I’ve several times asked for recommendations for fiction by women writers, because my fiction reading is over 95% male, and that’s not good, either for me or society. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations have been people I’ve just bounced off.
But today I realised something obvious — I’ve been asking for SF/F writers, especially, because the vast majority of what I read is SF/F, but there’s a much better description of the kind of stuff I want, one I’ve referred to several times in the past — what Lance Parkin refers to as “the Gray tradition”.
The kind of thing Lance is talking about there is by far my favourite fiction reading. Lance has a long list in the top post there of the common characteristics of the books he’s talking about. I’ve excerpted below the ones that — I *think* — are the things that most appeal to me, but do read all the posts there, they’re all worth it:
Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.
Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.
Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.
The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.
History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.
The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.
Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.
Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.
The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.
They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.
There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).
There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.
The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.
Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.
Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.
The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.
If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.
Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.
Some of the books Lance talks about fitting into this genre are Lanark, the Narnia books, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Invisibles, most of Philip K Dick and Alan Moore’s stuff, the works of Borges, Iain Banks, Lovecraft, and Michael Chabon.
Some that I’d add that seem to me the same kind of thing, though of varying levels of quality — Cerebus, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, most of Robert Anton Wilson’s stuff, Lewis Carrol, Stewart Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool, some of Vonnegut, Bryan Talbot. And sort of proto-Gray-Tradition people would include Blake, Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde.
The only problem with this is one of the *other* characteristics Lance points out as being common to all these books:
Be written by men
Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Several of the writers who’ve contributed to recent Obverse anthologies — I’m thinking especially of Elizabeth Evershed, Kelly Hale and Helen Angove — have done stuff which has the same *feeling* to me as many of these books, and I’m sure the forthcoming women-only Faction Paradox anthology will have a lot more, as Faction Paradox is, as much as anything, just a label saying “this kind of stuff” (my own forthcoming Faction Paradox novel fits almost embarrassingly into the description Lance gives).
But… there’s not much I know of. Susanna Clarke sort of fits, but her only novel so far came out ten years ago. Holly keeps recommending Scarlett Thomas to me, and having looked at the synopses of her novels she definitely seems to fit, but I read her nonfiction book on writing, Monkeys With Typewriters, and found her writing persona to be revolting — narcissistic, omphaloskeptic, and patronising towards any fiction that isn’t “literary” for the narrow definition of literary that gains the approval of the Observer’s books editor. I’ll probably try reading her sooner or later, simply because she does seem to fit my tastes perfectly other than that, but that book *really* put me off.
Are there any other women who write this sort of thing? There *must* be — I know enough women who *like* this kind of thing that there must be at least *some* women writing it. But of course, it’s entirely possible that if there are, it’s being labelled in a completely different genre to anything I’d normally look at. For all I know there’s some wonderful metafictional postmodern platonist romance novelist out there who is as highly regarded in her genre as Alan Moore is in his.
And if there is, I want to read her stuff…
Mark Lewisohn’s latest book on the Beatles is almost impossible to review sensibly. Possibly the simplest review is simply to describe it. It’s volume one of a projected three-volume biography of the Beatles. My copy runs to 803 pages of fairly small type, plus a further 129 pages of endnotes, index, etc.
And it ends on January 1, 1963, at the point where they only had one single out.
And what I have is the “standard edition”. There is an extended edition available which contains “hundreds of thousands of words” of extra material.
Knowing that, along with the fact that Mark Lewisohn is a scrupulously accurate researcher (I only found one error in the whole book — a persistent misspelling of The Tremeloes as The Tremiloes), will tell you if this is the kind of book you want. If you’re absolutely fascinated by the Beatles and want an utterly definitive biography, this is the book for you (although even someone as interested in them as myself can find it occasionally a little creepy to know quite that much about a stranger’s life). If you’re only mildly interested, then you can probably do without it.
