Saturday, 31 December 2011

Imperfections of memory

The last book I read this year is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (2011). It is a brief novella, at a mere 150 pages, but it contains a depth of meaning and beautifully concise writing that makes it a wonderful book to end the year on.
The story is divided into two parts. In part one Tony Webster remembers his school days with his friends Alex, Colin and the enigmatic Adrian Finn. The first three were “essentially taking the piss, except when we were serious” while Adrian was “essentially serious, except when he was taking the piss.” They were pretentious and enjoyed pointing out when things were “philosophically self-evident.” They went their separate ways at university where Tony found a girlfriend, Veronica, with whom he had an awkward first relationship.
In part two, Tony is a single man in his 60s. He has lived an ordinary life, had a commonplace marriage and an uneventful divorce allowing him to remain close friends with his ex-wife Margaret. Tony revels in the ordinariness of his life, which is disrupted when he receives a letter from a solicitor. The letter advises Tony that Veronica’s mother, whom he has not seen in over 40 years, has died and left him something in her will. Suddenly he begins “looking back over how my life has unfolded, and considering the paths untaken, those lulling, undermining what-ifs, I never found myself imagining”. Tony admits his memory is unreliable and he ruminates on the fallacies of memory, particularly as one ages.
I won’t describe the story in more detail, for fear of spoiling it. What I will say is that this is a brilliant book and well worth reading. It is brief enough to be read in one or two sittings. Barnes’ writing style reminds me of Ian McEwan, and there are some passages that are so enjoyable that I look forward to re-reading this novella again. (I particularly loved the bit about the ‘hand-cut chips’).
The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize this year, and deservedly so. It is the first Booker prize winner I have read in a long time that I have really enjoyed.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

A few clowns short of a circus

I read Sara Gruen’s book Water for Elephants (2006) a few years ago, but I have just watched the film version so thought I would share my thoughts on both.

The elderly Jacob Jankowski is reflecting on his life and tells his story in a series of memories. He remembers the 1930s, when the depression was devastating Americans. Jacob was studying to be a veterinarian when a family tragedy struck and he was forced to leave home prior to graduation. One night he jumps on a train only to discover it belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus. Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, hires Jacob care for the animals. Al is brutal and when he cannot afford to pay wages or when he is displeased with his workers, he has them ‘red-lighted’ – thrown off the moving train.

Jacob meets August the circus ringleader who harshly treats the animals and his keeps his wife Marlena, an acrobatic circus headliner, under his thumb. August is particularly brutal with Rosie, the elephant that is part of Marlena’s act. Jacob sees himself as the protector of both Rosie and Marlena. Over time, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, leading to a confrontation with August. The story builds to a climax in which an incident occurs at the circus.

The book was an enjoyable, lightweight read. I loved the setting in the depression era, the melodrama and the other-worldliness of life in the circus. I found the character of Marlena annoying though. She seemed to be continually crying and was not as strong as I would have expected for someone who had endured the hard life her back story projected. She could have been much more vibrant and written with more depth, which would have made the love story more realistic and heartfelt. I don’t see what Jacob saw in her.

The film Water for Elephants (2011) stars Reese Witherspoon (Marlena), Robert Pattinson (Jacob) and Christoph Waltz (August). It is directed by Francis Lawrence, best known as a music video director, with a surprisingly old fashioned feel. The movie cuts out some of the characters in the book (like Uncle Al, making August the owner/operator of the circus) and focuses primarily on the love story angle. There were some elements I enjoyed in the film – the setting up of the big top, the minor carny characters (although it would have been great to see more of them), and the training of Rosie. Waltz, who seems destined to play the bad guy, is menacing and charming in equal measures and quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. But I didn’t believe Pattinson’s character and thought both he and Witherspoon were miscast. I also thought the climactic incident at the end could have been staged more clearly and been made more dramatic. A great DVD for a cloudy Saturday afternoon though. 

Monday, 19 December 2011

What floats your boat

Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us (2009) by Daniel H. Pink is a New York Times best seller which quashes outdated notions of what motivates people.

Pink argues that we need to move to a new era of motivation. In Motivation 1.0 we were driven by biological needs, at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the revised 2.0, punishments and rewards were motivators. Now, we need to move beyond 'carrot and stick' systems because people are most engaged by intrinsic motivators. In Motivation 3.0 intrinsic motivation consists of three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

As a big believer in the value of intrinsic motivation, the ‘surprising truth’ is not that astounding for me. But I can understand that for a lot of people, trapped by a carrot and stick mentality, will find this revealing as Pink argues against tangible if/then rewards (e.g. bonuses, promotions) and for a deeper understanding of ‘Type I’ behavior based on the inherent satisfaction of an activity.

Pink’s writing style makes for easy reading although some parts are a bit simplistic. But there were phrases that caught my eye like: "We're born to be players, not pawns. We're meant to be autonomous individuals, not individual automatons' (page 107) and "control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement" (page 110). Fortune cookie wisdom? Sure, but true.

