The Sentimentalists by Joanna Skibsrud
The story of a young woman who goes to live with Napoleon, her elderly father, and his best friend, Henry, The Sentimentalists takes a long time to move away from its rather obvious metaphors – frozen waters, submerged villages – to address Napoleon’s traumatic experiences during the Vietnam War, which bound his fate to Henry’s in the first place. The novel is more moving in its depiction of a parent-child relationship afflicted, as so many, by poor communication than it is in its rather tepid treatment of war – the unknowability of history and ourselves as our only piece of take-home wisdom. The overall effect is, as with so many poet’s novels, evocative rather than discursive.
Kitty Wells Dresses, Laura Cantrell
The only original song on this album is its title track, but Cantrell’s albums have always principally been defined by her voice rather than her own songwriting. She has always taken songs from others, and here this is taken to its raher obvious conclusion – a tribute record to Kitty Wells, as if in some way that merely by standing up and singing the way she does Cantrell wasn’t paying homage enough. It’s a pleasure to hear Cantrell’s vocals again – brittle, warm and not a little sly – but after this taster a full album sooner or later would be great.
How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
A typical time travel paradox story, but with interiority: the ‘Charles Yu’ of the narrative is a time machine repairman, whose failed inventor of a father looms solidly over every day of his life, despite the fact that he disappeared years ago. You can see where this is going from the off – time machines as a means of externalising the desire to fix one’s past – but it is done so well that the novel in fact becomes all about voice rather than McGuffins. I was put in mind of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by the way in which the book tackles a certain personality type, but in truth this is a more rational, less mystical novel than that might imply. But with laser guns on the cover.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, by Steve Earle
Earle hasn’t precisely been at his peak for a while – the lacklustre Washington Square Serenade was followed by a collection of Townes Van Zandt covers which also seemed to lack something of his erstwhile energy. But this record is his best in a while, and stands comparison with El Corazon or others of his earlier work – tuneful, passionate and, ahem, ‘authentic’. Hurrah!
How To Train Your Dragon (2010)
Here is a standard animated film storyline – unappreciated kid becomes appreciated by shrugging off the offensive consensus of his milieu – which has a little wit, a lot of Vikings, and some dragons. One can imagine it was worth watching this in 3D, but in 2D it remains charming and somehow fresher than most sub-Pixar fare. If you’re entertaining a small one, there’s not a lot better.
Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
When I was a sixth-former, my history teacher loaned me a copy of John Julius Norwich’s Short History of Byzantium; that remains one of the two or three finest narrative histories I’ve ever read. So it’s no small praise when I say that Sebag Montefiore, in this volume, puts me in mind of JJN. Sweeping in scope, but with an eye for the telling detail, Jerusalem of course cannot pretend to be anything like definitive – but it is a very fine single volume history of a city which, if in its later stages it becomes rather more a chronicle of the various empires which fought over Jerusalem, never loses sight of the very real passions and prejudices which have powered its history. Something of a triumph.
Last of the Country Gentlemen, by Josh T Pearson
Don’t let the title fool you – this is no hokey old cowboy record. It is the acoustic chronicle of a lonesome troubador, for sure, but the former frontman of prog outfit Lift to Experience is by no means another Hank Williams revival act: his lengthy, plangent songs build a pained, faintly threatening atmosphere all their own, like nothing else you’ve listened to. It gives you hope for the unaccompanied singer-songwriter that a surprising – even shocking – album like this is still possible within the form. Essential.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Dan’s been meaning to watch this since it was first released, and as it was only stumbled across it on TV over Easter; but like most Wes Anderson movies, for those sympathetic to its aesthetic it is both beguiling and somehow troubling. This isn’t quite because it’s hard to know what to make of Anderson’s use of India – though it is – but because, of course, the artificiality of Anderson’s worlds feel designed for their ineffable effect. This may be a trick, or an empty stylisation; but it works for us. Not a classic, but not the clanger it’s sometimes accused of being, either.
