Monday, February 28, 2011

Life imitates art*

Thomas Loughlin, a police detective from Sarasota, Florida, lost his job for filing paperwork to declare himself a sovereign citizen, exempt from United States federal and state law (and taxes).

In "E. Peterbus Unum," Peter secedes from the U.S. and founds Petoria.

*You may quibble over whether Family Guy is art or schlock, or some mystical combination of the two.

How to play soccer like a terrorist.

1. Play soccer without the four lines, because they were created by the infidels and [are] the international rules of soccer, which require that they should be drawn when playing soccer.

2. The terminology used by the international rules created by the infidels and polytheists such as 'foul,' 'penalty,' 'corner,' 'goal,' and 'out' - all of these terms should be left behind and not uttered. Each person who uses them will be disciplined, berated, removed from the game. He will be told publicly: 'you have emulated the infidels, and this is forbidden to you.'
6. Playing with the ball should be done with the application of rules and regulations, and with the intention of strengthening the body for the purpose of waging jihad in the path of God and in preparation for such a time as the call for jihad is issues, not to waste time or for the enjoyment of the so called victory.

12. When you are done playing with the ball, do now talk about your game, saying 'I am a better player than the opponent.' ... we only played with the intention of training to run and maneuver in preparation for jihad in God's path.

13. Any of you who, when he kicks the ball between the wooden or iron posts, then runs so that his friends will run after him or adulate him as players do in American or France, spit in his face and discipline him and berate him. What do joy and embraces and kissing have to do with the sport?
- Abdallah al-Najdi, 2005

Hear that, you guys? Knock it off.

This and other excerpts from Voices of Jihad available in eBook form from

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tim Kreider isn't angry anymore.*

On Saturday I went to Atomic Books in Hampden to hear Tim Kreider, cartoonist and illustrator extraordinaire, discuss his new book, Twilight of the Assholes. Tim Kreider used to write a weekly comic for the Baltimore City Paper, titled "The Pain," and also has a great website with an archive of his comics here. He still periodically posts a new comic, but more on an every-few-months-basis than every week.

You were funny. Why did you stop? seemed to be the plaintive theme of the evening (that and the kid making intermittent yelping noises loudly from the back of the tiny bookstore), and Kreider's answer boiled down to money - twenty bucks being, understandably, not enough to persuade him to continue the work - and anger. After nearly eight years, he just didn't want to do it anymore. Being angry for so long is exhausting, although he does still post a polemic every now and then.

I love Kreider's comics, and Wednesdays used to be a high point for me because that's when a new comic would go up on his website (small thing, I know, but it was a dark time in my life). Kreider's loose, rubbery style of drawing is legitimately hilarious, and some of his cartoons will make you snork whatever you were drinking through your nose when you read them.

So, Twilight of the Assholes isn't strictly a comic collection like his two other books, The Pain: When Will It End and Why Do They Kill Me?. It includes the bulk of the comics published by City Paper that didn't appear in the other works and Kreider's artist statements about each one, all of which appear on his website, so if you were a regular reader of his site you won't be seeing much that's new, but it's still a hilarious book.

Also, seeing two of Tim's friends who appear regularly in his strip in real life was weird and disorienting, but also really funny.

Here is my copy of Twilight of the Assholes, next to a BLT and fries from Cafe Hon.

*Tim is still kind of angry.

Yesterday I went to the Thieves Market, one of those big, warehouse-like spaces crammed with antique booths, and saw these two incredibly creepy doll/mannequin things.

Yes, I am gesturing imperiously at you.

I don't think the pictures adequately capture their creepiness. They have molded doll-like heads that are nearly lifesize, and these shrunken limbs that look like they're made out of pantyhose stuffed with something. Did someone make the costumes they're wearing? Why would anyone make something like this? 


A bowl of apple crisp with vanilla custard.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Done to death.

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian was a novel ten years in the making. Which makes me not feel so bad about my own glacial writing pace. Kostova's debut novel broke a number of records when it was published, becoming the first debut novel to land on number one of the New York Times bestseller list and earning Kostova $2 million from Little, Brown, and Company. It sold more than Dan Brown's da Vinci Code in its first week alone.

