Tag Archives: Books

Super Sad Book Review

Disclaimer: I’m not an author, or a critic (although isn’t everyone?)

Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ – NYTimes.com.

I read this one a while back, and I’m currently listening to more podcasts and audiobooks than I am reading physical books – when I get into bed and pick up my book, my brain says, “OK, sleepy time!” and switches off. Finding time to sit and read is tricky.

Read the NYtimes article linked to above for a background to the book. Here are my comments.

I felt a bit stuck in the middle. Despite being 39, approximately the age of male protagonist, I felt like he was much older. Perhaps I don’t fit the uber-literate NYC Old-World-Intellectual type. I do own a corduroy jacket, and when the elbows give out, I will be getting elbow patches, so there’s that. Funnily enough, the jacket is from Uniqlo. Funny, because…

His female counterpart is a young Korean-American, with the classical shame-driven and achievement/marriage obsessed parents (“why you no call? why you no study?”). Her obsession is consumerism, and the shopping channels she constantly browses on her cellphone. In fact, everyone her age has an obsession with the consumer culture created around them (by the previous generation, who now look on in horror as they are superceded).

A couple of word devices the author uses really irritated me. The first is the invention of the word “äppärät”, referring to the ubiquitous smartphones that everyone carries (at least anyone “in the know”). It’s a clumsy term, and a very unlikely one. In my experience, people don’t come up with something like that when describing something everyone has or does. People usually tend to abbreviate, saying, “Call me on my cell“, “Text me”, “I’ve got this great picture I took with my phone“. In the UK people say “my mobile”. In Germany they say “mein Handy”. I’ve read science fiction where everyone carries a “pad” or a “terminal”. There’s no need to be so florid (or unpronounceable), and it has the air of either desperation or a kind of me-too appropriation of established SF tropes. “Real” literature often does this, I find. They dip into the SF/Fantasy idea pool, pluck something juicy out, and get plaudits for being so inventive. This paragraph is a bit accusatory, and I don’t mean it to be – I’ve just noticed this. A “literary” author writes a genre book – SF or fantasy for example. Genre fans think it’s a weak example of the genre, but literary fans think it’s too out there. Does this happen a lot?

The other irritating wordplay is the InterCapping or CamelCase of all the corporation names, and how they’re amusing and unlikely, such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, ConAgraWholeFoodsLockheedMartin, WeylandYutani or whatever. That said, it’s not as bad as the cyberpunk overdrive of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, where everyone is on speed and smells of blood, nanobots and gunpowder, and carries a SmiWess sentient revolver (I made that up).

With the Occupy Wall Street protests going on now, it’s interesting to think of the parallels with this book. Some characters in the book are involved in helping encampments of people in Central Park, made homeless by the US dollar falling to the yuan. These are broken up using “semi-lethal” force, and it’s hard to watch the same thing happening now in the city where I live.

Good book, but I think I fall through a couple of gaps – the age/generation gap, and the genre/literary gap.

Happy Birthday Roger Hargreaves

Little Miss Chatterbox?

It feels weird to link to Google like this (“I just discovered this great new search website! Watch out Altavista!” (wow, Altavista still exists!)) but when I opened my browser to go to my firm’s document management system, I saw the current Google Doodle and had to post this.

I used to love the Mr Men books by the late Roger Hargreaves (he would have been 76 today). I had quite a few. I didn’t have any of the Little Miss equivalents – reasonable enough for the time, I think.

My favourites by far were Mr Strong & Mr Bump. I remember Mr Strong was so strong that he picked up a barn, turned it upside down and filled it with water to put out a fire. Mr Bump kept bumping into things, like walls, cupboard doors and the like, and was clearly in an abusive relationship with Mr Strong. Oh, and Mr Bounce got mistaken for a tennis ball! Bummer.

The books came in several waves – you could tell which wave each book was in by  the complexity of the character design. The earlier designs were quite simple, but as the number of characters increased, and the number of unused basic shapes ran out, they had to add details like hats, belts, hair, and in some cases some pretty awesome brogues (although the brogues belonged to one of the first wave, which is why you should ignore this paragraph if you’re looking for facts).

