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Review: The Master by Colm Tóibín

I had some random conversations with my children today.

  1. On getting home, my daughter greeted me with, “Look at this English Language assignment on the Suffragettes.  Do you think Draco Malfoy is a good character?  And did you know that China got rid of their one child policy last week?”
  2. I asked my other daughter, “What did you do at college today?” “I went to book club.” “Don’t you have to have read a book to do that?” “No, you just go and talk about what you are reading, and then they have a raffle and give you a free book.” “What book did you get?” “The Communist Manifesto.” “What’s that about?”  “It’s the thing that Karl Marx wrote.”  “Oh!  you mean the actual Communist Manifesto.”(I’d assumed that there was some novel out there with a clever reference in its title.)
  3. To my daughter (not the mathematical one, the other one): “How did you do that??  I thought I was the only person in the world who’d memorised their Home Hub code!” “It’s because I had to type it in so often.  I can’t remember our phone number, though.”

They’re both back at college/school today after half term.  I worked all week, as I was too busy to think about taking leave, but I did have the office all to myself.  I am not sure if I have mentioned that after a “trigger” incident in the office I tend not to have speech radio on any more and stick to 6Music.  Being by myself gives me a chance to catch up on Radio 4 readings and dramas.  I especially enjoy the ones that are too hammy and embarrassing to have on while anyone else is there, such as the Marple and Poirot adaptations that are on iPlayer at the moment.  The acting is just soooo terrible!

My favourite play has been Hattie Naylor’s J’Accuse, a dramatisation of the trial(s) and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer convicted of treason, and the way it divided France into those who saw the case as an appalling miscarriage of justice and those who saw the conviction as vital in upholding the rule of law and society as it stood.  Hattie Naylor also dramatised Samuel Pepys’s diaries for radio; she has this skill of making the events unfold clearly enough for total non-historians like me, without being clunky in the exposition, and has this amazing sensitivity for portraying characters without turning them into stereotypes.  I learned so much about French society at the end of the nineteenth century from this very enjoyable play.

I was also surprised to enjoy a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Flush, which is Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s world from the point of view of her pet dog.

It wasn’t so much the bizarre premise that had previously put me off Flush, but the problems I usually have with historical fiction.  I have started reading too many books/seen too many films that go along the lines of “Einstein went fishing, walked round for a bit then went home and had a furious row with the President of Israel.” ie veering from the so-mundane-why-include? to the that-can’t-possibly-have-happened-why-include?

The one thing that I do really like in historical/biographical fiction is where a genuine attempt is made to understand and create sympathy for the likely motives of the characters.  Naylor heart rendingly captures the anguish of the wrongly imprisoned Dreyfus, and even if her Pepys and his wife didn’t really share the same understanding that they do in her Diary dramatisations, their sympathies towards each other highlight their very human reactions to the events around, making the history more relateable for the audience.

The last and best recent example of this biographical sympathy is Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a novel about the Henry James’s later years.

It took me three goes to get past the slow start, which has Henry James wandering randomly about pondering as he waits for the premier of his first play, Guy Domville, to finish.  But the chapter picks up quite dramatically, and you really feel for and understand what James is going through as he worries about how his play will be received, as Tóibín takes us through his thought processes so logically and thoroughly.

The book moves on to look back on different aspects of James’s personal life, and the influences each of these had on his works.  There is James’s dead sister Alice; his dead cousin Minny; a phantom illness that James had as a young man, encouraged by his mother; the effect of the American Civil War on the young James; the fact of his having escaped fighting in it, and the class implications of American society.  This latter point Tóibín, an Irish writer, expands into an astonishingly understanding exposition of the effect New England society in the late 19th century had on its writers.

I was still moved early on to think – I wonder…?  This time however, I wasn’t wanting to go and check out a fact because it seemed preposterously unlikely, but rather because I was so impressed with the way something had been described that I wanted to know more.

I’m now reading A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Booker Prize winning novel, which also takes historical events as its basis.  Although Marlon James has quite a different approach!

