Sunday, 27 March 2011

Chris Kuzneski

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

These kind of books are my shameful secret (amidst an ocean of the embarrassing tosh that I sometimes read). Chris Kuzneski's novels belong in an adventure genre that is part Indiana Jones, part Dan Brown. In this genre the plot normally revolves around chasing clues to find a pseudo-historical or pseudo-religious MacGuffin; the narrative takes its starting point from a historical or religious personage or story, and a fictional plot then develops around this central idea. This genre is great fun, but shouldn't be confused with historical account as some strangely deluded people seemed to do with Dan Brown's novels.

Chris has written a series of novels with the characters of Jonathan Payne and David Jones, ex military men from a fictional special forces team. Payne inherited a thriving business and a fortune from his grandfather, and was obliged by these family commitments to leave the military. His wealth allows him to set up his friend, Jones, as a private detective (in a nice line, Jones is described as a natural detective who, instead of worrying if a glass is half-full or half-empty, will try to "figure out who drank the damn water"). In the series of books they continue to find fantastical adventures, and Payne's wealth helps to facilitate jaunts to exotic places in search of treasure.

There are a couple of things that stand Chris Kuzneski apart from other writers in this kind of area that I have read (Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly, James Rollins), and the primary one is the sparky friendship that he has created between these two characters. He has written for them a strong and loyal friendship, but one that is created through their entertaining banter and repartee. This friendship rings true with some friendships I have had that have been based on a good-natured winding up of the other person.

Another thing that sets him apart is the story of his break into being a published writer. This is a story that should hopefully inspire writers and give them hope. His first novel - "The Plantation" - was ignored by agents and rejected by publishers. So he printed a number of copies from a print on demand company and sold them from the back of his car, as well as sending them on to authors he admired and asking them if they would read it (a number did, apparently - Lee Child, James Patterson, James Rollins - and were willing to endorse it). He was lucky enough that an agent bought a copy and wanted to take him on, who then sold his second book. "The Plantation" has now been officially published on the back of his success, although it might not be as easy to find as his subsequent novels (I think my copy might be an import).

Incidentally, Chris Kuzneski has his own Facebook page and, rather sweetly, each person who posts seems to get a personal response from him. He was impressed that I can brush my teeth and read at the same time (not the main thrust of my post, but the one he seemed to pick up on - if he thinks that is impressive, he should see me hold a book open with my toes so that I can read while drying my hair and eating breakfast as I get ready for work). I have also just realised that I referred to him earlier in this post as Chris - first name terms - when normally I find it hard to break the academic habit of using the author's surname. That might be a reflection on the fact that his Facebook page makes him seem more personally accessible and connected to his fan base, which is quite endearing (although his characters are quite tough, so he might not appreciate such girly adjectives as sweet or endearing).

If anyone is interested to read them, these are his novels, in order:
"The Plantation"
"Sign of the Cross"
"Sword of God"
"The Lost Throne"
"The Prophecy"
"The Secret Crown"

"The Plantation" is a bit different from the other books - it's darker, and I think due to its publication history does not tie in as part of a series as closely as the other books do (for example, Jonathan Payne has a girlfriend who he is willing to risk his life for, but who is then never acknowledged again in the following books). But in the main, it probably helps to read them in order as they do mention events in previous books. It might help, in modern terminology, to think of "Sign of the Cross" as a reboot.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

"Julie and Julia," by Julie Powell

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Julie Powell has lived the blogger's dream. Her blog found an audience, a publisher and her experience has been made into a film starring Meryl Streep with a screenplay by Nora Ephron (writer of maybe the best romantic comedy ever, "When Harry Met Sally"). Julie herself was played by Amy Adams - a good actress with an excellent first name - so she could have done a lot worse. I doubt that I'm likely to get that lucky.

The book starts during a low period in Julie's life: she was an actress in New York with an aversion to auditioning; therefore, instead of acting, she worked as a temp. She loved her husband, but hated her job, her flat, and the gynaecologists who advised her to start trying for a baby because she was nearing 30 and had a "syndrome" that was likely to affect her fertility. She needed a project to add meaning and focus to her life.

