Sunday, 19 April 2015

How to be Both, Ali Smith

To say that I was excited to read ‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith would be an understatement. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Bailey’s Prize and the Folio Prize, winner of a Costa Prize the Goldsmiths Prize and the Saltire Society Literary Book of the Year Award for 2014, and recommended to me by several of my friends, I began reading this book expecting to absolutely love it. While I did enjoy it, I’m sorry to say, it fell short of my (perhaps unreasonably high) expectations.

First, a bit about the book itself. The book is interesting in that it is split into two parts, one following the life of a Renaissance artist and the other following the life of a teenage girl in 21st century Cambridge. The two novella length sections are printed in a different order depending on what edition you have picked up, with my particular copy starting with the artist in fifteenth century Ferrara and then moving on to the teenage girl, named George. This makes the book very strange to write about as someone who began reading the book from George’s perspective may disagree entirely with everything I am about to say.

I found George’s story to be touching, interesting, well written and very funny in parts. When I finally did come to read this section, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I felt so connected to the character after 170 pages I could easily have read an entire novel continuing her story and will definitely go and read more Ali Smith novels off the back of it. The problem, for me, was with the first half of my copy of the book on the artist Francesco del Cossa. As someone who absolutely loves history and art I really wanted to love this but found myself a bit bored and disengaged with the character. Being completely honest, I spent the first fifty or so pages not having a clue what was going on. Admittedly, both parts refer to the other so I imagine that it is possible I could have had the same experience no matter which section I began with, and this experience of everything coming together as you continue reading is, of course, part of the point of having them split in this way. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it – it is very clever and very different to anything else I have read. But did I enjoy feeling completely lost as I was reading much of the first half? No, not at all. Had ‘How to be Both’ not come so highly recommended I would probably have given up after the first hundred pages. I am glad I didn’t give up as the experience of piecing things together and realising what the first half was referring to was fun. It just doesn’t change the fact I found the first half of the book a struggle. Reading a few other reviews of the book by critics, on Goodreads and on Amazon, it probably isn’t a coincidence that nearly all of the reviews giving this book five stars started with modern day Cambridge and many of those not enjoying it began in Ferrara.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book at all. This is an original and very intelligent novel that has some interesting points to make about gender and how things are not always what they seem. I particularly enjoyed during the second part of the book feeling that I was beginning to understand an ‘in joke’ from the first half. Without wishing to ruin the story, Smith is able to explore some very serious questions (some with more subtlety than others) without it feeling too preachy and moralistic, and this definitely deserves praise. And obviously the unusual way the novel is structured is daring and interesting to read with much written about Smith expanding the ‘boundaries of the novel’. But all in all this was a book that I admired rather than enjoyed, and for this reason it fell slightly flat for me.

If you are looking for a quick read or something to relax with or if you are looking for a conventional structure and narrative, this book is definitely not for you. If you are looking for something interesting, different and thought provoking, it is definitely worth a read.

Beth x

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Conflict, Time, Photography

I recently visited an exhibition at the Tate Modern called Conflict, Time, Photography. Luckily for me, my best friend from university is a member of the TATE and this particular exhibition is free for members and one guest so I got to go for free, but otherwise it costs £14.50 for adults and £12.50 for the concession price. This might seem a bit steep but I really enjoyed this exhibition and personally think it would be worth paying. So, a bit about it…

In short, this exhibition looks at photography of sites of conflict from the last 150 years. What makes it unique is the way it is ordered. Rather than working chronologically through the conflicts, the photos are ordered according to how long after the event they were taken. The first room therefore is called ‘Moments Later’ and shows the famous mushroom cloud, buildings as they are collapsing and one of the images used to promote the exhibition, the image of a shell-shocked US Marine in Vietnam taken by Don McCullin. You then progress onto ‘Days Later’, ‘Weeks Later’, ‘Months Later’ and then ‘Years Later’ which spans from one year to one hundred years after a conflict. I thought this was an interesting way of ordering it and allowed you to see that while some cities (Berlin, for example) have been able to rebuild and recover from conflict, others have remained badly affected and some, deserted entirely.

One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was that it did not concentrate completely on any one conflict. There were images from World War I and II, two conflicts I feel that I know quite a lot about, but there were others from the Armenian conflict of 1915-1918, Namibia from 1966-1990, Angola from 1975-2002, Nicaragua from 1978-1979 to name but a few, that I knew less about and had never seen many images of. I realise this says more about my own ignorance than anything else, but even so, I appreciated that there were a wide range of conflicts represented and lots of information to read giving you context on the way around. I think many of the images in this exhibition needed a bit of explanation, particularly those that were in the later rooms and taken nearly 100 years after a conflict, but that the curators had done this really well. If you are the sort of person who walks through an exhibition and doesn’t read the context, there will definitely be a few images here you might not fully appreciate. One in particular that springs to mind is ‘Shot at Dawn’ by Chloe Dewe Mathews four photos which appear to show landscapes with no real landmarks, but are in reality photos of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice during World War I. The images, for me, were some of the most haunting in the entire exhibition.

