Fireside seat

Winter in Scotland, and one of the finest and simplest pleasures, sitting not just in the pub, but getting the comfy, cushion-strewn sofa right by the old stove, cosy, comfortable, ah, perfect…

a session in Teuchters 02

Waiting on chum and his dogs to arrive (the hounds, of course, after several minutes of demanding attention from me settled down happily in front of the warm stove for the rest of the afternoon), and leafing through a fascinating book while sipping a very fine ale by the fire on a chill winter’s day. The simple pleasures….

a session in Teuchters 03

You can never have enough books…

I suspect fellow bibliophiles and reading addicts will identify with this, I certainly do. After a couple of decades as a bookseller, reviewer, editor and writer I generally accrue more books than I can find time to read (let alone review), and I’m in the fortunate position of regularly being sent interesting new ones to look at. And yet I still love a good browse round a decent bookstore, especially second hand and charity ones, where you never know what you’ll find. Couple of weeks ago, despite having a pile of new and forthcoming books waiting on my attentions (and having several on the go at the same time) I still went off with a chum to rummage through the charity bookstores on Edinburgh’s Southside.

oh look a bookstore
(via Spinning About)

I decided since the bulk of my reading recently has been fiction (prose and graphic novel) I would limit myself to only non-fiction (like that matters when you have piles overflowing the shelves into corners, but hey, whatever justification works, right?). And I ambled off after our bookstore troll to the pub with several books – couple of history works, a pop science book and a collection of poetry. Necessary when you have so many other books waiting? Technically, practically, no. On the level of my reading soul though, yes, of course! And it made me feel better.

Most recently my reading has been focused very much on the books of authors I will be talking to next week when I am again chairing a couple of events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as I read then re-read to try and pick out some relevant questions for the events, but it’s good to vary the reading diet – and for a break – to dip into some other pieces, so I am also taking quick peeks at Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of the American West but from the perspective of the Native Americans, a book I have been meaning to read for years, and which I found on the shelves of one of those charity bookstores recently. Which I take as a sign from the literary gods and accordingly grabbed it.

For those interested, the two events I’ll be chairing next weekend as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival are a talk with Karrie Fransman and Rob Davis, both of whom I have followed for years and who are creators who push the ways in which the comics medium can tell a story, and Evie Wyld (one of the Granta best new young writers) and Joe Sumner about their collaboration, Everything is Teeth (I’ll post a review of that on here soon).

The sentence for reading is death

Well, it is in bloody Afghanistan at any rate. Journalism student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has been sentenced to death for reading. His crime? He downloaded a text which – gasp of horror – said that Muslim fundamentalists (those whacky, zany guys, what will they think of next!) who beat people around the head with their own fucked up interpretation of the holy Koran and use it to legitimate their severe repression and control of women were completely wrong and were acting contrary to the teachings of the Prophet. Gee, I can see where they might get a little annoyed at a document saying they might be wrong – after all these are the same shagwits who respond to a simple cartoon by killing people and demanding some beheadings. They aren’t just misrepresenting the teachings of their own religion, they are just fucking stupid, violent fools clearly terrified of women and carrying AK47s as a substitute for their very small willies.Take their guns off them and lock them in a room for a week With Anne Widdecombe, that’ll teach the buggers.

Oh but it gets better – this death sentence was pronounced by a religious court in Afghanistan (and surely that is contrary to the central Islamic tenant of learning for them to stop people reading??). Now it is bad enough that any country is stupid enough to still consider it civilised to allow religious leaders to hold people to trial (no, don’t give me excuses about respecting other cultures, this is just bloody wrong and utterly fucking stupid, its something moronic from the medieval period and they need to learn this. I respect other cultures as long as they aren’t bloody stupid). But then the case was referred to the Afghan secular government. The nice ones we put in power and are holding in power with the blood of our troops (the same troops their president recently said were failing, the same troops that are all that is keeping his arse from being filled full of Taliban bullets because his own troops are incompetent twats) – and they upheld the sentence. Yes, that’s right, the person we put in power to replace those muderous fundamentalist fuckwits, the Taliban, said yes, kill this student for daring to read something we don’t like.

Er, remind me again just why the hell we have our troops being put through the dusty meatgrinder in this godforsaken cesspit of a country? The Independent has an online petition up to give to the Foreign Office to demand they take some action – please consider signing it. (link via Yvonne)

Look, I’d had a lovely supper and all I said to my wife was that bit of halibut was good enough for Jehovah… I don’t think it ought to be blasphemy just saying ‘Jehovah’.” Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

On reading

BB had this quote from an interview with author Zadie Smith on KCRW:

But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.”

It’s interesting because the comics event at the Goethe Institut in Glasow which I transcribed for the FPI blog recently also had several views expressed, that reading (books or graphic novels) is like sitting with a sheet of music. Unlike a film where you are presented with an entire piece – words, music, visuals etc – a book or comic is like an artist giving you the sheet music of their work, bringing the reader into the actual creation process, their mind, their experiences, their imagination taking those notes to complete the work in a way unique to that reader.

