Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I was originally considering Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land* as my book from Yemen for the Read The World challenge, but I’ve tracked down a novel by an actual Yemeni writer which is available in English⁑, so I’ll read that at some stage. I still wanted to read Travels in Dictionary Land, though, because I very much enjoyed Mackintosh-Smith’s two books† following in the footsteps of the medieval Arab traveller Ibn Battutah.

Sana'a old city, Yemen

I’m not quite sure how long Mackintosh-Smith had lived in Yemen when this book was published 10 years ago, but he still lives there; he is clearly deeply engaged with Arab culture, history and language generally and Yemen in particular — in fact, living in San’a and chewing qat, I think in the terminology of the Empire they would have said he has gone native — and the book mixes what you might call straight travel writing with historical context and snippets of literature and mythology.

I think it’s easiest to just quote a couple of passages.

Very occasionally they [scorpions] are found in bunches of qat. Once, a baby one walked out of my bundle and across my lap, and disappeared among the leavings in the the middle of the room. I have never seen qat-chewers move faster. Another creature that sometimes pops up in qat is the fukhakh, the hisser — the Yemeni name for the chameleon. Its blood taken externally is a cure for baldness, but its breath makes your teeth fall out.. The gecko too is often killed, as it eats the remains of food from around your mouth as you sleep, pisses and gives you spots. Despite this I have been attached to several that have grown up in my house as they are clever flycatchers and converse, like the Hottentots, in clicks.

Or, in a bar in Aden:

Then the band broke into a sort of Egyptian glam-rock number and, unexpectedly, the floor filled with young men dressed in Paisley pattern shirts and pleated trousers. The number of pleats seemed to reflect their prowess at dancing. One particularly energetic youth — a twenty-pleater — shone out: his pelvis was articulated in extraordinary places, and spurts of sweat shot from his forehead. These were the mutamaykalin, the Michaelesques — the fans of Michael Jackson.

So, generally speaking, enjoyable stuff. Some of the political/history passages are less gripping than the travel anecdotes, but at least I now know a lot more about Yemen.

* sold under the title Yemen: The Unknown Arabia in the US.
The Hostage, by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj.
Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns.

» The photo of Sana’a old town in Yemen is © eesti and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Mother’s Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong

Mother’s Beloved is a collection of short stories from Laos; even with an introductory essay and with the Lao printed opposite the English, it’s only 160 pages. BTW, I don’t know a lot about Lao names, but I think that ‘Outhine’ is the surname.

I knew absolutely nothing about Laos except its approximate location (between Thailand and Vietnam). Fortunately this book has an essay about contemporary Lao literature that acted as a quick primer on the country’s modern history, which has been fairly grim: it went from being a Thai colony to a French one, got caught up in the Indochina War and the Vietnam War, when the Americans bombed it extremely heavily, then had about 15 years of communist government. Apparently it has liberalised somewhat since the fall of Russian communism, but there’s still only one legal political party: the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

The stories themselves are short and simple, both stylistically (as far as I can tell from these translations) and in terms of action. And indeed morality: by which I mean that you could often end each story with ‘and the moral of this story is … [something].’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them were published when Laos was a communist state; I think some of that simplicity that comes from writing in a country where too much ambiguity might be regarded as politically suspicious. And often the ‘morals’ are as much political as moral: ‘every one of us, no matter how humble, can make our own sacrifice in aid of the war effort’, for example.

Still, the very simplicity of the stories has its own appeal, and one or two of them managed to combine that simplicity with just the right emotional note in a way I found effective. I’ve decided that one way I could make these little reviews more useful would be quote some of the books, so here’s the opening of a story called The Eternal Pair of Birds. It’s actually an unusually elaborate passage, but you can see it has a kind of plainness to the language.

It was late February. At the edge of the rice fields grew a flame tree full of red blooms whose colour, when reflecting the setting sun, was so bright it hurt the eyes. Next to it stood a lone palmyra. It stretched so high as if to challenge the rainstorm, the hurricane, and the sunshine. It had stood there, strong and graceful, for ages. To the people in this rural hamlet, it was like a timepiece. When the sun was high above its crown, it was noon. When the sun’s rays struck parallel across the top of its fronds, it was time to herd the cattle back to the stable and for the housewives to prepare dinner.

