Thursday, November 24, 2011

Snapecliff - Why Snape is as sexy as Heathcliff

He's as dark as the Other can be. He's quiet and brooding in ways that can be attributed to philosopher and psychopath, both. He's wild, charged with untamed emotions. In a nutshell, this is what makes Heathcliff a romantic character. Let's ignore the fact that he quickly becomes an enraged psychopath with horrific outbursts of violence and the sort of patience and will that is required to destroy two whole generations of friends and family.

He's as dark as the Other can be. He's watchful and carefully measured in ways that can be attributed to genius and psycopath, both. His emotions are wild, but roped in with a visible but exerting sense of self-control. This is Snape, the tragic anti-hero. Let's ignore the fact that he spends most of five books being the cruel tormentor of his true-love's child.

Heathcliff, however, is the ultimate in tragic anti-hero. Not only is it self-fulfilling prophecy that the Gypsy blood should turn him against those who were close and that it was those who were close who enforced the racism and turned the Gypsy blood sour, but that in pushing him away they gave Heathcliff every reason to enforce every idea they projected onto him. Ouroboros as applied to sociology.

As the powers of peer pressure force Heathcliff into the darker, more ruthless parts of his psyche, he pushes his one true love away from him, and she turns to the only people who will give her emotional support, the same peers that are abusing her one true love. It seems that the two classes of people, those of the self-indulging, aloof, cultured class, and those of the wild, free-wheeling travelling class, cannot mix. And what's more, they don't want to mix. What's more dreamy than a man who can hold his own through thick and thin (mostly thick) for a forbidden love?

But even the love can turn sour - unbreakable, yet sour - as the forbidden girl finds a husband called Edgar who is more suitable to her society, and births his child. For a man who has suffered as much as Heathcliff and had to drive his thoughts into unspeakable places in order endure the suffering, the tip over the edge into pure, destructive evil is inevitable.

To add to his suffering, the daughter of his love physically resembles the other man, but maintains the spirit of Cathy. Unable to deal with Cathy's betrayal he projects his anger onto the aspects of Cathy 2 that resemble Edgar. A bit like Harry Potter, inverted. All Snape can see in Harry is the eyes of his one true love, and the insufferable aloofness of manner from the man who stole her from him. In Snape's defence his ignorant aloofness and lack of natural curiosity in people is a little insufferable.

Snape has experienced the same sort of emotional traumas as Heathcliff, almost in the same order as well. He is not a Gypsy, but the moment the Sorting Hat puts him in Slytherin he's as good as shunned without reason like the class of people Heathcliff is attributed to. And yet the Sorting Hat is supposedly better than the self-inflicted social divisions of Wuthering Heights. The Sorting Hat can see innate qualities that are perhaps not so obvious as the assumption 'all Gypsies are cuckoos'. Snape has the Darkness inside him. Let's call it natural curiosity. It's enough to push Lily away from him until he develops a tortured jealousy for the other boy she has befriended. James is even possessed of the same uppity personality that makes Heathcliff hate Edgar.

Oh, if only Snape and Heathcliff could have met. Perhaps a bond over shared tortures could have saved them both from the path of self-destruction.

Only, Snape is the hero that Heathcliff could never be. Where Heathcliff rejected God and found himself on his own, Snape had God to help him out all along... Sorry, Dumbledore, he had Dumbledore, the father figure that Heathcliff didn't have. With Dumbledore's help he was able to channel his love for Lily into causes for good.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Size matters

Sherlock Holmes and Watson are investigating rumours of a beast roaming the Yorkshire Moors. Holmes seems to have a plan, but he has not told Watson the details. It is just as well that Watson has complete faith in his friend.

They set up a tent, eat a small meal of bread and cheese, and lie back to wait the night out.

In the middle of the night Watson wakes up to find Sherlock staring up at the stars. He sees that Watson is awake and says to him, "What do you see up their Watson?"

Watson thinks for a moment, and quickly decides that the obvious answer, stars, is unlikely to be the one that Sherlock is expecting. He stares up into the abyss and finds himself thinking how peculiar it is that everything in the heavens is reduced to points of light.

He reminds himself that Sherlock has several coffee-table books in his rooms, the variety that are A2 in size and composed of glossy photographs taken by the Hubble Deep-Space Telescope. "I find the great whorls of stars somewhat comforting," Watson says. He instinctively believes that Sherlock will understand what he is referring to. Such is the nature of their friendship. "They look like pieces of art," he continues, "almost abstract splodges of white and yellow paint, like a pointillist painting in an incomplete state. I find it humbling to think that all of that matter is not only clumped around points of space out there, but so far out there that we can barely see it." He pauses. After this, he concludes: "I see the unknown. I suppose it is what they call the 'Sublime'."

"Peculiar," Holmes mutters to himself, and looks around Watson's face expectantly. "Not that all those objects are not so incredibly far as to each be rendered a pointilistic dab in the firmament, my dear Watson," Holmes tells him. "Our third closest galactic neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy, if it wasn't so obscured by closer things, would sit in the night sky more than three times the size of our moon." He pauses for effect while tracing a shape in the sky. "The problem is, it is obscured by closer things and all that is visible - if you know what you're looking for; you really should read Brian Cox's Wonderful Universe for how to see it with the naked eye - is a vague bulge of stars."

"You mean, that the moon is in the way?"

Sherlock stays silent. Eventually: "One of the ways in which it is so obscured is that it lies some twenty three and a half trillion kilometres away from us. And by that same token, light can only travel at almost three hundred thousand kilometres per second, which makes our view of the Andromeda about two and a half million years out of our date."

Watson thinks about this while he scans the points of light glittering above him. He has never really given much thought to the objects up there.

"Imagine," Holmes suggests helpfully, "that someone on the other side of the world has asked you whether you like their new jacket. They send you a picture of themselves across the internet, and then, impulsively, they change their mind and decide to show you in person. They start running round the world in order to give you a twirl in your living room."

Watson thinks that over too. Eventually: "It might be a while before we get to see the current state of Andromeda's jacket."

Holmes sits up and lights a cigarette. "When the light from Andromeda that we see here on Earth today first began it's journey Homo Erectus had not even appeared on the scene. If so much could have changed here on Earth in that time, it makes you wonder what's really going on over there right now. But we can never know."

"What more do you notice?" he asks.

Assuming that Holmes meant in the light of the information he had just imparted, Watson tries to deduce. "Andromeda must be in a different place to the one in which we can see it?" he ventures.

"Your powers of observation are exemplary," Holmes tells him (though Watson hears a tone of sarcasm buffing the statement), and puffs on his cigarette. "Andromeda is moving in the radial direction of our Milky Way. This is known because almost all the galaxies in the observable universe are in red-shift (which is when the light waves coming from it are longer than expected) and this means that they are travelling away from our galaxy. But the Andromeda Galaxy is in blue-shift, meaning it is heading towards us, likely at about one hundred and twenty kilometers per second, a speed which would surely only be legal on the Autobahn. At this speed it is probably much closer than it seems, potentially about nine thousand, four hundred, and sixty one billion kilometers closer, a pitiful number astronomically, but still mind-bogglingly big for us." He thinks for a moment. "That is the equivalent of two hundred and thirty seven thousand million times around the circumference of the Earth. We just won't see it until the light has had the chance to travel that much less distance."

