Readin’ and Watchin’ and Drinkin’

It seems like we haven’t had a book post in a while, dears. I certainly have a backlog of books to tell you about. First, however, some music to get you in the mood. How about the wonderful Wasting My Young Years, from London Grammar…

or perhaps TR|PW|RE, a lovely swirling, bouncy track by commenter nastybrutishntall.

I’ve just finished The Days of Anna Madrigal, by Armistead Maupin. This is the ninth book in Maupin’s Tales of the City series. If you haven’t had the pleasure of Mr Maupin’s tales, then this isn’t the book for you, and you should immediately hie yourself to a bookstore and begin at the beginning, where all good stories start, back with Mouse and Brian in the popper and dope-smoke fug of the sexy seventies. If you have been following along then, happily, The Days of Anna Madrigal is a triumph. Anna may be 92, but she still likes a toke and a dance (honestly, who thinks of these things?), and her swansong is a gentle, bittersweet trip into the past and present for Maupin’s finest creation.

I’m making my way through Greg Ross’ Futility Closet. Subtitled “An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements”, this book is a joy, not least for its … well, compendious (and fully hyperlinked) index, a masterpiece of the form which contains such gems as:

authoring papers, 67
befriending racehorses, 74
besetting airships, 19
denoting verbs, 140
governing Bombay, 187
piloting bowls, 216 …

dusty, 174
faithful, 102
marauding, 145
self-mailing, 42

Also well worth your time are Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth, a sprawling, operatic romp that rockets all over our solar system and beyond, and his Doctor Who novel, Harvest of Time, which brings Roger Delgado’s Master thrillingly back to life while (importantly) making sure the character is still just a tiny little bit crap.

If you like police procedurals and have a taste for ghosts and gods and monsters, then have a look at Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. Aaronovich’s London is perfectly evoked, and his characters get down and very dirty in the tunnels that lie beneath that stinking shithole of a city. (Thanks Tom!)

If tentacles and forebodings of doom are more your thing, then I heartily recommend Innsmouth Magazine – a thrice yearly collection of Lovecraftian tales.

TV-wise, I confess that I have been making heavy use of my AppleTV to keep myself sane until Game of Thrones and Broadchurch return, mainly because Australian television is far worse than you can imagine – a heady mishmash of bogans cooking, yellow people having their luggage searched, footballers in blackface, and current affairs shows that make Murdering Joe look like Edward R. Murrow.

I particularly enjoyed Utopia. Starring, amongst others, James Fox, Stephen Rea and the luscious Geraldine James, Utopia tells the story of a group of geeks who discover a global conspiracy hidden in the pages of a lost graphic novel. It’s incredibly, graphically violent, and beautifully shot in vibrant reds and greens. Best of all, it pays off every story thread in six taut, tight episodes. See it before some American remakes it and sucks all the pleasure out of it.


I love a bit of murder and a good frocking, and so I have been making my way through both Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Ripper Street.

The first is an adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher mysteries that lovingly recreates Melbourne between the World Wars, with lashings and lashings of blood, handsome policemen, shameless (but tastefully shot) rumpy-pumpy and the most gorgeous costumes you’re likely to see anywhere. It’s the kind of thing for which the term “frippery” might well have been coined – a glittering jewel to behold.

Finally, Ripper Street. Set in Whitechapel in the aftermath of the Ripper murders, this series doesn’t flinch from the muck, poverty and corruption of Victorian London. Matthew Macfadyen is perfectly stoic as the head of a fine cast, but for my money it’s Jerome Flynn’s magnificent turn as the lovelorn bruiser Sergeant Drake that steals the show.

So, what else should we be reading and watching?

Look to Windward

Picture: Cheugn Wattie

Iain Banks is dead of cancer at age 59.

I have long been a devotee of his books written as Iain M. Banks, and in awe of his ability to create fantastic and bizarre worlds and characters while ensuring that they were always, somehow, deeply human.

It is a sad day.

[Picture: Cheugn Wattie]

Happier than a dog with three balls

Hello, dears. Just popping my head up above the water to say hello and bring you a quick dump and run of delights.

