Sunday Salon: Long weekend of culture

The Sunday SalonTim and I have just got back from four days in London. We saw lots of art, mostly photography, hence the new purchases below. I highly recommend the Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House. And I have loved Philippe Halsman’s work ever since being prompted to seek him out after reading a novelisation of his life, called The Jump Artist, five years ago.

But the eagle-eyed will spot that not all the below books are photography-related. We also bought the script of Lazarus, the musical written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh in 2015. The main reason for our trip to London was that my Christmas present to Tim was tickets to the production of Lazarus in London. It’s the Broadway transfer, so we got to see its original star Michael C Hall, AKA TV’s Dexter. That was pretty exciting.

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Meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence

The Girl With All the Gifts
by M R Carey

This book was picked by my book club, otherwise I doubt I would have read it, but I’m glad I did. It’s also going to be very difficult to write about without spoilers.

Melanie lives in a small locked cell. Each day she is strapped to a wheelchair by soldiers and wheeled to a classroom. She loves to learn. She loves her fellow classmates, though it’s difficult to make friends when you can’t turn your head to look at each other. Most of all she loves Miss Justineau, her favourite teacher. But why is she here, living like this?

And that’s where I will leave the synopsis for now, but I’ll put a spoiler warning below so that I can explain a little more for those who have read the book/watched the film/don’t mind spoilers.

“Melanie lets these facts run together in her mind. Their possible meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence.”

It’s definitely an easy, compelling read. I liked Melanie, who is both very smart and also naive. She is for the most part very self-aware, except for the one key aspect of herself that should have been obvious to her long before the reader figures it out. But she’s not the only good character. Miss Justineau and Dr Caldwell have a fundamental difference of opinion but are forced to work together in close quarters, leading both women to at least try to question their own point of view. And the story is interesting as well as thrilling.

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A piece of a human being but yes, a human being

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron

I spent most of December re-reading Sophie’s Choice. I wanted to understand what it was about it I fell in love with 10 years ago. I still think it’s a great book, but it has dropped a little in my estimation.

Partly that’s its length. I used to happily read much longer books than I do now. It’s not that I have anything against long books per se, but I have less patience for rambling. I’ve always had a fondness for brevity. This book is not brief. But it is an amazing story.

This is the story of Sophie, an attractive young Polish woman who has survived the Holocaust – has survived Auschwitz – and come to live in Brooklyn, where she works as a doctor’s receptionist and is in a relationship with Nathan, a volatile but charming man who rents a room across the corridor from her. Sophie’s back story is told intermittently between the tale of the second half of 1947.

The title of this book is so familiar, a phrase well known for its hint of torment, but now that so much time has passed since both the book’s publication and the film based on it, many people now will, like me when I first read it, not know exactly what the choice of the title refers to. The novel is structured around gradually revealing Sophie’s secret, but there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way.

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2016 – a year in stats

Happy New Year’s Eve! To quote Tim’s newest T-shirt, 2016 sucked. I’m not sure how, but I have to hope that 2017 will be better.

That said, this year wasn’t all bad. There has been great music, great theatre, great art and of course great books. I read 80 books this year (less than last year) or 20,571 pages (more than last year). I read 12 classics towards the Classics Club, including finally getting round to reading books I’ve had on the TBR for many years.

I read 21 books in translation, from many different languages (my spreadsheet shows 10 languages but in addition, Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales was translated from all over the world), which is more than double what I managed last year. 24 books were by authors from a country other than the US or UK, which again is up on last year.

I read 32 books by men, 40 by women and 8 by authors of both genders, which I’m happy with. I read 4 poetry books, 4 short story collections, 9 non-fiction books and 20 comics, leaving an overwhelming 43 fiction books. I think I should read more non-fiction next year.

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Reading round-up December 2016

Happy holidays! I’ve had a week off work and I have read half a book. Crazy! In fairness it’s a big book – 684 pages in the edition I have. And I finally finished it this morning, just in time for a New Year fresh start. If I feel like reading today, I’ll dig out a short story or three, but I think we’re running out of time to do stuff before going out for New Year anyway.

I have sadly failed to complete my reading bingo card. Even cheating a little bit by including short stories for two of the remaining categories, I didn’t manage to tick everything off. But I think in general I did pretty well and it did encourage me to read a few things I otherwise wouldn’t have – including my epic reread of Sophie’s Choice.

