The best books I read in the first half of 2014

This year I must be doing a good job choosing books, or just getting lucky, or have lowered expectations, because even though I’ve read much fewer books than last year, I’ve read more outstanding ones. Since if this luck continues it would make for too long a post come the end of the year, here is a semi-annual version of this previous post.

The Periodic Table (Primo Levi, 1975) I heard of this book as being about science, which is not a very appropriate description at all. It’s mostly an autobiography, with a couple short stories thrown in. The scientific connection comes about because each essay or story is titled after – and usually involves – a given chemical element. Despite what whoever I heard of this book made it sound like, it’s not that you learn anything about the title element in any essay. Instead, it works as an overarching idea, helping give a reference point and a constraint to stories about Levi’s boyhood, work, imprisonment in a concentration camp, and even a fantasy about a traveling miner-intuitive. That kind of loosely constrained writing is what I think it’s the most fun writing, and it’s also something I greatly enjoy reading. And, since Levi’s life is intimately connected with his career as a chemist, it is highly apt for an autobiography. It made me remember the time I was excited about and wanted to study chemistry very nostalgically. Despite this book not being in any way scientific, I think nothing could be better than it to give to aspiring chemists, too: it helps convey the everyday excitement and mystery that chemistry can hold. But because Levi is a writer who feels people deeply and who others somehow instinctively trust as a listener, it’s also a lot more universal than just that.

Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) A huge achievement in world building – and in tension building. The world building is impressive because it avoids most of the standard trappings of sci-fi or fantasy to offer something novel and fascinating. The tension building is even more so. Dune unfolds almost like a Greek tragedy. Our hero Paul Atreides seems destined to become a prophet, and seems destined to come to ruin, and seems destined to lead the world into a huge cataclysm. This fate is foreshadowed again and again. And the whole book, even as political intrigue swirls and even as we are initiated into Herbert’s world, has this background of everyone including Paul himself fighting, savagely, desperately, to gain some measure of control over the wheels of fate. This tension builds and builds and builds and never releases. The end of the book is just as tense, just as filled with foreboding, as any other part. This is a perfect set up for the sequel. I heard that the Dune saga gets worse and worse from here. But, really, with a buildup so immense, the truth is that it can’t help but disappoint, no matter what happens. Maybe the moment of maximum tension is where we are best to leave off.

Family / Borghesia (Natalia Ginzburg, 1977) Family and Borghesia are two novellas that are made to be read as one book, a book I randomly picked out at the university library. I had never heard of the author – I assumed she was somehow connected to Russia, which she isn’t at all – she is Italian, and the novellas take place mostly in Rome. This is why university libraries are so great, ny the way. You can pick out a random book knowing nothing about it with much more confidence than you can at a store or at a public library, which are bound to be filled with mostly crappy books. But back to Family and Borghesia: I thought they were incredibly powerful. They begin as writing prompts, as completely bare statements of abstract fact: the first sentence of “Family” is “A man and a woman went to see a film one sunny Sunday afternoon”; for “Borghesia” it is “a woman who had never kept any animals was given a cat”. They slowly grow out from there in random spurts with everyday situations, people who come into the story for a minute, only to disappear, or to reappear later, ordinary thoughts and worries and jealousies and this feeling of something so very important lacking. It’s like life. I am now going to go looking for other things she’s written, but for now let me recommend these two.

The Translator (John Crowley, 2002) I was interested in seeing what the author of maybe the best fantasy book ever written (“Little, Big”) would do without any fantasy whatsoever. It’s in fact notable how completely free of the fantastic element this book is: I kept waiting for the littlest magical realist touch, just the hint of something truly inexplicable. Which is not to say that the book lacks in mystery. Crowley is a master of ambiguity and underexplanation as tools of mystery, so even though everything that happens is in some sense “normal,” it is still mysterious. What does happen? A young college freshman meets a poet exiled from the Soviet Union. And then later, she remembers this time of her life, coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also what came before. Because the girl, Kit, grows up to be a poet and a translator, and because the exiled, somewhat Brodsky-like dissident Falin teaches her a course on poetry, and gets her to translate his poems, the beauty and power of language is ever present. They talk profoundly about language and translation, and they talk in poetic language, and they are surrounded by stunning images. But despite this enchanting web, it’s the two central characters, Kit and Falin, that are really the highlights of the book, much more so than, say, in “Little, Big”.

