Sunday, 30 October 2011

51/111 - The First Time by Kate Monro

I bought this a few months ago when I was attending a book event at a Waterstone's in Islington. I was wandering around a bit early for the event and picked it up before making a quick decision to buy it. I began reading it a little on the train, but I must have become distracted by another book, because I didn't pick it up again until recently. I was pretty disappointed by this and didn't really read it properly all the way through.

The author has gathered stories of different people's tales of their first time having sex (by the way, the subtitle of the book is 'Tales of Virginity Lost and Found'). I had hoped it might be more of a cultural or societal exploration, like Jessica Valentis 'The Purity Myth', which I read last year and adored.

This was just more of a transcript of different people's stories, none of which seemed to go into much more depth or exploration afterwards or before. They were loosely organised into categories, for example there was a chapter for men's tales, and there were some more unusual stories, such as people with disabilities who often seem invisible to most of us on the sexual spectrum.

The main thing I disliked about this was the author's tendency to continually refer us back to either the interview process, or to her own sexual experiences, neither of which I was particularly interested in. I didn't really give a shit that a certain interview had taken a long time or the circumstances under which it occurred - for me, these things were unimportant. As a result, I was left feeling like the book had never really started, even when it was over.

Give this a miss.

Next time: I think I'm going to read some Douglas Coupland next, because I could do with some levity, however there is a new Stephen King book out in a week or so, which I will definitely be buying!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Sort of halfway

So I'm sort of halfway through this project. I thought that I'd probably be further along than 50 by now, but events have gotten in the way, and I'm still not reading as much as I used to read.

It's picking up considerably since then, which is good.

In the meantime I've been thinking about what it would take for me to finish this project by the end of the year. By that, I mean what would it take for me to get up to 111 books by the end of the year?

Well, I worked it out, and it turns out that it'll probably be more work than I have time for at the moment, but I'll give it a try.

I have 61 books left to read.

I have 14 weeks left of 2011.

This means I have to read just over 4 books per week in order to hit my target. Can I manage this? Maybe. Probably if I read all my really short books, and really put my mind to it, I'd be able to do this.

We'll see.

50/111 - Wilson by Daniel Clowes

This blog post makes me want to type 'WILSOOOOOON' a la Castaway, but I think that would be too much of a cliche, plus I'm drunk and will most probably regret it in the morning.

I got this book when I was working at Vintage again earlier this year. I was working in the same department as Jonathan Cape and I really like their comics so I took a copy of this one too. My old manager from Waterstone's had been really excited to read this and I generally value his taste in books so I thought I'd give it a try, even though I haven't read any Daniel Clowes before.

Man, Wilson is a dick.

Wilson is a middle-aged American dude who tries overly hard to make connections with total strangers, pretending that he is some sort of empathetic philanthropist when in fact he is barely masking the fact that he has total and utter contempt for most people. And at the same time, he is totally self-involved, obnoxious and misinformed about all those around him and their perception of him.

Basically a terrible, empty, human being.

The story consists of a number of 'shorts' of 6-8 panels, normally with some sort of bleak punchline at the end of each one. Wilson fins himself empty after the death of his father and decides to try and reconnect with his ex-wife and the daughter they gave up for adoption.

The results are terrible. Wilson is barely able to conceal insults to his former wife and daughter, as well as those around them (he sends a bag of poop to his ex-wife's brother at one point) and tries to involve total strangers in their lives.

There is also quite a sinister undertone to the relationships with his ex-wife and daughter, with his ex-wife recounting a vague memory of a kidnapping and his daughter remarking that she's had a lot of therapy since being adopted. I get the impression that the pregnancy was nonconsensual somehow, and that this is why his wife gave up their daughter for adoption? Maybe I'm being a little dark and morbid because I'm drunk but who knows. Who knows.

Anyway, I liked this. It was funny, even though Wilson is a total douche. Probably even BECAUSE he is a total douche. The whole thing feel very alienated and distant, which is a style I can only put up with for so long, however in the form of these tiny vignettes, it works perfectly.

One of the funniest parts for me is when he approches a hooker on the street, with the pretence of looking for his ex-wife, and when the hooker says she doesn't know her, he says, 'I guess maybe I'll get a blow-job, then.'

The artwork is pretty cool. Wilson's face keeps changing and morphing, from a fairly realistic looking man to a cartoon-ish character with a huge head.

That's all I have to say.

Next: The Night Circus by Erin something-something

Monday, 19 September 2011

49/111 – The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Okay, this is my last of the recent Canongate purchases. Maybe I ought to stop buying books based on who they’re published by? Try something new for a change? Who knows.

I quite liked this, apart from the ending, however I thought that the writing was excellent and pretty stunning throughout. The story is about a man called Jake, who is a werewolf. It’s set in a world pretty similar to ours, except that there’s an organisation who set out to eliminate occult phenomena from the planet, like an FBI or something similar. Jake is the last werewolf left on the planet, and is being hunted down by a man with a grudge against him for eating his father.

Jake’s mood at the beginning of the story changes pretty dramatically from being pretty much ready to give up and die, to being desperate to stay alive. The reason being that he meets a lady wolf, who no one knew existed. I’m totally going to give away the ending of the book now because it pissed me off quite a bit, but they fall in love and then get separated by the baddies, and she is captured. Werewolves are supposed to be infertile but oh my gosh she manages to get pregnant, and not only that, but Jake dies at the end, leaving her all mournful and Linda-Hamilton-in-Terminator-2-esque.

I despise endings like this because they seem like such a cliché and such a lame way to end what had up until that point been a pretty awesome story. So lame!

But before that, it was pretty great. I’m not at all a fan of all the chick-lit fantasy shit floating around at the moment, and this was clearly something from a different area of the genre altogether. It did have a romance element to it, but it wasn’t girly or overly romantic. Mostly it included a lot of sex and some sweet, sweet murder, which is fine with me. I don’t have much else to say about it right now because I’m running late, but I imagine there’ll probably be a sequel, and I was suitably entertained that I’d read the next one in the series. Even though I hated the ending of this book, the writing was really something special, which usually isn’t enough to keep me going, but on this occasion, I’ll make an exception.

Next: Wilson by Daniel Clowes

Sunday, 18 September 2011

48/111 – How To Be A Woman – Caitlin Moran


I bought this book recently on the recommendation of a friend from Waterstone’s who said that she thought I’d probably like it. I’d already seen the book around a little, on shelves etc and I’d suspected that it might be quite trashy and full of great ‘advice’ on how to make your tits look good, or how to trick a man into marrying you, but I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. However, even though I really enjoyed parts of this, I still found that there were other parts where I strongly disagreed with Moran and other features that I found quite irritating.

I’ll get the annoying bits out of the way first.

