Monthly Archives: July 2012

Evil Machines, by Terry Jones

What if you had a telephone that related not what you spoke but what you thought? What if bicycles carried out bank robberies? What if an elevator took you where you needed to go instead of where you wanted to go?  That’s the premise of a just a few of the entries in Evil Machines, where most normally inanimate objects live up to the book’s title.

It starts off as a collection of short stories: a woman gets a truth-telling telephone; a department store elevator captures a New Mexican bandit; two motorbikes and a bicycle form a gang; a preacher’s car kidnaps people. About halfway through, though, a train takes a businessman on an unexpected journey and all of the stories start linking together. Instead of a collection of thematically linked short stories, the book becomes a novella with a few set-up chapters. Not to say it doesn’t work – it does – but it was a little bit jarring to expect a new story and instead get a new chapter.

The humor and sense of ridiculousness you’d expect from Terry Jones is all there. There were many laugh-out-loud moments for me (why is Swindon so funny?). It’s got a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it; most of the stories feel like they’re set in the 1960s or so, certainly not in the present day. There’s an attention to brand names, but they’re treated like proper names for the machines, not as a status detail (Steig Larsson, I’m looking at you). The writing, overall, is clear and quirky and quick.

I also want to give a shout-out to the publisher, because they’re a relatively new thing: Unbound. It’s kind of like Kickstarter for books, where you donate to the projects you want to see published and if the necessary funds are raised (if there’s enough demand) the book becomes a reality. Ultimately it may even be sold in high street stores – I got this one at Waterstones. And of course donators and supporters get their names in the acknowledgements. I think it’s awesome in many ways, not least because I now have a fun hardcover of Terry Jones stories.

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The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

There’s a bit of trend right now of explaining complex and lengthy topics using a specific number of short examples. I was first aware of it from “A History of the World in 100 Objects” where one of the British Museum curators picked 100 items from the BM’s collection that he felt best represented the scope of world history. (It’s a great podcast, and I learned a lot about non-European history while listening to it. It’s still available for download from the BBC, too.) Since then, I’ve seen several other “history of x in x objects” things, including a podcast called “Shakespeare’s Restless World” which is basically “The History of Shakespeare’s London in 20 Objects” or however long it ends up being.

And there’s this, The Story of English in 100 Words, which basically does the same thing as AHOTW, but with the English language in place of world history and with words instead of objects. David Crystal starts at the very beginning – or one of the recorded beginnings – of language in the British Isles, with what we know of Celtic, and goes through the words until he reaches the twenty-first century and “twittersphere”.

The most interesting thing about this book, besides just the etymological information about the words (“warrant” and “guarantee” share a ultimate derivation, but entered English at different times, for example) is its mix of cultural history and etymology. There’s history on the individual words, sure, but a lot of the words are picked not for themselves, but for the type of word they are. This word is from Church Latin, for example, and here are some of the other words that came in about the same time and for the same reasons. This word has shifted meaning for cultural and social reasons, and here are some other examples of how this happens. It’s not just a history of these particular words; it’s a history of how English has worked over the years.

Of course, with a combination of cultural history, linguistic history, and specific etymologies, there are only two ways you can go: ridiculously dense or skimming over the top. This book chooses the latter option. It’s definitely the right choice, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the lack of depth in some entries. There were times when I wanted etymology but got history, or wanted history but got etymology. But that’s my problem, not the book’s.

If you like bite-sized history, if you like words and stories and stories about words, if you are at all interested in English, this book is a good gateway. An introduction to the craziness that is English grammar and orthography, and the way that people have treated both of them over the years.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes

I can’t quite get a handle on Julian Barnes’s writing. I enjoyed England, England despite the lack of any sympathetic characters; I couldn’t get more than a few pages into Flaubert’s Parrot before it started annoying me so much that I had to stop.  Arthur and George sucked me in, but I’m not sure how much of that is the “true story/true crime” nature of it, the interactions with historically familiar people and places, and how much of it is Julian Barnes’s writing. I fear it is the former.

Arthur and George relates the personal histories of Arthur and George up to the point where their lives intersect. George is the son of a vicar who grows up to be a solicitor and a minor expert in railway law. Arthur is the son of an Edinburgh landlady who grows up to be an ophthalmologist and, eventually, a writer of popular stories.

George is accused and ultimately convicted of mutilating horses and serves three years in prison before being released on probation. He and the reader know that he didn’t do it – in fact, it’s basically physically impossible for him to have done it – and he spends the years after his release applying to everyone he can think of to gain a free pardon. He even writes to Arthur, the famous novelist, who has been emotionally dead since his wife’s death and throws himself into this cause with Sherlock Holmes-like vigour and attention. George is pardoned but not compensated, but even more than that, Arthur’s friendship brings him back into society.