First, I’m popping out the oldies with Lenny Bernstein’s slick version of Exultate Jubilate. The recording is very Lenny – a big church filled bombastically to the formerets with an orchestra consisting of every single fucking person in Bavaria who can play an instrument (cute violinist alert at 5.04) and a deathly silent audience, stunned into submission by the music and the stark staring terror that they might cough and Lenny would gut them with his baton. However, Arleen Auger’s voice is lovely, and this recording is the one I hear in my head if I happen to think of Lenny. It was playing one night at one of his parties, and he was serving drinks and bopping around like he usually did when he got to hear his own performances, like a drunk bullfrog that has been connected to the mains, and at the height of one particularly spastic conniption he managed to tip an entire jug of margaritas over Nancy Reagan, so it always makes me laugh. The recording of the Great Mass in C minor that goes with this on CD is a cracker, by the way.

Next, following on from Cole’s mustard abduction, a charming little story by Theodore Sturgeon called “Yesterday Was Monday” which was pointed out by KBS, and which explains everything.

Random food blogness: Fat Yu, who apparently IS FAT YU! (and also a tiny little bit racist on the Japanese), but who writes otherwise entertainingly of his eating exploits around Shanghai.

If you like a bit of tentacle in your tale and can “Ïa! ïa! Shub niggurath!” with the best of them, you might enjoy Innsmouth Mazazine. I have been working my way through them very happily, even if they do give me odd dreams.

Last, and then I am off to bed in my upside-down down-under bed, I suggest you go and see the website of sculptor Thomas Doyle to see the coolest things ever.

Goodnight my dears. Sleep well and dream of Ted Cruz slowly slipping down a slavering and drool-bespattered maw. Ïa! ïa! Cthulhu fhtagn!

I shall endeavour to propitiate you with gifts

Well kiddies, it has been a while. I plead temporary insanity – of our country, not of me.

Endless bleating that Hagel is the suxxors because he hates all Jews everywhere, or because he did and said some stupid shit in the 90s (I remember the 90s, and we all did and said and wore some pretty stupid shit in the 90s) or because he doesn’t have a big D bedazzled onto his vagina.

Endless threads derailed by people who think that the suicide of a gifted yet misguided young man is their opportunity to call him names and gloat hell-fire-and-damnation style about how he deserved to be punished, rather than an opportunity to ask whether punishment should be the sole purpose of our criminal legal system.

We (the blog and the country) seem descended upon by an army of gun nuts and open carry weirdos, wingnuts and no-nuts and just plain-ol’ nuts, godbotherers, trolls, self-appointed rape inspectors, racists and ranters and self-talkers, all bereft of empathy, compassion or good sense. Dickheads everywhere, and the screeching! Jesus.

Never mind. Presents!

First, to get you in the mood, some music:

Next, Wodehouse, always such balm to the soul. I’m linking to a story called Ruth In Exile – a lovely little snip of a thing which will more than repay fifteen minutes of your time. If you have never read beyond Jeeves, then there is a world of joy awaiting you in Wodehouse’s short stories. If you have never read Jeeves? Well, get the fuck away from me until you have. Weirdo.

Then, my obsession for the last weekend – last year’s competition papers from the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. I do admit that lingusitics puzzles might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but they kept me thinking, or at least cheating and pretending I knew the answer all along, for a good number of hours.

Food – I am going to point you to this caraway seed cake recipe from Hugh Fffernly Whiffingstable in the Guardian. It’s ludicrously easy to make. I tend to leave out the mace, substitute candied peach or apricot for the candied orange peel, and then ice the whole thing with an icing made by stirring together 2 cups of icing sugar, some grated orange rind and a big spoonful of sour cream. It’s a lovely cake – soft but with some weight, a crunchy top and that glorious anise and citrus tang of the caraway.

Finally, if you haven’t read it already, the Kitten Setting in which Mr Scalzi tells us of his inspired manner of dealing with trolls. One can dream.

ETA: Bonus!

Book thread

I saw quite a bit of Jacqueline Susann (take that how you will) during the war. Jack and I had been rewarded by our respective agencies with a cushy temporary assignment keeping an eye or two on a rather dishy German agent who was trying (and failing) to seduce Truman Capote.

Now, failing at seducing Truman is quite an achievement, given that young Fritz (for that was the German’s name) was available, adorable and Aryan, and that Truman would bang a duck if you slapped some Bay Rum on it and stuck a bottle of poppers under its wing.

