Book 16: Moondust, In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

February 28, 2009 at 12:46 am (Review) (, , , , , , , , , )

In Moondust Andrew Smith goes on a quest to answer  question, “What did it feel like to walk on the moon?” and to discover what the answer means for all of us. He attempts achieve this by  interviewing each of the men still alive who walked on the moon and asking them. The simplicity of this approach could easily lead to a trite recitation of clichés we have all heard before but Smith works hard to get beyond this. He manages to do so by looking at the wider effects of the moonwalks on the astronauts’ lives. Though none of the astronauts ever did anything quite like going to the moon afterwards, he takes a highly engaging look at the ways in which they followed similar paths and the ways in which they diverged. What is lovely and entirely typical is that the most interesting and entertaining astronauts are not who you would expect.

The wider story is obviously extraordinary, it is after all the story of how we made it to the moon and back. It is this quality that makes it such a challenge to write about. It would be easy to slip in to hyperbole or watery metaphysics, especially when the astronauts’ themselves have such difficulty expressing what they experienced. Smith deftly avoids this by discussing events and astonishing facts in a very earthbound fashion. It is not simply the fact that we once went to the moon that makes this book so astonishing there are a plethora of incidental facts that dropped my jaw, for example all the men who went to the moon were either eldest sons or only sons, which clearly says something about the psychology of the men involved. He also places the moonwalks within the wider cultural and political landscape, exploring how they came to happen at all given the immense cost and what effect they had on art and music as well as science. 

Smith makes it clear that this book is not just about the astronauts (though that may have been his original intention) it is also about the people around them and about the people who watched at home and found their lives changed because of it. There are collectors of memorabilia, venture capitalists investing in space hotels, a lobby for a manned return to space and of course the nay-saying conspiracy theorists all of whom get a look in as part of his exploration of the meaning of the Moonwalks. It is also about his journey following this story across America, sometimes the device of putting yourself in what is essentially a journalistic search can be excruciating, books can become more about the writer than the story. Thankfully Smith has enough charm and enthusiasm for his subject out weigh any of the narcissistic tendencies of the device. 

I would very strongly recommend Moondust it is utterly fascinating and filled with amazing stories and facts. He reminds us that when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the moon they didn’t know if he would sink in to the surface or if space germs would come back with them and wipe us all out or if a large hungry alien would devour them. They didn’t know because no one had been there before. Imagine for a minute what that must be like. Surely knowing more about that is worth your time.

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Coraline Q&A with Neil Gaiman

February 15, 2009 at 11:50 pm (Film) (, , , , , , )

I went to see Coraline at the Dublin Film Festival this evening. It wasn’t advertised but following the film there was a Q&A with Neil Gaiman which was delightful. Mr Gaiman give every impression that he is generally the lovely soul you’d hope from reading his books.

The highlights for me were his telling of the nightmare that was attempting to get Good Omens made back in the very early 90’s. It would seem that some of the executives involved thought that Tom Cruise would be a good pick for Newt. So it not getting made is not all bad. He said that getting burned with that set him up for some of the better collaborations he’s now managed to make happen. 

Also he told us of the Gilliam nightmare that went down when it came to a different (I think) version of the same. Gilliam nearly had the money together went to the US looking for a paltry $15 million and a distribution deal from one of the studios was resoundingly ignored and then the English company putting up the rest went bankrupt. All he needs is $75 million or so and he could do it, so if you’ve got it spare send it to Gilliam because I would love to see his Good Omens. I am almost certain that it would be utter genius. 

Gamian spoke of the origins of Henry Selick’s involvement in Coraline and it would seem that he sent Selick the first draft (minus one chapter) and within a couple of weeks Selick was back to him and shortly there after on board. Gaiman it seems was taken with Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach so persued Selick from the start. It has taken 8 years to get the project to screen and I assure you it was worth the wait, the 3D is used in a really interesting and different fashion but I’m still not 100% sold on it as a storytelling device. 

Neil Jordan was present in the audience as he is undertaking the adaptation of the Graveyard Book. News which had managed to pass me by but which I am pretty glad about. This after all is the man who managed to adapt The Butcher Boy. He spoke briefly about his impression of the 3D and his excitement about the project. 

Finally he discussed some of the intricies of the technology and a bit about Stardust (I have my doubts about how happy he is with the final product). It was interesting and a highlight of my year so far. 

