Monday, 1 October 2007

Needful Things

I can’t say I enjoyed this book: I was hooked by the strong narrative line and read it rapidly; I was fascinated by the dreadful logic of the chain of events; I was disturbed by the believability of the actions of the humans: But enjoyment – No.

Stephen King manages to mix the fantastical with the mundane – evil, personified in a grotesque, with the ordinary, petty trials and tribulations of small community life.

It is a critique of that small community which lies at the heart of this book – and it is the insight Mr. King has into the workings and motivations of the human decision making process which allow him to so believably destroy the fragile bonds which maintain such communities.

The book has its fair share of action and blood, explosion and bullet – but the real horror is the gullibility of the people, the ease with which deceit can be foisted on them and the tenacity with which they hold on to that deceit.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can say it was well worth reading – and that I took a lot from it. I certainly will read more of Mr. King’s works, but I think I want to visit sunnier climes first – maybe a simple murder yarn?

Wiki: Needful Things

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Bleak House (2)

As if on cue: The weather, after a month of people killing heat-wave, turns to rain - persistent and misery inducing.

In Bleak House, the weather is as bad.

We are still following events through the eyes of Esther, who seems to be developing into ‘our heroin’. She wakes and is induced to go for a walk thought the foggy, early morning streets around the Chancery – with the inevitable accompaniment of the slightly-lacking people she seems destined to pick up on her way through life – Miss Jellyby to the forefront.

After the equally inevitable reminders of Miss Jellyby’s mother’s negligence, and heavy indications that ‘the wards in the case’ are getting on rather more strongly than distant cousins need to fulfil family duty, up pops the mad woman.

We are not destined to learn her name – she is the ‘little old woman’ she is ‘our hostess’, she is ‘the lodger’; she is the great anonymous: Details, if ever known, now lost and only to be revealed on ‘Judgement Day’.

Another unknown is presented to us in Nemo – advertising on the door of the shop above which the old lady lives where there is a difficulty gaining entrance.

What isn’t kept long from us is the landlord and shop’s owner, Mr Krook. (Crook for bent and deformed? Or crook for criminal?)

We soon lean what is either ignored in t.v. adaptations or passed quickly over – he is the second Chancellor! And proud of it.

Surround by endless papers in dusty, fading piles; unknowing, uncomprehending what he has or what its value; holding on, not selling – accumulating the detritus of other people’s lives.

Suddenly, that most powerful of Dickensian tools, the physical description, so attractive to designers yet so inaccessible visually, clicks in – the shop is a metaphor – chaos and confusion - physical, mental, moral, spiritual; with a bent old cipher sitting enthroned in the centre.

Guard to this treasure house is the most vicious cat in literature.

Up in the lodger’s rooms we discover a barren place with captured birds – again, not the pretty yellow canaries tweeting careless of their captivity, so beloved of the filmmakers – dusty, nearly dead things the RSPCA would instantly prosecute you for – and gas out of their misery.

The camera lens can only capture what it sees, it fails to grasp the multi-layering that comes with the multi-perspective a good novelist can give.

Esther’s ‘Morning Adventure’ in this New (if not brave) World bruises through a thuggery of words that are only more numbing because of the naiveté of the narrator.

The day progresses and we move into sunlight and refreshing air as the three young people continue their journey to start residence at Bleak House.

It is a tiring journey but the natural optimism of Esther shines through – and we eventually enter the most un-bleak of houses. Mr Jarndyce awaits – an old man terrified of thanks and totally incapable of accepting other people’s faults.

He is a stark contrast to Krook but Dickens makes an intriguing parallel in the settings where we find these two: Irregularity. Bleak House might be, in Esther’s words, “Delightfully irregular,” but there is no doubt in the reader – all is not well.

Like Krook, Mr Jarndyce is in a physical and, by implication, moral and psychological maze. Esther has not only been thrust into it, but is soon given the keys and made housekeeper.

