Retro 51 Cat Rescue 2

An utterly non-Instagram ready journal entry about this pen, including my terrible handwriting. 

In November 2017 I went to a business convention in Washington DC, and while there I stumbled upon a tiny stationery store that had some Retro 51’s for sale. I liked the red colour of this pen, and some (not all) of the cat illustrations on it, and so I bought it. It was an utterly unreasonable impulse buy, because at the time I already knew that the Schmidt refill rendered my Retros virtually unusable for me, and I was years from finding a suitable replacement refill. The pen gathered dust in a pen cup on my desk for the past two years, until this week.

The finial/top disc is one of Retro 51’s best designs.

As part of my decision to use my Retro 51s more, I replaced the (dried out) Schmidt refill in this pen with an Ohto FlashDry gel ink one, and I’ve been using it pretty regularly for the past few days. It’s a bright and cheerful pen that writes like a dream now, even though in a quiet room you can definitely hear the tip rattle a bit as you write.

There’s no texture to this pen, the rescue cats are just printing on it, and I wish Lucy Kinsley had drawn them. So I’m not yet sure if this pen stays with me or I’m going to gift it to a cat loving friend, but for now I’m enjoying giving it a spin.

Retro 51 Cat Rescue 2

Tournament of Books 2020: Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

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A very surprising book. I was expecting a grotesque horror story, and I got nothing of the sort.
In “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” Dexter Palmer takes a historical event and greatly expounds upon it to create a clever and subtle work of fiction which is at times breathtaking in its endeavours. This is a bildungsroman, it’s a tale of mastery and apprenticeship, it’s a love story, and most of all its a story about truth, fiction, and the complexity and variety of what lies between the two, and what defines them. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, yet, Palmer says, look how dark and fragile that enlightenment was, and look and tremble at how dark and fragile our current age is. For the tale of Mary Toft in the 18th century is also the tale of flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, “Fake News” current West civilization, and it’s also the same tale of women who’s voices aren’t heard, who are abused, ignored, deemed “cow-like” and only good enough for breeding, who cry in pain in a room full of doctors that not once ask her how she’s feeling.
So why 4 stars and not 5? Because there’s a tremendously cruel and grotesque bit in the London part of the novel that I understand why Palmer brought in, yet I still wish he hadn’t. After a line or two I skipped the part, and my reading wasn’t spoiled for it. So: 1. Once the bull shows up in the arena, skip to the end of the chapter. 2. If I could skip the horror and not miss a bit, then Palmer could have done without it.
A very interesting, clever and subtle tale, worth reading and contemplating upon.
I read this novel as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, which is fortunate, because otherwise I wouldn’t have even heard about it. It’s going up against Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”.

Tournament of Books 2020: Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

Visconti Homo Sapiens Bronze Age Review (or Falling in Love with Fountain Pens Again)

In late 2014 I visited the wonderful Mora Stylos in Paris, France. I was there to buy a pen. A specific pen. One that had made a buzz in the pen world the moment it came out. The Visconti Homo Sapiens:

There are dozens of Visconti Homo Sapiens reviews out there, and so I wasn’t planning on reviewing this pen. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, it has a satisfying heft to it, the material feels amazing to the touch, the nib has some delightful springiness to it, and did I mention that it’s a hulking large, beautiful pen?

It’s also a very, very expensive one. It was the most expensive pen I had purchased until then, and since then only three other pens in my collection have come close to it in price (my Nakaya, my Henry Simpole Silver Overlay Conway Stewart, and my Oldwin).

I remember spending a lot of time in that store, holding the pen (it’s large and I have tiny hands), trying out the nib (I bought an Extra Fine. Today I would have gone for something broader), debating the price of pen.

Look at that patina!

In the end I liked the aesthetics, the nib, the unique filling mechanism, and the story around the pen enough to buy it. As I bought it from Mora Stylos, it was customized with my initials on the finial. This made the pen even more special and precious to me.

The finial can be customized by dealers, using a special magnetic mechanism.

I got home and I couldn’t get enough out of just looking at this pen, this piece of art that looked like it belonged in a museum.

Just look at the nib and the clever closing mechanism.

Who would want to sully this with ink, right? I could accidentally drop it or something.

A closer look at the scrolling on the nib and the patina on the band.

