Monthly Archives: September 2010

200 Word Review: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

I capture the castle

This book was about as charming as an orphaned kitten playing with a ball of twine while it’s adoptive mother, a goose named Roger Snorkelbaum, looks on. I wish this book were a vacation that I took, or a room in my house that I could go to when writing goes badly (every day). As the cover promises, it is very romantic. Although that is not why I bought it. I bought it because Dodie Smith also wrote 101 Dalmatians, and for that alone she should have been made some kind of saint.

You know what? I don’t have any bad things to say about this book. Except about Rose, the sister who gets all the men and attention, and is generally just a huge asshole. The story’s one failure, I think, is that we never understand why someone hasn’t taken the initiative of pushing her out a window. Oh, and I suppose that bear episode isn’t exactly…plausible.

Part of the wonderfulness of the book is that it’s so familiar: it’s a fairly conventional story told in a vibrant voice. I guess it says something about a book when you feel so much affection for everyone in it (except Rose) that your main reaction is just “I want to hug you”. Recommended for sick days and just-kinda-blegh days.



Molly Recommends


Absurdly, another month has passed. Molly has book recommendations for the beginning of fall. She wanted to tell you to read Milton’s Paradise Lost because it is about the FALL of man. Get it?

I shot that down because puns are basically the second lowest form of humor after imitation, which is what we do every month when Molly imitates a book critic. Too high.

Molly is excited for fall because she suspects that now that the horrifying heat of summer is gone, I will once again take her out on the greenways so she can whine every time she sees a dog every thirty seconds. Soon it will be winter and her hopes will have been utterly crushed.  Don’t think that I enjoy this, you guys. I’m a good person and not even that crazy.

In October, Molly and I will be driving down to Florida again, and, presumably, at some point we’ll be driving back. We might also go down to the Dominican Republic. Just kidding! Only I will do that. And then in November we’ll be up in New York. Kidding again! Oh, Molly, don’t look so sad.

Oh, right, that’s just how your face is. 

Just like mine is fixed in a slight sneer. Don’t take it personally, person who just expressed an opinion in front of me!

A lightweight list for those of you doing lots of travelling, as Molly and I are:

-Anything from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series. Or his Hot Water.

-Molly loves a good mystery, and Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc series is pretty great if you’ve ever wished you were in Paris watching someone get murdered. Molly reads for the atmosphere more than the mystery.

– Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens is good, sacrilegious fun.

-Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is about espionage and vacuum cleaners. Molly found it terrifying. It’s also legitimately literary, so you don’t even have to hide it on a Kindle or feel ashamed when the guy on the plane next to you is reading something by Jhumpa Lahiri. You can be all "Ooooh, aren’t you special, guy? A book by a brilliant woman. What are you, some kind of feminist? Big deal. See what I’m reading? Fidel had mild objections to this."


On the docket

Tomorrow, I'm going to get my fall reading list for school, and then you'll get nothing but close, careful readings (not really) for like two months. I have so many books I'd planned to read before this happened. I think I have time to read at least one more thing before my books actually arrive in the mail, what with my procrastination and the USPS. Here are the books that I am considering maligning and misinterpreting before The Great Reading descends upon me:

"I Capture the Castle"

"At Swim-Two-Birds" (I started this, but I'm not fully committed)

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

A mystery, which might be either "The Terra-Cotta Dog" or "Death at La Fenice"

Oh, and I still need to read "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper"

This reminds me that I own a whole lot of stuff I haven't read. I think this begs the questions: why do I still buy books?

I don't have an answer, except to say that I'm definitely going to get to "The Charterhouse of Parma" someday. And "Magic Mountain". And if I don't own them how can I get to them? What am I, a list-making magician?

Berlin and “The Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood


Ah, Berlin! My favorite European city of all. It rains all the time, the people can seem, um, brusque, and the airport may or may not be on fire when you visit. And yet, somehow, within the first day I was there it had totally won me over. How?


Juan angel

The answer is low expectations. Or none at all. I guess when I visited in 2008, Berlin hadn’t really been a part of my imaginative landscape. I had no idea at all what it would look like, or how I would feel there. I love how full of contrasts the city is, with its eastern and its western halves, with its blowzy old apartment blocks, drab communist-era offices, renovated 19th century museums, and hyper-modern new construction all jumbled up together. I love how gracious the parks are, and yet how casually maintained, so that you can almost picture the dark, Northern forests that must have existed long ago in the heart of the sprawling city. I love how you can spend an hour on the train to Potsdam and never leave the city. I love that stepping off the plane in November, you understand instantly how Germany gave us the word ‘angst’. I love that I didn’t eat one bad meal. I even like how you’re always aware of the long, awful history of the city, which is bizarrely highlighted and suppressed at once: the general awfulness brought out, the particulars tucked away, but always there.   

