Tony Rudt: A brilliant mind in a great collection of essays

Absolutely terrific. This collection of amazing political essays will provoke, stimulate and engage you, whether or not you agree with the insights that unfold herein.  These are insightful critical appreciations of keynote thinkers in the 20th century, including brilliant essays on Hannah Arendt, Leszek Kolowkowski [that incorporates a deliciously scathing attack on the historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s blind allegiance to communist regimes and communist thinking] and Primo Levi. Also compelling critiques relating to Israel, Tony Blair and others. Wonderful writing, provocative and well worth the read. Highly recommended. Obviously (if it is not clear already!), you will hate this collection of essays if you are at all: right-wing, homophobic, evangelistic (politically), ignorant, hateful, hate minorities, hate full stop, hate everything, etc. But, if you are open-minded, passionate about everyone having the right to decency, to the ideas and principles of care, reciprocity, universal education, social justice… Well, you will – like meLOVE this wonderful collection of essays from one of the most wonderful, passionate, caring, decent, clever minds of the 20th-21st century. You decide.

The most visually stunning horror/thriller of all time?

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Out of all the horror/thriller movies I’ve ever seen, Tarsem Singh‘s The Cell (2000) remains for me the most truly stunning in terms of spectacle for both costume and set design; both are the most beautiful and disturbing designs and creations I have ever seen. Costumes (Eiko Ishoka) and set design (Tom Foden) are themselves worthy of Oscars (though in 2001, it was sadly only nominated for Best Makeup).  (By the way, if you want to buy this movie in the DVD Region 1/US version, click here.)

Besides that it is incredible visually, the film also has one of Jennifer Lopez‘s stronger performances, and deals with an endlessly fascinating subject: the serial killer/psychopath. In this film, however, you experience the reality of one psycho’s world, fully realised. It makes Hieronymus Bosch‘s paintings of the 15th century seem like gentle fairy-tale pictures in comparison.

Unfortunately, while the early part of the following clip — in fact the official Trailer — here does not do the movie full justice in terms of its visuals, it does give you a vivid sense of the growing tension and creepiness that is to be enjoyed. However, from the 1:13 mark (1 minute 13 seconds into the clip), you are then given some real treats as to what’s in store for you.

Not only is it Jennifer Lopez’s best film (likewise, Vince Vaughan‘s; the last time on film he looked sexy!), but also I think it is genuinely unique in terms of the quality and depth of how it presents the inner world of a particular serial killer psychopath. While the film firmly places itself within the serial killer genre – the quality of the imaginative visuals makes it stand out across all the genres of horror, drama, thriller — and the surreal.

As the cliché, goes: Hand on heart…It is an amazing, brilliant film, and greatest tour de force hats-off to Tarsem Singh, the director, and the original script writer, Mark Protosevich.  As for Tom Foden and Eiko Ishoka — you are frickin fabby fabpants fabulous and anyone who says otherwise is a frickin kumquat!

Celine’s existential nightmare novel on the human condition

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This was Celine‘s second novel after Journey to the End of the Night and is a prequel to it. It focuses on Ferdinand Bardamu‘s (Celine’s fictional alter ego) troubled childhood and youth in Paris.

Reading Celine, you experience his incredibly intense emotional and intellectual understanding of our desperate, existentialist and unresolved – conundrum – human condition.

Celine makes it clear he sees no escape and that humanity – what there is of it – is pathetic, disease-ridden and without hope. The one consolation? To grasp a few moments of joy in a life of poverty and hardship. It is a story that is powerfully told, and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by it.

His raw, unadulterated, yet poetic style of writing – the use of ellipses and hallucinatory scenes mixing with the gutter and destitution – worked powerfully with his themes of desperation and poverty. In the 1930s there was no one with whom to compare him or to match him for the depth, complexity and violent negativity of his impoverished world.

You find yourself being drawn into and compromised by Bardamu’s viewpoint, anger and hatred. You drown with him and his constantly argumentative father and are at a loss to help his exhausted-to-the-bones mother.

You also can’t forget Celine’s deep and abiding compassion and that he later qualified and practiced as a doctor who worked only in the poorest, most deprived neighbourhoods of Paris (about which he writes so effectively in Journey to the End of Night). Nor, too, the fact that he was himself persona non grata before and after his “profession”; and you are further troubled by knowing that, besides, he lost his reputation as a writer – shunned by the literati of Paris – in his own lifetime because of his fascistic views (even though it’s important to note that in practising his medicine, he attended to everybody, irrespective of whether the person was Jewish or otherwise).

And while Celine and Bardamu both hated “humanity”, both were always specific, explicit and thankful for those few people that made a difference in their lives, including the wonderful characters of certain women, who plied the trade of prostitution, Violette, Lola (in Journey), and others.

It is a compelling novel, and in some ways is even darker and more troubling than his first, and most famous novel. If you come to this having been impressed by Journey, you will be all the more so when you finish reading this prequel.

To sever your head from your heart: Dangerous liaisons & Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
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A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels.  The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was the overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, also reviewed in this blog – click here).  More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – ahem).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense.  Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end).  Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know  she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic.  (To learn more about her life, click Iris Murdoch – Biographical profile, which includes sources/resources, and is written by the estimable Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash).

A Visit from the Sh*it Squad: Jennifer Egan’s novel about watching toxic paint dry on cr*ap music

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Ah, dear reader.  I can tell from this post’s title and you clicking on it that you’re obviously expecting a rave review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, aren’t you? (Ahem.)  In fact, this really is a brilliant, wondrous, stunning novel and one of the masterpieces of 21st century literature.

