Monthly Archives: September 2007

White coats and infectious ideas

It’s been in the news today that the government is set to ban white coats for doctors and other hospital workers. The reason given is that the long sleeves can carry infection and spread “superbugs” such as MRSA. While this may help in fighting the spread of infection, I can’t help thinking that a more serious problem is that cleaning services for around 30% of NHS hospitals (figures courtesy of Unison) is done by private contractors, who are inclined to cut corners to maximise profit margins. That the government is prepared to adopt measures like this, but not even consider the effect of the profit motive on essential services, suggests they are actually in need of the men in white coats.

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Just an Abe-rration?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has abruptly resigned, after only a little over a year in office:

Abe, who had just recently resisted calls for his ouster and vowed to carry out his reform program, said he was stepping down to achieve a breakthrough in the stalled political situation. But the timing of his announcement raised more questions about what was going on in the political world.

“I made the decision because I felt that a new prime minister should continue the fight against terrorism,” the prime minister told a news conference.

Abe said it was his responsibility–as well as an international promise–to pass legislation in the current Diet session to continue the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s mission in the Indian Ocean refueling ships of the multinational force fighting terror in Afghanistan.

The special measures law that allows the MSDF to operate in the Indian Ocean expires on Nov. 1. Opposition parties have made clear they could not support an extension of the mission.

Considering the way his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi was able to gain immense political capital from facing down the old guard of his party in the 2005 general election, and before that persuade the Diet to allow Japanese troops to be deployed into a combat zone for the first time since 1945, Abe’s early exit will be particularly humiliating, especially as he had staked his political reputation on contiuing Koizumi’s post-9/11 special measures law. But there could be more here. After this summer’s disastrous results for the LDP in the upper house elections, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seems in the ascendant. Abe’s twin political projects have been to instill patriotism in the education system and make Japan a “normal country” with a military able to act unconstrained by Article 9 of the Constitution. He could have thought that extending the MSDF’s mission in the Indian Ocean was something important enough to sacrifice himself for. Or, it could be about a possible forthcoming election:

The DPJ was pushing for a general election, which we all knew the LDP would have a hard time winning.  The question now is to what extent Abe stole the DPJ’s thunder by stepping down, acting as a lightning rod and taking the DPJ best ammo down with him.  Is a general election now more or less likely?

(via CA) Then again, it could be that after a series of scandals involving several ministers, Abe knew that his was a lame-duck administration and felt that the political situation really had reached stalemate. Japan could be heading back to the weak prime minister model that had been the status quo for years before Koizumi broke the mold. Now, as it looks like xenophobic and gaffe-prone Foreign Minister Taro Aso might take over, it seems Koizumi didn’t break the mold so much as scrape some of it off.

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The Moore Than This Bumper Summer Book Review – Comic Novels

The summer books roundup rolls on apace. In this section, the best comic novels I’ve read this summer. (In this context, comic novel basically means “something that made me laugh”. Hopefully it’ll mean the the same for you too.)

Absurdistan
by Gary Shteyngart (Granta, 2006, 338pp)

Although Martin Amis’ work has suffered a shocking decline in quality lately (his novel Yellow Dog really was, in the words of Tibor Fischer “not-knowing-where-to-look bad”), I will always retain a residual respect for him due to his terrific 1984 satire Money, a book as overblown, hedonistic and exuberant as the decade it brilliantly sent up. Now, in the form of Shteyngart’s second novel, the post-9/11 world has its own version of that novel. The protagonist, a overweight post-Communist Russian libertine named Misha Vainberg, has in his voracious appetites a similarity with Amis’s John Self, but differs from him in a charming naiveté which makes him an ideal innocent abroad in the chaos and corruption of today’s globalised world which Shteyngart conjures up.

