Friday, 6 July 2018

Trashed by Derf Backderf

A brilliant "ode to the crap job of all crap jobs". Trashed, both funny and informative, documents the technically fictional but actually derived mostly from real life experiences of JB the garbageman, a stand in for author Derf Backderf. JB is a twentysometyhing college dropout resorting to an hourly paid gig on the back of his Ohio village's municipal garbage truck. An unglamorous job at the best of times, JB documents every filthy trashcan, every flattened roadkill and every interaction with the village's more 'characterful' residents. We see to the ladsy, banterous exchanges of the Village's facilities offices and its employees- an odd bunch of assorted jocks, racists and high IQ-low functioning brain types.

It's an eye opening book, reminding the reader that what we throw away might be out of sight and out of mind, but it is still *going* somewhere. Every disposable nappy ever used still exists out in the world. Every toothbrush that every person has ever used is lying in landfill somewhere, or on the sea bed. There's a lot of interesting nuggets about the history of waste disposal, current and former landfill practices and the scale of our current rubbish habit.

It's quite a bitter-sweet book really- engrossing the reader in the day to day lives of the trash team and their small town lives. To see the changing of the seasons and the unchanging quantities of furniture, packaging and other broken bits of property left out for disposal. At the same time it's quite grim in how aware they are of what their futures look like, the bleak generation Y future of deserted high streets, $30,000 degrees with no employment prospects and the thriving small towns of their youth dumped at the curb piece by piece and hurled off to be hidden somewhere people aren't going to complain about the mess.

An unusual story of a small town barely ticking over, about coming down to reality with a bump after adolescence has dissipated to adulthood, about the lifestyle choices we make and the habits we form as a society. It's about our unsustainable habits and our uncertain future.

The Lost World, by Michael Crichton

Enjoyable nonsense- adventure, dinosaurs, improbable happenings and lots of rocky descriptions of frantic action. The book does offer lots of musings on animal behaviour and isolated populations and how an ecosystem built out of creatures raised in total isolation, with no prior generation is in no way a functional thing or in any way indicative of a species' true behaviour. Makes you think about animal society, how something are taught and how some things are instinctively known and what happens when that gets changed.

Also, this is the best combination of dinosaurs. Parasaurolophus, Pachycephalosaurus and Maiasaura all get some page time, the bridesmaid dinosaurs that nobody ever remembers. It's not all about the toothy ones, the long necked ones or the frilly ones. The raptors in TLW are lawless thugs and the Rexes are adorable momma and papa rex and they are the best parents to their little fluff rexes.

Lots of Ian Malcolm Having Clever Thoughts, lots of irritating, cowardly rich kid Levine with all the expensive kit, badass-in-the-field Jungle Jane and animal behaviourist Sarah Harding, not of Girls Aloud fame, two not-annoying smart kid characters, Arby and Kelly that are very endearing and two Q type inventors/engineers Dr Thorne and assistant genius Eddie, building all sorts of equipment for this badly advised trip to Islar Sorna, Site B. The secret hatchery island of BioTech industries, the forgotten island where the dinos went free range that nobody is allowed to talk about. Villainy is bought to you in the form of egg-stealing Dodgson, right hand man King and shifty talking-head TV scientist Baselton.

Perhaps not as good as the first book, but certainly better than the film that got squeezed out of this novel.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim


I had never heard of this book until I saw a picture on Twitter of the handful of new Penguin English Library editions that had been published this month. I bought it based on 2 things 1- that gorgeous cover and 2- that it was about a woman and how much she loved her garden. For like 3 years I have been a casual gardener, but this year I have really *really* got into it to the point now that I have way more plants and flowers than what can realistically fit in my tiny ex-pit-terrace house and it is looking amazing and I love it.

Elizabeth and her German Garden takes the format of a year's diary of an eccentric aristocrat living in Germany as she wrestles with the estate's neglected grounds in an attempt to tame and mold the thorny wilderness into the garden of her dreams. The garden is her escape from her three unlikely children, surprisingly introduced out of the blue, and her tempestuous husband nicknamed The Man of Wrath. Elizabeth does not appear to enjoy a happy marriage and though she seems fond of her kids (April Baby, May Baby and June Baby) it does appear that she only had them because it never really was an option not to. The book documents her struggles with her household staff (not so much struggling *with* them, as struggling to care about them at all), her interactions with friends and her general attitudes to life and society of the time, particularly the role of women. It's funny, satirical, but makes excellent points about the expectations of women by men and society, their expected behaviour, function and apparently abundant intellectual limitations.

