Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More book reviews - decisions and secrets

Blink - Malcom Gladwell
S is for Silence - Sue Grafton

The premise of Blink is that human beings are good at making instantaneous and generally quite accurate decisions based on very little information. In some cases, apparently, when we have more information, the accuracy of our decisions does not increase along with the rise in information available. Gladwell introduces a number of examples - marriage guidance counsellors who can tell from tiny snippets of film whether a couple's marriage will survive, tasters who can instantly tell whether re-used ingredients have been used, doctors who use a simple algorithm to determine whether a patient presenting symptoms of heart attack is at real risk - and writes very entertainingly.

However, he has a tendency to repetition, as though the book was based on a series of lectures, and some inclusions, while interesting, don't exactly agree with the conclusions he draws. The highly accurate "snap decision", however, seems to be only possible if the person presented with the data and is making the decision is an expert; but Gladwell maintains that even untrained people could make a good guess based on tiny snippets of information.

It's an interesting book (similar in style to the misnamed Freakonomics, which is more about statistics than economics), and would be good for discussions after reading it, but Gladwell doesn't seem to make any real point in his book.

The second book is completely different, being the latest in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" crime series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.). It's something of a departure for her, for although her heroine private eye, Kinsey Millhone, has investigated "cold" cases before (such as the excellent Q is for Quarry), the books have always been written in the first person and from Kinsey's own point of view. S is for Silence includes sections written from others' point of view, and in a past time which Kinsey could not possibly have known about. It's a device that works well in this book, fleshing out some of the incidents that give life to the characters seen only in their youth or from others' recollections.

Kinsey is one of the best-written private investigators around. She doesn't usually muscle in on police cases, and her jobs are realistic. She's an independent woman, ageing naturally through the series (she's thirty-seven in this book, set mostly in 1987), sometimes prickly, sometimes critical, but always humane and likeable.

I'd recommend almost any of Sue Grafton's books (though I haven't read the first few) - they are interesting, well-written, and not repetitious. It's not necessary to have read the others to enjoy the latest (though, like any series character, it's better if you've made the journey from A already), and it's refreshing to read a series which is not sadistic serial-killer fare (Reichs, Cornwell) and whose central character is a tough, practical and realistic woman.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Charles and Eddie

I was browsing iTunes today (mainly to pick up the latest podcast of The Now Show which is back on Radio 4), and I tried to find Charles and Eddie's fantastic 1992 hit, "Would I Lie to You?" Nothing. About nine different versions of the Eurythmics' song of the same name, but not the one I was looking for. So here's a YouTube posting of their video - forget the images though, it's a very hokey video, and listen to the tune...

I was also looking for Fiona Apple's cover of the Beatles' "Across the universe", which was on the soundtrack to "Pleasantville", but that doesn't appear to be on iTunes, either, despite the presence of Apple's albums and several versions of the song by other people ...

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Anton Bruckner Choir concert - tomorrow

Tomorrow marks my first concert with Anton Bruckner Choir. So I won't feel able to review it, later. Still, we're singing a mixture of music old - Taverner's Western Wind Mass, and Leroy Kyrie; Robert White's Christe, qui lux es et dies - and more modern - Herbert Howells' Take him earth for cherishing, Let God arise, Here is the little door, Salve regina, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Collegium Regale), and Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.

I feel it's a good juxtaposition of 16th and 20th century music, and the variety in Howells' works is interesting, from the aching longing of Like as the hart, the strident, Stanford-like Let God arise, to the moving and beautiful Take him, earth for cherishing, which was written for President Kennedy's memorial service, but was inspired by his son's early death.

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Book review - The Shadow of the Sun

This is a book about Africa, in all its variety and puzzling contradictions. For a European, Ryszard Kapuscinski manages to get into the African mindset very easily, and he writes with great compassion and understanding.

The book is a series of vignettes, stretching over time from the late 1950s, in African countries alive with hope at the beginning of independence, to the 1990s. Kapuscinski first went to Africa in 1957, and was eager to try getting a real sense of what it was to be African, and not merely experience the surface of the continent. He made the point, early on in his career as a journalist, that his country (Poland) was always oppressed, and that Poles knew something of the domination of other countries, but to Africans he was a white man, a symbol of colonialism, something superior. As the book progresses, in roughly chronological order, the sense of the white man as superior is something that gradually became lost (telling recounted in the chapter Madame Diuf is Coming Home).