The first thing I noticed which kind of pissed me off was Moran’s tendency to use all caps when she wants to emphasise something. This isn’t something she uses sparingly, either. It’s pretty much on every other page. EVERY OTHER PAGE. Like that. She uses it to sort of drive home a point she’s making while trying to also make a joke, but for me it was irritating. After a while I just started to skip the bits in all caps. I don’t know if this was her choice, or an editorial choice or what, but there were a couple of other editorial hiccups too, which makes me think it may not have been proof-read as efficiently as it should have been. For example at one point there’s a reference to two people being stitched together from mouth to butthole a la ‘Human Caterpillar’, when the reference is obviously intended to be Human Centipede. Who let that one slip through the net?

Another thing which annoyed me was the half-arsed references to her childhood. For the first half of the book Moran references incidents in her childhood quite a bit, and I found them to be kind of trite and forced, as if she was trying, really trying, to go for laughs. I just didn’t like it. There were also some views she had which I didn’t agree with, but I’m not going to go into all of them here, as they’re more just a difference of opinion.

On the whole though, she seems like a pretty cool and sassy chick, and there was a lot about the book I did like. In spite of the clumsy all caps bits, there were also bits of prose in there which I felt genuinely shone really well and were stunning. Later in the book she also tackles some more serious issues, like childbirth, motherhood and abortion, and these (particularly the section on abortion) were really touching and handled brilliantly.

What I particularly liked about the section on abortion was the way she spoke about her experience in terms of dispelling the myth that only 'slutty' girls have abortions. Her own abortion procedure took place after she already had two daughters, knowing that she and her husband didn’t have the resources or the energy to have a third child at that point. Many people would call this a selfish or wrong decision, and might put pressure on a woman in this position to ‘just have the baby’ and many women in this situation will probably do just that. However stats show that most of the women having abortions (in the West at least) are married women who can’t afford (for whatever reason) to have any more children.

She also does really well to talk about this idea of ‘good abortions’ vs. ‘bad abortions’. What I mean here is the moralistic idea that it’s only okay to have an abortion if you’ve, say, been raped. Or if yours or the baby’s life is in danger. This is a dangerous way of thinking because it puts a moral kind of judgment on who should on shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions. You can only have one if having the baby would be really really bad for you/it. In fact, having an abortion when you’re in Moran’s situation is a responsible choice. Too many families have their resources stretched to breaking point because there are too many kids and not enough to go around, and it’s not a ‘bad’ choice to acknowledge that fact. 

Another thing I really liked about her account was that there was a tone of mourning for the baby she never had, but Moran doesn’t go on and on about how ‘hard’ the decision was, or how she’s had to live forever with the consequences, or that she has any regrets. There’s this idea that if you really have to have an abortion, the very least you can do is feel terrible about it forever.

So yeah, some pretty bold stuff in there. The end of the book really turned it around for me. I kind of wish the whole book had been more like that. Not necessarily overly serious or dealing with big issues, but the tone definitely changed a lot, whilst still managing to stay relatively light-hearted (the parts about horrific childbirth are hilarious/horrifying, but I think I’ll probably always feel that way…)

Enjoyable.

Next: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Saturday, 10 September 2011

47/111 – Sarah by J. T. Leroy


I bought this book quite a long time ago now. I can’t remember why I bought it, but I think it had something to do with the fact that someone had told me that when it was first published, it had been marketed as an auto-biography. I think it’s pretty clear when you start reading it that it’s fiction, however I can totally see why some people would have been shocked to read the auto-biography of a twelve-year old cross-dressing lot lizard. That’s a hooker, for the laymen here.

However I think I may have been getting mixed up. What actually happened is that a female author called Laura Albert was actually using the name J.T. Leroy as a pseudonym for her writing. She was even convicted of fraud for signing papers as him, and said that she thought she could write things as Leroy that she didn’t have the guts to write as herself. This info is all from Wikipedia, by the way.

I’ve been kind of haunted by this book since I read it. At first, when I finished it, I thought 'what the fuck'. I wasn’t sure if I even liked it or not. Since then I’ve been thinking about it a little, and it reminds me of so many things. It reminds me of a cross between: Vernon God Little, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Wetlands. And also maybe a little bit of The End of Alice and Lolita.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s kind of a strangely brilliant book.

Cherry Vanilla is twelve years old and lives in a motel truck stop with Sarah, his hooker mother. He wants to be a lot lizard, just like her, and one day gets taken under the wing of Glad, the truck stop pimp. Glad wants to train him, and wants Cherry to start off slow, but he/she’s impatient and runs away to another truck-stop to get blessed by a road-kill Jackalope. While she’s there, she meets another pimp called Le Loup, who commandeers her. She decides to take on her mother's name, and doesn't tell anyone there that she's really a boy. Then for a while she works as some sort of saint, blessing the truckers who come to see her, but she gets away with being a boy because no one is allowed to touch her. Oh, and Le Loup pays her in Barbies.

Eventually, her ‘powers’ begin to wear off and the truckers and Le Loup grow tired of her. Eventually, they find out that Sarah is actually a boy when one of the cooks tries to have sex with her. Eventually she gets sent off to a more low-rent truck stop where he now has to work as a male hooker, until he’s rescued by his former pimp, Glad.

It’s… so weird. But also incredibly well done. For something that’s only 160 pages long, I’m having real trouble summing it all up in an easy way. It's definitely a very strange take on a coming-of-age story. It’s also a very feverish and sensual book, in a lot of ways. And I don’t mean that reading about young prostitutes is sensual. I mean that it’s set in the South, and the narration constantly refers to gorgeous food dishes, and silky fabrics. The whole thing feels very hot and swampy and overwhelming. Very close.

It also has quite a fantastical feel to it, for example when the prostitutes queue up to see the Jackalope, they are there to worship it and to look for special powers, such as the ability to tell what a john wants without him having to say it. Later, all the truckers believe that Sarah is a saint, which is of course a hoax. However this mystical feel threads itself all the way through the book, and even when it’s funny or unpleasant, it’s still kind of there.

When I first finished this, I thought I kind of hated it. A lot of it left me feeling very slimy, even though it's not all that graphic or sexual. There is a lot of implied violence, especially towards the lot lizards, however it's also very funny in places. I liked this a lot, but it still feels very elusive to me.

Next: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

46/111 – Bed by David Whitehouse


This was one of the other recent Canongate purchases I made. Again, I bought it because I really liked the cover design and the whole look and feel of the book. I guess they really are doing something right in their design department.

I’m not totally sure how I felt about this book, and so this is probably going to be a pretty short review, because I don’t have all that much to say about it. I read this book when I was visiting my friend Emily in Manchester. I had read a little of it before heading up on the train, but it’s almost a 4 hour journey to get there, so I was hoping to have it finished at some point over the weekend. As it happened, I was about to be struck down with a cold, so I ended up sleeping for most of the journey on the way up there. By the time I got there, I had become so ill that I had to leave a day early to recuperate before going back to work. Moderately ill, but freakishly alert, I finished the rest of Bed and even managed to read the whole of Sarah by JT Leroy, which was also a bizarre experience.