This skinny little book is exactly what I hoped it would be. It's billed as autobiographical fiction, but I can't imagine there is an enormous amount of fiction in there. I felt like I just completely understood Elizabeth, I felt I had found A Me in a previous life, a real kindred spirit. As she's lovingly describing her plans and designs for the garden, for the various flowerbeds and landscaping, I could honestly see it all unfurling in my head- the pansies carpeting the rose beds, the shady corner with the fir tree, the spring bulb bed with muscari and hyacinth, tulips and crocus. I loved how philosophical Elizabeth was about trial and error, about learning from her mistakes.

Aside from the lush, soothing garden talk, I adored Elizabeth herself. She was such a smart, demanding woman. I loved how uncompromising she was, how she refused to be ordinary, much to her husband's frustration. I assume he allowed her 'idiosyncrasies' due to the isolated, rural nature of their location...or perhaps her idiosyncrasies is why they moved to the middle of nowhere in the first place. I found myself constantly nodding along with Elizabeth and her musings. A few choice quotes that I think we can all agree make Elizabeth One Of Us:
"If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?"
"It is much easier and often more pleasant to be a warning than an example"
"The people round here are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceptionally eccentric, for news has traveled that I spend the days out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever see, me sew or cook"
I think this is going to be an annual re-read for me, perhaps at the beginning of Spring to get me in the garden mood. How can you not love a 19th century woman that decides to pretty much ditch her husband and her kids and live a reclusive, blossom and bee filled existence of drinking tea and reading books in the garden? She is my hero.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Driving Short Distances, by Joff Winterhart

I read this in about an hour and thoroughly enjoyed the sort of tragicomedy mundanity.

The artwork is a sketchy, watercoloury mixture of plain white spaces, browns and blues, with a whimsical eye for detail and the absurd. There was one spread of Reception Area bingo that had me belly laughing.

Sam is a 27 year old former art student, back home at his mum’s after several failed attempts at higher education and something of a breakdown.  An introverted, stretchy, somewhat mournful character, he struggles to commit to anything, leaving a series of unfinished projects and shelved ideas in his wake. Out of the blue, he has been offered a job with his absent father’s alleged second cousin, who approached his mum unprompted in a carpark and made an offer. An unspecific role, it seems, that involves a lot of sitting around in the car, listening to stories of the good old days and visiting a lot of industrial estates. Distribution. Clipboards. Filters. Just the sort of mindless, uninteresting occupation that Sam needs to ground him to reality right now.

Enter Keith Nutt, a character so recognisable and so absurdly tragic. Round of belly and hairy of nostril, Keith sees himself as a pillar of the local small business community. Filled with wisdom and advice, he pours his stories into the silent Sam, mildly boastful tales of his old boss and mentor, his bi-monthly carvery dinners with the boys, his spaniel, his influence in the town. Sam soaks them all up. Not a great deal happens. There are some amazing supporting characters, like Hazel-Claire in the bakery and the town ‘character’.

Sam and Keith seem to become fond of one another in their silent, closed-off ways. Keith gets someone to pass on his perceived legacy to, Sam gets a quiet, reflective space to rebuild his sense of self. Is it a story of the generation gap? Of older men struggling to maintain their places in society? Or about the younger generation failing to live up to the promises made through their academic careers? Is it about men, and the way they do (and do not) communicate? Sam describes his humdrum town as “A town of fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, councillors, garage-owners, newsagents, estate agents, possible freemasons, key janglers and coinshakers, tyre kickers, military memorabiliasts, card carriers and wearer of very strong aftershave”. Is it about depression? Masculinity? Or all the little ways we manage to disappoint ourselves?

