Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?

 

Why Am I Reading Bond?

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Not ‘why (you should) read Bond’, but ‘why (on earth) am I reading Bond’?

They’re as dated as you might expect. Bond is a terrible spy, mainly achieving his goals by stumbling into coincidences or being invited to work for the villain (at least once once in an admin role, of all things). Dei ex machina all over the place. The sexism and racism are indefensible, a product of another age maybe, but still appalling. So I should have a pretty solid reason for ploughing through the oeuvre, right? If only.

It’s the covers.

Vintage did a great job with these covers, IMHO – and despite what this guy sez – fulfilling their brief of emphasising the “cool and clever nature of Bond” (hmm but ok).  They work brilliantly as a set.

The designs are plain, the typography fantastically inventive – see the negative space jewel in Diamonds Are Forever or On Her Majesty’s “Secret” masked by “Service”. The influence of Saul Bass is clear.

Those covers had leapt out at me when trawling through Foyles, but I only picked up Casino Royale. But then I stumbled across For Your Eyes Only in a second-hand bookshop, and the damage was done. How could I have books 1 and 8 in a series and not fill in the gaps?

They are an easy enough read, a curious window into the post-war English psyche. They’re packed with lavish descriptions of quality clothing, food and drink. The phrase “and a round of hot buttered toast” will be uttered by Bond at least twice per book. God help me, whenever Fleming turns to driving action, I can’t help but hear the words in the golden tones of broadcaster, Alan Partridge.

The hard part is the attitudes of the time. The sexism is cast in that ancient mode of misogyny-masquerading-as-idolatry. The racism is jingoistic, imperialist, Bond looking indulgently down on black people, all Americans, and Italians alike. Fleming uses the fig leaf of tokenism, always an admirable exception, the worthy Turk who nonetheless slips willingly into sidekick-hood.

(There’s no explaining away these two issues, they do leave a bad taste in the mouth. And this shows me how far my completist nature will push me to a) complete a set and b) finish a book I’ve started. Can’t not be done.)

It’s interesting to note how different Fleming’s Bond is from the movie version, how fallible or human he is, crying with relief, getting drunk (his champagne/Benzedrine hangover seems the worst), even giving up and longing for death. To be fair, that last happens after a giant squid attack – so in *some* ways the movies are more realistic.

This is a cartoonish world where the gangsters are named Billy Ring, Jed Midnight, and “Mr Helmut Springer of the Detroit Purple Gang”. It’s baffling how little time separates these often corny tales of derring-do from the complex physiologies and intricate, all-too-plausible plotting of early Le Carré.

Anyways, gotta go, Penguin just dropped a dope set of classic sci-fi covers

The New Parent’s Terrible Powers of Invention

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“Give me strength…”

Our child is 18 months now, and making small but significant inroads into bilingualism. It’s been painfully obvious that her speech will be influenced by the shortcomings of our own, ever since she said her first English word, “yeahyeahyeah”. She already had a few Swedish words under her belt by then, but any pride I felt at her first English utterance was swiftly overwhelmed by disappointment in my capacity as a teacher, and the frankly crappy standard of my own spoken language.

A new child also has an impact of the language of the parents. How could it not, when in the blink of an eye you go from a lifestyle of infrequent meetings with infants (< once a week) to one where you sometimes can’t remember what it’s like to talk to an adult. Usually, while you’re trying to talk that other other adult, and worrying that you’ll never complete a coherent sentence again.

There was a lot of joy to be had in coming up with nicknames for the baby, a compulsion that thankfully has tailed off now. Some of them have stuck, most faded after a few days. All were terrible, but for some reason, in the moment, they either felt like the most beautiful encapsulation of our child’s essential being, or I thought they were a creation of elegant wit worthy of Wilde.

At no time was this correct. In the interests of self-mortification, here are some of the worst offenders.

Bougie Nou. I’m leading with the worst of the bunch. Thank Christ that no-one’s ever heard me utter this one in public. (What? Oh.) Pure infantilised babble. In the classic form, “who’s a little bougie? You are, you’re a little bougie nou“. On sober reflection I realise that no-one is, has been, or ever will be, a bougie nou.

Sötnis Everdeen. Sötis (being Swedish for “sweetie”) was once fumbled into Sötnis, and I must have thought that the easy jump to Sötnis Everdeen would somehow imbue our child with gung-ho ass-kicking empowered-female heroism. While I momentarily felt this was the apex of my baby nicknaming creative burst, it was too elaborate and didn’t last.

