Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas, and goodwill to all

The Junky’s Christmas by William Burroughs, from the collection Interzone. A text version of the story to supplement Burroughs’s croaky narration, if required, is available here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Covers: The Book Design Review

Make Room! Make Room!, Harry Harrison (David Pearson)

Violence, Slavoj Žižek (Henry Sene Yee)

All the Sad Young Literary Men, Keith Gessen (The Heads of State)

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin (David Pearson)

Images from the excellent Book Design Review; now, alas, defunct (though you can still find the author on Twitter).

Friday, December 16, 2011


This passed El Tarangu by completely when it came out in January, but South Korean film director Park Chan Wook (he of Oldboy fame) has shot a short film entirely using the iPhone 4.

No English subtitles, unfortunately, but insofar as the Internet tells us, Paranmanjang is about a family consulting a shaman to find out the circumstances of the death of a relative (the fisherman gentleman).

Nice poster, too.

Buy Park Chan Wook films on Amazon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is John Wyndham’s take on a post-apocalyptic North American theocracy. The novel focuses on David Strorm, a child growing up in Waknuk, a community in Labrador. Most technological processes have been lost to humanity during ‘the Tribulation’ (nuclear war); civilization has regressed to an agrarian, almost feudal state. Genetic mutations, resulting from the aftermath of the long-distant Tribulation, are rooted out and sent to live in ‘the Fringes’ - areas deemed uninhabitable due to nuclear fallout.

David, the book’s narrator, realises from a young age that he can communicate telepathically with his half-cousin, Rosalind. Soon David and Rosalind discover a number of other children who can communicate in this way. Though outwardly normal in appearance, the children grow up in constant fear that their secret will be uncovered, and they be deemed ‘Deviations’ and sent to live in the Fringes.

Not to give too much away, there is a catalyst that causes the children’s (though by this point, they’re young adults) secret to be discovered. David and Rosalind flee, along with David’s ultra-telepathic sister, Petra, encountering all sorts of dangers along the way, until the story reaches its dramatic conclusion.

The Chrysalids differs from much of the rest of Wyndham’s oeuvre. The book isn’t a ‘cosy catastrophe’, like The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes. Also, The Chrysalids doesn’t feature an educated everyman as its narrator and main protagonist. The book’s dystopian, post-nuclear war totalitarian setting is kind of reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale (always a good thing). The book also reminded El T of Keith Roberts’s Pavane (not exactly an unqualified recommendation).

The most unusual aspect of the novel is its skewed moral compass. For most of its length, The Chrysalids reads like an allegory promoting tolerance. When a childhood friend has to go on the run from the authorities on account of an extra toe, young David doesn’t understand why everyone can’t just get along. The book then ends in an odd coda, with it being suggested to David that it is all right for telepaths to kill off the norms, as telepaths represent the next stage in the race’s evolution; natural selection will kill off all the non-telepathic humans eventually, so why not lend a helping hand? David questions this notion briefly, and then seems to go along with the idea.

Its inconsistent position on the subject of eugenics aside, The Chrysalids is kind of a dull book. Genre novels in the classic 200 page format really need to get going from the first page; The Chrysalids meanders along for its first 100 pages and then, just when it has begun to get moderately interesting, finishes. A real disappointment for a book that some people compare favourably to Triffids (at one time, El Tarangu's favourite novel).

Not one of John Wyndham’s better efforts, El Tarangu would not recommend.

Buy The Day of the Triffids on Amazon.

Image from A Penguin a week.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spiders on Drugs

If you were give some a variety of different drugs to some spiders, what do you imagine that the effects on their web-spinning abilities would be?

Well, wonder no more. Luckily for us, Dr. Peter N. Witt did exactly that, and here are the results:

Here's the web of a spider who hasn't done any drugs (observe the uniformity).

This web was built while the spider was under the influence of benzedrine (oh dear).


Choral hydrate (sleeping tablets).




