Friday, August 25, 2017

the last book I read

Boneland by Alan Garner.

Colin Whisterfield is a bit of a rum cove. Actually, that's Professor Colin Whisterfield to you, brilliant nucleo-quanto-astro-physicist or some such, working at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. His main work involves making minute observations via the mahoosive Lovell Telescope; Colin's particular obsession is observing the Pleiades, for reasons he only dimly understands, but which involve his sister's disappearance when they were both children.

Colin is not a man generally given to only understanding things dimly, as he has complete day-by-day recall of everything he has ever done. The trouble is this only extends back to the age of thirteen, before which he can barely remember anything at all, and where efforts to remember prompt severe anxiety attacks.

Colin has been passed through the hands of several mental health professionals before he encounters Meg, an unconventional lady psychotherapist much given to motorbike-riding and with a healthy disregard for the normal proprieties of practitioner-patient interaction. With her help (after a few false starts) they start to make some progress in piecing together what happened to Colin and his sister, by the (in hindsight fairly obvious) means of examining local records of the time. And, sure enough, Colin did have a sister, and there was some furore in the local press at the time when she left the farmhouse where she and Colin were staying in the dead of night, took one of the horses, and rode off to who knows where. The horse was later discovered on an island in a nearby lake, but Colin's sister was never seen again.

Let's leave Colin for a minute. Intercut with his bits are some episodes featuring an unnamed protagonist who we are invited to infer inhabits some time period in the Stone Age, though roughly the same Cheshire location. This person appears to be the custodian of some ancient wisdom which enables him to keep the world turning on its axis via some arcane rock-cutting ritual he himself only dimly understands. But, it is implied, if he fails in his appointed duty at its appointed time then some catastrophe will befall the world and some really Bad Shit will happen. As these episodes play out we are invited to infer (well, I think we are) that this guy is only one in a long line of appointed carriers-out of this ritual, and that maybe Colin himself has some connection to it.

One of the ways in which Colin's "issues" manifest themselves is in increasingly vivid encounters with some whispery spectre - sometimes heard, sometimes dimly glimpsed - who may or may not be his sister and whose motives are unclear. She seems keen to warn him away from Meg, though - but why? What is Meg up to? And what of Bert, Colin's taxi-driver friend who seems to know Meg, seems to know Colin's transport requirements before Colin knows them himself, and seems also to work for a taxi firm that doesn't actually exist?

Will Colin solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance? Will Meg's identity be revealed? Will our Stone Age friend successfully complete his appointed task and keep the sky from falling on our heads? Will any of this be revealed to make any sense?

One thing you can say in answer to that last question is that Boneland will almost certainly make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read the two books to which it is a very belated sort-of-sequel, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath. Those two are, at least in theory, books for children (or "young adults", because apparently that's a thing now); Boneland is most definitely not a children's book. Its writing style and the whole business of the fractured timeline with events in the present echoing those in the past is very reminiscent of Garner's 1973 novel Red Shift, which also involved a stone tool being buried and dug up again as one of the ways in which the story starts itself anew.

Garner is generally pretty scornful about The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen these days, but it was one of the key books of my early teenage years and I must have re-read it well over 20 times over the years. The Moon Of Gomrath is a darker and scarier proposition and certainly carries the implication that Susan's brushes with the magical world have carried her well beyond the point where she can ever be free of it and return to a normal life.

Garner's writing style has gradually become more and more terse and economical over the years, and Boneland doesn't throw the reader any easy pickings. I couldn't say with any certainty, for instance, that I understood any more about Susan's fate at the end of the book than at the beginning. In general the bits of the book that work really well are the flashbacks to the stone age, which are written in a rhythmical, poetic style suggesting stories burnished and refined by being passed down from generation to generation. There's also just a hint of the baton of humanity being passed from Neanderthal man (or some close relative) to his Cro-Magnon successors in the same sort of way as in William Golding's The Inheritors or Jean M Auel's The Clan Of The Cave Bear. Anyway, these sections are great, the lengthy present-day exchanges of dialogue between Colin and Meg less so, largely because they resemble how actual 21st-century humans speak only fleetingly. Meg's identity is hazy - clearly some sort of supernatural entity, it seems at one stage as if we're being invited to wonder if she may be an aspect of the Morrigan, the sorceress from the two earlier books, but her influence seems in the end to have been a benign one.

