Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Scoop

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scoop is perhaps the classic satire on the newspaper industry. Through a case of mistaken identity, naïve countryside sketch-writer William Boot finds himself dispatched to the East African republic of Ishmaelia (a thinly disguised Ethiopia) to cover the impending civil war for the Daily Beast. As he blunders around the capital city of Jacksonburg, he falls in with a mysterious English adventurer, a beautiful but flighty German-Polish-Romanian-stateless part-married near-widow, the corrupt but friendly local officials, an occasionally alcoholic Swede, not to mention the English press pack in all its disreputable glory.

Through ineptitude, innocence and ignorance he gets himself sacked and then lionised, before accidentally inciting a counter-revolution through the medium of absinthe.

Waugh's sardonic wit is at its sharpest, alleviating the mildly racist overtones (which are not out of the ordinary for a book written in the 1930s). He describes the fate of earlier European visitors to reclusive Ishmaelia thus:
They were eaten, every one. Some raw, others stewed and seasoned – according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop.
Waugh has the humorous touch of Wodehouse, but with a delightfully spiteful hauteur that reflects his personality. What is dislikeable about Waugh is partly what makes him so funny, while his impeccable sentence construction makes him delightfully readable.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: The Fence in its Thousandth Year

The Fence in its Thousandth Year
The Fence in its Thousandth Year by Howard Barker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You don't need the pseudo-musicals based on The Beatles and The Kinks that keep popping up round London to remind you that 60s nostalgia is big business. Howard Barker, whose first play was performed in 1970, isn't a nostalgist for the era; he's still living there. Those bold 60s experiments in theatre made by young playwrights as they sought to wrench themselves free from the shackles of the 'well-made play' and its bourgeois values are mostly viewed now as quaint and even idiotic. Like [b:Ptolemy's Almagest|436352|Ptolemy's Almagest|Ptolemy||425259] in the field of astronomy, they were important staging posts in the development of theatre but no longer to be taken seriously on their own merits.

Yet in 2006, Barker was still writing that kind of play. Characters with names like Algeria, Photo, Doorway and Youterus (who is male, naturally) scream, swear, copulate, fall over, display their privates and talk in riddles. There is, of course no obvious plot, presumably because that would mean submitting the play to the power structures of the patriarchy, or whatever it is these playwrights feel they are subverting by writing plays nobody can understand.

Seldom do one character's words bear much or any relation to another's: all that matters is their own feelings, leaving us with a play without empathy. If the characters can't communicate with each other, how can they communicate to the audience? The actors' job is made harder by Barker refusing to punctuate their speeches (are capital letters and full stops the bayonets of the oppressor?); not only do the characters fail to communicate to each other or the audience, the author refuses to communicate effectively with the actors.

You could make an intellectual argument in favour of this approach. As Barker himself said,
“It's time we started taking our audiences more seriously, and stop telling them stories they can understand.”
"A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I'm not interested in entertainment."
Barker is a vigorous and eloquent proponent of theatre as a challenging medium. If only his words on the stage were as engaging as his words about the stage. Yet, if forced to choose between the Beatles stage musical and a performance of The Fence in its Thousandth Year, I'd still choose Barker – if only for the challenge and to find out whether his plays achieve in performance what they fail to achieve on the printed page. Even so, both shows suffer from the same artistic sterility, failing to recognise that the world has moved on. Barker keeps plugging away, stuck in an outdated style that was superseded by [a:Caryl Churchill|85149|Caryl Churchill|], having closed his mind decades ago. He has quoted one of his own characters as reflecting his own view on communication:
"I write from ignorance. I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not."
As a book, I despised The Fence in its Thousandth Year. As an actor, I can't imagine how it could be performed as anything but the pretentious mess you see on the page. But as an actor, I also know that a good director can find things I can't find in a script and create something amazing. Maybe the problem isn't that Barker is too challenging; it's that I'm not up to the challenge. Maybe the smug fool is me.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review: Knowledge is Beautiful

Knowledge is Beautiful
Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McCandless's book is both an inspiration and a warning. He and his team have created a huge array of infographics covering pretty much everything: society, media, the economy, trade, the environment, entertainment and science. Nearly all of them are beautiful, some are fascinatingly revealing, others are horribly complicated and impenetrable. Often the text is so small as to be unreadable. The designers have deliberately tried to test the absolute limit of infographic design. 'Knowledge is Beautiful' is to design what Yes were to rock music; alternately thrilling and baffling.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: First Catch Your Husband: Adventures on the Dating Front Line

First Catch Your Husband: Adventures on the Dating Front Line
First Catch Your Husband: Adventures on the Dating Front Line by Sarah Bridge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a date with Sarah Bridge during her search-for-a-husband-cum-research-for-her-book. She didn't even reply when I thanked her for a lovely evening. Even more humiliatingly, I wasn't fascinating or vile enough to warrant a mention in this book, which charts her late-thirties quest for a man to supply gametes and to fart on her sofa during major sporting events for the next forty years.

I mean, I earn over twice the average salary in London and drive a BMW – both of which I'm sure I mentioned on our date – so what's not to like? So I bought this book in a natural spirit of spite and schadenfreude, hoping her journey ended in misery, degradation and defeat. Oh, and to find out a bit more about Sarah herself, since I was too busy delighting her with stories about myself when we met. She might have said something about herself, but I wasn't really listening. That's how it works.

You've got to admire her stamina as she charts her demented journey through internet dating, speed-dating, holiday romances and single-themed evenings, weekends and holidays. On the way she meets men who vary from the gorgeous to the repulsive, while her quest becomes obsessive to the point of desperation.

