30 dezembro 2009

Happy Birthday, Esperanto :)

Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

Do you speak Esperanto?

Even if you don't, you've probably heard of the world's most popular artificial language. Spoken by a dedicated international community, this easy-to-learn language has been pushing for global understanding for a century now.

This month Esperantists, as people who speak Esperanto are called, are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of their founder, Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof.

Zamenhof grew up in a small town in the Russian Empire where the people spoke Belarussian, German, Polish, and Yiddish. He saw all the troubles and misunderstandings this multilingual community had and decided that an international language would be the best way to promote peace. He devised one and published a grammar and dictionary in 1887. The language has no verb declensions, no exceptions to its simple rules, and a uniform way to turn a word from a verb to a noun to an adjective. Called Esperanto ("One who hopes"), it soon grew into a international phenomenon.
Sadly, Esperanto never became a truly universal language. The governments of the world would have had to agree to teach it to their populations, and this would require a degree of cooperation that our fragmented globe is unable to muster. Being a language of international peace and understanding, it's also received unhealthy attention from various unsavory regimes. Esperantists were killed in the Holocaust and in Stalin's purges. The fact that Zamenhof was a Jew fed into antisemitic fears of a "one world government".

But this hasn't dissuaded Esperantists. They're an active bunch, with their own version of Wikipedia, their own magazines, their own language academy, even their own flag, sporting the green star, which many Esperantists wear as a lapel pin to identify themselves. For travelers, Esperantists have a network of free accommodation in 92 countries.

It's unclear just how many people speak Esperanto, but estimates range from 100,000 to two million. I've met Esperantists in Bulgaria, Iran, India, and the U.S. Back in the Nineties I and a group of other visionaries scammed some money from the University of Arizona to create our own Esperantogrupo and taught regular classes for three years. Sadly, the group is no more and my knowledge of Esperanto has decayed as I've studied German, Arabic, and Spanish.

Perhaps some day I'll pick it up again. Who knows? As the U.S. slips from superpower status English won't remain a universal language, and it's sure not going to be replaced by Chinese (one of the hardest languages in the world to learn) so perhaps Esperanto will get a second chance.

29 dezembro 2009

The Story of Stuff

Canção do Mar opens Southland

The weather in 2009

A Telegraph gallery

$9.99 - and the voice of Geoffrey Rush ;)

Listen to Africa

The Listen to Africa expedition is a two year journey by bicycle to record some of the sounds of Africa – from oral histories and music to soundscapes and wildlife; recording and publishing sound seems an appropriate way to communicate from a continent that has so much to say and is so rarely heard outside of its own borders.
While we have no fixed ideas about the subject matter, the Listen to Africa website will inevitably reflect the interests of the team: human rights and humanitarian welfare, wildlife and environmental protection, music and citizen journalism. We are also keen to work with African people and groups along the way, especially in local and community radio, podcasting and blogging. If you work in these areas, and if you’re interested in working with us, we’d love to hear from you.
Listen to Africa isn’t a charity; the expedition will be self funded, partly through commissions. Nor are we raising money for charity. We will though be visiting people and grassroots projects working for change across the continent and we’ll provide contact details for those that accept donations, in case you feel inspired to donate.
Whenever we have access to electricity and the internet, we will be updating the audio, gallery and blog sections of the website. Because this is a bicycle expedition, we may be out of communication for long periods of time, but we will be updating our location by SMS along the way; you can follow the journey on the map.

Thanx to Papel de Lustro ;)

The novels of Paul Auster

[Illustration: André Carrilho]

Roger Phaedo had not spoken to anyone for ten years. He confined himself to his Brooklyn apartment, obsessively translating and retranslating the same short passage from Rousseau’s “Confessions.” A decade earlier, a mobster named Charlie Dark had attacked Phaedo and his wife. Phaedo was beaten to within an inch of his life; Mary was set on fire, and survived just five days in the I.C.U. By day, Phaedo translated; at night, he worked on a novel about Charlie Dark, who was never convicted. Then Phaedo drank himself senseless with Scotch. He drank to drown his sorrows, to dull his senses, to forget himself. The phone rang, but he never answered it. Sometimes, Holly Steiner, an attractive woman across the hall, would silently enter his bedroom, and expertly rouse him from his stupor. At other times, he made use of the services of Aleesha, a local hooker. Aleesha’s eyes were too hard, too cynical, and they bore the look of someone who had already seen too much. Despite that, Aleesha had an uncanny resemblance to Holly, as if she were Holly’s double. And it was Aleesha who brought Roger Phaedo back from the darkness. One afternoon, wandering naked through Phaedo’s apartment, she came upon two enormous manuscripts, neatly stacked. One was the Rousseau translation, each page covered with almost identical words; the other, the novel about Charlie Dark. She started leafing through the novel. “Charlie Dark!” she exclaimed. “I knew Charlie Dark! He was one tough cookie. That bastard was in the Paul Auster gang. I’d love to read this book, baby, but I’m always too lazy to read long books. Why don’t you read it to me?” And that is how the ten-year silence was broken. Phaedo decided to please Aleesha. He sat down, and started reading the opening paragraph of his novel, the novel you have just read.
Yes, that précis is a parody of Paul Auster’s fiction, leau dAuster in a sardonic sac. It is unfair, but diligently so, checking off most of his work’s familiar features. A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist. Hey, Roger Phaedo invented Charlie Dark! It was all in his head.

