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Buy or borrow this.

Bleached white. Saturated turquoise. Vivid green. Disjointed fragments of story. Flashbacks. Elusive snatches of dialogue whispered into half-asleep ears. Portents. Licentiousness. Brilliant, evocative and economic storytelling. Heaven. Hell. Death (lots of death). Immortality.  Irony. Poignancy. Allegory. And the odd LOL.

That’s my word association tag cloud for The Lost Books Of The Odyssey.

This book had me cursing the brevity of my commute for the first time in ages. It is an utter delight. I devoured it.

And, having finished it on the way into work this morning, I’m going to start reading it again on the way home. This time to savour rather than devour.

I became intrigued by the idea of this book when I read this interview with the author back in February. I pre-ordered a copy on the spot.

And for the last four days I’ve eschewed Reeder (brilliant RSS iPhone app and my usual on-train reading material), I’ve more or less eschewed Twitter, and I’ve as good as eschewed Instagram, to lose myself in the syncopation and inventiveness of these 44 short stories.

I should say that I have never read Homer’s Odyssey. But my classical ignorance, whilst laid bare by The Lost Books, did not impede my enjoyment or my appreciation of it.

Indeed my appetite for the classics has been duly whetted by Mr Mason’s apparently* ingenious retelling and reinterpretation. A translation of Homer’s original is on order.

*Not having read the original I’m clearly in no position to offer any kind of erudite opinion on The Lost Books’ relationship to its inspiration.

There’s nothing more to say really. The Lost Books Of The Odyssey is brilliant.

Here, in the spirit of the freemium business model, is an extended excerpt from Book 2, The Other Assassin. We’ve all been victims of this kind of ludicrous bureaucracy. Mason’s Odysseus is saved by it.

In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous, the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand administrators of the third and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars, painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants and hangers-on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised to do the bright, the serene, the etc. emperor’s will. It so happened that in the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon’s noble brow clouded at the thought of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too renowned for cleverness, when both cleverness and re-nown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which had facilitated stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on the royal prerogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides, Inves-titures, Bankruptcy, and Humane and Just Liquidation, and signed Odysseus’s death warrant.

The clerk of Suicides etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and so on through the many twists and turns of bureaucracy, through the hands of spy-masters, career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant of the throne, Odysseus.

A messenger came to Ithaca and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them, his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems would arise on his end.

If your taste in language is anything like mine, that should be your first hit of Lost Books crack.

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I managed to get to the end of “C” without anyone asking me what it’s about.

Which is just as well because it’s not a question that lends itself to a short answer.

The answer to that question is usually a précis of the story and/or the high concept theme of the book.

But “C” doesn’t have a “story” as such. Nor does it readily lend itself to the “ideas that you can hold in your hand“, 25 word concept definition much beloved of Steven Spielberg.

Tom McCarthy is clearly no Michael Crichton in that respect.

(And he’d probably be very happy to agree with that).

“C” is less about what happens, and more about how it makes you feel.

I quickly discovered that it is no book for a few pages before bedtime. I read it in stints of at least one hour – on trains, planes and waiting in (stationary) automobiles to chauffeur my daughters home from various social events. I found that I needed that time to acclimatise to, and enjoy, the sweep and cadence of the language.

And how best to describe that cadence? I’ve wrestled with, and slept on, this. And the best I can come up with is that it’s the literary equivalent of tilt-shift photography.

Image borrowed from baldheretic.

This is a photographic technique that renders real life scenes as if you’re looking at a miniature model.

And Tom McCarthy’s writing has a similar effect. Whether it’s a garden pageant in rural England, the battlefields of WW1, a drug-fuelled party in the East End of London, or an archeological dig in Egypt, the camera of your mind views the scenes from odd angles, in slow motion, and with a smear of petroleum jelly across its lens. For instance, there’s a passage when an Allied howitzer shell appears alongside the rickety biplane from which the book’s main character is observing the German trenches. The shell is travelling at the same height, at the same speed and in the same direction as the aeroplane…

At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction – one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show its underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent. It’s so close that its wind-stream gently lifts and lowers the machine, making it bob. Serge knows that planes get hit by their own shells, but this one seems so placid, so companionable – and besides, if they’re travelling at the same speed then both it and they are just still bodies in space, harmless blocks of matter. In the instant before their paths diverge, it seems to Serge that the shell and the plane are interchangeable – and that the shell and he are interchangeable…

Serge is Serge Carrefax. Inside the book’s front cover he, and his role in the book, are described thus…

C follows the short, intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who – as his name suggests – surges into the electric modernity of the early twentieth century, transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him.