Along the way are terrifying brushes with coups, disease, thirst and ambush, as well as evocative and beautiful descriptions of places that Kapuscinski clearly came to love. People come to life, also places, in prose wonderfully translated into English by Klara Glowczewska. His travels take place mostly in sub-Saharan Africa pre- and post-independence, and countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. He makes no overt political points, and is always admirably clear-sighted, both about Europeans who colonised and now visit Africa, and about Africans themselves. It's easy to see, from his writing, that there have been several repeating trends through many African countries, from starry-eyed independence to dictatorship and disillusionment, but he gently points out that this is partly the result of the European powers carving up many different tribes, nations and kingdoms into only a few countries, leading to racial or tribal tensions within a single country, as well as the mindset of Africans themselves.

I doubt whether anyone not an African can really understand what it means to be African, but Kapuscinski takes us very far down that road.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A feminist fairy tale?

I was sent this post as an email recently:

This is the fairy tale that we should have been reading as little girls!

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a beautiful, independent, self-assured princess happened upon a frog as she sat, contemplating ecological issues on the shores of an unpolluted pond in a verdant meadow near her castle.

A frog hopped into the princess' lap and said: "Elegant Lady, I was once a handsome prince, until an evil witch cast a spell upon me. One kiss from you, however, and I will turn back into the dapper, young Prince that I am and then, my sweet, we can marry and set up housekeeping in your castle with my mother, where you can satisfy my needs, prepare and serve my meals, clean my clothes, bear my children, and forever feel grateful and happy doing so."

That night, as the princess dined sumptuously on lightly sautéed frog's legs seasoned in a white wine, onion and cream sauce, she chuckled and thought to herself:


It makes you laugh, for it subverts the traditional expections of the "fairy tale" quite nicely. There are some points, however, where it falls down.

Firstly, this is still a fairy tale reality where princes can be turned into frogs. Despite what David Blaine proclaims, in this real world, magic is all sleight of hand and misdirection. And princesses are not always beautiful, no matter what small girls think, wearing pretty dresses and lightweight crowns. Think Princess Anne, here, and you're getting my point (though that's not to say that Princess Anne is not an admirable person in many ways).

Secondly, no princess would have to prepare the prince's meals and clean his clothes: that's what servants are for, even now. And no fairy tale ever claimed that the princess would ever have to do that for him. The other bits, however... well, those were always skated over by saying that the couple fell in love.

Thirdly, and this is the point that started me thinking, if the prince has been changed into a frog by magic, isn't the princess in the end actually eating the prince? Which is pretty gross, if you think of it like that. Cannibalism is not necessary, even to make a point.

So, if you want a fairy tale re-told, you can't do better than read the stories and novels of Robin McKinley. McKinley is one of my favourite writers: she has written original fantasy ("The Blue Sword" and "The Hero and the Crown"), and one of the most fantastic vampire novels ever published, "Sunshine", as well as her fairy tale retellings. These include The Princess and the Frog (in which the princess and the frog save each other) and The Twelve Dancing Princesses as short stories; Beauty and the Beast, twice (as "Beauty" and "Rose Daughter"); Sleeping Beauty (as "Spindle's End"); and, most movingly and horrifyingly, in a re-telling of the usually-bowdlerised Donkeyskin, "Deerskin". Not all are in print in the UK, except her most recent books, but most seem to be available from Amazon.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Film review - Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls comes with a clutch of Academy Award and other nominations: it's an adaptation of a Broadway musical telling the story of a sixties' girl group, called the Dreamettes, later The Dreams. Three Detroit friends and singers, Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Larell (Anika Noni Rose) attend a talent show one evening for the chance of a week's residency at the theatre. Although their act goes down well with the crowd, they don't actually win. Instead, they, and Effie's brother C. C. (Keith Robinson), who writes their songs, are offered another chance by an agent, Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) to sing back-up for a more established act, the womanising Jimmy "Thunder" Early (a stunningly be-quiffed Eddie Murphy). Reluctantly, the girls accept this gig, and the story of the Dreamettes begins.

The film charts their rise, as they break through restrictive playlisting practices with the help of Taylor and a lot of dodgily-gained money to gain the top of the pop charts. Along the way, Effie loses it, Deena gets the lead singer gig in place of Effie (leading to a climactic R&B number sung by Hudson which prompted a round of applause in the cinema last night!), a replacement, Michelle, is found (Sharon Leal), and the Dreamettes become Deena Jones and the Dreams as their appeal crosses over to both white and black audiences.

