Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the last book I read

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger.

A couple of reasons for reading this: firstly I bought it back in 1994 just before my first ever trip to America (to Boston and Maine for my friend Matt's wedding) - it seemed appropriate to read a classic American novel in its native setting. Now I recall reading a few books during the trip, during rare moments of sobriety, but never got round to starting this one, nor have I done so in the 15 years since. So as I recently visited the USA for the second time, there seemed to be a pleasing synchronicity to reading it during the trip this time. Plus, of course, the author's recent demise probably caused his name to float into my subconscious when I was packing books.

So, anyway, I daresay many people are familiar with the basic plot already, but bear with me, because it won't take long: Holden Caulfield, scion of a well-off New York family, has just been expelled from Pencey Prep in Pennsylvania, the latest in a long line of schools he's been chucked out of. Not being in any particular hurry to let his parents know about his latest disgrace, he hangs around with a couple of roommates for a while, then, in the middle of the night, takes a train to New York and books into a seedy hotel, where, after hanging around in the bar for a while, he has a clumsy and unsatisfactory encounter with a prostitute in his room - as if this wasn't humiliating enough he is then beaten up by her pimp after an argument over money.

He spends the next couple of days hanging around New York, eventually finding his way to the family home where he meets up with his younger sister Phoebe (there are also two brothers - younger brother Allie who died of leukaemia a few years previously, and older brother D.B. who is a screenwriter in Hollywood). Having described to her his outlandish plans for heading out west to start a new life, he is taken by surprise when she insists on coming with him. In persuading her that this is impossible, he cools off on the whole idea himself and the two of them head back to the family home, where, we're invited to assume, a reconciliation of sorts takes place with his parents.

The plot (such as it is) isn't really the point though - this is a prototypical tale of teenage rebellion and angst, written in a first-person vernacular with lots of distinctive tics as well as some language that was scandalous in 1951 and resulted in occasional attempts to have the book banned (in the USA at least). By modern standards it's pretty mild, though: a few goddams and Chrissakes and the odd bastard, plus a handful of fucks toward the end. Holden's resistance to any form of compromise with the world, or, to be more judgmental, to any concession that he can't just do what he wants, whenever he wants, should be familiar to anyone who's ever been sixteen, and - hey - that's pretty much all of us.

I enjoyed it very much, but I think in order to be absolutely blown away by it you really need to be a teenager when you read it, otherwise Holden's angst can start to seem just a little bit whiny, coming as it does from the much-indulged offspring of an evidently well-off and loving family. Kids today, eh? Clearly one of the people it made a big impression on was one Mark Chapman, who was clutching a copy of the book when he was arrested shortly after fatally shooting John Lennon in New York in 1980.

the second-last book I read

We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates.

This is the second JCO (as I like to call her) book to appear in this list (The Falls being the other), and there are certain obvious similarities: both books are pretty beefy (450+ pages) and feature sprawling family sagas taking place over a period of many years, sagas which feature the families concerned being subjected to various degrees of tragedy, suffering and general indignity throughout.

This particular family, the Mulvaneys, live (as we join the action) at High Point Farm, in upstate New York, near the town of Mt. Ephraim (fictional as far as I can tell, although there is a Mt. Ephraim in New Jersey). There's Mom & Dad aka Corinne and Michael, and children Michael Jr., Patrick, Marianne and Judd. Michael runs a roofing company, Corinne runs a fairly half-arsed and ramshackle antiques business and the rest of the family live a pretty idyllic existence at the farm, with various horses, dogs and cats for company.

Things start to unravel on Valentine's Day prom night in 1976, after which 16-year-old Marianne arrives home with a secret: she's been raped. A secret she manages to keep for a few days before the inevitable revelation and the start of the family's downward spiral: the family are unable to bring themselves to discuss the subject openly, Marianne is unwilling to make a formal complaint or press changes against her assailant as she was drunk on the night and can't remember all the details, Michael doles out a bit of vigilante justice against the boy in question (Marianne's schoolmate Zachary Lundt) and is arrested and subsequently ostracised by the local community.

After all this Marianne is sent away to live with her Aunt Ellen, elsewhere in New York state, and the family starts to break up. The farm has to be sold after Mike Sr.'s business troubles, Mike Jr. joins the Marines, and Patrick goes away to university at Cornell. While he is there he hatches a plan to take revenge on Zachary Lundt in a more efficient and permanent way than his father managed, and (with Judd's help) acquires a gun, kidnaps Lundt from outside a bar and takes him to a secluded spot with the intention of killing him, but is ultimately unable to go through with it.

