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).

Watching - December 2020

12 Dates of Christmas (2011)
Another Christmas TV movie (on Disney+ this time), and really just a rip-off of Groundhog Day - but watchable enough. Like its inspiration, it's implausible even if you accept the central idea of time repeating itself (as far as everyone else is concerned, they've only known the central character for a few hours, why are they such best friends all of a sudden?) but Amy Smart's journey into understanding herself is sweet and I enjoyed it.
Wimbledon (2004)
Perhaps not a classic, but it's still one of my favourite films. While obviously very much in the style of Richard Curtis, it manages not to be a pastiche and Paul Bettany in particular creates his own character rather than just impersonating Hugh Grant (unlike, say, Domhnall Gleeson in About Time). The dialogue and interplay between him and Kirsten Dunst is convincing, and overall it's just a lovely story.
Memento (2000)
Despite owning this DVD for years, I think this is possibly the first time I've watched the film since I originally saw it. It's not quite a complicated as I remember, although it's pretty complex - and, of course, the reverse chronology deliberately exacerbates this. It's a brilliant way of making us experience the uncertainty that Leonard (the Guy Pearce character) is feeling all the time. Very memorable and superbly made - a modern classic. (And currently, inexplicably, being remade, apparently.)
Godmothered (2020)
Predictable but well-made and amusing Disney silliness. The story feels like it's trying to be a bit like Enchanted but isn't quite as funny or sophisticated. Filled a couple of hours as a nice family watch though.
Lost In Austen (2008)
An unexpected find on Britbox, this is basically Life On Mars meets Jane Austen. However, unlike LoM, this is hard to take too seriously, as it gets increasingly preposterous across its four episodes. I don't think enough was made of the culture clash between old and new, but that didn't stop there being some nice moments and reinterpretations of the story - and it didn't stop me enjoying it. And on a side note, the casting of the Bennet sisters was much better than in the 1996 P&P - at least they looked their ages.
Soul (2020)
Our family film on Christmas Day, and very good it was too. It captured the attention of all us (no mean feat), was funny, thoughtful, meaningful and maybe a bit schmaltzy - all classic Pixar. Odd stunt casting with Graham Norton, but Richard Ayoade was much better.
Home Alone (1990)
None of us had ever seen this, amazingly, so it seemed like a good opportunity at Christmas. Obviously knowing the basic story means that it loses much of its ability to surprise but even so I wasn't particularly impressed. The famous clips of the burglars being variously whacked in the face and set on fire are funny and unexpectedly wince-inducing for a family film, but don't come until the last twenty minutes or so, leaving much of the rest of the film as a fairly dull recounting of Kevin's days. One thing that I did notice was that at the end, all of Kevin's brothers and sisters were still pretty apathetic about him, whereas if this film were remade today, I think there would have to be a big scene where everyone admitted they were wrong about him - which would be even more unrealistic than this film already is.
Hamilton (2020)
Very disappointed - it turned out that this wasn't a musical about Lewis Hamilton at all.
Just kidding! I'm probably cheating a bit by including this as I only watched about half an hour before getting bored, but I felt like I should give it a go. Unfortunately, stage musicals like this leave me completely cold. I find them so artificial, and every aspect of them just obstructs the story-telling, leaving me constantly having to think about the narrative rather than just being swept along with it. The performances were all stage-school thigh-slapping, foot-up-on-chair phoniness and the music was forced and unmemorable - and why oh why must everything be sung? It's just another obstacle to actually understanding the story. I know that plenty of people love this kind of thing but it's not for me.
Mulan (2020)
A feast for the eyes but not so much for the brain. The cinematography is amazing but the story is a simple one, although in fairness, so is the original legend, and I didn't feel the characters were particularly well fleshed-out. But what bothered me most was a nagging sense that most of the Chinese cultural elements - the tea ceremony, the matchmaker, the epigrammatic statements from Mulan's parents and generals, and so on - were fairly flat stereotypes. It seems unlikely that Disney, a savvy company with an eye on the huge Chinese market, would fail to do the necessary consultation, but it seems like they didn't. We still haven't watched the original Disney Mulan, but I'm quite keen to now.


Reading - November 2020

Country Of The Blind by Christopher Brookmyre (1997)
My favourite Brookmyre book changes every now and then but this is up there. A straightforward thriller with lots of black humour and nicely implausible victories for the underdogs. I've lost count of how many times I've read it (this is the fourth since I started actually counting, about ten years ago) but it's still hugely enjoyable.
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
I should probably give Brookmyre a rest for a few years, but they're such fun and very old friends by now. I wonder if I can make it through 2021 without reading one?
Guitar Magazine (Dec 2020 / Issue 387)
The Eddie Van Halen obituary edition. Obviously a titan of rock guitar, but someone whose music never really did that much for me. Still worth working through the best twenty EVH moments, out of interest, but for all his undoubted innovation and ability, it all ends up sounding a bit the same. That said, to repeat the magazine's own (admitted) cliché, it's EVH's rhythm playing that ends up impressing the most.
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch (2019)
I didn't finish this, despite the interesting subject - how language is changing due to use of the internet - because it's much too long and tedious. For some reason, McCulloch insists on talking about herself all the time, and some of the conclusions she reaches are clearly just subjective opinion wrapped up in scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo. Disappointing.
The Nation's Favourite by Simon Garfield (1998)
A fascinating snapshot of a time in Radio 1's history that I remember very well - but now a historical document only, I fear. Radio 1 was, at the time, just under thirty years old, but the events recounted here were about twenty-five years ago; basically, as much time has passed again since then. Interesting to hear about the same characters (Chris Evans, Zoe Ball, Jo Whiley), who have (or had) all migrated to Radio 2. Evans comes across as very full of himself, which in fairness he acknowledges in his autobiographies.
Feet Of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1996)
Broadly, the theme of this is probably the nature of consciousness, featuring golems that are, for all intents and purposes, surely the equivalent of robots in our world. It is also, broadly, a whodunnit. For me, the plot doesn't hang together quite as well as usual, despite the expected helping of laugh-at-loud moments and beautiful details (as evidenced by the Annotated Pratchettt, link above). Still a great read though.

Watching - November 2020

Summer Holiday (1963)
Watched in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep and needed something undemanding and familiar, yet not so familiar I'd not be interested. I hadn't seen it for decades but I could remember most of it. Very dated of course (as soon as the girls are on board, they are put in charge of cooking), but sweet enough.
Grease (1978)
Z wanted to watch this for some reason (I think we'd heard Greased Lightning on Strictly Come Dancing) and I was quite happy to revisit it - always good fun. My favourite song, you ask? Well, much as I like "Beauty School Dropout", with the boys as angels at the end, the bit that always cracks me up is the hot dog jumping into the bun at the end of "Sandy" - so silly!
A Puppy For Christmas (2016)
We discovered what can only be called a, er, "treasure trove" of schmaltzy, Mills & Boon style, seasonal romance films on My5. Just the thing for a wet November weekend afternoon, then. This is a wafer-thin plot about a woman who discovers the true meaning of Christmas via a puppy. It passed the time but wasn't actually very good.
Love Always, Santa (2016)
On the other hand, this was much better. Absolutely the equivalent of a good Silhouette romance: simple, predictable, but heartfelt and heart-warming. I know I'm an old softie but this is a sweet story, set in a world where no-one is mean and everything ends well, with characters who seem real and who you want to end up happy.
Holiday Date (2019)
I think I might need to go cold turkey (geddit???) on the crappy Christmas movies. But they're on Channel 5 in the afternoon when the best thing to do is just veg on the sofa. And I'm such a sucker for a romance. This was very silly in places but it made me laugh and it was sweet.