Barred from the USA after his gangster father murders on Oklahoma businessman, Misha wants nothing more than to enjoy the pleasures of New York and his Puerto Rican girlfriend. An opportunity to be reunited with both arises when he journeys to the fictional post-Soviet republic of Absurdistan to buy a Belgian passport from a corrupt official. A young country with an age-old history, Absurdistan has temporarily put aside its ancient ethnic greivances and is on the make, with a cast of bizarre characters including Halliburton and KBR contractors, depressed hotel managers, and democracy activists clutching Century 21 bags from their State Depertmant-subsidised trips to New York. However, the fragile situation soon plunges into civil war, and Misha finds himself appointed Minister of Multicultural Affairs and involved in a complicated scheme to get the US to intervene and make the country rich through reconstruction contracts.

There are several inspired comic set pieces throughout the book, such as the party for KBR contractors on the roof of the Hyatt Hotel, or Misha’s pitch for a Holocaust Museum in Absurdistan to raise the country’s international profile. But as the fake war becomes more and more real, the book develops a darker tone, mixing a satire of Western intervention with a devastating sketch of those conflicts we prefer to ignore.

Absurdistan suffers the problem of many comic novels – it is unsure how to end, and once the big twist is unveiled, it runs out of steam in the closing chapters. But Misha’s voice – neurotic, hopelessly optimistic, in love with hip-hop and American culture – remains engaging to the final page. It is his voice that saves the novel from the sour note that would creep in with a more worldly narrator, and makes it the first great satire of the world of globaisation, Iraq, KBR and Halliburton, immigration anxiety, and military intervention, where there often seems little to laugh about.

Bush Falls
by Jonathan Tropper (Arrow, 2004, 345pp)

The “about the author” section of this book mentions that it is currently in development at Warner Bros. Studios, which I don’t really find surprising – the plot is pure Hollywood, though with a nice dusting of cynicism. It is, however, slightly ironic, as the book deals with a successful novel adapted into a Hollywood smash. The author, Joe Goffman, created such a devastating character assassination of his Connecticut home town (the eponymous Bush Falls) that the townspeople now all hate him. Joe doesn’t care – he’s living the life of a successful author in New York, although he feels strangely empty.

When a family emergency brings him back to Bush Falls, he’s brought face to face with the consequences of trashing the town’s reputation. His house is pelted with copies of the book, he gets beaten up and insulted in the street. (Everyone’s a critic.) More seriously, he realises that he may have burned his bridges with his family and his high-school sweetheart. Interspersed with the present-day storyline are flashbacks to Joe’s adolescence, when a tragic death drove him to cut all ties with the town.

Bush Falls treads a rather standard plotline – man comes back to his hometown, deals with his past, finds love and Learns Something along the way – but it’s well-written enough for the cliches to slide by easily. Joe’s voice is a strength, sarcastic and self-deprecating, and helps you warm to a slightly unsaymapthetic hero. Tropper portrays him as the archetypal nerd made good, who survived high school by developing his skills at insults and snappy retorts, and as amusing as these are, I enjoyed watching Joe’s friends and family gradually penetrate his armour. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that I often found Joe annoyingly wimpish. I wanted him to get angry, to attempt to fight back once in a while. He survives a couple of fairly serious attempts to kill him, which realistically would prompt a stronger response than yet another one-liner. That false note aside, it’s a fun, lightwieght and very readable book, perfect for the summer.  If nothing else, it’ll save you from having to see the film.

Digging to America
by Anne Tyler (Vintage, 2006, 330pp)

The immigrant experience, that perennial subject for American authors, is examined from a number of different perspectives in Baltimore author Anne Tyler’s latest novel. The Yazdans and the Donaldsons arrive at the airport to take delivery of two Korean babies at the same time, and through the growth of their adopted children and the gradual friendship between the two families, Tyler sketches how the melting pot ideal translates into reality, and how the universal experience of bringing up a child can both unite and divide.