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Review: My Brilliant Career (Also The Franchise Affair, and You’ve Been Publicly Shamed)

I wasn’t intending to review Josephine Tey’s 1949 mystery, The Franchise Affair, but that was before I discovered that it was a jaw droppingly right wing treatise on social issues, rather than the gentle cosy detective story I’d been expecting.

Tey’s tale pits fifteen year old Betty Kane against socially reticent Marion Sharpe and her forbidding elderly mother.  Kane accuses the two of kidnap and battery, and local lawyer Robert Blair is drawn in by circumstances to investigate.

It’s remarkable how different attitudes to fifteen year olds were in the age before the invention of the teenager.  Although “growing up too quickly” is a common lament these days, there is much more legal protection around our youngsters than there was in the 1940s and there is no way a fifteen year old in a modern novel could be accused of the sort of behaviour that Tey puts the character of Betty under, not without at least some heavy duty psychological explanation.

This lack of characterisation made me think of the contrast with Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, which Rachel put me on to.  Franklin, although much younger than Tey when she wrote her novel (she was sixteen) and writing during a much earlier period, shows much greater understanding of the way environment, social and physical, and experience have a profound effect on the way people turn out.

My Brilliant Career is about a fictional sixteen year old, Sybylla Melvyn.  The novel is set at the end of the nineteenth century in rural Australia.  It’s a tough life, full of struggle, and intensely described.  Just as things are looking the-pits-kind-of-awful, Sybylla gets an opportunity to go and stay with a better off relative, and we follow her adventures as she negotiates adolescence and an up and down relationship with her mother, lurching from poverty to riches to servitude along the way.

Miles Franklin’s own story is also fascinating.  Although she did go on to have a career, which involved writing, the publication of her outspoken first novel was to be the most brilliant part of it. The public assumption that Franklin had written a purely autobiographical work caused her much distress, and she subsequently withdrew it from publication, which is a shame, because as well as her remarkable understanding of personality, the character of Sybylla is so passionate and memorable and easy to relate to.

The other thing that The Franchise Affair reminded me of was Jon Ronson’s You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  I wasn’t going to read this – too scary – but was lulled in by the Kindle sample, which started off much more gently and humorously than I had expected.  Ronson is at his bemused and beguiling best as he describes what happened when some university students tried to impersonate him on the internet, showing how his helpless outrage turned into a mini crusade, and what happened when the internet swung to his rescue.  Yet it was also this experience that caused him to question the moral momentum behind these movements, and why the public mobilises into self-righteous mobs, and what effect it has on the people who are pursued by them.  In The Franchise Affair, this takes the form of angry locals besieging a house and breaking windows.  You’ve Been… shows how the modern virtual incarnation of mob rule is no less damaging to people’s lives.

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Review: Crimson Peak

I was planning on writing a review about how much I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s The Master, and then I went out to see Crimson Peak at the cinema.

It was billed as a ghost story after the tradition of The Woman in White, but what we got was a really over the top Downton Abbey (costumes, acting and sets) with added stabbings and CGI.

Never have I been in a film where audience reaction has been such an integral part of the experience eg “That was a bit unnecessary,” from behind me, as we cut from genteel waltzes to chunks being taken out of skulls.  But mainly a lot of laughter, and some synchronised “Oooh!”s at some really bizarre scenes, such as someone being stabbed in the face.  Why would you do that as a stabber?  Why would you do that as a film maker, knowing that everyone’s just going to say, “That was a bit… odd  Never seen that before.”

This guy from The Guardian gave the film 4/5 stars.  What was he on??  Probably the same thing that the commissioner for this film was on.  I want some of it.

10/10 for entertainment value though, I was still laughing as I walked up the road to catch my train, really needed that after a hard week at work!

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Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Here are two things that would pass the Bechdel test.

This weekend, I discovered the Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Terminator 1 and 2 were my favourite films as a teenager (subsequently usurped by Fargo, and then the two volumes of Kill Bill, since which time I have mellowed to favour much quieter fare).  I loved the action sequences, and I loved the way Arnie went from bad to good, the little boy was a great actor, but best of all I loved Linda Hamilton as Sarah, already steely tough in the first film, and then even more impressively, especially body built up for her role in the second.

