Monday, September 30, 2013

a hilariously ironic blog post title

I was picked up and taken to task, and quite rightly, by my good friend Doug a short while back for using the phrase "achingly dull" twice in separate blog posts in relatively quick succession (actually on closer examination they were a little over two years apart, but I think Doug's point stands) to describe the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, gawd bless 'em. Not that I think it's an inaccurate description, as I'm sure that they are fantastically vacuous in person, despite the healthy glow of unearned privilege and the expensive orthodontics, but it behooves one to try not to repeat oneself, even when one's self-editing faculties are dulled by a raging throatful of republican bile.

Anyway, I was inspired to wonder what other blogversational tics I overuse, perhaps without realising it. A futile exercise pretty much by definition, you might say, since if you don't realise it, well, you won't realise it. And you may be right, but I think a capacity for sober, objective and unforgiving self-analysis is a quality to be admired and striven for. So in that vein I offer you the following: a catalogue of my overuse of the word "hilariously" during the lifetime of this blog. I find myself drawn to this word as it conveys a sort of sense of the jaw-dropping ridiculousness of much of the world and the people who inhabit it. But anyway, I probably overdo it, as is evidenced by the list that follows. Note that I've restricted myself to instances where the word "hilariously" qualifies an adjective in the classic adverb/adjective kind of way.

Of course, now I've done that, I will be unable to use the word ever again, except perhaps in an ironically self-referential kind of way. Conversely you might argue that once you start doing blog posts about word usage and frequency in your own blog posts you've already disappeared most of the way up your own arsehole anyway. I'm reminded of the novelist in David Lodge's Small World who was provided with a computer analysis of his own writing style and word usage and found himself unable to write ever again. We shall see.

Another way to monitor word usage is to use the excellent Wordle, which provides a graphical view of word frequency. Here's the word cloud for the current front page of this blog:

You can just paste a load of text in as well. No prizes for guessing which song lyric this cloud was derived from, but you can see how you could generate an interesting quiz out of it; just present the cloud and get people to name the song.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

the last book I read

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

We're in an un-named South American country, where the ruling regime have arranged an operatic recital for certain key local and foreign dignitaries in a bid to butter them up and attract a bit of financial investment to shore up their fragile economy. Their key target is Mr. Hosokawa, the head of a massive Japanese electronics firm, and they've lured him all the way from Japan by engaging the services of internationally-renowned opera diva and soprano Roxane Coss - Mr. Hosokawa being a bit of an opera nut and a fan of Ms. Coss in particular.

Little do the representatives of the ruling regime know that Mr. Hosokawa is such a devoted fan of Roxane Coss that he's quite prepared to travel halfway round the world to get a prime seat at a private recital, despite having no intention whatsoever of investing any of his corporation's money in the country. All that business is rendered irrelevant halfway through the gig, though, when a group of revolutionaries storm the building and take everyone hostage. The group's intention was to capture the country's president, but as he's ducked out of the gig at the eleventh hour to catch his favourite TV soap opera they find themselves having to make do with the vice-president and a load of foreign dignitaries and industrialists. They immediately release all of the women (except Roxane Coss, who has some value as a high-profile hostage) and the infirm, leaving 50-odd men and one woman.

There now follows a bit of a stalemate, while competing demands are exchanged, and the captors and captives settle into their daily routines in the expectation of a long siege. It's not easy keeping yourselves amused in these circumstances, but people find a way: Mr. Hosokawa plays chess with revolutionary leader General Benjamin, and once a proficient pianist is located among the hostages Roxane Coss keeps her operatic pipes lubricated by giving regular recitals.

Inevitably, close relationships start to form between the captives and the captors - the inevitable Stockholm Syndrome stuff, but also some more intimate liaisons. Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane Coss fall in love, as do teenage female revolutionary Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa's interpreter Gen Watanabe.

Clearly, though, for all the sense of suspension of reality that has set in, none of this is going to end well, and when it does end it's going to be at the expense of some of the relationships that have built up, because the protagonists are going to end up on opposite sides, and some of them are probably going to end up dead. And sure enough, when, after several weeks, the government's patience finally runs out and the army are sent in to bring the siege to an end, some people are rescued, and some are the recipients of a hot lead sandwich, either deliberately or as some of the inevitable collateral damage associated with liberations of this sort.

The first thing to say about this is that in general I enjoyed it very much, lest what follows be seen as an endless sequence of nit-picky criticisms. The main characters are rounded-out enough to be interesting and for the reader to care about what happens to them, not so easy in a medium-length novel (318 pages) where there are quite a lot of characters. That said, most of them are implausibly nice, even the revolutionaries. General Benjamin, the one we get to know best, plays chess and stoically bears the pain of a nasty attack of shingles, even while he's trying to overthrow the ruling regime.

As for the hostages, the French diplomat pines for his wife and cooks fabulous meals, the Russians smoke and drink too much but are generally well-intentioned, and the principal characters of Roxane Coss, Mr. Hosokawa and Gen are all dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. I mean, it's never happened to me, but I would imagine being kidnapped by armed terrorists is a fairly stressful experience, and one could be forgiven for occasionally being a bit snappy and cranky, but no, everyone's pretty fluffy and delightful throughout. I suspect that in general long hostage sieges (Bel Canto is actually loosely based on the Lima siege of 1996) are a bit more grim and savage, with the occasional arbitrary executions, the dubious hygiene and the constant hunger and thirst, but here it's all roast chickens from the lavishly-appointed kitchen and opera recitals courtesy of our heroine. And it's a bit convenient that after Roxane Coss' original accompanist dies in a diabetic coma early on there just happens to be an unsuspected piano virtuoso (one of Mr. Hosokawa's underlings) among the hostages ready to step into his shoes.

There's a lot made about the redemptive power of music, yadda yadda yadda, and fair enough I suppose, but it seems unlikely that among 60-odd people there wouldn't be a few unmoved or even positively irritated by opera, even when you've got a real-life diva belting it out less than ten feet away. And the epilogue that follows the climactic shoot-out is positively bizarre in its incongruous lack of continuity with everything that's gone before. Interestingly when the book was itself turned into an opera the writers decided to ditch the "absurd" epilogue altogether.

The other book I was reminded of while reading this was Iain Banks' Canal Dreams, which is superficially similar in that it features a world-famous musical virtuoso in a hostage situation somewhere in the Americas (that was in the Panama Canal; the specific location of Bel Canto is never revealed). That book was somewhat different in its depiction of violence, though, and in having the heroine turn into some sort of gun-toting ass-kicking Buffy/Terminator type by the end.

Bel Canto won some pretty heavyweight awards when it was published in 2002, most notably the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - my list goes 1997, 2002, 2005) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (my list goes 1995, 1996, 2002).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

and a beaver biryani for the wife

This came through the door while we were away earlier in the week. I promise you I have not digitally manipulated this image in any way - well, beyond a bit of cropping and resizing anyway.

Now the word "Tarka" may well have some meaning I'm not aware of - Google Translate offers no assistance in any of the obvious languages: Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Urdu. Historically most Indian restaurants in the UK have been run by people from Sylhet, which is in what is now Bangladesh, and Google Translate doesn't specifically offer a Sylheti option, but it's apparently quite similar to Bengali, so it probably wouldn't have helped anyway.

If you're labouring through this in a fug of bafflement, let me help you out: the reason this is funny is that there is a well-known joke that goes as follows:
Waiter (imagine something a bit like this): And what can I get you sir?
Customer: I'd like a Chicken Tarka, please.
Waiter: Chicken.....Tarka?
Customer: Chicken Tarka.
Waiter: So.....Chicken Tarka.
Customer: Yes.
Waiter: So....Chicken Tarka. Chicken Tarka?
Customer: Chicken Tarka.
[Note that you can continue in this vein for as long as you think your audience will put up with it before proceeding to the punchline]
Waiter: So, just to recap: Chicken Tarka.
Customer: That's right.
Waiter: Are you sure you don't mean Chicken Tikka, sir?
Customer: Ah, no, you see, it's like Chicken Tikka, but it's a little otter.
Boom and indeed tish. There is even a recipe for Chicken Tarka online, which is doubly delicious, firstly because it all looks very nice, and secondly because the blog author seems to have missed the joke entirely. The answer to your next question is yes, they do appear to be American.

