The Oscars find a sort of diversity after all

(K. Brent Tomer),

THE buzzword in the run-up to this year’s Oscar ceremony was “diversity”. When the nominations were announced on 14th January—which feels like years ago—commentators were quick to complain about the absence of black actors on the short lists, and the general paucity of ethnic minorities in any category. This politically charged atmosphere carried over into the ceremony itself. But there was plenty of diversity there of a different kind.

The politics were there from the first second of Chris Rock’s opening monologue. He delivered a mischievous, in-depth, and, crucially, very funny stand-up routine on race and film, commenting that the evening’s “In Memoriam” montage would consist of “black people who were shot by cops on the way to the movies”. Later, Leonardo DiCaprio pleaded for climate-change awareness, Sam Smith dedicated his Best Song victory to the gay and transgender community, and Lady Gaga was joined on stage by survivors of sexual abuse.

The other type of diversity on show at the Oscars may not be quite as momentous, but this was, after all, a film-awards ceremony, so it was pleasing to see such a diverse range of films…Continue reading

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The legacy of Pokémon for millennials

(K. Brent Tomer),

If 2016 is the year of the monkey, it surely belongs to its more famous animated cousin, Mankey. On February 24th, millions will celebrate 20 years since the birth of Pokémon, a series conceived by Saotshi Tajiri, a video-game designer, in 1996 on the back of Gameboy’s successful worldwide launch in 1989. His idea was simple and extensive; an animation following the adventures a young go-getter, Ash Ketchum, and his friends as they set about collecting creatures in a bid to enter tournaments and understand the infinite animal kingdom of pocket monsters. Celebrating 20 continuous years is a worthy milestone. Pokemon brought endless riches to those—including your correspondent—who grew up during a Japanese breakout in the 1990s.

Mr Saotshi’s imaginative world toes the line of many modern mythmakers; underpinning the animation is his childhood love of collecting insects, blended with Japan’s technological innovation. Crisp aesthetics spanning climates and pseudo-cultures, and an unlimited universe of creatures, gives Pokémon its distinct character. The…Continue reading

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Poirot and the mysterious affair of the straight croissant

(K. Brent Tomer),

TESCO’S decision to bake croissants that are straight rather than crescent-shaped has been met with consternation. The image of thousands of trays filled with neat rows of ramrod limp croissants—Tesco sells 1m pieces a week—brings to mind the eccentricities of that great oddball of English fiction: Hercule Poirot.

Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective liked things to be square. One hundred years ago, when Christie conceived of her “quaint dandified little man”, she instinctively knew that he would be a meticulous sort, “liking things square instead of round.” Wickedly, she offset his square fetish by giving him a head that is “exactly the shape of an egg” and a luxuriant handlebar moustache, the waxed scimitar curves of which he is terribly vain.

For Poirot, the shape of eggs is a source of lasting displeasure. Their varying sizes “offended his sense of symmetry.” Science has let him down: it has “not yet induced the hens to conform to modern tastes.” Scotland Yard’s Inspector Japp is in on the joke. “Not got the hens to lay square eggs for you yet, M. Poirot?” he asks teasingly. “As yet, no,” replies…Continue reading

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In knots

(K. Brent Tomer),

My Name Is Lucy Barton. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House; 193 pages; $26. Viking; £12.99.

“DON’T ever worry about story,” a novelist assures her writing students in “My Name Is Lucy Barton”, Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. “You have only one.” Every writer may indeed be telling the same story over and over, with slight variations. So it is for Ms Strout, who turns every book (including her Pulitzer-prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge”) into a kind of love story. These are not romances, mind you, but yarns about the primal, unwieldy love of family—those unchosen mothers and hapless brothers—and the bonds that can sometimes feel like manacles.

Ms Strout’s latest book unfurls in retrospect. Lucy Barton, a writer in New York, is recalling a time in the 1980s when a mysterious illness forced her to stay in hospital for nearly nine weeks, away from her husband and young daughters. Her solitude left her aching with loneliness, eager for visits from her doctor (who “wore his sadness with such loveliness”) and nurses, who were too busy to linger. So it is with relief that she…Continue reading

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Animal instinct

(K. Brent Tomer),

Being a Beast. By Charles Foster. Profile; 218 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Metropolitan in June, $28.

STRIDING around describing plants and animals, often in flowery prose from behind a desk or a camera lens, seems rather old-fashioned. In “Being a Beast” Charles Foster takes a more modern approach, getting down to the animal’s level to see what it is really like to be a badger, an otter, a fox, a red deer and a swift. 

It is an extreme proposition. Mr Foster, a writer and barrister who qualified as a vet and has a PhD in medical law and ethics from Cambridge, doesn’t just investigate the taxonomical differences with humans; he attempts to overcome them. This means eating rubbish from bin bags as an urban fox would do, living in a sett as a badger, cowering naked on a moor as a red deer and launching himself fully clothed into a river pretending to be an otter. 

