Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld: Book Review.


Book review: Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham imagines Hillary not marrying Bill  Clinton, Arts News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

“One might say that the publication of a novel takes a village” says Curtis Sittenfeld in the acknowledgements of her sixth novel, Rodham. But in the case of Rodham one could easily expand this acknowledgement way beyond a village, to a nation and perhaps more accurately; a gender.

Because this is a book that every American woman should read and feel that, whether persecuted or empowered, this novel was written for them.

And then every American man should be made to read it as punishment. As a warning that what we have taken for granted (first dibs at opportunity) might not , should not, last forever.

In a year where Black Rights have dominated the non-Covid news this is a book about women’s rights and it seems appropriate that this, and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys were, by a long chalk, the most compelling ones I’ve read.

This novel doesn’t just ooze restrained moral authority, it takes those that flaunt sexual democracy by the bollocks and kicks shit out of them.

This is the feminist book that makes feminism real, for all.

It’s an unbelievable achievement in writing.

And yet it’s so, so damn prosaic. It’s so, so kind of uneventful.

Despite its monumental subject matter and the giddy heights to which it aspires, and attains, the fact it’s written as a kind of diary, where the author never tires of listing the most banal aspects of a setting, again and again, without ever boring the reader, makes it firstly seem real and secondly incontrovertible. Hillary Clinton would never tell us about the time her aide wiped a snotter from her nose before she went on stage for a speech unless it was real/true. Right?

In roller coaster terms it reaches the zenith but then never drops, suspending you above reality in a construct so simply but brilliantly inconceivable that it seems it must be true.

It’s difficult to explain, without telling you the story, how brilliant Sittenfeld is at taking a fantasy, making it a reality and then laughing to herself as you try to unravel the one from the other.

Time and again I found myself stopping to marvel that this was, you know, all made up.

But let’s pause in this gushorama.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The pitch is this. “Rodham. What happened after Hillary didn’t marry Bill Clinton.”

And that’s it.

Except it’s not. Sittenfeld could have gone loopy on us, could have stretched her political imagination beyond any horizons we have to adhere to in reality.

Instead she writes Hillary Rodham’s autobiography, in the first tense, including, you know, that time she had Bill bring her off on a freeway, while he was driving. That time he… (I’ll save it for you to find out the other often quite sordid, eyebrow raising details).

So far, so titillating. But, titter ye not.

This a work of absolute seriousness. The autobiography (except it’s not) of the famous wife of a famous philanderer, but the most popular, and let’s face it, most handsome philander on the planet. A philanderer she married and stood by through thick and thin.

Except, not here. Because she didn’t marry him. Not here.

Why not?

I ain’t tellin’.

One third of the novel takes us up through her girlhood up to the point of her not marrying Bill Clinton. The next two thirds follow the consequences.

Would either go on to political success?

Would they remain in contact?

Would their parting of the ways influence American politics?

Would Donald Trump rise to the heights that he did (the one spoiler I will give you is that Trump makes several cameo appearances to great humorous effect)?

Would there, in fact, even BE any consequences? After all, in this history it was simply an imagined (but real) relationship between two law students. One extremely handsome. One extremely clever.

Even though the entire novel is a fiction it is teasingly stitched together with truths. Real things that did happen but, in the words of Eric Morecambe, “just not necessarily all in the right order”.

It really is a breathtaking literary achievement with deft touches like (How Marvellous!) – a diary entry of an impressionable teen – but it’s not a diary entry, (how disappointing!) it’s the autobiography of one of the most famous women in the world. But it’s not.

Twice Sittenfeld evokes the vision of a cerulean sky. In a novel of plain speaking it is a word that stood out to me, that sent me scurrying to Google dictionary. It’s use was allowable.

It’s also prescient. She was published in early 2020, but there’s an important reference in it to Kamala Harris, Kamala was only appointed Biden’s Vice Presidential candidate in August 2020. There were 5 or 6 women in the running for that role, most notably Katherine Warren, But Sittenfeld doesn’t write her in. She writes in Harris. And Harris wasn’t even the only black woman in the running. So it’s not sleight of hand. I repeat, it’s prescience.

You’ll need some basic knowledge of American politics to get the most out of this. I have a little more than average for a non-American and that helped me, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the point if your knowledge only stretches to the big names we all know.

I don’t know Sittenfeld. I don’t know her work. But I’ll certainly be looking out her back catalogue after this.

Absolutely 10 out of 10 and thank you Helen Howden for spotting this and lending me it to read.

A gift from above.

2020: The year in retrospect.


Trump's demands for $2,000 stimulus checks, explained - Vox

I’m not even going to mention the obvious subject as it’s affected us all in different ways, other than to say my list of theatre and cinema highlights is extremely short and has been replaced by TV and podcasts.

One of the highlights was moving from self employed to employed status after 15 years.

Things were looking uncertain until an unlikely opportunity arose with Whitespace, a company I have been involved with, one way or another since its inception 25 or so years ago as a subsidiary of 1576. Finally I can wholly lay claim to the title of being a ‘Whitespacer’ as a Strategy Director. It’s been immense having worked on not one, but two, global cosmetics brands, a global pitch for a motor company and a series of successful pitches and client engagements including a huge Oil and Gas start up, a home builder, the new www.netzeronation.scot website, Business Gateway, the Port of Leith Housing Association rebrand, a University, an online learning business, a charity and a lovely tech start up in pharma. Stimulating, all of them.

Sadly my time with Front Page came to an end after a long and happy relationship, it still is. And I’ve worked throughout with another long term client in the wonderful Nexus 24.

The experiment with The Marketing Centre proved to be unsatisfying in the end but I gave it my best shot and they are good guys.

I’m grateful to them all for their support, friendship and income.

Two more relationships came to an end, after 10 years I stood down as Chair of FCT and simultaneously my nine years as Chair of Creative Edinburgh came to a happy conclusion. Both were my choice and I wish both of them well in the future.

But my role as Scottish Chair of NABS remained deeply satisfying and we ran a tremendous National Music Quiz and Art Auction plus the 15th Scottish music quiz, all going online for the first time, and resulting in a record year of income for NABS. A great result driven by an amazing voluntary team in Scotland. Special thanks has to go to Anna Kormos and to Marian in Manchester for their huge contributions.

My Mum’s dementia (Alzheimer’s) has worsened steadily and in August we took the inevitable decision to put her into a care home. It’s been a great decision because the staff at Northcare Suites (100 Telford Road) have been superb. It’s the lap of luxury and although she remains terribly confused, and visits have been strictly limited, she has settled in well and is in good overall health otherwise.

Amy continues to amaze us with her tenacity, creativity, drive and ambition and she started not one, but two, new businesses this year. One in Health and Nutrition (https://www.amygormanhealthnutrition.co.uk) which has seen her build a solid portfolio of clients and a part time role at The Foundry in London, the other as a freelance fundraiser where she has enjoyed great success with at least four clients this year. All the more incredible because she left CAFOD to go it alone in February just as the unmentionable struck. She is awesome.

Ria and Tom both worked at Amazon over the summer. The job from hell. But Tom, in particular, immersed himself in it so hard (60 hour night shift weeks) that he saved enough to escape the UK and move to Whistler in Canada for the next two years. It was brilliant having them and Keir with us all summer and we miss them terribly.

