Monday, August 26, 2013

the last book I read

Solar by Ian McEwan.

Michael Beard is a physicist, an eminent one but one whose best years are behind him. Those best years included some good stuff, though, including winning the Nobel Prize for some work expanding on Albert Einstein's work on photovoltaics. So now Beard is in his early fifties and surfing on his eminence by sitting on various councils and committees. Meanwhile his fifth marriage is falling apart. Don't get the idea that beard is some kind of square-jawed muscled Adonis though; he's more your stereotypical short fat bespectacled science guy, apparently irresistible to certain types of woman but not really a long-term prospect owing to his aversion to the idea of having children and also his pathological infidelity.

While normally it's Beard's own putting it about that signals the end of his marriages, in this case it's his wife Patrice who is having it away with the Beards' former builder in an indiscreet and shameless fashion. Eventually Patrice moves on to having an affair with Tom Aldous,  a young colleague of Beard's at a centre devoted to climate change research. When Beard returns home unexpectedly early from a fact-finding trip to Spitsbergen and surprises Aldous in his house, a freak accident involving a badly-secured bearskin rug and a sharp-cornered coffee table results in Aldous' death, a death for which Beard manages to frame Patrice's previous lover Ronald Tarpin. Meanwhile there's this dossier of secret research that Aldous had put together for Beard's eyes only, which it turns out contains some good and even revolutionary stuff.

Cut to a few years later and Beard is heading up a team pioneering artificial photosynthesis techniques using a big solar array in a newly-purchased site in the New Mexico desert. Certain of these techniques were based on the contents of Tom Aldous' notes, which Beard hasn't necessarily been scrupulous about properly attributing. He's also embroiled in a relationship with a woman, Melissa, in London, who has finally managed to snare him into fatherhood, and another one with a trailer-dwelling local waitress, Darlene. Beard is in New Mexico for the grand opening and unveiling of the test facility, but constant distractions intervene - Ronald Tarpin, recently released from prison, his own ill-health, comprising morbid obesity and a recently-diagnosed skin cancer, his various mistresses, in particular Melissa and Darlene who have each recently become aware of the other's existence, and the presence of a lawyer acting for Tom Aldous' (and Beard's) previous employer, the climate change centre, who wants to talk to him urgently to discuss some claims of plagiarism and intellectual property theft.

Like the Booker-winning Amsterdam in 1998 this is best categorised under "Entertainments" rather than "Novels", as it's blackly comic throughout. And while some of the set-pieces are derivative of other comic novels - the whole crisp-stealing story is lifted from Douglas Adams' So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, for all that it's acknowledged as such when Beard re-tells the story later, and the delivering-a-speech-while-queasy routine is straight out of Kingsley AmisLucky Jim - overall it works pretty well. There's inevitably a fair amount of exposition about climate-change issues, about which McEwan is commendably robust in defending the scientific consensus, and some more hand-wavey stuff about exactly what it is Beard is meant to have done to have earned his Nobel back in the day.

I actually enjoyed this more than the rather po-faced and self-consciously literary pairing of Atonement and Saturday, more than the barely-a-novel-at-all On Chesil Beach, indeed probably more than any McEwan I've read since 1997's Enduring Love. The unexpected death of a peripheral character halfway through providing the central protagonist with a moral dilemma does provide an odd parallel with the last McEwan I read, The Innocent, though Beard manages to resolve the situation without having to dismember anyone, which is nice.

Solar won the apparently fairly recently instigated and splendidly named Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction in 2010. My list for this one goes: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2010.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

the second-last book I read

Drop City by TC Boyle.

Far out, man. So this bunch of, like, totally beautiful cats have got this place in California where they've set up a hippie commune and are totally going to, like, live off the land, get it together with Mother Nature and just be, like, at one with the whole cosmic vibes of the universe. Yeah?

Well, no, not exactly. For every person that turns up at the commune who's down with all the peace and love stuff but also prepared to do the menial mucking-in stuff like building cabins and peeling potatoes there's at least one who's just in it for the free grub and easy access to drugs and doe-eyed hippie chicks still revelling in the novelty and liberation of easy access to the contraceptive pill. Not only that, but as much as California is one of the groovier states of the USA, massive public drug consumption is still illegal, as is lobbing up a load of buildings that haven't been certified as being in accordance with all the building codes and the like. So the authorities are threatening to lay some kind of major heavy trip on the commune. Bummer. What is also far from cool are the allegations that some of the less mellowed-out members of the commune gang-raped an under-age girl on the premises.

So the commune's de facto leader, Norm, has an idea - his uncle left him a property up in the wilds of Alaska, on the banks of a tributary of the Yukon. If we were really serious about getting away from the trappings of so-called "civilisation", man, we'd relocate up there, where the air is clear, the salmon are leaping, and there's nobody around to care if you want to get out of your head for a while. How hard can it be?