So while you would think that if the urge took you to finally pick up and write a conclusion to a story you'd set down nearly fifty years earlier, that you'd have some pretty specific way in which you wanted to round the story off. You would think that, but I'm not sure I see what it is; that may of course be a failing on my part. Boneland is intriguing and baffling, and these are not bad things, necessarily. The main thing that I came away from it with, though, was an urge to go back and re-read the previous two books.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

the last book I read

Sweet Caress by William Boyd.

Amory Clay has had a decent enough start in life, born into a pretty privileged upper-class family a few years before the start of World War I. Every family has its little challenges, though, and Amory's comes after the war's conclusion when her father, psychologically scarred by his experiences in a way that no treatment available at the time could have helped with, attempts to kill himself and her by driving his car into a lake.

As it happens, both Amory and Dad survive this experience, at least partly owing to Dad's poor planning in driving into a relatively shallow lake. Dad gets carted off to an institution in the wake of the incident and Amory spends a lot of time with her uncle Greville. Greville is a society photographer and the process of taking Amory under his wing includes taking her on as his assistant for various pretty tedious photo assignments with minor members of the aristocracy at society balls and the like. Amory demonstrates something of a natural aptitude for this and is soon entrusted with solo photography duties for some of the lower-ranking flappers and debutantes, while Greville hangs out at the parties, does a bit of schmoozing and tries to snag assignments with more exciting clients like the Prince of Wales.

Amory decides that she wants to pursue photography as a career, something Greville is happy to help out with by funding a trip to Berlin to get some secret photos of the furtive goings-on in the various late-night cabaret clubs. Greville also arranges the use of some gallery space on Amory's return to display the pictures, but they turn out to be a bit eye-watering for delicate late-1920s London sensibilities and something of a scandal ensues.

Amory finds it difficult to get work, until out of the blue she is offered a job with an American photo agency by its editor, Cleveland Finzi, who later becomes her lover. This first trip across the Atlantic is the start of a whole series of globe-trotting adventures, including some hair-raising ones as a war photographer during World War II. It's towards the end of the war that she meets Sholto Farr, a dashing military officer who just happens to also be the earl of some great tract of Scottish land. So Amory gives up the old photographing game (hardest game in the world, the old photographing game) for a while and devotes herself to being Lady Farr of Auchtermuchty (or something) and rather unexpectedly giving birth to twin girls - unexpectedly because she'd been given to understand that she was infertile after receiving a brutal kicking at the hands (well, feet) of some of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts while on an undercover photo assignment at one of their rallies in the mid-1930s.

Domestic bliss doesn't last, though, as it soon becomes apparent that the family pile has some crippling maintenance and repair bills that there isn't really the money to pay, and that one of the reasons there isn't any money is that Sholto (traumatised, like Amory's father, by his wartime experiences) is a raging alcoholic who has gambled away significant chunks of the family fortune in drunken visits to various London clubs. Moreover he hasn't been organised (or, to put it another way, sober) enough to get round to writing Amory into his will, so when he dies his first wife inherits the estate. Amory isn't actually too bothered about losing Castle Anthrax but does insist on being provided with somewhere to live (which turns out to be a cottage on an offshore Scottish island, which suits her quite well) and an income to provide for her daughters.

Peaceful semi-retirement doesn't really suit Amory, though, and despite being nearly sixty at this point (late 1960s) she decides that she needs to re-experience the thrill and danger of war photography and wangles herself a trip to Vietnam. We've all seen Apocalypse Now, so we know that it'll be a strange mixture of hanging around seedy hotels in Saigon smoking dope and interludes of shrieking terror when Amory and the young Australian photographer she's been hanging out (and sleeping) with head off on an ill-advised unsupervised jaunt up-country and get shot at by snipers. Amory gets some splendid photographs but quickly decides that she's too old for this shit and heads back home.

