Book review: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly 

Sun-Mi Hwang

A beautiful allegory about empathy, parenting, and learning to accept and embrace our differences. With hens and ducks. Elegant prose, eminently readable and written with the feeling of the classic fables updated for today’s challenges. Left a warm feeling despite shedding a few tears as a parent – recognising that we are preparing ourselves and our children for when they fly the nest. 

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/67257552-sarah-howerd”

Books about libraries: ‘Library Books’

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This month I have mostly been reading Chris Paling‘s ‘Reading Allowed’, subtitled: ‘True Stories & Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library’. (Published by Constable, London 2017)

This book certainly is a compelling read, if at times annoying for those of us who work in the industry and wouldn’t consider standing around reading books at the counter when there’s so much else to be done (shelving, rotations, reservations workflow, packing, unpacking, inter-library loans, picking up chewed crayons from the children’s area to avoid health and safety incidents…). It would be lovely to be able to read all day but reading for leisure is certainly not ‘allowed’ as part of the job. I don’t mean to be harsh on Chris, but some people do have the impression that a job working as a library assistant is a gentle, slow, easy one and his book title encourages this false belief. As if we do sit around in between serving customers, and get to read the lovely books that inhabit our work space, I would say that that would be akin to expecting someone who works at a cake shop to be constantly trying the shop’s goods. Yes, we often come across books during working hours and put them to one side to issue to ourselves after work, but not to spend work hours reading for fun. I have been asked by customers if I actually get PAID to work in a library – “What a lovely job!”or do I “Just do it for fun?”. Okay, well, it is fun sometimes, but I rarely get five minutes to breathe in between serving customers and doing daily tasks.

Then, I thought: ‘Perhaps he just gave this impression so he could bring in all those lovely examples of books about libraries?’ A clever construction, albeit misleading about library assistants. Despite this criticism, I really did enjoy reading about Chris Paling’s time at the library, and often felt like he must be working at one of the libraries I have been employed at, so much did his description of some of the people, resemble customers I have known. I won’t go further into detail there though, I did feel a little like I was having a voyeuristic peek into people’s private worlds and wondered how those he wrote about would feel reading their descriptions and conversations laid out bare in his pages. Perhaps a little respect is in order? However, it is definitely worth reading if you work at a library, and even if you don’t – it does offer a mostly accurate picture of daily library life and the amount of patience and empathy required to serve the general (and not so general) public.

The Appendix contains a handy guide to the Dewey Decimal Classifications (something I’ve carried around in a notebook for the last three years too), and a list of sources from the text. From trawling through Chris Paling’s well-researched text and the source list in the appendix, I made a wish-list of ‘Books about libraries’, some of which I already have, such as ‘The Library Book’ and some which I think are missing from his list (see my last two suggestions). See Chris’s actual book for the more detailed source list – I’ll just precis it:

  • The Library at Night ~ Alberto Manguel
  • Old English Libraries, The Making, Collection and use of books during the Middle Ages ~  Ernest A Savage
  • Library, an Unquiet History ~ Matthew Battles
  • Library Confidential, Oddballs, Geeks and Gangsta’s in the Public Library (Experiences of a Library Assistant in California in the 1990’s) ~ Don Borchert
  • Irrepressible Reformer, A Biography of Melvill Dewey ~ Wayne A. Weigand
  • Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life ~ Timothy W. Ryback
  • The Library Book ~ Rebecca Gray (a collection of writer’s thoughts on the library service and what it means to them)

plus my suggested two essential titles:

  • Public Library ~ Ali Smith (beautiful, brilliant and tragic all at the same time)
  • Maisy Goes to the Library ~ Lucy Cousins (Published by Walker Books 2005)

 

 

My Year of Reading Danishly

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The closest I could get to the Hygge experience locally, nb. the ‘Danish’ is a cinnamon swirl from Tescos. Not exactly authentic.

 

Although perhaps to follow on from my previous book reviews perhaps I should say: “This month I have mostly been reading Scandinavian…”.

