Friday, July 29, 2011

at it like rabbatts

It's just a small, footling and frankly petty and small-minded gripe, but it bothered me at the time, so in the spirit of full disclosure of unnecessary detail about irrelevant stuff on the internet (blogging, in other words) here it is.

Kirsty Young's guest on Desert Island Discs this morning was lawyer and businesswoman (and current chief executive of Millwall FC) Heather Rabbatts. I didn't hear much of it, but I did notice that her first choice of record was Corinne Bailey Rae's cover of the hoary old standard Que Sera Sera.

There was a lot of gushing about how innovative an arrangement it was, and how CBR had really put her personal stamp on it, that sort of thing. Now I have no personal animosity towards Corinne Bailey Rae - her music is nice enough in a dinner party background wallpaper music sort of way, and she's been through a lot lately - but her version (it's from her 2011 release The Love EP, a selection of covers), while markedly different from the cutesy Doris Day version, is pretty much a carbon copy of the legendary Sly and the Family Stone's version from way back in 1973. Do these people know nothing?

don't noc it till you've got the nac

Do you own a rucksack? I know you do; everyone does. I myself probably own half a dozen or so, of varying shapes and sizes and with a varying array of mud and grass adhering to the outside and a varying selection of forgotten mouldering pork pies and decomposing Peperamis hidden in the inside pockets.

"Rucksack" seems to have become the canonical term for this particular piece of equipment, with "backpack" increasingly popular as well. Back in the day, though, you had other words to choose from as well, which (though I daresay some old fogeys continue to use them) have slipped into disuse, comparatively anyway, and they are "knapsack" and "haversack". It seems very odd to me that there are three perfectly good words, all ending in "sack", which describe essentially the same thing. What's it all about?

A good dictionary is your friend here, if you want to know the derivation of words. There seems to be general agreement that the three prefixes derive as follows:
  • "ruck" from the German for "back"
  • "haver" from the German for "oats", the implication presumably being that that's what people used to carry in them; why you'd be lugging a bag full of oats up a hill I have no idea. Some of the dictionaries say that a haversack specifically has one strap rather than two, some disagree.
  • "knap" from a German word meaning "bite" or "eat", presumably any sort of food in this case, so you're not restricted to porridge and flapjacks.
I don't know why one usage persisted while the other two now sound quaintly Famous Five-y, like they should be filled with crusty hard-boiled egg and potted meat sandwiches and fruit cake supplied by a beaming ruddy-cheeked farmer's wife who cheerily refuses any form of payment with a "be off with you, master Julian". Or is that just me?

Note also that there seems to be a trend in some quarters towards dropping the two k's from "rucksack" so it becomes "rucsac", presumably as part of a general desire for all outdoor technical equipment to be as lightweight and efficient as possible; those two cumbersome extra k's were just weighing the whole thing down. I wonder if perhaps "napsac" might make a comeback in the same way? Or "bacpac"?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

whale meat again

I've noticed a bit of a flurry of sea monster stories in the Daily Mail recently, and by "a flurry" I mean "two": this one about a mysterious thing washed up on a beach in China, and this one about a slightly smaller but equally mysterious thing washed up on a beach in Scotland.

The first (and indeed only) rule of mysterious dead things either washed up on beaches or hauled up by boats is that they are always the badly (or extremely well, depending on how you look at it) decomposed remains of some perfectly well known and documented creature, however freaky and weird they may look. Just as the bizarre-looking thing hauled in by the Zuiyō Maru is just a basking shark, it's equally clear that the Chinese sea monster is a dead rorqual (i.e. a large-ish whale) of some sort, and that the Aberdeen sea monster is some sort of smaller toothed whale or porpoise, probably a pilot whale, since these great big blubbery cretins are getting themselves stranded on beaches all the time.

I will admit, even knowing all this, to a certain fascination with mysterious stuff washing up from the murky deep - if you feel the same way then the cryptozoology section of Darren Naish's excellent Tetrapod Zoology blog is the place for you - lots of excellent stuff on the two Montauk monsters (aka a couple of dead raccoons), the Lake Champlain monster (probably a funny-shaped log), the Hook Island monster (an elaborate hoax) and many more (including some land-based stuff). The coelacanth really has a lot to answer for here - because it managed to skulk around undetected for 65 million years without having the decency to evolve into something different and start wearing digital watches and entering into complex hire purchase agreements we now have to put up with the constant chorus of "well, you don't know there aren't a colony of plesiosaurs in Loch Ness, do you? Remember the coelacanth!".

