Monday, February 28, 2011

the last book I read

Spiderweb by Penelope Lively.

Stella Brentwood is a social anthropologist, so she's spent her whole professional life observing people, seeing how they interact, trying not to let her own personality impose on and colour things. The demands of the job have made the not getting involved thing a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they've dragged her around the world, from Egypt to Malta to the Orkneys and back again, with never the time nor the inclination to settle.

But now Stella is knocking on for 65 and it's time to change the pace and settle down, and Somerset (never specified exactly, but somewhere near Bridgwater) is the place she chooses, partly because this is where her old university friend Nadine used to live. Nadine is now dead, but her husband Richard still lives locally and is keen to make himself useful.

Rural life takes a bit of getting used to, what with everyone living in each other's pockets and knowing each other's business, but Stella throws herself into it. She acquires a dog and takes it for walks, during the course of which she meets some of the neighbours, most notably the Hiscoxes from down the lane - general handyman Ted, barking mad matriarch Karen and the two teenage boys, viewed with some suspicion by the rest of the village kids and definitely Not Quite Right in some indefinable way. Meanwhile she makes use of Richard's helpful instincts and knack for repairing lawnmowers and the like, and catches up with her old archaeologist friend Judith, both of which prompt a certain amount of reflection about her past life, which among all the peripatetic anthropology stuff involves, inevitably, a few occasions where the strict detachment from the subjects of her studies slipped a bit.

Eventually the bucolic idyll Stella has retreated to turns out not to be all that it seems - after a trip over to meet Judith at her latest archaeological dig Stella returns to the house to find the back door open and the dog missing; it later turns up (dead) in a ditch just up the lane. Her suspicion naturally falls on the two Hiscox boys, but there's not much she or the police can do. At the same time both Richard and Judith are making overtures towards some sort of house-sharing arrangements, for their own differing reasons. Does Stella stick around and cement her domestic attachments, or revert to type and resume her former nomadic existence?

In some ways Penelope Lively falls into the same sort of category as the Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Thomas Ellis, Muriel Spark school of short, darkish novel-writing I've mentioned a few times before; Ellis and Bainbridge (both of whom are now dead) were about the same age as Lively (who was born in 1933). However, Lively (who is still alive) writes the warmest, most humane novels; indeed, with the exception of Penelope Fitzgerald she is the only one who you'd say is broadly well-disposed towards people in general. She's also very good writing about the messy business of sexual relationships - the portrayal of hopelessly doomed misplaced middle-aged male infatuation in According To Mark was excellent, for example, and the wistful reminiscing Stella does here about her equally hopeless relationship with Orkney farmer Alan Scarth is equally economical - it occupies barely ten pages but perfectly illustrates the conflict between old-fashioned loyalty to the land and modern freedom and mobility, just as The Levels did.

This isn't Penelope Lively's best book - that would be either According To Mark or the Booker-winning Moon Tiger, but it's better than the other two recent ones I've read (Heat Wave and The Photograph), not that there was anything wrong with either of them. I think there's a superficially persuasive argument that they're all a bit middle-class and cosy, but that's to miss the point, I think. The closer you look, the more you see.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

massive UTAC

When I saw Chris Ashton score his third try against Italy during the last round of Six Nations matches a couple of weeks ago, I thought to myself: that would be a good one for Viz's Up The Arse Corner. This was the short-range try, strangely missing from this compilation, where Ashton grabbed the ball from a ruck under the Italian posts and was bundled over by Nick Easter, who ended up landing on top of him. I've no doubt missed the boat on submitting it (or at least on being the first to do so) but here it is anyway:


For anyone not familiar with Up The Arse Corner it's really pretty self-explanatory: try here, or either of these two Facebook groups.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

the last book I read

My Ántonia by Willa Cather.

Some novels grab you by the throat from the moment you read the blurb on the back cover. Hermaphrodite human-alligator hybrids storm a spaceship transporting Hitler's children into the heart of the Sun? The world's deadliest assassin gets sent on a top secret sex mission to the future to retrieve the Holy Grail? Sign me up!

On the other hand, a novel written in 1918 and describing the Bohemian immigrant experience against the background of a farming community on the Great Plains of Nebraska in the 1880s may be a bit of a harder sell, but bear with me.

