After my last report, I made a concerted effort to read the physical books in my unread stack. I managed to read six actual books, four of which were new, one old, and one borrow. I have two other physical books in progress, plus 11 more on the shelf. In that sense, it feels like I really haven’t made much progress, but four off of the new pile is a good thing.
As for my mini-reports, here it goes…
67: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – I noted that I would read this book last time. This is the graphic/comic novel/memoir by Alison Bechdel that relates her father’s life in the closet, which several incoming freshmen at Duke University declined to read because the graphic presentation of lesbian oral sex would offend them and their god. Now that I’ve read it, the graphic presentation wasn’t graphic in the pornographic sense, it consisted of simple drawings that didn’t reveal much – I’ve read written descriptions of lesbian sex that were more graphic than that presented in the graphic novel. As I think back to what it would have been like to read this as a fresh out of high school 18 year old, I get the ickiness factor: if you’ve never had cause to consider lesbian sex (and you’re a deep in the closet gay guy), then this book is going to throw you a lot of curve balls. But using “god” to hide from reading it is a pretty pathetic excuse. I’m willing to concede that not all people click with all books – certainly I have tried to read John Irving’s In One Person several times, but it just did not work for me. That’s a fine excuse, you tried, but it doesn’t click, but to hide behind your god is a pathetic excuse. This is a fine novel – a quick afternoon read next to the fireplace.
68: The Bookshop that Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw – I picked up this book while in the UK; I must have thought that it was a novel, not actually a memoir of Sarah Henshaw’s efforts to run a floating bookshop up and down the canals of the UK. Ultimately this book was a tremendous disappointment, without a strong story to tell – other than to discourage anybody from entering the business of running a bookshop on a floating barge.
70: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Beck Albertalli – this is a lovely coming of age and coming out novel aimed squarely at the youth of today, incorporating a conversation between Simon and one of his classmates at his school – a conversation via email, using fake names, but one that touches on everything challenging about being young and gay. It’s a very nice YA novel.
71: Economical Writing by Deirdre N. McCloskey – I borrowed this book from a colleague – this is, for budding economists, a nice essay about the best way to write a serious economics paper, all while imbibed with a sense of humor. Deirdre N. McCloskey is one of the most important economists out there, and her advice is mostly spot on. (Although she has lost the battle for two spaces after the period. That’s way passé, even if I do it myself.)
72: Nothing Pink by Mark Hardy – This was a reread, taken from my shelf – I needed something short to read and I couldn’t remember the book. It’s a nice coming of age, coming to terms with being gay story, centered on a guy who is the son of a preacher. Stories like this make me grateful that I grew up with was essentially atheist parenting.
73: Into the River by Tad Dawe – I read this book because it was in the news for a reason that ought to embarrass New Zealand: the book was banned after complaints by Christians. The Kiwi Christian group, “Family First” complained about sexually explicit content, drugs and ladies body parts being called by a dirty word. Such a review (and banning) brought me right to the book – and here’s the thing – it’s probably a fantastic book for New Zealand’s youth, but it didn’t speak to me. Sure there was sex. Yes drugs were abused. And yes, dirty words were used – but if the book was going to be read by the youth of New Zealand in an impactful way, it must use real words and realize the truth of daily life for teens. Would I read it again? Probably not. But I’m glad I read it – and if the ban holds, this is a huge stain on the reputation of New Zealand. Actually, the stain already exists – the question will become how permanent is the stain. Right now I wouldn’t want to move to New Zealand. Or spend money there.
74: The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi – I read this book for book club – what a fantastic book about what it is like to be a girl who is allowed to live as a boy so that, in rural Afghanistan, you can do things for your mom and sisters – women who cannot leave the home because they are women. It’s a fantastic novel.
75: Passing by Nellat Larsen – I saw this book mentioned in an article in Bitch and thought to myself, I should check it out – in a strange way, as I write this, it occurs to me that this is a lot like The Peark That Broke Its Shell, except that instead of dealing with an oppressive Muslim, misogynistic society, it deals with an oppressive racist society in the form of the United States. As a short novel it addresses what it is like to be a very light skinned black person, so light skinned that you are able to get into white only venues without being noticed. It’s a powerful novel that dates back to 1929. Highly recommended.
This weekend, for reasons I won’t really disclose here, a friend and I agreed to meet in Wolfsburg – a city just over an hour west of Berlin.
For most people it is notable because it is home to Volkswagon.
