Monday, 31 May 2010

Photo Month 22-31

Ah, the last stretch. And do you know what? I've been pretty lax. And by pretty lax, I of course mean something else entirely. I mean very lax. Some of the following photos miss out on the basic concept of photo-a-day-ness. They were not, in fact, taken on days.

Okay, yes, they were taken on days. But not necessarily the right ones, and not one-per. Happily, I forgot to call this mini-challege Do One Photo Each Day For A Month Or DIE, even though that more accurately represents my sentiments when I started it. In fact, out of laziness, I called it Photo Month. These photos might not have been taken on days, but they were taken on a month.

Photo #22:
If you can't share a book, you can't share food. I cannot share books. Feel free to do the math(ematics).

Photo #23:
I am related to all three of these people. The strange thing is, there was no television in that room. Just a TRANS-DIMENSIONAL DOOM VORTEX. Which my mum seems to find funny.

Photo #24:

I am also related to these people. Except the tiny ones in the distance (who were pretty small in real life, too. Father Ted would have had trouble explaining that.)

Photo #25:
If you stare at this photo for long enough, you will see the image of nutjob footballer Zinedine Zidane in a flatcap. Try it. Just stare, hour after hour. It's worth the wait when you see it.

Photo #26:

These guys just set up in the middle of a field to rock out, six years ago. They've been rocking out ever since, and some entrepeneurial soul built a pub around them. Then they built a city around that pub. Then they altered everyone's memories so that they all think it happened in reverse.

Photo #27:

This is a picture of my life. If you look very closely, there is a clue about which book I will next be reviewing. (For those of you having trouble spotting it, here's another clue: 'davidlodgedeafsentence' is an anagram that might just help you out.)
If you look really closely, you could steal all my ideas. Honestly, you're welcome to them.

Photo #28:

Eleven seconds after this photo was taken, a huge fight broke out amongst these people. Apparently, one of them thought David Foster Wallace should be shelved under 'F', not 'W'. And then someone else suggested he should be shelved under Modern Classics, and all hell broke out. I've not seen any of them since, except on the news.

Photo #29:

Sometimes, you really need a drink and a snack in the cinema. You need it so much that you sell your house to buy it, but then you realise you still don't have enough money, so you offer the guy behind the counter his choice of your kidneys. And because he's a nice guy, he lets you off the rest, once he's had your watch and camera and future intellectual rights. (What I'm trying to say is, all this was more expensive than I expected.)

Photo #30:

It's actually an optical illusion. That cue is the same length as his forearm. That's perspective for you. Funny business, perspective.

Photo #31:

I know what you're thinking: some more classic perspective work from Ben.

You're wrong. This photo contains absolutely no perspective whatsoever. The black ball is twice the size of his head. It's only television that makes it look small. Odd how it works like that.

SO that was Photo Month. What have I learnt?

1. My camera has an awesome macro setting.
2. Taking my camera everywhere is a really good idea. You only have to take one or two photos -- 30 seconds, max -- and you forget things a lot less.
3. I possibly need to get out more.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Fifth Elephant

by Terry Pratchett. Read by Stephen Briggs.

So I bought an audiobook! I've listened to a couple before, and it's a really good experience. I either have them on while going on epic walks along the Norfolk coast, or I listen to half an hour each night in bed.

I've only done it for books I've already read so far, otherwise I'd feel under pressure to pay too much attention. I read The Fifth Elephant ages ago. The same applies to all Pratchett, I read them ages ago. Except the recent ones, which I read... recently.

As you may or may not know (an ambiguous state of affairs that will be rectified forever by this very sentence) I love Pratchett. Or Tezza P, to his friends. The Pratch. T-Bone. But I've also read his whole catalogue, more than once per book, and so it's not a love that I partake in regularly. This love is not, to the horror of DCTalk, a verb. It's a state of being. It also makes it dificult to review.

What do I think of this particular novel? It's incredibly full. It's a thriller and a mystery and a political whodunnit and all those other things that I don't usually read, but it's also about people doing peopley things like relating, with varying degrees of failure, to other people.

And there's all that fantasy stuff, and jokes (laughing out loud is more natural when you hear something than when you read it, it turns out), and it's probably a parody of hundreds of things I don't know of, so the parodies pass me by. Which is how I like it really; parodies being a thing of the 'humour' shelves in bookshops*.

I'm useless at talking about Pratchett, because I am a fan, not a critic. Half the point of this blog is to teach myself how to be both at once, but most of that can wait until I read a Pratchett again.

The reading itself was excellent, though. I can talk about that. Our man Stephen Briggs... he did the voices. Bear in mind these are characters I've known and loved and grown with (flipping VIMES)... and he gives them voices. Risky business. I'm sure there's stuff in the text that imply that Carrot has a Welsh accent, or that Vimes has a bit of cockney twang, but I never picked up on them. I ignore that sort of stuff.

But every time I heard Briggs giving them the voice, it was spot on. 'Oh, of course that's what she sounds like!' sort of thing.

Conclusion: I will be buying and listening to more audiobooks. Maybe the whole of Discworld? If they've all been done by Briggs, that is. And if I discover lots of money next time I look inside my ukulele.

And: Pratchett is the lemur's femur. The slug's mug. The mouse's spouse... et cetera.

*Humour shelves in bookshops don't have to be so bad. There's Miles Kington and Robin Cooper and Andy Riley and Parkinson and Peanuts, and all that narrative non-fiction like Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman. Which all prompt the question, why fill the shelves with Crap Roundabouts 2, Isn't Stuff Shit? Well Isn't It?, The World According To Whatever-that-guy-from-Fifth-Gear-is-called, and A List Of Things That Rhyme With Douche?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Blog Friday


I missed the Hop last week, and I am glad to be back. Since then there has been thoughts on writing, book front developments, photos, and Richard Adams, CS Lewis, Ben Bell, and -- as promised -- Bono.