Watson stares up at the sky in wonder while the smell of Holme's burning tobacco blows past his face. And then he is struck by a thought, a brief one which he struggles to put into words. It has a persistence that demands that he does.

"Time is not the only thing obscuring our view," Holmes says pointedly, as if he has been peering into Watson's thoughts. "Not only are there usually more Earthly obstructions, but all of the free-floating matter filling the space and the time between us and Andromeda is equally blocking on our view."

"So it is true then, that space is black because it has everything in it, just as if someone had scribbled across the heavens with all their coloured crayons and made the sky black," Watson says. "I used to believe that a lot of space was empty. That's what we are taught in school, after all, that space is a vacuum. "

"Neither of these ideas are completely true, my friend," replies Holmes. "There is a lot of matter in space. A lot of dust, a lot of debris. It's not all close enough to all be congealing into larger objects, like our old planet Earth, but there is enough of it in such vast areas as to obscure far objects. The night sky's colour isn't black because it contains everything, but because so much of it is nothing. So there is enough matter to render the sky black, and at the same time, so much of nothing that there is no light to colour it.

"Are you confused, Watson? There really are more important matters."

Watson is very confused, but he remains silent.

"Let's sort it out then," Holmes tells him, swung by a moment of pity for his friends inferior cognitive abilities.

"The thing about light and colour, my friend, is that physically, they don't work like a pack of crayons. If you make a black mess with all your colouring-in tools, you have created the colour black, but what you are actually seeing is an absence of colour. You have created a black mess that is absorbing the colours in the light spectrum. When we say the orange crayon is orange, what we are actually saying is that it is radiating every colour minus orange."

Watson felt that Holmes was facetiously enjoying the idea of young Watson with crayons too much.

"All of that debris that obscures our local (relatively speaking) view is like a windjammer on a microphone; it does not block our view of the lit up universe, so much as feather it. So the volume of debris we are talking about is far, far from as great as the space it fills. There might be enough stuff to blur much of Andromeda, or even our own Galactic Centre, to the naked eye, but we have space telescopes that can focus on sources of incoming light for long enough to circumvent this issue.

"What they see is that much of space is still black, and we are told it is because we can't see anything producing light. The furthest spied object is some two hundred and sixty billion light years away, and I would just like to take a moment to hammer home just how unimaginably far that is. We confront numbers of this size every day in relation to business and economics, which I think only serves to demean in our imaginations the actual amounts in question. Light travels at almost three hundred thousand kilometres a second. There are just over three million seconds in a year. So we are talking about three hundred thousand kilometres multiplied by three million seconds, multiplied by two hundred and sixty billion years." Multiplications rush through his mind. "That's more or less nine hundred and thirty six thousand trillion times round the Earth.

"Thank God we are doing this with rough numbers, because it might hurt a little bit to try and comprehend a more precise number with far fewer zeroes and far more of the other nine digits.

"So we know that there is matter out there as far as we can see, perhaps further. We don't know what lies out further. But we do know that we can't see it. Which can mean one of two things: 1. There is nothing else beyond that point. Maybe an edge to the Universe, maybe an infinity of nothing, but definitely no matter producing light. 2. There is still plenty of stuff out there, but it is so far out that there has not been enough time in the Universe for it's light to reach us yet. Both options are equally mind-blowing, do you not think?

"Let's not travel too far out and return to our view of Andromeda from Earth.

"Earlier I mentioned that Andromeda is in Blue-Shift, and most of the rest of the Universe seems to be in Red-Shift. Now, you remember the Doppler effect from school, the sound of a siren passing goes down in pitch as it approaches and passes. Essentially the same goes for light with the range of colours taking the place of the range of pitches. This needs vast distances and fast objects to be particularly noticeable, and still then machines are needed to actually see the difference because they are looking at the pitch intervals of white light, which, unlike the light reflected off a black object, is a radiation of all the visible colours. Curse our inferior eyeballs.

 "Are you all to rights, my dear Watson? Despite my inferior eyeballs in this dark, I could swear your mien has lost a few shades of colour, and I doubt it is the chilly moor winds that has brought it about. Perhaps you have noticed something?"

Finally the words that Watson had been looking for have found there place and order. "I feel - somewhat - insignificant," he says.

"Science has a tendency to do that to people," Holmes says without much consolation. "Try not to think about it too much until there is less of the sky visible to intimidate you and tell me what can you infer solely from looking at the night sky tonight, Watson?"

"Why, I do believe that someone has nicked out tent."

"Very good, Watson."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winter is coming!

Written for the Foyles blog.
The temperature plummets. The green begins to go, and the grey comes out. Insects drop like, well, flies, and small mammeloids try to invade human property. Daylight all but becomes a flash in the pan, and getting out of bed each morning becomes harder and harder... and colder.

Winter is coming!

For me, the first real sign of winter is when my chilli plants go pale and limp like Mina Harker under Dracula's gaze. A sad start to a season.

But I like the winter. It's not like the transient English summer. Whereas the heat of summer can remain an expectation, the cold of winter almost always comes, without fail.

I like the constrictiveness of winter. My favourite thing is dredging the wardrobe for all those thick comfy clothes: woollen scarves, heavy Scandinavian jumpers, and pillowy hats. The moment the cold comes I whip out my slightly-too-large duffle-jacket. It's the one time of year you can get away with wearing something as thick and snug as a duvet.

It's also the real time for heart-warming hobbies.

My number one hobby is probably reading (of course, I work in a bookshop). Next to my bed is a small, but gradually mounting, pile of recent releases that just haven't had the time to be read. 11.22.63 by Stephen King. Snuff by Terry Pratchett. Charles Dicken: A Life, not by Charles Dickens. Come the freezing months of January or February the reluctance to climb out of bed will become quality time with these tomes and a hot water bottle.

Watching away the icy months with all those DVD's that I bought up on pay-days during the sunny months is also another quality reason to enjoy the winter from bed.

Knitting and crochet seem to be popular past-times, but not necessarily always from bed. In the winter I often see groups of people in cafes knitting. A Stitch'n'Bitch as many of the sessions seem to be called. I don't knit, or crochet, and the way to a lack of success in this craft has been paved with the good intentions of learning how to. This winter I have no intentions of trying to learn, so hopefully I will.

It's as the leaves fall with the temperature, about this time of year, that is the best time to begin slow cooking things. The perfect excuse to put on a few pounds. To lessen the blow of heating bill my housemates and myself start roasting all our food and making jams. It's time to try out all those recipes that felt like a bit too much in the summer. The fruit of my chilli plants are going to experience a chilli jam recipe first hand. Nigella's chocolate and bacon brownies, or Whimsical Bakehouse's peanut butter cheesecake are also on the list of cooking experiments to try.

