Monday, July 13, 2020

the last book I read

by Colm Tóibín.

Let's examine the options open to young Irish womenfolk in the early 1950s: grow up, meet a nice man in the village, squeeze out a platoon of kids (Catholics, don't forget), raise and care for them largely single-handed while your husband is either off tilling the soil or knocking back the Guinness down the pub, live to an exhausted and embittered old age, die. Or possibly, not meet a nice young man, live to a ripe and embittered spinsterish old age. If you don't fancy either of those, then your remaining options can be enumerated as follows: nun. 

To be honest, Eilis Lacey isn't the especially ambitious type and is reasonably sanguine about the whole nice young man/kids route through life. But when her older sister Rose - more outgoing, more socially confident and on the face of it more likely to be the one to flee in search of a brighter future life - makes use of some of her contacts to wangle Eilis a job and some accommodation in Brooklyn, Eilis doesn't feel able to refuse.

She starts to wish she had, though, on the trip across - a rough crossing from Liverpool which Eilis mostly spends confined to the cramped third-class cabin vomiting copiously and competing for access to the shared bathroom with the people in the next cabin along. But eventually that particular ordeal is over, and the land of opportunity is reached. 

Eilis moves into the house run by Mrs. Kehoe, a mostly kindly but spiky old bird who takes a dim view of nonsense, which encompasses everything from intemperate unladylike levity at mealtimes and failure to behave with the proper decorum to the more serious stuff involving relations with Men, particularly Unsuitable Men, i.e. those who might try to tempt the girls into inappropriate behaviour like smoking, drinking and noisily penetrative sexual intercourse. Precious little time for Eilis to get involved with any of that in the short term anyway as she's busy making herself indispensable at her job in Bartocci's department store during the days and attending to her own personal betterment at bookkeeping and accountancy classes in the evenings.

But you've got to let your hair down sometimes, and eventually Eilis agrees to go to a local dance with some of the other girls from Mrs. Kehoe's, and meets a nice young man called Tony. Tony seems nice, and a series of chaste and respectful dates ensues, although Tony does get a little bit frisky in the sea at Coney Island, as men tend to do. Eilis is invited to meet his family, a typically demonstratively hand-wavey and meatball-obsessed bunch of Italian-Americans, and all seems to be proceeding in the time-honoured manner until Eilis receives a bombshell from home: Rose has died unexpectedly of a hitherto-unsuspected heart defect. Eilis dithers a bit but then decides that she needs to go home to see her mother. Tony is sympathetic to Eilis' plight, but not so trusting of her promises to return that he doesn't seek to secure their relationship status by a) sleeping with her and b) arranging a quickie registry-office marriage before her ship sails. 

Her mother, while obviously genuinely devastated at the loss of her elder daughter and primary companion, isn't above a bit of emotional blackmail to get Eilis to prolong her stay in Ireland. Obviously Eilis has to keep herself amused while she's looking after Mum, and she does so by re-inserting herself into her old life, including going on what amount to a couple of double-dates with her friend Nancy, Nancy's fiancé George, and George's friend Jim Farrell. Jim seems like a nice lad and is obviously quite keen on Eilis, which presents Eilis with something of a dilemma: stay in Ireland with Jim or return to Brooklyn and Tony. Obviously option A carries a few problems, not least the fact that she and Tony are already married to each other. Eilis is not the ruthlessly decisive type, so basically she drifts around putting off making a decision until her two worlds start to bleed into one another and the decision is effectively made for her.

Here is the opposite end of the novelistic spectrum from the absurdly showy, ostentatiously complex stuff like House Of Leaves. This, by contrast, is deceptively simple, written exclusively from Eilis' fairly naïve and innocent perspective, and with the slightly darker stuff buried where you have to look quite carefully for it: Rose's motivations for sending Eilis off across the Atlantic, Bartocci's pioneering choice to allow black customers into their store, Eilis' more senior colleague Miss Fortini's slightly too intimate interest in helping Eilis try on bathing suits for her trip to Coney Island with Tony, Tony's own seizing on Eilis' vulnerability in the wake of Rose's death to get his end away.

Some or all of the above could have been avoided if Eilis had been a less infuriatingly passive character with barely any agency of her own. That, combined with the stultifyingly oppressive social mores of 1950s Ireland (and 1950s Irish-Americans in New York), makes this in some ways a slightly frustrating read, but of course that's a reflection of the prevailing reality of the period in which the book is set, rather than a criticism of the book itself or its author. I didn't, for what it's worth, think it was quite as good as Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship (a book with a more contemporary setting). The other Tóibín on this list is The Heather Blazing

Brooklyn won the Costa Novel Award in 2009, as did a couple of recent featurees here (the Picture Palace review contains a full list), and was made into a film in 2015

Monday, July 06, 2020

celebrifry woodylikey of the day

Just looking through some photos from a couple of walks we've done in the last couple of weeks, and found this photo of a rather splendid old oak tree that we encountered by the side of the path between the car park at Llanfoist Crossing and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Llanfoist Wharf. I'd been up here before as part of our ascent of the Blorenge in late 2009, but not (I think) since. I daresay the tree hasn't changed much in the intervening ten-and-a-half years.

Anyway, I snapped a photo because from one angle you can clearly see something resembling a face; I say "clearly see" but of course what I mean is see something with a sufficient number of markers in the right places for the weird wiring of the human brain to go into a pareidolia frenzy and go FAAAAACE LOOOOK IT'S A FAAAAACE. 

But whose face? Well once you've got past the usual Green Man and Ent references you notice that the nose and the prominent chin point in slightly different directions. This and the general air of benign treely wisdom immediately made me think of broadcaster, author, actor, polymath and general National Treasure Stephen Fry. Obvious, isn't it?

I don't mean to be mean, but look at your mean

I recall a question being asked on some cricket forum or other, possibly this one: who is the worst best player in Test history? In other words, who has (considering batsmen as an example) scored the most runs at the lowest average? That turns out to be an almost impossible question to answer, but one answer given was Mike Atherton, who has the lowest batting average of any player with over 6000 runs. This seems a bit harsh on Atherton, a fine and combative batsman and a key player in the not-exactly-world-beating England teams of the 1990s, but it set me off on a train of thought which resulted in the tables below.

As with the tables here, here and here, a bit of preparatory mental calibration is probably required: for each of the entries in the batting table, no-one has made more runs at a lower average.

RT Ponting (AUS)1681337851.85
AN Cook (ENG)1611247245.35
GA Gooch (ENG)118890042.58
AJ Stewart (ENG)133846339.54
MA Atherton (ENG)115772837.69
N Hussain (ENG)96576437.18
CL Hooper (WI)102576236.46
MV Boucher (ICC/SA)147551530.30
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)113453130.00
IA Healy (AUS)119435627.39
RW Marsh (AUS)96363326.51
SCJ Broad (ENG)138321118.66
SK Warne (AUS)145315417.32
HMRKB Herath (SL)93169914.64
CEL Ambrose (WI)98143912.40
M Muralitharan (ICC/SL)133126111.67
JM Anderson (ENG)15111859.63
CA Walsh (WI)1329367.54
GD McGrath (AUS)1246417.36
LR Gibbs (WI)794886.97
FH Edwards (WI)553946.56
DE Malcolm (ENG)402366.05
PT Collins (WI)322355.87
MS Panesar (ENG)502204.88
ST Gabriel (WI)452004.76
BS Chandrasekhar (INDIA)581674.07
N Pradeep (SL)281324.00
CS Martin (NZ)711232.36

This seems a bit harsh on Ricky Ponting in particular, but he just happens to be second on the overall list of highest Test run-scorers and to have an average that's a couple of runs per innings lower than that of the top man on the list, Sachin Tendulkar.

