The Dark Tower

Crimson velvet / Terciopelo carmesíI’ve just finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. The seven books took about 18 months, though not at a straight run, and it’s probably the longest I’ve ever had an unfinished story in my head. It’s curious how those neurons have had nothing to do for the past few days – every evening I keep expecting to continue the story, and have to remind myself it’s done. And then I spend a couple of moments marvelling that he actually pulled it off. Stephen King’s 30-year project somehow works as a coherent story, which is a hell of a thing.

The Dark Tower series is based on the Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came”, and follows the eponymous Roland in his quest for the Dark Tower – the universal linchpin of life, light and time. The world has moved on – the sun no longer consistently rises in the east, the landscape is littered with the remnants of long forgotten civilisations, their incomprehensible atomic technologies slowly degrading into rusty death, and the last hope, the Dark Tower, is tottering, tottering under the forces of darkness. And into the desert steps Roland, the last gunslinger – a man lacking imagination, friends, and any kind of sense of humour, but stubborn as shit and battle-hardened after hundreds of years in pursuit of his one, simple goal: reaching the Tower, and climbing to the room at the top. The series defies standard categorisation, and the best description I’ve heard came from @backoffman, who called it a scifi fantasy western. There are more than a few touches of horror, too, and it all swirls into something quite different from anything I’ve read before. And I enjoyed it greatly.

I can’t recommend it to everyone. Stephen King’s writing style is to make up the story as he goes along – he says as such in the introductions – which means his plots often turn upon dreams, intuition and psychic powers, and so the Dark Tower series, like many of his books, are straight stories rather than mysteries for the reader to solve. Some people don’t like that, and I can sympathise. That said, he only weaves tales in which dreams, intuition and psychic powers are allowable plot devices, so it kinda works itself out. I am one of those people who generally rolls his eyes when magic makes a book unpredictable, but I’ve read enough King to know awesomeness will follow, and I’m happy to set aside the occasional happy coincidence. It’s worth it. The story is excellent, but here, as ever, his major strength is his characterisation.  He somehow manages to take flawed, not-always-likeable people and slowly, darkly, have them befriend me – and then one of them will die horribly and it’s bloody awful. I hate him.

Stephen King calls the series as the overarching story of his career, to the extent that many of his non-Dark-Tower books actually link in in some way – some overtly, some just subtly, and some I undoubtedly didn’t pick up on – so it’s a feast of nostalgia for King fans. There’s a moment towards…well, I won’t say where…but I expect many people have reached it, realised what’s about to be revealed, and said something along the lines of “Not that bastard again.” With properly vitriolic emphasis on bastard. The series took three decades to write, and finishing was it King’s first duty after recovering from a near fatal car accident in 1999 – he didn’t want the series to be his Edwin Drood, he says, so he got the final three books written. Such was his relief at finishing that for a while he spoke of retiring, believing his biggest, most important tale was done. Happily he seems to have gotten over that.

I think the final three Dark Tower books are a tour de force, but reaching them obviously requires getting through the first. Which, unfortunately, I didn’t find easy. It drops you in at the deep end, and you have to spend 240 pages in a baffling world with an obsessed cowboy who doesn’t actually seem very nice. But if you force your way through – and thanks to @grimsb and @backoffman for keeping me going at this point – the second is far more readable, and everything’s fine from then on. But that is a barrier, and I suspect it’s why the series isn’t as widely read as the rest of his catalogue. But but but: read The Gunslinger again at the end of the series and it’s a completely different, much more enjoyable book – knowing the characters as you do, you see their actions in a completely different light. Quite an odd experience.

I deliberately haven’t said much about the plot, as I think it’s best to go in blind. I’d say don’t even read the blurbs – they’re always a bit spoilerful. If the above tempts you, try to get through the first even if you’re not enjoying it, then see what you think of the second. I’m happy to lend them out.

The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder - CoverEarlier this year I read Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder – a glorious book about the intertwining of science and Romanticism, before the latter decided to go it alone. I’ve reviewed it over at HumanistLife:

I spent the first few months of 2009 travelling around humanist groups and asking their members one question: ‘what are you happy about?’. I was collecting answers for a book, and I quickly hit a snag: people kept giving the same response. It seems that many, many humanists are happy about the joys of the world, the thrill of experience and the fact of their very existence – in short, the wonder of life. Which is a lovely thing. Somewhat problematic for me, but buoying nonetheless.

