Wednesday, May 24, 2017

celebrity lookeylikey of the day - junior non-celebrity edition

My two daughters are quite similar in lots of ways: both gorgeous (obviously), both fearsomely bright and articulate, both charmingly devoted to their little brother, both quite partial to my spicy Korean noodles. Equally, they are different in many ways as well. Some of these differences are probably the inevitable consequence of the order of their birth - Alys is probably slightly more shouty and assertive as befits someone who never had her parents' sole undivided attention and has always had to compete with her older sister.

It's fair to say that Alys is a bit more physically imposing than her sister as well - at two years old Alys is two inches taller than Nia was at the same age, and she's already only six or seven pounds lighter than her sister despite the three-year age gap. Nia is the graceful athletic willowy type, whereas Alys looks like she'll be more suited to the strength events like weightlifting or Graeco-Roman wrestling. Actually, a bit of research reveals that there is a type of central Asian wrestling called Alysh, so maybe that's the one she should go for.

So when they both dressed up in some fairy outfits that a friend of Hazel's had bought for them and posed for a photo I was immediately put in mind of Alys' resemblance to Mavis Cruet, the slightly rotund fairy from the classic early-1980s BBC series Willo The Wisp. This was broadcast in the classic 5:35 - 5:40 slot just before the evening news (which, in turn, was just before Nationwide) - the slot previously occupied by classics like The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers, as well as some more esoteric fare like Ludwig.



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

the last book I read

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

Our narrator, who may or may not be called John (he suggests, half-jokingly, that we call him "Jonah"), is an author researching a book about what some of the key players in the development of the nuclear bomb were doing on the day the first one was used in anger, at Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

John's first person of interest is Felix Hoenikker, one of the principal developers of the technology that powered the atomic bomb. Hoenikker is dead, but his three children Franklin, Newton and Angela are still alive, though scattered across the globe. John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker and visits Felix Hoenikker's former hometown of Ilium, New York, but his research only really gets going when he gets sent on an unrelated reporting assignment to the small Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where it just happens that Franklin Hoenikker has been appointed successor-in-waiting to the island's dictator "Papa" Monzano, a delightful character given to keeping the population in line by occasionally impaling people on giant metal hooks.

These occasional impalements are usually for practising the island's de facto official religion, Bokononism, which despite being practised almost universally is officially banned by the government. Based on the writings of its founder, an Englishman called Lionel Boyd Johnson who found himself shipwrecked on the island, it's a typically Vonnegutesque mish-mash of cynical, fatalistic and occasionally baffling aphorisms, with Johnson aka Bokonon clearly intended to mirror cargo cult figures like John Frum.

It soon becomes clear that in addition to the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker also invented another potentially world-threatening device: ice-nine. This is a new form of water, solid at and well above room temperature, and indeed most temperatures found on Earth. A single seed crystal can solidify an unlimited amount of water if it comes into contact with it. It further becomes clear that the Hoenikker children have ice-nine crystals in their possession, and that Franklin has used his to parlay his way into the top job in "Papa" Monzano's government.

The shit really hits the fan when Papa decides that his terminal cancer has become too painful for him to endure, and checks out in spectacular fashion by swallowing an ice-nine crystal and being instantly solidified. There then follows a frantic attempt to dispose of the body (and that of Papa's doctor who accidentally freezes himself) and ensure that no ice-nine fragments escape.

Franklin decides that he doesn't fancy taking over as dictator and offers the job to John instead. John reluctantly accepts, but his first act as ruler - overseeing an air display by San Lorenzo's ramshackle air force - ends in disaster when one of the planes crashes into the sea-facing wall of the presidential palace and causes the ruined palace to disgorge its contents down a cliff into the sea. This includes Papa's body, and its contact with the sea causes the sea, as well as all rivers, streams and groundwater on the planet, to solidify into ice-nine, instantly ending almost all life.

A few stragglers on San Lorenzo survive and huddle together to eke out their remaining supplies of food and water. John writes a memoir - well, you've got to keep busy - which it transpires is the book we've just read. At the end his wanderings around the ravaged remains of San Lorenzo bring him face-to-face with Bokonon himself, and they contemplate the end of the world together.