And then as soon as the boredom of cooking begins to kick in it's suddenly time to start planting things.

My housemate spends all summer joking about any drop in temperature, "That's it, it's here. Here's winter." He never complains about the winter once it's here. And I'm with him on that one. Winter is coming whether it's wanted or not, and it's best to make the coziest of it while it's here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It doesn't matter if it's black or white.

Written for the Foyles blog.

It's as plain as the halo on your head and your forked tail whipping about in your wake that the world is neither black nor white. It would be lovely if the world could be split into binary so neatly; good triumphs over evil, right is right, and wrong receives punishment, possibly followed by redemption. Instead, all it takes is a few moments thought, or less, to realise that the moral lens is not polarised so brightly. The ethical world is actually coloured in shades of grey.

This is one of the reasons I love Alan Moore, because he knows this, and shows this. He avoids prescribing any one particular idea of correctness, and instead paints a world in layers of individual morality. One of the most commendable aspects of his multi-faceted retelling of the Jack the Ripper killings is the novel's refusal to be pinned down by specific morals. Instead he pointedly draws attention to the range of ethical codes available, both in person and in time. The irony of such moral complexity being portrayed in black and white ink drawings shouldn't be lost on anyone.

On the other hand, in Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Jhonen Vasquez presents a character so close to the dark end of morality that there is almost no question about his evilness. And yet, he's funny. Despite all the atrocious things he does, he's funny. Which just holds him back from the edge of unbearable evil. As a reader you can find yourself just barely redeeming him in order to carry on reading about him. Like all satire, it is a strange shift of moral responsibility from author to reader - it is your choice to be reading this, and your ethical code that comes into question.

But then, JTHM is an extreme example. 60 years ago almost no publishers would have been willing to commit to putting it in print for fear of the backlash; accusations of bad taste, and lack of humanity, or any of the denunciations that Mary Whitehouse ever aimed at anything. Back then and before, during the Golden Age of the comic book, the world was a more idealised place. This was a world still giddy with huge social and political upheavels. It was still coming to terms with the boundary crossing Modernist movement. This was a world that unquestioningly embraced the vigilante heroics of the super-wealthy Bruce Wayne, who now has one of the most recursive origin stories.

For almost 70 years the story of a handful of characters has been reimagined for, and retold throughout every decade, sometimes slowly and sometimes drastically, morphing to fit the appreciations of the popular culture. You could almost believe there was nothing new to say in these stories if it was simply the story that people read for. Except that retroactive story-telling is symptomatic of much deeper issues.

Batman's appeal is generational and has more to do with the world around us than the world in the story. In the beginning he drew his literary power from the audience's new found love of superheroes and strains of the more complex underworld that preoccupied detective noir. Whereas the less prolific superheroes stole their reader's imaginations with their simple colourful battles of good vs. evil, Batman was ruining the criminal classes on the basis of a deeply ingrained vendetta. He was fighting for selfish reasons. This man was a self-serving soldier, a genuine human Ubermensch, reflecting the time's belief in a will to power.

The 60's and 70's were a time of two polar outlooks: the colourful, liberal, pacifist movement, and the creeping reality of the Cold War. Batman's darker overtones were overcompensated for by the garity of the drawings and the campness of the stories. This was a time when Batman was able to permit absolution for Catwoman's long history of theft, destruction and death. A far step from the Batman of the 80's who enjoys playing the Joker's dark, psychological games. What on Earth happened in the time between these two same characters that changed the appeal? Was it fatigue from the ever present Cold War that left people beginning to accept a darker, more brutal reality? Or the death of 'unbiased news' and the rise of a sensationalist mass media?

The Batman's of Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison are miles away from his fellow superhero of the 1930's, the pillar of pure goodness that came  from Krypton. And the rest of the modern comic book world is just as far, so much so that almost anything more complex than good vs. evil falls into the graphic novel category.

Yet, however complex the issues of the Batman stories have become they are still swamped with dichotomy. Rather than asking who is good and who is evil, they ask is there good, and is there evil? How much of evil is fear and anger, and how much of good is self-control and reason?

In fact, the Batman novels of the 80's onwards have a preoccupation with feathering the lines between good and bad. They don't offer a bad character redemption, but ask you to give it, while pushing the concept of the tragic hero into the vacuum of anti-hero. Whereas the comics before riffed on the previous creators' stories, adding details to previously told stories, the 80's marked the beginning of the reboots and full retroactive changes, the ideal technique for updating the ideas for a completely changed audience, for mirroring the new audience's beliefs.

Take X-men's Magneto, a sixties style megalomaniac Bond villain, until '78 when he receives a backstory that touches on events and issues with deep cultural scars. It could easily be tasteless using the Holocaust to explain a superbaddy's behaviour, and yet it marks a significant engagement with the real world in the X-men's long-running theme of racism. It's asking questions about the cause and effect of racism at a time when various civil rights movements of the 60's and 70's were pushing racism into its visible yet unmentioned institutional and commercial forms of the 80's.

Take Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the late 90's, stories that take the anti-heroes of 19th Century popular literature and puts them in the position of traditional comic-book heroes. Finally we have a comic book that shows us what we feel about the reality of being a hero, that the important actions are the ones taken by the unrecognised, and that heroic qualities are attributed by others. It marks (along with many other recent graphic novels, these just happen to be my favourite) the journey that the comic book has taken us from old-fashioned, conservative prescriptive ethics to the modern taste for descriptive ethics, a journey that the traditional novel took over 3 centuries ago.

It pleases me that the creators of comic books have realised the potential for moral and emotional complexity that the medium held, and that an adult market was willing to embrace the move. We always knew the Devil was more interesting than the Angels, perhaps because it's a challenge to look in the dark but no difficulty to be blinded by the light.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fanatical confabulation

It has always amused me that Discworld fans talk of the place as if it were real.

When I was fourteen I discovered the Discworld, and devoured every one of the then published books. My father saw how involved I was with them, and told me that Pratchett was doing a signing at Forbidden Planet. So, off along I went, and this was my first true encounter with fanatics.

I thought I had got there early, but clearly it was not early enough. The queue was still three hours long. It was composed of such a diverse range of people: goths, trendies, suits, old, young, European, Asian.... And the thread that tied them together was the glossy new hard-back copy of The Truth they each held.

As I waited eagerly holding my paperback copy of the Fifth Elephant (I couldn't afford the wopping £14.99 for the shiny new hardback back then) there was a man behind me talking to his friend about his camping holiday in some beautiful, warmer clime. There was a mother in front of me telling her mucky-faced child about the continent of Klatch. This stuck so strongly in my memory because the conversations shared much in content and were almost equal in essence. One had magic.

"It's beautiful, peaceful, so peaceful - it was magical to be camping so far from civilisation," the guy behind me was saying.

