Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

Archive for the ‘General Reflections’ Category

Jump into View

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I just came back from a lightning fast trip to London for a job interview. I was in the country for under 24 hours all-in-all. Swapping countries for the day is a particularly surreal experience especially if it’s your home country.

I was waiting at West Brompton tube station for a friend and an astonishingly red, comic sans cornered double decker bus stopped beside the tiniest set of run-down houses next to the enormous Earls Court exhibition centre. My mind just hadn’t got used to the idea that it ‘wasn’t in Kansas’ any more. I was giddy with the damp smells of my friend’s stairway to her flat, ‘It just smells so much like London…’ I exclaimed a couple of times. And of course, with smells and sights of buses once ridden on, I couldn’t staunch the memory spurts. Not nice memories I am afraid, the last time I was in London I wasn’t a very happy bunny – an unemployed graduate. Yikes, London without money is very grim indeed, Mr Dickens and George Orwell can tell you all about that.

On a lighter note, London is a multifaceted city and intriguingly so. After that long, cold winter in 2010 I spent a spring time pre-birthday treat with my boyfriend visiting Kew Gardens. It was relatively expensive to get in, over 12 pounds each, but worth it! I am an old soul, I would happily spend my birthday having a picnic in Kew rather than partying in town or bars. I look back at the pictures of Kew and smile, this is the London that I like to remember: that day during the Heathrow airport strikes meant that I could wander around looking at tulips and cedars in glorious silence.

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Written by bookinglass

December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm

An Introvert’s Weekend in Berlin

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The Berlin that is famous for all-weekend parties and underground art scenes, hipsters and fashionistas; it is an extrovert’s paradise. This weekend, I did some of those normal things that you rarely hear people brag about after their trip to Berlin. Nonetheless, I thought I may give you an insight into what goes on in Berlin on my bread-and-butter weekend, since I tend towards being introverted. No reading was done sadly.

I spent Friday evening on an urgent trip to the 24 hour Apotheke (I know, pharmacy, just doesn’t sound as cool) at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station). There was probably a closer one, but I love the Hauptbahnhof and I could travel on the new Ubahn line which is only 3 stops long, made just for tourists to get to and from Brandenburger Tor. Now also handy for trips to the Apotheke, just go up the elevator and past the imposing horse sculpture influeced by Futurism and bam, there it is! I watched a spectacular sunset and now all kitted up with antibiotics, thanking the Germans yet again for their healthcare system. Incidentally, these antibiotics were not for the cucumber scare that is currently striking salads off the menu, although I am kind of glad I am taking them because I laughed in the face of cucumber at lunch before I really understood the implications of the outbreak.

On Saturday, I headed to Potsdamer Platz as the shopping centre there is massive, they always have something cool on display too. Last month there was a collection of ginormous painted eggs, some were even made to look like they were hovering, each was painted a different colour of the rainbow. It sounds twee, but it was actually really beautiful and the artist/s must have had a clinical eye for detail as all the eggs were miraculously arranged amongst flowers and cotton, sticks and other natural ojects.

Anyway, I like this place as it seems like not that many people know about it.

Then for lunch a box of crispy duck with noodles from Asia Gourmet. Ordering in German is always a bit stressful as they always seem to get pissed off when I forget to specify the details. I don’t care what kind of sauce they put on it, just give me number 9! Ended up with Erdnuss (peanut). Thinking back, if I hadn’tve panicked, probably coriander and lime would have been my preferred noodle flavour.

On out into the sunshine, greasy hot box in hand, and a stroll along past the spanking new theatre complex and onto a more hidden (almost dead) spot with an artificial lake and a beach bar without a beach (or many clientelle for that matter).

The crazy thing and coolest aspect about Berlin is if you go round a corner or even between two buildings and there are blank spaces. Parks that sprang from closed airports or bombed buildings. Places where there was so recently a blank, that people don’t yet know there is now a ‘there’.

I scoffed down my noodles and admired the architecture of the building with mirrored squares that move in the wind. A curious design feature that I can’t find out what were for. There was a plaque saying something like ‘Wandspiegel’, so if anyone has a good idea why the building had moving mirrors on the wall, please enlighten me!

Check out my route on this nifty map.

Finished with greasy goodness, I headed back to the S Bahn and home to do some German homework and admire our flowers on the balcony.

My brother just got home from a weekend trip to Norway sporting a new t-shirt. Viking values and sentiments are rather inspiring. I imagine their CVs must’ve looked impressive. I say “Bis Spater!” leaving you with a couple of their time-honoured phrases.

“Fight envy and laziness”,

and…

“Use only top quality weapons”.

Written by bookinglass

May 30, 2011 at 12:42 am

How not to recommend a book

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There are many ways in which you can put someone off reading a book. The trap I fall into is that of the overly enthusiastic advocate.

“You MUST read this book”

When I read Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin, I was completely enamoured long after I finished reading it. During my honeymoon period with this book I expounded  its brilliance to whomever would listen to my soliliquising. But only my mum has embarked upon reading it.

