Saturday, May 29, 2010

the last book I read

The Children Of Dynmouth by William Trevor.

We're in the sleepy Dorset village of Dynmouth, where all seems nice and placid and normal. Almost too nice and placid and normal.....when awkward teenager Timothy Gedge hatches a plan to steal the show at the annual seaside talent contest, and decides to acquire the props he needs from various members of the local community, his blunt persistence and prurient curiosity reveal secrets that had previously been hidden.

There's the local vicar Mr. Featherstone and his wife, who's just had a miscarriage, Mr. and Mrs. Dass, whose son left the village in mysterious and never-spoken-of circumstances, Mr. Plant the local handyman, who despite being a pretty unprepossessing character seems to have been putting it about a bit among the local women, including Timothy's mother, and Commander Abigail and his penchant for bracing early-morning dips in the sea and perhaps just a little too close an interest in the boys of the local scout troop. And then there's Kate and Stephen, two younger children whose respective mother and father have just married each other and are away on their honeymoon, Stephen's mother having died after throwing herself off the cliffs near Dynmouth. Or was there something more sinister to it than that? Timothy seems to think so.

Gradually Timothy builds up his set of props for the show while sowing fear and confusion in the local community, so much so that eventually Mr. Featherstone takes it upon himself to intervene, though in a typically mild and British sort of way.

And that's about it - all done and dusted in about 190 pages, no shootings or beheadings or car chases or anything, lots of talk and acute observation of social awkwardness, in particular that peculiarly British sort of desperate avoidance of anything resembling confrontations or emotional outbursts. Timothy clearly suffers from some sort of what would now be called an autism-spectrum disorder (and would have been known in the 1970s as just "being a bit odd"), exacerbated by his unfortunate upbringing - absent father, shiftless mother and older sister, neither of whom were too fussy about shutting or locking the door when they were having it away with a series of random men on the living room carpet. We're invited to consider the same nature/nurture questions as we were by We Need To Talk About Kevin, though that book stacked the deck slightly by portraying Kevin's upbringing as pretty normal and stable (plus, to be fair, Timothy hasn't actually murdered anybody yet).

In a lot of ways William Trevor is a sort of male equivalent of the Penelope Fitzgerald/Beryl Bainbridge/Muriel Spark school of dark little fables I've alluded to a couple of times before. The other book of his I've read, Felicia's Journey, conforms to the same sort of pattern and was filmed in 1999. IMDB reckons The Children Of Dynmouth was adapted for a Screen Two presentation in 1987 as well.

Now the awards bit: The Children Of Dynmouth won the Whitbread Prize (now the Costa Award) in 1976 (as did Felicia's Journey in 1994), so you can add 1976 to the list given here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

rice to see you, to see you....rice

Here's the first new addition to the photo gallery - some pictures I took when we went up the big three Brecon Beacons peaks (Pen y Fan, Corn Du and Cribyn) from Brecon with our fellow Munro-baggers Jenny and Jim back at the end of March. This is pretty much the same walk as the one I did with Dad and Ray (in slightly warmer weather) back in July 2008. Once we'd got back home I took the opportunity to give the Christmas fire-pit and paella pan combo a workout, and very successfully too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

witness the power of this fully operational photo gallery

I'm very pleased to be able to announce that the photo gallery is back up and fully operational. I haven't had time to add any more stuff yet from the backlog I've accumulated in the last couple of months, so the New York pics are still the latest lot. More to come soon though. That is all.

Monday, May 17, 2010

your daily racism/knickers mashup

I had to go over to my local Tesco to get some petrol earlier so I was able to have another interesting random mid-morning Radio 4 programming encounter. This one was a programme about the real-life events depicted in Bob Dylan's classic early-60s song The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. It's off the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin', probably Dylan's starkest and most serious "protest" album (and a steal at £4.97 on Amazon).

