The Monday Review - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

How do you react when you see: "More than 5 million Copies Sold Worldwide" emblazoned in large font across the top of a book? Grab it thinking 5 million people can't be wrong or keep moving hoping to number yourself with the a more select group of readers? Hype is clearly good for sales, but it can often be bad for literature. However, not only does The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo come with that 5 million banner, but inside there are two full pages of generous praise from a Who's Who of reviewers. So whether it's sales or the review pages of newspapers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a much talked about book. I couldn't resist.

Crime Fiction or just Good Fiction?

Crime Fiction is a funny old genre. You'll find all sorts in those shelves, but sadly much great fiction gets overlooked when it is consigned to the crime fiction stacks in a bookstore. Larsson falls into the later category. This is an incredible achievement. There is certainly crime, corruption and quite a bit of violence in this book, but it is also a fantastic story with vividly drawn characters, a multilayered plot with great pace that keeps going for the 500+ pages that it takes Larrsson to resolve the complex mystery.

The story essentially revolves around the disappearance of Harriet Vanger in 1966, a member of a rich and powerful family of Swedish industrialists. For forty years her Uncle has been tormented by her disappearance and his belief that she was murdered by a member of his dysfunctional family. Each year on his birthday a mysterious tormentor sends him a dried flower, a painful reminder of the dried flowers once given to him by Harriet.

Rather than focus on a detective Larsson's central character is Mikael Blomkvist a recently disgraced Journalist with a talent for unearthing corruption and some time on his hands. The tattooed girl of the title is Lisbeth Salander a mysterious security specialist whose lifestyle and personal problems make her an outcast from society. In Blomkvist and Salander, Larsson has created two highly original characters who draw you into the world of the story and the darkness at the heart of the Vanger family. Larsson's sense of place and his emotional intelligence allow him to craft locations and people who are multi-dimensional and full of colour.

Passion & Anger

The plot is developed at an almost leisurely pace, one of the many factors that distinguishes it from other books that sell in their millions. In his journalistic career Larsson was expert on right-wing extremism and neo-nazi organisations and his passion and anger are clear in his novel. Corrupt companies, politicians and men who commit domestic violence are all targets, but not in a superficial or forced way. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo explores the darker recesses of Swedish life and Larsson's passion is deployed with skill and never gets in the way of the larger story he is trying to tell.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is definitely one of my books of 2008. If we're going to have a genre called Crime Fiction then the more Crime Fiction like this the better. At over 500 dense pages be prepared to give up a few days of your life, once hooked this is not a book you will want to put down.

Sadly Stieg Larsson did not live to see the success of this first volume of his Millennium Trilogy. In 2004 Larsson had just handed in the manuscripts for his trilogy to his Swedish publisher when he died suddenly of a heart attack. For his fans there are two more in the series to look forward to, however, his passing is a loss to Swedish crime fiction and literature in general.

Here's a link to an interesting piece about Larsson and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from the Times Book section, August 2008.

Oh and I'm going to have some additional reading time in the not so distant future. Recommendations in the comments box for books to be read in the twilight zone of airports and airplanes greatly received!

recently observed (7)

...3 twelve year old girls hanging out the window of a limo driving through Belfast shouting "Yooh, Yooh" at bemused Saturday shoppers. Let me know when the credit crunch hits.

...street party with balloons and ear-splitting karaoke to celebrate the refurbishment of College Street. It all seemed slightly over the top, as far as I could tell the refurb consisted of new paving.

...even a minor airport delay seems to encourage regrettable food choices. "Overpriced and fairly tasteless steak sandwich and fries? Oh go ahead I'm delayed for 2 hours."

...I judged the Guardian too soon - Tim Dowling's column this week was as funny as anything by Jon Ronson and there was a fantastic supplement featuring great photos of Belfast from Magnum photographer Martin Parr. posted on BBC news site about two Swedish women who 'dice with death' on the M6. It's a truly bizarre video clip, made even stranger by the only explanation offered by the reporter is that they were "Swedish twin sisters". Are all Swedish twins crazy?