In honour of this very fun weekly blogosphere shindig, I propose a toast. For today, and today only, this blog will be known as Learning to Hop.*

*I won't actually change the title, I'll just refer to it as that in conversation.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Book Front: Famous Non-Last Words

I was out of the office when Sales Assistant B called to ring through his latest dispatch. Michael Owen's phone embargo (since the 'Northern Cock' incident) lifted only yesterday, so you can imagine he was pretty eager to get back on the blower.

MO: Learning to Read, this is Michael speaking into the telephone. Can I help you?

SAB: [coldly] Hello Michael. Are you allowed back on the phones?

MO: I'll ask the questions, thank you.

SAB: [after a long pause] Go on, then...

MO: Hang on... let me think of one.

SAB: Maybe you could ask about--

MO: Got one! How's the, er, Book Front going? Anyone dying?

SAB: Those are both terrible questions, but I'll answer them. It's going badly, and people always die in wars. Just the other day my friend Italian Dave got caught out by some abridged Shakespeare. He put all his weight on it, because it wasn't marked clearly as abridged, and it couldn't take his weight. There wasn't enough substance, he went right through it. As he fell, I caught his last words: "I never really got into the Rolling Stoooooooooooooones!"

MO: I've often wondered about that.

SAB: The Rolling Stones?

MO: Last words. Do you have to write down everything someone says, just in case they get shot the next minute?

SAB: Yeah. It's not an easy job. Often you hear something which you are sure must be Last Words, but then thethe person doesn't actually die. I've started collecting them, want to hear?

MO: Not really. I'd rather have some Jaffa Cakes.

SAB: Well I'll tell you them anyway.

"I wish I was into books."
Sighed, wistfully. A girl standing in front of a wall of books. I expected them to fall but they didn't.

Shouted after queueing for five minutes. An angry, tattooed, bald man apparently after a copoy of The Hungry Caterpilla on DVD. At least, that's what I sold him. He didn't elaborate.
It wasn't, apparently, a cry of fear at the gant caterpillar chasing him, or the unknown folk medecine antidote to a poison he had just consumed. Or the nickname of his nemesis. None of those things.

"Only old people read. Don't they know that?"
Said with deep frustration, by an old man. He wondered why we'd put some of our books on a low down shelf, where only young people could see them. No, I didn't understand that either.
I wrote it down, but he completely failed to trip of the stack of Harry Pottrt books on the floor by the door. I think Irony migrates north for the summer months.

Monday, 24 May 2010


by Ben Bell

As the inscription implies, I know the author, and this book was a welcome birthday present.

First of all, it's a very good book. Sometimes, when you read something a friend has written, it's a case of reading it simply because you know them. But once I was into Separation, I wanted to keep reading, first and foremost, because I was enjoying it. The book says it was printed on LuLu, which means I should be able to find you a link... here we go: Separation.

The book is a lot of things. It's one of those novels where the answers to the questions 'what is it about?' and 'what happens?' are very different. What happens? Dan Crake, art student, takes us through a number of typical activities like going to a club or texting his ex, juxtaposed with the events of his mother's funeral, and he meets up with his dad.

The 'about' question is much more interesting. It's about in-betweens, connections, the search for meaning, and how distance between people is a lot easier than closeness.

And one of the things that really struck me about the novel is very relevant to me just now. I'm starting my second draft of Polaroid, and one of my main goals is to show a real difference in the characters of my two narrators, through their voices.

Bell (and yes, I'm going to call him by his surname even though I know him. I think it sounds cool) creates a unique image of his narrator, Dan, and does it very well. I see it happening in three separate ways.

One. The dialogue is uncompromisingly real. Not only do we get every step in the non-flowing, non-buzzing conversations that make up most of life ("Pretty packed." "Yeah." "Can't see any free seats." "No, I can't.") but we get the actual rendition of them saying it. "D'you know 'er?" works, because nobody ever actually says 'do you know her?'
At least not in a club.

Two. The narration at the level of sentence-choice. I mean I'm an artist, and I'm not the most practically minded of people, not by a long shot, I can be damn clumsy, but Mel doesn't make it any easier. These chains of clauses in commas are another little way into Dan's head.

Three. The narration at the level of subject-choice. The things Dan chooses to notice, where he chooses to start and end each anecdote or memory or musing, are the best clues for what he sees when he looks through his eyes.
It's not necessarily the choice of big events, but the little events that make up the big ones, and the observations that they spark, that are key.

So that's my take on voice, today. How real you decide to make the dialogue, what you let your narrator notice and ignore, and what language you let him use to do it with, those are the sliders on the mixing desk of voice.

I'm now off to write a song called Sliders on the Mixing Desk of Voice.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Bono On Bono

by Michka Assayas

This is another example of a book I wouldn't pick up from a bookshop myself. It's the third and final installment of my bought-with-sweets series.

I don't (didn't) know much about Bono. I'm not a huge fan of the band, but probably know and like about a dozen of their singles. So I reckon I came to this book without the prejudices -- either direction -- that a lot of people might have.

It's an entertaining read. I didn't completely warm to Bono or Michka, though they gave honest answers and earnest questions, usually. Bono is smarter than I expected. He had some really interesting things to say, and interesting ways of thinking about things.

There was something wrong, though. He reminded me of something in myself, in one aspect, and it's probably something a lot of people can relate to. You see, he's good with words, rather than careful with them.

He can string together interesting answers, articulate answers, and clever maxims, all spun with a kind of impressionistic honesty, with ease. But he does it with too much ease: he ends up at attractive conclusions he doesn't really mean, and contradicts himself over time. Which of course you do, when you talk in maxims and absolutes over the course of hundreds of topics and questions.

