It is safe to say that my 20 Books of Summer Challenge is not going to plan at all.
With just under 4 weeks to go, I have read 10, reviewed a pitiful 5 and am half way through 2 more. 20 seems very far away right now and if my summer continues the way it has been, there is no way I’ll complete the challenge.
15 still might be possible, so I’m going to focus on that. I still have plenty of time for reading, but workload, kids-load and holidays have meant that I have little time for reviewing. I could give up sleep I suppose, but that probably wouldn’t help in the long run.
Having said that, we had a wonderful week’s holiday in Donegal, in glorious sunshine – YES, sunshine in Donegal – and I managed to read four books (although not all out of my 20 books pile!). If you get a chance to read Ruth Fitzmaurice’s new memoir I Found My Tribe, DO. You won’t regret it.
Work at Seamus Heaney HomePlace continues to be all-consuming and incredibly busy, but yesterday I spent the day with the legendary Bernard MacLaverty, so I can’t really complain.
I have, however, been very slack at keeping up with everyone else’s progress and blogs, so do let me know how you are getting on and I promise, I will try to resume normal blog upkeep very soon!
One of the positives to come out of this year’s less than successful challenge is that I read one of the most stunning books I’ve encountered in years. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a true masterpiece and while I’m not going to review it here today, it will get its own in-depth review because I loved it so much. If I read a better book this year, I’ll be amazed.
So, here are some more mini-reviews of the books I have managed to read from my 20 Books of Summer pile:
No 586 Gig: The Life and Times of A Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage’s entertaining and eminently readable collection of essays doesn’t exactly fit with its dramatic subtitle. If you know that Simon and his friends formed a rock band again in their mid-forties and you are looking for some insight into that, you won’t find much of that here.
Not that I’m complaining. Gig is a series of reminiscences, reviews and lyrics, strung together by Armitage’s undoubted love of music. So, you get reviews of gigs he has been too and some he missed, and family stories centred on music and most entertainingly, tales of funny, strange and downright surreal poetry readings. These are interspersed with some really powerful lyrics that Armitage wrote with prison inmates while making a documentary for Channel 4.
From being asked who would win in a fight, him or Jarvis Cocker, to being approached to be the face of Tetley Tea, Armitage is never less that engaging and self-effacing which makes for some laugh out loud moments, particularly when he describes coming across a copy of one of his poetry collections in a second hand shop – inscribed ‘To Mum and Dad’ in his own handwriting. He clearly loves music, and talks Dylan, The Fall (‘if you don’t like them, you’re wrong’) and The Smiths and his respect for those who make their living making music is evident.
His own attempts at the rock star life are covered in the final few chapters of this entertaining and amiable book, as he forms a band with his wife, Speedy Sue and friends and they write and record a few songs. But it is clear that the gigs he is most comfortable with are more the poetry variety and long may he continue to perform them.
Read On: Book
Number read: 161
Number Remaining: 585
No 585 Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner
I had such high hopes for Dead Stars, a vicious satire on Hollywood, fame and celebrity. The book features some real life characters, including Michael Douglas who is attempting to remake ‘All that Jazz’; 13 year old Telma, the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor, who has just been usurped of her title by a 6 year old; Jacqui, a photographer who rose to fame taking naked pictures of her children and is now trying to revive her career photographing by dead babies, and her son Jerzy, a paparazzi photographer who specialises in up skirt shots of young female celebrities. Dead Stars is, for the most part, wilfully offensive. Prolonged descriptions of pornography and sex abound and chapters are labelled as either ‘Explicit’ or ‘Clean’. Intriguingly, most of the best writing is in the ‘clean’ sections, but these are few and far between. Some scenes are fantastic, particularly when a failing writer gets the chance to have a meeting with David Simon, but the novel is bogged down with satire free, unpleasant characters whose spiel is often difficult to read, let alone empathise with.
It’s a shame, as there are some nice themes at play here – the need to be famous, any kind of famous, at all costs and the pain of mortality and how we face it. However, any insight is drowned out by pages and pages of unpleasant scenes, descriptions of pornography that are completely unnecessary, and thinly drawn, caricatures of characters. One to avoid.
Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 162
Number Remaining: 584
No 584 The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Over Hollywood by James Mottram
James Mottram’s well researched but somewhat dry exploration of the independent film-makers who rose to prominence in the wake of Steven Soderbergh’s incredible success with ‘sex, lies and videotape’, covers much of the same ground as Peter Biskind has done previously in his superior exploration ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’.
Taking Soderbergh as the starting and finishing point, Mottram explores the work of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne and links them thematically to the so-called ‘golden age’ of 1970s cinema when Spielberg, Altman, Scorsese and DePalma were riding high.
It’s an interesting premise, detailing how the Sundance Film Festival brought these filmmakers to the attention of the big studios who saw a financial incentive in championing them. He also explores how the filmmakers themselves played the system and tried to maintain that sense of ‘independence’ within big-budget cinema. Using Soderbergh’s career as the back-bone of the book, Mottram explores how these artists are using the Hollywood machine to create their vision of what cinema can be.
This is a comprehensive book but it has clearly dated in the intervening years since it was written and is in some ways lessened by its own constraints. By exploring only those filmmakers he considers part of the Sundance gang, other artists like the Coen Brothers or foreign directors like Alfonso Cuaron are omitted. Even English directors like Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle go unmentioned, meaning there is no wider cinematic depth to Mottram’s case. The book also focuses heavily on long, uninspiring descriptions of films, which give no real additional insight to the argument being made. Mottram is also clearly
The question also remains at the end of reading this book, did the Mavericks actually take over Hollywood, or did Hollywood use them to their advantage? Mottram himself remains undecided given Hollywood’s continuing deification of the blockbuster and the ultimate importance of the bottom line.
The Sundance Kids is an entertaining enough read for a film buff like me, but does suffer a little in comparison to Peter Biskind’s work. Still, after reading it, I have a lovely long list of movies new and old that I want to check out!
Read On: Book
Number Read: 163
Number Remaining: 583
So there we are, 8 out of 20 books reviewed! I will be reviewing No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July, which I liked a lot and the wonderful Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson hopefully very soon, I will try not to leave it another month before I post again!
Please do let me know how you are all getting on and what kind of summer you are having!