Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best Books of 2013

So in 2013 I made a point of reading some authors I'd always felt guilty about avoiding/neglecting. There were mixed results in that area (thumbs up for Harper Lee, thumbs way down for Cormac McCarthy), and none of them made the following list. For my full reviews just click on the titles.

The Dervish House (2011) by Ian McDonald

Here's some proper science fiction: no E.T.'s, no space travel, just a dense, highly literate analysis of what happens in the near future when new technologies and economic models impact a traditional society, in this case Turkey.

Spring Torrents (1871) by Ivan Turgenev

If you think 19th century literature tends towards the verbose and sentimental, try Turgenev. He's the most modern of that century's writers, and this novel is a witty and sad story about a Russian noble who lets his lust conquer his chance for true love.

7 Ways to Kill a Cat (2009) by Matias Nespolo

A lot of English language crime fiction is labelled "noir", but this is the real deal. Life doesn't get much more noir than what goes on in the barrios of Buenos Aires, Nespolo's book could represent a new wave in crime fiction: slum noir.

Dog Boy (2009) by Eva Hornung

An R-rated update of The Jungle Book set in contemporary Moscow that represents an amazing feat of imagination. Not a book for dog lovers.

Angelmaker (2012) by Nick Harkaway

Steampunk meets SF meets James Bond meets a Boys Own Paper ripping yarn. An unlikely literary chimera, but it works. It really works.

The Private Sector (1971) by Joseph Hone

Calling this a great spy novel is damning it with faint praise. This is a great novel, period. Hone's prose is masterful and his recreation of Egypt in the 1950s is wonderful.

Scrivener's Moon (2011) by Philip Reeve

This is the third prequel to the Mortal Engines quartet of steampunk novels, and it maintains the same high standard of imagination and wit. Somebody please get off their ass and film these.

The Baron in the Trees (1957) by Italo Calvino

A 12-year-old noble in 18th century Italy decides to live an entirely arboreal life after he's been served one too many indigestible meals. From a bizarre and thin premise comes a joyously eccentric and beautiful novel about the birth of the modern world.

Going to the Dogs (1931) by Erich Kastner

Set during the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany, this novel captures the mood of a nation about to slip into madness and despair.

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005) by Robert Fisk

The most depressing book I read this year. The Middle East has been, is, and will be a cockpit of violence and tragedy in the future, and Fisk doesn't pull punches in describing the whys and wherefores of this mess.

Fly by Night (2005) by Frances Hardinge

This alternate reality Young Adult story doesn't break any new ground in terms of plot (plucky orphan becomes enmeshed in palace intrigue), but the quality of the writing is so far above the norm in this field that it should be read by readers who wouldn't normally be caught dead in the YA section of bookstores.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Film Review: The Train (1964)

A few months ago director Spike Lee released his list of the 87 films he deems as "essential" viewing for students in his NYU film class. Like any list of this variety there were a few surprises (Kung Fu Hustle?), but it was mostly a pretty sober and conventional inventory of great films. One film that stuck out for me, one that rarely gets a mention on any kind of list, was John Frankenheimer's The Train. Lee has it right; The Train is an example of flawless filmmaking.

John Frankenheimer is the best director to never have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Despite making classics like Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, he never got a nod from the Academy. Frankenheimer was a master of directing stories about men butting heads with other men, which isn't to say he was strictly an action movie director. He was equally skilled at showing conflict that was based around ideology, as in Seven Days in May (1964), a political thriller that feels more contemporary with every passing year.

The Train features both action and ideas, and it combines the two brilliantly. Set in August of 1944, the story pits Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a French Resistance fighter, against Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), a German officer attempting to ferry a trainload of invaluable artworks out of Paris to Germany just ahead of the advancing Allies. Using a combination of sabotage and subterfuge, Labiche delays and finally stops the train. However, each act of sabotage costs dearly in terms of lost lives--Resistance fighters are killed and civilians are shot as reprisals for attacks on the train.

The action elements are superb. Frankenheimer manages the neat trick of making the movement of trains as exciting as the best car chases, and since the film was made in the Jurassic era before CGI, the explosions and train crashes are the real deal and they're all spectacular. And of course any film with Burt Lancaster already has a head start in the action department. He did all his own stunts and did them with an effortless grace that made him the Baryshnikov of action. The real action star here is Frankenheimer. Practically every scene features crowds of extras, moving vehicles, trains, and this is in addition to the main actors going through their paces in the foreground. Frankenheimer's coordination of all these moving parts within scenes is amazing, and gives the film a kinetic energy that very few other films have ever matched.

This is also possibly the most noir war film ever made. The subject of the film is the theft of artistic masterpieces, but the look of the film is enthusiastically, and ironically, grimy. The paintings are glimpsed briefly at the beginning of the film, but after that we see nothing but the smoky, steamy, noisy world of life and work around railway yards. Everyone and everything seems to be permanently coated in coal dust and oil. Adding to the noir tone is the fatalistic attitude of Labiche and his fellow fighters. They perform heroic deeds, but they do it feeling that their efforts are doomed to failure. This is where The Train also becomes a film about conflicting philosophies. Labiche has no taste or interest in art; he's blue collar to the core and his character is as implacable and brutally efficient as the trains he operates. He's also cautious with the idea of risking lives to stop a train with a cargo he sees as having no value. Waldheim cares deeply about the art, despite the fact that it's labelled by Nazi officialdom as "degenerate." His love of art, however, overrides his humanity completely, leading to a climactic scene in which a group of civilian hostages are pointlessly executed as the train is abandoned.  This powerful scene questions whether great art is worth the sacrifice of even one life, and the answer the film gives is an emphatic no. And as exciting as the film has been, the ending is very downbeat and makes the film at once one of the great action films as well as a great anti-war film.

Special mention also has to go to Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield. Lancaster was the most ebullient actor on the planet, but here he dials things way down. His Labiche is taciturn and economical in his actions. In an early scene he walks across a busy railway yard swarming with German troops and he never so much as acknowledges their existence; he simply moves through and around them as though they weren't there. It's a brilliant way of showing his disdain for them and also his subtle caution since he's on his way to a Resistance meeting. Scofield is the fire to Lancaster's ice. His towering, Shakespearean rages as his train is delayed are well worth the price of admission. It's almost as though the two actors realized they had to ramp up their performance level just to stay equal with the quality of the filmmaking.

If you watch The Train on DVD, check out Frankenheimer's director's commentary, which is an excellent blend of anecdote and discussion of filmmaking techniques.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013) by Max Hastings

Max Hastings has carved out a reputation as one of the most insightful and readable historians of the Second World War. Catastrope is his first book on the First World War, and it has to count as a misstep. The problem is that his book is really two monographs loosely tied together by detailed accounts of the military actions on the western and eastern fronts in 1914.

Hastings' first monograph is on the subject of whether the outbreak of war was a kind of mathematical inevitability due to a combination of  inflexible treaties and mobilization schemes that couldn't be undone once they were set in motion. This has become a common view, largely thanks to Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August, and Hastings (he never mentions her book, but it's clear that's his target) takes a contradictory position. He asserts that Germany could have easily dissuaded Austria from invading Serbia, which was the first domino to fall in the march to world war. Hastings argues that Germany's febrile militarism and nationalism, at least among its ruling classes, provided the true impetus for the conflict. Of all the major European powers,  Hastings makes a strong case that Germany was the one with the greatest hunger for war.

Hastings second monograph deals with the argument that the war was a tragic farce because, unlike the Second World War, it was a conflict that was ridding the world of something evil; it accomplished nothing except the reshuffling of European borders and some colonies being passed back and forth like trading cards. Hastings takes the view that a victorious Germany would have been, well, not a nice thing. This monograph is the weakest of the two. Hastings is almost dealing in speculative fiction in deciding that the Kaiser's Germany would have been the Third Reich-lite. His only evidence for this is the harshness with which the Germans treated the civilian population in France and Belgium. The Germans were cruel, but it's hard to extrapolate much from that. It's possible the French and British might have been just as harsh had they been occupying German soil.

