Monday, December 27, 2021

didion, didioff

Even in the festive season the roving and merciless eye of The Curse Of Electric Halibut is seeking out fresh victims, and its latest victim is Joan Didion, essayist and novelist whose novel The Last Thing He Wanted appeared here in late 2010. Didion was probably better known as an essayist and non-fiction writer - she wrote five novels over 33 years and none after The Last Thing He Wanted in 1996.

Didion was 87, which puts her right in the median range for authorial death ages. More interestingly as you can see from the table she is the first person to appear since John le Carré almost exactly a year ago. I have done a quick sweep of the end-of-2021 literary reviews and round-ups and I can't find any reference to anyone else who's ever featured here, which does not definitively mean there wasn't anyone. 

The Curse Of Electric Halibut likes to bide its time and play the long game and what the table shows is a whole barn of chickens coming home to roost - five of the last eight victims have featured a curse gestation period of more than ten years. As older long-ago featurees feel the icy hand of death upon them new featurees step in to fill the breach, some of them (e.g. Terry Pratchett) already dead, some of them (e.g. Rachel Cusk) pretty youthful, and some of them right in prime scythe-sharpening range. E. Annie Proulx (86) and Frederick Forsyth (83) are the most obvious recent examples. 

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
José Saramago 9th May 2009 18th June 2010 87 1y 40d
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
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
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
David Cook 24th February 2009 16th September 2015 74 6y 205d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
William McIlvanney 7th September 2010 5th December 2015 79 5y 90d
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
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 95 13y 254d
John le Carré 21st February 2008 12th December 2020 89 12y 295d
Joan Didion 14th December 2010 23rd December 2021 87 11y 12d

Monday, December 20, 2021

fiction section selection direction

A couple of observations following the last book review: firstly that this post that you're reading now breaks a sequence of five consecutive book review posts (Family Album, Outline, Thud!, Call For The Dead, The Shipping News), which I'm pretty sure equals a record set between November 2018 and January 2019 and observed here. [EDIT: anyone equipped with the ability to a) look at stuff and b) count will spot that it's actually a record-busting sequence of six, The Day Of The Jackal being the missing one right at the start]. Also observed there is that this isn't necessarily a cause for celebration, as it just reveals the dwindling of posts on matters other than what I've been reading lately. There are a number of reasons for this: parenting duties for multiple children, limited opportunities in a pandemic to go out and do blog-worthy stuff and probably most importantly since mid-2016 (when the blog atrophy really set in in earnest) a general feeling of futility about expressing any sort of opinion about anything in the wake of Brexit and Trump (and subsequently Johnson) happening. As many people whose day-to-day business it is much more directly than mine have said, this stuff is the death of satire - nothing you could ever make up could be as simultaneously frightening and absurd.

Anyway, let's snap out of that sort of attitude and return to more important topics, like: all this book review stuff is great, but how do you choose which book you're going to read next? Well, there are a few criteria, although in general I like not to second-guess myself too much and steer clear of giving it too much though until the moment of needing to make a decision arrives (like, for instance, I've just finished a book and I really need a poo). There are obvious ones like probably not doing two Projects back to back ...

... keeping an eye on not getting too male-author-centric, usually following a longish book with a shortish one and vice versa, and likewise a "light" book with a more serious one. None of these rules is actually so much of a rule that it can't be broken if I feel like it, though. 

Another way of looking at it is illustrated by the image below: my fiction bookshelves are arranged alphabetically by author as the basic minimum level of non-insane good sense dictates. So are the unread titles evenly distributed? Recall that there is some distortion in terms of alphabetic distribution, partly (but not entirely) brought about by my having several large blocks of books by the same authors (Iain Banks, Dick Francis, Stephen King to name but the most obvious suspects). 

The numbers here denote how many unread novels there are in each section - I can't remember whether I included The Shipping News in the numbers or not, but it doesn't really matter. For the purposes of the analysis that follows you'll need to imagine that the columns are lettered A-D and the rows numbered 1-6 as if the whole thing were an Excel spreadsheet.

