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Saturday, 17 July 2010

Juno: On Watching Again


I love the dynamic between Juno and Bleeker in this film. She woos him by festooning his front lawn with oodles of his favourite tic-tacs, serenades him in a deleted scene and it is she who marches to his territory of the running track and declares her love for him.

He is not emasculated by any of this and is happy for her to come and get him. He also gives her a proper telling off when her jealousy over his prom date prompts some sulky needling.

And they sing together!!!!


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Tove Jansson Delights

After reading this lovely profile of Tove Jansson's granddaughter Sophie, I popped over to Amazon to buy my first Moomin's book and saw that a new book of short stories, Travelling Light, was being published this month. Wonderful! Both books have now arrived and, as with all Jansson's books are beautifully designed.


I didn't like the Moomins television cartoons when I was a child as I found them creepy but I have loved Jansson's work for adults so much, and read so much about her dedication to her hippo-like creations that I simply must give them another try.




As with all Sortof book's editions of Jansson's work, this collection is preceded by a glowing review by Ali Smith and a is emblazoned by a ringing endorsement from Philip Pullman. Jansson's writing is very quiet and subtle but it digs deep and stays with you long after the book has been closed. I look forward to reading both immensely.

I also love that translators of Jansson's works have such excellent names; Thomas Teal translated her novels and these stories have been brought to us by Silvester Mazzarella. Awesome.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers


After reading the mammoth non-fiction tome Homocide, I thought that I'd stay with fiction for a while, but Zeitoun will be due back at the library soon and Dave Eggers wrote the last two films I watched so this account of one family's experience of Hurricane Katrina came next.

Abdulraham Zeitoun (known by his last name) is a Syrian Muslim who runs a successful contracting and decorating business in New Orleans with his wife Kathy. They are bright, honest, extremely hard working people who have built up a lot of goodwill in their adopted town with their hard graft and kind natures.

When reports of the incoming hurricane become more unnerving, Kathy begs her husband to evacuate with her and their four children but he refuses, determined to ride out the storm and look after their home, office and various rental properties across the town. He has sat out many a storm in this way before and Kathy ends up leaving for Baton Rouge without him.




We know what happens next.

This is non-fiction and all dates and events have been verified where possible, but Eggers does not write Zeitoun's story in an objective journalist's style. The book is very even handed and fair to all involved (Eggers even tracked down law enforcement officers who arrested Zeitoun to get their side of the story) but the tale reads like a novel with character backstory, beautiful imagery and pacy plot.

Obviously some of the events that take place are horrifying and there are glimpses of humanity at it's most base and stupid but there is also a lot of unexpected hope, beauty and faith in the essential goodness that total strangers can show each other.

My favourite section is where Zeitoun ventures out in his aluminium canoe to explore the new world that the flooding had created:

" He was conflicted about what he was seeing, a refracted version of his city, one where homes and trees were bisected and mirrored in this oddly calm body of water. The novelty of the new world brought forth the adventurer in him - he wanted to see it all, the whole city, what had become of it."

A lot of issues are covered in this compact book, the American government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the opacity of modern bureaucracy, Islamaphobia, the hysteria of tabloid media and the gaping holes in supposedly civilised justice systems. Although obviously dystopian in setting and full of infuriating and terrifying moments, Zeitoun is also a deeply humane book which gave my misanthropic heart a little lift.

Author proceeds of the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation.





Monday, 12 July 2010

Where The Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze


Is this a children's film? It is a movie about childhood, but it is perhaps too slow and subtle to capture the imagination of a younger audience. Perhaps I am underestimating our young friends, however.

The film takes the ten lines of Maurice Sendak's book and spreads the slim tale of Max who is made King of the Wild Things over 104 minutes.

The story begins in Max's neighbourhood and the first few scenes reminded me very strongly of 2008's vampire movie 'Let The Right One In' with it's wintry suburban setting and a lonely boy given to acting out violent assaults on imaginary enemies who is tormented by neighbourhood kids.

Max is from a broken home and is given to volatile outbursts against his disinterested teenage sister and his sympathetic mother (Catherine Keener). A tea-time confrontation with his mother sends the boy on a tearing escape out into the streets which ends with the discovery of a boat, a long voyage, and the discovery of the home of the Wild Things.

The Wild Things are called things like Carol, Ira and Judith and are voiced by familiar voices from Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Little Miss Sunshine. They have relationship problems and are insecure with low self esteem. They are a bunch of hairy, woodland dwelling Woody Allens, wringing their hands and looking for guidance. Therefore, Max is able to persuade them not to eat him and to make him their King instead.

There is a melancholy woven throughout the film and it is a gentle and unusual creation. I was unsure how I felt about it after watching it and it is difficult to know who it is aimed at. Too slow for kids, too weird for mainstream, perhaps not arty enough for the art-house crowd. It is haunting nonetheless and I shall probably watch it again soon to make up my mind. It is sweet and it is tender and I felt quiet and pensive when it had finished.


Sunday, 11 July 2010

World Cup Woe

Are any other bookish sorts trapped into watching the World Cup final tonight?

I don't hate football at all, I find the punditry and politics quite interesting and I enjoy the face of Alan Hansen. I also feel a maternal lump rise in my throat as small children are led out onto the pitch, a stirring national anthem swells and tone deaf players mumble along to words they blatantly don't know.

Penalties destroy me.

