Tuesday, April 29, 2014

here's something bulbous you may be interested in

Allow me to introduce my Great Kitchen Light Bulb Experiment. Our kitchen is lit by, among other things, twelve recessed spotlights in the ceiling, which take the little screw-in R50 spotlight bulbs. All great, and very illuminating, but I suspect that they were wired in (probably by my predecessor, whose enthusiasm for DIY considerably exceeded my own) to a circuit that previously serviced a couple of fluorescent striplights or something similar. What that means is that the circuit is a bit overloaded, the practical upshot of which is that the bulbs tend to blow a lot and it's a constant running battle keeping enough working lightbulbs installed to see what you're cooking.

Normally we buy these standard incandescent 40-watt bulbs from B&Q, though elsewhere in the house we've gone energy-saving wherever possible. So I thought I'd try an experiment: buy a range of different ones and keep a log of when they fail. It's not especially scientific, but it keeps me off the streets. Here's the smorgasbord of illuminatory delights I purchased from B&Q yesterday:

A quick run-through from left to right:
  • these 28W halogen bulbs at £4.28 each
  • the standard 40W incandescent bulbs we've been using already at £1.49 each
  • the 25W version of the same thing at 99p each
  • the 9W full eco-warrior energy-saving version at £7.98
There is another bulb option available - LED bulbs, also available from B&Q at an eye-watering £10.98 each. The only reason I didn't purchase one of these was that I happen to know IKEA sell them at 4 quid a pop, so I'll wait until I can get a couple of those. There were four bulbs still working when I started, so I filled the remaining 8 slots with two halogens, two 25W bulbs, the single energy-saver and three 40W bulbs, distributed as randomly as possible. Here's a handy pictorial representation of the distribution:

The way to visualise this is to imagine yourself lying on your back on our kitchen floor with your head pointing roughly north, towards the utility room at the back of the house. I did try to take a (pre-bulb-fitting) photograph from exactly that position, but the ceiling isn't high enough to get it all in. This is the best I could do (same orientation as the diagram):

My intention is to keep a log of which bulbs fail and when and track which ones last the longest. As I say, it's not particularly scientific, because the two banks of bulbs (left and right in the stuck-together photo above) are separately switchable, so some may get more use than others, plus of course some of the individual fittings may be particularly prone to frying bulbs owing to the vagaries of the wiring set-up. But it's the best I can do. I'll probably post individual updates as comments here and then summarise at some later date in a separate post.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

chronicle of a death forgotten

I must just publicly chastise myself here for forgetting the pretty significant name of Iain Banks from the list of deceased authors in my recent post on the subject. Not sure how I missed him, though since he pre-deceased Doris Lessing I evidently missed spotting him in the earlier post as well. Particularly shameful since Banks is the current joint record holder for number of books featured on this list with four, a record he shares with Lawrence Durrell (dead) and William Boyd (alive).

So the definitive list now reads:
  • Michael Didbin
  • Beryl Bainbridge
  • Russell Hoban
  • Richard Matheson
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Iain Banks
  • Doris Lessing
  • Gabriel García Márquez
Honourable near-miss mentions should also go to Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, both of whom have featured in the list, and both of whom have died during the lifetime of this blog, but in both cases shortly before they featured in a blog post - Vonnegut died in April 2007 and was first featured in October 2007, while Updike died in January 2009 and was first featured in August 2009.

the last book I read

Stoner by John Williams.

So, just to manage your expectations here, this is not the story of some guy who stumbles round California in the 1960s smoking a load of dope (a variant of that story can be found in the early stages of this book, if that's what you want). Instead, this is the story of the eponymous William Stoner, born into a poor farming family in the late 19th century and expected by both his parents and himself to inherit the farm and the associated backbreaking work and responsibility when the time comes. In an attempt to better himself he enrols on an agricultural sciences course at the University of Missouri, a course which comes with some compulsory English literature elements, and has something of an epiphany during his reluctant attendance at these extra classes on hearing a Shakespeare sonnet.

