Category Archives: Books

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I shan’t write a review outlining the plotlines or anything like that. Rather, here are a few thoughts that came to me while reading and digesting Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel.

– This feels like it was written with television in mind. Maybe writing the doomed HBO adaptation of The Corrections put him off but I felt like Franzen’s multi-threaded style has evolved to feel like a really good TV show. Varied locations, time taken to develop a character who then disappears, only to resurface, and a combination of the highly visual and highly visceral. Franzen said that The Corrections had a ‘universe’ behind it with more characters and stories which he effectively edited out of the novel. I wonder if he didn’t consciously include more of these in Purity.

– The Corrections and Freedom felt like attempts to describe America and the world at specific historical moments. Purity feels no different in this respect. While it continues in Franzen’s now traditional way to analyse family life (most specifically a Larkinesque approach to what parents do to their kids), Purity also deals with the information revolution: the Internet. Franzen has been named a Luddite by many fierce defenders of the Internet for comments he has made over the years about things like how a serious writer would never write a novel on a computer connected to the Internet. These defenders get really upset by anyone criticising their revolution. In Purity, Franzen takes some time to explain his position and his argument that the ‘revolution’ of the internet – insofar as it applies to liberty – is as false as the ‘revolution’ of the German Democratic Republic, but just as totalitarian. His observation that Google, Facebook and Twitter are often hailed for defending ‘freedom’ principles while the NSA – which really is tasked with protecting the American system – is universally loathed, is provocative. And taking some time off from such things over New Year, it is difficult to point to any true value that social media brings to an individual’s life, outside of ego boosts.

– The idea of the Great American Novel is, in itself, a sort of Moby Dick (hurr hurr) for writers like Franzen. I don’t think he’s trying to deliver that with Purity, but I do appreciate that if he has come close, it’s with a Spanish culebron packed with German characters.

– Purity’s closing message fits with a popular analysis of inter-generational strife in the post-war half century west. Our parents’ generation have fucked everything up. And they had everything. Franzen adds to this a vital component of hope – he seems to trust the ‘millennials’ far more than many authors in his position do.

– I liked Pip as a lead character.

– I found Purity to be the funniest Franzen to date. Really laugh out loud funny at times.

– For some reason, I split my reading of the book between a visit to Berlin (which felt amazingly well-timed, seeing as I could now imagine the Frankfurter Allee and Friedrichshain while reading about them, and a trip to the Philippines (which is only mentioned once, and briefly, in the novel).

– In all, an enjoyable read.

Larry, crate training and the Genius of Dogs

It seems like the goddess of spring had a lot planned for me this year. I’m no longer working where I used to work but instead have quite a lot of time on my hands. While looking into master’s courses at the local university, I’ve also been reading quite a bit about canine behaviour and intelligence. It’s a fascinating subject, but I’m probably over-fascinated because of Larry. He’s a Spanish Water Dog and he moved in with us around a week ago aged 8 weeks. Here he is with a toy I got him the other day:

Larry with his toy

While I grew up with a dog (Jack) and my mum has two dogs (Rosie and Skippy), I’ve never actually trained a puppy. It’s a big responsibility because I want Larry to be well behaved at home and outside, and a great walking partner. So before he arrived, I started to seek out advice and that’s when I stumbled upon crate training.

Crate training seems to be the big trend in the USA at the moment, and it’s popular in England too. Many of the kennel clubs and dog websites recommend it as a ‘must do’ element of training a new puppy. The amazing thing about it is that crate training really consists of keeping your puppy locked up in a small cage for hours on end and ‘rewarding’ it with moments of freedom.

I’m really quite shocked by how popular crating seems to be. As with many other barbaric ways that humans treat animals, its adherents are viciously defensive of the technique. Which reminds me of Louis CK’s story about pony punching  which ends with the delicious line: “People who don’t punch their ponies in the face make me sick”.

In my studies, I’ve been re-reading parts of In Defence of Dogs and I’ve stumbled upon The Genius of Dogs – and both make for good reading even for a non dog-owner. The latter’s updated theories about the process of how wolves became domesticated are particularly interesting.

Spring is as good a moment for changes as any other and dedicating time to reading, training a dog and considering my academic options seems like a good investment.

