Thursday, 9 April 2009

Books read in December

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in December. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

The Art of Murder – Jose Carlos Somoza (4)

Ostensibly, this is a murder mystery, but Jose Carlos Somoza has woven an intricate story of art imitating life imitating art that is deep and complex. In this dystopian world, not too far removed from our own, art has become live (hyperdramatic art); the canvases are people and art is more important than humanity. It takes a while to build up this intriguing sci-fi fantasy full of weird, obsessive but very convincing characters, with heavily satirical overtones, but the last fifty pages explode into life and this becomes a full-on thriller.

The concept is not all that far-fetched; the contemporary art world is always experimenting and seeking to shock with the next big thing. We already have body art in which paint is applied directly to skin, but the human canvases move. What is the natural progression of this? In Somoza’s model, the canvases remain in situ for hours at a time and don’t even blink or sneeze. They take pills to reduce their bodily needs so they don’t need to eat or go to the toilet.

The most highly prized works of art are girls and young women, who are usually naked, leading to that it is little more than pornography. Because youth is ephemeral it is highly prized and the short shelf-life leads to inflated demand. When some of the models are murdered in gruesome ways and Detective Bosch is called in to investigate, he is appalled by the pretence and the artifice of the business.

There are some fabulous insights in this novel, and the writing is excellent. Nothing seems to be lost in the translation, and there are some brilliant descriptions. It is superb satirical science fiction, in the vein of Perfume – captivating and weird; disturbing but memorable. As only a great novel can, it changes the way you think, and I will never be able to look at statues in an art gallery the same way again.

In the Name of Honour – Mukhtar Mai (4.4)

This potentially harrowing account of gang rape, oppression, poverty and injustice, is instead one of hope and promise. Mukhtar Mai’s younger brother, Shakur, is accused of raping a woman of a powerful family, the Mastois (although all he did was talk to her – he is 12). The traditional tribal council (the jirga) decide that his sister should beg for forgiveness to even things up. When she goes to their farm to humiliate herself, she is gang raped by four men of the Mastois clan. The idea is that she will be so ashamed that she will kill herself. This passes for justice in Pakistan, where most peasants cannot afford to hire a lawyer and women are regarded as collateral.

When she hears of similar horrific acts, she decides to fight for women like her, of whom there are many. Not everyone is happy with her crusade to tell the truth especially once she obtains the attention of the Western media, although her family’s support and protection is crucial and not to be taken for granted. She is persistent because she has to be – “Stubbornness [is] the only weapon we women have against men” – and her actions divide the village and the wider community.

Her quest takes her on a tortuous road demanding courage, patience and fortitude. She learns to read and to deal with the Lewis Carroll type rules which would be nonsense were they not so chilling – in Pakistan for a woman to prove she has been raped, she must provide four male eyewitnesses.

Mukhtar Mai discovers self-awareness and a social conscience, and almost unwittingly becomes an activist for women’s rights. With funds raised from her torment, she builds a school to educate girls so that they can break the tradition of silent submission to their husbands. “To me, the answer is simple: knowledge must be given to girls, and as soon as possible, before their mothers bring them up the same way they were raised themselves.”

Mukhtar Mai still lives in the village where she was attacked, which she admits is not always easy. Her house is surrounded by a police cordon and she is exhausted. But her positivism in the face of such brutality is uplifting, inspiring and humbling. “I believe in God, I love my village, the Punjab, and my country, and I would like to change things for this country, and all the victims of rape, and future generations of girls.” This may not be the best written book on the shelves, but it is one of the most powerful. It will take a day to read, and must not be forgotten in a lifetime.

How to be Idle – Tom Hodgkinson (4.4)

Tom Hodgkinson’s ruminations in praise of slow make for interesting reading. He strikes a good balance between the humorous and learned, disguising an anti-capitalist manifesto with wit and charm, unlike some other worthy but joyless polemics. He quotes poets, philosophers, authors and historians to support his points, including Dr Johnson, Jerome K. Jerome, Walt Whitmam, E. P. Thompson, Will Self, William Blake, G. K. Chesterton, Bertrand Russell, and, of course, Oscar Wilde.

The book is divided into chapters covering the hours of the day and the pen-and-ink line drawings scattered throughout lend it the air of a periodical. Hodgkinson decries jobs and activity, favouring sleep, drink and conversation. In pursuit of happiness he acknowledges that material wealth is not necessarily the pinnacle of pleasure, and claims the Industrial Revolution has a lot to answer for, as it manufactured the English working class and put a nation of idlers to work.

Hodgkinson bemoans the passing of an era but offers us ways to cling to our idleness and not succumb to the money-spinning consumer-focussed culture which increasingly prevails. I love this book; it is my new manifesto. Idle should no longer be a dirty word; it simply means ‘at leisure’, and who could possibly argue against that?

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Happy Blog-day

I see it's been a year since I started this blog. I had no idea where it would take me when I began. I checked out the 'labels' which tell me the topics I have written about most. It may not surprise those that know me to learn that the top five are:
  • Liverpool Football Club
  • theatre and plays
  • travel (Italy & America)
  • beer
  • sport in general

So those would appear to be my main interests. Should I put them on my CV?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Necessary Targets debrief

Well, Necessary Targets is over and what a great experience it was. At the end of every show there are conflicting emotions - sadness that it has finished mingled with relief that now you will be able to get some some sleep, concentrate on other projects, and finally address that giant pile of washing. The flowers received on opening night (thanks mum!) are removed from the dressing room and returned home.

There are phrases that continue to echo in your mind and someone's innocent remark can set you off on a cue line like Pavlov's dog. At 7 o'clock at night you feel restless as though you should be somewhere but you're not sure where. It takes a while to resume the routine and refocus your thoughts away from a Bosnian refuge camp where they have been settling for the past few months.

One of the strangest things is no longer seeing the same people who have been your constant companions. Unless you work with your fellow actors or have some other connection, the people with whom you have spent almost every evening abruptly disappear from your circle of contacts. It's a little like a bereavement.

Our director worked very hard on building up a community among the women on stage, and it spilled over to the dressing room where we became friends as well as cast. Sure, we took the piss out of each other and we learnt each other's little foibles - and of course we have them; we're theatrical types! - but we grew to care for each other and look out for each other's concerns.

I only managed to take a couple of photos in the dressing room, but these words, spoken about Azra (played by Christine pictured here running through her lines as she did before every performance) sum up my feelings about everyone.

'I could not forget you. Not your face, your kind, deep, welcoming face.'

Good work ladies.