Jim Burden has recently been orphaned, so he's been sent out to a farm near the settlement of Black Hawk, Nebraska (based on Willa Cather's former real-life home Red Cloud, Nebraska, apparently) to live with his grandparents. Also just arrived in the area are the Shimerda family from Bohemia (i.e. the modern Czech Republic), comprising Mum & Dad and the children Ambrosch, Marek (who is a bit, hem hem, "special"), Ántonia and Yulka. Jim soon strikes up a friendship with Ántonia and is charged by her father with the task of teaching her to speak English.

Jim and Ántonia's friendship persists as the years go by; it's not all beer and skittles though, for the Shimerdas in particular. Swindled out of a large portion of his money by unscrupulous locals, Mr. Shimerda retires to the barn and shoots himself in the face with a shotgun, as you do. Ántonia abandons her education to help Ambrosch out with the farm work, and, when Jim's family move into Black Hawk, gets a job with a local family as a maid.

Time passes, Jim grows up, and starts to get those icky feelings, you know, down there. Trouble is, all the town girls seem sort of anaemic and timid next to Ántonia and her immigrant farm-girl chums, including luscious Swede Lena Lingard, who catches Jim's eye. Eventually he realises that if he keeps up his habits he's going to go blind, so he heads off to college and thence to Harvard Law School and a successful career as a lawyer. Twenty years later he finally fulfils his promise to see Ántonia again, and finds her living back on a farm - abandoned by her first husband, she has married again and now supervises a raucous houseful of children (ten of them).

An obvious point of reference here is Sunset Song, with which this has a number of parallels: feisty female protagonist (for all that Jim is nominally the narrator Cather doesn't make him interesting enough to get in Ántonia's way too much) afflicted with various misfortunes including the early death of her father and a doomed first marriage, the novel's setting and landscape almost being an extra character, a firmly practical sort of secularism and egalitarianism and lack of religiosity. Sunset Song was a lot less coy about sex, though - there's nothing as unambiguous as Chris dragging Long Rob off to the hayloft before he heads off to war here; Jim's relationship with Lena Lingard is treated a lot more coyly, for instance (interestingly Cather herself was almost certainly a lesbian).

For all that this is a proto-feminist novel it doesn't deviate that much from the accepted order of things - at the end Ántonia has settled into her appointed role as a housewife and baby machine, while it's Jim who is the hot-shot big-city lawyer. Strangely, while Jim's head was turned early in life by the brown-skinned wiry farm-girls he grew up with, he seems to have ended up married to one of the strait-laced all-American girls he previously affected disdain for. No doubt there is some sort of compensation going on here for his previous unrequited love for Ántonia.

It's more a series of sketches than a novel with a rollicking plot (so no hermaphrodite alligators, sorry), but the evocation of the vastness of the landscape is good, as is the general precariousness of people's lives - if you trod in a gopher hole and broke your ankle you were, unless you were very lucky, fucked, likewise if an inopportune rainstorm took your potato crop you were going to be living (again, if you were lucky) on rats and twigs come springtime.

Like Sunset Song though, it's a good deal more cheerful and less grim than all that makes it sound: the bonds of friendship, the unbreakableness of the human spirit, all that sort of stuff. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, anyway, if that helps at all.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

what we did at the weekend

Here's a few links that may be of interest from our weekend in Exmoor:
  • we stayed at the Lorna Doone Hotel in Porlock, which in addition to accommodation facilities also has a very nice restaurant, which we made full use of.
  • we also went to the Royal Oak (next door to the hotel) which had very acceptable Doom Bar and also The Ship at the other end of town which had, among other things, St. Austell Proper Job, which was excellent.
  • the main business of the weekend, however, was a 12-mile walk across the northern end of Exmoor on Saturday. We got the number 39 bus from Porlock to Minehead, and then walked pretty much due west, via a quick bagging of a trig point on the way, to the top of Dunkery Beacon, which in addition to being the highest point on Exmoor at 1705 feet (520 metres) is also the county high point of Somerset, so chalk up another one to this list (and also this one). Once we'd bagged that we turned due north and wended our way back through some pleasant woodland to Porlock, and the pub.
  • I remembered to take the GPS with me this time, so I have a record of the exact route, and via the magic of the newly-publically-available Ordnance Survey map data and this splendid GPX file conversion facility I can show you a map of that route here. The elevation profile is below (measurements are in metres), the top bit being the summit of Dunkery Beacon, of course.

  • we also popped into Dunster on the way back home today, which has a castle, which seems to be shut at the moment, and various mediaeval remains dotted around the village.
  • some photos can be found here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

snookus loopius nuttius sumus

Never let it be said that I don't know how to show a lady a good time. Since the lovely Hazel is currently on a diet, and therefore the usual Valentine's Day activities involving a bathtub full of champagne and half a pound of finest Belgian chocolates were out of the question, we had to come up with some alternative ideas. Number two on pretty much anyone's list of romantic activities after the Bolly and Bournville combo would be Roman archaeology and top-class live tournament snooker, so that's what we opted for.

Luckily there just happen to be some high-quality Roman remains a couple of miles up the road: so close in fact that you can walk there from the house. So we re-traced the route of my snowy walk of a couple of months ago and ended up in Caerleon. We had intended to return to the Red Lion for lunch, but it was shut, so we ended up in the Hanbury Arms, which I can report has very good Brains SA and pretty decent haddock and chips. We then moved on to the historical stuff, which is basically in four bits, the museum (which you should probably do first) and the Roman Baths in separate buildings a few yards apart, and the amphitheatre and military barracks which are in a couple of adjoining fields half a mile or so away. And it's all free, which is nice. Anyway, here's a few photos.

Later in the day we went down to the Newport Centre to watch the evening session at the Welsh Open snooker - there's no advance guarantee of who you're going to get to see, but as luck would have it we got seats for Ryan Day against Jimmy White. Sadly the Whirlwind's travelling army of thick-necked shouty cockney geezers went home disappointed as Day thrashed him 4-0 in less than an hour, including breaks of 125 and 102. Impressive stuff. Once that was over everyone moved across the arena to watch the other match, Rory McLeod against Jamie Cope. This one was a little more, shall we say....tactical? attritional? dull? so we left once Cope had ground his way into a 3-2 lead (he eventually won 4-3). I can also confirm that that little red earpiece thingy that you see people wearing during the televised coverage is actually called a SoundDec FM Scan-Tune Radio, and you'll have to shell out six quid if you want one.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

the hubbard is bare

Just a quick footnote to the last post: Russell Miller's 1987 Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah is hard to get hold of in physical form now, but just as Hubbard "discarded the body he had used in this lifetime", in the Church's words, in 1986 (or, as we would say, "died"), the book has now transcended the need for corporeal paper-and-ink form and moved to a higher plane of existence, specifically here at the excellent Operation Clambake website. The formatting isn't as easy on the eye as it might be, but it really does appear to be the full text of the book, for free. I've only dipped into it here and there, but it's fascinating stuff.

scientollocks!

Further opportunities for chuckly fun at the expense of idiots and/or arseholes can be found in the current amusing spat between the New Yorker magazine and the always-reliably-out-to-lunch Church of Scientology.

It all centres around a long and fascinating article published in the latest issue of the New Yorker, which is basically an extended interview with Hollywood screenwriter and high-profile Scientology defector Paul Haggis. It is remarkable, reading the article, how someone as seemingly level-headed and self-aware as Haggis could have got caught up in all this nonsense, but that is after all how cults work. As he himself says:
I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.
The Church's riposte takes two separate tacks: the first is the usual smearing of anyone who has left the Church and chooses to speak out about it, like former members Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Jason Beghe and Marc Headley. The second is to focus on the allegation in the original New Yorker article that the Church was the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation into human trafficking. That there once was such an investigation is not in dispute, whether it is still active is, to be fair, the subject of some disagreement even among non-maniacs. It seems highly unlikely to me, even though I suspect many of the stories are true, that any charges will ever be brought against cartoonish supervillain David Miscavige, but it's nice to keep shining a spotlight on the organisation anyway, just for a laugh.

