20 March, 2013

One of the Greats

John Wyndham

This was the first of Wyndham's books which i read, for Barb Baker, or Killough, whichever she was at the time; i can very clearly remember sitting in my Dad's office in the MacMillan Building on UBC, trying to read it and, a bit later, explaining that i was having a difficult time getting into it, as it all seemed to be introduction not action: As i was several chapters into the book at the time i cannot now work out what my problem was, as the action seems to start almost straight away. Evidently i was, though enthusiastic, not quite as skilled a reader as i think i have been developed into (i can scarcely take credit for it; i have just been taught well).

The Chrysalids is, regardless of my first thoughts of it, one of Wyndham's best books; there are probably four of the later, post-War, group he wrote, that of his highest quality; in mine opinion, clearly this is one of those four: It is a flawed book, in a couple of minor ways, but it is also skilfully written, well thought through, cleverly imagined, and a delight to read.

Flawed, i say, though perhaps in conception rather than execution ~ as though that makes the flaw the less! ~ because the appearance of the Sealanders/Zealanders at the end to rescue David, Rosemary, and Petra comes across as more of a deus ex machina device than Wyndham was wont to use. If i think of the others of his classics, The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes both end with an amount of hope, but no certainty for the future, and The Midwich Cuckoos is resolved purely by the actions (within character) of one of the leading residents of the village. At the time of my first reading (and several afterwards) i did not find this to be a problem; now it seems to me to be a weakness that might have been avoided, had Wyndham changed some of his conception of his post-Tribulation world. On the other hand, it is that world, close enough to ours to be recognisable, yet different enough to horrify us, which makes this such a powerful book.

A second point which has arise on this reading, though i'm not sure i'd go so far as to classify this one as a flaw, is the crosses which all the inhabitants of Waknuk ~ indeed, all the citizens of the whole of the civilisation of Labrador ~ wear so constantly as to surprise David when he finds they are not worn in the Fringes. Certainly they are intended to be related to the fundamentalist religion of the Labradorians, based as it is on the Bible (implied to be what we understand by that term, as it is the only book to have survived the Tribulation) and Nicholson's Repentances. The problem is that nothing other than the crosses implies that their Bible contains the New Testament: There is nothing in their practice or speech which points to a post-Jesus religion, quite the contrary, it seems to be very dogmatic, legalistic, bound by Law. It is not the lack of the New Testament which is an issue, as i can easily postulate only an Old Testament survived; what i see as problematic, though, is that the cross has no meaning at all in the Old Testament, so why do they use it? I suppose it is merely one of those puzzles an author is allowed to pose without necessarily giving a solution. Flawed or not, The Chrysalids is an excellent book by an author i love, and i will continue to buy his books when i come across them on market stalls and take them out of the library when i unexpectedly see them.

13 March, 2013

Not a Successful Comic

Stephen Colbert

A bizarre book. Colbert is some kind of television comedian in the US (at least, i really, really hope he's supposed to be a comedian; it's a little hard to tell because he's not really funny [see below], but it would be scarier to think he's serious in what he writes); i've never heard of him, except as someone who has encouraged people to vandalise Wikipedia to make some kind of (perhaps humorous?) point, but i gather that he has some fairly large following. I suppose i can see why, having read this.

He affects, truly or not, to be the most conservative person, an American of Americans, fairly ignorant and unthinking, unwilling to see any perspective except his own, Cyclopean, and convinced of his own correctness in all things; his character could, in fact, be described as an American version of Joyce's Citizen. Not the best basis for comedy, one might think and, indeed, the book is not really funny.

There are funny lines, a few amusing ideas, but on the whole it is more depressing than amusing, because i know too well that such people do exist and believe and behave in this manner. Colbert's main idea of humour seems to be to make outrageous or stupid statements as though they were perfectly natural; this can be funny ~ i do it myself ~ but generally only in fairly small doses, otherwise it becomes tedious. I have to say, i found that word (tedious) appropriate for this book; clever and amusing in concept, but in practice, probably not really worth it.

