“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Brain Noodles: Ikon of Light; The Caves of the Sun; Love and Friendship

This week’s soundtrack was provided mainly by the reissue of John Tavener’s Ikon of Light, recorded by Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen for Coro. It’s a special commemorative edition to mark Tavener’s death in 2013, and is composed in the main of a setting of St Simeon’s ‘Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit’ – St Simeon being both poet and Orthodox philosopher, which accounts for the subject matter being the ‘uncreated Light’ of the Creator. Heady stuff, indeed. The CD also includes settings for two of William Blake’s poems, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’. Cue ‘dense contrapuntal melodic lines’ and Tavener exploring silence as a musical instrument – all told, it’s an ineffably beautiful offering:
  I know very little about John Tavener beyond The Protecting Veil, but he’s a fascinating character. As the CD’s liner notes (can we still call them liner notes?) note, “In an almost 50-year career defined so strongly by spirituality and mysticism, Tavener worked not only with nuns and priests but with Björk and The Beatles, and produced Mercury Prize-nominated music as well as an eight-hour Vigil.”
  Books-wise, I re-read Adrian Bailey’s The Caves of the Sun: The Origin of Mythology, which essentially argues that all mythology – and the established religions that emerged from mythology – originated literally and metaphorically in caves, as primitive man set about encouraging and celebrating the sun, which they believed hibernated for the winter in some great cave beyond the horizon. Bailey does a fine job of deconstructing the myths and folktales we’re familiar with – Theseus, Perseus, Oedipus, Heracles, Jason, Cinderella et al – to argue that their universal nature means that they all originated in the earliest incarnation of human interaction with those natural forces upon which survival depended. I particularly liked his chapter on the earliest cave art, and the idea that such art wasn’t created to be admired or even necessarily seen:
“The artists crawled on their bellies through cramped passageways in the rock, facing difficulties that only cavers and potholers will recognise, pushing before them their wooden poles and animal-fat lamps, their lumps of red ochre and manganese black pigment, on slivers of limestone or on barnacle shells, to reach the vaulted ceilings of the cathedral-like caves ahead […] Many of the drawings are so remote, and hidden in places where access was difficult and at times dangerous, that only the artists themselves may have known where to find them.”
  Art for art’s sake, indeed. Oh, and Adrian Bailey has a whale of a time rubbishing Freud’s feverish, moist-palmed Oedipus-inspired interpretations of mythology, which is always a nice bonus …
  This week’s most enjoyable movie was Love and Friendship, adapted by Whit Stillman from a Jane Austen novella, and which was shot entirely (or almost entirely) in Ireland. To wit:
Adapted from Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, and directed by Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship (G) opens with Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) arriving in some disgrace at the estate of her in-laws. The widowed Lady Susan has something of a tarnished reputation as a siren, which intrigues the young heir Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel); but Lady Susan has more pressing matters than romance to attend to, the most important of which is marrying off her reluctant daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to the rich-but-dim Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). It’s a typically Austen whirlwind of love, money and marriage, but Stillman directs the story as something of a French farce, spoofing the conventions of the Regency period drama even as he pays homage. Beckinsale is simply radiant in the lead role, playing an absolute gift of a character: despite the social mores of the time, Lady Susan is brutally (and hilariously) frank about money, men and her ruthlessness in achieving her goals. Xavier Samuel, playing her would-be wooer, is an idealistic contrast to the mercenary Lady Susan, and provides the story with its heart, although it’s Tom Bennett who provides the strongest support, his Sir James Martin a delightfully silly upper-class twit who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Monty Python sketch. It’s a deliciously labyrinthine tale of scheming, conniving and multiple reversals of fortune, and once Stillman has negotiated the rather heavy-handed tone of parody he establishes early on, Love and Friendship evolves into a brisk, charming comedy that joins the first rank of Austen adaptations. ****
  This week I also reviewed, in the Irish Examiner, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster and Alice Through the Looking Glass. You’ll find them here

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: THE REAL PLANET OF THE APES by David R. Begun

