Friday, November 17, 2023

the last book I read

Speedboat by Renata Adler.

Jen Fain is, we gather, a journalist, working primarily in New York. I say "we gather" because there's nothing as gauche or jejune as a standard orthodox narrative here, my goodness no. 

What we have to do here is gather information as we go along by sifting through a series of reflections and anecdotes presented as short paragraphs and working out whether they relate to Jen's life, stories that she has encountered in the course of her journalistic activities, or just random musings on topics of interest.

So we gather that Jen is youngish, probably twentysomething, a journalist for some New York tabloid, living in the 1970s, going to far-flung and occasionally dangerous places for work, hanging out with other journalists, having fairly desultory relationships with men, usually also connected to journalism or politics in some way, including her current partner Jim and possibly a guy called Aldo in the past, though the chronology of any of the fragments that describe these things is hard to establish with any certainty. So Jen works through various jobs at the paper - film critic, gossip columnist - but not necessarily in the order portrayed here. She hangs out with her friends, also mostly from the New York journo/politico inner circle, and observes some of them marry, divorce, have kids, die, all the usual stuff. She dabbles with various leisure pursuits - shooting, tennis, flying lessons - without a firm commitment to any of them.

Eventually Jen discovers that she is pregnant with Jim's child and has some pivotal life decisions to make: keep the baby? tell Jim about it? The book ends without these key questions being resolved. 

Speedboat was first published in 1976 - Renata Adler was a journalist of some note by that time (as always, write about what you know) and the book won some awards on its original publication but was then out of print for some years before being revived; my W&N Essentials edition dates from around 2021.

I recall seeing Speedboat being mentioned in the reviews of Jenny Offill's Dept. Of Speculation, a book structured in a broadly similar way. Pretty clearly the later book was explicitly influenced by the earlier one, though I think you could argue the later book has a slightly stronger narrative thread running though it, especially in the second half, which (just to stretch the metaphor a bit further) gives the reader something to hang onto, especially if you find yourself reading the book in lots of short segments (last thing at night, on the train, in kids' swimming lessons) as most busy normal people who are not paid book reviewers or minor royalty with no need to earn a living will find themselves doing, and having to re-orient yourself within the book's structure every time you pick it up.

The authorial voice, though not the structure particularly, is very reminiscent of Joan Didion: there's the journalism setting, of course, but a general sense of the narrator being cool and fabulous and self-possessed even in rough and dangerous country, and an air of slightly ironic detachment and amusement at the antics of the people who occupy most of the narrative. As with the Rachel Cusk novels we end up learning most of what we know (or think we know) about the narrator through other people.

It comes down to a question of taste in the end: I like to think I'm quite open to formal experimentation in novels, and the fragments - considered as individual pieces of writing - are all beautifully written and slyly observed, but the coolness and emotional detachment of the whole thing made it - while easy to admire - hard to engage with. I suppose it's a similar thing to my reaction to David Bowie's work (substitute "novels" for "music", obviously): 

I suppose the way I would put it is: my preference is for people to totally be "in" their music, rather than standing an ironic distance away from it and pointing at it.

I think if you want an example of this type of work then Speedboat is probably a better book than Dept. Of Speculation, though there's plenty to admire in both, and they are both pretty short, though not the type of books to keep you up all night breathlessly turning the pages to find out what happens next. That's OK, though.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

double or nothing

Yes, it's esoteric cricket records and factoids time again. Is that in tribute to the climactic stages of the 2023 Cricket World Cup? Eh, no, not really, but, on the other hand, yeah, OK, whatever, if you like. This list is sort-of-related to the previous one in that it relates to century-scoring feats and in particular scoring a century in each innings of a Test match, something that's only been done 91 times in the 2500+ Test matches that have been played since the 1870s. 

A lot of famous names on that list, you might say, some of them appearing multiple times - Sunil Gavaskar, Ricky Ponting and David Warner are the only people to have done it on three separate occasions. But also a few lesser-known names - I wonder if there are any players who only ever scored two Test hundreds, and both of them were in the same match? Well, hold that thought, as I've looked into it and the answer is yes. This is another one of those records where the list has expanded quite a bit recently - the only entry on the list before 1999 was Jack Moroney of Australia, both of whose Test hundreds came in a single match against South Africa in Johannesburg in February 1950. If my research is correct he has since been joined by four other batsmen, as follows:

Batsman Country 1st
Against Venue Date
Jack Moroney Australia 118 101* South Africa Jo'burg Feb 1950
Wajahatullah Wasti Pakistan 133 121* Sri Lanka Lahore Mar 1999
Yasir Hameed Pakistan 170 105 Bangladesh Karachi Aug 2003
Peter Fulton New Zealand 136 110 England Auckland Mar 2013
Shai Hope West Indies 147 118* England Leeds Aug 2017

Yasir Hameed's feat here is unique as the twin hundreds were made in his first Test match, which puts him on another even shorter list whose only other occupant is Lawrence Rowe of West Indies. Rowe made hundreds elsewhere as well, though. 

absolute bulltwit

Here's a bit of random fun: you'll probably have all seen one or more of the various internet things that attempt to categorise putting an animal's name in front of the word "shit" and the various subtleties of meaning that ensue. Just to be clear, none of these lists are definitive and there's plenty of scope for disagreement; I don't think that Urban Dictionary categorises "horseshit" quite as I would use it, and defining "bullshit" as "lies" is, while probably OK for day-to-day use, not quite in line with its specific technical meaning about which whole books have been written.