On the subject of the terrible human cost of the war, and the suffering of the troops in the front lines, Hastings has nothing new to say. Like a lot of other historians he simply shrugs and says that the state of military technology at the time made trench warfare inevitable. What Hastings doesn't address is the utter ruthlessness with which all the combatants tossed away their soldiers' lives. The best explanation for this behavior was provided by novelist Alan Sillitoe in Raw Material, his partly-fictionalized biography of his grandfather's experiences at war and as a worker. As the title suggests, Sillitoe argues that the slaughter of World War One was a direct result of the ruling classes viewing the working classes as nothing more than expendable raw material. The way troops were handled and treated by their leaders is eloquent proof of Sillitoe's argument. It's notable that during the Second World War Britain and America were very sensitive to the welfare of their soldiers. Memories of WW I and the advance of socialist parties and trade unions in the years between the wars had changed the prevailing view that the lower orders could be used as cannon fodder. Only the totalitarian states of Germany, Russia and Japan could dare to spend their soldiers' lives as recklessly in WW II as had been done by all the nations fighting in the previous world war.

Catastrophe is an enjoyable read, nicely seasoned with a variety of anecdotal material, but it really amounts to something that could have been presented in a much reduced form in a history journal.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics (2012) by Gideon Defoe

If you saw the Aardman Animantions film The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) you can be forgiven if you decided to give the book on which it was based (called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists) a pass. You're forgiven, but you made a great mistake. The film, like any animated film, was aimed for the kids and tweens market. Bad move. The book on which it was based (and the four succeeding titles) are definitely not for kids. The filmmakers basically had to strip the book of its unique comic voice and substitute some standard kid-friendly slapstick and jokiness. That resulted in a film that fell between two stools and, not surprisingly, it stumbled at the box office. There isn't likely to be a sequel.

The Pirates! books are very silly, but it's very much a highly literate silliness that meets at the intersection of Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse. Here's a sample from The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists:

"You're right, of course, Captain. But I must say I have a certain yen for those big-boned, statuesque blond operatic ladies."
     "Really? I'm more of a 'gazelle-like legs and delicate shoulders' kind of man. Meaning sleek like a gazelle, not with a backward-facing knee. That would be horrible."

And from the Romantics:

"Perhaps I can help?"  said the Captain, holding up his free hand. "When I wake up in the morning, I face a tricky conundrum: do I have my egg poached or boiled? You know where you are with a poached egg. It's all there in front of you, perhaps a little patronising and showy at times, but dependable. Sits nicely on the toast. It's not going to run off with a cocktail waitress, is it?"

Now I ask you, does that sound like the raw material for a kids' film? Gideon Defoe probably made enough on the deal for a down payment on a small London flat, and I say he deserves at least that because writers this funny are exceedingly rare. And it's especially difficult to find authors who can stay funny in book after book. James Hamilton-Paterson, for example, produced a comic masterpiece in 2004 with Cooking with Fernet Branca, but the sequel, Amazing Disgrace, was a disappointment. The Pirates! books score consistently high on the LOL meter.

The Romantics sees the pirates involved with Byron, Shelley and Mary Godwin (Shelley's future wife and the creator of Frankenstein). Previous books have seen the pirates crossing swords with Charles Darwin, Napoleon, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Describing the plot is pointless, but there are mysterious goings-on, secret passages, and a character whose hair is even more glorious than the Pirate Captain's. Mirth is guaranteed, and I can't think of a better Christmas present than all the Pirates! books for that person on your list who keeps moaning about having to reread Wodehouse because they can't find anything new that's funny.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Book Review: Cities of the Plain (1998) by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is one of those authors I've been skittish about trying. I've read the glowing reviews of his work, but many of those reviews have seemed too fawning, often written in the voice of someone trying to elbow their way onto the latest literary bandwagon. And then I've come across a few critics who say that McCarthy's wildly overrated, but then that's to be expected when an author starts pulling down major awards and film deals. Well, I finally took the plunge. What a load of bollocks.

So what explains McCarthy's literary street cred? Let's begin with his prose style, which consists of simple declarative statements linked by a conga line of "ands" to create sentences of surpassing dullness. For example:

"Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table."

If this sentence was presented in a more conventional manner we'd have writing that's as lifeless as most instruction manuals or something by James Patterson, but thanks to all those "ands" McCarthy gives his writing a hollow portentousness and the rhythms of Old Testament prose--And lo, Ephraim begat Ishmael who begat Oatmeal who begat...You get the idea. But is Cormac's affected, but easily digestible, prose enough to explain his success? Nope, there's more. Key sections of dialogue are written entirely in Spanish. Only a truly brilliant writer (or so the critics must think) would dare to be so willfully opaque and challenge his readers. And in-between the flat, metronomic descriptions of characters doing not much of anything, we get mystical, allusive musings on, well, you know, life and horses and the things men must do in a manly way because they're men who are manly. It's the sort of writing that William Faulkner set a high standard in, but when lesser mortals try their hand at it things can go wrong. Very wrong.

Did I mention the plot? No, of course not, because there barely is one. A cowboy in New Mexico falls in love with Mexican prostitute living across the border and things don't go well. It's a tired story and McCarthy barely does anything with it. Most of the novel is taken up with digressive sections on horse training, hunting, riding the range, and a dozen other inconsequential episodes. There's no shame in skim-reading parts of the book.

But what I found most annoying about Cities of the Plain is McCarthy's patronizing view of his cowboy characters. Like many intellectually-lazy middle and upper-middle class writers, he views the working class as being an undifferentiated mass. The four or five cowboy characters who form the backbone of the novel all talk, act and think the same way, and they feel more like stock characters from generic western films than actual flesh and blood people. If a writer created a group of middle-class people who were essentially identical he'd be criticized for weak characterization, but when it's done to working-class characters no one takes any notice. McCarthy writes about his cowboys the same way nineteenth-century writers wrote about the "noble savage." The writer doesn't actually want to be a cowboy or noble savage, but it's fun to go slumming and write about their simple yet endearing lives--the little people have so much to teach us if only we'd listen.

The quickest way to describe McCarthy is to say that he's taken stylistic elements from Hemingway and Faulkner and then made a complete hash of them. I find his success baffling after this sample of writing, so I can only guess that he's being praised by people who haven't read much literary fiction since high school.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Fly by Night (2005) by Frances Hardinge

At an early stage in Fly by Night the reader stumbles upon this passage:

"The path was a troublesome, fretful thing. It worried that it was missing a view of the opposite hills, and insisted on climbing for a better look. Then it found the breeze uncommonly chill and ducked back among the trees. It suddenly thought it had forgotten something and doubled back, then realized it hadn't and turned about again. At last it struggled free of the pines, plumped itself down by the riverside, complained of its aching stones and refused to go any further. A sensible, well-trodden track took over."

That anthropomorphized path has nothing to do with the plot, and objectively speaking it's a superfluous piece of writing, but it's what marks out the divide between the average writer and an exceptional writer. Hardinge is firmly in the latter camp. Fly by Night is an alternate reality yarn set in an English-y country of the 18th century in which a plucky young orphan, Mosca Mye, becomes a Victim of Fate and Circumstance at the hands of Scheming Vagabonds, Rebels and Monarchs. Harsh Words are spoken, Dastardly Plots uncovered, Appalling Crimes committed, and Revolution fills the air. And there's a goose.

Considered as a whole, the novel doesn't break any new ground in YA fiction. Orphans, plucky or otherwise, are a staple of this kind of story, and, just as inevitably, this particular orphan plays a key role in the unraveling of various baroque plots. Hardinge's plotting is top-notch, but what sets her apart is the sheer recklessness of  her imagination and her ability to put her creative thought bubbles into prose. I don't read books like this to add to my knowledge of the psychology of female orphans; I read them for fizzy explosions of brilliance like the passage above. Hardinge doesn't stint with the clever, artful prose, and the reason I quoted that section is that it's a good example of her intemperate imagination. It doesn't influence the plot, but it brings joy if you have any taste for witty, clever prose. Hardinge clearly got an idea that paths can seem to have a will of their own and decided that this concept needed to see the light of day on the printed page. Is it necessary? No, but beauty in literature should always trump utility..

