Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Good Excuse...

I was on holiday in Greece for a week, so I didn't write anything. Got a couple to catch-up on now though. TBC...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Not Books VII


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Movies-

Factotum (2005) 

After not-long finishing Charles Bukowki's second novel, Factotum, I was curious to see how lead actor Matt Dillon would tackle the job of embodying the figure of Henry Chinaski, and of how Norwegian director Bent Hammer would address capturing the tone of Bukowski's writing. Since, in my opinion, Henry Chinkasi is nothing like any typical figure the casual consumer is used to seeing on the big screen, it was very possible that they might have gone in  a different direction to chase viewers. Happily for this grumbling critic, the filmmakers did their best to create a fairly accurate representation of the misery, depression and black comedy of a Bukowski page, and ended up creating a very nice visual and audio intepretation to go alongside the book- though as a context-less film for the non-Bukowski fan, it's probably all a bit mystifying.

Matt Dillon does a very good job with a very difficult task; trying somehow to represent the pure charisma, drunkenness and darkened artistry of the blunt-speaking main character, though honestly I didn't think he had enough of an absorbing persona to quite pull it off. To do the character justice it would've taken a performance reminiscent of Johnny Depp as Raul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with the disadvantage of much less dialogue. I felt that Lili Taylor did a fantastic job as Jan, Chinaski's premier other half for this book, and a probably as complicated as Chinaski with her good and dark moods. The ending, where the pair finally say goodbye for the last time was something I found genuinely touching. almost teary-eyed thanks to the subdued, controlled performances.

Of course this film also has the massive advantage of being adapted from the pen of Charles Bukowski, meaning that Henry Chinaski's musings spoken out loud by Dillon's strong voice sound amazing, especially his voice-over thoughts and poetry readings. Perhaps not surprisingly the film suffers from being adapted from material that simply wasn't at all designed to be adapted in to a modern plot-driven movie, and even though Bent Hammer tries to stamp a more circular conclusion by focusing on Chinaski's unexpected good news of having a short story accepted for publication, I think Bukowski's downbeat, seemingly non-progressive style shines through and gives the whole thing the impression of either an art-house drama, or an extended pilot for a high budget TV show, I'm not sure which.

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Elysium (2014)

There was huge buzz for Elysium during its development, as fans across the Internet hoped for the next great science fiction film with the scope of something like Blade Runner or 2001. Director, writer and producer Neil Blomkamp first feature film District 9 was a surprisingly brilliant film, made on a relatively small budget it looked fantastic, and offered intelligent themes mixed with exciting action; in essence everything you could want from the genre. The concept for Elysium sounded interesting too; set in the year 2154 the Earth is a devastated wasteland, where millions of people live in poverty under the threat of starvation, with not nearly enough jobs or resources to go around. The Earth's rulers, the ones who control the merciless robots who keep the proletariat beaten down under the pretense of policing, live far above the planet in a different world entirely on the space station Elysium. Elysium provides the most gorgeous CGI images in the film, looking every bit the space station heaven it's supposed to be.

When the plot kicks in things unfortunately become more generic, and greatly replicate some of the events of District 9 to a distracting degree. Matt Damon is very good as lead action guy whose name I've already forgotten, who is exposed to deadly levels of radiation early on in the film and is set to die in a week. He contacts his old criminal buddies to arrange an illegal trip to Elysium, and through his efforts ends up discovering some very valuable information that make him a target for the human overlords. Damon's mission to save himself against all odds are very similar to lead character Vikkus from District 9 (and who's also in this film as a crazy mercenary), and this plays out in some of the earlier action scenes on Earth too, where the desolated city of LA looks strikingly similar to the alien slums of Johannesburg.

The movie also fizzles out towards the end, where nothing particularly interesting happens surrounding Damon's mad dash for survival, he just sort of keeps on going like an indestructible force. Blomkamp doesn't attempt to tell any of the history of the world of Elysium, which was a massive shame since the evocative, detailed settings and intriguing social set-up seemed to promise that an origin would be fascinating. Without such an attempt, the surroundings felt pretty, but hollow, in essence summing up the whole film. Far from awful, but very disappointing considering what it might have been.

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The Great Gatsby (2013)

Apparently there's been a fair amount of negative criticism directed towards Baz Luhrmann's $105 million budgeted adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby, and for about the first hour of that film I was firmly in that camp. The Jay-Z soundtrack particularly annoyed me, since it just felt obnoxiously inaccurate and needlessly contemporary, and combined with the force of fast-moving, colourful parties held in Gatsby's mansion it all felt like the film was dangerously close from abandoning the delicacy and timelessness of Fitzgerald's work. To me, The Great Gatsby is the single most important, definitive work in American fiction, and the mix of classic and contemporary design and styles was overwhelming to begin with, and not in a good way.

But, thank god, around an hour in it felt to me as if everything just calmed down a little, giving room for the acting talents of Leonardo Di Caprio and Tobey Maguire to fully embrace the classic characters and script. I felt myself immersed in the story more and more as it progressed, steadily becoming more dramatic until the tragic ending. It was nearer the ending that Tobey Maguire's qualities as Nick Caraway began to come to the forefront. Earlier on in the film his nervous disposition seemed out of place in the Jazz Age, but as events spiraled out of control he became more and more likable as the eventual sole defender of Gatsby, his out-of-place character making far more sense in emphasis of the differences between he and his friend Gatsby, and the old money families who sign Gatsby's death warrant.

