Monday, January 16, 2017

the last book I read

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.

Our unnamed protagonist (again!) is a young woman working as an illustrator in the city who returns to her childhood home in the wilderness of northern Quebec upon hearing of the disappearance of her father. Unsatisfied with what she's heard from the authorities, she decides to search for him herself, bringing her boyfriend Joe and their friends David and Anna along for the ride, or more accurately to provide the ride, since it's David's car they're travelling in.

The old family home is a pretty spartan affair on an island in a lake, accessible only by boat. The foursome settle in, and it's all pretty good Five On Kirrin Island fun in the early stages, eating sardines out of a can sitting on a jetty, foraging for mushrooms in the woods, that sort of thing. But soon some tensions start to creep in: the narrator's relationship with Joe, while well-established enough for them to have moved in together, seems a bit shaky, and while David and Anna are married their relationship is less straightforward than it seems as well, mainly owing to David being something of a shit. Plus there is the ever-present possibility of finding Dad swinging from a tree or half-devoured by beavers, which puts a slight damper on the party atmosphere.

Expeditions are organised, including a canoe trip to a different lake to go fishing, during the course of which the group encounters a group of American tourists and evidence of their indiscriminate wildlife-killing habits. Meanwhile, Joe and David amuse themselves shooting scenes for their experimental movie, using whatever is available: a fish being gutted, a putrefying heron, Anna (who they've browbeaten into stripping off her bikini) jumping naked off a jetty. Once this becomes tiresome they progress to some more serious games: Joe bones Anna, and David attempts to do the same to the narrator, although she isn't having any of it.

Eventually, after she's escaped the situation in a canoe to go off and do some exploring, the narrator has a disturbing experience while diving in the lake at the base of a cliff. What is the murky vision which looms up at her from the depths? Is it her father's bloated corpse? Or the reproachful ghost of the foetus she aborted some time back? Who knows?

However, not long after her return, a boat arrives from the nearest village to inform the group that her father's body has been found in the lake. The group gets ready to depart back to civilisation, but our narrator has something of a moment and flees, shedding her clothes in the process and hiding out in the forest until everyone else has gone. She then has some sort of quasi-supernatural/religious experience where the spirits of the island tell her which bits of the island she is permitted to venture onto. After a couple of days of running around dressed only in a blanket and foraging for roots she regains her equilibrium a bit, retrieves her clothes, and as the novel ends we leave her standing at the edge of the woods watching a rescue party pull alongside the jetty.

Surfacing was the second novel of Margaret Atwood's long literary career, published in 1972. Obviously not every novelist's output follows the same arc but this is quite a typical early novel in that it's a) quite short and b) clearly inspired by events from the novelist's own life, in this case Atwood's childhood where she really did live in a similarly remote place.

It's an odd book in some ways: seemingly very naturalistic and straightforward at the start, it gets stranger as it goes on, first as it becomes apparent that the ex-husband and child the narrator alludes to in the first part of the book are clearly fictitious and part of some elaborate defence mechanism she's built to assuage the guilt of an abortion, and secondly around the time of her (possible) encounter with her dead father when things get a bit more weird and hallucinatory, it's less clear what's real and what's not, and the reader has the odd sensation of the previously firmly-grasped plot slipping through his/her fingers. Things appear to snap back into place by the end, although a bit of ambiguity remains: will she step onto the rescue boat or flee back into the woods?

So what's it about? It's about 200 pages. No, but what's it about? Well, see the brief plot synopsis above. No, but, you know, what's it about? Clearly we're in the realms of feminist literature here: it's the early 1970s, North American women are in the process of becoming liberated and independent and not reliant on a man to define or support them. We're presumably meant to draw a contrast between the rugged canoe-wrangling practicality of the narrator and her ambivalent relationship with the monosyllabic Joe, and the more stereotypical relationship that Anna and David have, with him constantly belittling her and her desperate to ensure that he never sees her without make-up, even in a tent in the Canadian wilderness. Quite what the mystical fugue that the narrator enters into during her period alone on the island is meant to convey I'm not sure: an extreme reaction to grief at her father being confirmed dead? some kind of mystical she-witch sense of oneness with nature? I couldn't say. Some of the horrible shouty polluting humans versus nature stuff was slightly reminiscent of the excellent 1978 Australian film Long Weekend, which I recommend to you if you haven't seen it.