Football has a lot going for it, but matches are 90 minutes long and I don't understand the rules so I shall be perusing yesterday's collection of sporting poems in yesterday's Guardian as collated by our Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy who contributes this gem:


The Shirt
Afterwards, I found him alone at the bar
and asked him what went wrong. It's the shirt,
he said. When I pull it on it hangs on my back
like a shroud, or a poisoned jerkin from Grimm
seeping its curse onto my skin, the worst tattoo.
I shower and shave before I shrug on the shirt,
smell like a dream; but the shirt sours my scent
with the sweat and stink of fear. It's got my number.
I poured him another shot. Speak on, my son. He did.
I've wanted to sport the shirt since I was a kid,
but now when I do it makes me sick, weak, paranoid.
All night above the team hotel, the moon is the ball
in a penalty kick. Tens of thousands of fierce stars
are booing me. A screech owl is the referee.
The wind's a crowd, forty years long, bawling a filthy song
about my Wag. It's the bloody shirt! He started to blub
like a big girl's blouse and I felt a fleeting pity.
Don't cry, I said, at the end of the day you'll be back
on 100K a week and playing for City.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Stars In The Bright Sky by Alan Warner


Alan Warner is one of my favourite authors. I love art that makes you look at the mundane everyday details of life and fall in love with them, books and films which take the stranger than fiction, messy, hilarious life that we all know and hand it back to us as a beautiful, precious gift.

The Stars In The Bright Sky is a sequel to Warner's third novel The Sopranos which followed a group of schoolgirls from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour on their choir's daytrip to Edinburgh from 'the port', a small town in the West Coast of Scotland which is based on Oban where the author grew up.

The book takes up with the girls about four years after the events of The Sopranos as the group prepare to go on a last minute holiday together. Kay and Finn have gone to university, flatmates Chell and Kylah are working jobs in the port and Manda has given birth to two year old  'turnip with an earing' Sean. The sixth character from the Sopranos, Orla, has died and Finn's London flatmate, Ava, has joined the girls on their jaunt.

'Life is what happens when you're making plans' sums up the plot of this book. For various reasons, the girls do not just hop onto a plane booked on Kay's laptop the night before and instead spend time in various hotels, bars and Heathrow airport talking, laughing, fighting and figuring each other out. Warner's first heroine, Movern Callar, despises people wishing their lives away and lives very firmly in the moment and this insistence that it is the present that counts runs through this novel like a neon thread.

Even the girls' entrance of the interior of an airport is made to feel like an expedition to a magical world.

"Above them was the cathedral height of roof cables and the realisation that most of the volume was just circulating air space - its own atmosphere - above the unseen, dust-filthy roofs of airline counters and shops."

Manda is the chief proponent of the joys of intemperence with her determination to have fun wherever she is and a lovely way of instantly forgetting slights and wrongs from other people towards herself if they lead to laughter and a good time. When posh, sophisticated Ava finally tires of Manda's constant jibes, innuendo and thoughtless, braying behaviour and shoves her over, Manda slides arse over tit down a muddy slope and ends up in a heap at the bottom, control knickers clearly displayed. When she sees that the other girls are laughing, she laughs too and she holds no grudge.

"Well I didn't mean for you to slide away in the mud", 
"Aye I know, but I was dead brilliant wasn't I?"

Manda is one of the three girls who has been left behind in the port by friends who have gone to university to study Philosophy and Architecture. Although the group of six is ostensibly divided in this manner, no group is elevated above the other. The port girls sometimes seem a little crass and naive but at others times they are earthy and wise (even Manda). The uni girls can seem a little precious on occasion but at the same time they are down to earth girls at heart who care deeply for their friends.

Equally, no one girl is the heroine of the book. Manda gets the most attention but can be an absolute monster and the others all have fully rounded, real personalities. The deepness of the girls' friendships are clear but very lightly dealt with. The book is a perfect balance of lairy, comedic debauchery and pure love for the world around us. The prosaic everydayness of life buts up against intense personal feeling.

" Now a series of yellow-and-black signs in light boxes, illuminated from within and suspended at roof level from vertical, chrome bars, gave orientation; the young women obediently lifted their chins, to obey the information upon these signs, as -apart from Ava- they had once lifted their faces together to the bright stained glass of their school chapel where a turquoise-and-rose light would fall upon their foreheads.


Caution. You are approaching a moving walkway."

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets by David Simon


I felt like I needed a shower after finishing this. I read about decomposing bodies, vile apartments being searched for rusty knives and guns, overweight men drowning themselves in coffee and booze and obsessive, desperate hours spent pouring over old case files just hoping to get a break in that elusive case.

Yet I loved this book. The grimness of the subject matter, (and it is grim, the violence is all completely nonsensical and often completely avoidable) is lifted by the humanity of those who seek to avenge it.

You are probably envisaging a noble group of men who kneel beside murder victims and mutter "why? why?" but they are too busy doing their job to be noble about it. Solving murders is not a calling to many of them, it is a job that they do every single day, aspects of which soon become rote, like in any job.

David Simon shadowed a shift of Baltimore homicide detectives from the 1st of January until the 31st of December 1988. He followed them to their call outs, listened into interrogations and perused all the detectives cold case files. In the epilogue, the author expresses bemusement twenty years later that he was allowed such unstinting access.

It actually feels like he did more, that Simon is omniscient throughout the book. He describes the thoughts, motivations and frustrations of his detectives. We see it all.