So it's easy to see that the distribution isn't particularly even - the zeroes at D3 and B4 are largely due to a block of John Irvings and a block of Stephen Kings respectively (the one at D6 is due to that section being empty), and Iain Banks and Dick Francis largely account for the two ones at A3 and C1. The highest count in a single section is seven at D2, mostly among the Es and Fs, and there is a run of three adjacent sections at B5, C5 and D5 that includes seventeen incorporating the end of the Ms through to nearly the end of the Ss. So I could impose some sort of rule obliging me to do some sort of affirmative action shit and choose my next book from one of the most deprived areas on the shelves. I'm not going to, but I could. 

the last book I read

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx.

Quoyle's woyfe is voyle, and she's been cheating on him in spectacular stoyle for quoyte a whoyle.

Let's start again. Quoyle is a great big lumbering oaf of a man employed in a fairly hack journalism job in upstate New York. He has made a somewhat unlikely marriage to Petal which has produced two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. Quoyle is puppyishly devoted to Petal despite her being chronically, serially and openly unfaithful to him and arriving home drunk and festooned with jism at all hours of the day and night.

Eventually Petal's penchant for wild and messy unfaithfulness results in her being involved in a wild and messy car accident which results in her wild and messy death. Not only does Quoyle have to cope with this, while already reeling from the death of both of his parents, but he also has to subsequently arrange the retrieval of Bunny and Sunshine from the shady character in Connecticut that Petal has sold them to to realise some money for the road trip.

Help arrives from an unexpected source: Quoyle's aunt, Agnis, who he was only dimly aware even existed. Agnis helps Quoyle tie up some affairs in New York and then  persuades him that the best thing to do would be to make a clean break and for the whole family, herself included, to relocate to the ancestral home of the Quoyles, Newfoundland. The blasted, snowy, rocky, sparsely-populated wastes of the north-eastern reaches of Canada would be a tough sell, you might think, compared with somewhere like the Bahamas, anyway, but Quoyle agrees pretty readily, keen for a radical change of environment.

And so Quoyle, aunt Agnis and the girls make the great trek north in Quoyle's rickety old station wagon and arrive at the northern tip of Newfoundland, home of ... well, not much, really, apart from the small settlement of Killick-Claw and the promontory known as Quoyle's Point on top of which the old Quoyle family home still stands, tethered to the rock by several steel cables to prevent it being blown into the bay below. The family moves into a motel in the short term and then, once it has been rendered just-about-habitable, the house. 

Even in the far north, people still need news, and as luck would have it the local paper, the Gammy Bird, is in need of writers and Quoyle gets a job there, initially just getting daily bulletins regarding the comings and goings in the local harbour (the, if you will, "shipping news") but soon expanding into a more general series of maritime features. The motley crew of eccentrics at the Gammy Bird provides Quoyle with a way into the local community, where despite Quoyle's evident blamelessness some of the older members are suspicious of him because of his ancestry. The old Quoyles, it turns out, were a wild and lawless bunch who made much of their day-to-day living from luring ships onto the rocks and looting the resulting wrecks, and moreover in their personal lives weren't above a bit of the old rape and incest, often at the same time.

Quoyle gradually integrates himself and his family into community life - after it becomes apparent that winter will most likely render the track to the house impassable he acquires a boat, and is barely rescued from drowning after it capsizes. He also acquires more responsibility at the newspaper, and embarks on a tentative relationship with taciturn widow Wavey Prowse. Wavey's dead husband, it turns out, was unfaithful to her in a similar way to Petal. Can Wavey and Quoyle conquer the demons of their past (and his ancestors' pasts, in Quoyle's case) and have a future together? Perhaps a heavily symbolic storm bringing death and destruction to the community will help?

