Sunday, June 28, 2020

Review of 'The Girl on the Train'

Great to see that Hollywood can sometimes turn out a really good film - a mystery thriller without stupid supernatural elements or a spirit-led redemption, but a really good plot and good acting.

Rachel is an alcoholic with an unreliable memory who spies on her ex-husband from the window of a train as she commutes past the Long Island suburb in which he, his new wife and their baby live. She spies on another neighbouring couple too, and creates a fantasy around what seems to be their perfect love. But she is moved to intervene in their lives, and this puts her inside a chain of events that forms the basis for the murder mystery plot.

One thing that I didn't like was that for the first three quarters of the film, the story is told - sometimes unreliably - through the eyes of the women characters. Then, in the last quarter, we get to see "what really happened", seen through the eyes of an omniscient camera-narrator. I find this unsatisfactory, and I think it was unnecessary.

But it's a good film, tense and well-crafted, and I can't say much more than that without ruining it for you.

Worth noting that although this is the Greater New York area everyone is white - no black people or latinos at all.

Watched on actual live TV, the first time for a while.

Review of 'The Watcher in the Shadows' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I picked this up almost by accident; I was stuck outside for a few hours with nothing to read, and miraculously one of the charity shops was open, and it felt safe to go inside (almost my first time inside a shop for weeks), and I recognised the author and didn't feel like picking up and touching a lot of other books till I found one that I liked better. I'd quite liked The Shadow of the Wind, and been less keen on The Angel's Game.

A little way in I realised that this was a "young adults" book, and also something he wrote years ago, before he was a success. It's a bit cliched, and there were bits of description that were a chore to read. Nevertheless you can see that he knows how to tell a story and to maintain tension, even when the story itself is a bit nonsensical...it relies on supernatural elements that are grounded in a unfamiliar and unstated supernatural universe. I mean, if you read something that's basically Christian, with a Devil and Hell, and demons and so on, you know where you are. Here that's not the case - there's a horrid evil at the heart of the story, but we don't understand where it comes from or what are the rules by which it works.

I note in passing that the story is set in the 1930s, and that in an afternote there are references to the war - and some of the backstory narrative is set in 1916, though there are only the darkest of hints about the war that was going on then. But at one point in the story the characters find themselves in a a large disused shower room, and something nasty comes out of the shower heads. I couldn't help but find that objectionable...it's obviously drawing on the reality of the fake showers in the Nazi concentration camps, but this felt to me like exploitation rather than explication.

In an afterword the author explains that it's a work aimed at young adults around 13 years of age, and he cites Jules Verne, Victor Hugo and Enid Blyton as the sort of thing he thinks his target audience is reading...which seems odd to me. Is anyone reading Enid Blyton by the time they are 13? And reading Victor Hugo as well?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Ratko's dilemma

When I was writing 'The Girl in the Red Cape' this quote, from Engels' fab book The Peasant War in Germany kept coming back to me.

"“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost."

I think Engels was writing about Thomas M√ľntzer, but it was so similar to the dilemma facing Ratko and his revolutionary government that I wanted to work it into the text - perhaps as a speech by Ratko himself. I didn't manage it, so I've put it here instead.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Review of 'The Salt of the Earth' by Josef Wittlin

I really enjoyed this book about the outbreak of WW1 from the perspective of a single, not-very-bright, Polish-Ruthenian man. It covers his life history before the outbreak of war, his feelings for the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the process by which he is conscripted and then taken away for basic training at a garrison town in Hungary. It's beautifully written, and it introduces lots of fantastic detail about Ruthenia, the natural landscape, farming, and an ethnic group I'd never heard of before (hutnuls).

Most of the time I was reading it I was comparing it to Von Rezzori, whose writing - about the neighbouring region of the Bukovina - I love.

It's a bit Schweik-like...our main character is a bit simple (though not also shrewd like Schweik), and there's a lot of journeying, and there is some lampooning of the bureaucratic absurdities of the army. The tone is as much tragic as comic, though, which I rather preferred...I've never really got into Schweik.

It's impossible not to comment on the tone of the writing about Jews, of which there is rather a lot. Jews are ever-present in the story, and they are described in lots of detail, as weak, crafty, and somewhat physically repulsive. It's not a very vicious portrayal - it's almost like the way a not-very-nasty anti-black racist would talk about Africans as physical specimens. It just goes with the territory; Jews were part of the social landscape in Galicia and Ruthenia (and the empire), and the stereotype of Jews was part of the mental landscape - again, hard not to think of Von Rezzori's Memoirs of An Antisemite. From time to time it made me feel uncomfortable. Afterwards, I learned that Josef Wittlin was a baptized Jew who identified as Jewish and wrote Jewish-Polish poetry in the interwar years. Go figure.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World

I'm not all that fond of graphic novels...though this is more of a collection than a single narrative, with different authors and artists telling different bits of the Wobbly story. The makes it slightly more palatable to me, though I'd just as happily have read a straightforward narrative text.