Terminators 3 and 4 didn’t have Linda, or James Cameron directing, so I gave them a miss, but I was curious to see what Game Of Thrones Lena Headey would do with the Sarah Connor role when I found out about this 2008 television series.  I took about half an episode to be convinced, cos Lena doesn’t have as many muscles as Linda, and has a slight tendency to look Cersei Lannister put out, rather than out and out tough, but she’s just got a different style, a bit more efficient, a bit less mad.  The script is really great, with lots of chase and action, plus those touching “difficult choice” scenes that American series do so well – do I kill this person who might be innocent to save myself, that sort of thing.  And all those corny little things about what it is to be human, and what it is to miss people from your old life when you have to bale out of it.

I also read My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante.  This is the first of four novels chronicling the lives of two girls born in a poor area of 1950s Naples.  They are both clever, but only one, our narrator, Elena, who comes from a slightly better off family, is allowed by her family to stay at school past the age of eleven.  Her cleverer friend, Lila, is not.

I have to say that I found the first half a bit Matilda/Good Will Hunting, as we look at the children’s lives pre-middle school, and Lila amazes us with her mental feats, and carries on doing so; when Elena progresses to middle school, she struggles with her Latin and Greek, but it’s OK because Lila has decided to borrow books from the library so that she is able to keep up with her studies, and is able to help Elena out.  It gets much better after the half way mark, when life becomes less school bound and the girls start to determine their own lives.  Lila is more resourceful and determined, but more constrained, and they both seem to envy the parts of the other’s life that they can’t have.  The dynamic of envy, and need, and the feeling that each is the only one who really understands the other in a town full of violence and small mindedness are really amazingly rendered.

It’s not often that I read more than the first in a series of books, but I definitely want to find out what happens!

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Review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guos

My parents came to visit yesterday, and after a bit of a struggle to find a free space in a sandwich shop at 1pm on a sunny afternoon in Lewes, we had a lovely family lunch, where I discovered that both my children support Wales, land of their grandfather, in the Rugby World Cup.  As they hardly speak to each other, there was no collusion in this decision, it’s just something that they both identify with.

After lunch, my mum helped LD#2 write her name in Chinese, as she wants to use this in her GCSE Art project on identity.  My teacher friend Meg says she hates this particular project, because as she puts it “all the kids with money and horses end up with a lovely project and the ones whose parents barely acknowledge they exist end up with nothing.”  Anyway, so far, Isabel has Chinese writing, some Dr Who memorabilia and a tap dancing medal, which Meg assures me is far less difficult to make a cohesive project out of than it would appear, although I wonder what ideas she would come up with if she had to add a Welsh dragon into the mix?

My mum was getting a bit carried away, suggesting that I could teach my children some Chinese writing, since I have a GCSE in Chinese.  To be honest, this counts for nothing as I have forgotten most of the characters, and I can’t speak it.  I find it really annoying when people say things like, “Oh I’m sure you are much better than you think you are” or “If you got back into it, I’m sure you’d pick it up quickly.”  People have no idea how difficult it is to speak Cantonese.  Chinese people cannot even understand me when I try to speak it because of the way I pronounce the words.  Also, there’s the question of grammar.  As the narrator of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers puts it, “Chinese, we not having grammar.  We saying things simple way.”  So that’s why they sound funny to us and why I sound funny to them.  The Chinese have traditions of how they say things, rather than rules, which makes it a nightmare to learn.  You can’t really learn it, you sort of have to pick it up by instinct.

Zhuang, the narrator of A Concise… , has come to London from Beijing to study English for a year.  She comes from a peasant family made good, so has known great hardship, and is now cautiously enjoying prosperity.  The book is narrated in her broken English, which improves quickly throughout the book, as within days she meets an older man and moves in with him as his lover.   I found this development rather startling, my first reaction being “Is he some kind of psychopath or what??” but then I returned to the no grammar, no rules concept introduced early on, and decided that the storyline of this novel was a bit like that, Zhuang and her lover behaving outside the accepted grammar of social situations, in the same way that she says things outside of the grammar of Western etiquette, eg as an attempt at conversation “Are you a bit fatter than me?”  (Yes, that’s very Chinese.)