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 In C Minor (Op. 37)

 Scottish National Orchestra and John Lill (piano)

Conducted by Alexander Gibson

Classics For Pleasure - CFP 40259 (1977)

I was initially at a bit of a loss for what say about this. It sounds like quintessential "classical music" to my uneducated ear: lots of orchestral play, pianist whizzing up and down the keyboard. I think partly this is because I don't really understand the concerto form, but partly because there is just a lot of music here, a lot of thematic development, which if I am not listening carefully tends to all sort of merge together, leaving a generic "sound of orchestra playing some classical music" impression on me.

Obviously this is just my ignorance, since firstly, this is Beethoven and therefore clearly not just "generic"; and secondly, if I do listen carefully, I do actually hear repeated ideas. It's just that I'm not used to listening for them in this way - and maybe a little that I don't find them distinctive enough to notice them the second or third time round.

Anyway, the opening theme (or "riff" as I kind of think of it) is stated quite clearly by the orchestra right at the beginning, and we keep hearing it throughout the long first movement. In fact the first movement has several sections by itself (mini-movements?), and the piano and orchestra keep coming back to that opening riff theme, apart from during a fairly long cadenza (which is basically classical music speak for "solo", it turns out), which I personally could do without, since the sound of the piano by itself is a bit underwhelming.

And that's true in general: the best parts are where the orchestra and the piano are playing off each other, echoing what is played or supporting. I prefer the first and third movements (cadenzas notwithstanding), because they have the biggest and most dramatic passages. The second movement is a lot slower and quieter and less interesting.

As an aside, this is probably the dustiest record I've listened to so far, which means it was probably played quite a bit - which is nice to know. (And when I say dusty, I don't mean it was covered, or indeed obviously dirty at all, but the needle picked up quite a bit every time I played this, which needed cleaning off otherwise the sound started getting all distorted).


Stravinksy: Petrouchka / The Firebird

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini

His Master's Voice - ASD 2614 (1970)

Stravinsky's The Rites Of Spring is one of the few classical pieces I've known and been a fan of since my teens, but I'd never listened at any length to any other of his works.

These two pieces were originally conceived as ballet scores. While I can tell that they would provide suitably dramatic counterpoint to a story being told in a ballet, without the dancing in front of me, the music itself feels like it jumps from mood to mood with no reason. I've never seen the ballets (it's a form of artistic expression that leaves me bewildered and nonplussed) but I can kind of imagine a narrative that goes with each piece. The notes on the back of the sleeve give a quick summary of the stories, which helps a bit.

The music itself is fantastically scored and very effective at invoking moods, but so far I have failed to detect any recurring themes to hang on to. And without these, or the dancing, the music runs the risk of sounding like an empty exercise in instrumentation. Just like ballet seems to me to be an empty exercise in making dance shapes, I'm afraid.

This record took me two weeks, partly because I struggled to get into the music and partly because my record player was out of action for four days while I redecorated my study.


Cherubini: Requiem in D Minor

New Philharmonia Orchestra with The Ambrosian Singers (directed by John McCarthy)

Conducted by Riccardo Muti

His Master's Voice - ASD 3073, 1975

I'm really enjoying how varied this collection of music I've inherited is. Luigi Cherubini (great name) was Italian and much admired by Beethoven, among others, but isn't a composer I have ever heard of - although in fairness, perhaps this isn't saying much; I hadn't heard of three of the four composers on last week's record either. This piece is a requiem and according to the blurb on the back cover, written to be performed at the composer's own funeral and in response to an earlier composition of his being banned in church on account of featuring (gasp!) female voices; as a result, this has only male voices.

The sound of a chorus of people singing is a uniquely affecting sound, whether they are singing softly or loudly. The fact of the religious setting is largely immaterial, since I have no idea what they're singing, and all I know is it makes for some very dramatic music. I suppose that this is a piece of music for a funeral makes sense; it does, by and large, sound very sombre, particularly at the beginning and end, which makes for a nice sense of closure.

What it doesn't make for is a particularly relaxing listen though - some of the sudden bursts of sound from the orchestra and chorus combined have made me jump. I can't help but feel that this would have made for a very long funeral service - but as a piece of (effectively secular) music, it's very impressive. In some ways, a week isn't enough to get to grips with all of it, sadly.


Watching - October 2020

The World's End (2013)
Well this didn't turn out like I expected. Maybe having watched Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz would have helped but I haven't. Anyway, the sudden twist in the middle of what seemed like an amusing, but fairly standard, middle-age reunion was funny and then well done. Not my usual kind of thing but very enjoyable.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
C & I saw this in the cinema and I was blown away by the musical set pieces, not just the incredible re-creation of Live Aid, but by the studio scenes too. The dramatic stuff is a little bit compressed and fudged, but it's a film, not a documentary. Watching it again just reminds me (not that it was necessary) how much I love Queen's music; A Night At The Opera is one of my favourite albums and has been since I was about six. The actors here are amazingly close to their real-life counterparts, although if I were quibbling, it would be that they don't age enough.

Reading - October 2020

The Guitar Magazine (Nov 2020 / Issue 386)
There's a whole country guitar lesson in this month's issue, which I might try my hand at.
Grumpy Old Rock Star by Rick Wakeman (2014)
Rick Wakeman has - by his own account (and even allowing for some exaggeration) - been surprisingly successful. Yet, to judge by the title, it's his participation in the TV series Grumpy Old Men (which I am pleased to say I never watched) that has brought him sufficient fame to tell his story in a book. I say "story"; it's not an autobiography, just a set of anecdotes, and reads as if the publishers just sat him down with a pint in his hand (of tomato juice, presumably, since he is now teetotal) and just recorded him talking. He jumps around all over the place, in time and space, but there are plenty of entertaining tales and he's obviously lived an interesting life. More a book to dip into than read in one sitting.
Humble Pi by Matt Parker (2019)
I've not seen any of Matt Parker's standup but B is a bit of a fan, and so he bought this book (and I borrowed it). It's mildly interesting and somewhat amusing, but somehow never really engaged me fully. I'm not sure why: it's the kind of thing I've read before (which may be why some of the things discussed are not new to me) and I like popular science books in general. However, the maths is all pretty simple (so I'm surprised B, who is now much more advanced in maths than me, didn't find it simplistic too) and it takes a while to get to the point. Perhaps it's more interesting if you can imagine Parker speaking it on stage.
Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre (2013)
Reading this is (inadvertently) an annual activity for me, but still very enjoyable. Pure escapism, of course, and I am still failing to understand why none of Brookmyre's books have been made into blockbuster films. This would be particularly good - although perhaps negotiating all the rights to all the games would be tricky.
Wife By Design by Tara Taylor Quinn (2013)
Tara Taylor Quinn is the author of one of my favourite M&B novels, so I thought I'd try another. This is a bit over-dramatic really, and the setting (a shelter for abused women) is an odd one, although I can see and appreciate the point that's being made - but these books are about escapism, surely? Anyway, I can't fault the story-telling, which kept me interested, but I felt the development of the central relationship was a bit of afterthought and happened in a bit of a rush.
The Baby Gamble by Tara Taylor Quinn (2007)
This started out a bit tediously, because the cast is actually being introduced for a set of five inter-related books. So the first few chapters is full of sentences like "Pete, Sam's old school friend whose ex-wife Katie was Linda's neighbor, had known Betty, his cousin Mick's high school sweetheart, ever since Jess Smith, the town mayor ..." - over-the-top exposition that just stalls the story. But it soon settles down to the main four or five characters we need to know and once again we're willing the main woman and man to sort out their issues and get together. Which they do, of course. Sweet and sentimental.