This is the second Vonnegut on this list, after The Sirens Of Titan, and it's interesting to note that that earlier book also featured a post-modern, possibly even post-religion religion ("Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent") presumably intended to make various satirical points about more formally organised religions, and why not.

Both this and The Sirens of Titan are from the early part of Vonnegut's writing career (Cat's Cradle was his fourth novel, published in 1963), which I suppose really means stuff published before Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, the book that made him a major literary figure. As such it's a bit more linear than Slaughterhouse-Five or some of the later books. I don't have a problem with non-linearity per se but I do think this is better than the more self-referential later books like, say, Breakfast Of Champions, and indeed is probably the best Vonnegut I've read apart from Slaughterhouse-Five, which is fairly obviously The One if one is all you want.

I note that the plot device of having the entire population of Earth killed off apart from a band of ill-equipped random people on a tropical island was one he re-used for his 1985 novel Galápagos, although The Event there happened near the beginning of the novel rather than near the end. The device of having it be revealed at the end of the book that the book the main character has been writing, or struggling to write, is this book right here, the one you've just been reading, is one that's cropped up in a few other places on this list, notably The Medusa Frequency and Sweet Tooth plus quite possibly one or two others.

My mid-1970s Penguin paperback edition (see above) has an arresting image of an atomic bomb on the cover with what's presumably meant to be a crystal of ice-nine in the centre. Note that while the book the narrator is writing is concerned with the day of the Hiroshima bombing, the weapon depicted here is clearly based on the implosion-type device used in the bombing of Nagasaki three days later - the Hiroshima device was of a different design.

Here's a long rambling interview with Vonnegut in the Paris Review - note that I've also (belatedly) attached a similar link to the end of the Bridge Of San Luis Rey post.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

to cut a long story short

Just a quick follow-up to expand slightly on my point about short novels from the last book post. I knocked together a list of ones that I thought were worthy of strong recommendation from my personal archives as a footnote to this book post from 2008. I was also making a point about how perfect short novels were for film adaptation, so, just to bring things up to date, here are a few short novels (which I arbitrarily define as being under 175 pages, just to suit my purposes) which have featured on this list since Utz which a) I would unreservedly recommend and b) have been adapted for the screen at least once:
If you want further recommendations this is one of those things, like cat GIFs, pornography, and, almost certainly, cat GIF pornography, which is well-served by the internet, which loves lists. A quick Google for "best short novels" yields several lists with a variety of interesting stuff on, many of which are new to me. Obviously people's opinions differ, and there are some differences in people's definitions of "short" (and indeed "novel"), and some of the lists strive to avoid the "obvious" stuff like Animal Farm and A Clockwork Orange, so there's an interesting spread of stuff here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

the last book I read

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.

The eponymous bridge is a fabled and ancient wood and rope bridge of Inca construction somewhere on the road between Lima and Cuzco in Peru. One fateful July day in 1714 it suddenly collapses, hurling the five people on it at the time into the rocky ravine below to their deaths.

