Sunday, July 9, 2017

June Consumption Diary


Here are some of my favourite tracks from my June listening.

NB: A lot of the later entries come from a Spotify playlist called Meet the Beatlesque, which I came across at the bottom of ELO’s discography.

Also: I was considering doing a ‘best albums of 2017 so far’ as part of this month’s consumption diary, but the coverage of books and film below got kinda long so I’ll keep my powder dry on that one.


Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (novel, audiobook)

I’d been thinking a lot about Millet’s 2005 novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, even though it was over a decade since I’d read it. So I chose this (it was one of two Millet options on Audible) and I loved it so much, even though I could compile a bunch of qualms about its length or structure or ending (all basically the same qualm).

It isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as OPaRH (oh, I never new the initials spelled that), so it’s less memorable, but also less flawed (at least until the last fifty or so pages).

But yeah, serve me up some more Millet, please!

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? by Robert Bartlett (non-fiction)

I’d read about this book at the start of the year and its title had stuck with me. It summed up pretty well one of the main questions in the novel I’m working on (like, how come 400 years ago a guy could levitate 300+ times and convinced the Inquisition he was legit and not committing witchcraft and there was enough proof to be beatified and canonised after his death... and yet we don’t seem to have the capacity to believe in levitation today – so who’s wrong: the people 400 years ago, or us? Or is there a third way?)

Anyway, this book is about the cult of saints within Catholicism, from the early Christian Martyrs through to the Reformation. So the "dead people" didn’t just do great things when there were alive (heal the sick, scrutinize hearts, friggin’ fly) but they can also do great things after death (i.e. answer prayers – help you pass exams or land a plane with both engines on the fritz). I admit I skimmed this prayer stuff (I can only ask myself / you all to re-examine one materialist bias at a time).

[In June, I also read a bunch of other stuff about San Giuseppe da Copertino (most of it in Italian) – things I picked up on my travels in Italy – but I won’t list every pamphlet]

The Neapolitan Quarter by Elena Ferrante (4 novels, audiobooks)

I listened to My Brilliant Friend in May. Actually, I read the first couple of chapters of the physical book in March or April. My wife was reading it, and I wanted to see if I should make time for Ferrante, but she (my wife, not Ferrante) but she reads so slowly.  I would still be waiting to get the book. So I borrowed the audiobook through my local library online service.

Did it hook me? Well, I finished all four books (none of them are particularly short - the audiobooks are 12.5hrs, 19hrs, 16.5hrs & 18.5hrs long respectively; 10 hours is kind of standard for a novel) in just over two months. But *in hushed tones* I listened to these books at 1.75x normal speed. This really helped me stick with them and meant I could listen to them (and a bunch of other books) over May and June (and a little bit of July).

While hooning up Autostrade 14 in Italy, I listened to just over half of The Story of a New Name (book 2), and wasn’t sure I’d get around to finishing it. It really got bogged down with the trip to Ishcia, where it was pretty obvious what was going to happen with Nino and Lila (and Bruno and Pinuccia) but it took sooo long. Maybe this impression was compounded by the straightness of the road I was driving?? But still: those few weeks on Ischia take up more real estate on the page than any other similar span of time. I don’t doubt the importance to the overall story, but were they the most important? And it's not like the narrator, Elena Greco, didn't plough through some SIGNIFICANT LIFE EVENTS in savagely sparing fashion (often these were the most enjoyable sequences).

Anyway, I did end up listening to the last 10 hours of Book 2 in two or three days once I got back to Dunedin because the loan period was about to expire -- I was still not really hooked -- but I went straight into Book 3 (Those who leave and those who stay). Its shameful to say, but I enjoyed this book the most because it’s about Elena’s burgeoning career as a writer.

I took a break between Books 3 and 4 and read/listened to two or three different kinds of books. Ferrante’s quartet is powered by this kind of violent charge that’s both repellant and intoxicating and I felt I needed space. It’s easy to see how the repellence of masculine violence and oppression of females can be pleasing to read (At last, someone gets to stick it to the [Italian] man); but there’s a lot of girl-on-girl pscho-emotional carnage, which is more unique. The pleasure derived from this can be a bit like rubbernecking (Oh my god, female friendship is the worst! Amirite guys? Guys?) but it’s only one of many painful pleasures being exacted upon the reader at any one time.

I can’t decide if the quartet is the result of incredible ambition or incredible restraint. Is it complexly simple or simply complex?

Beyond the prologue at the start of book one, and the way the narrator concertinas time in fairly standard ways, there’d been very little prolepsis / foreshadowing. But two-thirds of the way into the final book (The Story of the Lost Child) there’s a new section (the chapter numbers restart at one) and we go all the way into the present in a few pages, then rewind back to pretty much where the previous section left off. Interesting, but I'm still trying to figure WHY it was done like that.

There’s also an epilogue, which pushes us even closer to the present day and ends with an image/event with ambiguous significance. Like: I listened to the last five minutes three times and I’m still not sure what to think except: No Clean Answers.

