Review: Gone Girl


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Love is the world’s infinte mutability; lies, hatred, murder, even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossomming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood.

A confession: it’s been a long time since I’ve read contemporary fiction. Although I keep an eye  on the bestseller list, quality doesn’t always follow popularity so I prefer to plough a furrow through a vague wish list of titles that takes little account of current trends (Game of Thrones has been a recent exception).

But last week I was on a train, idly flicking through the Kindle Store when Gone Girl popped into my head. It was one of those titles that had been on the edge of my consciousness for some time so I downloaded the sample. And then, surprising myself, the whole book.

Any thriller, whether on the page or screen, stands or falls on the level of sustained momentum driving the plot and holding our interest. As with Breaking Bad on Netflix, I found myself sitting up too late, moving further and further into the story, appalled but riveted by the characters. Team Amy or Team Nick? Husband or wife? Neither is the straightforward choice it first seems; indeed the way Gillian Flynn plays with our prejudices is one of the strengths of the novel. Aside from the plot, which occasionally but never quite fatally stretched credulity, it was the alternating narrative voices which rang most true, their psychology and choice of language working to create an authentic impression of damaged but believable protagonists, landlocked in a marriage somewhere on the far side of dystopia.

There was also much unexpected humour, especially in the second half of the novel, but there were times the humour became so black as to slide into a satire on contemporary society, media, marriage and family. This may well be intentional since Flynn strikes me as an insightful, smart writer.

If there is a criticism it is one common to most if not all thriller or mystery stories: the feeling of being manipulated. It may be a necessary conceit, a quid pro quo, but you still have to shake off a feeling of ‘being had’ come the denoument.

Gone Girl is an enjoyable page turner. I won’t dismiss it as mere ‘holiday reading’ because it is intelligent, well written and satisfying.

Next on my list is a quick re-reading of Gatsby followed by Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall.

A new project


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For a while now I’ve been wanting to do something more creative with some of the photos I’ve collected over the past few years from various travels and daily observations. Rather than turn this blog into a photo gallery I’ve set up

As you’ll see, it’s very much in its infancy but I’ll be adding to it over the coming days and weeks. Being new to tumblr, if anyone is using it and has thoughts on its pros and cons I’d love to hear it. Or indeed the benefits of using more than one blogging platform? I was drawn to the simplicity of the site and the theme in the hope that the easier I make it, the more likely I am to maintain it. So I’m armed with good intentions, at least.  

New York, take two: adventures await!


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What’s more exciting than preparing for a holiday? And not just any old holiday but a trip to one of the great cities of the world…

This week I’m packing my bags for a much anticipated trip to New York. When last I wandered among the bustle and bluster of Midtown, the Twin Towers still stood and the bravura of the city bordered on the unnerving. But mostly I remember being completely overwhelmed by the possibilities of Manhattan. Those weeks have become something of a blur of tourist traps and hawkers on 42nd St. This time around, older, better travelled and somewhat wiser, I intend to explore more and try to imagine life as a New Yorker for the week.

Diners, delis and doughnuts 

Having already traipsed the tourist trail, I’m now free to enjoy all that New York has to offer away from the pressure of sight-seeing. For me, that means food and coffee. As a European, I plan to don the cliché and unashamedly seek out the American experience: diners, delis and doughnuts. Mind you, I will also be in need of some decent coffee and to that end have been looking up some recommendations. While the prospect of the counter-top refill is enticing, I’ll also want an occasional good quality cappuccino to fuel the neighbourhood ramblings.

Over to you….

So, if anyone has a “must eat here” tip (in the low-mid budget range) I’d love to hear from you! I’m thinking coffee shops, pizza places, BBQ joints, old-school diners or just good all round restaurants that deserve a try. Lastly, I also love exploring bookshops and have heard there are some great ones in Manhattan. Anyone venture an opinion on whether Strand is overrated or worth a look?

Thanks for your time!

Les Misérables: singing all the way home


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One of the best things about a trip to the cinema is the feeling of well-being, the spiritual uplift that accompanies a really good film. You stand up as the credits roll (or wait until the very last line, as I usually do) and want to hold onto that sense of the possible, the expansiveness of life that has been illuminated on this silver screen in the darkness.

Anyone of a creative mind might wonder at the process by which an idea becomes reality. What peculiar alchemy turns a good idea into good art? There are hours of unlovely toil, production meetings, funding issues, self-doubt, red tape.

I’m prompted to reflect on all of this having belatedly caught Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables last night. It’s not without its flaws; the editing jars slightly at times and its stage origins are impossible to hide, but in judging as a whole it is only fair to use the word that immediately came to mind as the cast list rolled up the screen – brilliant.

I’m guessing much of the audience will already have been familiar with the story, either from stage or page. I will admit to being clueless, beyond a passing familiarity with the characters’ names. In addition, having heard so-so reviews from friends, my expectations were lowered from the first amazed viewing of the trailer. Thus unburdened, I was free to enjoy the story as it unfolded.

