Archive | August, 2010

The Comparison Curse

27 Aug

Blurbs comparing a current author to an old literary stalwart present a pretty obvious double-edged sword. They instantly speak to their target demographic (if you liked this, you’ll loooove this!), and manage to make a book stand out just a little bit more on that busy table of new, seemingly identical and obscure debut novels. On the other hand, forget trying to read that book without constantly comparing the two authors. And who do you think usually makes out better? The generally agreed upon genius, or the plucky new modern author who is automatically more fallible simply because of their newness?

Amy Sackville’s The Still Point, published early this year, had a stellar blurb to its name, courtesy of author Francis Spufford: “If Virginia Woolf had had a younger sister with a passionate interest in icebergs, she might have written something like this beautiful, unearthly novel […]” First time novelists would kill for this kind of association – or would they? I haven’t read that book yet, only skimmed the first couple chapters, but spent the whole time looking for reasons why Sackville’s writing was or was not like Woolf’s, like some kind of “Spot the Difference” challenge from Highlights magazine.

Unfortunately, I suffered the same compulsion when reading True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. ‘The Bell Jar for the twenty-first century’ proclaims Trezza Azzopardi on the front cover. And as gripping as the book was, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways in which it was not The Bell Jar. I remember relating much more with Plath’s cynical mid-century heroine Esther Greenwood than with Davies’ nameless black sheep. Granted, I was probably in my late teens when I first read The Bell Jar, so might have been more inclined to appreciate the angst. And of course, relating to the main character isn’t the be all and end all of a book, but that distinction made reading these works very different experiences for me.

In a nutshell, the True Things protagonist falls into an obsessive, dangerous, darkly sexual relationship with an ex-con. And actually, there’s not much more to that nutshell, making the story more suited to a movie than a novel, I thought. I felt like I needed a few pre-plot points of reference to help anchor myself to Davies’ heroine, but instead I was instantly pulled into this ultra-destructive, downward spiraling affair – which was possibly the point, but it made it all the more difficult to understand the motivations of the heroine. Why is “she” so obsessed with “him?” What, if anything, was so wrong in her life before he showed up, to make her so vulnerable to the charms of such a brutal, repulsive man?

I should also admit that part of my reluctance to relate to “her” was that my deep-rooted prude had a hard time dealing with the frequency and intensity of the sexually violent scenes. I’m guessing most people had the same reaction, but I think I needed something – even just one thing – to make me feel like I knew why this woman would allow herself to be in this situation. Why she would risk her job, friends, family, house, car, personal safety, self respect, life savings (and on and on) for this hunky piece of evil. Her one friend in the book, Alison (finally, a name!), stands in as the reader proxy, with her baby-having, job-keeping, TV-watching middle class values and obvious perplexity at her friend’s bad choices. But her inclusion in the book only increases the sense of frustration, because there’s nothing she can do to help her friend, either.

This lack of connection between me and the narrator continued to distract me throughout the book. Perhaps mistakenly, I kept waiting for her to act in some way that I would act, or for some information to come to light that would explain her decisions. Instead, she pays lip service to the fact that she’s put herself in terrible danger, but doesn’t seem to really believe it. After one particularly gut-wrenching scene, she ruminates on what has just happened with a sort of out-of-body perspective:

Something terrible has happened to me, I whispered, standing in the kitchen. It was like a film set. Obviously the kitchen of a nice woman.

When I managed to ignore (or embrace) the intrinsic uncomfortableness of the book, I was enthralled. There’s a sick sense of enjoyment in watching such a spectacular breakdown unfold. And despite the considerable shock value she wields, Davies doesn’t at all rely on the cheap tricks of sex and violence alone – she describes this person’s deterioration in meticulous, painful, emotional detail. She just doesn’t tell us why.

Adventures in Learning – You Are Here

21 Aug

After my obsession with a certain end-of-the world what-if book, I’ve had sort of a thing for science. Not an intimate, knowledgeable thing, mind you, but a bit of a crush.

And this crush led me straight into the arms of You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by fellow non-scientist Christopher Potter. The book begins with the basics – stuff we all may or may not remember from high school science classes, but somehow winds up exploring quasars and and quarks and quantum mechanics. I admit at the beginning, during all the basics, I fancied myself above what this book had to offer – not just because of the simple facts at the start (which didn’t last long), but because of the noticeably plain language. However, as the book zoomed on towards concepts that I can only begin to understand, I grew to appreciate Potter’s straightforward approach. It’s a remarkably concise, patient guidebook through some of science’s (and philosophy’s, and even religion’s) most abstract ideas. Wildly abstract to me, anyway – I found myself at times opening my eyes wider while reading some of the more mind-bending passages, as if that might allow a little more understanding to seep in. So in the end, it was perfect that a journalist would take on the task of making a wide variety of scientific information somewhat palatable and relateable for the average reader.

