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Our cultural lives in 2014

As we ring in a new year it is time to look back on what inspired in books, music and movies over the past 12 months

ANGELOS ANASTASIOU, Reporter

Book of the year: Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises by Timothy Geithner.
One of those rare gems that delivers exactly what it promises, Geithner’s book offers fascinating insights into the chaotic goings-on of his stint as US Treasury Secretary during Barack Obama’s first term. Kudos also to his ghost-writer: the book reads like a breeze, to novice and expert alike. In the world of economics and high finance, long words and endless acronyms are part of the cult – how refreshing, then, that such an authoritative book would liken the job of Treasury Secretary to a popular TV show (House, MD, made famous for its protagonist’s tendency to reduce every moral dilemma and ethical consideration down to its practical meaning). Then again, that’s a testament to Geithner’s own knack for stripping hugely complex matters down to the bare – and strictly meaningful – essentials.

Film of the year: Gone Girl. David Fincher is a known quantity, and the script for the cinematic version of Gillian Flynn’s masterpiece was written by, well, Gillian Flynn, so the chances of things going awry were slim right off the bat. She had to rearrange some stuff to address the Stephen King Problem (my own hypothesis on why most movie adaptations of Stephen King’s novels suck so hard: transforming the literary imagery and ambience to which he devotes so many pages into fleeting celluloid pictures can be the mother of all chimeras), and cut some other stuff to avoid the yawning-audience problem, but she did a helluva job. Plus, she also got lucky in casting the main characters perfectly: Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne is unexpectedly superb, and Ben Affleck had to play an idiot in Nick Dunne, so it all worked out great for everyone.

feature-6and7-2-The Vaccines
The Vaccines

Album of the year: as yet untitled by The Vaccines. There is an urgent need for bands to change with every album – grow, mature, mellow – that I’ve never quite understood. (The Ramones never changed, and they were hilarious all the way until too many of them died to keep going.) After a roaring intro album and a sizzling follow-up, The Vaccines proved that that’s all they were ever aiming for: hilarity. Like their forefathers 40 years ago, they realised that not much is worth taking seriously, and they dressed up that powerful truth with loud guitars and silly vocals. The title of their upcoming new album isn’t out yet, but proudly defiant tracks like ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’, ‘Norgaard’ and ‘Teenage Icon’ set the scene for yet another delicious slice of clever idiocy. It’s just a shame they weren’t born 40 years ago – their rivalry with the Ramones could have produced magic; or chaos.

ELENI COUREA, Intern

Books: When you’re doing a politics degree (I’m a second-year at King’s College, Cambridge), huge volumes of Rousseau’s Social Contract and Hume’s Essays take a lot of time out of your novel-reading. Assuming you’re not interested in the nature of man and government according to 18th-century philosophers, therefore, I’m going to recommend a book I read last year: And the Mountains Echoed, by the legendary Khaled Hosseini. Set in Afghanistan, with side stories in Paris and Tinos, Hosseini has once again proved himself to be a storytelling genius with this 400-page-long poignant masterpiece. If it doesn’t reduce you to tears at some point, I’d like to hear from you.

Films/TV: At the top of my list is Boyhood, a film shot intermittently over the period of eleven years, which traces the life of a boy from the ages of six to eighteen. The very concept behind Boyhood offers a refreshing change from the usual hastily-produced Hollywood blockbuster – a reminder that film is, above all, a form of art. In the words of a friend who’s just begun his studies at LSE, “any young adult will instantly relate to this brilliant film and realise that they are, in fact, not that special”.

Music: I desperately want to plug a new, upcoming artist, who goes by the name Hozier. My eagerness to promote him is slightly dampened by the fact that his lead single, ‘Take Me To Church’, is currently a part of that eternally looping playlist on everyone’s favourite radio station, Kiss FM 89.0. I don’t want to be a hipster and claim to have listened to him before it was cool (there, I said it), but ‘Take Me To Church’ is just one excellent song on an excellent album and an excellent array of EPs. I suggest that you listen to ‘From Eden’, ‘Work Song’ and ‘Sedated’, if not his whole debut album, titled Hozier and freshly released in October 2014. You’ll discover a soulful kind of indie rock, muddled with elements of blues and Americana music.

ALEXANDER McCOWAN, Restaurant Reviewer

Books: An excellent year for the diligent bookworm, with time to spare on a Saturday morning at the Cathedral bookshop that provided me with the autobiography of Robert Baer, the CIA agent who was portrayed by George Clooney in the film Syriana. According to him, the Agency is run by the same group of self-serving incompetent bureaucrats that dominate all such organisations and therefore we shouldn’t worry – or should we?

Another treasure was the rip-snorting Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov, a brilliant analysis for the scientifically challenged. A disappointment was the Stasi Files by Anthony Glees that claimed to be an exposé of East Germany’s secret operations in Britain and their ‘useful fools’, but proved to contain nothing that wasn’t already known. In tune with the anniversary I re-read AJP Taylor’s First World War and found that after 50 years the little man was far less impressive than when first encountered: too much Taylor. Previously I had only read the Small Island book by Bill Bryson, and had ignored him since; however, two recent finds, Shakespeare: The World as Stage and A Walk in the Woods, provided perfect bedtime reading, the former written in such a cogent style it puts many of the laboured and polemic academic offerings in the shade.