All five had lives that were already linked and intertwined in various ways, but of course now they will be inextricably linked forever in jagged plummety gnarly death. A Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, documents the lives of the dead in an attempt to make sense of a seemingly senseless and arbitrary tragedy. Had the people on the bridge done things in their lives that warranted those lives being ended in that way? Had their whole lives been leading up to this pre-ordained point in some way? Through Brother Juniper's research we learn a little about the five victims.
  • Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor, grand lady about town and writer of long plaintive letters to her daughter who has made an advantageous marriage and headed off to Spain with her husband. 
  • Pepita, the Marquesa's companion, assigned to her service by the convent she was brought up at. The Marquesa and Pepita have made a pilgrimage to a local shrine to bring good luck to the baby the Marquesa has just discovered her daughter is expecting. It doesn't bring either her or Pepita much luck, though, as on the way back they are careless enough to fall off a bridge.
  • Esteban, inseparable twin brother to Manuel, also raised at the local convent, with never a harsh word exchanged between the brothers (who in any case converse in their own incomprehensible language) until Manuel falls unrequitedly in love with Camila Perichole, an actress, and agrees to be a letter-writing go-between facilitating the progress of her various affairs with the local viceroy, various bullfighters and no doubt a few others. After Manuel's death Esteban signs up to go to sea with grizzled old Captain Alvarado and is just running some preliminary errands when he takes a fateful short-cut across the bridge.
  • Uncle Pio, mentor and confidante to Camila Perichole but recently estranged from her after she contracts smallpox and withdraws from public life. 
  • Don Jaime, son of Camila Perichole, entrusted to Uncle Pio's care by Camila Perichole after he visits her and persuades her to let him take the boy away. I'll keep him safe, he says. Better steer clear of that bridge then. Too late.
Brother Juniper slaves away at his research for several years, coming up with various crackpot mathematical formulae to measure people's intrinsic worth. You can imagine his disappointment when the church declares his book heresy, and indeed his further disappointment when he gets burnt at the stake as a result.

The book ends a number of years later, with Camila Perichole, now presumably recovered from the pox, and later Doña Clara, daughter of the Marquesa de Montemayor, visiting the abbess of the convent where Pepita and Esteban spent some of their formative years and appreciating the simple goodness of their mission. Maybe there isn't a design to all this, and life really is just about bimbling along trying to be helpful wherever you can without any particular expectation of reward?

The first thing you notice about The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is that it's very short - at 124 pages only The Leaves On Grey and Bonjour Tristesse of novels in this list are shorter. Plenty packed into that short length though; after the bracing in medias res opening we get some concise back-story for each of the protagonists and a bit of philosophical musing from Brother Juniper about What It All Means.


Just as there's something joyful about getting stuck into a really long book, there's something very satisfying about a really good short novel; a miniature croissant and an espresso instead of the full English and an urn of builder's tea. And this is a really good short novel - not that you need me to tell you that, as it's on various Best Of The 20th Century lists (it was published in 1927), including the TIME magazine list we've featured here a few times before. It has also been filmed a number of times, most recently in 2004 featuring quite the cast, although by all accounts it's a bit of a snore-fest (despite featuring at least five deaths), so approach with caution.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928 - half-arsed research suggests that it's the fourth Pulitzer winner on this list, after Foreign Affairs, The Road and Independence Day.

[Update: here's a lengthy 1956 interview with Wilder in the Paris Review.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

the last book I read

Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Phileas Fogg is having trouble with the domestic staff at his house. It's not, as you might have imagined, in Medomsley Road, Consett, but in Savile Row, London. Mr. Fogg has just fired his valet for some comically minor infraction involving the temperature of his shaving water, and has just agreed to hire one Jean Passepartout, a Frenchman of adventurous and exotic past who's just looking for a nice quiet, safe, methodical job and has heard of Mr. Fogg's reputation as a man of constant and imperturbable routine. Little does he know Mr. Fogg is about to piss on his chips in a fairly major way.

Mr. Fogg is a member of the Reform Club, and a strong contender for Most Phlegmatic and Methodical Man Alive. This is a man who has his days and weeks mapped out meticulously in advance, so a typical week might look something like this:
  • Monday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Tuesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Wednesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Thursday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Friday: slaking of filthy shameful lusts with a tuppenny-ha'penny Whitechapel prostitute
  • Saturday: CLEANSE THE STREETS
  • Sunday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
So it's something of a surprise, possibly even to Mr. Fogg himself, when as a result of a fairly innocuous discussion at his club he finds himself wagering £20,000 on being able to circumnavigate the globe in a period of eighty days or less.

