Thursday, 28 October 2010

book group panic part 2

OK, still not finished Austerlitz. About 50 pages to go. But I want to write down my impressions of last night's discussion because I'm a little puzzled by them.
One person said it was the best book they'd ever read. It really knocked them sideways. Two others loved it, one conceding that the first 100 pages or so were slow and but for the fact she was stuck on a train she might not have finished it. Another person was generally positive. Two of us really didn't get it at all.
Austerlitz is a book about memory. It's central character is relating how he has discovered his past, a past he had no memory of. It is about a man who fills his mind up with facts and details, architectural history in this case, but who lived most of his life ignorant of his personal history. The narrative is... well, the narrator is a man we never learn anything about recounting what Austerlitz has told him - during a series of meetings spaced out in time and place. Within Austerlitz's narrative, however, are other narratives: notably Vera's, the "nanny" he discovers in Prague.
And that's OK. I don't even mind the fact the book comes with no chapter breaks and only three - or was it four? - paragraph breaks. What I found startling was that the book constantly lost my attention. for short periods I could marvel at the prose, and the rambling nature of it, the way it skips time and place. It is, of course, a fair representation of how our minds work. We don't remember things in a linear or chronological fashion. However, we do tend to tell stories in a structured way and I struggled throughout the book to determine whether I was being told a story or not.
Not, I think. Messing with story structure can be brilliant. Abandoning it is seriously risky. It limits you, cuts your audience down. I doubt our book group was representative. I'd actually be surprised if more than one in 10 readers would even get past page 100. One in 20. But I might be wrong.
Perhaps more than anything it appeals to people with a strong visual sense. The novel is really a description of a series of places, and throughout its pages are grainy black and white photographs showing architectural features, shop fronts, empty streets. It's terribly bleak, but the former photography art student of the group last night was one of the book's most ardent fans. My brother and sister in law have both read and loved Austerlitz too.
Personally what surprised me was how banal the story was. The premise sounds tantalising, but the book as a whole far from lives up to the promise. A man who has forgotten his past who retraces his family history, how he was separated from his family by the Nazis and the holocaust. Brilliant. And yet, it struck me as less remarkable, less moving than many Who Do You Think You Are television programmes I've seen.
Enough already.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

book group panic

I haven't yet finished the book group pick this month. To be honest, I've got nearly 200 pages to go -- and its tomorrow night. And we've got people staying tonight. And I'm doing the school pick ups. And i don't know how I'm going to find the time....
It's not my fault. Blame WG Sebald. Yeah, him. I'm sorry, but its not working for me. Austerlitz was pick of the year for umpteen of the great and the good. I've met loads of people who love it. Loved it. Treasured it. Thought it was marvellous. Weeeeelllll.
Maybe I'm missing something. the group will tell me, no doubt. They'll explain why it's so brilliant. Huh? The first half passed me by. Oh guess what, its another vague man with a lack of empathy, a lack of a life, who finds he's in a crisis in his 50s, who goes on an odyssey to discover who he really is... er except he doesnt. Its not much of an odyssey at all in fact. He goes to Prague. Gets given an address. Meets his old babysitter. Its not exactly challenging stuff. The challenge seems to be sticking with it until the last.. perhaps if I do something exciting will happen. Or will it just be more moths and cathedrals?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Distracted by David Cameron's speech in Westminster yesterday, the one announcing 8 per cent cuts in defence spending including the scrapping of the Nimrod and the Harrier, I posted on Facebook that I was having my own spending review.
And that biscuits were going to be cut.
Over the next few hours debate raged. Some of it was tongue in cheek. At least, I'm guessing it was. Surely Tunnocks aren't taken that seriously. And yet it was a timely reminder of a basic truth of human nature: that the everyday, homely trivialness of a biscuit is far more appealing than any abstract accounting going on at government level.
These cuts are huge. I wouldn't be surprised if we have some serious strikes and unrest this winter. Gary Shteyngart's satirical book comes to mind: its the end of an era (see blog entry below).
And yet... we've been here so many times before. Britain has always lurched from spend to cut. From William Pitt the Younger to David Cameron, its been slash, burn, splurge in one almighty cycle. But everytime it's a surprise.
We just don't get money, or how it works.
Today I wondered, on Facebook, why we complain so much about bankers getting £300K a year, and yet think it perfectly reasonable for a footballer to earn £4 million a year. And for that footballer to want to double that salary by playing for a different club.
Of course, if we all earned Wayne Rooney's money the cuts wouldn't matter. But economies don't work like that. If we all earned Wayne's money then a cup of coffee in your local Costa would have to cost about £500.
One of my favourite reads of the year was The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson. It's a great introduction to the globalised world of high finance. If you are infuriated about the cuts I suggest you read it. Not that it will make you happy about what the Tories are doing, in fact it might make you angrier.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


Classic or Touch? You're probably an iPhone: everything in one slim unit. Very nice. Very now. But, oooops, it's over. Looks like we're moving on.

