31/12/2021

Watching - December 2021

Christmas on 5th Avenue (2021)
Slightly above average Hallmark (or similar) Christmas TV movie. Entirely predictable but kind of fun. C said she'd read the book on which it is based, so I ordered that from the library and read that too.
Nostalgic Christmas (2019)
Formulaic stuff, with two leads who look way too airbrushed to be real, but the story is sweet and wholesome.
Love Actually (2003)
Probably my favourite Christmas film, despite being the usual, frustrating Richard Curtis mix of terrible, single-use-only jokes and genuinely moving scenes. And in fairness, some of the humour does stand up to repetition - which is probably more than can be said about the fat jibes. There's some great performances, but overall it's probably Emma Thompson who stands out (although in fairness her role has more emotional depth than, say, Hugh Grant's). And great choice of "God Only Knows" as the outro music.
Abominable (2019)
This was on the telly so we watched it, despite having never heard of it before. It's cute but not deserving of the level of critical praise it seemed to get (82% on Rotten Tomatoes): the animation is the same as all DreamWorks films, with no real improvement noticeable over earlier films (unlike Pixar and Disney, whose animation get better each time), the plot is pretty predictable and the deus ex machina of the Yeti's magical powers is over-used. My guess this was aimed at the Chinese market, as it's set in Shanghai and when challenged over the use of a controversial map boundary, Universal refused to remove it - which nails their colours firmly to the mast on this issue.
Encanto (2021)
Disney's big holiday release doesn't disappoint. The story runs on fairly well-worn rails but reliably delivers top quality entertainment - laughs and sighs and a few tears - while the animation is so impressive, not just for the level of detail but for the expressiveness: I don't think I've seen such human faces before. The songs, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, are very musical theatre (and have inevitable shades of Moana) and not really my thing, but the sequences during the musical items are stunning. Family fun, enjoyed by our family.
Frozen II (2019)
Family's suggestion for Boxing Day family viewing. Meh.
The Beatles: Get Back (2021)
I've been listening to The Beatles since before I can remember, I've read plenty of books about them and I've even met and chatted with Mark Lewisohn (at a wedding). I'd consider myself a fan. Yet this was a struggle - a really odd mix of fascinating and really dull. Watching it is a bit like panning for gold: hours and hours (literally) of low-grade musical farting around and then, suddenly, everything coalesces into "Let It Be" or "The Long and Winding Road", and suddenly we're seeing alchemy in action. I think it's important that this material is preserved, but if this is the "Director's Cut", then I wish there'd be a "Studio Cut" that's about a third of the length. Yes, anyone who's been in a band will recognise the interminable tediousness of trying to get everyone to play the same thing (watching this gives me a new respect for Ringo, who waits patiently and then just calmly plays perfectly each time), but I'm not sure I needed to see another band, even The Beatles, doing it in such detail. That said, the last episode, with the concert on the roof, is much better, and it's good to see the songs come together (to coin a phrase). So overall, I'm pleased I made the effort to watch it. But can we have a shorter version please? (Here's an interesting piece that discusses similar points.)
Cruella (2021)
Origin stories are all the rage these days (thanks, Marvel) and why should Disney villains be any different? This is a bit of a hodge-podge of film types but is mostly a heist movie, I think (going by Mark Kermode's masterly analysis). Emma Stone (one of my favourite current actors) is very good in bringing a little depth to a role that doesn't have an awful lot. There's plenty going on to keep our attention but overall the film is a bit unengaging.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Excessive, funny, but soulless and morally suspect.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
New Year's Eve family viewing - a mini-HtTYD-marathon (we don't have the third one for some reason). They're good films, enjoyable and involving, but to anyone familiar with the books - which is all of us in this family, since we have them on audiobook and listened to them in the car a lot when the kids were younger - it's a constant source of puzzlement why the plot was changed so much for the film. Oh well!

Reading - December 2021

Guitar Magazine (December 2021 / Issue 399)
Guitar Magazine (January 2022 / Issue 400)
I've been subscribing to magazines since the early 1990s - blimey, almost thirty years! The titles have changed - Q, Select, Vox, Uncut, The Word, Private Eye, Top Gear, Guitarist, just off the top of my head - but there was always something arriving on my door mat once a month, sometimes several somethings. I think it started with Q, but it's ended here: Guitar is the only magazine I subscribe to now, and it is stopping its print edition and moving entirely online. The final edition isn't anything special, which unfortunately highlights how expensive it is for what it is, given that I can get the same content now for free via a browser. Still, I'm a bit sad that I won't be getting a shiny new magazine through the door any more.
How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You by The Oatmeal/Matthew Inman (2012)
A very nice surprise Chanukah gift from the kids. I first read The Oatmeal ages ago and while the humour is always exactly my thing, it can be very funny. This is a collection of comics that have been published on the web site (e.g. Cat vs Internet) and some new comics, and comes complete with a big pull out poster of the title comic. (As an aside, why do they do this? Once it's folded up in order to go inside the book, it's useless as a decent poster because you'll never get the fold lines out!)
We Can't Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2021)
Most of the romantic novels I read feature characters who are adults, with jobs and sometimes families to look after - and the target audience is presumably also adult. "Young adult" romantic fiction is about and for teenagers. It's a while since I was a teenager, but I can still remember what it felt like (as I am sure most people can - apparently impressions and memories formed while your brain is still developing are more vivid), and it's nice to be reminded of the intensity of emotions around a first love or crush. This book evokes that very well, and the story is a sweet one of a girl finding her own wishes for the future as well as understanding her feelings for someone else. The fact that the main character is Jewish also appeals, as does the fact that it's never over-explained.
Miracle on 5th Avenue by Sarah Morgan (2016)
This was the source material for the slightly-above-average Christmas schlock movie Christmas on 5th Avenue that we watched earlier this month. The book has exactly the same story arc that any Silhouette/Harlequin/M&B novel does (in fact, it's on the Harlequin imprint MIRA) but at somewhat greater length, which made it feel like it was padded unnecessarily. The plot makes slightly more sense here than it does in the film, but it's still very predictable. That said, I enjoyed it!
No Time Like The Future by Michael J. Fox (2020)
I seem to have inadvertently missed out the third Fox life installment (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Future) but I suspect that it's fairly similar to this and to his other books: an engaging, readable mix of stories from his recent life and thoughts on what it means. He's consistently open about what is happening to him, but perhaps slightly less reflective on how privileged he is to have the world's best medical care available to him - the privilege afforded by both his fame and fortune.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)
I caught a bit of the 1974 film on the tellybox over Christmas. I don't think much of Albert Finney's Poirot though, and Kenneth Branagh's 2017 version isn't on any service we have, so I thought I'd read the book again. The actual solution is very imaginative of course, but it's shorter than I remember, and Poirot basically solves it in about fifteen minutes. (And the book is nearly ninety years old! Not my copy, which dates from the 70s.)

The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorcese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie et al

2013

Excessive and funny, but soulless and morally suspect.

If I remember rightly, the first 18 film I saw was Personal Services (Harrow ABC, with my friend Vashti). I can't help thinking that it would barely scrape a 15 these days, so tame is it by modern standards.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not tame. In fact, it seems to be designed to see how far you can stretch the censor's limits. It's got multiple different drugs being consumed constantly, it set the world record for the most times "fuck" is said in a film, and has more full frontal nudity than any other film I've seen (not that I've done a lot of research into this).

I don't have a problem with any of this - except maybe the nudity, or specifically, the fact that it's nearly all female nudity. I get that the film is about a world of excess and no morals, and women being treated like inanimate playthings is (sadly) a realistic portrayal of this, but it seems very convenient for the film makers to be able to have so many very beautiful, very naked women throughout the film and still claim they're just being true to the source material.

