Accidental Intertexuality

As the old saying goes: “When in Greece, read lot of books.” (It might not be an actual saying, but I still think it’s the way to go.)

On our two-week holiday I managed to read a staggering seven books. Which really isn’t too shabby, if you ask me. Also something rather amusing happened while I was reading, which is the main reason why I’ll give you five of them in one single humongous monster review.

The one I started off with was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. I assume many of you know the movie that was based on this book, but Iet me say a few words about the content anyway. For one thing, this is a narrative non-fiction book, not a crime novel, as many of you might think. While it somewhat centers around the murder of Danny Hansford by eccentric antiques dealer/millionaire Jim Williams and the subsequent trial, it is just as much about the city of Savannah and many of its more peculiar inhabitants. While I enjoyed the story of Williams, who is sad and inscrutable in equal measure, I was looking forward to the other characters just as much. The citizens of Savannah, at least those that Berendt chooses to write about, are one and all fantastically peculiar. It is mesmerizing, though admittedly in some cases more like watching a train wreck than like anything else. There’s the guy who supposedly possesses enough poison to kill the entire city, the society lady that hasn’t left her bed in years… and the Lady Chablis. Oh, and what a character the Lady Chablis is. She is easily the best thing about the book, and while I am willing to believe that some of the anecdotes in the book might have been altered to suit the author’s needs, I believe every word that is written about her. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean, for Chablis plays herself and she is, as Chablis would say, fabulous. All in all I highly recommend the book. It paints a vivid and lively picture of Savannah and all the strange creatures that reside within, and it manages the all-too-rare feat of being suddenly, genuinely touching when you least expect it.

Next up was The Fear Index, by Robert Harris. Let me say, on an unrelated note, that I love Robert Harris. The man has written three wonderful novels set in Ancient Rome, books which I wholeheartedly recommend both for their engaging stories and their factual accuracy (Ancient Rome being a subject about which I know a thing or two). He’s also a delight to listen to, as we found out the other month, when we accidentally stumbled upon a reading of his at our local bookstore. Now, if you think that this gushing praise of Harris is the lead-up to tearing his latest book into shreds, I’ll have to disappoint you. The Fear Index is a book about the current economic crisis. It is a book about capitlism, and not a positive one at that. (Most chapters open up with quotes from Darwin’s Origin of Species, which I found extra creepy as I was once forced to sit through an exceptionally misguided student presentation that tried to link the one to the other.) It is also the story of a physicist, Dr. Alex Hoffman, and of the hedge fund that he has created. The novel opens up with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” The quote is fitting and not accidental, because The Fear Index explores themes of creation and responsibility. I forgive you if you now think that this is a book about an evil AI gone rogue, I had similar misgivings at one point or another, but let me assure you that it isn’t that simple at all. And I think this is where I should stop, lest I give away too much about the plot.

Thirdly (and this is where the funny bit starts) I read Solar, by Ian McEwan. Now, in all fairness this one should get a proper review of its own, because it was maybe not the most stupid, but the most intellectually offensive book that I read on this holiday. I’ll try to be brief. Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist past his prime (both physically and in the field of physics). Beard is, easily, the most dislikable character I’ve ever read about. He’s a womanizer, an egoist, lazy, arrogant and delusional. I could go on for a while, but I fear that all you will say is “duh, it’s a satire, of course he’s dislikable.” And yes, of course this is a work of fiction, and of comic fiction at that. Who’s to say that the dislikable prick can’t be the one who saves the world from global warming? And yet, and yet… it leaves a sour aftertaste. McEwan makes Beard so incompetent, so gross, that it seems like anything he touches is, by association, vile. Our protagonist treats his science like he treats his women: with studied, opportunistic contempt. I would have to re-read the book and write a far more detailed analysis to bring forth more satisfactory arguments than these, but all in all Solar seemed to ridicule climate change more than it warned of its dangers. That, on top of the unfair (and not to mention highly ironic) jabs at the futility of art in the face of such a calamity and the ham-handed attempts at taking on feminism (which backfire mightily and for all the wrong reasons in my opinion), makes for an unsatisfactory reading adventure. Or maybe I just don’t enjoy grossness as much as I should.

Oh yes, the funny, I almost forgot. At one point in Solar the protagonist, Michael Beard, is at a party. And, while sipping a glass of Chablis, he idly quotes Darwin’s Origin of the Species to impress some poor female or other. And I thought, what a funny coincidence… and the protagonist is a physicist too… weirder and weirder.

