Monday, 18 July 2011

Review: A Tale of Two Cities

(contains some spoilers)

Prior to this I’ve had mixed feelings about Dickens.  Bleak House is a fantastic book, with a brilliant cast of characters, targeted and effective satire and an extraordinarily complicated plot that all comes together for an excellent finish.  Little Dorrit is similar, but crumbles at the end, and the characters never quite reach Bleak House levels.  Oliver Twist was ok, but the plot was a little too contrived, and Nancy aside the characters fell on just the wrong side of caricature.  Great Expectations I hated, mainly because of a deep-seated loathing of Pip, and the ridiculous incredulity of Magwitch as a character.  With the decision of who to study as a ‘Special Author’ next year looming, A Tale of Two Cities was given the make-or-break position in my Dickensian life.

Luckily for Dickens (I like to think he has a particular posthumous interest in whether he is studied by undergraduates, and consequently has a fierce ongoing ghostly war with Virginia Woolf…), the novel is outstanding.  It uses its historical setting (the French Revolution) to just the right extent: it creates an epic backdrop to the action, but never in a way that seems forced.  The emotional tone is excellent, and the story is such that I stayed up until 2am finishing it.

To start with an area where Dickens is often brilliant but sometimes dull, the characters of the tale are a particular highlight.  Typically many of them are unashamedly two dimensional: the deeply evil Marquis St. Evrémonde, the dutiful and sarcastic Miss Pross (although she has a potential sapphic element…), the amusingly pompous Mr Stryver.  However all of these fit into the story very successfully, providing just the right amount of humour to what is (for Dickens) a comparatively serious novel.  The romantic leads Lucie and Charles are similarly conventional; however they provide a narrative centre for the story to revolve around.

These characters are fine; however the novel thrives on a core of far more impressive literary creations.  The Defarges shift from supportive positive characters to terrifying antagonists in a manner that is totally credible, and illustrates the power of the civil war to make villains of otherwise ordinary men.  This gives them far more credibility than Dickens’ numerous motivelessly evil characters such as Oliver Twist’s Monks and Bill Sykes.  The message here is that the movements of history can move anyone towards evil, a far more complicated a frightening idea than simply the presence of ‘bad guys’.  This fickleness of the fates and its relationship with people is typified by the caricatures of the mob, willing to release a prisoner mercifully and then bay for his blood in the space of 24 hours.

Better even than the Defarges is the character of Sydney Carton, who makes a similarly dramatic movement from minor character to Christ-like hero.  His mysterious origins are never really explained; the novel seemed set up perfectly for the final act ‘twist’ to be that Carton was a long lost relative of Darnay (as in Jane Eyre, Daniel Deronda, Oliver Twist, Bleak House… the list could continue).  Fortunately Dickens rejects this convention and finds a twist that is far more powerful.  By giving the novel’s defining role to such a figure the centrality of the two lovers is comprehensively undermined: we are prompted to look past Romeo and Juliet to see those who suffer to make such pleasant ordinariness even possible.

The Carton twist is not the only highlight of a narrative that manages to remain credible in spite of its coincidences.  As the novel draws towards its conclusion the elements fit perfectly into place: Miss Pross gets to demonstrate her heroism and loyalty (filling a role that very much parallels Carton’s); Dr Manette is allowed to reassert his masculinity in a way that is both deliciously constructed and touchingly heartfelt, only to have it snatched away from him again in order to disprove any claims of sentimentality; even Cruncher’s night-time activities are (at least partially) validated.  The long flashback scene is perhaps a weak point; however it provides crucial motivation that brings the plot together in a way that makes complete sense.