Mother’s Beloved is my book from Laos for the Read The World challenge. I quite enjoyed it, on balance, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to learn a bit more about the country.

» The picture is from the Plain of Jars, an archeological site in Laos which I hadn’t heard of before but is mentioned in one of the stories. The stone ‘jars’, about 1500-2000 years old, are of unknown purpose but may be funerary urns or for food storage. Apparently it’s now one of the most dangerous archeological sites on earth because of all the left-over American cluster bombs. The photo, from Flickr, is © Kumar Nav and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is about the behind-the-scenes work at the Natural History Museum in London. Whether you find that an appealing subject for a book depends, I suppose, on your feelings about museums and/or natural history; personally I found it irresistible.

The public face of the museum — animatronic dinosaurs and overexcited schoolchildren — gives relatively little sense of the scientific work that goes on behind the scenes, all of which is centred on the museum’s collection of biological specimens: pressed plants, trays of pinned beetles, drawers full of bird skins or fossils, jars of starfish in alcohol. The sheer scale of these collections is hard to comprehend: the museum holds over 70 million specimens. That means every person in the UK could be given one to take home and they’d still have enough left over for everyone in Sweden. 28 million of them are insects.

The collections haven’t been accumulated simply through an excess of acquisitiveness, although there must be some connection between the satisfaction biologists get from collecting beetles and other people’s collections of stamps, obscure soul 45s or golf memorabilia. The point of the collection is that it is a vast reference library: if you find an earwig in Burma and you’re not sure whether it’s a new species, you can start by checking the literature; but if all else fails, the last resort is to go to a museum, open up the drawers full of earwigs, and start peering at them through a microscope.

This kind of taxonomical work — preparing specimens, describing species, working out their relationships, publishing highly technical articles about it — might seem to be complete drudgery to an outsider; it is slow, careful, precise, unglamorous. But it obviously has a hold on people, because the book is full of people who spend decades working on some particular group of organisms, retire, and then keep coming in to the museum to continue their work in retirement. Fortey himself is apparently one of them, retired in 2006 but still working away at his trilobites.

The books combines a history of the museum, examples of the work done there, anecdotes about characters on the staff (not surprisingly, perhaps, there have been a few notable eccentrics) and a passionate defence of taxonomy as a valuable field of study. It’s well-written, entertaining, pitched at the interested amateur, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» The pictures, from the Bombus pages at the NHM website, are of male bumblebee genitalia. This isn’t a highly specialised branch of pornography; it’s a normal way of identifying them (and quite a few other kinds of insects).

The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant

This is Grant’s account of making Wah-Wah, his first film as director. Grant grew up in Swaziland and the film is about growing up there, so I read it as my book from Swaziland for the Read The World challenge.

For me, the book is mainly interesting for its portrayal of film-making, which is fascinating but sounds very very stressful: complicated, expensive, highly time-sensitive, and requiring the juggling of dozens of cast and crew, all of whom have other work commitments.

The film was a French co-production, for the sake of getting the right funding and tax breaks; and Grant had an exceptionally bad relationship with his French producer, who comes across in the book as startlingly incompetent and badly-suited to her job. In fact I suspect her first reaction on reading it was probably to call her lawyer.

It was slightly odd to be reading a making-of book for a film I haven’t seen, but it was an engaging read. I’ll keep an eye out for the film.

(and by the way, is it me or does Julie Walters look really weird in the poster?)

Maiba by Russell Soaba

Maiba: A Novel of Papua New Guinea* is, you won’t be surprised to hear, my book from PNG for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it second-hand and was surprised to find when it came that it was a print-on-demand edition (I’m sure it’s a second-hand copy rather than one printed for me, btw). Of course POD services — or indeed e-books — are perfect for this kind of niche literature. Because of the challenge, I’ve been browsing around for second-hand copies of obscure books from around the world, and they don’t normally come cheap.

The print quality, for the moment, is noticeably weaker; my Maiba is perfectly adequate but a bit cheaper-looking and more generic than a normal mass-market paperback. But if POD helps keep books available at reasonable prices, then a slight compromise on print quality seems a good trade-off.