When I travel, I like to have a solid place to stay and a really good guidebook, but beyond that, I prefer to make plans on the ground. I think it’s hard to predict what you’re going to want to do before you have a feel for a place’s public transport. Until you know whether you’re going to get lost every time you get on a train (this side-eye is for you, Paris*), or whether you’re going to be harassed by drunk people and singers (hi, New York), or whether repairs are going to turn your one-hour trip into a three-day ordeal that will find you walking out of a subway tunnel, covered in grime and despair like one of the mole people, you may want to hold off. I guess it’s a surprise to no one that Berlin has excellent public transport, that no one jaywalks, and that its bike-riders and pedestrians have a relationship that is almost (I mean, come on) not murderously hostile.

I found the food to be inexpensive and really, really good (try a donner kebab and some currywurst, street-food lovers), and our hostel was the Best Hostel I Have Ever Stayed At. I remember that at the time, I wished I had a blog so I could talk it to death on the internet. SO NOW I AM GOING TO. On my book blog. You know, whatever.


Juanana steps
Here is a picture of my brother and I, not in front of the hostel. I didn't know I'd need one. What am I, psychic?

It is called the EastSeven Berlin Hostel, and it is in Mitte, which is part of what used to be East Berlin. I loved this part of town. Berlin is a real megamonster of a city, and I didn’t see it all, so I’m not going to make any claims like “it’s the BEST”, but it was great. And the hostel is literally two blocks from the subway. Stay there.

Also, if I had to pick one museum (but WHY?) to go see, it would probably be the Gemäldegalerie. It’s got a lot of late-Medieval/early-Renaissance art (the collection actually covers the 13th to the 18th centuries). Stay with me here. It’s small, so you can see it in an hour or two, it’s beautifully curated, with really good information on the audio tour, and it’s in a super-modern, cool building. The reason I recommend it is that I think they do a really good job explaining and creating an appreciation for Medieval art, which, I, for one, used to always breeze past while singing ‘boring, boring, boooring’. As much as I love a sprawling get-lost-for-days museum, there’s something really wonderful about a small museum that doesn’t overwhelm you, but instead makes you think deeply about a single thing in some way that you hadn’t before. 

Juan playground


Low expectations may also have been why I enjoyed the hell out of The Berlin Stories. I made a point not to read too much about it beforehand. People on the internet seem pretty divided about the book: it’s either one of the best books of the 20th century, or a boring, impersonal story that depends for its depth on what the Nazis ended up doing in Germany (the stories are all set in Berlin in the 30s).

The Berlin Stories is actually two books in one: The Last of Mr. Norris, which was a novella and my favorite, and Goodbye to Berlin which was a collection of short stories. I found the narrator (actually, there are two separate narrators, but they’re so similar that it’s almost pointless to separate them) really witty, and the prose sings. It’s true that both books are written in such a way as to be both highly personal (first person, written almost like a diary, and there’s a strong sense of the narrator’s voice) and oddly resistant to personal detail. We find out almost nothing about the narrator except that he’s English, fairly high-born but poor, that he’s an English teacher and an aspiring author, and that he’s (probably) gay. The narrator has no real stake in any of the stories he tells, and no expressed desires beyond the quotidian ones and capturing the things that happen to him in writing. He’s a foreigner, and can leave at any time. He’s a communist, but never gets into any real trouble. He’s mostly untouched by all the drama unfolding around him. At the same time, because the stories are in the first person, the other characters we read about remain inscrutable most of the time. The books work because these are stories that are less about a single character than about the character of the city. There’s this sparkling, frenetic, sexually-charged demi-monde that comes to life mostly at night, populated by charming, but also ghoulish people, and then underneath all this fizzy light-headed sensuality and partying there’s a sense of some awful doom descending very slowly. A sort of gradual suffocation.

On first reading, The Last of Mr. Norris was the more effective of the two books. Mr. Norris is a decadent, effete con-man with a penchant for S&M, collecting pornography, fine underwear, and hand-made jam. Excellent! The narrator meets him on a train from the Netherlands, and from the beginning, Mr. Norris is surrounded by a lot of mystery, and not many answers. His (somewhat ridiculous) intrigues serve mostly to transmit to the reader the persecution, paranoia, and tangled politics of the time: the sense that Mr. Norris is trapped like a gleefully oblivious insect on a spider’s web, each twitch towards freedom drawing his awful fate closer. The greater length of the novella gives Isherwood time to really build up a sense of foreboding and menace, and because we find out he’s a con-man early on, we expect for Mr. Norris’s actions and motivations to be something other than what they seem. Our lack of insight becomes an asset.

