Dr. Death: Podcast review.


My first Wondery Podcast and an absolute peach.

This six parter tells the true story podcasts

of Dr Christopher Duntsch an American Neurosurgeon who is so incompetent that it’s inconceivable he’d ever get past first year in medical school, never mind freely operate on Spinal chord ailments in Texas, again and again and again, leaving a trail of destruction and, obviously, death behind him.

The story is a whydunnit? Why did he do what he did and more importantly why wasn’t he stopped.

It leaves medical practitionership in the US in an uncomfortable place. Ethics are clearly at a premium as money speaks louder than morality, but what really grips is the descriptions of what he did in horrifying detail.

If it wasn’t true you would think it a tad far fetched. But that’s what makes so many great podcasts so great.

One Two Three Four by Craig Brown: Book Review.


One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time: The Sunday Times ...

This story of the Beatles, from origin to split, by Craig Brown, a regular contributor to Private Eye, is a hoot.

He clearly has no time for Yoko who is constantly represented as a dolt and his suffrage of 21st Beatles tour guides in their native Liverpool brings tears to the eyes.

It’s a collection of observations told roughly chronologically, but often spinning and yawing from topic to topic with effortless ease, and touching on the lives of the band, their entourage, critics, their fans and The Queen.

A decent knowledge of the Beatles catalogue is helpful and a healthy respect for their genius and contribution to musical history will certainly enhance your enjoyment of this sturdy tome, weighing in at over 600 pages. Despite its length though it’s a breeze as chapters (over 150) are short, snappy and often delightful.

I’m no Beatles completist, so to those that are many of the anecdotes will be familiar; a lot of the tales are drawn from previous anthologies and biographies in a well researched journey that happily shares conflicting accounts of some of the more tawdry tales of their shenanigans. Did you know, for example, that Lennon finally gave into Epstein’s homosexual advances and allegedly relented to a bit of man on man action?

It’s bitingly satirical in places but clearly flows from the pen of a man much taken by the Fab Four’s legacy.

A fine read, highly recommended to all.

Enjoy. I sure did.

My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan: Book Review


81fA07zblAL.jpg

It might take you longer to read this post than it took me to read My Purple Scented Novel, by the king, back on fine form, Ian McEwan.

I began reading this little treasure at 11.30 last night and finished it before midnight.

34 pages long.

Short pages.

3,600 words short.

Most novels are at least 80,000 words long.

At a ‘words-per-penny’ rate (it cost me £1.99) My Purple Scented Novel weighs in at a miserly 18.1 words a penny.

So, if you spent a penny whilst reading My Purple Scented Novel you would only get as far as “You will have heard of my friend the once celebrated novelist Jocelyn Tarbet, but I suspect his memory…” before having to cessate your flow.

A penny spent luxuriating in your ‘average’ novel would probably allow you the luxury of a swiftly delivered poo AND a wipe.

But size, we all know, is nothing and this little McEwan gem, that crams in jealousy, revenge, conceit, criminality, schadenfreude, love, and many other glorious plot lines and devices into its dinky, seemingly disposable, being, is cherishable as only great McEwans can be.

It’s a writerly conceit (he has an inclination towards that) and therefore could be seen by many as vanity. (and it takes a fairly hefty swipe as ‘rival in writing’ Martin Amis.

I loved it.

It is crafted to within an inch of its microscopic life and for that reason, and the fact that it’s bloody clever and bloody funny, I’d recommend you shell out the exorbitant price (relatively speaking) that it demands.

 

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Book Review.


Everything Is Illuminated - Wikipedia

This is a quite remarkable literary experience.

It’s kind of three books in one that overlap and interlink in ways that are often difficult to grasp and that come together in a strange and inexplicable way.

It does no justice to the novel, written at the turn of the millennium, to try to literally explain it.  Indeed much of its joy is in deciphering it as you go along.

In turns horrifying and hilarious it tells the stories of a young American (and very Jewish) novelist visiting the Ukraine to trace the history of his ancestors as he writes their story, beginning in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod – a Jewish settlement on the River Brod.  The village plays host to so many inconceivable traditions, that are often ludicrous, that it becomes an entity and character all of its own.

The novelist, Jonathan (also the author) speaks no Ukranian and enlists a translator (Alex) whose grasp of English is learned through Thesauri which leads to the mangling of the English language (with so many words seemingly out of place, but after pondering on them are simply inappropriate synonyms for what he is trying to say) in a way that bestows much of the book’s humour.

Post-trip, the author and the translator communicate (we only see the letters of the translator, with amusing references to the return correspondence) as the translator writes his own (awful) novel about the trip and ‘critiques’ the efforts of Foer as he pieces together his, and Trachimbrod’s, history.

The stories are interlinked and culminate around a terrible Nazi atrocity that occurs at the end of WW2.

What Foer achieves in writing so badly, telling a story so ridiculous, but underpinned with holocaustal horror, is like nothing you will ever have read before.  Think Monty Python meets Jonathan Littell (The Kindly Onesreviewed here).

It’s unique and compelling and funny and savage all at once.

That said, it’s a difficult read.

I’m not sure I really fully unravelled it and the whole experience would probably benefit from a second reading.  But it’s magical in many ways.

It’s one to read in only a few sittings with a real focus on it.

I fear I took too long to break it down.  But if you have the patience and the time to commit to it I’d strongly recommend it.

 

Normal People: BBC3. Early impressions.


normal-people-1587747388.jpeg

Last night we watched Episodes 1 and 2 of the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s coming of age Irish novel.