There is the gore, the squeamishness of even some of the veterans in the morgue and the bureaucratic insistence on keeping the statistics up to scratch even if it means neglecting to follow up cases. We see the petty office frictions, the acres of paperwork that seems to overshadow the actual 'police work' and the sheer, mindless stupidity of many Baltimore criminals.

The detectives all feel differently about their jobs. Some, like McLarney and Worden are born cops who relish the day to day work of putting cases to bed. McLarney, in particular, is wedded to the force with fond memories of "racing up Pennsylvania Avenue with that blue strobe light show on top of the car and 'Theme from Shaft' blasting from a tape player on the front seat."

Others, like Pellegrini, whose year long battle to solve the murder of an eleven year old girl almost wipes him out, are decent detectives but don't seem to derive much satisfaction from the job.

I knew that this book was the source material for the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, but I didn't realise just how much the show drew from this book. The characters are loosely based on the real life detectives but the cases, techniques, banter, conversations with suspects and office politics appear almost intact until at least the fifth series of the show. It's that rich.

This is why the show is great. It is real and it is how it all actually happened and truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes the producers, to please the networks, would throw in a love affair or an evil twin killer or a sniper attack on Baltimore, but the best scenes are taken from the book:

The female medical examiner is asked by a detective visiting the morgue "what's a lady like you doing in a place like this?" "Looking for Mr Right" she drawls as she sharpens a huge knife.

A dumb yet stubborn suspect is tricked into believing that a photocopier is a lie detector.

A detective is shocked out of his contempt for a filthy house full of murder suspects when a little boy who lives there tugs on the cop's sleeve and asks if he can go and get his spelling homework from his room.

An interrogator refers to himself as "a salesman selling a product that his client has no genuine use for. A life term jail sentence."

The one problem with all of this versimilitude is that everyone seems to have the same name. The real life contains far more coincidences  than a fictional author would allow himself. Nearly every other policeman is called Donald, two of the detectives in the same small squad have the same last name, two suspects for high-profile murders have the same name, murder victims share Christian names and surnames and the father of a  murder suspect is accidentally exhumed in the course of a completely unrelated case. It can get a little confusing.

The most striking thing about the book, however, is that, although these investigators of death have to numb themselves enough just to get through the job, it is the detective who can still retain his humanity and relate to people on the street who seems to be the most successful.

Pellegrini, who catches himself referring to eleven year old Latonya Wallace as "that broad" after too long reducing her brutal rape and murder to a bulging case file of photographs and reports, struggles with his case. In contrast, lone wolf Edgerton is not afraid to go out alone and talk to witnesses one on one instead of intimidating them with a trio of armed cops, and he has friendly relationships with informants, witnesses and street kids. Veteran of the department Worden, has a fatherly way of speaking to drug dealers and  the inhabitants of white trash 'billytown'. He treats suspects with calm respect. Both close cases.

Closing a case or turning a name on the white board from red to black is the main goal, regardless of whether one investigator has had a "stone whodunnit" of a drug murder and the other has had a "dunker" like a domestic dispute. The one that turns his name to black is, in the eyes of his superiors, the better cop. Numbers matter to the Captains, Majors, Commanders etc and police politics makes more of an appearance in the account than existential angst and grieving parents.

This seems wrong and is distressing. But it's the way that it happened.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Away We Go by Sam Mendes


A lot of bloggers really didn't  like this film calling it 'smug', bourgeois' and 'conventional'. True, nearly everyone in it is middle class and (except the main two characters, Burt and Verona) live in exquisite homes but I found it pretty radical in that the couple who find they are expecting a baby, ACTUALLY LIKE EACH OTHER.

The film is not about their whirlwind fall into love, they have already been together for years. At no point do they seem to question their feelings for each other; they bicker a bit and there is some eye-rolling when Burt does a stupid phone voice but, although Verona doesn't want to marry, they seem sure that they are spending the rest of their lives together. There is no question that they want their baby either. This film is about them searching for somewhere to put down roots, where they will both be happy and can live together, forever, with their expected daughter.

I find it sad that this cosy and comfortable dynamic between a lead couple so surprised me. I am used to watching films when the men are constantly sneaking off to strip clubs, bemoaning their attached status and saying things like "just give 'em what they want man, I just say 'yes' without even listenin' any more."

Likewise, attached women in films and television are always talking about how awful men are. I could never fully enjoy Sex and the City for instance because, although the women in it spent a lot of time discussing men, they didn't seem to enjoy their company terribly much.

Verona and Bert are always together in this movie and are each other's best friend. They make each other laugh and compromise to make the other one happy. There are other couples in this film, Burt's parents and several friends of the couple and again, they are presented as individuals who are also a part of couples.

Even the awful characters played by Maggie Gylenhaal and Josh Hamilton are a united front with their condescending view of Burt and Verona's child rearing plans. Maybe this is because the screenplay was written by a married couple, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida who also, (presumably) actually like each other. Surely this is to be celebrated? It is not a perfect film, but in its treatment of relationships, it is certainly not 'conventional.'



Sunday, 27 June 2010

Carol Ann Duffy, Yeah!






I am still reading bloody Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets which is great, but so very, very long. So today, I shall post the first poem which really blew me away; Small Female Skull by Carol Ann Duffy.


With some surprise, I balance my small female skull in my hands.
What is it like?  An ocarina?  Blow in its eye.
It cannot cry, holds its breath only as long as I exhale,
mildly alarmed now, into the hole where the nose was,
press my ear to its grin.  A vanishing sigh.




