Monday, July 31, 2023

the last book I read

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson.

We're in the Florida Keys - ah, you'll be saying, that's nice, lots of sun, some nice seafood, maybe some trips out to the mainland to visit Miami and the Everglades. Well I've got news for you, buddy - there's been a nuclear apocalypse and Miami is a blasted charcoal wasteland and the Everglades are an irradiated hellscape populated by barely-human mutants. A small contingent of surviving humans holds out in Key West, or as it's now known, Twicetown, its new name (and the fact of its continuing existence) deriving from the landing of two nuclear warheads on it but neither exploding. The surviving missiles and the warheads they carry are now objects of quasi-religious reverence, with, you would hope, some instructions to those making a pilgrimage to see them not to go poking them with a fork or anything.

Yeah, but what about the seafood? Well, fish do still exist, and people do still go out in boats to capture them, although the percentage of many-headed Lovecraftian monstrosities among the catch is a fair bit higher than it used to be, and there is an associated risk to the fishermen. Like much in the book, this is never explained in very much detail - is it just that the rickety nature of the technology makes the whole fishing venture inherently more risky than before? Is there something lurking out in the depths, or some new weather phenomenon, that occasionally claims people? Is there some unspoken mutual agreement that a sacrifice to the sea occasionally needs to be made?

Most of our time here is spent in the company of Fiskadoro, a boy in his early teens, whose father, Jimmy Hidalgo, just happens to be a mate on a fishing boat and, moreover, just happens to go on a fishing trip roughly halfway through the book from which he never returns. 

Fiskadoro is, like most of the characters featured, too young to remember the apocalyptic events (which we are invited to infer took place a few decades earlier, maybe sixty years or so), and has grown up with the limited life in Twicetown seeming completely normal. Mr. Cheung, who leads the grandly-named Miami Symphony Orchestra - in reality a ragged assembly of musicians of various levels of ability - is just about old enough to remember the apocalypse, and his grandmother, very possibly the oldest person left on earth, definitely is, though in her mind it's all bound up with previous traumatic experiences including her escape from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. 

Life proceeds as normal - people are born and die, not only in fishing accidents but also from various aggressive cancers and by being murdered, both things that occur at significantly higher rates in the post-apocalyptic world. People amuse themselves by drinking home-made hooch, acquiring trinkets (most of them cripplingly radioactive) from various travelling traders and listening to radio broadcasts that appear to originate from nearby Cuba and allude to the Florida Keys being in some sort of quarantine zone. Fiskadoro gets clarinet lessons from Mr. Cheung and occasionally amuses himself with his mates burning radioactive kerosene on the beach - well, you've got to amuse yourself somehow, haven't you? Following his father's death Fiskadoro goes off the rails slightly and wanders into regions outside the safe(-ish) areas around Twicetown, at which point he is promptly abducted by the people the Twicetowners refer to as "swamp people" who inhabit the lower reaches of the Everglades, and spirited away there, presumably by boat, as all the interlinking bridges connecting the Florida Keys have long since been destroyed. He is eventually returned to Twicetown by one of the roving traders, but not before being drugged and subjected to some eye-watering scarring rituals (NSFW link here) by the swamp people. 

After his lengthy recuperation Fiskadoro finds himself unable to remember his former life, but perhaps as a result also granted some mystical insight denied to others. And just in the nick of time, as something seems to be happening offshore. Is it the end of the quarantine period and a rescue by the Cubans? The approaching cloud-front of some further apocalypse? Or something else?

It's entirely consistent with the strange, slightly dream-like tone of Fiskadoro that the nature of the climactic event is ambiguous at best, though the brief prologue section written in another voice and seemingly from a later time offers some clues. There is some ambiguity about the nature of the apocalyptic event as well, although it's clearly a nuclear holocaust which appears to have taken out the entire continental United States, and perhaps most of the rest of the world as well. 