Russian Rarities: Glière, Stravinsky, Cui, Gretchaninov

The London Symphony Orchestra and Osian Ellis (harp), Joan Sutherland (soprano)

Conducted by Richard Bonynge

Decca - SXL 6406, year unknown, probably late 1960s

The first side of this record is Reinhold Glière's Concerto For Harp And Orchestra (Op.74). The combination of harp and orchestra is an unusual one (in my huge experience) and it only partially works. The harp is a beautiful-sounding instrument but it has a limited range of expression: it can't sound urgent, powerful or in fact much else other calm and tranquil, even when it's being played urgently (or indeed powerfully). That means the slower, second movement here (Tema Con Variazioni (Andante)) is more successful than the first and third, in which the harp is sometimes in danger of being over-powered by the orchestra. The music is pleasant enough but hasn't lodged in my memory.

The second side is more memorable, but generally not for the right reasons. The four pieces all include Joan Sutherland singing, in the first two without words. This has given me the opportunity to learn that coloratura is not my cup of tea.

In particular, Glière's Concerto For Coloratura And Orchestra (Op.82) is hard work, despite including some pretty melodies and some very clever interplay between the voice and orchestra in the second movement, because the style of voice is one I find so off-putting. I wasn't sure if this was just Joan Sutherland's particular style (I'm told that singing styles have changed between the then and now) so I listened to some more recent recordings of the piece and while they are not quite as frilly, it's still not something I'd choose to listen to. This isn't to take anything away from Sutherland, who sounds amazing.

Stravinsky's Pastorale (Song Without Words For Voice And Four Wind Instruments) is more interesting (and shorter), and the final two pieces (César Cui's Ici Bas and Alexander Gretchaninov Lullaby) are the classical album equivalent of album filler.


Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (Op. 64)
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 26)

The London Symphony Orchestra and Ruggiero Ricci (violin)

Conducted by Pierino Gamba

Decca ‎– LXT 5334, 1958

Despite playing the guitar I have little interest in very "technical" guitar music that feels like a demonstration of technique over taste, and initally these two violin concertos seemed it belong in a similar category. Every possible way of playing the violin seems to be used, possibly just because it can be.

But they've grown on me, not least because they both have actual tunes. I'm probably being very gauche by calling them tunes when they're more properly called "themes" or something, but if you can sing along with it, it's a tune as far as I'm concerned!

Wikipedia says that Mendelssohn's violin concerto is one of the most popular violin pieces in history, as well as one of the most technically demanding. I can see why it's so popular, as it's very dramatic and I'm sure that in performance, the soloist can make the most of all the opportunities to show off. Sometimes it seems like it's a little unnecessary, but there's a lot in there and I think I'd need more listens.

The same can all be said of Bruch's violin concerto also, which feels like, at heart, a very similar piece of music, certainly structurally. Maybe all violin concertos are similar in that sense though, although reading up about it, apparently Bruch was heavily influenced by the earlier work.

I've enjoyed both pieces and - thanks to those tunes - I might even recognise them out of context if I was to hear them again. However, these particular recordings do illustrate the downside of having old vinyl; despite being in amazing condition for a record that is over sixty years old, the recording and transcribing technology of the time (particularly in mono) leave this sounding a bit like film music from old black and white films. This is probably not helped by the (melo)dramatic nature of the first movement of the Mendelssohn concerto in particular. So even though this is on Wikipedia's list as a notable/award-winning recording, I'd want to hear a more recent version.

EDIT: having now heard a couple of more newer recordings, this stands up surprisingly well. Ricci's playing is, I think, more vibrato-laden than modern technique would call for, but actually I quite like this and it suits the music.


Mozart: Trio In E Flat Major (K.498); Quintet In A Major (K.581)

Gervase de Peyer with members of the Melos Ensemble

His Master's Voice ‎– ASD 605, 1964

At first I found both of these pieces rather light and possibly even a bit twee, by comparison with the full orchestra compositions I'd been listening to so far for VAW. But they've grown on me - I've even come to prefer the trio (side A) over the quintet (side B).

The trio is known as the Kegelstatt Trio and my guess (even before I read the Wikipedia article) was that the unusual combination of instruments - clarinet, viola and piano - might indicate that it was composed for a specific combination of people, or maybe even as an exercise for a student. Apparently both of these guesses are true, probably (good for me!). It's a pretty, light piece, with enough melody and movement to entertain and keep interest up. After a few listens, I found myself humming along, so even though I don't think I could recognise it out of context, it's enjoyable.

The second side has the Stadler Quintet, composed for and first performed by clarinettist Anton Sadler, who was also part of the first performance of the Kegelstatt Trio - hence the combination of pieces on this record, I suppose. The orchestration is slightly fuller and so there's more going on, which is maybe why I remember it slightly less. But again, it's an attractive, undemanding piece.

I haven't been commenting on the quality of the performances in these blogs - I don't have the knowledge or experience to do so, and in any case, to be worth committing to vinyl requires a minimum standard. It sounds good to me, and a good recording too.


Franz Schubert: Rosamunde

Netherlands Radio Chorus & Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Conducted by Bernard Haitink

Philips ‎– 6570 053, 1965

Apparently this was composed as accompaniment for a now largely forgotten play concerning an heiress to the throne of Cyprus who is raised incognito as a shepherdess. It's impossible to assess whether the score matches the play, but there's plenty of drama in the music here - even just in the Overture, which ranges across grand orchestral stabs to bouncy tunes, all in about five minutes. The sleeve notes say that the most well-known pieces are both on the second side, those being "Entr'acte 3" and "Ballet Music No. 2" but neither of them ring any bells, so I don't think I've heard them before.

There's a bit of singing: the individual contralto (Aafje Heynis) is a bit too frilly for my taste, but the chorus sounds great - so far, both of the albums I've listened to have choruses on them and I like it; they sound so big and powerful. Overall, it feels like it wanders around a lot, thematically, without ever settling down to a direction. But it's nicely scored and played and is excellent Sunday morning music.

As an aside, I rather like the picture on the cover (Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd), in which a wonderfully skeptical-looking young woman is being courted by (presumably) a shepherd. Given that the play is about a cypriot princess, the only relevance it has is that it involves sheep, but never mind!


Reading - September 2020

How To Build A Universe by Prof. Brian Cox & Robin Ince (2017)
Released off the back of the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, this has what I guess is a similar discussion-style format that probably works better on the printed page than it did on my Kobo. On the e-book, I found the typesetting made it hard to read and eventually ran out of steam before the end. There's loads of interesting information but, honestly, a straightforward pop-science book would be easier for me to digest than this, which is irritatingly bitty and full of distracting comedic asides.
Small Change by Dan Ariely & Jeff Kreisler (2018)
Similarly to Ariely's earlier book Predictably Irrational, except at the smaller scale of how we, as individuals think about money. It made interesting reading to learn about all the ways in which we can be fooled, and fool ourselves, in our dealings with money, whether it's by not saving enough for the future, or over-valuing things we own. I'm feeling slightly smug that I believe I don't fall into most of the identified pitfalls ... which probably means I am, of course.
Guitar Magazine (Oct 2020 / Issue 385)
I've been wondering whether to continue subscribing and this month's issue hasn't really helped. There's nothing grabbing me; there's the usual two or three boutique guitars that I have no interest in owning, interviews with artists I've only vaguely heard of, if that (Soccer Mommy anyone?), and a few pedals that basically are updates of old pedals. Not very inspiring.
Playing The Part by Kimberley van Meter (2014)
This is from the Harlequin (Silhouette/M&B) "Super Romance" series, which are slightly longer and have more "emotional punch" (i.e. some plot that doesn't just involve the two main characters falling in love). Here, the additional story lines feels a little bit tacked on, but that said I found them moving nonetheless. The usual level of implausibility abounds and the happy ending feels a bit abrupt, but enjoyable enough to keep me reading.
Me by Elton John (2019)
Unlike the Andrew Ridgeley book I read last month, this sounds completely written in the subject's voice, despite very probably also being mostly written by someone else (I suspect in this case it was Alexis Petrides, who is credited in the book's dedication). This immediately makes it a more engaging read, but Elton John's life is so extraordinary that I think my attention would have been grabbed anyway. He's very frank about his downs as well as ups: the drug use, his sexuality, his hair loss, and more. We'll blame the drugs for that fact that his most prolific period, during the mid-70s, is dispatched in a few pages. It's a shame, as I would love to have learned more about the recording of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but there's little about making music overall. Maybe it's because Elton prefers to make music quickly, or perhaps because he doesn't remember. The book also jumps around the years a lot, which sometimes makes it hard to follow. But follow it I did, because it's very readable and an amazing story.
Bluff Your Way In Music by Peter Gammond (1985)
I bought a bunch of Bluffer's Guides in the late 80s and early 90s, as they were cheap, often very funny and surprisingly educational. This is the handiest primer on the subject of music (note that we're talking about "proper" music here, not pop or rock) that I have, and I thought it was worth refreshing my memory on a few things now I have started my VAW project.
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin (2006)
I struggled with this and eventually ran out of time on my (electronic) loan, which makes it the second book this month I haven't finished, so maybe I shouldn't include it. The reason I didn't finish it was because I was constantly finding things I felt more like reading - which I guess says a lot about how interesting I found this, despite the very promising subject. But the first half of the book, which is mainly describing music (pitch, tone etc) was just boring. Maybe I will try it again another day.

