Wednesday, May 17, 2017

the last book I read

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

Our narrator, who may or may not be called John (he suggests, half-jokingly, that we call him "Jonah"), is an author researching a book about what some of the key players in the development of the nuclear bomb were doing on the day the first one was used in anger, at Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

John's first person of interest is Felix Hoenikker, one of the principal developers of the technology that powered the atomic bomb. Hoenikker is dead, but his three children Franklin, Newton and Angela are still alive, though scattered across the globe. John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker and visits Felix Hoenikker's former hometown of Ilium, New York, but his research only really gets going when he gets sent on an unrelated reporting assignment to the small Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where it just happens that Franklin Hoenikker has been appointed successor-in-waiting to the island's dictator "Papa" Monzano, a delightful character given to keeping the population in line by occasionally impaling people on giant metal hooks.

These occasional impalements are usually for practising the island's de facto official religion, Bokononism, which despite being practised almost universally is officially banned by the government. Based on the writings of its founder, an Englishman called Lionel Boyd Johnson who found himself shipwrecked on the island, it's a typically Vonnegutesque mish-mash of cynical, fatalistic and occasionally baffling aphorisms, with Johnson aka Bokonon clearly intended to mirror cargo cult figures like John Frum.

It soon becomes clear that in addition to the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker also invented another potentially world-threatening device: ice-nine. This is a new form of water, solid at and well above room temperature, and indeed most temperatures found on Earth. A single seed crystal can solidify an unlimited amount of water if it comes into contact with it. It further becomes clear that the Hoenikker children have ice-nine crystals in their possession, and that Franklin has used his to parlay his way into the top job in "Papa" Monzano's government.

The shit really hits the fan when Papa decides that his terminal cancer has become too painful for him to endure, and checks out in spectacular fashion by swallowing an ice-nine crystal and being instantly solidified. There then follows a frantic attempt to dispose of the body (and that of Papa's doctor who accidentally freezes himself) and ensure that no ice-nine fragments escape.

Franklin decides that he doesn't fancy taking over as dictator and offers the job to John instead. John reluctantly accepts, but his first act as ruler - overseeing an air display by San Lorenzo's ramshackle air force - ends in disaster when one of the planes crashes into the sea-facing wall of the presidential palace and causes the ruined palace to disgorge its contents down a cliff into the sea. This includes Papa's body, and its contact with the sea causes the sea, as well as all rivers, streams and groundwater on the planet, to solidify into ice-nine, instantly ending almost all life.

A few stragglers on San Lorenzo survive and huddle together to eke out their remaining supplies of food and water. John writes a memoir - well, you've got to keep busy - which it transpires is the book we've just read. At the end his wanderings around the ravaged remains of San Lorenzo bring him face-to-face with Bokonon himself, and they contemplate the end of the world together.

This is the second Vonnegut on this list, after The Sirens Of Titan, and it's interesting to note that that earlier book also featured a post-modern, possibly even post-religion religion ("Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent") presumably intended to make various satirical points about more formally organised religions, and why not.

Both this and The Sirens of Titan are from the early part of Vonnegut's writing career (Cat's Cradle was his fourth novel, published in 1963), which I suppose really means stuff published before Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, the book that made him a major literary figure. As such it's a bit more linear than Slaughterhouse-Five or some of the later books. I don't have a problem with non-linearity per se but I do think this is better than the more self-referential later books like, say, Breakfast Of Champions, and indeed is probably the best Vonnegut I've read apart from Slaughterhouse-Five, which is fairly obviously The One if one is all you want.

I note that the plot device of having the entire population of Earth killed off apart from a band of ill-equipped random people on a tropical island was one he re-used for his 1985 novel Galápagos, although The Event there happened near the beginning of the novel rather than near the end. The device of having it be revealed at the end of the book that the book the main character has been writing, or struggling to write, is this book right here, the one you've just been reading, is one that's cropped up in a few other places on this list, notably The Medusa Frequency and Sweet Tooth plus quite possibly one or two others.

My mid-1970s Penguin paperback edition (see above) has an arresting image of an atomic bomb on the cover with what's presumably meant to be a crystal of ice-nine in the centre. Note that while the book the narrator is writing is concerned with the day of the Hiroshima bombing, the weapon depicted here is clearly based on the implosion-type device used in the bombing of Nagasaki three days later - the Hiroshima device was of a different design.

Here's a long rambling interview with Vonnegut in the Paris Review - note that I've also (belatedly) attached a similar link to the end of the Bridge Of San Luis Rey post.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

to cut a long story short

Just a quick follow-up to expand slightly on my point about short novels from the last book post. I knocked together a list of ones that I thought were worthy of strong recommendation from my personal archives as a footnote to this book post from 2008. I was also making a point about how perfect short novels were for film adaptation, so, just to bring things up to date, here are a few short novels (which I arbitrarily define as being under 175 pages, just to suit my purposes) which have featured on this list since Utz which a) I would unreservedly recommend and b) have been adapted for the screen at least once:
If you want further recommendations this is one of those things, like cat GIFs, pornography, and, almost certainly, cat GIF pornography, which is well-served by the internet, which loves lists. A quick Google for "best short novels" yields several lists with a variety of interesting stuff on, many of which are new to me. Obviously people's opinions differ, and there are some differences in people's definitions of "short" (and indeed "novel"), and some of the lists strive to avoid the "obvious" stuff like Animal Farm and A Clockwork Orange, so there's an interesting spread of stuff here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

the last book I read

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.

The eponymous bridge is a fabled and ancient wood and rope bridge of Inca construction somewhere on the road between Lima and Cuzco in Peru. One fateful July day in 1714 it suddenly collapses, hurling the five people on it at the time into the rocky ravine below to their deaths.

