Friday, 14 January 2011

'Nerd Do Well' by Simon Pegg

You can never judge a book by its cover, so the saying goes. However, there are exceptions. And this book is one of them.

It was the picture on the front that originally attracted me. I don't usually buy celebrity biographies. I'd not read one since Russell Brand's My Booky Wook (please don't judge me, it was a Christmas gift). I'm not bothered either way about the genre.

But there's something about that ginger man in black NHS specs grasping a green cocktail that caught my eye.

For the record, I think the jacket is genius. It's geeky, cool, edgy, bright, attractive and humorous. In fact, everything you kind of think Simon Pegg is. Well, maybe not all of them, but you know what I mean.

Pegg's writing bounces along. He switches between a roughly chronological account of seminal moments in his life, where his love of geekery, performance, comedy and film cemented the foundations for his future career, and a fictional account of his super hero alter-ego who grapples (in every sense of the word) with the evil Lord Black and the beautiful thief, Scarlet Panther.

He deliberately avoids detailing his current family life and uses pseudonyms for old flames that he wants to protect. He focuses more on anecdotal recollection of amusing and symbolic moments. All told with his usual humorous skill.

So the first book I read in 2011 gets a massive, geeky, bespectacled, sniggering thumbs up.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: the results

The phone lines are closed. The results have been counted and verified. It's time for a round-up of the Book a Week in 2010 project.

Top ten
  1. Information is Beautiful - David McCandless
  2. The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
  3. The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
  4. The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson
  5. Grown Up Digital - Don Tapscott
  6. One Day - David Nicholls
  7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
  8. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
  9. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby
  10. My Fathers' Daughter - Hannah Pool
  • Art (1)
  • Biography (6)
  • Childrens (1)
  • Fiction (28)
  • Non-fiction (11)
  • Poetry (5)
  • Travel (1)

For the pure joy of reading it, Information is Beautiful gets the top spot. It simultaneously challenged, educated and entertained me. And I love books that make me laugh out loud.

One Day: for making me burst into tears - without warning - on the bus (anyone who's read this will know the exact moment I'm talking about). David Nicholls makes you care for the characters like no other. And it took me back to my Brixton party days in the 90s.

For pure, relentless pace, The Girl Who Played with Fire is head and shoulders above the others in the trilogy. I quite literally couldn't put it down. Which proved quite difficult at work. And in the shower.


Print or e?
I like using the Kindle for non-fiction (Gladwell, Reed) or pulp non-fiction (Larsson). Essentially it's the book snob in me. If I want people to know how literary and well-read I am, I want the physical book to add to my bookshelf for visitors to see. If it seems remotely work related or serious, I'm happy to read it electronically. I also enjoy getting my Kindle out on the tube, to prove how geeky/cool/progressive I am. Please don't think less of me because of it.

It's people, stupid.
A big shout out goes to Twitter and Facebook friends, without whom I wouldn't have read such a diverse and entertaining group of titles. I've still got a big list of recommends. It sparks discussion, debate and suggestions. I love this. While reading is in itself an isolated activity, this exercise has proved that it feeds and develops relationships and communities of interest. No real surprise there, but lovely to experience it first hand on what was a personal New Year's resolution. Thank you guys!

Faster, pussycat, faster!
There's no room for indolent reading whilst reclining on a chaise longue. You have to think about how and when you are going to read. You need to keep the pace up, a chapter here and there during the day can make all the difference. There are only so many hours in the day, so something's gotta give. Out go morning papers, lunchtime magazines and evening TV. I let this slip a bit, but managed to pull it back at the end of the year because I had a lot of holiday to take, so could read all day, every day.

It's been a blast, and reminded me how much I love books and reading. I'm hoping to keep it up through 2011, but will set myself a different and new resolution. Watch this space...

Friday, 7 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Information is Beautiful by David McCandless

Media140, TED, dConstruct... David McCandless is on the roll call of the all great and good geek camps, unconferences and speaker events knocking around the media world at the moment.

My first exposure to him came from various Information is Beautiful infographics that have gone viral on Twitter over the last two years. I also saw him at a Media140 event in Kings Cross last October.

Have you switched off yet? Are you muttering "bloody media types, what's this infographics bollocks all about?" Bear with me.

