20.8.17

"Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music " by Judy Collins


As always, initially I started reading something else - the sequel to Diana Gabaldon's "Voyager"  thinking that I should continue with the story while it's still fresh in my mind, alas, dear reader, I was suddenly overwhelmed with excitement about packing & leaving for vacation (finally) and could simply not focus on Gabaldon who was just going nowhere, same old, same old - I caught myself thinking "this is so silly and trivial and I'm not even enjoying it"  so I did the best possible thing and gently postponed "Drums of Autumn" for some other time when I might be in the right frame of mind to enjoy never-ending lust between Claire and Jaimie (it came to the point that now I just find all these sex scenes simply tedious, the plot is not moving anywhere and these two are still humping each other chapter after chapter). To a certain degree I like Gabaldon and recognise kindred spirit but right now I needed something else to help me with insomnia. So off I went for my old hobby, books about music celebrities. This year I read only one so my celebrity thirst is firmly under control.


I have already read some autobiographical work by Judy Collins. Somewhere in my books collection is her first volume "Trust Your Heart"  and I even might have "Singing Lessons" which didn't stop me from reading this title. Not that it brings anything radically different - her life story is now firmly established as a part of public consciousness, part of our collective memory, perhaps even part of the history (in a sense that every piece of puzzle is of great importance to a complete picture) - but although previously told, the story is always slightly different when looked at from different perspective, at various times colours shimmer in a different light. 

If you are familiar with her music - soothing, comforting, often enchanting - you might be surprised to discover that in 1960s Collins was indeed very far from gentle folkie persona associated with her. Artsy and curious, yes. Making pottery and performing in theatre, check. But she was also an earthy, fun-loving soul on a search of spiritual enlightenment who happened to find her solace and success in music, music that completely changed her life, lifted her up from anonymity and carried her trough decades in cutthroat business. Collins doesn't flinch from some less attractive truths about herself back than - like everybody else, she had her share of nomadic life, bad company and self-destructive tendencies. In her book, she almost gleefully demolishes the gentle folkie image audiences associated with her. There is a unforgettable scene where Janis Joplin tells her "“You know,” she said, “one of us is going to make it. And it’s not going to be me.”  Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and the whole myriad of rock aristocracy make their entrances and exits trough the pages of the book and still this is not just a name dropping - Collins was there and she is a witness of these times.


There is a very important sentence right at the beginning of this book, in fact its right here before the first chapter: "In all cases, it is my memory of an event that supersedes the memories of other participants who might have been at the same party. There are no accidents in memory, for memory has its own reasons and its own logic. What I remember is what happened to me as I best recall it." This, in my opinion is the key to this book. It is not about Grammy awards, Billboard Hot 100, album sales or even relationships, no matter how much these things mattered at the time. Collins really happened to be the right person at the right time to witness social atmosphere and immense changes of 1960s  and was brave enough to join the gang even when it meant jail, prosecution or (like in her case) being gagged in a court, where she defiantly sang "where have all the flowers gone?"  to outraged judge. This is much, much more than mellow, incense burning, nature loving, whales duetting folkie who eventually outgrows the genre and reinvents herself as artsy pop singer - Collins has a story to tell and at this stage of her life, age and earned wisdom to look back at certain moments with a wistful regret. She remembers idyllic times in mountains of Colorado where she spend some dreamy times as a young woman with her first husband and baby son "I always look, and I always wonder how our lives would have turned out if we had stayed in those glorious mountains where my heart still yearns to be."  But music beckoned and nothing was ever the same, even if those first years might have been frustrating - but joy was always there, a sense of humour, a sense of camaraderie, sometimes booze (Collins explains her alcoholism as genetic tendency to addiction) and sometimes, real love. There is a beautiful black and white picture taken on some airport in 1968, with young and glowing Stephen Stills and Judy Collins looking like happiest couple in the world. It is a really poignant picture, a frozen moment in time. 



After I finished the book, out of curiosity I checked the list of her discography and found (to my surprise) that I actually own more than sixteen of these albums. I treat myself with her music like it is some medicine - when I need some comfort, tenderness or nurturing, I turn to "Someday soon" or "Farewell to Tarwathie"  or "So Early, Early in the Spring" (I could go on forever like this) and to this day I believe that her version of "In My Life"  is the best Beatles cover ever. 

