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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen - A review


The newest novel by Jonathan Franzen is the kind of novel which an author can only write when previous success has occurred. Without that track record of reliability or quality, the editors would have given the book much greater scrutiny. Purity suffers badly from a lack of editing.

The main character is nominally the recent college graduate Purity, nicknamed Pip, though the Julian Assange-like figure of Andreas Wolf steals the spotlight as soon as he appears. The best of the entire novel is set in East Berlin and if more of the focus of the novel was spent on Wolf, it’s possible the novel would have been far more entertaining. The parts with Wolf are not without flaws, however, especially as the character’s repeated stating of his devotion to his mother and love for his past partner, are his motivations begins to seem less plausible as the book goes on. The other main character, Tom Aberrant, an editor at Denver Independent, gives us the most emotional parts of the book but the hysterics in his diary makes one feel as though one is reading the most banal remembrances. Purity herself sometimes seems like a description of the problems of millenials than an actual person.

The entire book is sprawling and ambitious yet primarily character focused, as would be expected from the author. In fact, the summary of the plotline(s) actually seem like the logical expansion that Franzen would next attempt. It brings in Berlin during the era of two Germanys, subject that the author would know from up close during his time at Freie Universität Berlin. His distaste for the internet pervading into all aspects of life is also previously documented in his essays and the idea to spin this as a parallel to the era of the Stasi is actually quite clever.

The main issue with the book lies not with the concepts but the execution. Too many characters exist in the book that contribute nothing or, even worse, contribute just enough to seem interesting and then disappear. There are several stories that go nowhere at all, such as the journalism piece about a missing nuclear weapon which gives us one of the more interesting characters in the novel in Leila. Leila has claim to be the realistic character in the book. Pip, barely seems more than a blend of what millennial are supposed to be like and her mother is almost a parody of an idealistic feminist (as well as a parody of neurotic mothers and child of the rich). The author’s previous works such as The Corrections and Freedom were also dominated by idealistic characters (especially in Freedom with Patty but also The Corrections, as Alfred’s reserve and adherence to mid-Western style values is one of the primary structures of the book), but they managed to feel like real people with ideas and not composites of various ideologies.

People do exist with several motivating ideologies which swirl in them and are never resolved because of the difficulty of ideology in real life. But a novel is not real life and the author should put forth a viewpoint that is compelling. Even if the viewpoint that turns out to be compelling is that life is confusing. But the confusion of the story is not designed by the author and comes from incoherence, not design.

The main threads of the story do interact and there are unexpected links between Wolf, Pip and Tom. But these links never seem to ring true. The coincidences are wholly implausible and when later on in the novel we find out they are not coincidences, it’s been hundreds of pages since we already knew. The book gives the uncomfortable in-between of presenting us with the idea that the power of the information era brought the people together but states it slowly throughout the novel. Tom’s meeting with Wolf is plausible but Wolf’s motivation for obsession with Tom is thing. The entire rise of Wolf to the leader he is seems either underdeveloped or told in too much of a rush.

The novel is filled with brilliant ideas and a compelling plot. The characters have potential and Franzen has shown us a world which is much like our own. With better editing and perhaps a bit more work on the characters, it could have been another masterpiece. The man who wrote The Corrections certainly knows how to create one.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Best Directors Working Today (Latin America and the Caribbean)

Picked from directors who are Latin American or Caribbean by birth or upbringing or film in those countries regularly (at least 3 films in the region). Exceptions will be made for quality film-makers of Latin American or Caribbean descent who film stories in the United States of America or Canada about Latin Americans or Caribbeans. Or perhaps for directors not of Latin American or Caribbean descent or residence but who film about the diaspora. Stories about the children of immigrants in North America counted in a separate section. 

To qualify I'm making it that the director has to release an excellent film (in my opinion) during the 21st century and I need to be able to find at least 3 excellent reference films. Same criteria as the previous lists. 