Meanwhile Marianne is working in a succession of menial jobs and periodically fleeing to the next one when anyone starts to rely on her too much or show her any personal affection. So she flees her job at the Green Isle Co-op when her boss Abelove proposes to her out of the blue, and does the same from her next job as personal assistant to an elderly writer when she is offered extra responsibility and a pay rise. Carting her beloved (and increasingly elderly) cat from place to place with her, she is eventually forced to take him to an animal sanctuary, where after making a nuisance of herself she is eventually offered a job. Her eventual reconciliation with the rest of her family only comes when her father finally succeeds in his long-drawn-out mission of drinking himself to death, and Marianne makes a final dash to his death-bed.

The novel ends with a family reunion (after a gap of what must be about four years since Michael Sr.'s death) and a few glimmers of optimism at last - Corinne is running a more serious and successful version of her old antique business, Mike Jr. is now a civil engineer, husband and father, Patrick has become a sort of surf dude/alternative therapist type, Judd is editing the local newspaper and Marianne has married the vet who runs the animal sanctuary and now has two children. So all's well, seemingly, that ends well.

A couple of quibbles: Marianne's banishment was never really explained properly; I mean, of course fathers have strange reactions when something of this nature happens to their daughters (and we're led to understand that it was largely at Mike Sr.'s instigation that she was sent away), but it just struck a slightly implausible note to me. It was almost as if that was something that had to happen in order for the rest of the book to fall out in the way Oates had planned it, and she was too keen to get to that to bother explaining herself. Another slightly false note was struck by Marianne's abrupt transition from rabid intimacy-phobia for a decade or so (following what we're invited to infer was her one and only sexual experience) to happy marriage and motherhood. I mean, the redemptive power of love and all that, but still.

A couple of other footnotes: I can't find a definitive source for the quotation attributed to Gore Vidal about the three most depressing words in the English language being "Joyce Carol Oates", but it's mentioned in the comments to this brief LA Times article and also in this hugely entertaining hatchet job on Vidal by the inimitable Hitch. On the one hand I can see what he means, the misery being trowelled on pretty thick at times, but on the other hand it's really just Vidal being a cantankerous woman-hating old queen. For what it's worth, while I enjoyed this, I probably enjoyed it less than The Falls, and I'd suggest uninitiated readers start there.

One of the things that might have put me off buying this had it been displayed anywhere prominent (which it probably is on later editions) is that this novel was an Oprah's Book Club selection back in 2001. That's an entirely snobbish and unreasonable attitude to take, but I note that it's one that was also taken by Jonathan Franzen, whose The Corrections featured on the list in the same year. The other Oprah book choice on this list is The Road from 2007.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

i am jack's complete lack of surprise

Remember Rom Houben the magic coma guy? In an entirely unsurprising turn of events it turns out he's not actually magic after all. Note that this does not of course rule out the possibility of him actually being conscious (in some sense at least), just that it means that it's been proven that the technique used to attempt to communicate with him and to allow him to communicate with the outside world has been shown to be completely bogus - as most of the scientific blogging community pointed out at the time, in stark contrast to most of the mainstream media.

Apparently what happened was that after much lobbying by the Belgian sceptical organisation SKEPP, the doctor in charge of the case - one Steven Laureys - allowed them to supervise the carrying out of the tests to determine whether any "real" communication was in fact happening - as I understand it these are very simple tests like sending the communicator out of the room, showing the patient a picture, and then getting him to (via the communicator) spell out the name of the object afterwards. Needless to say the "facilitated communication" technique failed these most basic tests utterly.

So thumbs up to SKEPP, and a clip round the ear for Dr. Laureys for being credulous enough to be taken in in the first place. Plus, to be fair, thumbs up to Dr. Laureys subsequently for eventually allowing the tests to be done, and for unequivocally admitting that he'd been wrong about the whole thing afterwards when presented with the evidence. Of course much valuable time has now been wasted which could have been spent devising proper ways to help the unfortunate Mr. Houben, for which the charlatans who preyed upon the Houben family's understandable desperation and Dr. Laurey's arrogance and naïveté should most appropriately be burnt as witches. Seems only fair, really.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

if you've got it, flaut it

In a slightly bleary Sunday morning haze after being in Cardiff for Wales' thrilling (though extremely fortunate) last-gasp victory over Scotland, and then staying round in the pub (Gassy Jack's in Cathays - not the world's greatest pub to be honest, but far enough from the town centre to get a seat, decent pub grub, and plenty of big screens) for the eagerly-anticipated but in the event slightly disappointing (as a contest, anyway) France-Ireland game.