2009 was the year of the short story

2009 has proved that rumours of the death of the short story – so often forecast that almost every review of almost every collection seems duty-bound to repeat and thus propagate it – are greatly exaggerated. The consensus running through the end-of-year reviews is that it's been a vintage year for short fiction, and I agree. I come here to praise the short story, not to bury it.
Starting at the top, one of the world's greatest living short story specialists, and one of its greatest writers full-stop, took the 2009 Man Booker International prize. Canadian Alice Munro published her 14th collection, Too Much Happiness, earlier this year. A powerful grouping of stories more violent than her normal work, it shows her enormous talent remains undiminished as she nears her ninth decade.
Mavis Gallant is already well into hers, and while no new work is forthcoming an edition of her previously uncollected stories, The Cost of Living, has just been published. As for the brand new, this year saw collections from big names such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ha Jin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Lasdun, and this parish's own AL Kennedy.
Good work from the living, then, but notable new collections issued even from beyond the grave. Raymond Carver's Beginners reinstates the writer's original drafts of the stories that made up his definitive 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; stories that his editor Gordon Lish famously and controversially reduced in length, in some cases cutting up to 78% of Carver's prose. I had misgivings before reading it, but Beginners is a fascinating document. The decision to publish these versions is controversial, but the logic behind his widow Tess Gallagher's desire to show the "connective tissue" between his pre- and post-Lish work seems sound. Additionally the endnotes, wherein the editors detail what revisions were made where and when, are like morsels of crack for Carver geeks.
This has also been an excellent year for debuts. I read David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned back to back, and while their shared interests – hunting, ichthyology, destructive rages, divorce, abuse and guns – might lie heavily on their readers' psyches, the quality of the writing precludes any chance of leaving them depressed. Both superb, Vann's book in particular suggests the arrival of a significant talent; one who can marry tremendous plot twists to an appealingly downbeat style that fans of Carver and Cormac McCarthy alike will thrill to.
In case you're wondering what Legend of a Suicide, supposedly a novel, is doing in a blog about short stories, it was originally published as a story collection in America. Vann told the Guardian he prefers the way the book is being sold in the UK, but really it sits somewhere between the two forms: the stories are discrete, but at the same time are all reactions to or descriptions of a single central event. Another book that hovers in this enjoyable and I think fertile space between the story collection and the novel is this year's Pulitzer winner, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, a story cycle set in Crosby, Maine, and presided over by the retired schoolteacher of the title. It's sold upwards of 400,000 copies so far: impressive for a literary novel, extraordinary for short fiction.
Of course, all this jubilation would be Panglossian without some acknowledgement of the short story market's real and present downsides. In the US it's commonplace for short story writers to get a deal for their first collection only on the proviso that a novel follows, a business practice that casts short story-writing as apprentice work. In the UK it's worse still, with story collections treated like dirty secrets to be snuck out in disguise (pace Penguin's strategy with Vann), with only a determined study of the back cover revealing the truth. And I don't know if it's a case of reading practices following publishing's lead or vice versa, but I'm constantly surprised and disheartened by the number of readers who tell me they don't read short stories, as if they were a homogenous type that could be not to your taste like, say, policiers.
I do see more reason to celebrate than to mourn, however. Radio 4 broadcasts nearly 150 stories a year; the Atlantic's recent decision to sell short stories via its Kindle store inspires hope for a vibrant market for individually sold shorter works, while flash fiction and sites dedicated to the short story continue to proliferate online.
This year saw the US publication of the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a particular favourite of mine, whose sharp, hilarious, often minuscule fictions have long had a small but dedicated following. She's the next subject in the short story series I've been writing for the last couple of years, and in the words of the New Yorker her body of work "will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal." Hamish Hamilton have just picked up the UK rights, so British readers as yet unfamiliar with her will soon have an even better chance to find out how good she is. It looks like 2010's already shaping up to be another good year.

Thank you, Guardian ;)

19 dezembro 2009

Vampiros em Portugal

Rui Zink e os «Contos de Vampiros»
Histórias de vampiros com a particularidade de serem contadas por autores portugueses, é a proposta de Contos de Vampiros, livro coordenado por Pedro Sena-Lino e editado pela Porto Editora. Miguel Esteves Cardoso, José Eduardo Agualusa, Hélia Correia e Rui Zink, entre outros, aceitaram o desafio. «Nove terríveis contos de vampiros, originais e assinados por autores portugueses contemporâneos directamente para os seus maiores receios de leitores. A partir do momento em que iniciar a leitura, a responsabilidade é inteiramente sua», lê-se na contracapa. A NS’ correu o risco e conversou com Rui Zink, autor do conto «O Monstro».

O que nos conta?
É a história de um homem que, num trivial mas doloroso processo de divórcio, passa a odiar as mulheres e descobre que a sua é um vampiro. 

A moda dos vampiros voltou?
Os vampiros são mortos-vivos, não é? Pode parecer que se foram embora, mas acabam sempre andando por aí, quais Santana Lopes.

Como se explica tantas formas de arte a tratar histórias de vampiros nesta altura?
Desde o 11 de Setembro que nos sentimos todos um pouco mortos-vivos. E anda a faltar-nos ternura, parece que nada dura. Os vampiros respondem bem aos problemas do nosso tempo: crise de valores, de amores, de ardores.

Se pudesse realizar um filme de vampiros, o que contaria?
A história do meu conto «O Monstro», ora essa. Orçamento maneirinho, sem caninos aguçados.
Mais vampiros em Sintra
Também a TVI está a gravar uma história de vampiros em Sintra. A mini-série tem seis episódios e dá pelo nome de Destino Imortal. Produzida pela Plural, acrescenta à trama dois novos tipos de monstro: o «dampiro», misto de humano e vampiro; e uma vampira que, devido a uma mutação genética, vive de dia e suporta o sol. Os dois apaixonam-se e o resto já se calcula... A luta entre o bem e o mal liga-se ao romance protagonizado por Pedro Barroso e Catarina Wallenstein. Aos jovens actores juntam-se Rogério Samora, Maria João Luís, Jorge Corrula, Evelina Pereira, Rodrigo Saraiva e Filipe Crawford, entre outros.

Virgílio Castelo
«Estamos a assistir a um revivalismo das histórias de vampiros»
A serra de Sintra está mais mística do que é costume desde o início de Novembro. Ouvem-se histórias de vampiros na zona. A culpa é da SP Televisão, a produtora responsável pela série Lua Vermelha. A estreia da nova aposta juvenil da SIC é esperada no início de 2010, mas tudo está ainda envolto em mistério, confessa Virgílio Castelo, consultor de ficção do canal. Afinal, trata-se de vampiros: é normal que haja enigmas por desvendar.
O que vai ser Lua Vermelha?
É essencialmente uma série juvenil que fala dos amores e desamores dos adolescentes e jovens adultos. Do início da sua vida afectiva mais complicada, ou seja, os primeiros amores. Passa-se num colégio de excelência, em Sintra. Por ser em Sintra, está desde logo inserida numa zona envolta em muitos mistérios, e aproveitámos isso para criar aqui uma dimensão não-humana, em que o fenómeno dos vampiros vai interagir com o colégio. Vamos assistir à possibilidade/impossibilidade de os humanos conviverem com os vampiros e vice-versa. Há desde humanos que recusam qualquer contacto com vampiros, vampiros que recusam qualquer contacto com humanos e humanos e vampiros que acham que é possível o convívio entre eles. Isto com histórias de amor, histórias familiares, de desejos de futuro, de tentativa de definição nestas idades. Nesse sentido, o fenómeno dos vampiros pode potenciar todas as angústias e maravilhas que se vivem nessas idades, entre os 16 e 18 anos.

O que conta esta história de amor entre os actores Mafalda Luís de Castro e Rui Porto Nunes?
É um amor entre um vampiro com características especiais e uma humana com características especiais também. É no fundo aquele tema do amor impossível, mas que aqui não é evidente. Não é só um vampiro e uma humana. É mais qualquer coisa que depois se verá.

É uma série para competir com Morangos com Açúcar, da TVI?
Isso acabará por acontecer naturalmente. Porque se uma estação tem uma série juvenil naturalmente que em comparação com outra estação, que já tem uma novela juvenil, haverá com certeza pontos de concorrência.

Nesta série existem pontos de contacto com as histórias de Stephenie Meyer, Crepúsculo ou Lua Nova?
Eu não vi. E não posso dizer que haja pontos de contacto com o filme ou que não haja. Parece que de repente o fenómeno dos vampiros começou em 2009 ou 2008, o que não é verdade…

Pode falar-se numa nova vaga então?
Eu acho que é mais isso. Estamos a assistir a um revivalismo de coisas que já aconteceram. Houve uma vaga tremenda de filmes nos anos de 1930, outra nos anos sessenta e provavelmente está a acontecer outra. Haverá razões para isso, mas o fenómeno dos vampiros existe a partir de Bram Stoker. Não existe a partir de Twilight. Quem o criou terá ido à fonte. Os criadores da nossa série ter-se-ão também inspirado em tudo o que existe na actualidade e tudo o que está para trás.

