CATEGORY: Literary POLEMICS

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are many reasons for me to be hooked on this novel and not solely because the two leading protagonists happen to be table tennis enthusiasts. Not even because the central character is a blogger of some considerable merit though these facts do help to endear me to the novel. No, the fundamental reason that I warmed to this work is that it is a fine polemic on both race and class and all the thousands of interweaving connections and nuances between the two. Anyone who naively imagines that either class or race are simple binary questions will be quickly disabused of this childlike belief after a close reading of Adichie’s fine novel. We learn very quickly that race and class might mean one thing in Africa and an all-together different thing in America and Britain. In the United States, class and race have become so inextricably entwined so by the end of play, nobody is precisely clear what it is they are fighting against and what it is they are fighting for. It’s the ambiguities in Adichie’s Americanah that make it such a worthwhile read and of course the wonderful self-deprecating humour that she effortlessly supplies throughout every page give it quality that elevates it to amongst the best novels of the century so far.

Read More…

Is the European Union Over rated ?

Theresa May’s mantra should fool no one. While the prime minister insists repeatedly that her Brexit blueprint will mean the UK controlling its borders, laws and money, the real aim of the government is to keep as close as possible to the status quo.

Whitehall, with the Treasury to the fore, was highly pessimistic about Britain’s economic prospects outside the EU and hasn’t changed its mind about the desirability of finessing the softest of all Brexits. Philip Hammond has been able to whistle up plenty of support from employers’ organisations which – unsurprisingly, perhaps – want as little disruption to business as usual as possible.

Read More…

Human Flow, a Documentary by Ai Weiwei

One sign of a modern society might be its ability to generate its own thoughtful critics. North America has them by the bucket loads; it used to be Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Now it’s Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and of course the irrepressible Noam Chomsky. The Indian subcontinent has the equally irrepressible Arundhati Roy and the Anglo-Indian author, Salman Rushdie. Australasia, still something of a colonial outpost in both politics and cultural attitudes, has its highly combatant John Pilger.

Read More…

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

I know a person of Irish descent who tells me they have experienced varying levels of petty prejudice throughout their life but that it comes and goes. That person is white. I know a person of Jewish descent who tells me they have experienced petty prejudices at varying time in their life but that it comes and goes. They are white. Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I get the distinct impression that for Black people living in predominantly European societies, the prejudice never really stops because they are always, first and foremost, in the eyes of the European, Black.

Read More…

The Greatest by Matthew Syed

The standout chapter in this otherwise routine offering is undoubtedly Chapter 4, The Political Game. But it is the standout chapter for all the worst reasons. On the question of sports psychology, motivation and sporting success, Syed has been determinedly innovative and at times quite revolutionary. Syed consistently rejects spurious notions of inherent talent and instead focuses on personal mindset, environmental factors and sheer hard work. For this Syed should be warmly applauded. Talent as a factor in success is ultimately a reactionary concept carelessly propagated by the ruling elites to justify their continued hold on the reigns of power.

Read More…

The Crown: Series 2

‘The golden age of TV continues. Not that there isn’t mountains of dross out there. Of course there is. But amongst the dross there seems to be a slow but steady stream of gems. The latest, in my ever so umble opinion, has to be The Crown. Not since the BBC’s I Claudius in the mid 1970’s has a TV series set out with so much ambition. The BBC’s Our Friends From The North and This Life certainly had ambition as did HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos. Black Mirror is absolutely sublime as are the three series of In Treatment. The House of Cards and Homeland are both likely to be on many people’s best of the best list.

Read More…

Pompeii by Robert Harris

A rollicking, fictionalised account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which, without effort, wiped the Roman town of Pompeii from the living map. I say fictionalised, but it is clear from this historical novel that Harris has done his homework. Just a brief scan of the acknowledgements page at the end of the novel testifies to Harris’s attention to historical accuracy.

