So, as those who follow me on twitter may or may not know, Google recently directed someone to my blog via the search term “sexy lesbians”. I have been scratching my head, desperately trying to figure out how on earth this was possible, and decided Google is stalking me.
However, confused as I was, I felt bad for the poor sod who had searched for that and ended up on my blog. Because there definitely is no mention of sexy lesbians on my blog, not even a teensy weensy picture of Portia de Rossi (obviously there is one now). I guess I do mention lesbians once, in brackets, in My Feelings about Scandinavian Literature, a blog which also contains the word sexy. Still though, sexy lesbians isn’t enough of a rare search term to warrant such grasping at straws, I would think.
As I related this incident to a friend, he reminded me of a seminar for a course called “Modern British Novels: 1979 to the present day” in which I unequivocally stated that
lesbianism makes everything more popular
A question I recently raised in this post was whether a cracking page-turning plot is enough to warrant a good book. Just after posting that, my housemate made me aware of a very good article by Will Self on sequipedalianism, or, the use of long and obscure words, and why this is good. I very much enjoyed the article (also because I had learnt that word in a Jennifer Aniston film, and because Will Self uses even more commas than I do), but it did get me thinking.
Is it so that in contemporary literature, subject matter must always triumph over style when it comes to popularity? So a badly and/or exceedingly simply written book about, say, lesbians (just to give those poor misguided googlers value for their nonmoney), will always be more interesting than a terribly well written and/or clever book about gardening?
I fear this is probably true.
However, thanks to Mr. Self I have decided that whilst I will not be ashamed of my plot-heavy fiction indulgence, nor will I constantly postpone the cleverer books in my to-read list. Because though they take more time, they are so rewarding.
And they make me feel very clever.
I would also like to raise the point of how amazingly many words the English language contains. They should be used. If there is a specific word for “the using of long, obscure words” why on earth should one avoid using it? I come from a language where almost half the words (or feels like it anyway) have to do double duty and serve two purposes, for example dør: “door” and “dying” or lov: “permission” “law” and “promise”.
So if you have lots of words – use them, keep them alive, and in honour of Shakespeare‘s Birthday, invent new ones!
Yet another of the spoils of Penguin Book Bloggers’ Night, Konstantin is soft-spoken Welsh author Tom Bullough‘s most recent novel about the father of russian space travel, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (see the stamp below).
Turning to this novel the moment I had finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I was deeply immersed in Russia, and keen to learn more of this great country.
Even before opening this book, without having the faintest idea of what it was about, I was drawn to it’s beautiful cover, simple, white, with russian-looking details drawn in red. The opening phrases,
Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage
echoed the white simplicity of the cover and drew me into an icy expanse of Russian history from the very first words. I have always been a judge-by-the-cover kind of reader (so hard when shopping on my Kindle!) and was more than thrilled to realise that the content seemed to echo the cover.
Konstantin is, as mentioned, the story of the father of russian space travel’s early life, and is truly a rags-to-riches story. The book is divided into four parts: The first, Little Bird, chronicles the boy’s early life. With an academic father and a loving mother, he was given more chances than many of his fellow villagers, and his parents valued education highly. It soon becomes apparent that young Kostya has an exceptional mind, but is discontented with sticking to the established curriculum, disregarding plain sums for invention and explorations into gravity and physics. When he is struck with scarlet fever, his mother’s agony and worry was portrayed so achingly heart-wrenching that even I, ever the cathartic reader, feared for his life.
The second section, titled Konstantin, shows teenager Konstantin, rendered nearly deaf by the scarlet fever, travelling with his father to meet an important scientist and entrepreneur, and hopefully enter into an apprenticeship. Sadly for Konstantin, his brilliant mind and insistent command of the principles of physics make this appointment difficult, just as his wandering concentration had caused him to fail at school. Finally, his father sees no other option than to ship him off to Moscow, with a letter of introduction for the university. hrough a series of misfortunes Konstantin, armed with an ear trumpet of his own invention, manages to overcome obstacles that would have nipped the hopes of many a budding scientist in the bud.
