Month: March 2009

The White Tiger is all it’s cracked up to be…

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger deserves the hype it’s had…I resisted reading it for so long, and I wish I hadn’t now.

It was one of those books that I didn’t want to end because the protagonist, Balram, was so compelling – a character that you don’t know whether to feel sympathy for as a victim of society or condemn as a murderer and a thief. The way the story of the servant-boy from a village in ‘the darkness’ who became a millionaire in India’s technological capital of Bangalore is told as a 1001 Nights-like evening-by-evening narrative to the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is nothing short of genius too, if you ask me. The parallels between Balram and Scheherazade could definitely bear some analysis – the common girl who won the heart of a murderous king by stringing him along with magical stories night after night, and the murderous common boy who forces an international leader to listen to the story of his life night after night. Maybe I’ll come back to it another time…

One of the blurbs on the book said something about how The White Tiger talks about a side of India that we rarely hear about – the underbelly. I beg to differ. People love to read about ‘India’s underbelly’ – there’s a whole market of ‘poverty porn’, for people that get off on the idea that they are seeing the ‘real’ version of any developing country from the comfort of home – Slumdog Millionaire, Shantaram, Bandit Queen to name but a few. We hear about ‘India’s underbelly’ all the time – but not necessarily like this. The White Tiger doesn’t glamourise or exoticise poverty and corruption, or horrify people by hammering them with disturbing image after disturbing image. I think Adiga attempts to explain the experience of poverty for one man – why it exists, why it thrives and the deep anger and pain it provokes in Balram, and the lengths he is pushed to by his background, and the servitude he was born into.

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We Think: Mass Innovation, not mass production

I started trying to read We Think: Mass Innovation, not mass production by Charles Leadbetter this weekend – it looks at the culture of mass-participation and sharing that is developing online, & as such is loosely related to what I do for a living and my blog obviously too! I don’t often pick up work-related books, but I thought it’d be interesting…I didn’t get too far with it but I will persevere. It’s also very topical, with so much talk around at the moment about the possibility of some newspapers making their online content available only to paying subscribers, in a climate where we expect just bout everything online to be free….

Book binge

I binge-bought a load of books today…taking advantage of the buy one get one half price offer that’s on in Books Etc round the corner from by office. I do it every now and again – I never feel guilty for spending money on books like I do when I buy clothes or anything else, because I feel in some way like I’m doing something that’s good for me.

I bought:

  • The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
  • The Age of Shiva, Manil Suri
  • The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block
  • We Think: Mass innovation, not mass production, Charles Leadbeater
  • The Map of Love, Adhaf Soueif

Now I’ve just got to find time to read them…

The one poem I know off by heart

The one whole poem I know off by heart (except The Owl and the Pussycat, but I’m not sure that counts) is by Emily Dickinson. I decided to learn it off by heart when I was about eighteen, and I have no idea why. Every now and again it comes back to me at the strangest times, like it did today:

I found the words to every thought,
I ever had, but One,
And that defies me,
As a hand did try to chalk the Sun,
To Races nurtured in the Dark,
How would your own begin?
Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal
Or Noon in Mazarin?

I’m not sure why it interests me – the quirky, characteristic, offbeat style, the rhythm that makes it feel like a hymn, or the colonial/missionary overtones in the lines ‘As a hand did try to chalk the Sun,/To Races nurtured in the Dark, or the vivid colours and times of day she conjures up with her strange analogies. Whatever it is, its stuck with me this far, and I have a feeling it always will.

Alan Moore article in the Guardian

I missed this earlier in the week, but just in case anyone else hasn’t seen it there’s a good interview with Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, From Hell & the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on the the Guardian website.

The sense that I got of Moore from the interview was that he’s got a lot more integrity than most.

The interviewer, Steve Rose, notes that on the day he met him, Moore had turned down interviews with Time and CNN, because he was too busy getting ready for a charity gig at his local pub.

