is a baby who would grow up to become Hercules (Kellan Lutz).

I’ll stop there, but essentially Hercules is the story of a prophecised half-man, half-god pretty boy who has to find the strength within himself to take on the evil regime of his adopted father and wimpy half-brother while finding time to woo a pretty blonde lady played by Gaia Weiss. Without giving too much away, the film is part Gladiator, part The Passion of the Christ, part Braveheart and part Thor – in that order.

That’s one of the biggest problems with The Legend of Hercules – it feels derivative and lacking in passion. It borrows liberally and shamelessly without putting its own twist or stamp on things. The pedestrian script doesn’t do the film any favours either, but despite the Herculean efforts of director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) the film can’t quite shake its “cash-grabbing” vibe.

The film was made for US$70 million, which is a relatively small budget for a “blockbuster” like this. And it shows. From the weak special effects (like the bizarrely fake-looking lion) to the overall look of the sets and its visual texture, The Legend of Hercules is lacklustre all over.

To be fair, however, I did enjoy some of the action sequences in the film, both in and out of the gladiator arena. They were well choreographed and occasionally exciting, and it helps that Scott Adkins is a professional martial artist who knows what he’s doing. The scenes of Kellan Lutz doing his best impersonation of Kratos from God of War were fun too.

Speaking of Kellan Lutz, aka “charisma vortex”, it seems more than plausible that he’s the biggest reason the film has been a worldwide flop. He seems like a nice guy and a fine physical specimen who looks like he just jumped straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch print ad, but it might come as a shock to many of you that he CAN’T ACT.  He has two facial expressions — blank, for when he doesn’t need to do anything, and an ape-like grimace for every other emotional expression. He’s basically the opposite of Daniel Day-Lewis.

I don’t profess to be an expert at judging male aesthetics, but Lutz is also one weird looking dude. There are some angles where he appears conventionally handsome and others where his face looks like an orangutan stuffed into a glass cube. The orange fake tan doesn’t help either.

Still, he’s an upgrade over Liam Garrigan, who plays Hercules’ half-brother Iphicles. Garrigan, I’m sure, is a good-looking man in real life, but here he sports a haircut that makes Tom Hanks’ rug in The Da Vinci Code look like a masterpiece. With a hairstyle like that you might as well have stuck a sign on his head that says “wimpy, gutless, jealous older brother with inferior complex who will die and no one will care.”

Anyway, as much as I have shit all over it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. For all its flaws, the fight scenes are solid and it’s only a merciful 99 minutes long. If you treat the bad script, bad dialogue, bad haircuts and Kellan Lutz’s performance as comedy, it’s actually not an unentertaining movie.

2.25 stars out of 5

Hsiao Tong Yi Steak House (Taipei)

April 2, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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It was a special occasion, so we decided to go to a famous restaurant in Taipei’s Songshan district called Hsiao Tong Yi Steak House (小統一牛排館). You can kind of tell from the name that it’s probably been around for a while, and that’s certainly the case as the place has been serving top quality steaks to customers for decades and is well known among Taipei’s older generations.

The restaurant is fairly big. It’s dimly lit and the decor is old, as are the waitresses, so it definitely has a more of a traditional feel to it.

The menu is quite extensive, with a large selection of steaks and seafood. Most people opt for the set meals, which include a dip, house bread, a soup, a main course and a dessert. It’s a fairly standard thing for steakhouses these days. Price-wise we’re talking about NT$1000 a head, minimum, plus a 10% service charge. As I understand it they also have cheaper business lunch menu and special set courses for special occasions such as Valentine’s and Christmas.

The lighting isn’t very good and I resorted to using to different iPhones (those short-lifed batteries!) so I apologise if the photos are crap (I already tried to fix the exposure a little).

First up, which I didn’t bother photographing, was some carrot, celery and cucumber sticks and a thousand island dip. It wasn’t bad, I suppose, but a pretty no-frills starter for what is a relatively pricey meal.

Next, some house bread rolls and garlic bread, which came with a cheese spread that had a bit of an unusual taste. There is also regular butter if you ask for it. None of the bread stood out as being anything special.

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Then came the soup. We had a choice of corn soup, seafood soup, onion soup and borscht. If you pay an extra NT$50 you can add a baked pastry to the top. We tried the corn, seafood and onion. The corn was regular, the seafood underwhelming and the onion was decent.

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The salad was next. It was pre-prepared and had lettuce, cucumber, tomato, carrot and sultanas. The dressing was thick and creamy and reminded me of thousand island but wasn’t quite the same. I didn’t mind it, but it was another unimaginative appetizer.

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Finally, the main courses arrived. The first one here is a steak with a fish fillet.

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The next photo is of the highly recommended steak with abalone.

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The one below is what I ordered, the Kobe “fatless” steak.

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For the steaks you have an option of either mushroom or black pepper sauce. I chose the mushroom but also sampled the black pepper, which was quite spicey and suitable for those with strong tastes.