It is interesting to see that there are a few distinct zones on the list: once you get past Ponting and Cook you're into the English Batsmen Of The 1990s Zone featuring Gooch, Stewart, Atherton and Hussain and providing an insight into why England didn't win a lot during that era: not enough runs. Then there is a brief Wicketkeeper-Batsmen Zone featuring Boucher, Healy and Marsh, and then a Long-Serving And Distinguished Bowler Zone in reverse order of batting competence (Broad through Gibbs, say), and then a Proper Incompetents Zone at the end. Obviously there are probably people with a Test average of zero from one or two innings, but the rule of thumb I applied was to go down as far as Chris Martin, fine bowler but famously one of the worst batsmen in history, and then stop. As it happens he has the lowest average of anyone with over 100 Test runs, so that provided a nice sensible cut-off point anyway. Martin and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar are the most distinguished members of the select club of players who have more Test wickets than runs.

Here's the bowling table - this time the qualifying criterion is: no-one has taken more wickets at a higher average.

SK Warne (AUS)14570825.41
A Kumble (INDIA)13261929.65
Harbhajan Singh (INDIA)10341732.46
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)11336234.36
Danish Kaneria (PAK)6126134.79
MM Ali (ENG)6018136.59
FH Edwards (WI)5516537.87
RJ Shastri (INDIA)8015140.96
CL Hooper (WI)10211449.42
Mohammad Sami (PAK)368552.74
SR Tendulkar (INDIA)2004654.17
MN Samuels (WI)714159.63
Rubel Hossain (BDESH)273676.77
IDK Salisbury (ENG)152076.95
Mohammad Sharif (BDESH)101479.00
KP Pietersen (ENG)1041088.60
S Chanderpaul (WI)164998.11
EAR de Silva (SL)108129.00
MA Atherton (ENG)1152151.00
CA Davis (WI)152165.00
NM Kulkarni (INDIA)32166.00
S Matsikenyeri (ZIM)82172.50
CS Nayudu (INDIA)112179.50
KLT Arthurton (WI)331183.00
RS Bopara (ENG)131290.00
Naeem Islam (BDESH)81303.00

Once again there are some distinct zones here, the Distinguished Spinners Zone at the top (Warne through Kaneria), the All-Rounders Zone (Ali, Shastri, Hooper), and then a mixture of specialist bowlers with short and unproductive careers and specialist batsmen who occasionally turned their arm over as light relief, say at the tail-end of a drawn game. Note that you don't see the long list of long-serving batsmen (Pietersen, Chanderpaul and Atherton apart) to match the bowlers in the other list; this is just a consequence of the way the game works. Even confirmed number 11 batsmen like McGrath and Walsh have to bat reasonably frequently; no-one has to bowl. For example, Alastair Cook's long and distinguished 161-Test career included a paltry three overs as a bowler, although to be fair he did take one wicket during those overs, which incidentally gives him an overall strike rate (i.e. balls per wicket) of 18.00, far superior to even the likes of Dale Steyn.

But I digress. Players who appear on both lists are Mike Atherton, Carl Hooper, Daniel Vettori, Shane Warne and Fidel Edwards. Note also that the top men from the overall batting and bowling lists (Tendulkar and Muralitharan) each appear on the opposite list here.

Monday, June 29, 2020

the last book I read

What's Bred In The Bone
by Robertson Davies.

We are back in the company of most of the principal protagonists of The Rebel Angels, indeed pretty much all of those who made it to the end of that book alive: clergyman and author Simon Darcourt, exotic gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, or Maria Cornish as she now is, and her husband Arthur Cornish, banker and heir to most of the estate of his uncle, art critic and collector Francis Cornish.

These people, who we already know slightly from the first book, which focused on the machinations around disposing of old Francis Cornish's will, are really only here to provide a framing device for the main story, which is that of Francis' life. And, like any seemingly normal life examined in close detail, it turns out to be slightly stranger than you might imagine.

Born in a small Canadian town (Blairlogie, supposedly modelled on Davies' own real-life childhood home of Renfrew, Ontario) in the early years of the twentieth century to a French-Canadian mother and a father (also Francis Cornish) who was literally from Cornwall, Francis jr.'s early experiences were a mixture of the commonplace (awkwardness at school, in his case due to being the posh boy from the "big house") and the more unusual, specifically his discovery of his secret elder brother, also called Francis - a pin-headed, furiously masturbating imbecile - locked away in an attic room and secretly cared for by a couple of domestic servants. One of these servants, Zadok Hoyle, also works as the local undertaker and takes Francis under his wing. In particular Zadok encourages Francis to pursue his love for art and drawing, through the slightly macabre method of allowing Francis to sketch the corpses at the funeral parlour.

Francis soon leaves Blairlogie for higher education in Toronto and then subsequently at Oxford, where he makes a few key acquaintances: his cousin Ismay, who he falls in love with, Tancred Saraceni, a famous art expert and restorer of Old Masters to whom Francis becomes a sort of apprentice, and some chaps from MI5 who feel that Francis might be their sort of chap and might like to do some discreet snooping for them. It turns out that Francis' father (also Francis, if you're keeping up) spent many years doing some similarly shady work.

Ismay eventually succumbs to Francis' patient wooing, only for it to transpire, shortly after their marriage, that the child she is carrying isn't his, and that she doesn't really love him at all, and that furthermore she's going to scarper with her lover and would he mind terribly making sure the child is provided for? Chastened by this experience Francis throws himself into his work, and as it happens MI5 have plenty of that for him as World War II has just kicked off. Coincidentally the work they want him to do involves close collaboration with his old mentor Tancred Saraceni, in a complex scheme based in Germany involving restoring old artworks and shipping them out of the country only to then arrange for their acquisition by the Nazi regime in the hope of acquiring some valuable non-German artwork in exchange. 

Francis hones his own painting skills during this period and finds that he has a natural affinity with the styles of the paintings he is restoring, so much so that he produces a large triptych depicting the marriage at Cana and allows it to be passed off as a genuine work. This is the cause of some slight awkwardness during Francis' post-war involvement in the various groups redistributing artwork hoarded by the Nazis (the real-life subject on which the film The Monuments Men is loosely based) when the painting is presented for analysis by the assembled group of experts. But the subterfuge holds, and Francis doesn't feel compelled to confess.

Already with no particular need to work for a living, Francis then finds himself the sole beneficiary of Tancred Saraceni's will, the contents of which include several Swiss bank accounts where much mysteriously-acquired money has been squirrelled away. Back in Canada, Francis devotes the rest of his life to collecting art that takes his fancy, and to being a slightly cantankerous mentor and advisor to some younger Canadian artists.

So now we do the wibbly-wobbly dissolve back to the framing device, just in time to witness Arthur Cornish reluctantly give his blessing for the biography Simon Darcourt is proposing writing about Francis, on the grounds that, hey, what Bad Stuff could possibly be revealed that might tarnish Francis' - and by association the whole Cornish family's - reputation?

The first thing to say here is: I've set that last paragraph up to imply that the the last novel (The Lyre Of Orpheus) in the trilogy will feature Darcourt's biography of Francis Cornish and may feature his as-yet-undiscovered forged works in some way. Of course it may very well feature no such thing; you should note that I had a pretty confident idea of where the third Matrix movie was going to take the story after seeing the second one, and that turned out to be totally wrong as well. I still maintain, incidentally, that my idea for the third movie was better than the actual third movie, which was rather disappointing.

Anyway, back to the book. This is a book which delights in its own erudition, and Davies' evident extensive knowledge of art. It's making some sly points about art forgery as well, the most obvious one being: how to determine the inherent "value" (not necessarily, or not only, monetary) of a work of art? Should it just be from a consideration of the work on its own merits devoid of any context? Or does its provenance matter? i.e. whether it is by who it purports to be by, and is from the era that it purports to be from? Does the exact same scene painted in the exact same style using the exact same materials (and, if you like, for the sake of argument, the exact same sequence of brushstrokes) have a different intrinsic value if painted by, say, Van Dyck in the 17th century, or Eric Hebborn in the 1970s?

