Saturday, November 14, 2009

No cambia madroños por bombas

No cambia madroños por bombas

This poster was definitely the best thing about today's somewhat bedraggled peace parade.

Three images by Pentti Sammallahti


Some of you may be wondering when the results of yesterday's exam will be known. This being Thpain, it will take 3 months. This despite the fact that 85% of the test was multiple choice, fill in the blobs with your #2 pencil, items, and so could presumably have been corrected on the spot. Same thing with the oral exam. But, noooo... I guess both of those 250-word essays I wrote have to be shipped by mule to the University of Salamanca, to be corrected personally by octogenarian members of the Royal Academy wielding quill pens and a lifetime's accumulated resentment about the way the language has had the audacity to evolve.

But it's done, and I don't have to study for it any more. If I'd had to write one more business letter of complaint, I might have had to slit my wrists.

Ah, blessed freedom!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book review; "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid" by Virginia Woolf

This slim collection (roughly 100 pages) of nine essays by Virgina Woolf, published as part of the "Penguin Great Ideas" series may be the best book I've read in the past ten years. It's also one of the hardest to review. The explanation is straightforward - every time I try, the review just devolves into tired cliches ("shimmering prose", "scintillating wit", "a writer at the height of her powers", anyone?) or fills up with direct quotes from the work itself. Not just skimpy little quotelets either, but huge, copyright-infringing, chunks of text. Pagesfull. I want to share every genius-soaked paragraph with you, and once I start, I just can't stop.

So, how to proceed? Why not implement a little self-restraint by resorting to that tired old device of listing the individual essay titles (easy) and - for a selected few - giving a few brief comments on wherein I think their genius lies (hard).

Well, duh, the genius lies in Virginia, of course. It pains me to acknowledge that, until about 6 months ago, I had this image of VW that was pretty much completely at odds with her warmth, wit, and ability to write prose that sparkles and enchants. (I'm sorry - that sounds so ridiculously pretentiously critspeak, but it's bloody well true. I will try to avoid the words "limpid" and "limn" in this review, if that's any consolation). How could I have been so wrong - she's smart as a whip, she's funny, and writes as if taking dictation from on high. Boy, can this woman write. I really, really, really hope that you will beg, borrow, or steal this collection to experience it for yourself.

So what does she write about here?

1. Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.
2. Street Haunting.
3. Oxford Street Tide.
4. Craftsmanship.
5. The Art of Biography.
6. How it Strikes a Contemporary.
7. Why?
8. The Patron and the Crocus.
9. Modern Fiction.
10. How Should One Read a Book?

Each of the 9 essays I've read so far has blown me away, either because it contains one or more flashes of pure insight, or because of the incomparable quality of the writing, and - in most cases - some combination of the two. In six pages, the title essay contains some of the sanest observations about war in anything I've read outside of Orwell. The second two essays capture the quotidian pleasures of walking the streets of London with a wit and perspicacity that leaves me slack-jawed in admiration. Essay #4, one of my favorites (together with the final essay, which is simply perfect) is a spellbinding discourse on the slippery charm of words. Essays 6, 8, and 9 contain some of the most cogent remarks about writing that I have ever read. #7 is a hilarious takedown of those who would write or lecture about literature.
But it's the final essay in this book that raises the whole collection to my top 5 books of all time list (there's going to be some ugly rearranging that will have to take place on my "top 20" shelf, and a difficult choice lies ahead).

"How Should One Read a Book" is where my self-discipline breaks down. This is an essay that demands to be quoted from. In whole chunks. With difficulty, I will confine myself to three:

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. ... To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions - there we have none.

In your face, Harold Bloom!

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words.

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns ... the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy, as He sees us coming with our books under our arms: "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

By the time the title essay of this collection was published, Virgina Woolf had already filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse. I find her suicide enormously saddening, particularly given the brilliance of these essays. Subsequent deaths, such as those of Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace, suggests that such brilliance comes at a price.

