Friday, June 11, 2021

the last book I read

The Other by Thomas Tryon.

The small town of Pequot Landing, Connecticut, seems like an idyllic place for a family to live, especially two teenage boys: plenty of room for them to roam wild and free, run, dig, have adventures, all that stuff. And Niles and Holland Perry, thirteen-year-old twin brothers, certainly see it that way - wide open fields to run through, old buildings and cellars to explore, ponds to swim in.

A couple of clouds loom on the horizon, though, most notably the recent death of the twins' father, in rather mysterious circumstances, smashed bloodily into the cellar by the ill-timed descent of its heavyweight wooden trapdoor. The twins' mother, Alexandra, has retreated to her bedroom with a clandestine supply of booze in the wake of this and emerges only rarely. The family is kept together by tough, pragmatic old Russian matriarch Ada, the twins' grandmother, who has a close relationship with the boys and teaches them a slightly mysterious semi-supernatural game involving projecting their consciousness into other living things: animals, birds, etc. Whoa, you'll be saying at this point, No Good Will Come Of It - well, wait and see.

Various peripheral family figures are also knocking about the place, including the twins' slightly annoying cousin Russell, his parents and various other aunts and uncles. And it's Russell who kicks off the series of unfortunate events that follows, by leaping unwisely from the barn into a pile of hay in which someone has unfortunately left a pitchfork, prongs upward.

Further tragic events follow: old Mrs. Rowe next door is found dead in her house, apparently of fright, and with some evidence of having received a visitor at or around the time of her death. And, finally, the twins' mother, Alexandra, takes a tumble down the spiral stone staircase leading to her upstairs room - she survives, but is left confined to a wheelchair and robbed of speech.

It is at this point (on page 173 of my 250-page copy of the book) that Ada, a bit more rooted in the real world than the rest of the family, takes charge of the situation and brings about the major plot-related rug-pull which throws a completely new light on everything that has gone before. I am going to describe that rug-pull for you now, so obviously MAJOR PLOT SPOILER ALERT: Holland is dead, and has been for a few months, having accidentally hanged himself while attempting to kill a cat in the well. This happened a few months after his father's untimely demise, but before the current run of incidents started.

This is such a neck-snapping turnaround that you can imagine the book just ending here, but it doesn't. It's unclear exactly what's been going on, and how much Niles himself knows about it, still less how much Ada suspects, but if any suspicion falls upon Niles at this point it's not enough to motivate anyone to do anything, as he still has the run of the place. And sure enough further events occur, most notably the disappearance of Niles' elder sister Torrie's new baby. Everyone else is still walking around with their heads in the clouds but Ada (finally) starts to suspect what's going on. Does Niles know what's happened to the baby? If he doesn't, maybe Holland does?

The baby's whereabouts are eventually revealed, in fairly spectacular circumstances, and while the rest of the family are still running about like headless chickens at the horror of it all Ada decides that enough is enough, and since she feels partly responsible, what with her encouraging the boys to play their weird consciousness-swapping game, she makes a heroic gesture and drags Niles off to the barn intending to set fire to it with them both inside.

I don't really know what my expectations of The Other were; I put it on my Amazon wish list after seeing it in some list of forgotten 20th-century classics. I think I was expecting some rather low-key psychological chiller/thriller, but it's actually considerably more lurid than that, the revelation about the fate of the baby in particular. It's never made completely clear what's going on with the whole Niles/Holland situation: the surface reading is that Niles (the nice one) has some psychological trauma that makes him assume the personality of Holland (the psychopath) at certain times, commit various atrocities and then not remember them afterwards. That's the non-supernatural version; there is another one which has something to do with the game the twins played with Ada and has Niles either acquiring some part of Holland's consciousness by doing their Vulcan mind-meld thing after his death or being possessed against his will from beyond the grave. I suppose there is another possibility, which is that Holland contrived to hang Niles in the well and has subsequently assumed his identity. There is a slim framing device involving an initially-unidentified narrator in some sort of secure mental facility, a narrator who it should not surprise you (if you've been paying attention) to learn is Niles (or perhaps Holland), who did not die in the great barn-burning after all.

