Friday, 30 December 2011

The best eleven of '11: books

First of all, it's important to note that only a few of these books were actually published in 2011.  I almost never read recent releases (unless it's trashy crime fiction: I'm always first in the library reservation queue when a new Tess Gerritsen or Ian Rankin is released), tending to buy most of my books from secondhand bookshops or charity shops.  But they are all books that I read, and loved, for the first time this year (in no particular order)...


Caitlin Moran How To Be A Woman
One book that actually was published this year and has won all sorts of well-deserved plaudits.  When I was a teenager I wanted to be Moran, who was a writer for Melody Maker by the age of 16 and presented Channel 4 yoof show, Naked City in all her Doc Martened-, red hair dyed-, size sixteen-glory.  I loved her book - which is part memoir, part feminist polemic - and still can't quite get over the fact that it won the Galaxy prize for best book of 2011 earlier this week.  Even if this book was rubbish (which it's not: it's funny and moving and incredibly clever), I'm excited that a book about feminism is at the front of WH Smiths.

Tom Hodgkinson How To Be Free
How often can one say of a book, truthfully, 'it changed my life'?  But this really did, in a hundred tiny ways: subverting certain long-held ideas about work and life, and altering my shopping habits to name just two changes.

Anne Fadiman Ex Libris: Confessions Of A Common Reader
I bought this in a dusty secondhand bookshop on a sweltering summer's day in Seattle and read it in one sitting on a freezing night in Iceland, driving my travelling companion mad as I whooped with laughter at the essays about books and reading.  There is nothing quite like coming across someone who is as barmy about books as you are; who makes your weirder habits (stroking my books every so often being one of many) seem acceptable. 

Susan Hill Howards End Is On The Landing
I read this on a very book-themed week in Wales this May, visiting the Hay Festival with my mum and brother.  Subtitled A Year Of Reading From Home, this book is a wonderful journey through literature in the company of award-winning novelist Hill.

Claire Tomalin Jane Austen: A Life
Clearly, there is a link developing here in my non-fiction reading.  Books about books; books about reading; books about authors.  This biography of Austen was incredibly readable, tempting me to tackle Tomalin's 560+ page life of Dickens next year.

Dave Eggers Zeitoun
Eggers tells the story of Zeitoun - an immigrant, a businessman, a husband and father, a Muslim - in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  After Zeitoun risked his own safety to help people during the floods, he was mistakenly arrested and held as a terrorist.  Reading it this summer in New Orleans was a raw and painful experience.

I devour fiction, racing through two or three paperbacks a week, on average.  However, few of these have any lasting impact; perhaps because I consume them so quickly, perhaps because they tend towards the trashy.  If it features a vampire detective, a werewolf looking for love, or a time-travelling witch, I've probably read it.  However these are a few novels I've enjoyed this year, with nary a supernatural crime-fighter between them.

Stephen Chbosky The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Deservedly compared to The Catcher In The Rye, this novel follows the wallflower of the title, Charlie, through his years of high school and is brilliant, funny, wise and true.  I recognised the teenage me in the main characters as they struggle to find their places in the world, helped only by Rocky Horror, The Smiths and each other.  The final twist in the plot hits like a slug to the guts.  Heartily recommended.

Armistead Maupin Mary Ann In Autumn
I adore all of the Tales of the City series, and enjoyed this latest episode all the more for having been in San Francisco this summer.

Steve Kluger My Most Excellent Year
I have a whole shelf dedicated to 'gay themed YA novels'.  This is a well-written but essentially fluffy novel about two best friends - one gay, one straight - and their quest for love over the course of a year. 

Jennifer Egan A Visit From The Goon Squad
Deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize this year.

Kate Atkinson Started Early, Took My Dog
The latest title in Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series, strictly speaking this is genre fiction; a detective novel, yet it's so much more than the sum of it's parts.  Superbly plotted, fantastic characterisation, and with an ending that will leave you hungry for answers.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The best eleven of '11: music

I do love a good end of year list.  I played around with various permutations this year (having done seperate top fives for album, single and live music last year) and in the end decided to stick them all in together, which led to an interesting One Direction vs. Two Door Cinema Club face off. 

