“the world still whirled”

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air

Teach us to sit still
– T.S. Eliot Ash-Wednesday I

“Are you giving anything up for Lent?”
An inescapable question of the season. When I was very small, it was the annual occasion for trying to stop sucking my thumb (ultimately successful) and biting my nails (ultimately unsuccessful), but beyond that Lent didn’t really mean a huge amount to me between pancakes and Good Friday.

The last couple of years, though, I’ve been thinking more about Lent and about giving something up, but I haven’t really. Lent, as I understand it, is about preparation for the weekend of Easter, getting ready to deal with and celebrate what the cross and the resurrection are about. I’ve come to love the reminder in the Ash Wednesday liturgy,“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time to remember that mortality, which is both brutal and kind-of liberating (I’ve always appreciated how, in the character of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, Douglas Adams nailed the imprisonment of endless human life). A time to remember realise why the salvation of Easter is necessary: to overcome the inevitably of death, and to bring joy to life both now and in eternity.

So, for the past couple of years I’ve not felt I’ve had the space to do that well or consistently – particularly because I’ve been travelling with work for large chunks of Lent each year, including over Ash Wednesday. It’s something of an excuse, because you should be able to ‘do Lent’ wherever you are, but I’m something of a creature of habit and in starting something that is emotionally big, I want to make sure I set up a rhythm for it so I actually sustain it across six weeks.

It’s also not an excuse, because the thing that I need to give up, really, is the busy-ness and on-the-move-ness that is a huge feature of my daily life. Travelling is both a feature of that and a bug, because with being away I tend to pile stuff and people in when I’m actually around. It’s something that distracts me from the mundanity of daily life and from learning to live with things that are or feel like lacks in my life – the things that remind me of the imperfections in me and in the world. The things I do and the people I see bring me a lot of joy, but it’s not a sustainable source of joy – not because they’re going to flake out on me, but because chasing after it to the extent that I do is exhausting. I’m often not flying so much as flapping.

The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world; and the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word

No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
T.S. Eliot Ash-Wednesday V

And yet, when I moved churches a few years ago, one of the things I was looking for was local community and presence. I’ve slowly been building it – but it turns out that its really hard to do if you’re running around doing half the nights of the week. Does it say something that it has taken me until the Friday after Ash Wednesday to sit down and write about entering into Lent? Yes – it says I was feeling so tired and rough on Thursday evening, after a work trip sandwiched between two work weeks that also featured two trips out to the ballet, that I just curled up on the sofa with pizza and my housemate and watched the Men’s Snowboard Cross from PyongChang.

But you can’t really give something up while you’re doing it. This year, I actually have – half by fortune and half by design – a gap. I’m home for the start and end of Lent. In fact, I’m only away for two weeks, and one of those is a holiday, not a work trip. And so, I am embarking on Lent, properly, probably for the first time in my adult life.

I am doing two things. First, I’m giving up facebook, which was a wild, spur of the moment decision. I was thinking about things in my life that were time-filler things that I’d do rather than pray or read something reflective – and I thought that facebook might be one of those things. I keep it because there are a few old friends and family members I don’t have other contact details for, but I shilly-shally around on it a lot. So I’m going to try without it. Second, I’m joining in with a small local community to do Wild Lent. This is a taking up, rather than a giving up, because it involves doing things and seeing people, making a conscious effort to be present in a time and place, as well as having solo devotional time. But it’s also also a giving up, because it means that I have to give up rushing around elsewhere and that I have to give up my epic FOMO and fears of my friends forgetting me in order to make a conscious effort to be present in a place for a time and to find true joy in that.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are…
– T.S. Eliot Ash-Wednesday I

In which I wrap up January (again…)

(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!

In which I go to ‘Living with the Gods’

I have membership of the British Museum. It was one of the first things I earmarked for my disposable income (along with coffee and the ballet), because I tend to find that I want to go to all of their exhibitions – and I like working in the members room from time to time.

Last week, I took myself along to their new(ish) exhibition ‘Living with the Gods’ which I was looking forward to because – as you might have noticed – I am into matters of belief. And also, the BM once did one of the best exhibitions I ever saw that engaged with belief (Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman). I had not listened to the radio series associated with it, which it’s probably worth mentioning as it will have affected my thoughts on the exhibition – which are mixed. That said, you shouldn’t have to have done advance prep in order to access an exhibitions major themes and ideas. Things like radio shows, podcasts and books/catalogues should be ‘going deeper bonus material.’ And maybe those things do just that for this exhibition, but – BUT – taken solo, the exhibition is a bit too lightweight.

The exhibition ostensibly seeks to explore, “[the] apparently global phenomenon” of the development of shared narratives of believing and belonging that, “seeks to explain their community’s place in the world, and to reconcile the transience of an individual life with the enduring existence of the group.” The British Museum has a great collection for this, and the opening item is the completely marvellous Lion Man. However…

There are two major problems with the exhibition, from my perspective. The first one is that it treats various elements of belief and various religions in discrete blocks (for want of a better word). You have light, fire, water, and how they feature in different religions, but not how they interact with each other or any connections across religions. This then doesn’t link into the blocks on practice, including prayer, worship rituals and festivals – and they don’t link to each other either. There’s no cross-reference between faiths or sense of how they interact or do different things with the themes picked out. It’s like ‘all religions do these things and they’re all the same.’ Spoiler. They aren’t. It’s infuriating, and you don’t build up a picture of how belief operates in people as an integrated experience.

