Wednesday, July 17, 2019

in sixness and in death

Another quick follow-up to a previous post: Nutshell brings to six the number of Ian McEwan books I've read and reviewed for this blog, which is a record, jointly held with two other authors, Russell Hoban and Iain Banks. Banks of course sported an M from time to time depending which genre he was writing in: the six books featured on this blog comprise four with the M and two without.

Number of books Author(s)
6 Ian McEwan
Russell Hoban
Iain (M) Banks
5 TC Boyle
William Boyd
4 Lawrence Durrell
3 Cormac McCarthy
Stieg Larsson
Patricia Highsmith
William Gibson
Beryl Bainbridge

Of the people on this list, Bainbridge, Hoban and Banks were victims of the Curse Of Electric Halibut, while Durrell, Larsson and Highsmith avoided it by taking the wise precaution of already being dead before I started this blog in 2006. The others remain, as of today, alive.

chateauneuf du splat

One final Lake District holiday-related anecdote: during the trip we did a certain amount of sitting around drinking wine, as you'd expect, mostly after the kids were safely packed off to bed. During the course of one of these wine-facilitated conversations I made some expansive hand gesture, probably to illustrate the terrifyingly incisive political point I was making, and caught the rim of my wine glass in so doing, knocking it away from me and causing it to topple.

Now for most mere mortals that would be that: crash, splosh, tinkle, glass and wine everywhere and probably some unwelcome vinous tsunami with razor-sharp shards in it arriving in someone's lap. But because nature and years of ascetic self-denial and close study of the sacred texts have endowed me with the reflexes of a FREAKIN' NINJA, I was able to grab the glass with the same hand I'd nudged it with and attempt to right it before any wine was lost.


Sadly, a momentary loss of muscular co-ordination, a few extra foot-pounds of energy per second per second, and a slight misalignment of thumb and index finger on the stem of the glass resulted in a whiplash effect of startling speed and power whereby the base of the glass slid away from me across the table and the bowl of the glass swung towards me, ejecting about half the wine in a high-velocity spray into my face and onto the wall behind me, probably leaving a shadow in the wine splatter in the shape of a freakishly large human cranium. I was nonetheless able (ninja skills again) to keep hold of the glass and prevent it from either hitting the table and breaking or spilling the remainder of its contents. This is one of the few occasions where wearing glasses is a positive advantage, as I would otherwise have got an eyeful (possibly two) of red wine, which would probably have stung a bit.


This was all highly amusing, of course, and rightly so, to the other people around the table. But there comes a time when the laughing has to stop and the cleaning up has to begin. What I can tell you is that red wine on an emulsion-ed wall is a bit of a bitch to get off, and the standard bleach-enrichened surface cleaner sprays talk a good game but in practice only change red splodges and rivulets to dull grey splodges and rivulets. It was only a couple of days later when I found some actual honest-to-goodness concentrated bleach in a cupboard that I was able to don some Marigolds, return to the scene of the stain and get mediaeval on its ass with some proper caustic chemicals, with fairly miraculous results, which I assume saved us from having to make a shamefaced confession to the letting agents and have some of our deposit docked. One caveat: the wall in question was white; I can't vouch for the effects of applying neat bleach to a wall of any other colour.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

the last book I read

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.

They did a bad, bad thing. Well, strictly speaking they haven't done it yet, but plans are afoot for Trudy and her lover, Claude, to really cement their commitment to their relationship by doing a murder. The couple that slays together, stays together, and all that.

There are a few complicating factors, though, as if doing a murder and trying to get away with it were not complicated enough already. The primary motive for the impending murder appears to be that the London townhouse Trudy and Claude currently inhabit actually belongs to Trudy's estranged husband, John. So if John were, hem hem, out of the way in some way, Trudy and Claude would be free to realise the value of this asset (likely to be several million quid). Hence, murder. Oh, a couple of other things: Claude is John's younger brother, and Trudy is deep into the third trimester of being pregnant with John's baby.