Watching - September 2020

True Lies (1994)
C & I watched this to death back in the days of VHS, and despite not having seen it for easily a decade (possibly two), we remember it all. Some great scenes, funny moments and plenty of action. It's a bit dated in places; you probably wouldn't have Jamie Lee Curtis doing a (fairly gratuitous) strip-n-dance scene these days, and Art Malik's generic cigarette smoking middle-Eastern baddie would maybe be a bit more nuanced. But overall it's great fun. Introduced the boys to it too.
Total Recall (1990)
I hadn't intended to have an Arnie-fest, but this came up on Now TV and grabbed my fancy, since I hadn't seen it for ages. It's a lot more violent than I remembered, albeit just as cheesey, but once you take out all the shooting and action scenes, it's fairly insubstantial, really. It's been a long time since I read the original short story (Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) but I'm fairly certain it was more interesting than this. I'm kind-of, half-tempted to watch the 2012 remake to see if it's any better.
Total Recall (2012)
... and so I did. Better? Well, it doesn't look as hopelessly dated, but I daresay it will in twenty years. There's too many plot holes, Kate Beckinsale is fairly unbelievable as a badass villain who keeps improbably turning up again and again (but she's still gorgeous), but actually I enjoyed it slightly more - maybe because I hadn't seen it before. There's a hint of Philip K. Dick's trademark "what is real?" at the end, as a Rekall advert plays in the background (apparently in the director's cut, this is expanded to cast further doubt over whether it's all fantasy or not), which I like. Anyway, watchable action.


Joseph Haydn - Die Jahreszeiten

Chorus & Academy of St Martin-In-The-Fields

Conducted by Neville Mariner

Philips - 6769 068, 1981

This is my first Vinyl Album of the Week™ and I probably could have picked something easier to start with. What I know about classical music is whatever is in Bluff Your Way In Music, minus the bits I've forgotten. What I know about classical music that features singing is even less, because having been immersed in pop and rock for so long, I find operatic-style voices overly mannered and fake.

So this three disc set of Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) - a secular oratorio (it says here) - was always going to be a bit of a slog for me. But actually, it hasn't been at all. For some reason - maybe the novelty of the music, or that of having a shiny new turntable to play with - I've really enjoyed putting this on most mornings. Something about the grand, sweeping orchestration and the rich, resonant voices seems to suit my breakfast and morning cup of tea very well. I don't know, maybe it subliminally reminds me of mornings with my Dad, who would usually have Radio 3 on over breakfast.

Figuring out what part is actually playing at any given moment is a little tricky, as there is no track listing apart from on the record labels themselves, which, inconveniently, are spinning round and round at the exact moment I want to know what I am listening to. There is a very nice, twenty page booklet the same size as the box (i.e. 12") which has all the words and (if you look carefully) a note about what side each "song" (?) is on. So actually, my reference has been Discogs.

So, I can tell you that I like the Overture at the very beginning: very grand and stirring; and the combined might of the orchestra and chorus at the end of Freudenlied ("Joy Song", part of "Summer", end of side 2) has a magnificent power to it. However, it's a lot of music to listen to and I'm still taking it in, so I couldn't name any more moments yet. No melodies stand out; perhaps this is a lack of familiarity with the genre as much as anything else (Haydn doesn't seem to go for verse/chorus structures much ...) and while much of the music is very well done, it seems perhaps a touch "generic classical". That said, it was first performed in 1801 so maybe it started here, I dunno.

Obviously I can't comment on the performance itself, except to say that it seems very good. Given that it's available on Spotify, it probably says something about it. The vinyl I have is spotless; I wonder how much it was even played?


Vinyl Album of the Week Project

New project! I have decided to listen to one album a week from my collection of vinyl.

This is quite a large project, as I have a lot of records (I realise this is relative; it's "only" 4-500, which some people would no doubt consider pretty restrained). They're mostly classical and mostly inherited from my grandparents, from both sides of my family. It's all been sitting in boxes and then cupboards since I got them, which is now several years ago.

I have this collection because no-one else seemed to want all these records, and it seemed a shame to just ditch it all. My grandparents were keen listeners to music. My dad's parents went to the Proms every year and in later years were stewards at the Barbican, enabling them to hear music and be paid for it! They also had a decent collection of records and had been members of a music appreciation society, where they would go around to each other's houses and listen to albums. In this era of music on demand, that seems archaic, but it's easy to forget that one album cost the same as a month's Spotify subscription. I know less about what my mother's parents enjoyed but since they had a larger collection, it seems only reasonable to assume it was also something they counted as a hobby. So all these records were presumably valuable to them and were listened to.

Anyway, as a result, I have what might charitably be called an eclectic collection, ranging from the fifties to the mid-eighties, covering all sorts of classical music, but also a little easy listening, American-songbook type albums and the occasional pop record (I did notice an original 1967 copy of Sgt. Pepper in there - excellent condition but not worth much because, of course, it sold millions!). 

They all now sit comfortably in a custom-built cupboard (not built for me, it was in the study when we bought the house), nestling alongside the vinyl I bought as a teenager, before I moved to CDs in about 1988.

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but it was made slightly more difficult by the lack of a record player. Actually I did have one for a while, another inheritance from a grandparent, but it didn't work very well. It was a Technics, so potentially a decent turntable, but I think this one was actually just part of a whole system so probably at the cheaper end of the market - in about 1985. Anyway, each time I tried to use it, the sound cut out, so eventually I gave up and got rid of it.

However, a couple of weeks ago, prompted by a reorganisation of the study and the consolidation of all the vinyl into one cupboard, I decided to finally buy a proper turntable - the first I have ever bought, in fact. I didn't want anything fancy but did want something of a similar sort of quality as the rest of my hi-fi system. (Actually, most of my system is "starter" grade by the standards of serious aficionados ... but oh well. It sounds pretty decent to me.) I eventually plumped for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC, which gets good reviews and comes with an upgraded Ortofon 2M Red cartridge (bought from Richer Sounds, superb service from them, by the way).

I've had it for a couple of weeks now, and I've been enjoying spinning the occasional disc. It's such a different experience from how I normally play music now, and it's fun to be reminded that this is how I listened to music for much of my formative years. But it's such a faff! I'm definitely not one who finds the ceremony of carefully extracting the record from its sleeve, placing it on the platter, cleaning it, locating the needle precisely, and finally lowering it, enhances the experience in any way. It's just tedious.

