So is the most anticipated novel of the year any good? Well, it’s hugely enjoyable. I laughed. I cried. But by the end I felt a bit manipulated. In the end it’s a politically-motivated sledgehammer of a novel with a liberal message which verges on the self-righteous. But until it gets to that bit there’s a lot of fun. Listen to my review for the BBC World Service’s The Strand’s 40 million listeners here. Read the verdict in Red here (also reprinted below). And a rant about all the effing and blinding in the novel in the Mail on Sunday here.
It turns out that JK Rowling is not the greatest writer ever to have lived. But she is possibly one of the greatest storytellers. Which is how she can just about get away with this rather odd – and very British (too British?) – tale seemingly hinged on a parish council election but actually dealing with much deeper and more serious themes.
When the liberal, much-loved Barry Fairbrother collapses with a fatal aneurysm, half the population of the rural village of Pagford appears to be queuing up to take his seat — “The Casual Vacancy” — on the local council. The key contenders? Barry’s rival the porky deli owner Howard, who is lining up his son Miles to take the position. And local nasty-piece-of-work Simon Price also has his eye on the seat.
There are parallels with Harry Potter here when it transpires that although this is an adult novel (with occasionally alarmingly adult themes – and language – it’s already peppered with four-letter words by page 15), it’s really the children who are in charge. Or at least they think they are. Because whilst the grown-ups squabble over who’s going to win the election, a mystery team of teenage hackers is busy tampering with the Pangford Council website and denting all their chances.
The plot seems to hang on the slapstick business of a local election but really this is a socio-political morality tale about hypocrisy, snobbery, class and drug addiction. The locals are all forced to show their true colours when the local centre which hands out methadone is threatened with closure.
It’s a far-reaching and ambitious novel with a cast of characters as rich as any Harry Potter outing but with a gritty realism worthy of Ian Rankin crossed with the ambiguous tone of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. It’s not exactly subtle with its finger-wagging liberal politics, though. And, whilst the first two thirds are playful and often wonderfully comic, the ending packs an uncomfortably vicious, moral, sideways punch.
As you’d expect, it’s hugely readable and draws you irresistibly in. And it’s a must-read because everyone will be talking about it. But don’t expect this book to change your life in quite the way it has changed the author’s.
Old women are not hideous! No matter what this rather fascinating 16th century portrait of a “woman” (really?) may be trying to prove. (I love it, though.) Writing in the Independent about Mary Beard, Fiona Bruce and the BBC’s many excuses about why there are no silver-haired women reading the news. Or very many older women doing anything much at all. Shame on you!
Portrait of A Grotesque Old Woman or The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Matsys (1513). Black and white pic by Ann from Detroit.
Writing in the Independent about a study reported in the New Scientist linking Alzheimer’s and junk food. “Health warnings are having no impact on behaviour. “Look! Now you won’t just deteriorate physically, you’ll deteriorate mentally, too!” As a motivating statement, it’s not going to work.” My strategy? Ban BOGOFs (Buy One Get One Free). Because I cannot resist them.
Doughnut pic by Anna Maj Michelson. Pancake pic by Joshua.
Keira Knightley in great acting shocker! Not to be mean. I like her in Pirates of the Caribbean which I have seen 157 times due to the viewing habits of other inhabitants of my household. But I wondered when Knightley was going to find a role which allowed her to shine. Anna Karenina is it.
I reviewed Joe Wright’s latest (he also directed Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, also starring Knightley) on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. Pic here. Mark Lawson agreed that it’s a great film but not flawless. Listen here from 10mins30. The much-vaunted “theatre” idea doesn’t quite hang together. For the first third of the film all the actors walk through a moving stage, with Anna sometimes watching from the wings. It’s a wonderful device: very bold and original. And obviously supposed to represent the pantomime that Anna’s life as a loyal wife and mother has become.
Then when the action moves from Moscow to St Petersburg suddenly we’re (mostly) in real life and your usual costume drama landscape territory. I wished they’d had the guts to do the whole thing in the theatre.
Favourite bits? Matthew Macfadyen’s comic turn as a bombastic, cabbage soup-hating Stiva (Anna’s brother). Olivia Williams as Vronsky’s glamorous, seductive mother who initially encourages Anna to have an affair (“I’d rather end up wishing I hadn’t than wishing I had”) but is then horrified when her own son becomes the target. Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery (one of my favourite actresses) as Princess Myagkaya, the only one who supports Anna (“In my opinion Karenin is a fool and Anna is the best of us”). And Princess Betsy’s flatulent puppy.