Anyway, the point of all the preamble is to introduce the results of a quick and unscientific survey which I cooked up after having occasion to use Twitter's (sorry, X's) search facility to search for instances of the word "bullshit" in my own tweets (sorry, "posts"). I can't remember why now but I'm sure it was important enough to justify taking some time off work to do. So here we go (one example for each):

bullshit: 51 occurrences

horseshit: 7 occurrences. Note that the specific tweet I chose here features a video where someone uses the word "bullshit" to describe essentially the same thing, thereby implying that the two terms are interchangeable in at least some subset of circumstances. I will reluctantly allow this.

dogshit: 7 occurrences

apeshit: slightly surprisingly, zero occurrences. Must try harder! I did once use the word "apeshittery" though which I am going to insist a) is a word and b) counts.

pigshit: once, here. This word doesn't feature in the Urban Dictionary list and pretty much has a single use case: as part of the phrase "thick as pigshit" or some variant thereof, as below.

sheepshit: well, no, but a near-miss here

All other animals: zero occurrences, with the caveat that I haven't appended the word "shit" to the end of every single animal, living or extinct, known to zoology and/or palaeontology and put it into a Twitter (sorry, X) search box. So it's possible that at some point in the past I used the word "pterodactylshit" or similar and it's out there un-found by my research.

Note that I have opted for slightly lower-resolution and generally less satisfactory screenshots over direct embedding; this just reflects my lack of faith in the Twitter (sorry, X) platform's long-term survival under the new regime. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

mein drampf

Here is the whisky news. And the whisky news is: I've run out of whisky! Yes, the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label that I've been eking modest dramlets from for a few months has finally bitten the dust, and the cupboard is now officially bare - well, bare of whisky anyway; there's still some coconut rum, some Austrian schnapps in a bottle shaped like a violin and a miniature bottle of Amarula that's almost certainly just yellow dust by now.

Don't panic, though, because Sainsbury's have a few Nectar card offers on, including this bottle of Tullibardine, which I snapped up, partly because it's a distillery that has never featured in this list, though I see I did mention it here in the context of Andy having had some in his whisky cupboard. That was 13 years ago so I'm going to guess it's not there any more. 

Tullibardine has had an interesting history despite being founded as recently as 1949 - mothballed in 1995, it was revived in 2003 and offers, as many distilleries do these days, a bewildering variety of different finishes. The one I have here is the entry-level one, called Sovereign for no readily apparent reason, and finished in the relatively orthodox surroundings of ex-bourbon casks. 

The distillery is in Blackford, just down the road from the Gleneagles hotel and golf complex, so it's in the Highland region. That doesn't of itself tell you much about what to expect as there's a wide variation in the region from the smoky delights of Ardmore to the rich cakey goodness of Clynelish and Dalmore, Ben Nevis and Oban on the west coast and the lighter stuff like Glenmorangie and Glengoyne

As it happens if you didn't know better you might assume this was a generic Speysider very much in the vein of many previous featurees here like Tomatin, Speyburn, Knockando and Glenlivet. It's quite pale (no cryptic foreign-language disclaimers here), with the usual whiff of magic markers (like most no-age-statement varieties there's probably some quite young whisky in it) but also some marzipan and just a suspicion of something a bit vegetable-y; nothing on the scale of the Tobermory, though. 

Have a taste and it's slightly less sweet than you might expect but otherwise not much out of the ordinary going on; it's a very pleasant sipping whisky but it's not going to blow your socks off.

One odd thing you might notice is the heavy featuring of the number 1488 on the packaging and indeed on the distillery building itself. This is intended to be a reference to the visit of James IV of Scotland to the site (a brewery at the time) in that year, presumably to get a few tinnies in for a weekend with the boys. A couple of related comments: firstly this is a bit of claiming association with some largely unrelated historical date that's even more cheeky than the Loch Lomond one, secondly that number is famous in internet circles for having other connotations, connotations that you might decide you didn't want any chance of your product being tainted by association with. Put it another way, if you meet someone with a prominent "1488" tattoo somewhere on their body, it probably doesn't denote their enthusiasm for Tullibardine whisky and approaching with caution might be advisable.

Monday, October 30, 2023

the last book I read

Transit by Rachel Cusk.

We are back in the company of the protagonist of Outline. Or, rather, not really in her company, since one of the defining features of Outline was that the story was told primarily through the narrator's interactions with other people and in general we learnt more about them than about her.

You'll recall that in the first book our narrator (a writer) was heading abroad to deliver a writing course, partly as a means of escaping her disastrous domestic life including the recent collapse of her marriage. In Transit she has returned to the UK and is attempting to pull the frayed ends of her life back together, principally by buying a new house in London and having it extensively renovated. 

You'll also recall that in the first book we were invited to construct a picture of the protagonist by some sort of process of deduction from a series of episodes largely featuring other people. So here we get a series of episodes of varying length featuring:

  • the narrator's ex-lover, Gerard, who she runs into on the street shortly after moving into her new house, and who by contrast with her has lived in exactly the same house since he was a boy;
  • her neighbours in her new house, in particular the older couple who occupy the basement flat and who pound on the ceiling with a broom handle at the slightest sound from above, something you'd have assumed only happened in 1970s sitcoms;
  • the series of builders she employs to renovate the place, principally a couple of Albanians who are responsible for most of the work, most of it loud and invasive and destructive, which doesn't go down too well with the neighbours, as you can imagine;
  • her hairdresser, Dale (gay, obviously), struggling to make the transition from out-every-night fabulousness to middle-aged domesticity in front of the TV with the slippers on;
  • two fellow writers, Julian and Louis, at a literary event;
  • a writing student, Jane, in possession of a gargantuan set of notes for an unwritten novel featuring American painter Marsden Hartley but with no idea what to do with them;
  • her friend Amanda, trying to persuade her on-off live-in lover Gavin to commit to some sort of permanent relationship;
  • finally, a lengthy set-piece over dinner at the house of her cousin Lawrence, who has recently left his wife to set up house with another woman, Eloise, and which is punctuated with several awkward moments mainly prompted by various children who have been allowed to stay up and participate in dinner with the adults.

As with the first book, the idea is that these episodes cast some sort of reflected light on the narrator's own life, which at a surface level mainly consists of book promotion duties, overseeing house renovation activities and fielding occasional phone calls from her two sons, who are staying at their father's house while their mother's is uninhabitable. I'm not sure that they really do that - her motivations for any of the things she does are as opaque at the end of the novel as at the start; we never get any sense of what prompted the break-up of her marriage, for instance. 

