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.

Cultural Consumption, March 2017

I’ve been sat on this for ages, not sure why. Better late than never, etc.

Music:

First things first: I’m not sure where I’d have been this month without Visible Cloaks’ Reassemblage. I mentioned it as a highlight in my February post, but in March it came into its own. The musical equivalent of a secluded room, cut off from the noisy computer lab, I weathered a number of coursework storms in its peaceful embrace.

Noveller’s expansive A Pink Sunset for No One was my belated introduction to the work of a wicked cool artist, and the thoughtful-but-accessible pop of Lowly’s Heba was perfect for tired ears at the end of the lengthening days. Both served as alternative havens – along with the Disasterpeace (possibly my favourite producer moniker ever) soundtrack to last year’s Hyper Light Drifter.

Perhaps my favourite discovery of the month, though, was K À R Y Y N. ‘Aleppo’ and ‘Binary’, the two parts to her double A-side single dubbed Quanta 1, both hit me hard. And my biggest banger was this Celestial Trax / Orlando Volcano-produced tune that I’ve come across about 6 months late…well, that and last year’s Floorplan album, which seemed perfect to catch up on when the sun came out at the end of the month.

My one live outing was to see Cloud Nothings at The Haunt in Brighton. And it was probably one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Much more raucous than I’d anticipated, and all the better for it. It prompted the realisation that their songs, however good on record, are made to be played live. Was also impressed with Nature Channel – the first of the warm up acts. Thought they were very tight.

The usual scrapbook documents whatever of the above I could find on Youtube along with some other bits and pieces there isn’t really space to write about. Enjoy.

 

Books:

Read quite a mix of different things. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust was emotive and strikingly poetic. A little too flowery for me, at first, but I got used to it. A friend lent me Mina Loy’s Insel for my next read, which was also pretty poetic but much more surreal. Not quite like anything I’ve read before, in fact. A woozy and discombobulating character study of a mad German artist in 1930s Paris, that sweeps you up in his uncanny wake.

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time was an elegant series of vignettes, offering a fictionalised insight into the troubled reflections of Dmitri Shostakovich. Left me thinking a lot about the relationship between music, or art generally, and politics. (See also this podcast wrt electronic music and political protest.)

To round off the month, I finally read Ivan Illich’s short but illuminating Energy and Equity. A guy doing a PhD in Development Studies had recommended it to me months ago, and it was really excellent. Made most seemingly radical politics look positively conservative. I’ve been meaning to put some notes on it up, but haven’t got round to it. In the meantime, just go and read it yourself – it’s pretty short, and you can access the whole text here.

 

Films:

Hidden Figures was good, with a cool message, but far too dumbed-down Hollywood for my liking. All seemed a bit too nice, a bit too before-the-watershed. Interesting that automation came up again, considering I was thinking so much about it last month.

Got round to watching The Big Short, which was very entertaining, and went to see The Salesman. The latter I thought was outstanding – very real despite its improbability, with a brilliant moral conundrum framing the closing scenes.

I also listened to a load of podcasts – Exponential View, Talking Politics, Line Noise, Trackside – but am just writing a load of rubbish now so will leave it. Ciao.

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)