Book the fourth: Blonde Bombshell, by Tom Holt. I have some authors, Tom Holt among them, that I read primarily out of some sense of obligation to my younger self. Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Goodkind, all these I am still reading because I stumbled upon them when I was fourteen and had no critical faculties whatsoever and I feel that I somehow owe it to myself to finish what I started (and in the case of Mr. Goodkind out of some sort of political/sadomasochistic/scientific interest.) Now, of all of the above I still find Tom Holt the most entertaining to read. True, the books are, as The Independent mildly put it, “undemanding”, and if you’ve read more than five you’ll find that there are more recurring themes than is good for them, but Holt also still manages to hit home with a lot of his jokes. And if I get a few good chuckles out of what is essentially an afternoon’s worth of reading, then I’m sort of happy. Blonde Bombshell isn’t overly complicated in terms of its plot, but still not easily summarized. Let me try: A race of canine aliens send a sentient bomb to planet Earth to destroy humanity, because we’ve been driving them insane by unwittingly sending radio waves to their planet. The bomb was preceded by another bomb, which vanished without achieving its mission objective. So the Mark II, being sentient, reasons that it should maybe figure out what happened to the Mark I before it does anything rash. Meanwhile on Earth, tech genius and multimillionaire Lucy Pavlov tries to figure out why she can’t remember anything prior to two years ago… and why she’s seeing unicorns. And then there’s George Stetchkin, an alcoholic physicist (another one!) who’s recruited by Lucy to figure it all out. And yes, he drinks Chablis in one scene, but he doesn’t like it. And then there are the two weird fellows, who might or might not be secret agents, or dogs, or maybe both. And… as I said, it’s not easily summarized. If you’re looking for an easy read with a few laughs I’d recommend Blonde Bombshell. It’s no Douglas Adams (by far) and those allergic to pop culture references might find an untimely end while reading it, but it’s far from the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not even the worst Tom Holt I’ve ever read (that dubious honour goes to A Song for Nero). It’s inoffensive and brief and not even quite as predictable as expected. And I likes me a good pop culture reference now and then, so there.

And then, after three counts of Chablis and three counts of protagonist physicists, I thought that that might be the end of weird coincidences. That’s when I realized that the last book I had picked was Matter, by Iain Banks. Which was bound to contain lots of AIs and bombs, and even bomb AIs. And it did.

The book is part of the ongoing Culture series, which is not so much a continous story as a setting. I won’t say that this is the best Culture book that I’ve read so far. I won’t even say that I particularly liked Matter. My opinion about the book is a bit of a wibbly-wobbly grey area, I’m afraid. I like the story. I adore the scientific concepts it introduces and the science-is-our-friend-attitude which permeates the Culture books in general. I like the bits that are about people from a low-tech background entering a high-tech environment. I love the drones. If you’ve read any of the other culture books you’ll now have a vague idea of what I’m talking about. If you haven’t: do. Iain Banks’ Culture is sci-fi at its best. Whenever someone tells me that the genre contains nothing more than adolescent crap, this is what I use as a counterargument. The books are mature, philosophical, pro-science and all the while still fun. So now you’re wondering why I’m wibbly-wobbly about the book, yes? It’s because of the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, the book is still worth reading, but the ending does a few things that, in a way, seem to negate a lot of what the books says and does. And that is a shame.

So, here we are. Five books, a lot of funny coincidences. I know that if you just try hard enough you can find a pattern in just about anything, but still… creepy, no? And if nothing else, this might give you some nice ideas about what to read next.

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2010 In Books

And once again a list of all the books that I read in the last year. Some people enjoy these, I hear. It’s sorted alphabetically by author, because I’ll be buggered if I can remember the order that I read them in.

The list would be a lot longer if cookbooks counted, but alas, I have decided that they don’t. I fear “place noodles in boiling salt water and cook until al dente” doesn’t count as enough of a narrative to constitute a novel. Wish I had read more. Sigh.

2010 was the year that saw my novel finished and also the year in which I wrote a very nice short story that I hope will get published soon. It was the year in which Jonas sold his first flash game and his first articles, and when I say this it is not with envy, but with pride (and a little envy). I made graphics for Jonas’s next game and did a lot of culinary experimentation. A good year, yes, but creatively speaking still a bit of a disappointment. I could and should have done so much more. I hope that’s all going to change next year. I’ll start with this blog. More updates, more reviews and the two final installments in the Twilight Experiment. 2011 will be a creative year. And in a few months it will also stop feeling weird to type that number.