Another odd aspect of Mr Jarndyce is his ability to bring the weather indoors. The closest expression of disapproval and unpleasantness he is capable of is to comment on the direction of the wind: “From the east,” gives Mr Jarndyce, “an uncomfortable sensation.” One suspects the sensation, originating in the foibles of humanity he refuses to recognise, is the source of his meteorological observations. By the end of this chapter, in fact, a full-blown gale is being summoned.

Resident at Bleak House is Mr Harold Skimpole, the personification of innocence and childlike understanding according to both himself and Mr Jarndyce. Others might, after hearing the tale he tells of his employment in Germany, suspect a lazy good-for-nothing exploiting consciously the weakness of others. Esther and Richard soon fall victim to him, being forced to hand over money to prevent Skimpole being hauled off to gaol – and it is Mr Jarndyce’s discovery of this which prompts his tempestuous predictions.

As expected though, Esther signs off her shift as narrator with a, and “. . . hopefully to bed.”

But Dickens has not done with us – bookend like, the omniscient persona of ‘our author’ returns to give a little coda on ‘The Ghost’s Walk’.

This is a deceptive title. Superficially it is the thrill seeking description so beloved of the tour guide – for, what is the content of this chapter but a guided tour of Chesney Wold, Lady and Baronet Dedlock’s sodden country house in Lincolnshire?

Mr Guppy, from London, suggesting a higher legal status than his lowly clerkdom, gains access with a friend, and is shown around the house by the housekeeper’s protégé, Rosa. They are accompanied by the housekeeper’s grandson who is visiting and who provokes in Rosa a beauty intensifying self-consciousness that doesn’t escape the notice of Mrs Rouncewell, grandmother and solid feature of the house.

Guppy notices a portrait the likeness in which he feels to be familiar, but he cannot, for the moment place. It is of the present Lady Dedlock, but Mr Guppy has never seen her.

The tour concludes, as always, with a view over ‘The Ghost’s Walk’ – a terrace with the sort of less-than-respectable history guaranteed to thrill the respectable, rising middle-class viewer of country houses.

Once Guppy has been shown out by a young gardener, Mrs Rouncewell, widowed some time ago and with two sons, one gone bad, the other risen and grandson producing, reveals more of the true nature of the walk.

Some long dead Dedlock, cursing the family, walks the Walk whenever disaster and disgrace is coming to the proud family. The sound of her footsteps, despite loud-ticking musical clocks, will be heard, through the beat and the notes, as Rosa now hears them, and as Lady Dedlock claims to have heard.

Is he ghost’s walk the terrace? No, it is the sound produced by that wonderfully Dickensian touch-of-the-gothic, predicting the final humbling of an over-proud house. It is the unendurable, to Lady Dedlock, dripping of the rain.

(A little late publishing, but read on time!)

On the Origins of Prejudice.

Missing Links or Chains?

One of the beauties of being English is that, no matter how awful some of your ancestors have been to other "peoples", it is almost certain that they were worse to other ancestors of your own.

I am reminded of Moira Stuart - a British television News Reader and Presenter - in search of her family: Having gone through the harrowing experience of seeing the Caribbean slave experience she was only a couple of generations removed from, she came to the realisation that her blood-line also contained the slave owners - through rape no doubt. Not only that, but almost everyone in the Caribbean had the same mix, in varying degrees, in their ancestry.

It is not as simple as many would like to believe – the ‘they’ of persecutors is the ‘us’ of victims combined in our genes.

If this is sounding strong stuff, it is an indication of the power of this novel to make you pause and think.

We are in Tasmania, once Van Deiman’s Land, in search of Paradise; amongst the prisoners in the British run proto-concentration camps; with the aborigines facing extinction at the hands of ‘the British’; and on a boat of ‘unfortunate’ Manx smugglers constantly running from customs officers. The scope is both very tight on two ‘small’ islands off the coast of major parts of the Great British Empire, and world spanning in the vast expanses of the British Ruled Waves between.

I wouldn’t know the factual accuracy of everything in the novel, but it is certainly one of those fictions that contain a truth about both the good and the bad in human nature.