It’s described as the first millennial love story novel and I don’t know if that’s how the novel played out or not but the TV adaptation, masterfully directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), was simply a love story that’s been realised through the ages.

Much has been made of the sensitivity of the initial sex scene where Marianne loses her virginity to Connell and I have to agree it was directed with great care and sensitivity so as not to sensationalise the scene.

Episode one was a masterclass in tension.  The unfolding of Connell and Marianne’s romance, kept secret as it is from their sixth year classmates, had me on the edge of my seat.  And when Marianne asks the immortal question “can we take our clothes off now”, immediately after that first fleeting kiss, had my wife and I roaring with laughter: relief, I think.

In many ways it’s a standard romantic trope with the usual Jock, plain Jane, bullying boys and unattainable classroom beauties.  But none of it feels like a cliche because, wisely, Abrahamson, has let it play out slowly, surely and sympathetically so that it feels anything like cliche and nothing like a millennial-only piece that us Baby Boomers won’t get.

We 100% get it because it’s timeless.

Rarely have this standard storytelling structure been made to connect quite so realistically.

It’s breathtaking and I can’t wait for the next ten episodes.

Pine by Francine Toon: Book review


45298337._UY630_SR1200,630_.jpg

It’s a sort of gothic horror for our times, although I’d describe it as more mystical than horrifying, and it brings in aspects of police procedural, but with no police.

Instead a crime is traced by 11 year old Lauren, a fairly neglected, and bullied at school, single-parent child.

Her dad, Niall, an alcoholic, has lost his wife (disappeared) in unresolved circumstances before Lauren can even remember what she looks like.  But is she dead, or is her ghost/spirit/person occupying the fringes of the novel?

Lauren has assumed mystical behaviours consistent with witchcraft, and perhaps inherited from her missing Mum.

It’s set on the edge of a pine forest in Northern Scotland and it’s written with great skill by first time novelist, Toon.  But what it scores highly on, in terms of writing panache and storytelling, it loses out a little on in tension.

It feels a little familiar and seems destined for our screens.  Indeed, for large parts. I felt I was reading a film transcript which let it down a little.

That all sounds a little dismissive, but if you are looking for a lightish read with a degree of writing quality (it’s published by Penguin after all) It’s worth picking up.

It’s a decent read.

 

 

Virus reading. An excellent novel about the aftermath of a global pandemic in animals. Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica. My review.


71ABRyuT-9L.jpg

Clearly this will not appeal to everyone.

As we ride out the early stages of a global viral pandemic it struck me as a good time to read a novel about a global viral pandemic.

This one infected animals so that their meat became poisonus.  Consequently a global order was put out to kill ALL animals.

Then there was ‘The Transition.’

In a carnivorous world what meat will carnivores then eat when there is no ‘meat’?

Well, obviously they eat human meat, but not wanting to sound like cannibals the authorities do not allow the citizens to call human meat, ‘human meat’ – that’s punishable by death,  and the sale of the resulting cadaver as ‘meat’.

So they are called ‘Heads’, have their vocal chords surgically removed just after birth so that they can’t talk/scream, and are raised to a variety of quality standards.

The hero of our novel is a slaughterhouse manager who is responsible for the buying of Heads and their processing, by way of slaughter.

But his life is complicated.

His beloved Dad is dying, his sister is horrible and leaves him to manage the care of their father, his wife has left him and his young son has died.

He’s lonely, he hates his job, his life and his family.

Then, one day, as a thank you for doing good business with a Head-seller he is given his own young, living, prime-grade female to take home and butcher.

This is an Argentinian novel and is quite heavily stylised, with little or no emotion – that’s left to the reader to take their own views on the proceedings, much of which describes this new, very odd and strangely acceptant society, in dispassionate terms.

It’s short, sharp and to the point and much of it is an allegory for how we consider the meat we consume today.  In that respect it’s a great book for vegetarians/vegans to enjoy triumphantly.

The way Bazterrica describes the slaughtering and butchering process is exactly how our animal meat is processed today.  Her trick is to anthropomorphize the process and, in so doing, begs the question as to whether this is morally acceptable.  “You wouldn’t do it to humans…’ is the central tenet here, if not actually stated.

It’s clever.  It’s interestingly, if a little coldly, written and it’s page turning.

It’s a really good political polemic and I found it engrossing.  Much is made of societal mores – class, privelege, behaviour, tradition, sexual politics.  It’s actually a pretty complex and multi-layered read.

I recommend it.  (But only for those of a stout literary constitution.)

True History of the Kelly Gang: Movie Review


zoom668x390z100000cw668.jpg

Some 20 or so years ago I lay by a pool in the Algarve, Portugal, and read Peter Carey’s source book of the same name for this movie.  It had just won the Booker Prize and, if I’m honest, it didn’t blow me away. In fact, judging from the last page corner fold (p266 0f 408) I didn’t even finish it.

I wasn’t exactly blown away by the trailers for the movie either so I approached with extreme caution, not least because IMDB’s reviews were, at best, lukewarm and, at worst, damning.

I’m not even sure why I shelled out – not just for me but for my wife and daughter too.

Anyway, suffice to say, it was a good choice because this is a great movie in the tradition of modern ‘Westerns’ that include the 2007 masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  

The trivia link?  Nick Cave. His son Earl Cave features in this Australian outback ‘western’ and Cave contributed the soundtrack to ‘Jesse James.’

The main damning criticism of the movie is, in fact, one of its strengths.  It’s languid.  Many say slow. No s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w.

For me, its pace allows it to breathe.  It allows the deep psychological distress, that has shaped Ned Kelly’s life and informed his young adult behaviour, to gestate.