It turns out that as well as the splendid BBC animated shorts, narrated by the late Arthur Lowe in his wonderful plummy voice, there was a US-produced TV series created in about 2004 by the same producers as made Rugrats. No idea if that was any good. Lowe’s final role was in the very-much-of-its-time Britannia Hospital, which also starred the brilliant and departed Graham Crowden, whose final speech was sampled and used in the Orbital track Forever. Britannia Hospital was the final part of Lindsay Anderson’s satirical trilogy, which started with if…. and continued with O Lucky Man. If was the source of some samples too – by Dreadzone I think.

If nothing else, you can rely on this blog for Holistic Nostalgia™.

I did a Mr Men homage/ripoff as part of my series of Book Covers With The Wrong Genre:

THE ODYSSEY

Get it? I considered having the little guy having blood spurting out of the bite mark on his head. Or I could have gone with the old stake in the eye. Either way, the hat is artist’s license – Polyphemus was more a loincloth kind of guy.

 

You Are A Tourist, I Am A Traveller

Empty caveat: This post contains criticism of books I haven’t read. I know, right?

Cassie has recently been reading a couple of books recommended by her book club which got her very annoyed. I could tell she was annoyed because she would be reading in bed next to me, then suddenly exclaim something rude, drop the book on the floor and switch the light out.

The first book was The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, and it sounds insufferable to me, just from Shriver’s own description of herself. Grammar snob, “look at me I live in London and know what snooker is”. Drawn-out descriptions of fancy cooking just for the sake of it. The takeaway message? I AM BETTER THAN YOU.

The second book was Grounded, by Seth Stevenson, in which the author and his girlfriend go round the world using only ground transport like ships. A nice idea; Michael Palin made a gentle TV show from it late last century. But it would appear that Herr Stevenson is ALSO BETTER THAN YOU, because not only does he travel this way and write about it, he suggests frequently throughout that people who travel by air are not worthy to see the rest of the world and sample its cultures and cuisines. There is a drawback to travelling by tramp steamer across the Pacific, and that is the very long journey times and lack of entertainment (not to mention the danger of press gangs and – or is that not? No? OK then). But for most of you, this wouldn’t be a problem because your slovenly ape-brains don’t get bored by long stretches of time; they are too busy being amazed by the reality of a metal ship that floats. You’ve got it lucky, because Stevenson’s girlfriend, who is better than him and therefore WAY BETTER THAN YOU, is almost driven insane, her finely-tuned homo superior grey matter shrivelling away at the lack of stimulation.

On their travels they do the usual “authentic” travel experience, with exotic sweetmeats and bizarre (bazaar?) toilet arrangements ramming home how foreign the world can be, how safe your life is, and how exciting life can be when you leave the herdflock behind.

Both Stevenson and Shriver suffer from the kind of snobbery which suggests that one thing is “real”, while another thing, despite existing, is not. This idea is something that has bugged me for a while now, and a lot of my little bugbears can be traced to the suggestion that something I do or enjoy is not “real”. Music, film, coffee, bicycling. I must write something more substantial about this.

Meanwhile, I’m reading A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore, which is worrying close to Pr@tchett, but a bit darker. Cassie gave me it for my birthday, and it’s set in San Francisco, and so far it’s pretty good. After Junky and Cloud Atlas something lighter was required.

Of course, being a newcomer to the city, I’m going through that phase of being attracted to media that mentions or contains my new home. I found that irksome when I shared a house in Marlow with some Hounslow girls, who were always surprised at seeing London on the TV. The Princess Diaries is set here, as well as bits of Star Trek. Now that’s real entertainment.

Wonderfully Mellow: WonderCon 2010

I seem to be following these things around. When I lived in San Diego, I was able to go to ComicCon twice, and now in San Francisco we have WonderCon, run by the same people, but a bit smaller and mellower, as it turns out.

Of course, my buddy Brian, being a makeup artist and therefore an “industry person”, gets free passes for himself and an entourage, so all I have to do is lay out the lilo and have guests for the weekend. Brian, Stacey and their Golden Retriever Camden arrived Friday afternoon, and we had a pleasant weekend of geekery. (They were supposed to come up on Thursday, but Brian had a short-notice job applying makeup to Ernest Borgnine and Mickey Rooney).

WonderCon is much smaller that ComicCon, much less crowded, and the big names like DC and Marvel don’t have huge staged kiosks. In a way that made it better, because it allowed the smaller publishers and artists to stand out more. We did our usual wandering and browsing, Brian adding to the Kinney Hoard Museum of Action Figures, and then picked out some panels and talks to go to. Again, because of the smaller scale, it seemed easier to get to more of these interesting events. Of course, some of the panels were huge draws, such as the Arkham Asylum Forensic Psychology panel (“Is The Joker psychotic or psychopathic? How does that affect the law? Should he be in prison or the asylum?”). The huge line running round and round the corridors put me off that. There was also a big buzz about Dr Who, so any mention of that brought the fans running. We chose smaller stuff.

