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 fianc├ęs 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.

31/01/2021

Watching - January 2021

Big (1988)
Watched this for the first time in ages and was reminded what a sweet, good-hearted film it is. However, I watched it alone because the kids weren't interested and C doesn't like it; she objects to the romance element between Elizabeth Perkins and Tom Hanks (playing, of course, a 13 year old in a man's body). I can see why, and I wonder whether a film made today would feature it as heavily, or at all. At best, that section is kind of a male fantasy (the "older woman" thing) and, as ever with these kind of films, it doesn't bear thinking about too much. Would Susan (the Perkins character) really be so understanding, or would she actually be horrified? I think probably the latter. Still, it's very funny in places and the central message is unaffected: we should all keep hold of the child within. Or something. I'm not very good at subtext!
Tangled (2010)
I'm told we watched this in early January but I don't remember. I've watched it before, of course, so maybe that's why it didn't register. I really like the film, it's got a great sense of humour. For B & K it was a prelude to watching Rapunzel's Tangled Adventure, but I drew the line at that.
Mulan (1998)
For some reason, Mulan is one of the Disney Princesses even though surely the point of the story is that she very much isn't a princess. Anyway, this original version of the Disney story can't quite make up its mind whether it's a dramatic re-telling in the vein of other classic Disney princess films, or a more comedic take. The presence of Eddie Murphy's Donkey Mushu unbalances the film somewhat and frankly it could have done with someone less identifiably playing themselves, but perhaps it needed the star name. Overall, good-natured and undemanding, although probably reflecting attitudes of the time (23 years ago!) that wouldn't make it into a film now.
Amazing Grace (2018)
Somehow the existence of Aretha's 1972 album Amazing Grace has passed me by until now, to my shame, despite the fact that it is Aretha's best-selling ever. This is the film of it being recorded and is done in classic 70s documentary style, all shaky cameras and random focus - very similar in feel to Woodstock or The Last Waltz. It's a great watch though - it's not just an album being recorded, it's a gospel performance. Whether it's a great or true one is not really for me to judge (my entire exposure to gospel is the James Brown scenes in The Blues Brothers) but it seems authentic to me. I also love that two of the musicians, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie, are also on Steely Dan's Aja - now that's versatility. (It also "features" Mick Jagger, who appears for all of five seconds; the edit cheekily includes him noticing the camera, elaborately and unconvincingly pretending not to notice the camera and then starting to clap along.)
The Sound of TV With Neil Brand (2020)
This three-part exploration of the use of music on TV - through theme tunes, advertising jungles and accompanying music - ought to have been a lot more interesting than it was. By forcing the content into the usual (unnecessarily) hour long episodes, it ended up being fragmented instead of joining dots. Brand tries to make an argument that because TV music is so pervasive, it shapes our lives more than we realise, but this feels like overstating the case to try and justify the fancy locations. This would have been more effective as a single programme, showing progress through more examples and fewer interviews and location changes. Or, to put it another way, by being more like Mark Kermode's superb Secrets of Cinema programmes.
Captain Marvel (2019)
If I'd known the MCU better, or paid more attention during Avengers: Endgame, I probably wouldn't have been surprised by the reversal about halfway through this. But that said, if it was that obvious to aficionados, what would be the point at all? So maybe it wasn't obvious. Anyway, I didn't see it coming. The film overall is reasonably good fun, although by far the most impressive special effect is the de-aging of Samuel L Jackson.
Secret Society of Second Born Royals (2020)
As the kids pointed out, this plays out a bit like someone binge-watched Sky High, followed by MI High and then tried to sort of munge them together with The Princess Diaries (or any of a number of other royal-obsessed Disney Channel films). Diverting enough, but I only watched to the end to see how it ended - although it was predictable, I still like seeing how things play out. Recommended to us by one of K's friends, who has now been reprimanded and ordered to go and watch Sky High instead.
Yes, Minister (Series 1) (1981)
One of the first things I looked for on Britbox was this, because I never watched it at the time, as far as I can remember. Having gone through the seven episodes, I'm pretty certain I didn't. So although the general framework is familiar, the plots weren't, which made discovering it a new joy for me. Obviously there is a risk in watching it forty years after it was made, but aside from the obvious things that date it (don't desks look odd without a computer on them?), it absolutely stands up. The mindless bureaucracy ("Minister for Administrative Affairs" always made us laugh) and the private scheming is obviously something that is always with us. Fantastically well-observed and performed throughout, and if a couple of the episodes dipped slightly they were never less than entertaining.
Sky High (2005)
Rotten Tomatoes review of Sky High is surprisingly tone deaf: it describes the film as "highly derivative [and] moderately entertaining". Did they actually watch the film? It's clearly an affectionate spoof as well as very funny throughout (Kurt Russell's constant super hero posing is hilarious). RT saves themselves with an editorial from last year that describes it as "ahead of its time", which is much more on the mark. Its been a favourite in this house for several years; highly recommended.

