Sunday, February 28, 2010
Just a quick reminder that if you want to come see me then I'll be at three events over the next two days. (Details on the post three below this one).
Friday, February 26, 2010
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
The new novels of KA Bedford, Lenny Bartulin and Adrian McKinty have a Chandleresque air to them. They look at the legacy of noir fiction and its effect on their writing with Grant Stone.
Chair: Grant Stone
Undercroft Sat 27 Feb, 2 – 3pm
Crime Does Pay
Crime writers Colin McLaren and Adrian McKinty consider the interplay between real life and the imagination in the world of crime fiction.
Chair: Deborah Kennedy
Uni Club Theatre Sat 27 Feb, 5 – 6pm
Though crime fiction is sometimes accused of being formulaic, it often features complex characters who grow over a series of books. Michael Koryta, Adrian McKinty and Irvine Welsh talk about the complexity of character.
Chair: John Harman
Uni Club Theatre Sun 28 Feb, 12.30 – 1.30pm
I'll also be doing an event on March 2nd when I'm back in Melbourne at the North Fitzroy Star hotel at 6 PM with Michael Koryta, Marianne Delacourt & Rebecca James.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Ehrenreich encountered this phenomenon in some force when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. From the mammogram on, she found that she had entered a world of pink ribbons, Ralph Lauren pink ponies and balloons, of “fun runs’’, of books featuring personal testimonies with statements like “cancer is your ticket to your real life’’ and “cancer will lead you to the divine’’. Ehrenreich found that any expression of dissent – any suggestion that one found the illness frightening, and the treatment and insurance arrangements disgraceful – led to her being howled down online by fellow sufferers for having a “bad attitude’’ and “anger and bitterness’’.
Ehrenreich goes on to investigate the positive thinking phenomenon in various aspects of American life. Her dissection is neat and although it isn't quite Jessica Mitford or Neil Postman it is a long overdue and useful corrective to the smarmy Dr Phil, the creepy Oprah and the dangerous James Ray et. al who tell us that "we can do anything if we only try hard enough." This, of course, is not true. In fact we're all utterly screwed, we're going to die very soon, the game is rigged against us and blaming our alleged failures on our own lack of will is a recipe for despair. I think its far better to think negatively, have the odd misanthropic laugh now and again at the follies of mankind and try to finish each day with a really good beer.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
David Denby of the New Yorker, in one of the few really negative reviews of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man said it well: the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer “would have been disgusted” by the behavior of the main character, Lawrence Gopnik, the whining schmuck who acquiesces in all situations, never stands up for himself, is tricked, beaten, refuses the come ons from his next door neighbor (very un-Singer) and is the eternal victim. Gopnik is the caricature of the quietly suffering Jewish loser who becomes a human punching bag. Rather than imbuing Gopnik with the traits standard in Yiddish and Jewish American writing from Sholem Aleichem to the brothers Singer - ironic humor, sarcasm, the ability to laugh at oneself and others - Gopnik is a sad sack with no redeeming qualities. He doesn’t crack wise, he doesn’t speak truth to power, he doesn’t go down zinging. He just goes down.
In a way A Serious Man telegraphs its intent in the first segment of the film set in the shtetl. This scene is entirely in Yiddish and the English subtitles miss half of what is actually being said. Likewise A Serious Man spectacularly misses the whole point of Yiddish literature (and Yiddish cinema) which is that, yeah, life is going to get you in the end but the way to cheat Death is to make a gag about his scythe and viciously mock his choice of cloak.
The film is set in suburban Minnesota in the late 60’s when the Coen brothers were growing up there. True this isn’t New York or Chicago but Jewish Minneapolis isn’t that different from the North American hubs of Jewish culture; the Coens’ representation of Jewish American suburbia, however, is the polar opposite of Woody Allen's or Mel Brooks’ world where the machers who annoy the hell out of you get eviscerated by superior wit. The Coens' universe is a morose, dreary, and paranoid landscape, without intellectualism or wit. We know the Coens have read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but have they dipped into, say, Philip Roth? The textured, dark hilarity of Roth’s Jewish suburbs is nowhere to be seen in their oddly bland film.