Images from Trey Dunn

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rogue Trader

By this time, few will be unfamiliar with the notorious Nick Leeson. Former derivatives trader Leeson was the man whose wayward, unauthorised trading practices resulted in the collapse of Barings Bank, London’s longest-established merchant bank. The back cover of Rogue Trader, Nick Leeson’s account of the events that led to the bank’s downfall and his incarceration, promises the reader that:
“The story of Leeson and his bride has it all: a lust for filthy lucre, brazen abuse of power, and boy-meets-girl romance” – SUNDAY TIMES
Sounds scintillating; let’s read on.

Rogue Trader paints Nick Leeson as a thoroughly unsympathetic character. He attempts to justify his initial foray into book-cooking by telling readers that if he had not hidden his first loss (the fairly trifling sum in derivatives trading of £20,000), a co-worker would have been fired. However, the reader comes away with the distinct impression that Leeson was more interested in maintaining his own illusion of competence, rather than looking after his colleague.

Throughout the book, Leeson pours scorn on the make-believe world of financial trading; he is more than happy to revel in macho bullshit himself, however. His descriptions of alcohol-induced high jinx with colleagues were probably meant to show Leeson as an ‘ordinary bloke’, whereas in fact they make him out to be an obnoxious boor (prior to his incarceration, Leeson was briefly held in custody for mooning a group of air hostesses).

Another piece of information that Leeson constantly offers the reader in support of his status as everyman is the fact that his father is a plasterer in Watford. “A person from a working-class background in white-collar employment!”, I hear you gasp. Well, we were shocked as well, but luckily Nick is on hand to repeatedly remind us that yes, his father was a tradesman and yet, yes, he miraculously secured employment in a financial institution; ironic, given that Leeson could be used a shining example by those who would seek to argue that working-class oiks shouldn’t be given access to the world of high finance.

Nick Leeson wrote Rogue Trader as a means to absolve himself of all responsibility for Barings’ collapse. The book goes to great lengths detailing every stage of the fraud where proper oversight would have revealed Leeson’s foray off the reservation. Leeson is fond of blaming the failings of others for his irresponsibility – like blaming the auditors for not finding growing financial discrepancies that he freely admits he went to elaborate lengths to conceal. In the preface, Leeson writes that the book: “…recounts an episode of my life that I’m not very proud of”. These feelings of humility didn’t stop him from making a shed-load of money from the book and subsequent movie option, however.

The book finishes with Leeson imprisoned in Germany, awaiting extradition to Singapore. El Tarangu was rather tickled by one literary coincidence in the final chapters: Leeson, like his literary-convict predecessor Brendan Behan, took solace in the works of Thomas Hardy while imprisoned in a foreign land.

The postscript informs readers that Nick Leeson was duly convicted upon his arrival in Singapore, and was sentenced to six and a half years. What the postscript doesn’t tell readers (though in later editions than El T’s, it might well do) is that Leeson’s wife, Lisa, whom the author harps on about for the duration of the book as his rock and his one constant throughout the whole affair, promptly left him for a different red-braced trader once Leeson was in the clink.

Following on from his release from prison, Nick Leeson became an after-dinner speaker, specialising in telling bankers how not to do things. In what can only be described as a bizarre hiring decision, in 2007 Leeson was appointed CEO of Galway United, an Irish soccer team. This gamble by the club’s board did not pay off: the club is now addled with debt, and has been forced to sell off all of its players, going from a semi-professional club to an amateur one (the club’s misfortunes are not wholly attributable to Leeson, it must be said).

Rogue Trader is summed up quite succinctly in the book’s New York Times review:
“This is a dreary book, written by a young man very taken with himself, but it ought to be read by banking managers and auditors everywhere.”
The banking managers and auditors, however, have seemingly chosen not to follow the Times’ advice.

So, Rogue Trader: quite dull and not terribly well-written, but worth a read if only to gape at Leeson’s breathtaking chutzpah.

Friday, November 18, 2011

It seems that Benetton are up to their old tricks again...

