Saturday, February 11, 2017

the last book I read

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies.

So here we are at the college of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known by its denizens as Spook, in a city which I don't recall being named but which we are presumably meant to infer is a thinly-fictionalised version of Toronto, that being where a great many of Davies' novels are set.

As all academic institutions do, Spook carries a varied cast of eccentric academic types: professor Clement Hollier, priest Simon Darcourt, exotic half-Gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, Hollier's graduate student and erstwhile lover, and John Parlabane, defrocked monk and ex-student at Spook, recently returned to the college in an impoverished state to presume on the generosity of his old friends Darcourt and Hollier.

Hollier, Darcourt and their devious colleague Urquhart McVarish are thrown together by the recent death of Francis Cornish, art collector and benefactor of the college - Cornish has named the three men, along with his nephew Arthur, as co-executors of his will. The elder Cornish's somewhat haphazard methods of cataloguing his art collection make the task of disposing of the collection somewhat time-consuming. The collection also includes a manuscript which may or may not be some unpublished writings by Rabelais, one of Hollier's key areas of study.

Many plot strands branch off here: Maria's Gypsy mother, her Tarot readings and her devious schemes to rekindle Maria's romance with Clement Hollier; Hollier's attempts to retrieve the Rabelais manuscript from Urquhart McVarish, who he suspects has stolen it, by getting Maria's mother to put a Gypsy curse on him; Ozias Froats and his research into human excrement; John Parlabane's attempts to get his dreadful autobiographical novel published.

Things reach an unexpected conclusion when the deaths of Parlabane and McVarish are discovered in quick succession, followed by the delivery of a letter to Maria and Hollier which turns out to be an extended confession-cum-suicide note from Parlabane in which he describes the lurid arrangement he and McVarish had agreed upon to satisfy McVarish's unusual sexual tastes, and the circumstances in which he subsequently murdered McVarish during the course of an elaborate sex game.

The novel ends with Arthur Cornish proposing marriage to Maria, and being accepted, and various publishing houses expressing a belated interest in Parlabane's novel in the wake of his posthumous notoriety.

Very much like the previous Robertson Davies novel in this series, The Cunning Man, this one features a lot of hugely entertaining philosphical discussion and digression on a whole host of interesting topics, but not a great deal actually happening until, to quote myself from the previous review: "a few deaths at the end just to tie up a few loose plot strands". It's not a book that appears to have been written out of a burning desire to make a particular point, unlike, say, Surfacing or The Dark Room. But that's fine, different books do different things in different ways. The character of Maria Magdalena Theotoky, in particular, is one you want to spend more time with, and as it happens The Rebel Angels is the first book in a trilogy, so the keen reader has the opportunity to do just that. Davies was a bit of a one for trilogies; all of his novels were grouped into threes except the last two (The Cunning Man was his last published novel) whose planned capping-off into a trilogy was thwarted by Davies' death in 1995.

Davies also sported, during his lifetime, one of modern literature's more spectacular beards.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

anatomy of a (joke) murder

As I'm sure most of you know, Twitter, in addition to being a hive of scum and villainy, has its own little unwritten rules and points of etiquette that change and mutate every few minutes, so that however constantly plugged-in you are, you'll always be a few steps behind. Well, I say "unwritten", but of course someone somewhere is probably documenting them (pointlessly, since it'll be instantly out of date) in an epic multi-tweet thread right now.

Anyway, my specific point here is this: those of us who tweet tweet about lots of different things, from HEYYYY HOW ABOUT THAT LOCAL SPORTS TEAM to OMG TRUMP IS GOING TO LITERALLY INCINERATE US ALL to HERE ARE SOME CUTE CAT GIFS. Also, from time to time we might want to share a joke of our own devising, in a throwaway sort of way, as if tossing out a witticism down the pub. Trouble is, a throwaway gag down the pub floats away on the ether and is gone, whereas unless you've got some very specific account settings on the go (or go around specifically deleting individual tweets) your tweet is going to be hanging around FOR EVER, or at least until Donald Trump gets us all incinerated and we revert to bashing each others' heads in with rocks for entertainment.