The Scandinavian languages are Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Finnish. I have merely dipped my toes in the freezing Baltic waters but found it very refreshing indeed. NB. I meant to publish this post in winter for best timing, got busy, so slightly out of season now.

1003725In February this year I visited Seaford library with my daughter. I have to admit that part of the attraction for her was hot chocolate and cake at the library café (how Hygge). She selected a sled load of Moomin cartoon books as she is a big fan of Tove Jansson. Her interest in Tove Jansson sparked curiosity in me too so I started reading one of Jansson’s adult collections of stories written when she was in her fifties: Travelling Light (also borrowed from Seaford Library). This is a beautiful collection of short stories, slightly quirky which is how I like it. Gorgeous light prose. I am also looking through a very big Jansson biography which may take me some time to read: Tove Jansson, Life, Art, Words. The authorised Biography by Boel Westin. There’s a lot more to her life than Moomins.

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I am developing an idea I had of reading ‘in themes’ as I find total immersion in a subject brings greater depth, (okay, sounds slightly OCD but I don’t care). My winter theme this year was Scandinavian fiction and non-fiction partly driven by and interest in Hygge and the desire for the comfort of a Nordic style wood-burning stove to warm my winter living room (I didn’t get this, the cost of the stove itself was reasonable but the cost of the equipment to ready the chimney was prohibitive: A thousand pounds – it’s not worth it! ). I read ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell; ‘How to Hygge: The Secrets of Nordic Living’ by Signe Johansen; The Book of Hygge, the Danish art of living well by Luisa Thomsen Brits; and Tove Jansson’s ‘Travelling Light‘. To make the ‘reading in themes’ concept work well the balance for me has to be:

  1. something non-fiction – fact based,
  2. a collection of short-stories,
  3. something about art/artists/music,
  4. and a novel.

23282062The first of these ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell was extremely informative and actually very readable. I was initially irritated by her London-centric successful media life (okay, for ‘irritated’ you could read ‘envious’), but soon became hooked. I admit to knowing very little about Denmark but was intrigued by the concept that they are “the world’s happiest country”*, and by the end of the book I knew a great deal more about Danish taxes, Lego, job security, snegles, the Dannebrog and that pony fountain…

The_Killing_TV_Series-907698985-largeTo accompany your reading selection and for full Scandi immersion, you need to watch ‘Modus’ starring Melinda Kinnaman,  Henrik Norlén or ‘The Killing’ starring Sofie Gråbøl,  Morten Suurballe,  Lars Mikkelsen. Or that really good Icelandic thriller with the leading actor who looked like John Grant (beard, woollen hat, troubled, cuddly). Can’t remember the name of this series, featured a limbless torso and a lot of snow. Gruesome but beautifully filmed. My favourite part of these films is the use of the Scandinavian word for thank you: “Takk”, “tak” or “tack”. Love it when they say takk.

For Nordic music you could start with Iceland’s Sigur Rós, or Samaris – who toured in 2014 with John Grant who lives in Iceland so should know (see my post ‘John Grant: GMF-on-Sea’). I would also suggest a previously blogged about band ‘Nordic Giants’ but they’re not technically Nordic – they do have a distinctly Sigur Rós vibe though so worth checking out.

Okay, so put on your Sofie Gråbøl Nordic jumper and curl up in your Arne Jacobsen Egg chair (I wish) with a good Scandi book. Then for a gourmet experience, may I suggest a cup of really good coffee and a Danish pastry…

Feeling very Hygge indeed.

 

* Think Denmark was pipped at the post of ‘Happiest Country in the World’ in 2017 by Sweden.

Note to self: Maybe should post this again when its actually winter – not spring!

Blackbirds singing out of hours

The NHS at 3am on 31 March 2017 – Thursday night (not even a weekend and the wait time is 6 hours)

Had to visit A&E at 3 am last night. Leaving the house and getting in the car in the dark, a night strangely still and warm for late March. There was a blackbird singing in our garden, a blackbird singing in the dead of night. The streets were so clear and quiet, an unsettling mood enhanced by the sound of an Agnes Obel song on the CD player. L___ said it looked “Spooky like a zombie apocalypse”. “Ah, but without the zombies” I replied.

