Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Geoff Dyer, Jodi Kantor and Roberto Bolaño

Zona by Geoff Dyer

In the Financial Times, Peter Aspden is initially sparing in his praise, noting that, although Dyer's celebration of Andrei Tarkovsky's fim Stalker is patient and straightforward, "it surely deserves more". Yet that expectation, too, is ultimately fulfilled, says Aspden: "[T]here is deft method in Dyer's fluent playfulness," he concedes, with "each scene in the film . . . scrupulously examined". Aspden is likewise taken with Dyer's intellectual integrity - he's an analyst who knows the limits of exegesis: "Describing a magical sequence . . . there is no interpretation offered, no larky digression". Dyer knows the difference between evaluative depth and metaphysical pretension, Aspden admiring him all the more for that intuition.

For Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the Telegraph Dyer's musings are so enchanting that they excite in him unrestrained nostalgia: "Dyer retraces the cinematography faithfully and beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that I found it difficult not to start falling again for Tarkovsky." Toronyi-Lalic is as charmed by Dyer the Polymath as by Dyer the Interpreter: "no other writer can flex and stretch in digressive prose more congenially than Dyer," he says, adding: "The frame-by-frame minute-taking, then, becomes a springboard for an investigation into everything from faith to knapsacks. An investigation that is honest, irreverent, cranky and frequently hysterical." Even Toronyi-Lalic's criticisms of Dyer are tacit, saluting his brilliant rambling rather than aimless pontification: "For he is just as good gibbering on about nothing as he is in full analytical mode". Whatever the aesthetic density of Dyer's subject, Toronyi-Lalic sees in his work an analysis accessible to the layman as well as the informed reader: "Watch the film before you read the book if you like. But it's not compulsory, which says something of Dyer's style."

The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor

Kate Figes in theTelegraph sees Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage, not as some charmed account of a Chicago couple's fulfilment of political ambition, but as a portrait of a husband-wife unit as challenged and tense as any other. "It was Michelle," writes Figes, "who worried most about him standing for the top job because of her cynicism about the true power of politics; and it was Michelle who considered not moving into the White House at all to protect their children." Moreover, popular idealising of the Obamas is likewise given short shrift in Kantor's portrayal, Figes notes: "As the recession hit, the First Couple made classic media mistakes, seemingly living the good life - think of the now infamous Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the White House - or using costly security to go home to Chicago or out on a date." Nor, though, says Figes, is Kantor sparing in the superlatives, especially about Mrs Obama: "Her idealism, exactitude, unwillingness to settle for less than what they wanted," she writes, "were qualities on which her husband depended, especially when things were going badly." In charting the lives of two figures about whom so much is hopefully presumed rather than reliably asserted, Figes is impressed with Kantor's research: " [She] talked to some two hundred aides . . . and gives us the fullest picture of this presidency yet."

For Alec MacGillis in New Statesman, it is precisely the shortcomings of Kantor's diagnosis that illuminate the oddities of power: "Her account is imperfect but valuable, for it captures how disorientating has been the transition of this remarkably normal and well-grounded Chicago family into the surreal realm of official Washington". MacGillis locates in Kantor's analysis the political nuances of the President's role and the sometimes rumbustious quality of the First Lady's life behind the North Portico: "[There are] accounts of strife between Michelle and long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and, on the other hand, aides such as the former spokesman Robert Gibbs and the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel." Nonetheless, MacGillis detects a certain contrivance in Kantor's emphasis on Michelle: "[Her] co-starring role, is occasionally strained."