On her return she discovers that her daughter Blythe has taken up with some charismatic American guy and headed off to California to join his cult. So she heads off over there, with no especially clear idea about what she's going to do when she gets there, and sure enough Blythe, though a bit thin, insists that she's perfectly happy and in no need of rescuing. So Amory heads back to her Scottish island home and settles, happily this time, into retirement. The only fly in the ointment is the progressive neurological disorder she's been diagnosed with, something which makes her consider carefully the circumstances of her own death and ensure that she has the means at her disposal to bring it about at a time of her choosing.

The first thing to say about Sweet Caress is that it's a successor to Boyd's other two faux-biographical epics The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, though both of those had male protagonists. I'd like to think that the reason I don't think Sweet Caress is as good as either of those isn't just because Amory is a woman, although I suppose it might be a combination of that and Boyd being a man, cross-gender protagonists (in either direction) being notoriously hard to get right. Possibly for this reason it's hard to divine Amory's motivation for some of the things she does; you'd assume that a female photographer, especially an occasional war photographer (someone like Lee Miller, say), would be driven by an unstoppable urge to see and document what was happening, particularly in the face of the wall of institutional male bullshit that would have been placed in her way, but you never really get that impression from Amory, who seems to drift haphazardly into things.

The other problem here is one that's presented as a virtue, the interspersing throughout the text of various "found" photographs from Boyd's own collection, presented as examples of Amory's work. You can see how this must have seemed like a great idea, and an interesting extra challenge in constructing a novel - do you search for a picture that fits a narrative you've already written, or construct a bit of narrative specifically to enable the inclusion of an arresting image? - but it just seemed like a distraction to me. Once you know that these are real pictures you drift into wondering who they really are, and in any case while they're perfectly serviceable candid snaps none of them suggests a quality that could plausibly be the work of an internationally-known photographer.

The framing device (Amory's journal entries written in her Scottish cottage in the late 1970s) seem a bit tacked-on as well: you can see the point of this when the main body of the novel is written from the viewpoint of a different character (as in Birdsong, say), but since the main text is presented as being written, in the past tense, by Amory, it's difficult to tell the sections apart or see what the point of the occasional journal entries was, other than to tee up the last chapter where Amory contemplates a large whisky and an overdose of pills while jotting journal notes.

Enough quibbling: Boyd is incapable of writing an uninteresting book, and this is highly readable and I skipped through its 450 pages pretty quickly (being on holiday for a week helped). It'd be true to say, though, that I'd recommend quite a few other Boyds more highly, including most of the ones in this list, as well as Brazzaville Beach - still the best one, I think, although it was also the first one of his I read, so it's impossible to be objective. Note that Brazzaville Beach has a wholly engaging female protagonist, so it can be done.

Monday, August 07, 2017

the holiday delusion

We went on a brief holiday to Pembrokeshire a couple of weeks ago - a week in a cottage that I see from this post we'd previously stayed in in May 2010, back in the glory glory days of NO KIDS. Ah, memories. No, obviously kids are great, and ours are particularly awesome, but it must be said that there's less chance of ending up in Haverfordwest A&E on a wet Wednesday morning with a 2-year-old with a chest infection if you've taken the precaution of not having any kids yet.

But you don't want to hear about that. What you'll want to hear about is my habit of trawling through the bookshelves in holiday cottages to see what books have been made available for the casual holiday reader. I theorise that there are two main categories of holiday cottage book collection: firstly just the books that happen to be in the house anyway, perhaps from when the owners use the place themselves in gaps in the booking schedule, and secondly a collection specifically tailored to offer something for the bored holidaymaker who hasn't brought enough reading matter with him and therefore needs something to divert him on a rainy day. So there'll be a smattering of Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, maybe a couple of Lee Childs or a Norah Roberts or two for the ladies.