The story concerns Australia’s most notorious outlaw’s life and times.  He and his gang assume personas as devotees of a secret society known as the Sons of Sieve, who disguise themselves through cross-dressing in reverence to legendary bushranger Steve Hart.

Their attire of dresses, charcoal face makeup and metal bucket masks, fashioned out of old ploughs, is entirely discombobulating as they are ruthless killers. It makes for an exciting visual impact.

Justin Kurzel (a director new to me) and his sidekick lighting cameraman Adam Arkapaw have conjured up a work of art.  And that’s why so many cinema-goers have loathed this film, expecting instead a blood and gore shoot out.  These come, but they are limited.

One such scene, towards the end of the movie, when a team of armed police advance on the Kelly Gang at the infamous Glenrowan siege, is electrifying and dazzlingly conceived.  Set to discordant music (Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother) the long line of the law are shot, at night, in rain, dressed in long rubber capes that, through a combination of stroboscopic lighting and some sort of weird white light, make them appear as a line of luminous KKK-like ghosts foretelling Kelly’s ultimate demise (at the age of 25).  It’s a searingly spectacular scene that literally took my breath away and is worth the admission fee for this alone.

George Mackay, who carries the year’s best movie (1917) almost singlehandedly, performs another excellent, but much more collaborative role here with a bunch of outstanding supporting players, notably his mother (Ellen Kelly) and his would be nemesis Nicholas Hoult (will he ever play a likeable character) as Constable Fitzpatrick. Russell Crowe astounds in my favourite performance of his career, albeit not much more than a cameo, as his early and wholly evil mentor.

This does have blood and guts, but its 18 (R) rating feels unjustified.  It’s a beautiful evocative celebration of early Irish immigrant exclusion, prejudice and societal revenge.  It’s a portrait of some sort of descent into mental chaos (although more subtly rendered than Joaquin Pheonix’s tour de force in Joker). But mainly, it’s just a damn fine movie.

 

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


unnamed.jpg

I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson: Book Review.


IMG_0880_640x640.jpg

Gideon Mack is a Scottish Minister, a man of the cloth.  Indeed the son of a man of the cloth.  But he doesn’t believe in God.

His Dad of the cloth was an absolute bastard and that probably contributed to his lie of a life.

Awkwardly, he also fancies his best mate’s wife and, more importantly, and centrally to the story, falls into a river near the fictional Scottish village of Monimaskit – where a raging river flows under it.

In trying to save a dog, who wanders too close to the edge of the canyon that carries the torrent into the unknown, Mack slips and falls to his death.  Or so the villagers think.

In fact, he survives the fall and meets, in an underground cavern, that the raging river takes us to, The Devil, with whom he strikes up an agreeable relationship before returning to his kinsfolk three days later, bruised and bloodied, but very much alive.

What follows is Mack’s difficult reconciliation of his shot-to-pieces faith, the retelling of his unlikely story that nobody believes and the death of an old friend.

James Robertson’s tale is a stirring Scottish romp through the double-standards of the Scots’ particularly Calvinist take on Christianity, duty, sanity and illicit love.

It’s a terrific yarn with much to recommend although I think it found its level on the Booker Prize Long List; any further would have been to have exalted it a little above its station.

Nevertheless, a most agreeable read.  Reasonably strongly recommended.

 

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and on tour: Review


pride-and-prejudice-sort-of_final_image-only_landscape_300dpi.jpg

Nope, I’ve never read P&P.

I’ve never seen any of the movies or the TV adaptations – the nearest I ever got to it was Bridget Jones.

I wouldn’t know my Heathcliffe from my Jimmy Cliff.

And I’ve never read any Jane Austen in my puff – in fact I don’t even know who the bloke is.

But I read the Wikipedia synopsis (a good tip before seeing any period drama IMHO) on the way to the theatre.

I needn’t have bothered, because the storytelling in this truly wonderful production is first rate. I could have gone in colder than a monkey in a Walls factory and still emerged off pat with the storyline.

The cast of many characters (and referenced participants) is significant, and yet you’ll not miss a beat in this rip-roaring triumph of comedy theatre.

The six actors, all female, play 21 different characters plus, let’s call it five, assorted house maids, a total of 26 roles, making an average of 4.33 characters per actor.

That’s a new character for every 5 minutes 45 seconds of run time.  And yet at no point do we lose track of who is who and what is what in this runaway train of a tale.

It’s bawdy, it’s musical, it’s completely hilarious.

The crowd cheered, booed, clapped and rose as one in adulation as the curtain fell at just before 10.30 pm tonight.

The reason for this?  Tori Burgess, Felixe Forde, Christina Gordon and in particular Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur (the writer) and Meghan Tyler (also a writer – of Fringe First winning Crocodile Fever).

The directing, by Paul Brotherston is miraculous.

We’re treated to Londoners, Scots, Yorkshiremen and women and full-on Northern Oirish characters in a melange of Babelic proportions.

And yet, it all holds together, melds and synergistically builds into a thing so beautifully nuanced, so gut-wrenchingly funny that you wonder how it ever came about.  And still the story remains true and comes through.

Lovers of P&P will have no issue with this translation.

The all-female cast not only allows us a bit of fun with cross-dressing and assumed voices, but also a bit of cheeky girl meets girl, girl is smitten by girl innuendo.

The laugh out loud moments in this are countless.  Five in the first minute alone thanks to Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s complete ownership of her four main characters and her role as narrator in chief.

It’s brilliant.  Just brilliant.  See it.

 

Worth Dying for: The power and politics of flags by Tim Marshall: Book Review


91zi0XSBU3L-1.jpg

The title is a statement, not a question.  So is the author suggesting that, yes, flags are worth dying for?