Read More…

I Am Not Your Negro, Film Review, Raoul Peck

Based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, this is an important piece in the jigsaw of America’s Civil Rights Movement. But it is so much more. Baldwin was attempting, in his final work, to link together the lives, criminally cut short, of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the lesser known civil rights activist, Medgar Evers into a coherent whole. And Raoul Peck does full justice to that unfinished work. He does so by allowing plenty of space for Baldwin to speak his own wonderfully eloquent words rather than allowing others to speak for him.

Read More…

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

This one is important, and perhaps more important than its author might have originally imagined. In an age where religion and other assorted superstitions are making something of a comeback, here is a novel that tenaciously works, on every front, to deconstruct all the nonsense about gods, fate and the god-given, subordinate role of women. That the novelist achieves this with much humour and empathy for her characters, whilst maintaining throughout a growing level of tension, is an achievement in itself. That the novel stands out, fifteen years on, as a searing indictment of all things patriarchal and metaphysical, is its real achievement.

Read More…

Another Country by James Baldwin

The title of this powerful novel is somewhat ambiguous and probably deliberately so. It might refer to the very different experiences that Black and White people experience in the USA. It might equally refer to the different worlds and experiences of gay and straight people, not to mention the many shifting shades in between. It might actually refer to the dreams and aspirations that we all have, contrasted with the hum-drum reality that most of us inevitably lead.

Read More…

The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

For a harrowing journalistic account of how a violent, misogynistic patriarchy still rules our planet, you could do no better than to read Sue Lloyd Robert’s The War on Women. It’s not a theoretical exposition but the theoretical questions behind the viscous misogyny that continues to plague our species emerges clear enough. The book feels a little unfinished and that is probably because its author sadly died before she could tidy things up. And one cannot help but feel there is a vital missing chapter. Robert’s does a heroic job of presenting the global picture, but where are the all damning chapters recounting Britain’s shameful record of domestic abuse? The statistics emerging from the so-called western developed countries are truly shocking. By the time you have read this short blog, half a dozen women would have been battered nearly to death in their own homes by men they thought they could trust. Every week two will die of their injuries. This is truly a war on women and it’s happening right in front of our noses.

Read More…

Terrorist by John Updike

I need to be careful I don’t do a spoiler in this review. There must be still millions of people out there who have not read this magnificent novel and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for them should they find the time and mindfulness to get a hold of a copy. Such efforts would not be wasted. John Updike needs no promotion to those that follow US 20th century literature. But after the glory days of the Rabbit novels, Mr Updike somewhat faded from view. This post 9/11 offering merely reaffirms Updike as the master novelist the world knew him to be, both in terms of language, plot and theme. It is a sheer joy to read his prose; sparse, taut and invariably authentic. But this is not a literary blog. No, it is the central theme of the novel that interests me most: the social psychology of the would-be terrorist and the environment that nurtured that mindset.

Read More…

The State, Channel 4

Someone should be congratulated for having the presence of mind to put this four-part drama onto our screens. Islamic State is not, I imagine, the easiest political beast to get one’s head around, and this drama, while far from exhaustive, was a genuine if tentative attempt. The Daily Mail hated it with a passion, so by that measure it must have had something going for it. The drama focused on a handful of British recruits to the IS battle fields somewhere in Syria. The acting from these British Jihadists was woefully wooden – central protagonists that looked and sounded as if they had just stepped off a Holby City set. But the acting was not the key thing here. What the script writers had set out to do was to present something of a human dimension to the Islamic State Jihadists.

Read More…

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Here we have genius at work. Not just the genius of Roy’s hypnotic prose, but also the genius of how the disparate threads of her story so effortlessly come together as the novel concludes. I’m talking also of Roy’s genius in presenting so many conflicting world views; the view of India’s teeming dispossessed and marginalised masses, of which India’s brutally marginalised transgender community serves as the perfect metaphor for all those suffering a similar fate. Then there is the viewpoint of India’s regimented military personnel ruthless yet human and even humane all at once. And there is the genius of Roy’s representation the Kashmiri struggle both in its nationalist and cross-border Jihadist incarnations. Muslim, Hindu, Maoist and Sikh; the middle classes and the untouchables, the winners and the losers. All come to life with Roy’s expert imagination, all jostle for our sympathies, all form part of India’s rich but desperate tapestry of life.

