Saturday, February 28, 2015
I hadn't played the sonatas for some time, although I've had the books since I was a teenager, and learned them most of them (with a few exceptions) as a young man. During the years I've come back to them a number of times, but had found myself less and less enamoured of them for some reason.
Over the summer holidays I didn't play the piano much, and of course, at my age, that's not a good idea. Your fingers quickly lose their suppleness and agility - that is, what suppleness and agility they still retain. So it was quite a workout to get back to playing at all well again.
I decided to tackle the Beethoven sonatas one by one, remembering that at some point in my life I'd read that Beethoven had supposedly said he never practised scales and arpeggios: learning a piece (he was probably talking about one of his pieces!) was in itself sufficient to make his fingers work. And with that in mind, I began with Sonata I and worked my way through the first book.
It was a terrible effort at first, and I felt as though I could barely play at all. But then gradually, as I worked my way from the front of the book to the back and then back again to the front, the fingers decided that they could get up and going, and now they're doing very well.
I can't say I'm playing the fast sections up to speed, and there are still innumerable moments when I have to stop and check if I'm really playing what's written (I've found a few spots where I've been playing things wrong since I was a youth!), but I'm enjoying these sonatas all over again, and have now started on the second volume. Just played through the 'Moonlight' Sonata which of course was never named that by Beethoven. In fact the last movement of it is anything but romantic moonlight. It's a major workout, and is riddled with arpeggios.
Beethoven, for the most part, wrote piano music that most people could play. Occasionally he goes crazy and writes things that are almost impossible and sometimes writes things that require a huge amount of work just to achieve something relatively simple. But surprisingly, as I play these pieces again, I find they're more straightforward than I thought. It helps that I know where most of them are going and that they're familiar, but in general he uses relatively simple means to achieve his effects.
And the slow movements are something that you're much more in tune with as you get older. I can remember as a teenager wondering what the great gaps were in one slow movement and wondering why I had to count so carefully when nothing was happening. That's something youth doesn't appreciate so readily. At my age the wondrous slowness is something you fall in love with again and again.
Friday, February 27, 2015
This is my review of a relatively new book by Father John Michael Hill, a Rosminian who has lived in Dunedin (my home town) for many years. I first met him when he was the editor of the Catholic magazine, Tui Motu, where he often published book reviews I'd written, and we've remained friends since. He's now retired, and this book, which has probably been a long time in the making, is one of the fruits of his retirement.
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Well, you'd think that whistling was hardly anything to write home about, but so popular was Ronnie that on one occasion he filled Radio City Hall in New York every night for ten weeks (it holds 6,000 people). He toured extensively, and even gave two performances at the Aotea Centre in 1990 (when he was in his late sixties) and filled the place both times. At one time he was as popular as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Ronnie died just last month at the age of 91 - I only heard about it this morning. He was from Islington in London, originally, but by the time he'd finished his life he'd lived in Guernsey, the Isle of Man, New Zealand, and the Gold Coast.
Whistling isn't as popular as it used to be - I don't hear many kids whistling these days. But Ronnie made it such a hit that his records would be broadcast week in and week out when I was a kid. The fact that he remained popular for so long is testament to the enjoyment he brought to people.
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Monday, January 26, 2015
Which is what happens, except that the man sent to the foreign country, is more likely an innocent victim of some phone-tapping, and has nothing to do with any plots or terror activities. At least that's how it seems. We have our doubts at times, as we should in such a movie. But there are no doubts about the horrific treatment to which he's subjected, much of which unfolds before our eyes.
That's only part of the story. In the same foreign country (it's never named, but it's inhabited by Arab citizens) a group of real terrorists have just attempted to kill the man who does the interrogating. The local CIA agent is killed in the blast, and his job falls into the lap of an inexperienced pen-pusher played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who gradually begins to feel more than a little queasy about what is happening.
Meanwhile at home the suspect's wife (Reese Witherspoon) is frantically trying to find out where he's vanished to - he was supposed to be flying home from Africa but she's been told he wasn't on the flight. Via an old boyfriend, now working for the Government, she confronts Meryl Streep, the stony-faced woman who's in charge of such counter-terrorist operations. You don't want to have to confront Meryl Streep in one of these roles.
