Books, Theatre and Movies

‘Rod: The Autobiography’ by Rod Stewart (2013)
I really did not expect to be so amused
and astonished by Rod Stewart’s account of his life. He is brutally honest about his rock and roll lifestyle and the hearts he broke along the way, all belonging to tall, gorgeous blondes. Must have cost a lot in legal fees.

‘The Last Queen’ by CW Gortner (2006)
The Last Queen of the title was Queen Juana, or ‘the Crazy Queen’ of Aragon and Castile, Spain, as she was dubbed by her detractors. This is billed as an historical novel but sadly it does not keep to the known facts or the actual chronology. That being said it is an entertaining story and I enjoyed the many twists in the tale.

‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver (2012)
This is a novel with a serious environmental message that doesn’t preach. I was intrigued by her main character, high school dropout Dellarobia, and rooting for her from the moment she ‘unsnapped her purse and counted her cigarettes’ before marching off in her boots for an illicit assignation. The science was woven into the storytelling seamlessly and the cast of characters is strong.

‘Fever’ by Mary Beth Keane (2013)
Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon’s, story is told in exhaustive detail in flashbacks. It’s a fascinating impoverished immigrant tale but I lost patience with the writer’s style two-thirds of the way through. The story got buried in detail. I reverted to wikipedia and other sources to find out about this odd woman who spent so much of her life quarantined, understandably so, since her poor personal hygeine was responsible for approximately 30 deaths while working as a cook on the east coast of the US. Even after she was proven to be an asymptomatic carrier and the cause of many typhoid outbreaks and banned from working as a cook she changed her name and went back to cooking. Keane tries to make her a sympathetic figure but the research shows Mallon to be a stubborn indvidual who refused to admit she was wrong.

‘The Informers’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2004)
If I had been able to read this novel in Spanish I would probably have liked it more. It seems to be based on a true story, certainly the tragic events described in the novel happened to many people in Colombia in the 30s and 40s. The father-son relationship is movingly portrayed but it’s hard to believe such an egotistical man as Gabriel Santoro Snr could exist.

‘The Long Goodbye’ by Raymond Chandler (1953)
I am embarrassed to admit this is the first Raymond Chandler novel I’ve read. I had picked up a batch of mixed Penguin paperbacks for guests coming to stay and when I ran out of reading material turned to ‘TLG’. What struck me as much as Chandler’s muscular storytelling style was that the novel has barely dated. Mobile technology and the internet aside there was rarely a jarring note in a novel published three years before I was born. This is the sixth of eight novels. I look forward to reading Philip Marlowe’s other adventures!

‘The Cleaner of Chartres’ by Sally Vickers (2012)
If Vickers had pulled back on the plotting of this novel it would have worked better. As it is, a fascinating story is overwhelmed by minor characters whose threads have to be woven into the larger tapestry. Ultimately it was unsatisfying.

‘Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)
Taleb wrote ‘Fooled by Randomness’ and ‘The Black Swan’ which both informed this, his latest book. It’s an odd book choice for me, much of Taleb’s thinking relies on probability theory, statistical analysis and my greatest dread, Maths, but the subtitle connected with me in the Heathrow bookshop and I ploughed through it. It’s the most dense non-fiction book I’ve read in a long time but the insights gleaned have already proved useful. Someone should make a Cliff Notes version to save others the pain I went through.

‘The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry’ by Jon Ronson (2011)
Ronson, who also wrote ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, is such an entertaining writer I reckon he could make almost anything readable. His encounters with mentally unstable individuals he researched proved compelling and confirmed my distrust of psychiatry. Once he gets his teeth into something, watch out.

‘The Storyteller’ (2013) by Jodi Picoult
Gripping read. Multilayered.

‘Alfie, My Story’ (2012) by Alfie Boe with Alex Godfrey
Scallywag opera singer and the most successful Jean Valjean to date. I thoroughly enjoyed his story.

‘The Voyage Out’ (1915) and ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (essays 1928) by Virginia Wolfe.
Good to read ‘A Room’ again after so many years. Stiil makes a compelling argument though the final par is a bit lame. The novel, her first, has some wonderful passages but is so overwritten it detracts from the story. She needed a stronger editor.

‘The Light Between Oceans’, M.L. Stedman (2012)
This first novel has done exceptionally well. This Australian author lives in London but manages to evoke Western Australia brilliantly. It’s an emotional story no Hollywood producer would touch which makes me like it all the more.

