You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Guest Blogger’ tag.
‘Wait, I thought the guest blogs were over?’ I hear you exclaim. Well, yes but I received this today from my former editor (as well as mentor, friend and all round stand-up gent) Ciaran Pringle and decided to throw it up here. After all, it was during my time of working with Ciaran that I first travelled out to Australia and met Stephanie. So I have very fond memories of that period.
Also there is some big news coming shortly. Very excited. Cheers folks – Emmet.
Every now and then, I decide to live dangerously and judge a book by its cover. The odds are stacked against me, but that’s what makes the rare discovery of a gem so exciting. A couple of weeks back I was moseying through my favourite bookshop here in Dublin when I saw what looked like a block of wood on one of the display tables. It was, of course, a book with a wood-effect cover. Curious, I picked it up and read the title: The Case for Working with your Hands – or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good. A shiver ran down my spine. Here was a book about a subject that has occupied my thoughts on and off for almost thirty years – the entire duration of my seemingly endless career as a civil servant. Before running to the till, however, I scanned a couple of pages from the introduction to check for signs of pop psychology. You know the sort of thing I mean – chapter headings based on Arcade Fire song titles or repeated references to ‘self-actualisation’. Mercifully, it was free of all flummery. I bought it on the spot.
The American author, Matthew Crawford, is a philosopher (a real one) by training and a motorbike mechanic by inclination. As a teenager, he picked up extra pocket money helping in a local garage. From there, he graduated to a specialist motorbike repair shop, where he earned enough to put himself through the University of Chicago. After several years following the expected academic path, lecturing, working in a ‘think tank’, it became increasingly apparent that for him, fixing bikes was more satisfying, more – here’s the ‘eureka’ bit – intellectually challenging, than researching and writing papers on social policy. The really interesting thing about Crawford is that he took the next step – he chucked in the job at the think tank and opened his own bike repair shop, where he works to this day. The college grad became a tradesman.
Crawford uses his unlikely career path to explore the world of work and in particular to debunk the deeply entrenched notion that working with your hands is inherently inferior to working with your head. As this beautifully written book amply demonstrates, restoring a thirty year old Honda to its original state, or rewiring a house, or making a fitted wardrobe, requires as much if not more brain power than many desk-bound, white collar jobs – and is a hell of a lot more rewarding on many levels, though not necessarily at wallet level.
The introduction of mass-production processes into manufacturing in the early part of the 20th century is when the rot really set in. When Henry Ford started building ‘automobiles’, employees could expect to be involved in the construction and assembly of an entire car. This, Henry realised, was not an efficient way of churning out Model Ts for an insatiable market. Much better to have an assembly line, with each employee doing a specific task over and over again. It worked. But what made Henry as rich as Croesus turned his employees into automatons. Their jobs had been reduced to actions. Crawford rightly recognises this as a pivotal moment, when thinking was separated from doing.
Soon, the ‘time and motion’ men were applying the logic of the assembly line to every job, from processing insurance claims to making pencils. Complicated tasks were broken down into their component parts and these parts were distributed to employees who, in many cases, had no idea what the end product of their effort was. They were cogs in a machine, paid to do modular bits of activity divorced from any tangible end result. Job satisfaction went out the window and wages became compensation for drudgery. An inevitable consequence of this atomisation of work was that manual competence became devalued. Trades were for those who couldn’t make it into the professions, or even into an office job.
Fast-forward to today, and manual competence is almost frowned upon, and certainly not encouraged by the stuff we surround ourselves with. Crawford is excellent on our disengaged relationship with physical objects, how we automatically replace old things rather than fix them, a reflex relentlessly encouraged by the advertising industry. And even if we do decide to have a go at fixing something, our efforts are likely to be stymied by needless complexity or inaccessible innards. I laughed out loud at his description of the way basic motorbike engines have become obscured by layers of ‘electronic bullshit’.
When I was a kid, whenever something around the house broke, my dad could fix it with little more than a pliers and a screwdriver. Nowadays, such self-sufficiency is all but impossible. Try fixing a stalled DVD player or even a wonky washing machine – that is if you can open the damn thing in the first place. Our stuff is complex and cryptic and not for the technically fainthearted. And anyway, the market is skewed to such an extent that it’s often cheaper to buy a new gadget than replace a part in an old one.
On the work front, the ‘knowledge economy’ is now touted as the only game in town. Get a degree, get a Ph.D., get a job on the information superhighway, churning data in a virtual world where nothing has a concrete existence and where manual competence has no relevance. This should sound familiar – it’s what a lot of us do every working day of our lives.
When I left college in 1983 with a degree in biochemistry in my back pocket, Ireland was in the grip of a full-scale depression (what’s new!) and jobs in biochemistry, or any other branch of science, were non-existent. I managed to secure an administrative post in the Civil Service, which I took on the basis that it would tide me over for six months or a year – until I got a real job in a real laboratory. A year passed, then two, then ten. By the time the economy picked up and science jobs began to appear in the ‘Appointments’ pages, my knowledge of biochemistry had become rusty and a new generation of young, up to date grads were trampling all over my C.V. So here I am, twenty-eight years later, a middle-aged, middle-manager doing a job that still feels kind of temporary to me.
This is a wonderful book. It’s thoughtful, quirky and analytical – and if you’ve ever looked out of your office window at the guy from ‘Shrubs in Tubs’ across the street planting flowers in a hanging basket and wished you were him, this book is for you. It spoke directly to me, a square peg in a round hole – and there are millions of other square pegs out there bashing themselves into round holes too.
‘The Place of Dead Roads’ is a picaresque novel, the centrepiece of the ‘Cities of Red Night’ trilogy, and stands as an excellent introduction to William Burroughs’ thematic and stylistic concerns.
The novelist Peter Ackroyd characterised ‘Cities of Red Night’ – and by extension, its sequels – as “an obsessional landscape” and the choice of adjective is telling. Burroughs’ concerns are broad, cosmic, fundamental but the tent-pegs of the whole circus are, by necessity, ground-level: addiction, power, alienation, beauty and attraction, ugliness and repulsion. He is an existential writer and thinker, like Camus and hence the ‘naked lunch’ of his most infamous work: the moment when one sees “exactly what is at the end of one’s fork” without evasion or denial.
‘The Place of Dead Roads’ details the lot of one Kim Carsons; child of the Old West, outlaw gun-fighter, rogue shaman and Man with a Plan. His life charts the transition from a landscape dominated by the often savage realities of the Frontier to a 20th Century reality, tacitly preoccupied with the science fiction concerns of the Modern era and ruled over by “evil old men who play poker” and “are constitutionally immune to the effects of bourbon”.
Obstensibly a western, ‘Place of Dead Roads’ is one of Burroughs’ most conventionally novelistic works. It’s the book of his that I always recommend to people new to him, along with ‘Junkie’ his first book, a fictionalised memoir of heroin addiction. Both books have an overt through-line running from beginning to end that functions in lieu of a ‘plotline’, both expand subjective vision into something world-encompassing, bizarre and bordering- often tipping over- into alien dreamscapes.
A word of supposed issues of ‘difficulty’: Burrough’s prose has a bristling, tense quality that he often allows to disintegrate into seemingly disjointed and agrammatical poetry. This doesn’t happen “without warning” but is a feature of style, used to convey the impressionistic agrammatical nature of Thought, Dream and Character. This shift from style to a deliberate sort of ‘anti-style’ is based the ‘Cut-Up Method’, the random rearrangement of words in a text to create a collage without the thought-conditioning influence of ordinary grammar.
Dream was important to William Burroughs. He dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative often as abruptly as one’s dreaming mind will and with similar purpose- to communicate an urgent sense of a particular place, mentality or counter-intuitive connection, without the distancing affect of descriptive prose.
This aside, the writing is curt, concise and indeed precise. Burroughs picks his moment to go “experimental”,aiming to urgently communicate his concerns, concerns about the present, the forgotten past, concerns about an post-human future and above all the realities of CONTROL. You’ll also learn a lot about guns, shamanism and the occult and you’ll read about a lot of fine young men having sex with each other. Highly recommended for heads.