It's not a novel, so I won't try and assess it as one. But on that topic, there is an interesting exchange:

BONO: It's not that I'm trying to figure anything out. That's the difference. A novelist is just trying to figure things out.

MICHKA: I don't think so... I think a novelist has no clue about what he's grasping. There is that fantastic phrase that I always quote, by the Franco-American writer Julian Green: "I write my books because I need to know what's inside of them." It's not that you draw out a map, make a big plan, and then fill in the gaps. That's what I would say bad writers do.

It's a fair microcosm of an argument I am expecting to have with a writer-friend of mine in the future. Planning vs. 'The Art'. I admit that there is huge value in the creative process: I inevitably learn things and surprise myself in the writing of a book. But I think planning helps that, rather than opposing it. I plan like mad.

It can also be framed as creativity vs. craft. Well, I've been 'creative' all my life. I know tons of 'creative' people. It's no big deal. I'm far more interested in craft, at the moment. Sure, you need both, but one is a real set of skills and processes you can learn and practice and master, one is this mystical thing behind the curtain that you're not allowed to stare directly at, prod with a stick or call names.

I'm confidently expecting this opinion of mine to change, maybe even reverse, over the coming years.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Photo Month 13-21

There are two options. Either, I forgot to post my daily photos on TWO separate occasions, or I thought it would be sensible to stop clogging up my blog with photo posts every three days.
One of these options would be the result of being sensible, the other of being daft. So it should be obvious which one is true.

Seatbelts on, hold on tight, and please try not to vomit. Here we go:

Photo #13:
This blurry little chap turned up on my ceiling, a few feet away from my head, and stayed for a solid three or four days. He moved about two inches every night, then suddenly disappeared. I like to think that, in that short time, we formed a special bond of companionship. Michael dubbed him 'Sir Loughborough'.

Photo #14:

"Another photo of a mug? You must be mad!"

Why? It's only the second photo of a mug, and they're both good mugs. What a ridiculous statement, to claim that having two nice mugs makes me clinically insane. You should watch what you say, in future. Fascist.

Photo #15:

I'm spending time in the in-betweens of writing at the moment. Rather than wait around like a dullard (yes, I said it, dullard!) I decided to record some old songs. It's a leisure activity. This is the rough list I made for the album, provisionally entitled Old Songs.

Photo #16:

I made this, and then I ate it. Over the course of three meals. If I had the choice between not eating some Mexican food and eating some Mexican food, I would choose to eat some Mexican food. That's how much I love it.

Photo #17:

This is the park I go for walks around. I love the sky, and you get so much more of it in Norfolk. (Note: not all the sky is pictured here.)

Photo #18:
This was an open mic night at the Birdcage that we stumbled across by accident. This guy was reciting an essay on the Ontology of Sheets, which was pretty damn hilarious. Sadly, nobody else I was with was that bothered, so we left early. But I'm gonna go back there next time. I might even do something for it, at some point.

Photo 19:

The question is, quite simply, why not? Michael had a flick through the dictionary for me, and he is pretty sure that 'all comers' includes me. Even if it it is a weird phrase, now I come to think about it.

Photo #20:

Pool in the dungeons of The Mischief can only mean one thing: boy's night out. I didn't actually win all my games, which is probably why I was hiding. I don't like not winning all my games.

Photo #21:

Our chimneys are so wonky, and our roof is so flat.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

On The Why Of Books

It should be obvious, to any regular readers (good afternoon, by the way) that I like books. I like reading them, mostly, but writing them as well. And, of course, talking about them. But I don't know why.

So I've been thinking about it. I've got a few ideas.

There's entertainment. Sometimes reading a book can be like hanging out with a funny or fascinating friend. And with books, you can put them down for a bit without offending them, read them on the toilet or in the bath (doesn't work with friends) and you never have to buy them a drink.
It's not why I like them, though.

There's escapism. Books have the ability to take you out of your head. One of my biggest problems in life is that I am always AWAKE in my head, always thinking or telling myself a story or arguing or remembering or swearing. It might sound nice, but it drives me into weird, frustrated madness. Getting to sleep is a long, long process.
Books, occasionally, can turn that off. The link is sometimes so strong between the narrative on the page and the little man who sits in my Cartesian Theatre that all other functions switch to stand-by. It's like a shortcut to being unconscious.

Not quite the same as escapism is distraction. That's when the book doesn't turn off the AWAKE, but changes the scenery. So you still have to deal with the heavy, weightless nonsense of being aware, but you're not aware of the things you normally would be.
It happens rarely, but sometimes a book can stick you right inside somebody else's head, and you busy yourself with the Malkovichian task of staring out of their eyes.

Distraction is more on the money than escapism, for me. But it's not the answer (though it might be a part of it.) It can't be the whole story, because I often don't get that involved in a book, but still enjoy it. Some books don't even try for distraction, and I still enjoy them.

I think it's basically to do with people. People are great, generally, but I'm pretty useless at them. Dealing with them, understanding them, all that nonsense. And all books, ever, are essentially about people. (Yes, all of them. Even if they don't have characters, they are all written by people. Knowing the 60,000+ words someone has chosen to publish tells you a lot about them, at least.)

It's not people in the sense of, 'oh, I get it. People do A when B and C happen, and they can't find any D. I now understand that.'

It's people in the sense of getting to know the individual world that each person inhabits, sharing the similarities and differences to your own, and generally attempt to deny that truth that you can never experience any world other than the unique one that is you.

Here's the L2R First Principle, then: I am reading to learn. (Clever, eh? That's the same words, if you look closely, as the name of the blog. But sort of... swapped. Read back and see.... told you so! Ahh, the things I do with words.)

