17/05/2021

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8

 Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche Grammophon - 2741007 (1981)

My Vinyl Album of the "Week" project has looked like being decreasingly well-named of late, and partly this is because I was determined not to just skip this record, even though I have found it really hard to like. It's too long for me to be able to get a grip on, with each movement more than ten minutes long and some over twenty. Perhaps what I needed to do was listen to each movement individually rather than attempt the whole symphony each time.

I can pick out some repeated themes, but as a whole it seems to jump from this to that, without seeming to have any connection between what I shall, in my ignorance, refer to as "bits". As you'd expect, the orchestration is never less than excellent and there's undoubtedly harmonic sophistication going way over my head - but, as a whole, I found it in part too daunting and in part just too much. I couldn't concentrate for long enough to get an overall picture in my head. Clearly this is my failing - apparently this is one of the greatest symphonies of all time - but I can't say it's a piece I'll be rushing back to.

On the last side (of four) is Bruckner's Te Deum, a piece which is amuses me (entirely unoriginally, I'm sure) to think of as "tedium", although I haven't listened to it more than about twice. It has operatic singing on it which was never going to interest me anyway, and now it's time to move on to another record.

The other reason this took me so long to write up is because this record seems to either illustrate shortcomings of my record player, my setup, or possibly both, as the louder sections distort noticeable in the left hand channel, which is very distracting. It might be the record, although, remarkably, this was still sealed in its cellophane until I played it, so it can't be previous damage. I think it's mostly sorted out now - I've readjusted the tone arm multiple times - but it just reminds me how fragile and fiddly record players are. Other than the sentimental value of listening to it - which is valid - there are no other reasons I can think of to bother.

30/04/2021

Watching - April 2021

True Lies (1994)
Seen it for the second time in six months (selection courtesy of Z) and it's still very watchable.
Chariots Of Fire (1981)
Still one of my favourite films - although I know it so well I rarely watch it and haven't seen it for years. Ostensibly a film about striving for your goals and overcoming obstacles, it feels to me as much a testament to lost youth somehow - not sure why. There's an underlying melancholy about it that adds more complexity than a simple "yay we won". Wonderfully constructed and played, even if a critical 21st century eye might quibble about the authenticity of some of the setting. Just subliminal.

