Friday, September 25, 2015

'Some Luck' by Jane Smiley

25 September 2015

The American author Jane Smiley is still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'A Thousand Acres', which transplanted the story of 'King Lear' to an American mid-west farming community. I've just finished reading 'Some Luck' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Lorelei King), the first in a planned trilogy of novels by Jane Smiley called 'The Last Hundred Years'. 'Some Luck' is a family saga, set on a farm in Iowa, which begins in 1920 and follows the family of Walter and Rosanna Langdon year by year (with a chapter for each year) through to 1953. It's wonderfully crafted and beautifully written. By avoiding the leaps in time common to many family sagas, the incremental growth of the Langdon family is a realistic and recognisable account of childhood. We get to know the Langdon children, their strengths, interests and characteristics, in detail as they develop, making the reader feel very close to the characters. The book also provides a clever sense of opening out – as the family grows and new branches appear, there are naturally more parts to the story for the narrative to jump between. Also the family spreads geographically – from the farm, which at first seems like their whole world, to their local town, to Chicago, Washington then New York, then to Europe and a more global outlook. This widening of view also reflects the period, as transport and communications develop through the first half of the twentieth century. We see the transition on the farm from horses to tractors, then the increasing affordability of cars and air travel. The remaining books in Jane Smiley's trilogy will take us through the rest of the twentieth century. I'm really looking forward to following the Langdons' progress. This is a 'Heimat' for the American mid-west – highly recommended.


Friday, September 18, 2015


18 September 2015

We had an amazing holiday in Iceland last week. We stayed in the centre of Reykjavik which is a small, pretty, modern town with a wonderful new concert hall ('Harpa') on the waterside. We went to three orchestral concerts there, including two performances by the visiting Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra with the virtuoso 'cellist David Geringas and a concert by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. This gave us the chance to hear some Icelandic classical music – the tuneful piece 'Eldur' composed by Jorunn Vidar in 1950 – alonsgide the Mozart 'Clarinet Concerto' and Schumann's 'Symphony No 1'. We also visited the Bio Paradis cinema in Reykjavik to watch an Icelandic film: 'Rams', directed by Grímur Hákonarson, tells the comic-tragic tale of two brothers, both sheep farmers on neighbouring plots of land in a remote valley, who haven't spoken to each other for 40 years. The film is beautifully shot, making good use of the bleak Icelandic landscape and the fascinating featureless face of the lead actor, Sigurdur Sigurjónsson, which reminded me of Wallace's dog Gromit (you can tell what he is thinking only from his eyes!). We took several trips out of Reykjavik to see some of the incredible Icelandic scenery, visiting the water spouts and bubbling hot springs at Geysir (from which all geysirs take their name), the impressive waterfalls at Gullfoss and the site of the world's first parliament at Thingvellir – lying on the join between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates which are moving apart at a rate of about 2 cm per year. We also set out to do some hiking in the Thorsmork national park (near the foot of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that caused the infamous ash cloud in 2010). We knew that our special giant-wheeled four-wheel-drive bus was designed to tackle rough ground and to drive across rivers but we had envisaged something like a simple ford. As we entered the national park we soon realised that the bus was actually going to drive into the middle of some quite substantial fast-flowing rivers, dipping alarmingly forward into the water before straining to climb out the other side. When we reached the main Krossa river we were told that the conditions were too dangerous for our bus to attempt the crossing. Some of our fellow passengers, who were due to stay overnight in a hut in the national park, made the perilous river crossing crouching in the back on an open-topped truck while we continued to a new destination on the near side of the river. We then encountered another tour bus which had got completely stuck in the middle of a river and had to be towed out by our bus. Our plans for a hike were curtailed by these events but we eventually managed a short walk along a canyon near the river before making the scary journey back out of the national park as the weather worsened. It was an exciting day which took us into what could have been scenes in a science fiction film and emphasised the stunningly beautiful but potentially dangerous nature of the volcanic Icelandic wilderness.

You can see a selection of my photos of Iceland at:

Labels: , , ,

Friday, September 04, 2015

'The Beaux' Stratagem' by George Farquhar

4 September 2015

I'm fast becoming a fan of the theatre director Simon Godwin. His swashbuckling production of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' for the Royal Shakespeare Company (reviewed here in July 2014) was a hoot. And his incredibly funny production of George Bernard Shaw's 'Man and Superman' at the National Theatre (reviewed here in May 2015) created a multitude of laugh-out-loud moments. This week we were at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to watch the live screening of Simon Godwin's National Theatre production of George Farquhar’s 1707 restoration comedy, 'The Beaux' Stratagem'. It was a wonderful show with a giant dolls' house set by Lizzie Clachan, original music by Michael Bruce and an excellent cast. The two lead actors were outstanding: the bewitching Susannah Fielding as Mrs Sullen, and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer who demonstrated some impressive dance moves. But Pearce Quigley came close to stealing the show as the butler, Scrub, with his deadpan delivery and vacant stare reminding me of Tony Robinson's Baldrick. I look forward to seeing Simon Godwin's next production.

Labels: , ,