We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations

I’ll Sell You a Dog
by Juan Pablo Villalobos
translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

As I subscribe to And Other Stories, I receive their books through the post four times a year and, most of the time I know nothing about them aside from the title. But I’m going to read them all anyway, so I choose to keep it that way, which makes each and every one a wonderful surprise.

I really liked this farce about an old man living in a block of flats reserved for retirees in Mexico City. Teo (not his real name) enjoys standing apart from the other residents, refusing to join their daily book group and accusing them of snobbery about his having been a taco seller all his life. He’s a drunk and also suffers from dementia, so it’s hard to know whether to believe him when he insists to his neighbour Francesca (not her real name) that he’s not writing a novel.

“All Mexico’s artistic geniuses of the 20th century passed through its doors…And the rest of us passed through, too: the cannon fodder, the filler, the extras, the gatecrashers, the ones who didn’t have the combination that gives you a ticket to the history of art. We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations, forced by circumstances or by accepting our own limitations. Then there were the ones who pressed on through mediocrity, made art their profession and condemned themselves to a life of ridicule. And on top of that were those who couldn’t do anything but keep on painting, no matter what, and who ended up mad or ill, or died when they were young, martyrs of art.”

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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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Sunday Salon: All culture is here (except the bits that are elsewhere)

The Sunday SalonIt’s been a bit busy of late. This weekend I’ve finally had a chance to relax after the crazy that was last weekend. We crammed a lot of stuff into too short a time, and my energy levels are showing it. So shockingly (or not) I still haven’t written any of those long-promised book reviews. I have, however, done lots of fun cultural stuff I thought I might share.

We kicked off with a gig here in Bristol. Local rock band Reef were playing what I thought was a reunion tour, but it turns out they’ve been back together since 2010 and I just hadn’t noticed before. Still, it was a great night. Tim and I relived the Reef gig we went to together about 12 years ago and wandered home late on a balmy spring evening. Spring is teasing us with its gradual arrival this year but I think it might just have got here now.

Next up we headed to London. We spent an afternoon at the Science Museum, mostly in the Cosmonauts exhibition (which ended last Sunday) but we also caught a couple of photography shows there. All were excellent, but especially Cosmonauts, which follows the Russian space story.

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Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

usUs
by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

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Something from that moment needed to be kept

all the days and nightsAll the Days and Nights
by Niven Govinden

This is a short, lyrical, even painterly novel about a dying artist. It’s in some ways the epitome of literary fiction, with a very simple storyline playing second fiddle to the style and language, but it didn’t feel at all pretentious or complex.

Anna Brown is a famous artist nearing death in her home in a small farming community not too far from New York City. She has her faithful housekeeper/cook/companion Vishni and her agent of sorts Ben for company in her final days, but her husband John – her muse and subject of most of her paintings – has gone missing, he just walked away. Anna addresses him, trying to imagine his journey and his state of mind, while also reminiscing on their life together. In the present she is painting her final work, turning her little household to turmoil as she forsakes oxygen tank and rest for her art.

I loved the language of this book, and the way it talked about art from so many perspectives – creating it, appreciating it, collecting it, displaying it. Anna doesn’t talk about death or dying but it’s clearly there in the forefront of her mind. She is obsessed with her art to the point of pushing people far beyond the bounds of most friendships, and her feelings for John are complicated by his being her muse as well as her husband. The story is sweet, moving, contemplative but never boring.

“You were bronzed and smooth, flaxen and happy; it was as if the last days of young manhood were making themselves known. I was blinded by the beauty of it, from the way you smiled to the trail of mosquito bites on your lower arm and the redness of your lips from all the beer…I wanted to shout at you…hold your pose because something from that moment needed to be kept. You were perfect. But I held my voice, because to explain it would be to kill your naturalness.”

Published October 2014 by The Friday Project.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

My booky weekend

Despite not doing nearly as much reading as I had planned, I have done a lot of book-related stuff this weekend. There was book art, a book fair and lots of book-related TV and film. It’s been fun.

