Review

#BookBucketChallenge

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There’s a tag going round on Facebook that challenges you to list 10 books that have proved formative for you as a person and the reasons why. The idea of making a Facebook status about the literature that has shaped me seems absolutely too awful for words, but from a purely personal (and procrastinatory) level I still wanted to try and single out 10 books that I can point to for being particularly life-changing or enhancing. So I’m doing it anyway. As someone who spent most of their childhood buried in a book it was no easy feat to choose just 10, but here we go; I’d be jolly interested to hear the same from you too, and I’m going to nominate Jazzy for a start. So here they all are, in order of discovery.

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Bonjournal

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 15.13.32At the moment most of my writing that isn’t related to 19th century French art is happening over on another social media page of mine, a site which I have been enjoying so much I thought I would share the fun. Bonjournal is a neat little traveloguing tool that exists as an app and a website, that I find the perfect medium for recording everything from short travels to daily diaries to reviews of the best places to eat in my area. I’ve been using it for nearly a year now, almost as long as it has been up and running, and watching it improve and expand into the smooth and sleek page it is today has been a real pleasure.

Bonjournal came to being through a perceived gap in the market from some creative-minded world travellers – the best genre of person, clearly – who describe the frustration with current media that led to Bonjournal on the site’s about page:

When we returned home and tried to share our travels with friends and family, we struggled to combine all our photos, notes, and maps into one coherent package. Mainstream apps like Facebook and Instagram were great for photos, but were not designed to tell a continuous story. What had been a long, seamless journey for us came across as piecemeal and disjointed.

The result of their process is a journaling tool that is “easy, beautiful and simple”, and combines all the features that a blogger and traveller could want in what is effectively an online diary. It has been a delight to communicate and share thoughts with its founder Dorothy Lin (who has a beautiful selection of journals herself), and I recently had my trip to Iceland featured on the site as well, which was a nice ego massage. As one of the earlier members I also get to participate in beta feature testing which I find very exciting, and participate in a community that though currently small, is one of the friendliest I have found online to date.

If you’re a traveller, a photographer or a journaller, I highly recommend giving Bonjournal a try. The mobile app is perfect for recording on the go – even without internet! – and the features are only getting smoother and better. It’s my favourite new platform, and do have a gander at my own page @alexkrook if you’re interested.

Restaurant Review: Mighty Quinn’s

F1030011Mighty Quinn’s boasts some of the best BBQ in town, as evidenced by a fifteen minute queue to get to the counter. Its Lower East Side facade was almost obscured by a fire-engine belonging to four burly customers chowing down on ribs, and a rowdy group of creatives took up half the interior making the most of the lunchtime beer pitchers. The place is light and airy, like so many New York eateries, with a minimalist and industrial vibe, a giant counter of meats and barrels and a diverse customer body; policewomen and suited business sorts joined the fire brigade and the motley crew of assorted student hipsters that made up the queue snaking down the side of the building.

I will not lie. I was indeed tempted by the brontosaurus rib – a pound of beef served on the bone and slow-smoked in their famous BBQ sauce. Everything is hacked up on the hot plate before your eyes by a competent and helpful staff of beautiful young men who are no doubt all struggling actors and models – who in this town isn’t? We begrudgingly settled for the pulled pork sandwich with sides of buttermilk and bacon broccoli and the sweetcorn and edamame salad, and it was all bloody delicious. Even my lunch companion lasting out a meat-free diet couldn’t resist multiple bites of my pulled pork delight, and we washed it all down with McKenzie’s “hard cider”, the only cider worth drinking in this country of luke-warm apple juices. A mighty find indeed, and barbecue that Texas might be proud of.

Restaurant Review: J. G. Melon

I spent much of my summer eating at restaurants in the states through a fabulous internship with southern food critic Morgan Murphy. I can’t share any reviews from our time on the road with him before his book comes out, so in the meantime I will be posting a few of my favourite reviews from my trip to New York afterwards.