In this terrific book Tim Marshall explores, over about 300 pages, why it is that flags have become such strong semiotic devices across the 21st century globe.

As Amazon says in its splurge; In nine chapters (covering the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, international flags and flags of terror), Tim Marshall draws on more than twenty-five years of global reporting experience to reveal the histories, the power and the politics of the symbols that unite us – and divide us.

I absolutely loved this.

Marshall has a nice line in sarcasm although he keeps that to a minimum.  Largely the book is a fascinating historical insight into the power of flags, usually three colours or less.

Why green is so important in Islamic countries.  Why blue can represent sky, sea and many other things.  Why red is typically the colour of blood.  Or, of communism.

Why maybe a half of global flags have a religious significance, almost all of those crosses are, yup, crucifixes.

Why regions congregate around themes.  Ever wondered why all the Scandi flags are left biased crosses, just with different colour ways?  Find out here.

It’s not just political flags either, we read about the chequered flag, the Olympic flag, the red cross and more.

A great read and a great opportunity to increase your score on University Challenge.

 

Glastonbury 50. The official story of the Glastonbury Festival: My review.


3150098_R_Z001A.jpeg

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts celebrates its 5oth anniversary this June and I will be there, for my fourth festival.

In fact although Glastonbury is 50 it’s only the 36th staging as there was a big hole in the 70’s and several ‘fallow years’.

For me it is the greatest music festival in the world, although it is far more than a musical festival, hence its formal name – The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts.

Did you know that at 200,000 attendees (135,000 tickets, 65,000 staff and volunteers) Glastonbury is more populous than Bath.  The site is bigger than my home town of South Queensferry.

These coffee-table type affairs don’t usually interest me all that much, but anyone who has been to, and fallen in love with, the festival will, like me, be drawn into every minuscule detail of the event.  I lost two long afternoons over the Christmas break devouring every single word and every single picture that tell the story in just the right amount of detail.

Performers share their, universally enthusiastic, memories (of course – it’s pure fan boy).

The Eavis’ father and daughter impressarios share their highs and (many) lows and we can be as geeky as we like, as readers, in dissecting the line ups and remembered highlights.

For me, my two all time highlights are described, both as it happens by Emily Eavis.

2012’s Radiohead secret gig on the Park Stage in the pouring rain and 2013’s masterful moment during Stagger Lee by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, pictured below.  I was about 50 yards away from this.

nick cave glastonbury.jpg

Here it is in its entirety.  She rises from the crowd at 7’45”.

I love this comment on Youtube.  Hope it’s true…

To let you all know, I was the one that put the girl on my shoulders. My mate had Nicks foot on his shoulder and the girl in white popped up behind me, she was flustered and asked if i would put her on my shoulders, i accepted. When she came down she said ‘you’ve just made my entire life better’ then gave me a kiss on the cheek and disappeared, not my girlfriend, just a random girl that wanted a moment with nick. 🙂

 

 

Little Women: Movie Review.


8904500.jpg

I haven’t read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, neither have I seen any of the previous film incarnations of her famed novel, so I came to this with no expectations other than that the cast is stellar and the director, Greta Gerwig, is highly noteworthy. (Lady Bird was superb in my opinion – next up is Barbie, written by Noah Baumbach and starring Margot Robbie – that should be interesting.)

What interested me structurally about the movie is that it is essentially both an autobiography and a fiction – the novel itself is represented as little stories but the narrative describes how the book came about.  For some critics this has been problematic as it requires (or allows if you prefer) a considerable amount of time-switching, that is not always captioned for the hard of intelligence.

The movie is an emotional rollercoaster with peaks of hilarity and depths of real pity as the four March sisters, that make up the main protagonists, live a struggling middle class life surrounded in close proximity by deep poverty and significant wealth.  It is this relationship with money, and the pursuit thereof, that is the central philosophical backbone of the movie and allows for many excellent vignettes and clear messaging that money is not the root of all happiness.

On the side of the rich sit three excellent portrayals; Timothy Chalomet (outstanding as the main love interest Laurie), his wonderful and generous of spirit grandfather (played beautifully and touchingly by Chris Cooper) and the ‘evil'(ish) rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep).  Laura Dern continues her annus mirabilis as the girls’ mother (it complements her performance in Marriage Story.)

More than once the beautiful tableaux’ that Gerwig sets up reminded me of Dorothea Langue’s Migrant Mother.  In that it resonates love and tenderness in the face of adversity.

Migrant_Mother_Nipomo_California_3334095096-37e37c052a0745ba9cf9fae3cc5f967b.jpg

This is a tremendous piece of film making in every way.  It’s funny, moving, beautiful to look at, poignant and thought provoking.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent, as always, but Florence Pugh’s ability to appear both 14 and 26 is even more remarkable.  Emma Watson is solid and poor little Beth is played touchingly by Eliza Scanlen.

Overall it’s a great ensemble production with the real star of the show, Great Gerwig.

Bravo!

 

 

 

Solar by Ian McEwan: Book Review.


8861483.jpg

This slipped under my radar, having read every one of his first 13 novels, novellas and short story collections.  I used to consider McEwan my favourite writer but that title has been lost after two out of three damp squibs.  This being one of them.

Solar was followed by the awful Sweet Tooth and it’s kind of a companion piece of sorts.  Although Solar is nominally about climate change, it’s really about a misogynistic old man’s sexual desires and, in that respect, riffs off the follow up which explores sexuality from the female side. Although Sweet Tooth is written in the first person (a terrible mistake as McEwan is a long way detached from a 20 something female’s perspective) this is written in the third person narrative, although I use the word narrative with reservations.  It doesn’t make it any better.