We also went to see Midlake in concert on Friday night, which gave me an opportunity for a nostalgic re-visit to the Bristol University Students' Union, the gig being in the Anson Rooms on the first floor. Good to see the adjoining Mandela Bar hasn't changed at all since my student days nearly 20 years ago, still being a dingy and featureless dump (but in an endearing sort of way).

Anyway, Midlake's tour is in support of their third album The Courage Of Others which was released a couple of weeks ago and which I haven't got yet (the second one being released as far back as 2006), though I will be rectifying that as soon as possible. They've obviously decided that the folky intimacy and intricacy of the records wouldn't translate well to the stage, so in a live setting they're a much looser, rockier proposition, and this is in no way a bad thing - the lengthy guitar "exploration" which resolved itself into the intro for a driving, rocked-up version of their best-loved song Roscoe got by far the biggest cheer of the night (here's a broadly similar version - minus intro - from Berlin a week or so ago). As you can see from the hastily snapped iPhone picture below, at one stage there were four guitarists and two flautists on stage at the same time. Now that's rock.

I should add a quick word in praise of support act Sarah Jaffe who, in a pleasing departure from rock gig tradition, was also quite good.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

dumb and erm, cleverer

There was a brief bit on the Radio 4 6pm news bulletin this evening about the compatibility of science and religion - they'd wheeled out the usual twittering tweedy vicar type to claim they were totally OK with each other and everyone should just get along and be nice and not rock the boat. Putting the case for reality was none other than our old mate Professor Steve Jones whose position on the subject I expressed some concern about the other day. However, in this particular instance he took a commendably robust and no-nonsense line, dismissing religion as irrelevant "froth" at best, and more often actively malignant and harmful to scientific endeavour. So I think we can all agree with Harry that he's TOTALLY REDEEMED HIMSELF.

s'ya we dis, emregor

I can't remember exactly where, but in one of my lonely journeys across the vast and trackless wastes of the internet a few days ago I came across a discussion where someone threw the name Sredni Vashtar into the discussion, to make precisely what point I can't remember.

This prompts me to observe two things: firstly that the name comes from a short story by Saki aka HH Munro, many of whose works are available online, Sredni Vashtar included. The short story format (and Saki's were short even by short story standards) is perfect for online consumption; I wouldn't fancy reading a whole novel this way (and no, I don't particularly want a Kindle either). Other good ones include Tobermory and The Open Window, but they're all worth reading.

Actually, reading The Unrest-Cure reminds me of the context - the protagonist Clovis Sangrail (who appears in a few Saki stories) is the online name of one of the regular commenters at Speak You're Branes, and there was a conversation about it a while back. Phew; I can sleep tonight now.

My other point, while I remember, is that Sredni Vashtar is another of those things that looks as if it's been written down backwards by accident. Surely it was meant to be Rath Savinders?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

another reason why LPs are cooler than CDs

In trying to find a Neil Young picture for the previous post I came across this simple yet strangely brilliant website: Sleeveface. Basically it's people posing with album covers over their faces, but in a way more interesting than that sounds. I think the one reproduced below is my favourite so far.

here's those close-up crotch shots you wanted

It would have been around the time I was at university that I first got into the habit of patching my jeans once they ripped or wore through - ripped jeans being quite fashionable in the late 1980s, but with the inevitable downside of eventually getting so ripped that either the whole leg came off or they ceased to adequately conceal one's genitalia. And when that happened one would incur the inevitable expense of a new pair - not good on a student budget. So patching it was. Also, I was starting to get into Neil Young and he was a pretty iconic patched jeans wearer, so what with him starting to emerge from his 1980s creative doldrums I could convince myself that it was at least partially cool.

Back then I was an archetypally skinny teenager of dubious drinking habits, so it would tend to be in the knee department that jeans would go first, what with the inevitable drunken falling over and the like. I had a couple of pairs that eventually ended up more patch than denim before they inevitably fell apart.

These days I am a gentleman of more ample and muscular buttock (but still dubious drinking habits) so it tends to be the crotch department that takes most of the strain, and therefore yields first under the immense pressure. So periodically things need patching up. Now of course you could argue that as I am also a man of more comfortable financial means these days I could just buy a new pair when this happens, and you are of course correct. However, I'm a bit hard to please over finding jeans that fit propertly, and these are my favourites, and they're a style that Next don't do any more, so I deem it to be worth the effort.

I only have a couple of pieces of advice for anyone seeking to repair jeans in a similar way: firstly it's worth taking a bit of care over it: small neat stitches hold together better and require less rework later. Secondly you need to be very careful about accidentally going through more layers of denim than you intend to, sewing a leg shut and then having to unpick everything at considerable cost in terms of time and annoyance. Thirdly, and most importantly, by far the best material to patch with is old underpants, as the material is stretchy and pretty tough. So if you've got some worn-out stretchy boxers you're thinking of throwing away, stick them in the sewing bag instead. Best give 'em a rinse first though.

