Sunday, December 19, 2010

Albums of 2010: The Age of Adz

As the end of the year approaches, I thought I'd cast an eye over some of my favourite music released this year. This is not intended to be the Definitive Guide To 2010 or anything - I've not listened to anywhere near enough of this year's music to be able to make that claim. It's just a series of reviews of stuff I like. Keep checking in over the next week & a bit for more entries...

It's been, as nearly every review has reminded us, five years since Sufjan Stevens' last 'proper' album, the much-lauded Come on Feel the Illinois. Since then, he's released a boxset of Christmas music EPs, an album of Illinois out-takes, and the orchestral piece/film The BQE, and also admitted that the 50 States Project was probably not going to get past the first two entries. In August he suddenly released a 60 minute EP, All Delighted People, and then a week later announced the October release of a full album, The Age of Adz. From that first press release on, Stevens made it clear that this album would be heavily electronic-based, largely eschewing the banjo-led folk-pop-rock that dominated his three most famous albums (Greetings From Michigan, Seven Swans, Come on Feel the Illinois). On the other hand, his second album (Enjoy Your Rabbit) was an electronic-based instrumental affair, so there was some precedent.

Still, most casual Sufjan Stevens will probably find The Age of Adz difficult to immediately love. Not only has he significantly changed his sonic palette, but here we see an album of intensely personal songs. Some time after hearing The Age of Adz I read that Stevens was badly - & somewhat mysteriously - unwell for a period in 2009, but that came as no great surprise to anyone who'd listened to the album at all attentively. (Or, for that matter, noted that the penultimate track is called 'I Want To Be Well'...)

The Age of Adz begins softly, with the piano-&-vocal 'Futile Devices', probably the most familiar-sounding song here. While he has, mostly, smothered his songs in old-school synths & electronics throughout, Stevens' ear for a simple, beautiful melody has neither deserted him nor been deliberately discarded. In more ways than one, 'Futile Devices' serves as an effective introduction to the album, given that the devices he describes as futile are words. Next up is the squelchy electronics of 'Too Much', and the big title track. 'Age of Adz' features all manner of sounds competing with each other, creating a disorienting feel.

'I Walked' was the first song released from The Age of Adz, as a free download from Stevens' website, and is one of the album's highlights for me. Sparse, especially compared to its predecessor, 'I Walked' is a nakedly vulnerable song, with Stevens' voice catching on the line "But at least I deserved the respect of a kiss goodbye" (one of several indications throughout the album that Stevens' romantic life hasn't been entirely painless in recent years), in a way that hasn't yet ceased being heartbreaking every time. 'Now That I'm Older', 'Get Real Get Right' & 'Bad Communication' form a mid-album mini-suite noting Stevens' determination to take stock of himself and move on.

That impression is strengthened with 'Vesuvius', in which he takes the drastic step of addressing himself:
Sufjan, follow your heart
Follow the flame
Or fall on the floor
Sufjan, the panic inside
The murdering ghost
That you cannot ignore

The song itself builds from a quiet, piano-only, start, adding layers of backing singers, low-tech beats and increasingly multi-tracked lead vocals. And The Age of Adz's theme of trying to be happy despite things not going well is hit again in 'All For Myself':
Improving all the time, I am
Improving as I kiss the hem
I promise I won't be a trouble at all
For I'm okay, I'm in the red

After which we get to the album's monumental final two tracks: the aforementioned 'I Want To Be Well', and 'Impossible Soul'. The former is another explicit (in more ways than one!) plea for life to get its act together. It climaxes, after numerous repetitions of the title phrase, with the repeated claim: "I'm not fucking around", Stevens' first recorded lyrical swearing. His nice-guy persona makes 'I Want To Be Well's finale all the more effective and emphatic.

And then we have 'Impossible Soul', 25 minutes of everything that every happened. (One review I read suggested that this song contained more ideas than many bands' entire careers...) It begins quietly, and beautifully, with a passage that will warm the hearts of Illinois-lovers feeling lost on this album. That builds and builds, before breaking down completely at about the ten-minute mark. From there, Stevens single-handedly redeems Autotune's existence, filtering his voice for the next few minutes over a sparse backing before the track once again builds to its triumphant conclusion:
It's a long life, better pinch yourself,
Put your face together, better get it right
It's a long life, better hit yourself
Put your face together, better stand up straight
It's a long life, only one last chance
Couldn't get much better, do you wanna dance?
It's a long life, better pinch yourself
Get your face together, better stand up straight

The album finishes (in its cd & download versions, the vinyl shifts this bit to the end of side three, following 'I Want To Be Well', for space on side four reasons) with a quiet coda, not dissimilar to Illinois's 'John Wayne Gacy Jr', and coming full circle from 'Futile Devices'.

The Age of Adz is not an easy album, emotionally or musically, and I'm sure it will not attract everyone who loved Stevens' last few albums. It is, however, a wonderful album, highlighting personal turmoil but also building a defiant response to that. And Stevens is one of the most talented composers and arrangers in modern music - as well as possessing a beautiful voice and considerable instrumental versatility. The Age of Adz gets my highest recommendation.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Twilight 4: 'Re-Making Dawn'

[Some four months after I read & reviewed Eclipse, I completed the series on Facebook with this post, making up for not actually having read this book...]

Way back in February, I read, loathed, and reviewed (not exclusively in that order) volume three of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, Eclipse. Back then, I descibed it thusly:

Eclipse is an awful, awful book. It manages to be both actively crap and mind-numbingly boring at once. I hated it so much it energised me. I had to wake up early in the morning to fit in all the hatred I felt for it.

I then asked people whether or not they wanted me to press on to the fourth & final entry in the series, Breaking Dawn. Responses were varied, but there was certainly some interest in me finishing what I started. So, despite my own misgivings & reluctance, I decided that I would get around to it at some point.

However, as the months wore on, my lack of enthusiasm for forcing my way through Breaking Dawn increased, and my fears that I would read it, hate it, and then review it without ever interesting anyone (including myself) did the same. And now I'm officially throwing in the towel - there will be no review of Breaking Dawn from this little black duck.

In place of this hypothetical review, I've decided to do something else instead. I'm going to make the second-biggest sacrifice I can think of (the first was just a bit too sacrificial, as it turns out, and I'm not that great a person), and am going to pretend that I am Stephenie Meyer. I am going to finish off the Twilight Saga for her, picking up from where Eclipse left off, and bringing the saga to its natural conclusion/s.

Except, to make it interesting (because it certainly wouldn't be otherwise), my impersonation of Meyer won't be straightforward. I'm going to finish off the Twilight Saga in multiple ways, each of which will draw on a different genre, and each of which will therefore be completely separate. She's already taken care of the teen-romance-by-way-of-poorly-thought-out-vampires-&-werewolves-mythology genre, but I'll chip in with some other (ie, better) ways that Twilight could have ended.

Let's see how it goes, shall we?

Just so we're all on the same page, here's Wikipedia on how Eclipse ends:

Jacob becomes upset when he overhears Edward and Bella discussing their engagement and threatens to join the fight and get himself killed. Bella stops Jacob by kissing him, and she comes to realize that she is in love with him as well. During the battle, Victoria tracks Edward's scent to Bella's forest hiding place, and Edward is forced to fight. Edward manages to decapitate Victoria and her vampire army is destroyed. Afterwards, Bella explains to Jacob that whilst she loves him, her love for Edward is greater. After receiving a wedding invitation from Edward, Jacob runs away in his wolf form to escape his heartbreak over Bella's decision to become a vampire.

The Epic Finale

The romance angle gets pushed back in this version, with the vampires v. other sorts of vampires v. werewolves sub-plot taking its place in the foreground. 'Decapitated' Victoria turns out to be the least of Edward et al's worries, as ever-increasingly powerful creatures join in the battle against Edward and his human girlfriend. Gore of all descriptions seeps through the action of Breaking Dawn, until Edward, clad in nothing more than a simple toga, finally kills off the last zombie/werewolf/vampire and swoops down next to Bella. After making a wisecrack, the two of them walk off into the sunset, confident at last that their unnatural vampire-human love is safe.

The Romantic-Comedy Climax

In this version, all is resolved when Jacob finally admits - to himself and to the world - that he is gay, and thereby becomes Bella's comfortably non-threatening BFF. He helps pull her and Edward together by clearing up some confusion between the two of them - Edward has a speech impediment, and when he told Bella he was a 'vampire', what he was actually trying to say was that he is, for a national chain of supermarkets, the lead pork products purchaser, or 'ham buyer'. (This also explains his love of meat but strong reactions to the sight/smell of blood.) The troubles with his family arise not because they are a 'coven' of 'vampires', but because he is a 'ham buyer' in the family 'Cohen' - strictly kosher Jews.

