29 February 2016

Etc — February 2016

There are a lot of books and films in my five picks for February: I've written at length at some of the great food and drink I enjoyed in Washington and Portland, which leaves my cultural consumption to dissect.

1. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
I was a little disappointed by Kate Atkinson's previous book, Life After Life, which prioritised, I felt, style over substance. But A God in Ruins — a companion piece rather than a sequel — really won me over, with its chronicle of the life of would-be poet turned WWII pilot Teddy Todd and his family. The story skips merrily (and sometimes less merrily) back and forth throughout the 20th century, revisiting familiar scenes to add detail, resonance and understanding. Atkinson's writing is so utterly compelling, warm and funny, and flawed though they may be, you can't help but want to spend more time with her characters. Don't worry if you haven't read Life After Life; you can jump right in to A God in Ruins. I also posted a more detailed review on Good Reads.

2. Hail, Caesar!
The Coen brothers' films are so distinctive — and divisive — that you would think that by now most people would know whether the Coens' new releases are for them. I went to see their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, while I was in Portland and I was amazed by how many people left the cinema within the first 20 minutes. Yes, Hail, Caesar! is unstructured and yes, it is bonkers, but it is also hugely entertaining. Josh Brolin stars as a 1950s movie studio fixer, who is having a terrible day. The studio is producing a film of the story of Christ from the point of view of the Romans and his star, the handsome, charismatic Baird Whitlock (played by the handsome, charismatic George Clooney), is kidnapped by a group of communist writers. There are all sorts of other wacky sub-plots and set pieces too: Scarlett Johansson as a fin-wearing femme fatale; a nautical Channing Tatum dance number; Tilda Swinton as competitive, identical-twin reporters; and many more. Set during the same period as Trumbo, Hail, Caesar! is its opposite, but is great fun.

3. Honest Brunch
It's no secret that I am big fan of Honest Burgers but I hadn't had chance to try out their brunch. A few friends and I went to their Peckham location, which opened late last year, on a rainy Saturday. The Peckham restaurant is a lovely space — an airy dining room with the usual industrial accents, a few minutes' walk from Peckham Rye. We arrived at noon and didn't have to wait for a table but it got pretty busy by the time we left. The only problem with going at brunchtime is that there is even more choice! The Honest Burger is consistently in my top three burgers in London, and deviating from it is always tough. In the end, I compromised and ordered the Brunch Burger (£8.50): a beef patty with smoked bacon, Red Leicester, bubble and squeak, ketchup and rosemary-salt fries. It also comes with garlic mushrooms but I asked for mine to be mushroom-less.

And how was it? Well, the Honest Burger still retains its crown, but as a sinful, flavour-packed, brunchtime meat feast in sandwich form, the Brunch Burger is rather good. The brunch menu also includes bacon sandwiches, full Englishes, avo toasts and many other delights. If you can tear yourself away from the burger menu, that is!

4. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker
I spotted Joël Dicker's sprawling, epic novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, in Portland's wonderful Powell's bookstore but I didn't have enough room in my suitcase for the 600-page tome. I picked up a copy from my local library on my return, though, and ploughed through it over the course of a weekend. The premise is complicated and, indeed, the novel itself is enshrouded in many different layers of text and subtext. Essentially, though, it is a novel about writers, writing, ambition and love.

The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a successful novelist quickly loses sympathy as he describes his narcissistic, ruthless crawl to the top. Marcus is writing a book about his former mentor, the titular Harry Quebert — also a successful novelist — who has been implicated in the death of his much-younger lover — a 15-year-old girl — several decades earlier. Marcus wants to clear Harry's name and to uncover what really happened, although these two propositions may not be compatible.

Dicker's novel is clever and self-aware: the chapter numbers count down instead of up, and as Marcus progresses with his own novel, Harry gives him advice on how to write. It's all very meta and, at times, unnecessarily complicated (I don't mind novels being clever, except when the novelist is being clever for the sake of it, rather than to benefit the plot), but Harry Quebert is a compelling read, which reminded me of the likes of David Mitchell and Julian Barnes. I think I'll probably get even more out of it on a second read.

5. Rams
A reader recommended that I check out the much-acclaimed Icelandic film Rams, but my travelling left me with little time to go to the cinema this month. Happily, though, I caught Grímur Hákonarson's film, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes, on Curzon Home Cinema. Rams is as understated as Hail, Caesar! is over-complicated, but although often solemn in tone, Hákonarson's film is also very human and is keenly observed, with an offbeat sense of humour. The story centres on Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), two brothers who have always lived on neighbouring sheep farms in an isolated Icelandic valley but who, stubborn as their prize rams, haven't talked to each other for over four decades. But when a case of scrapie is detected in one of Kiddi's sheep, threatening the livelihoods of the brothers and all of the other farmers in the valley, everything changes, even the brothers' relationship.

Rams is a concise film, clocking in at just over 1h30, and it is beautifully shot and tightly plotted. If you are looking for the antidote to this year's Oscar contenders, this could be it. And it has only strengthened my resolve to schedule a trip to Iceland this year!

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