Not so bildungsroman

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on straying from the beaten path

I realise, dear reader, that I rabbit on ever such a lot about books. However, revelations of self-awareness aside, I’m going to do it again. This time I would like to share with you my thoughts on the special glowy feeling of joy that is to be had when you discover a book or an author that you love that/who is not particularly well-known. Mostly the way this works is striking out into the lesser-known works of celebrated authors, but it can also mean finding something brilliant that is not, for whatever reason, widely recognised as such. Herewith, in no particular order, my current five favourites:

1. Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Yeah, Chuck Palahniuk. You know. The guy that wrote Fight Club? I’m not saying that Fight Club is not a great book; in fact I’m not even saying that Choke is better than Fight Club, but it is as good. And for some reason it gets skated over all the time because people seem to be so bowled over by Fight Club, but the fact remains this has a protagonist who is just as intriguing, a story arc just as amusing, and a denouement just as bizarre. It also has a film version, but I will concede that the fact that it doesn’t star a semi-naked Brad Pitt is not in its favour (but it does have Anjelica Huston *girl crush*)

2. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I wouldn’t go so far as saying this is a completely ‘unknown’ classic, but surprisingly few people seem to have read it, so it probably deserves the moniker of cult-classic. It’s also quite fun that almost everyone I know who has read it did so under quite unusual circumstances - one friend read it sitting in a tree, another on an overnight train in India. I myself read it in one go overnight in a sort of insomniac fit. It’s a brilliantly weird story that poses big questions every couple of pages and pulls the rug out from under the reader every couple of paragraphs. 

3. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I know, because I have discussed it recently with someone, that I am not alone in thinking this is waaaaaaay better than The Great Gatsby. It’s just longer and more complicated and has more characters and is a bit more subtle and protracted in its storytelling. But it is better. You can see from the picture how ‘well-loved’ my personal copy is - that thing’s been trekking in Madagascar, to New York and survived a very wet festival. All because it’s worth reading again and again. 

4. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy is always a hard-hitter, but this is his best. Yes, it’s better than The Road. No, they probably won’t be adapting it into a film anytime soon. Why? Because just as the film of The Road proved, to some extent, giving McCarthy’s brilliant prose the visual treatment is a hopelessly reductive exercise. Also, his ability to excite strange sympathies for the frankly vile characters who populate Blood Meridian probably wouldn’t translate too well. I dare any cinematographer to find landscapes as starkly beautiful than those that McCarthy conjures up.

5. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This divides opinion quite nicely, but to my mind it’s probably just got the edge on The Virgin Suicides, although that is also a great book. There’s something about Middlesex though that makes me love it. Maybe it’s because Cal (the protagonist) doesn’t exude the knowingness that characterises the Lisbon Girls (in TVS) or maybe it’s just that I like feeling clever when I pick up on the Homeric references. Whatever. This is an excellent book from a supremely clever writer. 

One for luck…

Because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t include The Bridge in a list of brilliant things that don’t seem to be justifiably appreciated. This is my favourite long poem ever, even though Crane’s not as slick as Whitman or Eliot or whoever. There’s so much intelligence and depth, and the whole thing seems to tread the line between genius and insanity in a quite unstable manner. It’s also rendered deeply tragic by Crane’s life-story, but I won’t go into that at length now. 

Just about the only New Year’s resolution I’ve made is to read a ridiculous number of books by year’s end. Hopefully this little list of gems will inspire you to read at least one, too.

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(Source: goodreads.com)

on the merits of reading

If I haven’t emphasised it enough, I love books, and I love to read. A LOT. To the point that it used to get me in trouble at school because whenever I got bored I would get a book out at the back of the classroom and just read it. More often than not when called upon in the classic ‘teacher-spies-child-not-paying-attention-and-therefore-seeks-to-humiliate-them-into-submission-by-firing-questions-on-material-covered-in-the-past-five-minutes-at-them’ move I would answer correctly, having mastered the art of listening to boring mathematical/scientific explanations while reading Harry Potter. Which led to my parents being hauled into school to discuss my ‘attitude problem.’

