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What you see above is one of the most talked about topics in Brussels and has even made it to international media. Instead of the real tree that usually adorns the city’s Grand Place during the holidays, this year the City Council decided to dabble in the modern arts and try something new.
The result is called “Xmas 3”, a 24 meter high electronic structure made mostly of steel. For 4 euros, you can even climb it and get a 360° view of the UNESCO-protected square.
(what the usual tree looks like – credits)
As you can imagine, it wasn’t a popular decision. Since its inauguration, around 25,000 signatures have been collected in an online petition against it, and it has been a recurrent topic in the media. The reasons that lead to the decision of doing away with the tradition tree vary. While the official stand is that it’s a way to show-case the city’s “avant-garde character”, others believe it’s a politically correct choice, so as not to offend non-Christians, especially Muslims. This sparkled a lot of debate about larger social issues.
Whatever the reasons, no one is indifferent to it. I’ve heard it called “The Scaffolding” and “The Pharmacy” because when green the glowing cubes look like the popular green cross.
What say you?
A video of the daily light show around the tree (it’s quite a sight…)
Last week Joanna and I met Annie Proulx during her stay in Brussels as a Passa Porta resident writer. I don’t know if these resident writer programs exist in other parts of the world, but they’re a great idea. Passa Porta is a literary center that includes a multi-language bookshop, a workshop and a space other literary organisations can use for their projects.
They also have an apartment available to foreign writers who are in the city researching (or looking for inspiration in) Flemish and Belgian culture and literature. Notable authors who’ve passed by include Jonathan Coe and Michael Cunningham.
Annie Proulx is now in residence, while doing research for her ambitious upcoming book. It’ll be a century-spanning novel about de-forestation and it include a local character, a sailor in the (sorry if I got that wrong!) Dutch East Indies Company. Most of the talk focused on Bird Cloud though, a memoir of the building of her isolated and oh-so-lovely Wyoming (the “emptiest State“) house.
She spoke about her love of geology and how the land influences people and culture, the challenges of writing short-stories (“the hardest literary form“) and the upcoming Brokeback Mountain opera (!), but my favorite parts were about her experiences as a reader and how that influenced her writing:
I don’t think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as a reader.
When you read a lot, you get a feeling for what works and what fits. It’s good to read good stuff!
You can go over a sentence 200 times until it feels right. Understanding where to stop is a matter of experience, and that comes from reading.
And here’s a photo of me and my bump getting a copy of Bad Dirt signed.
It’s not everyday I get to read a book set in my adopted city of Brussels, so I got all excited when I found out about The Meantime.
My fellow Brussels expat Joanna and I got together to do a buddy-review, and one of the authors (thanks Monica!) gave each of us a give-away copy (a first for The Sleepless Reader) . So if you’re interested in knowing more about this unique-yet-largely-unknown city, just post a comment with your email and I’ll do the lottery on the 13th. It’s open internationally.
Alex: I sometimes think how cool it must be for people who live in places like New York or London to often see their cities in books. This is the first time I’ve ever read a book set in Brussels, which is strange because it has such a unique history and environment. First impressions: I liked the variety of the authors’ nationalities and was surprised how that translated in stories that made a lot of sense put together.
I though there where some that really captured what I see as the essence of Brussels: the quick connections, the mutability, the melting-pot, the new-comers sense of being adrift and yet the possibilities, the grayness of the sky.
Joanna: I thought the same thing about finally reading a book set in a city I know! Brussels is such a unique city too, international like many others, but more transient I think. I always thought that many aspects of life here would be interesting for others to read about too, just like it’s fun for me to read about the excitement of New York.
In general, I liked some of the stories more than others, but I guess that’s the beauty of a short story collection, there is something for everyone. Several of the stories brought me back to my younger years spent here, the years of not really knowing myself and not really understanding what I wanted and all the confusion offered by the endless choices of life in Brussels.
Which story did you identify with the most?
Alex: I’d have to chose the first one, [insert title + author when I'm closer to the book], about the guy starting to fall in love but at the same time applying for the job in South America. I was also like that when “landing” here – the feeling of being without any anchor, but also of knowing that everything is starting and that the possibilities are endless.
