Tagged: Books

Saturday 10/6/6

This picture has nothing to do with this post I saw The Omen today and really enjoyed it, especially the fact that it was almost exactly the same as the original. The main reason for this appreciation is that it means that there’s an outside chance that they will take this opportunity to go ahead and remake the sequels as well, only this time with less suck! Does anyone even remember the third one? Also it means a whole new generation has the chance to recognize a bunch of familiar movie references.

Before the movie I did a little book shopping, buying Douglas Coupland’s JPod on the strength of Cory Doctorow’s review (any book that can make Cory take a long hard look at himself has got to be worth reading– this is not intended as a cheap shot). The bizarro formatting of the first few pages and the fact that he uses ASCII code to spell out a certain unprintable word {101,100,103,121} is kind of appealing, but points off for not using hexadecimal ;)

I also bought Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, and am really looking forward to it, since I’ve very much enjoyed his other books. He has a knack for making one feel better about life, without being particularly instructive. A few weeks ago I heard him speak at the Auckland Writer’s Festival, and was impressed by his passion for the topic as well as his sheer WPM.

Eww… Serendipity is on TV and making me gag (John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, 2001). I’m not sure I would find it quite so cloying if I weren’t chronically single and nearly 34 years old…

Another remake I saw recently was Poseidon, again very much in the spirit of the original, although obviously with updated special effects. Enjoyable if you like the genre, but also rather forgettable.

Pixar’s Cars is of course completely original, although in my mind has a crappy premise. Voice talent carries this movie, with the cars themselves being rather disturbing with all these weird inconsistencies in their alternate universe; things like tiny flying cars instead of flies– I mean hello, Earth to Pixar… Couldn’t they have been sparkplugs or something? And for some reason the [normal-sized] cars have big ugly tongues even though they don’t eat (they get refuelled just like real cars). Though still very watchable, coming after The Incredibles this movie is a bit of a disappointment.

Cleverness

A few days ago I finally finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, several months after starting it. Surprisingly, I’m actually thinking about buying the next one in the trilogy; it seems I got attached to the thing after spending so damn long with it. It might not be great literature, but with so much incidental history-of-science stuff it can’t fail to stimulate my nerdular cortex.

One big criticism I have is that almost all of the characters seem remarkably clever and articulate, including vagabonds [ignorant & poor] and poseurs [rich & inbred]. It’s the same beef I have with [otherwise excellent] shows like Buffy and Gilmore Girls, so full of snappy dialogue with which everyone somehow manages to keep up. The effortlessness leaves me cold– communicating just isn’t that easy in the real world, and to portray it so implies a homogeneity of mind that is just creepy.

One more time

The pedant in me loves Language Log, especially when they riff on Dan Brown – I just can’t get enough!

But clogged recycling centers are now refusing to accept copies of Brown’s book, and libraries are closing their after-hours book drops to avoid having people getting rid of them that way by night.

__________

See also my original Dan Brown rant from six months ago…

Reading

Am still plowing through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, more slowly than I have ever read a book in my life. I phant’sy his habit of embedding coy historical references in every paragraph is kind of bogging down the narrative somewhat – “Look there, it’s old Mrs Goose from across the way, and she’s telling the children her nonsensical stories about tableware and lunar trajectories again… ”

Unfortunately for my long-suffering eyeballs, most of what I read is online these days. And mostly it’s blogs blogs blogs, or other frequently updated pages. Although I don’t read nearly as many as some people, I am pretty happy with the ones I subscribe to [about a third of which are listed publicly on my blogroll ]

Perhaps because he doesn’t blog per se, Paul Graham is someone I keep forgetting exists, but he does at least have an RSS feed to notify of new essays, so I’ve added it to my subscriptions. Paul writes fantastic essays about programming, politics, work, society, etc, all in a very approachable style.

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

- Hackers and Painters: What you Can’t Say, by Paul Graham

Another entity whose style I have been enjoying lately is he who comprises Outer Life.

At any time, you can choose to read any one of a million or so books. How many of those million books would you enjoy? I’m guessing very few. If instead I chose your next book, would your chances of enjoying your next book increase or decrease? Even if I had superior taste and discernment, and was familiar with your reading preferences, I’ll bet you’d be happier, on average, with the books you selected yourself.