Fly by Night is another YA title that cries out to be read by an older audience. Some of the sharpest writing today is being done in the Teen and YA field,  but, unfortunately, too many adults would rather be seen reading a James Patterson novel than be caught with a "kids" book in their hand. Go ahead, take a chance on Hardinge, Philip Reeve, Geraldine McCaughrean or Melvin Burgess.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Eddie Izzard

Last week I saw standup comedian Eddie Izzard's force majeure show in Toronto, the second time I've seen him live. Izzard is something of an outlier among comedians, and that's what's given him a loyal following that could roughly be described as bourgeois bohemian. Izzard is a remarkable mix of mime, comic impressionist, surrealist humorist and jokester. He brings an armoury of talents on stage and uses them all brilliantly. But what really sets him apart, and might account for his devoted following, is his humanism, his political philosophy, and his uniquely British voice.

Izzard's standup routines are as funny as you'll find anywhere, but they're also a strange and giddy mix of history lecture and philosophizing. I might be making him sound dry and dull, but rest assured these are not G-rated performances and laughs are always his first goal. He's probably the only comedian who would launch into a routine with a brief discussion of Charles I of England (complete with relevant dates), and therein lies Izzard's difference. Most standups are in the business of making fun of people, whether it's themselves, the audience, or eternal bull's eyes like politicians, celebrities and types of people such as the fat, the stupid or minorities. Izzard lampoons ideas. Big ideas. Topics like nationalism, fascism and religion are passed through the filter of Izzard's absurdist humor to emerge shrunken, naked and exposed to ridicule. Izzard's loosely-observed goal with these routines is to show up the anti-human nature of most ideologies. This is where his comic style complements his humanist outlook perfectly. (FYI: The rest of this paragraph is cribbed from my review of Goblins by Philip Reeve) Izzard specializes in a distinctly British form of humor that revolves around the subversion of anything or anyone that seems overly proud, serious or powerful; with this kind of humor the self-important and mighty find themselves humbled or embarrassed by common sense, the unavoidable facts of life, and bureaucratic inflexibility. Think of it as the revenge of lower-middle-class values. It's a comic philosophy that seems in tune with thoroughly British concepts like "muddling through" and "the Dunkirk spirit." It's also the perfect form of humor for "a nation of shopkeepers." In contrast, American humor shows the high and mighty being flattened by anarchic proletarian violence: think the Three Stooges and Adam Sandler. Izzard's justly-famous Death Star Canteen routine (clip below) is a textbook illustration of his style:

Izzard is quite probably the only comedian working today who frequently tosses around the word "fascist" and regularly references Hitler. For Izzard, the insanity and horror of  fascist ideology is like a loose thread that must constantly be pulled at. This seems to tie-in to both his political aspirations (he aims to run for mayor of London one day) and his oft-expressed pride in being a European. Izzard has often spoken in his routines about the positive values of European union, but he seems aware that Europe still can't escape the shadow of fascism thanks to political parties like Greece's Golden Dawn, the EDL of England, the National Front in France, and a half-dozen other similarly jackbooted groups. Izzard doesn't really go after contemporary political entities but he wants to remind his audiences that there are still monsters lurking in the closet.

For his all pro-European outlook, Izzard has an incurable fondness for the popular pleasures of British culture. He references English beauty spots like the South Downs, classic British films such as The Italian Job, and his vocal impressions are solidly RADA. For audiences outside the UK, especially for those of a certain age living in the Commonwealth, Izzard provides a pleasant reminder of a time (not so long ago) when popular culture was synonymous with British culture. He's not, however, some kind of affable purveyor of Brit-themed nostalgia; Izzard's wit and worldview is much too subversive for that. Eddie has a non-mawkish affection for his country that simply can't be repressed.

It seems that at some point in the near future we're going to lose Eddie Izzard the comedian to politics, which is wonderful if you're living in London, but a disaster for the rest of us. If you're new to Izzard he has a fair-sized back catalogue of performances available on DVD, and unlike the vast majority of standups his routines bear up to multiple viewings.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Field Guide to Ford Supporters

A voter rethinking her choice of Rob Ford.
Just when you thought Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was scraping the bottom of the scandal barrel, he starts driving splinters through his hands as he begins frantically clawing right through the barrel's planks. For Rob, the word "nadir" is something glimpsed briefly in the rearview mirror as he weaves his Escalade to yet another rendezvous with some Iceberg Vodka. By this point the only way he could jolt the benumbed senses of we Torontonians is if he commits some unholy sexual crime involving a butternut squash, an endangered species, and Justin Bieber. That being said, Ford still has supporters. If you're not from Toronto you're reading that last statement and thinking, "But surely the people who wear colanders on their heads to block out transmissions from the planet Zontar can't count for much?" Unfortunately, depending on the poll and the question being asked, Ford can still get some kind of support from 20-40% of the population. Herewith is a guide for non-Torontonians to the people who constitute Rob Ford's base.

The Greedy

For some people a political philosophy built entirely around lowering taxes, bashing unions, and slashing spending forgives any and all crimes. From millionaire property developers to penny-pinching pensioners, there's an intractable core of people who will always vote with their wallets held over their hearts. Pointing out that Ford's lemonade stand economic theories are harming Toronto's long-term economic health does no good with these voters; they only see that Ford will put a few extra dollars in their pockets. The shortsightedness of all involved was very much on display when Ford scrapped a $60 vehicle registration charge. Yay! said Ford's base. And then he raised parking meter rates. There goes the $60 saving. But the most acute definition of greed in regard to Ford goes to the Sun News TV channel, which is best described as FOX News' short, asthmatic, pimply little brother. Rob and Doug Ford have been hired by Sun News to host their own show starting this Monday. So in an effort to boost dismal ratings and profits, this "news outlet" will hire a criminal and his thuggish brother and give them a bully pulpit.

The Ignorant

By ignorant I don't mean stupid. Lots of people, from the brightest to the dullest, pay no attention to politics, especially of the municipal variety. If you could do a psychic brain scan of the average Torontonian during an average day their thoughts would probably look like this:

"I can't believe they're putting up a condo there."
"I wish the TTC would get some of those people pushers from the Tokyo subway."
"The Leafs should trade Phaneuf."
"I wonder when Roll Up The Rim starts again?"

Civic politics doesn't enter the picture. Voter turnout has always been abysmally low in municipal elections, and the election of Rob Ford is an unfortunate side effect of that. When people pay scant attention to politics it's easy for someone like Ford to get his loud, simple message across. In the last mayoral election, George Smitherman, Ford's main opponent, had no clear message for voters. Ford's was crystal clear and managed to filter through the disinterest most people have for municipal issues. In addition to the people who don't care, there are a large number of Torontonians who don't speak English as a first language, and barely as a second. For these people politics can be an opaque process. Our local media is, not surprisingly, entirely English-speaking, which leaves a big group of people at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating policies and candidates. Ford's bare bones, shouty message manages to push through the language barrier. And neither of these groups are well-served by the mainstream media in Toronto. Like anywhere else in North America, most people here get their news from TV and radio. That's not good. Talk radio in Toronto has been solidly behind Ford, and even after the past week's horror show the Fords can still find sympathy on the airwaves. TV is no better. Local news shows on Global, City and CFTO try so hard to be "fair" and "restrained" when reporting on Ford that they end up muting the sheer awfulness of the man. A case in point: this past summer, in the midst of the crack video crisis, Ford went on a photo-op salmon fishing trip with Hazel McCallion, the nonagenarian, apple doll mayor of neighboring Mississauga. Hazel (no stranger to scandal herself) hooked a fish that "almost pulled her overboard," according to the media present, but Ford jumped up and "saved" her from a watery grave. It was, of course, nothing like that (as the video footage showed), but the TV talking heads couldn't have been more charmed and bubbly over the chance to show Ford in a sympathetic light. It was as though they'd been praying for an opportunity to show Ford supporters that they like him too.

The Scared

Over the past forty years Toronto has gone from a WASPy bastion of Anglocentric culture to one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. No news there. But not everyone was happy about that, and they find Rob Ford's porcine whiteness and casual racism a pleasant blast from the past. These voters have dim memories of a Toronto that was a quiet small town in which there was no such thing as Pride parades, ethnic festivals, foreign accents or feta cheese. All these changes are terribly frightening for this Ford-friendly demographic, and for them a vote for Ford is a vote for nostalgia.