Creator’s Rights was a useful panel about how artists and authors should approach publishing, with horror stories of unscrupulous publishers ripping artists off. The upshot seemed to be to get someone (anyone, if not a lawyer) to read any paperwork and keep your trademarks. One panelist said to just post your work to a blog, and then use a Print On Demand service like Lulu.com to publish physical books yourself – your rights would be protected. What does a publisher bring to the table anyway? Brian was interested in this because he has a story that he wants to publish as a comic book (as part of a wider continuum of “product”) with an artist friend of his. I think they just need a kind of pre-nup.

Wandering around, I saw a short line leading up to Max Brooks, who was signing copies of his comic book Recorded Attacks, as well as anything else you wanted. I love his zombie books, so I took the opportunity to buy a copy and get it signed, and he was very friendly and charming, making a note in the book that the UK was my home – there was a recorded zombie attack in the North of England in Roman Times. That’s what Hadrian’s Wall was for. When I told Cassie of my nice encounter with the nice man, she asked if I had “asked him to sign my balls”. Such a classy lady.

I was interested in the Special Effects Makeup Demo, if only because I wanted to see what Brian would say about the guy’s technique. It seemed pretty good – he got a volunteer (with a revealing neckline) to have a nasty neck wound attached. While he did the application, makeup, and final oozing blood, he talked about techniques, materials and took the opportunity to play a trailer of some crappy zombie cowboy movie he did the effects for. I’m all for the little guy doing it for cheap, but jeez.

Following straight on from that was a demo of body casting, with one volunteer having her arm done in plaster, another having half his face (and beard) done in alginate, and a third having his palm done with silicon rubber. The presenter, in his bowler hat, (necessary) eye patch and leather apron, looked very much the quirky Con-attendee. He used a pocket watch to time his talk, which was pretty cool, and answered questions about materials, costs, tricks and techniques.

Saturday evening we had pub grub and pints at The Irish Bank, which I’d not visited before. It was originally called The Bank Of Ireland, but had to change its name after a complaint from the financial institution thousands of miles away. Fools.

The next day, after some freshly baked croissants, we hit the Con again. First up was Spotlight On Max Brooks, with my mate Max talking to a big room full of fans. Sitting behind the usual long front table, he said he didn’t like being alone, so he asked members of the audience to join him. He then aimed most of his talk, which covered his career, the status of the movie of World War Z (script due “in a month or so”), the GI Joe comic and so on, at a 10-year-old boy in the audience, which was really cute. Brian asked a good question about why the audiobook was abridged: because you have to pay all the different performers. It’s the same reason the movie will have to be big – it’s a global epic, with many settings, characters, and individual stories. He was really funny, frank, and informative – definitely his parent’s son. And just about a fortnight older than me!

The presentation by the Bay Area R2-D2 Builders Club was fascinating. They have all built, or are building, are are continually improving, full-sized functional radio-controlled models of the Star Wars R2-D2 droid (or variations thereof). The examples on display were astonishingly detailed, this one even including the hologram projection feature. The talk gave some tips about materials, costs (a lot), time costs (a lot), and impact on family life (a lot). I wish I had that kind of dedication, passion, skill, money, time and a workshop. If I made myself a droid (which I won’t, especially after the stress of the zombie collars last year), it would be one of these, only in Rebel orange and white. Perhaps a Death Star maintenance droid would be more possible – a radio-controlled car with a box on top. Lick of paint.