F1010031JG Melon’s is a revelation. Recommended as an essential NYC spot by friends of friends when drinking and food-discussing, I’m so glad that I stuck out the obstacle course of dog walkers through the Upper East Side to land at its polished wooden bar next to its quietly munching regulars. Based in a building dating from the 1920s (PRE-WAR!), it was founded by a Jack and a George that lent it their initials and promptly began to distribute alcohol, and was also host to a scene from Kramer vs. Kramer! So NYC.

I was early for my lunch date so ordered a beer and fell into conversation with a bespectacled old guy at the counter, busy drinking iced tea and attacking a plate of JG’s trademark cottage-fried potatoes. He turned out to be an ex-soap actor who had a few tales of the biz, but it didn’t take too much small talk for him to go on to reveal he was in fact the husband of the president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, in town for a premiere; the next 40 minutes were naturally filled with anecdotes about embarrassing himself in front of Amy Adams, making his wife jealous chatting to Angelina Jolie, and descriptions of just how nice Forrest Whittaker is. I get the feeling JG’s tables are packed with such interesting characters native and otherwise, who, like Raymond, make a point of visiting whenever they’re passing through (and always order their regular).

When my lunch companion arrived and Raymond had gone off on his VIP way, we followed the advice of our barman and ordered bacon burgers and the house Pilsner. Neither disappointed. Good foods served in the midst of regulars fulfilling all the NYC stereotypes: a Jewish father chastising his son for gaining a paunch since their last lunch, an ancient 80-something on his third Bloody Mary bemoaning the state of the neighbourhood, two hoarse-voiced ladies lunching and hating on their husbands. (Complaining is the sport of the city, and everyone here is a professional.) JG’s is just how I pictured an authentic NYC restaurant, with its giant neon sign and fire escape painted a cheery green, watermelon decor and juke box and middle-aged waitresses. And the cheesecake is gosh darn divine.

Ballin’ 2014

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One of the great joys of the Oxford experience  is just how easy it is to find an excuse to get suited, booted, and tarted all the way up for a fancy event with your friends. Formalwear = instant beauty;  tailcoats and full-length dresses have transformative powers that make even the least glamorous of us instantly instagrammable – someone should have told Snow White’s stepmother to slap on a ball gown before heading down the poisoned fruit route, because it’s a surefire way to outstrip anyone in the aesthetics stakes. I proved my own point in this matter last night at Trinity College’s triennial commemoration ball, a night of glamour, glitz, and immaculately manicured lawns during which the rain mercifully held off and I made my £180 ticket back through consumption of candy floss alone. This year was a big one in Oxford for commem balls: Worcester’s tricentenary bash also took place, and Exeter is throwing a 700th anniversary event tonight that has half of Radcliffe Square closed to the public (to its rage). I chose Trinity over Worcester’s nightmare waiting list and headed over with a very select crew of friends and housemates – but balls being balls and Oxford being Oxford ended up running into about a hundred people I knew at the event, and chatting to many I didn’t. 

The evening started for us at 8 with a champagne reception on Trinity’s front lawns. The committee settled on a digital wristband system this year which made queuing up and cloakroom depositing incredibly speedy so we could move right on to fancy champers and chocolate coated strawberries; I had spent half an hour the day before helping committee members unload box after box of champagne so knew there was no shortage there, and we were definitely not disappointed. The rain had cleared up just in time and the college looked golden and glorious in the last of the evening sun, and obviously all the guests in their white tie did too. To add to the magic, dreams were made within an hour of arrival as I got to meet Oxford-based photographer Nasir Hamid whose Flickr feed I have followed avidly for a few years now, and who photographs many of the balls and Oxford life in general. Discovering that he follows me too was a delightful ego massage and a half, and he took snaps of us on both digital and our beloved 35mm film. A perfect start to the evening.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetFrom the front lawns we moved through a second quad complete with painted blue lawn and onto the meat of the ball. Trinity is a college made for such events, and there was ample room for stage, marquees, and quieter wooded areas which were no doubt host to countless scurrilous activities by the end of the evening; there were at least four bars and countless food stands, and to be honest the committee really outdid itself as the whole event was a roaring success by all accounts. The array of food was particularly spectacular, and although the best thing I consumed was definitely a Bailey’s milkshake at the very beginning of the night, by the end I had eaten my weight in whitebait, fajitas, hog roast, poached pears and candy floss – a smorgasbord of feasting spread across three quads. The musical entertainment too was right up my street (and seemingly everyone else’s). Although we tragically missed Out Of The Blue’s unfeasibly early set both Aluna George and Clean Bandit gave syuper performances – the real stand-out was the Beyonce tribute band in the early hours though, followed by a less exhilarating silent disco as by that point dawn was breaking and birds chirping and I felt like I might expire from exhaustion.