The sentiment was so prevalent that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s a rare (unique?) point of agreement among self-described humanists. I started asking for more details, and found a surprising level of agreement on the inspiration for said wonder. Biology was a common source of delight, as were cosmology and quantum physics. Others waxed lyrical on the power of the arts, or the pure elegance of mathematics. But science was by far the most popular.

It’s clear that many humanists see science and wonder as two sides of the same coin, but the concepts have a fractious relationship. During the 19th century the Romantic movement declared that rational thought in fact stifles wonder and dulls the artistic spirit. A deeper understanding of the world, they said, could only be found through feeling and emotion: insight comes from wonder, never the reverse. Such ideas continue to this day. How often do we hear cultural commentators – and religious apologists – decrying science for destroying mystery? It’s reductionist, we’re told, mechanistic and soul-destroying. Wonder, it seems, lies in the nebulous unknown, and the truth is grey in comparison.

Of course, scientists did, and do, object. Richards Feynman and Dawkins have whole books decrying the idea, and Carl Sagan was a walking counter-example who devoted his life to spreading the opposite message. But the old clichés still have traction, and into this gap steps Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a hugely ambitious book that argues for scientific/Romantic union by detailing what the author calls ‘the second Enlightenment’, during which science and wonder were as one.

Continued.

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or, 2000 years of Upper Class Twits In Charge)

In the introduction to An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, author John O’Farrell says he wrote it for ‘all those who weren’t listening at school’. I have to disagree. In my experience, here’s what school teaches you about history:

  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • During the blitz there was rationing, which meant there were no bananas.
  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • During the blitz they had Anderson shelters.
  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • Victorian sitting rooms had chairs and desks and curtains and stuff.
  • Did I mention Henry VIII’s wives?

By the age of 14 I couldn’t give a toss about Henry VIII’s wives. They were the go-to topic for years, and it became dull as, well, they actually became my baseline for dullness. Sure, the curriculum eventually slipped in the Reformation, but without any explanation of what Catholic / Anglican / Protestant / Whatever actually meant it was all a bit abstract, and glossed over so we could quickly get back to the wives. Despite this, I took History GCSE. This was because of Mr Feldman.

Mr Feldman was a walking cloud of ash. Sometimes he couldn’t make it through a lesson without nipping into the store-room, emerging a few minutes later to indiscriminately fire a barrage of smoke particles into a room of children to whom nicotine was the equivalent of the Black Death. But he was a hell of a teacher. He’d stride about the room, gesticulating wildly as he told tales of heroism and national conflict, betrayal and sacrifice, war and nobility. The whiteboard would end up a chaotic scribble of maps, arrows and keywords. He’d tell of his visits to the locations of famous events, and how he stood in the actual spot where King Thingy fell to his death – or was he pushed? He was occasionally brusque, but you couldn’t deny his enthusiasm, and it was infectious.

One lesson stands out for me. Our curriculum, for reasons beyond understanding, skipped straight from the outbreak of the Second World War to the building of the Berlin Wall. It is obviously impossible to understand the latter without some understanding of the events of the former, and Mr Feldman was appalled. So, one lesson, we had an unrequired whirlwind tour of WW2, just because he thought we should know. It was fantastic. The kind of high-level overview you never get, because they’re too busy telling you about sodding bananas. The whiteboard devolved into anarchy as Britain retreated, and Germany expanded in all directions, before abruptly stopping as Russia started moving east, and then the Allies returned, and everyone’s converging on Berlin…

It was how history should be taught. You could go back for the details later – here was a simplified version of the entire event. But we only had this for WW2. Between Henry VIII and the beginning of the 20th century, we knew nothing. I finally realised this last month, and in an attempt to educate myself bought An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, purely because it looked ok on the shelf.

Turns out, John O’Farrell is a Mr Feldman. His book starts in 50BC, as Caesar tries and fails to invade, and ends in 1945 with the establishment of the NHS. And inbetween is a decent guide to the history of the UK – exactly what I wanted. Enthusiastic and funny, it whips through the centuries, picking out major characters and stories and introducing them with just enough detail to be interesting, but without getting bogged down in minutae. Henry VIII doesn’t get much space, because he wasn’t actually all that special. Lots of wives, and pissed off the Pope, but otherwise pretty dull. Plenty of British institutions get the same treatment, and it usually turns out that everything I thought I knew was wrong.

