Archive for December 2016

Book review – Olive Kitteridge, and The Plot Against America

I actually read these two books before Treasure Island, the subject of my last post, but felt that I needed more time to write an appropriate review.  In summary, if I were to write a list of my favourite books of 2016 (read in 2016, not published), I would be sure to include both Olive Kitteridge and The Plot Against America.

Olive Kitteridge: a novel in short stories is a 2008 novel by American author Elizabeth Strout.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 and it’s not hard to see why, especially given other books awarded the prize, including A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed in an earlier post.  As it says on some versions of the cover, it’s a novel in short stories centred around the character of Olive Kitteridge.  The 14 stories are mainly based in the quiet, coastal town of Crosby, Maine, and feature Kitteridge, a seemingly bitter and terse retired teacher, to a greater or lesser extent.  At its simplest, as the events in the book unfold so does our understanding of Olive.

What makes the book so enjoyable and enduring in the mind is the fact that there is a strong duality at play: on one hand Olive (and the supporting cast of characters) is a simple individual, coping with life as best she can; on the other we see that the seemingly simple character of Olive is actually a complex human being.  Strout does a magnificent job at bringing Olive and the people of Crosby to life and giving meaning to the simplest things surrounding us.  I also found the book to be quite a page-turner despite its nature.  If it’s excitement and action that you’re after, this book won’t give you that.  But if you want to read a very well written book, with wonderfully drawn characters, and that makes you think about life beyond the book then Olive Kitteridge ticks all of those boxes.

Incidentally, HBO (who can seem to do no wrong in my eyes) produced an Olive Kitteridge mini-series in 2014.  I’ve just started watching it and hope that it lives up to the book or at least somewhere near.  Maybe I’ll write about it in a future blog on mini-series or box sets.

Philip Roth, like HBO, is also someone who can seem to do no wrong.  I’ve read The Human Stain and American Pastoral and enjoyed them thoroughly.  When you pick up a Philip Roth book you know that it’s time to get serious.  He writes with great depth and power, however, I’ve sometimes found him to be overly descriptive at the expense of the plot.  Roth achieves just the right balance in The Plot Against America (2004).

The book probably falls in the category of historical fiction but is one of those books that assumes an alternative history.  In this case, the alternative history is an America (and world) where Roosevelt didn’t win a third term as President and, as a result, the US doesn’t enter World War II.  Moreover, the person voted in, Charles Lindburgh (a real character and a famous aviator of the time), has warm relationships with the Nazi regime and is sympathetic to some of their views.

The book is written mainly from the perspective of a young Philip Roth, a member of a Jewish family residing in Newark, New Jersey.  Young Roth’s father is deeply suspicious of the Linburgh regime, which has captured the imagination of white, anglo-saxon America: a cult of personality.  The suspicion amounts to the fact that Lindbergh is pursuing anti-semitic policies dressed up as policies which are designed to unite the citizens and cultures within the US.  The way Roth (the author) balances the fear of anti-semitism with the promotion of benign assimilation policies is handled deftly, including through having pro- and anti-Lindbergh forces living under the same roof.

I found it hard to read the novel without thinking of the recent US election and the rhetoric and policies of Donald Trump; the outcome of the BREXIT vote in the UK; and even the McCarthy witch hunts of 1950s America.  There are certainly some parallels, not least in the use of certain tactics to marginalise minorities and protesters.  I think this brought the book even more to life for me.  At over 400 pages, the book isn’t a short read, but it’s a great read.  I’d even go as far as saying that it’s an important read and it brings to mind one of my favourite phrases, ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything’.

This is my last post of 2016.  I wish you all the best for your new year festivities and I hope you keep reading in 2017.

Nick

Shiver me timbers, it’s a book review!

It may surprise you to know that the clue to the subject of this book review is within the title!  Yes, I decided it was time to read another classic, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  I think I must have read an abridged or kids’ version of the story, being familiar with some of the main characters of the story, such as Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver.

My free kindle version clocked in at 124 pages, albeit 124 very dense pages.  I think it’s probably nearer 200 pages if read at a reasonable font size.  Nevertheless, it remains a quick read owing to its being a real page turner.   The book, originally serialised between 1881 and 1882, has surprisingly well drawn characters, especially that of Long John Silver, who appears far more three-dimensional than any abridged version of the novel would have you believe.  As you’d expect, the book is a classic ‘boy’s own’ tale, with treasure, mutiny, pirates and a parrot thrown into the mix.  The book reminded me of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published over 150 years earlier, in terms of elements of style and content, e.g. the desert island.  For my money (pieces of eight, no less!) the comparison ends there, with Treasure Island being the far superior of the two.  I read Robinson Crusoe a couple of years ago and found it interminably dull.  Not a book I’d recommend to anyone.  Treasure Island, yes.

Once I’d finished the book I decided to check out the 1950 movie of Treasure Island.  Being a Walt Disney production, I had high hopes.  The film certainly has high production values and looked wonderful.  It felt however that I was watching the book on fast forward, draining the film of any character.  I imagine that kids would enjoy the film but I’d not bother if you have the chance.

Songs from the Vault

I enjoyed doing the previous ‘songs from the vault’ post so much, as did some of you, that I thought I’d do another one.  As before, there aren’t any themes, just good tunes that you may or may not know.