For some time, I sit on the lavatory seat with my head
in my hands, appalled.  It feels much lighter than I'd thought;
the weight of a deck of cards, a slim volume of verse,
but with something else, as though it could levitate.  Disturbing.
So why do I kiss it on the brow, my warm lips to its papery bone,



and take it to the mirror to ask for a gottle of geer?
I rinse it under the tap, watch dust run away, like sand
from a swimming cap, then dry it - firstborn - gently
with a towel.  I see the scar where I fell for sheer love
down treacherous stairs, and read that shattering day like braille.



Love, I murmur to my skull, then, louder, other grand words,
shouting the hollow nouns in a white-tiled room.
Downstairs they will think I have lost my mind.  No.  I only weep
into these two holes here, or I'm grinning back at the joke, this is
a friend of mine.  See, I hold her face in trembling, passionate hands




I was seventeen and didn't really 'get' poetry but this was intriguing and scary and mournful. I could hear sounds and see images and feel what the protagonist is touching.

I wondered if the shower cap image was meant to represent a caul and I loved the fact that the rhymes bounced about the poem instead of being parked at the end of each line "Blow in it's eye... it cannot cry... a vanishing sigh." I picked the entire thing apart and examined it's glistening components with wonder.

I was overjoyed when Carol Ann Duffy was announced as Poet Laureate and I am delighted that she has been so productive and relevant in the role.

Although this was my first Duffy poem, my favourite is Little Red-Cap from her wonderful collection The World's Wife.


... But then I was young - and it took ten years
 in the woods to tell that a mushroom 
stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
are the uttered thoughts of trees, that a greying wolf
howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out,
season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe...


Thursday, 24 June 2010

What Next?


How do you decide what to read next?

A lot of bloggers out there seem to be reading through shortlists for awards, or broadening their horizons by purposefully seeking out non Western authors, for instance, or works from an author they've never tried before.

I am also amazed at the number of people who seem to have these TBR (to be read) piles which some are methodically working their way through. I have no IDEA how many books I own which haven't been read and I certainly do not know the order in which they will be read. I actually hate the idea of having read every book on my shelves as I love having the lure of many undiscovered tomes lining my living room wall. (Am I the only one who sits and gazes at my bookshelves with a happy, dreamy expression on my face? Seriously, I do this a lot.)

When I am finishing a book, I start to get a feeling of the type of book I would like to read next, an itch that will need to be scratched. For instance, if I have been reading some magical realism or gentle romance, then I become thirsty for non-fiction; if I'm coming to the end of a novel set in the Victorian age then I will suddenly feel the need to read about contemporary characters whose daily, outer lives reflect my own. The feeling is sometimes vague but at other times, it is highly specific.

I am still reading the enormous Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, and this procedural, journalist's document filled with statistics, personal histories and grim realities has led to a yearning for something frothy and a little more superficial.

I want to read something set in New York in the mid 20th century. No earlier than the 20s and no later than the early 1980s. I have an image in my mind of a sophisticated drinks party attended by authors, playwrights and a couple of movie stars. The women are wearing cocktail dresses and the men sport ties. Glasses clink and slightly posh laughter rings in my ears. There is delightfully acerbic banter and there will probably be a couple of affairs. If there is a book which crosses Nora Ephron's New York nostalgia  with Truman Capote's social life and Elaine Dundy's razor-sharp lust for life, then it is what I wish to read next.

I want it to have descriptions of delicious food stuffs too.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington


I basically read whatever Ali Smith tells me to, so this is how I came to The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington.

I was already aware of Carrington's work as a surrealist painter and knew a bit about her life story. Born into English wealth in 1917, she was a rebellious scholar who mirror-wrote with both hands, got expelled by the nuns who taught her and spent her debut at court reading an Aldous Huxley novel in the corner.

After deciding to study art, she met the surrealist painter, Max Ernst at the age of 19 and eloped with him to Paris.  Carrington was accepted into the surrealist world with open arms and, although very young and inexperienced, her work as a writer and artist was greatly respected by her older peers.

A period in a Madrid mental asylum was cut short when her nanny came to rescue her in a submarine (awesome) and she lived and worked for a long time in Mexico before relocating to New York. She now lives in Mexico again and is 93.

Le Bon Roi Dagobert 1948

The Memory Tower 1995

The Giantess 1947

(All three images taken from Artnet)

The Hearing Trumpet's plot has been described as "a 92-year-old English feminist held captive in a medieval Spanish castle turned into a nursing home." (in Susan Aberth's wonderful Leonora Carrington:Surrealism, Alchemy and Art) and the protagonist is indeed 92, toothless, deaf and be-whiskered Marion Leatherby who spends her time combing her cats, spinning their fur into wool and trying to "make herself useful" without getting under the feet of her young and impatient relations with whom she lives.

The story begins when Marion's best friend Carmella gives her a hearing trumpet which Marion uses later that night to eavesdrop on the after dinner conversation of her family. She discovers that a plan to send her to a retirement home named the Well of Light Brotherhood is afoot.


Marion listens to the plans of her family.


If the heroine of this tale was young and sprightly, then she would escape this fate which terrifies her, but Marion is old and frail and so does indeed go to live at the institution where old ladies live in houses shaped like toadstools, chalets, train carriages and an Egyptian mummy. Dr Gambit is in charge and the ladies eat their dinner under the watchful eye of an Abbess depicted in paint.

This all sounds completely weird, of course and the accompanying illustrations by Carrington are unnerving but this book is not just a freaky-deaky tale of the occult, but a very funny, exhilarating and sensitive story of mystery, friendship and the helplessness that comes when you are old enough to be thought of as irrelevant.