The Spanish Armada, for example: turns out, not a great victory. In fact, the battle was a fairly middling all-score-draw that would have likely seen the Spanish fleet eventually win, had the wind not turned to prevent their landing. So they wandered off for a bit, probably planning to return shortly, but said turning of the wind escalated rather, and the Armada sailed into one of the worst hurricanes ever recorded at such a latitude, sinking half the fleet and killing >2000 people. Lucky for the UK, yet touted to this day as Francis Drake = awesome.

And this is representative of much that happened under Elizabeth I. Her spin doctors were of such a high calibre that they’re still successful. Elizabeth killed more religious dissenters than oh-so-evil Mary. She took the country into massive debt by fighting unsuccessful wars. And was she a virgin queen? Of course not. Yet: at school, Elizabeth was lovely, Protestant and the change the country needed. Not so much.

Now, even a guide like this has trouble at times. There are a lot of Henrys and Edwards. I mean a lot. Too many to keep track of, if I’m honest. I just finished the book, and they’re already getting mixed up. Henry V = Agincourt; got it. Henry IV was…erm. Well, he probably lost to France, since they seemed to alternate…other than that, it’s kinda blurry. But that’s ok – it’s a high-level overview, and it knows you won’t remember everything, but you can get the gist then come back later to fill in the details. It’s the kind of book you need to read more than once, and thankfully there’s enough depth that this is possible. There’s an old claim that you only remember 10% of the details on an initial read, and that feels about right – I know I’ve already forgotten much of it. But I now have a rough idea of what went on over two millenia, which is a good start. Shakespeare’s Histories shouldn’t be a total mystery any more, even if I can’t remember quite which King did which thing. I’ll read it again in a month or so, and a bit more will stick. I think that’s the way forward, and it’s possible because the book is so readable.

It’s kept alive by many, many jokes, as well as occasional asides and meanderings, most of which make it very clear that John O’Farrell is a total lefty1. The class system features heavily: he repeatedly points out that most of the country’s revolutions and crises were rich people overthrowing other rich people – the working classes were left to rot whatever. He’ll frequently puncture right-wing ideas, pointing out, for example, that it was only with the advent of machinery that women started to spend time in the home rather than working alongside the men (if you weren’t rich, anyway) – the ‘traditional’ concepts of family life are only a couple of hundred years old. He’ll also sometimes veer into a cul-de-sac to discuss the value of learning history, say (just at the point where you’re despairing over yet another bloody Henry), or make vaguely political comments about the value of making analogies to World War Two in a world that’s very different (I let out a little cheer when he said we should ‘let it go’). Being rather a lefty myself, I enjoyed this a lot. Those of a more Conservative bent may object. But, given the verdict of history on right-wing attitudes, they probably won’t do it loudly.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a vague interest in history. It’s not that we weren’t listening at school, it’s that there was little to hear – and this book does its job nicely. Mr Feldman would be proud.

  1. actually, the subtitle might tip you off []

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesI wants it:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone crunching zombie action. 

As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.

I think we can all agree Elizabeth Bennett is one of the most kick-ass women in literature. But you have to concur that her awesome takedown of snooty Miss Thingy would ascend to still greater heights if concluded with a blood-gargling charge from the old grumperton and a casual backhanded decapitation from our heroine, after which one corner of her lips would, ever so slightly, rise. Oh yes.

Bring on the eBooks

The Sony Reader was recently released in the UK, and there’s consequently been lots of talk about eBooks and eReading, most of it really frustrating. This is because the media insist on building enormous straw men at which to fire grumpy people.

For whatever reason, it’s been decided that the appropriate frame for this discussion is ‘eBooks vs. Books’. eBooks are the future and will replace Books, you see. Is this a good thing? Do we want this? Why not ask the nearest curmudgeon for their informed opinion. The One Show had some muppet saying how great Books are and how much eBooks pale in comparison, then a little questioning by Adrian Chiles revealed she’d failed to connect the Sony Reader to her computer. This is representative of everything I’ve seen, and it’s all a jangly bag of moof.

Of course Books don’t need batteries. Of course the second-hand Book market is important. I’ll even acknowledge somewhat bonkers arguments about eBooks lacking ‘soul’. But it all misses the point: nobody wants to replace Books with eBooks. That’s just silly. I really don’t see why people get so hostile – the two can happily live in harmony.

