Tag Archives: London

Book: Information Graphics (Taschen)

Information Graphics

Giant trilingual compilation tome of graphics by various international artists.
5.0 kilograms, 

I’m a visual learner and a huge fan of data visualisation. I’m not very good at visualising data by myself (my own efforts are posted here), but I do appreciate the beauty and apparent simplicity of other people’s finished results. The surge in data visualisations we’ve seen in recent years is owed to two things: an overwhelming amount of data made available by the internet; and vast amounts of computing power available to analyse this data in great depth. We can now analyse entire genomes, millions of ‘tweets’, or entire books and their full revision histories relatively quickly to make meaningful conclusions.

All data visualisations can be judged by their beauty, utility and complexity. Very few of the examples in this book hit all three of those targets. The cover image, for example, is beautiful and complicated but useless. The “Earth history” timeline on page 257 is beautiful and useful but too simple. The “So You Need a Typeface” graphic (below) is useful and complex, but its scrambled layout makes it look bland and difficult to read.


That said, this is an art book, and I’m not supposed to ‘like’ everything in it. Considering that art’s purpose is to make people think, then this book succeeds spectacularly. It’s multi-lingual (written in English, French, German, Russian and others—and no particular language dominates the book), so I’m left guessing most of its content. I wasn’t even sure how to read this book: the book itself is too large to open up on my desk, doesn’t fit in my bag, doesn’t fit in one hand, is too cumbersome to take outside and would be exhausting to read in bed. Closed, it’s the size of a pillow! Its intended audience probably reads it on giant artists’ drawing tables—I had to read it on the floor.

I didn’t learn much content from this book. There’s no story, no chapters or sections and the whole book lacks organisation. Many of the fonts are illegibly small, and most of the captions are uninformative (or in foreign languages), which implies that I’m actually not supposed to learn anything—just appreciate the pretty aesthetics.

What I did learn, however, was that I had a particular taste in data visualisations—I like them useful, beautiful and complicated. Thankfully, this book’s massive size meant that there were still dozens of graphics (in 500 pages) that I actually really liked. Recommended for fans of graphic design. 


Book: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Comical, surreal, unmistakably British.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages takes ‘normal’ British life and makes it increasingly surreal. The story focuses on office worker Polly and her brother Don (who reminds me of the man who nearly adopted Juno’s baby in the film Juno), whose lives become punctuated by increasingly bizarre episodes. The story is set in modern-day Britain, and British references are glaringly obvious on every page.

Bizarre incidents begin after page 53 when Don’s desk snaps completely in half under the pressure of a brass pencil sharpener. What’s equally strange is that it repairs itself on the same page, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Don in the slightest. The book is very ‘normal’ up to this point so I started to rationalise the desk’s breakage logically—Is it a folding desk? Is is actually a portable picnic table? By the time I realised this book was logically irreconcilable, I was already 30 pages from the end.

More bizarre events include shops, houses and streets that vanish (becoming green fields) overnight, Mr Huos being translocated suddenly up a mountain, the introduction of seemingly irrelevant, disconnected storylines, and a Ford Cortina being driven by a flock of chickens. Characters take notice of these surreal events about halfway through the book and start referring to the “It” and then “magic” influencing their lives. The most obvious piece of “magic” happens when Stan Gogerty meets a real-life CGI gingerbread-man copy of himself—an impossible meeting that gives him great insight into the perpetual “chicken and egg question” that emerges later on.

The most subtle piece of ‘magic’ in this novel is when two characters morph into two of the other characters. This could be easy to miss. On page 152, we meet Mary and Martin, whose relationships with Mr Huos and with each other seem remarkably similar to those of Polly and Don, who we met in the first chapter. Then, between pages 152 and 158, the storyline of Mary and Martin becomes the storyline of Polly and Don! Page 152 uses the former pair of names (just once); page 158 uses the latter set of names (twice), and the pages in the middle use pronouns (he, she and Mr. Huos) to disguise the subtle transition. This happens again later when we learn that Rachel, Polly and “dozens of others” work simultaneously in the same office for Mr Huos; and again when Ed Hopkins, Jack Tedesci and some other characters all discover the houses they bought just yesterday have gone missing.

British humour is found throughout. Most obviously, it’s in the sheer absurdity of the plot (we Brits find that funny in itself). Finding humour in futility is also a remarkably British trait, and the introduction of apparently irrelevant storylines (such as the motorcade of world leaders) and the intermittent discussion of the “chicken and egg question” serves that end very well.

I grew up in Britain, and therefore found such overtly British jokes as “…like what would happen if the Tardis’ navigation system got replaced by the computer that runs baggage handling at Heathrow” and “…like the M25 tailback in ‘92 that became so dense it achieved critical mass and collapsed into a black hole” much funnier than if I’d grown up elsewhere. The more subtle jokes, though, such as, “caught the Tube at Livingstone Square” on page 222, might only be intelligible to people who have lived in London for some time. In fact, some of the jokes in this is novel are so British that I question whether non-Brits would find them funny at all.

There are also many similes and metaphors that use animals—I counted a daddy long-legs, a “goldfish impression”, two elephants, three cats, and dozens of chickens and pigs. The best animal reference of all was, “still looked very sad indeed, like a spaniel whose bone was stolen by an Alsatian”. Animal references made me smile in many places.

I strongly recommend this book for those with an appreciation of British humour. When reading it, challenge yourself by seeing how long you can keep track of the logical inconsistencies in this book. Treat it as a mental exercise. I’ve attached a character map below, to which you can refer if you get stuck. ★★★★★

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Book: White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Aimless, sexless, pointless. Why the hype?
541 pages, ★★

White Teeth isn’t funny. What the reviews call “wit” is actually snide and banal comments from silly characters. To understand this book’s “relentlessly funny, clever” jokes requires a familiarity with London’s ethnic stereotypes, which I lack. Other “humour” is directed at ethnic accents—comedy which might work well in a pantomime, but falls flat in a written novel.

The only sex in White Teeth is when two morons have sex on a prayer mat. I found this neither humorous nor inventive—not shocking, not sexy, not even important. It was just dull.

By page 330, I already cared about none of the characters. There was no longer an obvious protagonist, nor any continuity to the plot. Admittedly, I started to skim-read.

This book screams, “LONDON!”. You’re inundated with British brands and euphemisms throughout. It focusses on London’s ethnic diversity, particularly the lives of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants. But rather than gaining the readers’ respect, these characters seem to be treated as the subject of slapstick humour. The author depicts them as silly.

I’ve been trying to categorise books recently, and have determined that White Teeth lies somewhere between The Casual Vacancy (four stars) and The Time Traveller’s Wife (two stars)White Teeth, however, lacks the complex, twisted ending of The Vasual Vacancy, and lacks the character development (and sex) found in The Time Traveller’s Wife.

All I learned from White Teeth is that I don’t like books about daily British life. I like more exotic fiction. Please give me more of Haruki Murakami books. ★★

Book: Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
I love the Little Planet-style cover. Pepys Street really is a world of its own.

Like playing with the Flyover feature in Apple Maps.
577 pages, ★★★★

Capital zooms down Pepys Street and documents the lives of its residents over almost two years. People rise and fall, die, move, fall in love, and have strangers wreak silent havoc on their Wifi. I feel like I’m watching all of their lives from above; floating into their homes like some silent, door-to-door spy.

Pepys Street 2
That’s Pepys Street, right there in the middle
Pepys Street
Reading Capital, I feel like I’m flying into people’s lives from this aerial perspective.

The title Capital has two meanings. First, the book is set in London, and reminders of London life are peppered throughout. Wimbledon, Marmite, Pot Noodles, Top Gear, Hello!, and Tesco deliveries of baked beans, bin liners and “No substitutions today, Madam”, taken together, are unmistakably British. Most British of all, was this segment on page 31:

“…laser-print-quality 80 g paper and the A4 envelopes and the A5 envelopes which had become so popular since they changed the way postal pricing worked…bottles of Ribena and orange squash, and the [Oyster card] terminal and the Lottery terminal…”

I love this excerpt because all of the above would be alien to Americans. These aren’t clichés of London (e.g. red buses and the Queen) that tourists drool over; these are anecdotes of daily London life that only those who’ve lived there could relate to.

Another meaning of “capital” is “wealth”, and Pepys Street is remarkably wealthy. The introduction tells us that they didn’t become wealthy through hard work or inheritance; but merely through good luck. House prices on this street rose so fast that millionaires were created within a generation, seemingly without anyone needing to lift a finger.

Aside from lacking a sense of purpose, Pepys Street suffers from one more existential threat. Postcards emblazoned with “We Want What You Have” started arriving at people’s letterboxes. A blog, then another, more provocative blog, followed. Mysterious DVDs, pictures and dead birds then started arriving in the mail. This strange portents are the only thing that unites this otherwise neighbourhood of strangers.

There are a dozen characters in this book. Disappointingly, they don’t interact as much as I wish they would (think about the film Crash, and how everyone’s story was knitted together by the end). Too much interaction, however, would be distinctly un-London—remember that this is a city where glancing across someone else’s newspaper on the train is considered highly uncouth. More character interaction would have made for a better story, though.

The most memorable character is Roger Yount. He needs a £1,000,000 end-of-year bonus to keep up the exuberant promises he’s made to his family. Nannies, second nannies, multiple luxury holidays, and boutique shopping sprees have to be cancelled when his massively underwhelming bonus. We see this character rise and fall, and then re-invent himself more than any other by the end of the book.

Capital was better than Our Hidden Lives because (a) the characters interacted more with each other (although still not much); and (b) it was better-written. I gave that book three stars, so I’ll give this one four. ★★★★

Book: More Than You Can Say

More Than You Can Say
The poker, running, and targets on the cover represent this book accurately.

High-speed adventures of a war veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life
320 pages, ★★★★

This action-packed adventure novel describes one man’s journey after his return from a tour of duty in Iraq. He can’t settle into sleepy civilian life, so he ends up hustling, fighting, and gambling money he doesn’t have on ridiculous bets. In a post-war confused state of mind, he makes some shockingly rash decisions (e.g. befriending people he shouldn’t, and shooting people he shouldn’t). The entire story is ridiculous, well-written and has comic value, but also leaves a meaningful impression by the conclusion.

The story is set in a high-stakes, high-speed part of London. The protagonist loses money at a poker table and tries to win it back by first, bankrupting his wife’s business, and second, taking a double-or-quits bet that involved walking to Oxford overnight, drunk and jet-lagged.

The story then grips the reader. Episodes with guns, Hummers, poker, cash, bankruptcy, marriage, divorce, people trafficking, kidnapping, escape, terrorism and counter-terrorism all ensue. It’s action-packed.

The conclusion is that soldiers find it very difficult to adapt to civilian life after war. In chasing what he wanted (a high-speed, fight-to-survive hustle), he ended up destroying the sleepy, but beautiful world he worked so hard to build before going to Iraq. Even by the end of the book, he hadn’t managed to mend any bridges.

More Than You Can Say reminds me of the film Run, Lola, Run, in which the protagonist and her reckless boyfriend spend the entire movie sprinting in search of the €20,000 that they owe to some dangerous people. That film, and this book, are equally action-packed. It also reminds me of Johnny English and Crank for its elements of comedy. ★★★★

Films I Watched in April 2012

Here are the films I’ve watched in April, 2012 neatly summarized in six words.
  1. Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2009) – journalist sets up rogue Michael Douglas
  2. Butterfly on a Wheel – jealousy triggers life-shattering revenge stunt
  3. Cool It – Bjørn Lomborg balances polarized climate debate
  4. London Avenue – these Londoners know something I don’t
  5. Miracle at St Anna – delightful trilingual WW2 movie with love
  6. Puss in Boots – distasteful shallow stupid fake Shrek movie
  7. Stranger than Fiction – boring rendition of Fight Club‘s story
  8. Unser Täglich Brot – beautiful footage of mass food production
  9. War Horse — horse survives both sides of WW2