Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

End-of-year reading meme

January 1, 2019

How many books read in 2018?
85. Down on last year, but that’s because several of the books I read took three or four weeks to get through.

Fiction/non-fiction?
52.5/32.5

Male/female authors?
OK, I’ve read only 12 books by women, but I decided it was acceptable to have had a Bad Women Reading Year, to use the accepted terminology, because I know a woman who’s done the same thing but the other way round, and her taste in books is abysmal so I must be doing a better job than she is.

Favourite book read?
I suppose Ulysses, though I’m not sure I’d have coped without Harry Blamires’ New Bloomsday Book to guide me. But did I derive any less pleasure from any of the several other brilliant books that took less effort? Perhaps Ulysses just feels like the best because I had to put more work into it. You and your silly questions.

Least favourite?
Tom Waits’ album Swordfishtrombones is one of my favourites, but reading David Smay’s book about it was a misstep.

Don’t expect me to tell you the truth about Tom Waits. I know you want the truth, and I don’t blame you. The truth looks fetching sprawled out on her revolving, heart-shaped bed in a cut-off Ramones t-shirt. Her breath smells like Yoo-hoo and she’s flipping through a stack of Sugarpie Desanto 45s … To enter Swordfishtrombones you need to stretch the truth, fabricate, extemporize, distort, tell tales and indulge conceits … [continues for 100 fucking pages]

Oldest book read?
At nearly 3,000 years old, I suppose it has to be Homer’s Odyssey, albeit in Emily Wilson’s brand spanking new translation.

Newest book read?
Eight that came out this year: The Quiet Side of Passion (Alexander McCall Smith), Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces (Michael Chabon), The Final Retreat (Stephen Hough), The Inheritance (Matthew Lopez), Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Adventures in the Ordinary (Rebecca Front), Filming If…. (David Wood), Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography (Brian Slade), and the posthumous collection The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (Ann Quin).

Longest book title?
As has happened previously, this accolade goes to a Molesworth book, namely Whizz for Atomms: A Guide to Survival in the 20th Century for Fellow Pupils, their Doting Maters, Pompous Paters and Any Others who are Interested.

Shortest book title?
That depends on whether you include full stops or not. I read for the first time David Sherwin’s brilliant quasi-novelistic treatment of his screenplay for If…., but you might argue that Nicholson Baker’s phone-sex masterpiece Vox qualifies too.

How many rereads?
Ten! A sensible number. And a pretty good ten too: Lolita, Howards End, The Swimming-Pool Library, The Devil in the Flesh, Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Antony and Cleopatra, Oliver Twist, Maurice, and The Lost Language of Cranes.

Most books read by a single author?
Seven, if you count the Prousts individually, which I am certainly doing for this purpose given how bloody long they took me to read. Four Hollinghursts, [three French hens], and two each by E.M. Forster, Michael Frayn, David Leavitt, Tony Parker and Ann Quin.

How many books were borrowed from the library?
42, so nearly half. And one of the others was an ebook I downloaded from a university subscription, so probably 43.

I had no clue what was going on:
After loving Ann Quin’s brilliant Berg earlier in the year I felt emboldened to try the Jennifer Hodgson-edited anthology of Quin’s shorter writings The Unmapped Country, but with the exception of maybe three pieces, which I loved, I felt lost. They crossed the line between experimentalism and incomprehensibility. Also I was knackered and probably couldn’t be arsed to put the effort in.

Any in translation?
Well, all the Prousts; I’m not good enough at French to cope with the original (and barely good enough at English to cope with the translation). And also books by Raymond Radiguet, Sholem Aleichem, Robert Walser and Erich Kästner. But a step back after 2017’s EU-athon.

Favourite character encountered this year:
Hard to see past Leopold Bloom, when it comes down to it, but I loved all the characters in Doreen by Barbara Noble.

What next?
I don’t have grand plans for 2019, but I think The Magic Mountain has probably waited long enough now. A reread of Moby-Dick too, not that it’s been long since the last one. Edward St Aubyn, whom I meant to get around to in 2018 but didn’t. And probably some books by women. And perhaps it’s time for War and Peace, but I’ll play that by ear.

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2018 foursomes

December 31, 2018

If you are reading this, you have successfully staved off death again, as have I. Let’s raise a glass to keeping on doing that in 2019.

Top 4 books
It’s been a year of classics. I spent most of the first half of the year reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and an engrossing, exhilarating, boring experience it was too. Delighted to have done it, though. Emily Wilson’s vibrant new translation of Homer’s Odyssey brought Greek mythology to life in a way I have never experienced before. Joyce’s Ulysses was my single reading highlight of the year, the book that contains all of human life. I can’t omit these three masterpieces from a top four, but there are many contenders for the fourth place: Ann Quin? Nicholson Baker? Denis Mackail? Barbara Pym? (New discoveries all.) I think it has to be Doreen by Barbara Noble, an unheralded, Persephone-published classic about a girl evacuated from London during the Blitz. More books imminently: watch this space.