Well, if you're Cecil ("Sess") Harder, pretty hard, as it happens. Sess has got the Alaskan living thing pretty well nailed, with a riverside cabin, a troop of sled dogs and a well-established fur-trapping business. But it's still a pretty harsh and lonely existence, and as much as Sess would like someone to share it with it takes a certain type of woman to put up with the seclusion and remoteness, particularly in winter. But Sess is in luck, as there's a lady called Pamela who's advertised for a husband out in the wilderness because she reckons that "civilised" society is on the brink of a catastrophic meltdown and she wants to hook up with a guy who can render his own bear-fat, make moose sausages and knock together a dog-sled with just a few bits of discarded porcupine guts and some whittling. And when it turns out that all the other marriage candidates are mentally unstable malodorous perverts, Sess is in business. So he moves Pamela into his riverside cabin and they commence a life of robust rustic domesticity, with no neighbours to worry about, or at least as long as the old homestead just up the river remains empty, and who's going to take that on, right?

So the hippies head north from California, blag their way over the Canadian border by pretending to be a rock band, and arrive in Boynton, the last outpost of civilisation before you have to load all your stuff into a canoe and head upriver. Needless to say they are regarded as if they were visitors from outer space, with their psychedelic rock music, flappy loon pants and tie-dyed headscarves. While a few of the party decide to stick around in Boynton, the hardcore group head up to Norm's uncle's place and start settling in. Certain harsh lessons are learned early on - it doesn't matter how excellent the pot is if you haven't got a roof over your head when winter comes, a commitment to lentils and animal rights is a probable death sentence when you need to be laying in meat supplies for the winter, and while you can carry a few freeloaders in sunny California you really need people to pull their weight in the frozen north. Sess and Pamela try to help out where they can, and strike up a friendship with a few of the hippies, notably Marco and Paulette aka Star, but Sess has a few unresolved troubles of his own, most notably his increasingly violent feud with unhinged ex-Marine and bush pilot Joe Bosky. And when Sess takes Marco under his wing and takes him out with the dog team for a fur-trapping expedition and Joe Bosky heads after them in his plane to take a few random pot-shots at them, the scene is set for some violent plot resolution.

This is the fourth Boyle in this series, after Riven Rock, The Inner Circle and The Tortilla Curtain, and dates from 2003, a year before The Inner Circle but after the other two. It's much more of a rollicking adventure story than any of the other three, lacking the moral ambiguity of The Tortilla Curtain and not being shackled to real-life historical events like the other two. That's not to say that for all the Jack London-esque snowy adventure stuff there aren't some sly points being made here - the similarities between the seemingly poles-apart worlds of the hippies and the Alaskan backwoodsmen, for instance, revolving as they do around a shared suspicion of "society" and a desire to withdraw from it, and also the brutally repressive treatment of women meted out by both - for all the groovy peace and love business the women in the hippie commune are still expected to do most of the cooking and cleaning, as well as being uncomplaining sex receptacles as and when required. It's no accident that the action in the book is set in 1970, at the rancid tail-end of the hippie dream, well after the Summer Of Love, after Altamont and in the year the Beatles split up. I think this is probably my favourite of the four Boyles I've read so far, but they are uniformly excellent, and I fervently urge you to get into them.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

up the duf

A further update to my table of 63s at major championships is required after the recent PGA Championship at Oak Hill. Jason Dufner, the eventual champion, shot 63 in the second round, and, like Steve Stricker a couple of years before, missed a very makeable putt for a 62 which would have rendered all my lists irrelevant.

The Dufmeister also bucked a recent trend by becoming only the second man in 27 years and 16 major championship 63s to follow up such a round by actually winning the tournament. And it was nice to see the usual heartwarming scene of toothy family togetherness on the 18th green bucked as well as Dufner made an unashamed grab for his wife's arse as she embraced him after he'd holed the winning putt. And why not? I expect he probably sank a long one later that evening as well. Maybe she even let him play the back nine; it's not every day you win a major, after all.

Johnny MillerUS Open1973finalWONJohnny Miller
Bruce CramptonUSPGA1975second2ndJack Nicklaus
Mark HayesOpen1977secondtied 9thTom Watson
Jack NicklausUS Open1980firstWONJack Nicklaus
Tom WeiskopfUS Open1980first37thJack Nicklaus
Isao AokiOpen1980thirdtied 12thTom Watson
Raymond FloydUSPGA1982firstWONRaymond Floyd
Gary PlayerUSPGA1984secondtied 2ndLee Trevino
Nick PriceMasters1986third5thJack Nicklaus
Greg NormanOpen1986secondWONGreg Norman
Paul BroadhurstOpen1990thirdtied 12thNick Faldo
Jodie MuddOpen1991finaltied 5thIan Baker-Finch
Nick FaldoOpen1993second2ndGreg Norman
Payne StewartOpen1993final12thGreg Norman
Vijay SinghUSPGA1993second4thPaul Azinger
Michael BradleyUSPGA1995firsttied 54thSteve Elkington
Brad FaxonUSPGA1995final5thSteve Elkington
Greg NormanMasters1996first2ndNick Faldo
Jose Maria OlazabalUSPGA2000thirdtied 4thTiger Woods
Mark O’MearaUSPGA2001secondtied 22ndDavid Toms
Vijay SinghUS Open2003secondtied 20thJim Furyk
Thomas BjornUSPGA2005thirdtied 2ndPhil Mickelson
Tiger WoodsUSPGA2007secondWONTiger Woods
Rory McIlroyOpen2010firsttied 3rdLouis Oosthuizen
Steve Stricker USPGA2011firsttied 12thKeegan Bradley
Jason Dufner USPGA2013secondWONJason Dufner