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February Reading Round-Up

BY JON PILL

I started the month by finally sending Underworld to the underworld. It is probably one of the easiest difficult books I’ve ever read. DeLillo manages to be stylish and lyrical and funny without making you have to work at reading his prose. He makes it look easy. The bastard. Underworld was great.

I like to read books about writing and the rather whiny (and in places kind of creepy-nerdy) Vita Nuova by Dante filled that slot this month. The translation I read seemed to have sapped all the joy from the verse. Not the best read. But interesting as a historical document. Also in the books about books camp was Kingsley Amis’ New Maps Of Hell: A Survey Of Science Fiction his review of the state of sci-fi back in the fifties. Interesting to see where the medium has changed, and where the perception has not.

For non-fiction I finished Measurement this month. One of the most mind-expanding books I’ve read in a long time. This is a maths professor’s successful attempt to make maths interesting. He teaches you how to create proofs then sets you off to do them yourself. I had the closest thing to a religious experience reading this book.

Necronomicon was the somewhat fraudulent audiobook which though marketed as being the unabridged audiobook of the collection of the same name, is in fact heavily abridged and according to the editor’s website, not affiliated with the lovely leather-bound edition he curated. Good, if formulaic, creepy stuff.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World’s less predictive and interesting cousin, as well. Orwell’s vision of the power growing from language has suddenly become prescient thanks to Kellyanne Conway. Double plus good read apart from the documentary stuff.

I also read the two plays of ol’ Bill’s that I’ve seen the most after Lear: Hamlet (great) and Twelfth Night (alright).

Total: 9 books.

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Dear Jim… (#7) Re: We need to talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin

“I received a perfectly lovely letter last week. It wasn’t yours.” – Groucho Marx, paraphrased.

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Ezra Miller looking scary-sexy and just plain scary on the poster.

Dear Jim,

Although I did also receive your gracious letter, I thought it was particularly clever to use the stream-of-consciousness style and vague gesturing towards formal innovation to disguise the total lack of content while you complained about the rest of the internet’s lack of content.

In an effort to move these letters away from navel-gazing and hipsterish listicles complaining about listicles – because, you know, irony – I thought I’d just segue into talking about that advertisement for post-natal abortion we watched last-last week: We Need To Talk About Kevin.

I want to talk about it, because after watching it last week I keep going back to it in my head, piecing all the little details together and half trying to tie them all up, half just enjoying the pleasing patterning of the thing.

There’s this excellent episode of Every Frame A Painting about Lynn Ramsey’s filmmaking style which is worth a watch and my own addendum to his points about sound design and detail in What A Friend We Have in Kevin is this list of the most obvious visual detail that accretes: red goo.

  • Opening shot of some sort of weird tomato festival orgy thing. Happy Tilda Swinton looking young, covered in tomato pulp. Bright red colours.
  • Cut to older, unhappy looking Tilda Swinton in a house that has had red paint thrown over the front (shades of Hawthorne there). Her car too has been paint splashed and we see her driving, seeing the world through this red watery painty filter.
  • There is paint in the straggly bit of Tilda’s hair (Kevin also has straggly bit of hair in roughly the same place) as she waits for her interview.
  • Some of the food baby Kevin flings at the fridge is red. Much of it is a foul looking green though. Don’t feed babies gross stuff is the lesson here. The lesson for the rest of the movie is don’t feed them at all. People who starve to death in infancy have a tougher time growing up to ruin your life.
  • Numerous, thoroughly revolting looking strawberry jam sandwiches, all made by Kevin. One of which is slapped jams side down on the table.
  • Tilda, punched in the face, bleeds human blood (red in colour).
  • Kevin sprays black and red paint all over the walls of her newly decorated room. When Tilda angrily smashed the water pistol he used, it is full of red paint.
  • Hamster goo in the waste dispenser. Hamster goo is also ruddy due to the similarity in colour between human and hamster blood.
  • Injuries outside the school: red in colour c.f Human blood, colour of.
  • Tilda’s red dress, worn out with Kevin for dinner, worn out to office where gross man hits on her.
  • The one time Tilda strikes back breaking Kevin’s arm and causing a scar on his arm, we don’t see Kevin’s blood at all.