The 14 Carat Roadster (Jeno Rejto, 1940) A madcap caper of a book, few things can compete for pure enjoyment. A farce, a romance, a dashing adventure, a parody of the military in the face of the French Foreign Legion, and a mocking love letter for the Aristocratic Europe of Biarritzes and Monacos. Imagine if the Good Soldier Svejk, without being any less the Good Soldier Svejk, was also Ostap Bender and a romantic hero, and you start to see what this book is like. It starts like this:

Ivan Gorchev, sailor on the freight ship Rangoon, was not yet twenty-one when he won the Nobel Prize in physics. To win a scientific award at such a romantically young age is unprecedented, though some people might consider the means by which it was achieved a flaw. For Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize in physics in a card game, called macao, from a Professor Bertinus, on whom the honour had been bestowed in Stockholm by the King of Sweden a few days earlier. But those who are always finding fault don’t like to face facts, and the fact of the matter is that Ivan Gorchev did win the Nobel Prize at the age of twenty-one.

Can you beat that? You can’t, and if you think you can, you’re wrong. And then you realize this romp, where any fool who takes anything seriously is committing the most grievous blunder and is cause for endless hilarity, was being written by a man who knew he wouldn’t be able to publish it under his own name, being a Jew. A man who was going to die in a forced labour camp less than three years later. I don’t know what that means about life.

A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor, 1955) My roommate was leaving “The Love of a Good Woman” on the coffee table, so I thought in response, I’d start leaving “A Good Man is Hard to Find” there, too. And then I got to reading it and it was nothing like I expected. This book is absolutely devastating in its cutting, bitter irony. It shows us the South, and it shows us people, real people, and it does so without any compassion whatsoever. Not a drop of it. It is funny, yes, but we are not placed at a safe remove where we can get by with condescension. And so, even more than it is funny, it is frightening. The title is supposed to be ironic, but O’Connor means it, too. Good people are hard to find because there is not a single good person in this world.

The Love of a Good Woman (Alice Munro, 1998) I dunno what Alice Munro does with whatever she writes that isn’t brilliant. I’ve read short stories that I liked more than Munro, but I’ve not yet read a Munro short story that wasn’t brilliant. I don’t think I can say that about anyone else. The thematics of this collection are a little bit more varied than what I’d read before (murder, abortion clinics, a disappearance in South East Asia, Paris) as are the narrative devices. But fundamentally, it’s the same thing: Munro understands the inner live of people, whether they be children, lovers, old people. And she writes about how those inner lives connect in odd, oblique ways with big momentous events and with small personal interactions. That’s it. There’s no other secret to it. You think that it’d be too mundane, but quietly she has storied-up all of life.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) I’d read it before and at the time it seemed strange to me how Nabokov had me sympathising with a pedophile rapist. Now I wonder why I ever thought so, because reading it again, Humbert Humbert is, and I think is clearly meant to be, an extremely repulsive character. But the mind games and the word games this book plays! Showing off an unparallelled mastery of the language is one thing, of course, but there’s also all this lyricism. And the cars and the bars and the barmen. I don’t need to introduce this book to you, obviously, though. It’s a masterpiece, and let’s leave it at that.

Slouching towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion, 1968) I started reading this book in the bookstore of the university where I briefly worked as a labourer. I would come for my coffee breaks, come for my lunch break, and since in general it wasn’t very important that you start or finish your breaks right on time, I ended up reading a lot of this book. I realized I was completely entranced, which is rare for a book of non-fiction for me. But what non-fiction! The opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” has the most beautiful prose of any non-fiction that I can think of. It also helps that throughout the book, I thought of Joan Didion as a kindred spirit. I don’t know if it’s just the writing that’s so easy to identify with, or whether there’s anything more to it, but throughout, I had the feeling that Didion was expressing just what I would have wanted to, but been unable to, express in a given situation. Although she mentions sending out an article to The Nation, I don’t think I’ve read anything so deeply conservative in my life. As someone who is similarly left wing in his politics and incredibly conservative in his general life outlook, this book spoke to my prejudices like few others.