Just to spoil the joke a bit, it is of course true that there is a dish known as Tarka Dhal, and indeed it appears on the Tarka's menu just as it does on pretty much every other Indian restaurant's. This interesting Guardian article reckons that the "tarka" bit is "a mix of spices fried in oil or ghee until sizzling and aromatic". Which to be fair, sounds nicer than eating an otter anyway.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

fiddy thirst state

The high disposable income glory glory days of a lavishly-stocked whisky cupboard groaning with all manner of intoxicating spiritous delights are long gone, sadly, and in these straitened times when most of my meagre income goes on nappies, nursery fees and hilariously expensive tiny shoes the old whisky cupboard is struggling along with just a skeleton staff.

But there is the odd bright spot, like this bottle of Glenfiddich Rich Oak that I picked up for 20-odd quid a month or two back. This is your basic Fiddy plus an unspecified amount of time maturing in "virgin" oak casks, which I take to mean casks that have not previously contained any form of alcoholic spirit - unlike the usual sort which will have previously held either sherry or bourbon (or, occasionally, something more exotic). Indeed the claim is made that this is "the first virgin American and European oak finished whisky in the world." That, as almost all claims about whisky uniqueness are, is hedged about with so many qualifiers as to be almost meaningless to the casual drinker, so the thing to take away is just the extra two years of cask maturation compared with the standard product.

And that makes quite a difference, it seems, as this is notably different from the light and grassy delights of the 12-year-old. It's quite a bit sweeter, for one thing, with a pronounced honey/toffee/Werther's Original (but without the paedo overtones) thing going on, and noticeably darker and richer. It's very good, and, dare I say it, more interesting than the standard 12-year-old, but it's still a bit, you know, nice for my tastes. The now seemingly defunct Caoran Reserve had, by contrast, a few rough and unruly edges and was all the better for it.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

glasses: a spectacular history

So, lots of us wear glasses. Some of us find that to be a pain, what with the taking them off and putting them on, having one pair for reading, one pair for looking at far-away things, one pair for X-ray vision, etc., etc. I, on the other hand, having been wearing glasses since I was about two years old, find it as natural as breathing, indeed I feel odd being out of bed and not wearing them. Now naturally I don't mean I've been wearing the same pair of glasses since I was two, that would be ridiculous. My prescription would have changed a bit, for one thing, and while I've always had a fairly large head it has certainly got bigger over the years.

So since I've got some old family photos on a DVD, let's have a look at changing glasses fashions over the years. Just to elicit some sympathy, let me start by pointing out that in addition to your basic long-sightedness I suffered from a lazy eye as a small child, so I started out with glasses and an eye-patch. Cute, huh?

1973(ish): the John Lennon round pebbly specs look.

1978: your classic NHS tortoiseshell rims.

1979: similar, except these would have been purchased in Java, so the NHS bit doesn't apply.

1986: scary aviator-style ones seemingly designed to obscure half the face. The giant plastic nose-piece is a bit weird too.

1998: similar, but slightly smaller and in a funky red-and-black colour scheme. You'll have to excuse the slitty bleary eyes; this was taken in Dublin and I was probably very drunk and/or hungover.

2001: a return to the Lennonesque round design; not such a good look after 28 years of galloping head expansion though.

2004: heading towards the sober middle-aged rectangular look.

2006: gone properly rounded rectangular now. All I remember about these is that a) they were by Quiksilver and were well expensive and b) they lasted all of a few months before being sat on and mangled by Doug (or possibly by me after a night out with Doug). It was Doug's fault, anyway, is my point.

2008: this pair got broken as well, in this case solely through my own fault; a misplaced golf club in a moment of pique (note that I wasn't wearing them at the time) causing a fatal weakening of the nose bridge resulting in an unexpected snappy failure a few months later. It was at about this time that I realised that I was nearly forty and it was about time I put away childish things and stopped randomly breaking pairs of glasses.

2009: not much to say about these except that they were black and slightly too small for my head.