It is a book of contrasts, where you cannot remove one ‘side’ without making the other invisible. The Reverend Wilson, in a reaction to the new study of Geology’s findings about the age of the earth is in search of a physical, only 5,000 year old Paradise; on the same trip is Dr Potter, secretive scientific in the new sense, and looking for evidence of the inheritable superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. Both wish to become famous as a result of the publications they will base on their journey across the world.

Put against this high energy double-extreme is the third member of the expedition, Timothy Renshaw; a disappointment to his family and on the boat officially as botanist, but really in search for a meaning to his life - or so his family hope: A more laid-back, late adolescent you could not wish for.

I can’t help being reminded of the voyage of the Beagle, of Darwin and Fitzroy. But it is only a reminder – Matthew Kneale has resisted the temptation to base his characterisation on them but seems to have taken the issues which arise from that real, paradigm-shattering voyage and personified them.

That this works so well is mainly due to the stunning ‘voice’ he gives to each of his characters.

The Manx captain and crew don’t only have a superficial sprinkling of Manx words, they seem to think Manx – and a whole culture linked and contrasting with the dominant English emerges in those parts told by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley (and Kneale should have won the Booker Prize on the strength of that name alone!).

The tour-de-force though is Peevay.

With a Tasmanian mother abducted to be a sex-slave by an escaped convict father, Peevay journeys through the book searching for love and identity. The only certainty he has is his ability to endure. He tells his story in a language which stretches English to its limits. It isn’t the usual ‘poetic’ limit, or ‘stream-of-consciousness’ limit; it is a twisted grammar and not-quite-right-vocabulary of a none-native speaker struggling to express complex thoughts and emotions limit; it is a way of thinking about the world in another culture limit; it’s a limit which pulls you screaming and kicking into a strange world and consciousness of ‘other’ experience.

It is a language that makes you regret that part of your ancestry which was responsible for the Genocide on Van Deiman’s Land.

I don’t think I give too much away if I say Peevay does achieve a sort of resolution, nor if I say there is an ending which leaves one hopeful. This is a book which you won’t forget in a long time, and which treats the 19th century as what it was – the foundation of much of what we think and do at the start of the 21st Century.

Well worth reading!

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Turkish Delight

Let me start by saying this is a jolly good read - and a great book to take on holiday to a Turkish beach, especially if you are off on a trip to Istanbul as part of your visit.

I read it within three days of starting it – I was quickly dragged into the story and the pace builds up to a nice ‘want to know’ ending.

If you are 'into' the Historical detective story, this is almost as good as it gets. Plenty of historically accurate detail – the sort of ‘everyday detail’ needed to spice up the story – food, clothing, buildings.

And the essential characters are there: The not quite accepted by anyone ‘detective’; the manipulative bad-guy; an exotic beautiful temptress; and a tart-with-a-heart with a difference (one of my favourite characters I have to say).

What this is is firmly ‘escapist’ – but with a slightly educational twist – I did get a sense of what Istanbul must have been like, and a sense of the origins of the modern Turkish dilemma between secularism and tradition. If at times the writing felt too worthy, it only lasted a short time and we were soon back chasing fire-raisers through the seedy streets.

This is not Orhan Pamuk – but it isn’t meant to be.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Bleak House 1

The first instalment of Charles D's, Bleak House (published in March, 1852) is very clear on the matter of the weather - November weather - mud, as if the deluge had only just subsided, and the foulest of foul ‘London Particulars’ all compounded with a snow of soot from the countless chimneys of the greatest city on earth.

I am setting out on an Odyssey through this post-diluvian quagmire - I intend reading Bleak House, in monthly instalments, as originally published. What foible sets me off on this year-and-a-half journey I don't know - but the initial step has been taken.

That first magazine edition had four chapters (all the rest, until the last, will have three) and starts in the depressing urban early winter, in both a physical and metaphorical fog - the fog of endless court cases slowly rotting into bad jokes and madness – the unfunniest of them all is JARNDYCE AND JARNDYCE.

In the very heart of the city sits the Lord Chancellor presiding over the High Court of Chancery - described with typical Dickensian viciousness: No one is spared; no one deserves sparing. From the shorthand scribbling hacks, to the madwoman, from the droning lawyers (all those Chizzels and Mizzles, Tangles and Blowers) claiming their fees, to the Chancellor himself – in the midst of the mud, in the heart of the fog.

