Posted in books

June 5: Summer Reading #1

S is for Saunders

The first of my six summer books is coincidentally the fiftieth of my fifty-book challenge.

I wish I could say I liked this book, but to be truthful, I didn’t. The style is clever, but I found it irritating after the first couple of chapters.

I understand the concept of the bardo. And it seems to me that Saunders is using this ghost story as a way of marking Lincoln’s transition into an abolitionist. It feels clunky and patchworky, though.

There was one thing I really didn’t like. The notion that children had to be punished in order to allow adults to make penance did not sit comfortably with me at all.

Altogether, I thought there was too much bardo and not enough Lincoln.

I’m never sure what makes a Booker winner. Some I have loved. Others I have hated. This one doesn’t fall into either category for me, which says something in itself.

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Posted in books

May 31: Summer Reading Challenge

I did this last year, and it made me read some books I might otherwise not have chosen.

The way I planned to do it was to choose six books by author surname, corresponding to the six letters of the word SUMMER. I would first draw from my “books I own but haven’t read yet” pile; then from my wishlist of books that: I like the look of; I feel I ought to read; have been recommended etc. Finally, if necessary, I would search the internet for “author whose surname begins with U” (it’s always going to be U that’s a problem, let’s face it).

Last year I had to go searching out in the wide world for a “U”, and it gave me the odd but likeable “Baba Yaga Laid an Egg” by Dubravka Ugrešić. This year, I only had to go as far as my wish list.

So, this year’s challenge:

Between June 1st (start of meteorological summer) and August 27th (August Bank Holiday, which I consider to be the end of summer) I will attempt to read the following six books, in order.

S: George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo. I chose this because it won the Man Booker prize, and when I have read Booker winners before (Midnight’s Children, Life of Pi) they have stayed with me longer than I expected them to. I don’t think of myself as a “literature” reader. I gravitate towards crime and SF. But I make myself step out of my comfort zone every so often. I think it does me good.

U: Tor Udall. A Thousand Paper Birds. This is also literary fiction, with, I am promised, a bit of magical realism. There is a threat of romance (not my genre), but what sold me on this was the lure of origami. This was the only U author on my wishlist, and so I didn’t have many other choices(!). We’ll see how it goes.

M: Ian McDonald. Chaga. I have read a number of McDonald’s books (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, spring to mind) and I like the idea of setting SF in a slightly “off” familiar location. I decided to go back to an early work for this first “M”

M: Ian McDonald. Time Was. The same “M”(not necessary, but I thought it would be fun), but bang up to date with this one. Time travel. Hmm…

E: George Eliot. Middlemarch. Every so often, I make myself read something I should have read when I was at school. This is it for this summer.

R: Philip Roth. Nemesis. Reading this in tribute.

The challenge starts tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Posted in books

May 7: H(A)PPY

I really wanted to like this book.

I bought a hardback because I’d been warned that not all the graphic stuff would show up in an e-book version, and now it is taking up precious space in my actual physical environment.

It is clever. It won the Goldsmiths prize last year (which “celebrates qualities of creative daring…and rewards fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel”). Perhaps it’s too clever for me?

I didn’t like the protagonist. I didn’t understand the Paraguay references. I wasn’t overly impressed with the pseudo-mathematical artwork, and I have to say the changing colour of the font got on my nerves. I did understand that. I just think it was overdone.

The book blurb sold it as post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it seemed to me to be set mostly in the protagonist’s head. A bit of backstory would have been useful.

I give this three stars for the concept, but less than that for the execution.

I know a lot of people like this book, so make your own judgement.

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March 27: The City and the City

I reread this book in advance of the TV series (starting next week, watch this space), and am happy to say I love it just as much as I did on first reading it. Tyador Borlú is one of my favourite detectives, and Beszel and Ul Qoma together make a fascinating setting. I am really looking forward to the TV version, and can’t wait to see how they do the magic which will clearly be required. I have heard that the Ul Qoma partner is to be a woman, rather than the man China Miéville wrote, and I hope this is to match more closely to the many recent “international noir” series rather than to add romance or sexual tension where it isn’t necessary. I like Borlú because he isn’t full of tropes. He doesn’t drink, he isn’t unhappy in love, he isn’t depressed… I hope they let him stay that way.