Of course Ria skooshed her first year in Dentistry at Dundee and is back there, living with Keir in Perth where he has an interesting job at a whisky auctioneers. She’s working like a trojan and filling us with pride. All three of them are.

This gave Jeana the opportunity to reignite her homemaking career which she revelled in (but I’ve/we’ve missed our steady procession of AirBnB guests, her second career, that we grew to love so much). Next year maybe.

She started a new career and excelled, as a baker! Brilliant lockdown sourdough and maybe even better fruit bread. Both to die for, and if we eat too much of either, or both, that’s exactly what we’ll do. Dangerous!

Of course, having finally succeeded (after five failed attempts) in the Glastonbury lottery it was cancelled, as was Primavera (who still haven’t refunded me by the way). That was a big blow and I missed the chance of escapades with the boys in Barca and Alan in Somerset. Next year? Hmmm, dunno.

No holidays at all, not even Perthshire in November. I desperately missed our annual pilgrimage to Italy in particular. Next Year? Hmmm, dunno, maybe.

The most exciting and preoccupying thing, for me, of the year was seeing the 45th President of The United States of American undone. He’s scum, and election night found me beside myself as it looked at one point as if he’d gone and done the impossible, but the good people of America proved they DO have a conscience and 80 million of them at least have a brain.

It puts the achievement and humanity of Obama onto an even greater pedestal and the man has become a beacon of brilliance for the world to see, if he wasn’t already.

Biden and Harris (the 46th and 47th Presidents) were not perhaps the most dynamic offering for the American electorate, but decency is back and soon I expect to see a woman in the White House Oval Office. She will be great once Biden passes the baton. He did what he had to do – carefully, graciously and in a dignified manner that befits the office. He’ll no doubt have to buy his own lightbulbs on movers day, but the fact that he knows his way around will not obligate the outgoing filth to show him round.

Sadly we, in the UK, are stuck with filth for now. The disgrace that has held office in Downing Street is there for all to see and no further comment is necessary.

Turning to the best bit.

My best of’s.

It wasn’t a vintage music year but I enjoyed, very much, the following:

Michael Kiwanuka rightly won the Mercury, although I backed Moses Boyd.

I also greatly enjoyed Songs for our Daughter by Laura Marling (even though she doesn’t have one) and she would also have been a deserved winner.

Taylor Swift’s two albums were excellent folksy releases.

I listened to a lot of Dub Reggae, mainly from the 70’s.

Sudan Archives’ Athena was excellent.

Big Thief and Dirty Projectors both brought smiles to my face.

Janelle Monae’s sole single release, Turntables, is awesome.

And I loved Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising (although I think that was a 2019 release).

What I can’t understand is the adulation Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters garnered. I tried, believe me.

Here’s a link to my Best of 2020 tunes on Spotify. (Too much old stuff on it for my liking.)

In cinema there was little to thrall about so Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series almost picks up the ‘best of’ gong by virtue of its feature length running times (particularly Lover’s Rock).

But the prize goes to another Adam Sandler masterpiece. The quite ridiculous Uncut Gems. Wow!

Parasite was a big disappointment to me, as was Fincher’s Mank.

True History of the Kelly Gang (pre you know what) was epic and wonderful.

I also saw and really liked Little Women before the shutdown and 1917 which is outstanding and a contender for my movie of the year.

I liked the Go Go’s documentary.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 was great Sorkin fare and gets there on merit, but hardly a classic.

The Borat sequel only makes it onto the list because of the lack of competition and the brilliant expose of Giulliani.

And so to TV. The year of TV.

It kicked off with something I thought wouldn’t be bettered, Normal People, but it just got better and better.

I Will Not Destroy You.

The Crown.

We Are Who We Are.

The aforementioned Small Axe.

Unorthodox (a little gem).

The Queen’s Gambit.

Song Exploder. (A Podcast conversion to Netflix)

Homecoming (another podcast convert – especially Season 2 with Janelle Monae)

The Plot Against America.

Educating Greater Manchester.

Des.

Dracula (on BBC).

Quiz (it was a good year for ITV drama).

Dirty John.

The Third Day on C4.

Industry (a late contender for series of the year. Please bring it back. Filthy and brilliantly performed).

And another was the excellent Criminal. A franchise that extended across Europe using the same police interview room (with different casts for different countries) to create unusual very cleverly plotted procedurals that were anything but procedures.

But, at the end of it all I’m going to give it to The Comey Rule for the remarkable performance of Jeff Daniels.

In podcasts, my new found love, there was so much it was ridiculous:

Shout outs for Adam Buxton and Louis Theroux.

Steve Richard and Matt Forde made politics lovable.

5:38, Hacks on Tap, Left Right and Centre and Pod Save America enthralled me through the American election.

In drama podcasts, Tunnel 42 was magic, as were both seasons of The Horror of Dolores Roach.

Slow Burn is brilliant but Season Four (David Duke) wasn’t its best. For that you need to listen to the Clinton and Watergate series’.

Hunting Ghislaine was also brilliantly horrifying and it was great to hear yesterday that the bitch is not being bailed.

In music Soul Music (BBC Radio 4) and Song Exploder were both joys to behold. As was The Clash Story.

But my Podcast of the Year is a toss up between 13 Minutes to the Moon (Season Two about Apollo 13), Transmissions (the story of Joe Division and New Order) and Wind of Change, the conspiracy story about the CIA writing The Scorpions’ classic song of the same name.

And then there’s Desert Island Discs of course.

Turkey of the year was Phoebe Reads a Mystery. Appalling schmuck.

I had a terrific reading year too, finally joining a Book Club:

Feck Perfunction by James Victoire is a great business read.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

One Two Three Four about the Beatles by Craig Brown is superb. And Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany was another great musical read. A musical trilogy was made up with The Eavis’ Glastonbury 50. An event I never made. Naeb’dy did.

Pine by Francis Toon is a good Scottish book. Not as good as Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (but I still don’t think it should have won the Booker – far better were last year’s TWO winners Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evagelisto and The Testaments by the incomparable Margaret Atwood – not her best but still fantastic).

I really enjoyed Ian McEwan’s rewriting of history in Machines Like Us, a real return to form.

I read two McEwan’s this year. Solar was the other, but it was shit.

The Testament of Gideon Mack is a great wee Scottish story by James Robertson and I’m also enjoying his 365 Stories as my bog book this year.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney wasn’t as good as Normal People (the TV series).

Worth Dying For – The Power and politics of flags was good fun.

I finally read Small Island and loved it. As I did in reading Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Hilarious.

Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica is a tremendous, undiscovered, Brazilian novel about post apocalyptic times where humans are grown as food.

But my two books of the year were epic masterpieces, each of them. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Both dealt with American discrimination, the former of women, the latter of Black lives. Both are beyond excellent.

My walk of the year was Glen Etive, with Ria, all 26 miles of it.

Oh, one last thing. I lost weight.

Recent reading: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart


Shuggie Bain Audiobook by Douglas Stuart - 9781529019315 | Rakuten Kobo New  Zealand

It kind of pains me to review this, the latest, Booker Prize-winning novel, and only the second by a Scot.

