Monday, 26 August 2013

private eye cartoons

26 July: A couple returning home to find their house on fire. One saying to the other, 'Well, that's a relief - I'm not going mad after all. I really did leave the oven on.' Rings true.

9 August: Two people at drinks party. Man: 'So how are things at the library?' Woman: 'Oh, you know - quiet...'

Sunday, 25 August 2013

never have your dog stuffed

While on holiday I bought (in Blythswood charity shop in Inverness) Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, by Alan Alda, and subsequently read it. It was very enjoyable. Well written (I didn't realise he'd done so much writing of scripts himself, as well as acting), in a way which wasn't just a detailed run through the CV but which focussed on key episodes and elements through his life, in a way which made you feel like you were getting the full story in a satisfying way which might make you not realise that in fact it was being quite selective.

(It made me think of visiting the Roman site near Shrewsbury and using the audio guide, where I had just that same experience at the end of thinking I had had a very good tour around the site and looking back and realising that I had been led very carefully through it and that there were lots of areas I hadn't walked through at all - but I hadn't felt I was being limited as I went and I didn't feel that I'd missed anything and needed to explore any of the other areas afterwards.)

Quite a lot of it was about his relationship with his parents, especially his mother, who was mentally ill. He's the kind of person you see on telly and think he seems like a nice person, and you hope he is, and the book supported that hope.

The title was a metaphor relating to something that actually happened. His family did have their beloved dog stuffed after it died, but it was badly done, especially the face; but he found that his memory of what the dog was actually like was replaced by his image of the stuffed dog; the preserved memory pushes out and distorts the reality of the original. 'I see now that stuffing your dog is more than what happens when you take a dead body and turn it into a souvenir. It's also what happens when you hold on to any living moment longer than it wants you to. Memory can be a kind of mental taxidermy, trying to hold on to the present after it's become the past.' (p31).

Two more quotes:

It was on that carpet [of that childhood home] that I lay with books from the shelves and, propped on my elbows, read them for hours during long afternoons. The living room shelves must have been decorated with books by the yard, chosen mainly for their bindings. I pulled down dozens of large, beautiful red leather books called the *Congressional Record*. I was delighted to see they were written in dialogue, my favorite form, and I enjoyed them. I especially enjoyed the sarcasm these people used against one another, even after the elaborate show of courtesy to 'the distinguished gentleman from Vermont.' *These* guys were funny.
- p42, Arrow Books, 2007 paperback edition

The difference between listening and pretending to listen [on stage], I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I'm willing to let them change me, something happens between us that's more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues. Like so much of what I learned in the theater, this turned out to be how life works, too.
- p211

Like most books these days which were first published in America, incidentally, it was not Anglicised for the British edition, which I still find annoying.

kathy burke quote

A Facebook thread reminded me of this: Kathy Burke gave one of the best answers I ever saw in one of those celeb questionnaire items in a magazine (Saturday Guardian supplement, probably):
Q: What's the worst thing anyone's ever said to you?
A: 'You look like Kathy Burke. No offence.'

hawk and fisher; sara paretsky

I had it in mind that an interesting crossover genre would be detective/mystery story set in fantasy context. I'm not sure where I heard of Simon R Green's series featuring Hawk and Fisher, two city guards solving crimes in a fantasy city, but I got a three-in-one volume of the first three in the series. I read the first one, Hawk & Fisher, while on holiday just now, and don't feel inclined to read the other two (or, if his other fantasy books are like this - I'd never heard of him, but he's written quite a lot - any other of his books). It was cliche-ridden and the dialogue was poorly written. Another one of those increasing number of books which makes me think, how did this get published and I could do better than this, but in a way which depresses rather than encourages. All well enough to think that, but the fact is that he did in the first instance actually take the trouble to write it and then worked to get it published; I can think all I like that the books I've never written would be better than so many of the books I've read...

The story itself was a classic (in the sense of archetypal, rather than great) locked room, country house mystery, with usual sets of characters, relationships and motives; it could be changed into a non-fantasy version without too much difficulty.

After I read that I started reading Toxic Shock, a VI Warshawski novel by Sara Paretsky, which Bethan had just finished but didn't much like (first of hers she'd read, and also that I was trying), but baled out after a couple of chapters. It was ticking key boxes I didn't like - unsympathetic main character, gritty modern American, plot and setting which didn't interest me - plus the fact that Bethan didn't like it (and didn't say 'but I think you might').

The Hawk & Fisher omnibus was the only novel I brought with me, and I've been avoiding buying too many more books knowing that I'd be carrying them home. I bought a commentary, which I won't be reading now, and Alan Alda's autobiog, which I have now read and of which more later, and The Claw of the Conciliator (second volume in Gene Wolfe's New Sun series), which I thought I'd save for later (but may yet start). So I've started Wind in the Willows, which is in the house, and which I've never read and is on a couple of my 'best books' lists (though reading children's classics as an adult rarely works, I've found), and I can pick it up easily if I don't finish it here.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

orchestra percussionists

Who'd be an orchestra percussionist? So little to do, so many opportunities to mess up.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

the skull beneath the skin

In March I finished The Skull Beneath The Skin by PD James, another author I'm working my way through. It was pretty good, but was hamstrung a bit by the fact that it's hard to make a sensible private detective work in the world of modern policing in a realistic way; hamstrung is unfair, since she presented the difficulty realistically, which I appreciated, and since presenting it unrealistically is what I don't like in other books. But it did make the plot a bit awkward, and might in some ways have been easier to write without the private detective in it at all, with few changes. It was a classic closed community murder mystery.

pegasus bridge

In March I finished Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E Ambrose. I read Band of Brothers after watching the tv series, and have picked up most of his other WWII ones since then, but this was the first of all those others which I've read, which is ridiculous, since I thought Band of Brothers was excellent, and this was excellent too. Covers the planning, recruitment, training for and execution of the first operation on D-Day, the capture of a bridge by glider-borne paratroopers, a lot based on interviews with people involved. It was excellent for showing the detail - the minor incidents and decisions on which much bigger events turn, the ordinariness of the people involved, how there was no telling how people would perform in combat from what they were like in training (or civilian life). They were whittled down, even in the closing weeks having a small number of men removed so that each glider could carry more equipment, and yet when they were boarding the gliders one man deserted at that last moment, running away into the night, and others were paralysed by fear once there. I won't leave it so long till I read another one. (I've noted other things from the book, and might get around to noting them here.)