The Stupid

Well, yes, some people are just dumber than a bag of hammers, and there's no way of sugarcoating it. These voters, like Ford, are intimidated by the complexity of civic governance. They're also intimidated by search-a-word puzzles. They, like Ford, want to believe that "regular guys" who have common sense and gumption can survive and thrive in a big city. For people lacking in education and smarts, Ford is their knight in shining armour who proves that one of their own can rise to the top of the heap and show those smartypants with their university degrees and proper grammar a thing or two. This key demographic is also deeply suspicious of unions, who, they feel, are overpaid (a whiff of jealousy here) and "getting away with stuff." The "stuff" being fighting a rearguard action for a decent standard of living and preserving essential city services. Never underestimate the loyalty of the lumpenproletariat vote.

And so there you have it; the people who put Ford in power and now lurk in the wings, eager for a reason to love him again. At this point Ford is probably well past his sell-by date, even with his most diehard fans. However, he does have nearly a year in which to rehabilitate his image before the next election, and this could come to pass. If Rob were to go away and spend a month in rehab, even if it was some kind of faux addiction treatment, he could come back and claim he was "cured." That would be all it would take for a lot of his supporters to come back into the fold, and once they start trickling back Ford's media lackeys at the Toronto Sun and on talk radio would be leading the choir in praising the "new" Rob Ford. We're not out of the woods yet with Rob, but at least we can be confident that after a quiet 48 hours he's overdue for another scandal of biblical proportions. Watch out, Justin.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Post-Remembrance Day Reading

The Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Remembrance Day has increasingly become nothing more than a photo op for politicians to look pious and weepy as they make speeches that celebrate the martial spirit and obliquely justify the war du jour. The actual blood and guts and terror of war is kept very much in the background on November 11, except, perhaps, for a showing of Saving Private Ryan on the History Channel. Now that the poppies and maudlin quotes have been packed away for another year, here's a list of books that provide a more honest look at some of the different aspects of the great wars of the 20th century.

Life and Fate (1959) by Vasily Grossman

This massive Russian novel is the War and Peace of the Second World War. It has a huge cast of characters, with most of the action centred around the Battle of Stalingrad. It's a brilliant novel but what makes it absolutely unforgettable is a section describing the rounding up of Jews in a small town and their transportation to a death camp. It's probably the most harrowing fictional description of the Holocaust that's ever been written. Grossman certainly had the credentials to write this passage: he was the first journalist to get inside a liberated Nazi concentration camp.

The Naked Island (1952) by Russell Braddon

Braddon was a POW in Japanese hands during World War Two, which means he saw and experienced cruelty and living conditions that were only rivaled by what the Germans were doing in places like Auschwitz. Braddon wrote his memoir in a white hot rage at what had been done to him, and that fury makes this book startling and horrifying.

Fortunes of War (1960-80) by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War is the name given to a sextet of novels about Harriet and Guy Pringle, a married couple who find themselves in Romania at the beginning of World War Two. Over the course of the six novels they're buffeted from Romania to Greece and then Alexandria, always one step ahead of the advancing Germans. These novels are superb simply as character studies; what makes them classics is their look at the chaos and uncertainty of civilian life as it was lived near the cutting edge of the war.

Journey Into Fear (1940) by Eric Ambler

It's a great spy thriller, but it's also adept at capturing the mood of Europe standing on the brink of another bloody cataclysm. The action takes place mostly on a ship traveling from Turkey to Italy, and along the way Ambler touches on European attitudes to the past world war and the one that's looming. Ambler is also notable for being one of the few left-wing thriller writers; most of his pre-war novels feature Communists or Socialists as the good guys.

Ivan's War (2006) by Catherine Merridale

We call it World War Two, the Soviets called it the The Great Patriotic War, and who's to say their name shouldn't take precedence. The Russians paid a higher price in blood, by miles, than any of the other Allied Powers, and it was the war in Russia that eventually broke the back of the Wehrmacht. Ivan's War is a study of what life and war was like for the average Russian soldier. It wasn't pretty. Soviet soldiers lived short, brutal lives, and their suffering is one of the great, untold stories of the war.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) by Siegfried Sassoon

This autobiographical novel follows George Sherkston as he goes from a loyal British soldier in the trenches in France, to his sojourn in a convalescent hospital in Scotland where he decides to become an anti-war protestor. There are lots of well-written memoirs about both world wars, but this one stands out because it shows someone acting on their hatred of war. In real-life Sassoon was an exceptionally brave soldier who risked court martial and even the death penalty for his anti-war stand. Incredibly, he eventually went back to the trenches, rose in rank, and was wounded again.

Storm of Steel (1920) by Ernst Junger

And on the other hand we have Herr Junger. If Sassoon is emblematic of humanity surviving and thriving amid the brutality of war, Junger is a reminder that for some men war is a challenge and a pleasure. Junger's memoir of life as a German soldier in World War One is astonishing because it's the only memoir from that conflict that positively exults in the violence and drama of war. Junger went on to a long and glorious literary career in Europe, and this book certainly offers proof that war is also a blood sport for some of its participants.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rob Ford and the Bravery of Cowards

A pair of Toronto Sun columnists strike a pose with Rob Ford.
Here's how traditional big game hunting works: a hunter is led to a tree stand by a guide, or, in some locales, is placed on top of an elephant. Then the beaters or dogs do their work, and the large and dangerous quarry is driven into the open. Now the hunter, from a safe location and with a clear field of view, unleashes a volley of shots that brings the beast down. Our hunter then clambers down from his perch and, after he's gotten the all-clear from his guide that the toothy victim is well and truly dead, poses triumphantly beside his fallen prey. Photographs are taken, and when the great white hunter gets back to civilization the pictures go up on a wall so that the hunter's friends can say, "Gosh, that must have been dangerous." And the hunter can modestly reply, "Yes, it was a bit hairy, but I got off a good shot." And that's what the bravery of cowards looks and sounds like.

That kind of spineless bravado has been on full display here in Toronto in the aftermath of Mayor Rob Ford's Hindenburg-like crash and burn. Right-wing Toronto city councillors such as Frances Nunziata, George Mammoliti, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Norm Kelly, all of whom were enthusiastic, even fanatical, supporters of Ford have finally found that the time is ripe to declare that the Mayor should step aside, enter rehab, and generally get the hell out of Dodge. How brave of them to finally take a moral stand after Ford has done everything possible to besmirch his reputation except kebab some puppies and eat them with kitten sauce. But the councillors aren't the only ones who've made some purchases at Backbones "R" Us. A flock of media people, chiefly from the Toronto Sun and talk radio stations, have also seen the light and are calling for Ford to resign or take a leave of absence. What's so appallingly cowardly about this is that they've all waited until Ford put himself in an utterly indefensible position with his admission of smoking crack. Once Ford stumbled into the open with that confession, he made himself such a soft, easy target there was no way his former allies couldn't take a shot at him. The rightist politicians and media people who are now stroking their metaphorical beards and passing judgment on Ford were purblind when it came to Ford's behavior prior to this past summer's crack video revelation by the Toronto Star.

There have always been compelling reasons to demand Rob Ford's ouster from office. Before becoming mayor he was mostly famous for being a dim-witted city councilor with a fetish for obsessing over the nickel and dime aspects of the city's budget. And of course there was his criminal record. Rob has been pinched for DUI, domestic assault, drug possession and public drunkenness. Once he became mayor the public boozing continued, but what might have been worse, at least from a right-wing point of view, was that he became chief conductor on the city hall "gravy train" he railed against during the election campaign. How so? Thanks to the Toronto Star it was revealed last year that Ford was spending a big chunk of his working hours on his pet high school football team. And now we know he was also gadding about in public parks drinking vodka and taking delivery of mystery packages from Alessandro "I Live In My Mother's Basement" Lisi. In sum, Rob was not doing his job, and if any other city employee had been AWOL like this they would have been fired. Happily for Ford, his Myrmidons in the council chamber and the press gallery found all kinds of fatuous excuses for Rob--he's a man of the people; he's saving the taxpayers' money; he's only human; he's saving the taxpayers' money; he's helping at-risk youth; he's saving taxpayers' money; and so on and so on.

