Archive for May, 2011

May 30, 2011

Do you like reading?

Skimming through this once more and this struck me as being rather quotable.

“A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, “Do you like reading?” which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.” – Rachel Ferguson, The Brontës Went to Woolworths

May 24, 2011

Suspicious Bulges II

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that this post (along with a couple about the hotness of Marat Safin) is one of the most searched items on this blog. Still, for those who are here because of it, some further reading on the subject.

This is from Stephanie Laurens’ Captain Jack’s Woman. Laurens writes terrible fatally addictive (to me) Regency romances. I don’t know how much research she does – therefore I don’t know to what degree her statement of the problem below is accurate. But clearly she has also given thought to the issue.

He supposed he should give her some brandy, but he didn’t really want to get closer. The table was a protective barricade and he was loath to leave its shelter. At least he was wearing his “poor country squire” togs; the loosely fitting breeches gave him some protection. In his military togs, or, heaven forbid, his town rig, she’d know immediately just how much she was affecting him. It was bad enough that he knew. (pg 72)

May 22, 2011

Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry

My Left of Cool piece this week was about the travel guide Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry.
Here is a famous citizen of Molvanîa:

And here is the column.

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One of the many wonderful things that Youtube has given me over the years is “supersonic electronic”, a song about romance and interstellar travel by Zlad!. (Sample: “Hey love crusader, I want to be your space invader; for you I will descend the deepest moon crater”). At the end of the song Zlad! salutes his supposed homeland, Molvanîa. I was curious about this country and wished to find out more.

Molvanîa is the subject of a 2003 travel guide (of the Jetlag Travel Guides series), Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. In this volume, experienced travellers like Philippe Miseree and Andy ‘The Animal’ Wilson explore the major cities of Molvanîa, providing prospective tourists with useful information regarding the hotels (equipped with spittoons and occasionally furniture), the cuisine (centred around pork fat, beetroot and garlic brandy) , and cultural activities (consisting in the main of pornography or peasants beating donkeys).

Located somewhere in central Europe, the country features some diverse geographical features. The Molvanîan Alps to the South, the Steppes to the East, the Great Central Valley (home to the capital city of Lutenblag) and the Western Plateau. It has a fascinating past. During its eventful history this small country has been invaded by Goths, Tatars, Turks, Huns, Balts, Lombards and militant Spanish nuns (the Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanîan women). In the 20th century, buoyed by liquorice and parsnip production, Molvanîa entered World War II on the side of the Germans. In the post-war period it came under Soviet control. That all changed with the fall of the Lutenblag Wall (due to shoddy construction) in 1982.

Molvanîa has had its share of great personalities. Djar Reumerten, the country’s most famous philosopher, is known for having proved conclusively that he did not exist. There is scientist Willjm Krejkzbec, a Nobel Prize near-winner whose “academic fame has been largely overshadowed by his much-publicised interest in sado-masochism (see ‘Museums’ section p106)”. Szlonko Busjbusj, the father of modern Molvanîa, reduced the alphabet by 33 letters, made wheelbarrows legal tender, and has a number of bridges, rivers, roads, and a communicable disease named after him. The country’s patron saint, St. Fyodor, is best known for drinking an entire vat of communion wine, and occasionally fasting for up to three hours.

Molvanîa is fictional; a hodge-podge of clichés and jokes about Eastern Europe. This is certainly not the first travelogue to focus on a fictional country. A notable predecessor is Malcolm Bradbury’s Why Come To Slaka?, purportedly written by the politburo for travellers to an imaginary soviet state (Slaka had previously been the setting for Bradbury’s novel Rates of Exchange). Bradbury’s travelogueis about satirising propaganda quite as much as it doesthe genre of travel writing. Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry is less ambitious, taking its format from the more easily recognisable travelogues with which we’re all familiar. Chapters on the major cities are divided into sections about transport, accommodation, dining, shopping and entertainment, and these are all subdivided into luxury, mid-range and budget options. The back flap carries a guide to the symbols used in the book, which include such markers as “Nudist camp” (symbolised by a pair of binoculars), and “Devil worship” (a pentacle) as well as more ordinary ones such as “entertainment” (a hangman) and “public toilet” (a lit cigarette). The last pages of the book also advertise other works in the series, such as Let’s Go Bongoswana, Viva San Sombrero! and Surviving Mustaschistan.

