Nijinsky – Lucy Moore

I loved this biography of Vaslav Nijinsky!  It isn’t an entirely happy book and it feels as though there is more to tell but it is a good starting point for anyone wanting to know more about this mercurial genius.

I started from the point of knowing a bit about Nijinsky and his involvement with the Ballets Russes from reading a biography of Anna Pavlova at Junior School.  That in turn led me to finding out more about Ballet Russes, modern ballet and 20th century classical music.  I hadn’t seen a biography of Nijinsky before so I was looking forward to reading this one.

To get the downsides out-of-the-way first it is a short book and, I think, an overview of a life rather than getting down to who Vaslav Nijinsky really was.  I suspect this is because Nijinsky himself didn’t really know who he was and never really had the opportunity to work it out for himself.  He seems to have been a chameleon who became what he needed to be to please the dominant person in his life at the time.

For me the best bits were about Nijinsky’s early life before Ballet Russes and after his marriage and fall out with Diaghilev.  I knew pretty well nothing about either of these periods.

I think the history of his early life helps to make sense of what came later; the strong “Please People” driver, the drive for perfection and the work ethic.  It also, I think, sews the seeds of the mental illness that blighted his later life.

The history of his life after marriage to Romola de Pulszky makes for unhappy reading.  The “car crash waiting to happen” tussle between Romola and Diaghilev over control of Nijinsky was only ever going to have one victim – Vaslav! And it was horrible to read about the “cures” Romola put him through trying to find a cure for his schizophrenia.

Reading this biography is a bit like reading a Shakespearean tragedy; a man with an immense talent who appears to have it all and then is struck down at the height of his power.

Click here to find out more about Ballet Russes


The Unwinding; An inner history of the new America by George Packer

I have no idea how I have come to own this book.  I thought it had found its way into my pile of books to read after my partner had read it – it’s more his type of book than mine – but he disclaimed all knowledge of it and has just started reading it.

The dust jacket blurb says that this is a book about “the extraordinary story of what’s happened in America over the past 30 years” and a “panorama of the relentless breakdown of the American social compact over a generation”.  I would describe it as a social history, following a number of extraordinary people from 1978 to 2012.

The main strands are rural North Carolina, Youngstown, Washington DC, Florida and Silicon Valley.  There are guest appearances from Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey.

The individual stories are a mixture of how people strove to rise about the poverty they grew up in, how they strove for political power or how they spotted n opportunity.  In some instances they succeeded and in others everything ended in abject failure.

The most powerful stories are those that follow through the whole book and for me the stand out story is that of the woman in Youngstown who after a number of struggles and set backs managed to make a difference to the city described as the capital of Rustbelt USA.

The strongest message of the book, and I think a global one, is that a lot of damage was done in the 1980s dismantling the checks and controls that held financial institutions to account.  What seemed at the time like a liberation from restrictive rules – and I worked in financial services at the time so I know – turned out to be like letting an addict loose in a chemist’s shop.  Quest for market share became a chase for greater and greater profit and led to greed, manipulation and subterfuge.

I don’t want to go back to the days when banks were austere and intimidating places but I feel they should be places where you make serious consideration of the commitment you are making when you take out a mortgage.

I don’t feel I have enough knowledge of USA to make a judgement on whether this book is accurate and/or makes sense in economic terms.  I did find it really interesting and it has made me think long and hard about what has happened in UK since 1978.  What has happened for the good and where I think we have lost something important in creating the society we have today.

I suspect a lot of the political turmoil we are seeing across the world stems back to quite a few of the topics covered in this book.

I enjoyed the book and I will search out some of George Packer’s other work.

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe at RSC

I had no idea what to expect from this play.  I’d vaguely heard of Dido, mainly through a book by Joan Aiken I read as a child.  I knew that Carthage was in what is now Tunisia but had no idea that the Carthaginians are the same people referred to as Phoenicians. Or that Hannibal, who invaded Italy with his elephants, was a descendant of Dido’s brother.

Essentially the plot is that the goddess Venus is complaining that Jupiter is neglecting their son Aeneas who has been caught in a storm on the way from Troy to Italy.  Jupiter allows Aeneas to land on the shore of Carthage where he meets Dido, the queen.  Dido and Aeneas fall in love and Dido tries to prevent him leaving to complete his mission to Italy.  Hermes informs Aeneas that he must leave and fulfil his destiny in Italy and when he leaves Dido burns everything that reminds her of him and kills herself.

