Reading, Watching

Once again there has been a blog hiatus, brought on by the combination of preparing a new book for e-distribution (there will be more reported on this soon), project workshops, and a quick family trip to the UK. The latter began with an extraordinary 18 hour flight delay in Kuala Lumpur courtesy of Malaysia Airlines whose performance for once, sadly, was far below expectations. It could be a blog story in its own right, but boring – suffice it to say that, at one point, four different airline officials were delivering simultaneously four different versions of what was happening. Once in the UK, however, the weather and the countryside in and around Bath were wonderful, and it was similarly wonderful to spend time with daughters Kirsten and Laura. One of many great moments was discovering The Showhawk Duo, a couple of highly talented guitarists busking near the Roman Baths – their CD is now on the iPod, and includes a marvellous version of Minor Swing, the signature tune for Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club, my old favourites.

One upside of the long flights, of course, is the chance to do some reading.

Followers of the blog will recall my waxing lyrical about Jason Webster’s Or the Bull Kills You, his debut crime novel featuring Max Camara of the Valencia Police. Webster is a brilliant writer, an Oxford-educated if born in America graduate in Arabic and Islamic studies, and who pitched up in Spain where he now lives. His first books were about that Spanish experience, and one of my flight books (thanks to Kindle) was Guerra.

It is a must-read, in my book (sorry about that). It opens with Webster helping a neighbour retrieve one of her lost goats. He risks life and limb, only to have the woman immediately kill the goat once rescued, because it was injured. As a reward, though, she takes him to a site she says is the burial place of some Republicans, because it was one of their last staging posts in the Spanish Civil War that saw Franco come to power and stay there for over thirty years. That starts Webster on a search for the Civil War that turns into a discovery of a much tougher, relentless, ruthless and unromantic side of Spain than the one he had enjoyed for several years by then. By describing individuals and places, he retraces the struggle, its impact on Spain and the Spanish psyche.

It is a wonderful book, and I have now downloaded A Death in Valencia, the second in his Max Camara crime series, and have some of his other memoir works lined up as well.

A less successful “place” book was Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh. That was disappointing, because it is on Chennai which used to be Madras, in south India. That was the city I first arrived at in India way back in the last millennium, where I lived for some time doing all my academic research, and was really the first “foreign” city that I got to know. It is still a place for which I have great affection and return to whenever possible, so I was looking forward to this book by a northerner who came to Chennai to work in the press.

It was very disappointing. To begin with, it is self-indulgent in a way that leads to a non-structure for the book which lacks a central message and theme. There are a series of vignettes, some of which have an attraction but many of which do not. The idea, if any, is that the city has changed. Well, yes, but so what? For me its charm is that it is still possible to find some of the characteristics the city had when I first went there, that is not something you can say of most cities. There is a damaging lack of insight into the politics of the city as it has evolved. Personalities drive the politics and none of that appears. Where else in the world would a new government eschew entering a vast new administrative complex built by its predecessor as a memorial to his rule, and proceed to turn it into a hospital? There is still a great book to be written on Chennai.

Speaking of crime, I have had a little break from the genre but got drawn back by William Ryan’s The Bloody Meadow, the second of his Alexei Korolev series set in 1930s Russia. You will again recall my enthusiasm for his first book. This is even better. Korolev is called in to solve a politically sensitive murder where the victim is part of the film world and a protégé of a powerful figure. The book is set out in the wastelands and recounts the iniquities of the Stalinist peasant purges, which form the backdrop for the “film as ideology” set who provide the main action. This is high class writing with the promise of more to come.

The same cannot be said for Donna Leon. Her Beastly Things has Inspector Guido Brunetti and his pals crashing about unwillingly in an abattoir set across from Venice in the Marghera, the industrial site that throughout the Brunetti series so often serves as the contrast to his beloved watery city. The problem is that the plot is thin, there is no character development, and it all seems to amount to not much. Brunetti does not grow. He is still irritated by the tourists who, after all, help Venice survive; he is still struggling with his boss after who knows how many years now; his wife is now on a crusade against stolen library books but we do not get the resolution of this issue; and his kids remain ghosts as do his colleagues, apart from the cyber-savvy boss’ secretary who continues to provide most of the intelligence for her police officers. Even Venice pales in this book, and that is hard to do. This is probably the weakest of the many books in this series so far, and that is hard to do. It is difficult to see where it might go satisfactorily from here. Jason Webster will be a lot better, I know.

Usually on a plane the other distraction is watching new films. Not on Malaysia Airlines, where the choice was banal to say the least. Luckily Phnom Penh offers a much more up to date set of options.

Among other things I have watched the full season of Crownies, written and produced in Australia by Greg Haddrick who got an Emmy nomination a few years ago for MDA, that excellent series based on medical negligence cases. It is hard to see why Crownies has not won more awards because it might just be one of the best Australian productions for a long time. Set in the Department of Public Prosecutions in Sydney, it follows the development of five young newbies fresh out of law school. It intersperses their public and private lives, and their interaction with seniors who have their own problems.

Some of it comes across as set piece: hapless junior for whom everything goes wrong; privileged scion of Sydney legal family who fancies himself; hard-drinking prosecutor haunted by a past case; young woman star with same drink problem who does not want to end up like said prosecutor; daughter of underworld figure trying to make her way in the legal world; secular Muslim woman involved with a cop and trying to cope with her family background. It works, though, because the story lines are believable and draw on real-life situations, and it introduces the legal debates in a believable and accessible way, raising serious moral questions.

Just how good it is can be judged by placing it against Silk, the BBC show that has now had two seasons. This follows a woman barrister in London chambers who aspires to and gains silk, becoming a QC before one of her chambers colleagues played by the wonderful actor Rupert Penley-Jones who here plays the lecherous leer to perfection. This is a classy BBC effort but, to me, it runs second to Crownies on grounds of energy, script richness, filming and production.

Madmen 5 was a huge disappointment after the earlier seasons but, in truth, I did not warm to 4 all that much either. The reason, I think, is that I did not care about the characters who were all boring, self-possessed and unattractive. I know, maybe that is supposed to be the point, but it was like watching a series where the set and the setting was more important than the substance. The show takes on no real position, as with the tobacco wars, for example, whereas  Crownies does with a range of subjects. The M5 season was directionless, slow and at times pointless with a series of vacuous characters in search of a role.

Maybe someone else thought the same because M5 just fell at the Emmy Awards to Homeland, which I watched several months ago and thought was brilliant, a really credible story with Damian Lewis as a returnee POW from Iraq now converted to Islam and apparently intent on bringing down his home country. This was powerful stuff that had a believability.

That is why I liked a series some would call trite. Longmire is set in the “Big Sky” country of Montana and Wyoming, with Robert Taylor  playing a grizzled sheriff who refuses to carry a mobile phone, relies on his networks and has as best friend and mentor the owner of the local pub who is a member of the resident Indian tribe. The stories are essentially about the clash of the old and new, with the idyllic landscape being invaded by drug dealers and more. It works because the characters come through, along with the countryside – always was swayed by a good cowboy story, some things you cannot help.

Aaron Serkin’s much-hyped The Newsroom is a genuine enigma, veering from brilliant to parody. Its problem is that it tries to balance three things that do not work well together in this set: a serious commentary on the state of news television in the USA, a set of complex romances, and comedy. At its best it is sensational, as with an excoriating set of commentaries on the Tea Party views that has the anchor describe the Party as the “American Taliban”. This is clearly something that Sorkin believes in passionately, and that passion is also linked to issues such as phone hacking, ownership manipulation of the media, media ethics, and the challenge “real” news faces from the infotainment end of the industry. In the same episode, however, it can retreat into embarrassing melodrama as apparently intelligent people do the most stupid and unbelievable things. It is flawed, then, but worth a look.

One last one, Line of Duty is for all those fans of BBC cop drama because it is top drawer. A black, highly successful officer is pursued by internal affairs because the object of his affections, other than his wife, turns out to be at the heart of a money laundering ring led by a vicious underworld killer Scot. It is compelling stuff, what you would expect from the BBC.

Now where are all those reports I have to write?


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