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August 31: Books

This month I read 10 books, some of which I enjoyed more than others.

Chronologically:

I happened to be reading Out of the Ice at the end of July and it carried over into August. It was a mediocre crime novel. Not Scandi, even though it looks as if it ought to be. Set mainly in the Antarctic, and featuring an under-the-ice laboratory. A bit far-fetched for my taste, with a tacked-on child abuse thread that I thought was unnecessary.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was my August calendar challenge book, and it was terrific. Harry is the central character, and we live his lives with him. Speculative fiction, with a very clever central premise. I liked this a lot.

I’m attacking my tsundoku by means of a random letter generator. This time it was a z. Zero K refers to temperature, and the book is about a family using and coming to terms with cryogenic suspension. It was strange, in both plot and setting. I found it a bit “arty”, and a bit unsettling.

Sometimes people I follow on Twitter will mention a book. A Void was brought to my attention by an author I like. I didn’t have a copy, but I did happen to know a friendly University librarian, who let me borrow one. I found it terribly self-indulgent. The notion of writing a whole novel without using the letter e was interesting. The execution was laboured, and I found myself irritated in places where substitute words mattered (for example, in quotations from famous published works). There was a story, but I found it hard to follow, and it wasn’t concluded to my satisfaction. Unlike other reviewers. I decided not to try to write s review without the letter e.

The Bridesmaid was my local public library reading group book of the month. Ruth Rendell isn’t one of my favourite authors, and this book wasn’t one of my favourite books. It was interesting to see the story from the point of view of someone who wasn’t either the victim, the perpetrator or the police. Having said that, I didn’t feel any empathy for the narrator, or any of the other characters, for that matter, and I felt that there was a chapter missing at the end.

Grayson Perry’s book was chosen because it was a very slim paperback that would slide easily into the pocket of my overnight bag. It was interesting, if a little outdated, with some little cartoon illustrations and a bit of humour. The only non-fiction book this month.

Another random letter, this time m. I liked this one a lot. It had crime, wine, food (a lot of food, including actual recipes), and a French setting. No police, but a food magazine writer and her photographer sidekick solving a linked set of three murders. I hope there will be more in this series.

Give me an e

This book has been hyped a lot. I liked it, but it made me depressed. There were things I recognised in Eleanor, and things that didn’t ring true. I wanted to shake her at times, and I didn’t believe that her colleagues would change their opinion of her so drastically. At least there was a happyish ending.

And an f

I’d had this one on my pile for a while. A dystopian novel that doesn’t quite describe a dystopian world. The fixed period is a lifespan, the setting is an independent colony that gets re-annexed, there is a lot of scientific innovation, especially in the fields of music and sport. The narrator is one of those fixed-mindset people who perceive themselves to be hard done by when their views are not shared by everyone. This was apparently Trollope’s only foray into sci fi and he clearly found it hard work.

Smon Smon is a children’s book, but I’m not ashamed of reading it before giving it as a birthday gift to a three year old. It has an old-fashioned Eastern European look to it, and a lovely rhythmic rhyming pattern. It is a little adventure story that really needs to be read aloud.

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July 16: Reading

I have a pile of books to read (currently 46, shared between the kindle, iBooks and the wobbly pile of mixed paper-and-hardbacks on my coffee table). I also have a few on my shelves that I want to re-read. And a very long wish-list of books I don’t yet own.

I finished both my main Goodreads challenge and my personal summer challenge early, and in theory, all I have shouting “finish me!” are my two reading group books (Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Drabble’s Pure Gold Baby).

I have scheduled reading times for book groups, so what to do the rest of the time?

The answer is always a random pick from my physical book pile and a random pick from my e-book “pile”. At the moment, my e-book is the latest Harry Hole, and my physical book is one of the slim Penguin classics (Kafka’s The Trial).

But – I follow authors and readers on Twitter, and they keep making recommendations. By coincidence this morning, two recommendations caught my eye: a short story by Miranda July; and a novel by Clare North that just happened to have the word “August” in the title. That set me off of course. I thought I would end up with a mix of author names and titles, but in the end, my calendar reads for the rest of the year are all title-based except for July.

I’m probably going to to do this for the whole of next year, as a sort of side quest to my main challenge.

Here they are:

No one belongs here more than you: Miranda July

The first fifteen lives of Harry August: Claire North

The Septembers of Shiraz: Dalia Sofer

October the first is too late: Fred Hoyle

Butterflies in November: Audur Ava Òlafsdóttir

December: Phil Rickman

I intend to be very disciplined and only read one of these a month. Let’s see how it goes.

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July 9: The Rings of Saturn #1

A few weeks ago, I came across a proposal to set up a Twitter reading group. The book to be read, studied, discussed is W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The activity is planned to run from July 9th until August 2nd.

I had joined in with a similar group at the end of last year, with the same group leader, and I decided to take up the challenge again. I chose a hard-copy edition this time.

So, I opened the book to chapter 1 this morning. The opening paragraph was encouraging:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.”

However, the author then spends the entire chapter not talking about the walk. Instead, he meanders off on an interesting discussion of several dead academics, and aspects of their work.

I can tell already that Sebald and I will have different opinions on things, if only from the interpretation of one item – Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson. Sebald mentions what I think is the most important item in the painting, the anatomy textbook that everyone is looking at. He then dismisses it as irrelevant (to Rembrandt, as well as to himself!). My copy of the book has two images of the painting:

In neither image does the textbook appear.

I am very curious to see how the book progresses. Watch this space.

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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!

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February 4: The Death of Stalin

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This is the book that inspired the recent and quite brilliant film. It is a worthy addition to my graphic novels shelf, being clever, believable and well drawn. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this story, and chuckled quietly to myself. It is very slightly subtler than the film, and didn’t give me so many laugh-out-loud moments, but it did make me appreciate the characters more.

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January 18: The Man Who Laughs

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Having seen the musical play “The Grinning Man”, I decided to read the book it was based on. Victor Hugo’s works are available for free from iBooks, so I downloaded a copy and settled in for what turned out to be a very bleak ride.

Like many “period” authors (Melville, Dickens and the like), Hugo indulges himself in lengthy descriptive passages, and whole chapters of what seem to be lists of the peerage. I found the book to be a difficult read because of this, and caught myself skipping sections in order to get on with the story.

There is a (thankfully not too detailed) description of the surgical procedures used on Gwynplaine, and a quite horrible account of his reception by his peers towards the end of the book. The actual ending shocked me, and was quite different from the ending of the play.

Posted in audio, books, Musical theatre, puppetry, Theatre

Week 50

Theatre

Shoreditch Town Hall

Carl Grose: The Tin Drum

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This was a wonderful production, full of music and humour. The puppetry was excellent, with the transition between puppet miniatures and live-action in the Koljaiczek arson-and-police-chase being particularly inspired. I thoroughly enjoyed this show.

The Tramshed, Woolwich

indefinitearticles: The Magic Lamp

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This was as low-tech as it is possible to be. Two actor-storytellers, no costumes, no scenery, almost no props. The magic came from two old overhead-projectors, some oil, some paper, and a sheet suspended from the ceiling of an empty studio space. The very simple shadow puppetry worked well, and the largely young audience were  engaged for the hour or so that the story took to unfold. This was not sophisticated, but it was enjoyable.

Reading Challenge 

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This now stands at 94. It looks as if I might make it!

This week’s offerings are varied, but do all count among the less-enjoyed volumes this year.

I chose Günter Grass’s Tin Drum because I wanted to find out the rest of Oskar’s story, beyond what was portrayed in the play. I have to say I didn’t really enjoy it. The book was a bleak sideways look at wartime politics, mental ill health, physical disability, religious fervour, nasty sex, sleazy underworlds and black markets, and it was quite a relief when I reached the end.

The Maigret was an irritating mistaken-identity story. Very run of the mill, and not at all gripping.

Thd final book this week was the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare rewrites, this time King Lear. I don’t like Edward St Aubyn’s work much, but hoped for something better than his usual nastiness. Sadly, the two “evil sisters” showed their evilness through perverted sexuality from page one, and the book wasnt a good version of the play. Only two or three of the characters were recognisable. The Cordelia character’s end seemed completely gratuitous, and Dunbar’s madness seemed to switch off and on too easily. Not recommended.

Posted in audio, books, Theatre

Week 48

Advent begins, the decorations go up, I dig out my playlists of Christmas tunes, and start my yearly quest to see as many versions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as I can.

Theatre

The Old Vic

Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne: A Christmas Carol

This was a beautiful, wonderful production, with some excellent moments, from the mince pies and oranges given away at the start of the show by Victorian street sellers, through the brilliantly over-the-top weight of Marley’s chains to the beautiful snowfalls during the second act. There was some mucking about with the text, but nothing that harmed the story. Go if you get the chance.

Books

Time to dust off my winter shelf.

Reading challenge

Two books this week, bringing my total to 84.

99 Red Balloons was a little confusing. I felt there were to many PsOV, and it was difficult to remember what was happening when. The villain was a surprise, I must admit, but I think more could have been made of the song the book was named for.

The second book was another of my prize audiobooks. This was one I had seen as an adaptation for TV, so I was listening out for differences between the two versions. I have discovered a liking for audiobooks, which surprises me.

Posted in books, Cinema, Opera, puppetry, Theatre

Week 47

Ooh, it’s getting cold…

Opera

Metropolitan Opera live in cinema

Thomas Adès: The Exterminating Angel

This is an opera I couldn’t afford to see at the ROH. Luckily, the Met performance was the same production, conducted by the composer, which was a bonus. The opera was another of those modern ones with no memorable “tunes”, but a lot of very difficult, very very high soprano singing, and some wonderful musical moments (a room full of drummers; a string section of miniature violins; a lot of bells). The story is odd, a surrealist nightmare, and I enjoyed it very much.

Theatre

The Puppet Theatre Barge

Wendy Cope: The River Girl

I really enjoy puppetry, and this production was lovely – some beautiful underwater scenes, and a literally breathtaking opening when a huge wave of haze rolled out over the audience. I found some of the puppetry a little clunky (the puppeteer working John Didde didn’t seem to have mastered the art of making a marionette kneel, for instance), but the use of narrative poetry was clever, and I came away from the boat very happy.

Reading Challenge

This is moving ahead slowly. I like Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, and this book brings me up to date with that. I find it odd reading books that have been translated out of order, and I am still very irritated with Ari Thor Arason, but that is part of the experience. No spoilers here – I recommend these books.

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…