Book 11: Neuromancer

Neuromancer is a 1984 novel by William Gibson, a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre and the first winner of the science-fiction “triple crown” — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. It was Gibson’s debut novel and the beginning of the Sprawl trilogy. The novel tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack.

– From Wikipedia

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is (as far as I’m aware) the only science fiction or fantasy book in my 2012 26 book challenge. It’s a startling shift from the primarily existential, introspective novels that have so far defined my year. I feel like, not only has the content shifted, but I’ve had to shift the way in which I receive the words, to accommodate its significantly different tone and outlook.

Have you ever read a book that’s broken from conventions or expectations (yours or, perhaps, its own) so much that you had to rethink your own reception of it?

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Film review: The Hunger Games

“Too much games; not enough hunger” is the snappy description of The Hunger Games given by a listener of Radio 5 Live’s “Wittertainment”. It’s an apt description, as this adaptation is a film of two halves.

The first 40 minutes, which introduce our heroine, display her impoverished lifestyle, see her volunteer to take part in the titular Games in place of her younger sister, and watch her become a supercelebrity in the build up to the Games’ commencement, are shocking, dark, lucid, touching and visceral. It’s a fascinating conceit, well realised, and Jennifer Lawrence plays her part with winning subtlety and nuance. There are moments that engage and frighten, and I found the knot in my stomach ever tightening as the Games approached.

Then the Games begin, and eat up the rest of the film. From here on, the film is episodic and dull, as the writers drop our heroine into deadly situation after deadly situation and contrive sillier and sillier means to extract her from them. Some of these contrivances (such as the nest of genetically modified wasps serendipitously hanging from a tree our heroine climbs to escape some attackers) are guilty only of being rather too convenient; others – such as the characters and creatures who suddenly and unexplicably become dramatically suicidal or life-savingly benevolent – are visible examples of the writers’ desperation to maintain the tense energy that was so powerful before the games began, or, worse, undisguised attempts to save the lead character from situations from which they clearly should have planned more plausible escapes. It feels rather like each scene was begun by one writer and completed by another, all against the clock, with no conversation between the two.

Lawrence keeps up her uniquely quiet character throughout (alongside a rather plain love interest – of sorts – who apparently learned to be the best makeup artist in the world by working in a village bakery), but sadly has to play against broadly characterless “good” kids and overpreening, blandly evil “bad” ones – with Big Evil Grins and Big Evil Snarls to make it clear that they’re Big Evil Characters (so it’s okay to kill them). I came out thinking a far more interesting film would have been one that introduced several of the contestants and explored each of their lives and personalities, and left us wondering who would survive, and how, and what it means for a sado-voyeuristic society to pit them against one another. Instead, it’s just so much substandard action trope with only one possible outcome. (Despite this, the big finale is a surprisingly underwhelming and colourless scene in which two teenagers threaten to eat some berries.)

The world outside the Games, a futuristic neon city of high society, is, if a little too startlingly wacky, visually quite interesting; but the characters inhabiting it are little more than Big Evil Viewers snarling and grinning in much the same way as the Big Evil Kids: poorly encoded nasty meritocrats operating in a repressive regime that is dull in its universality. Stanley Tucci puts in a good performance as a winningly manipulative television host, but the filmmakers broadly seem to be shouting at us: aren’t they bad bad people?

Yet I couldn’t help wondering how we, the audience, are any better than the one-dimensional coiffured voyeurs of the film, supposedly finding entertainment and pleasure in the banal and inevitable destruction of the poor. In truth, we’re most touched and engaged by the moving reality and humanity of the poverty in the first third than by the contrived attempts to excite and entertain in the latter sections. The filmmakers initially well represent the hunger and should have prioritised it over the games, just as they initially well represent the emotion and should have prioritised it over the action.

Book 10: The Book of Chameleons

Book 10 (or book 10.5, or book 11, depending on your point of view) is José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons. Wikipedia doesn’t have a page about it and I don’t know anything about it, so there’s little to say by way of introduction but that it has lovely title pages for each of its chapters.

Your thoughts, please, on The Book of Chameleons.

The Zahir: I can’t take it any more

Well, I was warned.

An arguably admirable 226 pages in to Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir, I just can’t take it any more. There’s only so much poorly written, derivative, self-absorbed parapsychological gibberish I can consume in two weeks. Depending on your point of view, this may be my first book-based failure of the year.

To mitigate my failure, I’m adding another book to my 2012 26 book list: John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I picked it up in the library yesterday, aware that my Zahir-inspired despair was soon likely to reach breaking point. Buchan’s novel is just the right length to fill the remaining time I’d set aside for The Zahir.

Coelho’s is the second book I haven’t enjoyed this year; but the first (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) wasn’t such a hard slog that I gave up on it. I very rarely give up on books (which is a testament to how awful I found The Zahir). Should I have stuck this one out? Or will it be extra satisfying to cram another (hopefully better) book into 2012? Your thoughts please.

Book 9: The Zahir

The Zahir is a 2005 novel by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Just as in an earlier book, The Alchemist, The Zahir is about a pilgrimage. The book touches on themes of love, loss and obsession.

– From Wikipedia

The Zahir is (so far) unique on the list of 26 books I’ll read in 2012. Why? Because one person recommended it to me, while many more have told me how awful it is. Some have advised that I read a different book by Paulo Coelho; others have warned me to steer clear of his work altogether.

I usually try to approach new books in the same way I’d prefer to experience a new film: in complete ignorance. I often won’t even read the back cover. But, having been presented with a barrage of condemnations of The Zahir, it’s difficult to start reading with an entirely unspoiled opinion. Only 44 pages in I find myself already acutely aware of all its flaws (and it suffers further from following Milan Kundera’s inspiring The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

It will be interesting to see whether The Zahir defeats my prejudices and ultimately wins me over.

Have you ever liked or disliked a book primarily (you think) because you’ve been “programmed” to do so?