Another great treat this year has been the regular delivery of The London Review of Books, a gift from my friend Colin Smith, the military historian. Last week’s pages contained in the diary section the report of an undercover journalist who penetrated the ranks of the odious Golden Dawn party in Athens; very revelatory. Current reading: Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe; this is probably the first example of ‘faction’ in the English language; justly regarded as his finest work.

Films/TV: Visually not a good year, being pinned to the dreadful PrimeTel. They offer something laughingly called BBC Entertainment which is surely one of those oxymorons, up there with ‘trust me I’m a lawyer’. What is it with the English, they pay fortunes to watch some stand-up cretin hurl obscenities at them while they fall about giggling; their soaps are appalling: what is the obsession with doctors and hospitals? How can anyone watch Eastenders without wanting to trepan themselves? Has anyone involved in the scripts ever worked in Casualty or met an Eastender? I doubt it. Pure trash.

This year I watched two series on DVD: The Vikings and The Newsroom, both quite smashing. On film The Grand Budapest Hotel and Locke, the first, great fun and the second weirdly compelling; Tom Hardy, very versatile actor. My friend Nened has insisted I watch Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev after Christmas dinner.

Music: On the music front I am once again beholden to Chrystalla, who floods the house with the best offering from Swiss Radio classics and to our dear friends Bojana and Nened whose timely delivery of the magnificent Hilliard Ensemble’s Transeamus will transform Christmas listening. My granddaughter Charlotte gave me her latest disc of jazz standards, which naturally gets preferential air-play.

ALIX NORMAN, Features Writer

Books: My personal library numbers in the thousands; testament to the fact that I’ll happily devour anything from Austen to Zola. But 2014 for me was less eclectic than usual. Because, with the sudden and unexpected death of legendary sci-fi writer Iain M Banks in 2013, I undertook a self-imposed homage. Acknowledged sci-fi master and unparalleled wordsmith, Banks has been my constant literary companion since I discovered The Player of Games on the proverbial dusty shelf in a second-hand bookshop: a writer to be revered, recommended, read and re-read. Which meant most of my 2014 (even the bits where I should have been working) was spent craving Mr Banks.

Films/TV: I’m a bilbliophile, and as au fait with film as is Katie Price with string theory. Nevertheless, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Ender’s Game all made it onto my 2014 watch list. The first for its exquisite escapism, the second for the striking imagery and delightfully zany plot, and the last because – well – the book on which it’s based is so strategically incisive that the text is recommended reading among Navy SEALs. Bother, I’m back on books again.

Music: Musically speaking, I’m a classical girl. Yes, there are the odd few pop songs that rock my world, but mostly I’m mad about Mozart. And Beethoven. And Bach. Though I did discover Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: Mass for Peace in the last year, and lost myself completely in ‘Palladio Allegreto’ for several months (apologies to anyone I interviewed in the first half of 2014; that glazed look was nothing to do with you – I was prisoner to the muse). In a similar vein, 2Cellos will no doubt continue to hold me musical captive long into 2016.

PRESTON WILDER, Film/TV reviewer

Books: Reading took a hit in 2014, no doubt about it. Not reading per se: I’m imbibing more journalism than ever – almost all of it online, aggregated through websites like www.aldaily.com – but I no longer read novels like I used to, unless I’m on planes or on holiday. My first encounter with Anthony Powell (A Question of Upbringing, only my third novel of 2014) is currently going well – but the book I dipped into most often last year was Cultural Amnesia by Clive James, a collection of rambling, witty, beautifully-turned biographical essays on persons both famous (Tacitus, Mao Zedong) and lesser-known, like Egon Friedall “who graduated to the twin status of cabaret star and polymath” or Alfred Polgar, “the unsurpassable exemplar of German prose in modern times”. A lovely lament for “European humanist culture”, made all the more poignant by the fact that Mr James is himself gravely ill – and may soon belong to the past, like his essay subjects and my own book-reading habits.

Films/TV: Films are what I do – even more so in 2014, because this was the year I made a film in addition to watching and reviewing hundreds of them. Hard to choose one in particular (unless it’s my own film, The Magic Beans, hopefully coming soon to a screen near you) – but I keep going back to my second viewing of the sepulchrally hypnotic Only Lovers Left Alive at Cyprus Film Days in April, the end credits rolling and almost the entire audience sitting rapt in their seats, unwilling to break the spell. Thanks for not turning on the lights, Cyprus Film Days peeps.

Music: This was the year I finally figured out how to follow music, finding a website (prettymuchamazing.com) that largely reflects my own tastes (heavy on the synth-pop, light on the hip-hop) – and finding my Song of the Year in ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ by Future Islands, which I must’ve heard five dozen times in 2014; it still makes me grin like a Cheshire Cat on opium. Other favourites in a memorable year: ‘Red Eyes’ by The War on Drugs, ‘Just Kids’ by The Furs, ‘Johnny and Mary’ covered by Todd Terje, feat. Bryan Ferry. Major non-favourite: the ubiquitous ‘Happy’.

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