Reading - January 2021

Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins (2016)
Face Value is one of my favourite albums, and "You Can't Hurry Love" always gives me a big nostalgic reminder of my first, early teenage crush, but other than these and the usual smattering of 80s hits, I don't know much of Phil Collins' music - I don't own any of his other solo or Genesis albums. But I'd heard this was a good book, so I thought I'd give it a go. It's very well done - although obviously benefiting from the attentions of an assistant/ghost writer (Craig McLean, according to the acknowledgements), it retains Collins' voice, and (as the reviews all say), he's pretty honest about himself. Unlike a lot of these autobiographies, he doesn't minimise the sheer amount of hard work needed to achieve what he has, or the extent to which you have to be focussed on that success above anything else in order to get it. And he's pretty clear about the effect it's had on his personal life: three failed marriages and a near-death experience with alcoholism. Even if there's a touch of the "poor me" occasionally, he still manages to come across as a nice guy who doesn't quite believe he's managed to achieve so much (an amount which, it's easy to forget, is quite staggering). I enjoyed the book a lot, although subsequent listens to some of his music haven't convinced me that I've missed out particularly.
Playing The Bass With Three Left Hands by Will Carruthers (2016)
Coincidentally published the same year as Phil Collins' autobiog, this is a fantastic insight into the other end of the music industry. Will Carruthers was the bassist in Spacemen 3 and then Spiritualized. These are not insignificant bands (although possibly not as famous or important as he claims), but it didn't seem to stop him being permanently skint and homeless. Possibly being frequently out of his tree on a smorgasbord of drugs didn't help, in fairness, but his dedication to music is surely easily equal to Collins' and yet he seems to have ended up with little except a wry wit and a philosophical attitude - which luckily makes for a very good book. Highly recommended. I'll have to go and dig out Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (which I have in limited edition pharmaceutical packaging!)
The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton (1911)
The Father Brown stories have a almost gothic quality that I like, but find rather too rich for frequent consumption. The style is superbly realised and the stories ingenious, but I find myself wishing they were slightly longer. The obvious comparison is with Sherlock Holmes, but in terms of prose, Chesterton is far superior. It reminds me more of the Don Camillo stories.
The Guitar Magazine (February 2021 / Issue 389)
Over fifty years since he died and still Jimi Hendrix is the headline on this month's issue. In fairness they have interviews with some current artists elsewhere but still ... fifty years ago guys!
Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley (2013)
When I last read this, I had been running for about three months and related to some of the advice aimed at new runners. Six years later and, unsurprisingly, it's the chapters about what it feels like to have achieved your goal and then stopped that resonate most. My original goal had been to run 5K in under 25 minutes, which (according to my detailed run diary) I achieved about seven months after I started. A few months after that my knee started hurting and I never really got back into the routine again. Now I am trying again (again).
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996)
I started this in December, with a view to finishing it on or around Christmas - since that's what it's kind of about. The Hogfather is Discworld's Santa Claus analog and the story, inasmuch as it's about anything, seems to be about the power of belief. I don't feel like I understood all of it, or what bits of it were supposed to mean, but it's enjoyable, and I like Susan, Death's grand-daughter.
The Gospel According To Luke by Steve Lukather (with Paul Rees) (2018)
And here's yet another insight into life as a musician. If most people know Lukather at all, it's probably as a member of TOTO, but to guitarists he's one of the gods: one of the most prolific and respected session guitarists ever; his range and versatility is legendary. The book comes across as very genuine to his personality (not that I know what that is otherwise), and he talks a lot about the insanity of both working and partying hard in LA music circles. He's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder about the lack of critical respect that TOTO received - as he says, these guys were playing on everyone's records in the 80s, so they must have been doing something right - but the "partial" discography at the back of the book (twenty pages, one line per artist!) proves his point. The book reads well, even if it does feel like a bit of a list of "then I played with this guy, then that one", and everyone's his good friend - but his kind of success relies on people liking you as much as people liking your playing, so I think he must be just a very likeable guy! 