It’s just plain boring from start to finish, is the problem.  Long ponderous descriptive set pieces, deep dive examinations of a character’s character from the despicable anti=hero’s perspective – the deathly dull Nobel Prize winning philanderer Michael Beard.

McEwan creates a character that is so unremittingly unlikeable that it’s difficult to find any purchase in the proceedings.  I simply didn’t care about him one whit.

Writing about unsympathetic or unpleasant characters is by no means a forlorn task.  Jeckyl and Hyde, Frankenstein, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume; all feature monsters that are utterly compelling.

This just features a monster.

The cover blurb states that it is the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.  I am incredulous at that as it is simply not funny.  Grotesque perhaps, but funny – no.

If McEwan hadn’t followed up sweet tooth with The Children Act I’d say his career was over, but The Children Act is a formidable piece of writing and storytelling that sits along his best.

This and Sweet Tooth, by contrast, feel self-indulgent, knocked off with particularly thin premises for their existence.  Thank God it’s over.

Avoid.

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol at The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh.


ChristmasCarol_Highlights_Box__862x486.jpg

Ahhhh, The Lyceum Christmas Show is upon us once again and Tony Cownie and his regular core of performers have taken the right decision of NOT descending into pantomime, because the Lyceum doesn’t do panto.  You’ll get that at The Kings.

Instead what he has cleverly done is merged the stories of Greyfriar’s Bobby with Dickens’ perennial favourite, thus giving it a life of its own and a new reason to visit a story that we can all probably recite in our sleep.

And it works a treat.

Bobby is a central character and Cownie gets round the problem of teaching dogs to act by making him (and Tiny Tim) puppets adding a further dimension to an already novel take on the novel.  It’s charming and the puppeteers invest real sympathy into Tiny Tim’s character and zest, bounce and good comedy into Bobby’s.

And because the cast includes Nicola Roy, Steve McNicoll and Grant O’Rourke (pulling off an impressive 13 roles between them and a flurry of costumes) it’s hilarious, with Nicola Roy getting the lion’s share of tasty one-liners. They often feel familiar but are mostly, in fact, new.

He knows his way around a gag does Tony Cownie.  “Aye [Scrooge], he’s so mean if he found a crutch in the street he’d go home and break his leg.”  (Which reminds me of an old favourite of mine: A man sees that dog food is half price in the supermarket, turns to his wife and says “We must buy a dog.”)

Crawford Logan takes the lead as the humbugerous Ebenezer Scrooge and carries the part off with aplomb, transforming beautifully from miser to philanthropist at the drop of a hat.

It barrels along, not allowing any particular sequence to outstay its welcome. The Ghost of Christmas Past sequence is particularly eye-catching and good for the storytelling, Eva Traynor is strong in the role in a spectacular green costume.

It’s all done and dusted by 9pm so time for a few seasonal libations.  Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Doctor Sleep: Movie Review.


Screenshot 2019-11-03 at 17.14.50.png

This is a direct follow up to the Shining.

Indeed, the opening scenes star a young Danny Torrance and his mum Wendy (with Alex Essoe playing Shelley Duvall playing Wendy Torrance).  At a later point in the movie a Jack Nicholson impersonator also joins the proceedings (only it’s an uncredited, in IMDB, actor playing Nicholson playing the barman Lloyd).  These could, of course, have been terrible missteps but director Mike Flanagan adeptly carries it off, just.

In fact the entire movie is a dangerous exercise in, just, getting away with it.

It neatly explains some of the mysteries of the much cherished The Shining movie, but steps away from the mostly unspoken horror of Kubrick’s classic to become a sort of Harry Potter fantasy.

So, strangely the first 20 minutes and the last thirty (both truest to the original) are the most satisfying.

In the middle lies a pretty stodgy lump of twaddle really (Flanagan both directs and edits, which contributes to the stodge) and centres on a curious interplay between Ewan MacGregor, as the whisky soaked but recovering alcoholic that Danny has turned into, another shiner, played well enough by 13 year old Kyleigh Curran (her character name Abra is a pretty clunky pun) and a radiant Rebecca Ferguson, as the arch villain and leader of gang of bad ‘shiners’,

McGregor is tolerable, not something I’d often say, playing the part understatedly.

It is what it is.

This is not even a patch on its predecessor but there are just about enough pluses to keep you involved for its challenging 210 minute run time.

A curiosity, I’d say, that committed Shining fans, like me, should on balance, go see.

Just.

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


13070490075166

I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Joker: Movie review


joker-joaquin-phoenix-3-1567084475.jpg

“A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society” is IMDB’s excellent byline description of this deep exploration of disintegrating (disintegrated?) mental health.

the-joker-joaquin-phoenix-1554298205.jpg

It’s described as taking place in the ‘Scorseseverse’ by some critics, in that Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck appears to be an homage to many of Scorsese’s monumental 70’s characters.  And what’s more, De Niro has a supporting role that shows he still can deliver the goods when not just taking a part for the money.

So I’ve already used the M word and in this Academy Award winning performance (of that there is no doubt) Joaquim Phoenix’s monumental performance will put the Academy back on track after their laughable decision to recognise Rami Malek for impersonating Freddie Mercury last year.

joker-joaquin-phoenix-1567084475.jpg

I detest impersonation movies on the whole, but this is no impersonation, this is a character crafted out of magic.  It’s not a superhero movie in the slightest and all the better for it. It’s simply a character study of great depth and extreme nuance.

