On December 10, I will alas not travel to London to attend the Read Paper on sequential quasi-Monte Carlo presented by Mathieu Gerber and Nicolas Chopin to The Society, as I fly instead to Montréal for the NIPS workshops… I am quite sorry to miss this event, as this is a major paper which brings quasi-Monte Carlo methods into mainstream statistics. I will most certainly write a discussion and remind Og’s readers that contributed (800 words) discussions are welcome from everyone, the deadline for submission being January 02.
Archive for London
Yet another book I grabbed on impulse while in Birmingham last month. And which had been waiting for me on a shelf of my office in Warwick. Another buy I do not regret! Rivers of London is delightful, as much for taking place in all corners of London as for the story itself. Not mentioning the highly enjoyable writing style!
“I though you were a sceptic, said Lesley. I though you were scientific”
The first volume in this detective+magic series, Rivers of London, sets the universe of this mix of traditional Metropolitan Police work and of urban magic, the title being about the deities of the rivers of London, including a Mother and a Father Thames… I usually dislike any story mixing modern life and fantasy but this is a definitive exception! What I enjoy in this book setting is primarily the language used in the book that is so uniquely English (to the point of having the U.S. edition edited!, if the author’s blog is to be believed). And the fact that it is so much about London, its history and inhabitants. But mostly about London, as an entity on its own. Even though my experience of London is limited to a few boroughs, there are many passages where I can relate to the location and this obviously makes the story much more appealing. The style is witty, ironic and full of understatements, a true pleasure.
“The tube is a good place for this sort of conceptual breakthrough because, unless you’ve got something to read, there’s bugger all else to do.”
The story itself is rather fun, with at least three levels of plots and two types of magic. It centres around two freshly hired London constables, one of them discovering magical abilities and been drafted to the supernatural section of the Metropolitan Police. And making all the monologues in the book. The supernatural section is made of a single Inspector, plus a few side characters, but with enough fancy details to give it life. In particular, Isaac Newton is credited with having started the section, called The Folly. Which is also the name of Ben Aaronovitch’s webpage.
“There was a poster (…) that said: `Keep Calm and Carry On’, which I thought was good advice.”
This quote is unvoluntarily funny in that it takes place in a cellar holding material from World War II. Except that the now invasive red and white poster was never distributed during the war… On the opposite it was pulped to save paper and the fact that a few copies survived is a sort of (minor) miracle. Hence a double anachronism in that it did not belong to a WWII room and that Peter Grant should have seen its modern avatars all over London.
“Have you ever been to London? Don’t worry, it’s basically just like the country. Only with more people.”
The last part of the book is darker and feels less well-written, maybe simply because of the darker side and of the accumulation of events, while the central character gets rather too central and too much of an unexpected hero that saves the day. There is in particular a part where he seems to forget about his friend Lesley who is in deep trouble at the time and this does not seem to make much sense. But, except for this lapse (maybe due to my quick reading of the book over the week in Warwick), the flow and pace are great, with this constant undertone of satire and wit from the central character. I am definitely looking forward reading tomes 2 and 3 in the series (having already read tome 4 in Austria!, which was a mistake as there were spoilers about earlier volumes).