It's interesting for many reasons, not least because of the real-life context. Dylan's song is a pretty straight re-telling of the incident and the subsequent court case and verdict, which in turn is a classic illustration of early-60s racism - privileged white guy kills downtrodden black woman and is essentially let off with only a token jail sentence.

It's also interesting for the mondegreen that it contains - I obviously wasn't listening all that closely on my first few hearings of the song, because I'd always understood Hattie Carroll to have been murdered by two blokes called "Williams and Zinger" (though strangely they wielded only one cane between them). In fact it was just the one bloke - William Zantzinger, who coincidentally died a year or so ago. He always claimed that he'd been shamefully misrepresented by the song, but he does genuinely seem to have been a massive racist and just generally a bit of a shit.

Incidentally the official Dylan website has a handy little interactive facility which allows you to listen to the first minute or so of all the songs on Dylan's countless albums; handy if you're trying to decide which one to buy.

As always with Dylan the song's influence has percolated its way into popular culture, for instance with the last line of the chorus being used as the title for the frankly bizarre (and commercially doomed) Wendy James/Elvis Costello 1993 collaboration Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears.

Wendy James is of course most famous for having a few hits with Transvision Vamp in the late 1980s - I vividly recall going to a gig of theirs at the Anson Rooms in Bristol in probably 1989 and joining a group of baying students down the front trying to get a glimpse up her skirt. There was one bloke (not me, honest) who had clearly given up any pretence of listening to the music and just kept bellowing GET YER MILKERS OUT constantly for the entire gig in an impressive display of persistence and stamina. Ah, youth.

[A footnote: anyone having a nostalgic trawl through Google Images for pictures, as I did to retrieve the one displayed on the right, should be warned that there appears to be a Wendy James who is in the, hem hem, adult entertainment business. So some of the images will be a bit NSFW (and, less importantly, of the wrong person).]

Saturday, May 15, 2010

the last book I read

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

Susie Salmon is 14. And has been for a while. Because she's dead! Raped and murdered by a near-neighbour on - hang on - page 15 of my paperback edition. Well, that'll be the end of her involvement in the story, then? But no - the remainder of the book is narrated by her ghostly spirit from heaven. Well, we gather it's a sort of preliminary heaven for those who still have some business that connects them to the physical world - in Susie's case concern for the welfare of her immediate family in the aftermath of her murder, and a desire to see some retribution for her killer.

Needless to say the family is traumatised by events - particularly since Susie's body is never found (the killer has cut it up, crammed it into a safe, and chucked it into a local sinkhole), only some bracelets and other circumstantial evidence. Susie's father, Jack, reckons he knows who did it, though, that Mr. Harvey from up the road - single, keeps himself to himself, all the usual stuff. Jack passes on his concerns to Detective Fenerman who's leading the investigation, but in the absence of any evidence there's not much he can do. Eventually Susie's sister Lindsey solves the problem by breaking into Mr. Harvey's house and stealing some incriminating drawings, but while the police investigation gets into gear Harvey packs up and skips town.

Meanwhile the family move on with life in their own ways - Jack's obsessive behaviour causes Susie's mother Abigail to leave and head off to California, where she ends up working at a winery; Abigail's eccentric mother Lynn moves in with the family; Lindsey starts up a relationship with local boy Sam Heckler; and younger brother Buckley may or may not be having occasional ghostly sightings of his dead sister. Susie's schoolmate Ruth also seems to have been gifted with some form of second sight following Susie's death, but in her case it seems to be a more general Sixth Sense-style seeing dead people rather than anything specific to Susie. Meanwhile we learn that Mr. Harvey is a serial killer, mainly of young girls - some of whom Susie meets in her limbo-world.

Years pass, people grow up, Lindsey and Sam get engaged, Ruth and Susie's former nearly-boyfriend Ray Singh strike up an odd relationship, and things are set up for a climax whereby everything comes together. Sure enough Jack has a heart attack in the garden and is rushed to hospital, Abigail rushes back from California to be at his bedside for a tearful reconciliation, Mr. Harvey returns to town for ill-defined reasons, and Ruth and Ray swing by the sinkhole on the outskirts of town for equally ill-defined reasons, whereupon Ruth has some sort of seizure (presumably brought on by her psychic sensitivity to Susie's buried remains) which allows Susie to swoop down and take possession of her body for a while - just long enough for her and Ray to sneak off and consummate their nearly-relationship of years before.

Eventually Mr. Harvey gets his comeuppance while trying to pick up another young girl, and Lindsey and Sam announce that they are expecting a child. These events seem to trigger an end to Susie's lingering presence on Earth and she ascends to "proper" heaven, where the Diet Coke and Snapple flow like water and there are fluffy ponies to ride and all the cake you can eat, or something like that.

A bit like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Lovely Bones is such a publishing sensation that nothing I say is going to have any impact. Part of the reason it's been such a bestseller is its featuring as one of Richard And Judy's Best Reads back in 2004; it's also recently been filmed. My reservations about heavily-hyped book club books are well-known to readers of this blog (see here and here, for instance), and I think The Lovely Bones is a perfect example of the problem - these are books for people that don't read books.

If you want less sweeping and snobby criticisms, here's a couple. It's pretty light and fluffy and saccharine; despite the veneer of shocking grittiness provided by describing (though not particularly graphically) a young girl's rape and murder in the first few pages nothing really bad happens to anyone thereafter, apart from Mr. Harvey right at the end. And speaking of endings, the tying up of the various plot strands seemed pretty unsatisfying to me. Take Mr. Harvey, for instance: are we to understand that Susie intervened in the real world in some way to bring about his death, say by giving a ghostly jiggle to that icicle to make it fall? If not, what would have happened? Was it that that was keeping Susie in limbo? If so, and the icicle thing was pure chance, would Mr. Harvey surviving have condemned her to further hanging about until some other chance event did for him? Or was it Lindsey's pregnancy that released her? If so, Mr. Harvey's death seems tacked on just to give us some convenient "closure", i.e. the bad guy getting his comeuppance. If you're going to re-use the old-as-the-hills device of having someone cursed to wander the earth clanking their ghostly chains, moaning and occasionally frightening small children until their spirit is released by some cathartic event, you need to be sure that your readers know what that event is, and notice when it's happened. And I really don't know what to make of the brief encounter between Susie (in Ruth's body) and Ray in the room at the back of Sam's brother's bike shop: I mean, Ruth's body may be 20-odd but the whole point of Susie's existence in limbo is that she hasn't aged, so essentially Ray is fucking a 14-year-old. Is it just me that finds that a bit weird, particularly given the circumstances of her death in the first place?

Let's take a step back. This is a perfectly fine and very readable book, though pretty insubstantial. Part of the reason it's been so successful is that it seems superficially "deep" because it's narrated by a ghost, and therefore is, like, you know, about death in some way. But it isn't, really, in the same way that American Beauty was less profound than its use of the same narrative device made you think it was. And the book's ending just seems horribly botched to me, as if Sebold couldn't really think of a good way of ending it and just bailed out and hoped no-one would notice. Well, I noticed. If you want a couple of books that are, like, you know, about death in some way but address the subject in a less clich├ęd and more interesting way, you could try Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma or William Golding's Pincher Martin.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

do not want

Just in case you're unable to find a suitable outlet to express your feelings about the election result, or indeed anything else, here's a couple of shortcuts to the appropriate noises. Just press the buttons.
The second one is of course from here.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

the last book I read

Our Lady Of The Forest by David Guterson.

Ann Holmes has had a problematic adolescence - repeatedly raped and eventually impregnated by her mother's violent boyfriend, she has fled (via an abortion clinic) to the run-down former logging town of North Fork, Washington, where she now lives in a tent in a campsite on the outskirts of town, scratching a living foraging for mushrooms in the damp woods surrounding the town and selling them. Otherwise she passes the time hanging out at the campsite smoking dope and occasionally indulging in a few "special" shrooms, the ones you don't generally make risotto with (unless you throw awesome dinner parties).