More interesting to me are a couple of things that reveal the strange and pernicious hold that religious belief of any denomination has on people, and the weird erosion and shutting off of critical thinking skills that it causes. Firstly, both Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder made the huge, wrenching, life-changing decision to leave the Church, and have been the subject of vicious personal attacks and defamation from the church following their defection (mainly in the person of sharp-suited scary shouty mentalist Tommy Davis), and yet both continue to call themselves "independent Scientologists". Thus I assume they've managed to convince themselves that Miscavige's running of the Church, management of its people and general tyranny is the problem, rather than the whole thing being built on the bizarre dreamt-up space opera fantasy of a compulsive liar and conman. They've found a way to compartmentalise things so that the basic "teachings" (basically the bizarre pseudo-scientific gobbledygook of Dianetics, rather than the more outlandish Xenu business, for the probably 99% of the church's members who haven't yet handed over enough cash to be exposed to it) remain untouched, and the dispute is just over some administrative matters, and, you know, Miscavige beating people up and stuff.

Even more starkly revealing is the brief exchange between the New Yorker and the CoS over the subject of Hubbard's war record, something Hubbard lied about almost constantly, as indeed he did about just about everything else. As always it's fascinating to see how people whose entire lives are spent in an uncritical goldfish bowl where everyone agrees with each other and certain things are taken as, as it were, gospel and never questioned react when confronted with a bit of good old-fashioned real-world scepticism and fact-checking.

Basically Hubbard's story was that he'd ended the war a blind bed-ridden cripple and had quite literally invented the science of Dianetics while bed-ridden, used it to miraculously heal himself and then gone on to spread the word to the world. Trouble is, none of this is true; furthermore most of the medals Hubbard claimed to have won were entirely made up, and the military discharge document presented by the church was signed by a man who never existed.
At the meeting, Davis and I also discussed Hubbard’s war record. His voice filling with emotion, he said that, if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then “the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.” He concluded, “The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.”
Oh, Tommy, you were so close. Come on, the Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things did the decent thing when confronted with the truth - surely you can do the same? The CoS's position with regard to the military's Hubbard documentation now seems to be: yeah, well that's the official story, but, you see, the thing is that Hubbard was under super-deep cover on some top-secret hush-hush super-spy mission and they covered it up so no-one would ever know. There! So I haven't wasted the last thirty years of my life and pissed away tens of thousands of dollars on a laughably obvious fantasy. Phew: that was a close one.

[The image of Hubbard hooking up an e-meter to a freakin' tomato, the nutter, is from here - the rest of the blog is worth a look too].

Thursday, February 10, 2011

the last book I read

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker.

Arno Strine is a 35-year-old office temp. So he's not made as much of his life as he might have done, you'd say. Well, not a bit of it - Arno has a unique talent: he can stop time in its tracks (for everyone but him). And what does he do during these stolen moments? Well, only what anyone else would do in his position: undress women, sneak into their apartments to spy on them and occasionally perform discreet sex acts on them (clearing up afterwards before restarting time, naturally).

Arno's ability to drop into The Fold, as he calls it, comes and goes and sometimes requires a trigger to set it off: flicking a switch, fiddling with his glasses, snapping his fingers, something like that. Each visit lasts anything from a few seconds to several hours: two of the lengthier encounters described here allow enough time for Arno to pen some 15-20 pages of amateur pornography and leave it where it can be easily found by the object of his lust.

Arno has some dim intimations of guilt about his behaviour, but rationalises it to himself by insisting he's doing it out of love and respect for women of all shapes and sizes, as well as the more obvious excuse that, well, no-one knows anything about it, so where's the harm? Just when it seems that Arno's Fold adventures are becoming more real than his time spent in the real world, he falls in love with Joyce, a woman from the office he works in. The trouble is, having decided to ask her out, and then subsequently on a campaign of total honesty, he finds himself having to explain a) his abilities (easy enough to prove) and b) that he's already seen Joyce naked during an office-bound trip to the Fold. Luckily Joyce turns out to be a broad-minded sort of girl, so all Arno has to do now is find a way of including her in his trips out of time. Wait - what if we try and fool whatever higher power is controlling all this by being, you know, inside each other when the moment is triggered.....?

