Book Challenge 2: The Bookening

The Rules:

  1. Pick a book you love and want others to read
  2. Write something along the lines of ‘Hello, I’m a book, please read me and when you’re done write your name on the back page and give me to someone else to read’
  3.  Leave the book somewhere conspicuous and walk away

I’ve suggested that people write their names on the back page simply because that way everyone has the option of imagining the book’s journey and wondering about its previous owners, which is a silly but hopefully rather pleasant way to pass 5 minutes.  Besides which, we could all do with a bit of a mystery from time to time.

In other words, while the last book challenge was about kindness, this one is about whimsy and naivety, because the world could do with a bit more of both.
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Some time ago a piece I wrote about a book was Freshly Pressed by WordPress – showcased on their webpage of the same name, thereby attracting a few more readers to the blog. I, by now drunk on the untold power of reaching a vanishingly small number of people, chose to abuse said power by testing my newfound followers.

Accordingly, I issued a book challenge, which was inspired by a couple of experiences you can read about here. The challenge was simple: pick a book, find a stranger and convince the stranger to take the book on the basis that doing something nice without the likelihood of getting anything in return brightens up everybody’s day without being all karmic vegan hippy about things.

For me it was easier said than done. In part this was because the morning commute is hardly a demonstration of the social instincts of humanity but mainly because whenever I’m spoken to by someone I don’t know I have to fight the urge to shout ‘stranger danger’ and run away shrieking like a banshee mid-coitus. As you can imagine this makes job interviews a bit tricky. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not antisocial, just a bit childish (you can find more evidence of this here, here and here).

A few people took up the challenge, but although I’d intended it to be a thing – yeah Frood, he’s the guy who gives people reading material – I never did it again. So I went back to the drawing board and refined the challenge. The plan now is just to leave the odd book lying around with an introduction outlining the challenge and directing whoever picks up the book to this blog so that if the mood takes them they can complain about my littering or call me an epithet.

First up to be sent out into the world seeking fame and fortune will be In Love by Alfred Hayes, which is a spectacular little novel about heartbreak that I probably won’t read again.

I expect that it’ll probably end up in the bin, but for once I’m going abandon my usual cynicism: it’s definitely going to be found, adopted and adored, it’s absolutely going to make someone’s day, if only because when did you last get something for nothing?

And if you out there in internetland fancy taking up either book challenge, please, I’d love to hear all about it.

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On Why The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Isn’t What You Probably Maybe Think It Is. Possibly.

“the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.”

Arthur Dent enjoys cricket and tea and masks his crippling emotional repression and general reserve with a nice line in dry understatement. He has a friend; an out-of-work actor from Guildford called Ford Prefect. Except Ford’s not from Guildford, he’s not even from Surrey. He’s from a planet near Betelgeuse, which can’t be accessed via the A3.

And then the planet Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Suffice it to say, Arthur isn’t exactly prepared for this eventuality.

The trilogy in 5 parts (and definitely no more than that) is a clever-but-silly sci-fi saga, gently existential with cups of tea, towels and dressing gowns.

Between the movie, TV show and radio play I’ve always vaguely wondered how I’d gotten it so wrong with the books. After all I grew up on a diet of spiritual bedfellows Monty Python, Radio 4 comedy and Blackadder. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry exemplified precisely this sort of cosy British humour for people who appreciate that not all jokes need involve penises or naughty words. In fact, author Douglas Adams was 1 of 2 people (the other being Neil Innes) to be given a writing credit by the Python team.

In the interests of full disclosure, I adore the books but abhor the rest. Perhaps it’s because for me the series isn’t Stephen Fry voicing the eponymous Guide and certainly isn’t old-fashioned or gentle.

Because it’s actually properly, nightmarishly, totally fucking dark.

Let’s start at the start: “most of the people were unhappy for pretty much of the time.” The book is written in an easy breezy, light-hearted fashion designed to hide the darkness but it’s there, hidden beneath the witticisms and puns, beneath the cricket, tea, bathrobes, chesterfield sofas, beneath even the fundamental universality of the gin and tonic. And, of course, beneath the towel.

