Archive for the ‘ Books & Comics ’ Category

Book of the moment: Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas cover

Cloud Atlas

Sometimes membership of a book group forces you to read something which you have been avoiding for whatever reason.  This can be a bad thing, or it can be a good thing.  In the case of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, it is a very, very good thing.  I had been avoiding the book because a great many people had told me I ought to read it, and such pronouncements often make me nervous, feeling (irrationally) that if I don’t enjoy the book I will be letting people down.  Well, everyone was right and I enjoyed it very much.

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Book of the moment: The Moon Pool


The Moon Pool

The cover of The Moon Pool, A. Merritt

Early science fiction bears little resemblance to the stories we would now class in the genre.  Decades before Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories or the birth of the Star Trek franchise, the genre began to take shape in the writings of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  The Moon Pool by Abraham Merritt, an author I had never heard of before picking up the book, sits alongside their works, bearing some similarities to proto-s.f. like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but more closely resembling stories like King Solomon’s Mines with some scientific theories thrown in.  I picked up the book some time ago as part of a “3 for 2” deal, attracted by the fact that the latest reprint was inspired by The Moon Pool‘s apparent similarities to the TV show Lost, which I rather enjoyed.  This, coupled with an interest in the beginnings of the genre, was enough to inspire me to buy it.

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Arbitrary list of books


Well, I haven’t done one of these in a while, and having been tagged in a Facebook note thing with this particular variation of the meme and then seeing it come up on Reed’s blog with an interesting extra twist, I thought I would participate. 

A list of 100 books, which may or may not have come from Auntie BBC.  The idea is to put those you have read all the way through in bold, those you have read a bit of (like I read the first 1000 pages of Clarissa before giving up in sheer boredom) in italics, and put an asterisk after those you have seen adaptations of (I have included the stage as well as the variously-sized screens).

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen * [Big screen and small screen.  The BBC’s version wins hands down.]
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien * [Seen on screen and on stage.  The films are better than the musical.]
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte *
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling *
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible [I *think* I’ve read it all – I certainly did a ‘read the Bible in a year’ thing, though it took me nearly two years.  But as I can’t be certain I’ve really read every word, I went with italics.]
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare *
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald *
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams *
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll *
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame *
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens [I’ll finish it one day.  It still has the bookmark in it, though it is back on the bookshelf.  The same fate has happened to The Count of Monte Cristo.]
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis *
34 Emma -Jane Austen *
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen *
36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis *
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne *
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell *
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown [Twice.  Why?]
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins [My favourite nineteenth-century novel.  So why didn’t I get around to seeing the musical?  Because the music I heard left me cold.]
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood *
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding *
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan *
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert [This is in the mountain of Books To Be Read].
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen *
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon [Read during West Side Story rehearsals – I wasn’t needed much during dance sessions.  What a magnificent book!]
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding *
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville [I have the cast recording of the very strange musical based on the book, but that’s as far as it goes.]
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens *
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker *
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett *
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson [Why haven’t I read this?  Hmmm.]
75 Ulysses – James Joyce [I’ve read Portrait…  That’s quite enough Joyce.]
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens * [I have seen so many adaptations.  The best one really is the Muppets one.]
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro *
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White *
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom [Hated this one.  Hated it.]
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle * [I think I’ve read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon, but most of it a long time ago.]
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton [She was on drugs when she wrote this, surely?  Weird stuff.]
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery [I have never seen an adaptation of this, but largely because I can’t see how you could adapt it without completely spoiling the book’s beauty.]
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams *
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shutwell
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas *
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare *
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl *
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo *

There are some puzzling things about the list – the Complete Works of Shakespeare are listed, but so is Hamlet as an individual work.  Likewise the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  But any list of 100 books will be somewhat, if not entirely, arbitrary.  How many books by the likes of Austen, Dickens and Hardy should be included?  What sort of balance between English, American and ‘foreign’ literature?  How about books written for children versus those for proper grown-up people?  How much genre fiction should be allowed in, and is there room for anything other than ‘the classics’, whatever they are?  Compiling lists of this type becomes more a question of what to leave out than what to leave in. 