Here, having reached the back cover, I’m not much the wiser when it comes to Serge Carrefax. If I were a method actor preparing myself to play his part in the film, and seeking to understand “What’s my motivation?”, I wouldn’t get much joy from the book. He is very much the miniaturised, tilt-shift character in terms of what he feels and wants. And he drifts through each page with an air of detachment as the book is narrated around him.

He appears to place little value on his own life, bordering on a death wish. But we don’t know why.

There is the time when, despite the screamed imploring of his pilot, he elects not to fire back at the German plane that is about to shoot them down. And he experiences a feeling of ecstasy when about to be executed by firing squad, only to be saved by the end of the war.

Telling you that he gets his (death) wish in the end shouldn’t spoil this book for you.

And, tilt-shifted to the end, it’s entirely fitting than he meets his maker in fevered, hallucinatory and solitary fashion.

In his fever Serge hears…

…a word, or non-word, that itself eventually mutates, changing its provenance and status until it finally resolves itself..

And that is a pretty accurate description of the writing style throughout this book.

I’m glad that I read “C”.

But I’m equally glad that a blog post is the only time that I’ve had to attempt to explain it.

P.S. Lots of things in, and themes of, the book begin with “C”.

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Norman Mailer told me to stop being a fucking pussy.

I went to see him speak at the book festival and asked him a question at the end.

What did he most regret doing, what did he most regret not doing, and which was the bigger regret of the two?

I figured that if learning from somebody else’s mistakes is a rare skill, then the opportunity to learn from the regrets of someone with as many extreme life experiences as him would be doubly valuable.

He agreed to answer candidly but only if I shared my biggest regret with the audience first.

So I recounted a story from when I was 18 that, 26 years later, still lands a punch to the solar plexus of my shame, leaving me emotionally winded.

In return he surprised everyone by saying that he would give his answer to me privately over a bottle of whisky after the lecture.

Then it all gets a bit hazy. I have no recollection of his regrets (fuck!) but at some point in the proceedings before we rolled, steaming and stinking, into Centotre the following morning he definitely told me to stop being a fucking pussy.

The last thing I remember is Tim Read intervening to stop us being thrown out. Fortunately he recognised who I was with and pointed out the social media and associated SEO benefits of having one of the 20th century’s greatest authors on the premises.

Ripple dissolve…

What the hell does this dream mean?

More generally what the hell does it mean when you can remember a dream in such vivid detail?

Here’s how I think my bitter and twisted subconscious put the pieces together behind my eyelids.

1) I have been a fucking pussy over the last few days. Way too prone to stifling end of year introspection, with over a week still to go until Hogmanay.

2) I recently read this blog post – Stop Being A Fucking Pussy. The In Over Your Head blog is my most recent RSS subscription. Thanks to Rach for pointing me in it’s direction. You should check it out.

3) I gave a book to someone I care about. We had a brief chat about favourite books and Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead would be somewhere in my top ten. Although the book I actually gave was this one.

4) A client sent me a link to an idea that was very similar to one that we’d discussed earlier this year. Someone else had executed it. We hadn’t. The client described it as an “ah well” moment. I replied that 2011 should be about avoiding “ah well” at all costs. Regret avoidance has been on my mind.

5) Where else but Centotre would you go after an all night whisky drinking binge?

6) I have no fucking idea why my brain flicked through its mental Rolodex of EdCM regulars and decided that it should be Tim that stepped in to help us.

What (the fuck) else could this dream mean?

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I’m reviewing this book before I’ve finished it.

I’ve read just four out of thirty four “stories about people who know how they will die” but I can’t contain myself.

Machine of Death is a book of revelations.

In all sorts of ways.

Firstly I don’t read short stories or anthologies. Mainly because I instinctively don’t like the idea of them.

(“I’ve never tried Guinness because I don’t like it.”)

Well forty six pages of this book have well and truly taken the blinkers off.

And here’s why. A single high-concept idea that has already (four stories in) proved itself to be a springboard for subtlety, suspense and social commentary.

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you a date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN”. It let people know how they were going to die. [….] But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark , and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “OLD AGE”, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death; you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.

The second revelation is that the stories are already not what I expected.

Each story takes its title from a cause of death that has been printed out by the machine. And I was expecting the unexpected. I was expecting a series of clever narrative twists whereby the exact nature of each death, despite the machine’s prediction being declared up front, would be a surprise.

In fact it wasn’t until the fourth story that anyone actually did die.