Review by Ruairi Conneely, Seven Towers Books.
Desjani looked intrigued, checking the orders herself. “You’re sort of tacking the old Five Five onto the bottom edge of Five Four.”
“With the Seventh Battleship Division sticking below the edge of the old Five Four?” She smiled again. “I can’t wait to see it.”
As long as we’re not talking about the likes of the literature of Holocaust denial, or of paedophilic samizdats presenting Josef Fritzl as the heroic victim of an immoral and corrupt state, then there really is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where the enjoyment of a work of fiction is concerned. We know this. Certainly there’s nothing in the slightest that’s immoral about Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet, an apparently never-ending series of novels concerning the attempts of “a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest” for home, as Patrick Macgee’s opening voice-over for the first series of Battlestar Galactica used to put it. In truth, these books are marked by a deliberate and principled tone which might be thought to reflect the self-restraint of a patrician cynic and his compassionate misanthropy, and Mr Campbell’s epic seems obviously meant as a cautionary tale against the tendency of human beings to fail to heed the lessons of the past, or, indeed, those of the present day either. In that, The Lost Fleet is a profoundly conservative text in terms of the need to respect authority and retain the tested values of the past, but it’s written in such a way as to also deplore such recent examples of backsliding from the principles of Western civil society such as torture, the brutalization of civilians, and the general abandonment of respect for the human rights of supposed opponents.
Beyond the central and incorruptibly heroic character of Captain “Black Jack” Geary himself, who’s both unconvincingly irresistible to women and quite incapable of slipping up in his campaign against the dastardly Syndics, the Lost Fleet is almost exclusively peopled by thinly-drawn moral idiots. This is didactic fiction of the most well-meaning and clumsy fashion. On one side, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s Captains who’d like to see Black Jack return to Earth as their tyrant, and, on the other, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s captains who’d like to dethrone our hero because, quite frankly, he keeps winning battles while denying them their chances of individual acclaim. For the military of this far future is enraptured by an individualistic fighting ethos more in keeping with Captain Bluntschli than poor noble, sensible Captain Geary, and most everyone in The Lost Fleet is at best ethically and practically short-sighted, and, at worst, some combination of mad, corrupt, confused or stupid.
I recognise this world. If the characters are so broadly drawn as to be indistinguishable from their own ignorance, well, their ignorance is at least familiar. I’m certainly not ashamed to be consuming a product with such a world-view. And in a book that’s so obviously aimed at readers who love to lose themselves in the details of how hundreds of very big and very powerful spaceships can blow each other up, and in the context of a recognisably modern-day military structure transposed to a distant tomorrow, it’s also refreshing to note that political authority is here portrayed as being by necessity superior to that of any futuristic MacArthur’s, worthy or not.
But there’s little room that’s been made in these novels for anything but space battles and the broadest politics of the fleet, and each book’s plot is soon revealed to be an over-familiar and yet rather strangely relaxing variation upon that of its predecessors. The Lost Fleet, trapped behind the lines of the Syndics and desperate to return home after a disastrous defeat, will arrive at a new enemy star system, argue among themselves about who should be in charge, learn a new lesson about how to fight as a team under the leadership of the good and decent Captain, and then head off in the direction of another such situation. The formula is never substantially challenged, and the focus of the text never concerns itself with the lot or inner life of anyone who isn’t wearing a Captain’s uniform or carrying a politician’s brief. And, similarly, each book contains pretty much exactly the same minor notes to accompany the great and very long depictions of battle and grousing senior officers; Captain Geary indulges modestly in sex and the stiffest of philosophical debates with the perplexing and very loud Co-President Rione; Captain Geary sits in his captain’s chair and guides several hundred ships in their missions; Captain Geory gathers hints as to the existence of a secret and menacing alien race; Captain Geary attempts to convince the Syndics that their mortal enemies are jolly good chaps really; Captain Geary tries to remind his women and men about the forgotten decencies of his long-dead era; the same cards fall in almost precisely the same order every time.
