quinta-feira, dezembro 16, 2010

Overwritten Fiction: "IT" by Stephen King

(Original Review, 2010-12-16)

For the most part I am not too concerned with genre writing as with Literature, unless said writing IS Literature (e.g., P.K. Dick or Hammett). I admit I did read Brown's Da Vinci Code, with no pleasure at all, because I am a bit of a fan of deep dark secrets encoded in the arts, although I tend now to think of it like Foucault's Pendulum, SPOILER HERE; that the secret is that there is no secret. Still I wonder if I dislike what seems to me as overwritten and precious prose so much because it just doesn't sing in my tin ear. If you feel like going to the trouble, what are some examples of prose that sings to you, from the domain of literature, and some of the stuff you find unreadable that the rest of the world loves?

As to the last question, I have to be general, since I have a lousy memory and I am far away from my bookcases. As I have said elsewhere, Rushdie doesn't sing to me. Neither does Tolstoy. I find all the Beat writers insufferable and I don't get the reverence for Marquez at all. What I love... So many more things. Chekhov is one of my all-time heroes. Shakespeare, of course. Robertson Davies, Jonathon Carroll, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin. All of these writers sing. You understand that this is just a tiny fistful of them.

On the whole I don't care much about the distinction between genre and literature, apart from the fact that we live in a reading world where people can get obsessed about these things. My own stance: there are only stories. Good ones and bad ones, well or badly told. Genre (as in: all the cupboards you can devise) is just a distraction.

What is the difference between Homer and Game of Thrones? I don't mean this as a glib question. Seriously, was the campfire Homer trying to do anything different from what the writer (or broadcaster) of GoT is doing: to capture and hold an audience by telling a tale of heroes and Gods and monsters? Isn't much of what we talk about when we talk about literature and genre simply the respectability of time passed?

I once seriously pissed off a professor when I was attending Universidade de Letras in Lisbon (I didn't like him and the feeling was mutual) by handing in a paper comparing Shakespeare and Stephen King, arguing they were really doing the same type of thing. Both writing for money and trying to reach the widest of audiences, both relaying heavily on grandiose set pieces, the supernatural and both heavily influenced by the idea behind the old Greek tragedy: that, contrary to what most people think, it is not hubris that really determines our fate but some more basic flaw.

So, to me, yes, there is only story - and the music of prose. Updike gives great story. Neil Gaiman has a better voice. All of that, of course, is personal. Up to a point.

To be fair, Stephen King is a pretty divisive writer. When he's good, he's good. When he's bad he gets published anyway and that does a lot of harm to his reputation with some people, just like Martin. He recycles a lot, he writes some very two-dimensional characters and he resorts to generic horror movie tropes all too frequently, but with a harsher, less greedy publisher he could be great. Half the books, half the waffle, half the good starts with bad endings and bad starts with good endings. A more consistent body of work would have prevented a lot of the criticisms of his work, and that's the publisher's job, not his. But they all probably made a lot more money this way. “IT” is a good case in point. It could have been much better than it is. “IT” and “The Stand” are probably the only two works from King I actually considered great writing. The rest of his stuff? Good, at best, to just downright mediocre most of the time. It's hit and miss with King; mostly miss. “IT”, though, is undoubtedly one of my favourite. Heck, the book would have been great even if the supernatural aspect of the story was excluded. Kind of a like a Great American Novel, but not quite.

quinta-feira, novembro 25, 2010

Dear me at 15: "Moab is My Washpot" by Stephen Fry

(My own copy)

