Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Books of the year 2017

Having considered a selection of last year’s films in the most recent issue, it’s time to look back at some of 2017’s reading.  Most but not all are fiction.   
This selection represents the best of those that have kept me going during the last twelve months.

·         “Holding” is a novel which, if set in Scandinavia, would come with the adjective noir attached.  It is a thriller set in one of Europe’s most scenic and least violent places, West Cork, where its author Graham Norton was raised.  His debut belies any pre-conceptions of the character who hosts the UK’s most popular TV chat show and the Eurovision Song Contest for the BBC.  This is an enjoyable read which captures the atmosphere and topical concerns of modern rural Ireland.  So much so, that its reviews from expert book critics (e.g. The Observer[i] and the Irish Times[ii]) have been positive and favourable.

·         Having previously read Robert Harris’s “The Fear Index” set in the context of the 2007/8 financial crash and having just finished his most recent novel “Munich” and the lead-in to World War 2, I confess to being a fan of this author, his style and range of subjects.  This time last year I was pleased with his trip into the inner sanctum of the Vatican and the election of a new Pope. This event and its arcane process always grabs the public imagination whatever one’s faith or lack of.  “Conclave” reveals a story based on considerable research, so convincing and with so many twists that it is difficult to put down.  I was going to say - divinely inspired.

·         Much crime fiction both on the screen and in novels is set in the United States.  I must admit that one of its exponents there had eluded me until last year.  Then I read a review of Carl Hiasson’s latest and fourteenth such book called “Razor Girl.”  The critic Marcel Berlins[iii] began by reminding us that Hiasson specialises in writing crime thrillers which are funny - adding, tellingly, that this new book reaches the summit.  His stories all seem to be set in Florida and contain fraudsters, conmen, sexy women, corrupt cops, liars and adulterers.  While it may jolt the senses to deal with crime and farce together, it’s stimulating to discover even belatedly a respected author who is at the top of his game.

·         Having made a major impact with her debut novel “The Miniaturist” set in a Puritanical late seventeenth century Amsterdam, Jessie Burton’s follow-up “The Muse” was one I read with great expectation.  I was happy to discover that it delivered.  Essentially a book about twentieth century art and covering a time span of over thirty years with the Spanish civil war in the background, this is also a story about love, deception, and many other things including attitudes to immigrants in 1960’s Britain.  
·         One of the most poignant if harrowing novels I have read in recent years is the Man Booker 2016 nominated “His Bloody Project” written by Graeme Macrae Burnet.  From the opening lines on page one, we know that this tale is about a triple murder.  But the manner of telling the story through a mid-Victorian journal, old medical reports and the subsequent trial feels authentic and unique.  The tale of desperation suffered by small tenants trying to eke an existence from tiny crofts owned by uncaring landlords is absorbing.  Our attention to this book because of its setting in Rosshire in the beautiful Scottish Highlands where one of our daughters is lucky enough to live. 

·         I confess to having read almost every legal thriller written by John Grisham, not least because they are good holiday fare.  The main attraction of Grisham for me is the courtroom drama, the ability of lawyers to think quickly and extemporise with the perfect retort.  Most of his stories are set in the southern states and many of his best novels have been turned into movies.  Last year’s offering, “The Whistler” is all about judicial corruption centring on organised crime and the building of a casino on an Indian reservation.  This is one of his best novels, another page-turner. This from the man who manages to write and publish like clockwork – a hardback in the late autumn and then issued on paperback in time for the summer holidays, every year.

·         A couple of other compelling crime fiction authors to mention.  No year would be complete without discovering a new crime fiction author from Scandinavia.  Last year’s such novel was “The Ice Beneath Her” written by Camilla Grebe, Sweden’s leading female crime writer.  And not omitting Northern Ireland’s contribution to the genre, Brian McGilloway weighed in with Detective Sergeant Lucy Black’s latest adventure with “Preserve the Dead.”  What gives his work added interest is that we know the locations quite well.

·         And two authors, new to me, who write thriller novels as well as anybody.  The creator of the TV series Fargo, Noah Hawley has written the superbly addictive “Before the Fall” which is well worth recommending.  And Donal Ryan’s “The Thing about December” introduced me to one of Ireland’s new authors who are garnering superlative praise for style of writing.  


·         Before I reveal the best novel I read in 2017, I have to include two superb non-fiction books.  Having long being interested in linguistic connections between the Celtic languages as well as between them and Latin languages, “Through the Looking Glass” by Guy Deutscher came as a complete revelation.  It offers a whole new approach based on international research, by analysing the impact of different languages on how people think.  Brilliant is almost an understatement of this book.