These details are striking and visual and there because they add up to something. There is the surface link between all these things – they are all part of Kevin’s torturing of Tilda, however indirectly. But they also have a purely visual effect, generating something similar to the rhyming of sounds in words. It’s pleasing to have these details strung out in a line. Like video collections of things fitting together neatly, or things happening in extreme slo-mo they have an aesthetic effect just by virtue of being beside each other.

On the other hand there is a detail like:

  • the sound of the sprinklers,

which repeats over several scenes, always with a sense of the ominous about them. Its an incidental detail in the final analysis but works as a sort of pavlovian hook so when we hear them over the garden scene our spidey-sense is doing whatever spidey-senses do (tingle right, as in Chuck?).

I don’t want to give you greater license to head towards abstraction, especially given your already spiralling contempt for our readers. But the efficacy of Ramsey’s these two types of repetition in detail struck me as interesting on a technical level, and something worth flagging up given how your next novel looks to be structured.

I look forward to reading your letter next week addressing the Presidential Debates.

Yours in detail,

Jon

P.S. The trailer for Westboro’s Boolean Kevins can be watched here.

 

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July’s Reading

This continues, and hopefully brings almost up to date the review of my reading. I read a mere five books last month so it has been relatively easy to catch-up.

1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, who have a strikingly different view of the Beats than the Beats do.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Well written and fascinating, this book is an extraordinary look into the life of a major international figure, and into the more local problems of racial and religious conflict that dog American culture.

The story follows Malcolm X nee Little from his earliest youth, through his period of criminal exploits, his redemption by the prophet Elijah Muhammad, and his eventual betrayal by the Nation of Islam. What is striking is to see the way Malcolm’s ‘hate’ is so much more complicated than him just being the violent flip side to the Martin Luther King coin.

The book is also fantastically well written, Haley manages to keep Malcolm’s distinctive style of speaking in the text, and contributes a fascinating introduction in his own voice.

I would highly recommend to everyone ever, especially now, when post-colonial Europe is entirely failing to understand the anger of the Middle East in almost exactly the same ways White Americans failed to understand Black Americans.

2. Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber, who liked the Winter’s Tale for some unfathomable reason.

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Shakespeare After All

Garber’s book is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare scholarship and goes really well with Emma Smith’s lecture series (which can be listened to here). 

Garber’s book is made up of 38 essays – one on each of the plays – and an introduction. Each play is treating to an essay one by one, in a rough chronological order of when they were first written. The focus is on how the plays have been treated by scholarship over time, and on placing them in the progression and network of ideas and themes of Shakespeare’s as they develop through his career.

If you have a deep interest in Shakespeare this will deepen it, and if you just want a general overview this is probably the only book you’ll need on the subject. I would highly recommend to anyone who is not put off by its near 1000 pages of tiny type.

3. A War of Choice by Jack Fairweather, who likes his subjects a little too much.

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A War of Choice

I finished this, by coincidence, in the same week the Chilcot report came out. And off the back of the book I came away thinking that the media focus on the war as Tony Blair’s pet project is far too narrow.

Fairweather paints an ugly picture of just how many things went wrong in preventable ways: UK advances in the South were reversed because they ran counter to the general strategy of the US, cultural misunderstandings abounded, petty departmental squabbles in government kept experts out of the rebuilding process… the list goes on and on Blair was just the bloodstained tip of the iceberg.

The book is compellingly written as a series of individual’s stories which left me feeling that the war was a tragedy in Whitehead’s sense: the remorseless working of an impersonal thing that simply ground up people, nations and – in the end –the whole Middle East, in its relentless cogs. I would broadly recommend.

4. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, who must have had a grim time in the 50s.

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The Golden Notebook

Impressive rather than enjoyable, this intimidatingly long book breaks the life of Anna into a narrative portion and her notebooks. The notebooks themselves are split up, and into each of four different coloured books Anna writes a specific aspect of her life. One contains her political life, another her writing life, another her personal life, and another the unadorned events of her life.

