Tournament of Books: Census

A few days ago I finished reading the tenth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Jesse Ball’s “Census“, which is running against Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State” in the fourth round of the competition.

Perhaps unfairly, but when I first saw “Census” I thought that it was going to be novel in the vein of Max Porter’s “Grief is a Thing With Feathers”. I blame the the cormorant on its cover and the published blurb about it for putting me in that frame of mind. It was very clear a few pages in that “Census” would not survive that comparison. Then again, so few books could.

“Census” is book with a very moving preface and some very moving photos at the end. In the middle is a featureless wasteland. It is populated by unnamed characters that function in an unnamed, ill defined world that is maybe desolate, where a peculiar census is conducted each year in which people are asked questions by a census taker who then marks them and posts their answers onwards. Nothing in this novel is given edges, well defined. Everything is wishy washy, vague, seen through thick, milky glass. But that preface… so you stick to it, and it helps that the book is short, though it has no plot to speak of and the setting is bleak and bland. The key to this novel is its characters then, and that’s not surprising because after all, you’ve read the preface and that’s what’s keeping you here.

And that’s the biggest frustration, because when Jesse Ball lets himself write good characters then by God the man knows how to write good characters. There’s a tiny vignette of a ex-fossil loving boy that’s so precise, so concise and so convincing that you want to howl that the rest of the novel isn’t like that. That the surgeon-father-protagonist isn’t like that. That the son, the whole reason for this novel, remains a shapeless mass with nothing making him hum – no distinct feature, tic, preference. That the wife is the best defined major character and even she is seen through thick fog. It’s never personal, emotional, realistic or if he’s really going for the absurdist (which is a poor stylistic choice for the subject matter IMHO) then it’s far from fully embracing that even.

What is feels like is that the writer took a subject that was too close to home, too painful, and tried to deal with it while not dealing with it at the same time. The result is a novel that does everything possible to make it difficult for you to feel anything for any of its characters, including empathy. It very easily lets you slip into the “oh this has nothing to do with me” mode, and from there to “none of these characters are likable, hate-able or even interesting, so why should I care” mode.

But then, the preface…

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Tournament of Books: Census

Montblanc The Beatles Psychedelic Purple Review

A few years ago I used to be really on the FOMO limited edition fountain pen ink band wagon, but over the last two years my ink purchases have petered out to nothing. At some point I realized that any limited edition ink that I buy is bound to be pretty damn close to an ink that I already own, and a person can only have too many inks (IMHO). How many inks can you use at one given time anyway?

The precious few new bottles of ink that I have have all been given to me as part of large (vintage) fountain pen purchases, and so I haven’t felt comfortable reviewing them. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, do you? Then again, the gift was from the store, not the ink maker, so here we are.

The Montblanc Beatles Psychedelic Purple limited edition ink comes in a very groovy box, that is very well designed. Normally I couldn’t care less about ink packaging (excepts as it pertains to price — looking at you Pilot Iroshizuku. You started the trend and you know it), but someone really put some thought in this.

The little ribbon tab helps open the box easily

Look at that design:

I’ve never seen an ink bottle’s cap protected before, but then again this is Montblanc:

The bottle itself is pretty conservatively designed, but classically pretty:

The ink itself is a rich, saturated purple with a good amount of shading (despite being pretty dark), and a very slow drying time. It’s one of the few cases where the actual ink matches the colour of the packaging. There’s some sheen to the ink, but I’ve seen it sheen only on Tomoe River Paper, and it’s super hard to photograph.

I love this ink’s shade of purple (it’s slightly more to the red side of purple than the blue), but this ink was a hot mess in terms of behaviour on various papers. This ink is usable only on Rhodia/Clairfontaine and Tomoe River Paper, it becomes a bleeding, spreading monster on everything else. It also takes a really long time to dry (not surprising, as it’s a very saturated ink), which means that it’s going to be a no-no for left handed users and you really have to take care where you put your hand when you write with the stuff.

And that’s the thing. This is an expensive, not readily available ink that is finicky and temperamental in a hue that’s not so rare as to be unobtainable. Why spend good money and time buying it if you can probably get a spot on match from Diamine? Montblanc Psychedelic Purple cost about $40 when it came out and $80 now for a 50ml bottle. Diamine Majestic Purple costs $15 for an 80ml bottle. You do the math.

If you enjoy hunting for limited edition inks as part of the hobby, that’s fine. Just don’t get swept away by the marketing and the hype. Remember: there’s a very good chance that that expensive limited edition ink is not very different from the ones that you already have and don’t use, or that you can get a similar hue for less than half the price from Diamine.