I’ll admit that when we agreed to meet in Wolfsburg, I had no idea what we would do there in our free time. There is only one well known attraction in the city, Autostadt (in English, Auto City), which is a mecca for all things Volkswagon. A quick perusal of the Autostadt website left me uncertain what one does there – but given that we had a day to hang out, it was what we decided to do.
When we planned this trip, we thought that we’d be visiting a dull little city in the heart of Germany.
Little did we know that it would be the epicenter of German news while were there after it was discovered that VW had manipulated, through software engineering, the emissions of its famous, environmentally friendly, diesel engines.
Which also excited me, because I was excited to see exactly how much VW talks about its diesel engines and its environmental record at Autostadt.
The answer is mixed.
There’s a whole floor of one of the buildings that is dedicated to the environment – where I learned that I am a climate asshole. (And, to be honest, I am: but if you cut out my air travel, my footprint would be tiny.) But, now that I think about it, on the green floor I cannot remember VW talking about exactly what it does for the environment, it’s more the bang the tourists over the head with reminders that they ought to be environmentally responsible.
Then, in the VW pavilion, there was a section dedicated to their BlueMotion efforts to improve diesel engine efficiency. But, uh, they didn’t really note that the engines ran on diesel. You had to read the labels on the cars to find that out.
Beyond that, the best piece of Autostadt was the building housing old cars – I fell in love with an old Bugatti that looks awesome, plus a number of other cars that were either beautiful or, if from the 1970s, hideous beyond all words.
I suspect that, at least for me, Autostadt is a one and done kind of destination. The city, itself, is pretty ugly. At one point I asked my friend whether or not Wolfsburg had been in East or in West Germany – the architecture in the city center would be right at home among the plattenbau apartments that scar East German cities.
And tucked into one of those really ugly buildings – a division of Volkswagon that had an especially bad week.
Late last week one of my friends told me about a recently released film that features Berlin: Victoria.
So I saw it Sunday evening – and while there are a number of impressive things about (like the fact that it was shot in exactly one take with one cameraman), ultimately I hate Victoria.
No, not the film, the main character, the raison d’être for the film.
Victoria is a petite, young, stupid, naïve, dumb, clueless, and generally idiotic Spanish girl who, because she is all of these things, makes a really stupid decision in the first 15 minutes of the film.
Admittedly without this decision, the film wouldn’t have a reason to exist – it would be over before it started. And I must admit that lots of literature and lots of films hinge on exactly one decision going one way, but usually it is believable because the motivation of the characters make sense; the set-up makes sense; the suspension of disbelieve is something that you, the viewer, willingly gives up.
And in what follows, there’s a pretty racy story line, complete with a bank robbery and police shoot-out.
But the thing is, Victoria, if she’d been a smart, actualized, and intelligent woman, would never have been there.
An intelligent Victoria – a petite Spanish girl who doesn’t speak German – would never have agreed to do anything with four large, muscular, thuggish German men who talked to her as she left an underground nightclub after a long night of dancing.
And the movie would have been over in 15 minutes.
Instead I spent the entire two plus hours hoping that something really bad would happen to her.
You can see the overhead power supply, and the cable guides.
For reasons that I would rather not go into right now, a couple weeks ago I did some research on Strausberg – the far east end of Berlin’s S-Bahn S5 route. While doing research about Strausberg, I really didn’t plan on visiting the place – which is a tiny bit of a lie: basically I have a plan to pass through it, maybe eating dinner. And then I learned about the Strausseefähre: Lake Straus’s Ferry, which is BVG route F39. Here’s the thing: I thought that I rode all of Berlin’s BVG ferries two summers ago, including the infamous rowboat, F24 (which I believe was saved from elimination thanks to the effort of many locals). But I hadn’t – to be fare, F39, although numbered as a BVG ferry, does not actually fall under BVG tariffs, so I had to fork over 1.30€ to ride it, each way. OK, to be honest, that news was probably not enough to get me to trek all the way out to Strausberg (the S-Bahn ride alone was an hour from Berlin’s main train station to Strausberg, plus a 15 minute tram ride… more on that in a minute).
What put it over the top for me is that, per Wikipedia:
The ferry is unusual in that it is electrically operated, with an overhead supply at 170 volts. This is believed to be unique in Europe, although ferries using a similar power supply exist in the United States.
Unique in Europe: an electrically powered, via overhead supply, ferry?
I was there. And so it was – some other events lined up in my life that caused me to head out to Strausberg bei Berlin this afternoon – out to enjoy the sites of Strausberg and – to be honest – doze a bit on the extremely long S-Bahn ride. The village is certainly picturesque, but with an apparent dearth of restaurants (I needed lunch; the options ranged from mediocre to “wish I had trusted my gut and not actually read the menu”) – and I tried to imagine myself living way the hell out there in something that is included within Berlin’s excellent public transportation network, yet not really anywhere near anything that I would consider to be part of Berlin.
At the other end of the ferry ride (not only electrically powered via an overhead supply, but also a cable ferry!), one is let off at “Strausberg Waldseite” – I gathered from the informative signs around the lake that this used to be a happening beach town with resorts of some kind positioned around the lake, but today there’s just not much there: it’s a ferry to hiking trails, or if you’re too lazy to actually walk around the (admittedly) medium sized lake.
I suppose that I could have walked around half of the lake, but ultimately I decided that given the extreme unlikeliness of my return to this village anytime in the near future (other than my future plan to pass through it and maybe eat dinner, although I hope that said “dinner” is better than the lunch choices I found around the ferry landing in the village’s center), to ride the ferry both ways.
The other thing that I did was ride Strassenbahn 89 – which is notable because the tracks are regular railroad width – even though it’s run as a normal tram. Unlike the ferry, Tram 89 is part of the BVG tariff system.
58: Tasi’s Gift: A Tale of Samoa by Tamara Montgomery (Illustrated by Joseph D. Dodd) – This is a children’s book that I picked up while in American Samoa – a very sweet, culturally appropriate children’s book that focuses on the importance of carving. It is beautifully illustrated in ways that reflect Samoan style.
59: The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte – This is a nice history of the incidents that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and how big of a surprise it was to not just East Germans, but to all the major players involved – Russians, Americans, West Germans, the mayor of West Berlin, and so-on. I suppose this history is innately known to those who grow up in Germany, but much of it was new to me, including talk about the Monday protests in Leipzig.
60: Court by Cat Patrick – A monarchy ruling Wyoming? Really? Yes! At least in this novel that is really, really, strange. It’s squarely a Young Adult novel, so I fell outside of the target, given the romances and focus on high school aged guys. Is this a great YA novel? No – but it is at least entertaining.
61: Giuseppe and Me by Robin Reardon – a GLBT YA story aimed at encouraging safe sex among teen agers – an admirable goal. And I like Robin Reardon’s writings, something that I’ve made clear throughout 2015.
62: The Little Lord of Life and Death by Fedor van Rijn – this is written by a friend, so I’ll refrain from saying anything here. If you’re a fan of Greek mythology, then you might enjoy this story.
63: My Favorite Uncle by Marshall Thronton – a nice YA novel about a comfortably living middle aged gay man who has the “pleasure” of having his gay teenaged nephew move in. The nephew had run away from home because his parents were not keen on their son being gay. Both halves of the household think it would be better if the other half was dating; what ensues is a comedy of mismatches. An enjoyable read.
64: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – This is a heavy duty, serious novel addressing racism in America. There are some other aspects, such as living illegally in the UK, but they are secondary to the main story, which examines racism from the perspective of an African living in the USA. It’s a deep story written, in part, in blog format (perhaps a few years too late, since I think blogging is, as an art form, de facto dead), where the main character reflects upon what it was like dating a white man, a black man, and other every day life.
65: Know Not Why by Hannah Johnson — This is a novel with romance tendencies, telling the tale of a 22-year-old closeted (and unaware) gay guy who takes a job in order to get laid – by women. He ends up dating his boss. This is an OK book, neither is it really well written nor is the plot completely thought out.
66: Decoded by Mai Jia – Unit 701 in China is critically important – I’m only half-way through this book and it’s awesome. With some caveats: the first third of the novel develops a genealogy that has not yet, as far as I’ve read, really meant anything. I think the material could all be dropped in favor of a briefer summary of the main character’s history.
Up Next: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Honestly, I probably never would have come across this book, if not for some naïve, and wishing to stay that way, freshmen at Duke University. I bought this book as a direct result of their protest, and will give it a shot as soon as I finish Decoded. Or maybe I’ll even read it at the same time.
Book I Gave Up on: In One Person by John Irving – While it is one thing to refuse to read a novel, it is another thing to try to read a novel and give up. In One Person is a book that I cannot bring myself to read, and I’ve tried twice. I think that I’ve successfully read one John Irving novel, but was not enchanted with it. This is simply a case where I’ve given it the good fight.
Last week I popped over to The Netherlands to visit colleagues, tackle a few ideas, and do another one of those odd touristic things that I seem to find, in this case visit the Euro-bridges.