Di Caprio was amazing as Gatsby, charismatic, engaging, and most importantly of all very sympathetic. As the events neared the crescendo I knew they would, the tragedy kicked in even before the final gunshot. In its portrayal it reminded me closely of the great tragic endings of Luhrmann's other great films, Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, but the final scenes of Caraway putting the finishing touches to his novel The Great Gatsby gave a final, necessary uplift. A superb film, despite perhaps requiring a little bit of patience from the viewer for it to really get going.

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Godzilla (2014)

I've never seen an original, 'real' Godzilla film before, only Roland Emmerich's irredeemably awful 1998 Hollywood version, but I was still very excited with the prospect of this new adaptation from Gareth Edwards (the man behind Monsters, which I quite liked). As a twenty-something card-carrying member of the Internet generation, how could I not be? The very well made trailers promised two things; giant monsters beating each other up, and Walter White- sorry, I mean Bryan Cranston- which is really all I need in my onscreen entertainment life. Two hours later, and I finished the film feeling pretty happy with what I'd seen, but a little bit unable to get over the lack of one of the two things mentioned above. Spoiler warning and all that.

For about forty-five minutes, Bryan Cranston dominates the screen with a now-typically fantastic performance, making the most of a fairly stereotypical role, as a paranoid scientist convinced that the death of his wife in Japan dickity-siz years ago was due to some kind of mysterious conspiracy. After we see the sad death of his wife, amidst some smoky shots of a huge power plant somehow being toppled to the ground, the movie pushes forward to the present day where Cranston has ostracized his incredibly generic son and his family. He somehow manages to convince his son to come with him to Japan to investigate the quarantined sight of the original 'accident', and from there the two are thrust into the middle of explosive events as they become witness to the birth of a giant evil insect thing.

Then Bryan Cranston dies, and the movie goes from being awesome to merely being pretty good. I wasn't expecting that to happen at all and was all set to enjoy the sight of Cranston & Son doing their best to harness and direct the power of the mighty Godzilla to protect the world from this new threat of giant monsters. When the former dies, the latter becomes so incredibly generic as the main hero that it almost ruined things for me since I couldn't care less whether he lived or died. It was made worse by the magical narrative that ensured that CranstonSon (who's character name I can't remember, aside from it was stupid) was somehow at the front of every piece of action, no matter how illogical that was. Seriously, the efforts to make him the heroic saviour almost ruined the film.

Thankfully there was a lot of amazing CGI of Godzilla fighting his monstrous foes, and that made up for it. Obviously it all looked amazing thanks to the sheer amount of money poured into it, but the choreography was exciting too. The animators deserve a ton of credit for showing Godzilla as a character; his pain and aggression as he fought for his life. He was much, much better than any of the non-Cranston characters, and I hope to god they drop all of those for the sequel and just bring back the star. Or have Godzilla resurrect Bryan Cranston through the magic of I don't know what. Anyway, to round these rambling up I really enjoyed Godzilla, but not as much as I could have. The next one should be fabulous though.

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TV Series-

Penny Dreadful- Season One (2014)

For a big Alan Moore fan like myself, it's very tempting to look at the plot set-up for the new Showtime/Sky TV series Penny Dreadful and straight away think of it as a rip-off of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series (and legendarily bad film), since it's about a collection of characters from various pieces of classic literature coming together to deal with a mysterious threat. To be fair, I find it very hard to believe that the creators of this show didn't have LXG in mind, but on the other hand the LXG film was so awful that's most likely guaranteed we'll never see a straight screen adaptation, so I was willing to give Penny Dreadful a chance.

Eight fifty-minute episodes later, and the first series of the show left me feeling optimistic, if not massively impressed. On the surface, Penny Dreadful has a lot going for it, including a large budget affording very nice costumes and sets (though sadly not special effects), a Hollywood-level cast including Josh Hartnett, Eva Green and Timothy Daltan, and above all the positive feeling that writer John Logan (who wrote the whole series alone) was trying very hard to reach a high standard of dialogue to reflect what we expect from classic literature. The cast are all very good, and so it was down to Logan to shape his story into something that felt true to the source material while being darker, sexier, and super-heroic. In my opinion he mostly succeeds, avoiding the risk with this sort of high brow fantasy horror that it'll just come across as really stupid- most of the time, anyway.

Having said all that, there's still a way to go for this show if it's to have a successful second season. The characters have been mostly cool and mysterious, but if the audience is to form a strong emotion attachment to them then I think Logan could do with laying off the constantly uber-intense, serious tone just a little bit to allow the characters to breathe. I felt the 50-minute episode length was 10-minutes too long last season, leading to so much introspective brooding that much of it lost its impact. I do admire Logan for remaining patient with some of the more obvious plot twists, rather than bundling them out their for quick shock value, but if he's going to continue to flirt with the main details of novels like Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray, then at some point, to put it bluntly, he's going to have to shit or get off the pot.