I often think that the pleasure I get out of reading a book is as much a consequence of the circumstances under which I’m reading it as the quality of the book itself. As such, I didn’t really enjoy bed all that much. It was good, but felt slightly floppy and unsubstantial, which is also how I was feeling at the time.

On his 25th birthday, Mal decides not to get out of bed ever again. For the next twenty years, he stays there, growing to over 100 stone in weight as he is waited on hand and foot by his adoring mother. The story is told by Mal’s younger brother, and switches between the present, as Mal waits to give his first television interview in 20 years, and their childhood together.

I can’t remember the name of the narrator, and I’m too lazy to pick up the book right now and find out his name, but I feel like that’s pretty appropriate since he spends his life figuratively and then literally living in Mal’s huge shadow.

The writing was great and it was a fairly interesting idea, but it just didn’t hold me. It wasn’t quite all the way interesting the whole way through, and seemed to sputter a little and just fizzle out. Plus I was ill while I was reading it, so maybe I wasn’t giving it the full beam of my reading powers.

Next: Sarah by J. T. Leroy

Friday, 26 August 2011

45/111 – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel


This is another graphic novel I got while I was working for Vintage. I took it based on the recommendation of a couple of colleagues from Waterstone’s, and also on the basis that there aren’t that many graphic novels written by women. AND it’s non-fiction, to top it all off.

I felt kind of ‘meh’ about this, and I’m not sure why. The story is auto-biographical, and subject matter mainly consists of Alison reflecting on the death/suicide of her father in her early twenties, coupled with the discovery around the same time that she herself is a lesbian and that her father was a closeted gay man.

The book is a series of reflections and links back into her childhood, exploring possible clues and threads that she attempts to link with her own experiences coming to know that she’s a gay woman. It’s pretty nicely done, in all, and towards the end there are some great bits exploring links with the literature she and her father both loved (like Homer’s Odyssey, and Joyce’s Ulysses), however most of the references were kind of lost on me, since I was never a fan of either.

I liked this a decent amount, I guess, but it didn’t evoke any strong feelings in me at all, and therefore I can’t really think of anything else to write about.

Next: Bed by David Whitehouse

Sunday, 21 August 2011

44/111 – The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Got a little sidetracked with this one before I hit Fun Home. This is a book I picked up when I was working for Vintage. Strictly speaking, I probably shouldn’t have taken it, since it wasn’t a new book or anything, but I’m a huge Audrey Niffenegger fan, so fuck it.

It’s a very short comic, but apparently is part of a larger work, so maybe there’ll be more to come in the future. Niffenegger is notorious for writing slowly, so there might not be anything new from her for a while yet, I guess.

The story follows Lexi, a young woman, who one night comes across a Winnebago full of books. When she enters the Bookmobile, she realises that every book on the shelves is made up of books that she’s read throughout her life. In fact, it catalogues everything that she’s ever read, even cereal boxes and letters. She’s mesmerised by the Bookmobile and the idea of it. She grows more obsessed with it, and it’s not until nine years later that she sees it again, with all the added books she’s accumulated since that time.

It’s really a very appropriate book for me to have read for this project, since it’s all about the attraction and power of books and reading, and the way in which they shape us.  At one point, Lexi says:

“In the same way that perfume captures the essence of a flower, these shelves of books were a distillation of my life.”

It’s pretty true, for me. I find myself able to recall what was going on in my life during certain books, or where I was, what I was doing, when I bought them. This project is just an extension of that idea, I guess.

Lexi becomes consumed by the idea of becoming a librarian in the Bookmobile, however is told that this isn’t possible. In her real life, she studies hard and becomes the director of a huge library, but she still isn’t satisfied. After killing herself, she finds herself standing with the librarian of her Bookmobile, Mr. Openshaw, who congratulates her and assigns her a little girl who has just read her first book. I really love the idea that you could have a sort of guardian angel for reading who oversees your entire reading life.

In her afterword, Niffenegger asks a couple of questions that I don’t really know how to answer: ‘What is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes we devote to books?’ I don’t really know what it is I’m looking for. Why do I love reading so much? Escapism? Knowledge? I don’t know what it is, but I do know that when I read the back of a book for the first time, when I hold it in my hands, I just get this urge, this pull to have it and to possess it and to read it.

The other question she asks sends a spooky little chill down my spine: ‘What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with the perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever?’

Quite a lot, I think.

Next: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

43/111 – Go To Sleep by Helen Walsh

This is another Canongate purchase from last week. I also had really high hopes for this one, and I would like to stress at the outset that if this had not been a Canongate book, then I most likely would not have chosen to read it, because it’s pretty far out of my interests.

Rachel has become pregnant after a one-night stand with an old flame, and has decided to keep the baby. Sounds like total chick-lit, but I decided to go with it, because it promised to be quite dark and maybe even interesting. The opening of the novel sees her pottering around, still heavily pregnant and daydreaming about how fucking awesome it’s going to be to become a mother. Already, the narration and the character are annoying me.

The narration flips between the current day, and to flashbacks of Rachel’s adolescence, to her early relationship with Rueben, the father of her baby. It flips between these passionate encounters and her struggles with the baby, (named Joe), once he’s born. When she gives birth, Rachel is horrified to find that she feels nothing for Joe, and she starts to go a bit nuts. She has trouble breastfeeding him and getting him to sleep, and is convinced that he cries harder when she picks him up, and that he’s pretending to be good when other people are around. Classic post-natal depression stuff.

The synopsis of the book seems to suggest that something pretty dark is going to happen, that maybe Rachel is going to hurt herself or the new baby. I wouldn’t say I had been holding out for that possibility, but I would have definitely found it more interesting than the total and utter blandness that ensued.
I couldn’t find a single thing to like about this book, except for the cover design. The main character is an insipid, dull woman. The writing is clumsy, and the plot totally wastes an opportunity to explore a genuinely dark subject in an interesting way. There’s even a page at the end of the novel titled: Six Months Later, which shows Rachel all happy with Joe. Walsh might as well have just ended the novel with ‘she woke up and it was all a dream’, and be done with it.

Maybe I would have found this book more interesting if I had a baby, but it was just so dull. It’s full of problems that are not problems, and weird outbursts, and everything about the writing feels forced, unnatural and amateurish. I pretty much skimmed the last 100 pages, because I wanted to stick with it and see if anything interesting would actually happen, or if it was going to remain totally vanilla. I found the writing to be very shallow, too. There were some attempts at making the characters more complex and multi-faceted, but it was just executed so poorly. For example the author seems to go to great lengths to portray Rachel as a modern, independent and maybe even edgy woman. She even says 'fuck' once in a while and the father of the baby is a black dude. Shocking? No, not shocking, just offensively dull.

So yeah, that’s what I meant when I said that I wouldn’t have bought this if it hadn’t been published by Canongate. Since their stuff tends to usually be quite quirky, I thought it might actually do well at pushing some boundaries. Instead, this novel is bland and dull. There’s nothing even remotely dark in there – Rachel doesn’t even come close to hurting the baby. The closest she comes is taking a couple of sleeping pills herself and then dreaming that she leaves him by a lake. The whole time I just wanted to shake her and shout at her ‘BE MORE INTERESTING!’.