‘The Neon Rain’ by James Lee Burke (1987)
Staying with Anne and Charles we got talking about books set in Louisiana and Anne introduced me to this crime fiction author. She has the whole series and kindly let me this first volume to read while in Gascony. Quite a balls swinging in the breeze character with a great setting in NOLA, New Iberia and Jean Lafitte where we have just been. A most enjoyable ride.

‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.’ by Sandra Gulland (1995)
This is the first of the Josephine trilogy and written in diary form. I picked it up in a book exchange in the Tsaretta in Les Allues and was happily surprised by the quality of the research and writing. I intend to track down the other two books. Josephine was of course Napoleon Bonapart’s wife, but before she was his Josephine she was born Rose de la Pagerie in the Carribean, then became Rose Beauharnaise on marriage to Alexandre Beauharnaise who was excuted during the latter stage of the French Revolution even though he was a Republican. Napoleon renamed her when she wed him. She was quite a charmer but also very savvy and used her influence to save several necks during the Revolution. Quite a gal!

‘Gone girl’ by Gillian Flynn (2012)
This book is described as a thriller but I think that might put people off. Rather I found it a searingly honest account of a relationship gone horribly wrong from the viewpoints of the two people involved. I really do hope you read it so I won’t reveal any more.

‘The unlikely pilgrimmage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce (2012)
Joyce is a successful BBC radio playwright and this is her first novel. The storyline is unlikely and hard going at times but she writes with such honesty and compassion that I was compelled to follow Harold to the bitter end. Very English. Highly recommended.

‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the bodies’ by Hilary Mantel (2012 combined ebook edition)
These are the Mann Booker prize-winning novels by Mantel that chronicle the majority of Thomas Cromwell’s life from the time he returns to England from the continent and is employed by Cardinal Wolsey until almost the end of his career with Henry VIII. I found the first book the better written but was happy to stick with the second and was only disappointed it ended before Cromwell’s demise. Mantel is brilliant at bringing the Tudor period to life with her detailed descriptions and language. She acknowledges her debt to the historian Professor Mary Robertson for Robertson’s life’s work on Cromwell.

‘Indelible Ink: a novel’ by Fiona McGregor (2010)
I really wanted to like this novel as it is written by an Australian author and set in Sydney. Her characters are well drawn but I was never convinced by the decisions of the female protagonist, a divorced, dissatisfied woman in her fifties. Disappointing.

‘True Spirit: The Aussie girl who took on the world’ by Jessica Watson (2011 edition updated from first edition 2010)
This is Jessica’s blog of her unprecedented solo, unassisted sailing voyage around the world. At 16 years of age Jessica was considered by most people, including me, to be taking on more than she could handle in undertaking this circumnavigation (18/9/2009-15/5/2010). I eat my words. Jessica admits that luck, modern communications, expert advice and a conservative approach contributed to her success but what she brought to the project was a singleminded, intelligent commitment and never say die attitude. I will follow Jessica’s future endeavours with great interest.

‘Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson (2013)
I found this novel hard going at first as Atkinson tells and retells a life story like an interrupted ‘Groundhog Day’. Once I relaxed into the book I enjoyed seeing how the character’s deja vu changed her history and the impact of war on families and individuals.

‘Healing the heart of Democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit’ by Parker J. Palmer (2011)
This is the work of a mature, compassionate, intelligent mind and a labour of many years. The approach to reconciling the combative, corporate politics of today is a huge task but Palmer makes a compelling argument for citizens to engage in this work before it is too late. He calls it the ‘politics of the broken-hearted’ and indeed it does speak to those of us disillusioned and disappointed by our elected officials. I recommend it to you.

‘The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life’ by William Nicholas (2009)
This is chick lit written by a man and not terribly well. I don’t recommend it.

‘Deaf Sentence’ by David Lodge (2007)

Lodge is brilliant at describing the inner workings of the retired, deaf academic, his family and the mess he gets himself into. Drawn from life!

‘The Housemaid’s Daughter’ by Barbara Mutch (2012)

This was one of the best Ivy League Book Club books of the year. Written from the viewpoint of a the black African woman in pre-apartheid and apartheid South Africa and an immigrant Irishwoman who becomes her ‘Madam’ I was hooked from the first page.

