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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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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Book 13: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

January 29, 2009 at 2:26 am (Review) (, , , , )

This is a re-telling of the Cinderella story buy the same writer that brought us Wicked. I didn’t read Wicked but was a reluctant attendee at the musical in London and the best I can say is that it was less hideous than most musicals I have attended. I was expecting from seeing the musical that this would be fairly heavy handed when hammering home its thematic point. Which didn’t happen quite as I expected.

The wicked stepmother remains the unredeemed villain of the piece and there is only really room for the redemption of one ugly stepsister. One stepsister is mentally disturbed and is hulking and ox like physically. I didn’t really know what to make of the characterisation of this sister, I don’t know if he is being deliberately vague about the nature of her disorder (if indeed she has a disorder as such or is just traumatised by various events in their lives), or if the writer himself didn’t know.

The second sister is the one to be redeemed and in some respects she is. However  Maguire is never absolute in how he builds his characters. When it comes to Cinderella we have more of the same, one moment she a vacant, spoiled brat, the next selfless redeemer of her family. Maguire I imagine sees himself as a writer of moral ambiguities, a chronicler of flawed human characters unfortunately I don’t think he’s writer enough to do this effectively. 

While the characterisation is undoubtedly flawed its not a bad read. There is a interesting subplot with a local painter who is a splendidly whole character because for once Maguire is not trying for the grey. There are also a number of interesting period details regarding the dutch tulip crash and artistic patronage at the time that are both interesting and entertaining to read. 

If you liked Wicked you will probably like this, if you found Wicked (I know I am making assumptions based on the musical and reading this) heavy-handed don’t bother. It wasn’t great and I respect what was being attempted it just didn’t quite get there for me.

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Book 12: Split by Suzanne Finnamore

January 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm (Review) (, , , , , , )

I was perfectly ready to hate this and before starting to read it I was composing my scathing review. I was looking forward to it. It has a bride and groom wedding cake decoration split in two on the cover. This was going to be some Oprah, self help, woman finding herself after her man leaves her memoir and I was going to be mean. It turns out that they have that saying about judging book covers for a reason.  

Split is a fairly brutal account of the break up of Susan Finnamore’s marriage. It is in no way pretending to be a unbiased account. It is all about how she felt and how she choose to deal with it. It’s also about how she went to pieces. I admire how brutally honest this book appears to be. While the split was the husband’s decision she doesn’t step away from her culpability or excuse herself for some pretty poor behaviour in the course of the split. 

Finnamore’s writing is clear and unflinching. There can be a tendancy in break up memoirs to descend in to ‘Dear Diary, A boy hurt my feelings today. He’s really mean’ territory (one of the things I was hoping to mock) but Finnamore never even touches that sort of tone. She describes her hurt without sentiment. She is also writes with humour about the semi-lunacy that descends when you are in the midst of a bad break up. 

If you happen to be in the midst of a bad break up and you are not of the Oprah self help persuasion, there are some incidental do and for the love of god do not’s in the book. One of them being rid yourself of self help books (If you find that sort of thing helpful fine, personally makes me feel homicidal). Learn from someone else’s mistakes and save your self the hassle.

The wider cast of characters are colourful in a California sort of way (a transvestite driver for example) and a bit cliché (straight talking, slightly demented mother anyone?). This would bother me more if the description of the devestation that follows nasty break-ups was less real. 

I strongly recommend it for the heart broken. For everyone else its worth a read but not essential.

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Book 11: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

January 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm (Review) (, , , )

Small Gods was added to my list on the recommendation of lovely Pajabites. As ever their taste is impeccable. Small Gods carries on in the great tradition of immensely entertaining British Science Fiction/Fantasy. I have a vague recollection of reading one or two of the Discworld series when I was a young teenager and I never went back. I was an idiot.

I can only assume that I didn’t enjoy it then because I mostly didn’t get the joke, as a teenager I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the beauty of Pratchett’s theological and political positions. It takes an amazingly gifted writer to mock the ridiculousness of religious fundamentalists without ever picking on a particular theology. He argues for secular democracy with more humor, grace and power then any political philosopher I’m aware of. 

