Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book #19: Germany - Auslander by Paul Dowswell

It’s around the world day again! For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, I am collecting books set in eighty different countries (hence the blog title around the world in 80 books), and I’m finally starting again. Today is Germany.

I didn’t really want to do a war book for Germany, seeing as that’s at least half of the English-language books you see that are set in Germany, but Auslander was too good to ignore. If you know any YA books set in Germany that aren’t about WWII, please add them in the comments! Feel free to add those that are about WWII too :D

Auslander is about Peter, a Polish boy with German heritage who is caught up in the annexing/invasion of Poland. He’s recently orphaned and living in an orphanage when doctors come around looking for good Aryan specimens to adopt into German families. Peter happens to be an excellent Aryan specimen, and is adopted by a professor of eugenic research in Berlin.

Dowswell has done an amazing amount of research for this book, and deftly weaves it into the narrative. I was struck by the difference between a memoir/diary, history books and straight fiction – in a memoir or diary, you have the perspective of someone who was really there, but everything is dependent on what they thought was relevant at the time, or the things that jump out of their memory. In a history book, you get a (hopefully) straight account of the facts on a wider scale, and maybe examinations of artefacts from the period. In fiction, an author can explore a time period and present exactly what they want to the reader, in a way that makes the most impact.

I’ve read memoirs and diaries and history books about WWII, and been to museums, but Auslander has a whole different view. Because it's fiction, Dowswell can be honest with his characters without pointing the finger at anyone, so Peter does not immediately take the Nazis-are-bad position, and you sort through ideas and choices with him. The real artefacts, such as the Nazi dolls’ house and the Hitler Christmas carol, seem much more real when they’re in the houses and mouths of characters rather than in museums. One of my favourite bits in the novel (don’t read the end of this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled) is when the youngest daughter in Peter’s new family asks why they don’t tell that story about the baby and the star any more on Christmas. The father answers with a quote about how things that were good for the old generation are not good for the new, and wonders who said it. The eldest daughter acidly replies that it’s from the Bible.

It would be interesting to know what people who lived through the same kind of experiences think of the book. I really enjoyed it (though beware, some of it is horrifying, as the subject matter must be), but I’m a sheltered 21st century Kiwi. It’s amazing, and quite scary, to know that normal people did incredibly terrible things, and incredibly good things too.

Any young adult books set in Germany that you know and love?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A post of two halves: Rugby and Shopping

For those of you who don't know, New Zealand beat France in an International Tournament of the Oddly Shaped Ball match this morning/last night (apparently you're not allowed to say the forbidden words Rug. Wold Cup). I haven't been paying that much attention to the Cup, so I thought I'd rectify this and go and watch the game.

Where to see it, though? I figured a pub in Shepherd's Bush would be a good bet (round where lots of Kiwis and Aussies live), and there was also the added plus of a huge shopping mall five minutes walk away. I wanted new shoes, so I decided to kill two birds with one (or three...) tube journeys (track and station closures make things difficult) and go to the rugby and the mall.

First off, I'll admit that I don't know that much about rugby. I enjoy watching it. I know about tries and conversions and line-outs and penalties, and I can do my rugby maths. But every so often the ref will do something seemingly at random, and I just have to accept that I'm missing something. For this reason, I will not attempt to describe the game itself. I'd probably bore those of you who don't know rugby, and infuriate those who do.

I didn't actually get there in time for kick-off (sleep seemed more important when my alarm went off), but there was still most of the first half left. They had a bouncer who ID'd people at the door, which felt strange at 9.45 in the morning, and I nabbed a spot behind some not-too-tall people to watch. There were lots of people in black clothes and All Blacks jerseys, the smell of stale beer, and multitudes of television screens.

I was wearing my 'home' T-shirt that has a map of NZ on it (given to me by the lovely Kaleidoscopic PhD Star Girl), and since I wasn't too keen on a beer this early in the day, I asked for a coke. Half-pint or pint? asked the barman. Uh.... I said. A pint?

Never had a pint of coke before.

