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Caryl Churchill - Escaped Alone (2016)

We went to see this yesterday at the Royal Court. I deliberately didn't read any reviews first, just trusted to Churchill and the performers.

Four women in a garden, talking. Expecting to be heard.

It's weird. Elliptical. Funny. Horrifying. There's a rant about cats, a conversation about absence, an episodic review of the consequences of catastrophe, a Dr Who joke. It's short enough (50 minutes) that it would take longer to write a proper review than it took to perform.

It turns out to be very hard to talk about afterwards. I'd go and see it again.

Here's a review I found today. It says most of what can be said simply.
http://variety.com/2016/legit/reviews/escaped-alone-review-caryl-churchill-1201692064/
The best thing to do after reading it would be to go and see it. Or not. Have a nice life.

Books and Films 2016

45 books, if you count Lagoon which got interrupted by Xmas and which I will finish later today. A good solid year with much rereading (asterisked) and backlist, including the Octavia E Butler reread. Highlights are the Jo Walton trilogy, Lucy Sussex short stories, Letters to Tiptree, Ancillary Mercy, Kindred and Fledgling. Similar number of books as last year (43).

Peter Ackroyd London Under
Jenna Bailey Can Any Mother Help Me?
Peter S Beagle The Line Between
Marie Brennan The Voyage of the Basilisk
Marie Brennan In the Labyrinth of Drakes
Lois McMaster Bujold Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Octavia E Butler Patternmaster*
Octavia E Butler Mind of my Mind*
Octavia E Butler Survivor*
Octavia E Butler Kindred*
Octavia E Butler Wild Seed*
Octavia E Butler Clay's Ark*
Octavia E Butler Dawn*
Octavia E Butler Adulthood Rites*
Octavia E Butler Xenogenesis*
Octavia E Butler Parable of the Sower*
Octavia E Butler Parable of the Talents*
Octavia E Butler Bloodchild and Other Stories*
Octavia E Butler Fledgling
Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Georgette Heyer Frederica*
Cecilia Holland Dragon Heart
Edward Hollis How to Make a Home
Lynn Johnston A Look Inside…For Better or For Worse
Lynn Johnston With This Ring
Alice Krasnostein (ed) Letters to Tiptree
Dave Langford The Silence of the Langford
Ann Leckie Ancillary Mercy
Cixin Liu The Three-Body Problem
Katrine Marcal Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?
Laurie J Marks The Moonbane Mage
Juliet E McKenna Trace Elements
Juliet E McKenna Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom
Naomi Novik Uprooted
Nnedi Okorafor Binti
Nnedi Okorafor Lagoon
Marc Stiegler The Gentle Seduction
Lucy Sussex Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies - The Essential Lucy Sussex
Sean Tan Tales from Outer Suburbia
Maria Turtschaninof Maresi The Red Abbey Chronicles
Alison Uttley Something for Nothing
Jo Walton The Just City*
Jo Walton The Philosopher Kings*
Jo Walton Necessity
Films
10 films noted, and probably more I didn't. Red Planet was pretty dire, the rest good to excellent.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Little Chaos
Aliens
Arrival
Florence Foster Jenkins
Mr Peabody and Sherman
Porco Rosso
Red Planet
The Lost Thing
Your Name

Here's hoping for better in 2017.
The letters published yesterday, 18th December, highlight a number of issues around adult social care, but did not include this one.

Our infirm parents do not rely on the state, but remain in their own home and finance their own direct care. They are of course very dependent on the NHS, a wide variety of domestic support services, their neighbours and their family.

The burden of bureaucracy and practical support involved in management of their health and affairs is a significant drain on family resources. During this year while I have been dealing with their needs I have been formally unemployed and practically underemployed, which deprives the nation of both my skills and the tax I should be paying. I am also misemployed, spending much of my time utterly unproductively filling in gaps in health, social care, domestic and financial systems to ensure our parents' needs are met and their dignity maintained.

More personally, while I am free to choose to do this and grateful to have the resources available, I am drawing on my own lifetime savings to fund this infuriating situation. This of course is compromising my own future and making it more likely that I will eventually suffer the fate my parents are currently spared.

We all live with the consequences of our past decisions. It would be good to be able to live well with them throughout our lives, rather than with this inefficient, ineffective and inhumane muddle of obsolete systems.


The letter column is here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/18/poor-not-pick-up-tab-social-care
Maria Turtschaninoff is a Finnish writer of YA fantasy, who writes in Swedish. She was a Guest of Honour alongside me at Swecon this year, and I am pleased that she gave me a copy of Maresi, her first book to be translated into English. I am looking forward to meeting her again at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.