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True Blood- Season Seven (2014)

Oh Boy. True Blood. How to sum this show up? I don't think anything I write can do justice to how stupid and crazy True Blood has been over its seven series run, but I'm not exactly recommending people rush to buy and watch it. I first started watching True Blood mainly because my girlfriend really liked it and wanted to try and get me in to it. I wasn't as wary as I should've been, mainly because I knew that the show runner was Alan Ball- the writer behind the classic film American Beauty and the morbidly brilliant TV show Six Feet Under, so I was quite happy to go back to his work. In hindsight, the first season of True Blood did mostly conform to Ball's typical style, focusing on the subtext of the main plot, where vampires have just come out of the closet to the world and mean to integrate their race with the rest of us. It's a very X-Men premise, with Ball somewhat replicating the tone and moral quandaries of Six Feet Under, only in a more mainstream, glamourised style.

So yeah, I enjoyed the first season as a good mix of style and substance. From then on everything went completely insane, as Ball became less and less involved with the creative side of things, and the show instead apparently began to more directly adapt the source material novels. Unfortunately the source material seems to be sub-Twilight bullshit designed for people who want to tell others that they read books but actually don't want to, and from season two onwards there seemed to be a constant battle between that and some genuine quality. Sometimes the writing and acting could be really, really good, but as the show went on and plots became dumber and dumber, I think everybody kind of gave up. As a viewer, the most disappointing aspect personally was the almost complete lack of character development for most of the mains.

Going into the final season, I was hoping for a dramatic, bombastic conclusion at least. Since... well, all of it, True Blood has made it a mission to rip-off Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (two of my all-time favourite shows) as much and as badly as possible, to the extent where lead vampires Bill and Eric basically just play rotating versions of Angel and Spike, going back and forth over which one is which depending on the season and situation. During this final season, curiously Eric is Angel from Angel-Season Five while Bill is Angel from Buffy- Season Three, which was an interesting way to do it. Oh yeah, the plot of this season; there isn't much of one. Basically there's a big new blood disease created by some old villains that's gotten out into the world and is killing a whole bunch of vampires. That's not a bad idea, but they go almost nowhere interesting with it. To put it into perspective how lazy the writing is, the main villains of this series are the fucking Yakuza. Seriously.

In fairness, the theme of the final series seemed to be to round off most of the characters unresolved emotional journeys and such, and it kind of achieved that albeit mostly in an incredibly boring manner. I won't spoil anything but the final episode was possibly the worst final episode of any show I've seen. It's a shame, because there was a point mid-way through the season where it looked like things might be heating up, but  it decidedly did not. Instead viewers were subjected to a drawn-out series of whining and moaning, where the actors desperately tried to look like they cared about the nonsense going on though they obviously didn't. It was kind of a shame that everything ended so badly, but to be honest, I probably should've seen it coming. I'm going to stop writing about True Blood now.

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Video Games-

Monkey Island 2- LeChuck's Revenge- Special Edition (1991/2010)

Looking back at Not Books II it seems that I was quite harsh on The Secret of Monkey Island- Special Edition, the 2009 remake of Ron Gilbert & LucasArt's 1990 adventure game classic, entirely because of the updated graphical style. Aside from the oddly coloured and slightly uncomfortable visuals, the game was a a delight as I knew it would be, since the gameplay is exactly the same as it was aside from the addition of a full voice cast. It was for those same reasons I knew I'd enjoy they sequel remake to Monkey Island 2 nevertheless, but thankfully the developers slightly redesigned the updated look and the result is much improved. Guybrush and the other characters look like the animations they should do, rather than slightly blurry clay models that kind of creeped me out. The colour pallet is way improved, stepping away from the ill-advised decision to try and remake Amiga graphics for the sake of a nicer individual look.

So, the game. I must have played it a dozen times over the years, such was my obsession with adventure games as a teenager, but there was still enough great humour in the script and plot for it to be worth it, perhaps for the last ever time. The voice cast, who all return from past voiced Monkey games, do a pretty good job, and crucially the music is absolutely fantastic throughout. The puzzles are difficult and absorbing, but not overly so, and overall I think this is a slightly better game than the original- although that's all completely subjective. I had a huge amount of fun reliving Monkey 2, but the absolute best news is that I finally managed to figure out how to get the third game, The Curse of Monkey Island to work on my laptop- by far my favourite of the series.

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Music- New segment here, a very quick look at albums I've listened to the most recently, not comprehensive or anything;

Alestorm- Sunset on the Golden Age (2014)
Pirate metal band Alestorm don't mess with their formula one bit for their new fourth album. They've never been one of my absolute favourite bands since trying to listen to a whole album can easily become grating, but they're very fun to listen to in short bursts. While initially they might come across as very loud and aggressive power metal band, like most bands of that genre they tend to rely on as many catchy hooks as they can muster. This album, while nothing earth-shattering, it their most consistent collection of songs yet.
Acrimony- Tumuli Shroomaroom (1997)
Regretfully I only just recently recently found about Acrimony, a real shame since they have exactly the kind of sound I was incredibly into just a few years ago. Taking most of their cues from one of my favourite bands of all time, Kyuss, Acrimony avoid becoming just another of a thousand boring doom metal bands by keeping a steady balance between their doom and stoner metal leanings, taking just enough from the latter to satisfy my curiously specific doom and stoner metal tastes.