All five had lives that were already linked and intertwined in various ways, but of course now they will be inextricably linked forever in jagged plummety gnarly death. A Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, documents the lives of the dead in an attempt to make sense of a seemingly senseless and arbitrary tragedy. Had the people on the bridge done things in their lives that warranted those lives being ended in that way? Had their whole lives been leading up to this pre-ordained point in some way? Through Brother Juniper's research we learn a little about the five victims.
  • Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor, grand lady about town and writer of long plaintive letters to her daughter who has made an advantageous marriage and headed off to Spain with her husband. 
  • Pepita, the Marquesa's companion, assigned to her service by the convent she was brought up at. The Marquesa and Pepita have made a pilgrimage to a local shrine to bring good luck to the baby the Marquesa has just discovered her daughter is expecting. It doesn't bring either her or Pepita much luck, though, as on the way back they are careless enough to fall off a bridge.
  • Esteban, inseparable twin brother to Manuel, also raised at the local convent, with never a harsh word exchanged between the brothers (who in any case converse in their own incomprehensible language) until Manuel falls unrequitedly in love with Camila Perichole, an actress, and agrees to be a letter-writing go-between facilitating the progress of her various affairs with the local viceroy, various bullfighters and no doubt a few others. After Manuel's death Esteban signs up to go to sea with grizzled old Captain Alvarado and is just running some preliminary errands when he takes a fateful short-cut across the bridge.
  • Uncle Pio, mentor and confidante to Camila Perichole but recently estranged from her after she contracts smallpox and withdraws from public life. 
  • Don Jaime, son of Camila Perichole, entrusted to Uncle Pio's care by Camila Perichole after he visits her and persuades her to let him take the boy away. I'll keep him safe, he says. Better steer clear of that bridge then. Too late.
Brother Juniper slaves away at his research for several years, coming up with various crackpot mathematical formulae to measure people's intrinsic worth. You can imagine his disappointment when the church declares his book heresy, and indeed his further disappointment when he gets burnt at the stake as a result.

The book ends a number of years later, with Camila Perichole, now presumably recovered from the pox, and later Doña Clara, daughter of the Marquesa de Montemayor, visiting the abbess of the convent where Pepita and Esteban spent some of their formative years and appreciating the simple goodness of their mission. Maybe there isn't a design to all this, and life really is just about bimbling along trying to be helpful wherever you can without any particular expectation of reward?

The first thing you notice about The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is that it's very short - at 124 pages only The Leaves On Grey and Bonjour Tristesse of novels in this list are shorter. Plenty packed into that short length though; after the bracing in medias res opening we get some concise back-story for each of the protagonists and a bit of philosophical musing from Brother Juniper about What It All Means.

Just as there's something joyful about getting stuck into a really long book, there's something very satisfying about a really good short novel; a miniature croissant and an espresso instead of the full English and an urn of builder's tea. And this is a really good short novel - not that you need me to tell you that, as it's on various Best Of The 20th Century lists (it was published in 1927), including the TIME magazine list we've featured here a few times before. It has also been filmed a number of times, most recently in 2004 featuring quite the cast, although by all accounts it's a bit of a snore-fest (despite featuring at least five deaths), so approach with caution.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928 - half-arsed research suggests that it's the fourth Pulitzer winner on this list, after Foreign Affairs, The Road and Independence Day.

[Update: here's a lengthy 1956 interview with Wilder in the Paris Review.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

the last book I read

Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Phileas Fogg is having trouble with the domestic staff at his house. It's not, as you might have imagined, in Medomsley Road, Consett, but in Savile Row, London. Mr. Fogg has just fired his valet for some comically minor infraction involving the temperature of his shaving water, and has just agreed to hire one Jean Passepartout, a Frenchman of adventurous and exotic past who's just looking for a nice quiet, safe, methodical job and has heard of Mr. Fogg's reputation as a man of constant and imperturbable routine. Little does he know Mr. Fogg is about to piss on his chips in a fairly major way.

Mr. Fogg is a member of the Reform Club, and a strong contender for Most Phlegmatic and Methodical Man Alive. This is a man who has his days and weeks mapped out meticulously in advance, so a typical week might look something like this:
  • Monday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Tuesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Wednesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Thursday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Friday: slaking of filthy shameful lusts with a tuppenny-ha'penny Whitechapel prostitute
  • Sunday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
So it's something of a surprise, possibly even to Mr. Fogg himself, when as a result of a fairly innocuous discussion at his club he finds himself wagering £20,000 on being able to circumnavigate the globe in a period of eighty days or less.

So much for Passepartout's wishes for a bit of a quiet life, then; Mr. Fogg returns from the club, rounds up Passepartout and with barely time to pack a few changes of socks and a giant bag of cash, they're off. Needless to say Mr. Fogg has an itinerary mapped out in advance, but it's one that has precious little slack in it. All goes well until they attempt to take a train across India from Bombay to Calcutta and discover that the middle fifty miles or so of the railway have yet to be built. Unfazed, Mr. Fogg negotiates the purchase of an elephant (plus someone to drive it) and the party sets off across country. Along the way they encounter a funeral party including a young widow who it becomes clear is to be tossed onto the funeral pyre. As phlegmatic as Mr. Fogg is this will not stand and a rescue is organised, culminating in the travelling party plus the widow, Mrs. Aouda, escaping atop a galloping elephant.

Some complications: the party are being followed by a Scotland Yard detective, Fix, who is convinced that Mr. Fogg is a fugitive criminal responsible for a bank robbery back in London at around the time of the original wager. Fix's machinations mean that Mr. Fogg and Passepartout have to jump bail in Hong Kong, and then ensure that Passepartout catches the steamer to Yokohama but that Mr. Fogg and Mrs. Aouda miss it, necessitating a bit of private chartering to catch up.