After my three hour wait, the actual book signing itself ("Love and schmaltz, Terry Pratchett") seemed all too brief, as are all encounters with the celebrities we love, and I stood outside coming to terms with something I hadn't considered before going in, that the message I now held was in lieu of the fact that we were far too different, he was far too busy and inundated with admirers, and I was no doubt too wide-eyed in wonder for us to ever have a friendship.

There was a little crowd of curious office-workers smoking on the corner and watching this seemingly unmoving queue snaking into the building, which was chucking handfuls of people out of the other exit with gleeful smiles on their faces.


I once had the briefest of pleasures having the shortest of chats with a fellow Discworld fan. He said, "I would like to visit Discworld, but I wouldn't like to live there?"

"Why?" I asked. "Why wouldn't you want to live in a place where things happen just by believing hard enough?" Which is a gross misinterpretation of Discworld logic, but let's brush over that.

He replied, "Mostly for the same reason I wouldn’t want to live in any amazing city, only visit. Basically I find if you live in a place you have to 'look behind the curtain' and see how the magic works. It’s far nicer to just see the external view."

After a pause, he added, "Also because the only gay things in [the twin cities of] Ankh-Morpork seem to be bars for people into leather, and that's not my thing."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house."

Whenever I am in someone else's house I helplessly find myself drawn to the books. I love to see what other people have read; it's great to see what you have in common with other people, and what you could have in common, or what they would want to share with you.

But books have other values as well. They are an inevitable part of your interior decoration. And if one thing that seems to be certain, it is that books generally look good wherever you put them.

If you ever have the chance you should pop down to the house belonging to one of bibliophilia's most creative book storers, the architect Sir John Soane. It is behind Holborn station, just a 5 minutes walk from Foyles on Charing Cross road. Sir John's library is so large that he thought it a good idea to make books seem to be the fabric of his house. You find bookshelves on the walls, in the walls, in door frames, in window ledges, behind doors and paintings. It is an extraordinary piece of architecture and proof that books do beautifully furnish.

How do you fit books into the fabric of your house? 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dangerous Ideas 2 - Psychotic satire

For all it's unforgiveable faults, reading Atlas Shrugged has enriched my life in a number of ways. I now feel that I am wiser about the dangers of self-interest. I feel that I better understand the thought processes and logic behind capitalist-corporate behaviour. I feel I have looked inside the head of someone I couldn't be more distant from, and been introduced to ideas I had not given much thought to before. And most importantly, it made me laugh. 

I couldn't laugh at the book itself. It's a truly humourless piece of writing, depressingly po-faced. The world of Atlas Shrugged is the sort of world where people "laughed without humour", and "smiled, but without emotion". No, the thing that made me laugh about it was that I finally realised what the joke was about in American Psycho.

As far as I am aware, Bret Easton Ellis has never said as much, it is purely my own speculation. But the first couple of chapters of Atlas Shrugged, followed by a few pages of American Psycho should be proof enough for any person.

I was working at Sainsbury's at the time I read American Psycho. After about 50 pages of it I still couldn't see why something so repetitive and eye-wateringly boring had garnered so much praise calling it a tour-de-force. So I was treating it as an opportunity to practice skim-reading. I remember flicking through the pages faster than anyone else in the smoking room was reading, determined to get to the end of this tedium, when the first murder ripped past my eyes. If it hadn't been so visceral I might have just passed it off as a dream, and I had to go back to re-read it.

"Whatcha readin'?" Barbara said from the other side of the table, Sovereign burning between two fingers beside her face.

I showed her the cover and her face twisted the other direction into a grimace. "Whatcha readin' that for?" she asked.

The problem with American Psycho is that it is so easy to take it at face value. Almost anything of meaning  in it is in the meta-reading, otherwise it is just a very, very boring portrait of a very, very uninteresting person, seasoned lightly (to mix my metaphors) with acts of violence so horrific that the only way to read them is to put the book down and do something else for a while.

But what if you didn't get it? Like this guy:
"You can interpret anything intellectually and give reasons why works should be considered as being of great worth in any artistic sense. This book can sit amongst the very worst examples of art in my opinion.
I loved the film American Psycho & so bought the book. I am a huge William S Burroughs & Ballard fan and am not easily shocked. This book is never able to justify the disgusting imagery it produces. If you find this book humorous then I truly believe that you are mentally unhinged. The film was funny - perhaps due to it's absurdity, this book is over the top in my opinion.
You really just have to ask yourself - "Is this book in all it's gore & horror worth reading for a few mere chuckles?". Ask yourself this - "Should I read a book that ties brutality & rape to humor so very vividly?". It must really damage the morality of the reader to reduce such horrific scenes to a laugh.
I think this work is a good book for pseudo-intellectuals to cling to. I can't see any merit in reading this book at all. All books I'm finished with due to over-reading or dislike are given to the local charity shop to sell. This book was so bad I ripped it in half & put it in the bin. I wouldn't want to curse anyone else with this book even if it meant money going to charity."
I must be mentally unhinged.

And what if you were pro-Objectivism? Or a misogynist? There's plenty here to support both

The amazon reviews are somewhat revealing, that 56 people got the joke, and appreciated it, and the numbers go down with the star rating as people exponentially appreciate it less. And then, there is a sudden jump at one star ratings. My first assumption is that these are people who most certainly either did not get it, or did not appreciate the graphic medium.

The satire, the mundanity, and the horror beyond excess were all sadly glossed over for the mainstream in  the movie. It got right the general sense of elitism and pedantry (see video below for the most hilarious scene) which rules the lives of people who earn too much and work too much with money, and the deeply ingrained misogyny. My problem with this, and I still don't understand if it is a misunderstanding on the film-makers part, or a fault of the shift between mediums, is that the bathos of the book requires the tedium to enhance the shock value of each murder, and this in turn trivializes the boring, consumer/corporate pages that compose most of the novel. Each scene in the film is cleverly realised, and neatly pieced together, but it just isn't nearly boring enough, and sadly, boredom is an integral part of the story. The book and film are two very different monsters and don't increase the appreciation of the other.

But, let's address some of these issues: you can interpret anything intellectually, including this book, but why would you want to do it to this book?

First and foremost, I don't think there's anything to be lost in interpreting anything intellectually, except maybe a little bit of time and the potential for losing face as you describe the metaphysical and social merits of something as trite as Angels and Demons.

American Psycho on the other hand has clearly been written with the intention of being analysed. For a start. nothing is spelled out. It is asking to be thought over. You may come out of it thinking it's a cheap trick or an allusive product of genius. But give it a thought if it wants to be thought about and you may find yourself asking some interesting questions about yourself.