I didn't know a great deal about The Shipping News before I picked it up fairly recently in a charity shop - I've never seen the film, for instance. The first thing that struck me was the odd coincidence of the action here being mainly situated in northern Newfoundland, a fairly short distance from Cape Breton at the northern tip of Nova Scotia, where most of the action in No Great Mischief takes place. The second thing that's a bit odd from a plotting perspective is the first section (the bit that takes place in New York) - a lot of plot development happens in a very short space of time, compared with, arguably, not a great deal happening for the rest of the novel. So there's the death of Quoyle's parents (in some sort of barbiturate-overdose suicide pact after both receiving grim terminal disease diagnoses), Petal's various lurid infidelities, the car crash, the hooking up with auntie and the rescuing of the girls from some sort of paedogeddon situation all to be got out of the way by page 28 because then it's into the car and off to Newfoundland. That whole section is weirdly compressed and lurid compared with the rest of the novel, and the brief episode where Petal sells the girls into kiddy-porn slavery to raise a few grand for a road trip is pretty incongruous, or, to be less charitable, ridiculous. That was all stuff that just had to happen to provide the foundation for the rest of the novel (the bit Proulx actually wanted to write, evidently) but there is some value in making it seem less perfunctory.

The rest of it is pretty good, although Quoyle's transition from shy bumbling type and half-arsed journalist to reasonably confident outdoorsy type and crafter of tightly compelling maritime anecdotes for the Gammy Bird is a bit implausibly smooth, and the episode where Jack Buggit (the Gammy Bird's editor) seemingly drowns after falling out of his fishing boat and then miraculously revives while lying in his own coffin is jarringly implausible. It's all very engaging, though, and the cast of mildly eccentric locals is entertaining. I enjoyed it, the reservations above aside, though I was less bowled over by it than the Pulitzer committee evidently were, as they awarded it the fiction prize for 1994. Previous winners featured on this blog include The Road, Gilead, Independence Day, A Thousand Acres, Breathing Lessons, BelovedForeign Affairs, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. It was also made into a film in 2001; fair to say, I think, that those who'd formed a mental picture of Quoyle from reading the book wouldn't in general have been picturing Kevin Spacey. A chubbier John Lithgow, maybe? A resurrected and Americanised Bernard Bresslaw? Cate Blanchett as Petal is a bold bit of casting as well; I was picturing a small, intense, dark-haired type like Laura San Giacomo. Anyway, for all the casting oddities the main thing I took away from this trailer is the extraordinary way Voice-Over Guy pronounces "Proulx" as something like "Provolole" about six seconds in. I mean I don't know the definitive pronunciation, but it surely can't be that: "Proo" or "Prool" would be the obvious options. I can only assume he had one take to get it done, hadn't rehearsed, saw "Proulx" bearing down on him like a freight train in the script and panicked. 

Monday, December 06, 2021

the last book I read

Call For The Dead by John le Carré.

George Smiley's wife has left him. This has become a pretty routine occurrence by the time of some of his later adventures, but here they have only been married a couple of years and her upping and running off with some hairy muscular Cuban racing driver for all manner of athletic sex and the like still has the power to sting. Smiley, characteristically, falls back on his extensive library of esoteric German poetry and his work as an intelligence officer for The Circus, a thinly disguised MI6. 

His current assignment is a bit of fairly routine tying-up of loose ends: Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office employee, has been the subject of an anonymous letter alluding to some Communist sympathies in his past. All fairly mild stuff, and who hasn't dabbled in a bit of the old Communism-sympathising at university - Smiley says as much to Fennan when they meet for an informal interview, firstly in Fennan's noisy Foreign Office premises and then in the quieter surroundings of a local park.

So it's something of a surprise when Fennan turns up dead in the hallway of his own house the following morning, with a gunshot wound to the head and in possession of a suicide note expressing despair at the ruination of his reputation and career at the hands of Smiley and the Circus. Smiley is dispatched to investigate, but a bit of embarrassment aside it is assumed that this will be a formality - a chap just overreacting to a bit of scrutiny, maybe some deeply-hidden complex being unleashed, who knows.

Smiley starts to smell a rat, though: Fennan's wife, Elsa, seems like a complex and tightly-controlled character who perhaps ought to be more grief-stricken than she is. Then again, that's just how some people are, isn't it? Odder is the 8:30am alarm call that Smiley fields while he's in the upstairs bedroom: Elsa claims to have ordered it but she's pretty clearly lying, and why would a man intending suicide arrange such a thing?

