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Almost English and my Postmodernist Self

I don’t know whether anyone else gets this, but sometimes I feel like I really love a book, but for all the wrong reasons.  I blame English lessons in school.  In their modernist way, they taught us that there was only one way to read, understand or appreciate a book: as the author intended.  Even having studied, and learned to value, postmodernism, I found it hard to counteract the ‘lesson’ that there is a right or wrong reason to engage with a book.  It’s a funny thing, education.

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson is a wonderful example of a book I loved for all the wrong reasons.  The protagonist is a complex teenager, with issues including a tendency toward self-flagellation.  Her parents have a deeply confused relationship, which plays out through the course of the novel.  This all happens while she goes to Boarding School, forming attachments to a seemingly suitable boy and his seemingly suitable family.  The plot twists towards the end of the novel.  This is an interesting story, beautifully written about a teenager trying to fit in.  These things, I would have recognised and liked about the novel, in any case.

 

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However, what made me love the novel, was the protaganist’s relationship with her Hungarian Grandmother and Great Aunts, who she lives with.  This is where the Postmodern comes in.  Because, you see, I grew up with an Eastern European Grandmother, and associated friends, neighbours and hangers on.  And, just like the protagonist, it took me a long time to understand that some of the characters and characteristics I had grown up surrounded by were not normal (although I was never ashamed of them, as she is, and probably would have nothing in common with her, were we to ‘meet’, face to face).

For me, much of the wonder of this book, particularly the opening and much of the first half, was how recognisable it was to me.

These Hungarians, who address everyone as ‘dar-link’ and worry they haven’t made enough sesame beigels, and who have more dramatic eyebrows, hairsweeps and invasive questions than their neighbours… they were part of my childhood too.  It is the quotes about them, and their relationship with the teenage protagonist, that I found myself underlining.

“They seem both more formal and more exuberant than you might expect, as if you had wandered into a theatre dressing room of the 1950s, not a cramped west London basement flat.”

“Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packaged pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnight from Berne.  Their perfume smells like the air in a hundred department stores.”

“A distorted English, full of dactyls which dust familiar words – ‘Pee-codilly’ or ‘vosh-ingmachine’… with snow and fir and darkness.”

“The air stinks of tuberose, caraway and garlic: the universal scent of Eastern European hospitality.”

Just as the drama of the novel really gets under way, so these descriptors end.  So I am sure that, for most people, the remainder of the book will hold more appeal.  I am sure I have it wrong.  But for me, it is the first 20%, where I can close my eyes, and feel my cheeks pinched, smell the face powder mixed with frying onions and listen for the mispronounced ‘ths’ all around me, that make this a book I truly love.

The Bear: If only it had been published before Room

Sometimes, an author is just a little unlucky.  Okay, it seems weird to say that about a Women’s Prize listed author, but I still believe this to be the case.  Because, you see I think Claire Cameron (author of The Bear) had a great idea and a fairly original voice… and then got pipped to the post by Room.

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The Bear is written in the voice of a six year old girl who ends up looking after her small brother, after their parents get eaten by a bear.  So far, so different to Room.  But in reality, the story of the girl’s attempts to understand the world and make sense of the difficult things and emotions happening around her are very reminiscent of Room.  As is the end part of the book, where the girl tries to unwind the trauma she has experienced.

The problem with a second book of this nature is, I think, not that it is not as a good as Room (though maybe it’s not) but that the second time, it’s just not quite as powerful.  The reader comes to terms with the child’s voice and approach more quickly, and finds it easier to assimilate her way of thinking, despite her challenging situation.

If you haven’t read Room, give this novel a go first and let me see if my theory works in reverse.  And if you have, by all means give it a read, it’s a well-written interesting novel.  But prepare to be a little blasé about it.

Not the best start: reading the Women’s Prize 2014

I was so excited about reading the Women’s Prize Longlist I jumped right in, and, well, sadly, it hasn’t been the most auspicious start for three reasons.

1. I began with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

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It was the book everyone was talking about, so it seemed like a good idea.  But I should have known better.  As so frequently happens with books that everyone’s talking about, I just don’t get it.  And the weird hybrid thought/speech writing style was so annoying (I kept waiting for it to stop) that it made me give up after having read 20%, given up three hours of my life I won’t get back and having reminded myself “this is a hobby – something you do for fun – if you’re not enjoying it, stop”.

2. I tried to follow this up with a safe bet: Still Life with Breadcrumbs.

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I love Anna Quindlen so was sure this book wouldn’t annoy me.  And it didn’t.  But it was at the other end of the scale: it was too safe.  Even the cover is safe. It felt like every well-written ‘pink book’ I have ever read.  It’s the kind of book you would neither recommend to a friend, nor dissuade them from reading.  It is full of aphorisms that you feel you may have read somewhere else before, but just aren’t sure. It’s no prize winner.

