Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is Too High

(Photo by talkie_tim)
(Photo by talkie_tim)

Toppings Bookshop event
The Forum, Bath, 3 June 2016

When a friend at work e-mailed round a heads up that tickets were about to be released for a chance to meet Buzz Aldrin, a bunch of us leapt at the chance. It almost didn’t matter what the actual event would be – we’re talking about a man who has walked on the Moon, a genuine living legend. Turns out, he’s promoting his new book No Dream is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon.

The Forum can seat 1640 and the event was a sellout, but with a bit of planning ahead we managed to get ourselves near the front, with a prime view of the 86 year old and his manager, who corralled him through his story, prompted by photos from his life. And I do mean corralled. From his parents (with wonderful foreshadowing his mother was called Marion Moon), to his Air Force career, to NASA, to scuba diving with sharks on his 80th birthday, Buzz was ready to expand at length on every anecdote, to go off on tangents (often related to the more scientific or historic aspects of the tale) and had to be persuaded back on track. Which was wholly delightful.

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Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)
(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)

Salman Rushdie, Festival of Ideas
St George’s Hall, Bristol, 11 October

On Sunday afternoon I saw Salman Rushdie in the flesh! Rushdie was visiting Bristol to promote his new novel Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (a title his publishers apparently thought cumbersome). St George’s Hall was packed to the rafters with fans keen to hear, well, pretty much anything the great man had to say, though he stayed mostly on topic.

The new novel was written in part as a reaction against the act of writing memoir (Rushdie’s previous book, Joseph Anton, documented his 10 years in hiding following the 1988 fatwa against him) – he felt an emotional desire to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, to make stuff up again. Rushdie was inspired by the Arabian Nights and here, as always, he feels he is part of the grand old tradition of non-naturalistic fiction – possibly the oldest form of world literature, encompassing fairy tales, heroic epics and other forms that seek to spread the collective wisdom of the human race.

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The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
(CC BY Kubik)

David Mitchell
Watershed, 12 November

I’m a David Mitchell fan. This fact crept up on me somewhat. Selecting which book to take for him to sign at a talk on Wednesday, I realised that not only do I own – and have read – all his books, but the last three I’ve bought in hardback pretty soon after their release. That I’ve loved them all goes without saying – why else would I keep on spending extra on them – but I do feel bad that I forgot to say that to Mitchell himself, it seems like something I should have said.

I should clarify for fellow Brits that I am talking here about the novelist David Mitchell, not the comedian David Mitchell. They’ve both written books, they’re both great and they’re both touring the West Country this week, so I’d understand any confusion.

Mitchell started by talking about his new book The Bone Clocks (which I finished reading last weekend – my review will follow soon). He says the idea for it grew from his own sense of his mortality as he reached his mid-40s, and death certainly is a recurring theme. This time, the structure is the seven ages of man, each set in a different decade and each having a different style of writing (though that makes it sound more experimental and disjointed than it is – this a coherent novel with distinct sections).

There was quite a lot of discussion of The Bone Clocks that on reflection was a bit spoilery, so I won’t share too much of that. But Mitchell did talk about several overarching themes in all his books, such as alienation and difficulty communicating, which comes from a combination of his having a stammer as a child and his years living in Japan. He discussed how he writes all his books as a series of novellas, or long short stories, with the links between them being closer and more blurred in some cases (such as Black Swan Green) than others (say, Ghostwritten). He also acknowledged the growing “uber book” that is the world in which all his novels are set. This world-building, in which not only characters but also things from previous books reappear, started out of a sense of mischief but he soon saw that it has a certain utility – it enables improbable events to become believable and adds a sense of reality, because what is familiar feels real.

When asked about specific reactions to his book, Mitchell replied “in the same way that you can’t successfully tickle yourself, you are immune to your tricks” as a writer, i.e. he’s never read his books as a reader. (He similarly fobbed off questions about genre, saying – quite rightly – that it’s not up to him to label his books.) But when reading other people’s books, he appreciates being pulled along or swept up by them. He made the important point that pace isn’t just plot – you have to have a connection with the characters to be swept up in a book and plot is the enabler of this connection. I’d say this awareness certainly shows in his work.

Mitchell also talked about creating a sense of place. His books have been set all over the world, often in multiple locations, but they are always strongly placed. He said that writers are effectively location scouts, but also that “it’s my job to convince you that I’ve been there” – a job that can involve intensive research or a quick visit with his trusty notebook.

After a mini love-in for Ursula le Guin, Mitchell listed his other favourite authors as Halldór Laxness, Anton Chekhov, Marilynne Robinson and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, which is a suitably international top five for such a well-travelled man!