In the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell notes that Kantor's gratitude to her editor at the New York Times for "a four-year conversation about ambition, power, gender and public life" itself constitutes the broader theme and agenda of her book: "The Obamas is not quite a domestic biography, and not quite a political one. It's what might be called a biography of domestic politics: it's about the balance of power in a marriage between two exceptional people; the politics of living in the White House; and the Obamas' efforts to shape US domestic policies." Churchwell finds irony in the White House's keenness to downplay the alleged "contentiousness" of Kantor's account, noting that it is "neither particularly controversial, nor particularly dramatic". Cue further praise for Kantor's "judicious and perceptive book," the conclusion of which, she says, far from leaving important business unfinished, is legitimately breathless: "like this presidency . . . unfinished. That's because it is: we are all awaiting the ending, and the suspense is killing.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

For Giles Harvey in theGuardian the fact of Bolaño's mortality is an ideal criterion for our appreciation of his work: "That the anglophone world should experience Bolaño's oeuvre as a posthumous phenomenon is entirely appropriate, for his books are all about the obscure spell cast by the dead over the living." Adulation aside, Harvey notes that "the bottom of a drawer ... would seem to be the ideal place" for this novel. It represents one of the author's first attempts at fiction and "clunks and sputters with all the awkwardness you would expect from an apprentice work." Ultimately, says Harvey, paucity of circumstance and wealth of rhetoric pays off: "From here on in - and we are still not yet halfway through - the book rations incident almost to the point of starvation. As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with - what we are forced to get by on - is atmosphere, pages and pages of the stuff". Nevertheless, "in its second half that the book starts to repay our attention. With passages that anticipate the dark, chaotic splendour of By Night in Chile, Udo's diary becomes a record of moral and psychological disintegration, swarming with toxic hallucinations and poignant non sequiturs."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana writes in the Financial Times that the curiosities of Bolaño's prose are matched by the odd timing of the novel's publication: "It is worth asking why Bolaño, who finished writing The Third Reich in 1989, did not make any efforts to publish it in his lifetime." That aside, Gurría-Quintana revels in Bolano's love of language: "[The book] is rich in startling images and [is] unapologetically literary."

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Everyone behaved like a total idiot in this week’s Game of Thrones

Jon Snow: the bravest idiot of them all.

This week marks the penultimate episode of the season of Game of Thrones – which usually means death, death and more death. Shock death, bloody death, mass death – you name it, a penultimate episode has brought it. And “Beyond The Wall” brought what is certainly the biggest death yet.

If the episode title didn’t give you a big enough clue as to where the vast majority of this week would be set, the first five seconds give you another hint: the camera pans upwards over Dany’s Dragstone map table to the part where the Wall visibly slices across Westeros, and we jump cut to the snow and ice of the far North, where our ragtag bunch o’ misfits (Jon, Jorah, Gendry, Tormund, The Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros, and a few others along for the ride) are striding out to capture and bring back a zombie to show to the already-zombie-owning Cersei Lannister. If this didn’t already sound like the worst plan in history, remember that we’ve pretty much exclusively seen the army of the dead in, well, a massive fucking army. You don’t often see one undead guy just wondering around on a jolly. Yep. These guys have a death wish.

In these early stages of their venture beyond the Wall, things are still pretty cheerful. Jon and Tormund have a chat which hammers home the message of how refusing to bend the knee is Actually A Bad Thing That Gets Ordinary Men Killed. The rest of the men remind us of their previous alliances and battles, only just avoiding the phrase “Previously, on Game of Thrones”: Gendry argues with the Band of Brothers (Brotherhood without Banners, whatever) over their attempt on his life back in season 3, and Jon and Jorah remind us of their relationships with each other’s families. In fact, the two engage in some classic male bonding through the ancient Game of Thrones practice of Talking About Their Dead Dads. Jon tries (and thankfully fails) to give Jorah his only Valerian steel sword, his one weapon against the dead, because, as mentioned earlier, he’s an absolute idiot.

In a truly joyful scene, Tormund flirts outrageously with The Hound until he bristles:

“You want to suck my dick? Is that it?”
“Dick?”
“Cock.”
“Ah, dick! I like it.”
“I bet you do.”

Then Tormund lists all the things he loves about Brienne of Tarth. Truly, we are too blessed. “How did a mad fucker like you live this long?” Clegane asks. I don’t know, but please say this mad fucker lives a little longer. Seven episodes longer, to be precise. Meanwhile Beric Dondarrion and Jon Snow also engage with some male bonding via the ancient practice of Talking About Their Dead Dads, and also death.

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Dany chat about how stupid (and horny) all the men in her life are.

Heartwarming scenes north of the Wall cannot last. The next hint we get that the plan might not be the best idea is when a fuck-off undead bear appears from the mist and attacks them all. Despite it being several against one, it is an enormous fuck-off undead bear, so it puts up a very good fight, severely maiming Thoros. The bear is only just defeated before Jon and Tormund glimpse a group of about ten undead men and one White Walker moving through the frozen river beneath them. Seems, weird, right, because of how they normally move in one enormous army? “Where’s the rest of them?” Jon asks. “If we wait long enough we’ll find out,” Tormund replies. Ah yes, blindly attack a few zombies and simply decide not to worry about the 10,000 semi-indestructable undead men that are probably hot on their heels. This seems like a great strategy.

Jon kills the White Walker with his sword (thank Jorah later, mate) and all but one of the undead crumble to the ground along with him. They tie up the last remaining one, their new prisoner and proof of the oncoming war. So far, so good. But wait. A distant rumble. The mist parts. Ah, there’s the unending army of the dead! Great work, lads! Gendry, the fastest idiot, leaves his hammer behind and escapes to alert the Wall and Danaerys of the others’ unfortunate fate. The rest all run for their lives, but tens of thousands of zombies soon catch up. They make it across some thin ice, which collapses into water behind them, to a small rock in the river. A small moat of unstable ice is all that separates them from a horrific number of undead men, who surround them on all sides in a perfect circle. This is fine. Everything is fine.

Hours pass as Gendry just about makes it to the Wall. The Hound, bored and scared and frustrated, kicks an undead and they all seem to feel it – add to the list of Things That Are Creepy About The Undead. Thoros freezes to death in the snow, because apparently the dicks with fire swords didn’t feel the need to keep him warm. “We’ll all freeze soon, and so will the water,” Jorah says – and suggests that they try and kill the White Walkers to kill the rest of the undead. Jon is all like Nooooo we need to keep one undead man semi-alive, wildly underestimating the extent of the danger they are in. Apparently he just can’t see the enormous army about to kill him?

More hours pass as word reaches Daenerys at Dragonstone (apparently Raven Speed has massively been upgraded in the past few weeks). Tyrion tries to persuade Dany not to hop on a dragon and fly beyond the Wall because she “can’t take the Iron throne” if she’s dead. She’s also not going to have a great time sitting on it if the entire world is overrun by an army of the dead, though, is she mate. This is absolutely terrible advice. “Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do,” he says, irritatingly.

Anyway. It’s very cold and boring over on Surrounded-By-A-Million-Zombies-Island, so Sandor Fucking Idiot Clegane decides he will play a fun game of “skipping stones on the newly-frozen over ice to alert the undead that we are sat here defenceless and they can walk over here and kill us any time they fancy”. As a result, the undead realise that our men are sat there defenceless and that they can walk over and kill them any time they fancy. They rush at them.

This kick-starts one of the scariest battles in Game of Thrones history as Jon and co try to fend off the thousands of zombies attacking them. To put it quite simply: they have absolutely no chance. They are attacked from all sides, lose several men, and even Tormund nearly dies. Meanwhile, Jon helpfully starts screaming “FALL BACK! FALL BACK!” Literally WHERE Jon?! You are encircled!! HOW can you possibly fall back?! WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?!

Just as the world goes slow motion and the sad Death Is Imminent music starts to play, Dany, Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal turn up to save the day, burning thousands of men in a few short breaths.

