Monday, 30 March 2020

Diary Of A Stay At Home, V

Self-Quarantine Day 17: Monday, 30th March, 2020

It has been a few days since the last update, and things have continued in much the same fashion, with a couple of unfortunate trips out, and much stress around dog walking and food deliveries. This whole 'two metre' guideline seems extremely simplistic. If people breathe out droplets, aren't they still going to be there for other people to walk through, or is there some kind of fast dispersion and nullification effect from being outside? Is it the wind? Does that mean calm days are more dangerous for being outside? It's a mystery to me. In a few short weeks there are going to be far too many people wandering around to ever walk the quadruped of terror anywhere but the garden. The mystery of whether open car windows are dangerous continues to be a mystery... as does the safety of food deliveries. I mean, those packages are being breathed on by several batches of people, right? Is it paranoia? Is it?

It would be easy to get paranoid in this situation. There might be six more months of this to go, or more, and everything that comes into the house is suspect, including me. There is no relief. It will probably be better when everyone is not sick, though. There are coughs, and now sneezes, and my chest is still tight, and I'm still not convinced we haven't already had the Mighty Virus, but it's impossible to tell. MAss home testing can't come quickly enough.

What does a day consist of at this stage of the lockdown? At the moment, we begin with getting up, which is traditional. Some people like to get down instead of getting up, but that's too much like work or jive. Then there's catching up on the turn-based games on BoardGameArena, breakfast, a ceremonial television episode with the parents, and then divergence from pattern. On Tuesday, there are a couple of students, on another day there's a food delivery, and on others nothing really happens but a little preparation. That has to change. Something has to fill those days. After the deviation, out with the dog, a game with parents, maybe another television episode, more game turns on the website, a ceremonial e-mail or two, and then to sleep. Or as close to sleep as is possible.

It all feels very sad. Television will have to be our saviour for now.


Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Diary Of A Stay At Home, IV

Self-Quarantine Day 12: Wednesday, 25th March, 2020

It is a time of extremes. The quarantine is blown as my father had to go to casualty with a cut hand, three times. That equals enormous stress, but we may just have gotten away with it. On the other hand, I was moved to tears by more than four hundred thousand people volunteering to become NHS Volunteers and take up a role in the community. What a wonder that is. Well done, you people! Tears did flow.

In good virus news, mass testing might be upon us, which would lead to a significant advantage over the microorganism. We may beat it yet. On the other hand, Agent X reports a worry about the (small?) fee for early purchase by the general public. We just don't know enough yet.

For even more viral knowledge, here's something about 'viral load':

In short, viruses can be worse the more you're exposed. One exposure from a single source is better than from a crowd in a room. Also, it's best to not hang around with other infected people as you breathe in each other's nastiness and become even more infected. That makes sense, right? Try to recover alone. The source seems reputable, and again it is from secret source Agent X. She'll be named if she's nice, and notices anything away from her family.

Being in self-isolation, and scared of a foe you can not see, you become more than a little afraid. You become afraid of the packaging the food comes in, just in case it was handled by an infected person. You get scared of the clothes you walked the dog in, because they may have picked something up from the air, or from passing cars (with open windows, you rotten twerps), or from gates or brushing on a fence. You get scared of a sore throat, or touching the computer mouse, because you touched it earlier, after touching your coat, which may have been messed by the walk outside, which may, which may, and so on.

Try not to get too scared please. It's not worth it. Eat liquorice instead. Mwahahahahaha. Or glug some echinacea tea, or use the Mystical Unwaxed Lemon Trick. Or find a source of elderberry extract. There are more productive things to do...


Monday, 23 March 2020

Diary Of A Stay At Home, III

Self-Quarantine Day 10: Monday, 23rd March, 2020

And so, after making it a whole week since the last definite contact, the day counter rolls back to zero after a simple misunderstanding. It's back to worrying for all! And that's not even including my old lung would springing some surprise pain for the day. Oh well, I'm always worried anyway, so there's no difference in that respect, but it is vexing.

Many things change in the middle of a massive disease crisis. Here in the Lair of the Quirky Muffin, certain more serious books in the reading stack have gone back into the standby pile, to be replaced by happier and nicer reads. Similarly, the heavier television series in the rotation are being spaced out by somewhat lighter fare. It's all in the spirit of positivity!

