The New York Review of Books

008The current issue of The New York Review of Books is its 50th anniversary issue.  Without wanting to sound pompous (and failing spectacularly) reading the NYRB is like dipping into a specific moment in the past – fin de siècle Vienna, that period of ideas and debate that spanned the latter years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th.  The NYRB is, for me, an unashamedly Enlightenment publication.  It takes a rather pragmatic (in a philosophical sense) approach to its topics, questioning without being cynical.   Glib is a word that could never be associated with the Review.  And its topics are diverse.  Much of what I know about subjects ranging from art to science comes from having subscribed to the Review since the middle of the last decade and from following up on what I have read between its pages.  Consecutive articles in the 50th anniversary issue discuss, in order: the economic implications of automatization and now digitisation; the rise of creative writing as a taught subject in U.S. universities; police/state repression in China; and a Balthus exhibition.  In terms of contributors, The Review’s scope is wide.  The anniversary issue contains contributions from four Nobel laureates and an essay on Proust by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer.

Typically, an essay in the Review will use a book or exhibition, movie or television series (granted movie and TV series discussions are rare) – as a framing device for a broader discussion of the general topic.  So, for instance, the current issue includes author Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.  Not only does Mendelsohn consider the move from the written page to the TV screen and how that has impacted on the telling of the Game of Thrones story, but he also suggests that what ostensibly seems like ‘a testosterone-fueled swashbuckler’ instead creates ‘alternatives to the narratives of male growth’ in its development into a ‘remarkable feminist epic.’

The Review was founded by Robert E. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, who co-edited it until her death in 2006, at which point Silvers assumed the mantle of sole editor.  It has a belief not so much in humanity per se – its long interest in the obliteration of both everyday and intellectual life in Europe during World War II suggests a questioning of how humane humans can be as a species – but in people (as individuals or in communities) to rise above the fray in search of betterment.  Granted, its letters pages sometimes threaten to reach below the fray – I’m only half kidding.  The Washington Post called the letters page ‘the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing.’  The letters can be vigorous (to put it lightly) but are generally well-considered and well researched – it’s not unusual for a letter/reply to include footnotes.

New York Review Books, the journal’s publishing house, publishes books under the New York Review Books Classics, New York Review Books Collections, The New York Review Children’s Collection and NYRB Lit.  The Classics imprint has released translations of works previously unavailable in English. NYRB Lit is an imprint for e-book only contemporary titles, both fiction and non-fiction.  The intention is to focus on titles deemed too risky or expensive for traditional publishers but which have become publishable thanks to the economics of e-books .

It is difficult to capture the essence of the Review in a single contributor and maybe perhaps unfair, given that it is the dedication of Silvers and the late Epstein that has ensured its longevity.  But I think it’s no coincidence that the anniversary issue contains an excerpt from Tony Judt’s essay “Edge People,” originally published in the March 25, 2010, issue.  Judt, who died in August 2010, was a brilliant historian and essayist, whose easy writing style hid a robust form of analysis and an extraordinary intellectual range.  His Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is hard to match as a general history of modern Europe.  In “Edge People,” Judt considered his own identity as an English-born ‘non-Jewish Jew’ teaching in New York but who felt most at home at the ‘edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another – where cosmopolitanism is  not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.’


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Blue Valentine

The imminent release of writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines prompted a re-watch this week of his previous feature, Blue Valentine.  Released in 2010, Blue Valentine charts the relationship between Cindy and Dean, using a cross-cut device to focus on the beginning and seeming end of the relationship.  I say seeming end because the movie’s plot is ambiguous, not least in its refusal to identify fully the reason or reasons why the relationship is failing.   It just is, which is how many relationships in real life fail, is it not?  They just do.  Nonetheless, Cindy’s exhaustion and the extent to which she is exasperated with Dean is obvious.  Furthermore, the couple’s sniping at each other is indicative of a fundamental breakdown in communication.  There is an integrity about both of these characters, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to salvage their relationship.