I say “probably”, rather than definitely, because the book has some material that will interest even the more casual fan. In particular, Lewisohn finally provides a decent explanation for how the Beatles got signed to Parlophone after being turned down, one which also explains why they had multiple sessions in 1962 and why How Do You Do It? was never released:
It turns out that George Martin never actually wanted to sign the Beatles at all — Parlophone turned them down originally, and Martin disliked their demo tape. But then Ardmore & Beechwood, EMI’s publishing department, wanted to sign Lennon and McCartney as songwriters on the strength of Like Dreamers Do, which they wanted to publish.
Having been told that Brian Epstein wasn’t interested in just getting them a publishing contract, but that he wanted the band to have a record contract, Ardmore & Beechwood were so convinced of the potential of the couple of Lennon/McCartney songs on the demo that they actually offered to pay the costs of a single if EMI would put it out — that way they would get the rights to the songs, which they could then get recorded by a more successful performer.
No-one at EMI wanted the Beatles, and George Martin was made to take them as punishment, because his boss didn’t approve of Martin having an affair with his secretary while he was still married. Martin was unimpressed with the results of their first session (with Pete Best), and thought their original songs were terrible, so insisted they go away and learn How Do You Do It?
The second session, with Ringo, saw them record How Do You Do It? and Love Me Do, because Martin knew they had to record at least one Lennon/McCartney song for Ardmore & Beechwood. But Ardmore & Beechwood wouldn’t agree to having Love Me Do be only the B-side, and the publishers of How Do You Do It? wouldn’t let *that* be the B-side either, so Martin was forced to scrap that track — not because the Beatles didn’t like it, as people have assumed, but because the people who were actually paying for the session wouldn’t tolerate the idea.
This is why there was a third session, with Andy White on drums — who was brought in because while Ringo had played fine on Love Me Do and How Do You Do It? he had horribly cocked up an early attempt at Please Please Me and Martin didn’t trust the band’s judgement of drummers after Pete Best had been so terrible.
Ardmore & Beechwood then promoted the single, even though Parlophone didn’t do much with it, and only after it became a hit did George Martin start to take a real interest in the band — and the first thing he did was persuade them to stop being published by Ardmore & Beechwood (whose boss he didn’t get on with) and instead to go with his old mate Dick James…
There are fascinating things like that, things that quietly make sense of a whole lot of confusing information, throughout this book. Happily, despite Lewisohn relying on the Beatles for his career, he doesn’t pull any punches in his descriptions of their behaviours. Lennon comes across as a callous, severely troubled, but basically decent person, McCartney as almost inhumanly cold, Harrison as a decent person but one more concerned with music than people, Starr as a genuinely good man with no real faults at all, Brian Epstein as a flighty, overindulged, but basically decent person, and George Martin (surprisingly) as a Machiavellian, backbiting, nasty piece of work.
One also still feels sorry for Pete Best — not so much for his sacking (as is made abundantly clear in this book, he simply couldn’t play the drums, and if this book does nothing else it will hopefully clear up the myths around that forever), but for the way the other Beatles used him for two years while never liking him either as a person or a musician, and while planning all along to drop him at the first opportunity. While Lewisohn clearly takes their side, it comes across as a massively nasty thing to do.
The book is ridiculously detailed — it starts in 1845 with the earliest known ancestors of the Beatles, and contains far more information than even the most ardent fan will necessarily want to know. I could have lived perfectly happily, for example, without knowing that Ringo lost his virginity on the same day that Paul first heard Hound Dog and that both had been to the same fairground earlier that day. The level of detail is such that when Ringo forms his own group aged 18, but they split after two rehearsals (“We had a clarinet player who could only play in B-flat, a pianist who could only play in C, a guitarist who was quite good, a tea-chest bass, and a trumpeter who could only play When The Saints Go Marching In“), we learn the names of the guitarist, clarinet player and trumpeter in question.
There are some flaws to the book — in particular, Lewisohn keeps using bits of period Liverpool slang in otherwise fairly formal writing, and it jars. Even worse is his occasional habit of thinking it really, really amusing to use pseudo-phonetic spellings of words like “laugh” or “fucking”, which are pronounced differently in Liverpool to what Lewisohn (a Londoner) clearly thinks is the “proper” way, and so become “laff” and “fooking”. It’s nasty London-centric bigotry, and really beneath him.
