Friday, 28 May 2010

You go, internets!

Mostly from Boing Boing, I think

Apparently that last post was my 600th, though that's not actually true, because I write more blog entries than I post (if I leave them half-finished they tend to lose their sense of urgency).

Someone has made a thing for turning any song into a swing version, by elongating the first half of each beat and compressing the second half. Daft Punk's Around the World is great. That has to be one of the most remixed and mashed songs ever.

Good Soviet Hobbit illustrations via Boing Boing.

This is a pretty good impression of Gandalf as the Fresh Prince:

This video is quite likeable. You feel like it should be the start of the pair of them going on to fight crime, or something.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Books: Reservations etc

Every now and then I go through patches of insomnia, and when I do I read too much. Here are some things I've read recently, excluding some books by Kage Baker, which I will blog about separately sometime, because they are great.

Medicine River, Thomas King
This is one of those novels which is essentially a series of installments building up a picture of life in a particular community. The narrator has returned to Medicine River, a Canadian reservation where he lived when he was young, and the book tells the stories of his past and of the people around him. A very good book, enjoyable despite the fact that plot-wise it doesn't go anywhere much.

Truth and Bright Water, Thomas King
The Montana town of Truth faces the Alberta reservation of Bright Water across a river. This is a coming-of-age story about a boy called Tecumseh who moves between the two. I was expecting it to be very funny like Green Grass, Running Water, and it's not, but by the time I realised this I was hooked on it because it is so well written. There's an excellent crazy artist character.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
I probably wouldn't have bought this if I had realised that it was YA fiction, but I'm glad I did because it's good, and all the more moving for being pretty matter-of-fact about its subject. The narrator is a teenage boy on a reservation, whose parents are both alcoholics but generally good to him, who realises that the only way he can get anywhere in life is by leaving the reservation. So he transfers to another school, where he's ostracised at first for being the only Indian apart from the school mascot, and sometimes has to walk 20 miles home if his dad's run out of money for petrol and he can't hitch a lift. The things that happen to the kid are pretty depressing, not least the community's reaction to his desertion, but it's not written in a self-pitying way, and the narrator intersperses frequent cartoons. Given that the books you read as a "young adult" teach you about the variety of the world as well as just being entertainment, this would be a good one to have in school libraries. And as I understand it, it's pretty autobiographical as well. I have enjoyed essays by Sherman Alexie in the past and I think I'll look out some more of his work. For example, I liked this reaction to testifying in a court case even though I care nothing about basketball.

The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette, R. T. Raichev
The Death of Corinne, R. T. Raichev

The author is a Bulgarian who wrote a thesis on English Golden Age Detective Stories, and now writes them. These are set in the present-day, but very much in the Golden Age world. Although for both of these I did guess what was coming quite a while before the detectives, I still enjoyed them, and I'll probably read further books by him if I come across them.

Brixton Beach, Roma Tearne
Good but bloody depressing.

In the Footsteps of Harrison Dextrose, Nick Griffiths
Has the following quotation on the front: "This book is cooler than David Hasselhoff in a room full of otters --". This conveys two things very accurately: 1, just how irritating this book is; and 2, exactly what particular moment of time it comes from (a couple of years ago). It's a grotesque travel book set in imaginary places among peoples called things like the Innit and the Ikeans. Usually I like books to have chutzpah but this one tips over into annoying. I kept forgetting I was reading it and starting other books instead, though I did finish it eventually.

The Reflections of Ambrosine, Elinor Glyn
Montacute House has a display about its last tenant, Lord Curzon, and his mistress Elinor Glyn, of poetic fame:
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