But the work lives on. You have to read these essays! They are astonishing, in the best possible way.

Tabby cat humiliation

Horace Walpole's Cat (a book, by Christopher Frayling)

After the test today (about which I will make no predictions, except to say I am cautiously optimistic) I hit the bookstore on the way home, and this gorgeous book was my present to myself, as a reward for the last three weeks of work. Yes, I miss my kitties, Boris and Natasha. So sue me.

I don't use the word "gorgeous" lightly. This is a handsome book, with excellent production values (is that the phrase I'm looking for?). The conceit is slight, but charming. Paraphrasing the jacket cover:

"One day in February 1747 Horace Walpole's cat Selima fell into a large Chinese porcelain goldfish tub and drowned. Walpole was naturally upset and his close friend Thomas Gray wrote a (gently mocking) elegy to console him, ending with the famous moral lesson All that glisters is not gold . Gray's much-loved poem conferred immortality on the unfortunate Selima.

Christopher Frayling has made her fate the focus of a piece of literary research that involves Walpole, Gray, Richard Bentley, Doctor Johnson, cat-lovers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Christopher Smart, cat-hater James Boswell, William Blake and finally Kathleen Hale (of Orlando the marmalade cat fame). All contribute to this book of charm and erudition lightly worn, that adds seriously to our appreciation of 18th century, and our understanding of people and their household animals.

With 32 illustrations, 15 in colour, by Richard Bentley (1753), William Blake (1797) and Kathleen Hale's drawings, created in 1944 and published here for the first time".

What's not to love?


Thomas Gray. 1716–1771

On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes

TWAS on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr'd applause.

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat 's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled.)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd:
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tho far tho good

Today's oral part of the exam went reasonably well, though of course one can never be fully sure - Lord knows what grammatical solecisms I may have committed. The expression of the examiner lady never actually devolved into overt horror, though this too could be misleading, because the setup is that one's interlocutor is not actually the person who does the grading. In a kind of good cop/bad cop scenario, the grader sits behind you while you are talking, taking notes, copious or otherwise.

It's not exactly a walk in the park. You are expected to speak extemperaneously, and are not allowed to make any notes. First they show you two contrasting photos, about which you have to talk with no help from the interviewer for 3 minutes. Then she chimes in with a couple of questions, and there's a further two minutes or so of chit-chat about the photos. Next they show you three different quotations, ask you to pick one and speak about it off the cuff for 5 minutes uninterrupted. At which point the interviewer chimes in again, and there is a back-and-forth dialog for another 5 minutes or so. During the whole process, the grader-person is scribbling furiously (or maybe not) behind your back.

Anyway, I hope it was a good sign that, in the second part, I spoke for 8 minutes before the interviewer chimed in.

I was so hyped-up when I got out of there that I had to stop in the bookstore on the way home and calm my nerves by buying a half dozen books. All in English, I am ashamed to say.

This evening, I figured that further study of the finer points of grammar would be futile, so I have been trying to relax by hitting the Chardonnay and reading Virginia Woolf*. If I could match the wit and clarity of that woman's prose, even in English, I'd be a happy camper indeed. In tomorrow's exam, I'll settle for grammatical correctness and half-way clear expression of ideas.

La suerte está echada. The die is cast.

One way or another, this particular adventure will be over by 2pm tomorrow, and I can move on with my life.

*with a new Internado update thrown in, naturally. (Precocious Paula has been separated from little Evelyn and moved up to a more advanced class. I can relate, as this was more or less the whole story of my primary school education. All it means is that by the time you get to high school you are surrounded by thugs who are two or three years older, who end up bullying you mercilessly. "Character-forming" is the relevant euphemism, I believe. Though, in my case, it has to be said, I probably had it coming, as I was an insufferable little prig when I first went away to boarding school.)

The plain people of Ireland: Why are we not surprised?
MOTP: Silence, rabble!

hasta pronto!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oh nooooo.....

La pequeña Paula has an IQ of 152.

