The Readlist: May 2017

Look, I hold my hands up – I read just one book this month. I’m not entirely sure why, I don’t think I was particularly busy but my heart clearly wasn’t in it…

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

The difficult second album, eh? This is the sequel to The Talented Mr Ripley which I read back at the tail end of last year having treat myself to a bound, hardback collection (with a ribbon obvs) of the the first three Ripley novels.

It’s broadly accepted that numbers four and five in the Ripley series were essentially money spinners for Highsmith. They’re not the greatest in any sense but if they’re meant to be a bit “meh” then I fear getting round to reading them if they’re anything like this one, book two.

It sees the return of everyone’s favourite psychopath, Tom Ripley, who’s embroiled in an art fraud. Based on Tom’s idea, a collection of friends have been forging a dead painters work claiming that no, he didn’t commit suicide, but is in fact living a quiet life in Mexico. Tom is now living in France with his mostly-absent wife and is once again trying to spin many plates at the same time and keep on top of all his lies as the truth about the art fraud threatens to come out.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why but I didn’t enjoy this novel. I really wish I had but I’ve got to be honest: it did very little for me. I think it’s partly down to the lack of care I had for the characters involved. They weren’t presented in a way that I had any bond with them or care for their individual story lines. It all just felt a bit… scatty. There’s a young Greenleaf relative who pops up for little discernible reason other than to ‘spook’ Tom into thinking the truth may be given away, there’s a random count who pops up (Tom works as some kind of lackey for an crime syndicate, moving items between places for them, some of which are hidden in the Count’s suitcases) that has little impact on the plot either and you don’t feel close enough to the others involved in the art fraud to give a monkeys about them.

I did feel a little let down here but hopefully the third in the series, Ripley’s Game, is an improvement. I won’t be rushing to read it though.

Long Reads & Articles

Dacre’s Inferno It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people have never heard of Paul Dacre and yet he’s undoubtedly one of the biggest forces in the UK media. As the editor of the Daily Mail for decades he’s shaped the editorial direction of the paper and also the country politically. Much feared, this Guardian article delves into his role and influence.

A Letter To Hillary There was a great NYT long-read a few months back about the Obama administration’s letters department. This Buzzfeed article in a similar vein takes a look at what happens to letters of a Presidential candidate.

 

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The Readlist: April 2017

Ooh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know… what my thoughts were on books I read six weeks ago because I’ve got a memory like a sieve and didn’t get round to writing the post until I’d mostly forgotten I’d read the books in the first place? That.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

51liuh5zcll-_sx311_bo1204203200_David Sedaris is someone who has been on my radar for a few years, mentioned in passing on podcasts, in articles or popping up on my Twitter feed (not him himself though, he’s not on there). If you’re unaware of his work, he’s an American-born satirist and humorist who is known for his essays which mainly revolve around his life experiences which have been published right across the shop from the New Yorker to the Guardian. On the surface they may appear humdrum but are told in such a way that they become these eloquent examples of human life and all the characters in it. Sedaris is gay and lives with his partner of many years – they’re currently in the UK I believe, however, during this particular collection of his work (published 2009) they live in France and for a short while in Japan.

I read a few of his pieces online and then decided to seek out one of his essay collections – I picked one at random from a bookstore in Cambridge when I was there back in January but only got round to reading it this month. It just so happens that this particular collection seems to deal a lot with his youth and sexuality and could almost be said to be an autobiography in scope. Given most of his pieces are autobiographical in sense, I found it very interesting to read how he painted his life’s events, his phrasing, his ability to tell the story and lead it to a worthy conclusion. I don’t want to compare myself to the lofty heights of Sedaris but quite a lot of his musings within this volume seems similar at times to things I’d use as content on the radio: that thing that happened in the barbers, the person I came across in the street that intrigued me. He made copious note of these events over the years then fleshing them out a later date.

There’s a real satisfaction to each of his pieces. That might seem a weird word to use in reference to his work but the collection was just a really pleasant read and I’ll certainly be aiming to get a few more under my belt before the year is out.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

You know those people who walk around in band t-shirts or own band memorabilia but can’t name any of their songs, thus sending hard-core music fans mad? That was me with Brave New World. I was culturally aware of the novel prior to purchasing a poster of a cover for my new flat (the cover pictured, in fact) but thought it only right that I get round to reading it given it looks down on me everyday. The tattered paperback copy I found on my flatmate’s bookshelves was slim enough and seemed doable during the course of my city-break to Nice so I took the plunge.

