Category Archives: Reviews

Movie review: “Batten down the hatches!; Pirates a tale of battles, barnacles, betrayals” (The Province, May 24, 2007)

Batten down the hatches!; Pirates a tale of battles, barnacles, betrayals

by Gillian Burnett

I’m exhausted. Bone-tired, really, still reeling from the demanding business of watching the third — and possibly, though not probably, the final — instalment of the ludicrously lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Clocking in at two hours and 49 minutes and costing a rumoured $200 million US (that’s about $1,183,000 per minute), At World’s End may just be the movie that forever redefines what constitutes “bang for your buck.”

At the press screening I was handed a typewritten memo from the organizers pleading with reviewers not to reveal the “many plot resolutions that occur.” They need not have bothered. While there are many plots, and many resolutions that don’t bear scrutiny, I couldn’t begin to recount them here. At World’s End is a seething, bubbling bouillabaisse of battles, bombs, boat-boardings, barnacles, beating hearts, betrothal and betrayals — above all, betrayals — where characters switch allegiances more often than your average cast of Survivor.

It was a dark and stormy opening sequence. A noose hangs starkly in silhouette. Row upon row of prisoners march to their deaths at the hands of the British. A lone shadowy figure poles a skiff through the murky, steaming waters of an underground Singaporean pirate hangout, where the rats run rampant and the air of menace is thick. Piercing the gloom are Keira Knightley’s teeth — brilliant Chiclets that have inexplicably escaped the makeup artists’ palette of pirate grime.

Enter Chow Yun-Fat, the scar-faced, treacherous Sao Feng, one of nine pirate lords being summoned to “the brethren court” to reunite the legendary Pieces of Eight to combat the mercenary and merciless East India Trading Company. But first, they must join forces to rescue Jack at world’s end.

And we’re off. One huge waterfall, a few betrayals and a land of the dead later, the pirates are reunited against their common enemy, who have harnessed the power of the Flying Dutchman for ill, if you consider ridding the high seas of pirates a bad thing.

Favourite characters are all back in force: the dashing Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the bossy, squinting Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). But the star of the show, the centrifugal force around which the action swirls, is the lurching, eye-rolling Jack Sparrow, played with cockeyed abandon by Johnny Depp. The few scenes in which he doesn’t appear seem flat and poorly paced.

And it’s the humour (which is, predictably, in the my-spyglass-is-bigger-than-your-spyglass vein) that carries this empress of excess into port. In a highlight cameo by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards — whose costume, as Jack’s pirate dad, appears no different from his stage clothes — Jack asks, “How’s Mum?” In answer, the man who famously joked about snorting his own father’s ashes holds up a grey, shrunken head.

Now that shivered my timbers.


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Book Review: Freakonomics (, May 30, 2006)


Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

(HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005; $34.95)

by Gillian Burnett

If you’ve been living under a marketing-free rock for the last year, you might have missed the juggernaut of hype that attended the publication of Freakonomics, a collaboration between rock-star economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times writer Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt teaches at the University of Chicago and was recently awarded the John Bates Clark medal, which is given every couple of years to the best American economist under the age of 40. Notably, about half of those who’ve received it have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

If that tidbit makes you want to yawn, resist the urge. Freakonomics is as compelling as The Da Vinci Code, only it’s based on fact. Its backbone is a series of disparate economic case studies, each of which reveals a surprising truth — for example, that swimming pools are 100 times more dangerous than guns for the average U.S. child — or challenges received wisdom, such as the assumption that drug-dealing is more lucrative than a McJob.

Levitt is the sworn enemy of conventional, lazy thinking, pointing out that just because two pieces of information are correlated does not mean they have a causal relationship.

There is no unifying theme here, a problem not entirely solved by the co-authors’ open acknowledgment of that absence. And even though Levitt’s conclusions are sometimes explosive — he asserts, for instance, that legalized abortion is the single factor most responsible for the recent dramatic drop in U.S. crime rates — he ducks controversy with his just-the-facts-ma’am approach. The book’s title was clearly chosen more for its marketability than its aptness: there’s nothing freaky about any of this stuff. But it captures the spirit of his inquiries, which are full of brilliant deduction and a disarming curiosity about what drives people to do things.

On the topic of economics, I’m not sure that 200 pages of well-spaced, large type for $34.95 qualifies as a good investment, especially in a book that boldly claims to deal with Everything. Freakonomics reads like what it is — a beefed-up version of a piece Dubner wrote in 2003 for The New York Times Magazine. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the article, which lends the book a strange self-referential quality and a faux structure that tries to mitigate the book’s formlessness.

But if you can beg or borrow a copy, it’s arguably the most fun you’ll ever have reading about microeconomics, which is, at root, the stuff of life.

Of course, Levitt and Dubner are not the first to try to make their subject accessible to the masses. A quick search reveals such (less catchily titled efforts) as The Armchair Economist: Economics of Everyday Experience (Steven E. Landsburg), The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life (Gary S. Becker), and Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (David D. Friedman).

I wonder what Levitt would have to say about the correlation between economists, middle initials, and lengthy subtitles.

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Book review: Library: An Unquiet History (National Post, July 26, 2003)

The guardians of memory through history

LIBRARY: AN UNQUIET HISTORY, by Matthew Battles Norton 256 pp., $37.50

Review by Gillian Burnett

If you ever thought that libraries were dull, Matthew Battles will change your mind. In Library: An Unquiet History, the Harvard rare-books librarian tells the story of that peculiar institution, whose fortunes, since man first etched a symbol in stone, have been governed as much by mass uninterest and bureaucratic incompetence as by war and natural disaster. “Libraries are as much about losing the truth … as about discovering it,” writes Battles, pointing out that much of what has survived through the ages is owing not to public institutions but to private collectors, who were better able to weather the tides of biblioclasm — the destruction of books — that have periodically swept the world.

Battles’ tale begins in the third century BC, when the Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi made it his aim to destroy everything written before the advent of the Qin dynasty (his own). Not only did he order that all written records be burned — and the wooden and bamboo strips used as paper would have made perfect kindling — but legend has it that he later executed 460 scholars by burying them alive. While this latter detail, chronicled as it was by a Confucian scholar with an understandable grudge, is almost certainly apocryphal, the fact of its endurance shows that he who is published last, lasts.

This cycle of destruction and revision describes much of the library’s history. Ancient Alexandria, as the centre of the papyrus trade, boasted two great libraries, both of which were set alight repeatedly — once, the story goes, by Julius Caesar, who, in his quest to assert Cleopatra’s right to the Egyptian throne, burned down the city’s harbour and a whole lot besides. In 16th-century Mexico, Spanish conquistadores systematically destroyed all Aztec writings, then realized their blunder: The cultural information in the lost manuscripts would be critical to the success of their Christianizing mission. Thus began a frantic effort to teach Aztec nobles the Roman alphabet in order that they could assist the missionaries in their own conversion.

Given the breadth of the subject, this is a surprisingly slim volume at just over 200 pages. But Battles has paced his book carefully to appeal to the casual reader as well as to the bibliophile. The dramatic episodes, told vividly, bridge the more academic discussions of the changing philosophies that shaped the ancient library — which attempted to distill “all that is Good and Beautiful (in the classical formulation) or [all that is] Holy (in the medieval one).” Each was a reflection of what the word meant to society, much as the modern, universal library reflects our contemporary goals of diversity and unceasing accumulation.

Ancient libraries shared some striking similarities with modern libraries, however, especially when it came to the tough decisions. A scribe’s valuable time was devoted to copying out only those works deemed by a self-appointed few to be major, condemning everything else to obscurity, then oblivion.

Battles describes the egos that conceived the modern world’s greatest libraries, from the Vatican to his own Harvard (victim, along with its 5,000 volumes, of a fire in 1764), to the Royal (now British) Library, whose acquisitions over the years highlight the unusual interests of each monarch. As the field in which the great debate of the day — Ancients v. Moderns — played out, the Royal Library also inspired Jonathan Swift’s 1704 satire, The Battle of the Books, in which Swift imagines a struggle for “pride of place” between the classic works of old and the “torrent” of modern literature, the lamentable result of new technologies.

The most compelling stories, though, are those that deal with recent history. “If the 19th-century was about the building of libraries,” Battles writes, “the 20th was about their destruction.” He recalls the fervent seizure, banning and burning of books in Nazi Germany, where librarians were told to revise their nation’s history. And the list goes on: in Tibet after the Chinese invasion; in Communist China; in the American South and Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and the Balkans — everywhere books exist, in fact — we find biblioclasm.

Most recently, in April, Iraq’s National Library and Archives, with their holdings of more than 20 million documents and books, and the Al-Awqaf Library, containing over 5,000 Islamic manuscripts, were plundered, then razed by arsonists. The losses were eclipsed by the international attention given to the looting of Iraq’s National Museum. Writing in May for The Boston Globe, Battles rebuked the U.S. government for failing to uphold one of the key mandates of the 1907 Hague Convention, to protect cultural property in wartime. He points to a historical parallel: In 1258, Baghdad fell to Mongol invaders, who threw the entire contents of the city’s library into the Tigris, whose “waters allegedly ran black with ink.” Surely, argues Battles, we could have learned from the lessons of our past: Memory will always need its guardians.

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