Monday, February 28, 2011

Brothers Lionheart

I grew up with the books of Astrid Lindgren: Ronja Robbersdaughter (still my favourite), Mio my Mio, The Bullerby Children and many more. I love her language, plain but never artless, and the sense of wonder her stories are filled with.

In The Brothers Lionheart, the deadly ill Karl is promised by his brother Jonathan that after they die, they will meet again in Nangijala, a land of campifires and storytelling. Jonathan dies soon after that while rescueing his brother from a fire and Karl dies from his illness. he does indeed find himself in Nangijala, just like Jonathan described it. The brothers live happily for some time, but even in Nangijala, there are dark things and their happiness doesn't last.

The book drew heavy criticism when published in 1973 because of its dark themes and because some critics thought that it encouraged suicide as a solution to problems. It certainly is unusual for a children's book to deal with such themes and I'm not sure how many (if any at all) such book had been published before The Brothers Lionheart. Children do want to know about death, so why not let them read this book or read it with them. If you look past the fact that both characters die right at the beginning of the book, it's a tale of love and loyalty, of courage and the search for happiness and freedom.

For some reason, the my second favourite book for children about death also comes from Sweden, All the Dear Little Animals

The 14th book for the Library challenge

Just because


watch on Youtube
One of my favourite songs ever. I think this was the first time I ever heard a harpsichord and I fell in love instantly.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Die Tapetentür

Sometimes, I come across books that I know are very well written, but the main character annoys me so much that I can't really enjoy the book. Homo Faber was such a book and Die Tapetentür (that's a door hidden behind the wallpaper) is similar. Annette, a young woman living alone in a big city, worries constantly: about being alone, about having company, about what people will think and about the fact that she worries about everything. When she meets an older man, marries him and becomes pregnant, she is very happy. At least she tells herself that, but she still worries about loosing that happiness. She is very much yearning for a normal life, but she can't really connect, she's always at a distance.

After reading about half the book, I was ready to grab her and shout at her to stop questioning everything, to just enjoy the moment for once. What I did like were the descriptions of the people Annette meets, she is a very good observer, and the memories and dreams she records in her diary, those passages are very evocative and poetic. There are also occasional observations that just made me laugh out loud. This one is my favourite (my own translation):
Women, as unpleasant as they can be, are much more individual and less vain than men. It's also very rare for a woman to begin, right in the middle of a conversation, unbuttoning your blouse. I like this trait in particular about women.

13th book for the Library Challenge

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Libya

If you're trying, like me, to keep up with what is happening in Libya, the I can really recommend Al Jazeera's Live Blog.

I really hope that the people of Libya can reach their goals, but I fear that there will be a lot more bloodshed and death before they do. At the end when he’s really pressured, he can do anything. I think Gaddafi will burn everything left behind him. says the former Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdel Galil and he may well be right.

Here's the one for today and the Boston Globe has a series of photos on its Big Picture website.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book of Choice: The Wall (not Pink Floyd)

A woman spends a few days in an Alpine hut and when she wakes up one morning, an invisible wall stands between her and the rest of the world. The wall surrounds the hut and a good portion of the mountains it stands in and the woman discovers that people outside are dead. With a dog, a cat and a cow for company, the woman (who remains nameless throughout the book) faces all the difficulties of a live on her own, to her knowledge the last living being on earth.

At first glance, it's Robinson Crusoe on a mountain. At second glance, it's a voyage into the woman's The woman reacts like I think I would in many situations and this is a big part of what makes the book so enjoyable for me. She takes a lot of her strength out of the company of her animals, even though it also brings her a lot of worries and heartbreak, which I absolutely can relate to. I suspect that I might be happier sharing such a situation with animals than humans. Haushofer also has a gift for describing nature and the change of the seasons.

Despite all the sadness, it's an utopia. The woman struggles with her life behind the wall, but she also welcomes it. She never fully explores whether she is actually shut in and she never makes an attempt to break out (digging a tunnel would be possible). She talks about it, but doesn't do it, she seems content enough to remain in her little walled-off section of the world. It's not so wonderful that I would wish to join her right away, but it's idyllic enough to make me think: if it has to happen that way, this isn't too bad.

The 12 book for the Library Challenge.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Close this library

On Mondays, I work in a school library that is one of the few libraries I would be happy to see closed down. No-one in interested in the library very much and I don't have anything to do. Last year I finally managed to convince the head of school to give me a budget of 800 Euros to buy new books. It's not much, but at least it was a start – all the books in the library are 20 years old or older. I threw out a lot, but if I threw away everything that's out of date, all the shelves would be empty.

Last week, I asked how high the budget for the library would be for this year. To my absolute disbelief, I was asked if I needed to buy new books urgently.
I was totally speechless for a few seconds. How do these people think libraries work? Do I really need to explain to them that books don't update themselves, that you need to spend money if you want to keep a library up to date and attractive? It seems so.

