Cultural Round Up: August

I am currently totally failing to meet my blog-posting/article-writing KPIs for this period of leave from my real job I am having. Anyway, here is a first attempt to address this.

Anyway, here is something cool: If We Don’t, Remember Me.

 Books

Singularity Sky Charles Stross This is an interesting a very readable book which is one-part ordinary spy thriller, one-part wide-ranging exposition on the vagaries of humanity and the nature of revolution. The idea of the Festival – an incomprehensible body which seeks information and in return grants wishes – allows a fascinating examination of the impact of change and disruption on people. The central spy drama is also entertaining with engaging characters, making the book very readable. I love the concept also of the Cornucopia machine which acts as a revolutionary device by undermining the  economic structures of a serfdom based society. Anyway, a fun read with a lot of interesting ideas in it, even if some of them are quite weird.

Winter Holiday Arthur Ransome Set in winter and introducing new characters, Winter Holiday  is a particularly delightful part of the Ransome oeuvre. At its heart are the adventures of children which one could really see happening, as well as some lovely insights into the nature of responsibility. I like the fact that in the book the children aren’t miraculously happy with each other all the time, that the older ones are occasionally annoyed by the younger ones when they do things that younger children do. The children are believable with their own characteristics and foibles, but they are also clever and resourceful in a way you would like your children to be. The new mantra in our house when people complain of boredom: What would Nancy do?

Television

Dexter season 5 This season of Dexter has some very clever writing, some fantastic performance – not least from Julia Stiles – and a deep sadness and humanity at its core. The horror that people inflict on each other is redeemable and understanding and love are central to that dedemption. Overall the season is well written and the central plot compelling – the major side-plot does just disappear at one point without further explanation and I do wonder why it was never resolved in the way one would have expected. But the story of Dexter and Lumen was compelling, as was the story of how Dexter and his family recovered from what had befallen them. Worth it for the acting performances alone.

True Blood season 4 eps 1-10 With only a couple of episodes left, I would like to think that this season could pull itself together and make something a bit more compelling out of the general incoherence which has gone before. I’m not counting on it though. This season seems to have got itself confused with too many characters doing too many things that don’t seem particularly linked or driving toward some central narrative goal. Now that might be what life is like, but it doesn’t make for fantastic television.  Bits of story occur and then end and nothing seems to come of it, and nothing further gets mentioned. The journey that Lafayette and Jesus has been on has been torturous to the point of unwatchability, and ditto Jason. The central Eric and Sookie storyline makes me wonder what is it about season 4s and the need to neuter and emasculate the sexy arrogant male characters (see also Spike and season 4 of Buffy and Queer as Folk and Brian). Anyway, after what I thought was a fantastic third season, this has been disappointing and not nearly as compelling. I hope that before next season they plot it out in a more coherent form.

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Monthly cultural round up: June

This month, we’ll dive right into it.

Books

The Evolutionary Void Peter Hamilton This is the third book of a trilogy which I had been enjoying a lot, so it was with much excitement that I started it. Sadly, I don’t think it lived up to the other two. Perhaps it was that the Edeard parts which were so engaging in the previous two books, didn’t have quite the same magic. Or perhaps it was that the denouement lacked a bit of punch, with a number of major characters with very little to do. The massive imperative previously for some characters to do certain things (trying to avoid spoilers here) just sort of trickled away. Still enjoyable and still fun, but sadly not quite the finale for which I was hoping.

Peter Duck Arthur Ransome This is the first of the “adventure” Swallows and Amazon books with the children adventuring over the seas with Captain Flint and (as we know from Swallowdale) the imagined Peter Duck. Like the books which remain closer to home, Peter Duck is an engaging adventure with sly humour. Those adult of us reading may question the likelihood that a cyclone and earthquake would hit the island on the same night, but the small people readers are completely enthralled by it. Once again, easy-to-read, engaging fun which holds up well even 80 years after it was written.