The book never seems sure what sort of humour it is aiming for. It careens wildly between hilariously earnest praise and snarky comment – the latter generally beating the reader over the head with its humour. The spoof titles above are an example of what’s wrong here: Surviving Mustaschistan? Was that really the best they could do? It’s things like this that keep Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry merely amusing instead of outright hilarious. The Zlad! song was better.

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May 9, 2011

John Hodgman (ed), The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes

Why yes, I did write an entire column about a joke book. This week’s Left of Cool.

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A surprising amount of our humour is about the difference between “us” and “them”. With the cruder forms of humour this is obvious. Most jokes about women, or gay people, or people from other countries, or people with funny accents are clearly meant for an audience of people like the teller, not like the subject. There’s a sort of bonding that goes on; you and I can joke about this because we are the same; our separation from those people is shared. In that sense, most jokes are in-jokes.

If there’s a publisher that understands this, it is probably McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s, the publishing house behind the journal McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern among other things, was founded by Dave Eggers. It’s easy to dislike McSweeney’s and everything connected to it; everything the company publishes is infused with an archness and a self-reflexive irony that can be quite irritating. Eggers himself is best known for his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and that title is indicative of much of the sort of thing that is associated with his company. It can be smug, it can be overly precious, it is far too concerned with its own cleverness – and all of these criticisms can be found in the works it publishes itself. For example, the website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency boasts a piece titled “McSweeney’s Pretentious Horseshit”, part of a series of letters to “entities unlikely to respond”.

Yet the sheer cleverness of their publications, the willingness to play around with form, and the association with a number of brilliant authors make up for much of what would otherwise be unforgivably irritating. I suppose it is possible to loathe McSweeney’s, but I’ve never fully managed it.

Few publishing houses display so clearly their knowledge that they are directed toward a specific demographic of people. Add to that the recursive nature of a book about books and it makes perfect sense that The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes (published by Vintage, who have published other McSweeney’s anthologies before) should exist.

That the cover is on backwards is only the first indication of the sort of book this is. It is is more about the hilarity of books in general than about particular parodies of specific books. It does not require you to be that much of a reader; what it does require is that you know a bit about books. So there are multiple riffs off the canon -James Joyce gets a couple of entries, as does Homer; Lolita, Macbeth and Beowulf are present and Gregor Samsa has a cameo as a sports coach – but none of them require that much familiarity with it. We all know the basic plots and characters, and that is enough. The number of people who have willingly read Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson is probably very small, yet Teddy Wayne’s “Johnson’s Life of Boswell” works simply because we know that Boswell existed.

When it isn’t playing with the sparknotes version of the literary canon, the collection focuses on books that it can be reasonably sure everyone has read – children’s books. The Harry Potter parodies fall flat, but John Moe’s “Winnie-the-Pooh is My Coworker” is excellent. As is “Re: Hardy Boys Manuscript Submission” by Jay Dyckman, in which an editor turns down a rather too contemporary manuscript.

Other pieces choose to talk about literariness, rather than specific books. Notable are Brian Bieber’s “Tales of Erotica: Chuck Norris and Me” and a piece in which Charlie Anders has a serial killer explain literary terms (the “Synecdoche vs. Metonymy” section is illustrated through dismembered body parts and is really very illuminating).

If The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes doesn’t require specialised literary knowledge, then, it’s still a book of in-jokes of sorts. It is a book directed specifically at the McSweeney’s reader; indeed it almost manages to be an in-joke about in-jokes.

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May 7, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

I’ve written about Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket on this blog before. This month it was the subject of my column at Kindle Magazine. Slightly longer version below.

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There’s a bit at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a book too well known to ever appear in this column, but both out of copyright and brilliant) in which the narrator laments the filling in of the world map, as new places were explored. “It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery–a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