So let's say that there's a thing going on in the news, and you think to yourself: if we were discussing this in the pub I'd lob a gag in here, cos I've just thought of one. But I'm sitting at my desk in my pants, so perhaps a tweet will be more appropriate. But should I check to see if it's an original joke? I don't want to be accused of joke-theft; similarly while I don't expect to be immediately given my own radio show on the basis of a single tweet I don't want everyone moaning about me being LIKE THE GAZILLIONTH PERSON to do that gag this morning. But, equally, you don't want to spend an hour obsessively Googling to see if anyone's done the gag, because a) that's an hour that could be spent doing other stuff and it is JUST A JOKE after all and b) you'll inevitably find at the end of that process that you would have been first if you'd just bashed a tweet straight out, but now that you've spent an hour fannying about LIKE A GAZILLION PEOPLE have done it.

Case in point: the rather humorous lettuce shortage this week that everyone who pretends to like salad pretended to give two shits about before waddling out and picking up a KFC. The idea of it being Europe-wide triggered a synaptic thing in my gagular cortex, and I tweeted the following:
I immediately followed this up with a bit of faux-nonchalant weaselly arse-covering, as follows:
I thought no more of it until someone re-tweeted the following a bit later the same day:
So I thought: I wonder how many other people had the same idea? Turns out there were quite a few, most of them earlier than me, with the caveat that Twitter's time-stamping of tweets is a bit confusing.

All of these people can go fuck themselves, though, as they're as guilty of plagiarising stale jokes as I am. Check out these tweets from during the EU referendum campaign back in May and June 2016.

Is that the first time that particular joke was done? Well, in relation to the UK possibly leaving the EU, very possibly. But in a more general sense, the Remain/Romaine pun must have been done countless times before. Really this is a more general variation on the old non-Twitter-specific conundrum: who makes up jokes? We all know lots, but how many of those did we make up? Probably none. I suppose there's some value here in distinguishing between one-off punnery and properly-constructed jokes, though as always there's not a bright and well-defined line separating the two concepts. In fact this (i.e. where do non-groany/punny jokes come from) is essentially the premise of the Isaac Asimov short story Jokester, which I have in the early-1970s collection Earth Is Room Enough (as also mentioned here).

As always when talking about jokes it's worth repeating the old one about how deconstructing jokes is a bit like deconstructing your cat: you might learn something of interest but the cat will never be quite the same afterwards. As if to illustrate the point, I've no idea who thought that one up either.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I'm not okay, you're not okay

I don't do many of these Goddy posts any more (a paltry four in the whole of 2016, though to be fair there weren't that many posts of any kind during 2016 - compare this with eight in 2015 and a whopping twenty-four in the childless blogging glory glory days of 2007), but this was too good to allow to pass without comment: savour with me, if you will, the rich creamy deliciousness of full-fat cognitive dissonance as some groovy vicar type decides to incorporate a reading from the Koran in a Christian Epiphany service in Glasgow and then gets all surprised when people are outraged at the fact that the text contradicts standard Christian teaching.

Basically what happened was that a young Muslim woman was invited to do a reading at the service, in the interests of some fluffy ill-thought-out ideas about "inclusivity" and/or "interfaith dialogue", and read (or sang, depending which account you read - the video embedded here reveals it's sort of in the eye/ear of the beholder) a passage from the section of the Koran concerning Christ's birth. The reading was in the original Arabic, so would have been incomprehensible to most of the attendees, but someone identified it and controversy ensued.

The differences between Biblical and Koranic orthodoxy on the question of Christ's birth are fairly minimal, to the disinterested observer anyway - although obviously the ability to get murderously irate over minor doctrinal differences is pretty much the defining feature of organised religions throughout history. Anyway, there's broad agreement over what happened, but the Koran goes out of its way to make the specific point that despite the whole virgin birth thing Christ was not the son of God as the Bible insists. I suppose I have to concede that the divinity of Christ is fairly central to Christian theology - the clue is in the name "Christian", after all. What I mean by "minimal" above is that there's no dispute in either religion about the claim that there was a woman called Mary who had a baby by mysterious means who was called Jesus Christ.

Anyway, the amusing thing here is firstly the apparent surprise that different religions make differing claims about the world, and secondly the general flappery over what the appropriate response is. Can we call it "blasphemy" for the central claims of one religion to be repeated in the worshipping-place of another? Not only might that be deemed "disrespectful", it also seems to set us off down what might be a bit of an unpalatable slippery slope: it almost sounds like the Christians are saying that their version of the story is true, and the Islamic version isn't (and, similarly, that the Muslims are saying the exact opposite). That's not the kind of "interfaith dialogue" the groovy vicar brigade want at all.