As ever, there are a couple of questions that have to be asked. Firstly, could the story have been told as effectively without so much flesh on display? Yes - at least, the nudity could be implied with the same effect, I think. For example, Margot Robbie apparently refused the offer to film one of the most notorious scenes with a robe on, because she felt that the character would be naked. I think she's right, but it's easily possible to make the audience realise that the character is naked, with all that says about the character, without the actress actually being naked.

Secondly, are men being asked to do the same thing (as Caitlin Moran asks in How To Be A Woman)?Unsurprisingly, no; certainly not in this film and I don't believe generally. Sure, there's plenty of sex scenes, but apparently men don't often fuck naked - although, fair play to DiCaprio, we do see him "full back-al" (to quote Steven Moffat's fantastic Coupling) - and of course it would be completely unacceptable if there were any good-looking men showing their genitals. The one (in)famous scene where Jonah Hill (no offense, but not handsome) supposedly gets his cock out is so obviously done with a prosthetic that it's almost insulting, not just to all the women who are expected to really bare all, but to the audience, who presumably can't cope with the real thing. (If my memory serves, this is one thing that Personal Services does have in it at one point - an actual, real penis.)

My point here is not that I dislike nudity in films - I don't mind it at all. I just think that in real life, men get naked just as much as women do, and films should reflect this. Maybe the film makers here would claim that the balance in The Wolf of Wall Street is correct, for this story - and maybe they're right. And of course there are societal double standards at play here, since if you showed as much male nudity as there is female nudity, it wouldn't get past the censors at all.

Anyway, that extended point aside - and I am fairly certain that The Wolf of Wall Street is far from being the only film guilty of exploiting this particularly cultural loophole - I enjoyed the film (yes, even the naked women). It's very well made, entertainingly told, and even if it didn't need to be three hours long, it doesn't drag. DiCaprio is superb, and you get a sense of how charismatic the real Jordan Belfort, whose story this is, was to achieve what he did (although bearing in mind that Belfort's book was the source, and he was involved in the making, I think it's fair to assume that some of this was exaggerated).

However, ultimately, despite the participants' strenuous claims to the contrary, this is a film that glamourizes excess. There's very little sense of any ramifications for their selfishness and unpleasantness: Belfort's jail sentence occupies only a couple of minutes of screen time and is mainly shown as a pleasant summer retreat, with added barbed wire. More importantly, there is no acknowledgement at all of the thousands of real people who got swindled by these jerkoffs. Meanwhile, Jordan Belfort gets a cameo in the film, publicity for his current real-life business (motivational speaking) and will be regarded by many more people now as a man who achieved the kind of success they aspire to. I'm pleased I watched the film, but it's morally suspect and it seems obvious to me that it was made in the same spirit as the story it tells - to make money, regardless.

30/11/2021

Reading - November 2021

Borrowing Trouble by Stacy Finz (2016)
I have to admit, this series is getting under my skin. I suppose it's the same reason soaps are so popular: you get the familiarity of the same group of characters and each has their own story, so it's like a family. There's a suspense element to this because each of the main characters has something in their past that they are worried will catch up with them. It provides the main push for the romantic tension but detracts from the story a little because I was always waiting for something to happen and it didn't until almost the end. Still, another satisfying story from the Nugget series.
Heating Up by Stacy Finz (2016)
And so on to the next in the series, in which the brother of the main female character from the previous book arrived in the perfect little town of Nugget and instantly falls in love too. There's a slight thriller/whodunnit element that was pretty obvious from about a third of the way through the book (and if it's obvious to me, that means it's really obvious), but it doesn't detract from the main story, which is as engaging as always.
Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor (2007)
This source material for Blinded by the Light doesn't seem an obvious choice to be made into a film, until you discover (as this later edition makes clear) that it was adapted by the author himself. I wouldn't have read this if I hadn't seen the film, as I didn't know who Manzoor is and have little interest in autobiographies (notwithstanding this month's choices). However, it's a very good read, if depressing in places, and the general theme seems to be about the head-on collision between two different cultures: British culture and Pakistani culture. It raises some interesting questions about integration into society and how to draw the line between tolerating tradition and denouncing it as abusive.
How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (2017)
I read this because I'd enjoyed Come Again, rather than because I know or am interested in Robert Webb. In much the same way as the previous book - whose author I was also unfamiliar with - it seems to be about someone trying to escape their upbringing. It also feels like a sort of companion piece to Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, or at least heavily inspired by it. The chapter titles are descriptions of masculine expectations ("Men Don't Cry", or something like that - I don't have the book in front of me), and his main point is that these expectations cause many problems for men, women and society. It's hard to disagree with this, but Webb seems to simultaneously want to accept responsibility for his misdeeds on the past and blame them on society. It's an interesting read, but it's patchy and a bit too self-flagellating for too long.
Riding High by Stacy Finz (2016)
This series of books is starting to seem a bit formulaic now, although in fairness it's a good formula that's kept me interested and I'm probably due a break. Again, there's a element of tension (a looming criminal charge in this case) that's never going to put the conclusion in doubt, so the interest is in seeing how it plays out, as much as anything else.

02/11/2021

Beethoven: Piano Music Volume 1

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Turnabout – TV 34251DS (year unknown)

It's been a very lengthy break in my increasingly inaccurately named Vinyl Album "of the Week" project. This was because my record player was misbehaving and so eventually I took it back to Richer Sounds in Southampton, who couldn't have been more accommodating or helpful. We listened to it in the store and they claimed to be able to hear some sort of distortion in the left hand channel as well. If I am honest, it was barely audible in that environment, which makes me think it's probably something in my home setup, sadly. They still sent it off to the manufacturer for checking and eventually got it back to me with a clean bill of health. Or, to put it another way, with no changes, since they couldn't find anything wrong.

Anyway, I got it back about a month ago and picked this album out, at random, for the next in the series. Unfortunately, it probably wasn't a great choice. Each of the several pieces on this album is a variation on a different theme by another composer. They feel a bit like academic studies, exercises for students or just a demonstration of the different ways a single theme can be changed, reharmonized or turned upside-down. I'm sure it's very sophisticated - this is Beethoven, after all - but it all goes completely over my head. As pieces of music, they seem meandering and aimless. The only bits I can remember are some particularly dissonant chords during the "Eroica Variations" (aka "15 Variations & Fugue On A Theme From ''Prometheus'' In E Flat Major, Op. 35" - catchy title!) that caught my ear because they stick out so much.

