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.

Continue reading “Sunday Salon: All culture is here (except the bits that are elsewhere)”

To define happiness, its one clean note

Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh

When I spotted this title in the Penguin Press Newsletter it wasn’t so much Bergman’s name that attracted me – though she was a great actress and some of her films are deservedly classics – but that of the other half of this brief affair – war photographer Robert Capa. Photography interests me as a hobby and as an art form and I was interested to see how that would be handled within a novel about one of the medium’s legendary names.

It’s a great story that has all the right ingredients for becoming a great film, but it didn’t immediately click for me. Despite a dramatic, well judged opening that contrasts Capa parachuting into enemy territory and being shot at in March 1945 with Bergman receiving an Oscar in a glittering ceremony in Hollywood, I found myself noticing the writing, tutting at all the similes that would have served better as metaphors and the slightly obvious parallels drawn with photography wherever possible:

“…involuntarily she repeats the way Pia had wrinkled her nose, closing both eyes at the same time as though taking a photograph.”

However, I think perhaps I just took a while to get over the fact that these were real people and that I had been expecting something that felt a bit more like historical fiction or even biography. Because this is solidly a novel, ascribing thoughts and fears and feelings to its characters and even using first person for about half of the narrative (always as Capa). And as I gradually got pulled into the story I began to thoroughly enjoy it and even to pick out well written passages:

“We watch as the light rises, giving the world shadows. The grey shapes of the trees on the boulevards hold their breath for the heat of day. And behind the buildings the sun comes up with its liquid edges.”

The bulk of the story is set in Paris, where Bergman is sent to entertain troops and Capa is based in-between assignments. Greenhalgh does a good job of describing Paris, primarily in a romantic light but with the occasional touch of realism, such as very funny observation about a high class cafe having a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and Capa imagining all the fancy ladies in their high heels squatting over the filth and being impressed by them emerging looking flawless.

I must admit, and this may be largely my own cynicism, that I found the early descriptions of the affair saccharine to an annoying degree:

“I don’t know whether it’s the music or Ingrid sitting there, her spoon poised over her ice cream, but everything merges at this moment – the leaves, the sunlight, the scent of vanilla, the street with its sliced shadows – and if I had to define happiness, its one clean note, well, this is the closest I’ve come to it.”

For me, it was everything else in their lives that captivated me, for instance when Capa had flashbacks to wartime and was terrified and yet would profess later that day a desire to get back to work, meaning another war. Or descriptions of Bergman making films I know and love, such as Notorious.

Perhaps I would have been better off reading biographies of these people and an anonymous love story, but the one advantage this novel does have is that you know from the start (or at least I did) how it ends, you know that this was not the only love either person experienced in their lives, nor even the most dramatic one, and yet while it lasted it was all those things and more, because that’s how life and love are. And I do now want to go back to Capa’s photographs and Bergman’s films, which is after all their legacy, not who they loved.

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

Published November 2012 by Penguin Books.

Retinas oxidized in the ether

the jump artistThe Jump Artist
by Austin Ratner

Although I knew that this novel was based on a true story, it was only in the last few pages that I realised I knew a little of its subject, Philippe Halsman, and his famous photographs. Which was perhaps for the best, because it meant that the story was new to me. But I don’t think it would matter if you already knew the story, because the writing is by far good enough to keep you enraptured.

The story begins with Philippe and his father on a walking holiday in the Austrian Alps in 1928. By the end of the day Philippe has been accused of murder and his subsequent trial and retrial reverberate throughout the world’s press. Halsman was a Latvian Jew, an intense, brooding, depressive man in a bewildering world of anti-Semites. Great thinkers of the day, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud spoke up on his behalf and he later became a celebrity photographer, but the murder and the imprisonment could never be struck from Halsman’s memory.