É fã das histórias de vampiros?
Confesso que não acho muita graça. Mas isso é dissociado do meu trabalho. Eu tenho pouca paciência para lidar com fantasias que não sejam utopias. Com as utopias lido bem. Coisas que não existem ainda mas que se nos esforçarmos podem acontecer. Coisas que não existem e sabemos que não podem existir, não tenho muita paciência.

Porquê o nome Lua Vermelha?
De algum modo remete para tudo o que tem que ver com o universo dos vampiros: o universo nocturno, de sangue. Por isso, a ideia dos autores para criar este nome é muito feliz, no sentido em que com duas palavras muito simples dizem tudo. Acho que a frase que serve de leitmotiv à serie – «Deixa-te morder» – completa a ideia de Lua Vermelha. Foi um trabalho inspirado da SP.

18 dezembro 2009


The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate Jackson, cried.
..."It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

By Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).

The Digested Classics - The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Nietzsche's idea of eternal return has perplexed many philosophers. You, though, will merely find my eternal returning to the idea of eternal return over the coming pages merely annoying. But is not annoyance the heaviest of human burdens? Yet does not the absence of annoyance, the lightness, confer the unbearable burden of insignificance?
Parmenides would have posed this question in the sixth century had he been an east European intellectual intent on grinding his readers' noses into the superficiality of his thought. Which then shall we choose? Lightness or heaviness? Probably neither, for even the stupidest person can see this is a false dichotomy, that both ideas are equally invalid. If something only happens once, could not that make it more, not less, significant? But these counter-revolutionary thoughts have no place in the Prague Spring of 1968, so let's continue with the novel.
I have been thinking about Tomas, the Czech surgeon, for some years but only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. He had first met Tereza in a small town three weeks earlier. They had met for an hour. Ten days later she visited him in Prague. They made love and she came down with flu for 10 days. Then she went home again. In his inordinately deep way, Tomas was perplexed to find himself feeling something more for her than just a physical desire of objectification, so he says to himself, as we all do at such times, Einmal ist Keinmal, what happens once might as well never have happened.
One day Tereza returned again with a copy of Anna Karenina and Tomas sees her as a child in a bulrush and himself as Oedipus. Unperturbed by such pretentious imagery, he sleeps with her again and when he awakes to find her holding his hand in a transgressive act of dissent against Soviet alienation he feels obliged to marry her. Tomas has been married before and has a son whom we shall call, for argument's sake, Simon. Tomas has decided to have no contact with Simon – a decision that appears to give him few qualms and goes unquestioned by everyone throughout the novel.
Instead he chose to indulge his solipsism by shagging as many women as possible, arguing that love and sex were incompatible, and in Sabina, an artist who liked to fuck in a bowler hat and with as ridiculous a line in symbolism as himself, he found the perfect mistress. This being the work of a middle-aged male novelist, Tereza naturally came to accept Tomas's dissociative state as the natural order, though she was given to the occasional intensely symbolic dream herself as she photographed Russians in the streets of Prague.
For his part, Tomas's narcissism was startled to imagine that Tereza might have once slept with another man, so he suggested they move to Zurich so he could be nearer to Sabina. Tereza went along with this for a bit, but after Tomas had also shagged half of Switzerland, she got a bit fed up and went back to Prague. Initially, Tomas felt an incredible lightness that his wife of seven years had left him. But then he thought of Sophocles and Beethoven and the heaviness returned. So he went back to Prague and Tereza was quite pleased.
Tereza had had a difficult life and, were this novelist was not quite so keen to be taken seriously, he might have said that Tomas had abused her as much as had her mother. But he didn't, so there we are. She too was very interested in the artificial split between lightness and heaviness and, after shacking up with Tomas for very different reasons to his, she accepted she was a metaphor for Dubcek's weakness and sadly patted her dog, Karenin.
Franz was Sabina's other Swiss lover, a man of less depth and substance than Tomas, though no less absurd. Unwilling to have sex with Sabina in the same town in which he lived with his wife, Franz, unlike Tomas, failed to understand the importance of the neo-Marxist, post-Freudian bowler hat. With Franz the bowler hat was no longer a comic connection to her father and grandfather, it was a symbol of violence and public rape. Apparently. So she ridiculed his puppy-like nuzzling of her breasts in coitus. Such is the existential ennui of the mittel-European. A world of missed connections between Franz and Sabina, Tomas and Tereza. The misunderstanding between lightness and heaviness, between a book of substance and a load of bollocks.
Tereza took a job as a waitress after the Russians occupied the city. She regularly smelled other womens' vaginal juices on Tomas's hair, but she shrugged it off and went about her day pondering the lightness or heaviness of the Cartesian mind-body split. Was her body part of herself? She still wasn't sure after she had been fucked an engineer who may or may not have been a Communist spy in the toilet. And no one else certainly cared. She wandered up to Petrin Hill in a dream and watched herself get shot by a firing squad while Tomas looked on. Either I'm a prostitute or I'm in love.
Meanwhile I was a little worried Tomas had forgotten he was also supposed to be an allegory for Soviet repression, so Tomas began taking a previously well-concealed interest in Czech politics. His Sophoclean musings had led him to write a letter of dissent on the nature of passive complicity to a radical newspaper, and he now found himself being asked for a retraction by a Man from the Ministry. Caught in the balance between lightness and heaviness, between Beethoven's Muss Es Sein? and Es Muss Sein! and between his existential Parmenidean obsession for finding the millionth part of difference in a woman and just being the figment of a dirty old man's mind, he refused.
Tomas was forced to resign from his job as a surgeon and became a window-cleaner in Prague, where his main duties were having sex with 37 women a day, all of whom unaccountably desired to surrender their anus, his favourite part of the female anatomy, to him. After a year or so, a radical editor, who had admired his Sophoclean musings, invited him to a meeting at which his son Simon was present. Naturally, the cause of modernist magical realism was best served by them not discussing the 20-year hiatus in their relationship, so instead the conversation centred on whether Tomas would agree to sign a petition protesting at the Russian occupation.
So why did he not sign? For one thing, the split between lightness and heaviness had been blurred in the editing of his Oedipal fixation and he did not hold the position ascribed to him. Yet more importantly, he did not sign because I did not let him for this is the moment in which the post-modern authorial intervention reminds you the characters are all my own invention and therefore facets of my own character. So rather Tomas thought of the ineffability of lightness and heaviness, the ineffability of unbearable tosh.
Tomas was surprised to discover that Tereza had detected vaginal juices on his hair, having believed a good wash of his body was all that was required and in her own proto-Nietzschean way Tereza came to realise her duality was best resolved by being a doormat until Tomas's tragically light-heavy descent from being the finest surgeon in Prague was completed by his intractable attachment to being a complete Kant and they were obliged to become farmers.
Sabina moved to New York where she continued to wear a bowler hat and fuck anything that moved and it was here she heard that Tomas and Tereza had died in a car crash. Franz had gone to Cambodia, bizarrely believing that his own lightness/heaviness situation with Sabina would somehow be resolved if he joined a protest. There he was hit over the head and died later in hospital, his wife believing that he did in fact love her after all. Tomas and Tereza lived their life refracted through their dog, Karenin, whom they believed had learned to smile. It was, though, a rictus as she had cancer. The only smile was on my face, having passed off the unbearable lightness of drivel as work of great heaviness.