Actually, no. Sorry. It really is Sh*it.

Don’t leave yet!  Please allow me to tell you why, because this snapshot review will be sure to save a few hours of your precious time by helping you to avoid – I hope – making the same mistake I and many other horribly disappointed readers did by purchasing this novel and believing it was actually, really literature.

No, it’s not. I’ve read pulp fiction with more class and intelligence than this. And certainly more entertaining.

So why is this novel – notably a winner of prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize – and recipient of rave reviews and accolades from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Village Voice and countless others; that was endlessly cited as one of the Best Books of 2010 (Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Village Voice and more, besides) – well, why is it so frickin execrable?!

Well, first, obviously disregard the positive reviews. They must have all been snorting washing up powder or something.

Egan’s attempts to be wry, clever and ‘with it’ – in this instance, the focus is on the American music industry, and the trials, shenanigans and viewpoints of some individuals within it and its periphery – leave you feeling nothing at all for her characters (because they’re all ego-inflated bores).

Sadly, pathetically (in every sense), her attempts at being clever amount to nothing more than sophistry, and two particular scenes/chapters highlighted by many reviewers to date as good are uninspired and tiresome. These involve a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, detailing in schematic/diagrammatic form a family matrix and its individuals’ views and connections; and an article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, including – of course – footnotes and digressions galore (arguably an homage, more in truth a dull-witted effort, with none of the brilliance or ingenuity or riffing, clever tangents that Wallace so effortlessly produced in his fiction and journalism).

You keep on hoping it will get better, but sadly, miserably, it doesn’t. Plodding stuff that will bore you to tears and, unless your proclivities include watching paint dry or wallpaper peel, I’d stay clear of this abysmal, contrived effort.  Spend a couple of hours with a friend. Call a family member you’ve not spoken to in a while and have been meaning to catch up. Paint your nails.  Do your hair. Take a long nap. Bunjy-jump.  Do a Tom Cruise backward jump onto a sofa (impossible spontaneously, so it’ll take you probably the same time as reading this novel to succeed). But don’t, under any circumstances, be fooled by this Empress’s New Clothes.

If you do, be sure to hold the book with a pair of kitchen or gardening gloves. Do not contaminate your skin!  Apart from that: enjoy!

A beautiful literary classic: The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

A stunning rites of passage novel to rank with Catcher in the Rye,

Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, leaving behind two unpublished novels and an impressively determined mother who succeeded – after much badgering – in gaining the novelist Walker Percy’s interest and support in the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Cover of
Cover of A Confederacy of Dunces. Published posthumously, the novel garnered instant and great acclaim and has been continuously in print ever since and translated into numerous languages.

While The Neon Bible was in fact written before A Confederacy of Dunces, it only came to light during the successful reception of the later novel, and its publication was delayed by some years because of legal wrangling involving Toole’s mother, the publishers and the courts.

Nonetheless, the novel is an astonishing achievement, not least because it was written, it seems, when the author was barely a teenager. It’s a classic of contemporary American fiction, and of Bildungsroman literature, offering a haunting and poetic evocation of a boy’s loss of innocence in the rural America of the 1930s and 40s. There are echoes of Mark Twain, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger and S. E. Hinton, to name but a few and, impressively, the ‘voice’ and identity of the central character, the young boy, Dave, are as distinct and compelling as any by those others.

In a series of linking memories we learn about Dave and his painful trials and tribulations growing up. His mother becomes emotionally unstable when her husband returns in a coffin, from fighting in Europe during the second world war; his Aunt Mae, an eccentric, once-travelling singer, and Dave’s only real friend and companion, discards him for the sake of her infatuation with a 70-year-old fiddle-playing boyfriend and the temptations of Nashville; and his local preacher inflicts a destructive hypocrisy upon him (in fact, it is this preacher’s church that displays the tacky, monolithic, ‘neon bible’). As if these weren’t enough, yet more troubles ensue, accumulating to the point that he is compelled to escape to the city, leaving innocence in his wake, and only the memory of bitter experience for reflection.

Juxtaposed, Toole’s two novels differ in style, language and humour – understandably, as he was just 13 or so when he wrote The Neon Bible, whereas he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces as an adult.

In the latter novel, we have the fantastic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, towering, Rabelaisian and Falstaff-like, battling against the dim-witted and the short-sighted in his quest for truth, beauty, and a bountiful supply of hot dogs, his favourite food. Its language is rich and boisterous, its style sweeping in its intensity.

In The Neon Bible, Dave is the centre, holding the novel together with his rural speech; his gentle, graceful and easy language complementing the impression we have of him and his world. Even so, their lives and their principles are, arguably, the same: both value Platonic ideals above all else; both are outsiders, most often alone – feeling the loss of their innocence – and reflect a pervading sadness that is at the very heart of their lives. There is no question that the publication of this, his only other fiction, underlines the awful tragedy of Toole’s death.

‘The Leopard’ Lampedusa’s light-hearted, deeply learned, always entertaining letters

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Famous for his 20th century classic, The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics) – and Visconti’s wonderfully evocative film of the name, The Leopard [1963] [DVD], with Burt Lancaster – this slim collection of Lampedusa‘s letters, mostly to his two cousins, is a delicious, quirky and charming epistolary treat. Quirky because his deep learning typically combined with his often scatological, irreverent humour (most notably, there are some very funny letters written in the style of a proprietor of numerous models of high-quality testicles to gentlemen in such need), and the fact that he referred to himself in his letters in the third person, as The Monster (because of his voluminous appetite for reading; the title was given to him by his cousin and poet, Lucio Piccolo, one of the recipients of the letters).

