Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature by Steven Pinker

I have always had an appetite for linguistics, and words have always fascinated me beyond their simple meanings or double-meanings, beyond syntax and grammar to a deeper level of comprehension. Stupidly, I have read little on the subject before (but found myself inexplicably titillated by the tiny linguistics section of my local library and always left wanting by the light, comedic books I have picked up about etymology or grammar). The Stuff of Thought takes a deeper, more investigative look into the way we use language, and what the subsequent discoveries say about human nature.

Pinker is not ‘light and comedic’ although he can be witty and sometimes wry. He subscribes to the school of linguistic thought which asserts that language is a window into human nature, rather than a controlling force that dictates how we are (his is a common assumption in modern linguistics – and the book does give us some background for reference). In The Stuff of Thought he attempts to show why that is true – presumably to a wider readership who aren’t linguists and therefore familiar with the conclusion already.

Pinker elaborates on many assertions to that end – such as how it is possible that two people can view the same event in two entirely different ways, the ‘zooming in’ of the microscope on verbs and verb structures which provides answers to seemingly unsolvable questions about semantics and ‘learning the unlearnable’, an entire chapter on taboo language (swear words etc.) and what makes them so powerful (my favourite example of this being the posited “what does the ‘fuck’ in ‘fuck you’ actually mean?”), and the negotiation of relationships through language – the motions of which we go through every day, in one way or another.

It is tempting to simply fill this post with exciting linguistic discoveries I made as a result of reading this book, but that would be silly. There isn’t much to say apart from if you get the amount of delight from semantics and verb forms that I do, this is a must-read. Pinker makes this kind of science accessible (hence this made the New York Times Bestseller list) to a wide audience of enthusiastic word-fondlers, and for that I am eternally grateful to him. I am determined to read his four other books on the subject of cognitive science, and probe further into the wonders of linguistic learning.

EXTRA: Here is a video from 2005 of Pinker doing a TED talk about the ideas he was working on for this very book.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Kraken by China Miéville

Something is happening in London – in its skin, in its soul, in the nooks and crannies of its many secret subsections. Something is … coming. And even the most intuitive, clued-in ‘knackers’ don’t know what it is… except that it involves the end of everything.

Museum curator Billy Harrow is also unaware of the impending apocalypse until his prize specimen, the Architeuthis (or Kraken, or giant squid) totally vanishes from its display room (giant specimen jar and all). After a visit from a bizarre and shady division of the Metropolitan Police – the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes unit) – he is flung into the clutches of a London he has never seen before; filled with stone-spirits and murderous talking tattoos and ocean-worshippers and Londonmancers. When Billy discovers that the pickled Architeuthis can (and likely will) destroy the world, his life becomes a race against the approaching disaster in which all parties want the same thing but everyone is pulling in different directions to get it.

Miéville’s famed and acclaimed imagination shakes its tail feathers cheekily throughout Kraken – here he gives us all the barmy-ness and creative ingenuity we have come to love about his books, but with a Pratchett-esque playful irony and a plethora of subculture references we’ve not seen from him before. When I met him just after the release of Kraken, he told me that “it’s a comedy. It’s a toilet book – you should read it on the toilet.” I probably just blushed and blathered like I normally do in his presence, but I thought of that remark often later when I read the book (and no, not because I read it on the toilet!)

All right, I’m going to say it: I don’t think this is his best work. I think this is a flirt with genre and with subculture; perhaps a way to lighten the mood a little for him as so many of his novels deal with dark political subjects or the mass corruption of morals, and are genre-defining in and of themselves. Kraken - whilst being funny and witty and having a fantastic array of characters, themes and scenescapes - doesn’t have the pace or clarity of vision that shines so brilliantly through the bizarre realms of his other books. It is overflowing with metaphor, which I sometimes found tedious because they seemed to be present for nothing other than to be ironic or self-parodying. The characters are not very well-realised, and sometimes it seems as though their actions occur for no reason other than plot convenience. Maybe my perception wasn't nuanced enough to "get it" but I know there are other Miéville fans out there who felt the same way.

Kraken is good fun, but requires dedication. As a huge fangirl it was easy for me to still love this book for what it was, but if you’re not a patient reader the first 150 pages or so might get you down. I really enjoyed the ‘magical’ London, the monsters and mythology, the nudges and winks sprinkled throughout for us nerdy elite to giggle knowingly at... but I do think if you want to make a light-hearted laugh-a-thon it might be done better at a few hundred pages less. Even so, sections of it are riveting and utterly entertaining - it is really hard for me to be in any way critical in NORMAL LIFE, let alone of one of my favourite writers of all time. China, I still love you!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Audiobook: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Due to the loss of my 2 hours a day of commute time (read: reading time) this poor little corner of the blogosphere has been severely neglected of late. Nowadays I walk to work, 40 minutes each way. I decided to stop using that as an excuse not to absorb books in the sponge-like fashion of my commuting days; so downloaded the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love (if you’ve never heard of it, welcome back to Earth! We missed you!) read by the author Elizabeth Gilbert.

