Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Reappraisal of an author

Book review: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Electronic proof from UK publication date 5th June 2014.

A few years ago I read A Catcher in the Rye for the first time and didn't like it.  I'd not read it as a teenager or young adult and I think I came to it too late to "get it."

My Salinger Year is the memoir of Rakoff as she works for the New York literary agency that represented Salinger and is a fascinating insight into the behind the scenes work of some areas of publishing just before the Internet changed everything.

The book in part charts Rakoff's life as she adjusts to the working world after leaving university, as well as talking about her job and the intricacies of working for a reclusive genius such as Salinger.  Interestingly as she started the job Rakoff had not read Salinger and it was about 9 months into the year before she did try him - although being closer in age to a teenager than I was she did love the books.

Nothing overly dramatic happens to Rakoff in the book, and it is again a nice gentle book set in New York but like a lot of quiet things it is very good.  The book is just a rounded memoir for an interesting year in the author's life but it is compelling and again vividly and evocatively written - I was walking with her around New York and could 'see' all she was writing about clearly.

Interestingly this is the second book I've read recently that has recommended Salinger's Franny and Zooey and so I think that I might have to give this a go very soon.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The pictures are better on the radio

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue recording, Theatre Royal Norwich. April 2014.

Radio comedy often beats that on the television hands down, there are a few exceptions but in the main I'd rather hear things on the radio than watch them - the pictures are better!

Thanks to the generosity of a friend who stood in line outside the theatre on the day the tickets went on sale Mr Norfolkbookworm and I (along with said friend and another) got the chance to attend a double recording of the next series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. 

Without a doubt I think that it was possibly the funniest thing I have ever heard.

I've attended the recording of a radio sitcom before but this straight antidote to panel games was fantastic.  The regulars were all present (Jack Dee, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Barry Crier plus Collin Sell on piano) and the fourth panelist, making her debut on the shoe, was Susan Calman.  Scoring was looked after by both Sven and the ever delightful Samantha.

Each episode recorded at least an hour of comedy and we were lucky enough to have all of my favourite rounds played - Uxbridge English Dictionary, Mornington Crescent and Sound Charades.  Even rounds I don't like so much normally - letter writing with players alternating words - is hysterical when you can see the faces the teams pull at each other and the corpsing it caused!
The laser display screen malfunctioned at one point with the audience thinking one thing was being 'mimed' but the teams acting out another!

The two shows we saw recorded will be broadcast on 30th June 2014 and 7th July 2014 and I can't wait to hear them and see what made the cut.  Oh and even though it was fun to see behind the scenes as the show was taped I still maintain that it makes better radio than it ever would television.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Second time lucky

Book Review: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E Smith.

After being a little underwhelmed by my last Bookbridgr book I'm pleased to say that I loved my second book from the scheme.

The Geography of You and Me is a lovely gentle romance for teens in a pleasantly old fashioned way.  The two main characters meet on the night of a huge power-cut in New York and have a magical evening, One is a New York native and the other a reluctant new-comer to the city.

After this event they are torn apart (okay gently separated!) by family circumstances and spend a year only being able to stay in touch through postcards, although the reader dips in and out of their new lives, until the very satisfying conclusion.

The book in many ways is very slight, and as an adult reader is easy to predict, but I found that none of this really mattered. As the pair travel they visit cities that I know (or will be visiting in the next few weeks!) and Smith shows her skill as a writer for these places spring to life without the book ever feeling like a travelogue. I could see, smell and taste all that she was writing about such was the vibrancy of the book.

The romance is gentle and realistic. Lucy and Owen know that they have a connection but are pragmatic and once apart continue to think of each other but don't pine pathetically.  Their family problems are also well written in that they are huge but do just form part of the story and don't overwhelm the plot.

It is hard to convey how much I liked this gentle book without making it sounds wish-washy but I know that if I'd discovered it as a teenager it would have instantly become a security blanket book - one I read and reread especially when feeling poorly. I've already put Smith's other two books on reserve at the library and can't wait to get stuck into them.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Out of this world in Pontefract (again)

An afternoon with an astronaut.