Dear me at 15,

1. The girl you've been obsessing over is a trollop - move on;
2. Pull your trousers up;
3. Don't shave your hair to a number 1, it makes you look ill;
4. Trade your PC in for a mac;
5. Read High Fidelity, Norwegian Wood and On the Road;
6. There is music outside of guitars;
7. Your mum's alright really;
8. Don't worry, you are right, the world is crazy;
9. Relax, women are basically friendly;
10. Pay attention, you only get one shot at this;
11. Read some books that aren't Football, Tennis or Rugby related;
12. Grow Your hair -it will make you look older;
13. Dont drink from the wine bottle that is handed to you at the beach party - its piss;
14. No matter what you do, think or wear, some people will dislike you, and some will be mean - it's honestly no reflection on your character that you're don't delight everyone. When it comes to friendship, quality always trumps quantity;
15. Stop kissing everyone. Stop smoking so much weed. And don't let that Emily girl convince you that smoking fags is cool, it isn't;
16. Don't listen to those ridiculous people you go to school with. They're mostly fools who are now in dead end jobs. They aren't cool;
17. you think that you are a Punk now, well here's come surprising news, you are a total hippie at heart. Didn't expect that did you!
18. You will be happier in your late 30's and early 40's than you will ever be in your teens and 20s.
19. Try not to sleep with too many unsuitable women;
20. Refuse to make compromises when your dignity is at stake, never accept the political, social and economic status quo, learn to be tough, do unto others as you would have them do unto you (the Golden Rule - helps in life whatever your religion/no religion).

You'll be alright,
(Bought in 2010 2010)

I think that a lot of light seems to go out of people as they get older, and they mostly become much less emotionally interesting. I would not say this is because they pass from a state of unhappiness to one of happiness, but rather, through compromise, large areas of their emotional selves get shut down. Making do, fitting in and getting by, ceasing to enquire, enjoying the soft pleasures of conformity, an indifference to self-knowledge, not holding out for anything, settling for the comfortable cell - this is what brings about deadness of soul, in my view. Happiness, on the other hand, is, for me, a state of brilliance, nothing dull about it.

NB: I love that Stephen's heavy-souled and unwavering honesty through this book earns him such a great amount of respect from me to allow him to get away with that generalising and almost-righteous pitying of the 'normal'. Instead of being offended by it - and I'm sort of annoyed at myself for even thinking that I could be - I'm in awe of the pure guts he had to say it - 'poor normal lambs' - and the frankness with which it is said. Beautifully table-turning. Perhaps I am ignorant even in my tolerance, without the viewpoint of homosexuality and the confusion and consequent soul-searching that come with it.

sexta-feira, outubro 15, 2010

Calvinist at Prayer: "Our Kind of Traitor" by John Le Carré

(original review, 2010)

About a third of the way through Our Kind of Traitor, I sat back and reflected on the elegance of the prose and the grace and ease with which the narrative moved back and forth through time, and two words came inescapably to mind: Joseph Conrad. I can't believe, after all the le Carré novels I had already read at that point, that this was the first time the comparison ever occurred to me, but there it is.

In a way, though, it's fitting that the realization came with that book: "Our Kind of Traitor" is an elegant novel, certainly an accomplished bit of storytelling, but I don't think anyone will ever rank it alongside Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy or The Constant Gardener. Yet I savored the book for the skill and grace with which it was written. This is what distinguishes Le Carré from somebody like Michael Crichton: he can be read with pleasure simply for the quality of his writing. Crichton is a wonderfully efficient storyteller, and as long as he's got a good tale to tell, he can be great fun to read. What he does is not easy, and at his best he does it very, very well. But I could never imagine sitting back, after reading a page of any one of his books, and simply savoring the language for its own sake. With John le Carré I find myself doing this all the time -- as I do with Raymond Chandler, another truly great writer who happened to work in "genre fiction".

Conrad was probably the originator of the literary thriller in which a compromised, emotionally tormented male protagonist, an anti-hero no less in the true sense, is placed centre-stage, in a morally ambiguous setting with all sorts of dark shades. And that is very much Le Carre’s model too. 

