22 April, 2013

Playing with Early Reviewers'

Tim Forbes

A month and a half since i’ve finished a book! Surely a record for me ~ and not one i would care to surpass ever again.

This was an Early Reviewers’ book, and one which i enjoyed, albeit not one i probably would have picked up of mine own accord. Sports is not something which particularly interests me, to participate in, to watch, or to read about. I can, obviously, do all three, and have done, in the past: Most especially playing at school or, less frequently, with friends (football, rugby, cricket, hockey, softball, among others) and watching ice hockey in Canada. Usually it is merely chance, though, that brings me a book on sport, and that chance this time has done me a favour, as Forbes is quite interesting in his quest to spend a year watching different sports.

He is a man of about the same age as me, who has a mid-life crisis by way of suddenly realising that his chosen field of labour ~ specifically chosen for its pleasure potential, as he left finance to work in golf tournament promotion ~ no longer holds joy for him; he begins to wonder if he has the capacity to enjoy sport, any sport, any more, or if working in it has drained it for him. Similar, i suppose, to what might happen if i had left retail to work in publishing then, after some years, discovered i no longer read nor missed it. This quest which he gives himself, watching 100 games in fifty sports in a year, is his attempt to discover if he has entirely lost the enjoyment ability, or if he can recapture it.

For much of the year, it seems, his quest is not very successful, as he is shown over and over that professional sports has little to offer, and is intent on making money in any way it possibly can. This he calls the Monster. Apparently later in the year, however, certainly later in the book, Forbes starts to undergo a change, driven by the sports he is compelled to watch in order to complete the quest under the original terms ~ there not being fifty professional sports available to watch he has to go to some lengths to find amateur games and finds some he had never run across before. During this latter portion, he is given several experiences which renew his faith in sport, cover or remove the bad taste left by the Monster, and help him to understand that those who participate in a sport purely for the love of it have a great advantage over those who have other motivations. In the end the moral is fairly predictable, not entirely believable, but worth the time put in to it.

I have some reservations about the book, partly Forbes' style (which is perhaps a little overly humorous and casual for my taste), as well as quirks of the digitalisation which left the second of every double “f” capitalised (you have no idea how tired i got of reading “ofF” or variations thereof), and put in paragraph breaks where none were needed or expected. I'm not certain i'd read another based purely on Forbes' name ~ perhaps if it were a subject i wanted to learn more about, which would leave most sports out ~ so i cannot sincerely call the book a success by my criterion. On the other hand, certainly not a complete failure, either, as many of his descriptions of events, places, and people, are well done (by no means did i intend to imply above that his style is appalling, just not entirely to my taste), and he is clearly knowledgeable about his subject.

19 April, 2013

Alistair MacLean

One of MacLean's earlier books, and perhaps stronger for being that. The action depends more on character and plans than coincidence or deus ex machina, which is more satisfying than some of his later books' plots. The characters are his usual types, almost superhuman, a man who drinks ridiculous quantities of alcohol without being affected, men who are willing to die but, generally do not have to; interestingly, there is a woman who functions as a romantic interest for the protagonist, which is fairly unusual for MacLean ~ perhaps he needed to put her in to further the plot, which her presence does do a few times, so overcame his usual reluctance for romance which might slow down the action.

Curiously, for a man who was concerned about keeping the action going, there is quite a large amount of moralising or philosophising in the novel, largely in the mouth of one character; certainly the character who expresses the opinions, which are essentially those which say all men are brothers and must learn to live together, is a man who is in a position to speak with authority: He had been a partisan during the Second World War, successfully and violently fighting the Russians in Ukraine, then ending up as an anti-government actor in post-War Hungary, helping his fellows to escape the torture and inhumanity of the Communist government. Unfortunately, i found that the philosophy slowed down the action at a point when really it should have been racing towards the end. Still, it seems to me that MacLean was willing to take this action because this character seems to speak for him, and he believed it essential that the world think about his points.