And then there's a third story: that of the young people involved in the actual terrorism. Thankfully all these threads are clearly laid out and easy to follow. At least you think so, until you find towards the end of the movie that one of the stories is actually a flashback. This seemed a bit unnecessary, though it made a sort of dramatic sense. But it confuses the viewer initially, and at that stage of the movie that's probably not what you want to happen.
Otherwise this is an excellent movie, with sharp performances from a top-quality cast. It won't endear you to the CIA or to American foreign policy; but maybe you were not endeared to that already.
We also caught up with a three part British murder mystery called Place of Execution. This was for the most part a watchable piece, with lots of good performances in it, including Juliet Stevenson and Lee Ingleby. The ending was a surprise, certainly, but perhaps a little unlikely.
In the story a youngish girl living in a village some forty years ago goes missing while out walking her dog. The local police - with Lee Ingleby as the relatively new, but very earnest detective - get onto it fairly quickly, but to no avail. The girl isn't found. Other unpleasant things come to the surface however, and in due course what seemed to be a straightforward murder case turns out to have a very nasty bent to it. Meanwhile Juliet Stevenson in the present day is a TV journalist trying to complete a story which includes re-investigating the murder and interviewing the now aged detective. Something goes awry with the last interview, and Stevenson's character discovers more about her past than she wants, and that her childhood was entwined with the original event.
For the most part the actors managed to overlook the occasional bit of tosh in the script, and to give the scenes the level of intensity they required. It probably could have played out over two episodes, in fact, but...
Only one thing is lacking, I feel. And that's a way of recording the books you didn't finish in a year. I made a category on my own page for books I'd given up on and ones I'd put aside for the moment, but since Goodreads continues to categorise them as books you're still reading it's a bit confusing.
I keep track separately of the books I read on a file on my computer - have been doing this for nearly a decade in a consistent fashion - and I make a note about the ones I didn't finish with some comments about why I didn't finish them. Sometimes you can get a good way through a book before you abandon it, so there's a degree of effort put into books you don't finally enjoy.
I got Mary Poppins out of the library a couple of days ago, but only got halfway through it before abandoning it. I'd never read this children's book, regarded as a classic, and my interest was piqued after seeing the movie Saving Mr Banks, which is about the making of Mary Poppins into a movie. In the movie, P L Travers (as she called herself - Travers was in fact her father's first name) argues forthrightly for the book to be made into the film she wants to see. It wasn't, but as my wife noted this morning, perhaps her arguing about so many details actually made it a much better film than either she or Disney could have imagined.
But the curious thing I found when reading the book was that the movie is actually a much better work. The book, disappointingly to me, is merely a series of episodes. There's little development of character, no plot, no reason why Mary Poppins comes into the Banks family's life with her random use of magic, and when I looked at the last chapter, nothing seemed to have moved forward.
Now plainly the book is written to be read to children of a fairly young age, and for them plot and characterization isn't quite such an essential. But Disney and co took all the disparate elements and made a movie that has a point, has a degree of plot (Mr Banks comes into his own far more than he does in the book, something that helped Travers deal with her own alcoholic father, it seems) and has much more fully-formed characters. Furthermore the movie is charming, a great musical and only marginally too long: the laughing sequence, where everyone has tea under the ceiling is too extended for me, personally. Julie Andrews is proper and prim, but brings a warmth to the character of Mary Poppins that the book's version definitely lacks. Michael and Jane (the best drawn characters in the book) are adorable, and Mr and Mrs Banks have plenty to do in the story instead of being merely 'parents' as they are in the book. Dick van Dyke's character barely appears in the book - he's only in one chapter. (Travers hated even the idea of van Dyke being in the movie, apparently.) Furthermore he isn't a chimney sweep, but his magical picnic with Mary is one of the highlights of the movie, with the animated penguins, which were supposedly one of the sorest points on Travers' side.
Saving Mr Banks may take Travers and Disney's relationship somewhat fancifully, but it does bring to light not only Travers' unhappy childhood, but also her miserable and self-centred adulthood. As the Wikipedia entry notes: According to her grandchildren, Travers "died loving no one and with no one loving her." A sad line to have in your obituary, particularly when you delighted so many readers for decades, and have managed to live to nearly a hundred.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Let me put in a plug for our local library while I'm at it: they provide DVDs at $2.00 a pop for a week, and $2.00 a pop for TV series, which you can have for a fortnight. I wanted to catch up on the first series of Broadchurch the other day, because I'd missed some episodes. In the end we got it from a video store, and it cost $10.00. I found it in the library yesterday as one of the 'top of the picks' at $4.00, and I could have had it longer... It's a great service, and we've made some really interesting discoveries as a result, even watching two entire series of DVDs in Italian: Inspector Montalbano was one of them. And then we went on to learn Italian as well...but that's another story.