Hopefully the next one will be: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

42/111 – Grow Up by Ben Brooks


I went on a bit of a shopping spree recently. I was feeling the urge for a new book, and I ended up buying a few within a few days of each other. They just so happened to all be published by Canongate, who I like quite a bit. Their fiction always seems to be a lovely mixture of quirky and disturbing and touching, and I also think they do fantastic book design. There’s just something about their books that makes me want to pick them up and touch them. The three that I picked up all have a kind of matt texture, and a bit of folded inwards cover with the blurb on it. There’s probably a proper word for it, but I don’t know it.

I decided to start off with Grow Up. I was not too thrilled with the endorsement from Noel Fielding, because I hate The Mighty Boosh, but I thought that he probably didn’t really read it anyway.
The story follows Jasper, a teenage boy, who should be studying for his A-levels, but instead spends all his time thinking about Georgia, taking drugs and thinking of ways to prove that his stepfather is a murderer. The whole novel is told from Jasper’s point of view, and the narrations has a Curious-Dog feel to it in that Jasper clearly views the world in a very different way to most people.

I really liked this, and there were a lot of moments that made me laugh, which is a little unusual for me in a book. Brooks has a way of phrasing things that I found genuinely delightful, so for your enjoyment I’m going to list a few of my favourite phrases:

“They spill out over the top like the foreheads of curious children.” – referring to someone’s breasts.

“I can only hope that the future will tame the wild horses in my eyes.”

“Get an abortion, Abby, or else I will put a horse head on my head and come into your room late at night.”

There’s not a great deal to the actual story – Jasper is obsessed with Georgia, but gets Abby pregnant after a one-night stand. The action revolves around a series of parties and drug-taking incidents, and in his clumsy way, Jasper tries to take care of his friend Tenaya, whose parents are alcoholics and who self-harms after her boyfriend cheats on her. All pretty standard teenage drama and white-people-problems.

As I said, my main enjoyment from this book came from the phrasing and the internal narration of Jasper’s thoughts. I kind of wish the plot had had a little more going for it, but I don’t think that was really the point of the book. I enjoyed it a lot, but had the book been any longer, I think I would have eventually lost the drive to continue to read about characters I didn’t really care about. The writing is excellent, though, and the book's atmosphere feels really genuine. Which would make sense, considering that the author is only nineteen himself, and already has several other books in print. I would even say that his age is a credit to him, because even though I’ve heard people making comparisons between Grow Up and Skins, there’s none of the over-privileged nastiness in there. Jasper is a moron, and sometimes insensitive and cruel, but I couldn’t help develop a little soft spot for him.

Grow Up is a great little quirky coming-of-age novel, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more Ben Brooks in future.

Next: Go To Sleep by Helen Walsh

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

41/111 – World War Z by Max Brooks


I haven’t really been enjoying reading so much lately. I’ve been stressed with work, and I’ve started a new job, etc etc. However I’ve recently started looking at books again and getting that feeling I used to have. That feeling where I have to keep turning the pages, and where I go into a bookshop, look at the new books and my hands itch to pick up something new and amazing.

I’ve been talking a lot more about books in the real world, too. Mostly with people from work, which is really what prompted me to read World War Z, even though I read it a couple of years ago.

It’s really excellent.

It’s by the same dude who wrote the Zombie Survival Guide, which I’ve never really looked through. It’s pretty much an oral history set at some point in the indeterminate future, in which the world is recovering from a zombie holocaust. I’m already a big fan of zombie culture, so I had a pretty good idea that I was going to enjoy this book, but it was brilliant in a way I hadn’t expected.

There is no narrator or characters, as such. The book is laid out as a non-fiction collection of interviews, vignettes and monologues from people all over the world and with different roles and experiences of their time during what they call the Great Panic. It’s very journalistic in style, which was a surprise for me, but was extremely enjoyable. Each section gives you only the briefest glimpse into what it was like for each person, which can be a little tantalising and frustrating, but I think that Brooks really manages to pull it off. The interviews are utterly convincing and human.

Another thing he does really well is portraying this disaster in a realistic way. It’s not gory or slapstick in the way that zombie movies sometimes can be. He seems to have considered every angle in ways that I had never even considered. For example there’s a great passage from an astronaut who happened to be based in a space station at the time of the apocalypse, and another very moving section based on a submarine. There are some amazing stories of heroism, as well as stories of the more scummy side of humanity.

This is a really excellent book, and I’m pretty excited to hear that it’s being made into a film. The reason I decided to read this again is that I’d been talking to someone at work about it, and was going to let them borrow it. But just talking about it had suddenly made me feel quite excited about the possibility of reading it again, so I decided to read it myself first. Well worth the second read.

Next: Grow Up by Ben Brooks

Monday, 27 June 2011

Reload

I think it's about time that I did a little juggle of my books and my shelves. I've reached a point where I'm just stagnating, and not enjoying reading at all, which is like being without air for a gal like me.

I'm revisiting an old book that I loved this week, so I hope that will help get me back on the right track and boost my reading again.

I think that part of the reason for this trouble has been the work I've been doing on the side of my other job at various publishing companies etc. I've been so fucking far into that stuff, and working myself into a frenzy, that I can't even stand the thought of looking at another book when I'm done for the day. Which is weird for me, because when I was working for Waterstone's, I couldn't get enough! I was reading before work, reading on my lunch break, and then reading some more at home. I know, I know; sounds wild.

I want to get back into it, because I've only read 40 books so far this year, and the year is half over! I need to get at least my original number done, even if I don't read all the books I originally set out to.

Holy shit, it's going to be tough.

40/111 – The Game by Neil Strauss


I borrowed this book from a friend recently, after having watched several episodes of a hilarious and slightly disturbing show called The Pick-Up Artist from a few years ago. I’d heard of the book before, and I knew it was a book giving advice to guys on how to pick up women, but I had no idea of the huge subculture of pick-up artists, also called PUAs.

I had thought that I would find the show reprehensible and awful, because I consider myself to be a pretty hardline feminist in a lot of ways. There are certainly parts of the book and the show that I do find distasteful, such as women being described as little girls who need to be told what to do, or a guy using the same opening line over and over again, casting his net so wide that some girl somewhere is bound to agree to shag him. I was also offended by some of the attitudes of the guys in the book and the show, who see sleeping with a woman as a kind of video game – you get higher points for nailing a perfect ten. 

One of the things that really made my skin crawl was the practice of ‘negging’ a girl. The idea behind this is that with ‘hot’ girls, compliments just wash over them because they hear them so often. If you ‘neg’ them (basically it’s a mild criticism, or a backhanded compliment) then they respond by trying to prove themselves to you, and seeking your approval. It’s a way of subtly grinding down a woman’s self-esteem, and I find the whole idea really creepy.