Finally, Mitchell revealed that he is working on a book largely set in 1960s London and New York, due for publication in 2016. And even more excitingly, he has written a short novel (his first short book!) as a spin-off from The Bone Clocks and that will be published in 2015. It’s clearly a great time to be a David Mitchell fan.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Chris Brookmyre at Bristol Festival of Ideas

Flesh Wounds
Foyles, Bristol, 11 September

I really like Christopher Brookmyre, or Chris Brookmyre, as he’s branded these days. His books (or at least the ones I’ve read, which is quite a few) are funny, clever, insightful, satirical, sharply observed and just plain well written. But I tend to forget him when listing authors I admire (sorry, Chris) and that’s a shame because I really do. So big thanks to my friend L for asking me to go tonight’s talk with her. A quick glance at the number of his books I own gives some indication of the love I have for him.

Brookmyre books

The first Brookmyre book I read was A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, which Tim borrowed from his friend (actually, the same friend who originally helped me to set up this website) and then told me I should read it as well because it would apparently explain to me why computer games, especially Quake, are so great. As well as being a good crime novel. And also funny. I very bravely (I’m shy, remember) put up my hand and asked Chris about this book tonight and he confirmed that he was indeed a lover of the Quake games, and he felt that those early days of online gaming made a really interesting subject for a book, though sadly he doesn’t play much these days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chris Brookmyre was interviewed (in front of a surprisingly small audience – I feel I should reassure Chris that he is loved, though I’m sure his sales figures attest to that) by Julian Baggini about his new book Flesh Wounds and his career to date. Baggini asked some really interesting questions about the sociological and psychological insights into crime that Brookmyre excels at. I did enjoy Brookmyre’s insistence that he couldn’t pull off the perfect crime because he’s no good at standing up to authority (which is a little surprising considering how many of his books satirise major establishments) and in real life you can’t predict what the police will do, the way you can when you’re the novelist controlling them (fair point).

Brookmyre was refreshingly down to earth and accessible. He enjoys language, especially dialect, which I think clearly shows in his work. And he’s very self aware. He says that the violence in his books is deliberately slightly cartoonish because he wants to distance the reader from the reality of that side of things, because it’s never central to the story. I hadn’t really noticed that but on reflection it’s obviously true. As he said, there’s one book in which he contrives to have a character cut off their own head!

Brookmyre is also honorary president of the Humanist Society of Scotland and apparently has written some articles on the subject, which perhaps isn’t surprising having read some of his earlier books that talk about the Catholic Church. Interestingly he said tonight that back when he wrote those books he felt frustrated and angry that there wasn’t a voice for non-believers and that there was an unquestioned respect for organised religion, but now he feels that in many ways the war has been won – religion no longer has a free pass and atheism is widely accepted. Certainly, I’d agree that huge progress has been made but I definitely wouldn’t say the fight is over, even here in the UK, let alone elsewhere in the world. If I wasn’t so uselessly shy we could probably have had a good chat about that afterwards.

As it was, I got two books signed (including an embarrassingly dog-eared and tea-stained copy of The Sacred Art of Stealing that I had to reassure him was in that state because it’s “well loved”, which it absolutely is) and, possibly more importantly, was reminded that I greatly enjoy and admire this author and should read more of his work.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Margaret Atwood at Bristol Festival of Ideas

St George’s Hall, Bristol, 28 August

It seems whenever I book tickets for something months in advance, life conspires to try to spoil it for me. Like last night. Once again, Tim wasn’t able to come with me (thankfully some friends from work also had tickets so I wasn’t alone for the journey there at least) and my knee was randomly super painful, particularly on steps. And St George’s Hall has a lot of steps (it is very pretty though). But on the plus side I got to see Margaret Atwood in real life and hear her speak and get her to sign not one but two books for me! So that part was pretty good.

I met Margaret Atwood today

The event was primarily about the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and in particular the third book Maddaddam, which was published in the UK yesterday. So obviously I bought the brand new hardback and got it signed even though I have the other two books in paperback and now they won’t match or even fit on the same shelf. Oops. But it seemed like it would be silly not to, while I was there and she was there. Right?

The interview started with the influences on the trilogy, which is perhaps an easy list to guess for anyone who’s read any of the books, but Atwood embellished with interesting facts and plenty of dry wit. There really are glowing green rabbits (created by splicing jellyfish genes with rabbit), which she says were originally developed for a magician, and spider-goats, developed to create bulletproof silk – “people have opened the genetic toybox and they’re mixing and matching”. When asked if she sees herself as a critic, observer, satirist or optimist of issues such as gene-splicing, Atwood replied that she’s all of those things (which is interesting as I thought the books came down firmly against, but perhaps I misread the tone). She went on to say that people are afraid of what they don’t understand and we’re right to be afraid of our own power but wrong to be scared every time.

Anthropology and psychology seem to be big influences on Atwood (indeed, she subscribes to New Scientist and devours all the popular science, especially biology and epidemiology, she can). When asked about how she was able to describe people living after the, ahem, event of this trilogy, she made the acute observation that basic human traits, “our essential smorgasbord”, have not changed since the days of the caveman – we’re all susceptible to love, rage, jealousy, etc, therefore no changes in technology – or loss thereof – are going to change human emotions.