Atwood is of course most famous for her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which won numerous science fiction awards despite Atwood's amusingly sniffy disdain for the "science fiction" label. That and the later novel Cat's Eye are the only other Atwoods I've read - if you must have only one it would really have to be The Handmaid's Tale, but Surfacing is worth a look. It was made into a somewhat obscure film in 1981, which appears to be available in its entirety on YouTube.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

celabourity lookeylikey of the day

Leader of the Labour Party and thereby Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the Wise Old Elf from the splendid Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom (whose real name, proper series enthusiasts will know, is Cedric). One of them is an elusive and mystical creature whose various crackpot schemes invariably end in disaster, and the other is a cartoon character. Boom, and, strictly entre nous, tish.

a quick update on the wanke situation

Brief upfollowage on a couple of recent (and not so recent) blog items:
  • my linking to the Not The Nine O'Clock News That's Life sketch in the previous post reminded me that this was another one that we did a half-arsed run-through of as part of our sixth form revue in what must have been about 1988. I definitely remember the "Prince Philip exploded" line being one of mine, so I guess I took Rowan Atkinson's lines.
  • one thing I meant to mention in my comments on The Plague Dogs was that the book (set primarily in the Lake District) features some illustrations by Alfred Wainwright. As always with Wainwright the static stuff (hills, rocks, fences, etc.) is brilliant and the living things less so; whenever AW whimsically included a figure (usually meant to be himself) in his illustrations for his hillwalking guides it was always a bit jarringly unconvincing in comparison with the landscape bits.
  • if you have an exceptionally good memory you may remember my mentioning the Mosul Dam back in late 2007, the dam at that time being apparently in danger of catastrophic failure and collapse at LITERALLY ANY MOMENT. Fast-forward to early 2017 (i.e. about nine years) and, as this long New Yorker article makes clear, the dam is in danger of catastrophic failure and collapse at LITERALLY ANY MOMENT. You can see why people are sceptical about these sorts of warnings from science-y types. The article includes some fascinating detail about the daily maintenance activity required to keep the dam's foundations from dissolving - basically pumping a gazillion gallons of concrete into the holes that keep appearing. The article also includes a poignant picture of a young boy taking his inner tube out on a fishing trip on the Tigris downstream of the dam - presumably we're meant to imagine some Spielbergian kids-in-peril scene featuring him looking up to see a wall of water with jagged bits of concrete sticking out rushing towards him while dramatic DUN-DUN-DURRRR music plays. Note that the boy's home village (see picture caption) has a similarly fnarr-fnarr name to the place in this old post. I'm ashamed to say I was too busy sniggering about that to muster the appropriate amount of concern for the boy's welfare.
  • I was unaware until following a link from some other film trailer I was watching on YouTube that there is a film of Stephen King's Cell, subject of a book review in 2012. Some fairly heavy names involved, including John Cusack as central protagonist Clay Riddell and Samuel L Motherfuckin Jackson among the supporting cast. As far as I can tell from the trailer there is a good deal more shooting and stereotypical zombie flesh-eating than in the book, and the scene in the airport with the crashing plane and the exploding wasn't (as far as I remember anyway) in the book at all. In common with most film adaptations of King novels, this appears to be an epically terrible film, and it's not as if King can blame the film-makers, since he co-wrote the screenplay (including, apparently, changing the ending).

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

berger off

Well, so there I was, chortling to myself at how Richard Adams' death had nothing to do with me when the Grim Reaper decided to issue a little reminder about how he was in charge and I'd better watch myself. The way he chose to do it was by knocking off John Berger, art critic, novelist and general overachieving polymath, and, crucially, former book review featuree on this blog, at the age of 90. So, without further ado, here's the current novelist death list - the tally currently stands at fifteen:

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d

Having corrected some of the horribly botched maths in earlier versions of this table, I find that Berger's death was the longest-delayed of all those directly attributable to this blog, and that the average time between the fateful blog post landing and the relevant author croaking is a little over four years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

the black rabbit strikes again

I feel as if I should write something brief to mark the death (at a pretty respectable 96) of Richard Adams, if only to exonerate my own blog from suspicion. While I have read a few of his books, none of them were within the lifespan of this blog, and so the Curse of Electric Halibut cannot be blamed. As you'll see I have referred tangentially to a couple of his books within some old posts, though.

