More books :)

I’ve been on holiday for a few weeks; and while I was mostly doing other things, I did get the chance to do some reading. In no particular order:

The Night Circus

Is in some ways a lovely, ethereal book. It tells the story of a mysterious, haunting circus with wondrous performers, open only at night; that serves as the setting for two magicians, competing in an enormous challenge.

There are beautiful passages, and it evokes a world that’s entrancing and enchanting. Frustratingly though, there seems to be very little by way of plot to drive the story; at times it feels as though the plot device is just a convenient reason to bring together interesting characters in interesting locales, rather than a driving question in its own right. But it’s an entrancing world the author creates, and it’s a lovely read.


This was the first Gore Vidal I’ve read, and I enjoyed it. It tells the story of a small group of elite, powerful figures at the turn of the twentieth century in the US. But as well as telling the story of a small group of people, it tells the story of a major change in the US – what Vidal thinks of as the transition of the US from a republic to an empire, as the country acquires the Philippines, after the Spanish-American War. As he tells the story of this change through his characters (a Secretary of State, major newspaper proprietors, and a few other figures), the shadow of Lincoln looms large; a man with a different vision for the country (it made me want to read more on him).

Vidal also touches on how media shapes elections, and how party machines and political classes relate to the masses. There’s a limit to how much he can squeeze in (and the absence of any characters that aren’t part of the ruling elite is noticeable); but even as he paints real characters, and tells genuine stories about people (their loves and losses), he gives a sense of a historical tableau against which the action takes place. Populist movements, corruption, newspaper demagoguery – it’s all there.

I don’t have the historical knowledge to judge how well Vidal writes historical fiction, or whether there are major aspects he’s missed. But it’s a well told story, set in a fascinating period.

This is actually the first I’ve read by Gore Vidal, and I quite enjoyed it.

The Plantagenets 

Dan Jones’ book is a chronological account of the kings of England, from Henry II (mid twelfth century) to Henry IV (the start of the fifteenth). The book is very much a ‘great man of history’ narrative; it lists each king, the characters around them, and their rise (and falls). Inevitably, because of that, it misses major trends, and at times it can feel as though the context is quite absent. The Black Death is dealt with in a few pages, and its impact (for example, on labour markets) in a few lines.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable that Jones focuses on the few central characters in such a sweeping narrative on such a broad topic. But at times it can feel almost cursory, more a list of characters and events rather than a real insight into how key events took place. Some of his descriptions of the rise and fall of particular kings seem to depend simply on animal spirits. Maybe the historical material isn’t there, and I recognise there are some things we may never know; but at times the writing can feel a little lazy. After explaining how Richard II the second abruptly assumed more power at the age of II, and made several changes to key positions, Jones writes: ‘This could have been a disaster. But it was not.’

For all that, it’s a good introduction to the topic; and if you like history, it’s not a bad airplane read.

How are we to live

I’ve been disappointed before by Peter Singer, and this book unfortunately only reinforces that. The title is an interesting one, and the questions he asks are important ones. For all that, I wouldn’t recommend this at all; I found it sloppy and disorganised, and it felt at times as though he were rambling.

One of the central problems for me was that Singer barely touches on meta-ethics. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing here; but I think that if you’re having a conversation (or giving advice) on living ethically, there has to be some kind of discussion on what ethics is, or why it applies to people. Why should I, as a reader, care? I think that’s fairly central. Singer flounders around the topic a little, waxing lyrical on why evolution may encourage altruism (more on that below), or the benefits to an individual of being good. Neither of which, to my mind, is a very persuasive argument.

Singer does, in his very final chapters, touch briefly on a slightly more substantive response to the question:

The possibility of being led, by reasoning, to the point of view of the universe [he defines this in loose terms earlier in the discussion] provides as much ‘objectivity’ as there can be. When my ability to reason shows me that the suffering of another being is very similar to my own suffering and (in an appropriate case) matters just as much to that other being as my own suffering matters to me, then my reason is showing me something that is undeniably true [emphasis original].  I can still choose to ignore it, but then I can no longer deny that my perspective is a narrower, and more limited one, than it could be. This may not be enough to yield an objectively true ethical position … But it is as close to an objective basis for ethics as there is to find.

