Monthly Archives: January 2013

Buying less: an audit

Just over a year ago I wrote a post titled “Buying less“. It was about my desire to stop having an ever-increasing TBR pile, with books being added to it faster than I read them. I talked a little bit about my personal history; I set out some rules that I planned to apply to cut down my book buying; and I wrote about the issue of dematerialised clutter – of how by moving purchases from the physical to the virtual space we can delude ourselves into thinking we’re buying less than we actually are.

Since then, I’ve learned that rather wonderfully there’s a Japanese word for the act of buying a book and not reading it, for letting books pile up unread: tsundoku. I’m not sure whether the word has any history or is simply a very recent neologism, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s too useful a word not to be used.

The rules, revisited

I mentioned I’d set out some rules. Here they are:

1. If I’ve not read anything by an author I don’t buy more than one book by that author as my first purchase.

This avoids my Joseph Rathbone experience where I thought his work sounded great, bought three of his novels, read the first and hated it and so ended up giving them all away (two unread).

2. If I have an unread book by an author, I don’t buy another book by that author.

This is sometimes tricky. I have an unread Echenoz, and keep reading reviews of other Echenoz novels which sound tremendous. It makes no sense though to buy them if I haven’t read the one I have. That kind of thinking led to my having everything Richard Yates has written (hardly a tragedy, but not really necessary given I read about one of his a year typically). It lead to my owning all Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels of which I’ve read the first five or so and then ground to a halt. Tastes change, and while at the time I bought them I was reading a Rankin a month it turns out that wasn’t a good predictor of how I’d carry on reading.

3. I can’t buy more books in a month than I’ve read or permanently removed from the house.

This isn’t working well for me. Not because I haven’t stuck to it, I largely have. It’s not working because if I read four books and buy four books then I now have four more books on the shelves, and the same number of unread books as I started the month with. I may need to institute a firmer one in-one physically out policy or change the ratio (one in for each two read say).

So, a year on, how have those rules worked out for me?

I’ve broken rule 1 once only. I haven’t read any Denis Johnson yet, but Amazon had two of his in its Christmas kindle deal at incredibly reduced prices and I bought both. That’s a risk, as I may not like either, but at least I didn’t spend much. Other than that, I’ve kept to this one and so avoided that experience of buying multiple books by a new author and then sadly discovering that I don’t like his or her writing.

Rule 2 I’ve stuck to pretty much religiously, despite frequent temptation. This is an important one when you’re a blogger, because it’s very easy to read about an author you’re already into and then get tempted to buy more by them. If you already have unread books on the shelf by a writer, it makes no sense to be buying others – presumably you were once just as excited about the ones you already have.

The third rule has I think been touch and go. It’s the most important of the three, it’s the one I identified last year already wasn’t quite working, and over the past twelve months I’ve struggled to stick with it, or indeed even to remember it.

The outcome

DunhamLibrary*

In physical terms I have fewer books than I did a year ago, and more of those I have have been read, so in that sense it’s been a success. It’s not a lot fewer though, so it’s a very limited success. In virtual terms I’d say I have more unread kindle books a year ago, I hadn’t taken account of the Christmas sale Amazon does, the 2op book promotions or the daily 99p kindle deal (usually useless to me, but not always).

In my previous post I talked about realising that where I had thought I was buying less, instead I was just buying less in physical form:

There’s a danger in fact with ebooks and ecomics and so on. We can think we’ve decluttered (very much a buzz word that) our homes, but in fact we’ve done nothing of the kind. A hard drive full of unplayed RPGs in pdf format, a Kindle full of unread books, programmes bought on iTunes but unwatched, none of its obvious but it’s all still there. It’s all still cultural material which is being accumulated faster than it’s being experienced. It’s purchase in place of participation.

I talked about how the rules needed to work for both the physical and the virtual, and a year later it’s fair to say they haven’t entirely. I’ve acquired some good habits, but not sufficiently so. I note that in mid-April 2012 I posted a comment on that blog entry summarising how it was going, and the answer then was very well indeed. That means the slippage all came later – essentially the habits didn’t quite stick and so as time went on my application of them became less rigorous.

One of the easier mistakes one can make is to assume that one’s immune to the common failings one sees in others. When someone commits to do something over the coming year, whether it’s losing weight, exercising more, buying less, whatever, we pretty much know that they’re almost certainly going to let it slide after a while. Why should we be different? Why should our plans be more robust than everyone else’s?