She found this focus when she visited her mother and rediscovered a book that her mother had: Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (which she refers to as MtAoFC). The project was that in 365 days she would cook the 524 recipes from Julia Child's book in her tiny apartment kitchen. The blog - which at that point was not has commonplace as it is now - was her husband's idea.

This took place against the backdrop of post 9/11 New York, which gives her book an occasional extra level of poignancy. She took a permanent job working in a government agency that supported the grieving families of those lost in the Twin Towers, and she had to filter suggestions of what to do with the hole left by the buildings (suggestions of varying profundity or, more often, insanity). Her writing sometimes brings up images of what it was like in New York in the immediate wake of the tragedy; of seeing office memos floating in the wind and knowing that they probably came from the destroyed buildings.

In her book, she writes about some criticism that her blog received for bad language. And, indeed, she does swear a fair amount. This is one of the aspects of her writing style that I find a little bit annoying on occasion. But then, perhaps it would not be an accurate representation of how much she hated her job, and the frustrations that she faced in completing her project, if she didn't swear. I know that I find it very hard to do housework without copious swearing.

Her book made me very glad that I chose to write about books I have read for my blog - it is a lot easier than her project was. I read her book with relief that I don't have to search my locality for bone marrow, I don't have to kill lobsters, and I certainly don't have to boil calves' feet to make aspic. The worst thing I might have to do is read "Tess of the D'Urberville's"(although, admittedly, that is pretty bad).

I have a number of cookery books - what Gordon Ramsay has referred to as cookery porn, as I like to flick through them when I am relaxing but rarely have time to try a new recipe - so I enjoyed her book from this angle. However, if anything, some of her rather grim experiences with offal, brains and feet have inspired me not to explore French cookery (I tend to prefer Italian or Indian).

Her confessional writing is engaging, although there were elements of her writing style that I occasionally found a bit annoying - but not often. In keeping with the food theme, I have been trying to think of a food analogy for this book. My best shot at this is to compare it to one of her first recipes, Boeuf Bourguignon - an odd comparison for a vegetarian, I know, but bear with me - warming, rich but with the occasional bit of gristle.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Have my reading habits changed since starting this blog?

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.




I certainly haven't become any more decisive.

When I started this blog, my intention was that it would start to engage my critical faculties again and get back into the habit of writing. At first, I didn't really know what I was going to write about; it was only over time that this evolved into writing about what I was reading.

I tweeted this when I had the inspiration for my new mission statement:
"Every book I read from now on - even trashy ones that are embarrassing to admit to - will get a blog review or a pithy tweet comment."
Then later the same day:
"I am hoping that if I have to declare everything that I read, I might be shamed into some more intelligent reading."

I have cheated a bit and not written about a couple of the more recent books I have read - but this is because some of them have been part of a series, and I wanted to write about them en bloc when I have finished the series. There were also a couple of books I didn't write about at the time when I read them because I wanted to buy them for friends as Christmas presents and didn't want to give anything away ("The Twisted Heart" by Rebecca Gowers - a good book with an academic research background that made me feel nostalgic for the excitement of pursuing the moment of intellectual inspiration - and "Shades of Grey" by Jasper Fforde, which is an impressive, quirky and funny creation of a detailed fantasy world). Apart from those exceptions, I think I have been true to my intention to blog or tweet on every book I read. True-ish.

I still read just as much trash, so the idea of being shamed into more intelligent reading hasn't exactly worked out. I just admit to the trash without the shame that I probably should feel. You can tell I still haven't totally shaken my literary snobbery. I still think that reading for entertainment is wonderful, valuable and I would hate to lose that pleasure in reading - but I don't think I should be reading so much trash in the same way that no-one should eat fish and chips every day.

But I think that this blog has changed my reading habits - even when I read the trash. I no longer have a bookmark - I keep my place with an index card, on which I note down quotes I like and ideas for the blog. When I read a book, a part of me is already starting to think what I might write on my blog. So in that sense I think it has changed my reading habits for the better. Where before I had become a passive reader, it is making me start to think again more critically and analytically, which I think is a good thing. Though the index card might be starting to get a bit obsessive.

I do now have a project within a project which I will do periodically. If you are a friend of mine who has come to this from my Facebook page, you might already be aware of this. In the UK, there has been a BBC series and accompanying book called "Faulks on Fiction" (the Faulks being author Sebastian Faulks). In it, in chapters on heroes, lovers, snobs and villains, he writes about a selection of authors and characters from the classics to more modern "literary" fiction. I've just bought the book, as I thought that it might be interesting to read the books he writes about and then see if I agree with him. I have just realised, however, that this might be a bad idea because I will have to reread "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," which I studied for A-levels, and loathed.


That last comment might have been influenced by the fact that I am typing this with an episode of the great "30 Rock" in the background. Liz Lemon rocks.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Some thoughts on the new Julie Taymor/Dame Helen Mirren version of "The Tempest."

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I started thinking about this as I walked into town listening to the Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode film review programme. On a recent programme Simon interviewed Dame Helen Mirren, and Mark Kermode reviewed the new film version of "The Tempest" in which she plays a traditionally male role, Prospero, as Prospera. This is a Shakespeare play that I love and I have a strong idea of the commanding presence of Prospero, so I initially take against this idea. I would be interested to see this film - I haven't yet - but my initial response to a clip that I have seen is that the film is nowhere near as revolutionary as it likes to think it is.

This isn't a review of a film that I haven't seen. However, the idea of changing the gender of a character started a train of thought that I found interesting. I don't pretend that this is a strongly defined critical argument - it is an instinctive, personal reaction, which is inflected by my own gender and where I am in my life at the moment. I'm anxious not to say anything that might be offensive as this is a sensitive topic - I'm not well versed in feminist theory, and I am going to bring up the idea of race as well - but I do want to get my ideas down to try to work them through.

My problem with gender-blind and colour-blind casting is that it can only truly exist in a setting in which there is sexual and racial equality. We might be closer now than we ever have been, but it would be naive to think that we are there. If you live in a society in which you are judged by the colour or biological operation of your body, however subtly, this is going to reflect on your world-view, your character and affect your status in life. The danger is that, while gender-blind and colour-blind casting can provide an interesting and different slant on a character, there is a fine line between providing an interpretation and changing the role in a way that twists the original script and undermines the veracity of that character's experience.

I am aware that there is precedent for gender-blind casting in the classics: Frances de la Tour has played Hamlet; Kathryn Hunter has played King Lear. Despite this, I'm less convinced of the validity of gender-blind casting than I am by colour-blind casting. This is, however, with the obvious caveat that there are times and locations in history where colour-blind casting would not be appropriate and would be denying the reality of historical race relations in a way that is as insidious as denying the holocaust. This is less the case in a modern setting, in which I like to think that racism is less prevalent in society; in a modern setting the colour of a person's skin might not be specified in a script and can be mutable. However, a character is surely normally written as male or female. The body of a white man or a black man has the same basic physiological characteristics and biological operation; a woman's body with its possibility of child-bearing partly alters the character's relation to the world, and partly alters the way the character is viewed by others (this is where my ideas are coloured by my own current perspective on life). The choice of whether to have a child, or the ability to have a child, is very emotive and I'm not totally convinced that it doesn't change the character of Prospero beyond recognition for her to be Miranda's mother rather than father.

I think I have been fairly safe - but if I have inadvertently written anything to offend anyone, I apologise. In this blog post, I was trying to work out my own feelings on this. However, I know that racism and sexism are emotive subjects about which people very rightly get angry. I am aware that this reductionist view of the female body is likely to get me bitch slapped by Germaine Greer (who I admire a lot). I'm actually right at this moment trying to decide whether to actually post this - mostly because I suspect the main thing that this argument reveals is the very personal fact that my biological clock is starting to tick loudly enough to drown out my critical faculties - but I've decided bugger it, I'll post it. But this post might disappear if I lose my nerve, get embarrassed, or change my mind about this subject.