‘Gypsy Boy’ by Mikey Walsh (2010)

This memoir is the most affecting story drawn from life I can remember reading. It’s funny and heartbreaking on the same page.

‘A Week in December’ by Sebastian Faulkes (2010)

Brilliant novel. Faulkes’s characters talked their way off the page and into my head. I’m still hearing John Veales’ cutting put downs and Jenni’s optimism.

‘Skios, A Novel’ by Michael Frayn (2012)

Perhaps the title is aimed at dissuading readers that Frayn’s characters are drawn from real life but I doubt it works. Oliver Fox reads like a young Boris Johnson and the professor is too cruelly true to be fiction. I ripped through this light satire in one sitting chuckling along the way.

‘Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland (2007)

This book is an attempt to reconstruct the real events, characters and motivation surrounding the creation by Pierre Auguste Renoir of the impressionist oil painting named in the book title. A laudable aim as it is a gorgeous, complex and important piece of 19th century art. Vreeland partly achieved her goal but at the cost of far too many pages of prose to explain characters and events. I found it hard going for much of the time. I couldn’t help but compare it to ‘ The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ which I devoured because of the skilful writing and compelling story. Not so with this book.

‘And Furthermore’ by Dame Judi Dench (2008)

I nearly forgot I’d read this book when in the UK. It’s no reflection on the quality of Dame Dench’s supplementary autobiography which I found illuminating. The Dame is a workhorse, the number of productions she has appeared in demonstrate a prodigious work ethic and stamina. Sadly it seems she worked to the exclusion of much else as the book reads like a chronology of her plays, movies and TV shows. There was time for a lifelong love affair with her actor husbsnd and her daughter but much else took a back seat. She reveals her humour and love of practical jokes and her loyalty to her mentors. I found myself comparing it to the Julie Walters’ book. Both are rewarding reads but neither are natural writers.

‘Flying Finish’ by Dick Francis (1966)
I read so much faster than Stu that our plan to swap books while on Karpathos is not working. Ipads aren’t beach friendly so I was reduced to raiding Evi’s bookcase. This was her only English language book. Answered my question as to why Francis was such a successful author and why HRH Queen Elizabeth adores him, he’s an engaging, succinct storyteller. The main character, Lord Gray, was interesting and the plot twists kept it fresh even though some of the jargon and slang is outdated.

‘Jubilate’ by Michael Ardith (2011)
Finally, a book with a convincing cast of characters, an interesting setting, a believable romance, and humour! Thank you Michael Ardith!

‘The Interpretation of Murder’ by Jed Rubenfeld (2006)
The author is a Yale Law professor. A very clever fellow who did a thesis on Sigmund Freud. I think this novel suffers from his efforts to show this cleverness with too many twists, digressions and red herrings. Still, it was a good read and I learnt a great deal about Freud and Piaget.

‘Fear Not’ by Anne Holt (Published in Norwegian 2009 and in English in 2011).
I’m sure this book is better in Norwegian. I can’t believe the author would be as popular as she is if her prose was this clunky. As a crime thriller the plot was ok and I liked her portrayal of regular family life in Norway with its blended families.

‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood’ by Rebecca Wells (1996)
This novel was on the bookshelf at Bella Baita. I lovef the title so I speedread it while there. Set in the bayous of Louisiana it reveals the history of four close friends and their families as we follow the self torture of one of their daughters trying to decide if she is ready for marriqge or not. The language and humour are engaging and made me want to experience Louisiana myself.

‘When God Was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman (2011)
This is an ambitious novel taking place over many years and incorporating real events in the uk and USA. I got quite involved in the family, they were all such interesting characters. I was less enamoured with the object of her obsessive friendship but overall it was a compelling story.

‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ by PA O’Reilly (2012) Such a treat to read a smart, humorous, sassy novel from a young woman’s viewpoint and set in rural Australia. Loved it.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ or ‘The Mellstock Quire’ by Thomas Hardy (1872)

We bought this in Dorchester, which is the ‘Castorbridge’ in the novel. It was much more meaningful to read this after spending time in Dorset. Hardy had a wonderful talent for dialogue and a warm regard for the villagers of his region. This truly is a timeless tale.