That bloody towel is symbolic of everything lacking in most versions. As the eponymous Guide would have it, a man who knows where his towel is probably organised enough to possess all sorts of ostensibly more important things and is thus more likely to be lent said things by strangers. That is, one of the fundamental uses of the towel is to mislead perfect strangers in order to take advantage of them. Half the joke goes missing if that subtext is jettisoned.

And to make matters worse, Arthur’s in a dressing gown, probably the least appropriate apparel for traipsing around a universe that is at best indifferent to your continuing existence and at worst actively wants to end it. See above.

And finally to make matters even more worser than that (me speak English good), having survived the destruction of Earth, the appalling poetry of officious aliens and the depths of space, he ends up in a stolen spaceship so advanced as to have rendered hyperspace bypasses obsolete. Said spaceship’s existence predates the destruction of the Earth.

Which means that Earth was destroyed for absolutely no reason whatsoever. See above.

The fact that he shares this spaceship with a woman he failed to get off with at a party and the fugitive ex-president of the galaxy for whom she’d quickly abandoned him only adds insult to injury. Awkward…

Naturally enough Arthur’s response is to spend much of the first couple of books pining for a half-decent cup of tea.

But even this is almost pitifully emblematic. Replace the cup of tea with any other edible cultural signifier, particularly one that means something to you personally and you’ll see what I mean. People find comfort in food and drink, particularly those that remind them of home or security. Almost everyone Arthur has ever loved, despised or merely encountered is dead and gone, everything he has ever known no longer exists and will only ever be summed up by the words ‘mostly harmless’.

There’s no going back for Arthur, and he’s not quite bursting with useful talents or transferable skills, let alone any desire whatsoever to embrace his new circumstances. The tea represents a tiny reminder of a lost reality to which he can never return (later on of course he does, several times, but at this point he doesn’t know that).

It’s a form of grief in other words.

Over the course of the series the tone will evolve as we experience the galaxy through Arthur’s eyes and see him in turn become another jaded veteran, eventually turning his back on the galaxy to find a way home in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.

That novel would have been a satisfying end to the series, offering some semblance of a happy ending for most of the characters. SLATFATF offers a diametric opposite of the previous 3 novels, with Arthur embracing technology and positivity and finding love home on Earth. The novel sees him ultimately making the conscious decision to return to space exploration with his new squeeze despite his previous experiences living as a bewildered refugee from an obliterated civilisation fearful of the galaxy’s next horror. I believe that’s called taking ownership.

But of course that positive outlook was swiftly undone by series closer Mostly Harmless, far and away the bleakest book, which painted the galaxy and its inhabitants as unthinkingly cruel, reflexively cynical; bitter. Mostly Harmless returned to the inherent technophobia of the series with a Hitchhiker’s Guide Mk II and introduced a new character in the form of Trillian and Arthur’s daughter, a girl whose bad experiences of the galaxy are more extreme even than Arthur’s own.

Douglas Adams intended to write a sixth instalment prior to his untimely death. He claimed to have been in a very dark place when he wrote Mostly Harmless and felt afterwards that maybe they’d deserved a slightly nicer send off.

So there you have it, the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – on balance maybe not all that suitable for your 12 year old kid…

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If all that hasn’t convinced you, I’ve one last argument up my sleeve: customer service doors that take enormous (and quite vocal) pleasure in opening for you.

Horrifying.

Friday’s Mental Exercise

Audiobooks.  Like reading, but you can play videogames at the same time.

I swiped an idea for a fun game from here – creating your own soundtrack to the film of the book in your head.

But that’s too labour-intensive, so instead, the object here is to find the perfect actor’s voice to narrate the book and save yourself the effort of having to read the damn thing.

To get you started, here are some examples:

Wuthering Heights

One of the million-strong Bronte sisters’ classic novels, this intense love/revenge story is one of the cornerstones of English literature.  Obviously the audiobook would be read by Sylvester Stallone.  I for one would love to hear his take on the thick Yorkshire accent of that old servant Joe chap.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Dignified, elegant Kristen Scott-Thomas has an accent most Americans would consider to be quintessentially British.  Mellifluous if slightly stuck-up with a wry undertone like she’s none-too-subtly taking the piss out of you and yours.

