Archive for July, 2011

Useless book reviews in the FT

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

My weekly treat of the Saturday FT is becoming less and less something to look forward to. It’s not just that the fashion shoots are as gauche as those of newspapers everywhere, or that the odious ‘How to Spend It’ bizarrely channels a middle class aspiring to be hot Russian money in London. Nor that Mrs Moneypenny has irrevocably (i.e. on television) revealed herself as a bit of an empty vessel. Nor, even, that my beloved Secret Agent is running out of things to say about the property-acquiring super rich. (I guiltily admit I loved him more when he was melancholy, and still daydream of fixing him up with a friend.) No, my ability to pleasurably drag out the reading for more than an hour is vexed by the increasingly uninsightful and plain old poor value for money that has begun to mark the fiction reviews.

The increasing Americanisation of the FT now has writers review books by their brothers and sisters in arms. The British tradition of publishing book reviews by people who are real-life critics and not part-time cheer leaders and quarterbacks may be nasty, discomfiting and sometimes unfair to writers – and for this I blame editors – but it gives a reader a much clearer view of the essential question; ‘Is it any good?’. I imagine it’s also costing unsung book reviewers their living as money is thrown at superstar writers at the top of the pile.

Case in point: this week’s review by Annie Proulx of a novel, ‘Irma Voth’, by Miriam Toews. Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something. Proulx dedicates 800 of her 1000 words to describing the plot of the novel from beginning to end; 800 tedious words of ‘this happens and then that happens’, and then a final 50 to more helpfully add that Irma Voth is a parable of redemption with a decent pay-off. It’s just not a very good piece, and yet it is given star treatment.

Proulx’ review occupies the most prominent real estate in the sadly pared back FT book review section, and has an apparently custom-ordered illustration to go with it. The picture alone takes up the same amount of space on the page as 6 of the mini-reviews that comprise the meat of the section. What a waste of space! The books editor may have imagined a gloriously co-branded vista, with the joint intellectual capital of Proulx and the FT expanding geometrically as far as the eye can see. What’s ended up on the page is a colossally wasteful exercise in winner-takes-all back-scratching that is unworthy of either party.

Which is not to say writers don’t have anything interesting to say about books. (And Lionel Shriver’s reviews for the FT are much better than those of Proulx.) Where would the LRB be without writers talking to and about other writers? However, a weekend book review section is for readers, and editors booking puff pieces from rock stars to add to squeezed book sections the illusion of mass would do well to remember this.

First published on Crooked Timber on 14 June, 2100

Sunnyside II – Count no man lucky until he is dead

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

On first reading, Sunnyside seems to be a picaresque with a sting in the tail. In the best spirit of Chaplin’s films, this rambling story of World War I and the movies uses slapstick and pathos to wring out tears of laughter and sadness. Many readers set it down, bemused, scratching their heads, wondering what, if anything, it was all about. Some reviewers said it was an ambitious failure. Sunnyside is a book you need to live with for a while as it unwraps itself. Or not. Like the best comedy, it’s a response, though not an answer, to the despair of the human condition. And it’s very, very funny.

What does it mean to ‘get’ a book, or at least to think you have? It’s something that happens in a reader’s mind when the characters, story, feelings and ideas of a novel unite into something greater than their sum, becoming a complete world of their own, a world that teaches true things about the world we live in. A good book that sits uncomfortably in its own era resists understanding just as it teaches you how to read it. Sunnyside is the sort of book you think about for a long time after reading, and will probably come back to again.

The first time I read Sunnyside, I zeroed in on its theme of whether life has any meaning. In a romp about war and movies, fame and money, cartels and kaisers, fairytale princesses and schoolgirl brides, performing dogs and Parisian whores, the questions are asked again and again; in this crazy, violent and speedy world, does life have a meaning? Can stories give it any? Does history repeat itself? And if it does, so what? (more…)

Garret FitzGerald, RIP

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Garret FitzGerald, Ireland’s Taoiseach in the 1980s and a beloved family friend, died early this morning. Politically, I think of him as the man who took Thatcher’s condescension on the chin to create the Anglo Irish Agreement, and the man with the courage to call time on the Catholic Church’s unquestioned dominance of social policy and moral thought in Ireland. Personally, while I can appreciate that Garret had what we call a good innings, wasn’t ill for very long, and enjoyed a final few hours of joyous clarity with some of the people he loved the most, I both wished and believed that he would go on and on.

