Monday, July 16, 2012

Modern Book Club: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Here's what I wrote about this on Goodreads (where you can be my friend and look at whole lists of things I will never read and nor will you):

Tropic of CancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the least sexy famous-for-being-sexy book I've ever read. The sense of place and time it conveys is beautiful, and Miller almost manages to make being a semi-destitute layabout in 1920s Paris seem like, not exactly a viable career choice, but certainly an understandable sidebar. However, I couldn't warm to any of the characters and I didn't like the attitude towards women (even if Eoghan did make some good arguments for this not really being indicative of actual misogyny).

We did have a very good discussion about this last night, though, before we got really drunk on Pernod and went out and got ourselves a dose of the clap.

(We didn't do that.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Classic Book Club: The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

A quick look at the bibliography on Anthony Trollope's Wikipedia page is enough to give anyone an instant case of sympathetic writer's cramp. The man was prolific. And yet I don't know anyone who reads him anymore (although obviously someone does), and his books, when they turned up in the bookshop where I used to work, always went unsold. This made him a perfect choice for me for CBC, because I'm always curious about the writers everyone has heard of but nobody reads (I'm coming for you too, Lawrence Durrell).
Although a lot of people (myself included) think of Trollope as a kind of gentler, more pastoral writer, themes of heartbreak, greed, deception, and avarice were central to a lot of his writing. Even by these standards, The Way We Live Now is apparently one of Trollope's least sentimental and most scabrous works, written on his return to England after a long absence, and in response to what he saw as the country's massive decline.
It is his longest book.
It is too long.
In true triple-decker Victorian-serialized-novel style, The Way We Live Now features a lot of amusingly named characters dicking each other over with protracted legal proceedings, marriage shenanigans, and vague threats about revealing one another's secrets if signatures are not produced or certain favours are not done. Unfortunately, Trollope has a number of limitations as a writer that make the whole enterprise more of a slog than its outline suggests.
I have to agree with Henry James's criticism of his authorly interjections ("what will happen now, readers? Who can tell?" etc.) which are jarring and kind of smug when you just want him to get on with it. In addition, he's so keen to make sure that the reader is never lost and never in any doubt about what is in every single character's mind at every single point in the story that he spends wholly unnecessary pages recapping, clarifying, and explaining and the reader ends up bored instead. It is the literary equivalent of the constant recaps you get on reality television programmes, and it's just as annoying.
Nevertheless, there's a lot of really good material in here and a great many fantastic characters. I particularly enjoyed 

  • Marie Melmotte - her dad beats her but she stands up to him anyway, and her character develops really well from an airheaded romantic idiot in the beginning to a pragmatic and strong young woman by the end
  • Mrs. Hurtle - shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, kind of, and will sort your life out for you in seconds if you let her
  • Felix Carbury - just an absolute dick, and hilariously whiney and rubbish. Think Flashman without any of the brains or charm, but with all the cowardice, good looks, and venality
  • Mr. Melmotte - sneaky and dreadful and driven by a desire to have people think well of him, which of course leads to everyone thinking badly of him
  • Squercum (a lawyer) - another one of those proto-Columbo characters who is constantly saying "just one more question," or "I can't help but notice that..." and gums things up good style for some of the more dastardly characters.

It does seem, though, as if Trollope felt that if he just included the main story the novel would be deemed too cruel or too cold, so he dropped in four or five other storylines and associated characters, none of which are particularly interesting and all of which just dilute the main thrust of his point, which is that modern society can be kind of crap if you don't have money and you know that you don't know how to play the system, but even crapper if you are obsessed with getting money and think you know how to play the system.
If he'd kept the story leaner and ditched a lot of the more unnecessary side plots and characters, he probably wouldn't have needed to keep reminding people of what was happening, and could have kept up the forward momentum a bit better. Then you'd be looking at an absolute satirical classic rather than a bit of a niche interest. I'm sure of it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Goodbye to a good dog

So, while we were away in Berlin and Paris (aka the holiday I now wish I'd never gone on), Trixie got very sick. Her minder, Catherine, a retired nurse, was able to keep her alive till we got home, mainly through round-the-clock injections and some incredibly expensive magic cream. Catherine fully expected that we would arrive home and see how appallingly sick Trixie was, and that we would immediately take her to the vet and decide to let her go. Trixie being Trixie, though, she rallied when we arrived back. She got up out of her bed and came to the door to see us, then she ate some chicken and went back to sleep.
The next morning she seemed better again, managing to give me a little wag when I came downstairs, and eating her breakfast. We were hopeful.
But then we went to the vet and she let us know that this was absolutely as good as it was going to get and she was probably mostly coasting on the excitement of us being home. She was exhausted. Every bit of her was worn out, and the magic cream was, we were assured, only going to keep her alive for another couple of weeks at most, and that was only if we added in steroids and some other medications too. Plus, we would have to keep her separate from the other dogs because if the magic cream touches your skin at all, it drops your blood pressure and gives you a massive headache.
And suddenly I just couldn't do it anymore, either for her or to her. I didn't want her to have to fight to breathe anymore, I didn't want her to pee everywhere, or to absolutely stink because really at this point she was only eating chicken and nothing else, and all her meds were now making her stomach upset.
So I held her and the vet gave her the injection and her heart stopped and it was over.
When I called Catherine and told her, she said, "I'm glad you never had to see her like she was on Saturday."
She is being cremated, and I will be taking her ashes to the firing range to scatter them over the rabbit warrens, which were her favourite places in all the world anyway. And I will take the card out of my car, the one that says, "if you see a small dog beside this car, she is okay," which I used to put in the window when I couldn't get her to come back so that people wouldn't think she'd been abandoned, and I will put it in a box with her collar to keep.
And then I will get another dog. But it won't be as good.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Smashy smashy