The failure was none of our doing, I must add. Our bosses didn’t particularly mind if Fritz rogered Truman blind and legless and then extracted everything that Truman knew during the post-coital guilt. If Hitler wanted to know about the divine boy that Truman had sucked off at the Y last night and how yellow was Truman’s favorite color and how war was so, so sad, it was none of our concern.

Nevertheless, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances (including a dodgy curry, a spurned Sicilian-American dancer with a flick knife, an amusing misunderstanding about the meaning of the English word “submissive”, and three separate bouts of herpes), Fritz never quite got into Truman’s pants. Jack and I spent most of the time drinking gimlets and spiking Truman’s drinks with Pervitin when he wasn’t looking.

None of which is the story I originally set out to tell you, by the way. And yes, I will get to the book thread. I’m old and my mind wanders. Fuck off if you don’t like it.

Jack and I lost track of each other in the fifties because I was spending so much time in Cuba. I didn’t hear from her until 1969 when she wrote to invite me to dinner at her DC apartment – just (as Jack put it) a small dinner with close friends, a dinner with some meaning to it, a dinner that would be a celebration of something. She was, apparently, trying to get over her abortive affair with Ethel Merman, and had embarked on a rather less public dalliance with Pat Nixon.

Pat, of course, had become a lesbian the year before, more I suspect as a reaction to Dick’s chronic flatulence than any real desire for the love of a good woman. Or indeed a bad one.

Bitsy Trump and I cadged a lift from Gloria. She always served spectacular champagne, so by the time we arrived we were all several under the pump. Truman came in a little later with a brasileiro rent boy called João, who immediately began flirting with Pat, which caused Truman to retreat in tears to the bathroom, so we spent the afternoon drinking gimlets, getting baked on a pan of particularly fine double-fudge rum-n-raisin brownies that Pat had whipped up, and lying around drawing monster eyebrows and a lazy eye on all the pictures of Sally Quinn in the society pages while listening to Brahms and the gentle sounds of Truman whimpering.

Gloria, Pat, João and I played a lengthy game of Twister, and at one point I came out of a quick nap for long enough to see Pat poking Truman with a broom handle while shouting “Cry it up, Streckfus!”, but most of the rest of the evening is a blur.

I do remember that one of Pat’s security detail brought burgers and fries and shakes, and Jack turned the news on so we could throw our pickles at Nixon. Just as Bitsy got Dicky fair in the gob with an onion ring, Jack looked across at me, raised her glass and declaimed “Nixon. Capote. I hate both those fucks. I hate their beady eyes and their stupid noses and their lying fucking mouths. Those fucks will ruin us all.”

At which Pat laughed like a drain and had to be heimliched after her olive went down the wrong way.

I have no idea what any of that means, but I’m scared to think what Jack would have said about Mr Romney or the Twilight books.

Now, it’s been a while since we had a book thread, so here you go.

My reading has been all over the place this month. I’m halfway through David Wong’s John dies at the end, an odd and disconcerting little story about small town kids, sex, drugs and the malevolent forces that live beyond the bounds of our universe and watch our world with hungry eyes. Wong is very funny and ably handles a plot in which the peace can be broken at any time by the abrupt appearance of a cloud of flying flesh eating worms or a golem made of slaughtered deer parts.

Gareth Roberts’ novelisation of Douglas Adams’ Shada was particularly good, both as an evocation of the book that Adams might have written and of Tom Baker’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana. Getting those things right without veering into pastiche or, on the other hand, bland unrecognisability is hard – just ask Michael Moorcock. Roberts pokes happily at some Gallifrey Base obsessions, including the argued overuse of the sonic screwdriver, the gay agenda and this (which is just cruel):

As Skagra watched, he learnt of the Doctor’s early history, academic achievements, his family ties on Gallifrey and elsewhere, and the exact reasons for his first flight from his home world. But all of that was irrelevant.

There’s even a very fine Monty Python joke about halfway through.

I also read The Time Travellers by Simon Guerrier, which I thought was an exceptional book. The first Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara are stranded in London in a 2006 in which Great Britain is at endless war after being devastated by the evil computer WOTAN, who will later (or earlier, depending on your level of wibbliness) be defeated by the second Doctor in The War Machines. All four leads are beautifully drawn, and Guerrier’s description of a conversation between the Doctor and Barbara about changing history towards the end of the book is passionate and tender and quite masterful.

