Category Archives: books

The- Most-Famous-Author-Noone-Has-Ever-Heard-Of

Late last year, we found out that one of our favourite authors, and possibly The-
Most-Famous-Author-Noone-Has-Ever-Heard-Of, Neil Gaiman, was coming to little old Wellington to do some readings. Not knowing what a reading even consists of, but knowing from his blog that they are very popular and almost always sell out, I snapped up some tickets.

On Saturday, we finally went to the reading, part of the International Arts Festival, at Wellington’s Town Hall. We were surprised by the diversity of the audience – I was expecting goths, emo-kids and lots of young women who own cats. Not sure why he appeals to cat-women, but they seem to like him (as do white Alsation fans and beekeepers). But there were people from all walks of life, young, old and many like us – slightly geeky but not obviously so (I hope)!

For future reference, Writer Readings consist of some important person from the arts festival/world interviewing said-Writer, then Writer reading a passage from their body of work (often something requested at their fiancee’s concert by a random fan the night before). So they might read something old, something new, something borrowed- wait no, that’s a different kind of event. In this case, Gaiman did read something old, followed by two new pieces. One for the first time, the other something about to be published. Both were good short stories, very typical of his Edwardian-tribute-style shorts. The audience was pleased.

So, it turns out that an author reading also seems to be a place where aspiring authors gather to interrogate their hero about how to write. Neil Gaiman’s answer, although seemingly obvious, was something many of them needed to hear: You just write.
The best, least pretentious, question from the audience though, came from a young lad who asked what Gaiman’s favourite mythological creature was. The Basilisk, it turns out.

Finally Gaiman, wrapped up with one of my favourite passages from American Gods, and a firm-fan-favourite (buy it here, printed on a tshirt). It does need an intro, but I’ll forfeit the intro, and suggest instead, you read the entire book.

The other readings were (from memory – the last two aren’t published so I can’t check titles):
1. Locks (from collection ‘Fragile Things’)
2. My Last Landlady (for a collection of ‘dark’ English seaside stories – recent)
3. Saint Oran & Saint Columba (not sure of actual title – it’s brand spanking new)

And here is, from American Gods, the ‘I Believe’ passage:

I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen–I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones who look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline of good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of The Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies too. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.

Cloud Atlas: The story continues…

Earlier this year it was announced by Tom Tykwer, that the Wachowski’s had bought the rights to Cloud Atlas, a novel written by David Mitchell. Tykwer is adapting the screenplay of the award winning 2004 novel, although it is unclear who is set to direct, at this stage.

This news got Mike and I very interested. The Wachowski’s are of course best known for The Matrix (one of Mike’s favourite films) and the hugely underrated but very entertaining, Speed Racer. Tykwer’s Run Lola Run is, amongst others, one of my favourite films. The combination of filmmakers was sure to be an intriguing and successful one.

So, we kept an eye out for the novel at the heart of this collaboration, and I’ve recently finished reading it. There’s just so much going on in this book, that I want to get it all straight in my head, and the best way to do that, is to put it down on (blog-)paper. So here goes…

Wikipedia has a very nice plot summary, so I won’t go into too much detail here – best read it (or the novel) for yourself. The basic gist of it is this: Six seperate stories are nested within one another. Starting with an Amercian notary aboard a ship in the Pacific, set in the mid-19th century, followed by an English musician fleeing debtors to Zedelghem, Belgium to work (and hide) with a talented composer, then a journalist investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant in 1970’s California. The next story finds us in early 21st century England, where a book publisher finds himself trapped in a nursing home, then the novel takes a spin to the future, with the futuristic story of a fabricant (clone) in what-was-once-Korea who realises there is more to life than enslavement, and finally it goes post-apocolyptic with a campfire tale on Hawaii about a tribesmen meeting one of the last ‘civilised’ people left on the world.

Sounds like six completely different stories then. Why are they bound in the same cover? Well, this is where it gets clever. Yes, they are very different stories; not only are the characters (with the exception of one who is mentioned in two stories), the setting, and the time period completely different, but so is the genre for each story and the ‘mdeium’ in which it is written. But we discover, as we continue reading, that the stories are all linked. A character in the second story finds a copy of the ‘diary’ of the first character. He describes this in letters to a friend, who then gives these letters to the journalist in the third story. The journalists story is turned into a novel and this manuscript finds itself in the hands of the book publisher from story number four. He in turn, talks about how his life would make a great film, which, not surprisingly, it did – and the fabricant watches it before telling her tale to an ‘orison’ (holographic video recorder), and after the apocoplypse this orison falls into the hands of the tribesmen on Hawaii.

Sounds complicated, and on the upwards ride it is. But luckily, there is a downhill slope where it all becomes just that much clearer. The tribesmen ‘plays’ the second half of the orison, as we read the rest of her story. She in turn has a last request to finish watching the film about the book publisher, who at the end of the film sits down to finish reading the manuscript, etc. The whole novel becomes quite more-ish as you get caught up in each story, only to be abruptly ripped from it into a new world. I found the whole thing quite hard to put down.

So how would this work as a film? The film would have to remain faithful to the structure of the novel, or it would miss the point. Can you fit six different stories, each a different style, tone, pace and genre, with different characters into one film? Will the audience sit through it??? I have no idea.