Now, if only the old lung wound hadn't started hurting, probably due to gas. No need to panic. There's nothing to see here. Here are some highlights of the day's activities: two absolutely classical episodes of 'Car 54, Where Are You?' ('No More Pickpockets' and 'The Beast That Walked The Bronx'), a well-made raisin cake, and a nice walk without the spectre of open car windows passing by for once. That should become less of a concern if there is a lockdown.

When this whole pandemic crisis blows over, let's all fly a kite, and have a really wonderful day of being able to touch our faces with no shame whatsoever. Oh, the torture of itches...


Friday, 20 March 2020

Diary Of A Stay At Home, II

Self-Quarantine Day 7: Friday, 20th March, 2020

One entirely predictable consequence of being isolated for three to twelve months is going to be the mental state upon going back to some kind of normal. Some people might even resist it, and try to stay in their exile, especially if they've built up an online profession and virtual life. So, how should we prepare for eventually going back to the social world? I don't have a good answer yet, but presumably we should all stay in contact with our people as best we can, while also focussing on projects and hobbies to keep us sane.

Does that make sense?

In health news, it has been eight days since my mother last went to town for volunteering, six days since my last face-to-face student, and only five days since my father last saw someone from the outside in person. We're doing well so far, so perhaps we're all clean of the dreaded virus. We can only hope!

Just in case, if anything happens to me, you're all brilliant. Even you, slouching at the back. Stand up straight!


Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Diary Of A Stay At Home, I

Self-Quarantine Day 5: Wednesday, 18th March, 2020

The overriding feelings, even at this early stage of our months-long pandemic self-quarantine, are ones of panic. 'What if that last student that came here before the doors closed was infectious?' 'What if we pick something up off the post?' 'How is this food delivery regime going to help when people are going crazy?' 'What if we suffer a tragedy anyway?' You see, to do this right, you have to be righteously paranoid, and then there is no end to the worries. Are passing cars dangerous when out walking the dog and avoiding people? How long does this hideous thing lurk after it has been dropped somewhere? The list is virtually endless.

I had hoped that my favourite time-waster and brain-burner, the website BoardGameArena, would be a welcome diversion but it is becoming often overloaded with people playing so intently and constantly that it now has to turn people away when it reaches capacity. This is a blow indeed! I suppose the best thing to do is to relearn how to write. You'll be in this with me. Be afraid, very afraid.

So, here is the Quirky Muffin incarnate, self-quarantined with a lung condition and two older parents with problems of their own, while a pandemic crashes its mighty fist down up on the planet Earth. How did we end up in a dystopian future so quickly, you might ask? Well, reader of the future, it is mostly due to people not doing anything. Thus, the elderly population, the sickly, and anyone who lives with them, are voluntarily locked down, with supermarkets unable to deliver all they need due to panic buying. The deliveries are also sold out for weeks ahead, so everything becomes very difficult indeed.

In the weeks and months ahead, assuming a bad thing does not occur, I will try to describe the mental travails involved in not going completely nutty, staying alive, and finding ways to deal with both the boredom and the fear. Things are going to get rough...


Monday, 9 March 2020

Books: The Literary Reflection, XXII

Wow. It's the twenty-second edition of the 'Literary Reflection', and once again it's a very mixed collection of books that don't quite fit anywhere else. 'The Gate Of Ivory' almost got a post of its own but suffered due my not really knowing what to write about it. It was a confused reaction.

'The Gate Of Ivory' (Gate Of Ivory) (1990) by Doris Egan
Hmmm. This is a tricky one. In 'The Gate Of Ivory', we meet a woman called Theodora, who has been stranded on the magical world of Ivory, without the money to book a space journey home to her university studies. She has been making do, pretending to read tarot cards, and storing up funds for her escape in an illicit bank account. That all changes, though, when she is employed a by a magician as his reader, begins to authentically read from her card, and is drawn into a long and confusing adventure.

This is a tricky story to write about, for it is very level. Well written as it is, there are few peaks or troughs. It feels like a level road from beginning to end, and one which doesn't answer a lot of the questions that I would like answered. Why is Ivory the only world where magic works in the galaxy? Why does this Empire that runs the planet intervene so little in the story? Why is there no reference to music anywhere? How many last memories are stored in that family library? Ultimately, this is good, but it feels as if a thousand things could have been expanded upon. It really does. There could have been two or more standalone novels based on just this material, excluding the second third books that were written.