The show itself is hilarious. The format is a group of mutant guys who have never seen a naked woman before, learning to transform themselves and behave in ways which will make them irresistible to women. Some of the failures are heartbreaking, but most of them are hilarious. The show is hosted by a PUA/magician called Mystery, who’s obviously very charismatic and I can totally understand why he attracts a lot of women. Each episode, he sets the guys challenges, usually relating to getting a woman’s phone number or a kiss. Each episode, someone is eliminated, and then the last guy gets a $50,000 prize and the title ‘The Pick-Up Artist’.

So there’s some horrible stuff out there, and I’m sure it attracts a lot of horrible guys, too. Guys who can’t get a woman to talk to them because they’re just not very nice people, and there are certainly lots of guys like that in the book. But I was surprised by how much I warmed to Neil, the narrator of the book. He’s a small, shy, balding writer who has had no luck with women. He’s a journalist who intends to investigate the world of PUAs, but then ends up getting sucked into the subculture and becoming one of the best known PUAs out there. His success rate with women skyrockets, and he befriends Mystery and they begin working together, teaching other guys how to perform the routines that will help them pick up women.

There are also some pretty interesting ideas in the book regarding picking up women, and I’m sure that I’ve experienced a lot of them, though I’m not sure whether the guys have been doing it consciously or not. It’s definitely eye-opening. Some of the stuff that’s in there is also just common sense. Opening up a conversation with a woman, rather than using a pick-up line, is always the best way to go. And small cues like touching a woman on the shoulder are always pretty obvious, too. But creepy. I hate to think that courtship and mating are so… formulaic? I’ve never approached a man with a game plan or a tactic, or a way to trick him into liking/sleeping with me. That idea is so dehumanising and alien to me. And surely it must take al the spontaneity out of getting to know someone for the first time. If you already know where it’s going to lead, then it isn’t any fun, is it?

Anyway, the book is interesting, and sort of enjoyable. Neil seems sincere and nice, and after getting caught up in that world, he seems to eventually find a good balance.

On a sidenote: I’ve wondered if these same ‘techniques’ would work on men, but I’m not sure that men and women have the same dynamic between them in the pick-up game. Most women tend to be waaaay more picky, and are expecting to get hit on, unlike guys. I also have a sneaking suspicion that a woman’s success rate would be ridiculously high compared to a man’s. Before you know it, you could have ten different guys on the go, but I’m not sure how good my juggling skills are.

I guess there's only one way to find out.

Next time: I’m going to give myself a real treat and re-read an old book before I lend it to someone, so it should be fairly quick and enjoyable. Double points! The book will be World War Z by Max Brooks.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

39/111 – The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Okay, so I’ve been sidetracked recently. Not only by personal life issues, but also by jobs. I have obviously eaten on way more than I can chew, and therefore it’s been a while since I have even wanted to look at another book, let alone read one. However last week I finished a book, and this week I’ve almost finished ANOTHER one, so it’s going much better than it has been.

I bought The Psychopath Test after reading an excerpt from it in the Guardian, and after also having enjoyed The Men Who Stare at Goats (the film, not the book). Since I’m quite interested in mental health issues, I thought this would be a good one to get my teeth back into. I was beginning to suspect for a little while that what I needed was not necessarily a break from reading, but maybe a break from fiction. I’ve spent the first five months of this year reading pretty much exclusively fiction, and I think that maybe I’ve been getting a bit sick of it. I look at the hundreds of books still left on my shelves, and I don’t really feel in the mood to read any of them, though my bookworm juices are beginning to flow again now that the stress of work has ebbed somewhat.

Holy shit, I can’t believe it’s been a month since I read a book! My brain truly must be rotting.

So, the book: I enjoyed it. There were times when it seemed to go off on some strange tangents and I wasn’t always sure what it was getting at. But I think that’s just Ronson’s style, which is fine. Even though the book seems to be about psychopaths, it also talks a lot about puzzles and mysteries, particularly focused around a cryptic book. Ronson seems to fall upon the subject of psychopaths by pure chance, and once the book mystery has been solved, he turns his attention to the frightening world of psychopaths.

What follows is part case study and part history of mental health treatment for this untreatable condition. Some of the results are hilarious (including an experiment with a roomful of naked psychopaths on acid) and others are chilling and frightening. He even takes a course from Bob Hare, a world-renowned expert in psychopathy in order to learn how to spot these people. He also briefly explores the way Scientologists approach psychiatry and mental health (they think it’s all bullshit, basically).

Interestingly, Ronson discovers that many of the world’s most dangerous psychopaths are not the murderers in asylums like Broadmoor, but the ones who head up huge companies, or military coups. He concludes that even a relatively small number of ruthless psychopaths can have a devastating effect on society. These are people who operate only for their own purposes, and have a lot of trouble keeping their impulses in check, but who can also be highly skilled at mimicking ‘normal’ people. Psychopaths do not really feel emotion, empathy or fear.

Makes me sort of wish I was one, sometimes.

I really enjoyed this. I was a little unsatisfied at the end, and maybe I was hoping for more of a conclusion, or another more gruesome revelation, but it was very entertaining. 


Next time, it won't be such a gap. And the book will be: The Game by Neil Strauss

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

38/111 – A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


My reading habits have taken a terrible nosedive in the past few weeks, due to some personal issues. It’s dreadful, really. I love to read. It’s a wonderful distraction, most of the time, but lately I just haven’t been able to muster up the concentration to read. Then I started this book, and finishing it became this mammoth task that I seemed totally unable to take care of. Normally I read 2-3 books a week, and I haven’t read anything new for several weeks now. I’m hoping that finishing this book will symbolise me getting over the hump. Books-wise, at least.

I bought this pretty recently, because it had done really well in reviews, was nominated for prizes and eventually took this year’s Pulitzer. I’ve also read one of Egan’s books before (Look At Me) which I really enjoyed, so I thought I was pretty well set-up to read this one.

I did enjoy it, but I’m not sure how I feel about it now that I’ve finished it. It’s strange to think that the way I enjoyed this could have been affected by the way my life has been recently, but I guess it works pretty well the other way around: art can have an effect on your life, so why shouldn’t your life have an effect on the way you interpret that art?

I most enjoyed reading parts of this book while I was drunk. Not wasted or anything, but 1-2 glasses of wine drunk. I read some of it on the way back from meeting a friend for a drink a few weeks ago, and after that large glass of wine, I was convinced that this was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I felt the same way last week, after another large glass of wine. I don’t really want to talk much about the book, so I’m going to pull out a couple of quotes that made me laugh a lot:

“Does the chemical composition of Jagermeister cause a craving for string beans? Is there some property of string beans that becomes addictive on those rare occasions when they’re consumed with Jagermeister? I asked myself these questions as I shovelled string beans into my mouth, huge crunchy forkfuls, and watched TV – weird cable shows, most of which I couldn’t identify and didn’t watch much of. You might say I created my own show out of all those other shows, which I suspected was actually better than the shows themselves. In fact, I was sure of it.”

