Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Art of Travel

While I have travelled quite extensively in the past, lack of funds has kept me pretty close to home for a while now. I thought that maybe I could travel vicariously through The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton's take on some of the philosophical implications of travel in the 21st century. Luckily it worked, and rather than feeling frustrated by tales of journeys I could not myself take, I have been inspired to appreciate my immediate surroundings more genuinely.

The Art of Travel is an easy read but surprisingly thought-provoking and compelling- I whizzed through it in two days. The book itself is structured like a journey, beginning, naturally enough, with 'Departure', covering 'Motives', 'Landscape' and 'Art' before finishing off with 'Return'. Within each of these broad sections there are chapters that look at particular aspects of travel. Each chapter concentrates on a place and one or two artists, writers, philosophers or scientists. It is this glance into famous perspectives on travel that I most enjoyed.

In the chapter entitled 'On Curiosity' de Botton examines the thoughts of 19th century scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in order to explain what makes us curious, what motivates our interest in a new place. He contrasts the curiosity of Humboldt for the smallest details of nature in his explorations of South America with his own feeling of inertia during a trip to Madrid. His analysis of curiosity is particularly interesting:

Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask: 'Why is there good and evil?' 'How does nature work?' 'Why am I me?'. If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until, at some point, we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones... We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of peat in the Thirty Years War.

There is also an interesting chapter entitled 'On the Country and the City' which looks at Wordsworth and the role of the Romantic movement in encouraging a appreciation of nature in our travels.

My favourite section though is 'On Possessing Beauty', in which de Botton looks at the need people feel to 'own' part of the beauty that they see. On a simple level this might mean taking a photo or buying a souvenir, but through the ideas of John Ruskin, de Botton examines a more profound way in which we can possess beauty. Ruskin believed that it was only through understanding what we saw that we could truly take it with us, and the best way to gain understanding of what we see is to transfer it into art either by drawing it, or by creating a 'word-painting', a piece of descriptive writing. Ruskin emphasised that we should draw or write about what we see 'irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.' To that end, Ruskin spent part of his career teaching carpenters in London to draw, hoping that by doing so they would begin to really look at the world around them. This seems a lovely way to express the need that many of us feel to draw, paint or write, even if we aren't great artists.

Finally de Botton finishes with a reminder that we must learnt to appreciate our surroundings, that we needn't travel far to see things in a new and refreshing way, and that perhaps before we launch out for distant exotic climes we should ' notice what we have already seen'.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Let the Right One In

I generally don't do horror. I'm the kind of person who screams at the cinema and has to cover their eyes during the gory bits. I can appreciate the art of horror but on an emotional level it's just too much for me.

So I approached John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In (subtitled: 'A Vampire Love Story') with great trepidation. It was a present from my husband so I wanted to read it. And I am interested in vampire mythology despite my weak stomach for horror. And although I found parts of this Swedish novel nightmarishly disturbing, I was totally hooked and couldn't put it down.

Lindqvist's novel takes place in Blackeberg, a newish outer suburb of a large city. The setting is significant, as explained at the beginning of the novel. It is the suburb's newness, 'the modernity of the place, its rationality', that leaves its inhabitants unprepared for the strange and disturbing events that take place there. In a way this reminded me of of Sunnydale, the setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an incongruous location for vampires who we are more used to seeing in medieval castles or Victorian alleyways. Both Buffy and Let the Right the One In are interested in the ways that ancient myths and contemporary society might interact.

Let the Right One In switches between the stories of several people in Blackeberg. The main character is Oskar, a young boy who is brutally tormented by bullies at his school. Oskar befriends Eli, a strange girl who has moved into the flat next door to Oskar and his mother. Eli's strangeness, her imperviousness to the cold, her old-fashioned speech and her intelligence fascinate Oskar and their nightly meetings in his apartment block's playground provide him with a new source of confidence. Meanwhile, the cold-blooded and seemingly ritualistic killings of several people in the area begin to affect the residents of Blackeberg.

The power of horror lies in the anticipation and in the ability of the writer to make the unbelievable believable. Lindqvist does the latter very well, creating a realistically gritty suburban environment for his characters. His world is so real that it seems more shocking but also strangely believable when supernatural elements are introduced into the plot. In some senses it is the humans who are scarier than the vampires in this novel.

Lindqvist is also excellent at creating a sense of anticipation and I read the first 200 or so pages of Let the Right One In absolutely gripped with terror. I couldn't put the book down but at the same time I almost had to shut my eyes at times. Unfortunately, like many horror films, Lindqvist doesn't quite pull off the climax of the novel, the part where all the horrors that have been hinted at are finally revealed. I think that maybe this is a pitfall of the genre. After so much build-up and suggestion of horrors to come, the revealing of those horrors either falls flat or takes on a hysterical edge, as it does here, and suddenly it all seems a little bit silly. Despite the gore (and there is lots of that), I wasn't as gripped by the last third of the novel as I had been at the beginning.

Still, I was pleased to conquer my fear of the genre and I think that parts of this novel are really excellent. I may even venture into more horror writing if I can psyche myself up to the task.

On another note, my entries might be a bit few and far between for a little while- my ancient PC finally died and I don't have regular computer access. Hopefully I'll be back soon with bright shiny new computer-powered posts!