Anyway, here's this week's handiwork - three pairs, before and after shots for each.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Current Wales scrum-half (though only in the absence through injury of Dwayne Peel and Mike Phillips) Gareth "Coops" Cooper, and diminutive singer-songwriter Paul "Simes" Simon. Cooper will be conducting a secret undercover mission to seduce Mrs. Robinson and thereby disrupt the Scottish training regime in the run-up to the match on Saturday.

make mine a large one

I meant to add a footnote to the previous post while mentioning whiskies beginning with "T" - the Tomintoul distillery in Speyside, in addition to producing a range of apparently quite decent whisky (marketed as "the gentle dram"), also holds the current world record for the largest bottle of Scotch whisky ever produced.

The bottle is pictured on the left, and more information is available here. Presumably the standard-size bottle on the right of the picture and the standard-size lady on the left are for comparison purposes. A video of the bottle-filling process can also be found here.

It's not clear from the linked pages what happened to the bottle after it was filled; I would guess it's probably in a display case somewhere for visitors to the distillery to look at. If you were to take it home you would find (in addition to having to work out how to pour a glass) that there are 4212 standard 25ml pub measures in it, so at a dram a day it would take you just over eleven and a half years to neck the lot.

Monday, February 08, 2010

this whisky will suit you to a T

Today's whisky bargain: Tormore 12-year-old, available in Morrison's for around £16. Which is phenomenally cheap, really.

There are quite a few Scotch whisky distilleries beginning with "T", but there is a school of thought which asserts that, apart from the mighty Talisker, none of them are any good. Most of them are fairly obscure - apart from Talisker and Tomatin, once the biggest distillery in Scotland, there's Tamdhu, Tamnavulin, Teaninich, Tobermory, Tomintoul, Tormore and Tullibardine. A few of them are also quite new - Tullibardine was opened in 1949, Tormore and Tomintoul in the mid-1960s.

Tormore is a Speysider, like the Aberlour and the Macallan. It's lighter than both of those, though - not dissimilar to the Aberlour in many ways, particularly in the marzipan that you get when you have a sniff. When you have a sip, though, it's a bit less sweet and cloying and a bit more citrus-y, with a bit of iced tea in there as well. Opinions differ as to its merits, but I think it's quite good (better than the Aberlour, for instance). It's nothing like as characterful as the Highland Park or the Talisker, but there's really nothing wrong with it. Probably a good one for the whisky beginner. And it is really really cheap.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

note to self: eat less cakes

Also: buy new bed.

Friday, February 05, 2010

this is a genius blog post

I noticed this while watching Dave Gorman's show Genius last night, but I've heard it in a few other places as well, mainly in spoken conversation rather than written down: "genius" is now an adjective.

In other words it now seems to be acceptable to say "that's a genius idea" rather than something like "that idea is genius", which is in itself a slightly casual usage but at least contains the suggestion of the unspoken words "an example of" before "genius", i.e. that it's still really a noun. Try Googling "genius idea" to see what I mean. Just to be clear, I'm not getting all outraged about it, I just think it's interesting.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

it's political correctness GONE SANE

Nice to see the Australians conforming to national stereotype by taking a commendably robust attitude towards this bit of cheeky job advert hackery by a former employee of transport company Border Express. The attributes listed below were not part of the original advert:

And nor was this footnote:

Gratifyingly, no-one is being prosecuted or anything, even after the perpetrator came forward and confessed the company were very understanding. Ideally you need to say this next bit in a comedy Aussie accent, particularly the word "turps":
He wasn't disgruntled or anything, he just mucked up... he got on the turps one night and it went from there. He fully understands what he has done and he's very remorseful.
Whether the same humorous shrugging off will be done in the case of the guy (David Kiely, an employee of Macquarie Private Wealth) who opened an e-mail with some saucy pictures in (a Miranda Kerr shoot for GQ, if you're interested) while a colleague behind him was doing a live TV interview (that link contains an embedded clip, a full high-res version can be found here) remains to be seen.