Edward and Bella, now understanding one another properly for the first time, plan a quick wedding, and live happily ever after, selling ham & ham-related products all through the US. Jacob lives next door and is godfather to their first son.

The Sci-Fi-Action Resolution

Early in the final book, Bella experiences severe headaches, which are followed by short periods of increased clarity and understanding. As both the headaches and the periods of clarity increase in length, she realises that Edward is not really a vampire with whom she has fallen in love, but a messenger from a distant solar system, warning her of the imminent destruction of earth. Drawing on his information, she develops an anti-doomsday device that solves the crisis by deflecting earth further away from the sun - thus explaining Edward's ice-cold skin (he came from further away, the earth's problem was that it was drifting closer to the sun) and his sparkling skin when exposed to full sunlight (sun = bad).

(The thing I like best about this one is that the titles of each book in the series suddenly make more sense than they do as is... This last one most of all. Chilling, ain't it?)

The Noir Conclusion

A hitherto minor character appears in the first chapter of Breaking Dawn, warning Bella that all is not what it seems. Indeed, Edward is actually in serious danger from the Supreme Vampires Of The World (whatever they're called). Needing to rescue him for a change, and then keep him safe until Jacob - as the one trustworthy figure in a corrupt system - can eliminate the SVOTW, Bella races across town to warn Edward.

Unfortunately, she gets there too late, finding only his perfect, perfect body, even more ice-cold than usual, hanging from the end of a clumsily-tied noose. Vowing revenge, Bella teams up with Jacob to bring down the SVOTW. By the end of Breaking Dawn, however, Bella will have grown from whiney teenage brat to disillusioned cynic with an alcohol problem, as Jacob turns out to have been in league with the SVOTW all along, in an attempt to eliminate Edward and keep Bella all for himself.

The Post-modern Trick

Midway through Breaking Dawn, a middle-aged lady named Stephenie Meyer suddenly appears. Questioned by her fellow characters, she explains that she invented all of this so that they could all be friends forever, and that she could finally have her choice of two totally different hot guys. Despite the potential for awkwardness & jealousy between Stephenie and Bella, the two immediately become BFFs, and decide to enter into a four-way open relationship with Edward & Jacob.

Towards the end of the novel, though, things start falling apart. Finally happy and wish-fulfilled, Meyer lets slip her authorial hand over her fellow characters, and they all begin acting like actual human beings (even the ones that aren't). Quickly tiring of Meyer's wooden descriptions, stitled dialogue, head-smacking symbolism, stupifying fore-bludgeoning and teen-on-a-bad-day emotional shifts, they all band together and kill her off. The last chapter of Breaking Dawn is instead written by Jacob, who had earlier let slip his privileged position in the world by narrating the final chapter of Eclipse.

So... which one works best? And aren't all of those more interesting than the Breaking Dawn which the world ended up getting saddled with?

And if anyone has any other genre suggestions, I'd be happy to give some more a shot...

Twilight 3: Total 'Eclipse' Of The Will To Live

[And continuing the series... originally from my Facebook, 19 February this year.]

I have never hated a book as much as I hated reading Eclipse.

Yes, dear friends, I came awfully close to throwing in the towel on this one yesterday afternoon - more than halfway through the book, with the best part of 300 pages to go. But I pushed through, bloodied but unbowed, to offer the following thoughts on the third volume of the Twilight saga.

It struck me after posting my review of New Moon that I perhaps hadn't conveyed quite how dull I found that book. Compared to the sheer awfulness of the first book, being merely bored by, rather than actively loathing, the second, may have inflated my impression of that book, and the impression I gave in my review. Eclipse, however, offers something unique, being both actively crap like Twilight, and relentlessly tedious, like New Moon.

As such, there's not a whole lot to be said about this book. If there was a flaw or annoying tendency in either of the first two, it's here again in Eclipse. (With the exception of the obvious symbolism of New Moon. Apparently that only worked when Edward was away, or perhaps Meyer just forgot to punch it in this time.) And while New Moon was considerably longer than Twilight, Eclipse is longer again - rounding off at 630 pages. I've read books twice as long as that which felt shorter, because I didn't spend the entire time wishing I were dead.

Okay, but enough intro. Here are a few points to be made in addition to those offered on the first two.

1. The Unbearable Dullness Of Reading

Eclipse is, as I just noted, a long book. Not, however, for the reasons that books are usually long - that they tell an intricate story or have a large cast of interconnected characters or that they effectively create an entire, well-drawn, world. I have no idea why Stephenie Meyer felt the need to make this book so long (although I suspect that it may be related to the Harry Potter phenomenon, in which each book in a series is longer than the one before it), but it certainly doesn't need to be this long. There's just chapter after chapter for most of the book in which nothing happens - that the same three characters (Bella, Edward, Jacob) sit around having the same conversation over and again. Edward loves Bella. Jacob loves Bella. Jacob and Edward hate each other - both for the aforementioned reason, and because one is a werewolf and the other a vampire. Next chapter, more of the same. Throw in a few chapters of completely random backstory for secondary characters, and a sub-plot that we'll get to in a moment, and you've got yourself Eclipse.

All of this, of course, told in Meyer's patented wooden prose. She's dropped her fondness for adjectives, but those at least enlivened proceedings a little, as I could try to imagine what the schizophrenic conversations sounded like. I've read instruction manuals with more interesting prose than Eclipse.

There is also scene after scene in which Bella feels unworthy of Edward, and he reassures her that he does, in fact, love her more than anybody has ever loved anybody else ever before. The more I think about their relationship, the more I think it may be - completely unintentionally - the least healthy ever described in a novel. I mean, okay, it's not Humbert & Delores, but even beyond the massive power difference, the way that neither of them ever quite accepts that the other does, in fact, love them, is disturbing in the extreme. Think about it - would you, honestly, want to be with someone whom you could never really believe wanted to be with you? A bit of humility in relationships is of course a good thing, but a constant feeling that the other person is lowering themselves to be with you? That's actually not a good thing.

Another reason for the dullness, of course, is Edward. Again, this is not just because we only see him through the eyes of a besotted girl, but because of who he is. I want to be very clear here - Edward is not perfect in Bella's eyes, but in Stephenie Meyer's. Edward's only flaw is that he loves Bella too much. He loves her so much that he'd prefer her to be happy with someone else (Jacob) than unhappy with him. He'll be upset, of course, and jealous, because it would be less-than-perfect were he not to care, but he'd still accept it. Such a love may be wonderful to experience, but it becomes tedious to read about, since you know that, in any & all situations, Edward is going to react perfectly. Authors need to be able to be slightly callous about their characters, but it seems to me as if Stephenie Meyer created not characters for her book, but friends for herself.

2. Wish Fulfillment

The height of all this Everybody Loves Bella tediousness is a completely implausible scene towards the novel's end. A temporary truce between vampires and werewolves exists, and so we have a night in which Bella & her two men are in tent together. Despite the fact that one of them is a vampire with superpowers and the other is a werewolf with heightened perception (& is actually in a sleeping bag with Bella to keep her warm, while her ice-cold vampire boyfriend looks on jealously), the two somehow don't notice that Bella is awake for the entirety of a long conversation they have. (I guess they're lucky that nobody attacked them that night, since they would've missed it completely...)

This conversation, which I think is simply a case of Meyer not thinking things through, was the inevitable 'Let's Both Talk About Bella While She's Asleep, Saying How Much We Love Her, And Grudgingly Admit That The Other Does Too' scene. You've seen this sort of things in numerous movies or whatever, but it's usually played for laughs/revelation of important information - that someone is able to hear a conversation that the participants assume they cannot. Here, it functions entirely as Wish Fulfillment - the needy girl's fantasy of overhearing two boys talk about how much they love her. Meyer clearly wanted the scene there - it's vital from a certain angle - but it seems to have never occured to her how odd it was to have Bella be able to hear it all without either allegedly super-powerful boy realise this.

From where I was sitting, though, the whole scene just made me wish a bolt of lightening would hit the tent. The wish-fulfillment angle is just so blatant that it makes you cringe.

3. Elementary, My Dear Sherlock

By far the most jarring scene in all of English-language fiction occurs in Eclipse. It really gave me some sort of mental whiplash. It's not uncommon for authors to give readers more information than the characters have, although this made much more difficult if your book is narrated by a character. First-person narration doesn't really go with feeding the readers things the characters don't know.

