September 22, 2004

Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio

4 out of 5 stars

I've been looking forward to reading this ever since enjoying An Instance of the Fingerpost, and I think I enjoyed it even more... like An Instance of the Fingerpost it involves multiple narratives, but with a different effect. Fingerpost contained four narratives presented consecutively, each giving a different perspective on the same event (a murder). There was a sense in which each narrative superceded the previous one, so that the final account of the murder seemed the most complete.

The Dream of Scipio is arranged differently. It contains the stories of three men living in the same area of France at different points in history, whose stories are connected by their relation to a philosophical manuscript and by their responses to the ethical problems they are confronted with. Rather than being presented consecutively, the three narratives are intermingled so that as the reader you find yourself following the outcomes of three stories at once. Partly because of this approach, The Dream of Scipio emphasises the common features of humans and human problems, whereas An Instance of the Fingerpost said more about the incommensurability of human experience, as its four narrators stood alienated and apart from each other, seemingly incapable of a viewpoint other than their own.

Each of the three men in The Dream of Scipio struggle with issues involving ideals, friendship and betrayal. One character is a Roman noble living in France as the Roman empire is crumbling, another is a Medieval poet living in the panic-stricken Europe of the Black Death, while the third is a French academic living in Vichy France during the occupation. The decisions they make are linked to and informed by a Neoplatonic text "The Dream of Scipio" written by the Roman noble. Because of this aspect, I found that discovering the different characters' final ethical position with regard to this text was more of a shock than uncovering the actual events involved in each story.

September 06, 2004

Philip K Dick – A Scanner Darkly

3 out of 5 stars

I've wanted to read a book by Philip K Dick for a while, having enjoyed the ideas in films like Bladerunner, Total Recall and Minority Report, and on Darren's recommendation, A Scanner Darkly it was.

The story is set in the 90's (the near future when the book was written in 1977) when a mysterious drug called 'Substance D' has become the most popular drug on the market. Substance D is highly addictive and, as it turns out, has a side effect which results in the links between the right and left hemispheres of the brain becoming severed. The central character of the story is a user of Substance D named Bob Arctor, who is also an undercover drugs officer known as 'Fred'. Fred, whose identity is concealed by a 'scanner suit', is ordered to carry out surveillance on Arctor (himself), and as his addiction takes effect he becomes more and more confused about his identity.

There were many things I liked about this book, with some reservations. I thought that the ideas were fantastic – I liked the ambiguity throughout the book as to Bob/Fred's motives for his actions, as he blurs the distinctions between dealers-turned-informants and officers-turned-addicts. I also enjoyed the whole idea of the 'double consciousness within one brain' that is opened up by the idea of the split between the two hemispheres, and thought that the way in which Philip K Dick reflected the progressive effect of this on the protagonist through his writing was very effective.

But despite this, I think that the writing style was my one problem with the book. Although Philip K Dick's prose is great at conveying the thought processes of Bob/Fred, and the noodley drug induced conversations with his friends (which do a wonderful job of being both funny and paranoid at the same time), as the style maintained throughout the whole book it gets a bit wearing – it can sometimes be very clumsy, and is peppered throughout with very dated 70's vocabulary. I'm not sure I'd mind this too much, but I have a tendency to absorb distinctive writing styles into my own interior monologue for a couple of days, and there's nothing like looking at a catalogue and thinking "I don't dig those shoes" to put you off the book responsible.

So, all in all, I think I agree with Vicky's review that I found the writing style a barrier to my enjoyment of some great ideas. Certainly it became less intrusive as the book reached it's concluding stages, when the reader is bombarded with a whole plethora of intriguing notions about perception, identity and mirror images of reality, and the writing becomes less laboured. Perhaps this is why Philip K Dick's books make (or can make, anyway..) such great films, because the real strength of the book is in the ideas rather than the execution, and the loss of the prose when transferred to film doesn't detract from the overall effect. Apparently there is a film of A Scanner Darkly being made at the moment, which will be interesting to see.

September 03, 2004

The… Resolver?

Writing about Every institution needs one from Cubicle 23

According to the BBC test, apparently I'm a resolver. Slightly disconcerting, as it makes me sound like a gravelly-voiced-over Vin Diesel film. They did get one thing right though:

Resolvers like to take risks: Many of them seek jobs and pastimes that put them in harm's way and guarantee an adrenaline rush.

That's mending broken links in a nutshell..

August 31, 2004

Emerging blinking into the bright new light of a dissertationless day

Writing about web page /vickytheay/entry/emily_harding_well/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

Thanks Vicky for your blog entry, and for putting up with the mumbling heap that has been me for the last few weeks/months! And thanks everyone else for your comments on the completion of the aforementioned dissertation!

I think that now I’ve been back at work, it’s finally starting to sink in that it’s finished. Usually, about now, I would be thinking about what I had to write when I got home, when instead I am contemplating the rigorous academic discipline of a pub quiz. How happy am I? Very.

Woohoo!! And woohoo again!!

Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead

4 out of 5 stars

This used to be one of my favourite films, and a little while ago I realised I hadn't watched it for about five years. So, in a spirit of extravagance, I decided to buy the DVD and see what I thought of it now. It's quite strange watching it after all those years, but I still really enjoyed it, so it has been happily incorporated into my dvds without further ado.

It's based on the Tom Stoppard play (Stoppard wrote the screenplay and I think possibly directed it as well) – in fact, it would probably be more accurate to say that this is a filmed version of the play rather than an adaptation, because I think the dialogue is retained more or less word-for-word, and it has a very stagey feel to it. But this isn't a bad thing for me – for some reason I don't have the same objection to films-that-are-really-plays as I do to films-that-are-really-books. By "films-that-are-really-books" I mean books that are filmed with no concessions made to the fact that it is a FILM. The first Harry Potter film would for me be a good example of this, as it stuck so closely to the action of the book that it felt like listening to an audio tape of the book with pictures attached, if that makes sense – I thought that Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, worked well in this respect because it adapted the book in ways that worked better on film. My pedantic nature will not admit of many changes to books, but this is one area where I'm quite happy with it.

To get back to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the reason that this needs to retain its theatrical feel is that the action is set within a play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet, who (if I remember the story correctly) are summoned to find out what's wrong with the Prince, ordered to take him to England, and (due to Hamlet's cunning plan) are executed in his place. The title of the film comes from the last act of Hamlet, in which the English Ambassador announces to the assembled corpses that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead".

The conceit of the film is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are brought to life purely in order to fulfill their roles in the play. They find themselves travelling, with no memory other than that they "were sent for", and have to piece together what is going on once they are thrown into the action of Hamlet. Unfortunately, they never really manage this - the limited amount of dialogue they hear as minor characters means that events are always moving one step ahead of them. This film works best if you know the play Hamlet reasonably well, as half the pleasure is watching these two characters misinterpreting the events around them, while as the audience knowing perfectly well what's going on (pathetic fallacy, I think it's called, or the "He's behind you!" syndrome). But it is also just good to watch the characters interacting as a great double act – playing word tennis, inventing the steam engine, and trying to remember their names. But as the title suggests, in the end they cannot escape their fate. It's a tough life for minor characters.

"Luck, or fate?"
"I don't believe in luck."
"Fate then."
"Mine or yours?"
"It could hardly be one without the other".

Conclusion of the day: Shakespeare is Fate.

August 13, 2004

Gamesmanship: the meta–sport

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

Well, the least said about my bowling ability the better… the best it can be called is "random", by which I do not necessarily mean that it was occasionally good, just that it was bad in randomly diverse ways.

However! I wish to suggest that the true joy of the games is not in the competition events themselves, but in the complex web of competing narratives that are already sprouting merrily like so many productive vines from the rich soil of sporting activity.

Vicky has put forward the case that Darren's repeated use of the 'best-of-three' tactic is both devious and underhand, and has begun to use terms such as "contravention of implied game duration" and "proto-fascist one-man coup" to describe his actions.

Darren has appointed himself member of an ad-hoc tournament council, which he then appealed to for a judgment on Vicky's commentary, and whether it indeed represented a slanderous statement bringing his good character into disrepute. He is already planning the political manoeuvrings and bribery essential to blocking Vicky's counter-appeal.

I feel that all this shows a commendable enthusiasm on both sides to enter into the true spirit of competitive sport, and I am considering the possiblility of introducing a "silver tongue" award for the competitor who produces the most outrageous verbal embellishments to their own, or others, success (or lack of it).

A games tournament without an appeal to the perspectival nature of truth is like a fish without a bicycle – capable of smoother progression, but not nearly as entertaining.

August 05, 2004

Why someone needs to invent the hover trolley

I realised for the first time today why it is absolutely necessary, imperative and unavoidable that I drive my car into university. Not because I am lazy and incapable of getting up in time to catch the bus (although I am both of these things) – no, my car's primary role in life is that of glorified storage locker. Darren dropped me off at the gym this morning before going on a separate mission of his own, and it was only when I left the gym and walked hopefully towards car park 8 that I realised the full implications of no car: I had to walk to Westwood carrying my bags.

Now, this may not sound particularly horrific, but in my defence there were three bags, one of them full of wet towels, clothes & a hairdryer (still not sure if that's a healthy mix, electrically speaking), another full of apples and spare books, and the third just full of the everyday detritus that I cannot do without (broken hairbrush, emergency book, a million packs of spare cigarette papers etc). In the absence of a car, and ruling out the possibility that I might conceivably be able to survive without any of the contents of these bags, it is clear what is needed:

a hover trolley.

I'm picturing something in a fetching tartan, surrounded by an ethereal blue glow and humming pleasantly to itself.

Either that, or storage lockers on main campus. I'm not fussed.

August 04, 2004

Henning Mankell – Faceless Killers

2 out of 5 stars

Poor Inspector Wallander – it's only the first book in his series, and already he's separated from his wife and drinking heavily. A fictional detective's lot is a hard one.

But despite this slight attack of the clichés, I enjoyed this – I'm a sucker for any kind of atmospheric detective fiction, and this book created a nicely grim-up-north Swedish feel to everything – very understated and washed out, in a good way, if that makes sense. I think the book does suffer slightly from being the first in a series – I find these things are usually better two or three books in, when you have got to know the characters better, and can be amused or suprised when they act according to or against type. So I look forward to reading some of the later books.

One major problem I have is the title – why so B-movie dramatic? Particularly as I couldn't find any reason why these killers should be referred to as 'faceless' other than that until the end you don't know who they are.

This is hardly a distinguishing feature of crime fiction.

August 03, 2004

Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth Mon Amour

2 out of 5 stars

Well, I'm not entirely sure about this one… I thought the idea was great, of Philip Marlow style noir set in Aberystwyth, but I don't know whether he managed to pull it off entirely successfully. The writing style was generally enjoyable, with the proper Chandler delivery, but some of the plot conceits felt a bit forced and clunky. It's hard to pin down exactly what my problem with it was – at times it felt a bit like reading back something you wrote at school, and thinking "yes, I can see what I was trying to do here" but at the same time knowing that it just hasn't worked.

Having said that, I may buy the sequel for the cover alone – I can forgive a book a lot with a cover like this one…

July 22, 2004

blog marketing

Response to prompt "Marketing blogs" (View all responses or all Overground, underground, mumbling free... responses)

Isn’t Warwick the first university to have something like blogbuilder? I think it might be good to use this somewhere in the publicity – emphasising the pioneering aspect & opportunity to be part of something new and exciting at its inception!

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