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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Jack London- John Barleycorn

John Barleycorn

Jack London
1913

“The fortunate man is the one who cannot take more than a couple of drinks without becoming intoxicated. The unfortunate wight is the one who can take many glasses without betraying a sign; who must take numerous glasses in order to get the ‘kick’.”

It took me a while to get around to reading a Jack London book, but it was inevitable following the pattern of my reading habits for a long while- probably a decade, actually. I've always known that London is considered as one of the elite peers of American literature, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, up there with Hemmingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald as authors who shaped the Western art form for all to follow- in a fashion bridging the gap between the classical US authors of the 19th century who were still heavily influenced by Victorian literature, and the outragous post-World War II hippies and beatniks who fill so much of my time now. I bought two charity-shop copies of London books in quick succession, leaving me with the choice of what to tackle first.

One of these was a Penguin Classics collection of some of London's most famous and most successful shorter stories (including White Fang and The Call of the Wild- the former of which I oddly remember seeing an animated children's TV series, many years ago), the stories that primarily made his name and stand out the most on a fairly-packed bibliography. The other one was a much different prospect; the controversial autobiographical work John Barleycorn. Truth be told, the back cover blurb sold me immediately, since rather than promise stories about a bunch of wolves and whatnot, it promised 'the first intelligent literary treatise on alcohol in American Literature' (Oxford World's Classics edition), with London writing in detail about his massive consumption of alcohol during his younger days; with the name John Barleycorn from the old US folk song used to represent alcohol as a familiar acquaintance.

I've always been interested in quality literature permeated by chemically altered states, and I genuinely think that the best US fiction of the second half of the last century revolved around the influence of certain such texts, by Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs et al, and, with that in mind, John Barleycorn read to me like an incredibly important influence; the similarities to Bukowski's novels primarily jumping to mind in terms of the construction of the story, its pacing, characterisation and chronology. London forsakes much of a sense of typical storytelling structure through his constant introspective analysis regarding the physical and mental effects that his huge alcohol intake had upon him. The real people he describes meeting during his youthful days working on the ocean and docks seem to be heavily styled to emphasize their wildness, (reminding me most of On the Road) , which is fun to read, but as a counterpoint he refrains from following an obvious chronological narrative, instead perhaps assuming that the reader is familiar with his life and career already.

Unfortunately I can't actually say I enjoyed the overall effect of London's style for this book, and it actually took me much longer to finish it than it usually does for a 200-page piece. I found that the lack of detail about his life a whole at the time, and his rather straightforward presentation of his younger character prevented me from caring enough about him to want to read on. I also found his musings on John Barleycorn (a nickname that became a drag to read so often) to be repetitive, detached from emotion, and lacking in much of a revelatory impact to conclude things. London's general prose skills are clearly exceptional, written in the Americanised English that always reminds me, through Hemmingway to Steinbeck, of Charles Dickins. It did come across as dry to me though, especially with a lack of story to drive it.

I seem to be criticising the book quite a bit here, but I think that has a lot to do with my own personal biases coming into play. I was looking for London to be another great storyteller for me to indulge in, but I chose a book that focuses on being self-analytical without giving much in the way of further context. Hopefully I'll enjoy London's short fiction a lot more, and it'll put John Barleycorn in a more interesting light. As a taster of London's skills, it was interesting, if a little disappointing, but not off-putting.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Missing Review Catch-Up

Though originally when I started this blog I wanted to fully review every book I read, the next two years of haphazard blogging proved that, for me, this was going to be impossible. It's not really anything to do with the amount of free time I have, but instead related to the main plan behind this blog in the first place; to push myself into becoming a better and more productive writer. Although trying to review everything helped with the latter aspect, it seemed to make the former harder when I came up against books that I simply didn't have the knowledge (or sometimes desire) with which to write a half-decent appraisal. The nadir of this came when I tried to write a review of established philosophy classic Fear and Trembling (which I keep accidentally writing as Fear and Loathing every damned time) by Soren Kiekergaard. It was less a review and more of an admission of incompetence.

So the best thing to do to tackle the few books I've read over the past year without fully reviewing them would be to put together a series of mini-reviews in one post, just to put my obsessive compulsive mind at rest- and as if by magic, here's a bunch of them right here. For those curious, the main reasons why I've skipped full reviews of certain books are that they're either too short, too technical, or too classical for me to put my ugly stamp on them.

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Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (1990/2004)
Paul Auster

I had no idea what Auggie Wren's Christmas Story was when I ordered it from Amazon a few months back. I'd never seen it in bookshops, rarely seen it listen in the usual 'also by this author' pages, and never looked at a summary on Wikipedia thanks to its mysterious and definitive red font colour status. I knew I had to have it regardless, since I'm working on a complete Auster collection, and was excited by the mystery of what this book might actually be. Obviously I worked out that it might be a story about Christmas.

