George Michael Goes Missing

192 pages. Published by Viking, November 2016.

I loved this concise and cheerful Christmas-detective book -- covering everything from why Christmas has long featured certain types of food to the songs we sing and the fairytales we believe in (not least about Santa Claus). Next year it will make a wonderful Christmas gift -- and I say this as one that is shy about buying others books these days. We all like what we like, but my goodness you'd have to be some sort of Grinch not to get some pleasure from this!

The ending in particular took me by surprise. 

In the Epilogue we are told:

An annual feast will always have something missing: the empty chair at the Christmas table where somebody used to sit, who is now missing. And one day, I suppose, I shall be missing too; and you, dear reader, will be missing; and everyone we sit down with this year, old and young, will one day be missing. And the feast will continue.
That is how it always has been and must be. Things disappear, like pieces being slowly removed from a jigsaw puzzle. For children, Christmas is everything they might be given; for an adult Christmas is everything we have lost. This is a truth that was as clear to Charles Dickens as it was to George Michael.

George Michael! The one that wrote 'Last Christmas', the biggest-selling pop song that never become Number 1 on the charts, I think I read in the news report -- and the one that died in the middle of Christmas Day. The uncanny mention gave me a start.

A Minotaur in Miniter

The author's idol is Ernest Hemingway, a paragon of manliness much referred to in this book.

The author's idol is Ernest Hemingway, a paragon of manliness much referred to in this book.

There are three things, according to this book, that will make a man (or 'man', if you're female) of you: 1) Confront what you fear *or don't want to see*. (Yep: I know all about that -- especially the part in the asterisk, about which more in a moment.) 2) Reject comfortable self-preservation in favour of taking reckless risks, even if there is no beneficiary other than your pride or relief in having dodged a bullet. 3) Manliness is the strength to be found, in addition to items 1) and 2), in belonging to a group that shares a code.

It's hard to know where to begin in critiquing this. On the one hand, the 'code' stuff is obvious and important -- but it's not sufficient. The code -- many examples of which are given at the end of the book in an appendix -- is all-important. ISIS members have a code, and it's evil. What you fight for is more important than your 'manliness' in fighting for it, since it's better to be a less-than-brave man on the side of justice than to be a very courageous man on the side of INjustice -- something the author acknowledges early on but then leaves aside. The way of mediating among codes -- which code to choose -- requires philosophical and political thought and judgement, which is well outside the scope of this book.

Then there is the vulgarity. The author uses the word 'gentleman' on occasion, but the nature and quality of a gentleman are almost entirely outside his interest and understanding. You won't find anything like Harvey Mansfield's discussion of what distinguishes manliness from gentlemanliness -- and how and where they overlap -- in this book. There is very little genuine reflection in it. So we might say that Miniter's idea of manliness is that the manly man doesn't inquire or reflect very much. He may think that the whole book is an inquiry and a reflection, but what I found instead is an affirmation: entirely a different thing. And what was affirmed was very often the Wisdom of the Manly Masses, the Self-Approval of the Manly Herd. But what comes across most strongly is not that they need to feel connected to real living (guess what?-- we all do) but rather that the only things that connect them are extreme, thrill-seeking, risk-for-its-own-sake experiences -- as if life, just by being life, isn't dangerous and tricky enough!

We are told by the author that real men are manly for the sake of something beyond themselves. Yet the centerpiece of the book -- the Pamplona bull runs -- doesn't bear this out. I am much more impressed by the military men that, with or without vulgarity, put their lives on the line for the higher good of free and decent self-government and peace in the world. I am much less impressed by the exemplars typically described in this book. Far from making manliness seem grand, Miniter succeeds in making it a brute, insensible, and rather pitiful need.

*What we don’t want to see*: how many of Miniter’s exemplars face up to THAT? How many have more than a willingness to do physical harm or have such harm done to themselves?

A Girl In Winter

An out-of-print edition, with its memorable, evocative cover art.

An out-of-print edition, with its memorable, evocative cover art.

I really enjoyed this -- and I hope it's all right if I say that I think it especially accomplished, considering that the poet-author was very young at time of writing it (24, if my memory is correct). It's a coming-of-age story told largely in retrospect, but not entirely; it takes up a favourite theme of mine as a writer, which is the difference between perception and reality and the way that people feel they move back and forth between distorted and actually reliable views. They may, of course, be wrong, even at the supposed moment of clarity.  I found the end of the book especially memorable, emotionally catching: and that's the sign of a writer that knows his business. After writing this (in 1947), Larkin dropped the novel as a medium that he thought others did better in; but I'm glad he bothered. Almost no life is too short for fitting this into it, in my opinion.


This very enjoyable book presents its information in short entries for the modern distracted and highly distractible reader. Let's face it, we are not the sort of people who, like the Germans once upon a time, positively pride themselves on reading long and difficult academic books. We are will o' the wisps, chasing after other shiny lights as they flash in the near and far distance.