Barnes is coy about the key identifying points of his protagonists, which is probably more effective if you don’t go in knowing those details. I did, though – and they’re in almost every review, including the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on Amazon – so I found the avoidance of those details, and especially the way George’s reveal seemed almost forced in (Let’s have a scene specifically to reveal this point!), really awkward and false.

I also found Barnes’s style very unemotional, matter-of-fact. Some of that may have been George’s personality – he came across as having an almost autistic detachment from other people, including his family, and an insistence on accuracy that serves him well as a solicitor but less well as a defendant. Arthur, on the other hand, is supposed to be relatively passionate, and I always felt distanced from him, and from everything that was happening to and around him. I’m not sure I was supposed to; I’m pretty sure I didn’t really like that feeling.

So I’m on the fence about Julian Barnes. I have yet to read The Sense of an Ending, which for some reason is listed as non-fiction in the bibliography at the end of my copy of Arthur and George – maybe that will help me make up my mind.

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Filed under General Fiction, Historical

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I was recommended this book by BrittanyBrittanyBrittany, who described it – as many of the reviews have – as “Harry Potter for grownups”. In some ways, that’s true, but it manages to get past that and become absolutely its own book, where the only thing it has in common with Rowling’s world is the existence of a magical school, and a group of friends who have to save the world.

But the major difference between The Magicians and Harry Potter is that Brakebills is a college, with college-age students and all the accompanying “freedom from parents” activities that go along with going to university and becoming an adult, while Hogwarts is a prep school, where the students grow up but are still very structured and regulated. There’s a lot of sex and drinking in this book, both at Brakebills as people negotiate their place in whatever social group they end up in and afterwards as a way to stave off the boredom of real life and as an effort for Quentin, the main character, to establish some sort of sense and meaning.

For much of his time before and at Brakebills, Quentin reminded me of myself. Not with the sex and the drinking – okay, maybe a little with the drinking – but with his general outlook and understanding of his situation. Quentin, like me, didn’t dream of a future beyond university, didn’t have a life goal outside of education. He could do, potentially, everything, and therefore ended up doing essentially nothing.

(I didn’t do nothing, but I have spent most of the last ten years not knowing what I was going to be working towards next. Because I can do almost anything, because I have so many potential choices, I find it difficult to focus on any one thing, constantly terrified that I’ve picked the wrong thing to focus on and I would really be happier and more satisfied if I went in this direction, but now I’ve spent so much time on this that I haven’t been able to do that…. and that’s how I end up with teaching experience but no teaching qualifications, a couple of years in mind-numbing retail, and a hard drive filled with lists of ideas, half-begun stories, and manuscripts waiting for revision….)

The part that rang most true for me was the description of the last semester at Brakebills, where Quentin and Alice oscillate between a fierce desire to cling on to familiarity and eke every last experience and memory out of Luther   Brakebills, and a desperate chafing at the restrictions and requirements and an almost angry impatience to start their “real lives.” It’s the best, most accurate depiction of senioritis I’ve ever read.

But Brakebills is only the beginning, of course. There are other dimensions, other worlds, and eventually our group goes to visit one, a Narnia-type place without (as far as I know) the blatant Christian parallels. They fight, they die (or nearly die), and Quentin, at least, learns that you can either engage fully with the world or disengage fully from it – there are no half-measures if you want to survive.

There are only two loose ends for me in this book. The first one is not very significant, I think: what is Quentin’s Discipline? I don’t really think the answer to this is essential – it’s ultimately just another way to categorize and/or isolate people, after all. It strikes me as something only marginally more self-defining than your stated major in college. It may affect how you do things in the wider world, but it doesn’t necessarily affect what you do.

The second lose end is Julia, Quentin’s adolescent crush who failed the Brakebills entrance exam and the subsequent memory wipe. If she hadn’t reappeared, begging for help, I probably would have forgotten about her, as Quentin had nearly forgotten about her, as you tend to forget about high school friends whose life experiences end up so radically different from your own. But she did reappear, and her story wasn’t really resolved, so the niggling question of “what happened to Julia” persists. (I did look at a blurb about the sequel, The Magician King, and it seems she’ll reappear there.)

It’s a very, very good book. It is not Harry Potter (in fact, it takes a few pains to point out that fact) – it’s a book for adults and possibly young adults rather than children. I wouldn’t give it to a 13-year-old. I might to a 16-year-old, as long as I didn’t think it would horribly depress and discourage them. It was captivating, a tiny notch lower on my personal absorption scale than Ready Player One and The Name of the Wind – but only a tiny notch. I am already actively seeking a copy of The Magician King. (And Codex, by the same author but not in the same storyworld, looks very interesting as well….)

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