Book 16: Moondust, In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

February 28, 2009 at 12:46 am (Review) (, , , , , , , , , )

In Moondust Andrew Smith goes on a quest to answer  question, “What did it feel like to walk on the moon?” and to discover what the answer means for all of us. He attempts achieve this by  interviewing each of the men still alive who walked on the moon and asking them. The simplicity of this approach could easily lead to a trite recitation of clichés we have all heard before but Smith works hard to get beyond this. He manages to do so by looking at the wider effects of the moonwalks on the astronauts’ lives. Though none of the astronauts ever did anything quite like going to the moon afterwards, he takes a highly engaging look at the ways in which they followed similar paths and the ways in which they diverged. What is lovely and entirely typical is that the most interesting and entertaining astronauts are not who you would expect.

The wider story is obviously extraordinary, it is after all the story of how we made it to the moon and back. It is this quality that makes it such a challenge to write about. It would be easy to slip in to hyperbole or watery metaphysics, especially when the astronauts’ themselves have such difficulty expressing what they experienced. Smith deftly avoids this by discussing events and astonishing facts in a very earthbound fashion. It is not simply the fact that we once went to the moon that makes this book so astonishing there are a plethora of incidental facts that dropped my jaw, for example all the men who went to the moon were either eldest sons or only sons, which clearly says something about the psychology of the men involved. He also places the moonwalks within the wider cultural and political landscape, exploring how they came to happen at all given the immense cost and what effect they had on art and music as well as science. 

Smith makes it clear that this book is not just about the astronauts (though that may have been his original intention) it is also about the people around them and about the people who watched at home and found their lives changed because of it. There are collectors of memorabilia, venture capitalists investing in space hotels, a lobby for a manned return to space and of course the nay-saying conspiracy theorists all of whom get a look in as part of his exploration of the meaning of the Moonwalks. It is also about his journey following this story across America, sometimes the device of putting yourself in what is essentially a journalistic search can be excruciating, books can become more about the writer than the story. Thankfully Smith has enough charm and enthusiasm for his subject out weigh any of the narcissistic tendencies of the device. 

I would very strongly recommend Moondust it is utterly fascinating and filled with amazing stories and facts. He reminds us that when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the moon they didn’t know if he would sink in to the surface or if space germs would come back with them and wipe us all out or if a large hungry alien would devour them. They didn’t know because no one had been there before. Imagine for a minute what that must be like. Surely knowing more about that is worth your time.

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Coraline Q&A with Neil Gaiman

February 15, 2009 at 11:50 pm (Film) (, , , , , , )

I went to see Coraline at the Dublin Film Festival this evening. It wasn’t advertised but following the film there was a Q&A with Neil Gaiman which was delightful. Mr Gaiman give every impression that he is generally the lovely soul you’d hope from reading his books.

The highlights for me were his telling of the nightmare that was attempting to get Good Omens made back in the very early 90’s. It would seem that some of the executives involved thought that Tom Cruise would be a good pick for Newt. So it not getting made is not all bad. He said that getting burned with that set him up for some of the better collaborations he’s now managed to make happen. 

Also he told us of the Gilliam nightmare that went down when it came to a different (I think) version of the same. Gilliam nearly had the money together went to the US looking for a paltry $15 million and a distribution deal from one of the studios was resoundingly ignored and then the English company putting up the rest went bankrupt. All he needs is $75 million or so and he could do it, so if you’ve got it spare send it to Gilliam because I would love to see his Good Omens. I am almost certain that it would be utter genius. 

Gamian spoke of the origins of Henry Selick’s involvement in Coraline and it would seem that he sent Selick the first draft (minus one chapter) and within a couple of weeks Selick was back to him and shortly there after on board. Gaiman it seems was taken with Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach so persued Selick from the start. It has taken 8 years to get the project to screen and I assure you it was worth the wait, the 3D is used in a really interesting and different fashion but I’m still not 100% sold on it as a storytelling device. 

Neil Jordan was present in the audience as he is undertaking the adaptation of the Graveyard Book. News which had managed to pass me by but which I am pretty glad about. This after all is the man who managed to adapt The Butcher Boy. He spoke briefly about his impression of the 3D and his excitement about the project. 

