Monday 21 February 2022

1419, Billy Summers and all that

It has taken me a couple of months but I have been listening to Lord of the Rings on audiobook over on Youtube. I started off with a multi voiced dramatisation which vanished after a few chapters (as things are wont to do there) then I found Rikash Doekhi and Paul Skinner who provided the remainder (though I was irritated the way Paul pronounced Gandalf, not enough to spoil it and his reading voice is excellent). I reviewed the book back in 2015 after Monkey and I shared the reading of it, and enjoyed it just as much this time around. I was reminded of the ending, which is missing from the films, where the Hobbits return and must fight again to reclaim their Shire from the forces that have invaded it. In some ways it feels a vitally important part of the tale, of how much they are transformed by their experiences, and how nobody rescues them, they do it together, without help from their fellowship. 

We had a very successful charity shop trawl last week, including copies of 'Girl, Woman, Other' and 'Piranesi'. Certainly enough to keep me going for quite a while. I tend to pick out authors that I have read before so I can be quite sure I have some good reading in my near future.

I picked out 'Me and the Fat Man' by Julie Myerson as a quick read (I have reviewed her before, here and here). In it Amy is drifting through life, not knowing who she is, having lost her mother very young and been raised by disinterested foster parents. She meets Harris, who claims to have known her mother, and through him, the fat man, Gary. But things are not at all as they seem, and events rush on, overtaking her, until a tragedy forces her to face up to things. It is a weird little story, about how a person flounders without roots. 
"It had seemed like chance that Gary and I should meet in the pub that night and had felt like choice when I fell for his big body and his gentle, unlikely ways.
But Harris had special skills. He had the skill of making you feel you were choosing, making you believe that anything could happen - that fate was just messing around. They were good times, the ones that followed - though then I was too blinded by the newness to see it. Just when I thought I understood a fact, another, stranger one appeared. Like the dolls you get that you open and there's another inside - each one eating up the next, so as the whole thing can continue. " (p.85)

Previous to this however I had finally managed to get hold of 'Billy Summers' by Stephen King. (Shocked to discover it is a decade since I read 11/22/63, it feels like only a couple of years ago.) I really enjoyed this book, he knows how to keep the story moving, with plenty of twists and turns, and how to make you like people, even when they are bad people; which I guess means he writes them as people not clich├ęs, with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. 
Billy is a contract killer. But he only kills 'bad people', at least that's how he justifies to himself how he makes his living. He is sucked in to doing a final job by the promise of a big payout. But as he waits around preparing to make the hit he becomes more suspicious of the set-up, and makes his own plans to extricate himself from the situation. As is so often the case (they are criminals after all) people have not been straight with him and he digs a little deeper to find there are some even badder bad people behind the arrangement. Acting on instinct (and proving he is not such a bad bad person) he rescues a young woman and their relationship leads to other bad shit. All the while he is writing his own life story, which we read, and he reflects on how things have come to be this way. While I have no desire to dip into the horror genre I have enjoyed Stephen King, he tells a great story.

"Half way back to his office, he had a nasty thought. There were a few moments on his way here when he lost focus, his mind on Shan's drawing instead of staying where it belonged, on this morning's preparations. Has he dropped the Dalton Smith phone into the sewer instead of one of the others? The idea is so terrible that in that moment he's positive that's just what he did, when when he reaches in his pocket he'll find the Billy-phone, or the Dave-phone, or that useless burner. If so, he can replace it, his Dalton Smith credit cards are all good, but what if Don or Beverley Jensen should call on the day or two before FedEx can deliver a new one to 658  Pearson? They'll wonder why he's out of touch. It might not matter, but it might. Good neighbours, grateful neighbours, might even call the police and ask them to check his basement apartment to make sure he's okay.
He grabs the phone, and for a moment just holds it, feeling like a roulette player afraid to look at the wheel and see which color the little ball has landed on. the worst thing - worse than the inconvenience, even worse than the potential danger - is knowing he was careless. He let his thoughts slip to the life that's now behind him.
He brings the phone out of his pocket and breathes a sigh of relief. It's the one that belongs to Dalton. He's gotten away with one potential mistake. He can't make another. The fates are unforgiving." (p.144-5)

Stay safe. Be kind. Turquoise or Tangerine for the new sofa covers?

Saturday 5 February 2022

crazy old ladies

Strangely Lewis and Rachel invited a crazy bus lady to lunch and let her cuddle their baby ... and then posted the most unflattering photo on the family photo album so all the other grannies can feel normal. I had a lovely afternoon with Jacob and Aisla; it was like a blast from the past, first wandering round the toy shop (where to be honest she picked something really fast compared to my lot) then getting to know Aisla while Jake chatted for ages to the guys in Games Workshop. Then I spent a lovely 24 hours cuddling the babe. I was worried that she would not like strange new people but she smiled up at me and we got along like a house on fire.