Shadow of the Sun (Ryszard Kapuscinsky, 1998) I’ve never read much about Africa. Neither has the target reader of Ryszard Kapuscinsky’s book. For something like 40 years, Kapuscinsky was the Polish press’ only representative in Africa, so the story of the entire continent falls on his shoulders. He appears everywhere, remarking on the world-momentous and the personal, seeming to barely escape with his life several times and always with a story for the papers. It’s very exciting. It’s also a valuable service, as everywhere he goes, he exposes and shames cruelty, and he rails against the colonial mindset and against gross generalizations about “Africa” as if it were one. And yet in his book, you see that the generalizations are still there. At some level, if you write a single 300-page book whose theme is Africa for the past forty years, it can’t be helped. But it’s worse than it has to be. And are any of his stories really true? It’s not altogether clear. If I were someone were someone deeply informed about Africa, this book would have annoyed me. But since I’m not, Shadow of the Sun is information, philosophy, adventure, testament, and not least a primer to get one to want to look deeper.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972) I heard before about re-reading the same book at different times and getting something different out of it, but I thought that was kind of just a turn of phrase. Even Lolita, above, where I had a different reaction to the book than previously, was just a matter of changed sympathies. Rereading Invisible Cities, I thought it was about something different than what I thought it was about when I first read it. Back then, I thought it was a medieval fantasy, and a tale about the tricks that memory plays. And even more so an exercise in Escher-like imagination in building dream cities that Calvino then gets Marco Polo to recount to Kublai Khan. I loved it. This time around, I thought it was something totally different: a comment on the modern world. The main themes of the book seemed to me to be how modern travel never leaves one satisfied, the wanderlust of the next destination impossible to separate from disappointment in the present, the eternal question of whether there is anything more out there. It’s about the swift globalisation of culture, and the formlessness and meaninglessness of modern giant agglomerations. Marco Polo, when the Khan chastises him for never describing Venice, protests: but what do you think I’ve been telling you about all this time? The first time around, I saw this as a profound comment on memory. Now, I see it can also be read more literally. Venice is symptomatic of the modern world where cities face a difficult choice: to be commodified as tourist checkboxes, or to abandon any distinguishing characteristic or form, or, somehow, both. Whether in its earlier guise or how I see it now, this book is the cream of the crop.

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A thought experiment in drawing parallels

“One friend from Northern Ireland said on facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the ‘Protestants’ and who are the ‘Catholics'”, Chris Bertram once recounted on Crooked Timber. This opinion is now four times removed from the reader, a sufficient distance that we needn’t take it too literally. But, couched in this distance, I kind of think it’s useful to admit that a lot of global conflicts are actually very similar at heart. With that in mind, let me tell you of a current geopolitical conflict.

The main actors are a nation state versus a primarily military, but also political organization claiming to represent an oppressed territory. The nation state is run by a political coalition that has some unsavoury members, but does have democratic legitimacy. This legitimacy is denied by the military organization on account of voting not being available to the populace of the region in question. In its view, the nation state are thus illegitimate occupiers of the territory. More than that, the military organization insists the current nation state is in fact entirely illegitimate and needs to be overthrown. A lot of the anti-nation state rhetoric compares the nation state to fascists, which is very strongly offensive to the nation state, as its people bore some of the heaviest casualties at the hands of fascists in World War II.

The military organization claims that it has democratic legitimacy in the region, whereas others dispute this, since voting took place in a heavily militarized environment and amid intimidation. It operates, among other places, from within densely populated urban areas. The nation state attacks the urban areas with artillery fire, which leads to destruction of civilian infrastructure and high loss of civilian life. This last has caused Human Rights Watch to accuse the nation state of war crimes. The nation state, meanwhile, maintains that the civilian casualties are the other side’s fault: operating from within these densely populated areas, the military organization is effectively using civilians as human shields, it claims.The reputed total casualties have recently surpassed 1,000 people.

