November Reviews

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November was a month of major readjustment for me, keeping me busy and reducing my opportunities to add to this blog. Hopefully that will change in the weeks to come. In the meantime, here are some reviews of the books and movies I managed to avail of during the month.

Book Reviews

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson: Written with the full cooperation of the Apple founder in the years before his death but without his editorial interference, Isaacson’s in-depth review of Jobs’ life reveals him to be a complex, often unlikeable, character who is redeemed by a life trajectory that saw him learn from his failures and recover to change a range of global industries. Isaacson’s interest is in Jobs the man rather than Jobs the technological pioneer, and this book is likely to disappoint those who have criticised or lauded him over the years from within the technology industries, but as a portrait of his personality, it’s exhaustive. It’s not likely to become a classic of the biography field, but as a portrait of Jobs himself, it will probably never have a rival.

Temeraire, Naomi Novik: Taking fantasy out of its traditional faux-medieval setting can be tricky, but Naomi Novik manages to make it very rewarding as she delivers a Napoleonic-era tale embellished by the addition of dragons. Not only is the impact of dragons on the world carefully thought through, but the characters are rendered with due care and attention to detail, creating an overall package that is emotive without being overly sentimental. One of the best new fantasy offerings in years, it not only tells a fine tale but also sets up a world that most readers will be keen to explore in subsequent books in the series.

Movie Reviews

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: One of the finest assemblages of British acting talent in years (all white and mostly male, mind you) offer up a masterclass in acting as they move through a spy thriller where the smallest gesture or glance carries a novel’s worth of meaning. Based on the Le Carre book, this is as far from James Bond as you can get, with the unravelling of the treachery at the heart of the plot requiring patience and psychology, with guns kept off the screen except for a few moments at the beginning and end of the film. A film about loyalty and betrayal as much as it is about the Cold War conflict it depicts, it is intricate enough to reward repeated viewing if you’re determined to winkle out all the nuances on display by the first-rate cast.

Wuthering Heights: Taking the latest shot at the classic tale of gothic moorland romance, director Andrea Arnold strips away the framing narrative and minor characters to deliver a version that proves heavy on the atmospherics but somewhat muted in terms of passion. Extreme closeups are seemingly meant to remove the emotional distance between the audience and the cast, but everything proves to be downplayed to the point where the adult character of Heathcliff, more central than he is in the book, never quite escapes the sulky victim of circumstance he’s portrayed as in his youth. The film itself is stark and easy to follow, even given the lack of dialogue, but for all of its apparent efforts to get to the heart of Emily Brontë’s tale, it doesn’t reveal much worth knowing.

The Mammy Principle

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Even Lenin listened to his mammy.

This modest proposal has been brewing in my brain for a while. Pretty much since St. Petersburg, and that was several months ago now. It might not seem that way, but it was.

If you spend any length of time in a museum or art gallery in Russia, you’ll note a common feature to almost every room: the presence of a middle-aged to elderly lady sitting in the corner. Her purpose? To watch over the unwashed hordes who troop through her fief every day and threaten to do unspeakable things to the wonderful things that have been collected for their perusal. Her only defence against this dark threat: a stare that could reduce a hardened Red Army veteran to a sobbing wreck in only a few seconds.

I have to admit my admiration for the genius of this use of an underutilised resource. Who in Ireland does not know the power of a mammy’s disapproval? Even worse when she has risen to the exalted heights of grandmotherhood and can express her disdain over several generations at once. I shall not even speak of greatgrandmothers, lest I inadvertently draw the attention of one.

Such is the threat that these women wield that they rarely have to employ their glare: being in the same room as one, no matter how large or imposing the room, is enough to remind you of all the times when, as a child, you contemplated raiding the biscuit tin, only to turn and find yourself face to face with someone who knew what you were thinking before you did. I suspect that they only leave their seats to have a natter with one another just to reinforce the connections in their victims’ minds between those childhood guardians and the wardens of Russia’s treasures.

