Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Night Manager, Espionage Du Jour

photo from BBC

Allow me please to take a moment to write about “The Night Manager.” That John Le Carré espionage novel turned into a BBC TV series starring Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor) and Hugh Laurie (House). It is a stunner. I have not read the book yet but I like it already because of the show. My most memorable of the Le Carrés are The Spy Who Came Out From the Cold, The George Smiley Series, The Tailor from Panama and the Russia House I remember for being tedious. Though Le Carré's books are not suspenseful in a bloody, action sense, I always insist on finishing them because I imagine his views on covert operations are closer to reality, it has more leg work, interrogation and drawn out cloak and dagger exchanges versus high octane chases and commotion. 

The suspense in Le Carré’s novels I believe are in human flaws, mishaps in timing and the deep malevolence of the villain and if one becomes gripped at the start, the entire package of the book from the characters, the plot, subplots and other nuances will be embedded in your memory.

The Night Manager:

Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a night manager at a reputable hotel in Cairo, Egypt during the height of the Arab Spring uprising that ousted Mubarak. He is charming and people are drawn to him, especially women. A mysterious woman named Sophia who is the mistress of a known Egyptian baddie approaches him at the front desk and gives him a copy of a transaction of an arms deal with instructions that should anything happen to her, this information must be given to a friend of Jonathan Pine's at the British Embassy. Pine reads the document and realizes that the man supplying the arms is a famous British philanthropist/businessman named Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Pine shows this information to his friend at the embassy who then submits it to MI6 but instead of an investigation or arrest, Roper is warned of the leak from the inside. This results in the brutal murder of Sophia as the paper trail leads to her and Pine is affected by this. Sophia’s death makes a painful impression on Pine that he seeks solace at the Swiss alps in an exclusive hotel lodge and stays there to hide.

Four years has past and who should enter the Swiss lodge but none other than the evil man himself in the flesh, Richard Roper with his entourage. Pine’s righteous indignation for the man is rekindled and he gets re-acquainted with the head of an obscure MI6 division, Angela Burr, who attempted to help the Cairo situation back then. Angela Burr (played by Olivia Coleman), has a vendetta with Roper. Burr recruits Pine to help her take down “the worst man on Earth,” and allows him to infiltrate Roper's inner circle. Pine builds another identity, that of a lowlife criminal on the run, one who is close in character as possible to Roper and the gambit pays off when he is then taken in by the villain himself. While inside the core group, Pine wins the affections of Roper’s kid, girlfriend and even the henchmen. And since he has to leak information to his handlers in London and not to mention he does not keep his hands to himself as regards Roper’s gorgeous girlfriend, it is here where most of the sweating of one's palms begin.

The TV show is very sophisticated, it has posh elements and locations like Mallorca, London, Istanbul; it has high fashion wardrobe, champagne, luxury and everything else that blood money has to offer coming from the arms trade. The actors are superb and they include, Tom Hiddleston who is able to carry it through mainly because of his perfect visage, hey, it really works. Hugh Laurie who plays Roper is urbane and pragmatic as someone who doesn’t think twice about mixing Sarin gas and children, perhaps the pathology lies in not having a line and Laurie's performance makes the mark. Olivia Coleman is a watchable dramatic actor always and so is Tom Hollander as Corky, the cynical assistant who is threatened by Pine's existence.  But the Easter Egg here in my view is the actress that plays Roper’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Debiki; a newbie from Australia who I know will go high towards the stratosphere in movies, not because she is 6 feet and 2-inches bare feet, but for of the soul she bares as a performer; with her the adage in acting that goes, “There are no small parts…” is fulfilled. Move over, way over there Charlize Theron.  

The spy drama has 6 episodes in the first series and the suspense lies in whether Pine's cover will be blown and that indeed captures you. The initial series has now concluded at the BBC, already people are thirsting for the second installment and who can blame them?

Monday, March 28, 2016

The One Year, Twenty-Five Books Overture: The Elegance of The Hedgehog

This book was written by Muriel Barbary, a Moroccan-French author who also wrote "The Gourmet" which though I believe is a separate story, has an element of connection to this book. This was originally written in French and the translation by one Alison Anderson I feel has captured Barbary’s intentions of levity. I had just completed a period classic by Elizabeth Gaskell’s named “Cranford" prior to reading this and I wanted to read something contemporary and witty. Well, cometh the hour, cometh the book.

