Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Book of Names and Cugel's Saga

I have a bad habit of adding books to my Amazon Wish List on a less than scientific, willy nilly basis, to the extent that when I go and look at my list at Christmas, there are always several books I have no memory of whatsoever. But I must have wanted to read them once, I reason, so I leave them on and people, as people do, come along and buy me them for Christmas or my birthday.

And because it's Christmas or my birthday, these forgotten books arrive in a slew of other, more immediately appealing ones and so they usually end up dumped on top of one teetering pile of To Be Reads or another. Time passes, more books arrive and, like a layer of archaelogical sediment, the forgotten ones are pushed further and further down, untl they really are altogether forgotten.

Finally, to further muddy the (frankly a bit tenuous) analogy, I come in a bit drunk, take a bit of a stumble on the way to the bedroom and knock one pile of TBRs over, spilling the contents across the floor like fanned playing cards, ripe for discovery in the morning.

All of which havering waffle leads me to the two novels which spilled across the floor last week and which I shoved into my laptop bag for reading. One - The Book of Names by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori - I could at least remember wanting to read. It features the Jewish Lamed Vav, the 36 Just Men of Jewish tradition who were so memorably utilised by Andre Schwartz-Bart in his astonishingly moving Holocaust novel, The Last of the Just.

Sadly, that turned out to be the only thing the two books has in common and I only got about a quarter of the way through The Book of Names before being forced to put it on the Never to Be Read pile. It's not awful and I'm sure there's an audience for books where the actual writing is secondary to the convoluted (if frequently nonsensical) plot, but any novel this close to one of Dan Brown's clueless, mish-mash novels is not for me.
The second novel, though, was the middle book in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series - Cugel's Saga.  It's what posh reviews would call a picaresque, but really it's just a mish-mash of short stories nailed together by the best - and laziest - linking concept ever: Cugel has been transported across the world by a magician for no obvious reason the exact same as he was in the first book in the series! From that majestic starting point, you'd expect things could only go downhill.  In reality, though, it remains great from beginning to end, as Cugel gts involved in one implausible scheme after another as he makes his way back home.  Little of it makes any real sense and there's a very odd bit in the middle where Vance apparently couldn't even be bothered smoothing the edges of two stories together and instead has a footnote pointing out that the next few pages occur after the first few pages of the next story, but that just adds to the ramshackle charm of the book as a whole.

I don't know if I'd want to read another book like this any time soon, but I'd read it five times over in a row rather than become bogged down in the plot of The Book of Names.  Even better, I see the cover of a Dads Army annual peeking out from underneath that spilled heap of books...

Monday, 12 September 2011

In the country...

We - Julie and I - were off for one of your away weekends this week, off up to Oban (well, nearly) to stay at the Brander Lodge Hotel.  The hotel was lovely, with great food - I for one appreciate a place which serves what amounts to a very posh fry-up on massive plates, with every inch covered by Stornoway black pudding and locally produced bacon and sausages and eggs - and really, really friendly staff.  We did our usual thing of going to somewhere nearby, along the fabulous coast road, and then pottering about in an aimless sort of fashion, stopping to drink coffee, eat ice cream and check out the shops.  Julie failed in her quest for a 'bamboo mitt' but since she wasn't entirely sure what one was, that's hardly surprising.  I meanwhile - and for the first time in our marriage - bought fewer books than she did.

Next day we took a tour down Cruachan - a hollowed out section of a near Munro sized mountain, a mile deep, in which a reversible drop head power generator (or something like that - basically they drop tons of water from the corrie at the top of the mountain down long pipes to strike a dynamo or whatever, which generates electricity, and then they suck the water back up and do it again).  Hence the whole place is called the 'hollow mountain'.  Worth the £6 a head to get in and our guide - a history teacher between jobs, which makes me glad I never went into teaching - was very good.  Oddly the underground area - 2/3 of a mile down - smells exactly like the ET Ride at Universal in Florida.

We stopped off for lunch in Callander on the way back.  It was pouring with rain which meant - for the first time I've ever seen - it was quiet enough to wander roudn the little shops and I ended up buying a mad looking Star Trek novel and a romance set in 15th century Venice.

And so home to start re-watching Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, ahving had our interests re-awakened by listening to the great 80s soundtrack to the latter on the drive home.

'Do you remember a guy was here...'

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Weekend just passed

It was lovely round our house last week, with Paul visiting for his by now traditional Festival weekend (when we don't go to see any shows) and George up for the what I hope is the first visit of many.  I'm a sucker for things repeating themselves, finding great comfort and pleasure in repeated actions, and it looks as though these August visits are naturally falling into a patter.

First Paul arrives by train at about lunchtime and, after dumping his bag, we head into the Grassmarket for a pint at what used to be The Fiddlers Arms, but is now called Bar: Alba, I think.  It's a nice pub but one that seems to change hands every year and so the decor changes every time we go in, like an interior chameleon circuit.  After that we wander up the West Port, browsing the second hand bookshops.  Paul piled the pressure on me by buying me copies of The Dark is Rising and Maybe the Moon, neither of which I've read and which are, it seems, his two favourite books.  There will be dark mutterings and dreadful imprecations should I read them and say they're rubbish, I suspect...

Home then, and out to the airport to pick up George, flashily turning up by plane, then back to the house for an evening of chinese food, wine and old telly.  Luckily George likes old tv as much as Paul and I (which is to say, somewhat more than Julie does) but in any case a few bottles of wine and a running conversation soon means that everything we watched took on the form of a single very long episode - so the sub-Avengers Spyders Web leaked into the ITV Avengers of Jason King, and the Two Ronnies acted as an intro to the strange Prisoner-tinged, Patrick McGoohan directed episode of Columbo.  Plans to watch George's brother Scott's silent  Cthulhu movie fell by the wayside, but luckily George kindly left a disc for me to watch later.

No hangover on the Saturday, which was good so (after a detour to take my son to a party) into town for a wander about Stockbridge, buying books left, right and centre - and totally failing to stick to my three book limit.  A Dennis Wheatley science fiction novel, some sf short story books, one of Willows sequels (which looks upsetingly elegiac), a fabulous looking Umberto Eco style medieval mystery from George and sundry other bits and pieces that took my fancy  and that was a carrier bag largely filled.

It can be a bit dull describing a day wandering about, no matter how enjoyable it might be for the wanderers, but some highlights:

  • Watching Steve running (back very straight, like one of the Scooby Doo gang) straight past the end of the street we were having cake and tea in, all the while speaking into his phone like it was a Star Trek communicator.
  • Meeting Mark and Gillian (both lovely, though Mark's views on Cilla leave something to be desired!) and having Gillian say 'Are you Stuart Douglas?  Obverse Books?'
  • Paul remembering a wee pub down a back alley, past a junk shop which looked like it probably contained every trim phone ever inside its walls, where we got a comfy seat out of the rain (I'm getting old, clearly!)
  • In the Blue Moon for great steak pie - the only place in Edinburgh where the staff take the time to act a bit flirty!
 Annoyingly, for the second year in a row CCs was full of people staring into space and intimidating, thieving teenagers with fat thighs, so we didn't stay long but headed home for a last couple of drinks and a bit of chat - a lovely, relaxed end to a fantastic weekend.  Roll on next August!