When I eventually get around to rewriting my zombie apocalypse novel and somebody eventually makes a film or four-part telly series out of it, there's one bit I'm particularly looking forward to. It's the bit where our heroes (that's the people who are still alive, btw, I don't hold with any of this new-fangled pro-zombie nonsense) go out foraging for food, find a store selling these items:
and, just for fun, smash the fucking shit out of them.
I am really hoping I get to be on set that day, and that the crew will let me set up the display of these hideously gendered, winsome, sickly gewgaws. Perhaps I could build a lovely pyramid of them, gingerly placing them one atop the other, wincing occasionally at that little squeak of china on china that sets my teeth on edge, and grinning away at the thought that soon the whole lot is going to come crashing down. Hopefully we will have to do several takes and then, fingers crossed, play the whole thing back in slow motion (even though I normally hate slow motion).
For these mugs to generate the full berzerker rage, it's best to happen on them in a bookshop, where they have no fucking place being, and, even better, to view them alongside their male counterpart:
Yes, that's right. Men read books, you see. Women eat cupcakes. 
I have to go back to this bookshop during the week to collect a book for mrmonkey (because he's allowed to read). Maybe I will bring my smashing stick. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boats, trains, and riding horses in the living room. Or, books I read recently

Classic Book Club continues apace. Recently we read weighty Russian funfest Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, about which enough has probably already been said in the world. All I'll add is that it had the feel of a biography rather than a novel, in that Tolstoy played everything out to its inevitable, unromantic, and bitter conclusion as if he had no means of stopping it (as if it was some kind of oncoming train, do you see?); also, modern life is killing Russia, peasants are good, trains are bad.
When you write it down like that, it does make it seem a lot more forbidding than it really is, so if you're thinking of embarking on Anna Karenina and the size and reputation of the book are putting you off, don't let them. I let them for years, but when I finally read it I found it warm, easy to read (I read the Maude translation, which has a reputation for quality (although as Eoghan pointed out, this could just be because Tolstoy was friends with them)), romantic, and very funny.
The more modest 20th Century Book Club recently read The Siege of Krishnapur, by JG Farrell, winner of the 1973 Booker Prize. The story concerns the British residents of the fictional Indian town of Krishnapur and their experiences under siege during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It's told in a perfectly-pitched tone of more-tea-vicar jollity which serves to highlight the eccentricities of the British colonial machine, and to gloss over and magnify the horror of the actual siege. It reminded me of this Monty Python sketch from The Meaning of Life.
Although obviously there's more to it than that. Recommended. I may also give the other books in Farrell's Empire Trilogy a go at some stage.
In more British Empire fun, I finally got around to reading Kydd, the first of Julian Stockwin's series of seafaring adventures about a young wig-maker from Guildford who is pressed into the navy in 1793, a time of war with France (in the books I read, it's always a time of war with France, or at the very least, in France).
This is a real page-turner/button-pusher/screen-tapper of a story that moves as briskly as chain through canvas and features lots of clear and exciting descriptions of life at sea for pressed men. Okay, there's a lot of jargon here, plenty of clewgarnets and boatswains and taffrails and any amount of belaying, but it's all pretty clear from the context and sure, you can always look it up in one of your many reference books about the age of sail, which of course you all have.
What stops Kydd making the ascent from the gundeck of decent adventure yarn onto the quarterdeck of great nautical fiction is its lack of characterisation. Kydd himself is difficult to read and hardly speaks, and his new best friend Renzi is slightly unbelievable so far, but maybe he gets better in the later books. There were also a few jarring details that lifted me out of the story on occasion (I don't care if "lanthorn" is the word they used at the time, every time I read it I think "lanthorn, oh, you mean lantern" and it snags on my brain, and when Kydd looks down on his shipmates on his first trip aloft and describes them as looking like penguins, I wondered how he would know what penguins looked like when they moved? Especially from above?) but these were, I assure you, minor considerations. In fact I've already bought the second one of these and will get to it as soon as I've finished the next Classic Book Club tome, The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope (May 20th, Trollope fans).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why do I bother? or, crap films I saw this week