In better weather than last autumn Mr Norfolkbookworm and I once more made the cross country trip to Pontefract for the very special treat of listening to one of the Apollo era astronauts.

This time the guest speaker was T K (Ken) Mattingly and although not a moon-walker his story is just as interesting - if not more so!  Mattingly was scheduled to fly as the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 13 but (luckily?) due to his potential exposure to measles was bumped from the flight at the 11th hour.  Much of his talk was about how the behind the scenes teams worked to safely return the crew of Apollo 13 to earth and it was fabulous to hear all about the team work and seat-of-the-pants decisions that allowed this to happen.

Mattingly did get to fly to the moon on Apollo 16 two years later but this mission too was not without incident and even though I knew that this mission was a success I was still on the edge of my seat with suspense as Mattingly talked us through the problems.

I've always had as much, if not more, admiration for the Command Module Pilot as he was the guy left alone in lunar orbit while the other two landed.  Not only was he left solo - often out of contact with mission control, but should anything have happened on the moon's surface he would have been the one to have to come back alone, never knowing exactly what had happened to his crew mates.

As ever I could have sat for hours listening to Mattingly's stories but sadly there was no time to hear about his space walk conducted between the Earth and the moon or about his early shuttle test flights. I was hoping to ask him about the former in the q&a but I wasn't chosen this time but the other questions did give more insight into NASA at the time.

My favourite bit? Hard to pick. I'm torn between the stunned laughter as Mattingly described watching Earthrise from the moon as an erotic experience and his comments that while Gary Sinise did a good job of portraying him on screen he really didn't sulk enough!

After the talk however there was a chance to actually meet and speak briefly with Mattingly as he signed one of my most treasured possessions:

The dates for the next talk have been announced, but not the guest, but I already can't wait and I can't thank Space Lectures enough for organizing these events. See you in November!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Fifteen

The Malcontent. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. April 2014.

The Malcontent is almost an experiment by the SWP/Globe as it is performed entirely by children/young adults - like the boy players of Jacobean times.  If it is taken as an experiment then that is all well and good however this was staged, and priced, as all of the other plays this season have been and that is where I have a slight problem.

On the whole the actors were good, the costumes fine and on the whole you could hear all of the voices.  But they weren't, and possibly shouldn't have been, as good as the professionals.  They were a little self conscious, you couldn't tell if pauses were dramatic or where lines had been forgotten and they just weren't as good at the little stage actions that make a play special.  There was also the problem that when you couldn't see the actor it often wasn't possible to tell who was speaking (male or female) due to the unbroken voices.

However that sounds a very harsh review and the more I think about it the more the good parts did come through. I am not alone in this uncertainty about the play as after the interval an awful lot of people in all areas of the theatre did not come back - the first time I have seen this at the Globe or SWP.

I think that many of the problems I have are actually with the theatre space itself.

I said after seeing The Duchess of Malfi that I didn't think there was enough space to sit comfortably in the high priced seats of the upper gallery.  This problem isn't so noticeable in the side sections of the mid or upper galleries however and so I know know to avoid these.

However these more comfortable seats to the side in the upper gallery give such a restricted view that probably a third of the action is missed, plus a lot of what happens in the pit.  From here you are also looking through the candles and it was only afterwards that I notice how uncomfortable this was and both Rebecca and I attribute our headaches to this.

The seats we had for The Knight of the Burning Pestle, to the side of the lower gallery, were very good - if you can be at the back or front and have something to lean on.

I love the physical space of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and I appreciate that in an inaugural season there are things to work out (between my first and second visits for example the slightly padded carpeted benches have been recovered with much softer cushions) but after three plays - one excellent, one good and one okay - I think that I will probably return to try it again but only if I can get the exact seats I want.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Fourteen

We Will Rock You. The Dominion Theatre, London. April 2014.

Some of my earliest musical memories are of Queen songs and they are a band that as a child we all liked as a family.  Watching their turn on Live Aid in 1985 was fantastic and I remember how sad we all were when Freddie died.