I loved the slow burn of this novel, its commitment to the quiet desperation of its characters, the way they slowly altered throughout. It’s a strange transaction that takes place between these very different men. One is socially awkward and thoroughly self-conscious- the other filled with a misplaced confidence and a cast iron moral code. Their time together seems short and on the surface, unsuccessful. But both characters seem to be in better places by the end of the book, so is it a happy story? I don’t know.

It’s shrewdly observed, funny and touching and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s a quiet work of genius, a portrait of an odd couple from a boring old town that hints at all the ridiculous, small ways we manage to become absolutely ridiculous specimens of humanity. A possible masterpiece of contradictory, recognisable brilliance.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Needful Things, by Stephen King

The sun was out this week, so, as ever, this prompted me to drop my planned reading list like a hot potato and crack out a  Stephen King in the garden. This time is was Needful Things, the last Castle Rock story. 

What can you say about Stephen King that hasn't been said before? Yes his books are about 20% too long. Yes his metaphors are crafted with the subtly of a chainsaw. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that when King writes a dog, that dog gon' die. However, nobody understands the inherent potential for destruction, the suppressed darkness of the human animal quite like Stephen King. He knows exactly how to take ordinary, unremarkable people and pinpoint the precise thing that would drive them to murder. He knows how badly people secretly want to destroy each other, how badly they want to destroy themselves. Civilisation tries to tame it out of the populace, but there is a germ of carnage in everyone and SK knows exactly how to propagate that.

So. Needful Things is the name of a new store opening in the small town of Castle Rock- a town so small town-ish that this constitutes quite a big deal. A town so small that the Sheriff's office has about 5 members of staff whose duties involve escorting a few drunks home at the weekend and issuing parking tickets. Leland Gaunt, the shops gentlemanly proprietor seems to have *just the thing* for each and every individual that tinkles the shop's bell, that elusive last piece to finish their collection, an exact copy of a treasured item lost during adolescence, the one thing that they have always wanted- and at such a bargain price. Plus one, harmless prank to be played on another townsperson. This formula is replicated all over the town over the course of a week- a normal, ordinary person buys the one Needed Thing, they get possessive and sweaty over it, convinced their nemesis is lying in wait to steal it, just to spite them. Gaunt seems to have done his homework- he knows just how each person feels persecuted, he knows just which small town grudges are held between whom, which suspicions, resentments and hatred are being nursed around the Rock. He knows who the prank-ee will blame, he knows they will be frenzied enough to retaliate. Gaunt spends the majority of the book setting up seemingly unrelated characters to escalate simmering, petty grudges to their murderous boiling points. There are murders. There is madness. There is dynamite.

Trying to work out what the hell is unfolding in the Rock is the Almost Too Good To Be True Sheriff Alan Pangborne, who you might remember from such SK adventures as The Dark Half. He has his usual protagonist baggage (dead wife and son) and a kook that might make him annoying in another context- amateur magic, shadow puppets and lithe, almost supernaturally fast reflexes. He seems to be the fly in the ointment of Mr Gaunt, the incorruptible. Along with his girlfriend, the mysterious Polly Chalmers, debilitated by her painful arthritis, they are the investigative force of the novel. 

Needful Things has a complex web of supporting and incidental characters, and whilst I struggled to remember some of them if they didn't appear for a while, they are all real and believable, each with their own flaws, secrets, jobs and resentments, eating away at them over the years. I really felt like this community was a solid, living and ancient thing. Something with its own rules, mythology and customs. Only SK could create such an apparently strange mixture of small-town normal and big-time evil working in harmonious conjunction with one another. My favourite I think was Norris Ridgewick, eventual hero of Gerald's Game and Andy from Twin Peaks doppleganger. I loved his simple goodness and commitment to his job, and the brilliant relationship he had with Sheriff P. Norris is the sort of small town good guy, unlikely hero you hope might just step up in times of crisis.

Needful Things falls into King's best category- the Supernatural Catalyst that Retreats and Lets the Humans Unleash the Havoc. It's his strongest formula- people are weak, and once they let the darkness in, the monstrous urges of human nature will out. Whether that's Demonic hotels that unlock that nature, murderous clowns, alien interference, telekinetic abilities or forbidden resurrection knowledge, the supernatural element just provides a gateway to the horror that was inside human nature all along. In this case, an omniscient demon with a repulsive touch and colour changing eyes.

