Monday, July 13, 2020

the last book I read

by Colm Tóibín.

Let's examine the options open to young Irish womenfolk in the early 1950s: grow up, meet a nice man in the village, squeeze out a platoon of kids (Catholics, don't forget), raise and care for them largely single-handed while your husband is either off tilling the soil or knocking back the Guinness down the pub, live to an exhausted and embittered old age, die. Or possibly, not meet a nice young man, live to a ripe and embittered spinsterish old age. If you don't fancy either of those, then your remaining options can be enumerated as follows: nun. 

To be honest, Eilis Lacey isn't the especially ambitious type and is reasonably sanguine about the whole nice young man/kids route through life. But when her older sister Rose - more outgoing, more socially confident and on the face of it more likely to be the one to flee in search of a brighter future life - makes use of some of her contacts to wangle Eilis a job and some accommodation in Brooklyn, Eilis doesn't feel able to refuse.

She starts to wish she had, though, on the trip across - a rough crossing from Liverpool which Eilis mostly spends confined to the cramped third-class cabin vomiting copiously and competing for access to the shared bathroom with the people in the next cabin along. But eventually that particular ordeal is over, and the land of opportunity is reached. 

Eilis moves into the house run by Mrs. Kehoe, a mostly kindly but spiky old bird who takes a dim view of nonsense, which encompasses everything from intemperate unladylike levity at mealtimes and failure to behave with the proper decorum to the more serious stuff involving relations with Men, particularly Unsuitable Men, i.e. those who might try to tempt the girls into inappropriate behaviour like smoking, drinking and noisily penetrative sexual intercourse. Precious little time for Eilis to get involved with any of that in the short term anyway as she's busy making herself indispensable at her job in Bartocci's department store during the days and attending to her own personal betterment at bookkeeping and accountancy classes in the evenings.

But you've got to let your hair down sometimes, and eventually Eilis agrees to go to a local dance with some of the other girls from Mrs. Kehoe's, and meets a nice young man called Tony. Tony seems nice, and a series of chaste and respectful dates ensues, although Tony does get a little bit frisky in the sea at Coney Island, as men tend to do. Eilis is invited to meet his family, a typically demonstratively hand-wavey and meatball-obsessed bunch of Italian-Americans, and all seems to be proceeding in the time-honoured manner until Eilis receives a bombshell from home: Rose has died unexpectedly of a hitherto-unsuspected heart defect. Eilis dithers a bit but then decides that she needs to go home to see her mother. Tony is sympathetic to Eilis' plight, but not so trusting of her promises to return that he doesn't seek to secure their relationship status by a) sleeping with her and b) arranging a quickie registry-office marriage before her ship sails. 

Her mother, while obviously genuinely devastated at the loss of her elder daughter and primary companion, isn't above a bit of emotional blackmail to get Eilis to prolong her stay in Ireland. Obviously Eilis has to keep herself amused while she's looking after Mum, and she does so by re-inserting herself into her old life, including going on what amount to a couple of double-dates with her friend Nancy, Nancy's fiancé George, and George's friend Jim Farrell. Jim seems like a nice lad and is obviously quite keen on Eilis, which presents Eilis with something of a dilemma: stay in Ireland with Jim or return to Brooklyn and Tony. Obviously option A carries a few problems, not least the fact that she and Tony are already married to each other. Eilis is not the ruthlessly decisive type, so basically she drifts around putting off making a decision until her two worlds start to bleed into one another and the decision is effectively made for her.

Here is the opposite end of the novelistic spectrum from the absurdly showy, ostentatiously complex stuff like House Of Leaves. This, by contrast, is deceptively simple, written exclusively from Eilis' fairly naïve and innocent perspective, and with the slightly darker stuff buried where you have to look quite carefully for it: Rose's motivations for sending Eilis off across the Atlantic, Bartocci's pioneering choice to allow black customers into their store, Eilis' more senior colleague Miss Fortini's slightly too intimate interest in helping Eilis try on bathing suits for her trip to Coney Island with Tony, Tony's own seizing on Eilis' vulnerability in the wake of Rose's death to get his end away.