Top 4 new films
No surprises here, with three of my favourites nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and the other the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this summer. Best of all, I thought on first acquaintance, was Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, full of tenderness and delightfully light comedy. Saiorse Ronan’s one of those actresses you’d watch doing anything, isn’t she. Martin McDonagh’s gratuitous use of slurs rankles with me somewhat in both his plays and his films, and that was also the case with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but its stark brilliance was a compensatory factor. I drowsed through Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread at the cinema, but a second viewing over Christmas confirmed its quality. I can’t resist its elusive romanticism, or Vicky Krieps. And lastly Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a director with a hit rate so high it’s indecent. I’ve been warmed by his films before, but never so pained as I was by the final act of this one. Another paean to family life, and a fitting memorial to Kirin Kiki, whose radiance has illuminated many films I have loved in recent years.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which I saw at the Cambridge Film Festival, is my tip for 2019.

Top 4 old films
Not that old, some of these. Anyway, the standout film of the year, the one that I think back on and marvel at, is Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross, which tells the story of a teenage girl in a fanatically religious family in fourteen static (or mostly static) tableaux. It’s beautifully bleak, the bleakness going so far that it almost verges into black comedy territory, and one of the most arresting films about religion and the perversion of religion that I’ve seen. Also sometimes bleak but mainly life-affirming was Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a document of New York’s ball culture in the 1980s. Impossible not to be heartened by the warmth of the community created by its personnel, and by the brightness of the trails they blazed – in many cases all too brief. That it exists at all is a cause for rejoicing. Italian cinema tends to be a blind spot for me, but even I responded to La dolce vita – to its spectacle and its style and its episodic nature, to the glorious lightness of that café scene with Perez Prado on the jukebox, to the enigmatic conclusion. And lastly, let’s go for Tom Browne’s family drama Radiator, a film that slipped under the radar a few years ago. With beautiful performances from Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Johnson and Gemma Jones, it’s a resolutely unsentimental but achingly tender film, and very wise about the frustrations and joys of family life, and about our relationship with the past. I loved it. Missing out but also worthy of inclusion: Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, The Lost Weekend, Brooklyn, Boyz n the Hood, The Sessions, The Swimmer, and doubtless many others.

Top 4 student
Another good year for student theatre in Cambridge, with my highlights coming early on. The Marlowe Society’s Arts Theatre takeover in January is invariably excellent, and their Romeo and Juliet was the best production of the play I’ve seen, with Harry Redding and Matilda Wickham both excellent as the lovers (it occurred to me that a small bet on Wickham to win an acting Oscar by, say, 2030 would be a smart investment), and John Tothill a marvellously bland and placatory Capulet. I kept thinking of West Side Story – the sweetness of the central relationship, particularly in the balcony scene, the ‘America’ rhythm, even the Doc-like stressed-outness of Adam Mirsky’s chain-smoking Friar Laurence. Beautifully spoken throughout by the whole cast. The ADC Theatre closed for refurbishment in the spring, and I salute whoever came up with the masterstroke of putting on Hamlet in the Round Church. Some smashing performances in the candlelight, and Polonius nearly caught fire at one point. Some great musicals from CUMTS this year, my favourites being firstly a really exciting and imaginative Assassins, with James Daly’s Balladeer, Robin Franklin’s Booth and Tom Baarda’s manic Guiteau among the high points; and The Producers, with Meg Coslett and Conor Dumbrell a perfectly matched Bialystock and Bloom, and Leo Reich breathtakingly good as Roger De Bris, his every camp movement a joy. (Amaya Holman made a big impression as Bloom’s boss Mr Marks, as she did in everything I saw her in this year, most of all in the brilliant ADC/Footlights panto. She’ll be a star.)

Top 4 Edinburgh
I had intended to see Natalie Palamides’s Nate but chickened out at the prospect of being made to strip off against my will and went to see Gyles Brandreth instead. A middlebrow Fringe for me, then, but with some transcendent moments. Seeing Sheeps for the first time in several years in their new show Live and Loud Selfie Sex Harry Potter was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. They’re as good as ever. Better than ever was Kieran Hodgson, his ’75 perhaps the pinnacle of his stand-up career so far, buzzing with ideas and impressions, and beyond exhilarating. The Lowry production of Nigel Slater’s Toast at the Traverse was a treat from start to finish. The mini lemon meringue pies and chocolate (not walnut) whips passed around the audience were appreciated, but the coup de théâtre was saved for the end. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelt onions being cooked in a theatre auditorium, but it is unspeakably exciting. And just before leaving I managed to catch John Tothill and Eve Delaney’s character sketch show Big Shop. What chemistry they have, and what impeccable performers they are individually. Love them.

