Thursday, June 22, 2023

what the hell am I doing golfing in LA

The recently-concluded US Open at the Los Angeles Country Club followed, in some ways, a familiar pattern for recent major golf championships: hey, Rory's in contention, can he hold it together on the last day, push on and finally win a first major since 2014 - erm, no.

One way in which it didn't conform to the typical pattern for US Opens was the low scoring, particularly on day one. In particular, there were two leaders who posted a score of eight under par, which given the typically miserly US Open par score of 70 means that they posted rounds of 62, which, as I'm sure you'll know, equals the major championship scoring record. As I'm sure you'll also recall there was a period of 44 years where the major championship scoring record stood at 63, a score first achieved by Johnny Miller at the US Open in 1973 and equalled no fewer than 30 times subsequently before finally being beaten by Branden Grace at the Open in 2017. That round collapsed the record list to a single entry before this year's US Open; the rounds of Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele on day one here increase that list to three entries. Note also that just as the old list had a 24-7 split in favour of a round of 63 not winning you the tournament, none of the three 62s posted so far got its owner over the winning line either.

Branden GraceOpen2017thirdtied 6thJordan Spieth
Rickie FowlerUS Open2023firsttied 5thWyndham Clark
Xander SchauffeleUS Open2023firsttied 10thWyndham Clark

Both 62s here were of the standard two-putt-par-on-the-18th variety, which means that both men had a putt for a 61, quite long ones in both cases.

All major rounds of 63 continue to be an irrelevance for the purposes of this list, so Tommy Fleetwood's second major championship round of 63 merits barely a raised eyebrow, both of them having been subsequent to Grace's 62. Even Brooks Koepka's two 63s in successive PGA Championships in 2018 and 2019 only get a shrug and a "so what", even though they both contributed to tournament wins. Rules are rules I'm afraid. Greg Norman and Vijay Singh are the only two men to make multiple 63s while the list was "live".

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

the last book I read

Temples Of Delight by Barbara Trapido.

Alice Pilling's life is pretty good by most people's standards - comfortably-off parents, albeit a bit on the slightly vulgar nouveau riche side prone to occasionally pronouncing French words incorrectly, a nice place at a nice private school for nice girls - but she craves a bit of, I dunno, excitement, even danger. This promptly arrives in the person of Veronica McCrail, known to all her friends as Jem, a tall and confident girl much given to snarky back-sassery to teachers, enthusiasm for works of subversive art and literature and hilarious stories of her hilarious family and their adventures - all pretty transparently bogus, but Alice is a sweet and trusting and gullible type, so it's all good. The two strike up a close, if somewhat mismatched, friendship, which is abruptly terminated when Jem fails to secure a scholarship to continue her studies in the Upper School (the sixth form, basically, or, erm, year thirteen or so in the crazy modern system). 

Alice's continuing academic excellence has her lined up for a place at Oxford, and it's there that she meets with Roland Dent, a local schoolteacher, and they strike up a relationship. While Alice seems quite content to drift along having nice day trips and occasionally hanging out with Roland's schoolboys who are slightly breathlessly intimidated by an Actual Woman, Roland already has some major plans for Alice which culminate in his making her Mrs. Dent. On a trip to the north of England with some of the boys Alice and Roland take some time out for a drive in the countryside, whereupon he makes it clear that they will shortly be parking in a secluded woodland spot so that he can deflower her, whereupon she makes it clear that this will be happening over her dead body and as if to prove the point drives the car off a bridge and into a river.

In the wake of this unsuccessful relationship, and while recuperating from the crash, Alice then enters, perhaps rather rashly, into another relationship with Matthew Riley, the young man who helped to rescue her and Roland from their drowned car. Then, after five years of silence, a letter arrives from Jem with some news: firstly she is in a Catholic hospital in Hampshire dying from cancer, secondly that she is pregnant and due to give birth imminently, and thirdly that she has come into possession of some information about a novel shortly to be published by an American publisher which she believes plagiarises some of her own teenage writings, and wants Alice to deal with it after she's gone.

Dealing with the novel situation involves engaging with Giovanni Angeletti, the American publisher in question, who happens to be in the country and accompanies Alice on a lengthy search for Jem's original manuscript. Once this is found Giovanni takes it upon himself to track down Jem and, having done so just too late to allow Alice to see her again before she dies, drops the bombshell that Jem's dying wish was that Alice be the legal guardian of her (safely delivered) child. 

