Cultural Consumption, April-May 2017

The usual deluge of end-of-academic-year coursework deadlines and exams meant this wasn’t the best of periods for me on a cultural front. The only film I went to see was Get Out (which was, to be fair, absolutely brilliant) and I didn’t make it to any gigs or exhibitions or plays or anything else (read: I didn’t get out much…). Which is a bit disappointing. Still managed to get through some decent music and books, though.

 

Music

Three albums were consistently with me throughout the period. The first of those was Palmistry’s Pagan – all melancholy, stripped back, dancehall-infused pop – on Mixpak. The latest weird and wonderful offerings from Clark and Arca were the other two. Both are typically immersive, with the former more playful, and the latter more intense – but probably my favourite Arca material yet.

I ended up listening to a lot of guitar music, too, which worked well while cross-training through injury. EPs from Sløtface and Estrons were the excellent starting point, but I also got really into albums from IDLES (quite hilarious, quite punk) and VANT (more predictable, but with some catchy tunes).

Luke Abbott’s latest EP, and first as Earlham Mystics, is also stunning (“Truth” is on the playlist below, but I actually think “Stolen Hearts” might be better). Oh, and I rediscovered all my vinyl from years gone by – I end the usual YouTube playlist with a single by Dartz! from yeeeaaaarrrs ago.

(Playlist embedding isn’t working, for some reason. Link here.)

 

Books

David Lodge’s Nice Work seemed very relevant post-Brexit. A story about overcoming barriers in a divided Britain, it preceded the recent fuss by nearly 30 years.  More contemporary yet was Peter Pomerantsev‘s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, which shone a consistently entertaining light on the farce that is Russian politics.

On a Japan tip, Haruki Murakami’s Underground is an insightful series of interviews and reflections collected in the wake of the terror attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995. Not exactly fast-paced, but it did get very interesting towards the end. Zen in the Art of Archery is a short classic I was recommended before going to Japan a couple of years ago, and the sort of read that makes you rethink your approach to life.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, perhaps the most famous of Philip K Dick’s novels, was another book I’d been sat on for a while. And I thought it was wicked, offering a welcome escape from hours of work. Former soldier Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was harder going, and I had to return to it after exams (and after the easier and pretty OK Shame, by Melanie Finn). When I did, though, I found it excellent. Supremely moving and evenhanded in its presentation of modern warfare and its personal impact.

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)