Basically, I just want to hear her say:

“I don’t make love … I fuck … hard.”

À La Recherche du Temps Perdu

AKA A Remembrance of Things Past. One of the most respected* novels of the twentieth century, all seven (SEVEN?!) volumes of Marcel Proust’s magnum-sized opus are impenetrably dense.  Flashbacks, motifs, separation anxiety, homosexuality, getting jiggy in front of a portrait of daddy and more themes than you could possibly want or need.  And who could forget the involuntary memories?

There can be only one voice to sustain you through all that.

Adam West.

*To quote Evelyn Waugh “I am reading Proust for the first time…and am surprised to find him a mental defective”

Putting the Bukowski in Bukowski Charcoal Grill

The first rule of burger club is you do not talk about burger club. The second rule is…you get the picture. An Antipodean of my acquaintance has a burger club with some friends – once a month on a particular day they try out a different burger place in London.

This time they’re trying out a place in Shoreditch, East London. The place is called Bukowski Charcoal Grill.

Here is a link to their website.

My first thought is ‘why is it called Bukowski Charcoal Grill?’ After all, to my certain knowledge Bukowski never wrote a book called ‘I Fucking Love Burgers’ by Charles Bukowski. And I’m reasonably certain that he preferred to drink his meals. Anyway, this place doesn’t even offer ham on rye.

Thank you, I’m here all night.

Just one of those mysteries. Maybe BCG doesn’t have anything to do with THE Bukowski, maybe no Bukowski manuscript has ever been inside either BCG location.

Or maybe, and I’m spitballing here but it’s definitely true, maybe Bukowski didn’t pass away in 1994. Maybe he simply left LA and the USA altogether to settle in another acronymtastic place. Maybe he spent some time in UAE while waiting for a visa to DRC, maybe he was put off by the instability of that region, discovered too late that the USSR no longer exists and instead tossed a coin – heads: DPRK, tails: UK.

Maybe it landed tails.

Maybe Charles Bukowski grills burgers hiding in plain sight at the Shoreditch site of Bukowski Charcoal Grill.

Like I said, it’s just a theory, but it’s definitely true.

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If you’re in some way involved with BCG, if you’ve ever been there, IF YOU KNOW THE ANSWER please tell me – it’s doing my head in as I understand people from Manchester circa 1987 are wont to say.

Also, is the place actually any good?

As usual, fevered speculation is not just welcome but actively encouraged.

Cage Match Special: Ebooks vs Real Books

The Victorians future-proofed their houses to enable residents and later generations to modify the internal space according to need.  By the 1960s the Victorian style was considered ugly and wasteful – the future was utilitarian, in any colour or material you wanted provided it was poured concrete. 

The 70s vernacular is now considered the architectural equivalent of swearing.  

Space in any urban environment is forever at a premium. And as cities become more crowded, modern needs demand that living spaces be more versatile to combat the cupboard-like proportions of the average home.  Builders these days, in London at least (or so it might appear), subscribe to the principle ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em expensive’. 

Luckily there are all these new-fangled technologies to remove the clutter from our lives – chunky vinyl gave way to nifty CDs to the slow death of the hard format.  No need for physical copies of music or film.  Virtual friends are the same as real ones with the added bonus that you don’t have to feed them. Same with books (not that I feed my books).

The ebook is not a thing of beauty, but it might be a joy forever.  Unlike Keats. 

It’s certainly convenient – no more will I have to chop down a tree, pulp it, treat it, turn it into paper, let it dry, bind it into a book and then copy out longhand whichever novel it is I don’t want to pay for.  And then weep bitter tears once I realise that I don’t have enough pages and will forever wonder what actually happened to Madame Bovary.

I like to think it all worked out.

I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking “Profane Words! The ebook is a godless contraption, an abomination abhorrent to all right-thinking men.”  But hear me out: you can have whole entire libraries at your fingertips; you can take it to a café, or on holiday.  It’s light and you can wedge it into a special cover so strangers think it’s an iPad.