The High Court of Chancery is both black hole and expanding universe – it drags in the innocent and happy, their fortunes and properties; it throws out desolation and ruin, madness and suicide.

The scene changes, with a spark of light, from, ‘In Chancery’ to ‘In Fashion’ – but it is a false spark – it is only the hopeless, heat-less phosphorescent glow of long rotting wood.

Lady Dedlock is as fixed by the mud and flood as any – indeed, she is involved in Jarndyce and Jarndyce!

She is escaping the expanding waters cutting off her home in Lincolnshire – she is fleeing to Paris, and the fashionable are following – must follow, for Lady Dedlock, although only the wife of a Baronet, has conquered the world of fashion.

Or has the world of fashion – the creation of dressmakers, of maids and Mercury-like servants, of hairdressers and tradesmen – conquered her? Does Lady Dedlock but flap her wings in an impression of flight, as the butterfly caught in the spider’s web?

True to form, the law, in the shape of Mr Tulkinghorn, long standing family lawyer, invades Lady Dedlock’s morose boredom causing her a ripple of animation – forcing a faint.

Progress must be made – we move to a different world, comfortably middle class Windsor - and the narrator transforms from our ‘author’ to the character of Esther, orphan girl, better if she had never been born, raised by the resentful godmother (or is it aunt?) whose life she has mysteriously ruined and who dies on hearing Esther pronounce whilst reading from the bible, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’

We are in full melodrama mode – with surging strings and sentiment, the little girl whose only allowed friend is a doll; a sense of bitter self-worthlessness forced onto the sweetness of temperament of a sugar saint.

Another lawyer, another type – portly and important looking, fond of the sound of his own voice – enters the story, and, under instructions from a Mr Jarndyce, places the girl in a school where, happy to serve others, she grows on.

Six happy years.

Then disruption – a letter, an official letter, a legal sounding abbreviation of a letter, giv’in’ sh’t notice – she is to move, she is to be forced to a new situation, she is to become a companion to a ‘Ward of Court’ – a ward of the High Court of Chancery, in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

A rushed coach journey to London, a meeting with a lawyer’s clerk, Esther’s first encounter with a London particular – straight before the Lord Chancellor, transformed in the privacy of his rooms to an almost father-like humanity, and a bonding with the Wards of Jarndyce – a bonding we already feel the power of as the narration of Esther cannot restrain itself from revealing the future strength of: ‘My love’.

Finally, having been allocated to the care of the unmarried Mr. Jarndyce, of Bleak House, Hertfordshire, Ada Clare, with her new found companion, Esther Summerson, and Ada Clare’s distant cousin, Richard Carstone are shuffled off to spend the night with a friend of the said Mr Jarndyce. Only a brief encounter with the court’s madwoman shadowing a rosy looking future.

A suitable place for Mr Dickens to rest – but, this being the first episode, a coda on charity, calling into question Mr Jarndyce’s judgement (and revealing either his gullibility or insensitivity), is found to be edifying.

What is philanthropy? How can it be telescopic?

Ask the neglected and abused children of Mrs Jellyby! Charitable Mrs Jellyby, philanthropist to the core, frantic letters dictator (to her poorly educated, ink stained daughter) in the cause of Africa. Her children swarm bee-like around the honey-sweet Esther who rocks the littlest to sleep with the love it never felt from its distant sighted mother.

Ask her nonentity of a husband who is helpless to do anything other than bang his head against the wall.

Ask Caddy, the ink stained daughter who curiously seeks the help of Esther by abusing and denouncing the casual visitor for seeing through the horrors of the charitable life her superficial mother tortures her family with.

I am hooked. A month to wait for the next episode?

Monday, 26 March 2007

Verisimilitude and the earwig!

(Random wanderings whilst waiting for the rain to stop and potato planting to start.)

Rose Tremain: Music and Silence

The bodice ripping was a rite of passage - through which the narrative had to pass in order to allow for the 'symbolism', and imagery of the ending?

