Books of the year: 2018

Another year on Goodreads!

My year in books at Goodreads.

I’ve been a member there since 2012, which raises an eyebrow from me when I think about it. Six years of reading habits!

22 books this year, which sounds about average for me. One every two weeks seems about right!

I managed to knock two books from my I-will-read-everything-by-Dickens list. Hard Times was a surprise for me: I was expecting something in a prison, or more brutal, but it wasn’t like that all. It’s one of my top four Dickens novels (so far!).

Two five stars highlighted there for the outstanding The Hate U Give, an extraordinary first novel from Angie Thomas. Read it!

And I loved Eleanor and Park (review coming in Jan 2019!), a book myself and my pen-friend are still discussing on and off.

The Stephen King’s this year followed a pattern of single female characters in peril. Of those, Dolores Claiborne was the highlight, but I enjoyed The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon right until the closing pages.

Endings being a weakness of King’s, he also managed to ruin Gerald’s Game for me by wandering off into some sub-plot I didn’t need to know.

More disappointments this year than highlights: Scythe didn’t really work for me, and Release was even worse. I expected better from Shusterman and Ness… Challenger Deep is more like it, guys!

The Children of Men spent too long on unnecessary backstory and the plot just plodded along, and Gray Mountain was John Grisham out of the court room and out of his comfort zone.

Three new fiction authors this year: PD James, Gillian Flynn and Joe Hill. Of those, I think Hill is the one I’m likely to go back to.

I already have some books lined up for next year (Dry, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the end of the World. Thanks, Becky!), and there’s the sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale due in November.

I should have finished all of Dicken’s novels by this time next year, which is something in itself! Then it’s on to his short stories. How did this man have time for ten children and two wives?

What books did you read this year? Which ones stick with you and which did you forget you’d read? Let me know!

A word from the quiet guy in the corner

I don’t like Christmas.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There are bits of it I enjoy…mostly the eating parts and the buying presents parts. I like buying people presents, thinking of something unusual to match their personality. I dislike wrapping them because I genuinely suck at it (ask my wife), but that’s another story. The tree looks nice, and I like all the lights.

But this is what Christmas is mostly about for me: People get friendly. People get sociable. People want to hug. Which is fine…but I don’t. Raised voices and laughter make my anxiety spike all year round, and there’s ten times more of it at Christmas. There’s ten times more of everything that makes me anxious at Christmas. Lots of people shopping and the endless crowds make it spike even more. I usually have a little patience for queues, but the pushing and pulling of Christmas erodes it even more.

The enforced jollity of it all makes me nervous. I really…really…do not like social gatherings at any time of year, and Christmas is everything magnified. There’s a staff party at school on the last day of term. I work with these people all year round, but I’m not going. I’m not going, and I’m still anxious about it, and it’s four days away. My wife thinks I’m being miserable and grumpy about it. I hated going to my own family parties, when such things existed. Parties aren’t somewhere I go to relax after a day at work.

Grumpy is my default behaviour when I’m in a social situation that’s making me anxious. I get grumpy a lot this time of year, as you can imagine.

The triggers for Christmas make a lot of it anxiety by association for me: Christmas songs and brass bands playing, it all adds up by association. Ugh. Make it all stop and go away!

Please, don’t invite me to anything. Just leave me alone. It’s nothing personal. If you need me, I’ll be in a puddle in the corner, exhausted and stressed.

I don’t hate you, or really hate Christmas. It’s just who I am.

Movies: The Greatest Showman

* Claws sold separately.

“Do these smiles seem fake? It doesn’t matter where they come from. The joy is real.”

Two minutes into this, my wife said she knew exactly where it was going. Penniless man becomes rich, forgets the friends who helped him, has a major setback, and discovers his real richness is his friends and family.

No surprises there in the storyline, to be honest. But it’s a musical, after all, and the story really only exists to join the songs together.

I loved the way some of the shots were framed so symmetrically. I noticed it a few times – in the Jenny Lind scenes and when Barnum is leaving to go on tour with her and his kids run after him.

The colour choices were all grand as well. It was nice to see a film not done in orange and teal for a change. I liked the solid and thick colours of the costumes and sets, all with the feel of a well loved and well used circus.

I wonder how well the soundtrack will hold up.

And Hugh Jackman, as usual, looks like he’s having a blast running through all his songs and routines.

What didn’t work so well for me (and my wife) was the choice of a contemporary soundtrack. Contemporary isn’t something I listen to a lot, so for me it bounced me out of the numbers more than pulling me into them. I found a lot of repetition going on because I was analysing the music rather than enjoying it.

It felt unfamiliar to my ears, so it felt uncomfortable. I do wonder how well the soundtrack will hold up in a decade or so, but people still listen and watch Cats and Chess, after all.

But when I could relax into the numbers, I enjoyed them more: The This is Me song was a showstopper. I adored the part where the bearded lady spins while everyone else is in slow motion. I loved the Rewrite the Stars trapeze song and the routine was wonderful and inventive. I’m still humming the Million Dreams song a few days later, so they did something right!

But it felt like there should have been more wonder…there should have been more spectacle and amazement. More songs and routines like the trapeze and the slow-motion spin. I should have been blown away more.

It isn’t something I’d watch more than once all the way through, but I’d watch parts again – the This is Me song and Rewrite the Stars, in particular. It’s a shame; there seemed so much potential there that wasn’t used.

Review: Moondust

2/5

In 1999, Andrew Smith was interviewing Charlie Duke, astronaut and moon walker, when he was interrupted. A fellow moon-walker had died, and now there were only nine of them left. Inspired and motivated by the fact that soon there would be none, Smith set out to track them down and talk to them about their experiences…

The first thing to note about this book is how much harder it would be to write today. Now, instead of nine, there are only four left (October 30, 2018). Soon there will be none, which is an astonishing thought: For three years, mankind sent people to the moon and then never bothered again.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts.

I know a fair bit about the Apollo program, but Smith throws facts and information into his mix that I wasn’t aware of. He develops relationships with some of the astronauts, and struggles with others. I was most fascinated by the two introverts – Neil Armstrong and John Young. Armstrong avoided all attempts at a face-to-face interview, but Young was stranger: He sat with Smith at a conference table, not opposite, but one chair offset, and gave his bare replies to the wall.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts, which I found amusing, since I am one and he’d presumably have as much trouble talking to me. He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I wonder about his skill as an interviewer if he can’t get what he wants from his subject.

The most annoying thing about the book is Smith’s writing style. Here’s a sample of his compound, complex sentence structure:

“Houston would never win a beauty contest, but Bean’s neighbourhood on the edge of town is lovely, like a series of causeways cut through a friendly forest, saluted by all manner of towering, weeping trees, no one’s idea of Texas.”

…and he runs these throughout the book. Full stops, man. Use. Them.

Also, Smith drops references to the 1960s and assumes his audience is familiar with them. He talks about “Warhol’s Electric Circus” as though we know what he means. Some context would have been nice.

This is a book as much about Smith’s journey as the astronauts. He wonders why he feels motivated to do this project and shifts from controlling fathers to the astronauts as mirrors for ourselves.

At some point, he realises, the experience stopped being the astronauts and became our expectation of it. We all went to the moon, and we all came back with something different.

But we also all came back with the same thing: How fragile we really are.

A conversation

I work in a school, and I was sitting in the staff room the other Friday, reading Eleanor and Park, lost in my own world. There were two other people in the room with me when one of them started talking.

I watched their conversation for a while, listening to the rhythms and the sounds rather than the words. I tried to sketch it out as a graph, just for fun.

One person suddenly started talking into the silent staff room – loud enough to make me jump, hence the 9 on the vertical scale at the start. The second person answered at a lower tone of voice.

It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz.

Then person one started talking about a TV show I don’t watch (“Did you watch The Apprentice last night?”), and they were off. That’s about 11 on the scale on the bottom. Their words intertwined, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz, full of counterpoints and sudden sounds. They both laughed at 21, by the way, a nice harmony.

It tailed off before suddenly restarting again at 25 (“Nick!”), then again at 30, when I went back to my book.

I don’t know how well these two know each other outside their respective school areas. But I found the interplay between them fascinating, and the way they seemed to become friends inside of a few minutes amazing.

Some people make that look so easy.

Travels: London, October 2018

In October 2018, Mrs T and I had the opportunity to visit London for two days. The focus of it was a concert by movie music maestro John Williams at The Royal Albert Hall, but that didn’t quite go as expected…

 

Thursday: The Cutty Sark and Greenwich

Yeah, that’s a lampshade.

Before we went anywhere, we found this left outside the hotel. I’d love to know the story behind it!

 

The Cutty Sark was a trading ship that brought back tea from China and wool from Australia in the 1870s. For a while, it was the fastest ship in the world.

There are a lot of museums around Greenwich, but it was too nice of a day to be indoors, so we just enjoyed the buildings and Greenwich park. It’s also the spot where the day begins and ends.

Right here on this line, to be exact!

 

Friday: Hampton Court Palace and The Royal Albert Hall

Hampton Court

Hampton court was the palace of Henry VIII – he actually got married in one of the rooms we walked through, which was amazing. And the place is enormous. Taken all together, the grounds are larger than the village where we live. We spent three hours there and only saw the palace. We shall return!

The Royal Albert Hall

The highest seats in the Hall.

John Williams composed the music for every Spielberg film with one or two exceptions. He also wrote the music for Superman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and the 60s TV show Lost in Space (he doesn’t talk about that one as much). And I was going to see him live and watch him perform. I’ve been a little overwhelmed thinking about that since I bought the tickets in February.

Unfortunately: Mr Williams was taken ill, and another composer took his place. It was still a kick ass concert though!

The Royal Albert Hall is an amazing space to be in, no matter where you sit. What a great trip!

Movies: The Fog (1980)

Dave and his friends really need to look after that conjunctivitis.
“To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.”

 

I’m not a fan of horror movies. I really don’t like gore or excessive violence in a horror film (or any other, for that matter: I tend to hit fast-forward if it goes on for too long). But there are two movies I love that are classed as “horror”.

One of them is John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the other is this one – The Fog from 1980, the second film Carpenter made after Halloween.

There’s no gore anywhere in the film. The six deaths all happen off screen. There’s not much budget. The Fog itself is a smoke machine pouring over the set. The undead inhabitants of The Fog aren’t seen except in brief moments, and then mostly as silhouettes and shapes.

In short: there’s nothing in this film that should make it any more than a tame B-Movie.

But here’s the genius of it: None of that matters. Carpenter takes what he has and ratchets up the tension and isolation of the characters until you’re locked into the movie and it carries you right to the (literal) killer of an ending.

There’s a haunting (that’s the best word for it) sense of utter emptiness that fills the landscape of the film. The movie feels post-apocalyptic, like these people are the last remnants of humanity, cut off from the world by the enveloping Fog. There’s no help for them coming anytime soon.

Our movie watching experiences tells us that California shouldn’t look like this.  Something is wrong about these solitary beaches and deserted skies and landscapes. They should be filled with beautiful people and happy sunbathers, but instead Carpenter fills the screen with emptiness and a sense of foreboding with his eerie soundtrack.

In one scene, the main character drives from her home to the lighthouse where she broadcasts her radio programme. There’s no dialogue but a radio announcer and a voice on a tape. There’s nothing but the keening sound of the wind and the empty, empty landscape. And always, always, the sea is there, almost seeming to watch and wait for the night and The Fog we know is coming.

In another, a young boy walks along a completely deserted beach. There’s nothing there but the sense of an ocean watching him and waiting for him. It is eerie and somehow unsettling, and it works wonderfully well.

It’s left to our imaginations that fill in the blanks of what’s going on, and that’s what works best for me in a horror film. Like The Woman in Black, it’s what we’re expecting that keeps us watching for The Fog to come rolling towards us.

So rent it for Halloween, turn the lights down low, curl up under a blanket and wait for midnight…

…and if you hear an odd knocking at your door…probably best not to answer it.

The face of my father

Mr Craig

That is, in case you didn’t know, the actor Daniel Craig. I’d seen him interviewed and seen every Bond film he’s been in before I suddenly realised something: How much he looks like my dad.

My dad has been dead since 1998, so perhaps it’s not surprising I’d see echoes of his face somewhere. But sometimes there’s a merry dancing light in Mr Craig’s eyes when he’s being interviewed that reminds me of him as well.

It seems to me he’s having the time of his life, and that’s one of the best memories I have of my dad: He nearly always had that same light in his eyes. An innate belief that life was fun and not to be taken too seriously.

And there’s a physical resemblance that always startles me and makes me look twice to make sure it’s not really my dad being interviewed.

My dad had a very primitive rhinoplasty when he was a child (He was born in 1933), and the cartilage in his nose was removed. As a result, he could push his nose completely flat, which is utterly captivating when you’re a kid (or grand-kid).

There’s a distinctive shape of the mouth and the nose there with Mr Craig and my dad, and those odd little thick lines at the edges of his cheeks. The squareness of the face. The size of the ears.

But it’s in the eyes I see it the most. The angle of the eyebrows and the brow ridge, and that happy light. Even my dad’s hair was parted the same, until it was shaved to look for the tumour that eventually killed him.

This is the only picture I have of my dad; all my others are lost, so I don’t have any later than a fading print from 1979. So you’ll have to take my word for it how much they look alike to me – this one doesn’t really do the comparison justice.

Or maybe that’s my brain filling in blanks that don’t exist. Either way, I always have to look twice.

 

Mr Talbot

Dennis Talbot (1933 – 1998)

(As a side note, I’m the same age writing this as my dad was when this was taken: 46.)

Movies: Suffragette (2015)

“What you gonna do? Lock us all up? We’re in every home, we’re half the human race, you can’t stop us all.”

 

Do you know what I studied in school? Triangles. Lots and lots of triangles. Angles, cosines, tangents. Right angled and isosceles. Squares and rectangles too, and oh my god, the endless circles!

Never used diddly of it, to be honest. The same with the volume of a cylinder and all that sum-of-the-square-on-the-two-side stuff.

You know what I didn’t study? Women in history. I did nothing on Suffragettes. Not a day or even a lesson on them. I didn’t know any of their names, I didn’t know what they were fighting for. I didn’t even know they were fighting. I didn’t know they wore white (That goes for all women, not just suffragettes: I’d never heard of Lisa Meitner until this year either).

I found out later – vaguely – that there was a woman named Pankhurst. And another woman threw herself under a horse once. Something called “The Cat and Mouse Act”. That was it.

So where does Suffragette come in to this?

In a 106 minute blast, I learned more about these women and what their lives were like than I learned in ten years of education. How they were regarded as too stupid to vote, how their rights were non-existent in the workplace, in the home, in society. A whole section of society weren’t even counted on the ten-year census.

In one scene, the women are protesting legally outside the Houses of Parliament. Brutally, the police move in to break the protest up. I thought they made that scene up, but no….that did happen. On the orders of the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill, no less. (For a more in depth look at Churchill’s complex relationship with suffrage: https://tinyurl.com/y8mtcacu).

The men in this world are for the most part, useless (and of course antagonistic), but it’s not their story anyway. The main character leaves her husband and son behind, the husband complaining that he can’t look after their child and work at the same time…even though he expects her to. In a heart-breaking scene, he actually sells their son to another family because he can’t manage.

A woman is introduced named Emily Davison. If I’d studied anything about women in history, I would have known her fate instantly. I would probably know her face and when she was born. But I knew nothing about her until she threw herself under the Kings horse.

As a comparison, if the name of a character in a movie set in World War Two was “Robert Oppenheimer” I would have known where they were going with it from the first introduction.

Poster by ‘A Patriot’, showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed, 1910. A doctor pours liquid food down a tube which has been stuffed up the struggling suffragette’s nose, while prison officers hold her down and tie her legs to the chair.  (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The movie doesn’t pull any punches in its brutal treatment of these women, and nor should it. Women are arrested and stripped, and one is force fed through the nose, which is as horrific as it sounds and as bad it looks in that poster.

Women go through workplace abuse, societal abuse and home abuse (I wish they were all restricted to the past!) to fight for the right to be considered human beings.

You know what I studied in school? The wrong damn things.