In amongst all the standard ball activities was the quite novel installation of a giant Monaco-style makeshift casino by the back gates; I think it could have been fabulous if actual money/glory was at stake, but as it was the wristband scanners broke down so it turned into a less glamorous speakeasy serving the most disgustingly strong gin martinis possible. Abandoned half-sipped specimens littered the room. Disgustingly strong drinks were certainly a theme of the night – whoever was in charge of drinks clearly likes their liquor hard and their mixers sparse – but bizarrely I think that the undrinkableness of everything actually meant no one got too sloshed and everyone paced themselves a bit better. I certainly just cannot force myself into ingesting a G&T with a 50:50 ratio (no matter how awkward the situation), which probably served me better than endless delicious glasses that go down a charm. Luckily entertainments aside from alcohol abounded, and we busied ourselves with shisha, carnival swings, dodgems and walking hedges; there was a Jamaican steel drum band and a stuffed zebra, and to be honest the whole thing was so well-planned and executed that though our stamina failed at 4am I don’t think I would have run out of amusements by the final clear-out at 6.

I had a really lovely evening (that my mum tells me was well worth the extortionate ticket price for this selfie alone), and it was an apt summer “so long” to Oxford, finalist friends and New College Lane. My favourite moment was the truly fab firework display a few hours in that had me clapping like a small child – they never really lose their primal appeal do they? – and my one regret is not going back for that third helping of hog roast. Next time.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

 

The-Secret-Life-Of-Walter-Mitty3Loathe as I am to criticise anything showcasing the delights of travel photography and Kristen Wiig, this film reminds me of Britney Spears circa-2007: sweet, beautiful, but a bit of a mess. Stiller’s latest go at directing is filled with breath-taking images and earnest stabs at making a point about life the universe and everything, but boils down to a mish-mash of sequences of disjointed if beautiful cinematography disguising a very run-of-the-mill romance plot-line. Somehow Mitty transforms from dull office worker into “Indiana Jones playing for the Strokes” in the clumsiest hour-long character development possible, and it just doesn’t quite work.

3/5

(Originally published over here)

 

#NewMayDays Day 2: Castle Exhibition

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetToday was not only my first visit to Oxford’s castle complex (yeah alright, I have great difficulty leaving the 100m radius from my front door), but it was also my first time seeing a friend’s photography exhibited in a public space. Julia was in the year below me at school and shares a love of travel and analogue photography, and her work was exhibited at Oxford’s O3 Gallery as part of one of their Art Weeks – more specifically an exhibit of lo-fi photography, sculpture, and student artwork. There was an interesting variety of art on show but call me biased, Julia’s came out near the top. (Who is going to pay £500 for some under-exposed pinhole panoramas? Questionable.) She produced a fab variety of lomography: from red-scale images of Vietnam and Thailand to snaps of New College and west London, with the additional excitement of some boiled and whiskied 35mm film. #experimental. I’m an eternal fan, and although it’s hard to find her work online a brief google does yield this – which is almost as good.

I really enjoyed this exhibit, as well as catching up with Julia and her also-a-photographer boyf Ed over drinks afterwards. I’ll definitely be re-visiting the castle quarter – maybe I’ll even shell out the £1 it costs to climb the mound next time, who knows? Although to be honest why would I when back at New College we’ve got our very own one that even deigns to quack at you.