The inversion of that inversion is not that I write to teach. It's that I write to learn, as well. I might talk about that more another time. What's important is that the sort of learning I'm talking about isn't passed on; it's shared. In fact, it's is nothing more than the act of sharing itself. Shared sharings, rather than taught learnings.

Books are great for this. Entertainment, escapism... there are better mediums for those things, probably. But sharing? that's where books win hands down. They don't even come second place to life itself. Because they're not an alternative to learning through experience, but a tool of it.

Books are not a window on the world, or even a mirror. They are a telescope, or a microscope, depending on the scale.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Great Divorce

by C.S. Lewis

This is the second of the three books I recently purchased (for two months) with sweets. This was one of the few titles that pretty much everyone was bidding on, and it cost me an amount of sweets so large I dare not mention it anywhere near Michael. He'd call it blasphemy, or something. He's mad about sweets.

I got given a box set of the seven (beautiful) Narnia novels when I was eight or so. I think I must have already been into reading, by then -- Enid Blyton definitely figured -- but those books really woke me up to the idea that books could be things to get excited about.
Since then, though, I've fairly neglected him. At least in the context of the hundreds of other things I've read since then. Of Lewis I've read Out of the Silent Planet, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and a bunch of theological essays.

The best thing about Lewis is that he makes me deeply suspicious of my own mind. He makes me think that every decision I've made is the product of subtle demonic influences. Which is odd, because I don't even half-believe in demons. But he writes with such calm, almost casual, authority, and with the sort of familiarity that you only get from a family member two decades separate, that I don't even notice. When I disagree with him, I generally assume it's me that's got it wrong.

So I doubt my own motives in everything. But then I notice that the doubt itself could just be me congratulating myself on being self-aware enough to entertain it. A 'well done for being so modest' type arrangement. So I have to doubt the doubt, too. And the more and more I lose my grip on everything, the more I think (or Lewis tells me?) that I'm holding on too tight to the very things I shouldn't be.


I worked a 17-hour shift without a break over the last night. I've got some crazy kind of stock-take jetlag. That's my excuse and I'm sticking with it... Back to what this blog is (sort of, a little bit, when I feel like it) about. Learning what works for me and doesn't work for me in fiction.

The Great Divorce is a fantasy about what Heaven and Hell might be like. It's a theology of the perspective and relation between the two, rather than the mechanics of it. And though it's fiction, it's there to get across a specific idea.

I sort of have a problem with that. I often argue with a friend about books and scripts and stories needing or not needing a central message to convey. I don't think books should be meaningless, but I think they should be their own meaning, rather than being a vessel for it. A book isn't just another way to spread your message, or your meme, like the birdshit that contains a few undigested seeds ready to germinate. Books aren't birdshit.

A book can convey an idea, but it also is that idea. It is the message. If the 'message' can be communicated in half the space or a third of the words, then what's the point of the book? Just write the message instead. Save yourself and any readers a lot of wasted time.

That is something of a half-baked thought, and I'm going to keep it in the back of my mind in future, and see how it stands up. Maybe some more subtle shaping will happen when it gets battered this way and that by various opposing fictions. It's a Popperian, Darwinian experiment, maybe.

Or maybe I should just ask you.

"What is the role of the message in fiction? What is the role of fiction in the message?"

Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Richard Adams

One week ago today, Richard Adams turned 90! I've been checking it out with the relevant authorities, and it turns out that 90 is Actually Quite Old. Who knew?

Rather than send him a birthday present, I thought I would take the opportunity to let you all know that he is AWESOME and you should all BUY HIS BOOKS.

Okay, so you've read Watership Down. If you read it as a kid, do yourself a favour and read it again now. It's not perfect -- Michael Palin called it 'politically naive', and you don't question Palin -- but it did teach me the word 'myriad' by page one, when I was twelve. I won't go on about this book any more, other than to say it is a great example of the love of narrative.

I've only read five books by Adams, and they all offer something different. The main point I should make is that Watership Down is his idea of a kid's book. That thick, dark, epic novel... that is him keeping it real with the kids. My favourite of his, The Girl in a Swing, shows you how dark and soul-gripping he can be when he writes for adults.

The fact I've only read five of his books is a travesty, considering how long I've loved his stuff, but it's not all my fault. Those five are, except for one instance I intensely regret, the only of his books I have ever come across in any sort of bookshop.
I hear there's this thing called the internet, which could somehow help me bypass this lack of bookshop-love, but that's not the point. The point is that a great writer is being forgotten about. He is slowly slipping out of our national memory (and the stock in old bookshops is not a bad way to measure our national memory, I think.)

I don't know what to do about that, other than mourn it, shout about it, and look sad. That's what I'm doing now. Picture it.

I thought about entering him into the (deeply influential) LTR Hall of Fame, but Michael says we don't have one. He says they are elitist. When I told him that they were meant to be elitist, he stormed out and went upstairs to eat a KitKat.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Blog Friday

Welcome again to those from the Hop. If you're having trouble keeping your balance with a Standard Hop, why not try a Space Hop, Hip Hop or Pork cHop?

It's been a pretty busy week at Learning to Read. There's been reviews of The Road, and Blackberry Wine; some more photos; and a dispatch from the Book Front.
There's more photos and Book Front dispatches coming up, as well as CS Lewis, David Lodge, Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie,, Bono, coming up in reviews in the next few weeks.

And guess who was 90 this week? Only one of Learning to Read's favourite ever writers (and world-class player of Simon Says, we've heard) RICHARD ADAMS. Expect a celebratory post soon.

But it's time to point you away from the comfy chairs and low tables of Learning to Read, towards the more exciting furniture of another blog. This week's mention is...

Running The Central Line

A narrative/adventure blog, about one man's challenge to run the route that lesser people have to use specially built undergroud trains to traverse. It's told with wit and funny pictures.
It's also got a bit more dramatic recently. Not to spoil it for you, but... things haven't gone perfectly.