I imagine that most of the people ordering copies of Maiba are teaching or studying post-colonial literature, and it does fit fairly neatly into that niche. If I had to identify a central theme I’d say it was about the conflict between traditional Papuan culture and modernity — or change, anyway. The agents of change aren’t actually particularly strongly present in the book; the action takes place in a somewhat remote coastal village where the lifestyle is still fairly traditional (as far as I can judge from my complete lack of knowledge), but the relevance and authority of that tradition is oozing away.

I imagine that tradition vs. change is going to be a frequently recurring theme in the course of this challenge; but then I suppose rapid societal change has been the experience of most of the world’s population for the past century or so. Perhaps it’s just more obvious to me when I’m reading a novel set in PNG than one set in Surrey.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it, as a novel. It’s short — only 115 pages — and rather open-ended. But it is well-suited to literary tourism; it has plenty of local detail about landscape, food, local buildings, bits of folklore and custom. And it’s well written. Perhaps my only real problem with it is that I’m not a big fan of short forms of fiction.

* Or at least that’s the title on the cover; inside it’s called Maiba: A Papuan Novel.

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek (pronounced pishtyanek, apparently) is a caustic satirical novel set in a big hotel in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia but then in Czechoslovakia, at the time of the collapse of the communist government. It has a cast of prostitutes, black-market money changers, former secret policemen and sex tourists.

The anti-hero of the novel is Rácz, who starts out stoking the boilers the hotel, but ruthlessly fights his way up the food chain. The introduction suggests that ‘Rácz will prove as immortal a rogue as Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, Gogol’s Chichikov or Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull’. I’d only add that ‘rogue’ seems too mild a word for a character as brutal as Rácz.

The comparison that sprang to mind for me (and I should probably be more careful of these comparisons to half-remembered books I read more than a decade ago) was A Confederacy of Dunces. It has something of the extravagantly grotesque quality that I remember Toole’s book having. Rivers of Babylon was published in 1991, so it was absolutely topical at the time, and it has the real edge of satire written in response to dramatic current events.

This translation by Peter Petro was published in 2007 by Garnett Press, a small press set up by the Russian Department at Queen Mary, University of London. Rivers of Babylon is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently they hope to publish the other two books ‘soon’. I imagine that it’s an uncertain business trying to publish on that scale, but I for one would certainly pick up the sequel if I got the chance.

Rivers of Babylon is my book for Slovakia for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, Square in Bratislava, is © Rob & Lisa Meehan, and used under a CC Attribution licence.

My Father’s Notebook by Kader Abdolah

Kader Abdolah left Iran as a political refugee, having been part of a leftist political party that opposed first the Shah and then the ayatollahs. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1988 and My Father’s Notebook is actually a translation (by Susan Massotty) from Dutch. Despite that, I’m counting it for Iran for the Read The World challenge.

The story is narrated by a Iranian political refugee living in the Netherlands, who tells the story of his father, a deaf-mute carpet mender, over the period that includes the coming of the Shahs and the Islamic revolution. I guess we have to assume that there is an element of autobiography here, but I have no idea how much. The book combines a nostalgia for an apparently simpler time, before the politics of Iran got so messy, with a portrayal of a family, and particularly a father-son relationship, caught up in dangerous politics.

I found it weirdly insubstantial. I whipped through it in a couple of days, and found it likeable enough, but not much more than that. Easy to read, easy to forget. It has a kind of sub-magical realism thing going on: not much actual magic, but a certain dwelling on the colourful and peculiar. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t particularly grab me. Or perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood.

» The image, ‘Some Iranian patterns…’, is © François Bouchet and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness was an Icelandic novelist (and, incidentally, winner of the Nobel Prize). Independent People was published in 1935, and this translation by J. A. Thompson was written in the 40s. It’s the story of Bjartur, a stubborn, misanthropic sheep-farmer grinding out a primitive existence in hostile conditions, and obsessed with the idea of being independent.

sheep on flickr

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful novel, though it does have its share of dark satirical humour, as when the city-born lady of the manor goes around explaining to all the local peasants about the nobility and happiness of the farmer’s life. It reminded me a bit of Thomas Hardy; both the tinge of gloom that hangs over it, and the theme of creeping modernity in an agricultural community.