Once reunited, the party proceeds on the long journey by ship across the Pacific and then by rail across North America. Things do not go completely smoothly and at one point they have to take a trip on a wind-powered sledge to get to Omaha in time to catch a train to New York. Once again they miss the scheduled ship and have to resort to chartering one, again, which takes them to Ireland, from where they have to travel by train to Dublin and thence by ferry to Liverpool, where Fix (who has tailed them the whole way) promptly has them arrested on suspicion of the original robbery. It soon transpires that the real robber has been caught and Mr. Fogg is free to go, but by this time he has missed the train to London (this being the last day of his appointed eighty days). He makes his way there as quickly as possible but arrives after the agreed hour, thus losing the wager.

Mr. Fogg retires to his rooms in a state of despair, ruined by the result of the wager, and contemplating doing the decent thing with the old service revolver. Some consolation is provided by Mrs. Aouda declaring her love for him and proposing marriage. But what will they live on? Fortunately for all concerned, Passepartout, while out making some arrangements for the marriage, happens to glance - WAIT A MINUTE - at the calendar and see that the date is a day earlier than he or Mr. Fogg thought. Cue a final mad dash back to the house and thence to the Reform Club to claim victory and flipping great wodges of cash.

This is one of those books it's hard to offer an opinion on, since it's so firmly embedded in popular culture. It's an enjoyable adventure romp which scoots by at a breathless pace, since there's barely 200 pages to encompass eighty days' worth of travel - though of course lots of it (the 20-odd days of voyage across the Pacific, for instance) is pretty uneventful. I think it's fair to say there's a bit of sly satire of national stereotypes going on here as well - Phileas Fogg the hyper-organised, meticulous, emotionless, buttoned-up Englishman who appears to have no inner life at all (he is, for instance, entirely uninterested in taking in any of the sights during the journey, preferring to mechanically tick off milestones in his itinerary), and Passepartout the impulsive, passionate Frenchman.

The central plot point here, of course, is the main characters' obliviousness to having crossed the International Date Line during their crossing of the Pacific - well, in fact no such official construct existed at the time the novel was written, but nonetheless if you travelled completely around the world you would find yourself having to adjust your calendar on your return. The idea that a man as meticulous as Fogg wouldn't have been aware of this before setting off, or that he and his party would not have become instantly aware of it on landing in San Francisco (which operated on the same calendar as London) is clearly absurd. The central premise of Fogg impulsively making the bet in the first place seems utterly incongruous as well - having spent most of the first couple of chapters being told how utterly predictable Fogg is we are then required to believe that he would volunteer to drag himself literally around the world just on the basis of a discussion over the papers in a gentleman's club. None of that makes it anything less than highly enjoyable to read, of course.

You'll notice my Oxford World's Classics edition features Wallace & Gromit on the cover - I'm not entirely sure why, to be honest, except that it was part of the South West Great Reading Adventure which formed part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 2006.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

not the face!

You might recall this fun bit of face-recognition software from a couple of years back that purported to tell you how old you looked. I was pretty sure I'd done a blog post about it at the time, but I can't find it now, so I may have just bunged a picture up on Facebook or something. Emma seems to have tested it far more exhaustively than I did, anyway. Just to check that link was still active I gave it an old Facebook profile picture (which I actually think is quite a good photo of me, taken in a beachfront ice-cream shop in Barry Island); I think I would have been 43 at the time so the result was quite gratifying, if unspectacular.

There now appears to be another link doing the rounds which allows you to upload a picture and have a piece of artificial intelligence tell you which celebrity face it resembles. As with all things this is a bit of a stunt to publicise some more serious AI development, but of course it's irresistible - who doesn't want to have it confirmed that they look like a young Paul Newman?

Wait a minute: Reid Hoffman? Who the hell is Reid Hoffman? Must be a glitch in the matrix; let's try a different picture.

Well, OK, let's have a look: Reid Hoffman is co-founder of business networking website LinkedIn and a billionaire. So what does he look like?

Well, clearly there are still some unresolved bugs in the software here - that appears to be a picture of some middle-aged fat bloke. Let's try again with a different picture - this one was taken in the Ernest Willows pub in Cardiff on a match day in about 2007.

Hmmm, well, it's different, at least. I've never heard of Michael Emerson either, but I expect Google can find me a picture.

Well, at least he's not as fat as the previous guy, though he is a bit more weaselly than I'd ideally have liked. It turns out I have seen him before, in the first Saw movie, and possibly here and there on TV as well as he seems to get about a bit. Let's have another go.

That is fairly surprising, though I suppose Michael Schumacher would have been photographed in sunglasses quite a lot, and I am leading with the chin slightly in this picture which probably makes it look a bit bigger.

This one (taken at Taupo Quads in New Zealand in early 2001) makes me wonder whether a) some sort of machine-learning may be involved whereby the algorithm recognises me as being the face from the previous picture and "remembers" that it offered up Michael Schumacher as a suggestion then, or b) whether it noticed the same tenuous resemblance as before and also spotted the four-wheeled vehicle,

Well, no four-wheeled vehicles here (this was taken a day or two after the previous picture after a trip down a hill in a zorb near Rotorua) and still with the Schumacher suggestions. Strange.

You'd think there must be some situational awareness being applied here, as I look nothing like Wayne Gretzky, but he is a man who must appear in a lot of photos featuring snow, ice and woolly hats.

Ah, fuck off with your Reid Hoffmans.

Marc Benioff is another internet entrepreneur, founder of cloud computing company Salesforce. I'm being generous with the picture as it was the only one I could find where he was wearing glasses. Also, he's fat! And he has a beard!