In a way Gopnik is actually more akin to "The Wandering Jew" a Christian trope whose task it is to eternally suffer until redemption or death arrives to lift him from this vale of tears. Gopnik is very different from the standard schlemiels of Jewish culture, from Tevye the Dairyman to Larry David, who are afflicted by small and large hardships, but who survive and in fact thrive by mocking themselves and their predicament. Gopnik just sulks around, moaning tediously, reel after reel as his job implodes, his wife leaves him, his children rebel and his health declines. No wonder he, and the movie, have appealed so strongly to a broad range of primarily non Jewish critics: Gopnik is a perfect Wandering Jew or Job or Jesus figure who takes on all the sins of mankind, suffering without question and who, through this misery, supposedly purges and purifies others.
Reworking the Job story in a modern context has been done several times before but nowhere better than in I. L. Peretz’s 1894 iconic Yiddish masterpiece “Bontshe Shvayg” [Bontshe the Silent]. Bontshe is a shtetl version of Lawrence Gopnik who responds with silence to the torrents of abuse he faces thoughout his life. Of course, because this is a Yiddish story, it ends with Bontshe going to heaven and being mocked mercilessly for his passivity by a prosecuting angel who cracks wise at Bontshe’s expense. When Bontshe is asked what he would like in recompense for all his suffering he blows it yet again by humbly asking for a “bagel with some butter” which is met with by howls of laughter. Peretz’s hugely popular and important short story was clearly challenging the misuse of the Job trope in Jewish life and showing that there is nothing worthy to be found in passivity and that all it really does is make the sufferer into a pathetic schmuck. It is both troubling and tedious to see the Coen brothers turn the clock back to a hackneyed Jewish caricature that went out of date more than a century ago. IB Singer might indeed have been disgusted by this film but more likely he would have fallen asleep first.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
It is apparent now that the generation of poets who were at Queens University Belfast roughly around the same time as Seamus Heaney exhibited the kind of genius that you find very rarely in history: Periclean Athens, Elizabethan London, Fin de Siecle Vienna, 20's Paris. Poets in the Queens circle included Heaney himself, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Michael Longley et al who, between them, have won just about every poetry prize going. Ireland of course has never been short of pugilists or poets and a new generation of greats is now coming to the fore among whom Sinead Morrissey is one of my favourites. Born in 1972 in Portadown, educated at Trinity, she brings your bog standard Irish gift for brilliant lyrical intensity to a disciplined and close observation of her own feelings and the world around her. Is she the real deal? I think so. She's intelligent, learned and is only getting better. The BBC has a nice clip of Sinead reading and a list of the other poets up for the TS Eliot prize here.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Sunday, February 7, 2010
I went to see Invictus yesterday. It wasn't bad. Matt Damon was about a foot too small but I dug his accent and his ball greediness, so typical of a flanker desperate to get all the glory while prop forwards do all the work. Anyhoo, it wasn't a classic. If I remember rightly the South Africans were the favourites to win that world cup and really how can you make a sports movie about the favourites? Still it gave me an excuse to have a think about my top sports flicks of all time and here for your edification is my list:
#14 Slap Shot - one of the few sports movies written by a woman (Nancy Dowd). The Hanson (Carlson) brothers are the standout.
#13 Rudy - My recollections of this film are hazy but I seem to remember this dialogue: "Oh Mr Frodo, sir, let me carry it for you. Please (sobbing) please Mr Frodo, please."
#12 Dodge Ball - that Rip Torn cracks me up. Here he is again hitting Norman Mailer with a hammer.
#11 Pride of the Yankees - Lou Gehrig gives his "luckiest man" speech at Yankee stadium, grown men weep.
#10 Gladiator - Boy was I surprised, I thought Commodus was going to win in the arena only to be strangled later in his bath by the wrestler Narcissus.
#9 Rocky - I'm not a big fan of boxing movies, hence no Raging Bull, but in Rocky I really like the stuff in the pet shop, the unorthodox training, the yelling of the word "Adrian" and the fact that (spoiler alert) he loses.
#8 Escape to Victory - I'm only including this because Pele is in it.
