Finding my inner geek

The Guild volume 1
story by Felicia Day, artwork by Jim Rugg

This is a comic prequel to the web show The Guild created by and starring Felicia Day, a series I haven’t watched by the way. I guess that makes me an atypical reader, but I loved her in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the comic was in the car with me on a long drive so, what else was I going to do?

It’s the story of Cyd, a violinist with a loser boyfriend and therapy sessions that are failing to help her depression at all, thanks to a particularly awful psychiatrist. On a whim she buys a computer game, an online RPG that allows her to create a whole new character for herself called Codex, make friends and follow structured rules that make sense.

So yeah, it’s geeky, but don’t let that put the non-geeks among you off. It’s a human story with a lovably flawed character at its centre. Cyd’s mistakes are harder to correct than Codex’s, but by being Codex and interacting with lots of new people, people who for the most part are positive and want to help her, Cyd learns to deal better with her real life.

The important message is, of course, that online friends can be “real” friends even if you never meet them in person. The beauty of the Internet is that it gives you access to the whole world, to find others who share your interests, who lift you up and make you smile. You don’t need to be in a physical bar with someone to swap stories of drunken exploits, or share your baby’s first words, or open your heart.

Which all sounds a little cheesy. Sorry, that’s only my interpretation. The comic is not cheesy, it’s awesome. Day hits just the right balance between sentiment and straight-talking. It helps that her main character is struggling to figure out how she feels, or whether it’s okay to feel a certain way, and her sense of loneliness translates well in comic form.

Well, I’m off to check out the web series. I can feel my geekiness increasing already.

First published as three comics in 2010 by Dark Horse Comics. This edition published December 2010.

Holiday, celebrate

At the risk of boring my lovely readers, I have now been through all of my holiday pictures, plus some taken by other people, and present to you a round-up of my trip to the USA.

We had a good look around Charlotte, North Carolina, which I had not visited before. A recent and thriving banking industry means that the city centre is very clean and new looking, even the old bits. We did meet a local who complained about how many old bits got torn down to built condos but I don’t know enough of the ins and outs to comment on that.

The Inn Uptown

Alexander Michael's Restaurant & Tavern

We also went to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and did a bit of hiking (hard work in hot sunshine).

Contemplating

The way forwardMile High Swinging Bridge

We went to the US National White Water Center and did some rafting (great fun).

Photo by talkie_tim

And my sister got married so well done her. I was there, I performed my bridesmaidly duties including dancing as much as I could and attempting not to sing the real lyrics to that song by Cee Lo Green when a small person took a shine to dancing with me. Which was tough.

Photos by St Martin Photography (You can click on these pics to view them big.)

There were also some lovely evenings with family and friends, old and new. There were some impressive storms thanks to the big temperature changes. There were some astute observations about different races not mixing a whole lot and some less astute ones about food being a bit rubbish. But we probably just went to the wrong places. I’m sure it’s not all deep fried really.

Questionable influence

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark

This book was sent to me by Marie of Little Interpretations as part of World Book Night. In one night a million books were given away for free, with the simple request that they continue to be passed on from reader to reader to spread the joy of reading. I passed on my copy to family while on holiday in the USA so hopefully it’s had a good start at travelling around the world!

Swag!

I have wanted to read this book for a while and I loved the film starring Maggie Smith but I have to say I did not love the book. It’s an odd little book and not exactly what I had expected. I am grateful for having had the chance to read it, and it’s good, smart and funny, but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Miss Jean Brodie is a schoolmistress at an all-girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She claims that she is a spinster because, following the dramatic loss of her fiance to the Great War, she has chosen to dedicate the prime of her life to the girls she teaches.

Spark only occasionally writes in dialect (the girls are no doubt too well bred to have strong accents anyway) but it is somehow hard not to hear Miss Brodie’s speeches (and she is fond of speeches) in anything but a Scottish brogue, proud and strong.

Miss Brodie teaches in the junior half of the school. Her lessons tend to consist of her recounting her personal life and summer holidays, dictating her own taste in art, literature and politics, and a great deal of snobbery. The other teachers suspect that she is not teaching the curriculum but cannot quite manage to catch her out.

Every couple of years Miss Brodie picks a group of girls to become her “set”, and favours them with walks, theatre visits, tea at her house and gossipy confidences long after they move on from her class. The book concentrates on one particular “Brodie set”, one of the last in fact, because we learn early on that one of this set betrays her in some way, leading to her dismissal from the school.

Spark dripfeeds information about certain key events while summarily revealing other facts in a manner that can be disconcerting, a jolt even. Time jumps around so that we meet the girls aged 17, jump back to them aged 11 onwards and forward to meet some of them as adults.