Which is kind of weird for a langorous novel about a dusty group of academics whose greatest occupational hazard seems to be papercuts, until they get a myssssssssterious book that propels them into a multi-country search for Dracula, who is still noodling about but has mellowed somewhat in his old age and collects books instead of impalements.

When The Historian is good, it's very good. Kostova does an excellent job of evoking landscape, mood, and atmosphere, and conjuring up the darker corners of Bulgaria and Romania under the grip of communism. Her descriptions of the beknighted monasteries, churches, and mosques in the liminal zones of Europe and Asia where they start to bleed together are rich with detail, reflecting Kostova's childhood in Slovenia in the early 1970s and later return to Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The book's philosophical wanderings about the nature of history and man are thoughtful and sad, but the book's central villain and his lair come across as more of a Madame Toussaud villain than a real menace, and the obligatory final confrontation is clumsy and forced. Kostova's otherwise gentle and flowing writing becomes stilted when she has to depart from the world of historiography and try to extricate her characters from the scrapes they get into.

The Historian begins in Amsterdam with the peripatetic and insulated lives of the unnamed teenage narrator and her father, Paul, an American diplomat (in Kostova's work, history is the pursuit of the wealthy). The narrator's mother is dead, and she and her father have a close, if guarded relationship, as they tiptoe around hidden sources of grief. The narrator finds a little book, blank except for a woodcut of a dragon, in her father's study and asks him about the book's provenance, which sets The Historian's plot into motion. As the pair travel around France, the narrator tries to tease out her father's story, which he parts with reluctantly.

The book came to Paul as a graduate student in New England. Paul's mentor, Professor Rossi, has a similar one, and reveals that the book prompted him to begin researching the location of Vlad Tepes' remains. He warns Paul of the danger of pursuing this research, then promptly vanishes. Paul then meets Rossi's daughter, Helen, a sharp-tempered Romanian student determined to best her father in his own profession in revenge for his abandonment of her mother. Helen and Paul take off for Istanbul, pursuing a trail of dusty, cryptic clues, and fall in with a Turkish professor, Turgut Bora, who so serendipitously happens to have access to exactly the documents they need, an obliging archivist friend, the willingness to shadow them around Istanbul's libraries and translate, and his own obsession with Dracula.

Convinced yet? The coincidences mount up, with Helen and Paul always finding exactly the help they need when they need it (Helen has a well-connected aunt in the communist government of Hungary who can get them travel visas and access to the university; they keep stumbling across helpful monks and librarians, and Helen's mother is a descendant of Vlad Tepes). Their search for Rossi takes them to an isolated outpost in Bulgaria, where Dracula has apparently spent the intervening centuries building a really sweet underground library that seems like something from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, complete with magical fires and replenishing food for his captive historian. I half expected a singing ottoman to show up and belt one out.

The narrative continues to jump between 1950s Eastern Europe and 1970s Western Europe, until the narrator's father disappears and she's prompted to follow him to a monastery in southern France that's connected with the Dracula myth and the mystery of her missing mother, which prompts a FINAL CONFRONTATION BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL ZZZZZSSSSNRK.

Of course, in the vein of all good horror movies, we only THINK the villain is dead (undead undead undead, with apologies to Bauhaus), but he turns up again in the epilogue, leaving our heroine to continue the fight.

There are some really, really great things about Kostova's novel. She's wonderfully adept at capturing the dusty world of historians and how sometimes, a passage in a book or document will abruptly spring to life and leave the researcher shaken, as well as showing how the horrors of history can become miasmic, overwhelming, and terrifyingly alive. Even Dracula seems ready to hang it up in the face of a world narrative that makes his own crimes seem petty and small. Watching Helen and Paul follow the thinnest thread of conjecture and myth through Asia and Europe in search of their quarry should be exhilarating to anyone who has spent hours chasing that one elusive footnote or paragraph. But when Kostova's characters leave their study carrels, their real peril seems hasty and sloppily constructed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Strange fruit/sweet cake

From yesterday's trip to Eden.

This was listed as a "cold dessert." I believe it's some sort of rice derivative dessert with pandan, but I can't figure out what the semi-opaque chunks of goop are. They look kind of like tuna.

