Wednesday, June 21, 2006

REVIEW: ‘Millions Of Women Are Waiting To Meet You’ by Sean Thomas

Asked by Men’s Health magazine to write an article on internet dating, Thomas did so, and wrote this book to tell all. As you’d expect, it’s pretty funny in places (certainly aided by his candour), but it’s also surprisingly touching in others, and even insightful when he thinks about exactly what in his life has made him like certain things in women (height, income etc), and not like others. Would that we could all think this over so well.

However, a few niggles, and they’re petty-ish, but they broke the flow of reading, which is always irritating; Thomas (or his editor), like many people, doesn’t seem to realise that ‘infer’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘imply’ (and it’s always embarrassing when people use it wrongly – better not to use it at all,I feel), and there are several typos, the worst of which is where the name of a girl referred to several pages previously is wrongly substituted for that of his current girlfriend. As I say, minorish things, but they break the spell of reading, and whilst I’ve come to accept that UK reprints of USA-originated novels aren’t going to bother correcting spellings of ‘color’ and the like, I think a book from the UK ought to be better proof-read than this. Hmph.

Hmph-ing aside, it’s a pretty good read – Thomas is likable and honest, and his musings on certain sexual peccadilloes are both frank and funny. Worth a look, though it probably gives away a few things about male thinking which women would rather not hear confirmed (as much as they suspect them to be true).

… Night-Time in the City.

The other night, I went to the British Museum to see their exhibition of Michelangelo drawings (splendid – even the man’s rough sketches are technically skilled, and there’s something about standing and realising you’re mere inches away from the original sketch of the Hand of God). The exhibition’s been very popular (and if you get the chance to see it before it ends this weekend, I heartily recommend it, but the short deadline’s the reason why I’m not reviewing it fully), and thus the Museum was open until midnight.

So I turned up for my timeslot just after 9pm, and I ascended the unusually people-free steps, going into the foyer where two musicians (one violinist, one cellist) were playing classical music, and then on to the Great Hall where they were serving food, before seeing the exhibition. And as I came out an hour or two later with a contented grin on my face, once again marvelling at the things which are available to me in London, I decided to take a picture of the Museum building.

And that, my friend, is the picture above and to the left of these words.

REVIEW: ‘The Final Solution’ by Michael Chabon

A very short novel from Pulitzer-Prize winning author Chabon, this features a mystery in a small English village in the last years of World War II. It’s investigated by an old man who used to be a detective, but now more concerned with looking after his bees. If you don’t know who I’m referring to by now (and the book doesn’t name him) … well, then you might not appreciate it as much as I did, I guess. And frankly shame on you.

Anyway, as I say it’s a short book (126 pages), which means you can rattle through it quickly (an afternoon was enough for me), but it’s a good one, with some nice bits of characterisation and a good sense of pace, as well as a genuine feeling that WWII looms over the action like a shadow. In the paperback, there’s also an additional section containing an interview with the author, in which he makes a reasoned (not to say spirited) argument in favour of genre fiction. As Chabon won his Pulitzer for a book covering superheroes and the history of American comics, and this latest book is a murder mystery, I’d say he was well-placed to comment on, and argue about, this issue, but this may be because I agree with him wholeheartedly.

In terms of value for your money, this is pretty poor (£6.99 for 140 pages or so), so you might well want to see about getting a library copy, but I recommend you do so, as it’s a very good read. And I recommend mulling over Chabon’s comments about genre as well.

Something Happened!*

For those of us in the UK, the first series of ‘Prison Break’ ended the other week. In case you haven’t seen the show, the basic premise runs thus: a man is accused of murdering the Vice President of the USA, and his younger brother, convinced of his guilt, gets hold of the plans to the prison, has them tattooed on his body, and then gets jailed so he can break out with his sibling.

Yes, it does sound fairly preposterous – and indeed it often is – but I suddenly realised that the reason why I’ll be watching Prison Break when it returns is the opposite of the reason why I found the end of the first series of ‘Lost’ so irritating: something happened.

It’s a common problem in TV series – they want to keep you interested, so they set up an attention-grabbing premise or plotline, but network and business needs require that they endlessly play Scheherazade and refuse to resolve the tease. It’s all foreplay, basically. And I’m not knocking foreplay – it’s just there’s a reason why the first consonant of the word is what it is.

And whilst Lost lost (…) my interest by virtue of its refusal to answer many of its own questions, Prison Break had characters die, situations change, and all the things that made it worth watching because it was far from predictable what was going to happen next. Indeed, in places it looked like the writers were playing Consequences, seeing what the next episode’s writer would do to get out of the jam they were in, but the way plot threads faded and reappeared makes me think it was far more organised than that.

It’s a simple enough requirement in a story, I think, that something actually occur, or that the writer(s) have the nerve to make good on at least some of the promises implicit in the set-up, but it often seems to be one which TV serials are reluctant to do, in the belief that a promising status quo is what the viewer wants; for me, that’s not the case, and there’s little I like more when watching a TV show which actually dares to deliver the punchline which its setup promised (finding out who the killer was in Twin Peaks, for example), or which has twists of events which you didn’t expect at all (Spooks episode 2, for example, but more importantly Buffy on an impressive number of occasions).

I may be getting old-fashioned in my approach to things narrative-based, but as all stories involve the creator convincing the audience that these made-up-things in some way ‘matter’ and are worthy of their time and attention, I think it’s implied in that that if the audience spends time and effort following the story, that the creator will in some way reward that. And in TV, it seems that’s almost unfashionable (‘Life on Mars’, I’m looking at you), which I think is a shame.