So much for Passepartout's wishes for a bit of a quiet life, then; Mr. Fogg returns from the club, rounds up Passepartout and with barely time to pack a few changes of socks and a giant bag of cash, they're off. Needless to say Mr. Fogg has an itinerary mapped out in advance, but it's one that has precious little slack in it. All goes well until they attempt to take a train across India from Bombay to Calcutta and discover that the middle fifty miles or so of the railway have yet to be built. Unfazed, Mr. Fogg negotiates the purchase of an elephant (plus someone to drive it) and the party sets off across country. Along the way they encounter a funeral party including a young widow who it becomes clear is to be tossed onto the funeral pyre. As phlegmatic as Mr. Fogg is this will not stand and a rescue is organised, culminating in the travelling party plus the widow, Mrs. Aouda, escaping atop a galloping elephant.

Some complications: the party are being followed by a Scotland Yard detective, Fix, who is convinced that Mr. Fogg is a fugitive criminal responsible for a bank robbery back in London at around the time of the original wager. Fix's machinations mean that Mr. Fogg and Passepartout have to jump bail in Hong Kong, and then ensure that Passepartout catches the steamer to Yokohama but that Mr. Fogg and Mrs. Aouda miss it, necessitating a bit of private chartering to catch up.

Once reunited, the party proceeds on the long journey by ship across the Pacific and then by rail across North America. Things do not go completely smoothly and at one point they have to take a trip on a wind-powered sledge to get to Omaha in time to catch a train to New York. Once again they miss the scheduled ship and have to resort to chartering one, again, which takes them to Ireland, from where they have to travel by train to Dublin and thence by ferry to Liverpool, where Fix (who has tailed them the whole way) promptly has them arrested on suspicion of the original robbery. It soon transpires that the real robber has been caught and Mr. Fogg is free to go, but by this time he has missed the train to London (this being the last day of his appointed eighty days). He makes his way there as quickly as possible but arrives after the agreed hour, thus losing the wager.

Mr. Fogg retires to his rooms in a state of despair, ruined by the result of the wager, and contemplating doing the decent thing with the old service revolver. Some consolation is provided by Mrs. Aouda declaring her love for him and proposing marriage. But what will they live on? Fortunately for all concerned, Passepartout, while out making some arrangements for the marriage, happens to glance - WAIT A MINUTE - at the calendar and see that the date is a day earlier than he or Mr. Fogg thought. Cue a final mad dash back to the house and thence to the Reform Club to claim victory and flipping great wodges of cash.

This is one of those books it's hard to offer an opinion on, since it's so firmly embedded in popular culture. It's an enjoyable adventure romp which scoots by at a breathless pace, since there's barely 200 pages to encompass eighty days' worth of travel - though of course lots of it (the 20-odd days of voyage across the Pacific, for instance) is pretty uneventful. I think it's fair to say there's a bit of sly satire of national stereotypes going on here as well - Phileas Fogg the hyper-organised, meticulous, emotionless, buttoned-up Englishman who appears to have no inner life at all (he is, for instance, entirely uninterested in taking in any of the sights during the journey, preferring to mechanically tick off milestones in his itinerary), and Passepartout the impulsive, passionate Frenchman.

The central plot point here, of course, is the main characters' obliviousness to having crossed the International Date Line during their crossing of the Pacific - well, in fact no such official construct existed at the time the novel was written, but nonetheless if you travelled completely around the world you would find yourself having to adjust your calendar on your return. The idea that a man as meticulous as Fogg wouldn't have been aware of this before setting off, or that he and his party would not have become instantly aware of it on landing in San Francisco (which operated on the same calendar as London) is clearly absurd. The central premise of Fogg impulsively making the bet in the first place seems utterly incongruous as well - having spent most of the first couple of chapters being told how utterly predictable Fogg is we are then required to believe that he would volunteer to drag himself literally around the world just on the basis of a discussion over the papers in a gentleman's club. None of that makes it anything less than highly enjoyable to read, of course.

You'll notice my Oxford World's Classics edition features Wallace & Gromit on the cover - I'm not entirely sure why, to be honest, except that it was part of the South West Great Reading Adventure which formed part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 2006.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

not the face!