This is exacerbated by the second problem, which is summed up in the opening question of the exhibition. You walk in. You admire the Lion Man. You turn to enter the rest of the exhibition. And you see this question on a board talking about humanity’s
natural tendency to seek meanings, idols and rituals to form bonds and understanding

Should the human species be defined as wise, homo sapiens, or as believing, homo religiosus?

Way to reveal your basic assumptions about belief, Exhibition Curators. Wisdom and belief are opposites? Well, you and I are clearly going to disagree about that, but also this is a problem for curating an exhibition about belief because it means that you are a whole lot less likely to take the subject with the seriousness it deserves. And indeed, the fundamental tone of the whole exhibition is:

Isn’t belief fascinating
Isn’t belief quaint
Aren’t humans just a little bit silly?

When it moves beyond that, it moves into the dangers and problems of belief, including fear, prejudice, persecution, and violence. And ok, this exists. But, without wanting balance for balance’s sake, there is actually a counterbalance to be presented to this (aesthetics, art, architecture and music, and public service, for example, if you don’t want to get into the value of a sense of meaning to human wellbeing) and it is just… absent.

The penultimate display (on religion leading to conflict etc) ends with this quotation from Einstein:

The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science

But it turns out that this is completely out of the context of anything. It follows religious conflict and comes before art that engages with interfaith conflicts and the refugee crises in the mediterranean world. It’s not a quote that is associated or connected with anything else in the exhibition and there’s nothing around it to help you reflect on that idea. There’s just this odd juxtaposition of Einstein being positive about an aspect of belief and religious strife.

And then you exit through the gift shop.

If you’re a member of the BM: go, and let me know what you think. If you’re not: save your pennies.

in which I wrap up December

(1) Things which I have read.
1. Go Went Gone– Jenny Erpenbeck. I read three of Erpenbeck’s novels last year, and this may have been my favourite (though there is something more haunting about Visitation). It’s about the refugee crisis in Germany, but its made richer by the way its considerations of borders and ‘home’ is narrated by a retired classicist, who has spent a career translating words and ideas across time and space and yet is clueless about the present, and who experienced the end of the Cold War from the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.
2. The Divine Dance – Richard Rohr. This is the first Rohr I’ve read all the way through, and I’m in the mixed opinions camp. I liked a lot, thought some of it wise and some of it pushing his argument a bit, and oh boy am over everything being written like it’s an aphorism.
3. The Flying Classroom – Erich Kästner. This was a birthday present from a friend, and a lovely pre-Christmas read. It’s just delightful.
4. The Santaland Diaries – David Sedaris. Completely the opposite kind of a pre-Christmas read to the Kästner. I love Sedaris’ story of being a Macy’s elf, but nothing else in the rest of the collection was anything I’d rate as Peak Sedaris.
5. The Vegetarian – Han Kang. I read Human Acts at the end of 2016 and loved it, so it was nice to finally get to this earlier novel. I don’t think I liked it quite as much – but then, I would be more likely to be drawn to a novel about the trauma of revolution. However, The Vegetarian had the same magnetic kind of pull and delicate precision and was a lovely read.
6. Dogs at the Perimeter – Madeleine Thien. Another case of going back to read an earlier novel by an author who wrote a book I loved in 2016. I didn’t go into this expecting to love it half as much as Do Not Say We Have Nothing, but loving anything half that much would still be pretty good for most books. I picked this up on the way back from Cambodia, and was really glad to be reading it after the trip and after learning more about the Khmer Rouge and the country as that definitely made it easier to pick my way through the fragments of memory and history that are the heart of this book. It’s really good – even if a lesser beast than Do Not Say…
7. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré. Ahhh, the Christmas holiday, a good time for re-reading old favourites. It had been a while since I read it and there was a lot I’d forgotten, especially snark about Percy Alleline. It was so much fun to revisit it (though I remain convinced that Benedict Cumberbatch is not and never will be Peter Guillem).
8. HHhH – Laurent Binet. This has been on my shelf for actual years: I finally got around to it and I loved it. I was actually glad, to some degree, to have read this after having seen the film Anthropoid (which was a surprising joy in 2016) because, it meant I could place the story of the novel within a (very) rough knowledge of the history, and could relax into what Binet was doing with the dissection of historical fiction. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction about the period of history I know best, and Binet skewers some of the reasons why. Smart-arse.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
1. Murder on the Orient Express: super-glossy, snowy ‘it’s Christmas and I’m winding down’ entertainment. I enjoyed it a lot, but I don’t think it’s fantastically great.
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi: I am team Pro-Last Jedi and also Team Sick of the way the converation about The Last Jedi is going on, because it loses an interesting and fair critical conversation in a swathe of nonsense.
3. Pitch Perfect 3: an utterly pointless entry in a series that had already seen a significant drop-off. This was total bobbins and yet I still love the friendship between these lunatics and the facts that for once in a film the boys get to be just the love interests. One of the ways we’ll know we’ve achieved gender equality in films will be when women-led films can be as daft as some of the truly terrible male-led films without jeopardising the careers of the women involved or casting doubt on the idea that women-led films aren’t good.
4. Hamilton: breaking out of the cinema and into the theatre, I finally, finally, got to see Hamilton and now I can die happy. Obviously I would die even happier if I could have a time machine and go back and see the original Broadway cast too, but the London edition is smashingly good, especially Jamael Westman as A. Ham.

