Sunday, September 23, 2018

the last book I read

House Of Sand And Fog by Andre Dubus III.

Kathy Nicolo has been having a hard time. She's struggled to overcome addictions to alcohol and cocaine, largely acquired as a result of her association with her husband Nick, who, having got sober at the same time, promptly upped and left her. She's been getting by on a succession of cleaning jobs in the San Francisco area, but as you can imagine they don't bring in a massive amount. Her one saving grace is the house she lives in, a nice place on a hill with a view of the Bay, left to her by her late father. At least no-one's going to take that away from her.

Well. Here's a valuable life lesson for you, kids: open official-looking post sent to your address, even if it doesn't have your name on it. Ignore it, as Kathy does, and you may find that the legal wheels have ground on to a point where a simple explanatory phone call can't set everything right. It turns out the local county have been pursuing someone for unpaid business tax and have attached the claim, erroneously, to Kathy's address. And now, because no-one's told them about their mistake, the police are at the door, the house is being compulsorily repossessed and is going to be auctioned off the next day. This is all a bit awkward, as Kathy's just got out of the shower and isn't really in a position to move all her stuff. Luckily, Deputy Lester Burdon, despite helping to facilitate her forcible removal from her house, turns out to have some Good Samaritan tendencies and hooks her up with a lawyer and a self-storage facility to accommodate her stuff while everything gets sorted out.

It's not going to be a simple matter, though, as it's too late to stop the auction going ahead, and the house is purchased (for a fraction of its actual market value) by Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian Army under the command of the former Shah who was obliged to flee the country with his family when the Shah was deposed and the current theocratic regime took over. Sadly having been a high-ranking army officer doesn't amount to a hill of beans in downtown San Francisco, and Behrani is obliged to take a series of menial jobs in order to make ends meet, all the while concealing the exact nature of his jobs from his wife and children by putting on a respectable shirt and tie every morning before leaving the house, only to get changed into more blue-collar clobber before starting work.

So this property auction is Behrani's chance to finally get a leg-up into respectable business by selling the property on at what's bound to be a considerable profit. But first he's going to luxuriate in his change in fortunes a bit, move the family in and have a few renovations done. And why not? All legal and above board, and the misfortunes of the previous owner are neither his fault nor his concern.

Meanwhile, Kathy is doing some sensible things, and some not-so-sensible things. The sensible things include getting her lawyer to straighten things out with the county, get them to admit their mistake and agree to pursue some sort of settlement with the new owner and get Kathy her house back. The not-so-sensible stuff includes going round for a snoop at the house, stepping on a plank with some nails in (debris from the ongoing renovations) and having to be disinfected, patched up and sent on her way by the colonel's wife, and also contriving to have her path cross with that of Lester Burdon again and getting drawn into a furtive relationship, largely motel-based at first but then involving the two of them camping out down by a river in an old fishing shack borrowed from a friend of Lester's, with much making of sweet sweet love down by the riverside while sipping on river-cooled beers. Yes, Kathy isn't really supposed to be drinking, but - hey - what could possibly go wrong?

It soon becomes clear that while the county are prepared to buy the house back from Behrani at the price he paid for it, he - understandably - wants something a lot nearer the full market value. It also becomes clear that Lester has fallen for Kathy in a big way and is even going to leave his wife and kids for her. Or is he? While he's away apparently breaking the news to them, Kathy has an attack of paranoia that he'll have a last-minute change of mind, goes into town for a couple of drinks, gets absolutely smashed, discovers Lester's gun under the seat of the car, drives to her old house, parks on the drive and attempts to shoot herself. On being rescued by Behrani and taken indoors, she immediately attempts to take a drug overdose in the bath, is foiled by the quick action of the colonel's wife and is put to bed to sleep the whole thing off. At which point Lester turns up and sees the colonel and his wife manhandling a semi-conscious Kathy, and it all Kicks Off in a Big Way. He smashes his way into the house and takes the Behrani family hostage, locking them in the bathroom overnight.

The trouble with impromptu kidnapping and extortion attempts of this sort, though, is that you really need to think through some of the consequences. How is Lester going to convince Behrani to sell the house back to the county so Kathy can have it back? He can't just march him into the property office with a gun to his head, after all. What's Behrani's incentive to co-operate? What's he getting in return? And if it's the safe return of his wife and teenage son, for instance, what's to stop him changing his mind once they're safely handed back over?