As a final treat we went to a very interesting panel on Local TV Horror Hosting, with discussions of history, method, anecdotes about the crazy people involved, and so on. They showed a short video about a few of the local heroes of the scene, including The Ghoul, Vampira, and Bob Wilkins. I had a flash of remembrance when seeing Zacherley – I thought he had been the model for one of the Horror Trumps cards I had when I was a kid. But when I checked I remembered the model was actually Lon Chaney (father of Wolfman Jr) in Tod Browning‘s London After Midnight, with his top hat and teeth. The idea was very popular up until cable TV and VCRs became so big – local stations would show mostly-rubbish old movies, topped and tailed with these hosts making terrible puns on creaking sets. For most people, this was the only chance to see these movies – they weren’t in theaters any more, and VCRs weren’t around yet. Their styles were very different – Vampira of course was the wasp-waisted scream queen, The Ghoul was wacky and over-the-top, with tonnes of props and fireworks, and Bob Wilkins (my favourite from the short clips we saw) was very understated, sitting in his rocking chair and making dry, disparaging comments about the films he was showing. Local cable stations still have similar hosts, but they are no longer so popular. But podcasts give them the chance to go back to their radio roots, and YouTube and Vimeo can open up audiences. Nice history, hopeful future.

Bit of a rant. There is a lot of genre-spanning in the geek world (“I span all genres, they call me the genre spanner” “Well, they call you the spanner”). You can’t mention Joss Whedon without a certain amount of squealing about musical episodes, puppet episodes and so on. The recent hit book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has given rise to a sequel by the same author, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and plenty of copycats. A new movie about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is coming soon. Adding “zombie” to any profession or character opens up Halloween costume possibilities in the way that “sexy” still does. I think it’s all a bit fan-servicey and predictable. Within a year, we’ll have Puppet Zombie Benjamin Netanyahu: Vampire Hunter, The Musical: On Ice! (Holiday Special). And then where will we be? I’ll tell you – I don’t know, but this kind of pandering recycling does seem rather lazy.

Anyway, this Con was a lot of fun, and far less stressful than ComicCon last year, probably because I didn’t have to dress up as a domesticated zombie this time.

Possible Use For iPad?

I’m not getting one, but I have to say these iPads are pretty intriguing, and I’d love to play around on one. Wil Wheaton has found a possible case of buying one after initial scepticism – board games. Complex board games like Car Wars and Arkham Horror. And reading that post, and the comments, made me think of the movie Big, with Elizabeth Perkins and Tom Hanks. Towards the end of the movie, Hanks’ and Perkins’ characters make a presentation about an “electronic comic book”:

JOSH
You see it won’t be like these where you just follow the story along. You would actually make a whole different story appear just by pressing these buttons.

SUSAN
An electronic comic book? That’s amazing!

JOSH
Yeah. An electric comic book. It’s gonna be different every time.

SUSAN
This is incredible. You’re brilliant–you know that?

JOSH
If you like one you could see it, you know, over and over and over  again.

SUSAN
You’re wonderful.

JOSH
You really like it?…You think Mac will like it? You know, what we could do…We could do like sports comics… or like if you’re going to steal second or something like that…You’d have sports books… baseball, football…really, it works with almost any sport there is. Hockey!

Later on they give a presentation which goes into more detail, including interchangable “disks” with new stories on them.

JOSH
There’s this flat screen inside with pictures on it and you read it. And when you get down to the bottom you have to make a choice of what the character’s going to do… Like if he going to go in and fight the dragon then you have to push one of the buttons.

SUSAN
See, there’s a computer chip inside which stores the choices, so when
you reach the end of the page, you decide where the story goes. That’s
the point.

MR. M
Terrific Susan.

SUSAN
A kid makes his own decision.

MR. M
This is really possible?

SUSAN
Yeah. In fact, it’s a very simple program. Isn’t that right?

MAN
So what happens when you run out of choices?

SUSAN
Well, that’s the great thing. You can just sell different adventures. Just pop in a new disk and you get a whole new set of options.

MAN
We could market this on a comic book rack.

MR. M
How much would the unit cost?

SUSAN
Well, our initial figure is around… around $7.00, with a retail cost of around $18.95.

PAUL
You expect a kid to pay $19.00 for a comic book?

Only the first time, you racketball-playing dick, Paul. The disks would be a lot cheaper, and you could have serial stories, new heroes, the possibilities are literally (OK not really) endless!

Talking of Big, Cassie and I like the bit when he calls his Mom, pretending to be his own kidnapper, to say he’s safe and will be coming home soon. She forces the “kidnapper” to sing the song “I used to sing to him when he was a little boy” to prove he’s safe.