One last word on this subject: if you do find yourself with a large dead whale on your beach in a state of decomposition and need to get rid of it pronto as it's putting the beachgoers off their ice cream, then on no account should you attempt to blow it up. On the other hand it may just blow up anyway; you never know.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

can't go for that, ooh ooh ooh, knockando

Still a few whisky matters to take care of, so here's an idea: let's have a sort of Celebrity Death Match and do two at once.

Here's a bottle of Knockando I got at Waitrose for £19. Now Knockando's USP seems to be that they label their bottlings with a "vintage" (1997 in the case of my bottle) rather than a simple age statement (though, slightly confusingly, they do issue one of those as well - 12 years for the entry-level one). What the practical consequences of this are I'm not too sure, other than that if it means all the whisky in the bottle is from the one year this rules out throwing a dash of older whisky in to enrich things, as some distilleries do (the rule being that the age statement denotes the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle, so you can lob a bit of 30-year-old into your 12-year-old during the vatting process if you really want to).

Anyway - it's quite straw-coloured and light as befits a whisky mainly matured in ex-bourbon casks, and it's got that biscuity/buttery smell that other bourbon cask-matured whisky like Glenmorangie has, as well as something a bit more estery, like magic markers. The taste is biscuity as well, and sweeter than you'd expect. This is basically a very mellow Speysider in the vein of the Tormore and the Cardhu - not as exciting as some, but really quite nice if you just want something nice and mellow that won't rip your face off.

Secondly, I bought a half-bottle of 10-year-old Glenfarclas for £11 in the Heathrow duty-free shop on the way to Canada (along with a bigger bottle of something else which we'll get to later), and, slightly surprisingly, had some left to bring back with me.

This one is a much more golden-brown colour, which tells you it's been matured in sherry casks. Sure enough it's rich and almondy rather than dry and biscuity, though I think I detect a bit of magic marker/whiteboard cleaner here as well. Unlike the Knockando this one is slightly less sweet than you expect when you taste it; it's quite similar to the Aberlour and possibly the Macallan.

So what have we learnt? Well, confirmation that while Speyside whiskies are very nice, I still favour the slightly hairier-chested stuff produced north and west of the region; also that while their reputation is (rightly) as being mellow, civilised, un-smoky and all that stuff, there's still a fair bit of variation to be explored. Overall I probably have to give my vote to the Glenfarclas, firstly because it's just that bit richer and more interesting, but also because the name sounds like something a drunk Scotsman would say.

Monday, July 25, 2011

headline of the day

I suppose it is a bit like harpooning a walrus in a bathtub, spearing an elephant seal in a wash-basin, torpedoing a manatee in a paddling pool, or any other even easier variant of shooting fish in a barrel, but I offer for your enjoyment anyway this splendid example of tabloid innumeracy - here's a heart-warming story in the Daily Mail about a couple who share a birthday (July 19th, since you ask) who have now had a son who - wait for it - was born on the same date! Now I'll grant you this is fairly unusual and a nice little conversation piece at dinner parties before the wine kicks in and someone comes out with something toe-curlingly racist, but perhaps not as noteworthy as the Mail headline suggests:

A quick moment of reflection on the number of days there are in a typical year, and the obligation for any baby, I don't care who your parents are, to be born on one of them should prompt the amateur mathematician to smell a bit of a rat here. You can see where the Mail have got that number from - all three of them have the same birthday, there are 365 days in a year (let's forget February 29th for the moment, just to keep things simple), therefore the probability of all three having the same birthday is one in (365 x 365 x 365 = 48,627,125). Right? Well, no.

For starters, the odds of two people sharing a birthday are one in 365, not one in (365 x 365 = 133,225) - the point being it doesn't matter which day the first person's birthday is on, the second one just has to match it, and has a one in 365 chance of doing so. Add a third person into the mix and the odds of them having the same birthday (and therefore that date being shared by all three) just adds another factor of 365 to the mix, i.e. the probability of the whole thing - boy meets girl, discovers they share a birthday, impregnates her, baby is born on their mutual birthday - is one in 133,225. No millions involved, still less 48 of them.

However, we're not interested in the probability of the whole shooting match, just the baby bit, since the parents getting together and sharing a birthday bit has already happened. The odds of this are going to be at best (or worst, depending how you look at it) one in 365, and they are only this until you know you're pregnant - once you know this the range of available dates for the baby's birthday narrows considerably. Let's assume that we require the baby to be born healthy and normal in all the usual respects - if you're in a first world country with decent medical care this probably means a window of 24-40 weeks after conception as possible birth dates (and the lower end of that could be touch and go survival-wise). That's 16 weeks, i.e. 112 days. So, unless you already know you're out of the game (if the Parkers had conceived in August, for instance, there's absolutely no way the baby could be born on July 19th), you're actually only looking at odds of one in 112 or thereabouts. Less of a snappy headline for a news story, I'll grant you.

