Cultural consumption, Jan 2017

With apologies for the tardiness…it’s been a busy time!

 

Music:

I’ve been keeping a monthly Youtube scrapbook for a while now. January’s is available here, or you can watch/listen below. There’s also some cracking stuff working back through the lists from December, November and October of last year (if I do say so myself). 

It wasn’t an amazing month for me, musically. I seemed to struggle to connect with much – not sure exams helped. Got into Lil Peep for a bit, then tired of the abrasiveness of some of his tracks. Ended up listening to a lot of Yung Lean and Bladee, as usual. Picked through a few best of lists from the end of last year, but wasn’t really getting inspired. Actually think the new XX album is very good, though, as is new Bonobo. Started to appreciate the Trentemøller and Nicolas Jaar albums from last year a little more, too – worth checking them out.

The highlight was Hannah releasing her first single right at the end of the month. It’s called A to B, and it’s an absolute banger. Watching how much work goes into taking something from conception to full realisation and release has been fascinating, not to mention humbling.

My one live outing was to see Beach Slang at the Haunt in Brighton. I missed the opening act, but Harker who were second on were really very good. And Beach Slang “exceeded expectations”, as a fellow audience member put it. Lots of drunk energy, and they played for a full hour and a quarter, filling gaps in the set list with the Cure / Pixies / Oasis covers. Interesting mix of young and old there, too – they seem to appeal to people between the ages of 16 and 60, which is pretty impressive!

 

Books:

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally caught up with the rest of the literary world and read some Ferrante. It was the first of the Neapolitan novels – My Brilliant Friend – and frankly, it was great. The atmosphere of it was enveloping, the plot gently engrossing, and it did a very good job of winding down a brain fried and alert from revision in the evenings.

I also read Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Comes Last, and Laline Paull’s The Bees. Both were dystopian visions: one of a near future in which a collapsed economy has forced people into voluntarily entering a community where they spend half of their time in jail, the other a humanised insight into the totalitarian workings of a beehive.

The former was entertaining, but felt a little forced – particularly having read Oryx and Crake last year, which was exceptional. The Bees was more inventive, and I read the first hundred pages or so in a flurry of activity. I began to tire of the protagonist by the end, though. They seemed more a guide around the hive than a fully-fledged character. Which was a shame, because the world was incredibly well imagined. I’ll certainly never look at bees the same way again.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has been sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read for years, now. At the end of the month, I finally got round to it. An epic tale of human endurance and futility told in 100 pages, it’s a masterful example of lean but evocative storytelling.

 

Films / television:

Briefly. I’ll start with TV. As with books, I’ve been catching up – firstly with Billions, which was wicked, and secondly with the bizarre and slightly barmy WestworldBillions was the more enjoyable, Westworld the more ambitious, thoughtful and, frankly, creepy.

Was unusually bad at going to the cinema. Didn’t even make it to La La Land, despite the hype (or perhaps because of it?). I did manage to catch Rogue One before it left cinemas, though. Nothing groundbreaking there, but entertaining stuff with some of the most astonishing CGI scenery I’ve ever seen. 

The best film I watched wasn’t in the cinema, and was a documentary. Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, about the “Stuxnet” virus co-developed by US and Israeli intelligence to take down Iranian nuclear facilities, was astonishing. I’d almost call it compulsory viewing. All the more compelling for the fact that the existence of the virus may never have come to light. Makes you wonder how much other crazy stuff is going on beneath the banal news headlines.

Books read, 2016

A belated rundown of the books I read last year. A few themes to quickly pick out:

 

1.

International fiction is strongly represented. 2016 was the year Rhianna and I set up OurStories, having noticed how horrendously Anglo-American our reading tended to be. Some of the books below, like Green Grass, Running Water, I read off the back of recommendations people posted to the site. Many of the others – including the excellent Kurniawan, Kang and Knausgård, to name a few – we ended up recommending ourselves. The site features fiction set in about 45 different countries so far, so it’s worth exploring if you’re interested.

 

2.