I do have a few minor criticisms. Despite what looks like an extensive index, it isn’t extensive enough, while the internal cross-referencing ('see p. —') is occasionally overdone (in one case we are asked to refer to the page we’re actually looking at: it’s just an editorial slip: the page we are meant to see is nowhere in the vicinity, as the index confirms). At times, despite the breezy tour-guide treatment, I felt that more precision was warranted. For instance, in the entry entitled 'An Actor's Lot', we're told that 'Playwrights were allowed only three actors (all males)...'. The obvious question is Why? (and By Whom?), but no reason is given or suggested. For another example, the Dardanelles are mentioned several times, but never once does Dr Jones take the opportunity to tell us that the straits used to be called the Hellespont (‘Greek sea’, in essence) from one mass of water (the Aegean) to another (the Black Sea). A strange omission. Given that many readers will have heard of the Hellespont, this can be somewhat confusing. ('Where does the Hellespont we heard about fit in?’). But unless you're an expert on all things ancient Greek, I'd go ahead and buy the book anyway.

Snow White

Angela Barrett is a fabulous painter and illustrator

written by Josphine Poole and illustrated by Angela Barrett

A beautiful version, both in the direct yet elegant telling and in the gorgeous, intelligent, and imaginative illustration. A couple of questions, though: why does the prince look like everyone else at the final coffin scenes, instead of looking distinguished? He begs Snow White to marry him, but we get no sense of their interaction, never mind why she might want to consent! Amid the coffin-bearers, when the glass lid is finally open, Snow White seems to be looking at no one in particular, and it's not hard to wonder why. (Many of the onlookers seem to be gazing at an unseen star well over her head.) Ask a friend to pick out the prince and see whether he/she can!

Meanwhile the writer is excellent at indicating *why* things happen, in this book, without aping the phrasings of other writers, and does an admirable job. I love the addition of birds (I assume they are additions) to watch over the glass coffin. I did wonder, however, why the evil stepmother brought a rose to the wedding to put on the bride's pillow. Do most wedding guests have access to the bride's pillow? I should have chosen the bride's bouquet as a more obvious and accessible place to place a poisoned rose. But these are quibbles.

Beauty And The Beast

by Max Eilenberg, with illustrations by Angela Barrett

by Max Eilenberg, with illustrations by Angela Barrett

The story is beautifully, classily told by Mr Eilenberg, even if he does use the occasional English idiom with which Americans may not be familiar (both he and the illustrator are English). The writing is pacy, emotive, and sincere in the best possible way. The language is not moon-june-spoon though it is certainly clear -- delivering on the publisher's promise that this is a tale for anybody (of the romantic bent. There is also a dry sense of humour, just enough, in the right places. Bravo, Mr Eilenberg!

As for the paintings: they are intelligent, and most are unspeakably gorgeous, and they illustrate the scenes and emotions with great imaginative flair and taste. The artist has a sensitive eye for beauty and pathos, which comes out in the delicate colouring, the scene-design, and the facial or body expressions of the characters. Angela Barrett is a rare and special artist. I shall be looking out for whatever she does that is still in print.

Why is this book not in print? It certainly lacks nothing. Perhaps it is too good. 

The Twelves Dancing Princesses

It's tempting, when praising a fairytale book, to rave about the painting but ignore the writing. In this case, despite the exquisite oil paintings by the author, the writing must also be given its due. The story is beautifully, flowingly, evocatively told. Ruth Sanderson is one talented lady.

by Ruth Sanderson

by Ruth Sanderson

What can you say about the illustrations, having gawped at them happily, page after page? I did have doubts, at first, about the half-short half-long hairdo of the Lad in this story (his name is Michael): the look of a 70s boyband idol? But I got over that. The people in this book are represented as individuals, but not overly so: I actually prefer slightly idealized faces in fairytales (think, for instances, of the faces in Arthur Rackham's work). Everyone is given real expressiveness, genuinely expressing what we can imagine, as told by the text, are their thoughts. The only time that I thought this failed to happen was when the princess is telling the Lad her real thoughts, and she looks as if she's reaching out for a beloved dog or child rather than crying out to intervene. Also -- and this is a quibble but as an artist I think it's worth mentioning -- the dancing shoes are supposed to be worn out. We see these worn-out shoes, as motifs, on page after page. But the shoes are represented as having become unstitched from their soles: gaping open at the toe and beyond. Now, I know that this is fantasy, so anything can happen. But surely the important sign of a worn-out shoe is that the heels are worn (and the toes are scuffed). Hence the term for a poor person -- 'down at heel'. Worn heels.  (My husband doesn't agree with me, by the way. He thinks that in this fantasy world, the shoes fall apart structurally even if they don't degrade mechanically. He may be right, but I'm not convinced.) Otherwise, Ms Sanderson doesn't miss a trick.

Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality

An anthropological work of value, by Paul Barber

An anthropological work of value, by Paul Barber

Fascinating and unexpected; wholly original research; entirely free of fantasy but sympathetic to the human capacity for creating it. Nice clear prose, without padding. (This edition has a new preface.) I give it five stars because, apart from any other consideration, there is no book I know of that is even remotely like this. It is path-breaking and stands by itself.

Barber's book is a rational investigation into the claims made by Eastern European folklore -- its witnesses and spectators -- who often observed the processes of decay but did not understand what they were seeing and therefore came up with what seemed like plausible explanations for them. Barber expertly separates fact from folklore but also shows how they intertwine, in ways that uneducated locals were unaware of. Their account of the often bizarre mysteries of death makes sense when you understand, as Barber shows us, that they believed Nature to have will and personal agency. We moderns are still free to examine their accounts for truthful clues about the reality of nature contained within them.

I always enjoy learning new words, and this book taught me 'apotropaic', which means 'methods of turning evil away' -- see chapters 7 & 8. Many apotropaics were applied to decomposing bodies not properly settled in their graves, since the pre-scientific peoples were not familiar with the facts of decomposition (but only with rigor mortis, which they expected to last).

The Strange Last Voyage Of Donald Crowhurst

I can't say enough good things about this book, which I've read three times and which is a desert-island treasure for me, along with only a handful of others. It is massively moving -- the poetry written by Crowhurst, found in his trimaran's logbook, is not only affecting (which is more important in poetry (like singing) than any kind of technical perfection), but is also especially important in revealing yet another facet of this riveting and beautifully told real-life drama. Crowhurst's moral dilemma is the dilemma of an essentially fine man, but a man that is not particularly privileged and finds himself hard up against certain realities: I like him. Very much. And I love the details, the by-now period feel of the time and of the book, and the 'players' that reacted to him and tried, with varying success, to bolster him up. 

Once met, never forgotten.... He was not your ordinary sort of man, and this is not an ordinary sort of book.

Note about the co-authors: Ron Hall was directly involved in the Golden Globe single-handed sailboat circumnavigation race that led to Crowhurst's trouble; Nicholas Tomalin was a journalist, killed by a missile while covering the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His widow, Claire Tomalin, is also a writer, and has written a biography of Jane Austen.

A Race Too Far

On the same subject, see my review of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

On the same subject, see my review of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

The Golden Globe sailing race of 1968-69 is a fascinating event full of interesting characters and human drama, both on shore and at sea. If this is your first book about the subject, you are bound to love it: pacy, informative about the sea and sailing without assuming knowledge or going too much into detail, and with a real human sympathy for the people involved.

If you know about the race and have read A Voyage For Madmen by Peter Nichols or The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (by Tomalin and Hall), you may wonder what more this book can offer. Well, it's this:

1. Eakin interviews all those that are still alive and willing to talk, about their involvement in the race and its various catastrophes. We hear, for example, from Captain Craig Rich, who investigated Crowhurst's sailing positions during and after the race. People that were just names before now come forward as interesting people in their own right. Eakin has rightly judged, I think, that those already acquainted with the race story, from the Crowhurst angle or from the nine sailors angle, find their interest rippling out to the non-sailors, publicists, journalists, investors, wives and family that all played their own parts in the saga. He indulges that interest by widening the cast of 'speaking' characters in this account.

2. Eakin brings the story up to date, by sharing the thoughts and attitudes of the surviving key players, forty years on. Some have already died (e.g. Crowhurst's publicist, Rodney Hallworth), but others are old men and women whose stories and final thoughts on the drama were captured by Eakin before it was too late. In a way, the Globe race was too large an event in the lives of the competitors -- and for onlookers -- to be just about 'then'. It's a story that people have reflected on, argued about, and researched ever since. It's a story of 1968 that has a 'now', too.

3. Because there is original research, and a big-picture approach to the whole event -- people-wise, technology-wise, time-wise, and significance-wise -- one learns facts that are not presented in other accounts, and one gains a more rounded view.

The writing is very good: clear, direct, conversational, uncluttered and unpadded. Eakin effortlessly weaves the chronologies of nine different sailors: the book is tautly structured and you never wonder why he is talking about this or that now, instead of something else.

Whether you're new to the Golden Globe story or you're a completist that can't get enough, you'll find this book well worth your time.

A Shed Of One's Own

This book is the A - Z, the Hope to Despair to Beyond Caring of men's middle age, or really, human middle age in the Anglosphere. Someone apparently doesn't understand this: his review on Amazon UK complains, without any hint of a joke, that there's not enough in it about sheds. 

The book is seething and teeming with insights, wittily or even hilariously expressed and also clearly representing original thought about the subject matter. There is nothing of the borrowed or much-trodden in the book. Its subject is both researched and known intimately, inside out -- for the author was 50 while writing it: what might be called young middle age. But then again, as he explains, nobody can really agree on which age range qualifies as 'middle'. 