Probability is inherently counter-intuitive and hard to grasp, though, even for quite clever people, never mind Daily Mail readers. The notion that throwing ten heads in a row doesn't make a tail more likely next time is a hard one for some people, people whose heads would probably explode if confronted with either the birthday problem or the Monty Hall problem, both seemingly simple situations where the obvious "common sense" answer is wrong.

Interestingly, this article applies the birthday problem's conclusion (i.e. that you only need a group of 23 people to make it more likely than not that two of them will share a birthday) to the handy existing data set of all the US Presidents (of which there have been 43, making it over 90% likely that there'll be a match) - sure enough James Polk and Warren Harding share a birthday, November 2nd. QED!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

stand by for a clear description of my opening

It's amusing translation manglings day here at Halibut Towers - firstly here's an e-mail I got the other day. Similar to a lot of the mystery Nigerian benefactor ones or the ones telling me I've won the Albanian lotttery, except that this one appears to be offering me a job:
To: [redacted]
Subject: Dave Thomas
Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 12:59:39 +0000

I would like to take time now to welcome you and to give you a to-the-point rundown of the position's benefits and expectations. If you are taking a career break, are on a maternity leave, recently retired or simply looking for some part-time work, this position is for you.

Occupation: Flexible schedule 2 to 8 hours / day. We can guarantee a minimum 20 hrs/week occupation

Salary: Starting salary is 2000 GBP per month plus commission, paid every month.

Business hours: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, MON-FRI, 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM SAT (UK time).

Region: United Kingdom.

Please note that there are no initial fees or deposits to be made prior or after taking this position.
If you are interested then today reply to this email and you will be touched by the direct employer to get more clear description about this opening.

Deloise Kong
// HR department
Basel Ltd.
Latest News: milk supply hit in city.
The obvious couple of observations to make are: firstly that milk crisis news is a bit non-specific - which city? Should I consider panic buying before stocks run out? Secondly, there's very little that indicates what sort of a job it is, but perhaps the last line holds a clue: "reply to this email and you will be touched by the direct employer to get more clear description about this opening". Sounds like utter filth to me.

Secondly, the Charlotte Church weeing/shagging/knickers incident is all a bit of a non-story, but translate it badly into another language and then back into English again and it all starts to seem a bit more exciting. I have literally no idea what linguistic route this article took to end up in the right old two-and-eight it's in, but it makes for interesting reading:
Drunk, Charlotte Church Making love in the Car Rear

The Welsh soprano origin, England, Charlotte Church, making news after the circulation of a video that showed he was drunk with the saggy pants down to her ankles.

The Sun on Wednesday (13/07/2011), reported that 25-year-old singer was allegedly drunk after attending a charity event at the polo game. Under conditions that are out of control, he was with her ​​boyfriend, Jonathan Powell, then make love in the back of a van.

”I do not believe what they do,” said Jim Davies, a guest on the show who happened to see the attraction of both reckless. Davies said the mother of two children and her boyfriend did not care about the people around and still make love like a teenager who was intoxicated by romance. ”He can not even stand up and almost fell, ” said Davies again.

Before you get drunk, just sing the Church Welsh national anthem on Saturday, in Glanusk Park, Powys, in a fundraising event for children’s hospitals.

Her boyfriend, Jonathan (24), caught on camera at around 22:00 local time. In fact, the local security to see the action. ”They are really crazy and love do not know the place,” said the security.
This seems not to be a one-off translation disaster - other headlines on the same site include Rihanna Replace GaGa So Queen Facebook, Emma Watson Want To Become Yourself and Elin Nordegren get kids millionaires as a replacement Tiger Woods.

Monday, July 18, 2011

a self-confessed blogger writes

Much hilarity is to be found in the story of Niko Alm, the Austrian atheist who has won the right to be pictured on his driving licence with a colander on his head on the grounds that it constitutes "religious headgear" - the religion in question being Pastafarianism, i.e. membership of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, peace be upon his noodly appendages.

Now that's all a lot of fun, no-one likes a good laugh more than I do, etc. etc. - however, I do have a query: what's with this bit of phrasing?
A self-confessed atheist, Mr Alm says he belongs to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a light-hearted, US-based faith whose members call themselves pastafarians.
"Self-confessed"? That's an interestingly charged phrase that used habitually to be attached to the front of the word "homosexual", until it was repeatedly pointed out that this makes whatever follows sound like it's something to be ashamed of. It seems to me highly revealing of the acceptability of overt atheism in general public discourse that the BBC article should phrase things in this way.