One of the reasons I find it hard to finish writing anything is that my own standards keep getting in the way. Every time I think of some way to move the story forward, I think of ten reasons why he wouldn't do that, or she wouldn't say that, or it would be better if they went here and did this instead, but then I'd have to go back and change that other thing, and so on. I can't just lash something down there and think "that'll do, sure." There's a certain level of quality I'd like to attain before trying to charge people money to read something I've written. It's not even that high a level, really, but it's there and I'm committed to it.
Other people don't seem to have that problem. They just smack any old thing up on a screen and expect you to put up with it. As an example of this, I give you the two films we watched last night: The Medusa Touch (1978) and Split Second (1992).
From the blog Contains Moderate Peril
In the first, which is really an extended Tales of the Unexpected trying to be something weightier, Richard Burton plays a writer who we first see being bludgeoned and left for dead in his flat by an unknown assailant. It turns out that Burton believes he is cursed with the power of telekinesis, and that he has caused the deaths of many people throughout his life because of this. So, he withdraws from society and becomes bitter and caustic. In an effort to solve the mystery of who would want to thump such a charmer, the police talk to his neighbours, his psychiatrist (Lee Remick), his publisher (Derek Jacobi) who tell the story of his life. In the background, and gradually moving into the foreground, hang various recent disasters including the crashing of a 747 and the loss of a Moon mission. Did Richard Burton cause these?
[SPOILER: He did.]
The movie actually has a nicely creepy tone to it, and the grainy black and white movies of telekinetic experiments are particularly effective. However, I can't forgive it the terrible final set piece.
The movie's big finale is a service which is due to be held in Minster Cathedral (you know, Minster Cathedral! In London!) to celebrate the fact that they've reached their £3 million fundraising target and can now start to repair the cathedral's crumbling structure. That's right, the cathedral is falling down. In fact, it's in such a state of disrepair that lorries going by cause bits of it to fall off.
"Why would you invite the Queen and the heads of the Commonwealth to a service in such a dangerously unsound structure?" asked one of our discerning guests at this point.
Clearly nobody involved in the making of the movie had asked this question, nor had any of the characters in the movie, who dutifully filed into the cathedral while the police, who had just discovered that Richard Burton planned to topple the cathedral by driving a huge lorry past it over and over till it fell down telekinesis, had the most awful time trying to get them all out again. Nothing would have persuaded me, even if I was fictional, to go into a cathedral that had gargoyles falling off it minutes beforehand. I'd have remembered I had to wash my hair.
It all works out alright in the end. Or maybe it doesn't, I can't remember, to be honest.
Renegade cop Harley Stone with non-renegade sidekick Detective Dick Durkin
The other movie was just outright awful from start to finish. It took place in a future London (2008), which is flooded and full of rats and menacing. Except it didn't have the budget for any of these things,  so there was just a lot of walking around and being filmed through metal gratings in what turns out to be a Hartleys jam factory (it says so on IMDB). It had the worst character names (Detective Dick Durkin, anyone?), the worst "tell don't show" dialogue ("there's Harley Stone, stay out of his way, he's a loose cannon, he lives on coffee, chocolate, and anxiety, they say he went off the rails when his partner died", etc.) and the least observant police officers you'll ever see anywhere. In one particularly chucklesome scene, Harley Stone (Rutger Hauer), takes out a huge handgun, which is just an ordinary handgun with some bits of black plastic stuck on to it to make it look more future. 
"What the hell is that?" says Detective Dick Durkin.
"It's a gun," we point out.
Two seconds later, red stuff drips from the ceiling onto Detective Dick Durkin.
"What the hell is this?" he wails.
"It's fucking blood, you idiot," we chorus. "You are the worst detective ever."
I think someone took out a book a bit later and someone else asked what the fuck that was. All through this film all anyone did was ask the other person questions with either "hell" or "fuck" in them.
"What the hell is this?"
"Where the fuck are we going?"
"Who the hell was that?"
I'm no Kenneth Lonergan, but I could have written a much better film than this.
There was also a monster, which seemed to be played by a tall person in a motorbike helmet and pimped up Marigolds.
At a running time of 87 minutes, this film is 67 minutes too long. How on earth it ever got made, I don't know. Don't watch it, it's not good. Not even by my modest standards.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Bastard dog (it's all about quality of life)

Photo courtesy of Meath Coast Dog Walking
When Trixie was diagnosed with her heart condition two years ago, it was suggested to us that she might not have very long left. She now takes ten tablets a day and has to be minded by a special minder or she'll have another heart attack the next time I go on holidays (she's had two heart attacks now). She's also kind of incontinent and if you don't get her outside to pee within twenty minutes of her taking a diuretic, she will pee on the sofa or the carpet or the car seat, or you, even if she's wide awake.
When I say these things to people, they expect to meet a tiny dog who can only barely drag herself from place to place and is constantly at death's door. Just the other day I met one of my dog-walking pals out and about and was telling him about her, and he said, "I don't think I could keep a dog alive once it got to that stage. They have no quality of life."
While we were having this conversation, Trixie was arse up in a rabbit hole on the other side of the football pitch having escaped out of the car before I could get the lead onto her to hold her back. Much of the time, when we go walking up by the firing range, I have to trudge back to the car without her and sit, listening to whatever book I've brought with me, for up to an hour with the other dogs, waiting for Trixie to come back so we can go home and have our lunch.
No rabbit left behind, that is Trixie's motto.
For a while she was off her food (her expensive, vet-approved, low-salt, fat-free, single-protein-source food) and she lost over a kilo in weight, so I started boiling chicken and rice in great vats and mixing this with her food to get her to eat. This worked fine for about a month, and the other dogs are delighted with the new arrangement (because obviously they have to get some of the chicken and rice as well, because otherwise there would be resentment).
But now Trixie has started methodically, spitefully, sucking all the chicken and rice off the nuggets of expensive, vet-approved, low-salt, fat-free, single-protein-source food and spitting said food back into the dish, where it sits until one of the other dogs hoovers it up. What's the way round this? Microwaving the chicken and rice before I add it to the her expensive, vet-approved, low-salt, fat-free, single-protein-source food.
Because she prefers it when it's warm.
Because she is a bastard dog.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Bastard Cat

Mrmonkey came home from Seattle. It was a long week here without him, what with a death in the family to deal with and stormy weather keeping me awake at nights.
Bastard Cat laughs at your human frailties
This morning, as a treat, he brought me up my breakfast and took the dogs out for a rainy walk so I could stay in bed late and do a bit of writing. Sadly, Bastard Cat had other ideas, and as soon as mrmonkey and the dogs were gone, she appeared outside the back door, right under our bedroom window, and started miaowing to be let in.
"Miaow," said Bastard Cat from under the window. "Miaow."
After a while I got up and opened the bathroom window, which we leave open at night so that Bastard Cat does not wake us up at five in the morning with her bastard miaowing. I stood in the bath in my nightdress, in the cold, pish-wishing to her so she would know the window was open and could come in. Job done, I thought. Signal sent.
I got back into bed.
"Miaow," said Bastard Cat from right under the window. "Miaow. Miaow."
I opened the bedroom window and leaned out to talk to her.
"What's your problem?"
"The fucking bathroom window is open, you stupid Bastard Cat."
"I'm not coming all the way downstairs to let you in."
I put on my cardigan over my nightdress and went downstairs to the kitchen to let her in. She rubbed herself up against the patio door, excited at the prospect of coming into the nice warm house, pleased that her human had come to let her in.
I unlocked the door and slid it open. Bastard Cat strutted in, then decided she didn't quite like the annoyed tone in my voice when I said, "there, now you're in will you shut the fuck up, for the love of God?"
Just before the door slid closed behind her, she changed her mind and ran back out into the yard again and disappeared off round the corner.
"Bastard cat."
I went back upstairs and got back into bed.
"Miaow," said Bastard Cat from below the window, having forgiven and forgotten everything.