Before They Are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie
Last Argument Of Kings – Joe Abercrombie
Never Have Your Dog Stuffed – Alan Alda
Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself – Alan Alda
Consider Phlebas – Iain Banks
The Player Of Games – Iain Banks
Use Of Weapons – Iain Banks
Two Hearts – Peter S. Beagle
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
The Death Of Bunny Munroe – Nick Cave
Last Chance To See – Mark Carwardine
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
King Of The Murgos – David Eddings
Demon Lord Of Karanda – David Eddings
Sorceress Of Darshiva – David Eddings
The Seeress Of Kell – David Eddings
Belgarath the Sorcerer – David & Leigh Eddings
Polgara the Sorceress – David & Leigh Eddings
Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Seth Grahame-Smith
Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby
A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving
The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Wandering Fire – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Darkest Road – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Shining – Stephen King
Under The Dome – Stephen King
Twilight  – Stephenie Meyer
New Moon – Stephenie Meyer
Eclipse – Stephenie Meyer
Breaking Dawn – Stephenie Meyer
Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas – Judy Parkinson
I Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett
The Wilt Alternative – Tom Sharpe
Wilt On High – Tom Sharpe
Wilt In Nowhere – Tom Sharpe
Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

The Twilight Experiment: Day 1

I slide the book over the counter, cover down, and look at the cashier. A middle-aged woman – very short red hair, glasses, and the distinct air of a book-snob about her – looks back at me. My ruse hasn’t worked. She knows immediately what I’m buying. My mind is racing, imagining that the only thing that’s keeping her from saying something is the fact that the copy of Twilight that I’m about to buy is in English while she is German. I want to blurt out that I’m buying this thing, this literary abomination, for the sake of an experiment. For the sake of science, so to speak. Really quite self-sacrificial of me. But in the end I don’t say anything, not even hello/thank you/goodbye. Better to let her think I don’t speak German.

Outside of the bookstore I don’t have much time to look at the slim paperback that I just bought. I need to meet someone and I’m in a hurry. Also I’m not that keen on actually starting this little experiment of mine. Someone could get hurt.

My brain, for example.

Rewind… I’d seen Twilight: New Moon a while ago and thought that it had possibly set a new record for storyline-atrocity. But only just possibly, there’s always Bloom. Looked good though, can’t deny that. And then there was the thing with the other readers, sane people one and all, people whose judgement I trust, people who seem to have taste (you know who you are). And they had read Twilight. And New Moon. And the rest. Not only had they survived the experience, they had also said things like “reads well” or “it’s sort of fun, in a guilty pleasure kind of way”. And that planted the seed of doubt. Twilight, scourge of high fantasy, read by millions upon millions of teenagers. Was it really that bad? Did I have a right to participate in the ongoing Twilight discussion trashing without having read a single word of it? Does Bella Swan have a single redeeming feature? I don’t believe in guilty pleasure, at least not very much. If someone says something is a guilty pleasure he or she usually means that it is good, but doesn’t want to admit to thinking that in the company of others. Here in Germany Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure, see?

We have a saying in Germany which roughly translates as “eat shit, millions of flies can’t be wrong”. It doesn’t translate very well, but still serves to illustrate what is at the core of this little experiment: What if millions of flies aren’t wrong?

Back to Day 1: I meet the person I was going to meet and get a very disapproving frown when I mention what I have just done. Twilight, well actually fantasy literature as a whole, has a bad standing in Germany. Escapism, nonsense, childishness, these words are spoken much quicker and with less kindness here in the country of sheep. Intellectual people read suspense novels, because when the gardener kills Lord Adolfstein by shoving him into the paper shredder that’s, like, real, you know.

I’ve heard all of it before and gotten inured to the attacks of the literary elite by now. Still I try to explain. “It’s because I finally want to have an informed opinion. I don’t want to be talking out of my arse all the time.” Only three days later I will be ready to launch into a well-rehearsed speech on the subject of why reading Twilight was such a spiffing idea.

In the train on the way home, I open the book for the first time. I keep it on my lap, bending over in order to still be able to read. The cover of the German edition is identical to the English one; if I hold the book up like I normally would, people might notice what I’m reading.

I only skim the acknowledgements. Usually not my style, I tend to assume that authors have put some thought into whom they thank, but Stephenie Meyers’ acknowledgements are longer than some books I’ve read. It takes Jonas to point out that she thanks her “online family” at fansofrealitytv.com. That explains so much.

“I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.”

It’s not the first sentence of the book, that honour goes to something bland and incredibly convoluted, but if it were it would easily win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, probably for several years in a row. It’s just that kind of sentence. I can’t even begin to describe what is wrong with it, there’s just too much, although the part about “pleasantly looking back” certainly makes up a good deal of the overall horribleness.

Two paragraphs down, 434 pages to go. Suddenly I’m not sure if I can do this. Yet I turn the page and read on. Once I’m in the flow it isn’t too bad. The atrocities keep coming, but they somehow get drowned out by all the filler. And there’s a lot of that. Mostly descriptions of how Bella hates the world in general and human beings specifically. Such a charming, vivacious personality! I already want to adopt her. Still, the filler isn’t thick enough to submerge the very, very frequent descriptions of Edward’s attractive voice. And his attractive skin. And attractive hair. He probably also has attractive shoelaces, but before I get to that part I need to stop reading in order to get off the train. I’m glad to stop – this book is so full of attractiveness that it makes my brain ache.

