Friday, 28 June 2013

An rss-reader and two songs

Google Reader dies on Sunday. I think my preferred substitute is The Old Reader.

I feel oddly uncomfortable about liking the latest Arctic Monkeys single -- they're not usually my sort of thing. The lyrics have an excellent end-rhyme-without-scansion thing going on.
Have you got colour in your cheeks?
Do you ever get that fear that you can't shift the tide that sticks around like summat in your teeth?
Are there some aces up your sleeve?
Have you no idea that you're in deep?
I've dreamt about you nearly every night this week
How many secrets can you keep?
Cause there's this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat
Until I fall asleep
Spilling drinks on my settee
It reminds me of John Fuller's Valentine, which is the only respectable modern love poem I can think of. Here's the actual music:

Anyway this is more my thing: the Pet Shop Boys celebrate dance music, with dancers wearing amazing Minotaur hats. When this album comes out I will probably have this track on repeat for a week:

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Books catch-up

I think I haven't posted about any books at all so far this year. I haven't been reading as much as in previous years, which I think is because my job involves so much thinking. And I'm doing a lot of rereading now I've got my books unpacked -- Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Hilary Mantel, I love you.

I read David Mitchell's sleb memoir, Back Story. Now, I like David Mitchell. He's funny and sensible, and when dealing with politicians he can be pretty acute in a Jon Stewart sort of way. What I learnt from this book is not to read the autobiographies of comedians, especially if I like them. It becomes clear as soon as he gets to Cambridge that he is exactly the sort of student who made Cambridge much worse for me both when I was an undergraduate and when I was a teacher. I loved theatre as a sixth-former, and went enthusiastically to lots of productions. By some point in my second year Cambridge amateur dramatics had completely killed it for me as an art form and I have never been able to take it seriously since. David Mitchell is not just the sort of person who killed it for me, he may have actually been one of those involved, since he was in the year above me and recounts how he auditioned for and took part in huge numbers of productions throughout his time there. The other side of the coin of his enthusiastic am-dramming was his avoidance of all work and actual learning. (He seems to have got away with this by tapping into some intra-fellowship antagonisms at Peterhouse, perhaps unaware that it would have been more impressive if he could have got them to present a united front against him.) This brought back memories for me of how frustrating it was trying to teach students who still took a school-like attitude to university and acted as if evading teaching was somehow a clever thing to do. I had one particular student, also at Peterhouse, who used to really annoy me by skipping my third-year Anglo-Saxon history seminars in order to rehearse for a student production of The Rocky Horror Show. He was a fool to miss those seminars, which were really good because all the other students were really really good. Anyway, now I have to avoid David Mitchell for a while on screen and in print, in the hope that I will forget the annoyingness of this book and go back to liking him. After all, who isn't a bit of an arse as a student? But I shouldn't have read this book.

I read nothing new in February, I just reread things by Muriel Spark, Robin Hobb, and Elinor Lipman.

In March I went on a Charlaine Harris True Blood reading binge. The books are much less dark than the TV series -- in particular with regard to Lafayette and Tara. I suppose when they made the TV shows they thought that a series set in Louisiana should have more black characters, but it's odd that the black characters take the brunt of the trauma. Also I read more Pym and Spark.

In April I mostly reread Kage Baker. I love you, Kage Baker. I also read Marian Keyes' new book. I think this may be the best book I've ever read about depression. Go Marian Keyes! I really love you too.

I read very little in May, but it was of high quality. I reread my favourite Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos, and also A.S. Byatt's amazing The Children's Book. Really that is such a tremendously good book. I also read The Black Count by Tom Reiss, a biography of the novelist Alexandre Dumas' mixed-race father. This is a pretty amazing story. As a youth he was sold by his own father, who later sent for him and made him his heir. In post-Revolutionary France prejudices about race were all shaken up, and Dumas became a very successful general. Napoleon didn't like him, and it was Napoleon who eventually brought back all the racist laws. The novelist Dumas clearly idolised his father, whom he lost when he was just four years old. It's easy to see how this sort of idolisation contributes to the flatness about humanity which makes Dumas' books just great stories. But the thing that really amazed me was the contribution of the French monarchy to the American revolution. I tend to avoid both revolutions as depressing examples of the swift perversion of good motives into awful events (which sometimes seems like humanity's defining characteristic). So I always thought of the statue of liberty as a gift from France to America to say thank-you for the idea of being down on kings. Perhaps everyone else already knew this but the American revolution would probably not have happened without the wholesale support of King Louis XVI. By opening up another front for the British Navy -- essentially a front that consisted of all the coasts and oceans of the world -- they divided British forces and gave the Americans the extra space they needed. Which makes the whole "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" thing look not just rude but stupid. The French got essentially nothing from this expensive war, and although they probably largely did it just because annoying the British was something they enjoyed, there's some suggestion that young, not-very-bright King Louis actually liked the idea ideologically. (Paris fashion embraced the idea of "insurgents" and came up with crazy things like lightning conductor dresses, with wires trailing to the ground, in honour of Benjamin Franklin.) So one of the last acts of the Bourbon monarchy was to help set up the American republic. Then again, because of my ignorance I had always thought that the bankruptcy of the French state which led to the French revolution was due to the extravagant lifestyles of the nobles built on the work of starving peasants. But however much silks and jewels cost, they can't compete for sheer crazy expense with a war. French support of the Americans emptied the French treasury, opening the way for the initially reasonable revolution and the Terror that followed. The American revolution was like one of those epiphytes that feeds off its host and then kills it.

I've had a mixed reading month so far this June. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies is fully as good as it should be. I also really enjoyed Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, though in a mildly exasperated sort of way. As a writer he has a lot of chutzpah. He's good enough to carry it off, though from time to time you want to say, really, who do you think you are? Because you're not Pynchon. Dark Matter, billed as an adult book from YA-author Michelle Paver, was spooky enough but I could not for the life of me see why it wasn't a YA book. There's some great YA stuff out there and I don't mean the term YA pejoratively, and this had a sort of simplicity about humanity which works better in that market, I think. Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife blew me away. It's a novel based on the life of Laura Bush which I put off reading for a long time because it's a novel based on the life of Laura Bush, but eventually I gave in to all the good reviews. It's quite uncomfortable in places, maybe in a similar way to We Need To Talk About Kevin but less overtly so. I liked this, from when the heroine is considering getting a divorce: "Even putting up with him might be easier than not putting up with him -- being the beleaguered wife, propelled forward, given a sense of purpose, by my troublesome husband." That seems unfortunately true to life, to me. Disappointing, however, were two books by male British authors who I think are actually friends in real life. I was quite enjoying David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet until it swerved off into bizarre and unnecessary Orientalism that I actually found quite offensive. Oh those fiendish Orientals! The paperback I read came with an essay at the end in which Mitchell congratulates himself on having written historical fiction, which is OK, you know, because the Anglo-Saxon chronicle has some dragons in it and is therefore clearly historical fiction too. David Mitchell, you did not write historical fiction, which is and always has been a perfectly respectable genre in no need of justification from you, you wrote a trashy romance. Lawrence Norfolk's John Saturnall's Feast was likewise not half as interesting as its author clearly thought it was. It too is essentially a trashy romance, in this case of the flourishing genre Civil War romance with some cod English rural paganism baked in. Both these novels are the sort of thing that I read voraciously and casually when I was a teenager, and I might have enjoyed Norfolk's at least if I had come across them in battered old copies in a charity shop. But these are both by big hyped male authors, reviewed in all the review sections, and talked about on pretentious American literary blogs. If Maria McCann had written one of these, and Norfolk or Mitchell had written As Meat Loves Salt, it wouldn't have made a difference to McCann's fame, and Norfolk or Mitchell would be hailed as having produced a masterpiece. I like the trashy romance genre and I'm not saying that men shouldn't be allowed to write one, but to do so and then pretend that you've done something interesting and groundbreaking just shows up your profound ignorance. Boo. No more Mitchell for me, but I'll read the next Norfolk in the hope for a return to his original crazy, Pynchon-Chabon style form.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Two (2) things I love

1. I love that although it has been quite warm for just a few days today at Exeter bus station I overheard someone complaining about the "heat wave".

2. I also love this track by Giorgio Moroder:

He's 73 years old!