When he returns to his office, Smiley finds a letter from Fennan, dated the previous day, requesting that the two men meet for lunch to discuss an urgent matter. This also seems like strange behaviour from a man resolved to take his own life. Also rather strange is that the original letter denouncing Fennan and his suicide note are analysed to have been typed on the same typewriter (the one in Fennan's house) but by two different people. 

Smiley, with some help from a resourceful local copper, Mendel, and his Circus protégé Peter Guillam, starts to piece the case together and uncovers Fennan's involvement with some people working for an organisation supposedly called the East German Steel Mission, but fairly transparently a front for some espionage activities. Activities that turn out to involve agents who are still active and who attempt to kill Smiley (unsuccessfully) and (successfully) a man Smiley had questioned about supplying vehicles to the Mission, via the usual cloak-and-dagger sequence of anonymous drops and code-names.

After Elsa Fennan confesses to being an accomplice to her husband's spying activities, it looks as if the case will be wrapped up. But a couple of loose ends are still troubling Smiley - there's the matter of the unexplained phone call and letter, and Guillam has discovered that Fennan seemed to have made a point of only bringing home documents of no possible espionage value. 

Finally Smiley has a moment of revelation: it was Elsa who was the spy, and Fennan had been increasingly suspicious of her and had engineered the meeting with Smiley as a way of raising his concerns with the authorities - it was Fennan and Smiley being spotted together that spooked the Germans and led to Fennan's murder. Smiley devises a way of luring Elsa's East German contact to England and stakes out the London theatre where they are to meet. But once the man, Dieter, a former wartime associate of Smiley, sniffs out the subterfuge he ruthlessly strangles Elsa in her seat and flees through a foggy London before the climactic confrontation on the banks of the Thames. 

This was John le Carré's first novel, published in 1961, and the first appearance of George Smiley in print. It's quite instructive to compare Call For The Dead with, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, published thirteen years later: most obviously Call For The Dead is very short at 157 pages, while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a bit more of a doorstop at 400+ pages, but also the earlier book is really a murder mystery with an espionage flavour tacked on, this being what le Carré knew about from his real-life experiences, while the later book is fully immersed in the minutiae of spy tradecraft. The book that gave le Carré the confidence to abandon the mystery genre elements and do this was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published a couple of years later in 1963, and which features Smiley and Guillam in minor roles as well as Hans-Dieter Mundt, who features in a thuggish minor role here, in a more major one. 

In many ways Call For The Dead fills a similar spot in the le Carré canon as A Mind To Murder fills in that of PD James: an early work, modest of length and adhering to genre constraints much more than later, longer, more boundary-stretching, genre-transcending novels. I enjoyed it greatly, though, not least because you can zip through it in a couple of days. It was filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair, presumably to cash in on the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a film which bagged the rights to the name "George Smiley", so he became "Charles Dobbs" instead. 

Sunday, December 05, 2021

the last book I read

Thud! by Terry Pratchett.

Sam Vimes just wants a quiet life. Not easy when you're the chief of the City Watch (the police force, essentially) in Ankh-Morpork, largest city on the Discworld, and not only a wretched hive of scum and villainy in all the usual ways (stabbings, blunt instruments, etc.) but with the addition of magic into the mix as well. 

Not only are there crimes to solve, but administrative headaches as well: there's been a new equal opportunities directive that dictates that Sam hire a proportion of his officers from minority groups like werewolves and vampires. I mean, there's nothing wrong with them, exactly, but they have their own ways, don't they? And those ways are not, you know, our ways, are they? So can you really trust them when the chips are down and shit gets real? Honestly, it's Undead Political Correctness gone mad. 