Lampedusa was a deeply cultured man, loving – and being immersed in – literature ancient, medieval and modern, especially Italian, English and French. (He wrote a 1,000-page study of English Literature, published in 1990-1991 by the Italian firm Mondadori; he also wrote an incomplete, densely handwritten 500 pages for an intended follow-up study of French literature.) He also loved going to the cinema – he’s insightful, for example, about the now-classic King Vidor’s The Crowd (1938) – sadly not available nowadays to us on DVD – loved architecture, and enjoyed bespoke, quality-made clothes.

If this collection was not already a sufficient joy for Lampedusa’s sense of humour and impressive sweep of literary references, and his easy display of learning and culture with an always light touch, he’s also terrific at capturing the essence of a place he visits (he was a great and regular traveller, typically following a `circuit’ that included London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and other vistas) and with great relish he conveys his tremendous Epicurean sensibilities. As one terrific example, let me quote the following, on his love for English food:

But the Monster, as he has already given you to understand, contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig – of which he is proud. And as a pig he appreciates and rejoices in fleshly pleasures. At times the Spartan simplicity of the pure English cuisine terrifies him. But more often he is delighted – whether he is drinking, as he is today, thick buttery milk which leaves a trace of cream in the cup, whether he is biting bloody steaks which pass on to him the vigour of noble and select young bulls, whether he is tasting large thick slices of rosy ham, lying on beds of soft real bread and coming from the heraldic loins of the illustrious hogs of Yorkshire, whether again at the end of the meal, sinking a greedy spoon into the supplies of the lordly cheeses of Chester, rosy as onyx, or Stilton, green as aquamarine, or Cheddar, transparent and amber-coloured. Because here cheese is not served in prosaic slices, but whole cheese are brought to the table, and the dilettante (I was about to say the lover) digs into the tasty recesses, rummages in them with a horn spoon and tries them out. And the waiters are often so incautious as to leave the multicoloured treasures in front of the Monster – and their eyes pop out when, instead of three cheeses of about ten kilos each, they find only three fragrant but empty shells.

Isn’t that just wonderful? I get hungry every time I read it and even now am fantasising about chomping on a giant wheel of cheese. And his powers of description extend also to human portraits; in particular one very beautiful, utterly captivating description of a brilliant curator of The Wallace Collection.

But he’s not an absolute star; meaning he’s not – as with all of us – without some deep faults; far from it. An occasional snobbery does come in matters of certain social classes and individuals, and he can be quite – though rarely horribly – cruel in some of his characterisations; these are forgivable, but what is far from palatable is his unquestioning support of Il Duce and fascism, and his barely concealed abhorrence of Jews (at one point he cites the Russian progroms as an example of `Russian wisdom’. (And if there are readers who say, it’s unfair to criticise someone of the 20s and 30s being anti-Semitic, as anti-Semitism was common at the time, I think this is no excuse, for we are all responsible for our individual actions and beliefs, and Lampedusa was far from ignorant in his understanding of many other aspects of life and society in general.)

Still, a fascinating insight into a way of life and living that Lampedusa already knew was on the cards (Sicilian aristocracy, and the aristocratic way of life in general).

As to the quality of the publication itself, there’s no complaint, save one absolutely almighty one: It is the infuriatingly stupid way in which each note to a particular reference in the letters has – instead of being numbered – been itemised with an asterisk. As you turn the pages, and the notes inevitably accumulate, you find yourself being advised to – as an example – `See first note to p.43′ to return you to the original note in which that particular reference occurred. But then you turn to p.43 and find that it is not the relevant note but instead is the first occurrence of that reference, so then you have to go and turn the pages of that individual letter’s notes, on p.53, for an explanation of that note! Bloody, hugely frustrating. I can understand completely why the editor wanted to be economical and avoid repeating the same notes – after all, extra pages bump up the cost of publishing a book, and this collection may perhaps only interest the most devoted of Lampedusa fans (I hope not, they’re well worth the read), but then why weren’t all the notes itemised with numbers, so that you could be told to, in the same example, ‘See p.53, note 1’ – simple, surely?

Highly recommended.

Self-help: Want to change your life? Be fascistic! (OMG. Really? Yes!)

Help yourself be a BETTER self. How? Stop making excuses, stop prevaricating, just commit and friggin do. Be committed to yourself. Be fascistic - have zero tolerance for your own excuses!

Thousands of blogs, newspaper articles and much else besides will be endorsing, articulating and advocating all kinds of steps to take to improve your life. Yes, the dreaded “New Year’s Resolutions” (NYR).  Well, fcuk resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise. Why? Well, there’s evidence a-plenty that says that most people who make resolutions (whether to lose weight – the biggest one, no pun intended – and more, besides) fail within the first few months. I suspect this is one major reason that I, among others, hate the BS about NYR. Or even simply just “R”.

Why is there such failure? I mean, why do vows and determinations to commit to a new, positive action, to overturn a bad habit, to be a better person in some sort of way, end up in failure?