So since this isn't a work of "hard" speculative fiction concerned with great detail about the nature of the apocalypse, we might ask: well, what's it about then? Well, the human spirit (stop groaning at the back there), the will to survive, fall in love, procreate, have fun, set fire to things, etc., even in the most grim and unpromising of circumstances. Like Never Let Me Go it offers up a world where death is a much more real day-to-day prospect than it is for most of us, and asks: does this actually make a difference to anything? There's also some sly stuff about religious belief and how it evolves out of the dimly-remembered remnants of previous belief systems: gods referenced here include the usual Jesus and Allah but also Quetzalcoatl and Bob Marley. 

Previous novels on this list whose narrative primarily takes place in some sort of post-apocalyptic world include:

As I am a tedious literalist I chafed slightly at Fiskadoro's lack of inclination to explain itself, but it is a strangely compelling story nonetheless. It is also, oddly, the second successive book on this list to feature the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as a significant plot point - Jim in Empire Of The Sun witnesses the distant glow of the explosions from China (or, at least, imagines that he does), and some of Mr. Cheung's associates here locate a copy of this book and are disturbed by some of its resonances with their current situation.

Other novels on this list primarily set in Florida include both of the Carl Hiaasens (Lucky You and Sick Puppy) and, more recently, Killing Mister Watson. To Have And Have Not is primarily set in Cuba but does involve illicit trips to Key West as a key (no pun intended) plot point. 

teelebrity crickylikey of the day

A sporting one for you now - here's surprise Open Championship winner Brian Harman and former Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting. The facial resemblance is the main thing here, at least while they've both got caps on - Ponting still has a pretty full head of hair despite being about twelve years older while Harman is pretty bald - but there's a broader physical resemblance as well, both men being shorter than most of their contemporaries (Harman is 5'7" according to Wikipedia, Ponting 5'9") but with a general air of chunky pugnaciousness. 

CGIlebrity lookeylikey of the day

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I have, for various reasons and in the company of various combinations of my own children, watched both Encanto and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. A couple of things struck me, in particular the similarity between the characters of Bruno from Encanto and Sirius Black (as portrayed by Gary Oldman) from the Harry Potter movie. Firstly there is the similarity in appearance - long dark wavy hair, straggly facial hair, general air of manic energy - and it's primarily appearance we're interested in here, after all, but they also have broadly similar possibly-evil-to-chaotic-but-basically-good character arcs, and are of course both in possession of magical powers.

Secondly, the character of Abuela, Encanto's matriarch and guardian of the magic that keeps the house and community together, has a distinctive look that I couldn't quite put my finger on until I realised that she reminded me of Robert Mitchum.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

the second-last book I read

Empire Of The Sun by JG Ballard.

It's all right, living in Shanghai - nice weather, nice house, swimming pool out the back, chauffeur, all the sesame prawn toast you can eat. At least, that's Jim's Shanghai lifestyle, thanks to being part of a well-off expatriate family - his father is a businessman of some ill-defined sort. Jim is vaguely aware that some people live less privileged lives, but at the age of eleven he's far too busy zooming around pretending to be an aeroplane to care too much about all that.

There are some tensions bubbling under even now, though, since much of China, including Shanghai, has been under Japanese occupation for a few years. The uneasy truce that has allowed Shanghai's expatriate community to go about their daily lives fairly normally during this period ends abruptly when Japan enters World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and shortly afterwards the Japanese step up their occupation of China more aggressively and start imprisoning foreign nationals. During the chaos and confusion of this process kicking off in Shanghai Jim becomes separated from his parents. Escaping being taken away to the internment camps, Jim returns to suburban Shanghai and spends a few weeks living in various abandoned houses (including his own), living on the gradually-diminishing remains of the stored food. 

After a brief interlude with a couple of slightly shady Americans, Frank and Basie, Jim is eventually picked up by the Japanese and taken to an internment camp, or rather a series of camps, with the internees travelling between them either by being forced like cattle into uncomfortable trucks or being made to march on foot, with the gradual attrition of numbers as some of the weaker individuals die along the way and are unceremoniously hoofed into a ditch by their captors. Eventually the convoy arrives at its permanent destination, Lunghua. Jim befriends a few people - his room-mates at Lunghua Mr & Mrs Vincent, medic Dr Ransome, his old neighbour from Shanghai Mr Maxted - but basically spends a lot of his time exploring the camp, chatting with his Japanese captors, watching the planes of various nationalities go overhead and monitoring the progress of the runway that is being built using the internees as slave labour; this means occasionally working them to death, but hey, bury them in a shallow grave and replace them with someone else.