Read More…

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I first read this seventeen years ago back in the day, as they say, when everybody was going crazy over White Teeth and a shining new novelist called Zadie Smith. It was the ultimate millennium novel. And I, like everybody I knew, just loved every page of it. It brought us bang up to date on the theme of the day: the search for identity and meaning. It was philosophy and politics and sociology and any other ology you might care to name but above all it was damn funny. Blisteringly funny but not of a slap-stick verity. No sir. This was political humour that was both subversive and personal.

Read More…

Dunkirk: Another Mindless Brexit Film

The acting was wooden, the script banal, character development non-existent and the two hours of mindless patriotism quite sickening. Leaving aside some clever camera work, this film has very little to recommend it. It was, in fact, no better than the originals (1942 & 1958), both produced as morale-boosting pieces of propaganda. This latest offering on the Dunkirk story also comes across as a piece of cinematic propaganda but the question then arises; propaganda for what?

Read More…

The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009, Film Review

Apparently based on a piece of non-fiction research into US Army Psychological Special Ops, this quiet little gem, which had escaped my attention until now, is broadly speaking a comedy. But not of the slapstick variety. More in keeping with the Dr Strangelove/Catch 22 genre, though in places you might say it borrows something from the irreverence of the US TV series Mash. Is it funny? Well, like all attempted comedy, it really is a subjective call. But perhaps a more apposite question is rather; is comedy a fitting genre to tackle the untold pain and suffering unleashed on Iraq and elsewhere by the US military-industrial complex and its corporate vultures?

Read More…

The Handmaids Tale

Based closely on Margaret Atwood’s haunting 1985 novel, this TV series is compulsive viewing and, given the recent political climate in the USA, should be compulsory viewing for all citizens east and west. Fascism can take many forms; religious cult, national fantasy, international utopia, but in all its varied forms it represents at base, capitalism in crisis. This has been largely misunderstood even by the most well-meaning critics of brutal authoritarian regimes. Mankind has created many such regimes in its ten-thousand-year history of civilisation but these should not all be carelessly confused with fascism.

Read More…

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

In many respects, this little offering from Julian Barnes might be considered a something and nothing type of novel. Of course, the novel and the subsequent film interpretation were both exquisitely delivered. But with the pressing issues of the day bearing down on humanity extreme poverty, extreme and growing inequality, extreme, possibly existential environmental destruction just to mention a few, you might think that our Mr Barnes might have something a little more pertinent, a little more contemporary to busy himself with. But no. Our worthy Mr Barnes chooses to explore the life of a late middle aged, middle class Englishman who has some unfinished romantic business to unravel. Scintillating stuff. On first reading it certainly seems a tad indulgent to say the least. And yet, give yourself a little time to ponder this work and you can’t help but conclude that Barnes might just have something rather important to say about the human condition.

Read More…

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

This excellent offering from Zadie Smith got me thinking about what makes a really good novel become a classic novel. Of course, there is no definitive answer to that question because the whole thing is so highly subjective, much like in any art form. But for me there are two essential ingredients; one that the particular can effortlessly interchange with the universal, and secondly, that there is something a little magical in the novel. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children comes to mind as does Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Both broke new ground in both the tale and the telling of the tale. Zadie Smith’s latest offering is a great read. No doubt about that. And I will willingly recommend to all and sundry. But is it a classic novel? Probably not.

Read More…

Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor

Christmas is the season of good cheer. It is also the season of forced gaiety and consumerist frenzy. It is also the season of bleak homelessness, addiction and other forms of individual and family disfunction. And should you wish to get an insight into the latter condition, you could do no better than to read Jon McGregor’s, Even The Dogs. I am currently mourning Jim Crace’s decision to retire from novel writing but praise the gods, Jon McGregor has miraculously arrived to fill the vacuum. And he does so with all the literary genius that we had come to love and expect from Jim Crace. Two literary geniuses proving, as if proof was necessary, that the centuries old art of novel writing is not dead.

Read More…