Miss Brodie is a fascinating character, both attractive and repulsive. The way she treats her girls as adults capable of understanding the adult world is likeable but her abrasive dismissal of anything she doesn’t approve of is distinctly unlikeable. She is a modern woman, considering herself “European” more than Scottish and certainly confident in her independence. Yet she clings to classical knowledge of art and Latin. She encourages the girls to obsess over romantic love and sexual intrigue. She often seems to be using her girls to live vicariously, encouraging them to more questionable or exciting relationships than she dares enter; or even just pushing them to learn Ancient Greek, which she wishes she knew but doesn’t.

The book is ostensibly a comedy and it certainly has its comic moments, as well as the horror watching a glamorous teacher use her influence to cajole and manipulate young girls. But it is also tragic, because Brodie’s ideas and influence are not benign.

I expected to enjoy this more than I did. There’s a certain staccato and brevity and even coldness to Spark’s style of writing that I found a little difficult to get on with. It’s a clever, absorbing story but one I couldn’t warm to.

First published in the USA by the New Yorker in 1961.

Holiday reading

And I’m back from two weeks in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I visited some new places to me, remembered how similar but different our cultures can be, and helped my sister to get married (I was maid of honor, I’d say “honour” but we call it chief bridesmaid on this side of the pond). But more of all that later (there’s a lot of pictures to go through). For now, let’s talk holiday reading.

I took six books with me, of which I had already started one – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – which I suspected my Mum would like more than me so I took it partly to pass on to her. I finished that and another book – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – on the journey out, then spent two weeks reading at the slowest pace imaginable so that I am still barely three-quarters of my way through One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I’m not sure if it’s his writing style or my mood but I just can’t get absorbed.

I am always torn, when picking holiday reading, between light easy reads and big chunky literary works that I have been putting off. This time I tried to pick some of both but the literary monopolised my time somewhat. Which way does your holiday reading lean?

New books

Despite my reading slowness, I still took advantage of our “buy whatever you like while you’re on holiday” rule to buy some new books for my shelves. Well why not? Perhaps surprisingly, half of my new buys came from the excellent (and well named) comic shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find. From there I picked up:

Palestine by Joe Sacco, a journalistic account of Palestine in 1991–1992 in graphic novel format.
War is Boring by David Axe, a war correspondent’s memoirs in graphic novel format.
Dollhouse: Epitaphs by Joss Whedon, which I’m saving up until I’ve finished watching the DVD boxset.

In addition, we found a huge secondhand bookstore, Book Buyers, from which my brother dragged me when I had picked up three books from one bookcase alone. I could have spent a fortune in there easily, it was a great place. What I did spend my pennies on was:

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1993 (I loved her second novel, The Temporary).
Disgrace by J M Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize 1999 (gotta continue my attempt to read all the prizewinners).
The Romance Readers’ Book Club by Julie L Cannon, a lighter sounding read set in Georgia, which I thought was appropriate while I was in the vicinity.

On an aside, I should mention that by searching out these shops, plus the equally great record shop Lunchbox Records, we ended up exploring parts of the city we wouldn’t otherwise have gone near (not exactly tourist traps) that turned out to be very cool areas full of arty/indie shops and bars.

Back to sifting through those photos…

Humour in the darkest places

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
by Barbara Comyns

This partially fictionalised autobiography has me torn. On the one hand it was entertaining, funny and moving; on the other the author’s lack of education resulted in writing that was at times stilted or phrased in ways that I felt could have been improved by better editing.

“Sophia” lives in London, eking a meagre living as an artist in a commercial studio. Aged just 21 she and her artist lover Charles decide to marry. He is from a middle class family who disapprove mildly of his bohemian lifestyle but disapprove far more vehemently of Sophia marrying him and becoming a drain on his scant resources. Given the choice between his allowance and his marriage Charles chooses Sophia, which sounds romantic and indeed at first it seems that way. Comyns wittily describes making do with the little they have, the joy of rare treats, the shared humour of learning to cook and keep house. But when she falls pregnant life goes from bad to worse and abject poverty destroys the marriage and threatens her life multiple times.

It seems amazing, given the content (poverty, abortion, serious illness, the threat of having a child taken away) that I could say this, but this is a fairly light read. Comyns is great fun, with an original turn of phrase and genuine warmth, always trying to see the world in a positive light (or almost always; she has her dark times). In some ways book this functions as a brilliantly strong argument for the changes that society has made since the 1930s setting – maternity leave, child support, access to and information about contraception, and free healthcare would have helped her a lot, obviously, but I also mean the general attitude of the book’s characters that Charles has the right to his lifestyle and she has failed him by becoming pregnant, that he has no obligation to the family he has created.