So on the one hand the narrator is dimly glimpsed, inscrutable and, most unforgivably of all, seemingly completely devoid of humour of any sort - some of the reviews specifically use the word "funny" in relation to the writing but I emphatically don't see it. On the other hand the little sketches and anecdotes by which we get our glimpses into her life are so brilliantly written (with the exception of the climactic dinner-party one, which goes on a bit) that it's relatively easy to forgive. Once again her name, Faye, is mentioned exactly once (caveat: I haven't checked definitively) during the course of the book, in this case by a man who she goes on a dinner date with, has a conversation with resembling in no way whatsoever how actual humans speak to each other, and who she may be embarking on a relationship with, but it's couched in such vague terms it's hard to tell.

Overall this is probably a better book than Outline, although it doesn't have that book's advantage of the stylistic tricks being fresh and new. The trilogy is completed by Kudos, which will probably be about right as much more in the same vein might start to tip the balance from admiration at the writing to annoyance at the narrator's self-absorption and humourlessness and lack of inclination to seize control of her own narrative.

Monday, October 23, 2023

the last book I read

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

War - war is stupid; and people are stupid. Just a few of the thoughts that pass through the mind of Inman (no, not that one), a wounded Confederate soldier, as he recuperates in a hospital in North Carolina during the American Civil War. Having witnessed unimaginable horrors while fighting for a cause he never particularly believed in, and narrowly avoiding death after being shot in the neck, he decides that he's not especially happy about being wheeled straight back into the arena of combat once his wounds have healed, the only alternative being a slow and malodorous death from some form of gangrenous infection like some of his ward-mates.

So, all in all, Inman deems it preferable to take up his meagre pack of possessions, pop his boots on and make a sharp exit from the hospital to trek back across the state to his former home and Ada Monroe, the woman he left there when the war started.

Aaaaand CUE wibbly-wobbly dissolve to Ada, back home on her farm in another part of North Carolina, grappling with the inconvenient recent death of her father, a religious minister, and the realisation that he has kept her in such a sheltered state of arrested development that she has no idea how to begin running the place in his absence. Fortunately her neighbours take pity on her and send her Ruby, a young woman looking for a home who also happens to be exceptionally knowledgeable about farming and various other practical matters, fiercely independent and absolutely not prepared to have Ada sit around on the verandah drinking mint juleps and reading poetry while she does all the work. Ruby takes charge of matters in a fairly terrifying manner and soon Ada is helping to plough fields, milk cows, sow various crops and wring the neck of the occasional chicken.

Lest that start to resemble some North Carolina version of The Good Life we return to Inman, not having such a good time of it: constantly aware of needing to keep a low profile to avoid attracting the attention of the Confederate Home Guard, he is reluctant to take on any travelling companions, and as soon as he acquires one, loud-mouthed preacher Veasey, they make an ill-advised stop at a stranger's house and are immediately betrayed and taken captive. Their captors pretty soon realise that dragging a string of tethered, demoralised and exhausted men around is a monumental pain in the neck and decide instead to just dig a ditch and shoot the lot of them. Thanks to Veasey, who inadvertently slows down and diverts a bullet so that it only catches him a glancing blow, Inman survives to continue his journey.

Not without further incident, though: firstly Inman comes across a hermit woman living in a caravan in the woods who feeds him, tends to his neck wound and sends him on his way, and then later he receives further kindness from a young woman, Sara, a war widow with a baby, kindness he repays by helping her with some tasks around the house like wood-chopping and chicken-strangling. Fair exchange, he thinks, but then the situation quickly becomes complicated when some Union soldiers arrive, terrorise her and the baby and make off with all her livestock. Inman could of course just head off up the road at this point but he feels obliged to pursue the men, dispense some brutal hot lead-y justice and return Sara's rightful possessions to her, things that could make the difference between surviving the winter and not.

Meanwhile Ada and Ruby have been continuing to lick the farm into shape, interrupted only by the arrival of two wandering minstrels from off the nearby mountain, the older of whom, called Stobrod, turns out to be Ruby's father, a pretty useless absent parent when Ruby was growing up but now apparently partly mellowed by age. Ruby is warily tolerant of their occasional appearances but draws the line at allowing them to stay at the farm, and it is on one of their weary re-ascents of the mountain's lower slopes that they encounter a patrol and are summarily put up against a poplar tree and shot. Ada and Ruby trek up the mountain to see what has happened, find Stobrod's companion dead and Stobrod himself not quite dead and take him to a nearby ruined village to recuperate. It is while they are here, in the middle of a snowstorm, that Inman finally returns, and, after a brief Mexican stand-off where neither recognises the other, he and Ada are reunited. Ada reassures Ruby, who is a bit spiky about the whole situation, that this doesn't mean she'll be banished from the farm, and she and Inman find a secluded cabin to do some getting reacquainted, by which I mean fucking.

So all's well that ends well, then? Weeeeeell, not quite, as the patrol that attempted to dispatch Stobrod returns after Ada and Ruby have gone ahead to the farm and Inman has to try and make sure that they don't follow them. Clearly this is going to involve less persuasion via nuanced argument and more HOT LEAD, and who knows who's going to catch a bullet.

Cold Mountain is probably more famous these days for its 2003 film adaptation. I've never seen it, but from what clips I've seen Renée Zellweger was pretty good value for her Oscar for playing Ruby, and Jude Law is a bit too pretty for Inman. 

Pretty clearly we're meant to bring to mind The Odyssey while reading this, but the obvious trajectory of the story arc towards Inman and Ada being reunited (albeit, as it turns out, fairly briefly) at the end kills a bit of the suspense during Inman's travels in particular. While it's evident that various indignities and hardships will be visited on him, and any of the people he meets along the way could be arbitrarily killed, he will make it back to Cold Mountain to be reunited with Ada. Same goes for Ada, who spends most of the novel getting to grips with farming in company with the endlessly resourceful and inexhaustible Ruby - you would think that word might get around that two women are running a large and valuable farm on their own and that someone might choose to, you know, pay them a visit, but they are left pretty well alone.

