the crimson petal and the white

I’m about halfway through reading Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. So far: I’d say it’s a fascinating story set in mid-Victorian London. It’s a very entertaining, but somewhat improbable tale about a 19 year old whore and the self-absorbed (but rich) bloke she takes up with.

There’s a wealth of humour, colour and interesting characters sustaining the story; and of course the metropolis itself, larger than life. It helps a little knowing the geography - R. and I wandered around a lot of the places mentioned (most of them are a lot cleaner now than they used to be) when we lived there a while back.

Sometimes though the author uses this weird narrative device where his voice suddenly appears out of nowhere, practically accusing the reader of voyeurism. Like here, in the middle of a long stream of thoughts of one of the main characters:

So there you have it: the thoughts (somewhat pruned of repetition) of William Rackham as he sits on his bench in St James Park. If you are bored beyond endurance, I can only offer my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction and violent death.

So maybe reading is an act of voyeurism, and Faber’s trying to make some sort of point. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention to work out what it is. Maybe I can’t be bothered. Luckily the book stands up on its own without me having to figure this out.

his dark materials

As I finished this trilogy of “children’s” books by Philip Pullman the other week, I couldn’t help thinking that the fundamentalist christian types were barking up the wrong tree when condemning Harry Potter. That milk-sop wizard doesn’t star in a remade Paradise Lost, where God gets accidentally put out of his misery by the two lead characters, and the fascist tyrant angel leading heaven during God’s senescence is finally cast into the abyss. Oh no.

But I’m unnecessarily giving away details here. Just read it… and laugh at the audacity of Pullman in sneaking these themes and literary allusions into a children’s book series.

Karbala

Holidays in the Axis of Evil: another very interesting episode this evening as a ballsy British bloke Ben Anderson and his producer make a camcorder documentary in Iraq.

The bit that stuck most in my mind was the unbelievably beautiful mosque / tomb of Imam Abi Abdillah al-Husain in the city of Karbala, all tiles and colour. I looked at it and wanted to visit it, like any tourist. Then, quarter of an hour later on the same channel the news showed some American Marines backing off from an angry crowd determined to prevent the soldiers reaching that same holy site.

It was a strange moment where my comfortable travel porn was beginning to be interrupted by reality: armchair travel (see nice and interesting things, lovely hospitable people and their children) meets current affairs (see those same lovely things get shot at and people and their children shredded by cluster bombs).

We don’t have the television on very much anymore for that very reason - it’s just too upsetting. The deaths of children in particular make me feel almost physically sickened - with a small one of our own there is very little emotional distance to be had.

Anyway, the documentary did made me think that there’s more hope for Iraq than for North Korea (shown last week): the obvious wealth of the country in resources and human talent will enable it to find its own peace (if it is allowed to by its “liberators”). Even so, the key must be to finish the war quickly, and with the least bloodshed possible. (But why now, and why Iraq? I still don’t understand.)

And on that rather lame and muddled note, I shall close.

mantis female

female praying mantis laying her eggs

Here’s something you don’t see that often: a female praying mantis extruding her egg case. I have never seen this happen before, although our house has quite a few old empty ones crusting up the paintwork. B₂ and I will be able to keep an eye on it for the emergence of the mantis infants, although I’m going to have to do some research to see how long that will take.

Apparently this, our native mantis, is being displaced by an introduced species of mantis from South Africa. Maybe they haven’t reached Wellington yet, as I have only see this variety.

I was also a little concerned later this afternoon to see a tiny fly with a large ovipositor clambering over the now hard case. I wonder if mantises have their own parasitic wasps? I hope not. I love those wee mantis babies.

Updated, May 2009: I have recently discovered another female praying mantis depositing her egg sac (otherwise known as an “ootheca”), this time on our car.

Updated, October 2009: We’ve had lots of little mantises hatch inside the house - pictures here.

Perhaps a katydid?

Here’s a handsome fellow I spotted on the sunflowers we’ve been growing for B₂.

I think this is a katydid

I’m guessing this is a katydid (or easier to think of them as a “leaf insect”, I think, although that’s probably not their name.) It seems to have lost a leg as well. And no, it wasn’t me that did it.

