Tuesday, May 30, 2006

REVIEW: ‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini

This book was a present (thanks, Jess), and a darned good one at that.

The story’s simple enough, really, dealing with the relationship between Amir and Hassan, two young boys growing up together in Afghanistan in the 1970s.

And yet it’s really much more complex than that, dealing with children’s friendships and the complex emotions underlying them. The prose is almost sparse, but this is definitely an asset – in order to make you understand what a character’s feeling or thinking, Hosseini provides the bare bones, allowing the reader to draw on their own experience to flesh it out, and this sense of reader-involvement makes it more affecting.

There are one or two slightly contrived plot occurrences – though you could say the same about ‘Candide’(and indeed I did) and that’s held in high regard – but the general pacing and emotional resonance of the book is strong enough to make these forgivable, and there are some passages which seem so perfectly crafted it’s hard to believe this is a first novel.

Very good stuff indeed, and definitely recommended.

Filthy Beast

Whilst I appreciate that the perfectly-voice-cast Kelsey Grammer might well be a little more senior in years than one might expect Henry ‘the Beast’ McCoy to be, what with his athleticism and whatnot, I’d say that it was rather ungallant of the makers of X-Men 3 to license the toy pictured here.

As I say, age notwithstanding, there’s no need for Hank to be wearing such obvious and voluminous incontinence pants, surely?

The next stage in human evolution, and he can’t even hold it in. I mean, really…

Don’t sweat the Stray Thoughts (they’re all Stray Thoughts)

  1. In case I haven’t made it clear, I’m going to stop apologising for the infrequency of updates, and reassure you it’s the decent craftsman justifiably blaming his tools. In an effort to promote Broadband, my ISP appears to be letting the dial-up facilities just rot where they sit. I frequently get a connection speed of 4.8kps instead of 56K, and for some reason I can’t possibly fathom this makes updating the webstuff tricky. Not to mention trying to sign up online to the Broadband packages which now look so much more convenient…
  2. Mission Impossible 3 is a perfectly capable action thriller, and you could do worse than watch it. Not as much Hoffmann or Pegg as perhaps one might hope for, but JJ Abrams does a bot-kick job of the action sequences, and the plot’s suitably twisty.
  3. It’s been pointed out to me that I often refer to not doing certain things because they’d be a waste of time. Perhaps I do indeed have an overdeveloped sense of time’s winged chariot drawing up outside and throbbing and waiting, or it may be an attempt on my part to recherche tous les temps perdu, but it’s true; I do see the passing of time as something not to be piddled away. Which makes the fact that I’m expending both words and moments, two of the things I value most, on this, all the more special, doesn’t it?
  4. I saw an episode of QI being filmed last week – Fry, Davies, Jupitus, Bremner and Ancona, which will allegedly be the last episode of series 4. Impressively entertaining, and informative, and I pity you poor folks who won’t get to see it in its unedited two-hour-long live glory…
  5. Speaking of things I saw, I appear to be collecting Pythons: saw John Cleese in Soho a few years ago, and Michael Palin on the South Bank the other week. Didn’t approach either of them, but hope to complete my Python set over time, though I guess Gilliam and Chapman might prove challenging.
  6. Speaking of the Pythons, I can’t help but think that the three whose humour was/is more verbally based (Chapman, Cleese and Idle) generally seem to be less content with their lot than those who delighted in the surreal and just plain silly (Palin, Jones and Gilliam). A terrible oversimplification, to be sure, but I wonder if there’s something about essentially verbal comedy which leads its practitioners to analyse words for their comedic potential to a negative extent. I think it was WC Fields who said ‘I know what makes an audience laugh, but I don’t know why’, and I wonder if seeking to find out ‘why’ is a path down which melancholy lurks…

Monday, May 22, 2006

“Do it to Julia!”

As you may have heard – or even seen – the National Lottery show on Saturday night was beset by protesters who jumped onto the stage and disrupted the programme. The picture here illustrates it – and also demonstrates what I thought I’d seen in the playback: that Sarah ‘I got my start in the Girlie Show’ Cawood kept doing her bit like a professional, whereas Eamon ‘I’m a serious journalist with years of experience’ Holmes ran across the stage and cowered behind her like the big brave man he is.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be a member of the crew if Holmes is ever sent to cover a war zone, that’s for sure.

Reports of my death have been much exaggerated…

… as have the suggestions that I’m in hiding, waiting to be a surprise housemate on Big Brother; technical problems are continuing to prevent me making entries as often as I’d like, I’m afraid.

Will try to sort them out, but in the meantime, let me just dangle this virtual carrot: www.johnsoanes.co.uk v2.0 is coming soon.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

REVIEW: Bill Mason – Nine Lives: Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

The autobiography of Mason, as per the subtitle, contains confessions – he’s craftily waited until the (US) statute of limitations has passed on a number of jewel thefts before admitting to them in this book.

Mason stole large numbers of jewels over a number of decades, though invariably from the rich (mainly American celebrities who are less well known here), and he was strict about not using guns or other violence, making the opening sections of this book read like a real-life Raffles or Fantomas. Many of Mason’s thefts are accomplished appallingly easily, as he frequently points out that people have elaborate security systems which they don’t turn on, or heavily-reinforced sliding doors which they don’t lock. If nothing else, the book acts as a reminder to lock up after you go out.

However, from about the halfway point onwards, Mason spends a lot of time writing about his attempts to stay out of jail, and this is far less interesting. Perhaps it’s because the exact nature of legal wrangles is pretty alien to a limey like me, or because Mason becomes less sympathetic when he’s out on the town drinking with his lawyers and leaving his wife and kids at home, but I found this section pretty uninteresting. When he gets sent to jail – and he does, despite some fairly insane courtroom machinations – he writes well about this, providing some good insights into life behind bars and dispelling a lot of myths.

Overall, not a bad read, but I found myself plodding a bit through the legal stuff which dominates the middle and onwards. It’s well written on the whole, with Mason coming off as pretty likeable despite his open admissions of being a criminal, and it’s refreshingly down to earth, unlike most crime-based TV or films. You might want to check this out – it’s an American book, but it’s been published by Bantam Press in the UK, so though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you buy it, your local library might have a copy.

When I was thinking Stray Thoughts, it was a very good year…

  1. I have won four tickets to see The Charlatans in Birmingham on May 14, and am unlikely to be able to use them. If you can use them, let me know, and they’re yours – quickly, though, as I can always eBay them…
  2. Speaking of music and freebies, there’s a wonderfully perverse CD of cover versions free with the latest issue of Q magazine, which I commend to you. I particularly like the Nick Cave version of ‘Disco 2000’ and the Travis cover of ‘…Baby One More Time’. I kid you not.
  3. There are moves afoot, I gather, to standardise the timing and sound of the muezzin (or call to prayer) in Cairo. I can understand the desire to make it sound the same (because some are definitely more melodious better than others), but I have to say that I positively like the sound – it’s a wonderful reminder when I’m on holiday that I really am far away from the usual routine.
  4. Very amusing week in politics - as I hope is very clear by now, I’m not party political, but I do think it was funny to see the PM supporting various ministers in recent times, then retracting that support when the party got a serious kicking at the local elections, and kicking the same ministers out or stripping them of their power. Fair weather friend indeed, and it all has the feel of 1993 to me, when the government seemed to be staggering from one embarrassment or crisis to the next…

TRAVEL: A Frank admission (reduced rates for groups)

I’ve never been one for holidays which are all about lying on a beach.
I don’t tan (when exposed to heat and light, my paper-white English skin responds like something out of Fahrenheit 451) and my boredom threshold is pretty low: I once spent a couple of weeks holidaying in a French beach resort with some friends, and after about three days of lying in the sun, I felt as if my higher brain functions were shutting down – I may have been in the land that brought us the work of Rimbaud, but by the end of the fortnight, I was intellectually more suited to the oeuvre of Rambo.

So: I prefer to take breaks which involve a few sights, a bit of activity, and some kind of exposure to foreign languages and culture, at the very least.

An example of this was when I went to Amsterdam – and don’t get your hopes up, this won’t be the tale of how my wander down the walletjes led to me being exposed to the kind of foreign culture which you normally see on Petri dish or microscope slide – a few years ago.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and there’s something very relaxed about the general atmosphere (insert inevitable dope-smoking joke here), and generally laid-back (ditto a legalised prostitution gag here). That, though, was all overshadowed for me by the visit I made to the Anne Frank House.

Located at 263-265 Prinsengracht, the Anne Frank House is just that – the house where the Franks and van Pels hid between 1942 and 1944, when their hiding-place was betrayed. If you don’t know the story – and I’d be surprised if that’s the case – I strongly urge you to read the Definitive Edition of Anne’s diary (which contains a lot of material expunged from previous editions), which was published about a decade ago. And then, when you’ve read it, do visit the House and Museum if you can.

Because it makes it all seem even more real; I always feel that things like the Holocaust are so vast and terrible that the mind often shuts out the scale of them, but the Diary of Anne Frank makes it all seem so human, and the up-and-downs of despair and hope which she writes about are so relatable, that if you read the diary and then think that those feelings were shared by millions of people whose names many of us will never know, then … well, it’s not a nice thing to know and read about or understand, but it’s an insight into the depths to which humanity can sink, and it’s as sobering as it is a warning.

And if Anne’s diary makes it feel real and relatable, then actually walking in the house where it all happened brings it home; you walk up the stairs and pass behind the hinged bookcase that separated the families from the outside world, and seeing the size of the rooms where a total of eight people hid for two years, it’s hard to imagine how they coped; I’ve been in shared houses where people have started to get a bit stir crazy if they’ve stayed in over a weekend working on an essay or whatever, but ultimately they had the choice, as we so often do now. The Franks had no such choice.

I was with someone when I went to the Frank House, but it’s not the kind of place you go round in pairs – you take your time, looking at bits of it and lingering as the mood or the moment takes you – so she and I were separated, and we met up again at the top of the house, in the Front-House Attic. I was standing at the window, looking out at the view, and feeling a sense of stepping into someone else’s space, like sitting on a chair still-warm from it’s previous occupant, at the realisation that Anne Frank (and the others in hiding) must have stood in exactly the same spot at various points, looking out at a city whose streets they might never walk again. I was feeling vague and kind of weird, rather overwhelmed by the way the Franks’ story had been made so concrete and real to me, and thankfully she didn’t try to jolly me along or make a joke or anything, just left me there to look out of the window for a minute or so.

As well as the house, there’s a bookshop (understandably), and also some exhibition rooms, one of which contains the original diary. Impressively, the museum doesn’t try to pretend that the obvious lessons of World War II have necessarily been learned – there’s a photo on the wall of a statue of Anne Frank on which someone has spray-painted a swastika, and an accompanying caption discusses the threat of neo-nazism. Henry Jones was right – goose-stepping morons would be better off reading books, instead of just burning them.

And nowhere is that sentiment more clear than the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Definitely worth your time.

Resumption of Service

Back again, after a long radio silence caused mainly by technical issues (that is, I need to get Broadband sorted out at home; don’t worry, it’s in hand). Still, I have some things for your perusal, so without further ado…