13. Jose Padilha - Brazil

Directing Timespan : 2002- Present

Reference Films: Bus 174(2002); Tropa de Elite (2007); Secrets of the Tribe (2010)

12. Pablo Trapero - Argentina

Directing Timespan : 1990-present

Reference Films: El Bonaerense (2002);Familia Rodante (2004); Carancho (2010)

11.Karim Ainouz- Brazil

Directing Timespan: 1992-present

Reference Films: Madame Sata (2002); Praia do Futuro(2014); O Ceo de Suely( 2006)

10. Walter Salles -Brazil 

Directing Timespan: 1991-present

Reference Films: Terra Estrangeira(Foreign Land) (1995);  Central do Brasil (1998); Diarios de Motocicleta (2003)

9. Alejandro González Iñárritu - Mexico

Directing Timespan: 2000-present

Reference Films: Amores Perros (2000); 21 Grams (2001); Biutiful (2010)

8. Alfonso Cuarón - Mexico

Directing Timespan: 1990- Present

Reference Films: Y tu Mama Tambien (2001); Children of Men (2006); Solo con tu pareja( 1991); Gravity (2013)

7. Juan José Campanella- Argentina

Directing Timespan: 1979- present

Reference Films: El Hijo de la Novia (The son of the Bride) (2001); El Secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in their eyes) (2009); El mismo amor, la misma lluvia (1999)

6. Guillermo del Toro - Mexico

Directing Timespan: 1985 - Present

Reference Films: Cronos (1993); The Devil's Backbone (2001); Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

5. Andres Wood- Chile

Directing Timespan: 1997- Present

Reference Films: Machuca(2004); Violeta went to heaven (2011); La Fiebre del loco (1997)

4. Patricio Guzmán- Chile

Directing Timespan: 1968-Present

Reference Films: La Batalla de Chile (1975); Salvador Allende (2004); Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

3. Lucrecia Martel - Argentina

Directing Timespan : 1988- Present

Reference Films: La Cienaga (The Swamp) (2001); La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl) (2004); La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) (2008)

2. Carlos Reygadas- Mexico

Directing Timespan : 1999-present

Reference Films: Japon (2002); Stellet Lucht (2007); Post Tenebras Lux(2012)

1. Pablo Larrain - Chile

Directing Timespan: 2006 - present

Reference Films: No (2012); Tony Manero (2008); Post Morten (2010)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Midnight's Children - A Review

Midnight’s children

Midnight’s Children immediately reminds the reader of two other novels upon reading, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. These are two of the major novels of twentieth century literature and foundation works of the genre of magical realism. Midnight’s Children falls comfortably into the same category of importance as these novels.

As well as magical realism Midnight’s Children also encompasses several other literary modes such historical fiction and is considered an allegorical novel and a postcolonial novel. Despite the complexity of categorizing, the book itself is not difficult to read. The language and style which Rusdie employs provide an energy which powers the entire story.

The allegory is that of the events in India leading up to independence and what follows after. The narrator of the book is Saleem Sinai who was born at the moment India gained independence on August 15th 1947. He and other children born within the first hour of independence are in possession magical powers, which will be both a blessing and a curse. Events in Saleem’s life mirror the events of India, the nation born the same time as him. The connections of these events are so close that at times it may seem as if it is India following Saleem’s life instead of the other way around.
The book it does not just deal with Saleem’s life but how he came into being, so telling the story of his grandparent’s courtship and how his parents met. As such it is filled with characters all of whom command the spaces of the book they occupy. All of the Midnight’s Children with their powers are not detailed but remain memorable. India itself, with all its varied landscapes and lifestyles, forms a major part of the story.

 The book deals with Indian events but this does not mean that every reader should have an encompassing knowledge of Indian history. The book was written in English by an Anglo-Indian author. There is no gap in translation or cultural divides that are too great for readers from any part of the world. Rushdie makes his allegories but does not demand that the story cannot progress without understanding of every reference. The novel can also work as a fantasy with superhero powers inserted; the writing is powerful enough to work on several levels.