There’s something about this repetition which makes the many unconvincing aspects of the future of the Lost Fleet less distracting than it might otherwise be. It’s as if the form of the books has been designed to encourage us not to linger anywhere on the page, as if pausing in our skimming would be to defeat the purpose of the text in the first place. And so, the sheer implausibility of a legendary Captain freed from a hundred year’s suspended animation who’s immediately able to command a host of spacegoing warships in a superior fashion to their own crewfolk is actually quite easy to disregard. By the time the daftness of each daft premise becomes obvious, the reader has already learned not to pay too much attention to the strangely critically-applauded “realism” of these tales. If the politics of the future appear confused, as they are with the Syndics, a North Korean-like totalitarian state with relatively autonomous and affluent corporations, or if the much-praised realism of the space battles is undermined by the presence of get-out-of-jail-free cards such as jump gates, inertial dampners and an unconvincing lack of human/AI interfaces, well, we can just skip that aspect of the story and move on to another sequence which we can, similarly and in its turn, leap-frog our way across too.
Racing dreamily through the text is a process only encouraged by the fact that little on the human scale counts for anything much in these Lost Fleet novels at all. Even the extremes of wartime experience, the maiming and murdering of thousands of crew-members of the Alliance’s ships, always occur at a celestial distance and to a spectacularly deadening degree. The focus of the books is instead always upon the smallest core of cast members, who, untouched by suffering beyond angst and safely protected in the fleet’s flagship, watch on as this cruiser and that space station are bombarded and destroyed. As a reflection of the reality of war for the elite of the officer class in a technological era, it’s a choice on Mr Campbell’s part that’s hard to argue with. But as a way of helping the reader care about these terrible events, it’s problematical, because it reduces a book about war to the status of a tale about a man watching a war progress on a desk console.
With so few characters ever interacting with Captain Geary on any level beyond the giving and taking of orders, the Lost Fleet is reduced to a great convoy of ghosts. Thinly depicted Captains are summoned up now and then for plot purposes, but they never exist beyond the brief functions which they’ve been created to serve, and the reader can so easily picture them vanishing into thin air as soon as Black Jack turns his gaze elsewhere. Mr Campbell’s writing succeeds in delivering the details of his plot, but there’s no trace of individuality and character in his prose. Entire books can pass mechanically before the reader’s eyes without the flat consistency of Mr Campbell’s prose being violated by the presence of a single purposefully memorable phrase of any sort. His is writing which is utterly endearing in the lack of authorial ambition that it displays, and for all that it might be praised for a lack of pretension, it can also be damned for its lack of any quality that isn’t connected with the orderly progression of events from A to B and back to A again.
And yet, regrettably, there are moments when careless editing has allowed certain melodramatic and pseudo-poetical lines to remain in the text, a fact which destroys the flat consistency of what’s being read as well as shocking the reader into noticing how awful the writing can in places be. It’s a truth that might be illustrated with an example from “Courageous” of President Rione’s part in a private conversation with Captain Geary;
“The ancients thought the stars were gods, John Geary. So do we, though in a very different way. But we’re not so different from the ancients, who lived but a blink of an eye ago in the sight of this universe and spent their lives trying to understand why they were here and what they were supposed to do with the gifts of their lives. I try never to forget that.”
I feel confident that we might agree that this is ferociously bad writing, grandiose, stiff and quite unbelievable even as an example of a career politician’s private conversation. (Rione would surely need the lungs of a horse to get through that third sentence without beginning to collapse for air.) But it’s so typical of the books that these moments of great meaningfulness carry little that’s essential to the plot, and so they can be left behind in search of the beginning of the next space battle. Yet, the reader is advised not to race onwards and away from the purple serious-mindedness of the conversations between Rione and Geary in particular without first scanning for any heartfelt lines worth treasuring. My favourite of these conveniently follows on directly from the quote above;
“He nodded, wondering once again at the woman inside Victoria Rione.”
If only that were an acknowledgement that the Co-President was actually sharing the inside of her body with another woman, as the genre would surely allow.
Yet if The Lost Fleet clearly doesn’t work as anything other than the most reliably wooden of genre fiction, it’s certainly a well-constructed, sincere and decent-hearted example of it. And so, the reason for my feeling somewhat ashamed of being half-way through the fourth of this seemingly never-ending re-mix of the same over-familiar elements is nothing to do the books themselves. They’re not sold as high literature, they make no claims for their own poetic virtues, and they’re not designed for anyone who’s not already seriously predisposed towards “military science fiction”. They’re respectful, populist and humane. No, my shame is directed, of course, at myself, and at the fact that I’m somewhat hesitant to admit to the business of reading my way through The Lost Fleet. As I write this, with the last of the light of a English Sunday afternoon in March slanting through the window behind me, and with a blackbird starting up its twilight song, The Lost Fleet feels as if it’s got no part in my life at all, and it’s as if reading these pedestrian epics would be a serious waste of the relatively limited book-reading time that I have left to me.
It’s not that I’ve any time for the Bloomsbury stance on what is and what isn’t art, and I no more believe under typical circumstances that what we read reflects our soul and our moral worth than I accept the premise that Jeanette Winterson shouldn’t be constantly mocked for her ignorance, arrogance and pretension. It’s just that there’s so little time and so much to get done, and it’s hard at 5.30 in the afternoon to justify a standing order for each new volume of The Lost Fleet.
But when it’s gone midnight, and as I crawl as surreptitiously as I can in beside the long-since-sleeping Splendid Wife, and with just ten minutes or so to go before I too pass out beside her, The Lost Fleet will be the most appropriate read that I can imagine. Utterly undemanding in its content, I need never worry about finding precisely where I left off the night before. It just doesn’t matter at all. Wherever I am, Black Jack will be eternally tragic, misunderstood, potent and entirely wonderful. (He’s every shy boy’s dream of sexual potency; a man who can win women without ever having to woo them through nought but his gentle soul and military prowess.) The fleet will be at terrible risk, Captain Desjani will adore Black Jack and defend his back against all-comers, the battleship captains will loathe him, the Syndics will be closing, and I’ll briefly if sleepy-headedly be a boy again. Spaceships will blink out of jump points, scanners will identify enemy targets, relativistic effects will complicate communications, and while little will make much sense to my clouding mind, the genre conventions of a dozen spaceship TV shows and a childhood spent reading little but Sci-Fi will step in to carry the sense of the story forward for me.
I have the fifth volume of The Lost Fleet waiting beside my bed and the sixth on order from Amazon too. It’s not that these books will be used to send me off to sleep, but rather that they’re good and decent and kind and undemanding companions as I decline into an unconsciousness which was already rolling towards me in the first place. And even the titles themselves might inspire the most comforting of slumbers if recited over and over again in order of publication; Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, Victorious…….
Colin Smith ,
First of all, flick that Doubting Thomas switch. Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, by current X-Men writer Victor Gischler, is an insane train ride full of Go-Go Girls, home surgery transexuals, cannibalistic hicks and … train rides. The situations are so incredibly unbelieveable that it walks the fine line between absurdity and genius.
Thankfully Mr Gischler manages to dance on both sides of that line, making for a fantastic character driven story which is silly, ridiculous, sexy, moving and horrifying all at once. The post-apocalyptic world that Gischler has created may not be believeable but it certainly is plausible. The world is in chaos. Fuel and food are in very short supply. Governments have fallen. All that remains are the most important of things, booze and nudey girls. Nowadays, boobies make the world go round.
Insurance salesman Mortimer Tate runs away from his wife so that she can’t serve divorce papers on him. Fearing the end of the world if his marriage were to dissolve he flees to a mountain cabin, just in time for the world to end. Governments have crumbled and society has all but destroyed itself. After spending nine years by himself, living of canned food and a coffee a day, he leaves the cabin only to run head long into trouble. It’s at this point that we are introduced to Buffalo Bill. Bill is the rootinest, tootinest gunslinger that Mortimer has ever met. Bill has taken on the appearance and personality of THE Buffalo Bill. Bill and Mortimer wade through an endless sea of psychopaths and backstabbers all in an effort to reach his ex-wife, to ensure her safety and face the music.
Gischler’s wry and sardonic wit make it incredibly enjoyable to watch our players battling flesh eaters and rapists. Such dark material could easily have set the tone for the entire story, however, Gischler has managed to create some very believeable characters. Rumour has it that a feature film is in the works which is no great surprise. This novel reads like a gritty, high budget action film full of action and adventure, freaks and geeks, cannibals and sexy gals. The story is filled with some really great dialogue and I can only hope that the film reflects this. This is where the stories heart lies, in those quiet moments away from the madness and mayhem. A moment of peaceful reflection shared between two characters in a world gone mad.
Part homage, part satire of the post-apocalyptic genre, Go-Go Girls… is a wonderfully written piece of modern fiction comparable to the work of Vonnegut and to a lesser extent Douglas Adams. It’s rather tricky to locate here in Australia so perhaps a visit to Amazon would be easier. Regardless of how you get it, this is a fantastic read for those who don’t mind having a laugh at the sick and twisted. If you’re easily offended… read it anyway.
When Emmet first put out the call for fellow bloggers to cover his gruelling book-a-day regime while he and his lovely bride, Stephanie, enjoy some much deserved time off renewing their vows, I thought: “Yippee, now I can review a grown-up fiction book!”
I thought to heck (as we Canadians rarely swear outright even in our thoughts) with my blog manifesto, for once I’ll review some great Canadian adult lit. I worked myself up into a fervour thinking of all the wonderful works of fiction I could cover and how I could finally write about all the great things (sexual proclivities, adultery, drugs and the other perversities of humanity) that adult fiction has to offer (although I do review many a YA title that covers that stuff too!)
I started making a short list, I racked my brain and I eagerly fingered titles in the bookshops and library looking for just the right book.
What a rush!
Then my Canadian sensibilities and a little serendipity took over and I found the perfect children’s book to mark this occasion and thus, just like that my short-lived dreams of moving over to the adult sphere (however briefly) dissolved.
It was just that Better Together by Sheryl and Simon Shapiro and illustrated by Dušan Petričić (ISBN: 9781554512782, Annick Press, 2011) fit so perfect, it was a crying shame not to review it!
Written by the Shapiros, who have themselves been married for 34 years, this charming book of short poems celebrates the beauty when two (or more) substances come together to create something new and wonderful.
I know right? It was fate!
I love books with poems for young children. They love the bouncing, rhyming text and adult readers love the read-out-loud fun factor (anyone with a toddler knows that it’s essential to have books around that are enjoyable to read for the parents because you will be reading them…a lot!)
I love the notion of making chemistry entertaining and breaking down some of the wonderful creations in life into their components. Once wee readers get a handle on chocolate milk, cinnamon toast, music, mud, well the world is their oyster.
I also adore the ink drawings that accompany each short verse and illustrate the steps of these mixtures coming together in a fun way. Petričić has a knack for appealing to the child’s eye and mind. It’s no wonder as this award-winning illustrator of such children’s classics as Mattland and Rude Ramsay and the Rearing Radishes authored by the Canadian great, Margaret Atwood (sorry Emmet) began drawing at age four and has never stopped!
Sheryl and Simon Shapiro are also the perfect example of two very different elements can come together to create some beautiful things!
When they met over 35 years ago in South Africa they had very different interests, but over time, their interests changed again and branched into various arts and found lots of common ground. One of their own great creations, their son Stephen who was born and raised in Toronto (Ontario) is also a published children’s historical author.
Over the years, this couple has found many commonalities to enjoy (a must-have for a successful marriage I think) including writing humorous rhymes for special occasions. So when the opportunity came up to write a book together, this children’s book designer and computer programmer cum photographer, jumped at the chance.
They also agree that working separately could never have produced the amusing book proving once again sometimes we are just better together.
The Shapiros are now working on another rhyming picture book.
So Emmet and Stephanie, as you celebrate your first year together (really after the first it’s all gravy) and many, many more after that I look forward to all the magnificent mixtures/creations you two come up with (and no, I’m not talking about children – Canadians are too polite for such personal discussions) and wish you the best!
Oh and Emmet, I will leave the grown-up book reviews in your very capable and clever hands as I never tire of reading them!