Play It Like It’s 1986

0385368267.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell ★★★★⅓
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
Edition: Listening Library (2013), Unabridged MP3; 8h56
Original publication date: 2013

When new girl Eleanor shows up on the school bus one day, things start out very badly for her when nobody wants to make room for her, even though there are still plenty of empty seats left. She’s overweight, has long wild curly, very red hair and is dressed pretty strangely, and though this is 1986 and new wave music and punk rock rule, her kind of weirdness just doesn’t fly. Park happens to be a misfit of sorts too, being the only half-Korean in an otherwise all-white or black Omaha, Nebraska, though he’s managed to fly under the radar with strategic friendships and alliances, and he’s not sure he’s willing to compromise that for the new girl, but he can’t help himself from wanting to help Eleanor when he bluntly tells her to just sit next to him on that first day, and there she’ll sit henceforth on their daily trips to school and back. He doesn’t find Eleanor attractive exactly, but for some reason, he starts sharing his beloved comic books with her, like the Watchmen series, and then introducing her to some of his favourite music like The Smiths and The Cure and Alphaville and Elvis Costello (and the list goes on and on as the book progresses).

Eleanor has never heard any of this music, so he makes her mixed tapes, but in her typical brusque way she refuses to take the first one, till he finally figures out she’s refusing because she has no way of listening to it; she then just as rudely refuses when he helpfully offers to loan her his Walkman, till his kindness and insistence wear her down. They’ve soon got a friendship going, based on all the things Park likes, including many more mixed tapes, which prove to be a salvation for Eleanor, because her home life is a living hell. Her mother’s taken up with a violent alcoholic called Richie who doesn’t hesitate to hit on his wife on a whim and threaten Eleanor and her four younger siblings with unnamed injuries. They’re so poor they don’t have a phone in the house, in which the bathroom and the kitchen share a space and aren’t even separated by a door. To add to her misery, Eleanor is being bullied at school, persecuted by one of the most popular girls, and then regularly finds disgusting pornographic inscriptions on the covers of her school manuals which she has no idea who could be putting there.

As friendship progresses to declared love, Park invites Eleanor into his home. Eleanor knows the respite she finds there with his parents, who slowly come to accept her despite her strange appearance and awkward ways, can only be temporary, because her parents, and especially Richie, are bound to find out about this relationship, which over the months she’s been passing off as time spent with a fictitious girlfriend, and she also knows without a doubt there’ll be a price to pay when Richie finds out. Only, things keep getting better and better with Park, who fills her life with music and makes her feel things she never knew she had the capacity to feel before.

Many people on LT raved about this book and I remained skeptical about whether I’d like it too since YA fiction doesn’t always do it for me, but it ended up being a big winner. I happen to be the same age as our two main protagonists, so was just as influenced by most of the music which is mentioned in the book (The Smiths were my all-time favourites back then), and though I thankfully never had the kind of nightmarish home life Eleanor has, I could definitely identify with her feeling like the odd girl out and the bullied misfit at school. Rainbow Rowell writes sensitively and realistically about what it feels like to be a teenager and to experience first love and complete bewilderment and fear, all this in a way that also makes for compelling reading. She also has an interesting take on the parents, who each deal with challenging life situations in their own individual ways, some showing willingness to grow and evolve, and some, not so much, just like real-life people in other words.

***

This book ended up causing me to spend a small fortune on iTunes. I haven’t been listening to much music of late because am constantly plugged into audiobooks, but I was compelled to create my own “1986” soundtrack and made lots of new additions to my golden 80s oldies collection. I partially based myself on Rainbow Rowell’s own playlist as posted on her blog; music which inspired her as she wrote the various scenes of the book, then added a few from a list the songs mentioned in the book. I added to that all my favourite Smiths songs missing from my catalogue beyond How Soon Is Now (I’d forgotten how arty the music video was), like Shout by Tear for Fears, which was a huge deal when it first came out one day at school, when everyone just went nuts over it, banging on every available surface. Added too a nice serving of The Psychedelic Furs and other music from Pretty in Pink, and a bunch of other music I remember listening to back when I was 16 (The Cure anyone?) And I can’t believe I’ve survived with only 3 Suzanne Vega songs up to now! (Fixed). Not sure when I’ll make time to listen to it all, because audiobooks really are my thing lately, but I’ll make time for it here and there; Alphaville’s Forever Young and A Flock of Seagulls’s I Ran (So Far Away) while I was walking in the sun with Coco happily running around in the park yesterday really made my day.