I’ve had job interviews here that went exactly like that… and also loved to see the sentence that starts most Brussels conversations “Where are you from?” I felt this story really captured the essence of my Brussels: transient, definitely, but also full of energy and a true melting pot. A bit of a micro-cosmos that tends to turn towards only itself (isn’t that the criticism of most people who don’t live here?).
I though that some of the stories were only set in Brussels and didn’t do much towards capturing the unique spirit of place. A missed opportunity, I guess. What was you favorite?
Joanna: I don’t know if I have a favorite, I identified aspects of several of the stories. In “The Lovely Streets”, I liked the mention of all the choices available to a 20-something, but also the mention of none of those choices involving passion or love. So we make our choices based on what a great opportunity they are in general, but we don’t stop to think about what we REALLY want to do with our lives. I was like that too and only recently stopped chasing ‘great opportunities’ to figure out what makes ME happy.
I also loved the small talk in ‘A Belgian Wedding Picture’. I think all the weddings I’ve been to here have been exactly like that! And I loved the “The Commissioner and the Pig”, the working life was really realistic… until the ending, which I didn’t think rang true of anything.
Oh and all the languages worked into “From Brussels South to Ottignes” and the sad, distant relationship in “Bear Dance”.
Basically, I can’t say I loved any of the stories, but I liked aspects in many. I also disliked a couple, I didn’t think they fit in with the rest of the collection…
Alex: There were also some stories that didn’t do it for me (or maybe it’s just a Brussels I don’t recognize?). But it surprised me how the big majority felt like they were part of a set, probably because they were all told in the first person and the main characters had more or less the same age – I understand that was part of the challenge set in a Creative Writing class that kick-started the whole project?
One last thought: when finishing I wondered if people who don’t love here would get the Brussels thing. Why it is such a unique and interesting place to live. I think it’s likely they would, that’s why I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to everyone.
Joanna: Yes, it was a Creative Writing group that ended up writing this book – their requirements for the stories were that all the stories should be written in the first person, the main characters should be 25-35 years old and the story should take place in Brussels. They ended up with such a variety of stories and I think that people would definitely get the Brussels thing based on them. Recommended to anyone who wants to read an original collection about a place that’s underrepresented in literature.
Lately my Google Reader has been full of posts about food – is it the season? I’m not a very interested cook, but I’m a committed foodie. Fortunately I found a fellow-foodie partner and a not insignificant amount of our family budget goes into trying new restaurants and bringing home local specialties (olive oil, honey, tea, wine) from our travels.
To follow the food blogging trend, I’d like to introduce The Brussels Food Club to the world. It’s the brain-child of my friend Inês, a talented amateur cook and professional graphic designer (check out her site at The Avenger Butterfly).
The idea was to challenge our group of friends to try new things and share established favorites with others. Each month we choose a theme, bring one or more dishes to that month’s host’s home, present them to the others, and then… we eat!
So far we’ve had four meetings:
The “Food From My Childhood” Edition
There were probably about 10 different nationalities in a group of about 15 people. So interesting to see the cultural differences. I made my mom’s chocolate salami.
The “Cookies, Cupcakes and Muffins” Edition
This was a special gathering because we all cooked together, divided into three groups (go Cookie Team!).
The “Out of Africa” Edition
My favorite Club so far for the sheer deliciousness of the food. The theme was dishes from Africa, any country. I brought two experiments and mint tea from Tunisia.
The “Exotic” Edition
Last weekend we got together to present our experiments with unusual ingredients. I used persimmons to make a tarte tatin.
Next month it’s the Christmas Edition and I might go to Nigella for some ideas. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Yes, what you see there are 21 of the 34 books (so far) of the Morland Dynasty series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. What makes it even worse is that the first one has been on the TBR for years now… (*blush*). They were so cheap! And they do look like the sort of books I’d love!
The others in the loot:
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – I’ve heard great things about it;
- The Olive Tree: A Personal Journey Through Mediterranean Olive Groves by Carol Drinkwater – because I’ve always been fascinated by olives, olive oil and olive trees;
- The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell – I really liked The Hand That First Held Mine and wanted to try something else by her;
- The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore – I know nothing about this one other than the blurb. It’s my blind choice of the year.
