Friday, October 15, 2021

cushlebrity woofylikey of the day

Come with me, if you will, as we continue our magical journey into the ever more esoteric realms of Things That Sort Of Look A Bit Like Each Other. We've done people, obviously, but also trees, religious buildings, cuddly toys, large Arctic islands, cartoon rabbits and tubes of tablets. In that vein, here's a cushion my wife bought the other day. It's fun and funky as an ornament but not actually very comfortable to lean on as it's rather tickly. Furthermore I was immediately struck by its resemblance to one of those dreadlocked Hungarian Puli dogs that look like some sort of high-maintenance grooming nightmare. I suspect if you took one of those, ripped its head and legs off (you might want to put an old sheet or some newspaper down first), disembowelled it and then stuffed it you would arrive at something that was a) more comfortable to lean on, b) cheaper to feed and c) quieter. 
On the other hand the RSPCA might be popping round for a word.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

the last book I read

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Hardest game in the world, the old art restoration game. I mean, you want to avoid the obvious atrocities like this, but there are more subtle and tricky considerations to grapple with. Can we get the layer of dirty and darkened varnish off, and maybe replace it with a new protective layer, without damaging the paint? If the artist himself made repairs at a later date, are they to be preserved, or removed in search of the pristine "original" work? What does that even mean? What do words, in general, even mean? Does anybody really love anybody anyway

Fortunately experienced and competent art restorers exist, like for instance Julia, who, as we meet her here in Madrid, has just acquired an interesting work to spruce up: The Game of Chess, a 15th-century work by Flemish artist Pieter Van Huys. Not just interesting in its subject matter - two Flemish gentlemen playing chess, based on real people, one of whom, intriguingly, had been dead for two years at the time the painting was done - but also because of what Julia finds when she gets the painting X-rayed (presumably part of the standard pre-restoration assessment process) and receives the results. Those results show that near the bottom of the painting, concealed by a subsequent layer of paint, are some words. Those words are "Quis necavit equitem?", or "Who killed the knight?".

You'll be ahead of me here, so: obviously a knight is a chess piece, and indeed one of the players has a white knight in his hand which he has evidently just taken from the board. But there is more, as there always is, in books longer than about half-a-dozen pages anyway: the player using the black pieces, Roger de Arras, is also "a knight" (the other guy is a nobleman of some sort) and, as we already know, had died a couple of years before the painting was created, after a brief but unpleasant argument with a crossbow bolt on a castle battlement. So does the inscription provide a clue to finding Roger's killer?

Julia and her old friend and art collector César engage the services of a local chess prodigy, Muñoz, to try and retrace the course of the chess game up to the climactic point captured in the painting, and of art historian (and, just to complicate things slightly, her ex-lover) Álvaro to dig into the painting's history and that of the people portrayed within it (the two men already mentioned plus the nobleman's wife, sitting demurely at a window watching the progress of the chess match). No sooner have they done this than Álvaro turns up dead in his shower, apparently having slipped and accidentally viciously bashed the back of his head in on the edge of the bath. Shortly afterwards Julia receives a small card, left by the entrance to her apartment, which contains some possible chess moves for extending the game portrayed in the painting. Is this some sort of coded warning to Julia? Is Álvaro's death connected? Is some chess-obsessed serial killer about to go on a rampage? But who? And why?

One possible motive might be to establish some public notoriety around the painting and thereby push up its value, in which case there are a few possible suspects: the painting's owner, Don Manuel Belmonte, his daughter Lola, Julia's friend and art dealer Menchu, her toy-boy lover Max, and oily auctioneer Paco Montegrifo. Menchu takes herself out of the running early doors by being murdered, and further cards containing further chess moves continue to arrive, with Muñoz keeping track of the current game position and developing a healthy respect for his adversary's chess skills (though not so much his penchant for actual murder). Hardest game in the world, the old chess game

Eventually Muñoz manages to work out the identity of the serial-killing chess enthusiast, and it turns out to be someone we already know, who unexpectedly turns out to have a chess-playing past, ended by the chastening experience of losing to a lesser player. Lying dormant for many years, the chess-playing bug (and associated killing frenzy) was rekindled by exposure to The Game of Chess