BUT BOOKS DON’T ONLY TEACH KIDS HOW TO BE SMART-ALECKY!! As Gail Rebuck so eloquently describes in this piece for The Guardian, reading is not just a hobby but in fact a demonstrably effective learning tool and an incredible brain stimulant. Take that, Mrs Dixon. The idea that reading a book can actually change the way you see the world is pretty mind-blowing but as soon as you give it a minute’s thought it makes a lot of sense.

It doesn’t just have to be printed books though, and for me this is an enormous concession to make. I am a massive sceptic when it comes to e-readers; I see the value of being able to carry 200,000 books with you the whole time but it just isn’t the same as a well-loved paperback that you sling in your bag despite the fact that it already weighs a tonne. However, if you don’t agree that back problems are a worthwhile price to pay for literacy on the move then e-readers are probably a good thing, because they are so portable, even if they don’t offer the same sort of multi-sensory satisfaction (the feel of the paper, the weight in your hand, the smell) that my tattered and much-abused (but much-loved) copy of ‘Tender is the Night’ does. At least they give people a means to read, which is the main thing.

As you can probably guess, I got quite a lot of reading done over Christmas. I’m glad that there is now scientific proof to back up my assertion that I was not just time-wasting. Not all of it was book based either: I read loads of interesting articles online, including this one about PTSD which has provoked a great deal of comment, and this one, which is about reading (sooo meta). I also got a chance to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Which I realise I was raving about before it was even released, but I think this just about sums it up:

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on the season of goodwill

It’s been a while, hasn’t it friends? Prince George has been demonstrating his shocked face at the top of the page for far too long, but the truth is I have been too lazy to think, yet alone write what I have been thinking. For this I can only apologise. However, in the spirit of the season, I have decided in a fit of generosity to demonstrate my magnanimous and thoughtful nature by letting you once again peruse the strange and disturbing contortions of my thought process.

So what have I been thinking about?

Today I have been mostly preoccupied with thinking about the state of my larynx, as I have once again managed to pick up a minor case of laryngitis. ‘Tis the season, as they say. While I was preoccupied, I have also been thinking at a subliminal level about how deeply excited about the year to come. This was mostly as a result of doing a piece for work (which you can look at here if the mood takes you) on the last twelve months in our style section. 

Now, my anticipation of 2012 is not limited to fashion, but there is some of that mixed in. Principally, the fact that on New Year’s Day, Mulberry will be launching a new bag range called the Harriet, which is what I am called when I have been bad. In order to get hold of one of these babys however, I shall have to be very, very good. Santa baby…

Also, one of the things I am apoplectic with excitement about is actually happening before the advent of the New Year. And that is the release of the English-language Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I have read the book. I have been upset by the book. That does not, however, mean that I am not 100% thrilled by the prospect of a film version, especially one starring Daniel Craig. Because the actual story of the book is brilliant, even if it could do with being a good 50 pages shorter and maybe a little less misogynistic. I am hoping it will fill the Spiral shaped hole in my life. Also, Karen O singing Immigrant Song? This could be the best trailer ever.

See? I’m not kidding. In terms of books, big excitement was had today with the news that Dr Robert Macfarlane (erstwhile supervisor/literary god) has a new book coming out called The Old Ways. This is going straight on my to-read list, alongside other forthcoming gems such as William Gibson’s (author of the brilliant Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition) essay collection Distrust That Particular Flavor and Granta 118: Exit Strategies (have got really into Granta). Yay for reading!

I’m also buzzing about 30 Rock Season 6, because it has been too long since I’ve seen Jack Donaghy on-screen and I’m beginning to remember who Alec Baldwin is (someone I don’t really like).

Roll on, 2012, I am excited about you.

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on the joy of rediscovering old favourites

Beauty and the Beast 3D is being released this week. This is what my face did when I found out this news:

Then, while googling about to find appropriate gifs to represent the deep level of emotion the news that my favourite ever Disney film was going to be available with previously unheard-of levels of visual layering I remembered how much I loved Blackadder. 

So I obviously had a little nostalgia trip through youtube…

Then I kept getting recommended to look at Big Train videos. I didn’t know what Big Train was. Now I’m in love with it and everything it represents. 

