01 October 2008

Wake me up when September ends.

Book post time again! Strangely enough I think I said all I wanted to say about The Unbearable Lightness of Being already, except that I forgot to mention that I'm assuming that the bowler hat thing was a Magritte reference.

Due to this uncharacteristic lack I shall discuss episode 18 of Buffy's season eight, and not simply because I didn't have anywhere else to put comic babble but a book post, no sirree. I still haven't gotten on with checking out the Buffy Omnibus. I got as far as nosing around on amazon, and then got confused by the fact that it's split up and sold in individual parts. I think this is something that I need to sit down with properly and figure out, or I just need to discover if it's all up online somewhere. Either way. I do think that doing so would probably heighten my appreciation of the Time of Your Life storyline because, as Buffy herself pointed out, seeing the future-verse that's depicted here kind of presents a lot of spoilers for Fray. Buffy's "Wow, spoiler alert" comment was actually about just getting to see the future, but it totally applies. I also liked her disbelief that the term 'spaz' had stood the test of time, whereas almost all the rest of her lexicon seemed to have disappeared from everyday use. I thought it was a nice touch, since it was a reasonably oft-used word in early Buffy which I find a little jarring when I watch it, although in part because it's a much more offensive term in the British context.

Asides from Buffy's fandom-y comments I also really enjoyed the complete and utter rubbishness of the monsters that Dawn and Xander encountered in the forest. They were so obviously unimpressed by said creatures' cliché behaviour and I thought it was a nice touch. It showed that even these thoroughly "not special" Scoobies are battle-hardened and experienced enough to laugh in the face of danger (and not even need to hide until it goes away these days), and it was a nice moment that gently mocked Buffy's own genre- especially considering the move to the comic format.

The interaction between Willow and Saga Vasuki was interesting and compelling. It's kind of gratifying to see Willow keeping these big secrets from Kennedy, although the character of Saga Vasuki her-/it-self seemed to have been portrayed as a sort of New Age well of Lesbian Power, but I'll reserve judgement for now. Also although I generally love Willow, I have to roll my eyes at people who say 'frak'. I know, I know, I ought to check out the revamped Battlestar Galactica one day. One day, indeed.

Also it transpired that the evil woman in the future truly is Dark Willow, and not Drusilla. Oops. Hey, anyone could have made that mistake! Obviously I can see why Saga Vasuki told Willow why she mustn't "look" at where Buffy is, since she'd probably feel awfully angry, guilty and confused. Since I haven't read Fray I'm kind of confused though, is it cannon that Willow's going to go irretrievably evil at some point? Is this the "proper" Frayverse or an alternative one? Are there two (or more) Willows in this world/future? I'm hoping that these questions will be answered in the fourth and final part (the release of which I believe has been pushed back to November). If it isn't I'm definitely going to need to pick up Fray to answer these burning questions, and even if they are sufficiently answered I think that this storyline has piqued my interest enough to make me want to do so anyway.

So now onto the proper literature, which simultaneously might make me sound vaguely more intelligent and somehow less geeky. Here's hoping.

How could I not love Catch-22? It's been recommended to me endlessly by various people, and it's also constantly appearing on lists of the best books ever. However I'll admit that I was a little dubious, firstly just because sometimes these so-called classics aren't all that wonderful in my eyes (see The Catcher in the Rye and definitely Lord of the Flies for example) and secondly war books don't particularly appeal to me. That's not to say that I necessarily dislike everything in that genre, it just isn't a favourite of mine and thus I was almost a little wary of the Catch-22. All for naught though. Come on, it starts with a soldier waking up in a hospital and feeling vast amount of love for his chaplain, "It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him". After hitting a whole load of my literary kinks it all went, amazingly, uphill from there. It's just an absurdist romp, and I didn't feel that the plot, with all of its twists and turns, was any less entertaining because I was already au fait with a lot of it. It's written so wonderfully, and I think I was actually disturbing nearby lessons with my sudden giggles and snorts emitting from the staff room where I was snuggled up on the sofa furiously reading onwards.