Not least because it means I get increasingly wary of starting to watch a series in case it just strings me along to no narrative purpose.

*Apologies to Joseph Heller

REVIEW: ‘Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail’ by Christopher Dawes

Pretty much as the title suggests, this book is about the quest by former drummer in The Damned, Rat Scabies, to find the Holy Grail – specifically by looking into the mysteries surrounding the small French village of Rennes-le-Chateau.

Dawes, a former music journalist and friend of Scabies, gets drawn into this despite his reluctance, and writes about it well; his prĂ©cis of the Berenger Sauniere mystery is admirably succinct, and saves the reader the trouble of reading the Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln book on the same theme, as it’s summarised in about a dozen pages. He does well at explaining the whole bloodline-Merovingians-Poussin-Plantard tangle, though he’s sceptical about it all (rightly, to my mind).

The back cover of this book suggests it’s a ‘testament to the bizarre nature of friendship’, which I wouldn’t wholly go along with, but if you want to have a fun read, this certainly fits the bill.

How to think Stray Thoughts and influence people

  1. Just in case you haven’t checked it out yet, I once again recommend you check out The Writing Factory, a blog written by a friend of mine. It’s frequently sharp and insightful, and definitely worth a look. Go on, click on the link in the column to the right– you know you want to…
  2. Currently on the turntable chez moi: the new albums by Jewel and The Divine Comedy, as well as selected Scott Walker CDs. Have you heard Scott’s Jacques Brel covers ? I hadn’t until recently, but when I did … well, they felt familiar, like songs I already knew, or had been waiting to hear all my life. Terrific stuff.
  3. Speaking of things musical, and as this is Stray Thought 3, I think it’s a very silly state of affairs that the forthcoming Meat Loaf album ‘Bat Out of Hell III’ features a minimal input from Jim Steinman, who wrote, produced and generally sorted out Bats 1 and 2. It’s a matter of obvious historical record that Loaf’s non-Steinman written stuff has attracted less acclaim and fewer sales, so it seems a bit cheap to use the Bat element in an attempt to bolster up sales of a CD which has virtually no connection with the ones in the same ‘series’. You might well think I’m oddly concerned about this, but – and this appals most people when they first find it out – I think Jim Steinman is a great and distinctive songwriter, and that it’s a pretty transparent attempt to leech off past glories to call the forthcoming album Bat III. And I have a suspicion that much of the coverage of it will say as much. Keep an eye out for that in a few months, if not for the album itself.
  4. As a friend of mine pointed out, the US Government’s claim that recent suicides in Guantanamo Bay were ‘asymmetrical acts of war’ do rather echo the Monty Python line that ‘a murder is only an extroverted suicide’. And they ring even less true coming as they did mere days after the US had proudly displayed photos of the body of a member of Al-Qaeda, which is, er, kind of barbaric, isn’t it? There may well be some truth to the fact that the Guantanamo detainees knew their deaths would make them martyrs, but that’s absolutely beside the point when you recall they were being held without charge or trial, in contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Call me a bleeding heart, but if you think it’s okay for people to be arrested and detained in a location without access to lawyers or family contact without being charged with any recognisably criminal offence, I would respectfully suggest that you google the name ‘Pastor Niemoller’.
  5. I’ve been doing some personal writing recently – a poem to write and read at a friends’ event, and an intergenerational collaboration for a family member – and it’s been rather strange to finish off these pieces of writing and realise just how different my mindset has been when I’ve been working to a genuine, immovable deadline; it’s made it feel more real somehow, and so there’s more of a sense of momentum to the writings. Very interesting, and really rather fun…

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Baron jour-apres-Samedi

As many of you may know, I have an attachment to the character of Batman which, whenever I try to explain it, makes people look at me like I'm insane. Better, I often think, that they see it as a symptom of immaturity than some deeper psychological aberration. Anyway, I like Batman a lot, for whatever reason.

Which is why, this afternoon in London's Horniman Museum (oh, stop that), I was interested when I looked at a Haitian Voudou tableau to see an element which I recognised... just there, to the left of the scary-doll's hand, is what I believe to be the top of a Batman Pez dispenser.

Now, I've long believed there's a case to be made for Batman being a modern night-god character like Puck or Loki (as opposed to Superman, the sun-charged Apollo character), and I know that Batman and other superheroes are often used as sigils or servitors in Chaos Magick, but I think this is the first time I've seen the character used so directly in a religious context.

Unless, of course, the Voudou tableau was intending to invoke not the Bat, but the Pez aspect of things, that one's enemies might find their head hinging back and a rather chalky sweet emerging from the epiglottis. But in comparison with that, my theory suddenly looks rather more plausible, doesn't it ?

It’s not for me, it’s for a friend…

… honest. Those of you who check this page regularly will by now be used to my frequent requests for sponsorship, but in a pleasant change from the norm, this is a request for sponsorship for someone else.

My friend Debs from Radio Forest is taking part in the 5km Race for Life on July 2nd, to raise funds for Cancer Research UK. A worthy cause, obviously, and as I can vouch for Debs as a good egg, I’d politely ask that you be so kind as to click on the following link and sponsor her. It’s one of those nifty secure sites where you can donate or sponsor from the comfort of your own arse. I know, wonderful what they can do nowadays, isn’t it?

Here be the link:
Go clicky, I prithee, and blessed be for your kindness.