As something of a musical film philistine who struggles with the artificiality of the medium, I found myself being swept along on the tide of emotion, thoroughly enjoying all the performances and finding no distraction in following the plot through song. The songs, orchestration and score are just too good and it would be churlish to suggest otherwise.

There has been much comment and some criticism of the director’s decision to have the cast sing live. Given the results, I can’t see what the fuss is about. The performances are universally fantastic, lending an unprecedented realism to musical film. Even Russell Crowe has been unfairly maligned; although he can’t match Hugh Jackman’s vocals I suspect that’s not the point. He was the right actor for the part. Amanda Seyfried sings like a bird and Anne Hathaway has the most expressive singing face I’ve ever seen. Aside from the headliners, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s rendition of Master of the House was a highlight, as was little Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Bravo all round.

One of the purposes of art is to reveal what is hidden within us, the innate longing for reason, beauty and truth. Les Misérables, with its themes of redemption, duty and morality, surely fits that criterion. Having started the novel twice but made little progress, perhaps the time has come to revisit Victor Hugo?

A long walk through slow journalism


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Any consumer of news and current affairs can attest to the pace of the modern news cycle. Relentless 24-hour rolling news drives events as much as it reports them. We are given instant analysis, reportage merging with commentary and new angles to retain our interest in a story when the first flush has died. There sometimes exists a formulaic approach to news that can feed cynicism against media organisations. Why is it that some stories get told while others don’t?

The idea of breaking this mindset is hugely appealing, as are the voices who decide to do things a little differently. Paul Salopek has just embarked on one of the most ambitious projects imaginable, journalistic or otherwise. His Out of Eden Walk will retrace step by step, the path of our ancestors out of Africa roughly 60,000 years ago, producing slow journalism for National Geographic as he traverses a route across the Middle East, Asia and America over the next seven years.

This would still be an interesting project for an adventurer or professional traveller but the fact that it is being undertaken by a journalist signals something quite radical. There is a chance to hear stories that are passed over by the mainstream media, to look at the world on such a small scale that it just might reveal something larger about us all.

Brideshead Reviewed


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It’s taken more time than I would have liked to get back blogging in 2013 so before the first month ends….

I took the opportunity of some extended reading time over the Christmas break to finally finish Evelyn Waugh’s modern classic Brideshead Revisited. Like many readers, I came to the novel through the lovingly faithful ITV adaptation from 1981. (Incidentally, when it comes to adaptations, I tend to favour the faithful over poetic licence – Peter Jackson will find no criticism from this quarter for his slavish devotion to Middle Earth’s every micro-drama).

In the Preface to the Penguin edition, Waugh describes the novel’s theme as

the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters

It is an inescapably, unapologetically Catholic work. It may even be said that Waugh writes with the assurance and zeal of the convert that he was. Outwardly glamorous but inwardly dysfunctional, his Flyte family represents a disappearing world of landed privilege which enchants the narrator, Charles Ryder, from his first glimpse of their stately home, Brideshead. As the novel progresses, each of the Flytes must endure their own battle of conscience with the demands of the Faith, which in turn dictates the direction of their lives. From the distant Lady Marchmain to the youngest daughter Cordelia, their responses to life’s major events – love, death, family, friendship – can only be read through the lens of their faith.

As for Charles, in much the same way that Nick Carraway is close to events but forever an outsider, he observes but is never truly part of the circle. Intoxicated (literally, for much of the Oxford years) by a lifestyle and the exotic ‘otherness’ of the Flytes’ Catholicism, he falls in love, firstly with deceptively whimsical Sebastian and later the beautiful sister Julia.

As one of the central themes of the novel, much has been made of the nature of the relationship between Sebastian and Charles, and whether or not there was a homosexual element to it. Certainly Waugh uses the world ‘love’ to describe how Charles felt about his college friend. Yet the case for romantic or sexual love is much clearer and explicit in his feelings for Julia. There is no doubt that Charles cares deeply for Sebastian and is drawn to his singular, physical beauty. Together they share a few intense, formative years of discovery and indulgence as they mature into adulthood. But the love that Charles feels for both Sebastian and Julia can be read as a meditation on the depth and nature of love itself. There is more than one way to love another person and not all love is rooted in the sexual. Unfortunately, modern Western culture tends to represent love in this restricted way, reducing the power of Platonic love. With an overtly gay character in the form of Anthony Blanche, in addition to his own homosexual experiences in Oxford, I’m not convinced that Waugh was merely being coy about the true nature of Sebastian and Charles’ relationship.