Over time (there is a wibbly-wobbly dissolve in the middle of the book where three years pass) Jim becomes aware that there is a wider conflict going on involving the British and Americans as well as the Japanese and Chinese, and that the side he really ought to be rooting for is probably going to win, though not before a lot of blood has been shed on both sides. Jim isn't too sure how he feels about this - he's fascinated by aeroplanes, but not too fussy about whose they are, and he has struck up a tentative friendship with a couple of the younger Japanese guards. As the war starts to go badly for the Japanese there is a sense that they don't really know what to do with the internees, and there are some further episodes of pointless piling onto trucks and marching around the countryside before Jim is abandoned by his captors, who presume that he is too weak to walk. Jim is actually pretty much OK, though weakened by hunger, and sets off on some further random wanderings through the blasted countryside, littered with plane wrecks and bayoneted corpses, eventually ending up in the vicinity of Lunghua, where he finds a supply drop from an American aircraft containing Spam, chocolate and copies of the Reader's Digest. Revived, he makes his way back to the camp where further supplies have been hoarded, is reunited with some of his former camp-mates (the ones who haven't died, anyway) and, eventually, his parents. 

Empire Of The Sun is famous for being something of an outlier in Ballard's oeuvre - a fictionalised retelling of his own childhood experiences as a prisoner of war in Shanghai, rather than the wild speculative and dystopian fiction he's more famous for. Outside of the actual narrative presented here one thing that is interesting is to pick out repeated themes from his later work that are foreshadowed by real-life experiences here: abandoned houses and swimming pools, aviation and space travel and in particular crashed and derelict aircraft, a generally lower level of interest in people and their emotions. 

It could certainly be argued that not a great deal actually happens here once Jim is separated from his parents (this is one part that's explicitly fictional; in real life Ballard and his parents were interned together), but that's partly the point - the great sweep of events is something that's happening elsewhere and Jim is only dimly aware of it while being shuttled around from camp to camp. Jim's general deadening of affect is a factor here as well - the people being bludgeoned to death for walking too slowly or being left to starve to death would presumably feel quite strongly that something fairly important is happening to them, but Jim is more interested in deciding whether he should support the Japanese or the Americans based on who has the cooler planes. 

Empire Of The Sun was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1984; it's hard to think of another Ballard novel, as excellent as they generally are, that could plausibly have been considered (and indeed this was his only ever nomination). Hotel Du Lac won that year and I have now read five of the six nominees, which is a record; four in both 1989 and 2001 is my best performance elsewhere. It was also famously filmed in 1987 by Steven Spielberg and featured Christian Bale as Jim in his first major film role. 

Anyway, it's very good and manages to be recognisably Ballardian while also an unusual outlier (though not completely unique as he wrote a loose sequel, The Kindness Of Women, in 1991). If you want something a bit more "out there" but still with a recognisable real-world setting, I'd recommend Empire Of The Sun's immediate successor The Day Of Creation or the later set of rich-people-going-berserk novels that includes Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes. After those you may possibly wish to move on to the more piquant delights of things like High-Rise, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, plus the short story collections. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

the unbreathable lightness of not being

Hot on the heels of Cormac McCarthy's demise comes the death of Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Long-standing consumers of my ghoulish authorial-death-related output may remember that, while I feel it's slightly beyond the pale to keep some sort of official Dead Pool list of who I think might be next, I have nevertheless speculated on the subject in the past to the extent of offering up a list of authors whose books have featured on the list, are alive, and are quite old, in a not wishing ill on anyone but Just Saying sort of way, and that Kundera's name has featured, and no wonder as I think he is (or was) the oldest living author on the list.

Kundera featured here twice, in 2008 and 2016 with The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting respectively. Those are probably his two best-known books, the first being made into a film in the 1980s. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is probably the one to go for, but he had a substantial body of other work that I haven't read.

