World Book Day

Jo’s post just reminded me that it is World Book Day. The title’s a slight misnomer as the rest of world have this on the 23rd April. Due to school terms, however, the UK and Ireland move it to 2nd March to ensure that children can get involved. The aim is to provide a book for every child in the country, which seems laudable to me.

[Note to self: insert clumsy segue away from selflessness and back to me]

Books currently on my bedside table or lying about the flat:

American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Currently reading this in bed. I didn’t take to it as quickly as Neverwhere, likely because I don’t identify with the main character so easily, but am now utterly intrigued and always loathe to put it down. Neil Gaiman‘s prosaic style is quirky and very easy to read, and I’ve no clue where the plot is going.

The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker
A surprisingly controversial book dealing with nature and nurture. Steven Pinker argues that, contrary to popular wisdom, genetics has much more to do with human behaviour than do upbringing and exprience. I was very happy to see him dismantle the myth of ‘the noble savage’ – non-violent tribes who live off the land in complete peace and harmony – as I’d always suspected that was bunk but hadn’t ever bother research it myself 🙂 There are many interesting insights into why we behave the way we do, and it’s continually surprising. He also sometimes uses Calvin and Hobbes cartoons to make his point. It moves very quickly and I often find it fairly complex; since I want to understand rather than skim I have to read it in the daytime when I’m awake. I’m progressing very slowly, but I’ll get there in the end 🙂

The Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins
Another one I can only read when alert. It presents the evolutionary history of humanity, working backwards from the present day to the eventual dawn of life itself. I’m only a few chapters in (just about to start ‘The Neanderthal’s Tale’), but am finding it utterly fascinating. So far I’ve learnt about how DNA studies can show the migration of humanity across the world, and that this has revealed multiple major migrations from Africa; that foxes can be domesticated in just twenty years, purely by breeding for friendliness, to the extent that they will wag their tails when approached (a byproduct rather than a part of the plan); that it’s entirely possible for you or me to be more closely related to a chimpanzee than another human (for specific genes). I’m enjoying it very much.

Calvin and Hobbies: The Essential Collection
I’ve loved Calvin and Hobbes since I was ten, and almost always have one of the compilations lying around. Delightful, laugh-out-loud funny cartoons that are often thoughtful and touching.

Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross
Amazingly beautiful paintings by the one of the most visually striking artists around. This was a late xmas present, and is great to flick through. I have a large Alex Ross poster taking up much of my bedroom wall, and would love to get hold of some of the book’s images as prints.

Why I am not a Christian – Bertrand Russell
A collection of essays. Despite much of the material dating back to the 20’s it’s remarkably easy to read, and the opinions are presented clearly and seemingly effortlessly. I was reading this on the way to the Bloggers4Labour meetup, and produced it when it happened to come up in conversation. That likely came over as a little weird 🙂 Sure I’m strongly anti-religion, but not that strong!

Neverwhere, and happiness

How often do you recognise joy as an emotion? More than just extreme contentment, but the emotion that’s coupled to a physical feeling of happiness and it’s like you’re sparkling inside…I imagine that everybody gets this from different things, but for me it’s words and language.

The first time I remember being consciously aware of the feeling was when reading a collection of Byron‘s poetry. There’s just something about the twists and spirals of wonderful language that really hits me. Stephen King does the same thing frequently – he’ll drop in a sentence so wonderfully surprising that I stop short and read it multiple times. I think it can be caused by beautiful phrases, but more often it’s because of a perfect metaphor or simile. It can happen in non-fiction too: Richard Dawkins and particularly the late Carl Sagan often express their meanings in beautiful linguistic turns, and I love feeling that wave of complete understanding when two seemingly unrelated ideas converge. I’m undoubtedly forgetting various authors, but those immediately spring to mind.

It just makes me happy. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to exemplify, as I guess much depends on the moment, context, etc. Much as I enjoy all my various interests, I don’t experience that kind of joy with anything other than reading, and I guess it’s what compels me to try writing.

The reason this occured to me is that I just finished reading Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman and wanted to recommend it very highly. It’s a wonderful modern fairy tale set in London Below – the city of those who fall through the cracks. The book’s full of quirky little ideas that intrigue for a few paragraphs, but then the tale moves on. If I came up with just one or two of these creations for one of my stories I’d be happy indeed 🙂 Neverwhere is also another example of something of which I’m slowly becoming aware – that the things I most enjoy are entirely unpredictable from moment to moment.