Overall then, this is a great success from one of English literature’s acknowledged titans.  It’s hard to find a way to sum it up succinctly as it operates on so many levels.  Carton might steal the show in the finale, but that does not detract from the quiet heroism of Lorry, the wild passion of the Defarges or even the steady love of the Darnays.  The catalyst of the revolution permits these characters to blend in a way that gives a reader a fresh perspective on the impossibility of black and white judgements of that event, and thus it is fitting that Dickens breaks his trend of black and white characters.  The only surprise is that there hasn’t been a TV adaptation since 1989: the cinematic scope and sprawling narrative would surely lend itself to another three or four part series.  And will I be studying Dickens next year?  Most definitely.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Review: Dublin by Edward Rutherfurd

Dublin - Edward Rutherfurd

On one level, Edward Rutherfurd’s Dublin succeeds as a collection of well-executed, if somewhat conventional narratives, linked together slightly tenuously by the inter-generational connections between the characters.  On another level it raises some really challenging questions about how we view history.

First the stories.  The book, like Rutherfurd’s other works, follows an episodic structure.  Each section is set in a different time period of Dublin’s history, from the pre-Christian era through to the Reformation.  The same family’s appear in each episode to give a further sense of continuity, but other than that each episode is almost completely distinct.  As mentioned, the stories themselves rarely depart from very conventional plotlines. We have star-crossed lovers, ongoing mistakenly-held grudges, treachery, smuggling and more.  Each episode is granted only a couple of hundred pages and increasingly they encompass a wide range of characters, so logistical limitations are clearly a factor in the complexity of plotlines.

Nonetheless these simple stories succeed in holding a reader’s attention for over 800 pages.  Partly this is the historical dimension of the novel, however it is equally due to the very successful characterisation that carries on throughout the novel.  Rutherfurd has a gift for creating believable characters in the space of just a few pages, meaning that for all the stories’ simplicity, the reader still feels involved.  This characterisation, as in Rutherfurd’s other works, is especially strong when an episode stretches over many years: the characters which are most sympathetic are those that we see as children, and then follow as their life shapes them into what they become.  In Dublin this tends to be the almost invariably attractive female characters, developing from hopeful adolescents into more worldly women.

The stories are thus strong, but what marks Rutherfurd out has always been the historical dimension to his novels.  Historical fiction is a very common genre at the moment, but Rutherfurd separates himself from his peers by his pan-historical focus on one location.  Here we see the ancient Irish farmstead of Dubh Linn develop into the Viking port of Dyflin, before finally morphing into the English city of Dublin.  If there is one weakness of this novel compared to Rutherfurd’s other works, it is that the story stops 500 years ago: there is no attempt to build continuity up to the present day.  This is resolved by the sequel: Ireland: Awakening, but in doing so obviously leaves this first novel incomplete.

Rutherfurd is especially good at bringing to life genuine historical characters.  At times this can verge on simply name-dropping (in New York one of the characters happens to gratuitously mention he’s met a young English sailor, by the name of Horatio Nelson), however Dublin has the very different task of bringing to life characters of an almost mythological status, in particular St Patrick and Brian Boru.  With the scarce historical evidence for these men’s lives, let alone personalities, Rutherfurd seizes the opportunity to create these characters anew.  St Patrick comes through as one of the few genuinely religious characters in a book (and indeed a country) that is dominated by matters of religion-as-politics, while Boru is rendered incredibly sympathetic, even as he is extrapolated from his historical position as a legendary king.

The most interesting question raised by the novel, and indeed from all historical fiction, is that of the very nature of studying history.  It is almost uncertainly untrue that (SPOILER ALERT) the successful English occupation of Dublin was accomplished due to one Irish girl’s illicit relationship with a treacherous English soldier, and as such that particular episode in the book would have no place in a typical historical textbook.  However it is equally evident that, especially for older periods, it is the experiences of the normal men and women that have totally disappeared from the historical record, leaving only wars and dates and kings.  We like to pretend (at least in history syllabuses) that history is governed by prevailing socio-economic trends.  However in practice those trends consist of the lives of ordinary people that probably had a lot in common with us today. 