The Other was quite a publishing sensation in when it came out in 1971: timing is all, and it surfed the same supernatural thriller boom as its rough contemporaries Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (and Carrie a couple of years later). Unlike those two, which invoke Satan himself or one of his minor functionaries, the supernatural elements here are pretty light, and could by some readings be absent altogether. Thomas Tryon's back-story is interesting and unusual as well: a Hollywood actor for many years before branching out into writing in his forties. He was also executive producer for the film of Johnny Got His Gun

But is it any good? I find that a hard question to answer. The first half is a bit meandery, apart from Russell spearing himself to death, but the pace then picks up and really cranks up the melodrama and borderline hysteria after that, especially after the key revelation about Holland's death. Twins, especially identical ones, are a winner as a plot device as everyone agrees they are A Bit Weird and prone to all sorts of near-telepathic shenanigans and occasional identity-swapping for nefarious purposes, even when one of them isn't dead. 

I guess what I would say is: I enjoyed it quite a lot, and one of the things a book like this does is make you want to go back and read the pre-rug-pull bits again to verify, for instance, in a Sixth Sense sort of way, that no-one actually interacted with both twins at the same time in the first half of the book. I'm not sure I'd make any grand claims of literary merit, but that probably doesn't really matter.

Tryon wrote another supernatural-ish thriller, Harvest Home, a couple of years later, with similar success, from which (with maybe a dash of The Wicker Man added into the mix) Stephen King pretty clearly took inspiration for Children Of The Corn. The Other was made into a film in 1972.

One final mystery is why my NYRB Classics paperback edition has a picture of Jamie Oliver on the front of it; perhaps he was chosen as a representative of some creeping unnameable evil. A harsh but not completely unreasonable judgement, I'd say.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

a phosphate worse than death

Every day, as I was saying only recently on Twitter, is a school day. And so I'd like to share with you a thing I learnt today as some sort of improving moral fable and a salutary lesson on the perils of assuming things, because if you do that you will, as I'm sure you're aware (at least I assume you are), make an ASS out of U and ME.

Anyway, you'll all be familiar with Trout Mask Replica, the seminal musical achievement of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, indeed I expect you spin that baby up once a week for the whole family to enjoy. Among the singalong pop nuggets on the album (released in 1969) is a song called Orange Claw Hammer, delivered a cappella in its album version. It's, erm, an acquired taste, which is partly why this version, supposedly from a radio broadcast in about 1973 and supposedly featuring Frank Zappa on acoustic guitar, is such a revelation, resembling, as one of the YouTube commenters says, a "psychotic sea shanty". It is genuinely, unironically, great, and the lyrics do make a crazy sort of sense, while still being fairly bonkers.

One of the things that I assumed was a bit of trademark Beefheartian wordplay was this bit:

Come, little one, with your little old dimpled fingers
Gimme one and I'll buy you a cherry phosphate

"Cherry phosphate", hahaha, I thought - classic Beefheart, juxtaposing fruity innocence with harsh incongruous chemistry to produce an arresting image while being literally physically impossible and/or poisonous if anyone ever actually attempted it.

I can't remember how I came across the link to this article that reveals that not only was a cherry phosphate an actual thing, but that phosphate drinks more generally were a popular item in post-war America. That link contains some instructions for extracting additional flavourings from cherry bark, with the reassurance that in the resulting brew "the amount of hydrogen cyanide produced is minuscule", which is about as reassuring as learning that cheap red wine contains only a relatively modest amount of arsenic. Basically what these drinks had in common was the use of acid phosphate (a solution of phosphoric acid with some mineral salts added) as an acidifying agent in place of, say, lemon or lime juice. You can still get it in certain niche outlets if you really want some. Similarly if you want to make an Ammonia Coke then you can still acquire the ingredients, though since I'm not partial to either ammonia or coke I'll be giving it a miss. 

Thursday, June 03, 2021

putting down some routes

As well as traumatising and maiming small children by throwing balls at them and menacing them with bits of wood, the easing of lockdown rules provides some opportunities to get out and do some walking. My capacity to go up proper mountains or walk phenomenal distances is a bit limited at the moment as I've injured my ankle (almost certainly while out running with Nia, though I don't remember any specific incident) but I have nonetheless gone out and done a few things recently which I thought I might share with you here. 


We did this a week or so after my birthday in February, and therefore may have stretched somewhat the terms of the "daily exercise" clause in the lockdown regulations that were in force at the time. Let's just say I wanted to test my recently-injured ankle and a walk up a hill seemed like the best way to do it, just like driving to Barnard Castle is the best way to test out your eyesight.

