September Books

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 38)
Thinking Fast and Slow
, by Daniel Kahneman
A Short Guide to Irish Science Fiction, by Jack Fennell
Peoplewatching, by Desmond Morris
Space Helmet for a Cow, vol 2, by Paul Kirkley
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sf (non-Who): 4 (YTD 60)
Synners, by Pat Cadigan
Press Cuttings, by George Bernard Shaw
The Red Leaguers, by Shan F. Bullock
The Famished Road, by Ben Okri
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Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 42)
How The Doctor Changed My Life, ed. Simon Guerrier
Life During Wartime, ed. Paul Cornell
Diamond Dogs, by Mike Tucker
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Comics: 4 (YTD 21)
Antarès, Épisode 2, by Leo
Onthuld, by Kristof Spaey and Bart Vaessens
Antarès, Épisode 3, by Leo
Antarès, Épisode 4, by Leo
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3,600 pages (YTD 44,000)
1/15 (YTD 48/178) by women (Cadigan)
1/15 (YTD 16/178) by PoC (Okri)

Reread: 0 (YTD 8)

Reading now
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)

Coming soon (perhaps):
The Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock
Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Whose Cruden's Concordance Unwrote the Bible, by Julia Keay
The Past Through Tomorrow, by Robert A. Heinlein
Caprice and Rondo, by Dorothy Dunnett
The Last Castle, by Jack Vance
Thorns, by Robert Silverberg
A Man of Parts, by David Lodge
A Crocodile in the Fernery: An A-Z of Animals in the Garden, by Twigs Way
Wild Life, by Molly Gloss
Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
Dear Old Dead, by Jane Haddam
Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe, by Michael Moorcock
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle
Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, by Philip Sandifer
Everfair, by Nisi Shawl
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham
The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig
Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, ed. John Joseph Adams
The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw, by Kurt Busiek
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
Short Trips: Christmas Around the World, ed. Xanna Eve Chown
The Big Hunt, by Lance Parkin
Plague City, by Jonathan Morris

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Broadway Melody (1929)

I was a bit surprised by the number of people who pushed back against my plan to watch all the winners of the Oscar for Best Picture from beginning to the present day. Sure, I take the point that the Oscars have not always got it right. I also take the much more serious point that they are heavily slanted towards Hollywood with very little input from the world outside the United States (and certain gaps within it). If I wanted to watch the 90 or 100 best movies ever, there are a large number of potentially better sources to go to than the list of Oscar winners.

And yet, it’s always going to be a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? And I have to be honest and say that my interest isn’t (or isn’t only) in the potential of cinema as a medium. I am also interested in the history of culture in the Anglosphere, and in the Oscars as a political process. Any set of Best Films that I choose to pursue is going to be someone else’s choice; I choose the Academy Awards, not because I expect them all to be good but because I expect them to be interesting.

So, having got my throat-clearing out of the way, on with The Broadway Melody, which won the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture presented in 1930. There were seven awards in total that year, and every one went to a different film, the first and last time that has ever happened; this also means that The Broadway Melody was the first of three films to win Best Picture (or equivalent) and no other award on the night. For context I will note that the other films in contention that year were Alibi, In Old Arizona, The Hollywood Revue (which featured the first performance of “Singin’ In the Rain”) and The Patriot. None of the other Outstanding Picture nominees places higher than 30th on IMDB’s ranking of the 1929 films. The IMDB rates The Broadway Melody as the second most popular feature film of 1929 after Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (which was presumably too British to get nominated for the Academy Awards) or possibly third after Pandora’s Box (presumably too German). I have not seen, or even heard of, any of the above.

The Broadway Melody was apparently the first real musical film, with both a plot and songs that made sense in the context of that plot, taking advantage of the brand new talkie technology. Apparently it was also the first to use sound dubbing and had a brief colour segment (which does not survive); more on that later. So my expectations are somewhat shaped by nine decades of subsequent Hollywood musicals, of which the most recent one I have seen is Les Miserables, or maybe The LEGO Movie. Even so, it holds up pretty well – sometimes ground-breaking stuff loses because of subsequent treading on that ground, but this is not one of those cases.

As before I’ll run through the bits that struck me in reverse order of favourability.

Whiteness: This is a film set in the musical world of New York. Not a single black face to be seen, not even among hotel attendants.

Comic disability: A character with a speech impediment which is awfully funny.

Plot and script: Boy is engaged to girl; boy meets girl’s pretty young sister and instant spark ensues; pretty young sister allows herself to be distracted by a cad but ends up with boy. Meanwhile they are all on stage, or trying to get there, apart from the cad who picks up stage girls as a hobby. Characters all speak in grating Twenties slang which must have sounded cool at the time. There are no particularly memorable lines.

