Wednesday, September 30, 2020

the last book I read

All Shook Up by William Bedford. 

It's the late 1950s (which year is never specified exactly but the Elvis song which gives the novel its title was released in 1957) and Stephen Godard is living on the east coast (presumably Lincolnshire) with his mother and father when his father, a policeman, gets a new posting in charge of an American Air Force base, in the same general area but inland. This entails the whole family upping sticks and moving to a new house in the vicinity of the base, which is being used (the base, not the house) to store the new Nemesis nuclear missile, this being the height of the Cold War and all.

Stephen isn't terribly impressed about the move, but soon makes the best of it and makes some new friends: brittle, cynical Matthew, robust, sporty Barbara and enigmatic, scholarly Caroline, all of whose parents have some connection with the base.

Stephen and his friends are all in their mid-to-late teens and therefore at that age when firstly those feelings, you know, down there, start to make themselves known, and furthermore an age where they are expected to move seamlessly from being provided for at home and school to providing for themselves at college and in employment, the nature of which they are meant to have some clear ideas about. Like many teenagers, though, Stephen doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life. Stephen's father, on the other hand, has some pretty firmly-held views on the subject: Stephen should join the police force like his father, instead of poncing around with book-reading and other suspect activities like some sort of namby-pamby lah-di-dah poofter.

Stephen finds himself unable to resist his father's will and joins the police as a cadet, although he chafes at having to submit to the rigid hierarchical regime, and finds himself traumatised by some of the police reports (complete with gruesome photos) that he is required to read through. Meanwhile he hangs out with his friends quaffing cider down at the local pub and conducting a fledgling romance with pretty, enigmatic Caroline, happy to adhere to a Stakhanovite schedule of furtive handjobs but unwilling for the moment to go any further.

All the stuff that's parked on Stephen's doorstep has an impact on his life as well, though: the local police (with Stephen in tow) conduct a raid on a local house which is being used as a brothel (with many of the American military personnel from the base as clients), and the world finds itself facing the prospect of imminent fiery armageddon as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, and the base mobilises to prepare for the unthinkable possibility of having to deploy the Nemesis missile.

After it becomes clear that life in general is, in fact, going to go on, it also becomes clear that life as Stephen and his friends have known it is going to end - not only is everyone heading off to college, but Nemesis is being decommissioned and the base shut down, which means Stephen's father will be posted somewhere else. Caroline's father is being posted to the United States and Caroline will be going with him and attending university over there, so Stephen and Caroline enjoy a last few glorious weeks of valedictory fucking before she departs and Stephen finally screws up his courage and resigns from the police force to take up a college place to study to be a journalist.

There is a sense in which all coming-of-age novels, including the ones which have appeared on this blog (a list which includes Pig, The Levels, Demian, Bluesman, The Leaves On Grey and My Summer Of Love among others) cover much the same ground, i.e. the transition from childhood to adulthood, complete with some awkward fumbly furtive sticky couplings (though Stephen and Caroline seem to get the hang of it pretty quickly) and then a sense of things coming to an end as the principal character and his or her contemporaries head out into the world to seek their fortunes. In particular there are some echoes of The Levels here as Caroline, slightly posher and richer than Stephen, does her effortless social mobility thing and flits off leaving Stephen a bit more tied to his original location (college course notwithstanding). 

So you're never going to be able to avoid cliché completely, but within its self-imposed constraints I think All Shook Up does a pretty good job. There is an odd sense in which we get to know Stephen less well than, say, Matthew and Barbara, but maybe this just reflects that at that age (and perhaps any age) nothing is more mysterious to us than our own motivations for doing any of the things we choose to do. The specific details of the novel's location resonated with me, not because I'm at all familiar with Lincolnshire but because some of my formative years (during the Cold War) were spent living within a small nuclear warhead's throw of a fully tooled-up American Air Force base at Greenham Common. If the base in All Shook Up was meant to resemble a real one then it was probably Hemswell

Friday, September 25, 2020

transports of delight

Nia and I fulfilled a long-held ambition last weekend when we went down to the Transporter Bridge and did the high-level traverse of the bridge via the walkway at the top, rather than via the gondola at the bottom. Obviously this is only an option for foot passengers, as you'd struggle to get a motor vehicle up the steps, and you will have to pay a couple of quid extra for the privilege of climbing the 200-odd steps to the top and walking across.

Anyone thinking of doing it should be armed with the knowledge that it's pretty airy and exposed up there and the walkway is not some solid structure made out of stout timber planks (although old photos show it used to have some) or sheet steel but instead some flimsy looking mesh that you can see straight through down to the river below, and which flexes slightly worryingly under your feet as you walk on it. The top of the gondola mechanism which basically just clanks back and forth on rails passes disconcertingly close below your feet as well. I would say if you're in any doubt whether you'll like it or not, chances are you probably won't. Nia was fine, and I'm pretty much OK with heights (though the significant traces of rust and corrosion around some of the bolts in the superstructure gave me pause for thought); my main worry was that while I wanted to get some photographs I was acutely aware of the catastrophic consequences of dropping my mobile phone.

Blog readers with long memories may recall that I'd been across the bridge before back in late 2010 with Hazel, Doug and Anna as part of a general mooch around Newport involving several pubs, back in the pre-kids, pre-pandemic days when you could just do that sort of thing. Photos from last weekend's walk can be found here

Like I say, we'd been planning to do it for a while, as Nia shares my predilection for climbing on top of stuff - what finally prompted us to do it was the news that the bridge is due (as of this coming weekend, in fact) to shut down for a 2-year programme of repairs and maintenance, and that this would therefore be our last chance to do the walk before early 2023. I was half-expecting that we'd be thwarted at the eleventh hour by some draconian pandemic lockdown measures being imposed, but luckily we managed to dodge those by a few days. 

Blog readers who follow me on Twitter may be aware that the bridge has its own Twitter profile; one of the great joys of this is seeing the exchange of tweets between it and various other historic bridges, including the nearby Clifton Suspension Bridge but also an entertainingly banterous rivalry with the only other working transporter bridge in the UK (and one of only six worldwide), the Tees Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough. It sounds terribly disloyal to say it, but I think the Middlesbrough bridge (also currently closed for maintenance, as it happens) is prettier, as it's slightly chunkier owing to its self-supported construction (the Newport one is cable-supported, a bit like a suspension bridge, complete with chunky cable anchorages on either side) and moreover is currently painted a rather fetching shade of blue. There is, as it happens, a bridge just upriver of the transporter bridge called the Tees-Newport Bridge, and much of the steel for the construction of the Newport transporter bridge (it opened in 1906, five years before the Middlesbrough bridge) came from the Dorman Long steelworks in, you've guessed it, Middlesbrough. Coincidence? or IS IT??!!!? As always, yes: yes it is.

There is a third, smaller, non-operational transporter bridge in Warrington which a band of stalwart enthusiasts are conducting a surely doomed attempt to secure some funding to renovate, and, as you'll recall from this earlier post from our trip to Liverpool for the Open Championship in 2014, there used to be another one, larger than either of the two surviving ones, crossing the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal between Widnes and Runcorn. There is actually some footage of this on YouTube - this longer clip from the 1930s and this one dating from just before the completion of the replacement fixed bridge in 1961, which was quickly followed by the old bridge's demolition. Newer transporter bridges, and there aren't many, are generally somewhat smaller, including this rather charming miniature hand-operated one in Germany

Monday, September 21, 2020

let there be slightly less light

In a poignant echo of the current pandemic sweeping the nation, I'm afraid I have to report the tragic demise of another kitchen light bulb, latest victim of the current highly-infectious outbreak of bulb demises that started in November 2019 after a gap of around four-and-a-half years and has now accounted for five of the twelve bulbs in the kitchen layout (we replaced one, so you only see four in the photograph below). The latest one was number 3 (layout diagram here), one of the first two to expire as part of the original experiment back in May 2014 and be replaced with IKEA LED bulbs. It therefore replaces its predecessor as the longest-serving bulb in existence (well, not any more) with a lifespan of 2329 days.

Friday, September 18, 2020

end of a century, oh, it's nothing special

Well, I promised you stats, and stats you shall have, specifically some comparisons of the components of my book-reading triple-century. The brief analysis of the first hundred books appears at the end of the review for the hundredth, Light On Snow, and the analysis of the second hundred has its own post here. I'll rehash some of the numbers from those here for comparison purposes so you don't feel obliged to flick back and forth comparing.