Nor do I think the music sounds better for the all-analogue signal path. I've A/B'd couple of albums now and while I can hear differences, I think it's much more to do with the mastering that the playback technology.

For example, ABBA's Arrival definitely sounds more "open" on vinyl than CD (actually, ripped to FLAC, fwiw), but the audio on CD sounds to me like it's been compressed to make it louder - which was a very 90s thing. On the other hand, I compared a recording of Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten on vinyl and via Spotify, and the streamed audio was slightly more detailed, although not by much. Indeed, one of the surprises to me was generally how good the vinyl sounds. I don't quite know why I was surprised by this, but I was.

But I am still going to do this, despite it being a faff, and despite there being no real difference in sound quality, and even despite finding that quite a few of the recordings are available on Spotify. It's not really the point. These albums belonged to my grandparents. They are literally irreplaceable. It's a way of connecting to them, and discovering a whole genre of music that I'm not very familiar with at the same time.

I don't have any structured way of selecting albums, since I don't actually know what I've got yet! I'm slowly adding to my collection on Discogs, and I will select each week from those I've already added to it. I'm giving each recording a week, because I know from experience that I have to live with unfamiliar music for a while so that it can sink in - and this applies double or triple to a genre like classical, which I don't really know at all.

The albums

  1. Joseph Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons)
    • Chorus & Academy of St Martin-In-The-Fields, conducted by Neville Mariner (Philips, 1981)
  2. Franz Schubert: Rosamunde
    • Netherlands Radio Chorus, Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, conducted by Bernard Haitink (Philips, 1965)
  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Trio In E Flat Major (K.498); Quintet In A Major (K.581)
    • Gervase de Peyer with members of the Melos Ensemble (His Master's Voice, 1964)
  4. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 64); Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 26)
    • Ruggiero Ricci With The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierino Gamba (Decca, 1958)
  5. Russian Rarities: Glière, Stravinsky, Cui, Gretchaninov
    • The London Symphony Orchestra and Osian Ellis (harp), Joan Sutherland (soprano), conducted by Richard Bonynge (Decca, year unknown)
  6. Cherubini: Requiem
    • New Philharmonia Orchestra with The Ambrosian Singers (directed by John McCarthy), conducted by Riccardo Muti (His Masters Voice, 1975)
  7. Stravinsky: Petrouchka / The Firebird
    • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (His Master's Voice, 1970)
  8. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor (Op. 37)
    •  Scottish National Orchestra and John Lill (piano), conducted by Alexander Gibson (Classics For Pleasure, 1977)
  9. Haydn: Symphonies No. 99 & 100 (Military)
    • London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammaphon, 1974)
  10. Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden)
    • Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammaphon, 1969)
  11. Bruckner: Symphony No. 8
    • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon, 1981)
  12. The Best of Nat King Cole (Capitol Records, c1968)
  13. Beethoven: Piano Music Volume 1
    • Alfred Brendel (piano) (Turnabout)


Watching - August 2020

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
Saturday dinner time family viewing, mainly for K who hadn't seen it before. A classic, obviously: silly but fun, lots of great lines ("strange things are afoot at the Circle K") and nice and short.
The American President (1995)
In my mind, this goes with Dave, which we watched a couple of days ago. It's a superbly made film, touching, funny and realistic - at least, in the trivial respects. Aaron Sorkin wrote it, and it seems fairly obvious where his sympathies lie - with common sense, to anyone who's not a right-wing, gun-fetishising nutjob. Sadly, watching this only points up the sorry state of affairs in US politics right now, which makes this film something of a fantasy - but I think it always was, really. Sorkin went on to create The West Wing, which also starred Martin Sheen, and Michael J. Fox's next project was Spin City, so this film was pretty influential, I think.
Moneyball (2011)
I haven't read the source book, although I mean to, as Michael Lewis's other books are really interesting. Since this is a dramatisation of a true story - the Oakland Athletics baseball team's 2002 season - I'm guessing it's pretty true-to-life. I didn't understand the baseball scenes at all, but as with Remember The Titans, it doesn't really matter, I still enjoyed it. Maybe I should watch some films about more English sport to balance things out though!
Groundhog Day (1993)
K was the only one of the kids who hadn't seen this, for some reason, so that needed to be rectified. Pleasingly, it managed to foil even her usually unerring ability to predict what would happen. I can remember C and I going to see this, in Harrow, when it came out, and it's still great. The fact that I can recite most of the lines doesn't spoil it at all (well, not for me, possibly this isn't true for anyone watching it with me).
The Holiday (2006)
High-grade, star-studded schmaltz. Pulls all the right heart strings, but as predictable as getting wet in rain. Maybe I am prejudiced but the British actors are superb (special mention for Rufus Sewell as a smarmy, two-timing cheat), while the US actors play things a little by numbers, particularly Jack Black who is mis-cast (or at least should have been told to act and stop playing Jack Black), although Eli Wallach is very good. Overall, a nice piece of fluff which I had seen before but didn't mind watching again.
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004)
Family choice while eating pizza. Not the most amazing film ever, but undeserving of "near-universal critical disdain" (according to Wikipedia) - it's perfectly nice, and the presence of Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway make it very watchable.
Jumanji: The Next Level  (2019)
We started watching the first (second? I mean the remake of) Jumanji but I didn't finish it, for various reasons, until after we'd watched this. As a sequel, it has enough different to make it worth watching, while keeping the same enjoyable formula. Yes, it's a bit too similar to the first one in places, but if I'm honest, the main difference (that the avatars are inhabited by different people) felt a bit odd in some way, and I wished that they were all the same people as before - something the makers clearly realised, as they had them all swap back half way through. All good fun though and a great family film (although B & K bailed half way through for some reason).
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Any film with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in it isn't usually on our radar, but we took a chance on this anyway, and just as well - we really enjoyed it. I haven't seen the original Jumanji, so I don't know how it compares, but the ideas here are good and handled well, and the actors look like they're having fun being avatars with other people's personalities inside them. There's plenty of action, lessons are learned and there are some very sweet moments too (I'm a sucker for a little sentimentality). And in fairness to Mr The Rock, he's very good.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Superb, quick-witted and fun teen romcom. Played for K, since I knew she would like it.
Le Mans '66 (2019)
Really enjoyable drama about the Ford GT40 win in '66, and the people who made. I knew some of the story (enough to know this film is something of a simplification), but hadn't appreciated the amount Ken Miles contributed to the design and engineering. Christian Bale is superb as Miles, and the driving scenes, while a bit fake, are wonderfully staged and a great opportunity to spot old classics.