A more excusable flaw is in the way the book treats Ringo. Quite rightly, he has the same space devoted to him as any of the others, but for much of the book John, Paul, and George are spending almost all their time together, and have complicated, changing, relationships with each other that can be explored, while Ringo’s life essentially doesn’t intersect with theirs until near the conclusion of the book. This makes Ringo’s life seem like a series of irrelevant asides to the main action, although it is hard to see how Lewisohn could have dealt with this more effectively.
It’s not a perfect book, then, but for anyone who wants a true understanding of where the Beatles came from, the cultural context in which they live, and the personal relationships which allowed them to rise to success, it’s pretty close to essential. I can’t imagine there ever being a better narrative biography of the band, and I’m already looking forward to volume 2 and seriously considering that extended edition…
As most of you will have seen, I put out a book last night.
Here’s a screenshot of part of the Amazon (UK) page for that book as of just now:
Pretty good, eh? Top thirty in its category, and in the top 24,000 overall books. There are over two million books on Kindle, so that means my new book is, within a few hours of its release, in the top 1.2% of all books available on Kindle! Take that 98.8% of English literature! I are best than you!
And that’s especially impressive given how little promotion I gave it. I only linked it from my blog and Tumblr, and did nothing else. It must be that word-of-mouth thing, right? That must have got me those massive sales.
So let’s have a look at my sales, see how I’m doing, how big a yacht I can afford to buy with my riches…
Better not send that resignation email just yet then…
Full disclosure before I start this — I am friendly with the author and the publisher, and I also potentially have a book coming out from this publisher. I don’t think that this has biased my opinions in any way — I became friendly with them because we shared a lot of tastes, so it’s unsurprising that I would then enjoy this book — but it’s only fair to point out up-front.
I’ve been putting off reviewing this one for quite some time, because as I’ve said before I’ve not been thinking very well for the last few months due to ill-health, and this is a book that deserves a more considered, thoughtful response than perhaps I am able to give. However, I’m still not fully well, and don’t know how long I would have to wait otherwise, so this is my best assessment given my limited faculties.
Against Nature is a fascinating, difficult book, that makes no concessions to the reader but is all the better for it. It’s dense, allusive, and expects its reader to think — but it gives plenty to think about. This is Faction Paradox in big, important, thoughtful mode, rather than light adventure mode — think Newtons Sleep or, especially, This Town Will Never Let Us Go rather than Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia. I’ve read it twice, and I still haven’t got all of it, but that’s a good thing — this is a book that absolutely rewards rereading.
I loved it.
I’m mistletoe, Todd thought, I was living on that tree, and now I’m cut off, just moving forward until I sputter out. He wondered if this life might present him with other obvious symbols for his consideration, truths revealed in the everyday details. It felt a little like this whole world was all for his benefit, so maybe.
Against Nature is about sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice, about dying-and-resurrected gods (and ones that die without resurrection), about what it means to be cut off from one’s culture and one’s past. It’s a book that could only have been written by someone profoundly disconnected from his own culture — and it’s no surprise that between writing the early drafts of this, and its final publication, Lawrence emigrated to the US.
The same injustice had befallen Europe a few centuries earlier, barbarians at the gates and so on, swords turning out to be mightier than pens despite the proverb. It was always the stupid idea that caught on, the story that even the village idiot could follow without giving himself a headache. Human history was a ratings war, and people would always choose the flashing lights, special effects, and generic hero pleading you don’t have to do this! over things of value.
One of the ways in which Lawrence creates this effect has been misunderstood by several of the readers, particularly on some Doctor Who forums (Faction Paradox still has a residual connection to what Lawrence refers to as Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time). The book is set in multiple times, in multiple locations, with multiple cultures. Two of those cultures — the Great Houses and the medieval Mexica people (the people we think of, wrongly, as “the Aztecs”) are ones which are very, very different from the likely cultures of any of the readers, not only in behaviour and attitudes, but in language.
