Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.

Offence: The Hindu Case

Link: You can vote on my Amazon review of the book here. Thanks. The author has linked to this review on his blog.

Offence : The Hindu Case is one in the series, Manifestos for the 21st Century Series, published in collaboration with the Index on Censorship. Some of the other books in the series argue the Muslim case, the Jewish case and the Christian case. The books in this series have upset many, who feel the books are blasphemous or even seditious. To that extent, my view is that only free speech purists may be able to read the book without getting agitated or angry. I have had the opportunity to attend a Free Word event in London in October 2009 where Mr Tripathi and Ms Shamsie, author of the Muslim case, were speaking and faced much cross-questioning from the audience, not all of it laudatory or unabashedly appreciative.

Back to this book. At 116 pages, including references, it is a quick read. But it has not been so easy to review it. I read the book about three months ago. Since then much water has flown in the Ganges, so to speak. The artist, MF Husain, the story of whose persecution in India runs through the book, has renounced his Indian citizenship and taken Qatari citizenship. The book opens with Husain’s story, then proceeds to demonstrate how Hindu nationalists are systematically catalysing censorship and bans, and revising history to suit a narrative, which is entirely at odds with India’s constitution (which creates India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic), and with India’s history and indeed Hinduism’s history as an inclusive philosophical movement. By focusing on Rama as a deity, Hindutva seems to be constructing a discourse on “offence” which is inspired, for want of a better word, by monotheistic religions such as Islam, shunning the richness and plurality of the religion’s mythology and traditions.

To construct his argument, Mr Tripathi draws upon the writings of and conversations with some of India’s leading contemporary thinkers and historians, as well as influential cultural icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. Indeed Mr Tripathi also cites Wendy Doniger, who is not the most popular western commentator on Hinduism. However Hindu nationalism revivalists in India also have help from native Belgian and American commentators, none of whom is remotely as scholarly as Doniger, who has spent several years studying Hindu texts.

This book is a snapshot of India’s recent events. It is a book about India’s present, not India’s past but there is also a disturbing prospect of a future trajectory that is potentially reductive, exclusive and revisionist.

Some readers, especially of the Hindu persuasion, may feel agitated, frustrated or confused while reading the book. Indeed recent books that are less than effusive about Hinduism have evoked highly polar reactions from Hindus. For instance, while discussing Doniger’s recent book, I asked a particularly upset lady if she had read the book. Without a hint of irony but with all the puissance of righteous rage, she said: “Why, no self-respecting Hindu will ever read that book!”. While not representative, the line captured for me the difficulty of having an informed discussion about religion in general and a religion such as Hinduism in particular, with its plurality and diversity.

Others will find this book thought-provoking and may take on the opportunity to explore Hindu scholarship in detail. Mr Tripathi’s is a perspective that needs to be shared widely. India cannot remain India Shining by excluding from its future narrative a good 20% of its people.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: This book is not to everyone’s taste and many are bound to take offence. It will however enthrall those who remain ever curious about religion and its role in political and societal narrative. I think those interested in India but confused by the rapidity and complexity of the moving feast will find the book an interesting introductory read too.

Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.

The Mighty And The Almighty

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

I read The Mighty And The Almighty in Washington DC, not far from where Madeleine Albright teaches and works. The timing was opportune too, with the backdrop of the N Korean missile tests on July the 4th 2006; George Bush’s unexpectedly articulate interview on CNN on his 60th birthday on July the 6th 2006 stressing diplomacy and not war; the sad anniversary of London bombings on July the 7th; and fresh news about foiled plots to blow up tunnels in New York. It is difficult not to acknowledge such mindfulness and the bias it creates in reviewing a book. But here it is anyway.

Madeleine Albright is an embodiment of the American dream. She came to America from the communist regime of the Czech Republic and rose through sheer hard work, intelligence and being at the right place at the right time to the top of American politics. Her personal history also explains her strong belief that communism had to go. Arguably her background was privileged, her dad being a diplomat, but her solid grounding and rich Weltanschauung is further clarified to us with this small piece of information.

In the foreword to this book, Bill Clinton says this book was written against the best advice of friends. Reading it makes it clear why the advice might have been to refrain but over all, the author treads a dangerous terrain yet comes out rather unscathed.

The book presents a combination of personal and professional experience, academic perspective, moral principles and religious themes, all of which are evident from her background and the title of the book.

Organised into 3 sections, ‘God, Liberty, Country’, ‘Cross, Crescent, Star’ and ‘Final Reflections’, the book is mainly a reflection on the historical role and political influence of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a walk through the history of America (including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in ‘Good Intentions Gone Astray’) and the involvement of America in world polity (including Clinton’s Camp David mediation sessions between Israel and Palestine).

The overarching good quality of the book’s message is in Mrs Albright’s ability to weave in and out of the narrative with historical and religious background that shows a strong handle on complex differences and similarities amongst the three religions, and how these have been exploited by various factions and schools of thought to advance their own objectives. My particular favourite was the chapter titled ‘Learning about Islam’ which in a nutshell summarises key principles for the religion.

The book is littered with references to inspiring quotations e.g. from Martin Luther King and O W Holmes, which are cross-referenced several times later, as well as bitter and frank self-assessment e.g. when she says the trouble with us Americans is that we rate ourselves more highly than the world rates us (I paraphrase, of course).

The introspection and reflection grounded in pragmatism is the best quality of this 300-odd page book. The most frustrating part is what I consider poor editing. Sentence constructions in many places are extra-ordinary. Some appear to be sotto voce and they seem the editor left them alone. Often I had to re-read entire paragraphs to make sense of the point being made. It distracts from immersion reading, the kind I prefer.

I have given it 4 stars – perhaps largely because I did not know what to expect from the book, so I came away not jubilant, but not disappointed. Some sections such as ‘The Devil and Madeleine Albright’ were rambling to read and could not hold my attention.

All in all, a multifaceted treatise for those keen on history, politics, religion and how they enmesh with one another in international diplomacy.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Recommended for those, who are curious about and interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the State Department or in international diplomacy. If political personalities and how they are made as persons and politicians are topics of interest to you, this will make a fascinating read.