This is because she wrote a book called Three Weeks in which a young man has an affair with a tempestuous older Russian countess; he sends her a tiger skin on which they later make mad passionate love in front of a roaring fire. It was pretty racy stuff for the time, apparently; Curzon saw the play based on it, and sent to Elinor Glyn the skin of a tiger which he had shot himself, after which they became lovers. Then he installed her at Montacute, in the freezing cold, where she spent eighteen months trying to make it more of a home, while he spent most of his time in London. Eventually in 1917 she read in the newspaper that he was going to be married to Alfred Duggan's widow (mother of the somewhat tedious but accurate historical novelist of the same name), which devastated her pretty thoroughly. In a nice instance of karma, in 1923 Curzon was expecting to be made Prime Minister but was passed over in favour of Stanley Baldwin, which apparently made him cry. By that time Elinor Glyn had moved on and was having a successful Hollywood career, including being one of the first ever female directors, and had come up with the term "It", by which she meant not so much sex appeal as the quality that tigers and cats have, and also the term "It Girl", for the actress Clara Bow. Anyway, because she sounded interesting I decided to look up some of her stuff online, and found the texts of several novels. I really enjoyed The Reflections of Ambrosine; it's about a half French half English girl who is brought up very strictly by her grandmama in the ancien regime style. Her grandmama is not well, and makes some stern arrangements for the girl's future, which pitches her into a tremendously bitchy world. Some of the society scenes are great, particlarly a character called Babykins, and remind me of E. F. Benson. It works pretty well as a novel, mainly because of its sweet main character who retains her innocence even when she has comprehensively lost her naivety. Now I am about half-way though Three Weeks, which is not as good. Titillation is one of those things which does not age well. Of course it's pretty tame stuff nowadays, and to be honest I find it hard to work out quite what was ever supposed to be shocking. Had they not read any Wilkie Collins, or Sterne, or Shakespeare? Was it because it was written by a woman, and supposed to be autobiographical? I'm not sure I wil finish it, but one can see why she did so well in Hollywood -- the fadeout on the crackling fire in the tigerskin seduction scene might be one of the earliest instances of this cliche.

Aztec, Gery Jennings
Can you criticise a novel set in the Aztec world for being grotesque? This book is pretty chunky, at over a thousand pages in mass-market format, and does at least give its narrator an excuse for relating horrible details, in that he enjoys shocking the Spanish clerics to whom he's dictating the story. There's a lot of sex as well as violence, but overall it's reminiscent of the Sinbad stories in the Thousand and One Nights, as the hero travels around the many different peoples of pre-Spanish South America, sometimes making himself fabulously wealthy by fortunate trades, sometimes losing all his possessions and nearly his life, and being pretty matter-of-fact about the various customs he encounters. This is the sort of thing you read by the pool and then leave behind for some other traveller. I do wish I had realised while I was reading it that it has a map at the end.

Inglorious, Joanna Kavenna
One of those alienation from modern life stories. On the back described as "a slow, comic fall from modern grace", and "somewhere between ... Bridget Jones and Philip Larkin". The problem with buying things unseen off of the internet is that in a bookshop I would have read those things and put the book straight back. They're both true, if you substitute "arch" for "comic". I found the book insufferable and couldn't get past the first forty pages. I read the end just in case but that didn't seem to be any the less insufferable either.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


As I try to work, I am watching professionals shear alpacas. This is the downside of having a desk that looks out over miles of Devon countryside; the opportunities for distraction are frequent. It's impressive to see how efficiently the local shearer and his Italian assistant just heave the animals onto their sides and set to work. One trims their toenails while the other is shearing; then they pop them back on their feet, give them an encouraging slap on the rump, and move to the next one. Some alpacas are fine with this, but some make a noise like they're being eviscerated. The shearers just get on with it either way: these aren't pets, and they don't want reassurance from you, they just want you to get it over with and leave them alone. This is how you tell professional animal workers, even if it can be mistaken for a lack of compassion. When I have anything to do with a worried alpaca I tend to say something like "hey, small, don't worry, everything's fine", and rub their neck a bit. It's an automatic response, but I know that really it's me that feels better for it. We lay a pretty heavy burden on animals as reflections of ourselves, sometimes. Look at all those wildlife rescue programs on TV; I hate it when they take some injured wild bird into a centre full of other animals and people and bright lights, and handle it frequently, and keep it "under observation" until they're sure it's OK. Wild animals, even predators but much more so prey, are very uncomfortable about being observed. It's not the bird who is gaining so much from the attempts to save it, but the people who like to think of themselves as the sort who doesn't give up on any creature. If we're so keen to avoid animal suffering then often the best thing we can probably do for them is give them a quick death. But we don't like to think of ourselves as the angel of death.