Acting: This is a mixed bag. Bessie Love is really really good as the older of the two sisters, who eventually accepts with fairly good grace that her man has fallen for her sibling. I was really surprised that I had never heard of her before. (Also striking that this is two films out of two where I felt the female lead was by far the strongest of the performers.) Anita Page as the younger sister has a really rocky start – in her first couple of scenes I wondered if she was even awake – but livens up considerably as it goes on. Unfortunately she can’t dance, mostly but not completely disguised by cunning direction. Charles King as the chap they both love is a good singer and plausible heart-throb. Kenneth Thomson as the cad is a bit flat.

Music: With the exception of “Love Boat”, whose words I simply couldn’t make out, the songs are an excellent combination of talents by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. (And one by Willard Robison). The title number is ridiculously catchy.


Several references suggest that the same song is used again in Singin’ in the Rain, but as far as I can tell the music for that film’s amazing “Broadway Melody” dance sequence is quite different. Singin’ in the Rain does however recycle a lot of the Brown and Freed tunes (as noted above, the title song was used in another 1930 film) and perhaps the best is You Were Meant For Me. (Edited to add: As pointed out in comments, Gene Kelly does sing the “Broadway Melody” 75 minutes into Singin’ in the Rain, but it’s really a case of blink and you miss it, as I did.)

Cinematography: After Wings, I thought this was another well-made and beautifully shot film. The opening sequence, set in the office of Mr Zanfield (a thinly disguised Ziegfield) is particularly good with different groups of musicians in different corners rehearsing:


The stage shows are well done, but in particular the director pulls off the feat of reminding us that there are human beings involved with putting on these spectacles, without breaking the mood created.

The Wedding of the Painted Doll: This deserves its own note, as the high point of the film. Apparently this stage sequence was originally filmed and shown in Technicolor, unlike the rest of the film which was monochrome. It must have been spectacular; sadly most of the original colour sequence has been lost. Also apparently when they had to remount it, rather than pay the orchestra to play the music again live, they played back the previous recording, thus originating the practice of soundtrack dubbing. I can’t find an embeddable link but here’s Turner Classic Movies’ presentation, with subtitles:

Apart from the excellent choreography, I think it has a fascinating hint of subversion. The song is in fact in a minor key, rather than celebratory. The lyrics are about people being pushed into marriage by the expectations of society, without much hope for success. It’s a very downbeat note in the story, which casts the rest of it in quite a different light.

Anyway, that’s two films in a row which were more enjoyable than I had expected; rather encouraging for the long term prospects of this project.

Next up is a film I have actually seen before, on TV when I was a teenager: All Quiet on the Western Front.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017)

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Warriors, ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Second paragraph of third story (“Triumph”, by Robin Hobb):

The dust-laden wind was drying his bared eyes, and his vision was dwindling. Tears, the tears of his body rather than the tears of his heart, ran unchecked down his cheeks. The severed muscles that had once worked his eyelids twitched in helpless reflex; they could not moisten his eyeballs and renew his vision. Just as well; there was little out there he wished to see.

Ages since I read this, I have to admit, but looking back three stories stood out – two which both look at the Rome/Carthage conflicts from different perspectives, Robin Hobb’s “Triumph” and Steven Saylor’s “Eagle and the Rabbit”; and Carrie Vaughan’s “Girls from Avenger” about women pilots in the second world war. There were a load of other stories tying into series, some of which I know and some of which I don’t, but those made less of an impact on me.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2011. Next in that list is 1434: The Year a Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, by Gavin Menzies.

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Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Is your mother going on the road much these days?’ they would ask me, and I would say no, oh no, she isn’t going out much anymore, but I knew they knew I lied. “Not much time for ironing,” they might continue compassionately, examining the sleeve of my blouse. “Not much time for ironing when she has to go out on the road.”

I’ve become a huge fan of Alice Munro’s short fiction over the last few years, and so I approached this, marketed as her only novel, with anticipation but also trepidation; would she be able to bring her particular genius to the longer form?

In fact, it turns out to be more of a sequence of linked short stories in the life of the same character than a novel per se – a format Munro also uses in The Beggar Maid – so we are on safe territory. Not that Munro’s writing is safe; her protagonist, Del Jordan, a gifted, geeky girl from a rural Ontario background, who knows she is looking for something more than is on offer in her home town but struggles against the oppression of conformity, is presumably autobiographical in large part. Having said that, almost all of the characters are drawn with sympathy and understanding, despite the gentle shades of alienation that suffuse Munro’s writing. I think that her short fiction tends to deliver more bang per wordcount, but this is still a good read.

This was both my top unread non-genre fiction book and the top book in that category recommended by you. Next in those lists respectively are The Angel Makers by Stefan Brijs (already read), and A Man of Parts by David Lodge.

