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

Friday, 1 April 2011

33/111 – Northline by Willy Vlautin

This is a book that I bought last year while I was working at Waterstone’s, but I bought it from somewhere else. Only £2! Brilliant. The author is a musician, and it also came with a CD, but since I’m not a music person, I’m not going to go out of my way to listen to it.

I simultaneously loved and hated this book. Which is good, because at least it made me feel something. There were a few bits I disliked, but on the whole I thought it was very good, and I would definitely read more of his stuff.

Allison is a 22-year-old waitress from Vegas with an abusive boyfriend. She’s a little weak-willed and anxious all the time. She’s also quite clearly very depressed, drinks too much and has terribly low self-esteem, partly from the treatment from her boyfriend, and partly from her life prior to that moment. Some of the dick-ish things her boyfriend does: handcuffs her to a bed all day as revenge for getting drunk; enlists her help in burning down the house of some Mexicans; let's some dude tattoo a swastika while she's passed out. Pretty horrible.

One day, Allison finds herself pregnant, and terrified for her future, finally gets the guts to do something. She runs away to Reno where she gives the baby up for adoption and begins work elsewhere as a waitress. Allison is a girl who is totally in limbo. She has no self-esteem, no vision for her future, no friends, thinks about suicide all the time etc etc. She’s a really sad figure, and I wanted to give her a hug and a pep talk. At the same time, I just want to slap her and tell her to get herself together.

Vlautin evokes a pretty realistic and well-portrayed feeling of a young woman lost and going-nowhere in America. However there were a few moments that I thought were totally unnecessary. There are a couple of scenes in the book where Allison ends up getting assaulted/raped while she’s drunk. In one instance, two men take advantage of her when they meet her in a bar, and in another, she is assaulted out of revenge. These scenes did absolutely nothing for me and I didn’t understand why the author bothered to include them. It’s not that they were especially graphic or disturbing, they were just superfluous. Allison is already a sad and pitiable figure. The addition of these sex-ploitation scenes was too sensationalist, and almost ruined the entire reading experience for me.

I’m glad I continued, and decided to put them out of my mind. Ultimately, the writer is able to successfully swing her to my sympathetic side. His portrayal of mental anguish in this stifling dead-end world of Allison’s is realistic enough to be uncomfortable at times, but really well done. Very sweet and hopeful at the end, too.

I almost forgot! This novel also made me laugh. One of Allison’s character quirks is that she loves Paul Newman movies. So much so, that at her most desperate, she imagines Paul Newman is talking to her, and providing her the kind of comfort that a father figure would. These scenes in the book were sweet and funny, and kind of reminded me of the main relationship in Douglas Coupland’s The Gum Thief.

Next time: I’ve had enough of reading about sad people and depression for the time being, so I’m going to dive into some good old fashioned Science Fiction and read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.