This month: Local Bookstore
Let me introduce you to a fantastic place: Cook & Book. It’s a bookstore/restaurant concept, but they’re also a publishing house and a place to have concerts and other cultural events. What makes them unique is the way they organize the space with impeccable taste and into nine completely different atmospheres (comics, travel, children’s, arts, music, lifestyle, literature, English books and cook books).
It’s without a doubt my favorite bookstore in Belgium and probably anywhere else as well (see more awesome photos). Flavorwire also recognized it and included Cook & Book in their list of The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World.
Cooking Books section – trattoria style, complete with a classic Cinquecento
English Books section – lush carpet and dark wood, reading tables like an old English library or University.
Literature section – books hanging from the ceiling and a game of mirrors
Here’s a video that’ll give a better idea of the space(s) (in French):
I’m a bit lazy today, so I’ll just post a few photos of a recent night visit to the Royal Library of Belgium.
The garden by night (the Library is the building on the left).
Each locker is dedicated to a Belgian author.
Exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the publicaiton of Les Misérables. A Belgian first edition in 10 volumes.
The Librarium, a permanent exhibition space on the history of books, writing and libraries.
If you’ve ever tried booking theater tickets in London you know what a Herculean task it can be, especially for plays with celebrity actors and running just a few weeks.
Most are sold out in the blink of an eye (Stephen Fry on Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare’s Globe… sniff), so why not watch the performance projected live, in another movie theater, in high-definition?
Up until very recently I’d never heard of the National Theater Live. I knew vaguely you could go to the cinema to watch live Opera, but never imagined the same could be done with theater. But then a friend, after seeing my 2012 Shakespearean resolution, invited me to see The Comedy of Errors.
The cast included Lenny Henry, Lucian Msamati and Claudie “Queen of Costume Drama” Blakley. They were wonderful, the set was fantastic, and the physical comedy fitted cleverly with the Bard’s original jokes. The Brussels audience laughed especially hard at the “I could find out countries in her” speech, which mentions Belgium (West End Whingers in their review of the play asked “Shakespeare of course invented everything. Was he the first to discover the intrinsic comic value in Belgium too?“. You got to love a country able to laugh at itself. Another great example is the movie In Bruges).
It’s quite a feeling to hear the London audience laugh while we were laughing as well, and imagine all the other spectators around the world doing it as well at the exact same time (hurrah for globalization!). There are hundreds of locations that offer NTV, and although nothing compares to actually being there, this sure comes close. Have you ever tried it?
This year was the first time Joanna and I made a 5-book exchange. It’s been a great experience and so far I really enjoyed everything she recommended: Kindred, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and The Star of the Sea. I’m at the moment almost finished with Out by Natsuo Kirino and already have The Space Between Us on the shelf, still to be read this month.
Meanwhile, an off-line friend of ours, also from Brussels, joined the book blogging world – check out Like People and Butterflies and say hi to Larissa for me. So in 2012 the (only?) three bloggers Bruxellois are doing an exchange between them, and the books are already lined up (see here for Larissa & Joanna’s mutual choices).
My books to Joanna
Now that I know her better, I can more confidently chose a balance between the type of books I think she’ll like, and the ones she wouldn’t normally pick but might still appreciate.
My books to Larissa
Just three of my absolute favorites. Hope they’re her cup of tea as well…
Books I’ll read chosen by Joanna
I like the mix of “lit” and “light-lit”. Especially looking forward to Vernon God Little.
Book I’ll read chosen by Larissa
There are translations for the two last ones, but I’ve decided to read them in the original. It’s a good excuse to stop being lazy and read novels in French. At the moment I only do it with comics.
I know other bloggers out there also do exchanges. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve chosen this year!
If there’s any justice in the world, someday these books will have the recognition they deserve. To be fair, some are already hugely popular in certain parts of the world, so maybe this post should be called “Books I’m surprised the Whole World isn’t talking about”.
Would love to know if you’ve ever hear of/read any of them.
1. A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson (USA)
At the yearly Book Fair here in Brussels I always buy a couple of mavericks. A Short History of a Small Place was my 2007 blind date but it quickly became one of the best of the year. I may have been easy to please because of my soft spot for Southern Literature, but this novel seemed to have all the elements needed to win me over: a small town, eccentric characters, smart jokes and the bittersweet feeling of coming-of-age. Still, I’ve never met (online or in person) anyone who’s ever heard of A Short History of a Small Place.