Google is your friend for this sort of thing; a quick not-particularly-scientific analysis reveals the phrase "self-confessed" prefixing pramaholic, wig addict, nutter, gym bunny, boring bastard, geek, whiner, video gaming addict, and so on and so forth, all carrying some baggage of slightly furtive embarrassingness. Narrow the search to "self-confessed atheist" and you get a series of articles that vary in tone but are generally not well-disposed towards atheism. Same goes for "self-confessed homosexual", though it seems to be only in the murkier backwaters of the internet that you see that phrase used these days. "Self-confessed feminist" still pops up occasionally too.

The point is, would anyone describe themselves, or another as, say, "a "self-confessed Catholic"? A "self-confessed Muslim"? A "self-confessed heterosexual"? A "self-confessed dental hygienist"? No. I'm prepared to believe that the reporter did it unthinkingly (for some reason) but there is an implicit slight involved and it must stop. Now I am off to put a colander on my head in solidarity. Ramen.

the last book I read

A Case Of Lone Star by Kinky Friedman.

The old Elmore Leonard/box of chocolates metaphor works just as well with the Kinkster's oeuvre, i.e. you know pretty much exactly what you're going to get. And that is: something short and snappy, probably comfortably under 200 pages, lots of wisecracking Chandler-on-acid humour, an actual mystery (usually involving murder) in there somewhere, and lots of tangential colour involving Kinky's Manhattan apartment, his cat, regular consumption of Jameson whiskey, Winnie Katz's lesbian dance class and Kinky's motley crew of friends and associates.

This one has Kinky called in to the Lone Star Café in downtown Manhattan to investigate the apparent murder of Larry Barkins of the Barkins Brothers with his own guitar (via repeated blows to the head). The killer has left a calling card - the lyrics to a Hank Williams song. Soon the bodies are piling up faster than the proprietor can clear them away: all country music artists, and all murdered in a way mirroring the lyrics of one of ole Hank's songs. Kinky reckons he knows what the killer's up to, but to catch him he's going to have to resurrect his semi-defunct former career as a country and western singer and offer himself up as bait by playing a gig at the Lone Star Café....

As I suggested during our previous encounter with the Kinkster, in general I reckon the earlier, snappier books are better: this one, published in 1987, seems to be the second one in the series. Spanking Watson dates from 1999 and in addition to being the latest one of the five I own, is also the only one to exceed 200 pages. I mean, it's only 217 (A Case Of Lone Star is a mere 166), so we're not talking major literary elephantiasis here, but there's just a suspicion of a bit of self-indulgent meandering going on.

Anyway, it's all very entertaining in a bone-dry, deadpan sort of way. It's interesting to see where Kinky mixes in real life with the fictional stuff: he really was a country singer, of a sort (here's They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore), Chet Flippo is real and really did write a biography of Hank Williams, and most bizarrely of all the story about Kinky playing chess with Samuel Reshevsky at the age of seven turns out to be true as well. Who knew?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

the root of all evil

You'll remember my attempts to wrestle the garden at our old house from an impenetrable jungle with pterodactyls nesting in it into a useful herb garden (despite the best efforts of an army of gastropods) - well, I've started doing the same at the new place. The enemy here, rather than a warehouse-engulfing plague of ivy and bindweed, seems to be an infestation of buddleia; I had a go at trimming them down to ground level a few months ago but they grow astonishingly quickly, so they were starting to blot out the sun (see below):

This time I wanted to do the job properly, so I decided to dig them up by the roots. Simple, right? Well, it turns out buddleia (and these may have been here for a while) grow really deep roots - check these mothers out:

These bastards had grown right under the decking, and it took a good deal of trowel-work and hernia-inducing yanking to get them out. Some of the others were equally deep:

Anyway, having done that, and then having had to leave things to their own devices for three weeks, I was unpleasantly surprised on my return to find a couple of buddleia shoots poking up through the earth. I yanked them out, but check out the root length - in three weeks! It's either going to be a running battle to keep the stuff at bay, or take off and nuke the entire place from orbit.

Anyway, undeterred by all this, I've now put the first couple of herb plants in, specifically some thyme and some chives. Here they are:

The other pre-existing plant infestation we've got is a huge expanse of mint - obviously this is more useful than the buddleia, but we'll have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't take over the whole garden. What I need is some recipes requiring a huge quantity of mint, ideally less time-consuming and messy than the mint jelly.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

the last book I read

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson.

