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.