There's something bittersweet about delving into a favourite author's early work. It's pretty exciting to see how an author has grown over the years;...moreThere's something bittersweet about delving into a favourite author's early work. It's pretty exciting to see how an author has grown over the years; what talents they always had, what weaknesses they have or haven't lost, which aspects were seeded long before they were developed.
But on the other, more emotive and less rational, hand; what tainted greatness, how boringly humanising, how utterly demythologising. I mean, it's really comfortable to believe that greatness is something separate, inherent and unchanging; that it is emergent, changable and the outcome of (shudder) work is far more awkward.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a great example of this bubble-bursting, but an even better example of the growth of an author. For all it's weaknesses, it is still undeniably from the same hand as The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Kavalier & Clay (although I know there's people who don't agree with that).
Thematically Pittsburgh is completely on-canon. It's almost a mission statement for the rest of his ouvre to date, complete with a nod to the world of genre in its hidden mafia background. The weaknesses mentioned are not thematic, they're in the prose and structure.
Much of it is overwritten, and the cleverness is pushed too far forward. The structure feels somehow naive, complete with unsatisfying but overly-ended ending. 'But he was only 23 when he wrote it!', some might say. And while that is fantastically impressive, it's not an excuse.
A lot of the novel's strength, its perfect render of the intensity of youth, are due to Chabon's age when writing it; if he gets the praise for age-related pros, he can take the criticism for age-related cons. 23 is not an excuse.
My favourite thing about this novel is what's wrong with it. Unsatisfying structure and unwieldly prose? This is Chabon! Those are among his greatest strengths, in recent works. And greatness as the outcome of (shudder) work is not so bad after all. (less)
Like with every Brookmyre I've ever read, all I could think of after finishing this was how soon I could get another Brookmyre to read. If I saw a gra...moreLike with every Brookmyre I've ever read, all I could think of after finishing this was how soon I could get another Brookmyre to read. If I saw a granny reading one in the street within an hour of finishing this, I would have robbed her. These books are drugs.
I think I know why. There's a brutal humour, cleverness and charm in Brookmyre's writing, but there's something else too. A third of the way through All Fun And Games, I faced up to the truth that I was reading a thriller. There. I said it.
I don't tend to read thrillers or crime novels. And maybe it's because my system is so unused to them that when I'm tricked into reading one via a very non-genre example, they hit hard. I'm like a teetotaller who's had his water bottle switched with Vodka.
It's good news, I think. As long as I don't become an alcoholic and only read high-percentage books which get you drunk instantly and straightforwardly. It's good that I have that option, now; sometimes you need it. Brookmyre is my crime/thriller writer, and I can go there whenever I choose.
Which is why it's worrying news that I saw his latest on the New In table at Waterstones yesterday, and it was by 'Chris' not 'Christopher,' and was boasting a 'new direction.' The new direction sounded like it was focusing on the serious-crime side, and forgetting the humour and blistering originality that first got me interested.
I'm ten Brookmyre-novels away from catching up, anyway, so it's a long time before I'll have to explore the new direction. I just hope this isn't a gateway drug situation.(less)
After the massive, incomprehensible, hilarious and bruising Darkmans, Nicola Barker decided to write an almost linear, almost straightforward novel. T...moreAfter the massive, incomprehensible, hilarious and bruising Darkmans, Nicola Barker decided to write an almost linear, almost straightforward novel. Then she found herself disappearing down 27 separate fantastic and obtuse tangents within that relatively straightforward, arced novel. Then she went nuts, got rid of the original novel, and just kept the tangents.
I have no evidence for any of that, of course, but that's the story I back-engineered from Burley Cross Postbox Theft. It is, if anything, more marvellously scattered than Darkmans; Barker plays on the esoteric, and makes the lack of connections as much a braggable feature of the novel as the rare/barely there connections.
The conceit of BCPT is that a bag of letters, stolen from the rusting postbox, is found abandoned by the criminal in a back alley. It's these letters, along with bookending missives from the two police officers trying to solve the crime, that make up the book. It's the perfect plan for Barker, who gets to flex her fearsome muscles in constructing wild and vibrant voices. Within the 27 letters, there is enough room to roam far, far away; and enough constriction to keep the book from ballooning into a four-inch spine.
The lack of exceptional length is really important. Because not only does Barker roam/tangent/scatter/explode more than ever before, but she also ties the whole thing together. That she even tried for an 'ending' completely surprised me -- I was fully expecting a non-ending to match the non-narrative before it. But end it she did, surpassing anything I originally expected from this book.
I demanded the impossible after reading Darkmans in January. I wanted Barker -- or anyone, really -- to make virtuoso explosivity of prose the heart of a novel, to completely disprove the need for an actual ending by being so spectacular -- and then to give me the ending to match the spectacular body. And here it is, the impossible, Burley Cross Postbox Theft.