As a blog about reading and writing, the Learning to Read team can recognise a well-placed obstacle to a protagonist's goal when they see it. (Except Michael. He doesn't read any novels of which he is not the main character.)
It's decision time, and the issue is how and whether the challenge even goes ahead. Damn good conflict. I honestly don't know how it's going to end. You'll be hooked.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Blackberry Wine

by Joanne Harris.

This not the sort of book I normally read, but I enjoyed it. It's the first of the three books I picked up in my Birthday Bookshop Book Bonanza Auction. It cost me in the region of 8 sweets. My bids were spurred on by Helen's promise that the book was narrated by a bottle of wine.

Needless to say, I liked that wine bottle narration. I also liked how it stayed in the background for most of the book. It would stay hidden for chapter after chapter, leaving the book essentially in the third person, then suddenly pop up again and say 'Hi. I'm a bottle of wine. Remember me?'

And there were lots of other things I liked. A lot came down to the two worlds -- distinct, distant, but similar -- that the book inhabits. They are thickly coated in warm detail and expertise. Once again I am reminded of my own ignorance by the depth of an author's knowledge of the world they talk about, and by my need (stubbornly ignored) for a dictionary. There were a number of terms used as if they were common knowledge, which I had to guess at, or just gloss past.

I'm starting to think that this hint of obfuscation is intended as a world-reifying tool. After all, if a guy told me he was a physicist, and decided to tell me about his work in depth, I'd be pretty suspicious if he talked about 'those things, like an atom but, um, smaller', and 'that force, you know, that stops us all floating away. Downward-Pull, I think'. No physicist are you, I would think. You're fictional.

But it's not just the believability of the world that I liked. Blackberry Wine is set in two times; the summers of 1975-77, and the summer of 1999. It hops to and fro between these two, in short bursts (at least, the bursts are short early on.) Something about that chopping and changing, and the contrasting nature of the two times, kept me turning the pages, even when I needed a cup of tea. And tea is pretty important.
Maybe it's giving people a break from each world that lets them appreciate them. A case of triggering: 'Oh, I liked that world. I hope we go back there'. How often does a reader acknowledge to themselves the charm of the world they are engrossed in? Not often, I reckon. But it can happen every chapter, if the world switches each time.
There's a skill in keeping both worlds interesting -- they're competing, now. Make one too charming, and the other will by comparatively weak. But competition can be good. Get it right, and you can paper over a number of problems.

Harris does this. I think there's a flaw in Blackberry Wine, and the two worlds are responsible for it, as well as for covering it up. The second half of the novel drags. The past narrative doesn't keep up, and didn't build up or pay off in the way I expected, or even at all. It loses its way.
Maybe because it covers three summers, it is incohesive. There is no overall trend of movement, or tension, that forms an interesting buttress to the main arc.

This is less a criticism of that flaw, though, than a point about the effectiveness of the healing charm of alternating stories. I kept reading through more than one sticky patch, not out of book-duty, but to get to the next bit from the 70s.

Switching worlds is not a shortcut: it has to be done well. In this case, it is done well enough to carry the novel, though it doesn't elevate it into something great. For an example of excellence, Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey is an example of three (I think; long time ago) alternating worlds, and is nearly flawless. For a failed attempt, Sunnyside by Glen David Gold did not cash in on its huge promise, perhaps by trying to juggle too many. No one world justified itself, in the end.

An interesting question that I don't have the answer for is this: why, considering I ended up enjoying this novel, would I have not picked it up from the bookshelf? Is it a gender thing?
And why, now I have enjoyed it, will I not bother looking for any more by Joanne Harris?

I might post in the near future about the different approaches to acquiring books. Serendipity vs. The List, or something.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Photo Month 10-12

What's this? Two posts in a day?? I can hardly believe it myself. But the photos are pretty unexciting this time round. I blame it on having a job rather than a life (I kid, I kid. You can't really call it a job.)

Photo #10:

The short story writing competition I'm planning to enter. If it doesn't go well, I will probably post the story here. So then, when you hear me talking about writing, you know what I'm really doing instead.

Photo #11:

And this is where the magic happens. That's actually pretty tidy, so I must have been procrastinating. I was planning on posting the same photo twice, and asking you to spot the difference, but then I thought: no.

Photo #12:

Okay, here's the truth behind the two posts in a day. It was only when the Fulham/Athletico game on the telly ended (badly) that I sort of remembered I had to post my photos from the last three days of Photo Month. And I hadn't yet taken one for today... so I sort of looked up from my desk, a little bit, and took a picture of that. Lazy. Shoddy. Lack of professionalism. I apologise.
But hey... what a cool photo! That whole bright colour/faraway fade mix. Love it. A complete accident.

The Book Front: Distinction Clouds

Sales Assistant B is not having a good time of it on the Book Front. His latest dispatch arrived at the
Learning to Read offices in a stained and battered jiffy envelope, with what can only be described as claw marks around each end.
Inside, along with his latest
item de reportage des guerre, was a letter begging us to recall him from the front line, and to let him retire to a happy little asylum somewhere; where he could be fed, watered and treated. And allowed to write.
We said no, because Michael said it would be funny.

The thing about war is you get weapons. And the thing about weapons is that they hurt your enemies. The problem with the Book Front is that nobody knows who their enemies are, so they try and hurt everybody. It is better to be safe, they say, than sorry. You can't, after all, be too careful.

So the trend in Book Front weaponry is for indiscriminate, wide-gauge, crowd-pleasing weaponry.

I have identified four main factions from the chaos of the Book Front. Customers, Booksellers, Publishers and Authors. I'm not sure about the last one yet, they don't seem to realise the seriousness of the situation.

