Sunday, June 24, 2007

London: Day One

Yeah. It's been nearly a month since I got back from Scotland, but what am I going to do? Not post up a long, boring account of my trip on my blog? Of course not. Personal blogs DEMAND long boring accounts of vacation trips to distant lands, often with little consideration for the interest level of the readers of that blog. Who am I to be different? So I'm a going to get into it. I will try my best to keep this thing short(ish) and mostly sweet. And there will be photos.

Prior to our departure from Hartsfield on Wednesday, May 23rd, I had never really been overseas before. Yes, I was born on the northern part of the boot of Italy and grew from an enormous infant to a monstrous toddler over the course of a year or so, but I don't think this makes me a world traveler. My wife, however, has been around the world with some frequency these last 3 years, and in January of 2004, she stopped for a couple weeks in London. Because she was bunking with a friend there on business, she was mostly on her own during the daylight hours. Though she had a lot of fun zooming across the city on double-decker sightseeing buses and subways, the countryside on luxurious cross-country buses, one crucial element was missing:


Specifically, my sparkling commentary. Can one truly say they've seen, for example, Stonehenge, if they don't have a gangly, pudgy-faced smart-ass remarking, "It's really just a pile of rocks, isn't it?" in their ear while viewing it? What, you say? Far from enriching your travel experience hearing a steady stream of adolescent editorializing would actually go a long ways toward ruining it? Well, lucky for me, my wife is that peculiar, singular soul who enjoys my brand of relentless sardonic "humor". Even luckier for me, she so enjoys it that for years she's been counting the days until she could return with me to stroll the city of Shakespeare and Dickens just so she could listen to my low-register mumbling voice crack dumb along the way. So when her friends from business school decided to get married at St. Andrews, Scotland at the beginning of June, and my wife's folks agreed to give their daughter a pair of plane tickets to Great Britain, it was if the stars aligned to put my ass in London. And so it came to be.

Sad to say, the trip did not begin well. Don't get me wrong. There wasn't much to dislike about my 3 weeks in Great Britain, it was all in all a blast, but what little there to dislike all happened that first day, and a lot of it had to do with Air France. No one likes a guy belly-achin' about a bad plane ride, so I won't spend a lot of time doing it here, but I will say that my aisle seat became a middle seat plum in the middle of the plane between my wife and a big-sitting guy who looked quite a bit like the depressive novelist Russell Banks. The temperature, which on most flights runs from pleasantly cool to blanket-worthy chilly, was a zesty 80 degrees on this flight, the perfect temperature to induce not only a delightful sheen on the dryest of brows, but the spicy natural odors of one's plane-mates. Viva la France! I won't get into the surprisingly hands-off attitude of the flight crew towards the distribution of drinks and snacks, or their off-putting customer service style of overplayed but obviously pretend concern for the passengers' well-being during the 10-hour or so flight, but you get the idea. So, exhausted from lack of sleep (I can't sleep on planes), and keyed up from suppressing a claustrophobic freak-out for 10-11 hours or so, we landed at Airport de Kafka, otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle. As my wife tells it, Charles de Gaulle has been under construction for about 48 years? And from the looks of things, I'd say they're nearly halfway through.

It was bright and sunny in Paris. And also stiflingly hot. And worse than that, very very smelly. The bus the airport uses to cart off-loaded passengers from one terminal to all others was un-air conditioned, the terminal from which we boarded our connecting flight to London was un-air conditioned, and all drinks for sale in that terminal were un-air conditioned with nary an ice cube in sight. Yes, these tired observations place me squarely into the Spoiled Whiny American category of international travelers, especially given the fact I'd been informed of the silent European distaste for all things unduly cold before we left the States, but the lack of relief from the unbearable weather was still jarring. In the face of temps soaring into the nineties and blessed with the technology to chill both one's beverages and one's air, the French and the English's surrender to intolerably hot weather was baffling.

After we cleared Customs in London, we took the Heathrow Express into London's Paddington Station. The structure was beautiful and grand in an airy, practical way. Distant, soot-stained ceilings rose 50 feet into the air, old Victorian brick columns appeared here and there around the edges, (also soot-stained from the coal-burning engines that still pull in and out of the station). This station and others like it stood as backgrounds for arrivals and departures of soldiers going off to and returning from World War II. That is if they weren't bombed to smithereens during the Blitz. So, wide-eyed and loaded down with 3 bags over my inward-curving shoulders and one big suitcase rolling behind me, I walked through the cavernous station following my wife towards the street and our hotel.