I’d class myself as a fan of dystopian and alt-history fiction and yet I’ve barely read any in the grand scheme of things. Brave New World to me delivers itself well in that it doesn’t fall into the trap of over-explaining the scenario the novel revolves around. Of course, there’s an element of that at the beginning with a ‘guided tour’ (solid technique) but it doesn’t feel like you’re being overwhelmed with large amounts of information. It’s not too transparent in its delivery, things aren’t being hidden from you, the reader, as such but it all just comes into focus over the course of the novel.

It’s interesting that the novel’s basic premise revolves around an incredibly uniformed class and caste system, something that had been steadfast for centuries but was starting to crumble during the period the novel was written. It’s undoubtable that there is still a broad class system in society, but the lines between them are blurred and you no longer necessarily have ‘jobs for life’, a family trade or a myriad of fulfillable roles dictated by your caste.

You only see so much of the ‘brave new world’ through the course of the novel, and little outside of the country (the US?) that it’s set. I would have been fascinated to know if the rest of the world is similar or not, or if this brave new world is some kind of pariah.

Long Reads & Articles

Lorde All Mighty Oh, Lorde. She’s an incredible person and I’m eagerly awaiting her second (or sophomore as the Yanks say) album – this NYT profile of her is a stunning read.

Beano Keeno I was big into the Beano as a kid – in fact, if you ever bump into me, get me to tell you about my life’s biggest regret… it involves the Beano. ANYWAY, I can’t remember for the life of me how I stumbled across this blog post but it’s fascinating. How the Beano ubiquity and recognisability became rife as a method for satire and pastiche across the years.

Fastlove 2.0 An extended mix of George Michael’s Fastlove exists! Brb, gotta get up to down.

 

The Readlist: March 2017

Just one book this month and something that was being pushed by the publishers as timely and prosaic:

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

This novel has had a real push by its publishers ever since Trump became President back in January. “Oddly prescient!”, “super relevant!”, the promotional literature proclaims – I enjoy a bit of speculative and alternate history (and don’t read nearly enough of it, given) so I was happy to take the plunge with this.

Here’s the headline: it’s not nearly as ‘eerily prescient’ as they’d have you believe. Is it still a decent read? Yes. When I was investigating this book prior to buying it I stumbled across a ‘hot take’ saying that It Can’t Happen Here is actually the least relevant of all Sinclair Lewis’ novels. As much as the relevance isn’t overflowing, it’s undoubtedly there. It’s most obvious during the presidential campaigns in the first quarter, as you’d imagine, before the plot takes over from then-on. It’s fairly lengthy for what it is and falls into the hole of having some parts of incredible action and movement in the plot done and dusted in less than a page and entire chapters which are a near perfect repeat of the previous one. Persevere with it, I’d say. There’s swathes of the novel in the front half which are very repetitive and slow but once you’re in, you’re in.

At its heart, the novel deals with Doremus Jessop, a small-town newspaper proprietor, and his family and townfolk. Having the media element so prominent within the novel, a mixture of politically leaning characters and a few young adults makes ICHH a decent take on the circumstances from a variety of angles. What’s very clear though is that Jessop is no ‘hero’. We’re rooting for him as much as he’s the protagonist but he’s never presented in a way where he’s on a one-man crusade against a new terrifying regime. The reality of a new politics moving in is that many feel powerless to do anything regardless of their beliefs and their lives must continue as those above continue to grind the wheels in the background. You’ve still got your job to do, clothes to wash, food to earn and eat. The novel seems quite realistic in that sense.

Here’s some bits:

Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.

When Windrip does reach power (obviously) there’s prominent elements of Nazi Germany. The little armies of ‘Minute Men’ that roam the streets, the hierarchy, the camps etc. and this…

By ill-natured people the Corpos were called “the Corpses.” But they were not at all corpse-like. That description would more correctly, and increasingly, have applied to their enemies.

Long Reads and Articles

Richard Simmons There’s been a lot of chatter this month about the Missing Richard Simmons podcast. Initially I thought it was a podcast parody: Simmons didn’t exist, it was all a concoction to mimic every investigative podcast going. The audio clips, the bits where they’re outside someone’s home – it can’t be real surely? It was and is, and the NYT aren’t so sure its morally right.

St4lker How good are you at Internet stalking? I haven’t done as much of it recently but my skills are outstanding. I deep Google, I cross reference different social streams, I check the electoral register, I find family members and long forgotten friends to get to my subjects and always succeed (be warned – I’m a stalking creep when I turn to my mind to it). I’m purely linking to this article as it goes step by step through finding the FBI chief’s secret account being as thorough as I would be.

Whodunnit A TV event aired across the continents and one question: whodunnit? The story of a terrible TV drama set in space and the race to get to the crux of it; who’s the murderer?

The Readlist: February 2017

9781780226088Going Off Alarming by Danny Baker

Baker’s initial memoir, Going To Sea In A Sieve, was by far my favourite non-fiction read of 2016. His completely madcap life, his brushes with celebrity, his storytelling all came together to form the perfect autobiography and I feared all others I read would pale in comparison from then on. How then would Baker’s second memoir fare?

It’s not as good – that’s a kind of given – but it doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. The first dealt mainly with his early life up to his mid-twenties or so, and featured some quite amazing anecdotes. The best stories spring to mind straight away of course so there was always going to be a ‘runt of the litter’ element to book ii. A little wanky in places, but that’s a given.

I actually went to see Baker’s stage show this month, coinciding with my reading of Going Off Alarming. He repeated a lot of the anecdotes within it on stage (more from book ii than i) which meant they lost their sparkle a little given I had read the punchline just days before, but I only have myself to blame there. I was intrigued to see how he presented himself on stage – as one of the youngest people in the audience, I am of course not as culturally of him as those aged 35+. I’ve never really seen anything he’s been involved with and, to be honest, he always came across as a little up himself. Viewing him on stage though, he’s just honest about his bizarre 20170401_202744-01success – his frankness and vivacity and knowledge that he has talent and is watchable is so alien to me that I think that’s what must have made me think he was a little obnoxious previously. Book iii is in the works (delayed!) and is apparently more football focused. A shame for me, I wasn’t keen on the football elements in book ii… tales of his career in the media were obviously more interesting to me, but I’ll inevitably read book iii anyway.*

Baker was more than willing to meet with anyone and sign anything post-show even with his Radio 5Live show mere hours away. He signed Going Off Alarming for me…

Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin

I’ve waxed lyrical about the little known Edmund Crispin novels many times before on this blog. This was the final one in my collection to read – there are others but annoyingly, their covers won’t match those of the collection. I will have to bite the match and order them though!

This tale follows the classic Crispin dynamic – Gervase Fen is temporarily in a setting, we meet the characters, there’s a murder and the plot proceeds over the course of little over 48 hours. These are jam packed crime novels and much like Shakespeare’s plays, confine the story to one broad setting and a fairly short period of time. Broadly it’s more of the same good stuff, great writing, wit and descriptions. The actual wrap up of this particular plot is a little convoluted. You can understand it broadly, but the necessity for such a long ‘this is how it happened’ conversation section at the end probably should point towards there being a few too many unnecessary elements added in.

Long Reads & Articles

Direction, One This is lengthy but a great read – it’s a write up of a talk given at a tech conference about what the writer learnt within the One Direction fandom and the power that a new generation of teenage girls hold and should, but often don’t, utilise to its full potential going forward as adults.

Strike A Pose If you’re an active Twitter user you’ve probably seen a whole load of Teen Vogue stuff in your timeline even if, like me, you don’t follow them or follow a whole bunch of teenage girls either. And yet, their reach is increasing at a rapid rate with a new focus on politics and cultural affairs with an ever switched-on and connected teenage audience. This is the story of the changes and Teen Vogue’s increasing importance.

Mysteri DeatH Subterfuge. Death. Russians. Americans. Real life.

Flung Do you remember Fling? It was ‘big’ for a while; I downloaded it and deleted it pretty soon after. This is the story of how a tech start-up becomes an overnight success, struggles to keep on top of it’s problems its sycophantic CEO and collapses. Notable line:

He swore at his father before hurling a partially-open Pret a Manger baguette in his direction. The baguette, believed to be prosciutto ham, narrowly missed and collided with a glass window above his head.

What more could you want?

*P.S if you’ve read Going Off Alarming and are still wondering who the nameless celebrity is in one of his anecdotes, Baker accidentally let slip on stage… initials (stage ones anyway) are HH. I’ll let you ponder.

The Readlist: January 2017

Room by Emma Donoghue

I am nothing if not late to the party when it comes to reading hit novels. I’m still yet to see the film adaptation of Room but I was keen to at some point read the novel itself prior to doing so. I went in mostly blind: I was aware of the very basics of the plot and was pleasantly surprised to discover the entire novel is narrated from the perspective of 5 year old Jack, trapped in the room with his Ma. He’s never known another life or the outside world and this comes across beautifully within the clearly carefully crafted narrative. The naïvety of youth coupled with his situation presents a really interesting way of slowly bringing the facts to the reader. The creaks he counts at night? Oh, yes that makes sense. He wants some ‘more’ and left is better than right? Ah, yes I see. Snatches of song lyrics pop up occasionally and it’s nice to try and work out which ‘pop hit’ he’s trying to describe.

