23.08.10

Coinage 1

writing

For some reason I decided to go through all our loose change. I ended up with $65 in US quarters, about $10 in miscellaneous failed US large denomination coins (three kinds of dollars and several Kennedy half-dollars), a small bucket of Canadian coins, and lots of foreign, rare and non-coins.

I’m going to post about the interesting ones.

As a kid I was into coins. Grownups knew I liked coins so they often gave them to me. Now as an adult I travel a certain amount, and so does Dan, which means we’ve accumulated quite a collection of our own. (375 Deutsche marks, really?)

Singapore, 1967


In the 80s we lived in an apartment above some guy in the Air Force, and I think a number of these Asian coins came from him. I have a soft spot for all coins with animals on them.

This was actually the first year Singapore issued its own currency (as Singapore dollars and cents). The pattern was discontinued in 1985, replacing the seahorse with the jasmine plant. Lame.

Italy, 1971


My mom went to Italy as a teenager but that wasn’t 1971 so I’m not sure of the origin here. I do think that more coins should contain butts.

The coin is made out of an alloy of stainless steel used only for the Lira, called Acmonital. I’ve been unable to figure out who Mr. Butt is supposed to be.

France, 1924


When I was young I found this in a purse that belonged to my grandmother. She wasn’t from France so I have no idea where it would have originated. I love that it’s in good condition since it was basically untouched for 50 years.

This coin is an aluminium-bronze alloy, part of a wartime effort to reduce the use of more valuable metals. Before 1920, the 2-franc coin was silver. Despite its age it’s pretty valueless, but it’s cool.

More in a later post.

04.07.09

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

book reviews

“It’s not a rip-off, it’s an homage.”

The second of my BEA haul, this alternately frustrating and compelling fantasy novel aimed at the NPR set is getting a major publicity push, with not just an official website but also multiple fictional ones as well. (The fan art could be more believable — where are the air-brushed animals with women’s boobs? — but the fake university site is quite clever.)

The story concerns a teenage misfit genius who is mysteriously whisked off to magic school. A huge chunk of the first third of the book is so entirely like the Harry Potter novels that I stayed with it only because the high quality writing suggested it had to be going somewhere. The middle third is written, I think, with the intention of subverting much of those boarding-school-wizard expectations, and then the last third, cheerfully spoiled by the back cover so don’t read it, is the most nuanced.

There are some really standout scenes: the guy with the branch, the thing with the geese — you’ll know when you get there. And then a lot of characters sitting around chatting like normal college kids. And in another 100 pages or so, another awesome scene. I didn’t mind hanging around waiting, but it felt like a real wasted opportunity.

(Speaking of which, Grossman, who is slightly older than me, has his supposedly dissolute post-adolescents hosting elaborate dinner parties and sipping fancy after-dinner liqueurs. I know young people are ever-more sophisticated, but those are activities I do for fun now. When I was 22 I drank Midori Sours and ordered buffalo wings by the dozen.)

It’s not totally a success, but I’m glad I read it and I do recommend it. It’s been more than a month now and some scenes continue to stick with me. On sale August 2009.

14.06.09

The City & The City by China Miéville

book reviews

The City & The City

I went to Book Expo America this year and mailed back two boxes of books just like I did at the American Library Association conference last year. I think this year’s crop will be less fruitful than ALA’s, but I know I got a few good books already, and one of them is the new Miéville. I got it signed for Dan and then promptly confiscated to read first. Miéville has a lot of adoring female fans who wear glasses.

I read both Perdido Street Station and The Scar and enjoyed them, but I’m not enamored of his flowery language. The City & The City is in a completely different deliberately hard-boiled style and for me that was a big win.

I prefer my sci-fi and fantasy crossed with some other genre. Here it’s police procedural. That’s obvious from the first page; what I couldn’t tell for some time was whether the book really was fantasy or sci-fi at all. I certainly won’t spoil that. Most of the intrigue in the first half is in understanding the world model; to ruin that would be tragic.

Like a true detective story you don’t get into the head of the first-person narrator much, except obliquely. I didn’t really connect with the secondary characters either. Both choices seem deliberate. This is an ideas book, not a character one. I spent a lot of time imagining how it could be adapted into film. I think it could be done right, but failing to do so would be spectacularly bad.

The book isn’t totally cerebral either. There’s action. There’s murder! By the end, I was turning pages to get to the resolution, even though I was pretty sure how things would end up (I was right). There’s a good mix of tied-up and loose ends. Recommended.

26.05.09

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

book reviews

At the end of 2008 a number of book blogs published their best-of lists, and whenever I had a spare minute I made a point of hunting down the Amazon Kindle sample chapters. Netherland came up repeatedly, and when it made the news recently (the president is apparently reading it) I started the sample. By now I was a little tired of back-to-back stories set in 19th century London anyway. (I was surprised to discover it’s possible for me to get sick of them, even if they do have zombies.)

Free sample chapters are, to my mind, the greatest thing about the Kindle, way cooler than e-ink or free wireless. Sampling has changed the way I choose books in the way that digital purchasing changed the way I consume music. I reject more books than I buy after checking out the samples, but I churn through books much more quickly. Amazon doesn’t care which books I buy, as long as I buy many, so this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Anyway, Netherland was one I bought immediately after finishing the sample. This first-person narrative is told from the point of view of a European expat in contemporary New York. I’m not sure I’ve read much in the way of non-American perspectives on living in the US that weren’t explicitly political or satirical. I’m not a New Yorker either but I’m in the city quite often (I wrote this on the train home from there, in fact), so New York is perpetually
both familiar and alien.

I don’t do plot in my writeups, generally, and I won’t start here.
The reason to read this book is for its lyricism anyway.

The week before, Jake and I had played in his grandparents’ garden. I raked leaves into piles and he helped me bag the leaves. The leaves were dry and marvelously light. I added armloads to the red and brown and gold crushed in the plastic sack; Jake picked up a single leaf and made a cautious, thrilled deposit. At one point he put on his superhero frown and charged a hillock of leaves. Wading into its harmless fire, he courageously sprawled. “‘Ook, ‘ook!” he screamed as he rolled in the leaves. I looked, and looked, and looked. Fronds of his yellow hair curled out from the hood’s fringe onto his cheeks. He wore his purple quilted jacket, and his thermal khakis with an inch of tartan turnup, and his blue ankle boots with the zip, and the blue sweater with the white boat, and — I knew this because I had dressed him — his train-infested underpants, and the red T-shirt he liked to imagine was a Spider-Man shirt, and Old Navy green socks with rubbery lettering on the soles. We gardened together. I demonstrated how to use a shovel. When I dug up the topsoil, I was taken aback: countless squirming creatures ate and moved and multiplied underfoot. The very ground we stood on was revealed as a kind of ocean, crowded and immeasurable and full of light.

25.04.09

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

book reviews

This book clearly was written for only one person — me — and yet it’s been enormously popular and has already landed its author lucrative book and movie deals. I’m happy for him, because even though I thought the novel was ultimately a disappointment, I still smile when I think about it.

Like many Onion articles, the title is the best part and then the story is unevenly funny the rest of the way through. To recap if for some reason you haven’t heard, the novel is at least 80% original text (heavily condensed) and 20% “bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” Your mileage may vary, but for me the zombie mayhem didn’t work as often as it should have.

I suppose “spoilers” follow.

Some things slot in nicely — the soldiers are garrisoned at Meryton to repel not the French but the undead menace. Elizabeth Bennett’s friend Charlotte agrees to marry the odious Mr. Collins because she’s already infected by the zombie plague. (If you want to read that as a feminist metaphor about brainwashing otherwise intelligent young women into loveless marriages, I won’t stop you, but it’s probably overreaching.) And perhaps the most perfect scene in the book is Darcy’s first declaration of love, the original dialogue interspersed with Elizabeth physically kicking his ass:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared the slightest grief which I might have felt in beheading you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

This is funny. Other stuff, not so much. I could not buy the Bennett sisters (and even more, Lady Catherine de Bourgh) as karate masters. Zombie Charlotte is funny when subtle but gets increasingly less so. The arc of the story and its ending aren’t subverted in any interesting way. And I definitely didn’t need all those ninjas.

But complaining about the book feels churlish. It’s a funny concept. The cover art is great. Someone will take this idea and execute it better, maybe even Seth Grahame-Smith.

04.04.09

Adventureland

film

I loved Adventureland, and if you’re anything like me you will too. Wistful teen romantic comedy! Set in the 80s! Soundtrack by Yo La Tengo!

Forget the part about the hazy nostalgia of lost youthful love, though. For verisimilitude, movies like this should include a coda in which twenty years later the protagonists find each other on Facebook and compare results on the Which Hair Metal Song Are You? quiz. But, you know, wistfully.

05.03.09

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

book reviews

Everybody was talking about Bolaño this year because of 2666, but Dan got 2666 for Christmas and I got The Savage Detectives. We started reading them around the same time, and despite the fact that 2666 is at least twice as long, I finished a month later.

I’m not sure what my problem is with Latin American literature. These two books weren’t written in the same language, much less from the same country, but there’s something about them both that just made reading a grind. Maybe it’s wading through all those names.

There are extraordinary passages in The Savage Detectives, though, and I knew that the ending would be transformative. I’m glad I read it. I just don’t think I got it.

Magical realism is exactly the kind of genre I should like but for some reason I just don’t. I want more magic or more realism and less of both (here it was the “magic” that was lacking). Again, there were individual scenes and even whole chapters in Dona Flor that were funny and incisive and great, but the story wasn’t propulsive for me. I could stop reading this and have no particular motivation to pick it up again. I do want to learn more about Bahian cuisine, though, which sounds fantastic.

16.02.09

Meanwhile, in my other life

tech, wtf

03.02.09

A conversation over dinner

writing

I’m watching the dog chew on a stuffed hedgehog.  “I wonder what stops her from doing this to our faces while we sleep.”

The dog noses inside the toy and disembowels it.  Stuffing is strewn all over the rug.

“I’ll take first watch,” Dan says.

20.01.09

I have a dream

wtf

Some friends of mine and I decided to go to the inauguration.  It was pretty expensive, and I was told at the gate that Barack Obama had declared that his economic stimulus package required that everyone pay in cash.

I happened to have enough money so I gave it to the cashier.  She looked through my stack of twenties and said, “I can’t take this, it’s foreign currency.”

It turned out that paper bills had pictures of the different states on them like quarters do.  She was holding a “Puerto Rican” twenty.  “This isn’t a state,” she insisted.

“It’s a territory!”

“This currency isn’t real.”

“Look,” I said, “if I were trying to make counterfeit money, I wouldn’t print Spanish all over it, would I?”  Then I offered to show her a Wikipedia entry that would prove I was right.

“Whatever,” she said.  “Go in.”  But the inauguration was already over.

President Obama, you owe me.