I just loved the way that it was written and the dialogue- especially the circular (and circling) nature of the narrative, the back-and-forth of the ironic conversations and the sublimely ridiculous surrealism of much of the plot. Because that's war, it's patriotism, it's capitalism, it's sanity itself, and in a larger way that's life. Things don't make sense, and yet surely they should; surely there should be a higher authority somewhere to appeal to. I loved the fact that you had to pay attention to the book because it unravelled its secrets slowly and in a non-linear way. Specifically the use of déjà vu (and associated feelings like presque vu) really served to keep me interested. There were several events that it came back to time and again, from different people's perspectives, or from the same people but with a different focus which meant that more and more information was gleaned. This meant that my understanding was slowly added to layer by layer, and my attention was really grabbed.

But it wasn't only in this way that the technique was used. Although I really adore reading sometimes I rather dislike starting to read a book, if it doesn't capture me within the first couple of paragraphs then I have to get over a small hump before I'm drawn in. I know that fighting through the first chapter or so will almost definitely pay off (unless it's really the most awful chick-lit, or Adam Bede again) but nonetheless it can make me kind of resentful. Not only did Catch-22 draw me in straight away (literally from the very first line) and maintain my interest, it made me hyper-aware of details even if I didn't realise that I was. For example, Yossarian meets the chaplain in the first chapter and uses his name when he vandalised the letters he was supposed to be censoring. However, the chaplain didn't seem particularly important, but when he strikes up a friendship with Yossarian later I discovered that I'd catalogued every detail about him, apparently in case of such an eventuality. Returning again and again to the scene of Snowden's death was certainly a useful technique, and when it was fully explained it proved to be a truly disturbing story. I could see why Yossarian wouldn't ever want to wear a uniform after that. I think that it illustrated perfectly the way that such an experience would pervade someone's consciousness, whilst also straightforwardly pointing to the atrocities of war- making them realistic and personal.

Good God I hated Aarfy! Appleby too, but I just wanted to hit Aarfy. I could really empathise with Yossarian so much during those scenes in the plane in which he was basically being terrorised by Aarfy but couldn't explain himself to this lummox. Heller captured that frustration and resignation wonderfully. I simply adored Orr. And Major Major. And Nately! Almost without any reservations. Milo was a great character too, although I didn't love him unabashedly because he was such an amoral bastard. It was so surreal, but somehow fitting, to discover that he was actually a mayor; a vice-shah; a caliph. His whole trade was exhilarating and maddening in approximately equal measures (especially his ability to make a profit with those eggs), and managed to raise a deep philosophical question: what's more important, life jackets or ice cream soda?

At the beginning of the book Pianosa almost seemed like a safe haven, providing as much of one as somewhere can amidst the realities of death and war. The characters mostly seemed to exist so languorously, and threw themselves into their missions without much concern, albeit some grumbling. It felt as if they had existed in this stasis for all of time, and could carry on in much of the same way. However by the end this had been disrupted, and almost all of them were dead or gone. It makes you look back at this apparent safety, especially since by the end you're informed by many more of the experiences that Yossarian and the others had gone through before the book's opening, and question it. It seems as if that wasn't really an appearance of safety, but the reality of tension and imminent destruction tempered by camaraderie and desperation.

The thing about Yossarian being "Assyrian" didn't mean that much to me until Closing Time. It was an obvious marker of his Otherness, without Heller resorting to modelling him too much on himself and making him (particularly) Jewish. However I'm apparently embarrassingly ignorant about vast periods of history, and couldn't have told you when Assyria stopped being an official nation unless I'd just googled it (around 612BC apparently, so I think a little before Catch-22's scope). In this case little Sammy Singer was a lot more intelligent than me. Anyway I suppose the point is simply that names are significant, Yossarian was able to get away with a lot because he had access to this mystical national identity, that he'd basically created himself.

There was one thing which I found annoying about Yossarian and the book, although I'll admit that it isn't the fault of either. Basically I got the Clotaire K song Ya Saryan stuck in my head practically every time I read the name 'Yossarian'. It's definitely a good song, but having anything going on a loop inside my head (especially if it features a lot of Arabic chanting) gets on my nerves quickly. I am amused that Streetlight Manifesto came on when I started writing about Catch-22 though.