  • The third hundred took 2053 days to complete, compared to 1474 for the first and 1601 for the second - note that these are slightly different numbers from the original posts; I'm not sure what formula I was using there to do the calculations but I suspect it was wrong, albeit only slightly. In real money that's 5.6 years, compared with 4 and 4.4 for the first two.
  • On the other hand, the third hundred books were, on aggregate, the longest at 31,782 pages, compared with 28,361 and 30,761 for the first two. That still means the pages-per-day numbers were lower than for the first two at 15.5 - numbers for the first two were almost identical at 19.2 for both. That's largely a legacy of 2016 and 2017 both being very light in terms of book consumption, compared with other years anyway. For 2017 that can be partly explained by having a tiny baby who was either in hospital or at home being extremely difficult and time-consuming to feed, which certainly would have curtailed some of my reading opportunities. Since Huw only turned up at the tail-end of 2016 I'm not sure I can plausibly account for the figures for that year being so low, though.
  • Longest book for each hundred in chronological order: The Corrections at 653 pages, Infinite Jest at 1079 pages, A Man In Full at 742 pages.
  • Number of distinct authors for each hundred in chronological order: 93, 88, 92.
  • Number of authors who were new to me (generally, not just among books reviewed here) for each hundred in chronological order: 40, 36, 42.
  • Male/female split for each hundred in chronological order: 75:25, 72:28, 80:20. None of the selection is consciously by sex but it's interesting nonetheless that this is the most male hundred of the three (I noted a ten-month gap in this tweet - note that the book I was reading at the time was Imaginary Friends). Within the bounds of plausible random variation, though, I suppose, and it partly reflects my book-buying habits (from, in most cases, a few years back) as well as my current selecting-the-next-book-to-read habits, since I can only select from what's on the shelves.

Finally, an update to the multiple-blog-featurees table last displayed here. Note that the late Iain Banks (in his two incarnations) has now taken the lead on his own, with a few new authors slipping into the 3-book category.

Number of books Author(s)
8 Iain (M) Banks
6 Ian McEwan
Russell Hoban
5 TC Boyle
William Boyd
4 Lawrence Durrell
3 Cormac McCarthy
Stieg Larsson
Patricia Highsmith
William Gibson
Beryl Bainbridge
Jim Crace
Robertson Davies
Alison Lurie
Anita Shreve
Paul Theroux
Anne Tyler

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

the last book I read

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve.

It's 1929. So, already, no prizes for guessing a couple of key upcoming plot points. but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We're in New Hampshire, and Honora Willard has just become Honora Beecher after a fairly whirlwind romance with travelling typewriter salesman Sexton Beecher. They've been offered the chance to house-sit a delapidated ocean-front property, and, subsequently, to purchase it at a relatively bargain price, something Sexton arranges via some slightly shady financial shenanigans. No need for the little lady to worry her pretty little head by knowing about any of that stuff, though, of course. 

Meanwhile, Vivian Burton, slightly older and moving in slightly more elevated social circles, finds herself set up in a house at the opposite end of the beach after an ill-advised fling with Dickie Peets, a man with fingers in many pies, most of which turn out to be worthless when the bottom falls out of the stock market late in 1929. 

Meanwhile the plebs must do actual manual work to earn a crust and produce the fabulous consumer goods that the flapping classes like to consume. In the nearby town of Ely Falls, for instance, many men are employed by the local cotton mill, but times are getting tougher for everyone and the mill owners are looking to maximise profitability by cutting wages. What can the beleaguered workers do? Unionise their ass off and go out on strike, that's what. This being the United States such actions have the whiff of GODDAMN COMMUNISM about them, though (and to be fair there are a few actual Communist agitators about) and can legitimately be met with some violent retribution.

Having lost his typewriter-wrangling job following the economic downturn and some awkward revelations about his property-acquiring arrangements, Sexton Beecher finds himself having to take a job at the mill to keep some money coming in. When the strike is mooted, though, he lets slip that he has some typing and printing apparatus at home in his loft just ready and waiting to be used to print off inflammatory leaflets. So the entire strike committee relocates to Honora and Sexton's place for some serious revolutionary organising and some epic food and booze consumption (mostly courtesy of Vivian), not to mention some charged looks between McDermott, one of the strikers, and Honora.

This is all tremendous fun of course, but there comes a time when the partying and the printing of inflammatory leaflets has to stop and the serious striking and picketing has to start. And once it does there is a strong likelihood that the authorities (including the owners of the mill) will take a dim view of commie agitators in their midst. And so it proves - as soon as the strike begins, SHIT GETS REAL, violence erupts (not helped by Sexton's pulling a concealed weapon and blazing away) and some hired goons arrive to put an end to the strike, and indeed some of the strikers. This includes McDermott, but not Sexton, who, having been shot, escapes from hospital and goes on the lam, no doubt in a jalopy with frantic banjo music playing. In the aftermath of the violence and the continuing fallout from the Wall Street Crash, Honora occupies herself house-sitting for Vivian (her and Sexton's house having been repossessed by the bank) and acting as surrogate parent for young Alphonse, the barely-teenage mill worker that McDermott had previously taken under his wing.