There are many truly spectacular things about this novel. One of them is the fact that at no point does it feel like a dry biography, or a dull history lesson. It is a remarkably well written portrait of a young boy in 1860s Russia, with a sharp mind, a persistent innovative streak and a above-the-ordinary love for experimental science. (I guess nowadays he would have been called a geek, done really badly at his coursework but amazingly well at his special project or whatever a science-y dissertation is called, and gone on to work for Apple).
As Bullough chronicles the early experiments (fancy toboggans and stories, which little Kostya pays his brother to listen to), it is still the person, the human, who is at the centre of this story. Where lengthy scientific explanations are included, they are spoken or thought by Konstantin himself, and make him all the more plausible as a slightly socially inept nerd/genius. The raw emotion of his childhood, and the stark contrast between his life and those of his wealthier, yet less gifted fellow students, is shockingly poignant.
Beautifully crafted, elegantly plotted, with detailed characters and raw emotion, amazingly researched and informative (Bullough himself writes that it took him almost ten years to complete this novel), the perfection of this book starts with the cover, and is persistent through to the very last word. Read it, read it, read it.
(And unfold the dust jacket and hang it on your wall. It is that pretty. Whoever at Penguin is responsible for this cover should get some sort of award).
In light of my most recent post Confessions of a Justified Slummer, lovely Jessica at Prose and Cons most recent post/inspiration seems very apt and to the point! And also I do love a bit of Oscar.
In shock, I have just realized I have posted only two posts for the last howevermany weeks. Excuses immediately jump to mind:
- Busy at work.
- Busy working out.
- Was in Norway eating chocolate.
But actually, I was….
Oh, it’s almost too much.
OK, here goes.
I have been reading Game of Thrones.
Yup. Fantasy. And it’s even fantasy I’m reading because they made a TV-series about it. (My copy has the tv-series cover). How mainstream. Gods, how vulgar. Truly slummin’ it.
But also – Oh My God it is so obsessive. Addictive. I am going through these books at a rate that is, quite frankly, alarming. And I am thoroughly enjoying it. My commute whizzes past every morning, every evening (no mean feat with 1h15mins each way). I haven’t even glanced at a Metro or Evening Standard, and not had a single nap. No drooling. No face-planting in laps in a desperate scramble to get off. No irrational fury at lack of space/pushy people/children/loud breathing/tall people/short people/people with nicer coats than me.
So – is it shameful? Is it “lesser”?
This is an age old debate, of course. Are books that force you to turn the page with the sheer, compulsive plot-drivenness always “bad”? Are boring books always “good”? Are plot and quality diametrical opposites in the world of literature?
Hundreds (probably thousands) of academics and book bloggers and every Tom, Dick and Harry has discussed this without coming to any conclusive answer, but I am going to throw my personal opinion out there anyway (thank god this isn’t an academic essay or I would get shot to pieces):
Any kind of book is still a book. Books are good.
(Accidentally (?) wrote “Books are god” there. Disturbing. Or disturbingly true?).
And though I may perhaps become more enlightened and intelligent from reading, say, Anna Karenina (that was really good, though. Mini-review here), that doesn’t change the fact that I am enjoying Game of Thrones just as much.
So there. The truth. And to all the people who have said something along the lines of “this isn’t quite your normal thing” or “I am so glad you are finally hooked on the fantasy as well” or expressed some other sentiment of surprise – I am not sure whether, in literature world I am supposed to be flattered by being taken as someone “above” fantasy fiction or something, but rest assured – (oh god, I cannot belive I am about to put this in writing in the public space of internet) – I have read every single volume of Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children. I am also obsessive about Harry Potter, voluntarily took a university course on Tolkien, can hold my own in a discussion on the Earthsea series and one of the books I have read the most times in my life (apart from the above) is about ponies.
