The first novel by Joshua Ferris is jaw-droppingly good. If you want to write a book, you are going to love it and hate him, it is that assured, funny, moving and interesting.
As the fantastic metacritic website says it has met with universal acclaim.
I think the narrative technique of using the third person pronoun "We" and "some of us thought" is genuinely innovative, as far as I remember I have never come across it before. There is never a clear narrator - the narrator is the group, the team. This so clearly underscores the theme of the book, you feel like applauding.
The characters all work in an ad agency in Chicago. The novel is much concerned with the human interactions that glue together people's days: the gossiping, the coffee breaks, the ennui. It opens:
"We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise ... We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped, or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day."
There is a pre-occupation for some of fretting about how they could do something better with their lives; most just worry about not getting fired, or shitcanned. Among the minor characters are a wannabe screenwriter who says "it's funny but I was writing something based on this idea" when he hears a good anecdote. He lets people read his material after signing confidentiality agreements and calls Robert de Niro "Bobby". Another character is writing an angry small novel about work (Ferris wrote a very good piece about work in novels for the Guardian's Review section, noting Delillo's Americana is about work at the start). "People spend most of their time at work, that interests me," the character says, and we hear the voice of Ferris. The same character, Hank Neary, xeroxes entire novels and sits at his desk reading the sheets which to passersby look like the "honest pages of business".
The text is studded with insights into working life: like how you subconsciously send group emails with the names in order of company rank.
One of the best characters is Tom Mota, the office rebel. He sends destructive emails from other people's computers. He refuses to play the game. There is this great tension between everyone shunning him and thinking he is crazy and the fact that, in a way, he comes out with the most honest, perceptive insights. He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson. In one email he says "lets not lose sight of the nobler manifestations of man and of the greater half of his character, which consists not of taglines and bottom lines but of love, heroism, reciprocity, ecstasy, kindness and truth."
There is a genius recurring gag bout the chairs. When someone gets fired, vulturous former colleagues pick over their office furniture. People keep stealing each other's chairs - then one i caught out by an office coordinator who has, on her own initiative, put serial numbers on all of the furniture. They then become terrified of being sacked for taking someone's chair. "Look what has become of us", someone says. It skewers the paranoia and pettiness of corporate culture.
There is a lot of moving material about illness. The boss character Lynn has breast cancer. She is terrified of hospitals and after a long dark night of the soul goes to work instead of to her appointment to have surgery. At the office, her workers struggle to come up with anything for a mysterious commission to come up with ads that will make women with breast cancer laugh.
The title is a homage to Don Delillo and you can see that he is a big influence. Ferris has something of his eye for material, and something of his touch, though he has more of a comic sensibility and the book is more distinctively stylised.
Benny, the raconteur character, the "Hero" of the anecdote and gossip is a very Delillo type character. He hides outside a co-worker's car to listen to an argument he his having with his wife to try and gather material for gossip. He is left a huge totem poll in a late colleague's will.
The end of fourth act finale is fantastic. After he is fired, everyone worries Tom Mota will return with a gun and go on a rampage. He does return with a gun but it is a paintball gun. He shoots people with red paint. The twist on your expectations and the restraint of the plotting is amazing.
The final paragraph ending and its narrative flourish is deeply satisfying. The characters reunite several years and are having a drink. They drift away slowly, then: "We were the only two left. Just the two of us, you and me."
"There is a play here of Shakespearean proportions" T Dan Smith told writer Peter Flannery when he went to see him.
The character of Austin Donohughe - who is based on controversial Newcastle politician Smith - and the real-life scandal of a dodgy building firm in cahoots with city councilors was Flannery's genesis for the play and later landmark television drama Our Friends in the North.
The drama was shown on BBC In 1996, charting the lives of four friends from Newcastle over almost 50 years.
Annoyingly, I missed it when it was first broadcast, to great crtical acclaim, and had wanted to watch it for years. Finally I got hold of a boxed set of the whole series, and was not dissppointed. It is first rate television drama. The performances are fantastic. For a long time I thought Christopher Eccleston was the best thing in it but slowly GIna Mackay's emerges as the greatest performance. Mark Strong is also very good as Tosker, especially as he grows older and becomes a successful businessman.
Daniel Craig's Geordie is also well played - though watching it you would be pretty canny to guess Craig would become James Bond. His character - who becomes lost in the Soho clubland - has one of the best lines of dialogue about a love interest. He normally felt like he was in a snowstorm, but it stopped when she was around, he says.
