Tuesday, August 13, 2019

morrison, morrisoff


This time it's venerable black American novelist Toni Morrison, as featured here only a few months ago. It was a little over nine years ago that Paradise featured on this blog, which represents the fourth-longest gap between the casting of the runes and the inevitable demon-summoning, after Anita Shreve, Justin Cartwright and Helen Dunmore. Morrison was 88, which is in a pretty popular range for this particular list: William Trevor and Ursula Le Guin were also 88, and 87 remains the most popular age for curse-related death with four victims. The average age is currently a smidgen under 82.

One other bit of related trivia: Toni Morrison and I share (well, shared) a birthday, February 18th. Other novelists to share this birthday include Nikos Kazantzakis, Wallace Stegner, Len Deighton and Jean M Auel.

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
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d

Monday, August 12, 2019

headlines of the day

Here's one for the file of What Does Any Of This Even Mean headline-parsing challenges:

In order to have any chance of understanding that one you have to realise that it's a sort of ironic callback to this actual headline from a few days earlier:

This one actually refers to a real story whereby the Beresheet lander, operated by the Israeli SpaceIL organisation, crash-landed on the moon after its main engine failed at a crucial point during the descent - the point where it needed to fire to slow the craft down and prevent it crashing, basically. That was back in April but it has only recently emerged that the craft was carrying a scientific payload that included dehydrated tardigrades. These little guys, while known by some endearingly cutesy names such as "water bears" and "moss piglets", are in fact some of the baddest motherfuckers in the animal kingdom, being able to survive extremes of temperature (at either end of the scale), massive doses of radiation and exposure to the vacuum of space. So there's every chance they could survive on the moon's surface, though whether they'd ever be able to emerge from their dormant state and actually do anything (like eat or breed) is a different question. You can imagine that if they could it would be a short evolutionary journey to actual grizzly-sized solar-powered angry space bears, which might make future human trips to the moon dangerous for a whole host of completely new reasons. I should add that my knowledge of tardigrades, and all aspects of the animal kingdom, is greatly enhanced by watching Octonauts, just as my knowledge of world geography and landmarks of significance is greatly enhanced by watching Go Jetters.

Anyway, the reason for the second headline (chronologically speaking, first in its position within this post: do try to keep up) is that there is a school of thought which says: meh, there was probably some bio-contamination already on the moon anyway from long-ago asteroid impacts on Earth. I guess one has to also allow the possibility that some biological matter was attached to the spacecraft and humans that visited the moon during the previous round of manned exploration between 1969 and 1972 and various unmanned missions thereafter.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

the last book I read

Transition by Iain Banks.

Imagine a world where every toss of a coin, every tiny variation in some seemingly insignificant system, results in the spawning of another, completely independent reality, branching and re-branching like, erm, some sort of organism with branches. A tree! Yes, that'll do. A proliferating multitude of alternate realities, differing by perhaps only a tiny detail, a different-shaped gearstick on the Mini Metro, say. But perhaps we inhabit such a world already. I mean, how would we know?

Well, I'll tell you who would know. A group of people whose minds are not going to be blown by all this multiple simultaneous realities shit, and, moreover, have developed the technology to move between these multiple realities pretty much at will, with certain limitations. They call themselves The Concern, or, depending on your cultural background, L'Expédience, and they perform a sort of multiverse policing function while flitting between worlds, being able to glimpse the future consequences of certain seemingly insignificant events and take steps to prevent those events from ever occurring.

This is all a bit Prime Directive, of course, and one person's disastrous turn of events about which Something Must Be Done is someone else's wholly necessary and exciting developments. So even within the Concern there are disagreements, and for that reason a sort of High Council exists, headed by the practically immortal Madame d'Ortolan, to decide where events get left to take their course and where intervention is deemed necessary.

Our main protagonist, Temudjin Oh, is a sort of super-assassin entrusted with all the most difficult and dangerous missions. "Flitting" between worlds is achieved by the use of a specially-engineered drug called "septus", and in practical terms involves "landing" in another body for the duration of your visit, taking it over for a while and then vacating it again, presumably leaving the original occupant to return and wonder what's been going on, and perhaps why they seem to have just committed a murder and are in the process of being shot to pieces by whatever law-enforcing authority exists in this particular reality. Temudjin is viewed as being a bit of a loose cannon by Madame d'Ortolan and her advisers, mainly owing to his previous close relationship with renegade Concern operative Mrs Mulverhill, with whom they suspect (correctly) he is still in communication. Mrs Mulverhill believes that the Council under Madame d'Ortolan's leadership are out of control and pursuing a secret agenda of their own in violation of the Concern's original aims. Will Temudjin say leave me alone, Mrs Mulverhill and return to the fold or go fully rogue and try to bring them down?

This being an Iain Banks novel the narrative isn't presented quite like that though - it's broken up into sections headed with the character's name with no immediate clue as to how they interact. So there's The Transitionary (Temudjin Oh himself), Madame d'Ortolan, torturer-for-hire The Philosopher, London hedge fund trader wide boy Adrian Cubbish, and Patient 8262, occupant of a bed in some sort of sanatorium and seemingly trying to remember something hovering dimly beyond his mental reach.

This sort of set-up, where the reader is expected to do some dot-joining work while the main action unfolds, is just the sort of thing to get me salivating, and Banks does it very well. It's only a bit later as the plot is starting to unfold in a more orthodox manner that a few niggles start to form in the mind. For instance: the thing with the "flitting" between worlds being mediated by some sort of thing that the flitter has to physically consume, and moreover the achieving of unmediated flitting as a key plot point, are both straight out of Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman, and the preventing "crimes" before they happen thing owes more than a little to Minority Report. The whole business with occupying other people's bodies and displacing their consciousness for a while raises a host of questions, none of which are really engaged with. Adrian Cubbish is the latest in a line of slightly tedious drug-crazed wisecracking cynics that also includes Complicity's Cameron Colley and Dead Air's Ken Nott. And there are a couple of trademark Banksian bolted-on bits of polemic which do little to move the plot along but are just there to allow him to vent some political opinions, most obviously in The Philosopher's lengthy opining on the pointlessness of torture, and indeed the existence of the character himself. And only someone really not paying attention, or just generally unfamiliar with how novels work, will fail to clock the true identity of Patient 8262 fairly early on.

None of that really matters, though, as this is generally a hoot and scoots along very entertainingly throughout. The Concern is another in the long series of Banks' imagined reality-controlling organisations unconstrained by considerations like material wealth, including most obviously the Culture, but in this case most closely resembling The Business in, erm, The Business. I would say it's the best non-M Banks I've read since Whit, but it was published under the Iain M Banks moniker in America and so exists in a sort of netherworld between the two. I suspect the rationale for leaving out the M was that all the action takes place on Earth, albeit a gazillion different parallel versions of Earth.

Friday, August 02, 2019

criclebrity lookylikey of the day

Here's one in commemoration of the Ashes series which kicked off yesterday: England opener Rory Burns and his (I think) relatively newly-acquired goatee beard, and actor Ethan Hawke.

Burns is 82 not out at tea on day 2 of the first Test as I write this, which is nice. Will he be part of the answer to England's opening batsman problems which have really been going on since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012? Well, that'd be nice, although he does have a fairly horrible twitchy shuffly technique - then again that never stopped Shiv Chanderpaul or current Aussie wonderboy (and, let's not forget, proven cheat and scoundrel) Steve Smith.

Monday, July 29, 2019

a nob's as good as a wank to a blind horse

You'll recall my celebration of the atavistic urge to draw cocks (preferably with all spunk coming out the end) on things: walls, hillsides, rooftops, fresh falls of snow - well, I think what I'm about to show you is an example of something similar, or just of extreme childishness, which may in the end be pretty much the same thing.

Images reproduced here just to save you some clickage. Original words were "mince" and "cute", fairly obviously.

The basic rule is: the Photoshop (or, more accurately, MS Paint) work must be extremely simple or I can't be arsed. Anyway, one of the photos I took of the Winking Owl bottle inspired a) a similar urge and b) the recollection that I'd done something similar a while back with a pack of walking socks I'd bought.

wine based blogging

Here's another one for the Slightly Sinister Weird Shit Concealed By Seemingly Innocuous Labelling Practices files. I buy quite a lot of wine from Aldi, primarily, and I'm quite happy to admit this, because it is quite nice and, moreover, super-cheap. I'm not a big connoisseur of wine, still less a wine snob, but I do broadly know what I like, and highly quaffable South African Pinotage and Australian Shiraz for less than four quid a bottle are very much up my alley, thank you very much. The Chilean Merlot, if you can stretch to an extra ten pence, and aren't a bit funny about drinking Merlot, is pretty good too.

The bottle of Winking Owl red that we acquired the other day set my Spidey-sense a-tingling, though. Nothing obviously wrong with it, like being blue instead of red, or making me instantly go blind and have a rectal prolapse, and let's face it we've all had a bottle of wine that made that happen from time to time, amirite? No, it was more a general sense that it wasn't as nice as the other bottles that went for a similar price (this one was a smidgen under four quid). Not battery acid or anything, just a general impression that made me do that quizzical plap-plap-plap thing with the mouth and hold the glass up to the light in a suspicious manner.

Closer examination of the bottle revealed a couple of interesting things: firstly that the alcohol content was quite low at 10.5% (most New World wine clocks in around the 13% mark), and secondly that the assorted disclaimers and guidelines about responsible alcohol consumption limits and recycling on the label on the back of the bottle included the odd legend "WINE BASED DRINK".

It turns out this stuff has been knocking around for a while, as there seems to have been a brief hoo-hah about it back in 2015 in the wake of this Daily Mail article. It being the Mail you should obviously take any numbers or maths within the article with a big pinch of salt - for instance the article makes the following claim:
Industry guidelines state that any drink containing less than 75 per cent wine must be described as a 'wine based drink'
A moment's reflection should reveal that this must be wrong, or at least incomplete, as it doesn't specify a lower bound, and therefore implies that you could sell, for instance, Ribena as a "wine-based drink". It'd also be nice to think that to be described unequivocally as "wine" a bottle would have to be, you know, 100% wine. Anyway, this industry insiders' website makes a much more plausible claim, as follows:
The International Organisation of Vine and Wine states that to be called a ‘wine based drink’ the product must contain a minimum of 75% wine, though producers do not have to divulge what the remaining 25% is made up of.
That has the virtue of actually making sense, though the second part is a bit worrying. You'd like to think the producers are just cutting it with some grape must or something, rather than Cillit Bang or dog sweat, but you never know. My brief encounter with it leads me to recommend fairly strongly that you spend the extra 40p or so and buy something that's actually labelled "wine". Opinions elsewhere on the internet vary quite widely: this reviewer is blithely unconcerned about the subterfuge, while this ostensibly quite in-depth article doesn't even mention the "wine based drink" thing but does enthuse at some length about what a relatively small amount of arsenic there is in it:
From the testing we've done, Gallo does it right. They try to be competitive and try not to have excess arsenic in their wines. To me that's proof that it's not necessary to have excess arsenic in wine.
When you consider that the eventual product could, presumably, legally be up to 25% arsenic, you have to salute their commitment to customer service. Cheers!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

in sixness and in death

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

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

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

chateauneuf du splat

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 07, 2019

the last book I read

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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