The military organization is backed up by an oil-rich neighbour, which supplies it with arms, money and help in the informational war. Although this oil-rich country has a news channel put out for American audiences that are often viewed to get differing perspectives, outsiders accuse the press of the neighbours of overt propaganda. Another common accusation of the neighbours is that they are abusing a situation of a suffering populace to score cheap geopolitical victories. The oil rich neighbour also happens to be yearning for higher status worldwide. Part of that neighbours play for status consists of hosting a soccer world cup in the near future, received amid FIFA voting that was obviously mired in corruption. The nation state, meanwhile, is strongly supported by the United States of America. Within the USA, there is debate as to whether this support is in its geopolitical interest.

The military organization is widely accused of terrorism, and the nation state refuses to negotiate with it directly on the pretext that it does not negotiate with terrorists. Everything about the conflict is terrible, and there is no sign of an imminent end.

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The best books I read in 2013

Back when I wrote out my list of quotes, I kind of thought it’d be just a part of a 2013 retrospective, where I’d tell you about movies I saw, books I read, places I went, post-graduate degrees I received, all that kind of stuff. It turned out to be too hard to do. But I still want to write a book review kind of post, so instead of telling you about all of the books, how about just talking about the best ones. I know that halfway through the next year isn’t really a good time to be doing end-of-year lists, but… uhh… I don’t have any counterargument to that, actually. In any case, since I didn’t read any books that came out in 2013, the year designation is completely irrelevant.

The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977). I tried reading the Silmarillion when I was about 10, and I stopped cause it was really boring. Which made me think that I should never read it, because that was when I practically had the LotR appendix memorised, and could tell you whom Castamir the Usurper usurped, etc. So what a surprise when A. said the Silmarillion was so much better than LotR, and what a surprise when I started reading it again, after A. (a different A.) finished using it for honing his trivia skills. The Silmarillion is a book of astonishing scope and vision. It doesn’t have dialogue. It doesn’t have settings, in the way the Lord of the Rings does. It doesn’t have characters. It doesn’t have insights into life. It has a plot, but not really one anyone would care about. It doesn’t even have beautiful prose in a conventional way. Instead, it has words that sound mighty and regal and wise. It has gods and demigods and shapeshifting dogs and one-on-one battles between good and evil. It has speeches and spite carried for generations and words like hame and fane. It is more like the Iliad than it is like any fantasy book that I know. I loved it.

The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes-Owles, 2011). When I briefly worked in a movie theatre, I used to claim that the endings of movies were so bad that I would find out when the movie ended and leave five minutes in advance. My dad, a serial book non-finisher, made a similar claim about the Sense of an Ending: he feels more justified not finishing books after finishing this one, since the ending undermined the entire book. But I don’t think it’s quite the case. Tony, our narrator, is not only unreliable and unremarkable, but it’s in part his unremarkableness that makes him unreliable. When the novel takes an abrupt turn and drama comes back into retirement-age Tony’s life, you can read that as Tony straining to recapture some kind of relevance for his life. Regardless, this is a short, pithy book, that, ending or not, I will think about for a long time.

Наши (Ours, Sergei Dovlatov, 1983). My grandpa said that everyone’s life contains enough good stories for one good book. And it’s writing a second good book that is a challenge. He may have been quoting someone else. Anyway, these sketches of Dovlatov’s relatives are funny and cute, and really absorbing. They also make you feel like you should get to know your relatives better. And that maybe you should write a book.

Dreaming of Babylon (Richard Brautigan, 1977). I loaned this book to somebody back in 2007 and never got it back. Since then, I’d remembered it as my favourite Brautigan, and coming back to it I was relieved to find it wasn’t nostalgia speaking. This book is awesome. The story of a detective so down on his luck he can’t afford bullets, so sadsack his biggest worry is calling his mom and so incompetent he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Also, occasionally, he takes a break from detective work to fantasize about being a guy called Smith Smith who is the best baseball player in ancient Babylon. The hilarious premise is hilariously executed.

Ghostwritten (David Mitchell, 1999) A series of vignettes about people (mostly) who are in some meaningful sense “ghosts” living in an interlocked world, this book is David Mitchell showing that he can do anything. Any style, any voice, any location, be it paranoid sci-fi or Lucky Jim-style charming English rom-com,  Haruki Murakami or crime caper, meditation on eternal travel or supernatural thriller. The guy is a virtuoso, and it’s awe inspiring to see him strut his stuff.