There isn’t a huge amount of non-fiction in what follows, but there are a few books in there that have really shaped my thinking over the past 12 months. The Naomi Klein and David Graeber both attack neo-liberal assumptions, but from different perspectives. I’d consider the former essential reading for anyone and everyone, regardless of whether they’re interested in the climate or not (in fact the less interested, the better). The latter, although long, is brilliantly readable and goes beyond debt to cover…well, just about everything.

Speaking of neo-liberalism, the Chouinard is a rethinking of what business can, and should be – with a good dose of sport and environmentalism thrown in for good measure. Again, essential reading even if business interests you not at all.

Superforecasting was also excellent, particularly in light of the “unpredictable” political upheavals of the last year. It offers a blueprint for how to improve political polling and punditry, which has been taken up by the likes of Dominic Cummings (campaign director of Vote Leave, heavily influenced by Tetlock’s approach – see here for some fascinating stuff from him on the referendum).

 

3.

Interestingly, although this was the year that I really became fascinated by AI, and even started a masters in it (which is what I’m currently doing), I found the books I read on the subject – Superintelligence; The Second Machine Age – pretty underwhelming. Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter offered a wealth of more insightful, albeit shorter, material on a weekly basis. Which means there seems to be a gap in the market for a book that covers all the interesting ground in a manner suitable for the lay person (Russell and Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach is the go-to if you’re willing to delve deeper). That said, I have yet to read Ford’s The Rise of the Robots, and am, of course, open to other recommendations.

 

4.

The list could do with more:

  • books by female authors
  • classics (Middlemarch was the best work of fiction I read all year, perhaps because it was also the oldest and most enduring. Knocked A Little Life out of the park, anyway.)
  • poetry (a persistent gap)
  • plays (ditto)
  • biographies (ditto ditto)

All thoughts to take forward into the new year, I suppose.

 

Key: F=fiction, NF=non-fiction, S=short stories, AB=autobiography, T=travel, P=poetry

Books appear in the order I read them. Links in titles are to OurStories recommendations written by me (although there are recommendations for quite a few of the others also on the site, written by different people). I tried to pick my 5 best books of the year, failed, and expanded it to 6 – they’re emboldened.

The list:

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (F)

Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas (F)

Let My People Go Surfing – Yvon Chouinard (NF)

Beauty is a Wound – Eka Kurniawan (F)

Rushing to Paradise – J G Ballard (F)

Middlemarch – George Eliot (F)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (F)

The Iraqi Christ – Hassan Blasim (S)

Nowhere People – Paulo Scott (F)

Intelligence: All That Matters – Stuart Ritchie (NF)

A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgård (F/AB)

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking – E Burger and M Starbird (NF)

The Successor – Ismail Kadare (F)

Flesh – Various (S)

A General Theory of Oblivion – José Eduardo Agualusa (F)

Jebel Marra – Michelle Green (S)

The Second Machine Age – A McAfee and E Brynjolfsson (NF)

The Islands – Carlos Gamerro (F)

This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein (NF)

The Book of Rio – Various (S)

Metro – Alexander Kaletski (F)

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (F)

Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera (F)

Hurma – Ali al-Muqri (F)

Debt: The First 5000 Years – David Graeber (NF)

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot – Robert Macfarlane (NF/T)

Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto (F)

Tourist Season – Carl Hiaasen (F)

Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila (F)

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies – Nick Bostrom (NF)

Green Grass, Running Water – Thomas King (F)

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin (F)

Superforecasting – P Tetlock and D Gardner (NF)

The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus (F)

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword – Ruth Benedict (NF)

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (F)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches – Bashō (P/T)

The Lonely Hearts Club – Raul Nuñez (F)

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick (F)

Who Killed Palomino Molero? – Mario Vargas Llosa (F)

Bonjour Tristesse / A Certain Smile – Françoise Sagan (F)

Girl at War – Sara Nović (F)

Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction – P H Matthews (NF)

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (F)

Submission – Michel Houllebecq (F)

Brendan Foster – Brendan Foster and Cliff Temple (AB)