Francis Cornish himself is an odd character whose only fully satisfactory personal relationship appears to be be the resolutely no-strings-attached one he has with Ruth Nibsmith, the governess at the German country house where he does his wartime restoration work with Saraceni. There is just a suggestion late in the book of some previously unexpressed homosexuality in his (strictly platonic) relationship with younger art critic Aylwin Ross, though this all gets rather complicated when Ross kills himself after an ill-advised attempt to use government money to purchase a batch of artwork including, ironically, Francis' own The Marriage At Cana

For all the depth of research and general erudition on show here, this isn't as much fun as The Rebel Angels, partly because of the structure - a framing device set up to facilitate a dive into stuff we already broadly know the outcome of removes some of the potential suspense of a more "real-time" structure, by which I mean we already know Francis lives to a ripe and wealthy old age, so he's not going to be unexpectedly murdered by the SS during the war, or disgraced and impoverished by his forgery becoming public knowledge. And there is just a whiff of fogeyish distaste for "modern" art (which basically seems to mean anything done during the twentieth century) which I found slightly unpalatable. 

There's nothing wrong with this, though, and it was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, a prize eventually won by Kingsley Amis' The Old Devils, a book which (as I've said before) I like very much. I can get behind The Old Devils being ahead of What's Bred In The Bone in the running; if I were being completely honest I'd have to say that the benefit of hindsight leads me to conclude that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (the only other one I've read off that year's shortlist) probably should have won.

Off the top of my head the only other book on this list to prominently feature art forgery as a plot point is Ripley Under Ground. Ooh, no, wait, there's Chatterton as well. 

Monday, June 22, 2020


One of the things I noticed around the time of Little Richard's death a month or so ago was a proliferation of related articles in various media using as a headline some variant of the famous closing line from probably his most famous song, Tutti Frutti. I say "some variant" because there doesn't seem to be a canonical spelling of the phrase, hardly surprisingly since it doesn't feature any actual words, and I say "closing line" because the only time the phrase appears in the song is as the very last words. Whoa, there, Neddy, you may be saying, he says it after every chorus! Not so, in fact: here is a sober and scholarly analysis of what he actually says and when:
  • 0:00 wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 0:15 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 0:46 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 1:17 wop-bob-a-loo-mob-AAAOOOOWW
  • 1:48 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lob-bob-bom
  • 2:20 a-wop-bob-a-loo-mob-a-lop-bam-boom
So you can see that the bop-bom line is the standard one, with a couple of variations - specifically, dropping of the a- that precedes it at the start of the song and in the partial phrase that introduces the saxophone break about halfway through.

A related topic (in that it relates to last lines of songs) is the one which came up in a quiz I participated in over Zoom a couple of weeks ago. There was a music round which featured the following question: what do the songs Virginia Plain and Up the Junction have in common with each other, and with no other singles that have reached the UK Top 10? This is one where you'll either instantly know the answer (as I did) or won't have any idea at all. The answer is that the title of the song is the last line of the song's lyrics, and moreover appears nowhere else in the song. This second caveat is important, as for instance Let It Be by The Beatles finishes with the title of the song, but it has also previously been sung about a gazillion times during the song. The obvious other example that sprang to mind was Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose regular chorus contains the phrase "I ain't no fortunate one" and which only changes to "I ain't no fortunate son" just as the song starts to fade out (at about 2:12 in the linked video). Strictly there is a "no, no, no" after that which means it's not technically the last lyric, but I think we can make a case for it being the last line. 

Finally, back to The Beatles: it is an oddity of their single output that many of their most popular songs have the song's title as the first lyric. Of the 27 songs on the definitive(ish) singles compilation 1, for instance, 10 (a whopping 37%) have the song's title as the first lyric: She Loves You, Can't Buy Me Love, Help!, Yesterday, Paperback Writer, Penny Lane, Lady Madonna, Hey Jude, Something and The Long And Winding Road. Furthermore Love Me Do and A Hard Day's Night only miss out by the narrowest of margins. This could be a coincidence, it could be a conscious songwriting policy, or it could just be that the band were exceptionally bad at coming up with names for songs and just took the approach of saying: fuck it, what's the first line? That'll do.

Monday, June 15, 2020

twas light years of time since his mission did start

You'll recall my tentative wager on it being either bulb 5 or bulb 12 that bought the farm next in the kitchen; well in a salutary lesson about the dangers of gambling it's actually bulb number 2 that has gone. Previous self-immolations of this particular spot in the lighting layout include being part of the very first pair of bulbs to expire back in May 2014, whereupon I replaced it with an IKEA LED bulb which then led an entirely uneventful existence for just over six years (2229 days, to be precise) until expiring a few days ago. 

That is, hardly surprisingly, the longest single life-span on record (on this blog, anyway) for a single light bulb. I can't remember exactly how much I paid for the original set of IKEA bulbs, but I have a feeling it was around £4 each; if so then that works out at something like 0.18 pence per day.

incidental music spot of the day

We've recently acquired both an Amazon FireStick and a subscription to Disney+ in an attempt to broaden our kiddy-entertaining horizons a bit, especially during the current lockdown. One of the things that that's enabled us to do is instigate a movie night on Saturdays where we watch a wholesome family-oriented movie with all three kids, then pack the boy off to bed and watch something very slightly (but probably not much) more challenging. At the moment we're working our way through the Toy Story and Herbie series. 

Another thing we've now got access to is a far greater range of short children's animations. The particular one that the boy is currently fixated on is Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a pretty ghastly multicoloured CGI acid flashback nightmare featuring the eponymous rodent and his annoying pals Donald, Goofy and assorted others, having a variety of banal yet implausible adventures that involve some bullshit interactive "learning" element as a sop to parents feeling vaguely guilty about parking the kids in front of the TV at ten o'clock in the morning and skulking off to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine.

The show is, it goes without saying, augmented by some supremely earworm-y theme music at start and finish that you find yourself humming to yourself while in the kitchen long after the kids are in bed and then have to pummel your skull with a steak tenderiser to make it go away. The thing that I only became aware of later, when we attempted to get our Alexa to play the closing Hot Dog song, was that both the opening and closing songs are performed by American alternative rock funsters They Might Be Giants. These guys will be most familiar to casual UK listeners for their 1989 hit Birdhouse In Your Soul, an absurdly catchy number which it feels churlish to criticise, but I will anyway for its overly smug lyrical smart-arsery and (despite being only just over 3 minutes long) going on for about twice as long as it reasonably ought to. TMBG are, it turns out, old hands at producing music aimed at children, alongside their regular adult-oriented output. I would imagine a commission from an entity like the Disney corporation for a couple of bouncy kids' songs would be lucrative enough to finance any number of experimental jazz ear-flute explorations and I can completely see why they do it, and no criticism should be inferred, despite the general loathsomeness of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Speaking of lyrics, on my first listen to the Hot Dog song (from the next room, so without the benefit of any visual context and perhaps with some loss of sonic fidelity) I was appalled at the thinly-veiled but unmistakable ABSOLUTE FILTH contained in the lyric "we're splitting the seam, we're full of beans". Not an expression I'd ever specifically heard before, but its penetrative connotations seemed obvious. It turns out that this line is sung as the collected company of friends troops out of the Clubhouse at the end of the show, leaving it to magically fold up on itself and disappear, and is in fact "we're splitting the scene, we're full of beans". Those of you who have now got all fired up at the thought of an engorged Mickey Mouse furiously splitting Minnie's seam can almost certainly find something to satisfy you on the internet, Rule 34 being what it is.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

what a state to get yourself into

A couple of things I meant to mention at the end of the Spares book review: firstly I see I mentioned in the Never Let Me Go review the similarity of some of the plot points to the plot of the 2005 film The Island; well obviously the same goes for Spares. Since The Island and Never Let Me Go came out in the same year the film must have been well into production before the book was published, so it's on the whole unlikely that one was a rip-off of the other. The situation with Spares is a bit more interesting, though, since the film rights were purchased some time after its publication in 1996 by DreamWorks Pictures, the same company responsible for The Island. Coincidence, OR IS IT, et cetera. Michael Marshall Smith evidently felt it wasn't worth getting embroiled in a big legal battle about it, or, if he were being honest with himself, would have recognised that while the basic idea was his the film actually pursued the plot strand(s) that he toyed with in the early stages of the book but eventually abandoned in favour of exploring some different (and, arguably, less interesting) ideas.

