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Special Treats

Off to the shipping agent today to pick up my long-awaited copy of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, labelled ‘psychedelic noir’:

It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there . . . or . . . if you were there, then you . . . or, wait, is it . . .

Amazon has a playlist Pynchon chose to exemplify the story and setting and you can also hear the man himself introducing the work below:

Check out the Wiki for more Inherent Vice fun.



The earliest known complete copy of the Greek New Testament has been made available here. The book is housed in the British Library and it has always blown me away whenever I’ve been to see it – whatever my personal views on the religion it codifies.  In fact, if you are in London and haven’t gone to the John Ritblat Gallery, then go.  If you have any affection for books, history or human knowledge then do yourself a favour and go bask in the glow of those pages.  And if not, then you can always go and sneer at them (quietly).

Anyhow, this development will give scholars the ability to examine the manuscript from anywhere in the world and is definitley a ‘good thing.’

Albín Brunovský

By Albín Brunovský

I was flickering through my Google Reader feeds, trying vainly to catch up and struggling beneath an informational avalanche when I saw a shaft of light through the trees and found THIS.

Above is a sample of the kind of things that are showcased – forgotten books and their illustrators.


Thanks to DarkRoastedBlend for pointing me there.

I am doing some research into online mind-mapping, as I am tired of having all my notes on different machines and memory drives.

So far I have found an application called MindMeister, that lets you have a basic account for free. You can create, share, collaborate on and embed your mind maps with this site.I put together  an example map (won’t load in WordPress), summarising Keith Johnson‘s book Communicative Syllabus Design and Methodology.

Then there is Freemind Share, a site (currently in Beta) for uploading and sharing the mind maps you create using Freemind. I have become a fan of Freemind, despite having paid for and used NovaMind a lot. As much as I love NovaMind I just don’t want to keep paying for upgrades. Freemind does most of what I need it to do, but I haven’t got my head around its text export options yet – particularly for Open Office.

It would be great if Google could integrate a Mind-Map program into Google Docs with text export capability. I also would love to see an outliner faeture in Goolge Docs, a la Omni Outliner (which, along with Scrivener is one of my all-time favourite programs). In the meantime there is Text 2 Mind Map a rather nifty free site that converts outlined text into a mind-map style diagram.

Finally, there are several blogs on the subject. This is a site that seems to cover different products rather than being affiliated with just one:

St Ives Returns!

St Ives Returns!

As I near the end of Lord Kelvin’s Machine, which holds up very well on re-reading, I thought I would mention an upcoming addition to the Langdon St Ives oeuvre: The Ebb Tide.  Here is what the publishers have to say:

A flaming meteor over the Yorkshire Dales, a long-lost map drawn by the lunatic Bill “Cuttle” Kraken, and the discovery of a secret subterranean shipyard beneath the River Thames lead Professor Langdon St. Ives and his intrepid friend Jack Owlesby into the treacherous environs of Morecambe Bay, with its dangerous tides and vast quicksand pits. They descend beneath the sands of the Bay itself, into a dark, unknown ocean littered with human bones and the remnants of human dreams. In this tale of murder, infamy, and Victorian intrigue, the tides of destiny shift relentlessly and rapidly as the stakes grow ever higher and the pursuit more deadly….

Dashed intriguing, what?



Well, strictly speaking one new, one an anthology of old stuff, both by Subterranean.

First, the old.

More perfect stories

More perfect stories

Wild Thyme, Green Magic, is a collection of Vance’s short fiction.  Looks lovely.

The second, verging on the supernaturally exciting, is Vance’s autobiography, planned to coincide with the publication in August (at long last) of the tribute volume Songs of the Dying Earth.

Get your orders in.  With apologies to the publishers, Amazon is significantly cheaper at present.

Pirates, Zombies and the Fountain of Youth

Pirates, Zombies and the Fountain of Youth

I am re-reading this amazing novel.  I remember liking it the first time round, but not being completely floored.  Now, however… It is a supremely weird masterpiece, combining a light, almost slapstick humour with extremely twisted and dark effects (like a literary Dado), although the main protagonist Jack Shandy sheds his somewhat bungling persona as the book progresses.

I have always suspected that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise ransacked this novel for ideas, but, fond as I am of the first installment, OST blows the movies out of the water.

I once had a fine UK First Edition, but I foolishly lent it to someone (don’t remember who) and… oh well.  I’m only really into book-collecting in the sense of having a copy, I’m not too fetishistic about which one or how many of the same book.  Mind you, I think it’s worth a fair few now.

Speaking of Dado (a Montenegrin painter who melds staggering bleakness and horror with beautiful painterly effects, textures and colours), I’m finding it very hard to track down any of his images online.  Here’s one though courtesy of the Gallery of Surrealism.

Gibbering fungal heads anyone?

Gibbering fungal heads anyone?

The guy deserves a lot more recognition, as does Tim Powers.  If you happen to read this and haven’t read OST, get a copy.  Now!

Good Read?

Good Read?

I still haven’t got this yet.  Just checked up on the author’s website, having been shamelessly spying on him via Twitter and caught this interview clip from Amazon.  Something to look forward to then.  Fortunately, a Hospice shop in Bristol that I managed to get to whilst on out recent trip to England provided me with copies of Spares and, my favourite, Only Forward – which are waiting impatiently for me to be done with Italo Calvino so I can re-read them.

There is a tomcat moaning outside.  Woke me up last night at 5am.  I think he’s after Skarzor, but he may be too late – unless it was him.

I picked up this book by Colin Wilson in the College Library.  It is a fascinating read.  Well-written, immensely knowledgeable (at times almost suspiciously so – how can anyone have really read that much?) and strongly opinionated.  Amusingly, Wilson pretty much condemns all the great novels and their producers as failures, for one reason or another, although he doesn’t ignore their strengths or importance.