Obviously I am not such a fucking idiot as to go on holiday and not take enough books. Nonetheless I find it interesting to snoop around the bookshelves to see what's there, particularly if I detect that we're dealing with Holiday Cottage Book Collection Type A, as I like to call it, i.e. the more organically-accumulated stuff that's just there and presented with a take-it-or-leave-it shrug as if to say: these are our books. Deal with it.

As it happens the book collection at this particular cottage contains quite an eclectic mix of stuff, but a theme does start to emerge on closer perusal of the shelves. The first thing that caught my eye was this:

I'm sure that, like me, your initial reaction is to scoff and assume this is another collection of complaints about people not being able to wear giant dangly crucifixes while dispensing foodstuffs and the like, but apparently it's a more respectable scholarly work than that and more concerned with actual oppression involving actual killing of Christians, which undoubtedly does happen and is profoundly to be criticised and resisted. Nonetheless its presence points to a general concern with Chistian matters. Here's what we find next:

We're in more niche territory here, in particular a concern with religious revivals including the two major Welsh ones in 1859 and 1904/5. That said, while the copies here appear fairly elderly, most of these books remain in print, or at least did until recently.

The whole topic of religious revivals such as these is a fascinating one, involving such interesting concepts as mass hysteria, but I'm afraid I didn't delve into any of the specifics, largely because it was obvious that all of these books took the more standard praise-the-lord angle rather than a sober anthropological examination. In any case I was distracted by the next two:

These two are more in the standard modern religious apologetics vein, it being pretty cool and groovy these days to admit the concept of "doubt", as long as (as I've said before) it's understood that this is merely a ruse to make your faith seem more complex and nuanced and provide the illusion that it's been subjected to some degree of critical thinking, rather than there being any possibility of your "doubt" leading you to say something like: whoa, hang on a minute, this is all ridiculous.

There is an absolutely astonishing amount of this sort of stuff out there; just follow, for instance, some of the "people who bought this bullshit also bought this other very similar bullshit" links from the Amazon page for the Andrew Wilson book. One of the things you will notice if you do that is that Wilson wrote another book called Deluded By Dawkins?, another tiresome addition to the long list of similarly-titled books written as a riposte to Dawkins' own The God Delusion, a list that also includes Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion, David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion, David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions, Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion and many more. I'm inclined to view these people as utterly mendacious scoundrels just out to make a quick buck, but of course they may be driven by a genuine zeal to (as they see it) refute the misguided arguments that Dawkins presents and save some of their co-religionists from being lured away from faith and possibly (depending on your particular set of beliefs) eventually consumed by the fiery fires of hell for all eternity. I mean, I doubt it, but then again that just reflects my inability to believe that these people actually believe what they claim to believe.

As an aside, it's not just religious apologists who have co-opted the "The [insert thing here] Delusion" thing as a striking title for a book. A quick trawl of Amazon reveals the following:
- and many more. I don't think anyone's cashed in The Delusion Delusion yet, but I expect it's only a matter of time.

Anyway, moving on. Philip Yancey is quite a big deal in the world of evangelical Christian books, and Reaching For The Invisible God seems to be a sort of manual for those afflicted by doubt - a textbook example of what I was referring to above, in other words. So Christians who are afflicted by doubtful thoughts about God - because, hey, sometimes, it's like he's not there at all, right? - can read this and find some techniques for keeping faith and reality from coming into dangerously close proximity. Again, look at Yancey's list of publications and it's astonishing how much mileage (and, presumably, money) there is in this stuff. I suppose when you're writing about something about which no definitive claim can ever be made (because, to quote Gertrude Stein, there is no "there" there) there's pretty much no limit to the ways you can spin things.

Peel back the skin of a groovy 21st-century Christian apologist, though, and you quickly reveal the same old lizard underneath, however much hey, we're all sinners, right flannel you try to wrap it up in.

None of this means that you should avoid booking a holiday at this particular cottage (in fact you should, as it's very lovely) nor that the owners are lunatics (we met them and they seem very nice), nor even that if you do go you should avoid reading the books, if that's the kind of bag you're into.