Finally he discussed some of the intricies of the technology and a bit about Stardust (I have my doubts about how happy he is with the final product). It was interesting and a highlight of my year so far. 

Disclaimer: These are my general ramblings about the discussion if I mis-heard or got the wrong impression apologies contact me and I’ll change it. Thanks.

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Book 15: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

February 11, 2009 at 12:51 am (Review) (, , , , )

The Road is a work of genius. It represents the gold standard of storytelling. It is, like all the best stories, a simple story well told. It tells of a father and son walking a road in a post apocalyptic world and that is all. McCarthy writes without ever using so much as an extraneous syllable and because of that The Road is beautiful. 

The relationship between father and son is drawn out in sparse moments that rely as much on what they are not saying as much as what they are. It is in these moments that the grace of the book lies. It could be cold without this perfectly drafted relationship. As you read you realise that you haven’t taken a breath for a few minutes as you wait with the protagonists for danger to pass. You will be wholly immersed in their world and relationship.

The complexity of the ideas that McCarthy touches on is all the more impressive given the simplicity of the writing. So often writers of the big ideas novel feel the need to hammer home the point with heavy prose it is to his enduring credit that The Road never reads like a big ideas novel. It’s only after reading as you think about it (and I assure you that this will stay with you for weeks) you realise that he addresses issues like the nature of society, what it is to love without condition, what it is to be a parent, and that he says something of value about each one. More than any other McCarthy explores the importance of hope and how when all else fails us it is hope that will get us through, maybe. 

I cannot recommend this strongly enough. You will walk away breathless and uplifted.

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Book 12: Split by Suzanne Finnamore

January 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm (Review) (, , , , , , )

I was perfectly ready to hate this and before starting to read it I was composing my scathing review. I was looking forward to it. It has a bride and groom wedding cake decoration split in two on the cover. This was going to be some Oprah, self help, woman finding herself after her man leaves her memoir and I was going to be mean. It turns out that they have that saying about judging book covers for a reason.  

Split is a fairly brutal account of the break up of Susan Finnamore’s marriage. It is in no way pretending to be a unbiased account. It is all about how she felt and how she choose to deal with it. It’s also about how she went to pieces. I admire how brutally honest this book appears to be. While the split was the husband’s decision she doesn’t step away from her culpability or excuse herself for some pretty poor behaviour in the course of the split. 

Finnamore’s writing is clear and unflinching. There can be a tendancy in break up memoirs to descend in to ‘Dear Diary, A boy hurt my feelings today. He’s really mean’ territory (one of the things I was hoping to mock) but Finnamore never even touches that sort of tone. She describes her hurt without sentiment. She is also writes with humour about the semi-lunacy that descends when you are in the midst of a bad break up. 

If you happen to be in the midst of a bad break up and you are not of the Oprah self help persuasion, there are some incidental do and for the love of god do not’s in the book. One of them being rid yourself of self help books (If you find that sort of thing helpful fine, personally makes me feel homicidal). Learn from someone else’s mistakes and save your self the hassle.

The wider cast of characters are colourful in a California sort of way (a transvestite driver for example) and a bit cliché (straight talking, slightly demented mother anyone?). This would bother me more if the description of the devestation that follows nasty break-ups was less real. 

I strongly recommend it for the heart broken. For everyone else its worth a read but not essential.

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Book 11: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

January 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm (Review) (, , , )

Small Gods was added to my list on the recommendation of lovely Pajabites. As ever their taste is impeccable. Small Gods carries on in the great tradition of immensely entertaining British Science Fiction/Fantasy. I have a vague recollection of reading one or two of the Discworld series when I was a young teenager and I never went back. I was an idiot.

I can only assume that I didn’t enjoy it then because I mostly didn’t get the joke, as a teenager I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the beauty of Pratchett’s theological and political positions. It takes an amazingly gifted writer to mock the ridiculousness of religious fundamentalists without ever picking on a particular theology. He argues for secular democracy with more humor, grace and power then any political philosopher I’m aware of. 

The hero of our tale is Brutha, a novice at a monastery who has little hope of ordination primarily because he appears to be not so bright. His character grows throughout the story in a way that outlines how people grow in life (all things going well). Going from total innocent to a person of understanding and with a marvellous illustration the hardship and confusion that often accompanies that growth. 

