Holly got some DVDs from the library the other day, and one of them was The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), based on the book by John Fowles, which I’d read in China. I remembered that there was a Victorian gentleman and he ends up sort of ruined because of his interest in a woman not his fiancee, and I remembered that it had an intriguing double ending.
What they did to bring the book to the screen was pretty awesome. There are two stories in the movie: the story of the French Lieutenant’s Woman and the story of the two lead actors in the film adaptation of the book they’re shooting and their romantic entanglement with each other. It’s kind of awesome.
Early on we see them rehearsing scenes that meld into the story. They talk about the statistics behind how many Victorian prostitutes there were in their offtime. Late in the movie, the lead actress’ partner asks the lead actor what they decided to do about the ending of the book. “Which ending are you going to use?” he asks. It’s all very meta and Harold Pinter’s adaptation adds so much in kind of the same way Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002) does (and Holly’s just pointed out to me that Meryl Streep is in both films). Adaptation’s the only movie I can think of that does this kind of thing, but I’d love to hear about more.
Last night I finished William Gibson’s latest book, Zero History. I’ve read some reviews saying it is his best book, but I’m not sure (I’m partial to the old cyberpunk novels, what can I say?). But I did really like this one, much better than Spook Country. Which is interesting because Zero History is a sequel, the third in the Bigend trilogy. Hollis Henry, the protagonist from Spook Country and Milgrim, a character from Pattern Recognition (which I really love) are both hired by extravagantly wealthy and curious businessman Hubertus Bigend (he’s Belgian originally, so you can pronounce his name the way it looks or kind of frenchified) to investigate some jeans.
What’s cool about the book is how it deals wish fashion and military contracting. The plot itself is pretty simple, but the worlds that Hollis and Milgrim are moving through are strange but entirely in our branded present. The book’s filled with iPhones and Macs to such a degree that when a character uses a no-name computer it’s really notable. There’s discussion of the recursion of military influenced clothing on fashion and how boys wear clothes to try and have themselves mistaken for people with skills they don’t have, like they’re special forces or something.
The plot, well, it pushes the characters along. I don’t read Gibson novels for the plot. This one was especially odd because the protagonists are both working for someone they don’t really like and don’t really care about, so there’s a distance between them and needing to reach their goals. As it goes on they do have more of a stake in the resolution but the value here is seeing this military-fashion complex kind of world.
It made me want to care about my clothes more than I do.
I loved the fuck out of this book. Kraken is China Mieville’s second book to come out in the last year. It’s a lot fatter than The City & The City but more straightforward. Basically there’s a giant squid preserved at the Darwin Centre in London. And then it disappears. We follow a bunch of characters (primarily the curator who discovered the missing squid) who’re trying to find out where it went and why and how. There are occult cops, and apocalyptic squid-cults, and people learning about the weirdness in London through internet forums. There’s a crime boss who is known as Tattoo because he was magically imprisoned on some guy’s back as a tattoo. This crime boss has a workshop where he does experiments on people and changes them into living radios and bipeds with fists for hands (and dicks). There are Londonmancers and djinn, and the Sea has an embassy for those in the know. Super fucking cool book.
It was slightly less “spin in a completely new direction at each turn” than Iron Council (which is my favourite Mieville) and not as much of a mindfuck as The City & The City (tied for favourite), but yes, great stuff.
If you like it, and play roleplaying games, check out Unknown Armies from Atlas Games. It’s a game that does a lot of similar things with a bit more structure to make it gamable.
In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.
Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.
But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.
Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).
It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?
I was volunteering at the Manitoba Libraries Conference today and I learned… not a lot about library stuff. This is because I was working the registration desk in the afternoon and almost everyone had registered in the morning. I pointed people towards the rooms for their annual general meetings and stuff, but there wasn’t a lot of complex work to do. Selah.
That actually turned out great because I was working with this nearly-90-year-old guy at the desk. He was the kind of old guy who just liked to talk. He talked about victory gardens in World War 2. He talked about Henry Morgenthaler, and about the creation of the Canadian health care system. He talked about an 1100 year old bible with marginal notes written in French from some museum in London. He talked about the Mackenzie King diary and how he found the errors in the digital copies made by the National Library. He talked about his daughter giving basic law school lessons in Laos: “You see, they used to have a Napoleonic code and then the communists got rid of it all. Now that people are allowed to own things they need lawyers to teach them how contracts and wills work.”
He told a great story about a colleague of his from Finland who went to a conference in Tokyo in the early 1970s. By train. There was problem after problem with visas and all these things to get through Russia and China. Once he was on the train and they were crossing Siberia they kept on having to stop to let trains loaded with tanks pass them “on their way to the Chinese frontier.” He told me about getting kicked out of an art exhibition in Madrid because Franco’s soldiers were setting up machine guns.