Part of the reason I decided to review the book before finishing it is that I realised that it is too easy to give too much away about short stories. You need to know enough to be convinced that Machine of Death is worth the price of the book and the shipping from Amazon in the US. But you don’t need me to deny you the repeated delight that I’m currently experiencing.

So this is all I will say.

The first story explores the impact of the machines on teenage social dynamics. You’re not allowed to use the machine before the age of 16. This creates another category of adolescent haves and have-nots, worse than any kind of mobile phone envy. It is really frustrating to be a 15 year old “no-know”.

And the other side of this rite of passage doesn’t necessarily bring any relief from teenage angst. Kids are categorised according to their cause of death predictions. “Burners” are cool. So are “Crashers”. But you really don’t want to be socially scarred by any prediction related to sickness or old age…

The other stories I’ve read explore the impact of the machines on relationships, the life insurance industry and the medical profession.

Machine of Death is like a brilliant advertising campaign idea that has spawned a series of commercials, each of which is brilliant in its own right.

As someone who has spent his entire career dealing with short-form creative content I am asking myself just why I haven’t spent more time with short-form literature.

The third revelation for the purposes of this post is the story about how this book actually came to be.

I bought the book because of this uplifting, community-based back story without really bothering to find out much about its content. I felt that the people behind the book deserved my custom purely on the basis of how they conducted themselves in originating the idea, how they crowd-sourced the content, and how, through doggedness, cunning and collective action, they turned it into an Amazon best-seller.

I’ve blogged this back story before. Read about the uplifting social success story behind Machine of Death here.

Then buy the book.

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So you think you’ve got a community huh?

Does your community really give a damn whether you are making a living out of what you do?

Would your community feel guilty if it felt it had done something to adversely affect your livelihood?

Steve Lieber has this kind of community.

Or rather, through his actions, he ended up with a community feeling that way about him.

Underground is a graphic novel drawn by Lieber and written by Jeff Parker.

I haven’t read it yet but, as with Machine of Death, the book discussed in the first of this series of uplifting social success stories, I shall be buying it entirely because of the behaviour of its originator.

The behaviour in question is his reaction to his labour of love being scanned and posted, page by lovingly crafted page, on a popular comic book discussion forum.

Rather than throw his toys out of the pram and rant about copyright theft, he jumped onto the thread in question and chatted openly about his work, his inspirations, and his favourite comics. I really urge you to read the thread in its entirety. But, to cut a long story short, it results in comments like this…

The conversation is also joined by one Erika Moen, the lady that runs the online store for Periscope Studios (cartoonist studio that Steve Lieber helped to found). She describes in detail the ins and outs of comic book publishing to an obviously interested forum. (Click on thumbnail to expand).

I doubt that Lieber thought much more about all this afterwards.

Until he checked his book sales that is.

What he found moved him to publish this post about what happened in the 24 hours following the 4chan discussion.

I am endebted to the Techdirt blog for drawing this story to my attention.

And it’s well worth reading the sometimes heated discussion in the comment thread associated with the Techdirt post.

The rights, wrongs and semantic, nay pedantic, details of intellectual property theft, piracy and copyright morality are discussed in detail.

Erika Moen jumps in again and gives full transparent detail to those commenters who were speculating that Lieber had got rich from his 4chan intervention. This wasn’t the case but the lack of scale on Lieber’s hand annotated graph had raised the question in several people’s minds.

But, for the purposes of this post, the killer comment is this one…

That, to me, is so obviously the moral of the story.

Selling books wasn’t Lieber’s objective when he jumped in. But that’s what happened.

His primary, indeed only, aim was to create something that he would be proud of. In the 4chan comment thread, someone states that the “only thing that matters is the audience.” Lieber jumps in and says…

And here I just have to flat out disagree. When it comes to comics like Underground or Whiteout, I’m not drawing for “the audience”. I’m drawing for me. I’ve got a whole other career as a storyboard artist and occasional mainstream comics artist where I worry about other people’s opinions, and that pays my bills just fine. But when I do an indy comic, my one and only job is making something I want to read. Sorry if that annoys you, but it’s the truth. Worrying about what the audience wants is how you get Whiteout the Movie instead of Whiteout the Comic.

The morals of this story aren’t really very surprising but it’s good to see what you believe to be true actually come to pass.

  • You’re more likely to succeed by focusing on content than by focusing on success.
  • In social spaces nice things tend to happen to nice people. (If only many brands could drop the advertising message mindset and get their heads round this concept).

If you found this post interesting, you might also want to take a look at Uplifting Social Success Stories – Part 1.

