Sunday, 4 June 2017


I've always fought against fear, fear of failure and pain. Fighting to try and overcome the knowledge that failure is inevitable and that any success or happiness is just putting off the time when things will come crashing down, and make the crash all the worse.

I try. I try to be positive and try to work hard and try, most importantly, to be a good person but that just ends up throwing into starker relief that I can't do these things. I thought it was getting easier - or, at least, less phenomenally, impossibly difficult. There was always the fear hanging over my of slipping back to the time when surviving each day didn't feel like any sort of victory, but just left me with the crushing weight that I'd have to try to do it again and again, pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll to the bottom again,knowing that one day I'd not be strong enough and the rock would squash me.

Perhaps it should be relief of sorts to be back there. one less thing to be afraid of. But it isn't.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Book Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: may's amazing maze, a paradox of pages

Wow. Where to start?

Very little can clearly and definitively be stated about Mark Danielewki’s book; it is dense and confusing, it is playful and frustrating. It is a work of either genius or a huge illusion of smoke and mirrors. I certainly lean toward the former.

The story of the main text is that of a supposedly famous film by Will Navidson, a celebrated photojournalist, settling down from his travels on assignment around with world with his partner and children in a house in Virginia, only for a strange hallway to open up in the house that seems to defy both the dimensions of the building and the laws of geometry. It is this central plot that leads the novel (some would even argue with that noun although, while he plays with the form and stretches it, a novel it certainly is) to be filed under ‘horror’.

This text, however, is being presented as an unfinished manuscript by a blind author Zampano, discovered and edited by one Johnny Truant, an Angelino apprenticed at a tattoo parlour in the city. Johnny’s footnotes become longer and more invasive, appearing often to have little to do with the text and frequently running on for pages at a time - on top of footnotes by the mysterious Zampano, so Johnny’s footnotes are often secondary, and become increasingly nested, to the point of absurdity, in some cases leading to appendices which are footnoted “missing”.

This textual confusion is furthered by the inclusion of many quotes from cultural arbiters and experts - interviews with Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, criticism from Jacques Derrida and Camille Paglia and Hunter S. Thompson - and many others more obscure and, indeed, entirely fictional. Actually, while this film is written about as being a defining cultural moment, Johnny himself has never heard of it. The text and Johnny’s footnotes are presented in presented in different fonts and, as the impossible labyrinth within the house is explored Danielewski introduces increasingly bizarre text layouts - text directionality changing on the page, being printed upside down, notes embedded in the middle of the main text, words being as important for their pattern on the page as their meaning.

So, what is the book about? It could be read as the story of the impossible house, although the reader would have to ignore a massive amount of the book (there is actually a wonderful radio adaptation which does an admirable job of dramatising this aspect), the hallway and labyrinth to which it leads can be read as a metaphor for the problems in the relationship between Navidson and Karen - but Johnny’s story is even more interesting and obscure. One of the appendices is The Whalestoe Letters, correspondence from Johnny’s institutionalised mother, which makes (some) sense of  some of his own background. Do the rest of the appendices add to the tale? The odd poetry and notes and quotes and sketches? I don’t know, but it all feels like it belongs. Is everything David Lynch includes in a script meaningful, or is he sometimes just fucking with us? Even if he is, if it still adds to the stor, it still belongs.

Some of Danielewski’s influences are clear - I see Borges and Calvino and Alasdair Gray, and I know there are many, many I miss - but the book is so beautifully constructed, so much its own thing (and so knowingly self-referential) that reference spotting never spoils the ride. I have no doubt that this is a work of utter genius to which i will return, if only to see what I’ve missed on a first reading.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

For a moment, I forgot this wasn't the first terrorist attack at a pop concert

A pop concert. Again. This time, one with families and children.