Reading - August 2020

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1995)
Most of my copies of Discworld novels are secondhand. This one cost all of £1.49 - excellent value. This story is basically a whodunnit, with lots of jolly good fun and amusing nods to musical theatre (The Phantom of the Opera in particular of course, even down to referencing Michael Crawford obliquely). Read it in afternoon waiting for C at a hospital check up. I enjoyed it more this time than last time, for some reason.
 The Look of the Century by Michael Tambini (1996)
Despite owning this book for over twenty years, I don't think I have ever read it in full before. (Actually, if I'm being honest, I still haven't, as I skipped the A-Z of designers at the end). It's a look at design through the twentieth century, a big, glossy book full of pictures of arresting furniture, clothes, packaging, electronics, toothbrushes - you name it, it's probably here! - through the years. It's difficult to read, both because it's quite heavy and because it's very bitty. There's lots of interest here for the casual observer (i.e. me), although some of the text is a bit erratic and in a couple of cases I spotted inaccuracies which makes me wonder about the validity of all of it. It's also interesting to note that while Tambini can summarise each decade, he several times states that the 90s was impossible to summarise. This strikes me as a facet of being in the middle of changing times; twenty years later, I'm sure the 90s can be summarised.
White Picket Fences by Tara Taylor Quinn (2000)
Third, fourth or possibly fifth time around, and this still moves me. I'm such a soppy old thing sometimes.
The Guitar Magazine (Sept 2020 / Issue 384)
Plenty of interesting music profiled this month, and a nostalgic trip down Denmark Street. I never bought a guitar there (although I did buy a Strat in nearby Soho Soundhouse once) but I've been going there since I was a teenager and ogling the vintage instruments, and even occasionally buying a knick-knack or two. It's kind of sad to see it now.
Thank You For The Days by Mark Radcliffe (2009)
As he says, not an autobiography, but a selection of notable or interesting moments in his life. And it's not just a collection of celeb encounters (although there are a few, of course), but includes scenes from his childhood too. Entertaining and interesting, and I find his style of self-deprecation amusing rather than unconvincing. Nice bedtime reading due to its episodic nature.
She Did A Bad, Bad Thing by Stephanie Bond (2007)
Boilerplate romance: studly, alpha male and a shy, unassuming woman who comes out of her shell. Predictable but nice enough. (Side note: I borrowed this as an e-book from the library and read it on my Kobo, now returned by my mum who never used it, as far as I can tell! Very convenient.)
Wham! George & Me by Andrew Ridgeley (2019)
Interesting, if un-engaging, history from The Other One.


Wham! George & Me

Andrew Ridgeley


Cover image
Wham! were a part of my teens by default really; despite the fact that I was never that bothered about their music, it's an indelible part of my history. (And in fairness, it's grown on me and I can get quite into "The Edge Of Heaven".) The fact that they grew up not that far from me wasn't something I knew at the time, although it's quite fun to see the familiar landmarks in the early pages of this book.

I suppose they're now increasingly known as the band that George Michael was in before he became a global superstar, but he's gone and this is their story, by The Other One. Andrew Ridgeley sometimes gets an unfair amount of stick for being a passenger - and given his achievements since Wham!, you might even consider that epithet justified. But really, anyone who has the sense to walk away from celebrity strikes me as a much more balanced individual than someone who carries on, continually trying to prove something. He had about five years in the limelight and then more than thirty years of probably very comfortable living off the back of it. That's a deal I'd take.

It's still a bit of a puzzle what Ridgeley actually did in Wham! He was the driving force behind originally getting a band together, he says, and he had a hand in some of the early songs (apparently he still earns a handsome amount from the sales of Careless Whisper every year), but by his own admission, he handed the creative reins to Michael fairly soon into Wham!'s short life. But again, you could regard this as the action of a normal person. With what seems like a lot less ego to satisfy than most "stars", he says he could see how good George Michael was becoming, and was happy to take second place to him.

That said, Andrew Ridgeley obviously has enough of an ego to want to finally put his side of the story, and I was interested enough to read about it - in fact, I got through it in a couple of days. But although it's easy to read, the book is curiously un-engaging. It seems obvious to me that it's been ghost-written (even though there's no other credit), as the writing has a bland, practised, tabloid-esque glibness that obscures any sense of the real person, which is a shame.

What does come across is the story of an ordinary, normally talented teenager who was lucky enough to be best friends with the boy who became George Michael, and who got to live that life for a few years, and then went happily back to semi-obscurity. Good for him, I say.


Watching - July 2020

I've been keeping track of what I've read for over ten years now, but for some reason it hadn't occurred to me to do the same for what I watch. Maybe it's because a film doesn't require the same time commitment, or maybe it's because I don't see myself as a particularly discerning watcher. But we've been watching a lot recently so I thought it worth noting down. Maybe I'll carry on, maybe there'll be months with nothing to say. 
The Notebook (2004)
I didn't know anything about this when I discovered it on the book exchange shelves at work, but apparently it's a bit of a cult hit (K tells me anyway). Then I enjoyed Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love recently, so thought I'd give this a go - and I always enjoy a good romance. I might be tempted to class it as superior TV movie fare; it's a bit syrupy and goes for the emotions a bit too obviously, and the "twist" was fairly apparent. But it brought tears to my eyes anyway and I enjoyed it.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
At the half term we got a free week of Sky Cinema (via Now TV), which I then forgot to cancel, and then when I did go to cancel it, we got a discounted offer for three months. So I'm watching things I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Although I'd heard of this, I didn't know what it was about and if I am honest, it caught my attention at least in part because it's got Marisa Tomei in it (who is coincidentally also in Crazy Stupid Love), who does a fantastic job as a sassy Noo Yoik gal. Enjoyable and funny, if slightly predictable.
Lady And The Tramp (1955)
We're working our way through some lesser Disney films for some reason. I think we've had this for a while but never watched it. Slight, sweet and dated, although as ever, you can't fault the animation. My favourite bit is Peggy Lee singing (as the Pekingese Peg) "He's A Tramp". The less said about the Siamese cats (also voiced by Lee) the better.
Field Of Dreams (1989)
I watched this a long time ago and didn't really follow it (at least, as far as I remember). Watching it again, despite knowing nothing and caring less about baseball, I enjoyed it. The mystical elements make no sense and there is no attempt to explain them, which I quite like. It's not a film about baseball, it seems to me, but about the power of sport to give meaning to people's lives. In atmosphere, it reminds me very strongly of Chariots Of Fire, which is no bad thing.
The Aristocats (1970)
A kind of cat-based Lady And The Tramp, which I was surprised to find was made as late as 1970. Amusing, and the child cats are very cute. I guess it would be carping to point out that the jazz being played by Scat Cat and his friends is at least twenty years too early for the film's 1910 setting?
Remember The Titans (2000)
C heard about this during the "Fake Doctors, Real Friends" podcast that Zach Braff and Donald Faison are doing (rewatching all of Scrubs and chatting about it). It was a running joke that Zach had never watched this film, despite his best friend being in it. A drama about race in Virginia and the bonding power of sports is not something we would ever have chosen for ourselves otherwise and the (American) football scenes are mostly a mystery to us, but we still enjoyed it. The expected shift from outright hostility between the different communities, to complete acceptance is unrealistically quick - but it's a Disney film, so a happy ending was assured. Very enjoyable.
Scrubs: Season 8 (2009)
For some reason, our collection of Scrubs only goes up to season 7, so it was good to find that All4 currently includes all Scrubs seasons. I actually watched this with B & K last month, but rewatched it with C this month. Before that it had been a while since I last seen Scrubs, so it was good to see everyone again. JD is a bit too goofy and the bromance between him and Turk is over-played, but  I was pleased (spoiler alert) that JD and Elliott finally got together, and the finale is genuinely touching. Shame they went and spoiled it with season 9 (don't bother).
Frost/Nixon (2008)
On the face of it, a story about a set of interviews - even ones as historic as these - isn't promising material for a film, but I found this fascinating. Michael Sheen is decent enough as Frost (even though I think he impersonates Tony Blair much better; the smile/not-smile he does all the time suits the former PM better), but Frank Langella is superb as Nixon. I'd never seen the real interviews themselves (I have now), but it's interesting to compare the film with Clive James's reviews of them at the time: he was unimpressed by the programme focusing on Watergate (which was recorded last but broadcast first), whereas in the film it's presented as a triumph for Frost after the "failures" of previous interviews. On the other hand, James found the earlier interviews worthwhile. So clearly some dramatic license has been taken. Still, a very enjoyable film.
Emma (2009)
I'm not sure who identified the glorious anachronism at the heart of Titanic, which was to take a film on which huge amounts of effort and money had been spent in order to achieve period-correctness - and then drop two late-90s teenagers into it as Jack and Rose. But it feels like the same was attempted with this BBC version of Emma. Everyone around Emma walks and talks like you'd expect from a Jane Austen drama, while Romala Garai has what looks like great fun basically pretending she's Cher in Clueless (still the best adaptation of the novel, by the way). Perhaps the intention was to make 18th century people seem more real, rather than robots - and perhaps my expectations have been skewed by previous dramatisations - but Garai comes across as vacuous rather than intelligent and there was too much that was jarring for this to be properly enjoyable. The story holds up, of course, but only just.
Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987)
This is perhaps a lesser-known John Hughes film, certainly not on the same level of reknown as, say, The Breakfast Club or Pretty In Pink. However, I think it's better. Certainly the ending is more satisfying that the latter film, although overall it's a very similar plot. Mary Stuart Masterson is fantastic in it and, believe it or not, the first time I watched this, I didn't realise (spoiler alert) that she was in love with Eric Stoltz's character until right at the end. K, with whom I was very pleased to be able to share this, couldn't have been more disbelieving of my stupidity, but she enjoyed the film and that was good.
The Parent Trap (1998)
Searching on NowTV for something to watch with Z, we came across this. Not the obvious choice for a boy his age, but he enjoyed it, and why not - it's a well-made family film, with laughs, drama and some sentimentality, and it ends happily. I've seen it twice this year now (possibly I watched it with K, not sure) but I still like it. 
Inception (2010)
For some reason this has taken us ages to get round to watching, particularly given that I've had the DVD for almost two years and B has been nagging me about it for months (although he's been very patient really and waited so we could watch it together!). Anyway, we finally got round to it, split over three evenings, and very good it was too. As Mark Kermode pointed out, it's basically a heist movie, but a very well executed one. B and I were on tenterhooks towards the end (although K seemed very relaxed!) even though it was clear they would make it.
Dave (1993)
I've always really liked this film; it's very sweet and good-natured, while making a few good points about politics. And despite being twenty-seven years old, it hasn't dated. That helped when we watched this with B & K, who both enjoyed it a lot. K guessed the ending in about five seconds flat again - she's obviously watched way too many films!

