Archive for December 2008
Buying books online isn’t “morally dubious, but it is tragic. It has a lot of unintended consequences for communities.” According to this article in the New York Times.
It is a familar but stupid cry. I highly praised a couple of Jeanette Winterson novels this year. However, a couple of years ago I scorned her for this piece in the Times that incontinently argued that giving books to Oxfam was good, giving books to friends was good but giving books to strangers via the internet was bad.
Another day, another manufactured outrage from the Daily Mail. I having been banging on to the whole of the interwebs for months about the brilliance of Patrick Ness’s The Knife Of Never Letting Go but apparently it is so violent it needs a health warning. Or, at least, that is the impression the Mail gives through smoke and mirrors use of quotation. Luckily Ness has a platform to respond over at the Guardian.
In his response he notes the rather unique way the Mail chose to illustrate Amanda Craig’s article on perceived violence in children’s books. Craig also mentions in passing the allure of making things verboten which the Mail goes on to prove:
The content of children’s books has also caused controversy in Australia, where Requiem For A Beast won the 2008 Children’s Book Council prize for the best picture book. It featured the word ‘f***’ numerous times, as well as illustrations of a bloody axe and violent images of a man turning into a beast.
Sounds quite interesting. Anyway, it seems appropriate to close with Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE':
You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.
Film Of The Year: WALL-E
I don’t have enough superlatives, the praise that has to be lavished on Pixar is almost unseemly. Everything you could possibly want: beautiful, funny, romantic, uplifting, heartbreaking. It is also noticable that despite being an animated film the direction, cinematography and acting are better than that of most films I saw this year.
Runners up: No Country For Old Men, The Dark Knight, In Bruges and Dead Man’s Shoes
SF Film Of Year: WALL-E
Obviously WALL-E takes the honours here as well. Every other SF film I watched this year was shit, except, to my considerable surprise, the over-the-top mutant thrills of Planet Terror.
Runner up: Planet Terror
Pixar Film Of The Year: WALL-E
Er, see above.
Runners up: Ratatouille and Cars
Pleasant Surprise Of The Year: Apocalypto
This was a great year for being nicely confounded by films I wasn’t expecting much from. I borrowed this from my brother-in-law on the grounds that Mel Gibson is a batshit insane bigot and I didn’t want to put any money in his pocket. The reviews had intrigued me though. It turned out to be an incredibly violent action movie, filmed in a dead language and using the grammar of science fiction to tell an amazingly alien story. A unique and extraordinary achievement.
Runners up: Tell No One, Bridge To Terabithia, Planet Terror and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Disappointment Of The Year: Be Kind Rewind
The flipside of being pleasantly surprised was that several of the films I had been looking forward to ended up being disappointments. Chief amongst these was Be Kind Rewind which never lived up to the promise of its premise or the considerable talent of all those involved. In keeping with its central premise it has a half rehearsed almost panto feel which means despite the brief bursts of brilliance it is mostly a sloppy failure.
Runners up: Sweeney Todd, Bender’s Big Score, Deathproof and Doomsday
Diminishing Returns Award For Worst Film Of The Year: AVP2
A film so pointless I can’t even be bothered to give it its full name. Extraordinarily AVP wasn’t the nadir of this franchise because this film manages to strip away the last vestige of menace and cool from bothsets of creatures. Notable only for the following exchange:
Macho guy: “What are you guys, stoned?”
Macho guy: “Grab some rifles.”
Runners up: The Chronicles Of Riddick and The Scorpion King
Turn Up For The Books Award For Not Entirely Shit Franchise Film Of The Year: Blade Trinity
How can you not love a film that features the phrase “cock juggling thundercunt”.
Runner up: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skulls
WTF!? Award: Southland Tales
A stunning act of megalomania on the part of Richard Kelly. Southland Tales is the last three acts of a sprawling six act story composed of such an immense load of cobblers that it defies all description. My incredulous review is up at Strange Horizons (this review also examines the rampant what-the-fuckery of the deeply disappointing Doomsday.)
Runners up: Tropic Thunder (in a good way) and Doomsday
Superhero Film Of The Year: Iron Man
You heard. I saved this till last because I knew it would be controversial. The Dark Knight is clearly a better film but it is more a psychological crime drama than a superhero movie. Iron Man is unabashedly a silly costume story but pulls it off – complete with perfectly executed origin story – better than any other one so far. Another show-stealing turn from Robert Downey Jr.