My mother posted Nanzo's leaving present to me which I'd had to dump from my obese suitcase along with plenty of other books and DVDs, Hokkaido Highway Blues. The book's sort of a travelogue, detailing Will Ferguson's experiences road tripping across Japan questing after the cherry blossoms. I was certainly in the mood to read both about road trips (thanks to recently reading On The Road, plus all my excitement about Supernatural coming back) and the experiences of a Westerner emigrating to an East Asian country.

To begin with I was starting to get convinced that I ought to up sticks and head to Japan, if not now then at some point. I'm not insanely enamoured with Japan; I think saying that I know what otaku means but that nobody would ever, ever think of applying it to me sums it up pretty well. When we had to choose a regional specialisation in the second year of the Social Anthropology BA I picked Japan. This was mostly because we hardly ever studied anything to do with Japan or East Asia in our more theory-based courses so I figured that it'd make a nice change, plus I thought that a favourite teacher of mine would be the lecturer (as it turned out she wasn't, but I got her for a third year course so it was all good). The only other region that I'd considered was Southern Africa, and not only was that only a half unit I was pretty sure that there'd be far too much dry stuff about kinship and not nearly enough anime. I went on to write my dissertation on Japanese pornography, mostly because that's a sentence I like saying. I did consider applying for the JET programme and got as far as getting references. However I changed my mind about it because they have a policy barring you from re-applying for a few years if they reject you, and I knew that my application wasn't put together particularly well, and it was just before the deadline. I figured that it would be better to wait until I could hobble together a better one, and instead ended up targeting much less selective hagwons in Korea a year later. So it's not that I think that I really ought to be in Japan, it's just that I have more interest in Japan (both from an academic and pop cultural point of view) than in Korea. I'm going to try not to point that out to nationalistic Koreans though. Plus Ferguson kept going on about eating squid there, and I love squid. He should have stopped whinging about Japanese delicacies so much. I get plenty of seafood here to be fair, and trying to find something that I won't eat has become some people's favourite game. It works out pretty well for me, hopefully I'll get to try dog in the next few weeks.

Anyway the fact that I can't speak Korean soon reminded me that I can't speak Japanese either. I'm kind of useless. At least I did understand the whole carrot/person confusion and I'm prrretty sure that Ferguson either purposefully mixed them up again in the book, or my Japanese is just even worse than I thought. Even if I was in Japan, I don't think that I would go hitchhiking alone. Sometimes being a woman can be a bit rubbish, still I'm sure that I was telling the truth when I responded to a student that yes if I get to choose in my next life I'd like to come back as a chick again. (I didn't have an opinion on skin colour, as long as it's at least a tad darker than my current transparent state, and I couldn't decide on a nationality but I definitely had a preference for being brought up in a polyglot or diglossic setting and eventually figured that I'd probably plump for somewhere in South America.) I don't know if I should blame an ethereal fear like Susan Brownmiller or something else, but I don't think that I would feel comfortable hitching by myself. One thing, though, that certainly was interesting to me about the book is that I often recognised things that Ferguson was describing from Korea which I think illustrates that a lot of the Japanese myths about uniqueness and inscrutableness can certainly be ignored.

He certainly had a very enjoyable writing style, so it was fun to read about Ferguson's experiences but I think that I may already have turned into one of those tiresome Kerouac fans. There just is a Dean Moriarty shaped spectre harassing anyone who writes about road trips, and it wasn't possible for Ferguson to meet it (even if he is Canadian). The book also frustrated me a little, it contained so many truly arresting thoughts and moments of analysis and yet I'd feel that I was wandering down a really interesting path only to discover that the author had broken off (in a drunken stupor more often than not) and the next chapter would begin with a new dawn, a new day and completely unrelated musings. I really feel that several chapters in and of themselves could have been plundered and expanded into academic articles. Obviously it is supposed to be a good little earner for Ferguson, he pretty much admitted that he aimed to write something that would sell. That's fine, but I just feel like I've been cheated out of something more. Also compared to the light-hearted, jocular tone of most of Hokkaido I felt that the ending was rather stark and feel that it would have been nice to have that tone developed more rather than just cutting off as things were really starting to get interesting.