If we told the story of our lives we might flatter ourselves into thinking it would make a similar read to a novel such as this: individual characters interacting, making mistakes and living and dying with the consequences.  But in 500 years time, or 1500 years time, will that be what the history textbooks on the turn of the third millennium will focus on?  Just as somewhere in those narratives of ‘battles over dwindling resources’ in a ‘proto-nuclear age’ will be the lives of all of us, and it is this that is captured in any good piece of historical fiction.  Dublin probably didn’t fall because of Fionnula Ui Fergusa, but you never know...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

My Apprentice Predictions - Contains Week 10 Spoilers

With two weeks left to go in The Apprentice, Melody's firing means there are only five candidates left.  While, in all honesty, this series has (as ever) shown almost all those involved to be useless at business; there have still been moments when a shocking glint of talent has appeared in the sea of mediocrity.  There's a strong case for saying some of those who have been fired (Edna, Glenn, Leon) showed more potential than some of those left.  However, with next week's task looking to be fairly engaging (setting up a new fast food chain), and the final consisting at least partly of interviews, who should (and will) go on to win?  If you have an opinion (or disagree angrily with mine) then let me know in the comments, however for me, in reverse order...

#5 Natasha Scribbins

It's genuinely difficult to think of a single task on which Natasha has excelled.  She has been in the boardroom twice (with the beauty treatment and pet food tasks) and in her two tasks as project manager has produced two very suspect victories: first by producing the Lad Mag 'Covered' which ignored their market research and was described as 'vulgar' and 'outdated', and then this week by misunderstanding the task to the point her victory was described as 'hollow' by Lord Sugar, only to be saved by Susan and Jim's sales.  More than the statistics, Natasha hasn't really shown any ability in any key area of business: in sales tasks such as the week in Paris she's been weak, her personality is starting to clash with those around her (and with viewers), and as mentioned her leadership choices have been poor.  She's been out of the boardroom since week 5, but if she's on the losing team next week, expect her to go.

#4 Tom Pellereau

I like Tom.  Lord Sugar likes Tom.  Everyone likes Tom.  He will probably prove to be an exceptional business man, as he clearly has a spark of invention and entrepreneurialism that is lacking from many of the other candidates.  The problem is, in the context of this show, Tom has been useless.  Excepting the Rubbish collection task and the Magazine task, he has lost in every single show, and its difficult to remember anything he contributed to either of those winning teams.  As project manager in France he was appalling, showing no leadership and no control over Melody: yes Melody is difficult to lead; no that can't be an excuse for someone wanting to lead a large company.  He has shown in many tasks that he has good ideas, and you can't fault him for enthusiasm and personality, but at some stage very soon he needs to show he can lead with authority, and I fear that might be beyond him.

#3 Susan Ma

Despite her life persisting in being 'so unfair' and her unfortunate ability to be the most consistently unintentionally hilarious candidate ('Do French people like their children?'), Susan has in fact shown a lot of talent.  Her sales abilities are impressive, she's shown herself to be correct only to be shouted down more often than Tom has, and she's picked up two wins as project manager; admittedly largely thanks to Helen's pitch in Paris and a total absence of opposition in the hotel-buying task.  As was said in the last episode, Susan does seem almost like a bullied child, she does lack the respect of the other candidates (especially Natasha and, until she went, Zoe).  This reflects badly on the bullies, but equally Susan has got to stand up for herself: as with Tom, the inability to manage strong personalities cannot be an excuse any longer.  With this in mind, Susan ideally needs to project-manage and win in next week's task to show her steel, but at age 21 has potentially got as much up-side as any of the other candidates.

#2 Jim Eastwood

Jim certainly seems to polarize reactions: many have attacked him as manipulative and passive aggressive, while others (perhaps manipulated by his passive aggression) are in awe of his patter and the results he often gets.  Love him or hate him, Jim has been instrumental in winning many tasks: this week his sales were picked out by Nick as a 'Tour de Force'; last week his pitch to Asda was risky, but ultimately delivered a huge victory; back in Week 3 his negotiating skill in the hotel-buying task was vital in an £8 victory.   As these demonstrate, sales, pitching and negotiating are all massive strengths for Jim, the question-marks come in his business strategy and leadership.  In the Pet Food task he was instrumental in the poor decisions that lost the task; Vincent was fired just for not bringing Jim back.  Similarly in the one task Jim has led his poor decisions resulted in a loss, although it was his decision (against opposition) to target the elderly, which was widely seen as a good choice.  To attack Jim for being manipulative seems to miss that, far from being a vice of his, it is simply something he does better than anyone else: Jim's skills as a salesman are at their most desperate when they are defending his own performance, even when the evidence isn't there.  We need to see Jim produce something beyond sales in the final task (which, in fairness, he did something towards by being the sole candidate to understand the importance of re-investment in this week's task) or he could be torn apart in the interviews stage, but thus far Jim is very much a contender.

# Helen Milligan 

Picking Helen as the favorite might not be the most exciting choice, but to do otherwise could only be playing a very weak devil's advocate.  Even looking past the fact she has won on every task, she has shown plenty of signs elsewhere that she is a very strong candidate: initially she was a quiet contributor who never attracted complaint from any of her teammates, before coming to the fore in leading successfully in the Rubbish Disposal task and the Biscuit task, as well as her series-defining pitch in Paris to La Redoute.  With all this evidence her victory ought to be a formality, but (almost as if it were scripted...) this week's task threw a spanner in the works: Helen may have been correct to criticise Melody, but showed no business sense whatsoever in her own decisions in the task.  Her coup was more self-serving than any valid attempt to help the team: it has no chance of being successful (and indeed I don't think Helen knew what she would have done if it had been), and only served to amp up the pressure on a struggling Melody.  There have been small cracks elsewhere: her two victories came by £8 and by one pitch-from-Jim, and La Redoute aside she hasn't produced much at the highest level.  Nonetheless with two weeks to go she is very much in the driving seat: if she performs well in next week's task then it would seem foolish for Sir Alan to pick against her.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

My 10 Favourite Songs You’ve Never Heard Of

As someone who genuinely still thinks ‘Indie’ music is by definition rare and unknown, it’s fun to look at my itunes top played songs and realise that even I have some unknown diamonds in the rough.  The criteria for entry are fairly vague: if the artist has ever had a top 20 song then to be selected a track has to have never been released as a single, if not then it just can’t have reached the top 40.  If you think you can do better, or if any of these choices make you inexplicably angry, then post something in the comments.

A lot of people seem to see Fall Out Boy as a bit of a joke (see most of the band's Urban Dictionary entries, and their later albums have come in for an especially heavy beating.  Perhaps this is unsurprising, when the band made decisions like not releasing this as a single from their final studio album Folie À Deux.  Chock full of the brilliant/terrible lyrics that have always polarised fans/people who want to see them die painfully, this is definitely another marmite song.  However from the catchy-yet-macabre opening ‘If home is where the heart is, then we’re all just fucked’ to the ridiculous-yet-meaningful chorus ‘My mind is a safe / And if I keep it then we all get rich / My body is an orphanage / We take everyone in’, this a song that can both be sung along to in a crowd and pondered at home.

Listening to this song, it’s unsurprising it comes from the soundtrack to a film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet: the melancholic vocals mean that if it isn’t being played over a montage of despairing lovers then you feel honour bound to assemble those around you and form such a montage yourself.   The heart-breaking opening gives way to a slightly incongruously upbeat second half, but the song as a whole understatedly exudes a universally applicable sense of romantic tragedy.  Wow that sentence was depressing.

It seems like a back handed insult to say that Jack Johnson is the perfect music to fall asleep to, but anyone who has heard him will know exactly what that means.  It seems impossible to imagine the man playing a gig, as his music is perfectly designed for softly rippling out of headphones as you lie on a beach at night.  As such, this song about lying on a beach at night brings together form and content in a way most classic poets could only dream of.  The fact the lyrics are all in the past tense save for the loaded ‘The west winds often last too long / And when they calm down, nothing ever feels the same’ means that the song definitely has a sense of nostalgia, but nostalgia is a dish best served with relaxed guitar, soothing vocals and a lullaby.