Review: The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

I spotted The Map and the Territory in FNAC Barcelona a day before going on vacation. I suddenly remembered other Houellebecq novels I’ve enjoyed on holiday, such as Atomised and Platform and despite the French entertainment store’s relatively high prices for books printed in English, I immediately added it to my basket, along with a book by David Lodge and Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

FNAC’s entire pricing structure seems to be totally at odds with its original mission, that of a sort of cooperative capable of bringing literature to Paris’s working classes at affordable prices. Of course, the original project became a public limited company in 1980, which was probably the beginning of the end for any ethical beliefs its founders may have attempted to imbue the firm with. As soon as you get shareholders involved, it seems, your values mean very little.

I started to read the novel as soon as my vacation began, which is to say as soon as the Balearia ferry Martín i Soler left the dock at Barcelona’s ‘old port’. I ensured that I had a can of Voll Damm lager and a packet of Ducados cigarettes close at hand. I always find that smoking Ducados cigarettes helps me enjoy the act of reading a little more and despite the obvious health risks, I take particular pleasure in the ritual of smoking and reading, reading and smoking. Besides, I like the blue and white of the Ducados packet, and the green of the Voll Damm can especially when placed on a white ferry table, and especially when viewed from behind my imitation-tortoiseshell foldable Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses.

What makes Houellebecq’s book particularly engaging is its humour. This starts with a withering, albeit apparently love-rooted, mockery of the art world and the Paris scene in particular. But it is when the author introduces himself as a character in the book that things get really funny.

What I prefer, now, is the end of December; night falls at four o’clock. Then I can put on my pajamas, take some sleeping pills, and go to bed with a bottle of wine and a book. That’s how I’ve been living for years. The sun rises at nine; well, with the time it takes to wash and have some coffee, it’s almost midday, so there are four hours left for me to hold out, and most of the time I manage without too much pain. But in spring it’s unbearable. The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and I thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell.

– says Houellebecq’s character after proposing dinner at 6:30 pm in a chain pub. He goes on to talk about how he spends the rest of his time in Thailand, enjoying the brothels.

There’s also a quote that I can’t currently find where the painter, Jed, discusses with his father the qualities of Houellebecq’s analysis. It’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever read.

Get this book, and read it. The Map and the Territory: 1/1

I’ve also posted this review on he Goodreads website, which I’m currently trying out.

Going off-grid – a necessity or a self-imposed exile?

Vacation time approaches.

This year, I’ve made the decision not to take the various items of personal computing technology that I normally use multiple times every day. No iPad, no MacBook Air, no movie library, ebooks, digital magazines, Ara subscription, Seinfeld episodes…* and my phone will be switched off except when I call my parents on my birthday. Real books? Yes. MP3 player? Yes. But that’s it. The aim is to achieve about 3 weeks of non-connectivity, what some people call going off-grid. Why? Because I spend so much time every day looking at and interacting with a screen of some sort that I really feel like it’ll benefit me to go all early 90s on my brain for a while.

Part of me feels a definite need for disconnection: sometimes I’m not sure I can take another day of reading asinine comments on Cif about how if the Spanish had worked a little harder, they wouldn’t be in crisis currently. I lack the self-discipline to disconnect on ordinary days and I do feel that I should take advantage of the time away to just not worry about that stuff so much.

But is that true or am I just imposing a sort of analog fast on myself for no reason other than I think it makes me feel clever? And would that be such a bad thing anyway? And wouldn’t I probably do my body and brain more good by simply giving up wine for three weeks (which isn’t going to happen… not on vaycay anyhow)?

Mention disconnecting for a few days at work and generally you get a knowing “Oh that sounds so amazing we really do spend all our time in front of computers, right?” sort of response. But one of my colleagues, tech blogger Elena, simply shrugged and asked me why? Why bother?

I read an essay (or rather, book review) a few months back that talked about the way our brains are physically changing thanks to the internet. That’s not as grave a thing as it sounds: our brains physically change thanks to all sorts of stimuli and systems we subject them to. But given that we, you and I, represent probably the last generations for a long time who’ll have spent at least some time growing up without ubiquitous computers, I think it’s interesting that I can even consider see-sawing back into my early internet-free headspace. I guess my little sisters wouldn’t understand the point. Elena doesn’t, so clearly her brain is younger and more advanced than mine. But I do feel there’s something to be said for at least experimenting in changing one’s habits from time to time. I think I’m the kind of person who can only do so radically.