And almost everyone spoke New Zild! I could hear the accent for a bit, but then I got used to it and began to feel as if I might be back home. The game was exciting, and there's something about being squashed into a room with a couple of hundred other people, staring up at a huge screen and screaming or groaning or going silent in unison. Some girls screamed in excitement when Sonny Bill Williams came on, and some guys rolled their eyes. A few times a cheer went up, but I'm not sure what it was for, especially as everyone seemed to be looking away from the screen.

Apparently, people see beauty in difficult things that are done well. I really like watching the players throw the ball to each other as they run down the field, and catch it as if their hands are covered with glue.

I trust that their hands are not covered in glue.

The English commentator kept talking about a previous French comeback in a Cup game, and how it could all turn round in the last twenty minutes. We waited with anxious breath, but when the final whistle blew the game went to the All Blacks.

Then it was time for Shopping.

The mall reminded me of Charles de Gaulle airport - huge white struts and a soaring irregular roof, everything white and modern and upmarket. I collected cinnamon pretzel samples and wandered the shops, which included a Pumpkin Patch and a Lego store, and searched for shoes and the Perfect Sixties Dress.

Fashion in London is bold, with bright colours and patterns and sometimes-strange styles. I have seen purple Leiderhosen, pastel rose-covered jeans and garish tops. Disneyland Tax Girl wanted to know if people actually wore this stuff. The answer is yes.

There is some really nice stuff too, though. I quite enjoy seeing what people wear, and I'm tempted to amass a wardrobe of clothes that I wouldn't wear in New Zealand. I saw a girl on the tube yesterday wearing a pearl necklace to make Lisa Simpson jealous, and a woman in the supermarket with makeup and hair done like Amy Winehouse.

I admired some clothes in one window and considered entering the shop, but then realised it was Armani, and thus not within my price range. In the end, I couldn't find the Perfect Sixties Dress, but I found some quite nice shoes. So it was a successful trip :)

I feel this post has been more than half about rugby. Ah well.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Baby steps in Scrivener for Windows

A few weeks back I downloaded a beta version of Scrivener, which is a computer program for writing long-format projects. The idea is basically that you have all your notes and writing etc. in one place, and you can break your text into bits which you can then move around on a cork board.

The cork board is what appealed to me initially (apart from the fact that everyone says ‘Scrivener is amazing! Get it!). I’ve been playing around with character POVs and events and where they should go, and the fact that you can move bits back and forth on the cork board is much better than copy-paste-copy-paste-copy-paste-oops-what-have-I-lost in Word.

So I watched the quick how-to video, decided I’d look at the manual later, and transferred my text from Word to Scrivener. I think I may have spent about ten minutes trying to figure out what I was supposed to do (I don’t think I watched the video particularly closely), realised how long it might take to split everything up and make it all nice, and decided I’d do it later.

Then my beta licence ran out.

This week, I decided I’d have another go. I’m at a point where I’m staring at the text thinking ‘is this really getting any better? At all?’, and I thought it might help looking at it from a different perspective. I downloaded the latest beta and spent two and a half hours splitting my manuscript up into scenes/chapters (according to the getting started video, the Mac version has a quick and easy way of doing this, but the Windows version does not yet). And then I was done! I had everything in nice pieces, and I could look at scene summaries on the cork board and move things around with the click of a button!

A bit later I discovered the quick and easy split button (cntrl-k), which is now actually in the Windows version. Oh well.

I got all adventurous and moved everything around. Then I got scared and moved it back exactly how it was before.

Still not sure how I save a new revision... I always keep my old files, and I tend to accumulate a lot of them. If I could save the old version, I wouldn’t be so scared about moving things around. I think. Though some of the moving around may have put events completely out of order...

I think I’m getting the hang of things, though. I like how you can label scenes and click easily through the whole thing. I have many, many auxiliary files, and I guess I can put them in at some time.

How much can you do before legitimate ‘work’ becomes procrastination?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Y'all right?

This week, I've sung Sweet Dreams badly with a live band in front of many people I did not know (it's really hard to pitch when you can't hear yourself), been attacked by a statue in Piccadilly Circus (it tried to grab my face. I hadn't expected it to move) and changed a lightbulb (only took me nine days). I've also been thinking about small talk greetings, specifically 'how are you?'.

