Tournament of Books: The Dictionary of Animal Languages

Yesterday I finished reading the ninth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages“, which is running against Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” in the third round of the competition.

“The Dictionary of Animal Languages” is a technically difficult novel to read: the language is dense, the plot isn’t linear and at least at first it takes time to figure out who is talking, what’s going on, and in which timeline (one of the several past ones, or the present) you are. It doesn’t help that dialog isn’t delineated with quotation marks and often it isn’t clear who is talking, or whether they are talking or you are in their mind. If it wasn’t for the tournament I would have probably not have bothered with this book after wading through the first 2-3 chapters.

Ivory’s life is complicated and fascinating, but difficult to construct when broken up into non consecutive pieces and portrayed as it is. The characters and settings are very good (vivacious and interesting), and if the story was reconstructed in a more linear fashion it would be “unputdownable”. Sopinka is trying to show Ivory’s life in bursts, not unlike field recordings that you listen to in the lab and try to make sense of, but it really is too much effort for the ending result.

The novel is lyrical and touches on a lot of interesting themes (women’s roles and choices in the worlds of art and science, for example) , but the first third of it moves like thick pudding through a fine sieve. If you get through that, the last half is so much more interesting and rewarding than the first one, although it rushes through some plot points that feel like they shouldn’t be rushed through. There are too many coincidences in the plot (get captured and escape from prison camps much?), there are familial ties that are severed with no explanation or time to mourn (what happened to her brothers? Did Lev really breeze through retelling his brother’s death with not even a moment’s pause?) , and then there is the peculiar animal languages dictionary that is constantly evoked but never really explained to the reader, and you wonder why.

In short, this is a book in need of a more adept writer or a much stricter editor. The bones that are there are interesting enough to merit wading through the first part if you’re interested in contemporary fiction. There’s something there that with time and experience could probably make for a masterpiece some day.

It’s interesting that the Tournament of Books pitched “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” against “Washington Black” as the first has a weak beginning and a strong ending and the last has a strong beginning and a weak ending. Could they have made a perfect collaborative novel together? Jokes aside, Sopkina’s book is a better, if far from perfect, work of fiction, and her novel is lyrical while “Washington Black” only tries really hard to be. “Dictionary”‘s characters are better written and conceived, its plot, once reconstructed, is more compelling, and even its treatment of the animal conservation theme and social pariah/underdog themes are more nuanced and compelling. That is surprising considering the idea behind “Washington Black” seems more powerful and interesting than the one behind “Dictionary”, but Sopinka totally wins in execution against Edugyan.

The Tournament of Books: Washington Black

I recently finished reading the eighth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black“, which is running against Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” in the third round of the competition.

This is the only Tournament of Books book that I heard of before the competition. It made quite a splash when it came out last year, a sort of slave/coming of age narrative with steam punk slapped on for flavour. Sounds interesting, right?

The first half of this novel is. The story of Washington’s childhood (if you can call it that) as a slave, Kit’s story, Faith plantation, Barbados and the Wilde family — they’re all vibrant, alive, speaking volumes through history. Washington’s escape, his travels, his survivor’s guilt, they’re all fascinating, complex, well written, until Washington reaches Canada, where everything grinds to a halt. The narrative enters a kind of swampy ennui, characters become cardboard specimens viewed through milky, distorted glass, and the only thing that maintains the earlier vibrancy is the setting. It was as if all the narrative urge was drained out of this novel and Edugyan was working for a word quota. Slash the novel after the point where Christopher steps into the ice storm and you not only lose nothing, you end up with a better narrative. Christopher trapped and Washington free is more interesting than Christopher being a man-child unable to face the world and Washington chasing him to get no answers. And the “love story” between Tanna and Washington feels more like a last minute after thought than a believable, integral part of the tale.

This could have been an excellent novella, instead of an almost good novel that lost narrative steam halfway through. What a shame.

Montblanc The Beatles Psychedelic Purple Review

A few years ago I used to be really on the FOMO limited edition fountain pen ink band wagon, but over the last two years my ink purchases have petered out to nothing. At some point I realized that any limited edition ink that I buy is bound to be pretty damn close to an ink that I already own, and a person can only have too many inks (IMHO). How many inks can you use at one given time anyway?