The Guardian's Digested Classics series

The Life & Love of Trees

The Life & Love of Trees -- Trees are vital—without them we simply wouldn't be here. Not only essential, they have been an inspiration throughout our history. In breathtaking photographs and stories we are taken on a journey from the boreal forest at the edge of the Arctic to the rainforests girdling the planet; from ancient bristlecones to fresh-leaved seedlings; from the charming and familiar to the scary and rare. An elegantly written and highly accessible text is complemented by an extraordinary collection of images created by some of the world's leading nature photographers.

Lewis Blackwell is recognized as a leader in creative and photographic practice. For almost a decade he led the creative development of the world’s largest photo agency, Getty Images, and previously he was widely regarded as a trend watcher and innovator with his work as editor/publisher of the prestigious title Creative Review. He is a visiting professor at the School of Creative Leadership at Steinbeis University, Berlin.

His books are considered some of the most critically acclaimed and bestselling in the creative field worldwide, and include The End of Print, Soon: The Future Culture of Brands, and Twentieth-Century Type.

Increasingly, Lewis's work has focused on environmental issues. In summer 2008, his exhibition "Nature/Nurture" was one of the highlights of the prestigious Shanghai International Photography Biennale. Through stunning imagery and provocative text, it tackled the sensitive subject of the authentic and artificial in environmental management, and extended upon a related exhibition, "La vraie nature de la ville," which Lewis curated for Colette, the famous fashion store and gallery in Paris.

A past judge and adviser to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, Lewis has worked closely with leading wildlife landscape and nature photographers internationally, and he has been to the fore in driving a more conceptual and emotional approach in environmental photography. He led the development of the specialist visual research paper "The MAP Report" at Getty Images, which recently garnered wide recognition for its study "AspEn," an analysis of the growing green media culture of "aspirational environmentalism."

Personally committed to environmental issues, Lewis is working on a water-conservation and reforestation project, Cerro Futura, which will explore new ideas in agricultural land use.
Chronicle Books

Hokkaido, Japan

Species: Various
Photographer: Tohoku Color Agency
This winter lakeside scene on Hokkaido, Japan's second largest and most northerly island, reminds us of how trees are remarkable survivors: here a range of species withstand sub-zero temperatures and permanently wet conditions that could destroy most plants. In every climate zone, on every continent excluding Antarctica, trees have adapted to cope with, and often thrive in, testing conditions.

Yosemite National Park, California

Species: Sequoidendrom gigantum
Photographer: Art Wolfe
The magnificent size and age of the sequoia belies the fact that it has been reduced to inhabiting a small area of the world—the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, as here in Yosemite National Park, California, United States. It does not need to reproduce often, but to do so requires unusual conditions. Fire is needed to clear the ground and create the right environment for the cones to spill their seed in fertile, light conditions. And then it needs space and to be left quietly alone for many years…all of which is hard to find outside of a national park.

Tanana River Valley, Alaska

Species: Populus tremuloides
Photographer: Art Wolfe
The white bark of these aspens makes them seem to almost glow from within in the low northern light of the Tanana River Valley, Alaska. Aspens may seem delicate, with their fluttering leaves, but they are immensely successful, spreading across the boreal forests at the edge of the northern temperate zone. With their strong root system and ability to quickly clone, they often benefit from forest fires, being able to quickly regrow and take space from other species.

California, United States

Species: Unkown
Photographer: Richard Mack
This award-winning image is called "Tree Cathedral" by its photographer for good reason. Shot on a tree farm in California, United States, it shows a plantation of hybridized fast-growth poplar trees, and makes a powerful connection with gothic architecture. In doing so, it reminds us that trees and architecture have always been joined and not just through timber as a building material. Trees as structural inspiration have been there from classical antiquity through to the steel "trees" that hold up many contemporary airport terminals.

Pics found on Oprah, first spotted on SEED Mag

17 dezembro 2009

Favourite neologisms of the last 10 years

As a collector of words, here's my list of the best the decade had to offer, taken from my book, The Wonder of Whiffling. These words and expressions were all coined in particular parts of the world in specific years: they're principally slang and jargon; catching on, but still waiting to be formalised into our dictionaries.

witches' knickers (Ireland) shopping bags caught in trees, flapping in the wind
get corrugated ankles (UK campus) to get drunk
glomp (US campus) to jump and hug someone from behind
drink-link (UK campus) a cash dispenser
goat heaven (Caribbean) a state of unfettered freedom, enjoyment, indulgence evoking both bliss and excess
cuddle puddle (New York) a heap of exhausted ravers
trout pout (UK) the effects of collagen injections that produce prominent, comically oversized lips resembling those of a dead fish
urbeach (US) an urban beach (a trend that began with the Paris Plage 2002)
barbecue stopper (Australia) an issue of major public importance, which will excite the interest of voters
smirting (New York) flirting between people who are smoking cigarettes outside a no-smoking building.
meh (US, from "The Simpsons") boring, apathetic or unimpressive
pumping party (Miami) illegal gatherings where plastic surgeons give back-street injections of silicone, botox etc
croggie (UK schools) a ride of the crossbar or handlebars of another rider's bicycle 
flairing (Sydney) the action of bartenders balancing, catching, flipping, spinning or throwing (bottles, glasses, napkins, straws) with finesse and style
glass ball environment (US intelligence) of the weather in Iraq being often conducive to collecting images from above
sandwich generation (Canada) those caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time (usually "baby boomers" in their 40s or 50s)
huburb (US) its own little city within another city
zhing-zhong (Zimbabwe) merchandise made in Asia; cheaply made, inexpensive or substandard goods
wardrobing (US) buying an item and then returning it after wearing it
spange (street talk) for "Spare change?"
pudding ring (Florida) facial hair made up of a moustache and a goatee
J.Lo (Wall Street) the rounding bottom in a stock's price chart
cougar (Canada) an older woman on the prowl, preferably for a younger man
elevens the creases between one's eyebrows from squinting or frowning
California licence plate (US) a tattoo on the lower back
milkshaking (Kentucky) bicarbonate loading which slows fatigue in a horse
Picasso porn (US) the scrambled signal of a pornographic cable channel as seen by a nonsubscriber
Faye (UK) a bright light placed at eye level, in front of the performer, which helps to hide wrinkles (in honour of Faye Dunaway, who is said to always insist on one)
fogging (UK) children showing minimal reaction to or agreeing with the taunts of a bully
slippage (US) the percentage of people who get a cheque and forget to cash it
set-jetter (UK) someone who goes on a holiday to a particular place simply because he's read about it or seen it in a film or on television
swoop and squat (Washington) to drive and pull in front of another vehicle and slam on the brakes, deliberately causing an accident to collect the insurance money
helicopter mom (US) a mother who micro-manages her children's lives and is perceived to be hovering over every stage of their development
ghost ridin (US) jumping out of a moving vehicle – usually stolen – and letting it smash into another car, home or business
roider (US) someone who injects illegal steroids to enhance his body
open the kimono (US) to expose or reveal secrets or proprietary information
nom de womb (US) a name used by an expectant parent to refer to their unborn child
sequencing (US) delaying your career until your children are in school
goose father a father who lives alone having sent his spouse and children to a foreign country to learn English or do some other form of advanced study
twixters (US) fully-grown men and women who still live with their parents
dog-whistle politics (Australia) to present your message so that only your supporters hear it properly
doughnuting (UK) a carefully created seating plan which places an ideal group of MPs (women, photogenic, ethnic minority etc) around a leader for the ideal television shot
ant hill family (UK) the trend whereby children move back in with their parents so that all work together towards group financial goals
New York rain (Hong Kong) water that drips annoyingly from air-conditioners onto passers-by
chair plug (2006) someone who sits in a meeting but contributes nothing
banana fold (North Carolina) fat below the buttocks
chubb (North Carolina) fat around the kneecaps
hail damage (Minnesota) cellulite (from its pitted appearance being similar to the effects of hail)
throw a series of notes (Illinois) to perform a back handspring with no hands
black spider memo (UK) notes, mostly hand-written, in which Prince Charles enthusiastically details his beliefs on particular political topics
rubber arms (California) surfers who turn to catch a wave, making all the paddling movements, but never really go anywhere
push present (US) an expensive gift given to a woman by her husband in appreciation for having recently given birth
Harry Potter a poker hand containing a Jack and a King (after JK Rowling)
Anna Kournikova when an Ace and King are held (allegedly so called because it looks a good hand but in fact rarely wins anything)
flashpackers (Australia) intrepid, but comfortably-off travellers
glamping (UK) glamorous camping (prompted in part by celebrity-studded festivals like Glastonbury)

