Thursday, December 22, 2005

Random wisdom: Jeanette Winterson.

"I think the Anglo-American tradition is much more linear than the European tradition. If you think about writers like Borges, Calvino, Perec or Marquez, they're not bound in the same sort of way. They don't come out of the classic 19th-century novel, which is where all the problems start. 19th-century novels are fabulous and we should all read them, but we shouldn't write them. I think that's the important point. People are obsessed with narrative, which has had its day. I used to think that the movies would mop up all of that need for straightforward narrative, and allow fiction to find a whole different path, rather in the way that photography freed up portraiture from the necessity of realism. All the bad portrait painters immediately went out of business when photography came along. The really interesting people like Picasso thought, This is fantastic. I don't have to make it look like anybody ever again. I will do something which is much more of a psychological drama."

Monday, December 05, 2005

You've lost that lovin' feelin'.

Last night I saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And was unpleasantly surprised to find that the HP book I thought would translate best to celluloid, didn't.

Perhaps what I missed most was the sophistication. Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a stunning step up from the kiddie frolics of the first two films. The first two books, in fact. Prisoner of Azkaban committed to a deeper, moodier interpretation of JK Rowling's work, a sensibility I assumed would continue in later films. That clearly wasn't to be.

Goblet of Fire is moody, oh yes. Its emotional range encompasses all of three different moods. The banal Oh-look-what-fun-boarding-school-is mood. The garden variety raging hormones I-never-noticed-she's-a-girl mood. And the stagey, unrealistic, utterly plastic (alright, computer-generated) Triwizard Tournament mood.

In fact, the Tournament is the principal reason the film didn't work too well for me. In the book, all four characters (with the possible exception of Fleur Delacour) are real champions. Each is the very best in their school. Each, utterly capable of rising to the challenge. And, most importantly, each is equally deserving of the trophy. Harry, in fact, is the underdog -- the underage, angsted-out wizard who is too busy grappling with his own nightmares to even conceive of overcoming the tasks before him.

In the film, however, it's clearly Harry who is at the centre of all the action. Instead of wishing he wins, you find yourself expecting him to. Which is so, so far off from the sense of the book.

Goblet of Fire was a change-of-mood book, signalling the return of Voldemort as fact, not belief. Even though it opens on the spectacular Quidditch World Cup, and plays its way through the drama of the Triwizard Tournament, its heart is Harry's very private, very agonising struggle against his connection with Voldemort. It is JK Rowling's favourite theme, hinted at as early as the first book (the wand, the scar, Parseltongue, need I go on?). It grows to overwhelm the two books that follow. In Newell's film, the only sign of this bond is the most overt one -- the use of Harry's blood in Voldemort's rebirth.

Any redeeming points? Well, Goblet of Fire is exceedingly well cast. Ralph Fiennes is an inspired choice. Daniel Radcliffe is beginning to look quite dishy. Alan Rickman continues to spook one out quite a bit. And Robert Pattinson (I had to look his name up) is the perfect Cedric Diggory.

Still not enough to make me want to see it again. Ever.

Good luck, David Yates. You have till 2007.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Wise men say/ Only fools rush in.

I read a lot. And I SMS (or text, if you prefer) quite a bit. But I'm far from ready for the crazy notion of compressing books into snappy shorthand text messages.

Call me old-fashioned. (Hell, just call me anyway.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

There will be an answer/ Let it be.

It's the ultimate New Age pastime: worrying. Doesn't require any special equipment and/or expertise. Utterly virtual, so you can plunge into it at any time, in any place. And completely, exquisitely pointless.

I'm quite brilliant at it, and, on a good day, can work myself up to worrying about whether I'm worrying too much in the first place. Which is the mental equivalent of an Escher drawing.

One of my favourite things to worry about is what to read next, and I'm always faintly surprised that it isn't a more widespread source of stress. Let's face it, the world is full of more good books than I will ever be able to read (I use the word 'good' in the loosest possible sense, extending it to encompass posher words of more syllables: interesting, horrifying, intriguing, beautiful, entertaining, different, tragic, etc.) And, once you accept that fact, you proceed to live with the corollary: that everything you actually read is a fairly random selection from that master list.

Leon Trotsky, apparently, felt much the same way, and had this to offer in terms of advice. (To put things into perspective, he spent years in prison, where all he did was read. And, eventually, write.)

Tibor Fischer has a great short story on the subject, buried in an otherwise forgettable collection called Don't Read This Book If You're Stupid. (It opened with the rather nice We Ate the Chef, then proceeded to lose me completely.)

Some people, quite mistakenly, call this reading anxiety.

I could blather on about this for ages, but my new Murakami beckons.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Maybe you should listen to: The Long and Winding Road.

Both versions. The full-on Phil Spector-engineered version from Let It Be (which took eight days, 18 violins, four violas, four cellos, a harp, three trumpets, three trombones, two guitarists and 14 singers), as well as the haunting bare-bones ballad it was written to be, as heard on Let It Be... Naked, and Anthology 3.

