Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Tag: books

Norse Mythology

I remember as a boy my father introducing me to myths of the Norse gods. Although they were told to me as pure fiction, they resonated with an identical primal, religious truth to the Biblical stories that pervaded my Catholic upbringing. Over time I developed a more nuanced understanding of fiction not merely as a vehicle for entertainment but a purveyor of deeper truths. Nowhere is that truer than with tales that transcend a single telling and earn the loftier title of myth. The difference may be nothing more than that they are a mongrel amalgamation of retellings, more powerful than any single story or storyteller.

Neil Gaiman’s work has always been infused with the ancient myths, particularly his most literary works, The Sandman and American Gods. Now he is releasing his retelling of the tales with which I (and he) grew up in a volume titled simply Norse Mythology. The muted black and gold cover feels less fantastic than the artwork adorning his past fictions and the black-edged paper of the signed first edition produces a sombre, earthy tome. Mjöllnir weighs heavily on the cover though the book thankfully lacks its heft.

Of course, another Gaiman book meant an another launch event and another chance to hear him speak, this time in a packed out auditorium at the Southbank Centre. The larger audience meant that the evening was host to some big announcements. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Gaiman chose to open with a reading not of the topical tale of The Master Builder (which he paraphrased as Odin deciding to build a wall around Asgard to keep the frost giants out and, essentially, making them pay for it…) but rather with Freya’s Unusual Wedding. His respect for the oral tradition that begat these tales is evident in the punchy short sentences and in the humour that suffuses his versions. They originated, he noted, in an oppressive part of the world where in the summer the sun barely set and in the winter it barely rose — in either case the solution was to get drunk and tell stories round the fire. These are stories that deserve to be told out loud.

When asked what stories he thought he would survive in the next thousand years, he saw limitation in the fact we tend to read rather than speak and retell our biggest stories. Whilst he would love to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy still being read, it would require similar study to reading Shakespeare to unpack a simple joke about digital watches and their relevance at a specific point in time during the transition from analogue to digital. Which would almost certainly ruin the joke. Instead, he decided he would be happy if, in another thousand years, we were still telling the Norse myths. Perhaps we are in an age when we contribute new ideas to an existing canon of characters and keep them moving forward, polishing, refreshing and renewing them. Think of comicbook superheroes updated for each decade, Sherlock reborn in the modern world. Gaiman himself has done so with The Sandman‘s Dream and Death being touchstones for countless modern writers exploring those same Eternal characters.

He revealed a considerable amount on various other projects too, With a lot of his work being translated into other media, it’s a great time to be a fan of his work. We saw the latest trailer for the forthcoming Starz adaptation of American Gods (which is likely to be released through Amazon Prime in the UK). Meanwhile the Good Omens film is progressing, with a director to be selected in the next month or two, followed by casting. He mused on the emotional experience of writing those characters without his co-author Pratchett to call on, a film that he wanted to see made but will never get to view. A bigger surprise was a previously unscreened trailer for an adaptation of the short story How To Talk To Girls At Parties. The story drew from his proto-punk youth in 1970s Croydon which is readily apparent on screen. It is due to be released this summer and the cast includes Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman and Matt Lucas. Hopefully you will see the trailer before too long, once it is polished and the sound mix finalised.

However the biggest news of the night, on which the event closed, was a simplest. Gaiman revealed that he is now a solid three chapters into writing The Seven Sisters, the sequel to Neverwhere. Cue raucous cheers and applause. It was only right that he reveal it here in London. The city has changed in the 20 years since Neverwhere, and it’s high time we returned Below.

The View From The Cheap Seats

The View From The Cheap Seats

“I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”

—Neil Gaiman, The View From The Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman may be best known for a mind that weaves together the fantastic and the mundane in fiction but, over a career of some forty years as a writer, all the articles and introductions and speeches and essays and interviews start to add up. The View From The Cheap Seats is a hefty selection of these non-fiction works, weighing in at over 500 pages. Fittingly for the title, I find myself sat up near the rafters gazing down at a beautifully lit church, the stage simply dressed and focused around two seats. Although I saw Neil speak last year around the launch of his short story collection Trigger Warning, being in the Union Chapel drew to the surface a very different memory from seven years ago. Neil reminisces about the same night, noting that he had not sung in public since his teenage punk years until, on the second of her two nights there, his girlfriend Amanda Palmer forced him to sing with her. This time round they are married, he introduces their baby boy to the crowd and then, in fitting role-reversal, has  Amanda open with a song before he takes to the stage.