I love The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. The book is divided up by flavours, with each flavour cross referenced against most of the others to see what memories or recipes or random thoughts the combination brings to Segnit’s mind – from bacon and chicken (the proper number of bread slices in a club sandwich), to bacon and clove (a recipe for barbecue baked beans), clove and vanilla (which meet, along with coconut, in wine stored in French oak) and vanilla and cherry (Cherries Jubilee!). Fascinating enough to read from cover to cover, and perfect for dipping into for ideas if you happen to have a surfeit of oranges or cucumbers that you need to use up.*

The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer made me laugh, and the divine Phryne Fisher mysteries (this month, Murder in the Dark) make me wish that I had been born 20 years earlier so I could have hung around in Melbourne between the wars – although I do suspect there wasn’t quite as much cocaine and shagging as Ms Greenwood describes.

Well, kiddies, that’s me. What have you been reading?

* I’ve been making pickled oranges and a French orange wine aperitif and bread-and-butter cucumbers all week. I smell like vinegar and booze which, frankly, isn’t unusual. Let me know if you want recipes.

Book Thread

It’s that time again, kiddies.

I’m about to head off on my annual jaunt around the world, and I thought I would point you in the direction of some of my reading over the last month, and a couple of things I have saved up to entertain myself on the plane, in between glasses of Veuve and benzodiazepine-induced naps in my first class suite.

Of course, I’m starting off with the usual Doctor Who related writings.

First, Campaign by Jim Mortimore, which is set early in the Hartnell years. The lovely Philip Sandifer says of it that:

Character names shift rapidly – Susan goes from being Susan Foreman to Susan English, Ian and Barbara drop out to be replaced with Cliff and Lola, and the TARDIS is likely to become the T.A.R.D.I.S. at any moment. … [It is] violent, sexualized, and metafictional. … the story treats Doctor Who’s first season as a historical phenomenon. … In fact, just about every rejected, abandoned, or false path of Doctor Who in its first year is referenced here. … The characters die. A lot. Barbara is the first to die, and her death largely sets the tone – first of all, she is established as being alive prior to her death. Which I don’t mean in the normal sense by which most people are alive prior to death. No, I mean that we learn about Barbara’s death when Ian is gobsmacked to see that she is alive.

Ming Mongs will either love it or loathe it, largely depending on where they fall on the issue of “canon” in Doctor Who.* While it took me a while to get into, I fall on the side of “adore unconditionally”. It is, simply, the best Who novel I have read, and I have read a great many. It was rejected by the Whothorities and self published by Mortimore. You can find pdf versions of it on the usual corners of the internet. If you do, you may wish (as I did) to make a donation in Mortimore’s name to his nominated charity, the Bristol Area Down Syndrome Association.

Second (and I will move on to the non-Who in a moment), I thoroughly recommend Rich’s Comic Blog, and in particular the quite wonderful The 10 Doctors, which manages to juggle the first ten incarnations and a huge cast of their companions and enemies in a real ripsnorter of an adventure. Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing like a good mystery…

I was so delighted by this post by Chrisdonia at Central Station, I had to sit down and write another book post.

One day in March, staff at the Scottish Poetry Library came across a wonderful creation, left anonymously on a table in the library. Carved from paper, mounted on a book and with a tag addressed to @byleaveswelive – the library’s Twitter account – reading:

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.…
… We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.…
This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

Scottish Poetry Library

Go here to read the whole story of the 7 (and counting) beautiful sculptures which have been left so far. Lots of pictures like this:

Scottish Storytelling Centre

As for books for the purposes of reading, I’ve just finished “Faithful Place” by Tana French, a cold-case murder mystery set in Dublin. I wasn’t quite convinced by French’s first two books – they were wonderfully evocative, but the characters and plots didn’t quite hold together and the endings seemed slightly slipshod. This book, however, is a cracker – finely drawn characters, a well crafted (if forseeable plot) and the atmosphere of family life in the rougher parts of Dublin comes through magnificently.