Sadly, the Night King loves theatrics and has come prepared with a very long and very pointy ice spear. He takes aim at Viserion and throws it. Viserion is stabbed through the side, collapsing to the ground, and starts to die. Dany watches in horror. As Jon is attacked by zombies and dragged underwater, Dany has no time to wait for her hot, stupid boyfriend, and escapes before Drogon or Rhaegal suffer the same fate.

Weak and alone. Jon emerges from the water, and is immediately charged at by more soldiers. Improbably, he is suddenly saved by Uncle Benjen on horseback, who apparently lives beyond the Wall exclusively to save Starks who have bitten off way more than they can chew. In a Titanic moment, Benjen pretends there is no time or space for him to get on the horse with Jon and stays behind to die, again. Benjen’s horse, seemingly a very gifted horse, carries an unconscious Jon back to the Wall.

Dany walks in on a semi-naked Jon Snow, peeks at his gnarly scars and gets super-aroused. While Jon is naked and draped in rich blankets and Dany is all powerful yet emotionally vulnerable, the two look at each other tearfully and sexily and hold hands. KISS. KISS. KISS. Jon calls her Dany in a bizarre moment of fan-baiting (Dany even says “Who last called me that?” in a line taken from Game of Thrones pub quizzes the world over) before Jon metaphorically bends the knee. Gotta love to see monumental political decisions made out of sheer horniness. There is some sexy, prolonged hand-holding – the risqué shit Game of Thrones is known for. “You should get some rest,” Dany says, and Jon immediately shuts his eyes and pretends to sleep because he’s five years old.

The undead have magically produced four massive iron chains each about a mile in length and are dragging Viserion out of the water. He opens his eye. It’s blue. Dany’s white dragon has become a White dragon.

Phew. If you have any emotional energy for any other characters, then unfortunately Arya and Sansa’s bizarre, wooden feud continues this week. First, the two sisters seem to engage in some classic bonding through the ancient Game of Thrones practice of Talking About Their Dead Dad – before Arya turns on Sansa thanks to last week’s letter of betrayal. Littlefinger continues to be an unnecessary little bitch by widening the gulf between them, and advising Sansa to ask Brienne of Tarth to protect her from Arya. The whole thing culminates in a bizarre scene where Sansa finds Arya’s bag of faces and Arya threatens to take her face, too. For a second, I believe that Arya might kill her with Littlefinger’s old dagger, until she hands it to her, handle-first. Will they take Littlefinger’s face together and stop this ridiculous, out-of-character cold war? God, I hope so. Let this storyline rest forever.

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • The Hound to Gendry: “Your lips are moving and you're complaining about something. That’s whingeing.” +7
  • Tormund to the Hound: “Gingers are beautiful. We are kissed by fire!” +16
  • Tormund to the Hound: “I don’t think you’re truly mean. You have sad eyes.” +12
  • Tormund to the Hound: “Ah, dick. I like it.” +31
  • The Hound rescuing Tormund from certain death. +19
  • Tormund's deluded yet emotionally vulnerable speech about Brienne of Tarth. “I want to make babies with her. Think of them – great big monsters. They’d conquer the world!” + 26
  • Beric Dondarrion casually calling The Iron Throne “some throne made of swords” like it’s utterly beneath him. +16
  • Gendry besting his reputation as a badass long distance rower to become a furious long distance cross country runner. +21
  • Dany taking the time to make sure she’s wearing Beyond The Wall Chic with a Cruella Deville-esque snow white fur robe before she heads out to save the almost-certainly dying men. +19
  • Dany calling Jon “too little” for her. Smooth cover, Dany! We totally believe you don’t fancy him now! +7
  • Jon suddenly and very transparently deciding to bend the knee now he’s in alone in a bedroom with Daenerys! +18
  • Jon holding tight on to Dany’s hand. Bold move. +12


That means this week’s bad bitch is, of course, the man, the myth, the ICON: Tormund. Romantic, flirty, Good At Killing People, and also pretty dumb, Tormund is the fire-kissed angel of my life. May he continue to endeavour to deserve Brienne.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.