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Austerity Britain, 1945-51, by David Kynaston

Second paragraph of third chapter [context: it is May/June 1945]:

For Henry St John, working a few days later in Midsomer Norton, there was as ever only frustration — 'I tried in vain to buy some Ovaltine, this being the 11th successive shop at which I failed to get it, although it continues to be widely advertised' — but there was some compensation when, on the train back to Bristol, an American soldier gave him a Camel cigarette. The American influence, and indeed anything that smacked of the modern, did not play well with Ernest Loftus in Essex. `Mrs Williams [the French mistress] and I are taking joint action to stop our scholars attending Youth Clubs or, as I call them, Child Night Clubs,' noted Barking Abbey School's head in early June. 'So far as our type of school is concerned they are a menace. The world is sex-mad & they are the outcome of the sex-urge + the war + the cinema + evil books + a debased art & music + an uneducated parentage."

I read an greatly enjoyed the second book of this series a couple of years ago; I'm glad to say that the first is just as good, a detailed internal history of England (with a bit of Wales, less Scotland and no Northern Ireland) during basically the term of Attlee's Labour government. Kynaston's sympathy for the detail is tremendously engaging, and humanises a surprisingly alien place and time. There are some imporessive recurrent themes: rationing remained a constant reality (and of course enabled the black market to flourish), with most food remaining rationed until after the period covered in this book. Despite the Labour victory, government remained firmly in the hands of the civil service whose upper ranks shared a deep Establishment background – it was the 60s before anyone really challenged this. This was true also of the fledgling BBC, which did not even cover the 1950 World Cup (in which England was famously defeated by the Unites States). Some interesting people pop up again and again – Glenda Jackson and Pete Wyman, promising teenagers; the diarists both obscure (Henry St.John); and well-known (Molly Panter-Downs).

In contrast to the second book in the series, there is plenty of party politics here. The Labour Party, having won power (on the ideas framed by Michael Young, a figure I had forgotten about), successfully created the National Health Service and nationalised the coal mines, and crucially threw its lot in with Truman rather than Stalin. But I was unaware of the role that sudden death played in the politics of the day – Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of Education, died in 1947, and Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary and the Lord Privy Seal, in 1951. (This just doesn't happen any more. The last British cabinet minister to die in office, of this writing, was Lord Williams of Mostyn in 2003; the last of the same weight as Wilkinson or Bevin was Anthony Crosland in 1977.)

The Labour government's reputation for competence was hit early on by an event for which it bore no responsibility and whose consequences it would have been very difficult for any government to mitigate: the exceptionally cold winter of 1946/47. Six weeks of very cold weather from late January to early March were followed by heavy rain, which added to the thaw to flood towns and countryside. The winter of 1962-63 was colder, but I guess that the country's infrastructure was better able to cope (and it was not immediately followed by heavy rain, as had happened in 1947). The bad weather hit industrial and agricultural productivity very hard, and certainly prolonged rationing and post-war hardship. Kynaston describes all of this vividly but unsentimentally, possibly the best passage of the book.

In summary, well worth reading. I'll look out for the third volume, and the others when they come out.

This bubbled to the top of my unread books from your recommendations of last year. next in that list is Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons, by Philip Sandifer.

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Synners, by Pat Cadigan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Sam hadn’t really expected anyone to bother her about the insulin pump hanging on her side. The most attention anyone had given it was to screen it for off-color blips, and the security guard at the Bay jumper hadn’t even done that. He’d just grinned at her, displayed his own pump, and said, ‘Pray for better tissue matching, eh, sister?’ Airport security was interested only in weapons and explosives, not unlicensed or bootlegged computer equipment. Besides, it really had been an insulin pump once, before she’d gone to work on it.

I have to admit that cyberpunk has never really been my thing, and I rather bounced off Synners (short for "synthesisers", people who have allowed their brains to be surgically augmented with devices that allow them to interface directly with computers. It was written in 1991 so the tech has dated rather badly; and I found the proliferation of characters and scene setting, and the fact the the plot doesn't really start until half way through, difficult to engage with. I've greatly enjoyed Pat Cadigan's recent short fiction, but this didn't work for me.

It obviously did work for the 1991 Clarke Award judges since they picked it ahead of Eternal Light by Paul J. McAuley (runner-up), The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, Raft by Stephen Baxter, Subterranean Gallery by Richard Paul Russo and White Queen by Gwyneth Jones. As previously noted, White Queen was a joint winner of the first Tiptree Award that year, the second Hyperion book won the BSFA (for which Eternal Light was also shortlisted). Synners was on the Nebula shortlist (the winner was Stations of the Tide by Michael SwanwickBujold's Barrayar). I am not sure if I have read Raft