The idea that humans and the great apes evolved from a common ancestor in Africa is one that goes back to Charles Darwin. After all, chimps and gorillas, the closest relatives to humans, live in Africa today, and our earliest human ancestors are also African. It’s logical, then, to assume that the evolution of the ape into the common ancestor of human beings is a purely African story.
  Not so fast, says David R. Begun. A world-renowned authority on ape evolution, Begun – a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto – argues in The Real Planet of the Apes (Princeton University Press) that the fossil record tells us that not only were there also early apes in Europe and Eurasia, but that the European apes represent far more than just an interesting side story. Indeed, Begun states in his Preface that his conclusion is that “it is Europe, and not Africa, that is the centre of origin of the ancestors of living great apes and humans.”
  It’s a bold move, contradicting Charles Darwin, although Begun does point out that Darwin, in The Descent of Man, argues for the probability rather than the certainty of the African origins of ‘our early progenitors’. Darwin then goes on to clarify his statement by saying that it is useless to speculate on the subject, given the remoteness of the period in question and how often migrations were likely to occur during such a vast time-scale.
  Begun, for his part, is cheerfully aware of how his theory flies in the face of received wisdom. “Few of the ideas and interpretations expressed in this book are exclusively my own,” he writes, before adding, “The few that are mine more less exclusively tend to be controversial.”
  His willingness to point up the potential controversies and flaws in his theory is just one of the reasons why Begun makes for such lively company in The Real Planet of the Apes. The book is as accessible as palaeontology is likely to get, and it’s peppered with examples of Begun’s offbeat sense of humour, as well as examples of his readiness to give credit where it is due.
  Essentially, and although Begun covers the story of ape evolution over the past 30 million years, his theory centres on the Miocene period from roughly 10 million years ago. It is at this point that the fossil record begins to reveal Dryopithecus, Rudapithecus and Ouranopithecus, among others, hominids which appear around the time of the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of the family that includes humans, chimpanzees and gorillas (the orang-utan, or Pongo, branched off from the hominids some five or six million years previously; despite its very human features, ‘the old man of the forest’ is much, much older than man).
  Primitive apes flourished in Africa about 20 million years ago, Begun tells us, although these were more monkey-like than ape-like. They later dispersed north into Eurasia to more seasonal climates, conditions that then selected for new adaptations in apes, which resulted in apes evolving novel features relating to diet and locomotive and positional behaviour (e.g., moving to an upright stance as opposed to horizontal, becoming suspensory apes who hang from branches as opposed to walking along the tops of them). Then climate changes drove the large-brained, suspensory apes south again, with the ancestors of orang-utans migrating towards South-East Asia and our common ancestor heading due south to the African tropics.
  Crucially, Begun tells us, “I was intrigued by the African ape features I found in European fossil apes and the complete lack of evidence for fossil great apes in Africa during the same time period.”
  It’s a fascinating theory, even if much of Begun’s book is taken up with the difficulty of establishing the theory based on the fossil record. “I am determined to falsify this hypothesis,” he tells us. “That may sound strange. But we cannot really prove anything in palaeontology.” The problem, of course, is not only that fossils are so difficult to find, but that intact skeletons of great ape fossils are vanishingly rare. Begun paraphrases Darwin, who described the fossil record as a book most of which has been erased by time. “It is a virtual certainty that we have not and probably will never find fossils of more than a small fraction of the species that have ever lived. In many cases it might even be less than 5%.”
  Compounding the issue, at least in terms of readability for the layman or laywoman (i.e., yours truly), is the fact that many of the fossils Begun relies upon for evidence are teeth. ‘Paleoanthropological nerds’ such as himself, Begun tells us, have looked at thousands of teeth, and many of the examples of species discovered have been identified on their dental records alone (one example of Griphopithecus, discovered at Engelswies in modern Germany, was identified on the basis of “only one half of a tooth, and a pretty worn one at that.”) The detective work is hugely impressive, certainly, but general readers might find themselves increasingly skipping over those pages dedicated to wear patterns, pointed cusps, dentine horns and crenulated molars.
  By the same token, the book is dotted with fascinating examples of how evolution works, or why a particular species, having evolved to a certain point, then dies out despite being perfectly adapted to its environment. Oreopithecus, known from fossil sites at Tuscany and on Sardinia, appears to have evolved in isolation on islands (as the Tuscan region would have been roughly eight million years ago), with little by way of competition from other animals or any predators to worry about. By comparison with its peer Rudapithecus, however, Oreopithecus had a brain less than half its size. “Reduction in brain size is fairly unusual in evolution,” Begun says, “but Oreopithecus is the exception that proves the rule […] Oreopithecus became the ape version of a tree sloth: large, suspensory, slow moving and not especially clever. It is not much of an intellectual feat to move slowly among the branches gathering leaves and other abundant forest resources, especially if you do not have to worry about predators.”
  The book ends on a downbeat note when David Begun turns away from sifting through the past and looks to the future. Chimps and gorillas, he reminds us, are both on the endangered list. “The future for great apes is grim,” he says, as a result of deforestation, the ‘bush meat’ trade and the trade in animal trophies. “Unless there is a concerted effort internationally to eliminate these markets and there are major changes in governance to provide local people in the countries in which great apes live with more resources to support their families, I do not hold out much hope for the great apes, or most primates for that matter.”
  Unless we can find a way to live with our great ape brethren, Begun concludes, we will be the last ape standing. It’s a conclusion that offers a stark inversion of the playful title of this book, as the human ape precipitates the potential extinction of its closest family relatives. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