With current musical trends moving endlessly towards R&B, Brandi Carlile provides a welcome break with some infectiously upbeat indie-country.  The lyrics seem to be detailing a folksy lesbian romance from middle-America, however Carlile says the song was actually written to her niece.  That fits in well with the childlike glee of the song, definitely the catchiest from a generally strong album which also features many growers.

Again it’s mystifying this wasn’t released as a single from The Fratellis first album Costello Music.  The opening manic drumbeat heralds a breakneck pace throughout which only gets quicker, if anything the vocals only slow the song down.  Lyrically the song isn’t the strongest, however the hints towards what make up the ‘mother’s nightmares’ fit in well with the song’s hectic vibe.  It was massively disappointing not to see this performed live in a generally average set at Reading Festival 2008, as the energy of the track would make it perfect for such a stage

This is a controversial entry, as thanks to its appearance in the film ‘P.S. I Love You’ and in a high profile Magners advertising campaign this song has probably been heard by more people than any other on this list, but judging by the tragic absence of any sort of ‘Chart Performance’ section on the song’s Wikipedia page, it seems clear that no one other than me actually went out and bought it.  The uninitiated (including me, prior to five minutes ago) might see much of the song’s power in the assumption this is a timeless Irish tune passed down by the bards for many centuries, sung to Galway Girls for many a year.  Unfortunately, it was in fact written in 2000 by ‘an American singer-songwriter known for his rock and Texas Country as well as his political views’.  Still, as one of the millions of people around the world with dubious Irish heritage, that only makes me love it more.

Seeing this Irish band perform live at Reading Festival last year was a bizarre experience: one of the muddiest weekends of my life was suddenly punctuated by a blonde woman in a full length pink ball gown screaming to her watching crowd (of about 12) to dance.  Marie Junior’s vocals manage to balance softer moments with the soaring chorus that seems designed for far bigger crowds.  The band are still yet to release an album, however if they do this soaring track will certainly be at the heart of it.

It seems something of a tragedy that Imogen Heap’s crazily original (and slightly mental) tune peaked at 125 in the UK chart, whereas Jason Derulo’s derivative ‘Whatcha Say’ which sampled it reached number 3 and went multi-platinum in four countries.  Heap claims the song is about both a painful break-up and George Bush, which makes about as much sense as ‘Hide and seek / Trains and sewing machines / Blood and tears / They were here first’.  Nonetheless the brilliant a capella vocal arrangement (something Heap excels at) gives the song a truly haunting feel, which is perhaps even added to by its ambiguous meaning.

She might be best known for infectious summer pop songs like ‘Pack Up’ and ‘Skinny Genes’, but a quick look at Eliza Doolittle’s Youtube Channel reveals a remarkable range of cover songs.  Of these, by far the most powerful is her stripped back cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’.  Almost totally A Capella, Doolittle shows off her voice at its most raw: devoid of any possibility of auto-tune the very successful 23 year-old pop star somehow manages to give real emotion to this anthem for outcasts.  As yet the track can only be seen on Youtube, and it may never get a commercial release, however it certainly emphasises the range of talents that this otherwise generic pop star possesses.

Everyone has songs that pick up emotional resonance because of hearing them at a certain time in their life where it seems a songwriter has perfectly understood what you feel.  A lot of the time you then get over the moment of teen angst that prompted such soppy sentiments, but sometimes the song is powerful enough to stick around long after the memories fade.  This haunting ballad about a dead brother from a totally unknown Toronto-based pop punk band is one of those.  The chorus is generic enough to apply to any situation, but on its own would risk descending into melodrama.  It’s the details in the verses that really make the song stand out: ‘I remember the car you were last seen in / and the games we would play’.