Sunday 27 April 2008

106 books

Why 106? Why not 100, or 99? Anyway, some American chappie has produced a list of books most often marked 'unread' by LibraryThing's users. No, I don't know what LibraryThing is, but it sounds a bit like a monster, possibly the more erudite cousin of Swamp Thing. Anyway, here's the list and my 'score'. One I've read are marked *. N = Never heard of this book. C = Couldn't finish it. My tastes seem rather parochial.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina*
Crime and Punishment*
One hundred years of solitude
Wuthering Heights*
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose*
Don Quixote
Moby Dick*
Madame Bovary*
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice*
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities*
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and peace
Vanity fair
The time traveler’s wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The kite runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great expectations*
American gods
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius
Atlas shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books N
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlesex N
Quicksilver N
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West N (isn't this just a novelised musical?)
The Canterbury tales C
The historian : a novel N
A portrait of the artist as a young man*
Love in the time of cholera
Brave new world*
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s pendulum*
The Count of Monte Cristo*
A clockwork orange*
Anansi boys
The once and future king
The grapes of wrath*
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel N
Angels & demons N
The inferno C
The satanic verses C
Sense and sensibility*
The picture of Dorian Gray*
Mansfield Park*
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To the lighthouse*
Tess of the D’Urbervilles*
Oliver Twist*
Gulliver’s travels*
Les misérables
The corrections
The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay N
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time*
The prince*
The sound and the fury
Angela’s ashes : a memoir
The god of small things
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present N
Cryptonomicon N
A confederacy of dunces
A short history of nearly everything
The unbearable lightness of being
The Scarlet Letter*
Eats, Shoots & Leaves*
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel*
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud atlas
The confusion N
Northanger abbey*
The catcher in the rye
On the road
The hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance : an inquiry into values*
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s rainbow
The Hobbit*
In cold blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White teeth
Treasure Island*
David Copperfield*
The Three Musketeers

Monday 21 April 2008

The Day of the Chaffinch

Pure, unalloyed evil, that's your basic chaffinch. Well, no, it isn't. Which is why Daphne du Maurier called her famous story 'The Birds', rather than 'Attack of the Chaffinches, Starlings, Redshanks, Black-Headed Gulls and Other Assorted Avians'. Listening to a reading of the story on BBC7 this evening made me realise for the first time how very odd the whole idea is. For a start, the first attack is by small birds of the chaffinchy sort. The point here is that, even if the birds are driven mad with hunger due to a hard winter (the official explanation), these small tweety jobs are not meat eaters. A bit of bacon rind, yes, but not meat. So the only explanation for the birds' behaviour is some weird, collective urge to attack humanity. This puts 'The Birds' firmly at the horror end of the sci-fi spectrum, with rational explanation sacrificed for effect. Still a good story, though. Anyway, here's some more info on our feathered 'friends'. Just Look Around You!

Saturday 19 April 2008

"He do the police in different voices"

Extra points if you got the T.S. Eliot reference in the title.

Having moderate amounts of fun at the moment, neglecting housework, recovering from Stupid Virus, and watching Our Mutual Friend. This is a 1976 BBC adaptation - far superior to the more recent one. It's one of the most Gothically dark versions of any Dickens tale, but then the story is rather grim. It's about money, love, money, snobbery, money, education, money, violence, money, death... you get the picture.
This serial, in seven 50 minute episodes (!) has a wonderful starry cast. Jane Seymour as Bella Wilfer (wilful beauty, geddit?), Leo McKern as genial but wily Mr Boffin, Alfie Bass as leg-deficient Silas Wegg (who declines and falls off the Rooshian Empire), young Warren Clarke as Bradley Headstone, arguably the first stalker in English literature, and the superb David Troughton as Mr Sloppy, the mangling gangling orphan. Some unusual casting, too. Polly 'Liver Bird' James as Jenny Wren the crippled doll maker, and Richard Stilgoe as a party guest of the ghastly, nouveau riches Veneerings. The serial is new out on DVD, apparently produced under license, which might explain why a few slight sound glitches haven't been cleared up. Likewise there's no commentary or documentary features. Pity. Also, it's very obviously a studio-based drama, shot mostly on tape, and this does detract from the visuals somewhat. But otherwise, this is how BBC drama should be. The recent Bleak House was pretty good, and well done to whoever decided to do it in true serial form. But OMF was one of the highlights of Good Telly. Buy it now! You won't be sorry.