One to Watch: MINDS OF WINTER by Ed O’Loughlin

Ed O’Loughlin’s forthcoming novel MINDS OF WINTER (riverrun) arrived in the post during the week, a physics-defying process that involved it simultaneously dropping through the letterbox and pole-vaulting to the top of ye olde reading pile. To wit:
  It begins with a chance encounter at the top of the world.
  Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada - 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle - searching for answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, Fay for her disappeared grandfather. They soon learn that these two men have an unexpected link - a hidden share in one of the greatest enduring mysteries of polar exploration.
  In a feat of extraordinary scope and ambition, Ed O’Loughlin moves between a frozen present and an-ever thawing past, and from the minds of two present-day wanderers to the lives some of polar history’s most enigmatic figures. MINDS OF WINTER is a novel about ice and time and their ability to preserve or destroy, of mortality and loss and our dreams of transcending them.
  MINDS OF WINTER will be published on August 25th. For reviews of Ed O'Loughlin’s previous novels, clickety-click here ...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER by Martin Edwards

I was very pleased to hear that Martin Edwards’ THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER won the non-fiction gong at CrimeFest over the weekend – it really is a smashing piece of work. I wrote a review for the Irish Times last year that ran a lot like this:

“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” demanded Edmund Wilson in a New Yorker essay published in 1945. Taking its title from Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (1926), the essay describes the detective novel as ‘sub-literary’, a perhaps understandable addiction that ranked somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.
  Only a year earlier, however, John Strachey, writing in The Saturday Review, had declared that readers were living through ‘the Golden Age of English Detection’, describing detective fiction as ‘masterpieces of distraction and escape.’ So popular and pervasive were Golden Age mystery novels that Bertolt Brecht – tongue firmly wedged in cheek, no doubt – could claim that, “The crime novel, like the world itself, is ruled by the English.”
  The contradictions persist to this day. The Guinness Book of Records claims that Agatha Christie, with sales in excess of two billion, is second only to The Bible and William Shakespeare in terms of books sold. And yet the perception remains that Golden Age mystery novels were no more than bland exercises in puzzle-solving, comfort blankets for a middle class readership all too eager to be persuaded that while the country house defences might be breached, and the village green become stained with blood, such anomalies would be detected by ‘the little grey cells’ of superior education and the status quo quickly restored.
  “The received wisdom is that Golden Age fiction set out to reassure readers by showing order restored to society, and plenty of orthodox novels did just that,” writes Martin Edwards in the opening chapter of The Golden Age of Murder. Yet the best of the Golden Age writers, he argues, and particularly those members of the Detection Club who account for the book’s subtitle, ‘The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’, defied stereotypes and were ‘obsessive risk-takers’ as they reimagined the possibilities and potential of the crime novel. “Violent death is at the heart of a novel about murder,” writes Edwards, “but Golden Age writers, and their readers, had no wish or need to wallow in gore … The bloodless game-playing of post-conflict detective stories is often derided by thoughtless commentators who forget that after so much slaughter on the field of battle the survivors were in need of a change.”
  Edwards, an award-winning detective novelist and the Archivist of the Detection Club, has written a fabulously detailed book that serves a number of purposes. A rebuttal of the ‘perceived wisdom’ that Golden Age mystery fiction was trite and clichéd is to the forefront, but The Golden Age of Murder also functions as a history of the Detection Club, which was formed in 1930 and over the years included in its membership Christie, Sayers, Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Croft, Ronald Knox, A.A. Milne, Baroness Orczy, Helen Simpson, Hugh Walpole, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Christianna Brand, among many others.
  Through this framework Edwards weaves a mind-boggling number of plot summaries of novels (without, naturally, ever giving away the all-important crucial twists), the authors’ fascination with real-life crimes, and the way in which the Golden Age mysteries reflected the turbulent decades of the 1920s and 1930s and on into the Second World War, persuasively arguing that, “The cliché that detective novelists routinely ignored social and economic realities is a myth.” Equally fascinating is his documenting of the frequently tortured private lives of the authors, with Edwards turning detective himself as he explores how alcoholism, unacknowledged children, repressed homosexuality, unrequited passion, radical political activism and self-loathing – to mention just a few examples – found their way into the writers’ novels.
  There are also a number of intriguing digressions, such as when Edwards notes the relationship between detective fiction and poetry. T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (who published his crime novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and Sophie Hannah are among those name-checked as critics or authors: “From [Edgar Allan] Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets,” says Edwards. “They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.”
  As a novelist himself, Edwards can be cynically humorous about the publishing industry (“Allen [Lane] met Christie when she called at the office to complain about the dustjacket of The Murder on the Links, having failed to realize that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”) and his quirky style is reflected in his chapter headings (Chapter 15 is titled ‘Murder, Transvestism and Suicide during a Trapeze Act’).
  For the most part, however, Edwards plays a straight bat with a sustained and impassioned celebration of the Golden Age mystery novel. The Golden Age of Murder is as entertaining as it is a comprehensively researched work, and one that should prove essential reading for any serious student of the crime / mystery novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Guy Clark RIP

I first came across Guy Clark courtesy of Robert Forster, who sang – on his Danger in the Past album – about “Wondering who sounds better in the dark / Is it Townes van Zandt or Guy Clark?” All told, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former, but it would be a close-run thing … Anyway, the sad news is that Guy Clark died today, aged 74. My favourite track of his is Desperadoes Waiting for a Train:
I played the Red River Valley
He'd sit in the kitchen and cry
Run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, why has every well I’ve drilled gone dry?”
Take it away, sir …

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Brain Noodles: The Mavericks; Sigur Rós; Our Kind of Traitor

