Friday, November 30, 2007


Flatmate update:

She came, she collected, she went.

Have a new one now and am focussed on lowering my expectations mightily. I'm anticipating achieving suspicious serial killer behaviour by Wednesday (insert joke about muesli here).

Weather update:

Snooooolluussshh. But cold. The hat with the earflaps has come out of storage, and I am monitoring the incremental plummet of the temperature on the way into work via the digital display in front of the pet supplies store.

Edited to add: except for today, when it went up again. But there's snow in the mountains this year, and people keep sneaking off for mid-week skiing sessions

24 hours in Berlin update:

The only thing that it is possible to obtain in the big shopping mall atop Berlin Hauptbahnhof (I now call it Hbf for that air of Teutonic coolness) that I cannot buy here are fist-sized Dunkin' Doughnuts and fragments of The Wall. Instead, enterprising urchins supply the souvenir-hungry tourist with historic cobbles "from the streets of Old Prague", and we have endless variations on the twisty-sweet-bread theme, but while many are filled, none are fried.

Weird to think that only twenty years ago the sight of a Coke bottle was a novelty, and that a lot of the people I know here can still vividly remember the arrival of the first MacDonald's in Prague. But they did have little brown plastic hand-held video games of a fox/wolf and a duck. It seems a little like a parallel universe where the playmobil figures were machinists and miners, rather than doctors and firemen.

Back in Berlin, luckily for me, B. showed stunning resourcefulness in eventually locating me so I didn't have to take the last train back on Saturday and instead got my 24 hours in Kreuzberg.

DVD addiction update:

Six Feet Under. Blimey it's good. And I think I have a whole 6 seasons to catch up on. Woohoo.

Blogger language update:

It's gone back to Czech.

Mrs. Jana update:

It seems a second Mrs. Jana is hoving into view on the horizon. I will know more the weekend after this one.

Date update

I ate dates in Berlin. Also a persimmon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Might be better to pretend that I published this about two days ago - it will be easier all round, and make me appear organised and consistent. Ahem

The Athenian Murders - Jose Carlos Somoza

I find it hard to believe that I have never unleashed the chains on my abiding and unspeakable desire for this book here before. But that's what the mighty power of the search engine shows. Shock. Horror. Smothered yawn. Be afraid. However, I re-read it recently, which makes it count in this mini festival of bookstravaganzic delights, allowing it (the mini-fest, that is) to live another day.

But enough of this introductory flimflam, I hear my inner monkey editor cry, speak more of this unspeakable love. For yes, this book contains innumerable shades of the love that dare not speak its name. Inter-textual love. Academic twistiness and japery of the driest kind. Philosophical shadow puppetry. Flagrant abuse of literary meta-jiggery. Tricksiness a go-go. I love it all with the unholy passion of a thousand geeky monkeys. The ones that are otherwise busily making rude shadow animals, sun-bathing and short-sheeting the Platonic bed.

For verily, these are Ancient Greeks of whom I write, or rather of whom the author writes and from whom I steal jokes. Smart koulourakia to a man, right down to their dusty ankles (except the one in the bath).

Well, actually, it is more that these are Ancient Greeks upon whom the author uses the character of the Translator to write or comment. Or their ideas. Except these might be copies of the original copy of the ideal first idea. And anyhow, what about those lions? See what I mean? This is book which defies anyone, least of all a lowly blogger armed only with the dubious merits of the English relative clause to shove its translated-from-the-original-Spanish-self into a halfway decent summary. It's a tricksy book about Ideas, lightly glazed with a few corpses, a sinister subplot (or is it?) and finished off with an anti-sleuth. I think the Salon article explained it best, and the Guardian review is more entertaining, which leaves me to only do my worst.

Basically it features:
Wolves (or lions)
Greeks (ancient)
Academics (ancient and modern)
Philosophy (mostly Greek and ancient)
Ideas-with-a-big-I. Bigger I. No, a really big I.
Texts. (not the SMS kind)
Budding insanity
Reality. (Jim)
Footnotes. Le sigh. Les bambi eyes. Le sigh.