Monday 14 April 2008

The One True God

Yes, I have cast off the shackles of mere materialism and seen the light. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the answer. He touched me with his noodly appendage, but it's all right, I'm over 18. Of course,I could never be so crass as to be a fundamentalist Pastafarian. Not for me the persecution of non-believers. No air of smug, undeserved superiority will cross my homely features. Indeed, in many respects I might almost be deemed Spagnostic. But, when the chips are down, I will stand up for the FSM and be counted, for several minutes. If I'm not doing anything else, obviously. Mostly it's because I like pirates.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Noo magazine

Yes, with luck ST13 will be along soon, just like a British train - weeks late and with a slightly sticky, unpleasant feel to the upholstery. But I have managed to cut a deal with a much cheaper printer, and that's good. So good, in fact, that I think I might at least plan out a few more 'extra' volumes. One obvious title would be The Best of Supernatural Tales, or something to that effect. There are enough excellent stories in the first, say, nine volumes to put together a new limited edition job. It would be a shame to let such good writing disappear without trace. Well, we'll see. Perhaps I could also do an extra issue dedicated to unusually long stories i.e. up to novella size. Anything's possible - if the new printer does a good job. I am still awaiting the result.
Trouble with printers is they each is a law unto him/herself and sometimes they are staggeringly unreasonable. My last firm decided to print an extra fifty copies of ST12 i.e. far more than I could sell, but very kindly offered to charge me a little less for the copies I hadn't ordered. I paid up pleasantly enough and started looking for someone else. The printer before that actually shut up shop and moved premises without telling me. This was after a mere four years of my custom.
But I digress into boring stuff. The point is that I'm feeling a bit more optimistic about ST as a venture. Indeed, I might even put operations on a more businesslike footing in future. Wait and see.

Why I am a failure

For reasons I can't quite fathom, a colleague of mine was rather nasty to me. What she said amounted to a point-by-point condemnation of my character, concentrating on my lack of wealth. I was rather hurt at the time, but in retrospect I feel I got off rather lightly. She could have pointed out that I am deeply unattractive, about which I could not quibble. She might also have observed that I am at times pretentious and a bit boring. But no - my lack of money was the target to be carpet-bombed. (That's Axminster carpet-bombing, obviously.)
Why don't I care about money? Why don't I have 'aspirations', as the wankers of Noo Labour call being greedy, wanting a big house etc? Well, firstly because the most contemptible people in our society are rich and famous. Secondly, we are all just one of two accidents away from penury, regardless of how clever we think we are. Thirdly, I honestly don't give a toss about money per se. I don't have a mortgage, or a car (admittedly my eyesight is so poor I probably couldn't drive anyway) and have had precisely one foreign holiday, which I didn't really like. On the plus side, I seem to fill my days reasonably efficiently, with work, drinking, reading or indeed sleeping. And the big global credit squeeze going on at the moment? Well, I'm sure it's very, very bad. Terrible, in fact. Now, where's my whisky?

Thursday 10 April 2008

Speaking as a feminist...

No, really, I do have female heroes too. Honest. Here are a few.

