Bartleby is forcibly hired by his uncle Ahab as a sailor. “I
would rather not,” he complains, but this isn’t accepted as
an excuse in the 19th century, a time long before ennui was even invented.
Completely hopeless at performing most nautical duties, he is put to work
below decks as a scrivener, which job entails keeping meticulous records
of weevils in the hard tack.
The captain has a
thing about whales, as a particularly big and white one bumped into his
ship one time and wrecked the bowsprit, which is very unlucky, men of
the sea being very superstitious. So he spends his days chasing after
it and his nights dreaming of chasing after it. Ahab was not a well rounded
At first Bartleby
performs his duties assiduously, there being little else to occupy his
attention. Later, for reasons generations of readers have puzzled over,
he simply stops doing so, sorely vexing his uncle. When asked to explain,
he once again states that he would rather not. This becomes a running
joke, even though neither man is noted for having a sense of humour.
Eventually they catch
up to the whale. After a terrible battle it brings the ship down, with
all hands on deck lost except for Bartleby. The young man washes ashore
on a desert island. Years later he is offered rescue by the captain of
a passing ship. Remembering his time at sea, Bartleby says “I would
rather not,” and lives happily ever after on the island.
Fyodor wants to make stone soup because he heard it was tasty and stones
are abundant (and free!) in his penal servitude camp. He enlists the help
of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, serving a life sentence for crank
phone calls to the Tsar, and tells him to find stones that look like potatoes.
Nikolayevich complies although secretly he feels the task is beneath him.
A guard grows suspicious when he sees Fyodor licking a basalt and alerts
the authorities. Fyodar and Nikolayevich are rounded up and set to be
executed the following morning at dawn. They are reprieved at the last
moment and instead sentenced to a further 150 years, after which Fyodor
hopes to settle in a beach hut on the Black Sea.
The Mill on
The story of a 19th century dental floss mill and the lives and loves
of those who worked there.
A man named Bloom spends an entire day composing a missive to the tram
company for their complicity in thwarting his attempt to ogle a woman
wearing stockings. Rather than writing a business-like letter setting
out his position with clarity, he lapses into stream-of-consciousness
and a frankly show-offy knowledge of the classics. This goes on for quite
some time. When the tram company receive the letter they answer it politely.
Boy meets girl or boy. Space aliens invade. Bruce Willis is unwilling
savior. A helicopter appears, though not always in the form of a helicopter.
The past comes back to haunt us. Friendship is tested. Zombies. These
are the 7 basic plots. The
ancient Greeks and other storytellers before our time obviously had fewer.
No matter what you write or read, it has to fit into the matrix so the
brain can understand it. (Mmmmm, brains.) This is what editors are for:
to guide those who go astray. It has to be cinematic because we are visual
creatures, or there will be trouble.
The images play on
the screens in our heads no matter what the original medium. Even Helen
Keller had a box seat. She was a
tough critic. (Yes, Anne Sullivan taught her the F-word. If you were
blind and deaf wouldn’t you want to know it?) We are all critics,
thumbs up or down, hitching a ride to the only places roads go.
It may seem like there
must be more plots. There are, but they are not Basic. Exceptio probat
regulam in casibus non exceptis. Subtitles are never good for box
This has been misshelved here, as I've actually read it.
Grips with Punctuation and Grammar
more. Apostrophes, hyphens, nouns, things that are subjunctive –
it’s all here. Make yourself understood just as well as the greats
of literature. Learn to recognise when spelling counts and when it doesn’t
(more often than you might think!). Discover helpful mnemonic tricks for
difficult-to-remember words for when it’s better to be safe than
sorry. Particularly useful is a section on Googling for common usages,
and grammar by consensus. There’s even a chapter on split infinitives
hilariously interrupted by a digression into adverbial syntactic functions.