The main reason I read it was to tick off Iceland for the Read The World challenge, and it has a powerful sense of place: the dark winters, with the family snowed in for weeks at a time; the redshanks, plovers and wild ducks returning to breed in spring; the folklore and poetry; the sense of remoteness from the rest of the world. And while it made me very glad not to be a peasant sheep farmer, it did quite make me want to visit Iceland, if only to see the phalaropes.

I’m glad I read it; it’s a proper, major novel, and I enjoyed it. Fair warning, though; my mother, who I borrowed it from, clearly found it a bit of a chore, and I can see why. It’s 550 pages, and even though I liked it, it felt like quite a long 550 pages.

» The photo, Sheep, is © Atli Harðarson and used under a Creative Commons by-nd licence.

Hadrian at the British Museum

Today I went to the BM’s exhibition about famous wall-builder Hadrian. Its not just the wall, though; he also built the Pantheon, as well as a staggering villa complex at Tivoli. He inherited the Roman Empire from Trajan when it was at its biggest and actually reduced its size slightly, abandoning some of the less manageable extremities and consolidating the borders. In fact, topically enough, on gaining power he quickly made the decision to withdraw the troops from Iraq.

I enjoyed the exhibition (pricey, though: £12 seems a lot to me), although the Romans make for pretty familiar subject matter: portrait busts, marble columns and memorial inscriptions. And in the specific case of Hadrian, I’ve been to the Pantheon and the villa at Tivoli, and I’ve read Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, so this wasn’t one of those exhibitions which completely opened my eyes to a new subject. Still, the quality of objects on display was high, and I learnt a few interesting snippets along the way, like the fact that Hadrian had a distinctive crease in his earlobe, visible on the portrait busts, which is an indicator of heart disease.

I suppose the other thing that’s most famous about Hadrian is the fact that when his (male) lover Antinous drowned in the Nile, he founded a city named after him, Antinopolis, and encouraged the cult of Antinous which treated Antinous as a deity associated in some way with Osiris, the Egyptian god who was in charge of flooding the Nile. The homosexual relationship itself was apparently not unusual, but the very public grief and memorialising of it was. Because of the cult, there are many surviving statues of Antinous, and they have some fabulous examples in the exhibition.

The section about Antinous mentioned in passing that in Egypt at the time, the cult of Antinous was ‘in competition with Christianity’, which made me wonder how different the world would be if he’d been more popular than Jesus.

» The exhibition website doesn’t have much in the way of pictures (though there are some videos, which I haven’t looked at), but all these photos are part of the BM’s permanent collection, and are taken from their website. The coin showing Hadrian’s head is from Alexandria; the busts are Hadrian and Antinous.

A good day to collide some hadrons

So the Large Hadron Collider has finally been switched on; very much later than originally scheduled, but then it’s a staggeringly big, complicated, expensive piece of kit, so it was just as well to make sure they got it right first time.

It really is pure geek porn: the sheer size of it, just as a piece of machinery; the amount of energy it’s going to throw around; the mind-boggling degree of precision required to smash protons into each other at nearly the speed of light; the amount of computing power it needs to process the data produced. And of course the fact that all this money and expertise and time is being expended simply to advance our knowledge: it is the purest of pure science. It makes me happy every time I think about it.

With all the publicity surrounding the LHC, I’ve been thinking how sad it is that so many people find science boring or scary or completely alien. Of course you can get through life without ever having felt the joy of science, just as you can get through life without ever having understood why some people place such a high value on poetry, or art, or music. But it seems a bit of a waste.

I guess a lot of people start without much natural sympathy for the subject anyway, and then school finishes the job by putting them off for life. I found science lessons at school pretty deathly myself, and I was interested. And I don’t really know what the answer is.

Part of the problem is perhaps that science is presented in school as a very static entity: there’s no sense of it as a dynamic process, a gradual painstaking effort to build up knowledge, with dead ends and wrong turnings and leaps of genius. I’ve always found science more interesting with a bit of historical context; it humanizes science to learn about Newton and Darwin as people. It’s also easier to appreciate the brilliance of some particular insight if you know what people thought beforehand, and why they realised they were wrong.

For example, Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation are very dry when you learn about them at school as a way of predicting the behaviour of falling objects and billiard balls and pendulums. They gain some resonance when you understand that, for the first time, Newton tied the whole universe together. The significance of the famous apple that Newton saw fall from a tree is not so much that he came up with a way of explaining falling apples: it’s that he realised that the apple falling to the ground and the moon orbiting the Earth are the same thing. The same simple set of equations can be used to explain both.