Those nitpicks aside it's a thoroughly entertaining read, and Inman, Ada and Ruby are engaging central characters. In terms of novels taking the American Civil War as their central subject it's certainly more grittily adjacent to the grime and gore and hardship than the other recent novel on this list, Days Without End.

Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997, other winners featured here include The Wapshot Chronicle, The Moviegoer, The Shipping News, The Corrections and The Underground Railroad.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

spaghetti alla carbonfibre

I see I didn't do a stats update in the wake of Europe's demoralising defeat in the 2021 Ryder Cup, so I guess a catch-up is in order in the wake of Europe's glorious victory in the 2023 edition.

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Days Singles Overall
Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA Fri Sat Eur USA Eur USA
1979 3 5 2½-5½ 5-3 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4½-3½ 1-7 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 4½-3½ 3½-4½ 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 3½-4½ 5½-2½ 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 6-2 4½-3½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5-3 4-4 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 3½-4½ 4½-3½ 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 4½-3½ 4-4 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 5-3 4-4 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4½-3½ 6-2 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 6-2 4-4 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 4½-3½ 3½-4½ 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 6½-1½ 4½-3½ 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 5-3 5-3 18½
2008 7 9 2½-5½ 4½-3½ 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 n/a n/a 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 3-5 3-5 14½ 13½
2014 7 1 3 5 10 6 5-3 5-3 16½ 11½
2016 4 4 3-5 3½-4½ 11 17
2018 6 2 4 4 10 6 5-3 5-3 17½ 10½
2021 2 6 3 5 5 11 2-6 3-5 4 8 9 19
2023 7 1 10½ 6½-1½ 4-4 6 6 16½ 11½
Totals 93½ 82½ 93½ 82½ 187 165 92½-75½ 87-81 125 139 312 304

So one thumping win for the USA and one slightly less thumping win for Europe leaves the overall balance of the stats relatively unaffected. A couple of statistical nuggets to tease out of this year's:

  • the 7-1 result in Europe's favour in the foursomes mirrors the record margin (also in Europe's favour) from 2014;
  • slightly surprisingly, the 6-6 tie in the singles is the first one in the history of the event in its current form;
  • Europe continue to be slightly better than the USA in both the doubles formats, interestingly the extra columns I've added show they also do best on day one, Friday, with the margin narrowing significantly on the Saturday. The missing year, 2010, was the occasion of some catastrophic weather which necessitated a Monday finish and rendered all that by-day analysis meaningless;
  • winning both days of the doubles is quite unusual, even in matches that were relatively one-sided overall: Europe in 1987, 1997, 2004, 2006, 2014 and 2018; USA in 2012, 2016 and 2021. Of those years, only Europe in 2004, 2006, 2014 and 2018 and USA in 2016 and 2021 went on to also win Sunday's singles. 2012 at Medinah is unique in that a team won both days of the doubles competition and still lost overall.

Of course the key question here is: after all the doom and gloom at Whistling Straits, how did Europe turn it around to win? There are a few competing theories: some mystery illness affecting the USA team, rumblings over money, questionable USA preparation. There is also the question of the impact of the absent LIV golfers - USA had two LIV players absent who'd been in the 2021 team (Johnson and DeChambeau) whereas Europe had five (Garcia, Casey, Wiesberger, Poulter, Westwood) so in theory it ought to have had more of an impact on Europe. On the other hand at least four of those Europeans were coming to the end of long careers, and maybe an enforced end to their Ryder Cup participation actually had a beneficial effect?

All of this probably ignores the elephant in the room, which is that home advantage has become disproportionate. It has always been significant, with only six of the twenty-two modern tournaments resulting in away wins, but it's getting more so with only one of the last nine (Medinah again). As I sort-of predicted last time, five of the 2023 USA team (Scheffler, Clark, Schauffele, Morikawa, Burns) weren't born the last time they won a Ryder Cup on European soil. I agree with the sentiments expressed here: a few really tight finishes and the occasional away win would benefit the tournament as a whole.

Monday, October 02, 2023

the last book I read

All That Follows by Jim Crace.

Leonard Lessing is a jazz saxophonist. Pretty cool, right, only he's more of a former/lapsed jazz saxophonist at the moment as he's taking an extended sabbatical for various reasons: a painful frozen shoulder, the sudden disappearance of his twentysomething step-daughter after a domestic quarrel, a drying-up of musical inspiration, general ennui and disinclination to leave the house.

This causes some slight friction with his sparky wife, Francine, who first met him in the aftermath of one of his most triumphant gigs and has found settling into the "real" Leonard a slight anti-climax. I mean, Francine is a sensible woman and knows that you can't be up there ripping out a complex tootly jazz solo the whole time, but has nonetheless found it a bit frustrating putting up with what she perceives as Leonard's indecisiveness and timidity, especially as he's now at home getting underfoot all the time.

So when an item come on the news describing a terrorist siege at a house not far from where Leonard and Francine live, Leonard's interest is piqued, especially when he recognises the apparent terrorist ringleader as a man called Maxim Lermontov, a former acquaintance of his from nearly 20 years previously when Leonard had some ideas of being a political activist, and spent some time over in Texas with "Maxie" and his girlfriend Nadia. Typically, while Maxie and Nadia were wholly committed to the cause to the extent of being prepared to be arrested and imprisoned for disturbing a speech by former First Lady Laura Bush, Lennie chooses to keep his head down and slope off back to England rather than speak up.

Skulking around the suburbs near the police cordon that surrounds the siege, Lennie has a chance encounter with Maxie and Nadia's daughter Lucy, and, after they've been chatting for a while, she proposes a hare-brained scheme: what if they fake her kidnapping and use that (i.e. the prospect of securing his own daughter's safety) as bargaining power to persuade Maxie to bring his own siege to an end? In the heat of the moment (and after a couple of glasses of wine in a pub garden) Lennie agrees this is a terrific idea but, typically, cools off on the idea once he sobers up a bit and sees all the obvious problems with it.

