Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell

It's clear David Mitchell did a Ph.D's worth of research for this novel set in 1799 Japan, and, unfortunately, every bit of it ends up on the novel's pages. Historical fiction requires a delicate balance between creating a rich and believable historical background while at the same time not allowing it to act as an anchor on the storytelling, and in this case the pudding has been overegged.

The novel's plot is not overly complicated. The titular character arrives at the Dutch trading station of  Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour in 1799 as a simple clerk in the pay of the Dutch East India Company. Jacob soon runs afoul of his scheming and corrupt superior and, more importantly, falls in love with a Japanese midwife named Orito. Orito attracts the attention of Lord Enomoto, a powerful noble who controls a mysterious shrine high in the mountains several days journey from Nagasaki. Orito is enslaved by Enomoto and put to work in the shrine, which turns out to be a perverse and evil cult that sacrifices babies. The bulk of the novel is concerned with Orito's imprisonment in the shrine, and an attempt to rescue her by Ogawa Uzaemon, a member of the samurai class who is also in love with Orito. The final quarter of the novel suddenly introduces a new danger for Jacob: a British frigate comes into Nagasaki Harbour and demands that the Dutch surrender their trading rights.

There's a fair bit going on there, and at times the story proceeds at a gallop, but far too often the novel is marred by narrative digressions and anecdotal asides about characters who are not central to the plot. These literary "speed bumps" become maddening after a while. One example: when the frigate arrives, one of the Dutch contingent (an Irishman, as it happens) is terrified he'll be recognized by a particular British officer. The Irishman was a convict in Australia and escaped after killing a guard. The Irishman's story is told in very full detail, and it all turns out to be redundant since the two never even come close to meeting. This is only one of many speed bumps in the book. Some of them are diverting, but most of them feel like a showoffish display of historical research.

Leaving aside the incessant history lessons, Mitchell's prose has a nice rhythm to it, and his imagery and descriptions are lean and effective. He also gives the novel some extra resonance by making it clear that his characters are part of global changes as well as personal ones. The Japanese characters are coping with the inevitable intrusion of Westerns ideas and technology into their hermetically-sealed culture, while the Dutch are coping with their nation and empire being eclipsed by the British.

The main characters I didn't find terribly compelling. Jacob is conscientious, good at his job, fairly pious, and moral. In short, dull. He's faced with all kinds of difficult choices and situations, but that doesn't change the fact that he's not someone you want to spend a lot of time with. The same can be said for most of the Japanese characters, who, thanks to a repressive, status-conscious society, are terribly circumspect in what they say and do. The most colourful characters are minor ones, and they tend towards the cliche. Marinus, a Dutch doctor, is an Enlightened Man of Science, and as such his orotund utterances are stuffed with rhetorical flourishes, Latin words and phrases, and the driest wit. He's mildly entertaining, but he feels like a stock character. The working class Dutchmen in Dejima are easily indentified: Mitchell makes them sound like a cross between a Thomas Hardy peasant and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa character from Pirates of the Caribbean. Did they really need to sound like caricatures to let us know they're not of the same social class as Jacob and Marinus? And speaking of dialogue, Mitchell is overly fond of italicizing key words in almost every spoken passage, as though he doesn't trust the reader to figure out where the emphasis lies in the sentences. It's really irritating.

Autumns has received nothing but rave reviews, which I can only put down to critics rewarding Mitchell for his hard work in the library. As an entertainment, as a piece of historical fiction, Autumns is a distant second to anything by Patrick O'Brian. And better still is Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie (review here), which strikes a perfect balance between history and narrative.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Film Review: The Artist (2011)

The Artist, in case you weren't aware, is a modern silent film shot in black & white and set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies. It's funny, clever, heartwarming, and inventive, which is all great, but it's also a lesson in the power of film's most basic language and tools. The Artist is rigorous in creating a silent film that adheres to the language and sensibility of silent films. The fact that the film succeeds so well is testament to how powerful the medium of film can be, even when it's stripped down to its basics.

The artist of the title is George Valentin, a silent film star in the style of Douglas Fairbanks, brilliantly played by Jean Dujardin. In a storyline borrowed largely from A Star Is Born, Valentin's career starts to fizzle while his platonic love interest, Peppy Miller, becomes the major star he used to be. Berenice Bejo plays Peppy and is as good as Dujardin. In keeping with the silent films it emulates, The Artist uses a plot that's stuffed with melodrama, silliness and sentimentality, but makes it work. We know the story is silly and mawkish, but the elan of the director and the stars give the story a charm and lightness that can't be resisted.

The film ends on a happy note with a dancing sequence (with sound) being filmed on a sound stage, but as the camera pulls back during the final shot, our view of the stars is obscured and the soundtrack is filled with the shouts of film technicians calling out instructions to each other. This last shot is director Michel Hazanavicius' subtle reminder that when sound entered the picture, it announced the arrival of the age of techies and computer programmers taking over the creative process of making films. It would be wrong to call The Artist old-fashioned; a more apt description would be artisanal.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, Drunk and Sober

There's really no debate about the fact that Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant writer. His essays, opinion pieces and columns are models of logical argument, wit, and eloquence. And unlike many columnists, Hitchens backed even his most casual opinions with research. In the years to come I think he might be most remembered for leading the charge against faith-based thinking and politics. The conflict between faith and reason is not going away any time soon, and this conflict is not merely a subject for academic debate: there are real-world victims of malicious, fanatical religiosity. Hitchen's God is Not Great is an invaluable resource and weapon for anyone trying to knock down the walls of myth, superstition, and mendacity surrounding the world's major religions. It's a work that will be read up until the day religions fade away, or until the religious triumph and burn every last copy of the book. This is Hitchens at his best.

The political Hitchens, the supporter of the Iraq war and vocal opponent of various tyrants, is more problematic. Hitchens was effective and relentless in detailing the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Iran's ayatollahs, but he never adequately faced up to the human cost of trying to remove these regimes. The Iraq war has, directly and indirectly, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and led to the exile of more than a million others. And no one is predicting that Iraq will be a viable democracy in the future. So far, the victory over Saddam Hussein has been a pyrrhic one for the Iraqi people. The human cost to the U.S. has, in relative terms, been negligible, but the economic cost has been almost as disastrous. America is becoming an also-ran in the global economy, and a large part of the reason is the bill for the Iraq war. The last American soldier left Iraq yesterday, but given the blood toll and prospects for further unrest, it doesn't look like a happy occasion for Iraq or America.

Where Hitchens seemed to go completely off the rails was with his visceral loathing of the Clintons, Bill and Hilary. He accused them of lying, financial misdeeds, cronyism, and of generally using low tactics and sharp elbows to get to the top of the greasy pole of American politics. And on one memorable occasion on Bill Maher's show, a drunk Hitchens actually accused Bill Clinton of rape. Hitchens' hatred of the Clintons made him look foolish and hypocritical. Foolish because the Clintons roughhouse political tactics (if true) are par for the course in post-war American politics. That's the way the game is played. Kennedy turned to the Mafia for political help, Nixon employed burglars, and both George and Dubya Bush ran election campaigns that set new lows for viciousness (the Willie Horton ads, Swift Boat Veterans, lies about Sen. McCain's daughter). And in terms of morals, Bill Clinton's sins don't begin to equal the immorality of the enthusiastic support Nixon and Reagan gave to death squad governments in Central and South America. The charge of hypocrisy sticks thanks to Hitchens support of George W. Bush. Bush, a southern-fried Christian creationist with a limited intellect, is the sort of person Hitchens normally scorned and mocked. In fact, on October, 9, 2000, in The Nation he called Bush an ignoramus and a "special" child. And yet on the day of Obama's Inauguration he stated in Slate that he was glad that Bush had triumphed over Gore and Kerry. Clearly, Hitchens had a conversion on the road to Damascus, or, in this case, Baghdad. It also has to be noted that he never made mention of the collateral damage caused by the Bush administration: reckless deregulation in the financial sector, tax breaks for the wealthy, a rollback of environmental protection measures, and an increased level of anti-intellectualism, something that Hitchens should have been very sensitive to. In supporting Bush, Hitchens was supporting a worldview that was fundamentally hostile to his own. Hitchens had a great intellect, but it was one that sometimes wore blinders.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: A Renegade History of the United States (2010) by Thaddeus Russell

Where do I begin to describe the nonsensical and illogical nature of this book? It's thesis, in a nutshell, is that America's rights and freedoms are not due to the actions of politicians, social activists, and deep thinkers, but are thanks to the actions of "renegades" of various stripes, dating from colonial America right up until the late 1960s. Renegades, in Russell's view, consistently rejected the status quo, the norms of capitalist society, in favour of individual expression and pleasure. In short, renegades didn't want to be cogs in a machine.

The author takes us on a quick tour through U.S. history, stopping at different points to argue that various criminal, social and economic underclasses were in fact fighting for freedoms that we all now take for granted. The underclasses, Russell argues, were always despised by those above them because they refused to conform to the model of what constitutes an efficient, reliable and moral American citizen. In a section on slavery Russell opines that slaves who shirked or sabotaged work on plantations were, in some way, standing up to conformity and the harsh Protestant work ethic. Russell ignores the fact that slaves, or those who are de facto slaves, have always been bad workers. One of the stock characters in classical literature is the lazy, scheming slave, who in Elizabethan literature became the lazy, scheming servant. Russian serfs were equally famous for being grossly lazy and inefficient. It would hard, though, to argue that slaves, servants and serfs ever acted as agents of social change.

If Russell was simply trying to prove that renegades were able to influence social mores that would be fine, but he also has some political axes to grind. This is most obvious in his section on the New Deal, in which he argues that fascism and New Deal liberalism were largely one and the same. This view is much in favour with Tea Party ideologues and Fox News, but it doesn't stand up to close examination. Because both fascist Italy and the New Deal had economic stimulus programs that were, on occasion, identical, Russell leaps to the illogical conclusion that this makes Franklin Roosevelt a quasi-fascist. This is bit like claiming that vegetarians are Nazis because Hitler was a vegetarian. Another problem is that fascism, both in Italy and Germany, was not much concerned with economics. The core features of both strains of fascism, and what dominated the imaginations of Hitler and Mussolini, were muscular, messianic nationalism and a vicious contempt for democratic institutions. Russell clearly doesn't see it that way as he ends his section on the New Deal with this eyebrow-raising statement: "...the New Deal and fascism went to war [WW II] not over ideas or values or a way of life. Rather, it seems, the war was a struggle between brothers for control of the world family." Sounds like someone wants to be invited to Glenn Beck's next barbecue.

Renegade takes a sharp turn into the nonsensical when it looks at the case of Japanese-Americans interned during WW II. Russell states that a significant number of these people were, in fact, loyal to Imperial Japan, and belonged to various organizations that swore loyalty to the Emperor and Japan. What does this have to do with renegades or social change? Nothing. Equally silly is Russell's claim that the beginning of gay liberation, which he dates as 1969, somehow produced heterosexual liberation as well. His proof of heterosexual liberation is that The Joy of Sex, a huge bestseller, was published only four years later. Russell conveniently forgets that popular culture in the post-war era had become increasingly comfortable with the idea of sex before and outside marriage. If there is such as thing as heterosexual liberation it's probably thanks to Hugh Hefner, Russ Meyer, Marilyn Monroe, hippies, the Pill, and James Bond movies.

Russell does make some convincing arguments that nineteenth-century prostitutes played a role in advancing women's rights, and that the civil rights movement, widely hailed as being non-violent, actually benefited from less pacific black protestors. Most of the time, however, Russell uses faulty logic and anecdotal evidence to manufacture proof that "renegades" were unconscious leaders in the fight for individual freedom. In sum, this book feels more like an extended opinion piece than a work of historical scholarship.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Film Review: Harper (1966)

Harper is a pretty good film, but it's more interesting as an example of a Hollywood style of filmmaking that was about to enter its death throes. It's also an example of Hollywood trying, in a halfhearted, clumsy manner, to act cool.

The title character, played by Paul Newman, is a private detective hired to investigate the apparent kidnapping of a wealthy Californian; in other words, a pretty standard gumshoe plot. The movie is based on a Ross MacDonald mystery called The Moving Target. MacDonald was a solid writer who had a way with intricate mysteries that had their roots in long-buried family secrets. Stylistically he's very much of the Raymond Chandler school, although less inclined to have his detective crack wise, as they used to say. In true Hollywood fashion Harper mostly junks the source material by renaming the lead character (Archer in the novels) and jazzing up his character to make him a more suitable vehicle for Paul Newman.

The script, by William Goldman, gives Newman ample opportunity to shine. He's called upon to act silly, sarcastic, tough, downtrodden, lonely, you name it, Newman does it, and it's a borderline hammy performance. Speaking of the script, it amounts to a master class in how to create a slick, punchy screenplay that continually holds the audience's attention. Every scene has a gag, a revelation, some action, an arresting location, and so on. Goldman is sort of the Michael  Bay of scriptwriters; he keeps throwing new things at you so fast you don't have time to pay much attention to the story.

The script also tries to be tougher and nastier than than its P.I. predecessors with some, for 1966, salty language and gritty violence. Harper's roughness pales in comparison to what was coming down the road in the shape of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). And in terms of edginess, Point Blank (1967) would be soon be setting the bar very high. Harper tries hard to be hip and cool, but it has a sleek, glossy and traditional look that doesn't jive with its desire to be edgy. The supporting character actors, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner, are also very old Hollywood. They're competent, but all of them would be scrambling to find work only a few years later in "new" Hollywood. The most dated and clunky part of Harper is the music. In this film rock 'n roll hasn't been invented. Harper's investigation takes him through several nightclubs, all of which play ersatz film approximations of jazz and rock. The most awkward scene has a teenage sex kitten played by Pamela Tiffin dancing to what sounds like cha-cha music. Did Hollywood really think teenagers were dancing to this kind of thing? You can see that scene in the trailer below, which is itself a creaky example of Hollywood promotion.

If you can look past Harper's dated elements it remains a mostly entertaining mystery-thriller. Paul Newman is particularly fun to watch, and some of the California locations have a nostalgic appeal to them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Film Review: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

One of the early frontrunners for scooping some of the important Oscars next year is The Artist, a French film directed by Michel Hazanvicius and starring Jean Dujardin. It's been winning prizes at film festivals and it's set for wide release in North America on Dec 9. I don't doubt it's good because Hazanvicius and Dujardin created comedy magic five years ago in OSS 117.

OSS 117 is the codename for a secret agent who appeared in a huge number of pulpy thrillers in Europe in the 1950s. The novels led to some B-grade films and then, many years later, this spy spoof. Now, OSS 117 pre-dated James Bond, and his adventures didn't involve gadgets or supervillains, so bear in mind that this film is not riffing on the world of 007. Jean Dujardin plays Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117, and he plays him as an arrogant, patronizing, self-centred, slightly dim and very French exemplar of Western imperialism circa 1955. A French agent has disappeared in Cairo and OSS 117 is sent there to investigate the disappearance. French-Egyptian relations are not improved by his visit.

French comedies sometimes choke to death on high decibel silliness, but this script is a superb mix of wit, satire, slapstick, and, yes, some silliness. What brings it all to life is Jean Dujardin. This is one of the great comedy performances in the last ten years, the highlight of which is a scene involving OSS 117 having to pass himself off as an Arab musician. Dujardin plays the scene as though he was Peter Sellers reincarnated, and Sellers at his most brilliant could not have done a better job.

There's a sequel to Cairo called OSS 117: Rio ne repond plus, and it's good rather than great. Dujardin's other films alternate between drama and comedy, and the ones I've seen have been so-so. One of his earliest comedies was Brice de Nice. It's fairly amusing, and he's very good, but it maxes out on French silliness. So hurry up and hunt down OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies so you can tell people that you knew all about Dujardin before he appeared in The Artist and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review: The Devil You Know (2006) by Mike Carey

This supernatural thriller/murder mystery is remarkably similar to Rivers of London, a novel I reviewed exactly a month ago. Both novels offer an alternative reality version of London in which ghosts and various supernatural baddies plague the general citizenry. Rivers had a cop/wizard as its hero, while this novel has a freelance exorcist named Felix Castor taking top billing.

Felix specializes in ridding homes and businesses of ghosts. The ghosts in London are just your common or garden variety ghosts, and there are lots of them, but their ordinariness doesn't stop them from scaring the crap out of Londoners, and that's where Castor comes in. He exorcises ghosts with the aid of a tin whistle; he essentially "whistles" them out of existence. That sounds silly, but Carey doesn't an excellent job of making the magical elements in his alternate world feel believable. In relation to this, he also does a great job of what's known in fantasy writing as "world-building." Carey's London is gritty, detailed, and the supernatural elements fit quite smoothly into this milieu. In this story Castor investigates a ghost haunting an archive in central London. He also has to deal with a murderous vice lord with a zombie henchman, and a succubus who wants his soul. 

Castor's job title is exorcist, but he's basically a gumshoe: Philip Marlowe in everything but name. And take away the ghosts and demons, and the plot of The Devil You Know is pure hardboiled murder mystery. Castor gets slapped around, cracks wise, and can't resist a damsel (or ghost) in distress. The problem with the plot is that it goes on and on and on. The final quarter of the story, when things should be speeding up, feels bogged down with lengthy background stories and explanatory passages. Devil isn't lardy and prolix the way the final Harry Potter books were, but it definitely would have benefited from some pruning.

Putting aside the plot problems, this is a very entertaining read. The supernatural bits have a visceral thrill, and the characterization is much better than average. In these respects Devil is superior to Rivers of London. Where the latter scores better is the plot, which was lean and efficient, albeit a bit shambolic towards the end. This is the first of six Felix Castor adventures, and I'll definitely give the next one a try.

Book Review: Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s (2008) by Alwyn W. Turner

The story of Britain in the 1970s boils down to the relationship between the ruling parties (Labour then Conservative then back to Labour) and organized labour. Turner does a good job of documenting and analyzing the political side of the ledger, but he seems to view unions through the wrong end of the telescope. We hear a lot about their militancy and political muscle, but the background, the base reason for Britain's labour woes (as opposed to, say, Germany's labour calm) isn't really hinted at. Were unions just naturally stroppy? Were they fueled by old grievances? Was it something about their internal culture or organization? There's really no answers to these questions.

On the social history side, Turner provides a skim reading of British popular culture of the 1970s. Everything from David Bowie to Confessions of movies to the travails of the National Theatre are referenced and commented upon. It's all interesting, and a bit of a trip down memory lane for people of a certain age, but Turner doesn't bring a whole lot of insight to the party. For example, he doesn't comment or notice on the sea change in British comedy in that decade, which began with films like Carry On Up the Jungle and ended with The Life of Brian.

I'd recommend this book on basis of its strength as a political history, but keep in mind that when it comes to the role of unions in British society it's pretty much analysis-free. The social history aspect of the book is OK, but it's far from insightful.