Ferguson trying to explain to people that he was Canadian not American did resonate for me. I suppose it must be more difficult for Canadians to get the point across because their accent generally sounds fairly American. In Korea there are a lot of Canucks so they don't have much of a problem, I often get asked "So are you American or Canadian?". That whole sequence with the elderly father who'd been a POW in America and learnt English as a result was so painful to read and so well rendered. I'd imagine that the experiences of WW2 (not particularly Yossarian's, but hey it's a nice way to relate everything) that still seem to pervade and almost haunt Japan, at least according to Ferguson, must present a stumbling block for Westerners in Japan- especially if they're North American, older and male. Well I'm none of those things, and while I do have the added bonus of being Jewish I'm unlikely to develop an understanding of nuclear physics or a desire to bomb Japan specifically. So that's alright then.

One thing that did kind of bug me about the book was all of Ferguson's waffling about the desire of men in general, and him in particular to 'save' women and his somewhat smug feeling that he was making an original point. I just wanted to pluck him out of the book and tell him, "darling, there's already been reams and reams written on this subject I promise, so save yourself the ink". Aside from that there wasn't anything that really got on my nerves. It was certainly a very enjoyable read, but I kind of wished that I had had it with me to read on the plane as a light-hearted travel book when my brain wasn't engaged much. Since I didn't I think that I was plumbing its depths for something more than was actually included and finding minor foibles that I could have otherwise ignored.

Thanks to HarperCollins making Neverwhere available online for free I finally got around to reading it. The main character, Richard Mayhew, seemed to be a bit of a Neil Gaiman stand-in, with a rumpled, just woken up look and a mop of messy hair that's strangely attractive to women. (I too know this pain, seriously.) It was delightful to read something set in London, especially one so close to "my" London not only in terms of being a contemporary one (as opposed to a Dickensian one) but just in terms of the resonance that the description had for me:

"filled with colour... It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries. It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and home, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces, a city of hundreds of districts with strange names...and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years... a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind"

I liked this book for the same reason that I liked the television series that preceded it, and maybe it is because I'm a Londoner, it takes the London Underground- something that on the surface seems like a proud symbol of the triumph of technology- and turns it into something wonderfully whimsical. Even the commonplace capitalisation of the word Underground makes it look some surreal alterna-world full of mystical creatures, rather like the world of Holly Short et al in the Artemis Fowl series. Plus it's a word that starts and ends with the same three letters, and everyone knows that repetition features a lot in the casting of spells. Furthermore while the Tube is a symbol of something ultra-modern it has retained an inextricable link with the early nineteenth century railways of London, perhaps in part due to the fact that the service hasn't noticeably improved. The "handy fiction" of the Tube map hasn't altered its design all that much since 1933 either. (Harry Beck was from Finchley, you know.) There's also the allure of the closed stations, such as the British Museum station, York Road, "The Bull and Bush" station (North End), Down Street etc, which bring with them the connotation of hidden and secret locales. I think it's a large part of most Londoner's repertoire of trivia about their city, as well as the way that some stations have changed their names- sometimes because the area's name has changed too. There's a suggestion of mystique, and I think a feeling that these stations somehow hold the key to London's not quite tangibly accessible past.

I suppose this is particularly pertinent to me, since I hail from a teeny little area of the 'burbs called Mill Hill East. Not only does it have a ridiculously small local "Underground" over ground with a single platform that looks like it could have come straight out of a village postcard, there are tracks leading away from it that abruptly stop. They were part of a plan to connect MHE tube to stations other than Finchley Central, which actually would have been helpful to my life, but even when you know the explanation tracks that lead to nowhere just seem somewhat mysterious. There is this slight sensation that they really ought to lead to somewhere, and perhaps would if only one knew how to make them. It really always did seem like something straight out of a fantasy novel to me, and perhaps one day it will be. So I'll shut up about it now.