(3) Things which I wrote
My favourite books of the year, and my favourite films of the year.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I was in Leipzig for a few days in December for some Christmas Market time and a good dose of Bach.

We also went to Dresden for a day and saw the stunningly rebuilt Frauenkirche

And finally, I was in Cornwall for Christmas and we had one clear day

(5) In the pile for January
So many things. I may already be giving up on London Book Club’s January Book (The Lives of Others), but I have Little Fires Everywhere, The Patriots, The 7th Function of Language and Godel, Escher, Bach in the TBR pile, so I think I’ll be fine.

Read Harder, the return of the list

At the beginning of the year, I looked back at the stats on the books I’d read last year and thought about the “Read Harder” challenge. I never particularly wanted to determinedly complete the challenge – I don’t enjoy choosing books that way at all and will end up not reading if I do: but I did say I’d use it as a prompt, and I think it’s a fairly good yardstick for how widely I’m reading.

Over the past year I’ve read 73 books. 34 were by women, and one was co-written by a woman (though, I admit I bought it because of the man, Neal Stephenson). 18 were not by white authors, and a further 8 translations of various white european authors. Of those 18, 9 were by women, and of the 8, 5 were by women (admittedly, 3 of those by one author – Jenny Erpenbeck).

Of the Read Harder list, these are the ones I had a pile of candidates for:

  • Read a debut novel.
  • Read a fantasy novel.
  • Read a book about war.
  • Read a book you’ve read before.
  • Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of colour.

My highlights are all in this review of the year

and theses are the ones I totally failed in:

  • Read a book about books.
  • Read a nonfiction book about technology (bought one, didn’t read it yet…).
  • Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country (The Handmaid’s Tale has not been challenged in my country.
  • Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey (I find the definition of this hard though, and it’s possible others might put some of what I read into this category).
  • Read a collection of stories by a woman (I own at least two, but I’m really bad at reading short stories).
  • Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love (I did buy Baudrillard, and read about half a dozen stanzas…).

I’m open to a new challenge to use as a yardstick for next year. Suggestions, please.

films I have loved in 2017

Well, now I have (probably) completed my new-film viewing for 2017, so I am free to make the list of my favourite films of the year (I opted to save writing this list until after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi in both hope and nervousness). I’ve determinedly limited myself to a top ten – but in no particular order, as I don’t feel that I can refine them that clearly. I’ve also put in (i) some honourable mentions, because I’m a cheat, and (iii) a couple of films to which I gave a resounding pfffft.

The Top Ten
* A Monster Calls. J.A. Bayona’s film of Patrick Ness’s story is a beautiful, painful real film in which the fantasy story enables the central character to cope with the real story. I’d never read the book, but I knew the premise, a teenage boy whose mother is dying from cancer – and yet I was. not. ready. I bawled. I was at a screening with three teenage girls who, by the end of the film, were sobbing vocally in each others’ arms – and were given the end of a pack of tissues by the guy sitting in front of me as he left the cinema. There are few storytellers better at helping teens navigate complex emotions than Ness, and Bayona brought this to life magically.
* Logan. Finally, Wolverine gets great, deep, story told phenomenally well. The X-Men movies were my ‘first’ introduction to comic books (I started reading because I wanted more of the stories and the background) and it was really nice to see a film in this world go to the kinds of complicated places I want a film to go, because yeah, in the world we live in what happened to those kids would happen. It was dark and violent, but necessarily so. And I’ve been listening to Johnny Cash ever since.
* Hidden Figures. A lesson in how to tell a serious story with wit, verve and affection, this film was an utter, utter joy. My highlight: watching Mahershala Ali apologising to Taraji P Henson for underestimating her. I want to watch it in a triple bill with The Dish and Apollo 13.
* Dunkirk. I’d heard incredibly little about it until I saw the trailer, and I was really ready to be sceptical about it. And then I was completely swept away. It was huge, literally – I went to see it in 70mm Imax at the BFI and got neck-ache following the planes – and pitched its intensity really well (helped significantly by Hans Zimmer’s ticking score). It was really well grounded by Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, who anchored the story about the three young soldiers on the beach. And yes, I fell hard for the moment that Elgar’s Nimrod swells through the score as Branagh watches the horizon through his binoculars…
* A Ghost Story. I’d loved David Lowery’s previous film with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, Ain’t Them Body Saints, so I was looking forward to this, despite trying to navigate the various tensions and emotions of watching Casey Affleck in anything nowadays. This was delicate yet tough, eerie yet soothing, and completely absorbing. I’m fascinated by time, so this was one for me.
* God’s Own Country. This was a complete surprise to me, and completely astonishing. It really captures the hardness of working a small family farm in Britain today, but also some of the good and the value of this life – plus the absolute beauty of Yorkshire and a suprising and delightful love story. The most moving scene for me comes when Johnny runs into an old school friend, home from university for the holiday, in the pub – and her complete inability to understand what his life is like. The ending is *kisses fingers* perfect.
* Blade Runner 2049. This was one that could have gone terribly wrong, but didn’t, and I was terribly worried about it despite it being directed by Denis – Arrival – Villeneuve. I like the original a lot, but was not a massive, invested, fan (I’d only seen it twice before – the original and the director’s final cut) and it felt like something that could be completely unnecessary. After seeing it I still feel like more would be unecessary, and I’m worried that Ridley Scott will take this where the Alien world is going – but I loved this as a ‘20 years later…’ standalone, going deeper into what it means to be human.
* Death of Stalin. Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop is an all time favourite of mine, so I was really ready for his take on Russia in this, the time of our return to the Cold War. I thought it pitched it’s tone really well – utterly hilarious and yet simultaneously shocked at the utter self-obsessed nonsense of the men in charge and the consequence of this on the people at large. In addition, I am extremely here for films in which Jason Isaacs is ruggedly, cursingly, uniformed (and northern) and Simon Russell Beale finally gets a screen role worthy of his greatness.
* Song to Song. I am an unapologetic, ongoing, Terrence Malick fan, and I really liked his latest. It’s not just that I got a lot out of it and thought it was really good but didn’t have a fond affection for it, like Knight of Cups – I actively enjoyed and have very fond feelings about this. I think it’s because it’s about a young woman trying to work out her life, and I’m – one of those, so it spoke to me.
* Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Not quite the last seen (because I took myself off to see Pitch Perfect 3: please pitching stop embarrasing us all the day after this) – but nearly. I don’t quite feel that I’ve got enough distance on this before adding it to my top ten list – and yet I can’t imagine leaving it off (and not just because in my nightmares Oscar Isaac looks at me like I’ve disappointed him). I didn’t grow up on Star Wars, and I’ve only come to be a fan (rather than a person who has seen the films) with The Force Awakens and Rogue One. So for me, TLJ feels like a leap forward in exploring the characters from where TFA and allowing that to drive the story. My least favourite parts involved Luke, Rey and Ben, because I find Jedi-religion quite quite dull and what I really like is Space Politicking and Battles. My most favourite parts involved Rose and Finn being a joy and delight and sunshine to the world, and the way Johnson handled the Dameron – Holdo storyline without making me hate Poe or casually making Holdo a woman who’s a terrible leader in order to keep my affection for Poe. I was so scared about how that plot would play out, and I really felt they landed it.

Honourable menions:
T2: Trainspotting and Paddington 2 (because both could have gone so terribly wrong and ruined the memories of the originals)
Baby Driver (even though I think Kevin Spacey was in a different, more parodic film, and now watching Spacey with Baby is creee-py); King Arthur (because I love gloriously silly Guy Ritchie mythy nonsense); Thor Ragnarock (because it was a raucous good time, and I’ve never wanted to be part of a revolution led by a rock monster, but now I do, and also VALKYRIE); Wonder Woman (despite it apparently needing the parting words of a Guy Called Steve to save the day); My Cousin Rachel (because un-resolution never felt so infuriatingly unsatisfying and yet intellectually satisfying); The Killing of a Sacred Deer (weird yet wonderful); Gifted and Goodbye Christopher Robin (both could have been so twee, wasn’t) Silence (painful, remarkable, a worthy adaptation of the book); A Quiet Passion (because I was expecting the beauty and the pain but not the humour) and The Big Sick (a rom-com that had both rom and com, staggeringly).

Films I missed but really want to see:
Between travel and busy-ness, these are a few of the films I missed, but really want to catch.
* Call me by Your Name
* Moonlight
* Ingrid Goes West
* Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
* Lady Macbeth
* Personal Shopper

Disappointments:
Detroit. I really really wanted to like this, because Kathryn Bigelow, at her socio-political best (Zero Dark Thirty) can make you complicit in the uncomfortable stories she tells, and I thought it could be really effective in this – but I just felt like it kept me at a distance from the abuse the cops wreaked on their prisoners, in a way that made me feel uncomfortable about watching.
La La Land. Kill it. No really. I truly, deeply LOATHE this film. If I hadn’t been sat in the middle of the row in a busy cinema I would have walked out at the point at which Ryan Gosling mansplains jazz to Emma Stone and says sadly, “And it’s dying.” NO IT ISN’T. Jazz does not need Ryan Gosling to save it from John Legend. Also, that tinkly-tonk, plinkety-piano Gosling plays is NOT JAZZ. It’s elevator music. The only reason I ever thought Emma Stone’s character actually HAD a character is because Emma Stone is a seriously good actress hiding the vacuum that lurking is beneath the lines she has been given. Make it go away.

books I have loved in 2017

It is the season… for best of lists. I’m starting this in mid-December, and yet with ten days of holiday to go before the end of the year there remains the potential for books to be added. I read three books after I wrote 2016’s list, and Half of a Yellow Sun should be added to that list, because it is truly wonderful and rich. As ever, it’s not just stuff that was published this year, it’s just the stuff that I’ve read and enjoyed.

The book of the year
The Power – Naomi Alderman. Perhaps an obvious choice given the prizes, but this book is truly phenomenal. I love the way it takes and tracks a premise, looking at how a situation evolves in the spheres of politics, religion, media and crime, without sacrificing character, relationship and story to the idea. And what an idea. A guy I lent my copy to said he’d enjoyed reading it, that it had, ‘an interesting premise.’ I don’t know a woman who has read this book who hasn’t felt a deep affinity with it. A few of my friends called an emergency book club dinner because we needed to unload emotions and thoughts about it. The thing, I think, that I love most about it is the pain of watching people take decisions or do things that they may not want to because the alternative, potentially more ‘moral’ course has consequences beyond bearing. As we hit the end of 2017 in the midst of #MeToo The Power remains essential reading – and men should think long and hard about why women love it so much.