When it comes to self-image, I don't like to think of myself as sentimental, even if I am fond of cuteoverload. I've made the decision to have animals put to sleep when necessary; I eat animals even though I know what that involves. But living in the countryside is still occasionally oppressive for me. Essentially there is no way of living in this world which doesn't involve you in a huge network of damage. (Rowan Williams is very interesting on this, and on his related dislike of crucifixes showing a suffering rather than a dead Christ, in his book Resurrection.) Just by drawing breath I cause damage every day to other people and to the natural world. My brother decided that it is impossible to interact with animals without causing damage, and he is therefore a vegetarian with no pets. (I note that the same logic hasn't stopped him having children though.) I love my brother and respect his decision, which has drawn down onto his head a lot of flack from various people, so I don't point out the fates of male calves and male chicks implied by the production of milk and eggs. Vegans aren't off the hook either, not by a long chalk: some arable farmers have a saying that if you want to 'cure' a vegetarian, take them ploughing. Both ploughing and harvesting cause huge amounts of small animal deaths by mangling, as well as destroying homes and food in a way which causes slower, less immediate carnage.

I knew all this before I moved here -- I think most people do, really, they just prefer not to think about it. The thing that gets me down now is the TB problem. You don't want TB in the milk supply (although I think there's limited evidence that it causes harm), so any animal that has it is put to sleep. The problem is that in parts of south-west England, Wales, and Ireland it's near endemic. It's pretty likely that it's spread by badgers. Now I quite like badgers, though it drives me mad when people think they're in any way gentle or furrily endearing -- badgers are nasty vicious little things. I've only ever been looked at by a badger when I was in a car, and I have to say that every time I have been glad of it, because they tend to have an air to them like if you hang around they will take you on, metal frame or not. I don't think animal protection should depend on how cute the animal in question is, and I'm all for the badger being about the most heavily-protected species in the English countryside. So I'd really prefer it if there weren't a cull. Nonetheless, something serious must be done about TB. It's like the foot and mouth crisis but slow-burning, and with more possibility of harm to humans. The organic farm next to us sold six breeding heifers -- a substantial and important sale for them -- four of which tested positive for TB and had to be destroyed. So the whole sale was lost, lots more animals were pointlessly destroyed, and the farm was locked down -- a disaster for which even generous financial compensation could not compensate, and the amounts paid are far from generous. Because they were so near us, and we certainly share families of badgers, our alpacas had to be tested too. Luckily they all came up negative. If any had been positive then they would all have been immediately slaughtered, and a flat rate of 750 pounds paid per carcase -- quite good for a wether, which would usually be sold live for about 500-600 pounds, but woefully inadequate for the bulk of our herd which are breeding females and start at about two grand, and ludicrously insufficient for a stud male, for which you'd pay at least ten grand. Nonetheless, if it had happened it would not have been the financial loss which would have got to my parents. They have bred these animals, carefully choosing bloodlines, delivering the babies and halter-training them at weaning, for ten years now. They would have been utterly devastated. And it's not so much different for people who breed for meat, either. It really annoyed me when the foot and mouth crisis was on that people would say that it shouldn't make much difference as long as farmers were paid a market price for their animals -- such a stupid townie thing to say.

It's not easy to see what's the best thing to do; and the government gives the strong impression that it's doing its best to stop anyone finding out. If you pick up a dead badger by the road (there are some parts of our lifestyle to which we sacrifice multiple badgers without a second thought) it is illegal to test it for TB. No one is quite sure how infected the badgers are. It is illegal to vaccinate your own cows or alpacas, etc, let alone trying to vaccinate the badgers. (It's illegal to fill in a hole left by a badger, even if long out of use, which is frankly just unworkable -- one dug a hole in the middle of our drive and just left it there -- they're certainly not stupid enough to try to live in the middle of our drive.) If a cull is on the cards, that seems like a shame to me; but to pretend that we can produce food for humans without sometimes causing wholesale animal death around us is revoltingly hypocritical, and to care more about animal than human suffering is just fatuous. What everyone round here wants is for their animals to have a happy life and a quick death, and they want that death to be for a purpose; they want a population of undiseased badgers; and they want to earn money from their farming not from compensation paid by people who have just destroyed their farming.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