Unknown places allow for stories about them*. In medieval Europe India was a fantastic place, populated with all manner of strange creatures. Centuries later adventure novels (of the Rider Haggard variety) had people discovering hidden valleys and lost civilisations in parts of Asia and Africa and South America. As the world became more and more known we had to find other blank spaces to fill in – Jules Verne and Edward Bulwer-Lytton both went subterranean with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Coming Race; some writers turned to other planets (particularly Mars, and I think this is at least one of the reasons for the flowering of science fiction in this period).
Edgar Allan Poe goes south. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel, the title character stows away aboard a whaling ship. He is helped in this by his friend Augustus, whose father commands the ship. After some mutiny and wholesale slaughter they end up on another ship, this one dedicated to exploration. They sail towards the Antarctic, discover new lands, and have hair-raising encounters with native barbarians. All of this is quite normal as far as nineteenth century adventure stories are concerned.
But this is Poe, and so obviously it cannot be a normal adventure story. Throughout, it is infused with the sort of weirdness that Poe is so skilled at invoking. A sense of everything not being quite real lurks under everything. So when Pym hides himself on the ship, it has to be a nightmarish situation involving a coffin, rancid meat and feverish dreams. Later the few people left on the ship must see (or hallucinate) ghosts. As Pym sails south in the last moments of the book he feels “a sudden listlessness” and becomes more and more passive, as if in a dream. At times the unreality of it all reminds one of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The violence and gore of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is often ridiculous, particularly since the author seems to feel that each chapter must somehow surpass the last in sensationalism. Yet the adventure plot is only the structure; what elevates the book is the sheer strangeness that runs through it. This is only enhanced by the kind of ambiguous ending that most writers would not dare attempt.
Arthur Gordon Pym may not be as famous as other of Poe’s works, but its influence has definitely been felt. Elements of it can be felt in H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Jules Verne references it in The Sphinx of the Ice fields. Most recently, Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym tells the story of a man obsessed with Poe’s book. Ludicrous and over the top it may be, but it is somehow special.

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*See also Daniel Abraham’s post defending “exoticism” here. I read a fantastic response to it by Jha on tumblr, but no amount of searching has produced a permanent link. If anyone does have the link, please post it?
Edit: Link to Jha here. (Thank you!)
May 5, 2011

The hidden joys of acknowledgements pages

I don’t think this is going to convince me to always read them, but oh well.

From the acknowledgements pages of The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, edited by Michael Schmidt:

Laura Riding” “A City Seems”, “The Troubles of a Book”, “The Mask”, “One Self”, “The World and I”, “The Reasons of Each”, “Poet: A Lying Word” and “Divestment of Beauty” from The Poems of Laura Riding, by Laura (Riding) Jackson. Copyright © 1938, 1980. Reprinted by permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, Persea Books, New York, and the author’s Board of Literary Management, which, in conformity with the late author’s wish, asks us to record that, in 1941, Laura (Riding) Jackson renounced, on grounds of linguistic principle, the writing of poetry: she had come to hold that “poetry obstructs general attainment to something better in our linguistic way-of-life than we have”

May 1, 2011

More on Among Others

As I mentioned in my previous post, Jo Walton was kind enough to let me pester her over email with questions about books and fandom and genre. Here is a (very little edited) transcript of that conversation:

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AS: You’ve mentioned in a couple of places that this story is partly based on something that happened to you in your childhood. How much of Among Others is from your own life?

JW: The books are all real. But it’s best seen as a mythologisation of part of my own life. Some of it is actually literally true, some of it is made up, some of it is the simplified essence of what happened — and all of it anyway is filtered through memory. I compressed some things and made up other things. The good stuff — the library group, all of that, is made up. I didn’t discover fandom until I was grown up.

AS: And that’s another thing you’ve talked about a bit – the ‘truth’ of how something was experienced, which can differ quite a bit from the *facts* of what happened. In some ways, how you choose to mythologise your life may be even more revealing than the bare facts. Was that particularly difficult or frightening to do?

JW: Yes. I don’t think I could have done it if I’d been any closer to it. Thirty years is quite a lot of perspective.

There’s also a thing where fiction has to make sense, and reality doesn’t. I had to leave a lot out and simplify a lot because of that. It just gets to be too implausible if you work too closely with reality.

AS: You obviously like playing around with genre structures. I’m thinking particularly of Farthing (and the mixing of the country house mystery with the alt-history plot) or Tooth and Claw. Among Others offered plenty of opportunity to do that (school stories, fantasy, basic coming-of-age story, etc). Did you consciously choose not to?

JW: Yes. Well, sort of. I remember saying to my editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden at one point when I was writing it — my most successful books have been very conscious of genre and playing with it, but with this one it’s hard to even say what genre it is. But all that sort of thing is part of what I need before I can start writing, it’s part of the axiomatic things that surround the possibility of a story. So I’d already decided on all of that when I started writing. The thing that was most conscious with that was the magic — I really wanted the magic to be different from the way magic is in books.