I firmly believe that the rightists in politics and the media who previously supported Ford were perfectly aware that he was nothing more than a sentient cyst. But that's the state of right-wing thinking these days: hitch your political wagon to any beast as long as it's willing to savage social services and claw back taxes. If the people who've been cheering on Ford since he became mayor had had any scruples, the least bit of political bravery, they would have come down hard on him months or years ago. But no. Only when Rob became a naked, shivering, stationary target did they emerge from hiding to massacre him. And I don't think they'll be acknowledging that the beaters at the Toronto Star did all the dirty and dangerous work leading up to the "kill."

An afterthought: it's interesting that what seems to have been the final straw for Ford's backers is that he admitted smoking crack. His semi-regular displays of public drunkenness were passed over or laughed off by the same people. It would seem that when a politician overdoses on the middle-class drug of choice--alcohol--they're given a pass, but when they use crack...well, that's the drug those people use. Yes, there's a faint, very faint, whiff of racism attached to the reaction to this scandal.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book Review: Sweet Dreams (1973) by Michael Frayn

If you've heard of author Michael Frayn it's probably thanks to his plays Copenhagen and Noises Off. Frayn's also a very occasional novelist, and one of his earliest is Sweet Dreams. It should really be as famous as his plays because Sweet Dreams has to rate as a classic fantasy story. You could also make an argument that it's a classic in the field of utopian literature or humorous literature. This slim novel begins with the painfully middle-class Howard Baker sitting behind the wheel of his car in London, waiting for the light to change, his mind wandering from one trivial subject to another. The distracted Howard puts his foot on the gas when the light is still red and the next thing he knows he's driving into the capital city of Heaven.

Yes, this is a fantasy story set in Heaven, which has to earn it marks for audacity alone since I can't think of another author who's taken a crack at a novel with this setting. There are more than a few novels that go to Hell, and of course bits of Milton's Paradise Lost are set in Heaven, but a whole novel? The problems with a Heaven-set novel are fairly obvious: how do you describe ultimate perfection and happiness? Is Heaven a bodiless, Zen-like state of constant bliss? Does it rain puppies and profiteroles? Or, as suggested in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, is it Christmas every day in Heaven? None of these popular options sound like they could be fleshed out into a novel, and the brilliance of Frayn's novel is that it offers a far more subtle and original idea of Heaven.

And what is the capital city of Heaven like? Think about your favorite city and then add more charm, more character, more local colour, but leave in the tawdry and rough bits that make the best bits stand out all the more. The geography of Heaven is only half the story. Frayn has to give his central character something to be joyful about, and instead of puppies and profiteroles (my personal choice) he gives advancement. This Heaven is one designed to stroke and satisfy the ego of Howard Baker, and that means his life in Heaven, complete with his dearly-departed-from family and friends, goes on much the same as his mortal life, only now his wit, talent, charm and intelligence is remarked upon and rewarded, but not in a shouty, showy way; his accolades come in casual, knowing, heartfelt remarks and in one professional and personal success after another until Howard inevitably takes a job as...but that would be telling.

This is where Sweet Dreams soars as a novel of ideas. Frayn has an acute sense of how the small "L" liberal, middle-class mind works and dreams. Howard Baker's ivy-covered ambitions, tasteful fantasies and simplistic moral view of the world are ruthlessly but delicately eviscerated by Frayn with some of the best comic writing you'll ever come across. And what gives the novel an extra punch is that it's impossible not to read it and blush with recognition at the Howard Baker inside all of us. I think that might be why it's fame is muted. Some readers might admire Frayn's skill and imagination, but at the same time not wish to acknowledge the spiky truths he has on offer. Sweet Dreams is now out of print, so dig through your local used bookstore (they do exist) and start talking it up as the next cult classic that everyone in the know is excited about. That would be a very Howard Baker thing to do.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Film Review: Hell Drivers (1957)

Henri-George Clouzot's The Wages of Fear was an instant classic when it came out in 1953. His visually powerful story of desperate men ferrying nitroglycerin over treacherous roads in South America was ultra-tense and drenched in existential despair. A producer in England must have seen it and thought, "Hey, let's move that story to England, make a few changes, and with any luck we can shoot it over the course of a couple of weekends." Hell Drivers is the bastard offspring of Clouzot's film, and while it's far from a classic it's well worth watching and has a jaw-dropping collection of Brit thespians making their initial forays into feature films. More about that later.

Think of this film as the working class, kitchen sink drama version of The Wages of Fear. Stanley Baker plays an ex-con named Tom who's trying to get his life back on the straight and narrow. His prospects are limited so he takes a job driving dump trucks. The job is tough and brutally simple. The drivers truck gravel (called ballast, here) from a pit to a work site and are paid by the load. If they don't haul at least ten loads a day they're fired, and to do that many loads means driving like a maniac. A thug named Red is the semi-official leader of the drivers, and he's promised a reward of a gold cigarette case to anyone who can beat his daily total of runs. This makes each day's work a rally race for the drivers. Over the course of the film Tom and Red butt heads, a romance is ended, a brawl breaks out at a dance, a swindle is uncovered, and the film ends with a truck carrying a major character going over a cliff.

The overall look of Hell Drivers is very raw. The scenery and interiors are bleak, no one dresses well, the drivers take all their meals in a shabby cafe, and even the trucks look like they're one dent away from the junkyard. This is a Britain still recovering from the war and only three years removed from the end of food rationing. The Swinging Sixties, the Beatles, and Carnaby St seem very far away in this universe. Even the scale of the drama is muted. The swindle run by Red and his boss amounts to only a hundred or so pounds a week. And that gold cigarette case? It's worth a measly 200 quid! What the hell could that buy in 1957? Probably one of those small and unreliable British cars like the Morris Marmite or the Vauxhall Skiffle. I think that's what they were called. In sum, this is a film that seems to reflect the convalescent character of a nation recovering from a devastating war.

What makes Hell Drivers of more than passing interest is the cast: Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, Herbert Lom, Sid James, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum and William Hartnell. There you have the future stars of some of the most iconic film and TV franchises of the 1960s. It seems like a dreadful oversight that Patrick Macnee, Michael Caine and Captain Scarlet weren't also given roles. And the cast certainly does it's bit to distract us from an unambitious plot and scenes of trucks driving "fast" that often look like outtakes from a Keystone Kops film. So here's my suggestion for a thematically linked triple bill: start with The Wages of Fear, then Hell Dirvers, and finish with 1969's The Italian Job for a look at what a brash, confident Britain produced the next time it made a film about reckless driving.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Goblins (2012) by Philip Reeve

In the field of steampunk literature (Teen division), Philip Reeve rules with a brass and mahogany fist. His seven-volume Mortal Engines series is simply one of the best achievements in imaginative writing in the last few decades. With Goblins he's taking a crack at fantasy (Young Adult regiment), and if the result isn't likely to be as seminal as Mortal Engines, it's still head and shoulders above the usual standard of YA fantasy titles.

Goblins could be described as fan fiction in the sense that Reeve has taken a sideways look at Tolkien's Middle-Earth and decided that someone needs to write a humorous story from the the point of view of the goblins. Reeve's goblins are foul and fell creatures, but since they're raised from birth (hatched, actually) according to the maxim of spare the mallet, spoil the goblin, one could say that it's a case of nurture rather than nature that accounts for their anti-social behavior. The goblins live in Clovenstone, a massive and ruined city/fortress that was once ruled by the dreaded Lych Lord. They spend most of their time beating up on each other, with the occasional raid on human settlements to relieve the monotony. Skarper, a young goblin, learns to read, which makes him unique amongst goblins, but it also leads to him being catapulted off the battlements of Clovenstone after an unwise display of his literacy. He then meets Henwyn, a teenage boy and wannabe hero who's left home after an unfortunate cheesemaking accident. The two join up and experience more adventures than is good for their health.