We Will Rock You the musical opened in 2002 and my sister saw it in previews, unlike the critics she loved it and over time all of the family has been to see it several times.  My sister and I went to the special concert performed on what would have been Freddie's 60th Birthday and we know all of the words to the dialogue as well as the songs.  However somewhere along the lines we fell a little out of love with it and autumn 2010 was the last time we went.

On hearing that it was closing on 31st May this year we instantly started checking our diaries to see if one last visit together was going to be possible and luckily time and prices worked in our favour.

I'm not sure if the gap in visits made the difference, or if there is just more energy at an evening show than a matinee, but I for one fell in love all over again.  Sure the plot is creaky and daft but the execution is outstanding.  There have been lots of little changes over the years - to me the gags seemed less obviously written by Ben Elton but at the same time not quite as funny.  As the musical was always set in the future somethings have caught up with the original gags and lines have been changed to reflect this - no one really had Twitter or Facebook in 2002 and the iPod/iPhone really didn't dominate like it does now.  Some lines have been changed to fit these in and generally they do work.  My sister was very pleased that her favourite line about Armani/M&S was still there.

For me the music always worked because different people sang the original Queen songs, no one person tried to reach all of Freddie's range and this was still true, however the Galileo we saw wasn't 100% convincing as an 18 year old school leaver thanks to the start of the bald spot that was visible from the circle.  My one disappointment was the start of the second act which used to start so powerfully with the percussion line from One Vision no longer does. A small niggle.

On the whole I can see why the show is closing. The theatre really does need some work doing to it, and by all accounts on many nights it is not full but I am so pleased that I did see it once more and that I had such a good time.  Of course I'll buy a cast DVD should one be produced but it won't be the same...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirteen

Blithe Spirit. Gielgud Theatre, London. April 2014.

I was joined by an old friend, Jo, for this play - she is another person that indulges me in my hobby but in my defence she did already have an interest in theatre and (this time) I didn't do too much corrupting.

Some how or other I managed to get to this play without knowing anything about the story save that a seance goes wrong and a man's first wife comes back from "the otherside" to haunt him.  Unlike some plays where not knowing the plot is a hindrance this made Blithe Spirit a total delight as Coward is a master story teller and I could follow everything whilst still being surprised by the story.

Coming from Kent originally the little details about towns I know well were very funny and added another level of enjoyment to the afternoon. Once I'd got used to the applause every time Dame Angela Lansbury entered or exited the stage I found the play a delight. It was also nice to see a comedy that wasn't farce, yes there were elements but the laughs did rely more on the lines and interpretation rather than slapstick actions.

But...and you knew that this was coming... if there hadn't been a star name attached to the play would it be being staged in London, and would it be selling out?  There was absolutely nothing wrong with any of the play, it was well acted, well designed and funny but for Jo and I it wasn't anything more and certainly not standing ovation worthy.
I also certainly don't think that the premium tickets at over £100 represent anything like good value. I hasten to add that we paid nothing like this amount for our seats and although listed as restricted view we missed very little of the action.

I enjoyed the afternoon immensely and loved the play a lot but it just wasn't memorable and while our seats made this fine if I'd paid more I'd have been very disappointed.

The West End seems to have gone mad with pricing at the moment, and celebrity casting which could be causing the price rises.  I appreciate that it isn't cheap to mount a good production but when one premium West End ticket for Book of Mormon at £152 - through the theatre and not secondhand - will pay for an entire season at the National Theatre or The Globe I feel that something is wrong.  I know a lot of theatres offer day seats but when you live a 2 hour train ride away getting in the queue for these is impossible and the cheap ticket Mondays mean that you have to be on line at just the right time or else...

The train companies offer advance booking discounts and so do hotels - why not the theatres?

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Twelve

Cats. Theatre Royal Norwich. April 2014.

Although my love of theatre did start a while ago with musicals (a trip to see Les Miserables at 13 was my first West End experience) it has been a while since I've seen one of the 'big' musicals.

I know a few of the famous songs from the score but apart from knowing that they were adaptations of T S Eliot's poems Old Possums Book of Practical Cats I didn't know how it worked as a narrative stage production.