Today I'll share with you the first in a series on the heavy artillery of the Publishers.

The Distiction Cloud

There are good books and bad books. The Publishers want to sell as many of the bad ones as possible, so it is their main aim to completely cloud the distinction. For every good book (the hook book) there are another ten with exactly the same cover. Don't let your eyes decieve you, it is exactly the same. They've crossed out the title and written something else, if you're lucky.

So you read the hook book, and enjoy it. You try another -- oops. Bad books are bad, clearly. But they're not lethal. A strong immune system will get over them, if it didn't already fight the invasion. So far, so not-too-bad-really.
But the Publishers don't stop at a handful of bad books getting ingested for every hook book. Once a hook book is identified, it is swamped under a deluge of bad books, to ensure the hook book itself is a statistical non-entity. This is what leads to the horrible condition of 'cover reading'.

Brave readers chase the hook, reading any book with that cover that they can find, their desire for the hook book homeopathically heightened by its dilution. They think they can handle a few bad books -- they're not lethal -- and they keep searching. The sheer numbers, though, will inevitably take their toll.
If they're lucky, they will get very ill. That means they're fighting the infection. If they're not lucky, the distiction cloud itself will become ingested, and become part of their own faculties. No longer will they recognise the individual books they are reading; they will only recognise the same, repeated, cover. The cloud in their system fixes their cycle on repeat, and they spend the rest of their lives swimming lifelessly through the deluge.

The sad, sad bit is that, statistically, many of those readers will come across and digest the hook book that they were originally searching for, while in this clouded state. They won't even realise they are doing it. What a downer.

The Distinction Cloud not only negates the discernment of the Customers, it turns them into perverse cattle; not there to feed the Publishers, but to be fed by them.


Monday, 10 May 2010

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

This book makes me want to talk about a lot of things. Companionship, humanity, apocalypses, that sort of thing. But mostly it makes me want to talk about the world. Yes, that's what I'd like to talk about.

But I'm not sure I should. I'm not sure I should talk about the book at all, in fact. Because after reading The Road, talking about books seems like a pretty futile exercise.
For those of you who are even less zeitgeist than me, and have therefore not read this yet, it's set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, where everything -- including the sun -- is covered in ash. There is nothing alive, except a few other people, and they mostly kill and eat each other.
All there is is survival. There might not even be reasons for survival: just survival. So talking about books? They're just bloated, damp-destroyed objects, unburnable, as useless as the happy lies they used to contain.

Okay, we don't live in that world. But it spills out of the book, into your head, and makes you think things like 'it's all pointless. Why do I own a ukulele? I am a vicious waster-of-things'. The ash gets under your skin, in your eyes, in your lungs, and in your head.

That infectiousness is what I love about The Road. It's what I wish I could do. It's what I want to talk about.

It's not the actual world in the book I like. That world is a little too hopeless, a little too inhuman, for me. Or at least, the hope and humanity are kept very well hidden until the very end. Maybe that's why the book is so powerful, and that hope feels so precious? Maybe. But I would have brought it in sooner, regardless. (I know that would have ruined this book, but that's okay. I would have been writing a different book.)

So it's not the world itself that I am envious of. It's the execution. It's the utter reality of it, its actual and complete existence within the substance of the book itself, that I want.

I have a few unorganised thoughts on how McCarthy does it:

The world is limited. We only see the tiny bit of the world that comes into contact with our two main characters, and they do their best to see as little of it as possible. We spend a long time in their small version of the world, and so we get to know it on a very real, detailed, human level. McCarthy could have told us a lot more, I bet, but he chose not to.

The world is distinct. It's different enough from ours to be interesting for its own sake. How did it get like that? How do things work? Who else is there, what else is there? It's different enough that the everyday rhythm and smell and routine and taste of life is new to us. Bitchin'.

The world is unexplained. If you told a story about Earth-as-it-is-now, you wouldn't bother explaining how Earth-as-it-is-now works before you start your story. And so if you do that about another world, about Earth-as-it-might-be, you are reminding the reader straight away that this is a story. Here I am, setting the scene, and we know you don't get scenes in real life. To explain the world is to admit it isn't real.

The world is in the text. I've not ready any other Cormac McCarthy (yet. I want to, now) and so I don't know how much of this is just his usual prose style. But regardless, the most convincing way the sparseness, lifeless, and formless shape of his world is shown is by the same things happening in the text. There is no calendar, no routine, no structure, in the world. So there is no dialogue tags, chapters, or apostrophes (mostly) in the text.
I would love to see this written in Microsoft Word. The whole thing would be underlined.

"Fragment. Consider revising."

Well it's a fragmented world. It could do with serious revision (the world in the book, not the writing about that world... clearly).

I will admit there were a whole load of sentences I didn't understand, because of the lack of helpful in-between words. And my vocabulary really needs expanding, or at least Americanizing (note the Z... er, the Zee.)
But the fact I often lost myself halfway through a paragraph, though I'm sure it wasn't intended by McCarthy, added to the whole experience. Because the words aren't just there as information-sharers. Words aren't just data, or a more complex binary. They are scenery, colour, and costume.

Words carry lots of baggage. That's why there is no such thing as a true synonym. Shovel might mean Spade, but you'd only take one of those to the beach. I want to learn to paint with my words as well as just picture. If that makes any sense at all.
McCarthy draws a picture of the world, but he also covers it, like the ash on every surface, with his prose. The words somehow have texture, and dimension, and that is what brings his picture to life.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Photo Month 7-9


My sister made me this mug for my Christmas present. As you may have guessed from its subtle propaganda, I am not the number one fan of shoes (although Michael Owen is No. 16 Fan Of Shoes, internationally. We often bicker about it.)