In the wake of this significant moment he immediately ditches the agriculture courses (and, with them, any aspirations of taking over the family farm) and switches to the full-blown English literature course. Not only that, but on completing his studies he immediately accepts a teaching post at the university, thus defining the course of his future life.

At the same time as he is committing himself to a life of teaching he is making equally irrevocable commitments to his future wife, Edith, a somewhat highly-strung young woman he has nonetheless fallen in love with, though (as was customary in the early years of the 20th century) without really getting to know her at all well. They marry, and it soon becomes clear to Stoner that he has made a terrible mistake. But, it's before World War I, so there's not much he can do about it. 

Clearly the personal and professional life of a university professor isn't going to involve much in the way of ray-gun battles or car chases, but some challenges present themselves nonetheless. Edith gives birth to a daughter, Grace, who Stoner dotes on until Edith mounts a concerted campaign to shut him out of her life. Meanwhile the new head of Stoner's department, Hollis Lomax, takes a violent dislike to Stoner after a disagreement over the merits of Lomax's star student, thus precipitating a feud that lasts for over twenty years. 

On the positive side, Stoner's teaching brings him pleasure and satisfaction, and in his forties he even embarks on a tentative love affair with one of his former students, Katherine Driscoll. In such a claustrophobic community it's impossible to keep such things a secret for long, but Edith seems unexpectedly mellow about the whole thing, possibly out of relief that Stoner is having his, hem hem, "needs" taken care of elsewhere. Hollis Lomax is less sanguine when he finds out, though, and makes sure that Katherine is obliged to pursue her academic ambitions elsewhere.

Stoner's health takes a turn for the worse after Katherine's departure, but he continues his teaching duties until eventually he is incapacitated by the cancer that eventually kills him in his mid-sixties.

And, erm, that's it. No light sabre showdowns, no last minute return of old lovers to declare everlasting love, no comforting reunion with his estranged daughter, no satisfying acts of vengeance against those by whom he had been wronged. But that's the point, really, it's just one man's life. A life that probably didn't work out the way he would have wanted it, either personally or professionally, but who's to say that it was a failure? He spent most of his life teaching the subject he loved, and while his marriage wasn't particularly happy he had his brief Indian summer of true love. And his problems with Hollis Lomax were mostly caused by his own admirably spiky integrity and dislike of pretence and bullshit. My only criticisms would be that it's never entirely clear what the basis for Lomax's hatred of Stoner is, or, to put it another way, why Lomax is so attached to his star student Charles Walker in the face of all the evidence that he is a liar and a bullshitter. Edith's motivations are never completely clear either; I guess we're meant to assume that the impossible situation women of marriageable age were put in in the early 20th century (and for some decades afterwards) has just sent her a bit mental.

So the point of the book is that anyone's life, however seemingly mundane, is interesting and remarkable if looked at closely enough. Williams himself was an English professor, so there's a suspicion that this is at least partly autobiographical, or at least inspired by his own life. Of course what the book also is is a hymn of love to literature, and to Stoner's own lifelong love affair with it. I suppose this does mean that it's a book likely to appeal to people who already like books, if that makes sense at all. In other words, if your question is "why would I read a novel?" this may not be the answer. I think it's a little low-key masterpiece, though, which is not to say I quite understand the extraordinary acclaim that's been heaped on it since its reissue in 2003 (it was originally published in 1965) - though, oddly, more in Europe than in America. I suppose the internet just accelerates the word-of-mouth effect. My Vintage paperback has a foreword by John McGahern, whose Amongst Women previously featured on this list

