Sunday, 20 July 2014

Quote of the Week (74) Piratical Poetry

“If the pirate with a scarf had been more poetically minded he’d have thought that her eyes were like a thousand emeralds, glittering in a far-off pirate treasure chest. But he wasn't, so he just thought that she had really really green eyes, a bit like seaweed.” 
Gideon Defore
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

My Rating:1 Star2 Starhalf Star

The Circle is the exhilarating new novel from Dave Eggers, best-selling author of A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the National Book Award. 

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge. From GoodReads.  


The Circle is an interesting concept for a novel that unfortunately doesn’t fully realise its goal. Eggers has attempted to create a dystopian world ruled by the Internet to send readers a message about the dire consequences of social media. The problem is that his novel failed to really highlight the dangers in a way that is unique enough to make people stop and think.

No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication cues.

We all hear about the dangers of social media in the daily news, online articles and occasionally our friends. Someone gets scammed, someone develops an addiction, there’s a new celebrity sex tape or someone can’t sleep because they’re up until 3am on Facebook stalking that ex who may or may not have said something passive aggressive about you to your mutual friend. This is inherently one of the big problems with The Circle; there is nothing new brought to the conversation.

“… I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect, it sounds progressive, but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do…
…First of all, I
know it’s all people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively.”

Mae, being the stereotypically insulting Gen Y, dreams of bigger and better. She didn’t go to college to have a normal job at the end, she needs the spectacular job that is glamorous, makes lots of money and makes her the envy of the rest of the world because she’s going to change it. So Mae gets a job at the Circle, the company that is Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every other social media company combined. What starts off as a Customer Experience job quickly morphs into a popularity contest to see who can send the most Smiles, Frowns, Zings and who can like the most things and accumulate the most followers. Mae, so focused on making the ‘voluntary’ social targets her work requires, gives up her apartment to live at the headquarters full time. As Mae climbs higher and higher up the Circle hierarchy, she becomes the company mascot, even wearing an almost 24/7 camera documenting her entire day and experiences – including bathroom breaks. Rumours emerge about the Completion of the Circle and the negative consequences this will have for everyone, but Mae can’t see how something valuing truth, knowledge and freedom could be wrong.

“Does it seem like a good idea to you that a private company would control the flow of all information? That participation, at their beck and call, is mandatory?”

It took me well over 100 pages into this novel to establish any kind of rhythm, and until then the writing felt very uncomfortable and forced. The writing itself is not very complex, and the sentences don’t have a lot of depth or any purpose beyond the superficial narration of the story. The flow of the story starts to noticeably pick up pace and improve once Mae really gets involved in her job and I felt like I could pick the very page that Eggers said “Aha, yes, I’ve got this now. I’m in the zone.” The style itself I found quite interesting; there are no chapters and very few visible breaks in time or in the narration of the story. There was not one good point where I could put the book down for a break because nothing ever starts or stops and I felt that this was the closest Eggers got to really emulating the way social media is designed: to step away is to miss everything that happened EVER.

While this book is clearly intended to make the reader stop and take stock of their online footprint and interaction with social media, the book really fails to convey either the overwhelming urgency to log off or sense of despair that it’s already too late. Mae, our protagonist, has almost no qualms about the Circle having access to every camera in the world as well as having the unified source of all personal information about every person in their database, a membership that is about to become a legal requirement in America. Her only signs of hesitation occur when her date films and uploads her giving him a handjob and when she accidentally walks in on her parents doing a same – both incidences ‘cannot be deleted from the Circle’ for fear of losing companywide transparency. The Circle values honesty and transparency from both citizens and politicians – achieved through their trademarked cameras that are set up all over the world by fans and Circlers. No crime can be committed, no bribery or dishonesty undertaken because there is always someone watching. There will be no more child kidnappings because every child will carry a chip that contains the exact whereabouts of the child and now they’ll also contain health information, school statistics and recent activities of the child to ensure that everyone is on track. Dangerous criminals will no longer be able to hide from justice, people with disabilities will no longer be left out of valuable experiences like trekking the Himalayas and everyone will feel involved and experience all the wonders of the world.