I do wish they didn’t have such ugly covers though:
At the moment, TV screens are rife with supernatural TV-series largely based on fantasy fiction or fairy tales such as Once Upon a Time, Grimm and Supernatural. There are, I am sure, many explanations for the recent surge in this type of series, most of which I am unaware. But as a devotee of True Blood, I happily include myself in the demographic for such things. One thing I have come to realize they all have in common is that they in some way deal with the darker, imagined sides of humanity.
I know a lot of people reading this will probably think that I am instilling too much meaning into something as far-fetched as a show set in thickest red-neck Louisiana, filled to the brim with vampires, fairies, werewolves, werepanthers, shape shifters and god knows what else they are planning to bring into the fifth season (or that I am just blinded by my love for Alexander Skarsgård). But let us think about it for a moment (and also have a look at Alexander Skarsgård, though admittedly not at his most handsome right here).
Let’s assume that the average person is, at any given time, as good as they can possibly be. Or at least, refusing certain impulses, temptations etc. for the sake of conscience, morality, politeness or simply to keep things from being awkward. Say you were an exhibitionist. Imagine all the things you were refraining from doing for the sake of “society”. Now imagine a person, or a being if you will, who would have no such qualms.
I give you, ladies and gentlemen, The Devil of Popular Culture.
To a society of John Milton‘s contemporaries, England ca. 1650, the abovementioned being would be the worst thing they could possibly picture. This was a society of, broadly speaking, restraint and religion. In this context the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost is all the Devil is supposed to be – self-indulgently sinful.
It wasn’t until the age of enlightenment, romanticism and rebellion that the Devil began to be seen as something interesting, namely with William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. What Blake did was link Satan to one of the greatest mythical heroes of the time, Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people, and for this offense was chained to a rock for thirty thousand years where he had his liver hacked out of him by and eagle on a daily basis. In a society favouring a guy like Prometheus as their idol it is easy to see why the Devil, or more specifically Milton’s version of Satan came to be a hero.
Though traditionally a bad guy, The Bad Guy in fact, he isn’t all that bad, according to Blake. Because Satan getting Eve to take a chunk out of that apple by extension led to the Awakening of Man’s Intellect. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, etc etc. This, to the post-enlightenment mind, is obviously a good thing. And through a bit of a paradigm-shift (excellently explained by DBC Pierre in Vernon God Little), Milton’s Devil had become glamorous and a champion for mankind.
No matter that Satan of Paradise Lost rapidly deteriorates from book 4 or 5 onwards to become a sulky, irrational, childish and cowardly creature of the underworld. In the beginning he is still a hero. And no matter how much Milton probably didn’t “take Satan’s side” or have a favourable view of him (this would probably be almost impossible to a renaissance mind) that is how people think of his Devil.
Myself included. (Poor Milton, condemned to be a Satanist).
And that is the basis of Satan in contemporary literature. Yes, a bad guy. A tempter. But also someone exciting. Someone who can live out every fantasy, every urge. Who not only can live them out, but who is expected to do so. Someone glamorous. Someone who becomes another urge to resist. Someone even more glamorous, dark, beyond the human scope than a vampire or a werewolf. A vessel, if you will, for authors to fill up with every one of their dark, secret (not so secret once they are published) ideas. And also someone who will almost always be more interesting than, say, Jesus and God, who will so very frequently be mind-numbingly boring characters. Because how can you imagine and portray something better than yourself? Not more attractive, with more willpower, more intelligent. Someone who never gossips about their coworkers or gets annoyed at their mother. Someone who doesn’t need willpower, because they are good? Almost impossible.
So fiction chooses the Devil.
Stay alert for a Top Ten Works of Fiction Featuring The Devil, coming to a literary blog near you, very soon. In the meanwhile, a little aesthetic taster (gotta love a lil’ bit of Liz)
This is my review of Nat Segnit’s Pub Walks in Underhill Country, first published on the lovely Little Words Reviews!
This is a guest post by Hannah Gillow Kloster.
