Let There Be Lists

[10 Dec 03] The one-off has become a habit: here's my fourth end-of-year list. I should wait to see where Return of the King ends up, and to give myself a chance to read Quicksilver, but it's not like either of those need my personal seal of approval. Better fill in the gaps, though...

Intolerable Cruelty was widely reviewed as a weaker Coen film, but I loved it. (But then, where most critics rate Fargo and Miller's Crossing as their best, I'd have The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink.) Screwball comedy in the finest 1940s mould, with George Clooney looking more like Cary Grant every day. Catherine Zeta-Jones is an unusual presence in a Coen movie, but perfect for this role, not a million miles from her Chicago turn; and Wheezy Joe was a classic Coen character. Four out of five.

Another movie with dodgy marketing was Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is much better than its trailers and billboards suggest. A nautical period-piece played completely straight, with none of the winkingness of Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander was suspenseful and convincing to the end. Or perhaps it was just me: my friends thought Russell Crowe was hard to take as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey. Me, I can think of bluffer sea dogs. Another four stars.

I caught Finding Nemo and American Splendor in Oz, and The Quiet American on the plane over, and liked them all; Spirited Away was strange and sometimes hauntingly beautiful, even better than Princess Mononoke; and Bright Young Things was a successful between-the-wars yarn, with Stephen Fry a perfect director for Waugh's material. Three and a half or four stars apiece.

On the music side, my Britpop leanings have rarely been more obvious. Blur's latest was reassuringly assured, and Catatonia's final album and the much-maligned Manics were excellent bargain finds. The fans' response after Elliott Smith's death led me to his pre-Dreamworks work, which has made me one too; and seeing Alfie at the Flaming Lips concert prompted me to buy all their albums in a fit of retro-'60s-and-Madchester madness—definitely one to watch. The one huge omission from this list, when I recall my fifteen-year Musical Obsession, is MO's 2003 remake of his first and most successful album. But even though it's a polished performance with a few pleasant touches, I can't really recommend it to anyone but a fellow obsessive—not least because I had to order it from Canada to get an un-screwy CD version.

Of all the tech-related non-fiction I've ploughed through this year, Gelernter's and Lessig's books stand out; the former, in particular, demands re-reading. Of the general non-fiction I haven't already mentioned, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe III was a timely continuation of an excellent series, dealing as it did with the rise of Islam and its impact on the West, and James Woodford's The Secret Life of Wombats a fascinating overview of some of my favourite animals and the people who study them. Fiction has been hit-and-miss this year, with a few exceptions: everything I've read by Jonathan Coe has been excellent; David Lodge's Nice Work was a Rummidge return-to-form after Small World; and Sue Townsend's Number Ten was a far more satisfying political satire than The Queen and I. Also worth a mention: Erik Durschmied's The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History (which conjures up any number of what-if questions); Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (which explains where half of Metafilter's members get their arguments from); and Ben Elton's Inconceivable, Douglas Adams's The Salmon of Doubt, and Tony Hawks's One Hit Wonderland (all better than I expected).

More introspective retrospectivity coming soon.


On Reading Montaigne

[ 5 Dec 03] From the trivial to the substantial. As well as going to all those pub quizzes, I've spent this year working my way through the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the form. Not every one he ever wrote—it's the Penguin selection translated by J.M. Cohen. I finished it a few weeks ago after reading a few pages at a time, bus trip by bus trip. You'd think I would have had enough, but now I'm looking for the complete edition, all 1300 pages of it. After all that time in his company, it's hard to say goodbye.

The remarkable thing about the Essays is how modern they seem. It helps to read a relatively recent translation (which is why I haven't linked to the Cotton one at Project Gutenberg), but it's not just that; Montaigne's 16th century outlook is surprisingly close to our own. (An exception is the scant attention or regard he pays to women.) Reading 'On Cannibals' is like hearing from a time traveller who just dropped in on Cortez.

The cumulative effect is one of autobiography rather than reportage or memoir; by the end we know his mind, but not much of his life story. I was reminded of weblogs, which let us get to know their authors without always telling us a lot about them. Montaigne's discursive style would be familiar to blog readers, too.

But the biggest attraction is his obvious wisdom, an unfashionable trait worth any amount of facts or figures. Montaigne drew on a lifetime's reading of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and on the insight of age (all of 43-59 as he was writing), to fill every page with line after quotable line. It was all I could do to limit myself to only two passages here. After reading Montaigne's thoughts on just about anything, it can seem as if there's no better way to say it, and nothing left to be said.


All About Chemistry

[ 6 Nov 03] When I mentioned Mil Millington's brilliant first novel here, I noted the uncanny overlap of its themes with some of my own preoccupations. So when his second appeared recently and turned out to be set in the very city I live in, I had to buy it, even in overpriced, oversized "tradeback" format. Buy, and read within six days.