‘The Browning Version’ play by David Hare directed by Jeremy Herrin
‘South Downs’ play by Terence Rattigan directed by Angus Jackson

This double bill is one of the most intelligent and subtle plays I have seen. Both take place in different boys’ boarding schools. The first set in the 60s, the second in the 40s. Besides the fact that Stuart and his sister both went to boarding school from an early age, both plays featured the wonderful ‘Duck Face’ from ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, Anna Chancellor, and that great actor Nicholas Farrell. Surprisingly, the most engaging actor was the youngest, Alex Lawther, who played the complicated scholarship boy, John Blakemore. Both storylines turn on an act of kindness by one character to another and are touchingly real.

‘Moonrise Kingdom’ Directed by Wes Anderson (2012)

I will watch anything with Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in it but avoid Bruce Willis. This odd movie set in the 60s has all three so on balance I gave it a shot. Glad I did. The child actors are the best thing in it. Truly strange but wonderful.

‘A Man of Parts: A Novel’ by David Lodge (2011)

Lodge appears to interview Wells in his declining state just beore his death to answer questions about his life, politics, lust and love. Alongside the interview Lodge fictionalises Wells’ life and details his many sexual relationships. Wells espoused equality of the sexes but the adulterous Wells had a penchant for very young, beautiful women, even the 18-year-old daughters of his friends. Wells’ gender equality did not extend to allowing his partners the same freedom to love. Reading it today he seemed rather like a lecherous old man who used his power to seduce impressionable girls. Literary genius or not he’d probably be in jail today.

‘De Rouille et D’Os’ (‘Rust and Bone’) directed by Jacques Audiard (2012)

This Belgian-French film received critical acclaim at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, especially for the acting by leads, Marion Cotillard and ‘new face’ Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts. They were indeed outstanding. It’s based on the short story of the same name by Canadian writer, Craig Davidson. For me the plot felt like the male equivalent of a chick flick. A love story wrapped in testosterone fuelled bare knuckled fighting with resultant blood ‘n gore interspersed with casual, unprotected sex. Kind of ‘Rocky’ meets ‘Emmanuelle’ with a cute kid thrown in. I didn’t buy the basic premise, that an intelligent, beautiful woman would fall deeply in love with such a cro-magnon man. But maybe that’s a unique view…

‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett (2006)

Yet another gem of a book found on the shelf in an apartment we rented, this time in Paris. At only 121 pages it fits neatly into a handbag for metro journeys and queues. The premise of HRH Queen Elizabeth developing a passion for reading late in life and the consequences of that are hilarious. I am left wondeing how Bennett could so acutely portray the Queen and her inner circle and even more whether the Queen has read it. I believe she would enjoy it.

‘That’s Another Story’ by Julie Walters (2008)

Walters spends a long time introducing the family home and neighbourhood in Birmingham but once she gets nto her teens this autobiography fairly cracks along. The ‘Educating Rita’ star has a long string of stage and film sucesses and even more stories to tell about the twists her life took to get her onstage.

‘The Forgotten Waltz’ by Anne Enright (2011)

Enright’s storytelling is ruthlessly brilliant. Each chapter is a song title with relevance to twists in the plot. I was swept up by this obsessive love story and amazed by her ability to inhabit Gina and describe Gina’s lovers and the jilted wife. Not for the fainthearted.

‘Breathing Lessons’ by Anne Tyler (1988)

I love the serendipity of other people’s book shelves. This novel had been left by my landlady, Rocio, on her rental apartment book shelf. It’s Tyler’s 11th novel, won the Pullitzer prize and was made into a TV movie in 1994. She went on to write another eight novels, two children’s books, many short stories and has edited three anthologies. That is a woman with a work ethic if ever I have seen one! This closely worked family tale is set in her home town of Baltimore. All the action takes place on the day of a friend’s funeral as the main story teller, an emotional woman dealing badly with empty nest syndrome, observes events and recalls episodes from her life. The thing that impressed me the most was how Tyler could conjure such moving evocative images, such as when the mother, Maggie, describes her son, Jesse, evolving from boy to man.

‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ directed by Lasse Hallstrom (2011)
Lead actors Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas

It was only last December I read Paul Torday’s satirical novel that this movie is based on so it’s still fresh in my mind. Whilst I understand the commercial imperatives of film-making I wish they had stuck with the original plot and not turned it into a rom com. It lacked the bite of the book. Scott Thomas was the best thing in it.

‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman (2011)

Bought in a bookshop in Godalming I had no high expectations of this book. I was just looking for something different. This is Kelman’s first novel and it went straight to the Man Booker Prize short list. I hope it does more than that. I hope every British politician reads and ponders it because it has a powerful implicit message – ‘stop killing our children’. I am still affected by it. I hope you read it.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes (2011)
This was an airport purchase based on the award of the Man Booker Prize 2011 and the fact it would slip easily into my handbag. This novel packs quite a punch, dealing as it does with the vagaries of memory and failed relationships. For such a slim volume it is a very satisfying read.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal (2011)
This was Georgie’s April book. She never misses with her picks but this one was in a class of its own. Fundamentally it is story of the author’s family’s rise and fall throughout the tumultuous historical and personal events of the past 100 years or so. Using the heirloom collection of netsuke (small Japanese carved objet d’art used to secure kimonos) to trace the main characters
I got caught up in their lives and was devastated to read of the fate of several of them. This would not have happened without de Waal’s mastery of prose.

‘Comme Un Chef’ Directed by Daniel Cohen (2012)
Starring Jean Reno and Michael Youn

We were amused by this light French comedy tracing the unlikely career of an untrained chef. Both actors’ performances were good, especially the new face (to us) – Michael Youn. Even with my low level French it was easy to follow the plot and I found I predicted the outcome (not so good). Was fun to see Paul Bocuse referenced after visiting his eponymous markets in Lyon.

‘Big Stone Gap’ by Adriana Trigiani (2001)

This novel was on the shelf in the beach house in Fuengirola. Cover plaudits from contemporary celebs and authors convinced me to give it a go. Within five pages I was hooked on the first person voice of its neurotic anti-heroine, Ave Maria, and fascinated by small town Virginia. Unfortunately half way through I found the book was misprinted with around 100 pages from the first section repeated so I lost out on critical events. I pushed on to the end and would be happy to try the sequels to see where the characters end up.

‘The Artist’ Written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius (2011)
Starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo

This silent film presented in black and white (though shot in colour according to Wikipedia) is the most awarded French film to date. We saw it in Cadiz with Spanish subtitles which didn’t affect our enjoyment. It’s a wonderful movie but I have two quibbles. There was far too much lingering on the lead actors’ faces, especially Dujardin’s winning smile (although I know that was part of the silent era formula) and, more damningly for me, neither of the leads could dance. Yes, they could do the steps in time, but I wouldn’t pay to see them dance in a musical which is the premise of Dujardin’s career revival.

‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’ by Jamie Ford (2009)

This was March Book Club book. It’s also a NY Time best seller. I know because that’s what the author’s website told me on the ‘About Jamie’ page, along with all the other accolades it has reaped. The only other fact of note on the page is that Ford says he is the father of many teenagers. Good on him. I was glad to have the chance to learn more about the dark episode in US history when US citizens of Japanese heritage were rounded up and interned. Wrapping it in a teen romance told alongside worked reasonably well but it was awfully slow going and repetitive. Plus Henry was made out to be an old man when he was only 56. Sure it would age anyone to nurse their partner through terminal cancer but Ford made him sound like an old codger.

‘The Paris Wife: A Novel’ by Paula McLean (2010)

It seems unfair to laud this novel after panning Hemmingway’s in the preceding comments, but I honestly found this book a much more satisfying experience. I had not known the details of Hemmingway’s domestic situation so to read this accomplished fictional account of his first marriage and their five years together, much of it in Paris, was entertaning. I guess I now need to read ‘A Moveable Feast’ to get his version of events. As is often the case with ‘great men’ it appears Hadley Richardson, his first wife, loved him too much while Hemmingway loved too many.

‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemmingway (1940)

This was the February 2012 Ivy League Book Club book and I skyped in from Lyon to discuss it with the women gathered at Di’s house in Brisbane. Several people were away so this is by no means a consensus but many of us felt that it was overwritten. It has over 1400 pages covering action that takes place in only four days with a few flashbacks. I don’t know why it was not edited better. Hemmingway frequently said the same thing at least twice and often three times. The clumsy translation of the Spanish dialect and the euphamisms for the cursing were annoying. The basic philosophical questions it posed, such as: Can one condense a whole life of loving someone into just a few days? was a good one.