He talked about the importance of early child development and how all the fundamentals we need to be able to learn are pretty much set by the time we’re three, so when those get messed with, it’s catastrophic for a society. He talked about how in Canada, the more educated you are, the cheaper your healthcare is, which is why early childhood education, “especially in our northern communities” is so important.
He’s got some chip in his car that monitors his driving habits because he’s part of a study to try and “keep old fogeys like me off the road.” He wasn’t angry about it, just talking. He’s got a little bit of old man drift to him, but you could tell he’s a smart guy. He was a doctor, now retired so he has time to be on library advisory boards. He told me about some of the rural boards where politicians get on the board to make policies and proudly proclaim “I’ve never read a book in my life!” and he’s there to try and counter that.
So yes, I didn’t do a whole lot, but got to hang out with the guy I’d like to be in 60 years.
Saci Lloyd’s book The Carbon Diaries 2015 was a good, near-future not-very-sf tale. It’s set in 2015 and the UK has begun carbon rationing in an effort to drop emissions by 60%. This changes everyone’s lives. No more air travel, no more mangoes, no more heat.
The main character is a 16 year old named Laura. She’s the bass player in a punk band and is in love with the boy next door. Her father goes survivalist, her mother pretends nothing is wrong and her sister who’s had her gap year cancelled gets the whole house into trouble.
It’s presented as a diary which kind of tones down the plottish elements. The weather is a huge part of the book, and everything everyone does is in reaction to the environment. It really is a book about people having to reshape their lives. And it’s grim.
The parents kind of behave exaggeratedly and unlike real people, but the book is in the YA category so bizarre parents make sense.
In all, a good book that I’ll be recommending to our Teen Book Club this week.
I guess A.A. Gill is a food writer in England, but all I’ve ever read of his stuff are his travel essays, which Previous Convictions is a collection of. He writes about hunting and America and some guy from a show called Top Gear who can’t stand hanging around gearheads. You’d think from the back of the book blurbs that he was insanely cantankerous and mean, but the essays come off as from an interested person writing without pulling too many punches. If I remember the other book of his that I read, A.A. Gill is Away, it had many more sweeping judgments on cultures. I remember Japan being fundamentally psychologically disturbed in that book.
The weirdest essay was about him taking his kids to Oman for Spring Break. The idea was to go somewhere an eight hour flight away (from London) but that was totally different. I guess the essay wasn’t that weird but the amount of money involved in living a life like that kind of amazed me.
Un Lun Dun is China Mieville’s book for younger readers. There’s less horriffic imagery than in the New Crobuzon books and the language is much cleaned up. I brought it in for Teen Book Club but no one took it home that day. Le sigh.
The story is about two girls in London who get summoned to the magickal abcity UnLondon (and yes the idea is similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere) because the one girl is the Chosen One, destined to help UnLondon fight off this terrible menace threatening blah blah blah. So things go on and along and there are untrustworthy ghost-boys and conductors of air-buses and binjas and everyone avoids the horrible flesh-eating giraffes. Great. Then, the girls find the professor who’ll make everything right again and they get to go home to London. Hooray! Everything’s wrapped up in a nice neat little package.
But we’re only a third of the way into the book.
Deeba, who was not the Chosen One, remembers UnLondon but Zanna (the Chosen One) has had her memories of the place removed because she was injured by the beast down there. The UnChosen One starts realizing that they’d actually fucked up majorly and has to find a way back to UnLondon to put things right. This is where it got awesome, because Deeba heads down without the prophecy backing her up. There are 7 steps the Chosen One was supposed to follow to find the weapon that would deal with blah blah blah but she says “We don’t have time to get each of these 7 things let’s just hit the last one; it’ll be the most important right?” Which is the kind of thing you’d expect someone real to do, someone not bound by “how things work in these kinds of stories.” I loved it.
So yes, Un Lun Dun. Good stuff.
Reading J.G. Ballard books is an activity I find fraught with danger. There are some I really like and some that I really hate. I was pleased to find Millennium People fell into the former category.
The story is of a revolution of the middle class who are the new proletariat, stuck in their unaffordable mortgages, forced to pay outrageous school fees and for parking at meters outside their homes. There are terrorist acts that are designed to be pointless and a person caught up in all this looking for clues to the killer of his wife (she died in an explosion at Heathrow). It reminded me a bit of Fight Club, but without being focused on masculinity as the revolution’s driving trait. There were many Ballardian touches, like the protagonist’s wife who used crutches and a car with modified hand controls even though she didn’t need them any more, loads of smashed up cars a scene at a flight school.
The biggest impediment to my enjoyment of the book was its Britishness. Not knowing the geography I felt like all the neighbourhoods should have been more recognizable, like I was missing reams of information by not having an idea of what Twickenham was like. And the class stuff in general didn’t resonate with my experience of life, though again, we try to ignore that kind of stuff in North America, right? So every time they’re making these impassioned speeches about school fees and stuff, I feel slightly out of it, going “that doesn’t seem so middle-class to me.”