Sandy Grierson, who plays Aeneas, seems to be the go-to lead for Christopher Marlowe plays at the RSC at the moment.  He was an excellent Doctor Faustus last year and plays an interesting Aeneas this year.  He is credible as a General and as a man full of self-doubt.  He was also believable as a man in love with a beautiful Queen who can’t quite belive his luck.  A long way from the ethereal Ariel he played back in 2012.

I thought Chipo Chung was an elegant, poised and beautiful Dido.  I thought in the early part of the play she was excellent as a wise and thoughtful ruler.  The problem was that her strength of character in the early part of the play made it difficult to believe she would just crumble when Aeneas left.  This is probably my modern sensibilities but I think she would probably have made plans to follow him rather than rend and tear everything that reminded her of him! Or she might have stabbed him so he couldn’t leave rather than kill herself because he’d gone.

Overall, I enjoyed the play.  I enjoyed the intimacy you get at The Swan where you’re never too far from the action. And I’d certainly go see another production to have something to compare this one to.

Osud – Janacek – Opera North

I haven’t been to the theatre for ages and then I ended up going on consecutive nights; once to see this “Little Great” at Opera North and then down to Stratford, which I will report on next week.

I don’t know very much about Janacek and I knew nothing about this short opera but a friend asked if I was interested in going so I did.

The opera is in 3 acts and engaged my attention for the whole 1 hour 25 minutes it lasted; it is part of Opera North’s “Little Greats” season, with 2 short operas each evening.

The plot can be summarised as; the composer Zivny falls in love with Mila, Mila’s mother disapproves and separates them but Mila has a baby. Mila and Zivny meet again and marry, they are poor and looking after their son and Mila’s mother who has gone mad.  the mad mother falls and drags Mila over the balcony with her to their deaths. Zivny greaves and can’t finish the opera he has written.  He dies, as students are rehearsing for the premier of his opera, saying the last act is “in God’s hands”.

I thought the staging was very clever, using minimal scenery to create the schoolroom, a cafe, a poor lodging house and back to the schoolroom.  The small changes created the right feel for the drama at each stage and, along with the music, move the story from serious to lighthearted and back again.

The costumes also worked well.  They created a sense of a different era and country without being too specific or getting in the way of the story.

I don’t have enough experience of opera to proffer an expert opinion but I did think the principles sang their parts well and for the most part acted well.  My one disappointment was the relationship between Zivny and Mila.  I felt that the love was all one way – Mila to Zivny – and that Zivny cared more about his music.  I didn’t feel a strong connection between the two of them.  One of my friends agreed although my more opera experienced friend felt we were wrong and that Zivny was a “tortured soul”.  For me there was just something lacking in the way the Director had created the interaction between the two.  There was no sense of a passionate, unbreakable bond in the relationship.

I also think singing in English disrupted the flow of the music a bit.  There were screens set up to show what was being sung so I think keeping the opera in its original language and maintaining the rhythms of that language with its music would have been preferable.  We could have read the translation on the screens.

Overall though I enjoyed exploring some new music and I wish I’d gone earlier in the season as I might have ventured to one or two more of the “Little Greats”.

Click here to find out more about Janacek

Click here to listen to a bit of Osud



Fast Women; the drivers who changed the face of motor racing – John Bullock

I started reading about women racing drivers years ago when I was bought a book called The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt, originally published in 1909 and designed to help women maintain their cars.  I was fascinated by the fact that in the early part of 20th century a woman had been a successful works team driver for the Napier team.  Dorothy Levitt has been one of my role models since reading her book.  The picture at the top of this article is of her.

Then, last year, a friend bought a pre-war MG and asked me to research it and the history of the previous owners, trying to find a racing pedigree for the car.  We haven’t quite managed to do that yet but my research has led me to find out about other women racing drivers of the early 20th century, many of whom are in this book.

The book is an odd mish-mash of fact and chatty reminiscences.  It doesn’t cover the lives of all, or even most, of the women drivers I have come across.  It doesn’t give all the drivers equal space. And, I think, the author has his favourites amongst the drivers; possibly those he knew.  In a lot of ways this reflects my experience of trying to find out about the women who raced MGs; they have disappeared into the mists of time, written out of history by the disappearance of the marques they drove for and the increasing, post-WWII of sexism in motor sport.