Montblanc The Beatles Psychedelic Purple Review

Moleskine Limited Edition Pokémon Box Review

I was going to  write a review of the Moleskine Pikachu Pokémon limited edition notebook first, but I forgot that I gifted someone the copy that I had. After a bit of internal debate, I decided to write about the highlight of the Moleskine Pokémon limited edition set, the Pokéball Box, first, and order another copy of the Pikachu notebook for later review. As these make such great gifts, I suspect that this copy too won’t make it into my rotation but instead be snagged by a friend.

Last spring I was visiting London with my family, staying right next to a Moleskine store (my poor, poor wallet) and trying to take my luggage allowance into account (notebooks are heavy, and Moleskines are easily purchasable online after all), when I first saw these. At the time, I wasn’t into Pokémon, I hadn’t played the Nintendo games, and the Pokémon GO craze passed over me without leaving its mark. I thought I was safe. Then I saw this box at the store.

Such a simple design, but so effective

I left London without purchasing the box, but I kept thinking about it. As my family left on a flight two days after me and it turned out that they had weight to spare, they asked me if there’s anything I wanted from the Moleskine store. I considered for a while, and then asked for the Pokémon box. They ended up buying all three notebooks for me.

It’s been almost a year since then, and I’ve been swept into Pokémon GO as a way to handle my anxiety while dealing with my mom’s illness, and so when I photographed this box today, it was no longer an abstract thing that I had very little emotional ties to. The design, however, has not changed.

Unlike many other Moleskine limited edition boxes, this one comes with a Moleskine pen. The tradition started a few years ago with the Writing Box, and this year it’s part of the Basquiat box.

This isn’t a review of the Moleskine rollerball, but of the Pokémon box, so I’ll just point out two things: Strangely enough the logo on the clip is set so the Moleskine logo isn’t aligned with the Gotta Catch ‘Em All! logo. When one of them is right side up, the other isn’t. Also, the Gotta Catch ‘Em All is printed only on one side of the pen, which is disappointing. If you clip it to a notebook there’s a 50/50 chance that you won’t see the logo, unless you make sure the cap is positioned so the clip isn’t on the side of the logo.

The other thing that’s disappointing here is the choice of the body colour of the pen. Red would have been so much more functional, as the white is going to look grimy and tarnished just about the moment you start using it.

The pen uncapped. Now imagine in it bright red. So much better, right?

Inside the notebook you are greeted with a whole lot of Pokéballs, both on the front and back endpapers.

Front endpaper
Back end paper

The design even continues into the inner lining of the back pocket:

This edition comes with four Pokéball bookmarks, like the other Moleskine Pokémon limited editions.

All in all it’s a nice box, but in terms of design, it’s all in the cover. The endpapers are bland in my opinion, and they could have done a much better job on the pen. The initial price on these was pretty high, but as it’s now dropped somewhat, I still think that they make a great gift for the Pokémon lover in your life, though you might want to consider the other Moleskine Pokémon notebooks.

Moleskine Limited Edition Pokémon Box Review

Westinghouse No. 2 Pencil: Not a Review

I just started using a vintage Westinghouse number 2 pencil, instead of the Palomino Blackwing 530 which reached the Steinbeck stage. There’s no point in reviewing a pencil that isn’t widely available, but I got a pack of these on eBay for a pittance and they are excellent pencils, so if you’re looking for great, super cheap pencils and don’t mind petrified erasers, give branded vintage pencil listing on eBay a try. You never know what you’ll find.

Westinghouse No. 2 Pencil: Not a Review

Kaweco Liliput Brass Fountain Pen Review

A certain famous young actress, whose work I love, was recently photographed while pensively holding the copper version of this fountain pen, and this summarises this pen perfectly: it’s very, very photogenic.

I got this pen at a close out sale in a local art supply store, and the only reason I was tempted to buy it was because it was so shiny and pretty and at bargain price. Even so, I should have left it to languish unloved at that store’s counter. This is not a good pen. It’s not even a usable pen. It’s a lovely prop.

As its name suggests, this pen is tiny. You can’t use it unposted, and even posted it’s far from comfortable to use. I have tiny hands and even for me the Kaweco Liliput, posted, is just a hair breadth above the Steinbeck stage.