As a business text, managers can learn a lot from Pink’s arguments.  For example, Pink cautions against goals set by management and not by individuals. He writes "the problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road" (page 51). He encourages managers to relinquish control and create a work environment that allows for intrinsic motivation. As a manager I have continually tried to create just such an environment and can attest to the difference in productivity, collegiality and engagement in teams that are motivated intrinsically and those that are not.

Pink is a big fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and continually refers to his work on flow.  I have recently read Csikszentmihalyi’s book Finding Flow and have reviewed it on this blog. Pink’s book is infinitely more readable.

The last section is a “Toolkit” designed to help readers to take action in their work, at home, and in other personal challenges through a series of motivational snippets. This section seemed odd to me as if Pink was using up leftover material.

I really loved how he summarized the book in a chapter called “Drive: the Recap” where Pink writes chapter summaries, a 100 word summary and my favourite:  a Twitter summary ("Carrots and Sticks are so last Century. Drive says for 21st century work we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.”). ‘Nuff said.

If you want to know more, but don’t feel motivated enough to read the book, Pink gave a talk at TED on motivation in July 2009. 

Saturday, 17 December 2011

No winter of discontent

William Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1591) is a play based on the rise to power of the tyrannical titular king. Richard is a limping hunchback and his deformity causes him to become a scheming vengeful man determined to overthrow his brothers Edward and Clarence to become king. In the first Act he describes his intent:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
(Richard III, 1. 1)

He succeeds in becoming a villain and will destroy anyone who stands in his way. He uses his supporters and discards them when they have no more value to him. This includes wooing the Lady Anne, after he has killed her husband and father-in-law. The body count rises as Richard picks of those in the line of succession, including children, and grows increasingly paranoid that others are plotting against him.  His opponents look to the exiled Earl of Richmond for support. The play concludes with a battle at Bosworth Field where Richard, offering his kingdom for a horse, duels with Richmond.

I had the great fortune of seeing Richard III in Sydney recently starring Kevin Spacey. Set in modern times, Richard is a tyrant not dissimilar to several world leaders who have been overturned by the people they have oppressed for so long – indeed, the program includes an article drawing parallels to Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-il, and Bashar al-Assad.

Kevin Spacey is terrific as Richard III. He engages the audience with his roaring, mocking, wooing and scheming. It is such a physically demanding performance and he gives it his all. He is on stage for most of the three-hour performance - so fans of the actor will feel well-rewarded. Spacey is well supported by the entire cast - with special praise to the actors playing Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji), Queen Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne), Hastings (Jack Ellis), and Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones).

It is directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) for the Old Vic Theatre in London, where the play ran from June to September 2011 before its’ global tour. The minimalist set worked effectively, with seamless scene changes from bedroom to battlefield. However the set was tunnel shaped and those seated n the aisles near the front towards had impaired views of the whole stage. We were fortunate in our seats, close enough to see sweat on brows. I particularly liked the use effective use of drums with percussion to punctuate the action.

The night ended with a standing ovation. Richard III is a delicious role for any actor, and Spacey plays tyrants with such relish. It was a wonderful night out at the theatre and a great start to my southern summer of contentment. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sex, drugs and bananas

Cheeta the chimpanzee, best known as Tarzan’s sidekick, retired in Palm Springs where he spends his time painting. At 76 years of age (the oldest living chimp), he decides to write his memoirs, Me Cheeta, of his childhood in Africa before his capture in 1932, his rehabilitation in America, his career in the golden age of Hollywood, and his retirement to an animal sanctuary.  
The first novel written by James Lever, Me Cheeta (2009) is of course a fictional account of this time in Hollywood as seen through the eyes of an acting chimp.  It appeared on the Man Booker Prize long list and was hailed as a great satire of the gossipy Hollywood memoirs written by so many has-beens/never-was celebrities. As a fan of old Hollywood films and folklore, and a lover of quick-witted, biting satire, I approached Me Cheeta with an open mind, prepared to buy into the pretense that it was written by an elderly primate.

The novel was hit and miss for me. While it is undoubtedly very clever, I was always conscious of its cleverness – reading a page or a paragraph and thinking ‘ah, very witty’ or ‘wasn’t that ingenious’.

When Cheeta moves on to Hollywood and gets his big break in the Tarzan movies, there are some genuinely hilarious moments involving old Hollywood stars. Cheeta name-drops many in his alcohol-fuelled adventures, including: David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Scott Fitzgerald, Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, Lana Turner, Peter Lorre, Fred MacMurray, Red Skeleton and John Huston. Through Cheeta, we learn about their sexual peccadillos, addictions, hang-ups, and failures. Much of this is slanderous (Chapter 8 was removed for legal reasons) and laugh-out-loud funny.  I loved the subtle way he tosses names into his descriptions. For example, Cheeta handled a mousetrap “as gently as Laurence Olivier handled the madness and depression of Vivian Leigh”. Readers will get more from this if they are familiar with this period in Hollywood.