We were pretty lazy this month. Sorry, busy. We were pretty busy this month.
Pulse, by Julian Barnes
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters wrote Salman Rushdie at the time of its publication, had more food for thought than a lifetime of Sunday papers; four of the stories in this mellow collection feature people who seem to get their nourishment from nothing but, and has some fun – in a tour de force of pure dialogue – at their expense. They appear in the first half of a collection which ticks up in quality and seriousness in its second – broad sketches giving way to melancholy meditations in what has been established as Barnes’s late mode: more ruminative, and slower, than before, but no less waspish for that.
Cervantine, by A Hawk & A Hacksaw
Cervantine is in many ways a more up-beat, lightly coloured affair than some of their past offerings: Darkness at Noon and Deliverance alike emphasised dark undertones and brooding atmospheres over sprightliness or melody. The band’s grasp for rhythm remains at the heart of the new record, but there’s an added dusting of what might almost be termed accessibility, were it not for the prominent bouzouki and tuba.
You can view the official video for ‘Cervantine’ here.
A Single Man (2009)
Aka ‘The film Colin Firth should have won Best Actor for’. Tom Ford’s directorial debut is, as one would expect, beautiful to look at: every frame just so, every hemline proper. The wit of the film is to make this perfectionism part of the point: Firth’s character, George, is hanging on to the drape of a trouser leg, or the fall of a cuff, in a world which makes little sense to him since the death of his long-term partner in a car crash. Gay in 1962 America, Geroeg cannot publicly grieve – even his only friend (a bravura turn by Julianne Moore) wishes he were heterosexual. Softly spoken, but finely wrought.
The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal
Though ostensibly about 250-odd Japanese miniature statues called netsuke, this is in truth a factional novelistic biographical travelogue about the European Jewish experience from around 1860. Its greatest moment is de Waal’s description of the Nazi entry into Austria in 1938 – it is evocative and emotive in the best ways, and risks putting the rest of the novel in the shade. Nevertheless, this is – like the netsuke themselves – a delicate, unprepossessing, and yet surprisingly haunted book.
The King is Dead, The Decemberists
A refreshing change of pace from the Portland band. As has been noted everywhere, not only is this a shift from Anglophone folk to countryfied Americana – it is also a reversion to shorter, standalone songs after the rock opera leanings of The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. With REM stylings (Peter Buck appears) and Appalachian echoes (so does Gillian Welch), the record might at times lack invention – but it makes up for it with infectious melody. A fresh lemonade of a record.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Few films today unite like this one: everyone seems to have seen it, or at the very least intends to do so. This of course means that it is neither edgy nor challenging – but since it does not intend to be, it seems beside the point to criticise it on that basis. It may be that it sweeps certain histories under the carpet, and here there is something more difficult about its pastel version of 1930s Britain. But it is also an unexpectedly moving film, and terrifically executed. Cinema needs films like this. Join the crowd.
The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
Dan has reviewed this hefty volume for Foundation, and found it hard to punch holes in it. Simply definitive, it suffers only from the sort of nigglers and nits of which any attempt to establish a canon will fall foul. In part compiled as a tool for the teaching of SF, this anthology of the SF short story in English will surely also form a standard work in the field. Essential.
Riverboat Soul, Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three
Sheer, wild, country blues abandon. The most energetic, joyous record released in 2010. Pitch perfect musicianship and delivery. Pokey LaFarge is no electronic innovator, but his brand of high octane pre-war Americana achieves a very contemporary attitude, and thoroughly deserves the praise which has been heaped on it. Simply the best good time music you could hope to hear. Treat yourself.
Broadcast on the BBC over the Christmas/New Year break, Toast is an unseasonal tale of bereavement and culinary one-upmanship. Filmed at the Black Country Museum (Slater grew up in 1960s Wolverhampton), we may have been disproportionately entertained by our spot-the-location game. If the regional accents at times suggested Wolverhampton by way of Yorkshire, Helena Bonham Carter’s was an authentic delight, and Ken Stott was good value as Slater’s uptight father. Perhaps a little cosy, and soft-pedalling the homosexuality, this version of Slater’s autobiography was nevertheless colorful, entertaining, and not always so afraid of the dark.