Anyway, I'd been up the Blorenge once before, back in late 2009. That time we'd parked in the car park on the old railway line at Llanfoist Crossing; this time we walked from my parents' house in Abergavenny. Other than that it was a pretty similar route, we also had pretty similar weather in that it was OK at the lower levels coming across the canal and up the steep hill to the Devil's Punchbowl, but then foggy and drizzly on the higher bits, including the summit. Route map and altitude profile are below - we did the loop clockwise, i.e. the gradual ascent via the Devil's Punchbowl first and the descent by the more direct route. Total walk length is a little under nine miles.

The Blorenge is one of those mountains which is only really a proper mountain from one side (the Langdale Pikes would be another example), as it's really just the abrupt end of an extensive plateau that extends all the way over to Blaenavon. You could very easily cheat, park at the Foxhunter or Keeper's Pond car park and bag the summit at the cost of only a couple of hundred feet of ascent and probably no more than three-quarters of an hour for the round trip, something you couldn't do at, say, the Sugar Loaf

It's a perfectly nice walk; to be honest my recollections of it are negatively coloured by a couple of foot-related issues: firstly it became squelchily apparent that my Salomon walking boots weren't very waterproof any more (something I'd discovered about their predecessors in similar circumstances on Dartmoor in 2007), and secondly it became painfully apparent that my ankle injury wasn't the sort that could just be walked off and/or ignored.

Bath Skyline Walk

To celebrate outdoor meeting up being legal again, some friends and I decided to go for a walk, and since most of this particular group live around Bristol and Bath we decided to do a walk in that area. Excitingly, this meant my first trip to England for about six months. It was a new one on me, but apparently the Bath Skyline walk is a pretty well-known thing, sufficiently so to have its own National Trust webpage. It's so called because it's basically a circuit of the high plateau immediately to the east of the city, much of which is occupied by bits of the university campus.

We did the main loop clockwise, which is how the National Trust walk guide would have you do it, but if you want to do it the other way, go nuts. As the name suggests there are some good views of the city, as well as other local landmarks like Prior Park. The basic circuit is about six miles, but I got the train from Newport so the extra faffing about through Bath to get to the start point and back extended the total distance to about eight and a half miles.

The views are nice, it was a lovely day and the company was excellent, and I did have my first actual pint in an actual pub for over a year (a very nice pint of London Pride in the Boater). For all that, I wouldn't say its the most thrilling walk in the world, but it's clearly not really intended to be, just a nice half-day out in the fresh air.

Tidenham Tunnel

It was Hazel's birthday at the end of May, and as the weather forecast was pretty good we decided we'd offload the kids, pack a picnic and go for a walk. As you know I keep my ear to the ground on Rail Infrastructure Twitter and recalled having recently read something about the opening of the Wye Valley Greenway, a walking and cycling route up a section of old railway line just north of Chepstow. Most excitingly of all this incorporated the kilometre-long Tidenham Tunnel, closed since the late 1950s. So I decided to devise a walk incorporating the tunnel, and came up with the one below, starting at the car park at Tidenham Chase and then proceeding clockwiselywise down to the southern portal of the tunnel, back up through it, along the bank of the Wye for a bit (including a stop for lunch) and then back to the car park - just over six and a half miles in total. 

The altitude profile looks a bit unusual as it's inverted compared to the usual mountain profile with the high point in the middle; here the car park is the high point and the first two-thirds or so of the walk is a gradual descent down to the banks of the Wye at about 30 metres above sea level. You can see that the tunnel (the straight line where my phone app lost the GPS signal for a while) has a slight uphill gradient from south to north.

Anyway, the tunnel is interesting: lit only by some downward-pointing lights at about knee level, which illuminate the ground so you can see where you're going but don't provide much light above knee level. This is by design as there is apparently a resident bat population who they don't want to disturb by lighting the whole thing up like a Christmas tree. The newly-opened path is great, but there's still a bit of work to do integrating it with existing paths like the Gloucestershire Way; we spent a while trying to find an access point from one to the other and eventually resorted to climbing over a fence. 