How does the pen write? Fine, as long as it writes. This is a fine nibbed pen and it writes like a Japanese fine nib (despite being made in Germany), if the Japanese fine nib that you have in mind has serious flow issues. The nib constantly dries up. I used a Diamine blue black cartridge in it (there’s no really viable converter option for this pen), a good, middle of the road ink, and the Liliput behaved as if I was using the driest ink ever and had left it uncapped for at least 10 minutes before I started writing. I wouldn’t even call it a writing experience, as so little writing went on. Start, stop, shake. Start, stop, shake. Nothing but shaking would get it writing again for another letter or two.

The pen is already starting to show some patina, which is excellent (you buy a brass pen for the patina potential after all). This means that it will only look better with time. If you’re a petite actress trying to look pensive and sophisticated for a photo op, this is wonderful news for you — the Kaweco Liliput Brad’s is the perfect pen for you. Everyone else: spend your money elsewhere.

Kaweco Liliput Brass Fountain Pen Review

Tournament of Books: Call Me Zebra

I just finished reading the fifth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Azareen Can Der Vlier Ollomi’s “Call Me Zebra“, which is running against Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight” in the first round of the competition.

So Oloomi had a great premise — to write a modern take on Don Quixote with a young woman, an Iranian refugee, at its centre. That’s where the great parts of this novel end. Zebra, the main character, has none of the charm or pathos of Don Quixote. She’s insufferable – selfish, childish, bigoted, narcissistic, clinically cerebral, depressed and depressing. She also doesn’t change until the very, very end, much like Don Quixote, and her adventures are similarly repetitive, but without the humour and warmth of the original Cervantes. But what is worse is that Oloomi has piled so much literature on the narrative that it’s unreadable. It’s like reading a laundry list of quotes and literary factoids which you are expected to plow through to get to a glimmer of plot or dialogue.
It was so bewildering to me that “Call Me Zebra” got good reviews that I went and read them. It’s pretty clear that the reviewers didn’t read the book through – they just skimmed the first bits (the most interesting parts in the novel), and then just wrote the reviews based on that and the excerpt that they got.
I’m reading this as part of the Tournament of Books 2019, and the book has managed to make it to the first round (against the almost equally terrible “Warlight”), while excellent books like “America is Not the Heart”, “Speak No Evil” and “A Terrible Country” are languishing in the play-in round. In the end I couldn’t care less if “Call Me Zebra” or “Warlight” win this round (“Call Me Zebra” is marginally better because of the first part of the novel, the description of the family’s exile from Iran), but I do wish I knew how they got selected to participate in the first place.

Oh well, the next book up won the Man Booker prize in 2018, so I am expecting a better reading experience.

Tournament of Books: Call Me Zebra

Moleskine Pokémon Charmander Limited Edition Review

Moleskine’s Pokémon limited edition notebooks are some of the most attractive and colourful ones that the company has come out with in recent years. Even if you aren’t a fan of the franchise you might want to pick one of these up, just for their design. Also, if you’re looking for a gift for the Pokémon fan in your life, look no further. Even if they aren’t a notebook fan they’re bound to love these gems.

The cover design, with the paper wrapper still on, is fantastic. You can see little Charmander dreaming of when he’ll be all grown up and a Charizard. It’s cute, perfectly aligned with the wrapper, and the colour contrast with the black background really make Chaemander pop.

Dreaming Charmander
The back cover. I love how understated Moleskine’s logo is.

 

The cover looks great even without the wrapper, which is a thing because Moleskine has created designs in the past that look much better with the wrapper on than they do unwrapped. The only thing that could make this cover better is if dream Charizard was embossed on the cover, adding a little texture to it. On the other hand, that would have almost certainly made the design less durable over time, so I guess that’s it’s good that Moleskine went for a simple print this time.

Inside the front cover you are greeted by a multitude of very happy Charmanders, and that design continues in the back.

Just look at the perfect alignment of the print on the back pocket. Also, way to go Moleksine for fully embracing the cute.

 

Instead of the usual specially designed sticker set, this edition gets Pokéball bookmarks. Again, these are super well designed, but like all bookmarks of this type, they’re not likely to hold up to much use.

The B-side of the wrapper shows the various evolutions of Charmander (Charmeleon, Charizard), which is nice, if not Moleskine’s best B-side idea yet.

There are two more notebooks in the Moleskine Pokémon limited edition set and I’ll review those later on. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a cool gift (that costs less than a Nintendo Switch) for the Pokémon lover in your life, this is definitely it.

Moleskine Pokémon Charmander Limited Edition Review