A basic problem for historical fiction - you work so hard at making it seem realistic and establishing the ‘factual’ that you give away the ability to be 'unrealistic' and with it the associated heightening of thought and feeling?

Rose Tremain almost carries it off – but the cracks show – the ‘earwig’ really could have been stuck, died, caused infection and loss of hearing (after all, why are earwigs called ear wigs!) – but to live, survive the hot oil and then start ‘communicating’ with Marcus?

Is the mongrel nature of ‘Historical Fiction’ a source of strength or weakness?

Its strength lies in the ‘truth’ of “it really happened”, s/he really existed – actual places, actual items: Eyewitness testimony to the strangeness of our world. Curiosity and the drive to explain – even ordinary lives (Why else would biographies of footballers be bought – if not finished?).

Claire is just one such ‘ordinary’. But he is fictional – why include him? Why not deal with Dowland, a real lutanist (have I just forged the word – the dictionary doesn’t like it – no, it is used in the book!).

I have a copy of the film made from ‘Restoration’ – and none of the problems arise: Historical fiction works better on the screen – and interestingly, on stage? Ms Tremain in fact makes frequent reference to Shakespeare’s Historical fictions. Could the perceived ‘lowly status’ of Historical fiction actually reflect a problem of the genre’s ability to carry certain meanings?

I just managed to catch up with Melvin Bragg’s Radio 4 programme on Epistolary Literature – worth listening to for its own sake but also interesting in the context of this book.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Sisyphus, Androids and Mercer

There is certainly something in the connection between the legend of Sisyphus and the daily, never-ending battle against rogue Androids in 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'.

Sisyphus is condemned to push a heavy rock up a hill and will only be released once he reaches the top - but, as the top approaches, the rock escapes and runs down to the bottom of the hill: Sisyphus has to start all over again.

This is a metaphor for never ending toil - the sort of toil needed to keep a vegetable garden weeded (before the 'devil-opment' [sorry, I'm organic] of chemical weed-killers), or perhaps that of the worker on a production line doing a repetitive job at the command of a conveyor belt.

As this, there is nothing special in P.K. Dick's use of the myth for Rick Deckard's set toil - if he had it in mind at all. Camus applied the myth as a metaphor to modern life – but modern life didn’t consciously apply the myth to itself – Camus simply made the connection. Dick could simply have had modern life in mind when developing the story rather than the myth of Sisyphus.

One interesting question people don't often ask about the myth is, "Why was Sisyphus condemned to this punishment?"

Sisyphus has attempted to deceive - deception is at the root of the labour.

Is their deception in, 'Do Androids...'?

Rather a lot.

Rick opens the novel being woken by a shock from his organ [sorry, it's 'second childishness' creeping in: And whilst I’m at it, what are nom-de-plumbs for if not to replace unfortunate surnames like ‘Dick’?].

His mood is artificially set; it is not honest. His wife, who has an element of fight against this sort of mind control, refuses to participate in the deception of induced moods.

The androids themselves are a deception – multi-layered: They are not human but look it; they do the essential work human’s think they are too superior for in space (but still perform on earth – by using ‘chickenheads’, classified as subhuman); the Rosen Association develops increasing sophisticated androids which are designed to ‘cheat’ the tests of bounty hunters like Rick; and the androids don’t necessarily know they are androids as they are given false memories.

And what are we to make of electric sheep?

The pastoral myth of carefree shepherds is set in contrast to Sisyphrian labour: However, the sheep are as likely to be an electric deception as real.

The result of these deceptions is the labour which dehumanises Rick and which he longs to escape. (Interestingly enough, the Dream Factory film version lets him do so at the end – not that I have seen it.)

And a final twisting deception: Rick’s job is to protect humanity from the ‘de-human’, from the android - that labour is itself dehumanising.

There are certainly strong parallels between the Myth and the novel, but I still don’t think we can yet say Dick consciously used the myth.

So let’s turn to Mercerism: Here is the strongest evidence that P.K. Dick refers to Sisyphus knowingly.

What happens when humans grasp the handles of the empathy box?