Book Review:

Renée, our heroine is in her 50’s, a bit on the frumpy side and is a closet intellectual. She is also the concierge at 7 Rue de Granelle to eight families in this posh residence building of spoilt bourgeois families. Renée thinks that her acumen in the realm of philosophy and literature are best kept a secret so as not to disrupt her clients’ proclivities and not to mention, her employment. In truth, Renée disdains her employers for their pretentious altruism and what I call "cocktail party intellectualism,” which is to say, one will indulge in intellectual pursuits simply for the benefit of sounding astute in gatherings and nothing more. Renèe has to keep this facade of being the stereotypical help by turning her TV volume up in her place at the basement area, when in fact she is listening to opera and reading her books. Hilarity is found in how she describes the people in the residences and how in their snobbery they become daft.

The other major character is Paloma, a daughter of a French minister living in one of the apartments in the building. She is twelve years old, an introvert and is quite prodigious for her age, she studies the other characters' psyche, loves Japanese culture, Manga and absorbs many of the things in her environment. Like Renée, Paloma is not taken seriously and postulates that she shouldn’t disturb all the conventions of everyone around her on what a twelve-year old should be. Paloma’s journal entries reveal her thoughts and her genius in the book. Paloma has a dark secret she is keeping though, and that is to commit suicide sometime in June. She has laid out this plan in her head as she believes that nothing is worth living for. Her burden in life is not one of emotionalism necessarily as it is of exasperation for the humans around her. She is vastly misunderstood and does not have the inclination to implore anyone to make them see her point. Nothing is left for her to figure out, therefore she has to check out. This reminds me of Alexander the Great who supposedly wept to his mother at twenty nine because he had already conquered all of the known world at that time and there was nothing left to embark on, (first world problems).

The viewpoints of both protagonists are presented interchangeably with Renée’s written in the third person and Paloma as I mentioned in journal form. Most of the people of 7 Rue de Grenelle are self absorbed and oblivious to anything other than their own follies. They are not aware of the value of the people who work for them, not their own loved ones and let alone the tramps on the street across their building. This sort of routine continues until the advent of Mr. Kakuro Ozo, a wealthy Japanese businessman who moves into the building. Mr. Ozo initially suspects that his concierge is not who she seems when on their first meeting Renée quotes the first line of "Anna Karenina" and the former finishes that sentence. I really like code-speak among kindred spirits, don't you? So, he invites Renée for dinners to discuss their passions i.e., literature, opera, culture and even cuisine and her life livens up.
Mr. Ozo, Renée and Paloma it turns out are like-minded in being erudite and fun-loving but has to keep it under wraps.
Themes on philosophy and human behavior are all over in this book and the presentation is not didactic which makes the discourses engaging. I liked how the book held my attention despite the absence of action or sensationalism in that sense. At the world's stage, the book held it’s place at no. 1 in France for 102 weeks and has won 3 distinguished awards. It was made into a film which I am scrambling everywhere to find because I am curious as to how it appears onscreen. Other works of Muriel Barbary include “Une Gourmandise" (The Gourmet) and the latest from 2015 titled “La Vie des Elfes";  if those books are anything like The Elegance of The Hedgehog, I pray I find them for I wish to be entertained once again by her storytelling. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The One-Year Twenty-Five Book Overture

The ante is up for me, I am challenging myself to read 25 books (hopefully more?) this year. I also intend to give my 2 cents about the respective books I read and hope that you might be able to glean a thing or two with the reviews.