31/10/2021

Watching - October 2021

Schumacher (2021)
Schumacher's dominance coincided with the period when I was most avidly following F1, and unlike some people, I didn't find this unappealing. To see an athlete at the top of his game - and, let's be clear, Schumacher was the best of his generation, by quite a margin - was a wonderful thing to watch. Obviously, in F1, it's not just about the driver and Ferrari used everything they could to get and maintain their advantage, but that doesn't take away from the man's brilliance. Oddly, the film doesn't emphasise this as much as I'd expected, although there's plenty about his driving. Instead, it tries to balance this with more about the man and his family. Given the extensive involvement of his wife and friends, this is perhaps unsurprising. And in fairness, it doesn't shy away from addressing some of his more notorious controversies, giving time to Damon Hill to say that he thinks Schumacher deliberately turned into him during the 1994 Japanese GP, and showing that just about everyone thinks he did the same to Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. An interesting film, but as an F1 fan I could have done with more driving and less schmaltzy background music. 
North by Northwest (1959)
I watched this after seeing Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema episode about spies. I can't remember the last time I saw it, although the iconic scenes are very familiar of course. It's surprisingly long at over two hours, and the romantic elements are about as believable as Dick Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins, but it's a great plot and a classic film of course. The train going into the tunnel at the end made me laugh - I can't believe that symbolism was ever actually used, but there it is!
Free Guy (2021)
For the last few months, YouTube, that reliable barometer of public opinion and taste (ahem) has been pushing Ryan Reynolds videos at me, specifically ones where he is being sarcastic on chat shows - which he is very good at. So I was primed for this I guess, and it popped up on Disney+ so it was a good one to watch with Z. I really liked it: a kind of cross between Ready Player One and The Lego Movie, with ideas not too dissimilar to Christopher Brookmyre's Bedlam. In fact, so good I watched it twice.
Soul (2020)
We watched this when it came available on Disney+ but the rest of the family seemed to be underwhelmed. I really liked it and rewatching it didn't change my opinion. I think there's a message there but I can't decide if it's "make the most of your life" or "play more music".
No Strings Attached (2011)
Oddly, this and Friends With Benefits came out at almost exactly the same time, with pretty much the same plot idea. This is the lesser of the two though, as Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher just don't go well together, and when you start comparing them with the sassiness of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake ... well, there's a reason I only remembered that I'd actually seen this before when I was about half-way through. Still, ticks most of the right romcom boxes.
Friends With Benefits (2011)
And just to remind myself - I have seen it before, several times - I watched this again. Sure, you can quibble with a couple of bits and pieces but the whole thing just bursts with life.
Summer of Soul (2021)
Fascinating documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 - something broadly concurrent with Woodstock, but not celebrated for some reason. Lots of great footage: Stevie Wonder about to enter his goldern period; Nina Simone on imperious form and introducing "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" for the first time ever; Sly and the Family Stone, probably the only act to play both this and Woodstock and as awesome as always. Mixed in with all of this is background and context footage, topped of with some very touching interviews with people who were there but haven't seen it for fifty years. Essential viewing.
Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel & Laurence (1998)
Comfort viewing.
Pretty Woman (1990)
It's a classic, but I wonder how many people watching it really think about the realities of Vivian's life? The film attempts to deal with it, but overall it seems very much of its time. There's something very 80s about the way it glosses over the sordid realities of prostitution and presents it as just another lifestyle choice. Would the story have been any less enjoyable - or successful - if Vivian had been working any other low-rent job? Or was the frisson of illegality and sex required? If you can ignore these aspects of the film then it's a nice story.
Black Widow (2021)
Fairly standard MCU fare. If you strip out the fight scenes, there'd be about twenty minutes of actual plot, and I can't say I followed it that closely anyway. One for the fans, I think (who, as I understand it, had been asking for the Black Widow back-story for a long time).

Reading - October 2021

Going Home by Stacy Finz (2014)
I chose this in our online library because I quite liked the cover and it's the first of a series that has about over ten books in it, so if I liked this then I knew I'd have more books to read. It's a pleasant enough romance, clearly intended as the first in a series as it introduces way too many characters and I often found it hard to remember who was who. The plot was involved enough to keep me reading but it resolved too quickly at the end. I'll probably try a couple of the others.
Finding Hope by Stacy Finz (2015)
When I'm not feeling well, I tend to retreat to the literary equivalents of comfort foods. Often this means books I am familiar with, but this time I'm happy reading books that I know will end well. This is a somewhat more complex modern romance novel than your classic Silhouette/Harlequin/M&B romance; there's multiple story-lines and subplots, all of which keep the interest well and in fact got me wondering whether at least one of them will be explored in more detail later. The characters are all a bit too good to be true but nevertheless Finz keeps you caring about them enough to want to know what's going to happen.
Second Chances by Stacy Finz (2015)
Judging by the publication dates, Ms. Finz has been cranking these out at a pretty impressive rate - something like two or three a year. Still, not as impressive as the rate I'm reading them at, eh? These books are a complete fantasy. The town - "Nugget", really? - is small but perfectly formed where no-one is really bad; all the heroines are kind, loving, forgiving, intelligent and of course drop-dead gorgeous; and all the heroes all have rockin' hot bods, along with important manly traits like the ability to arrest criminals, run farms, work with their hands and yet have a sensitive side (although not too much because that wouldn't be manly). Despite this, I have found them engaging and there's enough going on to give them more depth than a standard romance. The ending here was a bit abrupt: suddenly the hero conquers his fears and declares his love in a public place (very Richard Curtis) and they get engaged, all in the space of the last half a dozen pages. But I've already reserved the next one at the library!
The Plus-One Agreement by Charlotte Phillips (2014)
He's a playboy, afraid of commitment; she thinks she's dowdy and unworthy of love, but actually she's gorgeous. Remind you of anything? Only a million of these books. Killed time, but nicely.
Feels so Right by Isabel Sharpe (2012)
He's so focussed on his own problems that he doesn't realise he's missing out on life; she thinks she's dowdy and unworthy of love, but actually she's gorgeous. Wanna guess the ending? Actually this one is nicely judged and even though we all know how it's going to end, it doesn't feel like a given. Very easy to read.
All Over You by Sarah Mayberry (2009)
Despite being about the same length as the previous book (these things are not exactly formulaic, but they do have a pretty strict set of guidelines), this manages to fit a lot of character development and plot into the same space. I could have done with less emphasis on the heroine's "magnificent bust", so I can only imagine that some female readers might be very annoyed by this, but still, I enjoyed it. The book that is, not the bust.
Hot For Him by Sarah Mayberry (2009)
This is the last in a three-story arc, of which the previous book (All Over You) is the second. Nice to have the same characters, but I didn't get the same sense of development over the course of the book, just some slightly implausible changes and situations. I still wanted to know how it all sorted itself out though!
My Daring Seduction by Isabel Sharpe (2013)
The titles of these books are often so generic that they could probably be switched around randomly without any effect, but this one is just misplaced. The plot itself kind of has a brief, attempted seduction, but actually there's a more interesting thriller element involving blackmail. Also interesting to encounter a heroine who has a definite murky past, which makes her more interesting.
Guitar Magazine (Nov 2021 / Issue 398)
The usual array of interviews and reviews. Disappointed to see that the outdated, inept and meaningless (in the UK) music journalism cliché "sophomore album" has still not been excised, and saddened to see the naff industry jargon/marketroid speak "colourways" has started creeping in. What's wrong with saying "colours" or "finishes"? Or "second album", for that matter?
Feels Like the First Time by Tawny Weber (2011)
And so to the last of my self-isolation romance novels - at least, the last that has been deliberately chosen to be as easy to read as possible, while my brain was mush (thanks Covid). High school reunion with the person you always secretly - possibly even a secret to yourself - loved? Nice. Not sure about the smattering of bondage but that's a personal taste thing. And now my brain can deal with something a bit more substantial!
How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (2020)
I've been trudging my way through Jimmy Webb's Tunesmith, his epic and definitive (apparently) guide to songwriting, for several months, possibly years. As you can probably gather, it's not engaging me. This, on the other hand, is a much more lightweight prospect, and deliberately so, I hope (or at least I hope Tweedy wouldn't be offended by the comparison). It's a simple book with some simple suggestions about how to approach song-writing and the central idea that you only have to write one song at a time, and it doesn't have to be good - you just need to have done it. He doesn't say anything as clichéd as "every journey starts with a single step" but that's kind of the idea. Interesting, easy to read and (as a side effect) has propelled me to Wilco's music.
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson (2015)
A sequel to the wonderful Notes from a Small Island, and as readable as Bryson ever is, but possibly a little same-y. There seems to be more grumbling about the idiocies of people and government - although in fairness, the grumbles seem entirely justified to me. Amused to note that since the Brysons now live in "rural Hampshire", they can't be too far from me, and in fact he did his UK citizenship in Eastleigh (which gets a very unflattering write up).
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1913)
I was surprised how short this is, and how much isn't shown in the play. Maybe I'm remembering My Fair Lady, and of course it's a play so it's written to be performed, not read. I read the original version, which is the one on Project Gutenberg, which apparently is missing a number of well-known, later revisions. What strikes me is the lack of character development on the page: obviously, it's in the hands of the actors to achieve. I guess I don't read plays much!
Nick Drake by Patrick Humphries (1997)
Nick Drake is well-known now but I am quite proud to date my fandom back to the late eighties, probably during my first year at university. My friends were going on about Roy Harper, but I think we know who won that particular discussion in the end. Despite having loved Drake's music for decades now, I've never been inclined to learn more about his life before, and this book illustrates why: there's not much to say. Drake's story is brief and sad, and he produced three short, nearly perfectly-formed albums, but if you strip out the myth and hyperbole, what's left is a gifted young man who made superb music but suffered from depression and died, probably accidentally, from an overdose of prescription medication. As a result, this book has a lot of repetition but no real insight into where the music came from, and I can't say it really adds anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the music. If you've not heard Nick Drake, just go and find the albums - now!
Come Again by Robert Webb (2020)
I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this, but I was concerned it would be "literature" which usually (in my experience) means depressing stories and a vague, or depressing ending. Thankfully, this is none of those things. Instead, it's a joyful and incredibly readable mash-up of time travel fantasy and (for the last few chapters) improbable thriller. The time travel aspect is about as well-thought-through as Richard Curtis's About Time (for clarity: not much) but it matters not a jot because it's a feel-good story and ending. Did I mention I like happy endings?
Starting Over by Stacy Finz (2015)
Book four of the Nugget series is still a good read, but the romance isn't developed very consistently. I like how it involves characters that were introduced in the previous book - and the way this one introduces more who will later have their own story - but the man and woman at the centre of this story dance around each other and their own assumptions for ages before suddenly jumping into bed and deciding they love each other. Obviously the ending was never in doubt but I found myself becoming a little impatient with the blocks in the way.
Getting Lucky by Stacy Finz (2015)
On the other hand, this is a much better balance. There's a thriller aspect to the plot, a definite villain and a femme fatale, and the way the romance develops feels a lot more realistic. That said, this is a variant on a classic romance plot: man and woman have a brief affair, split up, leaving woman pregnant but man doesn't know, then they meet again years later and man discovers he has a child. It's not my favourite type - it seems a bit icky. But this is handled well and, once again, is an absorbing read.
Playing Doctor by Kate Allure (2015)
Although classified as romance by the library, I think this would more properly be classed as "erotica". Unlike romances, here it's all about the sex and of the three short stories here, only one has the traditional arc of a romance with a long-term relationship as a likely end. It's quite hot in places and one of the stories involves a threesome, which is a bit different, but ultimately the stories are a bit one-dimensional. Not quite what I expected but an interesting diversion!
Zippy and Me by Ronnie Le Drew with Duncan Barret & Nuala Calvi (2019)
One More Kiss by Samantha Chase (2017)
An excellent, gentle romance, with a lot of emphasis on the characters, which have a lot more depth than usual, yet all fitted into the normal sort of length of these books. Not much sex, which I have to be honest and say I was a little disappointed about, but not disappointed enough to stop me enjoying the book. And that rounds out an epic month for reading! I feel my brain needs something a little more substantial than romance novels for a while though.