Perhaps, in this time of economic distress, we should seek to make similar use of the deeply-felt power of the mammy. I don’t speak of situating them in our museums, or even our banks or shops, where they would surely make any would-be thief pause in his criminality and slink away, shamefaced. No, the places where we need to situate our mammies are boardrooms and parliamentary chambers. No sooner would a captain of industry contemplate an ethically questionable shortcut to profit or an elected official dream up a scheme to enrich those who aided their rise to power than their inner guilt would kick in, they would look over to the corner to find a pair of steady eyes staring back at them over a copy of Ireland’s Own, and they would then return to find some more difficult yet more virtuous means of attaining their goals.

The price for all of this would be small: an increase in general stress levels among the powerful of the land, a few extra chairs and cushions here and there and a constant stream of tea and biscuits on demand. The rewards, I’m certain, would be many.

Hobbitual Liars

Opening the gates to Middle Earth: in your face!

Peter Jackson has just released the latest video blog on the making of The Hobbit, focusing on the technical nature of the filming, especially the 48fps digital shoot and the efforts to create a fully 3D cinematic experience. Fascinating stuff, and despite my suspicions of all things 3D in the cinema I took a look at it, continuing my ongoing efforts to spoil every possible nice surprise that the cinema is likely to offer me months, if not years, in advance.

However . . . there was a point in the video where my sceptical hackles were raised. Not because of the 3D itself, but because I was somewhere close to 100 percent sure that Jackson was having a laugh at the expense of his audience of desperate fans. Enlisted in this effort, if I’m right, were two of the most respected Tolkien artists, Alan Lee and John Howe. If you don’t want to be spoiled, jump ahead to 8:28 on the film above and take a look. They describe a rather . . . unique method of creating 3D conceptual art.

Now, as I say, I’m about 100 percent sure that this is a piss take. It’s presented in a straight-faced manner, and I haven’t seen anyone else calling it out as being ridiculous, but then straight-faced jokes are very much in Jackson’s repertoire. So can anyone tell me whether I’m just being overly suspicious here, or is Peter up to his old tricks again?

The Perils of Polish

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Google Reader on iPhone. A last bastion of how things used to be.

As much as I’m a longstanding fan of Apple’s software and hardware, I have to admit that Google has been playing a large part in my technological life for an long time. Gmail was ridiculously useful when it first emerged and has remained so, and Google Maps was repeatedly helpful during my global travels. However, the biggest Google product in my life has long been one of the company’s lesser known lights: its online RSS reader service, Google Reader. For at least the last few years, it’s been a quick and easy way for me to keep up with numerous news sources that might have taken me hours to trawl through if I’d visited each web site independently.

Not too long ago, Google announced that they were going to update Google Reader to bring it into orbit around the company’s new star product, Google+, integrating it with the new social hub and altering its UI to make it part of the new Google “look”. I didn’t pay too much attention at the time – I had already signed up to Google+ and figured that Google would make the transition pretty painless for existing users. Well, the change went through a few days ago, and some people aren’t happy.

The least of the problems is the UI, which is part of Google’s drive for visual consistency across its products. Such things are to some degree a matter of taste, and while the new design looks polished and professional, it also seems a bit flat, with elements seeming to hang in space, unconnected to anything around them. Adding to the problem is the fact that the sidebar and header take up an unnecessary amount of space, leaving less room for the primary purpose of the service, which is reading articles. (I’ll give Google a pass on the fact that the new UI seems to slow down rendering of the page, as my four-year-old laptop is showing its age, but if I’m having problems there, others probably are as well.)

More problematic for me is the mutilation of the feature that kept me with Google Reader over the years: the ability to share articles with my Reader-using friends. The new method for sharing works through Google+ and requires you to publicly “+1” an article first. You can bypass the “+1” requirement by clicking the “share” button in the universal Google control bar at the top right of the screen, but it’s not an intuitive leap to connect that button to a free-floating article elsewhere on the page. As for people who use Reader but not Google+? It seems that I’ve been disconnected from them on a permanent basis, unless they feel like signing up.

On my part, it’s a lesson about not relying too much on one company to support your online habits on an ongoing basis. As an Apple user, I should be well versed in the notion that a company has no obligation to continue supporting a product or service that offers it no profit. After all, Reader is small beans for Google. However, for Google, the reaction from Reader’s users should be a reminder that the product from which it makes most of its money is its users (Android is making more money for Microsoft right now). Driving those users to accept a new world order based around Google+ and a new UI seemingly designed without due care and attention (something Apple users have been getting used to from Google lately) is likely to lose it users, at least in the short term. This is the internet, where there’s always another option.

