First Lines: Elevation

Stephen King’s Elevation is a novella about a guy who is mysteriously losing weight. It’s a good story, a bit heavy on the current state of politics, but not especially great. It also contains the weirdest concept for a department store e-commerce website I’ve ever seen: you go to a website, and after an old-fashioned splash screen, you see an empty room and a search bar. By entering a keyword, the room then gets filled with furniture and other trinkets in that particular style. I don’t believe that would work, but what do I know? Anyway: decent story that would not have been out of place in one of his short-story/novella collections. Don’t know why this would warrant a stand-alone release.

Earlier this year, I also read Laurie, another short story, released online (PDF) this summer. It’s a sweet little tale about an old guy who gets a dog from his sister. At first, he’s not quite impressed, but then, as always, stuff happens.

Book read
Stephen King — Elevation
First line
Scott Carey knocked on the door of the Ellis condo unit, and Bob Ellis (everyone in Highland Acres still called him Doctor Bob, although he was five years retired) let him in.
Story read
Stephen King — Laurie
First line
Six months after his wife of forty years died, Lloyd Sunderland’s sister drove from Boca Raton to Caymen Key to visit him.

First Lines: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (reread)

Upon finishing my reread of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I am pretty sure it is my favorite book of his. And I suspect that is because I have absolutely no clue what to make of it.

It is an absolutely fantastic story, in every sense of the word. But despite all the maiden-mother-crone triple goddesses, all the weird and wonderful and very evil things that happen, I cannot help but feel that there must be so many layers that you have to peel back before you get to the story’s true meaning. Layers all the way down. When you read, say, Neverwhere, you know it’s all, well, made up. Ocean is nothing like that.

In a blog post I have mentioned here years ago, his wife Amanda Palmer explains it in a way that makes so much sense:

neil writes fiction. i interviewed him for my webcast (the AFP Salon) a few weeks ago and we discussed our differences in writing, and a truly bizarre metaphor (but an apt one, i believe), came tumbling out of my mouth.
we are the ingredients of our own art (much like i said in the writers’ conference speech: “we can only connect the dots that we can collect”), but the amount of distance from the “reality of our experience” to the “art we create” spans a scale of one to ten on the blender of art-making.

we start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. i only let things mix very slightly. i keep my blender on 2 or 3. you can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. neil puts his art-blender on 10. you wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product.

She goes on to say that for this book, he turned the blender down a lot, and that that was hard for him to do. But know this does not bring the story behind the story within reach. In his 2012 Zena Sutherland lecture, What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?, Gaiman acknowledges that this is a very personal, nearly autobiographical story:

The third book I wrote is the one that inspired the title of this talk, and is the reason why I puzzle and I wonder. It has a working title of Lettie Hempstock’s Ocean. It is written, almost entirely, from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. It has magic in it — three strange, science-fictional witches who live in an ancient farmhouse at the end of the protagonist’s lane. It has some unusually black-and-white characters, including the most absolutely evil creature I’ve made since Coraline’s Other Mother. It has Sense of Wonder in it, and strangeness. It’s only 53,000 words long, short for an adult book, but for years considered a perfect length for a juvenile. It has everything in it I would have loved as a boy…

And I don’t think it’s for kids. But I’m not sure.

It’s a book about child helplessness. It’s a book about the incomprehensibility of the adult world. It’s a book in which bad things happen — a suicide sets the story in motion, after all. And I wrote it for me: I wrote it to try and conjure my childhood for my wife, to evoke a world that’s been dead for over forty years. I set it in the house I grew up in and I made the protagonist almost me, the parents similar to my parents, the sister an analog of my younger sister, and I even apologized to my baby sister because she could not exist in this fictional version of events.

I would make notes for myself as I wrote it, on scraps of paper and in margins, to try and work out whether I was writing a book for children or for adults — which would not change the nature of the book, but would change what I did with it once it was done, who would initially publish it and how. They were notes that would say things like “In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” and “I don’t think I can have the scene where his father nearly drowns him in the bath if it’s a kids’ book, can I?”

I reached the end of the book and realized that I was as clueless as when I began. Was it a children’s book? an adult book? a young adult book? a crossover book? a … book?

It is a book. A glorious, uplifting and satisfying book, that does not really give you any answers as to what it really is about. Do I want to know? Bet your ass I do. But also, no.