30/10/2021

Zippy and Me

Ronnie Le Drew (with Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi)

2019

Legends
I once met Zippy - sort of, anyway. It was about 1987 or 1988 and Rainbow was touring theatres with their Rainbow Roadshow, a kind of simple pantomime for the young kids who were their normal audience on the telly. As wacky students, we thought it would be highly amusing to attend when it came to Manchester. We did things properly: we booked a box for the three of us, dressed up in black tie for the occasion and had a couple of drinks in the theatre bar before the afternoon performance.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, participating noisily during the sections that invited it - enough at one stage to warrant Geoffrey to ask the audience something like "Where are the sweets, boys and girls?" and then immediately point to us and say "Not you!" I hope we were just enthusiastic and boisterous rather than boorish: we weren't trying to spoil the show, we genuinely loved Rainbow as we had been kids ourselves during its 70s heyday.

Naturally, after the show we raced straight round to the stage door to wait for our heroes to sign our programme. Of course Geoffrey Hayes recognised us and gave us a signature, although declined our offer of a pint later ("Sorry boys, had a bit of a late one last night"). Bungle also appeared, without his costume of course - probably Malcolm Lord, as far as I can tell. And then a man came out and signed for both Zippy and George, and we were very impressed that the same man did both. Of course, we didn't realise at the time that he only did the voices, and the puppets were operated separately by other people. Based on what the book says, this must have been Roy Skelton, who did the original Zippy voice for years and years.

So sadly, I can't say I met Ronnie Le Drew, who says he refused to have anything to do with the roadshow but otherwise is known for operating Zippy for decades, it turns out. What I can say is that we were ahead of our time, as Ronnie says in the book that it wasn't until almost a decade later that the Rainbow characters starting taking advantage of their retro popularity and appearing on adult shows and touring universities and the like.

A puppeteer, however well-known in the industry he may be - and Ronnie Le Drew is obviously one of the legends - is always going to be pretty anonymous and I had never heard of him before I read this book. However, his autobiography is entertaining and engaging and worth a read. Operating puppets is clearly a vocation for him. It's never going to make you rich (well, unless your surname is Henson) and Le Drew has had his ups and downs like anyone, but he seems happy to have been able to make his passion his work too, and that comes across very well. He's self-effacing and amusing about his brushes with fame - getting star-struck  and tongue-tied when coming across David Bowie on the set of Labyrinth for example - and interesting enough for me to want to know about his life.

02/10/2021

First Impressions 4: The View From Halfway Down

 Andy Bell (2020)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

With a title that reminds me of Kermit's nephew, I wasn't sure what to expect from this. Andy Bell has had a varied career, starting in teenage shoegaze sensations Ride, via underrated Britpop also-rans Hurricane #1 and then to a surprisingly long stint with obscure pub rockers Oasis. His stint in Hurricane #1 in particular showed what an inventive musician he is - just have a listen to "Remote Control" or the single of "Rising Sign" (the album version is the annoying MBV remix, for some reason).

What we get is has obvious similarities with Ride, but a bit less intense, instead being more relaxed and laid back. The whole thing has a late sixties/early seventies feel, with the most obvious influence being Neu, whose "Hallogallo" groove crops up a few times, mixed with the psychedelia of early Floyd and Traffic.

Stand out tracks for me are the first track, "Love Comes In Waves", which has very Ride-esque harmonies over a motorik groove and reverb-drenched guitars, and the last track, "Heat Haze on Weyland Road", which caught my ear with its Kraftwerk-ian retro electronica. In between these two are some nice sounds, like the great backwards guitar work on "Aubrey Drylands Gladwell" and the acoustic Neu-ness of "Skywalker". There's a few too many instrumentals and occasional nothingy noodliness that I could do without, but overall it's a good album that doesn't outstay its welcome at eight tracks - an album I'm pleased to have found entirely by accident and will be listening to again.

30/09/2021

Watching - September 2021

Ghosts (Season 3, 2021)
Ghosts has been a firm family favourite since Season 1, so we were happy to see another series. I think they're doing a superb job of slowly revealing the back stories of all the characters, while moving the overall story arc forward. Very funny in places and great fun overall.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
An old favourite that I hadn't seen for years, and so was happily able to enjoy it all over again. John Cusack does himself, but very well, and Minnie Driver is cute - although it's not clear why she'd be so ready to get together with him again so quickly. The juxtaposition between the romcom aspects and the violence can be quite abrupt, but I suppose that's what makes it more unusual.
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
Classic cold war thriller that, Sean Connery's accent aside, seems very believable. Compared to the book, the plot is simpler and fewer of the motives are revealed, particularly about why the Russian captain decides to defect. It also has very little of the novel's gung-ho US patriotism, which is no loss. Instead of the sprawling sub-plots of the original then, we get a taut story that kept me interested. I'd never seen this before, despite having had it for ages.
Quiz Show (1994)
First thing that struck me: don't they all look so young? Yeah, I'm getting old, particularly since they are about the right age for the characters. Ralph Fiennes does a particularly good job of someone who has been tempted down a path he didn't really want (the real Charles Van Doren finally broke his silence in 2008); Hank Azaria (in the second film of his I've seen this month) and David Paymer are wonderfully sleazy TV execs; and I love Rob Morrow's Brookline accent (which I assume is authentic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Apparently the film strips a lot of detail from the real story of the 1950s quiz show scandals in the name of a clear narrative, but this does make for a compelling film.