The precious few new bottles of ink that I have have all been given to me as part of large (vintage) fountain pen purchases, and so I haven’t felt comfortable reviewing them. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, do you? Then again, the gift was from the store, not the ink maker, so here we are.

The Montblanc Beatles Psychedelic Purple limited edition ink comes in a very groovy box, that is very well designed. Normally I couldn’t care less about ink packaging (excepts as it pertains to price — looking at you Pilot Iroshizuku. You started the trend and you know it), but someone really put some thought in this.

The little ribbon tab helps open the box easily

Look at that design:

I’ve never seen an ink bottle’s cap protected before, but then again this is Montblanc:

The bottle itself is pretty conservatively designed, but classically pretty:

The ink itself is a rich, saturated purple with a good amount of shading (despite being pretty dark), and a very slow drying time. It’s one of the few cases where the actual ink matches the colour of the packaging. There’s some sheen to the ink, but I’ve seen it sheen only on Tomoe River Paper, and it’s super hard to photograph.

I love this ink’s shade of purple (it’s slightly more to the red side of purple than the blue), but this ink was a hot mess in terms of behaviour on various papers. This ink is usable only on Rhodia/Clairfontaine and Tomoe River Paper, it becomes a bleeding, spreading monster on everything else. It also takes a really long time to dry (not surprising, as it’s a very saturated ink), which means that it’s going to be a no-no for left handed users and you really have to take care where you put your hand when you write with the stuff.

And that’s the thing. This is an expensive, not readily available ink that is finicky and temperamental in a hue that’s not so rare as to be unobtainable. Why spend good money and time buying it if you can probably get a spot on match from Diamine? Montblanc Psychedelic Purple cost about $40 when it came out and $80 now for a 50ml bottle. Diamine Majestic Purple costs $15 for an 80ml bottle. You do the math.

If you enjoy hunting for limited edition inks as part of the hobby, that’s fine. Just don’t get swept away by the marketing and the hype. Remember: there’s a very good chance that that expensive limited edition ink is not very different from the ones that you already have and don’t use, or that you can get a similar hue for less than half the price from Diamine.

This Week’s Long Run: Ducks, Gulls and Cafe Cats

This week’s long run was another one in perfect weather. Things are heating up though, so I’m savouring these as long as they last.

This little bittern basked in the morning light. You can almost hear him admiring his reflection in the water.

A gull was standing guard over a few rowboats at one of the river piers:

A mallard sunned itself at the riverside:

And a couple of ducks grazed together:

10k run done:

I went for a post run coffee and a sandwich and was greeted by the cafe’s cat:

Moleskine Limited Edition Pokémon Box Review

I was going to  write a review of the Moleskine Pikachu Pokémon limited edition notebook first, but I forgot that I gifted someone the copy that I had. After a bit of internal debate, I decided to write about the highlight of the Moleskine Pokémon limited edition set, the Pokéball Box, first, and order another copy of the Pikachu notebook for later review. As these make such great gifts, I suspect that this copy too won’t make it into my rotation but instead be snagged by a friend.

Last spring I was visiting London with my family, staying right next to a Moleskine store (my poor, poor wallet) and trying to take my luggage allowance into account (notebooks are heavy, and Moleskines are easily purchasable online after all), when I first saw these. At the time, I wasn’t into Pokémon, I hadn’t played the Nintendo games, and the Pokémon GO craze passed over me without leaving its mark. I thought I was safe. Then I saw this box at the store.

Such a simple design, but so effective

I left London without purchasing the box, but I kept thinking about it. As my family left on a flight two days after me and it turned out that they had weight to spare, they asked me if there’s anything I wanted from the Moleskine store. I considered for a while, and then asked for the Pokémon box. They ended up buying all three notebooks for me.

It’s been almost a year since then, and I’ve been swept into Pokémon GO as a way to handle my anxiety while dealing with my mom’s illness, and so when I photographed this box today, it was no longer an abstract thing that I had very little emotional ties to. The design, however, has not changed.

Unlike many other Moleskine limited edition boxes, this one comes with a Moleskine pen. The tradition started a few years ago with the Writing Box, and this year it’s part of the Basquiat box.