First up was BABE; that’s the Bristol Artists Book Event for the uninitiated. Thanks to Joanna of Ephemeral Digest for alerting me to it.

It’s a big event, with more than 100 exhibitors showing their work, which varied from book-related art, to books about art, to books that are art; along with small presses which produce pamphlets, comics, magazines and books with varied levels of artiness. This is a great event for anyone who loves printing, typography and books like me, but it’s mostly about the art. Some of which veered closer to pretentious than inspirational. Sorry. But overall I enjoyed this and it is fantastic that there are so many artists and small presses out there.

A fair bit less pretentious was the books, food and “made in Bristol” day of the Harbourside Market, which I found out about thanks to Martin of Bristol Culture (thank you Martin).

This was a little on the small side. I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of advertising for it. Maybe they were hoping that the natural footfall in that area on a weekend would be enough. There were definitely punters around but not all that many stalls. Which is a shame. A few of the book stalls were just the usual collection of literary fiction erring on the bestselling side, but there were a couple where the stall owners showed something more – carefully chosen well-designed covers, thematic arrangements, a real celebration of books. I hope it’s back again soon.

Also showing wares on the harbourside was local illustrator Tessa Farlow, from whom I bought these very cool pin badges.

Finally, thanks to the BBC Year of Books I sat down to watch TV adaptations of Christopher and his Kind, and The Crimson Petal and the White, plus a fascinating documentary about Frank L Baum. I know it’s not unusual for good TV and film to be based on books (see my other preoccupations this weekend, the films of Atomised and Thirteen at Dinner) and the BBC has for years been churning out Shakespeare and Austen interpretations, but this recent stuff does seem particularly good.

Art and community

This weekend Totterdown opened its doors for the Front Room Art Trail, an annual neighbourhood event that was one of the things that attracted us to this part of the city. Although people come from all over the city and beyond, I get the impression that most of those on the trail are local residents meeting their neighbours, seeing what an impressive range of artists live nearby.

The “front room” of the title comes from the fact that the majority of the art is displayed in people’s homes, with bright orange flags and wide open front doors indicating where to go (there are also maps freely available). Proprietors are ready with warm welcomes and friendly chatter to guide you around the art they have displayed.

In contrast to complaints I hear that these days no-one knows their neighbours, especially in cities, we have found Totterdown full of community feeling, with an endless rollcall of events, groups and meetings. The art trail is a fantastic addition to this mix. There’s something quite wonderful about walking into a stranger’s house to the warmth and smell of a wood fire, being handed a glass of mulled wine and encouraged to look out of their window to compare their view with your own!

Between the drizzling rain and my attempts to use a film camera rather than digital, I only have one decent photo from yesterday. This sculpture, built primarily by local schoolchildren, stands outside Fig. 1:

Light sculpture art community fun

I am already looking forward to next year’s event. Who knows, we may even open up our own front room!

High culture v low culture

This is a topic that fascinates me. It has been debated over and over whether “low culture” (by which I mean such things as gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, celebrity biographies, trashy romance novels, generic Hollywood romcoms, generic Hollywood action films, reality TV, soaps, graffiti, all-girl pop bands, etc etc) is somehow a threat to “real” art and artists, or perhaps to society as a whole. Is it demeaning to people in general to pitch the majority of culture to the lowest common denominator? Or does popular culture exist because people…want it?

I have no problem with debate but I do get annoyed with the demand that you must take one of two extreme opposite sides and if you don’t you are indecisive, woolly and not worth listening to. I am perfectly capable of forming an opinion. Sometimes that opinion sits squarely, or close to, one side of a debate. But not always. Sometimes my opinion is genuinely inbetween two extremes or a combination of both sides. Sometimes I struggle to see why there has to be division in the first place. But that’s just me (I’m not naive, just peaceloving).

In this case I am a lover of some forms of both high and low culture. I mean, there’s examples of both that I consider to be vile, but we’ll steer clear of that for now. I have read both Ulysses and Harry Potter and did not love either. I am a big fan of the theatre and films but I am also a telly addict and have spent many happy hours watching Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, Black Books and a host of other shows. Not reality TV though. None of that.