Whatever happens with the TV series, I will continue to love this book.

2009/10 Winner of: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clark, Locus, World Fantasy and Kitschies Red Tentacle awards

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February 28: The Underground Railway

Today is a day of much snow and more to come, according to the weatherman. A day to stay warm and read a good book.

I don’t usually get tempted by “Pulitzer Prize winner” on a cover, but I had heard that this particular literary work had a thread of SF (in its speculative, rather than science fiction guise) running through it, in the nature of the railroad itself.

The “railroad” in this book differs from the historical Underground Railroad that rescued slaves by being an actual railroad. I read this book with anxiety. It is a good book, and a page-turner, and I read it in one sitting. The railroad itself is the one diversion from reality. The rest is firmly set in the awfulness of the American South. I felt for Cora, and for Caesar. I wept for Royal, and felt the loss of Mabel as a sharp pain.

Do read this if you get a chance.

2017: Pulitzer Prize and Arthur C. Clark award

Posted in books

February 18: Reading Challenge

Just a catch -up. Categories are difficult, as I seem to read quite a lot of crossovers of genre. My best attempt is here. I’m almost halfway to my goal and it’s only February.

So far this year, I have only read one real stinker of a book, and it is by Wilbur Smith, who ought to have been ashamed of himself for writing such trash.

I revisited some old favourites. Notably, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (an interesting take on gender which sadly sidesteps the issue of male power in relationships), 1969/70 Hugo and Nebula award winner; and the first three of Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books (the rest are on my to-read list), which feature the wonderfully human Sam Vimes.

I have mentioned my growing enjoyment of graphic novels in other posts, so I won’t go into them here, apart from mentioning that six of my 21 books so far are in that format. Quite a big proportion, hugely outweighing the proportion that are classics.

The biggest proportion is crime, and if I include all the crossovers, half of all my reading so far this year is crime. I always thought of myself as a sci-fi buff, but maybe I need to rethink that.

Crime fiction

4

Thriller

1

Science Fiction

1

Fantasy crime

3

Classic novel

1

Historical novel

1

SciFi Crime

2

AU crime graphic novel

5

Historical graphic novel

1

Poetry SciFi novel

1

Psychological thriller

1

Posted in books, Theatre

Week 46

Had a cold, and a nasty lingering cough. I should have gone to a couple of galleries (Dulwich for Tove Jansen and the Tate for Rachel Whiteread), but didn’t really feel up to the effort. Was feeling a bit better by the end of the week, so did manage a trip to the theatre.

The Young Vic

Aeschylus: The Suppliant Women

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I enjoyed this very much, and was pleased to see the Greek theatre traditions in play, including the libation to Bacchus at the beginning of the play. There was a lot of haze, and a lot of actual smoke from lamps and flaming torches, which didn’t help my poor lungs, but did add enormously to the atmosphere of what seemed a very contemporary play.

Reading challenge

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Sjón is lauded for his strange novels. The Blue Fox was very short (I read the whole thing during one insomniac night), but very clever, with a magical edge to what could have been a very bleak tale. I shall read more of his work, I think.

My total of books read this year now stands at 82. Will I get to 100? I have 6 weeks…

Posted in books, pop culture, Theatre

Week 29

The cough is beginning to abate, St Swithin’s day was wet (always good news for me) and there have been some cooler days. Almost back to normal!

Theatre

Southwark Playhouse

Oliver Cotton: Dessert

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This play was sadly not as tasty as its poster promised it would be. It was a “rich man gets his comeuppance” drama that fell flat for me. The first act was ok, but I found the ending a little bit silly and very unsatisfying. I expected more from a play directed by Trevor Nunn.