My favourite scene is when Marion confusedly sifts through the memories of a man she once knew, "The man with white flannels" that arrive unbidden as she sits in the garden:

 Are you going somewhere Darling?
    
Yes, going to the woods.

Then why do you say you will remember them all your life? 

Because you are part of their memory and you are going to disappear, the anemones are going to blossom eternally, we are not.

Darling stop being philosophical it doesn't suit you, it makes your nose red.

Since I discovered that I am really beautiful I don't care about having a red nose it is such a beautiful shape.

You are hatefully vain.

No Darling, not really because I have a frightful foreboding that it will disappear before I know what to do with it. I am so horribly afraid I don't have time to enjoy being vain...

...You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It's not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can't even remember your name. I remember your white flannels better than I can remember you. I remember all the things I felt about the white flannels but whoever made them walk about has totally disappeared."


The cover illustration is just perfect and is by my new favourite artist, a Belgian illustrator Emilie Seron. You can see more of her work here and I absolutely love this image of hers called L'Attente:

Sunday, 20 June 2010

She's A Berry! (As In Nick, Non-Eastenders Obsessives.)


Well somebody looks like they're going to be ace in their cameo of Being Human, don't they Lacey Turner? Damn you, Turner why do I have the feeling that your post-Eastenders career is going to be brilliant?

Is it wrong that I want all my favourite Eastenders characters to live in the BBC studios for the rest of their natural lives, subsisting on BBC canteen pies and forced to act out increasingly out-of-character plot lines for my viewing pleasure?

I suppose that I shall now have to switch my Favourite Character anointment from Stacey to Tamwar, whose maturity and intelligence during the recent Gaysian storyline attracted my stalkerish admiration. I had originally lined up his father, Masood, for the role, but I don't like the new direction of the character and prefer it when Masood and his wife Zainab are delightfully in love.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

Amazing Haul



I seem to be obtaining more books than I am actually reading, but I am sure that one of my antisocial, book-gorging periods is coming up when I shall be reading books one-straight-after-the-other whilst cooking, eating, walking and peeing and, although it will do my relationship no favours, it will surely bring things up to speed.

I went to my local charity shop today and bought three classic books and a great LP for SEVENTY PENCE. I wouldn't be that bothered if I dropped that paltry amount down a drain and yet I get all this great stuff:



I know that a lot of bloggers were bored to tears by A S Byatt's The Children's Book but, although I agree that her research was far to copiously apparent, I did really enjoy the story and thought that it was a very deserving Booker nominee. Possession is the novel that she is best known for and so I look forward to lots more great storytelling and, I hope, a little less extensive historical exposition.

I have not yet read Zadie Smith but have heard many great things about White Teeth and even if it turns out to be rubbish (which I am certain it won't) it only cost 20 flippin' pence.

I adored The House of the Spirits and enjoyed the first two books in Isabelle Allende's trilogy for children, The City of Beasts and Kingdom of the Golden Dragon. I also love the cover design for this book.

Now here is a question. I lost my mind a little today when I saw all the great stuff but I usually do not like to buy books from still living authors second hand as it seems to me to be the same as downloading music illegally or pirating DVDs. Someone, whose work you respect, is being done out of money. I know that authors get some royalties from library loans but they surely get nothing for second hand sales of their books. What are your views on this?


There are previous posts declaring my deep, abiding love for the fantastic series Homicide: Life On The Streets and the source material, Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets by eventual The Wire creator David Simon, was eventually returned to the library.

At 650-odd pages, this is a lot of murder-based reading but I have already begun and it is as gripping as the show.  A journalistic record of David Simon's year of shadowing the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department, it details the exact processes followed by over-time hungry detectives who view a dead body as a tool in the day to day grind of solving crimes. It is not a noble calling, just a necessary, pain in the arse job.

"For each body, he gives what he can afford to give and no more. He carefully measures out the required amount of energy and emotion, closes the file and moves on to the next call. And even after years of calls and bodies and crime scenes and interrogations, a good detective still answers the phone with the stubborn, unyielding belief that if he does his job, the truth is always knowable.

A homicide detective endures."

Fans of the show will recognize the gallows humour, squadroom banter and some aspects of the fictional characters who were based upon real life detectives. Cases from the show also appear as they actually were investigated. The grim subject matter is off set by humour, sensitive writing and Simon's respect for humanity.


I had heard nothing of Zeitoun by Dave Eggers but I spotted it in a new fiction display in the library when looking for Homicide and snapped it up, believing it to be a graphic novel. Instead, it is an unillustrated novel about a resident of New Orleans who canoed down flooded streets in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, "feeding trapped dogs and rescuing survivors as New Orleans becomes a disaster zone." I am expecting something very bitter-sweet but will not be perusing any reviews before reading as I want to come to it fresh.


I have never read Rebecca. It has become one of those books of which I know quotes, characters and the plot but have never actually read. I realised this about Wuthering Heights last year and put that situation right and so it is now the turn of this classic.

And the LP? Get Happy by Elvis Costello and the Attractions including 'I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down' 'New Amsterdam' and 'High Fidelity'. For 10 pence. 10 pence!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Is Music The Most Affecting Art Form?





I love to read, I'd do it all day if I could; I adore a good film and watch my favourite TV box sets over and over; some pieces of visual art have actually made me feel faint with emotion, but the effect that music has upon my mood and feelings is, I think, generally more powerful.