[EDIT: photo links - Blorenge here, Bath Skyline here, Tidenham here.]

live well, bat often, field much

It's been delightful, over the past few weekends, as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions ease, to be able to meet up with extended family again. This has been made both easier and more enjoyable by the recent spell of sunny weather, which has made it much more pleasant to hang out outdoors in a responsibly well-ventilated manner.

One of the things you can do with large-ish groups comprising a mixture of adults and (mainly) children is play the venerable old game of French cricket. I have combined my memories of playing the game as a child with my fairly extensive experience of playing it as a parent, mainly with Nia and her cousins and assorted aunts and uncles and the occasional grandparent, and I think I'm ready to present my new all-embracing life philosophy, soon to be available in hardback and motivational DVD form, entitled French Cricket For The Soul: How It's Like A Metaphor For Life And That.

A quick preamble to outline the rules: you need a cricket bat and a tennis ball and a few people; I'd say a minimum of about four to avoid too many gaps in the field and too much faffing about retrieving the ball. Basic rules are as follows:

  • The batter stands with his or her feet together and the bat held vertically in front of the shins;
  • The fielders throw the ball at the batter's legs;
  • The batter is out if the ball hits their legs below the knee, or if they hit the ball with the bat and it is caught by a fielder before it hits the ground;
  • The ball must be thrown, underarm, from the point where the fielder picks it up;
  • If the batter has hit the ball, they may shuffle their feet round to face the next delivery, if they have time;
  • If the batter has not hit the ball, they may not move their feet;
  • Play continues, ideally, forever, but more realistically until one of the grown-ups has to go and make tea, someone has a tantrum, or someone thwacks the ball into next door's garden.

That's the basic structure, now here is the Life Philosophy section.

  • When you are a child, batting seems like the thing to be doing, and moreover while batting thwacking the ball as hard and as far as you can. But, crucially, there is no way, unless you concoct some additional rules, to actually "score" anything, so all you've done is give yourself a long wait while some poor mug has to go and dig the ball out of the compost heap. Alternatively you can just dead-bat everything into the ground to try to prolong your batting stint as long as possible, but a) this just annoys everyone else and b) can be counter-productive in that it leaves the ball very close to you.
  • If the ball does end up very close you you (less than a bat-length away, say) you also have to make a judgment involving balancing the needs of others with your own. There will be a fielder the same distance away, or even a bit closer, if, as fielders tend to do if not closely monitored, they encroach a bit while picking the ball up and if you give it the full Ben Stokes there's every chance that the fielder will get a ball or, worse, the toe-end of the bat, delivered at high speed into their face. So you have to temper your wilder ambitions with a modicum of regard to the welfare of others.
  • With age and maturity and mellow life-experience what you eventually realise is that the thing to do while batting is, sure, defend your legs if you can, but, when you can lay bat on ball, give some catching opportunities to the fielders, tailored to their levels of catching prowess. So for Nia's 14-year-old cousin (who is a freakish giant and taller than me) I might try and offer some sharp chances at ankle height, while offering some slightly easier ones to Nia (whose catching is pretty sharp) and the occasional gently lobbed chance for the younger cousins.
  • In comparison the fielding seems like a chore when you're a child, as everyone wants to be the centre of attention as the batter. Plus, of course, you're not guaranteed to be involved in every delivery as you are while batting - the person throwing the ball is involved, of course, as is whichever fielder the ball ends up going to. It might be you, but there's no way of knowing in advance. So this means that you have to make an up-front investment (i.e. your full attention on what's going on) without any confident expectation of reward (i.e. the ball might go to someone else). Obviously you could do the cost-benefit analysis and conclude that your time would be better spent daydreaming and going lah-de-dah hullo clouds hullo sky, but then you run the risk of the ball defying the odds and actually coming to you and everyone shouting at you.
  • Further to this, there's no value in getting all aerated if you haven't had a bat for a while. Have you been daydreaming in the field? It won't just magically get to be "your turn", you know. Get involved, put yourself about a bit in the field, take a one-handed screamer millimetres from the turf and you shall have not only the awed respect of your peers, but a go with the bat as well.
  • There are some calculations you can do to maximise (or minimise, depending on your preferred level of involvement) the chances of your being in line for some fielding or, better still, a catch and the associated unimaginable glory (and, of course, being next up to bat) - generally speaking the imaginary semicircular area in front of the batter is the prime catching area. But, especially when younger players are either batting or throwing, one key spot is directly behind the batsman, as there'll be a lot of slightly misdirected throws, not to mention wild swiping and missing. So someone needs to take one for the team and occupy that spot - a position where you're very unlikely to take a catch unless the batsman gets a very thin edge or does some kind of ambitious Dilscoop over their own head, but where you'll probably get quite a bit of fielding to do nonetheless. On the other hand, having done the unglamorous tidying-up duties, the whole game then turns on its head as you, the backstop, become the bowler and the behind-the-batsman area becomes the prime in-front-of-the-batsman area. And so we see the value of doing the unglamorous grafting groundwork for reaping the glorious rewards later.

