Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book review: Bookmarks - Various (1974)

Bought at the Waterloo Bridge second-hand book market

Twenty eight writers talk about the books that influenced them (in 1974). Most of them mention having started off with Treasure Island; one or two mention it in order to say they've not read it. Shakespeare is mentioned only positively; Dickens, Chaucer and Hardy get more of a mixed reception. Two people I hadn't heard of, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Greek poet Cavafy, are praised by many. Also mostly praised are many I had heard of: Proust, Conrad, Lawrence, Austen, Waugh, Plato, Freud. I should have read Bookmarks with a memo pad in hand to note down authors and books, but as it is I take away the general reminder to keep reading, broadly and well. And the knowledge that nobody agrees on everyone. Except Shakespeare and Proust in French.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Book review: Kokoro - Natsume Soseki (1914). Or: The frustration of poor editions

The Peter Owen (2007) edition of Kokoro, very kindly lent to me by a friend. 

In Damian Flanagan's introduction to the 2007 Peter Owen edition of Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki - translated by Edwin McClellen - he refers to Kokoro as a masterpiece and warns the reader to brace themselves for a roller-coaster ride. I read the introduction after reading the translation of the novel that follows, and my first thought on beginning the introduction was that there could be few more inappropriate metaphors for the novel than that of the roller coaster, with its implied ups and downs and changes of pace. Not that the novel is without drama or the power to move, but I remembered no such dramatic swings.

However, shortly afterwards it became clear that Flanagan's introduction, unhelpfully, was based on a different translation of Kokoro to that which it precedes. Flanagan refers to quantities of analysis of Kokoro "beyond imagining", including two "ferocious" debates about a couple of short passages in the novel. One of these he says is located in the first paragraph: we are told that the narrator refers to the central character as "sensei" because he cannot bear to use a cold letter of the alphabet to represent his name, the significance of which becomes clear later. But the first paragraph of the translation that follows includes no mention of a single letter, nor the word "cold". We are simply told that the use of "sensei" is found "more natural" than use of a name.

Furthermore, the second of the two debates apparently revolved around a sentence that I can't find in the Peter Owen translation - nor can I find any sentence that distantly approximates it.

Perhaps even more crucially, Flanagan also says that the opening of the novel is "imbued with a striking homoeroticism", and quotes two parts in support of this.

First he says: "When they first meet the narrator writes, "Sensei had just taken his clothes off while I was exposing my wet body to the wind"".

In the translation that follows, this is rendered as: "Sensei had just taken his clothes off and was about to go for a swim when I first laid eyes on him in the tea house. I had already had my swim, and was letting the wind blow gently on my wet body."

And second he says (quoting the novel to begin with): ""It is a step towards love. As a preliminary to embracing the opposite sex, you have moved towards somebody of your own sex like me. [...]Because I am a man I simply cannot give you the kind of satisfaction you are looking for." That word "satisfy" is a key word in Kokoro, occurring with startling frequency."

In the translation that follows Flanagan's afterword, we are given: "But it was a step in your life towards love. The friendship that you sought in me is in reality a preparation for the love that you will seek in a woman. [...] But being the kind of man that I am, I cannot help you to rid your heart of that feeling of want."

Hardly as satisfactory.

In the final sentence of his introduction, Flanagan says that some critics of Kokoro "miss the point entirely", and that far from being about the end of the Meiji era, it is about a man who is prepared to give up his heart in order to transfer it forever into the breast of another man. Having been deprived by Peter Owen of the translation that Flanagan refers to in that very edition, I can't help but feel that I might have missed the point myself.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Book review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka (2005)

One star seems a bit uncharitable, but two would definitely be too generous. The annoying thing is there are bits about ASHTU that I liked - well, really only one bit, the father - but it's buried under such a will-to-live-sapping heap of such tedium and bitterness that I can in good conscience only give one star.

Oh the tedium! ASHTU may have dethroned The Glass Bead Game as the most tedious thing I have ever read, and TGBG was at least vaguely nourishing. Imagine that annoying person who sits near you at work telling you a story of at-best middling interest in minute detail over the course of about 5 hours. That's how ASHTU reads: things happen in it that could be interesting or funny, but in Lewycka's telling, they just aren't. There's the odd glimmer of microwaved apples and gloop-stuck jam jars here and there, but they're buried in such an entombing mass of desiccated minutiae and formulaism.

Worse still, everyone except the father is painted in such a negative light by the first-person narrator - who herself, in consequence, comes across worst of all. Even when a bartender recurrs after a gap of a few weeks, he's "really let himself go". Engage negativity pump: spray liberally.