While it is true that there is a little too much negativity, although that is one of the traits that Wilson means to target in his own critiques, there is something very refreshing about an author that is prepared to square up against the unassailable giants of literature and point out faults that many of us would secretly agree with if we didn’t want to be dismissed as ignorant buffoons.  Mind you, I had to hold myself back as he slagged off Beckett, dismissed Pynchon as ‘experimental only in form, not content’ and belittled Hesse.  Despite this, I have to say that I find many of his judgements to be fair, and most are at least partially justifiable.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is the lack of women writers.   Had Wilson bothered to include a few more females he might have gone a long way to solving his problems with the modern (for him male) novel.  It is even arguable, though possibly he never realised it, that the root of his dissatisfaction with the novel’s prospects in the 20th century is the very maleness of his choices.  Or maybe not.  The criticisms that Wilson levels at the ‘serious’ male writers might equally be marshalled against many canonical women writers too.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it takes fantasy seriously, rating the Lord of The Rings as one of the finest novels of the last 100 years and David Lindsay as one of the greatest writers.  Indeed, Wilson implies that such critically marginalised forms of the novel have stayed closest to the things he sees as its true purposes, among which are to reflect the writer’s fundamental self-image and to outline what it is that they truly want.  Wilson also emphasises the transformative power of the novel and its ability to allow the writer (and reader) to transcend the ‘robot’ self that exists within the everyday and see outside the box – using what he calls ‘wide-angle’ vision.

Still, even sticking to male authors as Wilson does, he missed a trick not mentioning Flann O’Brien, Mikhail Bulgakov, Olaf Stapledon and Karl May.  Oh, and Jack Vance of course.

There’s a good, somewhat bemused, review of this book by Olly Buxton on Amazon which is a bit more dismissive than I would be of it, although I agree with a lot of his points.  In spite of Wilson’s sweeping condemnations and sometimes pompous tones I found a lot to smile at and to think about.  A surprising and enjoyable find, although it’s not much help in terms of creative writing advice, which is the reason I picked it up in the first place…

I’ve been going through Dan Simmons’ entertaining and strongly opinionated series on ‘How to Write Well’. I highly recommend it if you are interested in reading advice on writing from someone who does it brilliantly and knows what he’s talking about, and who makes you laugh (and cringe possibly a bit too…)

One of the key things Simmons recommends is that we read the great classics, not to imitate them (god forbid!) but to deepen our appreciation and awareness of style, language and technique. I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, I’ve decided to ‘take him on’ and broaden my reading diet, particularly with the classic novels. Madame Bovary seems to be a particular recommendation of Simmons, who argues that it represents a fictional fault-line, a before and after moment for the novel. So, I thought that might be a good start – I know, it’s unbelievable I still haven’t read it. Have you?  I downloaded a free copy, well-rendered as a PDF, here.

Simmons also highlights Henry James as one of the greatest stylists in modern English, managing to capture vast import and subtlety into what he says and, above all, what he doesn’t say.

I happen to have a copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to hand and I decided to give it a go. It has some fine and chilling moments of horror, as well as an intriguing is she/isn’t she psychological plot-puzzle that has kept readers and critics entertained ever since its publication.

However, in my view, the style is somewhat opaque, particularly the dialogue, and is not a great model to learn from (except perhaps for what not to do). Nineteenth Century people may well have thought and spoke in the strangely periphrastic, stilted, and at times incomprehensible way that James makes them do here, it is hard for me to judge. But I’ve read Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and MR James for that matter, and their characters don’t seem to, unless it’s a particular trait and is fully intentional.

Simmons writes amusingly of his undergraduate attitude to Henry James and his layered style (he tried to avoid reading him as much as possible), but notes his growing appreciation for him as a master of deep and complex prose as he got older, and more experienced, as a writer.

I’m sorry to say, though, that I am still not convinced. So, in the spirit of fun, and to illustrate my problem with The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve heard so much about, and which has frankly disappointed me, I give you a sample from a lost early version of the story:

Whether he saw now the measure of it, or I of myself, was now no longer to be the question. If only, I forced myself to concede, it were. But no, that thought was merest whimsy, no more of the slightest possibility, or of even the grossest supposition or manner. Now, I was only too painfully aware, only the merest trace of what might not have been said or known was there left, mingling too unkindly with the sighs of the frosty evening air. But had I not known of it always? Was it for him, in that monstrous moment, to be vouchsafed that I, as it were, not from the want of it, but alone, as though at once, should perceive, in the most exquisite detail, the knowledge that he, were he only to share it with me in the merest instant or breath, to be? Was I that condemned? I think that if I had, at that precise instant, but paused a moment longer, to accept within myself the truth of it, then I would truly have been lost, As it was, the anguish of the instant all but rushed in upon my soul, and I confess I broke, with all the pent up fury and anger and hatred that the pettiness of not having known of it before could have meant, to him, for he it was, I understood that now, and I ran. Out into the silent garden, its cold embrace and bare winter branches seeming only to mock me now, and I flung myself down upon the close-cropped croquet lawn, and I wept. For how long, I shall never now recall, it might have been an eon. But at last, the sobs subsided and I returned, with slow and dreadful steps to the drawing room to watch a bit of tv.

There’s lots like that. Of course, I’ll give James another chance, and I’m aware I’m being very silly, but he’s lost some points with this story… unless the joke is on me and I have completely missed the point…

Perhaps the style is supposed to be like that as it reflects the state of mind and confusion and repression of the heroine. Oh dear… D**n you Henry James! You win again!

July 2018
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