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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Someone gave this book to me, so despite the sluggish pace and boomeriffic orgasming over The Good Old Days, I wanted to finish it. But I cannot. I cannot, because I did the smart thing and read the Wikipedia entry. My rationale was that, if I knew the ending wasn’t completely idiotic, I would be able to continue reading in good faith. In fairness, the post-time-travel post-apocalyptic ruin part of it did sound pretty good.

Unfortunately, this book is fucking stupid. Not just predictable and hackneyed, but just plain stupid. This is the sort of book that would have made a much better Hollywood film. The embarrassing nostalgia, the passing shallow acknowledgment that actually the 50s weren’t so great for a lot of people, and the painstaking attention to How Much Research I Did would have suited it. At least if I had watched a film like this, I would only have two hours of my life that I’d never get back instead of about 12.

It’s bad enough that King treats us to repeated scenes of the hero and his old-timey girlfriend in bed, complete with coy nudge-wink euphemisms for sex. It’s bad enough that the paint-by-numbers Crazy Ex-Husband subplot could have come straight from a Lifetime TV movie. It’s bad enough that the book manages to perform the impressive liberal contortion of decrying racism while at the same time failing to actually include any minorities as even ancillary characters. I’m not even going to get into the issue that not one but TWO female characters are disfigured and the point is made that it would be really great if they could get their faces fixed (because that’s what’s important: making them pretty again).

But what really fucks me off, what has actually enraged me to the point of writing about it, is the fact that the stupid bastard broke one of the most important rules of writing, which is this:

START THE STORY WHEN THE ACTION STARTS. NOT A MOMENT BEFORE.

We know the time travel tropes. Killing Hitler, stopping the Kennedy assassination, we know all the cliched events that people would go back in time to stop. And we know also the cliche that, as sure as you go back to the past to change something or help someone, you will find that somehow something equally bad has happened. Despite this, despite actually seeing the process in action the first time he went back in time via the magical diner, King’s intrepid protagonist gamely ventures back to 1958 so that five years later he can save JFK’s life. Because that will fix everything. No, really.

And it feels like five fucking years. We watch the protagonist create a new life for himself thanks to convenient fake IDs. We watch him move to Smalltown USA, become attached and start a relationship, all the while keeping a beady eye on Mr Oswald. Did he act alone? Was it a conspiracy? At this point, I don’t even fucking care, which is why I went to Wikipedia to find out if our hero succeeds. SPOILER: he does.

CAN YOU GUESS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

If you said ‘nuclear war,’ congratulations, you too could write a Stephen King book. And congratulations to Mr King, since this is the only part of the plot summary that didn’t sound like shitty Mad Men self-insert fanfiction. Turns out, if JFK had lived, George Wallace would have become president and incited nuclear war. Or something.

Once again the profoundly stupid hero learns that you should not fuck with the past, and apparently at the end there is a sappy reunion between him and his would-have-been girlfriend and oh my god are you fucking kidding me. Did someone kill Stephen King and replace him with Mitch Albom?

I can count on one hand all the books I’ve never finished. Well, now it’s probably two hands. I am not going to finish this book. And not because I find the baby boomer wish fulfillment sad and empty. Not because the gender and race politics are dodgy (I have read pretty much all his other books, so that is not unexpected). Not because it’s a lame idea that’s badly executed, and not because the book is one lengthy cliche. Because more so than any of these things or all of them put together, this book is just fucking dull. It is the literary equivalent of that guy at the party who’s not especially offensive, just a self-indulgent knob, so when he sidles over to tell you about his family history project (or his novel), you pretend you have to use the toilet and then go talk to someone outside.

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  • Actually turn pages. It might sound weird, but there’s a tactile pleasure in turning the pages of a book that scrolling a little button does not give.
  • Use it as a doorstop. If it’s a thin book, wedge it under the door. If it’s, say, The Stand, prop the door open with it.
  • Build a fort out of them. Unless you have a lot of money and a lot of Kindles.
  • Do origami. Fold paper airplanes. That sort of thing.
  • Throw it at the cat. Well, you can throw a Kindle at a cat, but only the once, and only if you don’t want to use it ever again.
  • Burn it. Apparently books don’t actually burn that well, on account of the chemicals in the paper, but I bet they burn better than a Kindle.
  • Close it or put it down with emphasis. If it’s a thick enough book, you can get a lot of emphasis. And you don’t have to worry about cracking a screen.
  • Write things in it. I think Kindles have some kind of note-taking capacity now, but it’s not the same is it?
  • Hold it up in just such a way to display the title to any interested persons who might be impressed by it. If you were that kind of twat.
  • Lend it to someone. You can lend someone your Kindle, but you can’t lend them a book off your Kindle, now can you?
  • Write smartarse notes in it. I enjoy picking up books I used for courses and finding things like ‘LOL NO’ written in the margins. For I am a child.
This post brought to you by curmudgeonliness, intractability, and boredom.

