April Books

Non-fiction: 1 (YTD 17)
The God Instinct, by Jesse Bering

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 13)
Mrs Miniver, by Jan Struther
Something Like Normal, by Trish Doller

sf (non-Who): 7 (YTD 35)
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, by Robert A. Heinlein
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
Islandia, by Austen Tappan Wright
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 14)
Doctor Who: The Official Annual 2010
Genius Loci, by Ben Aaronovitch
Rose, by Russell T. Davies
The Christmas Invasion, by Jenny T. Colgan

Comics: 8 (YTD 14)
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, by H.P. Lovecraft and Ian Culbard
Torchwood: Rift War, by Ian Edgington et al.
Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Time, written by Saladin Ahmed, illustrated by Christian Ward, lettered by Clayton Cowles
Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda
Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles
Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris

~6,000 pages (YTD ~25,900)
10/22 (YTD 37/94) by women (Struther, Doller, Jones, Wells, Okorafor, Colgan, Liu/Takeda, Staples, DeConinck, Ferris))
5/22 (YTD 11/94) by PoC (Okorafor, Ahmed, Liu/Takeda, Staples, Chiang)
0/22 (YTD 6/94) reread

Reading now
The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
Luminescent Threads, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal
The Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat

Coming soon (perhaps):
Contes Fantastiques Complets, by Guy de Maupassant
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
Looking For JJ, by Anne Cassidy
Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner
Moominvalley in November, by Tove Jansson
Gemini, by Dorothy Dunnett
Virgins, Weeders and Queens, by Twigs Way
Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov
Le Mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
Your Code Name is Jonah, by Edward Packard
Anno Mortis, by Rebecca Levene
“Slow Sculpture”, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Aeneid, by Virgil
Rose de Paris, by Gilles Schlesser
The Flood, by Scott Gray and Gareth Roberts
Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, by Abel Lanzac
Maigret Loses His Temper, by Georges Simenon
Up Jim River, by Michael Flynn
The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer
Aztec Century, by Christopher Evans
Collected Works, ed. Nick Wallace

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Monday reading

Current
The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
Luminescent Threads, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal
The Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat

Last books finished
Islandia, by Austen Tappan Wright
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

Next books
Contes Fantastiques Complets, by Guy de Maupassant
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
Looking For JJ, by Anne Cassidy

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The 2018 Hugo finalists for Best Novelette

Only brief notes here – been rather busy.

6) “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer

Second paragraph of third section:

The pest also appeared to have a taste for the insulation on comm cables and other not normally edible parts of the ship.

Sorry, this fails my “I hate cute robots” test. The heroic robot carries a disabled older robot around with him on his quest before saving the day by being cute. It’s not you, author, it’s me; don’t worry.

5) “A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Second paragraph of third section:

It’s not expulsion if you leave before you get kicked out, she tells herself, but even she can tell that’s a lie.

A funny (and sinister) story about synthetic meat.

4) “Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard

Second pargraph of third section:

And, as he walked, he became aware he wasn’t alone.

Dragon on a mission in the same world as House of Shattered Wings.

3) “Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee

Second paragraph of third section:

The usual commander of the troop introduced herself as Churioi Haval, not her real name. She was portly, had a squint, and wore gaudy gilt jewelry, all excellent ways to convince people that she was an ordinary merchant and not, say, Kel special ops. It hadn’t escaped his attention that she frowned ever so slightly when she spotted his sidearm, a Patterner 52, which wasn’t standard Kel issue. “You’re not bringing that, are you?” she said.

Another man on a mission, in an entertainingly diverse future.

2) “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara

Second paragraph of third section:

Andreas’s venom curdles any food left in my stomach. He deposits me in the bathroom the instant before I vomit. I clutch the toilet bowl until my knuckles whiten and the whiteness spreads through my hands and I can feel it in my face. Until I can only dry heave.

Interesting exploration of the concept of a transgender vampire.

1) “Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker

Third section in full:

Wind Will Rove
Instrumental in D (alternate tuning DDAD)
Harriet Barrie, Music Historian:
The fiddler Olivia Vandiver and her father, Charley Vandiver, came up with this tune in the wee hours of a session in 1974. Charley was trying to remember a traditional tune he had heard as a boy in Nova Scotia, believed to be "Windy Grove." No recordings of the original "Windy Grove" were ever catalogued, on ship or on Earth. "Wind Will Rove" is treated as traditional in most circles, even though it's relatively recent, because it is the lost tune's closest known relative.

A generation starship that has lost its collective cultural memory, and has to make do. Several interesting themes combined (history, politics, culture) and it gets my vote.

2018 Hugos: Novel | Novella | Novelette | Short Story | Related Work | Graphic Story | Dramatic Long | Dramatic Short | Professional Artist & Fan Artist | Series | Young Adult | Campbell Award
1943 Retro Hugos: Novel | Novella | Novelette | Short Story | Dramatic Short | Fan Artist

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Musical anniversaries for 26 April

Fugue in A by Adam Falckenhagen, who was born on this day in 1697.

