March reads 2017

I only finished two books this month, which is the least I’ve read in a very long time. On Friday evening I considered pushing through my exhaustion to read another one because two ‘wasn’t enough for someone who has a book blog’, then I realised I was being an idiot. I honestly believe in reading on whim, and it’s not the amount but that you want to read and enjoy what you’re reading. But social perceptions still managed to creep in. I knew I’d be reading a lot less this month with a new job so actually I’m pleased I managed to read something.

the handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (novel)

It’s been 15 years since I last read this, and sometimes old favourites don’t remain favourites when you re-read them in a different time / context, but I still absolutely love it (which is good because I have Offred tattooed on me). I particularly like that you see how the society of the novel came to be, which you don’t normally get in most dystopian fiction. And, even though it was written in the 80s and has a number of references to concerns at that time, it has the kind of timeless quality that great fiction has. Atwood is really good at placing her stories within reach of the present (and everything in the book has happened, or is happening, somewhere), and that hasn’t changed, unfortunately given the plot, in the thirty years since.

the things we thought we knewThe Things We Thought We knew by Mahsuda Snaith (novel)

This wasn’t for me. Though I thought the characters and environment were well-drawn, it wasn’t my kind of writing style and I ended up getting annoyed with the representation of someone with chronic pain. Full review here.

Also on the blog this month:

A review of Northern Ballet’s Casanova

Currently reading: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Absolutely loving this so far.

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March screentime 2017

I started a new job this month and I’ve been too knackered in the evenings to do much more than lie back on the sofa and stick the tv on. So, many things watched, very little read (as you’ll see when I do my reading wrap-up…)

moonlightMoonlight (2016) film, cinema

This is one of those films made to be seen in a cinema – the use of light and colour is best on a big screen. I can absolutely see why it won Best Picture; it’s beautifully crafted in the way it is shot and lit, the acting is brilliant, and it has powerful themes of (sexual and general) identity, masculinity, and mother figures and father figures. It’s not a film I would recommend to everyone because, although powerful, it’s purposefully slow and ends in a kind of indefinite way that’s not for everyone, though I liked the end. In the cinema when I saw it, a guy was obviously not enjoying it but, instead of leaving, talked a lot and then shouted “fuck off” when the screen faded to black. I still enjoyed the film, but it did take away some of the atmosphere which is key to Moonlight and ruined it a bit.

loganLogan (2017) film, cinema

I have serious superhero movie fatigue, but I loved this. It was more grounded in character and had a different story arc than most superhero films. And it was genuinely moving in parts. Part of the reason why it works is Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman, and Dafne Keen who plays Laura. I think it could have pushed some of the themes and ideas it brushes over further, and been a truly different, great (superhero) film, but it was easily one of the best superhero films I’ve seen in a long time. More character-driven comics films, please studios.

maidentripMaidentrip (2013) documentary, Netflix

This is a documentary about 14-year-old Laura Dekker’s voyage sailing around the world alone. I liked that it mostly concentrated on the trip and the sailing itself, and didn’t focus on the controversy around it – it was just about what it was like to spend two years sailing and exploring alone as a teenager. It could have done with a bit more depth in that regard, but as a quiet coming-of-age doc it was enjoyable enough.

the people vs oj simpson.jpgThe People vs OJ Simpson (2016) series, Netflix

I vaguely knew about the OJ trial as it has become a cultural reference point, but I didn’t really know any specifics about it. So I can’t say how close to the truth this fictionalised drama or the portrayals of real people are, but it’s still fascinating to watch. It’s the combination of systemic racism, gender, the media coverage, the profile of the people involved, mistakes in the trial, and what it has become in culture since. I know the non-fiction doc won best feature at the Oscars this year, and I’m interested to see what the differences are (and to see the film that beat Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which is the best documentary I think I’ve ever seen).

the skeleton twinsThe Skeleton Twins (2014) film, Netflix

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are great in this as estranged fraternal twins, but the film was just okay. It didn’t really stay with me in any way even though it’s the kind of film I should have loved. There are some good moments and scenes, but overall it didn’t do enough in a new or different way to do much for me.

the white helmets.jpgThe White Helmets (2016) documentary, Netflix

This short doc follows the White Helmets – volunteer rescuers in Syria who help people out of bombed buildings. It shows you what it’s like, day-to-day, to live and work and worry about loved ones in a war zone. Obviously it’s grim, but there is hope, both in the White Helmets themselves and in the symbols of rescues like the tiny ‘miracle baby’ found alive after nearly a day in the rubble. Worth a watch.

the overnightersThe Overnighters (2014) documentary, Netflix

When a pastor allows the huge and growing numbers of homeless people, some of whom have criminal pasts, seeking work in the area to stay at the church and his home, it creates divisions and controversy in the local community. What makes this doc great is that it doesn’t set the pastor up as a saint against ‘evil’ townspeople, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. And, as it goes on, we see an increasingly complex picture of the pastor himself.

1Sheet_Master.qxdThe Good Wife (seasons 1 – 5) series, Netflix

When I’ve been tired, this has been what I’ve reached for, so I’ve watched a shit-ton of The Good Wife this month. It’s easy, self-contained ‘legal mysteries’ in each episode with an overarching plot, and crime is often my go-to easy-watch TV. Season 5 has been properly good, but I’ve heard the next two seasons go downhill a bit. Shiny easy fluff that’s perfect for what I need right now.

get out.jpgGet Out (2017) film, cinema

I love smart horror, and this is it. The twists are all pretty obvious, so it’s not shocking or terrifying in that sense, but it’s still really enjoyable. It takes the more covert kinds of racism and appropriation from white people who “couldn’t possibly be racist because they like Obama” and then stretches it into more traditional horror tropes. Really worth watching.

 

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The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

the things we thought we knewRavine is eighteen years old and has been in bed for the past ten years with chronic pain. Her mum cares for her and tries to keep pushing her forward, but Ravine feels stuck and hopeless. Ten years ago, Ravine had a best friend, Marianne, she did everything with. But then Marianne disappeared…

This isn’t a book for me. The writing style had a few beautiful moments but was mostly just okay. Throughout the book it also teases about Something Happening in the past with a reveal at the end, which is a pretty common ‘page-turning’ device that wasn’t done in an interesting or new way, so it was just kind of annoying (aside: the structure of All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld is probably the best take I’ve seen on this). I did like the way she wrote about the council estate and the community there, and many of her characters are richly drawn and engaging.

The reason I requested this from the publisher is that the main character has chronic pain. Chronic, invisible, illnesses are so rarely represented in literature, particularly within main characters, and I’m always keen to find good representation (I don’t have chronic pain but have other health shenanigans). This started well. The way Snaith described living with chronic pain/illness as a kind of living deathbed (‘lifebed’) felt spot on-

Imagine sinking into your bed every day for nearly eleven years. You wake up. You go to the toilet. You collapse back into bed and sail off. Except you don’t sail anywhere because some bastard has moored you to a pole. You float in your sea of pain, hoping someone will come and hack the rope to pieces and set you free. They never do.

But then, very early in the book, she spontaneously recovers. Completely. For some people, chronic pain or illness is related to psychological trauma (there is less of a Cartesian split between mind and body than many, including medicine, think), and this seems to be the case for Ravine and I don’t have an issue with that. But she hadn’t faced or worked through her trauma in any way before it had an effect on her pain; she just thought about maybe writing about what happened, and then went from excruciating pain most of the day to absolutely nothing, before she’d even written/thought through it. It doesn’t make any sense. It made Ravine’s chronic pain feel like an ill-thought-out plot device to place her where she needed to be physically, and as a lazily done ‘physical pain representing mental pain’. In fact I read somewhere that Snaith had originally planned for Ravine to be in coma, but it didn’t work so replaced the coma with pain. I think she must have done some research / spoken to someone with chronic illness to describe it well early on, but then either ignored it or didn’t go further in order to make her plot points work. It’s kind of disappointing.

A book that probably wouldn’t be completely my thing anyway, but that also doesn’t represent chronic pain all that well in the end. Two stars.

The Things We Thought We Knew is out on 15th June 2017.

I received a free copy from Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.

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Casanova – the ballet

casanova-1.jpgAs I’ve said before I love Northern Ballet because they’re such good storytellers, and Casanova was no exception.

Based on Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova, Kenneth Tindall (an ex-Northern Ballet dancer) created his very first full-length piece that moves from his time in the church, to his many benefactors and lovers, to Casanova as a musician, writer and thinker. I liked that it ended with his whole life and his writing as his legacy, not just his labido, because he did live such a fascinating and varied life.

The choreography was fluid and sensual. Tindall created some really interesting shapes with the corps, and the various sex scenes were just so creative and beautiful and seductive and a real highlight. I always think the mess of sex and violence work really well in an art form as formal and controlled as ballet, and this was probably the best I’ve seen in that respect. I love a pas de deux, and each in this had its own character and feel. I particularly liked the one with Bellino where they gradually learn to trust each other and the way she reveals who she is, and the contrast with Casanova and Henriette which was much more tender and careful.

This is probably the most visually stunning ballet I’ve ever seen. I don’t normally notice lighting, but it really stood out for me in this piece. Designed by Alastair West, it perfectly captured different moods and settings, and was used to great effect to highlight scenes happening at the same time and the violence of Bragadin’s stroke. It also worked so well with the set, especially the tall mirror-pillars in the second half. The set design by Christopher Oram was brilliant, as were his incredible and colourful costumes.

The one thing I think it needed was a little more time with Henriette. Her relationship with Casanova didn’t feel any more significant than Bellino’s or Balletti’s, so Casanova’s response to her leaving didn’t have as much impact as it could have done. But I suspect that’s a result of trying to squeeze a huge amount into two hours.

The run has finished in Leeds, but it’s now on tour for a couple of months – find out where here and definitely catch it while you can. Sensual, stunning, and colourful – you ain’t seen ballet til you’ve seen Venetian orgy ballet. Hot damn.

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February screentime 2017

I’ve decided to do monthly wrap-ups of the new-to-me TV/films I’ve watched over a month. I recently got Netflix so the amount of stuff I’m properly watching, rather than just having Law & Order on in the background, has risen exponentially, especially as I’ve been too tired to read in the evenings much this month. So, in the order I watched them:

13th13th (2016) documentary, Netflix

Holy shit this is amazing. Not only is it an incredibly important film about mass incarceration in the US, and its roots in slavery, but it’s incredibly well put together. It’s tightly edited, interesting, informative, and has some really affecting sections, particularly the scenes with Trump speaking at one of his campaign rallies over old footage of black people people pushed and beaten on the street, and the montage of black men killed by police filmed on mobile phones. Ava DuVernay is a genius. This is the best thing I watched this month and I urge to seek it out.

valley uprising.jpgValley Uprising (2014) documentary, Netflix

This is a documentary about the history of climbing in Yosemite. I used to climb a lot when I was younger, but nowhere near the level of these guys. I loved watching Alex Honnold, who free solos (climbing alone without a rope) at unbelievable heights in a way that looks soothingly effortless, and incredibly tense when you remember just how high he is. It was an enjoyable easy watch – not great but enjoyable enough.

audre-and-daisyAudre & Daisy (2016) documentary, Netflix

Focusing on two teenage girls who were raped while passed out drunk at parties, this documentary looks at the aftermath of online bullying, disbelief by the police and the community, and mental health. Though the stories and their wider implications are important, and need to be talked about more, I don’t think this was a great film. Some of the editing was a bit clunky, and it just didn’t go into the kind of depth or push the police interviewees as much as I wanted. Probably a doc to watch if you’re not already quite familiar with the subject.

orange-is-the-new-blackOrange is the New Black (seasons 1-4) series, Netflix

I’m very late to this party but I binge-watched all of this and really enjoyed it. Obviously Piper’s story is the least interesting, but I like that the writers seem to mostly use her as a way into the prison and as a connecting thread, and tell other people’s stories, with increasing focus on other people.

hidden-figuresHidden Figures (2017) film, cinema

This was brilliant. As well as highlighting the often forgotten contribution of these black women to the space program, it’s just a really enjoyable film with a great soundtrack. I know they’ve messed with the timelines and used some broad brush strokes in adapting the book, but it’s great and I can see why it’s the highest grossing of all the best picture oscar nominees. I really want to read the book now to get the fuller, more nuanced picture.

dear-white-peopleDear White People (2014) film, Netflix

I kept hearing a lot about this film due to the series coming out soon, and all the white people freaking out about it. I though it was great – it’s funny in a smart way and, as well as racism, is about finding your identity and others’ perceptions of that identity. I’m looking forward to the series.

under-the-shadowUnder The Shadow (2016) film, Netflix

This is a really smart Iranian horror movie. You could watch it as a fairly straightforward paranormal horror, but, set in 1980s Tehran, it’s also about the trauma and intense anxiety of living through a war. The boundaries between the real and the supernatural are seamless enough in the beginning that I didn’t think there would be any real ‘spirit’ elements at all. I was quite tired when I watched it so I saw it with English dubbing rather than subtitles, which I don’t recommend. The voiceover actress wasn’t great so some of the emotion was lost. Definitely watch it, but watch it with the original voices and subtitles.

33% (2016) series, Netflix

This is a Brazilian dystopian YA series which was enjoyable enough but I wanted it to say something more/wider. It clearly has a fairly low budget but does a lot with what it has, probably because it’s directed by CĂ©sar Charlone. I will check out season two if/when it’s released, and is another one to watch with subtitles rather than dubbing.

