On music and photography

Untitled

The lupus flare continues. Reading is a struggle. Even harder is conversation. It’s taken me a week to write this post. Being coherent is tough.

When I’m in a flare the things I enjoy doing are heavily restricted. I can watch TV and films if they’re plot-heavy and/or on the silly side, but I can’t concentrate enough for slow, serious or complicated (Brooklyn Nine Nine for the win!). I find social media overwhelming and really only check into Twitter regularly for the cute animal photos and videos. I can listen to podcasts for short periods but I lose concentration easily.

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July 2018 reading round-up

Reading woman (portrait of artist's wife) by Ivan_Kramskoy
Reading woman (portrait of artist’s wife) by Ivan Kramskoy, 1863.

This has not been my most prolific reading month, and it might be my worst month yet for reviewing the books I read. But on the plus side I really enjoyed them all.

My lupus has been flaring, so I have watched a lot of junk TV. But I have squeezed in some “high culture” too. We went to see An Ideal Husband at the Theatre Royal in Bath, which was a lot of fun. It was a transfer of one of those West End productions with an all-star cast and generally I don’t find them to be as good as the star-free plays I see more often, but there is a certain pleasure in seeing famous faces up close.

I also watched the Netflix special everyone’s been talking about: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. It is genuinely brilliant. It’s funny and upsetting, smart and different.

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There was a thesaurus of vagueness about remembering

Martin JohnMartin John
by Anakana Schofield

This is a strange novel about a strange man. Schofield uses a fractured structure to inhabit a fractured mind. It’s a disturbing read, as it should be considering the topics it covers. It’s also occasionally funny, in a very very dark way.

Martin John is an Irishman living in London. He’s obsessive compulsive, fixated on certain people and he knows his coping mechanisms can only help him for so long. The degree to which this is a disturbing tale is at first obscured by the odd experimental narrative. It is written in the plural first person. It jumps in time. It questions itself and lists rules. It rarely uses full sentences. It is a lot like a Greek chorus in a play.

“He does not believe that people who go off bridges can be saved. He believes it’s reasonable to want to go over the side of a bridge. He does not believe people fundamentally change. He has struggled with this himself. Has he tried? We do not know. There are some things we aren’t going to know about Martin John.”

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2018 – the halfway point

Emily, Countess of Kildare

It’s a few weeks late, but the end of June seems like a good point to review my reading so far this year. I read 39 books in the first half of 2018, but the overall number isn’t really what matters to me. How am I doing on my reading goals?

Of those 39, I’ve read 13 books by men, 24 by women and two by multiple authors. 12 have been works in translation – two per month, my best rate yet! Six of those were translated from Japanese, so the holiday clearly had a good influence. Our next holiday will be in Italy, so you may see some Italian translations added to that list before long.

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I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything

do androids dream of electric sheepDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
by Philip K Dick

I had been meaning to read this book for years. I love the film Blade Runner and I have loved the other books by Dick that I’ve read. What finally made me pick this up wasn’t last year’s Blade Runner 2049 but a combination of the new Electric Dreams TV series based on Dick’s short stories, and an interview with Janelle Monáe on BBC 6Music (yes, the obsession continues).

If, like me, you know the film but not the book, then this is both familiar territory and bursting with new things not in the film. It opens with Rick Deckard and his wife Iran discussing their mood organs – devices on which they can dial up a specific emotion, from rage to a businesslike attitude to “awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future” – and their electric sheep. Deckard is obsessed with owning a real-live animal and hates that their animal is a fake.

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We are the ones who have to support our walls

Shatila Stories
a collaborative novel from Peirene Press

Authors: Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Mareb

Editors: Meike Ziervogel, Suhir Helal

Translator from Arabic: Nashwa Gowanlock

This novel is the outcome of a series of writing workshops that Peirene Press and the NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh held at the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, which is home to up to 40,000 refugees, largely Palestinian and Syrian. Nine refugee writers wrote their own fictional stories set in Shatila, which the editors helped them to hone and weave together into a single narrative. The outcome is a piece of fiction that gives a true flavour of life in Shatila.

The story, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a series of vignettes. The same characters start and end the story, and others do recur, but some sections are more loosely connected – a name mentioned in one chapter becomes central in another chapter, but then we don’t meet them again.

Where this book’s strength lies is the Shatila setting. Throughout, Shatila is ever-present and brought to life in all its terrifying – and life-threatening – ramshackle chaos. Whether the chapter is about romance, or debt, or bullying, or careers and education, the facts of living in a refugee camp – in this refugee camp – are never forgotten. The photographs at the start and end of the book by Paul Roman also help to place the physical reality of Shatila, though only the writers can establish its emotional truth.

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Local poets

I’ve been following local Bristol poetry group The Spoke since I reconnected with my former school friend and current Spoke member Lizzie Parker a few years ago. I’ve always read poetry but it’s never been a major part of my reading diet, so it’s been a learning curve for me to experience more of this most flexible of media. At the start of May, Lizzie and fellow Spoke member Claire Williamson published new collections with Seren, an independent publisher based in Wales. I went to their book launch at Waterstones in Bristol and was pleased to see such a big crowd for poetry. It’s reassuring.

Now I have read both their books I’d like to share my thoughts.

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Reading round-up June 2018

The heron and the Mastaba

My stack of books that I have read and not reviewed is threatening to topple over and crush me, I am so behind. But we have been getting out and about. I love how summery it’s been for so long already now. Even if the sun is really not good for me, I can’t help but enjoy the blue skies, the long light evenings, the urge to get out and do things.

Speaking of which, this month we have been to London (again) to see Hamilton – which we loved enough that I now have a new album to play on rotation with Janelle Monáe (with whom I have been obsessed all this year). We also went to the Forest of Dean to visit my Dad and Grandad on Father’s Day. We visited Tim’s family on their farm – which is bountiful with food at this time of year. We saw art and we hung out in parks.

My favourite read this month – by some way – was The Radium Girls, a disturbing true story recounted expertly by Kate Moore. But I did read a lot this month and a lot of it was great. Roll on July!

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It made the girls themselves gleam

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book via work. It’s part of a current trend – one that I fully support – of identifying stories from history that are important but little known and giving them a boost. In this case, it’s the story of thousands of women who worked in the (mostly) early 20th century painting dials onto watch faces with radium-based paint, so that they glowed in the dark.

It sounds like a terrible idea and it was. But even though shortly after Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898 they and their colleagues realised it could cause harm to humans, it became famous for its ability to destroy or reduce cancerous tumours, and was therefore widely considered to be health-giving. So when Dr Sabin von Sochocky, founder of the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), which mined and processed radium in New Jersey, figured out that it could be used to create a glow-in-the-dark paint, this seemed like a brilliant new commercial avenue for the company.

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