No Muriel Spark (three times shortlisted), no Robin Jenkins, no Michel Faber (OK, an honorary Scot) no Alasdair Gray, no Ali Smith (four times shortlisted), no Graeme Macrae Burnett (shortlisted) have been deemed worthy of the title “Booker Prize winner”.

Odd.

Only James Kelman has previously scooped this great honour for Scotland. And next to the Pulitzer, (and The National Book Prize, actually) it’s my favourite literary prize because, on the whole, it awards interesting, readable writing of quality and substance.

Is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel interesting, readable writing of quality and substance? Indeed yes, but the reason I’m not overwhelmingly endorsing a lauded opus from my homeland is the one that may be the most important of the four, quality.

So let’s get that off my chest and out of the way before I move on to why it’s a quality book, just not a “Booker” book.

It suffers, terribly in my view, from unchallenging editing.

The story is wonderful (although slight for its girth – a secondary problem with the editing role) and deeply moving at times. But I’m not sure Staurt knows what it is.

Is it Shuggie Bain’s coming out narrative, the reason he is gay?

Or is it really “Agnes Bain by Douglas Stuart”, the story of a hopeless alcoholic mother struggling with her addiction and her traumatic relationship with a certain kind of emotionless Scottish male persona, again and again and again. A struggle that, sure, begats a homosexual son, in a community, and at a time, where homosexuality was neither tolerated nor understood?

I feel it is the latter, with Shuggie a Greek chorist, not the eponymous protagonist.

Where Stuart has been led down by his editor is in a lack of criticism; simply rolling with it, encouraging catharsis by the retelling of the deep psychological trauma this autobiographical (or is it biographical) retelling has had upon its author.

It’s main problem is that it’s suffocated by metaphor. (They are similes. Ed.).

Every descriptive passage of the story has three, four, maybe five times too many of them. Less, we all know, is more and in this case so much more would emerge from a dramatic culling of Stuart’s flourishes.

Don’t get me wrong, he pens a good metaphor/simile, but three per para? Please. No.

It ground my teeth. To the point that I was whimpering internally every time the dreaded ‘like’ word made an appearance, again and again and again.

And it’s such a spoiler, because with judicious wielding of the red pen this would truly have deserved the moniker “Booker Winner”. Because, apart from that, it’s all there.

His grasp of modern Scots’ working class vernacular is outrageously good, wickedly funny and sparingly used. Where Irvine Welsh uses the patois to shock, Stuart uses it to colour, vividly and brilliantly. And brilliantly funnily.

(Note: I also wish “smirr” had been used once and put to bed.)

The central tale of his poor mammy’s awful life is beautifully told and the reader is wholly absorbed in the futility of her helpless and unsupported battle against the demon drink, so pathetically wound up in Carlsberg Special Brew.

He paints good character portraits of Shuggy’s brother Leek, his bastard dad, Shug, and his mother’s almost white knight, but ultimately dark destroyer, Eugene.

And despite the dreaded ‘likes’, that cause many a stumble, the vast bulk of this, too long, read this is a page turner with manifold moment of emotional heartbreak, occasionally leavened by gallows humour and a smattering of pure emotional joy that makes this a tremendous debut. Just not a “Booker Winning” debut, for me anyway.

Footnote:

My favourite Booker winners (That I’ve read anyway)

Margaret Atwood The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo Girl Woman Other (both 2019)

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep South (2014)

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending: not perfect but great (2011)

Yann Martel Life of Pi (2002)

Peter Carey True History of the Kelly Gang (2001)

Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin (2000)

Ian McEWan Amsterdam: although not his best book by a long chalk (1998)

James Kelman How Late it was How Late (1994)

Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993)

A Promised Land: Podcast review. Barack Obama’s autobiography. (Part 1)


Not so much a podcast, as a sharing of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week by Barack Obama, narrated by the great man himself.

In interviews, Obama can be a bit ponderous but narrating his life story he rattles along without hesitation and takes your breath away with the quality of his written word and his beautiful almost soporific rendition.

It’s a thriller of monumental proportions picking off, in turn, his Primaries for President, the first election, The credit crunch, the ACA, Michelle’s visit with The Queen and, most grippingly of all, the killing of Bin Laden.

It’s two and a half hours of majesty that I devoured in one (long) walk and wanted more, much more.

And I’m wondering if the audio book, given this, would be a better bet than the written version; although I’d want the spine to grace my bookshelves to prove that I am an advocate for the man that will go down in history as one of greatest presidents (human beings) of all time.

I love him, man.

I really, really do.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Book review.


The author is a mixed race, heterosexual woman and respected teacher of writing, having garnered an MBE for her work, before scooping the Booker last year, in the same year as Margaret Atwood for her The Testaments novel.

The 12 female (well 11 female and one binary) central protagonists in her novel are mainly black, often gay and never dull.

Her mini-epic sets out to create a spider’s web of connection between them, without resorting to the convention of storytelling, although each extended chapter in the novel is a story of its own.

It’s rippled with humour throughout and I found myself, as a middle aged white heterosexual male, wondering whether some, if not a lot, of the time she was almost having a dig at the almost tropist characters she creates whilst, simultaneously, revering their personalities and individual identities.

It’s kinda weird, because she seems to have her tongue firmly in her cheek much of the time, whilst quite clearly creating a platform for the expression of the views of women who rarely have a voice. Or, if they do, one they can only usually express on political platforms. And whilst some of these characters are most certainly political (especially the angry feminist gay, black playwright Ama – largely autobiographical), others, like the 93 year old Jamaican Scottish borders farmer(ess), are anything but.

It predominantly works, and each ‘chapter’ gains momentum with every page, introducing, like a David Mitchell trick, characters from previous life stories that almost went unnoticed in another’s.

More than once I found myself stopping to ask, “haven’t I met this person before” and being rewarded, after a bit of reverse speed reading, with a little treasure trove as I realised that indeed I had and that the skill of Evaristo was in hiding them under the radar, yet making them a critical part of her web structure.

It’s a triumph in places and overall scored highly for me, but not unreservedly, partly because the ending is a bit of a mixed bag.

The novel demonstrates much skilled, almost poetic, wring in a variety of styles that makes its fairly large bulk perfectly digestible.

More than good, maybe great, but not a classic, for me.

Small Island by Andrea Levy: Review


Small Island eBook: Levy, Andrea: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

I was late getting to this and only took it on as part of my work’s diversity group, book club. But I’m very glad that I did. It’s a terrific read that deserves the awards that it won.

The book tells the story of the arrival of the Windrush Generation of Jamaicans (the small island of the title, but in truth the small minded island they emigrate to) to London in 1948 (although much of the story is also set ‘before’ in the war years, where two of the male protagonists have served Air Force duty for Britain, one Jamaican, one English.

It’s plotted around the POV of a central cast of Hortense and Gilbert (a sort of Jamaican marriage of convenience that allows Hortense to move to London where Gilbert has found himself after his war duties – one of the many thousands of Jamaican airmen) and Queenie and Bernard (a loveless English couple and owners of the boarding house Gilbert and Hortense find themselves in). Several other characters are beautifully described as supporting characters, most notably WWI veteran and father of Bernard (Arthur).

This device is not uncommon and she underpins it with vernacular shifts between each section which I initially found difficult to get into, perhaps because I was reading it whilst tired. But as the story progresses it becomes increasingly compelling and sympathetic.

The novel could be a celebration of the contribution this wonderful generation of expatriate Jamaicans brought to our country, and our war winning efforts. But, instead, it captures reality, and what we have become accustomed to over the following half century and more, as the gestation of racial hatred sets in, partly fomented by the Jim Crow era supporting American GIs, stationed in Britain, who have no love for their own black compatriots or Britain’s imported reinforcements that find themselves stationed here. It’s not certain that they are the reason for Britain’s explosion of racism, but it can’t have helped. A central scene in a cinema, where segregation has been imposed, certainly supports this hypothesis.

Levy is not afraid to pepper her dialogue with the words that remained common in my playground of the the 60’s and 70’s and, incredibly, were tolerated, even celebrated, on our TV screens right up until the 80’s (wog, sambo, darkie and coon being four that feature heavily in the novel).

Whilst there are truly hilarious moments in the book (Levy refuses to wallow in persecution) and moments off great poignancy and love between the Jamaican incomers and the post-war English society-builders, it’s drowned out by the despicable intolerance of a fledgling community of people that put their lives on the line in defence of the realm only to be stigmatised and prejudiced to the point that many (including Gilbert) are so cowed and confused by the experience that they inevitably subjugate themselves under the overwhelming pressure they face.

Levy crafts a potboiler of a tale that pulls together the confusion of a nation (many of whom have been traumatised by war) with an inability to see that this new, more cosmopolitan, community that has sprung up is anything other than a threat.

Small Island indeed.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: Book Review.


The Sense of an Ending: Amazon.co.uk: Julian Barnes: 9782080332042: Books

Barnes’ 2011 short novel won the Booker Prize., usually a good enough reason to try out a new author (although fear has compelled my to assiduously avoid John Banville’s, The Sea). So it surprised me that I’d missed this from my fairly complete collection of winners.

It’s blackened page ends lends the novel a touch of mystery and that mystery does not disappear as its pages unfold.

It’s a novel about reflection as an elderly man (Tony Webster) reflects on his life and how his pursuit of mediocrity – a failed marriage that bled no acrimony and an unspectacular fatherhood – has made his virginal fling in student life with the well heeled and worldly Veronica came to be the highlight of his life.

The fact that Veronica, always his superior, moved on to his best friend and made a showy rebuke of our boring author’s desires only serves to rub the salt in.

A letter from he to her is so vitriolic as to take the breath away and so begins a decades long exile.

But the death of Veronica’s mother yields an unexpected bequeath to Tony that reopens his relationship with Veronica and a considerable amount of reflection on a past that was and a present that might have been.

It’s a short novel, and a slight story, but dense in meaning and psychological/philosophical forensics. Indeed it becomes so dense that it’s ultimately quite an unforgiving and arduous read.

I found it dense to the point of almost impenetrability and, if I’m honest, was glad to close the covers and move onto something else.

That’s not to say it’s not a great book. I think it probably is, but if it didn’t defeat me it certainly took me to penalties after extra time on a heavily watered and rain sodden pitch.

One for the critics.

Phoebe Reads a Mystery: Podcast Review. (In which Phoebe Judge murders Dracula.)


Dracula has been slain, murdered, disemboweled.

Murdered.

And the killer is quietly spoken ‘Criminal’ presenter Phoebe Judge.

Now, before you see this as a character assassination (like the fate that befalls Bram Stoker’s eponymous literary legend in this truly appalling exposition of a masterpiece) I have to state that I am a big fan of Judge’s long-running ‘Criminal’ podcast in which she brings us oddball stories of crime that do not fit the usual stereotypes of the True Crime genre.

‘Criminal’ is epic.

Her rendering of Dracula is anything but.

In fact, it’s possibly the worst storytelling experience in history.

She’s a great presenter, unquestionably, but a reader?

Nope.

Every sentence. Of this classic. Book. Is delivered. In breathy snatches. Like this. It drives you. Actually. Fucking nuts.

Overwraught. Overdramatic. Appalingly badly. Rendered. As if she is. Teaching herself to. Read. As you cringe. Into your headphones. And wish a giant bat. Would swoop down. From. The Skies. And eat her. Up.

It’s a. No. From me.

Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany by Uwe Schütte: Book Review.


Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany: Amazon.co.uk: Schütte, Uwe ...

Geek alert!

Do not read this book unless you are; in descending order of relevance:

A lifelong Kraftwerk fan (like me).

A serious Krautrock aficionado (like me).

An electronica fanboy (like me).

A general music enthusiast with a taste for the obscure (like me).

A music geek (like me).

A techno/hip hop/detroit house fan looking into that genre’s roots.

(Or all of the above.)

It’s a love affair with Kraftwerk by a true beleiver and a forensic researcher who has thoroughly investigated all of Kraftwerk’s music in chronological order with neat insights into the inspiration for each record (and tour) and the influence they had.

But more than that, it’s a psychological analysis of the minds of Florian Schneider (RIP) and Ralf Hütter – the main creative driving forces of the band from the late 60’s until now.

It argues very strongly that Kraftwerk are by no means simply a pop (or even music) group, they are an art form that started in industrialle Volksmusik before creating their own zeitgeist or Gesamtkunsterwerk.

In places it’s heavy on the cod philosophy and would be a mighty slog were it not for the 14 point type that makes pages easily consumable.

It’s light on humour, indeed it’s light on most stuff other than information and philosophy, and a heavy dose of ‘Man Machine’ talk but I, for one, found it a right riveting read.

Glory glory to the Krafties.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn: Book review.


The Salt Path by Raynor Winn | Waterstones

Despite its weaknesses this is a really rather lovely book.

It’s a poor man’s Bill Bryson meets Ranulph Fiennes, and when I say poor man, I mean poverty stricken.

Actually Raynor is a woman and the story is the odyssey she and her terminally ill husband took upon hearing within a few days that a) they were to be evicted from their family home after a long and deeply unfair court battle and b) of his unfavourable short-medium term prognosis over a neurological disease that would eventually reduce him to a vegetative state.

Not the best way to embark upon a 600+ mile walk of a coastal path (the Salt Path of the title) from Somerset, through North Devon, Cornwall, South Devon and finishing up in Poole.

It’s not an assault on the North Pole but neither were they fit, well or equipped. Furthermore, they were literally penniless.

My struggle with the tale is Winn’s obvious desire to live up to quality expectations that a Penguin-writer must face and a desire to tell a simple tale about her experiences; so that for large sections of the book, particularly in the first half, substance battles with style and the sometimes lack of the latter gets in the way of the former.

But she works it out and the modest heroism of the couple, combined with the subtle self-deprecating humour that she underpins the story with, gradually reels you in.

In the end it’s a story of the triumph of human spirit that’s engaging and beautiful.

The husband, Moth, is a saint of sorts – on more than one occasion acts of random kindness from him to others, in what he considered at the time, to be in even more challenged circumstances than their own are quite remarkable. This is a man with a heart of gold.

It’s also a great love story, because clearly Raynor loves Moth with her entire being and this radiates from the pages at times.

It’s not a classic, but it is a very rewarding read and spoilers aside it leaves you with a deep regard for a couple that truly grace the human species with their very fact of living and sharing this simple but heartfelt tale.

Recommended.

Dr. Death: Podcast review.


My first Wondery Podcast and an absolute peach.

This six parter tells the true story podcasts

of Dr Christopher Duntsch an American Neurosurgeon who is so incompetent that it’s inconceivable he’d ever get past first year in medical school, never mind freely operate on Spinal chord ailments in Texas, again and again and again, leaving a trail of destruction and, obviously, death behind him.

The story is a whydunnit? Why did he do what he did and more importantly why wasn’t he stopped.

It leaves medical practitionership in the US in an uncomfortable place. Ethics are clearly at a premium as money speaks louder than morality, but what really grips is the descriptions of what he did in horrifying detail.

If it wasn’t true you would think it a tad far fetched. But that’s what makes so many great podcasts so great.

One Two Three Four by Craig Brown: Book Review.


One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time: The Sunday Times ...

This story of the Beatles, from origin to split, by Craig Brown, a regular contributor to Private Eye, is a hoot.

He clearly has no time for Yoko who is constantly represented as a dolt and his suffrage of 21st Beatles tour guides in their native Liverpool brings tears to the eyes.

It’s a collection of observations told roughly chronologically, but often spinning and yawing from topic to topic with effortless ease, and touching on the lives of the band, their entourage, critics, their fans and The Queen.

A decent knowledge of the Beatles catalogue is helpful and a healthy respect for their genius and contribution to musical history will certainly enhance your enjoyment of this sturdy tome, weighing in at over 600 pages. Despite its length though it’s a breeze as chapters (over 150) are short, snappy and often delightful.

I’m no Beatles completist, so to those that are many of the anecdotes will be familiar; a lot of the tales are drawn from previous anthologies and biographies in a well researched journey that happily shares conflicting accounts of some of the more tawdry tales of their shenanigans. Did you know, for example, that Lennon finally gave into Epstein’s homosexual advances and allegedly relented to a bit of man on man action?

It’s bitingly satirical in places but clearly flows from the pen of a man much taken by the Fab Four’s legacy.

A fine read, highly recommended to all.

Enjoy. I sure did.

My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan: Book Review


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It might take you longer to read this post than it took me to read My Purple Scented Novel, by the king, back on fine form, Ian McEwan.

I began reading this little treasure at 11.30 last night and finished it before midnight.

34 pages long.

Short pages.

3,600 words short.

Most novels are at least 80,000 words long.

At a ‘words-per-penny’ rate (it cost me £1.99) My Purple Scented Novel weighs in at a miserly 18.1 words a penny.

So, if you spent a penny whilst reading My Purple Scented Novel you would only get as far as “You will have heard of my friend the once celebrated novelist Jocelyn Tarbet, but I suspect his memory…” before having to cessate your flow.

A penny spent luxuriating in your ‘average’ novel would probably allow you the luxury of a swiftly delivered poo AND a wipe.

But size, we all know, is nothing and this little McEwan gem, that crams in jealousy, revenge, conceit, criminality, schadenfreude, love, and many other glorious plot lines and devices into its dinky, seemingly disposable, being, is cherishable as only great McEwans can be.

It’s a writerly conceit (he has an inclination towards that) and therefore could be seen by many as vanity. (and it takes a fairly hefty swipe as ‘rival in writing’ Martin Amis.

I loved it.

It is crafted to within an inch of its microscopic life and for that reason, and the fact that it’s bloody clever and bloody funny, I’d recommend you shell out the exorbitant price (relatively speaking) that it demands.

 

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Book Review.


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This is a quite remarkable literary experience.

It’s kind of three books in one that overlap and interlink in ways that are often difficult to grasp and that come together in a strange and inexplicable way.

It does no justice to the novel, written at the turn of the millennium, to try to literally explain it.  Indeed much of its joy is in deciphering it as you go along.

In turns horrifying and hilarious it tells the stories of a young American (and very Jewish) novelist visiting the Ukraine to trace the history of his ancestors as he writes their story, beginning in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod – a Jewish settlement on the River Brod.  The village plays host to so many inconceivable traditions, that are often ludicrous, that it becomes an entity and character all of its own.

The novelist, Jonathan (also the author) speaks no Ukranian and enlists a translator (Alex) whose grasp of English is learned through Thesauri which leads to the mangling of the English language (with so many words seemingly out of place, but after pondering on them are simply inappropriate synonyms for what he is trying to say) in a way that bestows much of the book’s humour.

Post-trip, the author and the translator communicate (we only see the letters of the translator, with amusing references to the return correspondence) as the translator writes his own (awful) novel about the trip and ‘critiques’ the efforts of Foer as he pieces together his, and Trachimbrod’s, history.

The stories are interlinked and culminate around a terrible Nazi atrocity that occurs at the end of WW2.

What Foer achieves in writing so badly, telling a story so ridiculous, but underpinned with holocaustal horror, is like nothing you will ever have read before.  Think Monty Python meets Jonathan Littell (The Kindly Onesreviewed here).

It’s unique and compelling and funny and savage all at once.

That said, it’s a difficult read.

I’m not sure I really fully unravelled it and the whole experience would probably benefit from a second reading.  But it’s magical in many ways.

It’s one to read in only a few sittings with a real focus on it.

I fear I took too long to break it down.  But if you have the patience and the time to commit to it I’d strongly recommend it.

 

Normal People: BBC3. Early impressions.


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Last night we watched Episodes 1 and 2 of the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s coming of age Irish novel.

It’s described as the first millennial love story novel and I don’t know if that’s how the novel played out or not but the TV adaptation, masterfully directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), was simply a love story that’s been realised through the ages.

Much has been made of the sensitivity of the initial sex scene where Marianne loses her virginity to Connell and I have to agree it was directed with great care and sensitivity so as not to sensationalise the scene.

Episode one was a masterclass in tension.  The unfolding of Connell and Marianne’s romance, kept secret as it is from their sixth year classmates, had me on the edge of my seat.  And when Marianne asks the immortal question “can we take our clothes off now”, immediately after that first fleeting kiss, had my wife and I roaring with laughter: relief, I think.

In many ways it’s a standard romantic trope with the usual Jock, plain Jane, bullying boys and unattainable classroom beauties.  But none of it feels like a cliche because, wisely, Abrahamson, has let it play out slowly, surely and sympathetically so that it feels anything like cliche and nothing like a millennial-only piece that us Baby Boomers won’t get.

We 100% get it because it’s timeless.

Rarely have this standard storytelling structure been made to connect quite so realistically.

It’s breathtaking and I can’t wait for the next ten episodes.

Pine by Francine Toon: Book review


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It’s a sort of gothic horror for our times, although I’d describe it as more mystical than horrifying, and it brings in aspects of police procedural, but with no police.

Instead a crime is traced by 11 year old Lauren, a fairly neglected, and bullied at school, single-parent child.

Her dad, Niall, an alcoholic, has lost his wife (disappeared) in unresolved circumstances before Lauren can even remember what she looks like.  But is she dead, or is her ghost/spirit/person occupying the fringes of the novel?

Lauren has assumed mystical behaviours consistent with witchcraft, and perhaps inherited from her missing Mum.