Joan Armatrading b.1950
Aha, that one surprised you! Yes, the soulful, melodic sounds of Ms A were very much a part of my musical youth. (As opposed to Musical Youth, who weren't.) Not sure why I became interested in Joan Armatrading. Her voice is fascinating and at times disconcerting. The fact that she genuinely loves her privacy makes her admirable - no 'My Booze Hell' nonsense from her. I can imagine some people being irritated by her vocal mannerisms. But compare a genuine singer-songwriter-musician to some of the 'stars' of today. Also, ten points for being the only person outside the Indian sub-continent ever to have a hit record containing the word 'mahout'. She is indeed the one I need, in a Platonic way.

Alice Sheldon (1915-1987)
Writing under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr, Alice Sheldon produced some of the most inspiring and moving science fiction of the Seventies. She was involved in setting up the CIA, and her wisdom, compassion and humanity shine through in her best work.  She was particularly good on sex in such stories as 'Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death', and 'The Screwfly Solution'.  

Hypatia of Alexandria (355?-415)
Astronomer, mathematician, Platonist, and murder victim. As a leading pagan citizen she was dragged from her chariot and lynched by a Christian mob. Not a great deal is known about Hypatia's life and work, but her murder marks the end of the classical world, and the start of the mediaeval period. Reasoned argument was over - it was now the age of the believer. I used to see the fall of Rome as an unmitigated disaster, leaving Europe to the whims of flea-ridden monks. Not entirely true, of course, but still more than half-true. We took a wrong turning and we could do it again. Hypatia, renowned for her beauty, intellect and gift of rhetoric, might not have been a laugh a minute, but she is arguably a better role model for girls than the shallow, anorexic clothes-horses they are taught to emulate. 'When she appeared in her chariot on the streets people threw flowers at her, applauded her gifts, and cried, "Long live the daughter of Theon."' Substitute 'wife of Beckham' in that and see how it reads.

Shirley Hardie Jackson (1916-1965)
Author of a number of short stories, including 'The Lottery', with its very Fifties, and still very relevant, view of small town America. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House is arguably the best work of its kind ever written. She persistently refused to give interviews about her work or explain what her stories 'meant'. And quite right too. If a story has to be explained it hasn't done its job.

Janet Susan Ballion aka Siouxsie Sioux b. 1957
When she sponsored a peccary at her local zoo, she chose to name it Gregory. This in itself is proof of the woman's inherent greatness. But she also sang Hong Kong Garden, Dear Prudence, Mad Eyed Screamer, Playground Twist, Arabian Knights... Admittedly I've lost track of Ms Sioux a bit lately, but my memories of her Banshees heyday are fresh and tangy. Oh, and she started the whole Goth thing, which has surely done wonders for sensitive, bookish teenagers who want to dress in something other than baggy, pot-noodle stained jumpers.

Imaginary Heroes

It occurs to me that all of my heroes, so far, have been dead people. Actually, Dead White European Males - spiffing! But what about those fictional characters who lightened my darkness, raised my spirits, and brought some useful bits of homespun philosophy into my plebby existence? Here goes...

Major James Bigglesworth (1901-?)
Yes, Biggles. He flew North, South, East and West. He also hit the trail, held his own, and defied the swastika. The latter story was a tad disappointing, consisting as it did of a middle-aged drunk brandishing his fist at an ancient solar good luck symbol drawn on a piece of cardboard. I also found Biggles' habit of 'ejaculating' his comments somewhat confusing as a lad. But, at his best, Biggles was rather brilliant. If you think Captain WE Johns was a mere chronicler of jingoistic twaddle, read Rescue Flight. This novel of WW1 aviation is superb in its depiction of air combat. And, yes, the Python parody of Biggles was deeply traumatic, but I got over it. It's obvious that Palin, at least, was a big fan and the sketch was more tribute than broadside.

The Doctor (???-???? oh come on he's a time traveller)
No, he's not called Doctor Who, and don't get me started. While not a fanatical Whovian, I do seem to have watched an awful lot of it during the Seventies. I've also got a fair old load of DVDs of Sixties Who, mostly starring the brilliant Patrick Troughton (above). Do I need to explain the appeal of an apparently immortal being who travels time and space in a box that's bigger inside than out? The only downside was the tendency to end up in gravel pits, which seems to have been corrected by BBC Wales. But for me the quintessential Doctor and loveliest companion will always be:

Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning as the Doctor and Jo Grant. Mr P was a brilliant comedy actor who featured in the Navy Lark (the longest running radio comedy series). For me his Edwardian dandy Doctor combined a sense of fun with a firm sense of morality. When the script was half decent, anyway.