Obviously, I’m not trying to compare my situation to that of the protagonists here but I am glad that I decided to read this book at this stage in my life. I’m living in a house-share currently*, having the smallest room in the house and I spend a lot of time pottering around in my four tiny walls. Obviously, I get the opportunity to go to work, go out, do things and don’t feel constrained by my four walls but I kind of understand the whole semblance to ‘my space’ that’s in the book.

This novel clearly has two distinct halves and it doesn’t try to shy away from any ‘reality’ of the situation. Although it’s presented from a child’s perspective, we are given enough of the facts, enough of the past to understand the situation and the difficulties presented, including those on the Outside. A good read, now onto the film (eventually).

A Portrait of an Idiot as a Young Man by Jon Holmes

I think I might be the idiot here, not Jon Holmes. I’ve got a media shelf at home which seems natural given that’s my predominant interest and my job, and I’ve got lots of autobiographies and non-fiction books about the industry and those working in it. This seemed to be the next natural addition to my collection: I’ve been a fan of Jon Holmes for a while. I wasn’t massively aware of his Radio 4 work, but in more recent years I listened to him on Radio X and was always a fan of his ‘style’. He’s a man with personality working in radio, why wouldn’t I want to read his memoirs full of tales of his work such as the infamous Dermot O’Leary desk drawer incident?

Yeah, turns out this book isn’t that. The title wasn’t just a title, it truly refers to the fact that the memoir is 90% all based around Holme’s early life, the bit that is usually the worst in any biography. That’s not to say there aren’t some decent anecdotes here- there are but they’re not gripping. At no point did I think “I really want to pick that up again and read some more”, I found it quite taxing to be honest. There’s also a *lot* of teenage sexual content… I’m up for a bit of funny ha-ha sex talk as much as the next person but CHRIST there’s a lot. Huge swathes of the book are incredibly detailed about almost every aspect of his adolescent fumblings. I had to start reading another book mid-way through to try to exorcise all the images from my brain.

I think where the book falls down is that there hasn’t been enough cherry picking. It’s impressive that Holmes can remember so much of his early years** but there are some incredibly terrible, dull anecdotes littered in the pages. They’re a level that are so poor you wouldn’t even bother telling your friends down the pub even if the conversational lull had reached such a point that everyone had been sitting in silence for five minutes. It got to the stage where I was skimming large portions of pages, trying to find a decent bit. The few adult tales towards the back end of the book leave a lot to be desired – c’mon Jon, there’s far better ones to tell!

Read it if you must and you’re a fan but I wouldn’t rush to grab a copy.

*although the situation will be changing imminently, thank the LORD. It’s like living with infant children. In fact, one of my housemates often has a crying infant child round ffs.

**one of my great fears, should I ever become notable enough that someone will pay me £3bn to write my memoir, is that my memory is so shit that I can’t remember anything from my childhood and it was only ten years ago. God knows what I’ll be like when I’m 50.

Long Reads & Articles

James O’BriAGAIN There’s been a load of James O’Brien LBC profiles in recent months but hey, here’s another from The Guardian

Meme Me Up Scotty What’s it like to go viral? To become a meme? Amelia Tait tracks down some of those who became unwittingly ‘internet famous’. One article refers back to this old one from Vice.

Letter Scent Imagine being surrounded by letters all day, reading and digesting, getting paper cuts… this was widely shared at the time. It’s an NYT look at Obama’s White House letters department.

‘ol Swifty Boots Hot take, hot take, get your hot take! This isn’t the first article bashing Swift (although it is notable how more crop up when she’s *out* of the limelight, like she’s untouchable when in it) but it’s a good read nonetheless and links more to her music than others

Arcade Raid This is *fascinating* and something I had no knowledge of before – there’s swathes of people around the globe on the hunt for abandoned arcade machines and there’s some fascinating tales on this blog. Nicely chosen blog theme, too…

 

The Readlist: December 2016

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

You know what you need to do occasionally? Treat yo self, as they say in Parks & Rec. Thus, on that notion, I did treat myself to a lovely hardback edition of the first three Ripley novels. It’s hardback! It’s got a bookmark ribbon! It looks, for want of a better word, lush.