.The book has remained a bestseller and is still in print today. It is in every sense of the term, popular, not just with academics but with the public. A book that has won such a large number of prizes can seen intimidating, in most cases for good reason. Readers of Midnight’s Children can have no such fear. The book transcends so many genres and is written with such wit and style that it is impossible not to enjoy.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly - A Review

Kitchen Confidential is the book that catapulted Anthony Bourdain into the world of popular acclaim. It is the book that enabled him to become a television show host which ironically meant that he is no longer a chef. Considering the book is all about life as a chef, it’s a bit strange Bourdain is no longer one.

The book showcases the author’s love for food and the first part of the book revolves around the realization that ‘food is important’. The first time he ate an oyster is described as a seminal event in his life and in the author’s opinion, is when he took his first steps towards becoming a man.
That love for the best ingredients also shows up in the book as a series of warnings. He famously warns against eating fish on Monday since the fish has been around all weekend. He also tells of some of the cooking practices in the restaurants he has worked in, such as steak being cooked hours before and only re-warmed with sauce before actually going to a customer.

A large portion of the book deals with being a chef in a busy restaurant. Bourdain portrays this as one of the most stressful jobs you can have. His descriptions of working in a busy kitchen are enough to scare away the casual cooks who think they can be chefs. But Bourdain isn’t discouraging people from attempting to enter the world of professional cooking. He expresses his love for the camaraderie of the kitchen and describes it as a world of misfits, where everyone has a place. More practically, he lists a code of behavior should one still wish to be a chef.

The appeal of the book is what had made Bourdain a successful television host. He has his own style of humor which is present in everything he says. His brand of crude language and overt sexual references add a particular flavor which also seems to be the only correct way to describe what it’s like working in a New York kitchen.

The book can read like an expose because of all the hidden details it gives. But it isn’t an expose in the traditional sense. Bourdain isn’t dissatisfied with the chef’s life and is trying to blow the whistle. He says himself that he is trying to be accurate but he likes the way a chef’s life is. He prefers it the way it is.

Bourdain has filled the book with anecdotes. While he sometimes gets overly sentimental about the people he has met and worked with, in general the stories are revealing and usually extremely funny. Bourdain is always truthful, telling without holds about his addictions to drugs and how he still came to work high or drunk. The amount of alcohol and drug use by chefs, according to Bourdain, is far higher than you would expect from high level professionals.

There’s a reason this book made Anthony Bourdain a star. It’s because it is that good. No one else had written a book like this before Kitchen Confidential and it became a best seller because it was something everyone could relate to and everyone wanted to read. The life of chef has never seemed exciting until Bourdain invited us all in for a viewing.   

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Oil prices don’t affect graduates wanting to work for an Oil company

The job market is, like every other market, affected by the laws of supply and demand. When I graduated in June 2010, the West Texas Intermediate WTI crude price was $81.25. That was the lowest value oil would be at until October 2014 when the slide in oil prices which had huge effects on several economies, such as Russia and Venezuela, began.  

I have never worked in the oil and gas industry. It’s not from lack of trying.Working for an oil company allows regular travel opportunities and travel has always been a huge motivation for me. Nominally, according to my undergraduate degree, I’m an engineer (though I haven’t worked as one for almost three years). Oil companies have more demand for engineers than several other degree specializations, yet whilst the oil price stayed above $100 for the vast majority of my job search, I was continuously out of luck.

However, I was not an exceptional graduate and was closer to the mid-level band of my graduating class than the upper percentiles. But, if we assume the rise in price of oil means more hiring, then we should assume there would be more engineers hired. I could have written it off as an anomaly that I was, at least in the oil and gas industry, passed over for jobs. I wasn’t the only one though, as several of my graduating class, with the same quality of Honours that I possessed, were not able to secure jobs or even training positions with an oil and gas company.

What does this mean? It means that oil companies have stringent criteria for hiring, as they should. In a technical field like engineering, when things go badly, it doesn’t just affect profits or share price but can affect the environment at large (such as BP in the Gulf of Mexico).

Whatever the price of oil, companies will not expand hiring greatly at the graduate level. There are too many oil companies who each have a stable share of the market to risk hiring below the “quality level” of graduate the industry has set. If there were a shortage of engineers, then perhaps there would be flexibility, but the supply of graduate engineers is very high in Trinidad. My graduating class of Mechanical Engineering had more than 100 students, with similar figures for other streams such as Civil and Electrical Engineering. There is ample opportunity for oil companies to select those elite graduates for their training programs since that supply clearly outstrips demand. The idea that engineering is always in demand is something that is frequently spouted at secondary school students, not just in Trinidad, but across most of North America. Even the USA, which has been speaking of a lack of engineers for years, could find itself with an oversupply issue ( 

 The market share for each company is usually stable as oil extraction is a long term process and the service companies are equally tied to long term contracts. With the current low prices we are no longer in times where we can use the word “usual.” The market turmoil should indeed cause redefining of previous market share and a possible turf war, especially for service companies such as Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes. This is especially relevant for those people who already have jobs with those companies. But for graduates trying to get into those companies, it makes very little difference.

Unlike Canada or the United States, with oil sands and shale respectively, there is no huge discovery on the horizon in Trinidad (not least because the geographical area of our borders forestall it). There is unlikely to be increased hiring. In fact, despite the low oil price, the oil and gas companies in Trinidad have little reason to be anything but stable. The size of operations in Trinidad for any global oil company is a tiny fraction of their global revenue and costs and as such, cutting jobs should not make a huge difference to their profitability. This, of course, does not mean that there cannot be layoffs as earlier this employees in certain petroleum companies were given the option of Voluntary Leave. However, such a cost cutting measure would have little effect on overall cost reduction and is possibly a knee-jerk reaction.

For local companies there is likely to be a squeeze if oil prices remain depressed, but considering the unpredictability of oil supply due to political turmoil across the Middle East, Russia and Nigeria, it is entirely possible the supply contraction could raise the prices. Crude oil future prices show a slow rise this year into close to $47, which is still far below the $80 predicted in the 2015 budget (2016 budget is set to be released this month)- but it does still show oil on the rise. Companies in the notoriously volatile oil sector should always be prepared for sharp drops and have extensive risk management plans in place. Though local companies cannot go to the level of having a team of commodity traders in place such as Shell or BP do, a drop in oil prices (albeit a huge one) lasting one fiscal quarter should not result in massive difficulties unless the risk analysis was significantly mistaken.

The depressed oil price will have significant effects for the larger economy and probably knock-on effects in other sectors but it gives the opportunity to further avoid Dutch disease ( which the government has been trying to do through the InvesTT program(  I think the low oil price, if it continues, may raise short term issues but in the long run aid in diversification. This can only be beneficial - the oil industry has an expiry date.  

The increased importance of existing industries coupled with the emergence of new areas of employment is the likely outcome of an oil industry that is no longer disproportionately dominant over the economy. The proportion of GDP created from financial services and manufacturing should be the first to show significant growth. This would be good news for engineering graduates due to the multidisciplinary nature of the application of engineering knowledge. A graduate with any engineering degree should easily be able to work in jobs which require mathematical knowledge such as operations analysis and financial analysis. Electrical engineers should find themselves beneficiaries to the increasing importance of software and programming knowledge, while mechanical engineers will benefit from a thriving manufacturing sector.