Monday, March 26, 2012

I feel Ed sums it up well here

With thanks to Felicity Avenal's comedy tumblr, a blog that's chock full of the kind of repurposed copyright material that legislators would like to do away with.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Inaccurate blog blurb, or send more dog pictures!

It has come to my attention that the blurb for my blog is no longer accurate. This, of course, is a disaster for all writers. But because blurbs are harder to write than actual content, I've decided to add more dogs rather than change what's written up there. So, here's a couple of short videos from yesterday's walk.

Let's not forget, by the way, that the dog in the second video, Trixie (or Gertles B. Bertles von Trissen Bissen, to give her her full title) is taking ten tablets a day because she is basically dying of a heart condition. Despite this, she still manages to run ahead of me on the path for half an hour in order to get at the rabbit burrows on the army's firing range. She will then go horribly deaf for about another hour, forcing me and the other dogs to look in every burrow for her, and even then, when she's panting and yawning to try to force air into her lungs, she will slip away from me and run back down the path towards the rabbits if she thinks I'm not paying attention.
I don't bring her on this walk every day any more because my heart can't cope with the strain.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The best of a bad bunch, or yet more proof that I hate fun

Some years ago I was accused of hating fun because I didn't like Pirates of the Caribbean.
I have all sorts of reasons for hating Pirates of the Caribbean, which we can explore fully at a later date if you like, but during this particular argument I was complaining about the sword fighting and how, because of the all the jump cuts and swishy modern editing, you couldn't actually see the fight skills (I suspect this is because there weren't any, but that is because I hate fun). I found this annoying.
This morning, in my own home, I was accused of hating fun again, because I objected to one thing about this otherwise high-quality scene from the new Disney Pixar movie Brave:
The thing I don't like is that all of the guys who are competing for Brave's hand are undesirable. It doesn't require much of a wilful streak not to want to become betrothed to one of these losers. If any of them were even slightly attractive, then her actions would be more impressive. Are we supposed to side with her because she refuses to be shackled? Or are we just supposed to side with her because she refuses to be shackled to one of these eejits?
I know that you could argue that this is just how these guys look to Brave, and Mrmonkey argues that this is just an opportunity to introduce wacky little characters into the margins of the story to provide, you know, fun. But I'd have preferred it if even one of them was just bland, faceless, ordinary. Because otherwise, when she eventually does find love (which I'm not saying she necessarily does by the end of the film, but someday she will, because she's a character in a thing), he's going to be, what? The best of a bad lot? Not dreadful? That's hardly a recommendation, is it?
The scene reminded me of one of my least favourite staple comedy scenes, the interview/dating montage where every one of the people under consideration is a total loser who you wouldn't want around you or your children or your reproductive areas under any circumstances. You know the ones I mean. They're there in Coming to America, Friends (when they're interviewing nannies and end up with Freddie Prinze Jr.), and many more I can't think of off the top of my head, but they're there. There's usually a goth girl who eats her hair and mumbles (dating, job interview, or nanny interview), someone who's a bit of a Nazi (nanny interview, possibly dating),  a comedy homosexual (nanny interview or dating), etc. etc.
It is only acceptable to include this parade of human detritus if you are then going to introduce a character who turns out to be the least worst option, like an Uncle Buck or maybe a St. Bernard dog, and japes ensue. If you follow up the goth/hilarious gay/possible Nazi combo with the person who ends up being the object of your protagonist's affections, then you've done it wrong, because you're basically saying "here you are, you've seen the worst humanity has to offer, now fall in love with the first normal person who comes along". That is hardly the romantic ideal. Surely you should be setting this person up as the best of a good lot? Surely you want them to be the pinnacle of human achievement, rather than simply average?
Shallow Grave, of course, turns this neatly on its head. I personally would have been very happy to share a flat with Cameron. He seemed like fun.
Also, you know, goths are often excellent with children. They just don't really come across very well in an interview setting, is all.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

JDIFF roundup (or: The director's here, look like you're enjoying yourself)

