The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

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So begins Amanda Palmer’s autobiographical self help book, but lets think about that statement. Is it an autobiography? Well sort of, it certainly tells you a lot about her life so far from childhood, to performance art (a lot of time as a living statue and what happened next) to having her own band(s) and marriage to the best selling author Neil Gaiman. So is it a self help book? It starts out like that certainly, but drifts somewhat from the premise of the title as the book progresses, so what is it? A cracking good read that is what it is… You will laugh, you will cry; boy will you cry; there are heart wrenching passages that make you wonder where the tissues are and then sections that make you laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation she finds herself in. Please also be aware there is strong language in the extracts selected from this book. Well actually there is strong language throughout the book which is why I couldn’t avoid it.

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The single flower she is holding in the cover photo harks back to her time as the ‘eight foot bride’ actually she only stood 7½ feet on top of the milk crates but why ruin a good title. This was her first venture into public performance art and as a living statue she earned more than the job in the ice-cream parlour could ever pay, simply for standing still and when somebody gave her money she would give them a flower. The gift of the flower was vital, this she saw as a transaction, yes she was asking (albeit silently) for people to give her money but they did get a physical product in return, it was not a simple one way process.

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Through the book Amanda explores not just the idea of ‘asking’ but also the basis of relationships both personal and public. The relationship that she has with the fans of her band is clearly key to her existence and it is also obviously two way. There is a definite element of family, especially amongst the long standing fans, they know one another and look after one another and this is incredibly important and not only do the fans support one another but they support her and she supports them. It was one of the things that her one time label really didn’t understand. Outreach was for promotion of specific marketable products not for touchy feely bonding, but it was just this sort of direct contact that had built the band up n the first place. The email lists that she had built up over years became a not just a contact point but a meeting place for like minded souls.

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One thing explored at length in the book is how they came to be the first band to raise $1 million through crowd-sourcing to fund an album after they split with their existing label. The story of how they managed to get out of a notoriously complex and exploitative contact is also a tale of joy. She asked for money to record the album and the fans responded and then she hit a major personal problem which impacted her ability to fulfil the obligations of the money raised. A lifelong friend and confidant was unexpectedly very ill and she felt she couldn’t do what she needed to do for kickstarter and still be around for Anthony. This is where the book really gets hold of you and won’t let go, you become so involved in the drama of Anthony’s story which is just so unexpected from the book up to that point. But mixed up in this was her relationship with her husband Neil Gaiman and her inability to ask HIM for help.

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The amount of money involved whilst significant was not a major issue for a writer with the earning capacity of Neil Gaiman, but that was not the point for Amanda. As somebody who had valued her independence since a child this was just one step too far, or so it seemed at the time. There is then a long section where she comes to terms with the issue and whilst not resolving it comes to realise that there is only one logical way to progress, to get commitments not just to the crowd funded record but to the fans and to Anthony and to Neil sorted out. She has to ask, even though it is the most difficult (yet paradoxically the easiest because she knows the answer will be yes) for the money to cover her gap in finances. It should be explained here that that Neil and Amanda run completely separate financial positions, although married they have separate accounts, their own homes (in the case of Neil Gaiman several) and this independence is essential at least for Amanda, we cannot tell Neil’s position from the book.

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That last line in the image above reflects back to a passage early on in the book from a conversation between Anthony and Amanda. In an allegorical statement there is a dog howling outside and Amanda asks what the problem is. Anthony explains that the dog is sitting on a nail and whilst uncomfortable is still not driven to over-ride a natural laziness to move because it doesn’t hurt enough yet.

There is one section of the book that felt personally relevant to me and that was a short part dealing with an aspect of Amanda’s relationship with her mother. She was a top computer programmer, technical and systems analyst and that was also my background. Nobody outside my circle understood that this is an art and what’s more in can be a beautiful art, you can approach it as a technical problem and come up with a working methodology but treating it as an art you will produce a beautiful and probably more resilient and better result. You are composing a solution but nobody can see it or even if they could most would not appreciate the beauty of the resolution that you craft. This was something that Amanda had also not appreciated as teenager

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But to return to Anthony as the book repeatedly does, she needed money so that she could stay with Anthony as he continued his ever more debilitating medical treatments and this time she went straight to Neil

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The book ends with Anthony sort of recovering and sort of not, the book was published in 2014, I wanted to know more and found the following, don’t read it until you have read the book.

Fables from the Fountain

OK this one needs a bit of an explanation before we get to the book. Back in 1957 the great science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke published a book of short stories that he had written over the preceding 4 years and had appeared in various places in that time. The stories were all linked as a series of tall tales told in a pub called the White Hart by one of the regulars there, Harry Purvis. I first came across the book in the mid 1970’s when I was about 11 or 12 during a period when I was avidly reading through not only Clarke’s work but that of the other two writers of the ‘big three’ in Sci-Fi, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. At first I wasn’t very interested, I was heavily into Sci-Fi and this was just a group of people in a pub telling stories, mind you some of them have a scientific base and they were funny so I persevered and grew to like the plot twists that were an invariable part of each tale. I no longer have the book, assuming I ever did, it could have been from the library, although I remember the cover well with a giant squid almost covering the pub and I have fond memories of the stories themselves.

I found out many years later that The White Hart was based on a real pub called the White Horse in London where Sci-Fi fans and writers used to meet up in the 50’s. These included John Christopher (The Death of Grass, The Tripods Trilogy etc.), John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Awakes etc.) and of course Arthur C Clarke himself. Appropriately the concept of Fables from the Fountain was dreamt up in a London pub by Ian Whates a few weeks after Clarke’s death in 2008 and the day after the Clarke award ceremony for the best new science fiction novel released in Britain. Whates had founded Newcon Press a couple of years earlier and conceived a homage to Tales from the White Hart with stories by current authors who had all in their own way been inspired by the great innovator that was Sir Arthur C Clarke.

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The various writers in the new book have taken pseudonyms to be characters who meet at the Fountain to swap stories. Unlike the original the tales are given from assorted standpoints, rather than always by Harry Purvis although it’s good to spot references to him in several of the narratives. Because of the nature of the tales it is difficult to say much about them, they are short because of the premise of the book that they are stories told over a pint or two. Some like Neil Gaiman’s brilliant piece are very short at 4½ pages, so it is hard to avoid giving away the twists and turns they manage in so few words. Rereading the book after almost seven years (it was published in May 2011) for this blog  has been an interesting experience, I was surprised by how many I didn’t remember the ending to even if I instantly recognised the pre-amble.

There is high science represented and some truly awful puns, Professor Mackintosh explains how his life was saved by smoking, we find out surprising things about Muscovy Ducks, whilst Heisenburg, Schroedinger and surprisingly even William Blake get name checks. One of my favourites is ‘On the Messdecks of Madness’ by Raven about which I can say almost nothing without spoiling the enjoyment except it’s the only fantasy story I can recall that uses the great diarist Samuel Pepys’s admiralty career as a basis of the plot. Whilst another explains the 1908 Tunguska explosion and of course there is the obligatory Area 51 tale without which no collection of stories aimed at SF geeks would be complete.

The full list of stories are as follows, I’ve included the introduction here partly because the book does as well in the numbering of the index and also because Peter Weston’s introduction is definitely worth reading.

  1. Introduction – Peter Weston
  2. No Smoke without Fire – Ian Whates
  3. Transients – Stephen Baxter
  4. Forever Blowing Bubbles – Ian Watson
  5. On the Messdecks of Madness – Paul Graham Raven
  6. The Story Bug – James Lovegrove
  7. “And Weep Like Alexander” – Neil Gaiman
  8. The Ghost in the Machine – Colin Bruce
  9. The Hidden Depths of Bogna – Liz Williams
  10. A Bird in Hand – Charles Stross
  11. In Pursuit of the Chuchunaa – Eric Brown
  12. The Cyberseeds – Steve Longworth
  13. Feathers of the Dinosaur – Henry Gee
  14. Book Wurms – Andy West
  15. The Pocklington Poltergeist – David Langford
  16. The Last Man in Space – Andrew J Wilson
  17. A Multiplicity of Phaedra Lament – Peter Crowther
  18. The Girl With the White Ant Tattoo – Tom Hunter
  19. The 9,000,000,001st Name of God – Adam Roberts

The copy I have is the hardback limited edition (number 61 of 200) and is signed by all 19 writers. At the time of writing the title is still available from Newcon Press, although now only in paperback and not signed from this link.

Now if you’ll excuse me it’s Tuesday; so it’s the get together night at the Fountain, Polish barmaid Bogna will be serving behind the bar and I can hear the call of a pint or three of Old Bodger, although I’ll be careful to avoid the Ploughman’s lunches.

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Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a retelling of the Old Norse myths in a straightforward style aimed at the young adult market. He begins with a brief introduction to Odin, Thor and Loki and then the other characters that populate the myths are explained as we meet them.  The book has had a small number of poor reviews on Amazon, but mainly by people who were expecting a Neil Gaiman story rather than an introduction to the Norse mythology and were therefore disappointed not to find one. For me however it took me back to my childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s reading childrens’ magazines such as Look and Learn and World of Wonder, both of which regularly dipped into mythologies from around the world for features or retellings.

The dustwrapper is beautiful, featuring Thor’s hammer Mjollnir against a background of stars but how many people have taken this off to find the hammer again on the cover of the book

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There are 15 tales included, ranging in length from 3 to 23 pages, so this can be dipped into as a quick read over a period of a few days, but equally it doesn’t take long to read the whole thing. They are easily approachable, avoiding the temptation to explain everything with additional notes which can be a failing in editions aimed at adults which can fall into a scholastic tone. As Neil himself says in his introduction

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, where the stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the Northern Lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

And that I think is the essence of Neil’s book, they feel like they are tales as told to an audience rather than pinned to the page like a specimen butterfly, they have a narrative flow and it doesn’t matter that Yggdrasil and the nine worlds is only 3 pages long, it tells you what you need to know and that information will illuminate later tales.

The book is of course just a brief introduction to the huge body of Norse tales and it would be nice to think that readers today will be inspired, as I was all those years ago with the magazines, to explore further and then maybe try some of the Icelandic sagas which I have enjoyed over the intervening years. More of those I think in a later blog. So thank you Neil for reminding me of the pleasure I got when I first encountered the Norse myths when I was 6 or 7 years old and the joy they still give me.

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Footnote: I thought the UK hardback cover was beautiful and then saw the American paperback due out next month…

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