There are infelicities, some of which bothered me more than they bother others, I expect. There was too much of the S word and the F word, for one thing. (Does anybody actually say or think 'you bag of f----?' I'm glad to say I've never heard the expression.) His rendering (p. 118) of a 'well-established American campus joke' substitutes 'mother------' at the punchline, which not only doesn't square with the vintage of the joke, but more to the point, puts a sour lemon in your mouth at the precise moment when you should have laughed. I know this because a very eminent American academic told me his version of the joke many years ago. His version wasn't prissy: the last word was 'asshole' (though 'jerk' would have done the job). The 'senior' student of Berkmann's version was a professor in my professor's, and the joke's professor added 'young man' at the end of his comments. Princeton wasn't mentioned. The joke I know comes across as less crass and belligerent. It's how you tell 'em.

It is also curious that none of Berkmann's editors or proofreaders was aware of the difference between 'margherita', which is a style of pizza, and 'margarita', which is a cocktail. So we have this sentence:

When we complete our long years of toil, we shall gain entry to a quiet, prosperous, pastel world of golfing holidays and Caribbean cruises, resting our weary limbs on padded deckchairs while sexually ambiguous serving staff mix our margheritas and massage our aching feet. (p. 53)

The idea of torture as a condign punishment, however unreal the context, appears twice in the book, which to my mind is two times too many. And no, my second thought on seeing rioters on TV is not that it 'looks as though it might be fun' (p. 21). And no, reading the obituary of someone younger than I whose life has been cut short gives me no joy whatsoever (p. 242). Witness the case of Charlotte Furness-Smith, a serving Navy veteran and prep-school math teacher (and a beautiful girl) who drowned recently in a Dorset sea cave. I've thought about it several times with a sense of the waste and the loss, not only to herself but to all that knew or could have known her. But that's reality. Sometimes Berkmann gets carried away with the need to keep a jolly detachment from it.

Still, the man can write, and what's more he gets his teeth right in, without worrying about whether he might be going too far into truth about life, aging, and death for today's therapeutic Oprahmatic sensibilities.

The book is packed with goodies, nooks, corners, angles, and spider's webs: all the sorts of things you'd expect to find in a man's shed, in fact. No review, without regurgitating the whole book, could do its scope and curiosity about everything full justice. Some of it is rather profound. Much of it is quirky. It is hardly ever anything less than fascinating. Berkmann talks about the difference between ambition in youth, which is understandable and laudable, if perhaps in some way doomed, and the ambition of middle age, at which point one is 'driven'. But perhaps it is right to be driven still in middle age, since another word for that is 'desiring'. And what is life but desiring? Much later, he writes about parents and our tendency to throw their baggage out, and then to reclaim bits of this and that as we get older. My own feeling about my parents is ambivalent. In some ways I appreciate the freedom they gave me, the lack of nagging; on the other hand, looking back from mature adulthood, I wish they'd pushed me. Not just harder, but at all. We had very little money, but we did have a piano in the house. Why did no one ever sit me down as a small child at the piano? (I have since discovered, in adulthood, a music-writing capability). But I know the answer. They were too busy trying to stay afloat in their own lives.

At one point the author asks, 'Does a gentleman trim his pubic hair?' (p. 38). My spontaneous answer was 'Yes, if his lady does and he wants to match her, stylistically'. The unexpectedness of the book is one of its charms.

                                    -- November 2013

Verisimilitude and Period Dramas

I'm enjoying, so far, the 'prequel' to the famous Detective Morse series, Endeavour, begun in 2012 and still with episodes being filmed in 2016. It is set in the mid-1960s, and from clothes to cars, that world is wonderfully reproduced.

Still from the opening scene of the first episode of the BBC production Endeavour.

Still from the opening scene of the first episode of the BBC production Endeavour.

It's beautiful in all its details. Which is why it seemed so strange when the actors uttered, not once but twice, 'medication'. But English people did not use 'medication' as a noun in those days. I know that because I have been attentive to language all my life, and one of the differences I noticed many years ago was that English people said 'medicine' while Americans called it 'medication'. Now many if not most English people do too, probably owing to their greater exposure to American idiom through travel and especially, movies and TV. 

It's a tiny thing, but it jars when a script uses an idiom that you just know does not fit the time and place it has succeeded so well otherwise in presenting.

I should add that if one is pretending to represent an early Detective Morse, the younger man should have eyes of some sort of blue, as the late John Thaw so strikingly did. And the actor should have a voice of pointed and expressive intonation, as Mr Thaw likewise did. Alas, the young actor Shaun Evans has neither. There is, unfortunately, a lot of wide-eyeness (which Thaw's character notably lacked), and no 'there' there. The latter is not really Mr Evans's fault, but rather the writer's: without a confidant to share his true thoughts with, how does the viewer get any insight into them?