So, here we are again, erm, again. At the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire there's been an explosive confrontation at the old Zalachenko place which has left Zalachenko himself with axe wounds (inflicted by miniature tattooed Lara Croft-alike Lisbeth Salander) to the leg and face and Salander herself with bullet wounds to the hip, shoulder and head. Just for good measure there's giant blond killing machine Ronald Niedermann - who has been revealed to be Zalachenko's son and therefore Salander's half-brother - handcuffed to a road sign where he's been left by crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

So we're into the action pretty much straight away as the authorities try to clear up the mess. Salander and Zalachenko both end up in hospital under police surveillance, while a couple of plods are sent to pick up Niedermann. This turns out to be a really bad idea, as the giant psycho pretty much rips them apart with his bare hands before making good his escape. Meanwhile Blomkvist, with the assistance of the staff at Millennium magazine and some co-operative police officers (and the hindrance of some less co-operative ones) tries to pull together the strands of the background to the Salander/Zalachenko affair, a tangled web of intrigue involving the Swedish secret police, Russian spies and defectors and all manner of unconstitutional murdering and other skullduggery carried out by the authorities. A lot of this is largely incomprehensible, but what it boils down to is that there is a faction within the Swedish police and secret services that would find it very convenient if Salander were to be either convicted of some of the killings carried out in the previous book (most of which were actually perpetrated by Niedermann), declared mentally incompetent and sent back to a secure institution, or, better still, both.

So there is some digging up of the past to be done. Salander herself would be a useful asset in this, of course, as she is a black-belt ninja stylee computer hacker, but infortunately she's in hospital recovering from having a bullet and various shards of skull dug out of her brain. Luckily she makes a remarkable recovery and, with the collusion of kindly brain surgeon Dr. Jonasson, manages to get hold of her PDA and get online. After warming up by identifying the weirdo who's been stalking former Millennium editor-in-chief and Blomkvist's on-off lover Erika Berger, she moves on to communicating with Blomkvist and her defence lawyer Annika Giannini (who just happens to be Blomkvist's sister, which is handy) about planning her upcoming defence.

However, those who were involved with the secret police and the Zalachenko shenanigans back in the day aren't keen to see justice take its natural course, and they're fiercely dedicated, as is demonstrated when the former head of the super-secret section of the secret police (the bit that's so secret even the rest of the secret police don't know about it) takes one for the team by popping a cap in Zalachenko's ass in his hospital bed and then shooting himself in the head. Fortunately for the good guys there's another super-secret police team investigating the nefarious activities of the first one, and these guys have the right colour hats on, particularly Amazonian fitness enthusiast and police inspector Monica Figuerola who proves (as most women do) susceptible to Blomkvist's rumpled charms and promptly starts sleeping with him.

So anyway, things come to a head at the trial, during the course of which it soon becomes clear that things aren't going to go the prosecution's way. Salander's lurid stories about being raped by her former guardian Nils Bjurman turn out to be true (fortunately she'd had the presence of mind to video the whole thing), and evil psychologist Peter Teleborian's damning assessment of Salander's mental state is undermined somewhat by the discovery of a monster stash of kiddy porn on his computer. The case is thrown out of court, Salander's previous convictions and judgments of mental incompetence are thrown out as well, and there is much rejoicing. Salander and Blomkvist finally bury the hatchet, and Berger gives her blessing to Blomkvist and Figuerola's relationship, though there's probably every chance that he'll be boning both Salander and Berger again before too long, the randy old goat.

It's a strange book, this, in some ways: we get the required resolution and catharsis, the good guys come up smelling of roses and the bad guys get either killed or thoroughly disgraced and banged up for a long stretch. But there are an awful lot of blind alleys which seem to serve no particular purpose other than to bulk out the book (and at 746 pages that seems a bit superfluous) - Berger's stalker, the whole business with the Vietnamese sweatshop producing the cheap toilets (which seems tacked on just to demonstrate that Millennium really does do investigative journalism, rather than just providing an office for Blomkvist to do his crimebusting from), lots of unnecessary background on people like the Kurdish hospital orderly that Blomkvist persuades to smuggle in a phone for Salander, that sort of thing. The big villains from the previous book don't feature all that much, either - Zalachenko gets unexpectedly rubbed out early on, and Niedermann, who rampaged through the second half of TGWPWF like a giant blond Terminator, disappears completely after escaping from police custody, and only turns up right at the end for a climactic confrontation with Salander that feels like a bit of an afterthought. There isn't a lot of grey between the heroes and the villains, either - some of the good guys are given a few quirky traits just to make them more interesting, but the bad guys lapse into cartoonish supervillainy on occasion; not content with having Peter Teleborian be corrupt and unscrupulous, for instance, he apparently has to be a predatory paedophile as well, just in case we start sympathising with him.