But I forced myself to fill it and try using it, if only at my desk at home. I loved writing with it. It’s truly a joyous pen to write with, especially if you have a light touch. The nib is something else, comparable to my Nakaya in terms of feel.

But then I had to clean it out. And that was an absolute nightmare that took ages and  ages. The filling mechanism was great to use, but terrible to fully flush out. Who has the time for that, especially for a pen that I daren’t carry with me at all times?

So over the past 5 years I’ve used my Visconti Homo Sapiens a grand total of three (!) times. It stands to reason I should sell it and let someone else enjoy it. Yet I can’t bring myself to do that. Why?

You see, I’ve grown lazy in my fountain pen use over the years, and this pen was one of the turning points. Fountain pens require effort. They have always had. That’s why people moved to ballpoints the moment they were a semi viable substitution. Fountain pens can be messy. They need filling and cleaning, and care during use and storage and while cleaning them out. You don’t use them for convenience, you use them because they bring you joy.

I’ve lost touch of that, just as I’ve lost touch with the joy of playing around with various inks. My pen usage has fallen into a rut of mostly easy to clean inexpensive cartridge-converters or TWSBI pens filled with easy to clean inks.

Diamine Denim, which I haven’t used in more than two years and used to be one of my favourite inks. Still is.

It has taken me a while to realize that. As I was building my goals for 2020 the realization that I’ve stopped actually enjoying my pens and ink dawned on me, and I’ve decided to see if I can’t change that.

So I filled my gorgeous Visconti Homo Sapiens, and I actually carried it with me in my bag (the skies haven’t fallen yet and the pen is OK), and I’m thoroughly enjoying using it. And I dusted off my beloved Diamine Denim, one of my favourite blue-black inks and previously one of my favourite inks that has seen absolutely no use over the past two years, and I’m giving it a spin. It’s as richly delightful as it ever was. There’s no sparkle or sheen to it, and not much shading to speak of, and yet I still love it. Diamine Denim is just a very good blue-black ink period.

So, who knows what the future holds, but I hope that this pen that does so much to evoke humanity’s past will get me interested again in my fountain pen future.

Visconti Homo Sapiens Bronze Age Review (or Falling in Love with Fountain Pens Again)

Tournament of Books 2020: Girl, Woman, Other

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After reading Bernadine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other“, I have to say that Atwood’s “The Testaments” better be a flawless novel to justify giving it the joint Booker prize with this masterpiece.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is a perfect gem. She manages to pull off one of the most daring tightrope acts in modern literature:

  • Create a unique narrative in a unique narrative voice that oftentimes flows into poetry, yet still remains very readable.
  • Give voice to those who are rarely, if ever, heard, yet not turn them into iconic stand-ins, but let them be individuals. And oh what an ensemble of glorious individuals they are.
  • Render a plot that is packed full of fascinating, realistic action, and yet that is non-linear, tying disparate characters from widely varying backgrounds and generations in a web of past-present-future reality. A plot that brings the historic and iconic with the present and personal, the petty with the epic, and brings them all together under the title of “life”.
  • Bring slices of everyday London, the UK, Africa and the US to life in a way that makes each character grounded in their background and yet also universally relatable. A school is this particular school, but it’s also all high-schools everywhere.
  • Talk about the darkest parts of the human experience, the worst deeds, the worst mindsets, and yet retain a measure of hope, empathy, understanding for those who experienced the worst and those that inflicted it.

“Girl, Woman, Other” is an absolute must read book, and I’m thankful that I “had” to read it as part of the2020 Tournament of Books challenge.

Tournament of Books 2020: Girl, Woman, Other

Karas Kustoms Retrakt Review

Back in 2016 I purchased the 2016 Anniversary edition of the Karas Kustoms EDK. It was a Parker refill machined pen (i.e. relatively short) that came with a Schmidt P2186 rollerball refill (and a Rickshaw bag pouch with a notebook which I won’t review here).

You can see that pen on the right, with it’s grey red finish and its Karas logo with the year 2016 engraved into the barrel:

 

The 2019Anniversary Retrakt is the pen on the left, and when I first saw it during Karas end of the year sale I fell in love with the sleek design. The 2019 anniversary Retrakt fits a Pilot G2 refill (astrix. We’ll get to that later), comes in a matt finish with a black click mechanism and clip, and a “fluted” grip. Unlike the 2016 edition, it’s completely unbranded.