I’m no luddite. I adore technology and my career is based on understanding, using and thinking about it all the time. So I don’t agree with Jonathan Franzen when he says that Twitter is stupid. I like Jonathan Franzen’s writing… and I do think that great writers have an important secondary role as geist critics. But I also love Twitter and blogs and the internet. That said, perhaps I actually am just a secret traditionalist trapped in the body of an information technologist? Perhaps when I warn colleagues not to get too nostalgic, I’m less worried about them confusing our readers and more worried that I’ll slip up and start writing about how great the old days were. Maybe I secretly yearn for a world without the internet? Maybe I really just think that I’m being way cleverer than you?

Is going off-grid then a sort of cultish fast that I’m just telling myself I should go through? Will it really benefit me to revert to pen and paper for the notes I’ll have to write, and just hard copies for the research I plan to start while in Menorca? Is self-imposed exile necessarily such a bad thing? You see, I already have too many questions to try and answer, and the internet won’t help with that.

I’m going to give it a try. If anything, maybe going off-grid for three weeks will help me focus and remember how to write in a way that doesn’t produce a jumbled mess like this blog post.

The apartment we’ve rented has a TV, anyway.


*Burglars: I will be depositing all said computer equipment in a safe place. So don’t even think about it.

How I resolve to live in 2012

New Year resolutions are generally just a list of regrets from the year before: “actually quit smoking”, “lose weight”, “find a man”. A litany of past failures presented as optimistic hurdles that will ruin the year to come. Here’s my list of non-regret-fuelled resolutions for 2012.

  1. Learn Jazz. I’ve been listening to jazz for years and feel like I need to spend some quality time this year learning its history and how it works so that I can better enjoy it in years to come.
  2. Do poetry. I used to love reading and writing poetry and realised recently that it had been out of my life for a decade or more. I should fix that.
  3. No smoking indoors. While I haven’t yet smoked a cigarette this year, I now pledge not to do so in our flat. I will smoke in bars if Rajoy leaglises it, though.
  4. Read at least one book in Catalan and one in Castilian too.  2012 marks 10 years since I moved to Barcelona. I ought to progress beyond shoddy newspapers.
  5. Find new living quarters in Gràcia (or even Poblenou); swim regularly; eat less meat; visit Paris and Lisbon… (these items are perhaps the regret-laced resolutions I warned of).


Have a fun, safe and happy 2012.

How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer


Victorian adventurers rarely took a step into the wild without hauling a small library of how-to-explore books with them. Among the volumes Burton carried into East Africa was a heavily annotated copy of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Originally conceived as a handbook for explorers, and sponsored by En-gland’s Royal Geographical Society, the book was required reading for any self-respecting Victorian traveler. Before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the hard business of exploring, he could turn to page 134 to learn the best way to do exactly that:

When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt-sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside-out, but outside-in—the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.

The amiably neurotic Galton left nothing to chance. His index is studded with gems like “bones as fuel” and “savages, management of.” If Burton couldn’t find the advice he was looking for in Galton, he could always consult one of the other books in his trunk that were written with explorers in mind.

I’m really into this stuff at the moment. As Trevor at Kalebeul has pointed out a million times, there is a ton of material like this to read over at Google Books.

See also: this Salon review of Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘Arabian Sands’ which is on my reading list RIGHT NOW. I’ll write more about exploration and travel soon.

Osama bin Laden and the power of nightmares

A couple of days ago, I read what in retrospect was a fortuitously timed article on After detailing Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora, Tim Lister ended by noting that OBL probably wasn’t hiding in the ‘tribal’ area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at all. He reckoned that the fugitive might be holed-up in the wilds of Kunar, a remote zone that includes places where “no man has set foot”. Lister was, as we know today, only half right. Osama bin Laden was actually hiding near Islamabad in what seems to have been relative comfort. He was shot dead last night by US special forces.

So the era of bin Laden at #1 on the FBI’s most wanted list (he was already there when the September 11th 2001 attacks happened), is over. I can’t help but feel that it makes little difference now. Because America has already accepted mortal head wounds as ‘justice’, permanent internment camps as ‘security’, and permanent war as normality.

Adam Curtis’s film “The Power of Nightmares” dealt with the twin forces of militant Islamism and neo-conservatism that ended up shaping much of the current geopolitical landscape. Together (and they must always be taken together, for they needed each other desperately), they succeeded in causing probably over a million deaths, most of which occurred in the middle-east. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you try to get hold of a copy. UPDATE: As Erik points out in the comments below, the film is available to watch or download for free at the Internet Archive.

If all this is making you nostalgic for the days of “Get this!” Iberian Notes, check out this online novel which features a familiar-sounding character. It’s eerie.

