Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lost In My Own Backyard

Tim Cahill is one of my favourite authors - a rare example of a travel / adventure writer who doesn't take himself (or his subjects) too seriously.

In "Lost In My Own Backyard", Tim writes about one of his favourite places to hike - Yellowstone National Park.

I live fifty miles from the park, but proximity does not guarantee competence. I’ve spent entire afternoons not knowing exactly where I was, which is to say, I was lost in my own backyard - Tim Cahill

Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world, but attracts more visitors than any other park in the US. Tim points out that over 99.9% of them never venture beyond paved roads and fenced viewpoints.

This prompted him to try to describe the park's less visited areas, such as Mount Washburn marveling at fumaroles, mudpots, and other geothermal oddities, the vast petrified forests described by early explorers and the weird "rock hoodoos" in the "Goblin Labyrinth".

The book is divided into three parts:

* "The Trails" looks at a variety of day hikes
* "In the Backcountry" explores three backcountry trails that veer far from the beaten track
* "A Selected Yellowstone Bookshelf” is an annotated bibliography of Tim's favourite books about the park

The book is a slim one, and Tim keeps up his usual banter throughout, throwing in as many odd stories and pieces of history as he can to help describe the park,

The Night Watch

The Night Watch is a book by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko, the first in a 4 part series that are also being turned into a sequence of movies.

The book tells the story of "The Others" - two groups of more-than-human beings with magical powers that are divided into the Light and the Dark. The Others descend from the humans (shamans, soothsayers, and wisemen) from past ages who figured out how to step into the Twilight - a magical realm beneath the surface of all things.

The Night Watch is an organization responsible for policing the actions of the Dark Others, while their opposing numbers in "The Day Watch" in turn police the actions of the Light Others. Each group is bound by a centuries old treaty that aims to maintain a balance of power between the 2 forces.

The protagonist of the story is Anton Gorodetsky, a junior member of the Night Watch recently assigned to field work, initially to track and capture an unlicenced vampire operating within Moscow. The story follows Anton's growth as he participates in a series of clashes between the Light and the Dark, with the final chapters taking a somewhat political turn - with the Light plotting to create a global utopia in which the Dark has no place (something they have tried twice to achieve and failed in the previous century, first via communism and later via fascism). The Dark meanwhile, has "freedom" as its mantra which it uses to attract emerging Others.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Man On Wire

I watched this French documentary on a flight to Perth recently and found it to be quite riveting.

The movie is based on French funambulist Philippe Petit's book, "To Reach the Clouds", and tells the story of a group of people involved in Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Centre and the preparations needed in order to successfully perform this unauthorised daredevil act.

Petit began his career as a street artist who evolved into a tight-rope walker. He started with the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, moved on to a performance above the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and then eventually achieved his dream of "walking" (and more) between the World Trade Centre Towers.

Some of the most impressive footage is of Petit practicing his act in a field in the countryside, with his friends doing their best to dislodge him from a jury-rigged rope set up and Petit managing to stay aboard no matter what they did.

In some ways the story is a tragedy, given the comedown suffered by all the participants once they had achieved their goal - I found it quite moving, and highly recommend seeing it if you get a chance.

Judging by the ratings at Rotten Tomatoes I'm not alone in being impressed by the film, with all 136 critics who reviewed the film giving it a thumbs up.

Petit is still an active wire walker today, and has long held an ambition to walk across the grand canyon - however getting the financial backing to do this has been one challenge he hasn't been able to successfully overcome.

Wikipedia has a good description of the walk between the towers itself:

Petit was first inspired while he sat in his dentist's office in Paris in 1968. He came upon an article on the as-yet unbuilt towers, along with an illustration of the model. He then became obsessed with the towers, collecting articles on them whenever possible. Petit also traveled to New York on several occasions to make first-hand observations. Since the towers were still under construction, Philippe and an amateur photographer went up in a helicopter to do aerial photographs of the WTC.

Using his own observations and photographs, Petit was able to make a scale model of the towers to help him figure out the rigging he needed to prepare for the upcoming wirewalk. Petit made fake identification cards for himself and his collaborators (claiming that they were contractors that were installing an electrified fence on the roof) in order to gain access to the towers. Prior to this, Petit sneaked into the towers several times, hiding on the roof and other areas in the unfinished towers, in order to get a sense of what type of security measures were in place.

To make it easier to sneak into the buildings, Petit carefully observed the clothes worn by construction workers and the kinds of tools they carried, as well as the clothing of businessmen so that he would blend in with them when he tried to enter the buildings. He also noted what time the workers arrived and left, so he could determine when he would have roof access. He once even claimed that he was with a French architecture magazine wanting to interview the workers on the roof. The Port Authority allowed Petit to conduct the interviews, but the real reason he wanted to be up on the roof was to make more observations. He was once caught by a police officer on the roof, and his hopes to do the high wire walk were dampened, but he eventually regained the confidence to proceed.

Petit and his crew were able to ride in a freight elevator to the 104th floor with their equipment the day before the walk, and were able to store this equipment just nineteen steps from the roof. In order to pass the cable across the void, Petit and his crew decided to use a bow and arrow. They first shot across a fishing line, and then passed larger and larger ropes across the space between the towers until they were able to pass the 450-pound steel cable across. Cavalettis (guy lines) were used to stabilize the cable and keep the swaying of the wire to a minimum. For the first time in the history of the Twin Towers, they were joined. The 'artistic crime of the century' took six years of planning, during which he learned everything he could about the buildings, taking into account such problems as the swaying of the towers because of wind and how to get the steel walk cable across the 140-foot (43 m) gap between the towers (at a height of 1,368 ft (417.0 m)).

On August 7, 1974, shortly after 7:15 a.m., Petit stepped off the South Tower and onto his 3/4" 6×19 IWRC steel cable. The 25-year-old Petit made eight crossings between the mostly-finished towers, a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan, in an event that lasted about 45 minutes. During that time, in addition to walking, he sat on the wire, gave knee salute and, while lying on the wire, dialogued with a gull circling above his head.

Port Authority Police Department Sgt. Charles Daniels, who was dispatched to the roof to bring Petit down, later reported his experience:
I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it.

Petit was warned by his friend on the South tower that a police helicopter would come to pick him off the wire. A rain had begun to fall and Petit decided he had tempted the gods long enough, so he decided to give himself up to the police waiting for him on the South tower. He was arrested once he stepped off the wire. The police – provoked by his taunting behaviour while on the wire – handcuffed him behind his back and roughly pushed him down a flight of stairs. This he later described as the most dangerous part of the stunt.

His audacious high wire performance made headlines around the world. When asked why he did the stunt, Petit would say "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carre's latest book "A Most Wanted Man" takes us to Hamburg, where Le Carre served as a political consul during his days working for the British Foreign Office.

The book's "Wanted Man" is Issa Karpov, the illegitimate son of a Russian army officer and a Chechen girl, who is wanted by German, British and American intelligence agencies. Issa drags a young female German lawyer and an aging British private banker (and son of an ex-MI6 associate) whose life has entered a state of decline into his orbit and thereby into the sights of those pursuing him.

As I was nearing the half way point of the book I had begun to think that the story was going to be a repeat of his other recent book set in Germany that strongly objected to the neoconservatives and their "war on terror", Absolute Friends, but things quickly veered off in a new direction.

Le Carre stories don't, in my experience, tend to have happy endings (as The Independent notes, he is an author of tragedies who has been mistaken for a thriller writer) but this one was less bleak than "Absolute Friends" and there was a hint of redemption for some of the characters when the story reached its end.

Its not a perfect book but I enjoyed it and it recaptures some of the mood and complexity of Le Carre's cold war stories.

By and large the book got good reviews elsewhere.

The Guardian said "John le Carré keeps his eyes on the spies with this riveting tale of an alleged terrorist".

The New York Times - "a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible."

The Independent - "A Most Wanted Man is le Carré's 21st book, and another winner. Why we think of this man as a popular novelist, still less a thriller writer, is beyond me: he's a subversive tragedian, selling us the things we'd least like to hear about the custodians of our liberty and only vaguely disguising them as entertainment.".

The Telegraph - "It is around a disaffected Muslim, attending one of [Hamburg's] mosques, then, that le Carré pivots his complicated, satisfying plot.".

The Times seems to have taken an offensive tack against anyone who dares to criticise the war on terror as a sham (unsurprisingly, given the Murdoch press' leading role in promulgating this propaganda exercise to support a grab for Iraq's oil), prompting le Carre to write this letter to the editor :

In your presentation of my interview with Rod Liddle dated 14th September 2008, you misrepresent me on two fronts:

The first, that as a British Intelligence officer I nearly defected to the Russians; and the second, that my view of the United States places me in the same coterie as Harold Pinter and others.

During the six hours he spent in my house in Cornwall, Mr Liddle made no visible use of a tape recorder, preferring, he assured me, to take written notes. He must be forgiven therefore if, while he too was sipping post-prandial Calvados in the evening darkness he describes, he failed to encompass or indeed record the general point I was making about the temptations of defection.

Lord Annan, I ventured in our conversation, had declared that four years of Intelligence work were as much as any sane man could stand. I painted for Mr Liddle the plight of professional eavesdroppers who identify so closely with the people they are listening to that they start to share their lives.

It was in this context that I made the point that, in common with other Intelligence officers who lived at close quarters with their adversaries, I had from time to time placed myself intellectually in the shoes of those on one side of the Curtain who took the short walk to the other; and that rationally and imaginatively I had understood the magnetic pull of such a step, and empathised with it.

This is scarcely a new theme in my writing, as I was at pains to explain to Mr Liddle when he returned to the charge over the telephone a couple of days later. It is a theme I have explored in several novels over the years, most notably in A PERFECT SPY. Only when traduced by your editors does it acquire such disproportionate and damaging significance.

Mr Liddle found the three minor American characters in my new novel to be lacking in depth, and I agreed with him. I explained that, since they were all three practitioners of the CIA's 'extraordinary rendition' programme that has so far consigned some 27,000 souls, many innocent of any crime and all lacking legal representation, to black prisons round the world, I had little appetite for exploring their moral ambiguities. I preferred to let them indulge their well-known appetite for shock and awe.

None of which means that I subscribe to Harold Pinter's drastic generalisations on America. It means that, like countless Europeans and countless more Americans, I believe that in the last eight years the United States has taken a series of disastrous turnings that will haunt us all for generations.

If Mr Liddle had chosen to enquire after my larger feelings towards the United States, which he did not, I would have described myself as a disappointed admirer rather than a committed hater.

I write this in sorrow rather than anger. Mr Liddle says so many kind things about my work. He is an erudite and perceptive conversation partner. We passed a convivial evening together and I would not be taking either him or his editors to task, were not the distortions they have imposed on my words so potentially damaging to my reputation, and to the opinion of my readers inside and outside America.