Fun and games – literally – in this week’s reading: Rob Steen’s THE MAVERICKS: ENGLISH FOOTBALL WHEN FLAIR WORE FLARES celebrates those footballers who followed the trail blazed by George Best – the likes of Charlie George, Tony Currie, Peter Osgood, Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh (the last examples glimpsed in English football were Paul Gascoigne and Southampton’s ‘God’, Matt Le Tissier) – who wore the Number 10 and played the game for the sheer joy of it all (or, in one case, because it was easier than actual work when it came to the vexed issue of financing a gambling habit). Ignored and / or distrusted at international level at a time when England were serially failing to qualify for the World Cup, the Mavericks, according to Rob Steen, were the platonic ideal of footballing excellence, entertainers above all else, men who raised the game to the level of art. And so forth. It’s a bitter-sweet read, given that Steen interviews most of the Mavericks in the wake of their (for the most part) underachieving careers, but for anyone with an interest in the beautiful game, it’s a delicious read.
  At one point Steen quotes Matt Busby on the direction the game is taking, at a time when George Best was being kicked out of the game by the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris: “Because of their heart and skill, he and other outstanding players in the league can go on giving the crowds entertainment. And it’s true there are still a few teams who believe the game is about talent and technique and imagination, but for any one you’ll find ten who rely on runners and hard men.”
  For some reason, this got me thinking about the crime novel, and how in recent years particularly the genre seems to have become increasingly pro forma. Maybe you couldn’t build a successful football team full of ‘mavericks’, and you certainly couldn’t build a publishing industry on their literary equivalent, but surely there should be enough room for a lot more writers like (say) Hesh Kestin and James Crumley, Barry Gifford and Jon Steele. Or maybe not – maybe it’s the case that what’s rare is wonderful.
  Anyway, the sporting theme continued with Philip Roth’s THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL – I’m not a Philip Roth fan per se, but I’m a sucker for a good baseball novel (THE NATURAL, SHOELESS JOE, THE ART OF FIELDING). Not that a baseball novel is necessarily ‘about’ baseball; but, apart from the gunslinger narrative of the pitcher facing down the batter that lies at the heart of a good baseball story, there’s something about the language of baseball (short stop, pop fly, swing away, shagging flies, suicide squeeze, et al) I love. Roth’s comic tale about the fictional Ruppert Mundys should have nailed me to the floor, but the humour is too arch, the tale too baroque – the novel isn’t just a parody of the great American novel, it’s a spoof of the baseball novel too. Maybe it’s that, at this remove on this side of the pond, I’m a little bit too in love with the myth of baseball, and take the myth-making element a bit too seriously, while Roth was having fun in demythologising the game as America’s conduit to a supposedly innocent past. Either way, it didn’t really work for me.
