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 RenĂ©e 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 comes 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.