Obviously he's mainly famous for Watership Down, and rightly so as it's a classic. As with all books nominally classified as children/young adult literature there's probably an optimal age to read it, maybe early teens. I think I was probably about fifteen when I picked up the old Puffin edition (pictured on the right) that my parents had had lying around on a shelf for years, but I can't really remember. Many people's recollections will have been coloured by the 1978 film, and if I'm honest I couldn't swear with complete confidence which order I encountered them in, i.e. I might quite possibly have seen the film first. The loathsome Art Garfunkel song aside it's actually pretty good and a very faithful adaptation of the book.

My other reason for writing this post, though, is to steer you away from Watership Down and onto some other stuff. Looking at his slim list of novels I actually find I've read all of them apart from the last one, Traveller. All of the ones I've read are well worth a look:
  • Shardik is a dense and complex fable set in an imagined world (map reproduced here) which would have been intensely reader-repellent to probably 90% of the people who read it thinking it was going to be Watership Down with bears. Adams apparently considered it the best thing he ever wrote, and he may have been right.
  • The Plague Dogs is probably a bit more in the young adult-friendly vein than Shardik, and it's very good, and was also filmed. I haven't seen this one, but unusually they changed the book's happy ending for a more downbeat one; usually it's the other way round. This is really the only one of Adams' other novels that reads like an attempt to write something similar to Watership Down; it's certainly the only other one to feature anthropomorphic animals (the bear in Shardik is less central to the story than the cover art and blurb suggest and is utterly wild and unpredictable), and it's really the only other one that'd be suitable for, or comprehensible to, children and young adults. 
  • The Girl In A Swing is a complete departure from any of the other books: definite adult theme, no animals of any kind. It's a sort of queasily erotic mystery story with possible supernatural undertones. I had no idea until five minutes ago that this one was also filmed, in 1988.
  • Maia is a sort-of prequel to Shardik; like Shardik it's really a book for adults, not least because there is quite a lot of sexy sexy times in it (cover art featured here). For a book of over a thousand pages it's a hoot to read and I've done so at least twice. No necessity, in my opinion, to have read the much more gnarly and complex Shardik first unless you want to; this one is much more of a rollicking adventure story. It also features the only fully-realised and convincing female characters in the Adams oeuvre; the females in Watership Down, for instance, being an afterthought and only brought into the new warren be impregnated by Hazel and his chums.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

the last book I read

Pilgermann by Russell Hoban.

There have, regrettably, been quite a few times during human history when it's been tricky and/or downright dangerous to be a Jew. Germany in the last years of the 11th century, for instance. Sure, you can get by, but you have to accept certain constraints on your activities and movements. Certainly if, as the (unnamed) protagonist here does, you decide to take advantage of the opportunity to slip a length of kosher bratwurst to the local tax-collector's wife and than saunter back through the streets in a smug post-coital haze, you may find yourself in trouble. And trouble is certainly what our hero finds, as he's set upon by a mob who lop off his Jewish jewels and leave him to bleed to death.

While lying in the street bleeding (though not, as it turns out, to death) our protagonist cries out to God for deliverance and is rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling him to go (after going home and tidying up a bit) on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Quite the trek from Germany, but, having little to keep him where he is, he sets off. As if the ever-present threat of getting murdered were not enough, he acquires a motley group of travelling companions, of various degrees of actual concrete existence outside his own head: the headless corpse of the tax-collector he cuckolded, the pig who ate his discarded genitals after he was attacked, a strange bony figure called Bruder Pförtner who appears to be a manifestation of Death.