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson, 1999). It’s sort of alternate history-but-not-quite that’s mostly about cryptography and world war II. It’s engagingly, cleverly written (“He’s on the third floor of a commercial building so nondescript that the most interesting observation one can make about it is that it has four stories”). It’s super inventive, it’s eloquent, without sounding pompous or overly impressed with itself, it’s funny. It has an almost Eugene Onegin-like scope: if Neal Stephenson is interested in something, it’ll be there. Its politics are rather annoying to me, and every female character – and even the male characters’ discussions of female characters – often made me cringe in frustration. Luckily, the enormous sweep of the book, how much interesting stuff there is in it to think about, philosophically, technologically, and just in terms of the staggering scope of information and topics overshadows that for me. Few reading experiences are better than getting “lost in the world” of a book, and Cryptonomicon offers as much of that as you could want. It’s weird to see that it was published the same year as “Ghostwritten” – I would have pegged “Ghostwritten” as a much later book.

Where the Jackals Howl (Amos Oz, 1965) This is so much better than every other Amos Oz book I’ve read that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same author – I wonder if maybe it’s a matter of translators? Stories that slowly build up to breaking point and then break epically. The reading equivalent of a day when you know a lightning storm will come and then the lightning storm comes.

Essais I (Montaigne, 1570) The essays are a joy to read because Montaigne constantly switches topics, digresses into outlandish questions and contradicts himself in a very entertaining manner. To a modern reader, you get the picture of a very decent person whose opinions and interests range from the very profound (on death) to the sensible but mundane (on superstition) to ones which seem crazy now but probably weren’t at the time (on how women can’t be true friends) to just completely bizarre (as when he muses on what he would do if he were hired as a defense lawyer by the human penis). You could be reading his thoughts on friendship one moment, and the next his thoughts on whether it’s reasonable to wear clothes or on whether people are unfairly prejudiced against cannibals. I was fascinated throughout.

Parkinson’s Law (C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958). The only business book I’ve ever read and also the only business book I’ve read twice, and also the only business book I ever plan on reading. It’s dry, it’s witty, it’s cutting, it’s astute. It’s hard to believe that someone with so much well-placed and precise contempt for all manner of enterprises actually was a member of society in good standing. The Law of Triviality (that when a group is tasked with spending money, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the amount of money involved) is particularly well-spotted and brilliantly explained.

Selected Stories (Alice Munro, 1996). I read it because Munro won the Nobel Prize, and in my mind it was totally well-deserved. Only Tolstoy and Trifonov of people I have read have a comparable rapport with how people think, and how their inner and outer lives interact, often glancingly and indirectly. And that’s even though the topic of Munro’s stories – most usually a divorced middle aged woman remembering growing up in the Ottawa Valley in one form or another – is of absolutely minimal interest to me. Despite that, the stories are completely captivating. And every story I’ve read since has been on that same level. Munro has an incredibly high standard.

Carry On, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse, 1925). This book is so fun to read out loud. Not many people are as funny as P.G. Wodehouse.

The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe, 1980-1983). Actually four separate books, it’s a dark fantasy that follows a journeyman torturer’s life. It has a bizarre, super-intricate world, excursions into philosophy, beautiful imagery and an exquisite prose style. The style is achieved in a novel way: there are no invented words in the Book of the New Sun, though there are obviously invented things. Instead, deprecated greek and roman-rooted words for weapons, animals, structures abound, making the books feel timeless. And the atmosphere is very dark. I don’t want to say austere, because Book of the New Sun is certainly ornate, too, but this feeling of a cold, unfriendly world that’s felt through the prose. Macabre and exciting and personal and not gussied-up at all.

Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Pygmies, Leonid Yuzefovich, 2009).  When I was buying this book, I was afraid it would be like “Chapaev and Void”, which I hated. The bookseller assured me that it was nothing like it. He lied completely. It is exactly like “Chapaev and Void”: the same spatiotemporal jumps from the Revolution era to the Wicked 90’s and European Russia to Mongolia. The same middling, venal characters spouting shallow philosophy. The difference is that “Cranes and Pygmies” is really really great. First, it’s the verisimilitude and attention to detail. Yuzefovich is a historian, and he really cares about Mongolia in a way Pelevin doesn’t at all. As a result you get a fascinating picture rather than something that looks like a hastily constructed set. But it’s also characters that are less put-on, and so much more interesting. It never feels like the whole thing is a vehicle for some bullshit philosophical point and/or pop-culture references. Instead, it’s a historical puzzle, a love song to Mongolia, and a novel about real people.

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Some songs, some comments

It was nice to work in a place where I got to use a radio. As a result, I got to say, and hear, 10-4 a lot. That always makes me want to listen to this:

Not until the Kings won the Stanley Cup and the Staples Center was mentioned a lot did I figure out that when Frank Ocean says “standing ovation at Staples,” he doesn’t mean a standing ovation at an actual Staples store. Somehow that would have been even more impressive in my mind.

This song is as good an explanation for several bizarre occurences in my homeland, and its politics, as any other

Say what you will, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the best song on its chosen topic.

When walking down Richmond Street in Richmond, which I do surprisingly often, I would like to be listening to this:

or maybe to this:

Lastly, I asked this on Facebook, but no one answered me, so I will try here: is there anywhere where this is a normal pronunciation of Spanish double-r? Or is it just how José Larralde does it?

Posted in music, whimsy | 1 Comment

Unions and Pipelines

As you may know, the Canadian government just approved the Northern Gateway pipeline, despite strong opposition within B.C. The decision has seemed inevitable for a long time, so it’s not surprising. One annoying aspect of the situation, though is that certain unions fought for this decision, without figuring out whether it was their members’ wish to do so or whether it was actually in their interest or not. Not that union pressure is going to have any sway with the Harper government (or the Clark government for that matter), but still. If unions become a force for the worse on the environment, that is very much not the type of thing we at Rated Zed had in mind when zuuko spoke out in favour of a conservative-environmental rapprochement.

The inexorable logic of construction unions is that they favour more construction jobs, no matter what it is that is being constructed. Via Erik Loomis at LGM, though, here is Trish Kahle making the point that it didn’t used to, and needn’t be this way. According to her, the way to solve the current anti-environmental turn is twofold: to ensure there is democracy within the union structure itself, and to get energy sector workers into a single organization so that going with cleaner rather than dirtier energy projects needn’t pit one set of workers against another. The piece is at Jacobin mag, so it has rather offputting Marxist language quirks, but I think it’s worth reading despite that.

Posted in no value added, politics | 1 Comment

Zolltan World Cup Non-prediction Special

The World Cup is my favourite sporting event, even though many of the soccer matches are huge disappointments. Part of it is the kind of exotic nature. Back in Seattle during the 2010 World Cup, I would occasionally wake up at 4 in the morning to go out to a bar and drink by myself while watching a game – and I felt proud of it! But definitely soccer being really fun to watch for me is the bigger part. However, I am only a fairweather fan, not someone who knows anything about the players, the teams, the strategies, anything of the kind. So what’s the point of me predicting what will happen? There isn’t one, and though that doesn’t stop me from posting anything else on this blog, this time it will. Instead I will just talk about what I want to happen, because that will at least be enjoyable (to me) self-indulgence.

Group A: Brazil should win the group, and at least make the finals of the tournament. It doesn’t matter that this Brazil team isn’t filled with players who play particularly beautifully. Brazil has that kind of iconic nature a team almost can’t squander. They could play like Greece or Italy and I’d still look at those yellow jerseys and blue shorts and hope they do well (I’d draw the line at playing like England).