‘Frozen’ Direction and screenplay by Adam Green (2010)

Billed as a survival thriller but actually more of a horror film, we watched this on DVD at a ski resort the week temperatures plummeted well below freezing across Europe. The premise of a three friends stuck on a ski lift, possible for days, seemed horribly realistic but when I searched to see if it was based on a true story I couldn’t find any evidence. The script and acting are equally awful but honourable mention for the wolves who gave excellent performances.

‘Freedom’ by Jonathon Franzen (2010)

I enjoyed ‘The Corrections’ and realised when I read ‘Freedom’ that he had taken nine years to write this follow up novel – a social realist family saga. It’s very different, perhaps better, and I enjoyed most of the characterisations, especially the Richard Katz moody alt rock star who seemed to get the best lines. I started to lose interest a bit in the third quarter as the female protagonist Pattie became so unlikeable but by the end I did want to know how the characters would end up. One reviewer said that the long narration in Pattie’s voice was unrealistic and I agree. As a female jock she is unlikely to have had that facility for expression.

‘Et si on vivant tous ensemble’ (‘And if we all lived together’) Directed by Stephane Robelin (2011)

This French film language stars five senior actors, most of them household names, and one new face. The surprise is that two are Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chapman. As the daughter of Charlie Chapman Geraldine went to boarding school in Switzeland and became trilingual in French, Spanish and English and her husbands have been native Spanish speakers. Fonda was famously married to Roger Vadim for eight years so that explains her fluency I guess. The storyline is rather depressing as it focuses on the physical and mental decline that comes with age but the personalities of the five friends win you over. I won’t give away more than the title already has. It’s worth seeing on DVD.

‘The Best Australian Stories 2011’ Edited by Cate Kennedy (2011)

This paperback edition was perfect fodder for plane travel as electronic devices have to be switched off at take off and landing allowing me to squeeze in a couple of stories. I enjoyed 90 per cent even though I had only previously read Louis Nowra’s fiction. His is by no means the best story of the bunch.

‘Holidays in hell’ by P J O’Rourke (1988)

What a joy to dive into O’Rourke’s twisted humour and relive some historical moments and trouble spots in essays covering world events in 1987-88. So much has changed for the better but sadly so much has stayed the same. Hard to pick favourites but his essay on the Americas Cup in Fremantle immediately comes to mind.

‘Life’ by Keith Richards with James Fox (2010)

Our musician son, a second generation Rolling Stones fan, told me this autobiography was written by Richards talking to Fox as he recorded him, but I think there is more ‘Keef’ writing in this book than most people would expect. Richards has a particular voice and I believe he thought a lot about the words he has committed to print. I loved it all – the analysis of his own and others’ music, the drugs, his rock and roll lifestyle and stories of his extended family. The spats with Mick are legendary and completely understandable when you hear Richard’s side of it. Most of all I loved him describing how he created his music and his many collaborations, as well as invited anecdotes from an illustrious line up of mates. The man is a musical genius and a paradox: the devoted family man who slept with a gun under his pillow even when his small son was touring with him, the rock and roller whose hobby is reading historical works on 18th century British naval conflicts and World War II. The surprises are many and various. Richards has cheated death countless times already but I hope there will be ‘Life II’ or maybe the ‘After Life’ before he finally shuffles off stage.

‘Salmon fishing in the Yemen’ by Paul Torday (2007)

This novel had been recommended by several book club friends but it was only when I saw it for sale secondhand at the narrow boat bookshop in London that I got around to buying it. Torday seems to be a contemporary Evelyn Waugh with more heart. He has the same black humour but there is more of a universal message in this story. An excellent read.

‘Carnage’ Director: Roman Polanski (2011)

This started life as a French play, ‘The God of Carnage’. It has been produced successfully in several languages. Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with the original French playwright Yasmina Reza. The implosion of the veneer of politeness between the two couples and between the husbands and wives themselves was wonderful to watch and I thought they could have pushed it further. Just when it was getting really interesting it was over. And where were the kids? It is billed as an art house movie, probably because of the independent foreign production (i.e. outside the US because of Polanski’s history), but I think it is quite mainstream. If asked to pick best actor it is a toss up between Kate Winslett and John C Reilly.

‘The Scarlet Letter’ Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

I started this with the best intentions but it was so overwritten I was forced to skim. Did writers make more money if they published bigger volumes? This is one novel in serious need of an editor’s red pen right from the introductory chapter. Still I was interested in the notion of a strong-willed beautiful woman who transgresses the morals of the period – adultery – and accepts her punishment without revealing her lover. The whole religious self-flagellation was too much for me though.