The tricky balancing act anyone claiming to be offended here has to tread is explaining why repeating some of the basic tenets of Islam is OK in a mosque, or Sainsbury's, but not OK in a Christian church, while simultaneously avoiding any consideration of how the conflict might be resolved. Should Christians take Muslims aside and try to explain why they're wrong? If so, what convincing arguments in favour of their own position should they muster? There's a paper-thin distance between trying that and implicitly acknowledging that there might be a thing called "reality" against which fact claims could be verified to see whether they're true or not (and, moreover, that if they do turn out to be true they're as true in Westminster Abbey as they are in Mecca, or indeed Sainsbury's), and furthermore that there is a third possibility, which is that both religions could be wrong. It's always worth pointing out at this point that there is just about no proper historical evidence that a person matching the various descriptions of Jesus Christ ever existed.

Vaguely connected to that, here's a little texty-graphical meme (which may have originated here) of the sort that people love to share on Facebook, and sure enough a couple of my friends shared it in the run-up to Christmas. I charitably assume it's because they were amused by the bit at the end relating to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, rather than because they thought the bits preceding it were sensible or worth sharing.

The first couple of paragraphs sound, if you don't think about them too much, sensible enough in a hey-let's-just-all-get-along-the-world-is-like-a-great-big-onion kind of way, and certainly the bits about homophobia and reindeer-bullying are perfectly fine to all right-thinking people. But wait, let's just go back to the start: it's not okay to say that the claims about the world made by religions are false? How would that work? Maybe we're meant to focus on the words "shaming" and "silly" and imagine marauding bands of atheists interrupting church services to point and laugh at the congregation and hijack the pulpit for readings from The God Delusion, as has happened precisely never ever. I mean, I agree that that would be an unreasonably dickish way to behave, but it is implicit in the definition of the word "atheist" that you think religions believe stuff that is not real, and it's hardly reasonable to require that we never mention it, especially given the amount of time the devout spend tediously banging on about their inane beliefs.

Even if you exclude atheists from being able to speak in public forever, you've still got a problem: just about every religion's set of core tenets contains at least one which implicitly refutes at least one core tenet of another religion somewhere. You can believe, for instance, that the Christian God created the world (maybe in seven actual days, maybe in seven metaphorical "days" conveniently corresponding to actual cosmological/geological time), or you can believe that the world was formed from the flesh, blood and bones of Ymir by various Norse gods, or you can believe that the entire universe was sneezed out by the Great Green Arkleseizure, but you can't believe more than one of them, and whichever one you choose you're implicitly saying the other two are untrue.

So, in summary, criticising religion is not okay, and since religions themselves implicitly do this, religions themselves are not okay. But of course saying this constitutes criticism of religion, which is not okay. Uh-oh.

Monday, January 16, 2017

the last book I read

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.

Our unnamed protagonist (again!) is a young woman working as an illustrator in the city who returns to her childhood home in the wilderness of northern Quebec upon hearing of the disappearance of her father. Unsatisfied with what she's heard from the authorities, she decides to search for him herself, bringing her boyfriend Joe and their friends David and Anna along for the ride, or more accurately to provide the ride, since it's David's car they're travelling in.

The old family home is a pretty spartan affair on an island in a lake, accessible only by boat. The foursome settle in, and it's all pretty good Five On Kirrin Island fun in the early stages, eating sardines out of a can sitting on a jetty, foraging for mushrooms in the woods, that sort of thing. But soon some tensions start to creep in: the narrator's relationship with Joe, while well-established enough for them to have moved in together, seems a bit shaky, and while David and Anna are married their relationship is less straightforward than it seems as well, mainly owing to David being something of a shit. Plus there is the ever-present possibility of finding Dad swinging from a tree or half-devoured by beavers, which puts a slight damper on the party atmosphere.

Expeditions are organised, including a canoe trip to a different lake to go fishing, during the course of which the group encounters a group of American tourists and evidence of their indiscriminate wildlife-killing habits. Meanwhile, Joe and David amuse themselves shooting scenes for their experimental movie, using whatever is available: a fish being gutted, a putrefying heron, Anna (who they've browbeaten into stripping off her bikini) jumping naked off a jetty. Once this becomes tiresome they progress to some more serious games: Joe bones Anna, and David attempts to do the same to the narrator, although she isn't having any of it.

Eventually, after she's escaped the situation in a canoe to go off and do some exploring, the narrator has a disturbing experience while diving in the lake at the base of a cliff. What is the murky vision which looms up at her from the depths? Is it her father's bloated corpse? Or the reproachful ghost of the foetus she aborted some time back? Who knows?

