Wednesday, May 24, 2017

celebrity lookeylikey of the day - junior non-celebrity edition

My two daughters are quite similar in lots of ways: both gorgeous (obviously), both fearsomely bright and articulate, both charmingly devoted to their little brother, both quite partial to my spicy Korean noodles. Equally, they are different in many ways as well. Some of these differences are probably the inevitable consequence of the order of their birth - Alys is probably slightly more shouty and assertive as befits someone who never had her parents' sole undivided attention and has always had to compete with her older sister.

It's fair to say that Alys is a bit more physically imposing than her sister as well - at two years old Alys is two inches taller than Nia was at the same age, and she's already only six or seven pounds lighter than her sister despite the three-year age gap. Nia is the graceful athletic willowy type, whereas Alys looks like she'll be more suited to the strength events like weightlifting or Graeco-Roman wrestling. Actually, a bit of research reveals that there is a type of central Asian wrestling called Alysh, so maybe that's the one she should go for.

So when they both dressed up in some fairy outfits that a friend of Hazel's had bought for them and posed for a photo I was immediately put in mind of Alys' resemblance to Mavis Cruet, the slightly rotund fairy from the classic early-1980s BBC series Willo The Wisp. This was broadcast in the classic 5:35 - 5:40 slot just before the evening news (which, in turn, was just before Nationwide) - the slot previously occupied by classics like The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers, as well as some more esoteric fare like Ludwig.

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.]