In a Q&A on the DVD release, Cianfrance references his background in documentary and how it taught him to listen.  And the movie does feel like eavesdropping on the conversation between the two protagonists.  Cianfrance’s documentary experience is also reflected in the hyper-real cinematography and the spontaneous feel of the performances from Williams and Gosling, the result undoubtedly of the actors’ improvisation of dialogue.  For his part, Cianfrance was fortunate to be working with Williams and Gosling, two of Hollywood’s most extraordinary talents.  The scenes of their first date are beautifully rendered, as the two characters awkwardly find their way into getting to know each other.  The movie’s feel is strengthened by Cianfrance’s own approach to its production.  The part of the movie depicting the development of Cindy and Dean’s relationship was shot using Super 16mm, giving it a natural, lived-in and intimate look.  The blue tint of the scenes depicting the relationship as it falls apart washes the vitality out of the camera work, almost as if it has been bleached, and reflects the distressed nature of the marriage.

Blue Valentine became caught up in a ratings controversy when the MPAA rated it NC-17, the category that replaced an X rating in 1989.  The rating was in respect of a cunnilingus scene, prompting Gosling to accuse the ratings association of sexism and misogyny on the grounds that a scene involving oral sex performed on a male would never have received similar censure.  Although the rating was changed to R following an appeal, the controversy highlighted a discomfort with depictions of female sexuality in mainstream popular culture.  The NC-17 rating is less about stopping children under 17 from being admitted to movie theatres to watch certain movies than it is about censoring movie content itself.   In the case of Blue Valentine, the retention of the NC-17 rating would have effectively stigmatized the movie for its depiction of oral sex.   At the time, Gosling was quoted as saying:

‘You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.’

 The link below is to a recording of Cianfrance, Williams and Gosling on PBS’ Charlie Rose.  It is well worth watching for the discussion of how Blue Valentine evolved and how different it was in its making compared to other movies.

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Back Story, David Mitchell

This is not going to be one of those critical reviews.  Firstly, I like this book.  It’s funny.  Secondly, I like David Mitchell.  He’s funny.

The title of the book refers not only to Mitchell’s reminiscences on growing up, attending Cambridge University and forging a comedy career, but also to the chronic back problems he’s suffered over the years and how he’s solved those problems by taking up walking.  Queue the opportunity to take a walk through west London, from Mitchell’s bachelor pad in Kilburn to the BBC Television Centre at White City.  Mitchell uses what he sees on the walk to frame his “back story” from childhood to maturity and career success with such programs as Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, both with his long-time comedy partner Robert Webb.  As a reader familiar with Mitchell might expect, there’s no small amount of humorous self-depreciation.

Back Story is terrific at debunking the glamour of television production.  The unreal, or surreal, if you prefer, is what appears on television screens.  The real is endless rounds of production meetings, long shoots, long waits between shoots, even longer waits between commissions and re-commissions.  Mitchell captures the uncertainty that surrounds it all.  What he is also good at is conveying the reality of a career in television, or, dare I say it, life as a celebrity – that for the overwhelming majority, it is not instant X-Factor-type fame but a long, hard slog that doesn’t feel at all inevitable.

The narrative beneath the narrative in this book is Mitchell’s love life, or rather lack of it.  References are made every number of pages to a date or a short-lived relationship or an occasional, guilty one-night stand (Mitchell seems particularly apologetic about them).  Then, in the final chapter, the book takes an unexpected turn when the author describes how he fell in love.  With remarkable candour ( I really can’t emphasise enough how honest he is), Mitchell opens up about how he fell for the columnist Victoria Coren.  Heartbreakingly for him, she didn’t feel the same way and a burgeoning relationship petered out after a few dates.  But rather than move on, Mitchell waited.  He waited three years, during which time she was with someone else.  In the normal course of these things, the spurned lover would eventually cop on and go find someone else.  But Mitchell waited, and waited and then..  Well, then Coren came back.  What?  Yes, she came back and the book ends with the couple engaged (they married in a ceremony last month).

The impression that Mitchell gives, as noted earlier, is that of a nerdy, awkward loner (that his character in Peep Show, Mark Corrigan is desperately unhappy and needy likely adds to Mitchell’s own image).  But the real Mitchell is, I think, a rather purposeful and certainly confident person in that “I’m going to make it in television” sort of way, which, of course, he has.  He crafted a public persona of this rather sad singleton, he says, because he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he’d fallen in love and that it was unrequited.  But anyone who waits three years for another person has to have a certain inner-confidence, don’t they, a conviction that everything will turn out all right?  You’d go mad otherwise! I’m not saying Mitchell is deceiving people, but crafting a public persona is something a person in the public eye might well do, because it allows the private self to remain exactly that – private, separate.  It’s a defence mechanism, and a useful one at that.