The ones I really loved
The Name of the Wind / A Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss. I don’t read a huge amount of high fantasy, but I do love it when I fall into a world. I picked this up when it was anounced that Lin-Manuel Miranda was working on the screen adaptation of this series and a friend of mine recommended them. They’re great for travel.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi. It was launched in a blaze and then has weirdly seemed to fade from public view, inexplicably overlooked on lists all over the place. I loved the way the story moved from generation to generation to provide a snapshot of how slavery has affected people over time, and the writing generally

Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro. The one I picked up after Ishiguro (deservedly) won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the one that finally made me realise just how much I enjoy his work, both in style and theme.

The Last Days of New Paris – China Meiville. Gloriously weird surrealism from the master of the gloriously weird. Slim, but not slight.

Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang. The most marvellous collection of richly intelligent, thought provoking short stories. It contains the short that became Arrival, and that’s not even the best of them. The ones that got to me were Hell is the Absence of God and Tower of Babylon, a beautiful variation on the Babel story.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. ’Twas the year for re-writings of ancient Greek myths, and this , an updating of Antigone, was absolutely the pick of the bunch. It was a great variation on the themes of the myth and an eye-opening picture of radicalisation and jihad.

Legacy of Spies– John Le Carré. He’s still got it, and I went straight to my parents bookshelf and ran off with their copy of The Spy who Came in from the Cold to refresh myself. I love the way that it gives a different angle of on the classic story – and for once, the ‘narrating of history’ works as a means of storytelling.

Go Went Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck. I’ve read all of Erpenbeck’s books this year and she’s a new fave. This is the most recent and it’s really wonderful. It’s about the immigration crisis in Germany and it’s layered with a narrative voiced by a man who grew up in East Germany and experienced reunification, adding intruguing depth to its discussion of borders, place and the idea of home.

Some great non-fiction
Gone – Min Kym. The story of a relationship between a violinist and her violin, and the effects of the theft of that violin on the violinist. It’s fascinating and provides a great insight into musicians, their art and its craft.

The Liturgy of the Ordinary – Tish Harrison Warren. A book that is both deeply reflective about the things that matter and deeply helpful about how you can make changes in your life in response – and trust me, very few do both well.

A Big Fat Pfffft
My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent. The raves for this were everywhere this autum. I got it from the library and read it in an afternoon. Once I got going, I kept going because I knew if I put it down I’d never pick it up again. It’s overwrought and overhyped, and should be sent away to do some growing up.

In which I wrap up November

(1) Things which I have read.
You’d almost not know that I was on holiday for a week that I only read three books… but I did do a lot of wandering around ancient temples and napping. Also, one of these books was nearly 700 pages and took some thinking about.

That book was Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, a behemoth of a book about survelliance and resistance which made my head spin in a really good way. It took my brain some work to keep up with it. I simultaneously loved it, and agreed with the nice Guardian reviewer who thought it could have used a bit of cutting and tightening (even if I can’t work out where). Either way, I’m grateful for Harkaway and his brain.

I moved on from Harkaway to Cornwell-under-a-pseudonym-Senior, John Le Carré and The Mission Song, which I’ve had for a while because a spy story about the West’s ejit-witted engagement in African politics seemed like my kind of jam. I enjoyed it a lot, and the thoughts on translation and immigration are fascinating, but I would classify it as a minor post-Wall Le Carré.

Finally I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, which was my purchase after Ishiguro won the Nobel and was London Book Club’s November choice. I loved it. I think Ishiguro is an author I’ve grown into: I remember reading Remains of the Day and Once Were Orphans in my early twenties and liking them, but missing something. Never Let Me Go was the first I really grasped at, and then The Blind Giant impressed me enormously and has really stayed with me. I’m now in a ‘want to read everything he’s ever written’ place because I love how he writes about perspective and memory and history. The two I’ve read about Japan and the war – this, and A Pale View of Hills are both fascinating about a country that seems to struggle to deal with its twentieth century history.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Let’s embrace two completely contrasting films: The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Paddington 2. Yes. Those were my November choices. Killing of a Sacred Deer was maybe one of the weirdest films I have ever seen and yet I am really really glad I saw it even if ‘enjoyed’ is not quite the word. I’m pretty sure that Colin Farrell should work with Yorgos Lanthimos on the regular, because he does some of his very best (non-In Bruges) work with him.

Then Paddington 2. Which is like being actually hugged by Paddington. People keep asking me if it’s as good as the first one, which, no it’s not, but really – what is? It’s delightful and charming and not at all sappy. There’s a hot air balloon and steam trains and Brendan Gleeson. Honestly, what more do you want. Other than to be literally hugged by Paddington.

(3) Things which I wrote
I made the foolish mistake of going on a tour visit to a floating visit in Phnom Penh. I hated it. And myself.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I got to go to Angkor Wat, which was truly impressive. But I liked the Angkor Thom complex even more.

(5) In the pile for Decemnber
I’m currenly reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, which I am savouring and think – so far – is completely brilliant. At 70 pages in, I think it’s also the most accessible. I have a very large TBR pile, and I’m working out what to take home for Christmas reading. Maybe The Loney and a few others in a solid pile in the bottom of the suitcase. I’m also hoping for Emily Wilson’s Odyssey translation for Christmas (HINTPARENTHINT). In the cinema I will obviously be going to see Star Wars and sobbing into a large pile of tissues, and probaby Pitch Perfect 3 even though I assume they are on a sliding decline.

in which I misplace my money, my anger, and whatever good sense I thought I had in the beginning.

I’m sitting in a restaurant on a river that flows into the Tonle Sap lake eating pringles and drinking coke and I’m cross. I just opted not to pay $5 for a trip in a little boat into a mango grove in favour of waiting here for an hour. I didn’t bring my book – kindle – because it said it was going to rain, and IMO, the less damp tech the better. Hence the pringles and coke.

It is actually raining.

The ‘on’ is literal, by the way: the restaurant is on stilts in the river. I’m in the village of Kompong Pluck, one of Cambodia’s floating villages. I came with an outfit called Bluebird tours (not that they’re any better or any worse than any other tour company offering these trips). And yes, I should have known better.

There are about 28 people on my particular boat. We’re one boat of about umpteen billion, it feels like, but even without exaggeration the numbers must be heading well past 50. The village is home to around 800 families who live off the lake and make their living off the lake: from fishing and from tourism. In front of me, alongside the restaurant is a crocodile pen full of small crocs. Somewhere in another universe those crocs are a part of a revenge narrative against the tourists who come here. Especially for the ones who right now are climbing on the roof of their pen taking photos of them. There’s at least one tourist per family. Imagine if each family had a crocodile…

And yes, I should have known better.

A sizeable chunk of my group are cross because the tour company didn’t say it would be an extra $5 for the small boat through the mangoes. Some paid it and went anyway, rather than sit around. I nearly did. As giving the people my custom goes I’m not sure if boat trips or globally recognised food stuff comes out ahead. I’m dry and not hungry, though. And I’ve enabled my cross-ness about the whole trip to be funneled into self-righteousness and cross-ness about the extra charge.

And yes, I should have known better.

It’s an ‘eco-tourism project’ they say. Well that’s as may be. I have no idea what the money goes towards and far be it for me to decry villagers making money off the bajillion people who want to come and see how they live. If capitalism’s going to capitalise, you might as well try and get a bit. But I’m not sure how 50+ boats churning gasoline bringing around 1000 people a day (with their tours often giving them their own plastic water bottles) is eco. I might have felt better doing it solo, except, no I wouldn’t, I’d have had the same experience in the village plus paying a tuk-tuk driver $20. More people would have benefitted from my poor decision-making, I suppose.

I felt my desire to see something different and take some photos and allowed it to let me conveniently overlooked everything I know about how to visit people and places well. It’s like Pub Street, the heaving heart of Siem Reap’s tourism, but in people’s homes. I’m not saying there couldn’t be a way to enable people see these villages well. But this isn’t it.

I didn’t think it would be picturesque, I didn’t even really kid myself that $20 to an eco-tourism project would change a corner of the world, but I also didn’t think about how much I would hate the experience and myself for putting me through it.

Over here the past few years I’ve had the privilege of seeing places off the tourist tracks, or on the shadier side of the tracks. Of meeting the people who live their lives in these places, listening to them, learning from them, often being fed and watered by them. The difference between that joy and this is a chasm. It’s a bit like looking into the abyss, only it’s just you looking back.

So I’m cross with the tour company, cross with the system, cross with everyone else on this damn boat. But mostly, I’m cross with me.

And yes, I should have known better. Asked more questions. Chosen differently. Next time I get the choice, I promise…