Best of all, if you find yourself wanting to read something that snobs like me call post-literate, no-one ever has to know.  Except that person reading over your shoulder, of course – there’s always one.  Fifty Shades of Dan Brown gets your knickers in a twist?  Age gap too great for Nancy Drew (“my god he’s old enough to be her father”)?  Some people, especially men, are too ashamed to read low end chick-lit in public – no longer.

Wait.  How old is Nancy Drew supposed to be again?

But there’s a downside.  No, not the romance of pulped and bound trees with their intoxicating paper smells and lovingly crafted covers hinting at the boundless joys within.  Not the promise, or the anticipation of a pristine spine.  As the French say, the best part of the affair is the walk up the stairs. 

There might be no inherent romance to an ebook, but it’s the future, only now.  And just like in the 1960s, functional and utilitarian are once again the future.  Besides, who needs romance in their lives?  That’s positively bourgeois, and hipster moustaches tell me that 19th century philosophy is the big fashion trend this season.  And when fashion speaks, people listen. Power to the people, y’all.

Back to this downside.  The other day I spied a young man on public transport.  With his half-dreadlocked hair, his vintage-flavoured attire and hippy jewellery he was clearly a free thinker and an intellectual, spiritual but not confined by the narrow concept of organised religions, yeah?  In case anyone was in any doubt, he was reading 1984; the Beatles of the books wot make you deep world.  At this point you probably think me a grump and a meanie. 

You’re absolutely right, but in fairness, the reason I know what this chap was reading was because he was holding it up so that the cover was at the eye level of everyone sitting down (except next to him, which no one was because he was a wee bit smelly, soap being bourgeois and all).  It faced up slightly so that everyone standing up could see it clearly, too.  The cover had been fashioned to look like mid-20th century Soviet propaganda.  That wasn’t an accident.

I ended up moving further down the carriage (no reason), but when I looked up, there it was: the cover was facing me.  Moving again I noticed the cover followed me like the eyes of Mona Lisa.

What a poseur.  

I was especially pissed off because everyone was paying attention to 1984, and not my copy of WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

And it took me bloody ages to find just the right cover depicting the mathematical flavour of the novel while also portraying the sort of dystopian vision the USSR was to become.  It was banned there between 1921 and 1988 don’tcherknow.

So the moral is this: ebooks are great and all, but useless if you want strangers to know what you’re reading and realise how tasteful and deep you are.

Why I Love David Sedaris

“I’d tried to straighten him out, but there’s only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.” (Naked)

I am languid and lounging, sipping coffee on the train with the opening strains of Cannonball Adderley’s rendition of Autumn Leaves caressing my ears.  It’s the third cup of coffee that my companion, the writer David Sedaris, has bought me.  He is hoping to form a sort of writers’ idea exchange.  Not dissimilar to Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris in decades long since past.  But that is really an excuse to get close to me, to breathe my air and gaze adoringly into my piercing ice blue eyes.

I contemplate my handsome profile reflected in the window – it’s really no wonder that the other passengers keep turning to look at me.  “Is that really him?” they ask each other, craning their necks for a better look.  The susurration of their conversation should soothe, but I find the attention exquisitely painful.  I am unusually sensitive to human emotions.  I feel myself blush; the dash of colour on my artistic cheekbones only makes my features more appealing.

It’s understandable, though, the attention.  In addition to my devastating physical beauty, I have just been awarded my sixth Nobel prize for literature, to go with my collection of Pulitzers, Peabodies and Hugos.  I am told that I was the first ever debut novelist to win the Nobel prize, and the only person simultaneously to receive the Nobel prize, People’s Choice and Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice awards.  I have not checked to see whether either is true for I am not motivated by acclaim.  People are often moved to tears by my humility and lack of conceit.

I do not write for the bragging rights, I do not write for fame.  I write not for the awards, not the money, not even the many sexual favours I receive from besotted Hollywood starlets and supermodels.