My confusion might be based in the confusion that is the lead character Theodora.  She is definitely less self-aware than would be ideal, coming to conclusions long after the reader might have, and shifting from supporting character to lead, and then back again. Does she care about this, or about that? Or both? Is she a soap opera character, a romance character, or in the middle of an adventure? It's very hard to say, but the world is nice. There are people with their own stories, to be intersected with, and then left behind. Ultimately, this is a good second tier fantasy novel, with soap operatic and romantic leanings.

'The Blind Barber' (Gideon Fell) (1934) by John Dickson Carr
This was only the fourth 'Gideon Fell' novel to be written, and there is very little of Gideon Fell in the narrative. He is part of the framing story, wherein the actual lead character tells the doctor of the events of the transatlantic crossing he and his friends had just made, which are described to us the reader as a flashback which forms the bulk of the book. And that flashback is eventually very good indeed. I say eventually because it starts off rather slowly, and there is a sense of disappointment at the absence of Dr Fell, both of which are subverted into a sense of small amazement at the complex and farcical story that is wound tightly around a probable murder, the theft of a valuable artifact, an imposter on the ship, a drunken puppet master, some scandalous but innocuous home movies, and a very put-upon ship's captain. Even this is topped by a rather chilling interview with the criminal behind it all. It's utterly recommended, and no more will be said. Excellent.

'Some Buried Caesar' (Nero Wolfe) (1939) by Rex Stout
'Nero Wolfe' has really flown under the radar. There were more than thirty novels or collections in this run by Rex Stout, and Wolfe is supposed to be one of the most important detectives in all of fiction writing, but he's a non-presence here in Britain. After reading 'Some Buried Caesar', everything becomes a little clearer. It's a very simply written short novel, almost too simply, with an interesting plot and a narrative first person point of view in the vein of what might be called a hard-boiled Doctor Watson. Yes, that's right, a 'hard-boiled Doctor Watson'.

Similarities to Sherlock Holmes abound, wherein we have the ingenious (and often very sleepy and stay-at-home) detective and his less perceptive personal assistant who might be distracted by the ladies more often than not. Archie Goodwin makes a marked contrast to Watson, in that he discovers things as much as he receives explanation, presumably being the street detective to Nero Wolfe's armchair sleuth. Wolfe, uncharacteristically out of his rooms in this story, spends a lot of time looking for a decent chair in 'Some Buried Caesar', amusingly. I will not say much of the plot, except that there is a prize-winning bull, which supposedly kills someone, and that Wolfe and Goodwin happen to be on the scene thanks to a car accident.

Opinions on 'Nero Wolfe' in general will have to wait until some more experience is garnered.

'A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1985) by Harry Harrison
And so we go back in time to witness the beginning of Slippery Jim DiGriz, the titular character, and it's much better than I thought it would be. The reduction of scale in the story is welcome, as the earlier stories had escalated to the point of madness, as is stripping the character down to being a vaguely moral thief instead of a galaxy-saving anti-hero. These short novels are unceasingly entertaining, and you can't help but admire Harrison's perseverance in keeping them going for so long, and in breaking the cycle of ever expanding space opera by going back to the beginning. Is it classical? Probably not, still, but it's wildly more inventive that what you might find now, so I will finally recommend the 'Stainless Steel Rat' series, and there are still a few more to come...


Books: The Literary Reflection, XXI

'The Literary Reflection' returns, and this time in a double bill! It has been a big time for reading, and more will be on the way soon. The Good Reads Reading Challenge of 2020 is a good excuse, and a target of forty books seems pretty easy to beat. Will the Big Virus Of 2020 mess everything up? The end of year result will reveal everything.

'Peril At End House' (Poirot) (1932) by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie books always feel so lightweight to me, with a few exceptions. This is not one of those exceptions, despite being a very good Poirot mystery. Enough said.

'Murder In The Caribbean' (Death In Paradise) (2018) by Robert Thorogood

It's the last (so far) 'Death In Paradise' (DIP) novel, and we finish with a pretty good story. It's also rather unconventional as far as DIP goes, being about a string of revenge killings, oddly referred to as serial murders. I might be wrong, but I thought serial murders were something slightly different. In any case, Richard Poole is on the case, when he's not trying to prove Dwayne is shirking during the time he's supposed to be preparing for his Sergeant's exam. It's a good use of the cast of characters, and never flags, although the depths of the seediness on the island are becoming deeper with every instalment. It does have some of the weaknesses of the television series, in that romantic interests must be connected to the crime or be otherwise extraneous and unlasting, and that nothing can be introduced which breaks continuity. Is there space in the timeline for any more novels featuring the original cast? That break between series two and series three might have been very long indeed, and I have no idea about the level of detail in Poole's final moments... Finally, the book probably needs another proofreading run, as there a few too many typoes. Overall, a good and solid mystery story.