All sorts of nice things, and one troublesome thing

Nice things
1. I strongly advise you to watch this video about a gorilla.
2. This man who got stuck in a river had standards which he would not compromise: first he was too embarrassed to call for help, and then he refused to let firemen pull him out unless it was with his trousers still on.
3. Here is a touching story about two people who had both had a miserable battering at the hands of life but met when they picked the same suicide spot and are now getting married.
4. Now this woman has a gun she is no longer scared of tramps. (Is this a genuine advert?)
5. Our prehistoric forebears got up to all sorts of stuff. Let's hope they all loved each other very much. (My favourite comment on this is the man who says he doesn't think artists have been painting Neanderthals sexy enough.)
5a. There's an iphone/Android app for Neanderthalising yourself. It's called MEanderthal.
6. A young man who had a difficult time growing up gay in Vermont at least has a wonderful mother who wrote a letter to the local newspaper in response to some homophobic opinions. This is actually really old, so hopefully the youth has got to somewhere more accepting now.
7. Would you like the day better if you could hear the sound of rain? Here is a site that does that. I have tried it and decided that I don't particularly find the sound of rain helpful.
8. Bronte sisters action dolls! I do like how angry Anne looks. What a shame they're not a real product; otherwise they'd be on my amazon wishlist for my god-daughter when she's a bit older:

9. This animation where a kid with asperger's interviews his mother is really sweet and quite funny. I like when he asks her if she has any mortal enemies.

Q&A from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

10. You should really hear Big Mama Thornton singing Hound Dog, which was originally her song before Elvis did it. Excellent stuff.

11. I keep forgetting to blog about how much I love the Bugle podcast. Since discovering it a few months ago I have developed and then successfully suppressed an unsuitable crush on John Oliver.
12. The Drunk History project involves getting someone very drunk, asking them to recount some history, and then acting out their narration with quite famous actors. Vol. 3, about Oney Judge, is actually rather moving, and Vol. 5 is also great.

13. Justin Bieber has been out-Biebered by a kid called Grayson Chance. (I looked on yesterday and Grayson was trending in Exeter, which suggests that the whole phenomenon is probably over by now anyway.) Bieber was upset about this, because apparently twitter has changed their tweet trend rules. Anyway there's now a thing called Twieber, which describes itself as "twitter for beliebers". "Twieber" is trending on twitter. How much this makes your head hurt depends exactly on how many times your age is divisible by twelve.

The troublesome thing is Facebook. I watch the repeated furores about facebook as a non-user -- I was first introduced to it long ago when I did a lot of teaching, and felt that my multi-facetedness was an appropriate part of my professional life rather than some sort of hypocrisy. People are getting very upset about the privacy issues. The most sensible comment I saw was, I think, on boing boing, where someone pointed out that for facebook you are not their customer, but their product. I think that makes it all a bit less inflammatory. Facebook puts a lot of programming time, infrastructure and general effort into making a facility that people find useful, and if you want to use it then it's up to you to consider whether you think the exchange of data for features is fair. Their actual customers are the companies who mine that data. The problem is that Facebook keeps changing what it does with data, and is a bit obfuscatory about privacy options. (In my brief membership of facebook, back when it would only accept university e-mails, I had two accounts, one for and one for, and I used the one solely as a means of checking up that my account was as hidden as I wanted it to be.) Anyway, if you're interested, here's the story about the Facebook founder calling his early adopters "dumb f**ks" for trusting him with their data; here's the story about how even things you delete from your account remain on facebook's records and will still be used for data-mining; here's an interesting thing suggesting that facebook should be as transparent about exactly what is happening with your data as it thinks you should be with that data yourself, e.g. by logging all searches and views and letting you see what third-parties have had access to it. If I used facebook I would probably find all this pretty disturbing -- but then I have a friend who refuses to get a nectar card because he doesn't want the supermarket to get to keep track of what he buys, and I don't have a problem with that, so it's all relative. (Although it is a tad depressing when they send me lots of targetted vouchers for Pinot Grigio and Chocolate Digestives, as if their computer has run me through a system and decided I'm Bridget Jones. Also, although I usually quite like the Amazon feature where it suggests things you might like based on the purchasing histories of people who also liked them, once even though I had been buying nothing but novels and popular history it decided that my next purchase should be a book on living with borderline personality disorder, which felt a little judgemental.)

Monday, 17 May 2010

Montacute House

The other day I went to Montacute House, near Yeovil in Somerset, with my mother and grandmother. It's an excellent place, and if you find yourself in Somerset I strongly advise giving it a look. It has two very good things about it. First, the house itself, a lovely late Elizabethan construction built out of the local hamstone (named after Ham Hill, where it's quarried), a sort of warm honeycomb-coloured limestone. It's really beautiful, very harmoniously designed, set in parkland so that you are presented with vistas in all directions, over formal gardens to gently rolling hills. The rooms are lovely, with panelling and carved fireplaces, and windows set in diamond lights between lead. You couldn't want to live there in the present day, but I found it hard not to long to live there properly, in the seventeenth century, playing shuttlecock in the immense Great Gallery on wet days, singing catches with the family after dinner, and sleeping in a bed with wooden doors. The grounds look lovely too, but my grandma is in a wheelchair most of the time, and getting round the house was quite enough of a challenge for her.

