Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another Josipovici quote

I had not remembered that the place was so popular. The entrance was teeming with parties of schoolchildren and coachloads of tourists, German, Dutch, French, even Polish and Russian. But then there are tourists everywhere these days, they even penetrate as far as Twickenham and Pinner. It is as if the whole world is on the move, eager to gaze upon anything that is not its habitual home: the Japanese come with their cameras to Pinner and the inhabitants of Pinner go with their cameras to Bali; the Balinese flock to Paris and the Parisians - well, the Parisians are the exception that proves the rule, for they only go as far as their holiday homes in the Cevennes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bach Bachanalia (yes, I know it's been done to death)

Gabriel Josipovici - "Golberg: Variations"
Rereading the “Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, I found the Tao Te Ching quote “The wise are not erudite, The erudite are not wise” which this morning immediately came to mind when I started thinking of Gabriel Josipovici. Josipovici is a very erudite writer who may or may not also be wise – though it would hardly be fair that he were both.

“Goldberg: Variations” takes the famous episode of Bach’s composition – supposedly commissioned by the insomniac Count Kaiserling, to be played by the interpreter Goldberg - and replaces the episode in England on the 1800s. Here we have Goldberg who has been summoned to the presence of Mr Tobias Westfield in his large country estate. Westfield is a chronic insomniac for whom a musician has proven no comfort – he therefore engages a writer thinking that, as a voracious reader and indifferent music lover he will find words more soothing than notes.

However, the catch as far as Goldberg is concerned, is that he is to produce original work to be read at Westfield’s bedside – and prolific and famous though he is (one chapter sees him invited to the court of King George) – the task triggers a gigantic writer’s block.

This is the start of the variations – the chapters take the reader backwards and forwards in time; seem sometimes to repeat certain themes and suddenly to introduce completely new ones, while the end brings us back to the beginning. All of which, aims to mimic the very structure of the variations.

Not having formal musical training myself I really can’t take that analysis much further. The rest are themes: conversations that range from the issue of lies in the literature of Homer,

“But is it not perhaps we who are at a fault? Asks Golberg. Do we not have too anxious a relation to truth? Earlier ages, which trusted more in providence than we do, were not afraid of lies, saw them, in fact as being necessary as speech itself to man in his dealings with others. (…) It is perhaps only those who are less than confident of the truth who fear, as we do, the indubitable power of lies.”

the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Victor,

“I am well aware of the fragility of what we call civilization, Goldberg says. I am well aware of how little it would take to turn you or me into Victors and how little even the most well-meaning would be able to do for us then. It takes years for us to feel our way up into society, years in which, with luck, our parents will help and protect us, but it takes very little to throw us back into the darkness.”

and the archeological discovery of the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney and the family history of both Westfield and Goldberg told by different characters, wifes, sons, mistresses. Suddenly, the reader is catapulted to the present time where an unnamed author (presumably, at first, the author of the book we are reading) is on a sort of pilgrimage to see Klee’s painting “Wander-Artist” (on the cover).

Well, according to the back-cover there are loads of references to “Holderlin, Kierkegaard and others” – but, not being much of an erudite myself I must confess I didn’t exactly identify them. All in all, “Goldberg Variations” gave me the same feeling I had when, about 16 years old, I read Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” – that a lot of it, veiled references, hints etc were going right over my head (not that I figured them out in the mean time, by the way)- and frankly, it’s not entirely bad. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like there is a whole trove of knowledge to aspire to.

Just remember, it won’t make you wise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Unhappy in Uppsala

"Princess of Burundi" - Kjell Eriksson

“Do you know how it is to be poor? It’s living on the margins, but still wanting to enjoy things. We spent everything o Justus. We wanted him to have nice clothes. John bought a computer this fall. Sometimes we bought good food for a special occasion. You can’t feel poor all the time.”

For better or worse, a lot of people read crime novels in order to escape. For the most part I belong of that group, but “Princess of Burundi” mostly made me want to escape “Princess of Burundi”.

There are many great things about the Swedes – smoked salmon, cinnamon buns, midsummer bonfires and IKEA – but boy, when they want to bring you down, they tie a regular anvil to your feet.