Time to stop depressing myself and try something different. Who does my elder daughter look like? Note that this picture was taken nine months or so ago (in a softplay area at Bluestone), before she did a faceplant onto the school playground and knocked out half of one of her front teeth and bruised the other one. So all the current searches would probably come back with Shane MacGowan or something. Uploading a photo where full dental integrity was still intact yields the following:

It turns out Angus T Jones is the kid from Two And A Half Men, which I've seen about five minutes of ever. I assume that the resemblance is supposed to be two the clean-cut kid version, rather than the straggly-bearded religious nutter he later became.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

mr. halibut goes to blogland

As either a belated Christmas present or an early joint birthday present (their birthdays are only a week apart) our girls recently acquired the full box set of Mr. Men books. We already had a couple, but this is the full 47-book collection. This is obviously great for the girls, but also for me as it allows me to relive some aspects of my childhood, as a specific aspect of a general regression towards childhood, and subsequently an inexorable descent into drooling senility and, ultimately, death.

I can't remember exactly which Mr. Men books we used to own, but it was probably half-a-dozen or so, definitely including Mr. Tickle, Mr. Happy and Mr. Bump, and almost certainly also Mr. Silly, Mr. Fussy and Mr. Strong and quite possibly one or two others. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that my recollection of the full book list on the back of the books was that Mr. Strong was the last one, and that I always viewed that list as the definitive one and the addition of the subsequent thirteen titles (Mr. Grumpy through to Mr. Slow) as late-comers and not quite "real" Mr. Men books in some ill-defined way (I refer you to the first of the Douglas Adams quotes here as an explanation).

Looking at the books' publication dates reveals that this limits me to quite a small window, since the books were published in (broadly speaking) three tranches of thirteen, the first (Mr. Tickle to Mr. Daydream) spread out over 1971 and 1972, the second (Mr. Forgetful to Mr. Strong) in spring 1976 and the third in spring 1978. So I suppose that dates my main Mr. Men-reading activities to before 1978, when I would have been eight, which I suppose sounds about right, although as both Emma and I have discovered before, childhood memories, even what seem like crystal-clear ones, can turn out to be suspect.

Just to complete the picture, the thirty-nine books accounted for above are the ones written and published during Roger Hargreaves' lifetime (he died in 1988). Those are just credited to "by Roger Hargreaves" in the regular way in our editions. There were then four (Mr. Brave to Mr. Cheerful) published in 1990 which are credited to "original concept by Roger Hargreaves", which isn't very clear but which I assume means they were cobbled together from some works-in-progress left after Hargreaves' death, with a bit of tarting up applied by other people (most likely his son Adam). The remaining four (Mr. Cool to Mr. Nobody) are credited to "written and illustrated by Adam Hargreaves". The reason the spines-first view of the books above looks a bit wonky is that the spine design - with each book carrying a seemingly random blob of black which resolves into some text when they're presented together - was obviously cooked up for a box set featuring the original 39 books, and it was deemed too much work to rejig everything for the small number of subsequent books, so these were left blank and the whole thing ends up looking oddly shunted to the left.

That smacks of a bit of laziness, though to be fair more on the part of the publisher than the author(s). There is just a whiff of a bit of authorial laziness in some of the titles, though: Mr. Happy and Mr. Cheerful are essentially the same person, as are Mr. Grumpy and Mr. Grumble, and the whole raft of vaguely wacky characters that includes Mr. Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Silly, Mr. Funny, Mr. Muddle, Mr. Nonsense and Mr. Wrong are all essentially the same. The yin/yang pairs of Mr. Noisy and Mr. Quiet , Mr. Small and Mr. Tall and Mr. Dizzy and Mr. Clever also tell much the same stories from two different angles. But I suppose there's only so many books you can get out of a narrow-ish range of kiddy-friendly emotions. The gnarlier stuff like Mr. Punchy, Mr. Drunk and Mr. Rapey would have been off-limits to Hargreaves' target audience, though of course that stuff is ripe for parody, of which there have been many, of varying degrees of will-this-do laziness.

A couple of further complaints related to specific stories now: firstly Mr. Clever. Now I've been bought a couple of bits of Mr. Clever-related merchandise (more on this in a minute) by people over the years, for reasons that I'm far too Mr. Modest to speculate about. But if you read the story, Mr. Clever turns out to be a bit of a twit, and all his fancy book-learnin' is no match for the simple homespun wisdom of a lowly worm, or some such shit.

The slightly sinister Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy in the Mr. Messy book always remind me vaguely of the bizarre Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd characters from the generally bizarre Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.

Finally, Mr. Lazy. Now most of the Mr. Men are a sort of generic elliptical blob shape, with a few exceptions where their shape is dictated by their name in some way: Mr. Greedy, Mr, Sneeze, Mr. MessyMr. Tall, Mr. Skinny and probably one or two others. Mr. Lazy, however, is pretty explicitly a big pink arse (thereby making this parody superfluous). Take a look - I've erased the distracting features in the third picture to make the resemblance more obvious, although that does now make it look as if he's having a big splattery shit, or possibly a rectal prolapse.

I wouldn't want to quibble too much, though, as these are obviously children's classics, and the big bold magic-marker illustrations are very pleasing in a similar way to Dick Bruna's Miffy books. That simple design makes them perfect for slapping on a variety of merchandise, and sure enough a trawl round the house yields a few things - a pair of his'n'hers mugs, a similar pair of coasters and my beloved (and slightly threadbare these days) Mr. Greedy T-shirt.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

headline of the day

Here's another example (from the Daily Mail) of a phenomenon you might call "subject slippage" or something similar - a bit like this one (and indeed this one) in that as written it appears to imply people doing things after their own deaths, in this case some sort of zombie sexual assault rampage, perhaps as a sort of beyond-the-grave revenge for her own ordeal (which, to be clear, happened while she was alive).

A few commas go a long way in this sort of sentence, just to demarcate where sub-clauses start and finish and give the poor old reader some chance of following what's going on. The first paragraph of the story basically just rehashes the headline, but does contain some mercifully sense-supplying commas:

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

the last book I read

The Savage Wedding by Yann Queffélec.