I got the sense that this was all based on real-life events, which could have made a good tale, but that Lewycka (and her editor) had been incapable culling the boring stuff or writing well for anything more than a couple of sentences at a time. The narrator certainly seems very pleased with herself: unlike her poor sister, she got to experience The Beatles and feminism, and turned out oh so liberal and stubborn and rebellious. Except, like hell is she anything other than judgemental like an American judge with an afternoon TV slot is judgemental.

Some of the bits about Ukrainian history were nearly interesting, but I recently read If This Is A Man and The Notebook, and ASHTU can't hold a candle to those in terms of WWII-era power. It can't even limply smear a soggy match down a spent strike pad.

Quite how this was so well received is, in all honesty, completely beyond my fathoming power.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Book review: The Notebook - Agota Kristof (1986)

Nice as this edition is, at times you want to be wearing gloves when handling it

The Notebook is the disturbing story of young twin boys growing up quasi-feral and semi-uniquely sociopathic in a WWII-ravaged Hungarian town. Emotionally neglected by their harridan of a grandmother, the twins work tirelessly to perfect their self-reliance and then turn their town into a combined school-of-life and source of plunder, which they then distribute Robin Hood-style to the needy, along with a brand of coldly plotted and violent justice utterly indifferent to the rules of bible and man, based purely on the detached judgements of these all-seeing, all-understanding, self-civilised demi-Gods.

It's sparely written and shocking, but a little too much so, with squalid sex unnecessarily dominating the middle third like a nightmare merger of Tough Mudder and the dark Web. But not even my disgust could stop me tearing through it in about 4 real-time hours of not non-stop reading.

This edition from CB Editions - the first UK print for over 20 years - is a lovely item, with beautiful marbled yellow flyleaves and smooth high-quality paper. It also features a dumb, showboating afterword from Slavoj Zizek that first appeared in The Guardian.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Bathroom windows and Pepsi cups

Lately I keep seeing exquisite beauty in unexpected places.

For example, my bathroom window:

This evening I tossed a Pepsi cup off my seat on the tube, and after pinballing around a bit it came to rest against the lip of the metal grating just inside the carriage doors.

For the next three or four stops it rested there, being rocked just slighty as the doors opened and closed in the nigh-on empty carriage at each of Warren Street, Oxford Circus and Green Park.

It wasn't beautiful in itself, but somehow it seemed imbued with immense potential energy as it rested there unquietly. Almost planetlike. Of course, an 8-gram cup on a 1- or 2-degree slope would actually have negligable potential energy, but because it was resting against the open aperture of a tube carriage - a place from which you yourself would very much not want to be ejected at high speed between stations - its position seemed that much more precarious and momentous and meaningful.

Eventually a father kicked it off at Victoria, thereby relieving both my palpable tension and the guilt I'd been feeling at having unwittingly converted traveller detritus into the (not) very real possibility of catastrophic derailment. Yet even on the platform it retained some of its unlikely power, as person after person daintily avoided the delinquency of an accidental booting.

What does all this unlooked-for beauty mean? I for one am hoping for the rapture...

Monday, 14 April 2014

If I could code I'd ... #1

If I could code I'd ...

Write a feature for a Twitter client that would block all tweets without a minimum, adjustable number of RTs from your timeline. Or, more sophisticated, less realistic version: that would block all tweets RTd less than a certain proportion of each tweeter's average number of RTs.

... but I can't.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Good TV is ruining good conversation

I've since subscribed to Netflix

Back when we still watched TV on televisions, at a time determined by the programme makers and the channel schedulers, we used to go into school or the office the next day and excitedly talk about the latest episode with our friends and colleagues, and then we'd have to wait a whole week to catch the next episode - or months even, if it was the end of a series.

Now that DVD boxsets and internet streaming have come along, we all watch TV at different times. And if you haven't yet seen what someone else has just seen, you either have no interest or you don't want to hear about it because you might watch it when you've done with whatever programme you're currently watching.

Also, as programmes now tend to last for about 60 episodes, all of which are available to us all at once after the programme has wrapped, once we've started something we tend not to watch or do much else until we're through gorging. So once you've established that your colleagues either aren't interested in what you're watching or don't want to hear about it, you've got nothing left to say to them because all you've done every evening for the past three weeks is watch bloody Dexter.

