Sunday, 26 February 2017

Norfolkbookworm at the Movies: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (film and book)

Here's something you don't often hear the Norfolkbookworm say - the movie was as good as the book!

From reading past entries on this blog it is pretty obvious that I have an interest in reading biographies/autobiographies and that I am fascinated with space travel. Here the two passions collide and for once everyone wins.

The book by Margot Lee Shetterly is a great read, it covers the lives of many of the people involved in the early era of manned (and it was only men at this time) space flight but this time from the rarely covered point of view of the backroom women. In addition to this these women were black and living in a segregated America in a highly segregated/racist state.

The book covers their lives from childhood through their fights for education and then into their wartime careers where colour of skin temporarily mattered less than winning. After the war these women - incredible engineers and mathematicians continued to work for NACA/NASA and were an integral part of the space program.

I've read a lot of books about this era and I'd never heard of them so they really were hidden figures. I enjoyed the book but found it a little chaotic in style, however it covered so much time and so many people that I was worried how a film could ever be made from it.

The film sensibly narrowed its focus to tell the story of just three women and tightened the time frame to a taut two years or so.  This lead to a fast paced, tense story with real heart.  It also retained most of its accuracy and I do feel that if you just saw the film you would get a pretty fair idea of what the space program and NASA were like at this time. Apart from the amalgamation of NASA characters in to one or two leads the space history itself was spot on too if occasionally played a little too much towards dramatic crescendos.

I had two issues with the film, while I didn't expect the actors playing the Mercury Seven astronauts to look exactly like their real life characters the wrong hair cuts, especially on John Glenn really annoyed me.

The second issue is a little more nuanced - in no scenes where the actors depicted as smoking, and I really do think that in those offices where people were frantically trying to solve problems to safely send men in to space there would have been a *lot* of smoking taking place. Even in the climactic scenes of the film no one lights up in Mission Control and I know that is inaccurate from NASA images of the time!  Further investigation into this by Mr Norfolkbookworm gave the answer - if there had been accurate portrayals of smoking in the film then the cinema rating would have been higher and the distributors rightly wanted as many people to see this as possible! Full details on this here.

My final thoughts are a little more controversial, and point the finger at an American Hero somewhat:

In this film (and book) John Glenn is portrayed as the Mercury Astronaut who is the most accepting of the black women's roles. In the film his trust in Katherine Johnson is so great that he won't fly without her working a mathematical problem.
Yet... I've also read a lot of books about the Mercury 13 - the women who also went through the same training as Glenn et. al. (and performed better on many of the tests) - and it was Glenn's word that got their training scrapped and the idea of women in space, via NASA, postponed until 1983 - 21 years.

Since learning this I've always felt very ambivalent about Glenn's status as 'all American hero' but I guess that this just shows that no one is as good as they are portrayed and at least he wasn't a racist as well as sexist.

Digressions over - Hidden Figures is nominated for 3 Oscar awards this weekend, including Best Picture, and I would love for it to win. It is a heartwarming film, based on a great book, that shows viewers that gender and colour of skin really shouldn't be a barrier to doing what you love and being successful in it. #ThisGirlCan

Edited to add - Mr Norfolkbookworm has just let me know that his mum was also a computer, just like the women in Hidden Figures, in the UK and Switzerland - including on this project

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Eight - The White Devil

The White Devil, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London. February 2017.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse really is the perfect place to see these wonderful Jacobean revenge tragedies. The eerie lighting really does let the evil of the plots shine through.

The White Devil was wonderfully nasty (in the best way) within this setting. The playhouse was dimly lit at the start and at first it was hard to work out who all of the characters were but as more candles were lit it became clearer to work out who was who and then the absurdity and evil really shone through, and as the play drew to a close the candles were put out and the room grew darker as the madness drew to a close. I don't think that the candles have been used to greater effect in anything I've seen in this location.

Vittoria is unhappily married - her family arranged this to save their own reputation and finances - and pursued by Bracciano who seems to love her despite being married himself.  We also have a scheming brother who will do anything, including pimp his sister, to advance his position, a disgraced Duke who will do anything to get back into the good books and then there's the corrupt cardinal and his lackey.

It is a revenge tragedy so no spoiler to say that by the end of the play the stage is littered with corpses - all of whom the audience doesn't really grieve over. And some of the deaths are wonderfully staged and incredibly amusing to watch. At the start I was concerned that the darkness of the plot wouldn't emerge as there seemed to be much overplaying of the crude humour but, like the lighting, this all just helped to show the true nature of the characters.