Echoes of other books, as always: the grimness of the brief descriptions of farming life at the beginning echoes My Ántonia, and the excruciating awkwardness of the wedding night fumblings is very reminiscent of the pivotal scenes in On Chesil Beach.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

chronicle of a death foretold

Chalk up one more victim for my list of novelists who have been LITERALLY KILLED by my interest in their literary oeuvre Gabriel García Márquez, who died on Thursday at the age of 87. The book review that was the (admittedly slow-acting) catalyst for his ultimate demise was this one for The Autumn Of The Patriarch in July 2007. That list now reads:
  • Michael Didbin
  • Beryl Bainbridge
  • Russell Hoban
  • Richard Matheson
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Doris Lessing
  • Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years Of Solitude is probably the one you want, though I should say I've only read four of the ten or so novels that he wrote - Chronicle Of A Death Foretold and Love In The Time Of Cholera are the other two, both well worth a read. The only critical things I would say are that his penchant for slightly florid book titles may have been an influence on the lesser writers who followed and stank up the bestseller lists with their bloody tractors and mandolins, and secondly that while I realise "magic realism" implies some magical shit kicking off at some point, I can't honestly say that, for instance, One Hundred Years Of Solitude was improved by throwing in the bit about one of the minor characters levitating, any more than these two books were.

Before we get too mournful, though, consider this: now that Márquez is dead we can surely be told the full story behind Mario Vargas Llosa punching him in the eye in Mexico City in 1976, thus ending their friendship. Vargas Llosa is still alive, but he is 78, so I suggest he cracks on and spills the beans, otherwise we may never know.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day; special non-celebrity edition

A three-way today: current Prime Minister of Spain Mariano Rajoy, my beardy friend Phil, and Fred the busker from the Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler story book Tabby McTat, one of my daughter's current favourites.

incidental music spot of the day

Don't Worry About The Government by Talking Heads in episode 2 of Zeitgeisters on Radio 4 on Saturday. The programme's subject, Rem Koolhaas, is a renowned architect (or, if you will, "starchitect"; no, me neither), so the song was presumably chosen for its building-related lyrics, like these:
It's over there, it's over there
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
This song is from the mighty Heads' first album 77 and was presumably partial inspiration for the somewhat self-mocking title of their (better) second album More Songs About Buildings And Food.

Monday, April 14, 2014

the last book I read

O-Zone by Paul Theroux.

There's been an apocalypse! Yeah, another one. This one seems to have been caused by the US government trying to dispose of several thousand tonnes of nuclear waste by stuffing it into some caves in the Ozarks, with predictably disastrous results, i.e. whole swathes of Missouri and neighbouring states rendered uninhabitable glowing wastelands. It never rains but it pours, and at around the same time the Big One has hit California, chopping Los Angeles in half and creating a new area of low-lying land called the Landslip, populated by various undesirables.

All of which has made the city-dwellers (seemingly any city, though most of the action here centres on New York) super-paranoid about being infiltrated from outside by the great unwashed (and/or starving/maimed/irradiated etc.), and so they instigate a ruthless system of checkpoints on entry and exit from the city, and employ a whole host of private security firms to police the streets, occasionally offing some innocent civilians who've been unwise enough to take a stroll after dark. Not that many people do that, though, as everyone's got their own personal jet-rotor which they use to shuttle to and from the landing pads on the roofs of their high-rise apartment blocks.

The areas affected by the eco-catastrophe retain a fascination for the city-dwellers, though, even though you need a permit and a load of protective gear to be allowed to travel out there. Fortunately Hardy Allbright works for a company that invests in vast weather-influencing technology and is always on the lookout for vast open spaces to be exploited. So on the pretext of doing some research in "O-Zone", as the area is know known, Hardy organises a New Year's jaunt out there as a novelty New Year's party for some friends and family, including his wife Moura, son Fisher (aka Fizzy; it later transpires that he's strictly only Moura's son, as there was some murky artificial insemination thing going on) and brother Hooper. It's basically your standard New Year's bash with some wine and nibbles, plus some anti-radiation suits for everyone and the addition of some deadly ray-guns just in case the area turns out not to be as uninhabited as it's meant to be.

Unsurprisingly there turn out to be people about, just wandering about eating nuts and berries (and probably the odd three-headed beaver) without so much as a bar-coded identity card between them. And when the party meets up with some of them during an excursion into the wilderness, pleasantries are soon exchanged in the form of disintegration rays, two of the primitives are offed in an explodey fashion and the party quickly sours and the partiers return to New York.