With these loopholes unresolved, Lester ploughs on anyway and leaves a still-drowsy Kathy in the house with Mrs. Behrani while he takes the colonel and his son Esmail downtown to get a cheque from the county. But teenage boys are hot-headed creatures and Esmail grabs Lester's gun (not loaded, as it happens) out of his belt and is promptly served with a hot lead sandwich by the local cops. On learning of his son's demise at the hospital and Lester's detention by the police, Behrani returns home to be confronted by Kathy, the instigator (in his eyes) of all the unravelling of his grand plans for his family, leaving him with nothing to live for.

You can, broadly, see where this is going. I won't spoil it for you by describing the ending in detail, but suffice it to say it doesn't go well for anyone. One of the interesting things about the book is having your natural optimistic inclinations that things are going to work out all right for at least some of the protagonists methodically closed down one by one by those same people's own actions and the relentless logic of the plot. If you like happy endings and life-affirming crap of that nature then it's safe to say this will be a fairly massive downer.

For a book with as relentlessly bleak an ending to work it's got to make you care about, and be interested in, the characters on the way, and the key thing here is that you need to be able to sympathise with both Kathy and Behrani, while recognising their character flaws that will eventually
drive them both towards tragedy. Kathy is basically a good person but a bit flaky, compromised by her addictions and drawn to men of suspect character, while Behrani is a man of honour and loyalty to those he loves but unbending and principled to a counter-productive degree, and moreover because of his cultural upbringing vexed at being crossed by a woman, especially one with a propensity for things like alcohol and extra-marital sex.

If the book has a villain it's Lester Burdon, not a cartoonish bad guy but a man with fatal weaknesses and an inclination to impulsive behaviour born out of his internal suspicion that he is (despite his choice of profession) actually a coward. It is he who gets Kathy back on the sauce, he who carelessly leaves his gun in the car, he who hoofs down the Behranis' door and thereby initiates everyone's ordeal which results in the tragic climax.

So: it's very good, it succeeds in making you sympathise with both major characters, it's definitely not a barrel of laughs, and there is (as with Drowning Ruth) just a suspicion of the plausibility of some of it being questionable if you stepped away and thought about it for a second. It's a deeper and more serious novel than the other Dubus featured on this list some ten years ago, Bluesman.

House Of Sand And Fog was filmed in 2003, a fairly heavyweight production starring Jennifer Connolly as Kathy (I'd envisaged her shorter and blonder) and Ben Kingsley as Behrani, a pretty perfect piece of casting I'd say.

More importantly, and I promise you this is a coincidence, House Of Sand And Fog was the Oprah's Book Club selection for November 2000, immediately succeeding its immediate predecessor on this list, Drowning Ruth. Coincidence? OR IS IT? Well, yes.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

getting shacked up

Well, both the Glen Marnoch and the Highland Park that I referred to in the previous whisky post (both of which I'd acquired the preceding Christmas) have now gone the way of all whisky in my house, which is to say down my neck. So I was on the lookout for something interesting and yet competitively-priced while in Tesco a while back and came across Shackleton Blended Malt, as pictured here.

The Shackleton in question is just about the only famous person of that name - unless you're well into 1950s and 1960s county cricket, anyway - Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. So what's the connection? Well, the legend on the bottle reads as follows: BASED ON AN ANTIQUE BLEND OF MACKINLAY'S RARE OLD HIGHLAND MALT WHISKY; THE SPIRIT SUPPLIED TO THE 1907 BRITISH ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION.

Clearly there's some thrillingly high-concept bullshit going on here. The inspiration for all this is the recovery in 2010 of some cases of whisky previously entombed in the ice outside Shackleton's old Antarctic hut. Mackinlay's is now owned by Whyte & Mackay and so the responsibility of sampling the original whisky (under carefully-controlled laboratory conditions) and recreating it fell to Whyte & Mackay's master blender and brand ambassador Richard Paterson, something of a showman (and, let's be honest, something of a pillock) with his theatrical whisky-throwing tasting performances.