Reading - April 2021

Somebody To Love by Matt Richards & Mark Langthorne (2016)
I was listening to the entertaining podcast QueenPod while decorating - thanks Brian! - and it was ideal accompaniment; engaging and long enough to keep me company, but not too demanding. At some point they mentioned this book, so I had to read it. While concentrating mostly on Mercury's story, it also uses it to provide a parallel story of AIDS and did so in a way that didn't feel like it was too much at odds with the main biography. I definitely learned something (for example, I hadn't realised how early AIDS had developed originally, in Africa). The book could have been better edited; there are occasional contradictions (in particular about Gaëtan Dugas) and duplicate statements across different chapters, which makes it seem like perhaps the two authors took specific sections each. However, it's a good read overall.
The Guitar Magazine (May 2021 / Issue 392)
Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline (2020)
Bless B, he bought this for my birthday two months early (when it came out) and not only didn't let on at all, but resisted reading it even though he really wanted to. So I feel a bit guilty about taking this long to get to it. And now I additionally guilty because it's a teensy bit disappointing. It's essentially a replay of the (fantastic) first novel, and as a result feels a bit forced (as William Goldman observed, about films and possibly a little unkindly: "sequels are whore's movies"). Not that it's not fun; I enjoyed the section set in a whole world devoted to Prince, although the part in Middle Earth left me cold. But towards the end there are a few too many conveniences - the kind of twists that could be prefixed with "by a strange coincidence ...". They make the plot less believable even on its own terms and so spoil it somewhat. Still, a great present!
If Only They Didn't Speak English by Jon Sopel (2018)
I was keen to read this when B brought it home from the library, even though I suspected - correctly - that it would just depress and annoy me in equal measure. Sopel paints a more nuanced, balanced picture of US culture than I've read for a while, but that picture is more alien than I expected. And that's his point: if we weren't so familiar with superficial aspects of the US, primarily because of our shared language (and hence films and TV), we'd stop thinking of them as basically like Britain, only with some odd foibles. For example, I'd previously been largely unable to explain the US's odd and disturbing fetishization of guns, but Sopel puts it in the context of a country that prizes self-reliance. Yes, of course it's more complex than that (and so is the discussion in this book), but it's an example of how well-observed this book is. Inevitably, Trump features (although not at much as you'd expect from a book with the subtitle of "Notes from Trump's America") and when he does, it's always a marvel not just that a man so obviously unsuited to political power managed to achieve it, but that millions of people voted for him again. Truly, a foreign country.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
The third book in a row to be inspired by B, who brought this classic home from the library (although I dug out my own copy and read that!). I first read this at school, if I remember rightly. I am not sure when I first figured out (spoiler alert) that it was set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world, but I do remember feeling very pleased with myself for doing so. Perhaps that's why I still like it - it's been decades since I last read it, but it still strikes me as a superbly realised and crafted novel. Since it's all explained from the point of view of people living there now, it's never made explicit what's happened but Wyndham nevertheless manages to make it clear, in an admirably concise, eminently believable world. Highly recommended.
The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen (2002)
I don't feel capable of giving a very measured overview of this. I made the mistake of reading it at bedtimes and, since I usually go to sleep pretty quickly, I rarely got through more than a couple of pages at a time. As a result, I can't say what it was actually about. The wizards are stranded on Roundworld - or "Earth", as we know it - trying to fix history. And the authors are using this as a jumping off point for a lot of discussion about perception, stories and the development of the human mind - I think. I blitzed the last hundred pages in a determination to finish it but I'll have to revisit this some time to understand it properly.
Airhead by Emily Maitlis (2019)
Obviously I know who Emily Maitlis is, but only in a general way and I wouldn't have read this had I not just finished Jon Sopel's book also. This is a very different read; about thirty short behind-the-scenes anecdotes of her most famous, notable or interesting encounters. It's pretty warts-and-all, an acknowledgement of the shortcomings inherent in attempting to cover current affairs (as indeed the subtitle says: "The Imperfect Art of Making News"). It's also very well written and very engaging. Maitlis makes the life sound exciting but there's an undercurrent of the ruthlessness required to get the story that makes me slightly uncomfortable.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2003)
Oddly compelling, even though not much happens and frankly, what does, I didn't really follow anyway. In fact, I can't review this any better than Nick Hornby (quoted at the front of the book): "I understood about one in four words of Moneyball, and it's still the best and most engrossing sports book I've read for years." In fairness, I don't read many books about sports but the sentiment is correct. It's just fascinating. What's a bit depressing is the new afterword, reflecting on the way that the book made so many baseball professionals so cross, although the real comeback is that so many teams have now used the approach successfully. I'd been waiting for this book at the library for ages and I have to say, it was worth the wait - a classic.

31/03/2021

Watching - March 2021

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
As I write this, I am listening to Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen", which can only mean one thing: we watched the incomparable Ferris Bueller. Z hadn't seen it and no further excuse was needed for us all to watch it again, on our Saturday pizza 'n' movie night. Great fun, as always - I was worried that I wouldn't enjoy it, as I have seen it so many times, but it was and is brilliant. And yes, you can get bogged down with carping about how entitled Ferris is, or about some of the more dated scenes (Ferris dashing past two women in bikinis and then stopping to introduce himself) but I think to do so is largely pointless. It's nearly forty years old, for goodness' sake. Just enjoy it as a slice of eighties escapism.
High School Musical (2006)
HSM first entered our lives when K was about five, I think, and so is forever known in our house as "Highsical Musical", because that's what she called it at the time. I have sometimes described my relationship with it as being down to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome but, crassness aside, I really do love this film now - as does the whole family, and we can basically all talk and sing along with the whole thing.
High School Musical 2 (2007)
... and so the following evening we watched the second HSM. Notably less keen-ness from the family (two of whom disappeared from the living room half-way through), and possibly because it's not quite as good as the first one. Still, plenty to smile about.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)
The dining room was still out of action (being decorated) so we were eating dinner in the living room and that was apparently reason to continue our theme of the last few nights. Enough excuses though - once you're in the HSM world this is a great finish to the trilogy and ties off all ends satisfactorily. I don't think we'll go on to Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure though.
Friends With Benefits (2011)
I watched this about a year ago on a whim (on Now TV iirc), not because I knew anything about it but because it sounded like a cool film. I really enjoyed it, bought the DVD and wanted to come back to it. It's sparky, sassy, sexy and probably a bunch of other things beginning with 's' that I can't think of right now; Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake (neither of whom I knew anything about, as actors anyway, before this) are great together, and if there are couple of slightly disjointed moments on second watching, it doesn't detract from the film for me. A bit cliched perhaps (it's a very standard romcom story arc) but no worse for it - great fun.
The Muppets (2011)
For some reason this has 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, which was partly why we watched it (on B's suggestion). It's not that good (TMDB's 66% is more realistic) but it's pleasingly meta to begin with, even if the plot becomes pretty standard ("we can do it if we all pull together!"), and it's a nice family film. For adult, there's enough cameos to make spotting them entertaining - my favourite was Dave Grohl as a substitute Animal - and B and I were happy to realise that the reason we knew the main song was because Sara Cox uses it in her show.
The Truman Show (1998)
I showed this to Z last year on the off-chance and was slightly surprised he liked it. But he did, and it was his choice this evening. A classic, of course, even if (as always) the details don't bear too much thinking about (so Meryl says she wants a baby, but actually she's an actor, so really that makes her ... errr).