We know that society and its innumerable institutions and social conditioning coerce us to become not better but less of ourselves. Education is not about education, but rather about conforming to accepting the status quo. And where has that left the new generation? With Sweet F. A.  Governments across the globe spout on about achieving a beneficial understanding to succeed in society, according to certain prescribed criteria they dish out in curricula et al, but all such governments typically fail – and brilliantly so (i.e., miserably). Well, apart from the Northern European ones, who are so successful it’s embarrassing to the other governments and outsiders are just simply relieved that some of them instead suffer from bouts of depression, suicide/suicidal behaviour and alcoholism way above the “happiness” factor measurements would otherwise show) itself fails and we fail with it.  (Facts: Typically Western societies fail to help children to achieve what they advocate: They espouse the importance of the fundamental needs for children to read, write and do basic maths, yet XX% children are coming out of school at the age of 16 with poor skills in these three areas. Studies have shown that universities are deeply troubled at the inadequacy of candidates who apply to prove capabilities in these areas. And these conclusions are about the teenagers who succeed in achieving qualifications that supposedly show the very abilities that the universities say are absent. WTF?!)

So, let’s focus on the fundamentals, then, in a real way. Let’s take a philosophical approach that demands definitions and examines behavioural attitudes and the consequences of such attitudes. Let’s understand the societal impositions, the social conditioning, the infrastructures of child development, the inadequacies of State education (and Private – the muppets – after all: Oh, yes, I want my child to have the best, that’s why s/he’s in private school. That’s all that matters – a solid grounding to have more opportunities available to him/her. [Subtext: Actually, frig/fcuk the fact that my child may end up highly qualified but will be an absolutely HUMONGOUS TWATTING, CONDESCENDING, UPPITY PRI*CKLESS PRI*CKS FROM TWATLAND – read: David Cameron‘s/New Gingrich’s ilk – because of their innate sense of superiority that Private School affords them.]).

Actually, let’s not. First key point: Normally, I’m incredibly anally-retentively keen to give evidence-based arguments. So all those points above that are listed in bold italic should, ordinarily, be annotated with evidence from many Western governments‘ own departmental research, independent think tanks’ research, UN’s various bodies of research evidence, and never ending. Fcuk it.  The research is there but, let me be like all the Neo-Conservative/small-C conservatives out there and not cite such research. If you want to find it, it’s available. Check the web. Equally, if you’re a Neo-Con, anti-liberal, anti-libertarian etc., you will find evidence to support those views.

So let’s get back to basics (a phrase you’ll recall is often fondly used by Neo-Cons throughout UK, Europe and the US to discuss returning to a fascistic, less liberal, less tolerant, less understanding, less supportive way of life: well, let me qualify: LESS supportive of those disenfranchised, dispossessed, alienated, alone, segregated, misunderstood, misconceived, and more besides – again.

How do you then achieve real self-help? The self-help industry is worth billions of dollars every year. It follows swiftly behind pornography and oil and other such fun exploits of life and the earth and such.

SO! How do you achieve self-help, how do you make sure you are REALLY going to achieve POSITIVE CHANGE?

Well, HERE’S THE SECRET: BE FASCISTIC. YES! SERIOUSLY! (Erm, that’s one bold italic that will never be substantiated by evidence and, if it is, the person who presents it to me can go frig themselves, if they’re lucky.)

Ok, first perhaps I should define terms, as that’s otherwise going to lead us to a slippery slope of misunderstanding and I’ll end up writing a book like John Gray and men are aliens and women are other types of aliens and it becomes a horrendous bestseller that millions believe.

FASCISTIC: DEFINITION: I’m going to take the highly web-popular dictionary definition from, definition 3:

“a person who is dictatorial or has extreme right-wing views.”

Still sounds awful? How does this connect with self-help? Simple. Most of us all pretty much agree (I hope) that we are our “own worst enemies”, our “own worst critics” and – so, surely, we agree that we are our own BEST “self-sabatoeurs” to self-help.

Most NYRs or even Rs for self-transformation (whether complete or singular of an aspect of oneself), are sabotaged by none other than, YES, you guessed it – NO – you KNEW: ourselves.

OUR UNIVERSAL BULLSHIT TO OTHERS AND TO OURSELVES: We are the most brilliant creatures at making excuses for our pathetic, inexcusable behaviour. We self-deceive, we prevaricate, we obfuscate, we obliterate (usually others, including good friends’ and family’s arguments to the contrary), we deny, we go at tangents, we circumnavigate, we look beyond, underneath, other-which-way, play sleight of hand, fall asleep, get tired, yawn, explain that we are too tired, too low, too miserable, too dejected, had a bad week/day/month, say we’re too busy, say there are more important things to focus on, say that YES I WILL STOP – BUT NOT RIGHT NOW – TOMORROW/NEXT WEEK/NEXT MONTH when life is less stressful, when the Xmas Season is over, when I’m adjusted to my new job, when I’ve done this, that or the other. And so it goes. Ad infinitum. And there’s always the other. We all know that, right?

Ok, so let me get to “brass tacks/bottom line” cliché. The reason you have to be fascistic for self-change is to avoid the scenario immediately highlighted above. How?

By being absolutely intolerant – fascistically so – of anything other than absolute obedience to our own self-defined plan to change for the better.

Will this really help? Well, it depends on how fascistic  you’re prepared to be with yourself. Your intolerance of prejudice, of sexism, of homophobia, of racism, ageism, of innumerable “scape goats”, should in turn be the fire and dragon breath to help you to decide to succeed in achieving real change. But you won’t, if you’re not absolutely, completely 100% intolerant of excuses/reasons/BS of any kind that will steer you away from your goal/plan.