06 March, 2013


How do you feel about strong language? Personally, i don't use it, which makes me an anomaly among my colleagues. I am capable ~ my lips can form the words. You'll have to take my word for it, but i just spoke aloud one of the naughty words. The thing is, i wasn't actually using it, just saying it as an example; this is a part of the difference between use and mention. I can mention the words; in fact, be warned, i will be, a little later in this piece, some of them at least. It's just that i don't use them. Prudery? Maybe. Puritanical? Possibly. Who i am? Quite likely. Perhaps from mine upbringing.
Thinking of childhood, i remember the very moment i realised that profanities actually meant something, that they weren't merely collections of letters put together then never spoken by proper people. Judging by where it was, a particular school room, i must have been eleven or twelve; some of my classmates were talking, one said something about a person he saw, “shovelling shit” the previous day. I didn't know what this shit was ~ and i certainly wasn't going to ask! ~ but clearly it was a real substance.
More interestingly i think, i also remember where i was, though i can't narrow down the time so closely, the first time i saw one of these words in print. I spent a good portion of my high school career, nearly three years to be exact, skipping classes and reading in the school library ~ when i bothered to go to school at all. During that time i read a huge amount, a lot of it science fiction; in an SF book i came across a reference to two people having sex, making love as i thought it was always called. The author so shocked me when he said that they were fucking that i had to shut the book for a moment to recover. I honestly don't think, looking back from several decades on, that i thought adults, mature people (which surely writers were), used such language.
This use of profanity in writing is what i find most interesting at this point. As i say, i don't use it in my life; curiously, that extends almost completely to my writing, as well. I have used so far in this piece a couple of words, and it might seem to you ~ in fact, i hope it does ~ that they fit in the flow quite easily and naturally. To me, writing, it felt quite awkward: I found myself slowing down as i typed, not quite willing to commit myself to the word, although i knew, had known from before i started writing, that it was coming and i was going to use words that make me uncomfortable.
There is, in fact, a little sex in a roundabout way, in my current work in progress. The strongest, most explicit language i have used yet is, “I was instantly aware of something under the fabric of her shirt. Two somethings, in fact.” I actually embarrassed myself a little as i wrote that some time ago, felt that i was saying something a little bit naughty that perhaps might not be approved of; it seems likely that there will be no stronger language.
I might have matured a bit since i was first shocked at school; nowadays i can skip over profanity and blasphemy as i read with almost no hesitation at all. One book i read recently, though not erotic, was filled with such language, so much that i mentioned it in the review i wrote. I was still able to read it without embarrassment, with enjoyment.
Shock is not too far away, however. I recently read a short work which contained shit, bitch, fuck, and cock. It was, oddly, the last of those which surprised me most; perhaps because the author is a friend, a chaste woman who oughtn't know that language. Mind you, she's probably chased too, since she, like her two daughters, is a blonde bombshell; perhaps that's where she's learned the language.
All of which goes to show me that i still carry the imprints of my childhood, although i have learned what all of those words mean now and can run across them and continue with barely a blip. Maybe one day i'll be comfortable enough with them to actually use them myself.

04 March, 2013

Almost Unqualified Success

Toddie Downs

Wow! This is the first Early Reviewers' book that i have read in a long time and felt this good about on finishing ~ at least since November 2011 and the Treehorn trilogy, and that's an established children's book ~ so the first thing to say is, definitely a success.

I would guess that Summer Melody is probably marketed as a juvenile, aimed at teenage girls, certainly an audience i am fitted to be part of by neither age nor gender. The primary character, the one we are introduced to first, and from whose point of view much of the story is told, is a female teenager. Jane is fourteen, distinctly uncool, and feeling rejected by the world, including her family. Fortunately all is not as dark as it seems for Jane, though the summer does get fairly bad at times, what with her mother's stress over her grandmother's dementia, her cousin's on-again off-again romance, and trouble with the boy she is asked to babysit. The end, while perhaps simplistically happy, does seem to signal that things may be preparing to improve.

The other two main characters, from whose alternating perspectives the other chapters are told, are Bonnie, Jane's mother, and Meg, her cousin. Each of the three have problems in their lives, mostly rotating around familial orbits, and each has to rely on others to help solve them. I like this feature, as it seems to reflect quite closely on real life, where we have to depend on others as well as ourselves.

I must say that i found the alternating perspective a little confusing at first; i would say that i was about four or five chapters in before i fully understood, and i remember having to go back twice to see which character was which: Somehow the very simplicity of the names allowed them to be blurred in my mind. Fortunately the chapters are short enough that i had not invested too much time in each, and was not really confused for long before being able to go on.

The rest of the writing style i found enjoyable. Downs developed the lesser characters and plot-lines well, so that i felt that there is quite a lot of texture to the book (ironic, as it's an e-book), a good background against which the main lines and characters develop. The question of who Pete was, for example, and why Vivian is the way she is; the lovely actions of Brady's father at the wedding reception; the relationship between Mona and her dress designer: These are all non-essentials, but cleverly thought through and well written, adding much to the pleasure of the book.

In the end, the one minor caveat aside, Summer Melody was a complete success for me, and i am delighted that i was given the opportunity to read it.

01 March, 2013

Bruce Pollock

A different way of looking at popular music history; Pollock uses The Beatles to focus a review of fifty or so years of music, looking at it all through the lens of the original -mania band, how they were influenced, whom they influenced, whom they played like, who plays like them, and so on. The result is, though it sounds a bit arbitrary as write this, really quite a clever approach. I'm not sure it could be done again, with another group, meaningfully, but this one book is, for that reason, unique.

The title is a little misleading, as the second, following, phrase is usually, “...then you'll love...”; the sorts of places i have seen it are in advertising for something which is based on and attempting to cash in on a popular brand, perfume, for example, or a series of novels. In this case it is not quite the same, as the basic assumption is that we love The Beatles and, therefore, might be interested in hearing the other artistes mentioned, which rather changes around the basis of the phrase, but Pollock has not changed the phrase itself. Never mind the pedantry, though; the book itself is a good overview of popular music, fairly prosaically told, but by no means unreadably.

Better are the series of appendices, in which Pollock gives lists of various sorts; i'm particularly interested in that which gives a huge number of cover versions of Beatles songs, and the artists who have made them. There are also lists by chapter of songs or albums to listen to in order better to understand the origins and influence of The Beatles. Plenty of information packed into a fairly small space.