12.8.17

"Voyager" by Diana Gabaldon


A little break from horror genre - as much as I started to enjoy it, it has to be taken in small doses - and welcome return to Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" saga. I started this year with first two volumes ("Outlander" and "Dragonfly in Amber") and decided that perhaps I should go back to it while I still remember the outline of the story. Initially, I have actually read the trilogy (when it was still just a trilogy) back in the day when these novels were still new and recently published, but later got sidetracked with other things and never continued - I always knew that I would eventually return to Gabaldon, but first had to refresh my memory and start from the beginning.

Gabaldon is a modern-day Scheherazade with glittering imagination, wit, humour and obviously she has great affection for her characters. She is also a spiritual descendant of a certain French writer called Anne Golon who in her time, created literary phenomenon "Angelique"  - I am not sure is Gabaldon actually familiar with Golon, but both of them delight in historical research and describe damsel-in-distress who goes trough every possible adventure from novel to novel, including witch hunt, pirates, Turkish harem, snake pits, you name it. Popularity of such novels immediately branded them as lowbrow entertainment, kind of "bodice rippers" which perhaps correctly describes their mass appeal - say whatever you want, there is a fair amount of body heat peppered amongst heroine's adventures, usually somewhere between her being kidnapped and sold in a slave market (of course, heroine always emerges untouched and even more beautiful than ever). Although different personalities and placed in completely different time frames, both  Angelique and time travelling Claire Randall are simultaneously outsiders (brave, outspoken, passionate about truth, heroic, different than other passive women around them) and conservative - no matter how many times they get kidnapped and lusted after by various men, both are faithful to only one man in their lives, which happens to be their husband. So its only superficially that they are heroines - given different circumstances, its easy to imagine them as perfectly content housewives - alas, for the sake of adventures, both heroines ride here and sail there, living outside of the law and basically enjoying freedom unimaginable for other women of their times.

For the sake of the story - and to explain how Claire's daughter now happens to be grown up woman - twenty years have passed since Claire and Jaimie Fraser separated. One way or the other, after impossibly long introduction and what it feels like a half of a novel, the two eventually meet again (in his time) and continue their tempestuous relationship, while ridiculously complicated twists of the plot have them constantly on the run and saving each others lives. At this point Gabaldon is obviously confident and relaxed enough to allow some breezy humour and tenderness every now and than (with all the incredulity I found myself being occasionally moved to tears) but she seriously stretches her credibility with readers by keeping lovers exactly the same as they were twenty years ago - with this I don't mean physically (apparently everybody is still lusting after both of them) but psychologically they are exactly same old selves, always passionate, always arguing and making up all teary just to discover something unspoken that will lead to another argument, another chapter, another return. It does start to feel like some adolescents idea of what relationship is all about which kind of brings the novel to another level of fluffiness - even though the initial time-travelling start was not exactly serious literature in the first place, but at least it had some historical research that made sense. You would assume that after twenty years apart, both Claire and Jaimie would grow, change and mature into different people because this is what happens in life, we metamorphose into different versions of our younger selves - centre might be similar but edges smooth out and years of experience leave traces - well, not with these two. Its all about passion, sex, breaking up and making up. Seriously, it looks like Claire's daughter might be more balanced than her adventure-loving mother. Most of their arguments is because of the secrets Jaimie kept from her, but than, as they are constantly on the run, there is a hardly a time to stop and relax enough for any confessions - this is where Claire gets a bit shrewish, after all, she had also lived her life all this time and not exactly as a nun. So in the middle of this constant hurricane we have Claire and Jaimie running for their lives across the country and then some, towards the end of the book they are sailing for Jamaica and this is exactly where I am right now - no wonder that at this point I kind of had enough initially - mind you, this is another similarity with Anne Golon, since her Angelique also left the old world and sailed for Canada at certain point. 

Its really very entertaining and a perfect escapism, but for even the second time around I started to feel that this is turning into soap opera.