Obviously Scotch whisky is big business, and to ensure maximum punter-fleecing engagement with the new brand a couple of versions were produced: one expensive premium one with the antique typeface and the faux-straw wrapper, and one more bog-standard one for the regular proles. No prizes for guessing which one I've got. The original whisky and the premium new one supposedly contain whisky from the long-defunct Glen Mhor distillery, individual bottles from which now fetch eye-watering prices. No indication if there's any of this in the economy version, but it is a blended malt (the old term "vatted malt" seems to be out of vogue these days) which means it's a mixture of malt whiskies from various distilleries, as opposed to a single malt which is a mixture of malt whiskies from the same distillery and a blended whisky which is a mixture of malt and grain whiskies (from various distilleries), Windolene, cat piss and hatred. The only other blended malt whisky that's been featured on this blog is Johnnie Walker Green Label.

Anyway, let's get in and have a sniff, and I'll tell you now if I don't get oilskin pantaloons, icy rowlocks, gangrenous frostbitten toes, penguin shit and early-20th-century British stiff upper lip I'm going to be sorely disappointed. And I am sorely disappointed, because this smells like perfectly pleasant but perfectly unremarkable 21st-century whisky. If you were under the impression it was a single malt you'd place it as one of any number of roughly interchangeable and largely indistinguishable Speysiders. There's just a hint of something vegetably going on, though nothing like the full cauliflower mashed into the chops and the oily roast parsnip slipped under the eyelid that you get with the Tobermory; perhaps a discarded carrot entombed for a century in the Antarctic permafrost and just exuding the faintest expiring puff of residual sulphur on being uncovered. Have a sip and it's much the same: sweet, no discernible peat, very pleasantly quaffable in an inoffensive kind of way. And that would be fine if it were not for the high-concept promotional hoo-hah that surrounds it - put it this way, I'll take it on trust that Richard Paterson and his team laboured intensively into the small hours over a period of months to replicate the exact taste of the original whisky in such a way that it could be knocked out for 22 quid a pop in Tesco, but if they had just bunged arbitrary amounts of four or five random Speysiders into a vat and said: fuck it, that'll do, I would probably have been none the wiser.

All of which is probably more of a reflection on my whisky preferences (which are generally for something a bit more zingy and aggressive) and lack of sophistication than anything inherently wrong with the whisky. And, I suppose, a general aversion to marketing bullshit; as always Bill Hicks says it more eloquently than I ever could.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

this is a brum do and no mistake

I had to drive to Birmingham and back today, which reminded me of another entry in the WHY HAVE THEY BUILT THIS ROAD THIS WAY IT'S LITERALLY MADNESS EVERYONE INVOLVED SHOULD BE KILLED hall of fame. This one has caught me out a couple of times before and occurs as you come along the M42 from east to west towards the interchange with the M5, which runs, broadly speaking, north-south.

So what happens is you're tootling along the M42 with a mental vision of peeling off to the left to turn onto the southbound M5, just like any other left turn you've ever made. So you drift into the left-hand lane only to notice at the vital moment that, hang on, the left-hand lane says M5(N) and the right-hand lanes say M5(S). What the hell?

As with the seemingly insanely convoluted nature of the A34/A303 junction as documented here, the key to understanding this is knowing the history of the junction. In this particular case, the reason that the junction appears to be back to front is that the original version only allowed access from M42 to M5 southbound, with an intended expansion to be added later that would have resulted in something much grander (and with the relevant slip roads peeling off much earlier) for the link to the northbound M5. It was only when the money and enthusiasm to do this ran out that the current bog-standard extra slip roads were put in to provide a northbound link as part of the existing junction. The two stages of the junction were opened in 1987 and 1989, as far as I can gather.

