Category: Books


EDUCATED by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)
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What is education for?

This deceptively simple question is guaranteed to open a can of worms.

In Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, the severe school board superintendent Thomas Gradgrind expresses the view that “facts alone are wanted in life”. Schooling in Victorian times typically followed the view that young captives in the classroom were little more that vessels to be filled.

In our supposedly more enlightened age, decent-minded folk are scathing towards such blatant child abuse. The robotic process of memorizing and reproducing information is rightly dismissed in favor of an educational model that encourages students to, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “shape the questions worth pursuing”.

In a talk to teachers, James Baldwin followed the Chomskyan line when he said “The purpose of education is to create in a person the ability of to look at the world for himself”. But Baldwin was also aware of how problematic a well-informed, critical populace could be and added that “no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around”.

In ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover , the author implicitly asks readers to consider where instruction ends and indoctrination begins.

In a note to readers, she advises: “This is not a book about Mormonism. Neither is it a book about religious belief”. Yet the fundamentalist of her survivalist parents and their rigid application of principles prescribed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have a huge and primarily negative impact of her upbringing.

A weaker, less stubborn personality would have been broken and submitted to a conventional life mapped out for her. As it is, she not only survives to tell her remarkable tale but thrives against all odds to become an esteemed scholar and to exemplify the virtues of individual thought and creative enquiry. Continue reading

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80 days without a balloon

AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne

(First published 1873)

 

51xoe02htcl._sx331_bo1204203200_To navigate the circumference of the globe in 80 days, Phileas Fogg and companions travel by trains, steamships, an elephant and a snow sledge but, to my surprise, never once use a hot air balloon.

This turns out to be one of the great literary misconceptions which derives from the liberties taken with the plot of the novel for the 1956 movie adaptation. The makers decided to plunder this visually spectacular means of transport from Verne’s earlier yarn ‘Five Weeks In A Balloon’. Many editions of the novel have compounded this error by misleading book covers.

Balloon or no balloon, it is not properly explained why Fogg recklessly decided to make the bet to embark on this improbable adventure. Prior to this, the predictability of his daily routines are highlighted. His travel experience consists solely of walking with a steady step the short distance from his home at 7 Saville Row, Burlington Gardens to London’s Reform Club in Pall Mall. Continue reading

UNKNOWN PLEASURES by Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

joyPop-pickers of a certain age and diehard hipsters out there surely won’t have missed that the title of yesterday’s post on Ricky Gervais’ ‘Afterlife’ featured a quote from the Joy Division song ‘Heart And Soul’.

This track, from their second and final album ‘Closer’, includes the tortured lines: “Existence, well what does it matter? I exist on the best terms I can. The past is now part of my future. The present is well out of hand”.

Anyone pausing to reflect on such lyrics would probably conclude that the author was either a) deeply troubled or (b) that he had been reading a little too much outsider fiction. Both of these were true of the band’s tortured lead singer Ian Curtis who hung himself on 18th May, 1980. Continue reading

514oymgsnpl._sx323_bo1204203200_The seemingly unstoppable momentum that culminated in what many regard as the greatest movie of all time was the basis for ‘The Road To Xanadu’, the compelling first volume of Simon Callow’s four-part biography of Orson Welles.

Prior to Citizen Kane, Welles brought his radical vision and insatiable creative energy to bear on innovative radio broadcasts and ground-breaking theatre productions.

Having achieved so much at such a young age, the remainder of his career was, by common consensus, anti-climatic. Welles himself joked of his movies that he started at the top and had been working his way down ever since.

Volume 2 of his story is therefore an attempt to explain what went wrong when this larger than life actor, writer and director seemed to have the world at his feet. Continue reading

What are film critics for?

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE MULTIPLEX. WHAT’S WRONG WITH MODERN MOVIES by Mark Kermode (Random House Books, 2011)

10304270Spare a thought for lonely film critics in the age of streaming. They are an increasingly marginalized and, some would say, dying breed.

It’s not as if we really need them anymore. Often they just ruin our entertainment by over detailed reviews of popular movies. Either that or they wind up smugly enthusing about some obscure art house ‘classic’ that only they and a few of their buddies have seen.

Mark Kermode is one of the smartest and self-aware of this endangered species so is well placed to argue for their preservation. Continue reading

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