The book ends with Mitchell quoting the oft-heard saying “If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards” before admitting that for the first time in a long time, he’s standing still.  Well, as I once heard someone say, there’s nothing wrong with treading water, as long as it’s purposeful treading.  And Mitchell’s is certainly purposeful.


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He was a Friend of Mine

One of my closest friends died last week.  We had known each other for almost 18 years, having met as students at Queen’s when I was in 1st year and he was in 2nd.  For my last year of four in Belfast, we were flatmates but long before that we had become close.  Queen’s by the demographics of its student population falls quiet at weekends but Paddy Gallagher and I were one of the small number who hung around the campus on those days, filling the time with trips into town, exploring a nightscape that was often half-empty as the city recovered from the Troubles.

I found University to be too stop-start for any proper engagement with studies.  But in terms of the friendships I forged, those years were some of the best and my friendship with Paddy was one of best friendships I had or have had since.   He was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.  He was supremely intelligent and we had some terrific conversations.  A law graduate, he also had a keen interest in astronomy and had recently applied to do a masters in astro physics through the Open University.

Male friendship never falls or rises on the basis of proper, two-way conversation.  It’s the unsaid words that cement male friendships – you don’t say anything because whatever needs to be said has already been implied.

On one of the last occasions I saw Paddy, I was at a low point, for a number of reasons.  It was the weekend before Christmas last and a group of us had arranged to call to his flat.  After the others had left, I hung on for an hour and talked to him about what was on my mind.  He didn’t offer any real advice but he listened intently and that was enough.  I will never have the opportunity to thank him for hearing me out that day; he will never know how much he helped.  The last time I saw him was about a month later; a backwards glance and a quick goodbye out of a car window. It happens like that, seeing someone for the last time – it assumes an importance only in retrospect.

Paddy had suffered from ill-health his entire life but his death was an accident; that makes it harder to bear.  He had the sunniest of dispositions.  His last words to his family, written down because he couldn’t speak, were “happy days” – a phrase I heard him say over and over.

Because I didn’t make it to his bedside before he died, I’m left with this nagging feeling that I owe Paddy a debt that can never now be paid, but that is too selfish a feeling.  Sometimes what we rage against the most are those things that we cannot control.  And so it is with the unexpected death of a close friend.

The best I can do is to take to heart what Henry David Thoreau wrote:

“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfil the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.”

I will miss his laugh – it could reach into the corners of the largest of rooms.  I will miss his raging intellect and his sense of justice.  I will miss the way he would be the first to cut through the spin that characterises modern politics and media to see what was really meant.  I will miss those days in and nights out we can never have.  I will miss him.  He was a friend of mine.


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Silence, a movie by Pat Collins

The cuckoo calls from the well of my mind,

more echo than thought, as it fades through the wind

and flickers away to the silence beyond

like the voice, in myself, of another – John Burnside, “Insomnia in Southern Illinois.”

Beginning with the above quote from acclaimed Scottish poet John Burnside, director Pat Collins’ Silence traces the journey of Eoghan (co-writer  Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde), a sound recordist living in Berlin, as he travels back to Ireland for the first time in 15 years.  He has been offered work recording landscapes where man-made sound is absent but, tellingly, his girlfriend/wife – their exact relationship is unclear – quotes to him before he leaves the line ‘And so I follow the arc of life and return to my starting place’ (she speaks the line in German).

In Ireland, Eoghan records in remote terrain but through his encounters with various characters, most of whom are people playing themselves (including writer and Irish Times columnist Michael Harding), and a gradual drawing back to his home, Donegal’s Tory Island, he begins to engage with human life again.  The movie is cut through with old film stock and still images of family and community life.  The origin of these images is vague in that it is never made clear whether they are of Eoghan’s own family and wider community or not.  Their vagueness seems deliberate, as if they have passed into memory, providing no clear map of either what has gone or what is to come, much like how anyone’s memories of growing up get interpreted and reinterpreted.

The absence of certainty is reinforced by Eoghan’s frequent staring from windows.  It’s from windows that we often engage with the outside world but it can only be a half engagement – it’s often the case that we don’t hear what is going on outside or those outside don’t see or hear us within.

Solitude is at the heart of this movie.  In his book, Solitude, the English psychiatrist Anthony Storr examined this human capacity to be alone and, more broadly, the balance between interpersonal relationships and impersonal interests. In conclusion, he quoted William Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem, “The Prelude:”

When from our better selves we have too long

Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,

Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,

How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

Silence is a beautifully made movie.  To master the ordinary is as difficult on film as is it in literature, but Collins has done it.  Rich in its stillness, Silence is deserving of a wide audience.