It's not just the City Watch who are struggling with integration: tensions are high, as they always are, between dwarfs and trolls, many of whom make their homes in the city. There is an enduring history of bad blood here, mainly revolving around the Battle of Koom Valley a few centuries previously wherein much mutual massacring was done and claims and counter-claims of treachery and ambush persist, and whose anniversary is just around the corner. So the general atmosphere is not good, and is certainly not improved any when a dwarf turns up dead with his skull caved in and a troll club is discovered nearby. Needless to say Sam and his crew get roped in to investigate, and very soon Sam starts to smell a rat. The dwarfs are a tight-knit group and resent outsiders interfering in what they feel ought to be internal dwarf matters demanding internal dwarf justice, and they are protective of the maze of underground tunnels that they have created with their mining activity (mining being what dwarfs do). And that's just the dwarfs who choose to go above ground and mingle with the surface-dwellers; there is a whole other dwarf subculture (the "deep-downers") who never emerge at all. But Sam must investigate, and down in a tunnel was where the body was found, and so down he must go.

It soon becomes apparent that some Weird Shit is going down, shit that the dwarfs do not themselves fully understand. Strange and cryptic symbols are appearing on mine walls, and there are rumours of strange disembodied voices being heard. When Sergeant Angua (a werewolf) and Lance-Constable von Humpeding (a vampire) find another way into the mines thanks to their magical powers (i.e. being able to transform into a wolf and a swarm of bats respectively) they discover more murdered dwarfs. Sam deduces that these dwarfs were murdered because they heard something they should not have and had to be silenced. Moreover, the group of "deep-downers" who were responsible for the murders have found the magical MacGuffin they were looking for (a sort of magical recording device called a "cube") and have now scarpered towards Koom Valley. Sam and his crew set off in hot pursuit

Anyway, long story short, it turns out that the cube contains a recording of some of the dwarfs and trolls who were at the Battle of Koom Valley, and it turns out not to have really been a battle at all, but a meeting to arrange a truce. Unfortunately the weather was terrible, and in the fog and confusion some fighting broke out which was only stopped when a huge flood washed everyone into an inescapable subterranean cave. The fundamentalist dwarfs didn't want this publicised, but once Sam has felt everyone's collar he ensures that it is, and an uneasy peace between dwarf and troll descends once again. And just as well, as Sam has to be home at 6pm sharp to read That's Not My Cow to his son, Young Sam. 

As I said in this post shortly after Terry Pratchett's death in 2015, I read the first seven Discworld books in fairly quick succession in the late 1980s and stopped after Pyramids. As it happens the very next book in the series, Guards! Guards!, was the first one in which Sam Vimes and the City Watch play a major role. 

So I'm in a similar situation here as I was with The Folks Who Live On The Hill: returning after a long time to the work of someone who I read a lot of stuff by in a short time back in the day. And as with the Amis oeuvre it's easy enough to recognise what I liked about them thirty-odd years later, principally: they're funny, there's always a serious point being made somewhere, and Pratchett found enough flexibility within the device of setting all the books in the same imagined world to come up with something fresh for each one. That said I've still only read eight of them (the first seven and this one, the thirty-fourth in the series) so if I'd ploughed through all of them I suppose I might have found some repetition. If you're assuming there'll now be a run-through of all the things I didn't like about them you'll be disappointed as there isn't one, really: I suppose there is perhaps just a hint of slightly unpalatable smugness here and there, and the central device (all the troll/dwarf/vampire/troll mutual mistrust is actually - get this - an allegory for racism and religious intolerance) is perhaps not quite as clever as we seem to be being invited to think it is. The last third of the book drags on a little bit as well and Pratchett, like many authors, seems to have suffered from a bit of late-career literary elephantiasis: at 439 pages Thud! is considerably longer than any of the previous Discworld novels that I've read, all of which were in the 230-280 page range. I can't honestly say I think it'd be a sound investment of your time to read all of the Discworld series, but I'd definitely recommend sampling a couple. I suspect - like the Patrick O'Brian books - it doesn't really matter where you dip into the series.

Why go back now, you ask? Well, simply because my wife had this copy of the book given to her by a friend who'd found it while clearing out a rental property and so it was passed on to me, and obviously I'm not going to refuse a free book. The exclamation mark at the end of the title makes it unusual among books that I own; the only other one in my collection which has one is Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up!. The answer to the obvious next question, i.e. well what about question marks, then, is that there are three in my collection: Who? by Algis Budrys (mentioned a few times before on this blog), Who's Sorry Now? by Howard Jacobson (which I have yet to read) and How Far Can You Go? by David Lodge.