Top 4 theatre
The year began with a very fine Sweeney Todd at the Arts Theatre by the Cambridge Operatic Society. Am-dram groups always seem to rise to the occasion for the more challenging shows in the repertoire, and this was no exception, with Matt Wilkinson as Todd and 13-year-old Ben Lewis as Toby the standouts. Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, at the Gielgud Theatre, turned out to be deserving of its critical superlatives, an overwhelming experience, gloriously busy and full of life. The gender-switched Company, also at the Gielgud, was great fun, primarily for the experience of seeing Patti LuPone up close, her every facial and vocal gesture witheringly hilarious. I also loved Gavin Spokes as Harry, and Daisy Maywood’s priestly cameo in a thrillingly staged ‘Getting Married Today’. Best of all was Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance at the Noël Coward Theatre. It’s not perfect, and the inevitable comparisons with Angels in America are mostly to its detriment, but its virtues are so many, and it made me so excited about … well, about life, I suppose. About being alive, about making a difference to things. You fall in love with its characters. Catch it while you can!

Top 4 classical
Bernstein’s MASS at the Royal Festival Hall in April was the highlight of the Bernstein centenary year, the most immersive and invigorating performance imaginable of this wacky and moving piece, not that you’d expect anything less from Marin Alsop. Paulo Szot was a super celebrant, and my brother (being in the choir) managed to sneak me into the after-show party where Bernstein’s daughter Nina addressed the performers. Special to have been there. The latest Barbican recital by Yuja Wang was another treat, especially in the suite of Rachmaninov pieces she’d assembled, and Prokofiev’s sublime 8th sonata. The encores were predictably incandescent. Would she – could she – play Bach or Schubert? I’d love to hear her do a proper Scarlatti recital. I saw her in more Prokofiev at the Proms in September with the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko, whose performance of the Franz Schmidt fourth symphony was transcendent, a piece I feared I might never get to hear in concert. I’m so pleased people are finally getting the point of Schmidt. And last but not least, Verdi’s Falstaff at the Royal Opera House in July. I bought a ticket in the stalls for the first time ever, an extravagance but worth every penny. An opera I am coming to love very dearly, and a vibrant cast including Bryn Terfel, Ana María Martínez and the divine Anna Prohaska. I’m thinking of returning there for Billy Budd next year.

Top 4 albums
Since you ask me for an eclectic selection of albums… I had a lovely bunch of CDs for Christmas last year, the pick of which was the Wiener Phil and Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2, a delightful piece I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I can’t account for why I hadn’t noticed its existence until now, but Einar Steen-Nøkleberg’s recording of Grieg’s Slåtter interspersed with the original Hardanger fiddle tunes played by Knut Buen is a joy from start to finish. The best things Grieg wrote, perhaps. Two things have taken me back to my childhood: the BnF, qu’elle soit bénie, has digitised a number of recordings of Rondes (children’s songs) recorded by Jacques Jouineau and the Maîtrise de l’O.R.T.F. in (I guess) the 1960s, that I have been enjoying to an indecent extent. And I’ve rediscovered the original London cast recording of Godspell. Has Jeremy Irons done anything better in the past 45 years than the patter section of ‘All for the Best’? Probably not.

Top 4 comedy
Mixed media, as the artists would have it. I made a pilgrimage to Norwich to see Count Arthur Strong, and for sheer fun it couldn’t be beaten. What a virtuoso he is, a genius of the wrong-word school of comedy. I’ve come rather late to the party, and hope it won’t be the last time I see him live. The comedy podcast of the year, among stiff competition, is Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s gleefully obscene Dear Joan and Jericha, for a second series of which next year I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed. I never write about TV in these posts, but there were two series on Channel 4 that I fell in love with: Jamie Demetriou and Robert Popper’s Stath Lets Flats, a slow but sure burner, which I would love to see return; and the second series of Will Sharpe’s Flowers, desperately sad and beautiful. He does things with comedy I haven’t seen people do before.

See ya round.

Pink / poems / patterns / pregnancy

August 8, 2018

12 January
To read Proust is to make an excursion into one’s own memory. This lunchtime Marcel first glimpsed Gilberte Swann among the pink hawthorns that had bewitched him, and I thought how unlike me he was in his boyhood interestedness in flowers and in his love of pink. My memory is that pink was anathema to me, but I now doubt that was the case. Certainly I’d not have wanted to wear or own anything pink, but I’m sure I must have slept in pink sheets sometimes, and the colour didn’t deter me from The Pink Panther, a cartoon I loved to the point of catalogue-type obsession, certainly more than any other cartoon until The Simpsons came along. And I suppose I liked flowers too, some of them. Peonies in the front garden, fuchsia and snapdragons in the back yard, dandelion clocks. Anything you could put in a vase with food colouring in and transform the blossom from white to blue. Or indeed pink.