‘The Help’ Director and Screenwriter: Tate Taylor 2011 Adapted from the novel by Kathryn Stockett

This was a rare case of the movie being better than the book. Taylor is a childhood friend of Stockett’s and had optioned the movie rights even before it was published and seemed to have expanded and filled in some gaps in the storyline. I am glad I saw the original English language version as the Southern accents and slang were integral to the characterisations. I can’t say how close the examples of racial discrimination in the treatment of domestic staff were to the reality of southern US in the ealy sixties but they were certainly compelling. There were also some delightfully comedic moments.

‘Carry Yourself Back To Me’ Deborah Reed (2011)

This novel did not quite live up to the cover blurb but then how often do they? Still I looked forward to it as light entertainment and liked the main female character. I see a Hollywood movie script here with Sandra Bullock and Mathew McConahey as the leads.

‘Melancholia’ Director: Lars Von Trier (2011)

Kirsten Dunst won a best actress award for her role in this but to be honest I am not sure why as I walked out during Justine – Part One. I grew tired of seeing her self destruct and in the process hurt her family cruelly. It was ugly and bound to get uglier so I left.

‘Margin Call’ Director: JC Chandor (2011)

This movie has a host of big name stars, including our own Aussie Simon Baker. We all know the story of the Lehman Brothers collapse, which I imagine forms the basis for this tale, but it still managed to be suspenseful as I tried to work out the chess game of who would cave in and who would stand their ground when the shit hit the fan.

‘Andalus: Unlocking the secrets of Moorish Spain’ Jason Webster (2004) Since I am in Anadalusia for three months I thought this would provide good background knowledge and easy reading which it was but I got rather bored two-thirds of the way through. Using the character of Zine to provide the narrative link was clever but again I wondered how much was real and how much Webster had contrived.

‘Duende: A journey in search of Flamenco’ Jason Webster (2003)

I enjoyed rereading this memoir four years or so after I first read it on Charmaine’s recommendation. With a few years of Flamenco dance study under my belt I identify more with his experiences. I do however wonder how much licence he took with the facts to tell his stories. He gets the name of the Flamenco bar in Seville wrong which always makes me question what else might not be quite right.

‘The Little Coffee Shop in Kabul’ Deborah Rodriguez (2011)

This novel is based on the author’s experiences as a coffee shop co-owner and beauty salon owner/instructor in Kabul so one assumes many of the characters are drawn from life. Certainly the story has an interesting plot and lively protagonists but I thought the style a little lax – too much of a bodice ripper for my taste.

Somehow I lost the comments I wrote on Charles Dickens, ‘Great Epectations’ (brilliant language and humour still has currency), Pedro Almodovar’s movie ‘La Piel Que Habito’ (suspenseful and unpredictable) and ‘Burnt Shadows’ (ambitious and enjoyable) the 2009 novel by Kamila Shamsie.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ Jane Austen, (1813)

What a pleasure to reread Austen now I have the leisure to do so. Some sage advice in there such as when Elizabeth Bennett avows she will only remember those things in the past that brought her pleasure.

‘Beginners’ Director: Mike Mills, (2011) R-Rated

I’m not ashamed to say I cried in this movie within the first five minutes. I won’t reveal the plot but just to say that it is based on the director’s personal experience and Christopher Plummer as the elderly father of the Ewen McGregor character was extremely moving. In Australia we had ‘The Sum of Us’ but I thought this movie better as it has more shading and complexity.

‘Midnight in Paris’ Director: Woody Allen, (2011)

I immensely enjoyed Allen’s Golden Age time travel plot set in Paris. The famous literary and art figures of the mid-20s were especially well characterised. Kathy Bates made an admirable Gertrude Stein. Owen Wilson’s voice can be annoying -he has been great fodder for comics- but he was restrained in this and carried the movie quite well.

‘Persuasion’ Jane Austen, (1818)

I had not read ‘Persuasion’ previously. Though not as good as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ it proved to be a good stress reliever after hours of listening to Spanish to switch into the cool English prose of one of England’s premiere writers. It struck me that Austen was a kind of Miss Manners meets Confucius of her time as beyond her aim to entertain is also a strong didactic motivation, especially in this novel, as she makes it clear what right thinking, right action is required of both men and women.