An M&S shirt don't mean I can't rock

So first things first. There is nothing wrong with an M&S shirt. I've got quite a few and I wear them with M&S pride. However, there are rare occasions when an M&S shirt just isn't the required look.

I was in London for work this week and my good friend el dunc took me to a gig near Kings Cross. Dressed for a day at the office, hence the M&S shirt, I soon discovered I wasn't exactly dress coded for the Monto Water Rats - one of London's top indie venues - or so they say. Dunc was keen to see The Colour Code who were third on the bill, but unfortunately we only got to see less than 10 minutes of their set. What I hadn't realised was that the other two acts on the bill were both up and coming bands from Northern Ireland, General Fiasco and Fighting with Wire. I've heard both of these bands on radio ulster and it was great to see them doing the business in front of a London crowd. The Rats is one of those shoebox venues that when the temperature gets up the roof will start perspiring and it was reasonably full of skinny indie kids recording shaky mobile phone videos soon to be uploaded to youtube. The guy to my left had an impressive mohawk and he definitely gave me a couple of sideways glances. Understandable, me and my nice M&S striped shirt and recently polished slip-on Loakes.

Terrible shot from my camera-phone

Despite the sartorial error I did enjoy the show. Fighting with Wire were heavy and intense, but also had a good rapport going with the crowd. I think on par I actually preferred General Fiasco and I'll be keeping an eye out for them in Belfast. Next time I'll be appropriately dressed.

Camera envy and Rats

I'll admit it, I often suffer from camera envy. In Belfast yesterday afternoon I saw two guys with very nice, expensive cameras in the space of 10 minutes. The strange thing was they were taking shots from exactly the same location and I couldn't for the life of me work out what they were shooting. It seemed to be a rather boring shot of the entrance to Queens Arcade, the one, as we say in Belfast, at the 'back of Boots'. The shot would have been something like this:

picture from happylobster

So I'll happily admit that it is kind of funny that this bakery appears to be called "Ann's Panty" and not "Ann's Pantry." However, our photographers weren't hoping for a tenner from Private Eye, they were actually taking the shot because the panty, sorry Pantry, has been closed down by the local council because of a rat infestation. The BBC report that an inspector found rats "both dead and alive" and despite being closed down the pantry was open again the next day. I really hope you didn't stop off here for a sausage roll last Saturday.

The bakery is at the start of an arcade of shops which includes one of Belfast's most expensive and exclusive jewellers who I am sure are none too pleased about the close proximity of rats.

The Monday Review - This American Life

This American Life - Podcast

This week I'm changing it up and giving new media the xetera spotlight rather than those things with pages you can hold in your hands.

Running with podcasts

I've gotten into a bit of a routine recently. I try to run most days, but on Tuesday mornings I run 6 miles. The 6 mile route is based solely on the length of time it takes me to listen to the weekly podcast of This American Life - possibly one of the best radio shows in the world.

Everything is Interesting

This American Life is broadcast weekly by Chicago Public Radio and while there are a range of contributors they all orbit the sun that is Mr Ira Glass. Ira Glass is funny and intelligent and has an incredibly quirky voice that is perfect for radio. Each weekly show has a theme and the 58 min show usually has a series of stories or 'acts' that illuminate the theme. The writing is brilliant and the true stories are fascinating vignettes of life. One of the truly great things about This American Life is the way it treats the stuff of life. It's like the show has an unwritten rule that states: 'Everything is Interesting' - and each week the show shines light on stories of the everyday. This is both entertaining, but also serves to remind the listener that everything is interesting and this somehow serves to enlarge one's sense of life. Surely a good thing?

This [.......] Life

Running the streets of East Belfast on Tuesday mornings I listen to the voices of a gaggle of Americans telling their stories and asking interesting questions about their experience of the world. Since starting this weekly ritual I have laughed, nodded in agreement and cried (a little) while running my miles. It's an American show, but the appeal is universal and you will enjoy the show whether you live in the US or not. My other runs are sound-tracked by music which works, but the non-This American Life runs are qualitatively different.