So we can see, my young friends, that there is much to be learnt from this seemingly simple game, and that, moreover, he who achieves full mastery of the various physical and mental disciplines involved here will find that more general life challenges will, when confronted with a firm throw towards the upper shin area, fend it back awkwardly off the splice and offer a sharp but catchable chance at around knee height. All you have to do is hold onto it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

running for president

A couple of follow-up observations on earlier posts:

Firstly, I notice that politicians continue to embarrass themselves by attempting to ingest mildly intoxicating grain-based fermented fluids through their facial orifices in a way approximating what actual normal human beings would do in similar circumstances. The pictures below of Zac Goldsmith and Boris Johnson during a promotional stunt for Goldsmith's toxic (and thankfully unsuccessful) 2016 campaign for London mayor are the perfect example of this: Goldsmith genuinely seems to have no idea how to hold a pint glass and his facial expression after a very tentative sip is that of someone taking their first ever sip of beer. I mean, I should add that I almost certainly made a very similar expression after my first ever taste of beer, but I took the precaution of being about twelve and not on camera at the time.

Boris Johnson has at least (assuming he started with a full pint) managed a respectable quaff, although his facial expression suggests at least the faint possibility of it coming straight back up again.

Anyway, the other thing that politicians do, now that youth and vibrancy are supposedly the desirable things in politicians rather than, say, competence, trustworthiness and an absolutely massive beard, is make a point of being photographed running. Obviously the most convenient time is when just leaving or, better still, just returning to your house, as then you can just skulk round the corner and, at the most opportune moment, arrive back at a sprint and go: oh, good morning, everyone, sorry, just been out for a run, hahaha, what, these old things? just my running gear, bit sweaty, hahaha, anyway, must get on, cheerio! Nothing will convince me that Michael Gove, to pick the most obvious example, actually moves his lower limb appendages rhythmically back and forth thus propelling his entire autonomous corporeal module along laterally at greater-than-average speed for any reason other than to provide the flimsy illusion of being an actual normal human being for the minimal amount of time necessary.

My first recollection of politicians doing this sort of thing was during Bill Clinton's presidency, though of course human beings of a degree of political celebrity have run before. But I think it's more prevalent now than it was, via David Cameron and his disturbing habit of making what I assume is his pig-fucking face while out running, to Boris Johnson and his absurd outfits. It's not just British politicians - Nicolas Sarkozy used to do it and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is conspicuously sporty. I mean, fine, if that's genuinely your thing, but otherwise I think everyone should probably just Stop It.

Secondly, with reference to the recent-ish review of The Godfather and my reference therein to the bizarre episode with Lucy Mancini and her cavernous vagina, which I also mention here, it occurs to me that the canonical enormous vagina reference in fiction is its occurrence as a repeated theme in Jean M Auel's The Clan Of The Cave Bear and its sequels The Valley Of Horses and The Mammoth Hunters - there are three more books in the series but this is the point at which I got bored and drifted off to other things. 

The series' main protagonist, Ayla, has lots of exciting adventures, but a key plot thread is her desire to find a man who can fully occupy her, erm, cave, and, in parallel, the story of rugged hunter Jondalar and his desire to find a woman with whom he can, erm, sheath his spear in a full and satisfying way. I think one of the reasons I got bored with the books - which were big, doorstop-y tomes anyway - was the shift of focus away from the stuff about the rise of the Cro-Magnons (and the parallel demise of the Neanderthals) and towards a series of soap-opera-esque plot contrivances to force Ayla and Jondalar apart and back together again, complete with some furious spearing upon each reconciliation. It seems odd in hindsight, these being books I read as a teenager, to recall that I got bored because there was too much sex and not enough other stuff, but there it is.