For graduates trying to find work in the oil and gas industry, very little is likely to change. The oil companies will probably still hire the top of the graduating class for their training programs and then send the best of the training programs to work abroad. Networking, as always, remains paramount. And the Catch-22 of work experience being the most valuable measure of hiring potential, remains as solid as ever. These things have never depended on oil prices and continue to be the most relevant points to keep in mind when looking for a job. Finding a way around them is another matter entirely. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Oscar Predictions -2015-Acting Awards

  • Best Actor
Most Likely Winner: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Wins at the SAG, BAFTAs and Globes makes Redmayne much more secure as frontrunner than a month ago. The academy tends to prefer dramatic portrayals over comedic ones as well. Even though the representation of Hawking by Redmayne manages to regularly show Hawking's trademark wit and sense of fun, it's mostly quite a serious take on the Professor. Factor in the difficulty of playing a real (famous) person coupled with the difficult representation needed to show Hawking's physical disabilities and it's very likely the Oscar goes to Eddie Redmayne.

 Backup Pick:  Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) . At the start of the year Keaton and Redmayne were almost at the same odds to win, but he's faded since then in the reckoning. That doesn't diminish the performance in any way, as the perfect mix of crazy, despair and arrogance is shown from Riggan so that the narrative always has the feel of satire and dark comedy. The performance of a man under constant pressure whose only departures from the worry are possibly symptomatic of mental problems (and definitely of delusion, if real world rules holds) is flawless.

Most Deserving (My Pick) : Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) . I'm very biased in this as I loved Keaton in the 90s and I love a comeback story. Throw in the self-referential frame of the story, where Riggan is a famous actor who peaked 20 years ago with a superhero franchise and is played by Michael Keaton, of Batman fame. How can I not want that to win?

  • Best Actress
Most Likely Winner: Julianne Moore in as Dr. Alice Howland in Still Alice. Swept every award it was nominated for thus far and any other winner would be a major upset. Portrayals of Alzheimer's are usually as vogue as Holocaust settings are for award bait, mostly because everyone is terrified it could happen to them. And as everyone knows someone who has Alzheimer's (usually), it's excellent to see the performance portrayed accurately as it is rarely done in films. Moore plays to perfection the person who becoming less of themselves every day, and the descent into the fear and hopelessness that come with that.

Backup Pick: Rosamund Pike as Amy Elliot-Dunne in Gone Girl. It's hard to give a review of this without giving away the story, but the acting of a character who is for the most part putting on an act is terrifyingly convincing. There has been outcry about how this portrayal would allow fuel to misogynists and rape myths (which I think overestimates how much films influence reality) but on the basis of this performance alone, I think it easily goes the other way to show equality. And by that, I mean, women can equally be a psycho character not  just a victim (finally).

Most Deserving (My Pick) :Marion Cotillard as Sandra Bya  in Deux Jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night). Heavy bias again as I love Dardenne Brothers films and I'm a huge fan of Cotillard. Her accent is especially impressive as it's so neutral, neither the Belgian accent for the Liege setting nor Cotillard's usual Parisian dialect. It's a very subtle performance which I think is accurate for the depression of the character. In fact, the treatment of depression may be one of the most accurate in recent cinema (if not ever in cinema).

  • Best Supporting Actor
Most Likely Winner: J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. Putting aside the treatment of jazz and misrepresentation of the importance of technical ability, you still get probably the most memorable performance of the nominated performances. The drill sergeant of a conductor in Flecther is a complete scene- stealer in his over-the-top pushing for perfection, clearly crossing the boundary of acceptable multiple times. The best villain is likely to be the Oscar winner as has been the case so often recently (Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, Christoph Waltz).

Backup Pick: Edward Norton as Mike Shiner  in  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Not able to take the spotlight off Michael Keaton but does a great job of being a demented character in pursuit of perfection by taking method acting to the extreme. Excellent character foil to Riggan Thomson as the antics of Shiner get the best out of him sometimes and other times just get him to snap.