Group B: This group contains three teams I like, and Australia. I always cheered for the Netherlands even before I lived there (Clarence Seedorf was my favourite). And then I lived there for a bit, and participated a couple times in the incredible Orangeness that is Queen’s Day and that cemented the bond. Hup, Holland, Hup! And now the Elftal no longer has van Marwijk at the helm or van Bommel in midfield, so I don’t even feel bad about cheering for them (despite van Persie and Robben and Sneijder all seeming like terrible people). Also, they are coached by Louis van Gaal, whom I just watched speaking Spanish with the most lovable terrible Dutch accent known to man. I hope they go far. My first memory of watching an actual World Cup game is cheering for Spain, back when they were the good team that perenially disappoints. And they did then, losing to Nigeria, I think, on a bad play by excellently named keeper Andoni Zubizarreta. Since then, the familiar taste of disappointment kept me coming back as a fan, even when that disappointment turned to triumph. Probably because though Spain’s posession style has been described by some as beautiful and by others as boring, (and both are sort of true) I lean towards the first. I won’t be mad if Chile makes it, either. They’re cool.

Group C: Japan advance, as does the Ivory Coast. I have already mentioned my sentimental attachment to the Japanese men’s soccer team (as much as I disliked pretty much most of my experience of Japan and most Japanese things). Giving up that tying goal to Iraq in 1993 was one of the most excruciating sports-watching experiences ever, but the shared agony has bound me for life to the team. In case that isn’t enough, though, the emblem of the Japanese football association and the Japanese men’s football team is a three-legged crow. How cool is that? Meanwhile Ivory Coast has a team that used to be so good… you’ve got to hold out hope for them to make it out of their group as a consolation prize for the last two world cups.

Group D: Largely on the strength of being a tiny nation, and having featured star of the tournament Diego Forlan last time around, I want the dinosaurs of Uruguay to kick some ass. Also in part because I happen to know a Uruguayan, and also in part because Luis Suarez is crazy, but in a way that makes me want to cheer for him. Other than that, England must not make it. So that leaves Costa Rica or Italy. Not that I’m a huge fan of the azzuri, but I’d rather have them than England.

Group E: whoever advances, and I don’t care who, gets slaughtered in the round of 16, because all these teams are boring. And, luckily, that’s probably what’s gonna happen! Seriously, compare groups C, E and H on one hand and B, D and G on the other. FIFA needs to draw groups differently.

Group F: Argentina! Messi! De Maria! This World Cup being in South America, cosmic justice would be best served by a South American team winning. Argentina is the best bet. I always like them. Bosnia & Herzegovina apparently play a fun style, plus they won me over with this heartwarming (though incredibly pro-Bosniak biased) tale. Plus Aleksandar Hemon is writing about them.

Group G: Even though I lived in the US for six-some years, and I love the US in many respects, it never even remotely occurs to me to cheer for them in international sporting competitions ever. I don’t know why. Now that I think about it, I am feeling kind of guilty about it, and maybe will cheer for them to advance, but most likely not. Traditionally, Germany is the avatar of all that is bad in soccer, but that’s not true of a Germany with Mesut Oezil, Mario Goetze, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. Last World Cup I wasn’t prepared for this and was amazed to find myself cheering for them despite years of ingrained Germanofootballteamophobia. This time around, I expect I’ll like them from the start. I was twice forced to move out of a room I was renting because my landlord had relatives coming from Ghana that he wanted to house there. The first time, I found a room in a basement, with a single bathroom shared among eight people.  It sucked so much. It was under 400 bucks a month, but I had to shower at school. And I didn’t really even meet the other people who lived there, cause I tried to avoid the place. The second time, I found a really nice house with interesting people and enjoyed it greatly. But they apparently didn’t enjoy having me around nearly as much, and that sort of soured me on that experience, too. That is my only connection to Ghana. I still kinda hope they go through for some reason, though.

Group H: Belgium is apparently good. I’ll cheer for them as long as it’s understood they’re no Netherlands. I want Russia to go through, too. I guess.

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Introducing the Phrasebook Project

Now seems as good a time to mention as any that I have another blog. It’s called the phrasebook project, and you can find it here. Having another blog may seem like a dumb idea considering I don’t even have enough stuff to post to this blog. And it is! But I decided to do so because rather than general posts as is the case here, posts there have a specific theme. The way it works is that I learn a phrase in some language. I write up the phrase, how I think one ought to say it, and some additional remarks. Here is a list of the languages written up / planned so far. As always, teaching me cool phrases in another language is super encouraged.

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