Later on, as Zhuang’s English improves and she is able to put forward opposing viewpoints to her lover (who is never named, just referred to in the second person) they find that they irritate each other quite a lot.  I did struggle with the fact that they hadn’t anticipated this, but then he clearly has his own issues, as does Zhuang.  The bits of Chinese history that I have read about (the way they used to execute criminals, the whole of the cultural revolution etc) is seeped through with violence, and that together with the “group” rather than “individual” mentality has led to a casual acceptance of violence within the family that Chinese people themselves don’t really understand, and that came through well in this book, although I can see that non-Chinese people would find it very puzzling.  Also there’s a strong Chinese tendency to believe that if you are not in danger of famine, debilitating violence or death, everything must be OK, which affects a lot of their outlook.

I did wonder whether this was a play on our tendency to assume that what people can express is the sum total of their thoughts.  Zhuang mentions that many people find her and her fellow language school students funny because of the way they talk, and certainly the beginning of the novel is very funny.  My favourite among many was the amazed description of an English breakfast: “messy scrumpled eggs, very salty bacons, burned bread, very thick milk, sweet bean in orange sauce…” As Zhuang becomes more fluent, she is better able to express the Chinese way of thinking.  It’s easy to see why Christianity went down so well in the pockets of China that missionaries were able to reach, because of the similar themes of self-sacrifice and inner spiritual contentment that both cultures prize so highly.

In the end, the book ends up pondering the question of how best to lead our lives when we have experienced the benefits that both cultures have to offer, while necessarily having to choose between living in one of them, which does not understand the other.  Although the conclusion is as definite as it could be, given the need for a sensible time scale, this book surprised me by being one of the few that made me wish I could have stayed with the character and found whether she managed to work out how to achieve her contentment.

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Review: A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi

This terrific film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012.

It comes from the director of About EllyAsghar Farhadi, and explores similar themes, but is much more developed and complete.  In About Elly, three liberal, middle class Iranian couples and two singles go on holiday by the Caspian Sea.   When one of the singles, Elly, disappears, it prompts the fall of a complex tower of lies upon lies, all set against the restrictive backdrop of Iranian social norms.

A Separation has a similar structure; a germ of a crisis becomes huge problem, not just because of the lies people tell, but because of the pressures that people are under, which makes their behaviours and subsequent lies almost inevitable.

Simin and Nader are on the verge of separation.  Simin wants to leave Iran, for a better life for the family, and especially for their daughter Termeh (the script says 11 year old, but the character is written more as if 13/14).  Nader cannot leave Iran because he has to care for his father, who has Alzheimers.  So Simin leaves Nader and goes back to her family home, while Termeh stays with Nader.

Nader has to leave the house to go to work, therefore he must employ a carer to look after his father during the day. This beginning is a bit slow, as we see the stress that Nader is under, looking after his father as soon as he comes home from work, but also the stress that Razieh, the carer, is under, forced by poverty to commute long distances for little pay, and unable to tell her husband what the nature of her work is, due to her religious and cultural misgivings about how proper it is for her to be caring for a single man, even an elderly and incapable one.

The plotting is astonishingly intricate, which belies the fact that the action takes place on only a few stages; the family apartment block; Simin’s family home; and a crowded, jostling courthouse, for the courthouse is where they all end up when the families end up in conflict and one family claims against the other, only to be faced with a counterclaim.

The acting is very good, very naturalistic.  Our sympathies swing from one character to another, and all of them end up compromised, but the rigid legal system means that for all concerned, the stakes are high, and only and all or nothing outcome is likely; there are no such things as mitigating circumstances, which might lead all to a sympathetic outcome.

I’d been expecting from the title rather a narrow film. concerned with the personal dynamics of a break up, but nothing could have been further from the reality.  As well as the legal system, the religious and class systems also play their parts in the unfolding drama, and this felt as complete a portrait of a modern society that it’s possible to put across in two hours.