I've just finished watching Breaking Bad, which must have taken up about 50 hours of my life. In filmic terms that's 25 different opportunities to find something in common with people, or in book terms probably around 4 or 5. Instead, conversations have gone:

"Have you seen Breaking Bad?"
"No, I'm watching Game of Thrones."

Good TV is ruining good conversation.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Pillow Fight Day ... the cushiony cudgel of ick

Yesterday was Pillow Fight Day in London. I had heard that the Fight was going to be cancelled, with TimeOut reporting the Greater London Authority as saying that the majority of Trafalgar Square would be fenced off at the scheduled hour for some (in)conveniently timed maintenance. Nothing to do with the reported £2000 clean-up cost from last year, of course...

However, I happened to be heading towards the National Gallery at 2.55pm, and found the Pillow Fight very much about to be taking place. There must have been a few thousand more people than normal sardined into the Square, a good few hundred of them armed with pillows, with dozens more streaming in every second from every direction, and those not holding pillows craning for a better view from every pole, fence and statue pedestal:

The Pillow Fight crowd - the fighters themselves were left of picture

I immediately abandoned all hope of visiting the Gallery, but stood and watched until the countdown hit zero and the feathers began to fly.

As I then wandered off in search of something I could do without having to force my way through a whirling, pumelling throng, two thoughts struck me.

The first was: how many new pillows would have to be bought for the commercial benefit of the Fight to pay for the cost of the cleanup? The cheapest pillow on John Lewis's website is £6, but presumably they sell out of those pretty quickly, even if they do judiciously stock up with extras for PFD.

However, as I headed away from the Square with the fighting still going on, plenty of people were still making their way in the opposite direction clutching pillows, eager to get involved, and I noticed that at least a few of them were holding pillows that were clearly not newly bought, but rather were marbled with antiquating cartographies of sweat and drool stains. Which prompted thought two: how much human and microbiological gunk are these pillows saturated with - said gunk soon to be battered over the heads of strangers and blasted into the air? If this story in the DM is to be believed, rather a lot.

Come to think of it, I do have a bit of a sore throat this morning...

Friday, 28 March 2014

The problem with Room 101, and the (unwitting?) devilry of 1984

**Spoiler alert: This post gives away the climax of the book (and film) 1984.**

Photo by Tom Martin:

What's the worst thing that could happen to you?

Have you thought of something? Good. Hold that thought.

I'm assuming if you've read this far beyond the spoiler alert, you've either read 1984 or never plan to. So:

In 1984, O'Brien says to Winston, who is at O'Brien's mercy in the bowels of the Ministry of Love:

"You asked me once what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal."

And as you'll remember if you've read 1984, the point of preparing The Worst Thing In The World for you is so that The Party can burrow right down to that deepest bit inside you and get you to betray the person you hold most dear in the world by pleading for the thing that is about to be inflicted on you, the thing that is your own personal Worst Thing In The World, to be inflicted on your loved one instead. The point being that thereafter you'll have no more reason - or insufficient self-respect - to resist The Party and their mind control.

My problem with this is as follows: it relies on the person who is being worn down being sufficiently imaginative for their worst fear to be all that bad. I'll expand:

(Actually, let me get something out of the way first: it's no good if the thing you fear most is something happening to your loved ones. If the thing you fear most is your beloved dying, The Party can't get you to betray your beloved by getting you to beg them to kill your beloved's beloved instead of yours, because your beloved's beloved is you (assuming that your love isn't unrequited), and so in betraying your beloved you'd actually be hurting yourself more than your beloved, unless you were absolutely 100% sure that your beloved's worst nightmare was also something terrible happening to her beloved (i.e. you), and nobody ever knows anyone else's mind to that extent (except The Party), and so you'd actually be doing your beloved a favour by betraying them, and so wouldn't actually be betraying them. So things happening to other people are off the table: if that was your Worst Thing In The World then The Party would just use your second Worst Thing instead, okay?)

Now, my worst fears (bearing in mind the above parenthesis) are spiders, followed by heights. And the thing about spiders is that a) they're not actually that scary and b) unless they're from Australia, they're not really capable of doing anything to you. If you were to threaten me with locking me away in a coffin full of spiders, I certainly wouldn't be very happy with you, but I like to think I could withstand your doing it if the alternative was betraying my sweetheart. Hell, the publicity-seeking-missiles that participate in Saturday night gross-out-a-thon I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here do that kind of thing just for cash and the lowest kind of fame every weekend, so I'm sure I could do it in order not to betray myself and the one I love.

Ditto heights: what is The Party going to do, strap me to Felix Baumgartner? I could live with that.
Unfortunately, 1984 itself presents a solution to this problem.