So I have read just under half of the books on the list.  My reading displays, just like the last time I did something like this, surprising gaps.  Some of them are particularly shocking as they have been read by my book group, but at times when I was very busy and just skipped the books entirely.  I do very much want to read the rest of Jane Austen’s novels, as I have loved those that I have delved into.  And both Dune and Catch-22 have to be done, really.  But then, I clearly haven’t given French writers enough of a chance.  I have neither read any Hugo or Flaubert, nor finished anything by Dumas.  I’ve read quite a bit of Leroux, though.  Does that make it better?  Ultimately, I suppose, everyone likes different books.  There’s nothing wrong with Pratchett, or Jeffrey Archer, or even Mills and Boon as a choice of reading matter.  I just wish there was enough time to read everything I want to read.  Each book I finish leads to a quite agonising decision – what to read next?  Whatever I choose, there’s always a new world to explore.  You just can’t beat a good book.

Effi Briest


Tonight is book group night. My book group covers an eclectic range, and has introduced me to books which have become favourites (such as Life of Pi and Remains of the Day), forced me to read books which I had somehow neglected (Jane Austen’s Emma being one of the most embarrassing examples) and involved me in some hilarious discussions when we have realised that not one of us enjoyed the supposedly brilliant book we had just been reading. This time around, the novel in question is Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. We like to alternate between classics and newer works, and this late nineteenth-century offering is apparently a standard part of the literature curriculum in Germany. I can’t honestly say that I was that taken with it.

Of course, reading books in translation is a difficult thing, as it is nigh on impossible to know whether elements of style which you particularly love or loathe belong to the original author or to the translator (in this case translators, Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers). I found it languid, very hard going. I wondered at first whether the overwhelming sense of boredom I felt was deliberate, evocative of the heroine’s position in life, but I eventually concluded that this was not the case – I just found the style and the plot dull. We are tantalised occasionally with something interesting, but it always happens off camera (most notably, there is some wonderful ghost story to explore, but the book shies away from actually telling us what this story is). I don’t demand high-octane action, but I do like to be engaged by what’s going on in a book.

Effi Briest tells the story of its eponymous heroine, a young woman who gets married to a man at least twice her age (who happened to have been an admirer of her own mother many years back). The two of them move far from the home where she grew up and she finds little stimulation in her new position, eventually beginning an indiscretion which will come back to haunt her some five or six years later. Most of the time, the camera (as it were) focusses on her, and we get to ‘hear’ much of her inner turmoil. Sadly, this is expressed so vacuously most of the time that it irritates more than it illuminates. We do get the odd glimpse into her parents, her husband and her servants, but they are mostly cyphers. Her father does have a somewhat endearing verbal tic, declaring anything he does not want to talk about to be “too vast a subject”, but this is as deep as the characterisation tends to go.

In some ways, the book reminds me of A Doll’s House, wherein a woman breaks societal convention (in a much nobler way than having an affair) and suffers the consequences. In both, the heroine is confined by her marriage, and her husband is so bound up in what society expects and trying to do “the right thing” that his own actions and choices are pre-determined by others. Effi’s husband challenges his cuckolder to a duel, even though he doesn’t want to. He feels there is no other way. And Torvald in A Doll’s House is so bound up with what he expects from male and female roles that he fails to understand or react appropriately to anything in the third act of the play. It does not help matters that unlike A Doll’s House, where the sequence of events and revelations makes some sort of sense, the plot of Effi Briest seems to happen essentially at random. Effi’s lover is only able to make his first move due to an extended series of unfortunate hiccups one snowy evening (which defy all logic if you start to think about them), and her affair is only brought to light due to a combination of her own stupidity (though her maid does comment on this) and a truly contrived accident.