As a novel it melds into one continuous arc. Despite the story within a story structure it feels like one story. There is a hint at the main characters all being the same reincarnated soul (except the last story, where it isn’t the main character). David Mitchell has confirmed this in an interview:

“All of the [leading] characters except one are reincarnations of the same soul … identified by a birthmark. … The “cloud” refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the “atlas”, which is the fixed human nature. … The book’s theme is predacity … individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations.”

And this brings me neatly to the next point… The novel’s scope covers the full circle of modern human society and it’s destruction. And it does seem destined to be cyclic in nature. At some point humanity will reach such a high point in technology and power that it will have nowhere to go but back down. This is illustrated in the fabricant’s story, where clones are created and manipulated to be agreeable drugged slaves. Much like the slave-trade alluded to in first story in the Pacific – of course by this point in history keeping slaves was frowned upon, but teaching Islanders to smoke – and become addicted to – tobacco was still fair game. The futuristic world of the fabricant seems to be the height of what human society can achieve, and we discover in the next story that not long after her escape from enslavement, her whole society fell, along with most of the civilised world.

“Yay, Old’uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more… Human hunger birthed the Civlize, but human hunger killed it too”
(Cloud Atlas, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, p. 286.)

There are as many messages to be taken from this novel as there are readers of it. It’s cleverness lies in how stories are incorporated into the previous story, especially on the downward spiral. Are they real or are they all fiction? Are some more real than others? Are we just another part of the story, and by writing this and referring to the book I am now part of it???

Books don’t offer real escape but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.
(David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, “Letters from Zedelghem”)

The Prestige – Book vs Film

“It wasn’t as good as the book!” 
That’s the usual response you get from people when they see an adaptation and I fully expected that after I had finished reading The Prestige I would feel the same way too.
First a little disclaimer. I LOVE The Prestige. It was directed by Christopher Nolan in between making  Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and starring Batman and Wolverine (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) and I think it’s one of the most underated films to have come out in the last few years. I remember after watching it for the first time, Hilleke and I spent the next few weeks dissecting it, going over scenes and looking at them from every angle, trying to do that thing you do with any good magic trick, figure out how they did it. And The Prestige is very much a cinematic magic trick. It gives you a wonderful mystery and gives you the answer it wants to, while being filled with enough clues and misdirection to make you think that maybe you’ve been had, maybe there’s more going on here than I first thought. People have speculated that the entire film is in fact a trick played on the audience and while I don’t agree with that, I can see how some would come to that conclusion. Every time I sit down to watch the film I notice something new, a little wrinkle that adds to the mystery that I hadn’t see before and it makes me love it all the more.
So a few weeks ago I sat down to read The Prestige by Christopher Priest, fully expecting to be even more blow away, sucked in and fooled by what I thought was going to be a literary magic trick.
I was wrong.
Now don’t take that the wrong way, I liked the book it but it’s not really on the same level as the film. I know that’s usually the reverse. Often so much detail and character interaction is lost when a book is translated to film that what you’re left with feels like a highlights package at best or at worst they completely miss the point of the book and ruin it. 
Now The Prestige book and film are very different. Jonothan and Christopher Nolan changed a lot when they wrote the screen play, from the structure to the ending, even down to the focus of the story ie the mystery of the trick “The Disappearing Man” but every change they made works and I think improves the story. 
For example. The book is structured in a very literal way. First we have Alfred Borden’s account of his life and then we have Robert Angier’s account of his. In both stories the other is presented as the bad guy and although it’s a fun plot device having the same events told from a different perspective, I often found that I had to flick back to Borden’s account of an event to remember what was happening. In the movie the two characters lives are presented together as one story. In typical Nolan fashion the movie jumps backwards and forwards in time while moving the narative forward. There are still 2 diaries but they are presented in a unique way. Borden is reading Angier’s diary and in it are passages about Angier reading Borden’s. In this way it keeps the two characters focussed on one another and shows much more clearly how their lives intertwined. Although they still see one another as the villain we get to see that in fact they are both as bad as one another… Or if we want to we can side with one over the other (I side with Borden, maybe because I prefer Batman over Wolverine).
There are other examples, the characters in the book are very much 19th century gentlemen and the way they write about their lives is quite formal and it can be a little difficult to identify with them sometimes, whereas the characters in the movie are very “modern” and passionate (a film concession that is often out of of place I will admit). Characters in the book are also quite dissmissive of magic itself and the main trick in particular which I found to be a little strange for a book about magicians and magic.
But the biggest change between the book and the movie is a whole subplot from the book that leads into a different ending. The subplot involves the present day descendants of Borden and Angier and their attempt to get to the bottom of the feud and solve a mystery of their own. I found this whole subplot a bit pointless and the ending it leads into, although it has a few scares, veers too far into the supernatural and gets a bit silly, which kind of ruins the whole book. I’m very glad this whole subplot was removed and the ending changed for the movie as I think the Nolan’s ending is vastly superior.  
I sound like I hated the book and while that’s not completely true, I do think the film is a lot better. I do wonder if I would feel the same if I’d read the book first. I like to think my opinion wouldn’t have differed too much though. 
My main problem with the book is that compared to the film, it seems to lack suspense and mystery. As I said the only real mystery is in the sublot and it’s resolution is, to put it frankly, dumb. Whereas the movie made the trick and it’s execution, first by Borden and then ultimately by Angier into the mystery. 
How did they do it? That’s the question that drives the film. 
How come this isn’t as good? Unfortunately that was often the question I had in mind while reading the book.