Week 39

A quiet week, punctuated only by essential “winter wellbeing admin”: flu jab; purchase of a rug to stop the living room feeling so chilly; renewal of magazine subscriptions.

I cancelled a subscription to a monthly cheese club on the grounds that I could buy all the “mystery” cheeses I’d received (the same suppliers, identical packs), from Waitrose for less money and a guarantee that I would actually want any that I bought. And I wouldn’t have to wait at home for the postman to bring me a weird-smelling parcel.

I had planned to see “Labour of Love” starring Martin Freeman, but the performance I was booked for was cancelled. Instead, I caught up with some reading.

2017 100 – book reading challenge update

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Four books this week: two crime books, a science fiction and the newest from the Hogarth reimagined Shakespeare series.

The Seagull is Ann Cleeves’s newest Vera Stanhope book. I have to admit to only having seen the TV incarnation of Vera, and I like that version of her very much. The book version is harder, rougher around the edges, less well dressed, more of a drinker. I found her less engaging than the TV character, but I still enjoyed the book. It seems odd to start with the last in a series, but I assumed (correctly) that this would be a story that had not yet been adapted. It was interesting to see that the literary Vera, even in book 8, was still a DI and still had her core team of Joe and Holly around her. This makes me hopeful that the other books will be different enough from the TV series to make them enjoyable reading. Next on my Vera list will be volume 1.

The second crime book is no 5.7 (!) in the Rivers of London series. They are crime stories, and Peter Grant is a detective (and another of my favourites), but there is so much magical realism in these books that the crime could take second place. This is a novella set between two other books in the series, and is great fun.

New Boy is an interesting retelling of Othello. I am enjoying this series, and have read each one as it has been published. This one is set in an elementary school in Washington DC, and is full of the petty jealousies of children and teachers that come to a head on one school day. It could have been longer and more nuanced. I give this three stars.

Finally, into outer space. I have really liked Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series, and decided to give this a try even though I have not really been a “hard SF” fan for a long time. Spaceships and aliens generally leave me a bit cold nowadays, but I loved this. No spoilers here, apart from saying spaceships figure large!

These four books bring my total up to 78 so far this year. 22 to go before the end of the year. I think I’ll make it.

 

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Week 33

An interesting mix of things this week.

Opera

Arcola Theatre: Grimeborne Festival

Kurt Schwitters/Lewis Coenen-Rowe: Collision

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This is described as part sci-fi, part Weimar-decadence, and is a short ( hour and a half straight through) opera, set in prewar Berlin, with an end-of-the-world plot involving a large green globe on a collision course with earth. I have to say, there wasn’t much sci-fi to be had, and perplexingly, all the lighting effects were blue and red. So, no sign of a green globe,  but there was a bit of Cabaret-style decadence. Casting a high soprano as the (male) chief of police was odd, especially as the soprano was scantily clad in a thankfully well-engineered red brassiere. The other voices were strong, apart from the inevitable weak tenor. The music was performed by a live band, and was very good. The set design and costumes looked very amateurish, but this was possibly deliberate. Overall, this was an enjoyable performance, well up to fringe standards

 

Tod Machover: VALIS

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This is another short, sci-fi opera, based on the VALIS novels by Philip K Dick, and available to download free.

I really liked this, even if I didn’t fully understand it. You can make your own judgement-  read more and listen to it here

 

Literature

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On August 15th, 1947, India was partitioned and Pakistan was born. To commemorate this, the BBC broadcast a dramatised adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I binge-listened to all seven episodes on August 15th 2017.

I had read the novel, quite a few years ago, and liked it. I liked this version too.

SUMMER reading challenge

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The challenge comes to a successful early conclusion with R for Runcie. This is the fourth Sidney Chambers book, and one in which the female characters have become particularly grating. I go on reading these in the hope that something dire will happen to Amanda, Helena or the irritating Hildegard.

Week 32

This should have been an interesting week. I was going to see Titus Andronicus,  a Shakespeare play I have only ever seen excerpts of. In addition, it was the last week of the Opera in the City festival, and I had tickets for a couple of new pieces.

Sadly, life intervened, in the form of illness in the family, and I didn’t get to any    of the things I had booked. Once again, it was a couch culture week.

Musical Theatre/TV

BBC Proms

Rodgers and Hammerstein: Oklahoma!

 

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This was a lively, semi-staged version of an old favourite. A bright spot in a dark week.

 

SUMMER reading challenge

IMG_0502E is for Eco. This was a bit of a variable feast. In some parts, it was a fast and lively murder mystery; in others a tedious wade through pages of description or chapters of historical detail. I found it hard going, although the central story had me hooked. I might revisit this one day, as I am not sure I really did it the justice of  giving it my full attention.

 

 

Week 31

This week’s cultural outings took me to the Isle of Dogs and Blackfriars, both parts of London better known for commerce than art. Both were fringe performances, both tiny venues and tiny casts, both biographical accounts.

Theatre

The Space

New Diorama Theatre: 12 Million Volts

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This was an interesting account of the life of Nikola Tesla, performed with a lot of fast-paced physicality by the cast of three men and one woman, who interestingly, did most of the heavy lifting in the show. There was some very clever use of lighting, including backlighting and projection on a bubble-wrap screen – something I hadn’t seen before. I enjoyed the play, but was disappointed that there was no sign of a Tesla coil.

Opera

Bridewell Theatre: Opera in the City Festival

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My first “festival gig” was the second biography this week:

Andrew Bain: Lanza

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This was less an opera than a monologue with arias. It was sung very well by Andrew Bain, who is clearly a Mario Lanza fan. I like a good tenor voice, and this was very enjoyable, despite a very distracting shirt-buttoning mishap in the first act.

 

SUMMER book challenge

My second “M” is Montefiore.

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I like a tale of Russian intrigue, so I was looking forward to reading this.

It was okay. An easy read, a fairly obvious ending, but I didn’t warm to Sashenka at all, and I didn’t really like the neat way it was all tied up at the end. A bit disappointing, as the author is so lauded.

 

 

Week 30

A quiet week in cultural terms. I was out quite a lot, but only in shopping centres. My opera, like my reading, took place on the sofa.

Opera/TV

BBC Proms

Beethoven: Fidelio

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This is Beethoven’s only opera, and I had high hopes. It was obviously concertised rather than staged, and had some good characterisation by the ingenue couple, Marzelline and Jaquino (Louise Adler and Benjamin Hulet). Stuart Skelton as Florestan was excellent, but the whole thing was let down by the supposed main character Leonore/Fidelio (Ricarda Merbeth), who screeched her way through the performance. James Cresswell did well as Rocco, particularly as he was a last-minute stand-in and was “on the book”. Sadly, I felt the ending was a bit limp, and I would have liked more chorus work.

SUMMER reading challenge

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Marra is the first of my two “M” authors. This book was not my usual fare, but I enjoyed it very much. The characters all go through nightmares of one sort or another, and I felt that these were real people undergoing real trials. We don’t get a happy ending all round, but in life, who does? I recommend this heartily.

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…

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.

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 Nessun Dorma, 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 Woolf Works 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 Julius Caesar 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 reading challenge

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

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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.

 

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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Week 27

This week was designated as “Hamlet Week“. Three possible performances – two of which I actually had tickets for. Then fate intervened, of course.

IMG_0260First up was Changeling Theatre and their outdoor offering. Great reviews, but, on the day I had booked, coinciding with the beginnings of a head cold, and, worse than that, FLYING ANT DAY. Sitting with a headache in a field of flying ants is probably one of my worst nightmares. I stayed home and re-read Ian McEwen’s “Nutshell”.

Next up was the new opera at Glyndebourne. Obviously too far away, but being broadcast live to cinemas. Irritatingly, I had already booked broadcast night to see another version of Hamlet, so couldn’t take advantage of the air-conditioning and cheap comfy seats in my local Picturehouse. I hope there will be an “Encore” screening at some point in the future.

The Hamlet I was most looking forward to was the Andrew Scott portrayal at the Harold Pinter theatre. Sadly, my head cold had developed by then into a full-on coughing and spluttering chest-based spectacular. I sadly returned my ticket.

 

I ended up on my sofa on Friday evening watching the most over-the-top filmed version anyone IMG_0262could possibly imagine. There are many reviews of this in the world, so I’m not going to add to them, except to say that I am certain that casting Derek Jacobi as Claudius must have been a Kenneth Branagh joke. (Actually, this Claudius was one of the best I have ever seen, and made the film much better than it might have been.) I could have done without Robin Williams, but Charlton Heston was wonderful.

Books

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First up, the afore-mentioned Nutshell, one of the Hogarth re-imaginings of Shakespeare. No prizes for guessing what this one is.

 

Other reading this week included two with “strange” female protagonists. Both are unreliable as narrators for various reasons which don’t become clear until the ends of their stories. Both well worth a read.

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Finally, I have set myself a challenge for the rest of the summer, which, for me, ends on August Bank Holiday. Here are my six SUMMER books, chosen by author surname initial.

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The aim is to read all these between now and August Bank Holiday (which marks the end of summer for me).

S: Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn)
U: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Dubravka Ugrešić)
M: Sashenka (Simon Sebag Montefiore)
M: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra)
E: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
R: Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (James Runcie)

 

Week 24

It is the hottest week of the year (so far!), and I chose to go open-air, with mixed results. I went to the Globe theatre for the first time, travelling by boat. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Sadly, I didn’t get to go home on the boat, because I was taken ill at the end of the performance. All praise to the first-aiders at the Globe, the paramedics and the wonderful staff at St Thomas’s hospital. Luckily, it was nothing serious and I got to home later the same night.

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Theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe

Knee-high Theatre: Tristan and Yseult

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This was wonderful. The theatre was everything I had hoped for. The production was modern, costumes very simple, acting excellent. The music was well-chosen- everything from Wagner to Daft Punk, and the actor-musicians were excellent. My favourite character was Yseult’s maid, played in panto-drag, but producing one of the deepest, saddest moments of the play. I loved this.

Exhibitions

Barbican Centre: Into the Unknown

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Getting into and out of the Barbican is always a nightmare for me. It is extraordinarily difficult for a less than perfectly mobile pedestrian. But once inside, what a wonderful exhibition this was. A perfect few hours for any science fiction lover. There were books, including a whole lot of Russian versions of classics; there were classic film extracts running at various points through the curved exhibition space; there were actual film props and costumes. There were robots! There were Stargate Goa’uld helmets! There was a new and strange film. There were video games.  There was everything, really. I liked this very much.

Public art

Anthony Gormley: Quantum Cloud

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I have a fondness for a Gormley, and Quantum Cloud is one of my favourites. It is right next to the Thames Clipper pier at North Greenwich. From the right viewpoint, you can see the figure inside clearly, but I didn’t quite get it this time.

Books

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I didn’t actually finish anything, but Bloomsday fell this week, and so I proudly proclaim That almost exactly a year ago, I  actually read Ulysses for the first, and most likely the last time.

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.

The Power 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.

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 Moby Dick, All Quiet On The Western Front, and The Odyssey. 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.