What the novel does do is to paint a picture of the society in which Effi and those around her lived, complete with its rules, customs and expectations. This is always interesting, but was the only real point of interest I found in reading it. I know I should like it, but I don’t. In the realm of classics, give me Wilkie Collins, Henry Fielding or Jane Austen. In the real of foreign novels, I tend to get on best with Russian writers (though have yet to tackle either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky). I’m sure the novel is a marvellous achievement, but it just wasn’t to my taste. It will be most interesting to see what everyone else made of it.

Wetly done indeed!


Last week, I headed to the picturesque surroundings of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury to see a play.  I have attended a number of Shakespeare productions there before, including a particularly good version of Much Ado About Nothing, and it has proved to be an atmospheric location for an evening of outdoor theatre.  The play on this occasion was Heartbreak Productions‘ adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.  Before I discuss the play, though, there is one thing I need to address.  It rained.  A lot. Continue reading

Stock editing


Sometimes, every library has to do something which does not come easily to its staff – get rid of some precious, precious books.  Sometimes they are sold, and librarians witness the strange spectacle of people fighting to pay for a book which nobody has wanted to borrow without charge for several years.  Sometimes they get traded to another library or donated to schools or literacy campaigns.  Sometimes the books are of no use to anyone and simply get recycled.

The Library of Doom has a space crisis on its hands (if libraries can be thought of as having hands), and has had this for quite some time, as I’ve mentioned before.  We don’t have enough room for all the books currently in the collection, which makes it quite interesting trying to add new acquisitions to stock.  In an academic library environment, there can be considerable resistance (generally from outside the library) to removing anything from stock, but it simply has to be done on a larger scale than usual.  This process is known as ‘stock editing’, mostly because terms such as ‘weeding’ and ‘withdrawals’ are seen as negative.  So why should items be edited out of library stock?  None of these can be hard and fast rules, as there will always be exceptions and special cases (I wouldn’t ever want to dispose of a holy book from any religion, for instance – it would seem disrespectful), but here are three key factors which justify editing.

1 – Condition

The easiest way to justify removing an item from the shelves is that it is falling apart.  Bibliographic Services teams in libraries can work wonders on poorly books, transforming them with their array of exciting tools and a bewildering variety of sticky substances, but sometimes the effort is not worth it and that book has to go.  This is even easier with audiovisual material – if a video has been exposed to an electromagnet, or if a DVD has been placed on the record player, there’s little that can be done to save it.  Of course, if items get into a disreputable state, they’re probably being used a lot, so a replacement may well have to be ordered.

2 – Obsolescence

Books become obsolete at different rates.  Certain subjects taught at the university are particularly prone to this – law and health, for instance.  In these subject areas, stock editing is already fairly rigorous, as you don’t want students learning out of date clinical care practices or working on the basis of laws which have altered.  The government frequently changes its mind about social welfare or the educational curriculum, which means that practical books from these subject areas can unexpectedly become obsolete.

Even in less obvious areas, new editions of books are brought out, superseding older ones.  Sometimes there is value in a chapter which only exists an old edition, but it is only worth keeping one copy, rather than a dozen or so, which take up half a shelf between them.  In these modern 2.0 times, print resources can arguably be superseded by electronic equivalents from time to time, particularly for key reference works such as the Grove Dictionaries of Art and Music.

Related to this are those books which have not had a more recent edition published or have no obvious successor, but are still misleading, inaccurate or out of date.  Material on teaching genetics in schools which was published in the 1970s, for instance, though these are quite intriguing if only for the jumpers worn by the children on the covers.

3 – Relevance

Books in some areas never really become obsolete, most notably in the arts and humanities, where new ideas and new interpretations are often seen as alternatives to older theories rather than as new truths.  However, this does not mean that collections of material concerning music, literature, history or theology could never require ‘editing’ in an academic library, as they can become irrelevant without becoming obsolete.