Now I want the sort of rare steak that makes me irresistable to women, and leaves next weeks lottery numbers written in blood on the plate. (less)
I like reading books in series, but they tend to be the exceptions among my library. When it happens, I am usually acutely aware of the fact that the...moreI like reading books in series, but they tend to be the exceptions among my library. When it happens, I am usually acutely aware of the fact that the book I am reading is one of a series; and it will be a series I follow, buy, read, sequentially.
Nothing about Atwood's The Year of the Flood screamed series at me, so none of the above was going on. If somebody had suggested to me that the book was in some way a follow on, I would have laughed, a little cruelly, perhaps, in their face. Such was my confidence.
So, obviously, it is a follow on, after all. Amazon reviewers (where were you before I read this?) make it very clear that this novel contains spoilers for Oryx and Crake -- the next of Atwood's novels, coincidentally, on my random invisible read-next list.
It doesn't really matter. The books are, as far as I can tell, free-standing. Certainly, the narratives are separate, until near the end, and any character overlap didn't stop me enjoying The Year of the Flood independently. And there's a lot to enjoy, all round: Atwood's fully realised, marvellously embellished future world; her serious playfulness; the inherent page-momentum; the messiness.
So it doesn't really matter. Only, of course, it slightly does. Because as I read, I became suspicious. Engaged as I was with the novel, a layer of my attention was taken by the Mystery of the Possible Prequel. And my attention couldn't afford the loss; the book already contains one attention-splicer -- the authorially indulgent sermons and songs, which manage to punctuate (but little else) the more interesting bits.
I accuse myself of cowardice. I lost a good few days to this novel, but it didn't quite reach the heights/hit the mark/pick the metaphor that I was hoping for. And here I am, trying to blame its failure on my own reading-order cock up. I don't think this stands up in Book Court.
How much does readerly context affect a novel's percieved quality? I mean, do I like books more when I'm on holiday? In the bath? In years Norwich City get promoted to the flipping Premier League? (less)
I didn't believe in schadenfreude until I read this. For example: even though it's the funniest show on earth, I have to force myself to sit through a...moreI didn't believe in schadenfreude until I read this. For example: even though it's the funniest show on earth, I have to force myself to sit through an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm: I don't get any pleasure from other people's misfortune.
But most of these stories of awkwardness, disappointment and embarrassment gave me a warm feeling inside, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's jealousy? These authors have 'made it', so they somehow deserve it. Maybe it's optimism? If these idiots can make it, so can I. Or maybe it's recognition. These particular neuroticisms are mine as well! I've certainly picked the right ambition.
There's another pleasure here, besides schadenfreude: I love reading about writers. I read about writers all the time, but those accounts are usually about very successful writers, or newly practising writers, and are sometimes fictional. The writers and poets in Mortification cover the wide gamut of success, but are mostly from the obscure middle: they write, do tours and do readings, but they are not well-known.
For someone who wants to be a writer but is scared of success, it's great to know that this strangely obscure middle exists, and functions, and is even fairly well-populated. It's less great to realise how few of it's members I've ever heard of -- and I am a representative of the bookier end of the public spectrum.Maybe I do want success.
Still. It's good to know writers spend the times between writing getting fully immersed in mortification, over-analyzing the minutest moments in their lives, and honing every minor event into a perfectly sleek anecdote. Once I sell a novel, I'm there. I won't have to change at all. (less)
I know they made a film out of this in the 90s, but I can't get my head around that. Not because it's an unfilmable mess; I have no trouble imagining...more I know they made a film out of this in the 90s, but I can't get my head around that. Not because it's an unfilmable mess; I have no trouble imagining this as a film. Almost the opposite. I can picture the film exceptionally well, because I've already seen Withnail & I half a dozen times.
Two drugged and drunk friends go on a crazy roadtrip and mourn the passing of the 1960s, and all those years entailed. Yep, that's the same story. As Withnail and Fear and Loathing are both at least 'based on' true events, though, I'm not calling plagiarism (except in the way that all non-fiction is plagiarism, by stealing bits from real life.)
The fictional truth/factual nonsense angle is undiluted in Fear and Loathing. This is, after all, the textbook example of Gonzo journalism (it was only in the Post Script material in this Harper Perennial edition that I learned that Gonzo journalism wasn't Thompson's own coinage.)
Maybe the lure of Gonzo journalism was contextual to its time. From my perspective, though, there is little that is surprising or original in it. I'd be massively surprised if it really did only take hold in the late 60s -- it's a fundamental tool of storytelling (or truth-telling, whatever) -- just having an identity crisis.