But the trouble with all this human colour and historical context is that it is window-dressing. It’s like trying to teach science by discussing scientific issues in the news: it may make for a lively discussion, but that isn’t enough unless you manage to teach the science itself. Students need to feel the power of theory; of abstract thinking, of reductionism. And I think that’s quite a difficult thing to teach.

» The pictures, both stolen from CERN, are simulated images of collision events; the first is a proton collision creating a microscopic black hole, the second is a lead ion collision.

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Happy Birthday Clouded Drab

Clouded Drab — my photoblog — is one year old today. And despite occasional fallow periods, I have posted 92 photos in that year, which seems a respectable number.

This puffin is not one of those photos. I don’t quite know why I only posted one of my puffin pictures from Wales, but here’s another one.

I’ve just installed a random redirect plugin, so click on this link for a random photo.

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  • 'It’s good to see the authorities finally getting to the root of the problem of street violence. For years it’s been obvious that studious poetry-reading youths have been terrorising our streets, and how it’s taken so long for the authorities to make the connection between poetry readers and knife crime is beyond me.'
    ( tags: poetry crime )

Sir Lattimore Brown

If you haven’t been following the superb series of posts about the soul singer Lattimore Brown at music blog the B side, now would be a good chance to catch up. It starts with the chance discovery that Brown is not as dead as had been thought, and takes a road trip with him while telling the story of his career, and providing some fine music along the way.

The posts in order: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

As you’ll read, Brown, who was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit and had a pretty awful time of it, has been screwed over again by Hurricane Gustav, so if you enjoy the music you might want to show your appreciation with actual money (via link 7 above).

Gooseberry liqueur, again

Just a quick update on the gooseberry liqueur I mentioned the other day. I have strained out the fruit and bottled the liqueur.

As you can see, it’s a very pale yellow; if anything it’s just slightly greener than it looks in this picture. And it’s very nice — gooseberry tasting, in fact — though it’s definitely better served cold.

I also now have a bowl full of vodka-soaked gooseberries in the fridge.

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Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

One for the Read The World challenge. Wikipedia only mentions one writer from Vanuatu: Grace Mera Molisa. There was a copy of Black Stone, her first book of poems, for sale on AbeBooks, so I thought I’d give it a punt.

This is political poetry: Black Stone was published in 1983, just three years after Vanuatu gained independence, and the main dynamics of the book are anti-colonialism and feminism.

If the aim of the challenge is to get some sense of different places around the world, then this book isn’t ideal. It largely deals with politics in the abstract, and aside from a few place-names it would be difficult to guess where it was written. I have no more idea of the landscape or everyday life of Vanuatu than I did before I read it. But then I don’t think I’m the target audience.

I’m not terribly excited by it as poetry either; most of it reads as political prose broken up rather arbitrarily into short  lines. This is from a poem called Newspaper Mania:

The medium
of Newsprint
can make
and break
and men
in dictating
and shaping
public opinion
by subtle
and invisible

There are occasionally hints of something more interesting, though; from the same poem, I think this has a fine acid touch to it:

flock to Port Vila
crawling the bars
sniffing the farts
of other
transient scavengers
and go away
on Vanuatu politics. 

Despite  few good moments, the book mainly reads to me as social activism rather than poetry. Not that I have anything against social activism.

Another one bites the dust

Sad to see the nonist, always a reliable source of neat stuff, is going the way of all blogs. Still, it’s an opportunity to do a quick greatest hits post — ‘greatest hits’ in this case defined as ‘stuff I linked to earlier’.

antique microscopic slidesfire markswatermarks — eugenics materials —  Native American totem symbolsx-rays of paintings — hand guards from Japanese swords — old scissors — science fairs — C19th tonic wine — nuclear fallout calculatorscarousels — Native American costumehornbooksPolynesian stick chartslibraries 

When so much of the designy/visual culture blogosphere deals with such a limited range of material (retro Americana, mid-C20th graphic design, the latest quirky bit of typography, music videos, objets d’interior design and so on), you’ve gotta love someone who digs out pictures of renaissance scissors.

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