Like a great many pilgrimages to Jerusalem, this one is fated never to reach its destination: captured while hitching a ride on a boat, our hero is sold into slavery to a merchant called Bembel Rudzuk, a man of philosophical bent who is immediately persuaded to grant Pilgermann (the name he's now using for himself, which just means "pilgrim") his freedom. His original quest now derailed somewhat, Pilgermann and Bembel Rudzuk head off to the ancient city of Antioch, where they decide to use a spare piece of land to build an enormous tile pattern with a tower in the middle - the layout of the tiles (featured on the front of my paperback version, if you look closely) is a design thought up by Pilgermann and meant to represent some philosophical concept or other.

This is all well and good, but real life must intervene, and Pilgermann and Bembel Rudzuk find themselves caught up in the siege of Antioch, this being the time of the Crusades. As well as the group of apparitions that accompanied him to Antioch, Pilgermann is now troubled by visitations from what appears to be a harbinger of his own death, more frequently as the crusaders, led by the terrifying Bohemond, draw closer to the gates of the city. It looks like he won't be getting to Jerusalem after all.

This was the novel that Russell Hoban wrote immediately after Riddley Walker, in 1983. It's similar in being an outlier relative to his normal output inasmuch as it's not set in the present day; while Riddley Walker was set a couple of thousand years into some speculatively imagined future, Pilgermann is set 900-odd years in the past. While Riddley Walker was a challenging read because of the bizarre argot in which it was written, Pilgermann is challenging because of the density of some of the more theological passages, and the blurring of fantasy and reality. But what they both have in common, despite the playfulness of some of the prose, is that they're deadly serious, whereas some of Hoban's other books have a whimsical edge to them. I actually think this might be even better than Riddley Walker, despite being pretty gnarly going in some of the more theologico-philosophical passages. I certainly think that the 3-4-year period that saw both books' publication was the pinnacle of Hoban's career, for all that much of the other stuff is charming and challenging in its own way.

That said, while it's fairly obvious what it's about on the surface, i.e. 11th-century Jew gets turned into a eunuch and heads for Jerusalem only to get diverted to Antioch with hilarious and ultimately fatal consequences, if you were to ask: yes, that's what it's about, but, you know, what's it actually about? I'm not sure I'd be able to give you a convincing answer. While the book is suffused with religion, for instance, it's not clear what either the narrator's or the author's views are on the subject. This is no bad thing, as you don't necessarily want to be whacked over the head with a Verdict. Best to just revel in the richness and weirdness of it all and marvel at how lightly Hoban wears his erudition.

Parallels with other books in this series:
  • the entire novel being dictated by the dead spirit of the main protagonist is familiar from The Lovely Bones and The Birthday Boys, though the narrator here is a bit more explicit about his situation;
  • the business with Bruder Pförtner and his undead chums priapically rampaging their way around the place, raping small children and fornicating with pigs is strongly reminiscent of some of the bizarre rapey interludes in The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr. Hoffman.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

prior knowledge

Here's another one for the slightly esoteric category People Who You Would Have Been Mildly Surprised To Discover Were Still Alive Had You Not Just Discovered They Were Dead. In this case there probably has to be a Well, If You've Even Heard Of Them At All rider attached, as Jim Prior wasn't one of the most famous or illustrious of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet ministers (he also served in the Cabinet under Edward Heath).

The only reason that I remember Prior, who left the Cabinet when I was 14 and not really particularly politically engaged (like most 14-year-old boys I had more immediate matters to worry about, like disturbing feelings for girls and troubling goings-on, you know, down there), is that he is the only actual person, living or dead, that I have ever portrayed on stage, during the course of an intermittent and far from glorious thespian career.

Let me set the scene for you: I was 10 or 11, in my last or last-but-one year at primary school, and it had been decided that the top couple of classes would put on a show of some sort for the parents (I can't remember, but probably at Christmas). Instead of some sort of glorified nativity play or a musical adaptation with some endearingly amateurish hoofing and singing, the young and enthusiastic teaching staff decided to really stick it to The Man by presenting a searing satirical portrait of early-1980s Britain. So the slightly bemused 10/11-year-old cast were required to portray, among the characters that I can remember, Maggie the Snatcher (scarcely very original), Sir Geoffrey Howe Nowe and, in my case, Cardinal Prior. Beyond those names I have literally no recollection of what any of it was about, other than that Maggie had most of the lines and I didn't get very many. I certainly can't tell you, for instance, what satirical purpose it served to have Prior be a cardinal, thereby joining the small list of dramatic cardinals that includes Cardinal Wolsey, Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Fang.