The hero of our tale is Brutha, a novice at a monastery who has little hope of ordination primarily because he appears to be not so bright. His character grows throughout the story in a way that outlines how people grow in life (all things going well). Going from total innocent to a person of understanding and with a marvellous illustration the hardship and confusion that often accompanies that growth. 

Interestingly Pratchett explore how our leaders or those who claim to know what is best are those that know least about what is good. He give a fascinating insight in to how the minds of those who seek to lead work. He is fierce in his criticism of the manipulative and deadpan in his description of where the alternative lies. He has the grace to see that the world is never perfect and the intelligence to see what the next best thing might be in light of these leader types. 

The nature of belief and what it can bring to the world is a major theme, unsurprisingly in a book called Small Gods. I found it astonishing that while Pratchett is sometimes fiercely critical of the idea of organised religion/a religious state and those that claim to be devout but it never feels like he’s passing judgement. It takes a master of tone to manage to do that.

I know that I have talked more here about ideas then character and story but there is no way that these ideas could be covered so well without the writing being up to scratch. The characters are full and interesting and the plot moves along apace. It’s just fantastic.

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Book 10: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

January 9, 2009 at 1:34 am (Review) (, , , , )

Good Omens is a book about the coming apocalypse written by two people. It could very easily be a total disaster. The tone could be so easily be uneven or awkward to read but it never is. It flows clearly and is very easy to read. The best compliment I can pay it is that you are never concious of it being written by two writers.

It concerns the battle between good and evil on a cosmic and local level. Moving between the machinations of Heaven and Hell and the machinations of those on earth deftly. We are drawn in to the story with an angel (Azirphale) and a demon (Crowley). They are just the tip of quite a sprawling cast of characters that includes the descendant of Agnes Nutter Prophetess, Apocalyptic Horsepersons, a few witchfinders and the Antichrist. As anyone familiar with one or both of the authors’ works would expect the characters are drawn with intellegence and wit. No character ever seems rote or one note. The good are not quite as good as they seem and the bad are not necessarily all that bad. Sometimes the underlining of how people tend to be more grey than black and white can be overdone. I would have liked them to give us all a bit more credit in terms of understanding the motivation of some of the characters.

Good Omens could so easily be a cliche. It manages though to avoid most of the pitfalls of the apocalypse tale, the worst being falling in to a by numbers telling of good battles evil, apocalypse does or does not go ahead, some hero saves the day  and we all live happily ever after. In the case of  Good Omens I’m not sure that there is a hero really or that the day was necessarily saved which for me is part of it’s brilliance. The ambiguity I was hoping for in terms of character is better realised in terms of the story.

The story is frequently laugh out loud funny. I would not recommend reading in a public place because apparently snorting coffee all over yourself is a difficult look to pull off with out looking monumentally stupid or deranged. Deadpan observations about the absurdity of people and life abound and Good Omens would be worth the read for these alone but it’s also worth the read to see a writing experiment go well. It’s not quite a as good as the best Gaiman or Pratchett but it’s still pretty good.

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The Goonies

January 5, 2009 at 1:03 am (Film, Review) (, , )

***SPOILER ALERT** If you have not seen The Goonies what the hell is wrong with you? Go watch it it and for Gods sake do not read the following.

I am assured that I was brought as a small child to see The Goonies in the cinema. I don’t have any recollection of that what I do recall is rainy Saturday afternoons spent engrossed in it. The digression from the focus of this blog is prompted by watching it on TV today despite the fact that I own it. I even missed the very start because I was having dinner. 

The Goonies is the filmic incarnation of the dream we all had as kids that we would save the day and prove ourselves to be the adventurers that we pretended to be in back gardens, playing fields, fields, abandoned building sites, playgrounds and forests (depending on where you happened to have grown up). It represents when you believed that kids could gang together and foil master criminals and your daydreams were really practice runs for when your time came. It’s the perfect adventure. 

The Goonies are a group of neighbourhood kids the likes of which (if you were lucky) you probably belonged to as a kid. A round up of misfits who were friends firstly because they lived close to one another and then because they’d been friends forever. The warmth and mockery between this group is lovingly created and rings completely true. They are awful to one another and blindly loyal at the same time.