In the end I only saw three films in this year's Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, but they were all worth it in their own ways, so it was a bit of a result.
Both mrmonkey and I were excited to see the new Whit Stillman film, Damsels in Distress, because I like Whit Stillman and he likes pretty ladies and we both like films that build a world slightly removed from reality but still recognisable as an internally consistent universe, with its own hierarchies and rules and idiosyncratic language.
The film opens with a standard gambit for a film featuring young women in an educational setting: an established group seeks out a newcomer and tries to change her to fit in with the group and to better fit in with the college as a whole. However, the established group turn out to be more than a little outside the mainstream themselves and have their own problems trying to deal with the manipulative and/or stupid males they're trying so hard to make sense of. The good news is, though, that the members of the group turn out to be genuinely well-meaning, if completely idiotic, and they really do want to help each other make their way in this small world in order to prepare themselves for making their way in the larger one outside. They make some bad choices, they are taken advantage of, they experience some triumphs, and on the whole you find yourself rooting for them, especially since many of the actors come from a particular set of television shows that feed so well into this kind of film: Parks & Recreation, 90210, Gilmore Girls, The OC, etc.
Even still, for a film that is just an hour and a half long, Damsels in Distress outstays its welcome. It's too whimsical, too slight, too insubstantial, with too little to say about anything to bear the weight of watching it in the cinema, never mind watching it in the cinema with the director sitting right over there, waiting for people to ask him questions about it. I just kept wondering what the point of it was. I'll probably love it when I see it again on television.
Stillman seemed like an affable enough guy, but either the interview was badly conducted or he was tired or people just didn't have a lot to ask him, because the Q&A session wasn't particularly interesting or illuminating.
(It didn't help that the cinema was packed and I was sitting beside a young woman who was there on a freebie who could not stop bouncing around in her seat for even five minutes. Bloody kids, grumble grumble.)
Another distinctive auteur showing his movie about young women trying to make their way in the world was Kenneth Lonergan, who was on hand to answer questions about his film, Margaret, which stars Anna Paquin as a teenager who is involved in a bus crash that kills a pedestrian. The film charts her attempts to deal with this event while she is negotiating the general life issues associated with someone growing up in New York after 9/11, attending a small private school on a half-scholarship, with parents who are too wrapped up in themselves to really notice what's happening in the lives of their children until the problems become too acute and noisy to ignore any longer.
At two and a half hours, this film is definitely longer than it needs to be, but it is so absorbing and beautiful that it not only gets away with it, but is probably worth a rewatch (and will be getting one as soon as I can get the DVD). Lonergan himself was an entertaining speaker, gracious in accepting praise, honest (or seemingly honest, anyway) and forthcoming about creative decisions, and funny.
Margaret has been pretty comprehensively discussed elsewhere on the Internet so I don't need to go into a lot more detail about it here: here's an article on Hitfix about the authenticity of its treatment of privileged high-school students, here's one from the Guardian about the studio allegedly trying to bury it, and here's a good interview with Lonergan from (the interviewer didn't like the movie one bit).
 The last movie I saw was Headhunters, mostly for research purposes, I will admit. This Norwegian thriller, directed by Morten Tyldum, starring a whole bunch of Norwegian people (and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), and based on a book by Jo Nesbo, is a good time if you like fast-paced action interspersed with extremely crunchy violence.
The main character, Roger Brown, is a corporate headhunter who, in order to compensate for feelings of personal inadequacy and maintain a lavish lifestyle, steals expensive art works from wealthy clients. His wife introduces him to the mysterious and creepy Clas Greve, and while trying to steal an original Rubens from Greves's Oslo apartment, Brown discovers secrets about Greve, and these secrets don't lead anywhere good for anyone. There's a lot of running about in the Norwegian countryside, a fair amount of tension, menacing looks, nice suits, finger-breaking, and commentary on identity and self-perception.
Warning: contains canine peril.
Overall my experience of this year's JDIFF was reasonably positive, except that both the night-time films I went to started late, which is annoying when you've got to get the last bus home and you don't like standing around in big groups of people for long periods of time, and the website was just too hard to navigate. I couldn't find a search box on the home page, for example (but maybe I'm just thick).
Also, on behalf of people like Dave & Aoife, who've been supporting the festival for years, can I ask the organisers to either book a decent surprise movie or just give up? Hamlet 2, Greenberg, and This Must Be the Place? These are not good films and you shouldn't be charging people festival prices to see them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dara Ó Briain - Craic Dealer

Giddy, is the best description of Dara's mood last Wednesday as he took the stage in Vicar St. Downright giddy.
Mind you, I think I'd be giddy too if I'd just finished presenting three live television shows on one of my favourite subjects in the world and was selling out most gigs on my current tour. Dara says himself that he knows this show lacks the single idea that has given some of his previous shows an obvious hook--the neutrinos from two years ago, the Milky Bar kid, the Gillian McKeith stuff--but it is still a special show, and it did seem to have a clear theme from where I was sitting: Dara's turning forty and he's having a little stocktake.
Milestones are mentioned at several points during the evening. When he lines up his helper elves in the audience, for instance, he reminds everyone that he's been doing this job for nearly twenty years now and so has only a hazy idea of what it is that real people's jobs actually entail. And how could he have? Even at his level of fame, life has become an odd round of being photographed, imprinted on, ignored, or complained about. Not that he minds any of this, really. It's just another phenomenon in the universe for Dara to study and try to make sense of and get a laugh from, along with racism, astrology, the logical conclusion of the necessity for balance on television programmes, last summer's riots, whether we should just put all our resources into girls from now on, what is really the best thing to say to a burglar who breaks into your house at three in the morning when you're having "adult time", and bullshit modern nativity plays that feature characters from Toy Story alongside proper biblical figures.
This is all suffused with the kind of unapologetic intellectualism, massive doses of cheery swearing, and surreal asides that (since we're taking stock of almost twenty years of a career here) used to remind me of Eddie Izzard but have become as ingrained a part of Dara's shows as his callbacks to his helper elves in the audience (I love how people now lean forward to watch him do this, as if he was going to do a magic trick). But this time he also managed to include a couple of wistful stories about his youth that, for me anyway, gave the second half of the show a particularly personal feel as well as reminding people of just how far he has come.
So, yes. See the show if you get the chance. It is honkingly, snortingly good.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nice interview with Elmore Leonard about Raylan

Thanks to Sinead Mac for digging out this CNN interview with Elmore Leonard for me. It must be a real joy for a writer to see one of their characters realised like this on screen:

I've always liked him. He's just one of my favorites. Now when I see him on the screen I can't believe it. He acts exactly the way I write him. He's so laid back and he always has the best line in the scene. He's perfect, boy. The way he talks I hear him just the way I heard him when I'm writing it.
That's just about the best review a television series can get from the source material's creator, I would think.
Might just treat myself to that new book, as well.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Like French silent movies?

Thanks to Twitter pal Paul Duane (@punkyscudmonkey) for posting this. I'm parking it here to look at later, and also so that you can look at it later, should you so wish.

Ménilmontant (1926) was written, directed, produced, edited and co-photographed in Paris by Dimitri Kirsanoff. And it is, on any terms, a remarkable piece of writing, direction, production, editing and cinematography.
From  Notebook.

You could spend all day on Mubi. It's a fantastic time suck of a site.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Inmytune 2011: Clock Opera "Belongings"

Some of my friends and acquaintances are organised enough to share their music with each other. I don't do this, for several reasons.