It might sound like arrogance, given that everyone’s talking about Watchmen at the moment, but it makes sense when you consider that Moore has done his best to avoid being associated with film, right down to assigning his share of the profits to Dave Gibbons, the artist with whom he originally wrote the graphic novel.

He told Rose, “I am aware of the immense power of absence. I’m not being completely disingenuous here. Of course I’m aware it doesn’t hurt my reputation, but I’m not playing hard to get as some publicity ploy. I’m genuinely busy with stuff that is really important to me.”

I can understand his distancing himself from Watchmen, and all the other adaptations of his graphic novels – they haven’t been great have they? From Hell, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen weren’t actively bad films, but they aren’t that good either and they pale into insignificance when you compare them to the graphic novels they are based on.

Moore makes the point to Rose, “There is something about the quality of comics that makes things possible that you couldn’t do in any other medium. Things that we did in Watchmen on paper could be frankly horrible or sensationalist or unpleasant if you were to interpret them literally through the medium of cinema. When it’s just lines on paper, the reader is in control of the experience ??? it’s a tableau vivant. And that gives it the necessary distance. It’s not the same when you’re being dragged through it at 24 frames per second.”

He’s got a good point – the medium is an incredible one and provides an experience to its readers that it’s hard to improve on, so why try? Is trying to turn a graphic novel or a comic into a film a futile exercise? You’ve got the words and the pictures, what else do you need? However, I do love the film Sin City, as an exception to the rule, because it looks so incredible – it feels like Frank Miller’s drawings have started to move on the pages (a bit like that A-Ha video – which is an inappropriate comparison, I know).

Bearing in mind what Moore thinks about the power and possibilities of his medium, I’m intrigued to see his new offering Lost Girls, which is porn in graphic novel form, illustrated by his wife Melinda Gebbie.

“We felt we could reclaim and redefine what pornography was, and we deliberately chose to use that word. We didn’t want to hide behind ‘erotica’ ??? because it’s not etymologically accurate for one thing, and I’m very fussy about that kind of stuff, and there’s a class element to it. Pornos graphos ??? drawings or writings of wantons ??? that will do,” Moore tells his interviewer.

Moore did his research too, reading feminist theory and analysis of pornography – and it’s refreshing to hear someone call porn porn, but a big task to try and reclaim it, but if there’s a medium in which it can be done, then why not the graphic novel, and if there’s a author to do it, why not Alan Moore?

Twittering a whole book? Really?

The author RN Morris is serialising his crime novel A Gentle Axe through social networking site Twitter.
Apparently the ‘Twitterisation‘ is only a slightly abridged version of the full novel but I can’t help but wonder who on earth would want to read a novel in 144 character chunks?

Alex Holroyd, press officer at Faber, Morris’ publishers told The Bookseller: ???His intention is to do the whole thing online, although it will depend on feedback and interest. It???s a bit of an experiment ??? he is already a keen blogger and has quite a presence on the net, so we are hoping it will transfer over.???

Sounds like a bit of a PR stunt to me, featuring the much talked-about buzzword of the day ‘Twitter’…which I too was briefly conned into thinking was the future, before realising it was mildly diverting and kind of useful, but not the earth-shattering technological revelation it’s made out to be…

I had a look at Mr Morris’ Twitters – as a PR stunt it doesn’t seem to be working that well, so far he’s got just over 200 followers, a low number in Twitter terms, but then perhaps this is a literary experiment rather than attempt to court the press with a gimmick

The benefit of reading a novel 144 characters at a time I suppose is that you really get to focus on the words, what they mean, the subtext behind them. The process also displaces you as a reader, making what would otherwise be a normal text strange – each individual line is rendered in a completely different light by being Twittered – “But what did they know of the cost to her soul, or of the tears she had shed over the years?”. But then again, you have to wait another hour to get the next few words and how can you remember what came before and get engrossed in the plot in the same way you would if you could read the text normally?

I don’t think the novel and Twitter are going to best friends – to be honest, I can’t see much replacing the book. In the printed paperback, literature has found an amazing format that has stayed almost unchanged for decades, and for good reason too – its perfect. I can’t imagine reading any other way – although I would secretly love to test out e readers

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although part of me would feel like I was betraying my books…

Literary events at Brighton festival 2009

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I picked up the programme for Brighton Festival today – there are some fantastic events on…not least the literary ones. The whole event is curated by the Indian-born artist, Anish Kapoor – I can remember going to the Tate in Liverpool when I was very young, about 4 or 5 I think and loving his vividly coloured, bold art which reminded me of sand castles. The whole festival seems like a more serious and ambitious endeavour this year, and I can’t wait for it to start. Ever since I’ve lived in Brighton, the coming of the festival has heralded the coming summer, sunny days wandering in the Laines and warm evenings spent on the beach, so in anticipation, I’ve compiled my book-related Brighton Festival 2009 wishlist….
  • City Reads: The Book Thief. I love the idea of this, and I’m going to join in – the concept is to get everyone in Brighton reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. the communal reading culminates in the author discussing the project and the book in an event at Brighton Dome on 23rd May. Find out more here.
  • Alaa al Aswany. The author of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa al Aswany is one of the most widely-read authors writing in Arabic and will be appearing at the Pavillion theatre on 24th May – more info here.
  • Very Hungry Caterpillar Storyplaytime. My favourite book when I was little – this is as good as children’s books get and hasn’t aged a bit. It’s on 10th May at the Jubilee Library, and you can get tickets here.
  • Thirteen. So far, to me at least, this is the best sounding event of the festival…based on Thirteen, the cult novel about a tired Brighton taxi driver who experiences an altered state of reality by Sebastian Beaumont, you are picked up by a cabby to experience an adaptation of part of the novel. The event runs hourly during the night of the 10th May and the venue is only revealed when you buy your ticket…but guess what? It’s sold out – and I haven’t got a ticket.
  • Kamila Shamsie & Gavin Esler. Kamila Shamsie, author of Salt & Saffron and Burnt Shadows & Gavin Esler, Newsnight presenter and author of A Scandalous Man, talk about the relationship between history and fiction, reality and storytelling. It’s on at the Pavillion Theatre on 17th May – get your tickets here.

Reading in bed

There are few things better than reading in bed. Ever since I was a child, being tucked up in bed with a book has been one of my greatest pleasures and it’s something that I took for granted until pretty recently when I’ve been so knackered that all I can think about when I get to bed to cramming in as much sleep as possible before I have to wake up and get on the train to work again.
I’m taking a stand and promising to go to bed earlier and read because it is a simple indulgence -especially in the winter on cold dark evenings. The experience is made even better by a cup of tea, clean, crisp sheets and as many pillows as possible to prop yourself off.
Right, I’m off to bed, with my book (Half of a Yellow Sun, if you’re interested). Good night.

My favourite bookshops.

Like just about everyone these days I buy most of my books online – the internet is amazing resource, I’ve stumbled across books that I might never have found otherwise and tracked down stuff from thousands of miles away, but there’s something to be said for actually going to a bookshop and thumbing through the volumes – especially secondhand bookshops, where you get that musty smell of old paper that I’ve always found a little intoxicating. Sad, but true.

I started thinking about my favourite bookshops after reading about Shakespeare and Company, the legendary bookshop in Paris. The owner, George Whitman, has played host to 50,000 writers since he opened the shop in the 1950s, and the bookshop, which has ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ as its motto, is more famed for its hospitality perhaps than it’s choice of books.

At home (which is Brighton by the way) my favourite has to be the Amnesty bookshop on Sydney Street – I’m always amazed by the things I find in there. The layout and the way the shelves are organised makes browsing a pleasure – plus there’s the added bonus of knowing the money you spend goes to a good cause.

Away, it has to be Idiom Books in Cochin in India. I had been in India for a while and had run out of things to read when I found this fantastic little shop – lovely service, a great choice of books from both within India and outside – book heaven as far as I was concerned.