Not sure why this made me laugh so much now, though I suspect it has something to do with the fact that for a while last year I lived with a girl who used to cook and eat enormous quantities of string beans. She would eat so many at a time, that she would go to work with a protruding belly and people would ask her if she was pregnant. It also made sharing a bathroom with her a ghastly experience.

One more:

“Kitty opens her small white purse and takes out a picture. A picture of a horse! With a white starburst on its nose. His name in Nixon. ‘Like the president?’ I ask, but Kitty looks blank at this reference, ‘I just liked the sound of that name,’ she says, and describes the sensation of feeding Nixon an apple – how he takes it between his horsey jaws and smashes it all at once with a cascade of milky, streaming juice.”

I think I just like the idea of the horse being able to crush a whole apple in his mouth.

That’s all for this. I haven’t really spoken much about the actual book, but I’m not in the mood. I liked it a lot, but felt a bit bereft at the end. Not enough to sustain the whole thing, but really excellent characters. The story itself is more like a series of character vignettes of people who are loosely linked in some way or another. Some good female characters in there, but they seemed very sad for the most part, although that could just be because I’m a little sad myself these days.

Next time: Spurious by Lars Iyer 

It's been too long

Way too long. Since I wrote anything in here. I'm doing two jobs at the moment, and am about to start a third, so that's why. Maybe I'm also not enjoying my current book that much, but it does feel like I'm enjoying it at the time.

So more to come.

Weird delay.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

37/111 – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne


I was a bit naughty and bought this book earlier this week, because I’d been reading some other stuff about Nazi Germany and I just fancied reading a novel about it, too. I saw the film that they made of this back when it came out at the cinema, but that was back in 2008 so the memory of it had faded a little, although I still of course remembered the shocking ending.

Bruno is a nine-year-old boy from Berlin who lives with his mother, father and sister. His father receives a promotion, meaning that the whole family have to move away from Berlin, which Bruno is extremely unhappy about. The whole story is told from Bruno’s perspective, and of course, being only nine, he is very naïve and unaware of what’s really going on around him. This is especially interesting because the story is set during WWII, and Bruno’s father is a Nazi officer. Their new home is in a place which Bruno thinks is called ‘Out-With’, but is clearly supposed to be pronounced 'Auschwitz'.  Bruno also mistakenly calls the Fuhrer, the ‘Fury’.

From his new bedroom at Out-With, Bruno can see an area where there are hundreds of other people together, all wearing the same striped pyjamas. He’s jealous that they all get to be together, whilst he has no friends. Bored and lonely, Bruno goes out exploring one day, and when he reaches the fence, he encounters another boy his age, called Shmuel, and they strike up a friendship. I don’t want to give anything else away about the book, because it does take a really shocking turn, and a lot of the things that are most effective about the story are because of the way they are told through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand what’s really going on.

I liked this book a lot, and it also made me cry, which doesn’t happen often for me with books or films. I liked how it was horrifying without being explicit. I think the author gets the voice of Bruno just right. I know that writing from the point of view of a child is quite a popular gimmick for adult novels these days, but for the most part it works really well. I liked the way that sometimes Bruno is not especially likeable, and there are points where he’s really self-cantered and thoughtless, but hey, he’s only nine.

The only parts where it doesn’t work so well are the little misunderstandings Bruno has with the pronunciation of certain words. As I already pointed out, he mistakes 'Fuhrer' and 'Auschwitz' for 'Fury' and 'Out-With'. Not only are these ‘mistakes’ a little contrived, but they also don’t translate properly. John Boyne has obviously written this novel in English, but Bruno presumably speaks German. So the little mistakes he has written into the text translate perfectly well for English, but the ‘sound-a-like’ doesn’t work if you take into account that he would have been speaking German. Probably a silly thing to notice, on my part.

The film seems to have been pretty faithful to the book, as far as I can remember. I think that the ending of the film may have been slightly more shocking, but just as sad. So so sad.

That’s all for now.

Next time: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Kindle and concentration

I recently tried to read a book on a Kindle. I was emailed a .pdf of a book that I'm doing some work for, and I was due to receive a paper copy of the book, too, but I thought I'd have a go at reading it on my dad's Kindle first and see how the experience panned out.

The process of getting the document on the Kindle itself seems fairly straightforward. I didn't do it myself, but I understand that it's much like putting a document on a USB stick or something. The first problem that came up was the page orientation. Putting the page the regular way up meant that the text was tiny, so we tried switching it to landscape, which was better, but it now meant that I had to scroll down several times to get to the end of a page, and that the scrolling was not always as neat as it could be. What I mean is that when I scrolled down, the device did not instinctively scroll to the next line, and so every time I pressed 'down', I found that I was losing my place in the text, which is really distracting.

With e-books, you can also alter the size of the font, and the Kindle automatically re-calculates the page numbers to account for this. On a .pdf, there's no way to do this that we could figure out, so not only did I have to keep scrolling back and forth, but there was no way to re-size the already-small text.

In any case, I decided to give it a go. I was impressed by the quality of the screen - it's not colour and it's not bright, but there is something cool about it. No good for reading in the dark, though. The device itself is light and compact, but I found it a bit awkward to hold landscape ways. It didn't feel intuitive to me to hold it that way.

My experience of actually reading on the device was unsatisfying. As I said, I kept losing my place every time I scrolled down, which was three times per page, so I kept losing the flow of the book. I also felt that I wasn't concentrating as well as I could have been. I don't know if it's something to do with never having used a Kindle before, but I felt like I just wasn't taking anything in. The process felt more unnatural than I had anticipated, and I think that overall this made my reading speed much slower and just generally distracted me. In several days, I had only managed to read about 40 pages of the text, and earlier this week when I switched to the paper book, I read about 100 pages in one sitting.

Perhaps it would have been fine if I had been reading the e-book and not a .pdf, but the Kindle is supposed to be able to handle those kinds of documents properly. A lot of books are sent round as .pdfs nowadays, especially when they are in draft mode, (not that I'm reading millions of drafts) but there's almost no point in having it from my point of view if all you can do with it is read a finished book.

That's all, really. I think I'll give it another try soon with a proper book and see how that feels, but as I suspected, I don't think the Kindle is for me.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Sci-Fi authors unite against genre snobbery

UK science siction author Stephen Hunt is proud to call himself a 'genre' author. Since the launch of World Book Night last month, he has spearheaded a campaign heavily criticising WBN and the BBC for the lack of inclusion of more commercial fiction in the event. In a recent blog post, he labelled the tone of the programming as sneering, and lamented 'its narrow focus on a single genre' - of the 25 books featured in WBN, Philip Pullman's The Northern Lights was the only fantasy title, and the majority of the remainder were so-called 'literary' fiction titles.

