Sunday, March 21, 2010

The most powerful of these is the sky

Excellent coverage from today's Sunday Telegraph on the devastating impact of Mongolia's harsh winter.  Perhaps surprisingly for the Sunday Telegraph, the article suggests that the impact of the natural disaster has perhaps been exacerbated by the country's move away from its former 'Soviet-inspired co-operative agriculture system' towards market-driven reforms. 

I was particularly struck by the description of one herder:

'Baavankhon worships the land that sustains him, making offerings to a sacred mountain but in recent years, he says, people have been cutting firewood from the holy places; just one example of how the ancient compact with nature has been broken in modern Mongolia.'


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twisting the tale

Interesting piece by Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent last week exploring why, in his words, 'we sometimes complain that a novel or a film has taken us for a ride...while at other times we celebrate the fact'.  Sutcliffe's article takes in a couple of recently-published novels, including Tim Pears's intriguing-sounding Landed, but is prompted primarily by Martin Scorsese's new adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island.  The film's ending has, as he points out, provoked 'yelps of complaint' from some reviewers - although I've also seen some positive comments about the concluding twist.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I have read Lehane's book which also provoked considerable irritation among some reviewers  - the ever-reliable Petrona, for example, descibed it as 'the worst "cheat twist" I've ever read').  I didn't feel quite that annoyed, but, having largely enjoyed the book, I did find the conclusion disappointing, which I imagine was not the effect that Lehane was aiming for.  The question, as Sutcliffe suggests, is why. 

As a reader and as a writer, I'm not keen on the twist ending - mainly because it's so difficult to do well.  If nothing else, you have to be pretty confident that you're a step ahead of the reader - if the reader's kept pace with you, then your smart ending is likely to appear decidedly lame.  That's not quite the problem with Shutter Island (Lehane's too good a writer for that), but the book does face similar difficulties.  As it moves towards its conclusion, the reader is left trying to make sense of an increasingly puzzling narrative.  Various  interpretations are possible, but many readers will, by that stage, be at least toying with the option that in the end proves to be the right one.  In other words, I suspect the problem with Shutter Island is not that it has a twist ending, but that the ending isn't quite twisty enough.  My personal view is that Lehane has set himself an almost impossible task - because the reader is toying with possible explanations (each of which carries its own implications and significance), any definitive ending is almost bound to feel like a let down.   I would have preferred the book to have ended more ambiguously, but I realise that that would probably just have infuriated a different set of readers. 

It's interesting to contrast Shutter Island with another tale of pananoia with an island setting - Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man.  As I've mentioned before, the film's a perennial favourite of mine, which I never tire of watching, even though it's also heavily dependent on a twist ending.  Echoing Sutcliffe's question, why should that be?  The film's ending works, I think, partly because it plays with our expectations of genre and narrative.  We know how films like this work.  We may not know how the precise details will pan out, but we make assumptions about how this kind of film ends.  When it lurches in a different direction, it is - for the first-time viewer - genuinely shocking.  Interestingly, though, my experience is that knowledge of the ending then enhances subsequent viewings of the film.  While the initial shock has gone, we're left with a new poignancy, an awareness of what's coming which colours our view of the film's characters (particularly Edward Woodward's brilliant buttoned-up Sergeant Howie) and their interaction.  It's one of the few instances I can think of where a 'twist' ending transcends gimmickry and gives the preceding narrative a new resonance.  I'd be interested to hear suggestions of other examples. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

The darkness and blowing snow

Another account of this year's devastating winter in Mongolia.  As the article says, this is the country's second successive dzud - a harsh winter after a dry summer - and the impact on livestock and herders has been incalculable. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A lot of trouble

In the UK, we have to contend with the private lives of footballers John Terry and Ashley Cole.  In Mongolia, they have the champion Sumo, Asashoryu.  I've written about Asashoryu and his (substantially) larger than life antics before, but the latest news is that Asashoryu has dramatically quit Sumo. 

Some have claimed that his decision to quit the sport followed a 'drunken brawl' in which Asashoryu allegedly broke another man's nose.  Asashoryu himself has now denied this, and claims darkly that he was the victim of a conspiracy which forced him out before he could break the record for the number of Emperor's Cup victories. 

Whatever the truth, the key question is what the ever-entertaining Asashoryu will do next.  This highly entertaining article suggests some possibilities, but this piece from Bloomberg suggests a rather duller future in, um, investment banking.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The future of nomadic herding

I've discussed previously the very harsh winter that Mongolia has endured this year, and its devastating impact on people and lifestock.  Here's a piece from the Economist blog about the immediate and longer term impact on the nomadic herdsmen who still comprise a substantial proportion of Mongolia's population. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Shadow Walker

Just a brief addendum to the posting below to let you know that today is the official release date for the new US mass market edition of The Shadow Walker.  Available in all good bookshops and, I hope, quite a few not-so-good ones too. 

And I'll be back with some more substantive posts very shortly.  Promise.