The other thing worthy of mention about Spares is that it's set in Virginia, the same state in which House of Leaves is largely set (i.e. in that this is the state in which the Navidson house is supposed to reside). It could be argued that Mortal Causes and Lanark share some settings as well since some of Lanark (book 4, principally) appears to be set in a highly fictionalised version of Edinburgh.

Back to Virginia, though: I had occasion to consult a large-scale map of the USA while trying to set some questions for an online pub quiz some friends organised a couple of weeks ago and got to thinking about points where several states meet (or nearly meet). The famous one of these is of course at Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. None of this resulted in a usable quiz question (although I did cash in the one about Pierre, South Dakota from here), but it set me thinking: what is the shortest straight line you can draw on a map which crosses four states? Depending on your point of view the answer could be zero, if you consider the quadripoint at Four Corners to be simultaneously in all four states. If you don't deem that to be an acceptable answer I think a strong candidate is the north-south line joining Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, as below. Google Maps reckons it's around 18 miles; you could walk that in a day.

Obviously you can extend that question to larger numbers of states: I haven't considered all the numbers but I'll offer you the following theoretical 5-state journey of a little over 60 miles visiting (going NE-SW) Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Needless to say others have considered this question (or very s,light variants of it) and, I'm happy to say, come up with the same answer. The only comparable one I could find is the line of just under 80 miles which connects Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Finally, the pièce de résistance: a 10-state journey of just over 400 miles taking in (let's go SW-NE this time) Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Again, others seem to agree that this is the right area, although note that they're asking (and answering) a subtly different question.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

the last book I read

by Michael Marshall Smith.

Jack Randall has got a few problems. Ex-army, with a host of memories of the Bad Stuff, an on-off addiction to designer drug Rapt, fleeing various problems in his former life in New Richmond, Virginia, not least an ongoing dispute with some local crime lords that resulted in the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter, and currently earning a crust as the caretaker of a shady facility which houses clones of notable people and keeps them alive just on the off-chance that one of these notables might ski into a snowplough and lose some limbs, at which point hello, inmate 46, time for you to have a bit of un-anaesthetised limb surgery.

Jack doesn't really have a great deal to do apart from keep the internal doors locked to prevent the clones wandering about the place and occasionally assist in rounding up the relevant ones when John Q Celebrity needs a full-body skin graft. But Jack is a man with an unerring instinct for getting into trouble, and he's soon letting the clones (or "spares", as they're known) wander the place and teaching them how to talk and read. Inevitably this results in him getting a bit attached to them, and when the next visit from the organ-harvesting squad comes around he engineers an escape with a handful of the spares.

Jack has some crazy ideas about heading off to Florida and starting a new life, but first he needs to realise some money, and the best way to do that is via a clandestine trip back to New Richmond, since that's where all Jack's contacts are. Most of the inhabitants of New Richmond live inside a giant abandoned aircraft, grounded there by mechanical problems some time after the destruction of old Richmond. Getting in and out cleanly without either getting collared by someone wanting to finish off some unfinished business or succumbing to the temptation to revisit some aspects of his former life is the key thing here, though, and needless to say Jack fails in both respects, so much so that by the time he returns to where he and the spares have been hiding out, most of them have been abducted by persons unknown who want them for their own nefarious purposes.

So Jack is obliged to return to New Richmond to try to solve the mystery and rescue the spares. This entails engaging with some unpalatable things from his past, firstly his former army colleague and now New Richmond's foremost crime boss, Johnny Vinaldi, who Jack strongly suspects may have been involved in the murder of his wife and daughter. Jack and Johnny's army days involved much time spent in the mind-warping computer-generated netherworld of The Gap, and Jack soon discovers that he will need to return there to rescue the spares and exorcise some of his own personal demons on the way, and once back in the "real" world exact some revenge on the people behind the whole scheme.

Any book seeking to relocate some sort of hard-boiled thriller plot to a futuristic milieu (where, usually, everything is simultaneously a) bafflingly hi-tech and b) a bit run-down and shit) complete with computer-generated alternate reality elements is going to have a hard time avoiding comparisons with classics of the genre like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, not to mention movies like Mad Max and Blade Runner. And, to be honest, as much fun as it is, Spares isn't really in that class, for a few reasons, notably that big chunks of the plot don't really make sense. Take Jack's relationship with Johnny Vinaldi, for example: he starts off wanting to kill him, then, an implausibly short time afterwards, they're tooling up to head into The Gap together to kick some virtual ass, then shortly afterwards Vinaldi is saving Jack's life back in the real world, then shortly after that Jack is holding a gun to his head again after it is revealed that Vinaldi in fact did kill his wife and daughter after all, then he lets him go. The netherworld of The Gap is set up in such a way as to raise a host of unanswered questions: it's clearly not a wholly virtual realm like the "matrix" in Neuromancer, and you do actually physically enter it (and presumably disappear from the "real" world while doing so) so how does the transition from one realm of reality to the other work? As described in the book it's all a bit Platform 9¾ for my liking. And the (presumed) killing at the book's end of the guy who's been trying to kill Jack and is responsible for the abduction of the spares happens a bit disappointingly "offscreen" to be properly satisfying.

The main complaint, though, is that the book's title leads you to expect something rather different from what you actually get. What you get is fine in its own way, but after the initial rescue and flight from the facility the spares play very little part in it except as a sort of plot MacGuffin, and (SPOILER ALERT) they all die, rendering the whole exercise arguably a bit futile. Which is a pity, in a way, because it's an interesting idea almost identical to the one which forms the main plot of Never Let Me Go, published 9 years after Spares in 2005. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

the last book I read

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin.

Meet Detective Inspector John Rebus. He's a maverick cop, wha doesnae play bi the book, but, God dammit, he gets results. Let's just run through the items on our clipboard briefly, shall we: maverick, yes, troubled relationship and occasional conflict with superiors, yes (but, you know, results and that), borderline alcoholic, check, troubled relationship with various past and current women friends (but, at the same time, mysteriously irresistible to women in a rumpled yet maverick kind of way), check. And, most importantly of all, a sort of mystical ability to sniff out the truth no matter how tortuous the case (and, thereby, get results).

So when a young man is murdered down in the subterranean chambers of Mary King's Close in Edinburgh's Old Town it's Rebus who gets the call. And his suspicions of something a bit rum going on are aroused when he sees the pattern of injuries on the body: shot in both kneecaps before the final shot to the head. Punishment of this sort (with or without the final fatal coup de grace) is highly characteristic of sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland, and Scotland has its share of that sort of stuff on a day-to-day basis as well (though usually without anyone getting kneecapped). Furthermore the victim has a rudimentary tattoo denoting his allegiance to a loyalist paramilitary group.

