Articles I’ve been reading

In no particular order:

  • George Monbiot on celebrity is an interesting read, and I found it somewhat thought provoking.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates is always worth reading. Most recently, in My President was Black at (where else) The Atlantic. I’ve been reading Democracy for Realists (more on that to come) which includes a short discussion of how religious identity was a factor in JFK’s election. There are obviously important differences, and I’m not equating the two, but there are some interesting parallels.

Rogue One

In Episode VI of Star Wars, (‘Return of the Jedi’), one of the Rebel leaders says ‘Many Bothans died to bring us this information’.

While that doesn’t apply to Rogue One, which is a prequel to Episode IV (‘A new hope’), it is a beautiful attempt to take a single back story (some spies got the plans), and exploding into a full scale movie.

It also feels greyer and more morally complex than any other Star Wars pieces I’ve seen. Spies are confused and risk doing the wrong thing, simply because they don’t have the right information. They have to make difficult decisions under uncertain conditions. Tempers flare. Sometimes it’s not clear what the right choice is, even if they wanted to do the right thing.

The movie is interesting, too, in that it’s about a resistance to an occupying force. Some of the earlier scenes in the movie, where an Imperial tank is attacked by Rebels, feel like they could be set in a Middle Eastern city being occupied by Western forces.

And of course, there’s the re-edits. I’m not sure what the full story is on that. It’s interesting to think how different the movie might have been with a different final cut; it felt like it struggled at points to balance attempts at humour with a grittier feel. Suffice to say that if there’s a director’s cut, I’ll actually be interested in seeing this one.

But the one that it’s in cinemas is worth watching, if you like the Star Wars franchise. Less so as a stand alone.


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

GF and I have been enjoying reading Miss Peregrine‘s Home for Peculiar Children together. These are some of my notes –
When Jacob was a young boy, his grandfather used to tell him stories of peculiar children, with fantastic abilities. Now he’s a teenager, and more than anything else he wants to leave the boredom of American suburbia, and go on adventures.
His hopes are realised in the worst way possible, when his grandfather is horribly killed. From there, though, it takes a while for the plot to take off – there are steps back and forth, hither and thither, until eventually Jacob makes it to the scene of the action (an island off the coast of England). Here, as Jacob stumbles through the moors, it can feel a little as though we’re wandering aimlessly; the middle portion of the story sags under the weight of exposition without the narrative development to hold it together.
In the end, though, the story takes off. Jacob finds the peculiar children, makes a huge choice about his own life, and fights a monstrous villain. The end? Well, I can’t tell you, because it ends on a cliff hanger and we haven’t read the next one.
Part of the charm of the book is the photographs, scattered throughout it. In an afterword, Ransom Riggs explains that they’re real photographs. Drawn from the collections of people who collect old photographs, often acquired with no explanation or context. It’s an interesting addition to a young reader fiction.
Worth reading if you’re feeling a gap in your life after the end of the Harry Potter series, although I wouldn’t say that it’s quite at the same level.

Player of Games

I started the Culture series by Ian Banks a little while ago. The first one was utterly disappointing. But I thought I’d give Player of Games a go. It wasn’t worth it, really.

It was a little more gripping, and I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. But ultimately, reading this stuff is like eating popcorn – what’s the point?

Player of Games follows … someone, I forget his name. He’s very good at games. An international super star, at all types. But then Banks has to cast around for some element of conflict, to drive the plot. This, fundamentally, is the problem with his setting – we have no idea what a multi-planet post-scarcity society might look like, but even assuming it’s possible, if there is no conflict, that leaves a writer who needs conflict to drive plot high and dry.

So Banks introduces a drone with a grudge at the Minds that kicked it out of the special service. It’s not much, but it’s enough to kick the plot along. Throw in a semi-plausible aspiration that an international super-star game player might have if offered the chance to cheat to win something incredible, and it’s enough to keep things rolling.

From there, our protagonist goes to another planet, where they all build their entire society around a very complex game. What is the game? Great question. I have no idea, despite having read the book, because Banks doesn’t tell us. He does tell us that the game is rich, and complex, and like life itself; but he only tells us, he never really shows us anything that might persuade us of that. So instead we have to rely on frustratingly vague third-hand accounts, of how the protagonist is feeling, when we get those. Assuming that ‘the game’ is really exciting and interesting (I’m unpersuaded), this is a bit like hearing a radio broadcast of a tennis match through a whisper game chain.

The final conflict Banks sets up is between the protagonist, representative of the peaceful calm of the Culture, and the cruel, hierarchical selfishness of the empire he visits. From there, some stuff happens but honestly it’s boring and hard to care about. If you like the other Culture books, you may enjoy this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend this at all.

Annie Hall

Annie Hall has a strong critical reputation. It’s the piece where Woody Allen became more serious, it’s won multiple awards, and it’s a creature very much of its time. All those things are true, and it’s worth watching.

[SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be talking about the ending]

But as I was watching it, I couldn’t help think of Scrubs, and the way it insisted on playing on its character’s inner life – his inability to remain in the moment. Even though Annie Hall breaks the fourth wall a little, it’s mostly for the purposes of stepping inside Alvy Singer’s head. Similarly, throughout, the Scrubs series was a game about what was happening inside JD’s head.

Annie Hall tells the story of a young man, trying to remember what went wrong with his relationship. He flashes back to the start of the relationship, and as it progresses, he is constantly looking away, looking at us, talking to us and himself, trying to understand what went wrong. The resolution, really, is when the narrator and protagonist collide and become one, in a Los Angeles parking lot. He slams his car back and forth, out of control, and we realise he is still, at heart, the young boy who played dodgem cars on Cooney Island. In that moment, though, there’s something that takes him to the other side – where he can be happy, and peaceful, about the end of his relationship with Annie Hall.