So Giovanni will now jet off back to America and out of Alice's life, right? Well, no, actually, as in addition to there being a few novel-related (not to mention baby-related) loose ends to tie up, it turns out Giovanni has a non-academic interest in Alice, even after she reveals that she herself is pregnant, presumably as a result of her brief (and now ended) relationship with Matthew. Will Jem's writings ever see the light of day (now under her own name rather than that of the plagiarist)? Will Giovanni still want to make Alice the third Mrs. Angeletti? Will Alice want to become the third Mrs. Angeletti, especially after discovering that both the previous holders of that title died in slightly mysterious circumstances?

Those of you with absurdly long memories will recall that I read Juggling, which is a loose sequel to Temples Of Delight, back in early 2007 (it was the 12th book review on this list, this one being the 370th). Back in those days the reviews were a bit less verbose so I see that I didn't include much in the way of plot detail, but basically it involves Alice's two daughters and their adventures. I don't remember much about it (I mean, it was 16 years ago) but I remember enjoying it greatly, as I have every Barbara Trapido book that I've read (with the possible exception of Frankie & Stankie which I did have some reservations about). Temples Of Delight is no exception, despite the implausibilities of plot - partly this is because some parts of it, and some of the characters, are supposed to mirror the plot and characters of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. You've got to be a bit careful with this to avoid your readers concluding that you're just manoeuvring your characters into situations according to some pre-conceived formula, rather than just letting things happen, but of course if your readers are smart enough to worry about this stuff they'll presumably be smart enough to realise that this is actually how most novels get written anyway, just less transparently. Another similar example on this list is A Thousand Acres which mirrors the structure of Shakespeare's King Lear, and just as there I was not troubled by any particular familiarity with the source material here, which in many ways is probably a good thing.

Anyway, Temples Of Delight is itself a delight to read; I suppose what I would say is if you have the choice it would probably be better to read it and Juggling in the "right" order in order to have the shared narrative flow a bit better. Doesn't really matter, though. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

all the pretty hearses

You'll recall how I, even now only dimly aware of the awesome and terrible power I wield via this blog, joked about how the recent death of Martin Amis wasn't my fault, since I'd never posted a review of any of his books here. Well, just to redress the balance, here's one that definitely is my fault: Cormac McCarthy, who died today aged 89. I did speculate here back in 2013 that given his relatively un-prolific rate of output it was unclear whether we'd get any more novels before the inevitable happened - well, evidently mindful of this, and perhaps conscious that he was pushing his luck time-wise since my review of Blood Meridian appeared here all the way back in July 2009, he had a clearing of the decks in 2022 and knocked out two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris

But the Curse Of Electric Halibut will not be denied, and when it finally took effect McCarthy had clocked up a survival span of just under fourteen years, wresting the previous record from the cold dead hands of Alison Lurie. McCarthy's demise adjusts the average age and curse length values to just over 82 and just under six years respectively.

The Road and No Country For Old Men are the other two novels that appear here, and all three are excellent in their own way. The Road would be The One, though. 

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
Hilary Mantel 22nd October 2010 22nd September 2022 70 11y 338d
Greg Bear 4th October 2021 19th November 2022 71 1y 48d
Russell Banks 4th December 2018 7th January 2023 82 4y 35d
Cormac McCarthy 22nd September 2009 13th June 2023 89 13y 347d

Friday, June 09, 2023

the last book I read

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

There is a woman. A woman with no name. Well, presumably she has a name in her actual life (yes, yes, all right, fictional life) but we're never told what it is. She meets a man, also nameless, and they start up a relationship which eventually leads to marriage and the arrival of a daughter. 

Having children changes the dynamic of the relationship, as it always does, and both parents' concerns shift towards keeping a small person alive and entertained rather than indulging themselves and each other. Moreover, while both have jobs it's the wife ("the wife" is how she's referred to pretty much exclusively for most of the book) who has to make most of the sacrifices to accommodate childcare needs - hey, because patriarchy, amirite, ladies?

So the husband (again, this is how he is referred to, although the story is told exclusively from the wife's point of view) is off at work while the wife is at home watching CBeebies in her slippers. She is a writer and teacher of writing so there is at least the possibility of doing some work during this time, and she does a couple of writing projects, notably a sort of general history of space exploration in collaboration with an ex-astronaut, though she struggles to find a fresh angle on the well-known material. 

Meanwhile hubby is out and about in the office, just hanging out, having lunch with colleagues without a care in the world, and, eventually, having an affair with an attractive young redheaded colleague. I mean I don't want to imply that this is inevitable behaviour; many men (including, just to be clear, me) manage to return to work while their wives are still on maternity leave without feeling the need to put it about relentlessly. The part that probably is inevitable is the part where the wife finds out and is, understandably, not pleased. After an awkward confrontation and a bit of A Scene between the three points of the love triangle outside the husband's office, it is agreed that wife, husband and daughter will uproot from urban New York and try to patch things up in a more rural environment with trees and grass and squirrels and shit.