I’ve been meaning to get onboard the Highsmith train for a while now. I’ve seen numerous of her novels in film form (namely The Talented Mr Ripley with Matt Damon and Jude Law, The Two Faces Of January with Oscar Issacs and Carol with Cate Blanchett) but this was the first time I’ve sat down to read her. She seems (the anti-semitism aside, which is swept under the carpet) an interesting character in herself. A hard and fast misanthrope who despised company, surrounded herself with cats and got lost in her own writing.

The Talented Mr Ripley is a classic case of the anti-hero: we become incredibly sympathetic towards him as a reader, with the book opening with recollections from his time growing up, his inherent loneliness and search for something more meaningful, which leads to us willing him to get away with the crimes he commits.

There’s a lot of gay undertones here which have been well documented before and appear more explicitly* in the 1999 film. There’s an interesting video taking a look at this here. Within the book, it’s both a case of him wanting to be Dickie and all he has and is and also be friends/platonic lovers with him.** The interesting thing here, of course, is that he’s not pained by Dickie’s death. There’s barely a touch of guilt, there’s more panic at being caught in the immediate aftermath. The fact that Ripley can manage to go from being obsessed and infatuated with someone to murdering them in such a short space of time, purely because their attention in him has waned is quite the step!

I really enjoyed reading this and, in fact, it’s probably the first novel I’ve legitimately enjoyed reading and wanted to continue reading in a few months. I did have some issues with it: the actual murder of Dickie was remarkably short, but I appreciate that was probably an authorial choice there, to make it seem as sporadic and unhinged as possible. It’s over and done with in a paragraph. The final quarter of the novel, based around Ripley’s merry dance with the police forces and Dickie’s friends and family, starts to get a little ploddy and repetitive and then BAM the novel seems to end rather suddenly. There’s a  real rushed feel to the ending, where everything feels like it’s coming to a sudden head for Ripley, everything is going to unravel and almost immediately everything’s fine and no more questions are asked. Really?! Even with the will situation?

Another interesting notion I took from the novel comes about mid-way through, before the police start asking too many questions, where Ripley decides he’s quite happy to travel the word alone with money and wealth and Dickie’s name over any companionship, for fear of being discovered. I understand that Ripley, being mildly sociopathic, has a misanthropic element to him but I believe he does likewise crave attention and relationships. He’s clearly been looking for something for a while: the way he moves around New York between different people, quickly realising he’s growing irritable and tired of them. He’s in part after their material goods, as if association is enough for him, but I believe he still desperately wants something more meaningful. There’s one brief glimpse of a genuine friendship with someone which has no ulterior motives – Cleo, in the novels first pages, but very little else. Ripley wants to feel part of something, to be appreciated but likewise, needs to spend time in his own company too. He seems to fail to understand that being and having both is fine: it’s exactly the kind of way I am; I enjoy my own company but do also need people around me – I’m not a social animal but I thrive off other people in the right scenarios.

*explicitly in terms of clear inclusion, not sexually
** which is oh so familiar with me and my crushes, minus the murdering (touchwood). Simon Amstell has expressed this similar thought before with his obsession with Ben Whishaw sorry, Ben Theodore in Grandma’s House “Do you want to be him or fuck him?” “Both? That’s normal, isn’t it?!”

Long Reads & Articles

Sugar, Sugar This is a fascinating insight into nutritional health and how we blindly follow any advice given to us because “they must know best”. Sugar is worse than saturated fat and evidence clearly shows its link to obesity. And when sat-fat is removed from foods, what’s added to maintain flavour? Sugar and salt.

Red Tops Revenge Newspapers would probably claim they follow the public mood – they’re just pandering to how people feel and what they want. The opposite seems more true; their readership may be declining but their voice is strong, and shapes public perception. It’s not immediate: but if you keep saying immigration is the biggest problem in the UK today, after a while it’ll seem unarguably true. This will obviously change over time – ‘news’ consumption online on these tabloid sites is fairly minimal, they give more homepage space over to viral sensations in the hope for clicks. Actual ‘news’ can be hard to come by.

False Memovies Do you have any false memories? Or things you seem to remember, try Googling and nothing pops up? If it’s not on the internet, can it have existed? We think of the internet as a know-it-all tool, but there’s so many swathes of cultural history just missing from it. This became incredibly apparent to me when I tried Googling information on old chain stores and supermarkets and little pops up. What about if people collectively remember something, or believe they do, but there’s no proof?

Diamonds Are For Trevor I read this article agessssss ago (it’s nearly a year old now) but I don’t think I ever posted a link on the blog.