I have moved!

I have finally gotten my act together and moved this blog to my brand new self-hosted website. Aah! 

totally awesome screengrab. Visit me, please?

totally awesome screengrab. Visit me, please?

There will be more fiction, more adventures in foreign lands, and of course more books.
I’m very happy with the results so far so I hope you’ll be checking it out (and perhaps forgive me for my long absence here – it turns out a master’s thesis pretty much kills one’s ability to put words on paper. Who knew?)

Top 7 Books I read in 2013

yes, the obligatory end of year list! All are welcome to skip ahead to the comment section and tell me what your favourite read of the year was- I need more recommendations. Obviously, these weren’t all published in 2013 (only 1+3). Presented in no particular order: 

Old Books and Key

 

1. Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
it’s hard not to love her writing style, and the way it paints images with just one or two well-chosen details. Her Thomas Cromwell is ruthless, brilliant and deeply sympathetic.

2.The Garden of the Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
This might very well be the most beautifully poetic book I read this year. It is set in the tea plantations and gardens of Malaysia’s Highlands and deals with the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. The main character, Judge Yun-ling Teoh, is forced to seek out the help and expertise of  an enigmatic Japanese gardener to create a memorial garden for her younger sister, who died in a Japanese POW camp.

3.Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
Easily the best 2013 debut I read.  Set in an impoverished and isolated Iceland during the 19th century, Agnes Magnusdottir stands convicted of the murder of her lover Nathan. She is sent to a farm to help the family there with their labours while she awaits her execution. Very stark and impressive

4.Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
I finally came around to reading this final volume over the summer. While it has its flaws (I know not everyone is a fan) there was a lot here to think about it. I loved the ending scenes with President Snow, they took me by surprise and left me with a sinking feeling that hasn’t entirely gone away yet, months later. 

5. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
this was the first Christie I ever read. Ten people are invited to an island through a hoax, and when they get there it turns out they are trapped and being murdered one by one by a mysterious foe. Chilling and addictive.

6. The Count of Monte Christo – Alexandre Dumas
Dumas is most famous for his Three Musketeers (one of those books everyone knows the basic story of, but hasn’t read-including me) but I have hunch this book might be his best. A young sailor, Dantes,  is arrested for supposedly helping Napoleonic factions plot his escape from Elba, and sent to prison without trial. He there meets an enigmatic character who reveals to him the location of a fabulous treasure, and he sets out on a journey of revenge on the three men who destroyed his life. This is a rare novel that actually deserves the epithet ‘epic.’


7. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
A group of highly unpleasant classics majors at an exclusive liberal arts college kill one of their class mates and try to get away with it. I always knew that too much Plato was soul-destroying. This was my first introduction  to Tartt; while I love the Goldfinch even more, this one takes me back to my little student room in England.

 

Why I loved the Goldfinch

Sometimes, a work of art comes along that is not only brilliant in the universality of its appeal, but that is also just right for you, as an individual, in that specific moment of time. Its themes and particular beauty speak to you on a personal level, and thus remembered forever for that.

This is of course the premise of Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, an epic 800-page monster which follows a single, tiny painting and one boy’s attempts to hang on to it, but it is also true of the novel itself.

It is hard to describe how much I loved this novel – it’s like watching a painting in motion, you unmoving in your spot as the light changes over the course of day and night and different weather pattern, and reveals new and unexpected angles. You walk the streets of New York and Las Vegas and see how the sky changes,  to eventually end up in Amsterdam (a city that to me is home, as well as a bit of an adventure) and let the clouds bear down on you, knowing the sun is about to take a peek on the canals.

Amsterdam (image wikimedia)

Amsterdam (image wikimedia)

The story follows Theodore Decker, who at 13 is involved in a tragic bombing at a New York City art gallery which kills his mother. In his shock, he encounters a dying man who instructs him to rescue a painting from the ruins of the gallery, and Theo takes it home with him, not knowing what else to do.

The painting is the Goldfinch, painted by Dutch master painter Carel Fabritius in 1654. The ghost of Fabritius lingers over the course of the story – he himself came to an end in the explosion of the gunpowder house in Delft, which also set fire to his studio, destroying most of his work. He was only 32 years old at the time. We are  left to wonder why he painted the tiny little gold finch on its perch, a peculiar little piece for the time; most Dutch paintings from the 17th century are commissioned portraits, landscapes or still-lifes, in which the animals are mostly dead.

220px-Carel_Fabritius_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project

Carel Fabritius, self portrait (image from wikipedia)

The little bird sits on its perch, watching the viewer with surprisingly lively eyes, and you can’t help but feel sorry for its chain, keeping it from flying less than a feet away from its perch before the little bird is yanked back in its place like the household toy it is.

Theo is similarly trapped into the events of his life. After the death of his mother he spirals down into a madhouse of overcoming his grief and finding a new place for himself. The first part is spent with the kindly but also rather cold Barbours family, wealthy friends of Theo’s who take him in for the first few weeks, after which his father, a bit of a shady figure who ran away from the family, unexpectedly shows up to take Theo home.