Photo #8:

We had Maltesers and penny sweets for pudding, but I didn't get a photo of that. If they still did awards for Most Creative Midnight Feast (they definitely did when I was younger) this would win. FRAZZLES.

Photo #9:

It's my typewriter. Therefore creative. ALSO, it makes up for the slightly uncreative Saturday photo, because I actually spent a few minutes on Saturday writing a little song about this ancient machine. Double whammy, triple points, winning streat, Ben wins.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Blog Friday

Welcome to those on the Hop. Anyone using two legs is banned -- hopping only, please.

Take a look around. The most recent review was on The Picture of Dorian Gray, there's some photo business going on, some notes from the book front, and a recent update on my TYSIC. Upcoming reviews include The Road, some Agatha Christie, some C.S. Lewis, something Wodehouse-related, and a lot of new things! Exciting.
Say hello in a comment, or find an old post on one of your favourite books, or become a follower. As the young people say -- Be Here Or Be Near.

Last week I gave out a prize to seven of my favourite blogs, and I promised to talk about each one briefly on future Blog Fridays. This week I choose...

Lauren Learns The Hard Way

You can expect weekly posts, so keeping up with it won't take over your life. You can also expect to laugh like a Laughing Thing (technical term) at open letters to Bert and Ernie, the life of an abused barista ('I don't hate people, some of my best friends are people') and the masterpiece that is God's voicemail service.

I wish I could make those sort of posts. I've been following it for a couple of months now, and it is consistently great. I laugh hard at every post, and you probably will too. Try it.

It's also the least followed/commented/universally-loved blog on my list, which is genuinely silly. There are some really interesting nooks dotted around the internet, and it highlights that problem about the web: it's a case of who shouts the loudest, not who shouts the funniest things.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Photo Month 4-6

And so it continues....

Photo #4

What has this got to do with creativity, I hear you ask? This is what I look like (ie. tired) after a five-day writing stint. As I have said over and over to anybody who will listen, I wish my whole life was like that five-day writing stint.
Nobody has yet, on hearing me say that, offered to give me a living wage in return for bad (but interestingly bad) novels. The bastards.

Photo #5
Photo #5 = 5th of May = my birthday. And I went to my friend Clare's house, where a bunch of us go every Wednesday, expecting nothing unusual... and they'd only ruddy built a bookshop in my honour! (My name there is Bookshop.)
Everyone had brought along a few favourite books, and we auctioned them off to each other (for a 2-month loan spell) using the universal currency of sweets. It was pretty much the best thing ever. I now have three unexpected books lined up for reviews, over the next 2 months. And lots of sweets.

Photo #6

Creative, you know? Singing? Making the ol' music?

But more to the point, how good is that Macro setting? Remember, I am a useless camera-person. I did none of the work here, it was all the camera.

Until next time, folks. Photos 7-9 should arrive on Sunday.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

TYSIC: Two Month Review

It's that time again, where virtuoso question-poser Michael Owen makes sure I'm not bailing on my Ten-Year-Self-Improvement Challenges. It was harder than usual to organise a time for the interview.
Michael has a busy life -- he is (predictably) the leader of the Michael Owen Party, but he only found out last week there's some sort of election on. It's all hands (he doesn't employ the handless) on deck.
And I have a pretty busy life too, at the moment, but for less interesting reasons. We managed to catch a quick ten minutes in a hotel room, in which to either ask or answer questions, depending on who was who. Michael said the hotel was on the Campaign Trail. The actual address was on the A47.

MO: Right then, the book. Still planning that shiznatch?

Planning, Michael? Oh dear me no. Oh deary deary me, no. Although, actually, yes. In a way.
I had five days off in a row before today, and on each day I wrote from dawn (8.30) until dusk (sleep time) without a break (with lots of breaks.) The point is, I wrote hard, and I wrote a lot. It was amazing, and I wish my life was like that all the time.
I've got a bunch of things to add, change and re-do with it, but I'm on my way to having a complete first draft. I will rewrite it this summer, I hope.

MO: So you're a lot closer to getting published?

Hey, hey, not so fast. I didn't say it was any good. There's a lot of rewrites to go before I'm happy with it, and even then it will be nothing like publishable. Dream on, Michael.
However, I did bump into my friend Michael (not you. Different Michael) at work a few days ago, and he is a published author, who actually does writing for his actual job (yes, I'm jealous.) And he offered to talk over my book with me, and possibly even have a chat about who would be the right people to show it to.

MO: That sounds great. So how about the book blog? How's that going?

Oh, Michael, there is so much to tell you! There's the Blog Hop, which has really opened my eyes to the book-blogging community. And there is Blog Friday, my own regular feature to coincide with that. There is Sales Assistant B, the new member of the team, who is raring to get on and post more. There is a Photo Month in progress now, and a couple of possible future one-off projects in the works/in my head.
Oh, and I have a huge pile of books to read. I got leant three tonight (a blog on that coming soon) and bought two at work today, and got some book vouchers for my birthday this morning.

MO: As if it's your birthday!

No, honestly, it is. So there's a lot going on blog-wise. Add that to the Best Summer Ever that I have planned for myself, and the second draft of Polaroid that I am itching to do, and I'm busy, busy, busy. As Kurt Vonnegut once said.

MO: And on top of all this, you've found an awesome flatmate, and a little apartment right in the city centre for £5 a week?

Okay, not all the challenges are going so well. Moving out is still nowhere to be seen. The next breakthrough for this will likely be in over a year, when I find out if I have got the place I'm going for on a certain course. If not, moving out becomes the priority. If I do get the place... who knows.

MO: I better go. There's some televised debate they want me for.

But Michael, you don't believe in television...!