AS: In the piece you wrote on John Scalzi’s blog, you mentioned Catherine from Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of a few characters in literature who we see reading and being influenced by what they read. Who are the other characters you can think of that do this, and why do you think there aren’t more of them? (I ask this partly because reading Among Others I was reminded a number of times of one of my favourite writers who also has a main character who reads a lot – Antonia Forest)

JW: I haven’t read Forest, though she’s been recommended to me before. There’s Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. There’s Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, of course. Byatt’s Possession, which is full of it and there’s the lovely moment when somebody is searching for something in a house an they are overcome with the memory of the laundry lists in Northanger Abbey. A recent excellent example is Cherryh’s Deliverer where there’s an alien child who has read Dumas and uses it. And Delany does this wonderful thing at the beginning of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand where he replicates the experience of reading through a culture in a couple of pages, and the culture is all made up, all science fictional. And then you see the character who did that from outside for the rest of the book, and you keep seeing flashes of what he has read in what he does and how he reacts.

I think there aren’t more of them because people are afraid, as Byatt says in Possession it’s self-referential and can remove the reader from the experience of reading by reminding them they are reading. I wish Byatt would read Delany! But I think she’s wrong, I don’t think it does that, and really most of the reactions I’m getting to Among Others seem to confirm this.

AS: I think Byatt’s wrong too (And surely we don’t need to be reminded that we’re reading?) That sense of identification with the main character – both as a reader in general and as a reader of those specific books – is really intense.

A friend of mine just read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and broke down at one of the bits where the main character is reacting to Tolkien.(And the most powerful moment (for me) in Among Others was a direct Tolkien quote. I’m not sure how to frame this into a question, but.)

JW: I haven’t read Oscar Wao either! I’ve thought of another example — Roald Dahl’s Matilda. In the book he doesn’t reference titles, but in the film you can see the books she’s taken out of the library in her little cart and one of them is the old Unwin edition of The Hobbit. I think when you see something like that,. or the conversation betweem Cassandra and Topaz in I Capture the Castle about War and Peace it just gives you an extra layer if you connect to the book too.

AS: Unlike Wim I have read Vonnegut, but could you talk a bit about the concept of the karass as Vonnegut uses it and as Mori does?

JW: Vonnegut describes it as a group of people who have a genuine connection, as opposed to a granfalloon, who have a supposed but unreal connection. So being from the same town as somebody would be a granfalloon. A karass orbits around the same object or idea. The way Mori uses “karass” is that she wants people with a genuine connection to her because she feels so disconnected — but she uses magic to find one. So is that genuine? Interesting thought. Because she uses magic for that, she’s going to remain connected to those people all her life, whether she wants to or not, they will keep turning up.

AS: And fandom is a karass of sorts?

JW: I think it is. I don’t know if Vonnegut would have agreed.

AS: One of the most enjoyable things about Among Others is the knowledge it assumes on the part of the reader – Mori’s belief that Tiptree is a man, or the line “huorns will help” that can go unexplained (or a more mainstream example, where Mori thinks I Capture The Castle is about a siege). It’s so obviously a book for a community of people who have read what you’ve read. In a book that is partly about fandom as a community, are books about books in some way about finding a karass?

JW: I first listened to the Beatles because they’re mentioned in Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and I first listened to Holst because he’s mentioned in Mary Renault’s Purposes of Love, and Cassandra Mortmain put me off Bach for years… I think there’s a kind of culture tracking that goes through books set in the real world. I think that’s the big plus of setting your book in the real world, actually.

But then there’s also the fun of being in another world. There’s Lucy buying Nineteen-Seventy-Four in Farthing “by that man who wrote the animal book” thinking it will cheer her husband up, and in Half a Crown Elvira reads a book by Alice Davey, which is a book that Tiptree never wrote in our universe.

The thing I wanted was for it to work if you didn’t get the reference,but for it to work better if you did. I mean if somebody hasn’t read I Capture the Castle, they can just think it’s something about a siege, the way anybody naturally would.

Where it’s about a karass, it’s about saying that the more of that you pick up, the more you and Mori are part of the same karass. You can enjoy the book without remembering precisely what huorns are, but the more of that you do know the more you’re likely to like it.

One of the things that’s been great since it’s come out is the reaction from people much younger than me and the people from different cultures who see something of themselves in Mori.

AS: Connected to this, and going back to my Lord of the Rings question, how far do you think a canon of sort is necessary for this sort of community (or this sort of book) to work?

JW: If you don’t have shared references then what you’re left with is people whose minds work a certain way — and I think that can be enough, but sharing the references helps. You don’t have to get everything. But caring about some of the same things is where fandom starts.