Lennie's not off the hook, though, because Lucy, evidently still under the impression it's a great idea, goes through with the plan, and pretty soon the police pop round wanting to know the significance of these phone records they have which show calls between Lucy and Lennie in the last few days. Lennie manages to persuade them that he hasn't got Lucy bound and gagged in his attic, but Francine, in the dark up to now, wants some answers, and fast. Once these are provided (incorporating a lengthy flashback to Austin, Texas in 2006 and Lennie's rather farcical brush with political activism) Francine insists that they go and seek out Nadia to reassure here that Lucy is most likely OK. 

Not only do they manage to do this but Francine and Nadia spark up a friendship and Lennie manages to get himself into the right place at the right time to witness the end of the siege, albeit at the cost of getting knocked about a bit by the police. Every cloud, though, as the resulting internet celebrity results in a spike of interest in his back catalogue and a demand for some new gigs. Not only that but some of Lennie's endless meanderings on the internet during his fallow period come belatedly to fruition as well as Francine's daughter is located and tentative steps are taken towards a reconciliation.

This is the fifth Jim Crace book on this list, after Arcadia, The Gift Of Stones, The Pesthouse and Harvest. Of all those it's the one most recognisably set in our own mundane "real world" with the internet, bacon sandwiches, dishwashers and all that stuff, although, typically for Crace, given a slightly disorienting twist even then: published in 2010, it's set in what must be 2024 or 2025 and in a slightly more authoritarian surveillance state than the one we currently inhabit: I used the shorthand "the police" a couple of paragraphs up but actually the people Lennie and Francine get a visit from are agents of some slightly shadowy National Security agency. A bit like William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms this feels like an established "literary" novelist having a crack at something sort of resembling a thriller. It doesn't really work on those terms, to be honest, as there's precious little tension involved and the end of the siege is a bit of an anti-climax. I mean, that's how these things happen in real life, but thriller convention would demand Maxie get his big moment and go out in a blaze of glory or something. By contrast, rather like in Unless, the sub-plot involving a missing child is resolved a bit more neatly than plausibility would dictate, but Lennie and Francine are appealing central characters and you feel entitled to expect things to work out for them.

This feels like a fairly minor Jim Crace novel compared with The Pesthouse, Harvest and Quarantine, but there's plenty to like about it anyway. Crace did claim that he was going to retire from novel-writing after his next book, Harvest in 2013, but seems to have since changed his mind. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

the last book I read

Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks.

Meet Sharrow. She only has the one name because she is a Proper Lady, descendant of a noble family from the planet of Golter. It's not all croquet and cucumber sandwiches, though, as the family has seen some hard times - Sharrow herself in the novel's prologue watches her mother being assassinated and only escapes a similar fate herself by jumping out of a cable car. Sharrow's father then gambles away most of the family fortune in various casinos, there is a falling-out with Sharrow's cousin Geis and half-sister Breyguhn (largely as a result of a slightly incest-y love triangle) and Sharrow decides to bail out and join the army, eventually ending up as part of a crack team of mercenaries linked together at a near-telepathic level by some druggy neurological trickery.

In semi-retirement after all that excitement, Sharrow is obliged to take on One Last Mission. This one is prompted by the news that there's a religious cult, the Huhsz, whose rather niche belief system (but, then, aren't they all) involves the conviction that the end of Sharrow's family line will be the event which triggers some sort of Rapture/Second Coming thing, and moreover are taking a commendably hands-on attitude to bringing that moment about by taking out a contract on her life. Sharrow's options are basically try and hide for the year it takes for the contract to expire, or try to retrieve the last of the Lazy Guns, unimaginably, apocalyptically powerful weapons which the cult have some sort of attachment to, and either hand it over in exchange for her life, or use it to cook some fools.

Anyway, Sharrow has to get busy getting the old team back together, as well as visiting the bizarre religious order (not the Huhsz, a different one) where Breyguhn currently resides, because they know something of the whereabouts of an ancient religious tract which in turn holds some information about the whereabouts of the last Lazy Gun. Sharrow's own grandfather, Gorko, is involved here in some way as he colluded in the hiding of all this stuff in the first place and, it is theorised, only someone sharing some of his genetic material can gain access to the final resting place of the gun and answer some questions about swallows and coconuts or something. 

So the group (all crack soldiers and deadly assassins in their own right, which is handy) head off, locate the book, decipher the cryptic clues within which point to the Lazy Gun's location, and head off to find it. Not without some mishaps, though: in particular Sharrow seems to have acquired some sort of brain implant which allows people with the right equipment to inflict pain on her if, for instance, they wish to persuade her to act in a certain way, or discourage her from doing certain things. 

The Lazy Gun turns out to be in some sort of Forbidden Zone - I know, no shit, right - and in the course of trying to get to its location most of Sharrow's colleagues die. Sharrow herself only gets to her destination with the help of a useful android she's met along the way. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that several other parties have an interest in the Lazy Gun and a battle occurs, which Sharrow flees (with the Lazy Gun) on a conveniently-available giant armoured monowheel with, also conveniently, no apparent need ever to refuel. Sharrow and the android take the Lazy Gun back across the planet to the religious order's castle (no, not the Huhsz, the other one) only to find that cousin Geis, crazed with unrequited semi-incestuous love for her, is behind most of the Bad Stuff that's been happening. Needless to say it All Kicks Off at this point and the Lazy Gun finally gets an opportunity to show what it can do.

Against A Dark Background is the first non-Culture Iain M Banks novel, published in 1993, between Use Of Weapons and Excession, the third and fourth Culture novels. Banks evidently worked hard to establish some differences from the Culture novels - we're still on other planets with alien technology well in advance of our own, but there is none of the sense of technology as a liberating force here; it's just providing people with ever-more-efficient ways of maiming and killing each other. The key to understanding Against A Dark Background is that, like Use Of Weapons, it's a reworking of some early Banks material (from the mid-1970s in this case), and, in my view anyway, shares some of its faults - lots of fractured timeline tricksiness, far too much going on with the plot and therefore far too many unresolved loose ends, and, above all, a downbeat ending that just prompts a bit of head-scratching and a quizzical Is That It?