The 5€ facade on the Bridges of the Eurozone.
Hello 10€ Bridge!
Back when the Euro was being developed, there was a conscious decision to not feature any real places on the banknotes – so each one of the seven bank notes (5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500) have a distinctive style (and color) – with the backside featuring a bridge in that architectural style.
The fictional objects were chosen so that no single Euro area country could stake a claim to the money – and it remained true until a few years ago.
Dutch, English, and… is that Japanese?
Here’s the 20€ facade.
At that point the city of Spijkenisse, an outlying suburb of Rotterdam, started developing a neighborhood that would need some bridges – and they hired somebody to turn fiction into reality.
Once I realized that the bridges existed and that Spijkenisse is, in fact, close to Rotterdam, it became my touristic activity for the trip to Rotterdam.
50€ Bridge. I bet it cost more than that to build it….
50€ hosts the information….
Thankfully one of my colleagues has a car because the area in question is probably a good 20-minute walk from the nearest Metro station, which itself is probably a 30-40 minute ride from the city center – this might be a developing neighborhood in a public transportation friendly country, but it’s not exactly on the beaten path.
100€ Note Bridge.
200€ – never seen one of the notes in person, but I have crossed the bridge.
There are, alas, only six bridges: one structure has the 5 façade on one side and the 20 façade on the other.
Naturally I hung out on the bridge that reflects my self-worth within the family of Euronotes.
I spent last weekend in Munich, hanging with people I adore — we did more than what appears in the pictures below, but I started having “issues” with my camera, and it wasn’t until after I reset it to factory settings that photos started working out again. Unfortunately most of the trip was over by then.
Munich has same-sex walk/don’t talk signals right now.
Swinging over the Eisbach River in Englisher Garten.
… and dropping into the Eisbach River.
Yeah… Kind of a creeper shot of a guy at the Englischer Garten, but I think it works.
48) The Evolution of Ethan Poe – Robin Reardon: This is actually a reread of a book that I bought a couple years ago (and in paper!) – I reread it because I read Educating Simon (2015 book number 42) by the same author and couldn’t remember this book. It was a good book about a teenager struggling with being himself, his brother, a political fight, and more. Robin Reardon has the teen angst novel down pat – and she works for me. I’m not Ethan Poe, nor was I Simon – not even close for either one, but her books struck a chord. I have one more to read – before I have to go find more.
49) Sons for the Return Home – Albert Wendt: I picked this book up at the American Samoa Community College bookstore upon the recommendation of the employees. It was the first novel by a Samoan writer and it explores what it was like to be Samoan, living in New Zealand, along with the racism involved therein. It’s actually a pretty heavy novel – not physically – that makes on think a lot about how people relate to people – as well as to some other issues that are still (sadly) issues today.
50) Phallological Museum – Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson: This is a short academically written, yet easily understood by idiots like me, treatise on the Islandic Phallological Museum. I bought the book a few months ago as a part of the early planning process for a trip to Iceland, which will, naturally, involve a stop at the Islandic Phallological Museum. The book is a whimsical, yet serious, take on what it is to have a penis museum, where it fits into society, what messages it sends, and what it includes. This is an amusing academic tomb.
51) Smoky Mountain Dreams – Leta Blake: This is an overly complicated, trying to express a diverse set of hang-ups, gay romance novel. It’s probably better written than the average gay romance novel, but not by much. It did, however, give me a break from some of the more serious stuff I’ve been reading.
52) Skyfaring – Mark Vanhoenacker: This book is pure poetry about the magic and awesomeness that is flying. The author doesn’t say who he works for, but it’s clear that he’s a pilot for British Airways – and through his book, he manages to convincingly share why flying is the most amazing thing ever. He describes how flight works, what it’s like to be on the move constantly, and… well, the book is just poetry.
53) Dorm Game – Daryl Banner: This is an average gay romance novel. To be frank between the time I read it and when I went to type this up, I’d forgotten what happened in the book. That probably describes what I think of the book….
54) The Gully Snipe – JF Smith: I like JF Smith’s books. His previous books have all been gay romance novels, of sorts – that I absolutely love and love to reread. This new book has some gay moments, but it’s not a gay novel. Rather this is a new series (and this is the first book in the series) that is building an epic fantasy world of sorts. I’m not normally into this genre, but he’s managed to suck me right into the world and I am looking forward to part two.
55) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – David Shafer: This is a currently popular (I do believe) novel, a sort of dystopian near future in which technology is about to take over the world. (It reminded me of Kingsman, the recent movie, to be honest.) It’s an engaging book without an ending. I was fine with the fact that the book has no ending, but reviews I glanced at on Amazon seem to disagree, violently. Will there be a sequel? No idea, but the ideas put forth in this novel are worth thinking about – and it brings back the notion that if you’re not paying for something on the web, then you are what is being sold.
56) The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins: This is, as many people note, the next Gone Girl. Reading this on Kindle was a bit confusing because each chapter comes from the view point of a different character – which I realized immediately – but at radically different moments in the calendar – which I did not realize immediately. Once I realized that I was jumping forward and backward in time, I got a better handle on what was going on. I can understand why this is a compelling, popular novel – but it isn’t great literature.
57) A Gathering Storm – Jameson Currier: Basically this is a fictionalization of the murder of Matthew Shepard – moved to a different location, with some different details – but the meta-picture is the same. It’s not especially well done, for what it is, but it was worth reading, at least from my perspective. It’s probably not, for most people, worth the time.
Clearly I am now only writing this for myself… and to record memories as they pop up.
I got my haircut today – haircuts are one of my absolute favorite things. There’s nothing quite so awesome as sitting in a chair, relaxing, getting a scalp massage, getting the hair cut, and getting the hair washed.
About half the time that I’m in the chair, I get so relaxed that I basically fall asleep.
Regardless, I always enjoy my haircuts and the ensuing conversations – this is true with everybody who cuts my hair, but especially those who I have a long-term relationship with – like my stylist in Berlin and my stylist in Bloomington. Both have admired each other’s work from afar, which is probably as close as the two will ever get to actually meeting in person.
But while I was sitting in the chair today, I remembered one of my favorite experiences in Bloomington.
Nothing specific about the conversation, mind you, but I had a terrific haircut and a terrific conversation – and once the haircut was finished, I stood up, walked to the front counter, made another appointment, and kept chatting.
It was a grand conversation – but like all good things, it had to come to an end at some point – so it did, and I left.
A few hours later, I was at home, thinking – and replaying my day, when it occurred to me that I didn’t remember doing something.
So I picked up the phone and called to ask a question:
Certificate of Mischief on right; Navajo rug on left.
It’s taken me awhile to finish up writing about my around the world trip, but this one dragged out because I was waiting for my local framer to finish framing my Certificate of Mischief.
You might recall (or not, because I don’t think many people are reading my blog) that last summer I had a long weekend in Montreal, where I found and fell in love with Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist who paints wonderful paintings that makes wonderful commentary on history and how it is interpreted.
I would love to own a piece of art by Kent Monkman, but I do not have enough money to do so – so I bought his Certificate of Mischief, which is now framed and on my living room wall, on what has become, accidentally, my native peoples art wall. It’s right next to a Navajo rug that I bought in New Mexico and under a drum I bought in Alaska, so it’s in good company.
The certificate was shipped to somebody in Toronto, who held it for me, until I could get there to see Kent Monkman’s major installation work, Casualties of Modernity. The work is on display at the Bank of Montreal headquarters, which, despite its name, appear to be predominately in Toronto. To see it, one must make a reservation.
Which I did – in fact, Casualties of Modernity became the icing on my around the world tour cake – what made the trip go from being super awesome to being super-duper awesome.
In this installation piece, which involves watching a video and examining the room where the piece is installed, Kent Monkman provides some powerful commentary on the state of art today – and where it is going and where it is coming from. The video part was hilarious as it made some deep points.
What amazes me about Kent Monkman and his work is how it connects to me. It’s pretty clear that I am not frequently, seriously, involved in art. While I enjoy looking at it, I am not one who can dissect it easily, nor do I have, generally speaking, “favorite” artists. Yet within seconds of seeing Trappers of Men at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I had jotted down his name for future reference. Then when I saw “Welcome to the Studio: An Allegory for Artistic Reflection and Transformation, 2014” at the otherwise completely unremarkable Musée McCord d’Histoire Canadienne, I tracked down a copy of a catalogue of his work. Then I floated away with happiness when I stumbled into The Night of September 12, 1759 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.
His work resonates with me in a way that I cannot easily explain and he is the only artist (outside of my personal friends) who is, for me, a destination artist.
I will go out of my way to see his work, in other words.
I'm an American living in Berlin, Germany -- which makes me an expatriate, not an ex-patriot. Before landing in Germany, I've lived in Denver, Colorado; Laramie, Wyoming; Bloomington, Indiana; and Weimar, Germany. If you want to write to me, feel free! The username is elmadaeu on the gmail.com service.