That's not to say Hunter Thompson's own take on the mongrel approach is not frantically exciting and readable. Fear and Loathing paints a very different picture of the end-of-the-decade malaise than that found in the rain-filled English Withnail. Thompson is looking back, mourning the loss of the bigger thing; the movement, the intangible moment when everyone who was there was part of the same cresting wave. Withnail's journey is a much more personal one; looking forward, but not with positivity. He is staring down the barrel of a hopeless life, the decade after Hope reached an all time international high.
How much of that difference in perspective is genuine, and how much is some Gonzo insinuation from the weather the two stories both fight and embody, I wouldn't care to say.(less)
I'm the King of the Castle is about the deep isolation and injustice possible in a child's world. Susan Hill is clearly aiming at fear in all its inca...moreI'm the King of the Castle is about the deep isolation and injustice possible in a child's world. Susan Hill is clearly aiming at fear in all its incarnations, but the only fear it really captures is that of being right in an adult world that is wrong; of being misjudged by everyone around you; of having nobody who shares your particular sanity.
Being a child in the circumstances of Charles Kingshaw is to live in a system that makes no sense; a world in which you need to speak out, but has no mechanism for your voice to be heard. The real fear is here. Forget the crow, the moths, the bully and the forest; think Franz Kafka.
I was drawn in to the helpless nightmare Kingshaw lives in at Waring, in time, despite the quite horrendous comma abuse throughout the novel. Every page is littered with twice as many commas as it needs, separating every minor pause of rhetoric, or failing to splice what should be separate items sufficiently. Opening a page at random -- 82:
He wanted to go wild, with the frustration of it, everything was against him.
By referring to it, he might manage to annoy Hooper, though he doubted even that, and in any case, he would never know for sure, Hooper kept a bland face.
Maybe they're not too bothersome on their own, but the sheer cumulative mass of them is overbearing (and there were far worse examples than on that particular page).
Still, Susan Hill can do no wrong in my eyes, for one reason. She has succeeded where almost every author I have read this year has failed, and got an ending spot on. This book ends at the final event of the inevitable chain. It does not have a change of heart; it does not undermine itself, out of authorially insecurity; it does try one clever step too many, out of authorial self-confidence.
Listen: this is what is missing in most books I read. Endings are zeniths, and endings are nadirs. Nothing else. (less)
The Sunset Limited is Cormac McCarthy without the thick, trippy prose, so it's no surprise that it's both accessible and fantastic.
It's billed as fait...moreThe Sunset Limited is Cormac McCarthy without the thick, trippy prose, so it's no surprise that it's both accessible and fantastic.
It's billed as faith vs. reason, but that's not what's going on here. The only point it makes about religion is that the 'debate' becomes emphatically overshadowed by personal temperament when people reach their nadir.
It's testament to McCarthy's skill that he can write a novel even loosely formed around faith against reason and neither bore me nor piss me off. His insert-superlative-here ear for dialogue and his expert balance of humour and weight make this impossible to dislike (prove me wrong....)
There's another dichotomy McCarthy flirts with here, given by the character names: White is the suicidal book-loving intellectual (cheer the fuck up); Black is the uneducated, people-loving ex-con. I don't buy it. Ot at least, I don't think there's anything invested in that distinction, and no comment made by it. It's a cultural shortcut, maybe.
The real divide is opposing temparements, not opposing ideologies, beliefs, intellects or cultures. Any opposition they have in thought is the fruit of their opposition in nature. The Sunset Limited is two boldly drawn characters, brought together for an inevitably brief visit. They are each compelling and real, and it is they who make this book pass far too quickly.
I haven't seen the TV adaption, but I intend to. I'm told that White is more sypathetic than he is originally written, and based on the casting and trailers, I already agree. Too sympathetic, I fear.
Because the real dichotomy at the heart of The Sunset Limited isn't faith and reason, or head and heart, or black and white; and definitely not Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson. It's warmth vs. cold, and hope vs. despair. You can't warm up White without changing the whole thing.
My favourite part is the end. The outcome between hope and despair. I won't spoil it, but there's certain things about the nature of hope and the nature of despair that make only one ending is logically possible. (less)
Lodge is a novelist fascinated by novel-writing. Nevermind the fictional biographies he's started writing about his heroes (Henry James and HG Wells,...moreLodge is a novelist fascinated by novel-writing. Nevermind the fictional biographies he's started writing about his heroes (Henry James and HG Wells, so far); nevermind the essays on the components of fiction that he should be more famous for; the real proof of his fascianation lies in his novels themselves.
Therapy sees a successful scriptwriter experimenting with form. Druing his journey of self-discovery, he writes a journal, a narrative memoir, and quasi-fictional accounts of himself through the eyes of his friends. He experiments with elements of voice, deconstructs the amount of truth in fiction (or the other way around), talks us through the production and revision of the text we are currently reading, and even even finds time to analyse some Kierkergaard.