As a Who geek, I also enjoyed Michael Moorcock’s “The Coming of the Terraphiles”. Moorcock dumps the Doctor and Amy Pond into the middle of a Woosterian romp of stolen hats and terrifying mothers-in-law, slings in a few characters from his own books and then packs the whole lot off to the center of the galaxy to play mutant games of not-quite-cricket for a prize that might hold the secret to saving the entire universe. Moorcock never quite captures the characters of the Doctor and Amy as played by Gillan and Smith, but the entire thing is such a massive romp it doesn’t really matter.

Finally, I’d recommend “Finch” by Jeff Vandermeer. Vandermeer’s books are always delightfully weird evocations of unexplained alien worlds. Here his usual city of Ambergris has been taken over by creatures of living fungus whose motivations are unknown, and a search for a killer becomes an excuse for Vandermeer to explore humanity and its reaction to the loss of everything that it held dear. Great fun and genuinely mysterious.

What else should I be reading, kiddies?

Silence in the Library

My thanks to Balloon Juice commenter Brachiator for pointing out a magnificent new free Ipad app released by the British Library called the British Library 19th Century Literature Collection.

It has full color scans of over 1000 rare books – eventually there will be 60 000 available for paid subscribers.

The content is just beautiful and, as the scans include the entire book, you have the opportunity to see the covers, marbled endpapers and handwritten annotations by the books’ original owners, to say nothing of the extraordinary content.

I particularly like the lovely “The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon. A book of elephant and elk sport”, and the beautifully titled “Parts of the Pacific. By a Peripatetic Parson.”

Friday night book post

The Bookworm – Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885)

I love books, almost as much as I love authors, and have spent much of my life collecting as many of both as I could.

Frankly, however, my authors have often been a bit of a disappointment in the sack.

Not Hemingway, of course. During the years where I was undercover as Castro’s mistress (Fidel smelled like a sheep and liked to call me “Jackie”), I managed to get in a few nights with Papa on the side before he left Cuba. He was a hoot – a man of very few words, who could induce multiple orgasms without either putting down his cigar or spilling his drink.

Then I had a fling with Gore Vidal in the early 60s. Jack Kennedy seemed to enjoy Gore’s company so much that I wanted to find out what I was missing. He was fun sometimes, but I fairly quickly tired of a sex life that seemed to consist entirely of me dressing up in an army uniform while Gore wept and called me Jimmy.

I went for a spin with Anaïs Nin, but that was all a little confusing because she could never remember which of her husbands she was supposed to be cheating on when we were together.

Arthur Hailey was just hard work. He wouldn’t have sex unless he knew it was going to involve 17 people and last for three days.

More recently, I managed to seduce James Frey – before all the unpleasantness, of course. He was hung like a winkle, had no idea what to do and eventually had to pay someone else to come in and finish the job.

Hark at me, rabbiting on, when all I really wanted to do was talk about a couple of books that I have read recently.

I’ve just finished China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown. Mr Mieville has more earrings than all my grandchildren put together, but he still looks like a man I would get along with.

Embassytown is an elegantly written science fiction/fantasy novel set on a planet which humans share with the Hosts, crustacean-like beings who cannot lie, and for whom, therefore, the human facility for untruth holds a strong fascination.

Mieville’s drawing of his odd world is exquisite. As usual, he almost entirely avoids exposition – for example, the Hosts are not really described in detail and as a result the occasional references to physical features like “giftwings” or “corals” remain delightfully jarring and alien. Mieville’s imagination and facility with language here is as fine as that of Iain Banks, and his world has the stink of dust and blood that Banks’ slightly antiseptic civilizations sometimes lack.

There are big themes in this book – like how we can communicate with people whose use of language or beliefs are alien to us, and the power of language to change who we are or destroy us – but the writing is never preachy or heavy handed.

I really enjoyed it and stayed up very late to finish it.

My other pleasure this week has been rereading Titus Groan, the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy. It and Gormenghast are perfect in every way – from Peake’s ornate, comma-splashed prose to his cast of grotesques and lunatics, to the architectural madness of the castle itself. You really should read them.

Next week, I am reading the lovely Mr Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter, the first chapter of which leads me to suspect I am going to like the book very much.

What have you been reading?

[Image: The Bookworm – Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885)]

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice.]