As with my previous learning adventures, I’ll be throwing some fun facts at you for the next little while. And here’s the first one that made me go, “really?” As promised, it’s a little basic compared to what eventually follows, but it’s an example of how most of us actually don’t know the answers to these classic curious child “why-phase” questions:

You know the whole digging into (or right through) the centre of the earth thing? My childhood hole-to-China endeavour wasn’t a terribly determined effort – I may have just grazed the bottom of my sandbox. But it’s somewhat gratifying to know that even grown-up attempts have been less than successful: The furthest we’ve been able to go into the earth is a meagre 12.262 kilometres, before drill bits start melting at 300 degrees Celsius. 12 k! Some people run 12 k before their first bowl of fruit loops. Not me, but you know, some people.

Unsolicited Personal Information

20 Aug

This last week has been filled with prolonged birthday celebrations, work deadlines, and moving house. Yes, I packed up my books and carted them just down the street for a new life in a new flat. With a yard. Sort of. If London hadn’t already turned its back on summer, I’d be reading The Blue Castle in a kiddy pool (aka paddling pool) at this very moment.

That’s not going to happen, though. So instead I’m turning my guilty pleasure attention to the release of Mockingjay in three days, eight hours, thirty-one minutes and 24 seconds. Or something like that.

Anyone know what’s happening with the Hunger Games movie? Do you think they’ll do full justice to bad-ass heroine Katniss and the gratuitous violence that makes the series so terribly satisfying? If I don’t see some kid impaled on a spear I’m going to be very disappointed.

At the moment though, I’ve been geeking out with more non-fiction sciencey fun (You Are Here by Christopher Potter), which means that my educational segment, “Learning Adventures” will be back tomorrow! Come back and visit if you want a glimpse of just how far quantum theory lies from my brain’s grasp.

It’s my BIRTHDAY!

11 Aug

So I was determined to find something to post today that would encapsulate both my love for myself and the fact that this blog is supposed to be about books. I settled on some photos of my trip with my parents a couple weeks ago to the book Ark at the V&A, as part of their small spaces exhibition.

It's nifty.

I think I'm pretty nifty, too.

Stealing books was frowned upon.

The first birthday present I received this year was also book related: a copy of The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (alas, not the old McClelland and Stewart edition) from one of my sisters, which I’ve written about here before. I can’t wait to yet again read about mean old Cousin Stickles and purple pills from Montreal and moonlight on Lake Mistawis. It’s the book version of Death by Chocolate.

Housekeeping update: And if you want a chance to win a SIGNED copy of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, you can still leave a wacky Wikipedia entry here, until end of day Friday.

Writer’s Questions – Ned Beauman

6 Aug

The problem with reading a lot of books is that they can all start to seem the same. I had no such problem with Ned Beauman’s debut, Boxer, Beetle, which sets itself apart with a wink from the get-go. In the very first line, we’re treated to one of our narrators, a Nazi memorabilia collector and smelly recluse named Kevin, merrily reconstructing Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party in his mind.

The book that follows is a mad dash through obscure intellectual theories and beetles named after Hitler and an usually strong, beautiful Jewish boxer with one missing toe. This story is positively crammed full of strange facts and repulsive characters. Rather than becoming distracting, these details are the life and soul of the party (the quintessential “bizarre dinner party” kind of party, with a hodge-podge of quirky guests and no shortage of mysterious deaths).

Despite the dark themes and dark characters, this book never loses that initial wink. “This is a novel for people with breeding” the blurb boldly proclaims. It’s also a novel for people with a sense of humour, and maybe an internet connection – Beauman happily credits Wikipedia as the source of many of his weirder plot points.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of Boxer, Beetle, leave a comment with a fascinating Wikipedia article you’ve stumbled across lately. Take a look below at my interview with Ned for some ideas on where to get started, like Cthulhu Sex, feral badgers, and a “List of People Who Have Disappeared Mysteriously.”

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ABOUT READING

Did you ever pretend to be any fictional characters when you were a kid? How about now?

All I can remember from my childhood is Bucky O’Hare. These days, for guidance, I look to Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Don Draper, Scott Pilgrim and Ghostface Killah. Although most of the time I feel more like the narrator from The Good Soldier.

Which author makes you jealous?

The quality that tends to make me most jealous in other writers is imagination. So, this year so far: David Foster Wallace, China Miéville, David Mitchell, Pynchon, Borges.

Come across any choice Wikipedia articles lately?

As always, yes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unknot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potsdam_Giants

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_who_disappeared_mysteriously

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneirophrenia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazen_bull

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ABOUT WRITING

Are you a disciplined get-down-to-work kind of writer, or more of a procrastinating artist?

There are feral badgers with more discipline than me. It’s awful. That said, my writing often relies on ideas that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t procrastinated for so long.

What distracts you from writing?