1. Sufjan Stevens live at The Apollo, Manchester, 19th May
It was interesting to see Sufjan Stevens' concert at the Southbank centre (together with this Manchester date one of few he played in the UK this year) on many end of year 'best of' lists, often from theatre or art critics rather than rock music writers.  Not just the best live experience of 2011, but the best of my life I reckon.  You can read my detailed review here.

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
I was so excited about this release after loving Fleet Foxes' debut album and experiencing their incredible live show in 2009.  I rarely buy CDs as soon as they come out, but I had Helplessness Blues on pre-order, so desperate was I to hear it.  On first listen I was every so slightly underwhelmed, but it really is a record that rewards repeated listening.  It was my constant companion as I travelled in the Pacific Northwest this summer, sounding at home amongst the towering pine trees.  The whole album is close to perfection (Sim Sala Bim striking the only false note for me), but album closer Grown Ocean is my choice for favourite track. 

3. Beirut - The Rip Tide
My love of this album has been documented here before, so I won't harp on again about it's brilliance.  Suffice it to say that three months after it's release I still play it constantly, and it's increased my appreciation of the previous albums too.

4. Metronomy - The English Riviera
Reminiscent, as the band intended, of an English seaside resort, I've played this less as the seasons have changed.  Just as I listen to Midlake a lot during winter, Metronomy's second album belongs to the summer months and I predict it will make a return to my stereo come April.

5. Karima Francis live at The Glee Club, Birmingham, 30th September
Reviewed here.

6. Two Door Cinema Club - What You Know (single)
This gloriously jangly guitar-pop single (from the 2010 album Tourist History) makes me grin like a loon and dance around the kitchen whenever I hear it.  It was a tough choice between this and One Direction for the top single spot, but the fact that I'm not embarrassed to like Two Door Cinema Club edged it for them.

7. One Direction - What Makes You Beautiful (single)
Time hasn't blunted my love for this slice of cheesy pop heaven.  I still squeal when it comes on the radio, we had a little singalong to it at my last craft club, and when it was played at the year 7 Christmas party I chaperoned, I think I might have been more excited than the kids.  Wrong, I know.

8. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
Hailed by music critics as being a return to his Gold-era form, this would be in my top ten for the title track alone. 

9. Feist - How Come You Never Go There (single)
I loved this lead single from Feist's new record, Metals, but have been a little disappointed by the album.

10. Jeffrey Lewis live at Lock 42, Leicester, 29th OctoberIf only because we got to stand next to the man himself during the support act.

11. Bombay Bicycle Club - A Different Kind Of Fix
Single Lights Out Words Gone is one of the best things they've done.  I can't wait to see them in 2012.

To come later this week: books.  In the meantime, let me know what your top gigs and records were in 2011.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Music Monday: The Smiths

When I first left home for university it was a conceit of mine to listen to this song when I returned home, as the coach pulled into the bus station.  Bradford, a northern town as grim and bleak as any Morrissey ever sang about; were it not for my family I would certainly have felt that "I would rather not go/Back to the old house". 

Driving past the house I grew up in  - my mum having long moved - on Christmas Eve, I began singing this again.  A masterpiece of longing, as so many of The Smiths' songs are, Back To The Old House conjures that precise mixture of regret and jubilation one feels on returning to a place you have previously escaped.  

Monday, 19 December 2011

Music Monday: the saddest Christmas song ever

I love this melancholy, beautiful song from the 1940s musical Meet Me In St Louis.  And ok, so it might not be the saddest but it's certainly one of the most bittersweet in the Christmas canon.  If I knew lots about music I could probably point out that it sounds sad because of a descending minor chord progression in the chorus or something, but I don't so I won't.  For me, it's all about Garland's delivery; the way she makes the line "let your heart be light" sound anything but light and cheerful.  Today I'm feeling exhausted, headachey, sick of children and horrified that we still have another three days of school to get through, so melancholy suits me down to the ground.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Music Monday: Sufjan Stevens

One Christmas a few years ago I decided that what my Sufjan Stevens-loving (but Christmas-hating) brother needed to give him some festive cheer was the five CD box set Songs For Christmas.  The fact that I could listen to this gift in the run-up to Christmas, before wrapping it and putting it under the tree, was entirely a lucky coincidence.