So, the main non-Everyone Loves Bella plot of Eclipse is about a group of new vampires terrorising nearby Seattle, killing dozens of humans. They are able to avoid detection by Edward's family because Alice, the family psychic, can't read their minds for some reason. Completely unrelatedly, a vampire whose mind Alice can't read breaks into Bella's home one day when she's not there. I made the fundamental mistake of assuming that these two incidents, close in geography and identical in symptom, were related somehow. Not just because they were in the same book, but because they seemed to bear a striking similarity through Alice's inability to track them.

Imagine my surprise, then, when suddenly, halfway through Eclipse, Bella - of all people - suddenly figures this out. "Wait, what?", I thought, "Surely we all already knew this?" And then, Bella tells hyper-intelligent Alice, who is shocked, having never considered the possibility. A chapter later, hyper-intelligent Edward is also astounded at the thought that these two identical things may be, in fact, related. This sequence of events is one of the stupidest things to have ever been written. I can't think of another example where something which the reader has accepted as a basic rule of the story is cause for such surprise amongst the story's characters. The nearest analogy I could think of would be if, halfway through a Holmes book, Dr Watson suddenly said, "Hey, Holmes, I think these two murders with identical circumstances, committed close to one another, might be connected!" And Sherlock Holmes then suddenly realised that Watson was correct, and that his assumption that these two things were completely unrelated was wrong.

That never happened, of course, because Arthur Conan Doyle was not an idiot. Stephenie Meyer is.

3. Round-Up

There's more holes I could pick, idiocies I could highlight (the Acknowledgments page(s) is again a delight - 'the rock gods of Muse' get thanked again, and she also tells her fans that they're 'the most attractive, intelligent, exciting, and dedicated fans in the whole world. I wish I could give you each a big hug and a Porsche 911 Turbo'), but frankly, it's not worth it. Eclipse is an awful, awful book. It manages to be both actively crap and mind-numbingly boring at once. I hated it so much it energised me. I had to wake up early in the morning to fit in all the hatred I felt for it.

Please, please, please, do not read this book. Do not let your friends or family members read it Not even in jest, or to see what all the fuss is about. Reading Eclipse made my life less worthwhile.

That said, I have a copy of Breaking Dawn on my bookshelf. At this point, to be honest, I'm not sure I can face reading it. (If I do, it won't be for a while, at least.) I've no idea how many people read these little reviews of mine, but let me know in comments if you want me to push on with Breaking Dawn. Otherwise, I'll just let it slide. I've next to no curiosity about what happens in that book - I'm sure Wikipedia can fill me in to the extent that I care. If there's enough interest expressed for me to round off the series, then I will. (With grave misgivings that my friends hate me, though...)

Twilight 2: The New Moonening

[My review of the second in Stephenie Meyer's series. Originally published on Facebook on 28 January 2010.]

Here we are, with the second Twilight book, New Moon. Before I start - & I promise this one'll be shorter than its predecessor - big thanks to a fellow Twilight fanatic who wishes to remain anonymous, who sourced this book for me. (And also vol 4 - Breaking Dawn - so we've got that to look forward to as well, assuming I can ever find Eclipse.)

A couple of small matters before I dive into what I thought of the book.
1. In the tradition of credit where it's due, I'd like to acknowledge the unnamed person who designs these books. Little, Brown publishers apparently don't think s/he rates a mention, since nowhere in the book are they named. But, as someone who appreciates a good book design, I repeat what I said in the Twilight review: these books have striking covers, and full credit to whoever does them.

2. Things get a little less estimable once we flick inside the book, and find Stephenie Meyer's Acknowledgements page. These are never easy to write, but hers is particularly silly, primarily because a) she boasts about getting on the New York Times bestseller list, and b) she lists the bands that she listened to & was inspired by during the writing of New Moon. Muse get the biggest props - "there are emotions, scenes and plot threads in this novel that were born from Muse songs and would not exist without their genius". Poor Muse - I don't even like them, and I feel sorry for them. She then lists a bunch of other favourites - some good, some awful, some I've never heard of. And, this is possibly the only list of artists ever that includes Linkin Park and Travis consecutively...

Anyway, those little observations out of the way, let's get on with it, shall we?

1. I Have To Admit It's Getting Better (it can't get no worse)

Yes, I'll say this upfront - New Moon is superior to Twilight. Specifically, it's not as extraordinarily awful as Twilight, so take that judgement as you will. Rather, New Moon settles, for most of its long length into being merely underwhelming, rather than being aggressively and offensively bad. There are still many problems, and I'll get to those, but I would be lying if I said I thought New Moon was as bad as Twilight.

Most particularly, this is because Edward plays such a little role in New Moon. He's off-screen, as it were, for 350 pages through the middle of the book, and is therefore less annoying with his perfect perfection. Possibly Meyer is better able to concentrate on her other characters and her plot when she's not drooling over Edward? I don't know. Whatever the reason, I'm thankful that he's essentially pushed to a supporting character in New Moon, since the focus is instead on Jacob, who's more interesting. Admittedly it's unfair, since Edward's been a vampire for decades when we meet him, but Jacob's struggle with his transformation into a werewolf is more the sort of thing I'd have liked to have seen with Edward in the first book. (And, yeah, I'm going to just ignore that Bella's three best friends are two vampires and a werewolf, okay? That's the world of this story, so that's the way it works, and it's unfair & pointless to criticise the premise.)

Of course, Edward's absence means that Bella spends most of her time mooning over him, trying to get his attention to induce hallucinations of his voice, so we're not totally spared. Some of the stuff here - post-'breakup' - isn't bad, in terms of conveying the emptiness she feels without him. It's not great, and certainly not original, but it's not bad. However, it's a two-edged sword, all this time with Jacob, because we all know that it's not leading where it might in any other book - we know she's not going to settle with Jacob, who makes her happy & protects her - and no matter how many times she has the conversation with herself about moving on from Edward and finding a simpler happiness with Jacob, we know she won't. If Pride and Prejudice was the touchstone of Twilight (by touchstone here, I mean, classic work of literature that people know which can be shamelessly and overtly used as a comparison within the text itself), New Moon's is Romeo & Juliet, with Jacob cast as either Rosalind or Paris, depending on what kind of mood Meyer was in that day, it seems.

{A side note - I've said before that I'm not really interested in getting into the whole mocking-the-fanbase thing, but I'm really curious about the whole Team Jacob phenomenon. As I note above, I find him more interesting than Edward, but we all know he's not going to win. He's the anti-romance in this series. Declaring yourself a member of Team Jacob seems to me like saying that your favourite novel is Pride & Prejudice, and that you're a proud member of Team Wickham or Team Mr Collins. Or, to keep the Romeo & Juliet thing going, Team Paris. I don't get it.}

2. Of Such Is Tragedy Made.

Remember in my Twilight review, where I argued that the key element of a romance story is the longing? The time before our two characters get together? Well, I'm going to make a further definition here - the key element of a tragedy has to be that it makes sense, and isn't laughable. PG Wodehouse books, for instance, often have a romance torn assunder as a key plot driver, but these are always played for laughs, not tragedy, and that's why the cause of the romantic split is always silly - the boy refuses to steal a policeman's helmet; the girl breaks off their engagement. That sort of thing. If you're shooting for tragedy, you need a premise that doesn't make the reader roll their eyes in disbelief - stupid misunderstanding is fine, idiocy is not. And the problem here is that Meyer wanted it this way - when she sat down to figure out how to separate the two for this book, the best she could come up with was this: that the Cullens decide it's best to be away from Bella after she cuts herself and some of them are inflamed by the sight/smell of her blood.

That, in & of itself, isn't the problem. The problem is the way Meyer contrives (and that's the only word for it) to have Bella cut herself. She's clumsy, right? Should be easy. She's at her birthday party with the Cullens, so you'd think it'd be easy to have her cut herself on the cake knife, right? Obvious, and plausible - which are not necessarily bad things. Or even, to have her drop a glass & it slice her finger or something. We've all cut ourselves in the kitchen before, so there are many ways to do it. Instead, Bella cuts her finger opening a present. Technically possible, I suppose, but I must admit that I read that and just could not believe that this was the best Meyer could do. Anyway, Bella bleeds, Cullens react, Jacob decides to move away for Bella's safety. And herein lies the second problem - I noted above that some of Bella's post-'breakup' grief wasn't awfully conveyed. But, and here's the catch, I threw scare-quotes around 'breakup' for a reason - I, as reader, never thought there was any danger of the two not meeting up by book's end. So, completely ludicrous injury forces a 'breakup' that clearly isn't going to take. As I said of Twilight, you never feel like Bella's in the danger Edward says she is, and nor do you ever think there's even a chance that he doesn't really love her. He is perfectly perfect, after all, and a major part of that perfection is that he loves Bella More Than Anyone Has Ever Loved Anyone In The History Of The World.