Will it work? Well, when I chose the path of a fascist (noted, of course, that I was born a liberal baby as soon as I popped out of my mother and – besides being rather overwhelmed by the entire mess – ahem (I’m rather anal retentive, but there’s only such much one can endure – I hoisted a placard saying: What are these barbaric conditions of giving birth! Poor woman! Women unite! Protest!

I’m getting away from the point, I know. Let me say this, then: YES, CATEGORICALLY IT DOES WORK. As I said in the beginning of this post, and we all pretty much know this, the biggest universal NYR/R is to lose weight. OK. I vowed/R. But whereas I did so in the past with absolute tolerance of my innumerable infringements and faux-pas and eff-ups and excuses, this time I was – YES, DEAR READER: FASCISTIC.

Every time I came up with one or more of the three biggest self-sabotaging excuses below, I countermanded and overruled them immediately – an absolute promise/pact I made with myself always fascistically, relentlessly to find a solution and alternative to whatever the excuse was in order to ensure I stuck to the original commitment.

Classic self-sabotage excuses include one or more of the following and, after the dashes, typically what I said/did to keep my fascistic rules in place and, thereby, my behaviour also. Some of my fascist counterpoints are lengthy – I didn’t necessarily use/apply all of the responses, but used one or more, depending on the strength of feeling of the self-sabotating. Note: Unsurprisingly, fascists and fascistic talk are rarely if ever diplomatic, so don’t be aghast by the occasional nastiness of the fascistic counterpoint. It’s fascistic – hello!

Self-Sabotaging ExcusesFascistic Counterpoint(s)

1. I’m just too tired from overwork/lack of sleep So do your exercise [or whatever it is] more slowly but, if you do, it’ll take you twice as long. But even when you’re exhausted, you can stick to your rule. Otherwise you’re just making excuses. Plus, the more you fascistically commit to your plan, the less likely it is you will be so tired in future because you will have more energy and strength both physically and mentally from continuing to do what you’re doing now in your plan.

2.I just can’t be botheredYou friggin lazy bastard! This is why you’re in this mess. And how exactly are you going to feel about yourself in a week’s / month’s / six month’s time when you’re still facing the same problems in the future with absolutely no improvement. Pull your fat finger outta your fat arse and get a friggin move on. Move it, asshole!

3. An emergency/crisis has happened (at work / home / with a friend / family member). [Sounds like a solid reason, eh? NO – it ain’t!] — Fair enough. However, for any planned physical/time-involving action (e.g., going to gym, jogging, talking a fast-paced walk), then either immediately plan/put into your diary the necessary alternative date(s) to cover whichever ones you have to miss now, or (better) remain committed to your schedule but just do them earlier/later in your day/evening so you remain on track. Otherwise, you’re just making a friggin lazy MOFO excuse and exploiting the emergency in order to avoid respecting yourself and honouring your own integrity. You want to be a two-faced lying sonofabitch to yourself and build self-respect that way, huh? Stick with the plan, otherwise one day you’ll end up in emergency and it’ll be too late to help yourself. And don’t be such a hypocrite: always going on about helping others to help themselves and being there for your friends and family and how important it all is, but you can’t even remain committed to helping your own self.  Who the fcuk are you to advise others when you can’t swallow your own healthy advice?!

As I result, I stuck to a healthy diet, physical exercise plan and routine and kept to it “religiously” as they say (a funny term, I think, considering “religiously” means nothing like such a meaning!). In three months I lost three stone, no stretch marks, no consequences, and I achieved an ‘ideal weight’. (Erm – it didn’t stop my face from looking like a slapped arse, but that’s nature and the weather conditions for you – ahem.)

CONCLUSION: If, in 2012, you want to achieve any sort of real change in your life, be FASCISTIC. Yes! Be truly intolerant of you making excuses, backsliding, saying you can’t because of this/that or the other (there’s always ‘the other’, eh? I know!). You can’t say, “never mind tonight, I’m going out with friends and so won’t have the energy to do it tomorrow, according to my schedule. I’ll just postpone it to another day/time”. If you’re going to commit to a particular aspect of yourself changing, then commit. If you really don’t want to, really just can’t be arsed? Fine, then don’t. But then don’t feel guilty – that’s a bloody stupid waste of time, energy and emotion better spent doing something else rather than feeling more negative because of your own stupid behaviour/backsliding [note I didn’t say you were stupid – a big, important difference in self-analysis/evaluation!] – but don’t friggin kid yourself, either, okay?

Meanwhile, Just promise me you’ll continue to be open-minded, liberal, liberated, questioning, challenging of the status quo, loving to all and fascistically hateful of true intolerance. Please?

Love, bobbygw

How to challenge sexist men’s thinking

Below is a link to a brief list of books in easy PDF format that I recommend for those who may know sexist men in their lives – be they teenagers, adults, friends, relatives, partners or work colleagues – and who wish to challenge their thinking (if you reckon they’re even up for considering such a radical move – sadly, we know most won’t be but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to open a door even if they insist it should remain closed).

Hope you find one or more interesting/of value. They cover a range of topics/issues and it is far from comprehensive – frankly, it’s a teeny-weeny list, but then size shouldn’t count. Ahem. (Groan, I know, I know – but the obvious ones can be fun, unlike obvious or subtle sexism!)

If you have other recommendations, whether fiction or non-fiction, please do let me know and I’ll add them to the list and be sure to acknowledge your contribution.

Click book recommendations for men against sexism for the list.

Leonardo: STOP. Grow up and act accordingly. Puhl-lease?!

Hello, mummy. I'm a child star playing an adult playing an actor playing an adult. Yippee!

Sorry, Leonard DiCaprio, but when is anyone in Hollywood ever going to tell you what everyone in the audience has been thinking for a long time? So let me tell you on behalf of us all: Stop! Yes, please stop accepting roles that you look too young to perform and are too young in terms of acting experience to interpret. Now either a Hollywood producer mogul or famous director is making you believe that you can perform roles years beyond how you actually can appear in the films, or that both that and/or you agree according to some misinterpretation of your own acting ability that you can perform roles way beyond your years. But you keep on doing this – you keep on repeating this same mistake and supposedly great movie directors who should know better – Scorsese and Spielberg – can’t get the magic He-Makes-Box-Office-Stardust out of their eyes. So they follow the money and keep on giving him roles he can’t handle. Now, given that we, the audience, are supposed to believe you have star power for umpteen years, now, and the fact that you can deliver a Box Office success in its first weekend, I fear that you/the Hollywood producers/your gullible fans, don’t question one fundamental observation:

Yes, you seem like a lovely, sincere, genuine guy but you ARE TOO FRICKING YOUNG FOR MOST OF YOUR ROLES. STOP! Let me give you some examples:

1. The Aviator (Howard Hughes) (2004). Real age of DiCaprio:  30. Actual age on screen, even within “aging make-up over 2 hours?” 24!– HELLO?! – CONVINCING AS A TEENAGE HOWARD but, NOT beyond that. Yet the film was supposed to convince us that you were the real shindig Howard Hughes through formative years? Anyone who has seen real-life photos of Howard Hughes during the period that you depicted him will know that you came as close to depicting him as I do to Marilyn Monroe (and I wouldn’t get close to be compared favourably to her butt-crack, if you’re asking)

2. Inception (2010)  – I’m a cool guy that has seen it all, but I look 19 years old. Hello?!

3. J. Edgar (2011)  A 25-year-old actor giving the impression he’s the most formidable and powerful presence on the American political scene. Intimidating, scary and paranoid-inducing to those who really knew him. YET:  In this movie, de Caprio looks like a young hick nobody and about as intimidating as a fart in a breeze.

4. Shutter Island (2010): Come on: We, the audience, are supposed to believe that this teenager not only has survived World War II, but has lost a wife and two children AND is a full-blown detective before we end up realising he’s a fricking nut?Hell-loooo!?

5. The Departed (2006): A guy from the wrong side of the tracks becomes an under-cover cop and is part of a major conspiracy-busting ring. Really? But he looks 12 years old! Hello!

6.  Catch me if you can (2002):  So he’s supposed to be the youngest white collar brilliant criminal ever at such a young age. OK! I give up. It’s based on a true story. But does Frank have to appear so consistently young throughout the entire two-hour movie? No!

7. Blood Diamond (2006):  Yes!  Well-meaning, well-deserved as a script. an important plot and themes. But are we really supposed to believe that this late teenager is a highly-experienced diamond smuggler. At the age of 25? Maybe there are such smugglers. But does he convince you? Thought not.

I won’t go on further. Since DiCaprio has appeared on the acting/Hollywood scene, he has increasingly, relentlessly been given roles way beyond not only his acting ability, but far beyond any credible age he can play; until he stops looking like a twenty-something, he should stay clear of any character outside of that age range. Maybe in another fifty years when he grows some real hair on his face instead of baby fluff. Nuff said.

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Fabulously camp & great fun

Did you see Guy Ritchie‘s first movie interpretation of the legendary genius detective, Sherlock Holmes? Well, whether you did or didn’t, This reviewer will vouchsafe this sequel: it’s wonderful.

But if you don’t like camp, homoerotic relationships, silliness, relentless plotting, amazing (but difficult-to-follow) action sequences – smothered with humour and a smorgasbord of stars having a lot of fabulous time, then don’t see this.

It is great, tremendous fun. A perfect film for the festive and any other holiday season. Well written (by the same writers as the first, but they’re both even sharper and camper than with their first script), Ritchie once again proves that, without the clutches of Madonna, he is and has and does creative, fun, tremendously entertaining films as good as they get.

I loved the first film – saw it several times on DVD. This latest? Better – by far. There are those who were somew legalistic and conflicted in their praise (including the usually superb Philip French. Problems with it? Sure: there’s a mutual metaphorical intellectual masturbation couple of scenes between Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ (and, well, the world’s) evil nemesis, as he and Holmes verbally scale ever greater heights in praising the other. Two gigantic egos doing battle to praise the other out of actual narcissistic self-value; as if to say, I’m so brilliantly clever, I therefore can understand how brilliant clever you are. No YOU are clever. No, nay, YOU are more clever. And so it goes on. Tiresome and unnecessary. Flatulent and fatuous and unnecessary (as if F & F are necessary – ahem).