While the idea of tracking chips and constant camera surveillance may ring alarm bells with you now, there are only two people in the entire novel that express concern. This would normally be enough to plant the seed of doubt, yet both are portrayed as mad men and both are ridiculed by the main character. Even the examples of programs that stop child abuse and catch a mother who murdered her three children aren’t inherently evil, so the insinuations of control and invasion of privacy don’t have their desired effect. All I could think of is an episode of Daria called Arts N Crass in which daftie Brittany wants to convey the dangers of drinking and drug use but fails to include any negative imagery in her work.

While the direction that Eggers is trying to steer the conversation toward is obvious, his message lacks any punch. As a dystopia The Circle fails to project far enough into the future to show where we’re heading, nor does enough to emphasises that society is already lost. Thinking on famous dystopias in comparison, this novel lacks that dramatic moment at the end of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston sees the fallen Statue of Liberty and collapses to his knees screaming “NOOOOOOO!” as he realised what humanity has done. It has none of the despair of Brave New World when the Savage hangs himself and his body is just twirling in the breeze, despite the fact that The Circle also contains a prominent suicide.

Really, this book comes across more of a simple narration of our time seemingly without any strong bias to either side of the argument. After all, the selling of our purchasing habits occurred long before the Internet merely made it easier, since the first person made a dollar someone has tried to steal it from them and ever since our ancestors made social groups, be they religious, political or social, someone has always been on the outside of them. While the advances in Internet technology have obviously sped things up and made them more efficient, not one of the concepts Eggers has raised is new.

There are also some pretty terrible side plots throughout the novel. There’s a James Bond era shark metaphor that’s so busy slapping you in the face with a brick wall, an army tank and possibly a submarine for good measure that it loses all opportunity to make a powerful statement. That said, the one time I felt genuine horror was the scene in which a giant turtle is fed to the shark while the feeder announces that the turtle is not a natural food source and that they merely wanted to see what would happen (the turtle, knowing death is coming, is hacked to pieces). Then there’s the always awful romantic scenes that Eggers forces upon Mae and the reader that vacillate between the worlds quickest premature ejaculator and a phone call that led to bathroom sex with no obvious middle point between the two. With descriptions like this She backed away, looking at him, his shirt hiked up, his crotch exposed. She could think only of a campfire, one small log, all of it doused in milk. and …his hands holding her hips, bringing him so deep she could feel his swollen crown somewhere near her heart. I really don’t know what Eggers wanted, but he’s clearly been doing it wrong.

I’m glad that this book was brought to my attention by The First Tuesday Book Club in April, and they do a fantastic job of evaluating the story and Eggers’ motivations that I highly recommend. In fact, if you’re unsure about whether or not to read it, watch their analysis and move on to a far better book.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

My Rating:1 Star2 Star3 Star

Cath and Wren are identical twins, and until recently they did absolutely everything together. Now they're off to university and Wren's decided she doesn't want to be one half of a pair any more - she wants to dance, meet boys, go to parties and let loose. It's not so easy for Cath. She's horribly shy and has always buried herself in the fan fiction she writes, where she always knows exactly what to say and can write a romance far more intense than anything she's experienced in real life. Without Wren Cath is completely on her own and totally outside her comfort zone. She's got a surly room-mate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words ...And she can't stop worrying about her dad, who's loving and fragile and has never really been alone. Now Cath has to decide whether she's ready to open her heart to new people and new experiences, and she's realizing that there's more to learn about love than she ever thought possible...From GoodReads

I’m finding it really hard to accumulate my thoughts on Fangirl. I know I loved it while I was reading it but any time I put the book down it escaped my head entirely. I loved Attachments and Eleanor and Park and I was looking forward to finding this book just as charming and loveable.

Cath was a fantastically endearing character; so crippled with anxiety it takes her a month to go to the dining room at her college, so lost without her identical twin to depend on, so obsessed with fantasy series Simon Snow that she’d rather spend her life reliving its magic over and over than live in the real world with other people.

Cath didn’t tell him that sometimes she felt like Wren was still taking more than her fair share of life, like she was siphoning vitality off Cath – or like she was born with a bigger supply.

Adjusting to a life away from home can be difficult at the best of times, but Cath was counting on Wren’s support and company to make her anxieties bearable. Cath soon discovers that while she has spent the last 18 years as half of a whole, that other half has been entertaining other, more singular, ideas. Wren wants to establish her own identity; to be something other than a twin. While you certainly can’t blame Wren for wanting to make her own path, it does make it even more difficult for Cath to avoid socialising with The People.

On top of the rift developing with Wren, Cath must also try to manage a father struggling to control his struggles with bi polar disorder. I felt this to be the best part of the novel for me. It was really heart breaking to watch both girls, but especially Cath, grapple with their desire to live their own lives but also face the burden of caring for a father who cannot be trusted to take care of himself. Having one unstable parent would be enough for any child to handle, but Catch must also acknowledge the mother who abandoned them as children and her re-emergence in their lives.

Rainbow Rowell does a fantastic job of inserting all the emotion into these issues and describing them perfectly while still maintaining her unique writing flair. I could not help but intensely feel what Catch herself is feeling from her sense of isolation and sheer panic to her constant concern for her father and sense of neglect by her mother and I felt keenly the loss of their twin sisterly bond and concern over Wren’s actions. Some of the best writing in the novel stems from Rowell’s seemingly easy yet intense way of conveying all that Cath is feeling while still managing not to reduce her audience to a blubbering mess.

Throughout all of these ordeals Cath stays (relatively) grounded through embracing the world of Simon Snow, fantasy extraordinaire who’s going the save the world, over and over again, with the handsome Baz that he has secret PG-13 feels with. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about these excerpts going in to the novel, knowing that some people either didn’t like them and/or skipped over them but in the end I found them delightfully charming and they REALLY made me want to reread Harry Potter again, and wish I could bring back the magic of the first time read. While they obviously share a similar vibe and some great in jokes about keeping dangerous creatures in a school and a main character always charging headfirst into danger *cough*Harry*cough*, it wasn’t until after I’d finished Fangirl that I discovered Rowell actually read the series and engaged in the fanfic world. I found these an enjoyable break from the heavier aspects of the novel and I’m actually saddened that these novels, and their more interesting spin offs, don’t exist. They were also an excellent tool for highlighting and exploring the very issues Cath was dealing with in her own life.

”It’s not my job to want you or not want you. It’s not my job to earn you.”

I have a great appreciation for the characters Rowell has created in Fangirl. Each one has very well developed character traits and all with very real flaws. The abandoning mother has obvious flaws, though really very little was done to explain her point of view, but there is also the father who clearly still needs his own supervision, yet really manages to come through for the girls in ways that I was quite proud of. Levi’s charm and openness can win him many friends, but as Cath mentions many times, can lead to an abuse of power and nearly costs him his friendship with her. Cath herself also has many flaws, chief amongst them is her intense affection for the Simon Snow universe which, not a problem in itself, can lead to the hurt and neglect of those she cares for due to her confliction priorities.

Not only do the characters seem very real, but their relationships also felt very real. I’ve long held a fascination for identical twins and I think Rowell did a great job of exploring their sisterly relationship throughout a very serious fallout. Their interactions debating whether Cath could ever have short hair now that Wren had done it first, or buying gloves specifically to be able to get yours back seemed totally realistic and believable. Cath and Levi together are obviously very adorable, as two romantic leads in a movie should be, and they had plenty of great dialogue to swoon over.

…Levi’s eyebrows were pornographic. If Cath were making this decision just on eyebrows, she would have been “up to his room” a long time ago.

Fangirl is definitely a book I will someday read again, not least because while I know I greatly enjoyed reading it, it unfortunately has not left a lasting impression. It is an endearing story, equally filled with serious issues and delightfully light, charming moments that made me feel like a kid heading off to college and filled with bubbling excitement to start the journey.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Quote of the Week (72) Other People

“There are other people on the Internet. It's awesome. You get all the benefits of 'other people' without the body odor and the eye contact.” 
Rainbow Rowell

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Cluetopia by David Astle

My Rating:1 Star2 Star3 Star4 Star

Crosswords are not as old as you think. The first one appeared a century ago, the little square keeping in remarkable shape. Cluetopia is here to toast the centenary, whizzing you through 100 years of remarkable clues, across the world, seeking the inside stories.

Come travel to New Guinea, Venezuela and Metropolis: every destination arising from a clue. Encounter love, murder, hoaxes, propaganda. Visit a Maori funeral, a Bass Strait oil-rig, a Russian game show-just some of side-trips locked inside a crossword.

With almost 100 mini-chapters, each one with a clue to crack, Cluetopia is a book for word lovers and puzzle fans. You'll see how crosswords capture the life around them, from prison cells to outer space. A holiday for the head, Cluetopia is as fun, as wild and as wordy as David's previous bestseller, Puzzled. From GoodReads

You know a book has taken a hold of you when you find yourself suddenly noticing its subject in everyday life. There I was, watching Britain’s Hidden Heritage with one of the hosts trawling through archives of Country Life magazine when I noticed she had opened the compendium at the crossword page. Suddenly I was so intensely curious: I wonder who wrote that particular crossword, I wonder what type of crossword it was, I wonder if it was hard to solve, if it contained any secret clues and I was struck by how much a book about crosswords had influenced me.

Let’s hit the road. Let’s hunt down the most curious crosswords out there, the most dubious, the ground-breakers and the head spinners, the slurs and secret messages. Let’s riffle (and rifle) the papers of the world to single out clues that can’t be believed – or solved.

I’ve never been a fan of crosswords; to me they were intimidating, utterly bewildering things and the only ones that didn’t make me feel completely moronic were the ones in the back of gossip magazines. My life plan was always to avoid the crossword, thus avoiding the obvious spotlight pointing out my stupidity and ignorance.

This all changed when Jason Steger mentioned Cluetopia on The First Tuesday Book Club a few months ago. I was immediately intrigued by the concept – who knew that crosswords could contain such a wealth of information and insight into history and I was looking forward to seeing the world through a pastime I wasn’t even sure was that popular anymore. The first crossword was developed in 1913 and in the 100 years since the world has undergone some dramatic changes. Author David Astle takes us on a journey through those 100 years to show how the world has shaped the evolution of the crossword, but also how the humble crossword can give us many insights into our world.

I had not really imagined that a crossword would really exert much influence over the world – but one of the great things about this book is the education I have received. When I thought of crosswords, my mind conjured up images of middle aged couples in dressing gowns sitting down on Sunday morning to some toast, tea and the crossword. Crosswords to me seemed inherently British so it was a surprise to me to discover that the hobby exists in many cultures, crossing language and cultural barriers to create something truly unique and adored by many.

Then there’s the history side of things – not just the crossword timeline, but the human misadventures that blaze in the background. Crosswords are windows on an evolving world. As we travel, you will find each puzzle a porthole, a peephole, allowing us to glance at places where people do things differently.

David Astle showed me not only the worldwide significance of the crossword and its many offshoots but also to care about them. Not only does his own passion for crosswords shine out of every page, but he also manage to convey the individual AHA! moments of some of the most famous setters as they stumbled across their first crossword, with many having very different approaches and appreciations for their lifelong friend. Astle’s writing is humorous and he has a very friendly, engaging tone. Each chapter starts with a clue that, though I knew I’d never be able to guess the answer, had such an enjoyable, anecdotal journey from clue to answer while detailing another year of history.

It’s a delightfully quirky history that contains conspiracy theories, declarations of love and proposals, even an announcement of declining health. There’s the total mindfuckery of the crossword in Chapter 1962 which includes answers but not clues that determined cruciverbalists are STILL trying to solve. There’s also the feature of new words included with each chapter that provide great examples of how the world is changing and expanding each year – like in in 1958 when tandoori entered the mainstream vocabulary.

Whether you’re a fan of the crossword or not there’s plenty to enjoy in Cluetopia and it is a fascinating insight into a worldwide club of people who share a secret language and a love of words.

Zigging and zagging through the century, we’ll navigate the maze using crosswords as our stepping stones and clues as our comfort. I don’t anticipate we’ll meet a monster on our path, but then again I can’t promise anything in black or white.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Quote of the Week (71) The Internet?

“How do you not like the Internet? That's like saying, 'I don't like things that are convenient. And easy. I don't like having access to all of mankind's recorded discoveries at my fingertips. I don't like light. And knowledge.” 
Rainbow Rowell
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