None of this really makes any sense, of course, but the same can be said for most detective novels. And while the unravelling of the mystery here is a lot of fun (even if, as usual with these things, the revelation doesn't really live up to the build-up), the main enjoyment comes from the associated detail about art and the analysis of the chess moves, both leading up to and following the capture of the white knight portrayed in the painting. It's the second book in this series to feature chess as a major plot point, The Queen's Gambit being the other. Art and painting also feature prominently, and I'd have had to look up some of the technical terms like craquelure if I hadn't already encountered them in What's Bred In The Bone

The Flanders Panel was made into a film called Uncovered in 1994, starring the lovely Kate Beckinsale as Julia. The linked trailer provides just the suggestion of some sexy sexy times that were absent from the book (it also seems to have relocated it to Barcelona). Despite the disappointingly low sexy sexy times quotient in the book I enjoyed it greatly; like The Queen's Gambit it's perhaps debatable how enjoyable you would find it if you had no chess background whatsoever. I'm trying to imagine how enjoyable I would find a book whose plot revolved around, I dunno, go or halma or something. 

Monday, October 04, 2021

the last book I read

Eternity by Greg Bear.

Strap yourselves into your ergonomically-moulded space-chair-o-pod, take a slurp of your rehydrated Soylent Green and let's recap at near-relativistic speed the events of Eon, to which Eternity is a sequel: at some point in the early 21st century, Russia and the USA are on the brink of nuclear war. As if to distract everyone's attention, a huge asteroid suddenly materialises in orbit around Earth and everyone falls over each other to get an expedition out to it. When they arrive they discover that it is hollow, clearly previously inhabited but now empty, and that the last of its seven internal chambers contains a gateway to a long, tubular mini-universe that appears to be of infinite length. Eventually it becomes clear that this object is from the future of our universe, or maybe just one of many possible futures. But where has everyone gone?

Down the tube, it turns out, via some conveniently hand-wavey science that allows large city-sized craft to travel at enormous speed down it with minimal energy expenditure, while the laws of thermodynamics light up a cigar and look the other way. Gateways can also be opened along what people come to call the Way, leading to other parts of the universe, or maybe other universes, or maybe just varied possible future versions of the same universe. But gateways are two-way things and a ruthless alien force, the Jarts, gain entry to the Way and really go to town fucking everyone's shit up, including opening a gateway into the heart of a star. To avoid everyone being incinerated by a nasty miasma of incandescent plasma, one party of current and future humans fires off down the tube at gargantuan speed to who knows where while the rest retreat back to the asteroid and sever the connection with the Way. 

And so here we are. As Eternity starts several plot strands featuring major characters from the previous book are picked up, including maverick physics whiz-kid Patricia Vasquez, escaping from the Way through a gateway to what she hoped was Earth but turned out to be a diverged future Earth where Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and his Macedonian culture continued to dominate. With no way (or indeed Way) back to her own world she lives to a ripely irascible old age, passing on some previously-unknown technology to the inhabitants and in particular a love of science and general feistiness to her granddaughter Rhita.

Meanwhile administrator and general voice of reason Garry Lanier is down on the real Earth overseeing aspects of its recovery after the continent-scouring nuclear war that occurred in the first book. Lots of this takes place in New Zealand, presumably because this escaped being a fiery radioactive hellscape, unlike the northern hemisphere continents. On taking a break from the old administering and going for a nature hike one day Lanier is somewhat startled to meet Pavel Mirsky, a former colleague who had been in the party that scooted off down the Way in the opposite direction at the end of the first book and whose presence here is therefore Literally Impossible. So, Pavel, where have you been? Well, Garry, I'm glad you asked - I've been to the End Of Time Itself and I have now returned to tell you about it. I may have to summarise some sections.

Meanwhile Olmy, agent of the Hexamon (the future-human civilisation that the current humans encountered down the Way) is on the asteroid (generally known as Thistledown) doing some strictly unauthorised research into a captured Jart whose body and backed-up mental state are stored in a top-secret vault in one of the chambers (backing up mental states to external storage for reconstitution into other bodies being a totally commonplace thing). Since everyone who had plugged themselves into the downloaded Jart mind-state so far has died, Olmy constructs an elaborate series of failsafes before downloading it into an implant in his own brain. But, you know, we can all see what's going to happen there.

