Everyone’s a Critic

Reviews of Things

I read a smart book for Smart People and thought it was pretty stupid

han-kang_the-vegetarianHave you ever read a book? A proper book? Like, sat down somewhere and started reading words on a page that is an even longer read than those Long Reads you read on different news and culture websites where, once you finish them, leave you in desperate need of a wee and a bit of Cat Stevens? ‘Cause I’ve read a book. It won the Man Booker Prize and all that guff. But as I found out myself, that doesn’t mean it’s worth a long read.

The Vegetarian, a novel by the Korean author Han Kang, has been lauded for its Goodness by the Reviewers, so that means it must be good, because the Reviewers are always pretty much right, because they’ve been quite mean about books in the past. Like, there was that book Katie Price wrote and they weren’t very nice about that, were they, even though Katie Price didn’t even write it, she just shouted at a mouse-haired SOAS grad for six weeks about a story she made up while she was having a couples’ bikini wax with Peter Andre. Anyway, if you’re quite harsh sometimes about movies and books and what’s on the TV, then when you do like something it must be Very Good.

I’d meant to read The Vegetarian for a while, actually, but I was busy reading decent books. I wanted to read it because I thought – right, I’ve read enough books by now that I might be able to read a dead smart book and actually get it, like I didn’t get The Grapes of Wrath (like many readers, I assume, I was expecting much more grapes or grape-related plot, so it was a disappointment from the off). I got it from a bookshop, too, so paid a ridiculous amount more than I would have paid good old tax-skirting Amazon. Therefore expected Greatness, or at least Goodness.

The premise of The Vegetarian centres on a woman who, after a strange and harrowing dream, becomes a vegetarian. This provides the catalyst for most of the book, a tale of visceral and devastating consequences of giving up meat that are at times, deeply unsettling to read and process. Told in three acts, it soon transpires that the protagonist’s concerns are less about butternut squash and more about self-annihilation. The writer takes imagery of nature and art and juxtaposes that with scenes of graphic violence and abuse.

Yet these scenes of violence are told in such a perfunctory, emotionless, matter-of-fact way that there is no literary entry to the empathy we should feel for the protagonist. The story is told from the point of view of three characters: the protagonist’s husband, her brother-in-law and finally, her sister narrates the coda. It’s true that the first-person narrative is not necessary for an empathetic response, but the first two narrations are so devoid of sympathy or regard for the protagonist that by the time the character of In-hye describes her sister’s plight, the story has advanced such that it is too late to get involved in it. The last chapter is somewhat rushed and is itself somewhat unsympathetic that one wonders the point of the novel altogether.

The novel has been translated from Korean. Around the time it was published, there was some controversy surrounding the translation, which some critics arguing that the language was stilted and “frequently in trouble with register and idiom”. The academic Charse Yun reported in Korean Expose that “10.9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated” and “5.7% of the original text was omitted.” The translator in question, Deborah Smith, admitted herself that “there can be no such thing as a translation that is not ‘creative’”. Indeed, the criticisms stretch to the argument that these “mistranslations” on behalf of non-native speakers take away Korean writers’ rightful place on the roster of accomplished authors along with the McEwans and Smiths and Rushdies and Prices.

But I don’t know Korean, so I can’t really make a criticism on whether the translation is to blame for its lack of empathy. What I can do is question the value of a novella about a woman’s relationship with her body sans any perspective from the woman herself. I enjoy the second-person narrative as a device, but for a plot that is so deeply personal to the individual, it seems imperative to get inside their mind.

The Vegetarian has been lauded primarily for its language and style, with SuperSmart Smarties’ newspaper The Guardian calling it “sensual, provocative and violent” and sees the sexually manipulative scenes in the second act as “seductive”. The Independent describes the disturbia of the second act as “an exciting and imaginative journey into obsession, lust, art and dreams.” While its true that the scenes are imaginative, it doesn’t make them any less disturbing and uncomfortable to read. What is lacking in the reviews is acknowledgement of the sexually possessive and even abusive nature of the scenes. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law takes advantage of her vulnerability in pursuit of his own artistic and sexual fantasies, yet this has been seen as a triumph of the evocative.

I just didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy it while I was reading it and I didn’t enjoy it when I finally finished the book and was free from the stark, emotionless and cold style that Kang felt was appropriate. I wanted to like it – I always want to like a book I’m reading. But it is hard to like a book that seems so shamelessly manipulative of its characters and its readers, to the point where you get the sense that the author would rather evoke shock than sympathy.

Maybe one day I’ll “get” the reasons behind plaudits of these novels that seem to escape me. Maybe the brilliance of David Lynch will one day descend on my cerebral cortex like a blue velvet sheet. Maybe I’ll have a beard to stroke one day. But for now, I feel no shame in describing a Smart Book for what it is: pretty damn stupid.