Here is how I now know not to recommend a good book.

The book is set mostly in the civil war torn Congo and follows the life and career of the Irish journalist who reports from “cities of half-remembered conflicts”.

I have always wondered about the lives of those foreign reporters I saw on the BBC. It is thrilling to imagine seeking out places that most people would run a million miles away from.

More than anything, the poignant imagery and the cynical undertone really struck a chord with me. For example, the title of the book sounds like a cheesy and pretentious memoire that is an extract from the end of Philip Larkin’s poem, Talking in Bed. It is a finely-tuned joke that balances that shallow offhand use of a well-known poem, with the depth of feeling that he borrows from Larkin’s words nonetheless. As you come to realise that the narrator despises the type of bigwig journalists who romanticise their career and experiences in such a nauseating way.

The imagery is surprising and original. From the first page:

“The days and nights mill round like mismatched fighters, short and long, long and short, from summer to winter to summer again…”

I love how the weather in the UK is likened to what I imagine as cold, sweaty, mistrustful, grim boxers skirting around each other in a ring. The lack of daylight does seem like it loses out to the dark in the Winter and the change in seasons plays a unpredicatable role in people’s lives. This author is a master at creating atmosphere and setting.

But it was not until the hilarious scene with the journalists treking into the jungle in search of a gorillas that I truly madly deeply fell in love with this book.

There are few moments when you have to put down a book and wipe your eyes from tears. I was brought to this twice in Not Untrue and Not Unkind, once from laughter (gorilla scene and the unfortunately-worded T-shirt scene) and once from devastation (most of the other scenes to be fair).

But I shan’t give too much away. Therein lies the problem with recommending a book. It’s like when someone tries to inform you about what makes an in-joke funny: it flops like a flat lilo of undrollity. The more someone goes on about something that you can’t participate in, the less you want to know about it.

So my waxing lyrical about Not Untrue and Not Unkind is pointless really until you have read it too (and please tell me if you do!) and can put people off reading it altogether. So for now, as I am still not used to this what books would you recommend and why malarky, I advise you to get over the first chapter, just the first chapter, and get to the gorilla part and then you’ll be hooked.

Do you think you can be put off reading a book by someone who is too pushy?

Written by bookinglass

March 30, 2011 at 11:00 pm

God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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I have moved to Berlin and have a 30 minute commute to work, the perfect opportunity to read! This is one of those I-really-must-read-at-some-point reads and I can’t believe I have actually gotten down to doing it particularly as I haven’t been feeling much like reading at all recently.

Set in Kerala, Southern India, the language is as rich and dense as hazelnut and honey cheesecake and I really feel like I have been there! On the downside, it’s like reading all my old English Lit. teacher’s prose extracts to Analyse (or shred to pieces) all put together in one enormous volume of Ahhhh that must MEAN something but I am not sure what!?

Goodness, the amount of extended metaphors in this book I don’t think even the keenest Lit. Crit. could count. My particular most pet-hated metaphor is a “fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo…” otherwise known as the little girl whose name escapes me right now but this image of her hair tied in a high ponytail with bobble plastic hair-tie (see picture) really sticks into my mind. There’s something about the way that it sounds that really makes no sense and yet is rather beautiful. It’s a very frustrating image for me…touristy, cheap and insignificant but lively and exotic and very very girly.

Another image that conjures up the same kind of sick touristy, unright feeling of the Love-in-Tokyo (How can Tokyo have anything to do with this part of India?). In the airport as the twins and their family await the much-anticipated arrival of their cousin, Sophie Mol from England. Rahel (aha, that’s the girl’s name!) notices statues described as “red mouthed roos with ruby smiles” that move “cemently across the airport floor”…how creepy is that? Statues of kangaroos with their pouches filled not with joeys but with disgusting stains from betel nut juice (spat by passersby) and cigarette stubs. Rubbish instead of offspring. And the fact that they are MOVING? It’s just as Rahel sees the dead girl cartwheel in her coffin, these inanimate objects should definitely not move, but because she (perhaps) imagines they do move, it creates a very unsettling  and foreboding atmosphere. The alliteration of  ‘r’ I think conveys how they might sound if they did move across the floor. Slow, inexorable, deadly and void of emotion.

Righto! That’s my comments for now. Still have to finish the book…although I am pretty certain that it is not a happy ending as the whole tone of the book so far is very dark and uncomfortable and icky (the weather and the people). Perhaps Roy is dealing with Untouchable subjects in many many ways into which I can barely begin to delve.