The Union ChapelDiscussing the purpose of the collection early on, Neil explains earnestly that if the reader picks up the work of just one of the many authors or musicians mentioned within then the book was worthwhile. The book is, in essence, an exploration of what Neil cares about, be it people, ideas, the literary world or the written word itself. It contains around a dozen introductions that Neil has written for other people’s work. The generosity with which he writes these stems from the desire to bring works he likes to a new audience. He also mentions a disgruntled Amanda Palmer fan who, on discovering that they were dating, bemoaned “How can she be going out with him? He’s written more introductions than books!” Not quite as scathing an insult as may have been intended — introductions are, Neil points out wryly, much shorter.

The most interesting points arising from the night relate to the proximity of art and reality. An audience member asks how often he steals ideas from real events. The answer, as any writer will know, is constantly. Neil responds that, although he always worries he might be discovered a fraud with no imagination (unlikely!), writing fiction swiftly teaches one not to feel guilty about such theft from reality else one would be forever feeling guilty. I tend to approach it from the opposite angle: writing non-fiction swiftly teaches a writer that there is fiction in everything, whether it is true or not. Scientists may take umbrage with this statement but, even when one attempts to present facts alone, the inevitable resulting oversimplification is itself a fiction.

Neil repeats an analogy offered by Amanda when comparing her almost autobiographical discography to Neil’s veiled facsimiles of places or himself. She described the process as having a blender into which they pour themselves. The difference, she said, is that she presses the button for only a second so there are still big identifiable lumps, whilst Neil holds it down for much longer crafting a more evenly blended product that is no less real. Although I write this very blog, I have often commented that several of the fictional Shards elsewhere on the site contain the truest things I have ever written about myself. It may be shrouded — blended, if you prefer — but it is there for those who wish to look. And honestly, I think it is always those kernels of truth (rather than the fiction within which they reside) that draw people in when they identify with a Shard. Fiction is simply a medium through which one can convey a truth and, perhaps, the most nuanced one we have.

The View From The Cheap Seats

Reading Out Loud

I mentioned recently that I was reading The Graveyard Book to the kids (and Jenna) in the States. This inspired the aged photo here, having realised how much the young Bod is like Clark. Sadly I was too slow with recording the remaining chapters so Jenna and Karleigh gave in and continued reading themselves — disappointing, but not exactly unexpected.

As I mentioned to Jenna at the time, I really miss the opportunity to read out loud. I would occasionally read aloud to Kirsten while we were together, and even at school I liked the experience of bringing apparently dull words to life. There is something — not quite primal, but at the very least tribal — about the act of storytelling. It is an interactive form of entertainment in which both the storyteller and audience are complicit in conjuring a world from nothing; neither can operate alone since one can only inspire the imagination of another, not control it. It is, naturally, more rewarding if you can see the reaction from your audience as you progress (and that may in turn inform your own narration) but the Atlantic still has much for which it must answer.

So a new question: what else would people recommend as good children’s books I could read? Ideally these would be either British or older books which they otherwise might not come across, as Jenna will undoubtedly have a readily available stream of recent home-grown fiction to read Karleigh. And nothing that falls into the horrific apparently-this-is-now-a-genre-with-an-entire-shelf of “Teen Supernatural Romance”. I already have the first in mind (which I had been intending to buy for Karleigh in a year and a half or so, for her to read herself): the first of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci novels, Charmed Life, which struck a chord with me as a boy when I first listened to it as an audiobook (or rather overheard it while my mother was listening).

Things I Nearly Forgot To Say Before Christmas

Christmas is almost upon us, and I nearly forgot to mention this year’s Child’s Play drive. For those unfamiliar, it is the gamers’ charity, started by Penny Arcade, which you can support by purchasing toys and videogames requested by participating children’s hospitals. Sadly the remaining items on the list for the UK’s Alder Hey Hospital are now unavailable, but might I suggest New Orleans as an alternative target for your generosity? Contributions so far have demolished the $1 million target, but that’s no reason to slow down.