Belfast has a Business Problem


Being a bi-coastal student has many pros and cons – getting a break from parental guidance, homesickness, money issues, malnutrition – but one thing that remains a constant is comparison between the two places. Having a perspective of living in two places at different times of the year, I’ve noticed a lot of differences between Edinburgh and Belfast other than the obvious (weather and the accent). .Most significantly, their business approaches.

Edinburgh is a plethora of culture – widely known as one of the most diverse cities in the UK, it is home to the annual Fringe Festival, one of the biggest arts festivals in the world. Furthermore, with its long stretch of gardens and pathways along the main street, it takes full advantage of its onslaught of tourism during the holidays. A massive German Christmas market in November and December and the Meadows Festival in one of the most beautiful stretches of park in the city. Every time I go into a cafe, I am greeted with a pleasant demeanour and an enthusiastic disposition. In a way that mirrors a rather American attitude to customer service, Scottish waiting staff treat you with good humour and are always friendly and welcoming. They actually remain open until their actual closing time.

It’s unfortunate that I can’t say the same for Belfast. Speaking as a young person, I have immeasurable disdain for the young whippersnappers working in Subway who ask me in a reefer-induced haze whether I would like jalapenos on my sub. They can’t see me, the don’t care. I don’t care if they don’t care, but at least pretend.

Recently, I was having coffee with a friend in a new independent coffee shop in the city centre. We ordered and paid at the till, as per their system, and took our place at the window. A while later, my friend got her pot of tea. I was waiting rather a long time for my coffee, and when it came it looked like your standard instant joe – nothing like the creamy artisanal Americanos you would find in an independent Edinburgh coffee shop. We were wondering where the plate of mini biscuits that we ordered were, when I spotted them up at the till, not too far from a bored-looking barista standing reading a magazine. I rolled my eyes and went up to take the plate away, the barista mumbling “Oh, sorry” in the monotonal twentysomething drawl I’ve come to loathe.

It’s a trend that I notice in Belfast a lot more when I come home from Edinburgh during winter and summer. There just doesn’t seem to be the same ambition, drive and passion for industry here. No wonder there are so few independently-owned shops – there is generally very little business savvy and very few employees passionate about customer service. It becomes unpleasant to give these people money for mediocre service, and depressing to be served with such indifference. Sure, they might be having a bad day, but it’s hardly my fault. Also, aren’t they getting paid to be sort-of polite? You would think.

Anyway, I realise I might be coming off as an old man yelling at a cloud, but it makes me sad to see so much wasted potential in my beautiful city, which could be so much more if it just tried, It has so much to offer, and so much more could be done to better the economy and the infrastructure. It just needs a good kick up the arse..

Fresh Funky Beats: Hudson Taylor


An acoustic folk duo from Dublin, their sound is like Mumford and Sons except it doesn’t smell of aftershave and Marks and Spencer’s cheese. These exciting up-and-comers have recently released their debut single “Weapons” and it ain’t too shabby. Give it a listen and let me know your thoughts in the comments…

Julia Louis-Dreyfus owns the screen on political satire Veep


American versions of UK TV shows rarely go well (think The Inbetweeners US, Skins US, The IT Crowd US et al) but there are beautiful moments when the Yanks get it right. Such is the case with political satire Veep, the American cousin of BBC’s legendary portrait of UK politics The Thick of It. Americans being Americans, one would be forgiven for thinking they wouldn’t really “get” the astounding comedic value of creative swearing, but thankfully, with Armando Iannucci (creator of The Thick of It) at the helm, the politicians have lost none of their bite.

Veep centers around Selina Meyers, Vice President of the United States of America with a Sidekick complex and a blazing tongue. Together with her associates, including a hopelessly loyal assistant, a growling dog of a chief of staff and a dingbat of a director of communications, the entire show is superbly administered. The performances of Louis-Dreyfus are dynamite, worthy of those two Emmys. Each line is delivered to scathing perfection, her ruthless desperation for power so hilariously obvious, her revulsion for her colleagues and opponents so incredibly curated by the actress that it is incredibly difficult to fault any aspect of the performance.

The writing is also genius; in one exchange with her deputy director of communications, who explains he has used an incompetent employee for intelligence, she spits out “That’s like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo. It doesn’t do the job, and it makes a fucking mess.”

With the imminent arrival of Season 3, I recommend catching up on the two seasons before getting hooked. With only around nine episodes per season, each one will have you in stitches – and I do not throw that phrase around.

If I still haven’t convinced you, here’s a taste of what you’re missing.