Of course it was XXX, you fools!

'Journey To The West' (volume 3) (16th C) by Wu Cheng'En and WJF Jenner 

Finally, we're here at the end of the third volume (out of four) of 'Journey To The West', and all is much the same. It's still quite repetitive, and there is still some fairly and unavoidably bland translation of Chinese poetry, but there are also some incredible moments. Monkey is one of the great characters of literature. It's basically a superhero epic, but centuries early, and with some very ambiguous protagonists. In good news, there's only one volume left! Hurray! This is definitely a fun collection of tales, but two thousand pages spread over four volumes is a bit much...

'First Lensman' (Lensman) (1950) by E.E. 'Doc' Smith

This, more than 'Triplanetary', is the very definition of a fix-up novel. There are obviously several short stories here, fused into a sometimes awkwardly connected novel, with the Arisian/Eddorian conflict bolted on as a framework. Fortunately the remaining novels are more conventionally written, so there is hope in that respect. Apart from that, this is a militaristic space opera, featuring an alien invasion, a battle against corruption, a presidential election, the establishment of a galactic council, an interview with an alien intelligence, and the recruitment of a new corps of telepathy-equipped Lensmen (no women allowed). That is a massive amount of content for such a small number of pages, and some of it amounts to a benevolent military coup, which is confusing in 2020. There is also undercover work, some femme fatale maneuvering, reconciliation with a brainwashed enemy fleet, and even a secret naval yard world. More? Yes, more! It's overstuffed to the point of bursting, somewhat chauvinistic, and without a lot of space for character development. However, there is no way that it cannot be called epic, and we do get an ending that is prophecised earlier in the text, and which we forget would happen, exactly as we were told we would. That's the nicest touch of all.


Book: 'Treasure Island' (1883, serialised 1882) by Robert Louis Stevenson

Arr! We've made it to 'Treasure Island', laddie! Get your hands off my parrot!

There's a set of books I didn't read when I was the appropriate age, for whatever reasons. Maybe I was put off by a musty smell, or never even thought to pick them up. Maybe they were leapfrogged over in search of the next thing. I don't really know why any more, but 'Treasure Island' is one of them and is excellent. It would have been a beloved childhood read. It is the absolute epitome of the boys' adventure story, with mayhem to spare. Again, just as in the Willard Price 'Adventure' stories, there's no fear of killing off characters, nor of doing dreadful things. Pirates die horribly of fear and rum, stranglings, tramplings and shootings abound, and adventure just pops out of the book indelibly. It's ridiculously good.

Every story featuring pirates and buried treasure draws on 'Treasure Island' (unless they preceded it, using some devious device of originality). It's iconic, foundational and in some senses mythical. Every devious and untrustworthy pirate is based on Long John Silver, and every marooned lunatic is Ben Gunn. It's also a very devious story, packed with references to past events we will never see, which is fascinating, and loaded with some hints as to future events in the lives of the surviving protagonists. The concept of a story as part of a longer timeline we won't see is always a draw in a book, and is one of the reasons why one-off novels can be so interesting.

Does Polly want a cracker? A piece of eight? Eight what?

The success of 'Treasure Island' is largely due to the complexity of the pirate leader, Long John Silver, the ruthless peg-legged ship's cook, with his parrot and his deadly crutch. At times caring of Jim Hawkins, our protagonist, he is also hard-hearted and utterly untrustworthy in any change of circumstances. Yes, he's a walking paradox, and seemingly far too knowledgeable to be a pirate. It's easy to see why so many people have tried to write novels about the character. He might even be the defining pirate rogue of all time. Is 'Treasure Island' still being read by children? I wonder...

Jim Hawkins is a fine protagonist too, and is clearly having the adventure of a lifetime as the squeaky clean hero of the tale. There are almost no women, Jim's mother being the only one, but it does make sense in context. The noble officers of the ship are good too, but it's really all about Hawkins and Silver.

'Treasure Island' is a classic adventure.