First up on the movie front was Last Passenger. It's about a small group of people who get left on a train that's refusing to stop - the driver turns out to be someone, they think, who wants to commit suicide in a spectacular way. Dougray Scott and Kara Tointon star, and do a good job. The whole film takes place on the train and for the most part maintains its sense of tension. There are a few spots where things could have moved along a bit, and the plot probably doesn't want to be investigated too strongly, but overall this was a nicely tense ride. There's an affecting performance from the seven-year-old boy, Joshua Kaynama, a little boy caught up in a situation he doesn't understand and who's asked to do the impossible at one point.
The second movie was much more sure of its pacing: the tension barely let up for a moment, even when there were conversations between various baddies. This was 7 Boxes, a film made in Paraguay, which apparently isn't well-known for top quality movies; in fact several of the cast seem to have started their film careers in this movie (!)
It's about a young man whose job is wheelbarrowing purchases for customers in a market. (The wheelbarrow isn't your garden model but a long flat thing that obviously takes muscle to handle.) These wheelbarrow boys have to compete with each other to get the work, and it's tough. When the boy, Victor (Celso Franco) gets an opportunity to take seven boxes 'around the block' for some devious characters, he jumps at it, because it's going to be very well paid. The boxes of course contain something much worse than he imagines, a nasty fellow-barrow boy has been shunted out of the job by accident and wants to get it back, and those sending the boxes on their way have got things considerably tangled, much to their horror. The piece is well plotted, and all the elements keep crossing and intercrossing until there's a violent climax in which Victor almost dies.
In spite of the tension and violence there's quite a bit of humour, lots of fun with cellphones changing hands, a nice bickering relationship between Victor and Liz (Lali Gonzalez) his know-all friend who obviously thinks girls can do anything, and all manner of other enjoyable details. This movie also takes place in a fairly confined area: small in South American terms, anyway. Everything happens in a huge (and I mean huge) market area, a market that seems to go on in a maze for miles in every direction.
The last movie was Saving Mr Banks. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks star, Hanks playing a generous second fiddle to Thompson's wonderfully arrogant performance. Thompson is P L Travers, the creator of the Mary Poppins stories. Her books are sacrosanct and the idea that Walt Disney (Hanks) should make one of his awful animated movies out of them appals her. She's been holding out for twenty years, but now she's starting to need the money, and is finally persuaded to go to Los Angeles and meet Disney, and see if she can agree to anything. There's almost nothing she wants to agree to, which makes it difficult for the Hollywood people, but in the end...well, you can imagine the end because you know Mary Poppins got made and was one of Disney's most successful films ever.
Interwoven with the modern story (set in 1961) is Travers' childhood. She had an imaginative father of Irish stock, in Australia, but he was an alcoholic, and for all his intentions to keep his promises, seldom could. In spite of this Travers, as a child, adored him, and shared his wonderful fairytale view of the world. Her childhood is a tragedy, in fact, and this has affected her adulthood, so that in spite of writing a wonderful set of stories she has become a bitter old woman. Perhaps she wasn't quite as difficult as the filmmakers make her out to be, but she was certainly opinionated, and the 'family' (the Banks family in the book, and Poppins herself) were extremely precious to her.
It's a classic Hollywood movie in the old style, with a cast of great actors (Colin Farrell plays the relatively small part of the father, and Rachel Griffiths makes a brief appearance as an aunt who obviously was in part a model for Mary Poppins). Very enjoyable, and emotional.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Anyway, up until recently, when we got a new book editor, it was pretty much the norm that you got sent a book and you reviewed it. Rarely did you say to the book editor that you didn't like the book; you just got on and did the job. With our current book editor we not only get a choice as to what we review but if we decide after we've started the book that it's just not a good fit, then the book can go back and be replaced by another one. That's a great bonus.