Belly Boo. Her first name was a natural to fancy up with an added -Belle, as in (Blahblah-)Belle. Hence also just Belly, and Belly Boo. Obviously –oo is my go-to end sound. Took me a while to spot the similarity to Betty Boo.

Head of Special Projects Department. This one’s self-explanatory?

I’m not asking for your approval here. Understanding, maybe a little pity will suffice. But that’s how it goes, spend long enough hanging out with an infant all day every day and you end up finding the common ground of meaningless noises that appeal to you both.

Now I’m going to go and talk to an insurer or someone, see if I can recalibrate my brain a bit, a nudge back in the direction of good old fashioned boring adult conversation. “Naming additional insureds on a professional indemnity policy”, anyone?

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312_kim_stanley_robinsonEvery few years I’ll think that I don’t read enough science fiction, and that I should dive into some hard SF opus or other, have my mind expanded by all the intergalactic worldgalaxy-building, quantum-powered futurology, and whatnot. My effort for 2016 was 2012’s 2312. And boy was it an effort.

This well-reviewed, Nebula-award winning novel from Kim Stanley Robinson is stuffed with plausible science and technofantasy. It’s packed with interesting ideas: asteroids terraformed from the inside out; the balkanisation of the settled solar system that forms the plot’s political backdrop; the mercurial gender fluidity that propels (kinda) the love story between the two protagonists.

Top marks for the Science. For the Fiction end of things, ehh, not so much.

The best prose is reserved for phenomena. Sunrise on Mercury is “a perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter”, the sun’s corona dancing fantastically, “all the magnetized arcs and short circuits, the masses of burning hydrogen pitched out at the night”. These passages are enjoyably poetic, but in the main they merely describe, and seldom advance the plot or reveal character.

Human-scale interactions are clumsy, and at times clichéd.Coffee cups are waved around excitedly. The “heroine”, Swan Er Hong (admittedly a great name), beats her tiny fists in frustration against the oversized chest of the “hero”, Wahram.

Props to Robinson for his prescience in populating his novel with gender-fluid characters, in advance of the gender debate going mainstream. At one point he lists 30-odd different genders, and there is a sex scene wherein each party is both – erm – docker and docked. (An inventive, if completely unsexy scene.)

But this gender fluidity has negligible effect on the plot, and less on the characters. Swan is currently more female than male, Wahram more male than female, and as per the fist-beating scene above, there’s nothing aside from the bare facts of birthing history and gentials to give any sense of what that all might mean for their identity, their personality, their character.

Similarly, by now humans have begun speciation, with “talls” and “smalls” hailing from different areas in the solar system. But does this have much bearing on the narrative? Only once, during a gravity failure on an evacuating spaceship:

Genette stumped about them, cheerfully giving orders, and they dragged Wahram to a wall with a railing. Once there Wahram was able to pull himself along on his knees, red-faced and gasping. He fixed Genette with a bulbous eye.

“Thank you, I can proceed now. Please go help someone who can’t. I’m happy to see how the laws of proportion help you here, my friend.”

The inspector paused briefly to mime a stalwart boxer’s stance. “Every small takes up the call! None never yet died by natural cause!”

The boxer’s stance, the clunky dialogue… yeesh! In fact that whole episode is a nadir, with conversations about whether the ship’s insurance will compensate everyone EVACUATED INTO SPACE, and regular reassurances that everyone is going to/has escaped the vessel unharmed, and merely has to wait around to be collected. OK, so Wahram and Swan float around a while, but on a ship with hundreds (thousands?) of people, there are no casualties?

And here’s the worst fault. THERE ARE NO STAKES. There is a world-remaking event on Earth, which is planned sketchily, executed undramatically, and has absolutely no consequences. There is a flimsy mystery, with distant actors. Swan meets no resistance in her attempts to clear it all up, which she does a good hundred pages (if not more) after the mystery has been clear for even the most oblivious reader. There is danger at the start of the book, which arrives without foreshadowing or warning, and which is followed by MULTIPLE chapters of WALKING, interspersed only with whistling and episodes of diahrrea.

It was vexing at the time, now I spell it out like that, it’s downright baffling. And that’s one of the stronger sections of the book. As it goes on, the writing becomes more uneven. There are sentences so downright baffling that they only make sense as placeholders of a work in progress:

Everything on the water moved at a watery pace, including the water itself.