It’s so very sharp and proficient (as, of course, is the plotting and structure). Some Le Carré detractors grumble about clichés and typical thriller language, but as far as I’m concerned (and I am, admittedly, a very big fan) they are only demonstrating their own philistinism in doing so. He does use the kind of colloquialisms and set phrases that you could dismiss as clichés elsewhere, but half of them he’s invented himself, and the other half he is using knowingly, with perfect confidence. There is nothing wrong with clichés if the writer is good enough to shepherd them around the page exactly as he wants, to be their master. They are only a problem if the writer isn’t good enough, and they come blundering in unbidden and out of control, often in the midst of pretentiously considered sentences. Le Carré, obviously, is plenty good enough. The pacing, the tone: it's all just brilliant, and as a literary device, the way the protagonist retreats deeper into his own repressed psychology as his own physical horizons are narrowed down and down is ever so clever. Love it; absolutely love it.

I think le Carré is seen as transcending the genre because he creates a world which is very believable even though I am sure that the Circus bears no resemblance to Britain's SIS. For a certain type of high minded reader who frets about such things, books that feature stuff that manifestly don't exist (dragons, amateur detectives, starships) are bothersome. They smell of flippancy and a departure from seriousness and worthiness which is not really acceptable to a reader who views reading as a stern and proper undertaking like a Calvinist at prayer. And I love SF...

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sexta-feira, setembro 10, 2010

Epidemic of Vanity: "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow

(Original Review, 2010)

At university, after spending thousands on tuition, I then had to spend a lot, over 3 years, on books for my courses. More than half were written by the very professors that were teaching me. Quite frankly, it's a giant scam. Those professors have already been paid for the first material through their salaries. Why should we have to pay them again for copies of their pretty badly written books? Yes, these books are very expensive, and many don't deserve to be read. A few years ago, I was asked to review a chapter in a research text. The friend who sent me the invite told me over a drink that I was the third person asked, and would I please go easy on the papers. I said yes. I'd do it (slow week and was curious). I wasn't prepared for just how poor the section was. Even simple things, such as the chapter discussing at great length a diagram that wasn't included in the manuscript. So, after going easy, I sent two pages of corrections stating they must be made or the chapter was not suitable for publication. After a couple of months I received an email asking for my address so they could send me a thank you copy. No mention of any edits being made. Still not received a copy of the book...It doesn't matter if it gets bought, as long as you have your name as an author next to a proper ISBN number then you are a published author and with your PhD can get in for the university interviews...along with your list of peer reviewed journal articles too of course...

Surely the point of being an academic is to be published well, stocked in university libraries, cited by students and fellow academics, and of course be paid for it. Not everyone can be Leonard Mlodinow (whose screen work is quite different to his academic work).

Bottom-line: Is hysterical publication caused by an epidemic of vanity? Don't be ridiculous. It is how the institutions that employ us measure our performance and the penalties for non-performance are severe. This is the only reason these publishers can do what they do. All over the world thousands of talented academics are wasting their time writing for non-existent readers: it is completely insane.

sexta-feira, julho 23, 2010

Triosphere, "The Road Less Travelled", Hammeralbum aus Norwegen

Hammeralbum aus Norwegen. Die Gruppe aus Norwegen spielt auf ihrem Werk "The Road Less Travelled" eine Melange aus Heavy Metal und Hard Rock. Alles überragend die Stimme von der Sängerin Ida Haukland. Dieses Album ist vollgepackt mit mitreissenden Melodien und schneidenden Riffs. Es ist auch abwechslungsreich und wird zu keiner Sekunde langweilig. Es hat wirklich keinen schlechten Gesang, klingt wie aus einem Guss und könnte statt im Jahr 2010 auch im Jahr 2000 erschienen sein, da es einfach zeitlose Musik ist.Höchstnote...

Probier's mal! Bis jetzt für mich das beste "progressive metal" Album 2010!

domingo, abril 18, 2010

Only For Slackers: "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" by Peter Boxall

(Original Review, 2010-04-18)

I found this list rather heavy on very recent fiction. There is also no way of knowing whether books published a few years ago will withstand the test of time, and I suspect many won´t. This is a reason why, apart from a handful of favourites, I tend to restrict my (sadly limited) reading to more established authors. 4 times out of 5, when I believe the "hype", I end up disappointed.

I also found this list astonishingly weak on works not written in English. I certainly didn´t keep count, but it seemed as if about 2/3 of the books on this list were - this is a pretty arrogant and unbelievable figure - especially as many English-language writers appeared multiple times. As someone fortunate enough to have grown up bilingual, I know that some of the best books don´t translate well, but the real problem is that fiction in translation simply occupies not only a very limited market but also a low-status in the English-speaking world. In this respect, Boxall, a Brit, has definitely much to learn from us Continental Europeans.

Along this line, the book I’m glad Boxall didn’t miss the most was Fernando Pessoa´s “The Book of Disquiet.” This Portuguese writer may be largely unknown among Anglophones, but the Spanish, French, Italians and Germans have long since caught on. And not just them. Harold Bloom, who many would argue “knows a great deal” (he has read a lot) about literature, included Pessoa in his "canon" of the 10 (only 10!) writers everyone should have read! But I suppose the fact that this book has neither a definable plot nor belongs in any known genre would mean it's be too much for Boxall to handle. Still, please read it! (And when you do, choose the Richard Zenith Penguin translation, which in my opinion, is far superior to the Margaret Jull Costa one, which even translates the title as the far more awkward “The Book of Disquietude.”) This collection of notes, written around the 19-teens and twenties and published posthumously in no particular order, is by far the most philosophical and prematurely postmodern reflection on the self any of us are likely to come across. (Who else could imbue a sensation we all know with so much poetry - even in translation - and metaphysical weight as Pessoa, when he writes, for example, "... this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we´re mean-hearted but because we don´t feel like unbuttoning our coat.") Anyone I know who has read it begins to integrate the adjective "Pessoa-esque" into their reflections on life, and I always say, if I had to choose one book to last me the rest of my life, this and certainly not the Bible, would be it. Shame on you Guardian books staff, for ignoring one of the undisputable (but tragically, non-English-language) masterpieces of the 20th century!

Having said this, and to be honest, this whole idea of a "thousand novels to read before you die" is so bloody middlebrow and offensive; it just cannot be taken seriously, especially when the list that resulted from it is so tedious and slapdash. To read through a 1,001 novels just because some bugger says they're important, but with no real and based explanations given as to why they are, nor any idea as to why this particular list of novels should be read, is silly.

I'm sure there are worthy authors missing on this list, but it won't be improved by their inclusion. The whole idea is just patronising.

1,001 books to read... at my age, I don't know if I'd get through them all unless I live till my early 100s (by which time there'll be others on the list). And reading only a handful of novels a year? Please!! That's slacking. I’m reading around 100 a year and I want to read stuff not in this book… 2 stars for the inclusion of Pessoa…wait, wait…No Shakespeare, no Dante, no Marlowe, no Virgil, no Homer, No Plato, no Socrates, …, forget it, 1 star! Boxall is crazy!

segunda-feira, fevereiro 22, 2010

Der Schneemann von Jo Nesbo

Ich bin zurückgekommen... Ich habe viel gelesen, aber ich hab keine Zeit zum Schreiben gefunden.

Endlich habe ich das Buch "Schneemann" von Jo Nesbo fertiggelesen... Viele anderen Bücher haben mich leider von diesem Buch abgehalten...
Jetzt hab ich es beendet und bin immer noch gefesselt. Nach dem Buch “Erlöser” dachte ich mir besser geht es nicht, aber der “Schneemann” steht bei mir auf einer stufe mit dem Erlöser. Mit seiner starken Beobachtungsgabe zeichnet der Autor die Stimmung - wie immer - bis ins letzte Detail. Auch seine Figuren sind meisterhaft beschrieben. Ein sehr gut geschriebenes Buch mit überraschenden Wendungen, der keine Langeweile aufkommen lässt.

sexta-feira, janeiro 15, 2010

The Gods are Infantile and Infinitely Wise: "Ransom" by David Malouf

(Original Review, 2010-01-15)

Someone else mentioned David Malouf's Ransom in a linked discussion. I highly recommend the book to others once they've been through Homer. What Mr. Malouf does with the relationship between Priam and Achilles manages - I think - to hold fast with the classic but simultaneously locate Homer's work in a contemporary context (2009 is barely yesterday in terms of the ages we're contemplating here). What Mr. Malouf does with Somax at the end is very clever, very satisfying to my modern inclination.