Rhita Vaskayza (according to the spelling of Gaia, her alternative future Earth) has grown up into an inquisitive young woman to whom her now-deceased grandmother has bequeathed a lot of mysterious science-y artefacts. Rhita uses these to locate an active gateway into the Way at a distant location in "Nordic Rhus" (probably Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan) and gets permission to get an expedition together to try and find it. But, again, gateways allow entry and exit, and no sooner has Rhita located the gateway and opened it than a swarm of Jarts appears. Nice planet: we'll take it! Rhita and her expedition are taken through the gateway, extensively probed and hooked up to the Jart mind-grid for further observation.

Meanwhile, Pavel Mirsky has a message from [echoey voice] Beyond Time for the humans on Earth and on Thistledown: the Way must be destroyed. As magnificent a testament to human ingenuity as it is, it turns out to be like a tapeworm in the belly of the universe which will prevent some mysterious transcendent end-of-2001 shit from happening gazillions of years into the future. There are factions who have been campaigning for the re-opening of the Way anyway so this bit is agreed to, but once this is done and a hostile (presumably Jart) energy beam zaps out and kills a few people the second part (i.e. initiating the Way's destruction) is quickly agreed to as well.

Olmy's Jart, who has, wholly predictably, taken over all his key brain functions and is basically driving him around like a freakin' go-kart, proves an unexpected ally here, fashioning a hey-don't-shoot message for transmission down the Way to prevent further unpleasantness. Eventually the protagonists have to make the same sort of choices as at the end of the first book: retreat to Earth to live out their lives, take a gateway to another world, or try to outrun the wave of destruction down the Way to the end of time itself.

There are some books, including a few on this list (The Ionian Mission would be an obvious example, as I suppose would Tears Of The Giraffe and Mortal Causes), which are strictly part of a series but where it's not essential to have read all a particular book's predecessors before picking it up. Not so here, as I can't see how any of this would be comprehensible without having first read Eon. I did that in the late-1980s and bought this book immediately afterwards, before unexpectedly then leaving it over 30 years before reading it. To be honest a slightly shorter gap between the books might be better, just to have the events of Eon a bit fresher in the mind. 

One obvious advantage of a sequel to a gnarly hard sci-fi book is that you can skip some of the more substantial chunks of world-building exposition that bogged down some of Eon and just launch straight into the story in an already-built universe. In that sense Eternity is a more exciting, event-filled book than Eon, each of the several parallel strands having plenty to keep the reader interested.

One of the odd things about Eternity is how similar some aspects of it are to the work of Iain M Banks - there's the enthusiasm for planetary-scale engineering, but also some of the concepts around longevity-enhancement by constantly backing-up your mind-state and re-loading it into a series of youthful physical substrates. This also provides a means of ensuring your continued survival should you unexpectedly be killed falling off an asteroid or being cut in half by a space laser. The concept of "subliming" that features in some of the Culture novels sounds quite close to what Pavel Mirsky undergoes here as well. And the series of occasionally nightmarish simulations that Rhita's uploaded consciousness is subjected to by the Jarts is not dissimilar to the Hells from Surface Detail. The Jarts themselves are a bit like the Borg, existing only to joylessly assimilate other planets and secure their knowledge for some ill-defined perfected future version of themselves. Jart for Jart's sake, you might say.

The obvious other point of comparison is with Olaf Stapledon for attempting to encompass the entirety of space and time in a single book. Bear does at least slow down enough to feature some named characters and even make us care about them, a bit. On that subject, what purpose is served by having the Way's principal engineer, Konrad Korzenowski, carry the same name as Joseph Conrad I am not sure, but it can't be a coincidence. It's doubly hard to know whether the omission of the "i" from "Korzeniowski" was intentional, because my copy of Eternity is one of the most poorly-proofread books (from an actual non-vanity publisher, anyway) I've ever read. Subsequent editions may have ironed out some of the wrinkles but there are lot of mistakes and misspellings here (examples below). I recall mentioning the same thing with The Falls back in the early days of this blog; the situation here is, if anything, worse. 