You will by now have heard that Rage Against The Machine successfully won the close-fought chart battle to take the Christmas #1 spot. While it’s festive nature may be questionable, I must admit the news has left me feeling significantly more Christmassy than the alternative regurgitated ballad that I fear risks inducing narcolepsy and suicidal tendencies in equal measures (note: this is not an attack on Joe, who seems like a perfectly good singer and took defeat rather graciously in the end; it’s just an attack on the insipid song forced upon him). The real victory behind this is that it exposed many consumers to the wealth of legal music download services available beyond iTunes. Particularly since price comparisons were shown, it will have given many their first exposure to the great 7digital amongst others. Hopefully this will not only push people towards these services in general, but also make them savvy to shopping around rather than just lazily buying through iTunes.

And finally a few links gathering dust over the past couple of weeks:

  • “Torrents and the TARDIS”: an article on BBC America closing the gap between UK and US airings of Doctor Who, and the resulting effect on viewership and illegal downloads.
  • 61 Free Apps We’re Most Thankful For: Lifehacker compiles a grammatically questionable list from reader suggestions on the current best free software.
  • Beat The Reaper is the debut novel from Josh Bazell,  a thriller told by an ER doctor/hitman, which I picked up in a Borders book store, heaving with vulture-like people tearing the remaining carrion from its carcass. I quite like (and agree) with the Amazon reviewer who described it as a cross between The Sopranos, Scrubs and Quentin Tarantino. Meanwhile I stalled reading Chuck Klosterman’s collection of pop culture essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs because we fell out when he attempted to write a piece on Vanilla Sky without even mentioning Open Your Eyes.
  • Rainmeter v1.1 is now available, a more user-friendly release of the great tool for desktop customisation with various meters and widgets. I’m currently running a modified version of the Enigma desktop. Sleek but certainly less minimalist than my desktop has been in the past, it offers a wealth of information as soon as I boot up including email, calendar notifications and the latest news.

And, of course, have a Merry Christmas. I’ll be working up until Christmas Eve so the holiday will likely take me by surprise. Hopefully not so much of a surprise that the snow prevents me from getting back to Croydon though.

Austen Improvements

Many readers now consume these blog entries purely via the RSS feed or through Facebook. It’s certainly great for ease but there are a few benefits lost by not visiting the site itself. The first is just that it’s prettier. The posts are obviously designed to be viewed within the site’s layout and some formatting may be lost depending on your reader’s ability to interpret CSS. And then there are the extras like the Twitter stream in the sidebar with three short bursts of continually changing content, for those who don’t actually use Twitter, not to mention the ability to quickly access other areas of the site. I briefly considered reducing the feed to an excerpt with a link to the full post so that people would be notified of updates but still visit the site. After consideration I am not going to do that and nor will I in future. As a consumer myself I feel it should be up to the user how they choose to access their web content and it should be made available in the widest possible way.

On the subject of Twitter, I recently stumbled across the formula for evaluating those narcissistic Twittering celebrities (celebritwits?) — you know, the self-obsessed ones who treat it like a personal fanclub rather than any form of social dialogue. My count of those I can stand has risen to three: Neil Gaiman is still there, of course, along with Jimmy Carr (whose posts often feel like free stand-up snippets) and Amanda Palmer (who provides gems like this). Interestingly none of them made the list…

For those who always felt Jane Austen’s novels were missing that one little thing on which you could never quite put your finger, at last you can put your mind to rest. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies rectifies the novel’s surprisingly obvious flaw with panache brains! As it opens, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” How true. It is available from Amazon.

And those crazy Russians have surpassed themselves once more with a fantastic psychological experiment called Mars 500 that aims to study the feasibility of manned spaceflight to Mars. Locking six volunteers up in a series of cramped, interconnected cylinders for three months, the effects of isolation and confinement in close quarters will be carefully monitored. With current propulsion technology a trip to Mars would actually take closer to two years, but if this experiment is  successful, a longer one is planned. Perhaps stranger is that this bizarre “opportunity” attracted 6,000 applicants from 40 countries!

