Thursday, August 17, 2006

Joys of Jet-Lag

The sound track to today's slightly disjointed post is a mix of Kit Clayton and Bonnie Prince Billy, which have been keeping me sane as I jump from computer to computer, a string of files being lost and created as I go. All being well (as if!) my computer will arrive here from England some time the beginning of next week and I can do all the things for which deadlines are now looming: resubmit the paper I should have finished long ago, start the painful postdoc application cycle again and get on with the baryon work I was whizzing along with before.

So, Bonnie Prince Billy I've spoken about previously. Gentle, powerful American folk music, poetic and painful with the soul of Leonard Cohen and the softness of Nick Drake, only a little more so. Kit Clayton on the other hand is semi-abstract electronica which is getting me bouncing along the streets to and from the office. Not as deranged as Aphex Twins' Melodies from Mars though with a few of the same miss-matched beats, for those who are into more ambient autechre and plaid, Kit Clayton is well worth tracking down. Meshing together Billy and Kit are admixtures of The Big Bopper and Sarah Vaughan. Never, ever let me choose the music for a party, guests will leave in a horrific superposition of moods!

Due to a fair amount of travelling and many sleepless nights due to jet-lag, I've had a chance to read a lot of good books over the last couple of weeks, so before they disappear into the quagmire of quark-gluon plasma I'm slowly becoming submerged in I thought I'd scribble some musings on them.

A little disappointingly 'Birthday Stories', an anthology compiled by Haruki Murakami, didn't quite hit the mark for me as his own writing usually does. The stories, all based around birthdays are by a mix of writers of varying fame and although a few of them felt like they could have packed a punch if extended, I find short storied which base their impact on a surprising event happening to a character rarely have much power unless the writer can build up the dimensions of the people involved very quickly. Mostly underwhelming with a few gems hidden in between the mediocre.

Very much like Murakami's own writing but much more enjoyable than the anthology, 'Oryx and Crake' was my first Margaret Atwood novel and is a literally fantastic, imaginative story about a future dictated by genetic engineering and a populous fed on extreme images of abuse, sex and murder. One of the interesting points about this future is that it's not clear whether this is a utopia or a dystopia and this lack of knowledge (original sin) is one of the subthemes. Chronologically entangled, the book deals with a character in a post apocalyptic world and slowly builds up the story of how he, and the rest of the world got there. The book deals with a whole
load of interesting issues from cloning and love to desensitisation and what it is to be human. A great deal of the appeal of the book comes from the fact that the picture of what's going on is only built up very slowly and the punchline is left till late enough to keep the momentum going to the end. Any more recommendations of Atwood are appreciated.

Still on Science Fiction, I was given a copy of an old science fiction classic, 'Flowers for Algernon' which is again related to genetic engineering, this time about altering the brain of a man with very low IQ to make him into a genius. A little cliched, but the book's interest is in studying what happens to his emotional intelligence as his IQ soars. Algernon is a lab mouse who is the first case where this process is apparently performed successfully. Of course we soon find out that the success is short lived and the human patient is left in a situation where questions of 'is it better to have known great intellect before returning to his original state, or was he better off untouched?' are addressed. It's a good sci-fi book and a classic though what's frustrating is thinking what possibilities there are for a novel where a patient suddenly becomes super-humanly intelligent. Perhaps thankfully the protagonist doesn't go for the most obvious choice in his situation giving the parting chapters a good edge to them.

Away from sci-fi was Hemingway's book of short-stories 'The snows of Kilimanjaro'. Unlike 'Birthday Stories' the power and shock from these tales are not from what happens to the characters in often dire situations but how they deal with them. This semi-autobiographical book deals with many of the aspects, both emotional and geographical, of the writer's life and goes from one atmosphere to its polar opposite with striking contrasts.Complementing the main story of 'The snows of Kilimanjaro' is Camus' 'The fall'. The reason they are complementary is because in the Hemingway, the main protagonist spends the last days of his life talking about
the loss of his talents and beliefs in much the same way as in 'The Fall'. Camus' book is a deep one and I will ponder over this some more before making any comments.

I'm currently getting on very well with David Mitchell's first book 'Ghost Written' which is another book of short stories (though all quite sizable) interlinking in cunning and unexpected ways which Mitchell seems so adept at. Having read his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas before this one, I wasn't aware that this was an old trick for him, weaving themes through a book, stitching together the seemingly unrelated texts to give a whole which is much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, it's only hinted at subtly but this book and Cloud Atlas are also subtly woven together using very small plot additions. This book takes each story in a different country,
written in a different style and about completely unrelated matters but none seems out of place. Starting with a sympathetic look at one of the brainwashed attackers of the Tokyo subway, it goes through Japan to Hong Kong and then to rural Szechuan with a stunning story about a woman who owns a tea shop on the sides of a holy mountain. Taking in a good swathe of the darker parts of 20th century Chinese history, the ending is a beautiful, poignant one which would stand on its own as a powerful tale. Through Mongolia with a bodyless spirit, we go to Russia and London and on in a series of twisting tales which I've no doubt will turn full circle to
created an impressive whole.

OK, there are a few other books to mention but I'm a bit reviewed out right now. I also have to try and concatenate the 17 files on 8 different computers which should be forming a paper when I get my act together.


Benjamin said...

A joy to read this post, Jon. I've not much to add. A delightful selection of books, none of which I've read, and an equally eclectic range of music. Lively post. Thanks x

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

Thank you. Hopefully a book in there somewhere to suit most tastes. I'm on the lookout for some more Kerouak out here after your own posts on his writing.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

A suberb post, Biscuit. I echo Benjamin's comments - lively is a great descriptor. I'm currently enjoying some H.P. Lovecraft as prep for a script I'm writing - be interested to hear your take on his work.

Unknown said...

Hi Frank,

I haven't read any lovecraft but having done some quick researchit looks interesting and I shall keep an eye out. Wikipedia has an interesting survey of the themes of his work which seem primal and powerful. Will be interested to hear what you think of it. Look forward to seeing the outcome of the script too.

All the best,