For instance, there may be an academic who has a particular interest in the Victorian novel and teaches a number of modules on the subject.  If he or she were to leave the university, their successor could well be a specialist on eighteenth-century poetry or on literary censorship.  It is likely that such major figures as Dickens, Hardy, Eliot and perhaps Wilkie Collins may continue to be studied, but material relating to minor figures such as George MacDonald (one of my favourites) or Charlotte Mary Yonge will become irrelevant.  Students are not studying their work any longer, so shelves of books concerning them may go unused for years, taking up space which would be better served by increasing the library’s provision of material on, for instance, eighteenth-century poetry.

Modules and entire degree courses come to an end surprisingly often as a result of political or economic factors, and this can be a major cause of academic libraries filling up with irrelevant stock.  If we no longer teach agriculture, why should we have more than a very basic collection on the subject?  If the music department now concentrates on the classical period, do we need thousands of volumes examining the baroque composers?  I think not.

With exceptions such as major research institutions or legal deposit libraries, an academic library should always be a useful, relevant, living resource.  As Charles Cutter, an influential American librarian, said in 1901, “The library should be a practical thing to be used, not an ideal to be admired.”  It’s been over 100 years since he expressed this sentiment, and it’s more true than ever.  Libraries are often seen as outmoded institutions with little to offer in our networked world.  Careful editing of stock can be part of the process of challenging this perception by ensuring that users find the material that they need and want without having to wade through a sea of dust emanating from shelves of books which haven’t been out for a decade or two.  I think that’s worth the effort, personally.

The Singing Librarian looks back on 2007


This time last year, I looked back over the previous 12 months from a personal perspective of achievements, experiences and lessons learned.  This year, to avoid creating an annual tradition, my year-end post will look instead at some bests and one or two worsts.

Theatre

There’s really no contest for me.  Parade was not only the best production I’ve seen this year, but the best production I’ve seen for a very long time.  I was fortunate to see a number of excellent productions this year, but this one was head and shoulder above the rest.  It was emotionally moving, intellectually engaging and theatrically inspired.  I haven’t seen Hairspray, the winner of this year’s Evening Standard award, but from my position of ignorance, I cannot see how it can in any way be considered better, unless ‘better’ means ‘more profitable’.  I waxed lyrical on Parade when I saw it, so won’t repeat myself.  It really was extraordinary, though.

Television

It may be odd, but the best thing I’ve seen on television this year is ‘Blink’.  Why odd?  Well, it’s a single episode of Doctor Who, a science fiction drama for a family audience.  It is, however, a series that attracts very talented writers and actors and this episode was wonderful.  Deeply scary (what could be more disturbing than statues that move whenever you stop looking at them?) and probably produced on a lower budget than your average episode with an emphasis on characters being drawn in to the Doctor’s strange world of “wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff” though meeting him only briefly.  The new incarnation of Who has had some stunning episodes and for me, this was the best thing I caught on the small screen all year.

On the opposite end of the scale is a show that shares the same time-slot when Doctor Who is not being broadcast.  Robin Hood.  It has become traditional for the denizens of my house to gather round and watch this together and although I rather enjoyed the first series, I have found other things to do as this year’s batch of episodes has gone on.  It has taken preposterousness to new heights (or rather depths), which is really saying something since my favourite piece of television this year features a time traveller and living statues.  I didn’t mind the occasional anachronism, the odd bit of perturbing erotic subtext and what have you, but several of the episodes I’ve seen recently have made me despair.  Perhaps not the worst thing I’ve seen, but by far the most disappointing.

Cinema

The Simpsons Movie is probably the most entertaining film I’ve seen this year, with the choral arrangement of ‘Spider-Pig’ over the end credits being a particular delight, but it certainly wasn’t the best.  Enchanted was almost as entertaining, nodding and winking to Disney movies of the past and containing a few wonderful musical moments, but that wasn’t the best of the year either.  Stardust was the most anticipated, and I enjoyed it, but that wasn’t the best.  Atonement was very moving, but that doesn’t clinch it for me.  No, my cinematic highlight of the year is a film I hadn’t even heard of before I arrived at the cinema, and which I only saw because we arrived too late to an attempt to see Stardust.  A drama called Lions for Lambs, which is essentially composed of three conversations, each in a static location (though one of those locations is a mountainside in Afghanistan with Taliban fighters approaching, so static is perhaps not the right word).  Six people.  Talking. 

But it was incredible.  Tom Cruise was superb (not something you’ll hear me say very often), Meryl Streep and Robert Redford proved that they deserve their longevity in the business, and the three younger actors more than had what it took.  It was a film about choices.  Right choices, wrong choices, right reasons, wrong reasons.  Highly politically charged, it managed not to preach any particular angle without sitting on the fence either.  And it left things open.  At least one key choice remained unclear as the credits rolled.  It made me think very hard, and that’s always a good thing.

Music

Leaving aside theatre music (the London cast recording of ParadeNoise Ensemble recorded!  Me and Julietreleased on a public domain label!), the music charts provided some interest for me this year.  John Barrowman’s pop recording debut was underwhelming to these ears, but he was far from the biggest disappointment of the year.  That was Paul Potts, an opera-singing average bloke who won a TV contest called Britain’s Got Talent in June which led to a recording contract and an appearance on the Royal Variety Performance, which is where I finally saw and heard him.  My goodness.  Worst opera singer I’ve ever seen or heard.  He hit the notes and had a fairly pleasant voice, but there was no soul behind the performance, no special spark at all.  I totally fail to see what all the fuss was about.  Meh.

More positively, Michael Bublé released another album, Call Me Irresponsible, which contained many pleasures, though perhaps not as many as previous albums.  Mika was an impressive newcomer, the Plain White T’s had me hooked on ‘Hey There, Delilah’ but my favourite singles this year are perhaps two by Take That.  I know, I know, and I may even have ridiculed some people for liking the group in my time.  But ‘Shine’ and ‘Rule the World’ (the latter written for the film Stardust) were infectiously enjoyable singles.  So much so that I downloaded them from i-Tunes.

Books

This has not been a fantastic year for reading chez Singing Librarian, and much that I have read was not published in 2007.  In fact, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may well be the only 2007 book I’ve read this year.  The books that I have most enjoyed reading this year have been The Moonstoneby Wilkie Collins (I find I enjoy Collins more than I enjoy Dickens, though I still feel that Dickens is in some way ‘better’), Night Watchby Sergei Lukyanenko and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.  All were read over the summer months and all were excellent.  The only execrable book I’ve read this year is The Alchemist.  Blah.

I was given the latest Terry Pratchett and the original illustrated novel of Stardust for Christmas, though, and am greatly looking forward to reading them.

Comics

I don’t appear to have blogged about comics this year, but I have been reading them.  52 concluded well after a dip in excitement and interest levels, going out with a bang in May.  It introduced new characters, brought others to greater prominence and  was followed up by a rather less well-produced weekly series called Countdown.  It has spawned a number of followups and Countdownis a spinoff-producing monster which I have been ignoring more and more as the year plods on.  Most entertaining 52-followup is definitely Booster Gold.  Time travel, egotism, heroism, betrayal and comedy is a heady mixture.  Ongoing series in the DC Universe (home of Batman, Superman et al) which have been most enjoyable are probably the most obscure.  Blue Beetle has introduced a great new hero, and Checkmate, which features political skull-duggery where the lines between superheroes and the United Nations blur, is quite simply an excellent read.

But my favourite is less mainstream and sadly, much less regular.  Rex Libris features the black and white adventures of a librarian who will travel the universe and the time-stream to recover an overdue book, saving lives and defeating monsters along the way.  It’s silly but intriguing and I am thrilled each time it appears.

End

So what do we make of this?  My favourites of the year include a musical about a miscarriage of justice, an episode of television about killer statues, a film about the war on terror, the return of a boy band and the adventures of a gun-toting librarian.  I think we can gather that I have eclectic tastes and that 2007 has managed to cater to them.  2007, I salute you!

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