Maresi has grown up in the Red Abbey, on an island inhabited solely by women, a refuge for girls who have no place in their own societies. Some come to the island as refugees, others are sent by their families to benefit from the safety and education afforded by the Abbey. Maresi is on the verge of adulthood, but has not yet found her adult calling. When the island is threatened, Maresi comes into her own. Her destiny is not what she thought it would be.

This is beautifully written, and a beautifully made book. It will sit very happily on my shelves in the company of The Wizard of Earthsea and the Dalemark quartet by Diana Wynne Jones, and I shall look for more Red Abbey Chronicles bye-and-bye.


Edit to note that this may be the first time this year I have read a book in a day, aided by two forty minute train journeys and the lethargy induced by a boozy lunch.

Naomi Novik - Uprooted (2015)

Very glad to pick this up in the Dealers Room at Novacon (from http://www.booksonthehill.co.uk) as it won the Nebula and was shortlisted for the Hugo.

Um. It's a perfectly good book and I enjoyed reading it.

I should stop there. It's not fair to pick at a perfectly good book about which I have no real complaints. But I find myself underwhelmed. I like Novik's Temeraire books for their consideration of multiple different kinds of engagement between humans and dragons, and was hoping for something like that in this book, but I didn't find anything.

Agnieszka, a simple country girl, aged seventeen, deals simply with her simple problems. After she is plucked from her childhood she grows into her magic, saves her friend, wins the war, finds her way home. The landscape is well-realised, people are nice (except when misguided), the magic system is charming, evil is sinister, messy attempts to deal with the evil well conveyed.

On reflection, I think the first person narrative is the problem for me. As a mode of writing it's supposed to provide immediacy and immersion, but focussed through Agnieszka's simplicity I felt detached from the action, and impatient with the characters.

Don't let me stop you reading this if young adult fantasy is your thing. It's perfectly fine. Really. Every age needs its high body count comfort reading.

Did this really win the Nebula? Against Ancillary Mercy? WTF?

This year's tomato plants

Pulled up today, still ripening but we've had a couple of frosts and some are splitting. I think I still got the record for last outdoor tomato in Ilford though.

This year's plants came from Morrisons and were Sun Cherry and Gardener's Delight - both good.

Sean Tan - The Lost Thing

Thanks Mark.

Buying a domestic projector

Amazon seems to be selling projectors with slashed prices so that I could buy one for under £75. (When I looked last year they were £150 or so and up.)

Anyone got any recommendations/warnings? I just want one that will project photos/slides/videos from a laptop (or USB stick would be cool) onto a kitchen wall, so maximum projected image size only needs to be about 5 feet square.

Anyone know why they have suddenly dropped in price, if it's sudden?

While we were in Sweden in June we visited the Linneaus Garden at the University of Uppsala, and took a load of photos.

The garden was fascinating and there is a virtual tour of it here:
http://www.linnaeus.uu.se/tradgardsvandring/indexEng.php

My photos are here:
https://www.flickr.com/gp/57536449@N07/u35Bb8

I can recommend Uppsala for a short break - there were two botanic gardens (I didn't get to the other) and a lovely little museum.
Lovely picture book of short, disturbing, fantastic tales. Reminds me of Joan Aiken, Angela Carter, Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey.

Brian asked me to read this, as he felt the book talked in an interesting way about interesting ideas.

It's a collection of short stories and novellas, with one non-fiction article, published between 1980 and 1990. Stiegler must have made a bit of a name for himself, because he garnered Nebula and Prometheus award nominations in this period. Prior to Brian's recommendation I had never heard of him.

The best story in the book is the title story, The Gentle Seduction, which is copyright 1989. It's Stiegler's take on Vinge's Singularity, it is a classic example of the conversation of science fiction, and if it's not necessarily the best idea in the book it is by far the best executed. Since it is the last story in the collection it went some way to redeem the rest.

I got very frustrated reading the other stories, as Stiegler repeatedly told me his ideas instead of showing them and telegraphed his endings. But it's not the case that he got to be a better writer with time. He is a writer of ideas, and the best of the rest was Petals of Rose (1981), which, in the hands of a better writer, could have been a brilliant story, and in Stiegler's did at least get across unsettling ideas effectively. I suspect if I went back and reread the others again I would have a little more sympathy with him as a writer of ideas, but as it was I spent a lot of time muttering about no-better-than-serviceable writing and flat characterisation. It didn't help me that several of the stories quite nakedly put forward a right-wing political ideology with which I disagree, though that is not a criticism per se.