30/01/2021

Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden)

Amadeus Quartet

Deutsche Grammophon - 138 048 SLPM (1969)

Unlike the last VAW, which I felt was nice but uninvolving, this piece has a very definite sense of mood across all four movements, and in particular the second, Andante Con Moto, which is just fantastically mournful. As the title it's often given indicates, there's a sense of approaching death and doom, which is apparently because Schubert himself was not well around this time. That said, despite this background and the informal title, most of the piece is quite fast, but with a sort of desperate energy. Only the second movement is slow, starting with a kind of death march and moving to a powerful, stately melody. Great stuff.

When I first listened to this, I was slightly inclined to wonder if the slight tinny-ness of the sound was due to my record player or the recording - which originally dates from 1960, according to discogs.com. However, in part, I think it's because the string quartet format itself tends towards this: with two violins and a viola, there's a lot of high frequencies, with only the cello rounding out the sound at all. However, when I listened a bit more, I was grabbed by the melodies and the subtlety of the arrangement became a bit more apparent. Because there are only four parts to listen to, it's easier to appreciate how they work around each other (I mean, who can listen to all parts in an orchestra? Maybe a few people, but not me); I still prefer the sound of a full orchestra, but this manages a fair bit of drama and dynamics itself.

Filling up the space at the end of the record is a single movement from an uncompleted string quartet in C minor, which is fairly unmemorable. The recording itself is, as far as I can tell, not available on Spotify, although several other, probably later, recordings by the Amadeus quartet are, and well worth listening to. My copy is somewhat scratched (it's the same age as me, so you know, fair enough) and I still don't find that charming.

 

11/01/2021

Haydn: Symphonies No. 99 & 100 (Military)

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Conducted by Eugen Jochum

Deutsche Grammophon - 2530 459 (1974)

My Album of the "Week" has fallen behind a little recently, what with holidays and so on - but mainly because I couldn't really get a handle on these symphonies. Which is odd, because they are choc-full of nice orchestration and pretty melodies, most of which I can now hum along with (although I couldn't, out of context). I realised that I was trying to find some overall theme or meaning for the pieces, which is unreasonable, since I wouldn't necessarily expect the same from a pop or rock album.

Considered then as a collection of bits of music - albeit complex, intertwined and linked - it's been easier for me to get my head around. There are many different moods evoked, the transitions are superbly done and it's never less than very listenable. However, I'd be hard-pressed to pick out any stand-out moments. I think I prefer Symphony 100 slightly over 99, but sadly it all fades into the background a bit unless I am really concentrating. All of which sounds like damning with faint praise, I know, but I do actually like these pieces. Probably I am still unable to fully appreciate this kind of music.

Disappointingly, I haven't been able to listen to the vinyl of this, since it is very dirty and distorting unpleasantly (hopefully it's the record and not my needle ...). However, I found what appears to be the exact recordings on Spotify, so that's what I've been playing.

31/12/2020

Reading - December 2020

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham (1996)
My copy of this book is the US edition, which dates it fairly precisely for me because I would almost certainly have bought it in 1998, while I was working in Boston for a couple of months. My colleagues in the US were a nice bunch but it was unreasonable to expect them to entertain a visitor every night, so I spent a lot of time by myself. Luckily I was staying near Faneuil Hall market, which had a large bookshop (if I remember rightly, anyway) and so I passed many hours there. I can't remember if I discovered Grisham at that time, or had just done so, but anyway I have several of his novels from there. This is a great read, typical of his early novels, as long as you don't examine the plot too carefully. In this case, one of the characters even manages to spell out the main plot hole explicitly, while wondering how two of the main characters know so much about him. It's never explained, which doesn't really spoil the story.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (1998)
Re-reading this now, after a year of having our awareness raised of racism and associated matters, I'm wondering what to make of this a book about a black, African woman, written as it is by a white, male, Scottish academic. The obvious reaction would now be to label this "cultural appropriation" but (as I feel is often the case with this term), this is simplistic and missing the point. It seems to me that the characters are written sympathetically and respectfully and with an understanding of the culture, which is surely all we can ask. It's clearly ridiculous to demand that authors write only of what they have direct experience. Anyway, all that aside, I still think this book is a master-class in clear, simple writing. It also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, which I haven't read for a long time.
The Guitar Magazine (January 2021 / Issue388)
Including the "Gear of the Year" feature, this year thankfully shorter than usual - it always annoyed me when it took half the magazine, since I'd already ready all those features anyway. 
The Science of Everyday Life by Marty Jopson (2018)
The book's subtitle, "Why teapots dribble, toast burns and light bulbs shine", does it a disservice, as it includes loads more snippets of scientific curiosities than this. Each of the sixty short essays tackles a different part of life in a light but informative way. I enjoyed it very much (and thank you to the kids, who bought it for me for Chanukah).