Another echo of an earlier post was provided by my radio listening on the drive back - I caught most of Michael Rosen's Word Of Mouth on Radio 4 on which his special guest was none other than Stephen Fry, a pretty safe bet as a guest on a show about language. The programme blurb contains a reference to Fry's enthusiasm for
the virtues of email and text as opposed to the sheer horror of having to talk on the telephone
which obviously resonates deeply with me, as I described in more detail here. The audio bit where he articulates the horror in more detail is towards the end of the programme and starts at about 24 minutes in.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

inconsequential sequential

Here's a funny thing, or rather two things. Firstly I noticed as I was publishing the Drowning Ruth book review last night that it was the fourth successive book review (i.e. an uninterrupted sequence of posts without any intervening ones that weren't book reviews). That's a fairly unusual occurrence, in fact the only similar one I could find (and I can't promise I scanned the entire archives exhaustively) was the sequence of four that ran from The Little Friend through Hotel Du Lac and The Tortilla Curtain to The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Those four were all written within a couple of days of each other on our return from honeymoon in July 2011, whereas these most recent four span about a month. What it mostly is is reflective of the general drop-off in non-book-related blogging over the past few years; I'm conscious that this post right here breaks the sequence in what might be deemed a slightly contrived way, i.e. if I'd let nature take its course the next one might have been a book review as well that would have taken the sequence to five. Not so, I suspect, as I have a couple of other things in the pipeline, though the gestation period from idea to blog post is, as always, uncertain and highly variable.

Secondly, what I do once I've scanned the book cover for the review post and kept it to hand for reference during the review-writing process is place it back on the shelves in its appointed place (those shelves being arranged alphabetically by author's surname as are everyone's who owns more than one book and isn't LITERALLY INSANE). What I noticed when doing this was that Drowning Ruth slotted back into what is now a sequence of five books, all featured at various times on this blog, and all by different authors: A Sport And A Pastime, The Double, Nausea, Drowning Ruth and Vertigo. I'm fairly sure this is unique too (or I was, see below): longer continuous sequences exist featuring multiple books by the same author, for instance there is a sequence of nine comprising five William Boyds and four TC Boyles. These seem less satisfactory, partly because, unforgivably, I have no particular system for ordering books by the same author. Ascending order of publication date would be the rational choice, but I can't really be arsed to implement it.

Obviously on checking (and again this was by no means exhaustive) I find one other similar sequence in the J area comprising Rider On The Rain, The Piano Teacher, A New Dominion, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry and The Illusionist.


Tuesday, September 04, 2018

the last book I read

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.

Amanda Starkey is a doting and dutiful aunt to little Ruth, taking on parental responsibilities after Amanda's sister (and Ruth's mother) Mathilda drowned after falling through the ice between the family's house on a Wisconsin lake island and the mainland.

So far so tragic and yet heart-warmingly stoical. Perhaps. But why is Amanda evasive about the exact circumstances of Mathilda's death, particularly when Mathilda's husband Carl returns from World War I and understandably has some questions about how he unknowingly became a widower in his absence? And why does Ruth keep insisting that she drowned too on that same fateful night?

Obviously we're going to find all these things out. Equally obviously the full details are only going to emerge right at the end, and you can't just skip straight to that bit because then you'd have a 20-page novel. Besides, the revelations only carry any emotional impact if you care to some degree about the characters. So we get some back-story. Amanda is six years or so older than Mathilda, and very much conscious of being the gangly awkward taciturn ugly duckling in comparison with her pretty, sunny younger sister, despite loving her dearly. And when Mathilda marries Carl Amanda is mildly resentful of his intrusion into their all-female world.

There is much jumping back and forward in time in this section of the book (it settles down into a more linear pattern later on once Carl has conveniently removed himself from the narrative by getting a job on a Great Lakes steamer that takes him away for months on end) - Ruth and Mathilda as children, Ruth, Mathilda and Carl before the war, Amanda, Carl and Ruth after the war - and the narrative shifts between three viewpoints: the omniscient narrator, Ruth, and Amanda. From all this tricksiness what we get is a view of the main protagonists: Amanda spiky, reserved, fiercely protective of Mathilda and Ruth, hardened slightly by her experiences as a wartime nurse in Milwaukee but still quite unworldly in other ways, as we see when she allows herself to be seduced by local entrepreneur and serial cad Clement Owens; Carl basically decent, not too bright, hampered by a wartime shrapnel wound which restricts his mobility, slightly bewildered by his daughter, vaguely resentful of Amanda for her proximity to Mathilda's death and unwillingness to tell him much about it; Ruth a strong-willed, independent girl haunted in some ill-defined way by her experiences the night her mother died. The person we get to know least well is Mathilda, but of course she spends something like half the narrative being dead.