Secondly, it's a sort of outpost of the National Portrait Gallery. When the house was given to the National Trust some decades ago it was completely bare, and had in fact been sold for architectural salvage. They managed to pull together, mostly through loans, a good deal of appropriate furniture from the late Elizabethan period onwards, and they borrowed a very large number of portraits. They have occasional exhibitions there, and the current one was the main reason I had wanted to go. The National Portrait Gallery has a number of pictures which were bought as portraits of someone specific, and then later shown not to be that person, and so sit in the storage vaults being all anonymous. They got some famous authors to write very short stories inspired by some of these portraits, and these are on exhibition together there at present. (There's an accompanying book, called Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1540-1640.) It was an enjoyable exhibition, but I was also really impressed by the other portraits on display there, also loaned from the NPG. The London galleries display material chosen as much for historical significance as quality, and this means that there is a lot of material not on display available for loan to Montacute, again chosen as much for historical meaning as for quality, but with a subtle difference in the historical criteria for selection. I really loved, for example, a group of monarch portraits hung in one of the rooms off the long gallery. This was put together to make an appropriate set at some point in the Jacobean era, but with many of the pictures from a late Elizabethan set. So it includes not only excellently archaic looking medieval kings but Anne Boleyn, presumably as a compliment to her daughter, and a wonderful angry-looking Mary Tudor. Here is that picture, copyright National Portrait Gallery from the NPG website, but you'd have to see it larger to really get the full effect of the subtly furious eyebrows and set mouth.

Also off the long gallery were three rooms containing Henrician, Elizabethan, and Jacobean portraits respectively, and there were some more down the length of the gallery (which is the longest such surviving). They're not quite the best pictures ever, not stand-alone masterpieces, and often attributed to a workshop, or an anonymous Dutch painter, or "after Holbein"; but they are not the sort of copies which take something well-balanced and bland it down, they're the sort of copies which take something well-balanced and slightly unbalance it. A lot of them are just a little bit wonky or exaggerated in a way that makes them look very modern, and gives them a Paula Rego-style ultra lucidity. There are oddly elongated faces, an emphasis on patterns, and bold shapes and colours, and a sense that everything's just very slightly off. It was one of those odd places that makes you feel inspired to write something, but you're not quite sure what. I think I might go back alone in the summer with an empty notebook and write a historical murder mystery about time-travelling aliens. Or my long-planned raunchy TV drama about the reign of James VI and I. There are excellent portraits there of a number of the main movers in those events, including a young intense-looking Prince Henry, and a wonderful picture of the 3rd earl of Essex, the man who was psychologically hammered in Frances Howard's racy annulment suit but whom she didn't quite manage to poison, looking all gauche and with a head too large for his body. Poor soul. He went on to be a great Parliamentarian general -- good for him.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Amiable TV

Some months ago I suggested to some people that Ice Ice Baby was ripe for re-evaluation as a great song. (This was before all the Jedward/Halifax nonsense, which obviously doesn't count.) The people in question were sceptical -- sceptical to the degree that next time I saw them they brought up their scepticism again. So the fact that this week's episode of Glee started with the rehabilitation of Ice Ice Baby, properly, with dancing, makes me feel all vindicated: as usual, I am so ahead of the curve. Therefore I think I am allowed to do a very self-indulgent post in which I pick out some songs they ought to do in a UK-based episode called Gluk, or maybe What the Gluk?! since it's not really about subtlety -- I'm envisaging something along the lines of that Friends episode where they all went to London and Joey met the Duchess of York.

First has to be those sinister pointy-faced boys from Bros, I think with I Owe You Nothing (though When Will I Be Famous? might fit a Glee storyline better). This song should be played to people who complain about the recent prevalence of autotune in pop.