Since coming out of the Playhouse I've been discussing the play on and off with Rebecca and the Upstart Wren and like the best things I am liking it more and more.  As I said there are no characters that you admire wholeheartedly but unlike so many plays from this era I find Vittoria to be a believable and strong female lead. She is manipulated and used by all around her and yet throughout this production she remains strong and dignified, her crime is to fall in love with a man who is not her husband and then be caught up entirely in the wider politics of the time.

Unlike Rebecca I didn't dislike Bracciano completely, he is an out and out cad but he is also being manipulated by forces that he doesn't quite appreciate. His fickleness was played superbly and in the end he did seem to love Vittoria, however short their union was!

The true villain for me was Flamenio who had no care for anyone and would do anything to get what he wanted, the way he was played on stage actually made my skin crawl slightly.

On reading the programme on the train home I've learned that this production has cut text from the original and reassigned lines so I am now off to read Webster's original and see how it compares...

Monday, 20 February 2017

Talking Books Three: Sequels again

Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler

After the success of Holly Webb's Return to the Secret Garden I ventured back in to the work of reworkings/sequels to classic children's books.

Black Beauty is one the books that my dad recommended to me as a child, in fact I do still have his childhood copy on my shelves, and so to discover that there was a modern reworking available was exciting and nerve wracking!

Once more I am pleased to say that, for the most part this book, I really enjoyed this book.  Rather than being a sequel or prequel (something that the Pullein-Thompson family have already done*) this book took one small, but pivotal, character from the original and imagined a story around this.

Most of the story was believable, even the cross dressing, and Kuenzler's love for the original shone through and I found myself believing her version of the action totally.  My misgivings came in the London section when I thought the plot became a little obvious and unnecessary - although it had been signposted since the beginning. My quibbles might just be because I am an adult reading a book for children and so can spot this in writing more easily.

My main query about all of these modern day reworkings and sequels is hard to articulate - they seem to be so much easier to read than the originals. I know I read the source books as a child and these as an adult but they do somehow seem easier. I can't tell why though as I can't actually spot any clear examples of 'dumbing down' and in some ways these new books cover topics more adult and more explicitly than the originals.

It was good to be pleasantly surprised by this book and I think that the balance in good/poor reworkings has now equalled out so I will continue trying them with hope.

*I am 90% certain that I read this as child (I probably chose the book because of how thick the book was) and that it wasn't a book I reread unlike Black Beauty itself.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Seven - The Simon and Garfunkel Story

The Simon and Garfunkel Story, The Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone. February 2017.

I first saw this show in 2015 and even back then I knew that I wanted to see the show again. It has taken me a while but the duo's tour took in Folkestone on a weekend that I was in Kent seeing family it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

This time my companions were my mum and dad - and as it was thanks to them that I fell in love with the music it seemed right we all went together.

The show hasn't changed since I saw it last and once more it hit the spot totally for me - a great mix of the classic songs, some less well known ones and chat about the history of Simon and Garfunkel.  Again the two performers nailed the originals and it was a little like travelling in time.

Mum and Dad were doubly revisiting the past as they used to go to the Leas Cliff Hall to see theatre/bands long before my sister and I came along.  The venue did have some drawbacks as it was a little large for the size of audience in attendance and it was also decidedly cold in the room, but for me it didn't matter it was just like being at a concert again and I love hearing this music live.

Once more I was one of the youngest people in the audience but it was more mixed this time, and to show the true appeal of this music when we saw my 90 year old grandmother the next day she also professed to be a fan of the duo and expressed some regret that she hadn't come to the show too!

I know that I will look at this show's schedule occasionally and if it does come back to Norwich on a date I can make I will see it a third time.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Talking Books Two

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele. Edited by Francis French.

I've read an awful lot of biographies and autobiographies from the early manned space programme but none of them were quite like this one.

Eisele died before he could revise or publish his memoirs and they only came to light a few years ago despite being first penned in the 1970s and boy are they frank.

Eisele flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, and it wasn't an entirely happy mission. This was partly due to illness and partly down to the temperament of the commander causing issues with those left on the ground - almost to the point of mutiny.

Even though ultimately the mission was a success it was never highly respected and none of the crew flew in space again and Eisele is not backwards in coming forwards in saying exactly what he thought about all of the treatment the crew suffered, nor does he spare his tongue when giving his thoughts on his commander.

Eisele also talks frankly about the behaviour of the astronauts when they were away from home, which has been alluded to before but never in quite such frank terms!

This book is interesting as it was put together by French from notes that Eisele left and I imagine that he had to also be respectful of Eisele's remaining family (sadly his second wife passed away before publiciation) but even so this is a book that fills in the details gleaned from histories of the era but never mentioned in the official autobiographies and biographies.

It probably won't appeal too much to people who aren't intimate with the players from the Cape at this time but I loved the background colour this gave.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

January reading non round up!