You might recall this fun bit of face-recognition software from a couple of years back that purported to tell you how old you looked. I was pretty sure I'd done a blog post about it at the time, but I can't find it now, so I may have just bunged a picture up on Facebook or something. Emma seems to have tested it far more exhaustively than I did, anyway. Just to check that link was still active I gave it an old Facebook profile picture (which I actually think is quite a good photo of me, taken in a beachfront ice-cream shop in Barry Island); I think I would have been 43 at the time so the result was quite gratifying, if unspectacular.


There now appears to be another link doing the rounds which allows you to upload a picture and have a piece of artificial intelligence tell you which celebrity face it resembles. As with all things this is a bit of a stunt to publicise some more serious AI development, but of course it's irresistible - who doesn't want to have it confirmed that they look like a young Paul Newman?


Wait a minute: Reid Hoffman? Who the hell is Reid Hoffman? Must be a glitch in the matrix; let's try a different picture.


Well, OK, let's have a look: Reid Hoffman is co-founder of business networking website LinkedIn and a billionaire. So what does he look like?


Well, clearly there are still some unresolved bugs in the software here - that appears to be a picture of some middle-aged fat bloke. Let's try again with a different picture - this one was taken in the Ernest Willows pub in Cardiff on a match day in about 2007.


Hmmm, well, it's different, at least. I've never heard of Michael Emerson either, but I expect Google can find me a picture.


Well, at least he's not as fat as the previous guy, though he is a bit more weaselly than I'd ideally have liked. It turns out I have seen him before, in the first Saw movie, and possibly here and there on TV as well as he seems to get about a bit. Let's have another go.


That is fairly surprising, though I suppose Michael Schumacher would have been photographed in sunglasses quite a lot, and I am leading with the chin slightly in this picture which probably makes it look a bit bigger.


This one (taken at Taupo Quads in New Zealand in early 2001) makes me wonder whether a) some sort of machine-learning may be involved whereby the algorithm recognises me as being the face from the previous picture and "remembers" that it offered up Michael Schumacher as a suggestion then, or b) whether it noticed the same tenuous resemblance as before and also spotted the four-wheeled vehicle,


Well, no four-wheeled vehicles here (this was taken a day or two after the previous picture after a trip down a hill in a zorb near Rotorua) and still with the Schumacher suggestions. Strange.


You'd think there must be some situational awareness being applied here, as I look nothing like Wayne Gretzky, but he is a man who must appear in a lot of photos featuring snow, ice and woolly hats.


Ah, fuck off with your Reid Hoffmans.


Marc Benioff is another internet entrepreneur, founder of cloud computing company Salesforce. I'm being generous with the picture as it was the only one I could find where he was wearing glasses. Also, he's fat! And he has a beard!


Time to stop depressing myself and try something different. Who does my elder daughter look like? Note that this picture was taken nine months or so ago (in a softplay area at Bluestone), before she did a faceplant onto the school playground and knocked out half of one of her front teeth and bruised the other one. So all the current searches would probably come back with Shane MacGowan or something. Uploading a photo where full dental integrity was still intact yields the following:


It turns out Angus T Jones is the kid from Two And A Half Men, which I've seen about five minutes of ever. I assume that the resemblance is supposed to be two the clean-cut kid version, rather than the straggly-bearded religious nutter he later became.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

mr. halibut goes to blogland

As either a belated Christmas present or an early joint birthday present (their birthdays are only a week apart) our girls recently acquired the full box set of Mr. Men books. We already had a couple, but this is the full 47-book collection. This is obviously great for the girls, but also for me as it allows me to relive some aspects of my childhood, as a specific aspect of a general regression towards childhood, and subsequently an inexorable descent into drooling senility and, ultimately, death.

I can't remember exactly which Mr. Men books we used to own, but it was probably half-a-dozen or so, definitely including Mr. Tickle, Mr. Happy and Mr. Bump, and almost certainly also Mr. Silly, Mr. Fussy and Mr. Strong and quite possibly one or two others. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that my recollection of the full book list on the back of the books was that Mr. Strong was the last one, and that I always viewed that list as the definitive one and the addition of the subsequent thirteen titles (Mr. Grumpy through to Mr. Slow) as late-comers and not quite "real" Mr. Men books in some ill-defined way (I refer you to the first of the Douglas Adams quotes here as an explanation).