I think that this romanticism towards trains might be a uniquely British thing. Ian Hislop has apparently been going on about trains and hating on Richard Beeching, as he should. I know that railways played a crucial role in the histories of many other countries, and their importance for American expansion was emphasised in Atlas Shrugs. Although there was a lot of focus on the role of railroads in the book, and certainly they aroused passion in some of the characters, it was with a sort of calculated, organised ideal in mind if not in practice. The reality of rail building in Britain was completely slap-dash in contrast. The image of steam train pulling into a village station seems quintessentially British, and unquestionably storybook-esque. There's a reason that Beckonscot model village is filled with working model trains and has a miniature version of Enid Blyton's house, and there's a reason that I love the place. I think I'm too tired to articulate that reason very well, but basically: whee, trains! Guv'nor. Cheers. Cheerio. Innit.

I really don't feel that the novel was at all ruined by the fact that I knew what was coming almost continuously from first watching the show, which is a testament to how well it's written and how magnificently it maintains the tension running through it. I think that the novel was obviously able to be a lot richer and more detailed than the show could be, and it won't age as badly or as obviously as the show already has. There was also a lot more freedom in terms of locations and how they were decked out. I think the idea of the markets in Harrods and the HMS Belfast was a brilliant one. I also really like the names in Neverwhere, the names of Door's family delighted me and I especially loved the Marquis de Carabas because I've always loved Puss in Boots.

I could understand why Richard felt that he ought to go back home towards the end of the book, but I was so glad when he did decide to return to London Below. I suppose I needed a taste of that after the bleak ending of Hokkaido Highway Blues, I think I simultaneously believe that people are altered by their adventures and remain in the realm in which they happened and that this in no way applies to me. I'm sneaky like that. I'm also really glad that he didn't end up with Door, especially because I think I'd reached the point at which I'd happily pay someone money if they could hand me something good in which the two leads don't either end up together or being tragically separate from each other and being filled with yearning, longing and quiet desperation. So thank you Neil Gaiman.

Considering that I devoured Neverwhere over only two days at odd intervals that I could snatch when I could get a glance at a decent computer screen, I read surprisingly few books this month. Mostly I'm going to blame that on Closing Time, the sequel to Catch-22, because it took me a long time to get into and therefore to complete. I think the clue as to why that was the case is in the description, I'm still not sure exactly why Heller decided to write a sequel to the absurdly popular and wonderful Catch-22, and after completing it it's still hard for me to work out how I feel about it. While it was nice to revisit characters such as Yossarian and the Chaplain, it was really jarring to see these favourites as old men. If it was weird for me who only read Catch-22 a couple of weeks before embarking on Closing Time it must have been more shocking and disorienting for older fans of the book and its characters.

Maybe in part that was what Heller was commenting on though. It was certainly weird to read about Yossarian as a somewhat successful businessman with understandable worries about his children, in a way that it wasn't strange to think of the Chapman as an old man or Milo with an heir. Yossarian was this amazing anti-hero of a character, who was compelling because he was splendid and strong. Obviously it's realistic that if he wasn't killed then he might well have become the man that he did in Closing Time, but that doesn't mean that it's something that I want to read about. It feels as if Yossarian ought to have been left as a symbol unsullied by life during peacetime, let alone by the ravages of old age.

I don't particularly want to read about beloved characters getting old and dying. Heller forces the audience to face that, largely in part because he was an old man by the time he wrote this sequel. Maybe if I ever get old I'll appreciate this book more, but for now I just found it more depressing than anything. The whole storyline with George C. Tilyou et al "living" on under the Earth was incredibly random. It certainly had the potential to be a captivating sub-plot but I feel that it was never properly explored. Catch-22 didn't really dabble in the mystical or fantastical, and yet its sequel appeared to matter of factly include the possibilities of eternal life, as well as Hell. Mr Gaffney's connection to this place was never investigated satisfactorily, and certainly Yossarian's wasn't either. Maybe Heller just wanted to write a bit about Hell so that lame people like me would make crappy jokes about his name. Well I shan't give him the satisfaction, so there.

I found the stories of both Lew and Sammy to be fairly interesting, although initially it was difficult for me to work ought why I ought to care about them. At least Sammy was well tied in because it transpired that he'd been the kid in the plane fainting when Snowden had died. I liked that that pivotal scene remained important in the sequel, and that it had never lost its significance for Yossarian or Sam Singer; that it had stuck with them as something which made the war "real" to them. Sam's resonance and importance slowly interested me in Lew, and Michael Yossarian and M2 were somewhat intriguing simply because of their paternity. The Chapman was isolated from everyone else for almost the entire novel because he'd been producing heavy water accidentally. It was a ridiculous storyline, of course, but it played out entertainingly I guess. I quite liked the character of Mr Gaffney, his behaviour certainly amused me as did the other PIs and the utterly bizarre nature of the society wedding being held in the bus terminal.

A couple of minor characters who you might recognise where inserted too, Joey Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, which struck me as a little odd. I have a feeling that Heller was trying to create a much more Jewish-tinged version of Catch-22, doing this with the inclusion of Lew and Sammy, and with minor characters like Joey Heller. Also Yossarian mentioned that he was of possibly Semitic descent. If Heller wanted to write about his Coney Island youth he ought to have done that, if he wanted to write about old age he ought to have done that, if he wanted to write satirically but a little too bluntly about stupid politicians he ought to have done that but I feel that he didn't need to drag Yossarian and the others into it. There were a few self-referential comments from some of characters too about both the actual Catch-22 itself and about the film of Catch-22. I can see what Heller was trying to do with such references, but I don't think that it quite worked. If the entirety of Closing Time was mostly a send up of Catch-22 it could have succeeded, but it was this sprawling mass that was just trying to be far too many things at once for it to really be anything at all.

I've just started reading Howl's Moving Castle, which I'm liking quite a bit so far. I guess it's providing welcome a relief to Closing Time since it's a reasonably straight forward fantasy book, and while it does definitely deal with the theme of aging it does it in a much more light-hearted way that's eminently more engaging for me. I had a feeling that I didn't like Diana Wynn Jones, but I'm not entirely sure from whence that nagging emotion came.

I know that when I was younger I was always eager to get my hands on any books I could, especially those that came from genres I knew that I liked such as fantasy, and this led to me becoming a sort of garbage disposal bin for the written word. Several relatives and family friends thought they could fling any books at me and I'd enjoy them, even if they really didn't appeal to me or were very, very bad. My aunt used to do it too, since she's a school librarian by trade she used to like using me as a booky guinea pig. Sometimes this had positive effects, I never would have read the first Harry Potter, at least not so early, if it hadn't been foisted on me. The cover art was so ugly and I was so bored of books about troubled boys who became wizards that I stuck it right at the bottom of my to-read pile, and even did my fractions homework inside (in pencil at least). At other times it just annoyed me though, I think I have my aunt to thank for the fact that I can't quite stand Michael Morpurgo or Phillip Pullman (maybe I just don't like alliteration as much as I think I do), but I'm not quite sure I can blame her for DWJ too. Maybe I just mentally listed her with the other semi-insipid fantasy writers who just produced something standard that wasn't overly-appealing after reading a dull introduction or something.

Either way I feel a little bad about it, as I am definitely enjoying the book. It seems to gently mock the conventions of the fantasy genre it belongs to, while not violently breaking away from it either. The sibling switcheroo amused me too, since it reminded me of Alanna and Thom doing so at the beginning of The Song of the Lioness quartet (three years earlier, might I add). I think that actually I'm already preferring the book to the film. While the film was enjoyable, it had a slightly incomprehensible quality to it- as if there was more to the myth of it which I just didn't have access to. The book is simpler because it is more straight forward, and thus the characters are more understandable and likeable. I think this is a simply fun fantasy novel which I can definitely see myself enjoying but ultimately it probably won't become a solid favourite. You never know though, stranger things certainly have happened.

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