menoporsche (UK) the phenomenon of middle-aged men attempting to recapture their lost youth by buying an expensive sports car
gate fever (UK) terror at the prospect of release from prison
hippo's tooth (US) a cement bollard
fox hole (UK) the area beneath desk where telephone calls can take place peacefully
puddle (US) a heap of clothing an actor steps into and is quickly zipped inside during one of those split-second costume changes that dazzle audiences
goldfishing (UK) one politician talking inaudibly in an interview (you can see his lips move but only hear the reporter's words)
twuncing (UK) when walkers drive two cars to the end point of their walk, and then ride together in one car to the starting point; after the walk they drive together to the starting point to collect the other vehicle
shock and hee-haw (US) explosive devices under satchels on donkeys
ham (UK) legitimate email messages (as opposed to "spam")
mattressing (UK) the term used by other traders and bank managers to hide their results
flusher (US) a volunteer who rounds up non-voters on Election Day
generica (US) features of the American landscape (strip malls, motel chains, prefab housing) that are exactly the same no matter where one is
catch a falling knife to buy a stock as its price is going down, in hopes that it will go back up, only to have it continue to fall

Sismo de magnitude 6.0 faz tremer Portugal - o maior desde 1969

Um sismo de intensidade 6.0 na escala de Richter e de intensidade de 5.0 na escala de Mercalli fez-se sentir à 01h37 de quinta-feira no litoral de Portugal Continental e na Madeira. O tremor de terra teve uma duração aproximada de três minutos
Seguiram-se 16 réplicas de menor magnitude, entre os 1.9 e os 2.6 na escala de Richter, a última registada às 03h47, segundo os dados do Serviço de Sismologia do Instituto Nacional de Meteorologia.
De acordo com o United States Geological Survey (USGS), o epicentro do sismo de maior intensidade situou-se no oceano Atlântico (Oeste de Gibraltar), a 185 km de Faro, 265 km de Lisboa e 295 km de Évora.
Sentido em praticamente todo o país, não há registo de quaisquer danos materiais ou humanos, segundo informação disponibilizada ao i pela Central do Regimento de Sapadores Bombeiros, em Lisboa, a unidade da Protecção Civil que atende o número de emergência (117).
A Protecção Civil de Faro – capital de distrito portuguesa mais próxima do epicentro – revelou também ao i, pouco depois das 02h00, a inexistência de qualquer pedido de ajuda dirigido ao serviço de emergências. Os telefones tocaram ininterruptamente durante a hora seguinte ao sismo, mas apenas com pedidos de esclarecimentos. "Foi mais o susto", disse ao i um responsável da Protecção Civil de Faro perto das cinco da manhã, confirmando não haver registo de quaisquer danos.
O site norte-americano da USGS aponta uma intensidade de 5.7, mas a informação constante do Instituto Nacional de Meteorologia aponta para 6.0, assim como o valor registado pelo Centro de Sismologia Euro-Mediterranico.
De acordo com a agência Lusa, o tremor de terra foi igualmente sentido em vários pontos de Marrocos segundo o Centro de Protecção Civil de Casablanca, não havendo registo de danos pessoais ou materiais.
No Porto, o sismo não motivou grandes preocupações na população, a avaliar pelo reduzido número de chamadas telefónicas recebidas pelas corporações de bombeiros da região.
O ministro da Administração interna, Rui Pereira, reuniu ainda esta madrugada com os responsáveis da Protecção Civil, para traçar um plano de acção na avaliação de potenciais danos em algumas estruturas, avança esta manhã a TSF.

16 dezembro 2009

The dark side of the moon ;)

London Calling turns 30

London Calling was “an emergency broadcast from rock’s Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and Rock & Roll needed a good boot in the rear,” RS wrote at the end of the 1980s. In our 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, we call the LP — which ranked Number Eight — “19 songs of apocalypse fueled by an unbending faith in rock & roll to beat back the darkness.”