The use of events from certain yeas sometimes feels a little heavy of touch but then this is TV drama with big ambitions. The joy riding subplot, for example, feels a little grafted on.
It is quite prophetic about how the Labour party changes in the 1990s as it moves into the centre and is sometimes dismissed as being a "bunch of Tories".
The series has inspired me to find out more about the 20th Century history of Newcastle and Smith - who died in 1993 - in particular.
There were something like 1000 extras and the creators say nothing like it could probably made today in the current TV drama climate, which rings true, and is a shame.
I got up very early and hauled myself to Trafalgar Square and interviewed a retired lady called Shelagh Moorhouse who is part of a group who take turns to do early morning feedings of the pigeons.
The group are warring with mayor Ken Livingstone who has introduced a ban on feeding in the square (the group found a loophole, which Westminster council is about to close). The days of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square do look numbered.
Shelagh was kind of sweet. She said that the birds recognised faces and once got excited when she was there later in the day with a friend, without feed.
It was fun being there during the feedings - I was taking photos like crazy and trying to do the interviews at more or less the same time.
This crazy mass of birds. Thirty minutes later they were virtually all gone.
A couple of months ago my friend Truff, who works in TV drama and sometimes wears a kind of hip hop hat, recommended that I get a couple of DVD boxed sets. He evangelised about Deadwood and The Wire, two HBO shows which he said were not as well known as the Sopranos and others but were arguably better.
And how right he was.
Truff argued that really good television drama can be better than any movie, partly because you have a much longer length of time to slowly tease out plot and character. Also, special FX and all those movie distractions are often omitted and the medium is more about the dialogue and closer to being a play. I don't watch a lot of TV drama (usually only Desperate Housewives - a guilty secret), but had a sympathetic ear to Truff's argument. In the last couple of years I had bought boxed sets of State of Play and also Holding On - both featuring the fantastic David Morrissey - and was keen for tips for shows of similar worth.
Truff praised The Wire most fully but it took longer to arrive via Amazon so I watched Deadwood series one first. I was not totally won over straight away but after a few episodes was really loving it.
As Truff described, it is about the early days of a frontier town in the west of the US during the gold rush. I guess late 19th century, so cowboys and Indians.
Ian Macshane's character kind of runs the town. He owns a bar / brothel / gambling emporium and is always plotting and scheming over how to make money, protect his interests and stay ahead. He is of very flexible moral character and regularly either kills people himself or gets one of his lackeys to do so. He is, though, not 100% evil and the writers give his character complexity by allowing him the odd good deed.
Timothy Oliphant plays the other lead as a much more morally upstanding newcomer to town. He is a former sheriff who wants to set up a hardware store. As the series develops there is increasing pressure on him to become sheriff - a position the town badly needs filled though he is very reluctant.
By the end of the series the town has visibly grown. Wood buildings have replaced tents. The first (corrupt / ad hoc) attempts are made to create authority. Bribes are made to officials in another town to try and come under the yolk of an official territory (business owners fret over the validity of the rights to 'their' land).
I really loved it all and predict I will slowly make my way through all of the Deadwood seasons.
I watched the first episode of Deadwood Season Two last night and thought it rocked. Last week my boss Steve said he had fallen out with Deadwood by the middle of season two "because there are only so many times you can hear Lovejoy call someone a cocksucker". Which is a fair point, but I predict I will keep with it.
The novel lays bare the terrible conflict between political Islamists and secularists in Turkey. The row over Abdullah Gul's controversial nomination for Turkey's presidency was an obvious, recent crystalisation of the issue.
In Orhan Pamuk's book, the main character is Ka, a poet, who is on a trip back to Turkey from poltical exile in Frankfurt. He travels to a remote Turkish town ostensibly to write a story for an Istanbul newspaper about a series of suicides by devout Muslim girls who have been refusing to remove their headscarves. Ka is also seeking a romance with Ipak, a beautiful divorcee who he knows from his past and who he holds a flame for.
The town is cut off and is seething with political Islamist activity, part of it by a charasmatic terrorist, Blue. The town is then seized in a bizarre secularist coup by a theatre group. Ka becomes embroiled and is torn in his sympathies between the two sides - while all he really wants is to elope with Ipak and return with her to Frankfurt. Ka has suffered from writers block for a couple of years but begins writing poems again. They come to him almost like fits or visions.
The narrator is 'Orhan Pamuk', who visits the town some years after Ka and is searching for a copy of the now lost poems, which Ka wrote in a green notebook. It is a clever narrative approach, skillfully done, especially in how the narrator is such an unobtrusive element at the start as we see things mainly from Ka's point of view (imagined by the narrator, after talking to the people Ka met on his trip and other sources).
I enjoyed Snow, though it is in many ways a bleak book, in which I sometimes struggled - buoyed up periodically by the glimpses of beauty. It does not leave you very optimistic about Turkey's future, but does, I think, give you a feeling for its conflicted soul, if you buy the idea that country's can have some kind of cohesive sensibility.
My friend Boff said he thought the book showed that you can't force a way of life on a people - I think meaning that you could not force people to be secular or Islamist.
I think in some ways he is right. But, to a degree, is what other option is there in Turkey? Extremist Islam seems to have a tendancy towards dismantling democracy (at the least the Taliban stamp does). This is obviously why the fears around the Gul presidency possibility were so acute: many in Turkey fear that the political Islamists want to traduce or abolish democracy.
I think you have to defend democracy, but obviously it is difficult and you can go too far. And if a majority of people want political Islam - then the pressure mounts that the democratic thing is to give them power, paradoxically traducing democracy.
Only the thing about doing that is that once you give over democracy and remove the system and cycle of elections, you remove the ability of future generations to have a fair say about what political system they have.
It is all very difficult and clearly there is a spectrum of Islamic ideas and levels of severity, relating to elections. Obviously there are (still very controversial / possibly corrupt) elections in Iran and in the Palestinian territories. The extremists do not always want to create Taliban style states, but I think you can forgive secularists in "Ataturk's" Turkey for being worried, despite all the assurances of moderateness from Islamists.
From the start of this year, I spent around four months working on a multimedia project to mark the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict.
I was part of a team which created this multimedia feature, which is made up of video and audio interviews with service people from both sides, politicians and islander Tim Miller, who lost an eye after being bombed by the not-so-friendly fire of a Sea Harrier. There are photographs and interactive maps by graphics wizard Paddy Allen and you can either follow a timeline which sketches out the conflict, or look at more in depth interviews by my colleagues James Sturcke, Matthew Tempest and myself.
James did some of the best interviews, including a number with Argentinean veterans, and heard the most incredible story from one British sailor, John Phillips, who lost his arm when he and colleague Jim Prescott tried to defuse a bomb which had hit their ship, the Antelope. The bomb exploded, killing Prescott, and tearing Phillips' arm off. With his life in the balance, Phillips talks about how he was travelling through a tunnel and could see his late father.
We were happy with how the project came out. Neil McIntosh, a head honcho at GU, said he did not think any newspaper website in the world had done anything quite like it and there was also praise from Guardian media editor Matt Wells.
I was aged about seven when the conflict began so I had a lot of researching to do ahead of setting up interviews. The research evoked a lot of sympathy for both sets of men who fought there. I really rate the Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins book on the conflict. It opens with a great description of the sense of unreality, of fantasy that enveloped the war and continued even as ships began to be sunk and men began to die.
One thing I was really struck with was that I had no idea what a close run thing the British victory was. All of the Thatcher bombast that I grew up with about it kind of hid for me the sense of how on line it was.
Many of the Argentineans were bewildered conscripts, though some were excellent troops, like the ones Major Alan Crawford told me he and his fellow Scots Guards faced on Tumbledown in one of the most bloody battles.
It must have been hell. Crawling on your belly up a freezing cold wet hill with machine gun nests above you. And then to fight hand to hand, using bayonets.
I was lucky enough to interview Maj Gen Julian Thompson, who was the most pivotal ground forces commander during the conflict. According to John Shirley, a Sunday Times journalist during the time of the conflict and who now works for the Guardian, Thompson was "the hero" of the Falklands.
Shirley told me that some of the battles were "like Waterloo ... men going up a hill with guns, facing men with guns". I met up with Shirely for breakfast and he told me great stories about the conflict and a very moving account of travelling home with Thompson and his brigade on the Canberra, a commandeered liner.
At night as they approached the south coast of England - where many of the men were from - they could see all of these headlamps shining out of the darkness as wellwishers and family lined the coastal roads to welcome the men back. On deck, a marine band played as the liner neared port.
I also quite rated Channel 4's Mummy's War, which followed Carol Thatcher's visit to the island and to - gulp - Argentina, where predictably she did not get that warm a reception.
She was a bit harsh in a meeting with mothers who lost sons on the Belgrano. There was a priceless moment where one woman says at the end of the interview, very quietly: "One day your mother will pay for what she did."
The doc also featured the woman who became known as Task Force Betty, for helping the British troops find their way on the outskirts of Stanley. She wore white gloves which they followed in the darkness.