And Then There Were None

3 episodes on 2 discs, (c) Agatha Christie Productions, 2015. First appeared in the UK on BBC One television.

What Would Agatha Christie Think?

Unlike those that found this 'almost absurdly entertaining', my own enjoyment was far from total. The reason? I often had to look away. This production, though perfectly cast, wonderfully scored, and often gorgeous, is not only darker than Agatha Christie's novel (which I have read, along with most of her other works, at least once), but it is also gory. Agatha Christie didn't DO gore. The Golden Age of Crime Fiction was all about character, motivation, detection, and psychology. The gross and repulsive nature of actual murder and death were largely veiled, and seldom dwelt upon.

I’ve read most of what Agatha Christie wrote, her books being the first ‘adult’ reading of my late childhood. I’ve also seen, over the years, many screen versions of her stories. I’m happy to judge the films on their own merits, but I don’t see anything wrong with comparing the films with the books, not least because they bear Christie’s name and therefore some responsibility for her reputation. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

This 2015 adaptation of the 1939 serialized novel, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros, has an awful lot going for it. The casting is superb; the pace is brisk for the most part, and the action certainly takes off without longueurs. Much of the time it’s beautiful to look at, and the two most charismatic characters — the ones that seem most attractive despite their past — are also the ones that have most of the screen time. (I shall refrain from giving specifics because, even with a long-lived tale, those that come to it fresh deserve not to have the plot’s surprises spoiled for them.) The tone of the film seems about right at the beginning: unlike the 1945 film version, there is no slightly goofy, semi-comedic introduction to the characters. If you’re going to do Gothic, take it seriously — and this version does.

Yet, I have strong criticisms. Although the film is generally entertaining, I found it far too dark and violent: it’s really quite gory and several times I looked away, even turning the sound down and fast forwarding past the action. I know that contemporary times have a taste for gore, but Agatha Christie never intended us to wallow in brutality. What interested her, and her readers of many decades, was the puzzle of human nature and the complexity of the mystery. She wanted to assert morality through a civilized investigation of facts and motives; she was not keen to plunge anybody into a wretched contemplation of cruelty. To the extent that this film takes the cruel route instead of the more atmospheric and mysterious one, it errs. Agatha Christie’s approach was superior. I wanted to see her mystery made visual; I was not prepared to watch a horror film or slasher.

Other aspects of the storytelling also struck me as not being quite right. Take for instance one character’s backstory. It seems to unfold not only on the same day, but in the same afternoon, on the same beach — and characters that had only just met seem to be glimpsed having a torrid affair there. Later you think: what, minutes after meeting? Hours? In such an unlibertine year as England in 1939? Compression happens in fiction, but this undermines our sense of the story’s reality. Even presented to us as flashbacks, it would have been more convincing if we’d seen changes of clothing, different times of day, and a sense of a situation developing. As it is, the character falls for someone and then takes a morally grotesque decision apparently in the blink of an eye.

Another problem is that the most attractive character, presented in the decidedly toothsome handsomeness of the actor Aidan Turner, is accused of a crime that hardly squares with his chivalric behaviour.* There is something unconvincing about that: either his crime should be less culpable and less sweeping, or else he should be a nastier character than the one we’re presented with. In the end, I found myself asking which would be the better resolution. Since I liked him as the man with some rational decency, I decided that the backstory was the aspect that should have been adjusted. Nothing would have been lost in the action or narrative drive of the film. In the same way, the character played by Maeve Dermody seems to me to stray too far from the less vicious creature she started out as. Her last actions have various explanations — being driven mad over many hours would certainly warp one’s judgement — but her actions end up making less and less sense. Since we don’t believe that she began as entirely morally bankrupt, her last scenes for me were particularly unsatisfying from a character point of view. The first rule of dramatic plotting is that you never make characters behave out of character for the sake of the plot. If they do, you must provide good reason. If they even strain against what we see as their character, we the audience must feel that the strain is theirs, not ours. In this case, I wished for a different and more human ending.

Considering how busy the action is, the pace flags oddly at times in the last hour, and loses originality by giving us a filmic trope that’s been done many times: the dead person that ‘appears’ in a doorway, etc. It’s okay to suggest the dreamy disconnection from reality that both guilt and fear of death might bring. But a little goes a long way, and one shadowy figure glimpsed once is surely all we need.

One final point. The house on the island of Christie’s tale is a rather ordinary one. The house in the film is extravagant and massive — which, though visually evocative, nonetheless doesn’t make much sense. Why would such a house be built in such a remote and unpopulated location? How is the house supplied? It’s one thing to imagine that the murderer could arrange such a complex set-up as bringing a goodly number of strangers together on an island. It’s another to imagine that he was also extremely wealthy yet unknown into the bargain — or that he could borrow another person’s island for the sake of his plans. In short, the house of cards that is a work of fiction stands best when it is just a house. When you try to give it a bell tower, a conservatory, and a garage, it begins to hold up less well as a spectacle.

Update: Weeks later, my further thought about this production is that it represents a missed opportunity. If you're going to burst out of the genre constraints, then why not go the whole hog, but in a much more uplifting direction? Have the last people standing be new lovers that suddenly turn from mournfulness and defeatism to a newfound will to survive together at all costs (which is the opposite of what the movie gives us). Have it so that the clichéd nursery rhyme is wrong, and the lovers get away. Maybe the mastermind of the deadly weekend does what he does anyway: but the lovers at least have survived, through and for each other. Now that's what I call a powerful ending!

* I realized that Mr Turner is a curly-haired man when he goes to the cliff edge and the sea spray makes his lank hair suddenly springy. Continuity may not have noticed, or else they could do nothing about it. A tiny thing: but unless we are to imagine that the character had a hair-iron with him, and used it even in the midst of a nightmare, they should have tried. In the next frame he is back to being straight-haired again, most mysteriously!




The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years

by Hans Thewissen, 2014 Rating: EXCELLENT

by Hans Thewissen, 2014


This book is so worthy of praise that it's hard to know where to begin. The writing is beautiful, easy except where one must pay attention to understand the science if -- like me -- you are new to certain concepts. The narrative makes sense, and gives you an understanding not only of the fossils and their context *then* but also of the fossil-hunters and the context *now* (which is to say, in the present world and not some 48 million years ago). The author explains beautifully (there's that word again) everything that you need to know, in chapters well thought-out, often in the first person, which keeps things fresh and you-are-there. The writing is sometimes lyrical but never pretentious or apart from the need-to-know information. The illustrations are copious and invaluable. They are well explained.* Every sentence is important. Every page is an education. This is an important but also a wonderfully engaging book. The author is clearly a man of great gifts. One of my favourite natural history books ever.

* Please note: I bought this in both the hardcover and the Kindle edition. The Kindle tends to cut off the right side of diagrams and illustrations, which can be thwarting. Also, the diagrams are very small and it's difficult to make out the text in that case. The print book does not share any of these defects.

THE TRIP, Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon

Year:  2010 (as TV series in Britain); 2011 (edited & released as film).

Director:  Michael Winterbottom

[There is now The Trip To Italy (2014), with Coogan sporting a shorter, younger-looking haircut, but I haven't seen it.]

Before and after watching this film, I was curious about other people's responses to it. It's the sort of film that highly divides viewers, not because it's extreme, but because it's anti-extreme: about relatively normal people (these particular British entertainers) doing relatively normal things (driving, dining, singing, arguing, paying a visit to parents, and being half of a couple, to say nothing of shagging strangers in the hotel*). I found the various reviews, scattered around the Internet, interesting -- mainly because I disagreed with the critical ones (and even a few of the others).

To start with, we are told by one positive reviewer that Brydon's and Coogan's are 'clashing personalities'. Well, no, not exactly. I kept remarking (it's a DVD for home consumption, after all, and Mr Brenchley and I do comment at times) on how each character was a mirror held up to each other. They didn't so much clash as be candid; they didn't abrade irritatingly so much as egg each other on, irresistably. The very friction between them was a stimulant -- to them as characters and to us as viewers.

Other Trip reviewers complained, mildly, about 'repetition'. I didn't see it. The film has themes and memorable elements, as does every relationship and the sorts of conversations one has in those relationships: again, to the extent that there was any repetitiveness, it was mirroring real life. (Ever noticed that when you get ready in the morning, you have to search among your clothes, swish water about your person, and confront the tedium of cleaning your teeth?) The film made me laugh and, when I wasn't laughing, it made me feel happily engaged. I did not for one moment think: 'allo 'allo, ain't we seen this before? Why are they in the car again?  Doing impersonations? And chatting to each other?

One professional reviewer, quite oddly, mentioned the parent-visit scene as being 'over-long' and 'awkward'. It was a short scene, a small segment of the movie. Just how short does this reviewer think it should be?  And what exactly was 'awkward' about it?  --Aside from the fact that sometimes visiting people you don't know (Brydon, as he was just a hanger-on) or have little in common with (as might be surmised in the Coogan character's case) can be slightly awkward? Strange to construe an observation of the film as a failing of the film itself.  