This was a perfect introduction to the world of audiobooks. Eat, Pray, Love is the personal story of Gilbert’s emotional journey over one year of travel, food and finding god, so it was only fitting that it was read by her and luckily, very well. She imbues all of her speech with the same passion, insight, wit and honesty that is so evident in her writing (and one of the reasons she is an international bestselling author now), creating a conversational, convivial feel which makes you giggle with her and share her heartaches, confusions and bliss as if they were your own.

After a traumatic divorce and a long battle with depression, Gilbert extracts herself from her life to spend four months in Rome in pursuit of pleasure, four months in India in pursuit of god, and four months in Bali in pursuit of the balance between the two. The exact thing she is searching for throughout the book is what makes her writing so lovely – the combination of opulence and indulgence and raw emotional honesty gives the story real balance. It is not a frivolous romp of lavishness, nor is it a demented self-help guide for chakra-cleansing hippies. Gilbert makes spirituality appealing by being honest about who she is and how she got to be where she is. It helps that she is hilarious, sweet and modest, with a very cheeky sense of humour.

I loved the voices she did for different characters, and how expressive she was in general. Every implication of wry sarcasm, stifled laughter, bitterness, pain and everything else was there to be heard in her intonation and lilt, making a very personal journey an easily shared one. Honestly I’d recommend having a listen to the audiobook even if you’ve read the book, maybe if you’re planning on re-reading it. It is a true delight, adding another dimension of personality to a story already packed with punch and vitality and love.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Back From The Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories by Johnny Mains

 The Pan Book of Horror Stories was an iconic and long-running literary institution in Britain for some decades from the 1960s through to the 1980s; to such an extent that I had actually heard of it despite having been born in Australia in 1986! Publishing short horror stories by little-known writers in yearly volumes, it tingled the spines and inspired the nightmares of thousands in its heyday. Back From The Dead is anthologist Johnny Mains’ love letter to the series. He has devotedly selected and compiled these stories along with author anecdotes, a look into the influence of the series and a biography of Herbert Van Thal, the Pan Horrors’ infamous editor.

The stories contained in Back From The Dead are sometimes tame, sometimes gruesome, but all have the haunting quality of eeriness for which the Pan Book of Horror gained its infamy. They are written by authors featured, at some point or other, in the Pan Horror series - sixteen of them are new, previously unpublished tales, and five are classics. The nostalgic format – each story starting off with an author’s anecdote about their experience with the series and with Van Thal, was a real pleasure to read.

Not being much of a genre-reader I have never really delved into horror before and it was an interesting experience. Sometimes I was actually delighted by the types of things that really scared me; such as birds, or children, or deserted islands, or very subtle implications of the macabre. Quiet omens. My favourite stories and the ones which left the biggest impact on me were ones that asked more questions than they answered. Camera Obscura, about a greedy money-lender who visits one of his debtors (an old man who lives in a mysteriously large house on a hill) and peers into his strange, homemade ‘camera obscura’ only to leave the house into a world that isn’t the same one he came from, was one of my favourites. I also loved Mr Smyth, which tells of a policeman investigating the murder of a beautiful young girl who seemed, by all witness accounts, to have been fawning all over a decrepit and penniless old man. But every story selected by Johnny Mains is worth its salt as a soul-chilling, goosebump-inducing tale and if you like a good creep-out then this volume is a decent dose!

I found the 'anthology' format fascinating because the selection of content gives you a little peek into the personality of the anthologist –which is also why the story of Herbert “Bertie” Van Thal contained within is so interesting and deeply explored in Back From The Dead. In this case the selection is devlishly mischievous, somewhat sentimental and just the right balance between gory and charming. In my opinion this dark homage is a love letter, sealed with a scream, to Van Thal and the Pan Horror Series - and couldn’t have been, ahem, executed better.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

It is unsurprising that I found this book a true delight, if you are aware of my love for David Mitchell. I find his style of writing to be so innovative, exciting, enchanting and delightful that I can rarely put a book of his down once I’ve started it. Despite the fact that the subject isn’t one I originally thought would invigorate me, I found the little bit of Japanese/Dutch history lesson a fascinating journey.

In the eighteenth century, Dejima was an established Dutch trading post (and artificial island) in the bay of Nagasaki, Japan. In The Thousand Autumns, a young clerk arrives in Dejima with the naïve notion of assisting his chief in the abolition of corruption amongst the Dutch officials there residing. Clerk Jacob de Zoet is a pious and good-willed man, making him instantly likeable and comical among his otherwise crude and dodgy peers. Although it is his intention to leave Dejima as quickly as possible and pick up his Dutch life where he left it off, his fate becomes intrinsically intertwined with Japan when he meets (and subsequently falls for) Aibagawa Orito, a Japanese midwife studying on the island under the resident Doctor, Marinus (incidentally one of my favourite characters). Her enlistment by the mysterious Abbot Enomoto to join his Shiranui Shrine – through no desire of her own – sets off a series of events which change de Zoet’s life forever.