So Rebus is concerned about the murder being a precursor to further acts of sectarian violence, a concern heightened by the timing: it's the middle of the Edinburgh Festival and the city is heaving with tourists. Obviously the first thing to do is establish the identity of the victim, and this has a surprise in store for Rebus as well: the young man, Billy Cunningham, turns out to be the son of Big Ger Cafferty, a local crime boss put away by Rebus some time before and something of a recurring Moriarty to Rebus' Holmes in this series of novels. But does Cafferty know anything about what's been going on? After all, he has some previous involvement with crime on behalf of the UVF

As if that were not enough for Rebus to be worrying about, he has some problems with the ladies: his current partner Patience Aitken, a doctor, is occasionally grumbly about his being married to his job and inclined to bail out on dinner party arrangements at the last minute to go and get beaten up in a warehouse or something. Not only that but some low-level flirty activity with local lawyer Caroline Rattray has led her to go all bunny-boiler on his ass and, at one point, attack him with a can of spray paint.

With all this to worry about it's a wonder that Rebus manages to crack the case, one involving arms-running between Northern Ireland and Scotland, various bent cops including one of Rebus' immediate superiors, and Billy being involved in some computer hacking to get hold of a list of names of secret loyalists and threatening to make it public, whereupon it became apparent that he Knew Too Much and needed to be Rubbed Out. It's not quite as neat as that, though, as one local ne'er-do-well, not particularly interested in any of the niceties of sectarian disputes but well keen on the old ultraviolence, gets hold of a stash of Semtex and threatens to set it off in central Edinburgh at the height of the Festival. Will Rebus be able to chase him down in the crowd and stop him from detonating the bomb? SPOILER ALERT: yes. 

This is the first Rebus novel to appear on this list, and the first Ian Rankin novel originally published under his own name, the slightly more thick-ear thriller Blood Hunt being initially published under his Jack Harvey pseudonym. Interestingly, Mortal Causes (which is the sixth in the Rebus series which now numbers twenty-odd) and Blood Hunt were successive entries in Rankin's oeuvre, in 1994 and 1995 respectively. As I said there, Black & Blue is the only other Rebus I can swear to having read, although couldn't say for sure I might not have read one or two more. It's easy to mock the maverick cop clichés, but these are tight, efficient, enjoyable thrillers with an interesting leading character, and they evoke a strong sense of place in the same way that Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels do (a different place, though, obviously). If you're specifically setting out to read all of them then it'd probably be better to do it in order, but otherwise I wouldn't worry about just dipping in wherever you like. 

The only thing that bothers me a bit about Rebus is his name: it's just a bit too arch for my liking. I know there's supposed to be some sort of Polish back-story which might account for it, but, honestly, you might as well just call him Sherlock Enigma and be done with it. 

As it happens I have been to both the Edinburgh Festival (back in about 1999) and Mary King's Close, I think on this trip in 2009, although I don't seem to have any photos and the accompanying blog post doesn't mention it. I daresay if we'd encountered a mutilated corpse then that might have warranted a mention.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

it's 10pm and time to get speyed

Very belatedly - even more belatedly than last year, it turns out - here's the post-Christmas whisky round-up. I was lucky enough to get a good selection of stuff, including a few things I hadn't tried before alongside the old favourites like the Highland Park and the Johnnie Walker Black Label. There were four new ones, in fact, so what I'll do is compare them in pairs over two posts, to avoid either of the posts getting arse-numbingly long.

First up are Tomatin and Speyburn. Both solid, well-established distilleries that, coincidentally, were founded in the same year, 1897. Despite being only around 30 miles apart as the crow flies, the two distilleries are in different whisky regions, Speyburn being (as you'd expect from the name) in the Speyside region and Tomatin being in the Highland region. It's all about the water: despite the distilleries' geographical proximity the River Findhorn from which Tomatin takes its water finds its own way to the sea without being a tributary of the River Spey.

Back in the 1970s Tomatin was one of the biggest distilleries in the world, operating 20-odd stills (about the same number as Glenfiddich has today); things are somewhat reduced since then and it hasn't ever really been a big player in the single malt market. But here is Tomatin Legacy, conforming to what is the new standard for entry-level whisky by not carrying an age statement. Next one up in the range is a 12-year-old which will set you back an extra ten quid or so.

A quick scan of the box reveals no cryptic foreign text simultaneously announcing and concealing the presence of artificial colourants, so that's probably a good thing. It's quite a light golden colour, as befits something which claims to have been matured (for an unspecified amount of time) in ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks. There's a slightly "hot" estery magic marker whiff which is a hallmark of relatively young whisky - I should also add that this stuff is bottled at 43% so it's slightly "hotter" than some others purely by virtue of this.

Very few surprises when you drink it - slightly sweet, slightly biscuity, none of the corned beef and parsnips you get with some of the more wild and hairy-chested ones. Basically it's a perfectly quaffable dram which I would struggle to distinguish from a whole host of other non-peaty Speyside and Highland whiskies which have appeared on this blog; just from the recent-ish archives you've got Aberfeldy and Tamnavulin which would both fall into the same category.

Next up is the Speyburn: this one is 10 years old, though there is an entry-level no-age-statement one called Bradan Orach. So you can argue, if you like, that already we're not quite comparing apples with apples here, and I can (and will) say: bollocks.

Speyburn is guilty of having a slightly boring name; this isn't entirely its own fault, as it genuinely does reside on a burn that is a tributary of the Spey, and the obvious name making use of the name of the nearest town had already been bagged. It is nowhere near as rubbish, to be fair, as the new Speyside distillery which opened up in the 1980s and decided to call itself, after (presumably) literally minutes of brainstorming by the marketing team, *drum roll* The Speyside.

As you can see from the picture below, there's almost no difference in colour between the Tomatin (on the right) and the Speyburn; this is slightly surprising for no fewer than three reasons: firstly the Speyburn is older, which generally means darker, secondly it claims to have been at least partly matured in ex-sherry casks, which generally impart a darker colour, and thirdly the packaging carries the weaselly German and Danish disclaimers which denote the inclusion of a whack of caramel colouring.

There's very little to distinguish the two on having a sniff, either: big magic marker action, maybe just a hint of something a bit more meaty and interesting underneath, but you don't really get a significant difference until you have a sip, at which point you notice that the Speyburn is less sweet than the Tomatin. I mean, it's not exactly a chalk and cheese kind of thing, but there is at least a discernible difference.

Since there is barely a fag-paper of difference between them I'd struggle to express a firm preference for one or the other: on balance I'd probably go for the Speyburn just because there is a hint of slightly greater depth. But, you know, they're both perfectly fine if the polite end of the range is your thing. My preference remains for the west and north Highlanders and the non-Islay (no disrespect to Islay) Islanders.

it's all there in black and white, and blue, and possibly red

A couple of other thoughts in the wake of the House Of Leaves post:

There is a bit in the acknowledgements page at the front of my copy of the book which caught my eye, here:

My book is indeed in black-and-white, as most books are - or, more accurately, not in colour, since the word house is rendered throughout in a very slightly lighter grey and offset from the rest of the text slightly, as if typed into the gap afterwards on a different typewriter.

It's a testament to the disorienting effect of the book on the reader's mind that my first assumption on looking at this page was that this was probably a bit of authorial fuckery similar to the inclusion in Zampanò's footnotes of a host of academic-sounding works that don't actually exist (and a few that do, just to keep the reader on his/her toes). In other words I was initially sceptical that any of these supposed colour versions of the book actually existed. It seems that they do, though, and you can purchase one for yourself if you're prepared to shell out somewhere in the region of 40 dollars (about 32 pounds at today's exchange rate).

To be honest I expected that they might go for even more absurdly inflated prices than that, since this seems to be a book that invites slightly geeky obsessiveness in the same way as Infinite Jest. It's too much of a lazy cliché to invoke some sort of "extreme male brain" autism spectrum theory (and the whole autism gender split thing is more complex than that anyway) as an explanation, but this sort of thing does seem to be more of a male thing, for whatever reason, possible a purely cultural/societal one. There are ironic echoes here of the blizzard of cultural analysis of The Navidson Record referenced by Zampanò's text, although since even in Zampanò's and Johnny Truant's fictional universe The Navidson Record never existed, presumably all of the hundreds of carefully referenced critical works never existed either.