The article is about hypertext as a tool helping us to achieve Vinge's singularity, and is particularly interesting because it was written from experience of the writer's day job, and as far as I can tell from his website, Stiegler later quit writing fiction to pursue his technical career. These days however it is interesting as a historical document (liam_on_linux you might be interested) and I confess to only skimming it.

In short, not a book I'm particularly inclined to recommend to people, but an interesting read nevertheless.

Planting a tree

I've just ordered a Victoria Plum tree as a birthday gift for Brian, although it will be a little late as it should be delivered towards the end of November, and probably won't fruit for at least a couple of years. But better late than never. Both of us love Victoria plums, and he has fond memories of a plum tree in an aunt's garden when he was a child. They are self-fertile, apparently, although having the Mirabelle the other side of the garden should help to improve the yield.

When it arrives we will plant it near the house, more-or-less where an old plum tree stump used to be that supported ivy until I had it taken out last year. Meantime I will go and buy and spread some well-rotted compost to improve the soil.

I've ordered from Victoriana Nursery, as recommended by Audacious Veg. Sorry RHS. It was your catalogue that inspired the thought, but I don't really need to pay you £65 plus delivery for a tree in a pot when I can pay £20 to a recommended nursery.

https://www.victoriananursery.co.uk/Plum_Tree_Victoria/

Edward Hollis - How to Make a Home (2016)

This pretty little book caught my eye as I was browsing one of the bookshops at Tate Modern last week. It's one of a series published by The School of Life, which dedicates itself to developing emotional intelligence with the help of culture. I shall certainly be looking at their other titles with interest bye-and-bye.

This one deals in six brief chapters with ideas of "home", taking in a wide range of homes from (predictably) Frank Lloyd Wright through Winston Smith's flat in 1984 to (less predictably) street life in Bangkok. It is brief, pleasurable, engaging. Sufficiently so that I can in all honesty just recommend you read it, rather than requiring me to take the time to write a full review.

I am minded to work at least some of the homework. I may report back.
 

The third volume of Walton’s trilogy, Necessity, was finally published this year, so I reread the first two and then read on. To be fair, I really ought to reread Necessity before I write this …
       Walton continues her run of books that feel important to me. This trilogy is so many things. It is classic ‘what if’ science fiction based on a ridiculous premise. It is a vigorous argument with and feminist critique of Plato. It is a picture of and an argument for the benefits of a culture that pursues excellence rather than money or glory. It’s a love letter to philosophy and philosophers and art, and perhaps (as was her earlier novel, Among Others) also a love letter to science fiction fandom. It is a strong denunciation of ideology (specifically, religious ideology) as a guide to human action. It is probably other things too, but that will do for now.
        I wish I did have time to reread Necessity, because the first two volumes both feel stronger for rereading, and if the third seems weaker by comparison it may just be because it hasn’t benefitted from a reread.
        In The Just City the goddess Athene creates the Just City, trying to follow Plato’s instructions in the Republic. What could possibly go wrong? The tale is told by the god Apollo, by one of the Masters who works to build the city, and one of the Children who is brought to the city to be raised from the age of ten to pursue excellence and live justly. The Philosopher Kings picks up the tale to explore what happens when the Children reach maturity and become the ‘philosopher kings’, inheriting and questioning the goals of the previous generation. Finally, in Necessity, we step both forward to another generation and back to the founders of the city to open the story into a wider frame. All ends in the best tradition of science fiction happy endings: there will be a future for the Just City that inherits its past, but it will not be a future that anyone intended.
        I loved this trilogy. I would love everyone to read it, and argue with it, and write fan fiction set in Walton’s universe, and use it as a springboard to learning about the history of philosophy and art, and change their lives to pursue excellence and try to live justly. I think I live in a culture that does some of these things, some of the time. I can live in hope that we will do more bye-and-bye.
There's a cedilla under the c in Marcal by the way.

Subtitled "a story about women and economics" this is a peculiar book. It argues that economics as it is practiced is based on the existence of a fictional "economic man" and that when this collides (as it has) with a culture that defines man and woman and all their qualities in opposition to each other, so that "woman" is excluded from the definition of "economic man", the result is disastrous for our understanding of the world and ourselves, and for the management of our affairs.

It very convincingly contrasts the personal with the political.

I find it a very convincing argument (albeit one with which I am in prior agreement, so am obvioulsy biased), interestingly made, with some very quotable quotes, but you do rather have to fight through the rhetoric to get to it. It is very self-consciously told as a story about a story, and the relatively simple point made by each individual chapter is sometimes somewhat obscured by the telling.

