Kindle Surprise: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens

GOD!!!!

“Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out best.”

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am far from religious. The only times I have been in a church have been either for touristic reasons or some pre-scheduled event, such as a wedding (my own or someone else’s). I am no fan of religion, particularly the kind that causes its adherents to look down the noses at those of other beliefs or outside the faith, and especially when believers try to inflict their code on others. That said, I don’t have a particular problem with religion either. You want to believe in God (or god)? Go ahead. I’d rather judge people on actions, not ideas. If you do charitable works because the flying spaghetti monster told you, that’s certainly a lot better than not doing them at all. What you do counts. Why? Not so much.

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Kindle Surprise: Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

“I do not dream, der Grimnebulin. I am a calculating machine that has calculated how to think. I do not dream. I have no neuroses, no hidden depths. My consciousness is a growing function of my processing power, not the baroque thing that sprouts from your mind, with its hidden rooms in attics and cellars.”

perdidoAlmost bailed on this one quite early. I had qualms going in based on my presearch – that’s research before reading. Basically, I had several books by the author, and wanted to find out which one was his first book, but also discovered the author stood for some fringe left-wing group in the 2001 General Election. Oh-oh: set “political soapbox threat level” to orange. Then, it opened with a prologue off densely obscure descriptive passages, followed by a first chapter that ends with a kinda graphic description of a sexual encounter between the hero and his insectoid lover. [Well, it’s perhaps not THAT graphic, but the concept is easily far enough out there, to be disturbing]. If I’d realized at the time that the book was 867 pages long, I might have skipped it too. Fortunately, the Kindle does not care for such things: all books look the same, regardless of their length.

I say, “fortunately,” since even though this took about six months to get through, read almost entirely on my 15-minute break at work, it’s a wonderfully inventive piece. Even my political fears were largely unfounded: while depicting what could be described as a police state, this is a minor aspect, and actually seems a fairly high-functioning regime. It’s set in the world of Bas-Rag, and in particular the city of New Crobuzon, where a multitude of races more or less co-exist. As well as the insectoid Khepri, you have the avian Garuda, the Cactacae (take a guess), the aquatic Vodyanoi, and so on. Science and magic are both in play, converging in a kind of occult steampunk known as “crisis energy”, which the hero Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin researches in his shared warehouse.

He is commissioned by a Garuda, Yagharek, who has lost his wings, and wants Isaac to provide an artificial alternative. Following a fairly complex set of incidents, doing so unleashes a plague on the city, in the form of a pack of slake moths – insects that suck the minds of their victims dry, leaving them drooling idiots, and which operate across multiple dimensions, making them almost impossible to kill. Oh, and if you look at them, you’re toast, as their wings form patterns that instantly hypnotize any viewer – no saving throw. Taking them down before they breed will require Isaac to form, and handle, a very shaky alliance between creatures, even more bizarre than those already described.

It becomes easy to understand why the author needs 867 pages for this. Part of it is his desire to construct a full world, so he includes a fair amount of stuff that’s not strictly necessary to the plot – politics, religions, etc. – which helps flesh out the bare bones. And you can multiply all those aspects by each of the species involved, with all the description that entails, although it never feels like pointless padding, Miéville doing a good job of mixing it well with sequences that move the plot forward. The results are positively cinematic, and I’d love to see this as a film, even if that would likely take a couple of hundred million to do it justice.

On the other hand, even beyond a massive budget, there are aspects here which would be very difficult to translate; yet removing them would undeniably weaken the effectiveness of the work as a whole. One character vanishes in the second-half, then returns, and it’s hardly a happy ending. And Miéville also pulls a switch very late on, with a reveal concerning the nature of another character – arguably, the most “heroic” in the entire book – that causes both us and the other participants to re-evaluate their entire relationship to that entity. If it works well on the printed page, the result would be almost impossible to pull off on the screen, since it’s so much of a deviation from cinematic structure.

I was somewhat annoyed by some of the pretentious little flourishes, such as persisting in spelling it “chymical”, and never using a two-syllable word when a five-syllable one can be located in his thesaurus. Miéville’s efforts to explain the “crisis engine,” a device which plays a key role in the plot, were also a dismal failure, descending into a mire of tedious pseudo-occult philosophigobbledygook that was completely unenlightening. However, you can’t expect a book of this mammoth size to exist without a few weak spots, and the positives, such as the battles against the slake moths, are page-turners of the highest order. If you’re looking for a richly-detailed work of imagination, with as much effort put into the setting as its plot and characters, this comes highly recommended.

“Old stories would tell how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act–to Weave–was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.”

Kindle Surprise: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

theotherhanda.k.a. The Other Hand

“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’.”

Another book that falls into the category of “ones I’d never had read without this project,” it turns out to be a worthwhile endeavour. By coincidence, it’s a story told, like the last book I covered, Cold Mountain., in chapters that alternate between two very different viewpoints. That is really about the only similarity though: while Cold was very much a period piece, this is perhaps even more relevant now – the weekend of the Paris terrorist attacks – than it was when it came out in 2008. It tells the story of “Little Bee,” a Nigerian refugee, who flees a hellish civil conflict in her home land to England, and is then held in an immigration detention center for two years. When let out through a bureaucratic bungle, she makes her way to the home of the only people she knows, the O’Rourke’s, a couple she met on a Nigerian beach under disturbing (and initially vague) circumstances. The other half of the narrative is Sarah O’Rourke, a magazine editor, devoted mother and not-so-devoted wife, who is understandably surprised to see an escaped refugee show up on her suburban doorstep.

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Kindle Surprise: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“She fit her head under his chin, and he could feel her weight settle into him. He held her tight and words spilled out of him without prior composition. And this time he made no effort to clamp them off. He told her about the first time he had looked on the back of her neck as she sat in the church pew. Of the feeling that had never let go of him since. He talked to her of the great waste of years between then and now. A long time gone. And it was pointless, he said, to think how those years could have been put to better use, for he could hardly have put them to worse.”

This is the sort of find which makes the Kindle Surprise project worthwhile. Because it’s a very enjoyable book, that I would almost certainly never have read if it hadn’t been part of the package. The movie version, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman (not to mention, Jax from Sons of Anarchy!) also managed to escape my eyeballs: I think my subconscious probably dismissed it, based on the title and Western location, as some kind of sequel to Brokeback Mountain. Or worse, The Asylum mockbuster version, likely starring Casper Van Dien. Either way: nein, danke.
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Kindle Surprise: Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler

“It’s been my experience that people who make proclamations about themselves are usually the opposite of what they claim to be.”

I went into this with absolutely no knowledge of Ms. Handler. I had not watched any of her TV shows. I had not seen any of her stand-up. All I know about her, I learned from this book. And having read the first couple of chapters in her autobiography, I was able to come to a single rapid conclusion.

Chelsea Handler. What a cunt. Read More

Kindle Surprise: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

dickensI had some concerns going in, being aware that this story was originally published in installments, by the weekly publication All the Year Round. I had bumped against another similarly episodic work earlier in my Kindling, Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and I found it unreadable, to the extent that I bailed after only a few chapters. It was painfully clear that Dumas was being paid by the word, and this reduced the story to grinding on at a painful and tedious pace, with copious descriptions of the tiniest elements. I feared this might be the same, but hoped the fact that Dickens owned and operated All the Year Round, rather than being merely a contributor, would help avoid this falling into the same traps.

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Kindle Surprise: The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

“The question, as always, is how good is the evidence? The burden of proof surely rests on the shoulders of those who advance such claims. Revealingly, some proponents hold that scepticism is a liability, that true science is inquiry without scepticism. They are perhaps halfway there. But halfway doesn’t do it. “

"Carl Sagan Planetary Society" by NASA/JPLIt’s no secret I enjoy conspiracies, and conspiracy theories. This is mostly for the entertainment value: the world would be a much more interesting place if those in power were, as David Icke has suggested, actually shape-shifting lizards. But a good general rule is, the bigger a conspiracy has to be, the less likely it is to be true. Another useful one is Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. So was the government behind 9/11? I doubt it. Should the government have known about it? Quite probably: the dots were there, they just weren’t connected by anyone in possession of all the data. Did America shamelessly exploit it afterward for an entirely unconnected foreign policy agenda, specifically, the invasion of Iraq? Oh, hell, yes. This doesn’t require a conspiracy, just standard political opportunism.

On Reddit, I’ve been amused and irritated in about equal amounts by the /r/conspiracy forum there, whose contents run the gamut from entirely reasonable speculation through to batshit crazy, with a copious helping of anti-Semitism (thinly disguised as anti-“Zionism”) and a relentless belief that every thing is a “false flag” – including, in an Inception-style piece of circular thinking, some who believe the anti-Semitic posts are false flags, designed to discredit /r/conspiracy. My particular bete noire are those who believe the Sandy Hook massacre was not just a false flag, but never happened at all. Literally, nobody died: it was a grand piece of theater designed to… Well, no-one has come up with an adequate motive: the most commonly mentioned one, to promote gun-control, conveniently forget that not one piece of federal legislation subsequently became law.