An example of the way people spend waaaaaayyy too much time thinking about this stuff is the number of videos that are available online about it, some of them just basically doing a description and/or loose review of the book (and some touching on the different versions I mentioned above) and some attempting some more interesting analysis. This video is probably the most interesting (of the small selection I've watched any of anyway) and just to undermine my theory above is voiced by a woman. Interestingly she pronounces Danielewski's name as Daniel-oo-ski throughout (by analogy with brewski, presumably), rather than the more usual (but not universal) rendering of Daniel-eff-ski. This short clip featuring the man himself (I mean, if he even exists, right?) suggests that the second rendering is the correct one.

Monday, May 18, 2020

the last book I read

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

Where to start? Well, let's start with Johnny Truant. As the desperately hip (and doubtless made-up) Bachelor Johnny Cool name would suggest, Johnny is a bit dangerous, a bit whooooah, a bit wheeeyyy, a geezer. His latest dead-end job is as an assistant in a Los Angeles tattoo parlour; the money's not great but he does get to meet some interesting characters, and the law of averages dictates that there will occasionally be a smoking-hot stripper who wants her arse tattooed.

So Johnny is bimbling along in his own way, occasionally meeting up with old pal Lude (again, the clue is in the name) for sessions of drinking and other assorted misbehaviour. On one of these sessions Lude lets slip that there's this old guy in his apartment block who's just died, and that Johnny can come over for a snoop around his old place if he wants, you know, see if there's anything the old guy had that's worth taking. Well, the old man, whose name turns out to be Zampanò (we never find out if he has any other names) didn't have much, but Johnny does come away with a massive annotated manuscript which has caught his eye.

The manuscript turns out to be a minutely detailed analysis of a film called The Navidson Record, a compilation of various home-video footage shot by the eponymous Will Navidson (a semi-retired photojournalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner) in his house in suburban Virginia. Big fat hairy deal, you might say, but wait: there are Strange Goings-On afoot. Fairly newly-moved-in, Navidson, wife Karen and kids Chad and Daisy are just finding their feet when they also find a mysterious corridor between two of the bedrooms that wasn't there when they moved in. Moreover, Navidson takes some measurements which reveal that the house is a fraction of an inch longer on the inside than on the outside. Focusing far more obsessively on this infinitesimal spatial anomaly than on the fact that a corridor has just poofed into appearance out of freakin' nowhere, Will enlists the help of his brother Tom (with whom he has had an intermittently difficult relationship in the past) and his engineer friend Billy Reston (no relation).

Their obsessive laser-calibration of the measuring tools is rendered a bit meaningless when another corridor appears literally overnight in a previously blank section of wall in a downstairs hallway; unlike the blank one between the bedrooms this one features other openings down its length and seems to change and lengthen over the course of the next few days. As you would, the Navidsons install a multiply-bolted reinforced steel door over the end of it, just in case any slavering demons of Hades decide to wander out during the night and drag someone off to hell after stopping off for a Marmite sandwich and a glass of lemonade.

Horror movie cliché dictates, though, that Will Navidson won't be able to resist the temptation for a bit of a snoop, and sure enough he makes a 3am expedition into the corridor and one of its side-passages that reveals not only that some of the connected spaces are unimaginably vast, but that also the whole place is prone to occasional warpings and rearrangements of its entire structure, which makes it extremely dangerous to explore, and it's only by blind luck that he manages to get back into the house.

Will is not an idiot, though, and instead of doing some half-arsed and doomed exploration himself enlists the help of some professionals, including gnarled veteran explorer Holloway Roberts, who arrives with two sidekicks and a van-load of equipment in tow and, after a couple of exploratory recces, sets off with a couple of weeks of supplies for a deep exploration of the vast chamber that Will found and the huge and seemingly bottomless staircase that leads down from it. Will and the others remain in the house to act as support crew, manning the radios.

Much of what happens next is only fully understood later when all the tapes are recovered and edited, but the Holloway expedition soon encounter some weird spatial phenomena - it takes them several days to descend the Great Staircase and markers left by the team seem to have been torn and mutilated by some force on the team's return. And are the strange low growling noises the team hears just the sound of the house's periodic re-alignments, or something more sinister ... and perhaps hungry?

Once it becomes clear that something terrible has happened to the Holloway expedition, Will, Tom and Billy Reston set off to rescue them, Reston somewhat handicapped (though commendably undeterred) by being in a wheelchair. The rescue crew encounter similar weird spatial distortion on their descent, and soon discover that Holloway seems to have taken leave of his senses and shot one of the other expedition members in the shoulder with a rifle. During the course of the rescue Holloway reappears and shoots the third expedition member (this time fatally) before seemingly being consumed by the house. The rescue party completes its long and arduous ascent to the top of the Great Staircase, all except Will, who is trapped by one of the spatial rearrangements and does not emerge until several days later. No-one can relax, though, as the house itself now starts to change around them and they are forced to flee. Everyone escapes except Tom, consumed by the house in the act of rescuing Daisy.

Following their shared traumatic experience, Will and Karen find it difficult to adjust, and eventually separate for a few months. Will returns to the house on Ash Tree Lane to conduct a further, final exploration, for reasons which aren't completely clear - some sort of desire for closure? a faint inkling that he might still be able to rescue Tom? and, armed with a battery of camera equipment, sets off into the corridor. No-one hears anything from him for over a month, and it is only when Karen moves back into the house that it finally vomits up Will back into the world.

And so ends The Navidson Record. It's far from the end of House Of Leaves, though, as there is a further 150+ pages of annotations, appendices, a collection of letters from Johnny Truant's mother from the mental institution where she seems to have been incarcerated for some years, some cryptic photographs and a comprehensive index. Even the text of The Navidson Record itself is far from straightforward, being criss-crossed with Zampanò's own footnotes, Johnny Truant's footnotes on Zampanò's footnotes, and a third set of footnotes by an unidentified team of editors. Things are further complicated by the fact that, despite Zampanò's obsessive citings of other critical works referencing The Navidson Record, and his inclusion of various celebrity interviews referring to it, no evidence for the existence of The Navidson Record, a man called Will Navidson, or any of the rest of the events in the text exists outside of Zampanò's manuscript.

As I said at the beginning, where to start? Perhaps with a few parallels, most obviously (in terms of other books on this list, anyway) to Infinite Jest. Similarly massive, similarly massively footnoted (though Infinite Jest's were at the end whereas House Of Leaves has its inline), similarly averse to the idea of just getting in, telling a story and getting out again, preferring to hold the "story" at arm's length and examine it obsessively from a number of angles. Things House Of Leaves has which Infinite Jest does not include a simpler and more compelling central narrative (the, if you will, "story"), and a whole battery of typographical tricks which are meant to mirror the narrative in some way. One of the things which this does is to make the reader's perception of progress through the book somewhat of a rollercoaster - having slogged through dense full-page text as far as about page 150, suddenly the reader is in a section where there may be only a couple of words on a page, and plummets through the next 100 pages in next to no time. Sections of text are upside down, back to front, printed vertically or diagonally on the page.

The basic story is a compellingly weird take on the basic haunted house story, modern versions of which include The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. We've all had those dreams where we are running down a corridor towards safety and suddenly the corridor stretches out infinitely and the rescuing hand gets further and further away ... um, haven't we? The occasional grinding noises presaging a rearrangement of the labyrinth is vaguely reminiscent of the film Cube, which I remember seeing many years ago and thinking was really good, much to the bafflement of everyone else in the room who thought it was shit. The several immensely long lists of stuff which no sane reader would be expected to actually plough their way through were slightly reminiscent of some similar ones in Georges Perec's Life: A Users Manual.