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February reads 2017

I only read three books in February, but two of them were pretty long so I actually read more pages than average, I think. All in all not a bad month for books:

being-mortalBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande (non-fiction)

This is a book about care as people age or become terminally ill, the limits of medicine and medical professionals, and what having a ‘good death’ might mean. It doesn’t really offer any answers, but does lay out the problems in the way we currently deal with things, particularly in our lack of communication with each other about what we want, and how far we’ve gone from true ‘assisted living’ to something that just has that name, but isn’t. Though it wasn’t discussed at all, what the book made me think about was also the lack of adequate care for young disabled people who need, for example, personal care. They often end up on wards or in care homes for older people, which are already lacking in true assisted living support and even more inappropriate for young people than they already are for older people. Gawande is an engaging writer, and a doctor willing to criticise his own practise as well as medicine and care as a whole. I would have preferred a bit of a deeper dive into policy and how that’s affected social care and the treatment of terminal illness within medicine, and some sections could have been edited a bit more because it felt like a long-form essay that had been padded out at times. But still worth a read if death, ageing, and end-of-life care interests you. And it needs to interest more people if anything is going to change on individual or wider level.

anna-kareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (novel, Russian in translation)

This didn’t quite do it for me because, though I loved some parts, I felt pretty meh about others. It was surprisingly easy to read and breezed through it fairly quickly considering its length, and the characters are complex and contradictory in a way I love. But I didn’t love it in the way I was expecting. Full review here.

black-and-britishBlack and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga (non-fiction)

In my history lessons at school, we did a (very) little about the slave trade, glimpsed at the black civil rights movement in America, and then the rest of history was pretty much all white. This book, which is also a BBC series, goes some way to filling in a few of my gaps. Starting with evidence of black Romans buried in York, it moves through time to almost the present day. Obviously, there’s only so much it can cover in 600 pages, and there are only 100-ish pages dedicated to history post-WWI. But I think it’s a good thing to come away feeling like there should be more – because there should be. Black British history isn’t a separate entity; it is British history. And this is an interesting and engaging account of some of that history, with some great photos in my edition too. This is my pick of the month by far.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

anna-kareninaTranslated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

I got this beautiful new Vintage classics edition which is part of their Russian classics reissue. All the covers in the series use Russian textile designs from the nineteenth century and Soviet era and are gorgeous.

It’s a big book, and 1000ish pages can look a bit intimidating, but it’s surprisingly easy to read. I loved parts of this book and felt meh about other parts.

So much of this novel is about the search for meaning, and working out how to live. All of the characters are complex, contradictory, and trying to find their way. They are all human and flawed and doing their best (which doesn’t always mean what would be best for them). Levin and Anna, both equally the central characters despite the title, are very different people, but essentially have the same questions about life. The contrast is how joy and death move in different directions for them.

Sometimes it feels a little bogged down in repeated, similar conversations about farming technique or philosophy. I get that they were there as a literal and metaphorical part of that search for meaning, but at times it was too much and some sections were a slog. Particularly as Tolstoy is definitely an advocate of ‘tell don’t show’.

I lot of the book is also about the differing position of men and women in society. After Anna leaves Karenin for Vronksy, she is shunned by society; most of her former friends won’t even visit her at home. Vronsky, on the other hand, is able to live just as he had before without question. This, and Vronsky’s lack of real understanding, underlies the tension between them. Equally, Kitty, expecting a proposal from Vronsky but not getting one, is made to feel incredible shame, even though nothing happened and she did nothing wrong. Dolly is cheated on Oblonsky, but she is seen as the unreasonable one for being upset about it and wanting to leave.

Even so, I wouldn’t call this a wholly feminist novel. Women are praised, by Tolstoy, for meekness and submissiveness – “She was frightened, shy, shamefaced, and therefore even more charming.” Vomit. And nearly every woman bursts into tears as soon as someone even disagrees with them (and the ones that don’t are not painted in a positive light).

I also thought it ended a bit oddly. I can see that Levin and Anna both finding answers to their existential crises was supposed to stand in contrast as their lives had throughout the book, but finishing with Levin’s ending rather than Anna’s made it feel a bit flat.

I like books that explore meaning and have fully rounded characters, so I should have loved this. But it didn’t blow me away the way Moby Dick did, which is what I was expecting. There’s a lot I loved about it and some sections were incredible, but I felt so meh about other parts I couldn’t love the book as whole. A nearly-but-not-quite read for me.

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