For the moment, I have no intention of jumping ship from Gmail. I’ve changed email addresses before and will do so again, but for now I can use Gmail on my phone and laptop without ever going near the Web interface. I may, in my drift away from Facebook, someday use Google+ more actively. What I am doing though, is looking for a useful, speedy alternative to Google Reader. If any of you have RSS feed readers that you particularly like, I’m open to suggestions.

October Reviews

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The St. Petersburg cinema where I watched Conan in Russian.

Down to the last two months of the year now. And for me, this is more or less the first day of the rest of my life. Everyone else off at work, myself beginning the search for work. I’d say it’s going to be interesting. Still lots to deal with, but a good start made – and I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo again, just so I’ve got that little extra spur to avoid becoming a couch potato.

While I continue to pull together my notes on life in general and my recent travels in particular, here’s my film and book reviews for August. Some old and new in both categories, mostly enjoyed during my sojourn in the U.S., which offered the time and space to make the most of both.

October Film Reviews

Sucker Punch: Zack Snyder’s stylised original piece is ostensibly about female empowerment in the face of sleazy, predatory male figures, amid a melange of fantasy dreamworlds, but the main question it raises is how far it can be said to empower its female characters as it trades in cleavage, panty shots and genre stereotypes. It doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as weave them into the heart of its very slender original story, where nothing is expected or required to make sense, and the main character never manages to portray a genuine emotion other than cowed terror. Derivative in every facet of its being, it is pretty but entirely vacant, and if Zack Snyder is the harbinger of a new wave of filmmaking that draws on comics, videogames and music videos, then the main problem is the fact that the sources he’s drawing on are already several years out of date.

The Ides of March: A top-notch cast of U.S. actors combine in George Clooney’s political thriller, which takes the West Wing notion of an idealistic liberal president and staff and shoots it full of cynical holes. Ryan Gosling is suitably unreadable as the central figure, whose idealism cracks after one bad decision, but as he falls into the rabbit hole of compromise and double-dealing, almost everyone is revealed to be hiding what they’re willing to do to win power. Focusing on interpersonal politics and the manipulation of appearance, it’s telling that it presents the most genuine characters as the ones who suffer most.

Hanna: Weaving fairy tale motifs into a modern spy thriller, Joe Wright’s film captivates as it presents a dark look at the notion of a child killer and the forces arrayed against her. The otherworldly Saoirse Ronan more than holds her own as the centerpoint of the film, even when the actors she’s caught between are as good as Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett, in the evil stepmother role. There are occasional moments where the implausibility of it all jars, but several good performances, a driving pace and an excellent soundtrack from the Chemical Brothers make for a satisfying whole.

Run Lola Run: Tom Tykwer’s 1999 hit film still has the power to catch an audience by surprise as it moves at a consistently breakneck pace through the tale of a young woman dealing with her idiot boyfriend’s criminal ineptitude. That might seem a bit harsh, but the gormlessness of said boyfriend is really the only bar to enjoying this tale of undying love driving Franke Potente’s Lola to find a way to defy fate and save the day. The use of animation, the propulsive techno soundtrack and multiple twists combine to make this a brief but utterly absorbing experience, more akin to several rides on a roller coaster than a more traditional narrative experience.

Moneyball: The American pastime of baseball gets crossed with statistics in this film, which never quite escapes its nonfiction roots. Brad Pitt is as weathered an everyman as he’s ever been and he’s surrounded by an able (and, in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s case, well-disguised) cast, but the interesting shades of his character are pushed into the shadows by a baseball plot that lacks a sense of either desperation or adversity. The result is an intelligent, well-acted and well-shot drama that lacks a beating heart at its centre and is likely to send audiences away more intrigued than uplifted.