Sherlock Holmes (1854-1914?)
Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone? Or, for that matter, Peter Cushing? Whoever plays the great consulting detective, millions tune in. Before CSI, CSI Miami and CSI Skegness, there was Holmes. It's ironic that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't value his greatest fictional creation, preferring the silly Brigadier Gerard. But Conan Doyle believed in fairies, so what did he know? I didn't think of myself as a fan of the Holmes stories until I realised that I had a. read them all b. listened to most of them on audiobook and c. watched the entire Brett TV series. Which just goes to show that popular fiction can creep up on you.

Mr Spock (2230-2285-? 'The needs of the many...')
He has another name, but apparently humans can't pronounce it. He's Sherlock Holmes in space, of course. He's a kind of Noble Savage, too, thanks to his occasional outbursts of hormonal passion. Oh, that Vulcan blood. Play the fighty music! Yes I know it's all a bit silly, but Spock was by far the best character in the original Star Trek and his use of lahjic (or logic, as we say in England) was ahead of its time. American TV convention meant that he had to be wrong about emotional matters every other episode so Kirk could save the day, but we all know this is Hollywood psychotosh. In a smackdown between the Enterprise and a Klingon/Romulan/Skegnessian battlewagon, Spock's logic should by rights have always counted for more that Kirk's glory- and skirt-chasing. Looking forward to the film, anyway.

Commander Ed Straker (1940-?)
The hero as bastard. The Gerry Anderson series UFO was the first live action show he'd attempted, and still enjoys cult status. Much of the show's appeal lay in its whizzy shiny spaceships, submarines etc. But it was interesting dramatically because the boss of SHADO, the secret outfit warding off alien attack, was actually believable. Ed Straker was a ruthless workaholic whose undeniable intelligence and courage didn't make him a particularly nice guy. Ed Bishop (1932-2005), a native of Brooklyn, was superb in the role, but inevitably became typecast as a Brit sci-fi actor.

More Heroes

Peter Edward Cook (1937-1995)
From Beyond the Fringe through the Pete 'n' Dud years via E.L. Wisty, skewering the establishment in the Secret Policeman's Ball, and ending up with Chris Morris. He made some rubbish films because he wasn't an actor (Supergirl, anyone?), but he was a comic genius of the sketch and monologue. I'd rather be a judge than a miner, but I'm glad that I lived on the same planet as Peter Cook, comedy hero. One day, someone will invent the plib.

Mervyn Laurence Peake (1911-1968)
The exile from Gormenghast. Poet, artist, illustrator and novelist, he was never popular enough to get rich and his later life was blighted by illness. But his legacy will, I think, survive the current outpourings of sub-Tolkien fantasy, with its dog-eared spell books and rusty swords. True fantasy is a work of individual imagination, not formula, and Peake's work represents English fantasy at its best. Again, a writer I encountered during that 'difficult' (i.e. bloody awful) late teens/early twenties phase. I still walk the melancholy halls of Groan. His poetry is well worth seeking out, as is his little book 'Letters from an Uncle Lost in Polar Climes'.

Nigel Kneale (1922-2006)
Manxman and TV scriptwriter extraordinaire, he gave the world Quatermass. He also wrote a good collection of stories, Tomato Cain, which is well worth seeking out. He predicted modern reality TV in his dystopian 'The Year of the Sex Olympics' (1968), and wrote a superb modern ghost story, 'The Stone Tape'. Oh, and he adapted 1984 for television (see Peter Cushing). When I was a lad, Kneale was creating the kind of televsion I wasn't allowed to watch. Now I'm old enough to watch what I like, nobody in this country seems to have a tithe of Kneale's talent.

