Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Le Photographe

Le Photographe, by Emmanuel Guibert (Illustrator), Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier

My rating: 5/5

This is the true story of Didier Lefevre, who accompanied an MSF (Médecins Sns Frontières - Doctors Without Borders) mission in 1986 to photograph the people involved in bringing medical care to war-stricken Afghanistan.

The first surprise is the format. Lefevre's original photographs are set in the graphic novel, interspersed with the canonical drawings and text boxes. The effect is seizing. Often, the next photograph is announced by the Lefevre in the situation, and then when it comes is is stark, often surprising, sometimes poignant.

True to his profession, Lefevre has an "eye" for those details that are utterly revealing of the situation, the cultural context, the contrast of western traveller's expectancies and the realities on the field.

The dialogues between himself and the doctors are often hilarious - low-key, tongue-in-cheek stuff. Sometimes things get serious, a doctor will launch into a rant and Lefevre transcribes it and sets it alongside the photo of the ranter.

Lefevre also reveals himself to be a cunning narrator, rumbling along and choosing to describe just those situations that give an impression of being there with him.

Also, quite surprising, one finds onself wishing to be there with him.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Internet literary prize, take 2

In a previous post, I tackled the issue of the feasibility of creating an internet literary prize, addressing the main obstacle of having a finite number of readers read an (also finite) number of books but having insufficient time to read all-the-books. My solution was to divide the reading world into user groups, then allowing each group to push books forward.

I’d go to further subdivision, say allow book categories: per genre, per year, per decade, per  century, per language, per country. Any category (or set of categories, for that matter) could give rise to a prize.

Now, imagine we’ve opened a category: best English-language novel about supernatural athletes written in 2012. Let’s further imagine that you have a group of users prepared to read a fixed number of the novels on the list. What we want to do is prevent the tournament from being “gamed” by the supposed worth of books being hyped by their publishers and allow un-hyped books the same consideration as their better-known brethren.  We know that the un-hyped books will be readily read by the author’s friends (who will therefore not be objective) and maybe not at all by others.

What I would like to do, as a designer of this algorithm, is propose a system wherein the author’s friends can propose un-hyped book X but have it cost them, so that they will only vote for their friend’s book if the book is truly worthwhile.

What can it cost them?

My clue to the pursuit of my thought on this is that I’ve introduced the notion of cost, hence currency. I can even make a game of this! Imagine that readers are a kind of investor in this game. I want to design the game so that investing in a little-known book that eventually makes it will be more interesting an investment than a better-known book that makes it as well.

So, not a tournament of books, but an *economy* of books.

Here, I hit a snag, admittedly. In this system of comparison I’m creating, the investors are the same as the consumers, so investors will consume their own product. This precludes objectivity, and I want to preserve objectivity.

Could I then create a system in which you can’t promote (vote for) a book in which you are an investor? That’s a possibility. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent relationships arising between investors and consumers, and negotiations taking place, etc.

This is not simple, but I’m not about to cede to the sirens of “select juries” and elitist closed-door selections.

More thought is necessary on the subject.

The Life of Pi

The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

My rating: 5/5

What a strange, wonderful book!

A writer traveling in India is accosted by a man purporting to tell him a story that will make him believe in God. A hundred pages later, our hero Pi is on a boat with a tiger, drifting in the currents of the Pacific ocean, with nary another human embarkation in sight. The premise seems scarcely believable, and indeed it does require a leap of faith, of sorts. But readers are always more than prepared to offer these leaps of faith, so the premise laid, the ramifications ensue. And what ramifications they are! Traveling on a boat with a tiger is a dangerous proposition, but Pi sees no way to get rid of him, and he becomes predictably attached to the beast, having known him from his early years in the Pondicherry zoo that his father owned.

Pi's character is overly religious: he cumulates religious practices like most adolescents collect sporting activities. He is a Hindu, then a Christian, then a Muslim. All these approaches to God hold no contradiction for him, and together with his childhood in a zoo they form the skeleton of his character: respectful of nature and searching for God in all his manifestations.

The story is artfully layered, and many details that appear to have been put in for descriptive purposes actually serve to inform subsequent events in the story.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Time for an internet literary prize?

Literary prizes.

They aren't born equal. In France, there is the annual Goncourt prize, the Renaudot, the Prix Femina, and quite a few others. But the French are openly admirative of the prize from accross the pond, the Booker, the prize to make all prizes blush and stammer. The selection process seems more open, more meritocratic, and of course a good part of French would like for everyone to accept that books can be both popular, legible and of high literary merit, that there's no innate contradiction there.

Of course, the Booker is not as open as all that. For one, it's publishers that put forward their champions. You couldn't get a (*obligatory gasp*) self-published author in the run.

Would a self-published author stand any chance, anyway? Probably not. Still, I'd like to imagine a literary prize structure in which any author's progeny could bubble up (sorry, I'm an IT professional) in some virtuous algorithm that lets quality shoot up and crap descend magestically.

Never one to underestimate the overwhelming amount of work ahead of me, I can think of a few, out of hand.

1. New novels come to light before we get through the existing ones.

Let's say we imagine a kind of sorting algorithm where a bunch of books are listed online and people vote for the ones they prefer. Leave aside for the moment that there are a myriad ways the voting could be implemented: allow one vote per person, or as many votes as there are books in the list, allow/disallow downvotes, etc., a huge obstacle to this is that readers would have to read everything on the list.

Unimaginable.

Everyone can't read everything. Reading 50 pages a day, one can get through perhaps one or two books a week, and this estimate, I think, relates to the above-average reader. So figure maybe 50-100 books a year for serious readers (I don't mean people reading serious work, just people reading a good quantity of it). Any serious list representing any yearly production would have thousands of titles on it, so there's no way you could get everyone to read everything.

This is what truly sets books apart from other media, in my opinion. A top-of-the-charts for pop music doesn't have this problem, really. It's not unfeasible to have people listen to more or less complete lists of pop songs. Film, too, for that matter: although a film takes a good few hours to watch, film production is expensive enough that the yearly batch can be "consummed" by serious film buffs.

So what's the solution? From an algorithmic perspective, you either chop the list into sublists, by genre, year, country, etc. and then again chop each sublist into smaller sublists, or you chop the books up and have readers read a small portion of each.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I think I'd go for the sublist feature. What we'd need to do is divide the literary universe into countries, provinces, cities, and apply the best of what we've learned of democracy, and of course leave out the worst.

I don't have the solution yet, though I am thinking about it. This is where I'd start: no author can get everyone to read his work, but most authors can at least get their friends to read their work. So authors could group into subgroups of varying size, among which the books written are voted upon and the winner "pushed up" (again, the pushing algorithm yet to be specified), with as much weight as there are authors in the subgroup.

My next point would concern the system needed to implement the voting process, and how to make it failsafe and fraud-resistant. But this post ist starting to get a little lengthy, so maybe I'll just stop here for today.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

While reading Kundera's "Immortality"

Kundera always attacks his themes head-on. In this case, immortality is viewed from a few perspectives. On of those is historical: Kundera explores Goethe's struggle to remain the sole custodian of his own legend, thwarting his friend and literary rival Bettina's attempt to cut in on his action by writing his biography. Immortality here is a commodity, to be bought, sold, and when possible: stolen.

Kundera makes the point that the only immortals are artists and politicians. It's not clear in which category he places prophets.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Hedge Knight, by George R.R. Martin

The Hedge Knight, by George R.R. Martin - book review

My rating: 2/5

This novel is set in the same universe as the Game of Thrones series, though the action takes place a century before. As such, it draws the inevitable comparisons to Game of Thrones, so I thought I might start my review there.

The world of Game of Thrones is, magic excepted, a simplification of our own world. We have telecommunications: telephone networks, internet, mobiles, etc. The Game of Thrones world has ravens, and communicate between castles by attaching messages to their legs. We have the world's major religions, the Game of Throne's world has the religion of the seven, the lord of light, and the old gods. We have governments and heads of state, the Game of Thrones world has kings, lords, and councils. We have sport fans, the Game of Thrones world has tourneys. We have courts of law, the Game of Thrones world has...

Well nothing, really. There is no justice for the common man/woman in the Game of Thrones series, which is why everyone is so desperate to remain a lord or a king, because though it won't spare one a violent death, it certainly enables one to expect it, sword in hand. The only safeguard against injustice is the oath that knights take to defend the meek. In the Game of Thrones series, a war is under foot and knights' oaths have taken back stage to their war duties, save a band of outlaws.
Hence the interest of this book, the Hedge Knight. George R.R. Martin shows here how one knight will uphold the oath of the knight and defend a maiden against the abuse of a mad prince. The act is spontaneous, unplanned, and plunges the hedge knight into a forward flight in which he risks all to save himself.

The initial act of courage is taken by our hot-headed hero without premediation, and here one could expect that the character's reasons for desiring justice were more detailed, explained. However, this one act accomplished, our hedge knight can do nothing but regret it, ruefully damning his thick-headedness. Was this an existential act? We don't have time to ponder the philosophical implications as the hedge knight scrambles to assemble a team of champions to defend against the opposing accusers who have decreed that he should be given trial by combat.