I'm not sure if I really want a budget. If I don't get one, I can make a really good case for closing the library down or at least for not sending me there (I'm employed by the public library, not by the schools). To be honest, I would prefer spending more time in my Wednesday school library – the teachers there are actually interested in working with me and it would be great if I could open the library for three instead of just two days a week.

Book of Choice: The Art of Modern Mythmaking

75 Years of DC Comics by Paul Levitz

I saw this book first at Neil Gaiman's journal and I knew I had to have it. I love comics and I love reading about comics, so this was kind of a no-brainer. It's the most I have ever payed for a single book and it's worth every cent. The book is enormous, so reading it is a bit difficult unless you own a lectern (something I've always wanted), but it's simply gorgeous to look at and full of information. I have only just started reading it, but I already discovered several comics I had never heard of that I really must read.

75 Years of DC Comics by Paul Levitz
The size really brings out the beauty of the comics and every page is a history lesson in itself. It's fun to see the changes in styles and stories the years brought.

For comparison, that's a normal paperback ... looks a bit lost there
75 Years of DC Comics by Paul Levitz

Taschen has published several books on art in this big format and they are all worth buying (the one on DaVinci is amazing). It's my publishing house of choice when it comes to art books in general, as well. The books are as a rule well written, with high-quality prints and very affordable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Walter Jens

Demenz - Anschied von meinem Vater (Dementia - Taking Leave of my Father) by Tillman Jens is a very personal book. He writes about seeing his father deteriorate, from a man who couldn't live without writing and talking to someone who has trouble remembering even simple words. "My language has died on me", said Walter Jens. It's also a debate on euthanasia, something Walter Jens talked about publicly and wanted for himself.

The book created quite an uproar because many critics considered it impious to write about such a private matter. Walter Jens has been a cultural institution in Germany for many years, as an author, critic and literature historian, and it seems that some people would prefer to keep that picture of him intact.

I would disagree. Dementia (and Alzheimer) is very common and still it's something of a hidden disease. It's just not talked about. Why do feel people the need to hide it? Of course it's horrible to watch a loved one suffer from it, but keeping it secret won't make it any better. So I think we should be thankful for anyone who shares their experience, it can only serve to make people less helpless in the face of this disease.

The book also deals with accusations that Walter Jens had been a party member of the NSDAP and has kept silent about it for decades. The disappointment that his father never talked about this is very clear when Tilman Jens writes about this. This silence is a very German thing, though, both in the generation who were adults during the Third Reich and in the generation who experienced it only as children and teenagers. "In that whole Flakhelfer-generation, were there no little Nazis who believed - even for five minutes - in the Thousand Year Empire?"

This is the 11th book in the Library Challenge

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Artworks I'd Steal: De Dulle Griet

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Source: Wikipedia
I love Dutch painters in general and Pieter Bruegel the Elder is probably the one I like best, along with Bosch. He's also known as Peasant Bruegel to tell him apart from the other members of this immensely talented family. At first I wanted to write about Hunters in the Snow, but I've had enough of snow (maybe later in the year, when it's too hot).

De Dulle Griet is a figure of Flemish folklore., in English she is called Mad Meg. Legend has it that she led a group of women to plunder hell and she brings madness and violence wherever she goes. The painting may have been inspired by Dante's Inferno. Bruegel travelled to Italy and there's a good chance that he was introduced to Italian literature.

There's a lot to see in the painting and, like many Dutch paintings from that time, the meaning of a lot of things is lost or left to guesswork. If you look closely, you can see a woman tying a demon down to the right of Dulle Griet - that's a Flemish proverb for a brave or tyrannical woman.

But all metaphors aside, what touches me most about this painting is the way the Dulle Griet seems to walk through the mayhem and destruction like she is haunted or searching for something she has lost. She seems to ignore everything that's happening around here, focused on something only she can see. I think she's lost and running from the violence she's causing, but she won't be able to escape it.
There are speculations that Bruegel painted a schizophrenic. The way schizophrenics experience their surroundings as threatening and chaotic would certainly fit the painting and Bruegel was an excellent observer, even if the illness was not understood as it is today.

You can view a massive version of the painting at Artchive.com and I would recommend taking a look, otherwise you won't be able to see all the tiny details.
Some of the information here came from the excellent book What great paintings say by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book of Choice: Anatom of an Enigma

I've been fascinated by Francis Bacon ever since I saw his Screaming Pope, which I blogged about here. “Anatomy of an Enigma” by Michael Peppiat is the best book to read if you want to learn not only about his paintings, but also about his personality. He was an outrageous character who very much enjoyed meeting and spending time with a large number of people and who could effortlessly go from dining with a lord to hooking up with some East End criminal for sex. He in fact sought exactly this kind of contrast and thrived on it.