All that by way of introduction. What I really want to say is that up until e-books really took off, I didn't tend to concern myself with the fact of how often a book was published that seemed to me to be tosh or rubbish. I assumed that the publishers thought that somehow or other they could make money out of it.
With the advent of e-books, however, I find it more and more amazing that books that are poorly structured, have weak characterizations, lose the plot, fail in the climax and much more that's really not good (and I'm talking in particular about fiction, of course) still get published.
Last year I reviewed a good deal of fiction, and some of the writing was extraordinary: extraordinary in the sense that I still can't comprehend how it got past any sort of editor in a publishing house. I know that the editorial system is different to what it used to be and that there are perhaps less people working on the publication of a book than in the past, and that in the heady old days books could be sent to an editor, sent back for revision (often based on discussions between the editor and the author), revised, rehashed and eventually brought into a state fit for public consumption.
Plainly that doesn't happen much anymore. One book I read, supposedly a thriller, spent pages on the backstory of each character as they appeared, lost the reader by introducing new characters seemingly at random, and then, most amazing of all, in the middle of the climax, gave us more back story about the villain. (Even more amazing was the fact that the author was a former editor himself.)
Another story spent a long slow time building up to what should have been an exciting climax, with a forest fire in the mix, and then dribbled away after having basically under-written the finale. Not only that, the author 'forgot' to use the forest fire, which he'd mentioned umpteen times during the course of the story and which he appeared to be treating as a matter of some significance. The story was also told by two different characters, a father and a son, and you never quite knew which one was narrating when. (On the plus side there were some very good scenes in this book and a good sense of atmosphere.)
Another book took an immense long time building up the tension to the extent that you wondered if anything of consequence was ever going to happen. It did, but there was a considerable possibility that the reader would have abandoned the book long before he or she reached that point.
Another book, one that made me increasingly queasy as it went on, was merely a series of chapters that hung together because they were narrated by the same character. There was often little overall connection, and the ending was so peculiar that it invalidated anything that had gone before. The book was set in the period building up to the French Revolution, and certainly that horrific time did finally make an appearance in the story at least (unlike the forest fire above). But in fact the Revolution had little to do with the overall story. It was about a gourmet who wanted to savour all sorts of weird tastes, and proceeded to tell us the various things he was cooking and eating, most of which were quite vile. I'm not giving anything away by saying that at the end it appears he finally decided to eat human flesh as the climax of his life. I only persevered with this story because the individual sections were very well written, and it seemed to be going somewhere. But the somewhere I was hoping it was going to was altogether different to what the author seemed to be offering.
I'm not going to tell you what these books are, because the surprising thing is that often other people will love a book I dislike intensely, As happened with one of Alexander McCall Smith's recent books that I read. I thought it was awful and said so in the review I sent to the editor. In the end the book editor decided to get a second opinion on it. The second reviewer enjoyed it more (though there was a bit of a sting in the tail of their review still), and was able to say so. I found it tedious and badly written. McCall Smith does have his off moments, but this was the most off of all. For me.
There was another book that I got about a quarter of the way through and couldn't take any more: it concerned a doctor who seemed to hate the human body and was continually telling the reader how vile it was. And then there was a murder he'd committed which he was going to make sure someone else was stitched up for it, and at the same time he'd seduced this other person's daughter. Such a horrible character. Yet another reviewer thought it worth reading.
I ploughed my way through a 500-page murder mystery last year. It was full of remarkable writing, but far too long, and in its length seemed to lose its way, trying to throw too many red herrings in the reader's path as well as not being quite sure about its characters. Furthermore it was improbable in the way the narrator of the book was supposed to have produced a first book that was a runaway bestseller (we never heard anything of what this book was about) and his mentor had also produced an extraordinary bestseller in his own youth, extracts of which were produced in the book and showed that in no way could it have become the "American classic" it supposedly was. Amazingly, this book itself has been a runaway bestseller.
And then there was the book about a girls' school - another murder mystery - which was mind-rendingly overlong and full of foul-mouthed characters. Another story in which the author tried to convince us of the unconvinceable.
This has been a bit of a blog of two halves - and a rant. Sorry about that. Promise to do better next time.
Monday, January 12, 2015
It's also helped some of us to promote our books a bit further, something that I'm also doing on Google+ plus with a different set of authors, ones who are rather more far-flung around the world.