29.7.17

"Comes the Blind Fury" by John Saul


Perhaps the point could be made - since I am obviously really enjoying this year's excursion into horror genre - that I am going back to my adolescent years when my reading choices (completely informed by what public libraries in my hometown had to offer) went for best-selling, pulse-racing, fast-moving titles of likes as Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins. I gobbled them all, without ever remembering anything about them except that they kept me awake until dawn. And now, after years of reading all kinds of things, I have suddenly re-discovered that forgotten excitement of being completely lost in a plot - even knowing and fully understanding that this might not be (with exception of wonderful Shirley Jackson) not exactly a earth-shaking, life-affirming literary masterpiece but for me reading is all about escapism anyway.


After Peter Ackroyd's interesting but, frankly, complex history of England (at certain point I just lost the focus with the long list of kings who were slaying, poisoning, arresting and murdering each predecessor) I wanted something completely different so browsing trough my virtual library I decided to check this 1980 horror bestseller which seems like something my younger self would love. "Comes the Blind Fury" is a clever combination of two horror sub-genres, haunted house and ghost story - the main antagonist is the ghost of a blind girl who lived in Paradise Point a century ago and is now full of blind fury in order to revenge her death, caused by evil schoolchildren. In present time, the new family (the Pendletons) comes to town and as they settle in a spacious, old house, we became aware that something is wrong about this place, in fact with these local people as well. Twelve year old Michelle is overjoyed to discover an old porcelain doll in her room and immediately gives her name Amanda, getting closer to the doll than to her little school friends - as it happens, we soon find out that this is the name from a local gravestone and true identity of the blind girl who disappeared a century ago. Strange things start happening, the porcelain doll whispers into Michelle's ears, local schoolchildren start dying and it all gets seriously gripping - even with my daily workload I managed to gulp the novel in two days - its not exactly a literary masterpiece but rather a very enjoyable escape from reality and kind of the novel I would loved back in my teens (apparently, part of me still loves this kind of psycho thriller). It's all very cleverly done and has enough chill factor to keep the reader glued to the very last page. Where the epilogue neatly suggest that the story is far from over. 

"The Colour Out of Space" by H. P. Lovecraft

Confession: I am still reading Peter Ackroyd and his history of England, enjoying it very much and its all fine, except that at certain point I found myself bothered with my electronic reader - it is not exactly Kindle but some mutant, inexpensive version that I bought thinking this will not appeal to me anyway - and perhaps I stuffed the poor thing too much or crammed too many books inside, in any case it shows very unpredictable behavior, with pages switching between being beautifully clear and white, into muddled grey just the next page. It bothers me so much that I am seriously considering just erasing everything from it and having one book at the time on it, if this is the case. But it hinders my enjoyment in reading Ackroyd's book so just out of curiosity I had a peek at a short story by American cult writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (short stories being my new discovery) who spent all his life in penniless obscurity, just to get praise, recognition and heaps of admirers posthumously, as it usually happens. 

I knew just a little bit about Lovecraft, as apparently he was hugely influential and everywhere you look, famous authors bow to his memory in awe but I never actually read him, expecting it to be something dark, creepy and nightmarish. This afternoon, exhausted with this silly electronic machine that works against me and obviously is asking to be thrown into garbage + Iceland is all covered with black clouds and howling winds even though its officially summer, something inspired me to check the short story "The Colour Out of Space" that is supposed to be one of Lovecraft's best things ever. 

Lo and behold - thunder & lightings - MGM lion roaring - this is actually excellent!
It is just as I expected, dark, creepy and nightmarish but it got all my attention completely. I actually got real goosebumps just reading this not-so-short story (apparently the concept of short story is very vague, it can be anything from one page to dozen of them) and you can bet that tonight after work, I will read it again with the biggest pleasure. I have mentioned earlier that 2017 is the year when I discovered brilliant Shirley Jackson but it seems that Lovecraft is right there with her as another excellent discovery of horror genre - completely different, naturally, he is more creepy and nightmarish but it seems that I really might enjoy his work. (I have this very vague memory of actually reading him, could it be that I actually already read something by Lovecraft? Expedition in some isolated, ice covered place?) In any case, can't wait to discover more of his work. Strangely enough, somehow without noticing, this is also a year when I suddenly turned my attention to short stories - something I never done before - completely spontaneously I found myself reading several short stories by various authors and they were without exception very memorable. 