It’s a hard question, and not one I have any good answer to. Part though of the solution is I suspect timeliness. A year is a long time, few of us can remain focussed that long. Perhaps then with all these resolutions, the trick is not to make them for a year but for three months, six months, no longer. A period where we can remember them and keep them fresh in mind. I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.

I still haven’t watched Fish Tank. I did at least though watch The Golem. It’s very good.

*Picture may not represent my actual reading space.

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Filed under Personal posts

No machine may contain any moving parts.

The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

As a teenager I loved Arthur C. Clarke’s novels. Nobody quite did sense of wonder like he did. I read pretty much all his major works multiple times, and most of the lesser ones too. It’s years though since I revisited any of them.

Laid up recently with my slipped disc I found I couldn’t concentrate on anything too complex; too stylistically dense. I turned therefore to an old friend, one I remembered as having lucid prose and grand visions. I went back to the stars, where in literary terms at least I grew up.

City and the Stars

The City and the Stars has always been high among my favourite Clarkes (The Songs of Distant Earth, The City and the Stars, Rendezvous with Rama, 2001, Imperial Earth, Childhood’s End, 2010, not that you asked). That means I’ve read it at least four or five times, though the last time would probably have been around twenty years ago or so. Coming back to Clarke now, fresh from authors such as Proust, Krasznahorkai, Szerb, two things struck me: technically he’s not actually a very good writer, but somehow despite that he remains a good read.

What’s The City and the Stars about? Well, here’s the first paragraph:

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came. The long winter nights might dust the desert with frost, as the last moisture left in the thin air of Earth congealed— but the city knew neither heat nor cold. It had no contact with the outer world; it was a universe itself.

Humanity, which once had the stars, is now restricted to a single city which dwells in Earth’s long twilight. Our empires have fallen, the mountains themselves have crumbled, but humanity continues; carried down the ages in a city which represents our greatest technological achievement. As Clarke goes on to say:

[Humanity] had lived in the same city, had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away.

To put that in perspective, the history of multicellular life on Earth so far is only a billion years old.

The citizens of Diaspar have access to every comfort. Machines create whatever they wish, as they wish it. They have access to a vaster array of art, science, sport and new undreamt of pursuits (well, MMORPGs, but they were pretty undreamt of when this was written) than a million lifetimes could exhaust. They need those distractions – they’re immortal. They never go outside. They don’t even wish to go outside, or at least nobody normal does. Nobody except Alvin, a young man who is the first child in a million years and who through some freak of chance or long-buried design has been born with the desire to explore.

The power of The City and the Stars lies in its elegaic sense of vast oceans of time. Clarke conjures a persuasive image of an exhausted Earth and a humanity retreated to a form of eternal retirement home, its passion spent. In a sense this is a tale of generational conflict, of the only youth in a society of the ancient. Equally it is an exploration of utopia, and of the compromises that utopia requires. More than anything though it’s epic SF and a tremendous piece of storytelling.

It’s also about 250 pages of exposition and leaden dialogue. Here Alvin’s mentor, Jeserac, explains how the society of immortals prevents itself from becoming stale:

“In a little while, Alvin, I shall prepare to leave this life. I shall go back through my memories, editing them and canceling those I do not wish to keep. Then I shall walk into the Hall of Creation, but through a door which you have never seen. This old body will cease to exist, and so will consciousness itself. Nothing will be left of Jeserac but a galaxy of electrons frozen in the heart of a crystal. “I shall sleep, Alvin, and without dreams. Then one day, perhaps a hundred thousand years from now, I shall find myself in a new body, meeting those who have been chosen to be my guardians. They will look after me as Eriston and Etania have guided you, for at first I will know nothing of Diaspar and will have no memories of what I was before. Those memories will slowly return, at the end of my infancy, and I will build upon them as I move forward into my new cycle of existence. “That is the pattern of our lives, Alvin. We have all been here many, many times before, though as the intervals of nonexistence vary according to apparently random laws this present population will never repeat itself again. The new Jeserac will have new and different friends and interests, but the old Jeserac— as much of him as I wish to save— will still exist. “That is not all. At any moment, Alvin, only a hundredth of the citizens of Diaspar live and walk its streets. The vast majority slumber in the Memory Banks, waiting for the signal that will call them forth onto the stage of existence once again. So we have continuity, yet change— immortality, but not stagnation.