Despite that, and despite lukewarm reviews in some quarters I really enjoyed this; my ongoing quest to read all the Culture novels aside, hard sci-fi is a genre I rarely dabble with so it's fun to dip a toe in occasionally. There is a third book in the series, Legacy, but this appears to be a loosely-linked prequel (to the extent that these terms have any meaning with all the looping time-travel going on) so I suspect this is where I'll leave it.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

another gutsy performance

In some ways it's hard to remember what "normal", pre-pandemic life was like, but if you concentrate hard enough I'm sure you can recall some aspects of it. Remember how we used to gambol in a carefree manner through grassy meadows? Remember how we used to - without really giving it a second thought - touch other people? I mean, not in that way, or not in Tesco anyway. Also, you remember how whales used to explode? It's a shame they don't do that any more, isn't it? 

Well, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that nature is healing, things are returning to normal and once again if you pop your head out of the window, in addition to the melodious sound of birdsong and the raucous guttural whooping of howler monkeys throwing bananas at each other, you may also hear the distant dull wet crump of an exploding whale. 

Here's one, for instance - apparently off the coast of California, and the type of whale isn't specified but I think it may be a gray whale. The original tweet which I quote-tweeted (see below) doesn't have any sound but this one does. It's not the hilarious series of colossal burping and farting noises that you're probably hoping for, though, just a couple of Californians going WHOOOOOAAAHHH DUUUUDE and WHAT THE FUUUUUUUCK.

One thing that seems odd on first watch (I mean apart from seeing a dead whale vomit up its own intestines) is the recollection that blue whales (and therefore, I rashly extrapolate, baleen whales in general) have quite narrow throats, only about big enough to swallow a football. So it seems odd that they could cram, for instance, an entire pair of lungs up through there. On reflection, though, this might actually be crucial as presumably it's this narrow aperture which enables the build-up of gas pressure which propels the internal organs outward. I think if you were to try and blow your own lungs out of your mouth (and I'm not suggesting you do) you would find quite a lot of pressure was required.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

rhino what you mean

A couple of further notes following the last three book posts: firstly while I'd had The Pope's Rhinoceros knocking around on my shelves for a decade or so (I don't specifically remember where I got hold of it but it may well have been on one of my strictly rationed trips to Hay-on-Wye), I first became aware of its existence some years earlier, during my participation in a truck safari in southern Africa in early 2000, something I see I mentioned towards the end of this 2008 post and even made reference to my travelling companions' selected reading matter. Well, while I'm pretty sure I recall working through several, the only book I specifically remember reading during the trip was John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces, something that earned me some hipster points with the two young American guys who were also on the truck.

There was also a compartment on the truck containing quite a few other paperback books, presumably partly populated by discarded offerings from previous travellers and offered up for the entertainment of current ones, on the understanding that you'd put your chosen book back when you'd finished with it. One of the books in here was an imposing tome called The Pope's Rhinoceros (the same paperback edition that I have) and I recall a conversation ensued about whether anyone had read it and whether someone might have a crack at it during the trip. Since it is literally impossible that I would embark on a trip such as this and fail to bring enough books, I passed at the time.

Back to the two young American guys, who were called Mike and Andy (no surnames for reasons which will become apparent in a minute) - during the last phase of our three-week trip which comprised a few nights in Victoria Falls they decided to cap the trip off by purchasing a load of assorted drugs. They'd managed to get hold of some LSD, and deeming just dropping it in the truck or while gazing on the thunderous watery magnificence of Victoria Falls from the usual viewing platforms to be a bit tame, decided to drop it so that it kicked in just as they were doing a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge which connects Zimbabwe and Zambia. I recall being in a local restaurant for a communal meal that evening and Andy, still evidently experiencing some after-effects, spending most of the meal under the table having a whispered conversation with a small carved wooden hippopotamus. 

They also managed to get hold of some weed, and since they had a plane to catch a day before ours, and since we'd partaken of some the night before, the stash ended up in the side pocket of my day-pack in order for us to make use of it round the campfire the following night. It was only on arrival at Victoria Falls airport to catch a plane to Harare that I remembered I still had the remains in my rucksack, whereupon I did a frantic dash for a secluded dustbin to empty it out and blow into the pocket to try and clear any last few telltale seeds and leaf fragments. There is of course a Sliding Doors-style alternate version of my subsequent life where I forgot to do this, got nabbed by the sniffer dogs once we encountered the less lax security regime at Harare airport, and was either summarily shot or spent the next 21 years in a Zimbabwean prison.