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Solidarity with Refugees march, London

I went on the Solidarity with Refugees march in London today.  The march was huuuuge.  90,000 people signed up on Facebook.  I’d love to know how many actually attended, but I can’t imagine how anyone could have counted.

I went with my friends Rachel and Celia.  My mum was a refugee as a baby in Macau in 1950 with her family, and Rachel and Celia’s father came to Britain on the last Kindertransport; he lost both his parents and his younger brother in the Holocaust.  It was interesting discussing our experiences of growing up as the children of refugees.  It seems that both our ex-refugee parents were particularly overprotective, but whereas Rachel and Celia’s father was keen to educate his children very broadly about the political realities of other countries and the effects of migration, my mum was keen to turn away from all of that and become much more inward looking.

The idea for the march started off with one woman, Ros Ereira, posting on Facebook.  A few more organisations, such as Amnesty International, then got involved, but still, I was pretty impressed with the number of volunteer stewards and speakers they’d got together in that short amount of time, not to mention the mobile stage and PA system.  Some of the speakers were a bit random, such as the guy from the Socialist Alliance, who provoked dissenting murmurs from the crowd around me objecting to the way he was pushing his own political message rather than paying any attention to the issue of refugees.  A better speaker was the woman from Sarajevo spoke about her gratitude to the UK for providing her with refuge 22 years ago, and how life is not just about not being in immediate danger, but about living the rest of your life with dignity.  Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, talked about the Kindertransport children who came to Windermere (near his constituency) in the 1930s and his sadness that more children were not able to come – a mistake that we should not make again, he said.  That’s actually the first time I realised that the Lib Dems had actually voted themselves a new leader!  He was really a very good speaker, and it’s a pity the Lib Dems have only got 8 MPs.

At the other end of the march, in Parliament Square, we got a speech from Jeremy Corbyn, who had earlier that day been announced as the new leader of the Labour party.  In a discussion with my dad earlier this month, it turns out we had quite similar views on the possibility of a Corbyn election.  My dad thinks that it will open up discussion and debate and pave the way for someone else to come through and lead the party to a stronger future.  For me, I feel that more of the same old ex-Blairite faces, trying the same formula of centrist inoffensiveness with ever diminishing returns would never have result in victory, and even if Corbyn becomes the “mincemeat” my friends were worried that the press would make of him, it would shock the party into facing up to the current  emptiness of their central political premise.  I think it is easier for the right wing to hold together, as there are fewer ways to be laissez-faire, whereas the left wing premise of constructing a more equal country is a complex proposition, which needs to be thought about and discussed.  I do wonder what happened to all the political philosophers, such as Bernard Williams, when you need them.  I fear that until someone confronts the differences between ideological, usually more privileged, socialists and the communities of poverty and low employment that socialism is intended to benefit, the left will not be elected again.  I feel it is a similar barrier to electability for Labour that massive negative press influence was during the 1980s; it took Neil Kinnock’s vision and effort to defeat it.

It was really interesting hearing Corbyn as the leader of a major political party come out with some straightforward views.  Corbyn was very careful to remain positive, and non party political on the cross-party stage he had been given, although Billy Bragg then went and undermined it all by bellowing out the Red Flag straight afterwards (an effect magnified by the fact Bragg was also one of the few on the stage who could work out how to use the microphone properly).

Rachel and Celia are still convinced Corbyn is going to be obliterated by the press, but then again, we are in a strange new world.  The gap between rich and poor in this country is becoming more and more unbridgeable, due to the way of the property market, and so is the gap between the standard of living between countries.  Climate change is going to play a factor in people’s need to migrate away from other countries (Celia was telling us about the role that drought had played in the Syrian migration).  War seems to be getting more widespread and brutal, and in many western countries, the relationship between the public and the elected politician has reached never before seen lows of cynicism and mistrust.  It will be interesting to see whether all the established rules that have recently seen in the victories of successive polished politicians will also be part of the new world.