Memory, as much as religion, is at the heart of Brideshead. As an older man looking back on his youth, Charles’ reflections are a poignant mix of disappointment and redemption, the distilling of a lifetime’s experience into – what? Lessons learned? Opportunities missed? Relationships (un)fulfilled? By the time the novel concludes, the overwhelming message is that all our actions must be directed to some higher end and the demands of conscience must be satisfied above earthly pleasures.

Brideshead Revisited is a portrait of a very particular type of Englishness, which occasionally strays into sycophantic mythologising of the upper classes in the inter-war “Big House’ period. Nevertheless, it is commendable for elucidating very grand themes with comparative brevity that asks reflection of the reader.

An ITV ‘talking-heads’ retrospective on the series has been uploaded to You Tube here and is worth a look if you have an hour to spare.

The problem with revisionism


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So, as a direct follow-on from the last post, I was intrigued by Michael Moynihan’s article for The Daily Beast which attacks Oliver Stone’s new collaboration with Professor Peter Kuznick on an alternative history of the US, The Untold History of the United States.

I do not have the expertise on US history to engage with the merits of Moynihan’s critique of the book (and he is scathing of it) but I am interested in the broader issue of revisionism and how past events are interpreted. His criticism of ex post facto reasoning can be levelled at academics and commentators irrespective of discipline or nationality. And there is a particular relevance here in Ireland given that we are embarking on a “decade of commemoration” (click the link for an excellent overview of the rationale for commemoration).

Our “decade” refers to 1912-1922, the period in which modern Ireland emerged, fighting for its independence from British rule. Interestingly, perhaps a measure of continuing sensitivities, our Civil War period (which carried into 1923) is excluded from this official “decade”. Given that we are now in a (mostly) peaceful political state north and south, there is an opportunity to reflect on that revolutionary period without the overt parallels to the Provisional IRA campaign which influenced historical interpretation throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The interesting question is the extent to which historians can engage with historical facts and events without bringing political ideology to bear. Is this possible or realistic? Can facts be neutral or are they always open to interpretation? Is it possible or even desirable to have a settled or consensus view of the past? And, at the risk of sounding elitist, do non-academics like Oliver Stone have the skills to write authoritatively about a subject in which they have no particular qualification? Certainly there is a recent trend for populist history – note BBC political journalist and English graduate Andrew Marr’s modestly titled A History of the World, with accompanying eight part BBC TV series.

It seems to me that a reader, viewer or listener must bear in mind the context in which a particular historical event is being discussed and the motivation of those discussing it. That is not to dismiss out of hand those views with which we do not agree but to acknowledge that, just as the past is important in explaining our present, the complexity of history is in shifting interpretations.

New tablet, new world


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Last week, after much deliberation, I bought my first touch screen device of any kind. Early adopter I am not, but having made the decision to buy a Google Nexus 7, I am in love with this piece of technology.

But this post isn’t really about tablets. It’s about discovery.

By familiarising myself with some reading apps, especially the beautifully formatted Google Currents, I’ve opened up a new world of online content. Admittedly the focus is very much US orientated, with some good editions from British publishers. It may be some time before the Irish media catches up, especially on the Android platform, but I live in hope.

I’ve previously written about the inertia that comes from too much online choice but one of the benefits of a good reader app is the ability to create a stream of information on areas of interest without the noise and self-absorption found on Twitter. And without the hassle of daily checking multiple websites. I know this is not news to anyone remotely tech-minded but it has been revolutionary for me.

And so this next post is directly inspired by an article which I would not otherwise have found…

Bonding with Bond


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As a long-time watcher of the Bond series, I can’t say I’ve felt sorry for James Bond since the George Lazenby iteration lost his new bride to an evil villain. Bond doesn’t usually inspire sympathy nor empathy. Daniel Craig’s first tilt at the role in Casino Royale saw him bring a detached, almost charmless cold streak to the world’s oldest spy, albeit with some emotion shoehorned into the final scenes. Worse, there was a distinct feeling of playing catch-up in a landscape changed by Jason Bourne. So successful were Matt Damon and co. that I began to wonder whether Bond could ever become relevant or be taken seriously again.

Well, Skyfall has managed it. And more.

Craig has a sense of self-awareness without the camp theatricality of Roger Moore’s eyebrow antics. He looks and feels old for the first time. He’s out of his depth, vulnerable. The anachronism of a old-fashioned spy in a digital age has never been clearer. But I enjoyed how Sam Mendes and the team faced this down with a full scale return to the old-fashioned. It’s partly due to the 50th anniversary celebrations, but nevertheless, Skyfall is a defiant restatement of Bond and his methods. And of course all things British; Union Jacks, Range Rover and Barbour.

Of course Bond isn’t Bond without a diabolical villain (a neat summary from BBC’s Mark Kermode can be found here). Javier Bardem is evilly creepy with just enough pantomime to keep it Bond-like.

Craig is a great Bond, different in style but up there with Sean Connery. The rugged realism feels right and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here. The series is back on track and with an edge it previously lacked.

James Bond will return.