Some or all of the above could have been avoided if Eilis had been a less infuriatingly passive character with barely any agency of her own. That, combined with the stultifyingly oppressive social mores of 1950s Ireland (and 1950s Irish-Americans in New York), makes this in some ways a slightly frustrating read, but of course that's a reflection of the prevailing reality of the period in which the book is set, rather than a criticism of the book itself or its author. I didn't, for what it's worth, think it was quite as good as Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship (a book with a more contemporary setting). The other Tóibín on this list is The Heather Blazing

Brooklyn won the Costa Novel Award in 2009, as did a couple of recent featurees here (the Picture Palace review contains a full list), and was made into a film in 2015

Monday, July 06, 2020

celebrifry woodylikey of the day

Just looking through some photos from a couple of walks we've done in the last couple of weeks, and found this photo of a rather splendid old oak tree that we encountered by the side of the path between the car park at Llanfoist Crossing and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Llanfoist Wharf. I'd been up here before as part of our ascent of the Blorenge in late 2009, but not (I think) since. I daresay the tree hasn't changed much in the intervening ten-and-a-half years.

Anyway, I snapped a photo because from one angle you can clearly see something resembling a face; I say "clearly see" but of course what I mean is see something with a sufficient number of markers in the right places for the weird wiring of the human brain to go into a pareidolia frenzy and go FAAAAACE LOOOOK IT'S A FAAAAACE. 

But whose face? Well once you've got past the usual Green Man and Ent references you notice that the nose and the prominent chin point in slightly different directions. This and the general air of benign treely wisdom immediately made me think of broadcaster, author, actor, polymath and general National Treasure Stephen Fry. Obvious, isn't it?

I don't mean to be mean, but look at your mean

I recall a question being asked on some cricket forum or other, possibly this one: who is the worst best player in Test history? In other words, who has (considering batsmen as an example) scored the most runs at the lowest average? That turns out to be an almost impossible question to answer, but one answer given was Mike Atherton, who has the lowest batting average of any player with over 6000 runs. This seems a bit harsh on Atherton, a fine and combative batsman and a key player in the not-exactly-world-beating England teams of the 1990s, but it set me off on a train of thought which resulted in the tables below.

As with the tables here, here and here, a bit of preparatory mental calibration is probably required: for each of the entries in the batting table, no-one has made more runs at a lower average.

RT Ponting (AUS)1681337851.85
AN Cook (ENG)1611247245.35
GA Gooch (ENG)118890042.58
AJ Stewart (ENG)133846339.54
MA Atherton (ENG)115772837.69
N Hussain (ENG)96576437.18
CL Hooper (WI)102576236.46
MV Boucher (ICC/SA)147551530.30
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)113453130.00
IA Healy (AUS)119435627.39
RW Marsh (AUS)96363326.51
SCJ Broad (ENG)138321118.66
SK Warne (AUS)145315417.32
HMRKB Herath (SL)93169914.64
CEL Ambrose (WI)98143912.40
M Muralitharan (ICC/SL)133126111.67
JM Anderson (ENG)15111859.63
CA Walsh (WI)1329367.54
GD McGrath (AUS)1246417.36
LR Gibbs (WI)794886.97
FH Edwards (WI)553946.56
DE Malcolm (ENG)402366.05
PT Collins (WI)322355.87
MS Panesar (ENG)502204.88
ST Gabriel (WI)452004.76
BS Chandrasekhar (INDIA)581674.07
N Pradeep (SL)281324.00
CS Martin (NZ)711232.36

This seems a bit harsh on Ricky Ponting in particular, but he just happens to be second on the overall list of highest Test run-scorers and to have an average that's a couple of runs per innings lower than that of the top man on the list, Sachin Tendulkar.

It is interesting to see that there are a few distinct zones on the list: once you get past Ponting and Cook you're into the English Batsmen Of The 1990s Zone featuring Gooch, Stewart, Atherton and Hussain and providing an insight into why England didn't win a lot during that era: not enough runs. Then there is a brief Wicketkeeper-Batsmen Zone featuring Boucher, Healy and Marsh, and then a Long-Serving And Distinguished Bowler Zone in reverse order of batting competence (Broad through Gibbs, say), and then a Proper Incompetents Zone at the end. Obviously there are probably people with a Test average of zero from one or two innings, but the rule of thumb I applied was to go down as far as Chris Martin, fine bowler but famously one of the worst batsmen in history, and then stop. As it happens he has the lowest average of anyone with over 100 Test runs, so that provided a nice sensible cut-off point anyway. Martin and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar are the most distinguished members of the select club of players who have more Test wickets than runs.