Reading - September 2021

Guitar Magazine (Sept 2021 / Issue 396)
Guitar Magazine (Oct 2021 / Issue 397)
September's issue arrived late for some reason, so I got to read two, back-to-back. Joe Bonamassa on the cover of October's issue, yawn. Some nice kit reviewed though.
You Got An Ology? by Maureen Lipman and Richard Phillips (1989)
K starting her A Level course in Sociology this month triggered a memory in her grandma's mind, and so she very kindly gifted this book to K. Unfortunately, pop-culture references from nearly forty years ago are kind of lost on a seventeen year old, and this tie-in from BT's ad campaign was disposable at the time. Most of the book is taken up with pictures from the ads themselves, but there's some interest and amusement in the forwards from Lipman and Phillips about how the ad came to be.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
I somehow acquired this book, along with the other two in the trilogy, for free, from various sources, but for some reason I have never quite been in the mood to read them. Then suddenly I fancied starting it and, having started, I couldn't stop: it's a compelling crime drama, no question. However, I'm not comfortable saying I enjoyed it. Larsson is obviously trying to make a point about violence against women (there are stats quoted at the start of each section) but the extent of it in the plot is beyond my level of tolerance in a book I am reading for (supposedly) pleasure. I finished it because I wanted the resolution of knowing how it ended, but I've read the synopsis of the other two books on Wikipedia and I'm not sure I will bother reading them any time soon.
Not The End Of The World by Christopher Brookmyre (1998)
I have about four books on the go right now, all of which are very interesting but which are either slightly heavy going or require a certain amount of brain engagement. So for temporary respite, it's nice to go back to something I'm as familiar with as my favourite albums. The combination of Brookmyre's superb characterisation and tight plotting make this as entertaining as ever, and the fantastic skewering of religious idiocies just adds to it.
A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre (2001)
I am reading other books but most of this was read on the train to and from London for our shopping trip. This introduces Angelique de Xavia, one of my favourite Brookmyre characters.
The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy (1984)
I was reading something about submarines and that inevitably reminded me of this superb thriller. What struck me this time is the portrayal of the contrast between the US and Soviet Russia: western (or specifically US) culture is free and produces smarter, better people and things, while Soviet culture is shown as hide-bound, class-ridden and hopelessly mired in political wrangling. Basically, the US is better in every way, according to this; it's a theme that runs right the way through the book like words through a stick of rock.
The Perfect Neighbour by Nora Roberts (1999)
One of my favourite Silhouette romances. Sweet and touching.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (2019)
As with her first novel (The Kiss Quotient), the characters are of Vietnamese descent and autism features in the story. The setup feels a little queasy; the phrase "mail-order bride" occurs a couple of times. That the characters then do actually fall in love is of course a completely idealised version of what happens in real life, but nevertheless the story is sweet and satisfying, and I finished it quickly.
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (2006)
I first came across John Green in the Mental Floss videos, which are edutainment of a very high order. It seemed a bit of an unexpected departure, from my point of view anyway, to next encounter him when wondering what book was making K cry. And that's how I came across The Fault In Our Stars (which I have read but not logged for some reason). This isn't quite the same; it's a nice, entertaining, YA romcom that ends happily. I don't really care that I'm at least thirty years older than its target audience; I can still remember enough about what it felt like as a teenager to relate to it.

27/09/2021

First Impressions 3: Tin Machine II

Tin Machine (1991)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

This was not the US cover
I've always had a bit of soft spot for Tin Machine, ever since I saw their live promo film in the cinema as a supporting feature to some film and really liked it (although the girl I was with was deeply unimpressed). At the time, it was a very deliberate break with Bowie's tradition and of course I bought that first album straight away. So I suppose it tells you everything you need to know about the extent of my alleged soft spot that I didn't buy Tin Machine II until (ahem) thirty years later. Was it worth the wait?

Well, I'd hate to leave my single reader in suspense, so let me say straight away: no. It's never going to be one of my favourite albums; it's not even one going to be one of my favourite albums of 1991.

Still, it's not a total loss. It's got the same feeling as too many of Bowie's later albums, of trying a bit too hard to get something new, pulling seemingly disparate elements together without quite making them gel, and forgetting the tunes, but there's plenty of interesting moments. I could do with fewer of Reeves Gabrels' "far out" (i.e. tuneless) solos, but the rhythm section is rock solid and it's all very cleanly produced. I do find the juxtaposition of straight-ahead rock and Bowie's unique, very mannered phrasing a little jarring, but it's interesting to note that when Hunt Sales sings (e.g. on "Stateside"), it fits the style of music better but instantly becomes more generic

Any standout tracks on first listen? "Amlapura" strikes me the most, more for being a decent Bowie track instead of a Bowie-playing-at-rock track. "Sorry" works well as an overall performance, with the various parts coming together well. I'm sure other tracks will emerge when (if?) I listen to the album more, as there's plenty of interesting moments. Absolutely non-essential but nice to have all the same.

20/09/2021

First Impressions 2: I Can't Believe You're Gone

The Webb Brothers (2000)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

I didn't realise this was a single when I bought it, but at least it's a nice easy way into my first impressions series, with only three songs to concentrate on.

My first impression is that it is heavily reminiscent of Jason Falkner's Can You Still Feel?, that  kind of sophisticated post-Jellyfish power-pop that is so often gets critical adulation and little sales. It's got a great chorus melody, some nicely hook-y arrangement and a well-though out structure. I'd listen to it again. The acoustic version of "I Can't Believe You're Gone" is the third track here and is in some respects nicer for being less overblown, but the song stands up to the two different treatments well.

"Blame It On Yourself", the second track here, separating the two different versions of the single, is clear B-side fodder, a slightly weaker track that nevertheless makes me want to go and listen to the source album Maroon - which I suppose is the point!

19/09/2021

First Impressions 1: The Seeds of Love

Tears for Fears (1989)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

The cover has not aged
as well as the music
The first album I'm listening to for my first impressions of those I bought during my outing yesterday, and already I'm cheating. I know this album very well. It's a sumptuous, warm bath of a record, a miracle of late-eighties record production that I have enjoyed for decades and find myself returning to again and again.

This is the 2020 remaster, so, given that I know it well, I have to restrict my first impressions to what differences I can hear. I'd say it's mixed slightly louder, which is a little surprising given that the loudness wars are over, but thankfully, on an album so full of dynamics, there's no evidence of these being sacrificed. The songs are full of little touches that are sounding clearer, I think. There's power and weight in the bass at the beginning of "Woman in Chains", followed by a surrounding cloud of ambience as the track gets going. "Badman's Song" ebbs and flows through its mood changes as gloriously as ever, and I am reminded again what a good singer Roland Orzabal is.

I didn't really need to do a first impressions of this album, of course, but I having somehow failed to buy this before now, I wanted to hear it properly through my system at home. It sounds great.

Shopping: 18 September 2021

Brian and I were wondering how long we've been visiting Berwick Street for our music fix, and neither of us can really remember. But, looking back in my archives, I can see that I was bemoaning the loss of record shops almost ten years ago, so clearly we had been coming some time before that!