... and El T, for one, is all for it. Benneton's campaigns are always best when they feature either tongue-in-cheek shocking images (as above), or genuinely shocking images (as below):

When Benneton try to get all touchy-feely and messagey, though; then, their campaigns are a bit naff:

Images from

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Arrested Development Lego

The Bluth family has been immortalised in lego form. Images from, created by Pepa Quin.

Hat tip: El T's sister (who hasn't got a website, so no linkage).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cop Hater: An 87th Precinct Mystery

Someone is murdering police officers in Isola’s 87th Precinct, and it’s up to detective Steve Carella and his partner Hank Bush to find the killer.

Cop Hater is the first instalment of Ed McBain’s hugely influential 87th Precinct novels. Set in the fictional city of Isola (a dead ringer for New York), McBain largely created the police procedural genre with the series. For much of the book, the plot doesn’t so much race as it meanders. Carella and Bush follow up on dead-end leads for the purposes of eliminating unlikely suspects from their enquiries. They attend to mundane tasks unrelated to the case, like going to view a line-up. They shoot the bull around the precinct. Then all of a sudden there’s a major development, the tension is ratcheted up by placing a likeable character in jeopardy, and a nice twist in the ending – and all within 170 pages.

Many of the devices employed in Cop Hater will seem hoary old tropes to modern readers – the wise-cracking cops, the slimy tabloid reporter, prostitutes giving sass – but McBain gets away with it by virtue of the fact that he’s Ed McBain. Also, the 1950s forensic techniques will appear refreshingly low-tech to readers long-inured to CSI and its ilk, where the simplest investigative procedures require a 3D animation sequence.

El T read The Armchair Detective Library edition, which comes with an introduction written by Ed McBain himself in 1989. McBain informs readers that the early 87th Precinct novels only took a month to write; later, when he began to make the books longer, they took two months to write(!)

Cop Hater is an economical little thriller, and would be good introduction for those interested in getting into Ed McBain. And that title – quite possibly the pulpiest in the history of crime writing.

Hap tip: El T would like to thank Murakami’s unnamed main protagonist in Dance Dance Dance for recommending the 87th Precinct series.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Most Expensive Photograph in the World

This photo, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, fetched the princely sum of $4,338,500 in Christie's last Tuesday. Which just goes to show that once an artist becomes sufficiently famous, they can crank out any old tat, then sell it for a shedload of money. El T particularly likes the Emperor's new clothing strewn across the foreground.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Brave New Worlds

Not a new edition of the Aldous Huxley novel, but an SF anthology edited by John Joseph Adams.  Wonderful cover  from his website, via

Saturday, January 15, 2011

George Orwell's Guide to the Tea-making

Eric Arthur Blair's thoughts on how to make a nice cuppa, via Hitch in Slate.

They have the topic fairly well-covered, so we'll just add one addendum: never wash your teapot. Unpleasant as it may look, your teapot needs its coating of limescale - ever notice how your water tastes strange for a few days after you put in new taps?

Next week, W. Somerset Maugham on how to get the perfect soft-boiled egg.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

World Book Night is taking place on the 5th of March...

... and there's still time to register as a book-giver.

A collection of publishers' associations plan on giving away a million books throughout the UK and Ireland on the night of the 5th of March (which, in an obtuse move on behalf of the organisers, is two days after World Book Day - go figure). As a book giver, you will give away forty-eight copies of whichever book you decide is the best from the twenty-five titles available. The deadline for applications is the 24th of January, and full details are available on the  World Book Night website.

El T's choice from the chosen titles? Alan Bennett's A Life Like Other People's, by a long chalk. Taken from the collection Untold Stories (which is possibly the best book that El T has ever read - seriously), A Life Like Other People's is Bennett's moving and humorous portrait of his parents.