And justifying the graphic imagery in terms of intellectualism? There are certain parts that they could surely make the victims of ingested poison read. But for me, visceral as they are, are not the most graphic parts. I would like to say the excessive description of business suits in place of individual personality is the most graphic, being the bulk of the material, but I skimmed over most of it. In my opinion, the coldly analytical descriptions of musicians and their branding is more graphic. Chauvinism and misogyny are common character indicators in fiction (not normally as horrific as here however), but someone so graphically misunderstanding consumerist constructions is not. To me, that is more disturbing than the sort of torture porn that graces our cinema screens so often.

The rapes and murders constitute less than 50 pages, and yet it is what people come away remembering most. 

And then you find yourself accused of finding humour in the novel. Why does it make me laugh? Like I said before I didn't laugh when I read it. It's a slow burning joke, like Holmes and Watson on a camping trip, and it's only when you think retrospectively about the ideas that the laughter can come.

Thankfully, almost everyone who has made it to the end of this book is generally someone who has realised what it is they are reading. SATIRE!!!! Even if they didn't class it as enjoyable satire, in the way that 1984 is very readable.

Satire is often misunderstood. In fact, some would even say that it is not satire unless it has been misunderstood. I think this is a meta-approach to a form of entertainment that is already meta, and is said to justify the fact that satire needs to be understood. The most obvious way to prove that you have understood a piece of art is to laugh at someone who did not. A joke is only a joke if someone or something loses.

This always makes me think of that scene in Black Adder:
"Baldrick, do you know what irony is?"
"Yes, Sir, it's like goldy and bronzy, but made of iron."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two Hobbit or not two Hobbit?

I'm dreading the two part film version of 'The Hobbit'. For a start, it's in two parts, and 'The Hobbit' is definitely a one part book. It's episodic, sure, but there's a very natural flow of episodes.

Maybe it's the news that a lot of extra characters have been crammed in to satisfy fans. I'm not much of a purist; if you aim to tell someone else's story in a different medium, do what you must to make it work. But, this is the book of a man who got upset when purposefully misspelled words were corrected by an editor, and didn't even want a film-adaptation of his works.

Maybe I'm nervous that this is a product being forced by people who saw the LOTR's success reap in more money than a small country.

But most of all, it worries me because...

...Well, because Peter Jackson really is not a very good film-maker.

There we go, I said it.

I should clarify that statement before it angers too many people; he's alright, he's not terrible, but he's no Almoldovar. What I meant by saying he's not very good, is that he is first and foremost a man of production. All of his films have a beautiful gloss. If his films were ornamants, you'd have them on the mantlepiece because they look so good.

What Jackson is not is a natural story-teller. He has a remarkable, envious array of tools before him, but he uses them as if he were making a flimsy model home. All spectacle, just a little too big, and lacking a geniune human touch.

Harsh criticism. Sorry.

My criticism is not based on the fact that the books are better, just that the films cannot hope to achieve even a fragment of the emotion that is charged in the book, and yet they still try.

'Lord of the Rings' was an amazing movie, a true cinematic spectacle, rammed with all the story and emotion of a hundred Bollywood films, and styled to western tastes. But how much of that was Jackson?

The worst parts of all three movies were the parts that Jackson and his writing team shoe-horned into the scripts: the death of Saruman, the romance between the true-king of scraggly hair and lady lips, Viggo's descent down a cliff-face that seems to serve no other purpose than to make him ride 5 minutes behind the rest of the plot. Or the patchy moments when a lot of book text has been shoe-horned out or condensed, such as the army of ghosts washing through the city like a green fog from the mind of John Carpenter.

Epic, sweeping shots of miniatures in combination with James Newton Howard are one of the most impressive aspects. I look forward to them in The Hobbit. And moments of subtlety, like Frodo's first encounter with a ring wraith; hopefully the tact of that entire sequence can be repeated with Bilbo's encounter with the trolls.

And yet I know that I despair for the the fact that the relatively brief battle at the end of the Hobbit (book) will take up most of the second The Hobbit movie. Has no one watched the last Harry Potter movie? Epic battle does not make for satisfactory conclusion.

I treasured The Hobbit as a kid. The story stuck with me for a very long time, until I discovered the joys of alcohol as a teenager mostly. And there are still images, and snatches of story that haunt me. I don't want Jackson to gobble them up and crap them out the same way he did with Return of the King.

Rant over.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dangerous Ideas 1 - What if Atlas Shrugged?

My experience of Ayn Rand until this year had always been that she was an author widely disliked, a radical thinker, generally shunned by the literary world. A jibe from South Park here, a sneer from someone there. Perhaps with good reason -- I had no idea and was not particularly intrigued to find out.

Until I saw an interview with her about her personal philosophy. She was fascinating, and I found myself hypnotised by her; the unexpected accent, the distracted flicking of the eyes, her verbosity in explaining such dangerously radical ideas.

I had to know more. Not because she spoke to me on a personal level, but for the same reasons I'd explore an abandoned building.

When I said I was going to read Atlas Shrugged I was warned away by many friends that had already read it. "She's the queen of deeply unlikable characters," one said. Another tried, "Read The Fountainhead, it's not as bad -- or perhaps one of her shorter novels."
Absolutely no one encouraged the idea. Which, I have to say even encouraged me further.

Having gone down that path, I feel obliged to share my criticisms, but I will only say directly one thing about her literary techniques, because that is the ground she is most easily attacked on, and actually the least scary aspect: her techniques are very limited for a book of such length and the view they provide too narrow for her attempts at such philosophical depth.

So, general criticisms aside, what is so wrong about Ayn Rand's ideas?

Well, plenty, to be honest, if you take her seriously. She posits a world inhabited by fickle, shallow people. Her heroes are characters with no understanding of selflessness, nor empathy. If Mark Haddon had written about her heroes everyone would assume they suffered from Aspergers and feel sorry for them. But he didn't, and in Rand's hands they just seem socially incompetent and detestably self-involved. Those characters with altruistic feelings, who are never heroes, are misguided and deeply unsatisfied, and are often simply characters to confound the heroes' progressions. Anyone who is not a hero is a cipher character.

Almost every scene in this novel is composed of one or two characters astonished (or, completely un-astonished, Rand only writes in extremes) by something they can't quite understand in someone else's expression, while the plot trudges along slowly, irregardless of whether the characters can 'grasp' the situation or not. Quasi-philosophical conversations abound, but not often enough to ever truly explore the ideas, as if Rand is trying to prove that nobody, unless a hero, is capable of using their own reason sensibly.

I can accept that some readers might not see this as too wrong in itself, maybe just a bit nasty, and short-sighted. Everyone sees the world from different perspectives. But that, too, is short-sighted, and surprisingly against Rand's own (misguided) 'ideal' of a world governed purely by reason.

She has said herself that she doesn't write her characters as people, but as embodiments of ideas, or ideals. Whether this is intentional, or merely a practical view of a poor writing style is entirely up to you to decide (I go with the latter, simply because I can imagine her egotism blinding her view of her own prose). But it is a dangerous writing style because it completely dehumanizes the characters. Abstracting philosophical ideas to view them unbounded is one thing. Doing this gave us maths, and science and pointed out the many limitations of language as a exploratory tool. But to philosophise about social sciences with so little concern for other people, to generate a single-minded fantasy world populated by personified ideas removes the humanity from philosophy, and that is dangerous.