The exhibition begins with some quotes from Kurt Vonnegut Jr who was present during the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. He was locked in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war and twenty-four years later finally published his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The quote as you enter is one from after the book was published:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”

This exhibition then forces you to do exactly that, to look back. I would recommend going to look back for yourselves and look at just some of the damage caused by some of the conflicts of the last 150 years and reflect on the many different ways in which conflict impacts on people’s lives.  

Beth x

Sunday, 15 February 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

I know that this doesn’t technically fall into any of the categories I set myself for my book challenge (see list here), but I don’t want to limit my reading and if I fancy something else I will just read it! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is something I have wanted to read since it came out really, but one of those that I just didn’t get round to. My parents had both read it and enjoyed it, several of my friends had read and enjoyed it and I had seen lots of book bloggers I follow loving it.
I’m planning to keep this review short and sweet as it is going to be difficult to write about without giving things away! SO here is what I thought about it:

In a nutshell: A word of warning, don’t look up anything to do with this book before you read it – this will be spoiler free but a lot of reviews I have seen, in my opinion, completely ruin it. All I will say in terms of the story is that it centres round a girl called Rosemary who has had a very strange upbringing. She starts the story in the middle, flips back and forth and remembers and misremembers parts of her childhood. What follows is an interesting, original and genuinely thought provoking novel, but not one that I am completely blown away by.

Would you recommend this book? Yes I would. Not my favourite book I have ever read but I really enjoyed it nonetheless.

How quickly did you read it?  This took barely any time at all to read. It has really short chapters in a lot of cases so I was able to read a chapter or two on my commute to and from work which was great.

Why did you choose to read this book? As I said above, it had been recommended by lots of people, nominated for a few prizes and my dad had a copy which I borrowed. I also knew absolutely nothing about the story which I think is a really good thing anyway, but particularly with this book.

Favourite aspect of the book?  Honestly – the “twist”. I don’t think it gives anything away to say that there were lots of elements of the book which I didn’t see coming AT all. I know that lots of people like reading reviews of books before they buy them but I think the book is a lot more thought provoking if you go into it knowing nothing of the story (which is why I have chosen not to provide much about the plot in this review).

Anything you didn’t like? There was nothing I really disliked in particular, but I don’t think it has been the best book I have read so far in 2015. I enjoyed it and I couldn’t put it down once I got into it, but I probably won’t re-read it anytime soon.

Any additional thoughts?  This has been a book that I have enjoyed discussing as much, if not more than, I enjoyed reading it. It has certainly made me think about certain issues a lot more than I ever did before.

Overall this is one of those books that everyone seems to have read and have a strong opinion on and I would recommend reading so that you can decide for yourself.

I realise this has been a bit of a strange review as I haven’t actually said too much about the book but, I genuinely think that the more you know about this book before you begin, the less you will enjoy it. I think it would have ruined my enjoyment had I known anything about it before I read it, as the fact that the direction I thought it was going turned out to be completely wrong forced me to think about the book a lot more once the “twist” had happened. You will just have to take my word for it that it is a good read that isn’t too hard going and is really interesting to discuss and look up afterwards!

Beth x

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Alfred Hitchcock – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Continuing with my pledge to watch more classic cinema and more Hitchcock films I watched the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (see my full list of challenges here). This marks my 7th Hitchcock film in total. Here is what I thought about it:

Features: An incredibly weird and out of place scene in a taxidermist’s, the song Que Sera Sera, Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart, some cultural insensitivity in Morocco and a really tense scene in the Royal Albert Hall.

Plot Summary: The McKenna family are on holiday in Morocco when they unexpectedly become involved in an assassination plot.