This particular short story is very famous as perfect example of Lovecraft's writing as it combines science fiction and horror. It is about unknown evil out of space that terrorizes humans and the scariest thing is how this meteorite (?) is completely alien to our perception, we can't even possibly imagine or understand its origin or motives. Which is actually perfectly logic as our alien visitors might be (in all probability) really alien to us in shape, form or behavior and they intentions could be very harmful indeed. "The Colour Out of Space" happens in wilderness of Massachusetts where landing of strange meteorite resulted in most curious effects on plants, animals and ultimately humans in the vicinity. The story is told from a point of a view of a neighbor (whom everybody finds crazy, but he might just suffer the traumatic experience) and his testimony of what actually happened is extremely chilling. On the other hand, it is a complete treat for a reader as Lovecraft skillfully created a short story masterpiece - he must truly have been inspired with this one - that is timeless and unforgettable.

"Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors" by Peter Ackroyd

Even thought I enjoyed my recent excursions into genre of horror, so far I have not found anybody approaching the brilliance of Shirley Jackson and everybody else came just as an afterthought. Peter Straub, Richard Matheson and Jay Anson were entertaining to the point but there were no thunders and lightnings, burning bushes, bells ringing and overall excitement I felt after reading Jackson, where I would decidedly not immediately move on to another book but still mulled her novels in my mind for days, knowing that the writer like this is unique and probably never to be surpassed again. As noted above, I tried, with lukewarm results. Something in me resisted the idea of simply going back to my old favorites Anne Rice and Stephen King, since I already know them and it would not be a new discovery in a sense Jackson was. 


So I decided to change the gears, so to speak and try completely different kind of literature. Just to take a break from horror. Maybe I will like it even more if I return to it later.
Being obsessive Virgo, I actually made my own reading life difficult now with all these books collected in my virtual library - I have far more that anybody could ever read in a lifetime, neatly arranged by genres, years of publishing, authors and what not. At the first look, it seems like cornucopia, true wealth of all sorts of books that centuries ago some lord would proudly display as a personal library adorning the walls, but now when I'm in the mood for reading it just takes forever to actually decide what is the next step, because obviously I can't read all of them - its impossible - and they are all tantalizing & inviting & suited to my particular tastes. There are classics that I am familiar just in a theory, novels, historical books, biographies, thrillers, westerns, books about religion, even a collection of children literature I promise myself to read. Books about art, cinema, essays, food & drink, historical fiction, music, mythology, non fiction, poetry, science and science fiction (something I am completely ignorant about), collections of short stories, books about slavery in America, self-help, spiritual books, books about theatre, travelogues and list goes on forever. In order to make my life easier, I have actually written down the list what to read but it felt unnecessary self-restricting, like I am confining myself to only a handful of titles out of hundreds, where the joy of reading partly is in the impulsive choice, spur of the moment. 

Out of all this, my new choice happened to be British writer Peter Ackroyd - who might be very famous, celebrated and important in his native country but I wouldn't know him from a hole in the wall, except that the list of this work actually appeals to me a lot. It seems that he balances between serious history books and fictional novels inspired by history, which is something I always loved, being a history geek. Just before I made up my mind, I listened the episode of my beloved Desert Island Disc with Ackroyd as a guest, to decide what kind of person he might be (some of these famous guests actually ended up being highly unlikable in my opinion) - he passed my test with flying colors, being delightfully sweet, charming, slightly eccentric and obviously full of ideas, I kind of liked even the tone of his voice and off-the-wall music choices he selected for his desert island (amongst others, a 1908. recording that used to be sung to him by his grandmother and Fats Waller) and once I made up my mind that this is someone interesting, I dived into his first volume of history of England.

I actually might know bit and pieces about this subject relatively better than ordinary, proverbial man on the street since I always loved books about the history and wikipedia is obviously my best friend, but still, not being British my educational background was actually more focused on different geographical areas, closer to home. I did some research and found the large gap in my knowledge between Celtic druids and infamous Tudors, with literary hundreds of names unknown to me - since I am only vaguely familiar with Plantagenet royal dynasty, Ackroyd's first volume of history of England actually seemed like a perfect choice because this is exactly what it covers, the period from Stonehenge to Tudors, just what I need. 