David McCandless is one of the most - if not the most - influential creative data journalist of our time. He's published internationally in Wired, The Guardian and suchlike. His blog - Information is Beautiful - contains thoughts and illustrations showcasing his talent. Information is Beautiful is his latest book, based on the blog.

He takes data - boring lists, tables, spreadsheets, facts, figures and statistics - and turns them into intuitive, fun, exciting, interactive graphics and images that make sense of the information, even for a novice or those with Dyscalculia.

Not only is it a stunning piece of publishing - beautiful hardback edition; spot laminate cover; tasteful, contemporary colour palette; matt uncoated paper; gorgeous typography (sorry, book sniffer alert) - it's also a delight to read.

Considering myself a cool media type, I thought I'd at least try to be restrained with this review. The problem is, I can't. From the minute I picked it up, it had me laughing out loud at the gentle piss-taking in the captions. I railed at the injustices in the world that the graphics showed, then marvelled at how he'd come up with such brilliant ways to illustrate data.

I've frogmarched at least three people to a bookshop to buy it. Even my dad, a former IT Director who was around when the internet was first invented, who worked on computers as big as Wembley stadium, was impressed.

And it's not just a nice book to look at. It's got legs as a work of reference. We're going to get another copy in the office for inspiration on how we present our research. If you're struggling to put a presentation together, it's stuffed full of ideas.

McCandless's mind must be a car crash of data and creativity. But he somehow makes sense of the chaos and shows what can be done to make an illuminating and powerful point. It's an exhilarating read.

(Image source: Information is Beautiful by kind permission of David McCandless)
Now go and buy it!

A book a week in 2010: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett is known originally for plays including Beyond the Fringe, The History Boys and The Madness of King George. He has also built a long and successful career as a television and film script-writer, and has become something of a national treasure.

The Uncommon Reader, published in 2007, is a novella about what happens when the Queen discovers books. In this charming and heartwarming story, we see the Queen stumbling across a mobile library around the back of Buckingham Palace. There she meets and befriends one of the kitchen hands, who has his own passion for literature.

But not everyone in the household is pleased. The reading starts to take over from official duties. And the Queen becomes less than compliant.

Bennett provides wry commentary and pokes a gentle stick (apologies Camilla) at the monarchy - more specifically, all the lackeys and advisors - revealing a very royal, and very real monarch, who is starved of intellectual stimulation. He is not quite scathing, but certainly critical of 'the firm'.

This apparently simple tale wears it's quality lightly. Parody, cultural references, tightly written dialogue and characterisation jostle with laugh-out-loud moments.

I *loved* this book. Essential reading.

A book a week in 2010: Waiting to Burn by Angela Cleland

Waiting to Burn is a collection of poems. One of three winners of the Templar Poetry Prize in 2006, Angela Cleland has written a collection full of beautiful memories and reminiscences.

Drawing on classics - there's a smattering of Zeno, Hermes, Eurydice and Orpheus - and contemporary snapshots, she creates pure moments of longing and reflection. She takes the mundane - clothes dumped on the floor, a light - and turns them into startling insights. 'Cardigans' and 'Electricity' are wonderful.

The title poem, 'Waiting to Burn' (in eight parts) is a tour de force of insight into patience, witches and waiting.

Beautiful, haunting stuff.

Read an interview with Angela on
Templar Poetry website

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: The Insult by Rupert Thomson

Languishing on our bookshelves, I discovered The Insult while clearing out clutter before Christmas. The other half had read it. It looked well thumbed so I guessed it was a good book.*

Rupert Thomson is an English author who has a decidedly European voice. This is partly explained by a well-travelled life, but I did read the book feeling like it was a very smart piece of commissioning of a foreign translation.

The Insult is about a man, Martin Blom, who is shot in the head in a car park, leaving him in hospital, permanently blind. However, he soon discovers he has a miraculous gift: he can see at night or in darkness. But his initial concerns about the doctor and his treatment continue to growth, even after he has been discharged and settled away from his family, making a fresh start in the city. It is only his search for the whereabouts of his on/off girlfriend that lead him to discover the truth about his condition and that of her family.

We never get to know why he was shot. That's not the point of the book. This is a story set in a twilight hinterland. It provides a startling perspective on what it might be like to lose your sight. You are never quite sure what is going on, but it makes for an engaging, macabre and slightly surreal read. Peopled by a range of shifty and bizarre characters who live on the fringe, it's set against a backdrop of the city in the dark and sulphurous country lakes.