Speaking of which...

3. The Reliably-Stupid Narrator.

Anyone with any knowledge of literary theory has come across the concept of the unreliable narrator. One of the best examples in recent years was in the movie The Usual Suspects, wherein Kevin Spacey's character provides us in the audience - through out stand-in, the policeman interviewing him throughout the film - with our knowledge of what's going on and who's who. Except, of course, at the end it's all proved to be his made-up story to cover what really happened. (Um, sorry, spoilers just there.)

For a long time in New Moon, I wondered if that was what was happening here. Bella seemed to so keen to draw the wrong conclusions from everything that happens, that I couldn't help but feel it was all part of the story. By the end, though, I'd come up with a new theory - Bella's mental capacity was severely incapacitated during her climactic fight at the end of the first volume. She seems positively post-lobotomy throughout New Moon. If there's a conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence, Bella goes the opposite way. (Or, goes the right way, but so slowly that I felt like I could almost skip a dozen pages until she caught up with me.) Points in case - her understanding of Jacob's becoming a werewolf; her misapprehension about what that entails, etc. There's an excruitiating scene toward the end where she apparently thinks she's asleep and dreaming for far too many pages while Edward is talking to her. I've simply never previously come across a character less in tune with what's going on around them than Bella - other than, of course, those who are supposed to be that stupid.

4. Why Foreshadow When You Can Forebludgeon?

Foreshadowing is another important literary technique, and one Meyer's not quite got a grasp on at this point. She doesn't subtly let us know when something's going to be important later on, she hits. us. over. the. head. with. it. many,. many. times. The best example of that in New Moon is the whole 'a big bear is attacking hikers in the mountains' theme - the first time it's mentioned, you don't think much of it, but then there are approximately 800 further references to it before it's cleared up - by which point any sentient reader will have figured out what Bella never quite gets to (see above) - that ain't no bear up in them thair mountains.

This one also relates to the next point:

5. Symbolism! Symbolise Me Some Symbols!

In my review of Twilight, I noted how exhausting the constant shifts of emotion were. Much of that is discarded in New Moon - Bella spends a fair chunk of the book in something approaching depression, thankfully - but it's instead replaced by some of the most overt & clunky symbolism in publishing history. Between this & my previous point, it's like someone sat Stephenie Meyer down after she wrote Twilight and explained some 'advanced' literary techniques to her, and then ducked out of the room before Meyer had fully grasped how to apply said techniques.

Bella dreams a lot, but not in the way that you or I dream. All of us sometimes dream things that seem relevant to our lives, I suppose - I'm hardly an expert on the topic - but most of the dreams we have tend to be fairly meaningless. Meeting old school friends in unusual circumstances, or seeing famous people in everyday situtations, or whatever. Not Bella. She dreams, and every single one of her dreams is clearly about Edward & her, or sometimes Jacob. They're astonishingly inept, these dreams - Meyer may as well have just written 'I dreamed about Edward again and again and again, all the while not thinking about him consciously', and pasted that through the book a few times.

There's also, as mentioned above, no shortage of Meyer hanging her tale on Shakespeare's coat-tails, with Bella reading/watching Romeo & Juliet at the beginning of the book, and continually returning to that story as a way of explaining/thinking about her own life. Again, not an unheard of scenario, but Meyer is about has ham-fisted as is possible. Also, good thing they weren't doing Macbeth in Bella's class that term, right? She'd have been in all sorts of trouble.

6. The Rules of the Game.

Somebody ought to sit Stephenie Meyer down and get her to explain what the rules of her vampire & werewolf world are. I think she just makes stuff up as she goes along, without regard for anything else, and as if she just invented the idea of vampires. If you're going to work in a genre with widely-known rules - vampire fiction, to take a random example - you need to either go along with the rules that everyone knows, or explain why those don't apply in your world. A very common rule is that vampires burn & die when they're hit by direct sunlight, but Meyer's instead glow. Very, very brightly, admittedly, but more in a sparkling sort of way than in a combustion sort of way. But she never addresses this - I suspect that she wasn't aware of that trope. And right at the end of New Moon, Meyer all of a sudden introduces a new aspect of the vampire-werewolf relationship, clearly to raise the stakes (as it were) for the rest of the series. She suddenly had a great way to leave on a bit of a cliff-hanger, and who cares if that thing had never previously been mentioned?

7. Details Are For Suckers.

Another thing I criticised in passing regarding Twilight was Meyer's apparent aversion to details ('I opened my favourite search engine', indeed!). After reading New Moon, I sort of longed for those days to return, since now she applies them in a typically clumsy way. Let's start with Bella's new after-school job. We all know that she's the clumsiest, least sporty person in fiction, so where should she work? Why, at the local sporting good store, of course. I know most school students take what work they can get, and that it doesn't necessarily reflect their personality or career plans, but really? A sporting goods store? Why, Meyer?

Meyer also loves Edward so much that she wants all her characters to love him too. So, Mike, Bella's main admirer at school, is described as imitating Edward in his appearance. Specifically - "his face had lost some of its roundness, making his cheekbones more prominent, and he was wearing his pale blond hair a new way; instead of bristly, it was longer and gelled into a carefully casual disarray. It was easy to see where his inspiration came from - but Edward's look wasn't something that could be achieved through imitation".

Yes, apparently Edward is responsible for teenage boys losing fat from their faces, and pioneered the whole 'carefully casual disarray' hairstyle. No teenage boy had ever thought of that before! (Also, apparently Josh Thomas is imitating Edward Cullen...)

This was an early example of me thinking Bella was so in love with Edward that she thought others were too, unreliable narrator style, but I really think this was Meyer, not Bella.

Other examples of Meyer's inability to deal with details are all over the place. My favourite was whenever movies were mentioned - never any real ones, but people watching a movie always had two choices - a monster one, or a romantic comedy (Shaun of the Dead would've blown Bella's/Meyer's mind...). We first see this when Bella goes to the movies with her friend, who literally describes their options - apparently only two movies can ever show at once - as 'that romantic comedy' and 'this monster one'. And then, a few chapters later, Bella goes to the movies again, and there's a new romantic comedy and a new monster film as her choices. Finally, late in the book, she's on a plane, and sees that someone else is watching a movie on their screen, but can't tell if it's a horror movie or a romantic comedy. Again, at first I thought it was Meyer's little joke, a tiny satire of the formulaic nature of contemporary mainstream cinema, but I think she just thinks that's all there is. It's not a very good satire, anyway, you'd be better off always presenting people with a choice between an idiotic action movie and a self-serious middlebrow literary adaptation.)

And finally, just because it annoyed me so much, Meyer combined OVERT SYMBOLISM with crappiness at details in one spectacular flame-out. One Monday, and it's made very, very clear that it's a Monday, from the fact that Bella goes to bed on Sunday night & wakes up thinking about the previous day's events, to the fact that everyone is at school and talking about their weekends, Bella realises that it's exactly one year since she started at that school. The exact date of the exact month. Stephenie Meyer has apparently never noticed that dates shift forward one day each year (two in a leap year, from March on), and therefore the date on a Monday this year was a Sunday last year. Bella started at her new school on a Sunday. Meyer just couldn't help herself with that bit of spooky symbolism, and for some unknown reason, no sub-editor thought to mention it.

8. Conclusion.

No bad book is complete without a wince-inducing final paragraph, so that's what I'll leave you with. See you at Eclipse!

[context - Bella just realises how many exciting adventures she'll have in the next installment of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling series, available soon at a bookstore near you. It's almost that overt. Oh, and line-breaks here are all as they are in the book.]

Edward squeezed me gently. "I'm here."
I drew in a deep breath.
That was true. Edward was here, with his arms around me.
I could face anything as long as that was true.
I squared my shoulders and walked forward to meet my fate, with my destiny at my side.

On the novel 'Twilight', and why it's not very good

[Friends on Facebook will possibly remember this post, originally published a year ago - almost exactly - but I thought I'd repost here for broader appreciation. Because what the world is crying out for now is another anti-Twilight review...]

I usually miss big pop-culture events - I've still not read any Harry Potter, for instance (though I've seen & enjoyed the first five movies), nor have I read any Dan Brown novel.

And while 'Twilight' - the novel - has probably passed its moment in the sun (so to speak), I've been meaning for a while to read it and see what all the fuss is about. A copy finally appeared at my library, so I picked it up on Sunday and began it yesterday, and have finished it this afternoon.