I suppose the general conclusion is that Larsson could have done with a bit of revising and pruning and the attentions of a stern editor; obviously his being dead made that a bit tricky. There were rumours of more books in the pipeline, but to be honest I think three is enough - by which I mean: if there are more I may well feel obliged to read them, but I will feel vaguely resentful while doing so.

Friday, July 15, 2011

the second-last book I read

The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle.

Or T. Coraghessan Boyle, as he was still calling himself when this was published in 1995 (before the other two Boyles I've read, 1998's Riven Rock and 2004's The Inner Circle). My second-hand Penguin paperback dates from about 1996, I think; newer printings carry the shortened name.

Anyway. Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher live in the exclusive hilltop neighbourhood of Arroyo Blanco above Topanga Canyon on the edge of the Los Angeles suburbs. Meanwhile Cándido and América Rincon are scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence in a makeshift encampment in the canyon, having entered the country illegally over the border with Mexico, had all their money stolen from them in the process, and found themselves unable to find work or lodgings. Their already dire situation isn't helped when Delaney runs over Cándido in his car on the canyon road, inflicting some nasty facial lacerations, an arm injury and some general bruising. Not life-threatening stuff, but it means Cándido is in no state even to look for work, so América has to take it upon herself to look. Which isn't easy, since she speaks almost no English, and a young woman in her situation is an obvious target for unscrupulous and predatory men.

Back up in Arroyo Blanco, it's not just the illegal immigrants that the residents have to worry about - there's the canyon wildlife as well. Kyra's two pampered Dandie Dinmonts are taken from their back garden by coyotes in two separate incidents, prompting Kyra and Delaney to install a higher fence to keep them out. Meanwhile Delaney (who writes articles for an outdoor pursuits magazine) heads off into the hills for a hike and comes back to find his car stolen, Kyra (who is a real estate agent) has an unsettling encounter with a couple of Mexicans near one of her properties, and there is a general spate of burglaries around the neighbourhood, all of which prompts the locals to propose an entry gate and boundary wall around the property for increased security. Delaney, good L.A. liberal that he is, is uncomfortable about this: doesn't it imply that we think all Mexicans are criminals? And why move out to the canyon to be next to nature if you're then going to concrete it over and install security guards round the perimeter?

Cándido and América have more immediate concerns, though: América is heavily pregnant and they are in desperate need of money. América has found some cleaning work but this ends when she is attacked and raped by the same Mexicans that were harrassing Kyra; and Cándido has been doing some labouring work (ironically including helping to install the beefed-up boundary fence at the back of the Mossbachers' property). So maybe things are looking up? It certainly looks that way when the local supermarket starts giving away free Thanksgiving turkeys with every $50 purchase, and one of the recipients (already having a turkey) lobs it to Cándido in the car park. Unfortunately while building up a nice big fire to spit-roast it on Cándido manages to ignite the tinder-dry brush in the canyon and start a full-blown forest fire.

The fire is eventually extinguished by the combined efforts of the L.A. fire department and a flurry of rain, but the general assumption that it must have been started by illegal immigrants in the canyon merely reinforces everyone's anti-Mexican feelings. Cándido and América narrowly escape being roasted alive by the fire and find shelter behind the Arroyo Blanco boundary wall, where América finally gives birth to their child, a daughter. Cándido heads off back to the road to fetch supplies, where he once again encounters Delaney, who this time narrowly avoids running him down, but instead jumps out of the car and chases him back up into the canyon. Before a confrontation can take place, however, the constant rain causes a landslide which puts Delaney, Cándido and América's previous problems into perspective....

Boyle is a bit difficult to categorise - he has a reputation as a comic novelist, but there's not much humour here, or at least what there is is pitch-black at best. It's mainly a brutal satire of American attitudes to immigration and immigrants, on both the conservative and liberal sides. Where do you draw the line in terms of home security without it being counter-productive? You don't want coyotes roaming round your garden, but put up a ten-foot wall and you can't see the view, can you? In any case, the wall and the gate just signal to the outsiders that there's something inside worth having - particularly tempting if you're literally in the position of having to steal something or starve to death. And how much moral high ground can you claim when those you are excluding and forcing into criminality are those who you displaced from this land in the first place and imposed borders of your own devising on? This is a theme also explored (in a different geographical and historical context) in The Conversations At Curlow Creek. While we're talking echoes of other books I should add that opening with a car colliding with a human echoes both Slow Man and, more obviously, Tom Wolfe's mighty The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

I think overall this is the best of the three Boyles I've read - the savage glee he takes in subjecting Cándido and América to as many misfortunes and indignities as possible, and in dismantling the "common sense" attitudes to immigration to reveal the racism that underlies them is very invigorating. The Tortilla Curtain won the French Prix Médicis étranger award in 1997; my short list for this goes 1980, 1997, 1998, 2000.

the third-last book I read

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner.

