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.