You get the feeling throughout that Neil Gaiman is entirely in control of his style of writing. It’s told in a very relaxed style, but there are occasions where the language dances effortlessly around a revelation which was in hindsight fairly obvious, but simply never occured to you. Or there are times when reality shifts, and the language changes to become slightly more detached – as a reader you’re not quite sure what’s happening, mirroring the main character. There’s a sense of power behind the words; it’s like listening to Annie Lennox, or Celine Dion – the song could be soft and relaxing all the way through, but you’re aware at any time that they could turn up the volume and blast you away. You get the feeling that Neil Gaiman could, if he wished, scare the hell out of you without breaking a sweat. That, or drive you into madness.

The use of language frequently gave me the shivers, although often in a more subtle way. It was more of an overall thing in Neverwhere – the language was fantastic but also served to deepen the impression of the scene. It’s not that the words were just strung together nicely, it’s that they revealed more in the process. I think that makes sense.

Maybe this is too gushing, and maybe in a few weeks I’ll read it and cringe, but right now I can’t recommend Neverwhere enough. I found the novel excellent, from both a plot and language perspective, and encourage you to try it out. I’m trying to decide whether to read American Gods next, or whether to save it…I think I’ll read it now 🙂

Not doing much

Sorry for the lack of blogging. I’ve decided to stay with my parents for the week, as I’m here dog-sitting for a couple of days anyway, and the rest of the week I’d only get lonely in Stratford and come back. I don’t think this is a fun week to be on your own. I’m only checking my emails a few times per day, which is quite a change from normal! I did manage to upload a fair few christmassy photos yesterday, with the help of Picasa. Since Jo’s had so little trouble, I might brave a WordPress upgrade tomorrow without all of my normal programs.

I went and checked on the flat earlier today, and discovered I’d left a window open. Dumbass. It was out onto the walkway at the back of the building so in theory wasn’t publicly accessible. Still, there are only four windows in the flat, so it was a pretty stupid thing to do! It was very cold in there, too. Still, no harm done. Thankfully everything else was fine. I picked up a couple of plectrums, which work far better than the Pointy Piece of Plastic I ripped from some packaging, as well as a couple of other bits and pieces I’ll need to last until the weekend.

I’m currently a few chapters into Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which was a present. I don’t know whether it’s the content, the writing style, or a mixture of both, but I’m finding it absolutely fascinating. I guess I was also looking for an excuse to ditch Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I’d been struggling with. Maybe it gets better, but the endlessly florid dialogue of turn of the century academics drove me to distraction! Maybe I’ll come back to that at some point. Although my to-read pile now contains a couple of Richard Dawkins books, as well as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, so it may be quite a long wait.

I was in Comet this morning, and all over the floor were large arrows, underneath which was:

I-Pod’s ??

I frame no hypothesis.

There’s apparently heavy snowfall expected tonight…Wonder how much we’ll see here.

Busy Day

I was christmas shopping for much of today. I also picked up a phone and two lampshades, which pretty much completes my list of Things I Need. I was shopping with a couple of other people, who I’ll avoid identifying for reasons that will become obvious.

I was standing near the toy department of Debenham’s when a mother and child walked past me. The kid must have been about five, I think, and I saw it point to a toy, then heard the mother saying:

Oh, not a chance. I’d poke my eyes out, and yours.

I wish I knew which particular item had elicited that response.

Late in the afternoon one of people I was with started to feel somewhat faint in the lampshade shop, and sitting down didn’t help. She didn’t feel she could walk, so I headed to the flat and drove back around to pick her up. It took me about five minutes, but as I turned into the road I saw an ambulance outside the shop. Not nice.

After quickly parking I discovered that she’d become much worse just after I’d left, and both the shop owner and the other person agreed that they should call an ambulance. The crew checked her over inside the vehicle, and after ten minutes or so she was much better, so didn’t need to go to the hospital. It was likely just too hot underneath the large lights in the shop, but the whole thing was somewhat unnerving. We came back to the flat afterwards and she was fine, so hopefully it was just a passing thing.

The hospital was literally in the next street, but nevertheless I’m very impressed with the speed they responded to the 999 call. I was moving pretty quickly, and they can’t have phoned straight away.

This evening I watched rather a lot of television, but laughed very loudly at Have I got News for You, QI and Jonathan Ross.

A Christmas Carol Podcast

Penguin books are releasing A Christmas Carol as a free podcast download, read by Geoffrey Palmer who’s best known to UK readers as the guy from As Time Goes By1. That’s a really great idea. As mentioned by the BBC and Boing Boing, amongst others.