‘Close to Flying: Cadel Evans’ Biography by Rob Arnold (2010)

This was obviously published before Cadel achieved his top goal and won the Tour de France this year. I think that makes this biography all the more interesting to read as one senses the publisher thinks Cadel had got as far as he could with the Tour, a second place finish.

As my obsessed cycling friends would attest (yes, there are frighteningly lots of them out there) I am not a road cycling fan, I watch Moto GP. But I am one of many Australians who will watch the tour because of Cadel.

The 2011 Tour had many electrifying moments, often caused by Cadel. I understand now how he managed to go out so hard and so long on those critical climbs without support. His pain threshold is freakish and his will to win awe-inspiring.

The early chapters about his childhood and his five close relationships are illuminating. Certainly his mother is one very cool lady.

Cadel deserves huge respect and I hope to be watching him ‘fly’ in the Giro/Vuelta/Tour for several years to come.

(A recommended read.)

‘Margot Fonteyn – Autobiography’ (published by WH Allen, 1975)

I had no idea when I picked up the old, brown hardback book from my sister Joanne’s book shelf to bring for my travel reading that the life story of British prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, intersected so closely with South African political history.

Fonteyn, born Margaret Hookham, in Ealing, London but raised in Shanghai, was one of many Royal Ballet dancers I’d admired over the years I lived in London (1976-1982). She was a living legend for her iron self-discipline and her long career spanning four decades. She famously partnered Rudolf Nureyev soon after he defected from Russia at the age of 24 when she was 40 years old. I was curious to learn how her life had unfolded behind the scenes.

Her wartime reminisces and stories of her career and celebrity friendships told against the backdrop of world events such as the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution and the Kennedy brothers’ assassinations were compelling. I enjoyed her droll humour and descriptions of her extensive travels to perform in odd venues. In 1952 she played in Granada, Spain, and stayed up until dawn to watch the gypsies from the surrounding caves dance Flamenco. She appreciated dance in all its forms and revered Carmen Amaya.

Fonteyn came in for extensive criticism for accepting a contract to perform in the new ‘whites only’ Nico Malan Theatre in Cape Town in 1972. Her reasoning was that Apartheid was a domestic issue and she had long maintained that artists were beyond politics. In the end her solution was to add a performance for ‘coloureds’ in a ‘blacks only’ theatre in Cape Town. Since some white Apartheid activists bought tickets anonymously the audience was illegally 50:50 which at least provoked international media coverage of the issue.

She insisted on dancing for all who wanted to see her perform (and could pay her price of course), including Pinochet in Chile straight after the military coup of the democratically elected Allende government and in Russia the same week Solzhenitsyn was expelled.

She was also a central player in her husband Dr Tito Arias’ abortive coup in Panama. Arias was the son of the President of Panama and became the Panamanian Ambassador to the UN. Their love affair stretched from their first meeting in Cambridge in 1937 to their marriage in 1955 (there was the small matter of the Panamanian wife and three children he had to deal with once he realised he actually wanted to marry Margot).

In 1964 she was forced to extend her dancing career much longer than she wished in order to support her husband after he became a quadraplegic, the result of an assassination attempt by a disgruntled political comrade when Arias was elected to the Panama General Assembly.

Dame Margot Fonteyn finally retired from the main stage at 56 years of age. For that she has my lifelong admiration.

‘Three Cups of Tea’ (2010) and ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ (2011)

I’m supposed to be reading our book club’s August work of ‘faction’, ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks, but I am still deep into last month’s ‘non-fiction’ book ‘Three Cups of Tea’, that purports to recount mountain climber Greg Mortenson’s efforts to bring education to some of the most inaccessible areas of the world with the lowest literacy rates – northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately ‘Three Cups of tea’ brought out a string of critics who’ve taken issue with the factuality of Mortenson’s claims.

Maybe I’ll stick to Brooks’ approach which has stood her in good stead – find the kernel of truth in a story that happened so long ago no one can accurately dispute your version of events and tell a hell of a tale.

I did finally get around to reading ‘Caleb’s Crossing’, my first read on my Ipad, and wasn’t disappointed. That woman can weave magic with the voices she creates for her characters. I would love to see the movie, it’s a story crying out for a cinematic version.

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