I listen to a lot of radio and in the UK. Currently it seems there is no shortage of DJs who are rude, and either full of themselves or full of shit or both. There are some wonderful exceptions, but mostly it seems that they talk so much, but have nothing to say. One of the things that is truly great about This American Life is the way that the stories take centre stage for each and every minute of the show. There are a million podcasts out there, but if you are looking for one that will make you think differently about the world and the quotidian stuff of life you should listen to This American Life.

Anyone already listening?

Barack meets Jed

We've been working our way through the West Wing again. We reached series 6 and it's not difficult to see why some commentators have drawn parallels between the fictional presidential candidate Matt Santos and the real life presidential candidate Barack Obama. Like any true West Wing believer there is that strange sensation of briefly forgetting that this is TV, that Jed Bartlett is not the President of the United States of America etc.

But fans of the West Wing will be delighted to hear that Aaron Sorkin has further contributed to this blurring of fact and fiction by coming up with a script of what might happen if Barack visited Jed for some advice. Here's a taster:

BARACK OBAMA knocks on the front door of a 300-year-old New Hampshire farmhouse while his Secret Service detail waits in the driveway. The door opens and OBAMA is standing face to face with former President JED BARTLET.

BARTLET Senator.

OBAMA Mr. President.

BARTLET You seem startled.

OBAMA I didn’t expect you to answer the door yourself.

BARTLET I didn’t expect you to be getting beat by John McCain and a LancĂ´me rep who thinks “The Flintstones” was based on a true story, so let’s call it even.

OBAMA Yes, sir.

BARTLET Come on in.

Full text on NY Times website

Belfast takes a bite of the apple

9am Belfast, Saturday 20th September and the doors to Ireland's first apple store open. High fives and cheers from the staff and free t-shirts for the first 1000 people through the door. Even the weather was perfect today - that Steve Jobs is quite the guy! Arriving a bit after the doors were opened Julie and I are total impostors compared to the apple devotees who spent half the night in Vic Sq, but we still managed to snag free t-shirts.

We stood in line for a while waiting to get in and eavesdropped on the conversation of 2 very excited 13 year old boys. One claimed he had come all the way from England for the auspicious day. Suspicious of Julie's mac credentials (which are in fact impeccable) they cheekily asked her if she had been 'dragged along'. A slightly affronted Julie assured them that she was as big a fan of apple as the next man or boy! Such was their devotion to apple that, while waving a fiver in our general direction, they asked if they could buy our T-shirts if we got the last 2! But everyone left happy - our two friends got shirts and disappeared into the crowd.

Belfast apple store super-sleuth and local blogging legend Alan in Belfast has a comprehensive post on the big day.

recently observed (6)

...spaghetti is not worth fighting over - trust me

...the opening of an apple store inspires near religious devotion in Belfastards - including Julie and me!

...air rifles bring out the little boy in grown men - including me and the Rev

...a mysterious note posted through our letterbox in the dead of night - unfortunately (for the sender) it was not for anyone who lives in our house

Here it is:


This is Darren's number XXXXXXXXXX

Darren - Johnny's friend.

Me and Sarah broke up and I'm back living in Belfast. When Johnny gets in touch would you give him my number please. Tell him don't go to Sarah, she got bitter and nasty.



Dance with me

Matt Harding of "Where the Hell is Matt" fame explains how he got people to dance with him in his world travel videos. 

This is the 2008 version in HD

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

As seen on Presentation Zen 

The Monday Review: The War of Art

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Steven Pressfield

Surely the height of procrastination is reading a book about procrastination?

How do you procrastinate? Playing endless solitaire or reorganising your stationary drawer for the twelfth time, meticulous pre-work planning or watching reruns of Frasier? Yes, it’s true, you may be on your way to solitaire greatness and can find those tiny pink post-its in seconds, but you haven’t written a word of that article, your pottery mugs are still in the clay and the songs for your first album have yet to be composed.