That life is largely made up of one unhappy marriage and numerous unhappy affairs, the struggles of an artist who feels unable to produce art, and an idealist turned cynic. It is not a happy book, and in many places becomes extremely boring. But there are flashes of greatness, and long sections that qualify as page-turner-y.

The main triumph of the work, however is its form. I would highly recommend.

5. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, whose father definitely did have a grim time in the 40s.

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The Complete Maus

This Pulitzer prize winner is one of the great graphic novels ever written. Part holocaust biography, part family history and part meta-journalistic analysis, Maus casts Spiegelman and his Jewish ancestors as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Polish people who helped and/or turned on his parents as pigs.

This zoological whimsy does nothing to reduce the appalling horror of the narrative which is as much about human nature under duress and how a community under threat responds, as it is about the Holocaust itself.

Based on conversations with his father, Art draws up a beautiful and harrowing story that is one of the major artistic responses to one of the 20th Century’s darkest hours. Cannot recommend this highly enough.

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June’s Reading

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A few of my favourite things.

It’s been a while since I did one of these (see May’s here) for more on why there has been such a delay see the most recent life update (here). But I did read a decent amount in June. Eight books to be precise:

1. 1968 by Joe Haldemann, who clearly had a rubbish time in the 60s.

This novel was something of a surprise. Haldemann, who is better known for The Forever War, seemed at first to be writing a Vietnam novel, with all the grimness, madness and corrupted youth that goes with that. But just a little way into the book Spider, the GI protagonist of the book ends up being sectioned back home after a really, really bad day in the jungle and the book turns into a State of the Nation novel for the USA in what turned out to be a really, really bad year for the USA.

The grimness, madness and corruption of youth continues stateside for the rest of the novel as Spider finds himself dealing with the barbarities of the psychiatry industry of the late 60s (an interesting UK comparison might be Will Self’s Umbrella and Shark). The story deals with PTSD, homophobia, homelessness and the mad political happenings of the year that MLK and RFK were shot and the Nixon-Agnew White House was inaugurated.

Which is all pretty fun and interesting. The main problem with the novel is the prose, which is plodding, and its failure to make more of the ideas with which it is playing. There was a really great novel in the shadows behind this book, and I wished I was reading that instead.

Overall, I think I would tentatively recommend to those who like that sort of thing.

2. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, who writes well about board games and abortions.

This novel, by a Sino-French author about the Sino-Japanese war, was an interesting one. The chapters are narrated alternately by a young Chinese girl as she discovers love, sex, death and politics; and a  Japanese soldier as he the marches south towards Nanking discovering love, sex, death and politics. Eventually the two threads combine as the two characters meet in a public square and play a game of go.

The book is primarily about ‘growing up’ with an emphasis on loss of innocence. Both the plots contain stories of sexual awakening that lead to brutally unhappy conclusions, and both feature the characters learning about violence in ways that are linked to becoming and adult.

The book is very dense, at just over 200 pages it crams a lot of action and ideas into that narrow space. That is achieved by beautiful and extremely elegant prose, in which very short passages are often made to carry a huge amount of impact or information.

I would highly recommend.

3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who may or may not love Jesus and/or the Devil and/or neither.

This was an odd read and a super fun, if somewhat slapdashedly structured book. Master & Margarita tells the story of various members of Moscow’s literary and theatrical scene who run into the pranks and violence of the Devil and his entourage (including the unforgettable Behemoth a vodka drinking, chess playing, gigantic black cat) during their weekend jolly to Moscow.

The first half is an episodic mess as various characters fall foul of the pranks with often funny, sometimes horrifying results. While in the second half the titular characters are introduced and all those random happenings begin to pull together into a satisfying if slightly enigmatic end.

Occasionally cropping up within the novel is another novel about Pilate on the weekend of the crucifixion of Jesus and in which the events in Jerusalem have interesting parallels with happenings in the Moscow story.

I would highly recommend it. Both as an entertainment, full of weird – and occasionally quite dark – comedy; but also as a serious work of Literature.