Look, if it’s not a totally redundant thing to say: I love Books. And not just for what’s in them, I love them as objects too. I’ll pay more for nicely printed books: I could wait for the paperback of The Graveyard Book, but I really want the hardcover because it’s a quality item. I suspect most people are the same. But I don’t feel terribly threatened by eBooks, because I can see exactly how they’d be useful.

Cryptonomicon

For example, there are two books I’d particularly like to get in eBook form. The first is my current read: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It’s bloody enormous, and just too big to easily carry anywhere. My university bag is packed tight, and while I can generally squeeze in a standard paperback, this one takes up badly-needed space. And if I do squeeze it in, it’s still a pain. I always grab a sandwich for the train home, but I can’t eat with one hand and hold Cryptonomicon with the other – it’s too heavy. Both of these problems would be solved with an eBook version.

The other advantage to a digital version of this particular tome is searchability. Neal Stephenson says something interesting every other sentence, but the chances of finding half-remembered wonderments in Cryptonomicon are pretty small. 

Obviously there’d be disadvantages. It’s yet another gadget to increase my already-quite-high muggability; it could run out of power; etc.. But none of these are deal-breakers1.

The second book is one I think I’ve mentioned before. My favourite poet is Byron, and ages ago I threw a ‘Complete Works’ into a slightly-below-free-delivery-threshold Amazon basket. The poetry is lovely, but the book sucks.

Byron

The paper is very low quality, so the letters aren’t sharp. This is made worse by the godawful font, and it’s printed very small (it’s an A5 book, and the picture shows about half the page). They’ve also – understandably – halved the necessary paper by printing in two columns. So it’s just crowded. But the columns are too small for half the lines, so lots are just one word (I’m prepared to be told this is some weird poetry format, but I don’t think so), which makes a mess. It’s not difficult to read, but it’s far from appealing. And I’ve rarely bothered, to be honest.

All these failures are understandable in a Book. Byron just wrote too damn much. But it’s perfect for the eBook format. An eBook doesn’t care how much data there is. An eBook can use my choice of font. An eBook can enlarge the text so I don’t get eyestrain after ten minutes. An eBook doesn’t need to cram as much text as possible into the page, so I can read it in one column, without truncated lines. Byron himself would prefer an eBook version (well, he’d use it as a distraction while he chats up your girlfriend, anyway).

I can think of plenty more uses. I’m not fond of reading large amounts on a computer screen, for example, and I tend to print off long articles. This is pretty wasteful at times, and I’d far rather use an eBook reader. I also have to haul a load of art theory books on the train from uni every week, and I’d prefer shove them onto a usb stick then read them on a Kindle on the sofa. I’d also like an electronic version of the Guardian for the breakfast table, so I can read only the first 6 pages without feeling guilty about the astonishing waste of paper.

Of course I don’t want to replace all my books. But I’d like electronic copies of them all, please.

  1. The other problem with Cryptonomicon is that I started reading it just as uni began and I now have large amounts of dubious art theory to wade through. The Sony Reader can’t help with this, sadly. []

Nation

Terry Pratchett’s latest sounds good:

Nation is the story of two children: Ermintrude may just be the Queen of England now that a plague has struck down most of the royal family. Mau is the last survivor of the Nation, a tribal people living on a south-seas island that has been destroyed by a tsunami. They are both lost and adrift in the wake of terrible tragedy, flung together on the island of Nation. They both are blessed with doubt about the theologies of their ancestors — and denied its succour. Together, they discover science, and use it to weld together their people and save them from despair and evil external forces.

I’ve never got into the Discworld novels, but his Johnny Maxwell series is still a favourite. He’s also firmly on the side of rationality, and it sounds like the above may have something to say in that regard. I’ll keep an eye out.

Read Neverwhere for free

Neverwhere, my favourite of Neil Gaiman’s novels, is now available for free. It can be read online, or downloaded as an eBook (you’ll need Adobe Digital Editions). Both will expire after 30 days, which is a bit of a shame, if understandable. Bizarrely, the two versions are a little different, with the an underground map online but not in the download.

I love Neverwhere, and kinda-reviewed it here a couple of years ago. Wonderful book. I’ve learnt much more about it since, including that Mr Gaiman describes one particular character as his own version of Doctor Who1.

His publishers released American Gods for free in February, but I think this time the free release is to help promote his upcoming novel: The Graveyard Book. The Dave McKean cover alone makes me want it immediately, but Mr Gaiman said the following on his blog: “The Graveyard Book is, I think, my favourite of all the things I’ve done, and I’m proud of it”. Don’t have any choice, now.

