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Book Notes 3: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s third novel is his best so far; and it’s strange. Really, really strange.

It is the story of a man whose father is a mountain and whose mother is a washing machine. These are not metaphors.

Or perhaps they are. If so, though then the whole book is a metaphor, and I’m not entirely sure for what.

Since Alan (or Adam, or Albert, or Aaron) is very different from other people (he doesn’t have a navel, for one very minor thing) it could be seen as about alienation. Alan, however, is not particularly alienated.

His brothers are a different matter, though.

Each of the five is given a name starting with the next letter of the alphabet after the previous brother’s; but they are not called constantly by this name, either by each other or by the narrator. Instead, they are called by a seemingly-randomly-chosen name starting with ‘their’ letter of the alphabet. There seems no real purpose to it. If it is intended to emphasise the brothers’ ‘otherness’, then it does so: but not enough.

As well as that, each brother has a unique characteristic. Billy, Buddy, Bob (etc) can see the future. Charlie is an island. Davey is twisted, damaged and dangerous. And Ed, Fred and George are a sort of composite being, living inside each other like Russian dolls.

Not surprisingly, one of the subplots centres on one of Cory’s real-world interests: building a free, community-supported wireless network across the city (his native Toronto, in this case). In a way, that subplot doesn’t really mesh very well with the fantastical story: but it does provide a backdrop for it, and it shows that Alan has a life outside of his weird family.

And there’s a woman with wings. Read it for yourself. It’s quite amazing, and like his other books, available for free download under a Creative Commons licence.

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Book Notes 2: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Yes, and only a day after the last one.  It took me a bit longer than that to read it, mind you.

A science-fiction book that was nominated for the Booker: amazing. And have no doubt about it: this is a science-fiction book. Just as Nineteen Eighty Four is; and Orwell’s masterpiece is perhaps the best reference point for Cloud Atlas. The appearance of O’Brien’s Goldstein‘s book within Winston Smith’s story may well have been a model for Mitchell’s multiply-embedded stories.


And like Nineteen Eighty Four, Cloud Atlas is ultimately a bleak vision, though it contains many life-affirming moments on its way.

The interleaved narratives spread across the history and future history of civilisation, from Victorian missionaries ‘civilising’ the ‘savages’ of Polynesia, to the Hawaian islanders after the fall of civilisation, trying desperately to hold on to the ‘Smart’ of the ‘Old’uns’.

Each story contains a reference to the the one in which it is immediately embedded, and there are echoes and references across various of the layers: probably many more than I got on a first reading.

Mitchell’s command of the different styles is good, though there are one or two places where it slips, and where you wonder how reliable the narrators are.

I found it slow to get going, though: at first I put this down to not being terribly engaged with the Victorian opening section. Then I thought it was just pacing: the speed of the segments increases, it seems to me, as you work towards the centre.  But on the way back out I found the final section, back in the Victorian journals, just less interesting than any of the others.  I find the idea of historical novels deeply uninteresting, so we probably have a common theme there.

Also related to the “is it genre” question is this curiousity: in the section entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, the title character’s dead father is called Lester. Lester Rey. Sounds an awful lot like Lester del Rey, the science fiction writer and editor. Of, course, it may mean nothing: but writers don’t choose characters’ names for nothing, and it sems likely to me that you would at least check that the major characters’ names don’t relate to any real people.  So perhaps Mitchell is suggesting something.

But all of this matters little. What does matter is that this is a damn fine book.

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Book Notes 1: A Dance to the Music of Time vol 1, by Anthony Powell

This year I’m going to try to record all the books I read, and write mini-reviews of them. I’m not quite going for the thing, because I doubt that I can actually manage one a week, what with one thing and another. But I ought to be able to get through a few more than last year, since I’m not doing an OU course.  And in fact it’s nearly the end of January, and I have already read three books and started a fourth: so, not too bad, then.  I’m just a bit behind on posting about them.

For Christmas I got volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time: A Question of Upbringing.  I started reading it on Christmas day, so we’ll have to allow the year to start and end there.

I have been hearing quite a lot about Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume masterpiece recently: there was a whole Radio 4 programme about it, which I heard bits of twice. And I notice John Peel’s Desert Island Discs listing on Wikipedia, recently, and Dance was the book he chose.

So I was keen to read it, despite having seen the TV adaptation a few years ago, and thought it seem very shallow and superficial.

Having read the first volume I find that it’s not at all surprising that a few hours of TV that purported to convert the whole twelve volumes seemed shallow. This thing is dense. The first volume isn’t that long, but it only covers a couple of years of the narrator’s life: the end of school, some time in France, and the start of his university career.