American Musings

While the photos are being sorted out, here are some miscellaneous musings from my trip…

I had always assumed one of the drawbacks to city living in somewhere like London was the background noise — an incessant din which prevails throughout the night. Imagine my surprise to find that the comparably insignificant town of Natchez (and even Baton Rouge on some nights) was far louder outside, with a near deafening roar from cicadas in particular, as well as creatures of that ilk. Cicadas are particularly loud insects since their “singing” is not produced by rubbing parts of their body, but rather through clicking “timbals” in their exoskeleton, the sound being amplified by using their body as a resonance chamber.

The Coca Cola issue has become more severe now that I drink it more regularly in the UK, to the point where I actually have to avoid it in the States. Most Americans are sadly (blissfully?) unaware that they are given worse Coke than anywhere else in the world. In fairness, regular travellers aside, the rest of the world is largely unaware that US Coke is so bad either. The reason is that proper Coca Cola is sugar based, but the US variety is made with cheaper corn syrup instead. This actually spans to most soft drinks there, but the flavour is particularly noticeable in cola. You have been warned. And Americans, come try the good stuff!

Jenna and I share similar views when it comes to children’s books, both disliking the majority of modern drivel which is thrown at kids on the basis that so long as they are reading it’s a good thing. In fact bad books can even stifle their imaginations. For example Karleigh produces all sorts of stories when playing with her toy ponies but in the bookstore, were one to cave to her whims and buy the branded tie-in pony books, she tends towards reproducing the basic stories within rather than inventing her own adventures for them.

\Personally there are two things I expect from a good children’s book: inventive originality to develop imagination and avoiding talking down to children. The latter means a decent vocabulary in order to expand the child’s, as well as content with some sort of depth, which sort of ties into the first part. There is a strange idea that children’s stories need to be obvious when in fact children are often more open to parallel imagery than adults. Neil Gaiman’s books for children have always appealed to me since, as an author of adult fiction too, he does not sit down with the goal of just producing a children’s book. Rather he has various ideas some of which suit novels or comics while others work best as children’s books. I was glad to be able to buy a copy of The Wolves in the Walls, a personal favourite, for Karleigh.

On a related note, all parents should carry around notebooks to jot down those wonderful things their child comes out with (and an adult never could). I heard several Karleighisms during my trip that I’ve already forgotten and wish I had written here or elsewhere. The alternative is to attach a dictaphone to your child but that might be considered expensive, time consuming and also slightly creepy.

Free Words ‘n’ Tunes: American Gods and Ghosts

Harper Collins: Browse Inside American GodsI mentioned the idea a while back but never mentioned that the chosen Neil Gaiman book, American Gods, is now available for free though publisher Harper Collins. For those unfamiliar with Neil’s work it’s a fantastic piece of fiction that follows Shadow’s journey across America meeting the old gods brought over to the this melting pot country and then forgotten. It’s slightly heavy but the fact it reached the top of the New York Times’ best seller list is testament to its popularity. If you haven’t read it I thoroughly recommend it.

Nearly as free at the negligable price of £1 is Neil’s new children’s book Odd and the Frost Giants. The story was written for World Book Day where children can trade £1 book vouchers for various titles written by authors who wish to promote reading without making a profit. Of course there is nothing to prevent the rest of us from enjoying this generosity and his children’s fiction tends to be a light, fun read. I’m sure there are several children you can “buy it for”

Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IVOn the theme of free media is Trent Reznor’s release model for the music he’s produced collaborating with a wide range of artists in the latest Nine Inch Nails album. Titled Ghosts I-IV, it is available in no fewer than 5 different packages through his website. Following in the steps of Radiohead there is a completely free offering allowing anyone to download 9 tracks. For the ridiculously low price of $5 one can purchase the full 36-track collection to download. Equally cheap is the $10 2CD release (providing the digipack is as stylish as one expects from NIN) and it also offers immediate access to digital downloads. More expensive is the $75 package with a fabric slipcase and a DVD and blu-ray disc as well as the standard CD album and an art book. Finally the insane signed $300 ultimate package has already sold out (a testament to the fanaticism of the hardcore Nine Inch Nails crowd). Trent has already shown his willingness to embrace new forms of media in releasing and promoting his music but this presents an ideal model for music releases, fully empowering the consumer to choose how they wish to enjoy the product. Naturally it is bigger artists with an established fanbase who can afford to take risks like this, but if he can show it turns a real profit, hopefully we can expect to see more offerings in this style as the music industry struggles to find a new working model.