People think of Garret as a dizzy academic, and not the resolutely calculating man he could be when it came to tallying odds and gaming a scenario. This was the man who coolly reckoned at the beginning of his career that while he was constitutionally more suited to the Labour Party, he would achieve less at the head of it, and so joined Fine Gael. His first job was writing the timetable for Aer Lingus, long before there was software for that kind of organisational nitty gritty. He had an extraordinary memory for this sort of thing; on a walk near Cahersiveen a decade ago, he explained to me the old train route there, the stations it called at, the time of each train and effect on the local economy. He giggled when I said we should call him Rainman. (more…)

Sunnyside Seminar with author Glen David Gold

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

A year after I first trailed it on Crooked Timber, we published a seminar on Sunnyside,
by Glen David Gold, who also wrote Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside is a vast, shiny, dark and funny novel about Charlie Chaplin, the birth of modern celebrity, America’s diffidence and then wild enthusiasm for World War I, two genius puppies and their fame-seeking GI owner, an apple-cheeked criminal prodigy, and a Detroit devotee of Ruskin’s attempt to rescue three Russian princesses from the Red Army.

I’m a little nervous of the pronouncement that this novel is about the themes it evokes and the questions it implies, not least because it might lessen the fun of reading it and hitting on these questions yourself. But I want to stake very firmly the claim that this book needs to be gobbled up, because picaresque is serious stuff.

Sunnyside made me laugh out loud in public and on my own, pepper Wikipedia with historical queries, plague family and friends with its insights and asides, and cry the embarrassing, heaving sobs of true loss, not the fictive kind. And, annoyingly, in the middle of a grand World War I narrative where faceless millions perish mostly off-screen, Sunnyside made me care very much if the dog makes it.

Three writer/critics from London and New York have very patiently born with me while we pulled this seminar together:


The hollowing out of ICANN must stop

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Last week, I did something I never expected to do. At the ICANN meeting in San Francisco, I stood up in front of several hundred people and the ICANN Board of Directors and delivered a full and frank criticism of the management of ICANN’s current CEO, Rod Beckstrom.

The response to this speech was overwhelmingly strong and supportive, both in the immediate and lengthy applause and, since then, in a constant stream of handshakes, twitter and facebook shout-outs, and emails – many of which were privately sent by current members of the ICANN staff. I am re-producing my comments here so that they may be more widely available and spark further public debate.

I know the Internet community well enough to say that this is not a popularity contest, and the support I’ve received for my comments isn’t personal. There is a widely shared and profound disquiet at how this organization has been managed, horror at the near-vandalism of the damage done, and a growing sense that it must stop.

“My name is Maria Farrell. I am a member of this year’s Nominating Committee, appointed by the NCUC (Non Commercial User Constituency), and I was previously a member of theICANN staff.

I have the distinction of being the first of a mass exodus of staff from the ICANN organization, in a series of forced departures which continue to this day.

I have kept silent and not spoken about this out of loyalty to the organization and respect for the leadership, and also my desire not to make a difficult situation worse for the ICANN staff. But my profound disquiet about how the organization is operationally being managed has moved me to speak to the Board today.

There has been a vast hollowing out of expertise, of relationships, of institutional memory, and of goodwill for this organization, and I believe the impact on ICANN ’s operational effectiveness has been profound. The impact on the international reputation is also quite an issue.

There is a climate of fear stalking the ICANN staff. People are afraid to speak frankly internally, and to speak unpalatable truths behind closed doors, the sorts of things that need to be discussed to allow the organization to function efficiently.

People are afraid of losing their jobs by doing their jobs.

The collegiality that we knew as former ICANN staff seems to have evaporated as we have hemorrhaged talent over the last year or so. The culture of collegiality has made way for one of managing up and managing expectations, rather than serving the community.

Operational planning is in some disarray, as budgets are made up as we go along, priorities change, and internal communication is nonexistent.

I believe also that ICANN’s relationships that have been cultivated around the world over many years and with much assiduity have been trashed.

This hollowing out of the expertise of the ICANN organization, of goodwill, and the trashing of its international reputation has come to such an extent that I believe it requires urgent board attention.

These are very harsh words. I don’t deliver them with any sense of ease or happiness, but I do believe although the board doesn’t wish to be involved in micromanagement, that it needs to pay attention to these issues.

Thank you.” (more…)