I will speak for the Kobe “fatless” steak I got and admit it was a very high quality steak — extremely soft and flavoursome, even without the mushroom sauce I added on top. It came at medium, though with the hotplate below if could soon become well done if you take too long.

I thought my steak was the nicest. The others were a little chewier but also quite good, and the abalone was somewhat overcooked, making it tougher to sink my teeth into it. The fish was nothing to write home about.

Last, but not least, the dessert, which was a caramel pudding with a slice of watermelon.

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The overall experience was not bad, and the steaks were indeed wonderful, but the other things that came in the set meal lacked freshness and innovation. While newer competitors like Wang Steak are coming up with creative dishes, comfortable modern decor and ridiculously well-trained staff, Hsiao Tong Yi feels sadly stuck in the past. If you’re after a good steak, then sure, it’s a good choice, though it you are after a total package experience then there are definitely plenty of more exciting options available.

7.5/10

Details

Hsiao Tong Yi Steak House (小統一牛排館)

Address: No. 174 Jiankang Road, Songshan district, Taipei (nearest MRT is Songshan Airport or Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, but it’s a fair distance if travelling by foot)

Phone: +886 2 2760 8027 ‎

Hours: 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, 5:00 – 9:00 pm

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

March 31, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Hard to believe, but Zack Snyder’s 300 was released in 2006. It came out to mixed reviews, but personally I found it to be a revelation, a campy, delightful bloodbath of stylized action and popcorn fun of the purest kind, the closest thing we have to a direct translation of a graphic novel to the big screen. There is also no other film that makes people want to work out more than this one.

There was talk of a sequel almost immediately after it became a big hit, but it has taken nearly 8 years for 300: Rise of an Empire to be made. Any time it takes that long for a sequel to be made (I even remember seeing posters and trailers as long as two years ago), you have to be concerned — is there a reason? Was it a troubled production? Were there financial difficulties?

I have no idea, frankly, but what I do know is that much of the goodwill leftover from the original had just about dissipated by the time this film came out. They left it too long, and fans of the first film had either forgotten how much they enjoyed it or hyped it up so much that the sequel was doomed to unrealistic expectations.

Directed by Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire is not a direct sequel but rather a companion piece that examines events before, during and after the events in 300. There’s no Gerard Butler screaming “This. Is. Sparta!!!” this time, but his wife, played by Lena Headey, is still around looking like she just stepped off the set of Game of Thrones. The two central characters are General Themistocles, played by Aussie Sullivan Stapleton (who was brilliant in Animal Kingdom), and the ruthless naval commander Artemesia, played by the sultry Eva Green. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the God-King Xerxes (the man who killed Butler in the first film) and David Wenham also makes a cameo as Dilios, a survivor from the 300 (the one with bandages around one eye).

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The story is more convoluted that necessary, but essentially it’s all about Themistocles leading the Greeks against Artemesia’s Persian forces. The action is, like its predecessor, bloody and stylistic, with plenty of flying fluids and severed limbs interspersed with rapid and slow-mo mass battle sequences. The distinctive colour tone is again grey with splashes of red and this time blue, and the special effects, though not noticeably improved since 2008, are as good as any blockbuster made in 2014.

The biggest positive about the film, apart from it being ab absolute visual feast, is that it feels like part of the 300 universe without being exactly the same. The films look similar but there are also plenty of differences, with the most obvious being that most of the battle scenes are on the sea, whereas in 300 they are all on the mountains and in the plains. It doesn’t come close to regenerating that freshness of its predecessor but still stands firm on its own.

The cheesy lines are harder to find this time, which is a shame, because it takes a lot of fun out of the film. As for the performances, Eva Green dominates and shines through the gloomy greys. She takes what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian script with a typical baddie and turns Artemesia into a memorable villain; a wild, vengeful nutjob who makes Stapleton’s Themistocles seem boring by comparison. Not to crap on Stapleton, who has already proven to me he can carry a role, but here his character feels sorely lacking in charisma.

At the end of the day, 300: Rise of an Empire is still a fairly enjoyable romp. It lacks the awe factor from the first film but the action sequences are still impressive and Eva Green is fantastic as the psycho villain. It’s a solid companion piece to the original but will likely be remembered as yet another sequel that didn’t really have to be made. Perhaps when another sequel is made (it’s being planned) to extend the series into a trilogy it will be viewed upon more favorably in hindsight.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Heaven is For Real’ by Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo

March 27, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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After having read Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander last year, my spiritual journey continues with Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This bestseller, which has a film adaptation coming to our screens soon, is written by conservative American writer Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, the little boy who supposedly went to heaven when he was 4 years old and came back to tell everyone about it.

It’s an easy book to read, and with just 163 pages, the type you could breeze through in a sitting or two (it took me three, which is pretty impressive by my standards). The writing is solid and builds suspense in a natural and unforced manner — largely through Colton’s medical ordeal which led to the alleged out-of-body experience, then through the bits and pieces of “heaven” he reveals to his family following his return. The story is told from the point of view of Todd, who shares his astonishment as his young son begins telling him things the 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have known (or so he says), including a miscarriage that had been hidden from him and the youthful appearance of a great grandfather he had never met.