Why the Oscars don’t mean a thang


Academy Awards nominations have been announced and everybody cares, for some reason. It’s all “It’s a disgrace that…” and “Why the hell did she/he get nominated?” Everybody’s up in arms about Jennifer Lawrence getting nominated again as the backlash begins – another year, another actress being thrown out of The Best Likeable Actress category for existing all the time (remember the Dissolution of Anne Hathaway last year? She was a good actress, but she was too grateful for her Oscar apparently, the silly over-excited pair of earlobes). Meanwhile in the Best Actor category, Matthew McConaughey has risen from the cheesy rose petal-strewn ashes of How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days and The Wedding Planner with The Dallas Buyers Club, a movie which, from what I can glean from the trailer, is inspired by a true story about AIDS. Only it’s totally funny. And Jared Leto dresses up as a woman. A funny AIDS movie with Jared Leto doing what he always does on Saturday nights anyway. Academy Awards gold.

Then there’s Leonardo DiCaprio. Poor Leo. He’s like the kid in your class who gets really good marks and sits behind in the library after school to revise and answers all the questions in class – but the teacher always forgets his name. Yet 2013 was a pretty banner year for him, as he teamed up once again with the maestro of entertaining (read: bloody and mafia and sex) films, Martin Scorsese. It’s no great wonder that Wolf of Wall Street is up for an Oscar, because it’s got a lot of swearing in it so that means it’s serious and stuff (I haven’t seen the movie, to be fair, I’m just wisecrackin’). Personally, I thought he should have been nominated way back in 2006 for Catch Me If You Can, a fantastic con-man flick that remains one of my favourite films to date, or even way back in 1993 for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? – a groundbreaking performance at the tender age of eighteen. Though he’s considered one of the best actors of his generation by many, year after year the Oscar gods fail to smile upon him. Could this be his year? Maybe. Who cares? He’s a great actor and the fact he doesn’t have an Academy Award says more about the awards themselves than his acting skills.

So why is such importance placed on what a bunch of white men, most of whom are over the age of 60, think a good film is? Surely judging a film is such a subjective thing that an award for it would seem a rather unspectacular accolade? Good for you, some people liked your movie. I hated Gladiator. i thought it was so, so dumb – but it won an Oscar. Does that mean I simply cannot appreciate fine cinematic art? No. Does it mean that the Oscars are wrong? Well, to me it does. But that’s the sheer beauty of opinion! It’s what divides us and it’s also what brings us together like a weirdly close-knit family.

After recently seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, it only solidified for me what I knew to be true: the Oscars aren’t called the Underdog Awards for a good reason. They don’t gun for the underdog. They gun for the blockbusters, the showstoppers and the overly trite. Sure, there were a couple of times where they went against the grain (Slumdog Millionaire was one of those magical moments of true triumph against the odds). But a low-budget underdog movie about an underdog? With folk music and depression? Even the casting of a furry friend doesn’t seal the Oscar deal anymore (looking at you and your overrated Weinstein production, The Artist). But when a movie strokes deep inside your soul in the first five minutes, you don’t need a golden statue to tell you it’s a great movie. You just know (*cue schmatlzy music score with shots of longing looks outside bus windows*)

So try not to get too pissed off if Jennifer Lawrence wins again, or if you lose a bet you made to someone that she’d trip again, because this is Hollywood, baby, and everything’s a game. Those who don’t play get locked out in the cold. Nothing’s real except the bank notes and the diamonds, and god bless you if you’re Hilary Swank and everyone’s forgotten about you and that Million Dollar Baby. That’s the Chicago way. Badda-bing, badda-bye.

P.S. If you still think the Oscars are hot shit, chew on this. A classmate reminded me today that Mark Wahlberg has an Oscar. Mark Wahlberg has an Oscar. Marky Mark can call himself an Academy Award winner. This guy.

Music Review: Mechanical Bull by Kings of Leon

Being a big fan of these Tennessee natives, I have had to put aside any bias to conduct as professional a review as I can.* Bear in mind I usually detest music reviews in general, for the way most of them write as if their opinion is fact, instead of opinion (I don’t need the tightly-wound dirty teenagers at NME telling me what’s cool to listen to) – so I urge you to regard this article as exactly what it is: an opinion.

kolThe follow-up to critically lauded Redneck-rock offering “Come Around Sundown” in 2010, “Mechanical Bull” is somewhat a departure in terms of musical structure – gone is the  red hot sun, while the reliable down-South rock n’ roll sound the band are known for is sustained.

“Supersoaker” is an electrifying opener, perhaps the most “mainstream” tune of the entire album, so it’s not surprising that it was chosen as the lead single. A good beat, reliably country-boy lyrics (“Down in the delta, I’m ringin’ bells”) with a jubilant tone. Are the lyrics patriotic? “I’m a supersoaker, red, white and blue on the way” does suggest an Americana declaration, but Followill’s lyrics are notorious for being taken far too seriously (calling to mind “Sex on Fire”, which many misinterpreted as having a deeper, metaphorical meaning when in fact Followill has since said it was written as a joke). Nonetheless, a strong opener.

But for me, “Rock City” is really where it kicks off. Put your Aviators on, climb into the open-top Mustang and set off on the dusty road to Memphis, because there’s no other way to listen to this tune. Soaring guitar riffs and classic rock lyrics are the epicentre of this song, a freestyling, spine-tingling anthem to beat the dashboard to. “I was runnin’ through the desert, I was lookin for drugs/I was searchin’ for a woman who was willing to love” calls to mind the best work of Jackson Browne’s pen, and showcases the band in all their Southern glory. Cameron Followill’s stratospheric slide guitar storms the track, and I challenge you to listen to this one without playing the drums on whatever surface is closest.

“Put your Aviators on, climb into the open-top Mustang and set off for Memphis, because there’s no other way to listen to this tune.”

“Don’t Matter” is a somewhat darker track, a tone of passionate frustration. “It’s always the same/ And I’m always the same” rings several times through the song, but mostly to showcase the lead guitar, which thrashes out this track to match the tone of Caleb’s vocals and ascends into a screeching riff in the middle. Whether it’s due to familial relation or natural musical cohesion, the band knows how to jam together. There is no confusion of tone here; it’s pure seamless rock. that calls to mind the early days of the band when they were just a bunch of redneck kids bashing out great music.

“Beautiful War” lends itself a more languid, easy-rock vibe, with a scintillating rhythm that ascends into an anthemic chorus. There’s that raw desperation in Caleb’s vocals, and the repetitive riff at 3:30 is fantastically symbolic of the album’s namesake, the constant ride of the “mechanical bull”. The song reaches a soaring crescendo without any prissy X-Factor choirs or key changes, just strong backing vocals and lead guitar. Though the chorus is repetitive “love don’t mean nothin’, unless there’s somethin’ worth fighting for”, the Tennessee twang gives it an irresistible war-cry tone, as the song fades out with a defeated tone that “It’s a beautiful war.” “Wait for Me” is the other slow-rock song on the album, and again it carries the theme of a journey, an internal war. The lyrics are pleading “I tried all the way” “Wait for me, wait for me”. It might be pure conjecture to think that it refers to the recent internal battle of lead singer Caleb with controlling his dependence on alcohol, which caused something of a rift in the band early last year.

“Temple” is more upbeat, and combines the band’s loyalty to both rock n’ roll and church by comparing the love of a good woman to drinking the blood of Christ with “Take wine from the temple, I take wine for you”. Or at least that’s what I could glean. Maybe it’s not. Maybe these kids wrote the song because they knew that chumps like me would read way too much into it and now they’re having a good old chuckle at me typing away on my laptop while they enjoy a couple of Coronas on the sundeck. I dunno. Whatever, it’s such a tune.

“Family Tree” is the sense of humour in the record, and showcases the band’s remaining ability to write rock n’ roll, calling back to the days of “Aha Shake Heartbreak”-the band clearly haven’t lost any of their edge just because they gave up the drugs. “I am your family tree, I know your A to Z” pleads the family in question not to listen to the “make-believe”. But the climax is when the entire band joins in on the chorus at the same time, a catchy, thumping acapella. Hot damn.

“the band clearly haven’t lost any of their edge just because they gave up the drugs.”

“Comeback Story” is lighter fare, with more delicate riffs, a whistly tone, and a lighthearted chorus line “I walk a mile in your shoes, and now I’m a mile away and I’ve got your shoes.” The snare builds up to a majestic chorus but the song has no pretension – the song doesn’t drag, it just flows. “Tonight” professes “I don’t know why i keep acting this way”, a tonal shift to images of lonely nights, hand clasped around an Old Fashioned. The growling verses contrast with the emotion in the chorus and the song alludes to the spiritual roots of the band (“Tonight, I’m gonna leave my body”) and the song fades out with the guitar in tandem.

In “Coming Back Again”, the piercing electric guitar presides, not unlike Don Henley’s 80’s stuff without the cheesy over-synthesized riffs. It makes me think of driving fast through the city, bright lights and cool breezes. It’s a grand finale, if anything, and closes the metaphorical book on “Mechanical Bull”, a collection of songs which allude to a shift in direction for the band, without veering too far from the dusty trail. Needless to say, them Southern boys have done it again, but hey, don’t take my word for it.

*Aw, who am I kidding? I love these guys. I find it especially irresistible when they play up their Redneck roots, ’cause there’s nothing like good old Southern rock n’ roll. But that’s just me.