May 2017 round-up

Emily, Countess of Kildare

Summer arrived! And it was glorious. It probably did my physical health no good, but mentally I was definitely smiling from ear to ear every sunny evening. I do love a sunny evening. I’d take rainy mornings anytime if I could have those long, warm evenings.

Anyway, this month I finally ran my 10k race. It was really hard (turns out I should have tried to train with my brother at some point rather than discovering on the day that he runs just a little bit faster than me – I kept up for 6k and felt like I might die, but then I slowed down and actually made it to the end without walking and with a PB time) but I’m really pleased with my personal achievement and with having been able to raise a decent amount of money for charity.

We took advantage of the bank holidays and nice weather to have some weekend fun. We went to Tyntesfield, a National Trust property just outside Bristol with nice gardens and remarkably tame cows. We spent a long weekend in Liverpool noodling around museums and art galleries, and concluded that there is too much there to see and do in just one weekend. We went to Cardiff for the Diffusion photography festival, which included some really impressive stuff. And we spent lots of time hanging out around Bristol harbour, particularly the redeveloped Gaol Ferry Steps, which is such a nice place to be.

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Our words are trapped in time

House of Names
by Colm Tóibín

I’ve been meaning to read more Tóibín since I enjoyed his book Brooklyn last year, so I was excited to spot his latest novel on NetGalley. It’s a retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Clytemnestra, which I only loosely knew beforehand. Luckily an epigraph sketches it out, so that you start the book knowing how the story will pan out.

In common with some other myth retellings I’ve read, I initially found the language stilted, keeping me at a distance, but I gradually stopped noticing the old-fashioned style and instead enjoyed the beauty of the language. In the story, Tóibín has managed to be much less old-fashioned, primarily by telling much of it from the women’s perspectives. The opening section is narrated by Clytemnestra. Later her younger daughter Electra picks up the narration. But when Electra’s brother Orestes’ story is told it’s from a third-person perspective.

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Sunday Salon: Liverpool

The Sunday SalonI just want to post a quick photo blitz from our long weekend in Liverpool. We had a really fun four days there. Our trip coincided with the tail end of the LOOK/17 photography festival. We didn’t catch all of it but our favourite was Ho Fan‘s photos of Hong Kong at the Museum of Liverpool (which is a lot like the M Shed in Bristol but much bigger).

We took advantage of the sunshine last Sunday to pop up the coast to Crosby Beach to see Antony Gormley’s art installation Another Place. It’s so effective, even surrounded by beachgoers.

Untitled

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Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state

Finding George Orwell in Burma
by Emma Larkin

When I said I was reading Burmese Days by George Orwell a few people recommended I read this next. I started it almost immediately after the Orwell book, but it took me a while to get through. I agree that it’s a fantastic reference work, but is it a good read?

The title is a fairly good description of the book. Emma Larkin – the pseudonym of an American journalist living in Thailand who has travelled to Myanmar (which she tends to call Burma throughout) many times – used researching Orwell’s time in Burma as a structure (or perhaps an excuse) for her year-long travel across Myanmar, speaking to people there who remembered Orwell or British rule in general, but also to people willing to open up about life in Myanmar.

The first point that strikes me is that this book was first published (under a slightly different title) in 2004, and even this edition with an epilogue from 2011 is a little out of date already. While it’s extremely useful as a recent history, I was always aware while reading it that this probably isn’t the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

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The vast, unsentient reality that’s always present

Thin Air
by Michelle Paver

When this was picked for my book club I was pleased because I really enjoyed Paver’s previous novel Dark Matter. However, this was basically the same story in a different setting and not done quite as well. I still enjoyed it, but there was the missed opportunity here to be a little more original.

Dr Stephen Pearce has joined his brother Kit’s mountaineering expedition at the last minute because they need a medic. But this isn’t just any jaunt up a mountain; this is an attempt to be the first to successfully climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, straddling the border of Nepal and India.

It’s the early 1930s and rich Europeans are obsessed with racing each other to the extreme points of the world. Kit’s plan is to follow in the footsteps of his hero Edmund Lyell, whose disastrous 1907 expedition came the closest to date to reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga. Stephen dislikes this idea and feels they should strike their own path, especially after an ominous warning from the last survivor of the Lyell expedition, Charles Tennant. But Stephen is not only the newbie to the group, but also the least experienced climber, and as such has no real vote.

Stephen is frustrated that fog obscures the view of Kangchenjunga for weeks before he gets his first glimpse. He’s spooked by Tennant’s warning and any reminder of the Lyell expedition. But there’s something else as well, a shadowy figure on the mountain that at first Stephen dismisses as a trick of the light, but later becomes convinced is a ghost, and not the harmless kind.

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I don’t need to jump off cliffs into oceans to die

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg

This book is described in the publisher’s PR as a comedy, and while it has comic moments, that’s not really how I would describe it. Or at least, it’s not how I experienced it. I did, however, really enjoy it.

This is the story of Andrea, a woman living in New York at that point in life (39, turning 40) when she interrogates her life choices – how she stopped pursuing art and took a job in advertising that she dislikes yet is somehow still doing 10 years later; how despite a string of love affairs she is basically single and basically fine with that; how she has fallen away from friends and family who have got married and had children as she has realised that she doesn’t want those things for herself.

“A book is published. It’s a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married, and it is a critical yet wistful remembrance of her uncoupled days. I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know. Regardless, everyone I know tells me about this book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages, doing the bidding of a wicked media maestro on a rooftop in modern Manhattan. Nothing will prevent them from reaching their destination, me, their presumed target demographic.”

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Fresh from the experience of an invisibility hitherto unknown

Nowhere People
by Paulo Scott
translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

I’ve subscribed to And Other Stories for a few years now, and I tend to know little or nothing about the books they send me before I read them. I mean, I could read the blurbs, or the e-mail newsletter I get every month, but I’m going to read them anyway so why risk spoilers?

And I’m glad in this case I had so little idea of where it was going. Which leaves me with some difficulty when it comes to writing a review. Not that the plot is hugely twisty turny, but it does cover a large span of time, and much of what happens later is the result of something I don’t want to give away.

The book opens with Paulo, a Brazilian law student and activist, driving along a highway in torrential rain and spotting a poor indigenous girl at the side of the road. Stopping to give 14-year-old Maína a lift sets in motion events that reverberate through two decades of relationships, politics and activism.

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