Why? 1. It's often described as the song that broke up the Beatles. 2. It's claimed to be about B842, a 50-kilometre Scottish road that winds along the coast of Kintyre to Campbeltown. (Which, they tell me, is home to a distinctively briny single malt called Springbank.) 3. It's written by my favourite Beatle, even though contractual agreements led it to be listed as Lennon/ McCartney. Like Yesterday. 4. He sang it to close Live 8 this year. (Well, not quite, since he worked his way into the la-la-laing from Hey Jude.) 5. The Spector version is the only Beatles track on which Lennon played bass. (With good reason, too.) 6. It was their last No.1. 7. The two versions are separated by 35 years, the death of two Beatles, and much, much lobbying. 8. It might lead you to listen to the rest of Let It Be, which remains a peculiarly fitting epitaph to the Beatles -- the final chapter of a story that began with I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

And, most of all, because: 9. It utterly blows me away each time I hear it.

Random wisdom: Paul McCartney.

"I like writing sad songs, it's a good bag to get into because you can actually acknowledge some deeper feelings of your own and put them in it. It's a good vehicle, it saves having to go to a psychiatrist."

Friday, November 04, 2005

Random wisdom: John Connolly.

A few questions you've heard a hundred times before. And a few damn good answers you haven't.

If you're at an airport book store, do pick up: The Black Angel.

Charlie Parker. Legendary jazz saxophonist. Often mentioned in the same breath as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Once said, “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”

Also John Connolly’s haunted, first-person hero. Last seen in The Black Angel, an extraordinary novel that describes the familiar darkness of a Stephen King landscape with the lyricism of Salman Rushdie -- lushly evocative, effortless prose that seems almost too sophisticated for a paperback thriller to be read on a boring business trip.

It’s a special book, alright. Released in some parts of the world with an accompanying CD, the soundtrack to which Connolly wrote this, and a few other Parker-starring books. But utterly unforgettable in that it introduces to you a name that you've never heard before, but are very unlikely to forget. Sedlec.

Hannibal was a name that belonged to an Alps-crossing invader, before you attached it forever to Thomas Harris' invention of pure, distilled evil. (And for the odd trivia fiend, his last name was Barca. Like the diminutive of a certain Spanish football club.) Sedlec is different.

First of all, it's a place. Somewhere in the Czech Republic, on the outskirts of a town called Kutna Hora. Clearly not a popular tourist destination. (The Lonely Planet throws up the odd link to a fan site, worth visiting for the pictures.)

It's most often referred to as the Sedlec Ossuary, a word that appeared on page 224 of the book, and forced me to look it up. An ossuary is a receptacle for skeletal remains, and in Sedlec, in the Middle Ages, it gave rise to a whole new art form. The artist is Frantisek Rint. And his masterpiece, this cathedral of bones. (More trivia? The monastery now belongs to Philip Morris.)

In Connolly's Acknowledgments at the end of the book, he describes it as being "far more impressive visually than I could convey in words". He's right.

Can't wait for the movie.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Is it getting better/ Or do you feel the same?

A long time ago, I gave up on Latin American writing. It was the names that did me in. However delectable the narrative might be, I found myself tripping over these grand, leaden lumps of nomenclature. Don Seferino Huanca Leyva. Lucho Abril Marroquin. Jose Arcadia Bienda. Santa Sofia de la Piedad, mother of Aureliano and Jose Arcadio Segundo.

The more I read, the sooner I realised (with a somewhat sinking heart) that this was not a land of first names or terms of endearment. Everyone was addressed by their full names at every twist and turn of their literary lives. And I couldn't handle it. (Years later, I learned I wasn't alone in my confusion.)

In fact, back in the days when I refused to abandon a book midway, I remember giving up on Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a fascinating book if only the protagonists' parents were kinder.

With the possible exception of Paulo Coelho, I've persisted with my Latin American-free reading habits. Until a perfectly random conversation that ended with an offhand suggestion that I read Love in the Time of Cholera. The fact that the comment stayed with me has more to do with my niggling sense of unfairness at boycotting a whole genre of writing for an incredibly shallow reason than with the credentials of the one making the comment.

So I did it. Read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's stunning narrative of love, and its ability to shape character; of the passage of time; of fickleness and understanding; of the drama of everyday life. Can't remember the last time a book drew me in this way.

Perhaps it wasn't the names, after all. Maybe I was just meant to wait -- patiently, quietly, distanced from the romance of Latin America -- till this book.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Maybe you should read: Codex.

By a chap called Lev Grossman. If the name rings a bell, think Time magazine. He reviews books for it.

Codex is a great book, if:
1. You like oddish titles, especially ones that pun. (Yeah, codecs. Short for compression/ decompression, a codec is any technology for compressing and decompressing data.)
2. You're working yourself up to reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
3. You've ever wondered about the existence of obscure texts other than the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, immortalised in Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's The Rule of Four.
4. You've been unfortunate enough to do a paper on Medieval English in college.

It's quite ho-hum, if:
1. You like your books to have proper endings.
2. And proper heroes.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Maybe you should reread: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Never have I wished to have written something as much as this 'increasingly inaccurately named trilogy'. Exceptionally written. Lusciously funny. Makes one's knowledge of the English language worthwhile.