Here's the bowling table - this time the qualifying criterion is: no-one has taken more wickets at a higher average.

SK Warne (AUS)14570825.41
A Kumble (INDIA)13261929.65
Harbhajan Singh (INDIA)10341732.46
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)11336234.36
Danish Kaneria (PAK)6126134.79
MM Ali (ENG)6018136.59
FH Edwards (WI)5516537.87
RJ Shastri (INDIA)8015140.96
CL Hooper (WI)10211449.42
Mohammad Sami (PAK)368552.74
SR Tendulkar (INDIA)2004654.17
MN Samuels (WI)714159.63
Rubel Hossain (BDESH)273676.77
IDK Salisbury (ENG)152076.95
Mohammad Sharif (BDESH)101479.00
KP Pietersen (ENG)1041088.60
S Chanderpaul (WI)164998.11
EAR de Silva (SL)108129.00
MA Atherton (ENG)1152151.00
CA Davis (WI)152165.00
NM Kulkarni (INDIA)32166.00
S Matsikenyeri (ZIM)82172.50
CS Nayudu (INDIA)112179.50
KLT Arthurton (WI)331183.00
RS Bopara (ENG)131290.00
Naeem Islam (BDESH)81303.00

Once again there are some distinct zones here, the Distinguished Spinners Zone at the top (Warne through Kaneria), the All-Rounders Zone (Ali, Shastri, Hooper), and then a mixture of specialist bowlers with short and unproductive careers and specialist batsmen who occasionally turned their arm over as light relief, say at the tail-end of a drawn game. Note that you don't see the long list of long-serving batsmen (Pietersen, Chanderpaul and Atherton apart) to match the bowlers in the other list; this is just a consequence of the way the game works. Even confirmed number 11 batsmen like McGrath and Walsh have to bat reasonably frequently; no-one has to bowl. For example, Alastair Cook's long and distinguished 161-Test career included a paltry three overs as a bowler, although to be fair he did take one wicket during those overs, which incidentally gives him an overall strike rate (i.e. balls per wicket) of 18.00, far superior to even the likes of Dale Steyn.

But I digress. Players who appear on both lists are Mike Atherton, Carl Hooper, Daniel Vettori, Shane Warne and Fidel Edwards. Note also that the top men from the overall batting and bowling lists (Tendulkar and Muralitharan) each appear on the opposite list here.

Monday, June 29, 2020

the last book I read

What's Bred In The Bone
by Robertson Davies.

We are back in the company of most of the principal protagonists of The Rebel Angels, indeed pretty much all of those who made it to the end of that book alive: clergyman and author Simon Darcourt, exotic gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, or Maria Cornish as she now is, and her husband Arthur Cornish, banker and heir to most of the estate of his uncle, art critic and collector Francis Cornish.

These people, who we already know slightly from the first book, which focused on the machinations around disposing of old Francis Cornish's will, are really only here to provide a framing device for the main story, which is that of Francis' life. And, like any seemingly normal life examined in close detail, it turns out to be slightly stranger than you might imagine.

Born in a small Canadian town (Blairlogie, supposedly modelled on Davies' own real-life childhood home of Renfrew, Ontario) in the early years of the twentieth century to a French-Canadian mother and a father (also Francis Cornish) who was literally from Cornwall, Francis jr.'s early experiences were a mixture of the commonplace (awkwardness at school, in his case due to being the posh boy from the "big house") and the more unusual, specifically his discovery of his secret elder brother, also called Francis - a pin-headed, furiously masturbating imbecile - locked away in an attic room and secretly cared for by a couple of domestic servants. One of these servants, Zadok Hoyle, also works as the local undertaker and takes Francis under his wing. In particular Zadok encourages Francis to pursue his love for art and drawing, through the slightly macabre method of allowing Francis to sketch the corpses at the funeral parlour.

Francis soon leaves Blairlogie for higher education in Toronto and then subsequently at Oxford, where he makes a few key acquaintances: his cousin Ismay, who he falls in love with, Tancred Saraceni, a famous art expert and restorer of Old Masters to whom Francis becomes a sort of apprentice, and some chaps from MI5 who feel that Francis might be their sort of chap and might like to do some discreet snooping for them. It turns out that Francis' father (also Francis, if you're keeping up) spent many years doing some similarly shady work.

Ismay eventually succumbs to Francis' patient wooing, only for it to transpire, shortly after their marriage, that the child she is carrying isn't his, and that she doesn't really love him at all, and that furthermore she's going to scarper with her lover and would he mind terribly making sure the child is provided for? Chastened by this experience Francis throws himself into his work, and as it happens MI5 have plenty of that for him as World War II has just kicked off. Coincidentally the work they want him to do involves close collaboration with his old mentor Tancred Saraceni, in a complex scheme based in Germany involving restoring old artworks and shipping them out of the country only to then arrange for their acquisition by the Nazi regime in the hope of acquiring some valuable non-German artwork in exchange. 

Francis hones his own painting skills during this period and finds that he has a natural affinity with the styles of the paintings he is restoring, so much so that he produces a large triptych depicting the marriage at Cana and allows it to be passed off as a genuine work. This is the cause of some slight awkwardness during Francis' post-war involvement in the various groups redistributing artwork hoarded by the Nazis (the real-life subject on which the film The Monuments Men is loosely based) when the painting is presented for analysis by the assembled group of experts. But the subterfuge holds, and Francis doesn't feel compelled to confess.

Already with no particular need to work for a living, Francis then finds himself the sole beneficiary of Tancred Saraceni's will, the contents of which include several Swiss bank accounts where much mysteriously-acquired money has been squirrelled away. Back in Canada, Francis devotes the rest of his life to collecting art that takes his fancy, and to being a slightly cantankerous mentor and advisor to some younger Canadian artists.

So now we do the wibbly-wobbly dissolve back to the framing device, just in time to witness Arthur Cornish reluctantly give his blessing for the biography Simon Darcourt is proposing writing about Francis, on the grounds that, hey, what Bad Stuff could possibly be revealed that might tarnish Francis' - and by association the whole Cornish family's - reputation?

The first thing to say here is: I've set that last paragraph up to imply that the the last novel (The Lyre Of Orpheus) in the trilogy will feature Darcourt's biography of Francis Cornish and may feature his as-yet-undiscovered forged works in some way. Of course it may very well feature no such thing; you should note that I had a pretty confident idea of where the third Matrix movie was going to take the story after seeing the second one, and that turned out to be totally wrong as well. I still maintain, incidentally, that my idea for the third movie was better than the actual third movie, which was rather disappointing.

Anyway, back to the book. This is a book which delights in its own erudition, and Davies' evident extensive knowledge of art. It's making some sly points about art forgery as well, the most obvious one being: how to determine the inherent "value" (not necessarily, or not only, monetary) of a work of art? Should it just be from a consideration of the work on its own merits devoid of any context? Or does its provenance matter? i.e. whether it is by who it purports to be by, and is from the era that it purports to be from? Does the exact same scene painted in the exact same style using the exact same materials (and, if you like, for the sake of argument, the exact same sequence of brushstrokes) have a different intrinsic value if painted by, say, Van Dyck in the 17th century, or Eric Hebborn in the 1970s?

Francis Cornish himself is an odd character whose only fully satisfactory personal relationship appears to be be the resolutely no-strings-attached one he has with Ruth Nibsmith, the governess at the German country house where he does his wartime restoration work with Saraceni. There is just a suggestion late in the book of some previously unexpressed homosexuality in his (strictly platonic) relationship with younger art critic Aylwin Ross, though this all gets rather complicated when Ross kills himself after an ill-advised attempt to use government money to purchase a batch of artwork including, ironically, Francis' own The Marriage At Cana

For all the depth of research and general erudition on show here, this isn't as much fun as The Rebel Angels, partly because of the structure - a framing device set up to facilitate a dive into stuff we already broadly know the outcome of removes some of the potential suspense of a more "real-time" structure, by which I mean we already know Francis lives to a ripe and wealthy old age, so he's not going to be unexpectedly murdered by the SS during the war, or disgraced and impoverished by his forgery becoming public knowledge. And there is just a whiff of fogeyish distaste for "modern" art (which basically seems to mean anything done during the twentieth century) which I found slightly unpalatable. 

There's nothing wrong with this, though, and it was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, a prize eventually won by Kingsley Amis' The Old Devils, a book which (as I've said before) I like very much. I can get behind The Old Devils being ahead of What's Bred In The Bone in the running; if I were being completely honest I'd have to say that the benefit of hindsight leads me to conclude that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (the only other one I've read off that year's shortlist) probably should have won.

Off the top of my head the only other book on this list to prominently feature art forgery as a plot point is Ripley Under Ground. Ooh, no, wait, there's Chatterton as well. 

Monday, June 22, 2020


One of the things I noticed around the time of Little Richard's death a month or so ago was a proliferation of related articles in various media using as a headline some variant of the famous closing line from probably his most famous song, Tutti Frutti. I say "some variant" because there doesn't seem to be a canonical spelling of the phrase, hardly surprisingly since it doesn't feature any actual words, and I say "closing line" because the only time the phrase appears in the song is as the very last words. Whoa, there, Neddy, you may be saying, he says it after every chorus! Not so, in fact: here is a sober and scholarly analysis of what he actually says and when:
  • 0:00 wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 0:15 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 0:46 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 1:17 wop-bob-a-loo-mob-AAAOOOOWW
  • 1:48 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 2:20 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lop-bam-boom
So you can see that the bop-bom line is the standard one, with a couple of variations - specifically, dropping of the a- that precedes it at the start of the song and in the partial phrase that introduces the saxophone break about halfway through.

A related topic (in that it relates to last lines of songs) is the one which came up in a quiz I participated in over Zoom a couple of weeks ago. There was a music round which featured the following question: what do the songs Virginia Plain and Up the Junction have in common with each other, and with no other singles that have reached the UK Top 10? This is one where you'll either instantly know the answer (as I did) or won't have any idea at all. The answer is that the title of the song is the last line of the song's lyrics, and moreover appears nowhere else in the song. This second caveat is important, as for instance Let It Be by The Beatles finishes with the title of the song, but it has also previously been sung about a gazillion times during the song. The obvious other example that sprang to mind was Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose regular chorus contains the phrase "I ain't no fortunate one" and which only changes to "I ain't no fortunate son" just as the song starts to fade out (at about 2:12 in the linked video). Strictly there is a "no, no, no" after that which means it's not technically the last lyric, but I think we can make a case for it being the last line. 

Finally, back to The Beatles: it is an oddity of their single output that many of their most popular songs have the song's title as the first lyric. Of the 27 songs on the definitive(ish) singles compilation 1, for instance, 10 (a whopping 37%) have the song's title as the first lyric: She Loves You, Can't Buy Me Love, Help!, Yesterday, Paperback Writer, Penny Lane, Lady Madonna, Hey Jude, Something and The Long And Winding Road. Furthermore Love Me Do and A Hard Day's Night only miss out by the narrowest of margins. This could be a coincidence, it could be a conscious songwriting policy, or it could just be that the band were exceptionally bad at coming up with names for songs and just took the approach of saying: fuck it, what's the first line? That'll do.

Monday, June 15, 2020

twas light years of time since his mission did start

You'll recall my tentative wager on it being either bulb 5 or bulb 12 that bought the farm next in the kitchen; well in a salutary lesson about the dangers of gambling it's actually bulb number 2 that has gone. Previous self-immolations of this particular spot in the lighting layout include being part of the very first pair of bulbs to expire back in May 2014, whereupon I replaced it with an IKEA LED bulb which then led an entirely uneventful existence for just over six years (2229 days, to be precise) until expiring a few days ago. 

That is, hardly surprisingly, the longest single life-span on record (on this blog, anyway) for a single light bulb. I can't remember exactly how much I paid for the original set of IKEA bulbs, but I have a feeling it was around £4 each; if so then that works out at something like 0.18 pence per day.

incidental music spot of the day

We've recently acquired both an Amazon FireStick and a subscription to Disney+ in an attempt to broaden our kiddy-entertaining horizons a bit, especially during the current lockdown. One of the things that that's enabled us to do is instigate a movie night on Saturdays where we watch a wholesome family-oriented movie with all three kids, then pack the boy off to bed and watch something very slightly (but probably not much) more challenging. At the moment we're working our way through the Toy Story and Herbie series. 

Another thing we've now got access to is a far greater range of short children's animations. The particular one that the boy is currently fixated on is Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a pretty ghastly multicoloured CGI acid flashback nightmare featuring the eponymous rodent and his annoying pals Donald, Goofy and assorted others, having a variety of banal yet implausible adventures that involve some bullshit interactive "learning" element as a sop to parents feeling vaguely guilty about parking the kids in front of the TV at ten o'clock in the morning and skulking off to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine.

The show is, it goes without saying, augmented by some supremely earworm-y theme music at start and finish that you find yourself humming to yourself while in the kitchen long after the kids are in bed and then have to pummel your skull with a steak tenderiser to make it go away. The thing that I only became aware of later, when we attempted to get our Alexa to play the closing Hot Dog song, was that both the opening and closing songs are performed by American alternative rock funsters They Might Be Giants. These guys will be most familiar to casual UK listeners for their 1989 hit Birdhouse In Your Soul, an absurdly catchy number which it feels churlish to criticise, but I will anyway for its overly smug lyrical smart-arsery and (despite being only just over 3 minutes long) going on for about twice as long as it reasonably ought to. TMBG are, it turns out, old hands at producing music aimed at children, alongside their regular adult-oriented output. I would imagine a commission from an entity like the Disney corporation for a couple of bouncy kids' songs would be lucrative enough to finance any number of experimental jazz ear-flute explorations and I can completely see why they do it, and no criticism should be inferred, despite the general loathsomeness of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Speaking of lyrics, on my first listen to the Hot Dog song (from the next room, so without the benefit of any visual context and perhaps with some loss of sonic fidelity) I was appalled at the thinly-veiled but unmistakable ABSOLUTE FILTH contained in the lyric "we're splitting the seam, we're full of beans". Not an expression I'd ever specifically heard before, but its penetrative connotations seemed obvious. It turns out that this line is sung as the collected company of friends troops out of the Clubhouse at the end of the show, leaving it to magically fold up on itself and disappear, and is in fact "we're splitting the scene, we're full of beans". Those of you who have now got all fired up at the thought of an engorged Mickey Mouse furiously splitting Minnie's seam can almost certainly find something to satisfy you on the internet, Rule 34 being what it is.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

what a state to get yourself into

A couple of things I meant to mention at the end of the Spares book review: firstly I see I mentioned in the Never Let Me Go review the similarity of some of the plot points to the plot of the 2005 film The Island; well obviously the same goes for Spares. Since The Island and Never Let Me Go came out in the same year the film must have been well into production before the book was published, so it's on the whole unlikely that one was a rip-off of the other. The situation with Spares is a bit more interesting, though, since the film rights were purchased some time after its publication in 1996 by DreamWorks Pictures, the same company responsible for The Island. Coincidence, OR IS IT, et cetera. Michael Marshall Smith evidently felt it wasn't worth getting embroiled in a big legal battle about it, or, if he were being honest with himself, would have recognised that while the basic idea was his the film actually pursued the plot strand(s) that he toyed with in the early stages of the book but eventually abandoned in favour of exploring some different (and, arguably, less interesting) ideas.

The other thing worthy of mention about Spares is that it's set in Virginia, the same state in which House of Leaves is largely set (i.e. in that this is the state in which the Navidson house is supposed to reside). It could be argued that Mortal Causes and Lanark share some settings as well since some of Lanark (book 4, principally) appears to be set in a highly fictionalised version of Edinburgh.

Back to Virginia, though: I had occasion to consult a large-scale map of the USA while trying to set some questions for an online pub quiz some friends organised a couple of weeks ago and got to thinking about points where several states meet (or nearly meet). The famous one of these is of course at Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. None of this resulted in a usable quiz question (although I did cash in the one about Pierre, South Dakota from here), but it set me thinking: what is the shortest straight line you can draw on a map which crosses four states? Depending on your point of view the answer could be zero, if you consider the quadripoint at Four Corners to be simultaneously in all four states. If you don't deem that to be an acceptable answer I think a strong candidate is the north-south line joining Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, as below. Google Maps reckons it's around 18 miles; you could walk that in a day.

Obviously you can extend that question to larger numbers of states: I haven't considered all the numbers but I'll offer you the following theoretical 5-state journey of a little over 60 miles visiting (going NE-SW) Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Needless to say others have considered this question (or very s,light variants of it) and, I'm happy to say, come up with the same answer. The only comparable one I could find is the line of just under 80 miles which connects Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Finally, the pièce de résistance: a 10-state journey of just over 400 miles taking in (let's go SW-NE this time) Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Again, others seem to agree that this is the right area, although note that they're asking (and answering) a subtly different question.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

the last book I read

by Michael Marshall Smith.