Technology as fashion? Who came up with that? Actually, its always been the case. Remember those TVs made to look like spaceman helmets? Remember the sandwich toaster? OK you can still get them, but there was a time when they were a covetable fad. It didn't last long, just a year or so, then they turned into greasy dusty objet de rubbish in the corner of the cupboard. As so many things do. But the idea of technology as fashion goes waaaay back.

In the 1840-50s, the well to do had cash like they'd never had cash before. At the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, there was a sort of ultimate expression of this. The Great Exhibition was intended as a scientific showcase, and in many respects it was. But really it was a great big shopping mall. A tribute to Britain's ability to sell stuff to people with money.

My favourite consumable from the GE has to be the folding piano. Piano makers had been going at each other for a while, upgrading the keys, coming up with increasingly elaborate engraving, pedals, sound. But then someone thought, let's make a piano you can fold up. There was this idea that you'd buy it for your yacht. It seems to have worked like a sort of concertina.... you pushed it against a wall and it collapsed/squeezed down. It was very expensive but it meant you could invite someone into your home and then, at some point in the evening, say, hey let's play the piano and they'd look round and say, but you don't have a piano and you'd go, yes I do, and you'd open a door or remove a curtain or whatever and you'd heave out....

To the Victorians the folding piano was just as exciting as having an app on your phone that allows you to read a barcode or map the night sky. Things that one day will sound equally ridiculous.

Monday, 18 October 2010

X Factor

No, never seen it. Not all the way through, anyway. A bit here and there. A clip on YouTube. Sometimes I might stumble on it, watch for a few minutes... but usually my brain begins to seize up and I am gripped with nausea.

Admittedly I'm not really that into music. I like certain things. Increasingly I've been enjoying having classical or choral music on, loud, while I've been working. iTunes and Spotify are great little tools if you are working at a laptop. But pop music? Rock? Indie?

The last few months I've been working part time with the Big Issue in Scotland. This has involved regular days in their office... there's a couple there who used to work for NME. Another girl who probably should work for NME. Nothing wrong with that, but they really know the music scene. Really care about it. they don't just talk about bands I've never heard of, they talk about whole musical movements that haven't otherwise blipped on my horizon.

As a teenager and as a twentysomething I paid lipservice to poprockindie. But at uni I probably listened to as much John Coltrane as I did The Smiths. And actually I preferred Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, already 20 years old at the time. Britpop was fun. It felt like something important – funny how I prefer Blur now to Oasis, I remember reading a critic at the time who argued that everyone would. Who was that?

I digress. The point is, X Factor... It has been given three more years. A £100 million deal. Meaning more X Factor, and the other thing, Britain's Not Got Talent. I want to be nasty about both of them. I want to tear them to shreds, laugh at all the sad, overweight, hopeless screw ups that go on desperate to be singers, stars, somethings. But you know, I just can't be bothered. It's too dull, too corny, too uninteresting even to take a pop at. X Factor is final proof that pop culture is over, that it's had its moment. Diversity is all now. Elitism. Selectism. Personalism. Individualism. Cowell can celebrate, he's ridden that wave. But he may well have killed it for good. No seriously, his high point is a new beginning. People want more than the X Factor. They actually want stuff that's good, interesting and sophisticated. They don't want to be talked down to anymore.

As you get older you tend to need more. Harder books, more challenging drama, new experiences. Its all part of realising that you have a limited time on this Earth and you'd better make the most of it. and that making the most of it does not include frittering Saturday evenings away on X Factor karaoke.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Piles and piles of books

When I went to university I remember counting the books on my shelves. I had a tiny single room at a hall of residence and the library space amounted to, I think, three small shelves on the wall. I was studying English Lit, Politics and History and I made sure I bought all my listed texts new. Their spines sparkled with promise. Yes, really, that's what I thought. Even "Scottish Politics" by the department head, printed on what looked like bog paper, appeared to me at that time to be a shiny beacon of the future.

Over that year or so I added many paperbacks. Books I read because I wanted to. Books I bought because I thought I should. I have always bought more books than I read, however, which is partly why now - two decades later - I have a dining room table groaning under the weight of columns and columns of books.

We're doing out the front room (again... I won't bore you with the details) which means a temporary migration for the books to the back sitting room. I mention this because it is only when you move books around that you realise just how many you have and what a cumbersome load of stuff they amount to.

I'm not a fan of ebooks. I hate the idea of them, in fact. I fear that if we take away the physical side of writing then novels will become as much of the web has, this blog included, entirely disposable, throwaway and worthless. Writers are already paid a pittance, and now the publishers want to screw them even more by demanding larger than fair slices of royalties from ebook publications.