  • It's illegal! And wrong! Right, kids?
  • I operate at a staggering level of laziness and disorganisation. Honestly. You would be amazed.
  • I have never really learned how to upload music.
  • I will never again have to impress/warn off (delete where applicable) a new potential boyfriend with examples of my taste in music, so making mixtapes is a skill I'm happy to leave behind.

Having said all that, I did listen to this song about six million times in 2011, so I thought I'd share it with you. It's that kind of big song I really like. I know Clock Opera aren't exactly flying under the radar, but another two or three plays can't hurt, right?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A special treat for me: Margin Call and Shame at the Screen Cinema

Excitement abounds in Dublin artsy circles (alright, my Twitter stream, but that's got more people from Dublin's artsy circles in it than I've any right to) because the Lighthouse is reopening.
This is good news, of course, but I've never been a Lighthouse person. Even in its original home up on Abbey St., the Lighthouse was never my stomping ground. I've always been a Screen girl. Ever since it stopped being the Metropole and started being the home of first-run, mainly American, slightly left-of-centre movies, the Screen's been my spiritual home. I remember bunking in from She's Gotta Have It to Raising Arizona with my brother and his friends, and my brother almost having to be stuffed under the seat because he was laughing so much he was disturbing the other punters. I went there on a weekly basis in my second year of college because I had a rich friend who was prepared to pay for my ticket (and for a naggin of vodka to split between our small Cokes) just to have someone to go to the cinema with. We laughed a lot more at Talk Radio than I think you were supposed to.
Moving to the country and generally falling out of love with the city and chatty people in the cinema meant a parting of ways between me and the Screen for a while, until I started following them on Twitter and became a bit more organised about going to see things. At Halloween last year they ran a lovely print of Don't Look Now, and there was no yap at all during it. Result. I decided to make an effort to go to more films there in 2012.
So, after the slog of being ill over Christmas and New Year and constantly having to talk to people (even though those people were the ones I love most in all the world), I decided to treat myself last Friday and took myself off to the Screen to see Shame and Margin Call on their opening day. Perhaps not the obvious choice for a double bill, but they've more in common than you might think: both low-budget New York movies, both portraits of a short but pivotal period in the lives of the protagonists, both examining that moneyed lifestyle and frantic duck-paddling that goes on underneath it.
I don't have a whole lot of insight to add to the mountain of praise that has been heaped on Shame, but I would say this: you know the way that Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott think they're a great partnership? They have nothing on Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender seems to be able to do anything McQueen requires of him, and McQueen returns the favour by making Fassbender look like a work of art even when he's not behaving like one. It's not a perfect film, and I wouldn't go and see it with your mam if I was you, but it is both entertaining and artistic.
Margin Call is a bit more functional. It has a story to tell and it tells it. Some of the characterisation is a bit basic: this one loves his dog, this one has kids, this one is trying to give up smoking (this handing out of the identifying attributes always reminds me of the stories about the Magnificent Seven, how McQueen (the other one) would only relinquish top billing if he was given the rifle, or something), but that's a small quibble.
I've heard other reviewers complain that the top brass keep asking for things to be explained to them in simple terms--"as if you were speaking to a child, or a golden retriever," Jeremy Irons says at one point--because wouldn't these guys know the jargon? But of course, that was part of the problem. The younger guys, the Penn Badgeleys and Zach Quintos, came up with new algorithms and bundles that the people above them didn't understand, but they let the money ride on them anyway because hey, they were covered either way.
The limited number of sets, the fact that the action takes place across a single night, and the coded conversations between vaguely threatening, suited men, all combine to give the feeling of a David Mamet play, or something by Pinter. Do not, whatever you do, take someone to this movie who insists on knowing every single thing that's going on at all times, because the constant whisper of "what are they talking about?" will drive you mad. You don't need to know what they're talking about. Half of them don't know what they're talking about. What the film is trying to get across is that these are just people. They might not be particularly good people, but they're not particularly bad people either, and rather than hating them personally, you might want to think about changing the system that rewards their behaviour.  I'm not sure I believe that, but I'm prepared to accept that others do. Unsurprisingly, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Jeremy Irons are all great in this movie. I wasn't even particularly surprised by how great Zach Quinto and Penn Badgeley were. Simon Baker, though, his performance kind of snuck up on me. I've always written him off as one of those pretty faces whose popularity I don't quite get, but he was really sly and hard and imposing in this. Well done, everyone.
(See how I didn't just talk about Paul Bettany? See? I am getting better.)
Also: did you know the Screen sells wine now? And that you can see a movie there for less than €7? Well, you can. And you should.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Two things that annoy me: search engine optimisation and unnecessary origin stories

Jareth, aged 4
Psst, says the Guardian website's article about the Labyrinth prequel, want to read an article about DAVID BOWIE and LABYRINTH? Look, here's a picture of DAVID BOWIE in LABYRINTH just to prove to you that that's what the article is all about. See? Clicky clicky, all nice now...
Ha ha, it's not about David Bowie at all. It's about a graphic novel prequel to Labyrinth, which will "cover Jareth's past" and tell you all about how he's "pulled into the labyrinth for the first time." So, you're a sucker, first of all.
Second of all, I don't know about you, but I am sick to death of origin stories now. Everybody from Darth Vader to the women from Sex and the City apparently have an origin story worth mining for cash, and they all turn out to be humourless rubbish*. I'm done with it. I have no curiosity at all about how Jareth got into the labyrinth. He has always been there. I kind of assumed he built it. But I don't really care either way, because the important thing to remember about Jareth is that people only like him because he's David Bowie. If he's not David Bowie (and a graphic novel character is not the same as David Bowie) then he is just some creepy middle-aged dude who will go to great lengths to get with a teenage girl, and I'm not cool with that.
(Although, he's not as bad as a werewolf who falls in love with a baby, which is what happens in the most recent Twilight movie, I believe. I haven't really checked, it all sounds a bit too body horror for me.)
*Actually, I quite enjoyed the original Wicked, but that would spoil the flow of the post.
There, that's a nice zeitgeisty blog post for you. Hello, random googlers! Move along, nothing to see here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Broken Lines