Tomorrow I’ll weed out the TBR a little as my kind and generous family gave me 10 new books for Christmas and I’m expecting/hoping for a couple more for my birthday next week. Lovely lovely bookses.

But for now I’ll quickly list my December reads and then get to my annual stats in another post.

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Happy Christmas Eve Eve

I have long felt a special affinity for 23 December. In my childhood we called it Christmas Eve Eve, which delighted me. For several years (or maybe only three, but enough for it to feel like a tradition) this was the day when we would go to the woods in search of holly, mistletoe and other foliage to decorate our house with (along with all the usual paper and foil stuff).

I’m not sure why this was a big deal to me. I mean, I loved romping through the woods, but we lived in the Forest of Dean so that wasn’t exactly unusual. It’s been a long time now, but my memory of those Christmas Eve Eve forages is overwhelmingly of being with my Dad, so perhaps that’s what it was – he worked long hours so time with him was (and still is) precious.

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Recent reads in brief

While I am slowly making my way through more than 600 pages of Sophie’s Choice, I am actually a little behind on book reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated from German by Stephen Mitchell

This small volume was written 1903–1908 but its advice still feels relevant and wise, which is presumably why it quickly became a classic.

Franz Xaver Kappus was put in touch with Rilke by the chaplain at his military academy, who had known Rilke when he too was a student at the school 15 years earlier. Kappus aspired to write and Rilke was a revered (rightly so) poet. These 10 letters constitute Rilke’s advice on how to look at life as well as how to write and some non-advice observations from Rilke such as his thoughts on Rome (he was not a fan) and other places he travelled to (all the letters seem to be written from a different location, and often include reference to months spent somewhere else in-between).

What most caught my attention was Rilke’s thoughts on gender equality. He was a feminist if ever I read one. He truly believed that the two sexes were created equal and that society still unfairly favoured men as a relic from a bygone age when man’s superiority of strength and size was relevant to everyday life. Rilke not only believes that the time will come when women will be considered equal in all respects to man, he also thinks that in time women will take their turn as the gender running the show.

Rilke is sweet, earnest, but also troubled. He’s also extremely eloquent. Because he’s Rilke.

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would have us believe, most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Briefe an einen jungen Dichter published 1929 by Insel Verlag.

This translation first published 1984 by Random House.

Source: Shakespeare & Sons, Berlin.

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The shadows resumed their jerky dance

The Silence of the Sea
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

I picked up this book because Sigurðardóttir was recommended by Gav Reads and Savidge Reads, whose taste I often share. I managed somehow to start this crime series with the sixth book about lawyer Thóra, but I don’t think that spoiled the story and she seems pretty badass.

In this episode of Icelandic noir, a luxury yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour wall with no-one on board, not one of the seven people known to have boarded in Lisbon. The parents of one of the missing people employ Thóra to prove that their son Ægir is dead – they really need to claim his life insurance money to be able to afford to raise their (now presumably orphaned) granddaughter.

A second timeline follows Ægir from the day he, his wife and their older two children leave Lisbon on the yacht. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience luxury beyond their means – the yacht is being repossessed by the bank Ægir works for. But from the surly skeleton crew to hideous seasickness, it’s a nightmare from the start. One that only gets worse.

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Sunday Salon: 10 years in Bristol

The Sunday SalonThis past week I celebrated 10 years in my current job, which means that last month Tim and I completely missed celebrating 10 years of living in Bristol. 10 years! For Tim that’s the longest he’s spent living in one place (though not quite yet the longest in one house as we have moved around Bristol a little); I still have a ways to go on that front as I lived in the same house from age 0 to 20. But I’m happy enough in Bristol that I can well believe I’ll still be here in another 10 years.

I love Bristol. And not least because the music scene here is fantastic. This week I’d made a note that Amy Rigby was playing at a pub near our house, but then realised we wouldn’t be able to see her because we already had tickets to see Kate Tempest that night. Which I can’t complain about at all because the Kate Tempest gig was one of the best of my life. Absolutely incredible.

She performed her new album Let Them Eat Chaos in its entirety, which is the only way to do it as it’s a single story told in poetry, rap and song over the course of 50 minutes or so. It is smart, politically and socially motivated, beautiful, funny, angry and hopeful. As when we saw her perform this without musical backing at the Downs Concert, Kate put so much of herself into it that she was in tears at the end, and not just one or two stray tears either. I love Kate and truly think she is a force for good and positivity in this world that seems to be sorely lacking in those things far too often.

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