Despite it being set in the years between the first and second World Wars — a time that is almost a century away from us, now — and the fact that the characters are almost exclusively privileged, public-school and Oxbridge types, their concerns aren’t so far from those of my own student days.  Which isn’t so surprising. I suppose: we’re all people, and the state of being a student has always been a rarefied step away from real life.

Anyway, I look forward to working my way through the other eleven volumes.  Perhaps I’ll do them all this year.

The Rocky Pogue to Brixton

This was written before Christmas, and is only being posted now.  Such is… something.  My ability to get things done, probably.

The Brixton Academy oozes rock ‘n’ roll history from its very walls; and a lot of that history is — or closely mirrors — my own. I saw my first London gig there: The Ramones, in 1987 (and I saw them a few more times there, too, I can tell you). The Sugarcubes spent a bare hour on stage, and it was one of the best hours of live music I’ve ever seen. The Pixies took the place apart and restored my faith in rock ‘n’ roll when I didn’t even realise I was losing it. Stiff Little Fingers — who were the first band I ever saw live (Glasgow Apollo, 1980) — played a farewell gig there (OK, they later reformed, but lets not worry too much about that). At one James gig there, a moshpit full of lovemuppets collapsed on top of me.

But I’ve seen The Pogues there more often than anyone else.

And The Pogues, it seems, have reformed, and are touring. To Brixton, then, with swisstone. I saw them so many times in the eighties and early nineties that I probably wouldn’t have bothered this time. But back in the summer karmicnull gave me a CD by an American band called the Dropkick Murphys, which I love; and guess who was the support band?

The Murphys take US hardcore (in the punk sense) and Irish (and a touch of Scottish) music, and mash them together in the same way The Pogues first did with UK punk and Irish music two decades ago. Loud thrashing guitars meld with bagpipes and rebel lyrics. There are about six or seven of them, and they move around the Academy’s huge stage like it’s their playground.

That said, and though they rocked mightily, the cavernous space of the Academy did them no favours. They would, I think, be enjoyed best in a smaller venue. About a tenth of the size, say. I found it hard work to appreciate some of the songs I don’t know, so I suspect that if you don’t know their work at all, they would be very hard work indeed, live. Then there’s their version of ‘The Wild Rover’. Maybe Americans aren’t as used as we are to every dodgy folk band or drunken denizen of an Irish pub singing this one: but you’d think that when your forté is speeded up, punked up versions of Irish songs, you wouldn’t do a version of it that is, frankly, plodding.

No matter: I’ve now heard them do ‘Fields of Athenry’, live, and am happy.

As to The Pogues: what with one thing and another, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect, after all this time. But I shouldn’t have worried: it was like coming home: both for them and for me.

Let me say this, in no uncertain terms: I don’t think Shane is anywhere near as fucked up as we think he is. Yes, he’s done himself damage over the years, and I’ve seem him interviewed on TV and been embarassed and wished they had left him alone. But that night, although he moved with something of an Ozzy-Osbourne-esque shamble, he was totally switched on. He didn’t miss a single word, as far as I could tell, and the only mistake he made was that he messed up the first verse of the very last song, ‘Fiesta’; and that’s the kind of thing that any singer can do.

Physically, too, he was very together. During one song he kept playing with the mike stand, for example, and seemed to constantly be on the verge of knocking it over: but he always caught it. And at one point he balanced a glass of water on his head.

But what of the music? It was, of course, superb. I say “of course” because The Pogues consists of some of the most talented musicians in rock ‘n’ roll, and perhaps the English language’s greatest living poet.

One of their greatest abilities is to make London seem magical, mystic ghostly: songs like ‘Lullaby of London’ is a fine example of this. And ‘London You’re A Lady’ and ‘Misty Morning, Albert Bridge’ are hymns to the city that are rooted in more mundane concerns; but they still evoke a lyrical beauty. In a way the effect is not unlike that of Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802‘. Yes, I think Shane McGowan is as important a poet as Wordsworth, all right?

There was a spectre hanging over the show, though: it was nearly Christmas, and it was unthinkable that they wouldn’t do ‘Fairytale of New York’. But who would sing Kirsty McColl’s part? The song is inherently a duet; there is no way it could be done without two voices.

Tony told me he had heard that Cerys Matthews of Catatonia sang it at the Cardiff gig, but he didn’t think that she was touring with them.