Tyler does an excellent job of outlining the tensions within the respective families. Maryam, the matriarch of the Iranian-American Yazdans, wonders at her children’s growing distance from her, even as she strikes up a friendship with Dave, father of the Donaldson parents who recently lost his wife to cancer. The details on Iranian culture sprinkled throughout the narrative are fascinating, and underpin an intriguing subplot about the struggles between becoming “truly American” and retaining the identity of the home country, which is mirrored in the families’ respective upbringing of the two girls, Susan and Jin-Ho.

The narration skips from one character to another effortlessly, conjuring up their thoughts, hopes and fears. Tyler once again shows her skill at writing children’s inner monologue, which not many authors can do well. And after watching tons of Homicide: Life On The Street and The Wire, it’s good to see a portrayal of Baltimore that’s not full of drugs, crime and murders.

The review of my best books of the summer will conclude soon, with some volumes packed full of war, murder, violence and mayhem. That’s right – it’s the non-fiction books! Prepare to go back to reality.

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Support Abby Davies campaigning in a cage for prisoner of conscience Mao Hengfeng

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Abby Davies, who I know from uni, is living in a cage (with only three basic meals, a sleeping bag, and a toilet 6 metres away!) from the 9th to 11th of September to campaign for the release of Mao Hengfeng, a Chinese prisoner of conscience. Ms. Mao has been imprisoned and tortured numerous times for peacefully protesting against coerced abortion and other human rights abuses. At present, Mao Hengfeng is serving a two-and-a-half year jail sentence, which was officially given for property damage (destroying two table lamps). The sentence, however, is clearly politically motivated, and related to her continued attempts to defend her own and others human rights, and to her standing up to the Chinese authorities in opposition to forced abortions. Go to Abby’s website here, or join the Facebook group for more information about her situation, and what you can do to help, incluing a letter to the Chinese embassy in London asking them to…
• Provide a full, fair and transparent review of Mao’s case.
• Ensure that the conditions Mao is kept in comply with those set out in the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
• For all those in China, including Mao Hengfeng, to be able to exercise their right to lawfully petition authorities without fear of arbitrary retaliation by the authorities.

Best of luck, Abby!

 (Parts of this post stolen from the Facebook group, and from Sam Elliott. Cheers, Sam.)

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The Moore Than This Bumper Summer Book Review – Crime and Punishment

During the summer holiday, I caught up on the books I’d been meaning to read for a while, and a few I just bought on the spur of the moment. Because I probably won’t read that many books in such a short time until … well, next summer, here are the best of the bunch. Having quite a few books to go through, I’m grouping them into categories which depend entirely on my tastes and arbitrary whims. First up, to whet your appetite, are three books dealing with crime, punishment and justice (or the lack thereof)…
  

The Choirboys
by Joseph Wambaugh (Orion, 1975, 362pp)

If I was pitching this book in five words or less, I would call it “Catch-22 for the LAPD”, as Joseph Heller’s blackly comic masterpiece was the first thing that came to mind reading this portrayal of a group of Los Angeles patrol officers and the difficulties they face on the job. Taking the form of a series of sketches of each pair of officers, Wambaugh (who was a Los Angeles police officer for fourteen years and published his first three books while still in the force) describes the amusing, outrageous and tragic scenes they encounter in the course of their work shifts. To relax, they engage in “choir practice” at night to relax, which mostly consists of heavy drinking in MacArthur Park and sex with “station house groupies”.

A tragedy which occurs on the night of the last choir practice and the resulting investigation frames the novel, imbuing even the funniest scenes with a sense of impending doom. The stress of the job, the inability of the choirboys to form relationships with civilians because of what they have seen while working, and the threat of suicide create a darker edge to the camararderie of choir practice, as extreme comedy and extreme tragedy mix in this accomplished and gripping novel. Be warned: this is the LAPD before the various post-Rodney King/Rampart scandal attempts to clean up its reputation in the 1990s, and the book is full of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence and general bad behaviour. That said, don’t let it put you off, for all the reasons listed above.
 