I think what he argues there is broadly correct; I came to a similar view from reading the dense but rewarding Reason and Morality, by Alan Gewirth.

Without this discussion of why we should care for others (how to get from the ‘is’ of everyday life to the ‘ought’ of a normative statement), then I think much of what Singer says is unfounded, and useless if he is trying to make the case for ethics as guiding principles for how we should live. So for that reason, and because his writing seems to be more a set of ideas he’s had that poured onto the page rather than a set of well thought through ideas, I was disappointed.

As a quick aside, I wanted to mention that while he references evolutionary theory, in this book at least Singer doesn’t seem to have fully grasped some of the material, or its implications. He mentions ‘stotting‘, as one of a number of altruistic behaviours, but my understanding is that its cause is still somewhat uncertain, and could potentially be advantageous for animals in some cases. More broadly, his discussion of evolutionary drivers of altruism (i.e. caring for close relatives) felt confused; simply saying that it can be ethical even with an evolutionary driver is true, but doesn’t really address the broader question, of how we should treat people who aren’t related.

I still hope that if I read something like The Expanding Circle, I’ll find something compelling in Singer’s writing, but How are we to live isn’t one I’d recommend.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I bought this quickly at a bus-stop, worried I’d run out of reading material on a long bus-trip. It’s a good read, although nothing brilliant. I think it’s also worth adding a trigger warning; this book touches briefly on child abuse, in a way that felt somehow discordant with the rest of the novel, which was much lighter. That note rang false; and to a certain extent the whole device of a precocious youth going through a significant formative period felt as though it was relying a little too much on ideas we’ve imbibed from popular culture, rather than doing the hard work of character building. But it’s a fun read.

Actually, on reflection – the other thing I found interesting about this was how much it relied on a context that feels extremely familiar to me, even though I’ve never been there – a middle class, suburban American high school. In that sense, it joins a long line of coming of age stories in that setting; it’s probably one of the better ones.

Loser takes all

I’ve loved Graham Greene’s writing for a long time, and this book reminded me why. In a very short piece, he builds a world, a set of characters, and tells a story about love, about wealth, and about how we think about God. Definitely worth reading, even if it is one of his light pieces written as entertainment.

Let your life speak: listening for the voice of vocation

This is a collection of essays by Parker J. Palmer on the topic of vocation. Overall I found it slightly fluffy, with a tendency towards vague, emotional statements rather than clear advice. Maybe there are some things that you have to experience first hand; but overall it wasn’t terribly insightful.

There were a few useful points though. Palmer reflects on the importance of vocation, of being guided by one’s skills and strengths, and I think that’s important. Things can work much better when there’s a natural fit between your strengths and the work you’re doing.

Edge of Tomorrow/All you need is kill

I found this on the bookshelf of a hotel in a small New Zealand town, but really enjoyed it. Sakurazaka tells a story that’s interesting and fun to read. Like most time travel (not really, but sort of) novels, you could poke some holes if you tried hard enough, but given his story, nothing seems too implausible or internally incoherent. In the space he takes he tells a quick love story, a strong action story, and has fun doing it.

Other movies

I’ve been on holiday for a while, and I’ve had the chance to see a few movies (I’ve just written about Gone Girl in a separate post).

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was fun. Well shot, with a gripping story. Although it ends bleakly (perhaps seeing the related movies would have given me more context), I enjoyed it.

The Hedgehog: ‘freely inspired’ by the novel (which I enjoyed), the movie’s whimsical, and fun. It ends as dramatically as the book.