None of the characters go about this almost clueless meandering with more intensity than the protagonist, Dagny Taggart. At first, it seems easy to estimate Dagny as Rand's attempt at a feminist character. She's strong minded, strong willed, willing to work her way to success in what is clearly a patriarchal society. What could be wrong in that. How can someone clearly of the view that a woman's place in society is equal to man's begin to approach the realms of misogyny?

Oh, there we go, I've spoiled the surprise.

Dagny Taggart requires a man. It's not immediately obvious at first. The first man she falls in love with is cold and horrible, like all the other characters, and Dagny inexplicably admiring him is no surprise given the circumstances of being in a Randian fantasy. But when she falls in love with her next man it becomes clear that Rand believes a woman should suit a man, and make herself suitable, pliable to her man.

The first time they have sex is brutal (in that same tedious tone in which all the other action wades by); he is trying to prove his sexual urges are something separate from love, and she is determined to be his animate sex doll. She keeps this up, her willingness to do anything and everything to satisfy him. "Hank," she said, "I'd give up anything I've ever had in my life except my being a luxury object of your amusement."

At first I thought this was Rand embarking on a bit of Foucauldian sexual dynamics, and I had to read elsewhere to check up on this. But no, she does indeed believe that a woman's place in a relationship is to hero worship.

This problem with Rand's philosophising pops up all over the book, and perhaps highlights best the most dangerous thing about her thinking. Despite adamantly propounding the power of reason as the only guiding force a human being could need, so much of her own reason is founded on personal feelings that she does not take the time to question. It's a horribly strong, and paradoxical foundation to build a logical structure on: "You're reasoning is wrong." / "But I can't be wrong, because selfish reasoning is infallible." Like a child sticking her fingers in her ears and screaming, "I can't hear you!"

So, we have a book that comes across as a teenage steam-punk sci-fi by an egotist author who doesn't seem to have had any other human to bounce ideas off. She's capitalist, corporate, selfish, misogynist and believes in acceptable discrimination. Absolutely nothing dangerous about that, is there? What on Earth made me think this could be a dangerous book.

Actually, it was this book, an exploration of real-world Randian heroes, that made me think Atlas Shrugged could be bad for humanity. If Randian 'philosophy' is about hero-worship, then Randian philosophers hero-worship her. What's scary about this book is the number of important, incredibly influential names that submit to the ideals of Objectivism: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, John Allison, Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. Here are some of the most influential and richest (interchangeable terms after a certain degree of wealth is achieved) openly believing in a personal philosophy of selfishness. Is this what wealth does to you, forces you to adopt a narrow minded, Randian view of other people in order to justify your own incredible degree of wealth (read 'influence')?

Even though it took me so long to bother to find out anything about Ayn Rand, the title, Atlas Shrugged, has been drifting about in my awareness of popular culture for ages. The idea of Atlas, a person with the infinitely exhausting task of holding the world aloft on his own, is a powerful image. More so, the idea of him shrugging. Apparently, Rand called the book The Strike (because of it's plot of all the 'creative' minds going on strike) until the eleventh hour when she changed it to Atlas Shrugged. And for good reason. It's a revolutionary image, perfectly capturing the idea of place and caste being overthrown. It's just such a pity that Rand had to make his reasons selfish.

Again, this is only dangerous if you bother to take her seriously...

If Ayn Rand shrugged and nobody saw, would her ideas be of any significance?

As a counterpoint to my melodrama, try reading this bubbling reaction.

Dangerous Ideas 2 - here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Missed post

Sorry, I seem to have missed my post last week. Here's something that made me giggle to make up for it.

Dying for fiction

Wirrten for the Foyles blog.

I'm dying to read the final installment of A Song Of Fire and Ice. But I have to admit, for a long-time reader of fantasy fiction, I only started to read it after the success of the HBO series brought it to my attention. So, I'm still only halfway through the first book, Games of Thrones.

I can barely put it down though. Very few authors have the genius to produce a consistently engaging page turner, and at roughly a thousand pages per book, that's no mean feat for Mr. Martin (I assume from reviews that he continues this style throughout the series). There is something in his writing that is fascinating. Perhaps it is the casual way in which the dark aspects of humanity are used for character and as plot devices to propel you towards the end.

The setting is a fantasy world where the fantasy has been driven away, leaving a medieval system of squabbling noble families. Squabbling sounds flippant, but that is just what they do, only with knives and swords ornamenting the use of raised voices and fists. Our hopeful heroes make as many mistakes as their enemies, and their enemies are able to transform into our hopeful heroes.

I can't wait to get to the end and find out what happens, how it all resolves.

At the same time, I want it to last forever. This really is a conflict of emotions. It can't possibly last forever, not at the speed with which Mr. Martin kills off characters. I fear that the characters I am reading for might not be around in fifty pages, let alone the 5000 pages of the series.

Right at the beginning of Game of Thrones one of the most instantly loveable, and hugely significant  characters in thrown to his death, and that's what first pulled me to the edge of my seat. Mr. Martin had so carefully made me feel strongly for this character, only to make me feel the deathly impact more when it hits. That's when I realized that this author has no qualms playing my heart strings.

But that's what we expect from our fantasy authors, right? We expect a world that shares the same emotional depth as our own.

As with the Middle-Earth of Tolkein, another master of the good literary death. Middle Earth and Martin's Seven Kingdoms share many of the same high-fantasy tropes, but Tolkein goes to such lengths to paint a picture of his world that it can take a long time to realise that a lot of the first book bares little relevance on the central plot other than to make you fall in love with the characters. It is not until the ultimate of father-figures has plunged to his death that you realize Tolkein is not just being earnest with his story, he's being deadly serious.

J.K. Rowling was not satisfied to pluck your heart strings just once with the death of Sirius, but to do it again with Dumbledore at the same time in the next book. That's two, two!, of the best characters from the series. There was no doubt in the last book that she's perfectly able to echo Conan Doyle and have the fall of the evil Voldemort only be possible in the fall of the good Harry.

It's the most powerful thing you could do to a character, and, done right, it's the most dreadful thing you could do to your reader. And yet, we love it. If someone dies in the right way we'll stick around for more.

Fantasy books are horrible. They really are.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"All art is useless."

Thoreau - Guy Laramie

The Spider's Book - Evy Jokhova

Health and Longevity - Brian Dettmer

Spread of Influence - Donna Ruff

Book cut - Thomas Allen

Thursday, June 30, 2011

That's so gay!

Written for the Foyles blog.

I remember when I was about 14 years old deciding to be gay. I'm not talking about a decision to switch sexualities, but a decision to accept that that was actually the label under which my desires fell.

It's a curious feeling, the mental freedom that arises from accepting a label. All of those uncertain questions about your personal nature like, Am I really different? They disappear.