Reading - March 2021

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (2020)
This is, of course, a very clever book, as you would expect from Richard Osman. Clever in its plotting, clever in its use of language, but, above all, clever in its choice of setting and characters. Essentially a modern-day Miss Marple, set in a retirement village instead of an actual village, it is very up-to-date and very English at the same time, with a selection of characters who aren't stereotypes but nevertheless cover a nice spectrum of today's Britain. Osman, a man whose "real" job until recently was creating shows people would want to watch, is clearly now doing the same for people who want to read. I don't think it's criticism to suggest that a fair amount of thought probably went into what would appeal - and very successfully, clearly. None of which is to say that this book isn't very good, or to try and damn it with faint praise - I enjoyed it very much. Osman writes very well - definite shades of Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett, which is a Good Thing - and there's more then one scene that I found moving. Highly recommended. (and a big thanks to C, who bought it for my birthday!)
Ramble Book by Adam Buxton (2020)
I know vaguely who Adam Buxton is but I am pretty sure I have never heard or seen him do anything at all, apart from the "Help the Police" sketch which a friend sent me once and is very funny. So perhaps I should have watched more. Anyway, my lovely sister recommended this book because it's about growing up in the 80s while being slightly obsessed with David Bowie, which she said sounded like me for some reason.  And yes, it has plenty that rang a lot of bells. It's easy reading, Adam is pleasant company, and I enjoyed it.
The Guitar Magazine (April 2021 / Issue 391)
More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran (2020)
A follow up to the excellent How To Be A Woman, but one I found uneven and frustrating, even though I agree with so much of it. It starts off very light, almost like observational comedy - and when she's saying things like "all women have a cushion strategy" (pre-empted by Coupling there though!), this kind of sweeping generalisation is amusing, because it's (surely) tongue-in-cheek. But the tone of the book gets gradually more serious and those kind of statements become uncomfortably at odds with her obvious desire to help women escape exactly these kind of stereotypes that imprison them. I like the fact that she's changed her mind on some issues as she's got older, and she's eloquent as ever on the pressures faced by women. It just bothers me that, despite her upbringing in a very poor household, she now seems to completely live in media land. Obviously, getting harassed on Twitter is a real issue and a real problem - but is it a real issue for most women? Or just the ones she knows (who all happen to be public figures)? Very readable, very funny and very candid and definitely worth reading, but falls short as a polemic.