In which I wrap up October

(1) Things which I have read.
1. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson. Her first. Cold and crystal, but never tipping over the edge into bleak. It feels slighter than the trio that have followed, but definitely marks out a voice.
2. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter. I both enjoyed and didn’t enjoy this. It was easy to read and both language and form were poetic, but it didn’t feel like there was a lot to it beyond that. It’s not proved memorable.
3. We were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nahisi Coates. The very opposite of unmemorable. The essays in this collection weren’t new to me – it turns out I have actually been reading Coates for that long, but it was nice to revisit the earlier ones in particular and to read his reflections of the eight years of Obama’s presidency and his own writing career. A collection worth keeping.
4. The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso. London Book Club’s book last month, this was a surprising treat. I picked it up when it was on the Bailey’s longlist, and I think it was better than at least one of the shortlisted books last year. It’s the story of two old ladies living in Constantia in Cape Town: one white, one black. It’s very sharply observed, without being cruel, and quite funny at times. Would definitely recommend.
5. Acceptance – Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been reading the Southern Reach trilogy off and on over the last 18 months, and it ended with a bit of a whimper of weird. The first, Annihilation, was super-tight and super-creepy.This was definitely not the former and lapsed from the second as it either tried or didn’t try (I’m really not clear which) to resolve things.
6. My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent. What should you do on a Sunday afternoon? You should read the latest critical darling, a novel about incest and abuse on the Northern California coast. That I read it in an afternoon tells you what you need to know about it’s readability. That I described it as ‘Twilight for Grownups’ on twitter tells you what you need to know I think about its quality. I’m glad I got it out of the library. Some of the descriptions – particularly of the landscape – are beautiful (I would like to spend time in Mendocino, but with less horrible people), but in terms of the story, it’s a bit like Holden Caulfield grew up and wrote a novel he thought was transgressive and unphoney. And like Holden Caulfield, I want to slap it with a wet fish and tell it to grow up.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
1. Goodbye Christopher Robin. I knew that the Winnie the Pooh books had a dark back story, but now I am personally traumatised and feeling guilty for loving the story so much. Domnhall Gleeson is particularly great as AA Milne, and I personally found the depiction of his friendship with EH Shepherd a highlight – especially the moment with the balloons.
2. Blade Runner 2049. I was deeply sceptical of this when it was announced, and only marginally less so after falling in love with Denis Villenueve’s Arrival last year. I really really enjoyed 2049 though: it’s bigger and messier than Blade Runner but still rich and oh-so-beautiful. And one of the films in which Ryan Gosling truly works.
3. Death of Stalin. Walks a beautiful tightrope between outrageously funny and outraged that grown men could be so nonsensically self-involved and casual with so many people’s lives. There were moments when my cinema audience didn’t know if it was ok to laugh. And oh, it was so good to see Simon Russell Beale be truly great on a cinema screen.
4. The Party. As I left the cinema, I heard a guy say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Poor pumpkin. I quite like a film that is shorter than my commute to and from the cinema (cineworld thinks only people living in the Docklands like certain kinds of film – no, busters, we all just schlep their to not miss them!) I also quite like a film that is sharp, funny, equally cruel and yet sympathetic to everyone – even the asshat banker. It knows exactly what it wanted to do and did it.
5. Thor Ragnarock. “I tried to start a revolution but I didn’t print enough pamphlets.” From everyone’s new favourite Rock monster, to Valkyrie, to Loki and Thor doing their best Crowley and Aziriphale on the streets of New York, newest Thor is a technicolour delight. I missed Jane and Darcy, because I love them, but without really missing them at all. Also, there’s a spot of Sam Neill and that is never a bad.
6. Follies. To the National Theatre to see the much-raved about Follies production and I am here to rave about it. I’d never seen it before, so I didn’t know it, and the story does pack a punch done well – and oh do Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast in particular do it well. Too Many Mornings fair broke my heart.
7. Dreamers Ever Leave You. The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada took over a warehouse in the docklands and put on a performance that lasted all of 45 minutes, but was utterly different and compelling. It had three ‘stages’ (floor mats) and the smallish audience could just wander around the space while the performance happened. It was fascinating. Some people just sat and watched a stage, some moved slowly between them, some (me) – fuelled by FOMO – moved around fairly a lot. You could take photos and short films, and a lot of people did, but never in a way that was intrusive or that seemed to be taking away from them watching the dancers. And the dancers, oh my. You try standing a foot away from Frankie Hayward or Ryoichi Hirano while they dance. It’s incredible to be that close and see what they do and how intense it is. I could have stayed for all three of that evenings shows and each each stage once through. But I think the point was in the having to leave and being left as you and the dancers moved between them.

(3) Things which I wrote
Just this, on memory, truth and identity in Blade Runner

(4) A photo from the month gone by
A few, actually, from Dreamers Ever Leave You.

(5) In the pile for November
I’m packing for a trip – work and holiday- so I’m still working out what to take on dead tree to go with the kindle. I am planning to read The Brothers Karamazov, finally, and potentially re-read In the Light of What we Know. An Artist of the Floating World is our book club pick: getting our Ishiguro on after his Nobel win. The new Nick Harkaway novel, Gnomon, comes out early in the month, and I’m a huge fan so I’ll be reading that too. Beyond that… who knows.

In which I muse on memory in Blade Runner 2049

maybe one day you’ll be a real boy…

(Warning, includes spoilery discussion of Blade Runner 2049)

I was sitting in the London Review of Books’ cafe at the weekend (recommended), reading the latest edition of the Paris Review. It includes a conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis about the way they identify and write their stories. It was very engaging, and my attention was caught by this comment from Gladwell at the very end:

Much of what all of us believe is not true. I don’t mean that in the gross macro way. I mean it in a very, very micro way – that when someone tells you a story about something that happened to them or that they observed, many of the details are likely to be erroneous… Its not that people are lying to you, it’s just that much of what’s in our heads is not accurate.

Factually, what he’s saying is correct: people remember and recount things in ways that are objectively not 100% true. Historians learn this in their historian nappy-wearing days, being taught to critique sources for bias. However, Gladwell seems to be saying that journalists need to learn this and correct for it, to avoid errors. What he doesn’t seem to be questioning is the idea that you can correct for it and that you can get to objective truth.

insert loud wah-aah noise here

Yeah. No.
Funnily enough, I incline towards a belief in the existence of objective truth (I am a Christian after all), I just also incline away from the belief that humans can fully access it. Limited perspective and a lack of omniscience would appear to rule it out. I mean, you can try to correct for your own and other people’s bias, and as a historian and journalist, and in an attempt to be a decent human you probably should. But you can’t get out of subjectivity entirely. And while at times, deliberate manipulation is often at play in the muddying of the waters, so – as Gladwell points out – is subjective, limited memory.

And memory becomes reality, because it is what we are told, come to believe and know happened. And what we tell others, who weave it into their versions of the world.