Looking at the books' publication dates reveals that this limits me to quite a small window, since the books were published in (broadly speaking) three tranches of thirteen, the first (Mr. Tickle to Mr. Daydream) spread out over 1971 and 1972, the second (Mr. Forgetful to Mr. Strong) in spring 1976 and the third in spring 1978. So I suppose that dates my main Mr. Men-reading activities to before 1978, when I would have been eight, which I suppose sounds about right, although as both Emma and I have discovered before, childhood memories, even what seem like crystal-clear ones, can turn out to be suspect.


Just to complete the picture, the thirty-nine books accounted for above are the ones written and published during Roger Hargreaves' lifetime (he died in 1988). Those are just credited to "by Roger Hargreaves" in the regular way in our editions. There were then four (Mr. Brave to Mr. Cheerful) published in 1990 which are credited to "original concept by Roger Hargreaves", which isn't very clear but which I assume means they were cobbled together from some works-in-progress left after Hargreaves' death, with a bit of tarting up applied by other people (most likely his son Adam). The remaining four (Mr. Cool to Mr. Nobody) are credited to "written and illustrated by Adam Hargreaves". The reason the spines-first view of the books above looks a bit wonky is that the spine design - with each book carrying a seemingly random blob of black which resolves into some text when they're presented together - was obviously cooked up for a box set featuring the original 39 books, and it was deemed too much work to rejig everything for the small number of subsequent books, so these were left blank and the whole thing ends up looking oddly shunted to the left.

That smacks of a bit of laziness, though to be fair more on the part of the publisher than the author(s). There is just a whiff of a bit of authorial laziness in some of the titles, though: Mr. Happy and Mr. Cheerful are essentially the same person, as are Mr. Grumpy and Mr. Grumble, and the whole raft of vaguely wacky characters that includes Mr. Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Silly, Mr. Funny, Mr. Muddle, Mr. Nonsense and Mr. Wrong are all essentially the same. The yin/yang pairs of Mr. Noisy and Mr. Quiet , Mr. Small and Mr. Tall and Mr. Dizzy and Mr. Clever also tell much the same stories from two different angles. But I suppose there's only so many books you can get out of a narrow-ish range of kiddy-friendly emotions. The gnarlier stuff like Mr. Punchy, Mr. Drunk and Mr. Rapey would have been off-limits to Hargreaves' target audience, though of course that stuff is ripe for parody, of which there have been many, of varying degrees of will-this-do laziness.

A couple of further complaints related to specific stories now: firstly Mr. Clever. Now I've been bought a couple of bits of Mr. Clever-related merchandise (more on this in a minute) by people over the years, for reasons that I'm far too Mr. Modest to speculate about. But if you read the story, Mr. Clever turns out to be a bit of a twit, and all his fancy book-learnin' is no match for the simple homespun wisdom of a lowly worm, or some such shit.

The slightly sinister Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy in the Mr. Messy book always remind me vaguely of the bizarre Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd characters from the generally bizarre Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.

Finally, Mr. Lazy. Now most of the Mr. Men are a sort of generic elliptical blob shape, with a few exceptions where their shape is dictated by their name in some way: Mr. Greedy, Mr, Sneeze, Mr. MessyMr. Tall, Mr. Skinny and probably one or two others. Mr. Lazy, however, is pretty explicitly a big pink arse (thereby making this parody superfluous). Take a look - I've erased the distracting features in the third picture to make the resemblance more obvious, although that does now make it look as if he's having a big splattery shit, or possibly a rectal prolapse.




I wouldn't want to quibble too much, though, as these are obviously children's classics, and the big bold magic-marker illustrations are very pleasing in a similar way to Dick Bruna's Miffy books. That simple design makes them perfect for slapping on a variety of merchandise, and sure enough a trawl round the house yields a few things - a pair of his'n'hers mugs, a similar pair of coasters and my beloved (and slightly threadbare these days) Mr. Greedy T-shirt.