Baba in Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls makes me seethe with rage, I always cry with great heaving sobs at the end of The Railway Children, the squadroom banter in Homocide: Life On The Streets delights me greatly and I once had to sit down whilst looking at a Howard Hodgkin painting (see above) but none of these experiences compare to the thrill of Tim Buckley's howled "ne-ver think of meeeeee" at the end of Dolphins, the poignancy of River by Joni Mitchell, the pure, ridiculous joy of dancing to Patti LaBelle's New Attitude, the first bit of Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, the bit in Wake Me Up where Nadine sings "Dressed up and put on my make-up", the intro of Love Will Tear Us Apart, the harmonies in Eternal Flame etc. etc. ad infinitum....

I know from bitter experience that many people do not feel this way about art, a lot of people have never read a book for pleasure (or at all... I know! I've met some!) and many people are not that bothered by films but if somebody says "I don't like music" then a glass smashes to the floor, the jukebox is unplugged and the whole room stares in disbelieving silence (like in Eastenders when someone says something shocking in the Vic.). I have met people who said they didn't like music. Two people. And one of them meant that he didn't like pop music, just classical. So that is one person I have met in my entire life who did not like to listen to music, saying it was "just noise."

Why is this? why does pretty much every human being enjoy listening to, singing, humming and possibly dancing to tunes? They maybe do not obsess about music or listen to much more than the charts, but if you asked them "do you like music?", then they would look at you like they thought you were weird and say "well, yeah."

Is this universal appeal why mainstream, lowest denominator music is not as bad as its counterparts in other art forms? I do not buy or greatly esteem the music of Westlife,  The Saturdays (apart from the ludicrously catchy Work) or ballad-mode Pixie Lott but I cannot deny that there are pleasant sounds and some accomplished songwriting to be found beneath the layers of lazy production, troublingly marketed young women and/or emotionless singing.

I cannot afford the same good humoured acceptance towards misery memoirs, sequels to gross-out frat boy misogynistic comedies or that crappy 'modern art' that is sold in department stores and makes me want to put my foot through the canvas. Even Jedward are better than all those things. (I'm serious, I laughed so hard during their performance of 'Oops I Did It Again' I was worried that I'd burst a blood vessel in my eye. Joy is joy.)

Does the fact that most people have a reasonably strong opinion about music drive up the standards of pop? While you ponder this question, why not listen to old Patti singing about her attitude which is new. Point to your clothes when she sings "new dress!", frame your head with your hands when she sings "new hat!", point with your index finger at "point of view" and wiggle your arms side to side for the "ooh ooh ooh-ooh-oooohs". I can't promise you'll feel better, but I defy you to feel worse:

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Behold: I Spoke Of This...

Here is the Sonnet Scene from My So Called Life.

Coralie Bickford Smith

This woman not only has the coolest and poshest name ever to have been conceived, but she also designs incredibly beautiful books. My favourites are her hard backed editions of Penguin classics. A set of 10 appeared at the end of 2008...


...and last Christmas, more beauties arrived in Waterstones (as these editions are exclusive to the store):

I have a few from each series (I was not allowing myself to buy books that I already had more than one edition of, so no Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility) and picked up the edition of William Shakespeare's Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint last week. I do have the sonnets in a collected works of Shakespeare and my Norton anthology but I seemed to conveniently forget that when faced with such a lovely crimson and peach coloured confection.





The sonnet I know best is still number 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;


Coral is far more red than her lips' red;


If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare. 



This sonnet played a pivotal role in the episode of My So Called Life when Jordan discovered that he did love Angela. The English teacher Mr Katimski reads out the entire sonnet and, with the help of boffin Brian, helps to tease out it's meaning for a passive class. I have said it already, but that was such a great programme. What other teen drama would leave you with a Shakespeare sonnet memorised and explained?





Monday, 14 June 2010

Bloomin' Brilliant


I have had a very culturally bereft week, I am afraid. We went away for a city break and I mainly shopped and quaffed wine which, although delightful pursuits both, caused me to neglect my book reading, film watching and pop medleys on the hairbrush microphone.


After the lovely 'smush' of loads of mail behind the door when you first open it, the best thing about returning home after a holiday is the change in your garden. When I left, it was a vale of bluebells, but now it is studded with cheery yellow poppies. Every thing is a little higher, fuller and greener and the sparrows have hatched another nestful of chicks in the bird box. When I stand underneath it, I can hear their tiny squeaks and see the nest material which includes grasses, hairs from our heads and threads from our house and garden, poking through the corners and seams.



The thought of people deriving joy from bird watching used to make me weak with mirth. I once went over to some one's house and his parents had special high chairs which they placed by the window especially for the purpose of spying on blue tits and thrushes. Ha! I thought that this was the saddest, most ludicrous thing that I had ever seen and my friend was extremely embarrassed about these, the uncoolest chairs in the world. Now I quite want them. Birds are great and we have a tame blackbird who  we spy on like a couple of creeps as he leaps over our flowers and pecks at crumbs and worms.


Musing upon gardens has led me to look out Weeds and Wild Flowers, a collaboration between poet Alice Oswald and printmaker Jessica Greenman. The poems and etchings are all about flowers with titles such as Stinking Goose Foot, Narcissus, Bastard Toadflax and Rambling Rose complemented by etchings of orchids, wildflowers, foxgloves, nettles and snowdrops.