Mr Foster is a nature writer, but not one you would recognise. There is plenty of shit and blood and dirt and very little description of the beauty of the animals. Because who needs to read that?…Continue reading

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Blue hole, black hole

(K. Brent Tomer),

Ray of sunshine

One Breath: Free-diving, Death and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits. By Adam Skolnick. Crown Archetype; 336 pages; $26. Corsair; £20.

THE death of Nick Mevoli, an American freediver, on November 17th 2013, while competing at Dean’s Blue Hole—a 202-metre-deep funnel of darkness in the Bahamas—is a litany of “if onlys”. If only the 32-year-old from Brooklyn, tired and in pain, had not attempted a dive that day. If only, sensing trouble, he had turned back to the surface sooner. If only his team’s resuscitation efforts had succeeded. “One Breath”, Adam Skolnick’s dissection of an extreme sport and post-mortem of a dive gone wrong, becomes a morality play of hubris, imprudence and obsession.

Free-diving, descending as deep as possible on a single breath, is a niche interest that is more dangerous than any sport other than base-jumping (leaping from a bridge or cliff wearing a wingsuit). Perils include punctured eardrums, embolisms, blackouts and “lung squeezes”. Diving at extreme depths brutalises the lungs, which at a depth of 30 metres compress to a…Continue reading

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Je suis circonflexe

(K. Brent Tomer),

SOMETIMES it really is the little things that count. France faces high unemployment, a divided political establishment and surging xenophobia. But the issue that has the French particularly outraged is an argument about language.

Two decades ago the French Academy, a group of 40 greybeards charged with keeping the language pure, decided to reform French spelling. The government took its time with implementing the academy’s decisions. But, starting in the autumn, new school textbooks will at last comply. What has French social media in an uproar? The academy wants to simplify or regularise certain tricky spellings—allowing nénufar for nénuphar (water lily), and ditching a silent “i” in oignon, making it ognon (onion). But one change has symbolised all the others: maîtresse will become maitresse, and many other words will similarly lose the tricky little hat-shaped accent-mark that gives the online protest its name: #JeSuisCirconflexe.

It should take something serious to make the French…Continue reading

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Painter of our greatest fears

(K. Brent Tomer),

Heavenly bodies

FOR centuries the received wisdom was that the Renaissance started in Italy. Ever since Giorgio Vasari, one of the first art historians, wrote in 1550 of a new naturalness in painting—as opposed to medieval mannerism—the idea of the Renaissance has been linked with frescoes in Florence or the sinuous forms painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Now, an important show of work by Hieronymus Bosch, one of the finest Dutch painters, in his home town of ’s-Hertogenbosch, challenges that view. It shows how an artist usually associated with the medieval was using a naturalist style at least 50 years before Vasari.

The exhibition, which marks the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death, has been over a decade in the making, and is the culmination of six years of work by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, in which experts analysed the paintings of Bosch in piercing detail. It is a remarkable achievement. Of the 24 paintings known to be by Bosch, 17 are on display, while 19 of his drawings are also shown, making it the largest exhibition of his work to date. Managing to get all of these paintings…Continue reading

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Per ardua ad Astor

(K. Brent Tomer),

Setting the liberal agenda

David Astor. By Jeremy Lewis. Jonathan Cape; 416 pages; £25.

DAVID ASTOR, who edited the Observer from 1948 until 1975 (and whose family owned it), belonged to a time when newspapers were Britain’s principal source of information. For well over 20 years, Astor’s Observer was the voice of Britain’s liberal consensus. It campaigned persistently and successfully against the death penalty, theatre censorship and racial discrimination; in favour of the decolonisation of Africa and of tolerance towards homosexuality. The laws that were passed subsequently freed people to make social and moral decisions for themselves. Jeremy Lewis, in a lively, gossipy and affectionate biography, asserts that Astor was “one of the outstanding editors of the last century”, and it is hard to disagree.

Although Astor never learned to type, he was a good copy editor and headline writer. He hired writers he admired, even if they had not dutifully served the usual three-year journalistic apprenticeship in the…Continue reading

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Leila Alaoui pointed her lens at those unseen

(K. Brent Tomer),

BORN in Paris to a French mother and a Moroccan father, Leila Alaoui was a third culture kid”—one of those mixed-heritage children raised in more than one country and language from birth. This made her acutely aware of the privilege of crossing borders freely. Her photography reflected this awareness, with its focus on ethnic minorities, experiences of migration and the willingness to risk all for the utopia that Europe represents.

Alaoui was killed outside a café on January 18th in the al-Qaeda shootings in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, aged just 33. Following her death, tributes from around the world have highlighted both her photojournalistic skill—she was on assignment at the time for a campain for UN Women, part of the United Nations—and the striking mix of empathy, artistry and realism in her portraiture. However, it is important to take pause and, with all good intentions, start talking about her work beyond the tone of tribute and biography, and within the contexts she herself sought to highlight.