Still, so what if what used to be a trawl through the myriad secondhand music emporia has long ago become an excuse to meet and catch up over a few pints, with a little shopping in between? We had a great time, marvelled at how busy Soho is these days, and even brought home a few albums.

There was nothing in particular I wanted (with one exception) and no plan, so what I have consists of covers, artists or titles that caught my eye at that moment - and all for a smidge over £50!

The View From Half Way Down by Andy Bell (2020)
I loved Ride, and Hurricane #1 produced several of my favourite singles of the Nineties. It's always pained me that such a great guitarist was reduced to plodding away on bass in some obscure pub-rock band, just to pay the bills. So when I saw this album on display in Sister Ray as one the "best albums of 2020", I couldn't resist.
Pleasure by Feist (2017)
Have heard the name but not the music, was cheap.
Rabbit Fur Coat by Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins (2005)
This album rings a bell from back in the day when I actually read the music press, so thought I'd have a punt.
My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours by McLusky (2003)
I bought this entirely on the strength of the title and primarily to amuse K, who listens to lots of songs with depressing titles all in lower case (as it is on this album cover), as exemplified by the Spotify playlist idk. However, this probably isn't her type of music: Wikipedia tells me that McLusky are a "post-hardcore band", and although I have to admit to not being quite sure what this means, I'm pretty certain it's not acoustic. Although acoustic guitars would be very post-hardcore.
Looks even better in the cardboard
Summer 08 by Metronomy (2016)
Bought purely on the strength of a very attractive embossed cover.
Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement (1992)
Brian and I used to do a version of "Trigger Cut" with our band, but I've never owned the album until now.
Bankrupt! by Phoenix (2013)
I have several Phoenix albums, although none I like as much as their debut, United. This deluxe, limited edition version might be worth a bit more than I paid for it.
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star by Sonic Youth (1994)
I've been meaning to get into Sonic Youth since I was a student. I might have left it a bit late.
Amazing Grace by Spiritualized (2003)
My interest in Spiritualized was piqued by the amusing autobiography of their former bass player Will Carruthers. Need any other reason to purchase? Not me.
The Seeds Of Love by Tears for Fears (1989)
This is the one album I was looking for, although I didn't remember that until I actually saw it on the counter at Sister Ray for £2.99. I suspect this disk actually came from a deluxe reissue, but since I don't care about the extra material, I am just happy to have what is a superb album at a good price.
Tin Machine II by Tin Machine (1991)
At first I was amazed to find this long out-of-print album available, and thought perhaps I'd bagged myself a bit of a rarity. However, on closer examination, it turns out to be a 2020 reissue from a Dutch label called Music On CD. Hardly essential listening, but I've always had a soft spot for Bowie's hard rock, "I'm just the lead singer of the band" phase.
Poses by Rufus Wainwright (2001)
A bargain at £2? No idea, but I like most of his other stuff.
I Can't Believe You're Gone by The Webb Brothers (2000) 
I've just re-ripped their album Beyond The Biosphere and this has a cool cover. Turns out it's a single, though, so teensy bit annoyed at myself.

15/09/2021

Challah recipe

Four-plait challah
 Making challah was one of the reasons I started making bread by hand, after having had a bread machine for six months or so. However, I struggled for ages, not so much with the form but with the taste, which was always a bit bland - like normal white bread in a challah shape. I persisted with complicated recipes that required me to separate egg yolks and whites, for some reason, and also in the belief that real challah has honey in it. None of these were very satisfactory, so eventually I gave up.

I was inspired again years later by my nephew, who was making bread - and challah - and so this time I went and found a much simpler recipe. I've adapted it slightly; I'm not one for lots of experimentation, and once something works I stick with it, but I found this still wasn't giving me quite what I wanted. What I have done is to combine a technique from other breads of creating a starter the day before, to allow the initial batter to ferment a little and add some taste and texture. It seems to work quite well.

Thursday: the starter

On Thursday, ideally in the morning but in the evening if you forget (I do, often), make a simple starter.

Ingredients

  • 125g strong white flour
  • ¼ tsp (approx 1g) dried yeast
  • 150g lukewarm water

Method

  1. Mix the flour and yeast together.
  2. Add the water and mix well to a smooth batter.
  3. Cover and leave until Friday morning. If you want to have a peek a few hours later, you'll see it bubbling nicely.
  4. Optional: give it another good mix on Thursday evening.

Friday: the bread

On Friday morning, make the bread, which should be enough time to be ready for kiddush in the evening.

Ingredients

  • 375g strong white flour (plus a little more for the work surface)
  • 7g dried yeast
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 whole egg and 1 yolk (plus another for an egg wash)
  • 45ml sunflower oil (plus approx another 15ml for kneading etc)
  • 10g salt
  • 50g lukewarm water (plus a little more if needed)

Method

  1. Mix the flour, yeast and sugar together in a large bowl.
  2. Make a well in the middle of ingredients and pour in the starter from yesterday.
  3. Gently combine the starter with the flour, keeping it in the well in middle, to make a sponge. You're trying to get the batter a little thicker but still leave dry ingredients round the edge.
  4. Leave the sponge for about half an hour.
  5. Mix the remaining ingredients (egg, oil, salt and water) in a jug.
  6. Add the wet ingredients to the sponge and mix it all together into a dough. It should be firm but not too dry, so add a little more water if needed.
Here's where my laziness creeps in. If you prefer (some people say it gives a better result), you could now just knead the dough for 10 minutes. Kneading dough for ten minutes is a pain, so here's what I do:
  1. Shape the dough into a rough ball, cover the bowl and leave the dough for 10 minutes.
  2. Put a little oil on the work surface, take the dough out of the bowl, wipe the bowl clean and oil it.
  3. Knead the dough for about 30 seconds and put it back in the bowl.
  4. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.
  5. Knead again for 30 seconds, then back in the bowl.
    • You might want a bit more oil on the work surface if necessary to stop it sticking too much.
  6. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.
  7. Knead again for 30 seconds, back in the bowl.
  8. Cover and leave for 30 minutes.
  9. Knead again for 30 seconds.
Then the process is the same:
  1. Cover the dough and leave to rise. The time varies, and the recipes usually say "until doubled in size", although I have a hard time telling what "doubled" is, so usually I just leave it for a couple of hours.
  2. Put some flour on the work surface.
  3. Take the dough out, press the air out and make it into a rough ball again.
  4. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, as equal as you can (you can weigh them if you want).
Each of these pieces will become a challah, so do the following instructions for each:
  1. Get a baking tray out, and cover it with baking parchment.
  2. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, weighing if you want to be precise.
  3. Press each piece into a rough rectangle, then roll it gently into a sausage shape.
  4. Lay each piece out on the work surface, so that one end of each piece is joined together and the other ends are fanned out.
  5. Gently dust the pieces with flour.
  6. Plait the pieces.
    • There are lots of ways of plaiting and the best thing to do is watch a video - there's loads out there!
    • I usually do a four-plait challah, as shown in the picture at the top, as it's easy to split the dough into four pieces.
    • You can also do round challahs for Rosh Hashanah, as shown below.
  7. Put the challah on the tray and cover.
  8. Leave the challah to rise.
  9. Heat the oven up to 180C (fan).
  10. Prepare an egg wash with a beaten egg.
  11. Bake in the oven for about 30 mins, until golden and firm on the bottom.

Two round challahs, one coiled (left) and one plaited (right)




07/09/2021

Honey Cake recipe

Honey cake is a traditional item for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and I've made one for probably the last ten years or so. In simpler times I would make two every year: one for the home and one to take into work, as it's always been popular with my colleagues and I still get comments about it even though the last time I was actually able to provide some to them was September 2019!