So the end of the third encore and second hour drew close. “This is ‘Fairytale of New York’”, Shane growled, to cheers. Then one of the others introduced “Miss Ella Finer.” One of The Pogues is Jem Finer, as I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve read this far; so I suspected this was his daughter (and internet sources confirm this).

She wasn’t Kirsty, of course, but she did a fine job. Some of her vowels were on the plummy side (“Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our larst”, if you see what I mean): but you can’t hold that against her.

So as far as I’m concerned, The Pogues are back. Now, let’s just hope they write some new material and put a new album out.

Freedom Tickling

Went to see Jon Stewart of The Daily Show on Sunday. He was doing one night in London, with, as it turned out, the executive producer and the head writer of the show.

It was good, though it could cynically be seen as an extended advert for their book, America: The Book. The largest part of the 75-minute show consisted of readings of extracts from the book. Those were enough to make me want to buy it, but the the funniest lines were probably in Stewart’s introductory piece. The final section, consisting of questions from the audience, showed that both he and his co-stars are generally witty and able to think on their feet.

If volume of applause is a measure, though, the highlight of the night for much of the audience was a brief guest appearance. “For this next section we’re going to ask for help from a member of the audience. We picked him before we started, so don’t get up.” Then a stocky, black-clad figure walked on. From my position high on the balcony, and with my notedly-poor facial-recognition skills, I couldn’t tell who it was (though Frances, sitting next to me, could). I’d have recognised his voice, though. Ricky Gervais is officially more popular in London than Jon Stewart (which is not a surprise).

Gervais read the “funny names” from the book. This is a section on how US newscasters, weather forecasters and so on, can’t have anything like an ordinary name. The authors identified formulas for the name-construction for the various roles. “A monosyllabic kitchen-related verb, followed by two unconnected words. Eg ‘Chop Muddybottom.’”

As further evidence, were it needed, of my poor celeb-recognition, apparently I literally rubbed shoulders with Alan Rickman on the way out; then Frances said, “There’s Salman Rushdie over there.” “Where?” “There: standing in the middle of the road, with all the people round him.”

I did even eventually see him, and recognised him. And while I accept that I’m bad at recognising faces — and celebrities in particular — I would contend that I just hadn’t noticed him in the crowd at first, and recognised him perfectly well once I knew he was there..

Oh, and the title of this post? “We don’t torture. We like to call it, uh, ‘freedom tickling’”

Portable gaming/Santa question

A quick question for anyone who may know: what’s the best of the handheld game systems for an eight- — nearly nine- — year old boy?

For values of “best” that include robustness, flexibility and the ability to stop playing it when you’re told.

I realise the last requirement may not have been implemented on any platform yet.

Oh, and preferably in a sub-stratospheric price bracket, too.

On the ethics of modifying blog posts

What, I’m wondering, is the etiquette for this?  I looked over my last post, on literary deja vu, and I realised that the second-last paragraph was so scrambled together as to be practically unreadable.  So I’ve just edited it, from the frankly execrable:

I did have an experience a bit like this before, though: a few years back I read one of Paul McAuley’s; Eternal Light, I think it was, but it is perhaps telling that I can’t remember for sure, even having looked over some reviews.  It seems I still can’t remember it.  It became familar to me in a much more gradual way, and I realised I had read it before.  In that case I had the book out of the library, and I figured out that I had had it out before.  In this case, with the Cadigan, I have no idea where I got the copy that I originally read.  Library?  Maybe.  Borrowed a friend’s?  Always possible.  Or did I buy it, and forget? is there a copy filed away in the attic somewhere?  I just have no idea.

to the slightly more readable:

But it’s not the first time. A few years back I read one of Paul McAuley’s novels. It is perhaps telling that I can’t remember for sure which one, despite having looked over some reviews. I think it was Eternal Light, but it seems I still can’t remember it.

In any case, it very gradually became familar to me, and I realised I had read it before. The copy I was reading at the time came from the library, and I figured out that I had taken it out before.

In this case, with the Cadigan, I have no idea where I got the copy that I originally read. Library? Maybe. Borrowed a friend’s? Always possible. Or did I buy it, and forget? is there a copy filed away in the attic somewhere? I just have no idea.

But the question is, should we update a blog post (or a LiveJournal post, if you see a difference) after it has been out there for a while?  Obviously in the first few minutes after posting, when you notice the typoes, it’s fine (and I often wonder about people who don’t correct their typoes; don’t they read their posts?)  Similarly, if it has been up for months, then you should not edit it in any significant way: it’s part of the fabric of the internet (at the risk of sounding pompous).  My concern is when it’s been out for a day or two.