Thoughts: This wasn’t actually a film I knew too much about before watching. I had heard of it and knew it starred Jimmy Stewart, but it doesn’t have the same amazing reputation of some of the other Hitchcock films out there. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by this film! I found it really enjoyable, and where others have found the first half hour to be somewhat slow, I thought it built up the tension really well as I knew something was about to go wrong but wasn’t sure of what.
I was actually pretty surprised when I looked up other reviews of the film on the likes of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, once I had watched it, as people seemed to be slating it. I have to admit, I haven’t seen the original Hitchcock version from 1934, so I don’t feel outraged at the changes as some people seem to be. But even so, in my opinion, as a stand-alone film, if you haven’t seen the original/aren’t fiercely loyal to the original, this is a fun watch. Granted, not the best film I have ever seen, but not bad either. Probably a 7/10 I would say.
I know I mentioned it above but there is one scene I have to quickly point out. A scene in a taxidermy shop that had absolutely no relation to the rest of the plot! Jimmy Stewart walks in, gets in an argument and then has a fight with someone, crashing in to stuffed animals as he does so. I found it absolutely hilarious to look back on when the film finished and I realised it really did have no bearing on the rest of the plot.

Cameo: Hitchcock’s cameo here can be seen while the family watch some street performers in the market place. He has his back to the screen on the left side of the crowd and stands with his hands in his pockets. This is at about 25 minutes in if you’re looking to spot it. There he is on the left of this image!

Note: I had no idea that “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” by Doris Day was from this film until I watched it and looked it up afterwards. It actually won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1957. You learn something new every day – I think that’s a good bit of trivia!

I will continue to watch and review Hitchcock’s films when I watch them! The next Hitchcock film I review will be Rope so look out for that.

Beth x

PS. Apologies for the delay in posting this – I have been busy with work this week and struggled to find time to write this up! x

Friday, 30 January 2015

Man Booker Prize Winner #2 – Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Carrying on with my challenge to read at least five Man Booker Prize winners this year (the rest of my reading challenges can be seen here) I read Bring Up The Bodies.
Note that Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, so if you would like to see what I thought about that book, you can see my review here. It carries on with the story of Thomas Cromwell but as I said in my first review, it is far from a run-of-the-mill historical fiction set in the reign of Henry VIII. I’m going to keep this review pretty short, as I don’t want there to be too much repetition between my review of this and Wolf Hall! Here is what I thought about it:

In a nutshell: I loved Wolf Hall a lot, but in my opinion this was even better.

Would you recommend this book? Absolutely. If you read Wolf Hall and enjoyed it, this is pretty much a no-brainer as it has everything that was great about the first book and more. I actually think it could be read as a stand-alone book, but I think reading Wolf Hall gives you a greater understanding of Thomas Cromwell, the main character, and explains his actions in this in a greater detail.

How quickly did you read it? I actually found this fairly easy to read so it didn’t take me very long, just over a week. The hardback edition I have has 407 pages. Honestly though, I really didn’t want this book to end and took ages reading the last few pages.

Why did you choose to read this book? Other than the fact I really enjoyed Wolf Hall and this also ticks off another aspect of my reading challenge, the BBC adaptation has started and I wanted to finish the series before the TV show caught up with me.

Favourite aspect of the book? Where to start? Seeing as I started this the day after finishing Wolf Hall, my expectations were ridiculously high. But this actually surpassed my expectations.
The writing is brilliant – I think even more so than the first book. It is less confusing in its style which was my only gripe with Wolf Hall as Hilary Mantel, instead of using just ‘he’, starts to use the phrase ‘he, Cromwell’ or ‘he, Henry’ to give clarity! But honestly there were so many parts where the writing was so great I actually wrote down some of the sentences in my journal or texted them or read them aloud to friends and family who have already read it. I don’t want to ruin anything but after the final page I just stopped and took it all in, it was the perfect way to end it.
Once again the book felt well researched, the dialogue was witty and it continued to give a fresh take on the period with the well-known story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as the backdrop.

Anything you didn’t like? I would genuinely give this five stars, ten out of ten, whatever the top rating is!

Any additional thoughts? All I have left to say is that I cannot wait for the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light which (apparently) is coming out this year.

Deserving of the Man Booker Prize? Yes!

I will leave you with one of the parts that I stopped to read to someone:

"The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it."

Beth x

Monday, 26 January 2015

Film Review: Birdman

On Friday I went to see Birdman with a friend from university at the Curzon cinema in Soho (which by the way is probably my favourite cinema in London!). Here is what I thought about it:

Features: A method actor, lots of jazz drumming, a viral video of a man in his underpants, a fight between two people who can’t fight, brilliant acting all round and lots of people coming out of the cinema complaining that they didn’t ‘get it’.

Plot Summary: A washed up actor known for playing an iconic superhero tries to reinvent himself by putting on a show on Broadway.

