Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'How To Be Both' by Ali Smith

27 January 2015

I like a bit of ambiguity and the novelist Ali Smith seems to specialise in it. I know her novels, such as 'The Accidental' (reviewed here in May 2006), frustrate some readers with their unresolved plots and loose ends, but occasionally it's nice to read something that challenges you and really makes you think. I've just finished reading Ali Smith's new novel, 'How To Be Both' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by John Banks). It's a fascinatingly unconventional story consisting of two halves, both titled 'Part One', which can be read in either order. (Half the printed copies of the book have the parts one way round and half the other.) The two interlinked tales – of a teenage girl in contemporary Cambridge coming to terms with the death of her mother and the (fictionalised) life story of the (real) Italian early-Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, are full of parallels. George is a girl with a boy's name while Francesco is a woman living as a man. George can bring her mother back to life by remembering their times together in the present tense, just as biography can bring long-dead people like Francesco back to life. 'How To Be Both' is about being both male and female, alive and dead, light and dark. The novel focusses on the art of allegory, the technique of painting and the act of remembering (and forgetting). George lives in the place where DNA was discovered and the double helix acts as another example of 'both'. Both halves of the novel end quite abruptly (a bit like the sections of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas') and leave the reader with lots of unresolved questions. I think your view of the book would be substantially different depending on which half you read first. George's mother asks which comes first, the painting you see on the surface or the picture which has been obscured beneath it by an artist reusing a canvas. George says the earlier painting obviously came first but her mother points out that it is not the one we see first now. Francesco's story occurs both after George's narrative and (in extensive flashback) before. If you read George's half of the book first, there is a suggestion that the other half is George's school project to imagine the life of Francesco del Cossa – though this is never confirmed. 'How To Be Both' is extremely clever, intricate and fascinating, though it can also be a bit annoying. There is an excessive use of “he said, she said” throughout, which feels like a stylistic device that might work better in print than it did in the audio book. And this is not a novel for lovers of plot – it is a book of characters and ideas. George's pedantry, in relation to grammar and tenses, alerts the reader that every word has been carefully considered and there are beautiful layers of meaning and ambiguity in the text (like tiles layered upon a roof).


Monday, January 26, 2015

Milton Keynes Sinfonia workshop - 'Symphonic Dances from West Side Story' by Leonard Bernstein

26 January 2015

I really enjoyed taking part in the Milton Keynes Sinfonia workshop days on 'The Rite of Spring' by Igor Stravinsky (reviewed here in May 2013) and the 'Sinfonietta' by Leoš Janácek (reviewed here in April 2014). So I was looking forward to this year's workshop at the Open University in Milton Keynes last Sunday. This time our focus was the 'Symphonic Dances from West Side Story' by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein died 25 years ago this year and, as our conductor David Knight welcomed us and introduced the specialist jazz trumpeter who had joined us for the workshop, I was reminded of that amazing documentary of Bernstein conducting the 1984 studio recording of 'West Side Story' with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras (which you can watch in full at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjxWKL6jhC4). I played the 'Symphonic Dances from West Side Story' with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra in 2008 (reviewed here in March 2008) so I was fairly familiar with the piece. It was great to play it again on Sunday, with an army of fantastic percussionists behind us, a wonderful brass section and some beautiful solos from every section of the orchestra. I'm not sure our 'Mambo' quite matched that famous performance by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2007 (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlAaiBNCYU4) but it was great fun.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

'Contigo' by Marta Gómez

23 January 2015

I've been listening this week to 'Contigo' – the new album by the Colombian singer-songwriter Marta Gómez. This is a substantial collection of original songs that vary from gentle pop ballads to traditional call and response (backed by percussion and handclaps) to Brazilian bossa nova (sounding very like the Brazilian singer Monica Vasconcelos). The album is subtitled 'Songs with Latin American Soul' and you can hear a range of different Latin American styles in the songs. Marta Gómez has a great voice and creates cheerful, uplifting songs. It's beautiful music, careful, precise and laid-back but never boring.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Moriarty' by Anthony Horowitz

13 January 2015

I really enjoyed 'The House of Silk' – the Sherlock Holmes novel written by Anthony Horowitz (reviewed here in January 2012) so I was looking forward to his second foray into the Holmesian world. 'Moriarty' (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt – with a short coda narrated by Derek Jocobi) sees Horowitz take a less conventional approach. The story begins immediately after Holmes and Moriarty have plunged to apparent death over the Reichenbach Falls. Initially it seems an odd choice to have written what is, in effect, an imitation Sherlock Holmes tale – with Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard and Frederick Chase (a Pinkerton agent from New York) forming a surrogate Holmes and Watson. Jones and Chase meet in Switzerland and combine forces to try to bring to justice a vicious American criminal gang which has established itself in London. If you have any interest in Sherlock Holmes I would urge you to read 'Moriarty' before you hear any more about it. Without creating any spoilers I can tell you there is a twist. I was expecting a twist, I was looking out for a twist, I was looking forward to a twist – but the twist still caught me by surprise, leaping out and slapping me in the face. 'Moriarty' is a very clever novel – dark, intriguing, shocking and very satisfying.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

'King Charles III' by Mike Bartlett

7 January 2015

It's a bold move to open a West End play with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, but Mike Bartlett's 'King Charles III' is a clever and playful piece. Tim Pigott-Smith plays Charles in a modern Shakespearean history play, written entirely in blank verse. At first the Almeida Theatre production, directed by Rupert Goold (which we saw at Wyndham's Theatre in London), feels like a Shakespeare parody with a pantomimic quality to the initial appearances of Camilla, Prince Harry and, particularly, the ghost of Diana. But there is a serious purpose at the heart of Bartlett's play. When the uncrowned King refuses to give royal assent to a bill to restrict press freedom, creating a constitutional crisis, the dilemma of a principled man trying to do the right thing is incredibly believable. William and Kate are approached by the Prime Minister to intervene and the play becomes a political drama reminiscent of 'Number 10' (the BBC Radio 4 drama series by Jonathan Myerson), 'To Play The King' ( part of the House of Cards trilogy by Michael Dobbs) or 'A Very British Coup' (by Chris Mullin). It was also interesting to compare this take on the Shakespearean history play with Rona Munro's 'James I' (reviewed here in August 2014). I really enjoyed Mike Bartlett's last play, 'An Intervention' (reviewed here in April 2014) and his adaptation of 'Medea' (reviewed here in November 2012). 'King Charles III' confirms his status as one of our most interesting contemporary playwrights.

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'Funny Girl' by Nick Hornby

7 January 2015

'Funny Girl', the latest novel by Nick Hornby (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Emma Fielding) is his first period piece. Set in the 1960s it tells the story of Barbara, a teenager from Blackpool, who dreams of becoming the British Lucille Ball. When Barbara lands the lead in a new TV sitcom, the development of her fictional character echoes the real lives of each of the production team. Nick Hornby conjures up a convincing swinging London and the novel is warm and funny. While it was interesting to see the situation through the eyes of each of the main protagonists, I felt the sudden switches of perspective didn't always work. But Nick Hornby is always entertaining and readable, whilst smuggling some serious themes beneath the humour.