Definitely something by Robert Palmer, probably Bad Case of Loving You. No autotune required:

Certainly some Adam Ant. Prince Charming would seem the most obvious, with its message that Ridicule is Nothing to be Scared Of, but I think I'd prefer the Dandy Highwayman:

There ought to be something sixties, probably by the Beatles, but my favourite Beatles song is Happiness is a Warm Gun, and you couldn't really fit that into a US high-school drama without some pretty ungleeful storylines. So I think it has to be either Help! (excellent Ringo video) or Twist and Shout:

Definitely some George Michael, probably Faith (embedding disabled by request). And there has to be something modern too, perhaps Dizzee Rascal's Dance Wiv Me. Probably also some guesting chirpy cockneys doing Blur's Parklife.

There are also some American songs I'd really like to see them do, but given that they've already done Color Me Badd's I Wanna Sexx You Up, Bel Biv Devoe's (That Girl Is) Poison, and MC Hammer's You Can't Touch This, they can probably be relied upon to put at least some of these in: Offspring, Pretty Fly (For a White Guy); Backstreet Boys, Everybody (here is what should have been the official video); Meatloaf, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That); Enrique Iglesias, Ping Pong Song (Do You Know What It Feels Like), and Jermaine Stewart, (We Don't Have To Take Our) Clothes Off (To Have A Good Time, Oh Yeah):

(That's a great video: Jermaine Stewart must have been some of the inspiration for Andre 2000, and I love the bit at the end where he won't even let her take his hat off.)

But I'm disappointed that they jettisoned Tina's stammer without taking advantage of this song by Scatman John, which I seem to remember really annoyed everyone I ever played it to when it came out in 1995. When it comes to ways of beating a profound stammer, releasing a ridiculously catchy sub-jazz pop single and becoming a huge hit in Europe and Japan is pretty classy, especially if you look like a 1960s bank manager:

It's a scooby dooby dooby, scooby dooby melody!

Friday, 7 May 2010

That's all the books for now

I think this post sees me caught up with books I have read recently, except that I recently reread every single one of Jilly Cooper's novels with girls' names, in an access of nostalgia. The best one is probably Prudence.

The House by the Thames, Gillian Tindall
The story of an old house on Bankside and the people who lived there. I'm afraid it's just insufficiently interesting. All the good bits were just bits which reminded me of other books, like the mud larks in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, and the boatmen in Our Mutual Friend.

Gold, Dan Rhodes
About a girl who goes once a year to a small village and gets mildly involved in its gentle village events. Touching and quite funny. Much like Timoleon Vieta Come Home by the same suthor.

Bareback, Kit Whitfield
Set in a world where everyone is a werewolf, except for some people who undergo a mild form of brain damage at birth, this is quite an angry book. The non-werewolves, or barebacks, are despised and feared by the rest of the population because on days around the full moon they are in charge of keeping order and use drastic measures to do it. The barebacks hate the werewolves because of their contempt and their habit of maiming people while in wolf form. Quite a well realised book, but a bit brutal.

Anianos of Kleitor, George Economou
A novel in the form of some fragmentary Greek poetry with commentary on it down the years. Very good, quite evocative, but not hugely substantial. And the boys' humour pun of the author's name in Latin seems a bit unnecessary.

The Day of the Barbarians, Alessandro Barbero
Does what it does very well, that is investigate the events leading up to the battle of Adrianople in 378, the battle itself, and its implications. I felt like it made quite a few things a bit clearer for me, particularly the Roman empire's need for immigrant settlers, although it's certainly written from an Italian point of view. At just 146 pages before the notes start it's quite a short book, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since it allows it a pretty specific focus. For the time being though, while I'm still listening on and off to Gibbon's Decline and Fall in audiobook form, I've had to stop reading about Classical and Antique history in any other way because it just gets too confusing.

Blacklands, Belinda Bauer
I don't really like thrillers, but this is quite a well-written story. It's about a boy whose family has been angry and miserable ever since his uncle went missing at about the same age as he is now. It seems almost certain that a particular serial killer killed the long-lost boy, and his nephew is now systematically digging on Exmoor to try to find the body, in the hope that this would settle things for his mother and grandmother and that they could then be more like a normal family. But unfortunately he has the idea of writing to the killer in prison to ask for help. It's quite a well-written book, with a real bogeyman of a baddie. But in places it's not entirely realistic -- would a mother, finding a letter simply asking for a photo in her loner eleven-year-old son's bag, really see this as evidence that he had or was about to knock up some girl?