Thoughts: I feel like this is a really difficult film to review as there is so much to say about it I am at risk of writing an entire essay! Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) seems to have split the opinions of my friends who have seen it and of those coming out of the cinema I was at. I get why lots of people are complaining about not ‘getting it’ as it is definitely not a conventional mainstream film. In fact, as I saw it, the whole point of Birdman was that it went out of its way to criticise a lot of the films that are commercially successful. This was one huge swipe at the likes of Michael Bay and the countless superhero sequels with little substance. There is even a pretty explicit reference to the Spiderman musical which was on Broadway near the end. This was partly why I really enjoyed it, because it was really interesting to watch. The film is able to criticise how empty a lot of the money-making blockbusters are for not caring about art when making films, while also criticising much of the theatre world and its critics for being snobby and pretentious (Edward Norton’s over the top method acting and the judgemental theatre critic who writes reviews without even seeing the plays first for example).

I loved the irony of the once-Batman Michael Keaton playing an actor known for being a superhero but trying desperately to be taken seriously, and of Edward Norton , a known method actor, playing someone who takes their method acting a bit too far. Both actors, by the way, are absolutely incredible in this film, as is Emma Stone. There is one particular scene in which Emma Stone’s character launches into a rant where she particularly shines. You will know the scene I am referring to if you have seen the film.

Even though one of the overriding themes of Birdman is struggle and failure – failed acting, failed parenting, failed relationships, failed rehabilitation – the film still manages to have some genuinely funny moments to lighten the mood. There was also some great dialogue and a couple of memorable lines – some personal favourites being Michael Keaton’s worry that he will forever be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question and nothing else, and Lindsay Duncan’s character revealing her snobbery by telling Riggan he is not an actor but just a celebrity.

Note: I won’t pretend I understand the technical elements of the film in any detail as I’m not a film critic and have never studied film. I did however, think it was quite cool that it was filmed as if it was in one take as it took us backstage and showed us some of the chaos of running the show.

All in all I really enjoyed this film, even though lots of people I have spoken to absolutely detested it. I realise there are so many elements that I haven’t gone into but, as I said at the beginning, it was difficult to know where to start! I have only included a couple of the things that made it a hit for me!

Have you seen Birdman? What did you think? I would love to discuss this with someone. How do you guys think it will do at the Academy Awards this year?

Beth x

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Alfred Hitchcock - Strangers on a Train

As part of my goal to watch more films this year (which you can read about here), I decided to try and watch as many Alfred Hitchcock films as I could. Hitchcock, nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense’, has so many classic films and had a career spanning six decades. He is often regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time and the few films of his I have already seen have been ones I have really enjoyed. Also, fun fact: Hitchcock grew up very close to where I did so I kind of want to know more about him for that reason too – a local tube station even has mosaics depicting famous scenes from his films as you walk to the ticket barriers!

So here is how my challenge is going: before I started this I had seen 5 Hitchcock films (Rebecca, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest and The Birds). This week I watched Strangers on a Train (1951) and here is what I thought about it:

Strangers on a train

This film features: A chance meeting, Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter, a slightly hilarious/slightly absurd fight on a carousel, an incredibly intense tennis match and some strangely catchy fairground music that I am still humming three days later.

Plot Summary: When Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and Guy Haines (Farley Granger), two complete strangers, meet on a train, Bruno Anthony has the perfect idea: “Two fellas meet accidentally; no connection between them at all never saw each other before. Each one has somebody that he’d like to get rid of…so they swap murders, criss-cross!”

Thoughts:  While I haven’t seen much film-noir, I really enjoyed Strangers on a Train. There were a couple of amazing scenes – my favourite of all being a tennis match where the entire crowd are following the ball across the court and looking back and forth while Robert Walker’s character, Bruno, stares directly at the camera. There he is, directly in the middle!

Another personal favourite was the incredibly suspense-filled journey through the ‘Tunnel of Love’ to some creepy fairground music near the beginning of the film.Strangers on a Train manages to be very atmospheric and creepy while at the same time having a few humorous scenes. I must admit, I think I laughed a little bit too much at the end of the film when I’m not sure I was supposed to but all in all this was really entertaining, very well put together, interesting and so different to anything I have seen that has come out in recent years, making it incredibly refreshing to watch.

Cameo: Hitchcock’s cameo here comes at about ten minutes in as Guy Haines is getting off the train and he is getting on holding a double bass. This is one of the easier ones to spot!

Note:  Apparently there is a remake of this coming out soon made by the same team responsible for Gone Girl – Ben Affleck and David Fincher. So if you want to see how Hitchcock does it, I recommend that you see it soon!

I will be watching a couple of other Hitchcock films this week and posting what I thought of them so stick around for that! I would love to know what you guys thought of this film, if you have seen it.

Beth x