Rolling Stone

Ice sculptures in Krasnoyarsk

We Wants it Here ;) Cure by culture therapy

Swedish doctors will soon be able to prescribe singing lessons, pottery classes or art appreciation as part of a new public healthcare initiative
SWEDEN IS testing a new approach – Culture by Prescription – in a state-funded pilot project to reduce sickness benefit, doctors’ visits and the “pill-popping” associated with long-term depression and stress-related illness.
In the same week that the Swedish government proudly announced a taxpayer-funded investment in this less traditional form of rehabilitation, Swedes were shocked to learn that hospitals in their country are increasingly turning to electroshock therapy (ECT) to treat depression.
A Swedish Television Network (SVT) investigation showed that the number of ECT treatments carried out per year in the country has risen sharply since 2000 from 18,000 to 45,000.
With a reputation abroad for sometimes being cold and reserved, some psychologists believe that a national obsession with self-control and getting on with life is taking its toll on the health and wellbeing of Swedes.
The long dark winters when daylight lasts less than six hours as far south as Stockholm and far fewer hours further north, the reliance of some Swedes on alcohol to lift their spirits, and a genetic tendency towards being introverted prevents some of them from seeking help for depression and related illnesses.
Immigrants fleeing wars in the Balkans and Iraq, who were granted residency in Sweden, continue to suffer from post-war trauma without adequate back-up, and are among those most in need of help.
These people will be targeted in the pilot project launched in southwest Sweden, says clinic supervisor Anna Carin Persdotter of Capio Citykliniken, which is about to put it into operation.
“We estimate that it will be 50:50 Swedes and foreigners, and we will have to be very creative so that the non-Swedes feel the cultural cure we offer fits their needs and backgrounds,” she says.
Famed for a generous cradle- to-the-grave social welfare system, Sweden is grappling with an unprecedented rise in those suffering from workplace burnout resulting in depression and a range of other illnesses.
The most recent figures show that one in 10 Swedes in their 40s is currently receiving some type of benefit for being either temporarily or permanently unable to work, due to illness or injury.
New figures from Sweden’s Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) show that the number of Swedes aged 40-50 receiving sickness compensation has almost doubled since 1991.
As the government searches for ways to reduce the numbers on long-term sick leave, the idea of exploring how cultural activities may help improve people’s health has been supported by the ministries for health and culture.
The new Culture by Prescription (Kultur på Recept) trial will target patients suffering from low- and medium-grade depression, stress and anxiety, as well as those who have had back, shoulder or neck pains lasting more than three or more months.
Initially, doctors in Skåne in southwest Sweden will be able to prescribe a range of cultural activities for patients in conjunction with their traditional treatment and rehabilitation.
“There has been a good reaction from doctors who feel that both body and mind should be stimulated for maximum recovery and we have already done years of research proving that culture is a healing health-promoting part of care,” says Christina Gedeborg-Nilsson, head of culture and healthcare division in the Skåne region.
“A few sceptics have also reacted like the journalist who said he had some neck pain and felt a visit to the cinema might ease it . . . but that’s not what we are all about.”
Gedeborg-Nilsson talks of patients who suffer from “a spiritual anorexia”, people who have withdrawn from society and various help channels, who are lonely, have no social networks and may be suffering physically and mentally, but are unaware of the connection between their needs and the availability of healthcare.
Launching the Culture by Prescription project, Swedish social security minister Cristina Husmark Pehrsson said: “We know that illnesses affect people in different ways and can lead to absences due to sickness of varying lengths of time.
“My hope is that Culture by Prescription can offer new insights into how culture, in a more pronounced way, can be a part of rehabilitation for extended absences due to illness.”
Research by Gedeborg- Nilsson and her team over the past three years shows a positive relationship between participating in cultural activities and an individual’s health.
“We are convinced that different types of cultural stimulation to improve patients’ wellbeing will ultimately bring down the cost of medical consumption and also the cost of drugs from sedatives to laxatives,” she told The Irish Times .
Hospital manager Lisbeth Cederwald told how already some patients with heart problems became more calm, registering reduced pulse rates, after viewing a film about orchids as part of their research programme.
Other healthcare workers involved said patients who were introduced to cultural activities, from dance, music, theatre, art and literature to gardening, needlework, cookery and pottery classes had recovered more quickly from long-term ill-nesses.
“A big problem for those who have been out of work on long-term sick leave is a sense of loneliness and isolation, and often low self-esteem. They find it difficult to relate to other people, their self-confidence is often shattered,” says Gedeborg- Nilsson.
“The cultural activities they will now experience will strengthen their self-confidence and provide continuity and stimulation as a compliment to regular care and help them to return to work and become happy again within their communities.”

I just luuurve Edna Mode

Cinematical Seven: Kids Movies that won't drive you crazy ;)

13 dezembro 2009

Beckett Bridge over the Liffey, Dublin, by Santiago Calatrava

photo: Shane Murphy m

Can there ever have been a more appropriate memorial to a writer than the new Samuel Beckett bridge that opened in Dublin on 10 December? The several thousand tons of steel deck and pylon were fabricated in a factory in Rotterdam, then carried across the sea by a barge labouring in the churning swell. A stately bridge carried over the turbulent water by a boat? Here's a conceit so surreal it makes Waiting for Godot read like a cereal packet.
The designer was Santiago Calatrava, the Valencian architect who has made expressionist bridges and weirdly torqued structures a trademark. Never mind that Beckett made a virtue of muted understatement. The writer once said "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness". Calatrava does not think that way. He's in the landmark business.
This is Calatrava's second bridge in Dublin – the first was dedicated to James Joyce and opened in 2003. The new Beckett Bridge is technically interesting: the structure is cable-stayed from a 40-metre pylon. The span across the Liffey is 124m and carries two lanes of motor traffic, one of cycles and one of Godots. Trains may come later. Hydraulic apparatus allows the bridge to swing through 90 degrees in the horizontal plane to allow ships to pass.
Artistically, it is more interesting still. Calatrava has ignored the temptation to use ForEx traders, race-horse owners and other Celtic tigers as a source of inspiration. Instead, he has been inspired by Guinness's traditional harp: the tensioned cables are, he says, to be seen as strings. It reminds me of what Beckett said about Dublin university containing the cream of Ireland: rich and thick.
Calatrava is a form-giver of novel genius. And cities all over the world have eagerly offered him commissions since the dramatic presence of a Calatrava bridge has become short-hand for "go-ahead". Indeed, few people are better engineered into the postmodern sensibility than Calatrava: his PhD was called "Concerning the Foldability of Spaceframes" a title which powerfully suggests the ambiguous fascination of our human predicament. Significantly, Calatrava's work has of late been suffering a little revisionism in the architectural press. Some see him as a showman rather than a great designer. Still, Dublin has a fine new landmark bridge. It's too early to say whether it's a success, but let's remember Beckett's advice: "Fail better."