Baker first came to literary prominence in the the 1980s with novels like Mezzanine, whose action mirrors that of The Fermata on a smaller scale, i.e. it's compressed into the space of an afternoon with much exhaustive description of seemingly irrelevant minutiae. The critics loved that one, but by the time he'd delivered the extended phone-sex fantasy Vox and then The Fermata in 1994 a few of them had decide that all this explicit sex stuff really wasn't quite the thing after all. Victoria Glendinning's hilariously po-faced reaction, as reported in this 2003 Guardian profile, sums the attitude up:
It is a moral challenge to be faced, or it is simply meant as outrageous comedy, or as material for the sex-war, or as a portrait of a literary psychopath. Or it is an expression of male resentment of female autonomy. Whatever was intended, it is a repellent book. Goodbye Nicholson Baker, goodbye for ever.
To which I say: tish and pish. Most of the uncomplimentary reviews affect to have alternately found the book boring and offensive and/or disgusting, which sounds very much like trying to have your cake and eat it to me. I found it to be neither of those things, for all that it does sag narratively in the middle a bit, mainly while Arno is delivering his two pornographic short stories (reproduced in full) to their intended recipients, and indulging in an extended fantasy of what he will do with the recipient of the second one once she listens to it (this one is delivered via the medium of a cassette inserted in her in-car stereo while Arno has paused time in the act of overtaking her on the freeway), a fantasy which never comes to fruition as the ungrateful recipient tosses the tape out of the car window shortly afterwards.

Oddly, it's a book soaked in sex during which very little orthodox sex actually happens; the only non-masturbatory sex acts which occur are during the second of Arno's sex fantasy narratives - an absurdly over-the-top porn fantasy involving a number of amusingly named sex toys including the Arno Van Dilden Heavydick, the Royal Welsh Fusilier and the Armande Klockhammer Signature Model - and right at the end as Arno and Joyce discover a way of entering The Fold together. In that respect it's very like The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr. Hoffman, though without the horse rape bits. It's also like Never Let Me Go in that it's ostensibly built on a science-fiction base - the whole stopping time thing - but hand-waves away most of the questions that might be asked about such an arrangement.

Anyway, it's gloriously and joyously filthy and pornographic, and unless you imagine that that's in some way a bad thing I recommend it, even though not a great deal actually happens; but, you know, I gather the same thing could be said about Proust as well. Incidentally it is alleged that Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton a copy of Vox during their mid-1990s affair, the dirty bitch.

Monday, February 07, 2011

you've got to laugh

Well, I've certainly been getting my gloats this week. It's been like a big steaming bowl of natural gloatmeal, or possibly a double helping of Gloatibix, or possibly a whole packet of Duchy Originals Gloaten Biscuits.

No sooner has fundamentalist fruitcake Stephen Green been revealed as a raving wife-beater than the recently appointed member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Dr. Hans-Christian Raabe, is removed from his post after apparently "failing to disclose" that he was an insane homophobic bigot before accepting the job. As this article says, it's not just the bigotry that debars him - in fact you could just about argue that if it's unconnected to the job then it shouldn't, though I'm not sure that's an argument I'd run with - it's the more fundamental lack of concern for evidence and, well, just reality in general that's the problem.

As amusing as this is, and as much as I'm enjoying my piping hot Quaker Gloatso Simple, it really is a bit piss-poor of the appointing committee not to have done even the most elementary bit of checking of reality outside of the airbrushed version of his CV that Raabe presumably presented them with. A simple Google search would have done the job.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

swear wars 3: return of the jeremy

Evidently there's a bit of rivalry going on between the various current affairs shows broadcast by the BBC, as illustrated by Jeremy Paxman's dropping of the c-bomb on Newsnight last week. In Paxman's case this wasn't a spoonerism involving Jeremy Hunt (as the previous Jim Naughtie and Andrew Marr ones were) but a rogue "n" sneaking into the word "cuts".

Paxman has some previous in this department, having previously been obliged to apologise for saying "fucking" while reading an extract from Andrew Rawnsley's book about Gordon Brown, also on Newsnight. Clearly he felt obliged to regain his crown as on-air Swearmeister General after the Jeremy Hunt episode. I suggest Jim Naughtie now gets David Cameron onto Today and calls him a motherfucker. Top that, Paxman!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

the green green wife-beating of home

All this food and booze and books nonsense is all very well, you're saying, but what about the real issues? Like, for instance, what's Stephen Green and his rent-a-loon religious fundamentalist pals at Christian Voice up to these days?

Well, you'll perhaps remember that Christian Voice popped up to offer their unique critical perspective on Bill Bailey's comedy show a couple of months ago. It seems that they (in the person of, inevitably, Stephen Green) were also wheeled in to offer a view on Elton John's new baby when the BBC reported on the story just after Christmas. You can imagine how that went - Green being not overly enamoured of the gays, and by "not overly enamoured" I do of course mean firmly in favour of murdering them. When it was pointed out that they should therefore be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, the BBC resorted to the usual nonsense argument about providing "balance" and "debate".