As mentioned above, the book takes place in Hungary; as it was released in 1959, it seems likely that it was inspired (some of the action makes this clear also) by the events of the Hungarian Revolution and its awful oppression by the USSR, and fairly clearly MacLean was so horrified by these actions that he found it necessary to use his available pulpit to publish his opinion of the Cold War.

13 April, 2013

History, Times Two

Esmond Wright

I still don't have the almost instinctive grasp of American history that i find in myself over the British variety; i suppose this is because the one was not put into my brain through stories, books, classes, while i was young enough to take it in without realising it, whereas the other most certainly was. Influenced, i suppose, by my many years of living in the United States, i feel strongly that this lack of grasp is a weakness in me, though i am well aware that the average American probably doesn't know as much of their own history as do i, and it is a weakness i am always willing to correct; Wright's book was the latest venture in that direction.

I have learned some, though of course the outlines were familiar to me previously, of both Washington's biography and the course of the Revolution ~ as well as some of its causes; more, though, i have taken pleasure in the quality of the writing, which is never preachy, nor overly rhetorical, but simple and easy to follow (i only recall one name i had to chase down for a previous reference, despite taking some weeks to read the book), clear and good prose. I shall, which i don't often do with history, see if i can find more of Wright's writings to pursue.

Gordon Brown

I was a little disappointed in this book, i have to confess. I could not help comparing it, even unconsciously, with JFK's Portraits of Courage, which comparison must have been in the back of Brown's mind when he conceived of and produced the work; and i am not sure that the comparison is to Brown's benefit.

Kennedy's book has its drawbacks or weaknesses, not least the suspicion that it was largely written by someone else, but it was and is an enjoyable book; though this one is, i would suspect, more completely “All my own work!” than Kennedy's, Brown does not have a sparkling prose style. A highly successful Chancellor, in part because he had the earned reputation of being able to destroy his detractors in Parliament or the press, the iron fist style is not so useful in writing what was surely conceived as a collection of popular biographies. Writing for the public, one does not want to bludgeon one's readers into appreciation; that way lies an ever diminishing audience.

A further problem i found was that Brown tries to analyse what he means by “courage”, and i'm not sure that i followed him properly; either that or i just disagree with his definition. He seems to be using a definition different from the usual, and it appears that it is on occasion flexible to the point of not really meaning anything other than “something i admire”; the chapter on Cicely Saunders, for example, completely puzzles me, because i don't understand what about her or her actions was courageous: Admirable, certainly, needed, appropriate, difficult, each of these would be apposite adjectives, but courageous

I was ready to be pleased by Brown's choices of portrayers of courage, a modern continuation of JFK's book in some sense, and was pleased to see Mandela (obvious choice), Cavell (a uniquely British heroine), and Wallenberg (unbelievably heroic, and not well-known enough) on the cover. King and Kennedy (RFK, not his brother) and even Bonhoeffer i imagined were particular and personal choices for Brown. Saunders i knew nothing about, not even the name, so i had no opinion; i have to say, having read the book, i can only imagine that she is a personal hero of Brown's for some reason he feels unable to bring out, or she is a cultural hero i haven't heard of (not an uncommon thing), and he felt he couldn't miss her out, even though she doesn't fit the scheme.

All in all, not a successful book, by my criterion. Certainly, if i come across it, i am quite likely to read another book by Brown; it won't be on the basis of my pleasure in this one, though, so much as who he is.

06 April, 2013

I'm not a film critic, but...


I find it rather difficult to decide what i want to say about Up in this review: I am glad i've seen it, as i like Pixar's work and am happy to see any of their films at least once ~ and there are still several i've not seen, though one less now; on the other hand, i found it curiously unsatisfying, much more so than any other Pixar film i've seen. I hope they haven't lost their touch, that this was simply an aberration or, as may be more likely, just something that did not work for me, however well it may have been received (i really have no idea of its reception, so that statement is simply guesswork).