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Literary Locations

Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Courtesy of Ciaran O’Murchu.

It is not unusual to find in a story or novel a location the reader has personal knowledge of.  Writers will write about what they know and that includes actual locations.  For the reader, it can be a delight to find in fiction a setting they call home.

In Nightlines (1970), his first book of published stories, John McGahern included Strandhill: The Sea, part of what Irish-Canadian academic Denis Sampson has termed an “existential segment” of stories dramatizing “the sense of time passing in a continuous present” (1).  To find a story set in a place known to the reader makes vivid that continuous present as the story’s narrative, dreamt up in the writer’s past, parallels the reader’s own, often ongoing experience of place.

In Strandhill: The Sea, the unnamed narrator, visiting the seaside resort just five miles from where I grew up, describes perfectly the vagaries of Sligo’s weather – “The sky filled over Sligo bay, the darkness moving across the links and church, one clear blue strip between Parkes’ and Knocknarea.”  Summers in the Northwest of Ireland invariably offer both the distant hope of sun and the almost constant threat of rain.

Strandhill reappears in McGahern’s writing on an intermittent basis.  In The Stoat, published in the collection High Ground (1985), a young man is asked to Strandhill to meet the woman his widower father is considering marrying.  Playing golf on the links course there, he finds a dying rabbit, the victim of a stoat.  In his imagination, the chase of rabbit by stoat contrasts with his father’s own chase of his potential wife – a chase casually abandoned when the woman’s health shows signs of fragility.

Moran, the anti-hero of the novel Amongst Women (1990), drives Rose, his second wife, to Strandhill for a day’s outing.  The seaside resort serves as an escape for McGahern’s characters, just as it has served as a sanctuary for me many times.  Moran’s trip is echoed by that of his youngest son, Michael, whose older lover drives them to Strandhill so they can spend time together away from the prying eyes of their inland, rural community.

McGahern’s descriptions of Strandhill make those particular stories more vivid in my own mind but, ultimately, his fiction stands on its own merits.

(1) Sampson, Denis, Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern, The Catholic University of America Press, 1993, p. 87.

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Stand up Stewart Lee, your book made me laugh!

Stewart Lee (courtesy of

A book in which a well-known English stand-up dissects his shows together with transcripts of said shows?  No, I didn’t think it could work either.  But that is to underestimate Stewart Lee.   How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian is a hugely entertaining insight into the creative process, as Lee outlines what he thinks went wrong with his career and how he rejuvenated it.  He traces his career from its start in the early 1990s and his partnership with Richard Herring until, burnt out, he quit stand-up in 2001 and went off to co-write Jerry Springer:  The Opera.  Lee outlines how, through his experiences outside the world of stand-up, he came to the conclusion that, in fact, stand-up has “infinite” possibilities and that he could get back on stage again.   The book includes transcripts from three of Lee’s shows, starting with Stand-Up Comedian in 2005 and continuing through ’90s Comedian in 2006 and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever in 2008.

Lee is an intelligent and analytical man and that comes across in his routines, but his comedy also possesses a vicious bite in the form of his scepticism, with issues ranging from organized religion to celebrity culture.   And of course, he is very, very funny.  At one point in the book, Lee implies that if readers were to laugh out loud at the routines as they appear printed on the page, he would consider it a failure, as stand-up is not meant to work on the page, but I will readily admit to doubling up in laugher more than once while reading the book.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate also offers an insight into many of Lee’s fellow comedians. There is Richard Herring, of course, but Lee also gives liberal mention to Simon Munnery, who seems to be hero of his.   On one level, a reader unfamiliar with the inner-workings of stand-up might be forgiven for wondering why Harry Hill would be given any prominence by Lee, given Hill’s mainstream profile via his TV Burp programme, but Hill is a wonderfully eccentric and inventive stand-up and Lee credits him with evolving the callback, when an idea from earlier in a set is reincorporated at another point where it can be funny ‘in and of itself,’ as Lee says.  Lee has worked with Hill in the past.  Johnny Vegas and Daniel Kitson also feature prominently in the book.

Stand-up has become so integrated into mainstream television schedules that it is easy to forget how intelligent and inventive it can be as an art form.  With this book, Lee has done much to address that.   Oh, and to emphasize, he’s a funny, funny man.


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