No Country For Old Men
by Cormac McCarthy (Picador, 2005, 340pp)

My first introduction to McCarthy, who generated large amounts of critical acclaim with this year’s The Road, No Country… is bloody good – with the emphasis on “bloody”. A dark, violent, neo-Western set on the Teaxs-Mexico border, it tells the story of Llewellyn Moss, an ordinary man who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, steals $2.4 million from the site and goes on the run, pursued by various interested parties including the terrifying hitman Anton Chigurh. Interspersed with this is a monologue by the decent Sheriff Bell, whose quest to give Moss and his wife some kind of happy ending becomes tied up with his own determination to defend good against evil.

To be honest, [SLIGHT SPOILERS WARNING] I felt slightly wrongfooted when McCarthy brought the seemingly “main” story to a conclusion before the end of the book, leaving the remainder to Bell’s meditations on his life and the violence which has overtaken his small corner of the world. But then you realise that McCarthy always meant the book to be more about Bell than the question of who would end up with the money.

In its device of an aging man reflecting on the changes undergone by his country, it recalls all the stories America tells about its history, and as such acquires an elemental, timeless feel. McCarthy’s deliberately sparse writing style (the man makes Hemingway look florid)  and reliance on gnomic yet folksy Texan dialect (sample dialogue: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”) only strengthen that effect. The small cast of characters dance around each other to great effect, McCarthy’s skill being to sketch out a character expertly with a single line of dialogue. Chirgurh in particular is coldly fascinating, a killer with a twisted moral code who puts a slaughterhouse bolt gun to innovative use in his relentless pursuit of Moss and the money.

The novel’s mix of furious plot-driven action and elegaic contemplation may leave readers wondering whether it’s a literary novel masquerading as a thriller or vice versa. I was content to read it as a blend of both forms, satisfying my taste for well-written, fast-moving narratives and thoughtful works that stay in my head long after the last page. No Country… has been adapted into a soon-to-be-released film by the Coen brothers, and I hope they are able to do the book justice.
  

When Red Is Black
by Qiu Xiaolong (Sceptre, 2004, 310pp)

Bucking the trend here, this book doesn’t contain lashings of blood, guts and violence. Instead, it’s a slow-paced, cerebral detective story where the overall aim is not just the anatomy of a murder, but the gradual dissection of rapidly changing modern China. Poetry-quoting Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau is asked to translate a business proposal for a Triad-connected businessman. At the same time his old friend Sergeant Yu is put in charge of investigating a murder which took place in an old shikumen house in a working-class district of Shanghai. Throughout the narrative, the two worlds – the prosperous China eager to recycle the glamour of the past for consumption by today’s elites, and the old China of working people struggling to get by – are contrasted, while in the middle the figure of Chen tries to make sense of it all.

This is a murder mystery where the murder seems almost beside the point. The investigation progresses very slowly, but it’s still pretty easy to guess who did it once all the information is revealed in the latter half of the book. Despite the political implications of the case (the victim was a writer disgraced in the Cultural Revolution), it turns out that politics was only involved in an oblique way. The legacy of the Cultural Revolution is explored here, and the revolutionary fervour of yesteryear is contrasted with the capitalist outlook of China today, but it all takes place on a very intellectual level. At no point in the novel is there a sense of urgency. Chen is entangled with the Triads, and Yu with the Party authorities, but no conflict or sense of danger arises from these situations. Chen meditates long and hard on the moral dimension of his connections with both the Party and the Triads, but in the end he’s fine with it. And he even uses them to get a sweet property deal for Yu. Trebles all round?

Now that lowly Shanghai public servants are more hopped up on property fever than a month’s worth of Daily Mail headlines, surely this represents some sort of victory in China’s transformation? Well, yes and no. I expected more tension and a lot more ambivalence, neither of which really shone through in the overly flat writing style. When Red Is Black works best as a slow-paced exploration of the contradictions and inequalities of contemporary China. Just don’t expect too many sharp questions, or too much excitement.
 

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Relaunch

After taking some time off when revising for end of year exams, and then not bothering to write anything else, MTT gets a new lease of life (on WordPress, no less). More to come in future.

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