First up is Picture in a Frame by Tom Waits, off of his highly rated 1999 album, Mule Variations.  The song is dripping with a timeless quality.  You could easily imagine hearing it in an old Clint Eastwood western.  You can hear the creaking of the piano bench before Waits plays and you can almost feel the sun clawing its way through the wooden beams of a frontier dwelling. Well, that’s what comes to my mind anyway.  See what you think…

Next up is Stephanie Says, recorded in 1968 by the Velvet Underground.  It’s a simple but perfectly constructed tune and one of their best, featuring, amongst others, Lou Reed on vocals, John Cale on viola and, I think, Cale on glockenspiel.  I first heard it on the soundtrack to the film The Royal Tennenbaums both of which are well worth checking out.

Winding the clock forwards 40 years to 2008 we have Polmont on my mind by the Glaswegian band, Glasvegas.  The song relates to the band’s experience of the young offenders institute in Polmont, Falkirk, having played there.  The song has a massive sound that grows even bigger as the song moves into its anthemic climax (at around the three minute mark for the impatient amongst you!).  The rest of their eponymous 2008 album is equally good (well almost) and is well worth a listen.

15 miles south east of Glasgow is Motherwell, the birth place of The Delgados.  Their album The Great Eastern (2000) included some cracking tunes.  My pick of the bunch is the subdued and minimalistic Make your move.  Like Stephanie Says, the classic band line-up is complemented by other instruments, this time by flute and dobro.  Not that you’d really noticed, everything is as it should be and in service of the song.

Continuing along the slightly melancholy path of these tunes, but recognising that Christmas is almost upon us, it’d be remiss of me not to include something Christmassy.  A Charlie Brown Christmas first appeared on U.S. television screens in 1965.  The TV special, like the animated show, features the music of the Vince Guaraldi trio, a jazz piano trio based in San Francisco.  The soundtrack includes a mixture of traditional Christmas songs and Guaraldi’s own compositions.  It’s these originals which make the album and have become classics, including Linus and Lucy and Skating.  The stand out track, which I first heard on the previously mentioned Royal Tennenbaums soundtrack, is Christmas Time is Here.  The Guaraldi-penned tune has been covered by a veritable who’s who list of singers including Tony Bennett and the mighty Kenny Loggins!  You don’t need to know any more than that.

It remains for me to say have a Happy Christmas and I hope you continue reading in 2017.

Book review

Recently I was in the mood for a detective novel, so I googled ‘best detective novels’ which led me to a list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.  At the top of the list, compiled by the Crime Writers’ Association, was The Daughter of Time, a 1951 novel by Josephine Tey, a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels.

I’d neither heard of the book nor the author so was intrigued enough to want to read it.  The title (and spirit) of the book takes its name from an old proverb featured at the book’s outset: ‘Truth is the daughter of Time’.  The Daughter of Time (DoT) is the fifth of Tey’s Alan Grant novels.  In DoT we find Grant, a Scotland Yard inspector, laid up in hospital and at a loss with what to do with himself.  Grant ends up conducting a bed-bound investigation into the notorious murders of the Princes in the Tower; that is, was Richard III responsible for ordering the deaths of the two princes?  Or put another way, does time afford us the luxury of being able to tell a different version of the widely held truth about the murder of the princes in the tower?

Through the 160 or so pages of the book (so it’s not an onerous read in terms of pages), the reader is taken on a romp through 15th century England and the politics of the War of the Roses.  The book does require some basic knowledge about the period, so there were occasions on which I had to do a bit of side-by-side reading with Wikipedia.  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable piece of historical fiction, though I don’t think it belongs at the top of the CWA’s list.  Playing detective myself, I suspect that Tey’s novel must have played a role in laying the path for modern British authors like Hilary Mantel, C.J. Sansom, and Philippa Gregory.

I actually read Daemon (2009) by Daniel Suarez a few months ago but have only just mustered the effort to write about it.  I wanted to read the book having searched for books inspired by the TV series Mr. Robot.  The novel is a so-called techno-thriller and is about a self-learning computer program, unleashed on the world by its deceased genius creator (Sobol) to achieve the goal of creating a new world order.  The book started well enough but, for my money, became increasingly farcical and over the top as it went on.  The characters were wooden and cliched, to boot (there’s a reboot joke here somewhere but I’ll leave it!).  The book has some similarities with the wonderful Ready Player One, one of my favourite books of recent years, in that some of the characters are gamers and, through playing Sobol’s games, are able to access the daemon’s secrets.  But that’s where the comparison ends.

In summary, while the premise of the book is intriguing, the execution fails to live up to expectations. I’ll be giving the follow-up, Freedom™a miss but will try and catch the movie of Daemon, which I understand is in the offing.

 

 

Gig review – Archive, Electric Ballroom, 30 November 2016

Having spent quite a bit of November going to jazz gigs, I had a change of musical scenery via Archive at Camden’s Electric Ballroom.  Archive are a British band, apparently better known on the continent than in the UK.  I hadn’t heard the band before but was expecting good things from this trip-hop/techno/rock band.

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The band played, at least initially, behind a thin veil and in front of a video screen on which they projected a range of images, from scrolling text to rotating skulls (they must have know I was coming!).  The combination of music and images was a powerful cocktail.  For a sense of what that was like check out the video below (for the impatient among you, skip to the three minute mark!).

Just like in the Wizard of Oz, the veil was eventually drawn back.  Having been initially overawed with the combination of music and visuals, I felt slightly let down my what followed, with half of the visuals disappearing along with the veil.

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The band played a number of tunes from the recent album The False Foundation.  The best of these were the slower tunes like the opening track of the album Blue Faces, and Bright Lights.  The harder tunes didn’t do a lot for me but, to be fair, the audience seemed extremely satisfied with everything they heard.  I’ve subsequently spent a bit of time with the new album and have quite enjoyed what I’ve heard.  Not enough though to warrant buying the album or going to another gig. However, having had my expectations well and truly managed another gig might be more enjoyable.