So far, so meh, you might say: why, this is a perfectly commonplace tale told a thousand times before. There's a couple of answers to that: firstly every tale of conflict and woe has some properties that are uniquely its own, and secondly if you're not going to write a plot-driven heart-pounding arse-quaking thrillathon about sending an army of zombie Hitler clones to reboot the Sun then you might consider doing something interesting and unusual with novel style and structure instead. In this particular case that means the whole novel is written as a series of short paragraphs, many conveying something mostly tangential to the plot but hopefully coalescing into some deeper meaning. 

Ironically this works best in the first half of the book where the tone is much more meandering and discursive; about halfway through the viewpoint shifts from first- to third-person (though still with the wife as the focus) and adopts much more of a linear narrative to describe the marital breakdown. I think this second part is less effective, partly from just being a more orthodox narrative cut up and mucked around with a bit. 

This New York Times review asks the following question about the wife's unwritten second novel, referred to a couple of times in the book:

What is this novel? Why hasn’t it been written?

There is a sense in which one might ask the same question of Dept. Of Speculation itself. It's a very delicate balancing act writing a novel as trimmed of extraneous fat as this: you have to be careful not to trim away so much that you lose a sense of what's actually going on. I should add that this doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it; the structure works pretty well and some of the stuff about childbirth and early-years parenthood is very insightful, and, heck, it's 177 pages of widely-spaced narrow paragraphs so it's very quick to read. 

Thursday, June 01, 2023

the best (and worst) of blondie

Literature and sport are all very well, you'll be saying, but what I really want is to stuff my big fat stupid face with some delicious cakey goodness until I fart. Well, Electric Halibut is here for you. It was my wife's birthday last week and, as is (intermittently) traditional, I concocted some goodies to celebrate. A few highlights from previous years include 2020's chocolate brownie cake, a triumph taste-wise but on an unfeasibly massive scale given that we were occupying at that time a moment in human history where it was uniquely difficult to share any of it with anyone outside the house. We did eventually work our way through all of it but it was quite an epic struggle.

And then there was 2021, where I hatched the idea of making some raspberry and white chocolate blondies instead, but in my hurry to get things in the oven (as it was rather late in the evening) made the elementary mistake of omitting all of the flour from the recipe, resulting in the ungodly oily lumpy (and needless to say inedible) goop pictured here. 

Then in 2022 we were in the throes of just having moved house and having to do quite a bit of unexpected junk clearance before getting our stuff organised how we wanted it, so I granted myself a cake amnesty and went and bought one from the shop instead. It was very nice, but to my taste a bit too sweet; then again I can't even remember to put flour in a cake so what the fuck do I know.

Anyway, I wasn't about to let 2021's failure define me as a man, a husband, and a cook, so I decided that 2023 was the year that we would finally crack the definitive blondie recipe. And I firmly believe that this is it. Note that it is largely derived from this recipe, with a bit of scaling-up of amounts to fit my 9" by 13" brownie tin and a bit of adjustment of proportions to accommodate the raspberries (which the original recipe doesn't have) and ensure it's not too absurdly sweet.

  • 250 g unsalted butter
  • 250 g white chocolate
  • 125 g white granulated sugar
  • 125 g light brown soft sugar
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 250 g plain flour
  • 200 g white chocolate chips
  • 50g fresh raspberries, chopped

Melt the butter and chocolate together (I used the microwave; a bowl over a pan of water would work just as well) mix it all up, add the sugar and eggs, mix some more, stir in the flour (if you're using an electric mixer, do this bit with a spoon first to avoid being engulfed in a mushroom cloud) and then the raspberries and chocolate chips (don't use the electric mixer at all here or you will end up with a uniformly pink cake with no raspberry bits in it).

That should give you a thick but still pourable batter which you can pour into a paper-lined brownie/traybake tin and put in an oven at around 180C/gas mark 4 for about 20-25 minutes. As with the brownies you want a slight wobble in the middle when you take them out. Let them cool and then put them in the fridge (overnight is good), then cut into smallish squares (they're pretty rich). You'll find the edge squares are a bit more cakey while the ones from the middle have a denser, rawer texture.

Anyway, they were exceptionally well-received and disappeared pretty quickly, helped by us being away for the weekend with another family of five. Where were those guys back in 2020 to help with the monster brownie cake? Well, locked in their house, obviously, but you take my point.