I read lots of books in January and while none of them were bad nothing stood out quite as much as Take Courage which I did review at the time.

There are a couple of books which are worth mentioning but none of them are particularly ones I'm leaping up and down pressing into people's hands.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

This was a graphic novel based on the 1001 Nights, again a woman has to tell stories to save herself but this had a really strong feminist message as well as being all about the power of stories.  I missed some of the allegories but overall this was a really nice read.

Exit West by Moshin Hamid

Back in 2011 when I set myself the challenge of reading all of that year's World Book Night titles I read my first book by Hamid and loved it since then I've tried others but did wonder if he was a one trick pony.
This book started the same way, I wasn't very involved and thought it decidedly off, but then I found I was over half way through and utterly gripped if incredibly unsettled.
It is a book about how easily a nice life can become disrupted and any of us could end up as refugees fleeing for our lives.

The book veered in to magical realism with doors appearing around the world for displaced people to travel through and it did get very bleak at times, however in our 'interesting times' it feels very pertinent.
This book isn't published until the start of March, I read an advance copy thanks to NetGalley

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A trip to heaven and hell - behind the scenes at the Globe

Heaven and Hell Tour, Shakespeare's Globe, London. January 2017.

As regular readers of this blog know the Globe and Sam Wanamaker Theatre are places that I like and willingly spend my time (apologies for the appropriation of Shakespeare for that line!). Before I'd even seen a show here, way back in 2010, I took the general tour and fell in love with the space.

When the extra special tour for Friends of the Globe coincided with a night Rebecca and I would be in London it seemed like fate and we were at the Globe before 10am on a Sunday morning for our tour of the theatre from top to bottom.

We were encouraged to take photos as we were taken right up to the very top of the theatre, in to the heavens, and then even under the stage to peer up through the trap door.  We even got taken down below this level to the room where (some) of the costumes and props are stored.
Our guide was wonderful and gave us a talk that included how the building was built, how the shows are staged, how the effects work, anecdotes from past productions and tidbits of information about plans for the theatre,  He was also wonderfully balanced and talked about things that had gone wrong and also what was incorrect about the building as has been discovered through research in the past 20 years - not least that the stage is built from the wrong wood!

I can't begin to replicate the tales so I am just going to fill this post with pictures from the tour!

We started on the stage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

We then went, via the "dressing room" to the very top of the building, to the heavens.

The trap that lets people fly from down from heaven was then opened for us

We then went down to the musician gallery level

And then we got to go on the stage - the audience are *very* close!

The we went under the stage, right down to hell - it was surprisingly chilly!

Then we got taken to one of the costume and prop store, we were allowed to touch the costumes and wield a sword

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Six - She Loves Me

She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, London. January 2017.

After the confusion that was Nice Fish I was certainly a little bit nervous about going to see this musical on the same day. While I love the film You've Got Mail I was underwhelmed by the film that is adapted from The Shop Around the Corner and so the musical version of the same story could have gone either way. Then I saw it has Les Dennis in and to be honest my heart sank a little lower.

However this time I had a pleasant surprise. After reviving dinner with a glass of wine we arrived at one of our top theatres and the familiarity of the place, plus the knowledge that some of our favourite theatre productions come from this place calmed the nerves.

From the second the houselights dimmed I was transported into a beautiful, Technicolor whimsy that for two and half hours did make me forget everything else.

Again the set really needs to get a mention here as it was enchanting and revolved from a basic street scene to the beautifully decorated interior of the shop seamlessly. Then later on more scenery slid on and we were in a cafe/bar, a hospital and a bedroom - it all worked and was all so beautifully decorated and detailed that it really did look like you could step into these real places.  We were in the front row and seeing the small detail here set the tone for the detail and precision of the whole production.

The story could be hard to stage as the main romance is epistolary but as the protagonists meet in real life and dislike each other there is wonderful tension - they played the oblivious romantic connection really well and right up to the end there was just enough tension and doubt to keep the story interesting.  The subplots were also fun and this felt a real ensemble piece where everyone got to tell their story. Even Les Dennis was good in his role, and managed to make me feel sorry for his character.

The singing and dancing were great, the comedy funny and the right level of sadness/tension reached making this a wonderfully balanced show. I was also pleased that despite it being set in a perfume shop and scents being 'sprayed' throughout the creatives had decided to make this just visual and not olfactory - my imagination supplied the smells I'd like to sniff and not overpowering ones that cause headaches!

I'm not sure how highly it will feature on my best of lists come the end of the year but in a January that seems cold and bleak (weather-wise and politically speaking) this was just what I needed, pure escapism that left me feeling warm and happy.