While the landscape and architecture of Goblins has echoes of Tolkien, and it's style and comic tone has resounding echoes of Terry Pratchett, the wit and imagination is all Reeve. The world-building in Goblins is first rate. With a minimum of fuss and verbiage, Reeve is able to create a rich, interesting world peopled (creatured?) with cloud maidens, twiglings, boglins, and giants that get smaller as they get older. I compared Reeve to Pratchett in terms of humor but what both share is a distinctly British form of humor that revolves around the subversion of anything or anyone that seems overly proud, serious or powerful; the self-important and mighty typically find themselves humbled or embarrassed by common sense, the unavoidable facts of life, and bureaucratic inflexibility. Think of it as the revenge of middle-class values. It's a comic philosophy that seems in tune with thoroughly British concepts like "muddling through" and "the Dunkirk spirit." It's also the perfect form of humor for "a nation of shopkeepers."In contrast, American humor shows the high and mighty being flattened by anarchic proletarian violence: think the Three Stooges and Adam Sandler.

Goblins is the first in a projected trilogy, and I'll be there for each one of them. The only thing I ask for are some maps. I want a map of Clovenstone. Maps, please.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: The Barbed-Wire University (2011) by Midge Gillies

There have been dozens and dozens of Second World War memoirs written by former Allied POWs that revolve around escapes of various kinds. This book attempts to describe life as it was lived by the vast majority of POWs, the ones who weren't busily engaged in tunneling, forging documents, crafting disguises, or, in the case of prisoners at Colditz, building a glider for an airborne escape. Gillies does a decent job, but there are some strange gaps that make this a less than complete history. But first the good bits:

One thing that comes out of this history is that the Nazis were strangely more humane towards their POWs (the English-speaking ones, at least) than they were to, well, everyone else. Life in a POW camp in Germany wasn't pleasant, especially as food become scarce in the last months of the war, but on balance it was a dull but tolerable existence. Red Cross parcels came through on a regular basis, as did the occasional parcel from loved ones back home. The prisoners kept themselves amused or stimulated with sports, hobbies and informal educational courses in everything from languages to automotive engineering. A sign of how relatively civilized life as a POW was can be gauged from the fact that prisoners were able to take correspondence courses from English universities and "graduate" with degrees. That's right, being a POW in German hands could actually lead to career advancement. The situation of POWs in the Far East was radically different. The Japanese treated prisoners with a uniform brutality that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. This was one of the great war crimes of WW II and if nothing else Gillies' book is a reminder of an institutionalized atrocity that went largely unpunished.

The inventiveness and ingenuity of POWs is one of the highlights of the book. Even with the most minimal of raw materials POWs were able to create everything from drugs to radios to, yes, a glider. Not only is this a testament to their creativity, it's also makes one realize that a similar group of modern men would probably be utterly hapless--our grandfathers were handy, we're computer literate. No prize for guessing which group would cope better in a POW camp.

The book's faults are most apparent at the end. Gillies doesn't discuss whether POWs, especially those in Japanese hands, took any reprisals against their former captors. There's a brief mention of POWs in a German camp killing a couple of SS men, but it begs the question of whether this was a common event or not. And the question of whether any Germans or Japanese were tried for war crimes for their treatment of prisoners is ignored entirely. In fact, hundreds of Japanese were tried for war crimes against POWs and many were imprisoned or executed. And yet another subject that gets no attention is that of POWs who collaborated with their captors. Did it happen? And, if so, how often and to what degree? The worst oversight Gillies makes is announced in the book's title, the full version of which is The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Allied Prisoners of War in the Second World War. That's funny, I thought the Russians were one of the Allies. There is absolutely no description of life for Russian POWs. There are a few, stray mentions of them, but the title of the book should really be changed to the Real Lives of British Prisoners. It also would have been useful to be given a rough idea of how the Allies dealt with German POWs. If you've never read anything about POW life in WW II this book serves as a low-calorie introduction, albeit from an almost entirely British perspective, but clearly there's room for a more balanced and comprehensive history of the subject.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Film Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

The first thing that struck me about Captain Phillips is that there is no such thing as a closeup shot that's too close for director Paul Greengrass. He's made his name with docudramas such as Bloody Sunday and United 93, and he brought a rigorously documentary look to two installments in the Bourne franchise (Supremacy and Ultimatum). His cameras are almost always handheld and usually kept within bumping distance of the actors. Captain Phillips is more, much more, of the same. It's yet another docudrama, this time about the capture by Somali pirates of a US container ship off the coast of Somalia in 2009. The titular captain was held hostage by the four pirates in a lifeboat after they abandoned the cargo ship, and after several tense days Phillips was rescued by US Navy Seals.

That's the nuts and bolts of the story, and Greengrass tells it in a resolutely nuts and bolts style. There's no superfluous action or characterization on display here; everything's stripped down to the basics, much like the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which is nothing more than a floating steel box with a bunch of moving parts. Action-thrillers don't get sparer or more stripped-down than this one. The closeups are what really create the tension in the story because the faces that are zeroed in on are almost always expressing anguish, anxiety or sheer terror. In some respects Captain Phillips is simply a very big budget version of those docudrama TV shows in which various disasters or bizarre murder cases are recreated using actors not quite good enough for infomercials. But when you've got millions to play with you can hire Tom Hanks.

Hanks is the glue that holds this film together. He's played Everyman roles like this one before, but the difference here is that he can't show a spark of his trademark wit or charm. Phillips is all business, which is established early on with some tetchy comments he makes towards the crew about lengthy coffee breaks. There's no glamour in this character, no heroics, just a dogged determination to do the right thing and to do it by the book. Like Phillips, the crew are shown doing their jobs and nothing more; no joking around, no longing looks at pictures of loved ones, just a bunch of guys caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and really, really upset about it. The dispassionate portrayal of Phillips and his crew members certainly adheres to the film's documentary aesthetic, but it also takes some of the edge off the tension. Phillips & Co. are presented to us as depersonalized, maritime drones. A touch more character development might have made their plight more dramatic. Interestingly, the four pirates are given more of a back story than the crew. The script makes it clear that the "pirates" are living in poverty, taking the only paying job available to the them. The real money is made by the warlords and tribal elders who own the boats. The pirates who actually board the ships are working for minimum wage.

Captain Phillips is brutally effective and efficient in telling its story, but it lacks a certain humanity that would have made it really memorable. It's telling that the most human and intense moment in the film comes at the very end, shortly after Phillips has been rescued. He's being examined by a Navy doctor and as he tries to answer the doctor's questions he suffers a nervous breakdown. It's not a showy or hammy piece of acting by Hanks, but it's stone cold brilliant, and if they awarded acting Oscars for two minute film segments he'd have it nailed. It's also the one scene in the film that will probably linger in your memory.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: Attack of the Theocrats! (2012) by Sean Faircloth

You don't have to look very hard to find juicy targets if you set out to savage the excesses and idiocies of the religious right in America, and Sean Faircloth certainly takes some hefty swings at some low-hanging fruit. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Egregious religious hucksters like Joel Osteen need to be bashed every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Fortunately this book isn't just a roll call of crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated by God botherers, as the English like to call them. Faircloth, a former member of the Maine legislature, also wants to make his book a call to arms against the very real constitutional and legal crimes committed in the name of religiosity, as well setting out some policy ideas on how secular Americans who value the constitutional requirement for the separation of Church and State can take back their country from the likes of Pat Robertson and his (overwhelmingly) GOP allies.

One very important point that Faircloth brings up is that religion in America, at least the kind that inhabits megachurches and shouts from TV screens, is a business. Thanks to a wide variety of tax breaks and subsidies that are intrinsically unconstitutional, people who once upon a time would have been selling lightning rods or baldness cures on street corners are now in the religion business. Religion can be very, very profitable in America. And like any other industry it strives to stay profitable by putting pressure on politicians to grant them favours. In this regard fundamentalist preachers and organizations are no different from pressure groups like the NRA. In relation to this, Faircloth points out that the majority of Americans (according to various polls) would prefer a more secular country and a reining in of the influence held by the religious right. Like the NRA, fundamentalists are the tail wagging the Washington dog thanks to their money, willpower and organizational ability.

This is a slim book, and there isn't a lot of new information here for readers who've paid even minimal attention to this issue over the last couple of decades. It is, however, valuable for two reasons. The first is that Faircloth provides a tidy and trenchant guide to the secular ambitions of America's founding fathers. If you know someone who likes to declare that the founding fathers were devout Christians and wished to create a Christian country, just have them read chapter two of this book and they should shut up pretty quick. The second valuable lesson that comes from this book is that it shows how hard it is for Americans to escape from the tar pit of their own myth-making. And surprisingly, it's Faircloth who's stuck in the tar pit.