Disclaimer: These are my general ramblings about the discussion if I mis-heard or got the wrong impression apologies contact me and I’ll change it. Thanks.

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Book 15: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

February 11, 2009 at 12:51 am (Review) (, , , , )

The Road is a work of genius. It represents the gold standard of storytelling. It is, like all the best stories, a simple story well told. It tells of a father and son walking a road in a post apocalyptic world and that is all. McCarthy writes without ever using so much as an extraneous syllable and because of that The Road is beautiful. 

The relationship between father and son is drawn out in sparse moments that rely as much on what they are not saying as much as what they are. It is in these moments that the grace of the book lies. It could be cold without this perfectly drafted relationship. As you read you realise that you haven’t taken a breath for a few minutes as you wait with the protagonists for danger to pass. You will be wholly immersed in their world and relationship.

The complexity of the ideas that McCarthy touches on is all the more impressive given the simplicity of the writing. So often writers of the big ideas novel feel the need to hammer home the point with heavy prose it is to his enduring credit that The Road never reads like a big ideas novel. It’s only after reading as you think about it (and I assure you that this will stay with you for weeks) you realise that he addresses issues like the nature of society, what it is to love without condition, what it is to be a parent, and that he says something of value about each one. More than any other McCarthy explores the importance of hope and how when all else fails us it is hope that will get us through, maybe. 

I cannot recommend this strongly enough. You will walk away breathless and uplifted.

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Book 14: High Concept, Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess by Charles Fleming

February 4, 2009 at 2:01 am (Review) (, , , , , )

That Don Simpson embraced excess till it killed him seems to be the central thesis of Charles Flemming’s biography which is a pity since it misses some of the more intertesting elements of his life as a result. The least interesting things about Don Simpson are that he took the motherload of drugs and had a major thing for highly kinky sex with hookers. It was the 80’s and given the extensive lists Flemming provides of other players doing one or other of those things it was clearly pretty common. Famous people’s ‘this one time I took a ton of drugs and had a blast/bad trip’ stories are just as dull as anyone else’s. 

A more interesting element is what drove Simpson to this excess. It is clear that he was a man haunted by some spectacular demons. Flemming touches on his shyness, self loathing and fundamental narcicism. I have some sympathy for Flemming here in that he was clearly a complecated character and none of his close associates were going to co-operate with this biography (most remain to this day some of Hollywood’s most powerful). Which means that the psychological detail is sketchy at best. It’s clear that Simpson was highly unpredictable, poring scorn and vitriol on some while lavishing gifts and gandiose largess on others. He also had all the outward signs of a supremely confident narcicist but was papering over the cracks with coke and hookers. All of which can be hard to communicate but if you are going to try write a biography of a person like this you just have to. We needed to know more about where he was from who he really was but if Fleming knows he’s not telling us either. 

I found this a disconcertingly difficult read, the endless listing of excess just became really depressing. It’s hard to read about someone who should be living the dream (and who may have seemed to be), who is so obviously miserable. You want to shake him and tell him to grow up and cop on. All of which is made worse by the fact that I didn’t want to feel sorry for him. He started High Concept and now all Hollywood output is secondary to the big summer movie and the winter Oscar movie and there is so little of interest in between and I wanted to loathe him for his part in that. I love films and I like many hold him at least somewhat responsible for the mess they’re in but, in what make up some of the better passages of the book, Fleming covers Simpson’s moves around studios and difficulties with other producers and makes it clear that in the end the money guys didn’t get him or his style of film making any more than they get any other kind of film. The monster he created ate him too. 

While Simpson definitely had some problems with the studios it is clear that Jerry Bruckheimer helped him clear the path. It is in how this relationship developed and how the summer blockbuster came to rule the studio roost that I had hoped the bulk of the book would lie. They didn’t start it after all (we have Speilberg and Lucas to consider for that particular prize) but they did play a major role in manufacturing it’s current ubiquity unfortunately Fleming just occasionally touches on it rather than really getting in to it. Bruckheimer is the major hole in this book refusing then as I believe he still does to talk about Simpson’s life and I perhaps you can’t really understand any of that without him. Which begs the question why bother? 

Having finally finished this I closed the book dissasitfied. It told me plenty of what I already knew but little of what I wanted to know. If you want interesting Hollywood insider information read Peter Biskind.

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