Steven Pressfield's book, The War of Art, is a gift to anyone who has ever struggled to achieve anything significant. It is the field book for those who feel they have to complete an obstacle course before making any real progress on projects. I can write a quick blog post with little trouble, a 10 min run around the block won’t bother me too much and snapping a couple of pictures to post on flickr is pretty straightforward. But what about writing an article that someone other than me will publish? What about running a marathon or taking a picture that someone will 'post' on their living room wall? Achieving these goals is something qualitatively different. Pressfield has been there, struggling for years to become a writer and along the way learned how to overcome the blocks and come to an understanding of what creative work actually is.


Do you have half-written short stories hidden away on your hard drive, notebooks full of poetry stacked in shoe boxes under the bed or a pair of gleaming running shoes that seem to shine like buried treasure every time you open the cupboard? Why do we struggle to do what we want to do? It seems like it's harder to start something challenging than actually doing it. Pressfield identifies the enemy that places obstacles in our path as "Resistance", and explores the variety of ways that it thwarts our highest ambitions and fences off the creative destination we want to reach. The tactics of Resistance are numerous; procrastination, fear, laziness, self-doubt, outlandish dreams and meticulous planning. Pressfield explores the various disguises and explains how he has learned to overcome it.

Turning Pro

The War of Art is made up of lots of short and pithy chapters. It's a book to read regularly and should join Strunk and White in your book bag. Summarising its central piece of advice is pretty straightforward. You want to beat resistance? Turn Pro. For Pressfield the Pro turns up every day and gets going. Waiting for inspiration? The Pro, as Somerset Maughan once observed, knows that inspiration “strikes every morning at 9 o’clock sharp.” Resistance tells us that we must do X, Y or Z before we start or that we could never write or create or sing because we aren’t qualified, competent, rich, poor, smart or artistic. The Pro combats these frequently convincing arguments by simply getting on with it. Please note I'm doing Pressfield a serious disservice here. He is not like some sort of insensitive English teacher who snaps one day and shouts, "Just get on with it." Pressfield is much more interesting and helpful.

De-bunking the myth of creativity

The War of Art also represents an attack on the mystique of creative work. I remember with vivid clarity the day I discovered that poets don’t sit down, pen in hand and compose 6 perfect stanzas in one sitting. Of course these creative geniuses also looked the part. They wore berets, smoked cigarettes and draped a scarf around an elegant neck. In my mind that's what artists did and that's what creative people looked like. But this is not how art is formed, written or produced. The myth of the creative genius is exciting and adds a layer of mystique, but the average poet or writer will denude a forest the size of a football pitch as they craft, form and wrestle words into sentences that work and poems that unlock new worlds of sound and meaning. In The War of Art, Pressfield, the author of numerous books and screenplays, de-bunks the myth of creativity not by demystifying creativity or stripping art of all magic, but by pointing out that the Pro’s job is to labour, to work on technique, anticipating inspiration and knowing that the magic of any creative act is strangely connected to the hard graft, the sweat and the completely unexciting routine.

A Work in Progress

Pressfield's honesty about his own personal and professional failures is both refreshing and hugely encouraging. We rarely see writers or artists actually doing what they do. It’s like the part in a film where a year of blood, sweat and tears is boiled down to 30 seconds of evocative 'hard-work imagery" and backed by a stirring score. We rarely glimpse the labour of authors, artists, musicians and film makers. The hours in the studio, the months in the editing suite, the waste basket overflowing with crumpled up balls of paper. In The War of Art Pressfield opens up the scrapbook of his life and transports us back to the years when he struggled and laboured as a writer. It's hard to read a sentence like: "When I lived in the back of my Chevy van" and not appreciate that this is a success story that one can relate to, although in reality I have never lived in the back of a Chevy Van. Pressfield did not graduate from Harvard with a diploma in one hand and an award for his first novel in the other. Instead he tried for seventeen years before he got a writing job on a movie called King Kong Lives. Heard of it? Probably not. Pressfield and his writing partner were convinced it was a huge hit, warning friends to get in line for tickets early for a sell-out opening night. The film bombed. Pressfield was forty-two, broke, divorced and gutted. But he was not broken, in his own words he had become a pro, no success as yet, but he was in the arena. His work was still in progress.