When the Amazon package turned up at my door (well, my mother's door actually, since my apartment doesn't have a big enough letterbox for parcels, so I send them all to her), the mystery was revealed and left me feeling like I'd been more than a little ripped off, but also I didn't mind too much. Auggie Wren's Christmas story, it turns out, was originally a short story commissioned by The New York Times way back in 1990, back when Auster was the new in-thing in the NY literary world thanks to The New York Trilogy. This 2004 edition is a small hardback re-release featuring art by Isol (a woman I didn't know anything about prior to this, but apparently is a very highly-regarded children's illustrator). At no more than a few thousand words, the story and images barely make 30 pages, making it automatically not worth buying if you're not a huge Auster fan.

The story is a very nice, thoughtful modern Christmas tale, one that embodies the more intellectual and introspective side of the season thanks to being utterly Auster in its nature. Written early in Auster's career as a novelist, it's very much in the mold of The New York Trilogy and Moon Palace. I enjoyed it so much that I wish Auster would try out more short stories in the future. Unfortunately I didn't get the appeal of the art at all. Done in a style that I couldn't possibly name or even it seems describe, I didn't find it much to look at. Altogether then, considering the brevity of the text and non-interest of the art, it was a bit of a rip-off, but I'm in complete Auster fan-mode at this point in my life so it didn't really matter.

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The Disappearing Spoon- And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (2011)
Sam Keane

The Disappearing Spoon was another attempt to try and break my way into somewhat understanding some aspects of science, since it seems to be the type of real world thing I should know something about, rather than just constantly writing about people and events that aren't real. Seriously though, I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable with science as I should be, so I'm at the point where I think trying to write a full review of a book like this would be redundant. In the past I have written a couple of science book reviews here (Elephants on Acid being the most recent), but The Disappearing Spoon fell short by addressing a subject I really needed some inspiration to get interested in and then not providing it. The book, if you didn't guess by the title, is about the elements and all that.

As a writer in the genre of popular science, Sam Keane's main task is to get on board all the stupid people like me who really don't know what he's talking about, by being affable and enthusiastic, while all the while leading them on a coherent path that somewhat resembles a narrative. He's okay at the former, but the latter is where this book really fell apart in my eyes, since it's essentially a collection of tangentially linked stories of scientific discovery and the occasional weirdness. As a result the book tackles human history just as much as scientific fact, which I appreciated, but once I'd finished I really didn't feel like I'd learned anything. That's probably mostly my fault, but it does mean that ultimately I can't particularly recommend The Disappearing Spoon as an enlightening read.

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 Signal To Noise (1992)
Neil Gaiman - Art by Dave McKean


I like Neil Gaiman, I really do, I'll read anything with his name on it, but I try not too expect too much each time. Gaiman has the mind of a genius storyteller, something he's proven time and time again over the years through his various short story collections, and of course his magnum opus (I love that phrase) the inestimably great The Sandman, a comic book series I've been meaning to write about on this blog for far too long but just don't have the courage. The problem is, in my opinion, that despite Gaiman's ability to develop a story like few others, his actual prose can often come up a little short. I don't think any of his longer novels can truly be called classics in the usual sense- alright, American Gods is probably a fantasy classic- and as such his best novel, again in my opinion obviously, was the co-authored Good Omens with Terry Pratchett. 

What I'm trying to say is that I wasn't surprised when I found Signal To Noise to be a very pretentious book with very little to offer, despite its creator's credentials. Providing the art for this graphic novel- for that is what it is- was Dave McKeane, most famous in comics for his artwork on Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately I've never been particularly taken with McKean's neo-Gothic patchwork art style, as though it's very effective in establishing mood, I find it terrible at portraying a cohesive panel-to-panel story. I'm not sure how much of a part the art played in my lack of interest in the story, but it certainly played a part. The bottom line though was I found Gaiman's writing in Signal To Noise to be pretentious in its constant efforts to try and sound deep and meaningful, without any depth behind the attempted gravitas.

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 Doctor Faustus (1592)
Christopher Marlowe


To give it its full title, Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus will always hold a special place in my memory for being chronologically the first text I studied at University, in the English Literature department of a big university in a small town on the coast of Wales. Truth be told, I was never the most diligent student, and often if a book didn't take my interest I'd barely study it; especially if it was historically important and not particularly interesting to read today. Faustus, thank god, despite certain features that put me off, is still a rather entertaining play, and one that rewrote the old Germanic tale and defined the notion of the Faustian Pact. It's wordy influence crosses boundaries of interest for those who study Shakespeare (for Marlowe is his closest predecessor, to the extent that conspiracy theorists suggest they were the same person) and for those more into romanticism.

Personally I enjoy the bombastic, intentionally self-important tone of it all. My typical problem with the vast majority of classical literature in this vain is that I find extended decorative prose to be kind of annoying, frustratingly avoiding the issue of explaining things for the sake of sounding impressive and being classed as poetry. I'm way more of a fan of minimalism, as my love for Bukowski and Orwell hopefully shows. Marlow's Faustus, however, gets a pass from me in this respect because it's a very straightforward story with a straightforward plot, and the over-written dialogue to me represents the folly of Faustus' assumptions of self-control and Mephistopheles' amusement at his arrogance. I re-read the play recently since I found a nice hard-bound old copy also containing the rather similar topic of the review below. I much, much preferred Marlowe's work.