David notes that I have finished with my coffee and insists that he be allowed to buy me another from the buffet carriage.  I am famed for my consumption of coffee: it is my one vice besides red wine, sex, cigarettes, methamphetamines, vodka, marijuana and the occasional hit of smack.

The coffee is quite dreadful but I of course thank him for his kindness – my physical grace is exceeded only by my social graces.  He stares at me rapt.  I find this hero worship a little tiresome, demeaning even.  He asks me what I am listening to and begs that he be allowed to interrupt it to tell me once more just how much my work has meant to him.

“Your latest book,” he says, “it’s really something else.”

I smile indulgently and note the awkward pun, the weak attempt to wheedle his way into my social circle.  I was there, I saw what he did; I was in the front row, is what he imagines he will say to my future biographers: he was real and authentic and in my time with him I myself became more tangible.  But what David doesn’t know is that I am a loner, indeed it is an irony that I am so praised by critics and the public for subverting the cliché of the lone wolf.  I have no social circle, and no real peers either.

This is not hubris you understand, but one of my many sources of pain; as I have said, I am unusually sensitive to the human condition.

“Seriously, the first time I read your work I realised how awful I am, how crude is my own writing. God, that first one was like someone dropping a toaster into your hot bath while you’re in the middle of an orgasm, it was that good!”

I do not really follow; I start at the start and write to the end.  My work barely even needs editing.  And once it has been published I never think of it again – I have never read a single one of my own books.  The memories brought up by each and every word would probably kill me.

It would sadden me to know that I can never enjoy the fruits of my own labour, but I don’t think in such egotistical terms.  It’s one of the personal qualities that is most often commented on by others.

In any case, I have very little time in which to enjoy myself.  I am considered by other authors to be extremely prolific, publishing between 5 and 6 novels a year not including my nonfiction works.  I am naturally athletic and my body more or less effortless, but I enjoy running double marathons twice a week.  I don’t keep track of my times, because I’m not competitive.  Professional distance runners have often complimented me on my technique, speed and endurance.

Everyone needs a hobby.

I am also driven to give my time and my money.  Mothers stop me in the street to bless their children.  My accountant is forever asking me to double-check his calculations; my lawyer relies on me to assess her legal opinions and modify them accordingly.  It’s exhausting, but I am compelled to offer what I can.

I have founded a hospital for children with weak chins and girlish hands; I have started a charity for the rare furless mountain bear and raised their young as my own.  I often weep for all the furless mountain bears that suffer and die within a month of birth because they have no fur and live high up in the Himalayas.

David can sense my kindly and forgiving nature; it’s the only way he can bring himself to spend time with me.  Unlike me, poor David is riven with crushing self-doubt.  He feels clumsy and oafish, because he is, but I would never dream of saying so.  If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s condescension towards others.

I am aware of my incredible genetic gifts; I just prefer not to talk about them.

“Why don’t you get out of bed little Lord Fauntleroy; it’s 10:30am! And get a goddam job, asshole, go to business school, go to law school, just do something with yourself!”  My mother denies that I am adopted, although she is willing to say that I was an accident and a mistake.  She lights a cigarette and wanders off, muttering to herself “I don’t know where he gets it; his father isn’t this goddam lazy…”

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David Sedaris is the writer of several essay collections, as well as a playwright and novelist.  He shot to fame in 1992 with his essay The SantaLand Diaries, an account of his experiences working as a department store elf.  This is included in Barrel Fever (1994).

His stories about his life and family are so heavily exaggerated that they should not be sold as nonfiction even though they are.

Needless to say, I believe every word of them.

Funny as a heart attack and on occasion emotional as an episode of Glee, Sedaris is acidic, sweet, self-deprecating, self-aggrandising and bitchy, but always sharp.

If you’ve not heard of him or read any of his work, do so.  If you have and have and don’t like it, well as I always say: there’s just no hope for some people.

“I hate you’ she said to me one afternoon. ‘I really, really hate you.’ Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help but take it personally.” (Me Talk Pretty One Day)

2013

“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”

We were somewhere outside of Guildford when the clock tolled the passing of this foul year of our Lord twenty hundred and twelve.

