Between two frames

The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…

Our customary visible order is not the only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.

Last night before bed, I read John Berger’s essay “Opening a Gate” in Why Look at Animals? This section struck me, perhaps because it was so similar to what I was trying to get at when wrote about the idea of the beyond-world. I like the idea of multiple beyond-worlds, not destined for us that we occasionally catch glimpses of, perhaps out of the corner of our eye, perhaps head on.

When I wrote about the beyond-world, I mentioned Shoal Creek in Austin. It’s right in the middle of the city. There is a sidewalk that runs along it. Once evening, I was walking on that sidewalk and came upon an owl sitting on a branch. It was directly in front of me and staring right at me. I stopped in my tracks and stared at it for a moment. Perhaps longer than a mere moment, it’s hard to say. The world around me and the bird seemed to shift: colors changed and there was an electricity in the air. It may simply have been that the sun was going down. In fact, whenever I see the word “gloaming” that moment comes back to me. It alone captures the sudden shift of colors and texture that came so suddenly and just as suddenly disappeared.

The other thing that Berger’s description of a different perception found between two frames reminded me of was a lot of the writing of Haruki Murakami. He describes this as combining objective language and personal language. Murakami’s personal language feels like a beyond-world, something seen by—perhaps destined for—one person only. It’s the interplay between the world everyone agrees on and one individual’s beyond-world that I enjoy so much about Murakami’s writing.

In some some sense, this feels like what much fiction writing and some non-fiction writing, like the writing of Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane. Perhaps this is only true of the authors I love—such as Calvino, Borges, Carter and García Márquez—who take their queue as much from folktale and mythology as they do from science and reason. I return again and again to the writers who are able to communicate the internal life of a character or themselves.

Top 5 books for 2007

I’m a little late with my “best of” 2007 lists. It think technically you’re supposed to write these before the end of the year. Oh well, I’ve never really been one for following convention anyway. This is a list of the books that I read during 2007 that I enjoyed most. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the books came out in 2007. All five books are fiction. I suppose I should compile a non-fiction list as well, but most of the non-fiction I’ve been reading has been tech books. And I wouldn’t want to bore you to tears.

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
Probably best described as satirical magical realism, but don’t let that put you off. This is hands down my favourite book of the year. I think I’ve given this as a present to pretty much everyone I know.
Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
I haven’t read any of her other books, but Némirovsky was a writer of extraordinary talent. Her characters, her attention to detail and her ability to inhabit a future that she would never know are the reasons that this book is a great work of literature, despite the fact that she was never able to complete the book.
Margherita Dolce Vita, by Stefano Benni
Another one of those books that I keep giving as a present. This is a fantastic tale of what happens when innocence, family and politics collide.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I’ve written briefly about Never Let Me Go before. What is extraordinary about the book is not so much what is said, but what goes unsaid.
My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad
An Iranian classic, currently banned in Iran. The characters are so well drawn that you are rarely told who is speaking, you simply know by what is said.

So there it is in all its glory. What do you think? What were your favourite books last year?

Unfinished business

I have a bad habit. Occasionally, I’ll start a book and set it to the side with the intention of finishing the first book after I’m done reading the second. This is what usually happens. Sometimes, though, another book comes along, then another and so on. In the last two or three years there have been a few books that this has happened with. OK, more than a few. Nine, to be exact.

I’ve now decided that I won’t start any other books until I’ve finished the unfinished books that have been lurking by my bedside for so many months now. So far, I’ve finished one of the unfinished books, The Diversity of Life and I’ve restarted another, Amo, Amas and All That. As for the remaining seven, I’ve created a to-finish bookshelf over at goodreads.

With the exception of The World is Flat, I was enjoying all of these books while I was reading them and I’m looking forward to returning to them. I’m just hoping that the rest of The World is Flat isn’t as badly researched and biased as the chapter on open source software.

The Lives of Others

Last Friday, Joanne and I went to see The Lives of Others. We left the cinema utterly amazed. It is an extraordinary film. The film literally took my breath away. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn’t speak for a few minutes after the film. Early in the film, there is a conversation between Bruno Hempf, the East German minister of culture, and Georg Dreyman, a playwright caught between his creative integrity and the watchful eye of the East German regime. During their conversation, Hempf says, ‘No matter how many times you write it in your plays, people don’t change.’ The rest of the film proves Hempf wrong, in more ways than one.

The next day, I opened the Review of the Saturday Guardian to read Anna Funder’s article on the film. (If you haven’t seen the film, I’d recommend waiting until you have before reading the article.) I was almost expecting an article like this. One that says that the film could never have happened. I expected an article like this to ruin the film for me. It didn’t. Funder recognizes that the film is superb; however, she points out that the events portrayed the film could never have happened. The East German system of surveillance would not have allowed it to happen. A Stasi man would never have give the freedom that Wiesler was given in the film.

I have yet to read Funder’s Stasiland, but it is now on my reading list. I’m appalled by the notion that a totalitarian system could be that complete, that successful. Strangely, I’m also comforted by the fact that the regime used fear to ensure the passivity and acceptance of its citizens. Stay with me here: I’m not a sadist, and I do approve of or condone the methods used in East Germany.

I’ve recently finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The characters in Never Let Me Go are in a horrific situation. Entirely absent is any notion that this situation could be changed. The characters accept their horrific fate, of which they are fully aware, as destiny. They discuss it amongst themselves. They seek to defer it. In some cases, they even rave against it. But they never consider that they could avoid it, that they could change it. They simply accept that it is why they were created. They are completely human, yet completely oblivious to the possibility of change for the better.

This is what I mean when I say that I’m comforted by the fact that in East Germany, fear was used to keep the population in line. The regime was never able to win the population’s hearts and minds. People wanted a better life, and there were those who fought for it.

Fear tactics are very persuasive, but they are also very obvious. They are an easy way to prevent opposition and to shut down rational debate. Not every one falls for it, though. Not everyone gives in. What frightens me is the idea that human beings can be taught to accept an unacceptable, inhumane situation as normal and natural.

Update For whatever reason, this post was attracting about 90% of the spam on this blog, so I’m closing comments on this post.

An Imperfect List of Fantastic Books

It was tempting to title this post “A Long Time Coming,” but that’s far too similar to the title of the first post in this blog.

At the time that New Media was coming to an abrupt end, Wendy asked for a list of my top ten books. I actually did start putting a list together. I have it here in front of me: 31 books. Joanne and I worked on our lists during a train journey into London to see the Information Design Exhibition at the Design Museum. I have her list too: 26 books. The lists are dated 19 March 2005. A long time coming.

Two years later, and I have an email in my inbox from another friend asking for more or less the same thing. So now it’s time to browse the bookshelves, go over the old list and decide on my 10 favourite books. The list, not surprisingly, is going to be a bit arbitrary. I’m not including books that I read before I was 12 or 13. If you’re curious, my favourite book from my childhood is The Lorax . Dr. Seuss had a huge influence on me: just ask anyone unfortunate enough to have read my childhood poetry.

OK. Here we go:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – This choice is probably influenced by the fact that Joanne and I recently watched Capote. Then again, maybe not. It’s book #11 on the train list. It gets the top spot because it’s the first book I remember reading that I loved, aside from the Lorax, of course. I can trace my core beliefs back to a handful of books, some of which are on this list. This is one of them.
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Should I be ashamed that this book made it onto my list rather than 1984? I read them around the same time, probably 1984 actually. Brave New World had much more of an impact. I suppose it seemed more relevant at the time. Of course, I was a 13-year-old kid. 1984 is sitting in my bedside stack of books. Perhaps I should read Brave New World and 1984 side by side again to see what I think now.
    Huxley had an impact for another reason. The Perennial Philosophy sparked my interest in World Religion. My nascent rebellion against seven years of Lutheran School probably had something to do with it, too.
  3. Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – When I was 18 or 19 years old, Vonnegut was the only author I read. At least that’s how I remember it. If this list were organised according to the impact books had on the way I see the world, Vonnegut would be number two. As you probably know, Vonnegut died recently. So it goes. The day after he died, I reread Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut, I realised, isn’t a great stylist. He can tell a fabulous story, though, and he has the remarkable ability to convey what he believes is right. It’s all the more remarkable because he also manages to convey all the absurdity, doubt and uncertainty that most of us experience on a daily basis.
  4. The Arabian Nights – I’ve read many a book of folk and fairy tales in my time, but this is still the best. The Brothers Grimm runs a close second. I wouldn’t bother with all 1001 nights, though. From what I remember, several hundred of the nights are padding added in the 18th century. The Haddaway translation is the best.
  5. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino – I discovered Calvino via his collection of Italian Folktales and the recommendation of a friend. I quickly fell in love with his work. He’s able to transform his love of learning, words and books into spellbinding fables. Though all of his work is amazing, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller remains my favourite because the conclusion, while extraordinarily simple, questions the very notion of conclusions.
  6. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Joanne introduced me to Angela Carter. In fact, I basically “stole” Angela Carter from Joanne, and was quickly recommending Carter’s books to everyone who would listen. But her books are amazing. In a world where most of the fairy tales we know are through Disney films, Carter rescued fairy tales — and story telling in general — from saccharine certainty and happy endings. The stories in The Bloody Chamber are dark, well written and enthralling.
  7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – Forget that this is a “classic.” Forget that it is the “first European novel.” It is the funniest book that I’ve ever read. OK, it’s really two books. I maintain that the second is the better of the two. In it, Don Quixote sets off again. This time, however, the people he encounters have read what we’ve read and know what we know. They see him coming a mile off, a wannabe knight with his head in his books of chivalry. If you met Don Quixote on the road, what would you do? And you thought reality television was cruel.
  8. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami – I discovered Murakami by accident when I picked up this book from shelves of the Co-op bookstore in Austin. Murakami was completely unexpected. In a different time, with a bit more confidence, his characters would have been tricksters, bridging the gap between humans and the gods. Instead, these are ordinary men, not god-like at all. They are caught between reality and imagination, trying to make sense of it all. In a way, they are Don Quixotes with no Sancho Panza to provide comic relief or guidance. Not nearly as funny, but still fascinating.
  9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – Several Christmases ago, Mike gave me Ghostwritten. He thought I’d love it. My brother knows me well. Mitchell is now my favourite living author. He is a master craftsman. His stories and characters are perfectly drawn, but it is as a ventriloquist that he truly shines. He can take on the voice of any character. The tone and timbre is so convincing that you’d swear they were standing in front of you, sharing their strange life stories with you. If you do read Cloud Atlas, read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller first.
  10. Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni – This is a recent find. I want to read more of Benni, though according to Wikipedia, only three of his books have been translated into English. Hopefully this will change. It’s rare to find a book that is simultaneously as imaginative, politically engaged and enjoyable as Margherita Dolce Vita. I bumped a very worthy, but better known, book was bump from this list simply because I think more people should know about this book. So read it, already.

And there it is. There’s a lot that I’ve left out. Now that I’ve finished it, the list as a whole seems to lean heavily in favour of literary fantasy, if there is such a category of fiction. I do read other types of books. Apparently, I don’t enjoy them quite as much, though.

So, what do you think? Are my choices crap? What 10 books would you choose?