Anyway, soap-box moment over!

The book is an interesting read.  It starts with Camille du Gast, the French adrenaline-junkie who was the first woman to complete a parachute jump (in 1895) as well as racing cars and boats.

Much to my delight there is a chapter on Dorothy Levitt, giving me more information about her away from the race track.  I didn’t know she got into racing because she was a temporary secretary at Napier when Selwyn Edge was looking for a British woman to rival Camille du Gast!

I was also pleased to find part of a chapter covering the life of Margaret Allan; she was a member of the all-women MG Le Mans team of 1935.  She also worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, which provides a nice link to something else I’m interested in.

Another gripe about the book is that although it is supposed to a book about women racing drivers there are far too many diversions into what their menfolk were doing in the racing world.  If I was being charitable I would say these parts were to fill gaps where there is little or no information about the women.  I could also say that it is indicative of the chauvinist world of motor racing!

To summarise, you will probably have guessed that I like this book because it gives me more information about a subject I am really interested in.  I dislike it because it shows how little the racing world cares about a group of drivers who were remarkable for their achievements regardless of their gender.  As a work of literature it is poor, yet it kept me interested and engaged throughout.

Click here for an interesting article on early motoring from Sunday Times

The Lady Penelope – Sally Varlow

A biography of Lady Penelope Devereux, sister to the Earl of Essex, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite.

Sally Valow claims she wants to reclaim Lady Penelope from the vilification started by Robert Cecil during the reign of James I.  The book covers what is known of her life, or what can be inferred, from various letters, other people’s diaries, Court records and legal records.

Lady Penelope was born into a privileged circle.  She had royal connections and her parents were favourites of Queen Elizabeth – at least whilst her father was alive.  After the death of Lord Hereford her mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and incurred the wrath of the Queen!  Despite this both Penelope and her brother, Robert Earl of Essex, were popular at Court.

Penelope was married to Lord Rich, a wealthy landowner with Puritanical tendencies, for dynastic reasons but later fell in love with Lord Mountjoy who she had a long and happy relationship with.  During the reign of James I she and Lord Rich were divorced, almost unheard of at the time, on the understanding neither would marry again.  Penelope broke this agreement by marrying Lord Mountjoy and thus offended King James, bringing to an end her glittering Court career.

In a lot of respects Penelope was a very modern woman.  She was intelligent, educated and a political “mover and shaker”.  At the time of the Essex plot against Queen Elizabeth she was believed to have been one of the instigators and plotters.

I didn’t find the book particularly gripping or easy to read.  Somehow Lady Penelope never quite came off the page, which is disappointing for someone who must have been a vibrant character in her lifetime.

I did however enjoy understanding more about Elizabeth’s Court and the key players in it during the Queen’s later years.

Click here to find out more about the Essex Rebellion

Click here to read Sir Philip Sidney’s poems about Penelope


Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

Casino Royale is the first Bond novel I ever read.  I think must have been about 15 when I read it and I remember being shocked by how dark and sadistic it was in parts.  It was certainly much darker than the Connery, Lazenby and Moore films I grew up watching with my father.  So, when Amazon offered it as a 99p Kindle deal I thought I would reread it.

It’s always interesting to go back to the source material when you’ve seen a film version of something; what has been altered, left out and added in can tell you a lot about the gap between publication and reaching the big screen.  I’m quite fond of the recent cinema version of Casino Royale, which might possibly have something to do with Daniel Craig, and I think it’s a good addition to the canon of Bond movies.

I found the book to be an uncomfortable read.  It isn’t just the dark sadism of the beating and torture Bond receives at the hands of Le Chiffre (something glossed over lightly in the film) but the dark and deep-rooted sexist, anti-woman language that peppers the book.  As an example Bond is described as feeling that making love to the cold Vesper Lynd would be like raping her anew every time and that he was excited at the thought.  What a repellent and abhorrent concept.  I know the book was written in a different era with different social norms but I’m loathe to believe this was acceptable and accepted even in the 1950s!

I really regret rereading this book and I will find it hard to displace the images and feelings it created when I next watch the film.