Interestingly Pratchett explore how our leaders or those who claim to know what is best are those that know least about what is good. He give a fascinating insight in to how the minds of those who seek to lead work. He is fierce in his criticism of the manipulative and deadpan in his description of where the alternative lies. He has the grace to see that the world is never perfect and the intelligence to see what the next best thing might be in light of these leader types. 

The nature of belief and what it can bring to the world is a major theme, unsurprisingly in a book called Small Gods. I found it astonishing that while Pratchett is sometimes fiercely critical of the idea of organised religion/a religious state and those that claim to be devout but it never feels like he’s passing judgement. It takes a master of tone to manage to do that.

I know that I have talked more here about ideas then character and story but there is no way that these ideas could be covered so well without the writing being up to scratch. The characters are full and interesting and the plot moves along apace. It’s just fantastic.

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Book 10: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

January 9, 2009 at 1:34 am (Review) (, , , , )

Good Omens is a book about the coming apocalypse written by two people. It could very easily be a total disaster. The tone could be so easily be uneven or awkward to read but it never is. It flows clearly and is very easy to read. The best compliment I can pay it is that you are never concious of it being written by two writers.

It concerns the battle between good and evil on a cosmic and local level. Moving between the machinations of Heaven and Hell and the machinations of those on earth deftly. We are drawn in to the story with an angel (Azirphale) and a demon (Crowley). They are just the tip of quite a sprawling cast of characters that includes the descendant of Agnes Nutter Prophetess, Apocalyptic Horsepersons, a few witchfinders and the Antichrist. As anyone familiar with one or both of the authors’ works would expect the characters are drawn with intellegence and wit. No character ever seems rote or one note. The good are not quite as good as they seem and the bad are not necessarily all that bad. Sometimes the underlining of how people tend to be more grey than black and white can be overdone. I would have liked them to give us all a bit more credit in terms of understanding the motivation of some of the characters.

Good Omens could so easily be a cliche. It manages though to avoid most of the pitfalls of the apocalypse tale, the worst being falling in to a by numbers telling of good battles evil, apocalypse does or does not go ahead, some hero saves the day  and we all live happily ever after. In the case of  Good Omens I’m not sure that there is a hero really or that the day was necessarily saved which for me is part of it’s brilliance. The ambiguity I was hoping for in terms of character is better realised in terms of the story.

The story is frequently laugh out loud funny. I would not recommend reading in a public place because apparently snorting coffee all over yourself is a difficult look to pull off with out looking monumentally stupid or deranged. Deadpan observations about the absurdity of people and life abound and Good Omens would be worth the read for these alone but it’s also worth the read to see a writing experiment go well. It’s not quite a as good as the best Gaiman or Pratchett but it’s still pretty good.

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Book 9: Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson

December 19, 2008 at 11:44 pm (Review) (, , , )

This is an easy read. It is a travelog of Bryson’s trip around Britain prior to his departing sometime in the early 90’s I would estimate. It is light hearted and good natured (which I suspect is probably an apt description of the author). It gently explores the quirks and foibles of Britain’s towns and cities and it is clear that Bryson likes the place a great deal even if some aspects clearly drive him nuts. The most entertaining passages of the book are, predictably, when he is being driven nuts. These occasionally being laugh out loud funny. Even outside of these he manages some interesting and acute observations about British life.

If you are in need of something to read while it is likely that you will be repeatedly and unpleasantly interrupted then this is ideal.

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Book 8: Tar Baby by Toni Morrison

December 16, 2008 at 10:31 pm (Review) (, , , )

This will be short.  I have read a few other novels by Toni Morrison and have read some of her poetry. I have always admired the strength of both her voice and lyricism. The words flow from the page with elegance and grace. You know you’re reading something IMPORTANT, which can some times overwhelm the grace and make it feel a bit portentous.  What I liked about Tar Baby is that it lacked this portentousness and instead had a blunter tone. 