I had a very long trek home, but not because of the weather. The snow cancelled the trains going on to Edinburgh but ours going south was stymied by a broken down train between Northallerton and York. So I read my book in a cold waiting room for an hour and a half, then on a very slow train to York that missed the connection for Manchester. About a dozen of us were ferried by taxi and I finally got home about 1am. I was so buzzed I just sat up and finished it.

'Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead' by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk (linking to wiki as her website is in Polish) is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I knew I was going to love it straight away. It tells the story of Janina Duszejko (who hates the name Janina) and her grumpy neighbour Oddball, Good News who runs the local second hand shop, a former student Dizzy and wandering entomologist Boros. (People's names in the story are mostly invented by Janina, allocated according to her impression of them). It begins with the death of Big Foot (their only other near neighbour), and progresses though the deaths of several other local men, which Janina is convinced are being masterminded as revenge by the local wildlife. She and Oddball don't actually have much to do with each other prior to the murders but circumstances conspire to force them to get to know each other better.

I liked her here, because although she is a crotchety old woman and avoids her two neighbours as much as possible, she has moments of just ordinary humanity and being a decent human being:
"As I looked at Big Foot's poor, twisted body I found it hard to believe that only yesterday I'd been afraid of this Person. I disliked him. To say I disliked him might be putting it too mildly. Instead I should say that I found him repulsive, horrible. In fact I didn't even regard him as a human Being. Now he was lying on the stained floor in his dirty underwear, small and skinny, limp and harmless. Just a piece of matter, which some unimaginable process had reduced to a fragile object, separated from everything else. It made me feel sad, horrified, for even someone as foul as he did not deserve death. Who on earth does? The same fact awaits me too, and Oddball, and the Deer outside; one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses." (p.18)

Liked this description of his house, and how much Janina admires it:
"Oddball's fondness for order is plain to see in his small front yard: the firewood for the winter lies piled in ingenious cords arranged in a spiral. The result is a neat stack of golden proportions. These cords of his could be regarded as a local work of art. I find it hard to resist their beautiful spiral order. whenever I pass that way, I always stop and admire the constructive cooperation of hands and mind, which in such a trivial thing as firewood expresses the most perfect motion of the universe.
The path in front of Oddball's house is so very neatly gravelled that it looks like a special kind of gravel, a collection of identical pebbles, hand-picked in a rocky underground factory run by hobgoblins. Every fold of the clean curtains hanging in the windows is exactly the same width; he must use a special device for that. And the flowers in his garden are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they'd been to the gym." (p.34)

As the story progresses you get a glimpse of her feelings about the natural world, and her growing anger at people who defile it:
"Then, if I went beyond our bounds, the landscape changed. Here and there exclamation marks stuck out of the ground, sharp needles piercing the scenery. Whenever my gaze caught them, my eyelids began to quiver; the eye cut itself on those wooden structures erected in the fields, on their boundaries, or at the edge of the forest. In total there were eight of them in the Plateau, I knew the exact figure, for I'd had dealings with them in the past, like Don Quixote with the windmills. They were knocked together out of wooden beams, set crosswise; they consisted entirely of crosses. These grotesque figures had four legs and a cabin with embrasures on top. Pulpits for hunting. This name has always amazed and angered me. For what on earth was taught from that sort of pulpit? What sort of gospel was preached? Isn't it the height of arrogance, isn't it a diabolical idea to call a place from which one kills a pulpit?" (p.64)

She is a weird mixture of ideas. She is obsessed with astrology, and has a theory about astrological charts predicting the death of the individual, and also the means of death, and she regularly writes to the police with this theory as the murders multiply. She is an engineer by trade, but her 'Ailments' (random capital letters are applied to important words) caused her retirement and she now teaches English in the local school and cares for several holiday homes during the off-season. But she is curious and scientific too. Here she is conducting a experiment:
"I was working in my garden patch, testing one of my Theories. I think I can find proof for the fact that we inherit phenotypes, which flies in the face of modern genetics. I had noticed that certain acquired features make irregular appearances in subsequent generations. So three years ago I set about repeating Mendel's experiment with sweet peas. I am now in the middle of it. I notched the petals of the flowers, through five generations in a row (two a year), and then checked to see if the seeds would produce flowers with damaged petals. I must say that the results of this experiment were looking very encouraging." (p.171-2)

So the story was excellent, the characters were excellent and the atmosphere of the place. I was going to give you a long quote with another astrological theory but I need to just give you a little touch of her writing that had moments like this (and all credit to the translator who captured the writing so well):
"The Samurai's windows were coated with hoar frost, still young, very fine and delicate, like a cosmic mycelium." (p.229)

It is a spoiler to say she did it. I am not sure how much I suspected her, but it was not a surprise. The back story emerges gradually, explaining all. And with the help of her trusty band of friends she escapes across the border to the sunny Czech Republic. And I cheered. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Ponder some morally ambiguous summary justice.