Final point/crackpot theory: 

I'm really glad the idea of Lila (a computer wiz) hacking Elena's computer and rewriting some of the tale (which was hinted at early) was roundly dismissed by the narrator at the end. But it did make me wonder if the whole quartet of books was Lila's project, writing in Elena's voice, as a kind of revenge for Elena ripping of the Blue Fairy and turning Tina's disappearance into a book. Having freshly finished the books, I haven't gone back and read much writing about them, but I'm sure there's another four books worth of stuff on the question of authorship within the novels (let alone the 400-books worth of dross on the elusive author herself... All I can say is, if anyone had read all four books and still wants to track down the real Elena Ferrante, they're beyond dense).

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other clinical tales by Oliver Sachs (non-fiction, audiobook)

A bunch of case histories, all limited by the fact Sachs was the Dr involved in the treatment (often not the primary physician, sometimes only seeing a patient once). Even the title tale involves only two meetings and Sachs never hears from the man again. In my edition, Sachs ends almost every chapter with a postscript, often saying how many other cases he’s come across since first publishing the chapter/book, and sometimes saying the patient is still as they were 10 years ago.

Despite these limitations/frustrations, it’s fascinating stuff. I went to a talk a week after finishing the book and one of Sach’s case studies was mentioned, and I felt very in the know! 


In the air (return flights)

Get Out – Was looking forward to this. And it was good. But I kinda wished the baddies were more real (like Deliverance; not inbred hicks, but not totally overblown splatter-film villains). I mean, Philando Castille. Donald Trump. The world’s scary enough without resorting to Dr Frankensteins.

Lego Batman – Okay, so wake me when there’s a left-field superhero movie that doesn’t slip into the sinkhole of the standard superhero movie plot in the 2nd Act.

John Wick: Chapter Two - Hurrah! I haven't seen Chapter One yet. I didn't feel like I missed much in the sequel and I still want to watch the first one. Probably the mark of a great action film sequel, eh?

The Red Turtle – A shipwreck flick from Studio Ghibli? Yes please! It was great. I struggled a little with the shift from realism to fantasy (and back?) but every frame was stunning and helped carry me along. Great stuff.

Pork Pie – Not as raucous or unhinged as the original. And the raucousness and unhingedness were about the only thing going for the original (apart from the game of spotting notable landmarks and observing changes in the intervening decades).
West World – the original 70s movie – So hokey, so loose, so dumb. Amazed Michael Crichton was trusted to pen anything else; glad he didn’t direct Jurassic Park!

The Art of Scandinavia (1 episode) – I managed to catch the episodes about Denmark and Sweden on Prime (or Choice TV?) when they screened during the weekend (in March or April?), by pure chance. And fluked it again because the 1st episode (Norway) was the only one available on the in-flight entertainment. I loved Andrew Graham-Dixon’s docos when I was in high school and he doesn’t a) appear to have aged in the intervening 18 years b) varied his style one iota. Having rediscovered AGD, I’m afraid of stumbling across something online about how facile he is (which I kinda always suspected), or that he eats babies. Can’t I just have this portal back to the youth I misspent on art history and it’s all perfect and innocent and no one gets hurt? Please?

Bob’s Burgers (2 eps) – shouty, shouty comfort food.

Taboo (2 eps) – So much is packed into the pilot. So little happens in the second episode. Abandoned.

Back home

Better Call Saul (remaining episodes of season 3) – the only episode that fell flat was the finale. Everything else: man. I mean, it’s basically created a new genre: the scam show. It’s like they’ve taken one of those real life forensic shows from one of the channels with very high numbers on Sky (you know, where they try hard to distance the work from CSI shenanigans) and a legal drama where, with one extended exception (Chuck vs Kim & Jimmy) you don’t ever get to see the court room, and a police procedural, except you don’t follow the detectives but the people they don’t know they can’t catch. At the end of every episode, I’m like: that should have been sooo boring. But I was riveted. Riveted. And now I feel a little bereft. Come back Jimmy!

Okja – So this totally fell flat for me. Like, afterwards, I looked on twitter (it had only been on Netflix for 24 hrs so there was a lot of people talking about it) and everyone was going on about how they’d never eat meat again, but I think that’s an easy thing to tweet, especially when everyone else in your timeline has been saying they’re looking forward to this movie dropping… But gosh, it was such a sloshing slop bucket of tones. The timeline was hard to follow (the opening felt like it was in the future, then it flashed forward 10 years to the present day…). The premise was hard to swallow (that people’d buy the story of a superpig being found and 10 more superpiglets bred and raised for 10 years in 10 natural environments when a) they look nothing like pigs b) after 10 years the 2nd generation of superpigs reach maturity and to celebrate here’s a whole bunch of meat products from superpigs… eh? Like, if I was going to stop eating bacon, gimme Babe or Charlotte’s Web or a decent longread article. But not this.

Shimmer Lake, 30 Minutes of LessThe Trip to Italy, Win It All

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