Part of the problem here is the conceit of the Lazy Gun itself: Banks obviously thought it was hilarious - a weapon that randomly destroys your enemies by poofing some random shit in from another dimension like a T. Rex, a 16-ton weight, a helmet full of bees, just seemingly whatever the Gun itself deemed whimsical (but also deadly). Two problems with this, really, firstly it's very silly and doesn't really fit into a gritty and violent sci-fi novel, and secondly Banks doesn't follow through on it properly - when the Gun finally gets unleashed in the castle when Geis and Sharrow are having their climactic fight at the end all it does is blow holes in the walls, rather than summon a swimming pool full of shaving foam or a plague of tap-dancing hamsters. Also, I've never read any Mervyn Peake but even I could see that the vast, rambling, decaying Sea House where the monks live was a bit of a steal from Peake's Gormenghast books. As an example of a loose end, the android, Feril, who plays a key role in the last third or so of the book, is one of the last of his kind because of some kind of Butlerian Jihad prohibiting the manufacture of further androids - no explanation or further detail is ever offered.

Banks' novels are never less than entertaining and full of interesting ideas, but this one (and I'm thinking back to my Culture novel league table here) is probably a mid- to lower-mid-table effort at best. Banks apparently wrote an epilogue which he chose not to include in the book when it was published, but which is available here: it doesn't really add a lot but rounds things off a bit more conclusively than the book does. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

welcome to the machine

Here's an odd thing I noticed yesterday which I surely can't have been the first person to question, and which I'm mildly surprised isn't readily searchable on the internet, what with obsessive Beatles completism being a thing, and people like Mark Lewisohn making an entire career out of cataloguing every aspect of their existence and recorded output. 

As you can imagine there's plenty of Beatle material on YouTube as well, from amusing Beatles-themed quizzes and challenges to all sorts of fascinating micro-analysis, from the rubbishness of the bass-playing on The Long And Winding Road to the identity of the mystery singer on some of the ad lib bits towards the end of All You Need Is Love to the identity of the mystery bass-player(s) on While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It's that last video that caught my eye - not so much for the central topic which is interesting but a bit obscure, but for the flash of a song list (presumably an early one for The White Album) which occurs at about 11:13. There are some handwritten notes in bluish-green felt pen alongside the typed song titles, which appear to give some visual cues for each song, maybe as notes for a planned promotional film or something similar. Anyway, the video pans down the song list and eventually (at around 11:18) we get to a song called What's New Mary Jane. This song is of interest to Beatles obsessives as it didn't make the cut for The White Album and was a "lost" Beatles track for many years until a version (this one entitled What's The New Mary Jane) surfaced on one of the Anthology collections in the mid-1990s. 

Stay with me here, because that's not the interesting bit. Have a look at the note next to the song and you'll see it says "Alexis machine".

A bit odd, right? Most of the other descriptions (the ones immediately above and below, for example) are fairly self-explanatory, so what's this about? And who is this Alexis Machine guy?

First thing to do is establish what this document actually is. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult to do, by which I mean that I'd have assumed that anything even slightly connected with the Beatles would have been obsessively analysed on the internet. This image proves surprisingly tricky to track down, but feeding this Japanese-language web page containing the image through Google Translate reveals that the image was contained in some of the extensive batch of souvenir material issued with the Super Deluxe Edition of the album in 2018. I'm unclear whether this is the same as the 50th anniversary edition, but I assume it probably is. A series of shots of the promotional booklet can be found here and include the image below. No indication as far as I can see whose writing it is - one of the Beatles? George Martin? Someone else?

So what's going on here? Well, I have two things for you. The first thing is that one of the assorted freaks and weirdos who came into the Beatles' orbit in the late 1960s was a guy who they (John Lennon in particular) referred to as Magic Alex. His real name was Yannis Alexis Mardas, and one of the things he did for the Beatles was make electronic machines. He later became head of Apple Electronics, despite having no technical expertise whatsoever; nice work if you can get it. He was also apparently credited as co-writer on early versions of What's The New Mary Jane, before later being removed for some reason. 

So it seems there's a good chance that the phrase is meant to refer to him in some way. But there's another thing: I know the phrase as the name of a character in the book The Dark Half by Stephen King. Well, actually it's not quite as simple as that: the book's principal protagonist, Thad Beaumont, writes violent thrillers under the pen name George Stark, thrillers whose protagonist is called Alexis Machine. 

There's another layer to the (glass) onion here though: King himself, appropriately for a book mainly about writing, borrowed from two other writers for the names of his characters: George Stark is a nod to Donald E. Westlake, who wrote novels under the name Richard Stark, and Alexis Machine is a nod to a character of the same name in a novel called Dark City by Shane Stevens, which seems to be out of print but of which second-hand copies can be had for as little as, erm, 78 quid

So, to recap: it seems plausible that the handwritten note next to a song Magic Alex was (originally) credited as co-writer of is at least partly a reference to him, though the syntax is a bit odd, as it definitely appears to say "Alexis machine" rather than "Alex's machine". If the phrase was specifically meant to be someone's name, though, you'd think they might have capitalised "machine". So is it just a coincidence that the phrase also cropped up as someone's name in a novel? The timeline seems important here: the document would have dated from around 1968, and Dark City was published in 1973. So it's theoretically possible that Stevens saw the document at some point in the intervening five years and thought: oy oy, that'd be a good name for a violent criminal in a hardboiled thriller, I'm nicking that. But how plausible is it that he'd seen something that at the time was just a piece of paper in a studio file? It wasn't part of any White Album packaging until the lavish 2018 reissue as far as I can tell. I'm going to go with: not very plausible at all. But how plausible is it that it was just a coincidence? Well, I haven't done the maths, but that seems a bit implausible as well. Perhaps I'm just resistant to that explanation as it would make the whole thing less interesting.

