(1) Things which I have read.
1. Tales of the Metric System – Imraan Coovadia. I spotted this last Christmas in the Book Lounge in Cape Town (ace bookshop, if you’re ever there), but didn’t buy it as I had no luggage room. I picked it up during the year and finally read it. It’s 10 chapters that tell a number of stories that interconnect over South Africa’s history from the 60s to the 2010 football world cup. I suspect it’s helpful to have a vague working knowledge of what happened during that time and who people were, because, delightfully, it makes no concessions to readers who aren’t actually South African or aware of South Africa’s recent history. It really worked for me, and then I lent it to a South African friend who said it worked for him too.
2. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle. British kids don’t grow up on this, so I’d never read it, but watching the trailer for the film gave me the chills so I picked it up. I tore thorugh it (after bailing on London Book Club’s January option, which I couldn’t bear) and really enjoyed it. I’m intrigued at the love for it though, because it makes Narnia look positively secular.
3. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng. I ripped through this in a couple of days and utterly loved it. I finished it on the platform at Sloane Square station before meeting friends so that I could actually pay attention to people. The writing is absorbing, the story compelling, and the characters fascinating. I particularly liked the way it demanded you paid attention to every character and were given material for understanding their choices in ways that gave them a fair role of the die. I could imagine a different person reading it and ending up with a completely different set of sympathies.
4. Where I Left My Soul – Jerome Ferrari. I’ve had this on my shelf for a few years, it’s a slim book about the what happens when you look into the abyss as a soldier in France’s twentieth century wars, focused on the Algerian war, through two men who have different responses. It’s beautifully written, and oh so bleak.
5. White Chrysanthemum – Mary Lynn Bracht. I went in for emotional pain in fiction this month – this is about the Korean ‘Comfort Women’ who were kidnapped by the Japanese during their wars in Korea and China pre-and during WW2. It’s told through two sisters, one who is taken and one who is not, and it is so well done. It’s unflinching about the pain and abuse, but not gratuitously graphic – it feels well pitched – and has balances the pain well with a hopeful lift at the end. I was in floods by the time I got there.
6. Bad News – Edward St Aubyn. Number 2 in the Patrick Melrose series, and we have reached bleak, acerbic, pathetic, drug-addled Patrick. It’s sharp, funny and oh-so-ugly for just under 200 pages, and then it’s done. You wouldn’t want it to be longer, but it really really works.
(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
1. The Greatest Showman. I saw this on New Year’s Day, and while I will never not enjoy watching Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron sing and dance, I also thought the film as a whole was pretty thin and not great. But there’s a plum velvet top hat on Zeffers’ head, and if he is going to be in bad films, then I would a billion times rather they were ambitious new musicals than more Baywatches.
2. Molly’s Game. Snappy Sorkin dialogue and a brilliant Jessica Chastain. I could have lived without the Paternal Redemption Moment, and I think Sorkin should work with actual directors who do visual things with directing – this suffered from not having a Fincher or Boyle on board.
3. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Well, this has turned out to be controversial. I really enjoyed it, and I don’t think that the character who a lot of people are worried about being redeemed is actually redeemed (he’s still a violent, fairly thoughtless person, and if the audience have decided that he’s redeemed because that’s now in a cause that they think is good, then that’s on the audience…). The best writing I think I’ve seen on the discussion is Alissa Wilkinson at Vox, not just because she also doesn’t think he is redeemed, but because she’s looking for what has gone wrong in the film if a lot of the audience are clearly seeing something the filmmaker did not mean for them to take away.
4. The Post. I am not a Spielberg stan, but I really really enjoyed this. It is a comfy leather sofa of a film to sink into and really enjoy because it knows exactly what it is doing. I loved watching Meryl Streep do her thing – but Bradley Whitford should be worried about how easily he plays a misogynist asshat.
5. Early Man. I am a huge Aardman fan and have been following the adventures of Morph since I was A Smol. This was, I think, a Minor Aardman. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think much of it will stay with me long. It’s unfair to compare it (or anything) to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but I think I prefer Pirates! in an adventure with Scientists (underrated) and Chicken Run too.
6. At the theatre I saw Hamilton again (still wonderful, if you were wondering) and The Nutcracker to close of Christmas. I still think the Grand Pas de Deux is better than the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
(3) Things which I wrote
I went to see the British Museum’s Living with the God’s exhibition, and – a rarity for a BM exhibit – I was not wowed. I wrote about why.
(4) Two pieces from a Year of Wonder
My friend Jamie gave me Clemency Burton-Hill’s book A Year of Wonder for Christmas. It’s both an introduction to a huge swathe of classical music for those who are new to exploring it and a refresher and daily breathing space for those, like me, who already love it. I’ve been enjoying reading the little intro to the piece each day before listening, rediscovering old friends and hearing some new delights. So I thought I’d start picking two of my favourites each month in here.
This month, I’m picking Echorus, by Philip Glass and O Virtus Sapientie Alio Modo by Hildegard von Bingen – and the two ends of the chronological spectrum. I’ve always struggled with getting my ears around the shape of Glass’ music, despite liking some of his soundtrack work (e.g. The Illusionist), but over the last year I feel a bit like the music of Max Richter has let me in the back door and I’m starting to feel it. This piece is really easy on the ear. The Hildegard is early music – and monophonic. It is glorious and soaring and I’m not sure I’d heard anything like it before.
(5) A photo from the month gone by
The British museum, late on a Friday evening, and Hamilton.
(6) In the pile for February
I’m in the middle of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (and boggling that he had ‘to google’ as a verb back in 2002), and then the pile includes Celeste Ng’s first novel, Adam Nicholson’s memoir that revolves around Homer, plus the ongoing TBR pile. At the theatre I’m going to see Julius Caesar (at the Bridge), so prepare for opinions!