Verdict? Shades of Amelie, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. A must-see. Just close your eyes for the bit where Karenin (Jude Law) gets out the velvet box where he keeps his creepy contraceptive sheath…
Pic above from 1914 Russian silent film version starring Maria Germanova as Anna Karenina.
Writing in today’s Independent on Sunday about Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography. Read here. Dubbed “the crocodile’s mouth” by the Munduruku tribe of the Amazon basin and “the gate to hell” by theologian Tertullian, now the source of life is now re-branding itself via genitalia cupcakes, anatomically-correct armchairs and, in the US, an invitation to “Knit Your Congressman a Vagina.” (In protest against healthcare cuts, keen craftswomen send crocheted depictions of female body parts to politicians.) Cupid Stunt would be proud.
Naomi Wolf pic by David Shankbone.
This is the £225 Michael Kors jumpsuit from Selfridges, featured in the Guardian today (here). “The perfect working wardrobe compromises a statement bag, chic low heels, trend-conscious separates – and why not a jumpsuit too?” writes Sara Ilyas. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Why not indeed? Unfortunately most people find many reasons why not to wear a jumpsuit and my attempts — over three long years now — to herald its return have appeared somewhat doomed. UNTIL NOW.
This jumpsuit is already sold out at net-a-porter. And disappearing fast from Selfridges. They only have three sizes left: 6, 10 and 12. Which is, er, why I will definitely not be buying one.
But LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, THE JUMPSUIT IS BACK. For affordable jumpsuits, ASOS has 537 to choose from. Starting at £12. This is the true face of the revolution. JUMP ON BOARD! YEAH!
I don’t get any kickbacks for promoting jumpsuits by the way. I do it out of the goodness of my heart. And a love of jumpsuits. This is my moment. Don’t begrudge me it.
The story of poor Lady Gaga and her off-stage sick bucket. She said, “I went backstage and vomited and I did not want you to see this. It happens to me sometimes.” “Sometimes”? In that dress surely “most days”? Also in today’s Sunday Express column: teenagers and GCSEs. First they’re told the exams are too easy and count for nothing. Now it turns out they’ve been marked down in an attempt to curb grade inflation. Who’d be sixteen again? Plus: Bad news for old fathers from Nature magazine. Architects’ floor plans uncovered for Friends, Mad Men and Sex and the City. And an instruction to Prince Harry to put on his missing pants and watch The Hangover. Because what happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas.
Gaga MonsterBall Tour pic by TamTam.
Nine gigs and only one cancelled for lack of audience. Welcome to the Free Fringe. Two lovely, packed gigs to finish at Comedy Brass at the Meadow Bar with Anthea Neagle and Scott Adams and WLTM with Phillip Wragg and Elena Kombou, with the brilliant Michelle de Swarte headlining. I have erased all mental trace of the power-surge-afflicted microphone at the So You Think You’re Funny? semi-finals and now only happy, false memories of that night remain. Above, on the chalkboard of the Gilded Balloon for the first time. “Boom.” As they say.
Writing in today’s Independent about comedy, being offensive and the importance of silliness. The most offensive (and silly) thing about Edinburgh is how exhausting it is. Despite the intensely reviving properties of Luisa Omielan’s hi-energy Beyonce show last night, Edinburgh has broken me. Six shows down, three to go. And there are people here who have done over 70 shows in four weeks. They look virtually dead.
Good shows at Domestic Science at Canon’s Gait, Funny’s Funny at the Free Sisters (different line-up every day at 7pm) and Funny Women at Harvey Nichols. Bit hit and miss (code for: NIGHTMARE) on the outer edges of the Free Fringe. Everyone moaning that audiences are low because of the Olympics and the recession. It cannot have anything to do with the quality of the shows. (JOKE, JOKE, alright?) But you can make it work. The (free) Beyonce show is turning people away.
What I’ve loved: The Horne Section, Tom Webb, John Gordillo, Lucy Porter, Tim Shishodia and Pat Cahill’s show, Luisa Omielan’s What Would Beyonce Do (catch it tonight or tomorrow if you can — at the Meadow Bar, 10.45pm). I will be in bed.
Beyonce pic by Naomi Nunez.