Here are two Faircloth quotes from the book:

"American is still the greatest nation on earth because of its commitment to equal treatment under the law, its protection of minority rights, and its separation of Church and State under the Constitution."


"America is the greatest nation on earth--because of our constitutional ideals and founding principles."

The problem here is that Faircloth is using the same language, expressing the same vision, as every oily preacher and teary-eyed Tea Party congressman. They may disagree on what constitutes greatness, but they all agree that America is number one with a bullet. This is lazy, jingoistic thinking. Faircloth's definition of greatness is based on a set of laws and legal principles, which is fine except that a large number of other democracies can easily claim that they have similar or identical laws. And the actual enforcement of those laws should be the barometer of "greatness" not the fact that they're on the books. Declaring on any and all occasions that America is the greatest nation on earth sometimes seems to be the right and duty of every politician, pundit and Joe Citizen of the U.S. of A. no matter what their political stripe. It's a dangerous thing when people, especially politicians, say that they're inhabiting the greatest nation. It's normally the case that countries that are overly fond of declaring global supremacy are either delusional (North Korea) or employ armies of flinty-eyed men in trenchcoats who make sure the citizenry is nodding vigorously in agreement (the former U.S.S.R.). And the word "greatest" implies that a kind of perfection has been achieved. Why change anything or tolerate dissent when you're the greatest? No nation is the greatest. Well, Norway probably is according to all those U.N. health and happiness surveys that come out every year, but I don't think I could put up with those long winter nights and tacky troll dolls everywhere. The point is that throwing around the "greatest" tag when referring to nations is usually a sign of the worst kind of nationalism.

The "greatest nation" trope in American culture and politics is also what might be the chief prayer in what I'm going to call the Church of America. I'd argue that what's known as the religious right is actually a new, hybrid religion that's composed of equal parts capitalist boosterism, white ancestor worship, rabid nationalism, militarism, and a patina of Christianity. As Faircloth accurately points out, the religious right rarely behaves in a Christian fashion. They, unlike Christ, have an actual dislike for the weak, the meek and the poor, and they're definitely not peacemakers. As Faircloth says, the religious right has taken bits and pieces from the Old and New Testament to craft a religious outlook that ennobles capitalism, praises warriors and denigrates scientific thought. The best evidence for this hybridization is the so-called "Prosperity Gospel" which basically turns God into the Uncle Money Bags character from the game of Monopoly. Play the faith game the right way, says the Prosperity Gospel, and you'll be rewarded with riches.

Faircloth thinks he's simply fighting theocrats, but the Church of America is a more complex beast. Arguing the fine points of scripture with C of A worshipers is only part of the battle. The C of A worships America as an abstract concept. Their America is a holy place created by and for white people in which a love of both capitalism and anti-intellectualism are as important as the love of Christ. This blend of religion and nationalism has happened before in places like Russia and Spain, but in those cases organized religion played a central role. In the US, the C of A is a big tent under which groups like the NRA, fundamentalists, libertarians, birthers, white supremacists, and creationists take shelter. All these groups see America as a quasi-religious entity, and so any criticism of America, from whatever angle or with whatever intent, is perceived by them as an act of blasphemy. So when Faircloth advocates pushing back against the theocrats, I don't think he quite realizes the size and character of the hydra he's up against. Any attack on a single branch of the C of A is seen as an attack on all.

Visual proof of the existence of the Church of America is everywhere in the US. If you've never visited America one of the strangest things to be seen is the omnipresence of the country's flag. It's truly everywhere, from clothing to advertisements to the front porches of houses big and small, and in pin form it's worn on the lapels of rich and poor alike. This fetishization of a flag was and is the norm in totalitarian states, but the US is the only country in which it's been done by popular choice--the land of the free and the brave, and star-spangled, theocratic Don Drapers.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Book Review: A Very Profitable War (1984) by Didier Daeninckx

If, like me, you relish crime fiction that has a political component, then you're resigned to the fact that your choices will be restricted to authors writing in languages other than English, which means the supply of such fiction is limited by what editors and publishers think is worth translating. UK and US crime writers seem gun shy when it comes to politics. They'll sometimes take notice of the symptoms of bad or corrupt political decisions (poverty, urban decay, racism, etc.), but they generally avoid tackling politics head-on. The late Elmore Leornard, for example, set at least a dozen novels in Detroit, a city that has come to symbolize all that is wrong and dysfunctional in American society and politics. But Leonard doesn't have anything to say about the whys and wherefores that turned Detroit into an urban wasteland. He records the symptoms of Detroit's decline but has no apparent opinions on why this has come to pass. The same neutral attitude towards societal ills is a commonplace one with a great many of his English language contemporaries.

Non-Anglo writers such as Massimo Carlotto, Yasmina Khadra, Dominique Manotti and Didier Daeninckx wholeheartedly embrace the political. For them, crime is inextricably linked with political decisions and the political zeitgeist. Their novels reflect the fact that politics and society can have as great a role in fictional murder and mayhem as traditional motives like greed, jealousy and rage. A Very Profitable War is set in Paris in 1920, and our hero is Rene Griffon, a veteran who was recently in the trenches and is now a private eye. He's hired by a retired general who's being blackmailed over his wife's serial indiscretions. What begins as a simple case of marital infidelity turns into a story about war crimes, radical post-WW I politics in Paris, and corporate greed.

The political themes don't make the novel dry or preachy; quite the contrary. Daeninckx's prose style is positively ebullient, full of jokes and energy, and the same can be said about Rene Griffon. As in his Murder in Memoriam (review here), Daeninckx wants to lay bare some of the dirty secrets from France's past. In this case he's concerned with the repression of anarchist and communist movements during and just after the war. These issues add some depth and resonance to the novel, making it more than just an exercise in style and mood. And style and mood is what too many contemporary crime fiction is all about. A great deal of noir or hard-boiled crime fiction works hard to create a gritty, sour, dystopian worldview, but the authors have little interest in explaining why these conditions exist; instead we get a lot of characters (including the sleuths) with deep and dark psychological problems that must be talked about at great length. There's certainly room for both kinds of crime fiction, but it would be nice to see more agitprop writing on the English language side of the ledger. After all, it was Eric Ambler, an English writer, who invented the politically-informed thriller. One American crime writer with a taste for politics is K.C. Constantine (read my piece on him here), although I think he's currently retired from writing. He offers an interesting comparison with Elmore Leonard. Constantine set all his crime novels in a small area of rural Pennsylvania, and he isn't shy about describing the political errors and crimes that have ruined the lives of people in that part of America. Leonard's resolutely apolitical stories stand in stark contrast to Constantine's, although in many ways they are literary blood brothers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Film Review: Gravity (2013)


I've never been a fan of 3D films, and I've yet to see a film that was improved by its use. Until now. Gravity in 3D looks great and probably gives us earth-dwellers a very real sense of what it's like to float around in space. In fact, at times Gravity feels less like a feature film and more like something you'd see at a science centre planetarium. The film's technical excellence doesn't, however, save it from being a bit ho-hum and downright clunky in some areas.

The film begins with Bullock and Clooney's characters (she's Ryan, he's Matt) floating outside the space shuttle making repairs to the Hubble space telescope. And here's where things get off to a rocky start. If your attention isn't completely diverted by the space scenery you'll notice that Ryan and Matt are having an utterly ridiculous conversation. It's been established that they've been in space a week at this point, which is in addition to whatever training goes on before one of these flights, and yet they talk as though they only met five minutes ago. Matt actually asks her where she's from! The scriptwriter is frantically trying to provide some backstory for the characters in the few minutes available to him before the shit hits the fan but this is a desperately clumsy way to do it. And why was it decided that Matt should be the most cliche astronaut since Buzz Lightyear? He listens to creaky country music as he works; he wisecracks with Mission Control; he's seen it all and done it all in space; he's supernaturally calm under pressure; and he's brave, brave, brave.