Though it is not one of his strongest novels, I really enjoyed it and read it quickly. I felt invested in what happened to a lot of the characters and genuinely shocked at how quickly the dominoes fell down towards the book's firey conclusion. As a heavy handed metaphor for addiction, it works brilliantly. It demonstrates how obsession becomes all consuming, how I loved the themes of need and want, of when something stops becoming enjoyable and becomes a horrendous burden. I liked

Friday, 4 May 2018

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans

Oh my god. A future classic of the "Plunged into a magical and confusing world and given A Quest" genre. A Wizard of Oz without all the ex machina. Alice in Wonderland without the creepy context. A modern great. I bloody loved it.

Fidge, an intelligent and practical 10 year old with problems expressing her feelings, has accidentally caused an accident that has resulted in her 4 year old sister, Minnie ending up in the hospital with a broken leg. She was mad at Minnie, the irritating little sister who always gets her way, because she makes her read the The Land of Wimbley Woos book every night, she is always dropping her toys and generally being scatty, and the combined faffing powers of their mum and Minnie has meant that the sports shop was shut and now Fidge can't get her flippers for the holiday tomorrow. Fidge is not handling her Father's death, 2 years ago, very well. Her clinging onto the ideas of order and organisation are her ways of keeping him close.

Riddled with guilt and anger, Fidge is bundled off to her useless, world-phobic cousin's house, a neurotic, translucent specimen named Graham that is so afraid of his own shadow and a sudden (unlikey) violent death that he spends most of his life in one room lying down and being stressed. In her emotional state and with a sudden flare of cruelty, Fidge hurls Minnine's toys (a purple elephant, Wed Wabbit, a fake phone) and Graham's Transitional Object, a plastic carrot down the cellar stairs, along with a Pop Up edition of the Wimbly Woos. He must go and get them. This assortment of objects, combined with some electrical storm magic, is about to get weird in the most gloriously anarchic way.

Fidge wakes in a strange, colourful world- super green grass, super blue sky, loads of different coloured bin-shaped characters that seem to have very specific skills and talk in rhyming couplets. She recognises the world. But it cannot possibly be so. The world of the Wimbly Woos has been turned upside down. The colours, with their specific skills and attributes have been divided. Most are in hiding. The blues, the strong ones, have become a ruthless army in the service of an evil dictator. Sweets have been stockpiled. The King has been deposed, tyranny reigns. Also, everybody speaks in rhyming couplets, no exceptions.

After linking up with the blubbering, terrified Graham discovered danging from a tree, a random, huggy Pink, the cool, rational Dr Carrot (human sized plastic carrot) and life coach Ellie (giant purple elephant with tutu), Fidge must set about getting to the bottom of what has happened in the Land of the Wimbly Woos. First stop is the Purples, who know the history of the land. This kicks off with a prophecy, some rhyming clues and an expedition the length and breadth of the Land of the Wimbly Woos, an expedition that will teach Fidge and Graham some life changing lessons about bravery, difference and fascism.

I LOVED Ella and Dr Carrot, the adult substitutes. Ella is a purple elephant, performance artist, life coach and free spirit. Dr Carrot is stiff and practical, the example, the ballast that keeps the group grounded. Together they were such a brilliant team and so incredibly funny. I love a band of misfits, and these really were a top quality selection of oddballs and kooks, the very best kind of protagonists and helpers.

Though Minnie is absent for most of the story, she dominates it with her imagination. Everything about the Wimbly Woo's world is directly from her imagination. The punishments, the riddles- all of Minnie's construction. It is so gloriously believable as a a world devised and created by the illogical mind of a four year old.

I loved the book's message- that differences are to be celebrated and embraced and that a team can be more than the sum of its parts. I really liked Graham's evolution as a character- he learned to control his fears, to take risks, to be present rather than afraid. He was much braver and kinder as a result of Fidge and Dr Carrot's influence. Fidge too needed to learn to open up a bit more, that she cannot control everything, that too much control is actually a very damaging thing (just look at Wed Wabbit).