Oh, I got it! I got it! “Memories, like the corner of my mind. Misty water color memories, of the way we werrrrrrrrrre. Scattered  pic-tures…”

The Choose Your Own Adventure books from Bantam weren’t a big success in the UK, but Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books certainly were, from the classic (and infuriating) Warlock of Firetop Mountain to the stranger Sword of the Samurai and more complex Starship Traveller. I had a few of these, and they were well-thumbed and covered in rubbed-out pencil marks. I also had a few of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf books, which had a much more (IMHO) immersive story and better (and more creepy) artwork. These were similarly thumbed and marked, so in the end I got my Dad to photocopy the score page, so I could keep the pages free of scribbles.

Searching around, I find that the series is now freely available to download, or even play online, complete with links between pages, and all the beautiful artwork. You can also view an SVG flowchart of the pages! The HTML version looks like an ideal candidate for iPad play – but you still have to maintain your own scores and inventory, which would be a pain. Easy to implement though, I guess.

It looks like there would be a range of complexity for electronic comic books, from a simple text document with built-in choices, to added features like hit points and skill levels, item inventories and magic spells. It would be a blurred line between that and the old text adventures like Zork, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and, er, Ship of Doom. But rather than having to type in directions, like simple VERB NOUN stuff, or the more flexible Level 9 parser as used in my old favorite The Saga of Erik The Viking, it would be preferable to use on screen buttons. But the text parsers could allow a huge variety of commands, whereas a button interface would be limited. You could just display the set of commands possible at a particular moment, but that would make the game a case of just trying all the available possibilities, instead of thinking around a problem. I suppose it depends on how good the on-screen keyboard is.

Of course, it goes without saying that a Linux-based tablet would be more open, flexible and probably cheaper, and would allow all sorts of experimentation along these lines without being forced through the Checkpoint Charlie of Apple’s walled garden. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

This should be interesting.

It’s For Research, Honest

This article from Vanity Fair got me thinking about how we use books to accessories ourselves, and well it might, that is after all the subject of the article, so well done James Wolcott.

When the Harry Potter novels first broke through from primary school reading time to mainstream public consumption (before the transition from there to blockbuster movies to toe-breaking tomes to “is it over yet?”-style spoilery tedium in need of closure), the publishers did a clever thing and releasing a run  of the books with a very plain, “adult friendly” covers – one I remember was a black and white photo of a steam locomotive, nice and innocuous – so that Mum or Dad could read on the train without fear of silent invisible ridicule. After a while, people got more confident and just damn well read the original versions in full view, complete with cartoony action painting covers , and the hell with you if you didn’t like it. Literally, according to some people.

I remember a train journey once when I did some work in Leeds. I was at a table for four, with three strangers, all doing our own thing. As the journey wore on, one person brought out their Harry Potter book, and
started reading. With a smirk of camaraderie, another passenger brought out their copy of the same Rowling slab. They exchanged the smiles of the support network, and read. The third stranger then reached into her
bag, produced the same volume yet again, and this time the smiles were broader and someone may even have made a satisfied sound. Then they all looked at me.

I reached into my bag, and brought out my copy of American Psycho, and *to this day* I regret not having had post-it notes stuck in the good bits.

Like It Matters Here Is My Review Of ‘Watchmen’

So I went to see Watchmen in San Diego with Cassie and house-guest Martin. Of course, I’d been looking forward to it greatly, being a fan of the book and of Alan Moore’s other work. I’m not some huge Moore scholar, but I loved Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and I’ve read some issues of Top Ten (another “what if” story concerning superheroes) and Swamp Thing, and in general I think Moore is a true artist.

I loved his novel The Voice of the Fire, set as it was in a 10-mile radius around Northampton over 5000 years of personal and community history, with each story feeding a myth or legend to the next. I come from Bedford in the UK, not all that far from Northampton, which has its own long history. It makes me wonder what dark secrets hung over the Castle Mound, or the site of the old Ford that gives the town it’s name. No worse than the dark realities of the High Street on a Saturday night, I bet.

I’m well aware of Moore’s feelings about film adaptations of his work, and for the most part they are well and truly justified. But this one felt different. Artist Dave Gibbons was on board, and the shots of sets and costume sketches that dribbled out from the production all looked very hopeful.

Friend Brian, he that built these teeth for me for Halloween, had met Dave Gibbons when he was doing the special effects for the fantastic documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (video clip here), and when we went to San Diego Comic Con last year he got him to sign his copy of Gibbon’s own book The Originals, a retro-futurist retelling of Quadrophenia, complete with hover-scooters (for the faces) and hover-bikes (for the “dirt”), high-collar riding coats known as “mantles”, and of course, hard pork-pie hats. There was lots of props, toys, early trailers and so on to see at Comic Con, and hype was at its height. So I had high hopes for this production.

I was a little disappointed. I’m not worried about the retelling being “faithful”. It definitely was. I don’t want to be that guy, complaining about every tiny difference. The sets, costumes, effects, design, vehicles were all great.

I’m not too bothered about the change to the ending. The “squid” would have needed many more characters and scenes: the artist who designed it, the pirate writer who came up with the hellish visions it propagated in the people of New York, the massacre of the secret community in the bombing of the ship, and so on. It was easier to just stick with a “big bomb” SFX sequence and leave it at that. In fact, by making Dr Manhattan the threat instead of some “alien invasion”, you might say it was a neater and more plausible ending (if “plausible” can be a word you would use in this context).

The acting was variable. Malin Ackerman was a bit wooden, and Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr Manhattan suffered from the fact that he was trying to be otherworldly and inhuman, but instead it just came across as “talking in a lilting la-la voice”. Jackie Earle Haley was fantastic, and Patrick Wilson was excellent as well, both of them showing the necessary vulnerability.

I didn’t recall the book being so violent. Checking back, of course, I see that it was, and the film was pretty faithful to the number of punches and kicks thrown during the rape scene. Nasty. However, there were some extra nasty little bits that were added, in one case with reason, in others without. I wouldn’t mind, but it did seem to enjoy lingering on some bits.Lingering was the problem on the whole. Every line was an important, every frame was a freeze frame. In the effort to not miss any bits from the book, it seemed like they were trying to make sure that every line was highlighted and clearly signposted. Despite this, the actors weren’t always that good at making the line clear, so even I, that knew every line that was spoken and where it came from, sometimes had a hard time understanding what they were saying. Even the bits that were played for laughs (the ejaculatory flamethrower for example) got overshadowed by the films – dare I say it? – pompousness. The funniest bit was Rorschach’s initial responses, “Some nice flowers”, “A pretty butterfly”. That says quite a lot.

The fight scenes suffered from the current trend for slow-motion sequences. They wanted you to see every bullet, every punch, every breaking bone. I think that these superhero sequences would be more impressive if they were done in real-time. These people are supposed to be superhuman, even if they don’t have superpowers, so a fight which lasts five seconds and leaves five bad guys on the out cold floor is more impressive than a painstakingly choreographed and elaborately filmed violent ballet. The new Batman films have it right. *Biff!* *Wham!* *Whoosh! – “What was that?”.

I think overall that my disappointment is that now the film is out, there’s nothing to look forward to. Except for the Tales of the Black Freighter DVD. And the director’s cut with the other 30 minutes they shot…

Wind-up Ubik

~ About bloomin time I posted this ~

I’ve just finished reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. It’s the second book by this author that I have read, after Cassie gave me her copy of Dance Dance Dance, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Chronicle is very similar in that it involves a normal suburban Japanese man, with a gentle taste in music, whom I assume is based closely on the author, experiencing a series of strange encounters, dreams and confusing occurences. The cover reviews of Chronicle list Dick as a possible influence or contemporary, and I can see it.

Philip K Dick is one of my favourite writers, with his very matter-of-fact dialogue acting as a steady platform upon which the feelings and motives of the characters are worked out while around them reality blurs, melts, fades and sometimes shatters. Murakami has less of the thinking out loud, but both of his books that I’ve read involve a dream or hallucination where the main character goes deeper each visit, and solves the book’s, or his own, mystery. Dick does this in Ubik, and Flow My Tears, but the change to a new environment (or reality) takes place piecemeal, an object here or a person there changing, or more often than not decaying or dying.

I’ve read two books by another Japanese author, Natsuo Kirino. Out is about a group of women who work in a factory, struggle to get by, and get involved with the underworld. They end up providing a service to gangsters who need bodies disposed of. Grotesque was a more complex story, based in an exclusive school with rigid rules and horrible cliques and bitchiness. It starts out being narrated by one character, then you read the diary of another, and letters from another. Then you hear the testimony of the accused murderer, and how it relates to the other characters. Of course they all have different points of view, motives and reasons for what they’ve done. Kirino gets classed as a thriller writer, so if you like crime, a bit of brutality, some blood and damaged people struggling through a constrained life, you could do worse.