The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick
If you read lots of middlebrow modern fiction you would spot that many now have narrators with various mental illnesses or conditions, and you might come to the conclusion that the mentally ill have gained a voice. This sounds like a good thing, but unfortunately it's the voice of an animated teddy bear. The mentally ill bumble along being harmless and lovable except that sometimes they get confused and violent, and then they're very sorry. Is this a step forwards? No it is not. This book is a readable way to spend time, but I'm afraid that in the abstract it is objectionable. Another recent one like this is The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams. There is a huge variety of mentally ill people in real life, and I fail to see why in novels they should all sound like talking dogs.

One Day, David Nicholls
Very well done book which follows a man and a woman on the same day every year. Individually they are both slightly annoying people, but it's hard not to want to see them get together. Excellent stuff, oddly moving, with very convincing characters.

Love Child, Allegra Huston
Allegra Huston's mother died when she was only four years old, and she spent a lot of her life being something of an afterthought, passed around between relatives and step-families. She met her film director father for the first time after her mother died, only to find out when she was twelve that he wasn't her real father after all -- to his credit he treated her no more coldly, perhaps even rather better, than his other children, who included Anjelica Huston. Anjelica comes across as a really sweet person, who tried to make a home for her younger sister whenever she could, which is how Allegra ended up living in Hollywood with Jack Nicholson and other film types, and going to mad parties which actually don't seem to have done her much harm. Her real father turned out to be John Julius Norwich, which seemed to me like a bit of luck until I read that on first meeting the poor twelve-year-old girl he gave her the three volumes of his father's diaries and the one volume of his mother's. A well written book, and quite poignant.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Hurray for books

Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe
This is the story of the foundation of the colony Jamestown in Virginia in the early seventeenth century, but set in a not too distant post-apocalyptic future. The settlers have come down from Manhattan, which is at war with Brooklyn, to try to find oil and unpolluted food. It's really an oddly touching love story between Pocohontas, who is an angry teenager, and John Rolfe, who has been beaten down by seeing terrible things. This is actually a very excellent book. I can't remember how it got onto my amazon wishlist, since although I quite liked The Sleeping Father it didn't wow me, but I'm glad it did, because it is unusual.

Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King
When I started reading this I had this wierd but comfortable feeling that this is what books used to be like in my reading heyday, say about fifteen years ago. Which, as it happens, is about when it was written. I think it's the fusion of myths, ordinary life, and humour which made me think of the mid-90s, particularly Jeanette Winterson at her best. Four very old and usually comatose Indians go missing from a mental asylum in Florida. They are heading to a Native American reservation in Canada, where they get mixed up in a not especially helpful way with the lives of people there. Very good stuff. I am going to hunt out some other things by him.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Jesse Bullington
Odd mythical tale set in a slightly alternative medieval Europe. Rather more action sequences than I'm really capable of absorbing. But interesting and odd. The eponymous brothers are professional grave robbers and total scum, who encounter some very odd things in the woods of middle Europe, and have some unusual theological viewpoints. The story is set on their travels towards Egypt, a grave-robbers' Shangri-La.

The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak
I was finding this irritatingly chick-lit-y at first, but it quickly became much more interesting. It's mostly about Turkish and Armenian people, especially in the American diaspora, coping with the past Turkish treatment of Armenians, but with a satisfying quantity of uncovering past family secrets. It captures that odd thing about humanity where it's clear just how completely impossible it is for us all to get along, and then how much simple human connections can make it possible for people to get along. Maybe it's because we're not the best nation at reading literature in translation that books like this get covers -- in this case full of purple, pink, blue, and gold and with squiggly writing -- which position them a few levels downculture in the women's weekly 3-for-2 market. Alaa al Aswany's Yacoubian Building was another such.

Soulless, Gail Carriger
Now this is real chick-lit. I quite like chick-lit, but it has to be well enough done not to be too annoying. This nearly annoyed me by being clearly written by an American even though it's set in England, but I decided just to see this as a testimony to how good Elizabeth Peters is (she never puts American English into her English characters' mouths). Basically the premise is that Heyer-era London society -- Carrigan clearly loves her Heyer, which is an amiable characteristic -- is heavily infested with vampires and werewolves, who have reached an accommodation with humans and live among them. The heroine has been born without a soul, and can neutralise supernatural powers by her touch -- this gets her into shocking social situations. Entertaining in a harmless sort of way; a good airport book.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

More miscellaneous stuff

Here are some special glasses for looking at gorillas without threatening them. I think it would also be comfortable to wear them in other public situations, like maybe on the tube.