It’s fascinating stuff and a marvellous piece of worldbuilding. I could believe in Diaspar; it made sense to me. It’s not though particularly electrifying. Jeserac may be a great tutor, but he ain’t a great conversationalist.

The City and the Stars shares here a fault common to much of Clarke’s fiction. Everyone is essentially decent and sensible. Where Alvin meets opposition in the novel it’s due to encountering conservative thinking; ignorance; fear of the unknown. Alvin faces obstacles in his quest to rediscover what lies beyond Diaspar, but none that can’t be overcome by good sense, a bit of forward planning and reasoned debate. Like most of Clarke’s work this is a novel entirely without violence. It’s a hugely optimistic vision, but it’s not a dramatic one.

None of the characters aspire to more than two dimensions. There is no psychological depth here, but then there isn’t meant to be. The point of the novel is the idea, the vision. Alvin is a delivery mechanism to take us inside Clarke’s imagination, to allow us to see the cathedral of wonder he’s created and in that context rounded characters would be a distraction.

Perhaps too that’s why Clarke’s flat prose isn’t a problem. Clarke is a functional writer – he doesn’t let any hooptedoodle get mixed in with the story. Here’s one more example:

Such unnecessary appurtenances as nails and teeth had vanished. Hair was confined to the head; not a trace was left on the body. The feature that would most have surprised a man of the Dawn Ages was, perhaps, the disappearance of the navel. Its inexplicable absence would have given him much food for thought, and at first sight he would also have been baffled by the problem of distinguishing male from female. He might even have been tempted to assume that there was no longer any difference, which would have been a grave error. In the appropriate circumstances, there was no doubt about the masculinity of any male in Diaspar. It was merely that his equipment was now more neatly packaged when not required; internal stowage had vastly improved upon Nature’s original inelegant and indeed downright hazardous arrangements.

Again, it’s all about the worldbuilding, the idea. From the perspective of understanding Alvin’s future this is important and interesting. As prose it’s dry as the deserts that surround Diaspar. This is why SF shouldn’t be in the Booker. The metrics of what makes great literary fiction aren’t just different to those that make great SF, they’re frequently in direct opposition. Only a tiny handful of writers (M John Harrison say) can successfully write great SF which should also be read for its prose. For most SF novels the characters are a means to explore the imagined world, the language a vehicle to carry the story (and the story ultimately is merely another means to explore the imagined world).

It’s equally incorrect incidentally to think that science fiction is about predicting the future. Occasionally it aims for that, but only occasionally. Here Clarke is imagining not the future, but a future. Much other SF of course isn’t about any future at all, but about our own present seen as through a scanner darkly. A novel about an interstellar war which takes place over periods so long the soldiers find society transformed every time they return home may really be about the Vietnam war. I’m digressing badly though. Exposition is infectious.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Alvin does of course find a way to escape Diaspar. How he does so, and what he finds when he does, well for those you’ll just have to read the novel. I was more conscious of its weaknesses this time than in the past, but the strengths were still there. The vision burns as brightly as it ever did.

One last note. I remember when I first read this book one part seeming just too incredible to me to be believed. It wasn’t the society of immortals, the billion year old city, faster than light travel (actually impossible we know now), telepathy or any of that. It was the existence in the book of machines with no moving parts. How ludicrous, I thought, how could that ever be possible?

Back in the 1950s when he wrote this Clarke thought such machines were in the long distant future. I have an iPhone and an iPad. It turns out they weren’t as far off as he thought, or as impossible as I did. So it goes.

The cover above is pretty much the one I have, but I thought I’d share one other cover with you that I found online. I actually think this fits the book better than any other cover I’ve seen for it. It’s a scene from the book – Alvin, having found a remote air vent, seeing the stars for the first time:

200px-The_City_and_the_Stars_hardcover

Edit: Tomcat of Tomcat in the red room also wrote about The City and the Stars, contrasting it with Miéville’s The City and the City, here. As ever, his thoughts are well worth reading.