I'm not sure what creative or challenging goals you live with. The sort of thing that keeps you awake at night, that you don't share with people for fear that you might actually have to do something. Or perhaps it's the day-dream that helps you survive the 9-5, but it won't seem to make the leap from inhabiting your dreams to the place where you can get your hands around it and make something. Steven Pressfield has written the book for everyone who has been defeated before they began. Reading this book will not make it easier, but it's a bit like having a conversation with someone who has made it and genuinely wants to help you accomplish your creative goals and dreams.

The Big Picture

Incredible collection of photos on The Big Picture of the devastation left by Hurrican Ike. 

The Big Picture is one of the best photo sites on the weird and wonderful web- check it out!

Gates and Seinfeld

Apple has definitely been winning the ads war, but a Seinfeld and Gates partnership surely has Steve Jobs worried? If not worried at least amused - this is great.

Having a puff

man 2
Originally uploaded by stuart.noble
This man was standing outside Belfast City Hall having a few drags on a cigarette in the sunshine.

(Forgive me. There's a bit of soft focus going on here!)

Click image for large version in flickr

See more recent shots on my 

Punk busker in Belfast

Originally uploaded by stuart.noble
This punk was playing the banjo in Fountain Street in Belfast City Centre.

Click image for large version in flickr

See more recent shots on my

This is taking Neighbourhood Watch to a whole new level

Some recent graffiti on a wall round the corner from our house:

And for good measure a few streets away. You've got to admire the consistency of the message!

I'm a bit concerned. My Dad has white hair and glasses. He 'claims' to have been in Spain in recent days. Must check on his alibi.


  • PSNI = Police Service of Northern Ireland
  • Verison 2 (on red brick) has been washed off - it is the outside wall of a fancy hairdressers.
  • My Dad has confirmed he was in Spain on 10th Sept so he's in the clear!

There is no Why!

On 7th August 1974 Philippe Petit gave a gift to New York City. A gift so beautiful and improbable that seeing footage of it over thirty years later still sends a shiver down your spine. Petit's 'gift' was to walk on a high wire between the World Trade Centre Towers. After watching the film Man on Wire and listening to Petit talk about his 'walk' in the sky you can't describe what he did as a stunt, it was his gift to New York and the world.

Petit's dream of walking between the towers began in a Dentist's waiting room in France in 1968. Seeing an artist's impression of the 'Twin Towers' in a newspaper Petit became obsessed with the idea of walking between them on a tight rope. Man on Wire tells the story of that obsession.

It's a fantastic documentary which is beautifully shot, includes great archive footage and an atmospheric score. Some of the recreations of the events are put together like a heist movie - which is a particularly nice touch. However, it's the interviews with Petit and his co-conspirators that make this film so interesting. Philippe Petit is a fascinating man. One moment he strings together a stream of profound observations about life, the next he makes a joke or pulls a hilarious facial expression. His gang of friends and helpers reveal the dynamics and conflicting motivations and emotions that held the group together or in some cases pushed them apart.

Ultimately Man on Wire is about more than his indescribable walk between the towers, it's about friendship, dreams and the power of one man's passion. After his walk in the clouds, about to be driven away in a police car, a journalist asks Petit why he had walked between the Towers . Petit looks confused and says simply: "There is no Why!"

By accident rather than design we watched Man on Wire on the night of 11th September. As other reviewers have pointed out, there is no mention of the events of 9/11 in the film, but the absence of the towers and the tragedy of that day is ever present. I was particularly moved by the archive footage of the construction of the towers. Sections of the inner shell, so familiar from pictures of the ruined towers, being hoisted skywards by cranes, photos of workmen pouring cement and posing shirtless on the unfinished roof. I found these images deeply moving.

Go and see Man on Wire if you can - it's one of the best films I have seen in a long time.