Friday, May 28, 2021

processing middle names correctly is my middle name

The Tears Of The Giraffe post reminded me of a thing I mentioned on Twitter a while back: the difficulty of accurately categorising (in terms of alphabetical sorting) people whose authorial name is in three bits, like, for instance, Alexander McCall Smith, or, for that matter, Iain Duncan Smith, who actually is - no, seriously - a published novelist

Even in that tweet I have made an unwarranted assumption, which is that if you have someone who professionally goes by three names with no intervening hyphens, names two and three are a sort of combined surname. This is demonstrably untrue for names such as Joyce Carol Oates, double featuree on this very blog - to be fair if you read the thread under the original tweet I do acknowledge as much there. Below is a not-necessarily-exhaustive list of potentially problematic authorial names from my own bookshelves.
Author name Middle bit What is it?
Alice Thomas Ellis Thomas probably surname (pseudonym)
Isaac Bashevis Singer Bashevis probably surname (partial pseudonym)
Mario Vargas Llosa Vargas Spanish patronymic
John Kennedy Toole Kennedy middle name
Gabriel García Márquez Garcia Spanish patronymic
F. Scott Fitzgerald Scott middle name
Alexander McCall Smith McCall surname
Joyce Carol Oates Carol middle name
Lewis Grassic Gibbon Grassic probably surname (pseudonym)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Prawer surname
David Foster Wallace Foster middle name
Bobbie Ann Mason Ann middle name
Michael Marshall Smith Marshall surname
Brett Easton Ellis Easton middle name
M. John Harrison John middle name

It's important to point out that these are my best guesses based on some cursory scanning of Wikipedia pages for the authors in question and the application of what seems to me like common sense but could very possibly not be. So for Alice Thomas Ellis, for instance, there isn't much real-world context to go on, since her real name was either Ann Margaret Haycraft née Lindholm or Anna Margaret Haycraft née Lindholm, depending on whether you believe her Wikipedia page or her obituary. But since Thomas is an unlikely middle name for a woman I have chosen to assume it's meant to be the first part of a two-part surname. 

Since I am quite lazy I wanted to have a single rule I could apply to all authors, and so the only rational one seemed to be to file the books by the third part of the name. This avoids things which seem obviously wrong, like filing Joyce Carol Oates under "C", but does produce some results which are wrong the other way, like filing Gabriel García Márquez under "M" rather than "G" and Alexander McCall Smith under "S" rather than "M". But it's the best system I have.

These relatively minor problems are just a tiny microcosm of the problems that can be faced by anyone trying to categorise people's names, particularly those trying to design IT systems and databases that store and display them. This article has an excellent list of the Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong variety and this article builds on it with some real-world examples. (some more can be found here). For all that these are excellent things to remember, especially if your book collection contains anything by Colette or Voltaire, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should abandon the approach of storing "given name" and "family name" as two separate fields, as this is phenomenally useful for the vast majority of Western names, just that you need to design in enough flexibility to store what you might, in your blinkered Western-culture-centric way, consider to be "non-standard" names. 

And, I'd hope it goes without saying, while you're being all woke and accepting inputs from a gazillion different character sets, don't forget to sanitise your inputs.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

the last book I read

Tears Of The Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith.

Precious Ramotswe is a woman of unusual talents. She runs her own detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana, called the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. There is, as far as we know, no No. 2. Mma Ramotswe is a woman of keen intuition and intelligence, has built up a solid reputation for herself, and in general things seem to be going pretty well. The same goes for her personal life, where she has recently become engaged to Mr. JLB Matekoni, the proprietor of Speedy Motors, a kind and diligent man, slightly older than her, but solid and reliable and with his own business. 

Mma Ramotswe and Mr JLB Matekoni are in the early stages of planning their wedding and working out how to bring their two separate households together. Both are old enough to be aware that some degree of compromise will be required, though Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to accommodate Mr JLB Matekoni's habit of setting aside whole rooms for the dismantlement of and tinkering with various interesting engines. In the meantime, there are matters to be attended to in their respective businesses.