The complicating factor in terms of the structure of the book itself should be revealed at this point, and it's this: the first-person narrator of the events described here is Trudy's baby. Yeah, you heard me. Obviously there are a host of questions about this device, and we'll come to those later if that's all right with you.

So anyway, it transpires that John knows about the Trudy and Claude situation, may or may not have a lover of his own (slightly flaky younger poet Elodie) and is quite keen to have his house back. So Trudy and Claude decide to accelerate their plans, and take the opportunity of John and Elodie popping round for a mature adult discussion to slip John an ethylene-glycol-laced fruit smoothie.

You might imagine that there would be some plot machinations at this point that would prevent poor old John (who seems harmless enough if a bit pompous and prone to public poetry declamations at unwelcome moments) from getting offed, but no, the police soon pop round to break the tragic news that he's been discovered face-down on a grassy embankment by the side of the M1. So Trudy and Claude have got what they wanted. But have they got away with it? As some Scottish guy once said: to be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus. Do the police suspect? Were there any incriminating fingerprints on the smoothie container? What has Elodie been telling the police?

When Chief Inspector Clare Allison pops round for an informal chat and a cup of tea, Trudy and Claude's paranoia goes up a gear? Is this just routine? Or is the Chief Inspector doing some sort of Lieutenant Columbo thing and secretly knows far more than she's letting on? Well, the answer, as always, is that it's the Lieutenant Columbo thing, and as Trudy and Claude rush around trying to find passports for a last-minute dash to some Central American country before the police return with the van and the handcuffs our narrator friend (remember them?) decides it's about time they put in an appearance in person.

So on the one hand this is a fairly simple tale about greed, lust and murder, and the near-impossibility of bringing off the latter in such a way as to be able to enjoy the proceeds, which in most cases (of the premeditated variety, anyway) is the whole point of the exercise in the first place. Just about everybody who reviewed it spotted that it's basically a retelling of Hamlet with a few twists. Just as with A Thousand Acres (loosely based on King Lear) I think it's probably better - apart from having to confess to your own literary ignorance - not to be intimately familiar with the source material, as it allows a better appreciation of the book on its own terms. As far as Hamlet goes I know it's set in Denmark, some people die and the central character talks a lot, but I don't think I've ever actually sat through it either on stage or screen.

As it happens, Shakespearian allusions aside, I don't think the central concept here (i.e. the foetus as narrator) really works, partly because it just collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. It doesn't really make sense for the narrator to be musing about how he (or she, it's never made clear as far as I know) has literally no idea what basic outside-world concepts like "blue" and "green" are about, and then later go on to describe in some detail his mother's pink sunglasses, or wax lyrical about the black cherry notes in his mother's choice of Pinot Noir. The absurdity of this central plot device is bothersome, outside of that this is a novel - unusually in McEwan's recent canon and unlike, say, The Children Act - not weighed down by its own seriousness and the thoroughness of the author's background research. It's just a bracing tale of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, a bit of a throwback to McEwan's early work. That's all fine, but the nature of the narrator is a problem that some people will find it difficult to get past. Not so much the elephant in the room, more like the elephant in the womb, amirite? McEwan does acknowledge some of these problems in this Guardian interview, but basically laughs it off by saying: I felt like doing it this way, so deal with it. Which is fair enough, I suppose.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

illusions of grandeur

Just a quick round-up of a few other bits relating to our Lake District holiday a couple of months ago; a belated follow-up, to put it another way, to this post detailing all the hill-climbing activity. But it's not all about the hill-climbing activity, however much I might wish that it were. There is other stuff to do as well, much of it more suited to small children who don't fancy hanging off bits of rock, or who do fancy hanging off bits of rock but have parents who are a bit apprehensive about letting them do it.