The Insult is a bizarre read that I found strangely unsatisfying in the end. But this is not your average thriller.

(*Mark's enjoyment of a novel is always commensurate with the amount of physical interaction he has with it: pages turned down at the corner when he pops off to get a drink; spine broken into ridges across the cover; corners battered as it's carried around on his commute - you get the picture. This is in total contrast to me, borderline OCD, who groans in agony when they see someone folding a page.)

A book a week in 2010: Test Paper by Linda Cash

This is a collection of poems with a number of ingredients.

Take some fruit;
and some scars on the body,
and cancer.

Add some longing
and lust;
some death
and remembrance of heartache.

Add a questionnaire at the end
that will test your knowledge
of the poet's intentions.

Delightful. Read aloud.

Buy the book

A book a week in 2010: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Published in 1864, Notes from Underground is acclaimed as a precursor to twentieth-century existentialism. (Source: Wikipedia). Fyodor Dostoevsky is better known for Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, but I bought a lovely Vintage Classics collection and thought I'd have a first stab at Russian literature.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the easy introduction that I was hoping for.

Notes from Underground is a stream of consciousness confession of a Russian civil servant. He is one of the most odious, self-obsessed, narcissistic characters ever written. An utterly vile protagonist.

I've never had much truck with existential literature. This wasn't an exception. The turgid and convoluted text takes you through a series of incidents from the protagonist's past. He recounts utterly despicable and mad behaviour; where his treatment of others - from 'supposed' school friends, to his servant, and a prostitute - is appalling.

Notes from Underground was hard work and no fun.

BUT (and here's the good bit) Dostoevsky's genius shines through. As I slogged through with my end of year deadline in mind, I started to feel that by creating the most vile of protagonists, he was completely describing one facet of the human condition.

He has littered the text with references to contemporary philosophical, political and cultural thinking, which provides an insight - if at times a little dry - into Russian society of the day.

None-the-less, this is a challenging read. I may wait a bit before I tackle Crime and Punishment.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Alice by Jane Weir

'Much better read out loud.'

That's what this collection of poetry should have emblazoned on the front cover. I started reading, but kept losing track. But as soon as I started to speak, it all fell into place.

Alice is a collection of poems inspired by the story of Alice Wheeldon, the suffragette and anti-war campaigner who ran a clothes shop in Derbyshire. Jane Weir weaves the clothing among the words: from a scarf to knitting and skeins, trouser suit to coat. It makes it all feel comfortable, like the words fit. (This is a particular focus of her work: she has subsequently gone on to write in more detail around textiles and textile designers.)

Aside from the joy of hearing the sound of my own voice when reading out loud, I felt admiration for the woman that inspired them, and there's a distant yearning and passion you can't quite put your finger, that's very compelling.

This slim volume comes with a CD of Weir reading. I won't bother listening. I doubt she'll be better than me. But I think I'll come back to this again and again: it feels like a classic collection in the making.

A book a week in 2010: BP Portrait Award catalogue

Have you ever been to the National Portrait Gallery?

It's opposite St Martin-in-the-Fields church, just off Trafalgar Square, and is one of the nicest places to meet friends, dip in for a bit of art, then soak up a bit of London history and culture that drives droves of tourists to visit the city regardless of the time of year.

If you're a skinflint like me, the permanent collections are free. You can select by room or collection. The Tudor and Elizabethan section is my favourite: it's nice to see the faces of characters I've read about.

You can also pay a fee for one of the temporary exhibitions - currently showing Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance and Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.

The NPG runs an annual competition: the BP Portrait Award. They show the shortlist at the gallery each year where you can jostle with large crowds to catch a glimpse of the winners. I've always loved this - a hangover from studying art history at university where Modigiliani, Manet and Ingres produced some stunning portraits - so I decided to visit in summer 2010.

The first prize in 2010 went to Daphne Todd entitled 'Last Portrait of my Mother'. It is a painting of two adjoining canvases and is a haunting depiction of her mother on her death bed, looking cadaverous, to say the least.

The second prize went to Michael Gaskell's 'Harry': a strong, almost photographic view of a young man showing pride, youth and an underlying vulnerability.

Third prize went to the astonishingly hyperreal 'Tim II' by David Eichenberg. I hovered by this painting for a long time, trying to figure out if it was a photograph. The incredible detail was mind-blowing, showing technical and observational brilliance, particularly as it is set in a workshop (not your average portrait setting).

While I loved David Eichenberg, I didn't particularly warm to the other winners. The catalogue includes all of the shortlist; some 58 portraits out a total of 2,177 submissions. There is an introductory essay written by the novelist Rose Tremain. Through personal reflection she describes what it means to be a good portrait painter. It's a beguiling and modest view, what you would expect from an author of her genre and calibre.

These are favourites paintings from the exhibition, most of which don't totally lose their power when reproduced in a small exhibition catalogue.
  • Ciara by Alan Coulson (page 29): hyperreal was a watchword for this exhibition and this is no exception. The depiction of hair and freckles has you craning forward to check if it's a photograph or painted. I particularly love the downwards tilt of the head. The skin tone is beautifully set against the teal background.
  • Gillian by Miriam Escofet (page 37): reminds me Dutch and Flemish still life and portrait painting with the detail of the fur collar and gilt candlestick. Stunningly detailed.
  • Quena by Eliot Haigh (page 40): the chiaroscuro of this very modern portrait reminds me of Rembrandt, but with mid-twentieth century atmosphere.
  • Sandy Watching by Alex Hanna (page 42): anyone who's watched children watching telly will love this. A brilliant depiction of a child concentrating.
  • Sentinel by Lyndsey Jameson (page 47): Stig of the Dump? Lord of the Flies? In Peckham? You decide.
  • iBeats by Michal Ožibko (page 60): don't let the reproduction of this fool you. This is an EPIC painting. Hyperreal and photographic, the 2.2 x 1.7 metre canvas is a triumph of technical skill. The subject is totally immersed in her iPod world and has an ethereal, almost pre-Raphaelite quality (apart from the white earphones).
  • Chris, Art Critic by Fred Schley (page 67): if only because it reminds me of a former colleague (and it's got that same incredible photographic quality of some other finalists).

A book a week in 2010: Sarah by J T Leroy

What happens when Cherry Vanilla tries to get a bigger Raccoon Penis Bone necklace - a gift and symbol of importance from Glad, the pimp - by visiting Holy Jack's Jackalope, the patron saint of prostitutes?

Claustrophobic and compelling, Sarah is the story of a child born into a life hanging round truck stops who aspires to be the best, but ends up kidnapped by another pimp.

Using a cast full of hateful characters, Leroy recounts in visceral detail the brutal logic and market commerce rules of their world, where strange allegiances are tested by favouritism and betrayals.

Despite all of the squalor and seediness, Leroy is a master of making the extreme matter of fact, and the vile just part of life.

This is one fucked up tale: yet strangely moving and poignant.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Pillars of Salt by Judy Brown

Another collection of poetry from Templar Poetry, Pillars of Salt is sadly, rather disappointing.

I just couldn't get into the poems. There was the odd line that I liked, but overall I couldn't get the feel of Judy Brown's voice. It seemed inconsistent and there wasn't a flow - in subject or tone - that piqued my interest.

Brown covers a diverse range of subjects on memories, regret and family. Some of the language jarred and it lacked a coherence.

Poetry is an immersive, personal genre. Sometimes I like reading on the page, sometimes I prefer to read out loud. Neither worked this time. But I am sure others will disagree vociferously as Brown is a Poetry Society prize winner.

Not my cup of tea.

A book a week in 2010: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea reminded me why I've loved the Book a Week in 2010 project: it can turn into a voyage of discovery. I'd never read any Hemingway before. What a mistake. He's a wonderful writer and I intend to address this omission.

This is a beautiful book: a fable about stoicism, patience, acceptance, joy and endurance. It follows the relationship between a young boy and an old fisherman - pupil and teacher - and the capture of a very big fish.
Hemingway whisks you away to another place, where life is simple, but you feel in touch with universal truths.

The writing is stunning. I can't wait to read more. The repackaged covers that Arrow have produced are also gorgeous, so this will be a print collection I build, rather than on the Kindle.

Let me know if you have a particular Hemingway favourite that I should read next.

A book a week in 2010: The Dare by John Boyne

John Boyne is the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Dare is a novella published in 2009 for the Quick Reads programme.

Danny Delaney lives at home with his mum and dad. It's the summer holidays and his older brother, who is at university, has decided to travel round Europe, so Danny is on his own. But everything gets turned on its head when his mum is brought home by the police after an accident. Danny can only look on helplessly as his mum withdraws from the family.

The Dare does what Boyne is renowned for: telling challenging and heart-wrenching stories from a child's perspective. He recreates the world of a child during the summer holidays complete with secret hiding places, sun bleached colours, bike rides and other simple pleasures.

But Boyne succeeds best with the powerful depiction of an eight year old's logic and the limited world that it operates in. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith

"Ah," I thought to myself "a bonkbuster about publishing. Just what I need for a bit of light relief." And boy, does Bestseller fit the bill.

Goldsmith takes you on a rollicking, bumpy ride through the world of publishing. With all of its overblown egos, croneys, champagne parties and hidden talents.

Terry O'Neal has spent her whole life writing a magnum opus, but to no avail. Rejection after rejection from literary agents and publishers have pushed her to the limit.

Camilla Clapfish (Clapfish...?!) is an aspiring author who has just finished her first novel living in Italy. When she meets an American tourist on holiday with his mother, little does she know how this will shape and influence her life.

Judith and Daniel are writing a book together. He is an academic, her former creative writing tutor, and now her husband. She is a true talent. They are eeking out a living on Daniel's paltry salary at the university and he's desperate to hit the literary big time. Just how far will he go to get there?

Susann is a successful romantic novelist. She has a lifetime of bestselling novels under her belt, aided and abetted by her partner and literary agent, Alfred Byron. But the latest book is a proving a real struggle to write. And the increasing frustration and impatience of Alf is not helping. At all.

Gerald Ochs Davis is top of the literary tree in New York. As head of Davis & Dash, he controls one of the most powerful publishing houses in the world. His backing of an author can make or break them. But does he still have it? The Fall list - including his own blockbuster - will be make or break.

Set against a backdrop of ruthlessness and immorality, we see the good, the bad and the not-quite-ugly struggle to survive. This is a world where the benchmark of success is your position on the New York Times Book List. And where you are only as good as your last book.

Olivia Goldsmith was quite obviously a flamboyant character. Her acknowledgements page is stuffed full of references to key figures in the publishing world, some of whom make an appearance in the book.

Utter nonsense. Entertaining nonetheless.

A book a week in 2010: Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 by Rob Hindle

The Sheffield Flood in 1864 was a catastrophic event that claimed 270 lives. It is ranked as the 20th deadliest flood of all time by Armageddon Online (hat tip to Wikipedia for link). The cause was a breach in the newly built dam on the River Loxley at Low Bradfield which poured 700 million imperial gallons of water south into the centre of Sheffield. (Source: Wikipedia)

Rob Hindle is a writer and academic based in Sheffield. He's particularly interested in how his writing can help bring history to life. And this collection of poems is about the Flood.

He provides snapshots of the lives of those affected by the tragedy: whether survivors, media observers or the dead. Each poem is poignant and evocative: sometimes because they are truly mundane in tone, describing the day to day as disasters looms, and the character has no idea of what is about to befall them.

But he also portrays all the deformities, tin pans, wrought iron, smog and disease of Victorian life. Nineteenth century existence, warts and all. The first person narratives are interspersed with snippets and announcements from the archives.

This is a powerful and moving collection.

About the publisher - Templar Poetry

A book a week in 2010: The Grey Man by Andy McNab

Kevin is Deputy Manager at a bank in town. He spends his life covering for Mr Symington, the Manager, and daydreaming about how he'd foil a bank robbery.

Linda is Kevin's wife. Even though they don't lead an exciting life, she is happy and content. They are very much in love and will do anything for each other.

Jessica Drake is an actress, well past her prime, playing the lead in Lady Windermere's Fan at the local theatre. She likes to keep her valuables in a bank wherever she stays.

This is a tale of banks, robberies and how far a man will go when pushed.

Written in very clear, straightforward prose, this was an easy read. It won't win any prizes. It isn't complex, highbrow writing. But the mundane life of the characters and childlike writing style - surprisingly - make this entertaining.