Mockingjay: Having heard a quite negative review of this one, I was surprised to find myself somewhat moved by some of the scenes in this one. I agree, though, that it doesn’t have as much material as it could. I might have cared a little more about the love triangle if I’d seen the previous movie.

Watching Gone Girl

I read (and enjoyed) Gone Girl a while ago, at a friend’s recommendation. I’ve just finished watching the movie this evening (I’ve watched a few others recently that I’m hoping to comment on, but those’ll have to wait). I don’t know if it was following the story a second time, or if it was the differences in the movie narrative, but it felt quite different in the movie. I’ll try to unpack that a little more below [SPOILER ALERT: I’ll try to avoid the main bits, but inevitably I’ll be discussing plot points].

So, first of all, the good stuff. It’s a well done movie. It takes a complex narrative in a rich book, and transposes large chunks of it effectively onto the screen. In what is effectively a complex plot, told from multiple vantage points, the movie carries the audience well – I don’t think there was a point where people would have been lost, even amidst the clues and murder mystery multiple hypothesis. So that was well done. (Although, as I read Christopher Orr’s review, I think he’s right; the first person prose is a strength of the book that’s hard to translate to the movie).

Another element which came out well – perhaps even better than in the book – was the portrayal of the media. Emotionally distant but keen to stir up passion in others, the camera-men hound Nick throughout his ordeal, but are happy to see him when the narrative flips, and he’s no longer a villain. The movie does a good job of reminding that what shows up on a screen is a thin surface slice of a deeper reality. As I mentioned to someone when I left the cinema; the story could almost be thought of as a writer pondering what might lurk beneath the perfect relationships that show up on TV, and then imagining the worst scenario possible.

Having said which, I left the cinema feeling slightly disconcerted, and I’ve been trying to think why. What follows are a few of my musings – I’m still piecing them together.

One thing that’s unusual is that the villain in Gone Girl is machiavellian to a degree that seems almost implausible in any normal human that isn’t Frank Underwood. Certainly not every character has to be a realistic or plausible individual psychologically; but the degree of calculated planning seemed unusual to me, to the extent that it detracted somewhat from the story (both the book and the movie). As an article in The Guardian comments on Gillian Flynn’s novels, ‘her lurid plots make no claim to social realism’. Part of the tension of the narrative is how it examines the multiple viewpoints, the differences in a collapsing relationship (marriage); but it’s blended with a complex murder mystery, and very calculated violence is present throughout. So it made me laugh when I read when Christopher Orr’s description of the opening scene:

“The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” The voice is Ben Affleck’s, and the image on the screen is the back of a woman’s head resting on a pillow—his wife’s head. She is blonde, and even before she turns to face the camera, we know she will be beautiful. (She is, after all, played by Rosamund Pike.) It all might make for a touching opening to the film Gone Girl, if only Affleck’s conjugal musings did not take this unpromising turn: “I imagine cracking open her head, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers.” Umm, maybe better just to ask?

A second thing that felt different, on reflection, between the movie and the book is that the book features more of Amy’s voice. There is her struggle, as a child, as her parents set the impossibly high standard of ‘Amazing Amy’. There’s the passion and tenderness, as she and Nick fall in love, and then the disappointment, more gradual and building, as they fall out of that. That felt lost in the movie. There are a few scenes, but they’re not as important. Instead it mostly follows Nick – he’s the sympathetic character, the one we follow. The conclusion, too, felt more balanced between Nick and Amy in the book, their flaws and actions reflecting each other; in the movie I felt it was a little more sympathetic towards Nick.

That imbalance between the voices, particularly compared to the book, is important too, when thinking about the last point, the big one. Misogyny in Gone Girl[SPOILER ALERT: From here on out I may talk through some of the plot points in much more detail]. 

Thinking on it, as I came out of the cinema, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, Gone Girl is essentially the story of two people, Nick and Amy. Even if it paints Amy as cold, manipulative and without feeling, and Nick as lazy, bumbling, and inconsiderate, it’s only talking about two people. There inevitably are relationships where the woman may be more machiavellian, the man more inconsiderately selfish. So in that sense, perhaps it’s unfair to label something that’s only about two people, as sexist.