It’s coming on Christmas as the body of John Jonsson is found in the snow. He has cigarette burn marks, has been beaten and three fingers are missing. With his wife Berit and teenage son, Justus, John has been living the other side of the Swedish social dream – scraping by on badly paid work, then fired, brother to a well-known small-time crook and big-time drunk– with only a passion for tropical fish keeping afloat.

On the cop side things aren’t looking much better – chronically depressed is the general feel. Ann Lindell which slowly develops into the protagonist of the book is on maternity leave from the department, and obviously with a slight case of baby blues, in her case, probably brought on by the fact that she is a single mom raising the child of a one-night-stand that finished off her long-term relationship (pheww!!).

There’s also a mentally ill loner, which felt a bit repetitive since “Black Seconds” which I recently read, also featured a similar character (okay we get it – society scapegoats the mentally ill / high-school bullying turns people into murderers).

So…yeah I really didn’t feel drawn in and I don’t think I’ll be reading any more Eriksson…even though he seems to be the cat’s whiskers, what with the whole two pages of blurbs and all…

And…I really don’t appreciate it when the guilty party only makes his appearance in the last pages (sorry, if it spoils the book for someone out there, but I had to say it).

But I won’t give up on Swedish crime that easily - I still want to read something by Mari Jungstedt.

Maybe Norwegian crime’s more my thing…we mustn’t lump them together.

For instance, I’ve always heard that Scandinavians were by far the biggest suicides after the Japanese, and it turns out it isn’t true…per se. If you check out this nifty Wikipedia chart, you’ll see the Swedes are about average, while the Norwegians commit suicide almost as much as the Portuguese – it’s those damn Finns hiking up the numbers!
Which reminds me I also want to read Tove Jansson’s True Deceiver.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Animal Books

Animal books are my guilty pleasure.

Not in the sense of the online definition of “something one considers pleasurable despite it being mainly received negatively or looked down on by a majority of society” but more in the sense that I enjoy reading (most) of them so much that it triggers a sense of guilty (yes, catholic education).

“All My Patients are Under the Bed – memoirs of a cat doctor” is a special book. It’s more than a glimpse into the practice of a veterinarian, for which a contemporary look is best achieved by reading “Tell Me Where it Hurts” by Dr Nick Trout, and more of an historical glimpse at how much veterinarian medicine changed in the last century.

Dr Louis Camuti started practicing in 1921 and as he explains, at that time horses were by far the main fare of the veterinarian. Cars would of course, radically alter the picture in the following years. At first some vets wouldn’t even stoop so low as to treat a domestic cat or dog! After the II World War the urban dweller’s relationship with animals (and vets) changed even further, especially in New York City – women took to the workplace and pets were the only ones home in many households. Since cats are notorious bad patients anyway, Dr Camuti slowly became an itinerant doctor – starting his workday at about 4 pm and ending it no sooner than 2 or 3 am, what with NY parking and traffic being what it is.

The book makes for compulsive reading, filled with humorous encounters with cats and their owners of which Camuti states “some are more normal than others”.

I should state right now that I am a closet cat lover – closeted because, I have two dogs, one of which positively hates kitties. This online test tells me I’m a cat person – but really the only thing these tests do, is tell you whether you are an introvert or extrovert and then, operate on the (false, to my mind) assumption that cat = calm, quiet and dog=loud, boisterous. As if cats and dogs didn’t show a range of personalities. At least two introverted girls you might have heard of enjoyed the company of large, not very polite dogs: Emily Bronte and her mastiff, Keeper and Emily Dickinson and her Newfoundland, Carlo. Their relationship with dogs and those of Woolf, Barrett Browning and Wharton are analyzed in Maureen Adams “Shaggy Muses”.

For more on personality and dog breeds, check out Stanley Coren’s “Why We Love the Dogs We Do – how to find the dog that matches your personality”. It features the stories of Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, Emily Bronte, Nixon, James Stewart, Byron and others along with their canine companions. It includes a personality test and is just so fun I keep going back to it – it is my best-thumbed dog book and it even features a chapter on “Cat People”, although a not very kind one – it portrays cat lovers as aloof, unemotional and cold.

