Friday, 30 March 2007

Char siu pork noodles

I bought a jar of char siu sauce in Chinatown, but you can make your own:

Equal measures of: brown sugar, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, mixed with double measure honey or golden syrup, shake of five spice, shake of msg, slug of something (sherry, vermouth, brandy), dash of rice vinegar.

Marinade a pound and a half of pork loin, in thick slices, for at least 8 hours. Hang them in the oven (200C) over a bain marie for 20 minutes (use a skewer and stick it in a shelf on the top rack, or use those S-shaped hooks). Take them out and brush on remaining marinade and, if not sticky, a bit more honey. Turn heat down a bit and give them quarter of an hour more. Take them out and let them cool. Boil noodles. Slice very finely the following: spring onions, ordinary onions, big knob of ginger, half a dozen cloves of garlic, chilis. Slice any of the following that you have: carrots, peppers, baby corn, green beans, mange tout &c &c. Get out large handfuls of frozen peas, soya beans, sweetcorn &c &c. Open tin of waterchestnuts, jar of bamboo shoots in chili oil (you'll only want a couple of tablespoons of it, but the rest keeps at room temperature for ages) and a bag of beansprouts the size of your head.

Heat 2 tablespoonfuls of sesame oil in large wok (one of the big Vietnamese aluminium ones is ideal, except that it gets too hot to touch) on very high flame. Dice pork into fairly small bits and chuck in with garlic, ginger and onions. Then add everything else bit by bit, moving the thing the whole time. You may need to chuck in a splash of soy sauce, water from the kettle or a little oil. You can also crack in a couple of eggs at an early stage so that they clump up the way they do in egg fried rice. Serve with chili oil, chili paste and jasmine tea to drink.

Ungrateful 4-year-old doesn't like it; make her cereal and eat her portion yourself. Go off to smoke and write letter to GP demanding he doesn't upload your details to centralised NHS database: www.TheBigOptOut.org

Just What Is It About Today's Yesterday-based Tomorrows That Makes Them So Different, So Appealing?

I’m not thinking of the appeal of Victorian and Edwardian sf, but of the books I mentioned earlier, for which “steampunk” is probably as useful and as hideous a label as any. Of course, Wells and Verne can be retrospectively claimed for it, but only in the way that they are filtered through the kind of sensibility shown by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In other words, War of the Worlds wasn’t written as steampunk, but it can now be read as it. (In David Lodge’s Small World, Persse McGarrigle, the graduate student, proposes a book about TS Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare.)
But I think what I like about The Difference Engine and so on is largely what I like about Wells and Conan Doyle and Stevenson. The difference is that in the latter the items which are costume and props – top hats, frock coats, hansom cabs, gaslight, snuffboxes, you name it – are, for the writers, the normal items providing verisimilitude for everyday life; only the Martian tripods are exotic. But modern books set at the turn of the last century or some close version of it, we can’t help but be aware, are appropriating these bits of d├ęcor as things every bit as foreign to us as the Martians. Thus you get two bites at the cherry.
Science fiction, as no one connected with it ever gets tired of saying, is not about predicting the future but about elucidating the present. And while the future has this advantage over the past, that you can change it; the past has this advantage over the future, that you can know it.
One interesting example of knowing that the trappings of (then) contemporary life can be seen as if by alien eyes occurs at the very beginning of GK Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, when he describes the buttons at the back of frock coats as being like the eyes of black dragons, and then says that the London of the future is almost exactly like the London of today. The book was published in 1904 and, strangely enough, set in 1984.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is, of course, a reasonable extrapolation from the politics of 1948. But the atmosphere of the film (which was brilliantly set-designed and costumed) is a 1980s view of 1948’s view of the 1980s. You have to conclude that Baudrilliard was on to something with all that hyper-reality stuff. More on that later.

sf: The Game Players of Titan, Philip K Dick
crime: Let’s Hear It For The Deaf Man, Ed McBain
discover: The King, Donald Barthelme
listening to: La Forza del Destino, Verdi, with Maria Caniglia (Torino, RAI, 1942)
getting ready to cook: char siu pork with fried noodles

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

First things first

Onwards! One review filed, so now I should be reading more books including, but not limited to, the new titles by Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Steph Swainston and Richard Morgan. And no doubt several others.
Instead, of course, I finished Neil Gaiman, finished (for the fourth time) The Diamond Age and read the text of Mamet's A Life in the Theatre. Plays are fantastic; you can read them in about a tenth of the time it takes to watch them, and go back again and again. And I love Mamet; this is great on the page, with the sort of pitch-blende appeal of Donald Barthelme or WG Sebald (when he's not being too pompous) and very funny.
I was going to write about the Neal Stephenson but there's too much there. Another day, maybe. I know nothing about steampunk, really, but I like The Difference Engine, The Diamond Age and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic obviously, the film was a shocking disappointment. All that money wasted). Above all, though, I love John Crowley's Great Work of Time. And I love what they're all descended from, or at least what their set dressing is descended from; Stevenson's Suicide Club, Conan Doyle, bits of Chesterton. But I haven't thought it through.
So how do you choose which books to read while you're avoiding the books you should read? If you've read them before you try a few lines or paragraphs at random and then think "Wow, that was great, I'd forgotten how good this is". If it's PG Wodehouse or Ed McBain, you've also forgotten what happened because they're all exactly the same and all reliably brilliant. In a bookshop, you read the first line. (Or two or three.)
Here is the trouble: if it's too good, it's slightly offputting. You can get round this by taking the Earthly Powers approach, the most shameless first line ever. That says, I know this is a problem, watch me joke my way out of it. You can save the punch for the second sentence (Gravity's Rainbow, Catch 22). Both of those establish tone without risking everything on it. You can put all your cards on the table (Lolita). Watch me, I'm writing, that says. Or you can knock the ball right out of the park (One Hundred Years of Solitude). I think the last is probably the best first line I can think of, but it does more or less declare: "I am that good, and what follows is a masterpiece, so get used to it". Fortunately for Marquez, that works in that instance.
Another thing to do is similar to plumping for titles like Mrs Dalloway or Barchester Towers or David Copperfield (Dickens was the undoubted master of using titles that way), and just bidding for iconic status for the character. "Howard Roark laughed" (The Fountainhead - good title, lousy book) is a shining example of this falling flat on its face. Most of us laughed more at the end of the film, perhaps the kitchest scene ever commited to celuloid.
There was a cartoon once (it must have been in The New Yorker; it's the archetypal New Yorker kind of cartoon) of Dickens in his publisher's office. The publisher is saying: "It was either the best of times or it was the worst of times. It can scarcely have been both."
William Gibson's Neuromancer has a very good first line, but I am going to stick my neck out. The best first line in sf appears in Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean. But please, contradict me. If there are better ones, that will be another load of books I shouldn't be reading.
I haven't bothered to type all these examples in, because it's dead easy to find most of them on the web. Or read the books. There will be no similar post on the best last line ever, since that is Middlemarch, as any fule kno. The best opening chapter is If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.
Today I had Chinese food (what? again?) for lunch, and tortelloni with cherry tomatoes, black olives, capers, chili and sping onions for dinner. With garlic bread, Peter Kay fans.

sf: The Great Work of Time, John Crowley. And Little, Big. OK, it's fantasy, not sf, but it's wonderful.
crime: The Case of the Seven of Calvary, Anthony Boucher
discover: The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien (I know it's well known, but you can't be too evangelical about it)
listening to: Wurttemberg Sonata No 1, CPE Bach, Glenn Gould

Neil Gaiman

I've been sitting up writing a review, but keep being distracted by Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things, short stories which I've been sent in paperback (they come out in Britain on April 12). He's awfully good, and the writing has a quality of effortlessness which makes you seethe with envy. He's so productive, he may even find it as easy as he makes it look, though I doubt that. They're too good.
And they're true, as well. A lovely, creepy story called Closing Time uses the club story framing device and I kept thinking as I read the club bit, which is set in the Diogenes Club, a drinking den off the Tottenham Court Road, that it must be the Troy Club in Hanway Place, where I used to drink when I drank.
(And boy, did I drink. You think you drink? Amateurs, rank amateurs, the lot of you. And people who know me and thought I drank a lot? You don't know the half of it. I was only toying with you on those occasions. That was hardly drinking at all. But I digress. And I haven't even been drinking, because I don't, any more. But you could go at it hell for leather for the rest of your lives and you won't even be close to catching up. Pshaw.)
Sure enough, when I read the introduction, it was the Troy Club. I felt pleased with myself for 10 seconds, then realised I had nothing to feel pleased about. it was bloody obvious it was the Troy Club, because in about half a page, Gaiman had got it completely nailed.
I have never read any of his comics, which is where he started, because I haven't ever really read comics much until very recently. Hence ordering Judge Dredd in bulk. I'm filling in a gap in my education. But I think I'd better go and buy all the Sandman stuff.
Gaiman should tear a strip off the publicity people though. In the press release for Fragile Things, they quote my review of Anansi Boys (I'm called Daily Telegraph for the purposes of those plugs). No wonder. It was a hymn of praise. But they spell Wodehouse Woodhouse. I'd like to stress that the original review did not.