Deep Moaning Blues, by Ma Rainey, born on this day in 1886.

Theme from “Love Story”, by Francis Lai, born on this day in 1932.

“Ghost Riders in the Sky”, by Duane Eddy, born on this day in 1938.

“Touch Myself” by T-Boz, born on this day in 1970.

“A Night Like This”, by Carlo Emerald, born on this day in 1981.

“Dy-Na-My-Tee”, by Ms. Dynamite, also born on this day in 1981.

Happy birthday to all of them. And to me.

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No Going Back to Moldova, by Anna Robertson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The journey was very long and we had to travel for two days and nights. Sister Firmina, who acted as the boarders’ ‘mother’, had told us to be good girls and not give any trouble to our dear Uncle Hermann, Papa’s youngest brother, who still lived with Grandmother and who would take us from Vienna to Uj-Moldova. Papa would take us as far as Vienna.

I got this several years ago because I thought it was about the state of Moldova, which I know and love; but in fact it is a post-Habsburg memoir by a woman who was brought up in the Hungarian town of Uj-Moldova in the Banat, now Moldova Nouă in south-west Romania, and whose childhood was interrupted by the first world war, at the end of which she and her parents found themselves non-Czechs living in the new Czechoslovakia, and having to make what accommodation they could with the new state of affairs. Physical return to Uj-Moldova was difficult, but became possible as tensions reduced; but you can never go back to the past. Coming to it so soon after Stefan Zweig was interesting; obviously Anna’s family were small-town bourgeoisie rather than Jewish intellectuals, but that simply meant that the disintegration of the old system hit them in a somewhat different way. Anna lived to see her homeland taken over by Communism, and her family expelled as Sudeten Germans, but got out in time (and got her parents out) by marrying Mr Robertson. Despite the tension of the times, she retains an eye for the humorous and for telling details. The book was published in 1989, just as the world was changing again; you can get it here.

This was both the non-fiction book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves, and the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2010. Next on those piles respectively are Virgins, Weeders and Queens, by Twigs Way, and The Flood, by Scott Gray and Gareth Roberts.

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The 2018 Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story

Back to Hugo blogging again, with the Graphic Story category for 2018. Interesting to note that this year we have two Prison Break stories, three Fantastic Voyages, and one that isn’t really sfnal at all. I did not find it hard to make my ranking (with one exception); but I am also conscious that my choices here are even more subjective than usual.

6) Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Time, by Saladin Ahmed, Christian Ward, & Clayton Cowles

I'm not into Marvel mythology, but this seems to be an origin myth for the superhero Black Bolt, tricked out of his rightful kingship and imprisoned in deep space along with various other hard cases (most with their own super powers). He makes allies with his fellow inmates and breaks free. There is a certain amount of social commentary on the US prison system (though perhaps slightly pulling its punches). I think I would have needed to be more invested in the overall Marvel universe to really appreciate this. You can get it here.

5) My Favourite Thing is Monsters, Part One, by Emil Ferris

Make no mistake, this is a tremendous piece of work, one of the great graphic novels of the century so far. It’s about a young girl in Chicago in 1968, obsessed with monsters, whose upstairs neighbour is mysteriously shot; and her investigations take her to some very dark places in the past and present, notably the experience of Jews in Nazi Germany.

However I can’t really accept this as sf. Karen, the protagonist and viewpoint character, is almost always portrayed as a troll; but it’s clear that this is her own self-image, and in fact she is an entirely human kid. None of the plot requires sfnal elements to work.

I think that this is the first time this issue has come up in this particular category, but it’s not unusual – back in 2014, both “Wakulla Springs”, in the Best Novella category, and more notoriously “If You Were A Dinosaur My Love” in the Best Short Story category, were finalists despite a real lack of sfnal content. Hugo administrators must of course balance the choices of nominators against the rigour of definitions, and the last book to be disqualified on grounds of content despite receiving enough nominations to be a finalist was L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, vol XVII, back in 2002, judged to have insufficient non-fiction content to qualify for Best Related Book. It’s generally up to voters to exercise their choices, and I choose not to give high preferences to fiction that isn’t really sf or fantasy. It’s still well worth getting.

4) Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles

This is another Prison Break story, but with the extra wrinkles of gender, sexuality and politics woven into the essential narrative of tragic arrest and detention on spurious grounds in a deeply corrupt system. I felt I cared a bit more about the characters here than I did with Black Bolt. Get it here.

3) Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

The first volume of this story won last year, and here our protagonists take a trip to the mysterious Isle of Bones, to resolve past issues and maybe gain future strength. Once again it’s gorgeously illustrated and tightly plotted; once again I find myself a bit squicked by the violence, and dropping it maybe a place or two for that rather subjective reason. You can get it here.

2) Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher

I had read the first volume soon after it came out, and greatly enjoyed it, but missed the second volume, and wondered if I would feel able to pick up the plot having missed half of it. In fact it worked out fine. Our heroines are trapped many thousands of years in the past, getting mixed up with the local indigenous inhabitants, other time travellers and the mysterious alien presence which seems to be Behind It All, meanwhile each grappling with her own set of issues which can’t be left behind. I’ll probably fill in the gap and get the second volume. Meanwhile you can get vol 3 here.

1) Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Sometimes it’s nice to get back to familiarity. I read all of these during a slightly stressful week or so, and there was somthing very comforting about sliding back into the familiar world of Saga – even though a favourite character appears to get brutally written out. I suppose that Vaughan and Staples have an end in mind for this story, but I am not in any hurry for them to get there; I am really enjoying the journey. It gets my vote, and you can get it here.

2018 Hugos: Novel | Novella | Novelette | Short Story | Related Work | Graphic Story | Dramatic Long | Dramatic Short | Professional Artist & Fan Artist | Series | Young Adult | Campbell Award
1943 Retro Hugos: Novel | Novella | Novelette | Short Story | Dramatic Short | Fan Artist


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Monday reading

Current
Islandia, by Austen Tappan Wright
The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith

Last books finished
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
Rose, by Russell T. Davies
The God Instinct, by Jesse Bering
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, by Robert A. Heinlein
The Christmas Invasion, by Jenny T. Colgan
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Next books
Contes Fantastiques Complets, by Guy de Maupassant
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
Looking For JJ, by Anne Cassidy

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“Antwerp is not ready to elect an Orthodox Jew”

An extraordinary story over the last few days from Belgium, which I have not seen covered in the international press at all.

Antwerp has the most visible Jewish community in Belgium. Many belong to the Hasidic (or at least Haredic) tradition; they are particularly associated with the diamond trade, where Antwerp is literally a world leader – about 85% of the world’s rough diamonds, 50% of cut diamonds, and 40% of industrial diamonds are traded in Antwerp each year. There are 18,000 Jews in Antwerp, of whom around half are estimated to be members of the Orthodox traditions (as they are generally referred to). The eruv in Antwerp includes the entire city centre.

Antwerp is the largest city in Flanders, and at the last municipal election, the populist right-wing New Flemish Alliance, N-VA, became by far the largest party on the council, and governs in coalition with the Christian Democrats (CD&V) and Liberals (Open VLD), the same coalition as in Flanders as a whole and indeed in Belgium (the latter with the addition of the Francophone Liberals, the MR). The NV-A leader, Bart De Wever, has been the mayor of Antwerp since they won in 2012 – the first non-socialist to be elected mayor since 1932. In 2007, he had infamously criticised his predecessor’s apology for the complicity of Antwerp municipal authorities in the Holocaust, in which two-thirds of the city’s Jews were killed.

The elections are coming up again this September, and the Christian Democrats came up with what must have seemed a neat idea: Aron Berger, a 42-year-old poultry trader from the Orthodox Jewish community, was announced with great fanfare as a candidate on the CD&V list. The CD&V currently have only three members on Antwerp Council, so putting Berger in the ninth place on the list meant that he would have needed a lot of individual votes to get elected (Belgium has an open list system). But his photograph would have appeared on all of the party literature, sending an important message about diversity.

Too diverse, it turned out. Berger’s candidacy flamed out within days, almost within hours, as his attitudes to sex, gender and sexuality were probed. In fairness, he had made some very odd statements in the past, which deserved (and received) scrutiny. But the sticking point turned out to be the question of whether or not he would shake hands with a woman, contrary to his own tradition. It transpired that the CD&V had made this a condition of his continued candidacy and that the rabbinic authorities had actually authorised Berger to do it if necessary. But Berger himself decided to withdraw at this point, saying that a photograph of him shaking hands with a woman would lose the party 2,500 votes. In an interview yesterday, CD&V leader Wouter Beke confirmed that the handshake that never happened was the deal-breaker.

It’s all a bit of a mess. Berger reflected that Antwerp is not yet ready to elect a Jew to the city council. (It also turns out that there is a skeleton in his closet regarding his management of the property of a dying neighbour several years ago.) To me the whole thing indicates a couple of more worrying problems.

There is a general point about needlessly enforcing Belgian-style secularism in the name of universal values onto cultural practices and traditions that actually do no harm, the burka ban being another example. Most Belgians do shake hands with each other, and indeed kiss each other in greeting, much more often than the British, or the Americans, or the Orthodox Jews. In some Asian cultures (represented in Antwerp’s population) a respectful bow is normal. Why are we drawing lines for the necessary level of physical contact to give to business acquaintances and political activists before you can qualify as a candidate? Surely citizenship should be enough, as long as your behaviour is not harmful? Is British reserve acceptable, but Hasidic reticence not? It seems so.