It's almost more annoying to watch a film that could have been good, and has flashes of really good things in it, than to watch one that's just crap from start to finish. Because with a film that could have been good, you give it a lot more thought than it maybe deserves, and you see ways in which it could have been improved in order to make it the award-winning triumph its makers maybe hoped it would be instead of a little-seen labour of love that takes three years to get released.
The film concerns two couples: Jake & Zoe and Becca & Chester. The death of Jake's dad takes him back to Finsbury Park where he meets Becca (or B), who works in her cousin's cafe. They are two trapped and wounded people who seek solace in each other, but also use each other to punish their respective partners. It seems pretty simple. The problem is that the story is not remotely balanced. Paul Bettany, who plays Chester, admits as much in his interview on the DVD. He says that he was lucky in a way to be playing Chester, because Chester has the most interesting predicament. He used to be a boxer, but since he had his stroke he's become an agoraphobic and angry burden on B. She loves him, but he keeps pushing her away while simultaneously guilt-tripping her into remaining with him. It's strong stuff, competently acted by Doraly Rosa as B (who is ridiculously good-looking, as well), and as for PB, well...
Look, I know you know I like him. But honestly, really, I'm not kidding you, he is Gary Oldman good in this film. And I know a lot of that is because he's got the really juicy part. But god, he looks and sounds convincingly wounded and seedy and just finished.  The dialogue in the scenes between Chester and B is also believably natural in a low-key, repetitive-to-the-point-of-being-boring way.
By contrast, Jake's  predicament is that he is haunted by his family and his relationship with his parents in some way that's not really clear to me. Something to do with a traditional Jewish upbringing, I'm guessing, given that one of his first actions after attending his father's funeral is to go to a cafe, still wearing his yarmulke, and order a bacon sandwich. DO YOU SEE? There's also something about his mother having had an affair? The trouble is that this is all told rather than shown, and frankly not really all that interesting, even if his mother is Harriet Walter. Also he is trapped by Zoe in some way that's not very clear either. Is she too middle class? Not Jewish enough? I didn't get it. She seems nice, and I think I was expecting her part to be bigger because, hey, it's Olivia Williams, and why would you get Olivia Williams in if you weren't going to give her anything to do?
So, if it was me, I'd have shifted the centre of the story away from Jake & Zoe onto B & Chester, with some Jake on the side. I'd have expanded her family's roles (her aunt is Rita Tushingham, for god's sake), got rid of all of Jake's back story, thrown in a few fucking jokes just because there's only so much drear you can take, and bish bash bosh, job's a good 'un. A better one than this, anyway.
However, in case you think there's nothing to like about it if you don't rate Paul Bettany, it does at least make a nice antidote to Working Title England as depicted in movies like Notting Hill and, oh look, Wimbledon. This movie is like the anti-Wimbledon. 
It also captures pretty well that feeling you have when you walk around the bits of north London your friends live inand wonder who else lives in these nothing little houses and flats and what do they do with themselves all day? Who are the people who work in these anonymous local cafes and carry thin plastic bags around with them everywhere they go? Well, here are some of them. Happy now?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Breaking National Film Board of Canada News

Thanks to Queenie again for supplying the link to the National Film Board of Canada's free online archive. This is an absolute treasure trove of material, some of which will take you back to your childhood when gaps between programmes were filled, not with a tenor singing about car insurance, but with short films from around the world (where "the world" is Canada and Poland).
You can also pay to download many of these films, which I strongly urge you to do.
To get you started, here's The Big Snit.
Also, three recommendations from pal Jonathan (@jonzo1), an actual Canadian: The Log Driver's Waltz (which played on the telly every day when he was a kid), The Sweater (warning: contains comedy accent), and The Cat Came Back (which was nominated for an Oscar, and will certainly end up on the home page of Eoghan's My Cat is an Asshole blog, if he ever makes good on his threat to set that up.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

National Film Board of Canada news!

My sources (hi, Queenie!) tell me that the National Film Board of Canada is going to put its archive on the Internet for free for everyone to look at. This is very exciting news.

In celebration, here is my favourite cartoon in the whole world ever. It is from the National Film Board of Canada.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Happy birthday, David Bowie

There comes a time in everyone's life when they realise they're never going to look like the cover of Low, (at 15, since you didn't ask), but at least there comes a time in everyone's life when they realise they can look at the cover of Low forever if they want.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

More book-related wanderings AND a list of last year's book-club books

Happy new year from Accentmonkey
 and Dave the Shoulder Monkey
The Christmas holidays saw me stricken with a chest infection, an illness precisely timed to begin on December 25th, at a time when we were sleeping on a blow-up mattress in a room-between-rooms in ComedyB's house in Essex without access to the armoury of medicines and comfort we've built up at home. Two weeks, no sleep, a lot of driving in heavy rain on unfamiliar roads, and a course of antibiotics later and I'm just coming back to life enough to be able to think about looking at my book again, and of course it just looks awful and I wonder what I was ever thinking.
Luckily for me there are plenty of distractions about. I joined BookCountry a while ago (under my married name. I'm not really clear why I chose to use my married name, except that I suppose it just makes it very slightly harder to join up all the different versions of me that exist online) and, separately, acquired a writing buddy, so while I'm flailing around whingeing about the life choices that have left me fit for almost nothing except making subpar banana bread (I don't even put fudge chunks in it, what kind of animal am I, exactly?) and walking dogs, I can at least read other people's books and offer them the benefit of my critical faculties. For example, I recently helped someone on BookCountry by telling them that they had spelled "debacle" incorrectly. You're welcome, everyone.
Continuing the desperate procrastination theme, here's a list of the books I read last year for the two book clubs I'm in. I can't be arsed reviewing them all properly now, I have too much reading to do.