October Book Reviews

Halo: Cryptum, Greg Bear: Taking the trope of “advanced, ancient and vanished race,” Greg Bear personalises it by telling the story of just how they came to disappear from the viewpoint of one person caught up in titanic events. Rather than being constrained by the mythos of the “Halo” games, Bear throws in a few touches to satisfy fans while building on and deepening the sketchier deep history and making it his own. The result is a solid big-ideas science fiction read, which is unsatisfying only in the fact that, as the first book in a trilogy, it has to leave many of its mysteries unexplained for now.

Dune, Frank Herbert: A classic of the science fiction genre, Herbert’s opus is a dense tome that attempts to portray the future of humanity from as broad a viewpoint as possible. Delving deeply into the motivations of its many characters, it strings them together through fate and circumstance, and although the end point of the story is obvious from the start, the author is more concerned with how the characters get there and why. Its lack of success in translating to other media is probably connected to the reason why it has aged relatively well over the decades: although it is science fiction, science barely plays a role in the book, buried as it is under layers of politics, philosophy and religion.

Kill the Dead, Richard Kadrey: With the second book in his Sandman Slim series, Kadrey ups the stakes for his hellbound hero, unleashing a plague of the dead, the loss of friends and loved ones and several mysteries all tangled together. Sandman Slim remains as appealing a central character as he was in the first book, reluctantly dealing with all that heaven and hell can throw at him, though the loss of the directly personal motivations of the first book does detract a little from the feeling of desperation. Rife with appealing twists on horror tropes, this is much more in the pulp/noir tradition and while it may not hit the high notes as consistently as its predecessor, it is still a swift and absorbing read.

American Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis: Setting out to define the character of America’s secular saint, Ellis neatly dissects Jefferson’s political thinking, exposing him as a high-minded but often naive visionary. There are a few gaps in this recounting of Jefferson’s career, but a more serious flaw is that in picking apart the Jefferson of myth it leaves few clues as to how the historical Jefferson came to be seen as a leader among a group of the most impressive intellectual figures of his day. It’s a readable and well-structured book and at its strongest when reminding the reader of the dangers of reading Jefferson’s thought in modern-day terms, but as a guide to Jefferson himself, it seems inadequate on its own.

Returning for the Endgame

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Any resemblance to Michael D. Higgins in terms of baldness or stature are entirely coincidental but hopefully amusing.

Around the time I was setting off on my round-the-world jaunt, the race for the Irish presidency had yet to kick into high gear. David Norris’s candidacy had sparked some life into the proceedings, but all the drama was revolving around his campaign and his past statements. Well, while I was gone, the drama levels hit the roof and the media wailed about negative campaigning while happily enabling it.

Until Mary Robinson took the ball and ran with it, the presidency was mostly viewed as a meaningless sinecure, but it has since become a more visible post, in which the occupant is expected to represent Ireland both at home and abroad. As the first count draws to a close, the winner seems likely to be the veteran Labour politician Michael D. Higgins, who remained more or less aloof from a vicious fray.

With the caveat that I’ve been aware of the race in the last few months only in a distant, Internet-enabled way, here’s how it seemed to turn out for the various candidates, ranked by their current standing in the polls.

Mary Davis: When she entered the race, there were more than a few references to a third Mary in a row holding the presidency. While she came across as fairly competent and seemed to suit the independent, anti-party mood, Mary Davis never really stood out, and to finish last behind Dana will hurt a lot.

Dana Rosemary Scallon: She’s done this before, back in 1997, but she still seemed to be running the same 14-year-old campaign this time around. And Ireland is not the same place it was 14 years ago. Weird outbursts about media harassment and veiled claims of vehicular sabotage probably didn’t convince anyone who wasn’t already on her side.

David Norris: The early front-runner in the race, it was his entry that sparked the whole thing into life, generating excitement among many and anger among more than a few. The Daily Mail in particular laid into Norris with great glee, digging up some questionable comments and actions, but as with another candidate, Norris sabotaged himself with his inability to cope with the pressure in a “presidential” manner. It will be a great day when Ireland elects a president regardless of their sexual orientation, but Norris won’t be that president, at least this time around.

Gay Mitchell: The government’s candidate never seemed too enthused with the notion of being president, and the apathy of the rest of the country matched that. It was Fianna Fáil that was kicked out of office earlier in the year, but Fine Gael is the other half of the duopoly that’s run Ireland for most of its independent history, and such is the distrust of politics as usual that being the government candidate was as much a hindrance as a help.