To me, the visiting scene conveys the fact that, nice as one's parents may be, they have fulfilled their parental function, and really experienced grown-ups don't need Mummy & Daddy any more. And Mummy & Daddy are quite happy in any case to get on with their own lives. The very fulfillment of a parent's ambition -- to raise a child to adulthood and independence -- is a kind of anti-climax and negative reward. And on the child's side, gratitude is both hard to feel ('My life is for me./As well ignore gravity.' -- Philip Larkin) and a burden to live with. Does the middle-aged man care that his (fictional) mum had to have an hour's worth of episiotomy stitches after she gave birth to him, or that he broke her favourite figurine when he was ten and clumsy, or that his father always suspected that he was really the butcher's son? Doubt it. The suffering of the parents is not negligible, and sometimes never really goes away -- but the next generation always feels 'Hey, I was worth it'. Easy for them to say. Little scenes can tell you a lot, if you're willing to pay attention. The theme of what parents are willing to give up for the sake of the child is taken up again in the question of 'What if', discussed over a meal: Would Coogan accept an Oscar if his child were a bit sick (but able to recover) in exchange for it, or would he turn down all accolades as payment for his child's constant good health? The question is raised again, in a different form, at the very end of the film. Again, this is return, not repetition.

This is a strong unHollywood and even anti-Hollywood film. It's unHollywood first and foremost because there are no Big American Names (e.g. Julia Roberts), or Big Transatlantic Names (e.g. Helena Bonham Carter, who seems to have made a career out of being deathly pale and unsmiling, with dark hair), to draw in all & sundry and to interest American viewers. It's a resolutely culturally English film -- despite the fact that Brydon is Welsh and sounds it -- and despite the American girlfriend who is more absent than present in the action. (Unless Americans are very up on English comedy shows, they will not twig many of the references, and thus they will lose out on the laughs.) It's unHollywood because it has a premise rather than a plot, and does not tell you how to feel by the end of the movie, or what exactly you should make of the whole thing. And last but not least, it's unHollywood because it is set in winter, and all the beauty of the landscapes is a wintry beauty. Which makes, for this reviewer, such a lovely and refreshing change.

P. S. As mimics, both actors were astounding, but I did think that Coogan's Woody Allen impression was the one that really nailed it.

My rating:  VERY GOOD

*Listening to the Saxondale voice-over commentary (as a DVD bonus), it's quite clear that Steve Coogan wants us all to know that despite what Tommy Saxondale looks like (fake hair, false teeth, false belly, etc.), Steve himself does actually have sex appeal. Showing him 'out of costume' and, as it were, in his own character, we are given the further suggestion that a Coogan can be a woman-magnet, while also being spared graphic detail. (Saxondale is a television comedy series that post-dates Coogan's various 'Alan Partridge' programs.)



Glitches in Stitches In Time

One of the great things about being an expert is that you don't have to look things up in the manual or the recipe book every time you want to thread the sewing machine or cook a tasty meal. Another example, shared by most people, is the ability to drive: you do it more or less automatically: you don't have to think every movement through. On the other hand, the drawback of being an expert is that you're not necessarily thinking it all through. How many of us would pass a driving test tomorrow if we didn't brush up on the protocols and standards of correct driving? The problem also for experts is that a) they sometimes don't remember or grasp what the non-expert won't understand, and b) they rely a lot on memory, and sometimes their encyclopaedic memory lets them down.

I mention all this because I've been enjoying Stitches In Time, the 2015 book by Lucy Adlington about costume history. It is a brisk read, and the author has a good succinct style that whisks you from one 'data point' to another in a remarkably smooth fashion (so to speak). It should be noted that 'costume' isn't just 'fancy dress': costume is any clothing worn at any period. What you are wearing right now is a form of costume of the early 21st century. Yes, dear reader, you are a historical actor even though you are living right now! A few times in this enjoyable survey of various parts of dress -- underwear of all kinds, dresses, suits, trousers, and so forth -- I've been brought up short by a questionable presentation that I feel only an expert such as Ms Adlington would give us. 

For instance, in the first chapter we are told: 'Children might even be sewn into their underwear over winter, purportedly to protect them from chest infections' (p. 12). One wonders what that could possibly mean. It raises a gruesome image of needles weaving in and out of flesh. Probably it simply means that underwear was sewn on tightly once the child was dressed in it, so that he or she couldn't remove it without a pair of scissors or seam-rippers. For readers unfamiliar with such a practice, it might have been helpful to state this. To an expert: an obvious fact; to a non-expert, something that had to be thought about. 

Then there is the explanation of the origin of the word 'crinoline'. Because experts know things, they sometimes don't realize what they forget and what needs checking on (this is where the editor ought to be doing his or her job). Every source I have checked, including my various dictionaries, agree that the word has two parts which both derive ultimately from Latin -- via French and Italian: 'crino' (Latin 'crinis') meaning horsehair, and 'lino' meaning flax and therefore linen. Adlington, by contrast, tells us that 'crinoline' is a 'distortion'* of French words, the second part coming from 'laine', which is French for 'wool' (p. 124). It's a completely plausible explanation, as crinoline was often made with wool in the weave, and horsehair was eventually dropped -- but plausible as it is, no one else mentions wool. The 'line' part refers to flax. So the question now is whether Adlington knows this etymology and disagrees with it, as a scholar of the subject, or whether (as seems more likely), she is such an expert that she declined to look it up, and has therefore passed on an error.

