Lunch in Vietnam

So far my quest to get out and interact with my friends has been gonig pretty well. I’m fortunate right now that some old friends are back in town, visiting from pretty much the opposite side of the planet. If you drilled directly through the center of the Earth from Prague would you wind up in New Zealand? Is there a web site to show you the opposite side of the Earth from any point? If not, why not? It would be trivial to make. Easier to make than to find, I think.

It was cold today, but a friendly, dry cold. Ice in patches, but no snow. Sunshine. M2&L&m picked me up at the bus stop where I waited, my hands getting cold as they held my book. I was early to get there and they were not. They have an infant. Time works differently.

Lunch was at a restaurant in a Vietnamese market and was quite yummy. The smallest of my hosts, the one only half a year old, watched me with a cool detachment. I’m told she smiles at almost everyone. Almost. Conversation centered around the child. Not surprisingly, she is above average. The parents (one of whom is Chinese) will happliy pay extra for toys not manufactured in China. Baby-therm struck them as a brilliant idea that they would happily pay for. I really should do something with that.

After lunch we drove back to the flat they are borrowing, and while the the parents were dealing with the logistics of getting child and critical groceries purchased and up the stairs I repaired to a humble bar near their place. Surprisingly this humble hospoda is a WiFi Free establishment. Just need a password. Probably won’t ask.

***

Another good day of talking over beers. When speaking with M2 politics is inevitable, and illuminating. Our biggest disagreement: he doesn’t like any politician willing to raise taxes. I would rather pay the taxes now than borrow (stealing liquidity from the market, by the way — there’s a bit of a problem there right now). M2 said it was easier for a politician to spend tax money than borrowed money, but as I ponder this now, I realize that the exact opposite it true. It is much easier to spend borrowed money, where the accounting comes later, than tax revenue, where people feel the hurt now. When you tax, people might say no. Borrow-and-spend, the Republican approach to finance, is cowardly. Wish I’d managed to articulate it better tonight. But enough of that.

At the bar there was a really cool dog, mostly German Shepherd, but big for the breed (still a puppy) and with long silvery hairs accenting his coat. He was all right. We got along great. I’m pretty sure the pup agreed with my views of fiscal policy.

Pivo with zlato

I dropped zlato a line in the afternoon, and he suggested the Globe cafe/bookstore for our hanging-out venue. He had some credit there, a reward for an mp3 party he’d hosted. He also had no money, so the venue was a pretty easy call.

I was on the metro when I got the text message: the Globe was closed. We met instead at a nice Gambrinus pub called Propaganda, just up the street. It was a pleasant evening; there’s always something interesting to talk about when zlato’s around, whether it’s the use of dashes and semicolons, books, flexibility of beliefs in the context of Shinto, or the female of the species. He loaned me a book, Hypnotic Language (though he hadn’t planned to), that I’m looking forward to reading.

I ended up staying out pretty late. Time just flew by, as they say. Propaganda is a congenial place. Friends of zlato came and went. zlato proffered quick in-bar massage to a couple of people (he’s trained for that stuff), and my muscles were jealous. The waiter is apparently studying the art, and some conversation ensued. It was a night of stuff like that.

The journey home was pleasant, a combination of tram and hoof; temperatures were solidly below freezing but that just felt right. The night tram had the right mix of people napping in their seats and others still hoping to find the next great place to party. Alas, no dogs in plaid.

The Feast of Stephen

I’ve been even more reclusive that usual lately, and I’ve decided to give myself a challrnge that may prove substantially more diffucult than writing a novel in thirty days — instead the challenge is to get out and see friends twelve consecutive days. Just being in Little Café Near Home working while people are around doesn’t count; I actually have to interact. In fact, I should probably make a rule that LCNH doesn’t count, or I can only count it once, or something like that. I’m making this up as I go along. The goal is to break my bad habit of finding reasons not to go out when friends invite me, and maybe even come up with my own plan from time to time.

Today’s kickoff was easy; I was invited to a family dinner. Historical trivia: “Good King Winceslas” is not a Christmas carol, but a boxing day song. The 26th of December is St. Stephen’s day. While there were no Vaclav’s (rhymes with Winceslas, who was Bohemian) at the dinner, it was still a festive (and belly-busting) affair. Mmmm… duck and knedliky (potato dumplings). Homemade cookies. No carp. One bit of bad planning: I wore my “nice” blue jeans. They’re nice because I don’t wear them much. I don’t wear them much because they’re a bit on the snug side. Not the right outfit for gluttony. Whatever the reason, I was a little concerned when I declined more duck that I might hurt my host’s feelings. I was stuffed.