Words fail. My heart goes out to everyone involved, of course. It is unimaginable, or should be. But what do we do, how do we react? This kind of thing cannot be defended against in a free, liberal democracy - cars used as weapons against pedestrians, attacks on the softest of targets. So, what are our options? We become more afraid, less open? Police states are one definition of secure. We go all Trump (or Bush and Blair) and react by going after "these people" - except, who are "these people"? And, more to the point, isn't it our aggressions in the Middle East and Afghanistan that cause these attacks, that multiply our enemies? I cannot believe that there is anyone in any of the places we and our so-called allies are at war who could see pictures of children at an event meant to be joyous, suddenly torn apart by explosives and think it anything but horrific. But there are undoubtedly many who would look hollow-eyed and think "welcome to our world." I am not making excuses for whoever did this - this is terrible, by definition anyone perpetrating this kind of act is unhinged, through neurro-chemical imbalance or twisted by dogma - but we have to think about cause and effect.

I'm off work today, meant to prepping for an interview. I'm going to make an effort to not curl into a ball and hide, to do my prep and walk in the sun, to communicate with friends, to do some housework. To make an effort to not let this shitstorm beat me down. I'm not making this awful thing about me, but it affects me, it affects us all. The way we react, the way we think. We have to carry on, not as though nothing has happened but knowing it has, and could again, but carry on regardless. To not allow ourselves to be bowed or scared or stop feeling compassion. Compassion is not a limited resource unless we allow it to be.

Ramble over. I hope it makes sense to some of you. Go outside in the sun, look at something beautiful, tell someone how much you love them. This is what matters.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Book Review: Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This novel starts in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and advances to the present day - or, more probably, to the very near future, although this isn’t completely clear. Along with this interesting and - for me - unfamiliar setting, it is a novel of big ideas, science, culture and society (all the things science fiction does best), so I should have loved it.

And it isn’t that is is badly written. There are, indeed, moments of sheer beauty, and I would call the novel a success, but it does fall short. In some ways the book feels like a patchwork from different eras of SF; there are parts reminiscent of ‘Doc’ Smith, Asimov, Silverberg, Stephenson. I particularly thought of this last a few times with Liu’s tendency to elaborate on a scientific idea (such as the titular Three Body Problem) or a technology, and also to expostulate at length.

Much of the novel centres around one of the characters investigating a virtual reality game called Three Body, wherein the players are attempting to define a scientific model for a reality where the days and seasons seem utterly chaotic (although it might seem that the name of the game is a rather obvious clue, given the scientific background of so many of the players). It transpires that this game is actually a recruiting tool by a group of people who are preparing to welcome to Earth an alien civilisation from just such a world. And this is where the book really falls apart; the aliens just aren’t believable. While many of the other shortcomings of the book can be excused - there is a lack of good characterisation, the scientific ideas may break the flow of the story on occasion but are interesting in themselves, the idea that intelligent life could evolve on such a chaotic world are far fetched but no more so than, say, Dragon’s Egg, The aliens themselves entirely lack personality. Worse, their communications are often nothing but the worst sort of exposition and full of metaphors that are so human and 20th century it is entirely jarring.

This is a great shame, as there is so much about the book to admire and enjoy. The details of the Cultural Revolution, and the inviting of the potentially destructive outside force to solve the problems of a humanity that may be considered to be beyond redemption as a mirror for that terrible era. I am very much undecided whether to pick up the next volume.

Nice evening 15k to round off January

 The weather has turned suddenly milder after the recent cold snap, so it made getting out this evening all the easier.

I'd bottled out of running into work after a poor night's sleep so was pleased to find that, after a slow build up through the park, I settled into a comfortable loping rhythm. Out to Clay Wheels Lane then soon beyond the reach of the streetlights into Beeley Woods, the beam of my chest light bobbing ahead of me.

At Oughtibridge I decided to try the climb of Church Road for he first time in a while - not just up to Worrall, but arcing to the right up to Kirk Edge, the road a black line between the Stygian fields.