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Filed under Clarke, Arthur C., Science Fiction

It was a sweet setup, with a ninety thousand payoff

Richard Stark’s Parker, by Darwyn Cooke

I don’t review many comics or graphic novels here. That’s not because I don’t read them; it’s just a question of focus. Graphic novels aren’t novels with art, and it’s a mistake to review them as if they are. It’s also why when I do talk about them I prefer just to talk about comics. It’s obvious when you talk about a comic that the art matters just as much as the writing. The phrase Graphic novel though, that implies to me it’s an illustrated novel and that’s not really what a comic is.

Except of course when that’s exactly what it is. Darwyn Cooke’s Richard Stark’s Parker is a dazzling adaptation of the original Richard Stark (a pseudoynm for Donald E Westlake) novel The Hunter. It’s beautifully drawn with a well-chosen bluish-gray colour palette and every page drips with early ’60’s cool. Although Westlake personally approved the project he sadly didn’t live to see the finally finished work. That’s a great shame, but Cooke did him proud.

photo

That image should really be in landscape of course, but then it wouldn’t fit properly into the space I have. So it goes. Buy the comic.

The plot is simple enough. Parker has been wronged; robbed and left for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get even. He doesn’t care who he hurts along the way. Parker’s only weapons are his charisma, his wits, his sheer physical presence and the strength of his hands. He won’t need more.

Here’s the third page (not counting title sequences and so on), with Parker striding into town. Anyone familiar with how the novel opens will immediately be able to see how without using a single word Cooke captures Westlake/Stark’s prose.

photo 5

Parker soon tracks down his ex-wife, and it’s then that we see quite how much of a bastard he is. Parker isn’t a hero, he’s not even really an anti-hero, but he is a a protagonist. Parker drives the story at breakneck pace and it’s never less than exciting, but equally Parker is never anything better than brutal scum.

photo 4

It’s important to say (for a Guardian reader like me anyway) that I don’t think this is glorifying violence against women. We’re not supposed to like Parker. Rather this shows how Parker solves problems – with his fists. Parker doesn’t care whether the person on the other end is man or woman, powerful or weak, he just cares about what he wants and about getting even with anyone he thinks has wronged him. Unfortunately for his ex, however good her reasons may have been at the time she definitely wronged him.

The two pages above though do help illustrate one potential problem with this comic. The female characters tend to be quite similarly drawn and simply aren’t as developed as the males. Mostly the women are pretty blondes with snub noses; the visual range for the men is much wider. I’ve not seen enough of Cooke’s other work to know whether this is just an idiosyncrasy of his particular style or whether it reflects a lack of female character differentiation in the underlying novel. It certainly feels authentically early ’60s, but not perhaps in a good way – this is a story in which men drive the action, and in which women are essentially passive.

Adapting a novel presents some challenges, not least how to deal with situations where it’s hard to avoid including solid chunks of text. The backstory to what happened to Parker, to why he wants revenge so badly, takes a little while to tell and telling it all through images could detract from the main thrust of the tale. Cooke comes up with an elegant solution, and I’ve excerpted a page below which I think neatly demonstrates it.

photo 1

Firstly I think that’s a beautifully evocative piece of art in terms of illustrating the planning stage of a heist. It’s also though an elegant way to insert a fairly large chunk of text without having to use multiple pages in which there’d be relatively little actually happening. Cooke adapts his art to the needs of the narrative, but still maintains a consistent style. The result is a comic which is a consistent winner at the level of the individual page, but which is even better as a cohesive work.

One last example. If you’re a fan of classic noir cinema this should hopefully stir your heart a little. If you’re not, well, Guy Savage can recommend some films for you that will almost certainly change your mind.

photo 2

I opened by talking about how I don’t review comics here much. I made an exception for this one because I thought this such a success. This is a comic which pulses with ’60s hardboiled cool. It’s one to read with some hard bop playing in the background and a whisky on the table (well, really a bourbon but I’m an Islay fan, so whisky it is). If you don’t like comics I’m not saying this will convert you, but if you do or if you’re a Richard Stark fan and are interested in seeing a fresh adaptation of this much adapted novel (at least three movie treatments so far), then it’s a definite win.

Finally, a short technical note. I read this comic on my ipad using an app called Comixology. The app works beautifully and is how I read most of my comics these days, though given how lovely this one turned out to be I did find myself slightly wishing I’d just got a hardcopy.

Cooke has adapted two more Parker novels after this one, and has plans to do a fourth. I fully expect to be reading all of them.

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Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels, Cooke, Darwyn, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Noir, Stark, Richard, Westlake, Donald E.