The story is sold as nothing but a miracle of Biblical proportions, and the details of it as told by the Burpo family are certainly incredible. A lot of the stuff little Colton says are goosebump-inducing stuff (we’re talking Jesus and angels and Satan and the whole shebang), but the whole thing comes across as a little too neat and a little too packaged, which is no wonder why the book has polarized readers.

You see, the one crucial  thing I’ve withheld about the book is that Todd Burpo is a pastor who decided he was going to devote his life to God from the age of 13, and his whole family seems just as passionate about the Bible as him. Accordingly, unlike Proof of Heaven, which purposely avoided references to religion and heaven in a Biblical sense, Heaven is for Real is ALL ABOUT the Bible, and how Colton’s experience “proves” that the stories and descriptions of things in the Good Book are literally real. For example, when the Bible says Jesus sits on a throne in heaven, that’s exactly what it means, according to Colton, because that’s what he saw when he was there. When the Bible says Jesus sits “on the right hand of God,” it means he literally sits on God’s right hand side in heaven (like all the time?). And of course, Colton also saw Mary there with them because the Bible says that too. These are just a few of the plethora of such examples in the book.

Christians, especially those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, will love this book (and they do). It’s got a great story and an inspiring message at heart. Todd Burpo had been questioning his faith after a string of personal woes, from financial difficulties to broken bones and a cancer scare, and his mental and emotional state were in the dumps when his beloved little boy was hospitalised with a life-threatening condition. He got angry at God, but he also prayed and asked for a miracle, and God delivered, saving his little boy and restoring his faith forever. And with the way the book has been selling, it looks like the financial troubles have been obliterated too.

But for people who have a healthy scepticism of these types of claims, there are also plenty of ways to dismiss Heaven is for Real, with the most obvious being that the kid has clearly been indoctrinated from birth. His entire life up to that point revolved around his religion — his parents read him Bible stories every night, he goes to church all the time, he attends Sunday school every week. Even the movies they watch have Christian themes (eg, the Narnia series). Todd Burpo says his son talked about things in the Bible he couldn’t possibly have known, but that could be just parents underestimating their kids. I know I’m often amazed at some of the things my 2-year-old knows and says every day, wondering how the heck and where the heck he picked them up. Throw in a “leading questions”-type approach from the parents, a bit of wishful thinking and a touch of literary embellishment, and it’s not hard to conclude that little Colton was likely suffering from a wild imagination and a desire to please his parents, who had probably subconsciously encouraged him with their excited body language and readiness to believe whatever he said.

The kicker, which I forgot to mention, is that there was never any medical proof, or even suggestion, that Colton was medically “dead” during his surgery. How can someone have a near-death experience when they’re not actually close to death?

That said, I think being completely dismissive of the book is being unfair to the Burpos, who seem like wonderful people and devout Christians who genuinely believe what happened to them was a miracle. This is where being a pastor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could say it supports the view that he would not lie and that it makes perfect sense why God would want to reward a family like theirs for their faith, but on the other you could just write it off as a biased preacher hearing what he wanted to hear and skewing everything in the direction that matches his beliefs.

My view is somewhat mixed. Some of the things Colton says defy explanation, and even if you don’t believe he went to heaven you have to admit they are eerily compelling. However, out-of-body experiences, not just NDEs, are not uncommon phenomena (there’s a never-ending amount of literature out there for open-minded people who want to read it), and while most of them have both common and unique elements (such as Eben Alexander’s experience in Proof of Heaven), few come close to meetings with Jesus or corroborating the literal truth of the Bible.

What the literature suggests is that the afterlife, supposing there is one, is a subjective, almost tailor-made experience. People tend to see things and meet people that comfort them, even family members they haven’t met before or don’t remember meeting. Now, I can’t possibly know if little Colton had an out-of-body experience or just an awesome dream, but if we assume he did, could it be that what he saw, given his uber religious upbringing, are just the things that comfort him the most? The things that he would want to, or even expect to, see when he dies? I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it’s food for thought.

Anyway, Heaven is for Real was a fun read that has the potential to be a good or extremely awful movie. I actually enjoyed the first half, about the Burpo family’s struggles and Colton’s frightening health scare, than the second, when the Christian imagery started raining down on the pages and tedious chunks of Biblical verses began getting rolled out to match everything Colton was saying. Christians will say it proves the truth of heaven and the Bible, while non-believers will say it only proves the depths of human stupidity and naivete. Overall, it’s still a book I would recommend to people I think will appreciate it for what it is — a story that will make us think about the nature of life and asks us what we ultimately want to believe when we die.

3/5

PS: Here’s the trailer for the film, starring Greg Kinnear, scheduled for an April 16 release.

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