Mitchell flexes his imaginative muscle with prowess throughout the novel, with different sections of it taking place on Dutch Dejima, Japanese Nagasaki, the Shrine of Shiranui (a monastery/convent shrouded in rumour and mystery), aboard an English trading ship, and in the minds, hearts and memories of many of the book’s endearing characters. It is a tale rife with colour and culture, atmosphere and ambience.

What I liked best about The Thousand Autumns was the rhythmic nature of its prose. Mitchell has employed a very subtle and structured poeticism in the writing of this book which made me feel that it would be quite fun and interesting to read aloud. There is a distinct rhythm which runs all the way through, especially in the dialogue, which gives it a Shakespearean, stage-play feel. There is also a fantastic section which is written in rhyming prose; look out for that, it’ll make your linguistic antennas tingle (a symptom of Mitchell’s usual stylistic genius)! He plays with language; moulding and manipulating words into new and exciting shapes, making you notice and, in turn, think about his choice of wording.

The Thousand Autumns is a beautifully well-rounded novel, sharing with its readers the incredible wisdom of David Mitchell’s imagination, while being elusive and enigmatic enough to give your mind an imaginative workout, too. If you’re an established Mitchell fan (comme moi), it’s a must-read. If you were bored/annoyed by Cloud Atlas (as I know some of you were), probably don’t try to improve your Mitchell-affection with this one – turn your eyes to Number9Dream or Black Swan Green!

Friday, 16 July 2010

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Patrick Bateman is a designer suit wearing, Zagat guide toting, cigar clenching Wall Street banker with a bloodlust so furious it causes him to chop people up (to put it tamely). He lives in a world full of vacant, vapid and vacuous characters who constantly mistake him for other Wall Street suits (and whom he can barely tell apart) and no matter how many useless designer things he buys, episodes of The Patty Winters Show he watches, reservations he makes at trendy restaurants or girls he tortures and kills, he remains totally unsatisfied and restless. His voice is that of a frantic madman in a soulless void (and often reminded me of one of Hunter s Thompson’s characters; i.e. insane, on drugs, constantly becoming anxious and fretful as a result of ‘normal’ social interactions).

Ellis uses tedious repetition, adsurdism and extreme juxtaposition to illustrate this satire of early 1990s New York. His detailed and ridiculous descriptions of food, music and clothing create a pretentious world full of superficial clowns and court jesters, none of whom are ever listening to one another (as evidenced by the constant admissions of psychopathic thoughts and urges by Bateman, which his peers ignore/don’t hear). Yes, the violence is maddening but it is my opinion that any book which inspires emotion, raw & deeply moving, serves its purpose. Ellis obviously has a pretty dark mind but even though he described the book as being an ‘exorcism’ of his own feelings and frustrations, I don’t think it is entirely gratuitous. A very bleak and serious point is being made about consumerism and ‘yuppie’ culture, and human beings’ stifled ability to connect with one another in the modern world.

I went to see Bret Easton Ellis do a bit of a talk and Q&A about American Psycho last night, in association with the Guardian Book Club. It was really enlightening to hear him speak about such a harrowing work – about his writing process, the motivations behind his novels, and the fact that he has only recently (20 odd years after its publication) been able to come to terms with what the book was about (himself) and lower the barrier of constant defensiveness which he’s barricaded himself behind for a long time. A lot of people asked him ‘why’ questions: “why did you write it this way?” “Why did you decide to have him do that?” etc., which I found somewhat tedious and which poor Ellis simply couldn’t answer apart from with a repeated “it just felt right that way”. I think one of the great things about American Psycho is its ambiguity. Is Patrick Bateman as attractive as he claims? Does he really commit all these heinous acts, or is it simply a nightmare going on inside his head? I want these questions to remain unanswered: that’s the intrigue of it.

While American Psycho is by no means for the faint-hearted, it is a comedy of the blackest degree and a literary force to be reckoned with.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Learning & sharing knowledge

I'm sitting in a 'social networking crash course' which I am primarily attending for work, trying to decide what my 'core purpose' is. For the sake of this blog post (and the course), I'm going to talk about how my core purpose is learning & sharing knowledge.

For me, learning is life's ultimate purpose: it IS the journey, it IS growth. I would like to think of myself as "interested in everything". Nothing is boring when you are constantly learning. All information is new and conversely, being able to share knowledge, ideas & opinions is one of the most gratifying things in life. Books are obviously one of my favourite facilities to do this - but I also love using the internet as a platform to connect with people & share information on a real-time basis.

I'm an optimist and like to get the best out of everything. (I'm seriously thinking of getting a tattoo which says 'make lemonade', though some part of my brain keeps telling me it's ridiculous. Perhaps I should be telling myself to embrace the ridiculous - jump forward! ACT! LIFE IS SHORT!) Social networking is no different. I'm using these tools to have fun, to make connections, to share & to learn. And these are the same values I apply to my life.

What would you say is your 'core purpose'?