I did not read it to snigger at the people who have enjoyed/become obsessed with it, but it would be fair to say that I went in expecting to not like it. And, I didn't. But perhaps not for the reasons I was expecting.

In short, I don't think the book works very well, even within the bounds of what it is - and isn't - trying to be. My argument is not that it doesn't stack up to, say, 'Ulysses' as a piece of art pushing the boundaries of what we think of as a novel. That's not fair to either book, and nobody wants everything to be 'Ulysses'. I think, instead, that 'Twilight' is not very good as a vampire-flavoured teen romance. Here's why, sorted into a few themes, I think 'Twilight' doesn't work... If people disagree, I'd love to hear from you in comments!

(I acknowledge from the start that I am far from the target demographic of these books, being neither a teenage girl nor an emo, angsty boy. I also acknowledge that I have read only the first book in a series, and it's possible that some of these criticisms might be undone by later books. However, I still think that these are valid points for this particular book, whatever the next three might change.)

(Also: Spoilers Aplenty!)

1. The Prose Is Awful

Okay, no surprises here. And, to again be honest, I wasn't expecting it to be great. However, I was unprepared for just how poorly written 'Twilight' is. I took it for granted going in that it was going to be overwrought, emo-tastic teenage angst. Putting that aside (for the moment), it has to be said: Stephenie Meyer cannot write. Every page contains sentences that just do not sound right. My personal favourite, from page 59: "None of them, especially Edward, glanced my way anymore."

That, there, is very possibly the worst sentence I've read in a published book. How did a sub-editor not pick up on that? Do I really need to explain that if 'none of them' did something (or, actually, nothing), then it's impossible for Edward to 'especially' do that? I understand what she's trying to say (I think): that Edward's failure to glance her way felt more significant than the others' similar failure, but still.

Granted, that sentence is outstanding, but throughout the book, I was consistently re-reading sentences to try to get them. As I said in my status update, the writing is bizarrely incompetent, in a way that no published book really should be.

2. The Excessive Excess (Part 1 - Emotions! Everywhere We Look!)

Flowing on from the first point, part of what makes 'Twilight' hard to read is the way you're constantly shifting moods. I realise I've already used the tag 'emo' twice in this review, but this is what I really mean: everyone is always changing moods at the drop of a hat. To prove this point to Ngaire last night, I opened the book entirely at random, and listed for her every emotion/description ascribed to Edward in the course of a single page. For convenience's sake, I'll use the same page again (p. 158), and please bear in mind that Edward is driving (fast) throughout this page:
'He laughed... his face tightened... he reminded me softly... he was startled... he rolled his eyes, still not slowing... he turned to smile crookedly at me... he grinned and tapped his forehead... he agreed, with a short, hard laugh... he sighed' (And in the first six lines of the following page, we're told that he muttered, snapped and promised.)

Again, I realise that this is a big teen romance, but that's an awful lot in one page (and I didn't even get to Bella...). Not to mention, to what extent is Edward really a teenager?

Part of the problem here is Meyer's need to stuff her prose with adjectives and adverbs. Almost every line of dialogue tells us exactly how the person (well, character) said it, and worse, that's usually quite different to their previous line of dialogue, and at odds with the described emotion/s of their conversational partner. It all gets very wearisome very quickly, unless you make a game of it, like I did, by trying to imagine what these conversations would actually sound like. (Nothing on earth, is the answer.)

The other part of the problem is that these descriptions of emotion often not only don't match the character's mood a moment ago, they also frequently don't match the actual line they're currently speaking.

3. The Excessive Excess (Part 2 - The Superlatively Superlative)

The second way in which Meyer's fondness for overblown excess grates, and ultimately undermines the story, is the superlative nature of Edward himself. Edward, for those who've missed the finer points of this tale, is a vampire. However, he's not just a vampire, he's The Best Thing Ever. And this is the first of my really serious objections to the book on its own terms. The first two things I've discussed are annoying, sure, but they're also things that (evidently) lots of people can shrug off (though they also disqualify these books from being considered in any way worthy literature). This problem, however, completely invalidates 'Twilight'.

The breathless way in which Bella (who narrates the novel) describes Edward is not actually the problem here. That annoyance falls into the previous theme. No, the problem here is much more basic and fundamental: Edward is brilliant at everything. This isn't just a love-smitten female character telling us this, it's actually his character, as conceived and written by the author.

I have seen many fans of this series swoon over the Edward character over the past few months - certainly since the movie was released - and to an extent I can see where they're coming from - Edward is The Best Thing Ever, after all. But, for those of us looking for something in a book other than a character to wish our partner was like (whether or not we currently have a partner), this is a fatal flaw. Edward is a thoroughly uninteresting character by halfway through this book, because by that point we know that:
a) if there's an ability you can name, or an activity you can think of, Edward will be able to do it brilliantly
b) he is completely devoted to Bella (we'll return to this later).

Superman has long been the most boring of all superheroes, because he's so immensely good, and because of the predictablity of his one weakness, kryptonite. Edward's like that, minus the kryptonite. He's superstrong, can run superfast, drive superwell, play baseball supergood, do chemistry superwell, dance and play the piano (including writing songs for his girlfriend!) superbrilliantly. It becomes a joke, actually, just how perfect he is. And his supposed darkness - that he's a vampire who could theoretically kill Bella at any moment - is neutered by the fact that we never really think that he will. You know why? Because he's also super(emotionally)strong.


4. Bella, The Unlovable Loser Outsider (Whom Everyone Loves)

One of the few things I really knew about 'Twilight' before I started reading it was that the novel's narrator, Bella, was something of an absent centre. Indeed, the book itself is eager to remind us of this, with most of the first few chapters being Bella telling us what an outsider she is. Sure, there could be a bit of the old unreliable narrator trick going on here, or perhaps Meyer's making a point about how Bella views herself as these things, but in reality isn't.

However, that doesn't really seem supported by the book - throughout, it seems as if Bella is supposed to be an awkward, introverted outsider. Yet, after moving to the small town in the first chapter, she quickly makes friends of almost all the girls in her class. And, despite never having had a boy interested in her back in Phoenix, here she has four boys (excluding Edward!) fall for her within the first 100 pages! The only girls who don't like her, in fact, are those who are jealous of all the boys chasing her.

For a little while, this is sorta interesting, for the potential reason I suggested above - that she thinks of herself as a loser, but in fact isn't. That, of course, is a pretty standard trope of teenage characters in fiction, largely because it's a pretty standard emotion for teenage people in real life. But, as I said, that doesn't seem to be the answer here. I think Bella was genuinely supposed to be that outsider character, but then it suited the plot for her to have lots of friends. So, she did.

Also, this seems to be part of a larger problem with Bella's character, which is that she's a collection of tics, rather than an actual person. For instance, early in book, she faints when one of her classmates, on the other side of the room, pricks his thumb for a blood test exercise in Biology. She's awfully sensitive to blood, obviously, a neat device for someone about to date a vampire. In the novel's climax, an evil vampire cuts her head with glass, and thus blood "spread crimison across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor". Her own blood. From glass cuts. To her head. Inflicted by a vampire. Who's about to kill her. Her reaction? It gives her hope, as she formulates a plan to defeat this vampire.

Honestly, I read this section about five times, trying to figure out if what was going on was what seemed to be going on. She eventually faints, yes, but it's from the massive loss of blood from her head. In other words: tiny amount of blood from someone else in a science experiement = swooning, fainting. Significant loss of own blood from head wound sustained in fight with evil vampire = helps clear the mind for thinking. This is incredibly stupid.

She's also idiotically clumsy - as in, slapstick comedy clumsy, not clumsy in the way that, you know, real people in the real world are. So much so that, in a single game of basketball, in which she manages to not touch the ball once (I don't understand how that's possible, frankly - there's only five on a team, usually), she falls over three times. How? I played basketball for years, and it's almost impossible to fall over unless you're doing something. (Even then, not easy, but I'll grant that she's clumsy by nature.) To fall over three times in a game in which you don't touch the ball isn't just unlikely, it's straightforward idiotic - as in, is something that could only be written as a character trait, as opposed to plausible actions.

Speaking of all her friends, as we just were...

5. The School Plot

Hey, this book's sure got a lot of characters, as we approach the halfway mark. Oh, look, no it doesn't. All the characters from the first 200 pages suddenly disappear from the story as it becomes all about Bella & Edward and his family. And then, there they all are, waving to Bella in the last ten pages. Supremely odd. This is just a minor point, but it's strange.