Reading - July 2020

Glued To The Box by Clive James (1983)
More TV reviews, this time from a period I can somewhat remember (1979-1982). As before, it's witty, learned and pithy - although the book's introduction has less pith than the columns, as it clocks in at about twenty-five pages. Some of the reviews could be from any time in the last forty years, as little has changed in some respects. He describes an episode of Panorama, in which the interviewer "strove heroically to pin the Leader of the Opposition down with specific questions, but it was like trying to drive a nail through a blob of mercury." If you didn't know otherwise, this could serve as a description of many such encounters with Jeremy Corbyn, rather than from an interview with Michael Foot, which is what it is.
I own this book, along with the two previous Clive James collections, in one volume, which cost me 70p from Oxfam and counts as one of the best value purchases I have ever made.
Watching The English by Kate Fox (2014)
There are two books I am constantly recommending to people. One is Adventures In The Screen Trade and the other is Watching The English. I picked this revised edition up in Cambridge while waiting for B, mainly because I seemed to have lost my original copy (my mum has it, I found out last week). It's still spot-on about English behaviour, of course, and very entertaining, but this time I found myself wishing it was slightly shorter and less repetitive. I also wish Fox wouldn't be so apologetic and self-deprecating; OK, I get it, those are defining English characteristics and it makes the point, but it seems out of place in a book, even though it wouldn't in conversation.
Guitar Magazine (August 2020 / Issue 383)
A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson (1997)
It's very unclear why Bryson suddenly decided to walk the Appalachian Trail; his previous travel doesn't really stretch to strenuous and it's a massive undertaking at over 2000 miles. However, the issues brought up are consistent with his concerns about environmental impact and so perhaps it was a way of highlighting these. It's amusing and light, as eminently readable as ever, and not too long (some of his later books could do with a bit more editing).
Don't Make Me Think (Revisited) by Steve Krug (2014)
B asked me a while back if I could recommend any good guides to user interface design. I in turn asked Tom, one of our designers at work, and he told me about this. It's not about UI design, it's about usability - possibly of more importance to someone who's more on the implementation side of things anyway. B bought it and lent it to me. It's great. It's nothing I haven't seen before - I remember reading all the Jakob Nielsen articles when I was first doing web sites back in the late 90s - but it's well-written and wonderfully concise. The focus on easy, informal usability testing is particularly important (Joel Spolsky said the same thing back in 2000). Basically, everyone should read it.
The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (2006)
A good writer can make just about anything entertaining, and so it is here. Bill Bryson's early life was unexceptional in most ways, but that doesn't matter because he can evoke the period so well. In this case it is Des Moines, Iowa in the fifties - classic small town US (although Des Moines was and is a city) - and Bryson portrays it with affection and nostalgia. It reminds me of Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs, another superb autobiography in which, on the face of it, little happens, but in fact is made involving by the sheer quality of the writing.


Reading - June 2020

At Home by Bill Bryson (2010)
Billed as "A Short History of Private Life", this is neither short nor a history, really, but rather a way of combining various bits of information around a loose theme. The connecting thread is the rooms of a house, but too many of the items under discussion only relate very tangentially to the room in question. For example, the chapter on the nursery prompts a lot of information about the lot of the child in Victorian times, but nothing about why the nursery has its features; say, where cots came from. Always interesting but a bit random. And too long.
Visions Before Midnight by Clive James (1977)
This was my introduction to Clive James, age 18 - only ten years after the book was published. How long ago it seems now! I loved it then and love it now. James is incredibly well-read, frighteningly well-informed and very funny. He does occasionally come across as if he feel he knows better than everyone else, albeit with some justification in most cases, but I can put up with that. That all this wisdom can be contained with a collection of TV criticism still surprises people, as it no doubt did at the time, but that's both a reflection of British TV's breadth as well as that of his knowledge.
Guitar Magazine (July 2020 / Issue 382)
A review of various Filter-trons, which sound interesting - but given that I'm about to get my first set of P90s back in a guitar soon, I should play those a while before wondering about another pickup type!
The Crystal Bucket by Clive James (1981)
More amusing vignettes on the subject of whatever was on telly that week. The only thing that grates slightly is the occasional bout of casual sexism and racism, which, while entirely unexceptional at the time, would not be considered acceptable now. James made his name on TV with programmes making fun of foreigners, so it's not surprising to see it here, but it spoils the book slightly.


Reading - May 2020

Q: 50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll: From Zeppelin to the Pistols ... Part Two: The '70s edited by Mark Blake (2004)
The next instalment of the Q special edition that I've had hanging around for nearly 16 years now is entertaining and interesting, but lacking in depth. The list of essential albums at the end is uneven and the whole thing suffers from the continuing delusion that punk was a major landmark rather than a minor diversion. Some articles focus on specific events while others are just generic, Sunday supplement fodder. Good pics though.
Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre (2007)
Read in a couple of sittings: just a great story and lots of black humour. Apparently Jack Parlabane has turned up in a later Chris Brookmyre book but I won't be bothering.
All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye by Christopher Brookmyre (2005)
One of my favourites; I love the way Brookmyre makes the implausible seem possible and even reasonable. Comfort reading, of course, largely because I can't be bothered to make the effort to try something new.
Guitar Magazine (June 2020 / Issue 381)
They seem to have lost the definitive and now just go by Guitar Magazine. Interesting interview with Chris Martin IV, the current CEO of the Martin guitar company; amazing to learn that they have grown from a near-nadir of a couple of thousand instruments a year in the early 80s, to over a hundred thousand today.
Where's There's A Will by Matt Beaumont (2007)
I came across Matt Beaumont's very funny first novel e around the time of its publication, while I was working in Edinburgh and buying loads of books on what I had left of my per diem. Thus it was his name that caught my attention at work's book exchange. This is a more conventional comic novel, where farcical disaster after disaster falls upon our well-meaning but hapless hero, only for it to all work out in the end. Along the way we have scheming multi-millionaires (who get their come-uppance, of course) and dead-end council estate urchins with hearts of gold and surprising hidden talents. And so on. After a slow start I finished it in an afternoon because I wanted to know how it all worked out.
Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett (1994)
"May you live in interesting times" is, of course, not an actual Chinese curse, but then this book is not mocking the actual country itself, but rather Western stereotypes of China. Maybe this is what Pratchett had in mind all along when he created Twoflower (in The Colour of Magic). As always, very inventive and Rincewind isn't as annoying as usual.


