Reviews by Gary Canning

The science of Interstellar, by Thorne, Kip (2014); forward by Christopher Nolan

Ahead of the release of the much anticipated movie, in which director Christopher Nolan offers a vision in a not too distant future of an earth pinning its hopes on a space exploration team to find a new home for the human race whose crops are blighted by worldwide famine, this book is a companion to explain to the befuddled and the baffled the physics that he puts in place to outline their voyage of exploration. “No one”, the director confidently writes in the Forward of ‘The Science of Instellar’, “is left behind.” This is entirely true. The guide is a glossy volume scattered with colour illustrations, maps and artwork (carried out by Double Negative, arguably deserving of equal billing with Nolan and Thorne). The book is also beautifully written, concise and above all easy on the eye. Dizzying abstractions are reduced to human proportions without sacrificing the maths that are undoubtedly involved; Thorne will throw in a line, here and there, relating to calculus and algebra, as well as invite the reader to have his or her own ideas on what he has said.
No will be put off by the book. This is because no one, as Nolan promises the reader, is patronised or belittled for their ignorance. True geniuses like Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at California Institute, write about the cosmos as if it is a stroll through the gardens. Part of the secret is that the author suffuses his work with the youthful idealism and ‘can do’ attitude that is so uniquely characteristic of the best American communicators. He is one of us; a kid looking at the stars, wondering and musing while we splash among the puddles and swamps from which we first emerged millions of years ago how it all started.
For the same reason the first chapter is perhaps also the most unnecessary. California is not simply the place were Thorne teaches, but is also the wellspring of the American film industry itself-and that means, of course Hollywood. We are regaled in several unimportant introductory pages with Thorne’s emails to Nolan and the cast of the movie (principally Anne Hathaway), his lunches and the get-togethers among the fragment boughs of Beverley Hills, and all the rest of it. But in a way this is not so bad, for it reinforces the physicist’s sense of innocence in our eyes. We are there alongside him, walking side by side in the company of a world renowned physicist with half a century of teaching and research behind him, feeling the way he is feeling. And feeling runs through the entire length of the guide. Thorne hasn’t been the first scientist to discuss the enigma of Black Holes, the exploration of which is the central theme of the movie. Professor Stephen Hawking had already gotten there with ‘A Brief History of Time’ (1988). This is a largely forgotten book, probably because the audience wasn’t ready for it, as well as having sustained unfair and inaccurate accusations that it was unreadable. This is untrue; Hawking, a colleague and friend of Thorne, wrote for an audience more interested in watching Ivan Boesky being convicted of insider trading of Wall Street then they were in global warming and the notion that the millennia might just not be the bed of roses that futurists and gurus voting for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had promised.
Hawking’s book, of course, was a little too tight, a little too formal; a Brief History was ‘ahead of’ rather than a ‘history’ of Time. This isn’t a flaw that exists in the guide-though it isn’t without its own drawbacks. There is more than a little hint of American scientific triumphalism in its pages; European scientists like Niels Bohr, who pioneered quantum physics, get too little of the credit that they deserve in its pages for the possibility of space exploration, although by the same argument the astronomer and ex-boxer Edwin Hubble, whose super telescopes in the last century uncovered the notion that the universe was expanding, is an absent player here as well. I’m not too sure, either, that Thorne's advice to his readers to follow up what he explains in his chapters by consulting online resources rather than actual books or even kindles, is a good thing either. Perhaps this is being a little conservative on my part.
But this doesn’t, in the end matter. The guide is a triumph of enlightenment and detail that carries every novice and newcomer in its joyous slipstream. Occasionally a reader may put down the book, take a deep breath and try to digest what Thorne is saying, considering the vast scope of his subject. Perhaps one suggestion is to log onto You Tube, and consult the many lectures given by the late Richard Feynman, Kip’s legendary mentor to learn a little extra about gravitational forces, warped space and the nature of Black Holes. Feynman, like Thorne was a man of the people, a buddy with whom you could kick around a football or watch T.V. Better still, if you put the book down, take a nap, come back and then return to the words of an author whose gift for eloquence is matched only by the late, great and much lamented scientist Carl Sagan, you will be surrounded by an embarrassment of riches. I will leave you with the following example as a parting gesture; “Imagine you are an ant (muses Thorne) and you live on a child’s trampoline-a sheet of rubber stretched between tall poles. A heavy rock bends the rubber forward. You are a blind ant, so you can’t see the poles or the rock or the bent rubber sheet. But you’re a smart ant. The rubber sheet is your entire universe, and you suspect it’s warped. To determine its shape, you walk around a circle in the upper region measuring its circumference, and then walk through the centre from one side of the circle to the other, measuring its diameter…the circumference, you discover, is far smaller than the diameter…Your universe, you conclude, is highly warped!”
Gary Canning

The Fault in Our Stars-Green, John (2013) Penguin paperbacks

There are books even non readers have all heard of; Harry Potter (J.K.Rowling), Twilight (Stephanie Meyer), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Divergent (Veronica Roth). Every one of these novels cater, with immense success, to teenagers. They have also made the transition to Cinema, and have reaped equally enormous profit there for the viewing of young and old alike.
And yet literary purists have a problem with the genre. Most, or all are pejoratively described by their critics as 'chick lit', probably because their readership, with the exception of Potter fans, is mainly female. In a society that is still sadly underpinned by the values of patriarchy, it is not a great state of affairs. It is more woeful still, it goes without saying an acknowledgement that boys simply do not read, however hard schools on both sides of the Atlantic attempt to try to drum the habit into them.
John Green is a male, metro sexual and the newest member of this tiny band who has added his pen to the enduring power of the written word in an age dominated by Mine Craft and Halo. The Fault in Our Stars is not, however, a franchise in the way that the other stories mentioned above are; the story cannot be so, for in its study of cancer and its debilitating effect on the star-crossed couple, afflicted by their mutual 'fault', there can be only one ending.
This is a tragedy that will yield only one dividend; sequels are not an option. In the short term there are other weaknesses in The Fault in Our Stars. For many who have experienced illness or have known bereavement, Green's work will not be one in which they necessarily recognise their experience. People do not die as nobly as Augustus Waters, the doomed youth and one half of the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars; they are not, unlike Hazel Grace, his lover and the narrator of the story, exempt from peeling skin, anaemic eyes and the loosened bowels that is the lot of real sufferers in the real world.
Green is unsentimental enough to recognise this, and offers a villain in the shape of Peter van Houten, the so-called voice of maturity in the story (a clear swipe at the hopeless cynicism of Samuel Beckett, I suspect) who breezily informs the doomed couple when they visit him in Amsterdam for counselling that death is devoid of all meaning or of closure. Hazel's attendance of a weekly support group, meanwhile is a direct parody of Tyler Durden's (Edward Norton) affiliation with a similar organisation in Fight Club (1999), where a group of doomed inmates exchange platitudes as a way of sustaining their ever diminishing attachment on their own shortening, mortal coils. Hope, however is central to The Fault in Our Stars. Art, music and a good deal of booze are all present. So is love; above all, LOVE. Hazel instinctively understands that the life that we still have, not the one that will be eventually extinguished, is the quality that we all need to celebrate.
Her parents do not, and have not comprehended this, and have all but buried her already despite their best intentions;MOM-'Hazel. You are a teenager. You are not a little girl anymore. You need to make friends'. ME-'If you want me to be a teenager, dont sent me to a support group'.
Hazel is wrapped in a wall of fear by her mother and dad which masquerade as concern; those whom we kill, the Irish poet Oscar Wilde once wrote, are those whom we love. Augustus Waters, Hazel's bohemian partner in crime, understands the fundamental truism of this pith; 'Everything that we did and built, (he intones) thought and discovered will all be forgotten'Love, however, for the couple, transcends death, much has it does for David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death (1945). Hazel's feelings for Augustus, even at his funeral, are as deep as they ever were even when he was alive, troublesome and funny. Humans aren’t rational; humans are poets.
Shakespeare understood this in Romeo and Juliet, (from which the novel derives its title) and so does Green. And by the time they have read it, so do the millions that have made The Fault in Our Stars a best seller.It is not revealing the end of the story in this review to have disclosed that it is Augustus who departs from our view; it is the discovery Hazel subsequently makes which gives to the novel its power-a meaning so profound, so joyful that I am not revealing to you.
Indeed, when she comes across this discovery, Hazel's boring parents, and even the reliably awful Peter van Houten, are redeemed from their own self made cages;Miserable creatures (she tells us) who scour the earth for someone to hurt...(or) parents who walked around zombically, doing whatever they try to do'
'Try the book. It will slay you, I promise.

Gary Canning

Suarez-(2014), Carioli, Lucca, Icon Books

I found that it took a long time for the author, an Italian journalist of long standing repute, to get round to discussing the subject of this biography.The history of Latin American football and that of the Republic of Uruguay (first proclaimed in 1830) all prefigure in the pages of this paperback before its most successful export is first mentioned. It takes even longer still to outline the notorious biting incident which disfigured Suarez's performance in the World Cup in 2014, as well as, no doubt the face of his victim.
It is not until chapter 4 (out of a total of 20) that we even learn something of his family. Here, Carioli ushers both the reader and the history of Uruguay, side by side into the 20th century.
Luis Suarez was born, we are told, in the city of Salto, 498 kilometres to the north-east of Montevideo, the country's capital. Little is expanded on this footnote except through a sprinkling of anecdotes, which by and large comes to compose the great body of the book itself.
Indeed, Carioli's literary style suggests, despite all of his best efforts and considerable sleight of hand, that he knows the great man by association rather than through any personal contact, either face to face or by phone. Let me give you an example. A one “Ms Gladys”, we are told at the beginning of the chapter,“was 84 years old, but she did not look it...”
Is Ms Gladys, we might ask, a relative-an aunt or a grandmother? Does she belong to a distant branch of the Suarez family? Do we even care? The answer, we eventually find, is an emphatic 'no' to all of these questions. Ms Gladys, the author informs us, is (or was) a neighbour who merely knew the family before Suarez was even born. A great deal of the biography is dominated by nonsense of this nature.
Tendentious hints, informal chit chat, second and third person conversations, not to mention a variety of other, interpolative details that tells us little if nothing about the player that we cannot read elsewhere, pepper the book. Caioli serves up this potage by the veritable bucket load. It takes a long time-a very long time, to cross the street to the door of the Suarez family from the home were Gladys lives-or did live; but eventually we get there. Suarez's voice is largely-no, wrong-his voice is completely and utterly silent throughout the remainder of the book's pages.
He is quoted as saying-the only quote, apart from the written apology that he issued to the player whom he later attacked in his country's 3-1 defeat, that his family were poor and that he didn’t remember receiving any treats as a child. Carioli supplies this nugget in the wake of a press scandal generated by the Uruguayan press which suggested that the footballer was less than generous with his wealth when his grandmother, who was homeless, had nowhere to live. How this apocryphal detail advances our understanding of the mindset and game play of Suarez is up to anyone to guess.
After this, Carioli gets on, at last with chronicling Suarez’s career. We hear the usual platitudes that are applied to every rising sporting star in the Beautiful Game; of his determination, phenomenal goal scoring prowess, testimonials from football managers and fellow players alike, and so forth, blah blah blah.
But when do we get to learn about the bite-you know, THE bite, for which Suarez will forever be associated? For those who do not know, he already had form in this department when he assaulted Otman Bakkal, the Moroccan forward for PSV Eindhoven in the 92nd minute of a game played by his own side, Ajax, against their great rival on November 20th 2010. Then, the Dutch press hailed Suarez, somewhat tongue in cheek, as “a new Mike Tyson”; this was in reference to the boxer who was also in the habit of taking a snack in the ring at his opponent's expense. But nothing would prepare football for what happened next.For better or worse, Suarez's legacy will comprise the controversy surrounding the attack, (and subsequent written apology) on Giorgio Chellini, a member of the Italian side which dumped Uruguay so ingloriously out of the 2014 World Cup on June 24th in the first stages of the tournament. Carioli says, quite rightly that the British press exacted vengeance on Suarez because of the defeat he had helped to inflict on Roy Hodgson's lukewarm England side. Carioli, with a display of shrewdness he otherwise fails to display in the remainder of this indifferent book, says there was more, of course to it than that.
Though the Uruguayan papers rallied behind him, all the McDonald's outlets in Uruguay were not above satirising Suarez, (like the British press) alongside many with other jokes and japes that were generated at his expense. Though Maradona, the controversial Argentinian player who had hand-balled England's defeat two decades earlier in 1986, on the Venezuelan Channel 'Telesur' excused Suarez on the grounds that football was a 'close contact game', others were not so sure.
Ronaldo, the ex-Brazilian striker, felt that he should have been punished more severely than he was. Suarez's former team-mates in Liverpool meanwhile, whom he met as opponents in England's defeat, were respectfully silent. And Carioli's own conclusion? He believes that the “mind boggles.”So should, in my opinion be the verdict on a biography which does not seem to know whether to see Suarez as a saint or a sinner. The reader will certainly have something to chew on once he has read it. Personally, I found it indigestible. Better to stick to a McDonald's.

Gary Canning

The Walking Dead Survivor’s Guide (2014) Kirkman, Daniel Alard & Rothman, Images Comic

This is a graphic novel that furnishes an A-Z of all of the chief characters of the hugely popular TV series, past, present and future, which have remained human or which now inhabit their new zombie guises. For the fans of splatter fests and gore who love to compile check lists on their favourite horror programmes, then this is certainly a must to add to their ledger.
The Walking Dead is the usual post-apocalyptic vision of America, so beloved of dystopians who have a DVD copy on their shelves alongside their thumbed issues of Score magazine, The Book of Eli,(2010) Day of the Dead (1985 & 2008) and The Omega Man (1971) on their shelves, which chronicles the lives of the survivors of the destruction of Alexandra, a sleepy middle American town were disaster, complete and total, has wreaked total havoc in the form of God's judgement on the sins of the human race. As social order breaks down, we are returned to a western style 19th century environment in which only the possession of guns, food and hideaways are a surety of survival.
Not even the Church-a sure bastion of authority in The New World, can provide for its parishioners. The faith of Gabriel Stokes, the pastor of Alexandria, does not survive the battering to which an environment subject to the breakdown of certainty in an after-life has become subjected, unless being a member of the undead fulfils this dubious distinction. Neither the novel nor the series are without its blemishes. Despite the shock we experience in seeing the end of civilisation itself, the writers of The Walking Dead cannot entirely air-brush the soap opera conventions that inform most American television.
The aggressors, for the most part are male, while it is by and large females that are likely to assume the roles of parents and carers. TV, all said and told, is TV; not even an apocalypse is complete enough to erase the gender stereotyping of The Walton’s or of Little House on the Prairie from the daily grind of survival at the end of the American Century, whether that threat comes from the King George's Redcoats, the Red Indians or those with a taste for redden human flesh.
Children are present too, with the impression, which is also a staple cliché of U.S. programming, that they are the most likely to survive quite handsomely the crisis both spiritually and mentally that they encounter in Alexandra. “Carl,” for example, we are told, “has grown up very fast and shows a clear moral conscience” that we cannot quite believe of the adults.
Even Duane, now a member of the undead, is spared by his still human father, Morgan, who is unable to shoot him. The last we hear of him, Duane escapes from the chain to which Morgan has attached him, with the hope that he will grow up to have a kind of zombie-maturity in a distant future were a script writer and ex-fan of The Cosby Show might decide to find a cure for him.
Rick, the Constable of Alexandra (played in the TV series by Andrew Lincoln, whom some might remember in his breakthrough roles in the British dramas and comedies Teachers (1999) and This Life (1997) is the hinge on which the fortunes of the citizens as a whole will rise or fall.
Carl is his son, to whom he makes the promise that
“a secure future, one filled with optimism-if he lives to see it”,
will be his eventual lot. We agree with this surmise; though The Walking Dead is rather less subversive than it likes to think, it is a story worth seeing through to its end.

Gary Canning

Louis Van Gaal, The Biography, Meijer, M, (2014) Random House

This year an ex Dutch P.E. Teacher who coached Ajax to European victory in 1995 will take over the manager's role of Manchester United, hoping to reverse the Glazier family owned team's decline in its most disastrous year ever under the ill-fated stewardship of David Moyes.
 The author is not a footballer, having gained a doctorate in Russian Literature, though he has had a career reporting extensively on the game. The book has such a feel. This is an account for the reading of the gentrified classes, spiked with intellectual anecdotes along the way. Did you know, for example that Amsterdam, were Van Gaal coached Ajax to dizzying success, is the world's only 'crowned' city after being awarded the title by the Renaissance Emperor Maximilian? Or that the English philosopher John Locke believed that an inner mind at ease produced a body-a sporting one that is, that was similarly proportioned? Neither did we. The book neither includes any interviews with Van Gaal or any intimation that the author knows him.
As always with publications of this kind, the biography is a quick off the press tie-in product to capitalise on a flurry of changes at a struggling, once top flight football team. For those who like trivia, Meijer offers a 'did you know' blizzard of Wikipedia style trivia and statistics marking the decade long tenure of Van Gaal in continental football, which included a stint at Bayern Munich, Manchester United's great rival, a team which had also experienced a period of decline before he turned their fortunes round.
A book, however should answer the questions a reader wants to know. There is really only one in this account. Does Meijer help to tell us if Van Gaal can weave similar magic at Old Trafford?
Apart from the manager's wife, who wanted him to give up top league management after the World Cup, everybody certainly thinks so. Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman of Manchester United, is pleased to have Van Gaal onboard, as is Jose Mourinho, the manager of Chelsea, who congratulated his friend on his appointment. And the Glazier brothers? We don't know. Ryan Giggs, United's caretaker manager is certainly thrilled, and so is old warhorse and doyen David Beckham. And that is about it were the book is concerned. The biography offers, at the best an opaque account of the life of a man of whom we know as little in the last page as we do on the first. It is hardly likely to disturb the pint pot philosophers of the pubs of Old Trafford, nor be a standard reference text for much dog eared perusal in the future. Whatever that may hold for United.

By Gary Canning.

Dickinson, Matt, Bobby Moore-The Man in Full, Random Publishers, 2014

The dust jacket description in this biography of one of England’s greatest footballing heroes is encouraging; “When you stopped to think, you realise you knew bugger all about him,” the author muses. Contemplating such a strapline leads the devotee of football into thinking that he (or she) has come across at least one appraisal of a sporting star which might push to one side the superficial, glossy patter infesting so many documents today on the men and women who shaped the Beautiful Game.
In the beginning the author is indeed deferential to his subject. Moore died from cancer, cared for too the end by his wife Stephanie. A statue was put up afterward to his memory, leaving the writer, so he tells us by his own admission, to ponder on the task of penetrating the enigma of which he has spoken.Given the tragic, protracted nature of Moore’s last illness, we have to ask if Robinson will have the courage to negotiate the veil that surrounded the controversy that defined his subjects life, or if he will instead write a book which discusses the great man with the kind of robust opinions and arguments that one can expect to find among any group of hardened drinkers and commentators slumped around a fly infested table of a Weatherspoon pub.
Moore, we are told, was born to the sound of bombs being dropped by the Luftwaffe during World War Two; as a teenager he met Malcolm Allison, the manager who was destined to shape the talents of the young footballer at West Ham, and later that of his country’s standing as the 22 year old captain of the England football team in the new world that was founded in the wake of the defeat of Germany.
The book continues in this prosaic, though rather clichéd style of delivery, until mid-point through when the author reaches the 1960’s and the beginnings of all that was to become problematic with the game. Here the book hits its stride, but in not quite the way that we think.Christina, Moore’s sweetheart whom he married in 1957, is described with some irony in chapter 5 as ‘The First Lady’; this statement is the prelude to a steady descent through the pages of the biography in which irony becomes pastiche and pastiche collapses into parody. The nadir is reached in chapter 23, one entitled rather unfairly ‘Tits and Bums”.
This was in reference to a column that Moore, now a star fallen from heaven who had landed not far from the crash site of so many of Hitler’s warplanes, penned for the infamous Daily Sport. Nothing more is enlarged on the explanation for this episode of Moore’s ailing career now that his footballing days and managerial opportunities were behind him, but it is fair to ask since this isn’t even the end of the book that if the author isn’t going to heap even worse infamy on his head. I personally do not know; frankly, I couldn’t read this hatchet job any further. Look through this book once, look a second time, then return to the heart-breaking tenderness of the prose Robinson welds to describe Moore’s last days, and then afterward turn to your mates in the eponymous pub and ask if this biography really is the epitaph that his contribution towards football and the revival of Britain’s standing in the globe after 1945 deserves. I know my answer. Back of the net.

 Gary Canning.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate, London 2014

 The title of Mantel's novel is a misnomer. For those who expect a thriller written in the spirit of Frederick Forsyth's 'Day of the Jackal', there is a disappointment in store. But this doesn’t mean that the book isnt good. The narrative is a fractured set of vignettes drawn together from a number of short stories which the award winning author of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the Tudor King Henry VIII's chief minister and fixer, wrote over a period of three years, each one of which are cited in her end notes.

What Mantel has in common with Forsyth, however is that she writes her fiction like a detective story-there are pieces that have to be assembled, clues that have to be garnered, and a coalescing body of evidence put together to discern in the reader's mind an overall, emergent picture that she is creating. For some this is an enjoyable exercise in the way that the possibilities of the conventional story can be pushed back and approached using fresh avenues. Flashbacks and flash forwards flesh out each tale, all of which are studded over a period of several decades between the 1970's and, as Mantel tells us, the “fag end of the 1990's.” It gradually becomes clear that this is a critique on the failure, or at least the stalling, of feminism and the empowerment of women, and for this she blames a prime minister who had no interest in promoting it at a national or ideological level. That Mantel chooses the year 1983 for the gunning down of Margaret Thatcher by an IRA man whom we know only as Duggen, is the beginning rather than the end of the riddle that she has laid out for us throughout its pages.
Is this a good or bad strategy? Seasoned readers will be treated to a work that is not particularly interested in the traditional linear convention of story telling, while others may feel, I suspect, more than a little intimidated and bewildered by its serpentine course. Fortunately, Mantel is the soul of brevity and writes in complete, clear sentences whose subject matter is easy to follow. Her protagonists-all women, each one of whom is at turns empowered and vulnerable, make sense as best as they can of the lives that they lead; Bettina, an Australian who “complains of a lack of success with men,” for instance is a laboratory worker in a Harley Street Practice, who ultimately gains stability by befriending Mrs Bathurst, a patient. Meanwhile, a housewife who is stranded by her busy geologist husband in a rented apartment in Jeddah, the capital of a severely patriarchal Saudi Arabia, nurtures the ambition in her loneliness of being a novelist as a way of resisting the asphyxiating conventions which surround her.
Even the woman who unknowingly admits Duggen to her home may be a complicit rather than passive agent to the historical assassination that subsequently takes place which may, or may not alter the course of history. A reference to the author Thomas Hardy suggests, I think that Mantel's women, like Tess Durbyfield and Bathsheba Everdene, will experience mixed fortunes where the past as well as the present raises every hand against them.
For the others, fate assigns more inconclusive or tragic destinies; Mary Joplin is an imaginative child that will grow up lacking the love or affection of her parents, while Jodie, Phil's wife shall die of an irregular heart murmur in his shocked arms that a doctor subsequently describes as a rare and unfortunate occurrence. It may be ironic that Mantel assigns to a man the exercise of the ultimate sanction for those who transgress the boundaries set for them; Bathsheba, Hardy's luckiest heroine survives only by submitting to the agreeable convention of marriage, but Tess is hanged for murder. Margaret Thatcher is shot dead in a geographical location in Windsor that is not, as much as I tried to make sense of it, specified with any great clarity. This does not, however matter; continuing in the somnambulist vein in which she has pretty much approached the novel from the start, Mantel only tells us that Duggen wears a boiler suit when he commits the deed. Mantel's intention is to scatter clues across the face of the stories which implies a link, if you look closely, between each one of them; Thatcher is meant to have paid a vist to a private hospital in which Bettina might be working or were Jodie may have died at the time of her own demise; Joplin, a wayward child, “seems to be full of shadows, exposing where she should not be, then suddenly tugging on her own sleeve,” in a manner which anticipates, towards the final climax of the novel, Duggen himself, “a flicker in the flame.”

Gary Canning

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