So, to explore my reaction, i start with the thing which Pixar says is at the heart of every one of their films, story. I really found the story troubling, i have no other word for it. The first minute or so sets up the plot, an explorer returning to the wilds to redeem his name. The next five to ten minutes tell the lovely and touching story of a boy and his neighbour who grow up together in admiration of the explorer, with determination to follow in his footsteps; they appear to have a lovely romance, marry, and live happily together; like so many things in so many lives, their plans do not come to fruition, and she eventually dies, leaving him an apparently bitter old man. The rest of the film recounts how this man defies the world he lives in, is brought to a new humanity by a small boy, and discovers the feet of clay of his childhood hero, in the process attempting to fulfil the ambition he and his wife had always had. The problem that i have is that by far the nicest character in the film is killed off within the first ten minutes, and from that point on it seems a let-down.

There are also a number of plot points left unanswered that, under usual circumstances i don't think i would be bothered by but, with the big plot problem mentioned above, they bother me now. For example, how could the explorer possibly be still alive and so active as he is some fifty years, at least, after he left civilisation the second time? Is there some non-aging characteristic to the atmosphere in this lost world area? Has he discovered the fountain of youth? Whatever the answer, it ought to have played some part in the story. Another annoyance: How has the explorer managed to create devices which allow his dogs to talk? It's a nice conceit, but needs some kind of explanation. How does his device interpret what the dogs think? Why does the alpha dog talk with a foreign accent? Questions that are demanding to be answered because the story is not strong enough to hold mine attention.

To move on from the story, the quality of the rest of the production is, as always, very good. The animation is well done, though less realistic or believable than in some other of Pixar's films (i believe in Woody and Buzz, for example, because they appear real; the explorer is the only character here who has that same reality appearance, which makes the rest of them less believable, though not less visually enjoyable). The actors lending their voices to the production are well chosen and have given enjoyable performances. Always a pleasure to hear Cliff Claven's distinctive sound in one of these films. Production values, then, whatever exactly that phrase means, seem not to have been lost.

My only issue with the film is with the story ~ unfortunately, arguably, the most important feature about it. I wonder if this slip by Pixar has anything to do with the fact that they were bought by Disney, as opposed to merely having a distribution agreement with them, at some point before it was made. I have no reason to think that Disney would mess up Pixar's abilities; it is simply a guess based on timing and result (and, admittedly, the fact that like much of corporate America, Disney has a habit of steamrollering anything which does not fit its own “values”). Whatever the reason, though, i was disappointed by Up, and hope that the next film i watch from this studio will have a better focus on story.

01 April, 2013

A Film (for a change)

JAG should be glad i have now watched this (The Prestige): I bought it several months ago and started to watch it but couldn’t go on, it absolutely didn’t grip me at all, and he was quite upset with me when i told him that, as he thinks it’s a brilliant film. So, now i’ve finished it (again, actually, i have watched it previously, on an aeroplane, i think, which probably lowered my standards), which i managed by turning on the subtitles and paying more attention to them than the sounds ~ in fact, i don’t remember any of the noise of the thing, music, voices effects, nothing at all ~ so i followed the plot a bit more easily.

That is, in fact, one of my primary problems with films like this ~ and there are far too many like this ~ in which the director has forgotten what he is supposed to be doing and has lost himself in the fantasy of being an auteur and making a piece of Art: He no longer realises that one of the essential points of all good art is that it be accessible. In The Prestige, for example, i found it hard to tell which character was which, to understand the flow of the plot (because it is told through flashbacks and memories and flashforwards with neither reason nor concern for clarity and care of the audience), to know which characters were supposed to be good and which not, and certainly to care when the final plot twist and revelation was made ~ mine only feeling at that point was gratitude that the thing was obviously coming to an end (though it still dragged on for longer, even when there was nothing left to be told).

If the thing were truly an artwork, rather than an artifice, none of these things would have been true; though i might have had to work at understanding parts of it, the whole would be greater than the parts, and the time would have been well spent. As it is, cross-applying my definition of success from books to this film, it clearly is not a success: Far from watching another simply because it is directed by Christopher Nolan, i would positively avoid another film if i knew he were the director. Not, then, a success.