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Faust (1829)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  
I had to buy the hardback mentioned above, since though I already had a copy of Marlowe's Faustus somewhere on my bookshelves I'd never read the probably-even-more-fanous version of the folktale in Goethe's Faust, and needed to remedy that. I suppose that even beforehand I knew I most likely wasn't going to enjoy it a huge amount, especially since, unlike Marlowe's Faustus, Goethe's didn't have the advantage in my eyes of being associated with one of the definitive times of my life. There's also the consideration that my very slight exposure to Germanic literature so far had shown me that the style (translated, anyway), probably wasn't really for me thanks to the complete lack of humour and uber-seriousness.

As a result, I'm not going to try and properly review Goethe's Faust because I'm nowhere near capable of it. I can say that, reading it in 2014 (and taking a long time about it) reminded me that I don't like flowery poetry since I can't be bothered to spend the time doing the research to translate the antiquated terms or many intellectual references, and that's obviously my fault rather than the book. I'm sure that if I had a capable teacher leading me through it I would've enjoyed Faust, and maybe in the future I'll have reason to look at it again with more care.

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Complete Shorter Fiction (No idea what year and I've given up looking)
Oscar Wilde

I was optimistic about enjoying this Penguin collection of Oscar Wilde's Complete Shorter Fiction, having many years ago enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray, but as it turns out it didn't really happen. Wilde was far from a prolific prose author, hence this complete collection is a thin volume of some fairly random things, the most famous probably being The Canterville Ghost. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy or engage with any of these stories to anywhere near the same extent as Dorian Gray. Wilde's talent as a aesthetic writer is noticeable in every story, of course, but his style alone isn't enough for me, and I only have a very limited interest in the turn of the century British nobility. As a result I found myself deeply uninterested in a lot of these stories. 

Wilde also writes quite a few of his own fairy tales, included in this volume. They're okay, interesting at first but soon become repetitive, which is a feature not helped at all by Wilde's often-pompous prose style. I got a sense with each one of the stories in this collection that they were experimental writing exercises for Wilde to stretch and exercise his prose fiction muscles, and as a result of his reluctance to write in such a fashion very often (as opposed to his playwright career), he lacked the passion or methods to come up with many interesting short stories. I suppose I am glad I read it because it was interesting, just not as enjoyable as I hoped.

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That's it for now. I expect I'll have to do this again one day.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Haruki Murakami- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami
2013 (Japanese)/ 2014 (English)


Around two-and-half years ago I, like an idiot, decided to create a simple blog with a single objective; to obsessively compulsively review each book I read, as a personal exercise designed to make myself write more, and to understand the literature I'd read a little bit better. One of the first things I (badly) reviewed was Haruki Murakami's probably magnum opus 1Q84 (it really is quite a bad review, sorry about that), a book that I'd been extremely hyped for ever since I heard about it. So, when I finished reading, and after writing and posting my review, I automatically started tormenting myself with the knowledge that it'd no doubt be quite a while before Haruki Murakami wrote another book. From that point forward like any crazed fan I scoured the likely news sources for anything I could find, devouring each  eventual new snippet of information with aplomb. In the meantime I re-read After Dark and read Dance Dance Dance for the first time, and even wrote a pretty lazy preview of the upcoming Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I think what annoyed me the most about waiting was how the novel was being quickly translated into seemingly dozens of languages from all around the world, but the English translation (from the trusted Jay Rubin) kept me waiting and waiting.

When Colorless (which I'm going to spell without the 'u', even though as an Englishman this sickens me) finally arrived in the post, I didn't have the patience to allocate it a spot on the to-read pile and as soon as I'd finished The Art of Hunger I happily dove into it. Twenty-four hours later and I'd finished it, though its imprint has held tightly onto my thoughts ever since- to be absolutely honest, to do a fair review of this book I think I'd have to read it twice. I did contemplate doing that but there's only so many hours in the day and so many books to read, so for now I can only give my still raw impressions of a fascinating book. First things first, the immediate urge for many people on the Internet has been to classify this book within Murakami's bibliography in relation to its fellows. I hesitantly have to agree with the majority of opinions in classifying this as a 'minor' work, in that it's not an extremely complex odyssey in the manner of his longer works like Kafka on the Shore or 1Q84, but more in the vein of a more realistic psychological character study through relationships, like Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Again I emphasis I hesitate in using the word 'minor' since it seems to downgrade a book by its usage, which in this case would be very unfair. 

So, to the plot. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the tale of a man named Tsukuru Tazaki who was caused great pain under mysterious circumstances in his youth and as an adult is finally ready to discover what happened. As a student and adolescent, Tsukuru was part of a very close-knit group of friends whom he loved and relied upon, until one day the other four ousted him from the group permanently, without a single explanation. After going through a period of great sadness, Tsukuru is pushed into confronting his past by a new girlfriend, to finally contact his old friends to discover just why he was ostracized. I'll refrain from going in to more detail, since the magic of Murakami's writing is in his beautiful contemplative prose, the quality of which is so great that my clumsy attempts to describe it only does it a disservice. I will say that the hook of an interesting mystery, one that proposes more questions when investigated, drew me in to the narrative very quickly, but, in a slight criticism, I must confess to being disappointed that the book doesn't really follow the detective direction for very long.