This game-playing is entertaining, and paradoxically genuine. This is a trademark of Lodge; he makes the writing so much a part of the book that it can never seem contrived; it is so openly a written thing that any moments of writerly feeling work to include you rather than distance you from the subject. It's the same trick he pulls in Deaf Sentence, but here it is central to the arc of the novel (like in Thinks...)
That arc is not a new one. Tubby Passmore has Internal Derangement of the Knee (medical speak for I Don't Know) and Internal Derangement of everything else, too. He begins searching, doesn't find what he is looking for, but finds a more acceptable version of himself along the way.
So far, so what. Lodge has a huge amount of fun on the way, and it's impossible not to enjoy his comic expertise, but it's nothing out of the ordinary. What makes Therapy such a treat, especially for anybody who writes or is intrigued by writing, is the parrallel. Passmore's journey is exactly as eye-opening, accidental and self-finding as is his experiments with telling it.
It's not just the old divide of the story vs. the telling; it's the complete blurring of that division. If you take away the experiments in the telling, you change the story crucially. They're at least completely co-dependant; more likely, they're one and the same thing.
Buster Keaton's life follows a similar curve to that of Charlie Chaplin, though never in quite the same way. There is trauma and vaudeville in childho...moreBuster Keaton's life follows a similar curve to that of Charlie Chaplin, though never in quite the same way. There is trauma and vaudeville in childhood, a few years of excelling in early films, until the artist is recognised and indulged.
There follows a short period of Golden Era: each is completely in charge of their own films, creating every aspect, and making films that are still regarded as masterpieces 80 years on.
This period is exceptional, in both lives. For In Our Hospitality, The Navigator and The General, Buster Keaton has complete control of every shot. He writes as he shoots, directs as he acts, and frequently risks his life. This singularity of vision, unmatched anywhere outside of an author's relationship with a novel (and even then...) is what pushes these films into greatness.
The fall happens to them both in different ways. Chaplin, having cashed in, spends the rest of his life trying to be accepted by critics. Keaton, who always had a more esoteric, less-monied appeal, cannot afford such a luxury, and is forced to become a studio man; then a bit-part man; then a gag-writer.
The fundamental difference between the two, that made Chaplin the more succesful and Keaton by far my preferred choice, is simple. Chaplin was a comedian who wanted to be an artist. Keaton was an artist who wanted to be a comedian.
Chaplin always had popular appeal, but his pretentions could never be truly fulfilled; his story ends, career wise, with him still coming down from that long-ago peak. Keaton always made a unique and timeless product, but his aspirations were harder to fill when he had to compromise on method, for reasons of economy (read: shortsighted studios).
Buster's lifegraph does turn up again at the end, as he is rediscovered and critically hailed. He cannot return to that Golden Era of film-making, but that same Era is now, looking back, eminently justified.
The world of self-help is thick with urban myths and intuitively reasonable claims, and it's easy to find yourself nodding along to something that, un...moreThe world of self-help is thick with urban myths and intuitively reasonable claims, and it's easy to find yourself nodding along to something that, under less emotive inspection, is fatuous.
Wiseman clearly loves that sort of inspection. In :59 Seconds he takes us on a guided tour through all the big names in folk psychology; happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, stress, relationships, decision making, parenting, and personality. And as he guides, he rigorously evaluates, with a big grin on his face.
Through a mixture of wide research and his own often unusual experiments, he comes up with a few surprises.
Positive thinking is a mixed bag; rewards make people work less hard; two minds are not better than one; playing hard to get is counterproductive; taking out anger on a punch-bag (for example) makes you angrier; and many more. Wiseman unmasks these fallacies with infectious zeal and smirky humour (and he is very funny: I first knew of Wiseman by seeing him perform magic/psychology/stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe.)
It's not all debunking, though. The book came about when Wiseman was asked by a friend about happiness; when Wiseman launched into an essay-length answer, his friend interrupted him. I'm busy -- are there any tips that take less than a minute to tell me about?
These tips range from the practical (put a picture of a baby in your wallet, and it is much more likely to be returned if you lose it) to the common sense (stop procrastinating by starting the task you want to finish) to the stupid (grip a pencil between you teeth without touching it with your lips, so you smile, so you feel better) to the creepy (touch someone on the upper arm and they are more likely to say yes to whatever you ask).
There are dozen more tips in :59 Seconds to statistically improve your chances of success in various fields. There are even one or two I might use. Wiseman writes smartly enough to hide the fact that many of his offerings are a little underseasoned, though, and require at least a pinch of salt to be palatable.