Anyway, here's the updated list. You might remember that when Alison Lurie died a couple of years back I confidently announced that she was the oldest curse victim at the age of 95. I'm not sure why I did this, because the obituary I linked to specifically says she was 94, and so she was. I'll leave the original post as-is as a monument to my carelessness, but I've corrected her age in the table here. The reason this is relevant (other than a general desire for accuracy) is that Kundera was also 94, as was Doris Lessing when she died back in 2013. So who was oldest? Well, I can reveal that I've done the maths, or, rather, got Excel to do the maths for me, and the result is that Kundera was older than Lurie by a mere 9 days, with Lessing a comparative spring chicken at 74 days younger. 

Kundera also smashes the record for longest curse length at over fifteen years, ending Cormac McCarthy's brief posthumous ownership of the title.

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 94 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 265d
Milan Kundera 27th March 2008 11th July 2023 94 15y 105d

Monday, July 10, 2023

you batter you bowler you bet

During the vast aeons of time that (it seemed) Australian opener Usman Khawaja was batting during the first Test match of the current Ashes series, I had occasion to look up his player profile page on Cricinfo, the go-to resource for the stats-hungry cricket nerd. I had plenty of time to do this, as Khawaja's two innings of 141 and 65 in the match occupied 518 balls and 796 minutes and gave him 13th spot on one of cricket's more esoteric lists of batting feats: batting on all five days of a five-day Test match. As you can see from the list, it's not necessarily correlated with gargantuan feats of run-gathering, rather what you might call accidents of timing. In the most extreme example, Indian batsman Cheteshwar Pujara made just 52 and 22 in his two innings against Sri Lanka in Calcutta in 2017, but the various vagaries of the weather meant that the first innings of 52 was spread across three (very truncated) days.

If you're in the mood for more esoteric batting records, though, read on. Khawaja's five-day feat hadn't been completed at the time I looked at his profile, so the headline list of his batting records looked like this:

These are, arguably, less esoteric as they relate to actual feats of run-scoring, specifically centuries, combined with:
  • another century, making one in each innings of the same match
  • a score in the 90s, a sort of "near miss" companion to the first
  • a duck, as a sort of contrasting tears-and-laughter, light-and-shade thing
It struck me that I didn't recall seeing all three listed under a single batsman before, and I wondered whether this was unique to Khawaja. A quick look at each of the relevant lists (and some very rudimentary sorting in Excel) soon revealed that it was not, but at the same time not especially common. Here's the full list, comprising thirteen batsmen - the date represents the date they achieved the third of the three feats (obviously different batsmen will do them in different orders).

Batsman 100/100 100/90 100/0 Qualification date
Hanif Mohammad 1 1 1 December 1964
Garry Sobers 1 1 2 March 1968
Aravinda de Silva 2 1 1 April 1997
Brian Lara 1 1 1 June 2005
Jacques Kallis 2 1 2 October 2007
Andrew Strauss 1 1 3 December 2008
Ricky Ponting 3 1 1 December 2008
Tillakaratne Dilshan 1 1 1 August 2009
Kumar Sangakkara 2 1 1 March 2013
Younis Khan 1 1 1 October 2014
Hashim Amla 1 1 1 January 2016
Virat Kohli 1 2 1 August 2018
Usman Khawaja 1 1 2 March 2022

A couple of footnotes:
  • Andrew Strauss and Younis Khan are the only two batsmen on the list who combined these century-related feats with the further one of making a century in their first Test match.
  • Ricky Ponting's hundred-and-a-ninety feat is unique in this list for featuring a century and an innings of 99, against South Africa in 2008. The only other batsman to make a 99 and a century in the same Test match is Geoffrey Boycott, for England against West Indies in 1974. Ponting made the century first, Boycott the 99 first.
  • I haven't quite got into the gender-neutral thing of calling everyone "batters" yet, not out of any objection to the term (apart from possible pancake-related confusion), just habit. I haven't, after all, spent any part of the last 40-odd years bemoaning the use of the gender-neutral term "bowler" and insisting on "bowlsmen".