This struck me, I think, because the previous night I’d trotted off to the cinema to see Blade Runner 2049, in which a memory plays a starring thematic role. K has a recurring memory of being a small boy, treasuring and hiding a wooden horse. In the course of events he comes to learn that this memory is a memory that was ‘born, not made’ – born, as in stemming from a real, live moment, rather than created in an imaginarium and implanted into his programming. When he discovers, late in the film, that while it is a felt memory, not a made one, it is not his, it comes as a punch in the gut – to him and (if you’re like me) to the viewer.

One of the concerns of the Blade Runner films is what makes a human human, as opposed to a replicant. One of the plot points of 2049 is the existence of two matching DNA records, ostensibly of a boy who lives and a girl who dies – but ultimately, it turns out, of a girl who lives and a boy who never did.

However, here’s my thesis: by K possessing and owning the memory, recognising and feeling its ‘realness’ in his being and identity, the boy who never lived does. K becomes a ‘real boy’, humanity incarnated out of his memory.

The character of Anna is clearly a messianic figure (best discussion of this I’ve read so far: Alissa Wilkinson at Vox), and the memory comes from her. Both in the sense that it is her memory, but also into the sense that she is the person who gives him the understanding of its truth in the moment that changes him so dramatically that his his baseline is miles off. Whatever else Anna does or becomes in the world of Blade Runner (and I do not want more sequels), she has given K the gift of being able to know his true humanity. Call it grace, if you like.

in which I wrap up September

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
A long weekend in Cornwall this month = quality reading time. I got on the train armed with the then very new John Le Carré, A Legacy of Spies and then got off the other end with it finished and handed it straight over to my father. It got left behind with my mother, because the family that reads together has something to talk about over Sunday dinner. I really enjoyed it, by the way: kind of a spy ghost archaeology. Peter Guillem has long been my sneaky fave of the Smiley books, so his central role was a treat for me. I went straight to my dad’s shelves and grabbed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for a re-read. It is still great, btw.

I also read:
* Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf. My first Woolf. It pays to put aside a chunk of time to read this, I found, so that you can get into the style. I enjoyed it fine, but it didn’t make me want to read more Woolf really, beause it feels so self-involved. I can easily imagine it having rocked my world if I’d read it in my late teens or early twenties.
* Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life – Phileena Heuertz. This month’s reflective book. I enjoyed it fine, but it didn’t quite give me what I wanted. I wanted something that would give me more on the hows of contemplative practice, what this gave me was something of the whys of its relevance to modern life and Christianity – which I’m already on board with.
* Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue. Tennis and imperialism in post-modern fiction? Sounds like my jam, no? And to some extent it was. I think it suffered though from the fact that I wanted so much to be blown away by it, and it didn’t quite do that. It was an inteteresting way to explore Spanish imperialism, though, and I warmed up to it more and more as I went on.
* Crosstalk – Connie Willis. September’s London Book Club choice turned out to be fluffy sci-fi chick lit. It was fun to read, but not a lot to talk about. I wished it had properly been about the technology that kicked off its plot, but it wasn’t so… Holiday reading, for sure.
* Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck. I enjoyed Erpenbeck’s End of Days earlier this year, but I really really enjoyed this. A beautiful look at a century of turbulence and trauma, that hides yet cracks open pain through an almost mythical kind of story of a place.
* The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss. I’d forgotten I had this, but it was really nice to revisit a little bit of the world of the Kingkiller Chronicles
* The Auschwitz Violin – Maria Àngels Anglada. In the month of reading through a lot of the slimmer books on my shelf, I finally read this (I’ve had it for about five years). I enjoyed the way that it took a look at the trauma of the holocaust through a particular lens, and I thought it worked really well at exploring how art and engaging in a craft can hold reality at bay for a little for a little while. I’m also grateful that it knew exactly how long it needed to be and didn’t overstretch that.
* Never Mind – Edward St Aubyn. Another finally – I’ve had this for a couple of years now, waiting for me to get myself to the Patrick Melrose series. One of the blurbs referenced A Dance to the Music of Time (which I love) but this was much nastier: both the characters and the author’s dispassionate exposure of their nastiness. I enjoyed it very much, and promptly went out and bought the rest – in a one volume edition which makes a mockery of the fact that individually they are perfet commute size.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Two cinema outings this month: one good, one very very good.
The first was Wind River, which I enjoyed more in watching than I think it probably deserves, as a film about missing Native American women focused thorugh a white man… It was definitely a good intro to an issue if you’re social-justice-ly blind, and made me feel very very cold, but could have been so much more.
On the subject of so much more, God’s Own Country is so much more than the sum of its synopsis: “a romantic drama in which a young man struggling with both his sexuality and the challenges of running the family sheep and cattle farm falls in love with Romanian migrant worker engaged for the lambing season” (courtesy of the BBFC). This film is So Yorkshire that it hurts. It’s bleak, beautiful, real and hopeful all at the same time, and in its ending completely and delightfully upended my expectations. It made me very happy.

(3) Things which I wrote
Public writing was not a thing that happened this month.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
Home is where this beach is.

 

(5) In the pile for October
I’m writing this in October, so I’ve already seen one of the things I’m waiting for, Blade Runner 2049. I’m also screamingly excited to see The Death of Stalin and Follies at the National Theatre.
In the book pile are the new Ta-Nehisi Coates collection, We were eight years in power and at least the next Patrick Melrose novel. I’m not quite sure what else I’m feeling up for reading right now… I want to re-read In the Light of What We Know but I’m saving it for a trip I’m going on in November.