Foul-tempered phrases flowed from the acerbic typewriter keys of Hunter S Thompson.  In particular, his magnum opus (or at least the one I like the most) Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is a pungent mix of pithy bullshit and addled insights – a pulchritudinous gumbo, clever lines floating to the surface then sinking to the depths in a cavalcade of putrid bubbles. I highly recommend it.

Apparently, today finds me in a florid frame of mind.

That an abortive attempt at gonzo journalism should prove to be the basis of such an extraordinary novel is probably a life lesson.  Life has many roads and you don’t know where you’ll end up and stuff.  I’ll leave you intrepid cod psychologists to work through the details.

I’d not read Fear and Loathing in years, nor even thought about it.  But the mind is a wondrous/bizarre/specious (delete as applicable) contraption with the power to spew up old tangents and past memories and then proceed to be fascinated with them, turning them over like some species of curate’s egg.

If one were so inclined, one might wonder what Hunter S Thompson would’ve made of 2012.  All those scandals and appalling events, freak weather, hideous tragedies and an extraordinary amount of fatuous twaddle from the mouths of our elected officials.

What would the man who described GW Bush as a baffled little creep have made of the GOP nomination process, or Romney’s electoral strategy, for example?  Would any vitriol have been spared for the LIBOR manipulation scandal, or the apparent truth that corporation tax is increasingly an opt-in scheme?  What would he say about the ever-growing use of drone strikes, not to mention the general sabre-rattling and chauvinism?

War has a brutalising effect on those who wage it same as it does on those against whom it is waged.  Something to bear in mind as we enter the second decade of the war on terror.

In the mournful absence of the man himself, I’d suggest the opening quotation as a fitting if cynical epitaph for the year as a whole.  

Apparently, today finds me in a somewhat bleak frame of mind.

I blame it on January – it’s cold, it’s dark and it rains.  The world is bathed in the orange glow of artificial streetlights as sunlight recedes into the memory – a myth from childhood, like the Easter bunny or tooth fairy.  And while I like rain and darkness and streetlights on the tv screen, in really real reality it gets a bit trying after a while.

This, incidentally, is why New Year’s Resolutions™ are so patently absurd.  It would be better to have new school year resolutions, or new financial year resolutions – start when the weather is balmy and people wear fewer items of clothing, that’s what I say.

That being said, January is probably as good a time of year as any to reconsider one’s life choices – including whether it’s advisable to use ‘one’ as a pronoun given it reeks of pomposity and general twatishness.

On that note, here are my own vague intentions to be noted and then forgotten by January 12th:

  • Take more pleasure in the little victories – they’re not more important than the big ones but they are more frequent.  Conversely, don’t sweat the little stuff so much.
  • Stop sounding like a daytime tv therapist.
  • It’s ok to be bad at things.
  • People take life in general too seriously and don’t take either the kitchen or the bedroom seriously enough.  Don’t do that.  Low blood sugar and not enough sleep are probably detrimental to the soul.  Also, if you have more sex you’ll obviate the need for dieting and a gym membership.  And the hormone release IS good for the soul.
  • You used to know the difference between righteous anger and self-righteous anger.  Learn that again.
  • I’m in love with Victoria Coren.  And Camilla Long. And Hadley Freeman.  And AA Gill.  Basically, make me laugh and I’m yours (I’m that sort of cheap hussy).  That’s not an intention, more an observation. But it’s generally considered advisable to focus on the things you like.

Predictions for 2013:

  • Comic book films by Marvel and something with darker lighting and more serious faces from Nolan (sort of).  Stephanie Meyer adaptation.  Katniss Everdeen.  Hobbits.
  • Skinny jeans.
  • Bad year for manufacturers of Mayan calendars.
  • Tabloids to continue to mix prurience with moral hand-wringing – aroused in all senses of the word.  Scandals, doom ‘n gloom and general oblivion to continue to be the order of the day.
  • (I will re-read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.)

Ladies, gentlemen and miscellaneous others, 2013 has arrived: say hello to the new king, same as the old king.

Fortunately, I quite liked the old king.