It's a pretty comprehensive work, and a good introduction for people who no nothing about either the Wobblies or how much effort went into suppressing socialism in the US. I learned lots that I didn't know.

Two things stand out for me: how grim the struggle was, and how limited were the Wobblies' successes - lots more heroic defeats and martydoms than success stories; and how important the divide was between skilled workers, organised in the 'labour aristocracy' unions in the AFL, and unskilled workers, in the IWW and other industrial unions. Perhaps the AFL unions actually did represent the class interests, at least in a narrow sense, of their memberships. Something similar happened in the UK, I think, though the division seems to have blurred in the twentieth century.
And perhaps our current divide, between a 'working class' and a 'middle class' defined in terms of culture is closer to this than we realise.

Review of 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry

I so loved this historical novel - the atmosphere, the writing style, the characters, and the plot. I became as involved with the characters as I would in a TV series, and I cared what happened to them and shared the triumphs and sorrows. I missed them when the book ended.

It's set in a late-Victorian England, in many ways recognisably like our world, with a London that includes electricity and the Tube. But it's also a world in which things that seem primitive - superstitions, belief in monsters, strange requirements of etiquette - sit alongside this modernity.

Hard to say much more without describing the story or giving it away, even though it's not strongly plot-driven. But I won't, I'll just say that I'm really pleased that I read it and will certainly try to read more by Sarah Perry.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Review of Days of the Bagnold Summer

Gentle, mildly humourous British film about a fifteen year old heavy metal fan unexpectedly spending the summer with his mum after his divorced dad, who has moved to Florida and has a new younger wife, cancels his visit. Nicely observed, and Monica Dolan (the lead character really, though not listed among the 'stars') is good as the downtrodden and dowdy mum. Some good bits of dialogue - I liked the 'vegetarian' girl at the wedding who won't eat chicken but is fine with ham.

Watched on Amazon Prime, and paid for...not sure it was really worth the money, even though it wasn't too bad.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Review of “The Evil Eye; the magic of envy and destruction” by Jack Shamash

I sort of grew up with the evil eye, or at least the idea of it. When we went on a long journey my mum would remind us – in a jokey way, of course – that we should wear something red, like socks or pants; and she would say ‘puh puh puh’, mock-spitting, if she said something that seemed to be risking the evil eye, like referring to some good fortune. It was all in fun, of course, and we would all have been shocked if anyone had seriously suggested that we were in thrall to ancient superstitions, but we still did it.

So I’m familiar with some of the material that is covered in this book – some of the charms and strategies to ward off the evil eye, for example. Others are completely strange, because as it turns out, just about everything is used somewhere as a protective charm – plants, metals, things that are the shape of a penis, hand gestures that represent a penis or something horned, semi-precious stones...funnily enough one of the few things not listed seems to be wood (I may have missed this, among the shit, piss, milk and other substances), though most of us are familiar with touching wood when we might have invited some ill-luck.

Among the things that I learned from this book is that the Evil Eye is a separate thing from supernatural entities like gods and demons, and separate too from witchcraft and sorcery. It’s almost like a force of nature such as magnetism, a property of eyes that can bring bad luck despite the intention of the person to whom the eyes belong. Although the eye is sometimes put on people or things deliberately by ill-wishers, at other times it can happen even though the person casting it wishes the receiving person or thing no harm. There’s a whole chapter more or less taken up with Pope Pius IX, who seems to have caused no end of harm with his unfortunate gaze.

If you have even a passing interest in folklore or popular superstition you’ll enjoy this book. It’s beautifully written, with some nice illustrations (a shame there aren’t more!) and lots of personal and historical anecdotes.

Review of 'One Green Field' by Edward Thomas

This is a beautiful little book...a collection of short descriptive pieces about the English countryside that I might never have read. It was given to me by our lovely friend Pat Kattenhorn as a birthday present. If it hadn’t been for Covid-19 and Lockdown I wouldn’t have got nearly so much out of it; but we’ve tried to pass some of the time by going for very long walks away from roads and people. The weather has been glorious, and we’ve taken in some wonderful scenery. We’ve been much more aware of nature, both plants and animals. At the beginning it was all very quiet too, so it seemed much closer to Thomas’s world of the early twentieth century. As the pandemic has worn on  there’s been more traffic on the roads, and even though we’ve been on the footpaths we can hear it again. Even so, I can still feel a connection with the world that Thomas describes. Like him we’ve come across hidden brooks that splash and meander on their way towards rivers, and cattle resting in fields, and old farm machinery left to rust. 