Sarah's (yes, we're on first-name terms; do keep up) book is gently humorous, exasperating and perhaps a bit long, but it's still a fascinating insight into the infuriating world of modern partner-hunting (not 'dating' – that's an American thing; we agree on that). Some parts, such as her trip to Greece, are poignant, engaging and funny. Others, such as her womyn's empowerment weekend, where women are supposed to have their confidence strengthened by talking about their yonis and being institutionalised as eternal victims of the patriarchy, are frankly terrifying.

Sarah was one of only two women I met through artificial modern dating methods, and her experiences make me glad I never went further. The self-pity is (hopefully) exaggerated for humorous effect, even if I couldn't help smiling when she complained about men who didn't have the courtesy to say why they refused to return her messages.

And her book is better than mine, in that it's a) finished and b) been published.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: Closing Time

Closing Time
Closing Time by Joseph Heller

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When told that he he'd never written another book as good as Catch-22, Heller reportedly replied, "Who has?" Yet with Closing Time, he seems weighed down by the legacy of his masterpiece. Considering what a surreal and inventive ride Catch 22 was, this long-delayed sequel was a bit of a joyless slog.

We meet Yossarian in old age, working on a consultancy basis for Milo Minderbinder and ex-PFC Wintergreen, who are now selling useless items to the US government. We also meet Sammy Singer, the tail-gunner who kept fainting as Yossarian tried to keep Snowden alive. Chaplain Tappmann also makes an appearance, in the protective custody of the government while they try to find out how his body is naturally producing raw materials for atomic weapons. The most notable new character is Lew Rabinowitz, another veteran whose story is probably the most engaging of all.

What robs Closing Time of the fascination that made Catch-22 a classic is the absence of danger and of a functioning insane organisation. Yossarian's (and Heller's) cynicism and sanity have nothing to fight against, and so flail impotently. Meanwhile the book meanders between satire, fantasy, surrealism and science-fiction without ever succeeding at any of them. Lew's story includes his experiences of the bombing of Dresden, and the absurdist sci-fi that surrounds it suggests that Heller somehow wanted to re-write, 25 years too late, [b:Slaughterhouse-Five|4981|Slaughterhouse-Five|Kurt Vonnegut||1683562]; the masterpiece of his friend [a:Kurt Vonnegut|2778055|Kurt Vonnegut|]. Vonnegut is briefly mentioned as a character, as is 'Joey Heller' and even Schweik. The latter appearance is so cursory that he only seems to be there to show that Heller had read [b:The Good Soldier Schweik|23668974|The Good Soldier Schweik|Jaroslav Hašek||42981159].

Towards the end, we're treated to several pages listing the ludicrously opulent offerings at a high-society wedding. No point is being made, other than to show up the pointless ostentation of the wealthy. This isn't even aiming at easy targets. Heller simply shows us the barn door two feet away and invites us to hit it ourselves. This sums up the book's aimlessness: just as the author should be using the closing pages to set the reader up for the denouement, or the great philosophical revelation at the heart of the book, he simply seems to shrug his shoulders and say, "The rich, eh? What are they like?"

Yes, there are some poignant moments and some wonderful humour, as you'd expect from Heller, but the whole of Closing Time is so much less than the sum of its parts.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Gun Street Girl

Gun Street Girl
Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's a good thing [a:Ian Rankin|33031|Ian Rankin|] approves of Adrian McKinty: I wouldn't want the Scot to think the Irishman is ripping him off. McKinty's Sean Duffy does bear striking resemblances to Rebus – the hard but controlled drinking, the outsider status, the love of obscure music, the old-fashioned moral code – and there is a similarity in the plotting that makes comparisons inevitable. But the main similarity is that they're both excellent, and with this, the fourth in the series, McKinty is starting to show the same consistency as Rankin. If you're running out of Rebuses, as I am, then get your hands on some Duffys. You won't be disappointed.

McKinty's novels are set in a strict time and place: Belfast during the Troubles. By Gun Street Girl, the fourth in the series, we are in 1985, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement about to spark the touchpaper of a seemingly inexhaustible powder keg of political and sectarian violence. Duffy, a Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, is tutoring a colleague in a seemingly open-and-shut murder-suicide that has resonances across the water in arms dealing and political machinations. Along the way he has romantic run-ins with a journalist and a British spook.

As ever, the plotting is meticulous and the period detail compelling (despite one glaring error: on a visit to Oxford Duffy is driven down the M40 from Birmingham – a stretch of motorway that didn't exist in 1985).

Another thing in McKinty's favour is that he sends polite 'thank-yous' whenever I write complimentary reviews of his books. I get the feeling he'd be just as gentlemanly if I slagged him off. But he'll have to write a bad book first, and he hasn't done that yet.

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Review: Petite Mort

Petite Mort
Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightful if not perfect debut, drawing on the magic of early cinema and a mysteriously lost film. It flips from the early 1900s to the 1960s as a journalist tracks down the star of the newly discovered film and looks for the missing scene.

We're taken back to Adèle Roux, a star-struck country girl who travels to Paris to get into the movies. She fails, of course, and ends up as the personal secretary to the studio's former star, Luce, and her manipulative husband, the cinematic entrepreneur André.

As Luce strives to get back into the movies and Adèle keeps her own ambitions secret, the relationship between the women intensifies to obsessive dependency. But there are other secrets in the house. Murder is in the air.

Hitchman handles the several plot threads with assurance, and the plot twist is surprising yet satisfying. Too much is made of the missing scene from the film, since it plays a minor part in the story and is never properly resolved. Similarly, André's back story is well told but doesn't really justify its place in the story as it neither advances the plot nor explains his personality. These are minor quibbles; Petite Mort is a satisfying and original mystery novel, with a good supporting cast of believable characters (although you do need to concentrate to keep up with them all) and prose that skips along nicely.

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