It's a bit of a stupid question. Unless it's a special circumstance, you'll just about always hear 'all right'. And 'all right' no longer really means 'all is right with the world', it means 'okay, I guess'. The words are pretty meaningless, because some of the time you might be doing terribly.

But you don't say that, of course

In England, people don't seem to say 'how are you'. They skip straight to a yes-or-no answer - 'Are you all right?' or ''Y'all right?" This confused me for a while - did I look sick? Lost? In need of shop assistance? Were they trying to chat me up (you're all right!)? But no, it's just another step on the evolutionary journey of "How are you". The answer is obviously 'all right', so why make things difficult? Let's have a yes-or-no question.

I hear in some Asian countries people ask 'have you eaten' in the same manner. The answer doesn't really matter: it's the social convention of appearing interested in another person, even if you're not.

What would happen if everyone answered this question honestly? And if everyone who asked really wanted to know the answer? Would we get to know each other better? Or would we feel uncomfortable with the truth? Both, I guess.

Have a good week! Actually.

I'm not just saying that. :)

Edited to add: No! They do say 'how are you?'! I just hadn't noticed. I guess it's kind of an invisible part of speech. And I said 'very good, thank you' in return, so 'all right' does not have to be the default answer. "Are you very good" sounds a bit weird as a question though... 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Night market and climbing every mountain. Or one.

My previous post was written during our nice siesta, so there was still some Samstag to go. Pirate Pianist and I set off for the next suburb over (which, by the way, is clearly marked out with signs telling you when you are entering and leaving the suburb), where many of the roads were closed and filled with stalls (one of which sold a larhe array of dentist equipment. Disturbing) and tables and rides with flasjing lights.

There was a band on every corner, and music coming from every pub, and many many people and lots of beer. We got a crepe each, which came on a wafer so that you had an edible plate, and wandered down the streets goggling at the stalls. I was very tempted by the gingerbread hearts hanging in many stalls, but after all the bakery food I'd had that day I couldn't imagine eating it.

That didn't stop us when we got to the popcorn stall, however. PP had just been complaining about the lack of salted popcorn in cinemas (apparently it's all caramelised) when a scent wafted throught the air. We turned to each other and said, in unison, 'I smell popcorn!'. So there was nothing for it but to sample the popcorn.

There were also steaks frying in the largest frying pan I have ever seen, and candyfloss and more beer. The stars were coming out now, and the streets were becoming quite crowded. We listened to a few of the bands as we went past, then made our way back to PP's flat.

Pirate Pianist's plan for the next morning was to climb the hill on the other side of the bridge. We left earlyish and caught a bus to the bridge, walked across and started up the hill. On the way we passed the Institute of Theoretical Physics, lots of huge houses and an old Mini parked on the hill with chocks under its wheels to stop it rolling away.

Soon we were up in the trees, though. About halfway up there was a path off to the side, and a tower at the end of it, complete with slit windows to shoot arrows out of. On closer inspection, the tower only dated from 1901, but you could climb up a staircase hugging the inside wall and emerge amongst the chestnut trees at the top. We could see some of the town, but mostly the plains and the nuclear power station PP pointed out to me.

The trip back down the stairs of the tower was fine as long as you didn't look down, or consider how much weight the banister could hold. We returned to the main track and I felt like I was in Hansel and Gretel, walking the track through the forest. Maybe I shouldn't have menntioned this to PP, because soon after we took a wrong turning and didn't actually have time to reach the summit, which was our goal. We did see a treehouse, though, and tried to figure out who might have built it, and lots of black/blue beetles.

We got back on the right track and found a viewing platform, a gazebo jutting out from the hill. The view was spectacular - the sun had just burnt away all the clouds and the valley and plains below were hazy and sunlit. From this distance, you could almost imagine you were looking down on an actual medieval town, without the cars and bicycles and buildings of the twenty-first century.

On the way down we stopped for an icecream in a garden with stone walls and lots of little lizards scampering in the sun, and then by the time we reached the bottom we thought we deserved lunch.