But at the same time, it felt to me that the detailed intricacies of the murder mystery aside, Gone Girl is in large part about marriage, a story of a man and woman falling out of love. There’s a point in the movie where Nick and Amy laugh about ‘those couples’, where the woman treats her partner like ‘a monkey’, and the man treats his wife like ‘the highway patrol’ (presumably avoiding scrutiny). The two characters laugh about it, and how stupid a way of relating it is between adults.

Later on, though, in telling the story, Gone Girl seems to rely on that very trope, of a conflict where the woman is trying to force the man to live up to her standards, and all he wants to do is relax and look after his own needs. And that bothered me; while there may be relationships that are like that, I felt as though the movie depended a lot on that short-hand to do some of the heavy lifting.

I did a little more searching, and it seems there are mixed opinions. One article argued that Flynn’s characters re-appropriate violence against women. Another article I found quite interesting listed all the sexist tropes/themes to which the movie appeals, and argued based on a detailed reading of how the director David Fincher framed his shots, that Gone Girl is ‘the most feminist mainstream movie in years’. An article in the Washington Post wondered if Amy was simultaneously a misandrist and a misogynist. A BBC critic argued that the movie didn’t do justice to the book (I agree; perhaps it couldn’t?), and that ‘you could call that vision misogynistic’; a Vanity Fair article said it had ‘a strong whiff of misogyny’.

The best review, though, I thought was one over at Vulture. It’s worth reading in full, but the line I liked is:

… as a devoted fan of the book, I will say this about the movie, which Flynn wrote the screenplay for herself: Somehow it took a story about the worst impulses of a straight woman and turned it into a feature-length film about a dopey man. That is not misogyny, exactly, but it is a problem. 

Obviously there is no single, perfect yardstick that all films need to measure up against (although the Bechtel test isn’t a bad rule of thumb, I think). But on balance, I think that although I liked the book a lot, I wouldn’t recommend the movie. It distorts the voices of the two characters (perhaps inevitably, given the material and the constraints of the different formats), in a way that means that Amy is heard much less in the movie, than she was in the book.

And yes, there are some arguments that in portraying the problems with how women are projected onto by family (Amazing Amy), partners (Nick), and broader society, that Gone Girl shows what can go wrong. But to my mind while you can look for that if you find it, that’s not a prominent feature; most of this movie is about Nick, and his story, and being outside Amy’s head and not understanding what drives her leaves us with only tired old tropes to fall back on when we try to understand her.

Books and TV shows

I like to think of myself as a reader – someone who devours books. But sometimes our self image isn’t always accurate.

So it’s with a little chagrin that I say I’ve been binge-watching – and enjoying – Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’ve watched about twelve episodes over the last week. They’re fun, and easy to relax to.

I don’t like that the show has its sexist moments, and that it largely centres on a white, goofy teenager. It’s not brilliant, and it won’t be remembered a few decades from now. But it’s fun to watch.

The other thing I’ve been enjoying is The Night Circus. It’s a good read. At times the strange, ethereal air that the writer’s working so hard on gets a little frustrating. It tends to meander a little, too; after a strong introduction, the sense of urgency in the plot fizzles, and it feels as though as the reader, I’m the only one interested in the narrative question (who will win out of two dueling magicians?), and that for the author and characters, it’s just a convenient excuse to explore new scenery. But for all that, it’s a good read, and I’m enjoying it.

China’s airlines

I read China Airborne a little while ago; the central thesis of which was that the ability to manufacture modern passenger aircraft at a level that’s competitive with current manufacturers, is a crucial test of China’s ability to modernise. A key indicator.

So it was interesting to see an article by John Lee, arguing similarly that a) the airline test is a good one, and b) so far, there’s a significant failure. Worth a read.