Thursday, November 22, 2012

Brazil (Michael Palin)

Michael Palin’s latest book brought back memories of my previous encounters with Brazil.

When I was doing GCSE Geography, there was barely a corner of the curriculum that didn’t have an example from Brazil that could be quoted while answering an exam question. And there was a suspicion that writing down ‘Brazil’ in response to any question that stumped you might gain half a point.

“Está chovendo” are the only two words of Portuguese I know, courtesy of a university friend Shirley who was brought up in Brazil (and baptised in the River Amazon).

And a couple of summer’s ago I read two thirds of Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, a fascinating – if over-detailed – history of Ford Motor Company’s failed experiment in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest to develop a rubber-plantation to feed into their tyres, complete with US-style buildings and customs. One day I’ll finish the book and post a review.

Michael Palin visited Brazil to film a recently-broadcast TV series. His eponymous titled book documents his travels across the vast country, twice the area of India. Palin contrasts the forests, the mines, the beaches and the favelas. He notes the role of religion and witchcraft, carnivals, the influence of Portugal, as well as spotting many examples of minimal clothing – both on the beach and in forest tribes. And he even finds a tribe getting lessons in videography.

Basil Pao’s photographs really bring Michael Palin’s commentary to life, capturing the colour and vibrancy of the country. Sadly Pao’s name doesn’t make it to the book’s front (or back) cover. Also missing from the book is an index.

Palin describes a country where poverty and prosperity mix on the beach, and twenty years of military dictatorship are less visible than the 1950s government building distinctive architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. (In two week’s time, he’ll turn 105. Update - he died on 6 December, days before his 105th birthday.)

Included in his travelogue, Palin surveyed the remains of Fordlândia by boat. The pictures really bring Grandin’s more wordy tome to life.

What I wasn’t taught in GCSE Geography was that within 20 years, Brazil would become a superpower, leapfrogging the UK in 2012 to become the world’s 5th largest economy.

Throughout the book, the reader is gently introduced to often flamboyant individuals who guided Palin and his crew through different regions and cities: Gabby the “Beyoncé of the Amazon”; 70 year old cowboy Julio; Marjorie , a transsexual who describes herself as “a woman with a penis”; a blogger called Raul; Marlisa, a special forces publicity officer; and many others.

Before finishing in São Paulo, Palin stops over in Rio de Janeiro and discovers rising rents as foreign buyers snap up property ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It’s all in sharp contrast with the new city of Brasília which took over as the country’s capital in 1960 and was constructed in the unpartisan interior, away from the more dominant south east.

I missed the TV series that preceded the book. But I found the book a fascinating excursion through a country which was undersold and underexplored in those school geography lessons.

Disclosure: My copy of Brazil was supplied by Easons in conjunction with Michael Palin’s booksigning (Belfast store at 12.30pm on Friday 23 November), but didn’t have any demand or influence over the content of this review.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Infinite Tides (Christian Kiefer)

First sentence: “The airlock opened.”

The Infinite Tides is a book about emptiness. The emptiness of space. The emptiness of astronaut Keith Corocan’s family relationships which he sacrificed in order to pursue his training at NASA. The emptiness of his house which had nearly all its furniture removed by his wife while he was circling the Earth in the International Space Station.

Up on the space station, Keith was a respected engineer, responsible for fitting a complex robotic arm that he had redesigned. With the arm fitted, he looked down at his home planet and admired the beauty and completeness:

“It was a moment as glorious and transcendent as any he could have imagined and he would realize only later that it represented the single coordinate point in which he understood that he had done it, that at last he had entered the long incredible upward-turning arc that had been the trajectory of his life, and that he was, finally and undeniably, an astronaut.”

Towards the end of the space walk he was astonished by the “green and brown continents and blue oceans and white clouds”. Ready to go back into the airlock he had “a strong feeling that he had lost something”.

Soon after returning inside the space station, a colleague took him aside and broke the tragic news that Keith’s teenage daughter Quinn had died in a car accident. Technical difficulties meant that his return home could not be expedited and he eventually departed from the space station three months later, suffering from migraine headaches and separated from his wife.

Back on Earth, Keith was no longer deemed fit for work. Other than flashbacks to his training and time in space, the plot follows Keith as he prepares to sell the empty family home he had spent so little time in. The estate is an anonymous suburbia: four or five plans of houses laid out in endless cul-de-sacs.

Keith is no longer in control. He is in denial about incoming bills and the boxes of personal effects that his wife moved to the garage. He is enchanted by his next door neighbour, Jennifer. Initially irritated by a Ukrainian man’s antics in the local Starbucks, Keith warms to Peter Kovalenko’s love of astronomy and spends countless hours with him sitting in a field looking up at the stars.