PP knew an Irish pub where we could order in English, so we sat in a booth and looked through the menu. I wanted a coffee, but a cold one, so I asked if they could do an iced coffee even though it wasn't on the menu. The bar guy was really good and made his 'coffee experiment', and when we ordered a hamburger cut in half it arrived on two plates with separate helpings of salad and chips!

I was scared of missing the bus, but we got back to the station in good time and said goodbye. PP and I next plan to meet in Peru or International Waters, where we will perform the Sailor Dance (Pirate Pianist, by the way, is the lovely person who originally taught me the Sailor Dance).

There weren't any roadworks on the Autobahn on the way back, which I was extremely grateful for, and I managed to score a window seat again. This was definitely worth it, because I managed to see some dikes as well as fields of wind turbines in the middle of the English Channel! I'd known wind turbines existed, but I hadn't realised there were entire fields of them, sitting among the waves and spinning madly. It was an incredible site.

Then we were back to the patchwork British fields (which are a lot more higgledy piggledy than German or Kiwi patchwork fields) and landing at Stansted. When we got to passport control, I'd never been so glad to have a Non-EU/UK passport in my life. The EU/UK line was approximately one hundred times longer (this is not an exaggeration), and the only wating I had to do was while I was writing my arrival card.

All in all, it was an awesome weekend. I'd love to go back to Germany, and I am only fifty minutes away so I shall. I should probably learn some more German before I go...

Guten tag!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Samstag in Heidelberg

I woke up this morning (too early...) and looked out the window to find a wooded hill outside, underneath a blue blue sky. It was over 30 degrees C today (not sure in Fahrenheit), which was a nice change from 10-19 degrees in London with wind and rain. Didn't have that much sleep because my bus was stuck at roadworks for 40 minutes, and then the Pirate Pianist picked me up and we got talking... But enough sleep or functioning today, so I guess that's okay.

Pirate Pianist and I got breakfast at a bakery near her house (brezel und apfel something) and took the tram into town. So many nice houses with steep roofs and shutters! PP explained that they don’t tend to have air conditioning here, but use blinds or shutters to keep out the heat.

We wandered down the longest shopping street in Germany, which I assumed to be pedestrian-only until a BMW crawled its way through the crowds. There were some good chocolate shops and a gummy bear shop with a football pitch in its window made entirely from gummy bears. The streets are all cobblestones and narrow with buildings crowding down the sides, some painted in bright yellow and blue, and there’s a ruined castle up on the hill and a river curling down the side.

We climbed several flights of spiral stairs to the top of a church tower to see the view. Just as we reached the top (out of breath and dubious about the height we'd strayed from the ground) the midday bells started to ring, and rang all the time we were up there. If you pressed back against the wall, you could feel the tower moving with the bells, which wasn't particularly reassuring.

Boats dotted the river, and from this height the streets and buildings below looked even more quaint. There was a weir just upriver, and the old bridge directly below us while the new bridge was some way downstream. You could see blue ranges in the distance,, and of course the wooded hills around us and the ruined castle.

We met a few people on the stairs going down again, which was interesting because there really wasn't enough room to pass. We managed it without taking a sliding trip to the bottom, however, and emerged back into the sunlight to walk across the old bridge.

Pirate Pianist showed me where newlyweds lock engraved padlocks to the bridge, then throw the key into the water as a symbol of their marriage. We discussed what would happen if you tried to do that at home... After a hot chilli chocolate at a lovely cafe, we got doner kebabs and tried to eat them in the park beside the river, but had to keep running away (literally) from wasps. Some people were using barbecues and creating clouds of smoke, so in the end we stood in one of those and ate as fast as we could.

There was a rowing race happening on the water, which was exciting to see, and lots of spectators and a bouncy castle as well as sunbathers taking advantage of the heat. We didn't stay long after finishing, though, (the wasps were determined to eat our food, even though it was all gone) and caught a train out to a little village with its own castle. Here we had some icecream and tried to have lemon lime and bitters, but it appears bitteren aren't the same bitters as in NZ.

The castle was closed, but we were still able to walk around it and cross the moat. I decided I'd quite like a house with a moat, as long as there's a drawbridge. We wandered the streets a bit more then took the tram back to PP's house, where cold drinks and a siesta awaited us.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Proms and animation :)

Hello again! I’m still writing this in Hahn airport, but I thought I’d break up the posts a bit.