The Edinburgh angle turned out to be the least interesting aspect of A Certain Chemistry. Apart from a few brief scenes set in the obvious tourist locations, and a few characters being Scottish, there wasn't much of the place in the book—not as much as I'd hoped, anyway. The lead character was still English, and still spoke with the Millington voice (which in itself is no bad thing).

More of a disappointment was the lower joke-count of Mil No. 2. The wry tone is still there, and there are some good comic scenes, but compared to the sustained high of Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About it's a bit flat.

Those quibbles aside, A Certain Chemistry tells its story painfully well. It's the story of an affair, from beginning to end, and Millington captures every high and low with scientific accuracy. Literally scientific: between chapters, God steps in to explain what's going on under the skin of the characters as various molecules flood them with powerful emotions. Tom and George and Sara, he reminds us, are just experiencing what anyone in their situation would—even as Tom's first-person narrative of the affair dwells on its uniqueness.

Millington keeps the story rolling along like a gathering snowball headed for the small village of Domestic Bliss, Population 2. The last third of the book is the strongest—and, given what it describes, the least funny. Behaviour that would be entertainingly farcical in a less emotional context seems desperate and pathetic here; it's hard to laugh at people whose worlds are falling apart. But where a weaker writer would play out a series of comic vignettes and a fairy-tale ending, Millington seeks and finds a more satisfying truth.

A Certain Chemistry succeeds, then, but for Millington's fans I wonder if it's success enough. Because our man Mil has something that most writers haven't: the ability to write page after page of gaspingly funny stuff. His first book of gaspingly funny stuff managed to say some intelligent and true things about relationships along the way; his second focusses on the truth of relationships—the scientific truth—but at some cost to the gasp.

There's no doubt that he's got what it takes, though, and that number three will be worth reading.


Last Requests

[10 Oct 03] Interesting thread at MeFi yesterday discussing whether or not artists' wishes that their unpublished work be destroyed after their death should be respected. I once wrote an essay touching on that very question, which sits in my projects folder awaiting a final edit before I put it up here; I used a few paragraphs of it in my comment on the thread.

One respondent reckoned that Kafka's wish that his manuscripts be burned should have been obeyed, because The Trial is so objectionable. Which is exactly the problem: once the artist is gone, the question of what to do with their work is open to debate, and its destruction by a friend or family member removes any possibility of even having that debate. A work's true value may not be appreciated—even by the artist—for years.

But it did get me thinking: which book would I remove from the fabric of history, so that it was never published or even written, if I could? Certainly nothing as harmless as K's. The only one I could really justify obliterating from the space-time continuum is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.


All Things Must Pass

[ 7 Sep 03] I had plans for Saturday night; oh yes. Had the place all to myself, and was going to write, write, write. Not read, oh no, because as I told myself, reading is the enemy of writing—a line from Robert Pirsig I should tattoo backwards across my forehead. I was going to finish making this banana cake, listen to Elbow one more time, and then write.

Five hours later, I put down The Beatles Anthology, rose from the couch, and stumbled off to bed.

Well, it had been sitting there unread for eighteen months. But on the other hand: I already knew almost every single detail in it.

I used to read anything and everything about the Beatles. Their albums weren't enough for this nascent rock obsessive; I needed more. And their story had it all: the rise from rags to riches, from anonymity to staggering fame; the initial rejections, the proving the doubters wrong; the explorations, the discoveries, the making it up as they went along; the daunting peaks and the painful descent. All recorded with such a wealth of fanatically preserved trivia that their entire lives could be recreated in the test tube.

I read Hunter, of course, and Philip Norman's Shout!; and Ray Coleman's Lennon and Chet Flippo's McCartney; and every other Lennon and McCartney bio I could find (but not the traitorous Goldman, boooo); and I Me Mine, and In His Own Write; and Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Recording Sessions again and again. I even read Coleman's bio of Brian Epstein—although I drew the line at Ringo. By the time the anthologies came out, I could just about write their track listings from imagination.

It's strange to think back to what it all meant to me in my late teens and early twenties. A crash course in rock history, sure; but also a crash course in growing up, whose nuances I perhaps didn't fully grasp. Couldn't they have held it together, I wondered; what if they'd melded Plastic Ono Band and McCartney; Imagine and All Things Must Pass and Band on the Run? Now, at 35, reading once again about the acrimonious, exhausted end of it all, all I could think was, "of course". Four men in their late twenties drifting apart to live their own lives, after achieving so much together; what's more natural than that? The wonder is that it took the rest of the world so long to accept it.


[29 Aug 03] Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History is a book that for once lives up to its overblown subtitle. The extraordinary story of the struggle for control of the Spice Islands in the 16th and 17th centuries, it follows the attempt of explorers and merchants to find the best route to the East and to establish control once they got there, charting the rise and fall of Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands. An evocative tale, expertly told, and full of genuine surprises and revelations: not least how a tiny island in the Indies, now forgotten by the world and reachable only by dinghy, determined the fate of a far more significant island on the other side of the globe. Since finishing the book a week or two ago my head has been full of the tropics, sailing ships, pirates and spices, and the routines of the modern world seem pale by comparison.