More national policy soon. Until then, sleep well: they haven’t invented their new nightmare yet.

Review: Barcelona – City Of Crime by Larry Kovaks

Barcelona - City Of Crime

Barcelona has something of a reputation when it comes to crime. Which is what you’d expect from any Mediterranean city packed to the rafters with tourists, sailors, hookers and grifters. It’s not exactly a dangerous place (Barcelona has a very low homicide rate) but plenty of bags get stolen and plenty of people get gypped. And that’s exactly why this city needs someone like Larry Kovaks whose latest (and first) book, City Of Crime, tells the story of one man’s fight against the ne’er-do-wells and miscreants (‘gypmeisters’) of the Ciutat Vella.

Consisting of a series of stories set in Barcelona’s old quarter, City Of Crime introduces the reader to the scams, tricks and mischief that take place right under any visitor’s nose. From illicit Chinese brothels (one has recently opened here in Cerdanyola, so the flyposted adverts say) to villainous dwarves, Kovaks lays bare the criminal heart of the city as well as its sordid underbelly, all in the gravelly voice of an American b-movie detective.

Kovaks, both the author and the star of the book (though I suspect that editor Andrew Minh deserves some praise for his work on the text), is an impressive beast of a man. His girth is only outsized by his quick wit (for the most part) and possibly his disgust with the bad boys and girls of Barcelona’s underworld. Fuelled by Ducado cigarettes, Voll Damm beer and Mascaró brandy, Kovaks fearlessly confronts the Tracksuit Mafia through the cold, piss-streaked streets of the Raval, like an 18-stone angel.

Much of the material in City Of Crime has been published on the web, both at Kovaks’s own website and in the pages of The New Entertainer. However, that shouldn’t deter readers from buying the printed edition which is attractively bound and features a brand new installment, The Danger Of The Perfect Brunette. My only criticism of the book would be that some of the earlier stories are somewhat short: this is a character who really comes into his own in the longer episodes.

A joy for residents of the Catalan capital and a forewarning for visitors, City Of Crime left me hungry for more. We can only hope that Kovaks, wherever he may be, gives us more of the goods in future editions.

Barcelona – City Of Crime by Larry Kovaks – 1/1
Buy the book online from Lulu here.

Things I like: O alienista (The Psychiatrist)

About eight years ago, I lived in Fremantle, Western Australia. I had a great time there, working as a door-to-door salesman (more on this in the future), getting into scrapes, going clubbing and listening to Royal trux and the Flaming Lips. I also indulged my habit of wondering around second-hand bookshops looking for new, interesting books that I thought I’d enjoy.

One such book was a collection of Latin American short stories edited by Thomas Colchie (it’s still available second-hand from Amazon or you could spend a pleasant afternoon in an actual shop, looking for it). The anthology is packed with moving and amusing stories by writers from all over Latin America, translated into English. At the time, I knew nothing about Latin American authors (still don’t, really), except that I had enjoyed the dreamy romance and masculine mendacity of Love In The Time of Cholera.

I devoured the collection and have read it several times since. But one story I always come back to, and must have read nine or ten times now is The Psychiatrist (O alienista) by the famed Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. First published in 1882, The Psychiatrist tells the story of one Dr. Simão Bacamarte, a famous physician who decides to start studying psychiatry. He constructs a mental hospital in the town of Itaguaí and begins the process of committing those who appear to be mentally ill according to his theories.

The story is an obvious metaphor for the abuse of science, power and authority on the part of Bacamarte but it’s also a stinging (and hilarious) indictment of bureaucracy, populism, demagoguery and selfishness. Another fascinating aspect of the story is that even though it was written in the 1880’s, if not before, it seems to gently foreshadow much of the madness that was coming with the century ahead.

In turn funny and thought-provoking, O alienista is also helped along by the very modern direct-narrative form employed by its author. Machado de Assis had a very interesting background as he was apparently the son of a mulatto housepainter and a Portuguese washerwoman, not an upbringing which one would expect to produce a famous writer and journalist (at least, not in the 19th century). His writing is clear, simple, witty and absorbing and The Psychiatrist almost feels like it might have been written in 1952.

If you’ve not been lucky enough to enjoy this fine piece of literature, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s almost certainly available in numerous anthologies and if you find a copy of Colchie’s, it’ll be accompanied by a fine selection of great Latin American writing.

Update: Apparently, you can still buy the anthology I have, published under a different title.