One of the things that I liked best about reading these two little books was that they provided a nice counterpoint to the stuff you’re always told in writing programs about how stories don’t work unless you have at least one character that you get really close to. I also like that the narrator has no strong desires and isn’t the source of conflict. I think if someone brought this in to a workshop, even I’d be like “oh, why are you telling it from this guy’s point of view?” Reading something from a critical place completely changes how you judge it. It’s always great to be reminded that some things that shouldn’t work still can.

There’s a wonderful write-up about The Berlin Stories on The Millions (I’m definitely going to be reading this book again), and an interesting piece about how what it captures of Berlin’s soul is still mostly true.



*This was actually just one time, but, I was only fifteen and instead of taking me to Versailles, the train took me to the Zombie Apocalypse. True story. I had to wait until I was 20 to see Versailles. OH, THE HUMANITY.

Looking at the Lyrics: “Hot Toddy”

You guys, I have been having a really hard time figuring out what the lyrics to that newish Jay-Z/Usher song are. Because as I was listening in my car for about the 44th time today, I thought, “Surely—SURELY—these men are not singing an ode to the traditional Scottish cold-remedy.” But they were. Except it’s a euphemism for sex. Of course it is. I cannot wait for the day that I am sick and when I try to google a cold remedy, I get a bunch of results like “Baby dancing to hot toddy” and “Dog drinking whiskey HOT TODDY!!1!!!” and “Hot Toddeez EXPOSED vol. 17”, which is a porn (you don’t say!). In the spirit of helping artists stay away from my colds, I have come up with a list of other things that are not currently metaphors for sex, but could be:

Typing her keys.

Taking the snooze off the alarm.

Lunchbox full of goodies.

Making a deposit in the piggybank. (Piggybanking it).

These are just the things I have come up with looking around my room for 15 seconds. Are they all winners? Absolutely.

To recap, if anyone writes a catchy song about vaporub or Kleenex and it is a euphemism for sex, I will be extremely disappointed in all of you.

Also, for those of you who are nerds like me, the chorus from “Hot Toddy”:

I’m like oh Kimosabe
Your body is my hobby
We’re freakin’
This ain’t cheatin’ as long as we tell nobody
Tell your girls you’re leaving
I’ll meet you in the lobby
I’m so cold, yeah I need that hot toddy
Hot toddy (hot toddy)
Hot toddy (thought I’d never fall in love, thought I’d never fall in love)

Reading Rory Maclean’s “Stalin’s Nose”

Stalin's nose

It’s strange to read a book that makes you feel repelled by and nostalgic for its subject matter all at once. Especially one that features a pet pig.* If I had to pick a single word to describe Stalin’s Nose it would be probably be ‘melancholy’. It’s always been marketed as a travel book, but it isn’t really. Or it is, but that’s not the point. It’s barely even factual. Instead, it’s a meditation on the political hysteria of the 20th century in Europe: the way different ideologies swallowed up perfectly nice people and turned them into….Nazis, among other things. The people in this book are like a Baskin Robbins of extremism: 31 flavors or more. Not that that tendency is unique to the 20th century, or Europe. We’re all such joiners.

I’ve been wanting to take a trip to Eastern Europe for a long time, preferably in a really shitty car, preferably starting in Berlin, so you can imagine that a book about a car trip that begins in Berlin and ends in Moscow, and features multiple car-breakdowns, would be ALL up my alley. But of course, this book was written in 1991, and Maclean may as well have visited the surface of Mars, as far as replicating his journey today goes. Not that you’d necessarily want to. He transports a corpse and an eccentric aunt named Zita through the blasted landscape of late-Soviet industrialism. Really, it sounds like the apocalypse. And yet, can you imagine visiting a place that had been essentially closed off to Westerners for two generations? There’s such ambivalence towards democracy and capitalism from the people Maclean meets. Maybe because in so many of the places he visits, nothing has really changed with the retreat of communism. At least not yet. We tend to stay the same even when our ideologies, or names, or homes change. Wherever you go, there you are. It’s interesting, in the age of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and self-actualization, to read a travel book that reminds you that that’s still mostly true.

Which reminds me: I have been craving a chicken finger sub with provolone cheese, mayonnaise, and sautéed onions for eight years. Why hasn’t this delicious assault on your circulatory system ever made it out of the Northeast? I WILL WRITE A TRAVEL BOOK WHERE I GO THERE AND FIND OUT.

*I lied.