Television

Game of Thrones season 1 (second half) So, last month I did complain that a few of the early episodes of Game of Thrones were a little slow. In the second half of the season we get the pay off. The politics come together, characters come to the fore and the episodes are gripping and exciting. Things you are convinced won’t happen do, and you stay glued to the screen through all of it. It is interesting how characters who seemed more stereotyped early in the season seem to break their shackles somewhat and how the story does not always go where you expect it to. Of course, questions remain like are there too many boobs? but over all, I think that the Game of Thrones  manages the balance and makes itself something that we are all now waiting for expectantly – next season is going to be a thriller. Must resist the temptation to read the books…  Other useful links include this illustrated guide to houses and relationships and the Buddy Comedy take on the first season.

Rome season 1 There were some interesting things about Rome and it was enjoyable, but it was not outstanding television. I think it suffered from too few central characters, which made much of the action seem somewhat contrived – the final explanation of why Caesar managed to get himself killed in the Senate (apologies if that is a spoiler anyone) was so contorted and contrived as to provoke one to say “yeah, right.” I also didn’t like the fact that the two central female characters were both quite so unpleasant and it was very hard to sympathise with either of them. I did enjoy the character of Octavian though – some very clever moments there – and also Marc Antony was rather entertaining. I also thought the depiction of the relationship between Caesar and his slave which rather well done. Nonetheless, while I don’t believe that we should fetishise accuracy in historical drama, some of the compressing of events did make it feel like Caesar was in power for a very short time. Over all though, I did enjoy it enough to contemplate watching series 2.

Art

The Art of the Brick Nathan Sawaya

On at Federation Square in Melbourne, this exhibition demonstrated what all good art should do – very strong technical skills but also imagination and inspiration. I think I was less impressed by some of the nonetheless highly impressive exhibits, like the large-sized Parthenon where the technical skill was mostly demonstrated, and more impressed by the ones like Mask which demonstrated a strong use of the medium to convey different ideas and emotions. A further up-side of the exhibition – it is something which small people will enjoy. It was also beautifully curated, with the white and black backgrounds allowing the colours of the Lego to shine. Well worth seeing, it goes beyond the nostalgia for those Lego Exhibitions I looked forward to every year as a child.

The wonderful, timeless, Arthur Ransome

I am a working mother. I don’t feel guilt about this, I know it is the best thing for me and for my children, and I know that my children are well cared for, either by my partner or by their school or childcare. Nonetheless, it does mean that the time I spend with them and our rituals around it are just that bit more precious, as anything that is rarer is more precious.

One of my favourite things is story time. Sure, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some nights it feels like a chore when I am sick or tired or required to read the same hideously written Bob the Builder story for the 5th night running (and don’t get me started on Thomas the Tank Engine), but it is, even then, a wonderful time when I sit on my boys’ beds, with them cuddled up or playing with my hair or sprawled about and we take a shared voyage together.

The Swallows & Amazons series were books that I adored as a child, and I can still recall parts of them. I was thus delighted when, one night after a meeting in Melbourne I discovered open a little bookshop called the Paperback Book at the top of Bourke Street. Its children’s novels’ section was marvellous -and both Swallows & Amazons and The Eagle of the Ninth were immediate purchases. Once home, it was decided that I would  read it aloud at storytime each night.

I must admit, though I loved these books myself, I wasn’t sure they would hold up and how much the boys would enjoy them. The kids in these adventures don’t have computers or go to the movies; they sing sea shanties and do algebra in their holidays. Written in the 1930s, these books could be seen as existing in a different world, divorced from modern amenities and helicopter parenting. But they immediately clicked with the boys (well, the 6 and 8 yr old ones). The characterisations are such that my boys can identify with the children (especially the 7 yr old and Roger) and the simple adventures capture their imaginations. The boys love the details of camp life with which the stories are imbued, and the freedom inherent in a bunch of children not much older than themselves spending their summer sailing around a lake.

