Book Review: Topics About Which I Know Nothing (Patrick Ness)
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: First published 2005
Summary (from Goodreads):
Scintillating, surprising, inventive fiction from one of the most talented writers in Britain – this is a superb collection of short stories from the acclaimed author of the Chaos Walking series and ‘More Than This’. Have you heard the urban myth about Jesus’s double-jointed elbows yet? 100% true. Or seen the latest reports on the ‘groomgrabbing’ trend – the benevolent kidnapping of badly-dressed children by their well-meaning (and more dapper) elders? Heard the one about the Amazon from the Isle of Man? Or perhaps you’d like a job in telesales, offering self-defence classes over the phone? Don’t worry, as long as you meet the weekly quota, you won’t be sent to the end of the hall…Wonderfully original, fresh and funny, ‘Topics About Which I Know Nothing’ is stuffed to the gills with dizzyingly inventive writing and warming, puzzling emotions – a fictional guide to how the world might have turned out.
This is a continuation of my ‘read everything by Patrick Ness’ binge that came about from receiving all his books for my birthday.
I do prefer his young adult books (as in I love them and rave about them always) but I’ve been trying to get into his adult stuff too. I really enjoyed The Crane Wife earlier this year, and was looking forward to this one too.
I worry about reading short stories like this. It’s the kind of thing we’d read in my creative writing classes at uni and I’d always worry that I wouldn’t get it or I wouldn’t be able to say anything clever about it. And for some reason that still colours my opinion when I read things like this: even though I don’t need to impress anyone with my intellectual opinion, I still worry about it.
There were some stories I just didn’t get, or didn’t enjoy, and rather than worry about it I’ve just accepted it. I;m just going to write a couple of lines about each one rather than try and sum up the book as a whole.
Implied Violence – this was a great start to the book and just felt like everything a short story should be: a quick snapshot of life, with fleshed out characters, a good spot of humour and an interesting premise. I really enjoyed this.
The Way All Trends Do – this was in the form of a report and was a bit bizarre, but in a brilliant way. I loved the idea of ‘groom grabbing’ and the way the information unfolded was really interesting.
Ponce de Leon is a Retired Married Couple From Toronto – this story was told by several letters, between a mother and son, and the son and various authorities. The ending was a little ambiguous but I quite liked that.
Jesus’ Elbows and Other Christian Urban Myths – the style of these felt a little odd. They didn’t feel like your traditional written story: more like one that someone was telling you directly, in person, if that makes sense. They were really quirky though and very enjoyable, though they’re probably not for everyone (i.e. you may find it a little offensive if you’re Christian).
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodest – this falls half in the category of ‘I didn’t understand’ but there were some bits I really enjoyed too. I think the not understanding came mostly from the large amounts of Latin used, but I did follow the main story line. There was a reference to Flemish that I really appreciated, though most people won’t enjoy as much (my Grandma is Flemish so it’s a language I’m used to hearing).
Sydney is a City of Jaywalkers – I didn’t really enjoy this story. There was an interesting idea in there but I got a little bored, and then confused towards the end (another where I just felt maybe I wasn’t smart enough for it).
2,115 Opportunities – this story explored all the little fluctuations that can cause or not cause an event to happen: we see over 2000 different scenarios (some are grouped together as they are similar) which just show how specific every little event had to be to lead up to two people meeting.
The Motivation of Sally Rae Wentworth, Amazon – I think this is probably what spoiled my enjoyment of the book a bit. I really struggled to get through it, and it stuck in my mind more than the ones I enjoyed. I just found it dull.
The Seventh International Military War Games Dance Committee Quadrennial Competition and Jamboree – this was a newspaper article, and another of Ness’ more bizarre ideas, but it did make me chuckle: the idea of combining war and art in some kind of weird and dangerous performance was brilliant.
The Gifted – this was another one with a bit of a weird/ambiguous ending, but I really enjoyed it. There were some strong characters and a school assignment to die for (pun intended). I could easily see this as a longer story idea too.
Now That You’ve Died – the introduction said this was recorded as an immersive play, and the theatre student in me loved it. It just filled me with creative ideas and I just wanted to take it into class and workshop it with some students. It was a brilliant way to end the book.