Now that Simon Pegg is doing big Hollywood blockbusters it’s nice to remember occasionally that he used to be really really funny

To return, however, to B&TB, it should be interesting to see if the 3D experience makes it better or worse. I’m just overjoyed that I’ll be able to see it in a cinema; I don’t care if I don’t go accompanied by a child and am therefore firmly buttonholed as a weirdo. It’s one of the best films ever and it doesn’t have any vampires in it. It’s also delightfully pseudo-steampunk (which is having a bit of a moment in my life at the moment, uncool as it may seem) with all the mad inventions and whatnot. Added to which Belle is pretty kick-ass, like the prototype for Rapunzel in Tangled (which is also totally brilliant) and the Beast has a crazy brooding thing going for him (anthropomorphism makes it much harder to draw the line at which it becomes weird to have a crush on a character. Item 2: Robin Hood the fox).

I’m also very excited about the prospect of seeing Chris Hemsworth get all sweaty and worked up in Snow White and the Huntsman. It looks like it’s got a bit of an Angela Carter edge to it whilst maintaining mass market appeal; always an interesting combination, but hopefully it’ll pay off.

Fairytales are strange and beautiful things, and Carter’s take on them in The Bloody Chamber is spiky and refreshing, without losing the bewitching quality of the originals. The subversiveness of Carter’s writing wouldn’t mark it out for Hollywood adaptation, but it’s surprising how much the recognised motifs of fairytale have to say about big issues. Incest, oppression, rape and violence are common themes, and these are stories for kids. 

My favourite fairytale is a Brothers Grimm affair called ‘The Six Swans’. I’d forgotten about it until I started writing this; I just read it again and it raised all the hairs on the back of my neck.

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on how j k rowling was actually probably writing about the quantum multiverse

Believe me when I say (and I’m sure you’ll have great trouble giving credence to this) that I am no physicist. I just have a crush on Professor Bryan Cox and a love of bad science fiction. The two of which combine to make me, at best, an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to anything beyond working how far a car travelling in a fixed direction for twenty seven minutes at fifty miles an hour would travel. 22.5 miles, if you’re asking. BOOM. UNIMPRESSIVE PHYSICS (I at least did it in my head, even if it did take about five minutes of umming and ahhing).

No, I don’t get the ins and outs of quarks and sparks and strings and things, but I do know that there are some sciencey people out there who actually believe that there are an infinite number of alternate realities made possible every time anything is presented with a situation in which there is more than one way to behave. So if I eat a banana for breakfast instead of an apple, there’s an alternative reality where I ate the apple. But also there’s an alternative reality where I scratched my nose in my sleep and one where I didn’t and so on and so forth for EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE.

Which is, you know. Awesome.

But I was thinking about what I said yesterday about the cinemagraphs looking like photos from Harry Potter. And then I was wondering just what it was about the photos in Harry Potter that had always unnerved me. And then I realised that it was the fact that the subjects of photographs could move about. Would often, in fact, be waving out from the photo. How much independent thought do they have? There’s an instance in the second book where photo-Harry is refusing to appear, and photo-Lockhart is trying to persuade him. It’s like there’s a tiny alternate universe in each photo. Which is just disturbing, because then it’s as though the photo-people are being exploited by the consumers of the photograph. Their entire world exists as a representational format, but they have some level of self-determination within it.

So I was sort of thinking semi-facetiously that maybe the entire universe exists in a representational capacity as some sort of experiment and that’s where our notion of an omnipotent deity comes from. Then I got all freaked out and weird because I was on the verge of thinking WHAT IF OUR WORLD IS ACTUALLY LIKE THE END OF MEN IN BLACK AND JUST A TEENY SPOT IN A UNIVERSE-SIZED MARBLE BEING PLAYED WITH BY MIND-BOGGLINGLY GINORMOUS GREEN SLUG THINGS?

But I realised it doesn’t really matter. Because I watched some Frozen Planet and it was so beautiful and awe-inspiring that it made me wonder why I would even need to think outside the boundaries of a world so overflowing with incredible things. Also, there’s a sale on at Urban Outfitters, and there are so many beautiful and awe-inspiring objects that it made me wonder why I would even need to think outside the boundaries of a shop so overflowing with incredible things. And then I realised that if a shop/website had enough stuff on offer to occupy my brain for nearly an hour, I probably don’t need to concern myself with the vagaries of quantum mechanics.

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