AS: Mori’s growing awareness of politics, particularly gender politics, was another thing that I enjoyed watching – such as her realization that only one (female) member of the book club seems to initiate discussions about female authors. Another such moment is her analysing why The Tempest doesn’t work the same way for her if Prospero is played by a woman. Were you thinking of the recent Julie Taymor film that did just that?

JW: No, I wrote it a couple of years ago, ages before that. That’s honestly one of the autobiographical things — i really saw a production of The Tempest about then which has a female Prospero and which didn’t work. And I wanted to put The Tempest in for thematic reasons, drowning books, and magic, and because that’s the production I saw when I was fifteen, I just put it that production in.

AS: Another thing that felt very 2011 was the insistence on the importance of libraries in the story as well as the dedication, particularly since as I read the book I was also watching the outrage in the UK over library cuts. Libraries: how amazing are they?

JW: Well I wrote it in 2008 I think, but don’t get me started on the decline of British libraries, because I can rant about it at great length. Fortunately I live in Canada where we have still have terrific libraries. It’s ridiculous really — I live in Montreal, which is French speaking, and the provision for books in English in libraries for the Anglophone minority here is better than where my aunt lives in Cardiff.

As for the dedication, this is my book about books — it had to be for librarians!

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May 1, 2011

Jo Walton, Among Others

I mentioned recently that my reading this year had become focused on books about books. One of the reasons (probably the biggest) for this is that I read Jo Walton’s Among Others a couple of months ago. A short review of it appeared here, in yesterday’s Indian Express.

A version of that piece below:

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Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn’t matter.

A teenaged girl with friends among the fairies fights her mother, a powerful and evil witch. Though she triumphs and saves the world, she loses her sister and receives a permanent injury.
But this is not the story of Among Others. When Walton’s book opens, what might in other stories be considered the main action of the plot has already taken place. Mori Phelps has already escaped her mother and faced her sister’s death. She must now find her place among others – her English father’s family (Mori is Welsh) and the girls at her boarding school. Sexual awakening, an increased understanding of gender dynamics and the perils of family are all things she must learn to negotiate.

These issues – adolescence, finding a place in the world, learning to engage with others, recognising how the world works, dealing with loss – all seem far removed from the world of epic battles between good and evil. Walton based aspects of Among Others on events from her own life, and it reads as an authentic account of growing up. What makes it unusual is that Mori’s engagement with the world around her comes through books.
Often these are specific books. At the beginning of the book a character expects her own experience with fairy magic to be similar to The Lord of the Rings. When Mori contemplates going to boarding school she wonders if it will be like the novels of Angela Brazil (it is not). A realisation that her parents have read and discussed some of the same books as her is an early recognition of them as real people. Mori’s gradual realisation of how the sexes are treated differently comes through the way female authors are discussed in her book club, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Others is written for people who read; often references are not explained, but assume the knowledge of the reader. Mori joins a science fiction book club (in a nod to Vonnegut she calls this her “karass”) and has a series of discussions about books. Her views on sexual morality come from Robert Heinlein, then Samuel Delany, and she assumes that James Tiptree Jr. is a man. All of this will delight a reader who grew up in the genre – the book is full of these little shibboleths put there to remind a certain sort of reader of a certain shared cultural experience. Often the emotional impact is massive if you know what is happening; when, towards the end of the book, Walton quotes directly from Tolkien (“Huorns will help”) it is overwhelming.
More than just the books, Among Others is clearly a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy reading community as a whole. But a more general love of reading keeps this accessible to even a person who does not pick up on all of Walton’s references, or share her experiences with science fiction fandom. You don’t need to have read Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 to understand that not having finished a good book seems a perfectly adequate reason to stay alive.
Despite all of the book discussions (Among Others is a book about books before it is anything else) the epic fantasy plot does continue in the background. Mori’s mother is a constant, lurking threat that surfaces from time to time, trying to break into her new life. If her frequent intrusions seem a bit incidental, this is because they are. Though there is a showdown at the end, it is never really the focus of the book; real living happens in the gaps that big narratives leave, and in the long stretches before and after the main plot, and this too is a comment on literature. (Subtly done but very present is another quest – to save the elms of the world from Dutch Elm disease. Saving trees: Tolkien would have approved.)

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Walton was also kind enough to answer a few questions I had. I’ll be putting that short interview on the blog as well.