As an engineer with a deep understanding of mathematics, Keith’s thinking is crammed full of infinite parallels, angles, planes, vectors, apogees and perigees. The mathematical prose adds to the beauty of the book and does not distract. Keith’s daughter shared his mathematical gift, but to his disappointment latterly chose cheerleading over academia.

Confronted by an expert in another discipline who is also out of luck, the novel explores whether Keith will have the capacity to reach out and help Peter to overcome his difficulties? Or will Keith’s lack of grasp of his own personal situation leave him unable to help another human being?

Christian Kiefer’s first novel is a dark tale. Happiness is always tinged with sadness and regret. Depression is not just a state of the mind, but a state of suburbia. Helplessness is combined with a difficulty to accept help. Academic intelligence does not equate to emotional intelligence or even an instinct to dig out of a hole quickly.

Despite its 400 or more pages, The Infinite Tides is a fast read that draws the reader into the life and plight of revered astronaut, ex-husband and absentee father Keith Corcoran. While the lead character’s back story adds a sprinkling of magic space dust, the emotions and dilemmas are very Earth-bound and common. A good, if bleak, read from musician, poet and first-time novelist Christian Kiefer.

Available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fit out firm behind Belfast Easons wins award

It was no surprise to learn last night that Dublin-based Jennings Design Studio, the company behind the fit out of the new Easons Donnegal Place branch – the old WH Smith store – had picked up the top award at the Irish 2012 Fit Out Awards.

Bookshops and newsagents rarely have a sense of style that goes anywhere beyond library chic. But with curved book cases, colourful slabs of perspex hanging from the ceiling, a wooden tree, low seats in the children’s zone and a bright atmosphere in a windowless cave, Jennings did well to make the shop attractive and fresh.

Dead trees can still be award-winning!

Of course, it is not to everyone’s taste. East Belfast blogger Lord Belmont found it to be ‘spartan’.

The ceiling on the ground floor appears unfinished: Bare concrete; ugly pipes, ducts, ventilators and wiring can be seen. Is this their idea of a state-of-the-art shop? A sales floor without a ceiling?

I haven’t yet been into the newly refitted Lisburn Easons to see if it has received the full Pompidou treatment!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Norn Iron sculpture picks up international award - RISE

It took a long time to get a piece of public art erected on Broadway Roundabout only for Titanic Belfast to arrive and take the limelight away from the 37.5m, 65,000-piece Balls on the Falls.

RISE sculpture nears completion on the Broadway roundabout in Belfast

So while in Gloucester - home to another of Wolfgang Buttress' sculptures - I was glad to see that RISE has won a prize: the 'small projects' category at the Institute of Structural Engineers' annual international awards. There'll have been cheers in Rasharkin where the manufacturer M Hasson and Sons is based.

Apparently buildings rather than sculptures tend to pick up the gongs. The judges explained:
"Pure sculptural structures are amongst the most difficult to achieve successfully, as everything is on view, and will be scrutinised down to the finest detail. It is therefore a real pleasure to find a creation such as this, which admirably projects the artist's original vision and at the same time celebrates the aesthetic beauty of pure, efficient structure for its own sake."

Also good to see that Derry's Peace Bridge was commended. The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) won its sustainability category.

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Tonight's Ikon was appropriately - for an experimental theological/art collective - hosted in the Belfast MAC. Great to see old friends, new friends, and never-met-before-but-known-for-a-long-time friends.

The theme of 'Other' was appropriate at many levels too. To turn up at Ikon in the first place is to put yourself in a box labelled Other. Yet by turning up attendees are also seeking collective and communion with other (perhaps) like-minded souls.

Everyone is both Other and not-Other. At times, Northern Ireland feels like it celebrates and tortures Others on a grander scale than some of its surrounding nations. Perhaps I'm wrong.

As well as Colin Williams' talk about Fear at TEDxBelfast, this evening's events reminded be that I'd written something on the blog a few years ago about fear of the other ... back in the day when I posted several times a week and sometimes even pushed the boat out to express my personal opinion, rather than summarising other people's.

Turns out it was a loose series of three posts on Scared of the other.

Though it's a topic that has turned up in other posts and will turn up again.

The challenge is how to live well as an Other, and how to purposefully relate to those I instinctively want to badge as Other.

Update - I'm being followed by 'Other' this week. In a prayer at Monday afternoon's wedding, the following phrase crept in:
Enrich their friendship that they might be fully other.

Further update - Gladys Ganiel and Michael McRay have blogged their thoughtful impressions of the evening.