I had quite a special day today as I travelled through Birmingham, made a twenty minutes stop in Coventry to drop my bag in my office, went down to London to collect a most kindly loaned city-bike and took the train back to Coventry with the said bike… On my way from Bristol to Warwick, I decided to spend the night in downtown Birmingham as it was both easier and cheaper than to find accommodation on Warwick campus. However, while the studio I rented was well-designed and brand-new, my next door neighbours were not so well-designed in that I could hear them and the TV through the wall, despite top-quality ear-plugs! After a request of mine, they took the TV off but kept to the same decibel level for their uninteresting exchanges. In the morning I tried to go running in the centre of Birmingham but, as I could not find the canals, I quickly got bored and gave up. As Mark had proposed to lend me a city bike for my commuting in [and not to] Warwick, I then decided to take the opportunity of a free Sunday to travel down to London to pick the bike, change the pedals in a nearby shop, add an anti-theft device, and head back to Coventry. Which gave me the opportunity to bike in London by Abbey Road, Regent Park, and Hampstead, before [easily] boarding a fast train back to Coventry and biking up to the University of Warwick campus. (Sadly to discover that all convenience stores had closed by then… )
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is one of my favourite novels for its bittersweet depiction of the growing realisation that the main character has wasted his life. This other novel has the same thread of backward perspectives and of missed opportunities, however the main character (Banks) is of a very different nature. The way When we were orphans is written, one starts thinking this is all about an English detective trying to uncover the truth behind a very personal tragedy, the disappearance of both his parents in Shanghai when he was a child. But progressively the narrative gets fractured and incoherent and we progressively doubt the author’s story, then his sanity. By the end of the book, it is just impossible to sift reality from imagination, daydreaming from life accomplishments. For instance, Banks presents himself as a detective with a certain degree of fame in London circles. However, there is no description whatsoever of his methods or of specific cases. The closest to a description is a child murder (and worse?) where a local constable pleads for the detective to hit at the heart of evil, in a completely incoherent discourse. The storytelling qualities of Ishiguro are so perfect that the character remains a mystery till the end. It is not even sure that he has at all left the acting as a detective he used to indulge in with his Japanese neighbour in Shanghai! The most disturbing section occurs when he revisits Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion and thinks he can link his parents’ disappearance with the said invasion and solve both of them at once. It is only when he enters a battle zone in the slums of the city that reality seems to reassert itself, but even then the reunification of Banks and the Japanese friend from his childhood is so unrealistic that the most likely interpretation is that Banks is in a permanent denial and that the Japanese officer he rescued plays the game to stay alive. Still, the story is told in such a way that one can never be sure of any of these interpretations and this is what makes it such a great book, more complex than The Remains of the Day in its construction, if less compelling because of the unfocussed nature of most characters, which we can never grasp hard enough…
Another book I received as a bedside gift at The Hospital, this one a gift from Magali. Waterline by Ross Raisin is the story of a Glaswegian former shipyard worker falling into a mental abyss of denial and grief after her wife died. She died from asbestos-related cancer, whose fibres were brought from the shipyard in Mick’s clothes. Mick seeks solitude and shuns contact with former colleagues and friends, seeing their return to a normal life as an aggression against his wife’s memory. When Mick cannot stay longer in his rented council house in Glasgow, fearing eviction and with no money left, he moves to London where he first finds a job as a dishwasher that alienates him even further into a bubble where he can cut others out. He is fired after a while for taking a very passive part in a local union and within a few weeks he spirals down into homelessness. The second part of the book sees him getting out very slowly and very reluctantly out of this state, with no clear sign of any return to (whatever we could call) normality…
This is a far from perfect book and the second part feels contrived, with a sort of “happy ending” out of the bottom end of Mick’s life. Still, Waterline is a strong book that marked me because it left me with a strong impression that the same fall could happen to any of us, under the right (or rather wrong) … Raisin has a highly convincing way of describing the inner mental paths taken by Mick to stop seeing others, including his children, for not returning to his uncertain cab driver job, and for giving up too readily looking for jobs, shelters, or help. The homeless-ness pages are terrifying in their somehow warped version of normality, when the “lives” of Mick and of his (leading) companion of misfortune Brian follow some kind of predestined pattern, from avoiding security guards by moving around to finding accessible toilets, to stealing food from delivery trucks, to tracking protected places to sleep away from the rough weather. At times, this feels like too much and too long, but I would support the idea that this is “exactly” (given my total lack of expertise in the matter…) reflecting the experience of those homeless men, with no future further than the next night or the next meal. The second part of the book also shows how hard it is to reconcile with a “normal” life, incl. a poignant chapter on Mike reuniting with his son uncomprehending why his father had not called for help. A highly recommended read, if not exactly on the brightest side of life…