The etchings are incredible and represent what must have been months of work. Etching is a slow and exacting process. The copper or zinc plate is coated with a thick wax which is then scratched into with a metal implement. As with most printing methods, the image on the plate must be a reverse of the desired finished print.


The worked plate is placed into a bath of acid and the exposed sections are corroded by the acid while the wax coating protects the rest of the plate. Some printmakers use feathers to brush the bubbles of fizzing acid away from the plate so that they can judge how far the plate has been bitten into.



This resulting positive image, when the plate is cleaned, is recessed from the surface of the plate and therfore, ink needs to be rubbed into the deep grooves before damp paper is placed over the plate and the whole thing is rolled through a printing press and squeezed between blankets and a roller. It is only when the paper is removed on the other side that the artist can see if their labour has been worth it and the image works.



I am particularly impressed by the etchings that Jessica Greenman has made which contain only hand-lettered versions of Oswald's poems as it is very difficult to get an entire page of lettering right when you are scratching its mirror image into a black surface revealing silver letters. I have spotted one mistake but that is pretty good going.






The poems are anthropomorphic. Bastard Toadflax is a 'Ponderous, obstinate, cold skinned person', Narcissus relates her own tale ( 'yes once I was half frail, half glittering...I was half skin half breath') and Hairy Bittercress is described as a drunk who sits in watching TV who 'when she pulls off her tights ... sits with her white feet bare and her legs a-prickle with hair'.)

Friday, 11 June 2010

All About Eve


When reading the chapter on the making of the film All About Eve in the wonderful Vanity Fair book, Tales of Hollywood, I remembered that someone had given me the DVD a couple of Christmases ago. I dug it out and watched it, worrying that my knowledge of the plot and behind the scenes rivalries and shooting methods would spoil the experience a little.

I was also wary as, quite often, when watching older films that have been praised and lauded over the years, I have been distinctly underwhelmed. This is usually because the ground-breaking technical aspects of these gilded movies have been copied so many times over the years that they no longer seem so special to modern movie audiences. I needn't have worried on either account.

The quality of All About Eve, however, is in the script and acting, both of which are often sadly lacking in many high-profile films today. Based on a short story by Mary Orr, which was in its turn based on the real-life experience of one of Orr's acquaintances, the film follows the fortunes of Eve Harrington,(Anne Baxter) a shy backstage Jenny who reveres Bette Davis' Broadway actress Margo Channing. Eve is befriended by Margo and kind Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) who is the wife of a playwright and the film follows the gradual revelation of the true, manipulative and madly ambitious nature of this supposedly timid fan

This film held the record for the most academy award nominations for a single film until Titanic's 1998 Oscar sweep. These nominations included four for the actresses involved. Davis and Baxter were in the running for best actress and Holm and the wonderful Thelma Ritter were both nominated for best supporting actress (none of them won.) You can appreciate the quality of the acting even more when you know that Davis and Holm loathed each other off set. They play best friends and manage to convey an easy and fond familiarity despite the seething tensions off-camera.



The stand-out performance must be Baxter's Eve, however. Her first scenes show a quiet, dowdy young woman who is simply happy to be in the company of talented people. Eve's character slowly and almost imperceptibly reveals darker depths as the film goes on, slowly wresting control of Margo's life from her faithful assistant Birdie (Ritter), showing more and more interest in the plays that are being offered to her mentor, putting herself forward as an understudy and grimly clawing her way to the place where she wants to be: in Margo's shoes.
Image: Hulton Archive

The pivotal scene is a Ladies Room conversation between Karen and Eve. It begins with both women suspicious and tense, relaxes into a kind, comforting meeting between old friends and then ignites as Eve finally shows her true colours. Eve's hitherto warm, throaty and measured tones become harsh, hard and nasal as she spits out the line "I'd do much more for a part that good!" Even though I knew the plot, I was still shocked at the absolute and yet believably portrayed change in Eve's personality.

Eve's use of the tabloid press to promote herself and denigrate her rivals means that this film still feels relevant and the lovely direction pleased my eyes greatly. Favourite images were Margo's lover Bill walking down a snow-covered country road in silhouette, brightly lit taxis streaming along Broadway at night-time and Eve-obsessed fan Phoebe trying on her idol's glittering cloak in front of a three-way mirror which reflects her satisfied expression back to her a hundred times.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

On Re-reading

Edward Ardizzone illustration taken from The Little Book Room byEleanor Farjeon



I was talking to someone about books once, and was stunned when they airily declared that they had never re-read a book in their lives. "What's the point?" they asked as I reeled backwards in horror, calling weakly for the smelling salts "I already know what happens in the end."

This declaration shocked me far more than friends who admit that they have never finished a book, ever. I always understood that there were people who just were not readers, for whom the concept of reading for pleasure makes no sense. I can respect this, some derive great enjoyment from playing sports or doing exercise, for instance, two healthy and undeniably popular ways of spending time but the sight of a rounders bat or a treadmill make me feel queasy and incredibly bored in equal measure.

However, I thought that those of us who are 'readers' would be similar in our enjoyment of books. I assumed that every one who has read and loved a book would eventually return at least once to spend more time  with favoured characters, re-live the thrilling highlights and examine the tale from a different perspective. Whenever one visits a book again, it is with different experiences and opinions, we are older and have read more in the interim, which will colour our view and change the reading experience.

When we love a song we play it again and again until our neighbours are crying and begging us to stop and it is not considered odd to want to look at a painting more than once even though you already "know what happens in it."