I called that out as he left the hotel room, but he didn't hear. He left me to answer the door to a waitress with four roast chickens he'd asked for from room service. I felt it my duty to eat them, and idly throw the bones off the balcony, until I could eat and idly throw no more.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Picture Of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

I think this book is very good, but I'm not sure I like it much.

There's a lot of cleverness, here. There's a lot of what Wilde calls paradox, but what we would now call post-modernism, or relativism, or -- if we were feeling kind -- punchlines.

I think that last one is, in fact, most apt. The only place you can find as many condensed contraryisms as in Dorian Gray is in a joke book.

The problem with the novel is that Wilde comes down on our side, in the end. The ending for the aesthetic philosophy is not a happy one. Sins are punished, souls are real, Dorian would have been better off without the introduction of vanity and sophistry (the artist and the wit).

But that's not the case for the rest of the novel. (Except it is. Except it isn't.)

Because I'm honestly unsure which way Wilde plays it. And that's not a clever parallel or affirmation for Sir Henry's one-liners, it's a bloody nuisance. Yes, there is impending doom creeping up on Dorian throughout. And yes, the author lets us judge him, but is that enough?
I don't think so. These are mere side-effects, inconsequential fancies we spot on the way: they are not the novel itself. The novel itself is a love letter to the mode of thought it eventually judges.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, the moral ending to the amoral tale. If it was a moral ending to an immoral tale, that would be fine. But it isn't as immoral as Widle thinks. It is distant, cold and uncaring either way. Amoral.

It's a negative ending, I think. That's not the same as a sad ending, or a bad ending, or the world ending. It's a negative ending because it damns, without offering praise by comparison.
It offers us only one thing, and then takes that away. There is only aestheticism; and aestheticism is condemned. It doesn't leave anything but negative space.

We know it's not good, as we read; we know it's the only thing, as we read; and then it is taken away. Woop-de-doo. Where's the victory in that?

If Dorian Gray is Wilde's attempt at a novel-length epigram, it fails. The basic physics of the joke are not quite right: he hasn't left a space between the expectation and the reveal. His punchline (the moral) doesn't match his set-up (the amoral). It makes too much sense to be a non sequitur, not quite enough sense to be witty.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Photo Month 1-3

So here it is, May 2010,my very first Photo Month! It's happening because I've bought myself a digital camera. I have no previous record as a photographer, and the camera is a very cheap point-and-click machine. Having said that, I think it's pretty good at what it does.
What I'm trying to say is (and this should be my catchphrase or something): don't expect anything good.

I will probably post every three days, because three photographs per post seems about right. I've settled on a vague theme, which the Laerning to Read focus group has entitled 'creativity'. So if I get stuck, I can just take a photo of Something That Has Been Made. Easy. Here goes:

Photo #1
Maybe it's because I'm sitting at my desk writing all day, but the first few seem to be grouped around the idea of notes. This one documents my early obssession with one of the programmed settings. It's the Macro, which (even if it doesn't show here) is something special.

Photo #2
I wanted to convey the sheer quantity of pointless notes that litter my desk, but I don't think it comes across. At the bottom of this pile are three 120+ page A4 notebooks, completely full with words and the like. Lost somewhere in the middle are the dozens of pieces of paper with a certain shop's website address on, that I use to note down ideas when I'm at work.

Photo #3
Not sure what this one is about, except another go with the Macro setting. It's addictive. My last notebook had yellow pages, and I loved it. My new one has red covers,but only white pages. FEEL SORRY FOR ME.

Photo Month 4-6 should hopefully appear on Thursday. Wednesday is my birthday, and I'm going to a friend's house to paint and things, so that could fit into my theme pretty easily. Thursday I vote.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Notes From The Book Front

It's a war.

I work in a war zone.

Basically, warfare.

I could use this space to list and catalogue the myriad cuts and scratches and bruises and grazes and sort-of-painful-bits-that-don't-really-show-up, but I'm not going to.
I nearly did, but then I didn't. Believe me, it was a close decision. Because I love to list and catalogue. I honestly do. None of the books in The Shop are alphabetised, and that hurts my precious little soul, in a hundred splendidly crap ways.

But I won't list/catalogue my injuries, for fear of belittling the war. Sure, there's physical hardship, and the odd maiming: coffee table books that show The Earth as it appears from a little bit above The Earth are heavy and sharp-cornered. They accelerate from a top shelf to a forehead at a lot more than 9.81 m/s.
But that's not where this war is really fought, and they're not the serious weapons. It's a lot worse than that. I'll be talking about some of the most potent weaponry in some later posts, and -- for those of a strong disposition -- I will show the effect they can have on people. But none of this, yet.

As a great man never said, 'only context'. Here it is: these weapons only make sense against the background of what-the-hell. The worst thing about this war is the confusion. It's sort of a civil war, though it's not that civil; there are at least a dozen sides, guerrilla militia is normal, and I think there's probably some terrorists. Nobody knows who they're fighting, but that doesn't stop them fighting as dirty as they can.

Richard Adams, who is (as much as I can be sure anyone is) one of the Good Guys, called the thousand enemies of rabbits the Elil. I would use that term here, except at least the Elil weren't all fighting each other, and at least they were different sort of animals...
But then again, with all those enemies, the rabbits still had a war amongst themselves. Maybe the analogy carries better than I thought, then. So that's who we're fighting: the Elil. And each other. And rabbits.

I make no promises to alleviate the confusion: I shall only report it. But don't turn your nose up at that. Sources (ie. this blog) are alleging that Learning To Read offers the only unbiased reportage of the war there is.
You see, I might work for The Shop, but that's just a way to get right into the centre of the melee. I've considered the matter, and I have no loyalty to The Shop, any colleagues, any publishers, anyone who ever wrote a shit book, anyone who ever read one, or anyone else at all. Ever.

I would say I'm on the side of literature, but I read some once and it ruined my day.