Analysing Satan

Now that Xmas 2008 is approaching, maybe I’ll post this review. For Xmas 2007 (which was spent in LA and San Francisco, and was blissful), Cassie bought me (amongst many other things) Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. by Jeremy C Leven.

It took me a long time to get to reading it, due to my only reading in bed and then slowly, but when I did I was glad it was reprinted by BackinPrint.com after being out of print for years. It’s the tragic but funny story of a psychiatrist who suffers misfortune after misfortune at the hands of his wife, his colleagues and his patients. His (ex-)wife tears his kids away from him, his boss is trying to drive him mad, and his patients are a challenging bunch. In the end he is brought before a machine which claims to be the physical embodiment of Satan himself. And Satan is unhappy and wants to be treated for his neuroses. It’s not surprising, what with being blamed for everything.

The book manages to be very funny despite the waves of torment crashing over the hero’s head almost every other page. It’s very much a work of it’s time, originally published in 1980, so bang in the middle of the introspection of the 70’s and the selfishness of the 80’s.

I don’t know what relevance it has these days. It seems that psychotherapy had a real ‘cult of personality’ angle in those days, where the practitioner mattered more than the treatment. I would hope that has reduced. Of course, we have radio pundit psychiatrists now as then, such as the plagiarist Dr Raj Persaud who I’m reliably told was far too busy appearing on the radio to attend to his patients.

Give me CBT any day. You go in, you get sorted over a few sessions, you leave. At least that has some form of scientific behavioral basis (AKAIK). Going to a therapist for years is like getting into an abusive relationship with a mechanic, who keeps telling you your car is going to need more work.

Now that I live in California, perhaps I should consider getting myself a therapist of some kind. That would be a big step for me. It’s bad enough that I have a personal trainer, albeit a guy I talk to at the gym where I’m a member, rather than a guy who comes to my Hollywood Hills mansion. Or maybe I could become a Scientologist, or join the some form of Large Group Awareness Training Program. Or I could join a theatre group. Ony joking!

Dead Tree Update

A couple of notable book releases around now. Sarah Brown‘s Cringe is now available in hardback, being a collection of embarrassing teenage diary entries and the like. It’s based on a cathartic reading evening of the same name created by Sarah and a regular Brooklyn draw.

I attended the London premiere of Cringe back in June 2007, which was great fun, and I met SB afterwards, had a drink or two, and realised what the fuss was about – she’s awesome, and we share our birthday. I’ve ordered my copy.

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science is a bit of a hero of mine, in the same brooking-no-nonsense vein as Phil Plait (the “Bad Astronomer”), and he has a book out (soon) too. It sounds like it should be a standard text, if the previews are anything to go by. Ben has a screengrab of a vitriolic review on the Amazon page from Roger Coghill, a notorious snake-oil salesman, who currently has a new product out which, like many of his products, uses magnetism – in this case to make your car 14% more efficient. Sadly the review is no longer on Amazon – Ben grabbed it just in time.

This reminds me of a poem I read recently (it was in a slim volume I received as a wedding guest recently, if you must know) which irritated me. This was because it gave me the impression that the poet believes that the astronomer is reducing the beauty of nature to a series of charts and numbers. If I were to be uncharitable, I’d say he thought himself better equipped to appreciate the beauty of a starlit night, and that the magic of nature was wasted on the chalk-dusted scientist. Only the poet and the artist truly understand.

Of course nature can (probably) be reduced to a series of charts and numbers. Very large numbers, very complex charts, so complex we cannot (yet) understand them. Is it a fear that science will remove the ‘magic’ from the wonders of nature?

Phil Plait’s predecessor and hero James Randi started out as a stage magician and escape artist. He still performs doing conjuring tricks in between shaming bullshit-peddlers like Yuri Geller. But this isn’t supernatural magic, it’s just traditional showmanship and sleight-of-hand. Why not just enjoy that? As Douglas Adams (another hero – enough with the heroes) said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As for the title of this post, I don’t have anything against paper books. I have some. But I am interested in the future of electronic books and the technology involved, such as e-ink. Obviously the Amazon Kindle is a big example, despite it’s many flaws (a pointless keyboard, lack of support for some open formats, sheer flipping ugliness etc). I know someone with a iRex Iliad, which many people seem to like, and having seen it in the flesh (silicon? HDPE?) I quite like it. My new smartphone allows me to read books in the same way I used to with my old Palm Tungsten E. Haven’t had a chance yet – I don’t sit on trains much any more.