Things I Have Already Mentioned

[30 Jun 03] I've mentioned Mil Millington's website and Guardian columns here a couple of times; last week I finally read his book of the same name. It's the funniest novel I've read in years—so packed with clever one-liners and observations that to pluck one out by way of example would be like trying to describe an avalanche by way of its first falling pebble. The English; Germans; moving house; university IT departments: just about everything that's occupied me these past couple of years is mercilessly and brilliantly dissected and disrespected. The results left me awestruck and jealous, as Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About rocketed straight into the top ten Things I Wish I Had Written.

So, yeah, probably worth a look.


All Change

[23 Jun 03] When I haven't been reading for work this year, I've been reading non-fiction, in my first sustained tussle with the genre for a few years. Judging by the books entussled, the theme of twenty-first century non-fiction is The Men Who Changed Everything.

First there was Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed The World, the tale of William 'Strata' Smith, the 18th century Englishman who realised that rocks could be dated by the fossils contained in them, that layers of rock formed in a regular way, and that a map of the entire country showing its various geological outcrops would make it possible to find valuable deposits of coal and other minerals, thereby changing everything. He spent his entire life creating just such a map in the face of unscrupulous opponents, and went slightly mad in the process.

Next was Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne, about the dictionary that changed everything, and two of the men involved in its creation: editor James Murray, a learned Scot, and one of its most enthusiastic contributors, Dr W. C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran and murderer who happened to be mad. Both of them devoted their entire lives to it.

Most recently was Robert Lomas's The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, about Nikola Tesla, a man as deserving of the title of genius as anyone who's lived. His deep understanding of the science and engineering of electricity led directly to just about every modern convenience we take for granted. Tesla made the widespread use of AC power feasible, invented radio years before Marconi, and devised a method of broadcasting electricity through the air for anyone to receive for free. He then spent his entire life in pursuit of this plan in the face of unscrupulous opponents like Edison and Westinghouse, and went slightly mad in the process.

Other books in this vein include Simon Garfield's Mauve, the story of the Victorian chemist who dyed everything, and Bill Bryson's new A Short History of Nearly Everything (mauve not included), both of which I await in paradigm-trembling anticipation. Once there was a time when non-fiction could safely dwell on the insignificant; now every factual account has to turn your world-view upside down, singing some unsung Victorian hero who spent his entire life guarding his scruples against madness.

But is the pedestrian world of print exciting enough to portray these mental giants' giant mentality? Surely larger-than-life heroes deserve a medium fit for heroes. What these Victorian genii need is the team-up treatment from comics writer Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the imminent movie of which fills some of us with a Gothic sense of foreboding and dread.

The League of Extraordinary Men Who Changed Everything would bring 'Strata' Smith, Nikola Tesla, Murray and Minor, and that mauve bloke together in one unstoppable cogitating team. Tesla would blast open the ground beneath his unscrupulous opponents with megavolts of electricity drawn down from the sky; Smith would point out which rocks they were passing as they tumbled down the resulting crevasse; the OED scholars would find just the right quotation from Pope to match the occasion; and the chemist would get to work dyeing his colleagues a batch of colourful paradigm-shaking tights.

Now there's a tale that would change everything.


Runaway Horses

[ 4 Mar 03]

The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere. ... When lately I retired to my house resolved that, in so far as I could, I would cease to concern myself with anything except the passing in rest and retirement of the little time I still have to live, I could do my mind no better service than to leave it in complete idleness to commune with itself, to come to rest, and to grow settled; which I hoped it would thenceforth be able to do more easily, since it had become graver and more mature with time. But I find ... that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it is a hundred times more active on its own behalf than ever it was for others. It presents me with so many chimeras and imaginary monsters, one after another, without order or plan, that, in order to contemplate their oddness and absurdity at leisure, I have begun to record them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of them.

Incessantly to follow one's own track, to be so close a prisoner to one's own inclinations that one cannot stray from them, or give them a twist, is to be no friend to oneself, still less to be one's master; it is to be one's own slave. I say this at the present moment because I cannot easily shake off the tyranny of my mind, which is ordinarily unable to take up anything without becoming absorbed, or to work at anything without devoting all its powers to it. However trifling the subject presented, it is prone to magnify it and expand it to such a point as to require its utmost strength. Mental idleness is therefore to me a troublesome state, and detrimental to my health. Most minds have need of some foreign matter to quicken and exercise them; mine needs it rather in order to relax and compose itself—'the vice of leisure must be shaken off by occupation' [Seneca, Letters, LVI]—for its chief and most laborious study is the study of itself. Books are the sort of employment that distracts it from this study.

Michel de Montaigne [1533-92], 'On Idleness', pp. 27-28, and 'On Three Kinds of Relationships', p. 251, in Essays, translated by J.M. Cohen (Penguin, 1958).


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