Like Radiohead, Elbow recently released an album. Unlike Radiohead, Elbow recently release an album I enjoyed. Although In Rainbows was Thom & Co’s best album of the noughties, The King of Limbs slotted into the same category of vague diversion as Com Lag. Elbow on the other hand seem to get stronger with each release. Their songs often echo the epic orchestration that marked the best of Kid A. For me, Elbow are an example for Radiohead, creating music that is experimental and interesting, but not wilfully weird.
The rise of online sellers such as Amazon and the increasing popularity of eBooks has meant that bookshops are closing at an increasingly rapid pace. I love bookshops, but the move towards eBooks could actually be beneficial for ‘good’ books.
The shopping experience of a bookstore is admittedly more personal than online, in that you can seek the assistance of a staff member to help you find a book or recommend an item. Books are neatly laid out and categorised under best-sellers and recommended fiction. However, in the majority of chain bookstores the prime display areas belong to the books with the greatest financial backing. Novels that gain critical praise are not guaranteed any sort of prominent display in the shop.
In contrast, the online buying experience is often characterised as cold and clinical. The user reviews on sites such as Amazon often cover such a diverse range of views that it is impossible to parse a clear sense of the book. Therefore, when venturing online for a book journalistic reviews that are vital, and books that receive the greatest critical acclaim rise to the top.
Utilising blekko’s ‘book-reviews’ slashtag it is incredibly easy to quickly access a wide range of respected articles on the book of interest. Although journalism is currently experiencing a tectonic shift, editors and reviewers should emerge as the curators of an extremely cluttered online landscape.
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom gained an enormous amount of critical acclaim and became somewhat of an internet sensation leading to a huge amount of book sales. Readers who may have been put off by its size and seriousness in store were convinced by glowing reviews. Of course, this happened previously because of articles in newspapers and magazines but the act of buying books online means a much larger quantity of people are seeking critical opinion.
As eBooks develop, book discovery tools will improve. With the ability to ‘like’ books on Facebook it will be easy to see what people in your social network are reading. The creation of a last.fm for books would allow for the easy generation of recommended books you would enjoy based on your reading preferences.
Unless they can transform to a new audience, bookstores are in danger of being left behind. Writers and critics though have access to a greater audience than ever before, and those novels that are truly great should thrive.
At the beginning of this week the techblogs buzzed with excitement at the the launch of Facebook’s messaging system. TechCrunch described it as a ‘Gmail killer’. Expectation was high for something that would make communication easier; reduce the complications of the current system. The ensuing product was indeed a revamped messaging system, including displaying your conversation history with a friend in one single page, whether it was through chat, text or email. The emphasis is on simplicity.
Zuckerberg, who is as bad a public speaker as he is a web developer, delivered an overview of the new system and its approach to communication. He described listening to a group of teenagers talk about email, and how it is too slow, too formal. It reminded him of conversations he had with his own parents about the superiority of email to the traditi onal hard format. The speed differential between sending a letter and an email is significant, measured in a couple of days. In comparison the slowness of email is in the extraneous details of finding your intended recipients email address, choosing a subject line and the formal embellishments that you use: ‘Hello’, ‘How are you?’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Love You’, etc. Concepts and traditions inherited from letters.
This is where I disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg. What is too slow, the system or the users? Email is slower because it requires thought, which is often a good thing. Those formal devices are part of centuries and centuries of the evolution of written communication. Our fractured online messaging system provides a range of platforms that allow subtly different shades of connotation. These can be divided into private systems, where you communicate with a person or a group within a private environment, and public systems where communication is hurle d into a social ether. The private systems are: email, instant message and text message. If we apply traditional terms email is a letter, IM a written conversation and text message a note. These are accompanied by a range of public systems, where the user broadcasts their message to an audience, such as Facebook and Twitter. The public systems often induce use of the private system, or a hybrid of the two such as a Facebook wall post or a Twitter ‘at’.
Facebook’s new messaging system subsumes the variety of conversations into one single stream, which although may increase ease loses much of the art of written communication. We use alternate forms of communication for different reasons, and that separation is important. I take great pleasure in receiving a lengthy email from somebody, but I do not want that mixed in with my banal communications trying to figure out where I can find the damn bar.
Writing is segregated, divid ed betwe en novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, drama, essays, journals, letters and more, with each section breaking down into even finer categorisation. Our conversations are no different, fulfilling different necessities. Blurring these together loses a great deal of the complexity of our communications. It is monotone.
on the windowsill sits a sad, dejected pumpkin;
his flesh drooping, one eye sunken.
we remember his bright, glowing smile
when we first met at that same stoop.
a little girl sat teetering on her heels,
the mother catching her before she fell.
from the bench we see her now shun
the squash-headed fellow.
we wander the neighborhood,
followed by hundreds of doleful faces.
a reddish army of the abandoned.
all signs of life extinguished.
in the dusky gloom, a gigantic face
with jug ears and toothy grin
flickers with an eerie, weary light.
his skull bares the scars
of a mischievous Jackson Pollock.
we sit and share the last inch of wick,
then pick up the empty head and lump
it in the overflowing trash can.
We had thought about going to Brussels, but as soon as we sat down on the Eurostar we knew that Bruges was the right destination. A raucous stag party drank, played cards and shouted through France and Belgium until we arrived at the Belgian capital. We were glad to lose them as we caught our connecting train to Bruges (free with a Eurostar ticket within 24 hours of travel).
The picturesque medieval Belgian city originally became a tourist destination thanks to Bruges-la-Morte, Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel. Almost a century later, the similarly black-hearted In Bruges did a similar job for the city. For us, Bruges was somewhat of a convenience destination; cheaper to get to than the warmer, sexier than Rome or Madrid. Yet as the trip grew nearer our excitement over visiting Belgium grew.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson stay in a fancy hotel room overlooking a canal, but our wallets are not that thick. In the quieter northern corner of the city is the single-room Bread and Butter (Julius & Maurits Sabbestraat 39, www.breadandbutter.be). For €85 a night you get a beautiful room on the top floor with views out across the city. In the morning Frederika prepares a delicious breakfast of breads, yogurt, pastries and, best of all, chocolate.
Eating in Bruges is a complicated affair. The city is where the Flemish Primitives (http://tfp.wieni.be/) convene every year to discuss molecular gastronomy and there are a number of extremely good restaurants. The problem being that extremely good in Flemish always translates to extremely expensive. Furthermore, in starry-eyed admiration the rest of the city’s establishments have adopted very high prices. Finding a low-mid-range meal is a challenge. The Gran Kaffee de Passage (Dweersstraat 26-28) offers hearty Flemish fare in the €10-15 range. The stoofvlees, a Belgian beef stew, was tasty and filling, arriving with a generous portion of frites. Another Flemish speciality, waterzooi (a subtle chicken broth), is less likely to leave you overly full.
Belgium’s national dish, and it is a good one, is moules frites. Breydel-De Coninck (Breidelstraat 24) is Bruges’ mussel king, offering a kilo for around €20. We had the white wine and celery, and the provencale. A few hours later, after some encouraging words by fellow diners, we finally finished, happy and satisfied.
The real reason many come to Bruges is the beer. It is very good. Whether you are enjoying a Westmalle Tripel at Café Vlissinghe (Blekersstraat 2, http://www.cafevlissinghe.be/) with your croque monsieur, an Orval at the delightfully cosy L’Estaminet (Park 5) (serving a ridiculously filling €7 platter that week, including chunks of pate) or the unique Garre at De Garre (Garre 1), if you like beer, you will like Bruges. The apogee of the Bruges beer bars is ‘t Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5), which has an extensive beer list of 200 varieties and is run by a beer lecturer (known in the UK/US as a drunk). Wine lists in Belgium generally consist of two options: red, white. Of the beers—there were a few—we had during our time at t’ Brugs Beertje my favourite was the Rochefort 12, a smooth dark Trappist beer.
For an immersive beer experience head to the De Halve Maan brewery (Walplein 26, www.halvemaan.be), the last remaining brewery in Bruges. Many shut down during the Nazi occupation. The brewery holds jovial tours for €6 hourly that detail the beer making process. Your attention is rewarded by a glass of Bruges Zot at the brewery bar. Ideal if you have already enjoyed a lunch of beer soup.
Bruges is also packed with a large number of beautiful historic sites, including churches and the beautiful beguinage. The Belfort is currently under renovation but the views over Bruges are worth the extremely tight stair climb up. The tower also employs a full-time bell ringer who performs concerts during the week. These are best enjoyed at night in the Markt, when the tourist traffic is a little lighter. Unfortunately the Groeningemuseum, the city’s premier art museum, was closed during our visit.
Don’t be put off by the ultra-touristy elements of Bruges. A boat ride along the canals is a perfect way to see the city, though I would not be so keen on the horse and carriage rides. Growing up in Bruges must be an odd experience; it often seems almost like Disneyland in its prettiness, and the flow of tourists is overwhelming. Poke around underneath the veneer though, and a really beautiful and enjoyable city emerges.
It is an odd prospect to write a review of Michael Idov’s Ground Up, a novel about the superior Mark Scharf, who earns money (a bit) writing cutting reviews for Kirkus. The mercilessly sharp pen that Scharf trains on his victims is similar to the biting wit Idov applies to the pretentious New York ‘bohemian’ middle-class.
Scharf and his wife, Nina Liau, spend their honeymoon in Austria and fall in love with the idea of the Viennese coffee house, in particular a seemingly perfect old couple, the Hrabals. The pair decide to open to their own version of the perfect coffee house, in the up-and-coming Lower East Side. Scharf identifies the area as gentrified, and awaiting ‘the next wave of colonizers…self-loathing MBAs and mysteriously affluent single girls who worked “in advertising.”’ These are the people they hope to attract with their brand of European grandeur; and overpriced food and coffee.
Ground Up grew out of Idov’s own café experience, which did not go well, as first detailed in Slate. After encouraging works from Nora Ephron Idov turned the article into a book, filling in gaps with heavy fictionalisation.