·         The other non-fiction work is similarly monumental. “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (in less than 500 pages) written by Yuval Noah Harari has had such an impact in the UK that it has been placed at or near the top of the best-sellers list for many months, still residing there (along now with his new book).  Its reach is enormous as well as authoritative, many preconceptions and shibboleths being demolished en route.  Like Deutcher, it manages to be a compulsive read despite the weight of the subject – the origins and history of our species going back into pre-history – by avoiding the danger of becoming an academic treatise.

·         The best book I read last year is a novel set in the United States.  I have been a fan of Sebastian Barry having read his “The Secret Scripture (2008),” a story of heart-break set in rural Ireland, subsequently made into a film starring Vanessa Redgrave as the lead, a long-term patient in a decrepit mental hospital; and “The Temporary Gentleman” (2014) about the same family and on the topic of war.  At all times the reader can only admire Barry’s lyrical way with words.  But even by those high standards of poignant story-telling and his rich use of English, his latest offering “Days Without End” is exceptional.  His depiction of the awfulness of violence by the army against the Indians and the subsequent outrages of the Civil War feel alarmingly real.  All of this is seen through the eyes of two young immigrant Irish conscripts whose vernacular, accents and personalities are portrayed with poetic and sometimes tragic beauty. Just as the saddest music aches the heartstrings with sonorous beauty, so too the mellifluous use of language by Sebastian Barry expresses horrors and loving beauty without parallel.

So now it’s time to crack on with discovering a comparably good list for the current year.

©Michael McSorley 2018

[i] Alex Clark Observer 2 Oct 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/02/holding-graham-norton-review-debut-novel
[ii] John Boyne Irish Times 30 Sept 2016 https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/graham-norton-wasted-on-tv-john-boyne-reviews-his-new-novel-1.2794026
[iii] Times Saturday Review 10 Sept 2016

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Autumn films 2017

January and February tend to the main months for going to the cinema in this family.  
Apart from the escape to the cosy indoors avoiding winter’s darkest days, the turn of the year coincides with the lead-up to the Oscars season and the attendant release of many of the year’s best films.

For some reason, however, we altered our cinema-going routine to an earlier slot than usual. 
As a result, we watched several gems on their release in the recent autumnal schedule. What made the experiment a success was the fact that each one was really good, worth writing about and - because of their autumnal timing, each of them could otherwise have escaped our attention.

In no particular order of priority or ranking, here’s a synopsis of films released in the latter half of 2017 and which merit recommendation.

·         Victor and Abdul stars Judy Dench reprising her earlier role in the 1997 film Mrs Brown as Queen Victoria.  It is about the monarch’s unlikely friendship with an Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim, as played by Ali Fazal.  The story is based on a real life encounter between the two, featuring several stunning locations in India and Scotland.  The cast includes Simon Callow, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith and Michael Gambon. An entertaining period drama.

·         Maudie is a film co-funded by the Canadian and Irish film boards and is based on a true story of the Canadian artist Maud Lewis and set in the bleak winter landscape of Nova Scotia. Starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, and directed by Aisling Walsh, it was filmed in Newfoundland.  This is a very moving story of survival of an artist while battling arthritis, social conservatism and the climatic elements.

·         Final Portrait, another film about an artist. This one tells a story about the Swiss artist Giacometti, played by Jeffrey Rush and the saga of the process of completing a portrait of an American writer, James Lord (played by Armie Hammer), who had befriended the great artist.  Set in Paris in the early 1960’s, days turn into weeks in the quest for perfection.

·         The Big Sick is another true story (something of a coincidental theme in this selection).  This story throws up issues of multi-culturalism and prejudice in contemporary America.  The self-played male lead Kumail Nanjiani is an aspirant stand-up comedian from a Pakistani Muslim background.  He co-wrote the story with his American girlfriend Emily Gordon (played by Holly Hunter). Excellent film.

·         Dunkirk was released as the big summer blockbuster, an important story being retold for a modern generation. Together with a big-name cast of actors - Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Simon Callow and directed by Christopher Robin - and a big budget, it has been pointed out that this film is not without subliminal messages of potential parallels with Brexit.  A gripping tale, great soundtrack by Hans Zimmer (with Elgar's Enigma for added value).  It does seem to sacrifice dialogue by letting pugilistic action speak for itself.  Film critic Guy Lodge echoes remarks from French commentators saying that “the decision to foreground the British military experience above all else, rendering collaborators secondary and the enemy literally unseen, seems an ungenerous one.”(Observer 171217)

·         Hampstead presents Diane Keaton playing an American widow Emily and her chance encounter with a tramp called Harry Hallowes, played by Brendan Gleeson.  The film is loosely based on Hallowes and his claim to squatters’ rights on a patch of ground on Hampstead Heath, leading to his legal battle against property developers. In the words of one critic, a “silver years heartwarmer” by Richard Curtis, the man who brought us Notting Hill (among other credits).