Emma's excellent and diligent research found us (six adults, three kids) this spacious house in Braithwaite, just down the road from Keswick, and the starting point for our Coledale walk back in the heady pre-kids days of 2008. As with Keswick itself this is an excellent hub for getting to most bits of the Lake District, with the exception of some of the really gnarly remote bits like Wasdale. It was ideal for the three hill/mountain walks described in the earlier post; none of them required a drive of more than half an hour or so. Braithwaite also claims to have three pubs - we'd already visited the Coledale Inn as the finale to our walk in 2008, and revisited it here just to check it was still OK (it is). We also had a pint in the Royal Oak, which is about 2 minutes down the road from the house and has excellent Jennings ale. The third pub must presumably be the Middle Ruddings "country inn and restaurant" which is a few yards down the road in the other direction (i.e. away from the village).

Anyway, places we visited which were not either mountains or pubs during the trip included:
  • The Puzzling Place in Keswick - a quaint little place collecting various items grouped around the theme of optical illusions. More Nia's cup of tea than the younger two, to be honest, but they do have an Ames room, which is pretty awesome.
  • The World Of Beatrix Potter in Bowness-on-Windermere. Again, probably more Nia's thing than anyone else's, but very well done - lots of multimedia interaction and things to do as well as a "real" Mr MacGregor's garden (i.e. it was outside and had actual plants in it). Certainly a step up from the Peter Rabbit exhibit in Wray Castle that we visited on last year's trip - that one seemed more specifically tailored to people familiar with the TV series, which despite being of American origin is generally fine except for the bizarre driving rock soundtrack they throw in occasionally. Obviously one is required to exit through the gift shop, and obviously Nia persuaded us to buy her a boxed set of Beatrix Potter books, the little minx.
  • Whinlatter Forest - we came here last time as well, but it warrants a re-visit as there are lots of trails to explore and they had a different Donaldson/Scheffler-themed thing going on - last time it was The Highway Rat, this time Zog. For what it's worth I prefer Zog as a book, particularly to read out loud. I'd obviously like it noted that I recognise that the structure and metre adopted by The Highway Rat is a homage to Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, and that's all very clever, but it breaks up the rhythm a bit when you're reading it. Zog also has a nice bit of feminist subversion of fairy-tale tropes at the end, as previously noted here. Zog was also famously read by Queens Of The Stone Age frontman and alleged Donald Trump lookalike Josh Homme in the CBeebies bedtime story slot a while back. Apparently a couple of other stories were filmed but have now been indefinitely shelved following some stereotypical drunken rock pig arseholery whereby Homme injured a female photographer at a gig in Los Angeles in December 2017. Absolutely no attempt will be made by me to excuse this behaviour, but it does illustrate a conflict between a desire to be edgy and ironic and interesting and keep the parents entertained (since clearly most if not all of the kids will have no idea who these people are) and the expectation that the chosen people will be exemplary role models for small children.
I've been experimenting with sharing albums via Google Photos rather than via the old gallery, so this album link can serve as a prototype. Initial testing suggests it works OK but if anyone passes this way and finds that it doesn't, drop me a comment or something.

Monday, July 01, 2019

the end of cartography

A quick follow-up to the last book post: The End Of Vandalism is, I think, the first book I've read since this book-slash-map-related post from June 2014 to contain a map (usual caveats apply, i.e. I haven't completely exhaustively scoured every intervening book to be absolutely sure). Here it is:


The original post was (slightly belatedly) prompted by my reading of Riddley Walker a few months earlier. That book does occasionally prompt a desire to orient yourself by looking at the map; to be honest The End Of Vandalism is such a benignly drifty narrative that the exact geographical details of where the various relatively inconsequential events happen seem neither here nor there. The one significant thing that does happen in a specific location outside of the general Grafton area is Louise's lengthy sojourn in Minnesota, and for obvious reasons that's not on this large-scale map.

The other thing to note is that on replacing it in its appointed place on the shelves I notice that there is now a five-book sequence running from A Natural Curiosity (the third book ever featured on this blog, way back in October 2006) through The End Of Vandalism, Bluesman and House Of Sand And Fog to Talking To The Dead. I notice from the original sequences post that the five-novel sequences there came with the additional constraint that the books had to be by five different authors, something we haven't quite managed here. But on the other hand, I've taken the picture now, so bollocks.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

the last book I read

The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury.