It's a tall order to write a book with a 10 year old protagonist, set in the mind of a 4 year old and create a story that is so universally appealing. Wed Wabbit is so skillfully crafted, so identifiable, so positive and so enjoyable as a reading experience. It's a moving story about sisters and grief and emotions, about working together and being stronger for your collective differences. It's instantly recognisable as a Quest in Magical World narrative, but this particular story is reborn with brilliantly clever use of language (rhyme, speech impediments, the smiley smiley language of picture books), some very modern characters and an intelligent brand of humour that is pretty relentless.

Kids will still be reading this in 50 years, I'd bet anything on that. An absolute belter, one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Friday, 20 April 2018

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust vol 1, by Philip Pullman

I was kind of apprehensive about reading La Belle Sauvage, because His Dark Materials holds an incredibly special place in my heart and revivals, retcons and prequels are rarely good. This is not the place for that list.

I was just so happy to be going back into this world, with young Coram and Sophonax, and the chugging of tokay, and the glow of anbaric light and the Daemons and Dust... I did get the unusual feeling, however, that despite LBS occurring earlier in the timeline, the world just felt more modern than the almost-19th-century of Northern Lights? Just the way people spoke and behaved felt much more contemporary. The "otherness" of Lyra's universe has always felt very palpable, but in this book I found that whilst many elements were the same, I got a much more modern vibe from the environment. It's hard to explain. The world of LBS felt both familiar and altered at the same time.

La Belle Sauvage charts the journeys and adventures of 11 year old Malcolm Polstead of the Trout Inn, near Oxford. Friend to nuns, clearer of glasses, canoe skipper extraordinaire. Whilst exploring the riverbanks one day, Malcolm and his daemon Asta accidentally intercept a coded message hidden inside a wooden acorn- apparently a method of passing information used by secret organisation Oakley Street. This leads him into a friendship with Alethiometer-reader and scholar Dr Hannah Relf, and to her engaging him as a sort of protégé scholar-spy-book-reader and eventually into inevitable danger and adventure. Malcolm has also befriended a baby in the stewardship of the nuns, a 6 week old called Lyra who is apparently unwanted by her mother and both  inconvenient to and endangered by her father. When a deluge unlike anything ever seen before is foreseen, most people choose not to listen. Once the river rises, taking much of the surrounding towns and villages with it, Malcolm, baby Lyra and Alice, a surly nemesis of Malcolm's from the Inn are stranded in the canoe, the Belle Sauvage. Nothing remains but to get Lyra to Jordan College, to claim Scholarly Sanctuary.

I did quite like this book's darker tone. The 1984-esque informant culture of Malcolm's school, of the teachers that refuse to tow the line disappearing overnight. The oppression and the creeping fingers of religious indoctrination, guilt and a sickening sort of righteous patriotism begin to strangle society. It felt like the beginning of something, a foreboding prelude to bigger, scarier things. The parallels with today's unsettling climate of Nationalism and a slide into dangerous far-right discourse and attitudes cannot be ignored. There is one of the creepiest, most skin-crawling villains in a long time, deeper exploration of the fantastical elements of the World, including an River God, a pretty terrifying baby-snatching, Rumpelstiltskin-esque enchantress and a mysterious twilight world of opulence and ignorance, and plenty of river-based adventure.

It was an unusually speedy read for me, I was absolutely swept up in Malcolm and Alice's endeavour. I loved their changing relationship and their familiarity as heroes- Malcolm is capable and mature, intelligent and curious, dependable and honest to a fault. He is a traditional Hero in the most complimentary sense of the word. Not invincible, but he pushes his homesickness and his doubts and any trepidation about being 11 and having too much responsibility here to the back of his mind and Gets Things Done. Alice is surly and bitter, she has weathered a less comfortable upbringing than Malcolm and sees little opportunity available to her. She too is competent and loyal, she is tough and courageous, capable of looking after herself and anybody she feels protective of. Though I read the book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it, looking back I think I would struggle to fully explain what happened in any meaningful way- criticisms of it being episodic are difficult to deflect.

I think we are all lying to ourselves if we claim this is as good as His Dark Materials, but it is nonetheless an absolute joy to be permitted to revisit Lyras world, to spend some time with the people that were instrumental to her early life, whether she will turn out to remember them or not. Also, the concept of baby daemons? Cutest thing I've ever read in my whole damn life.