·         Miss Sloane is a political thriller about Elizabeth Sloane, an energetic lobbyist in Washington DC.  This is a tale of an intricate web of US congressional hearing about violations of Senate ethics rules, lobbying to promote a bill to expand background checks on gun purchases especially by female voters, the protagonist moving job to a rival lobbying firm taking staff with her and so on.  A bravura performance by Jessica Chastain.

·          In Between is first for me, a film made and set in the Middle East.  It’s all about three Palestinian women struggling in different ways against a patriarchal society.  Hard to imagine Hollywood telling a story about prejudice in the contemporary world in this style. Mark Kermode lists this as one of his pick of best films of the year 2017 (Observer New Review 10 Dec 2017), and I’m with him on that.

The cinema which showed these eight films was the Queens Film Theatre in Belfast.  
A couple of them we went to see in late summer when weather was unseasonably wet. Spending two hours or less in the QFT is a convivial way to spend a dull Sunday afternoon, whatever the season.  To quote Barry Norman the celebrated British film critic who passed away in June - "and why not."

It’s also a way to support the alma mater and its art-house cinema celebrating its 50th anniversary and a half-century of independent cinema (coincidentally also the year I began third level education there).

©Michael McSorley 2017

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Edinburgh Festival 2017

Last month I achieved a lifetime’s ambition, courtesy of my daughter Lynda’s initiative.  This was to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  What clinched the deal was that the 2017 jamboree in Scotland’s beautiful capital city marked the 70th anniversary of this event, the world’s biggest arts festival.

The night before I flew to Scotland, Jack Whitehall presented a television documentary programme[i] about the origin and history of the Edinburgh Festival.  
With the assistance of old film footage and photographs, he was able to illustrate that its inaugural aims in 1947 were to lift spirits and bring people together after World War 2.   
In the more prosaic official version, the stated intention was to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.”

The TV documentary also outlined the risks involved.  These included the organisation of a cultural extravaganza at a time of hardship, its location in a conservative place, and in a city which had no facilities like an opera house and no gallery of modern art.

The idea of going to Edinburgh in August had originally been planted in my head as long ago as 1971.  A group of us had produced a successful late night student Revue as part of the Belfast’s Queens University Arts Festival.  Some people suggested that we should take it to Edinburgh.  
We demurred, unfortunately in retrospect, and Scotland was spared having to watch our satirical side-swipes at Northern Ireland’s politics and student life.

A decade later when a different group of us established an arts festival in our home town of Omagh, we talked about travelling to Edinburgh to scout for talent. 
The idea behind an exploratory visit was prompted by the knowledge that several of our best acts had made their name at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Alas, limp excuses to do with family life and various irrelevant commitments deprived the Scots of our mercenary intentions.
Unintentionally, our objectives in establishing an arts festival chimed with those of Edinburgh - bringing people together and demonstrating that, despite the Troubles, creativity is what matters.  
Unknown to us at the time and also like Edinburgh when it was starting, we didn't allow a lack of dedicated arts venues to stifle our ambition.

Stepping off the train from Glasgow on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, our first engagement was not an arts event.   
Based on a recommendation from the esteemed editor of “Exploring Retirement” magazine, we headed straight for afternoon tea in the heart of the Old Town.  Located on the Royal Mile, the Signet Library at the Colonnades[ii] is as posh as its name sounds, a long-established and still functioning library which doubles up cleverly as a tea shop. 

As if to emphasise its exclusivity, the caterers operate under a warrant from the Queen.

We would need the calorific fuel to sustain the first of two day’s hunger for culture, not to mention queuing and walking to disparate venues.   
All but one of the 6 events we attended (including the Colonnades visit) had been booked on-line in advance.   
It also transpired that no two consecutive events were in the same venue, or even nearby, meaning plenty of walking back and forth.  The compensation is that Edinburgh is a stimulating and handsome place to discover on foot.

The scale of this festival is best understood by witnessing it at first hand.   
So much is happening at the Edinburgh Fringe that the programme brochure is fatter than the telephone directory for metropolitan area of Belfast, home to half a million people.  
When we were queuing for events in large buildings like the Assembly Rooms or the Gilded Balloon, we could see other lines of people waiting at different doors to get into other events taking place at the same time as ours but in other rooms; and outside the building there were lists of later events in each of these different rooms, approximately one every 90 minutes for each and every room.   
The director of the Edinburgh Fringe must be a juggler, someone with exceptional skills of organisation.

It’s no wonder that Edinburgh in August resembles Hong Kong or Barcelona with people bumping into each other in a quest to leave one performance and find their way to the next show.  En route, it is impossible to miss the street performers who, this year, numbered 1,200.  
The official figures tell the story. Take a deep breath as I avoid using words like mind-boggling, unbelievable, staggering, phenomenal and, the one I loathe most, awesome.
This year's Edinburgh Festival fringe presented 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues.