It is in a landscape of barrenness, reminiscent of Jesus in the wilderness, that humans merge, to toil up a merciless hill, “Impossible to make out the end. Too far. But it would come.” (Chapter 2, pg. 20)

This repeated climbing of a hill is surely direct reference to the Sisyphus myth – with a difference: The top is attainable.

We first encounter the empathy box in the hands of the ‘chickenhead’, John Isidore – and he has been to the top – where the ‘other part of it’ begins.

Whatever this other part is, however painful, people still join together through the empathy box in order to struggle to attain it.

We have to be careful though with any information that comes via Isidore – he is, after all, a ‘special’. P.K. gives some intriguing information about the finding and early existence of the character – he was picked up from a boat off the coast (possibly Mexico) is adopted by a family called Mercer (!) and seemed to have the ability to bring dead animals back to life – which made him, “…. more special than any of the other specials.” (Chap 2, pg. 21)

I am not so sure that ordinary humans manage to get to the top – their existence is more bound to the labour of Sisyphus than this special’s is.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Who Done it?

At the heart of this novel is the Commander of Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Sam Vimes.

Married to dragon breeding Lady Sybil (who has also taken up Sock Darning: She isn't very good at it, but it is the sort of thing one ought to do, as a wife), and with a young son, Sam, expecting his dad to deliver a daily, 6 o'clock reading of, 'Where's my cow?' - complete with sound effects, The Commander is faced with a situation of developing 'inter-species intolerance' which threatens the very existence of Ankh-Morpork itself.

With Lord Vetinari pressing him to take on a Vampire as a member of his force (which doesn't go down too well with the resident Were-Wolf - or with Sam himself, for that matter) and with several of his Dwarf officers leaving, Vimes is forced to try to ease the situation as the Battle of Koom Valley anniversary approaches - and the hundred's of years of bickering (and worse) the anniversary has brought with it.

A murder in the closed world of the Dwarf Deep-Downers complicates matters, as do threats to his family.

Drug sniffing Trolls don't make matters any easier.

And why was a very large picture stolen?

On one level this is an enjoyable detective romp through (and under) the streets of Ankh-Morpork, driven by a twisting, turning plot and a cast of regular Disc World characters.

But if most detective tales are, `Who-done-its'; and Agatha Christie's Poitrot stories are, `How-done-its'; Thud is a very much a, `Why-done-it?'!

What is driving the characters to behave the way they do?

This is explored most thoroughly in Vimes himself - who is not immune from the petty prejudices of humanity and who exhibits a growing anger as the story develops.

The all too easily justified anger is the most threatening thing in the story and brings Vimes, the Trolls and the Dwarfs to the very edge of destruction.

The book is a comedy, however, and like all comedies, it leaves the reader with a satisfying optimism.

On Disc-World, conflict will never be far away, but it can be resolved.
As in most of Pratchett's books, the themes and observations he makes reflect very much on the real world we find ourselves in.

Koom Valley, to me, has deep echoes of Kosovo and the `Field of Blackbird's' in 1389 - a battle which has had murderous repercussions down through history and well into our future. (Ismail Kadare's, Three Elegies For Kosovo, explores the same issues as Pratchett, but in a very different genre).

And if some of the characters in Thud are almost cliché - so too are some of the real people driving religious, gender and political intolerance (from whichever side).

For those who know the Disc-World stories, this is very much in the tradition of the earlier books - no chapters, footnotes, strong clear plot line and lovably eccentric characters (a 5 star Butler in this one, and totally `heart-of-gold, dumb-blond' pole dancer).

I just can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Wintersmith - Carry On meets The Golden Bough

At 113 years old, Miss Treason, a witch, knows about the connection between age, beans, fresh fruit and 'letting out wind'!

Tiffany, only 13 years old, with a 'he's not my boyfriend!' (even if he does send her letters with SWALK on them), is learning witchcraft from Miss Treason. She discovers there is lot of hard work, cleaning around the cobwebs and polishing the skulls, chasing after the cheese - called Horace, a rather single-minded blue cheese - oh, and a strange tingling feeling behind the eyes when Miss Treason, who is blind, uses you as a mirror.