It's impossible to see the whole of Sheffield from any one point, nestled as it is in the fold of creases of its seven hills and their many valleys, but there are many high vantage points that give the illusion if you don't know better. About half way up the 230 odd metre climb there's a sudden view down this portion of the Don Valley revealed a stunning glimpse of the lights of the city centre and the climb toward Norfolk Park and Sheffield Manor beyond. But at the high point of Kirk Edge Road as I turn south to drop sharply back toward Hillsborough is one of those spots where it is easy to believe that the lights glittering like an armful of gems scattered over rucked black velvet is the whole 370 square kilometres of the city, and all of its 560, 000 citizens, but knowing that there are parts entirely hidden by the cunning folds of the land is part of the city's beauty.

I let gravity take me down the hill, trusting in my chest light and that any traffic coming the other way will be visible a long way off by its own light. I consider taking one of the turns that will drop me down into Loxley Valley higher up by the reservoir but feel the long straight of Loxley Road may be dispiriting if I lose my wind, so compromise by pushing for all I'm worth along the childs'-rollercoaster undulations of Myers Lane and am rewarded with a comfortable PR

More traffic on the drop down Long Lane than on the rest of the night-time roads combined, then onto pavement for the final hop over Wiesewood and home.

A gorgeous bit of night running. I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate it nearly so much in the early hours.

Listening: The Guilty Feminist, & The Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts

Monday, 31 October 2016

Book Review - In the Shadow of the Sword - Yes It's F*cking Political, Everything's Political

Tom Holland has made quite the name for himself with his narrative histories. His first, Rubicon, is about the rise of Julius Caesar and the transformation of Rome from the Republic it had been to the Empire usually envisioned by those of us raised on Hollywood sword and sandal epics and the UK history syllabus.

Here, Holland covers a far more complex and controversial era of history, the world of late antiquity centred on what we now refer to as the Middle East. This fits in nicely with my current undertaking of patching the massive holes left in my knowledge of world history by the aforementioned UK school syllabus. It particularly snuggles like a jigsaw piece against Judith Herrin’s superlative history of Byzantium which, naturally, focused on that great city itself and the world beyond only inasmuch as it bore directly upon it.

The setting here is the Eastern edge of the late Roman Empire where it abuts the most Westerly of the great Asian empires - initially the Parthians, then succeeded by the Sassanians. Each, much to the surprise of most people with a Western Classical education, was easily a match for mighty Rome and inflicted at least as many defeats and humiliations upon it as it upon them (the most striking of which is the fate of Emperor Valerian who, after being captured by the Parthians, spent the rest of his life being used by King Shapur I as a stool to mount his house and, on his death, having his skin flayed and gilded as a throneroom trophy).

Holland throws in vignettes like this to wonderful effect - such as the introductory account of the bloodthirsty religions zeal of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, before ending with the startling line “So perished… the last Jewish king to rule in Arabia.”

The author spends most of the book with background of how the two great empires grew and changed through the first 600 years or so of the Common Era - more detail on the Sassanids as Rome is more familiar to his audience, although he sketches in such things as the Gothic conquest of Italy and Spain and refers to a few things with which we are more likely to be familiar to ground the narrative. He takes us through the difficulties that Parthia has with the ‘barbarians’ on its Northern and Eastern frontiers that it massively underestimates and leads to its collapse (if I’ve learnt one thing from reading history, it is NEVER pursue bands of mobile mounted archers however much the taunt you), along with an overview of their culture and religion.

Along with this, as part of the timeline of Constantinople, we are shown the rise of Christianity in Palestine - the response of Rome to the various Hebrew insurrections, leading ultimately to expulsion from Jerusalem, the foundation of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage from Europe following Constantine’s conversion, the ascetic monks such as Simeon on his pillar. We also get a potted history of the schisms of Christianity, Nicea and Chalcedon, the Arians and the Copts.

Then, in the third part of the book, we are introduced again to that fragment of the region under the control of neither superpower. To the south of the fractious border is Arabia, a land considered barbarous by both Romans and Sassanians, although they are both also quite happy to pay the tribes as mercenaries. This disregard despite the fact that this area has housed the kingdom of Sheba, made wealthy beyond imagining by being the major supplier of Frankincense but fallen on hard times by the rise of Christianity and their dislike of such pagan practices as the burning of incense. From this area comes a third force, one which gives some editions of this book its alternative (and rather inflammatory) subtitle, “The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire”.