The adventure is driven by Mikey (played by an alarmingly young Sean Astin) who insists they investigate a treasure map found in the attic of their home. He sees it as the only way that they can save their homes. He is assisted by Data, whose lunatic inventions are exactly the kind of thing you’d have tried to make as a kid. They have a wonderful Acme kit feel to them, Wiley Coyote would have ordered them (in fact I think he did have oil slick shoes). There is Chunk the fat kid, Mouth the mouth, and the older brother (played by an also alarmingly young Josh Brolin, is it ok to perv on him now when I’m older if still do now and did in a ‘he’s ever so dreamy’ sort of way when I was younger?). There is also the cheerleader girl (as there always was in the 80’s) and the nerdy best friend played with humour and just the right amount of scarcasm by Martha Plimpton, and who I wanted to be when I was younger. 

Peril in this movie comes from two directions. The first and the most frightening is the aforementioned need to save their homes. They are all going to have to move to new towns because the local rich guy has bought up all the mortgages so he can develop the lands their homes are on. There is no horror close to the thought that your parents are helpless when you are a kid. The Goonies parents can’t stop the destruction of their families’ lives. No amount of goodwill or good parenting can save them from moving out of their homes and leaving their friends. This is a less terrifying thought as an adult but The Goonies can certainly make you weepy for the time when it was the worst thing you could imagine. 

The other is the Fratellis a criminal gang headed by their mother. A truly reprehensible distortion of the mother figure if ever there was one. Responsible for the terrible damage done to Sloth, who develops a bond with Chunk and who you will love unless you are the living embodiment of brain freeze. Ultimately  they are cartoon villains and and so lack the real world threat of being made leave your home and friends. They’ll be vanquished by our plucky heroes, you know that as surely as you know the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew will win. 

I have to mention the design, the booby traps set by One Eye Willy, the pirate whose treasure they seek, are blessedly rickety and look so authentically home made that as a kid they feel utterly real. The pirate ship is much cooler then anything you’ve seen in Pirates of the Caribbean, with skeleton’s of dead pirates and one or two remaining traps. It makes me wish that sometimes film makers these days would give up on their dependance on CGI and just build some cool stuff. 

As you can probably ascertain this is a film drenched in nostalgia for me and, I suspect, for many people my age. I think you can only love it a certain way if you saw it at the right age and believed it was true. I’d like to give it out to kids of 7 or 8 and make it mandatory viewing. In the world of Hannah Montana and (God help us) High School Musical this is the real deal. A proper adventure, one worth having and one worth believing in.  

The Truffle Shuffle

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Book 9: Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson

December 19, 2008 at 11:44 pm (Review) (, , , )

This is an easy read. It is a travelog of Bryson’s trip around Britain prior to his departing sometime in the early 90’s I would estimate. It is light hearted and good natured (which I suspect is probably an apt description of the author). It gently explores the quirks and foibles of Britain’s towns and cities and it is clear that Bryson likes the place a great deal even if some aspects clearly drive him nuts. The most entertaining passages of the book are, predictably, when he is being driven nuts. These occasionally being laugh out loud funny. Even outside of these he manages some interesting and acute observations about British life.

If you are in need of something to read while it is likely that you will be repeatedly and unpleasantly interrupted then this is ideal.

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Book 8: Tar Baby by Toni Morrison

December 16, 2008 at 10:31 pm (Review) (, , , )

This will be short.  I have read a few other novels by Toni Morrison and have read some of her poetry. I have always admired the strength of both her voice and lyricism. The words flow from the page with elegance and grace. You know you’re reading something IMPORTANT, which can some times overwhelm the grace and make it feel a bit portentous.  What I liked about Tar Baby is that it lacked this portentousness and instead had a blunter tone. 

As always Morrison’s examination of race and how it affects each character is interesting and challenges any obvious or easy conclusions. This is the best sort of writing on this subject in that it doesn’t allow people (no matter what their political colour) off the hook for making stupid assumptions about others. It was especially interesting to read this is in the wake of Obama’s victory. It made me wonder had anything really changed at all, I still haven’t figured out the answer.

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