Mma Ramotswe's next client is an American woman, Andrea Curtin, who is looking for some information about what happened to her son, Michael, who spent his late teenage years working on a sort of development project/commune in Botswana on the edge of the Kalahari Desert before disappearing in mysterious circumstances and never being found. This was a decade or so ago and the Curtins have long since returned to their previous life in America, but Mrs. Curtin finds herself reassessing some priorities in the wake of the recent death of her husband and has returned to Botswana for one final crack at finding out the truth. Mma Ramotswe finds herself sympathetic to Mrs. Curtin's loss and agrees to take the case.

While Mma Ramotswe busies herself with some preliminary enquiries, a few other things are happening: another case arrives at the agency, this one a seemingly simple case of adultery which Mma Ramotswe delegates to her secretary and sleuthular apprentice Mma Makutsi. Mr JLB Matekoni goes to visit the orphan farm run by Mma Potokwane, for whom he has a regular gig fixing mechanical pumps and various other bits of infrastructure, and is somehow inveigled into taking on two of the orphans (a brother and sister) as foster children. How is he going to explain this to Mma Ramotswe? Finally, Mr JLB Matekoni's house-maid, concerned about her future employment prospects in the wake of her employer's engagement and sudden entry into parenthood, hatches a plan to have Mma Ramotswe arrested and imprisoned.

Mma Ramotswe's finely-honed detectival instincts mean she can sniff out a wrong'un at 100 yards, and she is soon pursuing an angle which has eluded previous investigators: Michael Curtin's erstwhile colleague Dr. Oswald Ranta, now a lecturer in economics at the local university. It doesn't take much leaning on Dr. Ranta for him to reveal the truth: he and Michael shared a woman, Clara, something which Ranta and (obviously) Clara were aware of but Michael was not, and when he found out he took it badly, ran off into the bush and fell into a ditch, breaking his neck. Panicking, Ranta arranged for the burial of the body and denied all knowledge of Michael's fate.

So the case is solved. But there is an extra factor: Clara was pregnant with Michael's child when he died and the boy is now ten years old. Mma Ramotswe, as well as delivering her findings to Mrs. Curtin, also arranges a meeting between her, Clara and her grandson. 

And so the wheel comes full circle, closure is achieved, et cetera et cetera. All a bit convenient, you might say, and, well, yes, probably. Tears Of The Giraffe is actually the second in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of which, erm, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the first, but just as with The Ionian Mission it's perfectly possible to pick up a random entry from the series (which now numbers twenty-odd) and enjoy it without having to have read all (or indeed any) of its predecessors. The Patrick O'Brian novels have a bit of literary heft and density to them, but this one is as light as a feather, the transparently good and kind protagonists never being in any danger of having bad stuff happening to them. It's a little bit cutesy and cosy for my taste, to be honest, and underneath the author's evident love for the country and people of Botswana there's just a hint of a rancid whiff of hankering for a simpler world of harsh retributive justice and childhood discipline, something we "sophisticated" first-world types have talked ourselves out of with our moral relativism and nuance.

Maybe I'm taking it all too seriously - this is a bit of fairly inconsequential fun, Precious Ramotswe is an appealing central character and I certainly wouldn't rule out reading another one in future if it presents itself in a second-hand shop for a small amount of money. What I would suggest, though, to anyone after short, slyly humorous detective novels that also feature a central mystery of some interest, is to get acquainted with the work of Kinky Friedman.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

the last book I read

Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

Nazneen was born in fairly unpromising circumstances in a Bangladeshi village in the late 1960s, and, being premature, was not initially expected to survive. But, foreshadowing her unexpected resilience in the later stages of the novel, she does survive. Nonetheless the general prospects for a young girl aren't great, especially after her mother kills herself in a rather baroque fashion with a ceremonial spear. So Nazneen finds herself betrothed to an older man, also a Bangladeshi but older, from a different part of the country and currently residing in London. Without any knowledge of the world outside her village, and no knowledge of the English language, Nazneen is shipped off to be married and make a life for herself in London, specifically in the large Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets

Her new husband, Chanu, is a kindly enough sort of chap, though not exactly an oil painting, and afflicted with a sort of unshakeably delusional optimism about the soundness of his own ideas and the general blindly meritocratic nature of British society. The result of these things is that he gets into a series of menial jobs, gets downhearted when his ideas about how the business should best be run don't get him an instant leg up the corporate ladder, and leaves to move on to another job.