I have enjoyed rediscovering the books as well; not only are the stories engaging despite their simplicity, but Ransome also writes with a gentle humour that might be missed by the smaller audience members at times. The emotional engagement of the characters is the central attraction of the books, an they really do come to life. Starting Winter Holiday tonight, the boys can identify the children immediately from the descriptions of them as seen from a distance, and are excited by their reappearance.

There are challenges in reading books which are nearly 80 years old to small people, but they can be part of the enjoyment. The boys, who knew nothing about sailing, are now getting the hang of what jibs, booms and halyards are – and also are getting quite keen to have sailing lessons themselves. Explaining the use of terms like “natives” and “savages” opens up a post-colonial theory discussion around bed time. I must admit that I found it hard to read the word “dago” when it was used in Peter Duck, but again it, and “negroes” offers opportunity to discuss issues of both the past and the present. Similarly we can discuss changes in technology and lifestyles with children at boarding schools, lanterns instead of torches and having to fetch the milk from a farm each morning. The gender relations in the books are not as awful as they might be – Susan and Peggy do all the cooking and look after the crew because they are the Mates, not just because they are girls. And with Nancy and Titty around, there is no implications that cooking and sewing are what girls should be interested in. Nancy and John, both captains, are equals. One of the points of humour and horror in Swallowdale is the fact that Nancy and Peggy are forced out of their sailors’ gear and into pretty dresses for the benefit of their (much despised) Great Aunt.

We have now read the first three of the series, and are onto number 4, with number  awaiting us on the shelf. It was an anxious wait until Winter Holiday turned up today from the Book Depository. I am just happy to have found a wonderful way to share my story time with my boys, transported to another world, engendering in them a love of sailing, adventures and, most of all, reading.

Cultural Update: April

So, April being the cruelest month and all, my cultural intake was somewhat diminished. Too much busy-ness in other directions.

Before we start, as usual, some link-tasticness. Here Literary Minded exhorts us to read more books by women. I know my own reading list tends to be male dominated, though I do have a number of women writers I will return to again and again. I have taken a conscious decision to try a couple of women sci fi writers who are new to me, and their books are in my reading-pile-of-doom. Updates in later months.

Books

Swallowdale Arthur Ransome This is the second in the series, and once again it was enjoyed read aloud to small boys. These books are joyous in their simplicity – the children do what children do and the small boys can imagine themselves in these positions. I love how they have become obsessed with the idea of learning to sail and how they delight in the detail of the camps and the food and the sailing ships. We are soon to have a feast of pemmican and ginger beer. I enjoy reading them for the sly humour they have and the clever turns of phrase which are used. All in all, an enjoyable bedtime reading experience.

Film

Paul I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be funnier. For me, the most entertaining bits came with the cute nerdiness of the central protagnists which was not over done as it is in say The Big Bang Theory but which hit the right amusing tropes. The rest of the film was not offensive and it was pleasantly enjoyable in an almost instantly forgettable sort of way. Cute sci fi references towards the end also. It was all fairly well executed, but didn’t raise a belly laugh or really establish itself as cultural icon which will resonante for years in the way the shoot out scene in Spaced has turned into an instant cult classic.

Television

The Killing Speaking of instant cult classics, this Danish program has certainly been popular amongst a certain group of the Twitterati. It draws you into its complexity, with beautiful portraits of people in challenging situations. Its key protaganists are all highly flawed and there is no CSI style simple denouements at the end of 45 minutes. Compelling, beautifully filmed and acted, it is the kind of show that you get drawn to watching two or three episodes in one evening. Sarah Lund, the central character, is a wonderful invention – all baggy jumpers, jeans and pony-tails, struggling to cope with upheavals in her own life. I found really interesting the way that the show touched on racial and immigration politics in Denmark – how it underscores some of the action without being overtly preachy. It is a clever series, worth the investment of time and I can’t say too much more because I wouldn’t want to spoil it. You’ll forget about the subtitles (if they bother you) very quickly. It is going to be very interesting to see how a US version translates it all.