2012: the black pair were replaced by this pair of cheapo Vision Express own-brand green metallic ones. I almost immediately saw where the extra money didn't go, though, as my excessively sweaty head corroded the green paint off the side-pieces, exposing the bare metal and bringing me out in a rash. Nonetheless I persevered with them for quite a while with the regular application of black insulating tape. Eventually they were consigned to the great glasses graveyard in the sky by my daughter's grabby glasses-yanking habits, which eventually popped a small screw out, never to be found again, which left one of the arms all floppy and the whole shooting match liable to falling off my face at the slightest provocation. Which is probably why I'm using a fleecy hat to hold them on in this picture.

2013: a bit more strapped for cash these days, I resorted to buying glasses off the internet, and very successfully too, as it turned out. These two pairs are from Glasses Direct - the blue-grey lower pair are just from their standard range, but the top pair (which I intend to be my main pair) are your actual Patrick Cox designer jobs. And still a smidgen over 60 quid for two pairs, including lenses. The internet is great. Apologies for the mad starey eyes of death, by the way; taking selfies in dubious light will do that.

Monday, September 02, 2013

the last book I read

A Kind Man by Susan Hill.

Tommy Carr is the kind man of the novel's title. And a good thing too, because times are hard. What times those are is never explicitly stated, but we're in some sort of poverty-stricken working-class community, probably in the first half of the 20th century. You'd stereotypically assume we were oop North somewhere as well, but no one is rendered as talking with an outrageous accent, so it's hard to tell.

None of that stuff is particularly important, though, as the story is not concerned with the broad sweep of historical events; far from it. Tommy and Eve Gooch (no relation) meet, fall in love, marry, set up house together and have a child, Jeannie Eliza. Times are still hard, and Eve's time is taken up with caring for her daughter and helping out her sister Miriam who is saddled with both an idle and periodically unemployed husband and galloping fertility that keeps her popping out sons that want feeding and cleaning. On the upside, Tommy has a job that brings some money in, and they both adore their daughter.

So having set Eve and Tommy up as honest-to-goodness salt-of-the-earth types, it's time to heap flipping great wodges of misfortune and misery on their heads. Firstly Jeannie Eliza catches a mysterious fever and dies. Then, still consumed by grief, Tommy suffers some dramatic weight loss and then a series of growths in his abdomen and throat. The doctor concludes that he is riddled with cancer, that no treatment is possible, and sends him home to spend his remaining days with his family.

But just as Tommy is sinking into his final coma, and Eve is being desperately summoned back by the neighbours from Miriam's house, where she's been helping out with the kids, Tommy feels a great heat course through him and suddenly his pain is gone. And not only is he cured, seemingly miraculously, but he seems to have acquired the ability to cure others as well, through the transference of the same heat that has apparently cured him.

Once word gets around Tommy becomes something of a local celebrity, and people come from far away to get his hands laid on them. Some of them offer money, which he is reluctant to take, but times are hard, and eventually after curing a rich man's daughter and mother of various ailments he accepts some money for his trouble, and is instantly rewarded by having his powers taken away from him and having the cancer return with a vengeance.

So what are we to make of this? Has Tommy really been granted strange mystical healing powers, or is it all a bit of mass hysteria? And what of his recovery from the great massive tumorous lumps that were about to kill him? If it was the work of one of the pantheon of supposed gods, it's a pretty fickle, capricious and unreasonable god to re-apply the death sentence as soon as Tommy succumbs to the temptation of accepting a bit of money to make his family a bit more comfortable, although of course fickle, capricious and borderline psychopathic are qualities pretty closely associated with any of the supposed gods that humans have worshipped over the years.

The lurch into implausibility (a bit like the levitation business in The 27th Kingdom) aside, this is beautifully written, and barely long enough to qualify as a novel (185 pages, big print, lots of whitespace). What it's for is another matter - a meditation on kindness and goodness? a lament for the inscrutability of divine purpose? a black satire about grief and mass hysteria? Probably not the latter I would imagine, as the supernatural bits are played fairly straight, and Hill has known form as both a religionist and a writer of fiction depicting the supernatural.