And to be honest at the end of the first half I still didn't, the opening overture had been great and the end of the act with Memory was wonderful but I had absolutely no clue what was going on.  It didn't help that the theatre was excessively hot and concentrating on a story told in the medium of modern dance was hard work.

A flick through the programme in the interval and a stronger story arc helped in the second act and the staging of Skimbleshank the Railway Cat's story was wonderful and so inventive and by the end I was mostly won over. However I do wonder if this was a musical of its time and that it is only the name that keeps it selling out - a bit like The Mousetrap.

Several thoughts went through my mind during the production:

  • how come I can completely suspend disbelief when watching either War Horse or Swan Lake but at no point could I see cats in the people on stage.
  • when you notice how clever the set it over the performers then there is something missing.
  • how rude the cast were in not acknowledging the orchestra at the end of the performance.
  • what an amazing voice the understudy Griselda had - better than some of the cast recordings I've heard with real stars.
I'm pleased we went, and I don't think I've become anti-musical since studying theatre in more depth but this wasn't quite for me.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Glutton for punishment - a new book review scheme.

Book review: The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

Supplied through the scheme.

Although book reviews have been featuring less on my blog thanks to my studying and the theatre habit I do still read a lot but the one thing I do miss from my days in the book trade are the advance copies. The joy of discovering a book before publication and then teasing people by dropping hints and then putting something special into their hands was a magical feeling and went a long way to make the monotony and stress of retail more fun.

I already subscribe to the Netgalley scheme and get to pick and chose electronic proofs from publishers there but the chance to join a homegrown scheme - - too good to miss and luckily I was approved as a reader.

As yet there isn't too much to pick from on the site, although this does change weekly, but as until the end of April I am still studying a few choice books are better than overwhelming piles.  My first choice was the historical fiction The Crimson Ribbon by experienced writer (but debut novelist) Katherine Clements.

It sounded very promising with locations of the book being Ely, the area around St. Paul's Cathedral and Abingdon in Oxfordshire - all places I know reasonably well. The setting was the end of the English Civil War, just before the decision to execute Charles I was taken. This is a historical period I'm not so familiar with and I hoped to learn more through the novel.

It started brutally, and really wasn't the right thing to sit in a pub garden reading just before lunch, but after a few days I returned to the book and read it over a couple of days - the short chapters moved the story along well and did mean that I fell prey to the 'one more chapter before bed' problem!

However the story failed to grip me hugely, plot twists and turns were signaled too clearly and the characters never came to life. Far too many appeared and disappeared before I got to know them and the plot contrivances just became too much by the end.

I wanted to like the book, I wanted to have my curiosity sparked but ultimately I felt a bit flat at the end and had no interest in looking up any of the 'facts' to learn more.  I do wonder if I'd read this as a beach/holiday read I'd be more generous but I didn't escape into it at all.  Clements is a published short story writer and I think I will look these out as there was something in the book - perhaps it was just over stretched for a novel?

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements was published by Headline on 27th March 2014 - ISBN 9781472204196

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Eleven

Propeller's The Comedy of Errors, Theatre Royal Norwich. March 2014.

I've heard a lot about Propeller over the past few years and this year was the first time that I've been able to see them as they visit Norwich.  They are an all male company but they update Shakespeare rather than follow any of the other features of Original Practice.

Several days on I am still not sure what I think about what I saw. Propeller certainly took the word Comedy and ran with it but for me it went so far that it stopped being funny.  This is one of the plays I have studied this year and I do know that there is more to the play than the slapstick humour.

The modern dress didn't bother me too much, nor the setting in a Spanish/Mexican town but the way the lines were delivered and the modernising of them to get light-saber jokes in went too far.  It was a master class in slapstick but that it was always a slave being beaten may not have been clear to the audience.

Men dressing as women obviously appealed to the rest of the audience I saw the play with as every time a man in a dress appeared there were hysterics. Mind you as the characters were played in a manner that reminded me of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rocky Horror and a Vicars and Tarts party perhaps they weren't to far wide of the mark...!

I was looking forward to seeing this play from this company and I came away feeling very disappointed. It was like bad student pantomime, roll on the version at The Globe later in the year.