Sunday, July 02, 2023

the last book I read

Last Bus To Woodstock by Colin Dexter. 

Meet Morse. He's a maverick Detective Chief Inspector with a thirst for real ale, cryptic crosswords and opera, or to put it another way, a thirst for not playing by the book - but, dammit, he gets results. 

And a result is what's required here, because there's been a murder: a young woman's body has been found in a pub car park in Woodstock - no, not that one, the one near Oxford. Her name is Sylvia Kaye, and she appears to have been dispatched, rather messily, by having her head caved in with a large tyre-iron.

Inspector Morse and his newly-assigned sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, do all the obvious stuff like questioning all the pub's customers, but since none of them does anything as convenient as breaking down and confessing, a wider enquiry seems to be called for. This enquiry revolves around certain questions: how did Sylvia get from central Oxford to the pub at Woodstock? Could she have got a lift? If so, with whom? 

Crazed flashes of inspiration brought on by intensive real ale and crossword consumption can only get you so far, though, and there comes a time when you've got to put in the legwork and do some actual police work, although there's always the option of delegating some of the more tedious stuff to Lewis. Anyway, Sylvia worked at an insurance firm in Oxford so the detectives start there: could it have been a disgruntled colleague? Her, boss, Mr. Palmer? 

Nothing especially conclusive emerges here, apart from the suspicion that the icy and enigmatic Jennifer Coleby knows more than she's letting on, so the detectives' focus moves to how Sylvia got from the bus stop where she was spotted by a member of the public to the pub car park where she was killed, and to the identity of the other young woman who was with her at the bus stop. No-one saw her subsequently take a bus, so the suspicion is that she, and possibly her companion, hitched a lift with someone. But who? Are they the murderer? And what happened to the other woman, whoever she was?

Local university academic Bernard Crowther soon emerges as the driver of the car, but claims no knowledge of the circumstances of Sylvia's murder. In any case, there's a logjam of other suspects to choose from, including Jennifer Coleby, Mr. Palmer, local porn-addicted ne'er-do-well (and Sylvia's occasional boyfriend) John Sanders, and Jennifer Coleby's flatmate Sue Widdowson, a local nurse who Morse meets when he falls off a ladder and injures his foot and promptly decides he is in love with.

Things ramp up a notch when Morse receives letters from both Bernard Crowther and his wife Margaret, both claiming to have been the murderer, a situation further complicated by Margaret turning up dead shortly afterwards, having stuck her head in the gas oven, and Bernard turning up nearly-dead shortly after that, having discovered her body and suffered a massive heart attack. Morse is convinced, however, that neither of them actually did it, despite each having evidently been convinced that the other did. Morse is convinced that the identity of the other young woman at the bus stop holds the key to the mystery, and he is, eventually, and after a few wrong turnings, correct.

The Morse series of novels (Last Bus To Woodstock is the first, published in 1975) is probably most famous these days as the source material for the Inspector Morse TV series starring John Thaw as Morse. While many of the 2-hour episodes were directly adapted from the novels (Last Bus To Woodtsock being one of them, though the episodes are in a different order from the books), some are not - there were 33 episodes and there are only 13 novels.

Morse as portrayed here is pretty close to how John Thaw portrayed him in the TV series - intellectual, irascible, thwarted from higher promotion by his attitude and personal habits but perhaps uninterested in promotion anyway, a bit too keen on the ale and whisky but capable of flashes of insight denied to most, though this doesn't stop him from being wrong about the answer several times before eventually being right. He is also apparently irrepressibly horny, and very much inclined to ill-advised liaisons with female suspects who turn out (*cough* SPOILER ALERT) to be the murderer. 

I enjoyed this, as much for the re-acquaintance with a familiar character as for the resolution of the plot, which (like many detective novels) favours the aha-you-never-saw-that-coming revelation over sense-making and plausibility. This being the mid-70s, the revelation that Sylvia may have been raped as well as murdered (it eventually turns out to have been consensual) prompts some light-hearted BANTZ about it from various characters that might be seen as a bit, hem hem, problematic these days: