The Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson

The only way I could have read these books in a worse order was if I had gone fully backwards in time from Hitler’s suicide to the Battle of El Alamein. As it was, thanks to the vagaries of Islington Library stocks and Kindle sales, I went 2-3-1, which was sort of disorientating – the Allies got good at war and then really bad again.

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Richard Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy is really good. Essentially an account of U.S. participation (more on that later) in the war against the Nazis (the Pacific war goes basically unmentioned), it is well-researched and solid military history, but written by a journalist with some grasp of prose. So the whole thing is engaging and entertaining, and quite frequently almost beautifully lyrical. Generally the chapter openings and endings are more poetic, while the middle bits are mostly death and misery. Occasionally it’s both at the same time – there’s one passage in the second book that I immediately copied out to text to a variety of people I wanted to make glum.

The books have a fairly logical separation – it goes War in Africa, War in Italy, War in North-Western Europe. The only issue I have is where he starts the series – because of his focus on the U.S., the war ‘starts’ with Operation Torch, where the Allies landed in Algeria and Morocco. Montgomery and the Eighth Army don’t really appear until they approach Tunisia. Given the pivotal nature of El Alamein, this struck me as odd, although having read two books covering that part of the war this year, I wasn’t too fussed. Once the Allied armies are in the same theatre, Atkinson starts to pay them both the attention they deserve.

This often means extensive coverage of intra-Allied sniping, be it the Americans and the British squabbling, or the French being generally awkward. I think Atkinson gets better at reporting this as the series goes on. In the first book, there’s a prickly tone to how he quotes British criticism of U.S combat performance that is, on the one hand, kind of fair, they were dicks, but equally, sounds slightly petulant. Combined with an occasionally nauseating Band of Brothers-esque “they were boys on their way to becoming men/heroes etc.” tone, the books do toe the line of becoming jingoistic in that infuriating way. This is, I think, exacerbated by, again the U.S. focus. Atkinson acknowledges Soviet contributions, and covers the Big Three’s summits, including the desperate calls for a Second Front, but not much.

This is even more pronounced when it comes to the Axis perspective – where Beevor’s Ardennes gave over whole sections to the Kampfgruppe Peiper and its offensive (admittedly it’s easier to give narrative weight to an attacking army), the Liberation Trilogy dedicates limited space to the men across the battlefield.

Still, this isn’t as bad as three paragraphs of criticism makes it sound.

Possibly because of his journalist background, Atkinson is excellent when he focuses on the personalities of the commanders involved. This is one area where reading the books in order might have helped, as again, the way I read it, Eisenhower was a decent commander, a good one, then a newbie. But there is a real sense of how these men thought, interacted, and behaved, and how that affected the war effort. From the problems caused by inexperienced commanders in Tunisia to the heroics in Normandy, passing through the general “what” that was George S. Patton, there’s a lot going on.

As a frequent complainer about maps (I just really don’t have any sort of spatial logic I think), the maps in this are good – depending on the edition! The Kindle version was perfect, as you could zoom in on maps and all sorts. The first book came as a paperback with tiny margins, which was awful, and the third, paperback, had good maps but with the usual caveat that you have to flick backwards and forwards to find them – effort.

Just generally as a history of the Western front (loosely defined), you could do a lot worse than the Liberation Trilogy. It’s quite long, which means it doesn’t speed through any crucial moments, but you’re not spending three hundred pages reading about a battle, either. It’s not too nerdy (not enough tanks tbh), but it’s not shallow, either.

v.v.g. imo.

For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker

When Victoria Coren-Mitchell won the European Poker Tour for the second time last month, the Guardian ran an excerpt from her 2009 poker memoirs, and Amazon slashed the e-book‘s price (which strikes me as pretty dire business sense but I defer to the multi-billion pound empire, I guess). The excerpt was good, I played poker, a bit, badly, in high school, and have generally enjoyed Coren-Mitchell’s columns, so I went for it. I’m writing this from a flight that is making an unpleasant descent to Luton (apparently EasyJet are ok with electronics being switched on at take-off and landing: wonderful news), having just finished it, and I was very pleased with the purchase. Especially at that price, though I think I’d have been pleased at full price. Review after the big blind…

Continue reading

Last Forever: Review

In hindsight, I’m still not sure whether I would have been impossible to please with this episode or not. It’s the last of 216 episodes of a show I really care about, and while I came to it late, it’s still a three-year investment. On the other hand, as I said in the previous post, the ninth season had already ticked all the boxes for me. It left the characters in satisfying places. The Mother was wonderful. It seemed almost impossible for them to actually fuck it up.

Almost impossible, obviously. Because they really did. I should know better than to become a screaming fanboy as I bear down on my 21st birthday but Jesus fuck did they blow it.

The dominant theory I’ve read is that for whatever reason, the writers felt hemmed in by their original vision for the show, where Ted ended up with Robin despite the “That’s how I met your Aunt Robin” line at the end of the pilot. Alan Sepinwall has a plausible, if infuriating, account in his delightfully angry review:

They had a plan. They were going to stick to that plan. They would take the title literally, introduce the Mother at the very end, then kill her off to clear the way for the Ted/Robin coupling everyone really wanted.

I’m going to stick with the “how” of their fucking it up completely for a second, and then circle back round to the “why” and the “what if”.

Remember how I said everything was resolved and satisfied for all the characters except Ted, although we knew him and the Mother were wonderful together, so all I needed was a double episode of him and the Mother being cute and happy?

Fine, you can’t always get what you want. If they had wanted to commit to killing the Mother off, then fine, that’s a bittersweet ending, and I’ll allow it for having produced The Time Travellers episode.

However, do you remember how I also said that Barney’s development was the most satisfying character work the show has ever done, and how nice it was to have him get a fully earned resolution and happy ending in “End of the Aisle”?

Replacing all the cute happy fuzzy stuff I wanted with a 35-minute rollback of all said development and a five-minute condensed retread? No. Obviously, Barney and his daughter was absolutely beautiful and NPH killed it. Obviously, any rewrite I make up to soothe the pain has to include that moment because it was fucking wonderful. Daddy’s home indeed.

Even if it wasn’t such a travesty of a decision on its own merits, the fact that they had to go over so much ground with Barney to get him basically back to where he was at the start of the episode left them with about twenty  minutes for all the rest. You know, the How I Met Your fucking Mother bit. I’m not one of those people who spent the whole series complaining that “lol has he still not met the mother wtf” because brain cells and stuff*. This, again, could have been OK. Over the years, Barney had seemed almost a co-lead character with Ted, so if they felt like dedicating more of the finale to him, then fine. That left enough time for Ted to meet the mother and have plenty of cute little moments going forward.

What it didn’t leave time for, unfortunately, was a bleak little vignette on how friends grow apart, how loved ones die, and how later in life, if pursuing your career has made you a lonely tragedy of a woman** you can always just end up with someone you had repeatedly decided wasn’t right for you.

I’ve seen lots of people point out that this isn’t an unrealistic or outrageous conclusion, and I think they’re sort of right. Just because the Mother was “the one”, doesn’t mean there would be no other “one”. Just because the Barney-Robin marriage seemed perfect, doesn’t mean it was perfect for ever. People do die, and it is sad. This is all very true. Unfortunately, this episode didn’t do enough to make this work.

Tonally, it was strange. So fucking bleak. It might have been the time of day, or my general mood, but the last two episodes felt bleak and depressing in a way that doesn’t really gel with what HIMYM usually is. Obviously, it’s dipped into moving, borderline maudlin territory before – including with Robin’s infertility discovery and acceptance of no kids in “Symphony of Illumination”. But this felt like something else entirely.

Structurally, it was a fucking disaster, which is particularly bad for a series which has always been so masterful with its structure. We didn’t see the mother’s funeral, her gravestone, nothing. The kids tell us six years have passed in between her death and the story being told, so there’s obviously been an appropriate process of grieving or whatever, but for the audience, the whiplash of:

“she got sick and died” 😦

“yo dad we know why you’re telling us all this, go ask out Aunt Robin” 😀

“sure?”

“yeah lol why not” 😀

Was baffling. We’ve seen two scenes of Ted being sad about the Mother dying – one was in Season Eight, and one was three episodes ago. Honestly, I wasn’t keen on them killing the mother, but I’m sure they could have pulled off a moving look at what it would mean for Ted to lose the One and made it satisfying. If they had fucking tried. My sister pointed out that we didn’t even see the group reacting to her death, when they had been friends for eleven years. She was dismissed so cheaply.

To be honest, I’m not sure if the committed auteur vision Sepinwall proposes is more or less irritating – the idea that they decided to write themselves out of the corner as a challenge (read his review for the actual argument). OULIPO, 22’2s – these are valid instances of constraints producing improved art. This? Todd VanDerWerff suggests that fundamentally, they weren’t good enough to rise to the challenge:

The ultimate takeaway from the final season is that series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were at once too good and not good enough to tell the story they ultimately wanted to tell.

As annoying an explanation as it is, I don’t really see another. The notion that they would rather fuck everything up than sacrifice 60 seconds of footage of Lyndsey Fonseca and the other kid looking the right age*** is almost too implausible.

The only other explanation would be some sort of network pressure, or maybe demonic possession? Because the last episodes of the season and the season leading up to it seem fundamentally at odds. You could probably argue convincingly for either of them representing the true spirit of the series as a whole, but a 22-episode dissection of why Ted and Robin aren’t meant to be, why the Mother and Ted are perfect for each other and have totally earned this happiness and a 40-minute look at how life carries on after the “end” and that’s OK and happiness and love are still worthwhile even if short-lived are both valid things, but they’re different things.

The ending we got was not what the season had set up. I would rather they fixed the ending, but I’d be intrigued by an alternative season nine that actually took the time to make all of the developments they placed in the finale work and feel earned. It’d be a bit of a dark turn, but I’m convinced they could make it bittersweet and nice even if the mother had died halfway through the season. Hell, they could even have sold me on Robin/Ted again if they hadn’t just spent 22 episodes shooing that possibility away.

As it stands, though, I’m currently watching season nine again and all I can think when I see the Mother being great, I see Ted trying to let Robin go, Barney and Robin trying to make it work, is that it’s all in vain, because it’ll be undone in the space of forty minutes.

When I remember the real Scrubs finale****, all I really remember is the two beautiful scenes that tie up JD’s character arcs beautifully. When I remember the Frasier finale, all I really remember is the beautiful transition from Frasier saying his goodbyes to his family and friends to him saying goodbye, in essence, to the show.

Now, when I remember the HIMYM finale, all I’ll remember is those few minutes of horror as they crowbarred their preferred resolution into being. And that’s a damn shame.

 

Reading List, because old habits die hard

At the AVClub, Donna Bowman has been doing the weekly recaps for HIMYM since the start. Her review of the finale is more positive. She also wrote a nice retrospective the day before it dropped. Meanwhile, Editor Todd VanDerWerff has a couple of good pieces that acknowledge the horror while trying to understand what led to them.

Alan Sepinwall provides the afore-mentioned account of what led the writers to fuck it up, but still gives a no-holds barred beatdown to the episode and it’s delightful to read.

Other good reviews: Jezebel, NPR, Time.
*it also helps that I came to it during the sixth season and caught up. I concede that if I had been watching since 2005 I may have grown more impatient.

**great politics there, HIMYM

***which Sepinwall skewers perfectly:

Which led to the most awkward interaction of past and present footage since Tony Soprano’s final conversation with his mother.

****ie: disregarding the season with James Franco’s annoying brother. Also, this is a rhetorical device more than anything. I have watched that episode so many times that I’m not far off being able to list the main narrative beats it hits. Still, the point stands, if less elegantly – I have no desire to watch “Last Forever” again.

PS: Wanted to preserve the neat ending, but I feel like some of the successes of the finale have to be acknowledged, just not in the main body because that would add nuance to my rant. So; Father Barney was great, every single scene with Ted and the Mother together was great, Ted’s goodbyes were lovely, I really liked that they got a group shot of them in the booth to echo the finale, Lily’s white whale costume was ridiculous and great, “be cool lady, damn” was the best line, and that little photo-montage before the credits was really sweet, if horrifying. Though I’m not sure if I can really credit the show with that so much as the crushing passage of time and mortality.

Last Forever: Prologue to a Review

I expect the true extent of how disappointed I was by the last episode of How I Met Your Mother will only reveal itself completely as I make my way through watching the final season again. For most of the past three years, I’ve watched repeats of HIMYM on E4, on the laptop while drunk, tired, hungover, bored, or just short of something to watch with lunch. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the first seven seasons at least twice over – for quite a few episodes it’s probably closer to three or four times.

See, my plan had been to hold off on watching the final seasons again so that I could go back through them all after the finale and appreciate it in one bittersweet weekend. I mostly stuck to that plan – though I’ve watched How Your Mother Met Me twice, and that song at the end repeatedly because all the logic in the world can’t get in the way of just how good Cristin Miloti was.

Unfortunately, that’ll probably backfire on me. I don’t disagree with what Todd Van Der Weff says here

Can a bad finale ruin a whole series? The popular (and proper) answer to this is no. Any TV show worth its salt understands that the age of endless Internet chatter about TV series overvalues endings in the grand scheme of things. The pleasure—particularly in a sitcom—is all in the journey. And that should be more than true for How I Met Your Mother, a series that was all about how the journey turns you into the person who is ultimately worthy of love when the right person finally lands in your life.

And indeed, to try and put it all out of my mind, I watched a couple of Season 6 episodes before bed this morning and they held up. I’m sure that generally, HIMYM is safe on my “shows that you can almost recite but you still keep watching” shelf for years to come. The final season though? Maybe not so much.

In the lead-up to the ninth season, when the “24 episodes set over one weekend” structure was announced, I was rare among my friends in being generally excited for it. Like Donna Bowman , I had faith in the program being able to pull it off:

We’re likely to see some of both this season, but it’s thrilling that the show is taking this kind of chance with structure. Based on its track record, I’m betting that the net payoff will be entirely satisfactory.

Until last week, I felt vindicated in this. There were mediocre episodes, and some of it felt like stalling, but no more so than in any of the recent seasons – the “boldness” of the structure just made them more vulnerable to criticism. Still, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to become a season of 24 HIMYM’s distinguishing feature is how much it fucks about with time, structure, and story-telling in a way that would be dickishly meta if it weren’t also so funny and well-done.

As I say, until last week, this was brilliantly handled. Having Ted “meet” the Mother in the second episode, a year after the finale, was inspired, and almost all of the jumps forward to them as a couple were delightful highlights. It undercut the tragedy of Ted’s interactions with the promise that he would find happiness within a couple of nights. Donna Bowman again:

This character has been waiting for “the one” since the pilot, and as his friends all found their futures, he has grown more convinced that his chance for love has slipped away. He’s become a supporting character in his own tale, simmering with despair that can, at any moment, slide into desperation.[…] The depth and emotional heft of those remaining possibilities arises from that oldest of all narrative devices: dramatic irony. We know what the character does not, so we watch in hope and fear as he plays out his role in a state of ignorance placing him in the path of dangers invisible to him, but obvious to us.

Over the course of the season, it tied everything up. The final slaps were handed out. They tied up running gags I didn’t even realise I wanted tied up – I cheered when Barney’s job was explained. The guest stars were given their moment in the spotlight. Marshall and Lily made it work, and while having Marshall spend half the season getting back together with the main cast (I’m not clear on whether this was an unforced error – I understand he was shooting a film recently so maybe they just couldn’t get him on set) was a bit of a misstep, they’re the only lead characters I have no overall issues with.* They even tied up the love triangle aspect of the series, that occasionally veered towards the frustrating, rather well. I never really bought Barney and Robin as a couple, but the writers certainly spent the 22 episodes of the season doing their best to make it work, and by the time Robin walked up the aisle, I was happy with the pairing.

They resolved the Ted-Robin relationship well too (that god-awful CGI/Atomic Kitten scene aside). He let her go again, except this time, put his money where its mouth is, and it was nice.

And Barney promised to be honest and I bought it. They started adding depth and development to the one-note gag that was Barney Stinson around season three or four as far as I recall, and in the hands of the consistently wonderful Neil Patrick Harris, it’s been some of the best stuff the show has ever done – the Barney’s father arc would be excellent even if it didn’t feature Dick Solomon as the father. When he gets his happy ending with Robin in “End of the Aisle”, it feels completely earned. I left that episode utterly satisfied with how the writers had resolved every arc except the titular “How I Met Your Mother”, and was looking forward to an indulgent, sweet 45 minutes of Josh Radnor and Cristin Milioti being cute together. I was pretty resigned to them killing the mother off at some point, but still had a slim hope that they’d pull a lame miracle cure bait-and-switch.

Good lord was I a fool.

Part Two up here.

*Lily was consistently brilliant this season, from “Thank You Linus” to that whale costume.

 

Februrary 16th: Austerity Reading

This week I’ve done some absolutely stellar TV and video-game work, which has had a knock-on effect on the amount of reading I’ve done, and consequently, how much I have to share with you this week. Also the length was getting out of hand so I’m going to try and be more selective from here on out. And concise, though concision isn’t really my thing.

This, over at Foreign Policy, is an interesting argument that I don’t think you hear often in English-language press for reinforced security cooperation between France and the USA. For the most part, you only hear about France in ill-informed stabs (in French, that one, but a brilliant takedown) at its economic policies. There’s a lot of merit to the idea of boosting trilateral relations, including the UK this time, as well. Worth a look.

I’ve definitely made this argument in the past – how the arbitrary borders imposed by colonial administrators are a big source of conflict etc. etc. This article about Sykes-Picot, which has had a surge of bad press because of the state of Syria and Iraq at the moment, is an interesting and strong corrective to what are, in this situation anyway, largely untrue connections.

This one’s a bit long, but it’s a really interesting, and I assume well-informed explanation of the North Korean regime and where things might head next after the purge of Kim Jong Un’s uncle. Hardly ever see this sort of information come out so this is cool.

Readers, let’s take a moment to salute a true workhorse. In the world of war machines, the expensive and high-tech items get all the attention and budgetdronesanti-ship ballistic missilescyber warfare, and the like. But, on the battlefields of the twenty-first century, a humble and under-rated weapon has quietly showed up these expensive attention-hogs: the pickup truck.”

The second War on the Rocks piece is weird but well worth reading if you’re into military-ish stuff. Last week I linked to three articles about the F-35, and the idea that a pickup truck may remain more relevant to most warfare is almost funny (as funny as death-making machines can be I guess).

Finally, one article on how the internet can be really cool – a history of computer/online dating including the story of that amazing guy who basically won at OKCupid with math skillz. For balance, one article on how the internet can be fucking awful – the story of one woman’s battle with the owner of a (thankfully now-defunct) revenge porn website. It takes some really surreal and quite terrifying turns and seems to have a happy ending. Check it.

Less than 500 words! Have a great week, guys.

PS: Just seen that one of my views for last week’s piece came from the search “chinese woman fucking in home video leakeg”. I’m still counting it. 

February 9th: Watch the Chinese Throne (Reading List)

I have literally spent all week concerned about titles etc. and can’t get past calling it something Sunday-papers-related (ie, what RPS call it) or something like what Another Angry Woman calls hers, but having linked to both of those last week, I can’t plausibly pretend I’m not just nicking their titles. So I’m going with a new approach – crappy jokes about the content of the post is the way forward.

Overthinking Rappers

Which is a lie as a title because I think there’s enough interesting stuff in any (well not all of them) Kanye song to justify writing at length about, but these articles go in such interesting directions that it almost feels strange that they’re built on the foundation of the man who wrote “in a French-ass restaurant/hurry up with my damn croissants”. Anyway, there are two segments to this section – the first half are articles that were mostly written years ago but since they were linked to in a post from this week, they fit. The second half I read months ago, probably around when Yeezus came out, but they seem to dovetail quite nicely with this theme and I really want you all* to read them.

So over at Foreign Policy, Matt Lynch wrote this really cool post about Kendrick Lamar (who I think I am about to understand the hype about – just one more play of good kid) and academia, which was good on its own merit – but then he linked to an earlier post about Jay-Z and international relations and I think this started the most entertaining reading I’ve done all week. First, the original post. Then the responses he compiled. And, finally, just when I was starting to feel upset at the absence of Kanye in the discussion – boom, Watch The Throne dropped and earned itself its own post! Highlights:

“Eminem returned strong after a long struggle with depression to make the ferociously brilliant Recovery album; but like, say, India or Brazil he has always been a powerhouse in his own world, neither influencing nor affected by the wider field.”

“many doubted whether Kanye could ever recover. This was a reputational collapse on a par with what the Bush administration did to America’s standing in the world.”

It’s absurd, but it absolutely works and is really fun – sort of like a hip-hop version of Daniel Drezner’s IR and zombies book.

In a similar vein, some of the writing in response to Yeezus and Kanye’s interviews, etc. in the months since has been absolutely brilliant.

Cord Jefferson, in particular wrote two really interesting, personal pieces discussing racism and his lived experience of discrimination and where Kanye West fits into this as an artist that are wonderful – this one was in response to that thing with Jimmy Kimmel, who comes off as a real tool.

“That Kanye West didn’t take it as a joke isn’t really a surprise, even if we ignore the fact that he’s famously self-serious. Here he’d done an interview explaining how hurtful it is to have proved one’s ability and still be seen as inferior by rich white people, and a rich white person responded by infantilizing him.”

Meanwhile, this piece is as much about race as gender, and the pretty shitty sexism that Kanye lyrics occasionally (frequently) swerve into. As Jefferson puts it,

“But if much of Kanye’s latest effort is intrepid, industrial progress, one big swath remains anchored firmly in the past, like a rocket ship heated with a wood-burning stove.”

Well worth a read and does a really good job of contextualizing the awfulness without giving it a pass. Also features some very bleak history and interesting personal touches.

Finally two good pieces from The Sabotage Times – one my favourite review of Yeezus and the other a really good defence of Bound 2 and its video. I love that song and I have a lot of time for Kanye but even I was baffled and derisive of that video, which was probably unfair. Hari Sethi takes it seriously and makes a solid case that

“Whilst we all cringed at silly ol’ Kanye, it’s highly plausible the rapper had the last laugh.”

Why we should(n’t) be afraid of China

A massive pile of pieces on politics in East Asia now. It’s a really interesting (in the terrifying way) situation at the moment and I have no idea whether to believe the doom-mongers but it does make me slightly troubled by the UK move towards losing aircraft carriers (how far I’ve fallen). Then again, the joy of not being the hegemon is not having to pay for global public goods I guess. Anyway. This week’s first of three War on the Rocks pieces is a persuasive case for a change in US response to Chinese “salami-slicing” which is my new favourite metaphor –

“It is the rivals of salami-slicers who are obligated to eventually draw red lines and engage in brinkmanship over actions others will view, in isolation, as trivial and far from constituting casus belli.”

It’s compelling and a bit scary. Linked to within that post is this brilliant article from the New York Times that I think has to be read on a computer browser to do it justice – it’s beautifully presented Snowfall-style stuff (I said this about a piece last week I think). It’s also a fascinating and surreal report on the Filipino efforts to keep hold of tiny little islands across the South China Sea and China’s basically unstoppable moves to take them. At its heart is an abandoned, rusty, collapsing beached WW2 boat and the handful of marines garrisoning it. Really good reporting, check it.

So while that’s all a bit terrifying, the pessimistic case may be somewhat overstated. For one thing, this piece in The Diplomat argues that the Chinese military is over-estimated as a threat – they’re poorly-trained and much much worse equipped than we think, despite all the publicity around their military budget. Meanwhile, this other piece on the F-35 fighter jet (I don’t know who I am anymore) turned out to be really interesting and nicked at least an hour of my life while I read up, pointlessly, on US fighter jets. Together, they make it quite clear that the US military is still so ridiculously powerful that in the event of a war it’s not implausible that the US would be able to wipe the floor with China, which in turn makes it highly unlikely that it’ll come to it. Fingers crossed. Also the F-35 thing paints this delightfully Skynet picture which I was more amused than terrified by – possibly because of this blog which got a giggle out of me.

Zack Beauchamp over at ThinkProgress.com also outlines a lot of convincing reasons that war is ultimately pretty unlikely. So that’s good.

International Diplomacy for dummies

Worryingly, on the strength of these two pieces, the US diplomatic corps doesn’t exactly sound up to managing these crises. This profile of former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is interesting – he doesn’t come off awfully and seems like a decent bloke but… not great. Also:

“The only known association between the Russian president and American football was Putin’s alleged theft of Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s diamond-studded Super Bowl ring in 2005”

Amazing. (That said, there’s another Russia piece or two incoming that aren’t so fun so steel yourselves. On the problems with the diplomatic service generally this one has been doing the rounds on Twitter and is a bit worrying but also brilliant because hopefully the British or the Brazilian ambassadorships are as much of a joke which improves my chances (of course apparently you need to be a massive donor to get in so I’d still need to be loaded. So not that much of an improvement)

Middle Eastern things

As Iran moves back towards a degree of normalization internationally these two pieces are good for treating it like a normal country instead of a Holocaust-denying ranter (Ahmadinejad being gone helps with that). The Al-Jazeera piece is just a good outline of where its national interests lie and helps explain its behaviour. Meanwhile, the War on the Rocks one is more self-interested in a way.

“Because giving Iran a place at the table is the only way to make it take responsibility for its role in Syria’s civil war.”

By virtue of being a pariah Iran doesn’t get called out on all of its behaviour as much maybe it should – that post argues that its normalization could help in more ways than one. In a similar vein, this on Foreign Policy (also doing well this week) discusses Syria using the analogies of Bosnia and Iraq properly and seriously and actually drawing interesting and credible conclusions instead of “we should/shouldn’t bomb Syria because Bosnia/Iraq”. So good job there.

Finally, a really moving piece on how we talk about war at (ha) War on the Rocks. It really is to that site’s credit that they get both great scholars and experts and veterans (often in the same person) to write for them.

“We’ve abstracted Syria to the point that it’s no longer a war, but a giant Risk board we get to watch on CNN.” 

I can’t be bothered to make up a tenuous set of categories for the rest of these so the overflow section is really big and contains some of the best posts. Tough.

Who says titles have to be brief? Ok first up, and vaguely related to the last one, this piece about women and the media from Sarah Graham (who I know! Get me) is really good – it outlines all the different kinds of fuckery that are pervasive in the media and at its heart is the horrific work (I mean great work from her but awful) by Karen Ingala Smith –

“Her Counting Dead Women campaign recorded 140 women killed in 2013 by boyfriends, husbands, sons, grandsons, friends, relatives, acquaintances and strangers. That’s one woman every 2.6 days.”

It really underlines why this shit matters and it’s a great piece which you should read now – I’ll wait.

Tenuously linked (Sarah mentioned the Meredith Kercher trial) is this mildly surreal but quite powerful piece in the Guardian on Amanda Knox. It’s weird to read how sympathetic she sounds with the knowledge that she’s a convicted murderer but Hattenstone isn’t unaware of that tension. Also I never followed that trial so I didn’t have any opinions either way beyond “this is awful”. Good article though.

Stoya is wonderful and this piece from her in the New Statesman is really cool and funny but important and I love her rule 7:

“7. If your sexual partner(s) express a limit or ask for something to stop and you do not respect it, you are stepping onto a scale that ranges from “jerk” to “full-on rapist”. Personally, I don’t want to be on that scale at all, and I don’t want to engage in sexual activity with anyone who does hang out on that scale.”

For something completely different, but related to the war on women piece by virtue of it just being me boosting my friends, Charlie Satow’s blog on development is well worth following and this piece was nice and light-hearted but really captured the fundamental tension that lies in the fact that if development efforts achieve their aims,

“all of us lovely people in the global North who want to work in Development are out of a job”

Also I can’t wait to see the Romeo and Juliet piece.

I warned you about this one. This report in GQ about “Being Gay in Russia” by Jeff Sharlet is excellent. It’s driven by the voices and the stories of the people who have to live with the awful discrimination and is very powerful and moving and heartbreaking and if you only read one thing I link this week** make it this.

On the other hand, Another Angry Woman makes a very good point here – that while stuff in Russia is undeniably fucked up, it is far from the only place in which stuff is fucked up. It’s harsh and also contains a whole litany of depressingly shit stuff that LGBT people face and is entirely in keeping with the name of the blog and worth reading as a precursor to some uncomfortable looking in the mirror (metaphorically)

“I’m not saying don’t be pissed off about Sochi and Russia. I’m saying, be more pissed off.”

Now for some much more trivial but still interesting (but after the GQ piece, to be honest, anything would seem a bit trivial)…

Pop culture bits!

I’ve been meaning to write about Louie (literally directly beneath this in my word document are two half-written posts about it) and I still might, but this from Todd VanDerWerff almost*** makes me not want to bother because it says a lot of what I wanted to but well and with like… knowledge about TV. So read this and I’ll see if I can add to it. Also watch Louie – it’s really good.

Get this as a sentence. The next piece is an excerpt from a Harry Potter fan fiction written by respected IR scholar Daniel Drezner and published in Foreign Policy, called “Eat, Cast, Love.” Worth a click just to reward them with page-views for the weirdness.

Finally, I’ll leave you with an irresistibly nerdy post from Alan White**** on video-gaming in the past decade is really fun and reminded me of a lot of cool stuff. I was also weirdly proud of getting a lot of the moments.

Last week I was concerned that 1500 words was too many. This one has over 2200. Is that too many? Please feel free to comment or contact me or something if you have any thoughts on whether this thing should be less fucking long.

*I say “all”, last week’s blog got less than a dozen hits which makes “all” seem like an absurd word to use really

**please don’t only read one post though there are like twenty+ links in this post and this shit takes time.

***almost – I actually remembered it having more about why Louie is so good but it just kind of takes that as a given, so there’s hope for me yet.

****and I know that Buzzfeed gif-lists are kind of the opposite of this blog’s stated intent of sharing interesting stuff to read you may not have seen since it’s Buzzfeed so you will have done, and it’s a listicle so hardly even reading but….)

Veep

Having never watched enough Seinfeld to form an opinion on it beyond “those fucking bass licks are really annoying”, I decided to make it my next series to catch up on this year*. I don’t know that I have much to say about it beyond that it definitely grew on me, that eight seasons of a sitcom is probably too much to watch in a couple of months (haven’t the patience for the ninth yet), that it can be very hard to place yourself in context for these sorts of supposedly trailblazing programs (so many of the plots and jokes have been nicked wholesale by later shows that it leaves the original feeling played-out, unfairly), that I would happily watch the whole season with Kramer entirely excised, and that that fucking bass lick is still really annoying – though not as prevalent as I had remembered.

The main take-away was a little crush on Elaine (Julia-Louis Dreyfus). Which ultimately led me in two directions. Firstly, to Enough Said, a film I had previously been intrigued by for being one of James Gandolfini’s last roles, in a romantic comedy to boot (having watched several seasons of The Sopranos over the summer, this was naturally a delightful prospect). As Dreyfus is the female lead of the film, up for a Golden Globe for her performance, it jumped to the top of my to-watch list. Combined with  a favourable Kermode review and a persistent bout of insomnia, I watched it at seven in the morning last week and found it a rather lovely film, with Gandolfini and Dreyfus both wonderful. The whole thing’s a bit predictable, which is no bad thing.

From Enough Said, I bounced to another later Dreyfus work, perhaps the clearest evidence of her putting the “Seinfeld curse” to bed – Armando Iannucci’s Veep. I had watched the pilot a few years before, but it hadn’t really clicked. The addition of a crush on the lead, and the absolute boredom of not having anything to do while not being able to sleep (I thought normal days were boring – when they stretch from five in the afternoon to nine in the morning, they’re excruciating) led to a rather speedy download** of the lot.

Which was followed by an almost breathtakingly quick jaunt through both of its seasons***, which are, admittedly, HBO-comedy short, ten episode deals, but still. As I emerge, blinking from the last episodes of season two, which true to form, I watched in bed on the Nexus before I had even properly woken up, a few thoughts.

It’s a cynical program. There is certainly a lot to be cynical about in politics, generally, and US politics, specifically. The choice of focusing on the office of the Vice-President’s office, in particular, allows the show to get to the heart of power in DC while at the same time having absolutely nothing of consequence happen (from this interview), “”Being vice-president is so near and yet so far. It is a comic situation to be in,””). Seriously, one of the running jokes of Season 1 is that Selina Myers (JLD) accomplishes nothing (Season Two gives her more clout and accomplishment, probably to the show’s benefit). This means it dodges any sort of partisan jokes, which is fine, and heightens the cynicism even more. All the back-stabbing and conniving and self-interest that we all suspect dominates politics might seem a bit more worth it if it enabled real progress and improvement. The impression given by Veep is that it doesn’t. At all. Which as a message, is a bit upsetting.

It’s hard to dispute, however, because Veep seems extremely well observed. Beyond all the office politics stuff that many sitcoms do, there’s that Armando Iannucci Thick Of It focus on the minutiae of politics – the psephology, the 24-hour news cycle and the ravenous thirst for scandals it brings, the naked ambition of everyone involved. It’s convincing as a portrayal – indeed, the second season is weirdly prophetic – from what I understand of the filming schedule, it predicted a lot of what went on in the States in 2013 (for example, an episode about a government shutdown premiered in June 2013 – four months before the real one shut down in a remarkably similar manner).

Most importantly, however, is that it’s funny. Like The Thick of It, the profanity in this show is delightfully creative. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to deliver those lines as brilliantly as the Twelfth Doctor, but JLD and her supporting cast comes close – there are some extremely nasty people circulating around the VP’s office, and none of them seem to like each other. Generally, it hovers on the acceptable side of cringe comedy – there’s the occasional joke that falls flat to awkward silence, but they don’t dwell upon it like other programs. There have only been a couple of occasions where I’ve been tempted to pause and do something else as a crushingly predictable “AWKWARD” scene approaches (think David Brent getting ready for his motivational speaking gig in The Office, or …well, all of Hello Ladies). On those occasions, I was actually pleasantly surprised to see the writers sidestep the possibility of prolonged discomfort.

Julia Louis Dreyfus is absolutely wonderful in the title role – excellent at both the crude insults and the tiny little modulations of her facial expression as she struggles to conceal any compromising reactions. Her team are also all excellent, with characters that are very quickly and clearly defined without being made too one-note.

Overall, it’s a very entertaining program and Season Three is set to come out in April this year, making that month the one I’ve looked forward to, in TV terms, more than any other.

Now…

PS: You’ll notice that what I sold as a review of Veep was, in fact, a post going off all fanboy about Julia Louis Dreyfus. I cleverly disguised my true intentions there.

* I’m fairly certain that part of the Erasmus experience should be getting immersed in Spanish culture. Instead I’m using the combination of no financial pressure, no social life, and a fuck-ton of spare time to catch up on, broadly speaking, American culture. Seriously, in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve gone through Modern Family, Community, Seinfeld, Veep, a whole season of Lost, and I’m about to start Louie. If I can just manage The Wire and maybe Breaking Bad , I’ll come home this summer feeling far more culturally enlightened than I would have done had I spent the time dicking around art galleries, to be perfectly honest.

** Well, almost. The start of the downloading coincided with an intense two-day effort to get the Morroblivion mod running on my computer, which involved a whole load of downloading, installing, and moving of large files around, taxing my already-overburdened hard drive more than it could really bear. Typically, the efforts failed, and indeed, the mod seems to have taken the base game down with it.

*** Seriously – I checked my history while writing this – I looked up the download link four days ago, and I’m already done. It’s almost as if I do nothing else with my time.

Review: Bomber Command ~ Max Hastings

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The timing on this one is perfect*. A couple of weeks ago, they finally unveiled the memorial to RAF Bomber Command on Green Park. Hastings’ book is from 1979, but feels like it could have been written last year. Interestingly, and I’d like to be able to investigate this, he claims at the start that “it is unlikely that important new evidence will be found about the nature of what was done to Germany by the bomber offensive”, which seems like an awfully risky thing to say.

I’m a big fan of military history books, especially World War Two ones. However, I had my doubts going into this one. The impersonal nature of a bomber offensive would seem to lend itself less well to the emotional narratives that can make military history so powerful. Furthermore, the terrible grey area Bomber Command inhabits would make it all much harder to identify with. I was wrong on both counts.

Max Hastings portrays the live of the aircrews, their leaders, and also, in one excellent chapter, their victims, in moving detail. The astonishing casualty rate – 55, 573 dead out of 125,000 air crew – is an ever present reality. Many of the chapters focus on one squadron, with its aircrews as minor characters in the book. But George R.R Martin himself is more sparing on character death. The troubling thing is, for the most part, how casually the deaths are described, both by Hastings and the men he talks about. It’s understandable, in a way – you couldn’t really have a ceremony at Wooton Bassett for every casualty when a few men died every week. Come to think of it, 55,000 over 6 years is just under 10,000 a year, so 200 a week? It hardly bears thinking about.

Yet every now and then, a death really slaps you in the face, as they should. Hastings quotes at length one pilot writing to his fiancée. He very calmly discusses the possibility of his own death and his wish for her to move on after he is gone. Immediately after the letter, Hastings writes

“John Bufton never married, for he was killed a month later.”

And I nearly cried.

Beyond the personal stories, there’s everything else that makes WW2 history so fascinating. The colossal scale of everything. Tragedy, heroism, cruelty, kindness, ingenuity, sacrifice, they are all here in buckets.

It’s worth reading simply to be able to fully grasp the Bomber Command debate.             While I don’t know that it is of any value to sit in 2012 and shake our fists at the decisions made 67 years ago, it is certainly a bad move to do so on the basis of a sketchy understanding of them.

The strange thing about WW2 is that the scale of it does tend to play havoc with any moral judgements. It’s almost too big to understand, let alone condemn. At the end of the book, I’m left with the sense that the firestorms of Cologne, Hamburg, (perhaps not Dresden) were utterly horrifying, yet it’s hard to say how I would have done differently. For this sense of moral unease alone, Bomber Command is well worth reading – I think it’s really refreshing not to know where you stand and maybe to be OK with that. 

*This was perfect timing – I started reading the book the day after the memorial was unveiled, finished it a week later, and then sat on the review for a week. I was considering bundling this post up with another Max Hastings review and a general post on WW2, but decided they’d largely stand up as three separate posts.

“Refuser d’être avec le fléau” (Review: La Peste ~ Camus)

Albert Camus reading a newspaper

Add a trilby and a double of bourbon and it could be Draper himself.

I think watching Mad Men vastly improved my second reading of Albert Camus’ La Peste, not for its commentaries on 60s sexism or corporate America (it’s set in 1940s Algeria), but for its style. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the idea of the central characters being a group of stoic men doing their best against the plague and not really achieving much but just doing their best. That was already cool, but when every single one of those men is Don Draper? Perfect.

La Peste is a very powerful novel. The descriptions of the plague and its ravages are harsh, and in a couple of scenes, Camus describes the sufferings of victims in drawn-out detail as the Don Drapers look on, powerless. The prose isn’t overly lyrical, and the characters aren’t prone to wailing and beating their chests in frustration, which makes the whole thing more moving – it’s understated.

Interspersed with the plot, the narrator discusses at length the effect the plague has on the city and its inhabitants, not just on its victims, but as the city is quarantined, on all those who are cut off from their loved ones. The reflections on separation and exile are brilliant, which I hadn’t noticed before.

On the other hand, what I had always remembered about La Peste, however, was this quote:

“Dans la vie, il y a des bourreaux et des victimes, et tous ce qu’on peut faire, c’est d’être à côté des victimes.”

(“In life there are executioners and victims, and all one can do is be on the side of the victims”)

It’s actually better than that.

“Je dis seulement qu’il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes et qu’il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau. Cela vous paraitra peut-être un peu simple, et je ne sais si cela est simple, mais je sais que cela est vrai.”

(“All I am saying is that there are on this earth plagues/scourges and there are victims, and one must, whenever possible, refuse to be on the side of the plague/scourge. It may seem simple to you, and I don’t know if it is simple, but I know it’s true.”)

Which could be my motto. While obviously, it’s one of those things that does feel a bit self-evident – I’d be surprised if there was anyone who chose to side with the plague/scourge –it comes in the context of one of the characters talking about the death penalty, and it becomes clear that while not many people would set out to be with the plague/scourge*, there are plenty who don’t take side of the victims, which comes to the same thing. All very black-and-white, and I love it.

Also, not that I tend to try and ‘justify’ my  atheism, seeing as it just is, but upon being told by the (brilliant) priest character that in such trying times, one either has to lose faith entirely, or love every part of God’s creation – even the death of a child, the main character snaps, “je refuserai jusqu’à la mort d’aimer cette création ou les enfants sont torturés.” (“I will refuse till the day I die to love this creation where children are tortured”). Which, again, is just all kinds of fantastic.

It’s like that all the way through. Almost every other page there’s a killer observation, a heartbreaking scene, an inspiring idea. It’s just consistently bloody brilliant. Oh, and that dovetail with Candide I mentioned yesterday?

The character’s determination to fight the plague – the narrator makes it clear it’s no more heroic to fight evil than a schoolteacher teaching that 2+2=4 (Hello Orwell), it’s just what needs to be done. Since evil* is, it must be fought.

*I’m quite annoyed that I’ve struggled to translate these words, since they’re kind of key. Fleau is often used in reference to the plague. Google gives me scourge, which seems alright. Mal apparently is evil, but evil seems a) necessarily human in source in a way that a plague, for instance, isn’t it, and b) kind of cartoonish. Make of them what you will.

Review: Candide ~ Voltaire

While I think everyone should read everything I ever review (I rarely read books I don’t like, set texts aside, and I only really feel the need to review very interesting or very good books), I especially think no-one should not have read Candide. That’s partly because fucker is less than a hundred pages long, and written with all the dense prose and complex imagery of a picture book. It’s not one of those must-reads like Ulysses or Capital. And it is an absolute blast. People tell me ‘bimble’ isn’t a word (dictionary aside, they’re wrong). From now on, I think I’ll just point them at Candide. It is very much the tale of characters bimbling around the world. I remember our teacher drew us a map of the adventure – it goes from Westphalia to Bulgaria to Holland to Portugal to South America to France to Venice to Turkey at a rapid pace. Characters return to life more often than the Daleks. But the cheerful absurdity of it all is laced with venom, and it’s the irony that makes this book. Voltaire seems to lash into everything he saw, and every other chapter, something new is getting it in the neck.

I should probably declare an interest – the town I lived in for six years, Ferney-Voltaire, was almost a product of Voltaire. After he was [ejected?] from Geneva in ?, Voltaire took up residence in the commune of Fernex, and set about improving it, building homes, draining swamps, starting workshops to provide employment, etc. He also changed that hideous name, reasoning that there were too many –ex’s in the region (I feel much the same way). This is important beyond it simply being a cool thing he did. While there are a variety of nice little insights and quotes throughout the book (the main character’s dismissal of optimism is a favourite of mine*), the conclusion is what really bears taking away.

“Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver son jardin.”  “Well said, but one must tend one’s garden.”

I’ve left the original quote there not out of a desire to show off (although I think that was a lost cause once I set about reviewing two French books), but because I have no idea how to translate it. It’s often quoted without the “Well said” part at the start, which seems to me to utterly miss the point. At the end of the tale, Candide’s friends are discussing their situation and providing elaborate justifications and reasonings for it, much as they have done throughout the story. The main character, having travelled the world and put his childhood teachings to test and found them wanting, does not disagree with their speeches – “well said”, but sets them aside, because (and I have never known quite how to translate “il faut” – something along the lines of “it is necessary to”, I suspect) there is a garden to be tended.

I take a lot away from that. If I had only written that on the first philosophy paper I had to write last year, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle. To me, the garden to be tended is a life to be lived. But it’s not just a Theses on Feuerbach “the philosophers have interpreted the world” idea – not only is it more important to act then to speak, but unlike Marx, the point is not to aim to change the world. No one individual can realistically hope to change the world. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to change our own little gardens, our little spheres.  Maybe it’s in a “be the change you want to see in the world” vibe, but I don’t much like that saying, because it can end up a bit “RECYCLE IF YOU WANT THE MAJOR INDUSTRIAL POWERS TO STOP DESTROYING THE ENVIRONMENT”. Which, seriously. Die.

Even better, it dovetails nicely with my takeaways from La Peste.

* “Qu’est-ce que l’optimisme? C’est la rage de croire que tout va bien quand on est mal!” “What is optimism? The madness of believing everything is fine when you’re not!”

Boom.