Edith Hope, writer of romantic fiction "under a more thrusting name", has come to the eponymous lakeside hotel in Switzerland to escape a scandal that she has been involved in back home in England. But what can it be? Some sort of Nazi S&M child-murdering thing? A billion-pound financial fraud? Bonnie and Clyde-style bank jobs with the shooting in the air and escaping in an old Model T to the sound of frantic banjo music afterwards? Well, no. It turns out not even to be the torrid affair that Edith has been engaging in with a married auctioneer called David, but rather the subsequent less exciting liaison with fat stolid Geoffrey, the acceptance of his offer of marriage and her subsequent jilting of him at the altar.

Here she is, anyway, and in a bid to add a bit of interest to the somewhat genteel and sterile surroundings in which she finds herself she starts doing a bit of people-watching: there's skinny Monica, who seems to divert most of her food into the small dog she takes everywhere with her, elderly Madame de Bonneuil who acts slightly deaf and batty but may see and hear more than she lets on, Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer who are on a permanent shopping spree financed by the late Mr. Pusey, and the urbane Mr. Neville, who in turn takes an interest in Edith. Edith jots down her observations in a series of letters home to David, though it's not entirely clear whether any of these are ever sent.

Mr. Neville persuades Edith to join him in escaping the hotel for a bit and going for a few leisurely strolls to some local cafés, where they engage in some sparring about their respective lives - Mr. Neville's wife has apparently left him in rather humiliating circumstances and he has decided that living more selfishly is the answer, a strategy he urges Edith to adopt in her life as well. After a few more of these exchanges he goes one step further and proposes marriage - a marriage strictly of social convenience, needless to say; both parties being free to conduct whatever affairs they wish to, provided it's all discreet.

All Edith really seems to want out of life is some space to write her books and do a bit of gardening - things it appears she would have been obliged to give up had she gone through with marrying Geoffrey - so she is tempted by the offer, but some reflection and an unexpected late-night encounter with Mr. Neville in the hotel corridor give her cause to change her mind.

So we end up, in other words, pretty much where we started - Edith is setting up to return to England to try and slot back into her former life, which may or may not include picking up the pieces of her relationship with David. So what have we learned? Well, that there is a balance to be struck between accommodating the needs and feelings of others and following one's own course; that constant living in hotels and going shopping is a bit of a shallow and unrewarding existence, erm......

The problem with all this is illustrated by Edith's constant upward revision of Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer's ages during the course of the book: I would, if I had been required to guess, have put Edith's age at maybe mid-fifties. I wasn't required to guess, though, as we're told quite specifically that she is thirty-nine, i.e. (rather regrettably) younger than me. This seems odd given the desperate repressed emotional pinchedness and stiltedness on display, even allowing for these being upper-middle-class English people, indeed it seems extraordinary that an offer such as Mr. Neville's could plausibly be made in a novel with a contemporary setting (it was published in 1984). It's like feminism never happened! And yet Edith is presumably not a complete stranger to sexual desire, as evidenced by the talk of weekends in bed and afternoon fry-ups during the heady days of her relationship with David. It's all very odd, despite being beautifully written and observed in that archetypal British-female-novelist-of-a-certain-vintage kind of way. John Crace's Digested Classics column in the Guardian nails these oddities far more vividly and concisely than I do, as always. It's perhaps not a coincidence that when the BBC adapted the novel for television in 1986 they deemed it appropriate to cast Anna Massey in the role of Edith, Massey being, with all due respect, a fairly old-looking 49 at the time.

Anyway, Hotel Du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984, and thus becomes, perhaps slightly surprisingly, only the second Booker winner in this list, after John Berger's G. (the 1972 winner). There is a real Hotel Du Lac, apparently, which was supposedly the inspiration for the one in the novel: it's in Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva, here.

the fourth-last book I read

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt.