The probable reason for Matt's outsized personality is that about twenty minutes into the film he's killed off. He's been setup to be the omni-competent hero who'll figure out how to save the day once the space shuttle is destroyed by a cloud of space debris, so his death (a noble act of self-sacrifice) is intended to act as both a shock and as a way to ratchet up the tension. How will the inexperienced, terrified Ryan manage to save herself? Matt's death actually does a lot of damage to the film. For one thing he's a more engaging personality than Ryan, even if he is a grab bag of heroic cliches. Ryan spends the rest of the film whimpering, shrieking and crying, which gets a bit wearing after a while. She's no Ellen Ripley. The bigger problem is that Matt's death drains a lot of tension out of the film. The film's still got more than an hour to go and since Ryan's the only character, we know she's going to survive until the end. Her struggles and hairbreadth escapes are visually entertaining but they don't produce much tension.

The mechanics of Ryan's journey from a wrecked space shuttle to a successful landing back on Earth are poorly handled. The fact that it's all wildly improbable isn't the problem. What's annoying is that we're not allowed to understand the nuts and bolts of the technical challenges she faces. Scene after scene has Ryan pushing buttons and flipping levers, but it's all meaningless to the audience. Apollo 13, the only film comparable to this one, did a far better job of making us understand the technical challenges faced by astronauts in peril. Gravity succeeds brilliantly as a visual extravaganza, but the storytelling isn't up to the same standards.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Finally, Proof that Jesus Would Vote Republican

I'm reposting this blog from February, 2012, because it offers one explanation for why the Tea Party/knuckle-dragging segment of the GOP is willing send the U.S. into a depression rather than see the Affordable Care Act receive funding.

As the rough beast of American presidential politics begins its long slouch towards decision day in November, the civilized world is left wondering, as it does every four years, WTF is up with America's obsession with religion? In just last the few days President Obama has had to come up with a compromise on the birth control portion of his health care package in order to placate the Catholic Church, and this is against the backdrop of the Republican primaries, which consist entirely of white multimillionaires trying to proclaim that not only are they more god-fearing than the next guy, but they'll actually make America more god-fearing if given the chance in November. Once the actual presidential campaign begins the two candidates will invoke or quote Jesus and his dad in virtually every speech, and on Sundays we'll see them drop in on the nearest suburban megachurch where their piety will be on full display. But that won't stop both candidates from inferring, or even declaring, that their opponent is in some way heretical or godless.

The auto-da-fé of the American presidential election is a wonderment to Canadians and Europeans because it's a reminder that Yanks are more religious, by far, than anyone else on the block. But why is this? A few months ago I was researching this issue for an article and I kept looking for cultural and political causes of America's religiosity. Nothing seemed to explain the situation until I thought of the other major difference between Europe and the US: social  welfare spending. Europe believes in it, America (its ruling class, at least) loathes it. So I Googled social welfare spending and religion and came up with this academic paper written by Anthony Gill (his website's here)and Erik Lundsgaarde, professors at the University of Washington. Eureka! Solid evidence to explain the religiosity divide between America and most everyone else. Before I go further here are some quotes from the paper:

"...state welfare spending has a detrimental, albeit unintended, effect on long-term religious participation and overall religiosity."

"People living in countries with high social welfare spending per capita even have less of a tendency to take comfort in religion, perhaps knowing that the state is there to help them in times of crisis."

The professors back up these conclusions with all the necessary facts and figures (graph alert!), and their paper makes for very interesting reading, but be warned that it is an academic paper so it's a tad on the dry side. The profs argue that as church-sponsored social welfare programs (education, relief for the poor, etc.) are replaced by state programs, people see less value in religion itself. Religiosity (it's defined as weekly church attendance in the paper) does not, however, decline immediately upon an increase in social welfare spending. Decreases in religiosity are generational.

The paper emphasizes the role of churches in providing social welfare support as one of the key causes of religiosity. That's where I disagree with them. I don't think American churches have any significant tradition of providing material support for their followers. I think a more likely explanation, which is hinted at in several places in the paper, is that fear is what drives some people to church, and since WW II the US has been one of the most fear-filled countries on the planet. First there was the Cold War and its fear of nuclear war, then the Vietnam War, fear of street crime in the 1970s, and then a reboot of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. Add in the wars in the Middle East and 9/11 and you have society that's filled with dread. It's small wonder that Americans look for supernatural protection and comfort when so much that surrounds them seems so dangerous and unpredictable. And this is all on top of a society that provides the most meagre of social safety nets.

It doesn't come as much of a surprise that the Scandinavian countries, with their broad and comprehensive social welfare programs and non-involvement in military conflicts, sit at the bottom of the league in terms of religiosity. It's a clear message that people who have some confidence in their future well-being, who don't live in fear of death and disaster lurking around the next corner, have no need of imaginary beings to protect them. Needless to say there are probably a dozen other factors that can help account for US religiosity, but it would seem that free, universal health care goes a long way towards creating and maintaining a secular society. Gill and Lundsgaarde's paper provides some more proof of this with the example of the ex-Soviet Union. Once religion was made legal in Russia after the fall of the USSR, spirituality made a big comeback. It was no coincidence that the end of the USSR also marked the end of cradle-to-grave welfare programs for Russians, not to mention the end of a guaranteed job for all.

The role of religion in American politics became a big deal in the 1970s as President Jimmy Carter let it be known that he was a "born again" Christian. That seemed to be the starting bell for the evangelical movement, and it's become a key factor in every presidential election since. The rise of the Christian right has gone in lockstep with the erosion of social welfare programs that began with the election of Reagan in 1980. The US is now at a point where the Tea Party and the various Republican presidential hopefuls spend enormous effort in thinking of ways the US government can do less for its people, except, of course, when it comes to waging wars. All this looks like more evidence of religiosity being largely dependent on social welfare spending.

So, from the point of view of a ruthless, evangelical Republican politician there could be no shrewder political strategy than to cut any and all social welfare programs; its appears to be a guaranteed way to fill the pews and stuff the ballot boxes with votes for the GOP. And, really, it's probably what Jesus would do. He wouldn't want a nation of happy, healthy unbelievers. Of course, there was that time he fed the multitudes with free bread and fish...that does sound a bit welfare-ish, a bit food stamp-y, but it was probably a deliberate mistranslation by some liberal, elitist professor of ancient languages.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Film Review: Unit 7 (2012)

If there's a film genre that's deader than the western it's cop films. Cop dramas are alive and well on TV; in fact, it's probably the case that the glut of cop shows on TV kills any appetite the public has for seeing them in the cinema. The plethora of TV westerns in the 1960s is often cited as the reason for the extinction of the genre, so we're probably seeing the same process at work with cop films. By cop films I don't mean buddy cop films like the Lethal Weapon franchise or the Die Hard films, which are essentially blue collar James Bond adventures. When I say cop films I'm referring to the cop noir genre (my own description; more details here) that emerged in the '70s with The French Connection. Cop films of that era were grittty, realistic and were thematically linked by their examination of the rotten heart of  big cities. To put it in a nutshell, cop noir films took an unrelentingly dystopian look at urban life.

Good news! Some cop noir films are still being made and Group 7 is one of the better ones I've seen. The title refers to a four-man squad of cops tasked with cleaning up the drug business in Seville, Spain, in 1988. The civic authorities want the crackdown because Seville is hosting the World's Fair in 1992 and they're keen to present a clean and shiny face to the world. Our heroes take to the job with gusto, cracking heads, leaning on informants, and generally making a name for themselves as they put a big dent in the local drugs trade. Along the way, however, they decide that they should take a taste of the business themselves. They install an ex-madam in an apartment block and make her their tame drug dealer. After two years Group 7 has become locally famous and is hated by both other cops and members of the criminal underworld. Internal Affairs gets after them, as do some local criminals.

Group 7 has the look and feel of cop noir down pat, but what makes it pleasurably different is that it doesn't end in any of the expected ways. There is a shootout towards the end, and some scary moments for individual members of the group, but there's no attempt to tie up loose ends. The film ends with the cops going off in different career directions, and we're left with is the realization that the local war on drugs has been utterly pointless and futile; nothing more than a PR exercise that's taken a fearful toll. The more things change...