And they're immediately replaced by questions of how to be defined within the bounds of this label.

I told my friends eventually, first leaving some time for them to figure it out for themselves... actually, I was hoping that they would figure it out for themselves so that I wouldn't have to the broach the topic. The fear that comes from telling people at first is similar to taking a bungee jump without the guarantee of bounce. It's not the fear of horror, it's not the fear of the unimaginable. It's a paranoia, a slow and very realistic dread that the peace you found in your label could be an act of war for the other people. To make matters worse, there is constantly a floating question, a little devil on the left-hand shoulder: Do other people need to know?

Before I told anyone, I did what I usually do when I'm uncertain; I visited the library.

There was a gay and lesbian section, both sides of a row of bookshelves. The size of it alone should have indicated to me that I was not alone.

Terrified that other readers would pass judgement, pour scorn, and possibly start hurling verbal abuse at me because of the area I was browsing, I devised a scheme to remain clandestine whereby I would breeze past the shelves, discretely snatch up a book with an interesting spine, and sit in a more manly section to read it. I did this a few times over the course of a few weeks.

Not long after, it dawned on me. Nobody breezes in a library. My breezing was probably attracting enough attention on its own. I also learned quickly that an attractive spine is no way to judge the contents of a book.

Of course this is a ridiculous way to go about life, and eventually I borrowed a discrete looking gay novel (9781902852409) by burying it within a pile of 11 other books. I went home to read it quietly.

It was a good read. I would recommend it; good humor, apt sense of character, swift and engaging plot about a (possible) murderous flatmate.

More importantly it wasn't about being gay, it was just about gay characters. That was a mind opener to the boy who felt as if homosexuality was a branded lifestyle, like trendy, or skater, or goth. Here were characters that worried about normal things (because all young teenagers think the adult world is about layers of worries), like paying rent, and getting along with friends.

So I got bolder and bolder with my gay book borrowing at the library, learning more and more that being gay was not that important a defining characteristic, until I stopped borrowing them. I didn't stop because someone caught me, I stopped out of boredom. I needed to read something else.

I was gay, and it didn't seem so important anymore.

I realize it seems contradictory that I'd be writing about something I think is unimportant. But it is not without importance, not when it's possible to feel caged by a fear of other people's views. Other people don't need to know about your sexuality, but it shouldn't be a problem when it does come up. For me, being gay isn't about the things that go on behind closed doors; that's private and doesn't need labels. Being gay is being able to talk as freely as everyone else.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Literary Deppths

Written for the Foyles blog.

Everyone loves Johnny Depp. Simple as.

I had a conversation with a colleague the other day that went something like this:

"It lost the idea of the book," he bemoaned. "The munchkins weren't nearly as charming as they were in the book. And they got it all wrong, Wonka was supposed to be wonderful, not creepy. To top it all it had that guy in it."

"It had a few guys in it."

"You know the guy. Mr. Creepy. Tim Burton's favourite person in the whole wide world, apart from Danny Elfman."

"You mean, Johnny Depp?"

"Argh!" my friend cried out painfully, as if I had punched him in the eye with Depp's name. "Yeah, that one. I don't get why people like him. He can't act, he lets his make-up do the acting for him. He thrives on doing impressions of rock-stars. He's not even good-looking, and yet everyone falls at his feet."

"I think," I ventured carefully, "that you like to moan about him."

"Oh," he said, smacking the table. "I love to moan about him. There's so much material."

So, it seems that even people who don't like Johnny Depp love him in some way.

It does seem that most people agree, whatever else they want to say about Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that Depp's oddball performance was the most interesting thing about it. He took all the wonder and kinesis of the character in the book, and replaced it with creepiness and gracefullness.

Fan's of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland were divided when pictures were released of Depp clowning it up in costume for the Mad Hatter. But divisions quickly settled when the film came out and it was realised that the performance was nicely understated and perfectly suited the film's aesthetic, without shredding the original character.

The man's already proven that he can pull of a Hunter S. Thompson, albeit a Thompson in various stages of reality, and we're soon to see that he can probably pull off a Thompson character in The Rum Diary.

In fact, is this a trend? Is Depp now Hollywood's first choice for crackpot characters?

And just as Hollywood seems to be slowing up it's relationship with literary adaptations, Depp seems to be doing the opposite. Which literary character do you think he will go for next? Who would you like to see him 'bring to life'?

Personally, I think I'd like to see him in a fat-suit as Ignatius P. Reilly. Or possibly pragmatic Passepartout (although there doesn't really need to be another adaptation of this book).

If he wants to do creepy characters from Roald Dahl books, maybe he would make an effective Miss Trunchball...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

(ab)Use of words

I once met a person who held the general belief that there is a correct way to use language. They thought: Yes, it is fun to make up words, but shouldn't you use the ones that are already in the dictionary? Grammar is there to help you provide clarity, not aid ambiguity. If nothing else, incorrect spelling is a sign of a disordered mind. And muddling words like Mrs. Malaprop and Rev. Spooner is a clear indication of diminished intelligence.

Another way - an inoffensive way - of putting this would be that, in the eyes of other people, a person is the sum of their words.

The thing is, language is a constantly shifting, shape changing beast, evolving to suit the culture that uses it. Words and structures survive only through pragmatism - a survival of the fittest, if you will. Language is a more utilitarian creature than we like to admit. 

   Is this the nature of something that can be classified as correct or incorrect?

It was with this attitude that I picked up 'Brave New Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the 21st Century'.

The first word that grabs my attention is 'digerati'. It is another recent child of 'literati', who also spawned 'glitterati' and 'chatterati' in the decades just past. Does this mean that we now have a new combining form that means an elite, slightly glam group of people? Bring on the politerati and soccerati!

Another word that caught my attention was 'chugger'. It's a word I first heard myself somewhere around the beginning of University when it was a popular job amongst my friends. I didn't think it was that common a word outside the 'chugger' community. Yet here it is in print. A word will only end up in the dictionary once it has passed the five-times frquency test: found in print five times in five different sources in five years. Newspapers must have caught onto the term.

Like 'bling', a word that stormed across the general collective vocabulary so quickly and so suddenly that it feels like it was always there.

'Bling' was a word that first appeared in 60's America, used now and then as an ideophone. It was picked up by rappers in later decades as a noun for expensive jewelry, supposedly to trivialize the value. Eventually it became so common in mainstream culture that it was able to make the jump across the Atlantic, where it picked up it's own local meaning:

"bling /tt/ cool new aquisition ('Oi, Conner, ya seen me bling cell?)"
        - 'Dijja Wanna Say Sumfing? A Guide to Estuary English.'

  It's much fun to mangle words, and just as enjoyable to watch meanings wear and warp. New words give voice to ideas that otherwise have no name, or have to be described to be comprehended. And loaded with fresh cultural baggage as they are, some of these words carry a sting in use. 'Bling' crossed many social boundaries in derisive or ironic usages. 'Chugger', teddy-bear-ish as it sounds, is often used with a tone of contempt for the way they invade privacy. 

If you recognise these words you probably recognise them from news sources. A surprising number of neologisms are coined by, or enter the word pool through journalists, newspapers and television. 'Stealth tax', 'post-democracy', 'Bushism', and 'sheeple', for example.

The word 'sheeple' opens some interesting philosophical doors. 'Sheeple' are sheep-people, not a botched genetic experiment, but a derogatory appellation for people who take their opinions and actions wholesale from other people. If a person is the sum of their words, what does it mean when their words belong to someone else?

Stephen Poole's book, 'Unspeak: Words Are Weapons', makes an interesting case for neologisms being used to cloak ideas, or slide new ones into the public conscience. Words like 'surgical strike', 'extremism', the difference between 'abuse' and 'torture' (there is none in the context he describes).

One phrase in particular stood out for me exactly because the intentions behind it silently slipped past when I first tried to figure out what it meant. 'Surgical' comes with notions of precision, delicacy, specifically in a medical setting. By association through usage it suggests sterility, whiteness, doctors and surgeons trying to provide life-saving help. Using the adjective to modify a military term shifts all of these associations from the one field to the other. Hey presto! A precise, clean, life-saving military strike.

So, words that have deeply ingrained connotations, combined with sheer saturation, can be used to manipulate perceptions. Is this correct? It is almost certainly ethically incorrect to purposefully mislead.

So, is there a correct way to use language? Sadly, I don't believe the answer is ever going to be black and white, or even just simple. Language is too big and complex, like the creatures that invented it, and it will always be an answer in degrees. 

Bookshelf of Memories

I have too many books.
People say there is no such thing as too many books, but if you have to shift as many boxes as I do whenever I move house, you probably know what I mean by too many books. My problem is, whenever a book makes me feel something, anything really, I keep it. This happens far too often.
The hoarding problem goes deeper - about forty years deeper, since I inherited the problem off my mother. I have also read, borrowed and liberated all of her books that took me somewhere great. It was her copies of Narnia, the Famous FiveChrestomanci, and Dickens that I grew up with.
To look at my bookshelves, it's easy to see that a great chunk of the material there is children's books. I find it the most difficult to part with these books, because the books that I read back then are like family photo albums. Every time you read a book you take something new from it, but, equally so, it takes you back somewhere else.
Until recently, I had one whole shelf of Redwall books by Brian Jacques. These were a staple of lunch-times at school. They did not change my life, but they ate up a significant chunk of time that should have been spent studying. Having not read back over one for a couple of years I sent most of them down to the charity shop, regretting it a couple of weeks later when I found out that Brian Jacques had passed away. The nagging urge to read these tales once more has not gone away, compounded by the fact that all but a few had gone from the shelves of my local charity shop when I went to try and buy them back.
Even more recently, having been dropped in a position where I needed to move house, I ruthlessly boxed up books I hadn't touched for a while with the intention of also sending them to the charity shop. In there went some of my mother's books, including: all of the Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne-Jones, as well Howl's Moving CastleArcher's Goon, and The Ogre Downstairs. I opened up the newspaper a few days ago to find that Diana Wynne-Jones has also sadly passed away - this is turning out to be a bad year for the understated masters of children's fantasy. But I am very thankful that my slothful nature has left me with her books; there is no amount of obituaries that can do her justice in the way that her own words speak to my childhood.
I'd like to use this opportunity to take my hat off to Diana Wynne-Jones and Brian Jacques. They have carved a handsome and sizeable niche in their genres, on the bookshelves of shops, libraries, bedrooms, and also on the bookshelf of my memories.

Inuf ov th siliinis

Written for the Foyles blog.

Growing up with English as a first language, it's pretty easy to forget all that hassle involved in learning the spelling rules. You take for granted the incredible flexibility of letter combinations like 'ugh', and the myriad of ways that you can spell the 'ee' sound. Until you stumble across a word like 'æsthetics', or 'dipthong' and your tongue trips over the curious and slightly alien lettering.
I quite often get asked by people who speak English as a second language how to spell words, followed by an exasperated flap of paper and pen when they find out the word they wanted to spell has a silent 'p' at the end of it.
So, I propose the following textual experiment.
Say we do away with unnecessary letter combinations, such as: 'æ', 'gh', 'œ', 'ph', 'rh', and 'sque'. And we replace them with 'e', 'g', 'f/p', 'r', and 'sk' respectively.
Silent p's, b's, and l's, and double l's, t's and d's, waste precious resources with their superfluity. The same goes for their distant and less common cousins, the silent 's' in iland, and the silent 'u' in gard.
While 'C' looks lovely in the combination 'ABC', is a bit of a rogue letter in my personal opinion. 'K' and 's' do the job much better. The digraf 'qu' can ekwaly be replased by the more fonetic 'k' or 'kw'. That leaves only one sound to be kovered by the 'c', and that's the 'ch' sound in 'butch'.
The '-le' ending is normaly pronounsed '-al/-el'. As wel as the '-age' ending is normaly pronounsed '-ij'.
Then, every time we use the past tense, the final '-ed' are generally pronounst '-t'. So let's use that where aplikable. Same for '-yz' instead of '-ise'.
This is only the konsonants. We're far from finisht; now the vowels need to be kustomyzd.
We'l have to give the five vowels a kwik make-over: 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o', and 'u' are short vowels, and 'aa', 'ee', 'ii', 'oo', 'uu' bekume long vowls. Soo suthenas wud bii siting on the graas in the gaaden drinking tee, while northenas aar reeding buuks on the gras. While wii aar at it, let's sort out sum of thoos peskii vowels. Silent e's serv a very useful purpus, as we aar tort as kid's, yet if wii triitid th utha vowls with th simpal respekt thee deservd, th silent 'e' wud bekum redundant.
'Y' has a very unik sound aal on it's oon, and it shudn't bii konfuust with th 'i' sound in 'fight', or 'white'. A dubal 'y' kan duu that job.
Right, gud byy tuu al thoos suudo-dipthongs (th ones that aarn't strictly spiiking dipthongs): 'ea' (as in 'tea'), 'ei' (as in 'deceive'), 'oeu' (as in 'manoeuver'), 'ou' (as in 'colour'). And gud byy tuu th slyytlii grootesk leta kombinashun 'ough' (as in 'doughnut').
Th 'ou' yuu sii in 'clout', 'doubt' and 'flout' shud bii replast with 'ow', so as not to konfuus it with th utha 'ou' pronunshiieeshuns.
And I think that's abowt dus it.
Sii, that wos noo hemorij of yuusful letas, and alredii th Inglish language is luking simpla and iisiia tuu yuus. Owr childran kan spend les tyym weestd on owt-deetd speling ruuls and spend mor tyym lerning haad mathmatiks, and stuudents of Inglish aar seevd owrs - yirs iiven? - of konfushun and dowt.