Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Any context would do

I suspect Zoe Williams has been waiting a while to use "like playing Monopoly with someone who eats the money". And if she hasn't, she could have.

New and old

James Marcus's Amazonia is meant, among other things, to evoke the extent of late-90s internet euphoria; but it also shows the euphoria's limits, which are less talked about.

This bit is about an appearance on CNN, just before the curve turns. Jeff = Amazon's Jeff Bezos, for whom Marcus was a justly glorified blurb-writer.

"My cue was approaching. I had rehearsed my lines and knew exactly what I was going to say to the boy-and-girl anchor team in Atlanta. Moments before I went live, however, I heard some excited crosstalk in my earpiece: Jeff had been anointed [Time magazine] Person of the Year! They would be making the announcement in just a few minutes! At once it dawned on me that this little segment, which would allow me to preach the gospel of books to my biggest audience ever, was simply an appetizer for the main event: a lengthy celebration of my employer. Well, he had earned it."

In a book on the high-season web, that is, a magazine and an appearance on cable TV generate some of the greatest excitement, and offer the biggest audience. I don't think he's trying to do hindsight, either.

[Amazonia, by James Marcus (New Press, 2004). Humanist version of the rich-and-then-not story. Style nods occasionally -- the subtitle is "Five years at the epicenter of the dot.com juggernaut", which was almost enough to make me put it down straight away -- but in general it's rather good.]

Monday, October 04, 2004

Phrase of the week

"Honey laundering."

This is the business of attempting to smuggle possibly antibiotic-tainted Chinese honey into the EU via third countries, and was described on BBC Radio 4's Food Programme. In the event that you're here in time to listen again to the programme, do: it also has a wonderfully enthusiastic interview with a pollen expert, of a kind I find hard to imagine occurring anywhere else.

Compulsory irony

"'The Chauci --' How old was he then? Twenty-four? It was his first campaign. He began again. 'The Chauci, I remember, dwelt on high wooden platforms to escape the treacherous tides of that region. They gathered mud with their bare hands, which they dried in the freezing north wind, and burnt for fuel. To drink they consumed only rainwater, which they collected in tanks at the front of their houses -- a sure sign of their lack of civilisation. Miserable bloody bastards, the Chauci.' He paused. 'Leave that last bit out.'" -- Pliny the Elder dictates, in Robert Harris's Pompeii.

It's not quite fair to call this bit the compulsory irony: that comes a couple of hundred pages earlier, when the villain tells the hero there is no investment sounder than property in Pompeii. But it does send two messages vital for the modern historical novelist:

i) I have done my research. Lots of it.

ii) Don't worry. I'm not going to take it seriously.

Harris is far more competent at this game than most people who attempt it, but it still feels faintly cynical.

[Pompeii, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, 2003). Romance and thrills among the falling pumice, naturally, but also a surprising amount of engineering. If that is the sort of thing you like, this will be the sort of thing you love.]

The Brits have a word for it

If you live in the UK and feel superior to US political culture, it may interest you to know that in Washington, chugging appears to be a nameless novelty.

[This is the start of a plan to post occasional stray thoughts here, and journalistic quotations, as well as bits of books. I am still likely to read more than I think, however.]