Impressive as these figures are, the spirit of festive energy generated in Edinburgh is infectious and a force for good. A record number of people attended events, with an esimated (breathe more deeply) 2.7 million tickets issued.  That statistic represents a 9% increase on last year. 

I have it on good authority that the Festival included performances in a swimming pool, a boat, a football ground, a tunnel and a racecourse.
It featured shows that addressed themes of belonging, identity, grief, Brexit, Trump, fake news, the Syrian conflict, gender and activism.

The Fringe Festival’s Chief Executive Shona McCarthy was appointed in March last year[iii].   
She hails from Northern Ireland and was the Chief Executive of the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013.[iv]   
She summarised the anniversary eloquently:

“This has been a very special year for the Fringe as we celebrated 70 years of defying the norm, 70 years of the greatest melting pot of arts and culture anywhere on the planet, and 70 years of Edinburgh as an internationally renowned festival city..... We look forward to another 70 years of championing the world’s largest platform for creative freedom.”

It’s not only the quantity, but the quality and variety of events which draws in the appreciative crowds.  
Our cultural sprint began at the Gilded Balloon with “Borders[v],” a serious thought-provoking play about migrants on the Mediterranean.   
It was written by Henry Naylor, former head writer for “Spitting Image.”

Our next stop was the Assembly Rooms to see “Alex Salmond Unleashed.[vi] 
Having no expectation what to expect from one of Scotland’s best known politicians, it was a pleasing surprise to witness him in a totally unfamiliar guise.   
His show was like a rehearsal for a prospective career as a stand-up comic and chat show host.  To complete the look, he even had a 6-piece house band for company.  
Next day, I read a newspaper report that he is “in talks” about taking the show on tour.  I needed no prompting to share this scoop with a festival promoter in Belfast.

Event number three was the anarchaic “Don’t be Lonely and Aurora Nova[vii],” a slapstick show performed with mime-artistic physicality by two flexible New Zealanders Barnie Duncan and Trygve Wakenshawe.   
For me to describe it as a skit on office life may be accurate if po-faced because this undersells the show’s humorously manic impression of life as skewed and dysfunctional.

Our final event on day one was the American stand-up comedian Reginald D Hunter’s new show “Some People[viii].”   
Being the best known and experienced of the acts we saw, it was no surprise that his performance came across as the most professional and was staged in the largest venue we visited, the Assembly Hall building.   
Only a stand-up comedian, however, could get away with the irony of performing sitting down, and extracting humour from his love-life’s details and how he came to break his leg in that pursuit.

On day two, which was the final day of the Festival, we somehow managed to make a lucky late booking for one of the year’s hot topics, America’s new President, in a show called Trumpageddon[ix].  

One thing we noticed about all six venues was that the interior temperature always felt slightly too high.  In this case, it seemed to help rather than hinder the performance of exaggerating the obnoxious caricature of a very sweaty leader of the free world.   
He was unpleasant to watch and listen to, but this was presumably all part of the art of satirising someone ad absurdum.

The final act for us was a more conventional play called "1902"[x] about Edinburgh boys, supporters of Hibernian FC, and their collective way of dealing with the challenges of life for young men (and a young lady).  
The setting was the smallest venue we attended, the appropriate Wee Red Bar, part of Edinburgh College of Art.

The human spirit does indeed flourish in Edinburgh and what a great tribute this is to the people of Scotland.  That is because, apart from the Fringe, the separate Edinburgh International Festival also celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.  Its director is Fergus Linehan[xi] who also comes from Ireland.  
The International Festival consists of theatre, opera, music, dance, visual arts and more.  Other festivals that take place in August include the Military Tattoo, the International Book Festival, the International Television Festival, and the Art Festival.

At this point my oxygen pack expires as I stand back, delighted to know that Edinburgh does indeed warrant its title of Festival City.  
I hope it doesn’t take another 70 years before I get invited back.

©Michael McSorley 2017

[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b093q637/festival-tales-edinburgh-at-70
[ii] http://www.thesignetlibrary.co.uk/colonnades/
[iii] https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2016/shona-mccarthy-appointed-ceo-of-edinburgh-festival-fringe-society/
[iv] http://michaelmcsorleyculture.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/uk-city-of-culture-2013.html
[v] https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/borders-by-henry-naylor
[vi] https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/alex-salmond-unleashed https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/aug/13/alex-salmond-unleashed-scotland-first-minister-edinburgh-review
[vii] https://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/event/831555-trygve-wakenshaw-and-barnie-duncan-different-party/
[viii] https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/reginald-d-hunter-some-people-vs-reginald-d-hunter
[ix] https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/trumpageddon  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/09/taking-donald-trump-edinburgh-fringe
[x] https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/1902
[xi] https://www.eif.co.uk/news/2013/fergus-linehan-appointed-incoming-festival-director#.WcEH99Frzcs