Home, as it turns out, is a condo in the outer suburbs of Las Vegas, newly built in the middle of nowhere, amidst desert sand, blistering heat and the dubious practices of the dad and his new girlfriend Xandra (‘Not Sandra with an S, and definitely not Sandy’)

Here he meets my favourite character, Boris, dragged over to the US from the ex-Soviet Union by his alcoholic father, and they take on their existential crises with good-humoured experimenting with drugs and Russian Literature.  Boris, on the loss of their parents;

“Mistake was made! Everything is unfair! Who do we complain to, in this shitty place?”

Out of this relationship the real climax of the novel eventually comes about in the streets of Amsterdam, by which time Theo is an experienced dealer in antiques and Boris a minor crime lord, and Theo’s concealment of the painting all those years turns out to have some unexpected consequences.

Perhaps surprisingly, they end up doing the right thing.
This was one of my favourite novels, and most certainly of any novel recently released.  It was just right on so many levels for me. Would recommend. 

Coming unstuck

Something about NaNoWriMo- it’s both harder and more enjoyable than I imagined at the start.

Seriously, guys, this month is going to be tough. To juggle assignments with reaching the daily wordcount, while stopping the plot from wandering back into the woods, is a positively Herculean task.  One I don’t always think I’m succeeding at, particularly the plot part. There are so many unresolved aspects of it I don’t even know where to start, and I kind of hate my own story by now.

But I keep going. Not just because I’ve told people I would. It’s because I realize – every day, so far- how much I love writing this. I love my characters, who keep surprising me. I even love some of the lines I come up with.

Normally, I think I would’ve given up by now, and –shocker- I’ve realized that’s the very problem with my writing anything longer than a short story; it just never makes it to the finish line. Because there’s always a reason to hate it.

So, for my blog this month I’m doing something a little different. I’ll be back every few days to share something about my writing process: unload all my struggles and hopefully a small victory or two. I’ll share tips to make things easier on my fellow NaNo-ers this month, I’ll even share some of my favourite lines (among the dozens of nonsensical ones) ,and I warmly invite you all to do the same.

Favourite lines I wrote (from 2nd November):

She got the impression he had woken up that day to find the world subtly but irrevocably changed, and couldn’t find the words to explain to anyone why the shift had unsettled him. It hurt, like it often did to think of how things had been better when they were all still living together as a family.

How are you surviving November?

Countdown to NaNo

So it’s Halloween today and I’m flailing around trying to get through a research paper proposals and two other assignments before I finally, finally, get to start on this year’s NaNoWriMo.

Oh god, guys, I’m scared and strangely excited. I have a hard time explaining why I want to join National Noveling Month so badly, other than just to say that I could start a project and see it through. There’s something about a solid deadline that helps me get through projects I wouldn’t normally attempt. And, so far, I’ve enjoyed spending time fleshing out characters and settings instead of just starting the writing blindly (and stumbling inevitably due to a total lack of preparation).

I’ll  be here during the month with stories of panic, tears and (hopefully) some outtakes from my progress.

Remember, kids, have fun. Even if it's awful.

Remember, kids, have fun. Even if it’s awful.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a tip or two gleaned from my last minute preparations:

Keep your ideas, don’t edit your outline too much. Don’t run out of tea or chocolate after the shops close.

And also: Start Small. 

The writing advice I’ve encountered most often around the web when it comes to creating a story is to ramp up  the conflict. High stakes make a story, right?

Well, yes, until you come on the NaNoWriMo forums and realize half the people there have interpreted that to mean that, at the very least, the world should be on the brink of destruction in your fictional universe, either as a result of the zombie apocalypse or due to a 4,000 year old vampire criminal mastermind’s evil plans.

That’s not tension, but – in my opinion anyway – a bit of bore. Because you haven’t given me a reason to care for your characters (and ‘they’re immortal with a dark and troubled past and that’s awesome’ is not a reason.)

Everyone out there with a non-vampire/werewolf novel, you guys are winners to me already! Let’s write ourselves some really awesome (or at least hilariously crappy) books.

Top 5 Sherlock Stories

I spent my summer working at a job that- besides broken nails, complaints, and paper cuts- involved a lot of waiting. In other words, a perfect opportunity to sprint-read through something I’ve had on my shelf for a while-  All 56 original Sherlock Holmes stories. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t always the easiest read (primarily because they lack the puzzle-solving element of a Christie, and also because some tales are just plain weird. They have a tendency to feature cartoony  vilains (think eye patches and wooden legs) but when done well, these are worth reading. So Much.

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And guys, I love Sherlock. I can’t help it. He’s a bit of a bastard sometimes but a brilliant one. These are my favourites, taking into consideration the creativity of the set-up, the writing, and What Sherlock Did. Enjoy.