Runner up: The Dark Knight (obviously)
Book Of The Year: House Of Meetings by Martin Amis
Yellow Dog was a mess, his journalism has been lacklustre and his commentary has been bigoted, idiotic and disappointing. House Of Meetings makes you forget all this. It is a blinding work of genius which is in no way diminished by channelling Nabokov so strongly. More of this and less op-eds please (although The Pregnant Widow sounds a bit rubbish.)
Runners up: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing: Traitor To The Nation by MT Anderson
Science Fiction Book Of The Year: Anathem by Neal Stephenson
There are undoubtably problems with this book and my runners up are perhaps better novels but this is an astonishing work of science fiction of a sort that no one but Stephenson could produce. As I said in my review: “one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness.”.
Runners Up: The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
Worst Book Of The Year: The Edge Of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass
To quote from the opening of my as yet unpublished review:
Imagine if Richard Dawkins was not only American but retarded. Imagine he taught himself to read using the work of illiterate megasellers like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen. Imagine he further fleshed out his understanding of human nature on a diet of romance novels and misery memoirs. Finally, imagine he stayed up one night getting drunk and watching piss-poor police procedurals before having the sudden brainwave of re-writing American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Imagine all that and you have imagined Melinda Snodgrass’s dire The Edge Of Reason and thus saved yourself the pain of actually reading it.
Runners up: The Electric Church by Jeff Somers and A Short History Of Tractors In Ukranian by Marina Lewycka
Disappointment Of The Year: Life Class by Pat Barker
This isn’t a bad book, in fact, it is a good book. However, after the stunning duet of Border Crossing and Double Vision this feels like a pale retread of the Regeneration Trilogy. I want more from my favourite British writer.
Runners up: Un Lun Dun by China Miéville and Matter by Iain M Banks
Guilty Pleasure Of The Year: Death’s Head by David Gunn
AS the book’s jacket tells us, Gunn is “smartly dressed, resourceful and discreet, [he] has an impressive collection of edged weapons and sleeps with a shotgun under his bed.” This is braindead MilSF that somehow managed to charm me. I must pick up the second volume.
Runners up: Choke by Chuck Palahnuik and Bunker 10 by JA Henderson
Most Overrated Book Of The Year: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
I form part of a nucleus of British SF fans who recoiled from the near universal praise for this simplistic, didactic novel. The idea of spoonfeeding kids the tools of dissent is an admirable one but I could have done without the cartoonish politics, non-existant characterisation, rubbish plot and – most of all – the Cory Sue protagonist.
Runners up: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and The H-Bomb Girl by Steven Baxter
Why Didn’t I read That Before? Award: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Runners up: The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera and A Canticle For Lieberwitz by Walter Miller Jr
Dear film industry,
For the last year or so I have been slagging off the sound mix of contemporary films. In particular, the tendency of dialogue to be lost under sound effects and incidental music. However, last night it came to my attention that the factory default for my television was surround sound rather than stereo and as such it was my telly that was sabotaging my viewing experience, not you.
PS Badly configured cinemas are exempt from this apology.
Benjamin Kunkel has an article called Dystopia And The End Of Politics in the Fall 2008 edition of Dissent. He never manages to integrate the two parts of his title – the politics unconvincingly bookends the literary analysis – but it is still an interesting article. Interesting doesn’t mean good though. He surveys a clutch of recent literary SF novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Houellebecq’s The Possibility Of An Island, Crace’s The Pesthouse and McCormac’s The Road before getting bogged down in generalisations like “the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters.” It is notable that his only actual example of a genre text is Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which is now fifty years old. When he moves beyond specific texts to wider trends the partiality of his selection becomes obvious:
This, in turn, owes something to the fact that, while both dystopia and apocalypse fall under the heading of science fiction, they descend from different prior novelistic genres… Dystopia, generally speaking, is a subgenre of the gothic or horror novel, in which the hero or heroine discovers a barbaric truth (the nature of society) lurking beneath a civilized facade, and incurs the traditional gothic-novel penalties of madness, isolation, ruin. Never mind that dystopias often propose an antiseptic horror free from the gothic elements of shadows and decay; their atmosphere of cleanliness and rationality only serves, as in a hospital, to underline the ambient dread. The apocalyptic narrative, on the other hand, derives genetically from the historical romance or adventure story; the noble and free hero’s rescue of an innocent woman and/or child from danger has been a staple of such fiction since the time of Walter Scott. The only difference is that the historical romance is set in the past and the apocalyptic one in the future.
There is no reason to believe that horror, adventure and SF and hence dystopian and apocalyptic narratives are genetically distinction rather than hybridised and Kunkel doesn’t offer one. The idea that apocalyptic fiction is simply temporally re-located historical romance is the sort of judgement you could only leap to if you had just finished Crace’s dreadful novel. I agree that apocalyptic novels by their nature are striped of complexity and reduced to the “zoological”, that is my complaint with even exemplary examples like The Road, but it seems a long way from there to his conclusion:
In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love.
Pitchfork have published their 100 tracks of the year. They are all available for streaming but 27 of them can be downloaded. Here are my three favourites:
This is a Hot Chip-produced slice of build-and-drop electro that sounds not unlike an extended, sexier version of “Over And Over”.
Wale uses Michael Richards’s infamous tirade as a jump off to dissect the words “nigger” and “nigga”:
And niggas say nigga to a nigga,
A nigga write nigga in a lyric, expect the white boy to omit it,
The white boy spit it like he spit it,
Recite it to his friends who, by the way, ain’t niggas,
And say nigga, nigga, nigga, my favorite rapper did it,
And non-nigga friends got it with him,
Incorporate this lyric to their everyday living,
Until a black friend kinda hear it, just a tidbit,
He thinks Aw, forget it, its so insignificant and little,
The white boy sees this as a clearance, now its
Nigga, nigga, nigga, every single day,
And that little nigga nigga, thinks its okay,
And he’s the only nigga in this particular grade,
And it begins to phase him more each day,
The things they say went a little too far,
He couldn’t tell the difference between an “a” or “er”
You know this already.
Number one is “Blind” by Hercules and Love Affair, if you are interested.
There was once a not very good writer who got lucky. In the beginning, she realised her limitations, but then began to take herself very seriously and wrote a series of ever-longer and bigger books. For years she said she longed for her privacy, but once she had finished her seventh book she looked at the bestseller charts and thought how lonely she would feel if she wasn’t top by Christmas. So she knocked out a quick follow-up and said she would give the profits to charidee. The publisher was happy but the children weren’t interested in a dud spin-off so they didn’t buy it and lots of copies had to be remaindered. And the writer was very sad. The End.
I mentioned Todd Alcott when I wrote about the diabolical Steven Spielberg version of War Of The Worlds. He has now completed his analysis: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. As I suggested, he is unfazed by implausibility and stupidity.
Elsewhere Peter Bradshaw reviews the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still:
The alien is called Klaatu, and Keanu Reeves (whose first name doesn’t sound that much different) is perhaps the only plausible casting, given that David Bowie is now too advanced in years to fall to earth again without breaking something… As ever, Keanu’s speech patterns really only suit a non-Earthling role. There’s something in that halting, quizzical delivery – which for a second promises droll comedy, and in the next second delivers only a baffling blankness – which indicates that carbon-based life forms are not entirely his thing.
It is widely regarded as a good idea for authors not to respond to reviews of their books. Editors probably have a bit more leeway though. On balance they should probably keep their mouths shut too but when their responses are as devastating as Jeet Thayil’s reply to William Radice’s review of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets it is hard to begrudge them:
Radice’s orientalism would be quaint enough to be endearing – if it weren’t so annoying. He tells the reader (breathlessly, I imagine) that my anthology lacks “the colours, the light, the heat, the skies, the crowds and the birds” of India, not to forget “family relationships”, “children” and groups of enthusiastic “Indian university students”. What a happy picture must be playing in Radice’s overheated 19th-century imagination! What elephants! What tigers! What heat and dust and palanquins!
His main objection to 400 pages of poetry is that it is too contemporaneously gloomy. He laments the fact that Nissim Ezekiel and Vikram Seth dared to write in iambics when they should have been using a “tabla beat”. “To any Indian poet in English I would say: close your eyes, think back to the songs and rhymes you heard on your mother’s or grandmother’s lap,” he says, managing to be both patronising and reductionist at the same time.