Hooper Allbright has some video footage of the excursion, though, and soon becomes obsessed with watching it over and over again, particularly the section featuring the lovely willowy 15-year-old girl, who he quickly concludes that he is in love with, and sets about organising another expedition into O-Zone to find her. He takes Fizzy with him as technical backup, Fizzy just happening to be some sort of tech-savvy super-nerd, with the usual associated raft of social interaction difficulties. Inevitably there is another confrontation and mutual grabbing of hostages, Hooper jet-rotoring off back to New York with the leggy 15-year-old and Fizzy falling into the hands of a band of "aliens", who aren't really aliens at all but various people dumped in O-Zone by the private security firms at the secret behest of the New York authorities who didn't want them in the city.

Hooper is too busy entertaining his new lady friend, so eventually Hardy decides that he'd better organise some sort of rescue expedition to go and look for Fizzy, and enlists the help of some contacts in Godseye, one of the terrifyingly deranged private vigilante groups. They head out of the city and discover that not only is there a huge expanse of America out there that's neither New York nor O-Zone, is largely indifferent to the problems of either, and is just getting on with life as it has done for decades, but also that maybe Fizzy doesn't want to be found.

O-Zone was published in 1986 and was Theroux's first proper-sized novel since his most famous book The Mosquito Coast in 1981 (the intervening Doctor Slaughter was a long short story, or a novella at best). While the setting is very different, a lot of the central themes are the same - the dire consequences of man's losing touch with the natural world, forgetting how to make things, cut down trees, start fires, roast three-headed beavers, all that stuff, and the dehumanising and alienating effect of too much technology. The "science fiction" setting is unique in Theroux's novels, and I'm not sure it really works. Too many unanswered questions, for one thing - how long ago are these catastrophic events meant to have happened? What area was affected? What about the rest of America - places like Florida, well away from the range of the radiation leak or the west coast earthquakes? Can we have a map? Even Riddley Walker gave us a map, and that was pretty vague about a lot of detail.

Other little plot annoyances: the whole business with Hooper's abduction of Bligh (the nubile 15-year-old girl) is a bit Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in her quick acceptance of her fate and acquiescence into a relationship with Hooper. And the sub-plot about Moura's search for the anonymous "donor" who fathered Fizzy is a bit inconsequential, which makes it all the more odd that it's allowed to provide the epilogue to the story, to no particular purpose. It's also quite long (547 pages in my Penguin edition) for a book in which not a huge amount actually happens.

Incidentally the weird stylised mask-wearing ritual attached to the "donation" process, presumably to draw attention away from its being just some anonymous fucking, is reminiscent of the similar rituals in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (a much better book, it must be said). The setting of a small amount of the action in a post-Big One California also echoes the similar setting of Virtual Light. And the concealment of nuclear waste by just hiding barrels of the stuff in holes in the ground was faintly reminiscent of the bit at the start of the Simpsons episode Marge vs. The Monorail where Mr. Burns gets arrested stuffing barrels into tree trunks in the park.

I stand by my earlier unreserved recommendation of The Mosquito Coast as the Theroux book you really have to read; if you want other novels I'd suggest the semi-autobiographical My Secret History, the MR James-esque ghost story (but with extra sex) The Black House and the grimy London-based The Family Arsenal. O-Zone isn't as good as any of those, so I suppose it gets categorised as a flawed but interesting genre experiment. If it's specifically a post-apocalyptic novel you're after, you'll probably be better off with The Road, Riddley Walker, The Handmaid's Tale, The Chrysalids or any of a whole host of others.

I bought O-Zone shortly after it came out, in the midst of a big splurge of buying up all the Theroux books I could get my hands on in the wake of reading The Mosquito Coast. That means it's been sitting on my bookshelves for something like 26-27 years without being read, which I suspect is some sort of record.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

headlines of the day

Here's a couple of good ones off the BBC website today. The first is a sort of crash blossom as previously featured here, here and here and extensively catalogued by Language Log. As you can see, it would appear that one of the side-effects of discredited wonderdrug Tamiflu, at least according to a "major report", is that it gets you completely off your tits:

The second one falls into the separate category of stuff that is just completely impenetrable to any sort of parsing unless you already happen to know what the story is about.