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It’s important to read in the genre you’re working in and to be aware of what’s influencing you, for one really good reason: you never know who you might be ripping off.

Someone told me recently that something I’m working on reminded them of Raymond Chandler. I’d never read Raymond Chandler, so this seemed odd to me. I started reading one, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t some downright spooky resonances.

I’ve consumed three Chandler books almost right in a row. And I love them, if only for passages like this:

The other part of of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’s daughter and had five kids and read them the funny paper on Sunday morning and smacked their heads when they got out of line and squabbled with the wife about how much spending money they were to get an what programmes they could have on the radio or TV set. I might even have got rich– small-town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday, and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big, sordid, dirty, crooked city.

— The Long Goodbye

I have a weak spot for authors who both amuse me and reach down into the back of my brain and pull out the things that I’m most afraid of. To hell with serial killers and zombies, I’m scared of stagnant small towns and feeling trapped. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked Stephen King so much: most of his horror stories are set in sleepy Maine towns populated by the sort of people I remember from my childhood. I’ve never actually thought about that before. I think King even says at one point that what is scary is not monsters under the bed but the monsters that lurk inside other people.

What I admire about Raymond Chandler (sometimes in stark contrast to Stephen King) is his ability to use a few words to their maximum. There isn’t a wasted word in a Chandler novel, even when he’s using odd similes and metaphors to describe people and feelings. Somehow Chandler manages to make phrases like “purring like four tigers after dinner”* work, whereas authors like Leslie Charteris tend to just sound silly. (The incessant descriptions of how charming and handsome his hero is really don’t help.)

So, lessons learned. Read. Be aware of what’s influencing you so that you can manage that influence. And: it is a good and necessary thing to show your work to the right people. Terrifying, but necessary. An intelligent and interested reader will point out things you didn’t notice with your nose up next to the words. They will sometimes force you to do a lot of rewriting, but that’s the price of making a good story.

 

*Tigers don’t actually purr.

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That’s right, I’m officially employed, so I’m officially one of those evil immigrants who comes into Britain and takes jobs away from hard-working put-upon English people. Now that my dissertation is handed in (thank god), this means two things: I have a source of income, and I spend half my day commuting. I’ve started taking the bus because it’s cheaper than the train, so my commute, from my house to my job, officially takes two hours. Which is ridiculous. A quarter of my waking day is spent on buses.

Of course, my job also means that I get to handle books. Lots of them. Old books. Books that are fifty, a hundred, TWO HUNDRED years old. It’s awesome. Except for the part where it’s a bit tedious. At some point in the near future I will post about the weird, funny, and disturbing things I run across, like the book of limericks that featured a naked man on the front with a huge flower growing up between his legs. They were THOSE kind of limericks.

One of the (few) perks is that I get to take home the books that we throw out. I have a growing stack next to my desk, and I now officially own three different versions of Brideshead Revisited. I’m not letting myself take anything else home until after I move house.

The quasi-direct result of this is that I’m starting to read again (usually on aforementioned bus). Yesterday was Hannibal Rising, the hilariously ridiculous origin story of the world’s most urbane mass murderer, Hannibal Lecter. Thomas Harris’s books are a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re ridiculous, but this one was entertaining enough to keep me up until midnight finishing it. I’ve read Hannibal several times. I think I was the only person who actually liked the (again, ridiculous) ending.

Now it’s Vintage Wodehouse, which has made me laugh out loud several times. Mostly the joke about how it’s a Russian sport to try to assassinate Lenin with revolvers.

And reading always takes me to writing. I haven’t written anything in a while that wasn’t related to my dissertation, and I feel the need to… something that rhymes with ‘need.’ The need to screed? Anyway. Once I’ve recovered from this exhausting week, I’m going to get back on the wagon and work on a couple of things I have sitting around. It’s amazing how taking time away from a piece can clarify things.

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There is a particular type of person who self-identifies as ‘rational.’ They sometimes use other words– inquisitive, logical, open-minded– but the intent is much the same: to place themselves on an intellectual hierarchy above those simple creatures that make decisions based on emotions and irrational beliefs. They don’t say that, of course, because that would make them look egocentric, but it doesn’t take too much thought to figure out that that is exactly what they mean.

These people should read Why People Believe Weird Things. It’s a fascinating book that lays out the reasons why otherwise ‘rational’ people believe in things like creationism, ESP, and the non-existence of the Holocaust.* What’s nice is that Michael Shermer manages to do this without sounding like a self-important ass chuckling at the folly of lesser human beings.

I hate to boil the book down to a few sentences, because it really is worth a read (or several), but the gist of it is that human beings selectively remember things that support their beliefs and ignore those things that don’t. It’s not a groundbreaking idea by any means, but Shermer’s writing is engaging, and it’s refreshing to see someone use evolutionary psychology for something besides justifying patriarchal gender roles.

This post brought to you by the realisation that I don’t do nearly enough reading these days.

*I use ‘rational’ in quotes because at the end of the day, we are all still monkeys running from the thunder.

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