There are countless versions of A Christmas Carol – what’s your favourite? Personally I adore A Muppet Christmas Carol – “this is my island in the sun!”

  1. two new episodes of which are being broadcast this christmas []

Harry Potter in Space

I love that the International Space Station just had a special screening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. According to the BBC article they have a DVD library up there – how cool is that 🙂 I’m hopefully seeing HP4 this evening. When the book came out I read it too quickly and can’t remember the specifics of the plot any more, so the film should be more of a surprise than the first three. I’ve since discovered that reading anything in a day doesn’t work for me – it’s enjoyable at the time, but doesn’t work for fond memories. I’m looking forward to the Quidditch scenes, and I wonder whether Hermione will continue to steal the show from her co-stars – she has the character down pat1, imho.

Update: I’m seeing HP on Friday…It’s not Friday today, is it. Why did I think that? I’m broken.

  1. this feels very weird to type, and I had to check it wasn’t a phrase I’d dreamt. Apparently it originated in poker []

When this fog’s gone…

I’m currently reading The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray and I don’t think it spoils the plot to reveal that when the mists descend upon London, monsters foul and dark begin to ravage the populace. I was reading this afternoon, and looked out of the window to see this:

Misty

It’s mauve! Clearly supernatural. The whole day was pretty misty, actually. Meg and I went walking during the clearest hour:

Megan in the Park - 3

Today we encountered:

  • A man blowing the leaves from his drive while wearing a very smart suit
  • A 13-week old labrador puppy who had just been for a swim. He was very sweet, even if he did get mud all over me
  • A stream, which Megan liked a lot

Megan by the stream - 7

Megan by the stream - 5

Megan by the stream - 4

Such a treasure 🙂

Started writing much too late today, and only finished just after 2300. Passed 40k though, which was my intention.

Am knackered – must go to bed…Night!

Happenings

Serenity’s out today! Woohoo. I won’t be able to catch the previews this evening, but shall be there tomorrow. From everybody’s reaction it’s only Simon and I that are interested in going, but we don’t care. Gotta find us some brown coats…

I spoke to the estate agent earlier. Apparently the new lease is on its way to the solicitors, and assuming that’s ok we’ll be able to start talking moving-in dates.

The third book in the Bartimaeus trilogy officially came out today, but Waterstone’s had it on the shelves yesterday afternoon so I picked up a copy. Most exciting. I have a cunning theory as to what will transpire, but am avoiding the blurb until I finish my current book – won’t be able to resist the temptation otherwise. I even remembered to use my Waterstone’s gift voucher, having had it in my wallet since christmas.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

I opened a package this morning to find a present from my uncle:

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Let us examine the evidence that this is a book of high coolness. On only the front cover, we have:

  • A monkey. But not an ordinary monkey. This is a monkey wearing a monocle
  • Pirates
  • Scientists
  • Somebody on a trapeze
  • The promise of adventure
  • An author with a cool name

I think we can safely say that nobody in their right mind would not pick this book up off the shelf. Furthermore, there’s the blurb:

1837: the Victorian Era approaches and the golden age of piracy draws to a close.

Worried that his pirates are growing bored with a life of winking at pretty native ladies, sitting about on tropical beaches, and trying to stick enough jellyfish together to make a bouncy castle, the Pirate Captain decides it’s time they had an adventure.

A chance encounter with the young Charles Darwin – embarked upon the voyage of discovery that will one day make him famous – leads the Captain and his rag-tag crew from the exotic Galapagos Islands to the fog-filled streets of Victorian London. There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, a diabolical Bishop, the Elephant Man – and have an exciting trip to the zoo.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is one of the very few books to deal with the weighty issue of science versus religion, whilst also featuring lots of roaring and running people through.

Oh yes. This is entirely my kind of book – I think my uncle knows me quite well 🙂 If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read it now.

Return of The Leader

Danny Wallace (aka The Leader)’s new show How To Start Your Own Country is on BBC2 this evening. This is the Citizens Required project I’ve mentioned before. I’m looking forward to it – should be good! I applied to be poet laureate but didn’t get anywhere – such is life 🙂

Speaking of The Leader, I just finished his latest novel: Yes Man. I laughed and laughed and laughed. The premise is this: he was feeling depressed when a man on a bus gave him some advice – “say yes more”. So he did. He said yes to absolutely everything. From the site:

In the months that followed, he won