  On the music front, a recommendation this week for Trio Mediaeval’s Aquilonis sent me off listening to Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós, because that’s the way my brain works. I only stumbled across Sigur Rós last year, and Ágætis byrjun was the first of their albums I listened to (I went out and bought another four), but so far it’s still the only one I’ve listened to, because I’m terrified the others won’t be as good. Sigur Rós are Icelandic, and if you had to pigeonhole them you’d say they’re post-rock, but they’re beautifully opaque as they go about constructing their classically-inspired ethereal soundscapes – yep, we’re into the realms of sonic cathedrals and suchlike. I’ve never been to Iceland, but if living there felt half as good as Ágætis byrjun sounds, I’d move there tomorrow – if Sibelius was still composing, he’d probably sound a lot like this:
Movies-wise, I had the dubious pleasure this week of watching Escape to Athena late one night, a potboiler set on an unnamed Greek island during WWII, in which a motley crew work their way through a bonkers plot. I don’t know if I’d ever recommend it to anyone (to be honest, I was mainly watching it for the scenery; it was shot on Rhodes), but if kitsch is your thing, then it does at least boast what is very likely the most 1970s cast ever: Roger Moore, David Niven, Claudia Cardinale, Telly Savalas, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono, Stephanie Powers and Elliott Gould.
  As for this week’s releases, my film of the week is Our Kind of Traitor, adapted from the John Le Carré novel and directed by Susanna White. My review in the Irish Examiner runs a lot like this:
The post-Cold War landscape in international espionage has made for some surprising bedfellows, a fact to which the title of Our Kind of Traitor (15A) alludes. Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is a professor of poetics holidaying in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) when they are approached by a Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). A money launderer for the Russian mafia, Dima fears for the lives of his wife and children as a result of a mafia turf war being fought out in Moscow. Can Perry act as Dima’s go-between with British Intelligence back in London, and secure the safety of Dima’s family in return for information about corruption that goes to the very heart of the British political establishment? Adapted from John Le Carré’s novel by Hossein Amini and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind of Traitor is a bracingly cynical thriller that revels in its realpolitik – Hector (Damian Lewis), the handler who takes on Dima’s case, is as impersonal as a chess master as he shuffles his pawns around the board. Where the recent TV adaptation of Le Carré’s The Night Manager ironed out that story’s wrinkles in favour of creating a glossy thriller, White and Amini celebrate the nuances in Our Kind of Traitor, and particularly in terms of character. Dima, played as a vodka-fuelled but poignant shaggy Russian bear by Skarsgård, is no one’s idea of an ideal defector, while Lewis’s Hector is deliciously amoral, a clipped and apparently emotionless rogue operator who tramples over international law in order to satisfy his own agenda. McGregor, meanwhile, is solidly convincing as a dim but true polar star on the movie’s moral compass in a story that simultaneously celebrates and mocks Dima’s endearing belief in the myth of British fair play. ****
  Also reviewed this week are Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Angry Birds. For the reviews, clickety-click here

Friday, May 13, 2016

First Look: CLOSED CASKET by Sophie Hannah

I’m not for one second even contemplating claiming the forthcoming Sophie Hannah title, CLOSED CASKET (HarperCollins), as Irish crime fiction, even if Hercule Poirot’s latest adventure is set in Clonakilty in (the People’s Republic of) Cork. Quite how those innately shy and modest Cork folk will take to Poirot’s flair for self-promotion is anyone’s guess; we’ll find out in September, when CLOSED CASKET hits the shelves.
  I thoroughly enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s first Poirot novel, THE MONOGRAM MURDERS – for a review, clickety-click here

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Brain Noodle: Alan Glynn’s Paradime; Tchaikovsky’s Nine Sacred Choruses; Florence Foster Jenkins

Alan Glynn’s PARADIME (Faber) didn’t so much as noodle around my brain when I started it earlier this week as punch straight through to the cerebral cortex – his first novel since GRAVELAND (2013) is a doppelganger tale of conspiracy and paranoia which starts in fourth gear, quickly revs up into fifth and thereafter roars along like an Exocet in agony. I can’t say too much about it right now, because I’ll be reviewing it in the Irish Times next month, but suffice to say that it’s his most inventive novel since THE DARK FIELDS (2002) – which was adapted into the movie Limitless – and arguably a more fascinating psychological-thriller-cum-tragedy. More anon.

On the music front, it’s been something of a Tchaikovsky-fest this week – for some reason (over-familiarity, probably) I hadn’t listened to Swan Lake for a few years; sometimes your eyes glaze over as your gaze passes across certain albums, simply because – I’m guessing – the brain craves the blazing of new neural paths. That said, I was mainly listening to Nine Sacred Choruses and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, a 1997 recording from Helios with the Corydon Singers under the baton of Matthew Best. The link below is the Liturgy courtesy of the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir under Valery Polyansky:

I’m a rank amateur when it comes to classical music, and I’m not noticeably religious and / or spiritual, so I really don’t know why I find ‘sacred music’ – most recently Arvo Pärt, Palestrina, Hildegard von Bingen – so appealing, other than it’s gloriously beautiful to listen to. Apologies for the lack of insight, but there it is.

As for movies, my film of the week is Florence Foster Jenkins, with Stephen Frears directing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. My review runs a lot like this:
A minor tragedy of self-delusion on an epic scale, Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) stars Meryl Streep in the eponymous role, playing the beloved patron of New York’s classical music world in the mid-1940s. Florence, a talented pianist in her youth, adores music and has a wonderful ear, but when Florence decides to sing at Carnegie Hall, disaster looms – Florence in full cry sounds like an alley swarming with dying cats. Based on a true story which is adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins is by turns laugh-out-loud funny (Streep stumbling headlong through the scales is comedy-of-embarrassment gold) and heartbreakingly poignant, partly because Florence’s ambition so far exceeds her grasp and partly because she is daring, emotionally fragile and utterly charming in her lack of self-awareness. It’s Meryl Streep’s finest turn in years, mainly because her performance is sotto voce, allowing the character’s endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies to speak for themselves. It would have been easy for Florence, adorned in feather boas and tiaras, to appear utterly ridiculous, but Streep’s delicate touch gradually strips away the eccentricities to reveal Florence’s human frailties. She gets strong support from Hugh Grant as Florence’s long-suffering and (mostly) dedicated husband St Clair, and Simon Helberg, who plays Cosme McMoon, a pianist commissioned to accompany Florence, aka the little boy who dare not point out that the Empress, musically speaking, wears no clothes. Stephen Frears directs with panache (complete with old-fashioned screen wipes), fully aware of the story’s comic possibilities but never forgetting the tenderness and compassion that underpins the tale. ****
The other movies I reviewed this week (in the Irish Examiner) are the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. For more, clickety-click here