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Kindle Surprise: Women, by Charles Bukowski

The rules: A couple of years ago, I wrote about my Kindle, and the torrent I downloaded of 1,425 e-books. Going forward, I will be writing about each book I read off it. The aim is to expose myself to titles I wouldn’t otherwise read, from all period of history, but with a certain discipline.

  1.  I don’t get to choose the book. I’m going through them in the order they appear on the screen. This is vaguely alphabetical by author first name, but that depends on the tags applied to each file.
  2. I’m restricting myself to one book by each author.
  3. I am not permitted to skip a book.
  4. I must finish one book before beginning another, but can stop reading a book if I can write 500 words on why I will be stopping
  5. However, I am allowed to have a different book simultaneously on my phone.

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”

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It Came From Tokyo 2 (Via Boston…)

Silver Screen Samurai
Cocoro Books, $19.95

The samurai is an icon of Japanese cinema, standing for many of the same attributes that the cowboy does in Hollywood. His popularity may wax and wane as the decades go by, but will never die out completely, not as long as there is a yearning for simpler times, when a sense of honour and a weapon were all a man needed. The genre is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, with Takeshi Kitato’s Zatoichi and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 showing the concept still has relevance in the 21st century.

It is thus a fitting time for Cocoro Books’ third volume of Japanese movie posters, after their general edition, and one devoted entirely to anime. Its 116 full-colour pages cover films from 1935 up to Kitano’s entry of last year, along with side-essays covering topics such as Zatoichi, or women in samurai films. These help explain what to look for in the posters, and the significance of the various elements therein.

For fans of the genre, this is an absolutely essential work, with many of the photos likely never before seen in the West. The sense of a auction catalog that permeated the first volume is toned-down, though prices are still attached to each item. Actually, they seem pretty reasonable: a 20×28-inch poster for the 1959 film, The She-Devil Lineage is only $35. Few original posters for Hollywood movies of that vintage can be had at such a low cost.

Razor 2: The Snare

As more of a dilettante when it comes to these films – who, if truth be told, doesn’t like cowboy movies much either – there was a certain sense of sameness about a lot of the pictures. A samurai, with sword and top-knot, stares out of the frame while projecting an expression of intense seriousness; red text sprays down one side of the image, like an arterial gush from one of his victims. Woman are rarely seen, active ones, even less frequently – and if you’re looking for miles of smiles, this is the wrong volume entirely.

In such homogeneous company, the odd one that bucks the trend stands out more than usual. Kurosawa clearly didn’t need to use traditional imagery for one of his takes on Shakespeare, Ran. Similarly, Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo [Gohatto in its native land] portrays an androgynous figure, in keeping with the unconventional nature of its story. I also noticed that more recent entries seem to be favouring black as a colour – guess it must be the new red…

The presence of no less than three indices – by Japanese, Romanized and English titles – is definitely a welcome addition, even if I’m certain this book merely scratches the surface, rather than making any claim to be comprehensive. While more narrowly-focused, and thus personally less interesting, than its predecessors, it is still worth a look for anyone with the slightest interest in Japanese cinema, design or even if you simply appreciate unusual art.

For more information, see the publisher’s website – the book is also available from Amazon.

Kaiju Big Battel
A Practical Guide to Giant City-Crushing Monsters

Hyperion, $14.95

If we were neutral – though we certainly aren’t – we might have to admit that Kaiju Big Battel is a one-joke idea: “What would happen if you mixed the worlds of professional wrestling and Japanese monster-movies?” And, let’s be honest, neither of those fields are exactly deep in themselves. Yet, somehow, Kaiju is becoming far greater than the sum of its parts, and this book shows, without a doubt, that there is more life to the concept than perhaps even its creators expected.

What started off as guys in bizarre costumes hitting each other with cardboard buildings in Boston has become a merchandising juggernaut offering T-shirts, stickers, DVDs, even little packs of meat harvested from dead monsters. [The last idea is borrowed from Japan – I got Chris a tin of Mothra eggs for Christmas. On the other hand, a Kaiju sticker graces the previously pristine bumper of the Trash City PT Cruiser] And now, a 170-page volume that explains the basic concept for beginners, yet is sure to delight any existing fan of Dr. Cube, Silver Potato, Dino Kang and the other Big Battelers.