So it's with a warm glow of outrage after that that I note this story in the Daily Mail a week or so ago, apparently based on a series of interviews with Green's ex-wife (they divorced in 2006), and detailing the usual nasty creepy authoritarianism plus some rather more spicy wife-beating action. I know, evil deranged bigot in public life equals not particularly nice bloke in private life is hardly revolutionary news, but it gives me a rosy glow of schadenfreude all the same. Still, I expect he went to confession afterwards, so it's all OK. I would also like it noted that I made the obvious and well-documented link between fanatical homophobia and deep, deep closeting here, just so that you can refer back to it when the other tabloid stories eventually come out. You know the ones I mean.

the last book I read

Until I Find You by John Irving.

There are certain things you know you're going to get with a John Irving novel: one of them (usually anyway) is a good solid doorstop-style thickness - at 924 pages this is comfortably the longest book in this series, beating the previous holder (The Corrections) by a whopping 271 pages; that in itself is longer than some novels. There are also many constantly-worked and reworked themes, a list of which (and the novels in which they feature) can be found here.

One of the more general common features of Irving's books which isn't listed there is that they're almost all, broadly speaking, Bildungsroman-style tales spanning the whole life of the major character from childhood to adulthood, and in some cases (most notably The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany, of which more later) death.

So as we pick up proceedings here it's no surprise to meet a four-year-old Jack Burns. His mother, Alice, is bringing him up single-handed after her brief dalliance with his father, William, in Edinburgh, ends with him abandoning her. Alice is a tattoo artist, and William, as well as being an inveterate womaniser, is a church organist and tattoo addict gradually building up a full-body set of tattoos.

Having pursued a fleeing William to Canada, and, after failing to find him, settling there with Jack for a few years, Alice decides on a more concerted effort to track William down and embarks on a dizzying trip around various European cities - most notably Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Amsterdam - paying their way by setting up as a travelling tattooist in each location. Inevitably they turn up in each city only to find that William has moved on to the next and they've missed him. After a more lengthy stay in Amsterdam, where William has been playing the organ at the Oude Kerk and, as everywhere, leaving a trail of abandoned women behind him, they return to Canada for Jack to enrol at school.

It's at school that some key events in Jack's life take place - under the guidance of Miss Wurtz he discovers his love of, and talent for, acting, and he also meets Emma Oastler, who is seven years older than him but takes him under her wing. Things start to get weird, though, as Emma takes a personal interest in Jack's sexual awakening and monitors his "little guy" carefully for signs of life, as do certain of her friends, Jack being even at this tender age seemingly irresistible to the opposite sex, just like his father. Jack also takes up wrestling (one of Irving's perennial themes) and (aged 10) is eventually relieved of his virginity by his occasional wrestling partner Mrs. Machado.

His schoolyears having instilled in him a love of acting and a bit of a thing for older women, Jack heads off to Los Angeles to pursue a career in movies. Emma Oastler follows him and they (platonically) set up house together. When Emma, who, in a mirroring of Jack's fetish, has a penchant for younger men, dies of a previously-undiagnosed heart condition during a strenuous bout of sex with one of them, Jack takes on the writing of a screenplay of one of her novels, and eventually wins an Oscar for it.

Meanwhile Jack's mother Alice and Emma's mother Leslie have (non-platonically) set up house together back in Toronto. When Alice eventually contracts breast cancer and dies, Jack decides on a nostalgic re-run of their European tour of thirty-odd years earlier. Through his various reunions with the tattoo artists and prostitutes (another Irving trope) from that trip it becomes clear that Alice had not given Jack the full story about any of it. For starters, she wasn't working as a tattoo artist in Amsterdam, but as a prostitute. Furthermore, William wasn't constantly eluding them, he was regularly in town at the same time as them, and Jack even unknowingly met him once. It seems William and Alice were conducting a protracted battle of wills over custody and viewing rights for Jack, and Alice was leading William on this wild-goose chase and tormenting him with the prospect of never seeing Jack again as a ruse to win him back - unsuccessfully, needless to say.