sf: Air, Geoff Ryman
crime: The Moving Toyshop, Edmund Crispin
to discover: Climbers, M John Harrison (anything by M John Harrison, actually)
music: Walton's Viola Concerto, William Primrose

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Hawksmoor

Happy birthday, Christopher Clavius, whom we have to thank for the Gregorian calendar and thus, indirectly, my getting an hour less in my bed last night. I think I have set up this blog so that we stay on God's time, though.
Today is also the anniversary of the death of Nicholas Hawksmoor whose churches seem to almost everyone to be deeply impressive but profoundly unChristian buildings. Christ Church Spitalfields has now been restored and is well worth visiting. Peter Ackroyd's novel (though it is a modern detective who has his name and the 18th-century architect is called Dyer) is one of those books which relies almost entirely on atmosphere - brilliantly so, I think. I've read it a couple of times and can remember almost nothing about what actually happens, but it is genuinely creepy, and the narrative voices are superbly convincing. It reminded me a bit of MR James.
Last night's dinner was Malaysian, rather than Chinese, food. Very good, though.

Today's choices:
sf: The Dosadi Experiment, Frank Herbert
crime: The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block
from now on, I'm occasionally going to suggest books which I think are unfairly neglected or insufficiently well-known
try: Rupert of Hentzau, Anthony Hope
I'm listening to: A Love Supreme, John Coltrane.

Now I'm going to watch the South Bank Show on Humphrey Lyttleton.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Jacqueline Wilson

I have never read her. But I took my children to get her new book signed today; when we left (after about an hour and a half to get to the front), there looked to be about three hours worth of queue left. She says on the dustjacket of her autobiography that Jackie magazine, where she once worked, was named after her. Apparently this is disputed. Her shoes looked very expensive which, since she's sold 20 million books in the UK alone, and is the most borrowed author from libraries, they might well be.
I am going out to eat Chinese food now.

sf: The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
crime: Five Red Herrings, Dorothy L Sayers
biscuit: ginger nuts

Friday, 23 March 2007

Books I shouldn't read


Children's literature is immersive, of course.

I have to write a round-up of children’s fantasy fiction over the weekend, so I’ve been busy ploughing my way through seven or eight titles, in order to write about three or four. Fortunately, a couple of them are very good, including China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. I won’t write about them here, or at least not until I’ve written about them for people who will actually pay me, but I mention it because, as anyone who reviews knows, whenever you have lots of stuff to get through for work, dozens of other books start to demand your attention instead.
I’ve got a large, and growing, bundle of sf, of course, as I almost always do. And sf novels now are always 300 pages plus; an increasing number of them – these are the ones the literary editors particularly want you to cover – are also the second or third in trilogies, the early parts of which you haven’t read, but which you said you had when you were getting commissioned.
None of that’s really a problem. You just have to get through it before you start writing the review, and for an insomniac who commutes by train, it’s easy enough. But other books are always presenting themselves during busy periods. I’ve been sent a couple of thrillers which I’d like to read, but almost certainly won’t be expected to write about. The collected Judge Dredd, volumes 1-6, came through the door yesterday. I went to check my copy of The Diamond Age, couldn’t find it and bought another one. Then I started reading it on the train, and want to finish it, even though I’ve read it about three times before. Not that that stops you. I’ve read Conan Doyle a dozen times at least, but I still found myself leafing through His Last Bow and The Casebook yesterday. Civitas have printed what looks like an interesting report called On Fraternity by Danny Kruger, a friend of mine who’s Cameron’s speechwriter, and which I should read soon.
All this is before I get to blogs, websites, newspapers and magazines. And, almost incidentally, all the stuff which I need to read for a living in the office. Yet, when I go away, I never have anything to read. I have decided to start early for the summer holidays and put aside a suitcase. Whenever a tempting book appears while I have a big review due (which will be every half an hour), I’ll pack it. That will be the beach reading sorted – and guaranteed to be varied, because the only common factor will be that it’s stuff I shouldn’t read just now, until I’ve finished all the stuff I need to read for work.