This one was only about 4 cm long - I’ve seen others larger. I don’t seem to spot them that often: I don’t know whether it’s because they are rare, or more likely that they are just hard to spot.

pepys

Here is the coolest blog I’ve come across lately: it’s 340 years old. Someone called Phil Gyford has taken the text of Samuel Pepys famous diary from Project Gutenberg and is posting it as a weblog. Reading it day by day seems to make logical sense, but with a good ten years of material to go I’m not sure if I’ll last the distance without reading the rest as a conventional book.

The bonus here is in the annotations that can be made on each entry, as well as the cross referenced people and places. So far this seems to have added an extra dimension to the site. For example, today in 1660 Pepys’ account of the night’s entertainment runs thus:

[…] after a good supper, there being there my father, mother, brothers, and sister, my cosen Scott and his wife, Mr. Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr. Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr. Stradwick was King.

The annotations for this day, contributed by readers (some more knowledgeable than others) explain that this was a celebration of “Twelfth Night”, and what this was about and what a “brave cake” was. There’s a lot of cultural context missing these centuries later.

The site is a quite creative use of the weblog form, and promises much interesting and instructive reading in the years to come.

wairarapa

This is the best bit of the train journey from Wellington to Masterton. After an endless 10 minutes in the tunnel under the Rimutakas and a short run through a wooded valley the scene opens up. I take a deep breath and with a small feeling of joy look out the window.

Wairarapa plains and the Lake

The wide open spaces are cool relief after the claustrophobic urban landscapes of Wellington and the Hutt Valley. Open country interspersed with trees down to Lake Wairarapa with the hills in the background.

It’s one of those homecoming moments in a journey - like the bend in the road at Island Block on Highway 8 where my Parents’ farm can be seen for the first time, or that high point on Highway 50 between Tikokino and Maraekakaho where the full expanse of the Heretaunga plains suddenly comes in to view, or coming out of the Ngauranga Gorge on the motorway and seeing Wellington on a sunny blue day.

Yeah, that sort of thing.

the two towers

We went to The Two Towers on Saturday night. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film, but somehow it felt a little unsatisfying. Maybe it’s the lack of a clear beginning or end (not really Jackson’s fault) or the occasional annoying change that has been made (e.g. Frodo and Sam being taken to Osgiliath under duress by Faramir) which gives quite different shadings to the characters involved.

However, it was incredibly entertaining, with effects and actors working almost seamlessly. Best effect for my money (this cannot have been a stunt, surely) was when Legolas, ahead of a group of riders and firing on some orcs, looks over his shoulder, sees Gimli on a horse bearing down on him, casually steps in front of the horse and somehow flicks himself up onto the back of it behind Gimli. I’m not explaining it that well. But it just looked f**king astonishing.

The raves for the way Gollum has been done are deserved. Hollywood isn’t quite in the age of the synthespian yet, but in another five years it won’t be far away. It’s easy to imagine (for example) someone making a new James Dean film with this sort of technology. Best supporting actor then would be a toss-up between Gollum, or the New Zealand landscape (although I’d always thought Rohan was green and flat - in the film it’s a combination of Central Otago and the Mackenzie Basin: dry brown rolling country with lots of tors).

Definitely one to see again… on the special extended DVD about this time next year as preparation for The Return of the King.

Baudolino: Crap, says reader

I finally finished Umberto Eco’s Baudolino last week… and to tell the truth it was a bit of a disappointment. While quite entertaining in parts, overall I found it difficult to empathise with any of the characters and ultimately it was a little boring. The book’s theme, to my mind, seemed to be about the power of a well told lie to become the truth. Similar to Foucault’s Pendulum in this respect: but set in 12th century Europe.

Eco is just too clever by half. But I think I already knew that before I started reading this book.

shining cuckoo

R. and I have started hearing Shining Cuckoos (Pīpīwharauroa). Well maybe they’ve been here since my earlier post in October, but we didn’t notice any until one quiet weekend afternoon when B₂ was in bed. I heard the distinctive whistling call that our bird-expert friend Phil had imitated for us a couple months previously. I looked up at R.: she had heard the same thing and was thinking the same as me.

Now I’m tuned in to the distinctive call I hear them about once or twice a week. I wonder if I’ll actually see any though: they do seem considerably rarer locally than the Grey Warbler…