Lawrence throws us in at the deep end, cutting rapidly, every two or three pages, between wildly different locations and time periods, with stories that parallel and comment upon each other, but do not link up until near the end. Each of these different cultures is presented to us without comment or explanation, so our first glimpse of the Great Houses’ culture comes with:
The blinkers were fashioned from the clothing of the deceased, specifically a pressure suit once belonging to Herrare, the material cut to form a collar of hide curving around the eyes in the manner of goggles. Emioushameddhoran vel-Xianthellipse adjusted the knotted strips of fabric which kept the blinkers in place and took a moment to inspect herself in the cheval glass
while the Mexica strand of the story starts:
It was the day Ome Ozmatli of the trecena Ce Izcuintli as reckoned by the Tonalpohualli calendar of the Mexica — Two Monkey, presiding Deities being Xochipilli, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl. This was hardly an auspicious combination by which to embark upon travel, but there being only nine days left before the occasion of the impending New Fire Ceremony, Momacani was left with little choice.
The cultures involved are ones which Lawrence has an expert understanding of — he has been studying the Mexica people for decades, and has been involved in Faction Paradox fandom (for want of a better word) for almost as long. The result is that he can write about these cultures fluently, from the perspective of someone who lives there, because he does, at least internally.
Several readers complained about the fact that they had to keep track of unfamiliar names like Emioushameddhoran and terms like Ce Izcuintli, and there is no question that this does make the book many times more difficult to read than it otherwise would be. But this seems to me to be entirely intentional — the reader experiences a miniature culture shock every two to five pages, and has to assimilate everything with no background. One is as rootless as Todd, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure in this book.
But I’m making this sound like it’s a hard slog, something to read out of a sense of duty, and it’s anything but. It’s a clever, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking book, and will almost certainly prove the best novel I read this year.
In other news, I’ve decided to start putting my book reviews on Goodreads, since Amazon don’t want authors posting book reviews on their site. I’ve had the account a couple of years, but only just started using it. Add me here if you want. Or not.
For the next month or so, most of my writing time will be taken up with copy-edits on the Beach Boys book and on my novel (along with the Doctor Who posts and How To Build Your Own Time Machine). So for the next month most of what’s posted here will be rather light book reviews.
To start with, Shell-Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo And Eddie, Frank Zappa etc. by Howard Kaylan.
For those who don’t know the name Howard Kaylan, he’s probably most famous as the lead singer of the Turtles. He sang lead on all their hits, as well as writing Elenore and a lot of their album tracks, but after they split up in the late sixties, he and Mark Volman (the Turtles’ backing vocalist, tambourine player, and comedian to Kaylan’s straight man) went on to do an immense amount of other interesting work — lead vocalists with the Mothers of Invention for a couple of years, backing vocals with T-Rex, backing vocals on Hungry Heart by Springsteen, and much more, as well as their own albums of hippie comedy-folk-pop under the name Flo And Eddie.
Kaylan’s autobiography is a fascinating, but frustrating read. Kaylan is clearly one of the more intelligent, thoughtful, 60s rock stars, and some of the insights given into the actual working methods of the bands he’s worked with are absolutely fascinating. I hadn’t realised before that Kaylan modelled his vocal style on that of Colin Blunstone (musically he and Volman were definitely Anglophiles, working with Ray Davies and covering the Small Faces at a time when those musicians were nearly unknown in the US), that he and Volman patterned their stage double-act on Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or that the Turtles’ stylistic change from their early folk-rock to the bouncy pop of Happy Together was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but all these things are very obvious once you know.
When he talks about this stuff, the book is at its best — I found the discussions of his writing the great Turtles song Marmendy Hill, or the recording of Lady-O (the last and best Turtles single) riveting, and also loved the insights into Zappa’s working methods, and little details like Springsteen being unable to sing on-key without holding his guitar.
Those portions of the book are, to my mind, easily the most interesting, and I wish there could have been more of them — the recording of the Turtle Soup album, for example (one of the best 60s pop albums of all time) is covered in a little over a page, although this is possibly because it was the Turtles album with least active involvement from Kaylan.
Almost as interesting are the anecdotes about other pop musicians, ranging from the heartbreaking :
When “The Puppy Song” played, Nilsson’s eyes filled with tears. “Dreams are only made of wishes and a wish is just a dream you hope will come true.”