That's the basic story, as for the framing device I would say I'm in general agreement with this Guardian review which finds the Johnny Truant character a bit tedious - not necessarily to the extent that I think he should have been left out altogether, but we could probably have done with fewer and shorter interventions. The central story idea is so brilliant that the entire time we spend in Johnny's self-obsessed company, or at least the time where he's writing about things unrelated to the Zampanò manuscript, is time where we're looking at our watch waiting for the good stuff to restart.

The other thing about House Of Leaves is its monumental physical size. My edition is what would be called a "trade paperback" in the UK, which means it's the same size as a big hardback. It's hard to see how it could be published in an edition any smaller than this and retain the typographical layout. The first photo below shows my edition next to the last two books on this list, a standard A-format small paperback (Picture Palace) and the slightly larger B-format (Lanark). So you can see that the current lockdown is the ideal time to tackle a book of this sort, as it would be almost impossible to transport anywhere with you without some serious supporting luggage (a rucksack, probably, as a minimum). In fact I see I mentioned House Of Leaves in precisely this context in an earlier post (note that the coyly-referred-to A-format paperback in my coat pocket was actually Under The Volcano). There are other side-effects of possessing a book of this size, not least that it has for some years been the benchmark for vertical spacing on my IKEA bookshelves.

Anyway, enough of this. House Of Leaves is simultaneously brilliant, thrilling, utterly bonkers, absurd, flawed, impractically huge, and while it's certainly not for everyone I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in experimental fiction. Plus the physical workout incurred while reading it will give you biceps like Arnie.

Finally: this is the third book on this list to include the word "leaves" in the title (A Fringe Of Leaves and The Leaves On Grey are the other two) and the second to begin "House Of" (House Of Sand And Fog being the other).

Sunday, May 17, 2020

hello darkness my old friend

Just a quick update on the kitchen light bulb situation, as I know you've been positively moist with anticipation. You'll recall I made a fairly low-risk (since there are only twelve bulbs) nomination of bulbs 5, 7 and 12 as the next one to go; well, sure enough bulb 7 has now bought the farm. Previous demises of this particular bulb occurred on or around May 27th, 2014 (a mere 28 days after the start of the experiment) and then around October 8th of the same year after a span of 134 days.

The greatly increased lifespan of the non-incandescent bulbs means that it's only now that it's gone phut and indeed fring again after a span (if you take today as the date of its demise; it was actually a week or so ago) of 2048 days. That's all great, of course, though it is interesting that after a gap of around four-and-a-half years when no bulbs expired at all we've now seen three go in around six months.

As always if you have NO FREAKIN' IDEA what I'm talking about or need a refresher on the bulb-numbering protocol then please do refer to this post which will explain everything. Anyway, I'm keeping a close eye on bulbs 5 and 12 and will report back as soon as anything enlightening (or, indeed, endarkening) happens.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

the last book I read

Picture Palace by Paul Theroux.

Maude Coffin Pratt is a photographer. Seventy-ish, she is semi-retired but currently assisting a younger acolyte, Frank, in preparing some of her work for a big retrospective spanning her entire career. Not the easiest job, or certainly not for him anyway, as Maude is an irascible old bird who is resolutely unimpressed by most things, including most of the subjects of her photographs, which include among others many of the big literary beasts of the 20th century: Lawrence, Eliot, GreeneHemingway.

Such a retrospective requires Maude to delve into her past, and we are invited to tag along for the ride. So we see her experimenting with her first camera, a Box Brownie, taking pictures of her family (at their sprawling property on Cape Cod), as most aspiring photographers start off by doing. Maude's motives here are a bit more specific, though: the camera gives her a licence to gaze at length upon her brother, Orlando, about whom she nurses a deep and consuming obsession. More on this later? You betcha.

Maude is muddling along making a living from the old photography (hardest game in the world, the old photography game) through the 1920s and 1930s but only achieves proper celebrity after the publication of some photographs she took after sneaking into a secret quasi-Masonic event where circus performers were performing in the nude for an audience of well-fed baying Florida businessmen. The fact that this group of businessmen includes her own father makes for some family tension, although HOO BOY nothing to the tension Maude herself experiences upon returning in triumph from the shoot only to catch a glimpse through the window of Orlando and her younger sister Phoebe in the throes of sexual combat. It turns out he has a FLASH UNIT with a GLOSS FINISH and, well, I expect you can make up your own jokes. Stunned by the irony of finding Orlando open to a bit of the old incest (always Maude's self-confessed ambition) but preferring her younger sister, Maude experiences a prolonged (a few months, I think we're meant to assume) episode of what would be colloquially called "hysterical blindness" but is now apparently one of a group of conditions that go under the more anodyne banner of "conversion disorders".

So, ironically, the period of Maude's greatest celebrity for her visual images comes during a time when she is unable to perceive visual images at all, though this doesn't stop her from snapping various images (at least some of which, thanks to her years of experience, are straight and in focus) which bolster her celebrity. Her vision eventually returns, but her problems aren't over: Phoebe and Orlando drown in a boating accident off the coast next to the family property.

The windmill-shaped summer-house on the Pratt property contains boxes and boxes of Maude's old prints, including many taken during her period of blindness which she has never even seen. It's only when she reluctantly ventures in there to see what Frank has been up to and starts leafing through some of these old prints that she finds one that she must have snapped almost instinctively: Orlando and Phoebe, glimpsed through a window but clearly and identifiably naked, on the floor, and going at it like knives. Had Phoebe and Orlando discovered this print, carelessly discarded in a pile of other photographs, and decided that a dramatic lovers' death at sea was preferable to the shame of discovery, or at least the unbearable knowledge that Maude KNEW and had always known?

Regular loyal big-hearted blog-readers who don't skip over the book reviews like some of those other lazy bastards will immediately say to this: hang on, this seems awfully similar to the plot of Sweet Caress a few years back (August 2017, actually), doesn't it? And you are of course correct: famous photographer, born in the early decades of the 20th century, long and varied career, difficulties with men, settling into a formidable old age.

What Sweet Caress doesn't have but Picture Palace does is a bracing dose of incest. I've no idea what the statistics are like for real-life incest, and I don't know what novelists as a general group get up to in private, but it does seem to be a plot device that features surprisingly often. Just on this blog there are The War Zone, Walter, Statues In A Garden, Not That Sort Of Girl, Clea, Invisible, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Notice, and possibly just a whiff of it in On Chesil Beach as well. It is perhaps somewhat implausible to get what effectively amounts to a double dose within the same group of siblings as we do here: Maude has explicit designs on getting at Orlando only to find that Phoebe has beaten her to it. Maude's only sexual encounter, or at least the only one that's alluded to in the book, is with a serviceman friend of Orlando's during the war, and this only happens because she's crept along to Orlando's room in the dead of night without realising he'd swapped rooms with his mate. Rather than raising the alarm he gives an enthusiastic WAHEY and climbs on with some gusto. Well, I mean, there's a war on: why wouldn't you?

If it's a direct comparison with Sweet Caress you want then the Boyd book is more of a rollicking event-filled journey through a life (as Boyd books usually are) while Picture Palace is a bit denser, a bit stranger, and brings its central protagonist's work more vividly to life by (perhaps paradoxically) not being encumbered with the slightly clunky device of including actual photos in the text. If it's a direct comparison with the rest of Theroux's oeuvre that you're after then Picture Palace doesn't have the exotic setting that some of Theroux's books have (contrast it with, for instance, the other two Theroux novels on this list which were set in Hong Kong and a post-apocalyptic North America instead) but is none the worse for that. I enjoyed it, but not as much as The Mosquito Coast, which remains The One, if one is the number you want.

Picture Palace won the Whitbread Award (later the Costa Award) in 1978; The Children Of Dynmouth, Every Man For Himself, Leading The Cheers, Spies, The Accidental, Restless and Middle England are the other winners on this list.