And yet, books... Lining the walls in neatly organised shelves they look fabulous. (Obviously I'm a fan, just look at the home page). But as people move into smaller and smaller apartments, as we move around more and more trying to keep down jobs and to maximise our worth in this most fragile of economies, you can see why an iPhone or an iPad or even a Kindle is so attractive. An entire library weighing no more than a bag of sugar? Cool.

I've already got over my CD collection. It's gone, in boxes, unloved and gathering dust. Will the books go the same way? I hope not. I really love reading books, turning pages and seeing them on the shelves. I was never good at sport, I was good at reading: these guys are my trophies. But I doubt my grandchildren will feel the same way about them. Indeed, they'll wonder how we survived under the weight of all this paper.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Once Upon a Time, at Harvard Culture:

Once Upon a Time, at Harvard Culture:

Saw The Social Network last night with Carmen. Both of us were really looking forward to it: the film has a good pedigree, a decent buzz and it's about a very major phenom in Facebook. We both left disappointed, though I have to say I still found the two hour flick interesting, fascinating.
Let's not talk about the performances. No one sucked. Most were good. But the performances aren't the point. What's at stake is how true it all is.
I've seen some strange quotes from the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, suggesting that truth and accuracy need not be one in the same thing. Well, no, not in this case.
Film makers have to wake up to something I think. If they are dealing with historical events: Tudor England, the Victorians, Ancient Greece, then playing fast and loose with the facts is fine. Everyone's dead. No one's reputation is at stake. And nobody sat and watched Gladiator thinking: which emperor is this supposed to be?
But The Social Network charts events from 2003. Disputed events. Events that are surrounded by a he said, she said culture. Events that were the subject of legal actions that sound less like disputes between business people and more like an ugly spat in the dorm room. Which is what they were. You have to get it right.
So who is the real Mark Zuckerberg? Is he the prick that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin portrays him as? The narrow minded, self obsessed, ex-girlfriend obsessed cyber nut who stole the initial idea off three fine young blue bloods and turned himself into a billionaire (screwing over his best pal en route)?
Or is he the good listener, philanthropist, genial ceo that the profiles in various newspapers have him to be?
He's still only 26 of course. He may well have been all of those things in the past few years. I know I matured a lot between the ages of 18 and 30, MZ will do the same I'm sure. Only he'll do it with a billion or two in the bank.
There were elements of the story I thought could have been brought out more. Nuances that muddy the waters. Like the fact that Facemash and then Facebook was partly inspired by college/high school culture: those year books they all have had been digitised. The idea was circulating around. What Zuckerberg did was make it work, he employed the latest technology, took advantage of broadband and digital photography, and he got it out there first.
Meanwhile, the blue bloods rested on their laurels. Or rather they got on with rowing and studying while Zuckerberg got on with coding. In that sense, you've got to admire MZ. He may well have been a bit scurrilous, but history has a tendency to only remember the winners.
As a film, The Social Newtork felt a bit lumpen. I expected more from the director David Fincher who seemed to struggle with the complexities of the legal action. As for the risible Henley regatta scenes (Prince Albert????) and boat race: yeah, Dave, we got it already. Most of the characters were introduced in fairly cliched ways... a series of CVs read out by one or other of the cast. Sort of. And it offered no sense of who Zuckerberg was: his background before Harvard. Did he have sisters? Family? Was he privileged or not? (He went to a private school, his parents were Jewish professionals...) All he told us was that he was a bit of a geek, a bit of a loner.
Oh, and then there was the sexism. Carmen thought it was the most sexist film she'd seen in ages. The women - girls - were almost exclusively in either their underwear or miniskirts, drinking cocktails, having sex or just looking good. The obvious exception was Erica, the girl who dumps Zuckerberg at the beginning of the film.
There's some effort by Fincher to address this balance. There is a thoughtful, insightful lawyer, a woman, who gives MZ some advice. But overall you are left with the sense that although it might be 2003 on the calendar - and this film is made in 2010 - Harvard still beats to the same drum that was sounding in the early 1980s. They even dress much the same way too. Beery parties, girls are for decoration, boys are in charge. Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of American university life and indeed American corporate culture. Is it? If so... well they've got a way to go.
A miss. But intriguing just the same...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