Samsara

BP_POS_samsara_A3_1206I watched Samsara on a big screen, and it’s the only way to do it. The film is phenomenal. Beautiful, intelligent and eye-opening, full of sequences and stills that will stick in your head for weeks and a soundtrack that crosses every continent and back again. Ron Fricke has made a film about globalisation and culture that isn’t didactic but only breath-taking, making you stop and think while your mouth hangs open. Samsara is the best film I’ve seen all year and probably longer – and all without any dialogue at all. Amazing.

5/5

I watched Samsara at The Eye in Amsterdam, and this review is taken from my blog http://100filmsin100words.tumblr.com/ – it does exactly what it says on the tin.

“That disgusting Cleopatra”

For Christmas my aunt gave me Stacy Schiff’s internationally best-selling biography Cleopatra: A Life. Studying history at university has given me a knee-jerk aversion to reading anything past-related outside of term-time, but I gave it a go anyway – I so rarely get to read a book dedicated to exploring the life of a female historical figure. It’s marvellous. It’s on Hilary Mantel levels of making history fascinating (although hopefully a bit more accurate). It’s an amazing insight into the life of someone right up there amongst history’s-most-misunderstood-characters, as well as the times that she lived in and the people and cultures that surrounded her. Who knew that Macedonian Greeks sat on the Egyptian throne for centuries? Who knew how sumptuously lavish an Alexandrian feast could be, and that the guests would all be gifted the cutlery and the furniture afterwards? Fabulously written and incredibly detailed, Schiff opens up a whole new world of family feuds and erotic scandal, priceless jewels and an unimaginable city that has been lost to the past. The book is amazingly written, and the story amazingly told.

It’s a sympathetic account to be certain; Schiff’s Cleopatra is no “whore queen” sleeping her way to the top, but rather shapes her Roman lovers to her political needs whilst having a jolly good time simultaneously (as her litter of dynasty-uniting children might attest). Hers is not Chaucer’s “martyr to love” whose only tool was sexuality, or Shaw’s “silly little girl” play-acting at politics with the big boys. The Cleopatra of this biography isn’t even particularly beautiful, as the hooked nose and strong chin of her only surviving contemporary likenesses prove. Schiff’s Cleopatra is a phenomenally clever strategist, a polyglot and an educated intellectual, a woman who ruled over an enormous and ancient empire that ended with her death. Schiff is no impartial historian (who is?) and that’s exactly what makes this book so great – it’s a very personal biography, as all biographies should be. It’s deeply pro-Cleopatra and her sex – the succinct passing put-downs of the countless (male) writers who have besmeared her subject’s reputation and memory over the last two thousand years were some of my favourite passages. In an endearingly witty interview with The New York Times Schiff delightfully dismisses centuries worth of assertions that Cleopatra’s diplomatic skill-set ended at the door to the bedroom by scoffing that “it has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains”.

I’m all for the image-rehabilitation of history’s scapegoats, especially if they happen to be powerful and independent females existing a couple of millennia before that was in vogue. I can’t pretend to have any of the ancient history credentials to confirm or deny whether the portrait Schiff paints is an accurate one, but it’s certainly a cracking read – and I also can’t pretend that I was not crackingly convinced.

Vikings in London

I spent this term studying a paper called “The Viking Age: War and Peace c.750-1100”, a module covering Scandinavian raiders and settlers and their activities at home and abroad. It has conveniently coincided with Copenhagen’s celebrated Viking World exhibition hitting my own home town. Professor Lesley Abrams, much celebrated in viking circles and coincidentally my tutor (Oxford education whaddup) was invited to the opening a fortnight ago, bringing its existence to our class’s attention; she did not sing its praises. Neither did many other reviewers. Undeterred my mum and I spent a sunny Friday afternoon eating and wandering in central London, before charging into the British Museum and ploughing mercilessly through the foreign hoards (a la vikings) towards the declamatory banners of rusty-sword-overlaid-with-swirling-ocean (original). We got two steps into the first room and then turned around and left. The place was absolutely rammed. It was unbearable. I was aware that the popularity of the exhibition had meant tickets were sold in timed slots, but this was something else entirely – a queue that snaked around the entire exhibit creating a human conveyor belt of fleeting glimpses of glass-cased objects and universal impatience and despair. Seeing our despondency a security guard took us aside and recommended we return either first thing in the morning or last admission in the evening to have any chance of enjoyment, so we headed to the members lounge to drown our sorrows in tea and free wifi, and returned at 10am the next day to a slightly less horrifying scene.