Nicole is the daughter of the village baker somewhere in provincial France. She's nearly fourteen, looks eighteen, and has been conducting a tentative romance with Will, an American GI at the local army base.

That's all very lovely and innocent. Trouble is, the base is being closed down and Will is being shipped back to the USA, so he hatches a plan to rapidly (i.e. in a single night) accelerate his courtship of Nicole up to and beyond the point of physical penetration, forcibly if necessary. Needless to say it turns out force very much is necessary, and lots of it, especially when Will invites his mates Aldo and Sam to join in.

So the GIs swan off back home leaving Nicole brutalised, traumatised and, it transpires, pregnant. Despite her best efforts to induce a miscarriage with various quack herbal concoctions and a rusty spoon handle the baby (a boy, Ludovic) turns up robustly healthy, at which point Nicole and her parents banish him to the attic for several years, so as not to have to gaze upon the cause of the family's shame.

Scarcely surprisingly as a result of these non-standard parenting techniques Ludo turns out to be A Bit Odd, though clearly not mentally deficient in the way that his family insist that he is, largely for their own self-justifying convenience. Eventually Nicole embarks on a marriage of convenience with an older man, Micho, and Ludo moves into a bigger house with Nicole, Micho and Micho's older son Tatav.

So things seem to be looking up. Needless to say a spanner soon gets lobbed into the works: not only is Nicole extremely unreceptive to Micho in the bedroom, not surprisingly, she's also cold and dismissive of Ludo, since looking at him requires her to relive her ordeal every day. Eventually she persuades Micho (with the persuasive suggestion that with Ludo gone things might get a bit spicier in the boudoir department) to ship Ludo off to the children's home/mental asylum run by Micho's cousin Mademoiselle Rakoff.

There then follows a somewhat One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest interlude wherein Ludo is obliged to conform to the stultifying institutional regime, punished for minor non-compliances and generally encouraged to act like a mindless sedated vegetable, with visits from his family being the only ray of sunshine on the horizon. These visits are disappointingly intermittent, though, and always involve Micho (and occasionally Tatav), never Nicole. After a visit where Micho alludes darkly to some marital discord between him and Nicole, even these visits dry up and Ludo is forced to conclude that he's been abandoned.

There being no handy giant marble washstands to hurl through a window (and with his institution operating a slightly laxer security regime anyway) Ludo simply hops the fence one night and sets off to seek his fortune. He winds up in the coastal village of Le Forge, and, wandering off to the beach, discovers the beached wreck of a ship, the Sanaga, which he makes his home. It's not exactly luxurious, but after forced co-existence with Tatav and forced communal living at the institution the solitude is just what Ludo needs, and with occasional jaunts into the village for supplies and occasional interactions with the assorted types who frequent the beach he's reasonably happy, in his own way.

Further spanners are thrown, though, inevitably: it turns out that the wreck is only a shortish walk down the beach from Ludo's old family home, which sets him thinking about his mother again. He also learns that the hulk of the Sanaga is due to be cut up for scrap, and that questions have been asked in the village connecting an escaped lunatic from a local institution with the mysterious young man who's been living on the wreck.

Then, unexpectedly, Nicole turns up at the wreck. Has she come to finally declare her maternal love for her son, the only thing he's ever really wanted out of life? Answer: no, she's been sent by the authorities to lure Ludo out to a place where they can grab him, tranquilise his ass and drag him back to the asylum. But Ludo doesn't know that: all he knows is that providence has sent him an opportunity to resolve his feelings for his mother and he's going to seize it with both hands if it's the last thing he does. Or, indeed, that either of them do.

You'll see that this is not exactly a barrel of laughs, despite my occasional levity above. Given the subject matter it'd be easy for it to tip over the edge into lurid melodrama, but Queffélec's spare, ruthless prose style prevents any of that from happening. The central message is, basically, they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad. Obviously you feel sympathy for Ludo, whose life was irredeemably fucked up before he was old enough to know anything about it, but you also feel for Nicole - despite her being the principal agent of Ludo's upfuckery she was fucked up in her turn by her experiences at the hands of Will and his mates, and subsequently by the wholly unsympathetic treatment she got from her parents. Despite the grimness of the theme and the evident impossibility pretty early on of it ending well for anyone I enjoyed it very much. Queffélec is a better writer than, for instance, Michel Houellebecq, for all of Houellebecq's higher profile and notoriety.

The Savage Wedding won the Prix Goncourt in 1985 - this is one of the grands fromages as far as French literary prizes go, but I think this is the only winner that I've ever read. It was also filmed as The Cruel Embrace in 1987.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

celebrabbity druggylikey of the day

Another author who died recently - though not as a result of the Curse of Electric Halibut as none of his books have featured in this list - was Dutch author Dick Bruna, mainly famous for being the creator of children's cartoon rabbit Miffy. We had a couple of Miffy books when I was a child, and we have a couple for the girls now as they're still in print and the blocky, primary-colour line drawings and general air of benign cuddliness are very appealing.

A couple of Dick Bruna-related lookeylikeys, then, as a sort of half-arsed tribute. Firstly, Bruna himself and German author (and previous featuree and mentionee here) WG Sebald. Both slightly scatty-looking, grey receding hairline, moustache, glasses. Bruna (on the left) is slightly older in the picture here and while Sebald's moustache is Teutonically straight and minimalist, Bruna's has just a touch of the Salvador Dalí about it with its upcurled ends. As a means of telling the two apart, then, the straight 'tache/curly 'tache thing echoes the method of distinguishing bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson from each other in the Tintin books (for info, Thomson without the "P" had the curly 'tache). More on this in a minute.

Secondly, here's the trite and no doubt highly unoriginal observation that multi-gazillion-dollar Japanese merchandising enormo-phenomenon Hello Kitty is pretty clearly a shameless rip-off of Bruna's Miffy. Judging by his reference to it in this 2008 Telegraph interview, Bruna was of the same opinion himself.

Lastly, an atypical swerve into inanimate object territory. Those who follow me on Twitter will know that we recently took delivery of our third child, Huw, after a 91-day hospital stay following his unexpected arrival 13 weeks prematurely. He's come home with a slightly daunting (though thankfully only temporary) drug regime for us to follow, including various vitamin and mineral supplements. One of them comes in the form of some largish effervescent tablets in a natty plastic tube, which instantly put me in mind of the tube (ostensibly containing aspirin) containing the secret fuel additive Formula Fourteen from the Tintin adventure Land Of Black Gold. The picture here depicts the tube about to be discovered and picked up by Thompson and Thomson, who mistake them (understandably) for actual aspirin and consume them, with hilarious consequences.

I'm pretty sure Land Of Black Gold was the first Tintin book I ever read, back when I was about ten, which would make it one of the first "adult"-themed books (not in that way) I ever read. I mean, they're a bit silly, and they have some knockabout slapstick stuff (mainly involving the Thompsons or Captain Haddock) but they have recognisably adult themes - in this case something slightly impenetrable to do with tainting Middle East oil supplies to corner the market in non-exploding oil products, a bit like what Goldfinger was planning to do with the gold in Fort Knox.

The Thompsons' strange pill-induced medical condition was obviously meant to be a bit of a running theme/joke, and they suffered a relapse in the next book in the series, Destination Moon, but I don't recall it happening again thereafter, so I guess Hergé must have got bored with it.

Monday, March 06, 2017

mosley dead? no, completely dead

If there's one thing that unites the octogenarian and nonagenarian novelists of the world, it's grasping Electric Halibut beseechingly by the trouser leg as he goes implacably about his business and asking WHEN, oh Lord, WHEN WILL THE KILLING STOP? Because, make no mistake, Electric Halibut's business is killing. He can't be bargained with, or reasoned with, and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until all novelists featured in this blog are dead.

The latest victim of the curse is Nicholas Mosley, whose novel Children Of Darkness And Light appeared here in September 2011. That was one of the later works of a career that spanned 60-odd years; nonetheless Mosley was still most famous for who his father was (and, to a lesser extent, who his half-brother is). At 93 he's the second-oldest entry in the list below after Doris Lessing.

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

Mosley's Guardian obituary provides another entry in the curious genre of obituaries written by someone who pre-deceased (by four years or so in this case) the obituary's subject.

Friday, February 24, 2017

can I get a witness

I had those Jehovah's Witnesses round the house again a couple of days ago, a scant six years after their last visit. This particular pair (and it seems to be pairs, usually) were middle-aged blokes, the one who did the talking being a bit Scottish, I think.

As before I was in the middle of working, so I kept it brisk and polite and didn't get lured into any sort of theological exchange of views, as tempting as it might be. I accepted the bit of literature they were offering, as I find these things quite interesting, in a "know your enemy" kind of way.

The interesting thing about this particular tract, and the way it was presented, is that the focus groups have obviously concluded (scarcely surprisingly) that getting all in-your-face with the God stuff straight away isn't really a goer, and that it's better to sneak up on all that via some other topic. So while I can't remember exactly how the current script goes, it's something like: I wonder whether you'd be interested in a leaflet on the subject of teen depression. Do you suffer from teen depression yourself? Or maybe know someone who does? Or just any teens in general? They might not appear to be depressed, but who knows, they might just be putting a brave face on it. Here's the front cover of the leaflet:

Now I'm evidently hopelessly ill-informed about religious publications, because while the title sounded a bit suss for a serious bit of medical/therapeutic literature, I didn't specifically know that Awake! is the name of one of the main Jehovah's Witnesses publications (the more famous one being The Watchtower). Nevertheless it took me about five seconds to smell a bit fat Goddy rat here, at which point I trousered the leaflet and bid them a cordial good day.

Flipping the leaflet over exposes the subterfuge, though, as there's lots of contact and website details on the back, below a random and slightly barking article about the Saharan silver ant which seems to be doing a bit of Just Asking Questions while obviously trying to make some sort of point regarding Intelligent Design. The feature article starts off innocuously enough by making some fairly obvious points about depression - you know, some people get it, some don't, it's a bit of a bore, it can be quite serious, it makes you feel a bit rotten, some people find going out for a nice walk helps - and waits till a couple of pages in before it starts making reference to Bible verses. It pointedly omits any mention of antidepressant drugs as a possible treatment, but aside from that (well, and the Bible verses) it's all pretty anodyne. It's not until a bit later in the leaflet that we get into the serious stuff with a prominent article on abortion. It's not actually as fire-and-brimstone as you might imagine, but does sneakily ramp up the evil quotient by making the un-evidenced claim of a link between abortion and depression. It doesn't, as far as I can see anyway, repeat the often-made and entirely bogus claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, but I wouldn't want to rule out the possibility of them having made that argument at some point. The print version does also attempt to reassure those who have had either a miscarriage or an elective abortion with the prospect of meeting their "unborn child" in heaven later, which sounds fucking delightful.

Preying on those in a state of mental vulnerability is of course standard practice for proselytising religions, as is a firm opposition to any treatment regime that doesn't involve embracing their particular belief system, in a very real and financially binding sense. Take a look at the Scientologists' bullshit "personality tests" and visceral hatred of psychiatry for another example - to be fair to the Jehovah's Witnesses they can't really compete with the Scientologists in the arena of overtly cartoonish evil and absurdity; whether this makes them more or less dangerous is an interesting subject for debate.

If you're wondering where the bonkers blood transfusion stuff is on the JWs' shiny new website, rest assured it's still there, and they're still bothering, for reasons I can't really fathom, to try to make the case that this is a stand based on solid scientific evidence, while later in the same article conceding that it's "a religious issue rather than a medical one". I would say "well, at least it keeps them off the streets", but clearly it specifically doesn't do that, or they wouldn't be ringing my bleedin' doorbell of a Wednesday afternoon.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

the last book I read

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies.