I happened to see a poster in the Tube the other day advertising an animation exhibit that was closing this weekend. Oh!! I thought, I’d like to see that! It was the last week, though, so I had to go on Monday or Tuesday or Thursday (Wednesday being reserved for my Proms attack plan. Hmm. I hope the combination of those words doesn’t trip any security computers). I booked my tickets and left work early on Tuesday, navigated the Underground to Barbican, and entered the exhibition.

It was well done – the first exhibition space consisted of projection screens showing early black and white experiments with animation, with black thread dividers and UV light. Next you moved into a huge space with two giant screens on opposite walls, showing clips of characters from different films or animated shorts. From there on there were lots of smaller screens showing clips and full films, which frustrated me somewhat because I like to read everything and see everything and I ONLY HAD 129 MINUTES. I really enjoyed it anyway. One of the rooms was showing a clip from the original Tron on an entire wall, while another was done up to look like an abandoned building game-set, with a giant computer screen on which you could move around inside an actual game. Really quite creepy.

I was amazed to see a 1941 Chinese film with singing, and it had the bouncing ball on top of the words. I didn’t know that technique was so old. There was also an old French film about a fox, a really good Tim Burton short called Vincent, a Canadian film about neighbours that won an Oscar in the 50’s, and a clip by Len Lye (the guy who designed the water whirler in Wellington in the 1930’s).

On Wednesday I took lasagne to work, heated it up in the microwave, and then took the Tube to South Kensington, walked the subway to the Science Museum and then along the streets to the Royal Albert Hall. The line was only halfway along the block when I got there thirty-one minutes before the doors opened, and I was the last to receive a raffle ticket that guaranteed my place in line. I was quite pleased about this, and sat down to eat my still-hot lasagne and my mandarins, and snap open my umbrella when it started to rain.

The Prom was a piece called Bridge and a piece by Birtwhistle in the first half, and Holst’s The Planets in the second half. I’d looked up the Birtwhistle piece on Youtube beforehand so I knew what to expect: film to match a horror film. I quite enjoyed it (though I think the man behind me didn’t, so much), and at the end the composer was brought down from the audience and seemed very pleased with everything.

The Planets was excellent. When Mars began, someone near me whispered Star Wars!, and I think John Williams may have taken some inspiration from Holst – Mercury reminded me of Harry Potter. If you don’t know which pieces I’m talking about, look up Holst Mars or Holst Jupiter and listen – these are probably the most famous. Despite Mars being The Bringer of War and much less subtle than some of the other Planets, I think it’s my favourite. I couldn’t stop grinning as the huge sound filled the hall. And I’d love to play the tambourine for Jupiter.

Der flughafen

I’m really getting slack with these Wednesday posts. My reason this week was a successful outing to the Proms, and a trip to an animation exhibition the night before, and feverish packing and preparations the night after. I have time now, though, because I’m sitting at London Stansted Airport (where they have wi-fi costing only 11.95/month, which I have not partaken of) about to fly to Frankfurt Hahn, which is not really in Frankfurt but an hour away. At least, I hope I’m about to fly. I had my first proper proper Underground delay this morning, where they advised us to get off the train and get a bus, and the train spent about 20 minutes at one station, fifteen at the next and ten at the next before we finally started moving properly. So, based on that, I’ve done my delays for the day. I even got through customs with an hour and three quarters to spare.

Later that day...

And I even got a window seat!

So now I’m sitting in Frankfurt Hahn airport, which is a big converted hangar that reminds me of the old old Wellington terminal, but without the fascinating carpet. Without any carpet at all, in fact.

The flight before ours arrived a bit late, so we left late but still arrived on time (they do a bugle call announcing an on-time arrival), possibly due to their scheduling one hour fifteen minutes for a fifty minute flight. Once we’d boarded, the pilot informed us that the air conditioning on the plane wasn’t working, which was part of the reason the previous flight had been late. It was bearable, just, and after I got over the imagined connection between air conditioning and oxygen supply it was fine. Possibly the air conditioning started working later in the flight, because it did seem to get cooler.