Land carpet! Quite nice.

Nicola Barker is great. I also like Hark a Vagrant; here is a good one on Macbeth.

Popjustice has links to good music by Kele and Hurts.

Here are some cute babies racing while wearing political pants:

Continued books

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
The heroine is a precocious and rather unpleasant ten-year-old girl with a fondness for distilling poisons from things she finds around the house or garden. Her mother died when she was very little, her father is pretty absent, and she and her older sisters have a relationship of mutual torturing. An old-style country house murder, well plotted and executed, and oddly comforting in the way that such murders are -- I hope there will be many more in the series.

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior, Paul Strathern
A sort of group biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia, based around a time in 1502 when da Vinci was working as a military engineer for Borgia while Machiavelli was in attendance on him as an ambassador of Florence. Cesare Borgia was the brother of Lucrezia Borgia, and had a habit of killing her lovers. Their father was Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, who had the idea of using his papal power to set up territories which could be ancestral Borgia possessions, and who put Cesare in charge of the armies to achieve this. These ambitions may even have encompassed turning the papacy into a hereditary possession of the family, much like it had been five centuries earlier in the time of the Tusculanii and Crescentii. Machiavelli was very impressed by Borgia, and may have been all for the secularisation of the papal territories on the grounds that it was the papacy which was attracting lots of foreign attention into Italy, and making it the complex mess it was throughout the later middle ages and early modern period. Ideally the papacy, as the headship of Western Christendom, would not be an inherited post, but at this point no one seems to have thought of the papacy in moral terms at all -- that the pope held banquets at which various sexual acts were the after-dinner entertainment is attested not by his enemies but by his own master of ceremonies -- so you can sort of see what Machiavelli was thinking. The fact that whenever the pope wanted some more armies he just offered some sort of indulgence to a ruler of a neighbouring kingdom was pretty destabilising. For example, King Louis XII of France wanted a divorce from his wife in order to marry his predecessor's widow, Anne of Brittany, and thus keep her territories under French control. He had no grounds whatsoever for the divorce, so he alleged that his wife was deformed in a way that made consummation impossible. (She was not thrilled by this.) Alexander VI granted the divorce in return for money and troops which Cesare Borgia used to carve out his own territory in the Romagna. (Louis XII's last wife, the one who theoretically danced him into his grave, was the sister of Henry VIII, whose own rather more reasonable divorce request was not granted because by that point it was the Spanish who controlled the papacy, with interesting results.)
Anyway, I enjoyed this book, which brought various aspects of the time together quite effectively. I've never read The Prince on the grounds that it would probably depress me, but Machiavelli comes over as an interesting and entertaining person here, so maybe I will. His letters to his friends are very tongue-in-cheek -- annoyingly the author of this book seems to take them all at face value. For example, a letter from one of Machiavelli's friends congratulating him on the birth of his son, and saying what a relief that he looks at you so you know you haven't been cuckolded, is taken by this author as evidence that there was serious doubt over the paternity of the child, and he brings forward as further evidence for this the fact that Machiavelli's wife wrote to her absent husband asking him to "come back soon" -- so that he can see the child's resemblance for himself, apparently. Hmmmph.

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
Another book I'd been holding off on reading because I knew I would enjoy it, and it did not let me down. It's set after the Second World War, when England's country-house gentry underwent a suddent decline into poverty and irrelevance. (I don't recommend the Wodehouse books from this period, they're as depressing as asking a farmer about farming.) A small-town doctor gets to know the mother and two grown-up children who live in the local big house when he's called in to treat their one remaining house maid. The son was badly wounded in the war, and the doctor starts to worry about his mental state. Spooky like the author's Affinity but not as crushing.

Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles
I can't remember how this got onto my Amazon wish list, but I do know there were heavy recommendations behind it. But I just completely didn't get it -- perhaps in the same way I didn't get A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Bits of it were mildly amusing but in general it seemed insufficiently interesting. Perhaps it didn't help that it has a peculiarly revolting foreword by Truman Capote, which has put me off ever reading In Cold Blood in case it turns out to be as fey.

The Love of Stones, Tobias Hill
How does this book manage to be so dull? I gave up about half-way through, still unsure whether or not I had read it before. A story about someone pursuing a long-lost jewel through their shady underworld contacts, with flashbacks to the history of the jewel itself and stories of legendary jewels from history, really ought not to be such a total chore to read. Remarkable in its way.