No problem parking at the hospital of course, not the usual stress of trying to find a space whilst being potentially late for an appointment. Through the car park, another Blackbird singing. I heard somewhere that some birds sing at night because they’re confused by our bright lights – like the baby turtles going the wrong way away from the sea after hatching.

A very thin woman in spotty pyjamas was smoking outside the entrance to A&E, she threw down her butt end, still burning, on the pavement outside the door. Inside was mostly quiet, the fluorescent hum of machines and some people mumbling in the waiting room. Checked in at the desk, the usual questions: name, date of birth, and what’s wrong. In the waiting room about six people in various states of pain and consciousness, one hunched over his comments clipboard by the window, chin resting on hand. Was he asleep or just wishing he was? Not sure how you could sleep in these hard metal chairs. A woman’s back in front of us, ringletted dark hair, wide shoulders. A man in a hospital wheelchair with his leg raised, bare footed like he’d been barefootin’ – but actually quite unlikely to dance as his foot looked all shiny and swollen.

The nurse called L___ in for the assessment. Same questions, what school, when did you last take pain killer, on a scale of 1-10 how much pain? (9). Umm…doesn’t that depend on whether you’ve ever given birth/had a broken bone etc. It’s all relative isn’t it? To a child who’s never had anything serious (fortunately), any pain could well be a 9. Silly question.

Back to the waiting room. Some patients getting impatient. Apparently some had been there for seven hours. What? There weren’t enough doctors in the area the receptionist said. Earlier in the night we had called the 111 number and a calm doctor had explained there were no out-of-hours doctors available to see in Eastbourne tonight, the nearest were in Brighton or Hastings (20 miles away), so we’d have to go to A&E at the DGH. If you phone 111 they invariably send you to A&E.

A paediatrician called us into a side room to prod L___ and ask the same questions. Really lovely, so calm she seemed a bit sleepy. She had a soft accent, from somewhere in Europe, I wondered if she’ll be allowed to stay after this EU exit rubbish is settled. When she left the room for a moment, the door was left slightly ajar. Through it I could see the internal room, the hub of A&E, a monitor displayed an x-ray of a man’s pelvis like a ghostly butterfly pinned on a blackboard. I had forgotten that x-rays showed the flesh as well as the bone. The image was so clear, the pelvis a sketch in white on black paper, the scene etched in my memory accompanied by the steady beep of a heart monitor and the bustling of nurses and doctors (not enough) in the dead of night. Like blackbirds singing out of hours.

On our exit we checked out at the main desk, some disgruntled commotion from the waiting room, I asked if people had really been waiting for seven hours, the receptionist said they had, she kept seeing them looking like lost souls. She remarked that it had been like this for several nights in a row, not sure how she remained so cheerful and friendly at this time, under these circumstances.

Inside – like a zombie apocalypse, with the zombies. Outside the blackbird still singing in the birch tree, as smooth as water flowing over cold stones.

WOMAD 2016 – One nation under a groove!

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WOMAD UK 2016 – took place at Charlton Park, Wiltshire with very little mud, much great music including John Grant. What else is there to say…

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Asian Dub Foundation, main stage awesomeness!
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Poet Murray Lachlan Young (as heard on Shaun Keaveny’s 6Music Breakfast Show)
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Lyra meeting Kate from This is the Kit after their set on the Ecotricity Stage
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Buika from Spain
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John Grant, open air stage, Friday night headliner

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as brilliant as ever
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Lyra meets John Grant. He calls her “the girl with the amazing eyes”
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Paddy Steer: The Moondog of Manchester in the Bower and Wilkins tent
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The Ecotricity stage in the Arboretum
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Baaba Maal – warm sounds from Senegal

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George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic – we got the funk!