Ends much too soon.
at the Top
Donald Jehoshaphat Trump, superego redefined, is struck by an apple and
discovers gravity, that thing 'At the top', though he gives props to "That
great American Isaac 'Fig' Newton." Fruit is, in fact, a theme. Investors
who didn't buy into his schemes were "bananas"; those who did
were "sharp as a papaya" – an aphorism which never caught
on. His first wife Ivana was a "Georgian peach" (actually she
was Czechoslovakian). Mayor Ed Koch was a "[antisemitic slur] kumquat,"
a nickname that started a decades-long feud. I don't think I have to tell
you what he sent to David Dinkins in what he would later claim was a misunderstood
gesture of peace and goodwill.
Talk to the
Not the sign language manual one would imagine, perhaps with a chapter
devoted to helpful digital profanities, but a treatise on cultural mores
of the current generation, 'current' being defined here as that generation
below anyone likely to be reading this. Ears, being so preoccupied with
listening to whatever is being piped into earbuds, are best avoided as
portals to entertain discussion. The hand is the new ear. Thus a slap
is an entirely appropriate way to close a conversation.
"Is it about a bicycle?" you ask. It is about that and everything
in between. Flann O'Brien's classic has been described as a riddle wrapped
in a mystery inside an enigma inside a mystery wrapped in a riddle, and
with good reason. Because inside is the meaning of life, which is the
greatest mystery of all except for death [see On Death and Dying, below],
which is also the greatest mystery.
Set in rural semi-detatched
Ireland and narrated by Schrödinger's Cat, the story is a metaphysical
tour de force involving all manner of unlikely goings on, including but
not limited to non sequiturs, frankincense and myrrh being the traditional
gifts for the birth of very naughty boys. Policing is also a theme, as
might be expected from the title. To this day the local constabulary use
O'Brien's book as a bible and highway code.
revere it because it speaks to them as no other. Of particular interest
is the formula for determining what percentage of the body has transmogrified
from human to bicycle, a process which begins when you first learn to
ride and ends when you find yourself locked to a bike rack in old age,
in need of a lick of paint besides. This is an actual test which can be
performed in a lab. It will come as no surprise that Douglas
This publication, put out by the UK Met Office, is a guide to the clouds
over Britain. As weather conditions are constantly changing, it never
goes out of print. Clouds are categorised by size, colour, speed, wispiness,
and shape, the latter providing no end of public comment as the official
classification system makes no allowances for whimsy – a cloud doesn't
"look like a rabbit eating a flower," it is given an alphanumeric
designation unintelligible to all but meteorologists and data crunchers.
Available in a boxed set with the shipping forecast.
the Origin of Species
Full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, wherein
A Very Distinguished Procrastinator Presents Overwhelming Evidence, Painstakingly
Gathered, that Evolution, Though It May Sound Like A Wild Idea to Most
of You Here in the 19th Century, Is A Pretty Nifty Theory, Go On, Try
to Poke Holes in It, See How Far You Get. By the Author of Nature Red
in Tooth and Claw and Other Bodice Rippers.
Everyone has ancestors.
Ours are apes. You can't chose your family.
of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time)
The narrator feeds a swan a madeleine, a type of cake which looks like
a shell. Then he goes to bed early. When he wakes up he does it again,
like Groundhog Day but in French.
There is a lesbian scene, which is also one of the seven basic plots [see
above]. On a visit to the seaside he trips over a shell. This involuntarily
summons an image of the madeleine, which has turned up again back home
and which he now uses as a paperweight. While at the beach he loses his
watch in the sands of time. We fast forward to Sodom and Gomorrah, both
of which the narrator visited as a child; they left deep impressions,
like the shell of a madeleine.
The destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah (twinned like
Brighton & Hove). Madeleines not to scale.