One thing I loved about this intense study of a disintegrating man is the extreme close ups that shows Phoenix in all his imperfections, his upper lip, his wonky teeth, his chewed finger nails, his nicotine stained fingers (possibly make-up).  It’s glorious.

It is unquestionably a masterpiece, not just for Phoenix’s performance, but for every SINGLE aspect of cinema:  music (White Room by Cream blasts out of the screen in the final apocalyptic act to tremendous effect – but it’s outstanding throughout), make-up (stunning), costume (stunning), cinematography (stunning – the dance on the steps and the aerial train track shot particularly blew me away), design (epic) and direction (Todd Phillips follows up his epic production, but not direction, of A Star Is Born remarkably It’s interesting looking at Todd Phillips’ Filmography though – a real mixed bag with much of it centred on comedy – The Hangover in particular.)

Screenshot 2019-10-06 at 19.14.15.png

But you don’t need me to tell you  how good this movie is – you don’t get a 9.1 rating on IMDB without reason.

See it and bathe in its mastery.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy: Book Review.


61FWxTSZ4tL.jpg

Did you think No Country For Old Men was terrifyingly and completely impassively violent?

Did you think The Road was a dystopia like no other?

You did?

Well, you have experienced nothing until you enter the depraved world of Lester Ballard.  A Cormac McCarthy character that makes Hannibal Lector seem like Micky Mouse.

Except, the point is, this horror of a being could only get away with it, as a piece of ‘entertainment’ by being created by Cormac McCarthy.  A man whose dexterity with the written word has no peer.

I assumed I’d missed the recent publication of this short novel, so vibrant is its prose (its poetry), because it is so adept, so crafted, so gifted, so mature; but in fact, it turns out it was published (once banned) in 1973.

It’s early work FFS.

It’s a man learning his craft.

The quality of his writing is colossal.  Seriously, when you read about a man this depraved going about his depravity, yet you marvel at its beauty, it’s hard to reconcile.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but approach with caution because a teacher was once fired for approving this as A-level (well the American equivalent) study material.

It’s that bad, yet it’s that great.

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe.


81XRZqMOL0L-1.jpg

When Jonathan Coe discussed with his novelist friend, Alice Adams, what should be the subject of his 13th novel he was encouraged to dig up The Trotter family that had appeared in his classic novel, The Rotters Club, and  The Closed Circle and to set them against the context of Brexit.

And so Benjamin Trotter and co are once again with us, living their life from 2010 to September 2018.

Had Coe waited three years to put pen to paper he could probably not have conceived what would happen beyond his already agog writing.

This for example.

p07mdnwd.jpg

“Sit up man.”

The most despicable symbolic pose by one of the most odious men to have ever stridden the corridors of Eton or Westminster.

Or this?

cropped_Johnson-Trump.png

The leaders of the free world.  Admittedly slightly playing it for laughs.

Or one of these?

  • The firing of the father of the House
  • the firing of a very recent Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • the firing of Churchill’s grandson
  • a minority government
  • the total reliance of the DUP to try to hold together a majority, and failing
  • the most populist opposition parties in living memory – some would say fascists vs Trotskyites
  • the complete collapse of the Labour party in Scotland

The list goes on and on and on.

Coe sets his story against the background of the unfolding of David (Dave) Cameron’s legacy – the unbelievable outcome that resulted in this mess.

It’s not Coe’s best novel, it starts and ends weakly, slowly.  But in the central 3rd and 4th acts he creates a vivid satire on the outcomes of the political madness that has engulfed, and internationally embarrassed, this once-great nation.

The murder of Jo Cox, the rise of hate crime, the twitching of middle England’s middle class curtains as Tories tut and huff about the way middle England has ‘changed’.  His main platform is one of increasing racial intolerance that may, or may not, be the foundations of this new populist politics and the central reason for the Brexit decision.

“They” are bad.  Europe stinks. and yet his cast holiday “there”, hire “them” as their orderlies, maids, drivers.

When this book is good it’s page-turningly so.  There are many laugh out loud moments.  But when he goes off the boil, it quickly becomes tepid.

Saying that, Coe is one of our great writers and even a decent, rather than great, Coe is better than most writers’ career highlights.

 

Becoming: by Michelle Obama. Book review.


91QYsq3Zx0L.jpg

 

As we live through life under the Donald and, perhaps even worse, the Boris, it takes the breath away to read this account of an ordinary, but extraordinary, woman who rose to global prominence by a mixture of serendipity, love and intelligence.

This is the story of a woman of colour who reached unexpected levels of influence but never forgot where she came from.

It is also a true love story, not just of her wonderful husband and family, but of humanity.

And it’s a story of activism, on fairly extreme levels; activism for the rights of women and black Americans but mainly both.

From the first page we uncover a person, bit by bit, that was never prepared to accept the status quo.  Brought up on the rough side of black Chicago, in, essentially, a ghetto with a disabled dad she was fortunate enough to have parents that strove for her and her brother to pay for an Ivy League education.  This is not a normal outcome for this demographic.

Even as she becomes a wealthy lawyer she knows this is not right for her and gradually reduces her income by taking challenging but emotionally rewarding jobs in human rights and fairness.

She meets Barack, her husband, through work.  He too is an oddity in his demographic.  A mixed race Kenyan Hawaiian.  They’re made for each other but strangely and movingly they are not 100% compatible.  Conceiving their children is a challenge.

The book talks much of Obama’s success and we enjoy the Primary’s, hustings, presidential races and victories in some detail.

But this is not about Michelle’s role as a dutiful First Lady, it’s about her life story as a black woman and how she was able to use her influence to make a difference.

It’s breathtaking throughout.  Frequently I was close to tears, partly because viewing the world through the eyes of Michelle one realises that there is humanity in politics and then stepping back and asking oneself, ‘Would Trump do/think that?” one is left with an inevitable response in the negative.

It puts Melania and Donald Trump’s motives into perspective.

It makes us realise just how evil and selfish both he, and his English buffoon-like contemporary, are.

It makes us extraordinarily grateful for having lived through the greatest presidency in history.

 

 

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine: Book review


81mSlUR2JIL.jpg

Viv is about 60 but she retains the spirit of her 20-something Slits guitarist days.  She wrote about that eloquently in Clothes. Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys Boys, Boys.

The title of that autobiography was drawn from her mother’s criticism that that was all she thought about as a late teenager.

It’s an absolute belter.

But now we’re considering her SECOND autobiography and it raises the bar even further.

What a thing this is.

It’s not a laugh, I have to say, but there are humorous moments.

Essentially, it takes the form of a description of the day her 95 year old mother died, told in short snippets interspersed with Albertine’s memoire of her family, and love, life.

It’s grim, abusive stuff.

Midway into the book she finds her estranged father’s diaries and later her mother’s.  Both forensically detail a period in the young Albertine’s life where they are preparing to divorce and it ain’t ‘Little House on the Prairie’ that’s for sure.

But what Albertine does most in this history of her life is reveal her inner thinkings in a way that is uncommon on autobiographies.  She was a punk, a rebel, a man-hater – that loved sex with men – OK, maybe not a man-hater, quite, but a fierce feminist for sure – and with reason.  And underpinning that personality trait is self doubt, insecurity, self loathing at times.  All explained, all considered, all consuming.

It’s gripping, utterly compelling stuff and as the death of her mother plays out we are treated to, shall we say, an unusual farewell.

It’s also beautifully crafted.  Viv Albertine can wield a pen even more successfully than she wielded guitar in her Slits days.

Highly recommended and only £3 at Fopp.

 

 

 

The Establishment (And how they get Away With it) by Owen Jones: Book Review


Spotlight1.gif

I began this, now slightly out of date, polemic by Owen Jones slightly half-heartedly.  I was expecting a tirade of Trotskyite abuse that would provide some titilation before quickly descending into irritation.

I was wrong.

This is a monumental anti-Establishment treatise that is outstandingly researched, compellingly argued and carefully structured so that his observations steadily underpin each other and make the whole extremely robust as a result.

It takes us on a journey from 1979 – 2016, but he underpins it with important historical footnotes from the 19th and 20th centuries that shed important light on his views.

(One that stopped me in my tracks was that the political classes were an elite – you had to have property to vote and you had to have money to ‘serve your country’ – in fact politicians, until Victorian times, were unpaid.  Once that had changed and the Labour movement had begun, bringing working class men into the house they were paid minimal salaries so that a political career was not an aspiration, rather it was a vocation and a duty.  However, with rocketing salaries becoming an MP is now an extremely well paid job – £79,468 at the time of writing.  This has begun to attract the Establishment as a career for those who may have opted for journalism (essentially broken) or the City previously – the much despised career politician with absolutely no experience in the ‘real world’.   This is a very bad thing and results in Establishment politicians being helicoptered into seats that they care not a jot for.)

Jones’ book is essentially a deconstruction of the Free Market Capitalism that rose in popularity by a group of economic outriders in the 1970’s when socialism in the UK was at a low ebb; principally as a result of unmanageable and extremely strident trade unions and appallingly badly run nationalised industries, managed by bureaucrats.

This paved the way for Thatcher’s Free Market Capitalism policies, denationalisation of almost anything that moved, the crushing of the unions, indeed their complete vilification (and in some cases murder of their members – Orgreave anybody?) and the fuelling of an unhealthy reliance on the UK’s financial sector as its engine of economic growth, despite appalling regulation.

The book takes the key pillars of the Establishment and systematically challenges their morality, efficacy and value.  It clearly makes the point that this country serves a small and wealthy elite at the expense of fair societal sharing of opportunity.  In turn he deconstructs:

  • The political outriders of the 70’s, and later, who espoused free market economics
  • The Westminster Cartel (now bubble), and not purely the Conservatives.  The entire thing is roundly criticised with New Labour coming in for particular vilification and Nick Clegg’s selling out of the Lib Dems – indeed the whole rise of neo-Liberalism is roundly attacked
  • The police with their endemic racism, (stop and search gets a right good kicking and rightly so), bullying, the harassment and occasional death of protestors – including trade unions, the forming of undercover sexual relationships and so on
  • The oligarch-driven media ownership of the UK and their cosying in with Blair, Brown and Osborne in particular
  • The appalling abuse of corporate tax laws, including the, again, cosying up of the ‘Big Four’ to create tax laws for government that only they understand and can quickly exploit through the loopholes they know for their corporate clients
  • The finger pointing at state-‘scroungers’ whose collective abuse is but a grain of sand compared to the tax avoidance of the wealthy Establishment elite
  • The destruction of the NHS and the outrageous funding of corporations through lucrative private sector deals and the ongoing scandal that is PFI
  • The lining of politicians’ pockets by private industry in non-exec or other paid roles that seem wholly a conflict of interest – particularly in healthcare and defence
  • The Banks – he calls the City ‘Masters of the Universe’.  Here’s a fact for you.  The bonuses of London City bankers (even after the crash) far exceed the combined bonuses of all of Europe’s banks put together.  The post-crash regulation is limp-wristed and ineffective and it was The State that took the toll, not the banks through completely unjustified ‘Austerity’.