All of los huérfanos muertos had IQs of 150 or greater.

I fear for the little tyke's safety.

One of life's eternal mysteries

A state of heightened preparedness

So, here at DELE central, things are rapidly approaching the point of no return. Sure, there are a few more exercises I should probably force myself to wade through. But I just finished yet another essay while at dinner ("an interesting story from your past" - did I ever tell you about the time I was going through customs at JFK, and there was this "nun" with a suitcase full of contraband rashers and sausages? No, I didn't think so, because it never happened, but they are not to know that. Yes, it's true, I've already mined my past for the few nuggets of interest it might contain - breakfast in Guanajuato anyone? - so now I'm reduced to making things up. So sue me.)

This afternoon brought the ritual pleasure of the purchasing of the requisite pre-exam necessities - the lapicero #2, with backup, the borrador, the sacapuntas, the black boligrafo, the appropriately shrill despertador. If only mental preparedness were available for purchase at a comparable price.

So, the oral exam is tomorrow afternoon at 4:45pm; the written exam on Friday from 9;00 until 2:00. There's a definite sense that this particular die has already been cast. Anything from here on out is just window dressing, nervous activity to calm the mind.

But the studying has been fun. Here was this evening's soundtrack:

  • Sibelius: 2nd symphony, especially the sublime final movement
  • Saint-Saens: organ symphony, ditto (aka the theme from "Babe")
  • Dvorak: Songs my mother taught me
  • Lauridsen: Dirait-on from the Rose cycle (lyrics by Rilke)
  • Alfven: Swedish Rhapsody
  • Granados: Andalucia
  • Gershwin: Three Preludes for Piano
  • Addinsell: Warsaw concerto
  • Catalani: Ebben? ... Ne andro lontana (La Wally, aka the theme from "Diva")
  • Mozart: Soave sia il vento (Cosi fan Tutte)

The titles of those last two are enough to make a person want to learn Italian.
Right now.

This is music that I find both joyful and inspiring.

And with that, good night. Wish me luck.


Gentle readers! I am, quite frankly, beside myself. But in a good way, I should hasten to add. I am (almost) at a loss for words. I mean what does one say when one's all-time favorite cheesy Spanish soap opera takes that one step further, and goes from being merely magnificent to being altogether sublime. Let's run down the considerable list of merits this show already had going for it before it made that final leap to greatness in this most recent episode:

* the fundamental genius McGuffin of the mystery of the five missing orphans, with all the necessary spooky paraphernalia that surrounds it - jars of eyeballs, the misformed gentle creature that lives in the woods, the secret passageway (to which entry is granted by pressing on a panel over the fireplace in the library, I kid you not) that leads from the school to the woods, the mysterious lights in the night
* the high prevalence of toothsome adolescent eye-candy, more often than not (as previously mentioned) filmed in their sweaty revealing gym outfits, in the showers, or any other situation where there is a plausible reason for displaying maximum amounts of teenage flesh
* the general lax mores of the thirty-something set that passes for the "faculty" at this campus o' carnality, which results in just as much cavorting and exposed flesh (actually even more) as occurs among the student bodies. Whether it's Hector or Fermin lasciviously eyeing maria the crazy cleaning lady as she bathes nude in the lake (or, if you prefer, the "Laguna Negra") every morning, or the randy gym teacher who beds everything female that moves, or the equally hormonally advantaged kindergarten teacher, or the hunky new math teacher - this place is just a hotbed of hormonal lust.
* the satisfyingly high frequency per episode of people being caught in compromising positions - given the general proclivity of these characters for sneaking around the corridors and hidden passageways furtively, they are always catching one another in either genuinely or misleadingly compromising positions. In this spicy gumbo, the plot is always thickening.
* Did I mention the three corpses in the wood? Not to mention the five dead orphans.
* Tender moments provided by the darling 8-year old Paula and her little friend (accessory in modest juvenile misdemeanours) Evelyn:

I mean, you gotta admit, that's some pretty irresistible cuteness right there.

So, I hear you ask, "surely it would be piling Pelion on Ossia to add anything further"?* How could one possibly improve on such a tried and tested successful mix? Well, listen up, and I'll tell you.

By bringing back that feisty old bird, Jacinta, for one thing. She's back - and with a new heart! (Quite literally)
That hunky new math teacher doesn't hurt either.
But .... drumroll please .... here's the very best part:


Yes, indeedy. In this latest episode, she's been prowling around the school, true Good Will Hunting style, solving elder bro marcus's Rubik's cube just like that, completing unsolved math puzzles left unerased on the blackboard. I fully expect her to bring home the Field medal by the end of the second season.

Gentle readers, you have no idea how ineffably happy this makes me.

*: In my mind, gentle reader, you are a cultivated, well-read, kind of person. If not, you could always look it up.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Just stay calm, David

All in all, it was a productive long weekend - I managed to churn out four business letters (mainly complaining about stuff - I may actually have found my true calling - apparently complaining about stuff in Spanish comes fairly easily to me), and the same number of essays. Let's be clear here - we're not scaling any literary heights - you'll not come across any feuilleton-quality gems in the bunch. But if you have ever wanted to:

  • write to the publishers of Lonely Planet guidebooks, pointing out imaginary nitpicky errors in their latest guide to San Francisco
  • complain to your local municipal traffic bureau about the dangerous placement of a traffic light
  • get satisfaction from some fly-by-night bookseller on the internet because your alleged first edition of "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" wasn't up to snuff
  • complain to the municipal authorities because you got a permit to open a yoga studio, not the "Business English for foreigners" school you had planned to

then I might have some templates I could pass on.

In other news, Brad left for home this morning. When I got back home from lunch at around 4:30, I suffered a major panic attack upon entering the empty apartment. i hadn't realized how much I would miss him. But after an hour of lying on the couch with a full case of the heebie-jeebies, I rallied and pulled myself together. Enough to - you've guessed it - write another letter of complaint, before going out to the supermarket to replenish my stock of Albarino.

I've also been catching up on Season 2 of "El internado". Can't possibly do it justice in this post, but I will just pass on that the number of corpses in el bosque has now risen to 3. And that's not even counting the cadavers of the 5 dead orphans, because they are over 20 years old. Bad boy Ivan continues to brood (this mainly involves biting his lip a lot and glowering - the young man who plays him has definition limitations as far as his acting repertoire is concerned, preferring to rely on his good looks, which are undeniable) , while goody two-shoes Marcos engages in a kind of behavior that can best be described as smoldering. Somehow the plot finds many excuses to have all of the better-looking teen actors on the show prance around a lot in their skimpy gym outfits, when the camera team is not just lingering voyeuristically in the girls' shower, for no particular reason that advances the action. Did I mention how much I love the cheesy goodness of this show? Plus, it improves my Thpanish - they are a foulmouthed bunch, who enjoy cursing up a storm, so it's quite helpful.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bird beats big bang with bit of baguette

GENEVA : THE $6.5 billion machine designed to recreate the conditions present at the beginning of time had to be switched off after a bird dropped a "bit of baguette" into it, causing it to overheat.

As a result, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland had to postpone their plans last week to emulate the universe's Big Bang.

The European particle physics laboratory near Geneva launched the LHC in September last year. Physicists hoped to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, or God particle, which gives matter in the universe its mass.

But the LHC, which when running will collide protons travelling at 99.9 per cent of the speed of light, has been out of action since a helium leak caused it to be shut down nine days after its start-up.

The bird dropped bread on a compensating capacitor – where the mains electricity supply enters the collider – cutting power to the LHC during a test run.


Thanks to bilby for bringing this to my attention. As he commented, "it is strangely comforting that the beginning of the universe can be undone by a bird with a chunk of bread".

Betty and Vincent!

november2009 122

They are examples of this trip's quest, and the focus of tonight's, and future, Sunday night dioramas.

For further examples, see Buttons!