Elbow's triumph

Great to see Elbow win the mercury music prize last night. I blogged about the wonders of Elbow's beautiful album Seldom Seen Kid back in June and it continues to be one of my favourites from the past year. Mercury is a wonderfully eclectic prize so as usual the contenders came from all quarters of the UK music scene. Despite thinking that Radiohead's In Rainbows is one of the best albums ever made, it was good to see the lads from Bury getting some much deserved recognition. If anyone is willing to share success I feel like it's Radiohead.

Elbow's Guy Garvey raises a glass to the Mercury crowd

Someone with good taste and excellent foresight booked Elbow to play the Belfast Festival on 26th October. No doubt it will sell out soon. Elbow in Belfast's Grand Opera House, now that sounds like a great show.

The Monday Review: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko by Daniel H. Pink

Career anyone? How did careers guidance go for you? Perhaps it didn't exist and you simply followed a family member down the mine. Or perhaps as a precocious five year old you lisped that you wanted to be a "Tweacher" when you grew up to a room full of delighted Grandparents and jealous cousins. My own experience of careers advice was, like most of my childhood education, drowned out by the voice inside my head that whispered seductively: "look out the window," what's on TV tonight?", or "who invented maths anyway?" My only formal meeting with a careers adviser dramatically changed direction when the adviser, visiting my school from a government dept, discovered that my Dad was her boss. Cue widening of eyes and a decommissioning of the verbal slap round the chops that this adviser should have given the boss' feckless son. But enough about me.

Multiple jobs, plural careers

Thirty years ago many of my parent's generation started jobs after school or university that they stayed in for the rest of their working lives. Careers so long you got gifts to mark years of service like notches on a belt. Things have certainly changed. Does anyone think they'll still be in the same job in 10 years? There are exceptions of course, but by in large we live in a world that no longer thinks in terms of one job or even one career. We accept a future of multiple employers and alternative careers. The downside of this is a distinct lack of job security, but the upside is that you have choices, many, many more choices than previous generations. But then the downside of choice is potentially being suffocated by the dilemma of which choice to make. The generations who worked their fingers to the bone in the shipyards not far from my house may have seen this as a slightly self-indulgent preoccupation, but many people, credit crunch notwithstanding, are deeply troubled by the question of which job not what job.

In Johnny Bunko Daniel H. Pink speaks to the multiple job and plural careered generation. Pink is a talented man. Not only does he understand the career zeitgeist he offers brilliant and timeless advice in the format of a cartoon. Trendspotters take note! This is an approach to communication that has recently been given the approval of the mighty google when they told the story of their new browser, chrome, via a cartoon.

I admire Pink's bravery. There's no wordy introduction that tries to explain the book without the pictures. He doesn't offer an apologia for writing a manga career guide. He just starts telling a story. The pictures, courtesy of artist Rob Ten Pas, create a compelling narrative. Pink is the careers adviser you never had. Probably because he would have been fired.

A career genie and six pieces of advice

It's possible that Johnny Bunko is a lot like you. He did what his parents, teachers and careers advisers told him to do. But now, stuck in a dead-end job, he's begun to suspect that what he thought he knew is just plain wrong. One bizarre night, Johnny meets Diana, a career...well she's a career genie. Diana shares six essential lessons for thriving in the world of work and Johnny learns a bit about himself and a lot about the world of work. Reading that summary I wonder what would happen in the real world of career advice if an adviser pitched this as an idea? She would probably be seeking a new job tout suite. But Pink has cracked it. When I was a teenager I didn't want to listen to some bore drone on about careers. However, I would have read a comic book about careers and I think the ideas in Daniel Pink's book would have burrowed their way into my mind and forced me to ask questions about life and jobs and all that jazz. Most importantly these questions would have stuck with me.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is built around six pieces of advice:

1. There is no plan

2. Think about strengths, not weaknesses

3. It's not about you

4. Persistence trumps talent

5. Make excellent mistakes

6. Leave an imprint

Those of you who are familiar with the whole personal development/business/building your career genre will immediately recognize that Pink's advice is not plucked airy fairy out of a cartoon sky. It's actually built upon a wagon load of serious research and analysis of how people think, learn and work. For example number 2 on thinking about strengths, not weaknesses. This is the twitter * version of Marcus Buckingham's bestselling Now Discover your Strengths.