We are also told that crinoline steel cages -- the understorey infrastructure of a bell-shaped skirt -- could be collapsed by the wearer even while she was wearing it. This again is hard to imagine unless you've actually seen one. Apparently it could be removed and hung up on hooks while a lady took public transport: again, hard to imagine. For one thing, were there private crinoline-quashing booths where her under-supports could be removed? It all sounds so impractical. This is why more illustrations would have been useful, even though the book has many of them (mainly line drawings, with some black-and-white photos sprinkled throughout, and a central section of colour plates). Some things need to be seen to be really understood.

Returning to underwear, and in particular, women's knickers: we remain in the dark after reading this chapter about what women's 'split drawers' were actually meant to do. After much mention of 'prudery', we never do come to learn how women with gussetless and indeed wide-open underpants actually dealt with the facts of a woman's existence. Presumably -- though this is not suggested by the author -- women used disposable wads or even something resembling a gusseted thong, which they wore between the drawers and replaced on a daily basis. But that's just supposition to account for the obvious fact that drawers without a contact point in the middle don't actually seem to protect anything. Perhaps the drawers were meant to be a further barrier to the basic central fabric that really did the business -- to hide in yet more layers the brutish facts of human biology. But then you would expect that the drawers, in performing this function, if they did it at all well, would sometimes have caught stains themselves. Which, apart from their basic and intimate nature, explains why so few drawers have come down to us. 

Onward with my reading!

*'Distortion' is a word that Adlington uses often for terms that I would instead call an anglicization, as with Spanish 'veruga' transformed into 'farthingale', an Elizabeth hooped skirt.  

Summer reading... about arsenic

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel (W. W. Norton, 2014)

This is a fascinating, unusual and original sort of book, poking as it does into little-searched corners of British social and scientific history, in a suspenseful exploration of an 1833 real-life poison murder mystery. Sandra Hempel has chosen to present both the story of that particular case and the more general tale of forensic toxicology in its infancy, beginning the book with the latter and then pulling back into a survey of the state of science and of social mores from the mid-1700s into the Victorian era. (Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, and occasionally Hempel looks beyond the 1833 case to give us a sense of where science was going, and to put the science of the time in context.) Hempel shifts often, chapter by chapter, between the dramatic events at the house of the richest man in Plumstead, Kent, and the lives and scientific concerns — and frustrations — of the men obliged to investigate those events and to bring, if they could, a murderer to justice. 

There are many benefits to giving the material this sort of treatment, which is a bit like looking at a bird through binoculars and then putting them down to scan the tree it’s in and the forest beyond. The reader gets a strong sense of place and time, the limitations that scientists were labouring under, the sometimes irrational assumptions of the period, the frightening prevalence of disease and the ignorance of doctors about it, and the character of life in this largely pre-industrial world. Players that would otherwise be simply names come alive as people — who, unlike us, did not have the advantage of hindsight. 

The downside of this shifting, back-and-forth focus is that it risks derailing the narrative drive: instead of finding out more about what the inquest found, we have to hold our horses while we learn about diseases that mimicked arsenic poisoning, methods of testing for arsenic in large quantities (arsenic is naturally present in the ground, in spring water, in food, and in our own bodies), and the careers of the various medical men and chemists involved one way or another in toxicology. Perhaps certain details could have been omitted — do we really need to know the names of a chemist’s two daughters, who don’t figure in the story at all? — and perhaps some of the scene-setting could, ever so slightly, have been streamlined. It only takes a little bout of impatience for a reader to be tempted to criticize the approach to the whole project, which is what many reviewers on Goodreads have done. But I think the approach is a sound one, and the book overall is certainly worth the time of anyone even remotely interested in the subject of toxins, criminal law, and advances in early science. In the end, the right proportion of energy spent looking at the broader scene instead of directly through the binos is a matter of personal preference. I might have done one or two things differently, but I highly recommend the book.

[A quibble: At location 1833 in my Kindle edition, we are told that one of the women had detachable pockets — that a pocket was a small cloth bag used by those that couldn’t afford a leather purse. Hempel comments that a leather bag had ‘probably’ been seen as ‘an unnecessary extravagance’ by the woman in question. But my understanding of costume of this era makes me doubt this. Pockets initially were not sewn into clothes but were worn around the waist with a tie-string. This had nothing to do with one’s wealth: it was just how pockets were made. Even if pockets were being sewn into dresses by 1833 — and I’m not sure that they were and can’t look it up just now — it may be that an elderly lady, used to making her own clothes or having them made for her before the era of mass-production, would have kept to tie-on pockets in any case. She evidently appreciated the ability to remove them and hide them and their contents under her pillow. I suspect that a lack of extravagance had little or nothing to do with it, especially considering that they were the richest people in the village.]