A lesbian is taken
captive but released with no hard feelings. Later Swan dies: he was a
man, not a bird after all. The narrator visits Venice with his mother,
who complains about the plumbing. A telegram arrives informing him that
there is a fugitive on the loose by mistake, but it has been spelled ‘lose’
instead, whatever the French is for that, and he ignores it. “I
don’t care,” he says, but he does because he is basically
a decent man. In the final volume of this masterful work the narrator
visits Paris and writes a long review for TripAdvisor praising in particular
the madeleines. He realises that the only way to escape from this endless
series of Groundhog Days is to accept your life’s baggage and always
make room for it. He then bites into the ancient madeleine and wakes up.
Was it all a dream? No, he’s chipped a tooth.
He never does find
to Cook a Wolf
An empowering manifesto from a writer at the top of her form, this book
works on a number of levels, not least as actual food.
Fisher starts with
her own version of the old fairy tale: Red of Riding Hood fame gets the
drop on the wolf, plays out a scene reminiscent of Saw, then prepares
and feasts upon him. This shocking yet delightful subversion of normative
values forces the reader to consider life from the wolf's point of view.
The wounded pride of a predator just before he's devoured teaches us that
being eaten sucks, whoever you are. It is only by acknowledging that the
'wolf' inside all of us (even babes in the woods) has perfectly legitimate
hungers that we begin to make a beginning to understand.
A large portion of
the book is then devoted to actual recipes using foodstuffs available
in most supermarkets. This is a frank acknowledgement of the retail imperative
of a publisher keen to get a piece of that nice big cookbook pie.
Just as the reader
is lulled into a false sense of security, perhaps even having gone so
far as to put bay leaves on the shopping list, the author replays the
opening scene, this time having girl and wolf sit down at grandma's table
and come to an understanding, even a mutual respect; thus confounding
our expectations and guilty hope for more delicious mayhem. It ends with
a tut, shamefully yet gratefully recieved.
A Brief History
During a long dark night of the soul—a "black hole" much
like one of Churchill's black dogs—Professor Hawking postulates
that not only is the universe due to end, certain cosmic effects have
accelerated more quickly than forecast and The Big Crunch may arrive as
soon as next Tuesday. He hurriedly dictates retractions to most of his
previous theories, outlines how things might've been different if Planck's
Constant had stayed constant, and throws in a recipe for ossobuco.
Everyone watches the Joneses, but who's watching the watchers watch the
Joneses? de Botton is. He takes the reader on an erudite journey through
the causes and effects of mass production, the psychology of human desire
(with an especially piquant chapter on self-actualization "Dedicated
to my Bubbie"), the oeuvre of Mel Brooks through a lens darkly, the
potlatch culture of the Hieltsuk Nation, and a tour of an Apple Store
to get to 'de Botton' of things.
Death and Dying
There are five stages on the ultimate road trip first documented by Elisabeth
Kübler-Ross: Denial, FFS, Haggling, "We thought it was benign",
and FFS. [In an update to a new authoritative edition of her book, former
colleague Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall adds a sixth after Haggling, 'Tea'.]
We all go through all five, though some of us are better at Haggling than
others. Appendices include helpful directions to your nearest Dignitas
outlet and famous last words.
"Now comes the
mystery." Henry Ward Beecher
"Friends applaud, the comedy is over." Ludwig van Beethoven
"I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis." Humphrey
"God bless... God damn." James Thurber
"God, I'm bored." St John Philby
works of J.R.R. Tolkien
Creatures called orcs wish to move into the sought-after Shire but the
hobbits have priced them out. The orcs become angry and bloodthirsty yet
the hobbits still won't budge, drawing a ring around their golden catchment
area and relegating the orcs to the clearly less desirable suburbs of
Middling Earth. They then hire a wizard as a security guard.
A lowly darkroom technician stuck on halftone duty grows tired of the
illusion of tonality and dreams of '50 shades of grey'. To secure a promotion
she seduces her line manager, offering forbidden pleasures. It's all very
sordid and delicious until one night her ecstasy climaxes in her shouting
out his name, "Oh Ansel Adams!", but unfortunately his name
is actually Frank, so he proceeds to spank her quite vigorously with his
left hand, a slave to chirality if not chivalry. They continue their affair
in this vein until she gets her promotion.
It's Not About
Before there was Lance: the disgraced champion, Lance: the champion, and
Lance: the comeback kid, there was Lance: the mild-mannered stock boy
at the Plano Texas Walmart. Put in charge of Sundries & Notions at
a young age, he rapidly advanced to Lead-Based Cosmetics and then to Small
Arms & Ammunition, where he caught the eye of Sam Walton himself when
he had the idea of greeting each customer with a Howdy Pardner! gunshot
into the ceiling. Unfortunately he was later caught operating a black
market in Milk-Duds and fired. The future Sheryl Crow toy boy then expressed
an interest in triathlons, which in the Lone Star State consists of line
dancing, barroom brawling, and bowling with armadillos. Dogged by allegations
that he cheated during Achy Breaky Heart, he was watching Mork & Mindy
on TV one night drunk on regrets and Walmart Beer when he fatefully wrote
a wildly improvisational fan letter to Robin Williams, mentioning in a
PS. that he would like a bike for Christmas.
The Wind In
Josie Dew! What a delightful name. She pedals all over the world and has
alliterative adventures. This however is the story of her year as a galley
cook on a Portsmouth-registered yacht run by white slavers, described
as "the happiest time of my life, except for the white slaving."
Her creative juices began to simmer when she found herself making an omelet
one morning for a Random House editor ravenous after a marathon session
of debauchery. Encouraged to tell her own story, signed, then ordered
to join the editor back in his cabin "to cross a few Ts and dot a
few Is," she slapped him playfully, then less playfully, then she
locked him in a trunk with the gimp; reconsidered and released the gimp;
then caught the next helicopter out. (The yacht had a helipad.) The story
continues in her follow-up book, The Gimp At My Heels.
Bikes are wonderful. We all know this. The Bicycle Book doubles our pleasure
by having two of the best words in the English language in its title.
('The' is also popular.) The author doesn't belabour the point; instead
she lists all the bicycles in the world, alphabetised by name for those
machines which have been lovingly christened; then by serial number. Note
that this is only the first volume, A to B.
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Noisy motorcycle. Something wrong. Must fix. No, they come that way. Life
is what needs to be fixed. Must examine life. Start with Plato. Buy Phaedrus
cliffs notes. No, can't hurry this. Start from the beginning. From before
the beginning. Before knowledge, before philosophy, before spark plugs.
Once upon a time there was Pure Truth. Later everything went pear-shaped.
The ancients knew. Oh, they knew. They shot Zeno's Arrow into the sky
and fractured reality into a million paradoxes. Vroom, Vroom. Buddha knew,
too, but we don't have time for that. Never enough time. Johnny Depp is
buying the film rights. Don't Google that, it's an unsolvable riddle.
A very important book which would keep all of us alive if only we had
to sense to dedicate our waking moments to modifying our behaviour, appearance
and mindset to suit the needs of the automobile. Composed of thousands
of rules and heartfelt suggestions which may be used against you in a
court of law should you impede its progress or drive one in such a manner
as to show a lack of respect for the Code. Numbered, like our days on
earth. Illustrated with stained-glass diagrams of saints and sinners.
Contains important information on stopping distances under all circumstances,
including when lollipop ladies are called into service as speed bumps,
and when it is snowing and the council has spent the gritting fund on
golden parachutes for its outgoing executives. Revised on a regular basis
to reflect the changing mores of society: note crucial differences between
the 1611 edition, "Ye MUST NOT take
the Lord's name in vain when being delayed by a horse answering the call
of nature," and the 2007 edition, "You MUST
refrain from talking on your mobile phone while driving unless you are
using it to report a Jimmy Savile look-alike to the police." Cyclists
are given their own section just after 'Rules for animals', as to the
regret of many, they are technically road users. The two sections are
to be combined in a future edition, when the government is expected to
introduce legislation to enable