Harriet Dufresnes is just like any other normal twelve-year-old growing up in a small Mississippi town. Well, except for being haunted by the memory of the brutal and unexplained murder of her older brother Robin, which occurred twelve years previously when he was nine and Harriet was just a baby. The other members of her immediate family have been affected by the killing too: her father has left and set up home in Nashville (with, we are invited to suspect, another woman) and her mother has withdrawn into a sort of semi-catatonic state leaving Harriet and her older sister Allison to be brought up mainly by housekeeper Ida, grandmother Edie and Edie's various twittering sisters.

We get a flashback to the murder (apparently in 1964, which would put the rest of the book in around 1976) right at the start of the book, but it's not until Harriet has got to be twelve and (having had to pretty much make her own entertainment most of the time) steeped herself thoroughly in Robert Louis Stevenson and the real-life adventures of Captain Scott, that she hatches the plan of finding the murderer(s) and taking revenge (said revenge not necessarily involving the usual channels of the police and the criminal justice system). To this end she enlists the help of her devoted friend Hely, and, having fixed on the no-good local Ratliff family (and particularly the spectacularly drug-fried and paranoid brothers Farish and Danny, who run a crystal-meth-brewing operation from their grandmother's trailer on the outskirts of town) as the most likely targets, sets about finding a way of exacting retribution.

An opportunity presents itself fairly promptly, as Eugene Ratliff has been born again while in prison and re-invented himself as an evangelical preacher and started hanging out with snake-handlers, one of whom has been using an abandoned local house to store the snakes in. Having broken in and managed to steal a snake, Harriet and Hely then find a way of dropping it off a freeway overpass into Danny Ratliff's Trans Am, only to end up inflicting a snake bite on the brothers' granny instead.

Harriet's continuing vendetta against the Ratliffs, Danny and Farish's mutual paranoia and suspicion regarding the huge stash of crystal meth they've got hidden in the old water tower on the edge of town, and their suspicion of Harriet after she's been hanging around bugging them for several weeks (including a brief encounter at the house of snakes) all culminate in an exciting climax at the water tower where Farish (at Danny's hands) and Danny (at Harriet's, or so she believes at the time) get their come-uppance.

So all is resolved in the required revenge-thriller manner, right? Well, not exactly - for one thing it turns out that Danny Ratliff isn't actually dead, although Farish certainly is, and Danny will be tried for his murder. It also seems, from the heavy hints dropped throughout the sections of the book which are written from Danny's perspective, that in fact Danny, despite being an archetypal bad lot and ne'er-do-well, had nothing to do with Robin's murder anyway. So we are left to decide for ourselves what exactly has been resolved. I suppose we're meant to see this as an end-of-childhood rite of passage for Harriet, who is pretty clearly a reflection of the author's younger self - small, dark-haired, feisty, self-reliant, fiercely intelligent, spends more time buried in books than she ought to - the segment where Harriet is obliged to spend a few days at a Christian-themed summer camp with lots of other girls and endure God-themed talks about puberty and the like is both excruciating and hilarious at the same time.

The rest of the book is oddly structured in some ways - Hely drifts out of the story about two-thirds of the way through and never really reappears in any significant way, and the focus shifts away from Harriet's immediate family (her various Southern belle aunts and their amusing twittery antics in particular) to the Ratliffs and their constant strung-up drug paranoia. Even Robin's murder, supposedly the catalyst for all this, is almost forgotten, and at the end we're (probably) none the wiser about the circumstances of his death than we were at the start.

The Little Friend is the long-awaited follow-up to The Secret History, one of the most celebrated first novels of recent times, and so the anticipation (there were ten years between the two books) was pretty feverish when it was published in 2002, and there were the inevitable references to JD Salinger and Harper Lee in most of the press coverage (and there seems to be a lot of Scout Finch in Harriet as well, though without the reassuring father figure to sort everything out at the end). Tartt herself is an intriguing figure and something of a gift to interviewers with her various eccentricities. Strangely the only video interview I can find is this one which has helpfully been overdubbed into German, so good luck with that. Anyway, the reviews were a bit mixed, some good, some not so much. For what it's worth I'd say this is a more mature and literary work than The Secret History, but that overall I enjoyed The Secret History more as it's more exciting, more bonkers and doesn't suffer from the limiting effect of being largely seen through the eyes of a child (even an exceptionally bright one like Harriet). As with the John Irving stuff, though, maybe it's just down to which order you read them in.

The Little Friend won the WH Smith Literary Award in 2003, so you can add it to the list here - you can also add AN Wilson's Wise Virgin, which won in 1983 and which I must have missed when spotting entries for the original list. The climactic scene at the old water tower reminded me of one featuring in a similar context in Stephen King's It; that in turn prompted a bit of web searching on the subject, during the course of which I discovered that the water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (as featured here) was once voted World's Most Phallic Building. Nice.