A quick scan of the Amazon and Salon reviews, which are proper reviews with plot synopses and everything a prospective reader could desire, indicates that this book is of the love-it-or-hate-it Marmite type. I'd agree, although I'd add to my review overview that despite the inclusion of footnotes and such it's closer to Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next (not Nursery Crimes) books than Terry Pratchett, but not at all as cheerfully bonkers and far more menacing and introverted. Thursday Next's rather disturbing great-uncle professor who lost tenure under the darkest of clouds as written by Borges (he comes back later), perhaps.

A scan of the the reviews of the "urrggh, Marmite, blech"-type shows that this isn't the book for readers who just can't abide Umberto Eco and writers of his ilk. But I think that if it's just Eco's prose style that puts you off, rather than his content, it's worth looking at this book, purely on the grounds that Eco can leave the unwary reader feeling trapped in the coils of his rococco prose. Somoza's style (and oh, how I long to write Samosa's style) is less elaborated than Eco's and more lucid. The disorientating, clever twistiness remains, but I didn't feel as if I were also being showered with the shredded contents of a gilded thesaurus by a million pudgy putti.

The other thing to add to the review overview is that I wouldn't read this book looking for the next historical whodunnit à la grecque. Thither lies disappointment. There's a murder, but that's not really the whole point, and the ending isn't exactly Christie.

On the other hand if deep-down, you secretly rather enjoy following digs and snide asides as academics wrangle over obscure points and interpretations via cross-references and footnotes, even though you know this means you are turning into your father (hairy ears and all) you will probably enjoy this. Besides, it's a book about books, playing with other books.* If you like it when an author constantly pulls the rug out from under your feet, even if it's technically cheating (or at least, making up the rules as he goes along) read on.

For me, the best part of the book is sitting back, relaxing and letting the the author, or narrator, or translator or whoever mess with my mind. He or she or it or whoever might make things up. He might even take the piss a few times. But even though I've read it a few times now, this book invariably leaves me with the oddest combination of two very distinct, and yet long-winded feelings:

1.I get the buzz that normally happens when the stars align and somehow I'm able to work out a series of clues for a cryptic crossword.
2.But at the same time, it leaves me genuinely unsettled. Not in the the "AAa! Whatwasthatnoise? AAAaa!" way, though. Instead, it's in the "But what if I go to sleep and it turns out that this life is really something/one dreaming and then who/whatever is dreaming wakes up while I'm asleep and what happens then????aaaahhhh!!! No wait! What about what we see in the mirrors!!! aaah!!!!" kind of way.

Best to put it like this - it's one of the few books that actually made me think it might be a good idea to read some more Borges. One of these days. As long as there's enough coffee.

*Except they didn't really have books in those days. Or novels, as Salon points out. Probably they didn't have philosopher-detectives too, but at least there were libraries and monkeys. There were no monk-how do you know? you were too busy contemplating the exercise non-outfits of those ancient greek athletes. I WAS NO-- And anyhow, My mind was SO COMPLETELY on higher thin- do you know what people think when you stick a footnote like this at the end of this kind of review? Especially one where you name-drop Borges, TWICE. I'll tell you what they think. They think, "What a pretentious tw--"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


…aka brief impressionist sketches of some recent (in the last year) book encounters. Still not reviewing them properly, I might add, and will likely be annoyingly nonspecific or focus on minutiae to the exclusion of all else.

The Privilege of the Sword - Ellen Kushner

I almost don't want to write anything about this book and why I love it with the unholy passion of thousand raging monkeys. Partly because I'd never heard of the writer or the book, and picked it up at random, unhyped, undusted and lonely off a "recent releases" bookshelf in a sci-fi/fantasy bookstore. Then I forgot about it completely for 6 months. So I started it with no expectations.

The course of true love went something along these lines: p.1, "ehh?" p.2, "er… not…" p.3 "re?...about thisoneohmygodmustkeepreadingohwowohwowAndAMadDuke!ooohwowohwowiloovveeyooouuboookyoulovelyboookdon'tennddmustn'tfinishnevereverenddddoohnnooopleeeaaassse! Swoon."

In other (real) words, it's the sort of YA fantasy novel that gets it somehow perfect. Perfect in that impossible, magical way that adult books simply cannot manage. I just want to hug it to myself and read it over and over. Talking might spoil it. The thought of breaking up the magic into digestible chunks of detail and peeling away at plot and character analysis makes me want to cry. That's how my Grade 5 English teacher killed My Family and Other Animals.

So I don't want to hype or vaunt or trumpet the praises of this book at all. I just want to leave it lying battered and well-loved in the corner of a bookcase at a friend's house so that you can pick it up at random on a rainy day. So that you can curl up with it in a warm, quiet corner at the top of the house. So that your flannel-clad and fuzzy-socked self can look out the window and see the rain-washed day outside when the world taking shape in your head becomes too bright to bear. So that you end up eating all the stale nuts and the squashed half-packet of digestives that were left out from yesterday's tea because absolutely the last thing you want to do is stop reading, get up, prepare and eat a proper meal. So that you can fall in love, too.

If you want to know what it's really about, there are proper reviews to read at Amazon, and also chez ames. As for me, I've managed to track down and acquire two other books by the same author. The only problem is that I can't yet bring myself to read them because I'm so worried that they won't have the same effect as this one.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Too embarrassed to call it anything but number seven

The thing is, someone else recently told me about one of their former flatmates, the pinnacle of whose appalling behaviour was his attempt to drive out P. from his council-provided splendour with twin offensives in the form of poor personal hygiene and flamboyantly noisy live-in lovers squatting on the sofa. This was followed up by a pathetic attempt to steal P.'s identity and thereby claim his benefits.

The plot was foiled by the aforementioned vociferous and as it turned out, spurned and vengeful lover Revealing All, and I mean All in the menswear department of Dickens and Jones. But it was the seventies, it might have worked.

I am now a little embarrassed at my previous description of my erstwhile flatmate's behaviour as "appalling". A trifle annoying perhaps. A mild social solecism. And of course, now that my own level of righteous anger has faded to mildly pissed off, I feel guilt and ashamedly petty about my own actions.

To sum up, I returned home after a week away to find a message that read, "I have decided I hate it here. I have left work and moved back home. I need to know what to do with the keys. Don't worry about paying me back for the rest of this month's rent."

This would be the person who had agreed that because of her lack of deposit and general uncertainty about life, the universe and tram times she would give me a definite 4 weeks notice of her plans to vacate or pay the difference. The one who had organised her entire life here (including a fall-back career and alternative Friday job) in advance from the other side of the world before arriving. The one who had never lifted a finger to do any cleaning and kept her own store of toilet paper in her room, since it seems that short lets do not dust or have a communal attitude to personal hygiene products (although other people's DVDs are another matter). The one who left only three days before next month's rent was due, which would make it a three days rent-but-no-tenant-bonus. Ice creams are on me.

A few weeks later, no sign of the keys in the post, but a further message, "My friends are coming to stay in Hotel XYZ for the weekend. Please take the things I left behind around to their hotel for me so they can bring them back for me. Don't bother about the food or anything, just the clothes, shoes and bags."

These would be the clothes that had been left in dirty piles on the floor (now laundered) or mildewing gently in the washing machine on my return. With shoes and everything, the enormous canvas holdall allocated to the task weighed about 20 kilos (44 lbs.) and would have required a taxi to deliver.

Gentle readers, I said no.

Today falls on the last day of the weekend of the visitation and I have not taken the items around. The weather is bad, the taxi drivers are angry, the hotel has steps. Twenty navy-blue, canvas kilos of guilt are weighing on my conscience with fraying straps.