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Written by bookinglass

July 7, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Selfridges Window Display

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Empire of the Sun window display

Selfridges, London has never really impressed me. Every time I have stumbled past this monolith of consumerism in the Oxford Street mayhem it seems too bleak, busy and exclusive for the likes of me. But my imminent departure from the UK (for a jooooob!!) has created a curious see-the-world-through-fresh-eyes effect on me. So I went to the mother of all department stores again but this time with a good helping of touristy awe and gawp.

selfridges window display may

The concept behind the May window display is the visualisation of a song, created by famous musicians and singers, such as Paloma Faith and Dizzee Rascal.  These two displays were my faves, the blue lions are the creation of Empire of the Sun and the heartfelt robot by Marina and the Diamonds.  But they were all much more impressive than the inside of the building. Flashy and bold and ‘Oh look at the Artyness of it all’.

I did see the toasted ants on sale which according to the (braver than me) Little London Observationalist taste of ‘Crispy, fried bacon with a soft meaty centre and crunchy, salty, pop-corn textured outer shell.’ I went for more traditional British fayre: Chocolate.

Written by bookinglass

June 1, 2010 at 9:04 pm

One Inspirational Image – Lyra Asleep in the Snow

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Pullman's printNow, when I say: I am a huge fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, you probably will shake your head and say ‘So what? His books are famous’, but honestly I am not just jumping on the bandwagon of his success or the controversy surrounding his writing. I mention this now because I came across these Oaktree Fine Press prints which take me back to reading the first book, Northern Lights, as a 12 year old. I would love to own one… *wistful sigh*….but what would I do with it?

I was recently watching the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on TV with my Grandad. Thankfully, Grandad fell asleep before he could change the channel to Poirot and I got to watch a short programme in which Jacqueline Wilson, another favourite children’s author who has won or been shortlisted for more literary prizes than you can shake a stick at, showed us around the room where she writes at home. She had a strange collection of creepy monkey dolls but something that has stuck in my mind most is the illustration above her writing desk which she said inspires her. One image that inspires someone each time they look at it. This would be one helluva mighty powerful picture.

So what would my image be? I think one of Pullman’s illustrations: The mystery, beauty and isolation of the Arctic North, the comfort of a soul in animal form, the strength and melancholy of the heroine Lyra, the vulnerability of human form, the escapism of dreaming. This inspires me. What about you?

Written by bookinglass

May 12, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Animal Agency

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dog and bookJudging by its cover, who else thinks ‘A Dog About Town’ looks like an unforgiveably appalling read? As I was briefly searching the net to see what kind of books have been written from the perspective of animals (for New Year 2010 Book Challenge), I came across this article on academics considering the way animals have been agents in history. I was wondering whether more and more authors will be writing about animals from a way which is not childlike, fanciful or cringe-worthy. Of course I know that this has been achieved, most famously by George Orwell in ‘Animal Farm’. Also what would ‘Life of Pi’ be without the unforgettable interaction between Tiger, Hyena, Zebra, Monkey and boy? These books use animals as clear metaphors for humans behaviour and characteristics, so in effect they can be treated as human characters. In Life of Pi, we are left uncertain whether they were in fact animals at all or just the workings of an unhinged, dehydrated imagination. But neither do I consider the kind of book above as the ‘answer’ to representing animals in books. This is an animal which is personified as subtly as a bowling ball.

In contrast, in ‘Two Caravans’ by Marina Lewycka the dog gets it’s own voice:

‘I AM DOG I RUN I RUN FROM BAD MAN CAGE I HEAR DOGS BARK ANGRY DOGS GROWL ANGRY DOGS BARK THEY WILL FIGHT THEY WILL KILL I SMELL DOG-SWEAT MAN-RAGE MAN OPENS CAGE MAN PULLS COLLAR MEN SIT SMOKE TALK DOGS BARK LIGHT TOO BRIGHT BIG ANGRY DOG SNARLS SHOWS TEETH HAIRS BRISTLE ON HIS BACK HE WILL KILL I AM NOT FIGHTING DOG I AM RUNNING DOG I JUMP I RUN I RUN TWO DAYS I EAT NO MEAT HUNGER PAINS IN BELLY MAKE ME MAD I FEEL HUNGER I FEEL FEAR I RUN I RUN I AM DOG’

Lewycka creates a dog as a key character in the story with agency which makes the dog different from either the animals in Animal Farm or in Life of Pi. Lewycka has been criticised for giving Dog a voice,

‘She risks our forbearance giving voice to a mongrel dog, whose thoughts, printed in all-capitalized text, are as welcome as a hairball.’

Why so cynical? I don’t believe Lewycka created Dog as a doting pet-owner who want to make their pet more human, simply there to make others laugh or Aw. Dog is a character, and without a voice, his actions in the last few chapters would be seen as a coincidence or, tediously, a metaphor for some kind of human action. As it is, Dog is a DOG and his actions, not of any human, save the day.

Interaction between humans and animals is a powerful force across cultures and times, animals have affected human lives as much as we have affected theirs. We have been caught up too much in establishing why animals are so different to make us feel superior. The last line of this article sticks with me:

“…we can learn more about humans by understanding what they claimed they were not: animals.”

Does anyone else have any examples of animals in books (except Children’s) which are not one big extended metaphor or personified beyond having a voice?