4. The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare, who was the original bromancer.

The plot is roughly this: two besties fall in love with the same lass, shenanigans ensue.

There is some great poetry in it, especially about male friendships, but overall the play is far from being the best of Shakespeare’s work. The end is rather poorly telegraphed for example, and the character’s are not terribly rounded or interesting, it may be that it plays better on the stage, but I was not super convinced by it.

Don’t think I would recommend especially.

5. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, who seems to feel marrying a total arse makes for a happy ending, just because you fancy him.

A pretty solid and hugely underrated play with plenty of the slick wordplay and dialogue you get in things like the Merry Wives of Windsor and is at its very best in Much Ado About Nothing.

The sexual politics of the piece are a little concerning, the plot involves a woman who heals the King and in return has the King force the man she loves to marry her. He is so horrified by her low birth he goes off to war to avoid having sex with her saying he’ll never be her husband till she lays him. A couple of bed tricks later, he finds out that he accidentally had sex with her and grudgingly starts to act like a husband.

The plot works interestingly as a Rube-Goldberg machine, but is hard to take seriously as a human story. Still, a moderate recommend from me.

6. King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, who Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Eurgh. So dull. So, so dull.

A few good speeches and no real plot get us from wife #1 to wife #2 (Fun note for trivia pedants: Henry VIII, despite the schoolroom rhyme never divorced anyone. The rhyme should go: Annulled, beheaded, died, annulled, beheaded, survived). At the end of the play Elizabeth I is born and the play ends.

Would not recommend.

7. The Memory of War and Children in Exile by James Fenton, who literally rode a North Vietnamese tank through Saigon.

A collection of poetry made up of poems from Fenton’s time in Vietnam and Cambodia, some from after his return to England. Some of the poems are very funny, others more complex and formal. All of them are pretty good and some are excellent.

Would recommend to poetical people.

8. King Harald’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson, who clearly fancies Norwegians and thinks the Danes smell weird.

King Harald’s Saga is taken from Heimskringla a huge history of Norway by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. It tells the story of Harald Hardradr, who every English school child knows as a footnote to the story of 1066.

In fact King Harald lived an interesting life before Stamford Bridge, something of a trickster and prone to violence he travelled Europe and fought as head of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian guard before coming home to Norway to fight the Danes and invading England to fight the English.

The story climaxes with an interesting description of Stamford Bridge as it were the climax of the story and which contains the immortal line from Harold II who, when asked what he would give Harald in return for a peace settlement, responded with: ‘Seven feet of English soil.’

Overall I would recommend, especially to anyone interested in Medieval European history. So basically everyone.

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Derren Brown’s Miracle

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Miracle poster, as shot by JJ Abrams.

A couple of weeks ago the Ladyfriend took me to see Miracle, Derren Brown’s latest stage show. Ostensibly a gift, she seemed every bit as excited to see him as I was. More so even.

It’s a hard thing to talk about. Not traumatised or anything (although parts did bring back strange memories of my religious childhood),  but he gave a highly impassioned plea for no one to write any details about what happened in the show; so there will be no specifics in what follows.

I’m somewhat easy to please when it comes to Derren Brown – I’ve seen almost everything he’s made, and either liked or loved the lot; the only exception being the placebo thing he did for Channel 4, which I just found I couldn’t buy into – but it’s not immediately clear why I would be a fan. I can’t really remember enjoying another magician, like, ever.

Except maybe Patrick Jane, but he’s kind of based on Derren Brown anyways. And also fictional.

Dynamo and David Blaine just irritate me, they’re the sort of yappy nerd who talks a lot about how good he is at the one thing he’s good at. Penn and Teller have made some good TV on skepticism, but the magic stuff just falls flat for me. And almost everyone else, I just change the channel on.

So watching the show did set me to wondering why it is I like him.

It helps that DB is charismatic, has a sort of Victorian steampunk wonder-worker vibe, and doesn’t make any effort to be ‘cool’. But as a writer, I can’t help think that it has more to do with the way his shows work as stories.

