Saturday, 26 February 2011

President Bmzklfrpz is waiting

If you aren't reading the current Doonesbury strip, start now. As dictators tumble across the Arab world, as revolution turns from peaceful to bloody, only Gary Trudeau could think of seeing it through the eyes of two of America's slackest slackers.

Young Jeff Redfdern and his college roomie Zipper, who is still at College, still avoiding doing any studying, while Jeff has managed to secure and lose a career in the CIA, are about to fly off to Bezerkastan (a made up but entirely believable country roughly in the right place) to rescue President Bmzklfrpz.

The strips of the last couple of weeks have pushed Trudeau's usually high standard up a notch: we've had the Pres fighting off his own revolution while getting on the phone to his Washington based spin doctors. These have been lead by Duke, the hedonistic right wing, er, nutjob, loosely based on a certain Gonzo journalist, who in turn hires Overkill Securities, itself a satirical take on the freelance armies that now exist to help the US run Iraq. Their job is to 'get the president out of there', a hopeless, thankless mission no one else wants. For reasons too lengthy and complex to go into - but which are well worth investigating by reading through the strip's archive - the job falls to the hapless dreamer, Jeff, who decides to take Zipper along for company and to provide covering fire.

I can't wait for the denouement...but will Jeff and Z really make it over there? Can two American knuckleheads who have spent their youth on Playstation really hack the real world (in Jeff's case, we already know he can't). It's a treat either way...

Friday, 25 February 2011

Super Sad True Love Story in Glasgow

I thought Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story was a hilarous, brilliant book when I read it last year. In fact, it's one of those novels that seems to grown in stature as time goes on (and other books disappoint).

Set in a near future New York, it depicts a society being torn apart by a financial crisis clearly related to the one we've just experienced. A broken United States of America is being ruled over by an authoritarian coalition (no really), having been credit crunched into a state of revolution. It is a society in which technology - in the shape of highly evolved iPhones called Apparats - dictates not just how we work but how we date and socialise too. Facebook isn't just a social networking tool, it is the social network.

Shteyngart takes the iPhone generation and twists it. There are some gloriously irreverent features to the book. His anti-hero works for a company promising eternal youth (it's a hollow promise, but such companies already exist). The fashion of the day is dominated by 'onion skin' jeans... think transparent leggings. His world is one in which the sex war has been fought and lost on many battlefields and retail parkchanging rooms.

This is a very funny writer dealing with a topic that is highly prescient. I interviewed him over the phone last September and you can read the piece here - posted in an earlier blog. Now he is coming to Glasgow, so if any of you fancy a really interesting Saturday afternoon go and check him out on the Aye Write website.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Blackhouse

Peter May, a Glasgow author who saw sense years ago and moved to the milder climate of the south of France, has an illuminating story to tell regarding his new novel, The Blackhouse.
May wasn't a household name when he wrote the thriller/coming of age story in 2004-5, but he had written several detective stories based in China, had won a lot of critical acclaim, and his books had been translated into several languages.
With The Blackhouse he wanted to do something different. He'd worked as a producer for STV's Gaelic soap Machair during the 1990s, and decided to set his new book on the Isle of Lewis, where he and the TV show had been based. He knew Lewis well, though he wasn't a native, and was particularly fascinated by the annual guga hunt, a tradition that reached back over four hundred years.
The guga hunt involves a dozen men from Lewis sailing to a small rock in the Atlantic and spending two weeks there killing baby gannets, plucking them, smoking the meat, and then transporting them back to Lewis where they are considered a delicacy.
May wove a murder story around this hunt and delved into his own past to come up with the complex policeman Fin McLeod. When he sent it off to his agent he was convinced it was the best thing he'd ever written and his agent agreed.
The publishers, though, sent one rejection after another. Everyone praised the book but no one wanted to buy it. One even gave the excuse that they were already publishing another Scottish writer - as if there was some sort of quota system.
It was several years later that he mentioned the existence of the MS to his French publisher at a trade fair in France. She read it, loved it and bought world rights. Now the book has been published in the UK, in its original English, by Quercus, the publisher who picked up Stieg Larsson's novels. (The similarity between Larsson's chilly, northern mileu and May's Isle of Lewis hasn't gone unnoticed either.)
In the meantime, the book has been translated into several other languages and won literary prizes. A book that British publishers shunned, in other words, has not only found an audience but has been hailed as a great achievement.
So don't be too quick to discount those manuscripts languishing in the bottom drawer of your desk.
* My interview with Peter May is in this week's Big Issue Scotland Magazine. Buy it from a vendor today.

Monday, 21 February 2011

How to write a novel (like I know)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian usually has something interesting to say about writing and books but his latest blog left me wondering if I'm on the same planet as many other bibliophiles.
The piece asks whether writing classes are a waste of time. It's a valid enough question as we seem to be living through a boom period for them. Writing a novel, selling it for a million pounds and becoming pleasantly famous and well thought of as a result, has of late become a middle class equivalent of the National Lottery. Bored with being a lawyer/accountant/doctor? Then why not write a visceral account of your life in about 80,000 words and spend the rest of your days talking about it at book festivals (which you increasingly like to hang about in anyway since you stopped buying new music in 2003).
Creative writing classes have sprung up to feed this ambition. I can understand that. I've been writing books, as yet unpublished, for X years now. It's a frustrating business and I've often considered signing up for a course but usually I am put off by a number of factors. It's not the cost though. usually it is an uncertainty that a particular course could give me anything I couldn't get either under my own steam, or from my extremely experienced author wife. Course satisfaction also seems bound up with who your tutor is - another literary lottery.
But there is a role for creative writing classes however, and in this I think we can learn from American screen writing courses. Structure is what makes the difference between a well written novel and an unputdownable novel. Structure is all important in thrillers, comedies, sci-fi, and yes even literary novels (whatever they really are).
McCrum's post and the comments from the dozens of readers seem to confuse good writing with good prose. But prose, like coming up with good ideas, is something pretty much anyone can do. The trick is to string enough good prose together to make a novel.

Friday, 11 February 2011


$10 billion big ones. That's what the genius gang who came up with Twitter reckon the site is worth. Twitter, the site where you blog in less than 140 characters. The site that has so far helped revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and almost managed to do so in Iran. Twitter the site that has become the go to for journalists desperate for a quote. Twitter, the site to give voice to the people, which, funnily enough, is actually dominated by celebrities, institutions and corporations. How many followers do you have?
It's not that Twitter isn't interesting or useful, but $10 billion? It hasn't actually made a profit yet. Neither has Facebook, the Goliath of social networking.
But then, it occured to me today how little I use standard email now. I check my messages and its mostly spam. the people I interact with message via FB or Twitter. Or I get a text to my phone. Seldom is the phone call, though I always prefer that.
Do you remember speaking on the phone? Do you remember always chasing people on the phone? That's what being a journalist was, You Chased People On The Phone.  Now you check their Twitter feed and if they aren't on it, don't worry, their publicist probably is.
You have to embrace these things, but I really do feel they have to come with a warning. To the investors I say, remember the Dotcom bubble. Remember all bubbles: Property, South Seas, Mississipi Joint Stock, Tulip.
To the users, the kids especially, I say, don't let it replace the real thing. To have plenty of FB friends is fun, but it is an add on to relationships and the real world, not an alternative.
And to Mark Zuckerberg, I say..... do you want to adopt me?

Monday, 7 February 2011

Black Swan

Honestly? It was fun but disappointing. Yes Natalie Portman puts in her best ever performance. It's better than Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, certainly. And you've got to be impressed by all those twirly things she does on her toes: fabulous really, for a woman of her age.
But, but, but....
Well for one thing, she's 28 but somehow comes across as older - maybe its the emaciated hyper pumped look, which is undeniably sexy yet somehow ageing. And yet the character she is playing is so girlie - all that pink, those cuddly toys - you think to yourself: surely she's supposed to be just 20 or 21 at tops. Portman's Nina is, after all, virginal - the perfect White Swan - who is in search of her darker inner self, her Black Swan. We all have a bad person lurking in us somewhere: a more sensual, materialistic version that we repress in our desire (go with me here) to be sublime/perfect/ideal. Repress the bad girl at your peril, the film tells us, it will Drive You Mad!
It was an enjoyable, fast paced two hours, which surprised me because it revolves around so few characters. The Mommy-daughter relationship is wonderfully creepy and yes, the nail scissors made me jump too. the performances were great and as for the photography, well at times it seemed a little too considered, a little too European art house, but it was beautiful.
But, but, but...
The problem with ballet films is that ballet isn't there to be filmed. It is only really impressive when performed by real ballet dancers and Portman - who is wonderfully athletic compared to mere mortals - came across as a lumpen, pale imitation of the real thing. As a result, instead of being transported by the dance you end up almost giggling at it. It just doesn't look right.
And then there is the sex. Perhaps this is where European and American audiences really differ. Well if Twilight is anything to go by anyway. You see, in Europe, we don't have 20-something virgins with hang ups about lesbianism. They died out thirty, forty years ago. In Europe I suspect we might be over that, which takes the power of the film and puts it through the mincer, frankly.
As to the end, yes, utterly ridiculous. Nonsensical.
By which I mean the very end. The all-in-her-head thing was well signposted (and a bit too obvious). But the very end, When She Dies, no, didn't get that at all. It left me thinking I'd just been taken for a ride.

Model wife

Hey it's not every day your wife gets to write about her nearly career as a supermodel in a national newspaper. Lovely pic too - though it doesn't do her justice.

The digital revolution

This is a subject writers keep coming back to. Glasgow based writer Beatrice Colin, a friend of ours, has a few musings on it on her blog. A good read with some good points.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Hot Guys Reading Books

Hot Guys Reading Books

Neil Gaiman posted a link to this blog. It's hilarious. But why not? Why shouldn't there be somewhere women can go to where they can look at photographs of attractive men... reading?
Let's face it, most women find intellectual men incredibly sexy. They love the idea that we are both physical and cerebral.

More than that, guys, they want us for our strength AND our emotional and mental capacity. This is something we men often forget as we revert to our caveman origins. How often have you seen young guys in vans doing 40mph shouting at girls on the street...sometimes not even shouting, but just blowing their horn?
(Gettit, blowing their horn, gettit?)
As Jerry Seinfeld has pointed out this is as far as a lot of men have got. It's the Best Idea We Have.
Really, guys, we should all read a bit more, it might give us some fresh ideas.
I also think this brilliant blog opens up new cultural and media possibilities that clearly haven't yet been explored. Too long have pop stars dominated the poster world, what about pin-ups of librarians? Bookish poets could do sell out gigs at the O2 Arena. And what about a Hannah Montana storyline in which she dates an earnest literary undergrad? One in which he forgets their date because he's so wrapped up in the end of a Henry James novel. Trust me, these things do happen.
I also look forward to one day seeing a woman buying a magazine called, instead of Reader's Wives, just Readers'.
Books really are... sexy.