sf: Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner
crime: The House of the Arrow, AEW Mason
music: Scriabin, Piano Concerto, Ashkenazy & the LPO
food: liver with ginger & spring onions
confectionery: toblerone

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Shooting books

On reflection, I think the reason why the books I mentioned made for such memorable films is that they are books which work in much the same way as a film does. I don’t mean that they are written with a particular emphasis on visual images -– in fact, the ones I listed aren't, for the most part – though that would often be true (of adaptations of graphic novels, most obviously).
Nor is it just that they are straightforward, pared-down, narratives which translate easily to the screen; lots of books seem simple, but Hemingway’s novels have not been supplanted by movies of his work.
And faithfulness alone does not usually make a film richer than the text. Films of Austen can stick pretty closely to the plot and even use much of the dialogue, but they never come close to displacing the novels; no one would take the film of Gatsby to a desert island rather than the book.
It is more as if books like Cool Hand Luke and The Man Who Fell To Earth seem almost to have been written to be filmed; that there is something kinetic about their narrative, and that they successfully create an atmosphere which can be realised most effectively on screen. Or at least if they’re well done. Richard Matheson’s books are like that; so are some of Robert Silverberg’s (The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside).
A book which has similar qualities that (as far as I know) has never been filmed is The Long Walk, which Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman. I suspect a faithful adaptation of it could be very scary and very moving. But it would probably be completely buggered up, as The Running Man was. As most of them have been. The Dead Zone was an honourable exception.
I saw A Scanner Darkly the other day. The first film of a Philip K Dick novel which is anything at all like the novel. But it doesn’t seem more substantial than the book, though I thought it was very good.

Today’s picks:
sf: Distraction, Bruce Sterling
crime: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V Higgins
music: As You’d Expect, Douglas Lawrence
lunch: Thali at Quilom (Keralan restaurant)
dinner: Shepherd’s pie
confectionery: Matchmakers

Monday, 19 March 2007

Cool Hand Luke

Stuart Rosenberg, director of the excellent Cool Hand Luke (and the execrable Amityville Horror) has died. Cool Hand Luke is one of those books which is actually quite good, but the memory of which seems to have been almost entirely displaced by the film. Other examples which come immediately to mind are Six Days of the Condor (filmed as Three Days of the Condor), The Cincinnati Kid, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and several of Walter Tevis's books (The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Colour of Money). I'll think about that some more and try to write something coherent about why. But now I am going to watch Michael Mann's Thief, which I have never seen, on Film Four.

Today's recommendations:
sf: Gateway, Frederik Pohl
crime: Death at the President's Lodging, Michael Innes
music: Waltz for Debbie, Bill Evans
food: tapenade

Sunday, 18 March 2007

California Time

"People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading." Logan Pearsall Smith

So I guess I'll just be writing about books, and films, and music and pictures, and secondhand consumption of other cultural detritus. There is limited dramatic potential in what I do, viz: sitting around drinking coffee and smoking roll-ups, while reading The Chinese Orange Mystery. But, as a justification for this typing into the void, I will put some random recommendations at the end of every post. These are notes towards the definition of the canon in their respective fields. What's the point of having opinions if you aren't going to be opinionated?
One very slightly puzzling thing happened today. I was checking something on the web and found a site offering quotations from Frederic Raphael, which described him as "best known for After the War and California Time". I having been wondering ever since whether it was supposed to be a joke. I love California Time, but I think it's the only one of his books which never made it to paperback; certainly all the copies for sale on abebooks are first editions, which rather suggests that there was only one edition.
You get a lot of hits for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with him, too. Perhaps he missed his true metier?

Today's recommendations:
Detective fiction: The Hollow Man (also titled The Three Coffins), John Dickson Carr
Science Fiction: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K Dick
Biscuit: Rich Tea

first post


This is an attempt to post. If it works I may get the hang of this, and perhaps have interesting things to say. I wouldn't hold your breath, though.