If it hadn’t been for this time I’m not sure I would have appreciated the book so much. It’s been perfect for late-night reading, full of wonderful imagery without much plot or narrative, at once capturing and pacifying the restless mind. When I finished it I read a little of Thomas’s biography, and learned that he was a friend of Robert Frost, and that in a way Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ killed him. I guess I won’t hear that again in the same way.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Review of The Banker

A film about Black capitalists in the 1960s, Joe Morris (Jackson) and Bernard S. Garrett Sr. The two men succeed in the real estate business in Los Angeles through their intelligence and hard work, and then go on to buy a bank back in Garrett's home town in Texas. They know this isn't a good business decision but - particularly Garrett - are motivated because they can see how it will help hardworking members of the Black community, who can't get loans to buy homes or invest in their businesses. They are helped by a young white man, depicted as utterly devoid of racism ("I don't care what colour you are, as long as your dollars are green"), who fronts various businesses for them, even though he starts out not knowing anything about money or finance...some of the film works in the way that the TV show 'Faking It' used to, by showing how it's possible to coach someone into appearing to know stuff that others have spent a lifetime acquiring.

The film is about racism, of course, but it's also about capitalism, and the message seems to be that the latter is the opposite of the former - capitalism, exemplified by thrift and hard work, is the best opportunity for Black people to rise. Even though this is the time of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, there's no sign that anyone else has a different strategy. In California racism is represented by the slightly snooty disdain with which conventional bankers won't meet with Garrett, and the social prejudice of an older white woman (with a Southern accent) in the first building that Garrett buys. In general racism is a thing that happens back in Texas. Even when it all goes wrong it's not because of white backlash against Black-owned capitalism, but rather the political machinations of a Senator who wants to tighten up banking regulations.

Enjoyable to watch, and with good music, but I couldn't help being disatissfied with the underlying message.

Watched via informal distribution, despite the fact that this is apparently exclusive to Apple TV.


Review of Mad to be Normal

A film about R D Laing, focusing on the therapeutic community at Kelsey Hall in London's East End in the period 1965-70. Nicely acted - David Tennant is good as Laing himself, and Elizabeth Moss is very good as Angie Wood, the woman who become his lover and has a child with him (he has another family with four children in Glasgow).

But - like lots of people at the time and subsequently - the film is not sure whether Laing is a messianic genius who had developed a therapeutic alternative to conventional psychiatry, or a charlatan who actually did a lot of harm and never really helped anyone. It shows him criticizing psychiatry...all the conventional shrinks are stuffy men in pinstripe suits who are smugly confident in their abusive treatments, and we see his kind empathy with mad people that seems to work at getting through to them and understanding the symbolic meanings of their apparently bizarre behaviour.

But the film also shows it all ending in failure, and not all of that is the fault of the system's backlash. The people living in the therapeutic community don't actually get 'better', they just develop a different way of living with their illness, and one in particular becomes ever more set in his terrifying religious mania so as to become a threat to everyone else. We see this, but we don't see whether Laing has an answer, only that he feels bad about it.

Not a bad film, despite this contradiction at the centre of it.

Watched on Amazon Prime via Chromecast. Small technical afternote; this week I threw away our Amazon Fire Stick. Weird to think that a year ago Amazon thought it was OK to develop its own entirely independent technical device for streaming, and that we would all be fine with that. I would have liked to have given it to someone, but couldn't work out how to remove my account and password from the device...the advice on the support pages didn't appear to work.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Review of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments" by David Foster Wallace

A supposedly fun book but actually not very enjoyable. DFW is a very good writer, and he's very clever, and he can be very funny...but somehow this collection of essays (many of which are really quite old now) is less than the sum of its parts. There's a really interesting one about his brief career as a competition-level junior tennis player, which also includes lots about growing up in the Mid-West (a part of the USA that is especially foreign to me), and then there's another less interesting one about how tennis competitions are organised and conducted. I started out thinking 'all this detail is really interesting, who knew?', and then the feeling passed and instead I thought 'why would I ever want to know this much detail since I neither play nor watch tennis?'.

There are two essays about 'ordinary folk' - one about the State Fair, and one about cruise ships, and both of them are very well observed but have a nasty trace of sneer about them. There's one about David Lynch, whose films I quite like, but this went on and on, and had so many footnotes, that I lost the will to read to the end. Another one is about post-structualist literary theory, but written in sort of popular, muscular language so as to make it faux-accessible, and again I couldn't face reading all the way to the end.

And of course it's all from a bygone age, before the internet and when the idea that lots of people might have 'cellular' phones was still interesting.

A supposedly funny book that I will never open again.