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The half year in numbers

I’ve already posted my best for for the first six months of 2017 (well, obviously, not really six months – more like, “up to June”), and you can find it here. But what I usually do is also is work out what I’ve been reading and watching in terms of gender, genre and nationality.

books
Since 1 January, I’ve read forty-nine books, which is down on previous years. In fact, I’m running aroundna dozen books behind on reading challenge this year, and I set my target at 140 books despite managing 150 books last year.

In terms of gender, I’ve done quite well, as male and female authors are running neck-and-neck. I’ve not always alternated, which is what I try to do, but if I read a run of books by male authors, then I follow it with a run of female authors. I only track this for fiction, incidentally.

Genre-wise, I self-identify as a science fiction fan, but in recent years I’ve found myself reading less sf… Or so I thought. As you can see from the chart above, science fiction has accounted for 59% of my reading in 2017 so far, and mainstream only 13% (although if you add in the world fiction, a new category, it rises to 19% – and yes, I dislike the term “world cinema” but I wanted to track the books I’d read my non-Anglophone writers and “world fiction” seemed the easiest way to do it).

And speaking of “world fiction”, this year I’ve been tracking the nation of origin of the authors whose books I read. I’d imagined that since I read a lot of sf, most of my reading would compromise US authors, but it seems I actually read more UK sf than US. Quite a bit more, in fact. I’ve also made an effort this year to read fiction from other countries – hence the presence of Albania, Belarus, and Estonia. The Norwegian book was one I’d had my shelves for several years, the Bangladeshi one was the novel from which a favourite film was adapted, the Czech was an author whose books I like and have read previously, and the French ones are all bandes dessinées.

Finally, the decades in which the books I’ve read were published… I never think of myself as someone who always go for the new shiny, so it came as a surprise to see how much books of the last seven years dominate my reading. The 1990s was the decade in which I first became active in sf, so perhaps that accounts for its high showing.

films
I started recording the films I watched back in 2001, although I didn’t bother tracking rewatches of films I’d already seen until a year or two later. And it wasn’t until 2010 that I began noting down the country of origin of the movies. In the last few years, I’ve made an effort to watch more films from non-Anglophone countries – or, at the very least, to reduce the percentage of films I watch that are from the US.

Overall, counting all the films I’ve seen since 2001, US films account for 52% of my viewing. Happily, so far this year, that’s down to 23%. China is next at 13%, and then the UK at 10%. In 2017, I have to date watched movies from thirty-eight different countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark,Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, UK, USA and Vietnam.

If I exclude rewatches, the total drops from 266 to 215 movies watched, the US rises to 25%, China drops to 12% and the UK to 9%. So I guess it wasn’t US films I mostly rewatched.

I also prefer to spread my viewing across the decades, and not just watch the latest films. But then, I do like me some 1950s cinema… although this year I seem to have watched more 1960s movies. And it’s weird that both the current decade and the last decade score exactly the same at 51 films each.

This year, I’ve also started tracking the gender of the directors of the films I watch. I know that most of the films I watch are made by men, but I was a little dismayed at how low the percentage of women director was, even though this year I’ve discovered some new female directors whose oeuvres I’d like to explore, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo. (Incidentally, “pair” means two or more directors, and “series” means television programmes.) Discounting rewatches and other films by the same director, I’ve actually watched films by 176 directors, but only a dozen of them were women. I need to improve that.

The genre of the films I watch: I tend to think of most films as “drama”, which is why that category is so big. And “animated” includes anime films, but not Disney ones, which, for some reason I decided to split out into a category of its own. Also, “wu xia” is a bit of a cheat, as not all of the films I classified as that are actually fantasy – some were big Chinese historial epic films. Oh, and I watched a few Elvis movies, so I felt he deserved his own genre too. But only 5% of the movies I’ve watched so far in 2017 were science fiction films… but then I’ve never been that big a fan of sf cinema, although I do rate a handful of sf films pretty highly.

Finally, I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition) for a couple of years, and so far in 2017, I’ve watched twenty-six films new to me from that list. The results have been… mixed. Some were good, some were merely okay, but none turned me into a fan of the director, as has happened in previous years. To date, I’ve watched 867 films on the list (some of them before I even started recording my film-watching), so that’s 33 to go… I’m unlikely to complete the list this year – I may never complete it, as some of the films are near-impossible to find. But we’ll see.

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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…