Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Siri Hustvedt, Patti Smith and 1930s history.

The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt

Rachel Cooke in the Observer celebrates how Siri Hustvedt's account of her "medical mystery" -- sudden convulsions and emotional hypersensitivity -- eschews the "fetid claustrophobia of the misery memoir". Hustvedt remains coolly intellectual in her approach to an illness whose symptoms have been treated with scepticism: "She is, by trade, a storyteller but she knows that narratives, of the kind that Freud so seductively conjured, can mislead. She is open to science but experience tells her some things cannot, yet, be explained by reference only to neurotransmitters and hemispheres."

In the Guardian, Hilary Mantel finds an insight into the craft of writing: "In part this book is an articulation of her inner process as a writer. When a writer is asked, how do you write, the temptation is to ask a question back: what order of explanation do you require? Mechanical? Mystical?"

Melanie McGrath in the Telegraph agrees that the book raises more questions than it answers: "Is the shaking epilepsy? Some neurological bedfellow to her migraines and earlier childhood febrile convulsions?" But McGrath is not wholly impressed: Hustvedt's "tales of medical appointments, lecture tours and vignettes from the past come over, on the one hand, as oddly detached and on the other as mildly irritating".

 

The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner

"Though Gardiner is too good a historian to draw glib parallels with the present," writes Dominic Sandbrook in the Telegraph, "one of the achievements of this hugely impressive book is to remind us that behind the clichés about dole queues and hunger marches, the Thirties was the decade of the car, cinema and the suburban semi, an age of self-conscious modernity that laid the foundations for postwar affluence."

Sandbrook has reservations about the book's length: "at nearly 1,000 pages, it is very long. Some readers may find the feast rather too gargantuan, especially as she downplays the kind of political narrative that might keep them turning the pages". But he claims that it is "a quite outstanding work of social history".

For Richard Davenport-Hines in the Sunday Times, Gardiner "has mastered a vast number of written sources, and the resulting synthesis is also a work of graceful, eloquent historical imagination". He admires the book's anecdotal intimacy: "The cinematic clarity of Gardiner's descriptions of accidents and ceremonies tells more about the decade than a page of statistics."

Lara Feigel in the Observer, having deemed it "a book too big to read in bed", determines that "this is history as told through a carefully woven web of stories, relayed by a consummate storyteller. Through these small, juxtaposed tales, a wider economic and political history comes into view."

 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The long-awaited memoir of Patti Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is, for Camilla Long of the Sunday Times, the perfect showcase for Smith's writing, which is "delicate, Gothic, laced with careful poetic references and metaphors . . . At times she is funny . . . At other times, the joke's probably on her."

She sees the book as a way for Smith to honour the luminaries of the day, particularly those who died prematurely: "her deeper theme of young lives needlessly lost, slowly developed through the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Joplin, is ultimately the most powerful". In the Telegraph, Michael Arditti proclaims it to be a "heartfelt, illuminating book".

"Just Kids" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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