The section about Sophia’s first pregnancy is the part that has stayed with me most strongly. She is summarily dismissed from her job on announcing the news (which her co-workers had all guessed before her because she has shockingly little knowledge on this front). She relies on charity to get to see a doctor, because she and Charles cannot afford it themselves, which means that her labour takes place in a hideous charitable hospital where she is treated like a wicked schoolgirl and given no explanation of anything. For instance, a bath is run for her and she is left alone to take it, but she is too doubled up in pain from a contraction to get in. When the nurse returns and sees this, she shouts at Sophia for being a “horrid, dirty girl” rather than lending her a hand.

For all of the awfulness that she goes through, I could not call Sophia entirely blameless. I know that she is to an extent a result of a certain culture but she so rarely speaks her mind. She never once berates Charles for not getting a job or for spending money unnecessarily when the family is literally starving. And she does let pride stop her from getting a little help sometimes, despite the extreme poverty she endures. There were a few such moments that reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though in other respects the two books could not be much more different.

I am certainly intrigued by Comyns, who wrote further volumes of autobiography disguised to varying degrees, as well as some true fiction, but I do not think, on the basis of this book at least, that she was a great writer.

First published in Great Britain by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1950.

I picked this up after reading this intriguing review on Novel Insights.

My next book

One of my favourite things is standing at my bookshelves selecting my next book to read. I can happily stare at my books for far longer than seems reasonable, waiting for a whim to make me choose one over all of the others. But most people don’t have more than 100 unread books sat around in their house, so how do you choose your next book?

In addition to my physical TBR I also have a wishlist of another 50 or so books (from word of mouth, or authors I follow, or reviews I’ve read) and I am constantly adding stars to posts in my Google Reader that mention books I like the sound of. I can’t imagine ever running out of ideas for what to read, and consequently I don’t use services like Goodreads or Your Next Read or even Amazon recommendations. But other people are often mentioning how useful they find them. Maybe if I got through books more quickly…

I also get great pleasure from going to a bookshop without any titles in mind and just browsing until something jumps out at me. Much like my method of choosing from my own library! I am trying to reduce the TBR at the moment and have therefore not yet been to Bristol’s brand new Foyles bookshop, or indeed the almost-as-new The Last Bookshop on Park Street, but later this year I plan to do a bit of a tour of Bristol’s bookshops. Watch this space!

Cold or cool?

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
by Vendela Vida

I picked this book up due to a combination of hearing that Vida was one of the new generation of young “now” writers I should pay attention to (according to GQ or some magazine like that) and thinking the title was brilliant. Now that I’ve read it I stand by both statements.

There is a certain “coolness” about Vida’s writing; it’s hard to describe. She’s both a step back from the action and yet lets you right inside the main character’s mind. It’s detached but still emotionally affecting. The detachment is backed up by the literal cold of the Lapland setting, and in that respect reminded me a little of Snow by Orhan Pamuk (which I loved).

Clarissa was 14 when her mother disappeared. Now aged 28, following the death of her father, she decides to go to Lapland to follow a hunch about the whereabouts of her mother. She leaves suddenly, without telling anyone, even her fiance, where she is going. The combination of grief for her father and the complete strangeness of Finland give her a strange basis for an adventure, one that is bound up in unearthing family secrets and bringing to the surface secrets of her own.

The writing is very easy to get on with, although it deals with some dark subjects, but it did take me a while to get used to the detached style and a little longer to warm to the character of Clarissa. She carries such sadness and her story is beautifully told, with flashes of humour and a heartbreaking sense of finality.

The one thing I struggled with is that I felt this ought to have been a book about a woman striking out alone, discovering inner strength, and instead she turns again and again to men for help. There was a hint that this was just Finnish culture, and had there been women around offering help she’d have gladly taken it, but it still grated a little.

Overall I greatly enjoyed the story. Some aspects were predictable, others completely unexpected. I already have another of Vida’s books in my TBR and I don’t think I’ll be leaving it on the shelf for long.

First published in the USA by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2007.

Growing out of it

Back in my early twenties I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other books by Milan Kundera and loved them. But a few years later, when I read more of his books, I struggled – I found them dull, monotonous, samey.

The same happened with other authors I’d loved during and just after my degree course: Chuck Palahniuk and Orhan Pamuk spring to mind. (Okay, no-one could call Palahniuk dull but I haven’t really enjoyed any of his books since Diary.) I had decided that I loved these authors only to change my mind shortly afterward. Did I just read all the good ones first and save the crud for later or did I grow out of these particular authors?

This has happened before of course. The first series I can remember falling in love with was Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood, shortly followed by Brian Jacques’ Redwall. I continued to buy those books as they came out well into my teens but the last few were left unread, as my interest had petered out. In my teens I loved the works of Victoria Holt/Phillippa Carr and anything in the Point Horror series but (thankfully) I grew out of those as well.

And I expected that. To grow out of those books was part of growing up. But I never expected to grow out of adult books, for there to be authors who only appealed to me for a few years of my adult life. It seems bizarre.

But then maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s more that my taste in books is in flux and I have to wait a few years for the vibe of my early 20s to hit again. Maybe when I hit 40 or 50 I’ll pick up a Kundera or Pamuk and love it. In fact, maybe when I hit middle age I can stop buying new books altogether and re-read all the ones that I have kept because I enjoyed them the first time around. As I’m something of a book hoarder, I hope so.

The murky depths

Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann
translated from the German by David Luke

This is really closer to a short story than a novel so I shouldn’t have waited so long to read it, but a few recent outpourings of praise for it made me finally take it down from the shelf. Yet for such a short piece, it was a very slow starter.

This is your classic flowery literary prose, with endless allusions to Greek myth and a gradual, thoughtful story. It’s about a successful ageing writer, Aschenbach, who feels a sudden urge to take a break and travel. While in Venice he falls heavily and hopelessly in love with a beautiful young man, Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. In the meantime, a cholera outbreak is gradually spreading across Venice and both Aschenbach and Tadzio have delicate health…

The story isn’t really about homosexuality as such, it’s about an old man falling helplessly for the beauty of youth. He never expects anything from Tadzio, he just wants to see him every day and gets a thrill when the boy smiles in his direction. It’s almost heartbreakingly sad, this cultured respected man reduced to stalking a stranger and his family. It is also a little creepy. Aschenbach is fully aware of how out of character he is acting, but presses on even when his poor health means he really should leave the city.

Having a writer for the main character is an old trope that both familiarises and distances the hero. We think we know what a writer is like but at the same time recognise that he could be anyone. It allows the first-person narration to be highly stylised and fanciful while being believable. “Do you see now perhaps why we writers can be neither wise nor dignified…The magisterial poise of our style is a lie and a farce…the public’s faith in us is altogether ridiculous…how can one be fit to be an educator when one has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss?”

There are some truly beautiful passages and I can see how Mann ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I did struggle a bit with the myth interludes, which I found tedious.

First published by Hyperionverlag Hans von Weber in 1912.
This translation first published by Bantam Books in 1988.

What a character

The Book of Other People
edited by Zadie Smith

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to one of Tim’s favourite shops, Forbidden Planet. It’s a collection of short stories written by some pretty big names in the literary world, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Vendela Vida and ZZ Packer. They were all commissioned to “make somebody up”, in aid of homelessness charity 826 New York. It’s interesting just to see the many ways that can be interpreted, but it has also resulted in a genuinely very good collection.

The 23 contributions cover a range of ages, characters, backgrounds, storytelling methods (first person, second person, third person, illustrated, comic strip, reliable narration, unreliable narration, linear, nonlinear, etc etc) and even venture beyond humanity in a few cases (“Theo” by Dave Eggers is a very touching story about a giant). There is a certain tendency to white, western, middle-class-ness, which reflects the authors involved, but beyond that the only link is the high-quality of the writing.

Not all of the characters are likeable, in fact those that stuck with me most are decidedly unlikeable. David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle” is first a snob, then increasingly unreliable until I felt so cold toward her that only Mitchell’s wonderful humour could make me want to read about her. AM Homes’s “Cindy Stubenstock” is vomit-inducingly rich, taking a private jet with her equally rich friends to Miami and gossiping about other people, art, how less rich people live. It’s darkly ironically comic.

There are also some very sad stories. “Puppy” by George Saunders was tough for me (Note to Tim: Do Not Read It, trust me.) – the story of a mother taking her children to buy a puppy from a less well-off neighbourhood than their own. The title is a little misleading because it’s not told from the dog’s perspective, but the dog is key.

For me, this book acts as a little snapshot of the writing styles of all sorts of names that I have heard great things about but not yet sampled (I mean, not all of them, I have read novels by six of the contributors, I think, and some of the names were entirely new to me). Though, Zadie Smith does mention in her introduction that she felt the brief gave writers a chance to break free from their usual style or method, if they wanted to, so maybe it’s not the best way to decide if I want to read more by any of them.

I don’t think there were any stories here that I outright disliked and I am having a little trouble choosing a favourite, but I think it has to be “Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz” by Heidi Julavits, about an old woman sat in her study with a book that she isn’t enjoying, reminiscing about her life recent and long past. Julavits uses the language of the mystery novel (good ones, that is) to make this simple evening into a fascinating tale.

Published 2007 by Penguin Books.