Reading - April 2020

Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus (2012)
This positions itself as a look into how a previously unmusical 40-year-old manages to learn guitar, but actually it's more of a look into the science of learning and what it means to be "musical", with a little bit about why music exists anyway. If you came to this book expecting some enlightenment on how to get better, you would be disappointed - but you shouldn't be surprised. Marcus says he managed to become a competent amateur guitarist with about 18 months of perseverance and practice. The only big difference between him and other people of a similar age, I'd argue, is that he was in the fortunate position of being able to dedicate himself to guitar, at a time in life when most people have too many other commitments. And that's why it's difficult to learn new things once you're an adult.
The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Jem Roberts (2014)
My copy of Neil Gaiman's superb Don't Panic is pretty old and, having seen this book mentioned in a Register article about HHGTTG 42nd anniversary, I thought I'd get up-to-date. It made me realise I'm not actually that much of a fan: I love the original radio series, but the TV series is just OK, I think the books are poor and obviously rushed (Dirk Gently is much better), the film is mildly diverting and I only managed half an episode of the new radio series. There's plenty of interesting facts here, in particular about more recent developments (primarily the film, of course, and radio series' 3, 4 & 5), but overall, it's more information than I really needed. It's not helped by the fact that it's written by the kind of fan who thinks that all the jokes get funnier if they are incessantly repeated; in tone, it reminds me of The Fast Show's Colin Hunt
The Guitar Magazine (May 2020 / Issue 380)
The Dueling Machine by Ben Bova (1969)
I first read this in my early teens, borrowed from either the school or public library. It left a huge impression and I re-read the same copy several times, but then not again for a couple of decades, since, as a minor and probably largely forgotten SF work, it wasn't available anywhere. Finally, about 10 years ago, I found a copy second-hand. It's a slight novel, really only a heavily expanded short story, with a dictatorial villain clearly modelled closed on Hitler. But it has a satisfying conclusion and a tiny little romance in it too. Still one of my favourite books and I read it in about two hours on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Running Well by Sam Murphy & Sarah Connors (2008)
An excellent manual for running, which doesn't bother with too much of the motivational stuff (it assumes you want to run), but dives straight into pretty technical detail about running posture, technique and so on. It has useful sections on warm-ups, core exercises, and all different types of injuries and what to do about them. This is going to stay out for reference for some time, I think, now that I have (properly, this time, I hope) started running again.
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994)
I find myself somewhat disappointed in this Discworld installment, despite the presence of many rock references that I could spot myself (including a long-running gag that culminates in a corker at the end). Normally Pratchett is a master at bringing threads together from previous books, but the central premise here, of music that cannot die, seems to come out of nowhere. Obviously everything comes to a climax and then magically resets itself thanks to Death's super-powers. I did like the character of Susan Death though.


Reading - March 2020

Back Story by David Mitchell (2012)
I have no particular interest in David Mitchell and so I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (ex-library stock, £1, bargain! ... actually maybe that's why). Anyway, I'm pleased I did. In between mildly entertaining musings about a variety of subjects inspired by his daily walk, he tells his life story and reveals that, rather than being the young fogey he sometimes comes across as on panel shows (or possibly as well as), he has been pretty single-minded in his pursuit of a career in TV comedy. It's pretty much all he's done, mundane placeholder jobs aside. He writes exactly as he sounds, and it's an interesting read. I just wish the front photo wasn't quite so off-puttingly larger than life. I found myself leaving the book face-down most of the time!
The Guitar Magazine (April 2020 / Issue 379)
The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr & George Spafford (2014)
DevOps gets lots of mentions around work, but I haven't read anything about it really, until now. This is a novelised description of the issues DevOps is supposed to solve and how it does that (it reminds me, in principle, of The One Minute Manager). A few chapters in, I wasn't sure I was going to carry on; it's all a bit too close to situations I've been in, with ludicrously unrealistic demands and politics galore. But it's a well-told story, and I wanted to know how it worked out (and whether the horrible marketing VP was got rid of!). I have a feeling the story wouldn't be of much interest to anyone outside the industry, but there's plenty to learn here if you do work in it. Thanks to James for the lend!
Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Having recently watched the new film, I felt it necessary to reacquaint myself with the source material (the language gets to you after a while). It is, of course, lovely, and has much more depth that can be fitted into a two hour film (which, while visually stunning, gets many things wrong). Now I'm seeing if I can persuade K to read it.
Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993)
A "police procedural", according to the man himself, albeit with the usual Discworld idiosyncrasies and pin-sharp observations of certain character types. I last read this two years ago and I know it well, so wasn't sure if I might have overdone it, even if it is the next in sequence. But I enjoyed it just as much as ever. A very good entry point into the Discworld canon, imho.


Reading - February 2020

The Rainmaker by John Grisham (1995)
Still my favourite novel of Grisham's, probably just because it's a great David versus Goliath story, lots of justice being served to idiots and crooks. The romantic interest is nice, but a little cliched and she's a bit too perfect - and why is she so immediately interested in our handsome lawyer? Anyway, a bit of a fantasy in many respects but no less enjoyable for it.
A Cure For Gravity by Joe Jackson (1999)
A straight-forward, no messing autobiography of Joe's life from childhood to his first album. I wasn't there but my guess would be that this is as accurate a portrait of the life of a gigging musician in the 70s as any.  Readable, honest and enjoyable. It sent me back to his first two albums (Look Sharp & I'm The Man) which I first bought in the mod-80s (on vinyl) and still own - excellent albums both, by the way.
Guitar Magazine (March 2020 / Issue 378)
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1992)
In later books Pratchett became very satirical but in his earlier books  he just seemed to be going for funny and entertaining, which of course he was - with occasional satirical side-swipes (e.g. Pyramids). However, here, in the 13th Discworld novel, the humour is definitely aimed at a specific target - in this case, religion, and the things people do in its name. I didn't find the characters very engaging and so it's not one of my favourites of his, but it's still a good plot and contains some amusing scenes, particularly the ones involving the Ephebian philosophers. And of course it's probably the only book ever to have had an audio codec named after one of its characters! [While I was researching Small Gods, prior to writing this review, I was very happy to discover the Annotated Pratchett File, and I'll try and remember it for all future Pratchett books I read.]
Lords & Ladies by Terry Pratchett (1992)
Next up in the Discworld series (I really am reading other books too) is this, a nice riff on fairies, elves and a little dash of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As is often the case, I didn't feel like I really understood what was going on towards the end, but it all works out, of course. Enjoyable, and I like Granny Weatherwax, so all fine by me, but the ending did a feel a bit like "and then a miracle occurred" (or, in this case, Granny Weatherwax decided to actually do some magic).
The Book Of The Year 2019 by No Such Thing As A Fish (2019)
Jolly good fun for dipping into (over breakfast, usually) and some laugh-out-loud facts, although actually I can't remember any right now. I've also been listening to their podcast a bit over the last month or so, and that's like the book - a nice way of filling in moments (in my case, my short drive to work) with something that's not too taxing. Dispensable but fun.