So it's a mystery. The only person who could have definitively answered the question would be Shane Stevens, whose books I have never read, and if they stay at 78 quid a pop I daresay I never will. Unfortunately we can't ask him, because he died in 2007.

Monday, September 18, 2023

islebrity moomeylikey of the day

In these febrile and uncertain times, a man likes to be able to fall back on certain, well, certainties - the depressing ones like death and taxes, sure, but also the slightly happier stuff like the certain knowledge that if you spend enough time looking at maps you will eventually come across an island that looks like a house, or a horse, or a cock, or a horse cock, or one of any number of other amusing things. 

I think I spotted the thing I'm about to share with you while watching this video about fascinating border anomalies in Australia, including the excellent snippet that despite Tasmania being an island, it and Victoria share a land border, albeit a very short one. While the whole video is worth a watch, the thing that caught my eye did so very early at about 11 seconds in, and it is this: the largest island in the Bass Strait, Flinders Island, situated off the north-east corner of Tasmania, closely resembles one of Tove Jansson's Moomins. See for yourself:

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

plague for today

As unpleasant as the outbreak described in The Plague was, it seems to have been a fairly small and localised outbreak by historical standards, and we seem to be invited to infer that the medical efforts of Dr. Rieux and others have kept it fairly well contained. Not so for many of the continent-scale ravagings that have occurred throughout history, though, and one thing that you do get a sense of from reading something like Wikipedia's list of historical pandemics is the constant battle humanity has waged against wave upon wave of tiny creatures intent on swarming up our various orifices and making us cough, sneeze, vomit and shit out our assorted life essences and precious fluids until we are dead.

Everyone knows about the Black Death, of course, and that is the big cheese, the pandemic by which other pandemics are judged, wiping out up to 50% of the population of Europe and up to 200 million people around the world, and don't forget that was back in the mid-14th century when 200 million people was a lot of people. What you learn from looking at the chronological list in particular, though, is that our view of things is a bit Euro-centric and that Mexico in the 16th century in particular was ABSOLUTELY FUCKED by a series of outbreaks of various ghastly things. Add together the numbers from the smallpox epidemic of 1520 (which knocked off 40% of the population), and the cocoliztli epidemics of 1545 (80% of the population) and 1576 (50% of the population) and you find that approximately 170% of the population died over a period of 50-odd years, which, if my maths is correct, means that some people must have died more than once, just to add insult to injury. The graph reproduced below (from the Wikipedia page linked above) tells a heck of a story.

Anyway, Camus' inspiration for the outbreak in The Plague was supposedly the cholera pandemic of the 1840s, although ironically there was a minor outbreak of your actual plague in Oran in 1944, around the time he was writing the novel. Just to demonstrate the never-ending nature of the struggle there was also an outbreak in the same place as recently as 2003

On to happier things now: The Plague is the latest in a list of books featured on this blog which have titles of the form The X, where X is a single word. There were 21 of these when I mentioned it last; there are now 28. Here is an alphabetised list. The Go-Between is a borderline case, but I'll allow it. 

  • The Accidental
  • The Affirmation
  • The Anatomist
  • The Circle
  • The Conservationist
  • The Corrections
  • The Dinner
  • The Dispossessed
  • The Double
  • The Falls
  • The Fermata
  • The Gathering
  • The Go-Between
  • The Godfather
  • The Hunter
  • The Illusionist
  • The Innocent
  • The Lacuna
  • The Levels
  • The Moviegoer
  • The Other
  • The Overstory
  • The Pesthouse
  • The Plague
  • The Redeemer
  • The Road
  • The Sea
  • The Waterfall

the last book I read

The Plague by Albert Camus.

Welcome to Oran, on the north coast of Algeria. Hot, isn't it? But you can always have a dip in the sea, and after that there's all the houmous you can eat. There is a small problem, admittedly: all the rats in the town have died and we're not sure why. Also, people seem to be getting sick with these weird black lumps all over them. Buuuuut, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. Have another kebab!

Wait, no, actually things are getting a bit serious and it looks like we actually do have an outbreak of bubonic plague on our hands here. So, as an unfortunate consequence, some pretty severe restrictions are going to have to be imposed on people entering and, in particular, leaving the city. That goes for everyone, even if you'd only popped over from the next town to drop off a lawnmower or something. 

The daily case numbers continue to increase, well beyond the capacity of the few medical professionals in the town to cope with, and even eventually beyond the capacity of the cemeteries to accommodate, and so bodies are just dumped in massive pits and covered with quicklime. 

Yes, yes, you'll be saying; I get the idea, but a faceless parade of ravaged bloated corpses only goes so far. Let's meet some actual, ideally living, people. So here's Dr. Rieux, gamely trying to keep up with the constant stream of patients, many of whom he can do nothing for other than make them comfortable and let nature take its course. He lives with his mother, his wife having gone out of town before the pandemic to be treated for some other (unspecified) medical condition. Dr. Rieux is a resolutely unheroic type, but nonetheless presses on doing what must be done, including organising civilian medical squads to relieve the qualified medical people of some of the burden and carry out basic logistical tasks. One of his volunteers here is Tarrou, motivated to acts of public service by his father, a prominent judge, and his keen advocacy of the death penalty. Another is Rambert, initially inclined to try to escape the town to be reunited with his fiancée, but ultimately unable to square such an act with his conscience.

Others react to the pandemic in different ways. Cottard, already possibly under suspicion for acts of violence outside the town, and having survived a suicide attempt in the early days of the plague, takes advantage of the breakdown of the normal channels of commerce to make a killing doing some shady black market selling, and then, when the plague starts to recede, anticipates being arrested for his prior crimes (whatever they were) and holes himself up in his apartment with a gun. Meanwhile Father Paneloux views the whole thing as God's judgment on his flock for not being devout enough, not donating enough to the collection plate, wanking too much, or something like that.

Anyway, the plague runs its course, as these things eventually do - Tarrou succumbs to it right at the end but Rieux survives, although he hears that his wife has died. Those in the town who have survived contemplate a return to normal life, in the knowledge that the plague is only lying dormant, ready to pop up again at some point in the future.

First thing to say here is yes, of course this can be read as an allegory of French occupation by the Nazis during World War II - Camus wrote it during the war and it was published in 1947. I think the non-allegorical reading where it's just a story of human reaction to some extreme circumstances probably resonates more now than it would have done, say, four years ago. The business of restrictions on movement, not being able to see loved ones, even in their final moments, and the general feeling of claustrophobia and powerlessness will be very familiar to anyone who lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, even if the disease itself was a bit less deadly to those who caught it.

One thing that struck me as I read the last paragraph was how similar it was to the last paragraph of Ian McEwan's Black Dogs, another novel that uses its ostensible subject matter as a metaphor for past and future existential threats to freedom. Decide for yourself:

I suspect it's almost impossible that McEwan wasn't familiar with The Plague when he wrote Black Dogs in 1992, so I'm going to conclude that the echo must have been deliberate. I see I've mentioned this before, so I won't dwell on it, but despite it being generally regarded as a minor item in his oeuvre I think Black Dogs might be my favourite McEwan of all. 

Anyway, back to The Plague, which I enjoyed very much; it tells a pretty simple story in a pretty simple and unadorned way, a story which despite the undoubtedly deliberate allegorical stuff can just be read "straight" without losing much (and, as I said above, has extra resonance now). Any reference to Camus' writing style being very readable, which it is, must acknowledge that The Plague was originally written in French and therefore part of the credit must go to the translator, Robin Buss. Anyway, don't be put off by Camus' literary reputation or the apparent grimness of the subject matter.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

feel the freeze down in my knees

A few thoughts on the recent death of Robbie Robertson, principal songwriter and guitarist with The Band and occasional previous featuree on this blog. Just as with Arnold Palmer there's a contrarian HOT TAKE that one might offer among all the people queueing up to offer praise and adulation, so let's put that out there first and then we can poke it around a bit.

So The Band's principal claim to fame is by association, specifically by association with Bob Dylan, whose backing band they were for a year or two around 1965/1966, just when he was at his peak of popularity and notoriety. Once they were a band in their own right (and their name, The Band, has a bit of faux-humble arrogance about it) their recording career as a group of significance lasted, at a push, a little over two years and three albums. Always a tight and compelling live band, they were mainly a touring entity for the remainder of their career until their farewell concert in San Francisco in December 1976, which, in a colossal act of cocaine-fuelled vanity and hubris, Robertson got his new showbiz chum Martin Scorsese to film and release as The Last Waltz. Having, as a consequence of his friendship with Scorsese, some control over the edit, Robertson made sure he came out of the film in the best light and got enough camera time on stage to ensure the rest of the band came across as his sidemen, even the vocalists, and buffed up some of his own performances (in particular the famous guitar duel with Eric Clapton) with judicious overdubbing. A shrewd businessman and a man of more ruthless self-control regarding drink and drug intake than most of his bandmates, Robertson also took a stranglehold on the songwriting credits, ensuring he came out of The Band's career considerably richer than all the others. A few solo projects and some lucrative film scoring work (much of it in collaboration with Scorsese) aside Robertson has spent much of the intervening 45 years or so buffing and re-telling his own legend, studiously ignoring his erstwhile bandmates' reformation without him, a venture only curtailed by their various premature demises

Whoa, you might say, that's a bit harsh, to which I would say: yes, of course it is, that was the whole point. My personal and slightly dimly-remembered experience with Robertson and The Band's music goes something like this: at some point during the late 1980s, almost certainly as a result of reading an article in Q magazine around the time of Robertson's debut solo album (which came out in 1987) I checked out a VHS copy of The Last Waltz from our local video shop and watched it. Around the same time I started at Bristol University and acquired a copy of The Band's 1968 debut album Music From Big Pink from the Fry Haldane record library (mentioned in relation to REM here). That remains a fabulously strange and unique work, largely out of step with the prevailing direction of rock music in 1968, and is, in my opinion, the best thing they ever did. One of the reasons for that is that Robertson's own songs - including The Weight, probably their most famous song - were augmented with some songs by, or co-written with, their erstwhile collaborator Bob Dylan, but also several by pianist and vocalist Richard Manuel (Tears Of Rage, In A Station, We Can Talk, and the admittedly dreary Lonesome Suzie). Arguably, it was the drop-off in Manuel's songwriting contributions hereafter that enabled Robertson to take control of things - Manuel was a more diffident character and a ferocious drug addict and alcoholic, none of which would have helped. His near-invisibility in the film of The Last Waltz is apparently largely a consequence of his pitiful drunkenness for the entirety of the concert. 

I retain something of a soft spot for Robertson's eponymous 1987 solo album - one of the first CDs I ever bought - but a clear-eyed re-assessment must point out two glaring flaws: firstly Robertson's own vocals, which AllMusic describe as "dry" and "reedy", which is probably fair, and secondly the quintessentially late-1980s feel of Daniel Lanois' production. This album came out within a year or so of Lanois' other two big late-80s albums, Peter Gabriel's So and U2's The Joshua Tree, and HOO BOY you can hear it. Robertson's vocal limitations probably explain why the album's best-known track and unexpected hit single is Somewhere Down The Crazy River, which is largely spoken rather than sung.

The point here is that Robertson and The Band, along with REM, Dylan, Beefheart and others, played a key role in my formative mind-expanding years in terms of music, which basically means listening to stuff that neither my Dad nor my school contemporaries were into. 

Anyway, you want the first two Band albums, definitely, and probably the third, Stage Fright. If you want a live album, 1972's Rock Of Ages is the one, much better than The Last Waltz - alternatively you might go for 1974's Before The Flood which documents The Band's American tour with Dylan that year and gives a high-energy shouty kicking to their collective back catalogue. The Last Waltz movie is well worth a watch as a historical document, though, although its portentous self-regard is a bit grating at times. Oddly, Robertson's death means that the Band's oldest member, Garth Hudson, is now its sole survivor.