I have done my scientific duty for today. It doesn’t make me feel great, but at least I don’t feel too dirty.

The Book. The Book!

I finished my novel yesterday. This is the main reason for the lack of updates to this blog, for which I apologize, but I really needed to take the time to sit down and do this.

Still not sending it to the agents, but that will come… soon.

For now just a short update on the technical specifications of Mind the Gap:

Chapters: 49 + Prologue

Total Word Count: 133694

We celebrated by ordering pizza with everything and I am still riding on a high of adrenaline and euphoria. I can not put into words how good it feels to be done with that part of the work. We both got a really good feeling about this book.

Anyway: I promise to keep you posted on the progress from now on. Expect to hear more soon.

Juliet, Naked

Nick Hornby is one of my favourite authors. That’s mostly due to his 2005 novel A Long Way Down, which should be compulsory reading for everyone who’s ever considered suicide, even as the remotest of all possible possibilities. And his other books aren’t too shabby either. (With the exception of Fever Pitch, which is non-fiction anyway and of which I never managed to read more than two pages. Football… what more need I say?)

Now: Juliet, Naked.

The story revolves around three characters: Duncan, a teacher in his early forties obsessed with Tucker Crowe, an 80’s singer/songwriter; Annie, Duncan’s girlfriend of fifteen years; and finally Tucker Crowe himself, now no longer a musician but a recluse and father of five. Fairly in the beginning of the book we realize that Duncan knows more about Tucker than is good for him and that, mostly because of the Tucker issue, his relationship with Annie had a definite expiry date. I’m not spoiling much when I say that the two will break up fairly early in the book and that Annie will get to know Tucker Crowe. And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, for despite all the criticism that I’ll heap upon the book in just a minute, it’s still a very good book and you might do well to consider giving it a read.

Now. If Juliet, Naked is such a jolly good read, why do I speak of criticism?

For one thing, because of bad marketing. Just like Shyamalan’s The Village got sold as an all-out horror movie (which it isn’t), this book gets sold as … ehm… something that it is not. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Hornby and the marketing department of Penguin/Viking here. I thought, from the jacket text, that the book would be about Tucker and Annie, not necessarily in a romantic sense, but in a talking-with-each-other sense. And it is, but only on the last hundred pages or so. Before that, it’s mostly either Annie or Duncan or Tucker sitting in a corner and being miserable. Erm… I’m being unfair again, they’re not miserable, which seems to me to imply postmodern yack about how incomprehensible and unfair the world is. The protagonists are sarcastic, doubtful, often witty as they wonder about their lives and where they would be today if things had gone a little differently for them.

This is not a bad thing, per se. If I could change only one thing about the book I would tone Annie’s incessant whining about her state of childlessness down a bit. That’s about it.

If I could change two things I’d have her meet Tucker sooner. Because Tucker is the most fun character in the book, but he needs a conversational counterpart to realise his true potential for awesomeness. The clashing of rock-star and museum curator, of British middle-class and American wash-out, that’s where the book gets really brilliant. And there’s not enough of that.

I read Juliet, Naked in two sittings and after finishing the first at page 154 I wasn’t sure if I liked the book. Then I read the second part and I loved it. That’s just a warning. Give it some time.

One review I read basically said that the book was okay, only Tucker wasn’t a very interesting character and why didn’t Nick Hornby try to be a bit more mysterious and twisty. I think that woman needs her head examined.

Lately I’m reading and hearing a lot of reviews that essentially demand that every book read like an episode of Lost. Now, twists are all good and fine in their right place. I’m sure crime fiction would be poorer if every novel told you who dunnit in the very first paragraph. (Some do, and are better for it. The attraction of rare things, I assume.) But the attraction in novels like Juliet, Naked doesn’t lie in the answer to the question of who will sleep with whom because of what. Novels like this one are beautiful because we get to examine the motivations behind what the characters do, in seeing their journey, their evolution. And that is made all the sweeter if you can see all the elements from the very start. This is not a flaw, Miss Myerson, it’s perfection.

Happy Second Week Of The New Year!

Okay. So I’ve been off the radar for a while. But I did a lot of good work in the last three weeks, so I’m not too sad about that. But 2010 is going to find me a changed woman, yes it will. Here’s what I’ll do:

New Year Resolutions (Excerpt)

1) Sell Book

2) Write A Lot More Books

3) Update Blog More Often (Now, away from the 56k modems of Greece and with our home internet connection working once more, than might actually work out. Maybe I should add another one 4) Don’t Make Empty Promises.)

That’s it for now, back to typing my handwritten manuscript and playing Borderlands. Expect to hear from me soon.