Nights At The Circus, by Angela Carter
This is not a novel from which you walk away feeling under-nourished; but partly its post-feminism is no longer surprising, and partly its fancier flights into fantasy feel disappointingly conjectural. Fevvers overshadows this novel, but surely deliberately Carter never quite allows her to spread her wings. Though the novel is exquisitely written, heady and challenging, I was somehow still left a little cold by it. Hm.
Pauper’s Field, Dylan Leblanc
Warm and stately, this debut record from whipper-snapper Leblanc offers little that would surprise fans of Alberta Cross or J. Tillman, but does so in sophisticated, expertly turned fashion. A great work of craftsmanship, then, and one which rewards repeat listens, when the subtleties at work in these formally quite similar songs begin to earn their dues. One for the long winter nights.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
To say we like this film is probably over-egging the pudding, but it was definitely on the telly in the last month and Dan certainly sat gawping at it for an indeterminate period of time. This until it became clear just what heavy handed nonsense it was; even the grave intonings of Jeremy Irons, or the wry gurnings of Brendan Gleeson, could not rescue it. Orlando Bloom acts far better in a long blonde wig, too. And was that Eva Green? Blimey.
October & November 2010
We were pretty busy. Sue us.
Trespass, by Rose Tremain
Tremain is here in pared-down form, telling the story of two inter-related families: one a trio of British ex-pats living the dream in rural France; the other siblings who live in a tumbledown farmhouse in the same idyllic landscape – the sister subject to a quiet horrific menage a trois with her brother and late father, which has scarred and stunted her. Some broad brush characterisation strengthens rather than simplifies this simple tale of revenge and a variety of innocences lost: it adds colour where all else, from the farmhouse stone to the poetic tone, is rather grey. Polished.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, Hawk
You do wonder how much longer Campbell and Lanegan will be content to return to the mine which yielded such gold on Ballad of the Broken Seas. Hawk, the duo’s third together, is a lovely record – atmospheric and gritty, whilst also being rather lush and melodic – but by the same token it feels pretty familiar. Still, Campbell’s voice retains its bite, even where Lanegan reverts to blues-by-numbers.
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” />Toy Story 3 (2010)
What more can be said about this beautiful piece of film-making? The Tory Story series is one of those rarest cases in which each film is deeper and more complex than the previous. If at times this third film isn’t quite of the calibre of the second, in other ways, largely emotional, it is its great superior. This is a surprisingly dark film, which despite a happy ending is fundamentally about irreperable loss. Never will you care so much for lumps of cheap plastic.
Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola
Zola writes in his preface that he intended his work to investigate the relationship between two people of entirely different temperaments – what he means by this is that he’s written a pseudo-fable about medieval humours. Thérèse Raquin is quiet and passive; her loveless marriage is torn apart by the arrival of her husband’s friend, Laurent – who has an animalistic, fierce personality. Zola mixes his humours and reports the results. Nonsense, of course. Nevertheless, this is a moving novel: away from the nature of the central conflict, there are some lovely bits of writing, and in particular the movement of Thérèse’s mother-in-law from suffocating harridan to tragic figure is expertly done. Entertaining, if at times inadvertently so.
Jakob Dylan, Women and Country
For a man that hid behind a band called The Wallflowers, no less, for so long, the cover of Jakob Dylan’s second solo album puts his inheritance front and centre: not only is its title a predilection shared by his dad, but the face that stares out at us – capped by a round-brimmed hat – is familiar from Nashville Skyline if nowhere else. The songs, though, are Jakob’s own: rootsy in similar ways and wordy in similar ways, but one of the pleasant surprises of this record is how individual it is whilst apeing an old Columbia LP on the CD face. Substantial.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
This was on the telly the other night. You forget how good it is, don’t you? Milkshakes and all that.