28/02/2021

Reading - February 2021

The Firm by John Grisham (1991)
I felt like reading something familiar and this caught my eye. It's still a great story, well-told and involving. It just sweeps me along and I finished it in a couple of days. It's showing its age slightly: the two main women characters are cartoons and almost exclusively described in physical terms, which I hope would be improved these days. It jars occasionally but doesn't spoil the story.
Tight-Fittin' Jeans by Mary Lynn Baxter (1997)
The cring-worthy title should have warned me off - but at least it didn't take long to read. Very predictable and marred by a number of typos. Although at least one of them made me laugh - apparently this series of books features "sexy herpes"!
Cracking The Dating Code by Kelly Hunter (2012)
I quite like the idea of a geeky heroine, who understands computers but not relationships, except there's not enough geekiness for me. Having her paired with a studly, tortured hero straight out of central casting makes for an appealingly odd couple, but there's not enough clear progression in the relationship - suddenly he's obsessed with her and doesn't know why, which sounds like a cop-out from the author. Sweet enough overall, as expected, but unmemorable.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2007)
It's kind of depressing that this book was, and is still, needed. Dawkins' main points are all irrefutable and it constantly bewilders me that anyone should find this hard to understand. Of course religion is a sociological construct. "God" is about a credible explanation of anything in the universe as Rudyard Kipling's story of why the giraffe got his neck. The book itself can be repetitive and over-laboured in places, and occasionally he tries to engage with the idiocy that is theology instead of just pointing out that it's irrelevant (in fairness, he has done elsewhere), which leaves him open to the fatuous criticism (and category mistake) that his arguments are invalid because he "doesn't understand theology". But overall, it's a very readable, rational and sustained argument in favour of what should be blindingly obvious to everyone, but sadly isn't.
Saddle Up by Mary Lynn Baxter (1996)
This is the book that comes before Tight Fittin' Jeans (above) and for some reason I though it would make sense to complete the set. It's of its time, which in romance novel terms means that no-one sees anything wrong with the man basically forcing himself on the woman, which is all absolutely fine because actually she wants it, the little minx. Needless to say, this wouldn't get published these days. Other than that, it was OK.
Single Dad by Jennifer Greene (1995)
Another novel from the same era and series as the previous two (M&B/Silhouette Desire, I think), from the time when they used an illustration that looked like it had something to do with the plot as opposed to a random library pic - although in this case it's a very amateur drawing. However, in this case, rather than its age dating it with some attitudes that we wouldn't accept now, this is just a nice story of two people overcoming their own insecurities to work out how they can be together.
The Guitar Magazine (March 2021 / Issue 390)
Red-Hot Renegade by Kelly Hunter (2010)
I've been going through romance novels a lot in the last couple of weeks, which usually means I can't be bothered to concentrate on anything more challenging. While this book isn't exactly hard to read, as a combination of romance and thriller it has a bit more going for it than most and the Singapore setting is unusual. Despite the mandated length (these books are always a pretty specific number of words) it managed to pack a fair amount of action in. Not bad.
Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate by Kelly Hunter (2009)
Something about this plot really appealed to me: the housemaid's daughter all grown up and returned to find the son of the heir of the estate. So far, so Sabrina I suppose, but it's all handled very nicely and I like the idea that the two youngsters were separated and have come back together as adults - I think it's romantic. Very enjoyable.
Revealed: A Prince and a Pregnancy by Kelly Hunter (2009)
The very last in my month's romance novel binge, I promise, is this sequel to Exposed, in which the other two main characters get together. Very neat (if a bit weird). The plot itself feels a little manufactured and tries to put all sorts of roadblocks in the way of our couple, but they all sort of magically fade away right at the end. I didn't enjoy it as much as the previous book, but maybe that's a sign I should lay off the Mills & Boon for a while!
The King's Speech by Mark Logue & Peter Conradi (2010)
Not exactly the book of the film, even though it's tied in with a nice pic on the front of Geoffrey Rush and local boy made good Colin Firth, but a more complete and historically accurate history of the relationship between Lionel Logue (the lead author's grandfather) and King George VI. Obviously it's not quite as dramatic: Logue worked with the then Duke of York from 1926 until near his death in 1952, and there was no one "King's Speech" with which the treatment culminated. However, what is clear is that the two men worked together constantly for years and held each other in high regard, with Logue even being invited to Christmas at Sandringham for several years, not just to help with the (then live) Christmas speech, but to take part in the family gathering. Interesting and an unusual insight into monarchy. And a very reasonable length too - not unnecessarily extended.

Watching - February 2021

The Firm (1993)
John Grisham's source novel is one of my favourites, but I only vaguely remembered this - so having just read the book, it seemed logical to watch this. I got over my usual irritation with Tom Cruise fairly quickly, and for the first half of the film it's pretty faithful to the source material. However, it goes downhill in the second half when they start changing the plot for no obvious reason, and ends up with Mitch McDeere (Cruise's character) gathering evidence for the FBI to be able convict the firm for (wait for it) over-billing. Yawn. William Goldman, in Adventures In The Screen Trade (read it, kids, it's brilliant) says that stars can't bear to appear weak, and I think that's what's happened here. In the book, McDeere breaks his legal oath and then runs away - but leaves enough evidence to smash the firm and the mob wide open. In the film, however, he ends up walking right up to the mob bosses and blackmailing them into leaving him alone. Maybe the producers, the writers or even the star felt this was a better look. Really, while it's superficially "brave" (gasp, walking right to the lion's den!), actually it's more selfish - and it's a less satisfying story, in my opinion.
The King's Speech (2010)
A nice, gentle film for my day off. It's beautifully made, of course, and although I thought the accents (particularly Guy Pearce's) sounded a bit over-done, it's worth listening to Edward's real abdication broadcast and to that made by George VI at the declaration of war - The King's Speech of the film's title - to hear that they really did talk like that. If there's one problem with the film, it might be that it is so successful at telling the story that its version of events, which are necessarily compressed and simplified, will probably become what people remember (although no-one seems to be complaining about this in the same way that they are about The Crown).
Dinnerladies (Series 1) (1998)
Here's another series I didn't watch at the time - my loss, of course. It's a brilliant sitcom, with some fantastic one-liners and Victoria Wood's characteristic descriptions and metaphors - but what keeps you watching over multiple episodes is the interplay between the actors. While all clearly comedy characters, they are believable and easy to like. The only real exception to this is the Julie Walters character, which feels like it's come out of a different (and worse) programme - it's too broad and doesn't ring true at all. Occasionally it threatens to unbalance the whole thing, which is a shame. 
Doc Hollywood (1991)
This is one of my favourite romcoms. It's a bit dated: nowadays the scene with Julie Warner emerging naked from the lake would surely be dropped (she's gorgeous, but I do feel worried that she would have been pressured into this); and the way the Michael J Fox so blatantly hits on her would have been been softened, I think. But that's in the first, more comedic half of the film. The second half is an involving, gentle, tender romance that I find genuinely moving. The scene where Warner and Fox dance to "Crazy" and everyone else melts away is wonderful. The depiction of small-town America is unashamedly rose-tinted and cliched, but no less charming for it, and the surrounding cast of characters are so well filled in. Just great.
Serendipity (2001)
Stylistically this seems deeply in debt to When Harry Met Sally, but it has enough of its own character to be distinct, and in any case the style is good enough to stand another story. John Cusack is great to watch, as always, and Kate Beckinsale is pretty good too. The chemistry between the two of them is just about enough to believe that they'd ditch their fiancés to chase a romantic dream, and the story of intertwined fates is sweet, if a bit fantastical - but that's OK too, because it gives the film a sort of magical feel. And finally, we have to note that with this and High Fidelity, John Cusack has been in two films that have the most perfectly chosen pieces of end music: Nick Drake's gorgeous "Northern Sky" and Stevie Wonder's ecstatic "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" respectively. 
Zootropolis (2016)
Movie & pizza time with the family! It took a while getting everyone to agree on a film, but this hit the mark nicely. It's very good: lots of detail, great parallels with real life of course, and a satisfying story.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)
Just bought on DVD and watched again to, you know, check the rip was OK and not because I actually like it or anything. Well, maybe a bit. Jack Black is surprisingly restrained for him (he says he's channelling his inner teenage girl, but I think he's actually channelling a token gay character from an 80s sitcom), and you wouldn't guess that Karen Gillan is actually Scottish. What makes the film for me as much as anything are the tongue-in-cheek moments, like when Dwayne Johnson does a "smoulder" but doesn't realise it. Great fun.
Le Mans (1971)
Since the "plot" covers barely ten minutes of screen time, I'm assuming that the reason this was made was because Steve McQueen fancied driving at Le Mans on somebody else's dollar. The action sequences are great - mostly filmed at the previous year's actual 24 Hours of Le Mans - and there's plenty of it to watch if you're an enthusiast. I grew up reading about the legendary Ford GT40 and the mighty Porsche 917, so it was great for me. I can't imagine what the average McQueen fan made of it at the time, though.