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The Hungry Bikers ask “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?”

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Funky steward Liz
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Baloji & L’Orchestre de la Katube
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Baloji meets Lyra

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Thank you to all the excellent stewards (especially Liz) for all their care and brilliant management of the festival. As always, the disabled facilities and camping field was hosted so well and everyone went out of their way to look after us (thanks Mark and team).

Looking forward to next year!

Brexit of the Planet of the Apes

I just read this to my partner – he said that he’d had exactly the same Charlton Heston vision on Friday. I’m still struggling to comprehend how it all went so badly wrong – and finding it hard to articulate the shock and dismay I feel – so thank you for putting it into words Shadowplay. As Thom Yorke said: “It’s too late, the damage is done”

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Filming on a beach one time, I once invited an actor to pound the sand like Charlton Heston at the end of PLANET OF THE APES. He expressed reticence: “It just feels like whenever there’s sand to be pounded, the sand gets pounded.” But then he did it anyway. Some days you just want to pound sand.

This is one of them. Though I will shortly be sitting in a crowded piazza watching CASQUE D’OR for free with an audience made up of globe-trotting film fans AND random citizenry, and so life is pretty sweet if you’re me right now, my country has just voted to leave the European Union, making this sort of activity in future trickier in ways that can’t be calculated yet, and doing atrocious damage of a more serious nature.

And so I say “Damn you all to hell!”

Not you. Or you. Those guys.

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Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’ – a personal interpretation.

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Why ‘Burn the Witch‘? Why use Trumpton, and reference The Wicker Man for the video? And why now?

I have long had an interest in witchcraft, more specifically the persecution of witches in the sixteenth to the seventeenth century (and there are similarities in the fear and mass hysteria of the ‘witch hunts’ of the US in the Sixties). What is it that causes people to act in this way, and the fear and panic to grow like an epidemic? As soon as I heard Radiohead’s first track from ‘A Moon Shaped Pool‘ my interpretation fell on the current hysteria over the refugee situation, coupled with the panic of the state of the economies of Europe and the forthcoming European Referendum.

The comparison between the strange and twisted behaviour of the film ‘The Wicker Man‘ and the original idyllic innocence of the children’s animation ‘Trumpton‘ is a powerful image of what happens to society when there is fearmongering over basic human requirements – when people start to think that if you help others maybe there won’t be enough left for them. The villagers behaviour in the video is superficially normal but clues to the underlying nature are there from early in with ‘The Speared Boar‘ and the ducking stool, the construction of gallows beautifully decorated with flowers. The film ‘The Wicker Man‘ also has an apparent air of too perfect village harmony but with the sinister theme of human sacrifice and mob-mentality emerging slowly.

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One of the lines that struck me most was the “Red crosses on wooden doors” which refers to the painted marks made on the doors of plague victims, but also reminds me if the yellow stars painted by the Nazis on the doors of Jewish Residents. It also made me think of the recent situation where asylum-seekers were housed by one particular landlord agency where all the doors happened to be their corporate red. The Guardian newspaper ran the heading “Asylum seekers in north-east claim they are identifiable by red doors” These people were then easily selected for abuse. “We know where you live…

Then of course, it isn’t just Europe. As pitchfork.com points out, the town of Trumpton seems to echo a certain US politician who also holds extreme far-right political views on immigration – particularly playing on the US fear of Muslim extremists. What is so worrying is that in both cases of US and UK many people are clinging on to these suggestions with some kind of mass hysteria that seems to ‘abandon all reason‘.

Postscript: I was also reminded of a book I read some years ago, and still keep on the shelf, ‘Witchcraze‘ by Anne Llewelyn Barstow. This fascinating book examines the era where “approximately one hundred thousand persons, most of whom were women, were put to death under the guise of ‘witch hunts,’ particularly in Reformation Europe.” (Published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1994). This is well-worth a read for a very convincing feminist perspective on the witch hunts and a reminder that the mob-crowd usually persecutes the most vulnerable in society.