Hunt's wrath was particularly stirred up by a recent BBC program entitled, 'The Books We Really Read', hosted by comedienne and former Booker Prize judge Sue Perkins. As he perceived it:
'she never normally reads any of our lowbrow genre tripe (although she might, you know, give it a whirl now, just for the sake of World Book Night)... Fantasy was not mentioned once during the Perkins farce, fantasy, the very mother root of literature, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling and Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville and Michael Moorcock all stuffed inside CS Lewis's wardrobe, the better not to be seen.'
Hunt has written a letter of protest signed by 85 other 'genre' authors so far, including Iain M. Banks, Steven Erikson and Neal Asher (the full list can be found here). The labels 'genre' and 'literary' are pretty slippery and elusive, and the lines between them are definitely not always clearly defined, however there does seem to have been an oversight in the choice of books. Hunt asserts that sci-fi, fantasy and horror in fact make up 20-30% of book sales.

The shunning of genre fiction isn't exactly a new revelation, and having worked as a Bookseller for a sci-fi and graphic novels specialist, it's been on my radar for several years. As a student, I even used to feel a little sheepish admitting to my more discerning peers that, yes, one of my favorite authors is Stephen King. Of course, literary and genre fiction both have value, and it's also worth mentioning that as with all fiction, some of it is good, and some of it is terrible.

David Barnett over at Guardian Books has offered a counterpoint to Hunt's campaign by pointing out that the BBC has a long history of producing wonderful science fiction programming, including Misfits, Life on Mars and of course, Doctor Who. Hopefully next year's WBN will redress the balance. However, if in the meantime you should feel the need to check out some excellent sci-fi, allow me to point you towards a Melville House steampunk extravaganza: Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama is the perfect cocktail of a literary adventure novel that combines suspense, science fiction, romance and history. What more could you need?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

36/111 – Player One by Douglas Coupland

I bought this book while I was living in America. I have read and enjoyed several of Douglas Coupland’s books before, but he’s not someone I keep up with obsessively, so it was a lovely surprise to see his new book out without expecting to. My favourite of his is definitely The Gum Theif, which I just found totally hilarious, for some reason. I had previously attempted to read Generation X, but hadn’t managed to finish it, but The Gum Thief sounded much more like my kind of thing, and I was right! Hilarious and had me laughing all the way through.

Doulgas Coupland definitely has a distinctive style, and I find that once I’ve read something of his, the same themes and ideas tend to crop up in all his work. For me, the same is true of Chuck Palahniuk. To combat a feeling of repetitiveness, I have to have a healthy rest in between each of their books so that I don’t feel like I’m reading the same thing twice, even though I always really enjoy whatever he’s written.

Player One is subtitled; What is to Become of Us – A Novel in Five Hours. The setting is a cheap airport bar, where five separate personalities come together. As the outside world abruptly falls apart after peak oil hits, these strangers find themselves trapped as a sinister chemical dust cloud makes its way towards them, and a sniper tries to pick them off. They sort of get to know each other a little, whilst at the same time sharing their ideas and theories on life and the afterlife, with a lovely absurd twist. All very much Douglas Coupland territory.

Rick is a down-and-out bartender and ex-alcoholic with hopes of buying into a system of life-changing seminars to explore his full potential. Karen is a forty-something woman who arrives at the bar for an internet hookup. Luke has recently fled the church where he is a pastor after losing his faith in God. Rachel is a young autistic woman in search of a mate in order to prove to her father that she is really a human being. And Player One is the all-seeing and all-knowing voice that hides deep inside Rachel’s robotic exterior. They all seem pretty different, and they all have different points of view, but the one thing they have in common is that they are all very lonely.

I enjoyed this because it was kind of apocalyptic, like some of Coupland’s other fiction, and it reminded me in a lot of ways of Girlfriend in a Coma. It also feels very existentialist – there’s lots of pondering over why bother to stay alive, and why do we as humans feel a craving for narrative in our lives? Not just in the stories that we consume, but why do we have such a desire for our own lives to form a kind of story? There were a couple of ideas I really want to focus on. The first one is that one of the characters begins to lament that, when you are young and feel like you have the luxury of time, you spend a lot of your time waiting for your life to begin. You spend your time focusing on all the things that are going to happen for you or be different once your life has properly begun, so much so that one day you wake up and realise that you’re old, and that you missed it all waiting for it to start. Deep.

The other idea I found really interesting emerged towards the end of the novel. Rachel/Player One starts thinking about genetics, and cloning, and that how one day human reproduction could involve endless cloning of ourselves. One day, you might be born with your very own user’s manual from your future self, with each generation living out a better rehearsed version than the last, and always leaving new improvements for the following generation's reincarnation. I think this ties in quite well with the other idea of waiting for your life to start. I think it’s possible to focus too much on both of these things. Isn’t it a shame to spend your life worrying about whether you got everything right or not? Guess I have a lot to learn.

Aside from the philosophical stuff, there were also some genuinely funny moments, which I always find surprising and delightful in Doug's books, because they can sometime seem like the deal with very big and heavy ideas. However, he manages to lighten the tone perfectly – one of my favourite moments in Player One is where Rachel is thinking about how many left over ‘bum molecules’ are imbedded in the chairs of the bar. There is also a fictional glossary at the end of the book which reminded me of a more modern Devil’s Dictionary, including definitions of terms like Sin Fatigue and Time Snack.

Next: I don’t know yet. I’m too tired to choose right now.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Still unemployed


Update 15/4/11: I've been offered my first paid job, doing some freelance work for Melville House. Yessssssss!

_________________________________________


I want to work in publishing. Seems so simple, doesn’t it? This week I attended the London Book Fair, to look around and soak up the wonderful atmosphere of my future work environment. However, one of my main reasons for going was to try and rouse myself into remembering why I turned down this career path in the first place, and to give myself a little hope that one day I’ll end up with a job that pays me a wage I can live on.

The first and most important thing I’d like to say is that I am hugely grateful to the companies that have hosted me, especially Melville House in New York. Just as important, I’m immensely grateful to my dad for supporting me financially and mentally. What I’m about to say is not in any way an insult to them, nor is it an expression of ingratitude. I know I’m very fortunate, and that not many people can do what I’ve done.

A little background: I’m 25, female, British, middle-class (in upbringing only), and white. I graduated in 2009 with a useless 2.1 in English Literature, and no idea what I wanted to do. I had worked for Blackwell’s for several years, then at my University library, before migrating to a full-time position at Waterstone’s. All the while, my love/slightly disturbing fetish for books was fed more and more, and yet I still didn’t know what to do with my life.

Like many people from my background, I had ‘always loved books’. What a cliché, right? But when I said it, I really meant it. It occurred to me that I had never considered publishing as a career choice, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed not only obvious, but exciting, too. Whilst at Waterstone’s, I’d been saving up money with half-hearted dreams of going ‘travelling’, and I started to think about whether I could combine my desire to get out of England, and also experiment with a new career. I boldly decided to give publishing a go.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

35/111 - Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I bought this book pretty recently, and I only wanted it based on the premise. I don’t normally read young adult fiction, although this is somewhere in between YA and adult, in my opinion.

Set in Portland, Maine, at some point in the future, Lena is an ordinary 17-year-old girl. When she turns 18, she will be cured of a virulent disease, just like everyone else in society, so that she can live a productive life. The disease that they intend to cure her of is ‘amor deliria nervosa’, also known as ‘love’. Up until now, Lena has eagerly looked forward to being cured and getting rid of all her pesky emotions, which only lead to pain, suffering and chaos. That is, until she meets ‘golden-eyed’ Alex, a boy who will change her life forever…

I kind of liked this idea, because it’s dystopian and blah blah blah. It’s interesting to see the different angles people take on potentially horrible and inhumane versions of the future. Lena’s world is pretty sinister. The cure for love involves some kind of laser/cutting into the brain, presumably to sever whatever causes us to feel emotions. Love is classed as a disease, and all the classic signs of love – heat racing, excitement, loss of appetite, daydreaming – are all labelled as ‘symptoms’. Citizens are supposed to keep a vigilant eye on those around them to make sure they don’t exhibit signs of the disease, lest they be carted away for further treatment, or worse, forever cast out as ‘sympathisers’. In this world, humans don’t feel any strong emotions at all, and one of the potential side effects of the cure is extreme detachment. However most people go along with it in order to maintain an orderly society.

I often wonder where these kinds of stories emerge from. Are they coming from a place of anxiety about the chaotic nature of the world today? It’s difficult to think that anything like this could really take place, but a quick glance at human history will reveal many terrible episodes in our past that are just as awful as any of these potential situations.

I kind of liked this. It was easy to read, but pretty annoying in places. I think the elements which annoyed me the most were the parts which seemed most like a YA novel. Some of the characterisation was overly simplistic and predictable, and there was also something a bit ‘Twilight-y’ about the main character, Lena. I read the first in the Twilight series at uni, and it was dreadful. Lena reminded me a bit of the main character in that she’s a bit limp. In both novels there are constant references to how awkward the girl is, how plain and how clumsy. How she’s nothing special. How she never feels beautiful until she meets her boyfriend.

What the fuck?

Since when is that good female characterisation? And since when is that a good role model for teenage girls? Give them a bit of credit, please. One female character which springs to mind is the amazing Lyra from Philip Pullman’s trilogy, who is feisty and strong, and sometimes weak, but never with any reference to how beautiful she is or is not. I find it irritating and sloppy to have main characters that readers will obviously identify with, but who are so obviously bereft of complexity. Delirium is particularly bad in that Lena’s best friend, Hana, is described pretty much as a supermodel, which is just lazy and shallow writing. Granted, Lena is nowhere NEAR as bad as the girl from Twilight, but it was still disappointing.

Her actions are also pretty predictable, and she doesn’t seem that capable of thinking for herself. I’m also wary of any book which puts the idea of love and relationships on such a high pedestal – there’s more to life than these things, though in some of the current popular YA fiction, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t remember what I wanted as a teenager, but a boyfriend was not at the top of the list.

It’s the first in a trilogy. I might give the next one a go, and see what she does with it. But I might not.

Next: Player One by Douglas Coupland

Monday, 4 April 2011

34/111 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I decided to read this because I wanted a little break from reading about depression for a while. I bought this book quite recently, while I was at World Book Night. I decided to read it because I love a good bit of dystopian fiction and thought it might be a nice distraction and also provide some good things to ruminate in my brains.

Guy Montag is a fireman. However he is not a fireman in the sense of the word that we are familiar with. His job is not to put out fires, but to set them. Specifically, his job is to burn books. He and his team of firemen are called out to a house where the inhabitants are accused of harbouring books, where they proceed to soak them in kerosene and torch the whole place. In Montag’s world, books are illegal, and the people who persist in owning them are outlaws and social misfits. Up until now, Montag has happily opted in to this version of society, however his new neighbour, a strange teenage girl called Clarisse, permanently changes the way he thinks about the world. He begins to think more, which in this world, is just not cool. Prompted by Clarisse's questions, he begins to think about whether he is really happy. He discovers that he is not, and his life begins to unravel as he gives in to the compulsion to take a book from one of his fires.

I quite liked this. I was hoping to enjoy it a little more – I thought it might be a little more in the style of Richard Matheson, who I had really enjoyed earlier this year, since they were both written around the same time. Stylistically, this felt a lot more old-fashioned, like 1984 or Brave New World, and there were other parallels between these books that I will come back to later.

There were a lot of interesting ideas here. For my final year dissertation I wrote about Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and there was a lot of stuff in Fahrenheit 451 that was really similar. The fires set by the firemen, for example. There’s really no reason for the firemen to make them so huge, or for them to burn down an entire house. The point is to make the fire a spectacle, as this sends a message to the rest of society that this is what happens when you don’t conform. It’s also a form of entertainment. Everyone else can kind of draw together in mutual horror and revulsion at the outcasts and their misbehaviour, and give themselves a nice pat on the back for being such good citizens.

The other area which is similar to Society of the Spectacle is the sort of entertainment available in Montag’s world (hey I just realised that both people I’m talking about are called ‘Guy’!). In Society of the Spectacle, Debord talks about how entertainment is used a tool to deliberately draw our attention to one thing in order to take it away from another area. As a broad example, you could use the idea of reality TV. People watch reality TV shows, which have no value whatsoever, save entertainment (and even that is questionable). If they are watching these shows, then they are spending less time doing or thinking about other things, like world poverty, or reading the news, or writing to their local MPs, or causing an uprising. According to Debord, entertainment in the form of spectacle is to distract the people from serious issues, and most importantly, to keep them docile. In Montag’s world, there is also the more sinister function of keeping the population in check.

Considering the fact that this was written in the 1950s, when TV had had very little impact so far, Bradbury has also done a great job predicting how the world would look someday. For example Montag’s wife, Mildred, spends her days obsessed by ‘programs’ featuring characters who ‘love’ her, and whom she claims to love. This super-TV takes up three walls of their living room, and she is pestering Montag for a fourth wall so that she can be totally cushioned from the outside world, and therefore only exist within this spectacle. I could make all sorts of comparisons with contemporary ‘entertainment’, but I don’t think I need to.

Going back to what I said earlier about 1984 and Brave New World: my comparison to these two texts is not for favourable reasons, unfortunately. All three of these texts have one thing in common which I find myself extremely frustrated by: their lack of good female characters. Lenina in Brave New World, Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 (and to a lesser extent Julia in 1984) are vapid, stupid, consumerist and sometimes even downright malicious women. The portrayals of these women show them as people who are unable or unwilling to engage critically in their surroundings. They buy into the system without a moment’s thought, and when the people around them appear to question things, they act bewildered and horrified. This really annoyed me, and I would have liked to see some stronger female characters in all of these novels. I don’t know if their portrayals are just a sign of the times they were written in? Clarisee has the potential to be an interesting and multi-facted character, but Bradbury kills her off before any further development (a decision which he now says he regrets).

I’m not going to talk about the book-burning side of things, because I’m sure that’s been done to death. It’s very interesting, though. And as a bonus, I can now also spell ‘Fahrenheit’ without any trouble.

Next: Delirium by Lauren Oliver