And this is where the controversy comes in. Holland shows how Islam rose not only as a political force as much as a religious one, but that it was a melange of the Hebraic history of the Arabian peninsula (as foreshadowed by that introduction with King Yusuf), the Manichaeism of late Iranshahr (Sassania), along with influences from others in the area such as the Biblically maligned Samaritans, the philosophy generated by the Christian schisms and the close textual analysis and argumentation of the Jewish yeshivas. Most controversial of all, the author points out the signal lack of contemporary accounts of the Qu’ran, Mecca and Mohammed’s direct influence. He shows Islam (or the Mohammedan faith, which came to be called Islam almost a century later) as a political construct, as riven with dissent and infighting as any other human political process. Perhaps most shockingly of all, he suggests that the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed used as an adjunct to and expansion of the Qu’ran, are made up out of whole cloth the best part of a century after his death to justify interpretations of the extremely vague Qu’ran - or, indeed, to entirely re-write it, such as to upgrade the punishment for adultery from lashes to the traditional Jewish death by stoning. Mixed in with the jockeying for position as the power behind this new and vast empire, this shows that Islam and its holy texts are no more trustworthy and god-given than those of Christianity or Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Hinduism. They are products of human societies, of political power struggles that have a background and a frame, that both use belief and are a vector for it.

While Tom Holland’s fourth history book (he also write fiction - I really should investigate that!) is not without flaws, it is remarkably well written, well argued, as well as well researched and referenced. I have yet to read a narrative history as good as his debut, Rubicon (although that is on a par with saying that I have yet to hear a symphony on par with Beethoven’s ninth or Mahler’s fifth. Okay, anything by Mahler) but I think that is because the relatively narrow focus of the internecine power plays of Roma perhaps lend themselves more easily to the narrative history style without oversimplification. Holland obviously must simplify somewhat, but he really does seem to try to include as much relevant information as is humanly possible. As with his book Persian Fire about the Greco-Persian wars (Thermopylae and all that) this can lead to a temporary overload of information, that I dealt with by putting aside the book for a few days on occasion to allow my brain to process it. I do also feel that he sometimes gives myths of Christianity an easier ride that those of other religions, putting them down with argumentative foot- or endnotes. While this may be purely as he expects the audience to be already more familiar with these, it does mean these appear to be accepted more uncritically.

In all, an utterly superb addition to my knowledge of the history that has formed our world, told in an utterly compelling, absorbing and informative manner.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Book Review: Yellow King Tales volume 1: solid pallor and a tattered robe

After finding the recent Pulver edited anthology A Season in Carcosa a very mixed bag, I thought Id try this collection by the man himself. It starts very, very strongly; the first five stories are gloriously creepy and scary, modern-set noir-tinged Yellow King tales fraught with menace and madness, utilising many of the tropes of Chambers' original stories to stunning effect. Publication dates aren't listed for individual stories, but I can well imagine these were an influence on the original True Detective TV show.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the book hits that level of quality. There are many good stories but, for me, nothing great and frankly too much filler. Part of the problem was, perhaps, reading it as a block rather than dipping in, as Pulver's reliance on Cassilda and other fragments from the Yellow King play becomes somewhat repetitive.

In many of the stories the author also writes in a style that is neither prose nor poetry (or possibly both), going from normal block paragraphs to

setting out
the words




white                                                  space

and make use

experimental ways.

I didn't find this very effective - although, full disclosure, I have never been a fan of shape poems and find stream-of-consciousness writing generally insufferable, so perhaps I'm the wrong audience. The longer of these pieces I found myself scanning through as there didn't really seem to be a great deal of content within the form. There are also a couple of stories that are fine, but then have sudden Yellow King references shoehorned in at the end for no apparent reason, and much to the detriment of the tale.

I will definitely return to Pulver, perhaps trying some of his longer work or something not so narrowly focused as he can undoubtedly be a great writer.