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What I did on my holidays pt. 3: Home, books, and an invisible ferret - The Lyorn's Den

Sun Jun. 28th, 2009

03:43 am - What I did on my holidays pt. 3: Home, books, and an invisible ferret

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It's been more than one month since I came home, high time that I finish this.
Edited because everything I write in the small hours of morning needs editing.

Part 1
Part 2

The invisible ferret

I mentioned in the last part that my gear had taken on a distinctively ferret-y smell, and when I awoke on noon the next day and shambled into the hallway in my customary must-have-tea-before-being-human state, the whole hallway smelled of ferret. I concluded that I really needed to do the washing, shoved all my washable gear into the washing machine, set it to do a double-run (just to be safe), and opened all the windows.

The smell stayed. It seemed to come from the backpack, the plastic shopping bags, my shoes, and even the books. And when I got the washing out of the machine, it still smelled a little like mustelid, but the base note of the smell had shifted to something else. (I know the smell of ferret very well. W____ used to keep ferrets in his flat. W___ has no sense of smell.)

I did a few other things and finally, when I arrived back home I identified the underlying smell of my stuff: Badly perfumed washing powder. Of course. St. Ives. The laundry. "Tropical fresh" detergent. If I strained my sense of smell and my imagination, I could still identify it. I wondered if I had imagined the ferret part, but a few days later Ceridwen visited me, and confirmed, "slightly ferret". Which makes me wonder, what the hell have they been perfuming this washing powder with?

The smell is, I'm happy to relate, mostly gone now.

***


Not visiting flederkatz.

Ferrets or none, I had planned to spend one day at home to unpack, do the washing, check my mail and buy groceries, and then to drive over to flederkatz on Thursday. Wednesday was beautiful and sunny, I enjoyed the lack of rain and wearing different clothes and different shoes, and drove into town with some idea about having coffee somewhere, reading some magazines, window-shop and finally get groceries.

And then my car broke down. The heat gauge climbed into red, and two kilometres from home and one from where I wanted to go I stopped, wondered, looked under the hood, discovered a complete lack of cooling water, and put all the water that was left in several bottles under the seats of the car (being untidy has its uses, sometimes) in the cooling water tank, wondering why it was empty. One kilometre later I found out, when I watched water dripping out of the cooling system.

At the garage they told me that the cooling system was leaking (who'd have thought!) and if I was lucky it was only a tube that had got attacked by a marten, if I was unlucky it was corrosion on some large part. Turned out it was corrosion on the radiator. Just great. I got groceries and walked home. So much for visiting flederkatz... OTOH, spending four days lazing around at home wasn't completely unwelcome, either.

I lazed enthusiastically and ate nothing but salad. After three weeks of English Breakfasts, chocolate cake, fudge, and the occasional plate of chips, I was ravenous for greens and fresh fruit.

Sunday I bicycled to R___'s place and gave her daughters a pound coin each, with a Welsh dragon on them, and R___ the book I had bought for the flight, Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science". We had breakfast and I got to try out J___'s new motorbike, a BMW R 1200 GS. The bike handled very well for its size, and the seating is extremely comfortable -- even if I always doubted that I would reach the ground if I set my feet down. But no problem, the seating position isn't as high as it feels. The tyres were for street driving, not for off-road, which was noticeable when I got into some road construction. In general, the bike didn't like city driving or small roads, but every road where you could comfortably go 100 kph, it was great. But I'll never get used to the fixed instrument panel. I drive naked bikes and I expect the instruments to keep in place relative to the handlebar, not to the fuel tank.

Still. fun.

***

Books I read while travelling

...This was mostly what I could get from charity shops or pick up in some B&B.

Len Deighton: Funeral in Berlin (1964)

This was the book I brought with me from home, and it was a good choice. It's a lot of book for its weight.