Secondly. an odd occurrence relating to the next book on the list, No Great Mischief. In a seemingly unrelated sequence of events, I first became aware of the existence of Canadian comic Norm MacDonald only about six months ago after following some random series of YouTube links. He was one of those guys who was extremely well-regarded by his peers, the sort of guy who'd be described as "the comedian's comedian" or something like that, which basically translates as: not as rich and famous as many of his contemporaries. Many of the YouTube clips (and there are a lot) feature him either being comically disruptive or spinning lengthy shaggy-dog stories on various late-night US talk shows, this being a loosely-structured format that seemed to suit him pretty well, a bit like his UK contemporary Sean Lock. Another thing MacDonald and Lock have in common is that they died this year, both relatively young (Lock was 58, MacDonald 61).

Needless to say after his five minutes of fond remembrance Norm MacDonald has subsequently been Milkshake Duck-ed. I'm certainly not dismissing the allegations, but I guess (just as with To Have And Have Not) you have to find a way of acknowledging that stuff without tipping someone's entire oeuvre down the memory hole. You would certainly have to say, for instance, that he seems to have taken a consistently dim view of female comedians and comedy writers. But, and I don't want to lay a heavy CANCEL CULTURE trip on you here, people contain multitudes, and it would be a shame to only admit to the public sphere those who have never expressed a single thought that deviated from current acceptable cultural norms (pun sort of intended). 

Anyway, back to the book link: in the course of the Jacques de Gautier/Jacques de Gatineau/baby dolphin story MacDonald mentioned his fluidly-named protagonist being from "Timiskaming, Quebec". His rambling, off-the-cuff style of delivery makes it sound as if that was a name he'd just made up on the spot, but not only is it a real place, it coincidentally features in a passage towards the end of No Great Mischief that I read no more than a day or two after first seeing the clip. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

the last book I read

To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.

Harry Morgan is a man. A man with a boat. A boat with many uses. The use that Harry wants to put it to is taking rich paying customers out on fishing trips between Havana and Key West. The use that quite a few people would like him to put it to is running various forms of contraband between those two locations: rum, guns, people, you name it.

Harry mostly resists the shady stuff, and wisely so as right at the start of the book we encounter him turning down a lucrative offer to transport some men to Florida and the men in question are promptly mown down by gunfire on leaving the bar. So it's dangerous work and best steered clear of. The trouble is, Harry's latest fishing customer, having been granted some fairly generous credit terms by Harry, chooses this moment to jump on the next plane out of Havana without paying, leaving Harry several hundred dollars out of pocket.

Harry has a wife and kids to feed, and times are hard generally as we're in the middle of the Great Depression, so what does he do? It seems he has little choice but to dip a toe into the murky waters of criminal activity. Despite his initial reluctance Harry seems like a natural for this kind of stuff, agreeing to transport some Chinese men from Cuba to Florida but then killing the money man (after the money has been handed over, of course) and putting the men ashore back in Cuba. Some further transporting of various illicit cargo enables Harry to keep his head above water, so to speak, but it's dangerous work and there's always the chance of a mission going tits up and ending in a hail of bullets. Sure enough on a booze-running trip Harry catches a bullet in the arm, makes it back to Key West (after dumping the booze overboard) but has his boat impounded by the US customs and ends up having his arm amputated above the elbow.

Life is tough for Harry, and it's not getting any easier. There are those who are living the high life in the bars of Havana and the marinas of Key West, though, hanging out on their luxury yachts swilling champagne. These people have worries of their own, of course: the progress of their latest love affair, fretting about the possibility of the wife having her own love affair(s), drinking too much, unwelcome scrutiny by the taxman, that sort of thing. Not quite as fundamental to actual day-to-day existence as Harry's, but it keeps them busy nevertheless. 

Harry, meanwhile, is still trying to make a living, a thing made more difficult by not having access to his boat (and by, you know, only having one arm). He borrows a boat from Havana bar-owner Freddy, and agrees to take some Cubans to Key West. It turns out the Cubans are intending to use the boat as a getaway vehicle after robbing a local bank, and they arrive on the boat toting some large guns and in a bit of a hurry, something they emphasise to Harry by shooting his crewman Albert dead. 

As they speed off across the Caribbean, Harry realises that they probably aren't going to pay him for the trip out of their profits from the bank job, and that it's far more likely that on successfully delivering them to their destination he will be the recipient of a hot lead sandwich. Fortunately Harry is a forward-thinking kind of guy and has stashed a Tommy gun in the boat's cabin. Once the boat is ot of sight and earshot of the shore and the Cubans have started to relax and knock back the rum, Harry whips out the Tommy gun and starts blazing away. Unfortunately it's a bit dark and while he successfully ventilates most of the Cubans he only wings the last one, enabling him to shoot Harry in the belly. Having properly dispatched the last Cuban, Harry hauls himself into a chair, points the boat back towards shore and prepares for either a long slow drift back to shore (the gun battle having ruptured the fuel tank) or a long slow bleed to death. 

One of the obvious things to say about To Have And Have Not is what an oddly-structured book it is. Harry's last acts as described above provide a good example: the climactic gun battle with the Cubans is done and dusted by page 130 (of 191); the remainder of the book is principally devoted to the Gordons and the Bradleys and their various inter-marital entanglements, which only intersect with the main narrative (i.e. Harry's story) right at the end, as the coastguard brings the bullet-riddled boat back into harbour (PLOT SPOILER: Harry is just about still alive, but dies). There is an odd disparity of tone between the exciting, desperate life-and-death stuff going on on Harry's boat and the relatively inconsequential rich-people-being-drunken-shits stuff going on elsewhere. No doubt part of that is deliberate (the Gordons et al are the "haves" to Harry's "have not") but the stories don't mesh together in quite the way it seems like they ought to. This makes a bit more sense when you find out it was created by combining a couple of originally separate short stories. One of the reasons that Howard Hawks wanted to change the plot quite a bit when he filmed it in 1944 (see below) was apparently that he thought it was Hemingway's worst novel. I haven't read enough of them to have an opinion, but it's certainly not in the same league as For Whom The Bell Tolls (the only other one I've read is The Old Man And The Sea, which is really an extended short story at best).

I saw the Bogart/Bacall film a long time ago and I can confirm that it bears very little resemblance to the book beyond featuring a guy called Harry (though he spends a lot of the film being called Steve) who has a boat. There were a couple of further film adaptations in the 1950s: The Breaking Point and The Gun Runners, of varying degrees of faithfulness to the book. 

One thing that will certainly have a jarring effect on the 21st-century reader is some of the language used to describe non-white people. A couple of examples below of stuff that would certainly be considered, erm, "problematic" today:

As you can see these sections are in the part of the book that's written in Harry's voice (some sections later are in the third person), so you could say: well, that's just how unreconstructed rufty-tufty 1930s guys would have talked, and you may very well be right. It is hard to see what could be done about it, assuming anyone thought anything should be done. Pulp all remaining copies and never speak of it again? That seems a bit excessive. A trigger warning in the acknowledgements at the front? Eh, maybe. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

the last book I read

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod.

It's the 1970s (or possibly the early 1980s) and Alexander MacDonald is driving from his home in rural Ontario to Toronto to visit his older brother Calum. His brother Calum, it transpires, is living in some fairly dispiriting circumstances in a tiny apartment and nursing a ferocious alcohol habit. While Alexander makes a trip to the local liquor store to find something to relieve Calum's suffering he reflects on the events of their shared past, events which of course explain (at least partly) how things have ended up the way they have. Yes, that rumbling sound you hear is the approach of the express service from Framing Device Parkway to Flashback Central.

And so we arrive back in a time period that flits around between the 1950s and 1960s. The MacDonald family live in Cape Breton, right at the north-eastern tip of Nova Scotia. As well as Calum (the oldest) there are three other brothers before Alexander and his twin sister. Their parents run and maintain the lighthouse which sits just off the coast, and can be walked out to over the ice at certain times of year. The family (as the name suggests) are of Scottish descent and remain tightly-knit, with all three remaining grandparents also living no more than a stone's throw away and various other relations dotted about the local area, recognisable as part of the wider clan by their distinctive dark eyes and red hair. 

Anyway, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, it's a hard life tending an intermittently ice-bound lighthouse in the wilds of northern Canada. And sure enough when Alexander is still a wee bairn of no more than three (and Calum is a teenager) both parents and one of their sons, Colin, have a mishap while traversing the ice in the dark, go through it into the icy and fast-moving waters and are never seen again. And so it falls to the grandparents to bring up the kids, which mainly means Alexander and his sister, the older boys soon being independent enough to get their own place, cars, jobs, etc.

At this point there are some further flashbacks, mainly describing the circumstances of the MacDonald family's arrival in Canada in 1779 in the wake of the Highland clearances, and further back to the Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden.

Alexander, as befits the youngest sibling with less pressure upon him to immediately go out and be the chief breadwinner, decides he'd like to be a dentist. But, before he can really get to grips with the business of pulling teeth, his family loyalty is tested. The older brothers are all doing lucrative work as miners at a uranium mine in Ontario (presumably meant to be Elliot Lake) and they're a man short; the reason they're a man short is that Alexander's cousin (also called Alexander MacDonald) has been messily killed by a falling mine bucket. So Alexander agrees to do a season or two at the mine drilling uranium instead of teeth.

The shifts at the mine are long and hard and the atmosphere at the mining camp intermittently tense. Another more distant clan member (yes, also Alexander MacDonald) arrives from the USA in an attempt to dodge the draft, and his arrival (and penchant for petty theft) accelerates the simmering tensions between the Scots and the French Canadian crew from neighbouring Quebec. When, during an enforced period of mining inactivity (the main winch is broken) these tensions boil over into a major rumble in the car park and Calum bashes the Quebecois ringleader fatally over the head with a wrench.

And so we see why Calum's present circumstances are as they are: a lengthy spell in prison, and on release finding it difficult to find work: a bit old for the manual work he used to specialise in, not much in the way of skills for anything else, plus that whole convicted murderer thing which is a bit of a turn-off for prospective employers. In the olden days he would have returned to the bosom of his extended family at the old family homestead and found a way of making himself useful, but times have changed and the grandparents are dead and the surviving siblings scattered across the continent doing their own thing.

The novel ends with Alexander returning to Toronto a few months after the original visit to collect Calum, now in a state of declining health, and deliver him to Cape Breton, from where we assume he is not intending to return. It's now winter and we are invited to speculate what form Calum's final acts will take. Will he set off across the ice to the old lighthouse and park himself there facing out to sea? 

This is Alistair MacLeod's only novel of a long and varied writing career (he was much more prolific as a writer of short stories) and adheres very much to the principle of writing about what you know - he was of Scottish heritage and grew up in Cape Breton. While the story being told here is obviously closely tied to Scottish clan loyalty it's also about family in a more general sense and how, while we still have families that we care about, certain things - the close family ties and the associated ties to particular geographical areas, houses being passed down from generation to generation, grandparents, parents and children plus the odd chicken all living under one roof - no longer really exist, at least in the supposedly sophisticated western world, anyway. And while this is liberating for some, it means that people like Calum are cast adrift to fend for themselves when once they might not have been. It's quite possible there's a calculation that could be done, if you only knew what numbers to put in, that would say that overall this is a good thing, but that doesn't help people like Calum much.

It's a fairly quick read and quite a nice bracing contrast to the absurdly baroque excesses of its predecessor, The Pope's Rhinoceros. This book is spare, stark and devoid of frills, but also features characters who are rooted in the real world enough for the reader to care about them. Unlike its predecessor which I'd had on my shelves for at least ten years and some previous books which had been sitting unread for several decades, I acquired this one only a couple of months ago in the little second-hand bookshop attached to the National Trust property at Killerton in Devon. 

No Great Mischief won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2000. Previous winners featured on this blog are Harvest (2015) and Remembering Babylon (1996). The previous novel featured on this blog, The Pope's Rhinoceros, was shortlisted in 1998, as were, in various other years, Paradise, The Corrections, Bel Canto, The Good Doctor, Havoc, In Its Third Year, Slow Man, No Country For Old Men, Winterwood, Home, The Lacuna and Brooklyn.