It was a relaxed and pleasant dinner, some conversation in English and some in Czech, and then it was home to take a nap. (One topic of discussion as dinner wound down: the amount of time different animal species spend sleeping. It’s good to be a lion.)

So day one of Twelve Days of Social is a success! I really don’t know how I’m going to pull all of them off. New Year’s Eve I’ll be going down to the center of town, which I’m told is completely crazy. You know all those warnings on fireworks? They will be disregarded. “Wear eye protection” is a common piece of advice. Not really my kind of thing, but worth seeing once. (At this point it’s such pyrotechnic madness in my imagination that I’m probably heading for disappointment.) Anyway, anyone who reads this is welcome to join me. We can meet at the statue of Winceslas. (Did you see how I brought that back around to where I started? Not bad, huh?)

Killing Time, Christmas Eve

I dawdled just a little too long this morning, then was barely behind the curve all afternoon in search of a meal. It culminated at 4:01 pm at a McDonalds that closed at 4:00 (my phone still said 3:59, but I was in no position to argue), followed closely by my arrival at the big “always open” store that also closed at 4.

I headed back to my neighborhood, and was happy to see the run-down večerka (večer means evening, a večerka is a store that keeps long hours) that supplies the drunks in my neighborhood was still open even as their competition closed. I entered and thought I had come to the wrong place. Fruit? A variety of food? Efficient use of space? No bums? The store is under new management. All that, reasonable prices, and my favorite cookies. I am feasting tonight!

But before I go home I decided to have a little christmas cheer at one of the only places open in my neighborhood, the non-stop sports bar that almost never puts sports on the TV. I think there’s a big fotbal (rhymes with soccer) match on right now, but instead we’re watching a czech-budget film that features clever demons dragging greedy people down to hell.

Speaking of movies as I ramble on, last night I watched Límonadove Joe, (rhymes with “He-man Otto-vey Yo-way”), a Czech western filmed in 1964. Until I typed that date I had not put the film in the context of the politics of the time. The hero, Lemonade Joe, is shamelessly capatalist. So shamelessly that it circles back around and becomes irony, but then loops back around again. It is a silly movie; perhaps a precursor to Rustler’s Rhapsody (which is funny as hell). It takes place in a rough-and-tumble Arizona town, and opens with an extended brawl in the Trigger Whiskey Saloon. The bar is owned by Mr. Badman. Then Mr. Goodman and his beautiful daughter come to town, reformers with a message of abstinence.

Conflict ensues, and Lemonade Joe arrives. He drinks only KoloKola. (“Lemonade” is a generic term for soda here.) He kicks some ass with ease, makes everyone want to drink KoloKola, awards the distribution rights for the drink to the Goodmans, and moves on. Lemonade Joe is a crusader for justice and a shill for KoloKola. One of my favorite bits was when two drunks stagger out of the Trigger Whiskey Saloon to have a gunfight. They are plastered beyond competence and after fumbling around they laugh, embrace, and head back into the bar, their pistols still lying in the road. Not long after, once they are converted to KoloKola, they head out for a duel and shoot each other. “No need to call the doctor when they’re drinking KoloKola!” someone proclaims.

The ending is apparent from a long way off, but you have to respect the way they went for a staggering pile of clichés heaped up with reckless gusto, with a coating of hyperbole served sideways with irony. And when it’s all over, neither good nor evil triumphs, in true czech fashion. There is a winner, but I won’t tell you who.

On another note, there really should be a Trigger Whiskey Saloon here in Prague. Everyone knows the movie. Maybe there is one. If there isn’t, the Czechs aren’t as opportunistic as I thought.

The Perfect Holiday Gift

There’s not much more I can say about this. It’s an armored car with a cozy interior, accent lighting, and a fancy sound system. Seats five comfortably in even the seediest of neighborhoods. It’s only $20K, and if you use the link to order I get a few hundred bucks of that! It’s like two gifts in one! Get one for all your friends.

I should point out that I’m a year late stumbling on this gift; Matthew Baldwin of Defective Yeti first wrote about it last year in this column.

Kamarády

The TV show “Friends” is only slightly less annoying in Czech. At least it doesn’t have David Schwimmer’s voice.

The Secret Agent

This evening I picked another book off fuego’s shelves, this one a putative classic. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad, has proven to be a pretty good read so far. First published in 1907, it is a story based on an actual terrorist attack against the Greenwich observatory outside London. In this version the act is incited by entrenched political forces who want to encourage terrorism so they can better legislate away the freedoms of the populace. The story is a satire, but back in the day it apparently pissed a few people off.

I was reading along, and I hit a section where I really got the joke. Which makes me wonder if there are other sections where I don’t get the jokes. I suspect that many of the character descriptions and actions are steeped in irony that is often lost on me because the vocabulary (and simple Englishness) used to describe them impedes my understanding. This isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think that wry undercurrent is what gives the story life. I just wich I could understand it a little better.

I get the same feeling sometimes with Japanese literature (and cartoons), that there are veins of humor and symbolism that I can detect but cannot fully appeciate. In a way that’s pretty cool; it defines a new area I can learn stuff. Happily, I can still laugh at things like nonsensical street numberings. Some things will never change in London Town, and Conrad deals with the subject with a dry wit that permeates the entire book. His portrayal of ‘revolutionaries’ is not very flattering, to say the least, and many of the good guys don’t come off that well either.

This story came out in what must have been a great time to be literaturati. The novel as an art form was changing dramatically; I mentioned it a while back when speaking of The Great Gatsby, and this work just adds to the muddle of those decades. There’s a couple of decades there where What A Novel Is was no longer clearly defined, and a few writers shook off convention and told good stories their own way. This one has a lot of devices, like non-linear storytelling, that I was surprised to find in something of this era. (Maybe non-linear storytelling was common then. I’m certainly not a expert, but I associate things like that with much more recent literature.)

The story has a slyness which I’m really enjoying. People are working at cross-purposes; even the best of the good guys has a personal agenda. Perhaps the bomb maker has the purest (in the sense of not being diluted) of intentions. I haven’t finished reading yet, but I will soon.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Official Bar List

And here it is. The ‘w’ indicates that I did some writing there. The definition of ‘bar’ can be a tricky one; in this case it is a place that I spent time drinking alcoholic beverages not accompanied by a meal. (If I ate, then lingered and drank, that counts as a bar.)

Bars:

  1. roma – w
  2. crazy daisy- w
  3. cheap beer place – w
  4. budvar bar near home – w
  5. edmund cafe – w
  6. Darrel’s bar (Stop-X) – w
  7. Husa – w
  8. Sonora – w
  9. pivovarsky dum – w
  10. park bar with glasses (over bunkr) – w
  11. bohemia bagel – w
  12. LCNH – w
  13. The bar that starts with a Z with the nice patio – w
  14. shakespeare and co – w
  15. sports bar in andel mall – w
  16. calypso in andel – w
  17. Pastička (Mousetrap) – w
  18. Pub 12, slovakia – w
  19. Bowle & Bowling – w
  20. Smoky Staropramen bar near Checkomoravska – w
  21. Propeller bar (wings) – w
  22. Moat Hotel bar – w
  23. ABQ Airport bar – w
  24. Ribs (Tractor Bar) – w
  25. Quarters BBQ, Albuquerque – w
  26. Penn Station – w
  27. Wild Horese Mesa bar – w
  28. Sheraton Old town bar – w
  29. Trinity Brewing Company – w
  30. Canyon Bar and Grill – w
  31. Central Ave. Grill – w
  32. Green Onion Santa Fe – w
  33. OB Grille – w
  34. De Brug – w
  35. U Sadu – w
  36. Hanka’s Herna – w
  37. Little Anita’s Albuquerque – w
  38. Neto’s passtime bar, Gila Bend – w
  39. Lucy’s, OB – w
  40. Ned’s Alb- w
  41. Callahan’s – w
  42. The Lodge, Minn. Airport – w
  43. bila vrana – w
  44. depot – w
  45. Kozel Pub across from glossy sports herna Stra

Bangkok 8

At the beginning of Bangkok 8: A Novel, by John Burdett, we meet a pair of cops, former thugs who have had their brains dismantled and reassembled by a Buddhist Abbot. As we learn over time, they are honest cops in a way that makes just about everyone uncomfortable. They are Thai, and from the beginning we learn that cops are not supposed to be honest (otherwise, as one citizen point out, their pay would have to be increased and that would increase taxes).

That, of course is itself an oversimplification. The two are sent to tail an American marine. Two hours later the marine is dead in an unlikely fashion, trapped in a car with a bunch of poisonous snakes on yaa baa, the local amphetamine coctail. One of the cops dies trying to save the american. It is the sort of thing an arhat would do — a buddhist saint. The other cop, Sonchai, is devastated by the loss of his soul brother. It is seen as perfectly natural that he will kill those responsible for his partner’s death.

This doesn’t go over so well with the Americans charged with investigating the death of the marine. Sonchai has had extensive experience dealing with the west; his mother was a prostitute who was kept by a succession of western men in Europe and the United States. Even so, the female FBI agent sent to work with him is a source of mystery and frustration. She, in turn, is baffled by the way the one clean cop in Bangkok idolizes his boss, a gangster in cop’s clothes.

Sonchai is an intelligent man, very observant, who can see his own past lives and feel the histories of the people around him. This does not strike him as odd or even particularly noteworthy. It’s not some secret power he uses to solve cases. It’s just an empathy he has that lets him see below the surface of the people he meets, allowing him to reach conclusions that would be difficult to arrive at logically.

Obviously, the clash between western and eastern thought is a big theme in this story. This theme is made most obvious in the context of the sex trade. Prostitutes, brothels, minor wives, and other more disturbing forms of people selling their bodies for money, security, or even love abound, and give ample opportunity to contrast cultural responses. Sonchai’s own feelings on the subject are very complicated, and are almost as confusing to his countrymen as to westerners.

There are times when the author gets a bit preachy about the subject, and unfortunately one of the preachiest times is the last chapter of the book. It is a satisfying last chapter on some levels, but it actually embraces the very patness the previous chapter openly rebelled against, which is disappointing. The actions of one of the characters in the last chapter defied reason.

Last chapter notwithstanding, this was a really good read. I like stories that effectively portray a view of life different than mine, in such a way that it makes complete sense. This story succeeds admirably on that scale. In addition, it’s not a half-bad mystery. There are a lot of different forces in conflict with one another (some of whom never emerge from the shadows, which is cool), and its got old alliances, betrayals, gut-wrenching evil, and revenge. Not everyone is completely sane.

It’s really not a thriller, thought there are plenty of tense moments, and even some intense ones. The author does an excellent job communicating the extremity of situations (some very bad) without being gratuitous. You see enough to fill in the blanks. I like that in a story. This book was a fun read with plenty of food for thought, and if you don’t mind things getting a little gritty sometimes (although not nearly as explicit as many other things I’ve read lately), then you might want to give this one a try. I’m sure glad I did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Postafrostalyptic

The state of the Universe after Hell freezes over. Things that had a snowball’s chance in hell are now near-certainties. Vows made (It will be a cold day in hell when…) are coming due. Infinite possibility, huge responsibility. It’s the postafrostalyptic world.

Insignificant Word Trivia

Can anyone think of a word other than hitchhike (and derivatives) that has a double-h?

Bamboo

As I compose this I’m staring at bamboo shoots growing and apparently prospering in a glass vase with nothing in it but water. There’s plenty of the most important atoms available, Hydrogen from the water, Carbon and (depending on the plant?) Nitrogen from the atmosphere. I’m not a botanist; please don’t use my musings here on your biology pop-quiz tomorrow.

But what about the other trace elements that living things need? Is bamboo so well-adapted to mineral-starverd environments that it hardly needs any of these other elements? Does that in turn make it a lousy food? Would the plant die in distilled water? So many questions…

The Heretics of Dune

I was staying at fuego’s the other night, and I was looking for something that I could spend a few minutes reading without too much commitment. The first thing I pulled off the shelf was Hemingway, but it was in Czech. An interesting project, but not the few minutes of entertainment I was looking for. Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert caught my eye. I decided to read just the opening of the book, to see how a well-known author constructs his first words to his readers. Then I would put the book back on the shelf and get on with my life, perhaps a little wiser.

I made myself comfortable and opened the book. The first sentence is a quote. Ordinarily opening with a quote is a risky move because in your head the context is there, but the reader doesn’t have a clue. So even a very dramatic statement is not going to have nearly the effect you expect. If the statement is very short, it’s not so bad, but when the reader has no idea who is speaking, not even gender or clues about how the speech is pitched, the reader will have to defer understanding the statement until he or she gets more data. It is just a bunch of words, waiting to be interpreted. A dramatic moment wasted.