Cheeta’s most significant relationship was with Johnny Weissmueller, the former Olympic swimmer turned Tarzan. Cheeta genuinely loved Johnny. Through Cheeta’s eyes we see Johnny wanting to be more than just Tarzan but being restrained by the studios and witness his failed romances including to the volatile Lupe Velez.  But Cheeta is not a loveable monkey. He had an ongoing rivalry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane. He hated Mickey Rooney. He was prone to act out his anger (including violating Chaplin’s bonobos) and his jealousy caused him to hasten the end of Johnny Weissmueller’s marriages.

Along the way there are messages about the ethical treatment of animals in film, including Jane Goodall’s ‘No Reel Apes’ campaign. Cheeta retires to a Palm Springs sanctuary where he paints and sells his work. Having finished work on the Tarzan films in the 1940s, Cheeta’s retirement is long and uneventful. This makes the last part of the book boring and uneventful, after the promise of the earlier chapters. I wonder why Lever didn’t write it as if the memoirs were drafted earlier, say in the 1950s, so as to avoid 60 years of boring retirement.

Of course there was no one Cheeta. Several chimps and costumed humans played the part on the Tarzan films. The other characters are real, but how much of what happened in Me Cheeta was true I do not know. What I do know is that Me Cheeta is an interesting novel, an original idea, executed in a clever yet uneven way. After a strong start, the book failed to hold my attention. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Go fish!

The first book I read by Ernest Hemingway was his 1951 novella The Old Man and The Sea.  I initially read it a number of years ago when I went through a phase of reading books with a nautical theme (Moby Dick, Master and Commander, Hornblower etc), since then however it is a book I tend to read annually.

The story centres on the elderly fisherman Santiago and his battle to land a large Marlin. Each day Santiago and his assistant Manolin go out to sea, but for the last 84 days he has been unable to catch a fish. To change his luck, on day 85 Santiago goes to deeper waters alone, where a large marlin takes the bait at the end of his line. Santiago is unable to reel the fish in and for the next few days the man struggles against the fish. When the battle ends, Santiago returns home exhausted with the remains of the marlin strapped to his skiff.

What I love about The Old Man and the Sea is the simplicity of the story. Hemingway has cut out all the guff, and focussed on telling a straightforward tale of man vs beast. Santiago is an interesting character of whom Hemingway writes, “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” 

Hemingway uses punctuation sparsely, which takes some getting used to, and his dialogue is uncomplicated, almost simplistic. The way Santiago struggles against his own weaknesses and has respect for his catch is beautifully written.  Santiago understands the sea, it has been his livelihood and his home all his life. 

Fishing has never appealed to me as a recreational activity or sport. I would not have the patience to sit calmly and wait for a nibble on my line. For this reason, I had expected that the story would be dull and that I would be thankful that it is such a short novella. But I was surprised to find the story to be so engaging. I would recommend setting aside an hour or so to read the book in one sitting. 

Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for The Old Man and the Sea, and when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. 

It was made into a movie in 1958 starring Spencer Tracey as Santiago. I have not seen it, but cannot imagine that it would reach the depths of meaning in the book. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Villain or Victim?

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers. I love her poetry, her non-fiction, her speeches, her tweets, and especially her novels. I was introduced to her work through her amazing 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale but my admiration for all things Atwood was solidified with Alias Grace (1996).  

Based on real life events in 1843, this is the story of Grace Marks, a 16 year old servant, who was convicted of murdering two members of the household in which she worked.  Thomas Kinnear, Grace’s employer, and Nancy Montgomery, Kinnear’s housekeeper, were killed. Grace has been convicted although she does not remember the murders. Dr Jordan is sympathetic to Grace and attempts to uncover her memory of the crime. The novel unfolds piece by piece as the reader tries to decide whether Grace was actually guilty of the crime or a na├»ve innocent who was also a victim.

Atwood is a compelling storyteller and she uses her talents to craft a portrait of Victorian times in Canada. From the way she uses language, to her depiction of domestic life and descriptions of the new science of psychiatry, Atwood adds layers to the novel. Feminist undertones appear in the exploration of the impact on women of poverty, repression, violence, sex and mental health. 

Alias Grace reads like a 19th century classic and a modern day who-dun-it. The story builds momentum at the halfway mark and becomes a real page turner. It is an understatement to say the book is well written – it is Atwood after all. Delightful turns of phrase are littered throughout. Her humour is evident, even in dark moments. She switches point of view from Grace’s first person narrative to Jordan’s third person account convincingly.

Atwood has clearly researched this case well. I particularly loved how each chapter begins with a piece of the factual account – an excerpt from the trial, a newspaper clipping, or a quote from one of the parties. I also liked the fact that the question of Grace’s guilt or innocence is not resolved by Atwood – she leaves it up to the reader to determine. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Canadian Giller prize.

My reviews of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003) are also available on this blog.