It might surprise you to learn - it certainly did me - that MP Robert Syms does not in fact own any sex dolls, at least as far as anyone knows, and that moreover he was the one complaining about them. A fairly radical departure for a Conservative MP.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

gladiator? i hardly noah

Couple of footnotes to the rather long Noah post:

Ray Comfort's complaining about the film (among all the shameless promotion of his own effort) reaches an adorable crescendo of utterly oblivious lack of self-awareness here:
No wonder it was listed as ‘fiction.’
Yeah, because some of the stuff they shoehorned in there was just ridiculous! Nonetheless the studio (Paramount) have felt obliged to put out a weaselly self-justifying press statement, as follows:
The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the Book of Genesis.
It's hard to see who they're going to satisfy with that, as the actress said to the bishop. The religious fundamentalists would have wanted it to say "based on a true story", despite that clearly being nonsense, and no-one else gives a rat's arse about any supposed controversy. I guess they just did it so that they could say they'd done it.

More disappointingly, Darren Aronofsky himself, generally a more spiky and uncompromising character than the bland corporate drones who put out his films, can't quite bring himself to follow through on his supposed atheism and drops this little turd of wishy-washy accommodationist nonsense into the mix:
Ultimately, though, the director has little patience with literalists on either side of the believer-atheist divide. It's ungenerous to insist, as some Christians do, that there is only one way to interpret Genesis, according to Aronofsky. But it's also pointless to argue, as some atheists have, that no ark could possibly hold all the animals. The story of the flood has lasted for millennia not because it’s "right" – or wrong – but because it’s deep and alive and unsettling, the director said.
I have literally no idea what a "literalist" on the atheist side of the divide would look like, unless he just means someone that believes the Bible in general, and the flood myth in particular, to be literally not an accurate reflection of historical reality. And it's far from pointless to make the obvious point that pretty much every detail of the story is incoherent nonsense that doesn't stand up to the merest whiff of scrutiny.

Incidentally I've had the Ray Comfort film going in another window while I've been writing this, and I can report that it's really not what you'd expect, given that you'd presumably expect it to be mostly about Noah and the ark and the flood and all that stuff. I mean, there is a bit of that, but mainly it's far more lazy and directionless and dishonest than that, consisting mainly of Comfort's bizarre attempts to draw parallels between the lead-up to the flood and modern-day evils like gay marriage and how they may presage another Godly tantrum and a cleansing bout of vengeance, and Comfort's well-worn shtick of accosting various barely-coherent slack-jawed stoners on some Los Angeles beachfront and running rings round them with his well-practised huckster's patter. As an exercise in drumming up controversy, and more importantly business for his Living Waters ministry, while expending almost no budget whatsoever, it's quite impressive, although the naked unscrupulousness of the whole enterprise is a bit shocking, though possibly not as shocking as the Just For Men beard and hair-dye job Comfort is sporting these days.

No mention of Ray Comfort is complete without linking to the magnificent banana video. His subsequent attempts to pass it off as "satire" just make it even more delicious, since they demonstrate his utter failure to grasp what was wrong with the original in the first place.

croah's ark

Tricky times for Christian fundamentalists at the moment: what to make of the new Biblical epic Noah? You might naïvely think that it would be cause for celebratory glee, after all this is a core bit of the Christian religion being served up to a worldwide audience in a blizzard of CGI special effects and with some pretty heavy names on board - director Darren Aronofsky (a "self-professed atheist", apparently), star Russell Crowe and supporting cast including Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson and Ray Fackin' Winstone.

But it's not as simple as that, apparently. While a lot of the more hand-wavey moderates have got behind it, or at least managed to rationalise some of the more noticeable liberties it takes with scriptural orthodoxy, most of the usual suspects have queued up to decry the movie for a variety of barely-comprehensible reasons. Scary Amish-bearded loon and noted ark enthusiast Ken Ham was far from impressed, and banana fiend Ray Comfort even went as far as making his own Noah movie for release (though not quite as widely, I would imagine) at the same time as the big-budget one. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck and Rick Warren blast the movie for perceived "inaccuracies".