As always Morrison’s examination of race and how it affects each character is interesting and challenges any obvious or easy conclusions. This is the best sort of writing on this subject in that it doesn’t allow people (no matter what their political colour) off the hook for making stupid assumptions about others. It was especially interesting to read this is in the wake of Obama’s victory. It made me wonder had anything really changed at all, I still haven’t figured out the answer.

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Book 7: Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

December 3, 2008 at 8:51 pm (Review) (, , , )

Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favourite books ever. It breaks my heart and uplifts me in a new way every time I read it. So Gentlemen of the Road was going to have a lot to live up to for me and in many respects it does. The story centres round three charachters Zeilkman, who is traumatised by seeing his Mother and sister killed, Amram who has been searching for 20 years for his kidnapped daughter and Fliaq who is seeking revenge for the murder of his family. Amram and Zeilkman attempt to rescue Fliaq’s against he will and become embroiled in a civil war in the Kingdom of the Khazars. It’s a strange, lightly convoluted plot that I enjoyed an awful lot.

This novel is both a road story and an adventure story, with a little bit of Gulliver’s Travels about it in the way that it looks at fictive societies to make a comment about real. Chabon sets it in what feels like our world geographically, there is a nominally middle eastern feel to the location. He uses this to explore how Jews, Muslims and Christians share the land and the divergence in their views and ways of living. This makes comparisons to modern day politics almost impossible to avoid. I think that he is pretty even handed in his attitudes to each group. I know that some people find this sort of fictional commentary off putting but you really shouldn’t in this case because Chabon’s skill as a writer stops it from ever becoming hectoring or belligerent.

If you discount the political/religious aspects the book you are left with a delightful adventure, with all sorts of derring do and spectacular rescues. I love this sort of quasi-fairytale type of fiction. When they are well written like this one I am taken out of myself and the world I inhabit in a way that is like reading when I was a kid. It’s fun to recapture a bit of that magic when you’ve found yourself growing in to a old cynic.

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Book 6: Inishowen By Joseph O’Connor

November 26, 2008 at 8:49 pm (Review) (, , , )

This is a story about an alcoholic detective (Martin Aiken) and an American woman (Ellen Donnelly) who is searching for her mother in Ireland, she was one of the children of an unwed mother sent to America for adoption. Both parties have had recent traumatic experiences and are drowning the emotional fallout caused by them. Obviously their lives become intertwined.

I liked this novel in a general non-specific sort of a way but had a couple of specific problems with it. I found the conceit that drew the two main characters together more than a little contrived, there is a howling coincidence at its heart that I hated a bit. Also there is a little bit to much of ‘oh isn’t Dublin a small place always running in to people’. Dublin is small but the rule in Dublin is if there is someone you’d love to run in to accidentally you will not, ever. However if there is someone you’d like to avoid like herpes then you will meet them, repeatedly in the course of an hour. The book does not adhere to this. 

O’Connor also touches on the oposition between how some Irish born and some Irish Americans felt about the troubles in the North. I’d have liked him to go in to this more but he did what Irish born often do when this comes up with each other and with Americans, which is swiftly drop it and change the subject. I’d have liked this conversation to go on a bit longer, especially since one of the characters clearly has strongly held views on this. I don’t think he quite managed to say what he was trying to. 

Martin Aiken is well created he feels real and complex. A study in someone coming undone that manages not to be maudlin or pitying. Ellen is also well rounded, her motivation understandable my only proviso is that in the circumstances she finds herself I think that some readers will find the idea that she would leave her children unlikely or incomprehensible. Some of the supporting players are well drawn, the best of which is Lee, Ellen’s son. O’Connor creates a very convincing teenage boy. Less convincing is her husband, his internal life never seems consistent to me he doesn’t feel fully formed. 

At times O’Connor writes dialogue in the Dublin accent. Normally I find writing in accent brain scrapeingly annoying but it’s not that bad in this because O’Connor obviously really knows and understands the accent and so it flows well (not as much as when Roddy Doyle does it but well none the less).

Inishowen is worth a read and rips along at a fair pace, with some interesting characters. The twist you will likely see coming a mile off but in the context it doesn’t matter much as it’s less about the plot and more about characters. 

As a side note Inishowen is a small place in Donegal that is incredibly beautiful and feels like the very end of the world. If you get a chance go there.

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