Ratner has done an excellent job of combining extensive research, with extracts from diaries, newspapers and other first-hand sources throughout the text, and yet he has still created a living breathing character in Halsman. He is not even a sympathetic character, at least not at first, though considering the seemingly hopeless situation you can forgive him for the flights of crazy. He self-harms, invents methods of self-punishment including starvation, and disappears into his own dark dark world of death and guilt and shame. Extracts from Halsman’s letters from prison reveal his slightly scary intensity and Ratner captures this in his own prose:

“When he’d seen Winged Victory on the Daru staircase at the Louvre, Papa and Mama and Liouba had had to leave him behind to go see the Persian friezes. He’d soaked up the pleasure of it in his eyes for more than an hour, and when he looked at his face in the mirror at the hotel, his eyes were wrecked with burst vessels.”

Despite this dark central character, and indeed the dark times covered, from 1920s Austria to 1930s Paris and the great exodus of 1940, this book didn’t depress me. In fact, the one time I cried it was at a beautiful moment of humanity. I was so engrossed that I powered straight through in just a couple of sittings, and then wished that I had lingered over it, savoured the often exquisite language:

“They’d been up at 5:30 that very morning and vaulted up the Schönbichlerhorn into its frigid airless winds, had their retinas oxidized in the ether, and their hands seared on the snow and the flint rocks, hot as sunburned metal. They had broken themselves on the mountain and been baptized there above the timber line at the top of the world, where the river of air meets the river of fire.”

In later chapters, I loved the descriptions of Halsman taking photographs and could often picture the finished result from Ratner’s description. From tentative beginnings, Halsman finally finds confidence and artistry in photography and Ratner evokes a believably troubled but brilliant man.

I am not sure why, after this was published to great acclaim in the US in 2009, it took three years to find a UK publisher, but I am really glad that it now has.

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

First published in the USA in 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press.
Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Published in Great Britain in 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

The Sunday Salon: All systems go

The Sunday Salon

After last weekend‘s perfect mix of activity and downtime, it feels like life has switched up a gear. Evenings and weekends are full of plans, with many more things needing to be slotted in – when will I find time to read?

One thing I did this week was finally get my latest film processed. I took most of it on our holiday in Wales and I’m pleased with how some of the shots came out, though the scans don’t do them justice. We must find a way to display more photos in our house!

Look up

I haven’t been feeling 100% (it happens) so I have been tempted on getting home from work to just stare at the TV rather than read. Which makes sense when my brain is frazzled but the rest of the time I think reading actually makes me feel a lot better than even my favourite TV shows could. What about you – do you read when you feel unwell?

I also went to the zoo with Tim and a couple of friends. We go to the zoo a lot and always have a good time. Bristol Zoo is very good about breeding and conservation programmes and doesn’t have many large animals so I don’t feel animal lover guilt and can just enjoy the cute animals.

Baby turtles

Something new every time

We like to go to the zoo. Specifically, Bristol Zoo, which just happens to be our local one. Handy that. It’s a particularly good one in terms of conservation and breeding programmes and all that. The enclosures are big enough and full of enough foliage and whatnot that the animals can pretty effectively hide from view, which some of them do more often than not (no aye ayes for us on the last 2 or 3 visits) but somehow we still managed to take almost 1000 photos there at the weekend. Yup. 1000. Of which I have so far identified about 20 good ones.

While we like to think we know our zoo pretty well and can find our way around and show visitors hidden treats, there is always something new to see/do/learn. This time we saw lion cubs, learned about gorillas and fed lorikeets. Which was all very cool.

The lorikeets know that visitors are bringing them food so they land all over you, eager to be closest when you reveal the pot of nectar. It’s a bizarre feeling, birds’ feet on your bare arm. The keeper shooed off the bird that landed on my Mum’s head. Sadly I didn’t get a photo of that because we foolishly all fed the birds at the same time. So my photos are of complete strangers feeding the lorikeets.

They are very pretty and reasonably gentle if slightly frantic birds. My best photos of the day were taken in the Bug House but I figured they might freak some of my readers out, seeing as it freaked me out a little editing them. Zooming in on a locust’s head to check if the eye or the mouth is in focus – it’s making the hairs rise on the back of my neck just thinking about it!

I’m gradually adding the selected photographic highlights to my Flickr photostream so if you’re interested and ready to be slightly unnerved by/speed quickly past the insect macros, take a peek.