Martin McGuinness: If Norris’s entry kicked the race into life, the entry of Martin McGuinness took it to another level. The most visible and divisive political figure among the candidates, he also generated plenty of excitement and plenty of anger. The question is whether he actually expected to win and take up a post that offers mostly symbolic power instead of his current position as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. As it is, he’s done Sinn Fein’s cause no harm, performed well enough to avoid negative comments, and played a key role in deciding the outcome of the race to boot. Speaking of which…

Seán Gallagher: The man who almost won it, until Sinn Fein took him off at the knees. A businessman and a television celebrity, he played the independent card hard and won a lot of support on that basis until it came to light that he was a lot deeper in the old Fianna Fáil culture than he claimed to be. He might even have survived that had he been able to deal with the pressure better than he did. As it was, he dodged, dissembled and complained, handing victory to the one competitor who maintained a statesmanlike demeanour throughout the whole thing.

Michael D. Higgins: Old age and guile will defeat youth and energy. Michael D. Higgins may lack stature and look older than his 70 years, but he has experience to burn and a long and varied career in politics and public service on which to base his claim for the presidency. The rise of Seán Gallagher as the alternative candidate almost overthrew him, but with the help of Sinn Fein and ultimately of Gallagher himself, he sailed over the finishing line well in front.

Focus and Inspiration

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Iron and Weeds

I’m counting down the hours to my return at the moment.* One last long transit will take me back to Ireland, via Heathrow. Hopefully the place will have dried out a bit by the time I get there. Should I be worried about my ground floor apartment?

I’ve been in New York for the last few days, stomping out familiar territory as I prepare to return. Although I’ve been here several times in the past, this time around I’ve tried to concentrate on doing things that I’ve never done before. Some are a little obvious, such as going to the top of the Empire State Building. Some are reminders of home, such as cosy pints in the Gingerman Pub. And some are things that I wasn’t even aware of last time I was here, such as walking the High Line.

An elevated railway converted to a linear wildflower garden that offers a unique vantage point over southwestern Manhattan, the High Line is an example of a community project that took a crumbling eyesore and turned it into something that’s not only an asset to the local communities but also a tourist attraction, luring in people who might not otherwise be inclined to visit these parts of New York. I first read about it in a National Geographic article, and that was enough to make me determined to see it and to walk it as I passed through the city.

The High Line is an example of community activism that has had a positive outcome far beyond what the threatened demolition of the line would have provided. Up in the air for the moment is the outcome of a rather more well known outburst of activism: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve been coming across the offshoots of this movement as I’ve passed through the U.S., and I’ve been hearing about its spread across the wider world, but even here in New York it’s hard to say exactly what it’s achieved, or will achieve, beyond attracting attention to itself and drawing the occasional incident of police brutality.

There are a lot of theories in the media about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment. Many of them tend to focus on the fact that beyond protesting about the state of things, there’s little sense among the activists of a clear view of what needs to be done. It’s a fair criticism, but also inevitable: this isn’t a protest about something as simple as ending a war or preventing job losses. Ultimately, it’s about changing the way a small but very influential sector of our society works, and societal engineering is a difficult thing to plan, let alone to carry out.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Any number of commentators will tell you that something needs to be done if our notions of liberty and justice in society are going to be preserved in the face of an unbalanced distribution of wealth and influence, especially when those with all the money and the weight to throw around are fighting to retain what they have and perhaps gather more as the system creaks beneath them.

Occupy Wall Street may not have the answers. They’re unlikely to ever have as much focus as those who created the High Line. But they are at least asking questions and drawing attention to the need for someone in a position of power to take a longer-term view of where we’re heading. If nothing else, what they’ve done so far has reminded those with a knowledge of history that inequality tends to lead inexorably to unrest and revolution if not dealt with in a serious manner.

*Well, I was when I started this. I’m safely home now, and this is being posted late due to the habit of JFK and Heathrow airports of not avoiding gouging their customers for Internet access if they can possibly avoid it.

Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings