Sunday, September 30, 2012

Film Review: Un Maladetto Imbroglio (1959)

This film was a surprise in several ways. The director and star, Pietro Germi, was a noted creator of satires on Italian society, but in this film he produces one of the better police procedural mysteries I've ever seen. A woman is found murdered in her Rome apartment only a week after a neighboring apartment was burgled. Commissario Ingravallo (Germi) thinks the two crimes may be related, and as the investigation proceeds the list of suspects in the woman's death gets longer and longer. The story gets more complicated, but the solution turns out to be simple yet unexpected.

The first thing that struck me about this film was how modern it felt; it has the same style and tone of any contemporary TV cop show in which detectives rely on teamwork and police procedures to get the job done. Not a lot of time is wasted on extraneous characters or events; the film focuses closely on the detectives and their work and that's what makes the film so engrossing. It also feels very contemporary in the way it balances humorous and serious moments. The two are blended perfectly, and the easiest comparison is to say that, all in all, it felt like an episode of the Italian TV series Detective Montalbano. That series is very good indeed so it's not slighting Un Maladetto Imbroglio to say that it resembles a TV show; in fact, it crossed my mind that Andrea Camilleri, the author of the Montalbano mystery novels, may have been inspired by this film.

Pietro Germi was a triple threat as a writer/director/actor and has a long list of credits, most notably Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned. The latter film, in particular, takes a scathing look at Italian society with its story of Sicilian machismo run amok. When the greats of Italian cinema are mentioned, Germi's name doesn't come up often, or at all, but maybe it should.

Related posts:

Film Review: Seduced and Abandoned
TV Review: Detective Montalbano
Book Review: Bell`Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review: A Hostile Place (2003) by John Fullerton

It took some guts to write this one. Imagine going to your publisher less than two years after 9/11 with an Afghanistan-set thriller in which your hero, a British mercenary, spends a goodly amount of time slagging the character and tactics of Bush, Blair and their assorted minions in their war against the Taliban. Not surprisingly, this book never got a US publisher or even a review by an American paper that I can find. That's a bit shocking, because even if you disagree with Fullerton's politics or his interpretation of events in Afghanistan, it's hard to deny the fact that based on this novel and This Green Land, his thriller about the Lebanese Civil War, Fullerton is the best writer going at combining action, intrigue, politics and some really fine prose.

The anti-hero of A Hostile Place is Thomas Morgan, an ex-British Army mercenary who's recruited by British Intelligence to be part of a team hunting down Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Morgan has experience fighting in Afghanistan and even speaks one of the languages. Almost from the start Morgan senses that his handlers aren't on the up and up, and he's soon on the run across Afghanistan with no clear idea of whose pawn he is. Morgan is skilled, deadly and ruthless, but he's also keenly aware of the violence and injustices being heaped upon the Afghan people by the west, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. With the help of a young Afghan woman he manages to get himself on Bin Laden's trail, but he soon senses that someone is also following him.

The brilliance of this novel is that Fullerton is able to weave recent Afghan history and his own political opinions into the narrative without making the novel feel like a polemic. At times Morgan sounds like Fullerton's editorial spokesman, but those moments are infrequent, and Morgan is first and foremost a solidly crafted and believable character, not just a mouthpiece. The minor characters, especially the Afghan ones, are all nicely drawn, and Fullerton, as he showed in This Green Land, has an uncanny ability to bring landscapes alive through the written word.  Fullerton is an ex-journalist with extensive experience in Afghanistan and every bit of that experience, with some added righteous anger, has been used in A Hostile Place.

Related posts:

Book Review: This Green Land by John Fullerton 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Robber Barons In the Sky

An NFL owner explains the wildcat offense to his second wife.
I've been a casual NFL fan for quite a while, but it's only in the last ten years or so that I've noticed a regular feature of every televised game. At some point a camera will angle upwards and give us a shot of the owner's private box. Typically, the spacious, discreetly-lit oasis far above the braying crowds is lightly populated by the owner, his spouse, and a scattering of adult children and grandchildren. The men are in suits, the women are dressed for church or a late afternoon reception, and the kids look uncomfortable and bored no matter what they're wearing.

The play-by-play man and his colour commentator sidekick will then lower their voices as though in the presence of royalty and announce that Mr Silverspoon and his lovely wife June (if she's the first wife) or Tiffany (if she's the second/trophy wife) are here and enjoying the game. There's never any visual proof that they're enjoying the game; the owner is usually glaring down at the field while his wife talks to a fractious child or taps distractedly on an iPhone. Meanwhile, the adult heir to the gridiron throne lurks in the background, often sitting right behind dad and helpfully offering him various artery-clogging snacks. The TV announcers will then give us the following: a brief history of Silverspoon's inspired ownership of the team since inheriting it; a sepia-tinged recollection of how Silverspoon's father, Thaddeus Silverspoon, bought the team in 1934 using the profits from his orphan-crushing factory; and, finally, we're treated to a description of Mrs Silverspoon's charitable endeavours, particularly her fine work in bringing toddler beauty pageants to inner city neighborhoods. All this information in delivered in the same reverential tone that one hears in documentaries about endangered species or dead statesmen.

What's interesting here is that the networks feel the need, or are required to, pay obeisance to billionaires on a regular basis. Does a shot of a team's owner paired with some fawning commentary represent added value for the TV viewer? It doesn't add to our understanding of what's taking place, and in terms of visual appeal most watchers would probably opt for another look at the cheerleaders, or even a beauty shot from the Goodyear blimp. The NFL is in some many the ways one of the prime expressions of US wealth and power, and it would seem that 31 billionaires have made it known that they want to be seen on every telecast, a visual reminder that they've made it to the top of the plutocratic heap, or at least had the good sense to be born there. Billionaires usually shun the limelight, but once a week a select few of them like to be seen enjoying their Sauron's-eye view of the most coveted toy in the prize chest of American wealth.

Related posts:

Peanuts, Popcorn & Anti-Capitalism 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Pull Out All the Stops! (2010) by Geraldine McCaughrean

I've read two of McCaughrean's YA novels in the past year, (Not the End of the World and The Death Defying Pepper Roux), and it's astonishing to think that a writer this good is, by and large, unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The fact that she mostly writes for the young adult market should have no bearing on how she's perceived as a writer. McCaughrean is simply one of the best and most imaginative prose writers I've come across in the last ten years. No contemporary writer I can think of has her facility for creating memorable images and witty observations. This is a writer who sees the world in a new and imaginative way and effortlessly transmits those images to the printed page. This short paragraph from the novel shows off her many strengths:

Twice a year, the Missouri rises. As it drinks down meltwater or tropical summer rain, it loses its head and runs amok. It swells and throbs like the nightmares in Hulbert Sissney's feverish head. Forgetting the maps drawn up by fastidious river pilots, ignoring the dry baked levees, it simply gets up and stretches itself. Overspilling its banks, unpicking its neat embroidery of tributaries—tributaries like the Numchuk River—it spreads out over the landscape, engulfing water meadows, swamps, landing stages and riverside highways. It is an unstoppable surge of chocolate-brown water lumpy with storm litter, staking its claim to everything. And when it has made its point, and withdrawn, it leaves behind flotsam, like a drunkard's tip on the bar: tree stumps, shack roofs, dead cattle, cartwheels. Even boats. 

Not only is the "drunkard's tip" a wonderful simile, it also brilliantly references back to the beginning of the paragraph with the river's "drinking" causing it to run "amok." Someone should put this paragraph on a plaque and stick it beside the Missouri or Mississippi because there's never going to be a better or briefer description of a mighty river in flood. 

Pull Out is the picaresque tale of Cissy Sissney and Kookie Warboys, two 12-year-olds living in Olive Town, Oklahoma in the 1890s. A diptheria epidemic breaks out and Cissy and Kookie are sent to stay with Loucien Crew, their former teacher who is now part of a traveling theatrical troupe. Accompanying the children is Miss March, their present teacher. The troupe, which is called the Bright Lights Theatre Company, is living in a paddle wheel steamer which one of the Missouri River's floods has left high and dry on land. No sooner have the children got to the boat than the Missouri rises again. The kids and the actors are soon floating down the Missouri into all sorts of adventures. 

McCaughrean knows picaresque. In The Death Defying Pepper Roux the title character traveled around France (in virtually the same time period as this novel) having adventures and meeting all kinds of characters. In this book, Cissy and Kookie join a large group of eccentric characters, and as the boat journeys downriver it picks up more characters on top of experiencing various adventures. It's to the author's immense credit that she manages to juggle all these people and adventures in a coherent manner. There's far too much going on in the novel to summarize it adequately, but it's enough to know that it's all wildly entertaining. And, as always, McCaughrean's prose leads the way. Here's one of my favourite lines in the book about a man who's recovering from a close shave with a runaway grain silo:

The idea had come to him in the middle of the night, when a man with a head wound has all his best and worst ideas.

Given the setting and tone of this novel, I don't think it's a coincidence that that sounds like something Mark Twain might have written. And, just for a contrast, here's a lovely description of some pelicans briefly glimpsed at night on the river:

Pelicans loomed white out on the river, drawn by the light, drifting like Chinese lanterns, indistinct and mysterious.

That's poetry, that is. The only reason I'd rate this novel fractionally lower in quality than the previous ones I've read is that McCaughrean shows a tendency, like a lot of English writers who set stories in America, to view everything through a larger-than-life prism. From an English point of view, everything happens in America on a bigger scale and at a greater decibel level than elsewhere, and in this spirit the novel sometimes feels a bit too frenzied, a bit overcaffeinated. One example is that McCaughrean absolutely goes to town on giving some of her characters outlandish names. English writers often seem to give Americans, especially ones from the Old West, improbable  names, which is very much the pot calling the kettle black (say hello, Benedict Cumberbatch), but that hasn't stopped writers from P.G. Wodehouse on down from doing it. 

McCaughrean has written more than 150 books for all ages, as they say, including some adult novels, so it looks like I have a lifetime's supply of great reading ahead of me.

Related posts:

Teen Pulp Fiction  
Book Review: Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Book Review: Crazy River (2011) by Richard Grant

Much like the African river author Richard Grant set out to try and raft the length of, his book about the trip ends up wandering into some dead ends, hits some snags, and comes to an unsuccessful conclusion. But there are some hair-raising adventures along the way and the trip is conducted with enthusiasm and an acute eye for detail.

Grant originally went to Africa to travel the length of the Malagarasi River, something no explorer has ever done. Grant freely admits he was indulging in a childhood fantasy of playing at explorer, and his somewhat successful journey on the river, led and organized by a professional guide with the help of several assistants, makes up the bulk of his story. This part of the book has a variety of scary moments thanks to rapids, hippos and trigger-happy poachers, not to mention the usual agglomeration of snakes, biting bugs, and insufferable heat. There's no doubt this was a dangerous adventure, but, like climbing Himalayan mountains, it's utterly pointless. Grant is putting himself in harm's way purely to satisfy his own ego and to entertain his readership. Grant is fairly candid about admitting his base motives for the river trip, but there's something monstrously selfish about this kind of life-threatening adventuring that I find off-putting. When Grant risks his life he's also putting the emotional lives of his loved ones at risk. Does he ever think how horrible his death would be for his parents? girlfriend? siblings? Is risking their grief worth the ephemeral and pointless honour of traveling an unknown river? Another thing that bothers me about it is that this kind of adventure is almost the ultimate expression of Western wealth and decadence. The people Grant meets in East Africa are constantly fighting and struggling to the limits of endurance to improve their lives, or even just to stay alive. And here comes Grant spewing thousands of dollars in an attempt, as it were, to lose his life. I don't think Grant appreciates the irony of his quest, and it mars his book. And the book's epilogue leaves a very bad taste. You might expect Grant would add some updates about the people he met on his trip. Nope. Instead we get a cliche moan about how difficult it was to adjust to life in the affluent US of A after months in poorest Africa. Duh. This is tired, boilerplate travel writing and it's surprising an editor didn't give Grant a nudge about it.

The rest of the book is a rambling tour through Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, rural Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. Grant was careful to avoid Western comforts and accommodation on his trip and it pays off. We get a worm's eye view of the trials and tribulations of daily life in East Africa, and it's not a pretty picture. What Grant shows us is a region that is crumbling under the hammer blows of overpopulation, corruption, diminishing resources, and national economies that have been grossly deformed by foreign aid. This is all interesting and important information, but it has to be said that other writers and journalists have beaten Grant to the punch in the last decade, most notably Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari and The Road to Hell by Michael Maren. Both books cover virtually the same ground and issues as Crazy River, and they do a better job of it. Having somewhat slagged Crazy River, it's only fair to mention that Grant's book about Mexico, God's Middle Finger, has to rate as one of the best travel books I've ever read. He was exposed to even more danger there, but it wasn't anything that he was expecting, and what he reveals about a little known corner of Mexico (the Sierra Madres) is fascinating. If you want to get a better understanding of why the Mexican drug cartels are so brutally strong, read this book.

Monday, September 17, 2012

TV Review: Braquo (2009)

The French can make thrillers like nobody's business, but cop shows/movies are something they just don't get the hang of. The main reason is that their versions always feel like self-conscious recreations of US cop shows. Braquo is an excellent example of this. Like The Wire, it's a mini-series with a single story arc that carries us from episode one to eight. Four Paris police detectives, Eddy, Theo, Walter and Roxanne, lose their leader, Max, when he decides to violently assault a murder suspect. Internal Affairs goes after Max who then kills himself. Our team then kidnaps the murder suspect from hospital (Max stabbed him in the eye with a pen) in order to interrogate him about his partner in the killing. Oops! They accidentally shoot him through the head. And from that point on the team is trying to cover up the killing and keep one step ahead of Internal Affairs. But for every step forward in covering up their tracks they take two backwards, all of which involve more killings, beatings, and all manner of things well-behaved cops aren't supposed to do.

It's pretty clear the creator of the show, Olivier Marchal, is taking his cue from The Wire and the grittier cop films from the 1970s ( my piece on '70s "cop noir" is here). Marchal also tries very, very hard to outdo his US heroes in toughness and grittiness. And that's where Braquo gets a bit daffy and unintentionally amusing. His four cops, just to show how tough and noir they are, never, ever smile. I mean it. In eight episodes I might have seen one unironic smile between the four of them. And to further underline their gravitas, they continually look defeated, sour, disheveled and short on sleep. Poor Roxanne looks like she's taken a vow of abstinence from shampoo and combs. If one them had a lighthearted moment they might die from the bends. They also smoke like chimneys and knock back booze constantly. Like a lot of other fictional TV and movie cops these four get to live in some fabulous digs. Eddy, the leader of the group, lives on a river barge; Theo has an ultra-modern apartment; Roxanne shares a big. luxurious townhouse with her older boyfriend; and Walter, the family man, lives in an old house in Paris that is covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. You get the picture.What might be most amusing about this show is that the cops make one bad decision after another, each one getting them into deeper and murkier water. At more than a few points in the series I was yelling at the screen, "You morons! That's your idea of a plan?" But I was doing it in an amused sort of way.

It sounds like I'm slagging Braquo, but I'm not, really. Even with all its attempts to one-up Yankee cop shows, like some little kid trying to impress his big brother, Braquo is still quite entertaining. The acting is very good, it looks great, there's violence aplenty, and the bizarro plot keeps you hooked because it's hard to believe how things are going to get worse for the cops. But they do. I've only seen season one and it ends with a rather monstrous cliffhanger, and it looks like the succeeding season will consist of the team, as per usual, not doing a jot of actual police work, but, instead, there will be a lot of drinking, smoking, bad hair days, torturing of suspects, and assassinations of crims. I just hope Roxanne gets a chance to take a shower. By the way, "braquo" is supposedly Parisian criminal slang for a big heist. I think it's more likely to be Parisian cop slang for "D'oh!"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: Witchfinders: a Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (2005) by Malcom Gaskill

What do Joseph Stalin and the so-called War on Terror have to do with a nasty spasm of witch-hunting in England in the years 1644-47? Slightly more than you might think. In the 1640s England was in the throes of the Civil War, with the Parliamentarians (flinty, puritanical Protestants for the most part) on one side, and Royalists (supporters of the King and the Church of England) on the other. The country was impoverished, beset with outbreaks of various diseases, and suffering through a series of poor crops. In these unstable, revolutionary, frightening times it shouldn't be too surprising that a portion of the country became seized with a fear of witchcraft.

East Anglia was the epicentre for a wave of witch-hunting led by two men: Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. They toured the east of England discovering witches and handing them over for trial. They were freelance witchhunters, but that didn't mean they did it for free. There was a good living to be made hunting witches, and they kept up their crusade for several years. The "confessions" and "evidence" they came up with ranged from the ludicrous to the nonsensical. Case after case hinged on witches (almost always old women) being accused of having familiars who took revenge on neighbours who had cheated or offended them in some way.

A typical East Anglian witch
What's eerie about the witch-hunting of Hopkins and Stearne is that they were using torture techniques that I, for one, thought had been invented in the 20th century. The pair used sleep deprivation, starvation,  and physical restraint to get their "witches" to confess to just about anything. These are exactly the same techniques used during Stalin's Great Purge. We tend to think of pre-20th century torture as consisting of racks, red-hot pincers, and all the other props from Hammer horror films. Clearly this wasn't the case. By using these techniques the witchfinders could get their victims to fabricate outrageously baroque fantasies about visits from the Devil, the ability to sink ships at sea through spells, and strange creatures feeding off their bodies. And as in the War on Terror, with its rendition flights to torture-friendly countries like Syria, the torturers were able to get exactly what they wanted to hear rather than any kind of truth.

Not a typical East Anglian witch
 One question that isn't quite answered here is why the general populace was willing to believe in these twisted tales. One answer that the author provides is that the hunting and hanging of witches was a way for the community to release pent-up fear and anxiety about England's instability and impoverishment. In short, they were scapegoats. Another possible reason for the credulity of the citizenry is that belief in witchcraft stood on a widespread and firm foundation of folk belief in fairies, brownies, will o' the wisps, boggarts, church grims, and dozens of other supernatural races and creatures. In fact, many of the accounts of witchcraft can be read as aspects of fairy lore transferred to witches. Katherine Briggs was a noted English folklorist, and in her book A Dictionary of Fairies (1976) she has a section on "Blights and illnesses attributed to the fairies." Many of the ailments blamed on fairies are the same ones "witches" confessed to. It's possible that the victims of torture simply recycled fairy tales with themselves in the role of the fairies. There is some support for this theory in Witchfinders when a case in Cornwall is mentioned in which a 19-year-old girl claimed familiarity with fairies. Ministers and magistrates took the view that what she meant were imps, the traditional ally of the witch. It's a clear example of witchcraft being grafted onto a more benign folk belief. And in Keith Thomas' book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), he points out that Protestant leaders as early as the 16th century were insisting that fairies were simply Satanic creatures in another guise. The Catholic Church had never had any great quarrel with fairy beliefs.

Witchfinders is a nice blend of academic and popular history, and Gaskill does an excellent job of communicating the fear and misery that led communities and individuals to lash out against the weak and the defenceless. Yes, there is an aspect of class and gender hatred to this story. Old, single and widowed woman were, it seems, the underclass of the 17th century. Men could always find work as labourers or soldiers, but unemployed, single, older women had to rely on begging or charity. And no one liked beggars or giving to charity.

And on a side note; if you're a writer looking for some seriously cool names for your next steampunk or period horror novel, give Witchfinders a quick read. Harbottle Grimston, Widow Hoggard, Goodman Garnham, Valentine Walton, and, wait for it, Avis Savory, are just some of the mouthwatering names to be found here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Film Review: Headhunters (2011)

This makes three Norwegian films I've seen in the last year, and that would make, let's see, three I've seen in my entire life. In baseball terms, the Norwegians are 3 for 3, with two doubles and a triple. The triple is Headhunters. This thriller cleverly combines industrial espionage with art theft, and a lead character who suffers from self-esteem issues related to his height and a wife who (he thinks) is seriously out of his league.

Not much can be said about the plot of Headhunters without going spoiler-crazy, but it has many moving parts, lots of twists and turns, and on the whole it doesn't have too many of those moments where the audience goes, "Wait a minute, that doesn't make sense. Why would he do that/go there/have one of those?" We are asked to suspend our disbelief on a couple of occasions, but that's par for the course for most thrillers. What's important is that we root for the hero (in this case something of an anti-hero) and be constantly on the edge of our seats. On that basis, Headhunters works very well. The pace is furious, the action is sometimes shockingly bloody, and our hero is clever and resourceful.

Another interesting aspect of Headhunters is that it shows how producers working far away from Hollywood, or coping with non-Hollywood budgets, can punch above their weight.  Headhunters had a budget of roughly $5m, which, to put things in perspective, is what a 45 minute episode of the TV show House costs. Headhunters doesn't have the budget to dazzle an audience with star power, special effects or massive action sequences; instead, the film gives us a compelling, intricate story that's told with fluency, energy, and precision. That's all you need. The producers found a novel (by Jo Nesbo) with a great plot and built the film around it. The Hollywood model of production is often the reverse: assemble some stars, dump a ton of money on sfx or grandiose action scenes, and then try to stick bits of a story on to the resulting mess. The Mission Impossible franchise is a textbook example of this kind of Hollywood production. The French film industry virtually specializes in tense, clever, imaginatively-plotted thrillers, many of which end up getting remade (badly) by Hollywood, most notably The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. It started life as a smart French film called Anthony Zimmer. The addition of big stars and big money only ruined things. Some other recent French thrillers that are worth checking out include L'appartement, Point Blank, The Prey and Chamber of Death.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: Fairy Tale (1996) by Alice Thomas Ellis

Graham Greene once said that "every writer has a splinter of ice in his heart." I thought of this when I was reading Fairy Tale, a strange and sharply-written novel about a group of Londoners encountering fairies in rural Wales. These aren't, however, the kind of fairies who flit about in the moonlight playing merry pranks on maids and shepherds. These fairies eat people. But this isn't a full-on fantasy story; the fairies are mostly symbolic of some hard truths the human characters must deal with.

The four characters in the novel are Eloise, Sam, Clare and Miriam. Eloise and Sam are a somewhat New Age couple who've decamped from London to live the rural life in Wales. Both are from upper middle-class backgrounds. Sam works as a handyman, while Eloise sews exquisite clothes that are sold in a local upmarket store. Clare, Eloise's mother, lives in London. She's divorced, apparently living comfortably on her alimony, and desperately hoping to find another man. She seems to spend most of her spare time dining and drinking with her best friend Miriam. Clare begins to suspect that something is not quite right with Eloise and asks Miriam to go to Wales to check up on things. Miriam goes to the idyllic red cottage Eloise and Simon live in and finds that strange things are going on. Four peculiar men keep turning up at the cottage to ask odd questions, Eloise is acting broody and disappearing for long stretches of time, and there's something not quite right about the whole area. Clare travels down from London and it slowly emerges that the local fairy folk want Eloise to act as some kind of surrogate mother for a fairy child.

A plot description doesn't really do this novel justice. It's too easy to make it sound cute or silly. This is first of all an unsparing portrait of the emotional and spiritual lives of the four main characters. This is where the quote from Graham Greene comes into play. Alice Thomas Ellis is absolutely merciless with her characters. Their fears, their shallowness, their uncertainty about how to live their lives is put on display like meat in a butcher's window. The author's ruthlessness with her characters is reminiscent of the way Evelyn Waugh handled his characters. I looked up Ellis' bio online and found that, like Waugh and Greene, she was a Catholic, and a hardcore one at that. Mel Gibson hardcore. It leaves me wondering if a feature of English Catholic writers is a determination to see the worst in every character. Something to do with original sin? I don't know enough about Catholicism to say one way or another, but Ellis clearly had that "sliver of ice" in her heart that's needed to coldly examine all aspects of a character.

Ellis may have been a more-Catholic-than-the-Pope Catholic, but she keeps her religious beliefs on a short leash. There's definitely a religious aspect to this novel, but it's never shouted out. The lesson that seems to be on offer is that our modern, self-obsessed lives and faddish beliefs blind us to the older, deeper and more dangerous mysteries. The cuckoo in the Catholic nest here is Miriam, who is Jewish. She plays a key role in the climax of the story and it would seem that Ellis is suggesting, on a symbolic level, that Jews should embrace Christ. I may well be misreading this part of the novel, but why else does Ellis make a point of having a Jew as one of her characters?

Take away the religious aspects and this is still a fine, creepy novel. Ellis is a deft and clever writer, and her handling of the supernatural elements is excellent; it makes you wish she'd tried her hand at a more traditional fantasy or horror novel. 

TV Review: Bottom (1991-95)

For those of you who don't like comedy that's rude, stupid and violent, please rummage around elsewhere on this blog for a post about some lovely paintings or one about a tasteful nineteenth-century Russian novel. Gone now? Good. Now just to set the mood here's a clip from Bottom that shows the two stars engaged in a typical bit of japery while camping out on Wimbledon Common.

Bottom is a British sitcom written by and starring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonston, a comic duo who appeared together in The Young Ones and a variety of sketch comedy shows. The characters they play in Bottom are, respectively, Richard "Richie" Richards and Edward "Eddie" Hitler. As the title of the show suggests, this is a sitcom about two characters who are at the bottom of the barrel in everything: intelligence, personal hygiene, diet, living quarters, and morality. They also like to slap each other around the head with frying pans from time to time.

There's no doubt that this show is laddish and loutish to the max, but there's also no denying it's written with a lot of skill and a brutish wit, and the two leads, especially Mayall, are brilliant in their roles.  What's striking off the top about the series is that for the most part the episodes are duologues between Richie and Eddie. In fact, several episodes are wholly duologues, including one that's set entirely on a ferris wheel! Writing a dramatic duologue is difficult enough, so writing an excellent comic one set in a confined space deserves a lot of praise. According to Mayall and Edmonston, they got the idea for Bottom after appearing on stage in Waiting for Godot. That makes perfect sense, and they've done Beckett proud.

What stops Bottom from being just an exercise in vulgarity and excess (not that there's anything wrong with that) is the work that's gone into the characters of Richie and Eddie. They have a weirdly antagonistic and supportive relationship that makes their duologues wildly unpredictable; one moment they're trying to kill each other and the next they're united against the world. They also have an amusing habit of trying to affect an air of middle-class respectability. It's notable that they always wear shirts and ties (complete with tie clips!) no matter what hooligan behavior they're engaged in. Richie is especially class conscious, feeling that he's socially better than Eddie. This supposed class difference is the comic engine for a lot of their duologues.

I'm not going to claim that Bottom is one of the great British sitcoms of all time, only that I have an irrational love for it that annoys and horrifies most of my family (I have it on DVD). I recently reviewed Martin Amis' thunderingly bad comic novel Lionel Asbo, and what he was trying to achieve had already been done (in some respects) by Bottom. The main and important difference between the two is that Mayall and Edmonston actually know how to make people laugh.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book Review: Lionel Asbo (2012) by Martin Amis

I have this mental picture of Martin Amis as a boy: he's standing behind the high, secure fence of the family estate, watching the neighbourhood walk by. Whenever a rough-looking boy or a lad who's clearly from a state school goes past, young Martin shouts out things like "oik" or "spiv" or any other insulting terms he's gleaned from reading Enid Blyton books. If any of the boys glower at him he scampers inside with a final cry of "Filthy street arab!" Flash forward fifty odd years and Martin is up to the same old tricks, only now he's making fistfuls of money for being a witless snob.

Lionel Asbo is a shambolic, unfunny attempt to take a Swiftian look at modern Britain. The title character is, first of all, not a character. Asbo is a grotesque caricature of a violent, alcoholic, half-witted thug, the kind who frequently ends up on the front page of the more lunatic British tabloids because of some depraved crime or an epic social benefits fraud. Asbo is so broad and blunt a caricature he belongs in a cartoon: he's like a vile, adult version of Dennis the Menace from The Beano. Come to think of it, the comic sophistication on show in the novel is on a par with that of The Beano. The story is set largely in the fictional London borough of Diston (Diston/dystopia, get it?), and the local school is called Squeers Free School. Wackford Squeers was the famously cane-wielding teacher from Nicholas Nickleby, which means Squeers Free stands for a lack of discipline! What wit!

Lionel Asbo in action
Martin Amis age eleven
Lionel Asbo is pretty much devoid of plot, or at least a plot that needs to be paid attention to. The first section of the story shows Asbo in all his yob glory, with Amis' curdled wit applied with a fire hose: Asbo has a ghastly accent! Shock! Horror! Asbo then wins a colossal amount in the lottery and the remainder of the story is an equally ham-fisted attempt to satirize the outer limits of celebrity culture; think Katie Price and the Kardashians. Amis fires all his satirical guns in the first third of the novel, so reading the rest soon becomes a real slog.

This is an epic failure as a comic novel, but as a piece of hate literature aimed at Britain's working classes you have to give Amis top marks. I mean, if you really want to dehumanize and ridicule an entire class of people this is the way to do it. Amis offers up a blanket sneer at everyone who, well, isn't just like Amis. Upper and middle-class people do make appearances in the story, and they endure some mild ridicule, but their main role is to act as social backdrops to make the awfulness of Asbo and his peers stand out in greater relief. Amis shows us a Britain filled with what he would call chavs, all of them doing their best to ruin everyone's lives, including their own. What makes Lionel Asbo hate literature is that Amis offers no context or explanation for why, in his view, the UK is overrun with louts; he simply lets fly at the underclasses with both barrels. He detests a certain demographic and is using this book to recruit people to his cause. This is all part and parcel of a recent trend in the UK to slag and mock the working classes by painting them as feckless, promiscuous, slope-browed layabouts. And by demeaning these people it becomes all the easier to deny them social benefits and political power. This trend is discussed brilliantly in a book by Owen Jones called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, which, as it happens, I've reviewed here. If you really want something funny that's set amongst the Brit underclass, check out a rude, violent BBC sitcom called Bottom (my review here). Unlike Lionel Asbo, it's offensive without being truly offensive.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Worst of Breed

When Todd Akin, the Republican congressman from Missouri, recently managed the neat trick of placing his foot in his mouth while at the same time inserting his head up his ass thanks to his theories about "legitimate rape", it caused a richly deserved firestorm of legitimate anger. What wasn't mentioned much, if at all, was that this level of idiocy has now become the new normal on the right wing of American politics. In the last decade or so, but especially since the election of President Obama, Republican politicians have rarely gone a month without saying something so outrageously stupid you have to wonder if they aren't doing it just to keep staffers at The Onion busy; kind of a make-work program for humorists. Don't believe me? Just Google stupidest quotes from Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin,  and Jan Brewer; you'll be spoiled for choice.

So why is it that the right wing is producing more and better knuckleheads? The answer, my friends, is something I'm going to call Selective Ideological Inbreeding. And here's the theory in a nutshell: any organization, political or otherwise, that experiences success with a particular strategy will try and replicate or reinforce that success by enhancing or amplifying their winning strategy. What starts out as a strategic course can then become an entrenched culture, a codified and glorified mode of thinking, an orthodoxy that's held to be the one true path to success. The leaders of such an organization tend to recruit to their cause those who are not only in accord with their ideological vision, but who take it to the next level. In this way organizations can become bastions of inbreeding, with the organization's leaders selecting only those new recruits who resemble themselves in every ideological detail and bring an even more ferocious level of commitment to the organization's strategic philosophy. And what does this selective ideological inbreeding produce? In the case of the Republican Party it's created politicians who try and outdo each other in enthusiastic idiocy, moral viciousness and religious fervour.

The beginning of this process began for the GOP with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. To their delight and surprise the Republicans found that it was possible to elect a genial, flag-waving simpleton to the highest office in the land on a platform based largely on the concept that government is bad for you. By 1984 Reagan's simpleness was slipping into senility, but he still won handily. Reagan's success owed a huge debt to the religious right, which was leading a backlash, a cultural revolution, against liberal social policies and attitudes that had been on the rise since the 1960s. The twinning of simple-mindedness and religiosity became the template Republicans chose for their strategic philosophy. And why not? From a purely practical point of view it seemed to be a surefire winning formula, delivering strong mandates in both '80 and '84.

The dumb and devout template was a new concept in the '80s. Nixon and Eisenhower, the two previous Republican presidents (I'm omitting Gerald Ford because he wasn't elected), were no dummies, and their religion (what little they had) was not put on show. And by present-day Republican standards both were dangerously liberal: Eisenhower pushed through a massive public works bill to create the Interstate Highway System (tax and spend politician!), and Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (job-killing treehugger!). After Reagan, the ideal, and often typical, Republican politician became someone who combined equal levels of anti-intellectualism and old-time, tent revival Christianity. And the poster boy for this job description? George W. Bush. This degradation in the quality of Republican politicos is due to the selective ideological inbreeding syndrome: the backers and promoters of right-wing politicians are in a race to the bottom to find the next candidate who's denser and more pious than the last. We've now reached a point where the standardized Republican politician has become a bug-eyed amalgam of braying piety and Forrest Gump philosophizing.

Given the constant dumbing down of Republican politicians and policies it was almost inevitable that the Tea Party would spring to life. If you view the so-called Reagan Revolution as equivalent to China's Cultural Revolution in its basic aim of creating a purer, more orthodox society, then the Tea Party can be seen as the Red Guards: a spontaneous, populist movement that runs on adrenaline, inchoate outrage and holier-than-thou moral superiority that aims to add vim and vigour to the on-going cultural revolution. And like the Red Guards, the Tea Party became the tail wagging the dog. It's the Tea Party, the children of the Reagan Revolution, who helped produce a climate in which people who one or two generations ago would have been dismissed as nutjobs, cranks or fools, were now competing to become the leader of the free world. If Mitt Romney seems like a reasonable choice for president, it's only because in comparison to the political sideshow freaks he beat out for the nomination he comes across as a pillar of common sense and reasonableness.

What's dangerous about the Republican Party's program of selective ideological inbreeding is that in some future presidential election one of their Frankenstein monsters might win the day. It's far from unthinkable. Earlier this year it looked like Michele Bachmann, the woman who said that hurricanes and earthquakes were God's message that government spending was out of control, appeared to have a good chance of winning the primaries. And if the GOP's ideological inbreeding continues at its current pace the next Michele Bachmann will make the original look like Eleanor Roosevelt. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Related posts:  

Finally, Proof That Jesus Would Vote Republican
What Makes a Conservative Conservative?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teen Pulp Fiction

If you don't work at a library it's unlikely that you ever feel the need to take a detailed look at shelves and shelves of a particular literary genre. If, say, mysteries are your thing you might look over the selection at a bookstore, but you probably do an unconscious edit as you glance at the shelves, ignoring authors you don't like, covers you find unappealing, paperbacks vs. hardcovers, and so on. This past week I had to do a complete weeding of the teen section in one of Toronto's downtown libraries. It was an eyeopener.

The first thing you notice (and this also applies to teen sections in mega-bookstores like Chapters or Barnes & Noble) is that teen fiction might as well be labelled Teen Fiction For Girls. At least 70% of teen fiction titles are for girls only, with almost all of these books revolving around social and romantic problems in high school. The few titles that are aimed at teenage boys usually deal with serious issues such as drug abuse, broken families or crime. The rest are sports-themed or fall into the fantasy genre.

Looking through the teen section it comes as no surprise that teenage boys read so little. If I was a teenage boy browsing through this section I'd feel completely unwelcome: the message being sent by teen sections in libraries and bookstores is that only girls should be interested in reading. Adding to the problem is that so many of the titles aimed at boys are issue-oriented. These novels tackle social ills and evils in what seems like a transparent attempt to attract the attention of the people who order books for libraries, not the people who actually read them. So much of this literature seems written to "improve" the reader by discussing the issues that are "important" or "relevant" to him. The person who orders a gross of these books gets to feel virtuous, but their intended audience? Last time I checked, what teenage boys think is important are violent movies and video games; gross-out comedies; YouTube pranks, stunts and fails; naked and nearly naked women; and a bit of sports, especially the UFC. In other words, what this demographic wants is entertainment that comes with a near-toxic level of testosterone. Teen fiction rarely, if ever, delivers what boys want.

Teenage girls seem to get exactly what they want in teen fiction. As previously mentioned, teen fiction for girls is almost entirely about life in high school. Half these titles are blatant ripoffs of Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while the other half are about affluent or wealthy girls dealing with romance and peer pressure while larking about in designer clothes in various U.S. glamour spots. The Twilight clones give girls action, horror and romance, and the glitzy, trust fund baby literature provides an abundance of wish fulfillment. There are issue-oriented novels for girls but they're almost crowded out by the stuff that screams entertainment value.

These girls are rocking the trust fund baby zombie look.

The literary merit of teen fiction is another question altogether; what's important here is that teenage boys aren't being catered for, and because of that their interest in reading is either stopped in its tracks or never developed. There are two possible solutions. The first is to divide teen sections into boys and girls areas. For various reasons I can't see libraries doing this, but I don't see why bookstores couldn't give this a try. The other alternative is to stop pointing teenage boys towards books written with a teen audience in mind. Teenagers in general can't wait to become adults, but I think teenage boys are even more eager to get to adulthood than girls. So why not feed them adult literature? Why, for instance, shouldn't a 15-year-old boy be reading one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels? They're no more raunchy or violent than what he's seeing online, and they're far more likely to get him in love with reading than a sociologically accurate story about a boy coping with a parent's divorce/death/alcoholism/hoarding problem/debilitating karaoke addiction. There's a ton of adult literature out there that boys would lap up, but no one's directing them towards it.

Once upon a time the rambunctious tastes of teenage boys were very well served. That time was the 1920s and 30s, the heyday of the pulp novel magazine. There were dozens and dozens of magazines that covered every conceivable red-blooded genre and they were hugely successful, with some magazines selling a million copies per month. These magazines weren't specifically aimed at teenage boys, but boys made up a large percentage of the readership. And the pulps weren't a literary wasteland: writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler and Arthur C. Clarke wrote for the pulps, and there are few post-WW II American writers who don't credit the pulps with getting them interested in reading and writing. My love of reading probably stems from an encounter with the pulps at a very early age. In the mid-1960s Bantam began reprinting the Doc Savage pulp novels with stunning covers done by James Bama. My dad started reading them as an exercise in nostalgia. I saw him reading one and demanded that he read it out loud. Doc Savage was a two-fisted superhero who traveled the world punishing evildoers with the help of his eccentric sidekicks. The body count was usually very high. I never read another Hardy Boys novel after my first Doc. And somewhere around the age of fourteen I discovered my father's stash of James Bond novels and I never read another Doc Savage; in fact, it was about that time I stopped reading anything that was "age appropriate." The covers shown below should explain why I gave up on Tom and Frank.

There is no contemporary equivalent of pulp magazines, and that's probably not helping the cause of getting teenage boys to read. There's no way to getting the pulp magazine business going again, but it's certainly possible to encourage teenage boys to check out the adult fiction writers who have a pulpy flavour, whether it's the writing team of Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child or Elmore Leonard. And there are teen fiction writers who do manage to deliver the goods for teenage boys, one of the best being Melvin Burgess. His novel Bloodtide has tremendous literary quality as well as more ferocity than a rabid Tasmanian devil. My review of it is here.