Book reread
Neil Gaiman — The Ocean at the End of the Lane
First Line
It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm.
Favorite quotes
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr, and, very soon, I slept.” (😻)

First Lines: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was a selection of The Missus’s book-club she didn’t get to. I had previously read Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, and since that was a nice, quaint, strange, weird, but enjoyable little book, I dove in.

Well, these books were little alike. This one took hard work to get through.

There are two narrative threads, presented in alternating chapters: in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is a cyber-techno-punk sci-fy crime story, in which we follow a nameless human data-crusher, sent to do some calculations for a nameless scientist hidden away in a subterranean lair. From there, it gets complicated. “The End of the World” is a more surreal, fantasy affair. There we follow a nameless man arriving in a nameless Town surrounded by an impenetrable wall. He tries to find his place there, while doing his designated work as a ‘dream reader’. This involves skulls, but as staying there means having to lose your shadow and your mind, it, too, gets complicated.

“Hard-Boiled Wonderland” suffers from unlikable, uninteresting, flat characters, incredibly dull stretches of data-dumping and the scientist’s chubby pink-clad granddaughter. As a character, she’s pretty useless, and, well, our nameless protagonist is kind of a jerk about it. I liked the “The End of the World” chapters much better. But to make sense of those, you need the dull parts in between. Because those dull parts explore all the whole metaphorical, (sub)consciousness issues that you’re are probably supposed to make sense of. I know this is not going to make much sense, but I did like how it gradually all the metaphorical stuff made both stories come together. But by then, the damage was done.

Lets just suppose that this sort of modern fiction is probably wasted on me, and that reading this while commuting was probably not the smartest choice.

Book read
Haruki Murakami — Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (translated and adapted by Alfred Birnbaum with the participation of the author)
First line
The elevator continued with its impossibly slow ascent.
Notable quotes
“I say I understand when I do, and I say I don’t when I don’t. I try not to mince words. It seems to me a lot of trouble on this world has its origins in vague speech. Most people, when they go around not speaking clearly, somewhere in their unconscious they’re asking for trouble.” (🙊)
“Still, getting a penis to erect itself is not the sole purpose of life.” (🍆)
“I ordered a second draft, when I was hit by the long overdue urge to relieve myself. And piss I did. […] Afterwards I could have sworn I’d been reborn.” (😌)

First Lines: Hansel & Gretel

In the case of Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti’s Hansel & Gretel, the pictures came first. They were created in 2007 for an exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of the opera of the same name. Later, Gaiman was shown Mattotti’s stark, black ink art, and asked to retell the story.

And that is it, I guess. Unlike Gaiman’s adaptations of Snow White (“Snow, Glass, Apples”) and Sleeping Beauty (“The Sleeper and the Spindle”), this is a straight-forward retelling of the Grimm version. It’s done very well, with some humorous passages like how the kids got their names (The child was named Margaret, which they shortened to Greta, and then to Gretel. Two years later the woodcutter’s wife gave birth to a boy, and they called him Hans, which, because they could make it no shorter, they made longer and changed to Hansel.), but it’s the story you know about two kids lost in the woods and an evil old woman in a gingerbread house.

Book read
Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti — Hansel & Gretel
First line
This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s.

Seen Live: Symfonieorkest Koninklijk Conservatorium & Codarts

Every friday, there is a classical lunch concert in TivoliVredenburg. For free. So when I had a week off and I saw a potentially interesting program consisting of three early works by Prokofiev, I made a point of attending.

I know very little about classical music. I couldn’t tell you anything useful about exactly what style of ‘classical’ music Prokofiev composed. As long as it’s orchestral, I’m usually fine with it.

This program, played by students from two conservatories from Rotterdam and The Hague, worked very well for me. It started with Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34bis, which sounded familiar enough, with its Fiddler on the Roof themes. Next, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 with soloist Karen Su, who has just graduated Summa Cum Laude at Codarts. As you can hear and see below, that was quite impressive.

Symfonieorkest Koninklijk Conservatorium & Codarts, conducted by Thomas Goff featuring Karen Su — Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19

The final piece, Scythian Suite, Op. 20 was also quite impressive. It alternates between quiet movements, and all-out, orchestral bombast. I liked that a lot.

I really should make a point of doing this stuff more often.

Seen live
Symfonieorkest Koninklijk Conservatorium & Codarts, conducted by Thomas Goff & Ivan Hut, with Karen Su (violin), on September 21, 2018 at TivoliVredenburg (Grote Zaal), Utrecht
Set list
Sergei PROKOFIEV: Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34bis
Sergei PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
Sergei PROKOFIEV: Scythian Suite, Op. 20