We're in some loosely-identified mid-west location (generally accepted to be Iowa, though I don't think it's ever explicitly identified), in the small town of Grafton in Grouse County. A place where not much happens, and such stuff as does happen is benignly overseen by laid-back sheriff Dan Norman. It's a small town, where everyone knows everyone, everyone's parents knew everyone's parents, and everyone knows everyone's business, which can be comforting and friendly, but can also be stifling and frustrating.

Some drama does crop up occasionally: Dan rescues an abandoned baby from a cardboard box in a supermarket parking lot and there is a brief flurry of excitement over who the mother is and whether she can be found. Meanwhile Louise Darling is finally tiring of her husband Tiny's petty criminal lifestyle and occasional violent outbursts, and after she sends him on his way she and Dan strike up a tentative relationship.

Tiny, meanwhile strikes off for various out-of-state locations where he does occasional manual work and gets involved with some slightly shady self-help group. Tiring of all this he eventually returns to Grafton, where he finds that Dan and Louise have moved in together, got engaged and subsequently married. It hasn't been all plain sailing for them, though: Dan has been suffering from insomnia, sleeping apart from Louise, and has engaged a therapist, although she finds him largely unreadable.

Eventually Dan and Louise get pregnant, and make all the usual preparations for having a baby, only for Louise to suffer a stillbirth at thirty-six weeks and nearly die in the process. As part of her recovery process she spends some time at a camp run by some friends in Minnesota, takes on some administrative duties to keep her busy and repeatedly extends her stay, seemingly to avoid having to return to her life in Grafton. Meanwhile Dan is up for re-election as sheriff, normally a formality but this time he's got an opponent with some serious money behind him and a willingness to wage a dirty-tricks campaign, masterminded by none other than the returned Tiny Darling. Needless to say Dan's problems are compounded by his mind not being fully on the job, what with one thing and another.

Eventually, as winter sets in, Dan makes the trip north to rescue Louise from her self-imposed exile, and on their return they effect a dramatic rescue of local teenager Albert Robeshaw and his girlfriend Lu Chiang who have got lost in a snowdrift. Louise returns to her job at the photography shop and when spring eventually rolls around everyone is all about the new beginnings and putting the past behind them.

As was the case with both A Stone Boat and The Leaves On Grey my perceptions of this book are probably skewed by the contrast with the book that immediately preceded it in this list, in this case Beloved. Just to be clear, I enjoyed The End Of Vandalism very much, but the story meanders along  very benignly, with the central characters bimbling along in their own slightly aimless way. Dan and Louise are the heart of the story here, and both are very endearing (and endearingly flawed) characters, though we don't actually learn very much about either of them. The only proper sense of danger or excitement is provided by the big set-piece where Louise and Dan lose the baby and Louise nearly dies, which provide a slightly incongruous contrast with the rest of the book. I suppose the starkest contrast with Beloved is that despite the majority of the action happening only a couple of states (and, to be fair, a hundred years) away, there are no discernible black characters here.

There are, it seems, a lot of people who would have The End Of Vandalism in their Great Novels Of The 1990s lists. I suppose I would respond to that by saying that I concur with the sentiment expressed in this review:
There's an awful lot here to like: the dialogue, the sly humor, the feather-light touch, the clean drive of the prose. All Drury needs is a plot for his work to really take off.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

I cunt believe it's not jeremy

There was nothing more inevitable than Jeremy Hunt's throwing his hat into the ring at the Tory leadership election resulting in yet more people calling him a cunt. The only question was: who would crack first under the unbearable pressure of an internal monologue yammering "DON'T SAY IT DON'T SAY IT DON'T SAY IT" relentlessly at them?

It turned out to be Victoria Derbyshire, on her daily BBC news and current affairs programme, with a full and unashamed rendering, not the wishy-washy "Cu...Hunt" that some people come out with.



As we know, this particular verbal gaffe has a long and glorious history, some of it documented here on this blog but inevitably some of it slipping by unnoticed, by me anyway. The mashups/compilations included in these two tweets provide a good potted summary. The prospect of this becoming a global phenomenon and international heads of state bellowing CUNT at each other across the table at the United Nations is a delightful one, but must be tempered by the realisation that there is absolutely zero chance of Hunt winning the Tory leadership contest, and therefore becoming Prime Minister.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

kerr-ching

A couple of thoughts on the death of Judith Kerr, venerable (she was 95) and celebrated children's author and illustrator:
  • If you had asked me to express an opinion on whether Kerr's Mog books were the origin of the general words "mog" and "moggie" to describe a cat (usually of a nondescript non-pedigree variety), I would probably have said that on balance I imagined that the expression pre-dated the books, but that I wouldn't want to stake my or anyone else's life on it. It turns out that the word does indeed pre-date the books, the first of which was published in 1970, the year I was born, and includes a character called Mr. Thomas (coincidence, or IS IT, etc etc). It apparently used to be a pet name for a cow and by some mysterious trans-species etymological osmosis became subsequently used for cats.
  • Kerr is one of those annoying names which can be pronounced in one of two ways and where there's absolutely no clue to which is the correct one from seeing it written down. In this case it can be "Kurr" (or, more correctly given its Scottish origins, "Kairr") or "Karr". Judith Kerr pronounced it the second way, as far as I can gather. Other examples include Sara/Sarah, which can be "Sair-rah" or "Sah-rah" with no chance of deciding which it is without advance knowledge, and the only advance knowledge you can have is that if you guess you'll choose the wrong one. And don't get me started on the whole Ralph/Rafe thing.
  • Kerr's most famous book is almost certainly The Tiger Who Came To Tea, which we, in common with most parents of young kids, have a copy of. It's always struck me that the tiger is a fairly obvious metaphor for sex, and in particular that an obvious subtextual interpretation of the surface story is that Sophie's Mum has been having a ferociously sexual extra-marital relationship, involving much smashing of crockery, urgent food-smeared couplings on the kitchen table and leaving her in a sweaty, sore, jism-festooned heap on the kitchen floor. The subsequent trip out to the cafe with Dad can be seen as him forgiving her for her infidelity and her settling back into the sausage-and-chips, half-a-pint-of-mild, once-a-week-with-the-lights-off regime with wistful regret but also a slight sense of relief. Needless to say I'm not the first person to think of this, as it's alluded to in this Guardian obituary, and was put to her a few times in interviews, where she played it with an impeccably straight bat.


  • I should point out that the first scurrilous image above is my own work; the second is stolen from this perhaps slightly ill-judged humorous tweet by the good people at Foyles Bookshop.
  • Judith Kerr was married to writer Nigel Kneale, probably most famous for his work on the various Quatermass serials and films. The only piece of his writing that I own, as far as I know, is the absurdly over-the-top (but absurdly entertaining) haunted-house story Minuke which I have in an anthology of supernatural stories published by, slightly bizarrely, Marks & Spencer. I got this as a present from my parents when I must have been about 16 and it's got some pretty serious heavyweight stuff in it. Minuke is based on an age-old and much-used premise: a house built on top of some old stones that conceal Unquiet Things that don't take kindly to being disturbed. It's basically the same plot as the South Park episode with the accursed pet store, not to mention Pet Sematary and Poltergeist.
  • Stan: So you just built your store on top of an Indian burial ground?!
    Shop Owner: Oh, hell no! First, I dug up all the bodies, pissed on 'em, and then buried them again upside-down.
    Kyle: Why?
    Shop Owner: Why? I don't know. I was drunk.

  • Kerr and Kneale's son Matthew is best known for his 2000 novel English Passengers, which I own and recommend to you highly. I see I mentioned this previously (and Kerr, in passing) here.