The thing is, though, it's a bit rich to criticise the film for some fairly minor crimes against biblical orthodoxy - as far as I can gather these mainly revolve around the film suggesting that humanity's crime was the despoilment of the environment rather than (as the Bible says) general ill-defined wickedness, which I take to probably mean unauthorised sexy sexy times and general ignoring of God. There also seems to be a problem with the film's portrayal of the Creator who wants Noah to help him out - firstly he is a bit vaguely defined, and referred to throughout as "the Creator" rather than "God" as the literalists would prefer, and secondly Noah's attitude towards him is a bit bolshy and insufficiently forelock-tuggingly deferent and servile. Then again it's Russell Crowe, so I'm not sure what they were expecting.

The reason it's a bit rich is that it ignores the elephant in the room, which is that those criticising the film still implicitly support the idea that this guy, God - supposedly omniscient and omnipotent, let's not forget - having had his initial attempts at giving his creations free will blow up in his face in a farcical series of apple-based shenanigans, did not then magically and painlessly discorporate the handful of people who existed at that point and start again, but instead let everyone rampage around the surface of the planet for a few generations, breeding uncontrollably, until he eventually got so pissed off that he thought: fuck this shit, I'm going to drown everyone's ass, since that seems like literally the best course of action at this point, what with me being some sort of vengeful psychopath and all. To put it another way, I think basically if we reboot the human race with a tiny number of cripplingly inbred, traumatised, seasick, animal-dung-encrusted people, that'll probably improve the situation. Not only is that shockingly incompetent by any standards, it's also breathtakingly evil by any standards except the kind of standard that says: well, he's God, he can do what he wants and it is by definition good and right. Some call this the Euthyphro dilemma: I like to call it the Nixon defence.

The only reason to care about how accurately the film matches the source material is if you believe the source material to be literally true. Needless to say this introduces some problems, particularly if you also adhere to the Ussher chronology which would also have you believe that the earth is around 6000 years old, rather then the accepted scientific figure of 4.5 billion years. You will be far from surprised to hear that there is a whole branch of creationist apologetics devoted to shoehorning a whole swathe of inconvenient geological evidence into the 6000-year narrative, including some fantastic stuff about where all the water came from. As most of its adherents are American, they tend to focus on stuff like the Grand Canyon, since it's an obvious landmark that's not all foreign and suspicious. As I understand it from this version of the theory, the original flood laid down a load of sediments, in the process conveniently jumbling up a load of drowned animal carcasses into the fossil record we see today, and then a subsequent catastrophic outflow from some leftover ponded-up floodwaters carved the canyon in a matter of days.

Now obviously this is so stupid as not to really need refutation, but one of the really cool refutations that can be offered is that we actually know what landscapes carved by catastrophic floods look like, and they can be found only a thousand miles or so away from the Grand Canyon, in Washington state. These are called channelled scablands, and are the remnants of a catastrophic flood caused by the sudden emptying of a glacial lake about 15,000 years ago. Needless to say they look nothing like the Grand Canyon.

Picking holes in this sort of bullshit is all very entertaining, of course, but I must confess I don't really understand what motivates the creationists to try and come up with these just-so stories. I mean, if you believe that your God just magicked the WHOLE FREAKIN' UNIVERSE into existence in a week - a week which included a duvet day on the Saturday, let's not forget - what's to stop him just SHAZAMing all the water out of thin air, or KERPOWing the Grand Canyon into existence, or just casually excavating the whole thing himself with one scrape of his mighty fingernail? Why bother to contort yourself so horribly constructing these risibly childish theories? I suppose one answer is that otherwise the ex nihilo creation of stuff with the outward appearance of age makes God look like a bit of a prankster, and the other one is that not everyone has the critical thinking faculties to see through this stuff, and moreover some of those who don't have money that can be deposited into church coffers. Money that may now instead be spent going to see Noah, I suppose - suddenly the animosity makes sense.