Various toppings: green paste, green goop, black goop, reddish paste, something that resembles frog eggs, and yellow paste.

Technicolor squishy foods.

Stare deeply into this cake.

Chocolate cake with white chocolate cream cheese frosting. It's my unique curse that I never, ever have enough frosting to both frost and decorate a cake - I think I just need to start doubling the frosting to cake ratio in all future baking.

Cake, postmortem.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Flesh wounds

Aaaah, historical fiction. Most commonly the province of shakily researched bodice-rippers, there are some eras that have been sadly overlooked. Some epochs just aren't as sexy as others, and pre-unification Germany is definitely one of those. Germany of the 1600s is actually a handful of principalities, tiny kingdoms, and duchies, populated by a beknighted group of peasants, nasty superstitions, no soap, and some of the worst living conditions of medieval Europe (which is sort of like saying, the worst strain of Ebola. It's all bad.).

The Hangman's Daughter is set in the provincial little town of Schongau in the Duchy of Bavaria. Schongau is a persecuted town, both by the superstitious inhabitants, the marauding Swedish army (pre-IKEA and blond wood furniture, the Swedish army was the most feared and brutal in Europe), and avaricious burghers. The past few years have been even more unkind than usual to Schongau, with floods, hailstorms, plague, and the end of the Great War decimating the town's population.

The Hangman's Daughter follows the Kuisl family about their deadly business. By tradition, the position of executioner is a hereditary one, and the Kuisls are regarded with fear and suspicion by the townspeople, but tolerated because of their necessity.

The discovery of the battered body of the young son of one of the townspeople sets the deadly plot into motion. Hysteria mounts when its revealed that the child has a symbol associated with witchcraft stained into his skin, and suspicion immediately falls on the town's midwife, Martha Stechlin. Jakob Kuisl, the hangman, takes Martha to jail to save her from the hysterical mob, but with pressure from the burghers to extract a confession by torture, Kuisl has little time to find the killer.

Aided by the town doctor's son, Simon, a foppish intellectual whose enlightened ideas put him at opposition with his father and the town (and who has an inconvenient crush on Jakob's beautiful daughter, Magdalena), Jakob begins investigating a conspiracy that involves the town's orphans, the wealthy landowners, and a group of mysterious strangers.

Poetzsch quickly sets up a dichotomy of good - the rational, intellectual Kuisl, Simon, and a small handful of townspeople, and evil - backward, provincial peasants, the grasping aldermen - and throws in a handful of diabolical soldiers for good measure. The Hangman's Daughter is really a twisty whodunit disguised with the trappings of historical fiction, philosophy, and lashings of the supernatural, but the only evil here is made by men, not devils.

As the conspiracy widens, the novel becomes satisfyingly complex, but the end is something of a letdown as it reverts to a hero-versus-villain climax no different from the latest iteration of a Temperance Brennan novel. Despite this, The Hangman's Daughter is one of the better researched pieces of historical fiction that I've read lately, and Poetzsch weaves information about life in 1600s Europe neatly into the narrative without seeming affected or showy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New life

Artist Theo Jansen builds wind-powered PVC animals.

These remind me of China Mieville's "Familiar" in his short story collection, Looking for Jake.

Monday, February 14, 2011


The hills behind the Kigali museum.

On the beach at Lake Kivu.

The Kivu coastline.

A primary school in Kigali.

This is actually a giant, giant cactus.

Vanessa and me.

The view of the hills.

On a boda-boda.

Near the DRC border.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I leave for Rwanda today and will return in two weeks, so the blog will go on a hiatus. Expect lots of pictures when I return. My reading list for Rwanda includes:

Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum
Colonel Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
Surrender or Starve and Soldiers of God, Robert Kaplan
Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder
Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
Fools Rush In, Bill Carter
The Hangman's Daughter, Oliver Poetzsch
Unbroken: Laura Hillenbrand
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
Bringing the War Home, Jeremy Varon
Terror in Black September, David Raab
In the Graveyard of Empires, Seth Jones
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
Djibouti, Ernst Weiss

And about 15 more. And as always, gentle readers....DON'T MENTION THE WAR.