As far as I could gather the thing was mainly the brainchild of one of the teachers, Mr. Kicinski. A perfectly nice bloke, as I recall, whose enduring tragedy is that his laboured political satire was nowhere near as amusing as the nickname his pupils came up with for him: Mr. Kitchensink. I should add that despite his being a tall rangy guy with a beard and the similarity in the names, I am at least 85% sure that he didn't go on (perhaps enraged by his thwarted ambitions in the sphere of the dramatic arts) to be the Unabomber.

My principal other claim to stage fame is my appearance in the school production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! in what must have been 1979, when I would have been nine years old. I'm able to date it reasonably confidently as it was during our time in Bandung, which basically comprised the whole of 1979 (the only entire year I have ever spent outside the UK) plus a couple of months out of each of the adjoining years. My role was a non-speaking one as a member of a troupe of lovable cockney street urchins who did a bit of a tumbling routine, a thing that required what seems in hindsight like months of rehearsal, which must have left precious little time for actual lessons. The picture shows me (on the left) and my sister Emma showing off our costumes at home.

The principal roles in Oliver! are Oliver himself and Fagin. In our production the role of Oliver was time-shared between two people, both girls, as it happens, but as far as I recall the role of Fagin was the same person every time, possibly because it required a slightly older actor, and possibly just because it's a demanding role and they couldn't find more than one person capable of doing it. The person who ended up with the role, to general agreement that she was by far the best thing in the play, was an American girl called Veronica Winegarner. That's a sufficiently unusual name to be Google-able, and a bit of elementary cyberstalking reveals that she is now married to writer Eric Paul Shaffer and lives in Hawaii. That's her on the right in the photo in this blog post; I'm 99% sure that's the same person.

The only other time I can remember being on stage in front of an audience is as part of the sixth form revue we put on during my time at St. Bart's in Newbury. A combination of tediously "edgy" self-written material and lazy rehashes of classic sketches, my involvement was in the latter category as me and my friend Stuart did a version of this Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch. I played the psychiatrist and was utterly brilliant; Stuart played the patient and was fine but had a tendency to forget his lines which required some hasty ad-libbing to get around. Anyway, that was it: the theatre's loss was the IT industry's gain, or possibly the other way round.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

headline of the day

Attempt, if you will, to parse this gem from the BBC News website today: Corpse sex kill threat man gets 45 years.

So who was making the threat? The corpse? And if so, what was the nature of the threat? To kill people (or maybe just one particular person, this "man") by having sex with them in some sort of horrific zombie rape/murder rampage? More likely (if we exclude the various zombie scenarios) that it was the man making the threat, but if the corpse then becomes the object of the threat, "kill" doesn't hold much power, a corpse being dead already and all. Indeed making pretty much any threats to a corpse ("sex" included) is a fairly futile activity.

So what's going on? The (very) slightly revised version of the headline on the main story page isn't much help, but it turns out that it was the "man" making the threats, which basically involved first turning living people into corpses by murdering them, and then doing the sex bit afterwards, sex with living people apparently being a bit complex and involving a lot of red tape and potential misunderstandings. Better to murder them first and then save the sexy sexy times until afterwards. Plus it presumably saves any awkwardness over who pays the bill after dinner.

This is one of those headlines where any kind of comprehensibility evaporates once the sub-editors have applied the space-saving journalistic convention of just mashing a load of nouns together without any explanatory prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns. Previous examples from this blog can be found here, here and here. Language Log calls it a "noun pile-up", which I think is pretty good. Previous examples can be found here, here and here - almost inevitably it turns out that they've spotted today's as well, and indeed written nearly the same blog post, although in a slightly more sober academic tone without so much freaky zombie sex. Take your pick.