The story is set in the mid-60s, in the fictional town of Nelly, NC. Our young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of old Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a former town belle and eccentric wealthy sister of the late mayor. After years of total seclusion, Miss Pettigrew returns flamboyantly to public view to sing her swan song.
Although events are told by Louis, in a way we see them from the perspective of the entire town. They are those stories told over and over at the kitchen table, in the supermarket line, in the beauty salon and after Sunday service. So often that they become the stuff of legend.
2. Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento) by José Saramago (Portugal)
I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that Baltasar and Blimunda is the most popular book by Saramago in his home country, so when he jumped borders it surprised me how rarely it’s mentioned. I’ve discussed this phenomenon with some friends and the only reason we can come up with is that, unlike Blindness, The Double or All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda is very… Portuguese. Its political and religious message, although not unique, can better be appreciated if you know something of Portuguese history and psyche.
It’s the 18th century, and the Inquisition strengthens its grip on Portugal as gold and diamonds pour in from Brasil and other colonies. The book starts when King John V dutifully visits his Queen to try for an heir. He promises God that if he succeeds he’ll build a magnificent Monastery, and that’s the start of what will become the Mafra National Palace. Baltasar and Blimunda is the story of the construction of the Palace and Saramago takes us on an intimate journey through the Nobility and Clergy who funded it, the engineers who design it, and the lower classes who actual build it.
It’s an historical novel with the social and religious criticism Saramago is famous for, but he still managed to create what’s still one of my favorite love stories of all time.
3. Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia) by Jorge Amado (Brazil)
A classic of Brazilian literature which doesn’t seem very popular outside the Portuguese-speaking world and Latin America. I remember it for its emotional punch and my first encounter with a world that is not all black and white. I probably read it a bit too early in life and I clearly remember how it heart-broken I was.
“Captains of the Sands” is a gang of abandoned children living in the streets of Bahia in the 30s. They’re between seven to fifteen years old and survive by stealing and coning. Think Lord of the Flies meets City of God meets Peter Pan. It’s a book that surprised me by the amount of topics it approaches: poverty, social injustice, parenthood, sexuality, gender equality, African culture in Brazil. Read it and fall in love with Pedro Bala, the leader, Professor, the book-lover and artist, and Dora, the Wendy-like figure of the gang. There’s also a movie adaptation. Here’s the trailer.
4. Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten (art) and Benoît Peeters (story) (Belgium)
These are a series of books started in the 80s that have reached cult status, at least in the Franco-Belgian graphic novels world. Schuiten in particular is so well liked here in Belgium that he got to design his own Steampunk metro station.
The Cities of the Fantastic are an imaginary world where humans live in independent (sometimes isolated) city-states, each with a distinct civilization and architectural style.
There are passages between our world and the Cities (the Obscure Passages), sometimes crossed by people on both sides. Jules Verne, for instance, is a frequent visitor. Most Passages are found in buildings and constructions similar or identical in both words, such as Art Nouveau master-piece Maison Autrique. You can even read reports (complete with photos) of crossings in websites like the Office to the Obscure Passages or The Web of the Obscure Cities.
The series and its spin-offs offer beautiful art with a solid world-building. Pure, unadulterated escapism.
5. Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare (USA)
It ran between 1995 and 2001 and it’s about the life of Mel and his dog Fergus. Call me a biased dog-person, but I love that in Citizen Dog cats are (for once!) not portrayed as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Maybe that’s the source of discrimination?
I always get a good laugh out of Citizen Dog books, no matter how often I read them. The lines between master and dog are usually blured and often switched, but somehow Fergus is more lovable than other rebels, like Garfield. Anyone out there also a fan?
6. The King Amaz’d (Crónica del rey pasmado) by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (Spain)
Very short, but oh-so-delightful.
After sleeping with his best courtesan, young King Philip IV becomes obsessed with an idea. A simple idea, but one which will rock the Court, the Inquisition and the Kingdom: Philip wishes to see the Queen, his wife, naked.
This is the epitome of a hidden gem, a funny, clever and insightful satire about conformity and personal freedom.