The Guardian

Lake Baikal: An extreme wilderness experience

With savage winds whistling off the Angara River and a temperature nudging minus 40, Irkutsk at the dog end of winter is not a hard city to want to leave. It's not just that it's a world drained of colour. Nor is it the grey Soviet-era housing blocks and the grey pallid citizens scuttling to get inside housing blocks out of the cold. Nor is it even the nicotine shroud hanging over the city from the surrounding industry. Though God knows these things combined would test even the most sanguine of men.
No, what really hits you is the sense of isolation. Two thousand miles west of the Pacific, 3,200 miles east of Moscow and south of nowhere, stranded in Russia's great empty quarter, the Siberian city feels as if it is being punished, in exile. I had been there just 24 hours, but that was plenty.
Early the next morning, I headed east. Also in the minibus were a local guide, Alex, and five friends on holiday from Moscow. We rolled across the steppe. Mile after mile of flat, empty earth, punctuated by towns of small wooden houses, clustered around smoking, belching factories. It was a landscape seemingly coated in ash, the Siberia that Maxim Gorky called "a land of frozen chains and ice". Not a benign snowy landscape, but somehow cruel. Irkutsk may have been behind us, but its spirit wasn't.
The road rose gently.
"Wait, wait," Alex said. "Get ready. Here it comes."
We turned a corner, and the taiga forest of birch, fir and larch parted gently, like theatre curtains. The van fell silent as we stared ahead, mouths open. For beneath us, stretching away and framed by snow-capped mountains so perfect they looked like bad stage scenery, was a world as monochrome as the one we'd just left. But not grey. Nor burdened. But dancing in light, shimmering, blinding, like a giant diorama made from mother-of-pearl. For here was Lake Baikal; mystical, revered, sacred Baikal.
At 360 miles long and 25 miles wide, Baikal is more a sea than a lake, with ferocious storms that can whip up 15ft waves and swallow ships whole. From our vantage point, we could see huge spumes of water crashing against the land and angry swells and eddies swirling offshore. But staring closer, the water didn't move, the breaking waves hung frozen in mid-air, like a painting. And then an articulated lorry drove across the painting. Confusion.
"The lake gets colder and colder," Alex explained, "and then, usually in February, it freezes overnight. Whatever was happening on the water at the time, it's frozen like that until spring."
It was as if a wicked ice queen had cast a spell.
We drove down to the lakeside and, threading our way through the frozen breakers, walked a few hundred metres out onto the ice. Beneath our feet, the ice was two metres thick, but such is the purity of Baikal's water that it is as translucent as cut glass, allowing you to see down, past the trapped bubbles, to the kelp forests below. This induced a sense of acute vertigo, not helped by the symphony of bangs and snapping, like the sound of distant gunfire, as the ice shifted. This shifting creates a baroque pattern of lines in the ice, like the smoke trails of an acrobatic display team.
We met our first Baikal transport: five teams of Siberian huskies and sleds. They were tethered and barking like bronchial geese. The guide said they were friendly enough to stroke, but those ice-blue eyes and enormous teeth said something else.
After a very brief, and very Russian, safety talk – "hold on tight" – we loaded up and were off, slithering across the lake, the huskies seeking the snow-covered ice for traction and, when failing to find it, whirling their legs around like cartoon dogs who've run off a cliff and don't yet realise it. From my mushing position, I heard a car horn and turned to be greeted by a toothless man overtaking me in a Lada, using the lake, as locals do in winter, as an ice highway.
We stopped for lunch in a sheltered bay. Mischa, one of the holidaymakers, pulled out a bottle of vodka and buried it in the snow. "Please make a note of the fact that a Russian waited until noon for the first vodka of the day. I don't want to give the wrong impression of my country," he said, retrieving the bottle and dispensing its now gloopy, viscose contents into silver tumblers. "To Russia!"
"To Russia," we all replied and necked it in one. The food was brought out: salo (thick slabs of salted pig fat, served with hot mustard) and pelemi (meat dumplings in a hot, salty brine).
"To friends," Mischa said. My tumbler had miraculously refilled itself.
"To friends," we replied. Another bottle was retrieved from the snow. The dogs settled down for a long wait.
We stopped for the night in log cabins, about 20 miles further up the lake. There is no access here from the outside world apart from via the lake, and the valley where the cabins were nestled was called "Dark Fold", a place the sun rarely penetrates. The silence was immense. So harsh is it to live at the lake that along the 1,600 miles of shoreline, there are barely 80,000 inhabitants in fewer than 50 settlements.
I walked with Alex on to the ice, the lake like silver cloth under a brilliant moon. I asked him about Baikal and its special place in Russian hearts. He reeled off some mind-boggling statistics. It is more than 25 million years old, a thousand times older than any other lake. At over a mile, it is the deepest lake in the world. If you emptied it, it would take every river in the world flowing into it a year to fill. It contains more water than the five US great lakes combined.
To the shamans and indigenous Mongolian Buryat people, it is one of the most sacred places on earth. With 1,500 species of flora and fauna found nowhere else, including the mysterious nerpa, the only freshwater-lake seal, it has been dubbed the "Galapagos of Russia". But, he said, looking solemn, there are problems…
There was a call from the group. The banya was ready. Ah, yes, the banya, what the Russians call a place for physical and moral purification, and in England we call an S&M club. We stripped and donned silly felt triangular hats to protect the ears. Then, to cries of "lyogkogo para" (may your steam be easy), into the parilka, the steam room. One of the guys poured a torrent of Baikal onto the coals and, despite my hat, within seconds my ears were melting and my eyelids peeling back over my head. To the sound of laughter, I ran out screaming, clutching my head, into the snow, where I rolled around like a man on fire trying to put himself out. Which, in effect, I was.
Alex then very kindly beat me within an inch of my life with rough birch twigs. "When you have lost all feeling in your body, you are done," he said. A week later, in London, I could still see the welts.
The next day we took a Hivus, a hovercraft adapted for ice and named after one of the many Baikal winds. The drivers expertly weaved around the frozen whitecaps and through the troughs, getting it wrong occasionally, when we would take off a wave-shaped ramp and become airborne, landing with a crash. Then we came to a smooth section, obviously in the lee of the shore when the freeze arrived, where the craft could really fly – 50, 60mph, outside the window a blur of white.
I took Peter Thomson's superb book, Sacred Sea, from my bag and started to read. Thomson travelled from his native Boston to Siberia in 2000 on a quest to mend a broken heart. He ended up giving it to Baikal. An environmentalist, he describes how the lake's ability to purify itself is down to one creature, an endemic microscopic shrimp called epischura baikalensis. This army of zooplankton vacuum cleaners have, for millions of years, sucked Baikal through their digestive tracts, filtering bacteria and decomposing plants – and tiny specks of pollution. So efficient are they that it's said that corpses, human or animal, are never recovered from the lake – the epischura consume any organic matter in hours.
But their ruthless cleaning routine was not designed with man in mind. Like an alcoholic believing in the invincibility of his liver, the Soviets put Baikal to work: a vast paper mill was built on the southern shore; hydroelectric dams were constructed to power the Soviet industrial machine, raising the level of the lake; air pollutants from the Irkutsk/Cheremkhovo industrial corridor rained down on its pristine wilderness.
So the epischura poison themselves, the olmu fish eat the epischura, and the nerpa, bears, raptors and humans eat the fish. A Unesco designation in 1996 drew attention to Baikal's plight, but a recent study found the nerpa now among the most toxic seals on the planet. And all this in just half a century. It is, as Thomson says, "the nasty irony in Baikal's stupendous self-cleansing act: extraordinary pure water; extraordinary contaminated animals". Put bluntly, if the epischura dies, Baikal dies.
The Hivus landed at the town of Khuzhir, on Olkhon, an island halfway up Baikal's western shore that's of sacred significance for Buryat shamans and Buddhists. In the harbour, rusting fishing boats and hulks, like the exposed carcasses of dinosaurs, lay trapped in the ice. We walked up the main street passing incurious Siberians and stopped off at a house to buy some olmu, the lake's staple food fish, from a babushka. We walked on to a lookout, where, beyond a tree draped in prayer flags and festooned with puja offerings to the spirits – kopeks, shoes, sunglasses, lighters – we see the Shamanka Rock, connected to the shore by a narrow isthmus, a place of veneration for all Baikal and Mongolian shamans and Buddhists.
There, we sat and ate lunch, in a biting but exhilarating wind: the olmu, eaten as you might a banana, by peeling back the skin and biting into the flesh, followed by rasstegay (olmu pie), and ukha (fish soup. No prizes for guessing which fish). All washed down, of course, by vodka.
"To adventure," said Mischa.
We slid down the icy slope to the rock and scrambled up the sheer face, into the sacred cave, home of Baikal's spirits.
"To the Baikal spirits," said one of the guys.
It was unclear whether we should have been drinking vodka in the most sacred cave in the Shaman world, but we toasted enthusiastically. Judging by the vodka bottles on the floor, there'd been a lot of toasting recently.
Back in the Hivus, we headed further up the lake's Maloe More, or shallow sea, passing fishermen dragging huge nets through immense holes cut by chainsaws. Then we stopped to watch some locals fishing in more traditional fashion, with line and hook through a corkscrewed hole in the ice.
We rounded a headland. The ice became rough, contorted into fantastical shapes, like tank traps on a Normandy beach. The Hivus got stuck fast. Had we angered the Baikal spirits? The two Russian drivers got out, scratched their heads, and smoked furiously. Then scratched their heads some more. Then they got a tiny foot pump, as you might use on a lilo, and started pumping.
While we were waiting, we went for a walk. Above us, the insipid sun, with an orange corona, looked like something out of a sci-fi film. But then the sun went out as – seemingly from nowhere – a blizzard descended. It felt apocalyptic. Just in front of us, a huge gash had opened in the ice, and we stood there, on the edge, staring into the icy water, feeling suddenly very vulnerable. There's a saying that a dip in Baikal's waters will add 25 years to your life, but I think they might have got that the wrong way round.
There was the familiar sound of Baikal shifting, creaking, cracking, groaning. But then a quite different noise. We all fell silent, like submariners listening for the sound of an enemy ship. A rumbling, gradual at first, built and built, coming from the depths of the earth, until the ice started to twist, wobbling like jelly. We wobbled with it, trying to keep our feet, dancing a drunken jig to a deafening roar of such elemental anger as I've never heard before. It was over in five seconds. I had never been so terrified.
Mischa produced the bottle from his bag and poured.
"To Baikal! To earthquakes!" he said. "To Baikal! To earthquakes!" we replied.
Some days later, we were back at the southern end of Baikal, where the Angara flows out of the lake. Across the water sat the paper mill. Some 50 miles upwind to the west, the smoking chimneys of Irkutsk.
At the head of the river, in the middle of the channel, stood a rock thrown, according to legend, by Father Baikal in a futile attempt to stop his daughter, Angara, fleeing to join her lover Yenisei, the great river to the west. These days, thanks to the dams, only the very tip of the rock is visible. Baikal lost his daughter. Whether we lose sacred, beautiful Baikal, only time will tell.

11 dezembro 2009

Board Game O Poly galore: somebody stop meeeeee ;)


Book O Poly

Book-opoly allows players a glimpse inside the many worlds of classic literature. It’s a traditional property trading game where players buy, sell and trade their way to fun with family and friends. Interesting facts about the books and the authors are printed on the back of each property deed. Roll the dice and advance to Read. Collect Bookstores and trade them in for Libraries. Who knows! You may soon be elected President of the Book Club…or you may be tossed out of the game for three turns and sent to WATCH TV!

How do you cut The Hobbit in half?

What a strange volte face there has been in the ­attitudes of Hollywood studios in the last 30 years. Originally, JRR Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth was a ­literary series which producers struggled to squeeze into uncomfortably curtailed celluloid confines. These days, they're being encouraged to expand far beyond their natural boundaries.

This week, The Hobbit's writer and producer Peter Jackson revealed the ramifications of the decision he and director Guillermo del Toro made earlier this year to scrap their initial plan for the two-film project. There will be no Saruman, no Aragorn and no Gimli the dwarf, all stalwarts of Lord of the Rings who nevertheless do not feature in JRR Tolkien's earlier tome. "Gandalf, being a 2,000-year-old wizard, is still around and plays a major role in The Hobbit, and we're having Ian McKellen reprise," said Jackson. "There's a couple of other characters: Elrond, who was played by Hugo Weaving [in the original films], and there's a possibility of Galadriel, who was played by Cate Blanchett."

And that's it. The comments put to bed any lingering expectations that Jackson and Del Toro might be tempted to include characters such as Aragorn and Saruman, who could have been woven into the film without deviating too far from Tolkien's original story. The last vestiges of the pair's initial plan, announced back in 2008, for one film based on The Hobbit and a second to bridge the 80-year gap between the end of the book and the start of The Lord of the Rings, seem to be gone (and good riddance, I say).

The absence of Saruman and Aragorn, in particular, suggests that The Hobbit will just be The Hobbit, pure and simple. There will be no expansion of Gandalf's meeting with the White Council, mentioned in the book but not depicted, and no recreation of Aragorn's early struggles or his long hunt for the creature Gollum. The two films will be based entirely on Tolkien's 300 plus-page novel. And even though I'm pleased that the bridge movie has been banished forever, that still strikes me as a bit of a stretch.

Not so long ago, in the final years of the 20th century, Jackson was planning to film the whole of the 1,000-page-plus The Lord of the Rings as two movies (it ended up being three thanks, weirdly, to studio intervention), and not so long before that, we had the 1978 Ralph Bakshi version, which crammed around half the book into one film, and was such a box office failure that no one ever gave him the cash to make a sequel. The Hobbit has also previously been filmed, as a 1977 animated version which ran to just 78 minutes.

Jackson and Del Toro are planning two three-hour movies, a decision which smacks heavily of commercial opportunity. The Lord of the Rings trilogy made more than $1bn globally and stands as one of the top movie franchises of all time. Naturally, the money men want to squeeze as much cash as they can out of The Hobbit, but the book is a fairly breezy tome with a pretty linear narrative that would best be adapted into one great movie, not stretched out into two in order to fit Rings' epic format.

And if The Hobbit is to be diced up, where is the natural split? Del Toro has hinted that it will be at the point where Bilbo Baggins proves his worth to the dwarves and becomes the true leader of the company attempting to wrest control of the Lonely Mountain from Smaug the dragon. That would make a sort of sense (presumably it would be after the escape from the wood elves) except that the Mexican film-maker has also said that the Battle of Five Armies will be shown just as it was in the book, in which Bilbo was passed out for much of the duration. So where, exactly, is the three-hour running time coming from for the second film?

On the other hand, six hours should certainly give Del Toro and Jackson plenty of time to cover all the events in The Hobbit in detail, from Bilbo's terrifying encounter with Gollum to the strength-sapping journey through Mirkwood (and those hideous giant spiders) and the company's brush with the elves. But I can't help thinking that the point where the first movie ends is going to seem like even more of an anti-climax than the finale of Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. People accepted The Lord of the Rings being split into three parts because, not only was the original book published as a trilogy, it was the only way to bring the story to the big screen, certainly in line with current cinemagoing habits. The Hobbit is not a natural two-movie project, and it remains to be seen whether Del Toro can pull it off.

What do you reckon? Are you disappointed that the film-makers seem to have bowed to commercial pressure here? Or are you just pleased that every last ounce of Hobbit magic will most likely make it into the final cut?