Apparently the matter is being "dealt with internally" and meetings will be taking place later this week. Doesn't sound good, but if he just claims to have "got on the turps" he should be OK.

the day the music sustained severe scrotal abrasions

Today is the 51st anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. Obviously very tragic, except in that it inspired Don McLean's classic American Pie, and I have nothing particularly profound to say about it other than to draw your attention to the text, and in particular the last sentence, of Buddy Holly's autopsy report:
The body of Charles H. Holley was clothed in an outer jacket of yellow leather-like material in which 4 seams in the back were split almost full length. The skull was split medially in the forehead and this extended into the vertex region. Approximately half the brain tissue was absent. There was bleeding from both ears, and the face showed multiple lacerations. The consistency of the chest was soft due to extensive crushing injury to the bony structure. The left forearm was fractured 1/3 the way up from the wrist and the right elbow was fractured. Both thighs and legs showed multiple fractures. There was a small laceration of the scrotum.
Why is that last bit relevant, particularly in the light of the gross bodily destruction listed immediately before? I'm now picturing the guy who did the autopsy as some sort of scrotum fetishist (never mind that half the head was missing, you just know that was the first thing he checked) whose modus operandi was to apply a twisted form of Sherlock Holmes' old maxim to every case: once you have eliminated scrotum injuries, whatever remains, however seemingly un-scrotum-related, must be the cause of death.

more champagne, your holiness?

It might interest you to know that not only is the Pope planning to visit the UK in September, but that despite being transported over in his gown and velvet slippers from his jewel-encrusted golden palace by luxury jet and limousine while flunkies fan him with ostrich feathers and feed him preserved larks' tongues and caviar from a silver platter, the British government has seen fit to stump up 20 million quid to finance the trip. Which of course means Joe Taxpayer, i.e. you and me.

Now you might be perfectly happy about this. On the other hand you might feel, as I do, that if the head of an enormously rich and powerful organisation is going to come over and tell us all about his imaginary magic friend and his imaginary magic zombie son who turns into Ryvita on request (oh, and that condoms give you AIDS), he might be expected to finance the trip himself, or at least draw contributions solely from those who actually believe this sort of insane drivel.

If you do feel this way, then you might want to pop over to the National Secular Society's website and put your name to their petition to the Prime Minister. Don't expect it to change anything in the short term; think of it instead as a little drip in a whole series of drips eroding the big rocky obstruction of unearned privilege and irrationality so that the cool clear torrent of cleansing sense and clarity can gush through. Christ, now I need a wee.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

give 'em enough pope

Some really tremendous lunacy from the upper echelons of the Catholic Church this week, starting with the top man, head honcho, numero uno, the Oberkirchenführer himself Pope Benedict XVI. It's about sex, as it pretty much always is, and the gays in particular - it seems to have been triggered by the upcoming passage (ooer) of Harriet Harman's Equality Bill.

Read these various articles outlining the dispute, and marvel at the head-spinning cognitive dissonance demonstrated by statements such as this one (by the Pope himself):
[...] the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.
- and this one (by the always reliably out-to-lunch Ann Widdecombe):
This isn't a debate about homosexuality, this is a debate about religious freedom. If a faith teaches, as major faiths do, that something is wrong, then quite clearly you cannot have somebody who believes that it's right actually occupying a very senior position. That we have accepted as natural justice for a very long time.
Basically the argument is: your being granted the ability to exercise your basic human rights infringes my basic human right to believe (and indeed insist) that you should not be granted the ability to exercise your basic human rights.

There really is a sort of magnificence to this mule-headed unwillingness (or inability, I'm not sure which it is) to engage with reality, or think about the implications of what you're saying. If what those quotes say is true, on what basis do we condemn Islamic "honour" killings of one's own sisters? Female genital mutilation in Africa? The activities of the Ku Klux Klan? In each case the perpetrators could argue that the proper practice of their religion requires that they (respectively) kill those women who choose to demand sexual autonomy, hack young girls' genitalia off and set fire to black people, and that restricting their freedoms to do so is a violation of some sort of fundamental human right. And if you're going to argue that no, that's different because those people are evil and misguided whereas our religion is the truth, well then you have to pony up some convincing evidence that this is indeed the case, don't you?

Essentially what this boils down to is: if you don't want people enacting equality legislation that conflicts with your beliefs, consider having less evil and bigoted beliefs.

One of the reasons this is news (the Catholics having barkingly illiberal views on a whole range of topics not exactly being a surprise) is that the Pope is due to visit Britain in September, the first Papal visit to the UK since the previous Pope popped over in the summer of 1982 (the first ever UK Papal visit). I have some recollection of cuddly old JP2's visit as it was heavily televised - including an interminable speech at a "youth rally" at Ninian Park in Cardiff. I suspect that this visit won't get quite that level of TV coverage - we've come a long way in terms of unthinking deference to authority in 28 years. Indeed it seems likely that there will be organised protests - the National Secular Society has some details if you fancy going along and shouting at a celibate ex-Nazi in a funny hat.