Speaking of William Boyd, as I was a moment ago, I forgot to mention in the Lanark post that my Canongate edition carries a foreword by him, an occurrence (i.e. a book on this list having a foreword by another author who also appears on this list) which mirrors the ones in True Grit, Stoner and The Queen's Gambit.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

the last book I read

Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

Where do you start with a book like this? Well, it's subtitled "A Life In 4 Books" so obviously you just start with Book 1 and go from there, right? Well, only if you're some sort of hopelessly gauche naïve ingénue who expects fictional narratives to follow a linear pattern, hahahaha, I mean, can you imagine? No, of course we're going to start at Book 3.

And Book 3 starts thusly: a man is on a train. He seems to be the only passenger in the only carriage, and he can't remember how he got there, or who he is. The train is headed for the city of Unthank, a dark and dingy place closely resembling Glasgow. Our friend, now calling himself Lanark after a dimly-remembered place-name on a poster in the train carriage, does his best to settle in, but some weird shit is afoot quite apart from the lack of daylight. People disappear at random, and others are afflicted with a variety of strange ailments ranging from an outbreak of mouths all over their skin to outsized scaly limbs ("dragonhide"). Afflicted with this latter condition himself, Lanark finds himself swallowed up by a rent in the ground and wakes up in a strange medical facility with various other unfortunates who have arrived by the same route. Cured of his dragonhide and reunited with Rima, a woman he'd met in Unthank, he soon discovers that some sinister shit is afoot involving recycling the dead for food, and decides that he and Rima are going to return to Unthank to take their chances there. We are led to understand that this is a pretty unprecedented course of action, and involves traversing some sort of Forbidden Zone on the way where the regular rules of space and time don't apply, but Lanark is adamant that's what he wants to do, if only to be able to attack a sausage sandwich again with a clear conscience.

We now switch to Book 1, which is, at least at first glance, a more orthodox story involving a young man called Duncan Thaw and his childhood in Glasgow. Born into a poor family, Duncan lives through World War II, is evacuated to some rural location, endures the usual icky adolescence complete with funny feelings, you know, down there, and progresses to art school where he meets the usual parade of freaks and bullshitters (at some point here we segue into Book 2, but it's just a continuation of the same story). Duncan forms a slightly obsessive attachment to a young woman named Marjory, although she seems to just want to be friends. His tutors at art school allow him a lot of leeway as they seem to suspect he may have a talent (albeit wayward) worth nurturing, but their patience is tried to breaking point when he takes on a project to paint an enormous mural in an obscure Scottish parish church and ends up taking a Michelangelo-esque amount of time over it. Not only does this Sisyphean task cost him his place at art school but it takes a toll on his sanity as well, as he has a strange episode wherein he may or may not have murdered Marjory (most likely not, it seems) and then takes himself off to the seaside and throws himself into the sea.

We now return (in Book 4) to Lanark and his attempts to return to Unthank via the strange limbo world that exists between it and the institute he has just voluntarily left; a strange world of space and time folding back on itself, of mysterious roads disappearing in the mist only to lead you back to where you started from. Eventually Lanark and Rima find their way back to Unthank only to find it under threat of destruction by some mysterious and ill-understood forces. Lanark is chosen as Unthank's delegate to some imminent summit conference wherein its fate will be decided and is sent off in a bizarre flying contraption to the city of Provan (which looks quite a bit like Edinburgh) to put Unthank's case. He is hampered in his task by two things: firstly his own weakness for drink and pretty girls, and secondly by the fact that all the major decisions have already been made and he's just been sent over as a patsy by the people who wield the real power in the sure knowledge that he can't achieve anything useful. Returning to Unthank just in time to witness its partial destruction, he is provided with some valuable knowledge: the exact time of his own death - the next day, as it turns out.

So *cracks knuckles* what the fuck is going on here, then? The tricksy non-chronological structure conceals the basic fact that this is really two novels, a relatively straightforward Bildungsroman and a wilder sci-fi/fantasy novel, with the latter sawn in half and wrapped around the former. Clearly we are meant to recognise that Lanark and Duncan Thaw are aspects of each other, but the links are tenuous: a couple of characters refer to Lanark as "Thaw" towards the end of Book 3, and the Epilogue that crops up four chapters from the end of Book 4 spells some of this out in explicit detail, with a heavy dose of metafiction, since the character that Lanark meets who explains most of this stuff is the writer of the book.

The most obvious reading is that the end of Book 2 and the Start of Book 3 represent Thaw's death and either an extended point-of-death hallucination or a post-death descent into some sort of hell; Unthank and all its inhabitants representing some unresolved aspects of Thaw's real-life personality and experiences.

This was Alasdair Gray's first novel, published in 1981 when he was 46 years old, though he'd been working on it since his late teens. That might well have been a recipe for something unreadably lumpy and self-indulgent. It's also set in a rather forbidding close-packed typeface which makes the brain itch for a while until you get used to it; it's certainly not a book I could have contemplated reading before my recent-ish surrender to old age and purchase of a pair of dedicated reading glasses. It's also the best part of 600 pages long.

So it's a bit of an intimidating prospect, which explains its inclusion on my loose and fuzzy-edged list of outstanding Projects (as opposed to just, y'know, books) here:
As it happens, though, once you get used to the typeface it's remarkably easy to read and I scooted through it pretty quickly, by my standards anyway, Obviously being in the middle of a pandemic lockdown helps to remove distractions. So in the sense of being a long-gestated first novel which I undertook to read with some slight trepidation about how much of a slog it would be, only to find it, in general, a hoot, Lanark has much in common with The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, a book which, oddly, was also published in 1981.

A book as wide-ranging and stylistically varied as this is bound to throw up parallels with other works as well. Here are a few which struck me:
  • The author inserting himself into the text is done in a much more unobtrusive way by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman; that was a brief non-speaking appearance in a train carriage, this is a lot more Basil Exposition, and the Epilogue section comes with a blizzard of side-notes and footnotes which threaten to overwhelm the text in some places. This in turn is reminiscent both of Infinite Jest and also the first section of Lawrence Norfolk's powerfully baffling In The Shape Of A Boar, which retells the story of Atalanta and Meleager and is eventually more footnote than text.
  • The second of the Unthank books (i.e. Book 4) contains some fairly wild sci-fi (usual caveats apply here, obviously) elements which are simultaneously a bit steampunk and a bit reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, particularly the bureaucracy-gone-mad bits and the sense that you could be arbitrarily dragged off by the authorities at any moment for infringing some rule you weren't even aware of.
  • That last bit is pretty explicitly Kafkesque as well, referencing The Trial in particular.
  • If we go with the reading that the Unthank episodes are an extended hallucination experienced at the point of Duncan Thaw's watery death, then this is quite similar to the plot of William Golding's Pincher Martin.
  • It's an odd coincidence that two of Lanark's three immediate predecessors on this list, Surface Detail and The Affirmation, describe, respectively, Hell and a single individual split, possibly in reality or possibly just in his own fevered imaginings, between two identities and physical locations. It is a coincidence nonetheless, though: the main thing that prompted me to pick up Lanark was Alasdair Gray's death at the end of 2019.
  • Speaking of Iain Banks, who was a great admirer of Gray, Banks' own The Bridge (reputedly his favourite of his own non-SF books) appears to have some striking structural similarities to Lanark. I say "appears" as I've never read The Bridge, but some further detail can be found here.
  • This is the latest book in this series to feature some bracing female nudity on the cover (drawn by Gray himself, as was all the interior artwork) which might make it unsuitable for public reading in some company. G. and The Anatomist were two of its predecessors.
For all that, the best recommendation I can give for Lanark is that the only book it's really like is itself, and that therefore the only way you can really get a sense of what it's like is by reading it, which I strongly recommend doing.