Like most teenage girls, Tiffany has a will of her own - and even if she was told to stay still and just watch, why can't she join in the dance - especially when there is an empty space just waiting for her?

Months latter, with the snow falling thick, burying the newborn lambs, with a young brother missing and with her father begging her to help, she understands why.

This is one of Terry Pratchett's books for 'all children, aged 12 and above' - meaning anyone who is or once was 12!

It has a thumping good story line - strong characters, awful jokes and moments of danger: Perfect for the Christmas stocking.

At the heart of it is Tiffany's growing sense of identity - she has to cope with establishing who she is in a world of strong personalities (none stronger than Granny Weatherwax - control freak leader of the witches - who don't have a leader), deal with Death - and loss (someone has to clean up after the funeral, and milk the goat, and hide the Boffo), and ward off the unwanted attentions of a love-struck adolescent elemental.

This might be Discworld - but the emotions and themes are of this world.

The clear lines of the plot, the straightforward language and the characters all make this an attractive read for younger teenagers - but straight forward doesn't mean without depth.

As with many of his other books, Pratchett taps into age-old myths - fictional expressions of the fears and hopes, the irrational explanations of what it is to be human.

Here we have the Persephony myth entangled with Morris Dancing; Orpheus and the 'Wee People' working together; Celtic Ironsmiths crossed with the Greek pantheon.

This gives the story much greater significance - it is for the proto-adult in the child as much as for the vestigial child in the adult.

Yes, I smile when I see Morris Dancers prancing around in the concrete shopping centres of our towns - but having read this book, I will now see a dance which touches on the very turning of the seasons.

It is a Carry On meets The Golden Bough sort of experience!

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Shakespeare Experience: Blood

Shakespeare Experience: Blood

Reflections on Romania and literature - Hardy and Shakespeare, as well as poetry.

Caryatids, Androids and Empathy

Been watching TV again!

This one was a design programme - and a couple of 'scientists pointed out we like symetry because the human face is symetrical.

An aside was, 'the most satisfying sort of column is a caryatid': Empathy.

Loud church bells, explosions and fireworks.

The difference between the android and the human is empathy.

But, the android is a personification - what is personification but empathy?

Is there a delicious paradox at the heart of, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'?

Are we attracted to the android because we empathise with its humanness: But, it is its lack of empathy that stops it from being human.

Friday, 12 January 2007


Technorati Profile

Hardy and Romania

I think Hardy was concerned, amongst other things, with capturing the changes happening in what was left of rural England as mechanisation and urbanisation bit into the social realities based on 'traditional' modes of production.

Romania is going through that process now - much has already modernised, as in late Victorian England, but a few great areas and many isolated pockets are still 'pre-industrial'.

I never really understood what Hardy was capturing until I made my first visit here back in 1993 - and it hit me, almost as a shock wave, when I first travelled through Transylvania (literally: Across the Forest) seeing horse drawn carts, haystacks, scyths - not in a prettyfied BBC mini-series, but in realty - for day to day living.

There are tractors and chainsaws and large industrial agricultural units - but, even now, it still isn't difficult to go up a side road, ascend a cart track which will be impassable to a tractor in winter and find yourself in a clearing in the forest that could have come straight from the Wessex.

At Christmas there are still traditional mummers - not reconstructed - who do the firtility dances of their ancestors - in roles pased from father to son.

The pig killing is a part of these living traditions - and like Hardy I see them going.


What is an android?

If you strip away the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook, and come to the realisation that androids not only don't exist, but have nothing to do with science, what are you left with?


Androids are a literary device - a personification (possibly the ultimate personification).

Which brings us to the question, what do they personify?

Dick seems to have taken the idea of a force, let us call it intellect - although I am not happy with that - and given it as the major component of android persona. Because it is a full personification and not a simple representation, the android needs to be given a much more rounded character - so cruelty is thrown in, and ambition; there is a lust for power and even sexual satisfaction.

But, as with all personification, it is an abstraction - anything more would take the android into full humanity.

The point of personification might be to bring similarities to the fore - but the device doesn't work unless there is a significant difference - we love to admire the cleverness of the authors wit in bringing the sweet and the sour together.

Interesting that the question, 'What makes us human?' comes to mind: Should we be asking, 'What stops the androids from breaking out of the mould of personification?'

(Sorry, double excess - espresso and leisure time.)

Genre: High, Low and Quality.

Larry King Live (CNN) might not be an obvious starting point for discussing Literary Genre, but yesterday there was a fascinating programme on 24 - featuring interviews with Keifer Sutherland and the rest of the cast of the current edition (number 6, I believe).

For those who haven't watched, 24 is so called because all the action takes place 'in real time': i.e. the series lasts 24 hours and all events unfold, like in the ideal Greek Drama, within that realistic time frame.

During the interviews, Mr Sutherland made two fascinating points in regards to the apparent focus on terrorism the programme has and the value of presenting the USA with a realistic, if fictional, Black American president.

Larry King asked if the programme, as suggested by some political and media commentators, vindicated a violent response to terrorism and provided, as a result of its popularity, a straw poll on such tactics.

Keifer Sutherland responded quickly, and strongly, making the point that this was Fantasy - it did not represent the real world and more importantly it was not 'about' terrorism.

Terrorism was used in 24 as a reason for the characters to interact - the interactions are what made the show popular. Because the format required something intense to fill the 24 hour period with interactions, the original writers had looked around for anything which would provide a realistic motivation - they picked terrorism, but some other things would have done equally well.

Sutherland was adamant that 24 was simply 'a thriller' - and could be reduced to a character we care about put under threat.

Which brings me to 'Sci-Fi', Mr Dick and Sheep.

Surely the 'Sci' (which I think would be better designated ‘techno’) is like the terrorism in 24, just a milieu for letting characters interact?

In which case: The stories should be judged on the quality of interaction and character?

With this in mind, I find 'Androids' quite a good book. I particularly like the handling of the Husband/Wife relationship and the effects of pressure of work and status on it. I am also taken with the main character's attempts to define himself through his work and its consequences - and his architypical Pastoral Dream (I mean, Sheep, for goodness sake!).

I'd also single out the interaction of the sub-humans - putting the chicken head and the Android girl into a relationship I found particularly poignant, if not downright painful.

And I also think we can 'reduce' the genre to 'A Thriller' - after all, what happens is no more than a character we have come to care for is threatened.

Which brings me back to Keifer Sutherland.

His second comment was about the showing of Black characters, 'In Power'.

Sutherland made the claim that the show, by presenting in a realistic format a Black President, helps create, "The atmosphere to accept."

Again I was struck by this apparently over simplistic statement.

We are dealing here, not with personal relationships so much as with public ideas.

Has ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ been influential - without our realising it?

I find a degree of paranoia against science and technology in the book - and despite the apparent humanistic questions, the answer seems to come through the barrel of a gun. From this side of the pond, the American suspicion of science and scientific findings (witness the recent Chrysler comments on 'hysterical' Europeans and climate change) seems to originate in such an atmosphere.

I can't but help compare with Mary Shelly's Frankenstein - the monster, though ugly, is positively optimistic.

High and Low fiction? - for me these are 'snob' classifications: Shakespeare wrote low don't forget.

At the heart is the question of genre and our wish to classify - but what for?

If what we are searching for in fiction is interaction (and I am aware that Keifer Sutherland was talking about television), then that can be depicted successfully or otherwise in any genre.

Quality fiction is therefore not limited to any genre?

Oh dear, could there really be a quality 'Mills and Boon'?


This blog is about what I read for pleasure - mainly fiction, but not exclusively so.

I run three other blogs and this one has sprung out of material that doesn't fit comfortably into the original three.

I came across the OU/BBC discussion group on reading - and much of what I publish here will have been written with that group in mind, but not everything: I hope to go deeper and wider here.

I have a separate blog for thoughts on and reactions to Shakespeare and my experiences - especially those gained living here in Romania. Not infrequent references to other reading matter is also made there so there will be an element of cross over - I will "hyper link" as necessary

All views are personal and totally prejudiced by my taste, intellect and arrogance.