  1. and, incidentally, there could be interesting news on that front at some point []

Shooter

I just finished a book called Shooter, by photojournalist David Hume Kennerly. I picked it up after seeing it recommended by Mr Hobby, and it’s one of those rare books that never gets boring.

This is because Kennerly has had quite the life. Assuming it’s all true, I’m astonished he’s not long dead. He started out photographing fires for his local paper, then became a general news photographer in Los Angeles, hairing to the scene of any and every crisis and somehow talking his way into its centre. Then it was some years in Vietnam, where he had countless close shaves involving bullets, from all sides, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. After Vietnam he became close friends with Gerald Ford, resulting in his being appointed official White House Photographer, with pretty much unfettered access to the administration. Then…well, it continues.

The guy must have the charm of the devil. Many of his stories involve him cajoling someone into helping him, or running into an old colleague/friend who gets him through the door. An introduction The Digital Journalist says Kennerly makes it seem effortless, but it’s actually extremely hard work:

In his address book he carries not only contact numbers, but birthdays, and will religiously send cards to the people he has photographed from locations all over the world.

And this is all very he-did-what?! But then comes the biggest surprise of all, when, during his time with President Ford, he turns 28. Bastard.

I imagine every reader finds themselves daydreaming about dropping it all and following in Kennerly’s footsteps. It’s the life you want to have had – not necessarily before you’re, you know, thirty, that’s just taking the piss – but reality seems to suggest could never happen. I don’t think I’m suited to photojournalism – 25 and I still get nervous making phone calls, baby – but I found myself thinking of local papers I could apply to.

I looked him up on Wikipedia this afternoon, and was a bit nervous. The book was published in 1979. There have been a lot of wars since then, and someone’s luck can only last so long – had he made it? I was happy to discover he’s still going, and his website has images of Rumsfeld touring Abu Ghraib, so he’s clearly still in the thick of it. Amazing.

I can’t recommend Shooter enough. It’s nicely written, totally inspiring if you’re into that kind of thing (but light on the technical aspects if you’re not) and generally enthralling. I defy you not to finish it liking the guy.

Unsinkable rubber ducks

Skuds thinks Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘The Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ might have been written especially for me. In the last few days I’ve had it personally recommended from a variety of sources, and it does sounds like good times:

Integral to the story are discussions on the relationship between science, religion and the paranormal. Many of the arguments for and against religion/spirituality are included but in a more amusing and concise way than normal, making it an ideal book for anyone interested in the debate but lacking the patience to read The God Delusion.

What unsettled me was how persuasive some of the arguments in favour of pseudoscience and Inteligent Design were – but then that’s what makes them so dangerous. Brookmyre is firmly on the side of science, but he manages to write characters who make a good case against.

‘Unsinkable rubber duckies’ is a catchphrase of the great (not to say, Amazing) US skeptic James Randi, in reference to attempts to battle purveyors of pseudoscience, and indeed the book is apparently dedicated to him and Richard Dawkins. I didn’t need any more convincing, but that’ll do it. Definitely a necessary read; I’ll have to pick it up.

‘More adult’ Harry Potter

The next person who says anything about the final Harry Potter being more ‘adult’ is going to get something thrown at them. What the hell is this supposed to mean? The storyline isn’t that much more complex, and, yes, the themes are heavier and it’s more emotional, but every kid of an age to read this type of book is going to have no trouble understanding it. Unless they’re drawing the ‘more adult’ line at there maybe being the odd moment a 9-year-old won’t understand, which there wasn’t1 in the previous books, I don’t know what they’re getting at.

Are reviewers mistaking ‘books about young people’ for ‘books that are incredibly simplistic’? And now the characters are older it’s therefore ‘more adult’? Wouldn’t surprise me.

I’m not putting it down, by the way: I think there are many ways in which Harry Potter surpasses much of the literature aimed at adults, particularly in terms of complexity of storyline and emotional development. I sometimes think there’s a sneering attitude towards literature aimed at children, and it’s patronising in the extreme. “Look, here’s a book aimed at children that I enjoy! It must therefore be ‘more adult’.” Gah.

Similarly, although not as annoying, ‘darker’. We quickly found out that Harry’s parents were murdered in cold blood, as I recall. I could possibly be won over on that one, though.

Ok, rant over.

  1. I think there was, actually []