Two extracts, for your reading pleasure:

So, World Book Night: a laudable attempt from book publishers to encourage reading, or the desperate scramble of an industry facing imminent destruction from the rise of e-books? Depends on your level of cynicism, we suppose. Either way, free books.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Deadly Décisions

Deadly Décisions: the third installment in the Temperance Brennan series

I first decided to read a Kathy Reichs book after hearing her in a radio interview. I had never before heard of the field of forensic anthropology, and found Reichs’s description of her profession fascinating; particularly her account of her work Hawaii, identifying the remains of US casualties from the Vietnamese, Korean and Second World Wars. Another factor in choosing to read some Reichs is that my father is a fan, and as such I have ready access to much of Reichs’s back catalogue. Deadly Décisions was the earliest instalment in the series I could find, so Deadly Décisions I duly read.

Deadly Décisions is centred on Reichs’s regular heroine Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. Brennan, like her creator Reichs, is a forensic anthropologist who divides her time between Montreal and North Carolina. She is divorced, owns a cat, has an on again/off again beau named Andrew Ryan, and enjoys cooking and watching sports. This particular instalment of the Temperance Brennan cycle concerns Montreal’s feuding motorcycle gangs.

Reichs is at her best when writing about her profession, and the book does contain some interesting technical detail. Chapter 8, in which Brennan describes the use of Ground Penetrating Radar in the search for bodies, is particularly engaging. Her pedigree as a forensic anthropologist notwithstanding, Kathy Reichs is not a terribly good novelist, and Deadly Décisions remains a very unexceptional novel.

The first indicator of Reichs’s limitations as a writer comes with the death of nine year-old Emily Anne Toussaint. Poor Emily Anne was blown up on the way to her ballet lesson: an innocent bystander killed in a botched assassination attempt - part of the ongoing biker feud. Reichs is about as subtle as a sledgehammer: in case the ballet lesson detail didn’t prove suffice to pull at the readers’ heartstrings, the reader is informed:

“That night Emily Anne was to have received an award in a lower-school writing competition. She’d titled her winning essay: ‘Let the Children Live.’”

One ponders what the competition was for – ‘Most saccharine essay title’, perhaps?

Like many writing in crime/thriller genre, Reichs is a fan of similes. Unfortunately, Reichs isn’t terribly good at similes: they’re kind of contrived and awkward. And not in a Yiddish Policeman’s Union, ‘meta’ kind of way. They’re regular bad. To whit, this example from page 197: “He’d been jumpy as cold water on a hot griddle”. And again on page 332: “… and the tension was making me jumpier than a proton in a particle accelerator.”(!?)

The motif reaches its grating zenith around the same time that the novel comes to its narrative climax: Brennan, along with Montreal’s finest, is staking out a biker’s funeral, during which the police expect an assassination to take place. The thrilling element: Brennan’s nephew Kit, a motorcycle enthusiast, is accompanying the assassins’ intended victim. Sergeant-Detective Luc Claudel, a police colleague with whom Brennan apparently has some history (more on the novel’s tension bypass later), is anxious that the forensic anthropologist does not attempt any heroics:

“Don’t even think about freelancing, Ms Brennan. These bikers look like sharks smelling the water for blood, and it could get rough down here.”
“And Kit could get sucked into the feeding frenzy!”

I genuinely winced at that one.

This exchange is meant to illustrate the friction that is alleged to exist between Brennan and Claudel, due to some disagreement that occurred in the first book. Claudel seems quite reasonable (if a little distant); Tempe Brennan seems to be going out of her way to dislike the man.

It’s a bad sign in a novel when, as a reader, you don’t sympathise with the main protagonist. Aside from the unlikeable Dr Brennan, the dialogue is dreadful (even discounting the similes), and any time a character is in jeopardy it doesn’t seem believable and I probably wouldn’t have cared even if it was. On the plus side, Reichs’s descriptions of Montreal are quite nice.

All in all, a pretty poor book, El T advises that you avoid it.

What a wonderfully opaque blurb: Do they mean "Better than Patricia Cornwell!!"; or "bit 'meh', but at least it's better than Patricia Cornwell"?