While standing on the street corner just outside Paddington station waiting for the light to change to WALK, I watched the native Britons stream past us to cross the street and experienced a quiet and completely nonsensical thrill. "These people are all British," I thought to myself, awed. I listened to them talking, picking out snatches of conversation spoken in genuine British accents as opposed to the fakey mongrelized version of a British accent I do too often. We must have looked lost because a nice British woman came up to us and asked if we needed directions. As it just so happened, we did! Smiling and polite, (and in a lilting British accent mixed with something else) she directed us towards our hotel which was in the exact opposite direction of the way we'd been going. (Coincidentally, not long after we checked into our hotel and headed out, we saw the same woman again walking past and we said hello like old friends who'd been living in that part of London for years.)

If I haven't said before, let me say it now: it was hot in London. I don't know what the exact temperature was because I can't do the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit, but it was damn hot. I'd been sweating for going on 24 hours (and, as I hadn't yet slept, miserably aware of every salty drip) and was looking forward to the blessed kiss of some A/C and an icy shower soon after. However, there was no A/C in the lobby, no A/C in the coffin-sized elevator up to the 5th floor, and no A/C in our cramped but clean hotel room. Lack of sleep made all of this seem disastrous, but when viewed in hindsight, the heat and the dearth of ice was an entirely survivable inconvenience. I'm writing here, so obviously I survived it. In my defense, though, I didn't know then that the hot weather would end the following day, or that many if not most buildings in London do indeed have air-conditioning. But I know that in those hours post-arrival and pre-sleep, I was a sullen, unhappy bore. Eventually, I recovered.

So after an icy restorative shower, the wife and I headed back to Paddington station to get on the famous London Tube. More on the city's public transportation system later, right now I want to get right to the London Eye and some photos.

Towering there just behind my smiling face is London's newest landmark, the British Airways London Eye. Though it looks like a ferris wheel, it differs in a few important ways. Riders of the London Eye do not ride in the usual leg-dangling metal benches familiar to all state fair and carnival visitors. Riders of the London Eye go around in roomy capsules. The Eye is officially called an "observation wheel". There is no sensation of movement. Throughout the ride, you are as stationary as you would be on the observation deck of any tall building. And, unlike your typical ferris wheel, the Eye does not spin with any speed. In fact, it rotates only once every half hour. And for the price of admission, that's exactly how long you get to be in a capsule.

Even before we left Atlanta for England, I was already a little scared of the Eye. I was only made completely aware of my own fear of heights one day years ago down at the Santa Monica pier. My wife and I walked down the pier fully expecting to get on and ride the wheel all around like regular folks. We even bought tickets (which, if I remember right, were not as cheap as I'd imagined). But when I stood at the base of the ferris wheel and looked up at the dangling, peeling-paint iron swings whipping past and then shooting up heedless into the sky, I couldn't do it. More than that; I believe it would have been impossible for me to voluntarily place myself into one of those swing-benches. So with that distant day in mind, I approached the Eye worried the same base fear would reassert itself and make a little girl of me. And, to make things a little worse, tickets to ride the Eye (already pre-purchased) were quite a bit more than the Santa Monica ferris wheel. So, once again, both my masculinity and a bit of cash were on the line. But after camping at a table in an outdoor eating area at the base and drinking some coolish bottled drinks, I mustered my courage, slapped both cheeks to wake myself up, and climbed aboard.

Happily,the Eye really is an "observation wheel" and resembles a ferris wheel only from a cursory glance at its exterior. The only slightly vertiginous moments came as I stepped a little too close to the floor-to-ceiling windows and looked out over London. The photo to the left was taken during the first half of our revolution, looking up at the capsules preceding ours. The Eye moves so slowly that, even looking out at any one particular point on the cityscape, it is not immediately clear the capsule's moving at all. A couple times I was sure we'd stopped entirely. I took a bunch of digital photos while we were up on this thing. My wife watched the city sink beneath and then lift above us from the comfort of a long bench that runs through the middle of the capsule. Most of the photos I took suffer from the camera's proclivity to focus on the glass rather than the world outside the glass, but I got a number of shots that, if not particularly straight or interesting, are at least in focus and feature recognizable London landmarks.

Like this photo, for example. Here you can see Big Ben to the left and Parliament to the right. All of this was famously blown up in both the graphic novel "V for Vendetta" and the film adaptation of the same name. Yes, as I am more a student of cheap pop culture than of history, these are the images that come to mind when taking in the great historical landmarks. Oh well. I'd have to say that taking the Eye up 400 or so feet into the air over the city is a pretty good way to get acquainted with London for first-time visitors like me. You can see all the obvious sightseeing destinations in a half-hour floating capsule ride, and get an idea from high above of which old buildings warrant a close-up viewing or perhaps even a tour.