It is in the wake of Amanda's fleeting, instantly regretted and seemingly inconsequential dalliance with Clement Owens that the plot starts to thicken. For those confused (and who could blame you) about the timeline, this is during Carl's wartime absence. Amanda finds herself pregnant, catastrophic news for a respectable spinster in 1916, confides in Mathilda, and the two of them cook up a plan to take themselves off, go and live in the house on the island until the baby is born, and then claim it was left with them by some passing girl that Amanda gave medical assistance to and either raise it themselves or pass it off for adoption by someone else.

It's about time we had another time-jump, though, so let's fast-forward a few years to when Ruth is in school. Ruth is a quirky and self-contained child regarded with some suspicion by her peers until she is befriended and given the implicit seal of approval by Imogene, the most popular girl in school despite being a couple of years younger than Ruth. Ruth excitedly reports back to Amanda about her new-found friendship only to be slightly wrong-footed by Amanda's lukewarm response. Of course what we know, since we're privy to Amanda's internal monologue, is that she's all HOLY UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES Ruth is now best buds with my own secret daughter who I gave to a woman in town to be brought up as her own.

We move on a few years and Ruth is now a young woman of twenty-one or so (Imogene being around eighteen). Ruth and Imogene are still best friends and are part of a little social set that attends a local college and messes around with boats on the lake. All is well until Ruth lets slip another nugget in conversation with Amanda, not only is one of their set none other than Clement Owens' son Arthur, he and Imogene have a fledgling romance going. HOLY UNINTENDED FREAKY INCESTUOUS CONSEQUENCES etc. Amanda panics and confesses all to Ruth about the truth of Imogene's origins, including the interesting snippet that she was born the same day Mathilda died. Between them Ruth and Amanda come up with a half-arsed scheme (a faked letter purporting to be from Arthur) for warding off the spectre of mutant two-headed children which, somewhat to Ruth's surprise, works. Imogene heads off to Chicago to seek her fortune, still unaware of her true origins, while Ruth decides to stick around and help out with running the family farm.

In these calmer circumstances the true events of the fateful icy night can be revealed, although after a series of incremental revelations throughout the story there isn't very much left we don't know: Amanda changed her mind about letting Mathilda bring up the baby and fled across the frozen lake, Ruth followed her, Mathilda pursued Ruth to bring her back, grabbed her and the struggle and their combined weight took them through the ice. The only question was whether Amanda had any sinister involvement and how she got the deep bite scar on her hand, but it turns out this was inflicted by Mathilda in a nobly self-sacrificing leave-me-save-yourselves moment.

This is one of those books which is tremendously thrilling but which is built on some plot contrivances which you suspect might collapse under their own implausibility if examined too closely. Amanda gets carted off to some sort of mental institution for ill-defined reasons (presumably some sort of delayed PTSD) some time after Carl returns from the war, but seems eventually just to decide to pull herself together and come home again without any long-term consequences. Carl vanishes from the story just before the fast-forward zoom (after which Ruth becomes the novel's central character) and is never heard from again; you'd think Ruth might exhibit some curiosity about her father, but apparently not. And it's not clear what narrative purpose Clement Owens' death shortly after his rendezvous with Amanda serves other than to keep alive until the closing pages the possibility that she might be an unreliable narrator and a murderess.

None of that quibbling should detract from the book's readability, though, and I enjoyed it. It does take a little while to get going but the second half in particular zips by very entertainingly. Amanda and Ruth are engaging characters in their own different ways; by contrast all the male characters are either well-meaning dimwits or bastards. Dark icy water with all its attendant danger and ability to hide murky secrets is perfect territory for a mystery - Surfacing (a very different book in all other respects) made use of a similar plot device. My copy carries prominent testimonial blurb from Anita Shreve, and if you didn't know the author of Drowning Ruth it's possible it might have been one of hers. The psychological thriller elements and murky secrets from the past being exhumed carry just a whiff of Barbara Vine, as well.

If you examine closely the image above you'll see that the cover of my copy (apparently a promotional copy given away with Woman & Home magazine) carries a logo informing the prospective reader that it was a recommendation of Oprah's Book Club, in September 2000. As with We Were The Mulvaneys and The Corrections this triggered a momentary snobbish sneer which I take no pride in, but, well, there it is. Other Oprah recommendations on this blog are Paradise, The Poisonwood Bible and The Road.