The overriding factor to Colorless is that it's extremely introspective, and Tsukuru Tazaki might be Murakami's most introspective character yet. Murakami goes to great pains to describe his mind, to emphasise and clarify the emotions that life's troubles have forced upon him, and how his discoveries through the novel change him in certain ways. The theme of psychological rebirth is fairly upfront, as is the trauma of emotion, the pointlessness of hindsight, and a constant feeling of surreality. Unlike say, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, here Murakami chooses to limit his supernatural surrealist tendencies to strange dream sequences, leaving a few open-ended possibilities for the reader to mull over (that I won't spoil, but which hark back to previous situations in Murakami novels where characters are unsure what they have or haven't done and can never find out the truth).

Overall I can't help but agree with the majority that Colorless isn't on the same level of quality fiction as Murakami's epic longer novels because in comparison it's very limited. The cast of characters is small, the events are subdued, and it lacks a particularly dramatic ending. It's based around an easy to understand concept, tackled from a few different directions with the aid of a likable, normal main character, but without the aid of the excessive surrealness Murakami gives some of his novels. It's an experimental character study that revels in the development of said character, using episodes of his past and present to paint a cohesive picture of depression and eventual recovery, of the folly of youth, and of the power of a good relationship. I really enjoyed it on the same scale as I did Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, where the weirdness is controlled and mostly limited to tone, and the characters can breathe with the advantage of a realistic environment. I do, however, admittedly prefer Murakami's weird side so this definitely wasn't amongst my favourites, but I did remain enthralled throughout. It demands a re-read, and although that probably won't happen for a little while, the events of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will be floating in my mind for some time to come.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Paul Auster- The Art of Hunger

The Art of Hunger: 
Essays, Prefaces, Interviews, The Red Notebook
Penguin

Paul Auster
1993

Other Paul Auster Reviews- The Invention of Solitude - The Country of Last Things - Moon Palace - The Art of Hunger - Mr. Vertigo - Timbuktu - The Book of Illusions - Oracle Night - Invisible

“In the end, the art of hunger can be described as an existential art. It is a way of looking death in the face, and by death I mean death as we live it today: without God, without hope of salvation. Death as the abrupt and absurd end of life”

It's an obvious sign that you're obsessed with a particular author when you get unreasonably excited at the thought of reading their miscellany. Things like essays, unfinished scripts, correspondence and interviews might seem self-indulgent or irrelevant by people not quite so obsessed, but to you each individual random article is a potential goldmine of revelation. There are only a few authors in my collection who I've cared enough about to buy their assorted leftover crap, such as Douglas Adams' posthumous The Salmon of Doubt, Terry Pratchett's recent A Blink of the Screen, and, the master of extra-curricular collections, George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant. As anyone who's ever looked at this blog more than once might see, Paul Auster easily ranks alongside those greats as someone who's entire bibliography must be mine.

In many ways I think Paul Auster is potentially the ideal author for such a collection, since the works in his bibliography are extremely self-referential, drawing upon Auster's self-confessed obsessions (questions of identity and chance) and weaving them around absorbing narratives that always encourage the reader to think. He also a massive student of literature himself; each of his books is influenced by a seemingly limitless number of classic and cult classic authors whom laid the path out for Auster to re-imagine and re-invigourate. It's Auster's studentship that provides the foundation for this collection The Art of Hunger, released early on in Auster's career as a novelist but far enough into his life to be able to select a range of his non-fiction written from the 1970's onwards.

As indicated by its subheading, The Art of Hunger is split into four sections based on format. The first section collects a large selection of critical essays on literature, and was undoubtedly the section which dragged the most in certain places. Heavy critical literary analysis is never really fun to read, even if you're a fan of the subject matter. I hate to admit my own ignorance on this sort of thing, but I'd never read any of the main prose texts Auster wrote about in these pieces,  and while they each began on an interesting note, Auster's tendency to assume reader knowledge regarding the fairly obscure people and movements doesn't help maintain interest. Despite the heaviness of these essays, there are some interesting indications as to how Auster developed many of his ideas. The essays on poets and poetry, meanwhile, completely lost me since I just can't get into poetry. There's also an excellent article on French street performing legend Phillipe Petite that I very much enjoyed. 

The second section, the self-explanatory 'Prefaces', did nothing for me, since the majority of it was one Auster preface to a poetry collection that I couldn't begin to care about. It was the third section, 'Interviews', that gave me more of what I wanted; insight into the imagination and creative process behind some of my favourite books. One particularly long interview from 1990 sees Auster ruminating over the inspirations both direct and subconscious for his novels up to that point, from his autobiographical debut The Invention of Silence to the brilliant Moon Palace- as an aside, I was curious but not shocked to discover that his second fiction, In the Country of Last Things was something he started writing as a college student and eventually returned to after making his name.

The final section with the much more interesting title of 'The Red Notebook'  is the highlight of the book. It's comprised as a collection of short memoirs from Auster's life, each barely longer than a few pages, where the author highlights curious incidences that drove him to contemplate the powers of coincidence. Some are perhaps much less impressive than others, but the cumulative effect very much establishes the basis for one of Auster's obsessions that he toys with in his novels; specifically regarding the power of chance to change the course of an individual's life. Split into very small chapters, one includes Auster further extrapolating on the random phone call that inspired the beginning of City of Glass (first part of The New York Trilogy). It's far from Auster's best work, but it's a bemusing, thoughtful short piece, and the hidden gem I was hoping for when I picked this book up.