Peter Wilton Cushing (1913-1994)
Hammer Horror, and so much more. I'm indebted to Mark Gatiss for choosing Peter Cushing in the BBC Radio 4 series Great Lives. Thanks to this programme I know that Cushing was put on a retainer by the BBC because he was considered one of the best actors of the Fifties. His first big role was as Winston Smith in the legendary 1954 version of Orwell's 1984. The Queen liked it, so it was screened twice in one week! (Not yet available on DVD, though.) Cushing played Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, and a generation know him from Star Wars. But of course he was Dr Van Helsing and Dr Frankenstein for a generation of spotty little boys. Oh, and he appeared in Nigel Kneale's 'Abominable Snowman', which is - you guessed it - worth seeking out. Below you can see Peter Cushing with Donald Pleasance in 1984.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

My Heroes

The recent death of Arthur C. Clarke led me to have a bit of a ponder. Many people have cited Clarke as a great influence, Space Age prophet and all that. He was/is a hero to millions. So, I thought I'd try to list my heroes, and try not to be a pompous self-indulgent arse.

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008)
The man who invented Sky telly, but not deliberately. Also weather satellites. HAL has finally opened the pod bay doors for this undeniable hero.
I can still recall the cover of a paperback of Clarke's children's book Islands in the Sky. I read it in hospital. (I was a sick kid, always in and out of various specialist wards.) The book, if you don't know it, predates spaceflight but is still a very good account of a group of fairly likeable youngsters on a space station.
After Islands I went on to read many of ACC's works. I think he excelled at the fairly light short story ('Trouble With the Natives' and all that), but some of his tales are rather dark. I particularly recall 'The Parasite', with its vision of a 'post-human' creature reaching back through time to toy with hapless chaps. He wasn't a starry-eyed optimist. But he did look to the stars in wonder.

William Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950)

Star Maker. If he had written nothing else, he would still be revered. Admittedly Stapledon was not able to 'write down' to a merely human scale. His characters were, at their smallest, nations and cultures, and his plots were future histories. Last and First Men, with its exhilarating yet oddly bleak depiction of various posthuman (that word again) species is rather wonderful. Star Maker, on its vastly bigger canvas, is arguably the definitive work of 'hard sf'. The fact that it ventures well beyond accepted science into mysticism is not a fault, but a necessity. Stapledon was brilliant at evoking both the scale of our universe and our smallness within it. Part of our smallness is our ignorance, and mysticism is a not unreasonble response to honest ignorance.

3. Herbert George Wells (1866-1946)

'The Man Who Could Work Miracles', 'The Door in the Wall', 'The Time Machine', 'The War of the Worlds'... Really, if you don't admire HG Wells there is something seriously wrong with you. Nabokov rightly described him as a great stylist. Stapledon and then Clarke owed much to him. Of course, it's become fashionable to denigrate old Bertie because he was't a modern newspaper columnist and (gasp!) held some non-PC views. And, yes, some of his works are racist, sexist and - a far worse offence - a bit boring. The fact remains that he was ten times the writer of anyone working today in English. His Short History of the World, which I borrowed from a history teacher in my callow youth and re-read last year, remains one of the best books of its kind. And if he hadn't written The Sea Lady, we'd never have seen Darryl Hannah in Splash! (Don't take my word for it - look it up.) Nor would Jeff Wayne have his War of the Worlds pension scheme. Even worse, we'd have been denied George Pal's two spiffing movies.
Oh, and if Wells was so friggin' bigoted, you London media wankers, how come the Nazis put him on a death list? Eh?