***

13 February
Something nice: found J’s ex (the previous one) on Twitter; followed links to various blogs; found poem he’d written for her; thought, that’s impressive; started to read it; utterly awful.

***

27 February
During the first interval K and I were chatting about E, and something he said prompted me to say ‘When he gets an erection it looks like a rocket taking off’ and he nearly spat water all over the man in front. It’s a lovely line that I must use more often.

***

14 April
Email from someone claiming to be an ‘antique and collectable hobbyist’. He certainly has a high opinion of himself.

***

31 May
How obsessive behaviour starts: I noticed earlier in the year that by chance several of the books I had on my library account had been borrowed at fifteen minutes past the hour or on the hour, which was neat. I engineered, partly consciously, to read and return those books that didn’t fit the pattern. (I’d probably have read and returned them sooner or later anyway, but still.) Now I have reached a point at which all six books on my account were borrowed at neat times: 10:20, 17:15, 12:00, 12:00, 12:20, 17:30. Here’s the kicker: I can’t now borrow any book at any time that isn’t a multiple of either ten or fifteen. (12:35 or 12:55 would be right out.)

***

17 July
‘Shit off’ is quite good, isn’t it. Could start using it.

***

15 September
I don’t recall why I had two pregnancy tests in my possession. One I could understand, but two? I ended up throwing them out. I now wonder why I didn’t use at least one of them myself. What a waste.

***

12 October
A couple of weeks ago I was walking to work and spotted a new conker on the ground. Kicked it away with my left toe, it bounced off the heel of a man walking to my right, and I trapped it with my right foot instantaneously. Messi couldn’t have done it better, conkers are unpredictable.

***

30 November
The advantage of keeping certain books locked in a cupboard is that occasionally a student will appear at the issue desk and ask me for Transgressive Sex, as happened this lunchtime.

***

18 December
When I came to Cambridge for interview many years ago, the place seemed forbidding and inhospitable. Approaching King’s from an unfamiliar direction this morning, that mood came right back to me. Only there was a boy coming out of a barbershop on Silver Street who smelled unmistakably of Turkish delight, which took the edge off somewhat.

Titbits

July 25, 2018

Apologies for the radio silence since February, but I’d been waiting for something important to come along.

Saving Mr Banks, I think we can all agree, is a film. And not a very good one, though opinions are divided on that matter. If you’ve forgotten about it, firstly well done, and secondly it’s Disney’s desecration of the life of P.L. Travers. I saw it at the cinema when it came out and have no great appetite to watch it again. (Or Mary Poppins either, if I’m brutally honest, monument of all our childhoods though it be; last time out I thought it a 6 at best. ‘We are not a codfish,’ oh fuck right off would you. And take your fakey chimney jockey with you. Step in toime, step in toime. Inexpressible tedium. Anyway.)

In spite of my heartfelt desire to have done with it once and for all, one scene from the film regularly returns to my mind, specifically the one where Travers, played (with customary professionalism, let’s not deny it) by Emma Thompson, objects to Disney’s use of the word ‘titbit’, which she corrects with practically-perfect pedantry to ‘tidbit’, the obvious implication being that Travers, a prim and proper Englishwoman despite the fact that she is demonstrably Australian, will not tolerate the usage even by uncouth Americans of the syllable ‘tit’, which (just to be clear) is another word for booby or funbag.

This was the point at which I had been going to rant about the writers having got everything arse about tid. The British usage, I would have fulminated, is titbit, with tidbit a sanitised Americanism. But the earliest sources in OED (1650ish) cite ‘titbit’ (‘he hopeth for tit bits’, 1642) and ‘tidbit’ (‘a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin’, 1650, saucy) equally. Bloody Oxonians: when they’re not ruining the fucking country they’re proving me wrong with their scholarly researches.

That said, all the post-1800 citations have ‘titbit’ in the British sources and ‘tidbit’ in the American (the sole arguable exception being Auden, during his US period). It’s also the case that in Travers’ time, the British gossip sheet Tit-Bits was very much au courant. See the final scene of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which Dennis Price, sprung from prison against all the odds, is approached by unlikely angel of death Arthur Lowe: ‘Your Grace, I represent the magazine Tit-Bits, by whom I’m commissioned to approach you for the publication rights of your memoirs.’

The word ‘titbit’, silly though it may be (if not as silly, admittedly, as ‘responstable’), would not have provoked Travers’ wrath. Far better to write the scene with her as a formidable grande dame (which may or may not have been the case; I don’t believe the writers of the film cared either way) proudly asserting the rightness of the British nomenclature of ‘titbits’ in the face of American mealy-mouthedness.

All the flashback stuff with Colin Farrell’s a load of old shite too.