 

Stay in the shadows
Cheer at the gallows
This is a round up

This is a low flying panic attack
Sing a song on the jukebox that goes

Burn the witch
Burn the witch
We know where you live

Red crosses on wooden doors
And if you float you burn
Loose talk around tables
Abandon all reason
Avoid all eye contact
Do not react
Shoot the messengers

This is a low flying panic attack
Sing the song of sixpence that goes

Burn the witch
Burn the witch
We know where you live
We know where you live

What would Frida Kahlo do?

Frida Khalo by Imogen Cunningham
Frida Kahlo photographed in 1931 by Imogen Cunningham. Silver gelatin print.

 

International Women’s Day 2016

When I think of strong and inspiring women the very first person that comes to mind is the great artist and political activist Frida Kahlo. She inspires me both as a great artist, and as a person of great character and strength who overcame her constant pain and disability to keep on expressing herself through her art and lifestyle.

Frida Kahlo: a brief history

There are many excellent books about Frida, some of which I will list at the end of this post  so,  if you are interested and (assuming you don’t already know) would like to know more, you can look further into the life and works of this imaginative and inspiring artist. I give only a light history here as an introduction:

Frida Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907 in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City to parents Matilde Calderon De Kahlo, Mexican and Wilhelm Kahlo,  German. Her father was a professional photographer who compiled a photographic inventory of pre-Columbian architecture for the government under the dictator Diaz until the beginning of the Mexican Revolution when earning a living became more difficult for Frida’s family.

She identified so strongly with the Mexican Revolution that she often thought of herself as being born in 1910,the year it started. Her father was also an amateur artist and a great influence on Frida, he taught her how to use a camera, retouch and colour photographs and he lent her his box of paints when she was confined to bed after a serious tram accident in 1925. This wasn’t the first time Frida had had to spend long periods of time convalescing, she had also had a bout of Polio at six years old and was recovering for nine months during which time her right leg grew thin and her right foot was stunted in its growth. Her health was further compromised when she was involved in a serious tram accident when she was travelling home from school. The accident left her with pain and disability due to devastating spinal and pelvic injuries, so throughout her life she would have to be confined to her bed for months at a time, and took to painting whilst recumbent on an easel made for her by her father.

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Despite her injuries she continued to live a spirited and exceptionally creative existence, as well as life as an artist, she was married to the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and with him campaigned for the Mexican Communist party. She was friends with Trotsky and Andre Breton, she taught at the School of Painting and Sculpture. Frida desperately wanted to have children but the accident damaged her pelvis and womb so she was unable to carry them to term. This haunted her for the rest of her life.

There is no art more exclusively feminine, in the sense that, in order to be as seductive as possible it is only too willing to play alternately at being absolutely pure and absolutely pernicious. The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.

[Andre Breton, 1939]

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The Broken Column, 1944

One of the most compelling things about Frida’s work is the way she confronts her own suffering, and challenges the viewer with strong images of not only her pain, but also her sexuality, thus breaking the taboos of the day and dealing with her own feelings on her body. Such bravery and stoicism show her dignity and an ability to turn her pain into an expression of her own life -her fluid creativity and self-analysis expressed. Her pain was not only a physical one, but the pain caused by her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera – a notorious philanderer. The painting below expresses her pain at Diego’s many affairs which she felt wounded her like the deer.

The Wounded Deer Frida Kahlo
The Wounded Deer (The Little Deer), 1946

Sometimes, when I have to use a wheelchair or aids to help me move around when my MS or Rheumatism (both expressions of an over-excited immune system) get particularly troublesome, I think of Frida’s bravery and ability to enjoy her life despite her difficult circumstances. Such dignity, and the ability to turn her pain into her creations can only inspire me and I too find new ways of expressing myself and a new way of looking at life because of what I experience. Of course, I am lucky in that I am doing well at the moment and have no current need of the wheelchair but know if I need to use it again I can recall proud Frida and her great resilience, and also find that it helps me to understand better others who are in need.

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Frida and her surgeon, Dr Juan Farill, beside her portrait of him. [Gisele Freund 1951].

Bibliography

Frida Kahlo ‘I paint my Reality’. Christina Burros. [Publ. Thames and Hudson]

Kahlo. Andrea Kettenman. [Publ. Taschen]

A Brief History of the Selfie

I can’t imagine that this is a very original thought, and the evidence for this will be seen at the end of this post, but clearly the selfie is not a recent phenomena. I mean, we’ve been making images of ourselves since, well, since we were cavemen:

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Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Picture taken by Mariano Cecowski in 2005. (CC license)


This thought first occurred to me when I remembered images I had taken of myself about 20 years ago in the mirror using my old SLR camera. Taking a selfie wasn’t as easy as it is now, back in the 1990’s I used my Pentax SLR which used actual film which had to be developed and then an image printed from the negative before you could really see what kind of image you had taken. This may be a bit of an alien concept to my children who expect to be able to look in the viewfinder to instantly see the image that has just been taken, but it wasn’t that long ago that we had to follow this procedure every time we took a photo. I fear something of the art may have been lost in the comparative ease with which we can make images these days. Yes, I sound like a sad old person and I am not yet 50 years of age. Here are some of those selfies I took all those years ago. The first in a mirror with a strange wobbly texture in a hotel room in Florence when I was on holiday with my sister travelling round Italy in 1992. I think I’d just washed my hair. The second is a bit later with a very fetching white face-mask.

Early selfie - Florence Early selfie - facemask

Artists have used themselves as models since forever, partly I think because this is an artist’s  model who doesn’t need to be paid, won’t get bored before you do, is always available, and can be manipulated to be what you want to portray at any time. This is evident in the work of Frida Kahlo, one of my absolute favourite artists ever. I admire her for many reasons, those who know of her will be aware that this Mexican artist started getting seriously painting whilst ill with Polio when just a child, and then when bedridden after a serious tram accident that nearly killed her – and continued her amazing and brave examination of her own image until she died in 1954. There’s an interesting reflection on her life and work on this blog: Leaving Evidence. Frida said of her self-portraits:

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”  –Frida Kahlo

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Another artist who interested me when at art college was Cindy Sherman, an American photographer and film director whose photographic self-portraits examined her own nature, and that of women in general. I don’t think I’m explaining this too well so I’ll borrow the words of an article on her work in the ArtHistoryArchive.

As in her photographs, Cindy Sherman creates a whole new world, which slightly resembles the one we know, but which operates on its own, bizarre terms. Office Killer is a highly creative work that defies easy definition: it is art and it is camp, it is both within the genre and a self-conscious comment on it, it is horrifying and it is funny. But like every Cindy Sherman creation, it is like nothing any of us has seen before.

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Whilst at WOMAD music festival I started taking snaps of people creating their own selfies – the poses and contortions required to get a good shot was kind of interesting, especially if you don’t have one of those extending selfie sticks.

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I started this post 10 days ago – I’ve been a bit busy with stuff in between and didn’t get to finish it. So, of course I realise I was too late (as usual) to sound at all original when my partner shared this Facebook post with me today:

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6Music Celebrates Libraries on “Read a Book Day”

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Manchester Central Library (Image taken from Wikipedia and attributed to Stevo1000 not me. Thanks Stev01000).
I know you’re all such fans of 6Music as I am – so I expect you already know about this but just in case: 6Music are doing a ‘6Music Celebrates Libraries’ broadcast today for ‘Read a Book Day’ and they are live from Manchester Central library
NOW. If you missed it – or missed the beginning section from 1pm they had authors such as Kate Mosse and Mark Billingham saying what libraries mean to them and choosing a track to play. The second part is Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour with Phil Selway drummer of Radiohead, and other guests such as Stephen Morris, the drummer of New Order at the library doing stuff. Listen – it’s good! If you’d like to hear it again then go to the BBC iPlayer and you can. Go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music