So here we are at the college of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known by its denizens as Spook, in a city which I don't recall being named but which we are presumably meant to infer is a thinly-fictionalised version of Toronto, that being where a great many of Davies' novels are set.

As all academic institutions do, Spook carries a varied cast of eccentric academic types: professor Clement Hollier, priest Simon Darcourt, exotic half-Gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, Hollier's graduate student and erstwhile lover, and John Parlabane, defrocked monk and ex-student at Spook, recently returned to the college in an impoverished state to presume on the generosity of his old friends Darcourt and Hollier.

Hollier, Darcourt and their devious colleague Urquhart McVarish are thrown together by the recent death of Francis Cornish, art collector and benefactor of the college - Cornish has named the three men, along with his nephew Arthur, as co-executors of his will. The elder Cornish's somewhat haphazard methods of cataloguing his art collection make the task of disposing of the collection somewhat time-consuming. The collection also includes a manuscript which may or may not be some unpublished writings by Rabelais, one of Hollier's key areas of study.

Many plot strands branch off here: Maria's Gypsy mother, her Tarot readings and her devious schemes to rekindle Maria's romance with Clement Hollier; Hollier's attempts to retrieve the Rabelais manuscript from Urquhart McVarish, who he suspects has stolen it, by getting Maria's mother to put a Gypsy curse on him; Ozias Froats and his research into human excrement; John Parlabane's attempts to get his dreadful autobiographical novel published.

Things reach an unexpected conclusion when the deaths of Parlabane and McVarish are discovered in quick succession, followed by the delivery of a letter to Maria and Hollier which turns out to be an extended confession-cum-suicide note from Parlabane in which he describes the lurid arrangement he and McVarish had agreed upon to satisfy McVarish's unusual sexual tastes, and the circumstances in which he subsequently murdered McVarish during the course of an elaborate sex game.

The novel ends with Arthur Cornish proposing marriage to Maria, and being accepted, and various publishing houses expressing a belated interest in Parlabane's novel in the wake of his posthumous notoriety.

Very much like the previous Robertson Davies novel in this series, The Cunning Man, this one features a lot of hugely entertaining philosphical discussion and digression on a whole host of interesting topics, but not a great deal actually happening until, to quote myself from the previous review: "a few deaths at the end just to tie up a few loose plot strands". It's not a book that appears to have been written out of a burning desire to make a particular point, unlike, say, Surfacing or The Dark Room. But that's fine, different books do different things in different ways. The character of Maria Magdalena Theotoky, in particular, is one you want to spend more time with, and as it happens The Rebel Angels is the first book in a trilogy, so the keen reader has the opportunity to do just that. Davies was a bit of a one for trilogies; all of his novels were grouped into threes except the last two (The Cunning Man was his last published novel) whose planned capping-off into a trilogy was thwarted by Davies' death in 1995.

Davies also sported, during his lifetime, one of modern literature's more spectacular beards.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

anatomy of a (joke) murder

As I'm sure most of you know, Twitter, in addition to being a hive of scum and villainy, has its own little unwritten rules and points of etiquette that change and mutate every few minutes, so that however constantly plugged-in you are, you'll always be a few steps behind. Well, I say "unwritten", but of course someone somewhere is probably documenting them (pointlessly, since it'll be instantly out of date) in an epic multi-tweet thread right now.

Anyway, my specific point here is this: those of us who tweet tweet about lots of different things, from HEYYYY HOW ABOUT THAT LOCAL SPORTS TEAM to OMG TRUMP IS GOING TO LITERALLY INCINERATE US ALL to HERE ARE SOME CUTE CAT GIFS. Also, from time to time we might want to share a joke of our own devising, in a throwaway sort of way, as if tossing out a witticism down the pub. Trouble is, a throwaway gag down the pub floats away on the ether and is gone, whereas unless you've got some very specific account settings on the go (or go around specifically deleting individual tweets) your tweet is going to be hanging around FOR EVER, or at least until Donald Trump gets us all incinerated and we revert to bashing each others' heads in with rocks for entertainment.

So let's say that there's a thing going on in the news, and you think to yourself: if we were discussing this in the pub I'd lob a gag in here, cos I've just thought of one. But I'm sitting at my desk in my pants, so perhaps a tweet will be more appropriate. But should I check to see if it's an original joke? I don't want to be accused of joke-theft; similarly while I don't expect to be immediately given my own radio show on the basis of a single tweet I don't want everyone moaning about me being LIKE THE GAZILLIONTH PERSON to do that gag this morning. But, equally, you don't want to spend an hour obsessively Googling to see if anyone's done the gag, because a) that's an hour that could be spent doing other stuff and it is JUST A JOKE after all and b) you'll inevitably find at the end of that process that you would have been first if you'd just bashed a tweet straight out, but now that you've spent an hour fannying about LIKE A GAZILLION PEOPLE have done it.

Case in point: the rather humorous lettuce shortage this week that everyone who pretends to like salad pretended to give two shits about before waddling out and picking up a KFC. The idea of it being Europe-wide triggered a synaptic thing in my gagular cortex, and I tweeted the following:
I immediately followed this up with a bit of faux-nonchalant weaselly arse-covering, as follows:
I thought no more of it until someone re-tweeted the following a bit later the same day:
So I thought: I wonder how many other people had the same idea? Turns out there were quite a few, most of them earlier than me, with the caveat that Twitter's time-stamping of tweets is a bit confusing.

All of these people can go fuck themselves, though, as they're as guilty of plagiarising stale jokes as I am. Check out these tweets from during the EU referendum campaign back in May and June 2016.

Is that the first time that particular joke was done? Well, in relation to the UK possibly leaving the EU, very possibly. But in a more general sense, the Remain/Romaine pun must have been done countless times before. Really this is a more general variation on the old non-Twitter-specific conundrum: who makes up jokes? We all know lots, but how many of those did we make up? Probably none. I suppose there's some value here in distinguishing between one-off punnery and properly-constructed jokes, though as always there's not a bright and well-defined line separating the two concepts. In fact this (i.e. where do non-groany/punny jokes come from) is essentially the premise of the Isaac Asimov short story Jokester, which I have in the early-1970s collection Earth Is Room Enough (as also mentioned here).

As always when talking about jokes it's worth repeating the old one about how deconstructing jokes is a bit like deconstructing your cat: you might learn something of interest but the cat will never be quite the same afterwards. As if to illustrate the point, I've no idea who thought that one up either.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I'm not okay, you're not okay

I don't do many of these Goddy posts any more (a paltry four in the whole of 2016, though to be fair there weren't that many posts of any kind during 2016 - compare this with eight in 2015 and a whopping twenty-four in the childless blogging glory glory days of 2007), but this was too good to allow to pass without comment: savour with me, if you will, the rich creamy deliciousness of full-fat cognitive dissonance as some groovy vicar type decides to incorporate a reading from the Koran in a Christian Epiphany service in Glasgow and then gets all surprised when people are outraged at the fact that the text contradicts standard Christian teaching.

Basically what happened was that a young Muslim woman was invited to do a reading at the service, in the interests of some fluffy ill-thought-out ideas about "inclusivity" and/or "interfaith dialogue", and read (or sang, depending which account you read - the video embedded here reveals it's sort of in the eye/ear of the beholder) a passage from the section of the Koran concerning Christ's birth. The reading was in the original Arabic, so would have been incomprehensible to most of the attendees, but someone identified it and controversy ensued.

The differences between Biblical and Koranic orthodoxy on the question of Christ's birth are fairly minimal, to the disinterested observer anyway - although obviously the ability to get murderously irate over minor doctrinal differences is pretty much the defining feature of organised religions throughout history. Anyway, there's broad agreement over what happened, but the Koran goes out of its way to make the specific point that despite the whole virgin birth thing Christ was not the son of God as the Bible insists. I suppose I have to concede that the divinity of Christ is fairly central to Christian theology - the clue is in the name "Christian", after all. What I mean by "minimal" above is that there's no dispute in either religion about the claim that there was a woman called Mary who had a baby by mysterious means who was called Jesus Christ.

Anyway, the amusing thing here is firstly the apparent surprise that different religions make differing claims about the world, and secondly the general flappery over what the appropriate response is. Can we call it "blasphemy" for the central claims of one religion to be repeated in the worshipping-place of another? Not only might that be deemed "disrespectful", it also seems to set us off down what might be a bit of an unpalatable slippery slope: it almost sounds like the Christians are saying that their version of the story is true, and the Islamic version isn't (and, similarly, that the Muslims are saying the exact opposite). That's not the kind of "interfaith dialogue" the groovy vicar brigade want at all.

The tricky balancing act anyone claiming to be offended here has to tread is explaining why repeating some of the basic tenets of Islam is OK in a mosque, or Sainsbury's, but not OK in a Christian church, while simultaneously avoiding any consideration of how the conflict might be resolved. Should Christians take Muslims aside and try to explain why they're wrong? If so, what convincing arguments in favour of their own position should they muster? There's a paper-thin distance between trying that and implicitly acknowledging that there might be a thing called "reality" against which fact claims could be verified to see whether they're true or not (and, moreover, that if they do turn out to be true they're as true in Westminster Abbey as they are in Mecca, or indeed Sainsbury's), and furthermore that there is a third possibility, which is that both religions could be wrong. It's always worth pointing out at this point that there is just about no proper historical evidence that a person matching the various descriptions of Jesus Christ ever existed.

Vaguely connected to that, here's a little texty-graphical meme (which may have originated here) of the sort that people love to share on Facebook, and sure enough a couple of my friends shared it in the run-up to Christmas. I charitably assume it's because they were amused by the bit at the end relating to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, rather than because they thought the bits preceding it were sensible or worth sharing.

The first couple of paragraphs sound, if you don't think about them too much, sensible enough in a hey-let's-just-all-get-along-the-world-is-like-a-great-big-onion kind of way, and certainly the bits about homophobia and reindeer-bullying are perfectly fine to all right-thinking people. But wait, let's just go back to the start: it's not okay to say that the claims about the world made by religions are false? How would that work? Maybe we're meant to focus on the words "shaming" and "silly" and imagine marauding bands of atheists interrupting church services to point and laugh at the congregation and hijack the pulpit for readings from The God Delusion, as has happened precisely never ever. I mean, I agree that that would be an unreasonably dickish way to behave, but it is implicit in the definition of the word "atheist" that you think religions believe stuff that is not real, and it's hardly reasonable to require that we never mention it, especially given the amount of time the devout spend tediously banging on about their inane beliefs.

Even if you exclude atheists from being able to speak in public forever, you've still got a problem: just about every religion's set of core tenets contains at least one which implicitly refutes at least one core tenet of another religion somewhere. You can believe, for instance, that the Christian God created the world (maybe in seven actual days, maybe in seven metaphorical "days" conveniently corresponding to actual cosmological/geological time), or you can believe that the world was formed from the flesh, blood and bones of Ymir by various Norse gods, or you can believe that the entire universe was sneezed out by the Great Green Arkleseizure, but you can't believe more than one of them, and whichever one you choose you're implicitly saying the other two are untrue.

So, in summary, criticising religion is not okay, and since religions themselves implicitly do this, religions themselves are not okay. But of course saying this constitutes criticism of religion, which is not okay. Uh-oh.