Of “Woman’s Best Friend – Women writers on the dogs in their lives” and “Cat Women – Female writers and their feline friends” I think I enjoyed Cat Women better – but part of it is just the curiosity of knowing how the other half lives, because they are both filled with great stories.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith - "Corduroy Mansions"

Single best reason to finally get wireless?
Reading the daily installments of McCall Smith's "Corduroy Mansions" in the comfort of your sofa or bed. In the vein of "44 Scotland Street" which started life as a serial for the Scotsman newspaper (I read it in book format) "Corduroy Mansions" has brought the Dickensian (check it out fellow Wire fans, I finally used the word in a post) serial to the XXI century making it available online in both text and audio format.
No need to feel guilty when you've missed a few chapters - in fact, waiting until saturday to read the week's developments over a croissant and coffee in your comfortable bed, might be the best possible start for the weekend.

Click below.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bizarre Books - Russell Ash and Brian Lake

Not a spoof - all the books listed do actually exist, which of course, makes it all the more hilarious.

My favorites:

Around the world

Sodomy and the Pirate tradition: English sea rovers in the seventeenth century Caribbean, 1985

Selected themes and icons from Spanish literature: of beards, shoes, cucumbers and leprosy, 1982

The foul and the fragrant: odor and the French social imagination, 1986

How To / Teach Yourself

How to save a big ship from sinking, even though torpedoed, 1915

What to say when you talk to yourself, 1982

How to write while you sleep, 1985

Grow your own hair, 1947

How to draw a straight line, 1877
How to test your urine at home, 1935

Fresh air and how to use it, 1912

Teach yourself alcoholism, 1975

Come again?

Who’s who in cocker spaniels, 1944

Umbrellas and parts of umbrellas (except handles), 1964

Nasology – or hints towards a classification of noses, 1848

The toothbrush: its use and abuse, 1939

Manhole covers of Los Angeles, 1974

The Madam as entrepreneur: career management in house prostitution, 1979

Illinois roadkill cookbook, 1991

Ice-cream for small plants, 1937

1587. A year of no importance


Fish who answer the telephone, 1937

Phone calls from the dead, 1979

Anthropometric measurements of Brazilian feet, 1993

Pre-historic sandals from northeastern Arizona, 1998

…and my nº1 favorite:

Nuclear War: What’s in it for you? 1982

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Detectives I have met – I

Is there a profession that literature has done more to romanticize than that of the detective? Why, if we were to take the writers word for it, the police departments of the world from Rio de Janeiro to Stockholm should be positively crawling with book-loving, witty, ethical, charming and quite unbelievably intelligent men and women – well…


One of the best things about learning Italian is reading these babies in their original version. Sicily-italian is just…Sicilian, I guess, and so much of Andrea Camilleri’s series is inextricably tied to that fascinating hell-hole in the middle of the Mediterranean, that the experience is considerably heightened by reading them in the original (I haven’t read any of the translations but they are supposed to be very good).

So, what is Salvo Montalbano like? I’ve reached installment nº 8 and he’s changed a little… he’s getting on in years and ethics are becoming a big consideration, and seeing as he practices in Sicily we can’t blame him if he’s getting a bit morose.

Women and other animals

True to detective form he has complicated personal relationships – an estranged father, a long distance girlfriend (she lives in the north of Italy, so there’s also a not irrelevant culture clash between their worldviews) with whom he is chronically on the verge of getting married or breaking up.

Table manners

He doesn’t just love to eat – his whole mood and faith in himself and the world at large can be dramatically altered through the almost mystical power of a good (or bad) meal.

Mood ring

Towards the melancholic - and he’s a brooder – even has a couple of favorite places to go all out pensive. His house overlooks the beach and in the middle of difficult cases he’s been known to go out for a midnight swim in the icy water as well as the customary morning one.

Cardiac condition

Not good. I think he smoked more in the first books but he still kicks back a lot of whisky (with Ingrid the Swedish F1 driver – not the most believable character in the series but a long standing one that has come in handy (no smirks, now) many a time – and what do I know? She’s probably based on a real life acquaintance of Camilleri’s. On “The pacience of the spider” he nearly collapsed and was still recovering from a gunshot wound from “Rounding the mark”.