That's not to say that without it The Art of Hunger would be unenjoyable, but the more relaxing ending took my overall enjoyment of the book up a notch. Still, I wouldn't recommend it to anybody without a real attachment to Auster's bibliography since it's a rather self-indulgent compendium, but I did find it mostly interesting.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Max Brooks- World War Z

World War Z
Crown Publishing

Max Brooks
2006

“Most people don't believe something can happen until it already has. That's not stupidity or weakness, that's just human nature.”

Max Brook's 2006 pseudo-investigative journalism novel-turned-literary sale juggernaut World War Z by explaining how zombies took over the world prompted me to wonder the same question; just how did zombies take over the world? Well, the world of popular fiction on page and screen, at any rate. Sure, George R. Romero's first two zombie films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were brilliant, popular horror movies, but each sequel offered diminishing returns in quality or inspiration, and I really don't recall any big mainstream zombie fiction in the gap between Dawn of the Dead and the sudden explosion of popularity over the past six to eight years (if you discount cult successes like the Evil Dead films at anyrate). I think a large amount of credit for elevating the living dead so highly in the public imagination should go to Robert Kirkman and Image Comics The Walking Dead series from 2003, and obviously the subsequent TV show was massive, but maybe just as much credit should be given to (probably) the biggest selling zombie fiction novel of all time...

Brooks' more popular follow-up to his first novel The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z seems to have achieved a seriously impressive feat in terms of critical reception in relation to book sales, as in; it's all pretty good. I've lost count of the amount of times I've read people praising this novel over the last eight years, so it was about time that I, as self-processed zombie lover, read this book... and so I did, and found it a pretty quick and engaging read over its 300+ pages- but not without some noticeable flaws that stop me from seeing it as a future Penguin Modern Classic. Essentially the critical successes and failures of this book all ride on the author's specific and, some would say, ingenious choice of narrative formatting. The over-arching plot is instantly familiar; a deadly new virus resembling rabies suddenly appears in China, and a lack of understanding or investigation allows it to spread to other countries. As time goes on and the virus spreads, its effects quickly become clear- and no I'm not going to bother explaining them- leading to mass panic across the world as each country scrambles to send in its military to battle to problem, which all leads to the full-on World War Z of the title.

Max Brooks
It's easy to see how a premise like that could turn the heads of the millions of living dead fans out there and it certainly turned mine, but it's also the type of idea that isn't going to go anywhere without a capable author to stamp their mark on a simplistic genre. Brooks decision to frame the book as a series of in-depth interviews was an inspired and brave one, and ultimately directly results in both my favourite and least favourite aspects of the project. I'll be cynical and start with the problems; most notably Brooks set himself a difficult challenge when he forced himself to create dozens of individual characters from all over the globe; especially the first person interview-subject narrative meant each character needed their own voice, distinctive enough to avoid repetition and the subsequent eventual destruction of any audience suspense of disbelief. Overall I think he personally just about gets away with creating a decent ratio of interesting to inevitably dull characters. I apologise for being a literary snob, but to me Brooks really isn't a standout prose author like the kind I usually fawn over, but instead a perfectly capable storyteller with a sense of the screenwriter about him in terms of his mostly realistic dialogue. There were some examples of characters whose voices seemed identical, but then there were also some standout hits.

My favourite of these were two characters who gave their stories and then promptly teamed-up, Kondo Tatsumi and Sensei Tomonaga. With those two Brooks impressed me with his ability to make their voices distinctive from the book's many Westerners, and in doing so composed two compelling short stories containing action, horror and a poignant tone. One of the major advantages of choosing this type of format for his fictional journalism for Brooks was his chance to write a series of short stories with thematic similarities, letting him repeatedly capture the readers attention with fresh scenarios while constantly reinforcing the main points he wanted to make. Unfortunately for me, one of the key themes that just kept on reoccuring was Brooks interest in the technical aspects of war, leading him to veer away from the zombie killing and character refining for the sake of giving lots of details about the various military hardware being used to fight the war. I have no idea if any (or all) of them are even real but I assume so, and so that sort of writing most likely gives the book an air of legitimacy, but frankly I couldn't care less about any of that stuff. I wasn't really interested in much of the war-based drama to be honest, particularly in the fragmented way Brooks presents it through the various interviews.

In my opinion World War Z isn't good enough overall to deserve to be called a modern classic, but I did mostly enjoy it and can absolutely see it as a cult classic novel. The scope and ambition is admirable and leads to moments of great storytelling, but I don't think Brooks had the prose voice nor spark of ingenious to pull the the pieces into enough of a cohesive plot for the book to reach the levels that it might have. I think it could've especially done with being edited for length and really needed a better ending, but I can't help respecting how Brooks' approach to the stagnating zombie genre helped resurrect the living dead once more by moving away from the cliche of a small group of survivors by taking it global. A fun, derivative book that I likely won't read again, but should fondly remember.