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.