Talking more generally about storytelling, Atwood said “the reader is the violinist of the text…I’m just the originator”. She also touched on a subject that fascinates me: the link between memory, language, storytelling and religion. Memory evolved to allow us to anticipate the future. And once a language has a past and future tense, we start telling stories, and an important part of that is a theology of where we came from. And that brings us back to Maddaddam, which apparently develops the religion of Crake’s children.

There were many more highlights that I scribbled down but I’ll finish with the story that Atwood seemed most eager to tell: the cover design. The first cover she was sent was flowers and a bee: totally girly and not at all reflecting the content of the book. Inspired by Maureen Johnson’s excellent Coverflip challenge Atwood asked for something different, something dynamic and maybe even scary. It took a lot of revisions but you have to admit that the new cover may have pink on it but it sure isn’t girly. Freaky, unnerving and intriguing, yes.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Sunday Salon: the week of awesome

The Sunday Salon

I have been looking forward to this week for a long time, and though life threw a bit of a spanner in the works it still turned out pretty great.

The thing is that we had tickets to not one but two awesome events and our dear friends H and G were throwing a big party for their wedding anniversary. We were pretty excited. Then at the last minute Tim had to go away on a work trip Monday to Friday, missing the first two evenings of fun and being pretty jetlagged for the last one. However, I still got to have all the fun, just with a teensy bit of guilt about Tim missing out.

But what were these amazing events we had tickets to? Well, Thursday night I went to the first UK performance of Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band. Who were brilliant. Here is a terrible photo I took from up in the gods of the Colston Hall.

Copper Bottom Band

This group are possibly the most amazingly talented musicians I have ever seen perform. Hugh Laurie plays piano, sings (though not for all the songs) and acts as band leader. Which he of course does with humour and grace and loveliness. I had such a wonderful night. And I really badly want to go to New Orleans and hang out in jazz bars now.

Then Friday night I went to the first event on Neil Gaiman’s promotional tour for his new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which actually comes out next week but attendees were able to buy the book early. It was held in Bath, hosted by Topping & Co Bookshop, although I can see why it wasn’t held in the bookshop itself as there were I’d guess a couple of thousand people there. Neil Gaiman has a lot of adoring fans. Understandably. He was charming, funny, intelligent and interesting, as you might expect, and clearly an old pro at this kind of thing. I don’t have any photos from the event itself (my friend T took some photos that she said I could have copies of but we have yet to co-ordinate on that) but here is what I came away with:

I met Neil Gaiman

I should add that we queued for two and a quarter hours for our brief meeting with Neil and narrowly missed our train home, so had to get a taxi but that just added to the adventure! And the queuing was fine because we had this great new book to read… My brother (who I gave Tim’s ticket to), T and I were all about halfway through the book by the time we got to the front of the queue and then a very nice lady offered us chocolate by way of apology for the long wait!

(I realise that I haven’t really said anything much about the interview Neil gave, mostly because I am rubbish and didn’t take any notes, but I will roll what I do remember into my review of the book. And if you want to know more, Gav of Gav Reads actually did take notes and blogged about the evening over here.)

And that was just the start of the weekend. I then headed to London, met up with Tim, very briefly checked out the new Alan Turing exhibition at the Science Museum, then went to H and G’s party, which was brilliant but I think I shall choose not to share any photos of drunken me on here. Suffice to say there was a lot of fun and then there were hangovers.

So…what have you all been up to?

BristolCon11: reviews

The discussions and readings at BristolCon were all excellent but I did particularly enjoy “Reviews: threat or menace?”. As the panel pointed out, the title suggests that reviews can only be bad or more bad, yet most of them were both reviewers and authors and had some interesting thoughts on the process.

Juliet McKenna‘s view was that both reading and writing reviews can give you a snapshot of what’s new out there. She is reluctant to trash a book in a review, as she knows how much hard work has gone into writing it. Jonathan Wright agreed that it can be too easy to slag off a book, that that style of writing can come far too easily. Paul McAuley continued that as a bright young thing, the easiest way to get noticed is to be funny and slag off the books you review, but he is now ashamed of having written damaging reviews, and that’s a large part of the reason he stopped reviewing regularly.

Juliet McKenna raised the point I have heard elsewhere about the responsibility of the reviewer to present a fair cross-section of what’s out there. Stats collected by Vida and Strange Horizons show that in the UK and US approximately 44% of books are written by women, yet less than 30% of books reviewed are by women. Although this bias is unconscious, once known about it should be acknowledged.

A quick check of my reviews index shows that to date I have reviewed 46 books by women and 76 by men (i.e. not quite 38% women). And apparently male reviewers have a much stronger bias towards reading male writers. (Incidentally, my current TBR is much worse, standing at 26 books by women versus 77 by men. If ever I needed an excuse to buy more books!)

But in general the views about reviews and reviewing were positive, despite the event’s title.