It only took fifty minutes to get to Hahn (which amazes me. Fifty minutes and I’ve left one country, passed over another or two and landed in another) and was cloudy most of the way, although I did get a glimpse of the Channel as we went over. It was raining here when we landed, and the plane bounced a bit before settling onto the runway and everyone screamed. They should try landing at Wellington airport in crosswinds. When we came to a stop something coughed and all the electrics in the cabin died – main lights, seatbelt lights, annoying voice advertising something – while the engine whirred down outside. I’m not sure why this happened, but we stood in the rain-light for about ten minutes, passing half-recognisable bags down from the dim overhead lockers, before the lights came back on again.

Apparently they’re swapping aircraft for the next flight out.

There was a clap of thunder as we ran through the rain to the terminal, and then we queued through passport control and got to customs, which was two doors labelled Goods to Declare and Nothing to Declare. No customs officers in sight, and when I went through the ‘Nothing to Declare’ door, I saw that the ‘Goods to Declare’ door opened right next to me, straight into the arrivals area. Presumably it was the customs officer’s day off.

The green is different here, darker and with more blue than English green and more saturated than New Zealand green. I’m formulating a theory as to each country having a different sort of green, and there does seem something distinctly German about the trees here.

My final destination is Heidelberg (where I’ll hopefully get to post this on The Pirate Pianist’s internet), but that’s a two hour bus trip away. My plan this weekend is to post every day, but we’ll see how that turns out. You can be assured of getting a minute by minute account in any case, some time before next Wednesday.

Here ends today’s post. Next post: last week.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Great Expectations for a week in London

Being this present week too fatigued to conclude my Wednesday post, the Wednesday post is occurring on Saturday at the same time as the Saturday post. I hope none of my readers are confused by two objects occupying the same space.

I have recently finished Great Expectations (as you can see from my bookshelf to the right). Having read Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, and knowing the story otherwise through popular culture and possibly some television drama, in many places I knew what was to happen before it did. Even so I enjoyed it, and have since found myself writing in a somewhat Dickensian style.

This may perhaps be suitable for blog posts and suchlike, but I came across difficulties Thursday evening when trying to write from the perspective of a twenty-first century teenage girl. Unless she had been immersed from birth in a commune full of Dickens devotees, she would not describe things in the same mild manner as Dickens, and she would not talk to her friends and equals in a similar way.

Fortunately, I have learned to notice when I am lapsing into the voice of another author. Voice is a tricky thing, and I imagine it to be much like acting – you must think your way into the character or the story, and beware lapses into various divers mindsets (on a side note, I approve of the addition of an ‘e’ to that word. I was liable to imagine persons in wetsuits and breathing apparatus whenever it was used).

There were divers reasons for my fatigue this week. I ordered a large number of photographs on Monday, which were collected on Tuesday and put to good use on my wall that same evening. What had started as (I believed) an hour’s work became three and a half hours’ work, but I am exceptionally pleased with the result. Illustrations of my masterpiece in divers stages of completion may be found below.

Note the swirling Koru pattern :D
So, in short, I did not receive an optimum amount of sleep on Tuesday night. On Wednesday night I learnt that one must never doubt the tendency of the English to queue – I had planned to attend the Proms, and arrived early with Great Expectations, but did not see a queue in the obvious place. People were instead lounging in divers spots around the square, and it took your humble host a full fifteen minutes to realise that this apparently random assortment of people, when viewed from a different angle, formed a long, long line that disappeared down the steps, around the corner, and all the way down the street.

I joined the end of this queue with somewhat deflated hopes, which rose steadily higher as I neared the doors and then fell catastrophically when the Prom was declared sold out forty people ahead of me. Hundreds of people were turned away, so I joined the dejected mass of people in their amble to the Underground station. We passed the Science Museum on the way. This venerable institution was holding a late night, so I drowned my sorrow in a lecture on astronomic mathematics and the age of the universe. Arriving home later than I should, although earlier than previously expected, I went straight to bed.

Thursday has already been mentioned in connexion with character voice, and Friday involved an exhausted homeward journey and a nap. It now being Saturday, I am much refreshed and looking forward to a good English supper of minted lamb, baked potato, carrots and green beans.