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.

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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.