Most Deserving (My Pick) : J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. I completely loved this character and found myself identifying way too much with him. Though he's clearly over the edge and deluded, I do feel like the character is a response to the "everyone's a winner" culture that is present, even if taken to the point of crazy. Philosophical points aside, everyone's most memorable coach was the mad perfectionist and even if you suffered a lot with them, they were quite entertaining when they were off torturing someone else.

  • Best Supporting Actress
Most Likely Winner: Patrica Arquette as Olivia Evans in Boyhood. Just as the directing and filming of this epic of a movie must have been a task, the acting has to have been as well. Getting into character annually for a month over a twelve year span is close to an impossible ask. Hence, the lack of noticeable character affectation by Arquette is what is most striking. Her character is the actual everywoman, real and full of emotion but not in a put-on way but because she is that way. Total sweep of the awards as well, making this year's acting awards either wholly predictable or set up for a giant upset.

Backup Pick: Emma Stone as Sam Thomson  in  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). In a somewhat weak field, Emma Stone is decent as the bratty Sam but compared to the intensity of Norton and Keaton she is somewhat in the background. But it wouldn't have been possible to give everyone an up-front role. If the Academy decides Supporting means background, maybe there's a chance.

Most Deserving (My Pick) : Patrica Arquette as Olivia Evans in Boyhood. My favourite film of the year and definitely the top performance in this category. Anyone else is a massive upset.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence  is Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006. It is set in Istanbul, the city which fuels Pamuk’s imagination, during the 1970’s. Pamuk once again explores the uneasy relationship between east and west in Turkish society from the eyes of Kemal, son of one of the city’s richest families.

In the beginning of the novel Kemal is to be married to Sibel, who also comes from a wealthy family, and so they occupy the niche of the westernized part of society. But this is Turkey in the 1970’s, as western as they try to be sexual etiquette is still very much stalled in the past. Virginity is expected to be part of the bride’s dowry. This all becomes relevant when Kemal begins an affair with Fusun, a distant, younger relative.

The city of Istanbul is a character in the novel as much as any of the other. The decaying old houses contrast with the apartments of the nouveau riche. These apartments become relevant for Kemal as it is there he conducts his affair. It is also there that he begins his collection of things owned by Fusun and so it is the start of the museum.

The seminal scene in the novel is the engagement party. It shapes the rest of Kemal’s life. He and Sibel separate after the engagement party, attempting one last summer idyll. Fusun refuses to spend a lifetime as the other woman and marries someone else. Orhan Pamuk, as he frequently does in his novels, gives himself a cameo in the engagement party.

Kemal is persistent though. He is content to become an old bachelor living with his mother as long as he continues going to have supper with Fusun’s family every day. It never enters his mind that in this world built around unrequited love that Fusun may be ordinary. In fact he sees her less as a person as time passes by and as an ideal. In a world where everything is done with speed, even relationships and love, such a lengthy love affair would seem tedious. But Pamuk never makes it unrealistic or boring and can even make you believe that such a fixation is romantic and not strange.

The novel is about the things Kemal collects. After his reconnection with Fusun he begins collecting mementos. He collects anything from cigarette butts to hair clips without a thought as to why. Because as he says about collecting ;“when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard”. This book is a tribute to the power of memory and the intertwining of memories and objects.

The narrative is heavily inspired by Proust and his idea of objects and their connection to memory. Proust is mentioned in the novel by Kemal along with his idea of recoverable memory. Kemal reflects on his own story at times during the book, self analyzing himself as well as time, moments and the way they combine to create the present.

It is obvious that Kemal is an unreliable narrator. The realization that he is telling the story in a skewed perspective allows several different interpretations of the story. Depending on your level of optimism or cynicism, the book can be read as anything from a romantic love story set in a beautiful city to a strange and disquieting obsession of an older man for his past lover or any permutation in between.

A novel such as this does not have a clear cut plot but it is the looseness of the narrative which allows the story to work so well. There can be many interpretations of the story but you don’t have to make any to enjoy the book anyway. The storytelling remains enjoyable and capturing, even without probing too deep.