I've read E. V. Rieu’s and Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad. I prefer the latter. Mr. Fagles begins

Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,

I may be reading too much into subtle differences here - and I have never read Greek so others will have a sounder grasp. But the difference between 'rage' and 'wrath' carries some significance, does it not? Wrath denotes extreme, violent anger as does rage. But the latter also carries a sense of disorienting inner turmoil (I'm attempting to resist using the word madness here lest it be interpreted by others in some sort of contemporary, quasi-clinical sense). Fagles first word tells us not simply that Achilles is violently angry but that he is in the grasp, perhaps as the child of his mother must be, of an uncontrollable, inner distraction / demon / disruption, perhaps at the knowledge / fear that maybe the fates have already determined the manner of his death if not its hour. The idea of rage (anger / turmoil) helps us to understand better the sacrilegious treatment of Hectors body, does it not?

Last point - in Homer and Virgil I've often been struck by just how infantile the Gods seem to be? Is that a revision created by modern texts or was there always a hint there? Or - always more than likely - am I reading a juvenile disposition into the Olympians that isn't truly there?

I guess another aspect is that "wrath" is a lofty quality that we might associate with divine power, whereas "rage" is all too human. Maybe Achilles's status as a demigod makes both alternatives suitable? 'Rage' has the advantage of being also a verb ('the storm raged'), reflexive in voice (in English). But 'wrath', to me, has more of the tone of revenge (where, though 'flying into a rage' connotes provocation, rage itself can be unprovoked); Webster's New Collegiate has 1 : strong vengeful anger or indignation, and 2 : retributory punishment […] : divine chastisement. Achilles' rage, while gushing from a reservoir of entitled petulance, flows directly from Agamemnon's piercing hauteur—particularly goading, because Achilles would kill Agamemnon in single combat (as he would any warrior, apparently).

For this etymological reason, and also because it's—or feels—less common in everyday speech and idiom, I prefer 'wrath'. Also with respect to Achilles' degradation—desecration, in the light of Antigone—of Hector's body, his rages burst as scale-balancing — inappropriately wildly violent, but in my view, 'wrathful'.

As for the emotional incontinence of the Homeric gods, they were indeed known for this in Greek antiquity, as was Homer (and Hesiod) mocked for depicting them so.

Xenophanes (born about 575 BC (?); there's quite some divergence in ancient testimonial as to this) is maybe the best example: "Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds that among men are a reproach and disgrace: thieving, adultery, and mutual deception." (fr. 11, translated by Guthrie, whose first volume of "a history of Greek philosophy", The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, I'm pillaging)

Guthrie quotes Euripides, whom he's convinced is influenced by Xenophanes here, in the Heracles: "That the gods enjoy illicit love I do not believe, nor have I ever thought it right nor have I counted it true that they should go in chains, nor that one god should lord it over another; for the god, if he be truly god, lacks for nothing. Those are the wretched tales of singers."

Now Xenophanes is no atheist; in Fr. 1, he writes:

First it is meet for righteous men to hymn,
With pious stories and pure words, the god.

But he's sarcastic about people taking seriously the bratty misbehavior of gods depicted in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod: if they're really gods, they're not obnoxious triflers. Xenophanes's religious criticism of Homer and Hesiod is a forerunner of Plato's momentous retailing of that sentiment in book 10 of The Republic: poetry is dangerous, and when one says wicked things, one does wicked things. Plato's Socrates's expulsion of the poets from the ideal community, though, is ironic; Xenophanes seems to have wished that only overtly and (I guess) officially pious poetry were on people's lips and in their ears. Boo.

(The gods are both infantile and infinitely wise... A terrifying combination...)

And all this because of “Ransom”. It’s a masterpiece. Maybe one day I’ll write one or two words about it. Right now I can’t. I’m bereft of words. It’s that good.