 

Both pens have a distinctive and attractive industrial design, and both are built like tanks. The anodization is fantastic, and both the clip and click mechanism are rock solid. The pens are fairly priced for the quality you get, they have good heft and balance, and are a joy to use. I personally found the fluted grip slightly less comfortable for use in long writing sessions than the regular grip, but I have a tendency to go “grip of death” sometimes. The fluted grip just reminds me to let go a bit, the pen isn’t going anywhere without me.

2016 Anniversary Retrakt on the right, 2019 Anniversary Fluted Retrakt on the left

This brings us to the refill situation on the 2019 Anniversary Retrakt. As soon as I got it I took out the Pilot G2 refill it came with and tried to replace it with my favourite G2 compatible refill, the Uni-ball UMR-85. It’s something that I do automatically with every G2 compatible machined pen. The click mechanism wouldn’t engage. The plunger went down but didn’t stay down, the tip of the refill never saw the light of day. This has never happened to me with a G2 compatible pen before, so I grabbed the original refill and placed it side by side with the Uni-ball one:

Uni-ball UMR-85N on the top, Pilot G2 on the bottom

This was when I realized that the Retrakt V2 must have somehow been designed to accommodate the Pilot G2 tip configuration and only the Pilot G2 tip configuration (unless you purchase a Parker style conversion kit from Karas). This was a big disappointment to me.

Schmidt vs Pilot G2 Retrakts

I probably wouldn’t have purchased this pen had I known this going in. I don’t hate the Pilot G2 refills, but I’m also not a huge fan of their tendency to be globby or stop working while they’re still half full. This means that I’ll be trying to hack a Uni-ball refill into this pen one way or another. Here’s hoping that I succeed because this the 2019 Anniversary Retrakt is a handsome and well made pen that I would really like to have in my rotation.

Karas Kustoms Retrakt Review

Old Favourites: Zebra G-301 review

In 2013, while I was at a convention in Boston, I went into the FedEx at the convention centre to collect a package. As I was waiting in line my eye caught the Zebra G-301 pen on a rack near the till. I’d heard good things about the Zebra F-301, but it’s a ballpoint pen and I wasn’t a fan of those. The Zebra G-301 was a gel pen. In stainless-steel. For just a few bucks.

Of course I bought it.

Fast forward six (!) years and that same Zebra G-301, the exact same one, is still on my desk, and is still my daily workhorse pen in the office. Here’s how it looks now:

Impressive, right? The imprint is almost gone (mine didn’t have the Zebra logo etched into the clip, so it now looks like an unbranded pen), and the plastic grip is a little worn with use, but otherwise the pen looks practically brand new.

The pen costs $2.5 on JetPens. I’ve been using it for my daily to do list and for general planning and meeting notes every day for six years. It just shows that a pen doesn’t need to cost hundreds of dollars to be a good, solid workhorse that’s a joy to use.

Oh wait, I haven’t actually reviewed it yet…

The Zebra G-301 has a stainless steel body that is durable, gives it more heft than a plastic bodied pen, and yet isn’t too heavy to be uncomfortable to use or unwieldy. The plastic grip has no give, so if you like mushy grips it’s not for you. Otherwise it gets the job done. The branding is classy (one font, understated, sleek and modern), and well suited for office use. The pen is durable, and the click mechanism isn’t mushy and lasts for years.

New and Old

The only possible downside of the Zebra G-301 is the refill. It’s proprietary, on the expensive side (a pack with two refills costs $1.90 on JetPens, almost as much as the pen), and they don’t last long if you write a lot with them (I get about 2 months out of each refill). I also only use the G-301 refills (theSteel JK 2 pack), so they come only in black or blue, and only in 0.7mm. JetPens also notes that the Zebra Sarsa JK refills fit the Zebra G-301, which come in 0.5 and also in green and red, but they cost a little more per refill. As I view the Zebra G-301 as an office use pen, I don’t mind the ink limitations.

Writing Sample

I never thought when I picked up this pen back in 2013 as an impulse buy that I’ll be using it six years later. I like it so much that I bought a backup a few years ago, because I was sure a $2.5 pen wouldn’t last for long and I didn’t want to be stuck without it. The replacement is still in its blister pack, as you can see in the photos above, and the original G-301 is still going strong on my desk. I wonder if I’ve accidentally stumbled on the modern equivalent of the Esterbrook Dollar Pen.

Old Favourites: Zebra G-301 review