Here's the thing: spiders and heights are the things I'm most phobic about, but I'm not that phobic about them: I can and do overcome them. But there are certain things that are logically or rationally scarier and more unpleasant than spiders and heights, such as being brutally beaten or listening to Heart FM. Many of these I could voluntarily withstand as well - maybe even all of them, except one.

In 1984, the thing that Winston finds most unendurable is rats. Now, you might not find rats so scary. But in 1984, The Party's means of using rats against Winston is to put two big, starving, rotten, crazed, filthy, desperate, squirming, mad-bastard rats in a cage that fits over his head, such that the only way the rats can exit the cage is directly via Winston's face.


So the (unwitting?) devilry of 1984 is that, should any situation such as that described in its very pages ever come about, in which an all-powerful person or group is in a position to learn everyone's innermost thoughts and use them against them, anyone who has read 1984 is going to be unable to resist their tormentor, because they're going to have a vivid picture of this contraption involving starving rats and a metal cage and their head (Room 101 may as well just have been called the Rats Eating Your Face Room), whereas most people who haven't read 1984 are probably just going to have to hold a handful of worms or lick a foot and then be absolutely fine...

Except, of course, for those who've read this blog post.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Book review: Simulations, Jean Baudrillard, 1983

I bought Simulations mainly for its amazing lurid tech-noir cover:

And it's good that I wasn't so bothered about the contents, because the contents are about 80% gibberish, e.g.:

"Everywhere the disposition of force and forcing yield to dispositions of ambiance, with operationalization of the notions of need, perception, desire, etc. Generalized ecology, mystique of the "niche" and of the context, milieu-simulation right up to"Centres of Esthetic and Cultural Re-animation" foreseen in the VIIth plan (why not?) and Centre of Sexual Leisure, constructed in the form of a breast, that will offer a "superior euphoria due to a pulsating ambiance..."

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Book review: Surfing the Zeitgeist, Gilbert Adair (1997)

In reviewing a book of cultural criticism, one aspires to at least equal the incisiveness and brilliance of the book itself. However, none of the items in Surfing the Zeitgeist, if I remember rightly, is anything so lowly as a mere review - they're all broader-reaching essays that comment on some aspect of culture, albeit in doing so they might praise or criticise some work or other.

Hence to equal or even approach the standard of StZ, I would need to scrape from my brain something that could reach beyond the covers of the book itself... And I cannot.

Fortunately, I don't really intend to criticise StZ, and so I have no need to prove myself better than it.

These essays were written between 1995 and 1997, and despite Adair's intention being to surf the zeitgeist, for the most part they've aged well. Few if any of the people of the 90s who are named don't remain immediately recollectable (or even still part of the zeitgeist) today - Arnold Schwarzennegger, Naomi Campbell, Martin Amis, Will Self, Danny Boyle - and many of the people from earlier times remain relevant, although I'm less qualified to judge those references.

Few of the essays struck me as essential, but one - "On actemes" - I was moved to attempt to find online (unsuccessfully) so that I might share it with the wider world. I would be grateful to have read StZ if only for having gained the notion of actemes - I won't steal Adair's thunder by explaining precisely what one is, but I will tease you by proposing a couple of modern candidates (time will tell): Bryan Cranston's goateed face; Chloe Moretz dropping the C-bomb.

However, only a few struck me as being not worthwhile. I said I wasn't going to criticise StZ, but I do have two small complaints, both of which arise from the origins of the essays as newspaper columns. First, as Adair himself acknowledges in - fittingly - one of the least worthwhile essays of the collection, newspaper columnists are under pressure to deliver insight with a regularity we have no right to demand of anyone: "Week after week, month after month, he must come up with a brand new tale to divert the Caliph", and therefore they can't help but fail occasionally. In this particular essay, Adair goes on to talk about ... sweets. In others he discusses the craftsmanship behind sporting equipment and, er, how he came to watch and quite like Groundhog Day.

My second (related) gripe is that newspaper columns are always the same length, and so an idea that might be diverting enough for 400 words has to be wearisomely dragged out for the full thousand or whatever. (See essays on pedantry, pop music, Wallace and Gromit.) Conversely, ideas that might have happily entertained one for a whole book must be lopped off at the knee.

In general I found at least one nugget of nourishment buried in each essay, and more often I found more than that. For a poor capstan-chained Scheherazade of a newspaper columnist, 40-odd nuggets of wisdom across 3 years is really quite impressive.