6. Vampires?! Impossible! (Oh, all right then.)

These last couple of points I'm going to make are the real problems I think cripple 'Twilight', along with the character of Edward, as already covered. The first is, I admit, something that might sound a little silly in a book about vampires, but bear with me: 'Twilight' is simply not plausible. Bella finds out that Edward is a vampire one night, and by lunch the next day, she's accepted that and loves him, glad that he is one of the good sort.

There are a couple of token 'impossibles!', but really, Bella accepts the reality of vampires way too fast for it to make sense. Think about it - imagine that there's a person of your preferred gender who acts moodily towards you, including disappearing for a few days, but also often knows exactly where you are and jumps in at the right moment to save you from various dangers. I, for one, would be seriously freaked out by that. That seems like someone slightly unhinged (aside from issues of taste, I mean...), and very possibly a stalker. Bella never thinks of that. Imagine then that they explained it away by telling you that they're a vampire. Wouldn't your first, second and third (etc, etc) reactions be, 'Well, vampires don't exist'? Someone telling you that they're a vampire would seem to require more convincing than Bella needs - she more or less just accepts it immediately, and wants to get the inside scoop on what it's like to be a vampire these days.

It really is mind-boggling how quickly she accepts not just that Edward is a good vampire who will protect her, but that vampires exist at all. I'm not saying that books with vampires can't exist, of course, only saying that, if you're going to set a book in a notionally real world, you need to start by having characters who don't instantly assume that vampires exist. (Or, alternatively, lay some groundwork by having Bella be the sort of person who would be pre-disposed to believe that immediately.)

Instead, she googles (sorta, like many other details here, Meyer avoids naming things - she uses her 'favourite search engine'; elsewhere, there's multiple long discussions of a particular cd, without us ever being told what it is, for no apparent reason other than that Meyer didn't want to offend people by naming something other than their favourite band) vampires, doesn't find much (!), thinks it's all a bit silly, walks outside, thinks it's not so silly. I wish I were exaggerating.

7. 'Twilight' Is Not A Romance Story

This is my most serious objection to this story, since it strikes at the root of its appeal. 'Twilight' is regarded - by fans and critics alike - as a teen romance, with vampires. I've heard several people describe it as one of the great romances, drawing comparisons (inevitably) with books like 'Pride & Prejudice'.

They're all wrong. 'Twilight' is not, by any standard definition, a romance. Or, at least, it's not a competent one.

I have a massive problem with this novel being considered a romance, or an interesting love story, for a simple reason. And I have an even larger problem with it being considered the equal of Jane Austen's shopping list for the same reason.

Think about great romances in fiction (books or tv more than movies, where it's all a bit compressed), and what do they all have in common? That the build-up, the chase, is interesting, and (within the constraints of the medium) prolonged. Think how long Lizzie and Darcy (Pride & Prejudice) are not together before they are. Look at how long Tim & Dawn or Jim & Pam (the UK & US versions of The Office, and two of the finest modern romances) had to wait, and the obstacles they had to overcome to get together. That time, and those obstacles, are why we keep reading, or tuning in.

Further, none of those people are perfect. Darcy is rich as hell, and (after you get to know him) a stand-up bloke, but he's also a bit of a prick. He is offensive, unnecessarily so, towards Lizzie and her family in the early parts of the story. She, in turn, is quick to judge everyone she meets. Tim/Jim is unambitious, constantly thinking that he might do something interesting with his life, but never actually doing so. Dawn/Pam has clearly been in a rut, personally and professionally, for years by the time the documentary crew arrives, and lacks the qualities necessary to change that (at least initially). These people are interesting - even someone like Darcy is someone you could imagine knowing (minus the wealth, presumably). Edward? Not so much, even aside from the whole vampire thing. He is, as the book reminds us too many times, perfect. And a romance wherein one person is 'perfect' is not only unbalanced and implausible, but uninteresting.

In 'Twilight', allegedly a great romance story, the couple get together within the first 150 pages of the first book. Sure, some people make dark comments about him before that happens, and no doubt there will be problems to come (from what I briefly know of the remaining three volumes).

And that is also fundamentally uninteresting, in a different way to the way in which I've already described this 'romance' as uninteresting. I realise there's some darkness to come, but it seems to me that Meyer has created a not-very-interesting romance here, for one simple reason: there's no longing. No period in which she thinks, 'I love him, but he's out of my league, or he hates my family, or others are conspiring to keep him away from me, or he's already engaged to some moron in the warehouse'. The most moving part of most romances is the period between when the character (or /s, depending on the POV) realises they're in love with the other, but doesn't see how it can work, for whatever reason. In 'Twilight', it's not until they're already together that this obstruction comes along, it seems.

I don't precisely know what's to come in the rest of the series, but there's no 'will they get together or not?' tension in this first book, because it all happens so damn quickly. And that strikes me as a massive flaw. Sure, by the end of this book he's talking about how they can't be together forever, but that's only because he's refusing to convert her into a vampire. He's quite open about loving her and never leaving her while she's alive. (Again, I realise that some of this changes in 'New Moon', but my criticism remains valid, I think.) So, what we seem to have, at this point in the saga, is something more akin to a couple who get together, and then he gets shipped off overseas to fight the Nazis. Sad, yes. But the stuff of great romances? No. Great romances, in art at least, requires a period of yearning, of uncertainty.

For that reason, the great love story that 'Twilight' promises does not exist, at least between the covers of this book.

And for all of these reasons, 'Twilight' fails on almost every level. (It does have a well-designed cover, I'll grant that.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Things which inexplicably still exist

  1. Faxes
  2. Cheques
  3. Cash
  4. Cage eggs
  5. Fixed (non-cordless) landline telephones
  6. Landline telephones
  7. Plastic cutlery
  8. Blank video tapes
  9. Cask wine
  10. Telephone directories
  11. Non-recyclable packaging
  12. Magazines which treat soap characters as real people
  13. Greeting cards
  14. State governments
  15. Weekday newspapers in print form
  16. Leaf blowers
  17. Reality tv
  18. Single-ply toilet paper
  19. Reconstituted juices
  20. Royal families

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blogging the Booker 14: In a Strange Room

The final book on this year's Booker Prize shortlist - and the final of my trip through the longlist, since I'm skipping the remaining two - is Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room. Galgut was an author of whom I was entirely unaware until this longlist, but I had read some glowing reviews of this book, so even though I wasn't able to get my hands on a copy until after The Finkler Question was announced as winner, I was still quite keen to read In a Strange Room.

In a Strange Room is a slim book - 180 pages in smallish hardcover, but another way of viewing it is as three linked novellas published together (indeed, I believe the three sections have been published separately in magazines). Each section is essentially self-contained - there's no references from one to the next. And since Damon Galgut is a South African writer (the only one on this year's longlist, if memory serves) writing in the first person about a South African writer named Damon, there might be a tendency to wonder how autobiographical In a Strange Room is. I've no idea, so won't speculate and don't much care.

The three sections deal with three different journeys Damon went on, as he writes about them years later. It's not entirely accurate to say that this book is written in the first person - most of the time, older Damon writes about younger Damon in the third person, only occasionally switching to the first-person pronoun. This provides a measure of detachment, of distance, in his descriptions of his younger self. And it works quite well, at least so far as I was concerned, not least because of the extra weight it gives the passages where middle-aged Damon refers to younger Damon as 'I'.

Each of the three journeys is given a title/theme: The Follower, The Lover, The Guardian. In each, he travels somewhere and meets someone (or travels with them), and it is these relationships that In a Strange Room is about (as well as being about travel itself). I felt that each section was more about the relationship and less about the travel than the previous one - in the final section, the travel seems almost incidental, a setting for the relationship more than anything else.

In a Strange Room is a quiet little book - reflective, sparse, a little detached as the narration illustrates, and essentially introspective. The first two sections in particular are about things not said, not done, rather than dramatic actions or plotting. Scenery and setting is described, but this is not a travel brochure. I found In a Strange Room engrossing and touching, both in low-key sorts of ways, and am glad it made it to the shortlist, and that I got around to reading it. As I've said before, in some ways the winner of the Booker is a little irrelevant to me - my pleasure is in getting to know some new authors, and also sometimes seeing a favourite author get some more attention.

So, while I was both a little surprised and disappointed that The Finkler Question won this year's prize, I'm still glad to have read most of the longlist. I hope you've enjoyed my idiosyncratic little reviews too. If it had been up to me, the shortlist (from the longlist) would have been (in no real order):
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
Andrea Levy, The Long Song
Emma Donoghue, Room
Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America

Four of those six made the judges' shortlist, so I can't feel too antagonistic to them (even if the two they missed were probably my favourites, or at least in my top few).