The title of the book is well chosen. Bacon always refused to talk about what his painting meant and he hid his influences very well. He also made a secret of his past and personal life, at least insofar that he didn't allow any biographies to be published while he was still alive.
There are a great number of stories about Bacon and it's probably easy to create a legend from those stories. What I like about Peppiat's book is that he paints a very vivid picture of Bacon, but I didn't have the feeling of reading some gossip column.

There's just one thing I don't like about this book and that's the fact that there are only a few reproductions of Bacon's paintings and that they are all in black and white. Colour is a very important part of Bacon's images, so I would recommend getting a book with colour reproductions to look up the paintings Peppiat references.

I searched for Francis Bacon on YouTube and I found some great stuff, for example this documentary

(there are six parts)
and this interview

and this

He's 74 in this last video. I was fascinated by the photos in the book and seeing him in those short movies is even more amazing.

This is the 10th book for the Library Challenge

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Duma Key

Edgar Freemantle comes to Duma Key in Florida after an accident that has cost him his right arm, parts of his memory and his marriage. He begins to paint and discovers that he not only has talent, but that his paintings have a supernatural side. Art created on Duma Key tends to leads its own live and it may be impossible to control or fight what Edgar has woken.

I have read everything Stephen King has written and I like most of it, with the exception of only a handful of books (Hearts in Atlantis and Lisey´s Story come to mind). He usually has me from the first sentence and I always have the feeling of returning to people I've known for a long time or getting to know people I like from the start.

Duma Key is no different, the characters are immensely likeable and the story has kept me up at night … just one more page. And another one. Forget about having to get up in five hours, what happens next?
It also scared the hell out of me. I mean really, sleeping with the light on-scary, which doesn't happen very often to me. The creatures who populate Duma Key are even more creepy because they are right out of a children's painting. The lawn jockey actually made it into my dreams. When the characters explore the island, I was torn between wishing them back to safety and the desire to know what exactly is going on – especially because I know King has no problem with letting characters die (and I love him for this).

This is the 9th book for the Library Challenge.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Horns of Nimon and Leisure hive

I just watched Horns of Nimon. All in all, not one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, the story pretty much failed to engage me. But I found myself very much amused by the overacting of Graham Crowden in the role of Soldeed.

watch on YouTube
Actually, he overplayed this scene as a joke, thinking it was just a rehearsal. The scene couldn't be repeated for budget reasons and had to stay in the final cut. I love it.

The Leisure Hive opens with the new title sequence and music. Oh my Goth, I thought, this is so 80s. The music is almost as bad as the score for Ladyhawke (but just almost, nothing can be as bad as this - awesome movie anyway). Most of music in the series is much better, though.
The Foamasi were pretty cool and the Argolin with their lifecycle countdown were a neat idea. So far, I liked this episode best of season 18 (I'm currently watching State of Decay).

The Risen Empire

The Risen Emperor controls a vast galactic empire. He is immortal and grants that immortality to chosen subjects, making his rule more a religion that politics. The Rix, a cult that creates AIs that encompass whole worlds and worships them as gods, has taken the Emperor's sister hostage. Captain Laurent Zai is leading the rescue mission and when it fails, it's a cause for the empire to wage war on the Rix. Both he and his lover, Senator Nara Oxham, are caught up in the politics and intrigues behind the war.

For me, the book had a slow start and I thought about putting it aside. Many characters are introduced and the point of view changes between them very often, I had problems getting to know the characters. But I kept reading and after about 100 pages, the book had me and didn't let me go until the end.
I enjoyed all the intrigues and scheming, trying to figure out what exactly is going on along with the characters. The fights are thrilling and I love the idea of using tiny ships that are remote controlled by pilots with a kind of synaesthetic virtual reality.

The character I liked most was Senator Oxham's house, an intelligent house that built itself and changed the landscape around it to suit its original owner's taste, only to wait in vain for him to move in. When the Senator buys it, the house is very eager to please and as worried about the comfort of its occupants as every human host. I laughed out loud at its dismay when the Senator and her guest decide to postpone dinner.

The Risen Empire was originally published in two parts, I read the German edition which contains both book. I have no idea where the first book ends and I would recommend getting both books at once or the one book edition if you are planning to read this.
I loved Westerfeld's YA books, the Ugly, Pretty, Special trilogy and the Peeps books. I If you like dystopian novels, the Ugly trilogy is worth reading and Peeps is a very unusual take on vampires. No glittering, but a lot more than you ever wanted to know about parasites.

This is my eighth book for the Library challenge and my third one for the Science Fiction challenge.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Susan, Evey and Rorschach

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Evey (the white one)
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Rorschach
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and Susan died today. Evey and Rorschach had developed enormous tumors and Susan had a rapidly growing one. I treated them for a while with painkillers, but today it was time. They all died peacefully from an overdose of an anaesthetic (usually, there's a second injection with a barbiturate, but it wasn't necessary).