This isn’t a review of the Moleskine rollerball, but of the Pokémon box, so I’ll just point out two things: Strangely enough the logo on the clip is set so the Moleskine logo isn’t aligned with the Gotta Catch ‘Em All! logo. When one of them is right side up, the other isn’t. Also, the Gotta Catch ‘Em All is printed only on one side of the pen, which is disappointing. If you clip it to a notebook there’s a 50/50 chance that you won’t see the logo, unless you make sure the cap is positioned so the clip isn’t on the side of the logo.

The other thing that’s disappointing here is the choice of the body colour of the pen. Red would have been so much more functional, as the white is going to look grimy and tarnished just about the moment you start using it.

The pen uncapped. Now imagine in it bright red. So much better, right?

Inside the notebook you are greeted with a whole lot of Pokéballs, both on the front and back endpapers.

Front endpaper
Back end paper

The design even continues into the inner lining of the back pocket:

This edition comes with four Pokéball bookmarks, like the other Moleskine Pokémon limited editions.

All in all it’s a nice box, but in terms of design, it’s all in the cover. The endpapers are bland in my opinion, and they could have done a much better job on the pen. The initial price on these was pretty high, but as it’s now dropped somewhat, I still think that they make a great gift for the Pokémon lover in your life, though you might want to consider the other Moleskine Pokémon notebooks.

Tournament of Books: The Italian Teacher

I just finished reading the seventh Tournament of Books 2019 book, Tom Rachman’s “The Italian Teacher“, which is running against Anna Burn’s “Milkman” in the second round of the competition.

What a difference one round makes. The Tournament of Books play-in books were all excellent, setting up high expectations for the first round of books. If only those expectations were met. Both “Warlight” and “Call Me Zebra” were very mediocre books, verging on the terrible. A good premise and sweaty efforts that exude out of every page do not a good book make. It would have been very easy to give up on the Tournament of Books at this point, but I’m so glad that I stuck to it.

The round 2 books were the complete opposite of round 1, finally giving the play-in books a run for their money. “Milkman” is one of the best books that I have ever read, period. It deserves to stand in any capital L Literature shelf in every library around the world. I was genuinely worried for “The Italian Teacher”, sure that “Milkman” would mop the floor with it. It didn’t.

Tom Rachman’s “The Italian Teacher” is a study of what makes an artist, how humans connect and how those connections evolve with time, and the gap between what people’s expectations of what an artist’s life and work process is versus the often lacklustre reality of their lives. It is far from a treatise though — every character pops off the page, juicy and real and warm, the dialogue sparkles, the oftentimes tragic story is sprinkled with humour and good nature, making it a fun read, even though oftentimes you want to punch this or that character in the mouth or shake them to awareness. Every little detail is well thought out, but unlike “Call Me Zebra”, you don’t see the sweat. It feels so effortless to read that you’re lulled into thinking that it was effortless to write.

If it was placed against any of the round 1 Tournament of Books books it would have easily trounced them. As it stands against “Milkman”, I doubt that it will advance beyond this round. “Milkman” has a timeless, monumental quality about it, even though its heroine leads a much less glamorous life than Bear and Pinch, or even Natalie. In a place where the sky is always blue and sunsets are not something you go and watch, great novels grow.

Westinghouse No. 2 Pencil: Not a Review

I just started using a vintage Westinghouse number 2 pencil, instead of the Palomino Blackwing 530 which reached the Steinbeck stage. There’s no point in reviewing a pencil that isn’t widely available, but I got a pack of these on eBay for a pittance and they are excellent pencils, so if you’re looking for great, super cheap pencils and don’t mind petrified erasers, give branded vintage pencil listing on eBay a try. You never know what you’ll find.

This Week’s Long Run: The Calm After the Storm

Last week’s long run was the Tel Aviv Marathon 10k (I broke my PR!), and the week before that was a majorly stormy day, so it was nice to get back to an early morning 10k after a hiatus.

There was a storm on Thursday, which meant that the sea was choppy, sand-brown, and there were even more seabirds about than usual.

That was 10k done and dusted, and as a bonus I’m adding some pictures from yesterday evening’s 5k, because the sea at sunset now is extra gorgeous.

How majestic is that sunset?

Tel Aviv’s Gordon and Metzizim beach, flooded after the storm: