Bryan Murphy's Blog

March 8, 2019

Gone Girl

The bad news is that this book is far too long, and it becomes increasingly unbelievable. The good news is that Gillian Flynn writes superb prose, and her social satire and philosophical asides make the whole volume worth wading through. Now that she has, presumably, made enough money to guarantee her artistic freedom, one can only hope she will use it to produce the work(s) of great contemporary literature of which she is undoubtedly capable.
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Published on March 08, 2019 05:39 Tags: literature, philosophy, satire, thriller

January 5, 2019

The outsider inside

Masks & Other Stories From Colombia by Richard Crosfield

If you study English history of the Renaissance period, one of the most helpful characters you are likely to encounter is the Venetian Ambassador, whose dispatches home contain valuable insights into what was really going on, free of the pride and prejudice of the “official” versions preserved for posterity. To help us understand today's more visceral Colombia, Richard Crosfield gives us another outsider, a British businessman named Printer, whose nose and taste for good stories lead him to intriguing characters and tales by the bucketful. Through Printer, Crosfield coats what he writes about in a velvet glove of detached humour liable to remind the reader of Saki, though like that master's, Crosfield's stories can sometimes pack an iron punch. I think the impact is even greater in the stories in which Crosfield relinquishes his foreign characters and goes straight to the heart of Colombia, where he is clearly at home.
My favourites in the collection are “Guatavita Nueva”, in which a provincial priest puts his faith in the next generation, and “ Landevino's”, in which success makes a peasant painter more equal than others.
5 stars.
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Published on January 05, 2019 02:02 Tags: colombia, expats, humour, realism, satire, short-stories, social-commentary, universalism

December 18, 2018

Marxism for the genteel

Penelope Fitzgerald sets her demolition of provincial life, The Bookshop, in Little England. However, I know from experience that it holds good as far afield as provincial China, and I'd guess almost everywhere in between, too.
Although her focus is on the personal, in her understated way Fitzgerald offers a devastating critique of a worn-out society that embraces change only to keep things the way they were. Marxism for the genteel. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
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Published on December 18, 2018 08:45 Tags: books, change, class, fitzgerald, humour, marxism, politics, society

October 17, 2018

A lesson for Yuval

One thing that strikes me about the last 50 years is how little life has changed. Technology has advanced, but it has not inverted people's hierarchy of needs. There has been no revolution in needs and hopes. The “ revolution of rising aspirations” was already under way, and has spread more widely; that, however, is a psychological phenomenon which owes more to economic than to technological development. So when someone claims that technology is about to transform our lives in short order, I smell a rat. Nevertheless, Harari makes a good case that massive change is gonna come, and we have to hope his warnings do not fall on deaf ears. He does offer us a silver bullet with which to tame the tiger: a form of yogic meditation in which he has invested an enormous amount of his time. Let us hope that it delivers more on its promises than dear old Transcendental Meditation™ ever did. In any case, if you fancy some entertaining and challenging mental exercise, read this book.
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Published on October 17, 2018 04:52 Tags: age, essay, extinction, future, health, history, machines, politics, resistance, technology

February 9, 2018

4 3 2 1

You’re a writer. Your novel has a protagonist. Let’s call him or her “Chris”. You can’t let Chris die before the end, or your novel ends prematurely. If you write genre fiction, you may not even be able to allow Chris a cosy or bitter retirement. I’ve had fun with this trope here:
The traditional answer is to invent ghosts, haunting and other flights of fancy. In his latest novel, “4 3 2 1”, Paul Auster, who rejects supernatural slight-of-hand, hits on an effective writerly solution. He has four chronological sections, and one chapter in each section is devoted to a specific protagonist,, in the same order. When Auster bumps off one of his protagonists, he nevertheless keeps his place in the next section, but his chapter consists only of the heading and a blank text – a stark reminder of the character’s death and all the unfulfilled potential that has died with it.
It is a masterful ploy, even when Auster repeats it, though it has less impact the second time. When he kills his third protagonist, he uses a contrasting strategy, letting you imagine him merely falling asleep, until, in the final pages of the novel, the authorial voice tells you the character had died in his sleep. This leaves you just with the fourth, most Austerial protagonist, who is, to me, the stodgiest and least interesting of the quartet.
You can see a brilliant visual way of refusing to forget the dead in Richard Lester’s satirical film “How I Won The War”. You may remember it for featuring John Lennon as a non-singing actor. It shows a bedraggled band of British soldiers on a mission toward the end of WWII. Every time one of them is killed, a wraith-like version of him, not intended as a ghost and not haunting anyone, still appears in the line-up, reminding us of his premature death and its enduring importance.
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Published on February 09, 2018 10:04 Tags: auster, death, film, lennon, lester, novel, protagonist, satire, writing

January 18, 2018

Me Like Trump

Don’t get me wrong, I do not like the man, but I have found a disquieting similarity between us while reading Bill Bryson’s excellent collection of essays in honour of The Royal Society, the UK’s national scientific body, entitled “Seeing Further”, whose final essays concern climate change. This brought it home to me that both Trump and myself are accidental environmentalists. I have a few unsought credits on my green account. For most of my life, I have not driven a car, though mainly for financial and contrarian reasons. I also spent several years in Third World countries, consuming at Third World levels. I’d dearly have loved to shower regularly during the 3 years I spent in a tropical city, for instance, but there was rarely enough pressure to bring water up to my flat. My biggest contribution to Mother Earth has been in not having children, thereby saving the resources that they and their progeny would have wolfed. This was largely for selfish reasons, not to save the world. Trump, of course, acts on the biggest stage, and what he does makes a phenomenal difference. He doesn’t want to save the world, yet he is doing just that. His disengagement from climate change concerns, and his actions to destroy his own country’s environmental future, have called everyone else’s bluff. Not only are USAmerican States and cities pledging to counter the harm his measures are doing, but the international community is finally getting its act together and signing up for joint action. If Trump continues in this vein, they might even take that action. Let us hope it will not be too little, too late.
Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Society
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Published on January 18, 2018 05:13 Tags: bill-bryson, climate-change, environment, paradox, science, trump

December 17, 2017

Revolution Number One

Where does the real revolution take place – on the streets or in our heads?

Portugal, 1973. Ed Scripps has left his homeland to seek his fortune. After a promising start to life abroad, Ed loses his business to a political revolution, his wife to a sexual revolution, and his best friend to a spiritual revolution. As turmoil rages around him, Ed must outwit drug barons and a killer cult if he is to live, never mind win his wife back and save his best friend. Can he survive and thrive as the world around him turns upside down?

Revolution Number One is a fast-paced, engaging novel that lets you experience the world's coolest revolution through the sharp eyes of a not-so-innocent abroad.

You can find it here:
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Published on December 17, 2017 09:49 Tags: business, campus, cult, history, love-story, mystery, novel, politics, portugal, revolution, thriller

November 24, 2017

Banks and Culture

Review of “Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks, "Culture #1"

Is there something inherently fascistic in Space Opera?
Like in the “Star Wars” film, where a whole world gets annihilated, but what we are supposed to focus on is a lion getting a smile from an aristocrat. In “Consider Phlebas”, I find a similar attitude, even though I believe the author was a noted anti-fascist.
I love sci-fi, especially social sci-fi (which I sometimes write), and the social aspects of the universe Banks portrays here are deeply interesting, but the focus is on the unremitting series of improbable escapes from impending doom.
The fascistic element is that except for the protagonists, individuals are treated as expendable. However, in the end all the characters whose state of mind we were encouraged to consider more important than the lives of their many innocent victims get their come-uppance, and the whole inter-species conflict gets put into perspective.
Nevertheless, I wish I had chosen one of his literary novels instead.
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Published on November 24, 2017 09:49 Tags: banks, culture, politics, science-fiction, space-opera

September 26, 2017


On the day that Angola belatedly gets a new President, I'd like to point out a couple of good things about the old one, Josė Eduardo dos Santos, who, deservedly, has tended to get a bad press in recent times.
The first comes in the form of an anecdote. At one point while I was working in Angola (1981-84), each Ministry, and the Presidency, had to build a primary school. The Presidency, of course, had to build the outstanding example. When it came to laying the foundation for “his” school, dos Santos and his Ministers assembled on the site with much fanfare and arrays of television cameras. The cameras zoomed in on the President, who loosened his tie, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a spade and set to work digging the foundation. You could see the consternation on the Ministers' faces; fortunately, they all felt obliged to follow suit. A quarter of an hour later, they were still at it, following dos Santos's example of actually doing something to lay a foundation for the country's future. All the more pity, then, that, after seeing off Angola's external enemies, he himself succumbed to the kleptocratic temptation.
The second good thing is that he has actually retired: he has voluntarily given up the office of kleptocrat-in-chief. Another example that deserves a wider following.

The book which I believe best gives the flavour of Angola is "Another Day of Life" by Ryszard Kapuściński. Highly recommended.
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Published on September 26, 2017 11:10 Tags: africa, angola, change, politics

September 17, 2017

At The Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell

I'm halfway through this, and have had more of Heidegger than I signed up for, but it has introduced me to Levinas and helped me to understand the puzzling emergence of identity politics on British and North American campuses. It turns out to be standard generation-gap stuff. My generation of baby-boomers rejected Heidegger's naziness and took up Levinas's concern for the Other and the idea of attenuating the boundaries between Self and Other. And we have become the Establishment, against which the new generations can rebel by reasserting a concern for group identity, with a newspun sense of entitlement to special privileges that the non-academic world does not grant to the groups with which they identify. I wonder what they make of Camus these days.
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Published on September 17, 2017 11:04 Tags: generation-gap, philosophy, review, students