The internet and hangovers.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

When I was at university I was eager to publish some short stories and I found a list of print magazines that accepted unsolicited submissions and paid per word. There were not many of these, but one was a magazine called Cthulhu Sex, which only took stories that included “sex, tentacles, or, if possible, both”. I thought this was an irresistible challenge, and I love HP Lovecraft, so I started a horror story set at a girls’ boarding school. But stuff like that is trickier to crank out than you might think! In the end, I abandoned it half way through, and sadly Cthulhu Sex went bust in 2007.

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ABOUT BOXER, BEETLE

If this book had a soundtrack, what would be on it?

A lot of 1930s jazz, which I don’t know much about. I think Kevin probably has really good taste in metal and hard techno.

You’ve packed Boxer, Beetle full of little references. And, presumably, some inside jokes (like “nbeauman” making an online appearance). Did you include any other details that have some personal meaning?

So many! I mean, even “nbeauman” itself is a pretty crude allusion to The New York Trilogy. Also, from just the first few chapters: Myth FM, Kevin’s favourite pirate radio station, is a big plot element in an unpublished novel I wrote before Boxer, Beetle called The Martyr Street Theatre Company, and indeed that whole passage is an attempt to evoke Burial’s second album. Erskine does his research at the London Library because that’s where I did my own research for the novel. The stuff about the Thule Society and the Holy Spear of Destiny is partly a nod to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics. And the paragraph about Galton’s rabbit experiment is, for me, key to the whole book, although I don’t really expect anyone to notice that.

Is it fair to say you enjoy writing unlikeable characters?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I honestly had no idea when I was working on Boxer, Beetle that so many readers would pick it out as a characteristic quality of my writing. One response might be as follows. If you think about the romantic relationships among your outer circle of acquaintances, the really loving, tactile couple comprising two really grotesque, obnoxious people is always the most fascinating – that’s the couple you can’t stop looking at, eavesdropping on, gossiping about after the party etc. And it can be the same in fiction. Still, there are a few noble souls in my book!

Every character here seems to have an obsession – Nazi memorabilia, beetles, artificial languages. What’s yours?

The London night bus network. I’ll never forget you, 78.

Is there anything happening today that you think someone in the future will point to (or write about in a book) and say, “Can you believe they used to do this in the 00s?!”

A gloomy answer: that at least a million people a year die in traffic accidents (with lots more maimed or crippled) and we just put up with it as if it were a law of the universe. I think if somebody invented something today where the sales pitch was “This will become the number one cause of death among teenagers, but at least you won’t have to take grimy old public transport to work any more!” we wouldn’t be rushing to rebuild our cities around it. Also, Twitter.

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PICTURE TIME

Can you provide a photo relevant to your work?

"My current desktop background is a photo that I came across as part of the research for The Teleportation Accident, which is the novel I'm working on at the moment."

Do you have any writer’s pets?

"I love dogs, but I don't have one. However, in my flat there is this fox head by a Brighton artist called Emily Warren and this tiger head by a guy at Brick Lane Market whose name I don't know. (He also makes great lamps.)"



Good Books, Bad Writers

3 Aug

I read Ender’s Game a few days ago. It was an undeniably compelling book in almost every way. It had three child geniuses (one evil, one kind, and one named Ender – a six year old boy with a little bit of both. And who doesn’t love child geniuses?).  It had a space station with a Battle School for Earth’s best children, all training to one day defeat the alien “Buggers.” It had gravity-free practice battles, painted with a meticulous amount of detail and beautifully choreographed strategy. It was awesome.

Time and time again Orson Scott Card delighted me with yet another scene in which little Ender proves once again that he is simply smarter than everyone else. I couldn’t take my eyes off the page as I watched the adults deliberately make Ender’s life as brutal as possible, in order to cultivate a perfect fleet commander. They engineer a constant war between his compassionate and violent sides. They manipulate him into literally destroying other children, almost – but not quite – to his own breaking point. It’s a fascinating exercise in what people can be made to do, with some major ethical themes along the way. And the fighting was pretty cool, too.

My only problem? The author. I’d love to say unreservedly, “you’ve got to read this book!” (Although I guess I pretty much just did.) I’d love to go out and get more of the books from this series, of which there are plenty. But after looking into the life of Orson Scott Card, I just feel icky about putting money into his pocket.

I don’t agree with Card’s general politics, but that in itself wouldn’t usually be enough to turn me off an author, especially if they didn’t make their political convictions a centrepiece of their public persona. No, it’s his raging homophobia that really does the trick. He’s gone out of his way to loudly state, whether through his membership in the “National Organization for Marriage”, or through his own articles, that he’s not only against same sex marriage, but actually advocates for the criminalization of homosexual activities. He goes so far as to equate homosexuality to “deviant behaviour” in this painfully cringey (but fascinating) interview with Donna Minkowitz.

Eesh. I have this terribly naive habit of wanting to identify with writers when I love their books. That’s obviously not going to happen here, but when the disconnect is so severe, can I even support their books in an indirect way? I got Ender’s Game from the library. Is that a decent way around this moral conundrum? Let me know what you think, because I’m genuinely stumped. Do you feel the same way about any talented writers?