However, not long after her return, a boat arrives from the nearest village to inform the group that her father's body has been found in the lake. The group gets ready to depart back to civilisation, but our narrator has something of a moment and flees, shedding her clothes in the process and hiding out in the forest until everyone else has gone. She then has some sort of quasi-supernatural/religious experience where the spirits of the island tell her which bits of the island she is permitted to venture onto. After a couple of days of running around dressed only in a blanket and foraging for roots she regains her equilibrium a bit, retrieves her clothes, and as the novel ends we leave her standing at the edge of the woods watching a rescue party pull alongside the jetty.

Surfacing was the second novel of Margaret Atwood's long literary career, published in 1972. Obviously not every novelist's output follows the same arc but this is quite a typical early novel in that it's a) quite short and b) clearly inspired by events from the novelist's own life, in this case Atwood's childhood where she really did live in a similarly remote place.

It's an odd book in some ways: seemingly very naturalistic and straightforward at the start, it gets stranger as it goes on, first as it becomes apparent that the ex-husband and child the narrator alludes to in the first part of the book are clearly fictitious and part of some elaborate defence mechanism she's built to assuage the guilt of an abortion, and secondly around the time of her (possible) encounter with her dead father when things get a bit more weird and hallucinatory, it's less clear what's real and what's not, and the reader has the odd sensation of the previously firmly-grasped plot slipping through his/her fingers. Things appear to snap back into place by the end, although a bit of ambiguity remains: will she step onto the rescue boat or flee back into the woods?

So what's it about? It's about 200 pages. No, but what's it about? Well, see the brief plot synopsis above. No, but, you know, what's it about? Clearly we're in the realms of feminist literature here: it's the early 1970s, North American women are in the process of becoming liberated and independent and not reliant on a man to define or support them. We're presumably meant to draw a contrast between the rugged canoe-wrangling practicality of the narrator and her ambivalent relationship with the monosyllabic Joe, and the more stereotypical relationship that Anna and David have, with him constantly belittling her and her desperate to ensure that he never sees her without make-up, even in a tent in the Canadian wilderness. Quite what the mystical fugue that the narrator enters into during her period alone on the island is meant to convey I'm not sure: an extreme reaction to grief at her father being confirmed dead? some kind of mystical she-witch sense of oneness with nature? I couldn't say. Some of the horrible shouty polluting humans versus nature stuff was slightly reminiscent of the excellent 1978 Australian film Long Weekend, which I recommend to you if you haven't seen it.

Atwood is of course most famous for her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which won numerous science fiction awards despite Atwood's amusingly sniffy disdain for the "science fiction" label. That and the later novel Cat's Eye are the only other Atwoods I've read - if you must have only one it would really have to be The Handmaid's Tale, but Surfacing is worth a look. It was made into a somewhat obscure film in 1981, which appears to be available in its entirety on YouTube.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

celabourity lookeylikey of the day

Leader of the Labour Party and thereby Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the Wise Old Elf from the splendid Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom (whose real name, proper series enthusiasts will know, is Cedric). One of them is an elusive and mystical creature whose various crackpot schemes invariably end in disaster, and the other is a cartoon character. Boom, and, strictly entre nous, tish.

a quick update on the wanke situation

Brief upfollowage on a couple of recent (and not so recent) blog items:
  • my linking to the Not The Nine O'Clock News That's Life sketch in the previous post reminded me that this was another one that we did a half-arsed run-through of as part of our sixth form revue in what must have been about 1988. I definitely remember the "Prince Philip exploded" line being one of mine, so I guess I took Rowan Atkinson's lines.
  • one thing I meant to mention in my comments on The Plague Dogs was that the book (set primarily in the Lake District) features some illustrations by Alfred Wainwright. As always with Wainwright the static stuff (hills, rocks, fences, etc.) is brilliant and the living things less so; whenever AW whimsically included a figure (usually meant to be himself) in his illustrations for his hillwalking guides it was always a bit jarringly unconvincing in comparison with the landscape bits.
  • if you have an exceptionally good memory you may remember my mentioning the Mosul Dam back in late 2007, the dam at that time being apparently in danger of catastrophic failure and collapse at LITERALLY ANY MOMENT. Fast-forward to early 2017 (i.e. about nine years) and, as this long New Yorker article makes clear, the dam is in danger of catastrophic failure and collapse at LITERALLY ANY MOMENT. You can see why people are sceptical about these sorts of warnings from science-y types. The article includes some fascinating detail about the daily maintenance activity required to keep the dam's foundations from dissolving - basically pumping a gazillion gallons of concrete into the holes that keep appearing. The article also includes a poignant picture of a young boy taking his inner tube out on a fishing trip on the Tigris downstream of the dam - presumably we're meant to imagine some Spielbergian kids-in-peril scene featuring him looking up to see a wall of water with jagged bits of concrete sticking out rushing towards him while dramatic DUN-DUN-DURRRR music plays. Note that the boy's home village (see picture caption) has a similarly fnarr-fnarr name to the place in this old post. I'm ashamed to say I was too busy sniggering about that to muster the appropriate amount of concern for the boy's welfare.
  • I was unaware until following a link from some other film trailer I was watching on YouTube that there is a film of Stephen King's Cell, subject of a book review in 2012. Some fairly heavy names involved, including John Cusack as central protagonist Clay Riddell and Samuel L Motherfuckin Jackson among the supporting cast. As far as I can tell from the trailer there is a good deal more shooting and stereotypical zombie flesh-eating than in the book, and the scene in the airport with the crashing plane and the exploding wasn't (as far as I remember anyway) in the book at all. In common with most film adaptations of King novels, this appears to be an epically terrible film, and it's not as if King can blame the film-makers, since he co-wrote the screenplay (including, apparently, changing the ending).

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

berger off

Well, so there I was, chortling to myself at how Richard Adams' death had nothing to do with me when the Grim Reaper decided to issue a little reminder about how he was in charge and I'd better watch myself. The way he chose to do it was by knocking off John Berger, art critic, novelist and general overachieving polymath, and, crucially, former book review featuree on this blog, at the age of 90. So, without further ado, here's the current novelist death list - the tally currently stands at fifteen:

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
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
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
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
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
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

Having corrected some of the horribly botched maths in earlier versions of this table, I find that Berger's death was the longest-delayed of all those directly attributable to this blog, and that the average time between the fateful blog post landing and the relevant author croaking is a little over four years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

the black rabbit strikes again

I feel as if I should write something brief to mark the death (at a pretty respectable 96) of Richard Adams, if only to exonerate my own blog from suspicion. While I have read a few of his books, none of them were within the lifespan of this blog, and so the Curse of Electric Halibut cannot be blamed. As you'll see I have referred tangentially to a couple of his books within some old posts, though.

Obviously he's mainly famous for Watership Down, and rightly so as it's a classic. As with all books nominally classified as children/young adult literature there's probably an optimal age to read it, maybe early teens. I think I was probably about fifteen when I picked up the old Puffin edition (pictured on the right) that my parents had had lying around on a shelf for years, but I can't really remember. Many people's recollections will have been coloured by the 1978 film, and if I'm honest I couldn't swear with complete confidence which order I encountered them in, i.e. I might quite possibly have seen the film first. The loathsome Art Garfunkel song aside it's actually pretty good and a very faithful adaptation of the book.

My other reason for writing this post, though, is to steer you away from Watership Down and onto some other stuff. Looking at his slim list of novels I actually find I've read all of them apart from the last one, Traveller. All of the ones I've read are well worth a look:
  • Shardik is a dense and complex fable set in an imagined world (map reproduced here) which would have been intensely reader-repellent to probably 90% of the people who read it thinking it was going to be Watership Down with bears. Adams apparently considered it the best thing he ever wrote, and he may have been right.
  • The Plague Dogs is probably a bit more in the young adult-friendly vein than Shardik, and it's very good, and was also filmed. I haven't seen this one, but unusually they changed the book's happy ending for a more downbeat one; usually it's the other way round. This is really the only one of Adams' other novels that reads like an attempt to write something similar to Watership Down; it's certainly the only other one to feature anthropomorphic animals (the bear in Shardik is less central to the story than the cover art and blurb suggest and is utterly wild and unpredictable), and it's really the only other one that'd be suitable for, or comprehensible to, children and young adults. 
  • The Girl In A Swing is a complete departure from any of the other books: definite adult theme, no animals of any kind. It's a sort of queasily erotic mystery story with possible supernatural undertones. I had no idea until five minutes ago that this one was also filmed, in 1988.
  • Maia is a sort-of prequel to Shardik; like Shardik it's really a book for adults, not least because there is quite a lot of sexy sexy times in it (cover art featured here). For a book of over a thousand pages it's a hoot to read and I've done so at least twice. No necessity, in my opinion, to have read the much more gnarly and complex Shardik first unless you want to; this one is much more of a rollicking adventure story. It also features the only fully-realised and convincing female characters in the Adams oeuvre; the females in Watership Down, for instance, being an afterthought and only brought into the new warren be impregnated by Hazel and his chums.