This is probably what traveling on a flying carpet must feel like, since Ackroyd takes his reader trough centuries - he is delightful storyteller who occasionally drops little anecdotes all over the place and you can tell he not only researched all of this very well but also probably edited it all, just to make sure its not too dry or confusing. It is actually extremely easy to read, nothing like dry history books we used to suffer in the school - but because the nature of such book is serious, its not something you can just read lightly and breezy, I actually focused extremely hard in order not to lose the plot about various predecessors and successors and could only read so much at once. For the first time I actually kind of get the chronological perspective of all this historical tapestry, which is fascinating. Maybe I would like just a little bit more about lives of ordinary people and less about royalty, but I understand that royalty was better documented. 


"Of two men in close alliance it was written that singuli caccant uno ano or ‘they shit out of the same arse’."

"Game of Thrones: Season 7"


Oh joy, oh joy, it started again!
The best TV series I had encountered in my entire life is back again and it is the only series where I didn't get tired after initial first two seasons but it just gets better and better with time. There are some people who told me they just can't get into it and dismiss it for expecting its something about magic and swords, but its not like that at all - yes, its all happening in the fictional world, continents of  Westeros and Essos but if you can't accept something that has been created with such brilliant inspiration and imagination as George R. R. Martin's series of epic fantasy novels, well in that case this is simply not for you and you can go back to the same old detective/crime/car crash TV shows that we see all the time. I actually don't understand how can anyone dislike "Game of Thrones" because it is so gripping, fascinating and perfect in any way that once you get involved in all that plots and subplots that are happening on various parts of the empire, its impossible not to follow it with a religious zest.

I probably wrote this earlier and I will repeat it again - "Game of Thrones" is completely revolutionary and it became deservedly a world wide phenomenon because it changed the concept of invincible hero who slays armies and always comes out without a ruffled hair. In the world of Seven Kingdoms danger is constantly in the air, there are zillion of Byzantine-like intrigues and nobody is invincible - every single person might get killed just when you least expect it so it eventually became sort of huge roman arena with main characters fighting for survival. George R. R. Martin got inspiration for some real life historical stories ("Red wedding" actually happened in medieval Scotland, the idea of a great ice wall protecting the kingdom is actually Hadrian's Wall and so on) and if you think TV adaptations are excellent, you should try the novels - they are even better in a sense of having more characterisations and details, but for once I have no problem with this and love both novels and TV series. 


At first - I still remember my initial reaction - I found all of this too complicated. There were apparently hundreds of characters spread all over the kingdom and than we had completely another story happening in the other continent so I would get all fidgety every time Khaleesi came on the screen with all her Dothraki warriors and dragons because it seemed like unimportant subplot that just slows down the main story - but after a while I got it all, memorized who is who, got addicted to the story and even started to enjoy Khaleesi specially as it became clear that her story is not just a meandering but it leads to certain very important connections with the mainland. Because there are so many characters (and they are dying like flies all over the place) it seems that sometimes they drift in and out of the focus - there were times when we were very interested in for example, clever dwarf Tyrion Lannister, crippled boy Bran Stark, the eunuch spymaster Lord Varys or fantastic female warrior Brienne of Tarth (just to name a few) but than suddenly we don't hear anything about them for a while, because story changes the course into something else and we might glimpse them much later. Anybody remembers young blacksmith Gendry who in reality was King's Robert Baratheon real son? And what about exiled knight Ser Jorah Mormont who got that terrible disease and just disappeared afterwards? Vengeful Ellaria Sand and her daughters once appeared as potentially very important fraction against Lannisters and now we don't see them anymore. I could go on like this for a while, but I trust that creators of TV series understand all of this and will eventually connect all the dots at some point. Since until now there were only five of George R. R. Martin's original novels, the story continues without actually having literary background but it is clear that HBO producers know where they are going.


Having to wait a year for the new season mean that I was a bit anxious about will I actually remember where the story ended the last time around - as it happened, I had no problem with it at all, in fact as it season 7 started, the very first scene brought me back just where I needed to be and I enjoyed the first episode with a great passion, watching it twice and even re-watching some of my favourite scenes. I laughed out loud at  Samwell Tarly antics and shivered at the sight of The Night King and the White Walkers, loved to see all the familiar characters again and just wishing the episode was twice as long, so we could have bit more about ones we missed. I love this series so much that I could watch (and read) it all over again, from the start. 

17.7.17

"For a Five-Year-Old" by Fleur Adcock


A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.