Throughout he argues how Free Market Capitalism despises the state yet uses it as its mop to clean up the failures of the banks through the public purse.

But it’s not just a rant, indeed it’s not EVEN a rant.  At all times Jones is calm in presenting what is essentially a one-sided argument; but of course it is.

In his brilliant conclusion he posits clear and compelling arguments for media control, police control, re-nationalisation with employee and customer boards, a re-empowerment of the Unions – or at least reasonable rights for them and an impassioned plea to support left wing Outriders.  Right wing policy was not popular (even on the right before the 70’s) and he argues that everything is cyclical.

We need not give up.

This is a powerful polemic and is a superbly enjoyable read.  I only wish it was up to date and included the whole Brexit catastrophe that the Establishment and The Westminster Cartel has created.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher: Book Review.


I finished this short Penguin Modern Classic (written in 1956) in the cafe of the National Library of Scotland and as I climbed the stairs to the reading room I spotted this incredibly apt advertisement for one of the Library’s WWI exhibitions.

IMG_7512.JPG

It’s apt because the book is about a group of people seeking a ‘land of milk and honey’ in the aftermath of a global disaster wherein all of the grass on the planet (and therefore food for all the ruminants we eat) dies.

It’s a post-apocalyptic vision about environmentalism that is indeed, as the cover suggests, prescient.

It was written in the Cold War era where nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger and the future of civilisation genuinely threatened.  Indeed, one of the government’s strategies to deal with the loss of cereal crops is to drop ‘atom bombs’ on all of Britain’s cities in a bid to wipe out half the population and leave the rest, post-apocalypse, to live on fast-growing and nutritious potatoes, other root vegetables and pigs.  (The impact of nuclear fallout radiation was neatly overlooked as a potential flaw in this strategy.)

It’s a novella really, easily consumed in rapid order and although it suffers terribly from the rather proper vernacular of its time, it’s great.

It’s institutionally racist and terribly, terribly sexist, not to mention class-biased and awfully niaive.  You won’t find a single bally swear word in its entire 194 pages, although you will find murder, rape and underage sex.

Nonetheless, if you forgive its ‘product of its times’ flaws it is an undeniably clever book, a good yarn and a pretty scary (and strangely believable) vision.

It has precursors of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road (it’s essentially a road trip from hell to heaven) and chimes with The Lord of The Flies as it speculates on who would take control in times of martial law and civilisation breaking down.

I have to say I galloped through it, chuckling at times at the dated language.  It’s even more of a museum piece in that respect than Dickens, but it’s a compelling read and I recommend it, flaws and all.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: Book Review


6dd2691efe3dd93d052f16345fe4364badd03c26-book.jpgI wanted to like this ‘ornery Joe memoir.  I really did.

It started reasonably well with a recounting of JD’s childhood in Hillbilly country; Ohio and Kentucky specifically and in the Appalachian Mountains precisely.

Brought up in a small town called Middletown known locally as Middletucky, because it’s ‘in the middle of Kentucky’ this is a story about JD’s remarkably impoverished childhood with a narcotics abusing mother, a hugely aggressive grandmother and a series of stepdads.  It’s not easy.

JD had an unremarkable schooling largely due to the string of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that he had to endure. But several stars aligned to help him escape this awful childhood, firstly his grandparents, then the marines, then college and finally an unlikely entry to Yale where he studied law and walked into a high level job.

So it’s got to be a can’t put down page turner, right?

I’m sorry to say it isn’t.  The early momentum that Vance establishes gradually turns into a bit of a lecture about poverty, lack of opportunity and just downright dull storytelling.

It needs judicious editing because even though it’s not very long it becomes a Groundhog Day read with endless reploughing of the same old furrow.

By the end I was bored to tears and most of my sympathy had deserted me.

I can’t recommend this, although the sentiment is admirable.

Also, the front cover puff suggests insights into both Brexit (Brexit? It’s set in Rust Belt America) and Trumpism.  Trump isn’t even mentioned.

 

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: book review


 61SpcaD4poL

This novel is quite extraordinary.  Margaret Atwood, at her best, is a remarkable writer.  But this is perhaps her finest hour.  Her ability to write sci-fi (as in both this novel and in Oryx and Crake) in such a way that it bears comparison to Huxley and Otrwell (as opposed to Asimov and Clarke) AND to write historical period pieces such as Alias Grace and the Robber Bride is, in my experience, unmatched.

Like many of her novels a strong feminist subplot lies at the core, but that should not put male readers off because the writing is so powerful and the ideas, politics (not just sexual) and plotting are so engaging and page-turning.

The novel was written in 1985 and, like 1984 by George Orwell, it could almost have realised itself in this reader’s lifetime.

It is set, nominally, in the mid 21st century in a dystopian society ruled by men in a land called Gilead – but in reality the USA.  (Atwood’s home nation, Canada, has a minor role as a heroic state.)

Following an unnamed “war” and rebellion a male-run fascist state emerges where women become either reproductive breeders and servents or else sent to the “colonies” to clear up nuclear waste, as fodder.

Our heroine, Ofred, is one of these reproductive handmaids and tells her story across the pre- and post-rebellion period reflecting in flashback, throughout the book, on her blissful previous existence and, in the present, on the indignity of her plight.

The detail and plotting of this novel is breathtaking.  All sorts of “inventions” and political outcomes are now (in 2007) realised from what was fantasy at the time of writing.  Her political insights are incredible and her support for feminism unstinting.

This is a sublime novel and I cannot wait to see the movie again.

Do yourself a favour.  Read it.

Now!