Friday, 2 August 2013

the amen corner; children of the sun

Courtesy of a school trip we had two theatre outings in a row, both at the National Theatre: The Amen Corner on Tuesday 11 June at the Olivier, and Children Of The Sun on Wednesday 12 June at the Lyttelton.

The Amen Corner was just starting, and in fact we saw it on its press night. We enjoyed it, though a large part of that I'm sure was the gospel singing, of which there was quite a bit in the first half in particular. I'm not sure how engaging it would have been without that, as a play, although the performances were very good. It was a James Baldwin play, set in Harlem in 1953; he wrote it that year and published it the next (according to the programme), his first play, written after his successful first novel. The audience demographic was atypically black for the theatre, contrasting with the Gorky the following night. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, from Secrets and Lies and Without A Trace, was good in the main role, and Sharon D Clarke, who we've seen in the Hackney Empire panto, as her sister; also their main opponent in the church, though her part was very showy so she had the chance to shine. Sharon D Clarke had the best line, which went something like, 'Whenever there's a woman up worrying about something, there's a man somewhere nearby, sleeping.' The play was an interesting cultural and social insight. He wrote it from his own experience. Although it wasn't played upon much, you realised that the black characters' status in society was lowly, but that here in their church it was not and that this was the place where they were the people they really were; and equally, that despite it being church, it was as full of hierarchy and politics, jealousy and deceit, as society in general or any other kind of organisation; but it certainly wasn't anti-church or the faith of the faithful, but sympathetically representing this central part of the black community experience of the time.

Children of the Sun was by Maxim Gorky, and was okay, but one of those revivals which makes you think you can see why it hasn't been revived more often, and while it makes a nice change from Chekhov, and it's good to see plays from periods and regions other than the usual plays from those periods and regions, it suffers by comparison, and tends to confirm why someone has survived in repertoire and others haven't. There are, of course, conversely, other occasions when you can't think why this revived play isn't seen all the time when others which don't seem so good from its time and period are seen (it's often because the latter are lesser plays from a major writer). (We'd previously seen a revival of Summerfolk at the National, which again was very reminiscent of Chekhov; though of course to be fair they were contemporaries writing plays about contemporary Russia.) Again, Children of the Sun was well acted, though I don't remember any performances in particular (and I don't think I recognised anyone), but the plot seemed very cliched. They had a fire and explosion in the lab in the end, which was impressive.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

boys and their lists, girls and their...

I have a lot of lists of things of various kinds which I want to read, see, get or do.
Tut, roll eyes, 'boys and their lists'...
I realised this week how women get away with it: am now rebranding all my lists as 'sets of goals'. Voila!

the laughing policeman

On Sunday 30 June I finished The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, which I thought was very good - good enough, as mentioned earlier, to buy another four volumes at the British Library.

100 must read crime novels

On Saturday 29 June I finished the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide of 100 Must Read Crime Novels. I got this as a birthday present, along with equivalent volumes on SF and Fantasy. It was well put together, with many 'if you like this one, try these' points, and worth reading - although I had picked up the actual bare list somewhere already online. It was particularly helpful to focus the mind on what kind of books I really amn't interested in, however well-recommended they are (and even if they're on lists I have of books I should read...) - modern American (broadly), anything that focuses on the gruesome and 'getting into the mind of the killer' (why?), ones that are more about the detector's personal life - and what kind of things I am, including police procedurals and puzzles. I like the cosy old school where a murder is only something to set in train a plot, not a realistic and awful event. I never try to work out who's done it as I go along, but I like a good satisfying resolution. One of the appeals of crime fiction for many, including me, is that sense of resolution, order out of disorder, and justice being done. As opposed to real life, where the solution to, and motivation for, most murders is depressingly simple, but where also all too often the murder is not caught or convicted.

we have always lived in the castle

I started reading We Have Always Lived In The Castle, by Shirley Jackson, on Saturday 20 July, and finished it the next day. (It wasn't very long.) I quite enjoyed the tone and atmosphere of the narration, but when you thought about the events and situations being described (unreliable - mad - narrator notwithstanding) there were too many things which didn't make sense or add up - not least how glaringly obvious it was, and would have been, that someone else might have been responsible for the pre-book killing; a little more attention to the plot would have gone a long way, the tone wasn't enough by itself.

andy murray and dunblane

On Monday 8 July - the day after Andy Murray won Wimbledon - I posted this on Facebook:
I cried this morning, for the first time in many years. We were talking at work about Andy Murray and I said what I was thinking about most was the mixed feelings there must be in Dunblane of pride in Andy and sorrow over his fellow schoolchildren who never got the chance to grow up and do things with their lives.
'I'm full of surprises.'

I read this related story from the Guardian later that day, and appreciated it. 'Andy Murray's Wimbledon triumph has reclaimed Dunblane for its people: After living through the 1996 primary school massacre, Murray's greatest achievement is giving his town back to its people'