Cultural Update: December

So I am clearly a bit late with this and also with end of year summaries. These may occur. However I will plead the fact that I have been off-line for two weeks as a mitigating factor. Anyhow, here is the latest offering, noting that the films for the month are covered elsewhere.

Books

Lavinia Ursula Le Guin This was very readable, and a lovely re-reading of history placing women and the world of women at the centre of what is usually very male dominated history. I enjoyed it, but part of me wanted to like it more. I thought that dragged slightly in the second half, and while the Vergil conceit was interesting, I am not sure if ultimately it added much. But it was very readable and a lovely characterisation of Lavinia and the role of women.

Zero History William Gibson This was wonderful. I think I liked it even more than Spook Country, the denouement of which was slightly anti-climatic. I felt the characterisations in Zero History were wonderful; particularly the growth of Milgrim, the wonderful abrasiveness of Heidi and whats—her-name coming to find her own way through the world. I love how Gibson engages with the present but touches the future in a way which is fascinating and tantilising, but is not the ultimate point of his work. The characters and their grasp on the world is what ultimately is most important, and the story is merely the mechanism to get them there. Am looking forward to finding some time to read it again – immediately after Pattern Recognition (which I totally adored, although that might have been in part because I was teaching semiotics and the Circle of Culture at the time) and Spook Country.

Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome A favourite book from my childhood, unread for countless years (well, I probably can count them, but not going to share that information), this was read aloud to small boys – a chance to share something loved from my own childhood. Interestingly, the small boys adored it as much as I remembered loving it when I was young. A few things have to be explained as one goes; in particular the references to natives and savages (and stockings!) which provided one with the educative moment and a chance to reflect on the way culture has changed in 80 years – or even since my own childhood when those kinds of terms were not unfamiliar. But the basic story of children (including one their own age) going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake entirely by themselves for a week is still as thrilling as ever. Reading it as a parent, it is easy to see all the parental controls which have been built in, but it is interesting to ponder how many parents nowadays would let their youngsters do it. From my viewpoint, the story did not disappoint. While it is interesting to observe now how little actually happens in it, it is still very engagingly written with rather a dry wit. We are all looking forward to Swallowdale arriving from The Book Depository so we can follow on with the adventures of our favourite junior sailors.

Television

The Walking Dead This was interesting from the start. Some people raved about it and seemed to think it was the best television ever, while others viewed it as very genre driven. I think I largely agree with {insert review} but I will offer a few thoughts of my own. The opening scenes were brilliant but then it did indeed seem to sink into genre world – waking from a coma to find a world overrun by zombies is not exactly groundbreakingly original. The zombies were brilliantly rendered, it must be said however. The mixed race group encountered in the second episode was also so totally by the numbers (as I will write about elsewhere), particularly as most of those characters barely got past a surface sketch. I was interested when [NAME] at the CIC turned up and thought that perhaps there might be a little humour entering the equation, but that didn’t really last either. I don’t have any problems with a series about zombies drawing heavily on standard genre approaches, but I would like to see it add a little more than The Walking Dead did. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I just think it needed more purpose. Or something. And my final thought – why don’t the characters just call them zombies?!?! Surely we have to acknowledge that we have all grown up in a world where zombie imagery is rife. But there is no self-reflexiveness in The Walking Dead – which is interesting if, as reported, people like Charlie Sheen might be showing up in the next season as “walkers”. I am hoping that the next season builds on the strengths of the first (the performances were terrific for example) and leaves some of the tired cliches behind.

Doctor Who Christmas Special It was rather nice to be able to watch the Doctor Who special less than 24 hours after it had been viewed in the UK. And it was a very good one. While not detracting from the wonderfulness of David Tennant as the Doctor, I totally adore Matt Smith in the role. This special showed him at his best and was tinged by sadness in the same way that the other Christmas special which drew heavily on cultural references, Voyage of the Damned had. Clever writing and wonderful performances made this one a Christmas special to remember.