My interest in cold war spy thrillers has been renewed by Charles Stross' "Atrocity Archive", and Deighton is clever, economical with words, sufficiently cynical, and doesn't wank for pages over big guns and manly men. The book is narrated by a Man With No Name, working for some super-secret British Intelligence organisation. The narrator gets sent to Berlin in the early 60s to arrange for a Soviet scientist to defect to the West. It quickly turns out that this is a MacGuffin, an excuse in a complicated game played by at least three parties and a freelance agent, about identities lost in the war and Swiss bank accounts waiting for the man with the right passport. Every character is strongly drawn and no one tells the truth, and the narrator, for the most part, tells only what he sees, leaving it to the reader to puzzle out what is going on.

I really liked it: The puzzle, the sense of time and place, the idiosyncratic yet believable characters, the cool voice, and the fact that if you want to get it, you have to read slowly, or twice, or both. If you have more time than book, the latter is especially useful.

The wikipedia entry on the book calls it "dated". I don't think so. The book does not claim to be timeless. It's firmly anchored in a certain time and place, political situation and way of thinking. It could not be anywhere else. And that time and place are very much like those I knew when I was growing up, these things you discover about the world when you are a child and which feel as if they have always been there.

With the times, of course, comes the attitudes. The only female character with a speaking role (except for secretaries) is vain and unprofessional and gets played by both sides. (Nearly everyone, narrator included, gets played by both sides, but she's the only one who spends the entire book off the clue train.) The interaction between men and women is telling, women hardly exist in the eyes of most male characters, they do not speak the same language and do not live in the same world. It's irritating, and interesting, and probably accurate.

One of the characters in the book is, it turns out, homosexual and gets blackmailed into treason and attempted murder. The narrator's boss comments on that with, "The only solution is to take the social pressures off the homosexuals. These damned security hunts just put more pressure on." In "The Atrocity Archives", Stross, who lists Deighton's novels as a strong influence, has the "Laundry" give their gay agents a day off so they can go to Pride parade -- the requirement is that they be "out" so they cannot be blackmailed.

One wonders why such an obvious solutions seems so hard to implement.

Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)

Same author, same narrator, same job, same political situation. Though this time it's about brainwashing and mind control as it was imagined to work in the 1960s, and not quite up to current standards of knowledge. One just has to suspend disbelief and go with what was primary world canon at the time.

The paranoia of intelligence work, with everyone out to get everyone else, everyone being a traitor or believing everyone else to be one, or both of the above, the intricate dance of information and misinformation in the shadow of The Bomb (which makes a personal appearance here) is mind-bendy and requires a lot of concentration in reading. The action is all over the globe, with gives the story a more disjointed feeling (and the reader more "wait, what are they doing there now?" moments) than "Funeral in Berlin" does (or did for me). Maybe I just need to re-read it,

Still, good. Kept me reading most of the night.

John Grisham: A Painted House (2001)

I got that one in the B&B in Porthcurno and finished it in two nights, mostly by skipping over the baseball parts, which are central to the book and are probably metaphoric, reveal character and foreshadow this and that, but make no sense to me at all.

The story is set in 1950s rural Arkansas, during cotton-picking season, and the narrator is seven-year old Luke, only child of a farming family that can never make ends meet and always owns next year's harvest to the land owner and the company store. Basically, despite love, murder, illegitimate children and poverty, this is a book of rural idyll. Everyone but the bad people is nice, looks after their neighbours and deals with the unavoidable catastrophes of debt, flood and bad harvest with determined fatalism. The one exception is the narrator's mother, who wants only one thing: Out of this.

In the end the family leaves for Flint, Michigan, to work in the car industry. Which is an ironic ending, as far as I am concerned.

Good description of the quite alien life of that family, pretty and reasonably entertaining, but I felt it was all background, no substance. Which seems unfair, because all the standard things for a growing-up novel happen, but that's exactly it: They are standard. A good holiday read, but not worth owning.

One thing annoyed me about the metaphorical relevance of painting the house: It does not work that way. You need to re-paint it regulary, or it will look worse than it would were it never painted. Oh well, I guess it's like going to Flint, Michigan, to start a live away from poverty.

Richard Bachmann (Stephen King): The Long Walk (1979)

I didn't want to read that -- I had read it before, and saw no reason to do so again. But when I saw it on the B&B's bookshelf in St.Ives, I thought I'd check some detail that I barely remembered from the first read, got drawn in, and read through the whole book in half a rainy afternoon. Bachmann does that to me.