There is no preset list, I will just have to add and update the list as I go along because that’s how I roll, and so far I have finished the following:


1. (January) The Elegance of a Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
2. (February, March) War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
3. (March) The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dickson
4. (March) Cooking with Fernet Branca, James Hamilton Paterson
5. (April) Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
6. (April) The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
7. (May) The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak
8. (May) The Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman
9. (May, June) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne  
10. (June) Blindness, José Saramago
11. (July) Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
12. (July) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Annie Barrows, Mary Anne Shaffer
13. (August) Balzac and the Little Seamstress, Dai Sijie
14. (August, September) Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
15. (September) The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Johansson
16. (September) The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
17. (October) The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
18. (October) Cousin Bette, Honoré de Balzac 
19. (October, November) Persuasion, Jane Austen  
20. (November, December) Little Bee or The Other Hand (UK), Chris Cleave
21. (December) Romola, George Eliot
22. (December) A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
23. (December) Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle
24. (December) A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conon Doyle     
The piece on War and Peace is in the previous entry. I will submit the reviews for the other books in the succeeding blog posts. So, let's go!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Piece on War and Peace

I wish it was but this is not my photo...

After ages of just watching this book from afar, I was finally able to finish every bit of War and Peace two weeks ago. Yes, yes, the impulsion was from the BBC drama with the new hottest Brit actors and yes, yes, they are all fabulous but the main reason as to why I read it through this time was because, I finally had the time.

The translation I read was that of Pevear and Volokhnosky or the P & V. If you want to get on with a novel containing 1,225 pages, the P&V will grip you from the first paragraph. It’s practical but does not compromise meaning, at least I like to think so. This translation was proficient enough to hold you through Tolstoy’s philosophizing which contains so much more than the love story in the novel.

For my own clarity, I made a chart of the characters with their respective traits though I threw that out the window after key characters either died or their personality practically pivoted 180 degrees . As for the death of major characters, I found out that the first George R.R. Martin was Leo Tolstoy. It may also be advisable for one to at least have a cursory review on the Napoleonic Wars because it’s a good guide to understanding the ideology and timeline as one reads the book.

This was my first full on Russian lit other than reading some Chekov and watching Doctor Zhivago because, the Russians do have the penchant for making even musicals like "Fiddler on the Roof," well, dejecting. May I say as a post script that if one will read War and Peace only for the love story element of it as was shown in the TV drama, important contexts and pretexts will be missed especially the mindset of the author which is crucial to understanding the entire book and having a great experience with it.

War and Peace:

The story unfolds at a time when Russia was still luxuriating under Catherine the Great’s majestic shadow with her grandson Alexander I as the sovereign. It is glorious all over and our main protagonists Prince Andrew and soon to be Count Bezukhov, Pierre, are introduced in a grand fete at hostess du jour Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s palace. In this party there is enough nobility to throw around that one will wonder if peasants ever existed in Russia at all. The main characters are: Prince Andrew Bolkhonsky, a soldier ready to serve the motherland as an adjutant; Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of the dying Count Bezukhov, the third richest man in Russia; there is the family Kuragin which all of them from the father Prince Vasily and offspring Princes Anatole and Hippolyte and Princess Helene you’ll find cringeworthy; there is the Rostov family where our heroine Natasha comes from, they are generous and trusting, and there is mother and son tufthunter-tandem, Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoya and Boris Drubetskoy.

Extensive depiction of the characters, locations, internal dialogue and description of events fill up the pages and are only interrupted by Tolstoy’s discourse on the philosophy of man, war, science and existence. War breaks out at first in 1805, the Battle of Austerliz begins and the Russians are very well defeated and Prince Andrew is wounded. After this,  a truce is met between Napoleon and the Alexander I and peace ensues but not without casualties.

The temporary armistice gives way to the love story between Prince Andrew and Countess Natasha Rostova; also, Pierre (now Count Bezukhov), marries the insatiable and capricious Helene Kuragin and the fruitful ascent of the Drubestskoys in Russian society's pecking order unfolds. Supporting but notable personages such as the insidious Dolokhov who becomes Countess Helene’s consort; the highly irritable Prince Bolkonsky Sr. (father of Prince Andrew), along with the pious Princess Mayra (Prince Andrew’s sister); the rest of the family Rostov and the plucky comic relief Denisov (with the “R” defect) are portrayed and expounded. Quite a highlight was given to Freemasonry at this juncture as Pierre Bezukhov chooses to join the brotherhood and we are even afforded an extensive view into their views and funky rites and rituals.

Extravagant balls are conducted in Moscow and Petersburg and here the reader's imagination will soar to the heights of opulence of Imperial Russia. However, since all good things must come to an end in Russian lit, Prince Andrew and Natasha’s romance suffers an about-face when the former takes a sabbatical at the behest of his father and crafty Anatole Kuragin entices innocent Natasha to elope. Though Natasha fails to abscond with the dastardly Kuragin thanks to the help of her sweet and suffering cousin Sonya, the damage has been done because a letter of refusal to Prince Andrew has been dispatched by the misguided Natasha. Blast. With her reputation tarnished, their family’s wealth dwindling and brother Nicolas off to war, Natasha falls ill and though she recovers, she becomes a changed woman, no longer the carefree songbird that we were first treated to.

On the war front, namely Borodino, Napoleon gets the itch to go to war again in 1812 and war indeed ensues. This time the consequences are of "Game of Thrones” proportions, or shouldn’t it be the other way around? Prince Andrew is mortally wounded, Pierre joins the army finally
as Countess Helene’s licentiousness catches up with her, Kuragin Jr. dies and Dolokhov redeems himself by apologizing to Pierre for his past misdeeds. Though the Russians technically won the Battle of Borodino both in the book and historically, the French were still able to lay Moscow under siege as the inhabitants burned and left their capital. The Russians' act of pillaging their own villages instead of graciously surrendering to him was a tactic that frustrated Napoleon and one he could not comprehend. General Kutuzov, the Russian army chief, decides to retreat but not before barricading the French around the surrounding towns, locking them in and depriving them of food and supplies during the brutal winter. With this, Napoleon departs Russia and not long after that he goes to Waterloo where he falls spectacularly under the Duke of Wellington.

On their journey out of Moscow and unbeknownst to them at first, the Rostov family and the injured Prince Andrew were traveling in the same caravan all along. When Natasha learns that the Prince was with them, she devotes her time to nursing him in his last days and redeems herself in his eyes. Meanwhile, not all was turning rosy for Pierre, he was arrested and sentenced to hang for a plot to assassinate the Lilliputian General Napoleon but because circumstances were falling like dominoes for the French, his execution did not come to fruition but he, along with other prisoners were still held captive and were being taken to France. It was on the way there, near Borodino, where Dolokhov and Denisov rescue Pierre. With the war unwinding and everyone just having to improvisate with what’s left of people and country in Russia, the epilogues begin for ca. 1813 to 1820.

The first epilogue tells about what became of the major characters after Napoleon leaves the Russians for good. With the death of Prince Andrew, Natasha finds solace in Pierre Bezukhov and they end up together; though their families were not in good terms once, Princess Marya marries Nicholas Rostov and on this end there is a sense of victory. However, one will surmise where Tolstoy’s heart really belongs, it is in the second epilogue. It consists of eleven chapters of his dissertation on History, Philosophy, Religion, Humanity, Science and even Mathematics. In here I believe he wants to attempt to solve the puzzle that man has vis á vis his world, the Cosmos and his existence and though it is a formidable thesis, it remains only that, a thesis.

Being one of the longest novels ever written, War and Peace is a feat among literature feats. In our modern day it is touted as "one of the central works of  literature,” it was Newsweek’s number one novel among 100 in 2009 and Time Magazine’s third out of the top 10 books in 2007 and accolades have been and still continue to be written for it. While the book itself is not required to have a blissful eternity, it is good for one's curriculum vitae of books read, not in a high brow manner of speaking, but just in a bibliophile kind of way. One will feel as though they have picked up something worthwhile, it is a window to a robust history of a once grand empire, human frailties, conflicts and deficiency in war strategy are portrayed and so is depravity. It shows a madman’s desire to conquer but also, there is hope, the natural inclination to survive and the clamor for victory. 

To conclude, for those born only during and after the Cold War, this book will elucidate that there was once a fluid Russia, not a Russia that’s made of iron, damp cement and "Vodka Videos" we see on You Tube but a Russia that was unmolested by despots. Everyone recommends this book and so do I, the curiosity is there but the question though is only that of time, Da?