It’s a funny movie, and worth watching as a reference point to compare to later Woody Allen pieces.

Oh – and of course, we end the movie seeing Woody Allen directing a play about his relationship, but one with a happy ending.

Finishing To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s been a while since GF and I read To Kill a Mockingbird (earlier instalments 1, 2 and 3). It’s been quite a while since we finished reading it, but a few life things happened along the way. So, here are some notes from quite a while ago

Notes on Chapters 11-13

Calpurnia stands apart from her peers in an interesting way, as does Atticus, because of their use of (and careful precision with) language. She’s an interesting character; almost ageless, as Scout wonders how old she is.. She may have been a slave, but treated differently by the Finch’s, which helps explain her loyalty to them.

The visit to the church was an interesting segment. I think one thing Lee may have been saying is that every group has members that don’t reflect well on it.

Cheesy, perhaps – but is the scrubbing before they go to church a metaphor for removing expectations or preconceptions? Or is it an interesting contrast in that even though the Finchs are higher up the hierarchy, Calpurnia is fastidious about how the Finch children will present at her church. Once they’re there, Scout doesn’t explicitly make a better or worse comparison between the two churches.

I think it’s interesting as well that the ability of the Finch children to just show up to Calpurnia’s church shows real privilege; that’s something that Calpurnia’s children or nieces and nephews could never do – show up to the Finch church without thought of the consequences.

The rest of the book

So on finishing TKAM, I’m reminded how good it is. It’s been years since I read it, and so it’s nice to go back.

One of the things I enjoyed was how Lee wove together the different strands quite effectively at the end. The story of Boo Radley comes together with Bob Ewell’s response to the trial.

It’s interesting to think about how Atticus responds to all this. For me that was quite a striking moment. Atticus, throughout the trial, has maintained his insistence on the appropriate observance of the law. Because it’s the right thing to do, in that case, but also because the legal framework is an important institution.

But in that confrontation on the balcony, between him and the sheriff, we see him back down on something that is fundamental to him. Which I found surprising, and interesting. Not that I think he necessarily made the wrong decision. I think the arguments for why Boo Radley shouldn’t get dragged through a trial are quite possibly sound; but for Atticus to assent to that, was quite interesting to me.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the role Scout plays in the novel. As a narrator, she’s essential. Lee uses her naive viewpoint very effectively, to give us a stripped-back, simple view of a complex social world, that in some ways serves to highlight what’s wrong or strange about the town she lives in.

I’ve also been thinking, though, about what it is that changes for Scout. I’m a big believer in protagonists that make difficult choices that reveal something about their character. But as I think back on the novel, Scout doesn’t really make any choices. The protagonists that do make choices are Atticus (in choosing to defend an innocent man, when the town holds him guilty) and Boo Radley (who ventures out of his safe house to rescue the children he thinks of as his own). For Scout, maybe the transformative moment is when she sees Boo Radley as someone to be cared for, not someone to be feared. She takes his hand, and helps him home.

At the movies

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

I enjoyed Fantastic beasts. Visually, it’s stunning – beautiful shot after beautiful shot of weird, mysterious creatures. The kind of thing that makes you want to believe in magic again.

The story follows Newt Scamandar. Ostensibly, he’s in the United States to try and set free a mysterious, magical creature he’d found captured and trafficked. Ultimately, though, Newt’s real purpose is to be a walking plot trigger; everywhere he goes his suitcase spills out magical creatures, bringing together strange events and plot points. So that over the course of the movie, he:

  • Is arrested by a would-be auror,
  • Almost executed, and
  • Almost killed by an Obscurus.

Throughout, though, he isn’t really making choices; or, it’s hard to think of them. He just stumbles from one thing to the next. It would have felt a little more … convincing, I suppose, if he’d had some deep connection with the characters around him, some desire for them, or if he’d had some driving motivation.

For all that, though, it’s a fun piece. It’s an interesting example of how ‘media’ can be used as a chorus, to fill in the story. It opens with newspapers flickering past, telling us the back-story we need to know about an evil wizard, so that any subsequent appearances by him or his minions won’t be without context.

The original Harry Potter books and movies, from memory, had a strong focus on the spell-casting as an incantation; waving the wand and uttering the right words were the crucial aspects. In the movie, though, any kind of vocalisation is dispensed with; wands are like guns – you fire / wave them, and bolts of lightening / telekinesis / rays of light follow.

Bad Santa 

Bad Santa opens with two criminals in a bar, celebrating their successful heist. What are they going to do with the rewards? Well, Billy Bob Thornton wants to move to Florida and find … domestic tranquility – a home, a wife, a child.

Except it doesn’t work out that way. His move to Florida just leaves him a bum, kicked out of a bar and (successfully) stealing valet keys. So when his friend calls him for another heist, it’s the gift he needs.

On the way though, he stumbles on to what he actually needed all along. In taking advantage of a clueless boy, he becomes a father figure to him. He finds the relationship he always wanted with a woman who has a fetish for Santa, and together they live the idiot boy’s classy home, squatters while his father is in jail.

It’s a weird, parallel universe, and one that you imagine can’t survive. So it feels like a return to form when he goes in for the final heist with his accomplice, defrauding the mall he’s been a Santa in. But when his friend turns on him, it’s his new family (specifically, a confession letter he left with his idiot son that draws the cops) that saves him.

The film’s irreverent, and revels in a particular kind of humour. But if you squint hard enough, you can see something like a plot structure underneath it all, which probably contributes to how watchable it is. Worth if it if you think the trailer looks funny.