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Although this is fairly horrifying

I will admit to finding over-crowding in museums and galleries horrendous and experience-ruining, so I didn’t even attempt to examine every object or read every sign. There were some specific artefacts that I really did want to see, and I zoned in on them right away – it was an absolute treat standing in front of the Lewis chessmen, relics of that time when the Western Isles belonged to Norway and not Scotland (ha), and seeing my personal favourite of a tiny 2x2cm silver sculpture of Odin and his seeing eye ravens Hugin and Munin. I enjoyed the re-construction of a viking longship, complete with real-life ship bits slotted into the metal frame, and I appreciated the garish replica of Harald Bluetooth’s Jelling Stone – his monument to his own success as a uniter of Denmark and champion of Christianity. But I couldn’t help but feel that I enjoyed all of this so much exactly because I understood these objects’ significance within the viking “life” or “legend” as a whole; not to sound like the condescending history student that I am, but I feel that the joy of the artefact lies within what it can tell you and how it can be interpreted. There was a dearth of explanatory information, and it was not limited to unsatisfactory descriptions of objects. Perhaps it’s just unrealistic expectations of curators to cram into three rooms what I have learnt in 8 weeks of a history degree, but if you’re going to title an exhibit “Vikings: life and legend” then I feel you’re implying you will do some explaining of life versus legend – or just some explaining in general.

Odin and his menagerie

Odin and his menagerie

I am being unfair and I know it. I totally learnt some new things and there were some really great curatorial touches –  the snippets of skaldic verse printed on the walls, and eery recordings of Norse being spoken over the lapping of waves and creaking of oars (obviously). But I think that some of the more thrilling and “legendary” aspects of viking times were unnecessarily skipped over. The example I would choose is that of the Ridgeway Hill skeletons, displayed in an awkward corner. This was a mass viking grave found in Dorset in 2009, containing 54 dismembered skeletons of Scandinavian males (mostly) aged 16-25. They showed no evidence of being involved in a battle, but had certainly suffered a violent death – they had all been tossed naked into the pit, almost certainly executed, possibly as captives, at a time of conflict between native Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavian settlers. This is exactly the sort of mysterious and gory tale that makes popular history. Who were they? How did they die? Who killed them and decapitated them and buried them so dishonourably? Was there an audience? What happened to the missing heads? In the exhibit the only thing written about this intriguing discovery was that it “proved the vikings didn’t always win”… a rather vague statement that I thought really wasted a real-life historical conundrum. But then again, I almost certainly ended up doing history for my morbid temperament alone, so perhaps these are not the questions that plague your average museum-goer.

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DON’T FORGET ME I BEG – Adele/Harald Bluetooth

And while I’m complaining about everything and anything I must say that much as I hate exhibitions being overly child orientated, the British Museum does love to encourage enormous numbers of primary school parties and under-12s and almost none of the exhibition was child-friendly or interactive. Far be it from me to encourage the presence of any children in any public space ever, but this lack of engaging things to plonk your 4-year-old in front of while you read up on the intricacies of longship construction led to several tantrums and over-active small people underfoot. I can’t imagine that its Scandinavian incarnation was so lacking.

So to sum up: I’m glad that I went, I will almost certainly go again, but I do feel like more could have been done with this exhibit. For your average British Museum goer who has had to pay £15 for this claustrophobic experience and whose knowledge of the vikings is limited to drooling over Chris Hemsworth in the latest Avengers instalment, I’m not sure it really does the trick.