A few of my favourite characters? 1. Marvin, the Paranoid Android. 2. Zem, the mattress from Squornshellous Zeta that attempts to engage him in conversation. 3. Rob McKenna, the truck-driving Rain God.

Also made a particularly miserable weekend almost, barely, slightly alright. But I digress. All I can say is that very few things compare to spending a rainy afternoon with a Douglas Adams book, a hot cup of tea and someplace comfortable to put your feet up.

Maybe you should skim through: Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem.

By Peter Ackroyd. Not to be confused with Peter Carey, who wrote the intermittently hilarious Oscar and Lucinda.

Why'd I read it? 1. Recommended highly by Histrionix, who knows his way around good writing. 2. Super title. (This was before I learnt that it had been previously published as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.) 3. A cast of real-life characters like Dan Leno (a British comedian billed "The Funniest Man on Earth") and Karl Marx (yes, the 'opium of the masses' guy)

Why'd I put it down feeling vaguely dissatisfied? Tough one, but I suspect it has to do with fabulous characters working their way towards a less-than-fabulous end. Left me thinking more about the writer, than the book -- never a good sign.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Maybe you should read: The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner.

By a bloke called Giles Waterfield.

5 reasons why? 1. It's British. 2. It's impeccably crafted. 3. It has a mad cast of characters. Think Wodehouse-type flaky, teleported into our time. 4. It's obscure. Never heard of the chap before, and don't know anyone who has. 5. It's set in a museum. The only other book I recollect with a similar setting was Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child's Relic, where the museum exists solely as a place for an ancient (yes, you guessed it) relic to come to life. A far, far cry from this one.

And if you need another reason? It's funny.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Oh, and it's raining again.

Scott Adams.
Martin Amis.
Pink Floyd.
Mark Twain.
PG Wodehouse. (Can't believe I forgot.)
Bill Watterson.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Random wisdom: Salman Rushdie.

When you write, you write out of your best self. Everything else drops away.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

It's a thousand pages/ Give or take a few/ I'll be writing more/ In a week or two.

Bill Bryson.
Truman Capote.
Patricia Cornwell.
Roald Dahl.
Amitav Ghosh.
Guy de Maupassant.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Graham Greene.
Carl Hiaasen.
Helen Fielding.
Elmore Leonard.
Steve Martin.
Haruki Murakami.
Salman Rushdie.
Carl Sagan.
Paul Theroux.
(And Stephen King stays.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Dream a little dream.

Douglas Adams.
Isaac Asimov.
AS Byatt.
Lee Child.
John Connolly.
Jasper Fforde.
Carrie Fisher.
Stephen King.
Jhumpa Lahiri.
Kathy Lette.
Larry Niven.
Sylvia Plath.
Terry Pratchett.
JK Rowling.
WB Yeats.
If you must write, write like them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

But, baby, it ain't over 'til it's over.

It began late last night, the longish wait for HP7.

It is these endless intervals between books that make JK Rowling's world interesting/ intelligent/ worthwhile. These days of conversation, and speculation. These moments of utter conviction that she's McDonalded The Lord of the Rings into some cheesy Happy Meal accompaniment. These hours of wondering how anyone -- anyone! -- could sell ten million hardcover copies of a book within twenty-four hours of release.

There's stuff to learn from all of this, I'm convinced. (This is me, life-long believer that you can learn something from anything.) Single mom writing book in coffee shop can become a household name the world over. A generation of TV- and computer-addicted children can learn basic Latin like 'Lumos', meaning 'light', and 'Patronus', meaning 'protector'. People who never buy hardbound books will stack their Harry Potter volumes alongside their dictionaries.

And the debates will rage on, on subjects as far-ranging as Rowling's writing ability, Dumbledore's striking resemblance to Gandalf the Grey, the course of true love in the battle between good and evil, Horcruxes, and the ink-and-paper-twin dedication of HP6.

For all our sakes, I hope she's begun the final book. Impatience has always been my strong suit.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Words don't come easily.

Maybe they do for some. Maybe it's as simple as firing up the computer, opening a new page, and letting it rip. Maybe the transfer of thought from mind to written word is smooth and seamless and somehow less... terrifying.

Take JK Rowling, for instance. Seems like yesterday that I succumbed to popular advice and opened a (violet? blue?) book with a somewhat tackily-illustrated cover called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. And here I am, four (five?) years later, 514 pages into The Half-Blood Prince (or HP6 as Constant Readers will have it), and it's all I can do to complete this post and return to Dumbledore telling Harry to get his Invisibility Cloak and meet him in the Entrance Hall.

Not the most stunning user of the English langage, Ms. Rowling, but blessed with vision and a sense of scale and progression and simplicity. What makes her special, though -- to me, at least -- is her almost-tangible comfort with the written word.

I've certainly read better writing. But the best writers I've read would strain for the ease with which she writes. Maybe it comes from the fact that the story is more important than the way in which it is told. Maybe each of us is genetically programmed to respond to the conflict between good and evil. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Harry Potter and He Who Must Not Be Named.

Maybe. Or maybe there's magic in natural, unselfconscious, uncrafted writing.
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