The recipe I use is from my wife's mum, and she's not sure where it came from but it looks very similar to Flo Greenberg's; it doesn't really matter of course, as this is now our family recipe! One of the odd things is that this doesn't actually taste of honey much - the ginger and spices are much more obvious. I haven't tried it without honey to see what difference it makes, but I've used various different types of honey and that definitely makes no difference!

I rarely bake cakes, and I only make this once a year, which means it has taken a long time to refine my method. One thing I have learned is that although you can use an electric mixer to cream the eggs and sugar, after that you should mix all the ingredients together by hand.


Ingredients

  • 12 oz (340g) plain flour
  • 1 tsp (generous) baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp mixed spice
  • 6 oz (170g) caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 8 oz (227g) clear/runny honey (plus about 60-70g for glazing)
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • ¼ pint (142 ml) warm water

Method

  1. Prepare a floured and greased (or lined) tin. I use a 2lb loaf tin.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients together, apart from the sugar.
  3. Cream the sugar and eggs, using an electric mixer.
  4. Add the honey, oil and water to the egg mixture, mixing gently by hand.
  5. In a new bowl, alternate adding the dry and wet mixtures, mixing well but gently, by hand.
  6. Pour the combined mixture into the tin and put in the oven.
  7. Bake for about an hour, until it's done (i.e. the usual test: a knife or skewer comes out clean).
  8. Gently heat 60-70g more honey and brush it onto the top of the hot cake straight after it comes out of the oven.
  9. Leave in the tin for about half an hour before taking it out and allowing to cool on a rack.

31/08/2021

Watching - August 2021

Paddington 2 (2017)
The best thing about this hugely enjoyable film is Hugh Grant's gloriously over-the-top luvvie villain, but even without that it's a very funny film. Brought in the whole family.
Apollo 11 (2019)
The NASA footage is amazing, not least because it reminds you how incredibly complex the whole undertaking was. Seeing the shots of the rows and rows of people at consoles at Launch Control in Florida really brought that home to me, and of course that was merely the tip of the iceberg. However, it's a big of a slog as a documentary, and the dramatic music is a bit intrusive (all a bit too Truman Show for me) but well worth seeing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Very amusing. I watched this because Mark Kermode said it was one of Hugh Grant's best roles, and he's good, but it's Meryl Streep who stands out.
A Very English Scandal (2018)
I knew very little about the Jeremy Thorpe scandal before this. It was a good watch, but would have been better as a 1½-2 hour film rather than three hours, even when watched with breaks. Hugh Grant is very good but still obviously Hugh Grant (maybe I just know his films too well), and so was Ben Wilshaw, but together they made an odd casting decision - and not just because it's hard to forget that Wilshaw also plays Paddington. The events depicted cover almost twenty years, but Grant always looks to be in his fifties while Wilshaw in his twenties. In real life they were about eleven years apart and Thorpe was always considered young and active for a politician. Still, you can't fault the effort put into the production and I enjoyed it.
Music and Lyrics (2007)
I'll watch Drew Barrymore in most things, but here I think she and Hugh Grant (yes, August has become a bit of a Grant-fest, I'm afraid) make a good and believable couple - and certainly he is preferable to Adam Sandler. The film is sweet, light and fluffy, like a good cake - not exactly good for you, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Yesterday (2019)
An intriguing concept turned into Curtis-by-numbers. Very much like About Time, it takes a really great premise and then squashes it under a conventional romcom, while abandoning any internal consistency when it becomes inconvenient. I enjoyed it and there were plenty of laugh-out-loud jokes, but the original concept, of a man who can't find success despite having all these astonishing songs, would have been more believable and interesting, and knowing that Curtis ripped off someone else's story leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Oddly, 2019 saw two British films featuring pop music and Asian lead characters (although in Yesterday, this isn't a plot point), so I thought I'd watch this one too. On the surface, it has less appeal for me, as Springsteen - whose music is the inspiration for the story - has never really done it for me. Mostly this is because lyrics don't matter much to me, and so it's only Springsteen's most musical - dare I say, poppiest - moments that I enjoy. But by linking the words to the events, the film gave me a better appreciation for them and for what Bruce means to people. The film itself is moving and well-made coming-of-age story, and of the two films, this is the better. 
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Ron Howard's award-winning film illustrates the dilemma of making movies based on a real lives: what do you change in the name of dramatisation? John Nash, the Nobel laureate mathematician at the centre of the story, was still alive when this was released, and it must have been odd for him knowing that this version of events would become what he'd be known for in the popular imagination. I can understand why the changes (and simplifications) were made: they increase the drama and make the narrative more understandable, while still being true to the spirit of his life, and as a standalone film it works very well. However, I was disappointed to find out after I'd watched it how much it differs from Nash's real life.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Also full of "dramatic licence", as the fantastic visualisation and analysis at Information Is Beautiful makes clear - somewhere between 17% and 42% accurate, depending on how strict you want to be. Of course, some simplification is necessary in order to tell the story in two hours. But there are dozens of unnecessary changes that feel like they've been made in order to fit the pre-existing Hollywood template of "lone genius saves the world". So although the film was well-made, I knew enough of the subject to know that it was highly inaccurate while I was watching it and this spoiled it for me. Cumberbatch was good though.

Reading - August 2021

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James (2011)
I moved from an unsuccessful Austen pastiche (The Duke & I) to arguably one of the best, and best known. I've not read any of James's books before but given that she has made her name with murder mysteries I suspect that the overall structure of the plot here is similar to her others. What distinguishes this novel is the superb evocation of the period, the use of language and occasional subtle but amusing references to the modern day. She even manages to tie in Austen characters from other books (such as "Mr & Mrs Knightley of Donwell"). Very enjoyable and essential for any Austen fan.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
I find it hard to understand why so many people are quite so scathing about The Da Vinci Code. It's a good thriller, with an interesting plot that keeps you reading through the twists and turns to find out how it's all going to end. Sure, the writing is a little clunky in places, but no more so than, say, John Grisham or other similar writers. Yet somehow it's become the apotheosis of low-brow fiction. I think it's just snobbery. And anything that so comprehensively got up the noses of religious zealots can't be all bad.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton (2009)
The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge by Harry Harrison (1970)
The next instalment, read again to Z. Harrison is getting more into the swing of things here.
Nemesis by Agatha Christie (1971)
I probably first read this when I was in my teens, at which time the book was probably less than fifteen years old, yet it feels like it belongs to another world. Quite how murder mysteries became suitable reading for minors and maiden aunts, I don't know, but the gentle pace of this, like all of Christie's books, belies the inherent violence of murder. Still, the story is well-told and carries you with it. Easy reading.
A Very English Scandal by John Preston (2016)
The book that was adapted for the drama is a compelling read, and it's an astonishing story of deeply flawed characters that makes you think about the kind of people who choose to get involved in politics. What grates is that there is no citations of evidence. I think it's probably fairly accurate, but how would we know this?
Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)
Read while waiting for C to complete a hospital appointment (routine check-up, nothing to worry about). This was Miss Marple's first appearance in a novel and she was already an old woman. How long did she actually live?

28/08/2021

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Alain de Botton

2009

I've been pondering recently about how I feel about work. What I do is largely pointless, in the grand (or even not-so-grand) scheme of things, and although I will miss some aspects of it when I stop doing it - primarily the social ones - I find myself thinking about retirement more often, even though it's still probably nearly ten years away. So in the meantime, how do I stop myself becoming overly cynical about it?

I picked up this book again, not just because I enjoy de Botton's elegant style and ability to articulate the private thoughts we've all had, but because maybe it could provide some insight. Indeed, the blurb on the back poses the questions:

Why do so many of us love or hate our work?
How has it come to dominate our lives?
And what should we do about it?

Judged solely by its response to these, the book is a failure. It's not a sociological history concerning the development of the idea of "jobs" or "work" since the Industrial Revolution, nor is it a self-help manual claiming to change all or part of your life. It touches on these things, yes, but fundamentally de Botton is a philosopher, looking to inspire thought and discussion, not provide answers. 

But really, this is just a failure of the back page's hyperbole rather than the book itself. This is one of his lighter books and the tone is gently humourous, as he travels to different countries, chats to people about what they do and points up the more amusing oddities about what we choose to fill our lives with. You could make a case that it's a small step away from observational comedy (Kate Fox makes the same point about herself, in typically self-deprecating style, in Watching The English) but it's a good read and provokes some thought.

So what are my conclusions? I think we all need to find meaning in our work somehow, because otherwise it's hard to keep going. That meaning could be attached to what you achieve for others or for yourself. In my case, I try to take pride in what I do, help my colleagues and pass on some of what I know to those just starting out. And hope I keep being paid for it for another ten years!

31/07/2021

Reading - July 2021

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (1961)
An old favourite, which I have had the great pleasure of introducing to Z by reading it to him every night. Simple fun, dated in places but nevertheless an involving enough story for Z to enjoy it - enough to want the next one now!
Guitar Magazine (August 2021 / Issue 395)
Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox (2009)
Not so much of a chronological autobiography as Lucky Man, this nevertheless tells the next seven or so years of Fox's life in a consistently interesting way. The main focus of his life is the work of his charitable foundation, and it's clearly been a success. I wouldn't be surprised if ultimately he becomes better known for this rather than his acting which, you realise, covered a surprisingly short period.
The Duke & I by Julia Quinn (2000)
This is the first book in the Bridgerton series, which has already been watched (and, partially, read) by a couple of other members of my family. I think what they were hoping for was more in the style of Jane Austen, and they've been disappointed in this. I can understand why: instead of something as classic as P&P or Emma, what you get instead is ISO-standard, fairly average, modern romantic fiction. Sure, there's a superficial smattering of period flavour when the author remembers, but basically these are modern characters, speaking in modern idiom about modern concerns. Quinn is from the US and sadly, it shows: it's a pantomime version of Regency England, for Americans, by an American, and bears about as much relation to Austen as One Direction does to Beethoven. But despite all that, and a number of other flaws, I enjoyed it enough to read it and finish it - if only because I am a complete sucker for a happy ending, as always.

Watching - July 2021

The Book of Life (2014)
I'd heard from my kids that Pixar's Coco was basically a replay of this film, but I'd never seen it for some reason. Conveniently it's now on Disney+ so we were able to make the comparison. At least, Z was, as I haven't watched Coco for ages. The themes are very, very similar, as they are based on the same cultural references, but outside of that, I think they're different stories and different films. The animation in this is nicely quirky, avoiding an attempt to be super-realistic, and if the plot is a little predictable and generic, then it's still good fun.
Military Wives (2019)
You don't need to know the story to understand where this is going from about ten minutes in, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. A good mix of the affecting - it's particularly good at illustrating the emotions around the partners leaving to go to Afghanistan - and the comedic elements are reliably in place. Good enough to keep watching, but not brilliant.
Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2018)
Eric Clapton is one of the reasons I started playing guitar - not the only reason by any means, but definitely a big part of it. Yet for some reason I know little of his music past Derek & The Dominoes, nor much of his history since then either. Interestingly, this biography doesn't actually tell you much past this time either, other than, basically, he was drunk for about twenty years. His albums from about 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) to Journeyman (1989) are dismissed with the one-liner "I can hear how drunk I was", yet I suspect that much of his wealth comes from the music he made during this period. He's obviously had hard times, some through no fault of his own and some entirely self-imposed. The film ends on happy notes: as well as setting up the Crossroads centres, he finds love and has children (about the same age as mine, incredibly). Moving in places, fairly stark in others, this was an interesting watch but I felt it obscured some things.

30/06/2021

Watching - June 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Unanimous choice for our family film night (although I hadn't heard about it before about two days ago and was not really bothered either way), Disney's latest is fairly identikit, well, Disney fare. Modern, ass-kicking Disney princess? Tick. Missing parent? Of course. Cute animal sidekick? Present and correct. Huge big moral being whacked around your head? Absolutely - although in this case the moral is not just about trusting in people, but to me seems to have fairly hefty dose of warnings against isolationism and nationalism, which is a bit subversive for Disney. The animation is superb, although the characters do look a bit like Barbie, as K pointed out - their faces all seem a bit plastic and unlined - the story is involving, if predictable, and the animals cute. What else do you want? An enjoyable evening with the family, unlikely to be watched again for a while though.
Luca (2021)
The newest Pixar release on Disney+ predictably gets no complaints for pizza night, and predictably provides pleasant passing of time. It looks sumptuous, is heartwarming and sweet, and involving enough to keep us entertained. I'm a little less sure of the way it reduces Italians to stereotypes (I'm fairly certain that "Santa Gorgonzola" is not a real saint, much less one that is invoked in a crisis) and as such it seems like a very US-centric view of the country. Nevertheless, fun enough.
Incredibles 2 (2018)
I'm fairly certain we saw this in the cinema when it came out, and were not impressed enough to bother ordering it on DVD. It's good fun though, with most of the funniest moments centred around Jack Jack and his multifarious powers, and even if the plot twist can be seen coming a mile off, it still gets a bit nail-biting towards the climax. Fun stuff, watched with Z.

Reading - June 2021

Guitar Magazine (July 2021 / Issue 394)
I read somewhere that all guitar magazines feature an issue with Jimi Hendrix on the cover at least once every twelve months, in the knowledge that it will be that year's best selling issue - as good an illustration as any of the somewhat narrow world of guitar, sadly. Therefore, it strikes me as a brave move to put a woman on the cover, in this case Annie Clark of St. Vincent. I don't know her music but they say she "might well be the most important guitar player on the planet today" so I should go and listen to some. Elsewhere the Ivison Guitars Dakota model looks rather nice, although if I was plonking down that kind of cash I'd get the '59 DC, no question.
Noises Off by Michael Frayn (1982)
I saw this in the West End with my parents in the early 80s, so therefore the original production - although possibly not the original cast, since it ran for five years. C and I also saw it again more recently, although I can't remember where. It's a fantastically well-crafted play and laugh-out-loud funny on the page - and even more so on stage, of course, although sadly the few staged examples I can find on Youtube fail to do it justice, and the film version got poor reviews.
Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre (2004)
I swore off Brookmyre for 2021, just to reduce the over-familiarity, but clearly didn't manage. I remember struggling to get into this book for ages but now it's one of my favourites - the combination of Jack Parlabane and Tim Vale is irresistible and the plotting and characterisation as good as ever. I'm disappointed to find that Chris Brookmyre has chosen to revive the Parlabane character as a divorced man in later books, which, based on a reading of their plots, are unremittingly depressing. I don't know why he decided to remove the humour from his novels, as without it they are just fairly standard fare.
Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox (2002)
It's easy to underestimate just how famous Michael J. Fox is. Here's something I didn't know until I read it just now on Wikipedia: at its peak, the sitcom Family Ties was watched by one-third of American households every week. That's a lot of people basically tuning in to see Fox, who was the lead character, and it's easy to understand why, as he is such an engaging person in every role he plays. This comes across in his book: he's honest about his illness and honest about his failings, including the one where he hid his illness for nine years.
How To Get Rich  by Felix Dennis (2006)
An entertaining read that lifts the lid on the reality of becoming and staying seriously rich. It comes across as slightly throw-away in places (Dennis says towards the end that he wrote it in eight weeks), and in others as a bit of a diatribe against various targets, not least the kind of people who write "how to get rich" books! Nevertheless, full of truths (at least, they seem so to me) and valuable insights.