It’s something I agree with – literature (be it prose fiction, non fiction or the sequential art of comics) in incredibly stimulating to the mind and imagination, a process of interaction between artist and reader in a beautifully intimate dance of fancy and fantasy, symbolism, emotion and magic. However, although the process is not as powerful as it is with books and graphic novels, I don’t totally accept that viewing other media like film and television is a completely passive experience. This is a model, often referred to in media studies as the hypodermic needle model, where we the audience are passive receivers being drip fed exactly what the makers want. It’s a model rubbished many decades ago (if it were true all propaganda would work and we’d be brainwashed, never disagreeing with authorities; similarly all advertising would work where patently it does not).

Watching a good movie, like the recent Prestige, is for me almost like reading a good book where I feel the artist has pushed me, forcing me to think about the work; I can feel elements of the work swirling around my brain for days afterwards, still considering image, motifs, narrative structure. Watching a TV programme like Attenborough’s Planet Earth sparks all sorts of secondary thoughts and images in my brain. Of course there are some TV and films you do just slump there and let them wash over you; sometimes that is actually what you want, similarly some books are also enjoyable pulp, but most people do think about work, even at a low level different people will decode any text in their own way, not always with the ‘preferred reading’ of the maker.

Ultimately any good art – books, comics, film, paintings, dance, music – will stimulate your imagination; that’s probably why I’ve been a heavy reader of books and comics since before I was old enough to go to school and, if anything, my reading has increased my skills at reading movies and other texts simply because I have accrued more tools to employ (sometimes without thinking about it). There is nothing wrong with being entertained – we all want and need that – but entertainment which makes you think is something precious; books do still have the strongest edge in this field and it may be one reason why, in a multimedia age of film, TV, radio, web and more the book continues to be an object which many people ascribe a special respect and love for.

Spare a thought?

Our monthly meeting of the SF Book Group met this evening to discuss Michael Marshall Smith’s rather groovy novel Spares. I haven’t read any MMS for ages and really enjoyed it – he has a wicked sense of humour which appeals to me (surprise) and has some excellent descriptions which I have stored away for future use as put-downs (such as ‘the bartender looked like three kinds of shit in a one shit bag’). It’s interesting going back to this after Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Both feature veterans with moral and psychological hangovers from their service days, there is a real Noir gumshoe mojo going on and both novels feature often amoral anti-heroes in a convoluted world. Coincidentally both authors have had film options taken out on their work (as a sidebar, the new SF Crow’s Nest has a brief chat with Richard Morgan talking about his third novel which will be set on Harlan’s World which is something most of us fans have been hoping to see)

Couldn’t help but think the title Spares is misleading though, and so did most of the group. It refers to the rather nasty business of rich people having clones of themselves made. These clones – known as Spares – are kept hidden away from most human contact in a darkened and locked space so they never develop speech or thought. They are medically cared for and fed by robots but that’s it. They are living organ and limb replacements for their original. Sure, you could use DNA to manufacture new limbs or organs but that takes too much time for the rich folks, so they just keep the poor Spares around and lop bits off as required. Nasty.

Shame he didn’t bring in either some form of pro-life group into the situation or even an underground railroad rescue for them as there was for runaway slaves before the Civil War. But this is because the Spares are actually a McGuffin – pretty much a device to get our main character moving back into places he doesn’t really want to go back to (New Richmond, Virginia, a former flying mega mall which is now over the ruins of the original Virginia – I asked him about that once at an event and he said it was because Richmond was the most awful city, so he exacted literary revenge on it). It’s still a good book but as I said it does make the title misleading since it isn’t really about the Spares. And the general consensus was that the ending was a bit sloppy and rather Deus Ex Machina, as if he didn’t quite know what to do at the end. Certainly well below the standard of such a fine writer. This said, it’s still a damned good read in my opinion, as are all of MMS’s novels.

Next month it’s classics time as we take on Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Was to be John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, but we had to cancel it for the second time due to the publisher, Penguin, being utterly disorganised right now and unable to give us a delivery date. They are relocating their warehouse, which for such a huge publisher is a big undertaking and one sure to give some disruption. However, Penguin – arguably the best know of all publishers – also invested in an untried, new automated system which didn’t actually work when they tried to use it. Some of their books are being sorted from a hastily erected marquee as we speak. As you can imagine this has left the entire UK book trade struggling to obtain Penguin titles. Customers look bemused that they cannot find famous writers such as James Joyce. We’re losing customers and sales and so are all other booksellers. Penguin itself is estimated to lose around £30 million according to this week’s Publishing News an the sales of their large range of travel guides alone are down by an entire third at what should be their busiest time of year for such titles.

So, you’ll understand that as we sat with the group members tonight discussing what future titles we wanted we had to stipulate that we couldn’t use any Penguin authors for the next few months. Luckily we still had plenty of suggestions – one of Diana Wynne Jones’ kid’s fantasies, a Sandman selection (hurray!) and for our late October meeting we wanted a spooky title for the Halloween season and settled on a good Scottish classic, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which should be great. I suspect most folk are only really familiar with the movie/TV versions which often simplify the text into a good man fighting his evil half for his soul, which is not at all what RLS wrote or intended (Mattoti’s excellent graphic novel version has the idea).