Books I’ve been reading and things I’ve been watching

I’ve read a few books over the last few months, but haven’t had much time to actually make notes about them. In no particular order, they are:

Consider Phlebas, by Ian M Banks

This is a disappointing read, and not worth the time. It tells the story of a secret agent, who in pursuit of a major objective goes on a series of adventures through space, forming connections with people. There is really no significant arc, apart from the protagonist developing a slightly stronger ability to connect with people by the end of the book. There’s a delightfully devastating review over at Goodreads by ‘J.G. Keely’ – more worth a read than the book.

The war toed-and-froed for over thirty years, with many battles, pauses, attempts to promote peace by outsiders and the Homomda, great campaigns, successes, failures, famous victories, tragic mistakes, heroic actions, and the taking and retaking of huge volumes of space and numbers of stellar systems. 

Season three of Black Mirror

Not a book, really. But I’ve just started watching season three of Black Mirror (trailer here). If you haven’t watched it, you should. It’s not easy or light viewing, but it is excellent TV – some of the best I’ve seen recently.

As an exercise for myself, I thought I’d work through episode one of season three in rough shorthand, as a way of thinking about the narrative arcs.

The first episode opens with the protagonist buying coffee – as she does, she rates people. Soon, she’s walking in to work. In the elevator, she takes to a 4.8. She’s a 4.2. Now, the protagonist wants something. The episode sets up her other desire, as well – love – when we see her visit an apartment complex, and the advertisers tell her (through a beautifully fashioned hologram) that she can find true love there. The catch? She has to have a 4.5 or above rating.

She tries various things, but it’s only when a life line is thrown her way – an old friend, long out of touch, wants her to give a speech at her wedding – that she has a real opportunity to get the 4.5 she craves.

From there, fate conspires against her (in a beautiful twist, her brother’s one-star rating after they fight contributes to her missing her flight). From there she has to try and make her own way – this is the descent, into the underworld. There, she finds an old woman with a one-star rating (this is very bad, in the world of episode one), who offers her freedom from the rating system. She’s not ready to take it.

Eventually she makes it to the wedding – where she wants to be. But her journey in the ‘underworld’ has changed her. Now, instead of the speech she wanted to give, with five star ratings pouring in, she gives a slightly deranged one as she evades security – including both the lines she wanted to give, and the frenetic accusation that ‘She fucked Greg‘.

The episode ends with her, in prison, with her contact lenses removed – she’s out of the rating system – achieving what she always wanted: connection with another human.

Pulp fiction

I watched Kill Bill a little while ago, and it was interesting to see one of Tarantino’s earlier pieces. For a movie that was made more than two decades ago, it doesn’t feel artistically dated at all.

Pulp fiction opens with a definition of pulp as a ‘shapeless mass of matter’.`From there, the story sets out to follow that approach, treating three different stories as interconnected and chronologically jumbled. Main characters in some sequences are side characters in others.

Definitely worth watching.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince is definitely worth watching. The film has the same ethereal feel as the book, but doesn’t try to recreate it. Instead it layers two narrative arcs over the top of it (what happened to the aviator? What happened to the little prince?), and does it beautifully.

The House of Medici: Its rise and fallby Christopher Hibbert

This is an interesting history of the house of Medici. It’s better at the start – as he sets the scene, Hibbert talks about the context, the social systems, the political structures that the Medici worked through. As it progresses though, the book is more and more a ‘great man of history’ piece – it simply says that a particular Pope restored the Medici, but doesn’t given an insight into how it happened.

Worth it if you’re very interested in this period of history, but it doesn’t really answers the questions about power and politics that are most interesting about something like the Medici dynasty.

… the smiths, in their turn, could feel superior to tens of thousands of those ordinary workers in the wool and silk trades, the weavers, spinners and dyers, the combers and beaters who, like carters and boatmen, labourers, pedlars and all those who had no permanent workshop, did not belong to a guild at all, and … were not allowed to form one … In the summer of 1378, the lowest class of woollen workers, known as ciompi– because of the clogs they wore in wash-houses – rose in revolt, protesting that their wages were scarcely sufficient to keep their families from starvation. Shouting ‘Down with the traitors who allow us to starve!’, they sacked the houses of those merchants whom they condemned as their oppressors … and demanded the right form three new guilds of their own. 

Because of its deep, mooing tone it was known as the Vacca; and as its penetrating boom sounded throughout Florence all male citizens over the age of fourteen were expected to gather in their respective wards and then to march behind their banners to the Piazza della Signoria to form a Parlamento.

To the Florentine merchant, money had quite extraordinary significance. To be rich was to be honourable, to be poor disgraced.

Already sentences had been passed on his opponents. Rinaldo degli Albizzi, his sons and descendants were all banished from Florence – so were branches of several other families, and, in some cases, families in their entirety, in accordance with the custom of considering a crime as much a collective as a personal responsibility.

If Cosimo were to rule successfully, he must appear scarcely to rule at all; if changes in the political structure were to be made, they must be changes calculated to arouse the least offence.

… like all rich men of prudence, he kept special accounts which, by exaggerating bad debts, showed his taxable income to be much lower than it was. 

… after twenty-two years work the doors were finished at last … 

The Church’s ruling was that the usurer might obtain forgiveness only by restoring during his lifetime, or at his death, all that he had gained unrighteously; and cases were known of penitent bankers who had appalled their heirs by stipulating in their wills that the first charge upon their assets must be the payment of full restitution. 

[Paraphrasing sermons by Savonarola, a priest who dominated Florence at one point]: ‘Blessed bands’ of children, their hair cut short, must march through the streets, singing hymns, collecting alms for the poor, and seeking out those rouge pots and looking-glasses, those lascivious pictures and immoral books, all those ‘vanities’ which were the Devil’s invitations to vice. These children must shame their elders into abandoning the gambling table for the confessional box … 

[When a group of Lutherans sacked an Italian city – Florence, I think?]: The doors of churches and convents were smashed, their contents hurled out into the streets, their bells and clocks, chalices and candlesticks beaten into fragments, their sacred treasures defaced, their holy relics used as targets by arquebusiers, and their ancient manuscripts as litter for horses. Priceless vestments were tossed over the shoulders of drunken whores, and nuns changed hands on the throw of a dice. The name of Martin Luther was carved with a pike on one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze. 



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