The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Although its subject matter makes it heavy going, there's no doubt that every fan of literature should read this. Flanagan's novel won the 2014 Booker Prize, and most of it is truly excellent.
The core of the book is set in the Siamese jungle in 1943, and describes in remorseless, horrendous detail the forced labour of Australian prisoners of war during the construction of the Death Railway. Flanagan does about as good a job as anyone could of conveying the relentless misery and suffering inflicted on a few of the hundreds of thousands of victims (mostly Australian, British and Dutch prisoners, along with many more local civilians).
Film Review: Carlito's Way
This is a magnificent (and somewhat underrated) film, directed by Brian De Palma. More nuanced than Scarface and The Untouchables, it's also better acted. All the main cast are fantastic: Pacino, seemingly relishing his role, is much better here than he was in his previous film Scent of a Woman; Penelope Ann Miller as disenchanted old flame Gail; Luis Guzman and John Leguizamo as colourful gangsters; and not least Sean Penn, who does a stunning job as the utterly unscrupulous, sleazy, flash underworld lawyer Kleinfeld. Set in the '70s, the period is believably depicted via clothing, vehicles and hairstyles. Pacino's character is Carlito Brigante, a gang member in Spanish Harlem who was sent down for life five years previously for murder and drug running.
In the opening sequence, we see Brigante executing a rambling monologue to a resolutely unimpressed judge, about how he's a changed, and vindicated, man. Warming to his theme, he gives an increasingly overblown speech about his childhood, life chances, and how he's now “rehabilitated, reinvigorated and re-assimilated”. He thanks the chief investigator for supplying tainted evidence, the appeals court for reversing the judge's sentence, and the Almighty for allowing all this to come to pass. Brigante's smirking lawyer, Kleinfeld, has got him freed on a technicality, and along with the judge and everyone else in the courtroom, believes that Carlito's diatribe is merely so much bluster.
Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace
Beginning 400 years ago and continuing until the advent of the First World War, a series of Enclosure Acts moved under private control British land that was previously available for common use. The laws were so named because they involved enclosing open fields with fences, giving legal ownership to a single deed holder.
An inevitable consequence, and catalyst, of industrialization, enclosure allowed for more efficient land usage at the price of massive upheaval. Land formerly cultivated by peasants in an ad-hoc manner could now be farmed systematically, increasing returns. For instance, arable land that was collectively farmed by subsistence peasants using traditional methods and crop rotation was often transformed into pasture land for sheep farming, which was much less labour-intensive and also eliminated the need to leave fields fallow.
Once gaining exclusive control, the new owners were not shy about increasing the rent they charged to those working the land. In many cases, this led to a mass exodus of peasants from the countryside to the industrializing towns and cities; a process that created the working class. Entire villages often disappeared in this way. Riots, rebellions and revolts protesting these changes were commonplace, as were grain shortages and pervasive unemployment.
This is the background to Jim Crace's finely-written, absorbing and memorable novel. Set in a remote village that has minimal contact with the outside world, where very little has changed over many decades. The village is not identified, and no specific time period for the story is indicated, although presumably it is sometime in the seventeenth century. The village has effectively been left to run itself, and for a long time this works well enough, until finally it doesn't.