#7 Hoosiers - the movie that somehow makes basketball seem interesting.
#6 Bang the Drum Slowly - De Niro, baseball, death. And jokes. (Nah only kidding, no jokes).
#5 Field of Dreams - That penultimate scene - grown men weep again.
#4 Chariots of Fire - duh duh duh duh duhh duhhhh, duh duh duh duh duhhhh etc.
#3 The Natural - Someone read the book and decided to remove all the cynicism and cast uber WASP Robert Redford in the scrappy Roy Hobbs role. Still, "knock the cover off the ball, Roy" and "pick me out a winner, Bobby" get me every single time.
#2 Breaking Away - bicycling in a big circle 500 times. No really. Oh and yeah its one of the best films of all time.
#1 Bull Durham - Maybe now Costner and Sarandon will get together just like in the movies.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
You always know how a Cormac McCarthy novel is going to end. The strong man will vanquish the weak man. The man more versed in knife fighting will best the novice. The man with the shotgun bandoleer will save the child of the man armed only with an empty pistol. The bald headed immortal will kill the illiterate wastrel who is the witness to his crimes. And it's always men doing the killing. Women seldom appear and when they do they're usually doing the dying or being fought over like heroines of the silent screen.
I've been reading Cormac McCarthy since the 1980's when I discovered Child of God in high school. I tore through his Tennessee novels and his Texas novels and his crime novel and at the weekend I finished his science fiction novel The Road. I've had misgivings about McCarthy's plots before (I've never liked the scene where they make gunpowder in Blood Meridian) but never about his prose. McCarthy writes as though its the 1640's and he's a pamphleteer warning a nervous populace that the apocalypse is imminent. His words are careful, atavistic, beautiful. His sentences are as crisp as haiku, his chapters as epic as Miltonian books.
The Road begins seven or eight years after a comet has struck the Earth. Society everywhere has collapsed. Chaos reigns. And by chaos I mean cannibalism, slavery, murder, rape; the only organisation that seems to exist in this entropic, Hobbesian war of all against all is from isolated bands of anarchists who may or may not be benign. Into a wasted landscape (where photosynthesis has ceased and most animal phyla are extinct) a man and a boy are heading south before the brutal winter comes. The man can barely keep going, but he has to as the boy's mother has cut her throat in despair not too long before the book begins. The weak mother has failed her child but the resourceful father will not give up. In wonderful scenes he finds hidden springs, apples from an orchard, an old can of Coke and fuel for a fire. He gives everything to the boy and they dodge marauders and enslavers and those terrifying cannibals.
The story is as harrowing as any Cormac McCarthy novel since Outer Dark but the prose is just as carefully wrought as his previous works. McCarthy thinks long and hard about how a word will sound in a sentence and if the word doesn't quite work he'll find a better one. I listened to The Road as an audiobook and there were times when it was like being privy to some secret ceremony in which magic spells were being chanted for my ears alone. Often the book would get too much and I'd have to unplug my iPod and listen to the silence for a while.
Having said that though, I knew how the story was going to finish - though it (spoiler alert) turned out to be the Far From the Madding Crowd in McCarthy's rather Hardyesque universe. And of course all of my problems with McCarthy the artist are still there. The urban is disdained, the rural worshipped, women in The Road are the strange, enfeebled creatures beloved of patriarchal religion, while the male lead is the strong, silent type who - of course - is good with his hands. Mussolini would have enjoyed this book and doubtless The Road is a best seller among survivalists. No, Mussolini isn't quite the person I'm looking for. Nietzsche is closer to the mark - the great German prose stylist par excellence who also dismissed women, townies, the weak and people who talked too much; McCarthy - in a different branch of Germanic - treads through similar terrain. Although he's probably America's greatest living novelist with more poetic depth, lyricism and psychological insight than his contemporaries, his adulation of strength does get a bit wearisome after a while and I can't even imagine what the poor love thinks of a film like Brokeback Mountain. I do recommend The Road (and the other McCarthy novels) but I was quite relieved when it was over and as an antidote I watched Annie Hall - there the guy doesn't quite win either, but he doesn't have to hit anyone to show that he's a man; and he's funny.