The secret is in the characters. "The Long Walk", like "Running Man", and to a lesser degree "Rage" and "Roadwork" is about the relationship between the condemned man and the onlookers. (I have not read "Thinner".) It's not about surviving -- the character is already dead on page one, it just takes him the whole book to fall down. It's about how this extreme (and only sketchily constructed) situation is perceived and handled by different people.

In "The Long Walk", one hundred teenaged boys take part in an annual competition: Walk a road until all but one are dead. Death usually happens when a competitor falls below the speed requirement and is shot by the soldiers herding the competitors onwards. It's a stupid game to play, but never lacks for applicants, because the winner gets whatever they want. The book goes into the motivations of about twenty of the walkers, what drove them into the game, and how do they deal with it. And to find that out, I accidentally re-read the book.

I wonder if "The Long Walk" is also based on a Sheckley short story. If so, I'd like to read the short story.

Bernard Cornwell: Vagabond (2002)

I mentioned that before. It's the second book in a trilogy, about an English archer in the mid-14th century (during the Hundred Year's War), who has some kind of family obligation to search for the Holy Grail, though he doesn't want to and hardly believes in it -- unlike his cousin, who'd kill everyone that comes between himself and the Grail, especially relatives who might have a better claim.

I don't know about the other books of the trilogy, but in book two the quest seems mostly an excuse for the author to have the hero tramp through England, Scotland and Normandy, and see (and take part in) as many battles and skirmishes as possible. The setting is well-drawn, the heroes and sidekicks are likeable, the villains villainous, the world harsh and unwashed, and battles are described in loving detail for up to one hundred pages.

If one enjoys military history and medieval art of war, the book is highly entertaining in its details. I have no idea how the whole trilogy might look like -- Cornwell seems about as interested in the grail as his hero, which is, only if there's nothing else to do.

Charles Stross: The Family Trade (2004)

With the previous three authors, one knows pretty well what one is going to get before one even opens the book. Not so with Stross, where the only sure thing is that even if he starts in someplace that looks familiar, he will be off the map at page 50.

"The Family Trade", book one of the "Merchant Princes" series, is labelled "A Fantasy Novel", and if I were to tell you that it's about a woman who is given a magical amulet that belonged to her mother (who died under mysterious circumstances when our heroine was a baby) and discovers that the amulet can take her to another world where she's a long-lost princess, you'd probably expect that the whole set-up is at least as clichéd as Rothfuss' "The Name of the Wind", which I reviewed some months ago.

Well, no, it isn't. By page 50 the heroine, being a reporter who had just lost her job by uncovering a conspiracy, sets out with camping gear, camera, dictaphone and a friend to watch her back, to investigate the strange parallel world the amulet gets her to. By page 100, she has discovered that her long-lost family share the talent of world-hopping, and have used it to set up a drug-smuggling business, which makes them enough money to import luxury goods into their own Dark-Ages world and buy themselves status and influence to rival that of the hereditary aristocracy.

The heroine sees her life, freedom and values under threat, and most of all recognises the economy her family has set up as outdated mercantilism that leads exactly nowwhere. So she sets out to change the way business is done. Which involves cool world-hopping logistics, dodging assassins and violent young heiresses, attempts to placate and manipulate terrifying relatives, and a lot of boardroom meetings. Great, great fun. Unfortunately the book takes its status as "Book 1" seriously and ends with nothing more than a scene break.

SF Reviews has a longer review of it.

Recommended, but get Book 2 ("The Hidden Family") too, or you will be left hanging.

Bill Bryson: The Lost Continent - Travels in Small Town America (1989)

Back to the expected and foreseeable. This is exactly what it says on the cover, a typical Bryson-style travelogue. Funny, mostly nice, easy to read, and leading to a strange disconnect when you are reading it while travelling on another continent than the one featured in the book.

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science (2008)

I've done enough reviews for today. The book is about medical misinformation, and entertaining, but hair-raising. Read Goldacre's blog and you know what it's about. I liked the part about statistics, and gave the book to R___ when I was home.


And that's it.

Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished