Robert Macfarlane
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
Penguin, Hamish Hamilton 2019
ISBN 0-241-14380-3

Robert Macfarlane writes in the introduction to this quite extraordinary work that although we spend a lot of time gazing at and thinking about the sky, the stars, what’s overhead, we seldom if ever think about the worlds below our feet. Macfarlane opens up those worlds, each chapter a meditation on different spaces in the underworld, from caves in the Mendips to a deep burial site for nuclear waste in Norway.

In the chapter “Invisible Cities,” about the Paris catacombs, he describes a work by Walter Benjamin, an “unfinished meditation” on Paris. He writes that its form “may be compared to a constellation or galaxy, the individual stars of which he drew together over more than a decade, collecting notes, quotations, aphorisms, stories and reflections.” Much of the same could be said of this work, although it is certainly not incomplete and has enormous power as its fragmentary narrative comes together as a whole. His narratives encompass the beginning of time and potentially its end, as he meditates in the final chapter: “At Boulby [where scientists search for Dark Matter] then encased xenon in lead in copper in iron in halite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to see back to the birth of the universe. At Onkalo [where they bury nuclear waste] they encased uranium in zirconium in iron in copper in bentonite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to keep the future safe from the present.”

His style is poetic, often almost incantatory, and over the course of the book he allows us to feel how awe-inspiringly alien and powerful the world of the underland is and at the same time how fragile. It is hard to choose a “most extraordinary” of all the extraordinary stories. I was captivated by the notion of a World Wood Web: the connecting tissue of fungus that joins woods and forests and allows them to share nourishment (and perhaps memory). Also fascinating was the story of the “urban explorers”: groups of probably crazy climbers and cavers who map and explore the subterranean tunnels of cities. So many images capture the imagination: the story of the catacombs under Odessa where even the hardened and experienced explorer of Paris feared to go, especially dangerous, she said, for a woman. The whisper of “dark matter.” The notion of “nuclear semiotics”: a mini-think-tank of people trying to find the best way to warn explorers in a future unimaginably far forward in time not to open the vault in which is stored the most radioactive of the world’s radioactive waste, enough that were it to explode it would destroy the world 30 times over. How do you say “do not touch” to the future, especially when so many of our myths are about opening that forbidden box?

All his stories are layered with other stories: myths, works of literature, true stories of climbers or cavers or explorers or scientists. He writes of the difficulty of writing about the impossible changes and loss brought about in our present era, the Anthropocene, commenting that it is perhaps best imagined as “an epoch of loss – of species, places and people – for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.” He offers hope in human relationships, in shared goals, in storytelling. This is a powerful and beautiful book, in some way an elegy for our time; let us hope it will last through to a more hopeful epoch than ours.


Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Books, 2016
ISBN 1476781222

Layout 1It would make sense for Lois McMaster Bujold to bring the Vorkosigan saga to a close as it began, with a novel focussing on Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. If this is, as it feels, a kind of coda to the series, it is a very satisfactory one: gentle, leisurely, affectionate of its characters and of human foibles, more comedy of manners than space opera, despite its science-fictional cover.

The titular “Red Queen” is Cordelia; “Gentleman Jole” is Admiral Oliver Jole. The action begins three years after the death of Cordelia’s husband, the formidable Aral Vorkosigan. Very early in the novel there is a revelation about the nature of Oliver’s relationship to the Vorkosigans (we have known him as Aral’s military right-hand-man), which seems to have sent one group of Bujold fans into a bit of a tizzy, but which made perfect sense to me and did not seriously undermine what has gone before.

Cordelia has some plans for her own future and some ideas about Oliver’s. Eventually Cordelia’s son Miles turns up, family in tow, and eventually revelations and decisions are made and immediate conflicts are resolved.

As I said, this is a very gentle book. I loved it, because I love the characters, have been a loyal follower of the series and am happy to see things apparently resolved as they have been. This is not to say I would not welcome more, and Bujold has provided us with a “next generation” who could carry the torch, but I think she has gone as far as she wants to go with both Miles and Cordelia, and this novel adds a very fitting grace-note to the series.

Even Dogs in the Wild
Ian Rankin
Orion, 2015

25248463There’s a certain elegaic quality to this, the latest in Ian Rankin’s wonderful series of crime novels featuring the lugubrious, tenacious, irritable, irritating but ultimately loveable detective, John Rebus. Several books ago, it looked as if Rebus was going to walk away into the sunset. Fortunately for us, this has not been the case, as this is the second to feature him since his “retirement,” and I think it is not just better than the last one but is the best Rebus since, oh maybe, The Falls, which I always thought was the best of the lot.

It opens, not surprisingly, with a murder: a prominent government legal advisor has had his head bashed in, and there is a handwritten note declaring “I’M GOING TO GET YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID.” Then, someone takes a shot through “Big Ger” Cafferty’s front window, and, strangely, it looks like the two events may be connected. As well, a couple of crime bosses from Glasgow are in town, and it looks like a gang war may be going to break out. Malcolm Fox, the protagonist from The Complaints is assigned to a team doing surveillance on said thugs, while Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ old partner, is in charge of the murder investigation. Rebus gets involved partly because, well, Rebus, but also because of his long, love-hate, relationship with Cafferty.

The various strands of the plot weave, tangle and untie in a very satisfactory way (barring the ending of which I can say nothing without spoilers). What made this novel stand out, however, was that Rankin allowed himself to focus more on the characters and the relationships than the plot points. Over all this time, and the space of twenty novels, we have enormous affection for Rebus, and for Siobhan, and some growing respect for Fox, although I find him harder to like, even for “Big Ger” Cafferty. Rankin doesn’t either exploit that or betray our trust by pulling the rug out. Reading this latest novel is like spending time with a very old friend.

On a personal note: I so don’t read crime fiction or mystery novels under normal circumstances, though I’ve been known to relent for Dorothy L. Sayers and one or two others. It says a lot that I have read every single Rebus novel – even if not all have given equal pleasure -and would jump at the chance to read more. That is the power of a great character.

By the way: there is a song “Even Dogs In the Wild.”  Read what Rebus has to say about it, and then find the recording with the Scots connection.  You’ll be glad you did.

A Song For Ella Grey
David Almond
Delacourt Press, 2015
ISBN 0553533592

24836168Magnificent. This is an extraordinary piece of writing: haunting, beautiful, achingly sad but completely unsentimental. Watch out, because I’m going to be pushing this novel to everyone I know now. It’s hard in a way, having read what I suspect will be the best book I read in 2016 in the first week of January.

I read it in one almost completely uninterrupted sublime gulp. You can read it quickly, because you get swept away by the power and rhythmic force of the language, but you will also want to go back and reread, re-experience some of those lyrical tour-de-forces of writing. The tone and timbre captures the voice of the English north without ever falling into caricature or making the reader trip. If I say it is “poetic,” you will think “flowery,” but it is not: it is achingly pure, precise, not a single word out of place.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been inspiring poets, artists and musicians for centuries, millennia. Somehow, Almond makes it new, infuses the power of the ancient myth into a contemporary world. Nor does he shrink from the violence of parts of the story, but somehow without ever mis-stepping, crossing the line into banality or excess. One thing I like is the ordinariness of the young characters. These are not disaffected or damaged youth. This is not a “problem” novel about teenage pregnancy or drug addiction. These are intelligent, self-consciously artsy, slightly bohemian young people on the cusp of adulthood, with all their restlessness and questioning and yearning, insecurity and brashness. What happens when you expose such young characters to love and beauty and art in their most ideal forms, reified in Orpheus? That it is a tragedy is not a spoiler if you know the story; what is unexpected is the joy that underlies the grief. But that is the power of the myth and of this novel.

It is a song. It is a masterpiece.

I have never found Brad Pitt attractive. I know we’re supposed to – he represents that brand of “all American” clean cut wholesome good looks that is the “ideal” for the rest of us – but there is something curiously bloated about his eyes and his lips that has always repelled me. And there is nothing going on behind his eyes. I would far rather sleep with Angelina Jolie, but that’s another story.

There’s another story buried somewhere in Brad Pitt’s curiously bloated star vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one that is never allowed to surface, any more than any real character surfaces from under the immaculate CGI or makeup effects that propel the plot, and this applies equally to both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. There are hints of something about how time is fleeting and how we need to appreciate every moment of our lives. How it’s possible to have a love affair with life itself, no matter what fate hands you. How age doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter. But those are all different movies, not this one, though this one is trying desperately hard to be profound.

It’s all about how we’re meant to respond. We’re meant to think that Brad Pitt going from an octegenarian babyhood to a time-worn teenager is a brilliant acting job. He’s being touted for an Oscar, and if he wins it there’ll be no justice in this world. One of the things that is so profoundly wrong about this movie is that he doesn’t age, or change, at all under all that makeup. It’s always Brad Pitt, with that smug, curiously bloated, smile, looking out.

We’re meant to get caught up in the great Romance at the heart – the lovers living life in reverse who can only meet in the middle (where, of course, Cate Blanchett is maybe just past her prime, and has anyway had her leg crushed and can’t dance, but Brad is at the height of his gorgeosity). I would have been more moved if there had been the least bit of chemistry between the two stars. There is far more chemistry between Brad and the exquisite Tilda Swinton. The brief romance between those two gets the movie nowhere but at least provides us with a glimpse of some real feeling. The romance between Cate and Brad takes forever to get going and then is over too quickly. And the really profound and interesting period where Cate gets to look after the toddler and baby Brad is just another wasted opportunity.

We’re meant, I think, so see Benjamin’s life as some reflection of “America” itself, much as we were with Forrest Gump (no coincidence, then, that the screenwriter is the same). The movie, like Brad Pitt’s performance, is one of the front-runners for an Oscar (“run, Benjamin, run!”), and if it wins, which it could well, it will be because, like Brad Pitt, the movie reflects back to Americans how they want to see themselves. Homespun, folksey, noble, beautiful, tolerant. Empty-headed.

Apart from the failure at the core of this film, there were other annoyances. The bushman who comes out of nowhere, apparently having been an exhibit at a zoo, to stay conveniently in the all-purpose, all-race, oh-so-tolerant old-folks home where Brad is brought up, presumably there to make gnomic utterances and signal how tolerant everyone is (oh, look, there’s white Brad Pitt sitting at the back of the bus with the short black guy! I mean, wtf?).

There’s the fact that Benjamin and his ship-mates are in Russia when Pearl Harbour is bombed, without anyone apparently noticing that several years of World War 2 had been going on – IN RUSSIA !!! The setting allows some more nice CGI effects of snow and streets with neon writing in cyrillic alphabet and for Brad and Tilda Swinton to eat caviar and drink vodka. And the war, of course, allows more demonstration of how brave and patriotic and generally wonderful our American hero is. And not only Russia, but Paris and the ocean battles and all the other settings are CGI and as fake as the emotions we are supposed to feel while watching the film. And Brad refers to the exquisite Tilda Swinton as “plain.” Of course, she’s British; she couldn’t be beautiful.

There’s the fact that Cate Blanchett doesn’t walk like a dancer. I normally love Cate Blanchett, but her performance here is mannered, as if an accent and some pointy toes make up for the fact that she has no character. As she got older, her accent slipped once or twice into Katherine Hepburn. I found myself wishing for Kate to blast in and wake everyone up.

There are the heavy-handed symbols: the clock, that blasted hummingbird. (symbols of what, I’m not quite sure…) And the thunderstorm that seems to follow Brad around. And why the blazes does the movie end with Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters wooshing in??

Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a well-meaning, beautiful and empty-headed mess of a movie, and no doubt will make millions and win dozens of awards for its star.