And, of course, at least my record of not really rating the winner has continued for another year. But, I guess, there's always next year...

Next: no more Booker longlisteds for me! But stayed tuned for reviews of whatever I happen to be reading (random is a nice way of putting it), and perhaps I'll even start posting about non-book-related things now that my Blogging the Booker series has drawn to a close...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book review: The News Where You Are

What Was Lost, Catherine O'Flynn's first novel, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 - but sadly didn't make the shortlist, despite being one of the best novels I read that year. Her followup, The News Where You Are, was published a couple of months ago, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week (note: the fault was all mine). I'm disappointed that it didn't make this year's Booker longlist, because that would have exposed it to a greater audience, but I'm sure it will still find a happy readership.

Frank Allcroft is a middle-aged local news presenter in Birmingham. Unlike some of his colleagues, who see regional news as a trivial relic, Frank genuinely likes the local focus and has developed minor local fame as the teller of incredibly corny, poorly-delivered, jokes in the news broadcast. His predecessor & friend Phil, who left Birmingham for brighter things with a national audience, has died in a hit & run incident. His late father, a once-renowned architect, is suffering the final indignity, with most of his buildings being torn down & replaced by more modern designs. His mother, determindedly unhappy, lives in an aged-care home. And Frank finds himself increasingly worried about the forgotten people - those whose deaths are barely noticed, and whose lives are swiftly erased.

The News Where You Are is a novel about people's legacies - how they are remembered, how their lives (& deaths) affect those around them, and how we the living continue living without them. Frank finds himself investigating the life & death of Phil's friend Michael, who has also recently died (Phil and Michael were both a generation older than Frank), and tries to track down people who may have known this friend of a friend, hoping to find someone who might remember Michael. He also spends time with Cyril, an unsuccessful comedy writer whose only consistent gig appears to be scripting Frank's wince-inducing puns for the news, and Michelle, Phil's (young) widow. As his father's buildings are being scheduled for demolition, he tries to save at least some of them. And he, along with his wife Andrea & daughter Mo, try to brighten the life of his mother. Through these intertwinning elements, we also occasionally flashback to Frank's childhood, with his self-important father trying to design a better world through architecture, and also to the last few months of Phil's life.

O'Flynn weaves these tiny moments together effectively. While The News Where You Are might sound overwhelmingly melancholy, those themes are handled with a lightness of touch that finds small moments of humour and a warmth towards its characters that keeps the book from sinking into depressing bleakness. Much of this has to do with Mo, who is refreshingly real for a child in a modern novel (she's not brilliantly intelligent or talented, and actually acts in ways that seem familar). Mo's genuine desire to make her grandmother happy, and her interest in some (but not all) of what her father tries to show her are well-drawn characteristics. Frank himself is aware that his increasing interest in the past, and in people who have died, is not entirely healthy, but also recognises that he needs to remember people and deal with his father's & friend's legacies.

In many ways The News Where You Are is a small novel - it's short (250pp) and easily read, and O'Flynn doesn't really go in for huge, shocking plot twists (there is one revelation, but it's underplayed, not so as you'd miss it, but it certainly doesn't feel like a cheap thrill). Yet at the same time, as I've noted, it considers some fairly weighty themes like how we remember and are remembered, and friendship, and relationships with our parents and children.

Highly recommended, and I look forward to Catherine O'Flynn's third book.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blogging the Booker 13: Trespass

Dear Reader/s,

I have failed you in my attempt to read all 13 of the Booker longlisted novels by the winner announcement. Not because that date is upon us, but because I can confidently state that I won't finish at least one of those 13 now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

That book is Trespass, by Rose Tremain. I tried my best - I honestly did - but I made it less than 40 pages into Trespass (which only runs to about 250pp) before deciding that life is too short to waste on books that bore me utterly. That was over a week & a half ago, and I have had no desire in the meantime to pick it up again*.

A common criticism of the Booker prize is that there is a certain style of novel frequently rewarded (to at least shortlist stage). These novels tend to feature older, privileged, often artistic-class English/Irish people taking stock of their lives. John Banville's The Sea was, in my opinion, an excellent example of this genre, but there have been plenty of less-interesting versions of the same thing. Despite my enjoyment of Banville's book, I have a fairly low tolerance for this style of novel, and thus was not encouraged when I read the jacket blurb for Trespass.

Now, admittedly, there is a sense of danger - as if the book might be in part a thriller, but otherwise the blurb introduces us to the three main characters:
1. Aramon Lunel - "an alcoholic so haunted by his violent past that he's become incapable of all meaningful action"
2. Audrun (his sister) - "dreams of exacting retribution for the unspoken betrayals that have blighted her life"
[The above two live, separately but adjacently, in "the dark and beautiful heartland of southern France".]
3. Anthony Verey - "a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London" who falls into their world.

My heart sunk with each successive line from that description, but I tried to give Trespass a fair go. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to do so. Maybe it's a flaw in me, but reading about wealthy people's problems is not inherently interesting. I'm not trying to be a class warrior, but character descriptions like "a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London" make me roll my eyes, not wonder what could possibly have disillusioned the poor soul. Ditto books about people who move to "the dark and beautiful heartland of southern France" to sort out the mess they have made of their lives.

I would at this point like to remind whoever's reading that I am not even one of those people who necessarily needs to like the characters in his books. I'm quite happy reading novels focusing on completely unsympathetic characters. And it wasn't that Trespass put me off with its unlikeable characters - it just bored me and made me utterly fail to care about any of it.

Anyway, Trespass didn't make the shortlist, so we need not concern ourselves with it any further.

Next: In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut, the only remaining book from the shortlist in my reading list. (I have a copy on its way from the Book Depository, so hopefully will get to read it before the winner is announced mid-next week.) I'll almost certainly not get to Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal or Lisa Moore's February by then.

* Reading in the meantime: Great Expectations, newest McSweeney's, Catherine O'Flynn's The News Where You Are, and some Borges essays. All of which have stomped all over Trespass.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blogging the Booker 12: The Finkler Question

So, after a short break from the Booker longlist - during which time I read a few other things, including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest (& wonderful) novel, and a 1930s English spy novel - I return to the Booker task at hand with Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which has made it through to the shortlist.

One issue I will be facing with these last few books from the longlist is knowing by the time I read them whether or not they've been shortlisted (of the five remaining when the shortlist was announced, two were, three weren't). That means that, to some extent, I'll be evaluating these ones - especially the two that did progress onto the shortlist - in terms of my thoughts of which other books didn't get shortlisted. Two books I really did want to make the shortlist - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet & Skippy Dies - did not, while two books I hadn't read - The Finkler Question & In a Strange Room - did.

All of which to say that I'm possibly going to be expecting a fair bit from those two novels. In fairness, they're on the Booker shortlist, so things should be expected of them.

Enough prologue, however. The Finkler Question is the first book of Howard Jacobson's I've read (or, to be honest, heard of), but it came with a quote on the front cover from Jonathan Safran Foer, who apparently enjoyed it. And, while I've been avoiding reviews of the Booker longlist entries until I've read them myself, I did know that this book has received some quite positive reviews to date.

However, it has left me a little cold. You remember that scene from Being John Malkovich where John Malkovich enters the portal to his own brain? And lands in a restaurant where everyone looks like him & keeps repeating the word 'Malkovich' with different intonations?

Well, The Finkler Question is a little like that, except the word is 'Jew'. We have three main characters - Julian Treslove, Libor Sevcik & Sam Finkler. Treslove & Finkler are late middle-age friends (since school), Sevcik is older. Sevcik & Finkler are Jewish (& both are also recent widowers), Treslove is not. But Treslove - who really is the main character - decides that he wishes he were Jewish, so he tries to become one. Other than his bond to the two other men, his reasons are not entirely clear. He just really, really fetishes Jewishness. Finkler is a celebrity philosopher (writing pop-philosophy books, making tv series etc), but is perhaps best described as a Professional Jew. He is, and indeed all Jewish characters in this book (which is to say: all characters other than Treslove) are, regardless of their level of religious observance, strongly opposed to the actions of the state of Israel. And they talk about it. A lot. To the exclusion of pretty much any other topic, with the occasional exception of sex.

One might call The Finkler Question a novel of ideas, but that's a little exaggeration. It's more like a novel of an idea. And that, for me, was its failing - if you're not really, really interested in the topic of Jewish identity among old, wealthy London men, then The Finkler Question gets a little tiresome. Jacobson can write well, and there are some wonderful sentences or descriptions, but for me this novel is just a little too monochromatic. I made reference in my review of The Slap to how that book often felt like it was inspired by the grand (particularly Russian) novels of the 19th century, in which characters sat around & discussed the problems of the day - social, political, philosophical, theological. The Finkler Question is the same, but with the difference that in those books, things actually happened in between those conversations - we had the Napoleon coming for a visit, shocking love affairs, murders etc. In The Finkler Question, those conversations are only broken up by things like Treslove going on a short holiday with his two estranged sons, reminding himself what a feeble father he was/is. (And even that scene only lasts about three pages.) Not every novel needs those sorts of things, of course - and I'm not even a particularly strong advocate of novels needing to have plots - but all I can say is that The Finkler Question, while well-written, never really grabbed me or made me care about its characters, other than to think that at least a few of them would've been well off to find themselves a hobby.

So, to return to the point I started with, perhaps I am unfairly judging this book against two that it beat onto the Booker shortlist - maybe I would've liked it better had I read it before I knew how the shortlist would pan out. And I don't regret reading it or anything, but I would be pretty underwhelmed were it to win the prize this year.

(Also: The Finkler Question is the first book I have bought & read via the Kindle app on my iPad. I might post some thoughts on that experience later.)

Next: Trespass, by Rose Tremain (which will invert the expectations I brought into this review, since it will be the first one I've read in the knowledge that it was longlisted but not shortlisted).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Art + Technology

In the absence of a new Booker post (I'm currently reading - & loving - Jonathan Franzen's Freedom... and also marking essay introductions), I thought I'd post a few thoughts on other recent interesting finds.

Despite being barely technically minded, I've always been interested in new technologies - or new uses of old ones, particularly when these intersect with my interest in music or books. And I've come across a few such things recently:

1. Sufjan Stevens releases a new EP without telling anyone.

Sufjan Stevens is one of the most talented musicians of this young century, and both Illinois(e) & Seven Swans are amongst my favourite albums. But it's been a long time since Illinois, his last 'proper' album, and while we had rumours that something was coming soon, a couple of weeks ago he just released a new EP (although - 8 songs; 60 minutes is stretching how Extended something can be before it's just Long) on his website. For $5 (US), it was available for immediate download, and in every audio format known to modern listeners. (Well, except Windows Media, because it sucks.)

Releasing music via internet download is hardly new, of course, but what Stevens did - inadvertently or otherwise - actually created more of a buzz than months of pre-release hype would have done. Because all of a sudden, you could just go and get new music out of the blue from a favourite artist & be listening to it within an hour or two of first being aware of its existence (depending on your internet speed).

And the music's fantastic, by the way. Some of his best work to date - some quieter songs, a la Seven Swans, and some lengthy, more experimental tracks. A few days after the release of All Delighted People, he announced a full album (entirely unrelated to this ep) in October. Yay! A couple of tracks from that have been officially made available for free download, and that's just whetted my appetite.

2. Radiohead essentially give away a free concert dvd.

The main problem with Radiohead's In Rainbows was the fact that its brilliance got overshadowed by the band's marketing strategy (download for as much as you want to pay, in case you've been living under a rock). In Rainbows is - in my opinion - as good as anything they've done. And they have done some very serious good.

And, in a neat repetition of that release, they've done a similar thing with a live concert video from the tour (in Prague). A group of fans got together & all shot the show on video cameras from different places in the audience, and then they edited it all together. And, remarkably, rather than shut the distribution of that video down (as one suspects most bands would do), Radiohead actually gave the organisers the official audio recording of the night, straight from their soundboard, to use on the concert video. Their condition? That the video be made available free to everyone via download.

I've downloaded it (from here) in both Ipad and dvd video formats. It's a tremendous show (especially for someone who's never had the chance to see them live in person), and looks about as good as any 'official' concert video I've ever seen.

Had the band bunged the exact same show onto a dvd & charged $30 for it, I would've paid. But for them to help fans make a free download video just makes me love them all the more. And demonstrates the difference between bands who understand how to use the internet to their (& their fans'!) advantage, and those who are still running from the idea of it.

3. Arcade Fire take Ipod technology in new directions.

So, Arcade Fire released a new album - The Suburbs - a month or two ago. You can buy it on vinyl, cd or, if you're a chump, via Itunes download. On the other hand, you can download it from their website for less than half of what Itunes (Australia) charges. In doing so, not only do you support the band directly, without Apple etc taking their cut, and save a decent amount of money, you also get a vastly superior product.

Why? Well, for starters, they encode their album at a higher bit rate than does Apple, and you get your choice of formats - including several varities of lossless & high-bitrate MP3. You also get the digital booklet in PDF form, featuring all the lyrics & artwork.

But even better than that, they've included a second digital copy, using enhanced files. In short, instead of just displaying the album cover on your Ipod (etc), each song has a different background image. On top of that image, as the song plays, the lyrics are displayed, a line or two at a time, in a vaguely karaoke manner. And they also include other special variations, including some lyric-themed effects (when they sing 'someone cut out the lights', the screen goes black, for example) and a link to a website related to the theme of each song (for play on internet-connected devices like Iphones).

This is incredibly cool. I literally had no idea that this sort of thing was possible. Why has it taken so long for someone to take advantage of the Ipod/Iphone technology in this way? (My only beef is that it doesn't seem to work on my Ipad, which I had thought would be the best platform for it. But even on the Iphone it's tremendous fun.)

I was not previously actually a huge Arcade Fire fan, but heard good things about this album, listened to a few songs on YouTube & saw the cheap download with an interesting-sounding use of technology, so happily plonked down my $8 (US). And I've really been loving The Suburbs, so I'm glad I did. But again: it was through hearing songs on YouTube that I decided this album was worth a shot.

Artists & record labels have to adapt to new technologies if they expect people to continue paying for music. Physical releases will continue to have a place in how people buy music (hell, I still buy vinyl records!), but innovative digital releases like these three will encourage people to pay for legal & interesting releases of quality music. It's worth noting that, in the last month or so, I've downloaded:
- an eight-song, hour-long release in cd-quality audio
- a two-hour concert video, suitable for both Ipad and dvd player
- a complete album, in both cd-quality and enhanced-artwork audio files
all legally, for under $15AUD.

Each of these artists is big enough for this sort of thing to work, of course - they have built-in fanbases and enough people curious enough to have a listen. But, simultaneously, they're also not the three biggest-selling music acts in the world today either. I just hope that more artists - & record companies, for that matter - continue to see that making good & interesting things can actually be all you need in terms of marketing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blogging the Booker 11: Shortlist predictions & hopes

The shortlist for the 2010 Booker Prize is announced today (London's today, that is), so I thought it was a good time to provide a quick overview of my progress through the longlist.

The 13 books are (with the ones I've read in bold & including links to my review post):

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America
Emma Donoghue Room
Helen Dunmore The Betrayal
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question
Andrea Levy
The Long Song
Tom McCarthy C
David Mitchell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Lisa Moore February
Paul Murray
Skippy Dies
Rose Tremain Trespass
Christos Tsiolkas
The Slap
Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky

So, I've to date read eight of the thirteen, which I suppose isn't bad progress (given that my plan all along was to get through all 13 by the winner - not shortlist - announcement, which is in about a month). Of those eight, the ones I'd most like to make the five- or six-strong shortlist are:

The Long Song
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Skippy Dies

I think - albeit with the obvious caveat that I've not read the remaining five - most of those are reasonably likely to make the shortlist. David Mitchell is probably safe, and I suspect Andrea Levy is too. Skippy Dies is a personal favourite, in part because it seems an unlikely Booker pick, but is actually really good. Comparing it to The Stars in the Bright Sky demonstrates the difference between a decent read and something worthy of a literary fiction award, in my opinion. Skippy Dies takes a fairly humdrum starting point and makes it great not only by featuring wonderful characterisation, but also by hinting at subtle but effective themes. The Stars in the Bright Sky, on the other hand, seems more like the inspiration for a fun but slightly shlocky tv mini-series (friends growing apart yet remaining bound together, misadventures on a holiday, drug references, one really annoying character, one really mysterious one).

So those are my hopes. Regardless of what happens with the five I've not read - and for all I know the entire shortlist will consist of those I haven't read yet - I'll try to press on through all 13 before early October. (I will prioritise those that get the nod today.)

Either way, I've enjoyed the process so far - I haven't yet hated anything completely, and have read at least two books I probably would've missed otherwise which I really enjoyed.

Hope you've enjoyed it, too, hypothetical reader/s! Has anyone got any predictions or hopes (for the Booker shortlist, not your life as a whole) of their own?