You don't have to read this book to get Marcal's headline point, but there is a lot of interesting detail, interesting (and referenced) facts, and some lovely, and informative, one-liners. It's also very short and to its point, which is useful in a world of bloated texts.

"Seventeen percent of unemployed British women quit their last job in order to care for someone else. For men that figure is one percent." (page 173). That one has a particularly personal resonance for me right now.

She says nothing about solutions. Her story is told to highlight the problems. Solutions are up to us. Recommended for everyone who thinks there is something wrong with the way we allocate resources in this world.

Lynn Johnston - With this Ring (2003)

In this volume there are three generations of love and marriage. Elly and John are supporting each other, John's father, two adult children and an almost-teen, and they have a lot on their plates. Grandad has found a new love in the winter of his life. John has a new car. Son Michael is marrying Deanna (and manages to do so twice, in fact, though Johnson doesn't bother explaining how they get away with that). Daughter Elizabeth has moved in with an abuser, and is resolutely refusing to face the fact. Not-quite-teen April is negotiating growing older. Elly is coping with the mother of the bride, helping the couple furnish their new apartment, hoping Elizabeth is making good decisions, and mourning the childhood of her youngest daughter. There are glimpses of friends, supportive and otherwise. The dogs provoke alternative affection and frustration. Tender and funny, as usual, without shirking the difficult bits of family life and being human.

Daughter and Dystopian Litarature

Daughter's reading list for A level English Literature includes (though is not limited to) a section on Dystopian Literature: An Introduction:

Burgess - A Clockwork Orange
Orwell - Animal Farm AND 1984
Collins - Mockingjay
James - The Children of Men
Roth - Divergent
Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale
Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
McCarthy - The Road

And The Giver by Lois Lowry which I have never heard of.

Pity she's not going to read any of them for her A level as she has switched to Further Mathematics. I was quite looking forward to discussing these with her.
Borrowed from oreouk, to whom much thanks.

We have been reading Lynn Johnston's delightful cartoons since B picked up the first ones and brought them home to me whlle I was pregnant with daughter. We read them to and with daughter as soon as practical, and now it is a family tradition that she gets a new one every birthday and Xmas, on condition that B and I can read them too. If you have a family and are not familar with Johnston's work, may I recommend that you change that state forthwith? The online comic is here: http://www.fborfw.com/

Over the years Johnston has examined family life - at least as it was lived in some Canadian families since the 1970s - from birth to death and in every role and at every stage of life in between. Some aspects are culturally specific, but the minutiae of family life may be fairly universal, and I certainly recognise her characters and situations from my own life and experiences. I rate her alongside Gary Trudeau as a chronicler of the Twentieth Century. After 35 years Johnston is still going strong, and I plan to carry on reading her at least as long as she chooses to carry on drawing.

This very large book took quite a bit of reading, but it was worth it. It comprises 256 large-format pages: a long autobiographical essay by Johnston (62 pages) on how she conceived and developed the For Better or For Worse strip; 66 pages of Sunday colour half-page strips; and 127 pages of black-and-white strips about A Teenager in the House. The latter in particular resonated!

You don't need this particular book to get to know Lynn Johnston's families, and it may not be the best place to start. But for someone who knows them well it was very well worth reading.
Peter S. Beagle is one of the great writers, and this collection of seven stories and four fables includes some great writing. I am very glad to have finally read it - it has been on my shelves waiting for me for many years. Even when I took it down it took me a while to read: it was my bedside book from June to the end of August, and I only read the final story last week after we returned from holiday.

I have just leafed through to remember the stories again, and indeed, many of them will be memorable, particularly Salt Wine which I think is an excellent story in all ways and the highlight of the collection. In other cases I fear however that excellent writing is put to less than excellent ends. Don't get me wrong: I immersed myself fully in the stories as I read them, and wept or grinned or triumphed for the characters as led by the story. It is only with hindsight and in memory that I find the tragedies and high emotions rendered somwhat bathetic or mildly absurd.

Perhaps I am no longer the right reader for these kinds of tales. I hope that those who are find and enjoy them while they still can.

Edit: Includes Two Hearts, the sequel story to The Last Unicorn.

Friday Journal - films

I'm not going to review these, but wanted to note two excellent films I would watch again.

House of Flying Daggers is a tragic love triangle, with beautiful costumes, choreography and landscape.

The Wind Rises is a partial biography of a life lived to an ambiguious end. It also has a tragic love affair. It is an animation by Studio Ghibli, and very beautiful.

(I'm finding that as more and more film plots annoy me the look of the film is becoming the thing that I value.) 

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