Miracle in particular brings that out, there is almost nothing in the show that a long term Derrenophile won’t have seen before. But in the context of this show as opposed to the other, it becomes – for the most part – a very different thing. And this is his forte, taking a mundane trick and cloaking it in something else.

He also walks an interesting line ethically. Hypnosis, suggestion, faith, self-help are all tied in thematically to the show in Miracle. All things that intrude on control, consent and self. Some of the frisson as an audience member comes from being aware of that line. There is a real sense of psychological danger, in a way that is absent from so many magicians who often try to sell a sense of physical danger to us. Do you ever really believe there is a chance of the escapist drowning? No. But you do believe that Derren Brown can rewire a person into shoving someone off a building.

The other thing I noticed is how much of the show is about us the audience. He addresses the the show to us. The people on stage are expected to go away with an experience, they are not just props. Compare something like David Blaine’s record breaking breath-holding show, or the spectacle of David Copperfield travelling through the great wall of China. Both are striking images, but not terribly involving. Derren Brown’s live broadcast at the end of Russian Roulette, was a similar sort of stunt TV. But unlike the other two there was a real sense of involvement in watching that. Deciding to watch a man play Russian roulette makes you complicit if it goes wrong. Even if it goes right, you have to wonder about your own motivations for watching. And so the spectacle is about the viewer, not about the magician.

That lack of ego in his stage persona is probably a large part of it. He is likeable. All his shows begin with a caveat often delivered by him to camera: it will all be illusion, trickery and suggestion. Where most magicians beg you to believe their impressive feats, seeming to want one over on you, Derren Brown makes an offer to join him for something that he hopes we’ll like. And as a result, I do.

That’s his real magic.

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May’s Reading

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The Man With the Golden Gun, original cover art.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, who write’s the most romantic moments of necrophilia.

A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, who is every bit as insecure about her writing on bad days as is this writer.

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, who is hugely patronising about everyone who is not him which is also everyone he claims he is.

A Vietnam War Reader by Michael H. Hunt, who is actually genuinely named Mike Hunt.

Static Exile by George Ttoouli, whose book can and should be bought here. I do know the author, and may therefore lack integrity.

Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel, who rhymes too much.

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, who somehow got his great work on sexual obsession turned into a children’s movie.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, who is just great.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, who is probably funnier on the stage than on the page.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, who writes a narrator who is both super-compelling and super-annoying.

The Man With the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming, who is always a fascinating source of trivia.

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ILAWFT: Emma by Jane Austen

I Learned About Writing From That: Jane Austen’s Emma.

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‘Emma’ by Jane Austen. Not my edition, which is even more poorly designed.

Having been warned off it, even by the author, on the grounds that the lead was wholly unlikeable I ended up actually being charmed by Miss Woodhouse, less perceptive version of Blair Waldorf though she may be.

But what really struck me was how well her unreliability as point of view character was put to use, turning the book into a masterful detective novel with Woodhouse more Wilson than House. Although not strictly close third, we do tend to see the action through her eyes and mostly receive her commentary on it. Which is great because charming, scheming and tasteful as she may be in societal matters, her ability to read people is hilariously lacking.

Over the first 100 pages or so we see her efforts to matchmake go horribly awry, the slow dawning of her error occurs to the reader in dribs and drabs but Emma remains ignorant right up until the big reveal. With this warning to up our Sherlock-game sorted, the plot then introduces Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Churchill, and brings Mr Knightley into play. The two men are either after Emma or Jane and every character has their own opinion. Every action of the men is given over to scrutiny and though Emma remains mostly sure in her own assessments the reader has to keep wondering.

It functions very much in the way of good detective fiction, without it feeling gimmicky, and it gives an extra layer of interest to the witty give and take of the social set which we know from basically any other Austen novel ever. It put me a little in mind of a few other genre pieces that use similar tools: GRRM’s constantly shifting perspectives and the amount of additional story he manages to squeeze into details that mean little to the POV character he chose. Or the way one is left to make the connections between Regan’s clay birds and and the defaced icons in the church in The Exorcist.

At least in this mystery no-one dies…

…or do they?

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