Montalbano cannot be around the dying elderly or chronically ill – it’s his kriptonite. I don’t know if any of the following books in the series has him solving crimes from a hospital bed, but I don’t think he would flourish in that environment – the food for one…

For real

Between political (and police) corruption, illegal immigration, smuggling of young women and children, illegal immigration and subsequent destruction of the countryside and coastline, there are a lot of ills of Sicilian society for Camilleri to explore without having to dip too often in the mafia pot – in fact the honoured society makes few appearances.

The verdict

Highly addictive – I’m glad I have at least six more to read, not counting the short-stories.

La forma dell’acqua – The shape of water
Il cane di terracotta – The terracotta dog
Il ladro di merendine – The snack thief
La voce del violino – The voice of the violin
La gita a Tindari – Excursion to Tindari
L’odore della notte – The scent of the night
Il giro di boa – Rounding the mark
La pazienza del ragno – The pacience of the spider

Friday, November 07, 2008

Krazy in Kiev

Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin
Penguin Lost
The Case of the General's Thumb
A Matter of Life and Death

The Soviet Union might have collapsed in ’91, but apparently, a lot of people never got the notice. Most were hit men, secret service officers, politicians and other small time crooks.
To most of Kurkov’s protagonists it doesn’t matter either way: Viktor, the other Viktor, Nik and Tolya might, on paper, be citizens of a democratic state, but the reality is somewhat different. A journalist, a police officer and a former border patrol officer they get drafted into mysterious jobs or cases never really understanding whose interests they are serving.

A couple of strange events, coincidences or plain bad luck strap them onto a crazy carnival ride at the beginning of each book, and they just try to hang on as best they can. Fortunately, they are all endowed with a Greek tragedy sense of just how pointless it is to fight destiny, or to try the emergency button: just as with most lifts in the apartment blocks of Kiev they are not working.

Viktor of the Penguin books and Viktor and Nik of General’s Thumb are all manipulated by shady characters that mysteriously appear and disappear with strange requests. Some might be trying to help but don’t bet on it – in Kurkov’s books everyone has motivations tied to countless other characters that never step out of the shadows – not so much puppet strings as a whole ball of yarn.

Between Germany, where former KGB agents are still being reactivated, Chechnya where hidden crematoriums silently perform the war’s clean-up and the Balkans where war criminals are living it up in their yachts, Kurkov takes us on a wild ride where we meet a bunch of good guys who get screwed over as predictably as Russian mobsters’ kids graduate from Oxford: there is a hit man who is fluent in sign language and has a soft spot for all creatures great and small, a quad arm wrestling team, a stream of beautiful young prostitutes with the obligatory hearts of gold, and the undoubted star – Misha the penguin – looking on an increasingly warm ex-empire, where ideologues turned into mobsters in the time it takes to down a shot of vodka.

All the protagonists’ share Tolya’s feeling in “A Matter of Life and Death”: “the strange sensation that what happened had nothing to do with me”. But, hey, maybe it was the alcohol – after all, Kurkov’s characters are not afraid to engage in a little (or a lot) of Eastern European cliché binge drinking.

It’s cold (not enough for Misha though) and somewhat depressing; good people get manipulated, their lives are expendable and in the end the bad guys get the billions stashed in the Cyprus account; or they get re-elected. So what? Play your cards right and you might get a state appointed apartment, a Bosnian girlfriend or at least a couple liters of melon flavored vodka.
And sometimes that depressing Ukrainian crap is just plain sweet - as when Tolya’s prostitute girlfriend asks:

“Would you marry me? Lena asked out of the blue with a note of irony.”
“I think I’d rather adopt you.”

Of course in the end they can’t spend New Year’s together – she’s “booked for a bankers’ “mini Decameron”.
“A what?
Orgy with group sex. I’m looking to the future, saving for a one-roomer.”

Slavs – sweet yet psycho.
You sort of want to love ‘em and still keep a safety distance of a few thousand kilometers.
Reading Kurkov is just the thing.