The plot relies heavily on action, to the neglect of political intrigues and human persuasion we've come to expect from Game of Thrones. Also, I found that the different plot mechanisms fit together a little too easily, and would have liked to see the hedge knight struggle more to gain the adherence of those that will eventually abet him.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review of Ishmael

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn - book review

My rating: 4/5

From reading other online reviews, I can see it's a controversial novel. And controversial it must be, because it's not much of a novel. There's no plot to speak of, almost no descriptions, the language used is only barely literary, so the reader will be wowed by no grand metaphors or similes.

The novelistic shell used to transmit the message is a dialogue, and once again, it's not a very good one, and certainly not believable.

However, as we say envers et malgré tout, I'm going to go ahead and give this work 4 stars.

What? With all I've written here about the lack of literary worth, I nevertheless give it 4 stars?

Well, yeah. It's a Trojan horse, of sorts, a big ol' clumsy Trojan horse that you can tell even from a great distance that it's a Trojan horse, and you let it within the gates of the city anyways because you figure there's no way the starving soldiers huddled within are in any shape to do any harm. But then you read it, and you're surprised.

So basically, what the novel does do well is tell the story of two people, the Leavers who have existed from time immemorial and should go on living in respect of nature's fundamental law (I won't spoil it by saying which), the Takers who would control the planet and submit it it's wants and whims. And this story is compelling, and as it comes into focus, it strikes a mythical chord that, for me anyway, resonated deeply.

Of course, one needs suspend disbelief long enough to let in a telepathic gorilla who overbearingly tells this story to a fallen idealist whose side of the dialogue mostly consists of "Okay"s and "Yes, I see that"s.

Time lapse in book ratings

When one goes over one's book ratings, one is often tempted to change a rating. Such situations reflect two facts:

1. Our tastes change as time goes by, and
2. Someone else's rating and profile photo make us change our mind.

As such, I propose that we take the time factor into consideration in book ratings. Rather than give a book a certain rigidly fixed amount of stars, we could have a timeline that goes, on the x-axis, from birth to death, with a singularity that represents the point at which we started reading the book. On the y-axis, why not, a value from 0 to 10.

Along the timeline, we could annotate the major changes in the rating we attribute to the book. For instance, if at a time T our rating skips from a 4 to a 7, one can attach a little explanatory note to just that point in the timeline that states "I realized the story is symbolic and that it doesn't imply that real people can have superpowers" or "More of a 7 than a 4, really, when you take into account it was written before computers were invented and nevertheless managed to fit in a LOT of words!".

Then, then, get this: you could have an ANIMATION that shows your favorite books and as time is cycled from 0 to death you watch as the top 10 reorders itself, children's books fall off the list and books with cynical anti-heroes creep up to the top. And then, at the moment of the reader's death, the list emits a (relatively) blinding flash of light and the list fades into darkness. And then all the books the reader has ever read form the closing credits. A reader's life.

This is so beautiful I am literally crying as I write this, and yes I know the meaning of "literally"...wait, no I didn't...ok figuratively crying as I write this.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ishmael

Ishmael started off well enough. I thought a telepathic gorilla was a compelling literary device. Then, the gorilla turned out to be a giant jerk!
He was right about certain things, though.
Oh, and it's not really a novel. Mostly a dialog between a telepathic gorilla and a straw man.

Friday, May 4, 2012

On reading English, August

I'm currently reading Upamanyu Chatterjee's "English, August". I found the book while reading a blog about the flâneur in literature. It's so striking to be reading about a functionary, halfway around the globe in 1980's India, and realize that the thoughts and emotions of the main character could very well be my own.

Of course, I suspect that much of the appeal of the story lies in its universality. Young man finishes university and moves to another location to begin his career. In August's case, the career is in the Indian civil service and the location is Madna, which to August is culturally barren. He is isolated, dislocated, and fights the encroaching loneliness with drink, marijuana, masturbation, work avoidance and running. This element I find interesting: one would think that a character who drinks and avoids work is giving up on life, and at the opposite end of the spectrum a character who runs daily (nightly, to be precise) is fighting to stay afloat.

However, the slacking and running do make sense together, and it takes a novel to show that they are both forms of escapism. August drinks and smokes and masturbates to escape his daily dreariness, and runs to keep his body fit and senses alert, to ensure that he will ultimately retain the will to get himself out of Madna.