3. I dropped my kindle in the bath.  Ok, I realise this isn’t the judge’s fault, but it’s frustrating.  So now I am reading The Bear on my phone.  At the moment (about 30% of the way in) I am enjoying it, but not loving it.  Similarly to how I felt about Still Life with Breadcrumbs…

But I am going to power on and not get too despondent.  I have always found wonders through the Women’s Prize and am sure this year will be no different.  It’s just been a run of bad luck.  Now, time to order another damn kindle….

Oooh how I love a good LongList: Baileys Women’s Prize

I’m always excited about the publication of the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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Despite my ambivalence (and occasional vocal opposition) about women-specific activities, I can’t help but like this one because, well, they always do such a damn good job.  Some of my favourite books of all time have won the prize:

  • When we Lived in Modern Times (2000)
  • Bel Canto (2002)
  • Small Island (2004)
  • Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)
  • The Road Home (2008)
  • May we be Forgiven (2013)

In my opinion, the judges always seem to strike the perfect balance between interesting and accessible.  They are always books that I want to read, learn from, and actually enjoy – a surprisingly rare mix (and not something I can say of the Man Booker).

This year’s longlist seems hugely promising, so I am as a excited as ever.

I have read a few of the books on the list: The Goldfinch (good, but overhyped) and Americanah (in my opinion, a potential winner), The Lowland (sometimes slow, sometimes amazing, well worth a read).

But had a couple more ‘on my reading list’ (downloaded on my kindle) already: All the Birds Singing, Almost English, The Luminaries, The Signature of all Things (though I remain entertained that Elizabeth Gilbert has become a ‘respectable’ writer, post Eat, Pray, Love *which I secretly loved).

One of the things I love about reading these lists is that they always introduced me to amazing new authors and novels I may not have heard about.  And there is not one book on the list that I am not looking forward to reading.  Of the ones not already on my list, the summaries give me particular hope I will love:  Still Life with Breadcrumbs, A Girl is  a Half-Formed Thing, Reasons she Goes to the Woods and The Strangler Vine.

There are, however a few books I am sad didn’t make it onto this year’s list:

  • Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi) – which I am currently reading and completely obsessed with

(Though I am secretly quite please Life after Life didn’t make it – I’m not sure what all the fuss was about)

Anyway, no time to look backward, time to look forward and get my reading cap on.  I’m unlikely to make it through all of these in the month before the shortlist is announced, but you don’t know if you don’t try….

To my Teenage Self: Read John Green

Somehow, I had never read any John Green.  In fact, I had never even really heard of John Green, except for posters on the tube, which pretty much pass me by in a goldfish like blur of “I knew there was something I saw that I wanted to remember’.  So when I posted on Facebook that The Fault in our Stars made me cry, I didn’t expect the ourpouring of response that appeared.  Somehow everyone had heard of John Green but me.

I am still not sure about how everyone else heard about him, or more to the point, how I didn’t.  But I can tell you one thing for sure: you should give him a go.  I have read a couple of his books now, and though I love them I can tell they wouldn’t be for everyone.  They have a very  specific style: philosophical, wry, a little emo and voiced as a teenager.  I am still not 100% sure if he writes for teenagers or adults, but then again, if I can’t tell, does it matter?

John Green’s books live with you long after you have finished reading them.  Not only is The Fault in our Stars the first book in as long as I can remember that made me cry, but I dreamed about it for the next two nights.  I think somehow he captures something that so few books really get about being a teenager: the fear and elation (rather than just the confusion, that so many focus on) of being on the edge of discovery.  The sense that somehow the world is both fresh and already irreparably broken. The feeling of discovering much-debated philosophies with shining eyes.

He somehow writes about sad, morose things in a way that makes them feel almost like a movie.  Picture Juno or Perks of Being a Wallflower and you are along the right lines.  He sees the quirks in everyday life, and makes them humorous, or at least finds their pathos.  As the protagonist says in  The Fault in Our Stars:  “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.”

A lot of his work seems to focus on two themes: memory and superficiality.

The Fault in our Stars is mostly about memory.

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Without giving away the story, the book looks at whether loss fuels or undermines memory.  As the characters lose things (friends, partners, senses) it is about how they rebuild and what happens to their sense of self and memories of the past.  It’s about what happens to you when you lose something or someone, and what happens to them, and the memories you made and what you leave behind.

“It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before”, emphasises the protagonist.

But at the same time it stresses that humans are too concerned with making memories, with making their mark and sometimes forget to just live:

“We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants.  We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths… the real heroes anyone aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”

Paper Towns is more about superficiality, or how what we believe to be real gradually becomes real over time.

Green paper

This is the case of the paper towns, but also of the people in the story.  The novel argues that – in High School particularly – what is believed about you almost becomes true, until you notice the gap between truth and reality.

“High school is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship – nor, contrary to popular belief, an anarchic state.  High school is a divine-right monarch.”

We construct this gap, hiding our own failings, and masking the failings of others building them as our own image of what we want them to be.

“A Margo for each if us – and each more a mirror than a window.”

And it is this gap, once you understand it, or at least acknowledge it, which makes life feel fragile, like you live in the “paper town” or are connected to the earth with a piece of string, or are in a boat with a continually cracking hull (all metaphors Green uses in the novel).  But Green argues it is once we start to see these cracks, or string, or papers that we really start to understand others’ humanity, as we understand our own.

“The light can get in, the light can get out.”

It is just by chance that I read An Abundance of Katherines third of Green’s books.  But interestingly, it ties the above two themes together.

Green - Abundance

The protagonist, Colin, is obsessed with memory, and making his mark, turning from a (child) prodigy, to an (adult) genius – having his “Eureka” moment.  Other people are, he claims, the tortoises, now overtaking his hare.

“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”

But in the end he realises that everyone is remembered, in one way or another, through the interactions they have had:

“Even if it’s a dumb story, telling it changes the other people just the slightest  bit… and that infinitesimal change ripples outward – ever smaller but everlasting.  I will get forgotten, but the stories will last.  And so we all matter – maybe less than a lot, but always more than none.”

Lynsey, another key player in the story, is both as caught up in, and as confused by, superficiality as Margo in Paper Towns.  Just as Margo is popular, but also perturbed by the notion, so is Lynsey.  Both seem world weary and hyper-aware, yet also unclear on how ‘cool’ happened to them.

“I don’t even know how ugly and pretty got decided – maybe there’s like a secret cabal of boys who meet in the locker room and decide who’s ugly and who’s hot, because as far as I can remember, there was no such thing as a hot fourth grader.”

“It’s so easy to get stuck.  You just get caught in being something, being special or cool or whatever, to the point where you don’t even know why you need it.”

She claims to have just one day understood that being cool is easy, once you find the right combination of “naughtyandnastyandnice.”

And again, the novel queries what happens when people find the real you.

“If people could see me the way I see myself – if they could live in my memories – would anyone, anyone, love me?”

In the end, each of these novels, though sometimes morose, are redemptive.  Green emphasises that although at times, we feel deeply alone, we are all fundamentally similar and share hopes, dreams and fears.  We are all fundamentally connected.

There are more John Green books for me to read.  But I am taking a break for now.  Not because I am not enjoying them, because I am, but because the themes do get a little repetitive after three in a row, and An Abundance of Katherines ended on more of a high than the others, so feels like a nice place to take a breather.  But oh how I wish I could send these books back in time to my teenage self, and so many other awkward, alternative, over-thinking teens, to show them they are far from alone.

Josh Klein: the man and the reputation [Reputation Economics Part II]

So, I finished the book and I saw Josh Klein speak (thanks to MSL Group, London).  And I don’t take back any of my previous words – and the event was under Chatham House rules – so I will keep this one brief.

In person, Klein is impressive.  He can reel off stats and facts off the top of his head, but always connect them to the bigger picture. He is also willing to admit when he hasn’t thought about, or doesn’t have an answer for something, which always wins my respect.  My only slightly negative thoughts were:

1) I wish I’d got to listen to him for longer and

2) I wish he’d referred to more facts (which I am sure he has) which aren’t referenced in the book (although this may not be entirely fair, as the audience wasn’t expected to have read the book before the event anyway).

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My thoughts on the rest of the book (the second half) are three fold.

Increasingly, as I got into Reputation Economics, it struck me as more and more subversive.  Its end point is fundamentally to claim the plausibility of the death of financial markets, as the “second and third world” (a phrase I am not entirely comfortable with using, but Klein does, hence the inverted commas) comes online, and is more comfortable interacting through reputational connections and / or on the ever-growing black market.  I am neutral about this idea (because I don’t really know enough to provide a binary response), but I am aware of the impact that this may have on our public goods.  If most of us aren’t paying tax, how do we get street lighting?  Or a police force?  Or, arguably, what is the value of Government (as at base, Governments were put in place to collect tax, for armies?.  I asked Klein this question and he didn’t really have a chance to answer.  But it interests me.

My second thought was about the next generation – the generation of kids and teenagers for whom all of this ‘change’ isn’t change at all.  I wonder whether they will be more or less creative than current generations in harnessing the power of the internet.  Will its mundaneness, its almost invisible presence in their lives discourage them from innovating?  Or will it be a building block for more and more innovation, because they don’t have to start from 0 knowledge, from the beginning each time?  Obviously, the impact of this generation will seriously impact Klein’s thoughts and predictions, which look 4-20 years ahead.

Finally, I am not entirely comfortable with Klein’s position on developing markets.  He seems to imply that most still exist in a world of bartering economy, limited bank accounts and literacy, which will make it easier for them to ‘jump’ straight to using Bitcoins rather than banks, for instance.  This seems like a gross oversimplification to me.  We are talking about 2/3 of the world here, including  India, where 34% of the population already get their news online daily, (9.4 million people); Indonesia with the world’s third highest number of smart phone users live and Africa, where internet usage increased over 3,000% between 2000 and 2012 (compared to c. 150% in Europe).  Yes, people in these parts of the world may quickly make the leap to using online banking (and other tools) rather than using traditional banks, but surely that relates as least as much to  the pace of their development and online engagement (and the time in history in which they are connecting to the world) as their traditions of bartering or their levels of literacy.

Reputation Economics: post-modern definitions and the democratic ideal

[Part one of a two part series - I am half way through, but have some thoughts to share]

Lately, I have been geeking out, reading a lot about how the internet, and specifically social media has exposed companies in all kinds of ways.  So, reading Josh Klein’s Reputation Economics has been somewhat refreshing….

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Because, really what Klein is getting at, is that for good or for ill, the internet exposes all of us.  Both in ways we choose (reviews of products, blogs like this, LinkedIn) and in ways we don’t (geotagging, search histories, product purchases)  Klein argues that although currently companies still have the upper hand in ownership of this kind of information, it is becoming increasingly democratised.  Over time, we will all be able to access a whole lot of information about everybody else.  

So the focus on reputation in Klein’s title means more than we would initially think.  Not only does it mean reputation in the traditional sense (what I think about you, your trustworthiness etc.) but it also means your characteristics: what you like, what you worry about, what you know about.  Reputation comes to encompass who you are, or at least what other people can make out of who you are, based on the increasing amount of information made public about you.

Klein argues that in many ways this is akin to historical forms of engagement.  In a village, people knew about each other and bartering, information exchange and favours were, to a large extent based on what they knew.  Well, yes and no. Yes, people in the village would know about your ‘traditional’ reputation.  They would know if others had trusted you in the past and what the result of that trust – positive or negative – had been.  But I imagine, in most traditional villages very few people would have had access to your inner thoughts (which I would call Klein’s postmodern understanding of ‘reputation’) the way that the internet does.  My guess is that, just as today, people in these villages selectively shared their worries and dreams with a small, select group of people.  Only today are they available – sometimes for a price, sometimes for free – in the global marketplace.  And only today do you have no idea who is accessing them, how, when and for what reasons.

Also, in the view of Reputation Economics, reputation is increasingly based on a ‘democratic ideal’.  Institutions, companies and individuals who are perceived to be more transparent and open to sharing and co-developing new ideas improve their reputations. Protection of intellectual property is out, collaboration is in.  Creativity is valued above all else.  Well, again, yes and no.  Yes, probably, for intangible products, like software (and this is where Klein’s background as hacker comes in).  Here, cost of entry has been minimised, expertise can be leveraged across locations and time zones, all culminating in one product, developed in the cloud.  

But what about when your product relies on stuff, that works?  Klein talks a lot about 3D printing, which can replicate a chair.  But, as yet, 3D printing can’t replicate a car, or a computer, or an oil rig.  These things still need to utilise technical expertise and build a thing (accepting that supply chains are now global) which is eventually manufactured in one place.  And although in some ways cost of entry to these fields has fallen in recent years (some widgets are cheaper, some activities can be automated) other costs have risen (non-automated labour, for instance) and the number of manufacturing companies going bust, year on year, shows us that not only the cost of entry, but the cost of operations remains prohibitive for most.  You could see that these industries cannot be fully transparent, and must maintain some level of IP to compete in the marketplace.  Could they share best practice better?  Absolutely.  Could they share everything and still operate with sufficient profit margin?  Probably not.

And this is where Klein seems to be getting ahead of himself.  Undoubtedly, the internet has challenged the previously unrivalled ascendancy of money and financial markets in the transactional sphere.  It has allowed us to recognise previously intangible or unreachable information around reputation, interests etc.  But money still makes the world go around.  Bitcoins are fashionable and may yet become ubiquitous, but at present they are nothing more than a philosophical challenge to the primacy of financial markets.   The Top Ten Companies in the Fortune 500 all trade in tangible goods.  And fundamentally, Klein is still arguing that reputation, as well as having personal value earns you money.  

Now, I accept I am only halfway through this book, and I may want to come back in a few days (and indeed after I have seen Klein speak tomorrow) and eat some or all of my words.  But I just wanted to share my thoughts with you at this stage, and empty my busy brain.  

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