But, but:  It is hugely entertaining. Visually gripping, a rich plot, consistently fun and engaging performances and more crack-of-the-whip speed than it takes to switch on a light bulb. A thousand times. That’s it’s only other problem: Ritchie is known for his montage sequences and tremendous, sophisticated, clever action scenes, but the time between one split moment and another, even within a montage, is so fast, hundredths of a second, that one’s human eye (or, at least mine) can’t keep up with the visual escapades. This is doubly frustrating, because you want to see the action sequences and what fiendish elements that Holmes sees to be demonstrated in at least sufficient slow motion (is half a second per split screen really too much to ask?! – yes, it seems to Ritchie), yet you are prevented from doing so because everything happens so fast that you are unable actually visually to comprehend exactly what happens. This was the dominating flaw of the first Ritchie Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and the problem is exponentially increased to ridiculous proportions in this sequel.

Actions literally happen so fast that, even in supposed slow-motion (actually not true in itself, as the slow-motion is only a sequence between extremely fast editing that is less than a fraction of a second, preventing you from understanding exactly how marvellous, potentially, how superbly executed, the scenes are).

But, BUT! If you enjoy camp, fun, silly, clever, witty, lighthearted humour; if you appreciate the quality of two grown men who love each other yet cannot name it – their love – fully – but demonstrate it fulsomely in action, if you want action galore and more, then … God yes: I recommend this movie.  Tremendous fun, quick, sharp; it’s the fastest and most entertaining two hours and nine minutes I have ever passed in a cinema. Highly recommended.  If you can’t swallow camp, however, and silliness and tend to take Holmes as an icon beyond dispute or disrepute, then this film isn’t for you. Downey is Downey and what he does best (but the same as in every other film); Law plays foil to Holmes superbly; Rachel McAdams is convincing and Watson’s dog has more magic than Lazarus himself. And Professor Moriaty, as played by Lane Pryce (probably most familar to us in his fab role as Lane Pryce in the Mad Men series) is excellent; albeit Lane Pryce with a beard. If you delight in a delicious sense of humour and frivolity and just simply want to enjoy a couple of hours of maximum fun in the dark room of a cinema: this is that film that will deliver on such expectations. In other words: highly recommended. Have fun, laugh out loud on a few occasions (all the audience did, including me, when I saw it, and enjoy cinema as it is meant to be when it’s not serious but has underlying important messages: great entertainment, well done, well-told and well worth the price of admission.

Really? A clever, witty, FUN movie about the US Supreme Court?

Click on the image to buy (multi-region/US version only)

While some hold the view that Hollywood is mostly incapable of producing worthwhile, meaningful films on important matters, First Monday in October  is one of those glorious exceptions that would engage even the most cynical critics of Hollywood.  In other words and in this instance: Yes, this really is a clever, witty, fun movie on the  US Supreme Court.

Made in 1981, this wonderful film addresses serious issues in a way that is thoroughly engaging. The script and the acting are sharp, focused and entertaining and the plot is, interestingly, actually subversive of the view held in the 1980s by male-dominated politics – well nothing’s really changed on that score – ahem – that a woman shouldn’t hold a place on the US Supreme Court of Justice:  This fab film sets the record straight with a firm ruling, and makes clear that such a notion is absurd as it is sexist.

Not only is this a deeply intelligent, humane, funny, well-thought out movie – it is also, continuously, wonderfully engaging – most especially from the star performances of Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh – besides how it addresses the issues of politics, gender and power.

The great dialogue races along, all the while covering a range of subjects as they’re presented in legal form before the Court, in turn thereby addressing genuinely important matters, US capitalism and free speech among them.

First Monday in October is a joy from beginning to end (and, as with all great Hollywood movies, all supporting roles are entertaining and well-cast), besides being a marvellous way of learning about the machinations of the Supreme Court, constitutional politics and the  ‘battle between the sexes’.  The one disappointing note is that it’s only available to buy in the NTSC/US/multi-region DVD version – a great shame and it doesn’t seem to be online (please do let me know if you find a version!).

Who’s Your Daddy? An appreciation of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev - Penguin book cover
Click on the image for free delivery in the UK. For worldwide, click on the book title in the first paragraph

During his lifetime, Turgenev was the most popular Russian novelist in Europe, even taking into account Dostoyevksy and Tolstoy. Fascinatingly, he was also the most controversial.  (The controversy surrounding this novel continued at least up until the 1950s.)

While he spent most of his life abroad, living in Paris, in particular (he was a passionate Europhile), he remained throughout his life devoted to Russia and its people.

Turgenev’s greater popularity, compared with his two most famous counterparts, arguably rests on his lead characters’ deeper humanity and greater emotional complexity in his novella-length fictions. With Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, their own characters often begin in conflict and are riddled with anxieties that get progressively worse while often see sawing still between only two opposing viewpoints over many hundreds of pages .

Of the characters themselves, there is much about them to enjoy, be engaged with as well as challenged by. Bazarov and Arkady, university students, take a holiday together, visiting Arkady’s landlord and liberal-minded, caring father (Nikolai) and uncle (Pavel), formerly a distinguished army captain, at Nikolia’s farm and home, with whom Pavel also lives. The conflict between `fathers and sons’ is played out primarily in this holiday, arising because of Bazarov’s deep-seated nihilism and his insistent, relentlessly stern advocacy of such miserable, cynical views to Nikolai and Pavel.

The story is worth reading just for two characters alone: Bazarov, who is infuriating and an unforgettable anti-hero. Supremely arrogant and contemptuous of others, he respects no codes of conduct and appreciates nothing, save that which he defines and determines. He’s rude to his charming and much devoted friend, Arkady, who himself is in such awe of Bazarov he can’t help but appear to collude with his all-encompassing miserable and bitter worldview.