Wikipedia's page on Sea Glass refers to it rather sniffily as a "romance novel". I'm not sure I recognise that description, as there's plenty of grit here (and not much romance, unless you count McDermott and Honora's unrequited moonings). One thing that I was mildly concerned about when I chose to read it next (more on this in a minute) was that it might be too similar for comfort in style and tone to its immediate predecessor, Breathing Lessons, written by a female American author of roughly similar age. Actually the two books are quite different - Sea Glass has a historical setting, an undertone of righteous anger about working conditions in late-1920s/early-1930s America, and some actual killing at the end which makes Breathing Lessons' concerns seem quaintly parochial. One interesting bit of background detail here is that Honora lost several family members when she was a child in the Halifax explosion of 1917, a disaster whose ferocity and scale is almost incomprehensible even now - for instance the half-ton main section of the anchor of the ship that exploded fell to earth two miles away.

Anyway, I enjoyed Sea Glass very much, as I did the two previous Anita Shreve books that featured on this blog. You may recall that they were, respectively, the first and one hundredth books to feature here. Well, I can tell you that Sea Glass is the three-hundredth book I have rambled inconsequentially about here since late 2006. The missing milestone (i.e. the two-hundredth review, when I can only assume I didn't have a handy unread Anita Shreve book to fill the gap with, or didn't realise the milestone was imminent until too late) was Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I will concoct a stats summary in a separate post.

Monday, September 14, 2020

rigor portis has set in

It's been a busy few months what with being in the midst of a global pandemic and all, but life goes on. Well, for most of us, anyway, but not for those who feel the icy hand of The Curse Of Electric Halibut upon their shoulders, for their time has come and what must be done must be done. And, having been done, it must be documented here to serve as an everlasting monument to, I dunno, something or other. So mote it be.

Anyway, be all that as it may, it turns out that Charles Portis died back in February, less than two years after True Grit (by far his most famous work) featured on this blog. That's not in the same ballpark as the brutal treatment meted out to Michael Dibdin and Philip Roth, who were brutally dispatched a mere 59 days and 150 days after a book they wrote first featured on this blog, but it's fairly quick. Apart from Dibdin and Roth only Russell Hoban, Richard Matheson and James Salter were rubbed out more quickly. Portis was 86, which puts him pretty much smack in the middle of the median range for curse victims. Iain Banks and Doris Lessing, who died within six months of each other back in 2013, are the statistical outliers at 59 and 94 respectively.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

incidental music spot of the day

A breathily-re-imagined version of Pink Floyd's Eclipse (the last song on their perennially humongo-selling 1973 album The Dark Side Of The Moon) on the trailer for Denis Villeneuve's forthcoming re-imagining of Frank Herbert's Dune

I have, to the best of my knowledge, never seen a Denis Villeneuve film, although I remember thinking that Arrival looked quite intriguing when it came out in 2016. I have read the source novel for his 2013 film Enemy, though, since it's José Saramago's The Double, as featured on this blog back in 2009. The film evidently took some liberties with the book, though, since the book does not end with an encounter with a giant spider.

I have also, as I've mentioned before, seen David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Dune, and, seemingly unusually among those who saw it, quite enjoyed it. I maintain that this is at least partly because I've never read any of the books (and can say with a pretty high degree of confidence that I never will). I thought the Guild navigators - basically giant freaky-ass rubbery space tadpoles transported around inside giant blacked-out railway carriages - were pretty cool in particular.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

the last book I read

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

Maggie Moran is approaching fifty, with long-standing attachments to her husband Ira and their family house in Baltimore. She and Ira have two grown-up kids, Jesse and Daisy, both a bit on the feckless side, who drift in and out between the house and other more self-sufficient accommodation.