5.)  The adventure of the Dancing Men
A woman comes to Sherlock Holmes, plagued by the sudden appearances of lines of little dancing men carved into surfaces all over the house, which conceal an ominous message. Creepy and a bit different from Holmes’ usual adventures

The_Adventure_of_the_Dancing_Men_4
4.) The Musgrave Ritual

One of Sherlock’s earliest cases which he tells Watson in retrospect and reveals a bit of the famous detective’s origins. A butler, after being caught reading private documents of the Musgrave family, disappears without a trace. The height of a tree provides points Sherlock to the location of a secret treasure and the fate of the butler.

3.) Silver Blaze

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”     “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”     “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”     “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

A prize race horse disappears from a stable leading to a brutal crime. This is the source of one of the better known quotes from the Holmes series (and also the title of the well-known book by Mark Haddon).  Truly a lesson in hiding a mystery in plain sight.

2.) The Red-Headed League

One of the funniest Holmes stories, as well as a pretty efficient mystery – this one is actually solvable from the outset, it just requires a leap of logic around an absurd problem.

A man with flaming red hair is invited to work for the “red-headed league” and promised a good deal of money for what turns out to be hours spent in an office copying out entries in an encyclopaedia. One morning, he comes to work to find the Red-Headed League has been disbanded and vanished without a trace, and he contacts Holmes for help.

1.) The Speckled Band

Conan Doyle himself named this one as his favourite tale, and I can’t help but agree.  A mud-spattered girl arrives at 221B Baker Street in real fear of meeting the same fate as her sister, who died a mysterious and startling death at the estate they live on with their step father. 
This is another one that is pretty creepy – whistling in the night and the clanking of metal, as well as a touch of the exotic which I always associate with Victorian stories.

All in all, I really enjoyed these tales, even the more ridiculous one. It’s both a sign of the times and of the madness/brilliance of Arthur Conan Doyle himself- who after all not only created the patron saint of rationality and logic, but also believed fairies are real. As in the Tinkerbell kind. The scenarios of his stories reflect that ambiguity perfectly, and I think it’s what makes them so compelling and creative. Recommended!

What you do with a haystack (more English for Expats)

It always takes a while to get back on your feet after moving countries, and to be honest coming back to my home country (the Netherlands) – but to a new town – is no different.  But I’m back, and my struggles with the English language continue unabated.

At her welcoming address, the vice-chancellor of the University reminded the international students present that one of the main benefits of studying abroad is not only getting to know the host country, but to experience seeing your own culture from a different point of view.

These past two weeks could not be described better for me, as I watched the members of my international orientation group – representing Germany, Bulgaria, Israel, England, Ireland, Lithuania and Portugal – attempt to adapt to the Netherlands, and the town of Leiden to them.

Welcome to Crazy Town, Party Hard. (Wikimedia commons)

Welcome to Crazy Town, Party Hard. (Wikimedia commons; Leids Ontzet)

You can see where this is going, yes? A Lithuanian, a Jew and a Dutchman walk into a bar…

I learned that it is never easy to explain a culture in a 20-minute speech, especially when the audience represents almost half of the world’s countries. The Mayor’s welcoming words later that day made this particularly apparent, which were mostly lost due to the echoes in the church where the meeting was held and the unfortunate decision to serve drinks before and during the talk, not after. The net result was that despite all he said about the dynamic converging of cultures, these are  the words of wisdom everyone remembered :

“herring with onions, eaten raw; potatoes, carrots and onions, all mashed into a stew -”

Classy. (source: wikimedia commons.  Rotterdam, 1937)

You just don’t understand herring.  I mean, culture. (source: wikimedia commons. Rotterdam, 1937)

My new Bulgarian friends, much to their dismay, have still not worked out why Dutch public figures feel the need to recite their local recipes to their visitors.

This despite my best efforts to explain how mashed potatoes (hutspot) are related to a siege of the city in 1574 and a reminder of the excellent moral fibre of its defenders, who lasted without mash (or much of anything else) for two years against the Spanish.

At our induction into the faculty of social sciences, the director of which insisted upon asking the audience what we, personally, do with haystacks back home.

This might not have been so bad, if he had not drawn out the metaphor – in somewhat dubious English – for the next thirty minutes. He tried to relate how one of his students had challenged a certain widespread cultural assumption in his research, adding something to the field of knowledge.

All we heard was that the truth is a needle, or a needle is the truth, and if you happen to come across a haystack, the needle may also turn up, although – so the poor man was forced to concede to the suggestions from the audience- haystacks can be used for many things.

Walking home, one of the girls patted my arm and kindly said:

“You  know, no offence, but you Dutch have a strange sense of humour.”

I know. I’m sorry.

What we take away from this is that even if your English isn’t wrong, technically, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Or just ask yourself,

“Do I really need a humorous ice skating metaphor to make this speech to my Brazilian guests a succes?”

You’re welcome.

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But is it not kinda nice here?