Ghosts I-IV

January Media

Sort of a follow-up to yesterday’s post, this features the various bits and pieces I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks that are worth sharing. First up is an ingeniously innovative new use of the Nintendo Wii hardware for head tracking, with a great demonstration that ought to impress even those who are not gaming-inclined. Tycho over at Penny Arcade postponed his regular blog post to show off this video, and those who know the site also know he is never one to shut up!

The American cover for The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman’s next book, has been revealed. Of course following the standard trend this means we can expect something completely different here in the UK. His entire back catalogue was re-released in a single style with Anansi Boys a few years ago, with the Fragile Things collection continuing that design. It will be interesting to see if they follow suit with the new book or produce something divergent.

With a lot of buzz hovering around the imminent release of Cloverfield produced by Lost creator JJ Abrams, supposedly reinvigorating the monster film genre, people have apparently forgotten the film he is actually directing. The film in question is Star Trek, a prequel that looks at the roots of Kirk and Spock, and one that will make or break the future of the franchise. The cast list is impressive, including Heroes villain Zachary Quinto (Sylar) as Spock in an inspired piece of casting. Somewhat stranger are comedy actors Simon Pegg and John Cho as Scotty and Sulu respectively. A teaser trailer has now been released which, as is now expected, reveals virtually nothing beyond the exterior of the Enterprise. Hopefully some real footage will emerge before long.

Here at the flat we’ve upgraded our entire wireless network, replacing the old Netgear router with a Belkin wireless N setup. Far more robust and with massively increased bandwidth, this actually allows for smooth wireless streaming of video via the Xbox even in high definition. So yes, that means HD trailers displayed on the Bravia in the living room which looks stunning. Wall-E has actually been the most oft-played for its sheer level of detail in the junkyard sequences. Its left me very keen to get more HD content to play with and with the Blu-ray camp delivering a decisive blow at the beginning of this month at CES, seemingly ending the format war earlier than expected, it’s becoming very difficult to hold back. That is, until one looks at the prices. My wallet whimpers and I go back to looking at DVDs.

Under the Boy Wizard’s Spell

Today I have lots of time to write and no one with whom to talk due to the publication of a certain novel which shall not be named. In fact many of you probably aren’t reading this until tomorrow because you have to hit page 759 before your bodily functions resume regular service. This house now holds enough copies of the book to keep a steady fire burning for the next week (though in this climate why would one wish to?) as all my cousins are avidly consuming chapter after chapter, along with my sister, having picked up the books at midnight. There are also a few spare copies lying around though I did not really understand the explanation. I think it probably had something to do with increased efficiency and literary osmosis. Suffice to say that with most of my family reduced to the status of willing thrall, I now realise just how antisocial an activity reading a book can be.

Under the Boy Wizard's Spell

Karleigh and ChanceOn the other hand it leaves me free to write to you fine people, so at least there’s a silver lining. There is little really to report since we arrived at Monroe. The last leg of the journey involved travelling through a pleasant national park in Virginia and then driving pretty much non-stop until we reached Louisiana, stopping only to eat and sleep. Here we have been relaxing with family in various different ways, from frenetic bouts of Gears of War on the Xbox 360 with Caleb to playing everything under the sun with Karleigh. There has, admittedly, been rather a lot of the latter. After a brief shyness upon our arrival, she now adores the attention particularly upon discovering a stash of old photos and videos of her on my laptop. A very bright three-year-old, she swiftly learned how the computer worked and has already spent hours eagerly watching herself and showing anyone else who will look, now becoming slightly bored by the repetition (and only slightly) so instead demanding that more photos be taken of her to expand the selection available. With my new camera now ordered (the Canon EOS 400D, which here goes by the odd “Digital Rebel” moniker, along with an EF 28-135mm IS lens), this request is unsurprisingly rather likely to be fulfilled.

"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2019 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