I say “ordinarily” because there are plenty of exceptions. I regularly start my stories with someone speaking (though these days almost all of those openers die in revision), and other people do, too. My corollary to the above rule is “Only start with a quote if it has context and characterization built in.” Off the top of my head, the line “I don’t care who you say you are, you’re not going to see the King,” tells a lot about the circumstances, and even tells us that the speaker is probably not important, it’s who’s being spoken to that matters. It’s got setting, conflict, and is a clear marker that the following will be a fantasy story. So, it’s not bad. Still, is it any better than, “The guard’s armor squeaked with rusty joints as he stepped in front of the door. ‘I don’t care…'”? The second version says volumes about guard (and by extension the king) as perceived by the one being addressed. When the guard says his bit, we already have mild contempt for him.

An interesting project: find works that start with a quote that cannot be easily improved with an introductory sentence. Figure out what they have in common.

So, book review. Right. That’s why we’re here. Herbert opens this novel with a quote, and he most certainly has not found an exception to the above rule. I started right off with a feeling of disorientation. That feelilng did not go away. Heretics of Dune is a textbook example of how not to start a novel. I was bombarded with made-up words, names of people and organizations, leading statements that went nowhere, things left understood between characters without letting me in on it, and on and on. I read chapter 1 with a giant WTF?! hovering over my fizzing head.

It’s probably a good time to point out that I’ve read the book before. And I’m still confused. It’s been a long time, but I’m familiar enough with Frank Herbert’s universe that I made it through that chapter. I pity the poor slob who reads this before reading the many prequels.

It was, overall, a pretty frustrating chapter one. Chapter two wasn’t much better. By chapter three we were meeting new characters that don’t have histories or secrets we needed to know. And just like that I read the whole damn book.

Which leads to the central mystery: I only planned to read the first bit. It wasn’t very good. But for some reason I kept reading. This, somehow, is Herbert’s great skill. He hides things from me, both by not telling and by deliberately obscuring them behind jargon and dogma. (I ground my teeth every time I read something like, (slight paraphrase) “Lucilla understood the full scope of Taraza’s plan. Holy crap! That was the most amazing plan ever! The implications were astonishing!” and then not tell us what Lucilla figured out. AAAARRRGGGHHH!) He assumes knowledge I don’t have. He flatters his characters by saying they have qualities that their actions demonstrate they lack.

All that, and I read the whole book, even though I didn’t intend to, in three sittings.

So what’s in there that kept me going? It’s an interesting question. The writing itself flows well; despite a rich vocabulary the words did not get in the way of the story. I think what really kept me going, however, was a handful of the characters. Not all of them; the principle rivals were all crippled by flaws that undermined thier rivalness, and some of the good guys were too damn good. But there was real internal conflict in some of the characters, people fighting against known flaws and weaknesses. (To make things more interesting, some of those perceived weaknesses sound a lot like strengths to us.)

There is one little girl who comes in out of the desert in a circumstance that has ‘miracle’ written all over it. The local priesthood adopts her, and what do you know? she turns into a spoiled brat. It was nice to meet a character who will obviously be a major factor in the history of humanity portrayed with natural human frailties. She also had a knack for superpowers.

Superpowers abound in this book; some powers are shared by members of the various secret societies, while rogue superpowers manifest unpredictably in individuals (of proper breeding). Politics are everywhere as well, and the core theme of the book might be condensed to “people with superpowers wrangling over how to rule the rest of us.” Herbert, I think, would have disagreed; his good elite are the ones who still care about the welfare of the common man. All the characters in the story are among the elite, however. Even one of the most ordinary of the good guys manages to grow spectacular superpowers (super-duperpowers) by the end.

Speaking of the end, I was running out of pages and there were still a whole lot of loose ends flying around in the narrative. People who needed to interact at length hadn’t even met yet. I knew this book was part of a series, but it was starting to look like this was going to be one of my most aggravating of peeves, the book that doesn’t even pretend to end. Happily, that was not the case. It wasn’t the best ending imaginable, but the end of one of the major characters marks a fitting end to this installment in the series. We get open-ended closure for many of the others — lessons learned, resolutions made, plans revealed — and I was satisfied with that.

It occurs to me that this might be the least useful review I’ve ever written, in terms of advising people whether or not to read a book (which, to be honest, isn’t really my goal). If you haven’t read any of the prequels, do not, by any means, start with this one. If you have read Dune, you’ve already decided whether to continue with the series. I’m guessing that if you did read Dune it frustrated you, but you read the rest of the series anyway, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, and you’re glad you did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.