So Christmas Day dawned and we gathered around the tree to open our gifts.  A few presents in, I came to one which was a very familiar size and shape, but addressed to me from Richard.  Having a hunch what it might be, I handed him his gift and, at pretty much the same time, we opened our identical copies of Songs For Christmas.  Mine had also been 'previewed' by the giver.

There is so much to love on those five EPs, from original compositions such as Sister Winter (which to my mind is as good a song as Stevens has ever written) to new arrangements of classic carols like Oh Holy Night and Amazing Grace.  I've chosen Joy To The World to share today because it takes a carol that is somewhat rambunctious and over the top and turns it into a gentle and reflective hymn.  Plus it has sleigh bells, as all good Christmas tunes should.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Music Monday: I Am What I Am

A song that I doubt needs too much introduction today.  Famous as something of a gay anthem, it was originally written for the musical La Cage aux Folles and has subsequently been recorded by Gloria Gaynor, Shirley Bassey and John Barrowman, amongst others.  But don't worry, I haven't suddenly become a raging Barrowman fan.  I'm posting this because Gay Abandon sung it in their concert on Saturday and it's been stuck in my head ever since.  Their arrangement is more pared-down and therefore more moving than this somewhat overblown version.  No matter, because it's the lyrics that count.  Reproduced below, it's clear why the song became a gay anthem (not least because it's sung by a gay character in the show and is unequivocally about being out and proud) but I also think it can resonate regardless of sexual orientation.  I spent so much time in my teens and twenties trying to fit myself into what I thought other's wanted me to be.  One of my favourite things about being in my thirties (actually, it might be my only favourite thing about my thirties) is that I now have the self-assurance to say (and mean), "I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses".

I am what I am
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It's my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it's not a place I have to hide in.
Life's not worth a damn,
'Til you can say, "Hey world, I am what I am."
I am what I am,
I don't want praise, I don't want pity.
I bang my own drum,
Some think it's noise, I think it's pretty.
And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,
Why not try to see things from a diff'rent angle?
Your life is a sham 'til you can shout out loud
I am what I am!
I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses.
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces.
There's one life, and there's no return and no deposit;
One life, so it's time to open up your closet.
Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say,
"Hey world, I am what I am!"

Thursday, 1 December 2011

I have never...

Have you ever played "I have never..."?  It's a great drinking game, although I do blame it for the biggest hangover of my life on my 30th birthday.  Don't worry though, I've not got the shots of sambuca out tonight.  The latest series of I've Never Seen Star Wars has just ended on Radio 4, and it made me think about the cultural experiences that I'm lacking.  For instance, until last week I had never read, nor seen, The Lord Of The Rings.  To be entirely accurate, I still haven't as I'm a few hundred pages - and many hours of DVD - away from finishing.  My brother, Richard, has just finished the last Harry Potter book, after being convinced of their worth by a small girl he met on a train in America.  Coming late to a cultural phenomenon is an odd experience because you approach the book or film with many preconceptions.  The first hundred or so pages of LOTR were confusing for me, not least because from what I'd picked up over the years, my impressions of Gandalf didn't mesh with the character who spends much of the opening putting on a firework display for someone's birthday.

For an English teacher, I have a real paucity of knowledge when it comes to certain key texts in the literary canon.  I've never read To Kill A Mockingbird or One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  Not seen the films either.  I'm embarrassed that I've read Twilight but not Wuthering Heights, but I'm not in any hurry to go and find my copy of the Bronte classic.  When I was younger I fiercely resisted reading any book my mum recommended to me, preferring to discover things for myself.  I think that as an adult I still have that stubborn streak within me: most books, films or TV shows regarded as a 'must-read/see' tend to pass me by.  Essentially, I don't like being told what to do.   So what cultural experiences would you be able to say "I have never..." about and why?