Eventually Jack learns (via Miss Wurtz, with whom he has remained in contact) that he has a half-sister, Heather. On visiting her in Edinburgh it transpires that William is still alive, but being cared for in a clinic in Switzerland for various ill-defined psychiatric disorders. Jack travels to Zurich, and, after a bizarre meeting with the motley crew of medical staff entrusted with William's care, finally gets to meet him.

It turns out that William is generally sensible and coherent, but suffers from various obsessive disorders that result in him doing odd things in response to certain triggers - mostly involving taking all his clothes off in inappropriate circumstances to display his tattoos, which now cover most of his body. Nevertheless Jack undertakes to cover the clinic's fees for the rest of William's life and devote himself to his father's care.

And there, 924 pages later, you have it. That's a long book by anyone's standards, and Irving is one of the few authors who can make getting through a book of that length easy and painless. That said, this won't be heading to the top of my list of Favourite John Irving Books any time soon, nor indeed making the top three or four. Partly this is down to the central character - Jack Burns is a bit of a cipher who we never really get to know, still less understand why he's supposedly so irresistible to women (even at the age of five). His motivations for doing any of the things he does during the book are unclear - indeed he's oddly passive, certainly with women, many of his encounters involving him acquiescing to their advances rather than vigorously pursuing them. Then again if women are ravenously throwing themselves at you constantly maybe you do become a bit blasé about the whole thing. Needless to say I wouldn't know about that.

The handling of the sensitive subject of Jack's early sexual experiences is odd, as well - clearly all of these are unequivocally child abuse, but while the attentions of Emma and her contemporaries is portrayed as cuddly and harmless, those of Mrs. Machado are portrayed as exploitative and sinister, despite not being much different.

I suppose a large part of it is over-familiarity - if you came to this as the first Irving you'd read, you probably wouldn't find the lengthy segments dealing with Jack's school wrestling career or the prostitutes Jack and Alice hang out with in Amsterdam slightly tedious after similar sections in many other books (The World According To Garp for the wrestling and The Hotel New Hampshire for the prostitutes, for instance). Equally you wouldn't reflect on the relationship between Jack and Emma Oastler and think: hey, this is awfully similar - small, younger guy, big, older woman - to the relationship between Owen and Hester in A Prayer For Owen Meany? That might partly explain why Garp, being the first Irving I read 20-odd years ago, remains my favourite. So, all right, I've talked myself into it - here's my list of Irvings in order of preference - suffixed in each case by their last line, which Irving claims always to write first:
  1. The World According To Garp - But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.
  2. The Cider House Rules - To Nurse Edna, who was in love, and to Nurse Angela, who wasn't (but who had in her wisdom named both Homer Wells and Fuzzy Stone), there was no fault to be found in the hearts of either Dr. Stone or Dr. Larch, who were - if there ever were - Princes of Maine, Kings of New England.
  3. The Water-Method Man - Mindful of his scars, his old harpoons and things, Bogus Trumper smiled cautiously at all the good flesh around him.
  4. A Widow For One Year - "Don't cry, honey," Marion told her only daughter. "It's just Eddie and me".
  5. The Hotel New Hampshire - You have to keep passing the open windows.
  6. Until I Find You - In fact, Jack couldn't wait to tell Miss Wurtz that he had found him.
  7. A Prayer For Owen Meany - O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking You.
  8. The Fourth Hand - Like other lovers, they were oblivious to the swirling wind, which blew on and on in the wild, uncaring Wisconsin night.
Looking at this the only further observation I'd make is that one of the things that separates the higher ones on the list from the lower ones is that they have a greater focus on the adult life of the central character, the lower ones (Until I Find You and A Prayer For Owen Meany in particular) spending, in my view, far too much time in the company of the central character as a child. Kids are great and all, but adults are just fundamentally more interesting.

Just another quick footnote: this book and its immediate predecessor provide the second instance in this series of two consecutive books which could plausibly be found next to each other on a bookshelf - a reasonably well-stocked one, I mean, as obviously Albert Aardvark amd Zebedee Zebra could be next to each other if they were the only two books you owned - that bookshelf being ordered alphabetically by author's surname, obviously, as everyone's bookshelves presumably are; to do otherwise would literally be madness, after all. Anyway, the other two are the Boyle/Boyd pair from June 2007.