Evey and Rorschach I adopted from a woman who couldn't keep them anymore because of her health. Susan came from the shelter, their owner abandoned them in a cardboard box. She was a very friendly and relaxed mouse who helped to teach Malkovich, a male who was alone for more than a year, how to behave like a mouse again.

I held them as they fell asleep and their hearts and breathing stopped and I managed not to cry until I was walking home through the park in the pouring rain.

Book of Choice: The Last Giants

I found this beautiful book in the children's section of the library, but it works just as well for adults. The English explorer Archibald Leopold Ruthmore sets out on a voyage to discover the lost Land of the Giants. He does eventually discover it and gets to know the very gentle giants whose bodies are covered with tattoos that change to tell stories of the past and the future.
Francois Place - The Last Giants
spoilers

Ruthmore lives with the giants for a year and after his return to England, he write an account of his travels and the giants. The book is very successful, but at the same time it's the death sentence for the giants. People flock to their hidden valley and kill the giants who have been left by Ruthmore in a deep sleep that would have lasted centuries.
Francois Place - The Last Giants
The book is written in the style of an old fashioned travel diary and it's beautifully illustrated. It's a modern fable about good intentions and how they are sometimes not enough. I'm not sure from what age on it would be suitable for children, but I do know that I enjoyed reading it very much.

This is my seventh book for the Library Challenge

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

RPG Gender Switch

I just came across this article at Rule of the Dice and it got me thinking. I had exactly two female characters in twelve years of roleplaying and none of them lasted very long. My gamemasters don't even ask anymore when it comes to character creation. I've been told several times that people can't imagine me playing a female, even by people who haven't played with me long. So why exactly do I do it?

I play a lot of semi-realistic historical games (like Cthulhu, the setting is actually very realistic) and women either behaved demurely or they were labelled as anything from suffragette to whore, but definitely someone who was not readily accepted, at least when you really want to keep things as realistic as possible. I'm not particularly interested in playing either end of the spectrum when there are male characters around to be played who have much more freedom. The fight for equality is not something I want to explore in an RPG. A really feminine character would definitely be a challenge for me to play, but I just can't get exited over the idea.

I'm also not particularly what is considered feminine. Sure, I've got hair down to my waist and I like to dress sharp when I go out, but I'm just as comfortable in cargo pants and combat boots. I love tanks and submarines, not shoes and Sex in the City. I get excited over going to the museum to see the Zuse computers. and I like bugs. I prefer a horror or action movie to a romantic comedy every time. Excuse all the clichés about the "typical" woman, I'm simplifying of course. But I've always been more comfortable with men and usually, few women I know (not counting online!) find the same things interesting that I like. So I'm just taking this a step further when gaming.

My characters have been gay as well as straight, it really depends on the setup and on the other players. The most fun was my male 7th Sea character who got involved with the female character of a male player. We ended up married, causing a bout of jealousy with his girlfriend and much amusement with Mr Bookscorpion.

In my groups, I've played with several other players who almost always play the opposite sex and with players who never switch gender. I think it's quite evenly balanced, at least for the men I've played with. I've only played together with one other woman for any length of time and she played a female character, so I can't say much about that. Maybe I'll ask around a bit and see why other people switch gender.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hey, would you like to ogle my shelves?

After seeing Jaquandor's bookshelf post, I used my free time this morning to actually sort through my own shelves, throwing out some books (gasp!) and creating space for my graphic novels.
My books are a bit fragmented right now since I carry them to and fro between my place and Mr Bookscorpion's place. Click to see the big version of the photos, in case you want to read titles and stuff.
Here are the shelves I have at his place, organised after the highly effective throw it all about-method. Yes, that's a Tribble.
book, bookshelf

and here are my own, alphabetically organised (Adams, Richard to Woolf, Virginia plus anthologies)
book, bookshelf
the trusted Guardian of the Gap keep an eye on the place where the other Sin City books are supposed to be. Next to the comics/graphic novels is my picture book collection (go and read Diary of a Wombat - it's hilarious). Mr Bookscorpion bought the Peter Rabbit hieroglyphics edition at the British Museum.
book, bookshelf

book, bookshelf
the Pratchett/Tad Williams collection is scattered because I'm usually reading them and I forget to put them back when I'm done...

these are the shelves for the books that fit nowhere else
book, bookshelf

William de Worde, update

"dwarf hamster", hamster, "Winter White dwarf hamster"
I made a few photos of William yesterday. He's really getting old, but not slowing down. His motor skills are deteriorating, he looses his balance and falls from the second levels and ramps, so I had to install railings. That doesn't stop him from running in his wheel, scurrying through his cage all night and eating voraciously (he doesn't gain weight, though).
"dwarf hamster", hamster, "Winter White dwarf hamster"