I suppose it depends on what kind of books you like to read. A beautifully wrought novel examining the inner lives of the characters may reward a re-reader more than a plot-driven detective novel but I still think that a mystery is still worth re-reading when you know the culprit, motive and weapon because you are reading the book with new knowledge which will change your attitude to characters and allow you to appreciate the cleverness of the writing.

There is of course one big fat con for re-reading and that is the massive amount of books that all voracious readers want to read, feel that we should read and yet know that we will have less time to read  if we keep wallowing in beloved tomes that we have already read several times over. It is a dilemma, I do admit. But never re-reading a book? Madness...

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Whatever Happened to Unklejam?

...I wondered to myself as I boogyed around to their hit 'What Am I Fighting For?' yesterday afternoon. They also had a cracking single called 'Stereo', but I've not heard from them in three years, what gives? They were the British Outkast!


WAIFF? is ace. It starts off with doom-laden 'ooooohs' and a great bass-line with synthesisers whining and then one of them sneers 'yeeeah, yeeaah' and then they sing the brilliant:

Take my love I dont need, take my mouth, I cant breathe.  
Take my balls, organs too. All I ever wanted was to love you

Ha, 'take my balls...'

The video is great too, but embedding is disabled, so direct your delightful eyes here.

The dancing, videos, singing and lyrics were all very pleasing so WHERE IS MY NEW UNKLEJAM SINGLE?!!

Here is Stereo. And here is Love Ya, with it's big scream at the start and ridikulus dancing. It only got to number 55 or something.

Perhaps the problem is my tainted, career-killing love. I am beginning to worry that I am the kiss of death for pop acts. I blogged about Mini Viva's One Touch and it went into the charts at number 124. Sorry Unklejam, sorry Mini Viva.


Friday, 4 June 2010

Multi-tasking...

I wonder how many people read three or four books at a time? I used to be constantly hopping from book to book but don't seem to have the ability anymore. Perhaps you need a young, springy brain to keep all those plots sorted out.

At the moment I have a few books on the go but, as they are all episodic in nature, it feels quite natural. I rarely read a book of short stories all in one go, as I like to give thought to each story after I've finished it and I don't want to taint the next.


I received a wonderful book at Christmas, Vanity Fair's Hollywood Tales: Rebels, Reds and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind the Making of 13 Iconic Films. I absolutely love reading about behind the scenes on Hollywood films and I particularly like when you hear about how films were originally conceived. Quite often, the main players are the fifth or sixth actors on the directors' lists. In the case of 'All About Eve', Bette Davis' signature film, she was turned to "as a last resort".

Claudette Colbert had signed up to play the queenly stage actress Margot Channing but suffered a ruptured disc. The only actress available and capable enough to fill in the role at short notice was Davis. The last time she and producer Daryl Zanuck had met, he had screamed at her "You'll never work in Hollywood again!" She nailed the role of Margot Channing, and it is one of the classic movie performances in a film which received 14 Oscar nominations, an unbeaten record until Titanic.

Other chapters cover Rebel Without A Cause, The Graduate (which was originally to star Robert Redford), Cleopatra, The Producers and Saturday Night Fever. The book is written with the typical Vanity Fair tone, well researched, respectable reportage which is deliciously gossipy at the same time. The best bits in the 'All About Eve' chapter are when you get to hear what everyone thought of each other and how George Sanders got on flying to San Franciso with his wife Zsa Zsa Gabor on one side of him and a flirty young Marilyn Monroe on the other.


I have already told of this lovely book's unexpected arrival and it was worth it for the first story alone. I have never read any Katherine Mansfield but have heard many good things about her. Her First Ball is about country girl Leila attending her first formal dance with her four cousins. Leila's girlish excitement and the assaults upon her senses are incredibly vivid and, although there is little traditional 'plot' to this tale, its waters run deep. The story is a polished pearl, light, sparkling and precious.

"Meg's tuberoses, Jose's long loop of amber, Laura's little dark head, pushing above her white fur like a flower through snow. She would remember forever."


A couple of years ago I bought the Christmas Stories in this series and it is actually one of the few short story collections which I have read all in one go. The quality and range is magnificent and I enjoyed it so much.

Love Stories contains works by Collete, Dorothy Parker, D. H. Lawrence,Vladimir Nabokov and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few. Yeah the standard's pretty high! My favourite so far has been 'Blood Sea' by Italo Calvino which ostensibly takes place in a car containing four people but the real story is in the blood, under the fingertips of two lovers on the back seat.

"The underwater depths were red like the colour we see now only inside our eyelids, and the sun's rays penetrated to brighten them in flashes or else in sprays. We undulated with no sense of direction, drawn by an obscure current so light that it seemed downright impalpable and yet strong enough to drag us up in very high waves and down in their troughs. Zylphia would plunge headlong beneath me in a violet, almost black whirlpool, then soar over me rising toward the more scarlet stripes that ran beneath the luminous vault."




My new edition of Slightly Foxed arrived today! I've not started it yet, but I'm certainly not going to finish the above three books before I do. This quarterly is beautifully produced on cream paper with a new watercolour illustration on the cover each month. The publishers also make a point of mentioning that the size of the editions means that it can be slipped easily into a handbag or a coat pocket, which makes me want to hug them.

There is a Slightly Foxed book shop(selling their own editions as well as second hand books) and look at the map they provide to it, it is the perfect illustration of the feeling of this publication, sweet, whimsical and a little eccentric.

They also produce stocking fillers!