Jack Randall has got a few problems. Ex-army, with a host of memories of the Bad Stuff, an on-off addiction to designer drug Rapt, fleeing various problems in his former life in New Richmond, Virginia, not least an ongoing dispute with some local crime lords that resulted in the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter, and currently earning a crust as the caretaker of a shady facility which houses clones of notable people and keeps them alive just on the off-chance that one of these notables might ski into a snowplough and lose some limbs, at which point hello, inmate 46, time for you to have a bit of un-anaesthetised limb surgery.

Jack doesn't really have a great deal to do apart from keep the internal doors locked to prevent the clones wandering about the place and occasionally assist in rounding up the relevant ones when John Q Celebrity needs a full-body skin graft. But Jack is a man with an unerring instinct for getting into trouble, and he's soon letting the clones (or "spares", as they're known) wander the place and teaching them how to talk and read. Inevitably this results in him getting a bit attached to them, and when the next visit from the organ-harvesting squad comes around he engineers an escape with a handful of the spares.

Jack has some crazy ideas about heading off to Florida and starting a new life, but first he needs to realise some money, and the best way to do that is via a clandestine trip back to New Richmond, since that's where all Jack's contacts are. Most of the inhabitants of New Richmond live inside a giant abandoned aircraft, grounded there by mechanical problems some time after the destruction of old Richmond. Getting in and out cleanly without either getting collared by someone wanting to finish off some unfinished business or succumbing to the temptation to revisit some aspects of his former life is the key thing here, though, and needless to say Jack fails in both respects, so much so that by the time he returns to where he and the spares have been hiding out, most of them have been abducted by persons unknown who want them for their own nefarious purposes.

So Jack is obliged to return to New Richmond to try to solve the mystery and rescue the spares. This entails engaging with some unpalatable things from his past, firstly his former army colleague and now New Richmond's foremost crime boss, Johnny Vinaldi, who Jack strongly suspects may have been involved in the murder of his wife and daughter. Jack and Johnny's army days involved much time spent in the mind-warping computer-generated netherworld of The Gap, and Jack soon discovers that he will need to return there to rescue the spares and exorcise some of his own personal demons on the way, and once back in the "real" world exact some revenge on the people behind the whole scheme.

Any book seeking to relocate some sort of hard-boiled thriller plot to a futuristic milieu (where, usually, everything is simultaneously a) bafflingly hi-tech and b) a bit run-down and shit) complete with computer-generated alternate reality elements is going to have a hard time avoiding comparisons with classics of the genre like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, not to mention movies like Mad Max and Blade Runner. And, to be honest, as much fun as it is, Spares isn't really in that class, for a few reasons, notably that big chunks of the plot don't really make sense. Take Jack's relationship with Johnny Vinaldi, for example: he starts off wanting to kill him, then, an implausibly short time afterwards, they're tooling up to head into The Gap together to kick some virtual ass, then shortly afterwards Vinaldi is saving Jack's life back in the real world, then shortly after that Jack is holding a gun to his head again after it is revealed that Vinaldi in fact did kill his wife and daughter after all, then he lets him go. The netherworld of The Gap is set up in such a way as to raise a host of unanswered questions: it's clearly not a wholly virtual realm like the "matrix" in Neuromancer, and you do actually physically enter it (and presumably disappear from the "real" world while doing so) so how does the transition from one realm of reality to the other work? As described in the book it's all a bit Platform 9¾ for my liking. And the (presumed) killing at the book's end of the guy who's been trying to kill Jack and is responsible for the abduction of the spares happens a bit disappointingly "offscreen" to be properly satisfying.

The main complaint, though, is that the book's title leads you to expect something rather different from what you actually get. What you get is fine in its own way, but after the initial rescue and flight from the facility the spares play very little part in it except as a sort of plot MacGuffin, and (SPOILER ALERT) they all die, rendering the whole exercise arguably a bit futile. Which is a pity, in a way, because it's an interesting idea almost identical to the one which forms the main plot of Never Let Me Go, published 9 years after Spares in 2005.