And it’s a real shame, because – digressions on space economics aside (shades of The Phantom Menace) – the interesting ideas never stop flowing. Interstitial chapters function as brain dumps for a lot of this background, written in snippets as if excavated from found documents, though it left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have incorporated all that world-building in the narrative, saving leftover concepts for another work.

I want to remember this book for this kind of thing:

if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will? Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose? Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains? Is a programmed will a servile will? Is human will a servile will? And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?

But it’s too much to have to wade through all that clunkiness, the cliché and unintentional comedy. I rarely leave a book unfinished, so persisted with this, but redemption never came, and it’ll be another few years before I dare scratch the hard sci-fi itch again.

The Elements of Typographical Style

Reiffel Bird Sanctuary, March 1996

First, let’s get one thing straight: this is a typography manual. And it’s one of the most surprisingly wonderful books I’ve ever read.

Beautiful to look at, of course – it’s a masterpiece both about and of typographical style. Beautifully printed and bound, to boot. But beautifully written too, and quietly revelatory, peppered with illuminating asides on letterforms or the history of printing.

Like this note, that the 26-character, vanilla Roman alphabet of the ASCII character set is “the aphabet not of the real world nor of the UN General Assembly but of NATO: a technological memento of the them-and-us mentality that thrived in the Cold War”.

On text figures (a.k.a. hanging figures, i.e. numbers that descend or ascend from the line like lower case letters; to be contrasted with titling figures, which align with the upper case):

They are basic parts of typographic speech, and they are a sign of civilisation: a sign that dollars are not really twice as important as ideas, and numbers are not afraid to consort on an equal footing with words.

Or the analogy between the mixing of roman/italic faces and the system of linked major/minor keys in music, and the observation that both were inventions of the Baroque period. Huh.

Okay, okay – I picked this up when I was possessed by a sudden obsession with fonts typefaces, and a passing interest in the typographical arts is no doubt essential to enjoying this book.

But it’s just so fantastically written! Every paragraph, no matter how technical, has harmony and flow. Insight and wisdom spring from all kinds of places. In a sidenote on justification through the distortion of glyphs:

But the fact is, all justification involves distortion (…). And distortion, like poverty, is less painful when spread around.

Turning to the bibliography of the author, Robert Bringhurst, it seems he might just be the most interesting man in the world. Not just a typographer, but an author, editor, and poet too – now the poetical tint of his prose makes sense. And the list of his translations includes classical Greek and Latin as well as Navajo and Haida*.

(* While there was controversy around his Haida translations, the accusations seem overstated – with a broadcaster, CBS, claiming Bringhurst hadn’t consulted any Haida speakers, when in fact he’d spent a decade working with the community.)

Anyhoozle. The book is stuffed with lucidly rendered and wholly convincing prose:

One good typeface is better and more useful than fifty thousand poor ones. Here as always, good means several things. It means that the letterforms themselves are clearly envisioned, lucidly rendered and, beyond all that, convincing. It means they make mute, irrefutable sense to both body and mind. It means that the fabric in which these letterforms are held is well made too. If the type is metal, it means that the metal is well cast – hard, sharp, free of bubbles or sags – and evenly dressed…

That quote could’ve gone on. It’s all good stuff. And the book is doing what it should, bringing a subject I know little about into the light of understanding. I’m sure I could study typography for years and still be learning from this book.

Last word to Prof. Bringhurst. On the well-made page:

The well-made page is now what it was then: a window into history, language and the mind: a map of what is being said and a portrait of the voice that is silently speaking.

That being so, The Elements of Typographical Style is one hell of a window / map.

The Surmountable To-Read List

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Nearly all read.

How many books do you have lying around, waiting patiently to be read? Those once-exciting, -intriguing, or at least -mildly interesting titles that for a brief moment in time, convinced you that you had to own (and then read) them.

I like to think I’m reasonably conscientious about clearing my backlog, but over the years there are plenty of books that have fallen through the cracks.

Some of these have been with me for DECADES. The James Joyce bio was picked up second-hand at college, probably 1994/5. DeLillo’s Libra, too, was second-hand, also pre-millenium. Perhaps the new purchases nag to be read that bit louder: “Read me before my edges fade to piss-yellow!”

It’s baffling that some of these have gone unread for so long. The George Saunders collection, for one. I know it’s going to be fantastically entertaining and thought-provoking, and yet it’s sat on the shelf since Christmas. I could play the “busy being primary caregiver to a 1-year old” card, but then it also took me W-A-Y too long to even get my hands on my own copy. By that point I’d already I’d gifted it twice for birthdays.

On the other hand, Will Hutton’s Them and Us is steadily becoming less relevant, and deep in the fug of post-Brexit-clusterfuck malaise, I have a steadily decreasing desire to crack open that one. Still, I can’t admit to myself that I’ll leave it unread… forever.

So can I get through these before I buy more books? The number of hardbacks in the list suggests not. That’s just practicalities. With the one-year old still sleeping in our room, reading lights have to be angled just so not to disturb her oh so precious (to us) sleep.

  • Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  • Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society – Will Hutton
  • All Day Long: a Portrait of Britain at Work – Joanna Biggs
  • Libra – Don DeLillo
  • James Joyce: the Years of Growth 1882-1915 – Peter Costello
  • Beyond Belief – VS Naipaul
  • Moorish Spain – Richard Fletcher
  • For Richer For Poorer -Victoria Coren
  • The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson
  • The Corner – David Simon & Ed Burns
  • On Inequality and On Bullshit – Henry G Frankfurt
  • The Emperor – Ryszard Kapuściński
  • This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein
  • The Grownup – Gillian Flynn
  • Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy and The Living Daylights – Ian Fleming
  • Beowulf – Seamus Heaney
  • The Patrick Melrose Novels – Edward St Aubyn
  • Tenth of December – George Saunders
  • Mr Blue – Edward Bunker
  • Purity – Jonathan Franzen
  • Underground – Haruki Murakami
  • How Should a Person Be – Sheila Heti

*LAST UPDATED 9th December 2016*

The 33⅓ Greatest Covers Of All Time

Presenting a labour of love – a mini-labour, or labourette if you will – a duet of Spotify playlists:

The 33⅓ Greatest Covers Of All Time (Spotify link)

The 33 Greatest Originals Of All Time (Spotify link)

After stumbling across Ron Sexsmith’s I Don’t Like Mondays, I started to keep a playlist of great covers. Also, Tears for Fears doing My Girls – OK, so I initially thought that it was Animal Collective that had covered an obscure Tears for Fears song. D’oh.

But it kept sending me back to the originals too, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed it should be a twinned list: the same set of songs, in the same order, but covers in one list and originals in the other. Just the kind of insignificant time-suck of a project that needs an inordinate amount of rules. E.g.

#1. BOTH VERSIONS MUST BE GREAT

#2. EACH VERSION SHOULD DO *SOMETHING* DIFFERENT

#3. MAXIMUM ONE APPEARANCE IN EACH LIST BY ANY ARTIST

#4. NO STANDARDS

#5. BOTH LISTS MUST FOLLOW THE SAME ORDER

Rule #1 is why there’s no room for Johnny Cash’s Hurt – I could(n’t) care less about the NIN original. But the original Personal Jesus is of course ace.

Rule #2 put the kibosh on some not-particularly different renditions, though the Jealous Guys got through on account of both being definitive takes (John’s vulnerable, Bryan’s smooth, naturally), and Back to My Roots earns its place because that’s right where the list needs a pick-me-up.

Rule #3 allowed me to include Nina Simone, Robert Wyatt, Bruce Springsteen, and Liz Frasier (once for Massive Attack and once for His Name Is Alive) on both sides of the fence.

Rule #4, because it would have become unmanageable otherwise. And as any fule kno, rules help control the fun.

Rule #5 was the tricky part, and is a cat that could have been skinned at least 33⅓ trillion different ways.

There were some people who HAD to be in the list. Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley are peerless interpreters of other people’s songs, so Jeff doing Nina was an easy choice. Rufus Wainwright is another, and him covering his father’s One Man Guy was always brilliant. Nick Cave and PJ Harvey performances are always worth the price of admission.

The list is defined, as much as anything, but what I couldn’t fit on here. Honourable mentions ended up on the GCOAT/GOOAT Overspill (Spotify link).

Missy Elliott’s Bring the Pain: because Method Man appears on it, and original artist guest appearances could’ve been rule #4(b).

The Tide Is High: in the original Paragons flavour was a great inclusion, but the more I listened to the Blondie version, the less that take felt up to snuff.

How the hell did I not find room for Cat Power on covers? TBH, this entire list – the covers side at least – could’ve been hushed acoustic versions, and it would’ve been much the worse for it. But missing Blue by Joni Mitchell/Cat Power is the flaw in my mosaic.

And the ⅓ cover? That’s the gimme/freebie of Davey Crockett. Hinds don’t stray far from the template of Thee Headcoatees original, but I can’t stop playing this song ATM, and it’s such a great tune to end the list on…