And there is a specific point about anti-Semitism. When you tell a particular group that the rights they should have as citizens (such as standing for election) are in fact conditional on fitting in to the dominant traditions of society and not looking or behaving differently, and that their civic loyalty is suspect because of their origins, you are on a very slippery slope; and that is the message that was sent to Aron Berger and his community this week by the CD&V, and indeed the entire Flemish political establishment (including the N-VA, whose minister for equality gleefully jumped into the debate). I don’t think this has been a proud moment for Belgian democracy.

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Mrs Miniver, film and book

Mrs Miniver won the Oscar for Outstanding Motion Picture in 1942. It got a total of twelve Oscar nominations, and apart from Outstanding Motion Picture also won in Best Director, Best Actress (Greer Garson in the title role), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright as Carol), and Best Black-and-White Cinematography, a total of six. The only other 1942 film that I am sure I have seen is Casablanca, which counts as 1943 for Oscar purposes, though I may also have seen Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. My knowledge is about to improve, however, as this year’s Retro Hugos include six films from 1942 among the finalists. (Since you asked: Bambi, Cat People, The Ghost of Frankenstein, I Married a Witch, Invisible Agent and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.)

Both IMDB ratings put Casablanca top, and Mrs Miniver in the top dozen but not the top half-dozen – 7th on one system, 11th on the other. Bambi, Saboteur and To Be or Not To Be are also ahead of Mrs Miniver on both systems. Here’s a contemporary trailer:

I enjoyed it. I can see why it went down well at the time. It’s a heartfelt, uplifting, warm story of ordinary upper-middle-class English folk caught up in the Second World War. In the midst of everything, the Minivers’ son Vincent falls in love with the grand-daughter of the lady of the manor; and, in an unexpected twist,the girl rather than the boy is killed in an air-raid. Garson and Wright deserved their Oscars.

Least favourite bit: Walter Pigeon, as Mrs Miniver’s husband Clem, and Teresa Wright, as the granddaughter of the manor (and in due course the Minivers’ daughter-in-law) are not really trying very hard to do English accents. Clem of course might have been a Canadian immigrant, but Carol is supposed to be English aristocracy.

Also not great: the lower classes are there for comic relief. The American audience is expected to empathise with the minivers but giggle at the villagers and servants. (Having said which, Henry Travers got a nomination for his role as Mr Ballard the station-master and amateur rose grower.)

Odd social point: the Minivers sleep in separate beds. Was that as far as the film makers thought they could get away with, in terms of suggesting a marital relationship?

There are three great set pieces in the film, which is generally tightly written and filmed. The first is a long sequence in the middle where Mrs Miniver finds a stranded German airman in her kitchen; Clem is away on a mission (helping with the Dunkirk evacuation as it turns out) and she must use her wits to prevail. It’s electrifying. (The German is played by Helmut Dantine who pops up again in Casablanca.)

The second is shortly after, Mrs Miniver’s confrontation with Lady Beldon (played by Dame May Whitty, who also got an Oscar nomination but lost out to her screen granddaughter) over the suitability of the potential marriage of Vin and Carol. Social anxiety about the next generation’s marriages is of course a universal, but this is well done.

And the final scene, in which the vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) preaches defiance of the enemy in a ruined church, is a pinnacle moment of propaganda – never mind that if the church was so badly structurally damaged, the congregation would certainly have met to worship elsewhere. Here it is with Spanish subtitles.

Off-screen note: Greer Garson married Richard Ney, who plays her screen son here, the following year. It didn’t last.

In conclusion: It’s a wholesome enough film, whose propaganda elements are perhaps a little too obvious to ignore 75 years later. I’m ranking it just ahead of How Green Was My Valley, last year’s winner, and just below Grand Hotel, which has a slightly stronger (and more numerous) ensemble and does more interesting things with them. You can get it here.

The film varies much more from the book than any other adaptation I have seen so far in this series. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The Miniver family had a passion for fireworks; and a fireworks display in a small London garden is an emasculate thing, hampered at every turn by such considerations as the neighbours, the police, and the fragility of glass and slate. So on Saturday morning they picked up Vin at Eton and drove across country to Starlings. Mrs. Miniver was relieved to find that public school had not made him too grand to enjoy playing road competitions with the two younger children. He was, like his father, a timeless person, uninfluenced by his own age and unconscious of other people’s. Judy was quite different. She was as typically nine now as she had been typically six, and three. Age, to her, was an important and exciting quality: she was never quite at ease with other children until she had asked them how old they were. As for Toby, he remained, in this as in most other matters, unfathomable.

The book is a series of brief newspaper sketches about the Miniver family, who are slightly better off than in the film (a house in London as well as in Kent, and a holiday place in Scotland). Most of the book takes place before the war (whereas most of the film is set after it breaks out). Vin is at Eton rather than Oxford. One or two incidents from the book survive into the film but the screenplay is generally new material.

It’s actually rather charming, somewhat reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway (which had been out for over a decade and must have been known to the author, Jan Struther, real name Joyce Anstruther). There is no plot to speak of, but there are some lovely observations of parenthood and marriage, and some less deep reflections on English society (as you would expect from a column in The Times). I think this was the author’s only prose fiction; she also wrote humorous poetry and essays. Despite being an agnostic, she wrote several hymns including Lord of All Hopefulness. It’s free here or you can get a hard copy here.

Next up in this series is Casablanca. But I need to get through the Hugo and Retro Hugo finalists first.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

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Europe Reset, by Richard Youngs

This is the fourth of my political blog posts for this week, having previously reviewed Free Radical by Vince Cable, The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart and After Europe by Ivan Krastev. I had actually read these four books separately over February and March, but I think that weeks of meditation on them collectively has enriched my thinking on them; I hope you think so too.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Europe Reset: New Directions for the EU, by Richard Youngs:

It has become increasingly clear that the EU suffers from major deficiencies in democratic accountability. Analysts have been writing about the EU’s so-called democratic deficit for many years, alluding to the fact that as policies are centralised to the EU level, national democratic controls are lost without being replaced by effective European-level democracy. While the problem is not new, however, the EU’s democratic shortcomings have now come to have a more tangible impact, contributing in a major way to citizen revolts and political upheavals within member states. In 2004, the number of Europeans who believed that their voice counted in the EU was 39 per cent; by 2014 it had dropped to a worryingly low 29 per cent. Over the same period those who felt ‘disempowered’ by the Union increased from 52 to 66 per cent.’

Richard is probably the best thinker on the nuts and bolts of comparative democratic practices in Europe and the Middle East, so it’s a Good Thing that he has turned his analysis to the EU as a whole. His analysis is similar to Ivan Krastev’s, but a bit more detailed, a bit less despairing and a bit more solution-oriented. He starts by looking at the problems, the “poly-crisis” as he calls it, including Brexit, the refugee problem, the euro (unlike Goodhart, putting it properly in context) and populism. He then devotes a chapter to false solutions, in particular the inadequacy of just muddling through, let alone more classical Euro-integration and the failure of austerity.

The most interesting section for me is his analysis of Europe’s democracy problem. As well as looking at the ways in which the EU’s democratic structures don’t deliver as they should (‘output legitimacy’, in the term introduced by Scharpf) he also recommends looking at more participative methods for policy-making, including concepts like the Citizen’s Assembly. I actually wrote about this in a European context as long ago as 2006, so I’m glad that someone with more weight than me has picked up the concept and run with it. I think that the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland has more than proved its worth, and it’s interesting that this is one of President Macron’s big ideas as well.

His other two points, less worked out, are that the EU should tolerate more internal divergence and should also deliver in terms of security for its citizens. The first is still debatable (though interestingly it’s the one suggestion also made by Ivan Krastev), the second should go without saying.

The book was launched at an event at Carnegie Europe way back in January; you can hear the discussion here (including a question from me at 0:37:30 and Richard’s reply at 0:46:30). You can get it here.

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After Europe, Ivan Krastev

I’ve been blogging political book reviews this week, but don’t worry, it will be back to the regular science fiction diet soon. Today and tomorrow I am reviewing two books by writers who I consider friends, both seriously concerned about the state of Europe and the EU, with different but compatible analyses.

Second paragraph of conclusion (after two main chapters) of After Europe, by Ivan Krastev:

For Europeans, the European Union was such a natural world. It is not anymore. The year 1917 was one that turned European history on its head. It started the great civil war in Europe that ended only in 1989. The year 2017 may end up being just as consequential. Pivotal elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and most likely Italy, may escalate the process of European disintegration. Greece may opt to leave the eurozone in 2017. Major terrorist attacks in a European capital, or armed conflict and a new wave of refugees on Europe’s periphery, could easily bring the union to the edge of collapse. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have upended future predictions of Europe’s survival—and not in Europe’s favor. If the disintegration of the EU was only recently considered unthinkable, after Brexit it seems (in the eyes of many) almost inevitable. Europe has been shattered by the rise of populist parties across the continent, just as the migration crisis has transformed the nature of liberal democratic regimes.

This is the book that everyone is quoting in the Brussels bubble at the moment. Fortunately Ivan’s worst predictions about 2017 did not come to pass, but we are not out of the woods yet. He gave an updated version of his perspective at a conference I attended earlier this year, starting at 2:22:30 in this video. He combines deep intellectual rigour with a typical Bulgarian sense of humour; give it a watch:

There are a number of key elements here. Krastev believes that the EU is in serious crisis, and may even be on the point of disintegration (though he admits that that will only happen if France or Germany decides to pull the plug). His perspective is an Eastern European one, concerned that the migration crisis has critically weakened the the political left, the credibility of human rights issues, and the discourse of compassion and tolerance. This has had a negative impact on democracy; he looks at three other referendums that took place in 2016 to examine the paradoxes of the democratic process. He is full of good one-liners:

“The right to be governed wisely can contradict a citizen’s right to vote. This is what has always made liberals anxious about democracy.”

“The new populist majorities perceive elections not as an opportunity to choose between policy options but as a revolt against privileged minorities[.]”

“A decade ago, the British polling agency YouGov undertook a comparative study between a group of political junkies and a similar cohort of young people who actively participated in the Big Brother reality show. The distressing finding of the study was that British citizens felt better represented in the Big Brother house. It was easier for them to identify themselves with the characters and ideas being discussed. They found it more open, transparent, and representative of people like them. Reality show formats made them feel empowered in the way that democratic elections are supposed to make them feel but don’t.”

“What makes meritocrats so insufferable, especially in the minds of those who don’t come out on top in the socioeconomic competition, is less their academic credentials than their insistence that they have succeeded because they worked harder than others, were more qualified, and passed exams that others failed.”

It’s clear that the book is to a certain extent in dialogue with David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, which I reviewed yesterday – the two quote each other, and their diagnoses are not so far apart. Yet I find Krastev much more palatable, I guess because he is sad rather than smug, and doesn’t rant inaccurately about the euro.

In the conclusion to the book, he somewhat pulls his punches, noting that if the EU can demonstrate enough flexibility to meet the challenges from within, disintegration is not inevitable.

Flexibility—not rigidity—is what may yet save Europe. While most observers ask how populism can be vanquished, in my view the more apposite question is how to respond to its venality. What will increase the likelihood of the European Union surviving is the spirit of compromise. Making room for conciliation should be the major priority of those who care for the union. The EU should not try to defeat its numerous enemies but try to exhaust them, along the way adopting some of their policies (including the demand for well-protected external borders) and even some of their attitudes (free trade is not necessarily a win-win game). Progress is linear only in bad history textbooks.

It’s a decently short book, only 120 pages, and well worth getting.

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The Road to Somewhere, by David Goodhart

Second paragraph of third chapter:

We were talking about the rise of European populism over the past fifteen years and how 2002 was the year that changed everything. Political systems dominated by competition between a main party of the centre-left and the centre-right had been slowly fraying in much of continental Europe in the last decades of the twentieth century, with proportional representation making it easier for small parties to eat into the voter base of the big ones.

I had an unnerving experience one evening in February. I was chatting with a friend (from Montenegro) about politics, and she asked me if I had read this book. I was about to say that I hadn't, when my phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message from another friend (from Hong Kong) asking me exactly the same question. Clearly it was fate.

Well, it's a rather annoying book, frankly. Part of this is Goodhart’s tendency to unnecessarily resort to ad hominem remarks. In the first chapter he reports on a conversation with Gus O’Donnell, then the UK’s most senior civil servant, and Mark Thompson, then the Director-General of the BBC, in which both expressed the view that global welfare matters more than national welfare. Goodhart obviously disagrees, which is fair enough, but then he says that both men’s views “may reflect their moderately devout Catholic upbringings”. Yep, Catholics, the enemy within. In a more recent review he said that for another writer, understanding the concerns of populists “may be hard for the grandson of a Holocaust survivor raised in Germany surrounded by the ghosts of the past”; and subsequently showed no comprehension at all for how offensive this was. Well, I guess that’s all you can expect from an Old Etonian who is the son of a Conservative MP.

Goodhart divides the world (well, really, white English people, because nobody else much matters) into Anywheres and Somewheres. The Brexit vote is the clear cleavage between them. Anywheres are smug intellectual cosmopolitan elites like me; Somewheres are salt of the earth types, loyal to their particular locality, who have been left behind by globalisation. The fact that along with most of my cosmopolitan friends and colleagues, I remain strongly loyal to my origins in various ways, is not relevant; the fact that Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, not notably places where local sentiment is weak, are strongly pro-EU is also ignored. But I do have to admit that the most telling piece of evidence from the Brexit referendum, one which I have cited myself in several lectures and presentations, gives some support for Goodhart: this is Lord Ashcroft's June 2016 poll of how those who feel strongly one way or the other on certain grand global issues had split between Leave and Remain.

I'm clearly on the Anywhere side of Goodhart's divide (or would be if I were English; since I'm not, I don't count), and it's difficult to read a book that fundamentally accuses me and my friends of being not just wrong on the arguments, but on the ethics of how society should be run. For me, opposition to immigration, multiculturalism, and feminism go beyond mere political disagreement and cross a moral line, one where I'm not terribly interested in understanding the position of the other side. However, I did my best to put those feeling on hold and to assess Goodhart's book as a whole.

There is one section that he gets completely and woefully wrong. This is his analysis of the EU itself, just before the middle of the book, which completely swallows and regurgitates British Eurosceptic propaganda: in short, the euro is a failure which is tearing the EU apart. In the rest of the EU, the fact that the euro survived the 2008 crisis, with more countries queuing to join, is seen as proof of concept; and it is generally recognised that the crises in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus all had rather different and largely indigenous causes and indeed largely different solutions, whereas British mythology has it that the euro and its fictionally one-size-fits-all policies were responsible in each case. I don't think the poor quality of British reporting on this was the crucial factor in the referendum outcome, but it can't have helped.

One the other hand, I have to admit that there was one section that completely convinced me. This was on the awful conequences of the decision two decades ago to reform vocational education by taking it out of the hands of local authorities (1988) and converting all colleges to universities (1992). By removing the vocational educational track, the UK has made it much more difficult for those who aren't up to university level to get meaningful qualifications which will help them in their careers. I was in student politics at the time that this reform was instituted, and remember wondering how we could measure success. The German apprenticeship system is often invoked as an international comparison (though not by Goodhart, who isn't terribly interested in learning from other countries here); in Belgium we also still have polytechnics and vocational colleges, without the temptation to merge them all into sprawling institutions with university status. It is, alas, telling that although Goodhart happily criticises the 1997-2010 Labour governments on numerous occasions, he does not blame the Conservatives for this particular policy screw-up.

Goodhart claims that his motivation for writing the book is to get the Anywheres in leadership (implicitly in the Conservative Party) to wake up, smell the coffee, and strike a new settlement with the Somewheres for the sake of national stability. I think he's wrong; the most important point I get from the book is that the UK has failed on social mobility as well as on social equality, and that those two failures drive the rise of Goodhart’s Somewhere mentality; so perhaps the Anywheres in leadership might do well to shape policies that increase social mobility and decrease social inequality, and see if that increases affection for the state and decreases the resort to populism caused by other political avenues failing to deliver? Of course, that was more or less what Theresa May said she would do when she took office. Well, that doesn't seem to have worked out so far…

Anyway, I’m grateful to my friends for alerting me to this; I did learn some things from it (mainly that it’s not good for my blood pressure to read too much Conservative political analysis). If you want to get it, you can do so here.

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Free Radical, by Vince Cable

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I did, however, have one major advantage. In an institution as ferociously competitive as Cambridge was — and almost certainly still is — there is considerable merit in starting at the bottom, unburdened by high expectations. A ‘NatSci’ at Fitz from an obscure north-country grammar school and digs miles from the centre of town was as low as it was possible to get. My new college friends and I felt lucky to have scraped into the university at all, and were proud to ride around in our gowns and entertain awestruck relatives by walking them round the old colleges. We developed a camaraderie based on affected yobbishness, exaggerating our provincial accents and proletarian ancestry. Our main aim was to survive, which sounds more challenging than it was, since outright exam failure was extremely rare. (Two of my friends managed it, however, one succumbing to a breakdown, another departing bewildered and in tears back to Accrington.)

I’ve actually had this on the shelves since before the 2010 election, which brought Cable to power as Business Secretary in the Cameron/Clegg coalition government, but have only now got around to reading it. Cable then was one of the Lib Dems’ star performers, who crashed out of parliament in 2015, but in 2017 returned and was almost immediately elected leader of the party unopposed. (I noted with amusement that the current Conservative and Labour leaders, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, are each referred to precisely once in Cable’s book, and both of their names are misspelt.) He was 65 when this book was written and he is 74 now.

His personal and political journey is indeed an interesting one. I too was a Cambridge NatSci from an unfashionable part of the UK, and I too was an election candidate in my late twenties, but otherwise our paths have diverged somewhat. Cable gravitated from academe to a brief spell in government in the late 1970s, and then worked for Shell, reaching the rank of Chief Economist, until he got elected to Parliament for the first time in 1997. (This was after unsuccessful runs for Glasgow Hillhead in 1970 and York in 1983 and 1987). Few politicians come to politics with his level of economic expertise, let alone combined with practical experience of industry. He then was fortunate enough to be able to make the running in critiquing the Brown government’s economic policy as the Great Recession started to bite, and the book is in a sense a victory lap for what was generally perceived as an outstanding political performance in the 2007-2009 period.

There is also the moving story of his marriage to his first wife, Olympia Rebelo, a Goan from Kenya. I think Cable is the only leader of a major British political party to have had a non-white spouse. Both families were very doubtful about the match, the Cables out of sheer racism, the Rebelos out of snobbishness. But by Cable’s account, they were mostly happy, and he was clearly devastated when she died after a long illness, just a few days after he retained his seat in the 2001 election. Her presence resonates in the background of most of the book. (Oddly enough I knew someone at Cambridge with the same unusual surname as Cable’s second wife; presumably a niece or cousin.)

Nine years on, I’m not completely convinced by Cable. The one time I saw him speak in Brussels, in January 2015, I was a bit underwhelmed (of course, this was in the dying days of the coalition, so he can perhaps be excused). Just as I was reading this book last month, he screwed up a meeting with European liberal leaders pretty massively. I’m also not sure of the wisdom of instrumentalising the Lib Dems as “the party that will stop Brexit”; if Brexit is stopped, which I think now vanishingly unlikely, it will be because of a change of mind by the Conservatives (which is why I think it vanishingly unlikely), and if it isn’t, the party that promised to stop it will have failed to deliver. But at the same time, I’m glad that there remains a centre party in British politics (I think I am still a member myself), and the book gives me a good understanding of why Cable is leading it in the way that he does. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next in that list was No Going Back to Moldova, by Anna Robertson, which I have since read and will write up next week.

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Monday reading

Current
Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
Islandia, by Austen Tappan Wright
The God Instinct, by Jesse Bering

Last books finished
La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman
Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles
Something Like Normal, by Trish Doller
Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher
Genius Loci, by Ben Aaronovitch
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris

Next books
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
Contes Fantastiques Complets, by Guy de Maupassant
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

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The blog post I couldn’t write: twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement

There have been a lot of reflective or celebratory comments in the last week about the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s an anniversary that I found it quite difficult to write about.

The achievement of the Good Friday Agreement is of course of huge importance. It drew a line under thirty years of political violence, and established the principles by which Northern Ireland can be governed, and the framework of future relations between the United Kingdom and the Irish state. The commemorations rightly called attention to those achievements.

But I hesitated to write too much about it because my own involvement was peripheral; for the first six months of the talks in 1996, I was a staffer for the one of the smaller party negotiaing teams, but then I left Northern Ireland for the international career that has sustained me since then. I actually attended an anniversary event on Tuesday, the day itself, in the European Parliament, organised by Sinn Féin; in fairness, they avoided making it too much of a self-promotion event, and among the others in attendance were MEPs from the Conservative Party and Fine Gael, and a former leading member of the UUP.

I was also thrilled to to attend a dinner with George Mitchell on Thursday night in Oxford. He is 84, but still sharp, witty and humble. I certainly talked to him more on Thursday than I had managed to during the the time in 1996 when our engagement overlapped.

There was one incident from the talks that has stayed with me. Late one evening, I had been left to mind the phones in the office while everyone else was in the petulant negotiating chamber. (You may have forgotten, but the Mitchell talks spent literally the first year talking about process rather than substance, before Sinn Féin joined and the DUP left.) The phone rang, and I answered it; an American voice asked to speak to the party leader. I explained that he was upstairs negotiating.

“This is Tony Lake, the National Security Adviser to President Clinton. Can you give me a general update on what is going on?”

We mythologise the intelligence-gathering capacity of the American system, but sometimes the National Security Adviser is just cold-calling offices in foreign cities to see who answers the phone.

I have two other reasons for hesitation, and it has taken me until the weekend to organise my thoughts properly.

The first, rather more obviously, is that the process is in such a mess. The power-sharing government in Northern Ireland collapsed last year, and London does not seem to be seriously interested in putting the pieces back together. Given how little serious attention London has given to Brexit, it’s in character for the current British government of course, but the added complication is that the Conservatives depend on the DUP for their majority and therefore are not in a position to exert pressure if it were necessary. The Americans, whose presence via George Mitchell was so crucial in 1998, are also now missing in action. So I don’t see any immediate cause for optimism. The gap between the two sides is not huge – certainly much less than in 1998 – but at present the leader seem more interested in mutual recrimination rather than any serious attempt at movement.

The second is much more personal. That morning of 10 April 1997 I was working in Bosnia, but staying closely in touch with my former colleagues back home (my friend Kate Fearon has vividly recounted her party’s experiences of the last day of the talks), and eventually the news came through that the Agreement had in fact been reached.

I called Anne in our apartment and told her. She in turn gave me the momentous news that B, aged nine months and a bit, had successfully fed herself with a spoon. (At least, intent and outcome were both clear, even if there was some spillage.) This of course is relatively early, and otherwise B hit her milestones more or less on schedule; she started walking the week before her first birthday, and was saying a few words not long after. Here she is a bit later in 1998.

And then she lost most of it, in the second half of 1999 just after her second birthday, and now cannot talk at all. She still has no problem with motor skills, particularly when it comes to food; these pictures were taken on an outing a year ago.

When your child achieves somthing new, even if it’s only eating with a spoon, it’s a pleasant pointer to the future. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, and it’s difficult to write about, particularly when anniversaries come around. So I’m writing about the fact that it is difficult to write about, and will have to leave it there.

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