Anyway I recently received a copy of Simone Colwill's book for children, What Does Super Jonny Do When Mum Gets Sick? It's about a little boy whose mother goes into hospital with an illness (the illness is unspecified in the book). The little boy, who sees himself as a superhero, asks How can I help?
A number of hospital workers, ranging from the doctor down to the cleaner, all say they can help, but Jonny wants to give each of them something of his own as well. Unfortunately, Jonny feels his offers are unrecognised. I offered to help, but no one would listen. Discouraged, he comes up with several imaginative but unrealistic options to save his mother. She tells him, however, that he's already helped; each of the things he gave away was useful to the various hospital workers, though not necessarily in the ways he'd envisaged. Ultimately, she tells him, his superhero hugs are the best thing of all.
The book's delightful illustrations by Jasmine Ting give the easy-to-read story plenty of zip and zing, characterise the different people nicely, and add their own quirky humour and detail.
Finally there's a page of suggestions as to how to use the book in different situations: schools, hospitals, doctor's waiting rooms and so on.
This is a book that children will enjoy even apart from the crisis of a mother being hospital, and parents and medical professionals will find valuable.
Friday, January 09, 2015
Thursday, January 08, 2015
But one thing is certain, if you're not a big name and not already a big seller, you're going to have to be patient and let the sales trickle in bit by bit.
I was thinking about this while walking the dog this afternoon. I came across a sign on the roadside which had blown over (not the one in the picture; that's just an example, and doesn't look as if it would blow over easily). It was advertising firewood and so on. I wondered if it would have been anymore effective even if it had been standing up.
Firstly, it was right on the corner of the road that the customer was expected to go up. No warning further down the road, nothing. Just the one sign.
Now this isn't a road where motorists are doing any great speed, but even at 50 kmph, it takes a bit of doing on the motorist's to read the sign, understand it, think about whether he really wants that product, think about whether he really wants to stop or if he's got better things to do; it takes him time to realise the sign relates to the road they're just about to pass, to discuss it all with his wife, to find a way of turning around and then going to investigate. Even if he thinks about all this and decides to come back later, it's possible he'll forget, or find something else more urgent needing to be done.
I know all this because I've often not stopped when going through the orchard area in Roxburgh. At 100 kmph it's even harder to make all these decisions.
At the very least there needs to be two or three signs further down the road at considerable intervals (and yes, I understand that's all a cost to the seller), each one pointing to the road that's coming up, and giving the driver plenty of time to consider whether he wants to make the effort of stopping and buying the product.
Without those warning signs, however, it's unlikely anyone will stop, unless they're absolutely desperate for what's on sale.
Now compare this to an author trying to sell his/her book on line. If I post a tweet, or a facebook comment once, and don't bother again, all I've done is announce to a few possible followers that I have a product. Big deal. If they happen to know me, happen to have read my previous books and enjoyed them, then it's vaguely possible they may suddenly decide on the spur of the moment to purchase the latest one.
It's more likely they'll pay no attention at all. In a digital sense, they'll keep driving.
However, if I post tweets at regular but not annoying intervals, and make them different, enticing, and interesting (that is, not just sales blurbs, but like real tweets or comments) then over the course of time, interest will be aroused, and the reader/follower may think: I remember that from a week or two ago. I might be interested.
They may still switch off and go to the next more interesting tweet or pretty picture. But after seeing these tweets/comments several times, couched in creative ways, they may start to say: Yes, I will look into this. They may click on the link, investigate further, check out the sample. They may even buy.
But notice what a long process this is.
This is why advertisers keep on hammering away at us on TV, in the newspapers, online. They know that the first time we won't pay any attention. We might like the ad, if it's clever, but as for the product, we may find we have no use for it, or it doesn't appeal just at that point. But over successive weeks, months and so on, the product starts to click in our memories, and we slowly change our view. We may resist forever - some ads make me resist, though obviously the advertisers don't realise that. Equally, we may finally think: now's the time.
Perseverance, creativity, continual exposure. All keys to telling the world that we authors have got something they'd like to read. Just this week, a person who has their own online app and with whom I've had a lot of contact via email about what he's selling, suddenly announced he'd bought my book. I think the only way he'd have known about it is because it's on the bottom of my emails. And has been for months.