Pop Culture

IMG_0289The new Dr Who has been unveiled as Jodie Whittaker. I am pleased that the show runners have finally chosen a woman to play this iconic role, but I do wish they’d gone a bit further out on their limb. I suppose a young, classically pretty, blonde white woman is a first baby step…

Books

SUMMER reading challenge

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This week’s author is Ugrešić, who has written an odd little three-section story. I chose this to try to widen my range of reading to (a) include more female writers, (2) read works from a wider range of cultures (in this case, Croatia), and (iii) include more “non-genre” titles.

Section one is a first-person narration of an uncomfortable mother/daughter relationship, from the point of view of the daughter. The second section seems completely unrelated – a sort of “road trip” undertaken by three women, none of whom seem to have any connection to anyone from the first section. The final section seems to be a long note from a translator/researcher to a publisher, detailing many aspects of the Baba Yaga stories in an almost-Wikipedia style, and relating them quite tenuously to sections one and two. Only at the end do we find out that the academic who has written this note is called Aba Bagay…

Winner of the 2010 James Tiptree Award

Other reading:

IMG_0291Bluets is a strange little thing. I bought it because it claimed to be about the author’s love of the colour blue, and because I have recently discovered a liking for the colour for myself after suffering many years of school-uniform induced blue-phobia.

I found the paragraph-numbering odd and not very consistent, and the continuous references to a lost lover irritating. Nelson refers to turquoise as a shade of blue (several times) , which is annoying because clearly, turquoise is an entirely separate colour.  I assumed the title was a made-up word; a term coined to describe “bits of blue”, and was actually quite disappointed to discover it is the name of a flower. I know other people like this a lot. It didn’t really do much for me, but don’t let that stop you reading it for yourself. You might love it.

Posted in Ballet, books, Musical theatre, Opera, video

Week 28

The cough persists, but is slowly receding, and fortunately leaving me enough time between bouts to be able to enjoy stuff without annoying my neighbours too much.

Theatre

Union Theatre

Tim Rice/Stephen Oliver: Blondel

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It seems that I am gradually coming round to an enjoyment of musicals. (Not all of them, though!)

Blondel is a very early Tim Rice offering, and was good fun, if a bit panto-ish. There were some outstanding moments, great voices, and some excellent characterisations, including the best Prince John since Alan Rickman.

The Union is a theatre best experienced in winter, I think. The summer heat inside this little railway arch was oppressive, and the seats are packed in with very little legroom. I was seated near a portable air-conditioner, which was noisy and didn’t do much to cool the air. On the plus side, the cafe is good, with lots of outside space.

Opera

ROH/ Big Screen

Puccini:Turandot

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These “big screenings” are an event with their own style. Picnic suppers, live-tweeting and singing lessons in the intervals.

I wasn’t able to get to the local Big Screen this time, and so missed my traditional Wimpy takeaway picnic,  but because it was a live stream, I was able to join in via my iPad, with a home-delivery KFC picnic on the sofa. (Sadly, Wimpy have not joined the home delivery market yet.)

Turandot is spectacularly problematic. One of the best arias ever in NessunDorma, but as bad in its treatment of women as you could find pretty much anywhere.

i live in hope that one day I will see a performance of this opera that does not use yellow-face. It must surely be possible to find Asian singers; or if not, to change the setting so it is not so obviously Chinese.

Ballet

ROH/BBC4

Wayne McGregor: Woolf Works

IMG_0515I confess to not being a ballet lover. I like some dance, but generally speaking, big ballets leave me fairly cold.  Having said that, occasionally one will catch me out. This week the BBC broadcast a live-ish production of WoolfWorks from the Royal Opera House, and I was captivated. The music was modern, costumes were beautiful, design was excellent and the dancers were wonderful. i particularly liked the middle Orlando section,  and this has spurred me to download a copy of the book to add to my to-read list.

Theatre/Cinema

Donmar/Picturehouse

Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

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Okay, so not live, but this film of JuliusCaesar from the Donmar was one of the highlights of my cultural year so far. Outstanding performances by Harriet Walter as Brutus and Martina Laird as Cassius; some inspired design/props elements (particularly the red rubber gloves); and a bit of hard rock music, too. The use of a prison setting, and its incorporation into the play was clever, and the all-female, multi-ethnic casting was well-justified. I loved this, and recommend it to anyone, Shakespeare lover or not.

Books

SUMMER readingchallenge

I decided to just read these one a week in the order they come, so, first up for this week was StAubyn.

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There is a lot of hype about this author, and the book is certainly readable. It is also mercifully short, because the subject matter is shocking. I couldn’t understand why so much praise had been heaped on it, until I did a bit of research and discovered that it was autobiographical. That put a very different complexion on the story, and pushed me into buying the other four books in the series. Winner of the 1992 Betty Trask Award.

The rest of the Patrick Melrose series kept me occupied while I suffered with the lingering cough that stopped me sleeping this week.  I found this whole series bleak and populated with really unlikeable people. Thankfully, there is redemption at the very end of the last book.

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Posted in Art, audio, books, exhibitions, festivals, Museums, Musical theatre, pop culture, Theatre

Week 23

Theatre

Duke of York’s Theatre

Lee Hall: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

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I’m not an enormous lover of musicals, but this was new, and with the promise of music by ELO, could have been very exciting. Sadly, the dialogue was so profanity-heavy that I couldn’t really engage with it fully. The acting was good, the all-female cast and band did their job well, but it was sad to see all the characters were stereotypical “convent slags”. I’m afraid I couldn’t like this show.

Museums

The British Museum

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

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The Hokusai exhibition was lovely. Many iterations of Fuji-San, of course, but so much more. There were a large number of Hokusai’s notebooks, and it was interesting to see the background work. I particularly liked the two large panels which were apparently the interior ceilings of carriages, one of which was reproduced on the mandatory silk scarf (which I duly bought). Once again, I was surprised that the main draw for me was so small. The famous Great Wave was tiny – hardly bigger than A4, but very beautiful.

Events

Senate House, UCL: 1984 Live

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This was a one-off all-day immersive event. A whole host of celebrity readers taking a chapter (ish) each. There was a bit of acting, some clever use of projection and lighting, and the slightly disturbing presence of “party” members dotted around. The star was the Senate House building itself – Orwell’s inspiration for the Ministry of Truth. I think my photograph has captured its air of menace very well.

Books

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This week’s reading was varied – a “light crime”, a psychological study of a possible criminal, and a prize-winning dystopia.

ThePower is an interesting take on the differences/similarities between men and women. This might have disturbed me more if I had been a male reader, I think. It won the Baileys Prize, and while I am not sure it is great literature, it was an enjoyable read.

McGlue was a more difficult read, more “literary”, and less satisfying in its lack of firm conclusion. I don’t usually like first-person narration, but I liked this short novel very much, and will seek out more by this author. Winner of the Believer Book Award.

The second Grantchester book was more interesting than the first. It moved away from the known (via TV episodes), seeing Sidney arrested in East Berlin, and finally resolving his long-term love interest (no spoilers for the TV show here).

Audio

Bob Dylan: Nobel Lecture

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Bob Dylan finally got round to making his Nobel-winner’s speech. You can listen to it here , but be prepared for long descriptions of MobyDick, AllQuietOnTheWesternFront, and TheOdyssey. I’m not sure he is taking the prize seriously.

Public Art

Maggi Hambling: A Conversation With Oscar Wilde

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I’m not sure how I feel about this piece. The idea is clever – a bench whereon a conversation could take place, but it is a little too coffin-like for my taste, and Oscar’s bust is ugly, ugly, ugly. I have never seen anyone actually sitting on this, and I am afraid I didn’t sit down either.

Pop Culture

 (And a bit of Maths)

Dandelion’s retirement

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Crayola, the crayon manufacturer, has a new blue crayon coming online. It is a new pigment and needs a new name (the suggestion box has closed, and I really hope we don’t get Bluey McBlueface). Because of the new crayon, one of the old colours has to be retired, in order to keep the number of active colours at 120. Why 120? Well, the boxes hold multiples of 8 crayons…

Anyway, the crayon to be retired is Dandelion, a rather nice shade of yellow. I checked my own box of 24, and there it is. We used to call dandelions “wet-the-beds” when I was a child, and I am delighted that the French obviously still do.