Classic Book Club, year two:

  • Hunger by Knut Hamsun - this is reading a bit like a proto-Ripley Bogle to me at the moment, but I'm only a third of the way through it, so it's too early to tell.
  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James - tough going. Twitter pal @FictionWitch likens reading Henry James to observing fascinating people through a really grubby window, and that seems right somehow. I'd like to read one of James's earlier books to see if that's any easier.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot - wonderful, amazing, engrossing, romantic, funny, sentimental, philosophical, modern, etc. etc. I'm very glad to have read this at last, and could happily have carried on reading it or listening to it forever.
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - fabulous, modern, detailed, funny, scathing, etc. etc. Very glad to have read this too. An unqualified success.
  • The Caliph Vathek by William Beckford - utter rubbish. However, it's short and of its time, fitting in with the whole vogue for Orientalism/drug-taking/writing things all in one night/seeing oneself as a renaissance man while actually being nothing more than a trustafarian mentalist (in addition to being an atrocious writer, Beckford also fancied himself as an architect, designing and causing to be built Fonthill Abbey, which had to be pulled down 30 years later because it was badly designed and poorly constructed). Beckford himself is much more entertaining than this book.
  • The Red and the Black by Maurice Stendhal - ugh, just ugh. Managed to struggle through half of it before giving up. Other members of book club may have liked this more.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins - flawed but highly entertaining. Kind of like a JJ Abrams show, in that you're fine as long as you career through it at breakneck pace and don't stop to think about the logic, but as soon as the words "wait a minute..." cross your mind, the book becomes full of holes and is doomed. Also notable for introducing me to the Victorian meme of Italians with white mice, which I had no idea was a thing until it was mentioned here and again in Middlemarch.
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - amusing in spots, kind of boring in others. Definitely nowhere near as good as the Big Three, but still funny and still head and shoulders above most other things.
Twentieth-Century Book Club, year one:
Most of my thoughts on these fall squarely into the "so that's what happens in that book I've always seen in second-hand shops but never read. Okay then," area rather than the "oh wow, so glad I read that, my life is changed," area, but they are much quicker reads than the ones in Classic Book Club, so it's okay. I realise that at this point some readers might be wondering what the hell I read for my English degree if I didn't read any of the books listed here, to which I say "up yours".
  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis - funny and scabrous, but there is absolutely nobody in this book to like, which can make even the shortest book a bit wearing.
  • Scoop by Evelyn Waugh - interesting in its contemporary detail rather than for the story itself, but still amusing enough and fairly bang on about press/media warmongering.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler - chosen purely on the basis of this piece in the New Statesman. This was crisp, no-nonsense interwar intrigue, but is very badly let down by a massive mistake on the protagonist's part at the end. You just wouldn't do something so stupid. 
  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey - horribly dated prose style and story construction, but if he was the first to come up with a lot of these ideas, then no wonder people loved him at the time. Also, he knows how to write an exciting horseback chase. Still, there's only so many times you can see the word "sage" written down before you go a bit mad. This does seem like the kind of writing that was superseded by movies and television.
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - surprisingly cheery despite the subject matter. Of course, this is just one day, and you are constantly being reminded that it is a good day. All around the protagonist, bad days are happening to other people, and a bad day in the gulag is a very bad day indeed. This book makes an interesting companion to The Emperor of Lies, given that they both feature slave labour, rags wrapped round feet instead of shoes, thin soup, hoarded bread, and closed environments where the inhabitants are reduced to railing against the smallest of things rather than the outside enemy that has landed them here. 
  • The New Machiavelli by HG Wells - haven't actually started this yet, it's for our next meeting. 
Other confections coming up in Twentieth-Century Book Club this year include Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham, The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell, and maybe Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, maybe. I said maybe, Ray.

Friday, January 06, 2012

The Emperor of Lies - Steve Sem Sandbergh (translated by Sarah Death)

I spent all of Christmas reading this novel, so thanks a bunch if you're the reviewer who originally caused me to go "ooh, that does look really good, think I'll lift my Holocaust-related-materials embargo for that one."
(I do really wish I could find that review, by the way. I was convinced it was in the LRB, but a search of the archive there turns up nothing. It certainly wasn't this Guardian review, because if I'd read that beforehand I would have run a mile from the book. But it must have been a magical review if it persuaded me to buy and read a novel about the Holocaust that has been translated from the original Swedish.)
It's a beautiful book. Heartbreaking, yes. Depressing and sad and terrifying, certainly. But beautiful. It manages to neither use the Holocaust as a mere backdrop to an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit, nor focus on the awful details for prurient effect. Rather, it tells a beautifully rounded story of the people who live in the Lodz ghetto between 1942 and 1945, and the things that happen to them. It just so happens that the things that happen to them are the worst things you can imagine, and then even worse than that again.
Look, I'm not proud of my ignorance or anything, but I didn't know anything about the Lodz ghetto or Chaim Rumkowski before I read this, and maybe the novel wouldn't have had such an impact on me if I had. However, it seems to me to be a remarkable book whether the details are accurate or not. Reviewers talk about its Dickensian scope and characters, and there is something to that. It is a closed world in which the only events discussed are those pertaining to the ghetto; you're not going to learn anything about the wider war here, or even anything about Lodz outside the ghetto. But there aren't any funny names here, and there aren't many laughs either. What there is, though, is a prose style so beguiling and a set of people so vivid that your forget that you know what happens to almost all of them. Even with the benefit of reader's omniscience, I found myself hoping for good outcomes where I knew there would be none, and believing, albeit fleetingly, the lies of the ghetto administration because I wanted them to be true.
This New York Times review sums up a lot of what I felt about it as well.
Next on the reading list: the first seven chapters of War and Peace, because a bunch of my friends are reading it a chapter a day (it has 366 chapters) in this leap year. But also Hunger, because we're reading it for Classic Book Club. Non-stop laughs for the next little while, then.