It's an age thing

Are some books always good? Or do all books need to be read at a certain time in life?
This has come up a couple of times at our polytitled book group (we change the name each month depending on the book we're reading. This week is it the Pentagram Architectura Coalition... though what this has to do with WG Sebald's Austerlitz I still don't know, because my copy hasn't arrived from Amazon yet)... it has come up a couple of times and while I was reading Philip Roth's The Human Stain it occured to me that this is exactly the kind of novel I'd have hated ten years ago.
Partly this would have been a reaction to my earliers self. I was a very serious undergraduate. Hell, I used to read Saul Bellow in my spare time... for laughs. Roth's world, in The Human Stain, strikes me as quite Bellowish. Small college. Political. Intellectual. Academic. Everyone is striving. Ambitious. Yet also so bitter and unhappy. Disappointed.
It's the kind of thing that as a 20-year-old I thought was incredibly important. Then I left university and worked in newspapers for ten years. That changed me. I admit it: I fell in love with froth, with the disposable. But I also fell in love with current affairs, the media and with people. Bellow-style academia seemed distant to me, and rather boring. I think I avoided Roth partly for this reason.
Now? The media interests me less, newspapers very little. Journalism has to some extent disappointed me as a career ( I thought it was for me, it isn't) and perhaps therefore I can empathise with curmudgeonly academics in a way I couldn't before.
The other reason of course is what I assumed, or was lead to believe Roth was. Sexist, old fashioned, bombastic. He's none of these things, not in this book anyway. Oh sure, there is one horrific female character. There are also some interesting ones, extremely positive. His portrait of Faunia, the young 'illiterate' mistress of his central character, Coleman Silk, is extremely moving. Utterly believable.
Although, I wonder a little... she is such a victim: would you write a character quite like that now? Does the horror of being abused as a young child carry the same power as it did when this book came out - ten and more years ago. We've been numbed to the idea a little, I think, in part by its ubiquity in novels. Everyone from the pulpiest thriller writer to the more literary -- Kate Atkinson's Case Histories comes to mind -- has employed the paedophile as the latter day equivalent of the Nazi. the bad guy no one need find any good in.
Roth's book isn't about paedophilia, and it is the stronger for it. Its about sexism, racism, the abuse of truth, its about how gossip is so often mistaken for fact -- I know a bit about that as a former gossip column journalist. I found it incredibly powerful and while his prose style is certainly demanding it has left me wanting to read more. Yes, I just might just go to Waterstones now and see if their 3 for 2 on all Roths still applies...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Monster High takes a bite out of Barbie

Lisi Harrison's new series for young teens, Monster High, isn't just a book series: its a multi media toy megabrand.

With its gothic make up and vamped up vampires Monster High is an hilarious counterpoint to the nicey-nice world of Barbie.

Harrison's first Monster High yarn was, I thought, weirdly brilliant - just as it should have been.

If you like these books check out Carmen Reid's St Jude's series. There are no monsters, but they are equally entertaining and brilliant. Plus, Carmen is my other, far more talented half.


High School is bad enough when you are 15 years old and relatively normal looking. But imagine if you were just 15 days old, had steel bolts in your neck and seams on your skin showing where your arms have been stitched together. And what if you were green instead of a nice fleshy pink or brown?
Put it another way, how difficult would being a teenager be if you were a monster? And before you say, ‘well no change there then’, author Lisi Harrison tells you that that is just the point of her new series, Monster High
“Oh it’s a big metaphor,” she laughs. “I tried to make these characters like real high school characters. They are all dealing with something that we’ve all dealt with in high school or middle school, something they are embarrassed about.
“Going through puberty and changes in your body and your world can leave you feeling like a monster, something that’s horrifying.
“For instance, Clawdeen the werewolf is dealing with major hairgrowth issues – and every kid deals with that! Frankie Stein has her skin colour which is definitely an issue with a lot of people in this country. And Lala [full name: Draculaura] has her fangs which reminds me of when I got braces and became really self conscious of my teeth.
“Even the Jekyll and Hyde character, Jackson, well every girl I know dated that guy: really nice one minute and a total jerk the next. I wanted to draw these characters in such a way as you might think maybe there are monsters in this world. The message behind it is that we should all be celebrating our differences rather than hiding them.”
Harrison, a former MTV producer who has a bestselling US high school series The Clique (think Gossip Girl for juniors) says monsters wasn’t what appealed about the idea at first. In fact it was Mattel.
The US toy giant approached her with a collection of dolls and the offer that she make up a series of books about them. Blatantly commercial it might be but it’s working. The figures are now sold out in the US and a spin off single (‘Monster High’) is even doing well on MTV. Kids are already turning up at book signings carrying the dolls and wearing the T-shirt.
“At first I wasn’t interested because monsters aren’t my thing, but they wanted the books to be funny, they knew my other books, and so they gave me the freedom to pretty much do what I want. The experience has been really positive and they have been great,” she says.
“OK, they have a brand to uphold and yes, they did insist on taking one thing out – when Claudine [central character Melody’s older sis] names her boobs Coco and Chanel after her favourite designer.” Lisi releases another whooping laugh. “One day I’ll write a book with that in, and you’ll know why!” she promises.

This interview was published in Big Issue Scotland magazine, October 12 2010