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Tabloid Mania

1478980826.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) ★★★½
Series: Cormoran Strike (1 of 2)
Edition: Mulholland Books (2013), OverDrive Unabridged MP3, 15h54
Original publication date: 2013

Things aren’t going very well for Cormoran Strike. When we meet him, he’s just broken up with his long-time girlfriend and fiancée, who’s run out on him like a fury, and since they were living together and his private eye practice hasn’t been doing well, now he’s stuck sleeping in his office on a camp bed amid boxes of his belongings. On the same day, a saviour in the form of temporary secretary Robin Ellacott appears, along with a client who is willing to pay a high fee to solve a case. Famous supermodel Lula Landry plunged to her death from her luxury pad’s balcony a few months ago, and her brother John Bristow suspects this was not a suicide as the police determined, and wants Strike to find the killer. Strike himself has an interesting background. He’s a veteran from the war in Afghanistan where he lost his leg, and he is also the bastard son of a famous musician, his mother having been a well-known groupie back in the day. This is practical as far as getting people in high places (always impressed with his link to fame) to talk to him, but otherwise he is far from liking the too-close-for-comfort association with the world of tabloid press.

I liked the story well enough, and found Cormoran and his helpmate Robin to be appealing characters I had fun getting to know, but the tabloid elements felt too prevalent for me to feel I was sinking my teeth into a murder mystery of substance. There’s the world-famous gorgeouser-than-thou supermodel with bipolar disorder and a possible drug habit, there’s the loser heroin-addict famous musician boyfriend who likes to toy with the paparazzi, there’s the super-gay high fashion designer who alternates between adoring and exploiting his muse, there’s the lifestyle that is something akin to billionaire racing heiress Petra Ecclestone’s (a recent tabloid fixture in the UK), there’s the attractive wannabe-actor chauffeur who is chummy with the stars… it seems J. K. Rowling (writing under the pen name of Robert Galbraith) didn’t have to look much father than her supermarket’s checkout line to find inspiration for the first book in her Cormoran Strike series.

That being said, this was my first reaction as I was listening to the excellent narration by Robert Glenister of this audiobook a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d let the experience mellow and see what impressions I might be left with after a while, and I must admit that Galbraith/Rowling managed to create a very vivid little world few of us are usually privy to, yet seems familiar because of the media fascination with this élite world of people with too much money to have much common sense. Do I think this book will become a classic and be read in coming decades? Perhaps if readers are keen on getting a snapshot of what the second decade of the 21st century was like as far as popular culture goes. But for this very same reason, I’m now quite curious to see what Galbraith will do with his/her next book, where the mystery takes place in the just slightly less high-profile and less tabloid-centric world of a novelist gone missing, and a private detective whose next steps I’m keen to follow in the upcoming follow-up being released later this month, The Silkworm.

***

My rating system:
★ : Hated it! (May or may not have finished it)
★★ : It was just ok…
★★★ : Enjoyed it (Good)
★★★★ : Loved it! (Very good)
★★★★½ : Loved it—must read again! (Excellent)
★★★★★ : Brilliant!—will read again, and again… and again! (All-time favourite)

A Drawing Project

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I’ve just posted the gallery above, showing the progression from start to finish of my latest completed piece on my art blog, createthreesixty5.com. You are welcome to view the post (and larger images) and leave comments if you like by clicking here.

At Play with 420 Characters

420 Characters by Lou Beach ★★★★
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), Kindle eBook with audio selections

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“Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?” says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?” says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask.”

Lou Beach is a well-known artist (but recent discovery to me) who has done many illustrations for clients such as Wired, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (where he was a regular contributor to the Book Review). The bio on his website starts with the following paragraph: “I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.”

Right away, you know you’re dealing with a highly creative individual who doesn’t take himself too seriously, especially given the kinds of illustrations which animate his site (see below). I discovered Beach when I was looking up reviews for The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann, offered as a Kindle daily deal one day and landed on the NYT review page featuring one of his gorgeous illustrations. Looking up his blog, I found out he’d published this book, which is a collection of short stories exactly 420 characters long, including punctuation, which he had initially published as his Facebook status updates when the site only allowed that specific amount of text. The kindle edition includes some illustrations and several audio selection read by Dave Alvin, Ian McShane, and Jeff Bridges. As can be expected from this sort of project, the results are a mixed bag. There are some sublime moments, some ho-hum moments, and some head-scratching ‘WTF?’ moments, but undeniably, the man had fun with the form and a reader is bound to find something that appeals. A few examples that worked for me:

The servants seem peculiar lately. The kitchen help, the housekeeper, and the gardener move about in a shuffle, mumbling, glazed. When I confront them they appear startled, as if just awakened. Only Claude, the chauffeur, retains his old demeanour, sneering or scowling, smoking a Gauloises as he leans against the Packard, wiping a long black fender with my cashmere sweater.