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This is Ishmael Beah.

The photograph was taken when he was 26.

Ishmael is from Sierra Leone.

Between the ages of 13 and 16 a lot of nasty things happened to him.

His whole family was killed by rebel forces in a bloody and brutal civil war.

He and a group of friends tried to escape from the fighting on foot across country.

But the war caught up with them and they were taken “under the wing” of the army.

But the army’s interest in them was anything but benevolent.

They were given guns.

They were given Rocket Propelled Grenades.

And they were given lots of drugs.

They were brainwashed and programmed to hate, torture and kill the rebels that had killed their families.

Ishmael committed acts of almost unspeakable cruelty.

Many of these against boys of a similar age on the rebel side.

Rebel boys who were also on drugs and programmed to kill the soldiers that had killed their families.

A vicious circle of drug and revenge fueled child on child violence that doesn’t bear thinking about.

(Especially if you have a 14 year old child yourself).

Ishmael was eventually taken out of the army and placed into a UNICEF rehabilitation programme.

That rehabilitation process eventually led to the writing and publication of this book.

New York City, 1998

My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.

“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”

“Because there is a war.”

“Did you witness some of the fighting?”

“Everyone in the country did.”

“You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”

“Yes, all the time.”

Cool.”

I smile a little.

“You should tell us about it sometime.”

“Yes, sometime.”

Ishmael Beah tells us about it in a matter of fact voice that lets the horrific facts speak for themselves.

It doesn’t feel as though there is any embellishment or exaggeration.

The result is a raw and mesmerising story with some some unexpected and gut-wrenching twists.

Like when well-meaning UNICEF officials fail to segregate former child soldiers and former child rebels.

The children had been stripped of their guns, but several (including Ishmael) had managed to conceal knives and hand grenades in their baggy shorts…

There are also some heartwarming, Primo Levi style “moments of reprieve” when unexpected acts of human kindness punctuate the mindless violence.

Like when a Run DMC cassette saves Ishmael and friends from execution by frightened villagers.

Ishmael Beah explains what happened to him, but he doesn’t try to excuse what he did.

For me this is the most impressive aspect of his writing.

The fact that he managed to redeem himself (and be redeemed with the help of others) into the smiling young adult in the picture above is nothing short of miraculous.

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So you think you’ve got a community, huh?

How much does your community care about you?

To what extent does your community get off on the idea of working together to realise a dream?

Would this community of yours rally round and propel your book to #1 on Amazon on a given day?

Machine of Death has that kind of community.

Machine of Death has a community.

It has a community because its originators have been producing good, original content and engaging with its audience consistently over time

It also has a community because it had a great idea.

And it invited people to be part of that idea.

The idea is explained in more detail on the Machine of Death website, but here’s a brief outline.

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you the specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper on which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The real darkness and intrigue of the idea comes from the vagueness of the predictions. If you’re going to die by being BURIED ALIVE, you might think it’s safe to go skydiving. But what if you land in a gravel pit….?

Having had this idea the people behind it, best known for an online dinosaur based comic, engaged their community to collaborate on writing an anthology of short stories based on the simple premise of knowing in advance (vaguely) the manner of one’s death.

They received 700 entries and eventually whittled these down to 30 favourites. The title of each corresponded to the text on a piece of paper from the machine and they ranged from FRIENDLY FIRE to PRISON KNIFE FIGHT, from VEGETABLES to FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.

With the high concept idea and the content sorted, the project then hit a wall.

The traditional publishing world was not in the market for an anthology, even though many people liked the concept and the writing.

Over two years of banging heads against brick walls led to a lot of frustration, an in-depth knowledge of the publishing industry and, finally, another great idea.

They worked out that to become the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon on a given day only requires you to sell hundreds, rather than thousands, of books.

So, once again, they sought to mobilise their community.

Not just to buy the book.

But to all buy it on the same day.

That day being October 26, 2010.

Machine of Death day was promoted as a Facebook event.

And, to cut a long story short, they did it.

And, as if that weren’t enough, they then go and further prove just how much they “get” this whole social thing by making the whole book available as a free to download pdf.

Why are we doing this? Aren’t we worried about hurting our book sales?

In a word: no. You have proven that time and again you are willing to pay for content that you find valuable. You have shown that you are driven to share material that you fall in love with. And we are committed to ensuring that you can experience our work whether you can afford to buy a book or not; whether you live in a country that Amazon ships to or not; whether you have space in your life for a stack of paper or not.

I haven’t read the book.

But these guys deserve my custom and I’m going to buy rather than download. Look out for the review.

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