It begins with the origins of Kaiju, as an epic battle of good vs. evil, that previously destroyed cities, but is now constrained within the ring – despite the evil efforts of Dr. Cube and his posse to achieve world domination. It then segues into two-page pieces focusing on each Kaiju creature, and also describes previous Big Battels, the weapons used therein, how the monsters work, plus quizzes to test your “Kai-Q”, and handy survival tips for what to do if a Battel suddenly erupts nearby.

Like we said: there’s a lot more to this than you probably thought.

All of this is written in an utterly engaging mix of sarcastic English and Japlish – if you cycled the same text repeatedly through an automatic English-Japanese-English translator, you’d be in the right ballpark for that delightful hybrid. Hence, phrases such as: “Dr. Cube is mostly evil plastic surgeon helps hide him and in real is monster man with amazing bloody spattering squares type head.” The full-colour section in the middle is a repository of many such gems.

Should you be one of the ever-diminishing number unaware of the Kaiju phenomenon, this is an ideal place to start. If you have, you’ll still learn much from this tome, which received (and fully deserved) Chris’s highest award: being taken to the Post Office to amuse her while she’s in the queue. If it can calm, soothe, and entertain under such a stress-provoking situation, imagine what it can do for you…

For more information, see the Kaiju website – the book is also available from Amazon.

It Came From Tokyo: Japanese Movie Posters

Mothra

Japanese Movie Posters
Chuck Stephens, Tetsuya Masuda, Kairakutei Black
Cocoro Books, $30.00

There can really be no argument: film posters are works of art, in a way that no other advertising medium can quite match. Hang a car advert on your wall, and people will look at you strangely, but a movie poster is simultaneously aesthetically pleasing, cool and a statement about your personality. Room with a View or Stewardesses in Heat? The choice is yours…

Bruce Hershenson’s collections of posters, mostly themed by genre, have done sterling work in gathering some of the best examples of such art, but are limited in scope, covering only the output of Hollywood. Just as great films are produced around the world, so it is for great artwork, and Cocoro Books’ collection of promotional material for Japanese movies is particularly welcome because it opens the doors to a world that is little known in the West.

Young Girls’ Holding Cell

The book is divided into seven categories: yakuza, sci-fi and monster, samurai, pink, horror, animation and new cinema. “Pink” is the Japanese term for erotic films, and the posters therein are eye-popping, simply because they are notably more explicit than anything permitted in America or Britain – along with the nudity, bondage and coercion seem common themes – making them perhaps somewhat questionable candidates for decorating your living-room.

Less likely to offend your maiden aunt are the yakuza films, featuring tough guys (and gals – in one case, even nuns!) looking…well, tough. The samurai section is not dissimilar; swords replace guns, but the emphasis is still on staring Very Intently. A number of the titles in the animation section may seem familiar, since it’s one area where Japanese cinema has made significant exports in recent years. But the poster for Ghost in the Shell is still different enough from the Western one to be striking.

However, my favourite section of all was the one devoted to the monsters, simply because these are films for which there is no real equivalent in the English-speaking world, as the woeful Hollywood Godzilla proved. Whether it’s the Tokyo Tower being destroyed by Mothra’s caterpillar, or what looks like a giant narwhal with a laser-beam coming out of its forehead (that’ll be Jigura, then), these provide a glimpse into a universe that is at once fascinating, frightening and surreal.

Ship of Bloodsucking Skulls

Each poster is accompanied by three or four lines of information on the film (studio, year, etc.), and trivia about it. Each section is also prefaced by commentary from Masuda and Black, talking about the genre’s history and place in society. These little mini-essays are teasingly short, and I would have welcomed their extension to greater length.

The book also operates as a catalog for Masuda’s store, @wonder, offering all the posters in the book for sale, at prices ranging from $20 for the new films, up to $150 for Sleepy Eyes of Death and the fabulously named Ship of Blood-Sucking Skulls. If the walls here weren’t already completely covered – with poster-tubed reserves waiting in the cupboard – there are a number I’d be very tempted to acquire.

Maybe instead I’ll just buy an extra volume of the book, so I can hack it apart and frame individual pages as mini-posters. But what, then, to do when we have Mothra on one side, and Son of Godzilla on the other? Better make that two more. Such cunning marketing, which requires the reader to purchase multiple copies of the book, can only be admired. Sigh… 🙂

For more information, see the publisher’s website – the book is also available from Amazon.