The Gift of Reading

Since I’ve always phant’sied myself as a producer rather than just a consumer, consideration of reading inevitably leads me to contemplation of writing. It seems that every time I read a good book, I am left with the desire to write a good book. The same can also be true for bad books, although in this case the mechanism is substantially different. When I read a good book, I think: Wow, I wish I had the ability to create such a compelling story, and to express it so well! I gotta improve my skills! When I read Dan Brown, I think: Holy shit, I didn’t think stuff like this was even publishable! I gotta get in on the action!

Philip K Dick′s prose kicks Dan Brown′s′s ass!

Opening sentence from The Da Vinci Code:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Opening sentence from A Scanner Darkly:

Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair.

Need I say more?

[previous Dan Brown rant]

Review: The Da Vinci Code

Vitruvian ManI’m sure Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a cracking story [it had better be], but oh boy, does the prose stink! Here is the opening paragraph from the Prologue:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas

I was going to explain why I think it stinks, but a quick google reveals that others have already done the same, notably Language Log. I’m not quite so finicky, but I still have a major beef with that last sentence, wherein the “seventy-six-year-old man” from the first clause is referred to by name [Saunière] in the last. The lack of a pronoun makes it sound like they are two different people, so then the reader [ie myself along with a small, randomly selected sample group] has to check it again to realize “Oh right, it’s the same guy”.

And this is in the opening paragraph, arguably the most important in the entire book!

If I’d had the sense to open this book before buying it [based on its incredible popularity] I would have read those first few lines, closed it again and chucked it back on the pile. And I am not exactly a literary snob; I like Harry Potter, I’ve never made it more than twenty pages into Ulysses, and I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read anything by Umberto Eco [although somehow I manage to admire his work]. But even I can say — with confidence — that this is a poorly written book.

Brown’s aversion to the personal pronoun is intense; like he’s afraid that we will lose track of the characters if he doesn’t keep referring to them by proper name. The following extracts are from Chapter 16, at which point Sophie, the beautiful and gifted cryptologist, is still the only female character in the novel:

Sophie wondered how long it would take Fache to figure out she had not left the building. Seeing that Langdon was clearly overwhelmed, Sophie questioned whether she had done the right thing by cornering him here in the men’s room.

Sophie wondered if maybe he had fallen terminally ill and had decided to attempt any ploy he could think of to get Sophie to visit him one last time.

Brown obviously took it to heart when scolded as a child: “She’s the cat’s mother!” In chapter 16, the name “Sophie” appears 25 times within the first 21 paragraphs. Again, at this point in the book, Sophie is the only female character. There are no other characters who could be referred to as “she”.

When I bought this book, I was kind of expecting something somewhere between Michael Chabon’s utterly fabulous The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed; where there should be prose, I find only stinky cheese. Brown has a penchant for muddy descriptions of people and places, which read like something a high-school student might be chided for. Behold the opening paragraph of Chapter 10:

Silas sat behind the wheel of the black Audi the Teacher had arranged for him and gazed out at the great Church of Saint-Sulpice. Lit from beneath by banks of floodlights, the church’s two bell towers rose like stalwart sentinels above the building’s long body. On either flank, a shadowy row of sleek buttresses jutted out like the ribs of a beautiful beast.

Terrible similes abound. Since when do sentinels tower above their charge? And I don’t think it’s possible to imagine any beast whose ribs jut out as beautiful. Ribs traditionally go inside a beautiful animal. Also, I think he is using the word “either” incorrectly; literally, he is describing a church whose rib-like buttresses jut out on one side or the other, but not both. Again, this is a chapter opening paragraph.

Shouldn’t writing ability be a requirement for the best-selling author? Personally, I want to be able to lose myself within a book, but I find it very hard to do so when clumsy sentence construction and a superabundance of adjectives keep reminding me that it’s all just a bunch of crummy words on paper.

__________

Baffling Codes!

The following coded message is introduced in Chapter 8 (accompanied by a reference to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man):

O, Draconian devil!
Oh, lame saint!

If you can decipher it, you are well ahead of the protagonist, who doesn’t crack it until chapter 20! Where’s Hermione Granger when you need her…