Although the disclaimer at the end of the film states that any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental, this is arrant rubbish. The Dreams are very clearly based on The Supremes, with Deena being a rather nicer Diana Ross, and Effie based on Florence Ballard, with Curtis a thinly disguised Berry Gordy.

As to the performances, well, Murphy and Hudson deserve their acting nominations. Hudson, in particular, given that it's her first film role, and that Effie is such an important character. Beyonce Knowles reputedly lobbied hard for the part of Deena, even performing in costume and with choreography at her audition, though in the film, Deena doesn't actually do very much. Whether this is because Hudson's personality as Effie is so dominant, or whether Deena was meant to be a less important character is unclear. Certainly, her big number at the end of the film, Listen, was written for the film, and didn't form part of the original stage production. Foxx convinces as the morally ambivalent Taylor, who is willing to do almost anything for his groups to succeed, and becomes a control freak. Murphy, too, turns in a well-tuned performance that runs from hyper antics on stage, to depression and drug abuse.

The singing is excellent, with all the main characters singing their own numbers. It's a little disconcerting to find that some of the explanatory songs, forming part of the narrative, following on (more-or-less) naturally from the dialogue, but in the main, this is done well, and is usually not too silly. Suspend your disbelief, really, and imagine you're going to a filmed musical (but better).

One thing, though – if you don't like R&B of any description, don't go. There is a lot of singing...


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Belated post

As you may have noticed, I've changed my profile to match my current location. Not that I'm actually in east London at this very moment: I'm still at the office, which is in Westminster. The commute isn't bad, though the trains are usually crowded, but the views from the office windows are miles better than from the old place.

I will try to update the blog more often, but time seems to be at a premium at present. More of my (probably not very original) thoughts about the big move later.

Actually, one thing that struck me particularly (though it may just be a reflection of how many more people I now see each day), is how many smokers there seem to be. Is it the stress of living in a big city? I worry about the erosion of civil liberties, but selfishly, I shall be quite glad when the smoking ban is brought in, and I won't smell of smoke after an evening out with colleagues.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Film review - Night at the Museum

When I first saw the trailer for this film I wasn't very interested. Things come alive at night? How good was that going to be? Well, G and I went out on Sunday night to the cinema, and picked this film to watch. The showing was at nine-thirty, with an audience comprised almost completely of adults, yet (probably because of the PG certificate) most of the trailers were for kids' films (Charlotte's Web, Arthur and the Invisibles*).

Night at the Museum starts in familiar territory – divorced parents with young son who loves his father (naturally), but who is a little ashamed at his father's perpetual failed schemes and ventures. Mum has a new boyfriend who is a bond trader, and is becoming a role model to the young boy. Dad (Ben Stiller), realising this possible transfer of loyalties, decides to get a proper job, and is sent by an agent to the Museum of Natural History, where there is a vacancy. Apparently, the museum is low on funds, and wants to retire its three old night guards (Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs), replacing them with a single new one. Larry is taken on, and left with a torch and a stapled list of instructions, to do his job the following evening.

Of course, he discovers that the exhibits in the museum come alive at night. Animals wander around, the monkey steals his keys, the dinosaur wants to play fetch, the Western pioneers want to fight the Roman legionaries, Attila the Hun (who looks more like Genghis Khan) wants to kill him, and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) gives him manly advice. Given Larry's previous track record, at the end of the night he's convinced that he will never cope with this bedlam, and decides to quit. It is revealed that the reason for all these shenanigans is the presence in the museum of the tablet of Ahkmenra, which brings to life inanimate objects.

He's persuaded to stay, and spends the next day researching the exhibits with the help of books, the internet, and a guide at the museum, the unfeasibly attractive Rebecca (Carla Gugino), who is writing a dissertation on one of the people featured in the museum, Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck). Also revealed is the realisation that the three doddery old night guards may not be quite so kind and helpful as they first appear. How Larry sorts out the problem and manages to foil the schemes of the old guard take up the rest of the picture.

Night at the Museum is a funny film, with many laugh-out-loud moments, though it's father-has-to-face-up-to-his-responsibilities-and-learn-how-to-stick-at-things-to-keep-his-son's-respect aspect is somewhat hackneyed. Still, the CG animation is fantastic, the supporting cast (with the exception of Ricky Gervais as the museum director, who is miscast) are excellent (particularly the warring duo of pioneer Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Steve Coogan's general Octavius), Ben Stiller's tendency to over-play things is kept to a minimum, and it's not too sentimental.