Bazarov’s nihilism confounds and upset Arkady’s father – and angers Pavel. Yet ironically it is Bazarov’s own rejection of Arkady’s friendship that brings Arkady to his senses, reconnecting him with a sense of humanity, empathy and love he always felt for both his father and uncle.

Pavel is another compelling character; he’s amusing, with a caustic sense of humour and irony and is superbly realised. He’s a Russian who, while now elderly, remains as he was from his youth: distinguished, handsome, with a reputation as a `lady-killer’, sustained by his aristocratic flair and his taste for colourful English bespoke tailoring and fancy accoutrements (handkerchiefs, cufflinks, neckerchiefs). He’s deeply civilised, graceful, yet in no doubt of his views, with a strong and independent perspective and depth of character. He is also deeply generous and caring, having given much of his money to Nikolai, to help his brother keep his farm and land. 

It is no surprise, given the brilliantly drawn and vivid characters of Bazarov and Pavel, that it is their debates that make the novel such a compelling read. We witness Pavel regress from civilised decorum to bemusement, yet all the while becoming increasingly agitated, and failing in trying to stay true to his sense of honour and code of conduct. Bazarov mirrors him for integrity, yet insults by his bored manner, his steely, offensive and effortless cynicism. 

Their discussions constitute the heart of the novel and convey Turgenev’s conflict over the ever-deepening rift between his own generation of ‘fathers’ and that of Russia’s ‘sons’; a portrait of a country in turbulent times and anticipating even more troubled times ahead. Powerful, evocative and deeply thoughtful: it more than merits its status as a classic novel.


A note on this edition:

There are several English editions of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861) including some cheaper than this (e.g., the Wordsworth edition), but this is by far the best to date for two reasons:

  • Rosemary Edmonds’ translation from Russian into English in this edition is elegant and smooth, and her own introduction is excellent – providing meaningful reflection and understanding not only of the novel, but Turgenev’s talent, other works, and the political and literary times he lived through.
  • The second reason is that as far as I can tell, this edition is the only one that has Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant, insightful lecture on the novel that he first gave in 1970, and was included in this edition from 1975 onwards. It has an invaluable review of the novel’s historical context and background in terms of philosophy and politics in Russia during Turgenev’s lifetime.

Charles Dickens: The making of a literary giant – Hibbert’s masterful biography

book cover of Charles Dickens biography by Christopher Hibbert
Click here to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

Christopher Hibbert rightly has a significant place in the pantheon of great 20th century biographers and he deservedly remains one of the most popular and widely read. His Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant is just one of the many proofs of his excellence as a biographer.

It is not just because he was a brilliant researcher, always being careful and absolutely thorough in his consideration of all relevant primary source material, nor – more impressively – his incredible, frankly astonishingly wide range of subjects, with over 60 books published in his lifetime, many of which have remained in print since first publication: from Dickens to Samuel Johnson, on cities (Florence, Rome, and an encyclopedia of London), King George III, to Napoleon, Disraeli, the French Revolution, Mussolini, Africa, Elizabeth I and even one on The Roots of Evil: A social History of Crime and Punishment, besides many others.

It is  because, combined with these two talents, he was first an exceptional, thoroughly engaging and always compelling storyteller.  As he said once in an interview with the UK’s The Sunday Times in 1990:

The main aim is to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to make historical discoveries or change historical opinion in any way. You’ve got to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next, even if you’re writing about something the outcome of which is well known.

This biography of Dickens is in fact a reprint that was first published in 1967 and this merits the only caveat emptor besides what is otherwise a wholehearted and passionate recommendation of this wonderful book; the warning being that, inevitably, through absolute no fault of Hibbert, at the time of his reading of primary sources and publication, there were many important items unavailable to him because they had not yet become accessible, edited or otherwise published; the most significant being that of Dickens many thousands of letters. Hibbert’s only access at the time of his writing was to the Nonesuch edition, published back in 1938 which, while certainly covering a wide range across Dickens’ entire life, was itself thought of as ‘patchy and sometimes even misleading [though] is still the best complete edition of Dickens’s correspondence for the years not covered by the Pilgrim edition’ (page 1,084, in the hardback edition of Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd). Unfortunately, only the first volume of the authoritative Pilgrim edition of letters, published in 1965, was available to Hibbert, and which itself could only manage to cover the period of Dickens from age eight to 27 – i.e., a further 31 years’ worth of his letters are not fully accounted for, and weren’t, until – with the final volume (12 in its series) of this astonishingly comprehensive and brilliantly edited collection – was published in 2002.

Having said that, the research up to 1967 is without doubt impeccable, and Hibbert’s style of writing – as always – is elegant, entertaining, fluid and charming. His deep wisdom and capacity to make important connections and provide innumerable and always valuable insights into Dickens, whether of the author’s psychology, personality – it seems clear from all the evidence that Dickens was very much a manic-depressive – the relevance of his personal history to his obsessively reoccurring themes and key archetypal characters in his fiction (John Carey’s The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is also particularly brilliant on these issues), his feats of herculean productivity, phenomenal energy and inevitable restlessness, or his behaviour towards and relationship with his family, friends, his publishers and his much devoted audience (both readership-wise and when he gave his hugely popular readings in the UK and the US) – well, Hibbert remains consistently brilliant. His knowledge of Dickens’ novels is profound, and the way he quotes from them is always apposite and enlightening about Dickens himself, as well as – of course – offering a judicious, scrupulous understanding of the novels themselves.