Career advice? Moi?

Some of you are well established in your career and hope and pray it lasts for 30 years. Some of you are still thinking, looking and searching and trying to balance the upsides with the downsides. Don't be afraid to take advice from a fictional cartoon character. Finally, perhaps some day, somewhere, a teenager will ask you for some advice about their career. As this post attests I'm not exactly qualified to give career advice, but for what's its worth: I suggest you grab a copy of The Adventures of Johnny Bunko and give advice that grows good questions and good people (point 6) who can negotiate the world of multiple jobs and plural careers.

*Twitter - micro blog service, limits you to 140 character communication, encourages brevity.

This is the first time I've come across a book with a movie-trailer as promotion. Here it is:

Aging Guitar player pushed over by Toronto Teen

The BBC is carrying an edited clip of Noel Gallagher being pushed over ('assaulted'?) by a fan at a gig in Toronto.

Thank goodness for phones with video or else we would have missed this gem!

Full video from youtube:

The Wire and the Guardian

I've been buying The Guardian on Saturdays for years. I don't always share the Guardian view of the world, but it's typically got great arts coverage, interesting features and generally makes for a decent read. Perhaps it's just the summer, but recently it's been really disappointing. Poor content, predictable editorials and just a bit light. Worse still, the legend that is Jon Ronson no longer writes about the hilarious escapdes of his life in the saturday mag! It got so bad I was contemplating switching my saturday paper, one of those minor decisions that raises deep existential questions: if I don't read the Guardian on a saturday will saturday change forever. Will I still be me?

Anyway, someone at the Gurdian loves The Wire and one article in saturday's magazine pulled me back from a post-Guardian brink.

David Simon is the creator of The Wire - one of the best TV shows made in recent years. In terms of pure quality of writing The Wire, like the West Wing, makes other TV seem shallow and somehow lesser. Simon's article in today's Guardian weekend magazine reminded me why the Wire is so good. Reflecting on crime and justice in Baltimore, Simon digs deep and is unrelenting in asking the Why? question. While the answers are both depressing and disturbing he's determined not to shink from the reality of life in a city he clearly loves. Reflecting on the strangeness of using a TV show to explore serious issues of policy, politics, crime and justice Simon notes:

Yet there is also something appalling in the suggestion that a television drama - a presumed entertainment - might be a focal point for a discussion of what has gone wrong in urban America, for why we have become a society that no longer even recognises the depth of our problems, much less works to solve any of them.

But where else is the why even being argued any more? Not in the stunted political discourse of an American election cycle, not in an eviscerated, self-absorbed press, not in any construct to which the empowered America, the comfortable and comforted America, gives its limited attention.

Fans of the Wire in the UK will be glad to hear that Simon's book Homicide was publsihed by Cannongate last week. A massive 600+ pages of Simon's writing - I can't wait to get my hands on it.


The flags of a Belfast summer still decorate the streets around our house. The constant rain means that most of them are looking washed out, bedraggled and less than patriotic. This morning a package arrived from my father-in-law in Canada which included this wonderful Canada/Saskatchewan flag set; with a stand! So we decided to lend some Canadian colour to a gray Belfast morning.

(Thanks Chris.)

most played on itunes

Inspired by Santosh over at Dreamsunlocked to find out my most played on itunes. Here's the top ten.

I knew I liked In Rainbows, just didn't realise how much.

recently observed (5)

...a real live bearded lady in a Belfast restaurant - yep, this is not a joke.

...rolled pork tongue, half price in Tesco - who eats this?

...french hip hop makes a great early morning run soundtrack.

...they are a bunch of middle-aged thrashers, but for some reason Metallica bring out the best in documentary makers and music journalists.

...a shockingly large number of British political journalists know next to nothing about American politics and even less about America, but this doesn't stop them.

...I was taught about the difference between a hockey mom and soccer mom today. My wife is smart.

...gingers are cool and I'm a fan!

When blogging takes over...

Brian Houston Oranges

Great video for Brian Houston's song Oranges

The new album, Three Feet from Gold, available for pre-order now.

Hat tip - Alan in Belfast

If you live in Ireland...

Josh Ritter is to play Dublin's Vicar Street on 11th December - along with a 24 piece orchestra!

Tickets available Monday 8th Sept

rain stops play

Birdie Steps

The weather recently has not been great for taking photos - but I managed to shoot a few on Saturday in between showers.

In need of repair
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The Monday Review: Firewall

A couple of years ago the mighty Starbucks ran a marketing campaign called "Geography is a flavour." The idea being that your earthy Sumatra is markedly different from the bright notes of an Ethiopian Sidamo. Coffee is not just Coffee. My dedication to crime fiction is not quite as deep as my passion for coffee, but I've discovered that "geography is a flavour" also works with crime fiction. So if you'll forgive the stereotypes: The standard American offering is a bit like a bowl of chili from a street vendor, sharp, spicy and flavoured by the mean streets. Whereas the British equivalent is substantive but much more restrained and the flavours understated, we're talking a Sunday roast. Not bland, but if your taste buds have been accustomed to the spice and speed of the American chili you will find the average Brit crime fiction a bit plodding.

But what about the Scandinavians - specifically the Swedes. What flavours does, Henning Mankell, the master of Scandinavian crime fiction serve up?

Crimes: new and old

Mankell's central creation is Inspector Kurt Wallander and Firewall is the eighth in the Wallander series. Wallander exudes ordinariness and there is little flamboyance or flashes of colour in his personality. However, this is not a criticism. In Firewall, Wallander wrestles with a complex crime that has global implications. A classic loner, divorced and with no close relationships, Firewall sees Wallander further cut off from colleagues and friends as he tries to understand the link between three seemingly random and separate crimes. The brutal murder of a taxi driver by two teenage girls, the sudden death of a man who has just used a cash machine and a power failure that affects all of Ystad. The investigation leads to crimes beyond Wallander's understanding of the world, both in terms of violence and the new era of cyber-crime. While the pace of Mankell's work is occasionally slow and steady there are many moments of tension played out, as always, in Mankell's carefully understated style.

Fog and Firewalls

There's a moment towards the end of the book when Wallander is chasing a man in heavy fog and this is as good an image as any for the way this book explores Wallander's personal and working life. Suspicious of colleagues and adrift from all the substantive relationships in his life, Wallander is fire-walled in both his policing and his private life. While firewalls and fog might have the potential to be a bit blunt as metaphors this doesn't happen. Mankell's exacting and precise prose add depth and texture to descriptions of inner struggles, police politics and crime.

Technology and Vulnerability

In Firewall Henning Mankell has written an insightful exploration of the vulnerability of modern society. It's not hysterical or conspiratorial in a Dan Brown fashion, but by writing in his careful, matter of fact style, Mankell conveys the complexity of computer crime and the way we take modern technology, whether it's an ATM or electricity, for granted never really seeing the potential for chaos that is hardwired into the modern world.

As usual Mankell offers an insightful exploration of violence and it's consequences. I also liked the way Firewall delves into the ambiguity of crime and justice. Central to the story is the character of Robert Modin a convicted hacker who is one of the few people capable of penetrating the firewall and decoding the intentions of a shadowy group of virtual criminals. It is only his earlier crimes that qualify Modin to help in this case.

I've never sampled Swedish food, but in Firewall Mankell serves up a substantive, yet well paced novel that manages to explore important aspects of modern life while also telling a good story. But the high point is always the character of Kurt Wallander, flawed and complex, Mankell's depiction of his inner life is both entertaining and illuminating.

(Fans of Mankell will be delighted to hear that the BBC are currently filming three of his novels with Kenneth Branagh in the role of Inpector Kurt Wallander. Three of the Wallander stories have been commissioned for single 90-minute episodes – One Step Behind, Firewall and Sidetracked.)