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

Well, I had to, didn't I? I first read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1980, when I was at a very low ebb. In fact I was near suicidal, and I'm still not sure how I got through that very bad patch. MRJ's stories brought me a much-needed sense of perspective. Somehow, his tales of rather genteel, scholarly characters being menaced by Hairy Things of various sorts cheered me up. Perhaps Dr James saved my life? Stranger things have happened. If you don't know his work, check it out. His stories can be read in many ways. Some see in them all sorts of Freudian anxieties, but you can just as easily read them as 'boys' own' mystery tales, with puzzles to solve and decent chaps up showing pluck and resourcefulness.

Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Arthur C. Clarke admired Lovecraft's 'The Shadow Out of Time' (see Clarke's book Astounding Days). Lovecraft admired MRJ and also praised Wells' stories. So it all sort of connects up in a crazy way. I'm not sure when I first read HPL, but it must have been in the early Eighties. I have never found his stories remotely frightening. This does not seem to me to represent a failure in technique or imagination on Lovecraft's part. I think he was striving for a sense of wonder, and for local colour/period detail, and generally he achieved this. He was also trying to be funny, or at least give his readers a bit of fun, and again I think he succeeds. Good for him. Mind you, he was a bit weird on sex, but that just makes him an honorary Brit in my book.

Right, that's a batch of heroes. I'll do some more later. When I've 'ad me bangers and mash, gorblimey.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Evil Test

Are you evil? The only cost-effective way to find out is to take Uncle Valdemar's simple test.

1. You are a brilliant science student. Your dissertation topic is:

a. Preventing the spread of malaria in the developing world.
b. Cobbling together a homicidal monster from bits of corpses stolen from a graveyard by your deformed assistant.
c. Perfecting the ultimate cup of tea.

2. You are on holiday in Egypt. You spend your time:

a. Riding on camels and being photographed in front of ancient monuments. And throwing up.
b. Searching for ancient manuscripts that will grant you unimaginable power, and killing people in museums with various curved daggers if they get in your way. And throwing up, obviously.
c. Ooh, I wouldn't go abroad for my holidays, we've always stayed at this little B&B in Frinton. Mind you, we do spend a lot of time throwing up.

3. You fall in love with someone but they cruelly spurn you. Your response is:

a. A rueful smile, a resigned shrug, and a night spent with a bottle of decent malt, two tarts and a trained squirrel.
b. A fit of the screaming abdabs followed by a hideous industrial accident from which you emerge with a metal hand, an eye patch and a burning desire for revenge upon the whole stinking mass of worthless humanity.
c. Belated recognition that love is a girly concept. Like expensive shoes and that.

If you answered mostly a's, you are normal and therefore not that evil. If you answered mostly c's, you are most likely British and therefore inherently good, or at least better than most people. If you answered all b's you live a rich, full life and are undeniably quite evil. But it's all relative, innit?

Sunday 6 April 2008

Founder of the convent pontoon team

Wow, caught in a blizzard - twice. Cheered myself up on the Metro to Sunderland (don't ever go there if you don't really have to) by listening to Jake Thackray. I can just remember his appearances on Braden's Week and then (spits to one side) the early That's Life. He did, of course, do a one or two songs that fall into the category of spooky, notably the Castleford Ladies Magic Circle.

And here's the man himself:

Thursday 3 April 2008

The Haunted Palace

Now here's a funny thing. Roger Corman made a series of low-budget but nonetheless spiffing movies based on stories by Poe. Then he suggested doing a Lovecraft-based story, and the studio gave the go-ahead. So Corman filmed Charles Beaumont's treatment of 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward', and cracking stuff it is. Not only Vincent Price, but Lon Chaney and the lovely Debra Paget (as lusted after by Pete 'n' Dud, I recall). So why did the studio decide to basically lie to the public and claim it was a Poe story? Doesn't really matter, it's great fun. Catch it if you can - it's only available as a Region 1 DVD, but you could just 'hack' your existing Region 2 to make it a multi-region player. I did it, so it can't be too taxing.

Supernatural Tales 56 - contents

The next issue - due out in the autumn - will see a mixture of familiar names and some newbies. I hope, as always, that the stories find fav...