This oblong building in the distance here is called by Londoners "the Gherkin". Its full title, given to it by its designer, is "the Erotic Gherkin". No one at all, according to our Jack the Ripper tour guide, calls it that. Whatever its goofy name, it's a striking building, and adds a bit of much-needed modernity to London's skyline, which I thought was surprisingly lacking in that regard.

Anyway, we did the half-hour revolution, and here are a few more of the photos I took on the way round.

More Big Ben.

A high view of the Thames at high tide.

This is a not-so-clear shot of the London Eye employees checking our capsule for bombs or somesuch with the use of mirrors affixed to the ends of sticks. Terrorism, or the fear of it anyway, is everywhere.

And here I am with Darth Vader. There was a Star Wars exhibit in a building adjacent to the Eye and different Englanders came out dressed as characters from both the original films and the prequels. Some goofy-looking "Padawan learners" who came out after Darth made his exit.

In the foreground: me wife. In the background: the London Eye in full.

After we stepped off the Eye and met Darth Vader, we walked across the bridge to Big Ben. This is me on the bridge.

And here I am at a cafe just a block to two down the street from our hotel, about to dig into my first official English meal of fish and chips. The fish and chips pictured here were okay, but far from the best I had while in England and Scotland.

Anyway, that was day one in England. I don't expect each day to warrant all this verbiage, so future postings will be more brief (hopefully).

All right, this entry is long enough. Stay tuned for Day Two.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Hie Thyself to the Multiplex!

I've just seen a midnight showing of "1408". If you have time this weekend, go see this film. As with most movies I really like, I don't want to say too much about it and run the risk of lessening its impact. For example, if I say "1408" is, at times, terrifying, you may steel yourself against it, so I won't say that... because it's not. Or something. I'm feeling an urge to engage in some hyperbole here, but as it is 2:38 a.m. and I'm rarely at my most cogent at this hour, I'll spare myself any potential embarrassment. But if you've got a few extra dollars, I do recommend you check out a screening of this film before Monday. It is good, and it doesn't deserve to be beaten by the likes of "Fantastic Four 2" on its opening weekend.

In other news, still packing up the damn place. Nearly done. Swung by the liquor store on the way to the movies and grabbed up some more free boxes. They're the perfect size for the odds and ends we haven't yet packed. The movers come Sunday. Anyway, see "1408".

Thursday, June 14, 2007

About Commenting

Hola guys. So we're busy packing up now. We still don't know exactly where we're headed, but we do know that we have a certain amount of money with which to move, and we get to keep whatever we don't spend. So we're packing up our apartment now.

Anyway, you may have noticed that there is no way to comment on the blog right now. This is temporary and will change likely on August 1st. By that time I will have finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as will hopefully any other serious devotees of the series, and will thus be immune to any additional spoilers broadcast by certain (ahem) unnamed persons.

All right. Back to packing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Oh God He's At It Again. This Time It's Books

Blogger has added a new feature that lets you post up images into the blog's header with ease. I've taken advantage of it, as you can see, in the stupidest way possible. An uncropped, unfinished drawing of what appears to be a total dullard now greets all comers to the Inanities. While I was away, my PC crapped out on me, so I haven't yet moved Photoshop CS from my busted PC to my still-working laptop (on which I'm composing this blog entry). But if I had access to Photoshop, this image would be cropped. But until I get access to it, this image will remain in its goofy, uncropped state. (Or until I get tired of it and ax it altogether). I actually think though that this drawing I did on Photoshop last month is kind of fitting. No offense to any of you, of course, but he kind of looks like he ought to be reading this blog.

Anyway, as you may have guessed, I'm back from my trip to the British Isles. Got back about a week ago and since then I've been dealing with uncooperative computers. Those issues are all resolved now, or mostly resolved (see above), and now we look ahead to the big move out of Atlanta. We have to be out of our apartment in 9 days, and we still don't know a.) what city we're going to, or b.) what or how the new employer plans to subsidize our relocation. We're hoping for a telephone call of enlightenment sometime today. I don't mean to give the impression that we are 9 days away from homelessness. The wife and I will be staying one county up with her parents until she goes away for training. But as to where we'll be at the beginning of September and the foreseeable future following, we do not know. Good times.

Enough of that. My plan was to come back, get on the 'puter, and blog about my trip right away. The 7th of this month is what I think I'd promised. A week later, I'm still not prepared to do that. The photos we took are off the camera but loaded onto my wife's calculator-sized laptop, and I won't use that because if I so much as rest my gigantor hand on it, I'll break it. So, seeing how I want to supplement my exciting travelogue with photos and those photos are not, this moment, available to me, I can provide no travelogue today. But I will do something far more boring instead. I'll tell you about the books I read while I was traveling the world! Whoo! And for those who are already clicking on other websites, take care and check back for an exhaustive description of my England trip. Here we go:

1.) The Raw Shark Texts. A Brit named Steven Hall wrote this novel which someone billed as "Memento meets Jaws". Unfortunately, this summation is accurate, and it's just as bad as that weird mish-mash of stories and genres would suggest. The story's about a twenty-something named Eric Sanderson who wakes up in his apartment one day with no memory of who he is. He finds a note nearby, addressed to him (he assumes), penned by someone calling himself "the First Eric Sanderson." In the first 20 pages, he goes to see a shrink the First Eric Sanderson tells him to visit, reads about 200 instructive notes written by the First Eric Sanderson meant to gently ease him into understanding the terrifying predicament that is his life, and he is then attacked, in his living room, by a "conceptual shark." My copy of the "Raw Shark Texts" was a library book. I've already turned it in so I can't, as I'd like, include passages from the book, but take my word for it: as difficult a time as you're no doubt having trying to imagine in your head what a "conceptual shark" looks like, the author of the novel is able to lend absolutely zero assistance. Instead of sitting down and trying as hard as he can to make the unimaginable imaginable, Hall just adds a lot of clever but bullshit modifiers to the word 'shark' to sell his story. Add in a ridiculous, shoehorned love story, a penchant for writing novels like an amateur screenwriter who's just got his hands on Robert McKee's "Story", and you've got a novel with problems. If only those were his worst sins. The end of "Raw Shark Texts" follows, in many instances beat for beat, the last 30-40 minutes of "Jaws". Seriously. So much so, that I knew what was going to happen to the characters 75 pages away from the last page because I recognized which character was Brody, which Quint, which Hooper. As I read, I held out hope for Hall. "This whole sequence is going to just be a riff on 'Jaws', he's not going to just keep ripping it off, is he?" But he does. After finishing the book, I was more than a little mystified as to mainstream publishing's well-documented excitement surrounding its release. Less mystified, though, as to why it's been termed a "disappointment" in the few months since it came out. I doubt there was very much positive word of mouth because it is not very good. That is not to say that Hall didn't have an interesting premise -- he did. I likely wouldn't have picked it up off the New Fiction shelf at the library if it didn't. He even manages to include some legitimately mind-expanding passages in his novel -- ways of thinking I'd never encountered or seen put into writing with such precision. But the goofy, screenwriter-wannabe missteps he makes the rest of the time overpower the story. I hope he has better luck next time out of the box.

2.) For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This collection of short stories was written by Nathan Englander. He did the Iowa Writer's Workshop, his stories have appeared in Story magazine and The New Yorker, and his new novel, "The Ministry of Special Cases", has been getting rapturous reviews from everyone who reads it. Since I didn't want to plunk down $25 for an un-discounted hardcover of the new book, I picked up his first book instead. In one a wealthy, WASPy gentile decides, while sitting in the back of a cab, that he is Jewish. His transformation from Polo shirt and penny loafer wearing prep into an Orthodox Jew (right down to the little black box some penitents wear at the Wailing Wall) is meant to be hilarious, and though it is funny at times, mostly it is just sad, as are most of these stories. Englander's reputation as a masterful short story writer is well-deserved. His tone is pitch perfect for each story, the epiphanies subtle and well-managed, the themes clearly drawn and if creative writing teachers held this book up to their students to say "this is how you write short stories", I would have no problem with that. Though, as with most serious, so-called "literary" fiction, I feel I'm only half-getting the stories. And by that I mean I understand them on one, maybe two of several levels the authors were writing on. I think in the case of this particular book, some of my ignorance might be corrected if I'd either a.) retained what little Sunday School instruction I got, or b.) pick up the Bible and just suck it up and read the damn thing. In all of these stories Englander is much concerned with Jews and Jewishness, and the Old Testament Biblical allusions were a flyin'. Anyway, good reviews are much more boring than bad, so I'll just end with that.

3.) Arthur & George. Another book written by a Brit. Written by Julian Barnes, this novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize in England a couple years back. Set primarily at the beginning of the 20th century, "Arthur & George" tells the story of George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half-Indian man living in the English countryside who becomes the object of an unjustified criminal prosecution. To the rescue comes the rich and wealthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Spurred to action by a letter from George's father, a Vicar, Doyle uses his position and wealth to clear Edalji's name. Though Arthur and George don't meet until page 293 (the book is 501 pages long), the meeting still manages to feel perfectly timed. Barnes is so deft at not only conjuring the imagined personalities of these real-life men with clear attention to the true details of their actual lives, but also to recreating the world they inhabited. The effect of this careful work is that their first meeting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel is actually thrilling and, in the end, not at all predictable. Because the characters in this novel, even the non-famous ones, behave like people and not as characters in a novel, unexpected moments do sometimes arise in the story that intentionally move the reader away from easy judgments and moralistic pronouncements. For instance, after Doyle has begun his investigation into the crimes George is alleged to have committed, he interviews the bigoted chief of police (or the British equivalent) that managed the original investigation. Far from depicting the systematic and satisfying destruction of the Chief's (Anson's) irrational and dangerous beliefs on race at the hands of a Holmes-like Doyle, Barnes instead casts Anson in the Sherlock Holmes role and Arthur Conan Doyle in the exasperated and befuddled Watson role as Anson calmly and condescendingly instructs Doyle on both the particulars of the case and the sad truths about the nature of truth. After that conversation, I figured that none of my assumptions were safe, and even began to doubt the innocence of George. I have to say that my reading of the story was in no way helped by this suspense, so, if you do plan to read this book, let me tell you this: George didn't do it. Knowing this may help you later on. Anyway, an engrossing, beautifully-written, fast-moving read. I highly recommend it.

4.) The Interpretation of Murder. So we go from brilliant to terrible. This is the book I read while flying back to the States. This means that, along with "Raw Shark Texts" I sandwiched my UK trip by reading two bad books while flying over the Atlantic. This is by far the worst of the two and a particularly egregious instance of an author completely failing to deliver on a fantastic premise. This, from a single page preceding the novel.
"In 1909, Sigmund Freud... made his one and only visit to the United States. Despite the great success of this visit, Freud always spoke, in later years, as if some trauma had befallen him in the United States. He called Americans 'savages' and blamed his sojourn there for physical ailments that afflicted him well before 1909. Freud's biographers have long puzzled over the mystery, speculating whether some unknown event in America could have led to his otherwise inexplicable reaction."
To me, this is a great premise. What terrible thing happened to Sigmund Freud when he visited New York at the height of its Gilded Age? Just as with "Raw Shark Texts", the author got a big advance for a first novel, and the publishers put a lot of their selling power to bear to get this into bookstores in a big way. I opened the book expecting something on the order of Caleb Carr's "The Alienist", which was also about psychology, serial killers, New York and true life historical figures. Instead I got 529 pages of true dreck. Though Rubenfeld may have mastered many a discipline in his life (his author bio, located on the inside cover, lists his many accomplishments in both drama and law), he can not count "Writing a Good Book" as one of them. This is one of the worst books I've ever read, and I've read a few. Here is a brief list of his transgressions: He starts his novel in the first person voice of one character and then, in the next section when describing things the other character cannot have witnessed, blithely switches to third person voice. The "great trauma" Freud was supposed to have suffered, the one Rubenfeld alludes to in his one-paragraph preface, turns out to be neither great nor particularly traumatic. He uses movie-like catchphrases. For instance, after the main character is nearly drowned in the Hudson river, he emerges alive, and reunites with a fellow psychiatrist. When the main character is asked what he's been up to, he says, "Just trying to keep my head above water, really." If that's not enough, the novel was boring, the characters all lifeless puppets, and the solution to the murders was, if not completely implausible, than at least intolerably dull. The only vaguely interesting thing about this book was the interplay between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who traveled with him and whom Freud considered the heir to his methodology. But even that Rubenfeld manages to caricature so cartoonishly that Freud comes off as the all-knowing, all-seeing mind reader, and Jung the hedonistic, deluded, mentally ill ass-hole whom Freud insensibly coddles. The only thing more opaque than the plot or the inner workings of the minds of the characters is how much praise this book received! My copy is riddled with adulation. "Spectacular ... fiendishly clever", says the Spectator. "Unusually intelligent", so says the Times. The Sunday Telegraph weighs in with, "Rubenfeld writes beautifully." The Independent: "A dazzling novel." Entertainment Weekly calls "Interpretation", "an expertly crafted novel." I don't know if they read a different book or didn't read it at all, because none of this has any bearing on the contents of "Interpretation of Murder".

All right. I'm through. More soon.