As we join Maggie she is gearing up for a road trip to Pennsylvania for the funeral of the husband of her old college friend Serena. During the build-up to setting off for the trip we learn a few things about Maggie and Ira: he is an undemonstrative, methodical man who runs a local picture-framing business which he inherited from his father. His father isn't dead, though - no, he just decided that once Ira was of an age to take over the business, he (Dad) would declare himself too much of an invalid to continue running it, hand it over and retire upstairs to his armchair for the next several decades. This was done without much consultation with Ira, who nonetheless felt obliged to abandon thoughts of a medical career and assume full responsibility for his father and two sisters, both of whom suffer from varying mental afflictions which make them unable to live independent lives. Maggie, meanwhile, is somewhat more scatty, inclined to well-intentioned meddling in other people's lives, in particular those of her son Jesse, his estranged wife Fiona and their daughter Leroy. She is also an utter liability behind the wheel of a car, as we discover when she picks up the family car from a garage and promptly has an altercation with a truck which results in a section of bumper getting torn off.

Ira, evidently well-used to his wife's driving habits, takes the wheel for the trip to the funeral. When they arrive it transpires that Serena has had the somewhat eccentric idea of, instead of something more dirge-y and mournful, having the musical accompaniment to the funeral ceremony be a re-run of the songs from her wedding, and, moreover, sung by the original singers, mostly the funeral attendees, including Maggie and Ira. Ira refuses point-blank to be involved, but Maggie gives it her best shot. Back at the house for the wake Serena digs out some old movie footage of the wedding, and, possibly inspired by a sighting of her younger self, Maggie persuades Ira that a quickie in one of the bedrooms might be the thing to do. Disturbed by Serena in the fumbly early stages of this, they decide that this might be a good time to make their excuses, leave, and start the drive back to Baltimore. 

Ira is hoping for a speedy return home and a chance to put his feet up, but it turns out that Maggie has had an idea: why not make the shortish detour to where Fiona now lives (at her mother's house) and visit her and Leroy? Once they arrive and find Fiona and Leroy in but her mother out, Maggie decides to push her luck a bit further: why don't Fiona and Leroy come and stay for a couple of nights? She can get Jesse to come over and they can have a nice little reunion and - hey, who knows? - maybe rekindle their old relationship. To her mild surprise, Fiona agrees, even when her mother returns and takes a dimmer view of the idea.

So they return to Baltimore, Maggie gets on with preparing dinner, and eventually Jesse turns up to join them. While he seems genuinely pleased to see Fiona and Leroy, it soon becomes clear that the picture Maggie has painted for Fiona (and perhaps even convinced herself is true) of Jesse still pining for her and obsessively keeping mementoes of her under his pillow, isn't really true. Jesse has been playing with his metal band, setting himself up in his new apartment and getting through a series of girlfriends perfectly happily, thanks very much.

So after Jesse and Fiona have both done their storming-out-of-the-house scenes, Maggie and Ira are left alone together. No time to reflect too closely on what's just happened, though, still less the advisability of trying to interfere in other people's lives - Maggie and Ira have another road trip to contemplate the next day, delivering daughter Daisy to college. Perhaps she will be more receptive to some motherly guidance?

Breathing Lessons is the third Anne Tyler novel to appear on this blog, after A Patchwork Planet and Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, and deviates very little from the general structure of the previous two (and indeed most of Tyler's oeuvre): Baltimore setting, family drama with occasional moments of quirky and/or bittersweet comedy, very little in the way of rude thrusting assertiveness, guns, or liberal use of the c-word. I think the secret of which book or books you find you really like depends less on the plot details (since the level of variation is pretty low) and more on whether you find that you click with the central characters or not. As it happens I found Maggie generally slightly irritating rather than endearingly well-intentioned, and moreover (the slightly incongruous interlude in Serena's bedroom aside) somewhat prematurely aged in outlook for someone who is meant to be younger than me. You may recall I had the same issue with the central protagonist of Hotel Du Lac

So while this isn't my favourite Tyler novel (that'd probably be A Patchwork Planet) it's still impeccably well-written and has craftily well-hidden depths. What the hell do I know, though, because Breathing Lessons is the Tyler novel that the Pulitzer committee felt moved to bestow the Pulitzer Prize for fiction on, in 1989. Previous Pulitzer winners in this list include, in no particular order, Foreign Affairs, The Road, Independence Day, Gilead, A Thousand Acres, Beloved, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. Breathing Lessons also appears in this Guardian best-novels-EVER list from 2015, at number 96, though it should be understood that the list is in ascending chronological order of publication rather than order of perceived merit. Other novels on that list which have featured on this blog include The Great Gatsby, Tropic Of Cancer, At Swim-Two-Birds, The Grapes Of Wrath (again), Under The Volcano, The Catcher In The Rye, Lolita, On The Road, Midnight's Children and Amongst Women.