I’m not really concerned in this case: it’s not as if I’ve changed the meaning, and nobody has commented on it, so there’s no concern about comments becoming confusing or misleading.  But in general, I’d be interested to know what people think about changing posts after the fact.

Literary mind loss

I’ve been having a slightly strange, but not entirely unfamiliar, reading experience recently.  I’m reading Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan. Now, I read the first chapter of this a long time ago, in the dealers’ room at a convention.  I liked it a lot, and wanted to read on, but the hardback was a bit too expensive at the time.

I decided to keep an eye out for the paperback.  And I did: over the years I often checked the shelves for it, but never found it. As far as I could tell, it never came out in paperback, at least in this country.

And all of this was before Amazon and so on, so I couldn’t just search for it. By the time web-based sales were here, I guess I had forgotten about it.  Certainly I never thought to do a search for it.

Then in the summer we were in Hay-on-Wye, town of bookshops, for a day.  I managed to spend less than £30 on books (though obviously I could have spent a lot more). 
But, among my purchases, there it was: the Gollancz classics re-issue of Mindplayer.  Slightly strange to find that the book has gone from first publication to classic re-issue in my lifetime, but there you go.

Anyway, it’s been high on my to-read pile since then; and I started reading it a week or so ago; alternating it with Charles Stross‘s Accelerando when my Palm is charged.

Now, as I read the first chapter, the fact that it was familiar to me was not at all surprising; I read it at the con years ago, right?  But then I got on to chapter two, as you do.   Strangely, that seemed familiar too.  Hmmm.  OK, maybe I’d read more of it at the con than I thought.

Chapter three: the feeling didn’t go away.  Chapter four. Chapter five.

Gradually it became apparent that I had, in fact, read the book before.  However, I remembered nothing — absolutely nothing — about the story.  I haven’t finished it yet, and I still have no idea how it ends.

This is a very strange form of deja vu, it seems.

But it’s not the first time.  A few years back I read one of Paul McAuley’s novels.  It is perhaps telling that I can’t remember for sure which one, despite having looked over some reviews.  I think it was Eternal Light, but it seems I still can’t remember it.

In any case, it very gradually became familar to me, and I realised I had read it before.  The copy I was reading at the time came from the library, and I figured out that I had taken it out before.

In this case, with the Cadigan, I have no idea where I got the copy that I originally read.  Library?  Maybe.  Borrowed a friend’s?  Always possible.  Or did I buy it, and forget? is there a copy filed away in the attic somewhere?  I just have no idea.

It’s the age, I fear.  Or maybe someone is playing with my mind.

He was asking for it”

I’d like you, if you don’t mind, to join me in a thought experiment.

Consider for a moment, a man: he might be young or old, it doesn’t really matter. Tall or short, dark-haired or fair, dark skin or light; none of this matters.

All that matters is one thing: he is feeling vulnerable as he walks home tonight. He does not project confidence as he walks the dark city streets.

Perhaps he has been drinking: a swift pint or two after work. Not enough to give him artificial confidence, but enough to lower his vigilance, to make him less cautious than he should be.  Perhaps not, though.

He doesn’t notice the guys in the shadows; or he does, but doesn’t register the danger. Or again, maybe he feels fear: but he’s got to get home, and there’s no other way.

Whichever it is, he tries to hurry past them, but the blows begin to fall. He tries to run, but they grab him and hit again. He crumples to the ground and rolls against a wall to get some protection. As the kicks start, he slips into unconsciousness.

Or again, imagine a child, at school. He or she, their gender doesn’t matter this time is one of the smaller, weaker ones in the class; or just isn’t as physically confident or brave as some of their classmates. Maybe this is the child of the man above; maybe not.

Bullying happens, of course: and this time it happens to the child we are talking about. Their life becomes hell. And it’s hard to find anyone to talk to about it. Parents don’t understand how bad it is. Teachers maybe don’t want to admit it’s happening.

Maybe they’ll find help from Childline, or similar. Maybe not.

What these stories have in common should be obvious: both protagonists were the victims of violent crimes.

Now, would you say – would anyone say – that these imaginary, but all too true, characters were in any way responsible for their suffering?

Of course not. No decent person – no-one with even the most basic shred of empathy and human decency – could blame the victim for the crime they suffered.

Yet blame the victim is apparently what one third of British people are prepared to do when the victim is a woman, and the violent crime is rape.

We’ve got a long way to go.

The discussion on swisstone‘s journal suggests that the figures could be interpreted differently, and more importantly, that the questions could have been better phrased.  But nonetheless, it is a chilling result.