One day while foraging in the forest she has a visitation from the Virgin Mary, who among the usual turn away from sin, be excellent to each other stuff makes some specific demands about building a church in her name on the exact spot the vision takes place. At least this is what Ann reports to her friend Carolyn back at the campsite; Carolyn is a bit more sceptical about the whole thing. Not everyone in the local community is, though, when word gets around, as it inevitably does. Ann's daily pilgrimages up to the spot where the first visitation occurred acquire a motley band of followers, and the local Catholic Church start to take notice, primarily in the person of Father Collins, a young-ish priest not so institutionalised that he is immune either to doubts about his beliefs or indeed to the charms of a young teenage girl looking to him for guidance.

Times are hard in North Fork after the logging industry died off, and it turns out people are pretty keen to believe - people like Tom Cross whose son has been in a wheelchair since a tree fell on him in a logging accident and who now ekes out a living at various part-time jobs while hanging out joylessly at the local bars and occasionally breaching the terms of the restraining order his wife took out against him. Some take a more pragmatic approach to the whole situation - Carolyn's initial scorn gives way to a realisation that there is money to be made, and she assumes the role of Ann's spiritual guardian and chief co-ordinator of the collection buckets, buckets which fill up pretty quickly when Ann's fame spreads over the internet and thousands flock to North Fork.

Things come to a head when it becomes clear that the timber company who own the patch of forest where the visions occurred aren't just going to hand it over for someone to plonk a church on it, and moreover aren't all that happy about thousands of people traipsing up and down every day trampling the undergrowth and shitting in the streams. Ann's health is also deteriorating; she suffers from asthma and various other respiratory complaints and the constant kneeling in a damp forest isn't helping. The Church have also sent one of Father Collins' superiors down to investigate Ann's claims, and Tom Cross has developed an increasingly manic fixation on getting Ann to perform a miracle and cure his quadriplegic son. A climactic confrontation occurs, following which things resolve themselves, not perhaps in the way anyone had foreseen, but in a way which could be viewed as fulfilling the prohetic words in Ann's visions, depending of course on how strong your need to believe is.

No doubt this can all be read a number of ways depending on your point of view, and no doubt that's the point of it - to me there's quite a bit of broad satire of the sort of people who buy into all this nonsense and mooch around bovinely clutching phials of holy water and relics (with the obligatory link here), but also something a bit more serious about how poverty, hardship and misery breed exactly the sort of conditions where people will clutch desperately at anything which might offer a way out or at least a glimmer of hope that things might be better, however implausible and absurd it might be, and about how organised religion brutally siezes and exploits this to further its own ends.

I read Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars (later filmed) a few years ago and thought it was excellent, so much so that the two books of his I've read subsequently, East Of The Mountains and this one, pale slightly in comparison. Where all the books are very good is in their evocation of the landscape in which it all takes place; in the case of both Snow Falling On Cedars and Our Lady Of The Forest this means the Pacific Northwest and Washington state in particular - lots of forest and moss and sea mist and general chilly dampness. Where the later two books fall down in comparison with the first one is in being a lot more loosely plotted and meandering; no doubt this is the norm and the strong narrative drive provided by the courtroom drama that forms the background to SFOC is the exception, so I guess it's just down to which order you read them in. Nonetheless if it's advice you're after (and why wouldn't it be?) then I'd suggest Snow Falling On Cedars is the one to go for.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

go home or know more about bowmore

My ongoing whisky odyssey takes me to Islay, or in a more literal sense Waitrose, where I popped in on the way back from my Black Mountains walk the other week to discover that they were knocking out 12-year-old Bowmore for £21.99 - about 8-10 quid off the standard price, and I'd just walked 19 miles so I reckoned I'd earned a bit of a reward.