“I was a pretty good singer once, wasn’t I?”
“You’re the best there ever was.” I told him, meaning every word. I was tearing up too.
“He took it from me. He stole my voice and I never got it back!”
The “he” that Harry referred to was John Lennon, who famously produced the Pussy Cats album for Nilsson in 1974. Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John would coerce him into.
“I can scream louder and longer than you!” and John could. But, sweet, gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce, and by the time Lennon returned to London, abandoning May Pang and the lost California years, it was too late; the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair and the new stuff was scratchy and desperate. Harry cried.
“Once I was a king, Howard. Now look at me. I’m just waiting to die
to the… well, to this:
Tom Jones was an education all by himself. Every day, when the tour bus arrived at our venue, there were hundreds of waiting, screaming teenage girls, and Tom taunted them mercilessly from behind the safety of his window. He actually pulled out his legendary-for-good-reason schlong, which he had nicknamed Wendell, and waved it at the befuddled girls, who hooted, hollered, and pushed their friends aside to get a look at the one-eyed monster.
“Ooh, you’d like to meet Wendell, wouldn’t you, ladies? Arrrgh, here he comes, girls.” Tom was very advanced.
The best of the anecdotes reveal a huge amount about the musicians Kaylan has known (which seems to include almost every major figure from the 60s and 70s). The worst are just the usual stories of hedonistic excess that pad out every rock bio. For those, you had to be there, I suspect.
What’s rather sad here is that Kaylan’s personal life seems to have been a mess. I lost track of the number of wives he had (I *think* I counted five or six) because each marriage seems to be described in pretty much identical terms — Kaylan meets a woman and marries her. He is convinced that she is The One and he will never need another woman, she promises she’s going to get off the booze and drugs Real Soon Now. Cut to a year or so later, and he’s sleeping with every woman in the continental United States while she’s permanently off her head. Rinse and repeat. (Thankfully, his current wife seems to have been with him about twenty years, so maybe things are better for him now).
Frankly, the book is too short for what it’s trying to do, which is to be both a straight autobiography and a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences about other people. There’s almost nothing, for example, about Kaylan’s working relationship with Mark Volman — despite the fact that the two have been colleagues for fifty years now, I came out of the book knowing next to nothing about him.
But what *is* there, particularly in the first half, is essential reading for anyone who’s interested in the LA music scene of the 60s.
Penn Jilette’s foreword, as well, is fascinating, and makes me think rather better of him than I did previously:
Years later, brilliant voice actor Billy West would say, “There’s one show business.” I didn’t have those words for it then, but Frank Zappa, Howard Kaylan, and Mark Volman taught me that there was only one showbiz that night in Boston. These lightweights were onstage with the heavyweights and they were doing the best show I would ever see. Their voices were beautiful. The music was hard, and they were still having fun. Some of the jokes were very serious and over my head (what the fuck was going on singing in German about a sofa?). Some of the jokes were just stupid jock cock jokes that I would sneer at in my school. It was all mixed together. It was a show that was smart and stupid, heavy and light, beautiful and more beautiful.
They were doing a show with cheesy jokes, and it was also art. How could that be? It wasn’t stuffy—it was funny, entertaining, showbiz, vaudeville, and fun, and it still had content. Those turtlefucking Mothers with those motherfucking Turtles.
They did “Happy Together” in this Mothers show, and it was a really good song. And the music was more sophisticated than I had ever thought. Those perfect AM voices doing art. I loved hearing something I knew from the radio in a smarty-pants show. Were they making fun of it? Yes. Were they also playing it for real? Yes. Were they playing it because it was fun? Yes. My view of showbiz and art came together. It was that moment, during that show in Boston, that the line between showbiz and art was erased for me. If Turtles could be Mothers, maybe a hick juggler could speak his heart in a magic show.
I drove back to Greenfield and now did my best to look as much like the Phlorescent Leech as I could. When people said, “You look like that guy,” I said, “Yeah, the guy in the Turtles, he’s also in the Mothers now.” I was proud of being in showbiz and I was proud of how I looked, and I knew what I wanted to do in life. That’s a lot to learn from a couple of Turtles.