On the plus side, it has saved me a fortune as I was seriously contemplating buying the original hardback Bond novels as my next collection!

Winter Men – Jesper Bugge Kold

This is another of my 99p Kindle Daily Deal purchases and one that at first I regretted buying.

I started reading the book at least 3 times and then set it aside wondering what had induced me to read it.

It seemed to be about a former Nazi who had escaped to somewhere in South America, grown old and then died.  But it seemed to be being told by someone who didn’t know him other than by watching the man go about his daily routine.

Typically, I got into the book when it was just about all that was available to read on a flight.  Once I got beyond the beginning, at the end of the life of one of the main characters, the real story began.

It is the story of the Strangl family from Hamburg.  The main characters are Karl, Gerhard and August.  Karl and Gerhard are brothers and August is Karl’s son. At the beginning of the book Karl is running the family clothing business and trying to accommodate the Nazis to win contracts from them.  Gerhard is a mathematics Professor at the university and a published author of a mathematics book.  August is an introverted child ill at ease within a society that values macho-military skills.

Via different routes both Karl and Gerhard end up working for the SS and August ends up in the army.  Karl ends up on the Eastern Front managing a supply chain.  August is also in Russia and a very frightened, inept soldier.  Gerhard ends up managing the logistics of moving Jews to Concentration Camps and then working in a Camp.

Gerhard is the only one to survive and he is the man who escapes to South America, the character at the beginning of the book.

I think overall the book is inconsistent.  Some parts are absorbing and interesting whilst others you read simply to get through to the next interesting bit.  I’m pleased I read it although I probably won’t seek out another book by this author.

The bit that lingers with me is the recognition that all of these characters were complicit in the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime but they are not monsters.  They are “normal” people sucked into doing extraordinary, dreadful things.  It’s chilling to read how easily it might happen.

Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet: My low-carb, stay-happy way to lose weight – Tom Kerridge

As a TV chef I like Tom Kerridge.  He comes across as a normal, cheerful soul who enjoys life.  I also enjoy watching his cookery programme and think his food always looks like something you’d actually want to eat.

I’ve also been really impressed with how much weight he has lost, which is partly why we bought his diet book.

It’s probably important at this stage to point out that I see cookery books as reading matter rather than a book of recipes to try out.  I occasionally have a go but not very often; I once made a New Year resolution to cook from a recipe book at least once a month.  It lasted exactly 1 month!

I did have the best of intentions to actually try some of the recipes.  The problem is that some of the best sounding dishes were the omelettes…and my partner is allergic to eggs, which makes them a no-go area.  Even the smell of them makes him ill.

The other problem is that the recipes are quite chef-y – time consuming and requiring ingredients that aren’t commonly available to non-chefs living in a rural village unless you plan well In advance.

As a book I enjoyed reading about how Kerridge created his diet to work for him and his lifestyle.  I liked the creativity he used to make sure his taste buds were satisfied by what he was eating.

As a diet I liked the fact the author was visible proof that it worked. But as a diet it really doesn’t work for two people who travel quite a distance to work and can’t be bothered to do too much to prepare and cook an evening meal when they eventually arrive home.  Neither does it really work for two people who don’t have great culinary skills.

Flesh and Blood – Patricia Cornwell

I’m sorry but this is going to be more a rant than a book review!  I used to really love the Kay Scarpetta books of Patricia Cornwell but really!  Just how many dead people can you bring back to life in one series!  And how unlucky can one person be to have all of these not quite dead people either in her life or after her life!

Each new book seems to have a storyline more preposterous than the last.  This series is getting silly and I just can’t be bothered to read any more to see if it gets back on track.

At the start of the series I thought Kay Scarpetta was a great central character.  She was portrayed as an intelligent, savvy woman with sharp instincts and skills.  She now appears to be a hopeless judge of character – my HR-focussed brain screams out that given the number of employees she’s had who turn out to be psychopaths this woman should never be allowed within 5 miles of a selection panel – and such a terrible person that half the population of the eastern seaboard are out to get her.

And, worst of all, it’s put me off re-reading the early books, which I enjoyed and were regular “comfort” reads.

Sorry, Ms Cornwell, but it’s time to retire Scarpetta before you become a laughing-stock as an author.