It’s set on the edge of a pine forest in Northern Scotland and it’s written with great skill by first time novelist, Toon.  But what it scores highly on, in terms of writing panache and storytelling, it loses out a little on in tension.

It feels a little familiar and seems destined for our screens.  Indeed, for large parts. I felt I was reading a film transcript which let it down a little.

That all sounds a little dismissive, but if you are looking for a lightish read with a degree of writing quality (it’s published by Penguin after all) It’s worth picking up.

It’s a decent read.

 

 

Virus reading. An excellent novel about the aftermath of a global pandemic in animals. Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica. My review.


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Clearly this will not appeal to everyone.

As we ride out the early stages of a global viral pandemic it struck me as a good time to read a novel about a global viral pandemic.

This one infected animals so that their meat became poisonus.  Consequently a global order was put out to kill ALL animals.

Then there was ‘The Transition.’

In a carnivorous world what meat will carnivores then eat when there is no ‘meat’?

Well, obviously they eat human meat, but not wanting to sound like cannibals the authorities do not allow the citizens to call human meat, ‘human meat’ – that’s punishable by death,  and the sale of the resulting cadaver as ‘meat’.

So they are called ‘Heads’, have their vocal chords surgically removed just after birth so that they can’t talk/scream, and are raised to a variety of quality standards.

The hero of our novel is a slaughterhouse manager who is responsible for the buying of Heads and their processing, by way of slaughter.

But his life is complicated.

His beloved Dad is dying, his sister is horrible and leaves him to manage the care of their father, his wife has left him and his young son has died.

He’s lonely, he hates his job, his life and his family.

Then, one day, as a thank you for doing good business with a Head-seller he is given his own young, living, prime-grade female to take home and butcher.

This is an Argentinian novel and is quite heavily stylised, with little or no emotion – that’s left to the reader to take their own views on the proceedings, much of which describes this new, very odd and strangely acceptant society, in dispassionate terms.

It’s short, sharp and to the point and much of it is an allegory for how we consider the meat we consume today.  In that respect it’s a great book for vegetarians/vegans to enjoy triumphantly.

The way Bazterrica describes the slaughtering and butchering process is exactly how our animal meat is processed today.  Her trick is to anthropomorphize the process and, in so doing, begs the question as to whether this is morally acceptable.  “You wouldn’t do it to humans…’ is the central tenet here, if not actually stated.

It’s clever.  It’s interestingly, if a little coldly, written and it’s page turning.

It’s a really good political polemic and I found it engrossing.  Much is made of societal mores – class, privelege, behaviour, tradition, sexual politics.  It’s actually a pretty complex and multi-layered read.

I recommend it.  (But only for those of a stout literary constitution.)

True History of the Kelly Gang: Movie Review


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Some 20 or so years ago I lay by a pool in the Algarve, Portugal, and read Peter Carey’s source book of the same name for this movie.  It had just won the Booker Prize and, if I’m honest, it didn’t blow me away. In fact, judging from the last page corner fold (p266 0f 408) I didn’t even finish it.

I wasn’t exactly blown away by the trailers for the movie either so I approached with extreme caution, not least because IMDB’s reviews were, at best, lukewarm and, at worst, damning.

I’m not even sure why I shelled out – not just for me but for my wife and daughter too.

Anyway, suffice to say, it was a good choice because this is a great movie in the tradition of modern ‘Westerns’ that include the 2007 masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  

The trivia link?  Nick Cave. His son Earl Cave features in this Australian outback ‘western’ and Cave contributed the soundtrack to ‘Jesse James.’

The main damning criticism of the movie is, in fact, one of its strengths.  It’s languid.  Many say slow. No s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w.

For me, its pace allows it to breathe.  It allows the deep psychological distress, that has shaped Ned Kelly’s life and informed his young adult behaviour, to gestate.

The story concerns Australia’s most notorious outlaw’s life and times.  He and his gang assume personas as devotees of a secret society known as the Sons of Sieve, who disguise themselves through cross-dressing in reverence to legendary bushranger Steve Hart.

Their attire of dresses, charcoal face makeup and metal bucket masks, fashioned out of old ploughs, is entirely discombobulating as they are ruthless killers. It makes for an exciting visual impact.

Justin Kurzel (a director new to me) and his sidekick lighting cameraman Adam Arkapaw have conjured up a work of art.  And that’s why so many cinema-goers have loathed this film, expecting instead a blood and gore shoot out.  These come, but they are limited.

One such scene, towards the end of the movie, when a team of armed police advance on the Kelly Gang at the infamous Glenrowan siege, is electrifying and dazzlingly conceived.  Set to discordant music (Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother) the long line of the law are shot, at night, in rain, dressed in long rubber capes that, through a combination of stroboscopic lighting and some sort of weird white light, make them appear as a line of luminous KKK-like ghosts foretelling Kelly’s ultimate demise (at the age of 25).  It’s a searingly spectacular scene that literally took my breath away and is worth the admission fee for this alone.

George Mackay, who carries the year’s best movie (1917) almost singlehandedly, performs another excellent, but much more collaborative role here with a bunch of outstanding supporting players, notably his mother (Ellen Kelly) and his would be nemesis Nicholas Hoult (will he ever play a likeable character) as Constable Fitzpatrick. Russell Crowe astounds in my favourite performance of his career, albeit not much more than a cameo, as his early and wholly evil mentor.

This does have blood and guts, but its 18 (R) rating feels unjustified.  It’s a beautiful evocative celebration of early Irish immigrant exclusion, prejudice and societal revenge.  It’s a portrait of some sort of descent into mental chaos (although more subtly rendered than Joaquin Pheonix’s tour de force in Joker). But mainly, it’s just a damn fine movie.

 

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


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I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson: Book Review.


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Gideon Mack is a Scottish Minister, a man of the cloth.  Indeed the son of a man of the cloth.  But he doesn’t believe in God.

His Dad of the cloth was an absolute bastard and that probably contributed to his lie of a life.

Awkwardly, he also fancies his best mate’s wife and, more importantly, and centrally to the story, falls into a river near the fictional Scottish village of Monimaskit – where a raging river flows under it.

In trying to save a dog, who wanders too close to the edge of the canyon that carries the torrent into the unknown, Mack slips and falls to his death.  Or so the villagers think.

In fact, he survives the fall and meets, in an underground cavern, that the raging river takes us to, The Devil, with whom he strikes up an agreeable relationship before returning to his kinsfolk three days later, bruised and bloodied, but very much alive.

What follows is Mack’s difficult reconciliation of his shot-to-pieces faith, the retelling of his unlikely story that nobody believes and the death of an old friend.

James Robertson’s tale is a stirring Scottish romp through the double-standards of the Scots’ particularly Calvinist take on Christianity, duty, sanity and illicit love.

It’s a terrific yarn with much to recommend although I think it found its level on the Booker Prize Long List; any further would have been to have exalted it a little above its station.

Nevertheless, a most agreeable read.  Reasonably strongly recommended.

 

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and on tour: Review


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Nope, I’ve never read P&P.

I’ve never seen any of the movies or the TV adaptations – the nearest I ever got to it was Bridget Jones.

I wouldn’t know my Heathcliffe from my Jimmy Cliff.

And I’ve never read any Jane Austen in my puff – in fact I don’t even know who the bloke is.

But I read the Wikipedia synopsis (a good tip before seeing any period drama IMHO) on the way to the theatre.

I needn’t have bothered, because the storytelling in this truly wonderful production is first rate. I could have gone in colder than a monkey in a Walls factory and still emerged off pat with the storyline.

The cast of many characters (and referenced participants) is significant, and yet you’ll not miss a beat in this rip-roaring triumph of comedy theatre.

The six actors, all female, play 21 different characters plus, let’s call it five, assorted house maids, a total of 26 roles, making an average of 4.33 characters per actor.

That’s a new character for every 5 minutes 45 seconds of run time.  And yet at no point do we lose track of who is who and what is what in this runaway train of a tale.

It’s bawdy, it’s musical, it’s completely hilarious.

The crowd cheered, booed, clapped and rose as one in adulation as the curtain fell at just before 10.30 pm tonight.

The reason for this?  Tori Burgess, Felixe Forde, Christina Gordon and in particular Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur (the writer) and Meghan Tyler (also a writer – of Fringe First winning Crocodile Fever).

The directing, by Paul Brotherston is miraculous.

We’re treated to Londoners, Scots, Yorkshiremen and women and full-on Northern Oirish characters in a melange of Babelic proportions.

And yet, it all holds together, melds and synergistically builds into a thing so beautifully nuanced, so gut-wrenchingly funny that you wonder how it ever came about.  And still the story remains true and comes through.

Lovers of P&P will have no issue with this translation.

The all-female cast not only allows us a bit of fun with cross-dressing and assumed voices, but also a bit of cheeky girl meets girl, girl is smitten by girl innuendo.

The laugh out loud moments in this are countless.  Five in the first minute alone thanks to Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s complete ownership of her four main characters and her role as narrator in chief.

It’s brilliant.  Just brilliant.  See it.

 

Worth Dying for: The power and politics of flags by Tim Marshall: Book Review


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The title is a statement, not a question.  So is the author suggesting that, yes, flags are worth dying for?

In this terrific book Tim Marshall explores, over about 300 pages, why it is that flags have become such strong semiotic devices across the 21st century globe.

As Amazon says in its splurge; In nine chapters (covering the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, international flags and flags of terror), Tim Marshall draws on more than twenty-five years of global reporting experience to reveal the histories, the power and the politics of the symbols that unite us – and divide us.

I absolutely loved this.

Marshall has a nice line in sarcasm although he keeps that to a minimum.  Largely the book is a fascinating historical insight into the power of flags, usually three colours or less.

Why green is so important in Islamic countries.  Why blue can represent sky, sea and many other things.  Why red is typically the colour of blood.  Or, of communism.

Why maybe a half of global flags have a religious significance, almost all of those crosses are, yup, crucifixes.

Why regions congregate around themes.  Ever wondered why all the Scandi flags are left biased crosses, just with different colour ways?  Find out here.

It’s not just political flags either, we read about the chequered flag, the Olympic flag, the red cross and more.

A great read and a great opportunity to increase your score on University Challenge.

 

Glastonbury 50. The official story of the Glastonbury Festival: My review.


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The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts celebrates its 5oth anniversary this June and I will be there, for my fourth festival.

In fact although Glastonbury is 50 it’s only the 36th staging as there was a big hole in the 70’s and several ‘fallow years’.

For me it is the greatest music festival in the world, although it is far more than a musical festival, hence its formal name – The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts.

Did you know that at 200,000 attendees (135,000 tickets, 65,000 staff and volunteers) Glastonbury is more populous than Bath.  The site is bigger than my home town of South Queensferry.

These coffee-table type affairs don’t usually interest me all that much, but anyone who has been to, and fallen in love with, the festival will, like me, be drawn into every minuscule detail of the event.  I lost two long afternoons over the Christmas break devouring every single word and every single picture that tell the story in just the right amount of detail.

Performers share their, universally enthusiastic, memories (of course – it’s pure fan boy).

The Eavis’ father and daughter impressarios share their highs and (many) lows and we can be as geeky as we like, as readers, in dissecting the line ups and remembered highlights.

For me, my two all time highlights are described, both as it happens by Emily Eavis.

2012’s Radiohead secret gig on the Park Stage in the pouring rain and 2013’s masterful moment during Stagger Lee by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, pictured below.  I was about 50 yards away from this.

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Here it is in its entirety.  She rises from the crowd at 7’45”.

I love this comment on Youtube.  Hope it’s true…

To let you all know, I was the one that put the girl on my shoulders. My mate had Nicks foot on his shoulder and the girl in white popped up behind me, she was flustered and asked if i would put her on my shoulders, i accepted. When she came down she said ‘you’ve just made my entire life better’ then gave me a kiss on the cheek and disappeared, not my girlfriend, just a random girl that wanted a moment with nick. 🙂

 

 

Little Women: Movie Review.


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I haven’t read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, neither have I seen any of the previous film incarnations of her famed novel, so I came to this with no expectations other than that the cast is stellar and the director, Greta Gerwig, is highly noteworthy. (Lady Bird was superb in my opinion – next up is Barbie, written by Noah Baumbach and starring Margot Robbie – that should be interesting.)

What interested me structurally about the movie is that it is essentially both an autobiography and a fiction – the novel itself is represented as little stories but the narrative describes how the book came about.  For some critics this has been problematic as it requires (or allows if you prefer) a considerable amount of time-switching, that is not always captioned for the hard of intelligence.

The movie is an emotional rollercoaster with peaks of hilarity and depths of real pity as the four March sisters, that make up the main protagonists, live a struggling middle class life surrounded in close proximity by deep poverty and significant wealth.  It is this relationship with money, and the pursuit thereof, that is the central philosophical backbone of the movie and allows for many excellent vignettes and clear messaging that money is not the root of all happiness.

On the side of the rich sit three excellent portrayals; Timothy Chalomet (outstanding as the main love interest Laurie), his wonderful and generous of spirit grandfather (played beautifully and touchingly by Chris Cooper) and the ‘evil'(ish) rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep).  Laura Dern continues her annus mirabilis as the girls’ mother (it complements her performance in Marriage Story.)

More than once the beautiful tableaux’ that Gerwig sets up reminded me of Dorothea Langue’s Migrant Mother.  In that it resonates love and tenderness in the face of adversity.

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This is a tremendous piece of film making in every way.  It’s funny, moving, beautiful to look at, poignant and thought provoking.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent, as always, but Florence Pugh’s ability to appear both 14 and 26 is even more remarkable.  Emma Watson is solid and poor little Beth is played touchingly by Eliza Scanlen.

Overall it’s a great ensemble production with the real star of the show, Great Gerwig.

Bravo!

 

 

 

Solar by Ian McEwan: Book Review.


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This slipped under my radar, having read every one of his first 13 novels, novellas and short story collections.  I used to consider McEwan my favourite writer but that title has been lost after two out of three damp squibs.  This being one of them.

Solar was followed by the awful Sweet Tooth and it’s kind of a companion piece of sorts.  Although Solar is nominally about climate change, it’s really about a misogynistic old man’s sexual desires and, in that respect, riffs off the follow up which explores sexuality from the female side. Although Sweet Tooth is written in the first person (a terrible mistake as McEwan is a long way detached from a 20 something female’s perspective) this is written in the third person narrative, although I use the word narrative with reservations.  It doesn’t make it any better.

It’s just plain boring from start to finish, is the problem.  Long ponderous descriptive set pieces, deep dive examinations of a character’s character from the despicable anti=hero’s perspective – the deathly dull Nobel Prize winning philanderer Michael Beard.

McEwan creates a character that is so unremittingly unlikeable that it’s difficult to find any purchase in the proceedings.  I simply didn’t care about him one whit.

Writing about unsympathetic or unpleasant characters is by no means a forlorn task.  Jeckyl and Hyde, Frankenstein, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume; all feature monsters that are utterly compelling.

This just features a monster.

The cover blurb states that it is the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.  I am incredulous at that as it is simply not funny.  Grotesque perhaps, but funny – no.

If McEwan hadn’t followed up sweet tooth with The Children Act I’d say his career was over, but The Children Act is a formidable piece of writing and storytelling that sits along his best.

This and Sweet Tooth, by contrast, feel self-indulgent, knocked off with particularly thin premises for their existence.  Thank God it’s over.

Avoid.

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol at The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh.


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Ahhhh, The Lyceum Christmas Show is upon us once again and Tony Cownie and his regular core of performers have taken the right decision of NOT descending into pantomime, because the Lyceum doesn’t do panto.  You’ll get that at The Kings.

Instead what he has cleverly done is merged the stories of Greyfriar’s Bobby with Dickens’ perennial favourite, thus giving it a life of its own and a new reason to visit a story that we can all probably recite in our sleep.

And it works a treat.

Bobby is a central character and Cownie gets round the problem of teaching dogs to act by making him (and Tiny Tim) puppets adding a further dimension to an already novel take on the novel.  It’s charming and the puppeteers invest real sympathy into Tiny Tim’s character and zest, bounce and good comedy into Bobby’s.

And because the cast includes Nicola Roy, Steve McNicoll and Grant O’Rourke (pulling off an impressive 13 roles between them and a flurry of costumes) it’s hilarious, with Nicola Roy getting the lion’s share of tasty one-liners. They often feel familiar but are mostly, in fact, new.

He knows his way around a gag does Tony Cownie.  “Aye [Scrooge], he’s so mean if he found a crutch in the street he’d go home and break his leg.”  (Which reminds me of an old favourite of mine: A man sees that dog food is half price in the supermarket, turns to his wife and says “We must buy a dog.”)

Crawford Logan takes the lead as the humbugerous Ebenezer Scrooge and carries the part off with aplomb, transforming beautifully from miser to philanthropist at the drop of a hat.

It barrels along, not allowing any particular sequence to outstay its welcome. The Ghost of Christmas Past sequence is particularly eye-catching and good for the storytelling, Eva Traynor is strong in the role in a spectacular green costume.

It’s all done and dusted by 9pm so time for a few seasonal libations.  Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Doctor Sleep: Movie Review.


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This is a direct follow up to the Shining.

Indeed, the opening scenes star a young Danny Torrance and his mum Wendy (with Alex Essoe playing Shelley Duvall playing Wendy Torrance).  At a later point in the movie a Jack Nicholson impersonator also joins the proceedings (only it’s an uncredited, in IMDB, actor playing Nicholson playing the barman Lloyd).  These could, of course, have been terrible missteps but director Mike Flanagan adeptly carries it off, just.

In fact the entire movie is a dangerous exercise in, just, getting away with it.

It neatly explains some of the mysteries of the much cherished The Shining movie, but steps away from the mostly unspoken horror of Kubrick’s classic to become a sort of Harry Potter fantasy.

So, strangely the first 20 minutes and the last thirty (both truest to the original) are the most satisfying.

In the middle lies a pretty stodgy lump of twaddle really (Flanagan both directs and edits, which contributes to the stodge) and centres on a curious interplay between Ewan MacGregor, as the whisky soaked but recovering alcoholic that Danny has turned into, another shiner, played well enough by 13 year old Kyleigh Curran (her character name Abra is a pretty clunky pun) and a radiant Rebecca Ferguson, as the arch villain and leader of gang of bad ‘shiners’,

McGregor is tolerable, not something I’d often say, playing the part understatedly.

It is what it is.

This is not even a patch on its predecessor but there are just about enough pluses to keep you involved for its challenging 210 minute run time.

A curiosity, I’d say, that committed Shining fans, like me, should on balance, go see.

Just.

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Joker: Movie review


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“A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society” is IMDB’s excellent byline description of this deep exploration of disintegrating (disintegrated?) mental health.

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It’s described as taking place in the ‘Scorseseverse’ by some critics, in that Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck appears to be an homage to many of Scorsese’s monumental 70’s characters.  And what’s more, De Niro has a supporting role that shows he still can deliver the goods when not just taking a part for the money.

So I’ve already used the M word and in this Academy Award winning performance (of that there is no doubt) Joaquim Phoenix’s monumental performance will put the Academy back on track after their laughable decision to recognise Rami Malek for impersonating Freddie Mercury last year.

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I detest impersonation movies on the whole, but this is no impersonation, this is a character crafted out of magic.  It’s not a superhero movie in the slightest and all the better for it. It’s simply a character study of great depth and extreme nuance.

One thing I loved about this intense study of a disintegrating man is the extreme close ups that shows Phoenix in all his imperfections, his upper lip, his wonky teeth, his chewed finger nails, his nicotine stained fingers (possibly make-up).  It’s glorious.

It is unquestionably a masterpiece, not just for Phoenix’s performance, but for every SINGLE aspect of cinema:  music (White Room by Cream blasts out of the screen in the final apocalyptic act to tremendous effect – but it’s outstanding throughout), make-up (stunning), costume (stunning), cinematography (stunning – the dance on the steps and the aerial train track shot particularly blew me away), design (epic) and direction (Todd Phillips follows up his epic production, but not direction, of A Star Is Born remarkably It’s interesting looking at Todd Phillips’ Filmography though – a real mixed bag with much of it centred on comedy – The Hangover in particular.)

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But you don’t need me to tell you  how good this movie is – you don’t get a 9.1 rating on IMDB without reason.

See it and bathe in its mastery.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy: Book Review.


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Did you think No Country For Old Men was terrifyingly and completely impassively violent?

Did you think The Road was a dystopia like no other?

You did?

Well, you have experienced nothing until you enter the depraved world of Lester Ballard.  A Cormac McCarthy character that makes Hannibal Lector seem like Micky Mouse.

Except, the point is, this horror of a being could only get away with it, as a piece of ‘entertainment’ by being created by Cormac McCarthy.  A man whose dexterity with the written word has no peer.

I assumed I’d missed the recent publication of this short novel, so vibrant is its prose (its poetry), because it is so adept, so crafted, so gifted, so mature; but in fact, it turns out it was published (once banned) in 1973.

It’s early work FFS.

It’s a man learning his craft.

The quality of his writing is colossal.  Seriously, when you read about a man this depraved going about his depravity, yet you marvel at its beauty, it’s hard to reconcile.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but approach with caution because a teacher was once fired for approving this as A-level (well the American equivalent) study material.

It’s that bad, yet it’s that great.