* The trailer for this film, incidentally, was intriguing, with live-action and CGI animated sequences. It has an interesting cast (Madonna, David Bowie, Mia Farrow, Freddie Highmore), and was directed or produced by Luc Besson – which could be a good or a bad thing, given Besson's track record.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The cult of the tenor

What is it about tenors? Perhaps it's because there aren't that many good ones around; scarcity adding value. Or is it that the sound of a good tenor can be one of the most thrilling? I admit to finding a good countertenor more thrilling, and a bass-baritone more exciting, but the world, it seems, does not agree with me. Almost all operatic heroes (or antiheroes) are tenors – Don Giovanni, Figaro and Baroque operas aside, perhaps – just as all operatic heroines are sopranos. It may be that there are too many opera companies with too many productions needing too many tenors for the world to supply. So the good ones tend to get too stretched, and begin performing roles for which they are not suited.

In Britain, for example, the most natural "voice" for a man is baritone, but I suspect that this is true for most nationalities. And perhaps this is why tenors are so feted: they have unnatural voices*. It's not a modern phenomenon, with its idolising of Pavarotti (a very fine singer but an indifferent musician), Carreras (once a good singer) and Domingo (a very good singer with intelligence and musicianship). Not to mention the pretenders, like Andrea Bocelli, and (gulp!) Russell Watson. Caruso was adored, though to modern ears his recordings, which were made when technology was primitive and he was not at the peak of his career, are somewhat ropey, and his acting mannered. Bryn Terfel, who has now reached the status of "national treasure" is about the only bass-baritone who has anywhere near the same following.

Opera, at least in this country, has never had a huge following, especially compared to the fanatical devotion it inspired in Italy. In the early nineteenth century Milan, for example, private meetings at home were banned, and so the Milanese met instead at La Scala, visiting a single production probably more than once a week. It wasn't just the elite who attended, either, and the audiences were knowledgeable, having no hesitation in complaining if the opera was not up to their standards. The booing off of Roberto Alagna, in the current production of Aida, is a modern manifestation of this. However, it does appear that the booing was not spontaneous and had been orchestrated. Still, by most accounts, Alagna did not sing the role well, and has been replaced in the current run. I haven't heard Alagna sing, but like many opera stars nowadays, he is probably over-singing, and damaging his voice as result. 'Lunchtime O'Boulez', for example (Private Eye's music commentator) remarks in the current issue:

"It was reported throughout the world as (literally) a hissy fit. But the truth is that many at La Scala were expecting him not to turn up in the first place. For years now Alagna has been pushing his voice into roles that don't suit it, with consequent damage."

Coincidentally, Alagna's wife, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, also pulled out of her engagement to sing in Don Carlos at Covent Garden. She is another example of a singer who is singing too much, though her pulling out of Don Carlos suggests that she has recognised this. So what makes singers travel the world for a single evening's recital, flying to Vienna one day and to New York the next? It can't be good for their voices or their stamina. In the days before air travel, opera stars did travel widely, but they took days to get to the next opera house, and they would sing there for several weeks. Alagna should have taken a leaf from Domingo's book – the veteran Spanish tenor still sings, but has retreated to minor roles or short engagements, and spends much of his time in directing opera, where his knowledge and experience must be inspiring. But is it the modern world's increasing lust after celebrity that makes people follow the famous singer, irrespective of his or her true talent?

*In fact, one could argue that all opera singers have unnatural voices – no normal person could fill an opera house with their voice, unaided, unamplified, and over an orchestra.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The art of fug

After my post about fashion, S. pointed me towards the "Go Fug Yourself" website (see link opposite), which I've been consuming with avidity lately. It's one of the funniest blogs around. While the premise seems rather destructive, in that the site is dedicated to showing up the fashion or appearance disasters of the wealthy or well-known (but not in the best sense, famous), much of it is written in terms of affectionate despair (Lindsay Lohan), as "letters" to the star's public (Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears), or in plain, straightforward, "What were they thinking?" astonishment. The ladies who write the blog have their own particular fashion no-no's (leggings, wearing trousers with a dress, not showing your nice shoes), but they cast their net well. It's by no means unmitigated fugliness, however, as there are often posts about the nice things that some previously fugged star has since been wearing.

Some of the people featured may require some googling, but not knowing who, say, Bai Ling is doesn't really detract from the entertainment. Some of the fashion disasters featured are jaw-droppingly awful, and what I find amusing is that the same outfit may well have been used in a so-called fashion magazine to illustrate the person's known taste and fashion sense (Jennifer Lopez in a silver metallic minidress and beanie hat combination springs to mind).