The Penguin Book Bloggers night was, as host Joe Pickering suggested, a whirlwind literary festival: 12 authors, 12 novels, three minutes each. One of the readings that most captured my attention was Nat Segnit reading from his novel Pub Walks in Underhill Country. Hilariously describing a small marital spat in which the wife, Sunita, thinks she is being captured and murdered by her husband Graham, protagonist, rambler, writer, the scene hit straight home. Perhaps it was because I had recently finished reading Dan Rhodes’ oh-so-good, oh-so-funny This Is Life. Perhaps it was the free wine and free books (equally intoxicating, I often find). Whatever the reason, I found myself laughing out loud more than was strictly socially acceptable (luckily Joe Pickering was laughing just as much, which added not only acceptance but in a way elevated me to one of the…
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Today, whilst standing minding my own business as usual, I happened to glance over the shoulder of a woman sitting next to me, at her book. Intrigued as to what book would have such odd, italicized sub-titles, I cast a cursory glance at the title in the top corner of the page. Strong, Independent (so far so good) – and Lonely – Women. I promptly did a double take – but my initial reading was correct. Ah, I thought to myself, despite her highly sparkling, very long fingernails, she is an ironic feminist. How nice. (Not that being a feminist and having long, sparkly nails are mutually exclusive, of course. I bet Simone de Beauvoir would have loved some sparkly nail polish).
My curiosity thus awakened, I kept reading. The subtitle around the middle of the page read How to be a girl around the house. Surely, I thought, that would simply amount to having a vagina and being in a house? But perhaps this was some sort of self-indulgence chapter, a kind of Zooey Deschanel-y “dance to rock music in your frilly underpants” thing?
Do not fix the toilet, the sink, or indeed anything. Let him do it.
Now I was not only curious, but severely confused. How can not fixing the toilet help you be a girl? How, in fact, can a book instruct anyone on being a girl? Unless it was directed at men?
Again in bold:
Do not paint, mow the lawn, take out the garbage or lift anything heavy. This is his job.
Now incredulity was complete.
The book was, it appeared, not ironic at all. Nor was it feminist. Or even post-feminist. It was in fact a full on, 50s relic style guide to “how to trap a man by pretending to be helpless, weak, and everything you are naturally not”. Fight your instincts, it seemed to be saying.
As I was walking from the tube, I started thinking about the impact books can have on people. It is pretty immense. That is why I would like to counter the Strong, Independent – and Lonely – Women with my thoughts on Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman.
I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion’.
17 girls liked it. No boys.
(though that may also have to do with the fact that I posted it with a picture of Suffraggette Mrs Banks from Mary Poppins. And the complete lyrics of “Sister Suffragette”).
Whilst bringing feminism unashamedly to the masses, this book is a hilarious romp through, well, being a woman. It covers every part of being a woman today, including what sort of pants you should wear (the answer is, of course, whichever pants you like). And because Caitlin Moran is, as her twitter says, “a woman, yes, but also funny”, she had me snorting out loud on the tube in an extremely unladylike manner, but also completely unashamed of being unladylike.
Such is my faith in this book that I think it can reclaim the word feminism, and banish the idea of feminism being this unattractive, crazy, no-bra no-men kind of thing. Because books CAN and DO matter. Feminism is just about equality, not about women over men or men over women, and Moran manages to balance this view between extraordinarily poignant thruths and extraordinarily funny truths.
Everyone (yes, you men as well. Especially you.) should read this.
How to be a Woman made me realize that this “being a woman” can be done in a multitude of ways. 3 billion ways, in fact. That every woman is, just by being an adult, a woman. There is no rulebook. And you are also allowed to be funny. And you may, even, fix the toilet. But you are still allowed to be a feminist even if you can’t fix it. Or if you have long sparkly nails, or don’t wear grannypants, or really fancy Alexander Skarsgård.
If everyone read How to be a Woman, it would be such a huge step for equality that it would render books such as Strong, Independent –and lonely – Women obsolete museum objects, to be laughed at until gasping, and/or make us grateful for the work of Mrs Banks and others, such as crinolines, hair mascara, corsets, chastity belts and buffalo trainers.
So read it.