***

A bird lives on my head, nests in my hair, pecks at my scalp. A finch, I believe. When I go out in public I cover it with a hat, so it’s away from prying eyes and cats who would climb my body to catch it. Sometimes on the bus I notice others wearing hats, and if there are seeds or an errant feather on their shoulders, I nod and smile and preen.

***

I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle. It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.

***

And my favourite:

“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there,” and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.

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More stories which weren’t included in the book can be found on his site: loubeach.com/stories/

Legends Never Truly Die Away

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Peter O’Toole, the lead character in the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, a role which led him to be considered one of his generation’s most respected actors, passed away yesterday at 81. I tried watching this epic movie in my youth, but a four-hour movie about skirmishes in the Arab desert somehow failed to capture my addled teenage brain back then, even if blonde blue-eyed, six-footer O’Toole was quite the dish in his prime.

I recently acquired a beautiful Folio Society edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence—the original Lawrence of Arabia—who wrote about his involvement in the Arab Revolt on which the film was based. What sold me on it wasn’t so much the blurb on the Folio site as much as this description of a paperback edition:

This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s command of the language, an adventurer’s heart, a soldier’s great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight.

Earlier this week I got a great deal on the audio edition of the recently published Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, of which Janet Maslin writing for The New York Times says: ‘For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Mr. Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells.‘ So now it seems I’ve got my work cut out for me: read T. E. Lawrence’s book, then listen to Anderson’s, after which I should be well prepared to fully appreciate the movie version.

A Rainy Day: An Instagram Short Story

Well, my biggest project this month was intended to be my latest effort at writing a novel draft for NaNoWriMo, but then Instagram happened, and for the past couple of weeks since I’ve joined the fee iPhone and Android application which allows you take photos, edit them and post them to share with millions of other users around the world, I’ve been doing nothing but taking photos, editing them, and posting them. So while my writing has been suffering, my instinct to tell stories still remains. Today I put together a little story in photos. It was rainy and grey, but that didn’t stop me from snapping away.

It’s nice to stay under the blankets on a rainy day…

This is the kind of day that greeted us when Coco and I stepped outside.

Everyone and everything was grey and rain-spattered.

Here and there, droplets of colour, but you really had to look for them.

Suddenly, a burst of colour. I grew very excited.

A friendly face came into the next frame. It said: “you’ve taken enough photos mummy, I’m cold, how about that warm blanket now?”

You’ve got to listen to this!

I’d never heard of The Idan Raichel Project before, but Kerry, a friend on LibraryThing has been quietly posting some links to great music on my LT thread lately (including The Hobbit’s Song of the Lonely Mountain).

The following directly from the The Idan Raichel Project site:

The Idan Raichel Project burst onto the global music scene in 2003, changing the face of Israeli popular music and offering “a fascinating window into the young, tolerant, multi-ethnic Israel taking shape away from the headlines” (Boston Globe).

Idan Raichel, the creator and leader of the Project, began his musical journey by inviting collaborations from artists of different generations, multiple ethnicities and singing in languages as diverse as Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and Swahili. The resulting albums shattered sales records in Israel, made Raichel his country’s biggest musical breakthroughs, and sold over half a million records worldwide. The Project was honored as the “Musical group of the Decade” in Israel in 2010, and the song “Mima’amakim” was selected the “Best Song of the Decade”. As described by The New York Times, “His arrangements bind the voices together in somber minor-mode anthems paced by electronic beats, earnestly seeking to uplift.”

The Project’s blend of African, Latin American, Caribbean and Middle Eastern sounds, coupled with a spectacular live show, has enchanted audiences worldwide. They have headlined in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including New York’s Central Park Summer Stage, Los Angeles’ Kodak Theater, The Apollo Theater, the Sydney Opera House and Radio City Music Hall. They have also performed across Europe, South & Central America, Hong Kong, India, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Singapore to enraptured audiences of all backgrounds.