Bowmore is the oldest of the still-functioning Islay distilleries, established in 1779. It's perhaps not quite as fashionable these days as the fanatically culty Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but they still knock out a lot of whisky. As I've said before I'm not the biggest fan of the really TCP-and-charcoal-briquettes style of whisky, but I was quite impressed with the few slugs of Bowmore Legend I had out of Andy's hip-flask on the golf course a few weeks back, so I thought I'd give it a go.

This is actually a bit more civilised than the Legend (which doesn't carry an age statement), less antiseptic and more rich and mellow and woody (it's a very satisfying dark brown colour as well). There's still a big whack of peat smoke, though, but not the eye-watering throat-constricting Ardbeg variety. It's more like a nice mellow wood bonfire on a beach, a bit of sea air, maybe a bit of tar and seaweed in the background, and something slightly salty and meaty as well, as if someone was char-grilling corned beef over the wood and seaweed combo.

Now I'll grant you seaweed and char-grilled corned beef doesn't sound great, but actually this is pretty good. The expectation that it would slot in somewhere near the Talisker and the Highland Park turns out to be broadly correct; it's slightly more peaty (though not necessarily more smoky) than the Highland Park, and slightly sweeter than the Talisker, but otherwise very much in the same ballpark. Good stuff.

I for one welcome our new jackbooted Old Etonian overlords

It's been a giddying week: hot on the heels of Star Wars Day and Cinco De Mayo we now have the rather more sobering prospect of a general election.

I don't have the time or the energy for a lengthy screed, suffice it to say you should get out and vote regardless of who you're planning to vote for (well, within reason). Otherwise you forfeit the right to complain about anything until the next election comes around.

As it happens most of the South Wales seats are pretty safe Labour ones, with the two Newport seats forming the eastern edge of a solid block of red. Our local MP for Newport West Paul Flynn had a reasonably solid majority of around 5000 in 2005 (Jessica Morden in Newport East has one of a similar size), and also happens to be a pretty good bloke, as far as I can make out. Sensible on most issues, pretty conscientious about expenses claims (529th out of 647 MPs last year) - his two blogs are a bit of a mess but nonetheless informative and, hey, nobody's perfect.

You may also be interested to know that May 6 is the anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, as well as being both George Clooney and Tony Blair's birthdays. It's also the feast day of St. Evodius of Antioch, though it's not clear if he ever wielded the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

Monday, May 03, 2010

the last book I read

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

There's a Gore Vidal quote on the back of my Vintage edition of this book which says:
Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.
Well that's this book review fucked. I'll plough on anyway, though. As always Gore is being a bit hyperbolic for effect but, as always, he's got a point. You're not about to get, for instance, anything much in the way of a description of plot, because there barely is one. Basically Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are sitting in a palace garden, shooting the shit as Mongol emperors and Venetian merchants do, and Polo tells Kublai Khan a series of brief stories, each one a brief description (a page or two at most) of a city, supposedly one that Polo has visited on his travels, but all clearly imaginary; cities slung on ropes across chasms, cities of ghosts, watery cities, cities periodically torn up and rebuilt elsewhere, cities overrun by their own garbage.

And the point of all this? Well, to divert, provoke and entertain, of course, but also to illustrate aspects common to every city like, mundanely, what do you do with all the dead people and rubbish? Polo is also describing aspects of one particular city - his distant home, Venice. It's like a novel-length version of the TS Eliot quotation:
We must never cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.
This being Calvino there are also some post-modern structural games being played here - just as with Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual (a much longer book similarly constructed from short loosely-related episodes with a framing device holding it all together) you can ignore all this if you want to without losing anything much. The authorial dicking about is certainly less intrusive than it is in the other Calvino I've read, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, though I recommend both books highly. At 148 pages (with a lot of white space for all the chapter breaks) it's very short, and it's not like there's any plot to remember, just a series of little tasty delights to dip into to freshen the palate after the great big beefy main course that preceded it.