Nazneen, meanwhile, busies herself producing and caring for two daughters, Shahana and Bibi, doing all the usual cooking and cleaning, attempting to learn some English and corresponding with her sister Hasina back in Bangladesh. Hasina is having a few challenges of her own: an abusive marriage, abuse and exploitation from her boss at work, and eventually getting drawn into prostitution in order to make ends meet. Nazneen does her best to help by sending money occasionally, but there isn't much to spare.

One day Chanu has a bit of a stopped-clock moment and brings home something useful: a sewing machine. Nazneen soon gets up and running using it and is soon taking in sewing for some local Bangladeshi Del Boys, including intense young activist Karim. Not only does this enable her to bring in some extra money, but it sparks a bit of political consciousness in Nazneen and inspires her to get out of the house and go to a few meetings. Karim's presence at these is part of the appeal, of course, and as well as leading consciousness-raising efforts in the local community he is soon waging ruthless jihad in Nazneen's knickers.

Trouble is on the horizon, though, from a few different sources. Karim's group are waging a campaign against a BNP-esque group in the area, but are also having some more People's Front Of Dhaka-style internal disagreements. Nazneen lives in constant guilt about her affair with Karim and constant fear of being discovered. And Chanu's half-arsed entrepreneurial activities are revealed to have been partly financed by a loan (at ruinous rates of interest, naturally) from local loan shark Mrs. Islam, who employs her two somewhat bone-headed sons as enforcers for people who fall behind with the repayments. Nice flat you've got here, shame if someone was to break it, that sort of thing.

Chanu eventually decides that London is unacceptably corrupt and crime-ridden and that the best solution is for the whole family to uproot itself and relocate to Dhaka to start a new life. Well, of course, it's not "relocating" for Shahana and Bibi, who were born in London and are thoroughly Westernised teenagers and who naturally take a pretty dim view of the whole scheme. Nazneen's newly-developed political sensibility and self-confidence mean that she is also reluctant to make the move as well, though she's not so freed from submission to the patriarchy that she feels able to make Chanu aware of this up-front. After a bit of last-minute drama when Shahana runs away from home on the eve of their planned departure, gets caught up with some (mainly Muslim-on-Muslim) rioting on Brick Lane and has to be rescued by Nazneen, Chanu is finally brought into the picture and has to accept that his wife and daughters aren't coming with him to Dhaka - something that he takes remarkably well, considering. 

That last section of the book illustrates one of its problems: the conflict between Chanu's portrayal as a slightly infuriating but basically good-hearted and lovable buffoon who just wants the best for himself and his wife and daughters, and the necessity of involving him in some of the more gnarly elements of the plot: the highly-charged political meetings that Karim and his associates oversee, and the climactic events wherein he flies off to Bangladesh with promises from Nazneen that she and the girls will join him "later", which, even given his boundless optimism, he must surely know means "never". He never quite fits properly into the serious bits, unlike Karim who is generally a fairly humourless character.

There was some furore at the time of Brick Lane's original publication in 2003 and its filming in 2007 about whether Monica Ali, despite sharing some biographical detail with Nazneen (born in Bangladesh, relocated to Britain), was an authentic enough Bangladeshi Muslim voice to really tell a story such as this, and whether the portrayal of the Muslim community was unduly harsh. I'm probably not adequately qualified to comment on the first point, although it does seem an odd standard to hold someone to - had Dalton Trumbo actually had his face and all of his limbs blown off? What actual experience did Michael Marshall Smith have of actually rescuing genetic clones from an organ farm in a dystopian future world? Had Henry Miller actually drunk and fucked his way round Paris in the 1930s? Well, yes, OK, bad example, but you take my point, as Henry Miller said to several French prostitutes.

So, did I like it? Yes. Did I love it? Eh, no, not really. But it's a perfectly easy and entertaining read, even at a fairly hefty not-quite-500 pages. It is, I think, the third novel on this list after Falling Man and Dead Air to feature the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a significant plot point. It also shares a few themes (Muslim political consciousness-raising, excitingly illicit sexy sexy times) with The Black Album, and a partial setting in or around the Indian sub-continent with The God Of Small Things and the other novels listed in that post. Brick Lane was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, as was The Good Doctor. That brings my total for that year to three (Notes On A Scandal being the other), one short of the record (I think) of four held jointly by 1984, 1989 and 2001.